Kushiel's Justice (Page 83)
It wasn't far to the edge of the pine woods. We led the horses without speaking. It was early enough that I reckoned we could get the pyre built before nightfall and still have time to make camp. One of the Vralians had a hand-axe in his bags, which made the task immeasurably easier. I'd have taken Berlik's axe if I'd thought I could carry it. We cut and dragged dead branches, building the pyre some distance upwind from the campsite, out in the open where there was no chance of the fire spreading.
For all the long-standing animosity between us, Maslin and I worked well enough together, and everything went so much more swiftly with two people. He shot me frequent curious looks, but he respected my silence. I couldn't help but be glad he was there, whatever the reason.
When the camp was in order and the pyre built, we laid the bodies on it. I bowed my head and murmured a prayer in Rus, then lit the pyre. It took a while to catch, but once it did, it burned fierce and hot.
“Gods above, that's awful,” Maslin murmured, watching the bodies twist.
“I know,” I said. It was my second pyre in too little time.
“You're right, though. Better than being left for scavengers.” He watched the flames. “Have you killed a lot of men?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Not many.”
“I heard you did in Lucca,” he said. “That you killed a score of men, and the enemy commander stalked you through the streets and you killed him in single combat.”
“He stalked me through the streets,” I said. “And a man I barely knew died taking a spear meant for me. And then my friend Lucius gave an order, and his men shot the Duke of Valpetra full of arrows. That's how he died.”
“That's not what I heard,” Maslin said.
I shrugged. “It's true, though.”
Maslin fell silent for a long moment. The fire crackled. “I thought that when the time came, I could take them both,” he said. “I really did. And I think I could have, on foot. I'm good with a sword, you know. Very good. Even though I learned late, it came easily to me. But I never really learned to fight on horseback all that well.”
“Nor did I.” I put a mittened hand on his shoulder. “Maslin, if you hadn't been there, I would have died. They wouldn't listen. And I couldn't have handled them both. Not at once, not on foot.”
“I'm not so sure of that,” he said.
I squeezed his shoulder. “I am. Believe me, if I've learned nothing else on this journey, it's my own limits.” I jerked my head toward the campsite. “Come on, let the pyre burn. There's naught else to be done here.”
We walked back together, leaving the pyre burning lower behind us, a lonely beacon illuminating the twilight. Cold snow crunched and squeaked under our boots. The horses watched us with incurious eyes, sheltered by the windbreak we'd built together. I wondered if they would miss their masters. If they knew what had transpired.
Travel was easier with horses, but it was more work, too. Maslin and I tended to them. The Vralians had better gear and an extra kettle. We packed both of them with snow, melting it on our campfire and filling the clever, collapsible leather buckets they'd brought, suitable for holding water or grain. I wished I'd had such a thing. Before it bolted, my mount and I had shared the same pot.
Once we'd fed and watered the horses, we fed ourselves. The Vralians had better food, too; or at least more of it. Maslin watched me shovel pottage and scraps of salted meat into my mouth straight from the pot, using my fingers. He had a wooden bowl and spoon.
“You look half starved,” he said.
I swallowed a mouthful of food. “I am.”
“Did you get what you came for?” he asked.
I nodded at the leather sack hanging from a nearby branch. I'd hung it when we first made camp, the same as I'd done every night. “Yes.”
Maslin gazed at it with sick fascination. “Is that…?”
“It's his head.” I put the kettle aside, my appetite gone. “Berlik's head. The man who killed my wife and son.”
“Didn't you have it… ?” He gestured toward his midriff.
“Tied to my sword-belt?” I asked grimly. “Yes. What else would you have me do? It wouldn't fit anywhere else. Urist told me to boil it down to the skull, but I haven't been able to bring myself to do it yet. So I've just been carrying it, at least until I can bring it home to Clunderry to bury at Dorelei's feet. Don't worry, it's frozen through.”
“Name of Elua!” Maslin shuddered. “It's a barbaric culture, isn't it? How…” His voice dropped. “How did you do it? Was it a fair fight?”
“No.” I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. “It's a long story, and I don't want to tell it tonight. Later, mayhap. Maslin, what are you doing here?”
“Ah,” he said. “That.”
“Yes,” I said. “That.”
He picked at his bowl, scraping it clean with his wooden spoon. Then, at last, he put it to one side, sighing. It was funny. Maslin was older than me, at least by a few years. When I'd first seen him, working in the pear orchards of Lombelon, I'd envied him. His age, his surety of place. Now he seemed so much younger than I remembered him, and I felt a great deal older.
“Here.” He rummaged among the Vralian's packs and brought out a wineskin. “Starka. Do you know it? It's sort of dreadful, but it gets better.”
I took a swig and felt it burn all the way down, then handed it to Maslin.
“My thanks.” He tipped it, swallowed, and gasped. “It was Sidonie.”
“Oh?” I said mildly.
Maslin eyed me sidelong. “You do know about us?”
“A little.” I retrieved the skin. “She didn't want to talk about you to me.”
He looked grateful. “Nor you to me.”
“Small wonder.” I took another mouthful. “We're not the best of friends, you and I. Which makes me wonder why you're here.”
“Not out of any fondness for you, to be sure. Sidonie and I quarrelled.” Maslin took the wineskin back when I offered it, but he didn't drink, only held it. His mouth twisted again, wry and self-deprecating. “I was on duty when your Alban messengers came from Skaldia with the news that you'd been refused passage. That you and Urist were attempting another route while everyone else was awaiting support from the Cruarch and Queen Ysandre in Maarten's Crossing.” He did drink, then, long and deep, tilting the bag and pouring starka into his open mouth. “And I, like an idiot, said somewhat awful. I told Sidonie that if you loved her, truly loved her, you'd never have left her in such a manner.”
“Sidonie understood it,” I murmured.
“Apparently.” Maslin took another swig, then passed me the wineskin. “Didn't stop me. I told her it was obvious I cared more for her than you did. That I'd never have left her. And she gave me one of those looks …you know those looks, Imriel? And said if I really loved her more than you did, I'd prove it by going to help you.”
I tried not to smile. “You reckon it will work?”
“You know, appearances to the contrary, I'm not a complete idiot.” Maslin took the skin back and regarded it before drinking. “It doesn't matter, does it? It doesn't matter what I feel, or what she thinks about it. There hasn't been anything between us since you were nearly killed in Alba. It's you she loves, not me.”
I didn't say anything.
Maslin smiled wryly. “It's been a long journey. I've had a lot of time to think.”
“Why did you do it, then?” I asked. “If you knew it didn't matter whether you proved yourself to her or not?”
“I think I needed to prove it to myself.” He passed the wineskin. “That I truly loved her.”
“Did you?” I asked.
He looked at me sidelong. “You do, don't you? Love her?”
“Unfortunately,” I said. Maslin narrowed his eyes in suspicion. I sighed. “Yes. Absurdly, horribly, gloriously, yes, I do. Maslin, this journey has been hell in more ways than I can name. A few days ago, I was so damn tired, when I got stuck in a snowdrift, I was ready to give up and die. And the only reason I didn't, the only thing that made me keep moving …Elua, it wasn't the thought that it would break Phèdre and Joscelin's hearts, which it would, and I owe them the sort of debt no one could repay in a dozen lifetimes. No. It was because I promised Sidonie I'd come back to her. So, yes. I love her.”
“I thought I did,” he said softly. “I truly did.” He gazed past me at the distant glow of the pyre, little more than embers. “Sidonie said once that I didn't love her so much as I did the idea of her. Of us.”
“The beautiful princess and her heroic Captain of the Guard?” I asked.
“Don't laugh.” Maslin took back the wineskin. “You never felt that way?
“Not about Sidonie,” I said. “Mayhap we knew each other too well. And for the first five years of our acquaintance, she looked at me like I was dirt on the bottom of her shoe.”
He smiled a little. “You do know the look I mean, then.”
I laughed. “Oh, yes. And I know what it is to yearn to be a hero, too,” I added more gently. “Name of Elua, Maslin! Remember who raised me.”
“I never thought about it that way.” He rubbed one hand on his knees. “Only about how cursed lucky you were.” I raised my brows. “Oh, I know, I know. They rescued you out of slavery. But that just always seemed like something from a poet's tale.”
“It wasn't,” I said. “Believe me, I'd rather spend the rest of my life wandering the Vralian wilderness on foot than another day in Daršanga.”
He drank, and passed the skin. “That bad?”
I drank. “Yes.”
“Oh.” He shook his head when I offered the wineskin and sat for a moment, arms wrapped around his knees, looking out at the night.
In the flickering light of our campfire, he looked so unsure and vulnerable, it touched my heart with tenderness. “Is that why you did it, Imriel? Came here? To be a hero?”
“No,” I said even more gently than before. I could see the fault-lines in him, the same ones I'd seen when he was a proud lad of sixteen. I could see how they'd shifted and changed on this journey, beginning to heal. And I could see that while an unkind word would crack them open, honesty and compassion would bring greater healing to him. For the first time, I understood that Kushiel's gifts held mercy, too. “No, I came here because I loved my wife, too, Maslin. Not the way I love Sidonie, but as much as I could. Dorelei was a good person. And for many reasons, I needed to avenge her, or at least I thought I did. In the end…” My voice trailed off. I didn't know how to speak of it yet. I'd spoken more tonight than I had in months. “I don't know.”
“A long story,” he said.
“Let's get some sleep,” I said. “I'm tired and a little drunk. We've got plenty of long days of talking ahead of us. Mayhap you can tell me on the morrow how in Blessed Elua's name you managed to find me out here.”
Maslin laughed. “It wasn't easy.”
“I believe it,” I said.
We rolled ourselves in blankets and retired to our respective snow wallows. It felt strange having him there. It would have felt strange having anyone there. I'd grown accustomed to the solitude. But of all the people I might have expected to find me in the midst of the Vralian wilderness, Maslin de Lombelon ranked very, very low on the list.
Unless, of course, he meant to kill me. After all, no one would ever know. It was only the two of us, alone in the wilderness. If he left my bones for the scavengers, like as not, they'd never be found. And in her grief, Sidonie might just turn to the one person she believed had done his best to aid me.
“You don't, do you?” I asked drowsily.
“Plan on killing me in my sleep?” I yawned. “Because if you do, I'd just as soon you get it over with tonight.”
There was a pause. “No,” he said in a dreamy voice. “But I would have liked to save you from mortal danger, and force you to spend the rest of your life knowing that every beat of your heart, every breath you drew, every moment of happiness you enjoyed, you owed to me.”
I smiled. “That's a touching sentiment.”
“You asked,” Maslin said.
We made better time on horseback.After the endless days of trudging, it was like heaven. We even had a spare mount to carry our gear. I didn't have to worry about slogging through the snow, shifting my pack from shoulder to shoulder, Berlik's frozen head banging against my legs.
It was such a relief, I didn't even mind the cold.
On the first day, Maslin told me how he had come to find me. He had arrived in Maarten's Crossing some three weeks after Urist and I had left, spoken to Kinadius, and resolved to follow our route. But Adelmar of the Frisii had refused to grant him passage to Norstock; had refused, indeed, to grant any further aid to any Albans or D'Angelines until a sufficient bribe arrived. Maslin offered his services as a mercenary to any number of merchants travelling to Norstock, all of which had refused him, wisely discerning that a D'Angeline guard was more likely to draw trouble than prevent it in Skaldia.
“Believe me,” I said. “The wool-merchant was none too happy to have us, either.”
“I wasted days,” Maslin said glumly. “Lots of them.”
In the end, he'd given up and struck out on his own. By the time he departed, Talorcan had arrived with a contingent of Alban warriors; and so had some bribe from Queen Ysandre. Maslin didn't know the details, but whatever it was, it was enough to convince Adelmar to grant passage through Skaldia to Talorcan and his men, following Berlik's trail along the pilgrims' route.