Kushiel's Justice (Page 84)

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“Why didn't you go with them?” I asked, curious.

Maslin shrugged. “I'd heard the sea route was faster. And I was looking for you, not your wife's killer.”

He'd made the short trip to Norstock without event, but his luck had failed him there. Unable to communicate in Skaldic or Rus, he'd managed to book passage to Vralgrad aboard a northbound ship; but he'd not understood its purpose nor its course. The ship had stopped at every single trading-post along the coast of the Eastern Sea, sometimes lingering there for days. The journey Maslin had thought would take two weeks took well over a month.

And he had arrived to find Vralia at war.

“It's funny,” he said. “Once I realized the ship was stopping at every damned port between Norstock and Vralgrad, I reckoned that was it. I might as well enjoy the adventure, because there wasn't any other point to it. Then I got to Vralgrad, and no one could have cared less about anything but the war. Except for Urist. I'd managed to learn a few words of Rus aboard the ship. He heard I was asking after you and sent for me.”

“How is he?” I asked. “Is he well?”

“Fine.” Maslin shot me a glance. “A guest of the palace. Walking, with a stick. Worried. I thought you would both have been long gone. But he told me you were shipwrecked, and he got hurt. And he told me you'd heard the Alban forces got turned back at the border, and that you'd managed to get yourself imprisoned as a spy. Apparently, someone from Tarkov came to question him.” His mouth twisted. “Urist told me you saved his life.”

“Not really,” I said honestly.

He shrugged again. “It's what he said.”

“Did he have word of Talorcan's party?” I asked.

“No,” Maslin said. “And if any came later, I didn't stay to hear. I set out after you.”

It couldn't have been long after the captain of the guard in Tarkov had sent an emissary to Vralgrad that Maslin had arrived; but it had taken him a long time to find the village, having somehow thought it lay downriver along the Volkhov, and not inland. I had a hard time piecing it all together. In the end, it didn't matter. Maslin had reached Tarkov the day after I'd fled it. And they had seized him, reckoning him a second spy.

“So I lied,” he said simply. “The captain of the guard found a fellow who spoke Caerdicci to translate. Some scholar. I do speak Caerdicci, you know. I told them you were a renegade, acting against the Queen's wishes. And that I was here to bring you to justice on her behalf. They wanted to find you, enough to send a couple of men. I promised to aid them.”

“So they let you join their quest?” I asked.

Maslin nodded. “They did. We got a long way off course and ended up weeks behind you. They were sure you were headed for Petrovik with the Tatar.” He paused. “Why did you free him, anyway? That was stupid.”

“I know,” I said shortly. “Did they find him?”

He shook his head. “I don't think so. He must have been canny in the early going. They finally found enough people who'd spotted him, and not you. That's when we turned back. He didn't matter the way you did. Just a boy, I heard. Not a spy, not like you. They were awfully mad about that. We went back, and we went east instead of south.” His lips curled. “It didn't take long. The second village we encountered, they knew of you. Knew you'd asked directions for Miroslas. There was some woman who'd aided you.”

I glanced down at my mittened hands on the reins, smiling crookedly. “The widow.”

“Was she?” Maslin asked. “I only ever understood one word in five.”

“She was,” I said.

“Oh.” He was silent for a moment. Our mounts jogged together, side by side, in a slow trot. Gusts of frost rose from their nostrils. The third horse, the pack-horse, trailed behind us. “Well, after that, they didn't bother with the hunt. We went straight to Miroslas.”

“And the Rebbe sent you after me?” I asked softly.

“Is that what he's called?” Maslin shrugged. “I don't know. There was a fellow, an old fellow, with quite a beard. The Tarkovans talked to him. I don't know what they told him. All I gathered was that you had been there, and there was a horse, some horse, that had turned up without notice. We followed its tracks until it snowed. After that, it was all guesswork and the two of them arguing. The rest, you know.”

I plied him for news from home, of course, but he didn't know much. He'd left shortly after Deordivus had arrived with our news. It was strange to think how long ago that had been. It was still late summer in Terre d'Ange when he'd departed. Maslin's journey had been almost as long as mine had, albeit less fraught with peril.

There had been no sign of Phèdre and Joscelin, which was what I most longed to know. As for the rest, although Ysandre had agreed to bribing Adelmar, that was solely out of respect for Drustan, and had naught to do with any thawing of her feelings toward me. Relations between the Queen and her heir, Maslin reported, were strained.

“You do have a few adherents,” he said. “Even in Phèdre's absence.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Some of the younger gentry,” he said. “Ones who don't remember your mother. House Shahrizai. House Mereliot.” He smiled wryly. “And there's a rumor among the Palace Guard that Lord Amaury Trente told her majesty she was being stubborn. Of course, you have your detractors, too.”

“L'Envers,” I said.

Maslin nodded. “He's not alone, Imriel. There are good many peers of the realm convinced this is all a part of Melisande Shahrizai's grand scheme.”

“I'm not surprised,” I said. “Are you one of them?”

He didn't answer for a long time. “No,” he said finally “There was a time when I would have been. Barquiel L'Envers was my patron when I first arrived at Court, you know. He does not like you. And he's very convincing.”

“Sidonie told you what he did to me,” I murmured. He gave me a wary glance. I raised one hand in a peaceable gesture. “It's one of the only things she told me. I wondered why you were trying to reason with him when he was raging at me.”

“Yes.” Maslin's lips thinned. “It was when I was pestering Sidonie about you. She never denied your relationship, she just refused to talk about it. It made me crazy. I reminded her about what you'd done. That conspiracy Bertran de Trevalion uncovered. She got angry and informed me exactly who was behind it, and what her majesty had done about it. I'd always wondered why his grace stepped down as Royal Commander.”

“Now you know,” I said mildly.

He almost smiled. “Yes, well, now everyone knows, after that scene at the Shahrizai lodge. Anyway, it forced me to admit to myself that if I'd misjudged him, mayhap I had you, too.” He paused. “Funny. In the beginning, L'Envers was convinced it was Alais you were planning to court one day. That you'd been laying the groundwork since she was a child.”

“Alais!” I was appalled. “She's like a sister to me.”

“Oh, and Sidonie isn't?” Maslin raised his brows.

“No.” I shook my head. “No, it was always different with us.”

“Dirt on the bottom of her shoe,” he said, remembering. “So what changed?”

“I don't know.” I fidgeted with the reins. I felt self-conscious talking about her with Maslin. “Some of it was gradual. We grew up. I began to realize that some of the things that annoyed me about her, like her infernal composure, I actually admired. Then there was a day when everything just…changed. I couldn't even say why, exactly. It was like up was down, the grass was blue and the sky was green.”

“I knew.” He rode without looking at me. “No one believed me, not even L'Envers; at least not until that day we caught you leaving the orchard. Do you remember? It was before you left for Tiberium. But I knew.”

“I believe you,” I said.

“No one else watched her the way I did.” Maslin's nostrils flared. For the first time since he'd found me, the old accusing note crept into his tone, familiar and unpleasant. “I saw it. You were the first thing she'd look for when she'd enter a room. It wasn't obvious, but I noticed. And if you were there, you were always looking right back at her.”

“Maslin.” I drew rein and waited until he halted and looked reluctantly at me. “Listen to me. Neither Sidonie or I intended for this to happen. We thought…Elua, I don't know. That it would run its course like a fever, mayhap. That's why I went through with my marriage to Dorelei and went to Alba. But it didn't pass. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry if you were hurt in the process. I'm sorry it wasn't you. Believe me, the last person on earth I wanted to fall in love with is the one person that would convince half of Terre d'Ange I have designs on the throne. But I can't help it, not without defying the precept of Blessed Elua himself. All right?”

He looked away and nodded. “All right.”

“You're not going to challenge me to a duel like you did Raul L'Envers y Aragon, are you?” I asked. “I heard you beat him rather badly.”

“No.” A corner of his mouth lifted. “And I didn't challenge him. He did.”

“All right.” I touched my sword-hilt. “If you change your mind, I'm willing to oblige you. But I'd very much like to go home first. There are people I love there, and I have a debt of honor to pay to Dorelei mab Breidaia.”

“I understand,” he said.

I nodded. “Good.”

It didn't exactly clear the air between us, but it helped. We rode for a time without speaking, the silence broken only by the muffled sound of the horses' hooves and the creaking of our gear. When our path was blocked by a deep drift, Maslin dismounted without a word to break a path. I offered no protest. I could still feel a deep exhaustion in every bone of my body. I watched him work, steady and efficient. We led the horses through the path he'd broken. When he remounted, his face was bright and flushed with the effort.

“Damned snow, eh?” he gasped.

“Tell me.” I glanced at the hook-shaped mountain peak and pointed. “I think we want to bear a little south.”

“Whatever you say.” Maslin took off his fur hat, wiping his brow with his sleeve. He shook out his hair, pale and lank. “Elua! I could use a bath.”

“That's what got me into trouble,” I said. He gave me an inquiring look. “In Tarkov. They spotted my brand at the baths. And then the Tatars raided the horse-fair. That's why they thought I was a spy.”

Maslin looked perplexed. “Brand?”

“A souvenir of Daršanga, where I was enslaved.” I gestured beyond the mountain. “It's…I don't know where, exactly. Farther east and south, abutting the Tatar lands. The ruler there, the Mahrkagir, he was courting the Tatar warlords to aid him in a grand conquest. He gave me to one of them as a plaything. Among other things, Jagun took it on himself to brand my arse with a red-hot iron.”

I don't know why I told him. I'd never told anyone who hadn't asked. There were quite a few people who had asked that I'd never told. Casual lovers; and some not so casual. Claudia Fulvia, for example. I'd told her only a partial truth, not the whole story. In fact, I'd never told anyone except Eamonn and Sidonie exactly how and where I got that scar; and once, in a spate of ire, the Queen's chirurgeon. I'd never even told Dorelei.

Maslin stared at me, his mouth agape. The ruddy color drained from his face. He closed his mouth with an audible click. “That's terrible.”

I shrugged. “You know what else is terrible? Right now, for a hot bath, I'd almost chance being dubbed a spy again.”

He gave a startled laugh. “I begin to think my long envy is misplaced.”

We made the best use of the daylight we could, veering a bit southward and slogging through the endless pine forest. That night, we made camp in a glade so dense we didn't even need to built a windbreak. It had begun to snow again, more heavy flakes spiraling down from the dark heavens. Maslin brought out the starka again and we passed it back and forth between us, sitting beside the campfire.

“We were awful together,” he said presently. “Sidonie and I.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Oh, a lot of it was my fault.” He tilted the wineskin to drink, then smiled at it as though it held a secret. “It's funny, because I thought we'd be so good together. And you know, we are, as friends and confidantes. She's good at ignoring the petty intrigue and gossip of the Court. All those idiots muttering about her being a Cruithne half-breed, diluting Elua's sacred bloodline. Dealing with it, dismissing it without seeming to. I could always see her impatience, though, even though she hid it well. It was part of what I loved about her.”

“She doesn't suffer fools gladly,” I murmured.

“No,” Maslin agreed. “So why did I become one in her bed?”

I didn't have an answer. “I don't think she's proud of the way she treated you.”

He sighed and lay back on the snow, folding his arms behind his head. “It's not as though she's blameless. I know. But the truth is, I was an ass. Far, far too much of the time. I just…” He scrunched his shoulders. “I was jealous of you. And I don't know, I wanted her to need me in a way that she didn't. Is that so wrong?”

“Not everything is a matter of right or wrong,” I said.

“I suppose so.” Maslin gazed at the dark sky, snow falling gently on his face. “My mother always said that my father liked being with her because he was a complicated man and she was a simple woman. He never told her any of his plans, she was innocent. She said it nearly broke her heart.”