Kushiel's Justice (Page 86)

— Advertising —

I sighed. “Well, then, it seems it was Adonai's will that two Tarkovan guards guilty of no crime save being too cursed stubborn and pig-headed to put down their swords and listen for one moment should die at my hand.”

He bowed his head. “Dire news. I am sorry.”

“You should be,” I said. “You sent them.”

“I bear responsibility for my choice, as you do for yours.” Avraham ben David lifted his head. “If you had acknowledged the truth of your quest in Tarkov, they would not have believed you a spy and sought your life. Child, I am sorry, but I face larger choices than those which concern you. A great victory has been won in Yeshua's name.”

“Fedor Vral?” I asked.

“The winter siege broke his followers' will,” he said. “Lean and hungry, they opened the gates of Petrovik to Micah ben Ximon. Prince Fedor managed to flee beyond the mountains with a handful of Tatars, but his cause is all but lost. Ben Ximon did not even deem it worth the cost of pursuing him, not in winter. Thousands of his followers have deserted him.” His old eyes were bright with strong emotion. “They are willing to acknowledge Yeshua as a portion of the terms of their surrender, and I do not know whether to rejoice or weep. Words spoken under duress do not suffice to change men's hearts. Grand Prince Tadeuz Vral sends a messenger asking me to come to Vralgrad to counsel him, and I do not know whether to stay or go.”

I was silent, abashed.

While I had been engaged in my single-minded, solitary pursuit, a war had been waged and won. The fate of a nation had hung in the balance and shifted.

“Who is the Yeshua ben Yosef who holds sway in Vralia?” the Rebbe mused. “The friend who is there for the lost and lonely soul, or the warrior whose banner led Tadeuz Vral to this second victory? I do not know. And I am afraid.”

“I understand,” I said humbly. “I would help if I could.”

“Perhaps you have.” He drew a deep breath and gazed around the room. “You remind me that my choices affect lives. It is not enough to trust to Adonai's will. Our minds, our tongues, our hands are his tools. I will think on it, and pray.” He nodded. “I thank you for coming to bring me this news yourself. Not all men would have done so.”

“You cared for him,” I said. “I wanted you to know that in the end, his death was peaceful. It wasn't what you wanted for him, but he was glad.”

“And the Tarkovans?” the Rebbe asked. I didn't answer. His wise old gaze sharpened. “For the sake of the guilt we both bear, I'll make you a bargain, lad. Go to Tarkov to made amends. Tell them what befell their sons, brothers, and husbands. Tell them you have confessed it to me, and I have absolved you of all guilt and laid my blessing upon you, bidding you to spread the word among men that it is better to be filled with compassion than suspicion, and remind them that in the end, in Yeshua's kingdom, all men are brothers. That your coming is a sign all must be mindful of this, always and forever.”

“Thus do we shape the world, Father?” I asked.

“Thus do we try,” he said. “It should not strain your faith.”

“No,” I said. “Blessed Elua would not object.”

“Blessed Elua,” the Rebbe murmured, and shook his head. “You may go.”

I rose, and Maslin rose with me, stifling a yawn. No doubt he'd been bored out of his wits, and him already half dead for lack of sleep. Together, we departed Avraham ben David's presence; the two of us, the bright and the dark.

Chapter Sixty-Three

Our chamber was cold and the cots were hard. After the wilderness, it felt heavenly. Maslin and I didn't speak that night, only lay down and slept the sleep of the dead. By long force of habit, we woke before daybreak, and departed shortly thereafter.As before, no one bade us farewell. This time, though, quite a few turned out to watch us go, including Tadeuz Vral's messenger, his scarlet livery a bright splash of color against all the somber black robes. It was a strange feeling.

“So what's that all about?” Maslin asked me.

I told him what the messenger had said upon seeing us, that our presence was a sign. And I told him about my conversation with the Rebbe. Maslin smiled a little at the notion of the pair of us as bright and dark angels, but what he said surprised me.

“Mayhap our coming is a sign, Imriel. Who knows? The gods use mortals to their own purposes.”

“A sign of what?” I asked. “The messenger didn't say.”

“Well, the Rebbe certainly had his ideas on how to interpret it.” He glanced sidelong at me. “Surely you're not going to do it, are you?”

“Go to Tarkov?” I thought about it. “Yes.”

“Why?” Maslin stared at me in disbelief. “They might well throw you back in gaol, you know.”

“I don't think so,” I said. “Not with Rebbe Avraham's blessing on me.” I thought about it more as we rode. “I withheld the truth to pursue my own quest. I could have waited for word from Micah ben Ximon. Elua, if I'd waited long enough, you'd have come, and you might have told a different tale.” I grinned at him. “My bright angel come to save me. Mayhap the pair of us could have convinced them.”

Maslin snorted. “Not likely.”

I shrugged. “Well, it's on the way.”

“For the spawn of a pair of traitors, you have a perversely stubborn sense of honor,” he observed.

“My thanks,” I said wryly.

We rode for a while without talking. “My father had a sense of honor,” I said after a while. “Or so I'm told. It was just that it was misguided. That's how my mother was able to exploit him. He truly believed Terre d'Ange needed a pure-blooded D'Angeline heir.”

Maslin shot me a look. “Do you?”

“Elua, no!” I dropped the reins to spread my arms. “Maslin, look at me. Do you think I'd be here, avenging my Cruithne wife, if that's what I held paramount?”

His lips twitched. “Not likely, no.” His voice changed. “Do you ever wish you could have known him? Your father? Just to know what he was truly like ?”

I picked up the reins. “I saw him once.”

“Your father?” He frowned. “I thought he died when you were a babe.”

“He did.” I told him about the Feast of the Dead and how I had seen the spirit of my father riding beside me, old and sad. Sadder than anyone I'd ever seen, even Berlik. How I'd hoped, then, that he had gained wisdom and come to bless his half-Cruithne grandson in the womb. How I'd wondered later if he had known what was to come, and grieved at it. Maslin listened as I talked, his lips parted in wonder.

“I'd like to see my father,” he mused. “I wonder how he'd look at me.”

“With pride, regret, and sorrow,” I said. “Pride at what you've done. Regret at the fact he wasn't there to share it, never had a chance to acknowledge you as his child. Sorrow at the burden his legacy laid upon you.

Maslin shot me another look, wary. “You're serious?”

“I am,” I said.

He fell silent for a time, his mouth a hard line. “Gods above, Imriel,” he said at last in disgust. “You know, the last thing on earth I wanted was to like you.”

I laughed.

“It's not funny!”

“It is,” I said softly. “Ah, Maslin! There was a time when I wanted, so badly, for you to like me. You were older. You seemed so sure of yourself. And there was no one else I'd ever met who might understand, at least a little, what it was like to be a traitor's son. To struggle with that burden, to need to prove it to oneself, over and over. All I ever wanted was your friendship.”

“Is that why you gave me Lombelon?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “No, that was different. I thought it was right, that's all. That it should belong to you. Phèdre warned me that you might not be grateful. That you might come to hate me for it in the end.”

“I did,” Maslin said candidly.

“I noticed,” I said.

We both laughed. Maslin grinned at me. “I'll always hate you a little bit.”

“Only a little?” I asked.

“A bitter little husk of hatred,” he said cheerfully. “Shoved into the deepest, narrowest corner of self-loathing in my heart, where I will continue to envy and despise you. For the fact that Ysandre de la Courcel searched the ends of the earth to acknowledge you as her kinsman, while my own paternity went unacknowledged and forgotten. For the fact that Phèdre nó Delaunay loved you enough to make you her foster-son, while I remained the gardener's daughter's bastard. For the fact that Joscelin Verreuil, the Queen's Champion, taught you to wield a sword while I was wielding pruning shears. For the fact that you rubbed these things in my face, whether or not you meant to. And, in the end, for the fact that Sidonie loves you and not me.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “What about the rest?”

“The rest of my heart?” Maslin asked.

I nodded.

He leaned over in the saddle and took my shoulder in a hard grip; one that lay somewhere between affection and violence. “I've a feeling I missed an opportunity somewhere. I'd count you a friend if you'd still have me.”

“I would,” I said. “Gladly.”

Maslin released me. “Well, then.”

Unlikely as it was, from that moment onward, I began to think of Maslin as a friend, albeit a prickly one. We worked together easily and rode together in tolerable companionship. The going was a good deal easier. We were travelling a road instead of breaking a path through endless wilderness. To be sure, it wasn't much of a road, but the snowfall was light enough that we could still make out the trail forged by Tadeuz Vral's messenger.

I was concerned about the reception we'd find when we reached the first village. Gordhoz was a midsized town; smaller than Tarkov, but larger than many of the little farming communities where I'd found hospitality. Maslin didn't know what sort of stories the Tarkovan guards had spread, here or elsewhere. But I reckoned we'd have to confront the issue sooner or later, so we sought out the village's single inn, which did a fair business offering food and lodging to pilgrims bound for Miroslas. I'd stayed there myself, as had Maslin and the Tarkovans.

“Ah.” The innkeeper stood in the doorway and regarded us impassively. He was a barrel-shaped fellow with a mustache that reminded me of Captain Iosef, and he spoke in Rus. “The spy and his hunter.”

“No spy, sir,” I said. “It was a mistake.”

He shrugged. “If you were a spy, you were a bad one. The war is won. You have money?”

I jingled my purse. “We do.”

He opened the door wider. “Come in.”

Betimes it is a blessing to be reminded that the world does not revolve around one's problems, and this moment was one such. Maslin and I stayed there a full day, reveling in luxury. The innkeeper had a pretty young wife who served us beer and stew, and blushed every time she met either of our eyes. I smiled at her more than I ought, just because it was so good to see a woman's face again.

“One crook of a finger and she's yours,” Maslin observed.

I smiled. “Let's not buy trouble.”

Instead, for a fee, the innkeeper's wife laundered our filthy clothing and blankets, lending us old shirts and breeches, patched but clean, that must have belonged to her husband. While our own things dried on racks before the fire, we dashed through the cold, snowy streets to the public bath-house.

It was much like the one in Tarkov where my troubles had begun; except this time I was careful not to allow anyone to see Jagun's brand. The other scars, I couldn't hide.

“Name of Elua!” In the room where we stripped down, Maslin actually paled at the sight of me. “That bastard nearly tore you in half.”

“I know.” My teeth were chattering. “Come on.”

He kept stealing glances at me in the bathing-room, where we luxuriated in the heat and steam, scrubbing away weeks of stale sweat and unspeakable grime. We'd scoured ourselves with icy water from the basin in Miroslas, shivering in the cold chamber, but it had been a hasty, patchwork job completed in near-darkness. I hadn't seen my own naked body for a long, long time. It seemed almost a stranger's, ivory-pale from lack of sunlight, worn down to bone and sinew and lean, ropy muscle. No artist would ask me to sit for her now. The scars hadn't faded as much as I'd thought they might. They were still angry red furrows, slashing across my torso.

I caught Maslin's eye. “Still envious?”

“It's dwindling rapidly,” he admitted. “I saw you in bandages that day at the Shahrizai lodge, I knew it was bad. Not that bad. Does it still hurt?”

I prodded scarred flesh. “It's tender deep down.”

Maslin shook his head. “And you wept when you killed the creature who did that to you. That, my friend, I cannot begin to understand.”

“I'm not sure I do, either,” I murmured.

We left the village of Gordhoz the following day, clean and well-fed, our stores replenished. The innkeeper's wife looked sad to see us go. The innkeeper didn't.

Our journey to Tarkov was blessedly, blissfully uneventful. The Tarkovan guards had asked after me in Gordhoz to confirm I'd passed through on my way to Miroslas, but either they hadn't bothered elsewhere, or they'd taken a more direct route and missed the villages and farmsteads where I'd found shelter. Recalling the number of times I'd gotten lost, I suspected the latter.

The temperature remained bitterly cold, but the snow had tapered off. Many days it was bright, so bright that the sunlight on the snow was nearly blinding. Maslin and I rode with our eyes half-shut, the skies overhead a deep, vivid blue. In its own harsh, rugged way, Vralia truly was a beautiful country.