Kushiel's Justice (Page 87)

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Both of us noticed that the days were growing longer. We tried to guess when the Longest Night, which was long indeed in Vralia, had passed, and where we had been. I thought it might have been the night before I'd killed Berlik. Maslin thought it was later, mayhap the night he'd tended to Berlik's head. Berlik's skull, jouncing in its leather bag, tied to our spare horse's packs, offered no opinion.

We talked about our favorite memories of the Longest Night; or at least some of them. He told me how it was celebrated at Lombelon, and how much he had loved it as a child. The year before I'd met him, he'd played the role of the Sun Prince in their modest pageant; that was his favorite year. I told him about maintaining Elua's vigil with Joscelin when I was fourteen, and how infernally sick I'd gotten afterward, how it was one of the only times I'd ever seen Phèdre angry at Joscelin. Maslin laughed when I admitted that I far preferred attending the fête with Eamonn in tow. He told me that the worst time he'd had on the Longest Night was two years ago, when he'd been sent to serve with the Unforgiven in Camlach after beating Raul L'Envers y Aragon badly in their duel.

Two years ago.

I didn't tell him that was my favorite Longest Night of all. I kept the memory to myself, savoring it. Sidonie, all in gold. She'd taken my hand, tugging, and we'd darted behind the musicians' mountain. There in the darkness, I'd pinned her against the false mountainside, my heart beating so hard I could feel it thudding in my chest. Her gilded sun-mask scraping my face as I kissed her for the first time. As she kissed me back, so hungrily it made my knees weak. Even now, the memory fired my blood. After the temple, I'd ridden home barefoot through the snow, clad in rags, and never even felt the cold.

Two years ago. Elua.

“What are you smiling at?” Maslin asked, curious.

“Nothing,” I said softly.

He looked dubious, but he didn't press. Mayhap he sensed it was somewhat he didn't truly wish to know.

As we neared Tarkov, we began to see groups of soldiers on the road, returning home in jubilation. They looked splendid, clad in scarlet coats and fur hats. Many of them sang as they rode, hymns of praise to Yeshua. Songs of war. Always, someone carried a banner. Yeshua's cross waved above them, crimson on white. They had no knowledge of any tale of D'Angeline spies; or D'Angelines at all. One group hailed us with shouts, inviting us to share starka with them. Since there was no polite way to decline, we accepted.

“You see!” one of them shouted, clapping Maslin on the back. “Who are these beautiful strangers, eh? Perhaps it is true. Yeshua so favors us, he sends his angels to walk among us as mortal men!” He winked. “You tell Mighty Yeshua we gave you hospitality!”

Maslin looked startled.

“Just look grave and knowing,” I advised him.

He did his best.

I could see why the Vralians thought as they did. Maslin was beautiful. That, I'd never denied. The Skaldi had called his father Kilberhaar; Silver Hair. In the sunlight, his pale blond hair almost glittered. Like me, Maslin had lost weight during our long travail. The bones of his face were stark and prominent, striking in an unearthly way. There was beauty there, but it was fearsome, too. I suppose I must have looked much the same.

We spent a day with the soldiers, then parted ways.

A day later, we reached Tarkov.

There were soldiers there, too; quite a few, coming and going through the southern gate, talking with the guards. It was hard to tell, but beyond the wooden stockade it seemed as though somewhat of significance was passing there. We drew rein at a distance and watched.

“Your mind's set on this?” Maslin asked with a frown.

“It is,” I said. “But…”

We'd been travelling together for some time, long enough to know one another's thoughts. Maslin shaded his eyes, surveying the countryside surrounding Tarkov. In summer, it would be fertile farmland, but it was desolate now. To the north of the town, the pine forest that lay between Tarkov and Kargad rolled over the land like a dark carpet.

“I'll go wide and circle around.” Maslin pointed. “That's our route, yes? I'll make camp a half day's ride to the north and wait for you in the forest.”

I nodded. “You'll take Berlik's skull?”

He grimaced. “If I must, yes.”

I put out one mittened hand. “If I'm not there by midday tomorrow, leave without me. Once you reach Kargad, you can take the Ulsk upriver to Vralgrad. I'll follow when I can. Whatever it is, I daresay I'll get it sorted out in time. But in case I don't…” I shrugged. “See his damned skull back to Clunderry, will you?”

Maslin clasped my hand. “Stubborn ass. Yes, of course.”

I grinned at him. “My thanks.”

I watched him depart from the road, leading our pack-horse. The leather bag containing Berlik's skull bounced and jostled. It was stupid. I'd worked so hard for that dubious, grisly prize to risk ceding it to another. But in the end, it didn't matter who brought it back to Clunderry. Once it was buried beneath Dorelei's feet, her spirit would rest easier. I believed that to be true. However much I'd come to understand Berlik, he had murdered her, horribly and violently. Her and our son.

But I had to go on living.

And the Rebbe had given me a charge. I wanted to go home. I wanted nothing more. I wanted to go home to the people who loved me. I wanted to feel Joscelin's strong presence keeping every danger at bay. I wanted to let myself be a child again for a few moments, to sit at Phèdre's feet, lean my head against her knee, and feel her stroke away my fears. I wanted to hear Hugues and Ti-Philippe bicker.

And I wanted to get on with the business of being a man, too.

Most of all, I wanted to fall into Sidonie's bed and never get out of it.

And I didn't ever want to tell her, yes, I killed two men whose only crime was being too stupid to listen, and I burned their bodies in the woods, and their bones and ashes lie there still, while those who loved them wonder what ever become of them. There was guilt enough between us. If there was atonement to be made, I would make it. So I went to Tarkov.

Chapter Sixty-Four

I didn't even make it to the gate before I was seized.Four soldiers saw my approach and rode me down in a hurry, surrounding me. They stared at my face, then exchanged glances with one another. I dropped the reins and raised my empty, mittened hands, leaving my sword-hilt untouched.

“Peace,” I said in Rus. “I am here in peace.”

One pointed to me. “Are you Imriel de la Courcel?” he asked in Habiru.

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

His face was grimly exultant. “Come with us.”

I went without protest. Having committed myself to this course, I had no choice. I wasn't sure if I was a prisoner or a guest. They didn't disarm me, but they didn't give me time to speak, either. They hustled me through the gate and down the streets toward the town square. Outside the guardhouse, we dismounted and two of them ushered me inside.

The outer guardroom was packed with guards and soldiers alike. Some spectacle transpired in the next room, the captain's study, but I couldn't see what passed therein. The guards were thronged before the open door, their backs presenting a solid mass of humanity. Beyond them, I could hear the captain's voice shouting in Rus.

“Ask her, my lord! If he is innocent, why did he free the Tatar?”

“The captain asks, if he is innocent, why did he free the Tatar, my lady?” a vaguely familiar voice repeated in Habiru.

My soldier escorts shoved futilely at their comrades and the Tarkovan guards, pounding on backs and muttering urgently in low tones.

“Name of Elua! My lord Micah, I've no idea. Probably because he has a soft heart.” It was a woman's voice, exasperated, speaking Habiru with a D'Angeline accent, and I would have known it anywhere in the world. I felt my heart crack open and soar, and an impossible grin spread across my face. “I let all the prisoners in La Dolorosa free, and I've no idea what they'd done.”

“Yes, but—” Micah ben Ximon began.

The guards in front of us began shifting reluctantly. Someone pushed me from behind. The guards gave way. I stumbled through the open doorway of the captain's study and caught a glimpse of its occupants. No one noticed me yet.

“You know perfectly well he's not a spy,” Phèdre said. There was a flush of anger on her cheekbones. Her eyes were bright with it. Every man in the room was staring at her in rapt fascination. Joscelin stood beside her, arms folded. Her voice turned calm and reasonable, with somewhat implacable behind its sweetness. “I don't care what your role in this was, my lord. You could have spared one man from the battlefront to send word that you vouched for him. Because I swear to Blessed Elua, if this idiot's men have killed him—”

It was Ti-Philippe who saw me first. His jaw dropped. He stared. His mouth worked, but only a squeak emerged. He grabbed Hugues' arm and pointed.

“Imri? ” Hugues whispered, dumfounded.

It was enough to cut Phèdre's speech short. Her head whipped round. For a moment, I don't think she dared believe her eyes. I couldn't stop grinning. I watched her take a sharp breath, hands rising involuntarily to cover her mouth. Beside her, Joscelin found his voice and loosed a victorious shout of laughter.

And then we were all laughing and crying at the same time. One of the soldiers behind me gave me another shove and I stumbled forward to be hugged and pounded. Phèdre took my face in her hands and said my name over and over, kissing me.

“Stop.” I pulled away, laughing. “Stop! What in Elua's name are you doing here?”

“Looking for you,” Joscelin said softly. “Did you think we wouldn't?”

“No, I …” I took off my mittens and wiped my eyes. “I didn't know. Oh gods, it's good to see you. But there's somewhat I have to do here. I'm sorry. Give me a moment.” I took a deep breath and turned to face the Tarkovan captain. “My lord,” I said to him in Rus, “I am sorry I was not honest. I am not a spy. I was hunting the man who killed my wife. He fled here. I was afraid he was a pilgrim and you would stop me if you knew.”

The captain's face looked hard and set. “Was he?”

“No,” I said honestly. “In the end, no.”

The captain looked at Micah ben Ximon. “You knew this?”

“I knew this,” ben Ximon said. “I will answer to Tadeuz Vral for it.”

“And my men?” The captain's mouth hardened.

“Dead.” I squared my shoulders. “I'm sorry. I tried to tell them. They would not listen. We fought. I have told this to Rebbe Avraham ben David of Miroslas. He sent me here…” My Rus was inadequate, so I glanced at Micah ben Ximon and switched to Habiru. “To make atonement.” I repeated the Rebbe's words. ” '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.'“

Micah ben Ximon translated the Rebbe's injunction into Rus, his voice growing soft toward the end.

For a long moment, no one spoke, including the D'Angelines present. At last the captain sighed. He made an unfamiliar gesture, touching his fingertips to his brow, chest, and shoulders. “As Yeshua wills,” he said. “The Rebbe of Miroslas is said to be a great and wise man. I will abide.”

A profound sense of relief filled me. “Thank you, lord captain. Truly, I am sorry.”

“Why did you free the Tatar?” he asked.

I spread my hands. “It was wrong. But he was not much more than a boy. We shared a prison, a blanket. I felt bad.”

“A soft heart,” he said. “Is that the Rebbe's lesson?”

“Perhaps it is,” Micah said unexpectedly. “Perhaps that boy will grow to a man and a leader of men, and he will be the one to extend the olive branch of peace, because a stranger did him a kindness once.” His gaze rested briefly on Joscelin, who had once done him a kindness. “Or perhaps not. We cannot always know the outcomes of our actions.”

“I know that,” the captain said. “Still, two good men are dead.”

“I will make recompense to their families and make good on any losses,” Micah said. “What Phèdre nó Delaunay said is true. If I had spared one man from the siege to answer your query, they would not have died. No one is blameless here.”

“You had more important concerns,” the captain said shortly.

Micah ben Ximon tilted his head. “So I thought,” he said. “And yet I am reminded, nations may rise and fall on a chance encounter. And old debts demand no less honor than new ones.” He gave the Cassiline bow, crisp and correct, but without the effortless fluidity of Joscelin's. “On the morrow, I will take these people to Vralgrad.”

The captain grunted. “Please do, my lord.”

So it was done. We filed out of the guardhouse with an appropriate air of solemnity. My heart was so full, I didn't know what I felt. They'd come to find me. Of course they had. They'd been on the other side of the world, and I'd nearly gotten killed, then vanished into the wilderness. Still, it was like a dream, seeing them here. As strange as Maslin's appearance in the wilderness had been, this was no less unexpected, and a good deal more joyous.

I stopped in my tracks. “Maslin.”

Joscelin raised his brows. “Maslin? What of him?”

“He came for me, too,” I said. “Sidonie sent him. Not a-purpose, I don't think.” I shook my head. “It's a long story. But he found me. I owe him my life, really, although he doesn't think so.” I pointed north. “He's waiting for me, or at least he will be. We should send word.”