Kushiel's Justice (Page 88)

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“I'll fetch him,” Hugues offered.

I grimaced. “I'm not sure if fetching is such a good idea. Maslin wasn't exactly honest with the captain, either. His involvement in this whole business didn't arise. I daresay the captain thinks I killed him along with the others. It might be best to keep it that way.”

Ti-Philippe grinned. “What in Elua's name have you been up to, Imri?”

“Too much,” I said.

“Oh, gods above,” Phèdre said in a small voice. She covered her face with both hands. “We should never have left you alone in Alba with that curse hanging over you. And Dorelei, poor, sweet girl. Hyacinthe promised to keep watch. I thought if anyone could keep you safe, it would be him.”

“He did try. And there wasn't anything you could have done,” I said gently. “It wouldn't have changed anything.”

She shuddered and lowered her hands. “You can't know that. Not for a surety.”

“It doesn't matter,” I said. “It's over.”

We lodged that night in the manor of the mayor of Tarkov, who had gladly accepted the honor of turning his home over to the heroic warlord Micah ben Ximon. I never did meet the mayor, who had already taken lodgings at an inn where he might boast of his illustrious guests. Hugues and Ti-Philippe elected to go in search of Maslin together and await us wherever he'd made camp. I suspect they were being discreet, allowing us time alone together as a family. It made me smile, picturing the shock on Maslin's face when they found him. Out of the same tact, Micah ben Ximon retired early.

We didn't.

I wanted to hear their story first. Mine was too big. They didn't press. It was the sort of thing they understood. I daresay they didn't care, as long as I was alive to tell it. It was Joscelin who told theirs; Phèdre couldn't bear to. Ti-Philippe had set out after them as soon as the news from Alba had come. Acting without thinking, he'd gone immediately, while my life still hung in the balance. He'd found them in Kriti, completing their mysterious mission. Whatever it was, they concluded it in haste and departed immediately. For the entire duration of the long journey back to Terre d'Ange, they hadn't known whether I was alive or dead.

“I'm so sorry,” I said. I'd been saying this a lot lately.

“Well, we found out as soon as we made harbor in Marsilikos.” Joscelin smiled slightly. “Alive, and overturning the Court.”

“Is Ysandre still furious?” I asked.

“Mm-hmm.” He glanced at Phèdre. “We didn't stay long enough to attempt to reason with her. Not after weeks of not knowing, then hearing you'd set out on your own with Urist to some unknown land.”

Their sea passage home from Kriti had been infuriatingly slow, plagued by bad winds. By the time they travelled to Maarten's Crossing, it was well into autumn. There had been no word yet of the fate of Talorcan's party, but Adelmar of the Frisii was growing anxious about his decision to allow them passage, fearful that his greed in accepting Ysandre and Drustan's bribes would cost him Tadeuz Vral's goodwill. He knew perfectly well who Phèdre and Joscelin were, and he adamantly refused to grant passage to them, and moreover, had sent orders to Norstock not to allow any D'Angeline or Alban passengers until further notice. Phèdre's solution was ingenious.

“We made our own pilgrim caps,” Joscelin said. “Let Adelmar think we were leaving, then doubled back through the wood and caught the pilgrims' route further north.”

I laughed. “You sewed for me?”

“No.” Phèdre flushed. “Ti-Philippe did.” I laughed harder. Her eyes sparkled. I think she was beginning to believe I actually was alive and well, sitting and talking with her. “I tried, I did. But I've never been handy with a needle.”

Miraculously enough, it had actually worked. There were still stories told in Skaldia about the D'Angeline pair who had outwitted Waldemar Selig and ultimately caused his downfall; but no Skaldi in his or her right mind would imagine that they'd travel boldface the length of the land, passing themselves off as pilgrims under false names.

It was a long, long journey, rendered worse by encountering Talorcan and his men early at the outset. They'd arrived at the Vralian border to find the pilgrims' passage heavily guarded, alerted by the handful of Urist's veterans who'd made the attempt earlier. Largely outnumbered and unable to convince or bribe the Vralian border guard to grant them passage, Talorcan's company had been forced to turn back and they'd had trouble with the Skaldi on their return route. They were still seething from their defeat and had not the slightest idea what had become of Urist and me.

“So that's what happened to them,” I murmured. “Talorcan must have been frustrated as hell.”

“Yes.” Phèdre nodded. “It was disheartening. Still, we kept going.”

It was strange to think about all of us on our separate quests at the same time, struggling with mishaps, misfortune, and misunderstanding. Halfway through Skaldia, winter had struck with a vengeance. Ti-Philippe had gotten desperately sick, a relapse of the ague he'd suffered after swimming in the canals of La Serenissima. It must have been, I thought, around the time that I was beginning to search the endless holdings of Miroslas, while Maslin's Tarkovan companions were realizing that they'd ridden the wrong direction in pursuit of me.

Ti-Philippe had recovered, but his illness had slowed their progress. Although he begged them to leave him, they hadn't dared. Not in Skaldia. By the time they reached Vralia, the siege in Petrovik had ended and the country was abuzz with Micah ben Ximon's name.

“So we went in search of him,” Joscelin said. “We found him a few days ago on the road from Petrovik bound for Vralgrad.”

“And learned you'd been imprisoned as a spy, and he couldn't be bothered to spare a man to free you!” Phèdre's voice crackled with rare anger.

“Well, he was in the midst of a war,” I said philosophically.

“He thought you were safe enough where you were,” Joscelin said. “And that mayhap a few months in a gaol cell would cool your ardor for vengeance.”

“It did, in a way,” I said.

“Did you …?” His voice trailed off.

“Yes.” I rubbed my eyes. I'd forgotten, they wouldn't have understood all of what transpired in the guardhouse. I'd been speaking Rus when I spoke of Berlik. I hadn't done so badly after all, if I'd mastered—well, not mastered, but learned a bit of it—a tongue that Phèdre didn't know. “It wasn't what I thought it would be in the end. Not at all. But it's done. Maslin has his head,” I added.

Joscelin stared. “His head.”

“Well, his skull.” I cleared my throat. “To bury under Dorelei's feet so her spirit will rest easily. We had to boil it. It was supposed to be preserved in lime, but that was spoiled in the shipwreck. Urist said it would be all right this way.”

“His head,” he repeated.

“It's an Alban custom,” Phèdre murmured. “Remember Grainne?” And then, quite unexpectedly, she burst into tears.

“I'm sorry!” I said in alarm. “Please don't cry. I shouldn't have said anything about the head.” I knelt beside her chair and put my arms around her. “I'm here, I'm all right. Everything is, or it will be.”

“I know.” She drew a shuddering breath. “Oh, Blessed Elua! Lucca was bad enough, but at least I knew Denise Fleurais at the embassy was doing everything humanly possible to get you out of there. This …Imriel, if you'd died out here, all alone, or in Alba…I just, I just don't know what I would have done.”

“But he didn't, love,” Joscelin said gently. “Look at him! We came all this way, and he didn't even need rescuing.”

“You look at him!” she cried. “He looks five years older and worn down to the bone. He lost a wife and a child and nearly got killed, and we weren't there for him!”

“I know,” Joscelin said, stroking her hair. “Believe me, I know.”

I let Phèdre go and sat quietly on the floor, my arms around my knees. I didn't know what to say. I'd never seen her so thoroughly unstrung before, not even during the worst of Daršanga. It was unnerving. “You did rescue me,” I said at length. “You rescued me ten years ago, and you rescue me every day of my life. Every skill I used to survive, the two of you taught me. Everything I know of hope and persistence in the face of despair, I learned from you. You taught me to love, and that love is reason enough and more to keep living.”

Phèdre wiped her eyes. “We should have been there.”

“I'm not a child,” I said softly. “You can't protect me from the whole world, Phèdre.”

“I can try,” she said.

I smiled. “Do I really look five years older?”

“You look like hell,” Joscelin said. “And by the way, what shipwreck?”

I opened my mouth to reply. “No,” Phèdre said. The old, familiar strength surfaced in her expression; stubborn, surprising, and resilient.

The knowledge that she hadn't been there when it happened would always tear her up inside. But she would face this, as she had faced everything else. “Start at the beginning.”

So I did.

I hadn't told anyone but Sidonie the whole story of what had happened that terrible night in Clunderry. I told it to Phèdre and Joscelin. It was easier. I'd had a longer time to live with it. I told it without faltering. I didn't dwell on the details, but I didn't censor them, either. And then I told the rest. Urist's promise to Dorelei. The upset I'd caused in the City of Elua. The pursuit, the pilgrims, the shipwreck. Tarkov, and Kebek the Tatar. Miroslas, and the long hunt that followed. It went quicker than I would have reckoned. There wasn't that much to tell, really. Days of labor on the barren island, days of tedium in a gaol cell, days and days of snow and cold, and then the end, and how it happened. It was the things I couldn't put into words that mattered the most.

They listened to those, too.

When I finished, Phèdre sighed. “I swear to Elua,” she murmured. “I'd like to lock you up in a safe place and never let you leave.”

“Sidonie said somewhat like that.” I paused. “Did you see her?”

“We did.” She didn't quite smile, but almost. “You held out a long time before asking.”

I felt myself blush, and laughed. “You came a long way. I didn't want to appear insufferably self-absorbed.”

“She's well,” Joscelin said. “Terrified for you, engaged in a silent contest of wills with her mother, but well.”

“Was there any message?” I asked hopefully.

“Just come home,” Phèdre said.

Chapter Sixty-Five

On the following day, we caught up with Maslin, Hugues, and Ti-Philippe west of Tarkov. Micah ben Ximon and the large contingent of soldiers with him accompanied us. Maslin still wore a stunned expression at the turn of events. I didn't blame him. I felt it, too.Our plan was to continue on to Vralgrad. We didn't have a great deal of choice in the matter, since Micah was insistent on it. If luck was with us, Tadeuz Vral would be merciful and forgive me for the deaths of Berlik and the Tarkovan guards. In hindsight it was fortunate that Talorcan and his men had turned back in frustration rather than trying to give battle against the Vralian border guard. That, Tadeuz Vral would be unlikely to forgive. And thanks to Micah ben Ximon's discretion, he didn't know about the first attempt.

Mayhap since Micah had won a second war for him, it would render his mood charitable. Micah thought that the Rebbe's intervention might make the difference in the end; that, and the fact that Berlik had not chosen to accept the Yeshuite faith. I hoped so. Whatever transpired, we were like to be trapped there for a while until the spring thaw made a sea voyage possible. Our only other choice would be to attempt a passage overland through Skaldia. Somehow, I doubted the pilgrim-hat ploy would work as well in the opposite direction.

Riding from Tarkov to Kargad took only a day. It was strange to remember how long that journey had seemed when I'd made it before, alone and on foot. It hadn't even begun to snow at that point. Since then, I'd endured so much worse.

We passed through Kargad without stopping and continued along the banks of the frozen Ulsk River. I thought about Ethan of Ommsmeer and his family, but I made no attempt to contact them. I didn't think he would welcome the knowledge of what I had done.

I wondered what story might one day find its way to his ears; the hard truth, or the wishful fantasy concocted by the priests and acolytes of Miroslas? It would be a piece of irony indeed if Berlik of the Maghuin Dhonn became a Yeshuite icon in his death.

All along the Ulsk, and then later, the Volkov, people hailed Micah ben Ximon and his men as conquering heroes. I had supposed that the frozen waterways would be abandoned in winter, but I was wrong. Vralians are hearty and ingenious folk. There were a number of traders travelling over the frozen rivers in horse-drawn sleighs.

Ben Ximon acknowledged the cheers somberly. From what I could gather, he'd led an effective siege, marshaling his army and blockading Petrovik before its inhabitants were able to stock sufficient supplies to make it through the long winter without venturing outside its walls. There were women and children there. Some, I heard, were so weak they could barely walk by the time the surrender came. Some had likely died of sicknesses they would have survived otherwise.

Micah ben Ximon didn't look as though he felt himself a hero.

For our part, we drew the sort of wondering stares that D'Angelines in distant, isolated lands do; and mayhap that, too, would work itself into the tale.