Kushiel's Justice (Page 91)

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I nearly envied him.

It must be a glorious thing, I thought, to be so sure. Sure of one's rightness and rectitude; sure of one's place in the world. It was not so different in a way than what I had first envied in Maslin. And yet it was, for others' lives hung in the balance. I thought about the fur-trader Jergens making an offering to the vodyanoi, fearful and furtive. Should such things pass from the world to serve one god's glory? Could faith be compelled at the point of a sword?

I thought of the vision Morwen had shown me.

Homes torched, people dragged from them. The Maghuin Dhonn hunted like animals, eyes stretched wide with terror, their magics failing. The oak groves ablaze, teams of oxen dragging down the stone circles. Stone, ancient stone, crashing and falling. D'Angeline architects swarming. A world broken and remade in a new image.

My son's face.

There were no sureties in this world.

There in the temple, I stooped and touched the floor, spreading my fingers against the cool marble. Somewhere far beneath it, there was soil and living earth. “Blessed Elua hold me in your hand,” I murmured. “May your wisdom ever guide me.”

I felt it, then. A surge of assurance, beating like wings in my heart. Not Kushiel, but Elua; Blessed Elua. I was his scion, too. His mantle descended on me as I straightened. I felt so many things; regret, sorrow, hope. There was such beauty in the world, but there was such cruelty, too. Such folly and madness. I did not understand the whole of what had passed between Berlik and me, and I did not pretend to understand all of what passed here today. But for the sake of Vralia and its people, I prayed that love and compassion would temper ambition and the urge for glory.

The feeling stayed with me throughout the interminable ceremony. A pull at my heart, a steady tug, beckoning me homeward. Blessed Elua's assurance, a promise of love. I had failed to honor his precept; failed to trust in the truth of my own heart. I would not do so again. It was enough. I had to believe.

The last pilgrim gave her oath. She was an elderly woman with bad knees made worse by the long journey, and she struggled to rise after kissing the tip of Tadeuz Vral's blade. He sheathed his sword and extended his hand to her, helping her to her feet. I couldn't see her face, but the look on Vral's was almost tender. The crowd murmured with approval. A soldier escorted her to kneel once more among the ranks of pilgrims, assisting her with care.

“Today, you are born anew into the true faith,” Rebbe Avraham said, his voice sounding tired at last. “From this day forth, you are Yeshuites and loyal citizens of Vralia. Cast off the garments of your penitence.”

A thousand supplicants struggled to remove the sackcloth they wore over their clothing, kneeling and clutching the rough garments.

“Rise,” the Rebbe said. “Go forth and rejoice in the mercy of Yeshua ben Yosef and Tadeuz Vral.”

With varying degrees of difficulty, they rose.

Some looked relieved; many merely looked exhausted. Here and there, I saw flickers of brooding defiance. The patient cantors lifted their voices in song, the sound of it filling the temple. I glanced at Phèdre. Her head was cocked slightly and she wore a look I knew; distant and troubled, like a soldier hearing the strains of a faraway battle. But when I caught her eye, she merely shook her head, and her expression turned smooth.

It was done.

The new-made Yeshuites shuffled forth from the temple, directed by Vral's soldiers. We watched and waited. I thought Vral might speak to us, but he didn't. When the last pilgrim had departed, he gave a brusque nod to the rest of us, D'Angelines and Vralian nobility alike. We filed out of the temple. The sun, which had been high when we entered, sat low on the horizon, bathing the snowy city of Vralgrad in soft amber light.

In the middle of the street, Ti-Philippe yawned, his jaw cracking. “Well, that's that, then,” he said. “On to Alba?”

The steady tug at my heart gave me a twinge of sorrow. I was only mortal. There was a part of me that wanted to give Berlik's skull into Urist's keeping and go home. Home to Terre d'Ange, where the soil was blessed by Elua's blood and seed. Home to Sidonie, whom I loved. But I couldn't, not yet.

“On to Alba,” I agreed.

Chapter Sixty-Seven

Maslin stayed.It surprised me, more than a little. I hadn't thought he was serious; and even if I had, I wouldn't have supposed Tadeuz Vral would agree to it. He was unaware of Maslin's role in our escapade, but we were all tarred to some extent with the brush of my falsehood.

Still, Maslin managed to convince Vral that he would be in truth that which I had pretended; a young D'Angeline nobleman adventurer, come to explore the length and breadth of this budding nation and its trade routes to the east before reporting back to his Queen. His Rus had improved tremendously since he'd taken Katalena to his bed.

Phèdre thought Ysandre would welcome Maslin's initiative, and she knew the Queen better than most. Of a surety, Sidonie would be willing to release him from her service. She'd kept him on at his own insistence. Still, I found myself worried on his behalf.

“You're sure?” I asked him.

His mouth twisted, wry and familiar. “I'm sure. After all, I've already covered a good portion of the damned country. This is somewhat I can do, Imriel. Somewhat that's all my own. Leave me to do it, will you?”

“What will you live on?” I persisted.

Maslin jingled a purse at his belt. “I've some funds yet. And Prince Tadeuz has promised his patronage if I prove a true advocate. So have a few of the lesser lords.”

“Stay out of Tarkov,” I advised him. “They won't have forgotten you.

“I will.” We were drinking starka in the quarters I shared with Urist; Maslin had been lodged there, too. He tipped the jug, refilling our cups. “Tell Sidonie…” His voice trailed off. “I don't know what to tell her.”

Urist snorted. “You might try the truth.”

Maslin glanced at him. “Is he always this way?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

He sighed. “Tell her I'm sorry. That I didn't mean to be an ass. And that I forgive her for goading me. I deserved it.” Our eyes met. The silence and companionship of the wilderness lay between us. Maslin's mouth twisted further. “Tell her we became friends, Imriel de la Courcel.”

“I will,” I promised.

It was overcast and snowing the day that we left. We'd made arrangements to hire sleighs, donating our mounts to Micah ben Ximon as reparation for the monies he'd paid to the families of the Tarkovan guards. It seemed only fair, and my own mount had been stolen from Tarkov in the first place. There was no ceremony, no further audience with ben Ximon, with Tadeuz Vral, with Rebbe Avraham. By their own decree, our role in their drama was finished. There was only our small company of D'Angelines and one Alban, making our way on foot to the wharf of Vralgrad where a pair of sleighs awaited us on the frozen Volkov River. And there was only Maslin, huddled in a long, padded coat, to bid us farewell.

“Be kind to Katalena,” I murmured, embracing him. “Remember, you're a diplomat now.”

“I will.” Maslin grinned. “Anyway, she dotes on me.”

I cuffed him. “Don't be an ass.”

What Phèdre said to him, I could not hear and cannot guess. I had already boarded the sleigh I would share with Urist and Hugues. Whatever it was, it brought tears to his eyes and brought him to his knees, his mittened hands clasped between hers. She bent her head and kissed him lightly, then climbed into her sleigh and settled into the seat between Joscelin and Ti-Philippe. They tucked fur blankets around themselves for warmth, and Maslin got to his feet.

The shaggy sleigh-horses shook their heads, bells on their headstalls jingling. Our drivers cracked their whips, calling out cheerful words of encouragement. The sleighs moved forward, runners creaking over ice and snow.

We were off.

I turned in the sleigh, craning my neck to catch sight of Maslin. For a time, I saw him there on the wharf, one arm raised in farewell. And then the veil of snow grew too thick to pierce, and I saw no more. I turned my gaze forward.

We were two days on the frozen Volkov, making our way to the sea. We lodged overnight in a town along the way, a stopping-point for merchants and traders. It was quiet during the winter months—except for the seal-hunters, there was little sea trade—and the few other guests at the inn were men with rough-hewn Vralian faces, laughing and talking animatedly among themselves. I thought about Captain Iosef, whose fortitude and determination had gotten us off the barren isle. I'd never had a chance to thank him properly.

And then there was Ravi, my helpful translator and teacher. He'd asked me to stand him a drink if I had the chance. I'd never even made an effort to find him. I hoped he was well, and that he'd found another ship on which to earn back his lost wages.

I hoped they were all well.

'Tis strange how many leavetakings one life can hold.

On the following day, the snow had ceased and the journey was almost pleasant, snugged as we were under heavy blankets of fur, the wind of our passage bringing color to our cheeks. We reached Pradanat, the outpost at the mouth of the Volkov, and lodged there.

In the clear light of day, the notion of hiring a seal-hunting ship lost a good deal of its appeal. Joscelin, Ti-Philippe, and I walked to the harbor; or at least what had been the harbor during warmer months. There was a ledge of ice extending for a good hundred yards from the shoreline into the Eastern Sea. Beyond, the open water looked grey and cold, glinting dully in the sunlight and dotted with ice floes.

There were seal-hunters who plied it, that much was true. They used small boats with shallow draughts, wide keels, and square sails, open to the elements. There wasn't even a hold. We watched as one was launched, dragged across the solid ice by a pair of sturdy ponies.

“Where do the hunters sleep?” I asked an amiable-looking Vralian fellow.

“Under the sails.” He pointed. “See? At night, they haul the boat onto the biggest ice they can find, then phfft!” He grinned, showing a sizable gap between his front teeth. “Take down the sails, stretch them across the boat. Makes a nice warm tent.”

I translated for Joscelin and Ti-Philippe.

“I think mayhap Phèdre should see this for herself,” Joscelin said doubtfully.

He went back to fetch her while Ti-Philippe and I queried our new friend, whose name was Lasko, about the possibility of hiring a hunting-ship to ferry us to Norstock. He grew excited about the prospect.

“My cousin has a boat,” he offered eagerly. “A most excellent boat! He will do it, I am sure. The hunting has been bad this winter. Too warm.”

“There's always a cousin,” Ti-Philippe commented when I translated. “And what in the seven hells does he mean too warm?”

I laughed. “Apparently, this is what passes for a mild winter in Vralia.”

Lasko's mouth hung open at the sight of Phèdre approaching with Joscelin, Hugues, and Urist. I didn't blame him. It was hard to imagine anyone looked as utterly, spectacularly out of place as Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève on a snow-covered Vralian shore amidst a group of seal-hunters.

“Oh, my cousin will surely do this thing!” Lasko said fervently.

“Slowly, friend.” I laid a hand on his arm. “The lady is dear to us all. Any man to lay a hand on her would surely lose it.” I nodded at Joscelin. “Any one of us would guarantee it. But your cousin might want to note that that fellow happens to be one of the greatest living swordsmen in the world.”

“I meant no insult.” He sounded affronted, but his expression turned circumspect. “Still, I will mention this fact to my cousin.”

Although we'd made no commitment, he went off to fetch his cousin. The others joined us. We watched as another boat was dragged across the ice and launched. The seal-hunters were hardy, wind-burned men, indistinguishable from one another in their heavy sealskin garments. Phèdre watched without comment.

“We'd have to sleep in the boat,” Ti-Philippe informed her. “Under the sails. All of us.”

“I heard.” Phèdre glanced at me. “How long will we have to wait for a proper ship?”

I shrugged. “Until the ice breaks? From what I gather, it could be as little as a month or as much as three or four. They say it's a mild winter, but there's no telling how long it will last.”

“Ah, well.” She looked amused and rueful. “Given your experience, there's no guarantee that a proper ship would be any safer, just more comfortable. But this can't be worse than slogging through the wet season in Jebe-Barkal, can it?”

“I wouldn't be so sure,” Joscelin murmured. “But it seems we'll find out.

So it was decided.

We met with Lasko's cousin, Skovik. To my relief, he seemed a steady fellow with calm eyes and a drooping mustache that reminded me in a reassuring fashion of Captain Iosef, although he was considerably younger. Before we even began to haggle over the fee, he spoke to us in a straightforward, honest manner.

“This journey can be made,” he said. “But you must understand it is dangerous. It is why only seasoned hunters sail in the winter. You are not seasoned hunters. On the boat, you must do exactly as I tell you, always. You must agree to this, or I cannot take you. Not for any price.”

Once we had agreed, which we did, then came the haggling. We had pooled our monies, all of us, and we had enough to meet Skovik's price with a bit to spare for the next leg of our journey. I served as translator, while Ti-Philippe drove the hardest bargain. We settled on a fee and agreed to meet on the morrow.

Whether or not that journey was more miserable than slogging through the rainy season in Jebe-Barkal was wholly a matter of opinion. When all was said and done, I didn't think it was. But unlike Joscelin, I'd never been prone to seasickness. And I'd been spent my childhood in the mountains of Siovale. I didn't mind the cold as much as Phèdre did.