Kushiel's Justice (Page 93)

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There were only two of them; Kinadius and Brun, who was one of Urist's veterans. Kinadius was there alone when we arrived, chatting with one of the innkeeper's daughters while she stirred a pot over the fire, his back to the door. I watched her eyes widen as we entered, and she fell silent. He turned out of curiosity and simply stared, open-mouthed and blinking.

“Prince Imriel?” he said cautiously. “My lord Urist? Is that you, or have I gone mad?”

“Close your mouth, lad,” Urist said. “You look daft.”

“Did you…” Kinadius blinked at me. Sudden tears brightened his eyes. “Is it done?”

I nodded and touched the bag. “It's done.”

He closed his eyes and whispered a prayer. “Thank you.”

After that came the usual chaos attendant on such reunions, with a hasty rush of news exchanged, everyone talking over one another, while at the same time we endeavored to arrange for lodgings. Phèdre took over that part, speaking quietly to a dazzled—and rather delighted-looking—Halla. As I had noted before, the women of Skaldia didn't bear the same deep-seated hostility toward D'Angelines as the men did. I suppose women everywhere understand the folly of war better than men, since they are less likely to be blinded by the desire for glory in battle.

Between one thing and another, the six of us were soon situated at Halla's, downing bowls of stew and tankards of ale while her indefatigable daughters heated bathwater for us. Brun emerged from the room he shared with Kinadius, greeting us with taciturn pleasure.

While we ate, we learned that Prince Talorcan had indeed withdrawn in bitter disgust. After being ousted from Vralia and forced to retreat backward through Skaldia, he'd found himself unwelcome in Maarten's Crossing.

“It was a bad journey,” Kinadius said. “Adelmar had given us a token of safe passage, but it didn't work so well when the Skaldi saw us in retreat. Those northern tribes are fierce. We got in a few skirmishes. Lost a few men.”

“Any of ours?” Urist asked.

“Cailan,” Brun said briefly. “Took two of theirs with him.”

The wise-woman's son who had bound my wounds. They'd always said he was a fierce fighter despite his gentle touch. I felt a deep pang of sorrow and regret.

“Adelmar heard the tales. It didn't happen in territory under his control, but he wasn't willing to let Talorcan stay, not with a big company of warriors.” Kinadius shrugged. “Talorcan was in no fit mood to make an argument Adelmar would hear.”

“Foul-tempered,” Brun agreed.

Kinadius gazed into his tankard. “Mmm. Said some things I daresay he regrets.”

“To Adelmar?” I asked.

“No.” He shook his head. “About you lot. After we saw your company on the way, my lady,” he said to Phèdre. “That was a cunning trick you pulled.” Phèdre made no comment. Kinadius took a gulp of ale. “Anyway, he said since it was a D'Angeline got his sister killed, it seemed the gods had decreed it was up to D'Angelines to avenge her.” He gave me a direct look. “No one in Clunderry thinks that, my lord.”

“He's right, though,” I said quietly. “In a way.”

“Aye, and he's wrong, too. I was there,” Kinadius said. “I saw the bastard's claws dripping red with Dorelei's blood. I saw him kill Uven. Saw him lay you open like he was gutting a fish, Imriel. Guilt's one thing. We all share a measure of it, don't we, my lord?” he asked Urist. “All of Clunderry's garrison.”

“We do,” Urist said, kneading his aching leg.

“Well, blame's another matter,” Kinadius said. “And I know damned well who's to blame for Dorelei's death. And if Talorcan thinks he's any more distraught over our failure to avenge her than I am, he's wrong.” He flushed, but continued doggedly. “But I knew you'd do the right thing, Imriel. You and Urist.”

I met his eyes. “My thanks.”

“I didn't do anything but break my damn leg,” Urist said wryly.

“So.” Kinadius blew out his breath. “No one from Clunderry wanted to desert you. We wanted to stay in case you sent for us, in case you needed us. I met with Lord Adelmar and convinced him to let me stay with a single companion. Best I could do. We drew straws and Brun got the honor.”

“Lucky,” Brun agreed.

“I'm glad you did.” I clapped Kinadius on the shoulder. “But I'm curious. Seems Adelmar's had a change of heart. He sent word to Norstock that we were to be given aid. Given what you've told me, it makes less sense than ever. Any idea why?”

Kinadius shook his head. “None in the world.”

I should have guessed, I suppose; but it seemed like I'd been at the farthest reaches of the earth for a long, long time. Over the course of a personal, very private quest, I'd grown unaccustomed to thinking in terms of intrigue and the far-flung web of connections that bound me. That would have to change, of course. The moment I set foot on Terre d'Ange, I'd be immersed in politics whether I liked it or not. Still, here and now, it seemed very far away. The silence and isolation of the Vralian wilderness had sunk deep into my being.

They wanted to hear the story, of course. I told it in such a way as would satisfy them. The long, arduous quest. Berlik's penitent end, his head bowed for the sword. Blood on the snow. I didn't tell them I had fallen to my knees and wept.

By the time I'd finished, a message had come from the great hall. Our arrival had been noted. Adelmar of the Frisii summoned three of us to audience in the morning; Phèdre, Joscelin, and me.

“What do you think?” I asked Phèdre.

She had been quiet for most of the evening; all of them had, letting Alba's concerns take precedence. “I think we don't have a great deal of choice,” she said. “Adelmar may be angry at the trick we played him, but I don't think he's fool enough to make an issue of it. He's an ambitious man, and we at least managed to pass through Skaldia without reprisal. And you've done naught but follow his suggestion.” Phèdre rose, stooping to kiss my brow. “I think we'll find out on the morrow, so we might as well get a good night's sleep.”

She was right, of course.

After our sojourn with Skovik and his men, it was still a great luxury to fill our bellies with hot food, bathe with warm water, and sink onto a straw pallet instead of sleeping in the bottom of a boat, covered with canvas. I slept without dreaming, and on the morrow, we presented ourselves at the great hall.

It was all very, very different from my first experience there. For one thing, there were no pilgrims awaiting audience. I daresay the Habiru had sense enough to wait until spring to travel through Skaldia. For another, the petty official who had made us wait before bowed obsequiously and ushered us immediately into Adelmar's presence.

He wasn't alone.

As before, Adelmar received us in his study. This time, it had been tidied. There were chairs set forth around a round table, and a jug and wine cups set on it. The couple with him rose as we entered. He was a portly, prosperous-looking fellow; fair-skinned like the Skaldi, but with dark hair caught back at the nape of his neck with gilded clasp, and a neatly trimmed beard. His wife was a plain woman of middle years, unprepossessing, but there was a gentle shrewdness to her face. Both of them wore expensive, well-made attire. To my eye, it looked more fitting to wealthy merchants in Tiberium than travellers in Skaldia.

“Prince Imriel de la Courcel,” Adelmar said smoothly in Caerdicci. “We are pleased to see you well.” He wagged his forefinger at Phèdre and Joscelin. “Your ladyship, my lord, I fear you have played me a naughty trick. And yet I will forgive you, since no harm came of it.”

“I'm sorry, my lord Adelmar,” Phèdre apologized. “The matter was urgent.”

Joscelin merely shrugged.

“So I perceive, now.” Adelmar smiled. “You were a mother bereft and fearful. 'Tis my fault I did not recognize it as such, and not a threat to Skaldia. You must understand, your reputation precedes you.”

Phèdre raised her brows. “Oh?”

“Oh, indeed.” He made a gesture of dismissal. ” 'Tis of no mind. Please, meet my guests; Ditmarus of the Manni, and his wife Ermegart. Over the course of several long winter nights, they have heard your strange tale, and were anxious to meet you.”

We exchanged greetings. I glanced down at Ditmarus' hand when he clasped mine. He wore rings on every finger. On his middle finger, there was a signet ring. It bore the impress of a lamp. It was a familiar image.

“I see,” I said slowly. “Well met, my lord.”

Ditmarus' grip tightened briefly. “Among the Manni, we seek to accomplish much the same as Adelmar seeks here for the sake of Skaldia.” His Caerdicci was polished and impeccable. He gave me a bland smile. “Trade and prosperity. So much better than war, don't you think?”

“Of course,” I said politely.

Phèdre tilted her head. “Do the Manni seek trade with the Frisii? I would not have thought the trade routes made it easy. Your lands lie to the south and share a border with Caerdicca Unitas, is it not so?”

“Oh, yes.” Ditmarus turned his bland smile on her. “Still, Skaldia is Skaldia.”

“We heard reports of the empire Lord Adelmar was building in the west, and a new empire arising in the north.” Ermegart smiled at Adelmar with friendly interest. “We were …curious.”

“There are ways in which we might aid one another,” Ditmarus added.

Joscelin rolled his eyes.

I wished I could, too.

What exactly their mission was, I could not say. I daresay there was an element of truth to it all. A new vision of Skaldia had arisen from the wreckage of Waldemar Selig's dreams. Ditmarus and Ermegart belonged to the same tribe that had spawned Eamonn's wife Brigitta, and there was a certain hard-eyed pragmatism there. Adelmar had consolidated his hold on a considerable chunk of southwestern Skaldia. He'd made alliances with the Flatlands, with Vralia; even tentative overtures to Alba. It made sense that they would investigate.

But then, there was the ring.

And that, too, made sense. Of course. The Unseen Guild maintained a strong presence in Caerdicca Unitas. My mother had had ties to the Skaldi, and I wouldn't be surprised to find she had maintained them. I made polite conversation with Ditmarus and Ermegart. I allowed as how free and open trade between Terre d'Ange and Skaldia might benefit both our nations. On the point of my own influence, I demurred.

“You are a Prince of the Blood and a member of Parliament, are you not?” Ditmarus hesitated delicately. “And it is said you court the royal heir…”

“Said by whom?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It is rumored.”

I did my best to mimic Phèdre's disarming smile. “Ah, well! I am D'Angeline, my lord. Matters of love are sacred, and not to be sullied by politics.”

Ditmarus chuckled indulgently. “Ah, the romantic idealism of youth! Revel in it while it lasts, young highness. We do not mean to press or pry.” He took Ermegart's hand. “Love's maturity has its pleasures, too. Such as working together for the common good of one's people. For all people.” His expression turned grave. “There are those of us who believe Skaldia has much for which to atone. When we learned of your plight from Lord Adelmar, we urged him to extend a hand in friendship should the opportunity arise.”

“My thanks,” I said obligingly, adding to Adelmar, “We are all most grateful for your generous aid.”

He gave another dismissive wave. ” 'Twas naught. I pray her majesty Queen Ysandre will accept it in the spirit of kindness.” Adelmar's voice took on a note of asperity. “Although I would be appreciative if his majesty the Cruarch will forbear to make any further requests to send Alban troops into Skaldia.”

“I'm sure the matter won't arise again,” I murmured.

Adelmar studied me. “You got your man?”

“I did,” I said.

His gaze narrowed. “And how do matters stand with Tadeuz Vral?”

“His highness was understanding.” It was true, after a fashion. “He put down a rebellion by his brother, Prince Fedor, with great success. We were privileged to witness the conversion of a thousand new Yeshuites.”

“Vralia!” Ermegart clasped her hands together. Her eyes sparkled with what appeared to be genuine excitement. “It sounds so exciting, doesn't it?” she said to her husband. “Perhaps we'll go there when the ice breaks.”

Ditmarus stroked his beard, smiling. “Perhaps.”

I didn't doubt it. In hindsight, the only surprise was that the Unseen Guild didn't maintain a presence there already, since there was clearly a history of trade between Ephesium and Vralia. But then, that had been disrupted by the rebellion of the Tatars under Fedor Vral's leadership for some years. And it might be that the interests of the Guild in Ephesium did not accord with members of the Guild in Skaldia or Caerdicca Unitas.

It would be a piece of irony, I thought, if it was my own personal quest that had brought the pilgrims' passage through Skaldia to the attention of the Unseen Guild, and not the steady emigration of the Yeshuites. But then, the Yeshuites were an unwelcome minority in many lands, a dispossessed people. Even in Terre d'Ange, they had been tolerated rather than embraced. I doubted the Guild had paid much heed to the slow Yeshuite trickle, finding them too small, powerless, and widely dispersed a folk to be of much use.

Of a surety, that was changing in Vralia.

We sat for a while longer, sipping wine and exchanging pleasantries. I couldn't help wondering about Ditmarus and Ermegart. He wouldn't have worn the ring if he hadn't meant for me to recognize him—or them, I suspected her, too—as Guild. They knew I was aware of its meaning. If there had been any doubt, I'd erased it myself by wearing a replica of Canis' medallion at the Longest Night when the Ephesian embassador was present. Was it a warning? A reminder of their reach? A renewed invitation? A subtle message from my mother?