Kushiel's Justice (Page 94)

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“I'm curious, my lord,” I said to Ditmarus. “What piece of news sent you to Maarten's Crossing in the depths of winter?”

“Ha!” He chuckled and cupped his ear. “I'm a merchant, young highness, and I keep my ear to the ground. Perhaps I heard there was news brewing in the north and opportunity on its heels. Perhaps I was merely lucky. I'll not give away my trade secrets without your most solemn oath, understand?”

“I believe I do,” I said.

He smiled. “I thought you might.”

The audience came to an end. Ditmarus and Ermegart bade us a cordial farewell. We did the same, and thanked Adelmar once more for his assistance, promising to speak well of his generosity to Queen Ysandre. I wondered if he'd been recruited as a member of the Guild. I couldn't imagine him consenting to be trained by them; but mayhap they made exceptions for sitting regents. To be sure, he was well-situated to make himself useful. Or mayhap during their time here, they had recruited a spy in his household. Or several spies.

In the end, I had no way of knowing.

Not without giving myself to the Guild.

We emerged from the audience into the cold, bright day. It had been dim inside Adelmar's great hall, which was sturdily constructed, but an unsophisticated and poorly lit piece of architecture. Skaldia had a long way to go before it reached the level of civilized comfort we enjoyed in Terre d'Ange. Even in isolated Vralia, where a handful of ambitious princes had managed to establish a rule of law over the course of generations, they had made greater strides. When all was said and done, I was glad that there were folk like Adelmar of the Frisii willing to pursue such a goal through trade and alliance, rather than warfare.

“Well,” Phèdre observed. “That was interesting.”

I glanced at her. “You saw his ring?”

“Name of Elua!” Joscelin said wryly, “I saw his ring.” He yawned and shook himself to alertness. “Enough talking. Onward to Alba.”

Chapter Sixty-Nine

The balance of our journey was unremarkable.To my mind, the best part of it was being reunited with the Bastard. I'd been almost afraid to ask; but no, Kinadius had kept him safe and found a place to stable him upon returning from their abortive excursion to Vralia.

“He's a headstrong, ill-tempered bugger,” he said, watching our reunion, which consisted of delight on my part and wariness on the Bastard's. “I'll miss him.”

Outfitting the rest of our company took some doing. Brun had also retained a mount, but the rest were lacking. Unfortunately, Adelmar's generosity in escorting us from Norstock and granting us safe passage from Maarten's Crossing didn't extend to the loan of mounts and pack-horses, and without pressure from him, the Skaldi weren't eager to bargain with us. In the end, we had to beg and barter with a handful of Flatlander traders wintering here, spending far too much coin on horses that wouldn't have drawn a single bid at a Tsingani horse-fair.

It left us with barely enough funds to cross the Flatlands, and not nearly enough to buy passage across the Straits when we arrived there.

“There's this,” I said when we discussed the matter, tugging at the collar of my Vralian coat to reveal the golden torc around my throat. It was the one possession my gaolers in Tarkov hadn't taken from me; although I suppose it wouldn't have mattered, since I'd stolen all the rest back. Still, I'd not taken it off since Drustan gave it to me on the day I wedded Dorelei in Alba. “It ought to be worth enough.”

“Don't even think it!” Urist's voice, unexpectedly fierce. “It marks you as a Prince of Alba and the lord of Clunderry. If you've managed to keep it this long, you're not giving it away, not now.”

I opened my mouth to reply, but Kinadius, and even Brun, were nodding in accord.

“We'll find another way,” Phèdre said to them. “Don't worry.”

Joscelin eyed her. “You're not planning to…?”

“No, of course not.” She smiled ruefully. “And any mind, I'd like to think my asking price would be far in excess of passage across the Straits for a mere eight folk and their train. But then, mayhap that's vanity speaking, ignorant of the ravages of time and travel.”

“No.” Kinadius flushed. “It's not, my lady.”

She smiled at him, and his flush deepened. “Well, we'll find a way. We can always sell the horses, if we can find a buyer. It would be a good deal wiser than paying cargo fees for them.”

“Not the Bastard,” I said in alarm.

Phèdre laughed. “No, love. Not the Bastard.”

We set forth on our journey, and for all of Adelmar of the Frisii's forbearance, it was a blessed relief to know that we'd crossed from Skaldia into the Flatlands. Once we passed that point, I daresay all of us breathed easier for it. We followed the pilgrims' route along the banks of the Voorwijk, as we had done at the outset, passing the town of Zoellen and continuing westward. This time, there would be no turning south toward Terre d'Ange. Still, I felt a tug at my heart each time we passed a crossroads.

“You're sure?” Phèdre asked, noticing.

The leather bag containing Berlik's skull hung from my saddle.

“I’m sure.”

I thought about Phèdre and Joscelin as we travelled together. As unlikely a pair as they were, they had been together for a long time. It had been over twenty years since they fled Skaldia with a wild tale of treachery and impending invasion on their lips. Still, age sat lightly on them, as it does on many D'Angelines. A gift, mayhap, of Blessed Elua and his Companions. Betimes, when she was merry and glad—when we spotted the first crocuses peeking through the melting snow—Phèdre scarce looked old enough to be anyone's foster-mother, her face bright and fresh. At other times, I could see the weight of wisdom and experience on her; beauty of a different kind, deeper and richer. And Joscelin. …Joscelin was Joscelin. Aside from the fact that the faint lines bracketing his mouth and crinkling the corners of his eyes when he gave his wry half-smile had grown more pronounced, he looked no different than he had when I'd first seen him in the Mahrkagir's festal hall.

And the way that they looked at each other was the same.

I wanted that.

I'd never thought about aging; never thought about growing old with anyone. It seemed so much of my life had been a scramble to survive. Now, for the first time, I did. I thought about Sidonie. And the thought of her—of us—growing old together filled me with infinite tenderness. I wanted it, I wanted it all. All the ardent beginnings and the confused between-times and the bittersweet dregs.

All of the aches and sorrows, all of the soaring joys.

All of it.

I kept my thoughts to myself; it wouldn't be seemly to be doting on her while I was engaged in the business of avenging Dorelei. And I didn't want to dishonor Dorelei's memory. Still, the thoughts were there.

It made me impatient, though. Our progress was slow. Several of the mounts and two pack-horses we'd been able to procure in Skaldia were elderly beasts, past their prime and lacking in stamina. There was no point in trying to push them, and we lacked the coin to trade for better. Betimes, I admit, I longed to clap my heels to the Bastard's flanks and take flight. I could have gained days on the others. But it was an ungrateful thought—and a wholly self-absorbed one—so I struggled to suppress it.

Our course veered southward. Here, there was no mistaking the fact that it was well and truly spring. The days grew warmer and longer, and the last lingering traces of snow vanished. We passed field after field, farmers walking behind teams of oxen as they plowed the fallow soil. The rich, earthy scent reminded me of spring in Clunderry.

Elua, it had been almost a year.

The thought banished my impatience. A year ago, I had been in Clunderry, awaiting the birth of my first child. After the long winter, the world had seemed fresh and new, full of promise. The apple trees had been in bloom; I'd been pestering the master of the orchard about the proper way to capture the swarming honeybees. I remembered the uncanny sight of the skin on Dorelei's immense belly surging at the prodding of a restless hand or foot. Rubbing her swollen feet when they ached. Hours of idle discussion about what to name our son or daughter.

Aniel.

We'd settled on it the night…that night. My throat tightened at the memory, eyes stinging. Urist was right. I needed to do this and see it through to the end. I owed it to Dorelei and our lost child.

After weeks of frustratingly slow travel, we came at last to the port town of Westerhaven. It was another of those places invigorated by the opening of the Straits, a fishing village that had become a center of trade. The smell of the salt tang of the sea in the air and the sight of gulls circling made my heart beat faster.

Most of the Flatlanders we'd encountered in our journey were friendly and courteous, and Westerhaven was no exception. Phèdre—who had little difficulty with the guttural Flatlander dialect—stopped a man on the street, who directed us to a pleasant inn. We'd made camp whenever we could along the way to save our dwindling funds, but we reckoned we'd have to stay in town for a day or so in order to forge the connections we'd need to sell our mounts and book passage to Alba.

The innkeeper was a young fellow with ruddy cheeks and a shy wife. He beamed as a handful of us entered his establishment; Phèdre, Joscelin, and I, and Urist leaning on his walking-stick, his leg stiff from the day's ride.

“You come for the ship!” he said in cheerful, mangled Cruithne. “We have wonder.”

“What ship?” I asked.

He pointed obligingly in what I took to be the direction of the harbor. “The Cruarch's ship. Five days now. No trade, no visitors. Just waiting. Maybe no?” He shrugged apologetically. “D'Angeline and Alban together, I thought maybe so.”

I frowned. “The Cruarch's ship?”

The innkeeper nodded, flaxen hair flopping on his brow. “Red sail, black pig.”

“Do you mean to tell us,” Phèdre asked in Cruithne, slowly and carefully, “that the flagship of the Cruarch of Alba is in the harbor?”

He smiled happily. “Yes! Just so.”

We exchanged glances. “I'll go,” I said hurriedly.

I fairly dashed from the inn, mounting in a rush. The Bastard caught my mood, snorting as we plunged down the streets of Westerhaven, heading in the direction of the sea. Pedestrians scattered before us; I called out apologies in some tongue or another.

It was true.

Drustan's flagship was docked in the narrow harbor. The red sails were furled, but a pennant bearing the Black Boar of the Cullach Gorrym was flying from the topmast. I reined the Bastard to a halt. Fortunately, the harbor-master was nowhere in sight, and those sailors present looked more amused than not.

“Hey!” I shouted at the ship. “Are you bound for Bryn Gorrydum?”

There was some commotion aboard the ship. At length, a fellow who appeared to be the captain emerged; a southerner by the looks of him, one of the Eidlach Or. He shaded his eyes and peered at me. “Prince Imriel?”

“Yes!” I called. “There are others with me, too.”

Even at a distance, I could see his mouth twitch in a smile. “Aye, we've been awaiting you, your highness. Hold, I'll come down.”

I dismounted and waited, lashing the Bastard's reins to a piling. The captain descended and approached, striding along the dock, one hand extended in greeting. He had fair hair going grey, and a beard darker and curlier than the hair atop his head. His grip was hard, the palm of his hand leathery and firm.

“You've been awaiting us?” I asked, bewildered.

“Oh, aye.” His smile deepened. “Some days now. Their ladyships had a true dream, they did. All of 'em. Weeks ago, it was. But 'twas Master Hyacinthe confirmed it and cast his eye upon you in his sea-mirror, and Lord Drustan ordered us to set sail when he did. So here we are, and here you are, too. You made slower progress than we reckoned. By the by, my name's Corcan.”

“Corcan,” I murmured. “Well met. What dream?”

“Ah, that! “His weathered brow furrowed. “'Twas your own …well, she's not your sister, is she? Not rightly. The lass, the Princess Alais. Her, and Drustan's sisters. The ladies Breidaia and Sibeal. What I heard, they all saw it. His lordship's ship with a bear's skull for a prow, bound for Alba. Green vines twining round the mast, and a lily blooming atop it.” He shrugged. “Fanciful stuff, eh?”

“No,” I said quietly. “It was a true dream.”

Corcan shrugged again. “Suppose it must have been. Any mind, we're here for you. Will it suit you to sail on the morrow?”

“Elua, yes!” I thanked him and rode slowly back to the inn. The Bastard, objecting to the rein, bridled and pranced, picking up his striped hooves and setting them down with deliberate care, making them ring on the cobbled streets.

There was a stable attached to the inn, and a bright-eyed young lad who looked no older than six waiting to take the Bastard; the innkeeper's son, I guessed. I thanked him and elected to do the honors myself. By the time I entered the inn, with my packs slung over one shoulder and the bag containing Berliks skull dangling from my right hand, everyone was assembled and waiting. I found myself grinning. It had been a long time since I'd had a piece of sheer good fortune to share with anyone.

“Well?” Urist asked impatiently.

“It's true,” I said. “Drustan sent the ship for us. We sail in the morning.”

The inn erupted in cheers; we all had need of a piece of good news. I explained about the dream and Hyacinthe spotting us in the sea-mirror when we drew near enough. Caught up in the excitement, the friendly innkeeper offered to stand a round of ale for everyone in the inn, although Joscelin soon persuaded him to let us bear the cost. We could afford it, now. It was good ale, too; strong and hearty.