Kushiel's Justice (Page 95)
“See?” Phèdre said complacently when the initial furor had died. “I told you we'd find a way.”
“I'd say the way found us this time,” Joscelin observed.
She smiled at him. “It all amounts to the same thing in the end, doesn't it?”
We set sail on the morrow. After a considerable amount of ale and a night's sleep, I nearly thought I'd dreamed the presence of the Cruarch's flagship and my encounter with its captain. But when we made our way to the harbor an hour or so past dawn, half-knackered mounts and all, the ship was still there. Alban sailors were making ready for the voyage, and Captain Corcan greeted us with a bow. With their aid, we got the horses and our gear loaded, and then ourselves.When the scarlet sails unfurled to reveal the Black Boar, I nearly wept.
'Tis a strange thing, how one may remain strong in adversity, shoring up one's courage against fear. I hadn't realized I felt that way. We had been uneasy in Skaldia, reluctant to put any faith in Adelmar's sudden generosity, but that had proved genuine, albeit for reasons that were likely self-serving. Since crossing into the Flatlands, there had been no overt danger. We were a small company, but one with skilled and seasoned warriors in it. The Flatlands were relatively peaceable and held no animosity toward Alba or Terre d'Ange.
Still, it wasn't the same as being among friends and allies. As being safe.
And we were safe now. These waters lay under the aegis of the Master of the Straits, and he was watching over us. Whatever part of me had remained braced against unforeseen danger finally relaxed. I felt raw with relief and gratitude.
The feeling stayed with me throughout the day. We sailed southward in open water, between the coasts. The wind at our back was mild and steady, like a promise of Hyacinthe's assurance that we would come to no harm.
We wouldn't reach Bryn Gorrydum until well into the following day. By the time the sun set, laying a blanket of ruddy light on the waters, my mood had begun to turn pensive. I spent some time by myself, gazing at the light reflecting on the sea, and thought about how far I'd gone and how much I'd changed since first I'd sailed to Bryn Gorrydum.
A long way and a great deal.
And I thought, too, about how I'd given up on my quest. I'd been honest about that when I told the tale. Joscelin had laughed softly when I told him it galled me to think that neither of them had ever given up hope and accepted failure. He reminded me that he had done that very thing long ago in Skaldia, in Waldemar Selig's steading. That Phèdre had shamed him into persevering in much the same way that Berlik had goaded me.
Would you have come here with a humble heart if I had not?
I didn't think I would have; and in a strange way, I was glad I had. That part, I hadn't tried to explain to anyone. Phèdre would understand, I thought. But if I told anyone, it would be Sidonie. I didn't want secrets between us, and I didn't want to hold any part of myself back from her. And I thought, too, that she would understand. It was part of the shadow of guilt that lay between us for the secrecy and lack of faith that had set this all in motion. If I'd learned nothing else, I'd learned the value of truth and trust in matters of love.
And that, I owed to Dorelei.
So it was that I went to my berth that night with a humble heart. The waves held us up like a cradle, gently rocking. Safe. I fell asleep swiftly and slept soundly, and by the time I awoke the following morning, we were within sight of Alba's shore.
It still seemed too good to be true. The grass was lush and green with the spring rains, and the trees sported pale leaves. Near the coast, fishing boats bobbed. It was a clear day—Hyacinthe's doing, mayhap— and a blue sky arched overhead, sunlight sparkling on the waves.
Today, I felt…what?
Sadness and joy, commingled. There was so much I would have done differently if I had known what would come to pass; and yet, such things are never given to us to know. Not even the magicians of the Maghuin Dhonn, who were given a greater vision than most, were able to tease out the threads of the future without making a horrible, tangled mess of it.
I'd done my best. I had tried. In the end, I had avenged Dorelei and given Berlik the redemption for which he yearned. They were two sides of the same coin; the bright mirror and the dark. I was bringing him home. I was bringing peace to her spirit.
My heart soared when first we glimpsed the fortress of Bryn Gorrydum, the city sprawled around it, the harbor lying before it like a pair of open arms. The wind shifted to drive us straight into its embrace. I felt a gladness at once bright and somber, powerful and strange. This time, it seemed the gods and goddesses of Alba and Terre d’Ange were in accord. I felt their presence in the leaping waves along the prow, in the bright sun that shone overhead, in the beat of the blood in my veins, urging me toward the Alban shore.
When I saw the reception awaiting us, I understood.
Of course there was a reception. All of us crowded into the prow, watching as the dock drew near. Hyacinthe was there with Sibeal; he must have brought word from the Stormkeep himself when we set sail. Drustan mab Necthana, his crimson cloak flapping in the breeze that bore us toward him. Alais was with him, and Breidaia and Talorcan, watching us approach.
And beside the Cruarch…
Even at a great distance, I knew her. I saw the gleam of sunlight on her hair, and I knew. A spark of gold; the spark that had kindled happiness in me. The golden cord that bound us together tightened around my heart, the only bond I'd ever borne joyfully.
Urist nudged me. “Isn't that your girl?”
I didn't answer, my heart too full.
“I believe that would be the Dauphine of Terre d'Ange, sent to represent Queen Ysandre,” Phèdre said in a careful tone.
I didn't need a warning to know that this was a state affair and not a lovers' reunion. I could read it in Sidonie's carriage. Her personal guard was arrayed behind her, clad in their livery of Courcel blue, marked by paler blue stripes. When we drew nearer, I could read it on Sidonie's face, grave and serious. Like her guards, she was dressed in Courcel blue. It seemed darker against her fair skin. Her hair was upswept and coiled, a slender crown of gold with sapphire points almost lost against its hue. It had been almost a year since we'd last seen one another. She looked less a girl, more a woman.
Our eyes met.
A thing may be true and not true. An affair of state; but a lovers' reunion, too. I didn't need to see her smile of profound gladness to know it was there behind her solemnity. And I didn't need to smile in reply. What was between us was larger and deeper than what lay on the surface. The cord drew taut, the knot was tied. Captain Corcan gave the order to strike the sails. We glided into port. Sailors went to oars, slowing and guiding our progress. Others tossed out lines, expertly caught and tied.
The Cruarch's flagship had arrived.
I was the first to disembark. It was fitting. I walked slowly down the ramp. My legs should have felt unsteady after a day at sea, but I wasn't aware of anything but the moment. My Vralian attire was worn and shabby, but I had my sword hanging from my belt, I wore the engraved vambraces Dorelei had given me, and the Cruarch's torc around my throat. I carried the leather bag containing Berlik's skull with both hands, holding it before me.
“Welcome, Prince Imriel.” Drustan's tone was unreadable.
“My lord Cruarch.” I bowed deeply and held it. “My lords and ladies of Alba.” I straightened and proffered the satchel like an offering. “I come bringing vengeance for my wife, Dorelei mab Breidaia.”
Drustan took the leather bag from me. He undid the strings, removed Berlik's skull, and held it aloft. White bone gleamed under the sun. The jawbone grinned at death's endless jest, but the empty eye-sockets beneath the broad expanse of brow were filled with sorrowful darkness. A sigh ran through the assembled company.
“Well done,” Drustan said quietly.
I bowed again; to him, to Breidaia and Talorcan, Hyacinthe and Sibeal. To all of Dorelei's kin, including Alais, who stood with them. And then I turned to Sidonie, and bowed to her as I would have to the Queen of Terre d'Ange.
“Well met, Prince Imriel.” Her voice was calm and steady. When I rose, she lifted her chin to meet my gaze. “On behalf of her majesty Queen Ysandre, I extend the sympathies of Terre dAnge on the loss of our kinswoman Dorelei mab Breidaia. I extend our gratitude to you and your companions for seeking justice on her behalf.”
Those were the words she spoke.
I love you.
Those were the words I heard.
I gave Sidonie the kiss of greeting, austere and correct. We could wait. We had learned to wait. It was enough to feel her lips beneath mine, soft and warm. A promise. The blood beat in my veins, a steady pulse of joy. “Thank you, your highness.”
Those were the words I spoke.
I love you.
Those were the words she heard.
We knew it; we both knew it. I daresay there was no one there who didn't know it on some level. Albans do not love gossip the way D'Angelines do, but they are not insensible to it, either. Still, we conducted ourselves with absolute propriety.
The others descended the ramp; Urist, leaning on his walking-staff. He got a somber hero's welcome, shrugging it off uncomfortably. So did Brun and Kinadius, although Kinadius welcomed it more gladly. I didn't mind; so far as I was concerned, he deserved it. He was young and stouthearted. He might have loved Dorelei as she deserved.
Somehow, Phèdre managed to get Montrève's household off the ship with unobtrusive grace, mindful that they were peripheral to the occasion. Quiet greetings were exchanged, and even Alais was restrained.
We rode in procession through the city, winding toward the fortress. Drustan presented Berlik's skull to Talorcan, Dorelei's nearest male kin. I saw a shadow cross Talorcan's face as he accepted it. Kinadius was right, there was bitterness there. Still, Talorcan held it aloft as he rode. People from all of the Four Folk of Alba gathered to watch as we passed, murmuring among themselves. Whether it was ritual or spectacle, I could not say. Of a surety, word would go forth this day that one did not offer violence against the kindred of the Cruarch of Alba without paying the ultimate price.
Or, mayhap, that there was nowhere on earth to flee Kushiel's justice.
I rode beside Sidonie as befit my status as a Prince of the Blood. She was mounted on a white palfrey with a pretty gait. The Bastard kept pace with Sidonie's mare, matching her step for step. It made me smile inside. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the merest hint of a dimple crease Sidonie's cheek, and I knew she was thinking the same thing.
Once we were in the fortress proper, the somber tension eased somewhat. In the great hall, Talorcan approached me after speaking to Urist.
“I understand you were the one to kill the bear-witch.” He extended Berlik's skull. “We ride for Clunderry on the morrow. As her husband and avenger, the honor of burying his head at Dorelei's feet belongs to you.”
I accepted the skull, the smooth bone cool against my hands. “Thank you, my lord.”
Talorcan nodded stiffly. “And you. I am grateful.”
I watched him turn away. The last time I'd seen him, I'd been bound by Alban charms. I hadn't been able to read him well. Now I could. He was a steady and thoughtful young man, but he was proud, too, and his failure was eating at him. Until now, nothing in his life had tested his mettle so profoundly. I hoped he would learn to accept it with grace.
Alais came over and hugged me without speaking, wrapping her arms around my waist. I held her hard with one arm, Berlik's skull awkward in my other hand. After a long moment, she sighed and let me go.
“That's him?” She eyed the skull.
“It is,” I said.
Alais lifted one hand and touched it. There was a shadow behind her eyes, too; a shadow of a different kind, filled with blood and screaming. She had been there in the hall of Clunderry when Berlik burst into it in bear form, killing Dorelei with one swipe of a massive paw. I hadn't witnessed it. Alais had. Her beloved dog was buried at Dorelei's side. I could only imagine her nightmares. “I'm glad he's dead,” she said. “I knew it. When I had the dream, I knew. We all did. Still, 'tis different, seeing it.”
I touched her black curls. “I know, love.”
Sidonie surprised me. When was that not true? I watched her approach. She looked different, here; a D'Angeline among Cruithne, only her dark eyes giving any hint of sharing their heritage. She did, though. She took Berlik's skull from my hand and gazed at it for a long moment without comment. I watched her face. Her lashes swept upward. “Was it hard?” she asked softly.
My throat tightened. “Yes.”
Sidonie nodded. “I thought it would be in the end.”
I swallowed and cleared my throat. “You're…here. Alais' dream?”
“And my aunts', too.” She gave Berlik's skull back to me. “Father sent a messenger dove from the temple, he was that certain of it. Mother and I agreed that one of us should be here to represent the throne of Terre d'Ange.”
“Are matters between you …?” I hesitated.
She shook her head. “'Tis a temporary truce in the Battle of Imriel.”
It was so good to hear my name on her tongue, I almost didn't care what words preceded it; but eventually, they penetrated my wits. I tucked Berlik's skull under one arm and took her hand in mine. We both bowed our heads, gazing at our entwined fingers. I was near enough to feel the heat rising from her skin. There was a fine gold chain around her neck, and I could see a brighter glint in the depths of her décolletage, nestled between the swell of her breasts. A gold knot; a ring. Her gift, my pledge.