Kushiel's Justice (Page 97)

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“Where was I when this happened?” Talorcan mused.

“Doing somewhat more important, I hope,” his mother said tartly.

When my turn came, I told the story of scouring the castle on the Day of Misrule to find a pair of men's breeches vast enough to accommodate Dorelei's pregnant belly. How the breeches had been so long I'd had to roll the cuffs for her. How Dorelei had laughed so hard at the sight of me kneeling in her green kirtle, I'd no sooner finish rolling one leg when the other would fall, until at last she caught her breath long enough to tell me to pin them in place.

Alais smiled. “You did look that comical, Imri.”

“Not as comical as Urist,” I said.

“True,” she agreed.

Sidonie eyed me, bemused. “You wore her gown?”

I flushed. “For the Day of Misrule, yes.” I lowered my voice. “I'm sorry. If this is—”

“No, don't.” Sidonie cut me off, shaking her head. “It isn't. I wanted to be here, Imriel. Dorelei deserved that much, as blood-kin and…” Her shoulders moved in a faint, rueful shrug. “And the other debt. She seemed kind. You did your best to build a life together with her. Truly, I want to understand what you lost.”

“Thank you,” I said softly.

“Mmm.” Her black eyes gleamed. “I'll own, I didn't expect the kirtle.”

My heart leapt, then settled. Not now, not yet.

When the well of remembrance began to run dry, the mood in the hall shifted. There was a call for me to tell the tale of my quest; the story of Berlik's death. I didn't want to tell it—I'd told it enough and there was no joy in it for me—but there were too many folk there yearning to hear it. It would have been cruel to refuse.

So I let Kinadius tell the first part, about their tireless efforts and how they'd found Berlik's trail at last, leading northward across the Flatlands and into Skaldia. And I let Urist tell about our sea voyage and the shipwreck.

Then came my part.

It felt strange, telling it here in Clunderry. It almost seemed as though it had happened to someone else. Vralia was so far away. I tried to bring it to life for them; the deep cold, the endless snow. All of them listened raptly, even those who had heard it before. Conor held his harp on his lap, silently fingering the strings as though setting it to music in his mind.

I daresay there were a few—Talorcan, to be sure—who were hoping for a climactic finish to the tale, a dramatic battle in which I defeated Berlik, shouting my vengeance to the skies. Instead, they got the truth. My despair and acknowledgment of defeat; and then the roar of a bear in the night. The quiet ending to my long, long hunt, Berlik kneeling in the snow with his head bowed for the sword.

“Why did he do it?” Kerys wondered aloud when I finished.

“To atone.” It was young Conor who answered, his voice so low it was scarce audible. His head was bowed over his harp, coarse black hair hiding his eyes. “For all his people.”

There was silence in the hall.

“And now it is finished,” Drustan said at length.

It had grown late enough that his words were fitting. One by one, guests left the great hall for their chambers. Clunderry was full to the rafters that night, but no one complained. I stayed to bid good evening to all of them, as did Dorelei's nearest kin. I watched Drustan speaking quietly with Phèdre and Joscelin on the far side of the hall.

“Have you talked to your father?” I asked Sidonie in a low voice.

“About us?” Sidonie frowned. “We've discussed it. He's of a mind to speak to you himself, later. I agreed to let him without intervening.”

“Is it bad?” I asked.

“No.” Her frown didn't entirely vanish. “But it's not good, either.”

“You know, it's not as bad as I thought,” Alais offered. “You, I mean; the two of you. Not Father, I've no idea what he said.”

“My thanks,” I said wryly.

Alais ignored my tone. “The strangest part is seeing you being nice to one another.”

“Oh?” Sidonie raised her brows in amusement. “We're not always.”

It sounded perfectly innocent, and I knew perfectly well it wasn't.

My heart leapt again and a long-suppressed wave of desire rolled over me. I took a deep breath and willed my blood to subside. Alais looked suspiciously at her sister, but Sidonie's expression was guileless. I cleared my throat and changed the topic. “What of you and Talorcan?”

“When he went after Berlik, we decided to postpone the decision another year.” Alais looked over at Talorcan, troubled. “No one knew what would happen. Now…” She shrugged, dropping her voice to a murmur. “I'm not sure.”

Sidonie and I exchanged a glance. For the first time, it well and truly struck me that if we wed, I would be inextricably bound to the political process that linked Alba and Terre d’Ange. She was Ysandre's heir; Terre d'Ange's problems were her problems, too. And her problems would be mine. As the Dauphine's husband, I would inherit a great deal more responsibility than I'd ever wanted.

What a piece of irony that was.

“We'll worry about it later, my heart,” Sidonie said to Alais. “Tonight's for Dorelei.”

They waited until the last guests and family members had departed; then I bade them good night, lingering. Drustan stayed last of all, until it was only the two of us left in the hall. I thought he might speak to me then. He sat on one of the long benches, pouring the last dregs of a jar of uisghe into a cup.

“Shall I stay and talk with you, my lord?” I asked.

“No.” His face looked tired beneath its woad mask. “Not tonight.”

I was weary, too. “Then with your permission, I'll retire.”

“As you will,” he said, but when I made to go, Drustan called me back. “Imriel.” I turned, and he fixed me with an impenetrable gaze. “We'll speak later, in Bryn Gorrydum. This isn't the time or the place. But I do want you to know that I'm grateful for what you did.”

I nodded. “Thank you, my lord.”

“Clunderry remains yours in name,” Drustan said. “Will you keep it?”

I hesitated, then shook my head. “No. Let the deed revert to Lady Breidaia if she will have it; and if she will not, I ask you to hold it until you may bestow it on someone who loves this place as it deserves.” I touched the torc around my neck. “I will always be honored to have been Imriel of Clunderry. But that was another life, my lord. Tonight it ended.”

Drustan nodded. “Good night, then.”

With that, I was dismissed. I made my way to the chamber I'd shared with Dorelei all those long months, our child growing inside her, me bound with Alban charms. By the dim light of a guttering lamp, I could see that everything had been preserved as it had been. Still, it felt very different; not least of all because I'd agreed to share it with Hugues and Ti-Philippe. They were asleep; Hugues on a straw pallet on the floor, Ti-Philippe sprawled on half the bed.

I was glad they were there, even if Hugues snored. There were too many memories in that room. It would have felt empty and lonely without them. Even with them there, I felt the ache of Dorelei's loss.

Still, my quest was over.

I crawled into bed and slept.

We stayed another day at Clunderry to bid farewell to those guests who had come to take part in the ceremony. In the wake of yesterday's strong emotion, everyone seemed purged and calm, like the world after a storm has passed. I did my part, thanking all of them for their kindness. I found myself acutely aware of Sidonie's presence. My wrists and ankles itched with the memory of my old bindings.

The Dalriada lingered the longest, for which I was grateful. I'd scarce had a chance to talk with Eamonn.

“Can you not stay another night?” I asked him.

Eamonn shook his head with regret. “I've got to supervise the building of the library. I shouldn't have taken the time as it was, but I needed to see with my own eyes that you were alive and well.”

“And to express your mother's sorrow,” Brigitta reminded him.

“Aye,” he said. “That, too.”

I embraced them both. “Come visit when your library's built.”

They smiled at one another. “We'll try,” Eamonn said. “Seems we might be busy. Quite a few prospective pupils have expressed an interest.”

“You could come visit us,” Brigitta suggested. I glanced at Sidonie without thinking. She was talking with young Conor and her aunt Breidaia, but she turned her head to meet my gaze. A spark leapt between us.

“Seems you might be busy yourself,” Eamonn said. “Just…try to stay out of trouble for once, will you?”

I smiled ruefully. “I'll try.”

Our last night at Clunderry was a quiet one. With most of the guests and their entourages gone, there was more space. I did sleep alone that night in the chamber Dorelei and I had shared, and it was empty and lonely, but the memories weren't as painful as they would have been the previous night, on the heels of all those tales. The ache of guilt and sorrow was still there. It would always be there. It was the nature of loss.

We left on the morrow, another bright spring day. I turned in the saddle many times as we rode away, glancing back at Clunderry, until it had vanished wholly from sight. Sidonie fell in beside me, her personal guard trailing us.

“Do you think you'll come back one day?” she asked me.

“I'd like to,” I said. “Mayhap for the Feast of the Dead.”

She nodded. “In the hope of seeing her?”

“Yes,” I said. “But not soon.”

“No,” she murmured. “I imagine it would hurt too much.”

We didn't speak much for a long time afterward, although there was a great deal to be said. All of our conversation since I'd arrived in Alba had been constrained by propriety. We had a world of talking to do. I had told her about Maslin's role in saving me, but not about the many conversations we'd had, the friendship we'd managed to forge. A thousand thoughts that had crossed my mind during my travels. And I wanted to hear every blessed thing that had befallen her since I left.

But it could wait. Right now, the silence felt good.

For once—for always, I prayed—we had time ahead of us. Whatever his thoughts on the matter, Drustan didn't seem inclined to interfere between us, at least not here and now. No one did. Throughout the day, a tacit acknowledgment of our relationship seemed to emerge.

And at night…

We made camp in a meadow alongside the narrow road we were following, although camp was a poor term for it. It was a procession of state with the Cruarch of Alba and the Dauphine of Terre d'Ange, and whenever we halted for the night, what sprang up was less a campsite than a small city of tents, dominated by two larger pavilions. Drustan's was wrought of crimson silk, flying the Black Boar from its center pole, and he shared it with the immediate members of his household. Sidonie's was Courcel blue, flying the silver swan of our house and the lily and stars of Elua and his Companions.

The wagons in our train even carried a table that could be cunningly disassembled, ornate stools on which to sit, and fine linens and utensils, along with a plethora of supplies. There were two skilled cooks and a number of attendants.

“It's a long way from dining on salt cod and sleeping in the bottom of a boat,” Ti-Philippe had commented on our outward journey.

The mood was subdued that first night after Clunderry, a lingering sense of gravity persisting. We dined and talked quietly among ourselves. The sun slipped slowly beneath the treeline in the west, making the campfires burn brighter. Some distance away, one of Sidonie's guards began playing a lap-harp, tentatively picking out a few of the melodies Conor had played. The air was turning cooler, the world going soft around the edges once more. A few people were yawning, but no one moved.

“Shall we to bed?” Joscelin asked Phèdre.

“In a moment.” She was listening to the harpist, her chin propped on one fist. “It's early yet.”

“Dawn comes early, too,” he reminded her.

It was Sidonie, seated on a stool beside me, who rose. Our shoulders had been nearly brushing all evening. I felt the warmth of her presence leave when she stood. I glanced up to meet her dark gaze. The waiting silence between us deepened. She held out her hand to me, tilting her head imperceptibly in the direction of her pavilion.

I stood and took her hand.

There hadn't been much conversation at the table, but enough to feel the hush when it ceased. In the lull, we walked away. The grass was damp with dew, a little slippery beneath the soles of my boots. Sidonie's hand was warm in mine. There was a lamp lit in her pavilion, making the blue silk glow from within, unearthly in the lowering darkness.

Behind us, I could hear the low murmur of conversation resuming at the table.

“Good evening, your highnesses.” Claude de Monluc, the captain of her guard, greeted us with a crisp bow.

“My lord captain.” Sidonie inclined her head.

He drew back the a silk flap that served as the pavilion's door. “I'll see you're undisturbed.”

“Thank you.” My voice sounded strange to my ears.

We entered the pavilion, and he secured the flap behind us. Inside, it was luxuriously appointed, with carpets spread over the grass, trunks containing Sidonie's garments and possessions, and a thick goosedown pallet adorned with pillows and a sumptuous coverlet. A fretted lamp hung from the center pole, casting lacy shadows on the silken walls, and a portable brazier warmed the air.

Sidonie and I were alone.

It felt like a gift, somewhat rare and precious. For a long moment, neither of us moved. At last Sidonie released my hand. She withdrew the knotted gold ring on its long chain from her bodice, unclasping the chain. Fine gold links slithered and fell unheeded to the carpet as she removed the ring.