KUSHIEL’S JUSTICE CHAPTER ONE
By the time I was eighteen years of age – almost nineteen – I’d been many things. I’d been an orphan, a goat-herd and a slave. I’d been a missing prince, lost and found. I’d been a traitor’s son and a heroine’s. I’d been a scholar, a lover and a soldier.
All of these were true, more or less.
Betimes it seemed impossible that one person’s mere flesh could contain so many selves. Mine did, though. I was Prince Imriel de la Courcel, third in line for the throne of Terre d’Ange, betrothed to wed a princess of Alba and beget heirs to that kingdom with her. And, too, I was Imriel nó Montrève, adopted son of Comtesse Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève and her consort, Joscelin Verreuil.
Imriel. Imri, to a few.
When I gained my age of majority, eighteen, I tried to flee myself. My selves. I went to the University of Tiberium in Caerdicca Unitas, where no one knew me, and played at being a scholar. There I found friendship, passion and intrigue. I found myself targeted by an enemy not of my making, and I dealt with it on my own terms. I found myself caught on the wrong side of a siege, and learned of grief, courage and loyalty. I discovered that few people are wholly good or bad, and all is not always as it seems, including the very ground beneath our feet.
And somewhere along the way, I found a little bit of healing. It wasn’t enough to undo all of the damage done to me when I was a child; that, I think, cuts too deep. But enough. Enough to lend me a little bit of wisdom and compassion. Enough to face the responsibilities of my birthright like a man. Enough to let me come home, even if it was only for a while.
Enough to face one last self.
My mother’s son.
My cousin Mavros claims we must all face two mirrors, the bright and the dark. Perhaps it is true. I never thought I would confront the mirror of my mother’s legacy. When I was fourteen years of age, she vanished from the temple in La Serenissima where she had claimed sanctuary for long years. No one has seen her since, or no one living who will confess it. Before that time, I had seen her only twice. The first time, I thought her beautiful and kind, and I loved her for it. I didn’t know who she was; nor who I was, either.
|The second time, I knew.And I hated her for it.
I thought she was gone from my life forever, but she wasn’t. In the besieged city of Lucca, a man spent his life to save mine. Canis, he called himself; Dog, in the Caerdicci tongue. I’d known him first as a philosopher and a beggar, and last as a mystery and a bitter gift. On the streets of Lucca, he flung himself in front of a javelin meant for me, and it pierced him through. He smiled before he died, and his last words stay with me.
Your mother sends her love.
So I came home. Home to Terre d’Ange, to the City of Elua. Home to Phèdre and Joscelin, whom I loved beyond all measure. Home to Queen Ysandre to agree to her political machinations; to Mavros and my Shahrizai kin. To Bernadette de Trevalion, who hired a man to kill me in Tiberium. To my royal cousins, the D’Angeline princesses; young Alais, who is like a sister to me, and the Queen’s heir Sidonie, who is… not.
To my mother’s letters.
For three years, she had written to me. Once a month the letters came, save when winter delayed their delivery; then a packet of two or three would arrive. I threw the first letter on the brazier, but Phèdre rescued it. After that, she saved them for me in a locked coffer in her study.
I read them in single sitting, reading well into the small hours of the night. The lamps burned low in Phèdre’s study until they began to sputter for lack of oil. I refilled the lamps and read onward. Beyond the door, I could hear the sounds of Montrève’s household dwindle into soft creaks and sighs as its members took to their bedchambers.
When I had finished the last letter, I refolded it and placed it atop the others. I put them away and closed the coffer, locking it with the little gold key. And then I sat for a long time, alone and quiet, my heart and mind too full for thought.
By the time I arose, it seemed it must nearly be dawn; but I’d grown accustomed to doing without sleep during the siege of Lucca. I blew out the lamps and made my way quietly through the townhouse.
There was a lone lamp burning in the salon. On the couch, Phèdre uncurled. She reached over and turned the wick up a notch. The flame leapt, illuminating her face. Our eyes met. It was still too dark to see the scarlet mote on her left iris that marked her as Kushiel’s Chosen. But it was there. I knew it was.
“I’m fine,” I said softly.
“Do you want to talk?” Her gaze was steady and unflinching. There was no mirror in the world into which Phèdre feared to look. Not any more. Not after what she had endured. I thought about what my mother had written about her.
“No,” I said, but I sat down beside her. “I don’t know. Not yet.”
Phèdre had read the letters. It was four years ago, when my mother vanished. Because I couldn’t bring myself to face the task, I’d asked her to do it, to ensure there was no treason in them, nothing that might divulge her whereabouts. There wasn’t. But I remembered how she had looked afterward, bruised and weary. I felt that way now.
She watched me for a long moment without speaking, and what thoughts passed behind her eyes, I could not say. At length, she reached and stroked a lock of my hair, a touch as light as the brush of a butterfly’s wing. “Go to bed, Imri. You need sleep.”
“I know.” I swung myself off the couch, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “Thank you.”
Phèdre smiled at me. “For what?”
“For being here,” I said. “For being you.”
In my bedchamber, I pulled off my boots and lay down on my bed, folding my arms beneath my head and staring at the ceiling. When I closed my eyes, I could see the words my mother had written swirling in my head.
The first words, her first letter.
You will wonder if I loved you, of course. The answer is yes; a thousand times, yes. I wonder, as I write this, how to find the words to tell you? Words that you will believe in light of my history? I can tell you this: Whatever I have done, I have never violated the precept of Blessed Elua. It is in my nature to relish games of power above all else, and I have played them to the hilt. I have known love, other loves. The deep and abiding ties of family. The fondness of friends and lovers, the intoxicating thrill of passion, the keen, deadly excitements of conspiracy.
All of these pale beside your birth.
I began to know it as you grew within me; a life, separate yet contained. Our veins sharing the same blood; my food, your nourishment. And then the wrenching separation of birth, the two divided and rejoined. When they put you in my arms, I felt a conflagration in my heart; a love fiercer and hotter than any I had known.
You will remember none of this, I know. But in the first months of your life, I suffered no attendant to bathe you, no nursemaid to suckle you. These things, I did myself. Like any fatuous mother, I counted your fingers and toes, marveling at their miniature perfection, the nails like tiny moons. Your flesh, a part of mine, now separate. The veins beneath your skin where my blood flowed, the impossible tenderness of it all. In the privacy of my chambers, I held you close to my breast and said all the foolish things mothers say.
I remember the first time you laughed, and how it made my heart leap. And yes, I dreamed great dreams for you – dreams you will call treason. But above all I knew I would never, ever suffer anyone to harm you. I, who had never acted out of spite (although you may not believe it), would gladly have killed with my own hands anyone who harbored an ill thought toward you.
When I sent you away… if you believe nothing else, I pray you will believe this. I believed you would be safe in the Sanctuary of Elua. Safe from my enemies, and safe from the intentions of the Queen. Safe and hidden, the secret jewel of my heart. If I had known what would happen, if there was any way I could undo what was done to you, I would do it. I would humble myself and beg, I would pay any price. But there is none, none the gods will accept.
Instead, I am afforded a reminder harsher than any rod, that cuts deeper than any blade: Kushiel’s justice is cruel.
You will wonder if I loved you. The answer is yes; a thousand times, yes.
One may be wounded in battle without feeling it. After we retreated from the first onslaught in Lucca, I was surprised to find a gash on my thigh, a gouge on my arm. And I was surprised now to find tears leaking from my closed lids. I’d known the letters had bruised and battered my heart. I hadn’t known my mother’s words had touched something deep and aching within me, something I had buried since I was ten years old and I learned who I was. Now it was cracked asunder.
It hurt because I had believed myself unloved, a political expedient; a cog in my mother’s vast ambitions. It hurt with a deep, bittersweet ache. For the laughing infant in his mother’s arms, for all that she had understood too late. I had spent so many years despising her, knowing only the proud, calculating monstrosity of her genius. It was hard to feel otherwise.
Alone in the darkness of my bedchamber, I pressed the heels of my hands against my closed eyes and sighed. I couldn’t love her. Not now; likely not ever. But I could begin to forgive her, at least a little bit, for the things that had befallen me.
In time, I slept without knowing it, sinking into the depths of exhaustion. At first I dreamed I was reading my mother’s letters still, and then the dream changed. For the first time in many months, I dreamed of Daršanga. I dreamed of the Mahrkagir’s smile and the sound of a rusty blade being scraped over a whetting stone, and I cried aloud and woke.
A figure at the window startled. “Your highness?”
I sat up and squinted at her. There was light spilling into my bedchamber. It had been the sound of the drapes being drawn, nothing more. “Clory?”
Phèdre’s handmaiden bobbed a quick curtsy. “Forgive me, your highness!”
“It’s just me, Clory.” I ran my hands through my disheveled hair. “Is it late?”
Her lips twitched. “Late enough, according to messire Joscelin. He thought you might want a bite of luncheon.”
“Luncheon?” My belly rumbled. “Tell them I’ll be down directly.”
No one mentioned the letters when I appeared, still yawning, and took a seat at the table. Joscelin gave me a quick assessing glance, and Phèdre merely smiled at me. Ti-Philippe and Hugues were there, bickering good-naturedly about who had neglected to fill an empty charcoal-bin in the garrison.
“I thought we might spar later,” Joscelin offered after I’d filled my plate. “I’m out of practice since you’ve been gone.”
Ti-Philippe snorted. “You?”
“Well.” Joscelin looked mildly at him. “Somewhat, yes.”
I didn’t believe it any more than Ti-Philippe did. Hugues laughed. “Alone at dawn the Cassiline stands,” he declaimed. “His longsword shining in his hands/Across the cobbled stones he glides/Through the air his bright blade slides… oh, all right,” he added as Joscelin rolled his eyes. “I’ll stop.”
I laughed, too. Hugues was kind-hearted and loyal to the bone, but his poetry was notoriously dreadful. “I’d like that,” I said to Joscelin. “Indeed, why not now?”
He glanced at Phèdre.
“There was a messenger from House Trevalion this morning,” she said quietly. “The Lady Bernadette wishes you to call upon her at your earliest convenience.”
“I see.” I nodded. “Well, good.”
Ti-Philippe raised his brows. “A clandestine affair? That’s swift work, young Imriel. You do know she’s old enough to be your mother?”
“Hmm?” I scarce heard the comment. This wasn’t going to be an encounter I relished, but it was necessary and I’d be glad to have the matter resolved. I was weary of being persecuted for my mother’s sins. “It’s not what you think. It’s… a family matter, that’s all. She is my cousin, you know.”
“Ah, well.” He grinned. “That never stopped anyone.”
“Shall I go with you?” Joscelin asked.
“No,” I said slowly. “It’s… somewhat I’d rather do alone.”
He gave me a long, hard look. “All right, then.”
After our luncheon was concluded, I borrowed Phèdre’s study to make a fair copy of a letter in my possession. Not one of my mother’s, this one. It was brief and inelegant, scrawled on a single sheet of parchment, a signature and a smeared thumbprint affixed at the bottom. It had been written by a man named Ruggero Caccini. In it, he divulged the details of his arrangement with Lady Bernadette de Trevalion, who had paid him a considerable sum of money to ensure that a deadly mishap befell me in the city of Tiberium.
I’d found out about it. And I’d extorted the letter from him using a combination of blackmail and bribery.
I daresay my mother would have been proud.
I had the Bastard saddled and rode to the Palace. There was a sharp chill in the air, a harbinger of winter. It made the Bastard restless. I kept him on a tight rein and he chafed under it, tossing his head and champing at the bit. He was a good horse, though. Tsingani-bred, one of the best. I patted his red-speckled hide, thinking about Gilot and how much he’d wanted the spotted horse we’d seen together in Montrève the day I learned my mother had vanished.
I wished I’d bought it for him, now.
Gilot was dead. He’d been one of Montrève’s men-at-arms, the youngest of the lot and the closest thing to a friend I had among them. He’d gone with me to Tiberium, where I’d been a plague and a trial to him. He was killed in Lucca. He’d gone to protect me, and I brought him home in a casket. It was only two days ago that I had arrived in the City; two days ago that we had buried him. I missed him.
At the Palace, I gave the Bastard over to an ostler with the usual warnings. The footman on duty swept me a low bow.
“Prince Imriel,” he said. “How may I serve your highness?”
“I believe Lady Bernadette de Trevalion is expecting me,” I said.
He bowed again. “Of course.”
I followed him down the marble halls. The Palace was a vast place. The City of Elua is the heart of Terre d’Ange, and the Court is the heart of the City. Betimes it seems half the peers of the realms maintain quarters there. Others maintain lodging elsewhere in the City, but spend their days loitering at Court – playing games of chance in the Hall of Games, partaking of entertainment in the Salon of Eisheth’s Harp, begging an audience with the Queen or a chance to present a case before the Parliament when it is in session.
The young nobles play the Game of Courtship, testing out dalliances and angling for marital alliances. I’d never played it; nor would I, now. I was betrothed to a woman I barely knew; Dorelei mab Necthana, a princess of Alba.
House Trevalion’s quarters were on the third floor of the Palace. I’d visited them often when Bernadette’s son Bertran and I were friends. That had all changed the night he believed he’d caught me out at a treasonous intrigue, and I hadn’t been back since. The footman knocked for admission, exchanging low words with the attendant who answered. In short order, I was ushered into a private audience with the Lady Bernadette in her salon.
“My lady.” I accorded her the bow due an equal. She sat upright and rigid in a tall chair. Her mother had been my father’s sister; Lyonette de Trevalion. The Lioness of Azzalle, they used to call her. She was dead, convicted of treason, along with her son Baudoin. They had conspired to usurp the throne. He had fallen on his sword; she had taken poison. My mother had betrayed them both, and it was her testimony that had convicted them. “You asked to see me?”
Bernadette’s sea-grey eyes narrowed. “Do me the courtesy of playing no games with me, Imriel de la Courcel. My son Bertran said you had a message for me. What is it?”
“As you wish.” I handed her the copy of Ruggero’s letter. “I hold the original.”
She scanned it, then nodded once, crisply. “So. What will you?”
I sighed. “My lady, what would you have me say? I am sorry for the death of your mother and brother. I am sorry for your time spent in exile. But I am not willing to die for it.”
Her hands trembled, making the parchment quiver. “And with this, you could destroy me. Destroy House Trevalion, or what is left of it.” Her voice hardened. “So I ask again, what will you?”
I sat, uninvited, on a couch. “Forswear vengeance.”
Her eyes widened. “That’s all?”
“More or less,” I said, studying her. Looking for lies, looking for the fault-lines of bitterness and anger and pride that lay within her. “Tell me, did Bertran know? Or your husband, Ghislain?”
“No.” Bernadette de Trevalion closed her eyes. “Only me. It would kill them.”
“Then why did you do it?” I asked her. “Why?”
Her eyes opened; her lips twisted. “You have to ask? Because I hurt, Imriel. I miss my brother. I miss my mother. I grieve for my father’s disgrace, my husband’s disgrace. You?” She shrugged. “I was willing to abide. When my son befriended you, it galled me. Still, I tolerated it. But when Bertan caught you in the midst of conspiring treason, it brought it all back.” Her cheeks flushed. “All the old hurt, all the hatred.”
“And so you thought to kill me for it,” I said softly. “Despite the fact that the Queen herself declared me innocent.”
“I wanted you to suffer like Baudoin did!” Her voice rose. “And I wanted your mother, your cursed mother, to know what it felt like. To feel her actions rebounding on her and know her role in them. To hurt like I do.”
My old scars itched. “You have no idea,” I said. “None.”
Bernadette de Trevalion looked steadily at me. “What will you?”
At least she had courage. She made no effort to lie, no plea for undeserved mercy. I returned her regard for a long moment. “First, understand this. What Bertran overheard that night was a lie.” She opened her mouth to speak and I cut her off. “Duc Barquiel L’Envers was behind it, Bernadette,” I said wearily. “There’s proof. That’s how he was pressured to relinquish the Royal Command your husband now enjoys.”
Her mouth worked. “Why would he-”
“Elua only knows.” I spread my hands. “L’Envers has wanted me dead since I was born. And you very nearly obliged him.”
She turned pale. “I didn’t know.”
“Now you do.” I stood. “My lady, I’m no traitor. I never have been. You, on the other hand, conspired to murder a Prince of the Blood.” I nodded at the letter she held. “You ask me what I will. Ruggero Caccini’s letter stays in my keeping as surety. But if you forswear all vengeance against me for my mother’s misdeeds, I promise you, it will never come to light. I will never speak of this incident.”
Bernadette hesitated. “Why would you make such a promise?”
“Because your son Bertran was a friend, once.” I smiled grimly. “Not a very good one, as it transpired, but a friend. Because your husband is the Queen’s loyal Commander and a hero of the realm. Because the Queen ardently desires peace among her kin. And mostly, because I am sick unto death of being caught up in the bloody coils of things that happened long before I was born. Do you swear?”
She raised her chin. Oh yes, there was pride there. “In the name of Blessed Elua and Azza, I swear to forego all vengeance against you, Imriel de la Courcel.”
Her voice was low, but it was steady. I nodded once more. “My thanks, my lady.”
“Imriel.” Bernadette rose and caught my elbow as I turned to go. Old anguish surfaced in her sea-grey eyes, complicated with guilt and dawning remorse. “I didn’t know, truly. I’m sorry.”
I gazed at her. “Good.”
After I took my leave of her, I visited one other place within the Palace. The Hall of Portraits was a long, narrow room on the second floor. A row of windows along the outer wall admitted a wash of wintry light. The interior wall was lined and stacked with portraits of the scions of House Courcel, rulers of Terre d’Ange for some three centuries.
I’d never set foot in it before. But after reading my mother’s letters, I reckoned it was time. I made my way toward the far end of the hall. Family members were clustered together, stacked in groups. There; there was Ganelon de la Courcel, Ysandre’s grandfather, and his wife above him. There was no portrait of Lyonette de Trevalion, his sister. I daresay that had been removed after her execution. But there, beside him…
I read the name on the frame’s brass plaque: Benedicte de la Courcel.
You will wonder about your father. There are few left, I think, in Terre d’Ange who knew him well, well enough to speak of him. He spent long years in La Serenissima, and there were things that happened to poison him against his own legacy. You may hear that it made him bitter, and it did. We D’Angelines are not a people who take well to exile, even though it be for political advantage. This I know all too well.
But this I will tell you: He was a brave man, and a noble one in his own way. He fought for his country as a young man. He believed what he did – what we did together – was in the best interests of Terre d’Ange. He believed in the purity of the bloodlines of Blessed Elua and his Companions. He believed the nation cried out for a pure-blooded D’Angeline heir.
I stared at the portrait. I didn’t remember my father. He died when I was only a babe, killed in the fighting in the Temple of Asherat where my mother’s final treachery was revealed. He’d been an old man, then. She had played on his prejudices. He’d been willing to condone the assassination of the Queen, his own grand-niece, to pave the way for a pure-blooded heir. Me. If he’d lived to stand trial, I daresay he would have been convicted of treason.
As for my mother, she’d already been convicted, long ago. Her life was forfeit if she ever set foot on D’Angeline soil.
The portrait depicted a serious-looking young man. It was formal and a bit stiff, and I thought it must have been painted when he was scarce older than I was. I could see a little of my own face in his; only a little. The strong, straight line of the eyebrows, the angle of his jaw. He didn’t look like a man who laughed often, but he didn’t look unkind, either. Mostly, he looked like a stranger; someone I’d never met.
There was no portrait of his first wife, the Serenissiman. No portraits of the children they had borne together, disowned by House Courcel due to other intrigues. But there was a second painting hung above his, veiled with drapes of sheer black muslin. It was there because of me; because Queen Ysandre insisted on acknowledging me as a member of House Courcel. It was veiled because of the death-sentence on her. I pulled back the drapes and gazed at my mother.
She bore the unmistakeable stamp of House Shahrizai. I bear it, too. The blue-black hair that grows in ripples, the deep, deep blue of the eyes. It was a good portrait. Her eyes seemed to sparkle with untold secrets and her generous lips were parted slightly, as though in the next instant she might laugh or smile, blow a kiss. I touched my lower lip with two fingers, thinking of the portrait I’d allowed the artist Erytheia to paint of me in Tiberium, lounging in the pose of Bacchus. Same mouth, same shape.
There was a click-clicking sound. “Imri?”
I tensed at the intrusion and turned my head to see Alais, with her pet wolfhound padding beside her, nails clicking on the marble. A pair of the Queen’s Guardsmen hovered discreetly in the doorway behind her. I relaxed. “What are you doing here, villain?”
Alais pulled a face at the nickname. “I come here sometimes. But I heard you were here. You know how it is in the Court, everyone keeping track of everyone else’s comings and goings. What did Lady Bernadette want of you?”
“Oh, she was hoping that Bertran and I would make up our quarrel now that I’m back,” I said casually. “We never really did, you know.”
“Well, it might help if he apologized for the way he behaved to you!” Alais came alongside me. “Your parents?”
I nodded. The wolfhound Celeste pushed her muzzle into my hand. I’d known her since she was a pup. She had been my gift to Alais. I scratched absently at the base of her ears, watching Alais contemplate the portraits. She’d grown up while I was gone. A little lady, now, almost fifteen years old. Her small face was dark and intent. Alais took after her father, Drustan mab Necthana, the Cruarch of Alba. Mixed blood. There were those in Court who still thought as my father had done.
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“Of them?” Alais tilted her head. “He looks… uncomfortable. Like his skin’s too tight. That’s what I always thought. And she…” Her expression turned wistful. “I never dared look at her before. But she doesn’t, does she? The world fits her just right.”
“I read her letters,” I said softly.
Alais shot me a startled glance. “What did she say?”
“A lot,” I said. “A lot that added up to nothing.”
She nodded somberly. “Adults talk that way, don’t they?”
I nearly laughed, then thought better of it. Though I was an adult now, we had been children together. Alais was wise beyond her years, and she had dreams that came true, sometimes. She’d dreamed I met a man with two faces and it came true, in Lucca. “Yes,” I said. “They do.”
You asked me, and I will try to answer. It is a child’s question, the first and last and best of all questions that may be asked. Why? Why did I do what I did? Did I know it was treason? Yes, of course.
Ah, Imriel! Son of mine, I will say to you what I have said to others: Blessed Elua cared naught for crowns or thrones. It is a human game, a mortal game. I imagine you will say it was not worth the cost of innocent blood spilled in the process, since it is what Phèdre nó Delaunay once said to me. Mayhap it is true. And yet, countless numbers of those she would deem innocent never hesitated to engage in a death-struggle for these things, these mortal tokens of power.
What does it mean to be innocent? It is impossible to move through this life without making choices that injure others. My choices were bolder than others’; and yet. If they had not chosen as they did, they would not have suffered for it. We are all driven by desires, some simple and some complex. In the end, we all make choices.
In the end, no one is truly innocent.
I shook my head to dispel my mother’s words. Her betrayal of House Trevalion was the least of her sins. Long before my birth, her machinations had brought Terre d’Ange to the brink of conquest. Thousands had died fighting against the invasion of the Skaldi that she had orchestrated, D’Angelines and Albans alike. And yes, it was their choice to struggle against it, but… ah, Elua! Surely the choices were not equal in weight.
Small wonder there were those who longed to see her suffer.
“Imri?” Alais’ brow was knit with concern.
“Yes, my lady.” With an effort, I gathered myself, smiling at Alais and closing the muslin drapes. My mother’s face vanished. My father’s continued to gaze somberly from the wall. I bowed to Alais. “I place myself at your service. What will you?”
She looked away, one hand buried in the wolfhound’s ruff. “Please don’t make mock of me, Imriel.”
“Alais!” Startled, I went to one knee. “I wasn’t.”
“All right.” She stole a sidelong glance at me. “Do you ever think… do you ever wish she had succeeded? Or think they might have been right?”
I gaped at her. “My mother?”
Alais nodded at the portraits. “The both of them.”
“No.” I took her free hand and squeezed it. “Never.”