KUSHIEL’S JUSTICE CHAPTER TWO

“Again!”

In the gloaming, Joscelin’s teeth flashed as he took a stance opposite me, his wooden sword angled before him. I grinned in reply and launched a fresh attack.

Our blades flicked and clattered as we circled one another in the courtyard, testing each other’s defenses. There was hoarfroast beginning to form on the slate tiles and I placed my feet with care as we revolved around one another. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Joscelin’s feet move. Hugues’ bad poetry not withstanding, he did seem to glide. His footwork was intricate and impeccable.

He was good; better than I was. I daresay he always will be. At ten years of age – the age at which I was learning to beg for mercy in the Mahrkagir’s zenana – Joscelin entered the Cassiline Brotherhood and began to train as a warrior-priest. Day after day, he had trained without cease.

It wasn’t just the training, though. There were other Cassiline Brothers. But none of them had ever made his choice. None had ever been tested as he was.

I pressed him on his bad side; his left side, where he was slower. His left arm had been shattered in Daršanga. He relinquished ground in acknowledgment, step by gliding step, and I pressed him. And then, somehow, he leaned away from my thrust with a subtle twist of his torso and I found myself overextended. The sharp point of his elbow came down hard on the back of my reaching hand.

“Oh, hell!” My sword fell and my hand stung. I shook it out.

Joscelin chuckled.

“Show me?” I asked.

“Here.” Setting down his blade, he placed one hand on my belly and the other on my lower back, applying pressure. “Weight on the rear foot, knee flexed. See?”

I leaned as he’d done. “I feel off-balance.”

“Widen your stance.” Joscelin nudged my forward foot. “Better.” He patted my belly. “It all flows from here, Imri. You can’t be stiff. Have you kept up your practice?”

“No,” I admitted. “Gallus Tadius didn’t approve. He had us training with-”

He wasn’t listening. He was smiling across the courtyard. Nothing had changed, but his face was alight. Since there was only one person in the world who made Joscelin Verreuil’s face brighten so, I knew without looking that Phèdre was there.

I looked anyway. She stood before the doors that opened onto the courtyard, hugging herself against the cold as she watched us spar. There was so much love and gladness in her eyes, I had to look away. What I wanted wasn’t meant for me.

“Show me?” she asked, teasing.

Joscelin laughed, low and soft. He crossed over to her and placed his hands on her, as he’d done to me, only not. Not at all the same. She twined her arms around his neck, the velvet sleeves of her gown falling back to lay them bare, white and slender. He bent his head to kiss her, his wheat-blond hair falling forward. For the span of a few heartbeats, nothing else in the world existed for them.

I stooped, picking up our fallen swords. It shouldn’t hurt. When I was younger, when I was a child, it wouldn’t have. I loved them, I loved them both so much. They rescued me out of hell and they paid a terrible price for it. Together, we found healing. We reknit our broken selves as a family, and their love lies at the core of it. I will never, so long as I live, begrudge either of them the least crumb of happiness. They have earned it a thousand times over.

It did hurt, though. I never thought it would, but it did.

Ah, Elua! Jealousy is a hard master. I’d known love and I’d known desire, but never the two at once; not this kind, the kind that shut out the world. And there was a darker strain, too. Like it or no, I was my mother’s son; Kushiel’s Scion, albeit a reluctant one. It was there, it would always be there. Phèdre was Kushiel’s Chosen, born to yield; Naamah’s Servant and a courtesan without equal. It was there between us, it would always be there.

My mother had written of it.

When, I wonder, will you read this? Not soon, I think. You are too angry, now. I think you will be older. I think you will be a man grown.

I should speak of Phèdre nó Delaunay.

You will wonder, did I love her? No… and yes. I will tell you this, my son: I knew her. Better than anyone; better than anyone else.

I let out my breath in a sigh, wondering what Phèdre had made of those words. When all was said and done, I do not think she disagreed. Still, whatever lay between them, it was Joscelin she loved. And he knew her, too. I watched her withdraw from him, smiling. In the lamplight spilling from the open doors, I could make out a faint flush on her cheeks

“Are you coming, love?” she called to me. “It’s perishing cold out here.”

“I’m coming,” I said.

How is it that two people so unlikely, so unsuited, find one another? I thought about it that night, watching them at the dinner table. And I thought about the fact that I was unlikely to do the same. I had met my bride-to-be, Dorelei mab Breidaia, the Cruarch’s niece. She was a sweet young woman with a lilting laugh, and I couldn’t possibly imagine sharing the kind of all-consuming passion that I craved with her.

I heaved another sigh.

“Why so somber?” Hugues asked me. “Did Messire Cassiline give you a drubbing?”

“No,” I said, then amended it at Joscelin’s amused glance. “Well, yes.” I flexed my bruised hand. “It’s not that, though. I think… I think I would like to go to Kushiel’s temple on the morrow.”

“What?” Joscelin stared at me in disbelief. “Are you mad?”

I hadn’t known what I was going to say until the words emerged from my mouth. I mulled over them. “No,” I said slowly. “I think I need to make expiation.”

“For what?”

He continued to stare. I thought about my recent excursion into extortion and blackmail. I thought about the soldiers I had killed in Lucca, about Canis with the javelin protruding from his chest and Gilot after the riot, battered and broken. I thought about cuckolded Deccus Fulvius and mad, dead Gallus Tadius standing above the maelstrom, meeting my distant gaze as he dropped his death-mask. I thought about the night Mavros took me to Valerian House and the morning after, when I grabbed Phèdre’s wrist and felt the pulse of desire leap.

“Things,” I said.

Joscelin shook his head. Phèdre rested her chin on one hand and fixed me with a deep look that gave away nothing. I returned it steadily. “You’re sure?” she asked. “It’s like to stir memories. Bad ones.”

“You go,” I said. “What do you find in it?”

She smiled slightly. “Oh, things.”

I nodded. “I’m sure.”

I wasn’t, not really; at least not on the morrow. I couldn’t even say of a surety what had prompted the urge. After Daršanga, I would have said I would never voluntarily submit myself to any man’s lash, nor any woman’s. And yet, the idea had fixed itself in my thoughts.

By morning, Joscelin was resigned. “You know, betimes I think you are a little mad, Imriel nó Montrève,” he said to me in the courtyard outside the stable, holding the Bastard’s reins.

“You never said that to Phèdre,” I reminded him

. “Ah, well.” He grinned despite himself. “In her case, there’s no question.” His expression turned sober. “Imri, truly, I know the dead weigh on you. I know it better than anyone. And I may be Cassiel’s servant, but I don’t deny Kushiel’s mystery. It’s just that it may be different for you.”

I swung astride. “Because of what happened to me?”

“Yes.” His eyes were grave.

“I know,” I said. “But Joscelin, I’m tired of having a terrified ten-year-old boy lurking inside me. And I need to deal with my own blood-guilt and… other things. You told me I’d find a way, my own way. So. I’m trying.”

“I know.” He let go the reins. “You’ll see him home safe?” he said to Hugues. Ti-Philippe had offered to go, too, but I’d rather it was Hugues. If the ordeal took a greater toll on me than I reckoned, I trusted him to be gentle.

“Of course.”

It was another cold, bright day in the City of Elua, the sky arching overhead like a blue vault. All the world seemed to be in high spirits. Hugues brought out his wooden flute as we rode and toyed with it, then thought better of it, tucking it away.

“It’s all right,” I said to him. “Play, if you like.”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “It doesn’t seem right.”

“Have you ever been?” I asked.

“No.” His face was open and guileless. “I’ve never known the need.”

It had been a foolish question; I couldn’t imagine why he would. I had known Hugues since I was a boy, and I’d never known him to say an unkind word. I wondered what it would be like to be him, unfailingly patient and kind, always seeing the best in everyone. I tried to look for the good, but I saw the bad, too. The flaws, the fault-lines. I was of Kushiel’s lineage and it was our gift. My mother’s gift, that she had used to exploit others.

But I was Elua’s Scion, too.

I wondered, did Elua choose his Companions? Nothing in the scriptures says so. They chose him as he wandered the earth; chose to abandon the One God in his heaven to wander at Blessed Elua’s side until they made a home here in Terre d’Ange, and then a truer home in the Terre d’Ange-that-lies-beyond.

He loved them, though. He must have. And if Blessed Elua found somewhat to love in mighty Kushiel, who was once appointed to punish the damned, then mayhap I would, too.

Elua’s temples are open places; open to sky and grounded by earth. In the Sanctuary of Elua where I grew up – until I was stolen by slavers – the temple was in a poppy-field. I used to love it there.

I’d never been to one of Kushiel’s temples. It was a closed place. Though it was located in the heart of the City, it sat alone in a walled square. There were no businesses surrounding it; no shops, no taverns, no markets. The building was clad in travertine marble, a muted honey-colored hue.

“Funny,” Hugues mused. “I’d expected it to be darker.”

“So did I,” I murmured.

The gate was unlocked and there was no keeper. We passed beyond it into the courtyard, hoofbeats echoing against the walls. I thought about the wide walls of Lucca, so vast oak trees grew atop them. A young man in black robes emerged from the stables.

“Be welcome,” he said, bowing.

We gave our mounts over into his keeping. I watched the Bastard accept his lead without protest, pacing docilely into the stable, and thought once more about the Sanctuary of Elua and an acolyte I had known there.

Hugues nudged me. “This way.”

The stairs leading to the entrance were steep and narrow. The tall doors were clad in bronze and worked with a relief of intertwining keys. It was said Kushiel once held the keys to the gates of hell. House Shahrizai takes its emblem from the same motif. The door-knocker was a simple bronze ring, unadorned. I grasped it and knocked for entrance.

The door was opened by another black-robed figure; a priest, his face covered by a bronze mask that rendered his features stern and anonymous. Or hers; it was almost impossible to tell. The sight made me shiver, a little. He – or she – beckoned without speaking, and we stepped into the foyer. He waited, gazing at us through the eye-holes of his mask.

“I am here to offer penance,” I said. Save for a pair of marble benches, the foyer was empty of all adornment and my voice echoed in the space.

The priest inclined his head and indicated the benches to Hugues, who took a seat, then beckoned once more to me. I followed, glancing back once at Hugues. He looked worried and forlorn, his wide shoulders hunched.

I followed the black-clad figure, studying the movement of the body beneath the flowing robes, the sway of the hips. A woman, I thought. I wasn’t sure if it made me more or less uneasy. She led me through another set of doors, down a set of hallways to the baths of purification.

Although I’d never gone, I knew the rituals. I’d asked Phèdre about it once. It used to bother me that she went, betimes. I was fearful of the violent catharsis she found in it. The dark mirror, Mavros would say.

And now I sought it.

The baths were stark and plain. Light poured in from high, narrow windows. There was a pool of white marble, heated by a hypocaust. The water shimmered, curls of steam rising in the sunlight. The priestess pointed at the pool.

“Do you know who I am?” I asked her.

She tilted her head. Sunlight glanced from the mask’s bronze cheek. In the shadows of its eye-holes, I could make out human eyes. The bronze lips were parted to allow breath. I thought she would speak, but she didn’t answer, merely pointed once more.

I unbuckled my sword-belt, pulled off my boots and stripped out of my clothing, piling it on a stool, then stepped into the pool. It was hot, almost hot enough to scald, and yet I found myself shivering.

“Kneel.”

A woman’s voice, soft and sibillant, emerging from between the bronze lips. I knelt, sinking shoulder-deep in the hot water. It smelled vaguely of sulfur. She took up a simple wooden bucket, dipping it into the pool. I closed my eyes as she poured it over my head in a near-scalding cascade; once, twice, thrice. When no more water came, I loosed the breath I’d been holding and opened my eyes.

The priestess beckoned.

I clambered out of the pool, naked and dripping. Water puddled on the marble floor. She handed me a linen bath-sheet. I dried myself and looked about for a robe, but she pointed at my piled clothing.

“Seems a bit foolish,” I muttered. She said nothing, so I put on my clothes and followed as she led me out of the baths, feeling damp and anxious.

We entered a broad hallway with a high ceiling and another pair of massive, bronze-clad doors at the end of it. The temple proper. The doors clanged like bells as they opened. My mouth was dry.

Kushiel’s inner sanctum.

All I could see at first was the effigy. It towered in the room, filling the space. I wondered how they’d gotten it through the doors, then realized the entire temple must have been built around it. His arms were crossed on his breast, his hands gripping his rod and flail. His distant face was stern and calm and beautiful, the same visage echoed in the mask of the priestess who led me, and those of the priests who awaited us.

One held a flogger.

I couldn’t help it, my throat tightened. At the base of the effigy was the altar-fire. A few tendrils of smoke arose. The stone walls of the temple were blackened with old soot. The flagstones were scrubbed clean, though. Especially those before Kushiel’s effigy, where the wooden whipping-post stood.

“Damn it!” I whispered, feeling the sting of tears. I thought about Gilot. No more tears, I’d promised him when we set out for Tiberium. Impatient at myself, I strode forward. I made an offering of gold and took up a handful of incense, casting it on the brazier.

Fragrant smoke billowed. I’d offered incense to Kushiel in the ambassadress’ garden in Tiberium; spikenard and mastic. This was different. This was his place.

A bronze mask swam before me. A priest, a tall man. He bent his head toward me. “Is it your will to offer penance?”

“Yes, lord priest.” I blinked my stinging eyes, rubbing at them with the heel of one hand. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yes.”

A single word; a single syllable. And yet, there was knowledge and compassion in it. Behind the eye-holes of his mask, his gaze was unwavering. The decision was mine.

I spread my arms. “So.”

Hands undressed me; unfastening my cloak, unbuckling my sword-belt. Anonymous hands belonging to faceless figures. Piece by piece, they stripped away my clothing, until I was naked and shivering in their black-robed midst. A heavy hand on my shoulder, forcing me to my knees. I knelt on the scrubbed flagstones.

Hands grasped my wrists, stretching my arms above my head. I willed myself not to struggle as they lashed rawhide around my wrists, binding them tight to the ring atop the whipping-post. The incense was so thick I could taste it on my tongue, mingled with the memory of stagnant water, rot and decay.

The chastiser stepped forward, his bronze-masked face calm and implacable. He held forth the flogger in both hands, offering it like a sacrament. It was no toy intended for violent pleasure, no teasing implement of soft deerskin. The braided leather glinted and metal gleamed at its tips. It was meant to hurt.

My teeth were chattering. All I could do was nod.

He nodded in acknowledgement and stepped behind me.

I braced myself.

Ah, Elua! The first blow was hard and fast, dealt by an expert hand. White-hot pain burst across the expanse of my naked back. I jerked hard against my restraints, feeling my sinews strain near unto cracking. Again and again and again it fell, and I found myself wild with panic, struggling to escape. I flung myself against the coarse wood of the whipping-post, worrying at it with my fingernails. And still the flogger fell, over and over.

I saw Daršanga.

Dead women, dead boys. The Mahrkagir’s mad eyes, wide with glee.

Phèdre, filled with the Name of God.

Brightness.

Darkness.

All of the dead, my dead. Daršanga, Lucca. Everyone’s dead.

Kushiel’s face, wreathed in smoke.

“Enough.” The tall priest raised his hand. I had ceased to struggle, going limp in my bonds. On my knees, aching in every part, I squinted up at him. “Make now your confession.” I craned my neck.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “And I will try to be good.”

There was a pause; a small silence. I let my head loll. From the corner of my eye, I saw the tall priest gesture. There was the soft sound of a dipper sinking into water, and then another voice spoke. “Be free of it.”

A draught of saltwater was poured over my wounds. I rested my bowed head in the crook of my elbows, sighing at the pain of it.

It was done, then. My penance was made. The anonymous hands untied my wrists and helped me to stand. Patted dry my lacerated back, helped me to dress. Though I stood on wavering feet, strangely, I felt calm and purged.

“So.” The tall priest regarded me. “Is it well done, Kushiel’s Scion?”

If I had wished it, I thought, he would have spoken to me as a man, mortal to mortal, both of us grasping with imperfect hands at the will of the gods. I didn’t, though. I bowed to him instead, feeling the fabric of my shirt rasp over my wounded flesh. It was a familiar feeling. I’d known it well, once. This was different. I had chosen it.

“It is well done, my lord priest,” I said.

He nodded a final time. “Go, then.”

Hugues leapt to his feet when I entered the foyer. “Are you… how are you?”

I ran my tongue over my teeth, thinking. I could taste blood where I’d bitten the inside of my cheek, and the lingering taste of incense. Nothing else. I hurt, but no worse than I’d hurt after a rough training session with Barbarus squadron. The weals would fade. And I wasn’t scared inside. “I’m fine,” I said, surprised to discover it was true. I smiled at Hugues. “Come on, let’s go.”