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KUSHIEL'S MERCY CHAPTER ONE

There are people in my country who have never travelled beyond the boundaries of Terre d'Ange. Indeed, there are many who have never left the province in which they were born; contented crofters tilling the land, tending orchards or raising sheep, never venturing further than the nearest market.

Betimes, I envy them.

Already, as a young man, I have gone further than I could have imagined as a boy daydreaming in the Sanctuary of Elua where I was raised. It did not begin by choice - as all the world knows, I was abucted by Carthaginian slave-traders, sold into slavery in Menekhet, and from thence taken to the land of Drujan, ruled by a madman who consorted with a dark and ancient god.

It was a short time ago as historians reckon such things, but a long time ago in my life. I will never bear those memories lightly, but I have learned to bear them. Since that time, since I was rescued and restored, I have ventured as far south as Jebe-Barkal and lost Saba; and as far north as Vralia, an unlikely kingdom arising in the harsh glory of the cold north.

I have been wed and widowed.

I have become a father, almost.

And I have fallen in love, which is somewhat altogether different. It was not with my wife, Dorelei, although she was worthy of such devotion and in the end, I did come to love her. Love of my wife is what drove me to Vralia, seeking justice on her behalf. I found it, too, although it was not entirely what I expected. Still, the man who killed her is dead, and his skull lies buried beneath her feet in Alba.

But there is a difference between loving and being in love; that maddening passion that expands the heart and exalts the soul, that shakes the heavens and roils the depths of hell. That, I have known but once. Betimes I wish it was with Dorelei and her thoughtful, gentle ways. Betimes I wish it was with anyone, anyone else. A crofter's daughter, a merchant's son. Anyone whose station in life would raise no alarms. Who would allow me to stay in one place, to live and love and be happy. Whose bedchamber would not become a political battleground, raising the unwelcome specter of my treasonous mother and her eternal scheming.

Anyone but Sidonie.

It wasn't, though.

And I knew it.

I knew it in Alba, when I was still bound by strange magics, struggling to shed my youthful self-absorption and fulfill my duties as a man. We hadn't been sure, Sidonie and I. Too young, too uncertain. What had begun between us was always more than casual dalliance, although I daresay she knew the stakes better than I did. My royal cousin, Sidonie de la Courcel; Dauphine of Terre d'Ange, eldest daughter and acknowledged heir of Queen Ysandre.

The one person in the world I could not love without raising suspicion.

I knew it was love, real and enduring; we both knew it. When it began, Sidonie asked me. Imriel, tell me truly, she said. How much of what lies between us is just the lure of the forbidden?

I couldn't answer it, not then. I didn't know. I knew I wanted her, fiercely. I knew there was a dark fire in her depths that fed my own desires. I didn't know about the aching abyss of tenderness and yearning that would open between us, unassuaged by time or distance. Nor, I daresay, did she.

We discovered it together.

And when Dorelei and my unborn son died, Sidonie and I both bore a measure of guilt for it. If we had been more certain, more courageous, it would never have happened. Love as thou wilt, Blessed Elua's precept commands us. We hadn't dared. We took the sensible route and waited. We'd feared to throw the realm into turmoil.

Well and so, it happened anyway.

There was no triumphal reception in the City of Elua when we returned from Alba after overseeing the burial of the skull of the man who killed my wife and son. Still, D'Angelines will do as they will. A great many of them turned out in support the day we rode into the City, cheering wildly. There were Tsingani and Yeshuites among them, too, for which I take no credit. For their part, it is Phèdre they adore; Phèdre nó Delaunay, Comtesse de Montrève, my foster-mother, a heroine of the realm. For as long as I live, deserved or not, I will coast on the goodwill she and her consort Joscelin have engendered among folk who long for heroes.

But there were others, too.

Not many, but enough. Knots of folk, here and there, amid the throngs. Men and women of middling age, sporting black armbands, eyes hard and faces grim. Where they congregated, the cheers were dampened. As we passed, they held out their hands, thumbs outthrust, rotating their hands to give the ancient signal of Tiberian imperators.

Thumbs down.

Death.

"Why?" I asked Sidonie as we rode. "Who are they?"

Her face was pale. "Families of her victims."

I swallowed. "My mother's?"

"So they reckon, yes. Families with loved ones who died during Skaldia's invasion." Sidonie met my eyes. Hers were dark and troubled. Cruithne eyes, the only sign of her mixed heritage. "It's a reminder that your mother was condemned to execution and escaped it. They have a right to their anger, Imriel. No one said this would be easy. Are you willing to face it?"

"You know I am. Are you?" I asked softly. "The cost you bear is higher."

Somewhat shifted in the depths of her black eyes, a certitude settling into place. Her slender shoulders were set and squared. "Yes."

"Then I stand beside you." I kneed the Bastard. My speckled horse snorted and pranced, jostling alongside Sidonie's palfrey. I reached out to lay my hand over hers briefly. "Always. For as long as you will have me, and longer, I will stand at your side."

She squeezed my hand. "I know."

Neither of us knew for a surety what we would face upon our return. The Queen was opposed to our union, that much was certain. Whether or not she would actively seek to part us, not even Sidonie could say.

Our company parted ways in the City of Elua. Phèdre and Joscelin, along with their loyal retainers Ti-Philippe and Hugues, would retire to Montrève's town-house. I meant to continue on to the Palace with Sidonie and her personal guard. I'd had quarters there, once. Queen Ysandre had granted them to me herself, delighted with my impending marriage to Dorelei, niece of the Cruarch of Alba. Of course, she'd not known I was already in love with her daughter.

She knew now. I didn't know if my quarters still existed. I didn't even know if I'd be welcome at the Palace. Still, there was no way to find out but to try.

"You're sure?" Phèdre asked, searching my face. "You could stay with us and send word to Ysandre seeking audience. It might be easier."

I shook my head. "I'm too old to hide behind your skirts, Phèdre. Or your sword," I added to Joscelin.

He snorted. "When did you ever?"

It made me smile a little. "Well, the cloak of your heroism, then. I need to face this myself. Anyway, I've broken no law, committed no crime."

Phèdre sighed. "As you will, love. I'll send word to Ysandre myself. Mayhap she's ready to hear reason."

They had been away as long as I had, Phèdre and Joscelin; bound first on a mysterious errand, then setting out in pursuit of me after learning I'd nearly been killed in Alba and was hunting the man, the magician, who had done it, who had slain my wife and our unborn son. If anyone could make the Queen hear reason, I thought, it would be Phèdre. She had been the one to expose my mother's treachery in abetting the Skaldic invasion, and she had been the one that gave the testimony that condemned my mother to death.

But when I thought about those folk on the street, their thumbs pointing downward in a stark reminder that Melisande Shahrizai had evaded justice, I wasn't so sure.

"Mayhap," I said. "We'll see."

She hugged me in farewell. "Come to dinner on the morrow and we'll talk. Everyone will want to see you."

"I will," I promised.

I turned in the saddle to glance after them as they rode toward the town-house. If Phèdre and Joscelin could weather everything that fate had thrown at them, I reckoned Sidonie and I had a chance. Sidonie caught my eye when I turned back and read my thoughts.

"It's just politics," she said. "Not hordes of Skaldi, shapeshifting magicians or deadly madmen bent on destroying the world."

"True," I said. "There is that."

As it transpired, I needn't have worried over our reception, which was cordial and proper. After all, Sidonie was returning from a state mission, representing her mother in Alba - and it was true, I'd done naught wrong. I was a Prince of the Blood in my own right, returning from avenging my wife, the Queen's own niece by marriage.

"Welcome home, your highness." The royal chamberlain greeted Sidonie with a deep bow. "Your mother awaits you in her quarters as soon as you have had a chance to refresh yourself."

Sidonie inclined her head. "My thanks, Lord Robert."

The chamberlain accorded me a bow only slightly less formal, as was fitting. "Welcome, Prince Imriel. Your quarters are in readiness. Her majesty will send for you at a later time to express her gratitude in person for your brave deeds."

"My thanks," I echoed.

Well and so. Sidonie and I glanced at one another. She tilted her head, smiling slightly. "Go on. I'll send word to you."

"All right."

I watched her walk away, surrounded by her guard in their blue livery with the pale stripes. We'd scarce left one another's sides since being reunited in Alba; truly reunited. We had years of lost time to make up. But we had agreed that once we reached the Palace, diplomacy and tact would serve us better than flagrant public displays of passion. So I watched her go, took a deep breath, and made my way to my quarters.

That was something, anyway. If Ysandre had maintained my quarters within the Palace, she didn't mean to accuse me of sedition.

They were pleasant quarters, nicely appointed, with a fresco of Eisheth gathering herbs on the ceiling, and a balcony overlooking one of the gardens. I sent a chambermaid to order a bath drawn, then wandered the rooms, waiting for the bath to be filled and servants to bring the trunk filled with my clothing and possessions that had been in our train.

I lingered in the bedroom, overcome by memory. The bed was larger than I remembered; I'd grown accustomed to a smaller scale in Alba. I twisted the knotted gold ring on my finger without thinking, clenching my fist until it bit into my palm. It was here that Sidonie had given it to me. But in truth, this bedchamber held more memories of Dorelei.

Gods, I'd been an ass to her!

"I'm sorry, love," I murmured. "You made me a better man in the end. I'll try to be worthy of it."

It had been Dorelei's last wish to send me back to Sidonie. I'd done it, although I hadn't wanted to. She'd been right to do it, though. If I hadn't, if I hadn't seized that bright thread of hope and joy... I don't know what would have become of me. I might have become a cold and bitter monster, like the vision I saw of our grown son. I might have died in the far reaches of Vralia, bereft of all reason to live. Such things are never given to us to know, and in my experience, it is best not to meddle.

That had been a year ago.

A year since Ysandre de la Courcel found me kneeling, heartbroken, in her daughter's embrace. A year since she burst into fury, speaking words that singed my ears. I'd left the City of Elua that day. Two days later, I'd departed on the trail of the man who killed my wife, the bear-witch who'd nearly taken my life, too. But in those few days, Sidonie and I had done a fair job of overturning the entire Court.

Now I was back.

The servants brought my trunk. I unpacked my things myself. There wasn't much aside from clothing; a leather-bound book of love letters that Sidonie had given me, a wooden flute that had been a gift from Hugues, and a flint-striking kit. Everything else, I carried on me. My sword and dagger. The etched vambraces Dorelei had commissioned for me. Sidonie's ring. The gold torc that marked me as a Prince of Alba. Drustan mab Necthana, the Cruarch of Alba, had given it to me himself when I wed Dorelei there. And in the purse at my belt, a smooth stone with a hole in the center; a croonie-stone, the ollamhs called it.

It had been part of the bindings that protected me from Alban magic, and I carried it for remembrance. I never wanted to be bound like that again, ever. The bindings had protected me, but they'd severed me from myself, too.

Never again.

And yet, if it hadn't been for that binding, I might have spent all my days with Dorelei aching and miserable, seething in discontent. I might never have learned to love her, and grown from a pining, self-absorbed youth to a man in the process.

Or she might not have been slain.

I would never know.

"Prince Imriel?" The chambermaid appeared in the doorway, startling me out of my reverie. "Your bath is ready."

"Thank you." I racked my memory. "Mireille, is it not?"

"Aye, my lord." She bobbed a curtsy. "I'm... we were all very sorry to hear of Lady Dorelei's death. She was kind."

"Thank you," I repeated. "Yes, she was."

The chambermaid hesitated, sympathy and avid curiosity warring on her pert features. "Is it true that you, that you and...?"

"Yes," I said.

"Oh!" Her eyes widened. "Well, then... well."

"Indeed," I agreed gravely.

Politics and gossip, the lifeblood of the D'Angeline Court. I dismissed Mireille from the bathing-chamber, sinking into the warm water and enjoying a few minutes of luxurious privacy before I heard a familiar voice arguing at the door to the antechamber. I listened, smiling.

"He's right," I called out at length. "You may admit him."

"Name of Elua!" My cousin Mavros Shahrizai strode into the bathing-chamber and glared at me, hands on his hips. His midnight-black hair was loose and rippling, his blue eyes vivid with emotion. We bore an unmistakeable family resemblance. "Do you never think to send word? We worry, you know."

I stood in the tub, dripping. "Hello, Mavros."

"Idiot." He gripped my bare shoulders and gave me the kiss of greeting, then held me away from him, gazing with a critical eye at the pink furrows of flesh that ran at a raking angle from my right shoulder to my left hip. "Gods, it's worse than I reckoned. You didn't tell me that bastard nearly gutted you."

I shrugged. "I lived."

His fingers flexed, digging into my shoulders. "Idiot. He's dead now, right? You brought his head home in a bag?"

"And buried it in Clunderry," I said. "Oh, yes."

Mavros let go of me, fetching a stool and dragging it nearer the tub. "Finish your bath and tell me about it."

For as long a journey as it had been, there wasn't much to tell. It had been a slow, plodding hunt. I'd been shipwrecked on the Eastern Sea and lost weeks stranded on an isolated island while we salvaged and repaired our damaged ship. I'd been mistaken for an ally of raiding Tartars in a Vralian village and thrown in gaol. I'd managed to escape, and followed Berlik to the place where he'd sought refuge, spending countless days attempting to find him in the trackless wilderness.

In the end, he found me.

"So he wanted to die?" Mavros asked when I finished.

"Yes," I said. "To make atonement."

"Huh." He thought about it while I dried myself and slipped into a dressing-robe. "Do you reckon it worked?"

"I don't know." I knotted the robe's sash. "What he did... as awful as it was, I came to understand it. He thought it was the only way to spare his people."

"From the future your son would bring," Mavros said slowly.

"Yes." I shivered, remembering the vision. A young man, his features a mixture of mine and Dorelei's, but bitter and cruel. Armies raging over Alba, blood-sodden fields. Women and children dragged from their homes, houses put to the torch. Men hunted like animals. The standing stones and the sacred groves, destroyed. "I'll tell you one thing, Mavros. I'll not defy Blessed Elua's precept again and I want nothing more to do with strange magics. All I want is to be left in peace for a time."

"Good luck." His tone was wry.

"I know," I said. "Sidonie."

"Is it worth it?" he asked with genuine curiosity.

I turned the gold ring on my finger. Despite everything, the love I felt for her was undiminished. The soaring exaltation, the inexplicable rightness of the fit. The shared laughter and talk, the common, ordinary happiness. And somewhere beneath it, a sense that this was important and needful. I couldn't explain it. I only knew it was true.

"Yes," I said simply.

"Well, you know House Shahrizai stands behind you," Mavros said. "Although things being what they are, our support might not be terribly helpful."

"So I noticed." I gestured, pointing my thumb downward.

"Mmm." His face was introspective. "You and Sidonie... it raised old fears, opened old wounds."

"You do know I've no aspiration toward the throne?" I asked.

"Oh, I do." Mavros glanced up at me. "But I'm not the one you need to convince. There are a few thousand of those, starting with her majesty the Queen." As though summoned by his words, there was a knock at the outer door; one of Ysandre's guards, come to fetch me to audience. Mavros laughed humorlessly. "Well, and here's your first chance."

After bidding Mavros farewell and donning clean attire, I accompanied the guard to my audience with Ysandre. It was early evening and the Palace was beginning to come alive with what revelries the coming night would hold; private fêtes, wagers in the Hall of Games, mayhap a performance in the theater.

I endured the gauntlet of stares and whispers. I was used to it; it had been my lot since I had first returned to Terre d'Ange as a child. I met the stares, returned them with a level gaze, trying to read the faces behind them.

Some were sympathetic.

A few were hostile and guarded.

Most were simply curious.

I wasn't sure if it would be a state reception or a private one. It turned out to be somewhere between the two. The Queen received me in her private quarters, but Lady Denise Grosmaine, the Secretary of the Presence, was in attendance, which meant whatever transpired would be documented for the Royal Archives.

I entered the Queen's salon and bowed low.

"We welcome you home, Prince Imriel." Ysandre's tone was even. Careful.

I straightened. "My thanks, your majesty."

Ysandre de la Courcel had ruled Terre d'Ange since before I was born. She'd assumed the throne when she was no older than I was now, and she'd had a long time to learn to school her features into a polite mask. But I was Kushiel's scion, and I could see a measure of what lay behind the mask; hurt, betrayal and anger. It hadn't gone away since I left. It had settled into a deep place inside her.

Still, she was the Queen, and a very good one.

"We-" She paused, then continued, her voice firm. "I wish to thank you for avenging the death of my husband's blood-kin. I wish to tell you that Drustan, that the Cruarch of Alba, sent a letter commending you for your courage and persistence. We are both grateful to know that the spirit of Dorelei mab Necthana will rest peacefully thanks to your efforts."

"As am I," I said quietly. "She was my wife. She would have been the mother of my son. I pray they are both at peace."

The Secretary of the Presence recorded our words, her pen scratching softly on paper. I gazed at Ysandre. Sidonie had inherited her mother's fairness, although Ysandre's hair was a paler hue. She had inherited her mother's cool, reserved beauty. But she had not inherited a kingdom on the verge of being invaded and conquered due to the treachery of Melisande Shahrizai. Ysandre inclined her head.

"You may go."

I spread my hands. "Your majesty..."

Her expression hardened. "We will discuss the other matter at a later date. There will be a priest of Elua seeking an audience with you to discuss these things. I recommend you grant it."

I opened my mouth to make a reply or an appeal, then thought better of it, and inclined my head. "Of course, your majesty."

With that, I was dismissed.

Outside of Ysandre's quarters, I leaned against the wall and exhaled hard. Ah, Elua! Love shouldn't have to be so hard.

"Prince Imriel?" a cheerful voice asked. I squinted at the speaker. One of Sidonie's guardsmen; a short, wiry lad with dark hair. He grinned at me. "That bad, eh? Her highness sent me to fetch you."

"That's the best news I've had all day," I said.

His grin widened. "Thought you might think so."

The guard, whose name was Alfonse, led me to Sidonie's quarters. It was the first time I'd entered them openly as her acknowledged lover, and it felt strange. I half expected to be halted. But no; Sidonie's guard was loyal, and it seemed Ysandre wasn't minded to intervene, at least not overtly, not yet. I suspected it had little to do with tolerance for the situation, and more to do with fear of driving Sidonie into open rebellion.

Sidonie's rooms were larger and finer than my own. There was an abundance of candles lit against the encroaching darkness. Covered platters sat on the dining table, and the succulent aromas seeping from beneath the domes made me realize I was hungry.

"I hope you don't mind." Sidonie, seated on a couch, set down the sheaf of letters she was reading. "I thought it might be nicer to dine in my chambers than face the gawking horde on our first night."

"It's perfect," I said. "And I'm ravenous."

"Mmm." She rose with deft grace."How was Mother?"

"Cordial." I caught her hand. "How did you find her?"

Sidonie kissed my throat. "Formal."

I ran a lock of her hair through my fingers. "She wants me to speak to a priest of Elua."

She nodded. "I told you I'd been working to gain the support of the priesthood while you were gone. If they're convinced that what's between us is genuine, it will make it harder for her to oppose it."

"And I'm to convince them? Seems I'm expected to do a good deal of convincing these days." I traced the line of her brows, so similar to my own. "What of you?"

"Oh, I've already done my part, at least with the priesthood." Sidonie turned her head to kiss my palm, then smiled at me. "They're sure of me. Now it falls to you to convince them that this isn't part of an evil scheme to gain the throne by seducing me and winning my heart." She took my hand in hers, kissing the tips of my fingers.

The pulse of desire quickened in me. "Anyone fool enough to think that doesn't know you very well," I said, my voice sounding rough in my ears.

"True." Sidonie glanced up at me, then slid my index finger into her mouth and sucked on it, just long enough to turn desire's pulse into a throbbing, thundering drumbeat. Her black eyes sparkled with wicked amusement. "But then, most people don't."

I made a wordless sound, stooped and scooped her into my arms. Sidonie laughed softly, looping her arms around my neck as I carried her toward the bedchamber, kissing her.

"I thought you were ravenous," she teased.

I nudged the bedchamber door open. "It can wait."

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