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.
"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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
"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."