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Authors: Jacqueline Carey

Tags: #Adult, #Fantasy, #Romance, #Science Fiction

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“You are always welcome in our house, my lady.” There was such gentle sweetness to her smile. “It tears at his heart to think how your friend suffers for Rahab’s cruelty.”

Such is the carelessness of gods, I thought as I made my way home. And we are powerless against it. Even here, in the blessed realm, where Elua and his Companions gave us surpassing gifts of grace and beauty and knowledge, begetting musicians and chirurgeons, architects and shipwrights, painters, poets and dancers, farmers and vintners, warriors and courtiers, there is no power to be found to thwart a forgotten curse by the One God’s mighty servant. All the love in my heart was but a weak and foolish noise before the enduring force of Rahab’s hatred. And why? Because the Lord of the Deep had loved a woman, and she had loved another than him.

Blessed Elua, I prayed, such things should not be. If there is a way, let me find it, for I do not think I can bear to live out my days with this knowledge. I do not think I can bear to laugh and make merry, living and loving while Hyacinthe raises wind and wave, gazes into a mirror and waits for time to make a monstrosity of him. Wherever the path lies, I will tread it. Whatever the price, I will pay it.

In a mood thus dark and foreboding, I arrived at my home to find Joscelin and Ti-Philippe awaiting me in the salon, their faces grave. Young Hugues was nowhere in sight, nor any of the house-servants. I paused, wondering at the way they stood shoulder-to-shoulder before the low table.

“What is it?”

Joscelin stepped to one side, indicating a sealed missive that lay upon the table. Hardly an unusual thing, for I received correspondence almost daily-letters, offers of assignation, invitation, love poems. “This came by courier from La Serenissima.”

Allegra Stregazza, I wondered; or mayhap Severio? Both of them wrote to me from time to time, and Joscelin was not overfond of my friendship with Severio, having never
forgotten that I had once, briefly, entertained his offer of marriage. For all that he had forsworn jealousy, even Joscelin was human. But that would not account for Ti-Philippe’s countenance.

The pale vellum glowed against the dark, polished wood of the table, fine-grained and smooth, sealed with a generous blot of gilt wax. Kneeling, I picked up the letter to examine the insignia stamped into the seal.

My hands began to shake and I set it down, staring.

A crown of stars; Asherat’s Crown, that adorns the Dogal Seal and the doors of the Temple of Asherat-of-the-Sea. And beneath it, etched in miniature, a device of three keys intertwined-the arms of House Shahrizai.

The letter had been sent by Melisande Shahrizai.





TAKING A deep breath, I cracked the seal and opened the letter.

The room was deadly silent as I read. Joscelin and Ti-Philippe stared at each other over my head, neither daring to ask. It was short, only a few lines, penned in Melisande’s elegant hand. I would have known her writing anywhere. I had seen it since I was a child in Delaunay’s household, when the correspondence was lively between them, friends and rivals as they were. And I had seen it in the steading of the Skaldi warlord Waldemar Selig, when I realized with sinking horror the infinite depth of her treachery.

Now I read it in my own home, and when I finished, set down the letter and pressed steepled fingers against my lips.

“Name of Elua!” Ti-Philippe exploded. “What does the she-bitch want?”

I looked up at him, lifting my head, and answered simply. “My help.”

?” It was Joscelin, incredulous, who snatched up the letter and read it for himself, passing it to Ti-Philippe and taking an abrupt seat in a nearby chair. He stared at me open-mouthed, shaking his head in unconscious denial. “Phèdre. No. She’s mad. She has to be!”

Dear Phèdre
, the letter read,
I am writing to ask your aid in a matter of vital importance. There is no one else I may trust. I swear to you, in Kushiel’s name, that this is no ploy and poses no threat of harm to your loyalties. Make haste to La Serenissima, and I will explain

That, and no more. I heard a stifled expletive from Ti-Philippe as he finished reading.

“No,” Joscelin said again, although I had not spoken. The color was returning to his face. “Phèdre, you can’t possibly consider it. Whatever it is, it’s bound to be a trick.”

“No.” I looked past him at the bust of Anafiel Delaunay which sat on a black marble plinth in my salon. My lord Delaunay gazed back at me, silent as ever, a wry tenderness to his austere features. I remembered how I had first met Melisande in Delaunay’s gymnasium, how she had touched my face, and my knees had turned to water. She was the only one he had ever allowed to see me before I entered Naamah’s Service. They had been friends, once; and lovers, too. He might be alive today, but for her treachery. So might countless others. I have never dared number those dead by Melisande’s deeds. “She swore it in Kushiel’s name. Even Melisande has rules.”

“You can’t think it.”

There was a ragged edge to Joscelin’s voice I had not heard in more than ten years. My eyes stung with tears as I turned my gaze to him, swallowing hard. “It’s Sibeal’s dream, don’t you see, and Hyacinthe’s vision. Joscelin, I don’t pretend to understand. But I have to go.”

He was silent for a moment. “You would let her put her leash on you again.”

“No.” I took back the letter that Ti-Philippe had thrown onto the table, running the ball of my thumb over the waxen seal. “Melisande remains under the purview of the Temple of Asherat. She’s not free to make claims on me. And I will not offer what I did once before.”

“Melisande Shahrizai doesn’t need her freedom to make claims on you,” Joscelin whispered. “And you don’t need to offer. Do you think I don’t know that?”

“Joscelin.” I dropped the letter and rubbed my temples. My head ached fiercely. “What do you want me to do? Stay here and slowly go mad, thinking about Hyacinthe and spending my days praying some poor, God-ridden Habiru mystic will stumble across the Sacred Name? I don’t want to see Melisande; Blessed Elua knows I don’t want to
her! But there have been dreams and visions pointing the way, and I prayed to Elua to show it to me. Now my prayer is answered; a letter, like a portent. What am I to do? Ignore it?” I let my hands fall to my lap and shook my aching head. “I can’t.”

“I’ll go.” Ti-Philippe’s words sounded abrupt. “The Tsingano said the path would be dark. Well, I’m not afraid of darkness.” He cleared his throat. “I can’t imagine we’ll see aught worse than we’ve seen before, my lady. And I’m not afraid of your facing Melisande Shahrizai. Whatever it is between you, you’ve outfaced her twice before, and won.” He glanced at Joscelin. “People forget that.”

“I don’t forget!” Joscelin raised his voice sharply. In the old days, they had quarrelled often; this was the first time since La Serenissima. “But I don’t trust anyone’s luck to continue forever, even Phèdre’s. And if you think you have seen all the world holds of darkness, chevalier, you are sore mistaken.”

“Just because I’m no Cassiline to spend countless hours meditating on the damnation of my-”

“Enough!” I cut them off before the quarrel could escalate. “Joscelin,” I said, fixing him with my gaze. “I am going to do this thing. Is it your will to accompany me?”

His smile was tight as a grimace. “I have sworn it. To damnation and beyond,” he added, casting a pointed glance in Ti-Philippe’s direction. “Though I would sooner that than Melisande’s doorstep.”

“My lady, you would be better served- ” Ti-Philippe began.

“No.” I shook my head at him. “Philippe, I value your courage and your loyalty more than I can say. But if there is anyone I need at my side, it is Joscelin. You, I need here. I need someone I can trust to keep watch over my household and my estates. And I need to know,” I said gently, “someone is here, safe and well, keeping the lamps lit for our safe return.”

Now it was Ti-Philippe who had tears in his eyes. “My lady,” he said, “you know I would face any danger on your behalf.”

“I know. I am asking you
to, and mayhap it is a harder thing.” I laughed. “Anyway, of what are we speaking? A spring journey to La Serenissima? We’ll be there and back inside a month. A paltry thing, as dangers go.”

“There are no paltry dangers where Melisande Shahrizai is concerned,” Joscelin muttered. “Captive, or no.”

Ysandre, predictably, was displeased. I had to tell her, reckoning I owed my Queen as much. She scowled at me and paced the pleasant bounds of the drawing-room in which we met, her mood and actions more suitable to official chambers. I stood patiently and waited out her anger, glad of Joscelin’s solid presence at my shoulder. For some reason, she had far greater faith in him not to undertake anything foolish-a misplaced sentiment, in my opinion. Ysandre had not been there when Joscelin crawled the underside of a hanging bridge to the prison-fortress of La Dolorosa and assailed it single-handed with naught but his daggers. Well and so, if Ysandre de la Courcel thought a Cassiline less rash than a courtesan, let her. I knew better.

For his part, Drustan mab Necthana said nothing, only sitting and thinking, his dark eyes grave and thoughtful. He had sailed to the Three Sisters on the strength of Sibeal’s dream; he would not gainsay my going.

“Fine,” Ysandre said at last, irritable, fetching up before us. “Go. I tried to dissuade you once before, and I was in the wrong; I swore I would not do it again. Only remember, Melisande played you for a fool the entire time, and it is only with Elua’s blessing that we are not all dead of it. If you think this is aught different, you’re making the same mistake.” She looked curiously at me. “Do you even have the slightest idea what game she’s playing at now?”

“No.” I answered calmly, my hands clasped before me to hide their trembling. In truth, it was that very thing that terrified me. I had always known, before. I may have misgauged her moves-with, as Ysandre observed, near-fatal results-but I had grasped the nature of the game. Now, I could not guess.
I am writing to ask your aid
… That sounded nothing like Melisande; and that alone made me nervous. “When I know, I will tell you, I promise.”

“Elua,” Ysandre sighed, and took my face between her hands, planting an unexpected kiss on my brow. “I swear, near-cousin, you cause me more worry than ten Shahrizai courtiers and my daughter Alais rolled into one,” she said. “My lord Cassiline, please do whatever it is you do to bring her back safely.”

Joscelin bowed, the shadow of a smile at the corner of his mouth. I think sometimes they understood each other too well, those two. Drustan rose and came to take my hands.

“Necthana’s daughters dream true dreams,” he said. “My sister Moiread knew your voice before ever you set foot on Alba’s shores. We will await your return.”

So we took our leave.

We travelled lightly, Joscelin and I, making a straight course overland across Caerdicca Unitas. It felt strange, covering the same territory through which we had ridden ten years ago in Ysandre’s entourage, desperate to thwart the last, deadly stroke of Melisande’s scheme. Now, I was riding to her aid … because she had asked it. Passing strange indeed. It was on that journey that we heard the stories they tell of Ysandre’s ride, the fell and glorious company of D’Angelines who passed like the wind along the northern route betwixt Milazza and La Serenissima. Joscelin and I heard them in the inns along the way, exchanging glances, remembering the metal taste of fear in our mouths, saddle-weary aches and the endless arguing of Ysandre de la Courcel and Lord Amaury Trente.

Of such stuff are legends made.

Naught of moment befell us in our journey and the weather held passing fair, with only a few showers of rain to dampen our spirits. The northern route is safe, now, as safe as ever it has been. Once, the threat of Skaldi raiders was prevalent, but now the southern border of Skaldia is peaceful, and a number of tribes have formed a loose federation, trading freely with the Caerdicci. It is Waldemar Selig’s doing, in a way. Although his endeavor failed-Blessed Elua be thanked-he was somewhat new among the Skaldi: a leader who thought. He gave them ambition and hunger for the finer elements of civilization, and he taught them that together, they might achieve what they never could apart. Shattered by defeat at D’Angeline hands, the Skaldi have grown circumspect, and seek now to acquire through honest trade and effort what they once sought to seize by might of arms.

One day, I think, they may try it again. But for now, there is peace.

Of La Serenissima, I have written elsewhere at length. Suffice it to say that the city is unchanged. It is beautiful still, redolent with the light that reflects from the water of her many canals, and reeking too with the odor of those same canals. It is a city that holds too many memories for me, and few of them good.

I might have presented myself, under other circumstances, at either the Dogal Palace or the Little Court, and availed myself of the hospitality that would surely have been rendered me. Incredible though it seems, Cesare Stregazza is still Doge of La Serenissima. I think he must be nearly ninety years of age now, which is unheard-of for his kind. Members of the Stregazza family seldom enjoy long lives. I daresay he would remember me, since I saved his throne for him. It is his younger son Ricciardo who administers much of the daily business of the city, or so Allegra writes. I think he will succeed his father as Doge. I hope so, for he is worthy.

The Little Court is Severio’s, now. It has been for three years. They do not call it that, anymore; the Palazzo Immortali, he renamed it, after his social club. There is still a D’Angeline presence there-how not, when Severio is grandson to Prince Benedicte de la Courcel himself-but it is no longer a court in exile. For all that his blood is a quarter D’Angeline, Severio is Serenissiman to the core. He married a Serenissiman noblewoman some years ago, a daughter of the Hundred Worthy Families, and seems content with his lot. She is not, I understand, entirely unamenable to rough play in the bedchamber; a fortunate happenstance, as I had cause to know. Severio had once been a patron of mine, and his appetites bore a keen edge.

BOOK: Kushiel's Avatar
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