Authors: Jacqueline Carey
Tags: #Adult, #Fantasy, #Romance, #Science Fiction
I did not wish to intrude into either situation on this particular errand. There is a good deal of bitterness still over Prince Benedicte’s betrayal and the plot laid by Marco and Marie-Celeste Stregazza-and D’Angeline influence is held much to blame. Unfairly, I think, for Marco Stregazza was the Doge’s own elder son … but still.
The genius behind it was Melisande.
And I had ridden to La Serenissima in response to her request for aid.
In light of this fact, Joscelin and I took lodgings at one of the finer inns near the Campo Grande. La Serenissima is a city of trade above all, and there was nothing strange about a D’Angeline couple travelling there. The only strangeness was in my mind, and the echo of memory as I gazed from my balcony onto the bustling market in the square below, the morning sun glittering on the Great Canal and striking gold from the domed roof of the Temple of Asherat. Joscelin came to stand beside me and we looked, thinking the same thoughts.
“There,” he said, pointing. “That’s where the parrot-merchant’s stand stood, from Jebe-Barkal. Do you remember?”
“The Yeshuite,” I said. “The Immortali picked a fight with him, and Ti-Philippe had a bloody nose at the end of it.” I frowned. “How did you end up defending the parrot-stand?”
“I don’t remember.” He leaned on the railing, bracing his arms. “Elua, but I was an idiot then! It’s a wonder you forgave me.”
“No.” I curled my fingers about his forearm. “We were both idiots, and I was cruel. I was so blinded by my quest, I didn’t care how much I hurt you. I taught myself to relish the pain instead. Call it an
Joscelin gazed down into the marketplace. “But you were right,” he said, “when I thought you were on a fool’s errand. And I was too proud to admit how terrified I was of losing you. It would have been different if I had.”
“Ah, well.” I rested my head against his shoulder. “Elua willing, we are a little older now, and a little wiser. Whatever happens …” I drew back to look at his face. “Joscelin, you know I would never leave you?”
“I know,” he said softly. “I do know it, Phèdre. But what lies between you and Melisande frightens me, because Kushiel’s hand is in it. You are his Chosen, and he has marked you for his own … and I, I am only Cassiel’s servant, no more. What is that, to one who was the Punisher of God?”
Alone among the Companions of Elua, Cassiel bore no gifts, no earthly power. No province bears his name, and he left no mortal lineage. Only the Cassiline Brothers, middle sons, sworn into fruitless loyalty. What was it indeed to the cruel and merciful might of Kushiel, lord of atonement, guardian of the brazen portals of Hell? It is not an easy thing, to be Kushiel’s Chosen.
“Love,” I said to Joscelin. “Only love. And if that is not enough, Elua help us all.”
Joscelin shivered and put his arms around me.
WE PRESENTED ourselves at the Temple of Asherat-of-the-Sea.
If the priestesses there knew who I was, they gave nothing away. It was a piece of the oddness, to stand in the Temple proper and gaze at the vast effigy of the goddess. Carved of stone, Asherat stared across the open space unmoved, surrounded by leaping waves. Once, I had stood upon the balcony opposite and claimed her voice for my own, crying out to stop a traitor from being anointed her beloved, Doge of La Serenissima.
Now, a member of the Elect was summoned and came to greet us, her bare feet whispering on the floor, glass beads glistening on the strands of her silvery veil. Whether or not I knew her, I could not say. She bowed in acknowledgment, blue silken robes stirring beneath their netting.
“The Lady Melisande will see you.”
Joscelin and I followed the priestess of the Elect, flanked by eunuch attendants bearing ceremonial barbed spears. I remembered how the Habiru lass Sarae had shot one with her crossbow, how Kazan’s men had slain others scarce-awakened, and shuddered involuntarily.
That blood too was on my conscience; innocent blood.
Our path wound down many corridors, longer than it had when I’d visited with Ysandre. Even then, the priestesses of Asherat had treated Melisande like a Queen in exile. In ten years, it had only grown more marked. I do not doubt that they honored her claim of sanctuary out of genuine reverence. Nor do I doubt that the manner of it owed much to Melisande’s wealth fattening their coffers. Ysandre had claimed her estates for the crown, when Melisande was first adjudged a traitor, but the profit in them had already been routed to the banking houses of La Serenissima. Like the adepts of Bryony House, the Shahrizai have always understood that money is power-even in defeat, Melisande had managed to preserve hers.
A double rap at vast doors with gilt hinges, opened from within by an acolyte with downcast eyes, and the soft voice of the priestess of the Elect announcing us in Caerdicci accents. “The Contessa Phèdre nó Delaunay of Montrève and Monsignor Joscelin Verreuil.”
And with that, we were admitted into Melisande’s presence.
Sunlight filtered into the salon, which adjoined some inner courtyard, lending the room a pleasant warmth. There were low couches and a table, set about with careless elegance as in any D’Angeline sitting-room, and flowering shrubs in pots, perfuming the air. Somewhere, a small fountain played.
Melisande Shahrizai stood waiting.
The impact of seeing her hit me like a tidal sea-swell, stopping the very breath in my lungs. Long-buried emotions surged in me, foremost among them a bitter, abiding hatred. No one has ever betrayed me more cruelly or wounded me deeper, and I could not see her without remembering my lord Delaunay, his austere features ivory in death, dark blood clotting his auburn braid as he lay in his own gore. And even so, even with all that lay between us and the memory of her hands moving on my flesh, her voice at my ear, compelling my body’s response while my heart cracked and bled … even so, there was desire.
Too much to hope that the years had been unkind to Melisande Shahrizai. Her beauty, that had dazzled like a diamond’s edge ten years ago, had only deepened, attaining a richer, more mellow resonance. Melisande had set aside the Veil of Asherat for our meeting and her features retained the same remorseless symmetry, pale and fair, eyes the hue of sapphires at twilight, her hair unbound in a rippling fall of blue-black waves, her figure statuesque nigh to perfection.
When she spoke, her melodious voice was restrained, her expression grave. “Phèdre,” she said. “I did not know if you would come.”
I shifted on my feet, aware of Joscelin’s presence at my elbow, his love a fierce dagger by which to fix the compass of my heart. “I wouldn’t have,” I said with a lightness I did not feel, “if it were only your request, my lady. But you see, there is a prophecy at work.”
“Ah.” One syllable; her expression gave nothing away. Melisande inclined her head to Joscelin. “Messire Verreuil,” she acknowledged.
The last time they had met, he’d drawn his sword on her. There was no love lost between those two.
“Lady Shahrizai.” Joscelin’s voice was neutral, his bow punctilious. He had left his arms behind, this time. What was appropriate to the Queen’s champion was not suitable for a private visit to the Temple of Asherat.
“Please,” Melisande said, indicating the couches. “Be seated.” She waited until we had made ourselves comfortable on one of the couches before taking a seat opposite us, thanking the priestess of the Elect and her attendants before dismissing them. They went, too, discreet as well-bred servants. “You are wondering,” she said without hesitation, “why I have summoned you here.”
The unseen fountain splashed quietly in the background.
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
Melisande drew a deep breath. Her gaze shifted off my face, fixed onto some unknown distance behind us. “My son is missing.”
I nearly laughed; I made some involuntary sound, I think. “My lady,” I said, “you deliver old news. Your son has been missing these ten years now.”
She looked back at me with a trace of impatience. “Not to me.”
It took a full minute for her meaning to process. When it did, it felt as if the world had changed position beneath my feet. On the couch beside me, Joscelin stirred. “You are saying …” I swallowed, picking my way carefully through the words. “You are saying you don’t know where he is. Your son.”
“Yes.” Melisande Shahrizai nodded. “That is what I am saying.”
I did laugh, then; disbelieving. “Well and so,” I said, getting to my feet unthinking to pace the room. “Your son, whom you have hidden from the world for ten years, is missing. And here you sit, surrounded by fountains and eunuchs. Well, you were warned, my lady; Ysandre de la Courcel herself warned you, ten years gone by. If you did not relinquish him into her custody, into the role to which he is entitled as a Prince of the Blood and a scion of House Courcel, you would make of him a weapon lying free to be taken up by whosoever would use him.” I ran both hands through my hair. “And now it has happened,” I said, my voice running on too fast. “Well and so, it has come to pass. What do you want of me, my lady? What do you want of me?”
Melisande looked at me without moving. “I want you to find him.”
It brought me to a halt. “Why?”
“Because,” Melisande said simply, “you can.”
I laughed again, out loud, staring at her. “So? Why should I help you?”
Something unfathomable surfaced in her deep blue eyes. “The boy is innocent.”
“No.” I shook my head in denial, summoning a will I scarce knew I possessed. “No,” I said more firmly. “My lady, forgive me, but it is not enough.” I felt Joscelin’s presence behind me, solid as an embrace. “As I am human, I grieve for your plight, my lady; but I am not your ally nor your servant to aid you in this matter. My loyalty is sworn to her majesty Ysandre de la Courcel, and there it shall abide.” I steadied myself against the knowledge of Joscelin’s love, my Perfect Companion, and spoke with confidence, sure in her inability to answer. “So I ask again, why should I help you?”
In the silence that followed, I felt my heart beat three times over, slow and steady.
And then Melisande shattered my will.
“You seek the Name of God. I can tell you where to find it.”
I heard Joscelin’s sharp, indrawn breath; I was aware, distantly, of my knees locking. I stared at Melisande’s beautiful, implacable face. “You don’t know it,” I said, numb and stupid. “You can’t know it.”
Melisande didn’t blink. “Thirteen years ago, Anafiel Delaunay began his investigation into the matter of the Master of the Straits. Do you suppose I never wondered why?” She smiled wryly. “I was wrong, at first. I thought he courted the aid of Maelcon the Usurper, to secure Ysandre’s throne. It is what I would have done, what Lyonette de Trevalion attempted for her son Baudoin. Nonetheless.” Her expression hardened. “I knew what he sought, and followed his path. When your Tsingano friend paid the riddle’s price, I knew you would continue to seek the key to his freedom.”
I sat down, feeling the same shock that echoed in my flesh resonating in Joscelin. “And you would have me believe you found it?”
“No.” Melisande shook her head, almost gently. “Not the key, no. But I know where it might be found. You are too like Anafiel, Phèdre, caught up in academic pursuit. I taught him to use people; I thought I taught him well, when he set you and the boy Alcuin to espionage in the name of Naamah’s Service. But I did not teach him well enough. Although he used you hard, still he disdained to buy the eyes and ears he might have done.” She took another deep breath. “I didn’t. And I’ve had a longer time in which to do it. You seek the Tribe of Dân, yes?”
“Yes,” I said, sick at heart. Hyacinthe.
“Well,” Melisande said. “I can tell you where to find them. If you will find my son, Imriel.”
The blood beat in my ears, with a sound like bronze wings clashing. A red haze veiled my vision. Kushiel’s face swam before my eyes, cruel and compassionate.
In one hand, he holds a brazen key, and in the other a diamond, strung on a velvet cord
… I felt, somewhere, Melisande’s gaze upon me, watching and waiting. There was a hard pressure at my wrists, like manacles; Joscelin’s hands, clamped hard around me.
“No,” he whispered. “Phèdre, don’t do this thing.”
I blinked, and my vision cleared. Melisande sat watching me unmoving. “Why?” I asked. “Why me? Elua knows, my lady, you’ve spies to your name still. Deny it, and I walk out this door, no matter what bait you dangle before me.”
“I have spies.” A corner of Melisande’s lips curled. “Do you think I wouldn’t try that route first, Phèdre nó Delaunay? They have found nothing. Whoever took my son plays a clever game.” She looked around at her gracious prison. “And here I sit, surrounded by fountains and eunuchs. If I were free …” She shook her head. “I cannot enter Terre d’Ange. Not openly. And it is there that the trail begins. I need someone to be my eyes and ears, following it. I need someone capable of playing as deep and well-hidden a game as whoever took him. There is,” Melisande said, “only you.”
I looked at Joscelin, who slowly loosened his grip on my wrists.
“Don’t ask,” he said. “I have sworn it. You know I have.”
“I will do nothing to cross the will of my Queen,” I said to Melisande.
“Of course.” She inclined her head. “I am asking you to find my son. Has not Ysandre asked as much?”
“Yes.” I held her gaze. “You know I would be bound to present him to her. It was ever her wish, to bring him into her household. Whatever you plotted …” I shook my head. “I will have no part in it. If he is found, I will send word, but it is to my Queen I will report.”
She nodded. “I expected no less. Will you do it?”
I raked both hands through my hair again, heedless of disarray. “Do you swear to me,” I asked in despairing relentlessness, “in Kushiel’s name, in Blessed Elua’s name, that you are not playing me false in any detail?”
“Would that I were.” Melisande smiled with bitter irony. “I do so swear.”
“I will do it,” I said.
The soft splashing of the fountain mingled with Joscelin’s sigh.