Ista leaned forward between the crenellations atop the gate tower, the stone gritty beneath her pale hands, and watched in numb exhaustion as the final mourning party cleared the castle gate below. Their horses' hooves scraped on the old cobblestones, and their goodbyes echoed in the portal's vaulting. Her earnest brother, the provincar of Baocia, and his family and retinue were last of the many to leave, two full weeks after the divines had completed the funeral rites and ceremonies of the interment.
Dy Baocia was still talking soberly to the castle warder, Ser dy Ferrej, who walked at his stirrup, grave face upturned, listening to the stream, no doubt, of final instructions. Faithful dy Ferrej, who had served the late Dowager Provincara for all the last two decades of her long residence here in Valenda. The keys of the castle and keep glinted from the belt at his stout waist. Her mother's keys, which Ista had collected and held, then turned over to her older brother along with all the other papers and inventories and instructions that a great lady's death entailed. And that he had handed back for permanent safekeeping not to his sister, but to good, old, honest dy Ferrej. Keys to lock out all danger ... and, if necessary, Ista in.
It's only habit, you know. I'm not mad anymore, really.
It wasn't as though she wanted her mother's keys, nor her mother's life that went with them. She scarcely knew what she wanted. She knew what she feared -- to be locked up in some dark, narrow place by people who loved her. An enemy might drop his guard, weary of his task, turn his back; love would never falter. Her fingers rubbed restlessly on the stone.
Dy Baocia's cavalcade filed off down the hill through the town and was soon lost from her view among the crowded red-tiled roofs. Dy Ferrej, turning back, walked wearily in through the gate and out of sight.
The chill spring wind lifted a strand of Ista's dun hair and blew it across her face, catching on her lip; she grimaced and tucked it back into the careful braiding wreathing her head. Its tightness pinched her scalp.
The weather had warmed these last two weeks, too late to ease an old woman bound to her bed by injury and illness. If her mother had not been so old, the broken bones would have healed more swiftly, and the inflammation of the lungs might not have anchored itself so deeply in her chest. If she had not been so fragile, perhaps the fall from the horse would not have broken her bones in the first place. If she had not been so fiercely willful, perhaps she would not have been on that horse at all at her age ... Ista looked down to find her fingers bleeding, and hid them hastily in her skirt.
In the funeral ceremonies, the gods had signed that the old lady's soul had been taken up by the Mother of Summer, as was expected and proper. Even the gods would not dare violate her views on protocol. Ista imagined the old Provincara ordering heaven, and smiled a little grimly.
And so I am alone at last.
Ista considered the empty spaces of that solitude, its fearful cost. Husband, father, son, and mother had all filed down to the grave ahead of her in their turn. Her daughter was claimed by the royacy of Chalion in as tight an embrace as any grave, and as little likely to return from her high place, five gods willing, as the others from their low ones. Surely I am done. The duties that had defined her, all accomplished. Once, she had been her parents' daughter. Then great, unlucky Ias's wife. Her children's mother. At the last, her mother's keeper. Well, I am none of these things now.
Who am I, when I am not surrounded by the walls of my life? When they have all fallen into dust and rubble?
Well, she was still Lord dy Lutez's murderer. The last of that little, secret company left alive, now. That she had made of herself, and that she remained.
She leaned between the crenellations again, the stone abrading the lavender sleeves of her court mourning dress, catching at its silk threads. Her eye followed the road in the morning light, starting from the stones below and flowing downhill, through the town, past the river ... and where? All roads were one road, they said. A great net across the land, parting and rejoining. All roads ran two ways. They said. I want a road that does not come back.
A frightened gasp behind her jerked her head around. One of her lady attendants stood on the battlement with her hand to her lips, eyes wide, breathing heavily from her climb. She smiled with false cheer. "My lady. I've been seeking you everywhere. Do ... do come away from that edge, now ..."
Ista's lips curled in irony. "Content you. I do not yearn to meet the gods face-to-face this day." Or on any other. Never again. "The gods and I are not on speaking terms."
She suffered the woman to take her arm and stroll with her as if casually along the battlement toward the inner stairs, careful, Ista noted, to take the outside place, between Ista and the drop. Content you, woman. I do not desire the stones.
I desire the road.
The realization startled, almost shocked her. It was a new thought. A new thought, me? All her old thoughts seemed as thin and ragged as a piece of knitting made and ripped out and made and ripped out again until all the threads were frayed ...Paladin of Souls. Copyright © by Lois Bujold. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold
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