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your protector's coming home

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"Again."

Joscelin stands by the wall, next to the torch, that he may watch the Yeshuites without blacking his sight with his own shadow.

"Again."

His arms are folded.

"Again."

Phèdre, like as not, is safe as any D'Angeline in La Serenissima, may Severio Stregazza have joy of her – and if what passed between Phèdre and Joscelin last night in her bed is any means by which to judge, Severio will have joy in abundance. Joscelin is where he is needed -- in the catacombs below the one temple allotted the Yeshuites in their quarter.

"Again."

They gave him coin. He bought daggers, vambraces. Now he teaches them to defend themselves, that they may go north as their prophecy requires. Whether he is to go with them -- to renounce what's left of the tattered vows he made -- he has not decided.

"Again."

To stand at the crossroads and choose, the priest of Elua told him, again and again; the path of the Companion -- that is his lot. Elua has not called him. Phèdre does not need him, Phèdre who pushed him too far the night before. Yeshua, on the other hand --

"Teppo," Joscelin snaps. "Your back foot carries too little weight. That form again."

The Yeshuites move. Priest of Elua or no priest of Elua, Joscelin makes no choice. Not yet.

***

They work for an hour more on their forms before Joscelin has them begin to tell the first six hours of the twelve. They move slowly at first so that he may correct their stances. The men he touches, moving an arm here, a leg there; Sarae, beloved of Micah, he instructs verbally. He knows to do this without needing to see and read their discomfort, without needing a quiet conversation after a session. This is a reason why the Yeshuites trust him. A Cassiline of sorts, he may still be; an apostate, certainly. But being an apostate -- the apostate, to a certain group of Yeshuites in the City of Elua – is to be merely a function, a fact.

To Micah ben Ximon, to Sarae, to Teppo and to Elazar – to all of them here in the catacombs, he is simply Joscelin. There is such quiet relief and release in being only who he is: no apostate, no oath-sworn protector. The question of whether or not he will break his last oath to Cassiel and go north with the Yeshuites waits in the background – but it does wait. Phèdre doesn’t need him; the oath Joscelin swore means less and less. When he is here, encouraging the use of wooden daggers against each other, teaching them how to fight in close quarters, to tell the hours, to enshrine protection in every movement and small tension in their limbs – he feels whole in a way he has not since Montrève.

The Yeshuites of La Serenissima are like and unlike the Yeshuites in the City of Elua. Different subtleties in ritual. Different diet. Small differences in dialect. Different style of dress – among themselves, in their quarter, where they do not wear the required yellow cap to identify them as someone in La Serenissima on sufferance, the Serenissiman Yeshuites wear color. Color in their homes. Color, and warmth, in the way they speak to each other. To him. If Rebbe Nahum ben Isaac in the City of Elua was the first to speak of the possibility of upholding Joscelin’s Cassiline vows without facing Cassiel’s damnation, Micah ben Ximon was the first to treat him neither as a symbol nor as a potential supplicant. As someone with his own authority. As someone with value beyond what gods he worships.

When Joscelin works with the Yeshuites, he understands: there is more than one way to protect and serve. He is uniquely suited to teach Micah and his friends what they want to learn – what they must learn, if they’ve any hope of carving a space for themselves in the far north. And if the followers of Yeshua are bound to give succor where they may, it is a small enough thing for Joscelin to return the favor, considering the escape they’ve given him.

And escape it is. Joscelin teaches them to fight. Corrects their form. Listens to their stories, and tells a few of his own where it is appropriate for him to speak, and where he needs to speak. And in all of that time he can almost forget Phèdre and Severio Stregazza.

Almost.

He is not sure if he wants to forget them.

When the day’s session breaks up, and Joscelin is ladling out water for his friends, Aron comes into the catacombs leading a man that Joscelin doesn’t immediately recognize as Ti-Philippe, because Ti-Philippe is shivering, wet, visibly ill with some foul ague – and Ti-Philippe has a story to tell about Duc Percy de Somerville, two of the guardsmen of Troyes-le-Mont turned assassin, and how Ti-Philippe dived into the canal to escape. It is no great difficulty to deduce what this means for Phèdre, and Remy and Fortun.

Again, Joscelin thinks clearly over the rushing in his ears, over the buzz in the catacomb surrounding Ti-Philippe, and again. I protect and serve.

***

Percy de Somerville, commander of the Royal Army, was the man who helped Melisande Shahrizai escape from Troyes-le-Mont. Percy de Somerville, Prince of the Blood, is the traitor. And Ti-Philippe has no proof but the assassins sent after him. Joscelin has no proof. Joscelin must decide what to do.

If there are D’Angeline guardsmen roaming La Serenissima with orders to silence Phèdre and her Boys, there are D’Angeline guardsmen roaming La Serenissima who want to silence Joscelin. The difference, of course, is that it is well known Joscelin Verreuil was a Cassiline Brother who has drawn his sword to kill with great success. If anyone is coming for him, they don’t stand a good chance of getting to him in public places.

Which rules out the Little Court, and its six layers of privacy and protocol between Joscelin and Prince Benedicte and his D’Angeline war-bride, as a place of safety.

Joscelin thinks, pacing, as Aron and Sarae see to Ti-Philippe there in the catacombs as best they can. If they are coming for him, they will not come to the Yeshuite quarter, and there should be a small window where, if he can just stay in the public eye, he should be safe enough. As might anyone else who could have heard about any change in Phèdre’s plans, and if there is even the smallest chance that she is alive –

I am oath-sworn, Joscelin thinks, and for the first time in days those words, those thoughts, bring him peace and that cold clarity of thought necessary for making decisions and never looking back.

***

Wherever Phèdre goes, she will need coin. It is thus to her factor’s man, Mafeo Bardoni, that Joscelin goes first. If she did come to see the Serenissiman financier, Joscelin has no doubt that he will also soon have a visit from D’Angeline guardsmen.

“No word,” Bardoni says, shaking his head in surprise at the grim D’Angeline. “No, I have not seen the contessa. But the last post, it brought somewhat for her from Terre d’Ange. Might you give it her, when you see her?”

Joscelin takes the small, paper-wrapped parcel from the Serenissiman and says something in the affirmative. Afterward he cannot remember what he said. When you see her, the factor said. Joscelin has to fight the urge to say if.

The afternoon lengthens into dusk. Joscelin needs to get back to the Yeshuite quarter immediately, lest the Serenissiman guards lock the gates against him as they lock the Yeshuites in at night. He slips in just as the guards shift out of their tower – the guards whose salaries the Yeshuites must pay for the privilege of limited movement in La Serenissima – to perform their duty, and he returns to Ti-Philippe in the catacombs.

The chevalier is shivering, still. Joscelin unslings his baldric, leaning his sword against the wall and placing the parcel next to it, and reaches for the bucket of clean water and the one remaining clean cup. “Drink,” he says, quietly, helping Ti-Philippe sit up. “I didn’t find her. No trace. And we’re very shortly to be penned in the quarter like cattle. They’ll be looking for us.”

Philippe finishes the contents of the cup and falls back against the pillow with a sigh of relief. “Then how – how are we – ?”

Joscelin looks up at the torch on the wall, pressing his lips into a thin line. “I’ll think of something,” he says. “Rest. You’re likely to get worse before you get better.” If he gets better. Joscelin can’t think about whatever pestilences live in the canals right now.

Fortunately, Ti-Philippe is too weak to complain. The chevalier falls into a fitful slumber. Joscelin sits on the floor next to his sword, knees drawn up, staring into space as the torch burns down.

Phèdre is not the only one to think often of Anafiel Delaunay – though certainly she knew the man much better than Joscelin ever did. Joscelin knows enough to guess what Delaunay might do next: call upon his contacts and spies to gather information. The information Joscelin needs is nothing that he can get himself if he wishes to stay alive. The answer is obvious; he must ask Micah if he and the others would be willing to make inquiries on his behalf.

It is a lot to ask of his friends. Perhaps too much. In some ways they are the safest option. Serenissimans only see Yeshuites as foreigners in the Serene Republic on sufferance; if they are careful about their inquiries, if they ask the right people, they will remain invisible. But if the wrong people get wind of the inquiries – easy enough, Joscelin thinks with bitterness, to whip up a mob to sweep the Yeshuite quarter, and no one would speak against it.

Still. Joscelin knows enough of what Delaunay was about to know that it is not only self-defense that the Yeshuites will need to make their way north. They cannot bear weapons openly in La Serenissima. They know enough of covertcy to understand its uses – hence daggers, which may be concealed, rather than the sword. They have their own networks for information-gathering. They have some partners and allies, among the sestieri. It is likely enough that what Joscelin requests may not put them in any danger at all – or at least no danger that they do not already assume on a daily basis. But he must underscore the seriousness. He must tell Micah everything, and let Micah decide what to tell the rest.

The thought tires him at the same time as it puts a cold fist around his heart.

The last person to know everything, of course, was Phèdre. Who might be imprisoned. Or dead.

No, Joscelin thinks. I cannot assume she is dead without proof. That’s something else Delaunay would say.

Ti-Philippe tosses and turns on his cot. Joscelin finds a clean rag, wets it, places it on the chevalier’s brow.

He does not sleep that night, but nurses the chevalier. When the chevalier doesn’t need him, Joscelin tells the hours, again and again.

***

He makes a clean breast – traitors, Troyes-le-Mont, the treasonous Duc de Somerville – to Micah the next morning, when Micah, Sarae, and Teppo come to see how they made it through the night.

He does not tell Micah what passed between him and Phèdre two nights ago – says instead, stiffly, that they had a falling-out and that many things were thrown into question, but that the situation has changed.

Micah’s dark eyes watch him thoughtfully as he speaks, and Micah nods periodically, and only when Joscelin is done does Micah say, “You are helping us, and you know that Yeshua bids us to give succor where we may. You should know that even if we weren’t bound – we would do this for you anyway.” He clasps Joscelin’s forearms, over their vambraces. “There’s a pallet in the storeroom upstairs. Sarae will stay with your chevalier. Teppo and I will start making inquiries. Go to bed, Joscelin. You’ll do no one good if you fall ill yourself.”

Joscelin stares at Micah for a moment, and tries throwing it off as a jest: “Do I look so poorly?”

Micah smiles. “You see Sarae over there, disobeying her family to train with us. I’m not an idiot, Joscelin. We’ll find her for you. Go to bed.”

Perhaps it’s the lack of sleep that leaves Joscelin feeling stunned as he moves up the stairs to the temple’s storeroom. He cannot afford to think about it overmuch, as thinking about Phèdre as he last saw her, bare skin in the moonlight, tumbled, mussed curls, would come too close to making him dwell on what might happen if he loses her.

***

This is how Joscelin gets the news that Phèdre nó Delaunay has been taken captive and is held prisoner in La Dolorosa: with Micah, in the storeroom. The Yeshuites asked: they found a hunter of geese who saw a hooded woman in Phèdre’s dress, Phèdre’s pearls, as Ti-Philippe described them, led to the sea-prison.

Joscelin sits cross-legged on the floor next to Micah and says nothing for a very long time.

Micah says, tentative, “Joscelin, we can try to get her out – ”

“It would be suicide,” Joscelin is curt, and for a good reason: it’s a privilege he’s considering reserving for himself.

“I don’t believe it would be.” Micah speaks patiently; reeling as he is, Joscelin can tell that much. “They’ve a watchtower on the mainland. If we can take the watchtower, we can secure a getaway. This isn’t a thing you can attempt on your own, with any hope of succeeding. You need us, Joscelin. And we need to test what we’ve learned.”

Joscelin passes a hand over his face. “Let me think. Let me think. We’ve only the word of the hunter to go on?”

“So far. We know those who supply the guardsmen with food in tribute. We’re asking questions, where we can.”

“We need more confirmation.” Joscelin lifts his head. “We need more than the word of one man before we risk ourselves in that way. All right?”

Micah climbs to his feet, smiling. “You said ‘we’.”

Joscelin opens his mouth, then closes it.

Micah laughs. “You’re coming over for Shabbat supper, after the service,” he tells Joscelin on his way out the door. “Don’t argue.”

***

In the end Ti-Philippe is well enough for Joscelin to leave him for a few hours; he goes to the home of Micah ben Ximon and his mother after sundown. They have lit the candles by the time he arrives, but he is there for the blessing of the wine and bread. He eats with them, lentil, spiced with cumin, turmeric, caraway; rice, strange and delicious with dried fruit and saffron; ground lamb to go in some kind of flatbread, and Joscelin is pretty sure he tastes cinnamon in the lamb. Phèdre is alive, like as not; there is hope. Joscelin eats with gratitude.

Still, it never escapes Joscelin that he cannot escape Phèdre, in whatever fine points he knows of the Yeshuite faith. The discussion of the Tanakh that accompanies dinner – he can follow the arguments made, refuted, refined by Micah and his mother and Sarae, Micah’s aunts and uncles and cousins, because of Phèdre’s study with Seth ben Yavin, with the Rebbe in the City of Elua.

As he slips along the streets of the Yeshuite quarter after the Birkat Hamazon, heading back to the temple, armed once more, with Phèdre’s parcel tucked safely in his doublet and with a little lamb and rice to tempt Ti-Philippe’s appetite, he fends off thoughts of Phèdre by thinking about what they must do. Percy de Somerville is a traitor. Whatever plans Percy de Somerville has laid with Melisande Shahrizai, they are assuredly a threat against Ysandre de Courcel’s throne – and Benedicte de la Courcel will assist them in securing Ysandre’s throne. He and Phèdre were going to Benedicte; it is to Benedicte that he and Ti-Philippe must go, regardless, whether or not they have proof of de Somerville’s treason. Joscelin will spend his time better thinking about how to get to Benedicte than he will thinking about Phèdre.

Ti-Philippe has not been eating well, and has grown thin; tonight he eats everything Joscelin brings. It is a good enough way to end the day.

***

A Serenissiman beekeeper hints at the presence of a beautiful woman in La Dolorosa; it’s enough for Joscelin and Micah to lay a plan. Joscelin refuses to allow the Yeshuites to storm the prison; it is their task to secure the watchtower. Joscelin will go in alone.

Micah and Ti-Philippe don’t like it. Joscelin tells them he doesn’t care. The chevalier is still weak from his illness; Micah is too valuable to his people to lose. “It’s my oath,” he tells them, “and my risk.”

When he swings below the rope bridge leading to La Dolorosa, and begins the upside-down climb, plank by plank, high above the black rocks and the roiling sea, the profound relief of cold rage guides his movements. Every single one.

When he watches Phèdre go over the cliff, a flame goes out in his heart.

When he picks his way along the rocks to the shore and does not see her, or her body, a wave of numbness subsumes him.

When he makes his way back across the rope bridge, Micah is at his elbow, and it is Micah who guides them back to the Yeshuite quarter, to the catacombs. Joscelin he leaves in the storeroom until Teppo and Elazar and the others are settled. Then Micah comes back.

“We still have work to do,” Micah tells him gently. “You want to save the throne of the D’Angeline queen. You want to get word to your Prince Benedicte. That work we will start in the morning.”

Joscelin nods. Phèdre’s parcel lies next to his pallet. He can’t take his eyes off of it.

“I will stay with you tonight,” Micah says, and Joscelin doesn’t fight him.

***

Teppo slips in around noon the next day and says, “Micah, it’s not safe for us to be in the temple any longer. There’s talk about La Dolorosa. Someone may have seen us. We should move to one of the outer islands – perhaps that one that we started to clear, with the pine forest – ”

Joscelin is only listening to the talk with half an ear. He sits by Ti-Philippe, whose fever broke the night before, who is sitting up to drink broth. He would never have thought it, but being next to the chevalier stills the impulse he has to go in a corner and howl. Ti-Philippe is still ill; Joscelin mustn’t do anything to upset him.

The chevalier lowers the bowl with a sigh. “Remy and Fortun are dead, like as not. All that’s left is to go to Benedicte.” Philippe closes his eyes. “Can we? Is there any way?”

“I don’t know,” Joscelin tells him. He feels as though his words are escaping slow, like syrup, and as though his thoughts move even more slowly. He doesn’t like it.

“He won’t believe it of de Somerville.” The chevalier’s voice is faint. “How, when they were at the Battle of Three Princes together? And us with no proof.”

Joscelin, far down as he is, can hear the layer of despair in Ti-Philippe’s voice, and he knows that if the chevalier is to recover, that must not be allowed to happen.

There has been quite enough death.

“Joscelin.” He looks up at Micah, who’s looking at him with grave concern. “Teppo says there’s word that the Dogal Guard is looking for you. You and the chevalier.”

“That limits our movements even further.” The thought comes faster than Joscelin expects; maybe there’s hope for him after all.

Micah nods. “And we need to move you. If we stay here longer, we endanger the whole quarter. We’ve a plan to set up an encampment on one of the outlying islands. Will you come?”

Micah is good at what he does. He has a gift for the kind of training Joscelin offers. He has a gift for leading people. And just as sure as Joscelin is about needing to prevent the threat to the D’Angeline throne, he is equally as sure that there is still more he can teach Micah, to keep Micah and his people safe as they go north. Joscelin cannot give into despair. Not yet. Despair is a luxury none of them can afford.

He steels himself. “Yes,” he says. “We’ll come.”

***

Micah and the others find the island and move what supplies they can into a glade in the center that will serve as their base camp. Joscelin paces the catacombs. The evening before they are to move him and Ti-Philippe to the island, he stares at himself in the dark mirror, lifts a dagger to his braid, and begins to cut methodically. Next will come the walnut dye. It’s another product of asking himself what Anafiel Delaunay might do; Joscelin supposes that such disguises as they can muster are not a poor idea, before they take the risk of taking to the canals.

As always, what he does is complicated by the knowledge that the last person other than himself to touch his hair was Phèdre.

His stomach clenches. His chest feels as though it’s about to cave in. Joscelin keeps cutting.

Trying not to think about the last time she ran her fingers through his hair is like trying not to think about a loaf of bread once someone has told him not to think about a loaf of bread. It was rough between them. So rough. He never wanted to take her in anger. What physical release there was in the act was dwarfed by the deep soul-sickness he felt – feels – at transmuting his rage, his despair, into desire, perpetrated as a supposed act of love. It may be what is (was, a voice whispers, was) in Phèdre; it has never been in Joscelin. Not ever.

It’s in Melisande Shahrizai, and if Joscelin is honest with himself, it’s one reason why he loathes her so.

Cassiel’s servant or no, Joscelin is D’Angeline; he has tried to imagine Phèdre and Melisande together. The mechanics are not what give him trouble, nor is it the tools. It’s knowing what Phèdre looked like, emerging from assignations. It’s that he cannot separate cruelty from abuse. It’s that cruelty and desire cannot live side by side in Joscelin Verreuil. Love is taxing; love is difficult. He cannot come to the act of love wanting to hurt. He cannot see the marks her patrons leave, physical and mental, without wanting to hurt them in turn – and there is no love in his desires there.

It would be easier, were Melisande not so damnably beautiful.

One last cut with his dagger, and Joscelin is left holding his braid. His shorn hair falls unevenly. Joscelin doesn’t care.

He drops his braid in the trash and goes to see if the walnut dye is prepared.

***

Ti-Philippe, once they are ensconced on the island, gets better every day. Micah sends spies out into La Serenissima to learn what they might of the Little Court, of Ysandre’s progressus, of the Dogal election.

One night around the embers of the fire, after the Yeshuites have gone to bed, Ti-Philippe, wrapped in a blanket, broaches the question of Benedicte again.

“We’ll have to break in,” Joscelin says, picking up the stick to stir the coals into more warmth. “I don’t see any other way.”

“That’s obvious enough,” Ti-Philippe says mildly. “What I meant was how we’ll get him to believe us. You’re bookish – what do we know of House Courcel that might help somewhat, to get Benedicte to believe us over Lord Percy?”

The word ‘bookish’ gets an unwilling half-smile out of Joscelin. “I know what you know, chevalier.”

“You mean to say the Cassiline bunkhouse isn’t full of gossiping brothers interested in every movement of House Courcel?” Ti-Philippe grins at him, and though Joscelin doesn’t appreciate the teasing, he’s glad enough to see Philippe feeling well that he lets it pass unremarked upon.

“Not exactly. I’ve been thinking on what we were taught of the Battle of Three Princes, to see if there’s anything that might help us.”

“Rolande didn’t have Cassilines with him?”

“Not in battle.” Joscelin keeps poking at the fire. “He had Anafiel Delaunay, though.”

The chevalier tilts his head. “I don’t follow.”

“I’ve been thinking on it,” Joscelin says again. “Benedicte wants to save Ysandre’s throne. If there’s to be a way to convince him, Delaunay’s oath may be the way to do it. We tell him that Phèdre – ” Her name doesn’t quite stick in his throat. Not quite. “ – upheld the oath in Delaunay’s stead, after his death, and that – that we’re upholding it in her name. As we’re here.”

“And she’s not,” Philippe says, more subdued.

Joscelin doesn’t reply – just stares stonily into the embers.

It’s a long moment before the chevalier says, rallying himself, “They say House Courcel prizes noble action above all else. Mayhap we’ll be lucky, and Benedicte hasn’t been with the Stregazza long enough to lose that. He’ll understand.”

Joscelin nods. “It’s possible.” He puts down the stick and folds his arms on his knees. “It’s supposedly what Delaunay loved in Rolande. That nobility. If we can put it to Benedicte like that – that we’re doing this in accordance with Rolande’s wishes, for Ysandre, in Delaunay’s name – it might be enough.”

“There’s too much might all over this.” Ti-Philippe gathers his blanket closer about him, cross.

“It’s what we have.” Joscelin can’t sit here any more. He rises. “I’m for bed. Do you need anything?”

The chevalier doesn’t. Joscelin goes to his tent.

***

Weeks pass. No news. Ysandre draws closer. Joscelin drills the Yeshuites, oversees their sparring, oversees target practice with their crossbows. Ti-Philippe grows stronger, and even ventures into La Serenissima once or twice himself.

Joscelin, Micah, Sarae, and Ti-Philippe sit down to plan the infiltration of the Little Court, to be executed once Ysandre is in residence. Benedicte is too questionable; Ysandre will believe Joscelin.

There is restlessness among the workmen and craftsmen’s guilds. There are betting pools regarding the health of Cesare Stregazza. There is a report of a young Yeshuite boy beaten by a group of noblemen, for sport. La Serenissima, at the beginning of the week of the installation of Marco Stregazza as Doge, seems nothing more than a kettle ready to boil over at the slightest provocation.

Ysandre arrives in the city.

The next morning, they prepare to move to the Little Court. He eats the lentils Sarae prepares. He checks his vambraces and checks them again. He also checks the Yeshuites in their roughspun garb, meant as disguise, to see if he can detect any sign of their daggers and vambraces.

And that is when Teppo, who’d spent the previous night at the home of his parents in the quarter, spills into the glade, gasping a story about a D’Angeline woman who interrupted morning prayer at the temple. A D’Angeline woman, accompanied by brigands, with one pinprick of red in the iris of one eye, who asked after Joscelin Verreuil and who is waiting until noon at the Inn of the Seven Strangers.

Micah is at his elbow again. “I will go,” he says calmly. “And we will wait. If this is nothing, we go to the Little Court tonight. It may be easier under cover of darkness anyway.” He turns and looks at Joscelin. “You stay here and wait.”

“I can’t ask you to – ”

“Then don’t,” Micah says simply. “She’s your oath-sworn. You’re ours, whether you like it or not.” Without another word he strides out of the glade.

Joscelin stares after him, wondering what he’s trained Micah to do after all.

***

They hear Micah returning, and they hear the feet treading after him. They line up, ready, Joscelin in the middle. He hears his heart in his ears – not Kushiel’s bronze wings, as she’s described to him.

If this is a trick –

The brigands he takes in first, because he must: Illyrians, with pointed moustaches and beards, with top-knots and swords. The Yeshuites can take them, if they’re mercenaries. He’s fairly certain of that.

But once that first calculation is done –

A heavy, thick cloak, like those he’s seen Illyrians wear. A gown that makes the woman look much like a piece of Hellene statuary.

Those curls. Those eyes. Joscelin would know her anywhere – oath or no oath – and he swears one more to himself in that instant, as he steps forward: he will never leave her again.