The Winter King

Page 10


For once, she was actually glad her father hadn’t summoned her to join the family. No doubt the Winter King would be dining with them tonight, and after two run-ins with him, she would happily spend the rest of her life avoiding a third.
The Price of Peace
Garbed in a plain gray servant’s frock, with her distinctive hair hidden beneath a linen kerchief, Khamsin climbed the stairs to the tower floor that housed the Queen’s Bower. The sight that greeted her actually stopped her in her tracks.
The melancholy but peaceful silence that had pervaded the King’s Keep all her life was gone, ripped away by the mad rush of hundreds of servants sweeping, polishing, waxing, and dusting. Half a dozen carpenters snatched from their workshops worked at a frantic pace to replace rotting floorboards, while drapers tore down moth-eaten window hangings and hung new tasseled velvets in their stead. A small army of footmen carted new furniture up from the lower levels of the palace. Maude Newt, the Mistress of Servants, stood at one end of the room, overseeing the cleanup with steely gray eyes and snapping orders left and right.
Someone bumped Khamsin hard from behind, making her stagger forward.
“Out of the way, girl,” a man growled in an irritated voice. He and another man, both sweating from exertion, hauled a large, upholstered divan past and set it down along with a host of other furniture cluttered against one wall on a stretch of mended, waxed, and polished floor.
“You there!”
Khamsin turned to find Maude Newt’s iron glare pinned on her.
“Quit gawking like a daft looby and get about your business. We’ve barely two hours remaining to get these rooms restored and spotless.”
An angry retort leapt to Kham’s tongue but, remembering her disguise, she bit it back. “Yes, ma’am,” she said instead, with galling subservience. The birthmark on her wrist blazed with heat, and the urge to send a little lightning bolt up Newt’s skirt was almost more than she could bear. She suppressed the urge with effort, bobbed a brittle curtsy, and sped off towards the door leading to her mother’s bedchamber.
I’m here for my mother’s things, she reminded herself silently. I’m not here to teach Maude Newt a lesson even if the wizened old lemon deserves it!
Controlling her temper had never been easy for Khamsin. Since infancy—since the first sentient days of life in her mother’s womb—hot, wild, rebellious emotion had always lain just below the surface, simmering, waiting for the smallest spark to set her off. There were times Tildy despaired of ever teaching her control. There were times Kham despaired of ever being more than the hot, destructive wind for which she was named.
As she crossed the bower to the bedchamber, she felt Newt’s hard glare boring into her back, gaining reprieve only when she ducked out of sight through the sleeping-chamber door. Well, at least her disguise seemed to be working. If Maude Newt had recognized her, she’d have run straight away to tell King Verdan that Summerlea’s disgrace of a fourth princess was dressed like a servant and skulking in an area of the palace she’d been forbidden to enter.
Khamsin entered the sleeping chamber and froze in her tracks once more. This had apparently been the first room tackled by the crew of frantic servants because its transformation was already complete. Kham could only stand in the doorway and gape.
Her mother’s bed was gone. A new, larger bed rested in its place, piled with several thick, fresh ticks that two young maids were industriously covering with scented sheets. The wood floor, scattered with plush woven rugs, gleamed like polished copper. Every last cobweb and mote of dust had been banished from sight. Sumptuous velvet hangings and tapestries robbed the chill from the cold stone outer wall, and a fire blazed in the wide hearth that opened through a shared inner stone wall to the bathing room beyond. A pot of fragrant herbs simmered over the flames to fill both the sleeping and bathing chambers with a fresh, warm scent to chase away the musty odor of neglect.
Others might find the room’s transformation a pleasant surprise. Khamsin did not. Anger knotted in her belly. She didn’t like change. She didn’t like these hundreds of servants invading her mother’s space—her space—and turning the forlorn but comforting familiarity of her childhood sanctuary into a perfect, spotless foreign world where she no longer belonged.
She turned towards the place where her mother’s dresser had stood earlier today, and an invisible fist closed around her heart. The dresser was gone.
She spun around, scanning the room in rapid, frantic sweeps. The irreplaceable treasures she’d come to collect had vanished as well. Where were her mother’s golden, gem-studded hairbrush, comb and mirror? Where was the small painted miniature of her mother’s likeness? Most of all, where were the two slim, bound books—the gardener’s journal and the private diary—written in Queen Rosalind’s own hand?
“You two!” she snapped at the young girls making the bed. “What happened to my—to the queen’s belongings?”
One of the two girls pursed her lips. “And who is it askin’?” she sneered, scanning Khamsin’s modest dress with a dismissive gaze.
Kham’s fingers curled in a fist. I am in disguise. I am a servant, she reminded herself. Servants do not rudely order other servants around—unless you’re Maude Newt.
“I’m a new girl, just come to the palace to serve Princess Summer,” she improvised. “She sent me to collect a few of her mother’s things before the White King takes up residence.”