The Winter King

Page 13


The maids bolted.
Valik waited until they heard the sound of the maids’ shoes clattering down the stone steps before speaking. “Well, he managed it.”
Wynter nodded. “Surprisingly well, too.” He stripped off his gauntlets and tossed them on a nearby table, then walked to the two large, glassed windows cut into the stone wall and threw up the sash on each of them. Cold brisk air swirled in, carrying with it a light flurry of snow. He breathed deep and left the windows open so the draft could clear away the sweet, heavy aroma hanging in the room. “It seems Verdan is sincere in his efforts to be accommodating. Perhaps he’ll acquiesce to my terms after all, and I can take what I’ve come for through peaceful means rather than violence.”
Valik grunted, plucked a round green grape from a bowl of fruit, and popped it into his mouth. He bit down, then grimaced and spit the crushed grape into his hand. “Sour. You didn’t allow warmth enough for their crops to ripen this year.”
“That was the plan.”
“I suppose. Just didn’t think I’d have to suffer the results.” He sighed. “I hope there’s something decent to eat around here.”
“Stay and share my meal with me.”
Valik gave a grunting laugh. “Don’t think so, tempting though it is. That Autumn is a fine piece of Summerland bounty. They all are. Lucky you.”
“Lucky me,” Wynter agreed with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
His friend started to say something—no doubt a continuance of the argument they’d been having since leaving the encampment this morning—but he caught himself, and said instead, “Water’s hot. Go bathe. She’ll warm to you a bit better if you don’t stink of horse and travel.”
Wynter arched a cool brow. “I’ve already told you, she could be cold as a block of ice, and it won’t change my mind.”
Valik sighed and shook his head. “An occasional chill in the bedroom keeps things fresh, Wyn, I’ll grant you that. But cozy your bare ass up to a glacier night after night, and eventually your extremities will freeze and fall off. Including the important ones.” He raised both brows suggestively.
Wynter snorted. “No Summer witch has it in her to be that cold.” He waved a hand at the door. “Go. Get cleaned up, find some decent food, and meet me in the map room in two hours.”
“I’ve said my piece. Won’t say it again.” Valik saluted by tugging one of the silvery white braids dangling from his temple, then ruined the image of stoic acceptance by adding, “Will say ‘told you so’ when the time comes, though.” He laughed at Wynter’s glare and headed for the door. “Map room. Two hours. I’ll be there, my king. Enjoy your meal . . . and your princess.”
“Frost brain.” The velvet pillow Wynter threw at him bounced harmlessly off the closing door and slid across the floor.
Thanks to Valik’s irritating prod, Wynter had half a mind to meet the princess not only stinking of horse but fully armored as well. The scented mist wafting in from the bathing chamber changed his mind. He was tired. He’d been in the saddle, waging war, bereft of female companionship and most of life’s gentler pleasures for three years. But the war was over now, and the Summerlea princesses were beautiful. He couldn’t deny that a part of him longed to bring a little warmth back into his life.
He walked into the bedchamber, threw open the two windows there, and began to strip in the brisk, fresh air. With deft fingers, he loosened the numerous buckles holding his armor in place and shed the heavy silver plates of protective gear, setting each of them against the wall. His boiled leather inner armor joined the plate, as did the padded gambeson beneath that, and finally the innermost garment, quilted silk that covered him from neck to wrist and ankle.
Naked, he padded into the bathing chamber and stepped into the huge copper tub. A slow smile spread over his face as he slipped into the steaming water. Winter’s Frost, that felt good. Tight muscles began to relax. He leaned his head back against the broad, curved lip of the tub and stared up at the ceiling from half-closed eyes.
In the Craig, after a particularly cold day, he’d often enjoyed a dip in the hot volcanic springs of Mount Freika or a relaxing steam bath in the caverns beside the springs, but leading this war had kept him from home for the better part of three years. In all that time, he’d not allowed himself indulgences beyond those available to his troops. He’d shared the same hard ground, tepid baths, and plain camp fare as his soldiers. The only amenity he hadn’t partaken of with them was women. Elka had stripped him of all warmer passions when she left; the colder ones he’d poured entirely into his bitter, consuming three-year battle for vengeance.
And now, at last, victory was at hand. Summerlea had robbed him of both his queen and his heir. He planned to return the favor.
After his bath, Wynter emptied his saddlebags and donned a flowing, buttonless cream silk shirt and matching woolen breeches. The loosely tied closures bared a casual vee of muscled chest and the cream silk complemented the golden hue of his skin. The breeches and a pair of butter-soft golden leather boots hugged his calves, outlining the muscular legs and hindquarters gained from years of combing the rocky highlands of the Craig.
A knock sounded on the bower door. He walked to the bedroom door, toweling his hair, and despite his own men standing guard, he picked up his sword before calling “Enter!” through the doorway.
The sound of an unlatching lock and the rattle of trays told him his dinner had arrived. He cast a glance through the open doors, counting two—three—maids, and two of his own men watching as they laid out his meal.