The Winter King

Page 21


Khamsin blanched. “No! Of course not!” There was a traitor in Summerlea?
“Don’t lie to me, girl!” He shook her again, using both hands this time, making her head snap back and forth until she was dizzy. The book and picture in her skirt pocket banged against his thigh and he froze, scowling with sudden suspicion.
“What are you hiding?”
“N-nothing, Father.” The lie popped out, more from instinct than conscious thought, and she immediately wished she could call the foolish words back. Oh, Kham, you dolt! If you’re going to lie, try a lie that actually has a chance of being believed!
“Empty your pockets. Now, girl!” he barked when she hesitated.
Newt she might defy, but not her father, not her king. At least not openly in his presence. She was well and truly caught. Red-handed, just as Newt had crowed earlier. Kham reached into the depths of the pocket hidden in the folds of her skirt to extract the one remaining book and the framed miniature of Queen Rosalind.
Her father snatched the treasures out of her hands and stared at the small but perfectly executed portrait of his dead queen. With trembling hands, he skimmed the pages of the diary where she’d recorded the events of her last years of life in her own hand. The look in his face was horrible to behold. Staggering loss, utter devastation. If Khamsin had ever doubted her father could love as strongly as he hated, those doubts evaporated in an instant.
He doubled over, shoulders heaving with silent, shattering sobs. Heat gathered, concentrated, poured off him in dizzying waves as the Summer King’s own, not insubstantial power, came in answer to his anguish. The portrait and diary in his hands began to smoke, then to Khamsin’s horror, burst into flames.
“Father!” She rushed towards him, snatching off her apron so she could use it to beat out the flames that had engulfed his hands.
But when she neared him, he looked up, and the moment his eyes fixed on her, all his grief, all the devastation of lost love, coalesced into a terrible searing rage.
All focused utterly on her.
Khamsin came to an abrupt halt. “Father?” She’d never seen him look that way at her before. Never. For the first time since childhood, she actually felt frightened of him.
Without warning, his arm swept out and he backhanded her across the face with such force that she flew into the leather chair behind her. She landed, breathless and stunned, fiery pain shooting across her face from the place just below her right eye where his signet ring had smashed into her cheekbone. She cupped a hand over her cheek. The power of his gift was so hot, so raging, his ring had actually burned her.
“You dare?” he snarled, his voice incendiary. “You dare defile her things with the abomination of your touch?”
“She was my mother!” Khamsin cried. Was he really so cruel that he would deny her even a glimpse of her mother’s image or the chance to read a word written in her own hand?
“She was my wife!” He advanced upon her, eyes shining black and vengeful. For a moment Kham thought he would strike her again, this time a killing blow. She gathered her own power, preparing to defend herself, but at the last moment he spun away. “She was the one thing I loved most in this world, and you took her from me. You and your cursed gifts.”
The verbal blow struck harder than a fist, as it always had. “I was a child!” she cried.
“You were a mistake!”
Khamsin’s gasp sounded more like an anguished sob. The tears she’d sworn never to shed again in his presence burned at the backs of her eyes, fighting for freedom.
“You should never have been conceived,” he continued bitterly. “And if I’d known what you would do to her, I would have slain you in the womb.” His rage flared hot again, heat pouring off him in waves that made the room seem to shimmer and dance.
“Twenty years,” he snarled, his voice shaking with loathing. “For twenty years, I have suffered the affliction of your existence and the bitter fruits of your rebellious nature and destructive gifts. I will suffer no longer.”
Cupping her throbbing cheek, Khamsin watched her father with burgeoning dread as he yanked open his office door and shouted for his steward. He would suffer no longer? What did that ominous warning mean?
Veil of Tears
As the city tower rang the dawn bells the next day, and two burly guards half carried, half dragged Khamsin’s limp, unresisting body back to her room in the farthest, most isolated wing of the palace, she had her answer.
Her father had given her a choice: death or banishment.
Oh, he hadn’t actually given her that choice, nor even implied she had one. He’d just taken her to a cold, windowless stone room carved deep into the city mount, far from access to the sky so she couldn’t summon its energies to defend herself, and informed her that the White King had come to claim a Summerlea princess as his bride. She would be that bride, Verdan declared, and he caned her viciously every time she refused.
Khamsin, foolishly defiant as usual, had refused a lot.
At first, she hadn’t believed King Verdan would go as far as he did, and she was more willing to face a caning or two than face the Winter King’s wrath when he discovered the thieving maid he’d caught in his room was to be his wife. She’d seen the hard side of Wynter Atrialan’s fury, faced his Ice Gaze, and felt him literally drain all warmth from her body. She’d felt the brutal whip of power in the skies when he’d answered her first challenge. She’d also felt the burning heat of his touch and seen the cold fire of possession flaming in his eyes. If she hadn’t escaped him when she had, he would have dominated her will and taken what he wanted, and she would have been helpless to stop him.