The Winter King

Page 22


“No,” she’d told her father. “I won’t marry him.”
After the fifth caning, the Winter King no longer mattered. It had become a contest of wills: hers against the father’s. She thought her stubborn defiance and steely resolve could outlast the Summer King’s determination.
She’d been wrong.
Sometime after the twelfth beating, when at least three of her ribs were broken and she doubted there were two consecutive inches of flesh on her back or thighs that weren’t raw and oozing blood, she’d finally realized the unspoken choice her father was offering her.
She could marry Wynter Atrialan and leave Summerlea, or she could die.
It was that simple.
For all her defiance, for all the many sorrows of her existence, Khamsin was not ready to surrender her life. When her father raised the cane to deliver the first blow of the thirteenth beating, she agreed to be the White King’s bride.
The bloody cane had dropped from her father’s hand to clatter on the stone floor, and he’d turned without another word and walked out, leaving the two shaken guards outside the room to gather her up and carry her back to her room.
So here she was. Bloody. Beaten. Defeated in a way she’d never been before. Destined to wed the Winter King. Though how she’d manage that when at the moment simply breathing was a sheer act of will, she had no idea.
The guards came to a halt. They had reached her room.
Pride—and pain—forced Khamsin to stand rather than sag against the one guard while the other opened the door, but when it came time to actually walk inside, she couldn’t force her trembling muscles to obey. She took two shaky, wavering steps, and collapsed. Only the quick, sturdy arms of one of the guards, catching her before she fell, kept her from the further humiliation of landing facedown in an ignominious heap.
He helped her to her bed. “I’m sorry, princess, I’m sorry,” he kept whispering as he helped her lie down on her belly, then peeled back the light cloth they’d wrapped around her earlier to hide the bare, oozing skin of her back.
“I never dreamed anyone would do such a thing to one who bears the Rose,” the guard said again. “Forgive me. I should have stopped him.”
She waved him off, eyes closed in utter weariness. “Not your fault,” she mumbled. She just wanted him to leave and let her rest. Sunlight—what pale bit of it could shine through the winter gray skies—was streaming in through the window, its gentle warmth soaking into her raw flesh. Already she could feel the tingle of her magic returning, the regenerative warmth and healing light working to repair the awful proof of her father’s rage and loathing, but at the sun’s current strength, it would take days, possibly weeks before she was completely healed.
She heard her bedroom door open and close as the guards let themselves out. She closed her eyes, exhaled, and gave herself over to pain and exhaustion.
How long she floated in and out of consciousness, she didn’t know. It could have been minutes; it could have been hours. At some point, something tugged her back to awareness.
She heard a gasp of horror and dismay: “Dearly!”
The sound of Tildy’s familiar, beloved voice made Kham want to weep as she had not done once throughout the long, torturous hours of the night. The nursemaid had been more of a mother to her since Queen Rosalind’s death than Verdan had ever been a father. She had showered Khamsin with constant love and guidance, praising her when praise was due, accepting the bursts of rebellious temper that were Kham’s nature, never shirking from a firm reprimand when that was due either.
She’d even administered the cane herself once or twice, when Kham’s transgressions had truly gone beyond the pale, but always—always—she tempered those punishments with love and restraint. Never, no matter how deeply Kham vexed her, would Tildy have even dreamed of beating her with such unrelenting brutality.
The ultrasensitive skin of her back felt the disturbance in the air as Tildy rushed across the room and dropped to her knees beside the bed.
“Oh, dearly, what has he done to you?”
Khamsin peeled open one eye. Tears trickled down the nursemaid’s wrinkled face as she surveyed the damage Verdan had wrought upon his youngest child.
Kham forced a wry smile. “It feels worse than it looks.” She started to laugh at her own, poor joke, but her ribs and the torn skin of her back protested the effort.
“Never,” Tildy whispered, “never in all my life would I have believed him capable of this. Foolish, arrogant, unthinking man! How could he commit such a crime?” Shaking fingers covered her mouth. “He’s called a curse upon his House.”
Sadness wiped the faint smile from the edge of Khamsin’s mouth. Her eyes closed with sudden weariness. “No, Tildy,” she said. “I did that long ago, when I killed my mother.”
“Oh, child.” The nursemaid stroked her cheek and bent to press a trembling kiss on her brow. “Don’t you ever think that. You didn’t kill our Rose.”
“The magic was mine.” She’d only been three at the time, but she remembered. The lightning crashing all around the Sky Garden, called by a little weatherwitch’s temper tantrum. The bolt that struck the oak, shattering the tree’s dense heart, and shearing off a heavy branch. Queen Rosalind looking up with a gasp. Khamsin had wiped the terrible memory from her mind until the day her father told her she was responsible for her mother’s death.
“It was an accident, child, and that wasn’t what killed her. She developed a sickness of the lungs, and she was too frail to fight it. She’d never been healthy after your birth.”