The Winter King

Page 27


How she was going to stand before a priest for a lengthy wedding ceremony was another matter altogether.
The White King, like her father, did not strike her as a man who brooked delays, but just traversing the small distance from bed to bathroom left her breathless, weak, and dizzy. Even if King Verdan had her carried into the church, how could she stand before the altar under her own power to recite her vows?
Curious, testing herself to see how much she could bear, Khamsin straightened her back and released her hold on the furniture.
She stood there, swaying slightly, counting each second as it passed.
The door opened, Tildy’s voice cried out, “Dearly!”
Forgetting herself, Kham instinctively turned towards her nurse. Pain shot down her back. Muscles seized, and her knees buckled. She cried out and grabbed hold of the furniture, barely managing to stop herself from collapsing to the ground.
“What are you doing? You’re in no condition to be up and walking around.” Tildy rushed to Khamsin’s side and nudged a supporting shoulder under her arm. “Here. Hold on to me. I’ll help you back to bed.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to get up,” Kham protested, but she didn’t have the strength to struggle as Tildy herded back towards the waiting bed. “The wedding’s only a few hours away.” Now that she understood the full extent of her father’s loathing, she was ready to have the marriage over and done with. Whatever Wintercraig held in store, it couldn’t be worse than what her father would do to her if she stayed here.
“Autumn will stand as your proxy,” her nurse soothed. “The wedding will take place without you. You need to rest and concentrate on healing.” She pushed aside the heavy drapes she’d hung to prevent her herb-infused healing steam from dissipating, and ushered Kham towards the waiting, lamplit mattress. “Come lie back down, dearly. I’ll fix a posset for the pain and freshen the ointment on your back and the herbs in the kettle. Hedgewick can bring up a few more lamps from the cellar.”
Khamsin’s hand shot out, closing round the bedpost. “No, Tildy.”
“Shh, all right, dearly,” the nursemaid soothed. “No more lamps. It’s already bright and warm as a summer morning anyways.”
“No,” Kham said again. “I’m not talking about the lamps. I’m talking about the wedding. I will say my vows, not Autumn.”
“Out of the question! You can hardly stand!”
“He hasn’t broken me, and I won’t give him the satisfaction of thinking he has,” she rasped. She didn’t have to say who “he” was. “I made this choice. I will see it through, not Autumn.” Her legs were shaking, the muscles in her legs weak. She clutched the bedpost tighter.
“Khamsin . . .”
“You cannot dissuade me, Tildy. I’ve had the last three days to think about this.” She lifted her chin and called upon every ounce of haughty Coruscate pride to keep her standing. “For the first time since my mother’s death, he’s going to have to admit—in public and before the court—that I, Khamsin Coruscate, am a princess of Summerlea. How could you possibly imagine I would let one of my sisters stand in my place when that happens?”
Tildy bit her lip, and her brow wrinkled with concern. “Khamsin, listen to me. You don’t understand. As far as Wynter Atrialan knows, Summerlea only has three princesses. He only knows their giftnames, and we can’t run the risk of having him discover that the Khamsin Coruscate he agreed to wed is not Spring, Summer, or Autumn.”
Khamsin’s brows drew together. “Why would he care? A princess is a princess.”
“Not to your father, and not to him. He knows how much your father loves your sisters. He wants to strike a blow to Verdan’s heart by taking one of the Seasons to wife. If he discovers the deception before the marriage is consummated, he can simply annul the ceremony and marry one of your sisters instead. Your father doesn’t want that to happen, and neither do I. This is your chance to get out of Summerlea. Sooner or later, your father will find a way to kill you if you stay. I’ve no doubt of that now. Wintercraig is the safest place for you—at least until your brother returns to us.”
“Falcon isn’t coming back. If Summerlea hadn’t lost the war, he might one day have returned, but now? It would be a death sentence.”
“Perhaps not. Your brother didn’t just steal the Winter King’s bride when he fled Gildenheim. He also took an ancient treasure called the Book of Riddles—a book he believed would lead him to the secret hiding place of Roland’s sword. He’s been searching for the sword ever since.”
Khamsin’s jaw dropped. “Blazing? Falcon’s searching for Blazing?” She shook her head, remembering that day in the Sky Garden so long ago, when she’d suggested he search for Blazing. Remembering Falcon’s stumble, which she’d attributed to an uneven paving stone rather than a guilty conscience. Remembering how he’d scoffed at the idea as a child’s fairy tale. And all the while, searching for the sword had been his intent. The pieces clicked into place like the sliding parts of a puzzle box. “That’s why Father sent him.” Not to train Falcon how to negotiate a treaty, and not to charm the Winterfolk into better concessions, but to charm someone—probably Wynter’s bride—into helping him steal the Book of Riddles.
Kham swallowed hard, astonished that she’d never figured it out before. Like everyone else, when told the story of Falcon’s falling in love and eloping with the Winter King’s bride, she’d accepted it without question.