The Winter King

Page 28


“Even if that’s true, Tildy, how could you possibly know it?”
“Given the right herbs, a man will tell you any and everything he knows.” Tildy raised her brows pointedly. “And from the latest I could glean, your brother is very close to finding the sword. Once he does, your safety is guaranteed. With Blazing in his possession, he’ll be strong enough to win back the freedom of Summerlea and claim the throne for himself, as he will surely do once he realizes the crime Verdan has committed against his own House.”
“And if Falcon doesn’t find the sword?”
“You’ll still be Queen of the Craig and safe from your father’s machinations. Which is why it’s imperative this wedding to take place, and in order for that to happen, the Winter King must believe he’s wedding a Season.”
“Even if I veil my face and pretend to be one of my sisters, what’s to stop the White King from killing me the moment he discovers the truth?” Khamsin pointed out. “I’ve met him. I’ve felt his power. He doesn’t strike me as the forgiving sort.”
“He demanded one of Verdan’s daughters to wife. He’ll get one. He may be angry when he discovers you’re not the Season he was expecting; but once the marriage is consummated, his own honor will keep him to the terms of his agreement. Ultimately, it’s an heir he’s after, one capable of ascending both the Summer and Winter Thrones.”
“How can you know that, Tildy? And don’t tell me he talks under the influence of herbs, too. You’ve never even met the man.”
A strange look crossed Tildy’s face. A flash of regret, a hint of shame, followed directly by grim determination.
Khamsin’s knees gave out, and not even pride could keep her standing. She collapsed to the bed, realization dawning. Shock made the muscles of her face go lax. “But you have met him, haven’t you, Tildy.” Dismay, accusation, horror: All crept into her voice. “You’re the traitor who’s been feeding him information.”
Tildy’s jaw clenched, and her chin thrust out. “I’m no traitor. I’m a loyal servant of Queen Rosalind. I swore on her deathbed that I would do everything in my power to ensure your well-being, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“By betraying my family to our enemy?”
Tildy held out her hands. “Dearly—”
“Don’t call me that!” Khamsin cried, flinching away from those treacherous, once-loved hands. “How long have you been spying for him?”
The nurse heaved a great sigh. “Six months.”
Khamsin’s shoulders slumped. Six months. Since before the last two fierce battles that had sealed Summerlea’s fate. “Did you help him destroy my father’s armies?”
“Of course not! Summerlea’s defeat was already certain. I simply helped him understand he could achieve the victory he wanted without razing Vera Sola to the ground.”
“You’re the one who told him about Falcon’s room. You encouraged him to demand the bower.” The pieces all fell into place. “You wanted me to go up there and retrieve mother’s things. You were hoping I would run into him.”
“I had to know if you and he would suit. I would never have let you wed him otherwise. The results have been promising. He hasn’t stopped asking about you, and his steward has queried half the palace about the maid with the white-streaked hair.”
A chill shivered across Khamsin’s skin. Fear, partly, but partly something else. Something that left behind heat, not cold.
Immediately on the heels of that shiver came a new realization that made the blood drain from her face.
“You’re the one who convinced King Verdan that I should be the Winter King’s bride. You’re the reason he took me into the mountain and beat me until I agreed to this marriage.” She pressed the heel of her palm against her chest, trying to stop the painful ache of her heart. “Why?” Her lips trembled. “Am I really such a monster? All these years, I thought you loved me. Has that all been a lie?”
“How can you even suggest that?” Tildy cried. “Everything I’ve done I’ve done for love of you and your mother.”
“For love, you sent him to beat me into submission?”
“I told you, I had no idea that your father would dare brutalize you the way he did. Until then, I hadn’t realized how truly mad he has become. But his behavior only assures me that I did the right thing in encouraging this marriage.” Tildy reached for Khamsin’s hands, but when Kham flinched away, the nurse drew a breath and bowed her head. “One day, dearly, you’ll see this was the only way I could protect you. If you were to remain here, in Summerlea, Verdan would find a way to kill you. I’m certain of it.”
Khamsin crossed her arms. “And you think my fate will be any different with the Winter King?” The memory of his touch, his voice, made her shiver.
“Wynter Atrialan wants heirs. Once you wed him, you’ll be safe from your father’s wrath, and once you provide him with his heirs, your position as his queen will be secure. If your brother returns with Roland’s sword, you and your children will be safe. If he doesn’t, your children—Rosalind’s grandchildren—will inherit both Summerlea and Wintercraig. It’s the best future I could have hoped to give you, dearly. All you need to do is let Autumn stand as your proxy, then you consummate the marriage before he discovers the truth.”