The Winter King

Page 5


Wynter’s Chill
Vera Sola, Summerlea
Three years later
“He’s here!”
The news swept through the royal palace of Summerlea on an icy wind. Smiles froze on suddenly frightened faces. Laughter—so ebulliently prevalent even after the past three years of bitter war and hardship—faded into silence like the last notes of a dying song.
High above the palace, amidst the tangled overgrowth of her mother’s long-neglected Sky Garden, Khamsin Coruscate battled an invisible foe beneath the flowering branches of a Snowfire tree, unaware of the fear spreading through the city below. The last few months’ unseasonable cold had left all the other trees in the garden winter-bare, but the Snowfire bloomed defiantly. Its long, slender branches were bursting with bold, hot pink blossoms that filled the air with a heady perfume as if to ward off the invading cold with the deep, lusty scents of summer.
Despite the Snowfire’s brave show, winter would not be swayed. A light snow had begun to fall, and the tip of Khamsin’s nose had gone pink. She paid it no mind. She was engaged in a ferocious sword fight with a powerful and conniving enemy, Ranulf the Black, the villainous king whose attempt to invade and conquer Summerlea was immortalized in Khamsin’s favorite book, Roland Triumphant: Hero of Summerlea.
As she lunged and parried, locking blades with her invisible foe, Khamsin didn’t even notice the approach of her maid, Tildy, until the elderly woman stopped directly beside the Snowfire tree and cleared her throat.
“He’s here, dearly,” Tildy said.
Khamsin lunged, crowing in victory as her blade struck a killing blow. Straightening, she blinked once to clear her mind of visions of ancient, heroic battles, and squinted at her beloved nurse. “Here? Already?”
“Riding past the Stone Knights, arrogant as you please, not fifteen minutes ago. Your father and the court have gathered in the upper bailey to greet him.”
Roland and his foes forgotten, Khamsin snatched up her cloak and the well-worn copy of Roland Triumphant that had inspired her mock battle. She thrust through the long, whiplike branches of the Snowfire, ignoring the sound of ripping cloth and even the painful tug of black curls as hair and clothes caught and tore on the branches. “Why didn’t you come for me sooner? He’ll be coming up the Castle Road by now.”
“I came as quick as I could, dearly, but he’s an hour early, and these old bones don’t move as fast as once they did. Och, now, look at the mess you’ve made of yourself.” Tildy tsked and shook her neat cap of tight silver-gray plaits. She hurried forward, and Khamsin stood with familiar patience as her nurse clucked about her and quickly repinned her hair to hide the distinctive white streaks that threaded like bolts of lightning through her otherwise unremarkable Summerlander black hair. “Half a dozen tears already and mud on your hem. Your father won’t be pleased if he sees you like this.”
That was nothing new. When in all of Khamsin’s twenty years had her father ever been pleased with her? Still . . . she couldn’t hold back the hopeful question, “Did he . . . ask for me to join the family?”
The old nursemaid’s expression faltered for a moment, pity creeping into her gaze. “No, child. He didn’t.”
Khamsin drew a breath and buried the hurt with a nod. After all this time, it was foolish to still let the rejection hurt. Since age three, she’d lived as little more than a servant, dressed in cast-off gowns, ignored and forgotten, tutored only because Tildy refused to let the mind of a Summerlea princess go ignorant and unprepared. Few outside the palace gates remembered there had ever been a fourth princess of the Summer Throne. Fewer still knew what she looked like, or even that she was still alive. Nonetheless, at every state function, Tildy insisted on dressing her charge like the royal princess of Summerlea she was, and they would wait together, in silence and dying hope, for the summons that never came.
“It’s all right, Tildy.” She forced a smile. “I’ll just go to the tower and watch from there. The stone amplifies the voices in the bailey, so I’ll hear everything. And I’ll have a much better view, I’m sure.”
“Dearly . . .”
Khamsin didn’t want to hear the consolations and excuses, the empty promises that one day her father would realize what a treasure she was. She thrust her book into the nursemaid’s hands, lifted the mud-stained hem of her red velvet skirts, and ran.
Hard-soled leather boots slapped on cold stone, and her black cape whipped behind her as she darted through the open garden gate and up the steps to the castle tower. Her mother’s garden had been built high on the crest of a small man-made mountain around which the ancient stone walls of Summerlea’s palace and surrounding city ringed like ribbons round a maypole. Only the tower proper—the now-crumbling Keep of Kings—rose higher than her mother’s beloved Sky Garden. The Keep overlooked the palace’s upper bailey and the long, curving lanes that ringed down to the city’s main gates and the valley below.
With swift familiarity born of years spent running wild through the palace’s many forgotten places, Khamsin darted through the dim corridors. After her mother’s death, the upper reaches of the palace had been locked away, left to weather the years untended and uninhabited. Only a curious child, a princess as neglected as this once-lovely palace realm, had ever dared the King’s wrath and ventured secretly within. It was the one place—the only place—Khamsin had ever felt at home.