The Winter King

Page 8


“When I am rested and refreshed, we will meet to discuss the particulars of Summerlea’s surrender and the price of peace between us.” When no one moved, he lifted one mocking brow. “Six hours is little enough time to produce the perfection I demand. Believe me, King Verdan, you would be wise to ensure I am pleased with your hospitality. I am a far less forgiving man than once I was. You and your son taught me the folly of dealing gently with Summerlanders.”
“He’s taking my mother’s rooms?” Khamsin stared at Tildy in dismay. “How could Father allow it?”
The nursemaid gathered a pile of fresh, folded bedclothes and bath towels from a linen room fragrant with rosemary. “He could hardly say no, now could he, dearly?” Tildy answered practically. “Conquered kings may keep their heads but rarely their pride or authority. There’s a new king in Summerlea now, child, and his name is Wynter of the Craig. Best we all get used to it.”
“But . . . my mother’s rooms . . . the Sky Garden . . .”
“Is his, to do with as he pleases.” Tildy nodded her head at the open door. “Close the door, dearly, to keep in the scent.”
“I don’t accept that.” She shut the door. “I won’t accept that. My mother’s rooms are off-limits . . . private. It’s been that way all my life.”
“That was your father’s law. This is the White King’s will. We do as he commands now.”
“Why? Because he beat a shivering army into surrender? Bah! Politics and the rules of war be damned! We should not bow to this usurper’s demands like a pack of frightened mice!” The invasion of her mother’s rooms was personal. It was a defilement of a silent, sacred memorial to the beauteous Summerlea queen who’d died long before her time.
Tildy stopped in her tracks, her spine going straight as a poker. She turned and cast a dark glance back at Khamsin, a silent reminder of who had raised whom from infancy. “Politics? Is that what you think this is?” the older woman asked in an arch voice. “Mind your temper, and use that brain God gave you! This isn’t politics we’re talking about. It’s survival. Your father’s and your own to boot. Displease the Winter King, and we’ll none of us see another spring.”
“What joy does a slave find in spring?” Khamsin countered bitterly. “Better to die a hero’s death like Roland than live ten lifetimes cowering beneath a conqueror’s heel!”
“Hush!” Setting the pile of linens on a nearby table, Tildy crossed the room to take Khamsin’s shoulders in a firm grip and shake her soundly. “That is childish idiocy speaking. I’ve taught you better. Roland died a hero, aye, but his line died with him. You are an heir to the Summer Throne. So long as you and your family live—even one of you—there is hope for us all. Would you fling yourself to your death without a care for those who love you? Without a thought for those whose care you ought to put before your own? Have I failed so utterly that I’ve raised a blind, vain fool instead of a princess fit to wear the crown?”
Feeling sullen—shamed and wounded by the scold—Khamsin dropped her gaze. “No,” she muttered. “You haven’t failed, Tildy.” She shook free of her nursemaid’s harsh grip. Her velvet-clad arms crossed over her chest. “Fine.” She couldn’t summon gracious defeat, but then, she’d never been able to do that—not even when the defeat was as minor as losing a game of chess. “I will not obstruct.” Her eyes flashed. “But I won’t help either.”
The nursemaid sighed and shook her long-ago-silvered hair. “That would be too much to ask, dearly. I’ll be happy just to hear you promise not to summon a cyclone in his bath—especially not when he’s in it.”
Kham kicked a nearby table leg and scuffed the toe of her leather slipper. Tildy knew her too well. “No cyclone. I promise.” Her gaze shot up with sudden defiance. “But I am going to collect the dearest of my mother’s belongings before he claims her rooms.” She’d never dared remove them before now, lest her father discover she’d entered the tower against his will.
“As well you should.” Tildy had been Queen Rosalind’s nursemaid, too. She had followed her charge from the gentle, oceanside kingdom of Seahaven, twenty-eight years ago, and stayed to raise Rosalind’s children as she had raised Rosalind herself.
Tildy started to pick up her linens again, then stopped and turned to wrap Khamsin in a tight, loving embrace. “Don’t fight so hard against things you can’t change, child. You’ll batter yourself to death. Learn to change what you can and accept what you can’t. Be the palm that bends in the wind to withstand the gale.”
Khamsin stood silent as Tildy walked out the door.
She was no flexible palm. She was, instead, like the Snowfire in her mother’s garden, bursting into bright, defiant bloom when temperatures plummeted and snow began to fall, daring winter to do its worst.
She scowled and clenched her long, slender fingers into fists. She’d vowed no obstructions to the claiming of her mother’s rooms, and she’d vowed not to summon cyclones in the White King’s bath. But if the conqueror harmed her family or her home, she’d make him sorry. Her eyes narrowed, and she felt a familiar electric jolt of energy down to her soles.
Outside, the wind picked up speed.
Wynter frowned. The storm had come from nowhere, quick and violent. The sky overhead had gone dark as slate. Gusting wind howled through winding cobbled lanes and between stone buildings, rattling thick glass windows in their panes. All along the King’s Path, the cobbled road that corkscrewed up the palace mount, live oaks and citrus trees battered their brittle, winter-slain branches against the ancient stone walls. Without further warning, the dark clouds opened the floodgates. Rain pelted down, first in painful, stinging drops, then torrential sheets. The Summerlea steward escorting him leapt for the shelter of a covered walkway nearby.