The Winter King

Page 9


Wynter turned his face up and squinted at the storm-darkened sky. Cold rain sluiced down his cheeks, saturating his hair and soaking the padded tunic he wore beneath his armor. Beside him, Valik, his ever-loyal friend and steward, stood still and watchful, equally as impervious to the downpour.
“There is a weathermage at work,” Wynter said. “A strong one.”
“Aye.” Valik put a gauntleted hand on his sword hilt. “Ill intent?” As usual in the company of foreigners, the steward’s clipped speech was trimmed down to the fewest possible words.
“Just a warning, I think.” The dark clouds overhead were capable of deadly hail and lightning and even cyclones, but Wynter could sense none of that in the roiling sky.
“I doubt it. If King Verdan wielded this kind of power, we’d have seen it long before now on the battlefield. He’s never been able to summon more than a short-lived heat wave in my presence.”
“Princess?” Weathergifts were the purview of royal houses, and strong weathergifts rarely passed outside the direct royal line.
“Possibly.” Wynter almost smiled at the thought. “That would certainly make things interesting, wouldn’t it?”
Valik cast him a flat, emotionless look.
He returned a savage grin and gave a grunt of dark laughter that sounded more like a snow wolf’s warning growl. The brief, sharp-edged humor faded as quickly as it had come, and Wynter turned his attention back to the storm. Knowing what was coming, Valik and the rest of the Wintercraig men stepped back to give their king room.
“Well, princess,” Wynter murmured, “let’s see what you’re made of.”
He opened the source of his magic and drew power into his body. His vision went hazy white and began to whirl, as if a blizzard blew in the depths of his eyes. Power pushed against the edges of his control, seeking release. He squeezed his eyes shut to keep it caged.
The air around him began to spin, slowly at first, then with increasing speed, capturing the falling rain so that not a single drop touched him. Behind his closed lids, he could see the vortex begin to flash and spark. A crackling sound filled his ears—rain freezing in midair, exploding into brittle, porous ice crystals that showered down upon the ground.
He spread his arms, gauntleted palms facing up. The vortex grew wider still, and faster, until it was a howling wind that drowned out the storm’s raucous fury. He held the vortex for several seconds, feeding it power, nowhere near enough to approach his full, lethal strength, but enough nonetheless to make his capabilities known. Enough to make the weatherwitch yelp. He threw his arms up over his head, jerked his head back, and opened his eyes.
Concentrated power, surrounded by whirling wind and ice, shot skyward in a column of blazing light and plowed into the heart of the storm overhead. Lightning exploded across the sky, sending frightened onlookers rushing for cover. Rain froze in midair and shattered, sending a blizzard of ice crystals raining down upon the city.
He felt the weathermage’s breathless shock, tasted the scent of definite feminine power and outrage on the wind. And, to his pleasure, a hint of fear. Good. The precocious princess had probably never met her match. Until now.
She would learn, as her father had learned, that the Winter King was no spineless, pampered weakling to be threatened without a care. She would learn, as her brother would learn if the coward ever dared return to face the man he’d wronged, that the wild, impetuous tempest of summer was no match for the hard, relentless dominion of winter.
The first lesson had been given—and received. He felt the Summerlander witch withdraw from the sky. The wind fell silent and, aided by Wynter’s magic, the raging storm dissipated as quickly as it had formed, towering black storm clouds melting into thick swaths of winter gray. In the ensuing calm, snow fell in large, soft flakes to blanket the ground below.
Wynter turned to the cowering Summerlea steward. The man’s black eyes held raw fear now, and his bronzed skin had assumed a sickly grayish green cast. Good. Nothing birthed respect and acquiescence faster than fear.
“You may continue the tour,” the Winter King said.
With visible effort, the steward gathered his composure. He straightened the long folds of his burgundy wool and velvet robes and ran trembling hands through his perfumed hair, smoothing the shoulder-length black curls back into some semblance of order.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said when he was done, his tone filled with a new, much warier respect. “This way, please.” Sweeping one voluminously sleeved arm out before him to indicate that Wynter should precede him, the steward resumed the tour of the palace and city defenses.
As they turned the corner, Wynter glanced back up the road behind, to the upper bailey and ancient keep crowning the city mount. Which one, he wondered. Which one of King Verdan’s three lovely, headstrong daughters had thrown down the gauntlet?
Khamsin leaned against the wall, clutching her chest and breathing hard. For the second time today, she’d felt the hard edge of the Winter King’s power. Icy, fierce, instantly identifiable, it had plowed into her like a fist to the belly, driving the air from her lungs and sending her staggering backward to slam into the stone wall. Her ears were still ringing, and the lump at the back of her head made her hiss when she ran inspecting fingertips over it.
Summer Sun! She’d never known anyone besides herself capable of generating such concentrated fury in the skies.
She pushed off the wall, winced at the stab of pain from the swan’s egg on her skull, and headed down the servants’ hall toward the tower at an uncharacteristically restrained pace. No more confrontations for her today. Once she snuck into the tower and gathered up the dearest of her mother’s possessions, she would flee back to the sanctuary of her own room and stay there.