The Winter King (Weathermages of Mystral #1) by C.L. Wilson

PROLOGUE

Scarlet on Snow

King’s Keep

Vera Sola, Summerlea

“Do you have to go?” Seventeen-year-old Khamsin Coruscate clung to her beloved brother’s hand as if by her grip alone she could anchor him fast and keep him from leaving.

“You know I do. Our treaties with the Winter King are very important.”

“But you’ll be home soon?” Whenever he was gone, the ancient walls of the royal palace of Summerlea, which had been her home and her prison since birth, seemed somehow more confining, more restrictive.

“Not this time, little sister.” Falcon shook his head. A strand of black hair that had pulled free of the queue at the back of his neck brushed against the soft, dark skin of his cheek. “It will take weeks to negotiate the treaties.”

Khamsin scowled, and the wind began to gust, sending Kham’s habitually untamed hair whipping into her mouth and eyes. “Why does he have to send you? Why can’t his ambassador negotiate the treaty? He’s sending you away because of me, isn’t he? Because he doesn’t want you spending so much time with me.” Her hands clenched into fists. The wind sent her skirts flying, and a dark cloud rolled across the sun.

Their father, King Verdan IV of Summerlea, didn’t love her. She knew that. He kept her isolated in a remote part of the palace, hidden away from his court and his kingdom, on the pretext that her weathergifts were too volatile and dangerous, and she couldn’t control them. That was all true. Kham’s gifts were dangerous, and she couldn’t control them any better than she could control her own temper. Until now, however, he’d never stooped to sending his other children away to keep them from visiting her.

“Here now. Be calm.” Falcon smoothed her wayward curls back, tucking them behind her ears. Compassion and pity shone softly in his eyes. “I wish I didn’t have to leave you. But Father believes I’ll have the best chance of getting what we want from Wintercraig, and I agree with him.” Summerlea, once a rich, thriving kingdom renowned for its fertile fields and abundant orchards, had been in a slow decline for years. Although the nobles and their king maintained a prosperous façade for political and economic purposes, beneath the gilded domes and bright splendor of Summerlea’s palaces and grand estates, the rough tatters of neglect were beginning to show. “Besides, you won’t be alone while I’m gone. You have Tildy and the Seasons.”

“It isn’t the same. They aren’t you.” He was the handsome Prince of Summerlea, charming, witty, heroic. He’d lived a life of adventure, most of which he shared with her, entertaining her with the tales of his exploits . . . the places he’d seen, the people he’d met. His hunts, his adventures, his triumphs. No matter how much her nursemaid, Tildavera Greenleaf, doted on Khamsin, or how often Autumn, Spring, and Summer, the three princesses known as the Seasons, snuck away from their palace duties to spend time with their ostracized youngest sister, Falcon was the one whose visits she couldn’t live without.

“Now there’s a pretty compliment. Careful, my lady. You’ll turn my head.” He smiled, and warmth poured into her. It was no wonder the ladies of their father’s court swooned at the slightest attention from him. Falcon had a magical way about him. He could literally charm the birds from the trees with his name-gift—controlling any feathered creature on a whim—and the weathergift inherent in his royal Summerlander blood was stronger than it had been in any crown prince in generations. It was as if the Sun itself had taken up residence in his soul, and its warmth spilled from him each time he smiled.

Kham took a deep breath. Birds weren’t the only creatures susceptible to Falcon’s charm. In the face of his warm smile, the sharp edge of her temper abated, and in the skies, the gathering storm began to calm. Perhaps King Verdan truly had chosen to send his only son as envoy to Wintercraig for political reasons. Long, long ago, as a small child crying herself to sleep, she’d decided Falcon was the reincarnation of Roland Triumphant, the Hero of Summerlea, the brave king who had defeated an overwhelming invasion force with his wit, his weathergifts, and a legendary sword reputed to be a gift from the Sun God himself. If anyone could coax the cold, savage folk of the north into concessions most favorable to Summerlea, Falcon could.

“Will you at least write to me?” she asked.

“I’ll send you a bird every week.” He tapped her nose and gave her a roguish grin. “Cheer up. Just think of all the sword fights you’ll win when you’re fighting invisible opponents instead of me.”

Kham rolled her eyes. He’d been teaching her sword-fighting for years, but she had yet to best him in a match.

“You know,” she said, as they walked towards the doorway leading back into the palace, “it might actually be a good thing that you’ll be spending months in Wintercraig.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You can use that time to find out what happened to Roland’s sword.”

Falcon tripped on an uneven flagstone and grabbed the trunk of a nearby tree to steady himself. “I’m sure I’ll be much too busy to chase fairy tales, Storm.”

She frowned in surprise. “But you’ve always believed the stories were true.” Blazing, the legendary sword of Roland Soldeus, had disappeared shortly after the heroic king’s death. Legend claimed it was the Winter King, the father of Roland’s betrothed, who had spirited the sword away but that one day Roland’s true Heir would reclaim it. Every royal Summerlea prince for the last two millennia had dreamed of finding the legendary blade and bringing it back home where it belonged. Falcon had spent years chasing lead after lead, determined that he would be the one to find Blazing and restore Summerlea to its former glory.

“What about those letters?” she added. “The really old ones you found tucked in that monastery? You said they proved the stories were true.”

“That was six years ago. I was seventeen. I wanted the stories to be true.” He gave her a quick hug and a brotherly kiss on the forehead. “I’ve got to run. I’m meeting with Father and his advisors to go over our list of demands and concessions one last time before I leave. I’ll see you in a few months.”

“I’ll miss you every day.” She trailed after him, feeling bereft and forlorn when Falcon turned the corner and disappeared from view. But this time, she also felt confused. She’d never known Falcon to give up on something he felt passionately about. And he’d been passionate about finding Roland’s sword. He’d been certain he was on the right trail—and certain he was Roland’s true Heir. He’d shared his discoveries with her because he knew she was just as hungry as he to find the legendary sword.

So why would he deny it now?

Gildenheim, Wintercraig

“She’s not good for you.”

Wynter Atrialan, King of Wintercraig, cast a sideways glance at his younger brother. “Don’t say that, Garrick. I know you’ve never liked Elka, but in six months’ time, she will be my bride and your queen.”

Garrick shook his long, snow silver hair. Eyes as bright and blue as the glacier caves in Wintercraig’s icebound Skoerr Mountains shone with solemn intensity that made the boy look far older than his fifteen years.

“You love too deeply, Wyn. From the moment you decided to take her to wife, you’ve blinded yourself to her true nature.”

Wynter sighed. “I should not have shared my worries with you when I first met her.” Wyn was an intensely private man, but he’d never kept secrets from Garrick. Not one. Wyn had raised his brother since their parents’ death ten years ago. And in those years, he’d never tried to sweeten the ugly world of politics, never tried to gloss over his fears or concerns—even when it came to the more personal but still political matter of selecting a queen. If something happened to him, Garrick would be king, and Wyn didn’t want his brother thrown into such a position without preparation.

Unfortunately, the years of openness and plain, unfettered talk had paid unanticipated returns. Because of his unflinching honesty with Garrick, no one knew Wynter better than his young brother. Not even Wyn’s lifelong friend and second-in-command, Valik. Such deep familiarity could be as troublesome as it was comforting.

“She is cold,” Garrick insisted. “She does not love you as she should. She wants to be queen more than she wants to be your wife.”

“Elka is a woman of the Craig. She is as reserved with her feelings as I.”

“Is she? So that is why she laughs and smiles so warmly when the Summerlander is near?”

Wynter frowned a warning at his brother. “Careful, Garrick. Elka Villani will be my wife and queen. Insult to her is insult to me.”

“I offered no insult. I merely asked a question. And based on my observations, it’s a perfectly legitimate one.”

“You are misreading what you see. Elka knows it’s vital the Summer Prince feels welcome here if we are to come to an amicable agreement.” The lush, fertile fields of Summerlea provided much-needed sustenance to the folk of Wintercraig during the harsh, cold months of a northern winter. Their grains, fruits, and vegetables, which Wintercraig bought with furs, whale oil, and forest products, could mean the difference between life and death for his people during years when their own harvests were poor. That had, unfortunately, been quite often of late since the summers had grown shorter and food from Summerlea had been growing steadily more dear after Wynter had taken the throne. Falcon Coruscate, son of the weathermage king who ruled Summerlea, had come three months ago at Wynter’s invitation to negotiate terms of a new treaty that would ensure longer summers in the north and more affordable trade in foodstuffs for the winters.

“She makes him feel welcome to more than the court,” Garrick corrected. “She flirts.”

Wyn arched a brow. “And if she does, where’s the harm in it? A pretty face and a sweet smile can persuade a man better than cold figures and dry treaties—especially self-indulgent peacocks like the Summer Prince.” He smiled when Garrick rolled his eyes. “You don’t remember our mother, but she could charm a Frost Giant into the fire. Father used to call her his secret weapon. Elka merely uses her gifts to aid the realm, as any good queen would.”

Garrick gave a snort. “How fortunate that she takes to the task so well. All right, all right.” He held up his hands in surrender when his brother’s glance sharpened. He paused a moment, using hammer and chisel to chip unwanted ice from the frozen sculpture he was working on, then added, “But even if you trust her, you’d best keep an eye on the Summerlander. He’s up to something.”

“Foreign dignitaries are always up to something. That’s called politics.”

“He’s been asking too many questions about the Book of Riddles.”

Wyn’s hand stilled momentarily in its work on his own sculpture. “Has he?” He tried to pull off nonchalance but shouldn’t have bothered. Garrick knew him too well.

“That’s what he’s really here for. To get the Book and find Roland’s sword.”

Roland’s sword was a fabled Summerlea weapon of inconceivable power. It had disappeared three thousand years ago, not long after the Summer King who first wielded it sacrificed his life to save his kingdom from invasion. Many myths and legends swirled around its disappearance. One of those legends suggested that the Winter King of that time, fearing the sword’s power would be misused by Roland’s successors, had smuggled the sword out of Summerlea and hidden it in a place it would never be found. The Winter King had also left behind a book of obscure clues and riddles that supposedly led to the sword’s secret hiding place, in case his own descendants one day had need of the legendary weapon’s vast power.

“Well, good luck to him with that,” Wynter said. “The sword is a myth. It’s long gone by now, if it ever existed at all. And he won’t find whatever treasure the Book actually does protect, either, because he will never find the Book. It’s kept in a place no man can go.”

“But Elka can.”

He scowled. “Garrick, stop. She is my betrothed. She will be my queen. She would never betray me.”

Garrick heaved a sigh. “Fine. She is your true and worthy love. I’ll never suggest otherwise again.”

“Good.” Wyn pressed his lips together and focused on the small block of ice sitting on the pedestal before him. Patient as time itself, he carved away the excess ice until he revealed the hidden beauty inside. Fragile, shimmering, a bouquet of lilies emerged, petals curved with incredible delicacy, each flower distinct and perfect, rising from slender stems of ice. “What do you think?” he asked when it was done.

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