The Winter King (Weathermages of Mystral #1)(6) by C.L. Wilson

The air grew a little colder as they entered the keep, the surroundings a bit more lonely and somber, but Wynter actually liked that better than the crowded frills and luxuries of the palace. Cold stone and privacy suited his nature. He was a man who lived in a harsh, uncompromising land of solitude, danger, and stark beauty.

The small party climbed two flights of stone steps in the tower before reaching the floor that housed the newly renovated Queen’s Bower. A knot of young, gray-clad serving girls stood at attention just inside the wide, arching doorway that led into the bower. They bobbed erratic, nervous curtsies as he passed.

Wynter walked through a set of wide double doors into the long-abandoned room his spies had told him was a rotting ruin. However deteriorated it might have been before, nothing now could be further from the truth. The room sparkled and gleamed from corner to corner, and the air was rich with the scents of flowers, herbs, fresh sawdust, and a strong sprinkling of bleach. The furnishings were exceptional, both in quality and beauty. Wynter’s gaze roved over the room, searching for subtle points of complaint. He found none. Verdan, it seemed, had outdone himself.

“This will do.” He glanced at the servant girls. “Prepare my bath.”

They squeaked and bobbed and nearly tumbled over each other like a litter of clumsy wolf pups in their rush to do his bidding.

“I will expect refreshments and your daughter’s company within the hour,” he reminded the Summer King with a cool look.

“Of course.” Verdan bowed his head slightly. “Newt here will see to any other needs you may have. Just use the bellpull to summon her.” He pointed to a long, tasseled pull near the double doors. “I had thought we would discuss terms in the map room downstairs. Will two hours from now give you sufficient time to prepare?”

“Two hours is fine.” He didn’t want to leave Verdan stewing for too long, lest worry blossom into something unwise.

“I’ll send my steward Gravid to guide the way.” Verdan spun on his heel and departed.

The Mistress of Servants lingered behind long enough to drop a quick, deep curtsy and reiterate the offer of her services. “If you need anything, Your Majesty, anything at all, just call on Newt. I’ll see you get whatever you desire.”

“Very good.” There was an obsequiousness to her tone and slyness to her darting gaze that he did not care for. “For now, Newt, privacy is what I desire most. And Newt? Wintercraig kings are addressed as ‘Your Grace,’ not ‘Your Majesty.’ ”

“I understand, Your Grace. Of course, Your Grace. Just send the girls out when they’re done.” She bowed and backed out of the Queen’s Bower. The doors, now guarded by Wynter’s own men stationed outside in the hall, closed behind her.

Silence fell over the bower, broken only by the sound of splashing water coming from the bathing chamber. Wynter and Valik stood still and wordless, watching each other and waiting in patience silence. A moment later, the four trembling young maids emerged from the bedchamber like wary does mincing into an open glade.

“Your bath is ready, sir,” one of them whispered.

“Good.” Wynter jerked his head toward the double doors. “Out.”

The maids bolted.

Valik waited until they heard the sound of the maids’ shoes clattering down the stone steps before speaking. “Well, he managed it.”

Wynter nodded. “Surprisingly well, too.” He stripped off his gauntlets and tossed them on a nearby table, then walked to the two large, glassed windows cut into the stone wall and threw up the sash on each of them. Cold brisk air swirled in, carrying with it a light flurry of snow. He breathed deep and left the windows open so the draft could clear away the sweet, heavy aroma hanging in the room. “It seems Verdan is sincere in his efforts to be accommodating. Perhaps he’ll acquiesce to my terms after all, and I can take what I’ve come for through peaceful means rather than violence.”

Valik grunted, plucked a round green grape from a bowl of fruit, and popped it into his mouth. He bit down, then grimaced and spit the crushed grape into his hand. “Sour. You didn’t allow warmth enough for their crops to ripen this year.”

“That was the plan.”

“I suppose. Just didn’t think I’d have to suffer the results.” He sighed. “I hope there’s something decent to eat around here.”

“Stay and share my meal with me.”

Valik gave a grunting laugh. “Don’t think so, tempting though it is. That Autumn is a fine piece of Summerland bounty. They all are. Lucky you.”

“Lucky me,” Wynter agreed with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

His friend started to say something—no doubt a continuance of the argument they’d been having since leaving the encampment this morning—but he caught himself, and said instead, “Water’s hot. Go bathe. She’ll warm to you a bit better if you don’t stink of horse and travel.”

Wynter arched a cool brow. “I’ve already told you, she could be cold as a block of ice, and it won’t change my mind.”

Valik sighed and shook his head. “An occasional chill in the bedroom keeps things fresh, Wyn, I’ll grant you that. But cozy your bare ass up to a glacier night after night, and eventually your extremities will freeze and fall off. Including the important ones.” He raised both brows suggestively.

Wynter snorted. “No Summer witch has it in her to be that cold.” He waved a hand at the door. “Go. Get cleaned up, find some decent food, and meet me in the map room in two hours.”

“I’ve said my piece. Won’t say it again.” Valik saluted by tugging one of the silvery white braids dangling from his temple, then ruined the image of stoic acceptance by adding, “Will say ‘told you so’ when the time comes, though.” He laughed at Wynter’s glare and headed for the door. “Map room. Two hours. I’ll be there, my king. Enjoy your meal . . . and your princess.”

“Frost brain.” The velvet pillow Wynter threw at him bounced harmlessly off the closing door and slid across the floor.

Thanks to Valik’s irritating prod, Wynter had half a mind to meet the princess not only stinking of horse but fully armored as well. The scented mist wafting in from the bathing chamber changed his mind. He was tired. He’d been in the saddle, waging war, bereft of female companionship and most of life’s gentler pleasures for three years. But the war was over now, and the Summerlea princesses were beautiful. He couldn’t deny that a part of him longed to bring a little warmth back into his life.

He walked into the bedchamber, threw open the two windows there, and began to strip in the brisk, fresh air. With deft fingers, he loosened the numerous buckles holding his armor in place and shed the heavy silver plates of protective gear, setting each of them against the wall. His boiled leather inner armor joined the plate, as did the padded gambeson beneath that, and finally the innermost garment, quilted silk that covered him from neck to wrist and ankle.

Naked, he padded into the bathing chamber and stepped into the huge copper tub. A slow smile spread over his face as he slipped into the steaming water. Winter’s Frost, that felt good. Tight muscles began to relax. He leaned his head back against the broad, curved lip of the tub and stared up at the ceiling from half-closed eyes.

In the Craig, after a particularly cold day, he’d often enjoyed a dip in the hot volcanic springs of Mount Freika or a relaxing steam bath in the caverns beside the springs, but leading this war had kept him from home for the better part of three years. In all that time, he’d not allowed himself indulgences beyond those available to his troops. He’d shared the same hard ground, tepid baths, and plain camp fare as his soldiers. The only amenity he hadn’t partaken of with them was women. Elka had stripped him of all warmer passions when she left; the colder ones he’d poured entirely into his bitter, consuming three-year battle for vengeance.

And now, at last, victory was at hand. Summerlea had robbed him of both his queen and his heir. He planned to return the favor.

After his bath, Wynter emptied his saddlebags and donned a flowing, buttonless cream silk shirt and matching woolen breeches. The loosely tied closures bared a casual vee of muscled chest and the cream silk complemented the golden hue of his skin. The breeches and a pair of butter-soft golden leather boots hugged his calves, outlining the muscular legs and hindquarters gained from years of combing the rocky highlands of the Craig.

A knock sounded on the bower door. He walked to the bedroom door, toweling his hair, and despite his own men standing guard, he picked up his sword before calling “Enter!” through the doorway.

The sound of an unlatching lock and the rattle of trays told him his dinner had arrived. He cast a glance through the open doors, counting two—three—maids, and two of his own men watching as they laid out his meal.

He returned to the bathing chamber and left the new arrivals to set up the brief repast, but he kept his sword within easy reach—just in case. The habits of war were hard to break. He was, after all, still a conquering king standing in the heart of the enemy territory.

Wynter tossed the towel on the edge of the bath and ran a brush through his long, pale hair. It was still damp and curled slightly at the ends in the moist warm air of the bathing chamber. He fastened it back with a gilded silver tie and hooked a shining silver ear cuff in the shape of a snow wolf—sign of his family clan—around his left ear. Three silver chains dangled from the ear cuff, each attached to a small silver bell bearing one of three Wintercraig runes symbolizing ice, fire, and the Great Hunt. On his right index finger, he wore his ring of office: an intricately carved platinum signet bearing the royal crest of the Snow Wolf clan. On the little finger of his left hand, he wore another platinum band, this one set with an enormous, breathtaking, blue-white diamond called the Wintercraig Star. Last, he pulled on a short, sleeveless vest of sky blue velvet embroidered in silver threads.

A glance in the beveled mirror hung on the wall reflected back an image of cool, understated elegance. That would do.

He slipped out of the bedroom and halted at the sight of not one but three darkly beautiful Summerlea princesses sitting at the glossy mahogany table.

Spring, Summer, and Autumn had come to share his meal.

In retrospect, Wynter realized, it was a boon to have such surfeit of royal companionship for his repast. He’d thought to observe the Autumn, to determine if she would suit, but enjoying the three of them together gave him a greater understanding of each. He’d taunted them a bit, with their own changed status, treating them more like servants than princesses, just to see if they would be as accommodating as their sire.

They did not disappoint. He’d seen the flash of defiance in Spring’s eyes just before she lifted her own wine cup to his lips as he’d commanded, the resentment in Summer’s when he’d ordered her to sing while he ate, and the way Autumn’s fingers had curled around the knife when he’d told her to cut an apple and feed him the pieces from her own hand after she had taken a bite from each. But he’d also seen each princess shiver when he ran a finger across her soft, pampered skin or leaned a little too close for comfort, and he’d watched each stifle her own flare of temper and bend herself to his will.

They were proud and haughty, like their father, but they were also wise enough to fear the Winter King. And that fear made them swallow their urge for defiance.

When the meal ended, he sent them away, pleased. He’d been right. Any of them would do. That would make things simpler.

Still wearing his cream silk trousers and shirt, with Gunterfys strapped to his hip and Valik striding beside him, Wynter entered the palace’s large map room. King Verdan, still in his ceremonial best, greeted Wynter with cool reserve.

“Verdan.” He nodded to the older man. Four other men stood beside the king, including the general of the last surviving Summerland army and three lords of the king’s council. “You four,” he commanded with brisk disregard, “get out.”

Outrage flashed across all four men’s faces, and across Verdan’s as well.

“What? How dare you, sir!” the general exclaimed.

“These men are my confidants and advisors, leaders of Summerlea,” King Verdan protested, casting a warning look at the leader of his last remaining army. “They have a right to be present at any peace negotiations.”

“Negotiations?” Wynter lifted a brow. “I have come to explain the terms of your surrender. They are nonnegotiable. You can accept them, or you and every living creature in Summerlea can die.”

“You’re bluffing,” one of the other three said. “If you wanted us dead, we’d already be so.”

“I do not bluff. I came here to end the war, but only on my terms. Since the day I took the throne, you Summerlanders set yourself against me, thinking my youth made me an easy mark, mistaking my restraint and efforts at diplomacy as signs of weakness. In your arrogance, you thought I could be easily dispatched, and Wintercraig would be yours for the taking. You thought wrong.” His eyes narrowed, his expression deadly cold, he leaned forward on the table. Frost whitened the polished surface. “You Summerlanders started this war, but I am here to finish it. You can either accept defeat—and the terms that go with it—or you can die. Either way makes no difference to me. I will take what I came for.”

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