The Winter King (Weathermages of Mystral #1)(7) by C.L. Wilson

The general flushed a ruddy color and cast an outraged glance at his king. “Sire! There’s no need to accept this disgrace and humiliation. Say the word, and we will stand and fight. We’ll die to a man, like Roland and his army when they triumphed over Ranulf the Black.”

“You wish to die?” Wynter narrowed his gaze on the general. Cold fire came to his call, gathering, burning, at the backs of his eyes. “Very well, then. Die.”

The general went stiff, his mouth freezing open in a stifled cry.

“Stop.” Verdan wasn’t stupid enough to step in the path of the Ice Gaze, but he couldn’t stop himself from the quick, instinctive lurch towards the general.

“The wound you dealt me to start this war was personal,” Wynter said, holding his Gaze. “The price of peace is personal as well. It does not concern your armies or these men, and their presence is neither necessary nor desired.” The general’s lips had turned blue, and his skin had gone pasty white.

The Summer King capitulated. “Release him, and I’ll send them away.”

Wynter blinked and shuttered the power of his Gaze. “Better.”

He waited for the three openly terrified lords to depart. The general, shaking uncontrollably, had to be helped out the room by a trio of servants. “Give him a hot bath and wrap him in thick blankets,” he told the servants. “He won’t feel warm again for several days.”

When they were gone, he nodded to Valik, who slipped out the other door, leaving Wynter and Verdan alone.

Wynter crossed his arms and regarded his enemy in silence. The Summer King and his lords were pampered fools. Arrogant and treacherous, yes, but ultimately weak. They had never known true hardship until the hand of Wynter had fallen hard upon them. They roamed the hills and vales of Summerlea, preening and prideful, believing themselves lords of the earth, when in reality they—like the people they governed—were only sheep, fatted and dull-witted by decades of self-indulgence, easily herded to the slaughter.

It had not always been so. Once, long ago, the kings of Summerlea had been lions of men, true heroes, like Roland Soldeus, who had sacrificed everything so Summerlea could live free. But somewhere along the way, that shining spirit, that noble, defiant bravery, had died out. Generations of kings who’d held the fire of the Sun in their hearts had given way to weaker, less noble men, willful, nihilistic parasites who gorged themselves on Summerland bounty and cloaked themselves in the shreds of their ancestors’ glory.

And their people, those sheep they kept glutted on a never-ending flow of wealth from the country’s fertile fields, vineyards, orchards, and herberies, never noticed the difference.

Oh, they’d rallied a few worthy defenses when Wynter had first marched upon their lands, but he’d known their will would not last. He’d continued to press them, relentless and without mercy, stripping their armies of the few brave souls still among them until only the sheep remained. And then, he’d simply spread winter across their lands and waited. Hardship sapped what tiny flickers of defiance still remained, and the last two battles had been easily won.

“Well?” Verdan prompted when the silence dragged on. “What are your terms? What is the price of peace between us?”

Wyn had intended peace to come only when every Summerlander lay frozen and lifeless beneath a blanket of ice and snow. But the helpful informant who’d snuck into his camps several months ago had convinced him there was another, more satisfying victory to be had.

“Your son, Prince Falcon, stole the woman who was to have been my queen and one of the irreplaceable treasures of my house.” Wynter pushed off the map table and began to pace. “He ran off with them both while I was fighting the brigands he sent to destroy one of my people’s villages. But that was not enough for him. During his escape, your son put an arrow through my brother Garrick’s throat. My brother was just a boy, not yet sixteen, but your son left him to die in the snow and fled like the thieving coward he is.”

Wynter turned, his face a frozen mask, his eyes burning ice. “Your son robbed me of my queen, one of my kingdom’s greatest treasures, and my heir. You will return to me that which I have lost.”

Verdan went pale, and his jaw dropped open in a stunned gape. “I? I’m no miracle worker. I can’t return your brother from the dead, and I’m sure your spies have already told you no one knows where Falcon is. Not even I. If Falcon did take your queen and your treasure, as you have claimed, only he would know where to find them.”

“A queen, a treasure, and an heir. That’s what you will provide me. You have proclaimed many times that the greatest treasures of your kingdom are your lovely daughters. So I will take one of your daughters to wife. She will have a year to fill her womb with an heir to claim both the Winter and the Summer Thrones. If she fails, she will be turned out to face the mercy of the mountains, and I’ll be back the following spring to claim another daughter. And so it will continue until I have my heir or you are out of daughters. That, Verdan, is the price of peace.”

CHAPTER 3

The Treasure of the Tower

Khamsin approached the closed, freshly gleaming double doors leading to the Queen’s Bower. Once more garbed in a gray servant’s dress with a cap to cover her distinctive hair and a white bandage wrapped around her wrist to hide her Summerlea Rose, she carried a stack of freshly laundered towels as her excuse to get inside the bower and access the solar to retrieve her mother’s things.

The Winter King was in the map room with her father, working out the terms of surrender. Khamsin knew enough about diplomatic negotiations to know he would be gone for hours. Plenty of time for her to retrieve her mother’s most treasured belongings.

The Wintercraig guards standing outside the bower doors searched her from head to toe and inspected the pile of towels for hidden weapons. She explained the bandage on her wrist as a burn from the pressing iron and bit her lip to hold back her outrage as searching hands took a bit too much liberty near her breasts. If they were looking for an excuse to do more, she didn’t give it to them, and they finished their inspection and let her pass.

As soon as the doors closed behind her, she hurried to the solar door on the southern wall. The key she’d nabbed from Tildy’s dresser slid easily into the lock and turned with a satisfying click. The solar door swung open.

Inside, the room that should have been bursting with Queen Rosalind’s treasures was all but empty, only a few shrouded lumps of furniture and a haphazard pile of lamps, artwork, and personal effects remained.

She wanted to weep. They had saved so little. She’d loved every worn stick, every moth-eaten inch of tattered velvet that her mother had ever touched, but her father’s servants had discarded most of it as worthless trash.

She forced down the anger and useless sense of loss. “Look on the bright side, Khamsin,” she muttered to herself, “at least there’s less for you to search through.”

She stepped into the solar, leaving the door unlatched and propped open just the tiniest crack so she could hear if anyone entered the bower. With a brisk sense of purpose, aware that each second that ticked by was a moment closer to the White King’s return, she began to search. She started with the sheet-covered furniture, pulling cloths away until she found her mother’s dresser, where she’d kept the most treasured belongings. Unfortunately, the top of the dresser had been cleared off, and its drawers emptied. Khamsin turned to the jumbled pile in the corner of the room and began rummaging through it.

Halfway through the pile, she found her mother’s golden brush, comb, and mirror, and that gave her hope. A layer or two deeper, she came up with the miniature oil painting. Finally, near the bottom of the pile, beneath a tangle of long-outdated gowns, she saw the familiar, cracked leather bindings of Queen Rosalind’s handwritten gardener’s journal and her diary. At last! Khamsin snatched the books to her chest and bent over them, rocking a little as her breath came in relieved sobs.

Sounds—the click of a door latch, then voices—wafted through the cracked solar door.

Her heart leapt into her throat. She jumped to her feet, her mother’s treasures clutched to her heart, and tiptoed to the door to peer out the narrow opening.

A pale-haired man in blue walked past her line of vision. The White King’s second-in-command. What had she heard the servants call him? Valik? Then another man, one she knew instantly without even a glimpse of his unforgettable face. White-haired, golden-skinned, clad in creamy silk and a pale blue velvet vest: the Winter King.

What was he doing back so soon? She drew back in instinctive fear, terrified that he might turn his ice-cold eyes upon the solar door and find her standing there.

The two of them were talking in voices too low for her to hear. Valik murmured something and headed back towards the doors. She heard them open and close. Then the Winter King walked past her line of vision again, and she heard the sound of water running in the bath, muffled by the closing bathroom door.

Time to leave. She stuffed her mother’s things in the deep inner pockets of her skirts and crept out into the bower, turning to close the solar door behind her but not daring to lock it for fear the White King would somehow hear the click of the bolt. She hadn’t taken more then two steps when a mocking voice froze her in her tracks.

“Well, well, what do we have here? A pretty little assassin come to slay the Winter King in his bath?”

Wynter watched the girl—a slender young thing in a gray servant’s dress—freeze like a doe scenting the hunter. Her head came up, eyes wide and frightened. She stiffened when she caught sight of him standing in the bedroom doorway, the sound of his bath still splashing merrily away in the empty bathing chamber. Her eyes met his. He smiled, and it wasn’t a pleasant expression.

She bolted.

With a darting speed many a runner in his land would be hard-pressed to match, she leapt across the room towards the doors. He didn’t chase her. He didn’t even call out though the guards stationed outside the door would easily have put an end to her flight. He just crossed his arms lazily over his chest and waited while Valik emerged from his concealment behind a large breakfront and blocked her escape route.

She skidded to a halt, half-crouched, arms outflung, and sucked in her breath with an audible gasp.

“Stay a while, won’t you?” Wynter murmured. He sauntered closer as she straightened and turned warily back to face him. He’d given Verdan the rest of the day and night to decide which daughter would wed Wynter. Was this assassin Verdan’s answer?

He let his gaze wander over the girl’s smooth, unlined face. She was quite lovely. Her skin a fine, warm, Summerlander brown, her heart-shaped face blessed with high, sculpted cheekbones, full lips, and a pointed little chin that had the look of stubbornness about it. Dominating it all was a pair of flashing, storm gray eyes beneath dark arching brows.

“Such a pretty face for such an ugly profession.”

“I’m no assassin!” she protested. “I’m just a maid. I came to freshen your bath before you returned.”

“Truly? But that way”—he tilted his head towards the door in the south wall—“does not lie my bath.” His brows lifted in mocking inquiry.

She swallowed, and he could see the vein in the hollow of her throat pulsing like a fluttering bird caught in a snare as she tried to figure her way out of the lie. “I . . . er . . . I . . .” Stammering, openly nervous, she began to back away. Her eyes darted to the left and right, seeking a possible path of escape.

Well, that was interesting. Wynter’s initial assumption underwent an immediate reversal. Whatever she was, this girl was no assassin. A professional would have planned an entrance, and exit, and a plausible excuse for her presence if she were caught. And Verdan would have chosen someone older and colder, someone who would have killed Wynter, died trying, or slit her own throat if she failed at both, just to keep from revealing who’d hired her.

One other thing was also clear: whatever her reasons for being here, they had nothing to do with tending his bath.

So, if not to kill him and not to serve him, why had she come?

He nodded at Valik. “Search her.”

She stood, trembling and white-faced, as Valik quickly patted her down. Valik’s shoulders stiffened when he reached the voluminous skirts. The girl lurched back, trying to keep Valik from revealing whatever he’d found.

Gunterfys flashed. A single drop of scarlet blood welled at the girl’s throat and trickled down her skin in the shadow of the shining sword tip tucked just below her chin. Wynter didn’t believe she was an assassin, but then again, astonishing though the thought might be, he could be wrong.

“Don’t move,” he advised. “My blade is very sharp, and Valik’s life far more important to me than yours. You wouldn’t want to make me nervous on his behalf.”

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