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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Winter Ship: synopsis

Kyran, a king’s son, has been disinherited and exiled to a remote temple. One snowy morning, a messenger arrives to recall him to court, where he is to serve as governor of the king’s other children. Kyran is a seer and a child of the Falcon, but his paranormal abilities do not protect him from court intrigue. He must ultimately set out on a quest to find the Winter Ship and its destination.

Chapter 3: Lord Protector

part 1

I think I’ve allowed the chamberlain enough time. He should have thrown out whoever has seen fit to move into my old rooms by now. Surely my new role as protector should carry some privileges. When I reach a familiar door, I don’t bother to knock.

The last thing I expect is to enter upon a flurry of shrieks and petticoats. My sister’s maidservants scatter and she herself rises, with languid grace, from my favourite chair. At seventeen she is more exquisite than ever.

‘Kyran!’ She drops me a deep curtsey. ‘You honour me by this intrusion.’ Then I see she is smiling.

‘I suppose I should thank you for taking such good care of my apartments.’ Looking round, I hardly recognise them.

‘You aren’t going to ask me to move, are you? It would take my servants days to pack.’

Mireio was always like this. Elegant, delicate, twisting all our strings like the pegs on her harp.

I shake my head. Even knowing the artifice behind the artlessness, I’m susceptible as always. ‘I suppose not, Mir. But I need somewhere to sleep tonight.’

‘You’re in the tower.’

This sounds ominous, as though they haven’t quite decided if I am prisoner or guest.

She gestures, surrendering my chair. We both know that, graceless though I am, there’s no way I’ll be sitting while she stands. ‘Please,’ I say. ‘There’s no need.’ A maid brings another chair for me then kneels to pull off my boots.

‘Will you take a glass of wine? There are honey cakes.’

Part of me wants to say, ‘I’m not a child’ and part of me is touched because she remembered my favourite childhood treat. It seems churlish to refuse. I drink the wine. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was and how long it is since breakfast at the inn.

‘You look dead on your feet.’

This is probably true. Mireio looks fresh as a daisy, her face subtly painted as if she anticipated my visit. But I suspect she has made no special effort for me. Impeccable court style is natural to her, and, if anything, she has dressed informally for a quiet evening. Her deceptively simple robe is a weave of the finest fabric.

I feel like a vagabond beside her, but then I always did. Boy, you have a dirty face. The first thing I remember she said to me. I was five and bearing the marks of the kind of accident that always seemed to happen when Majvaz played with me. Disheveled despite my court finery, I feel out of place in this scented boudoir.

‘There are those who said you would never return.’ Her tone is bland but I know she is testing me.

‘I hardly expected this summons. I was content at the temple.’

‘Yet the king commands you.’

‘We are all his servants.’

Not a word out of place in the ritual; let her make of it what she can. Her pencilled brows contain a slight frown. ‘Kyran — will you not trust me?’

There is no safe answer to that.

‘Sister’ — I lay a slight stress on the word; thanks to my father’s latest decree, I am only a child of the queen, while she is a child of the king — ‘You will have to forgive me. In truth, I am tired and newly returned to the splendours of our court. It is a simple life at the temple. We spend much time in contemplation and prayer.’

She reaches out a cool hand and her fingers graze the latest bruise on my face. She can’t know how I came by it, but I read the old combination of concern and disappointment in her face. If I must fight, why do I always lose? But all she says is, ‘So I see.’

It would be easy to let down my guard. I have few friends at court, and Mireio was always my favourite sister. Over the fireplace, there is a family portrait: my father, his imperial queen — she was already dead when it was painted — and Majvaz. Mireio and I stand either side of the royal circle. Her mother, my foster mother, sits at the King’s feet.

I can’t eat the honey cake. My throat is dry. Memories of my mother’s funeral turn the rich crumbs to tasteless dust. I feed it to the wolfhound who lounges by my chair. He bolts it down gratefully.

‘It’s getting late.’

I rise to my feet and the room sways. The hippocras has gone to my head. I blink and grip the arm of the chair to steady myself.

Mireio smiles again, she is all solicitude, and takes my arm. ‘You will leave now?’

‘May I call on you again?’

At first, she pretends to adjust the lace on her dress and then she meets my eyes and nods. ‘You will be welcome, My Lord.’

Her use of my title startles me. She drops an elegant curtsey and I bow awkwardly. I have lost my court graces. You should never turn your back at court, but I’m not going to trip over the rugs or the wolfhounds.

Mireio takes my arm and leads me to the door. She kisses me formally on the lips in recognition of our relationship. It is also a gesture of trust, to show she has not poisoned me.

My head aches. I bow and the door closes behind me. The chamberlain is waiting with two acolytes. They bear torches and light me to my new chamber.

* * *

There are pages to attend me, but I dismiss them as soon as protocol permits. I need to be alone. I bolt the doors when they leave. Chill linen sheets leach heat from my body. Lying in the great bed feels like my grave. The guard’s spear strikes the stones as he paces the corridor outside my room.

I close my eyes and see the glow of my father’s fire, crimson like the setting sun. My eyes sting, and I burrow deeper under the quilt. Slowly warmth comes as I curl, hand to the dagger under my pillow. The draft from the casement whispers like a breath of ice. I was a fool to dismiss my attendants before they banked up the fire. Still, I have had colder nights. The wine takes hold, I slide into sleep.

I wake and I’m still breathing. There is a ribbon of grey at the window where the curtains don’t meet and a click as if a door has just closed. I push back the covers and make my way across marble to the door. Bolted as I left it last night. And why would an assassin shut himself in with me? I’m shivering, not just from the cold.

I could swear to the echo that roused me from slumber. I tread over to the embers of the fire and kindle a flame. I look at the portrait over the fireplace: an indolent matron in fur and feathers; some former queen. She glares at me disapprovingly. I give her an ironic salute and take myself back to bed where I lie, eyes slivered open, listening hard. All I can hear is the beat of my heart.

There is the ghost of a laugh. I tell myself sound travels at night. An ancient structure like this castle is full of creaks and sighs. Feeling ridiculous, I get up and throw my cloak over the portrait.

As my fingers graze the wall, the face changes to my own. The surface is smooth like metal, cold to the touch. I slide my fingertips over my reflection, curiously enlarged like a drawing on a frosted pane. The image dissolves.

Nothing further happens. In the end, I take myself back to my bed, watching as the blank screen fades, merging with the wall.

If Majvaz sends assassins, they will find a way in. The screen is a message I can’t read. Are they watching or guarding me? This puzzle will keep for the morning.

I wake late in a sunlit room. The bolts are in place. I try to shift them but lack skill to unlock the mechanism. I turn to find hot water, a simple breakfast, and my clothes laid out for me. But I don’t eat breakfast, not before several hours’ work usually, and these are not my clothes but those of a court dignitary.

I pick up the jug and basin, go into the washroom, close the door and lean my face against the glass. My breath mists and I think again of the screen, but this is only silvered glass. I look different — older — which is all to the good. I hope.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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