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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 4: Birds of Prey

part 1

Going back to my room, I have much to think about. No one comes near me — no court visits yet. This is only to be expected. News of my visit to Majvaz will have spread like a disease. People are waiting to see what folly I’ll commit next. I’m wishing I knew myself.

Finally, I touch the screen, call Michal and send him for paper and ink. With some care, I write to my sister Mireio requesting an audience. I take pains with the calligraphy and it’s only when I finish that I remember she should visit me. But I’m tired and not inclined to write it all over again. I seal the letter with the emerald, reaching for my falconer’s glove, and ask Michal to deliver it. Then I open the casement.

Mireio replies immediately. Her peregrine alights on the sill, bearing a scroll tied in ribbon. I sigh and hold him on my wrist while I disentangle the ribbon from his jesses.

I set the peregrine free at last, and he waits on the sill for my reply. My hand is already tired with writing so I tie the ribbon in a bow, drop it in a pouch, and return it. The ribbon means Wait and I will follow this to you.

Maybe I was careless too, putting my thoughts in writing — the magic that steals words — but I want a record of this meeting between us.

I wash my face in cold water. I ignored the pitcher earlier and now I have no wish to call the servants to me. I look again at the formal robe, deciding that with the emerald I’m dressed enough. I’ll wear my own clothes from the temple. My hair is wet, and I tie it back before leaving my chamber.

I asked Michal, and he said to leave my chambers, ‘The prince has only to command.’ It still irks me that I can’t come and go as I please without exciting attention and comment. It’s subtle that I have to command to be released. This time I dismiss Michal and descend the spiral alone.

When I knock at Mireio’s door, the same maid lets me in. She has a pretty face, and I’m lonely at night. Still, much as I like the idea of inviting her to my room, I know she can’t say no. Such vanity when princes want to be loved. I hesitate, thinking she can hardly ask me.

Mireio is smiling. ‘I’ll send her to you.’

I was going to say no then remember I need Mireio’s help. I nod with what grace I can muster.

‘Sister, can you accompany me on a journey? I need a lady governess for the princes.’

‘You have only to command.’

‘I’d rather ask you.’

She brushes aside the courtesy. ‘There is no need. You have an escort?’

‘Majvaz is sending five hundred men.’

‘To guard two children?’

‘To protect them.’

She blinks a little at that, and I see the thin line of a frown. Then she shakes her head. ‘No!’

‘No?’ My tone is glacial. This is right out of the ritual.

‘I’m sorry I can’t help you.’

I place my hand over hers and feel her recoil. This is how it will always be if I go through with this. Fortunately, she’s told me all I need to know. Frivolous Mireio won’t lend her name to murder. For a moment, I consider taking her into my confidence, but the risk is too great.

I smile and say, ‘I think you misunderstand. I am out of practise with courtly language. There’s no insult intended — the king knows you will take good care of his children. There is no one else I can trust.’

Mireio lets out her breath. ‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t go with you.’

Better and better — she is braver than I thought. I kiss her hand. ‘Our father will be pleased. There is of course a title that goes with the role of guardian to the king’s heirs and a generous allowance.’

Mireio is the youngest and poorest of all of us — her mother merely a concubine. Only the king’s affection gives her the title she enjoys at court. A royal duchy would be something. I’ve picked the right bait.

There’s a funny taste in my mouth. I suppose each and every one of us has a price. One day I’ll come to know the value of mine.

Meanwhile there are preparations to make and a court banquet to sit through that night. The imperial ambassador is here to negotiate ‘a closer union’ between the Empire and our kingdom. We’re honoured — and concerned — because the annual visit is usually in the autumn. The Empire’s spies must know the true state of my father’s health after all.

We’re all to be in attendance, even me. The servitors bring me more of those robes and I’m looking for something I can bear to be seen in when there’s a knock on my door. I’m annoyed to be interrupted and even more surprised when I see who it is. My sometime protector on the journey is now assigned as my master at arms.

‘Garaile!’ I hadn’t realised quite how friendless I felt in my home city, even if he left me at the doors to the court.

He kneels, tendering the scroll that shows his office, and I have no idea what to do other than take it from him, feeling stupid.

Unlike my father’s state, there are no lurking servitors to whisk it away so I put it on the mantelpiece and turn to see him grinning at me.

‘Get up! No ceremony.’ I speak awkwardly then hold out my hand, which he seizes in a strong grip. I wonder if he’s going to let me go. I’m laughing but there’s something breathless in it.

‘Let go!’

He holds me tighter and pulls me into his arms. Is this court etiquette, letting him seduce me? It’s not much of a conquest. I’m never going to push him away. Even while I give in to his kiss I’m thinking hard: I need him to be loyal, and who is closer than a lover? Maybe he feels my uncertainty. He lets me go.

For a moment, I hesitate but my need for him overcomes my scruples. Maybe there is some reason why princes receive guests in their bedchambers. It is certainly convenient for the present purpose. Ruler or scared youth — I just want him to hold me. I’m shaking — somewhere in the back of my mind is the growing knowledge that I can’t let him live to tell tales of me.

Neither of our motives is pure. Desire and warmth enough, even a glimmer that might if kindled grow into love. Would he come to me if I didn’t hold the regency? He was quick enough to leave me before. For now, I put such doubts at rest and use what arts I have to bind him closer to me. Isn’t that how it always is?

Princes attract worship and love — a strange choice of words. We take what we can. For now, there is passion and release. Like all my father’s children, I’m always eager to live for the day. Which one of us knows when the night will come?

Inevitably, it comes sooner. Servitors light lamps and guide me to my bath. I might have asked Garaile to scrub my back, but when they arrive, we are seated by the fire. Garaile restored to his formal court dress — myself lounging in fur robe and trousers casually pulled on — I am still the prince. I speak some ritual formula, dismissing him and he leaves, though the lilt to his lips defies decorum.

I don’t suppose the servants are fooled, but who cares? I worry that I’ve drawn Garaile into danger, but he made the first move, and I need his help — romance of a sort. Being poor in gold, I give what I can.

They send a boy to attend my bath — thin with frightened eyes and cheekbones sculpted by lack of food. He is pathetically eager, pouring oils and strewing scented herbs from shaking hands. It’s obvious he’s there to serve me in any and every way. I send him away. Later I have leisure to wonder what might come to him for failing to please me, but it’s too late to call him back.

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Proceed to Part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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