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Winter Ship

by Sarah Ann Watts

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Chapter 1: Wolf’s Paw

part 2

Master Fadil hastens into speech, ‘A thousand apologies, Excellence. The Prince—’

‘Is a graceless whelp?’ My great-uncle holds up a hand like a claw. ‘Do not distress yourself, Good Master. I came merely at my nephew’s bidding to see that his fledgling is as yet... unhatched.’

There is a slight emphasis on ‘my nephew’s bidding’ that alerts me. Few would speak of my father the King in those informal terms. The priests are impressed as Lucid intends, but I know he is seeking to convey a message.

‘I would speak with your charge in private.’

To my amazement, I see the Hierophant rise from his chair as if to quit the room.

‘I would not disturb Your Grace’s council. It is a fine morning, we will take the air outside.’

His definition of fine does not match mine. If the cold does not freeze us, the driving sleet blind us, then the wolves that roam the forest may see us as a means to break their fast — and I am shivering with no cloak.

I could deal with the wolves but that would leave me exposed for the freak they whisper I am. I suspect this is all part of my uncle’s plan, but who am I to disobey the will of the King? Lucid is my father’s envoy after all.

When he raises a beckoning hand, I follow, slouching a little to convey reluctance. In truth I’m so eager to hear what he has to say, I’m almost treading on his heels.

We walk some paces through the snow. The sleet has halted. I know the sudden break in the weather has everything to do with my great uncle raising a hand as if to swat away a fly. It even feels a little warmer and, once we reach the shelter of the forest, he drops all pretence and a snow globe glimmers over us. Lucid does so love to put on a show, magician that he is.

‘Light and fire,’ he says quietly and throws me a fur cloak. He has conjured seats lined with velvet cushions, and a flask sits upon a table sculpted from ice. He sees me looking and passes it over.

‘Water into wine. I showed you that last time. You want hot chocolate, Kyran, you make it.’

I am not going to play his games and rise to the challenge. ‘This will be fine.’ His next words make his disappointment clear.

‘You know, your master is right. Your manners do leave something to be desired.’

I flush at that. ‘Forgive me, Excellence.’

Lucid blinks a little in irritation. ‘Silly me, I forgot the goblets.’

This is his next test and, chilled as I am, my concentration wavers. It takes longer than it should for me to shape goblets out of the snow. When I finally achieve the transmutation into silver, I try to compensate for my lack of speed with engraving our initials on the rim. Lucid is less than impressed.

‘You haven’t been practising.’

This is true. ‘I wasn’t expecting you, Excellence.’

This admission on my part is a bad move. I listen as Lucid outlines the five precepts. One is that old proverb about never knowing the hour and lighting lamps. I’m kind of looking forward to the bit about the sacred virgins and what happened when they spilled the oil, but he knows me too well and breaks off abruptly.

That gives me a chance to speak and ask the questions I’ve held pent up while he puts me through my paces. ‘My father didn’t send you.’

‘I came of my own accord. I heard you’d been caught again. They punished you, not the surrogate?’

I shift the cloak around my painful shoulders. Another admission — why does Lucid compel me to bare all my griefs?

‘Show me.’

My tunic is stuck to my back with dried blood. Lucid rips it away, and I almost bite my tongue in an effort not to cry out. He cleans the gashes and anoints them with salve from the battered satchel he carries everywhere.

‘There will be questions asked if I heal too soon.’

He shrugs at that. ‘I think not. You may have lost the king’s favour, Kyran, but you still bear his blood and they have no right to spill it.’

Lucid reminding me of my disinheritance shouldn’t hurt but it does. He takes my face in his hands, wiping away the tears with his thumbs. Too rough for comfort but I try to explain, knowing even as I speak I have said too much. ‘There are five already who bear the scars for me. You think I like to see others bleed and feel their hate? This time I took it on myself.’

‘That’s why they sent you to the cell.’

I nod. ‘What did you think? It was that or they’d have killed me anyway.’

‘No. They wouldn’t dare. Now they have to cleanse the temple, and if your father hears of this...’

‘Who is going to tell him?’

He smiles, and I feel my heart pounding. I stop myself saying, ‘Please,’ before it chokes me. It’s not death I fear — more the knowledge of what they can use me for and the means they would use to compel my obedience.

‘Then make the change, Kyran. Practise your skills!’ He hands me a feather from the white bird and a coin that bears the head of a wolf on one side and a man on the other. The man’s face is not unlike mine.

‘I can’t. Not just like that. You can’t expect me to.’ I am stuttering, afraid. Easy for him to tell me what I must do. He doesn’t have to bear the pain of it, face the grief if others find out.

‘Kyran, there is no shame.’

I look at his patched and faded robe, a sign of his supposed poverty, and grimace. ‘Are you saying you didn’t pay a price?’

He smiles a little at that. ‘Kyran, we all do what we must. I have created a shield for us, a shift in time. It is safe for you to show me what you can do. Better me, so I can help you, rather than face the change alone.’

There is eagerness in his face that belies his solicitude. I sense that for him my abilities mean power, something he can use to gain the place at court he has always been denied. I am afraid I will disappoint him, equally afraid of the strange and intrusive demands he places upon me.

‘I change for no man’s purpose but my own. What is it to you?’

He sighs. ‘Kyran, you mistrust me but you have no need. All that I urge on you is for your own protection. Your father is ailing. Who will protect you when Majvaz is king?’

Bile rises in my throat. I am the king’s forgotten son, born to his first wife before he put her away and made a political alliance with the Empire. His imperial wife’s dowry was our independence. It is her son who must succeed as heir.

This is why I was sent away to this temple, dedicated to the Goddess. Should any come to doubt the quality of my dedication, then I will die quietly in my sleep, prey to the same wasting sickness that killed my mother not three months after my birth.

My father likes to play his games and keeps me alive as a pawn, in case the Empire is ever tempted to go back on its bargain.

‘I know I am forcing this on you but believe me.’ Lucid draws his hand over his face in a weary gesture that makes me realise how frail he has become since our last meeting, the bones like sticks beneath his skin.

‘If I could spare you I would, but there is little enough time left for you to grow into your full strength. There are those who lack my patience and will seek to break you for their own ends. Worse than that, there are those who fear you and will seek to strip you of power. I would not see you cast into the wilderness, maimed as I was.’

I don’t know if he seeks to reassure me or terrify me into compliance. He’s always been hungry for power — and revenge. I’m a weapon he thinks he can use.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts

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