by Sarah Ann Watts
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 5: Ash and Blood
A soft tapping at my door. I have a long way to come back. There is a nightingale tangled in my dream and a scent of cherry blossom. Green light seeping beneath my lids, a flare of emerald and I retch. I feel I’ve woken too late.
My throat is dry. I open heavy eyes, pale gloom from the shuttered windows. It is too quiet. There are clothes strewn on the floor, a sour scent that curls like smoke.
There are no attendants within call. Cursing, I drag myself from the bed, snatching up a robe to answer my own door. I still can’t shift the bolts.
I regain my wits and say, ‘Come in.’ The door opens. Mireio’s maid giggles softly and falls forward into my arms. I catch her and she lays her cheek against mine before kissing me swiftly on the lips. Then she glides into the room, almost pushing me back, and shuts the door, with a laughing glance at the guard who let her in.
She is not unwelcome, though she seems over-familiar. Can she be drunk or am I? I doubt the stale wine on my breath is much of an inducement. It is cold in the room; I’m shivering, and her heat fails to warm me.
When she releases me, I stumble against the bed and fall. She guides me into a chair by the cold hearth as if I were an old man.
‘Are you well, My Lord?’
‘I hardly know.’ My mouth is dry. Is it a taste of fear or taint of poison?
She throws back the shutters. I wince at the sound and the light.
Swiftly she moves over to the jug and basin. She snatches up a cloth and wipes it over my face. Water runs down my neck but it brings me to myself.
It is only then that I can see the blurring face beneath her kerchief. ‘Mireio!’
‘Hush!’ She lays her hand across my mouth with scant ceremony. ‘Did you drink so much?
‘You know I didn’t.’
She sits on my lap and drapes herself over me, holding my face between her hands. Mireio is clever. Sitting as we are, the chair shields our faces from the screen. If anyone is watching they will see the prince diverting himself. I kiss her above the eye and draw her close so we can murmur like lovers. She is shaking, either with fear or with laughter. Her disguise is brilliant. None will look for the princess in the guise of her maid.
‘Where is everyone?’ Dust has already settled on the furnishings. The walls and floor show stark stone where the tapestries and rugs have been rolled up and taken away. There is a faded stain on the floor that I hope is wine.
‘The court has left for the summer palace. You slept for three days. The King looked in on you and said the prince could follow when he came to himself. He told your attendants to pack your belongings and ride with him.’
My hand goes to my face, and I note the stubble. Mireio hands me a flask and I drink thirstily: water, not wine.
She looks at me, shaking her head. ‘Majvaz sent Garaile to collect the children in your place. You are to join the King at court.’
‘No.’ I push her gently off my knee, pace over to the window and look down... several storeys.
I glance back at Mireio who smiles at me. ‘Garaile left for the Lowlands this morning. If we left now, we could still reach the princes before him.’
‘You said I was commanded to follow the King.’
Mireio stands beside me, her arm linked in mine. ‘He plans to spend several days in hunting, and there will be official receptions along the way. You could fulfill your commission and bring the princes home. You are still Regent. Garaile would defer to you.’
‘Or arrest me.’
‘You wear the emerald. What do you think will happen to those children if Majvaz reaches them before you?’
What will happen to me? This is a selfish thought, but she is right. Still, I don’t see why I should be the only one who has to put his neck on the line.
‘So will you ride to the marshes with me?’ I half-expect her to refuse the challenge, but I’m beginning to know her better.
She smiles. ‘Can I bring my cat?’
I blink, thinking I’ve misheard her. ‘Don’t tell me: you keep a familiar now?’
I’m joking, but the look in her eyes gives me pause. ‘Surely you would not accuse me of witchcraft, brother? I am as loyal and obedient to the king’s law as you are.’
Then she blows me a kiss. A faint brush of power, caressing as it raises a shiver. ‘My cat is pregnant. She shouldn’t really have this litter. I can’t leave her.’
‘So now I am to be midwife to a feline?’ I doubt my even tone deceives her.
‘Hardly!’ She leans forward to nuzzle my neck, her teeth grazing my skin. ‘I’m leaving this kingdom. The ambassador was kind to me. He’s been lonely since his wife’s death. Besides, he says he is fond of kittens. It doesn’t matter to him how many I bring with me. He said I was to tell you he’d take care of them, like his own children.’
I stare at her. ‘You would do that? Change their form and smuggle them out of the kingdom? You really think you can save them?’
She sighs. ‘Babies and kittens, they are all small animals. The change is simple. Think of it as a spell to protect the innocent. I promise no harm will come to the children.’
‘How can I be sure of that?’
Mireio smiles, lifting her face for a farewell kiss. ‘You should trust me. It was your own plan after all.’
I’m thinking that life as a hostage of the Empire is better than certain death. There is no safety for these children here while Majvaz lives.
I shrug. ‘You leave me no choice.’ I push her away as if suddenly impatient, bored with dalliance. ‘Return to your mistress. Tell the princess I will be with her shortly.’
Mireio curtsies to me. ‘You will find her at the pavilion.’
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Copyright © 2014 by Sarah Ann Watts