The Winter Prince

Page 1

Prologue

HE SAT ON THE floor before the hearth with his knees against his chin, the flames at his back, and warily watched his father’s face. His own face was in shadow, and though the April night was too warm for him to be so close to the fire, he did not move away. He did not want his father to see his face; the shadows made him feel safe.

He was an odd, adult child: thin but with a carefully controlled grace, with blank, unreadable, dark blue eyes and hair so pale it sometimes seemed white. His appearance unnerved people; this gave him uncanny strength at times, though not now. He had to think his words through several times before he could gather the courage to ask quietly, "Now that your wife has children of her own, will I go back to my mother?" His voice was soft and low and musical, and it too was somehow disturbing. He knew that his father had been waiting for him to ask that.

"Do you want to go?" his father asked in return, leaning forward a little in his chair so that he might see his son’s face more clearly.

The boy shrugged slightly. He was thinking: No, I am too much like you now; she will not want me back.

"When you first came here the decision was made by your mother and me. But you were not more than a child then; now you are old enough to decide for yourself."

His son asked carefully, "What do you want?"

"I would like you to stay," his father answered.

"So you can watch me?"

He did not mean to say that aloud. He hugged his knees and felt himself to be ugly and sinister, with his pale hair and barbed questions.

"No, little one," his father said patiently. "I don’t need to watch you. And I do not care for you any less now that I have two more children."

"Who are legitimate." The child finished the sentence for him with the word that his father would not use, and hearing himself speak so made him feel still more unnatural.

"They are very small, even for twins," his father said. "The boy, the second one, may not live. If he dies you remain my only son, and you are the eldest whatever happens. You are of less importance in name alone. In trust and wisdom you can be as far superior to anyone as you dare make yourself."

The child said nothing. His father’s words were calm, unaccusing and unquestioning, but he did not know how to answer them. He wished he did not have to make his father apologize for the children the man had wanted for so long. The air from the open window smelled cool and wet, and occasional stars glimmered through high, windswept clouds; the boy felt too hot, and would have liked to lean out the window into the soft spring night. But his thoughts burned through his head, flashes of lightning in the dark, and if he moved he might strike something. He held quiet. "My father, I don’t want your children to die," he said, not certain he meant this, but certain his father wanted to hear him say it. "You need not excuse them to me. They had more right to be born than I had, anyway."

"All who are born have a right to be," said his father. "But I am sorry for your sake. We all told you she would never have any children. Even she thought she could not."

"And now she has two," said the boy, and thought, I wonder what she feels? He had grown to like his father’s wife, stubborn and practical and quick to laugh; she spoke openly and directly, meant what she said and did not mean more than she said—so different from his own mother, who frightened all who knew her with her subtleties and mysteries.

His father spoke his name gently and said, "You must not be angry with her."

"I’m not," the child said, and added, but not aloud: She is not the one who threatens me, it is the second twin, the little boy who might not be strong enough to survive. But my father, you are as much to be blamed for his existence as she is.

He felt bruised and sore. He did not want to be in his father’s house, belonging in no way except as a member of his father’s family, and not really belonging there, either. Through the storm in his head he thought suddenly, I am tired.

His father spoke again. "My child, it will be a long time before those two small ones will be a threat to you. They cannot walk, they cannot talk, they cannot think."

"Not yet," the child answered.

His father suddenly left his chair and laid heavy, gentle hands on his son’s shoulders, forcing him to look toward the light. "When you are older I will make certain that you have the chance and challenge to prove yourself," he told his child. "Eight years, ten years—wait that long. Then you can do as you like, choose to serve me, travel, return to your mother in the Northern Islands. Or having done all that, you can come back. You can always come back. Only wait. By that time you will be adult, coligbe adulnfident and competent, and the twins will still be children. You won’t need to envy them, and I do not ask you to love them. Only I ask you to wait till they are grown before you decide to hate them."

The child stared at him with a still, emotionless face. Behind his blank eyes and white lashes he thought numbly, That is true—they are too small to envy or fear. He had never felt strongly enough about anything to hate it or love it.

But when he thought of the little boy, his father’s youngest and most important child, some strange emotion burned through him, unrecognizable, alien. He did not know if it was hate or love or both, or something utterly different from either. It was true that the boy was barely three weeks old and smaller than any human being he had ever seen; but set in that small face were eyes so dark and radiant that they frightened him. He felt he had never seen anything more beautiful than the eyes of his small half brother, but he could not tell whether that beauty was something repulsive or attractive, hideous or wonderful.

Thinking about this, he was startled by a fleet but brightly vivid vision of how one of his fingers had been suddenly grasped in his little brother’s unthinkably small ones, blindly trusting and certain. He looked up at his father and said in a low voice, "I will try to love them. You saw me take your son’s hand."

"Be accurate, my young marksman," his father said. "He took yours."

I

The Marksman

WHEN I LEFT THE Islands I had a vague image of myself fleeing from you with the speed and surety of a hart, straight to my father’s estate at Camlan. The morning I left I was certain, Godmother, certain beyond anything you could have suggested to make me doubt it, that I could return to Camlan as though returning home: though it was fourteen years since the twins were born, six since I left Camlan and two since I came to you. When my father asked me to go to Brittany six years ago he had expected me back in a matter of months, and after that when I was traveling in Africa and Byzantium his letters always anticipated my return. He was not happy that I chose to remain with you over those next two summers—you, his sister; you, his enemy, treacherous and faulted as the ceiling of a mine shaft.

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