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Authors: Mercedes Lackey

Winter Moon (10 page)

BOOK: Winter Moon
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So
why
shift the beacon?

And who had done it? The only thing she could think of was that it had been done by magic, and aside from Massid and Kedric, there were no obvious strangers here.

And surely Massid could not be a magician. As rare as magicians were, surely the Khaleem would not allow a son who was also a magician so far away from home.

She brooded down on the waves crashing over the rocks in torrents of white foam, and felt a chill steal over her. That left Kedric.

Kedric, who she, not that long ago, had told almost everything. So now, if he
was
her father's man,
her father knew everything—from her own reluctance to be handed off in marriage to Massid, to the fact that she knew about the beacon. After all, he hadn't said he was the King's man, she had merely read it into what he
had
said.

Blessed God, I have been a fool!
She stared sightlessly down into the water, feeling her heart slowly going numb, and her mind with it. She had showed him—she had told him—

What?
asked an impatient and surprisingly rational voice inside her.
You told him that you would do your duty and marry Massid if you thought it would protect your people, but that you didn't think it would do any such thing. You made it clear you were unhappy about the idea, and who wouldn't be? You told him a few choice things about the Countess, but nothing that's not common knowledge, and you didn't reveal that you are a Grey Lady. You pointed out what your duty was to your people, and how much that duty could cost you. You showed him the scratch on the glass and told him why you'd made it, but so far as he knows, you have no way of telling anyone else.

All that was true, certainly, but—

But if he's your father's man, now he has all the arguments your father needs—or so he thinks—to persuade you to marry Massid when he proposes it. There's no harm in that. He knows you are more intelligent than you appear, but there's no harm in that, either. He doesn't know about the birds, or your weapons, or any of your other skills. The only thing you showed him is that you are an intelligent young woman who suspects her father
is up to no good, but who certainly can't tell anyone and can't do anything about the knowledge.

She recognized that little voice in her mind; it was the one that coolly analyzed and put fears to rest, no matter how panicked the rest of her mind was. It was seldom wrong, and that only in degree. She sometimes wondered if it was the voice of some guardian angel. Sometimes the voice sounded exactly like the Countess, though, and while she admired the Countess greatly, she would have been the first to say that the Countess Vrenable was no angel.

She unclenched her fists and closed her eyes a moment to clear her mind. If Kedric was the King's man, he had information he might be able to use. If he was her father's man, he had nothing he could use to harm her—except that he—and her father—would now know that she was intelligent enough and quick enough to suspect something was wrong.

So—not “no” harm done. Though she was not an immediate danger to any plans they had in train, she could reveal them, now or later. So she had done herself harm enough that her father might move a little faster to put her where she could do
him
no harm…which was probably with Massid.

Time to send another bird. And more than time to resume her training. When the time came, she might need every bit of strength she had.

 

But two weeks, and another storm, passed with nothing changing in the keep or out of it, so far as appearances went. Every day Moira tended to the af
fairs of the keep as the Keep Lady should. Every evening she spent dining in the Great Hall with her father and Massid. Afternoons were spent at her embroidery; she quickly finished the half-finished placket, had Anatha stitch it to one of her gowns, and started another. But there was one change that no one was aware of.

The sea-keep was carved into and out of the rock of the cliff; with that sort of construction, it was difficult to create “secret” passages and “hidden” rooms, such as Viridian Manor, with its wood-and-stone construction. It was, after all, much, much easier to build something of that sort into the walls than it was to carve it out of rock, then try to hide it.

But there was one place in Highclere Sea-Keep that almost no one ever went to this time of year.

Even a place built out of stone has need of timber. Not firewood, but properly seasoned lumber, for repairs, paneling, cabinetry, furniture, and boats.

So when a particularly fine tree was cut down—or when the lord of the sea-keep was moved to trade for one with an inland lord whose forests were not subject to near-constant wind—cut and planed planks of every possible thickness were laid down to dry and season in what was called “the timber room.”

It wasn't a room at all. It was a cave, but a peculiarly dry cave, and one which allowed the planks to cure and dry naturally. The oldest bits of wood—very expensive stuff it was, of fantastical grains and coloring—were three generations old. There wasn't a great deal of that, and it was generally used for inlay
work. The rest wasn't more than ten years old, twenty at most, although there were some heavy oak beams that had been seasoning since Moira's grandfather laid them down before he died.

In summer and early fall, this place was a hive of activity. In winter, though, no one bothered to look in. In itself, it was valuable, but no one was likely to steal a load of wood. Layers of planks laid down in soft sand made a floor that didn't shift much. There wasn't much light, and the noise from the ocean far below drowned out any sounds that might be made up here.

In short, it made a perfect place for Moira to practice.

There was a great advantage to being a modest maiden in winter. The loose, long-sleeved, high-necked gowns and wimples she wore allowed her to wear her fighting clothing, mail and all, and no one noticed. Heavy winter fabrics did not betray so much as a hint of chain mail. She didn't bring her sword and dagger up to the timber room, but there were plenty of pieces of wood of the right size and shape there already. So once a day—and a different time of day each time, if she could manage it—she would, over the course of an hour, first get back to her room and put on her mail and armor, then find a way to get to the timber room, where she would doff her dress and begin her stretching exercises, moving into the fighting exercises as soon as her muscles were limber. It was frustrating, not having a partner to practice with, but at least it
was
practice, and she al
ways tried to push herself a little more each day, in speed and accuracy. When she was tired, but before she was winded, she would go back to her room, take off the armor and hide it again, and go on about her business.

It was particularly interesting to be up there during a storm. Only one lantern could be made to stay alight, and the shifting shadows made footwork and blade-work a challenge. The wind howled through here; the place was like a chimney. She was exceptionally careful about the lantern. Under these conditions, if a fire actually started up here without first being blown out, it would be uncontrollable in an instant, destroying decades' worth of valuable wood.

Though of course, with the wind howling through the place, it was unlikely that a fire
could
catch strongly enough to avoid being extinguished.

And still nothing happened. Except that Massid and her father began to play chess every night after the remains of supper were cleared away.

After the first night, she remained to watch out of curiosity. Their play reflected, she thought, their personalities. Her father played without speaking during his own turn, fiercely intent and intense, and scowling whenever he lost a piece. The Prince of Jendara was a complete contrast, outwardly relaxed, a smile on his bearded lips, apparently listening to Kedric's playing and occasionally commenting on it or the game. But as she watched him, she became aware of a predatory glitter in his eyes just before he was about to swoop down on an opposing piece,
and a little smile of satisfaction when he knew he was going to win.

Or, more rarely, his smile grew icy, and his speech less easy and more punctiliously polite when he knew he was about to lose. And when that happened, there was a flash of pure rage for just the barest fraction of a moment that made her shiver.

It was particularly frightening the second night of the second storm, when the wind and waves were crashing against the rocks below with such force that the stones of the keep groaned, and there was enough lightning they hardly needed lanterns. Chess was one game she had not mastered, so she couldn't really tell what was happening on the board, but her father was grinding his teeth in frustration, and Massid's eyes had that satisfied glitter as he toyed with his goblet. And then, all in an instant, her father's face went from angry desperation to utter triumph. He swooped down on the board and moved a piece, slamming it down in front of Massid's king. “Check and mate!” he shouted.

And for a moment, Massid's face went black with rage.

Now, that was a phrase that Moira had often heard before, but she had never actually seen it happen, and had often thought it a picturesque fabrication.

Now she knew better.

It wasn't that his face physically darkened—it was that his whole demeanor changed, and his expression for that instant was so suffused with the bitterest of hatred that it
seemed
to go black.

It only lasted a moment; it was gone so quickly that if she hadn't felt that shaken by what she had seen, she might have doubted the expression was there at all. But she
had
seen it, and it
was
there, and she knew that if, in that instant, Massid could have gotten away with it, he would have killed her father, and possibly everyone else who had witnessed his defeat.

But by the time her father looked up, Massid was wearing an expression of rueful amusement. “I did not see that coming, my lord,” he said graciously. “A most unorthodox move. I congratulate you.”

Her father was not a gracious winner, but at least he didn't gloat too long. Massid's mask slipped a trifle, but he managed to maintain it long enough to excuse himself and retire for the night.

Moira went to bed feeling her insides quivering. If there was such a thing as a spirit of pure ruthlessness—too impersonal to be evil—that spirit dwelled within the Prince of Jendara.

And woe betide whoever crossed him in something he
really
wanted.

 

She had seen the face of the enemy. It frightened her in a way she had not expected to be frightened. It was one thing to face the possibility of having to deal with a forced marriage. It was another thing entirely to see what she had seen behind the pleasant mask.

The thought kept her in a restless half sleep that night, and she woke early to the sound that told her another storm was on the way. Her mind was
preternaturally clear, and the first thing that came to her was that this storm would probably arrive on or about Midwinter Moon—the longest night of the year, and the highest tide until Midsummer Moon.

Not a good time to be having a winter storm as well. Any ships out at sea on that night would be better off well away from the coast.

In fact, if the waters surged in too high, parts of the keep would have to be temporarily abandoned. That hadn't happened in decades. Certainly not while Moira had been alive.

But the keep had probably weathered a hundred such storms, and would weather a hundred more. Whatever was in the lowest levels would be taken elsewhere; probably not much, actually, or at least, nothing much worth saving. They'd been dug as hiding places and escape routes, and there was always sea water getting in….

Well, when the storm came, they'd be flooded.

Two days,
she thought, listening to the waves outside.
Three at the most.

Part of her was still exhausted from the restless night, but the rest of her could not lie still a moment more.

She rose from her bed and dressed herself before Anatha could arrive. There was a tension in the air today, or at least, it felt that way to her.

And yet, when she ascended to the Great Hall, no one else seemed aware of it.

Everyone could read the signs of the impending storm, however, and it didn't take a sage to figure out
that a storm combined with Midwinter Moon meant trouble. Small boats needed to not only be pulled into the sea caves, but winched up above the highest high-water mark. Large boats were manned with skeleton crews and sailed to the nearest safe harbor. The flotsam and jetsam that had collected since the last bad storm down in the lower keep levels was dragged out and sorted through, with anything deemed worth keeping packed properly away, and what was left over taken off to the rubbish pile for the next high tide to wash away farther down the coastline. The sea doors were checked and reinforced, supplies hauled down from storage places above, the heaviest of shutters locked in place over the most vulnerable windows.

BOOK: Winter Moon
5.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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