Home > Veil of Winter (The Dericott Tales #3)

Veil of Winter (The Dericott Tales #3)
Author: Melanie Dickerson





The Kingdom of Montciel

Late Autumn 1382


Elyce paced outside the Great Hall where her father, King Leandre, was meeting with King Claude. She drew near to the door, but the voices were too muted to make out any words. If she opened it just a bit, would they notice?

Carefully, she pressed her palm against the door. A tiny crack of light appeared, then just a bit more. She put her eye up to the opening.

Her father and King Claude, along with King Claude’s nephew, Rodrigo, were drinking from bejeweled cups as King Claude continued speaking. Elyce closed her eyes and listened.

“You will give me workers for my mines, and in exchange, you will have the protection of my armed men. We both know King Wenceslaus is too far away and too complacent to come to our aid in a timely fashion, if indeed there is another Ottoman invasion from the east. We shall protect each other as good allies do. And I will give you a portion of the profits from the mines. It is a good proposition for you. You will not have to worry about anything, and your people will have plenty of work.”

Say no, Father. Please say no.

Ysabeau, Elyce’s servant and companion, had told her, “My brother’s friend, who is only seventeen years old, was taken from his home by guards with swords. King Claude forced him and the others to work from before the sun came up until after it went down.

“The workers sleep in a camp near the entrance to the mine and aren’t allowed to go home. They’re forced to go deep underground. My brother’s friend said there was so much dust and smoke that sometimes he could barely breathe. Some of the older men would faint. If a man died, they dumped his body in a ravine and covered it with dirt.

“But he said the worst part of it was never getting to see the sun, day after day, week after week. He finally managed to escape, and now he lives in hiding.”

Elyce’s father was nodding and speaking calmly with King Claude, sipping his cup of wine as if he were as content as could be.

If only Elyce could raise an army, she would fight King Claude herself. But her country’s people were shepherds and farmers. They were not trained for battle. And she was just a girl, nineteen years old, and one day she’d become a political pawn, married off to the person of her father’s choosing.

Elyce could be a good ruler, but her father would scoff at the notion. She was his only child, but after his death, her husband would rule Montciel.

If she could marry someone with integrity who was wealthy and powerful, someone who refused to bow to King Claude’s wishes, then perhaps getting married would be the best thing for her people. But how was she to find a man who was loyal to her and to the people of Montciel?

The men were moving toward the door. Elyce stepped back just in time as the door to the Great Hall opened and King Claude emerged, smiling, a glint in his small black eyes. Father’s forehead was slightly puckered as he caught sight of her.

“Princess Elyce!” King Claude’s voice fairly vibrated, loud and booming, even though he was only ten feet from her. “How good to see you.”

Elyce curtsied.

“You know my nephew, Lord Rodrigo.”

Lord Rodrigo was the same age as Elyce and very familiar to her, as they had played together as children. He stepped out from behind King Claude and came forward, tripping slightly over his own feet.

“Your Highness.” Lord Rodrigo bowed and took her hand, kissing it and leaving a wet, cold spot on her knuckles.

Having no siblings of her own, Elyce thought of Rodrigo more like an annoying brother than anything else. Why was he smirking one moment and looking sheepish the next?

She knew him as a difficult playmate, always changing the rules of any game Elyce would play with him so that he would win. Once Elyce had grown so irritated with him, she hit him on the arm. He ran screaming to his servant, who scolded Elyce, saying, “For shame, using your higher position to bully poor Rodrigo.”

Elyce had retorted, “He’s the bully! Shame on him!”

The servant looked shocked, her mouth and eyes widening and her hand clutching at her throat. “Such temper! Such a lack of self-control from a princess.”

Full of self-righteous anger, Elyce, who must have been about seven years old at the time, related the entire ordeal to her aunt Winifred, the Duchess of Adaleigh, who had watched over her since Elyce’s mother died.

Aunt Winifred said solemnly, “A princess must maintain proper decorum at all times. Princesses never stoop to quarreling, and they certainly do not strike a future count, even though he is beneath you in rank. It is not proper.”

It was the first instance of many in which her aunt would frustrate Elyce with her strong opinions about class and title—and especially about what was proper and not proper for a princess to do, say, or think.

And the first of many moments in which Elyce would imagine that being the daughter of a shepherd, cheesemaker, or woodworker would have been preferable to being a princess.

Her aunt would have scolded her for that as well. Elyce did feel a bit of guilt at her feelings of resentment toward her aunt, who had died a year earlier of a fever, even though part of her never understood why it became unacceptable to tell the truth about someone’s bad behavior after they died.

“Princess Elyce,” King Claude was saying, “my nephew has my blessing—and your father’s as well—to speak to you in private about a very important matter.” Now King Claude was smirking, or the closest thing to it, with his strange smile that never expressed any warmth.

Her stomach lurched. This could not be good. Not good at all.

Rodrigo was holding out his hand. Sweat beads appeared on his forehead and upper lip. She pretended not to see his proffered hand and waited to see if he would assert himself or let his uncle tell him what to do.

There was a long, awkward silence.

“We can leave the Great Hall,” her father said. “Or you can go to the solar up the stairs and to the right.”

“The solar will be more comfortable. Go on, then,” King Claude boomed, fixing hard, dark eyes on them.

Rodrigo lurched toward the stairs, then stopped short and turned to wait for Elyce.

Should she run? No, that would not be the proper thing for a princess to do, nor would it resolve anything. But she had to think of something.

She climbed the stairs, sensing Rodrigo just behind her. There could be nothing important for him to say to her except to ask her to marry him. Which was only a formality, since her father and his uncle obviously had already arranged the marriage.

She knew it was her duty to marry someone who would help her people, to make an alliance that would ensure her country’s safety and prosperity. But she’d also imagined that she would love her husband, at least enough to kiss him and have children with him. But Rodrigo? How could she kiss him? The thought was abhorrent to her. He behaved like a spoiled child and had said lustful things about servant girls that made her wonder if all men were brutish animals preying on defenseless women.

A woman was supposed to respect her husband. How could she respect Rodrigo? And a man was supposed to cherish his wife.

That seemed even more unlikely.

They reached the solar all too soon. Rodrigo opened the door for her and followed her in, closing it behind them.

“Princess Elyce, please allow me to express my desire to take you as my wife. I know we have been friends since we were children, and now we have the opportunity to make this alliance and please our families and the citizens of our kingdoms. Therefore, I wish to ask you to allow me to love you as my wife for the rest of our lives.”

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