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

One

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,