New Short Fiction: The Midwinter Royal

The Midwinter Royal: A Romance of Tamnen

I’m very excited to announce that I have a holiday surprise for all my readers!

No, it’s not The Weather War–that’s still having the plot smoothed out and such. But it is a new story set in the same world as the Storms in Amethir series! The Midwinter Royal skips back a generation in Tamnen. Readers will recognize the names of the two protagonists–Marsede and Izbel.

Fair warning: This is a romance novel, which isn’t my usual fare, but I wanted to write something seasonal, and it’s canon that Marsede and Izbel met at a Year’s Turning ball, which is the ball that kicks off a fortnight of celebrations for Longnight–which in our world happens tomorrow, on the Winter Solstice.

The Midwinter Royal is a novella of just under 20,000 words, so it’s longer than Stormsinger and shorter than Stormshadow. Scroll past the cover image for a little snippet of what will be available tomorrow!

The Midwinter Royal will debut at a price of just $0.99 for the holiday season, but after the first of the year, the price will go up to $1.99, so buy it soon! I’ll update this post with purchase links as soon as they are live.

Buy on AMAZON (.mobi) | Buy on SMASHWORDS (.epub)

The Midwinter Royal book cover by Stephanie A. Cain

 

Chapter One

Izbel gritted her teeth and breathed out slowly as her maid tightened her corset. She was going to become a true lady worthy of the title if it killed her. And she was beginning to think it just might. She had established an entirely new breed of horses from a fleet of foot foundation stud and a handful of strong, handsome mares, but that challenge was nothing compared to putting on a dress and prancing for the nobility.

“I’m sorry, my lady. One more should do it.” And with that warning, she tugged the laces so tight Izbel’s breath squeaked out of her.

“By the Seven, are you trying to kill me?” she hissed.

“My lady will be so beautiful,” Guira said. Izbel heard the whisper of silk and then she felt sheets of the soft fabric settled around her.

The dress was nothing like the rough wool gowns she wore at home, when gowns were absolutely necessary, yet Izbel couldn’t hold in a sigh as she smoothed her palm over the pale blue and white silk. She would look beautiful, she thought. It was just that she didn’t feel beautiful. She felt like a nag dressed up as a prize mare.

A tap at the door announced her mother, and Izbel bit her lip.

Her mother bustled in, beaming. She was dressed for the ball, but Izbel could tell from the plain braid down her back that she wasn’t finished preparing. “You are a vision, my dear. You will certainly catch some rich lordling’s eye at the ball.”

Her mother’s joy was the only thing that kept Izbel from snapping at her. She loved her mother, but she was not like her mother. Izbel had been content to be the younger daughter of the Fifth Family, the daughter with an affinity for horses, who might never marry so she could stay with the family and her horses. And she had never in her life worn a corset, since riding a horse required freedom of movement.

When Izbel’s sister died the whole predictable world crumbled. Zara’s death had not been a shock—her lungs had been wasting for nearly a year—but the role Izbel was now expected to fill, of landed lady who must breed to carry on the family name…that had come as a shock, for all that it shouldn’t have.

She bowed her head, feeling the odd weight of her hair, piled into an intricate style full of loops and whorls. It was so different from the practical braid she usually pinned in place. “I will endeavor to make you proud of me, Mother.”

Her mother embraced her, careful not to crush the silk or muss her hair. “I am already proud of you. I ask only that you greet the eligible lords at the ball with an open heart. You know what must be, if you cannot find an acceptable husband here.”

The bottom dropped out of Izbel’s stomach. She did know. “I will try,” she promised.

Only Guira saw her fist clenching behind her back, and her handmaid was good enough not to mention it.

***

The Year’s Turning ball on the first night of the Longnight celebrations was a tradition almost as old as the Corrone dynasty, established three centuries earlier. It was there that each family presented its newly-available sons and daughters, hoping to catch a prize alliance. Over the next fortnight, courtships would take place, alliances be forged, and by Longnight, many families had weddings planned to take place before the Spring Evener.

Izbel knew she should be excited about the ball—she did love dancing—but her sister’s memory overlaid every thought she had of the ball. Zara had loved sharing her stories of the palace’s elaborate winter decorations and the intricate gowns the women wore. Zara’s betrothal to the younger son of the Ninth Family had been arranged there. Lorian had joined their household and fit in well, but Zara had been unable to carry a baby to term; she had succumbed to her illness just three years after the wedding. Lorian, grief-stricken, had declined to accompany the family to the capital for Longnight.

How could Izbel look forward to the ball when she felt so keenly that her sister should be here with her? Here instead of her, truth be known, Zara’s black hair and flashing eyes accented by a deep burgundy dress and her laughter. Instead the court of Tamnen would be presented with Izbel, her golden-brown skin and brown-black hair perfectly made up, but sorrow lurking in her heart. And whether it was sorrow for her sister or sorrow over her own loss of liberty, not even Izbel was sure.

But Izbel was the heir, and she would be expected to become a proper little broodmare so the Fifth Family lineage could continue unbroken. Well, she wasn’t a horse to be bred in season! Even if she did love caring for her own beloved mares during their birthing, she wanted more than that for herself.

And if she did not find an acceptable husband here, she could only think of two choices, neither appealing: marry her sister’s grieving widower—if he agreed—or marry her second cousin Willat in order to keep the estate intact. Izbel’s shoulders slumped.

Guira’s arm slipped around her waist. “All shall be well, my lady,” she whispered, and kissed Izbel’s cheek. Then she was gone and Izbel was left to make the journey from the Fifth Family’s apartments to the main ballroom.

“There you are, finally!” Willat was dressed in dark blue velvet, a ridiculous amount of frothy lace at his throat and wrists. Izbel narrowed her eyes, wondering which of the house servants had told him she was wearing blue.

“Cousin,” she said, trying to inject pleasure into her voice. She failed. “I was not informed you had called.”

“Called? No, indeed. I am here to escort you to the ball.” He leaned in close. “As is proper.”

Izbel drew herself up. “I beg your pardon, but it is not proper. I am a lady unattached, with no promises or expectations made of me. It would be improper for me to arrive with any company except my parents and chaperone.”

“No expectations?” Willat’s thin lips curled into a repellent smile. “But surely, my dear cousin, you know the family’s plans for us.”

Izbel lifted her chin. Gods knew it would be foolish to offend him, since she might yet be forced to marry him. But she would not let him push her into anything. “I know that I may yet catch the eye of some higher-placed younger son who would be pleased to join our family,” she said. “And I will attend the ball alone or not at all.”

Willat drew himself up. She had offended him; but of course Willat was the type to let himself be offended easily. She couldn’t bring herself to care. Her mother had been lucky enough to marry a gentle man, who had loved her almost at once, and earned her love in return. But Izbel knew Willat’s character, and she wouldn’t give a horse she liked to her cousin. For that matter, she wouldn’t give a horse she didn’t like to him.

“When we are married,” he hissed, “you will learn not to speak to me with such disrespect.”

Izbel clenched her teeth together before she could reply that she would die before she married him. It would only make the situation worse, and for that matter, it might not be true. She couldn’t disappoint her family like that. She knew her duty, even if she might hate it. After a moment she smiled. Perhaps she could use on herself the trick to introducing an abandoned foal to its adoptive mother. She could roll Willat in something strong-smelling–like manure, perhaps–and then roll in it herself, until she couldn’t tell the difference between them.

“Until that day, I shall continue to speak as I like,” she promised, and strode away from him.

Her long, confident steps only lasted her halfway to the ballroom. She’d told her mother yesterday that she wished to be presented alone. Not out of any disrespect for her parents, but because she still missed her sister. Zara will accompany me, she’d told her father, and then felt a pang of guilt at the tears welling in his eyes.

At last she reached the soaring double doors and gave her name to the herald. He would announce her during the next break in the music. In the meantime, she had a few moments to catch her breath and prepare for this.

I’m sorry, Zara, she thought. Sorry you aren’t here with me. Sorry we won’t grow old together. I promise I’ll take care of Lorian for you, but please, help me find someone pleasing tonight.

It was a superstition that the spirits of beloved dead came back in Longnight season to guide maidens to true love. Izbel didn’t believe it, not really, but oh—how she wanted to. She closed her eyes and pictured her laughing sister, cheerful even through the days of coughing up blood, and imagined Zara taking her by the hand and introducing her to some nice younger son. He would be kind and bookish, thoughtful, observant. Perhaps he would be nice looking. Most of all, he would be excited to join her at the estate, and he would share her passion for good horses.

“My Lady Izbel,” the herald murmured, and she opened her eyes. Then the music ended with a great flourish, and the doors were flung open. Time to introduce the new mare to the rest of the herd.

Izbel’s melancholy lingered through her presentation. It didn’t help that she had to dodge Willat until the first song was underway. There could be no joining the dancing sets after a song had begun, so she was safe for several minutes after that. Hopefully he would resign himself to not dancing with Izbel. If he found himself another partner, she could position herself artfully to catch an invitation for the third song.

Unfortunately, he found her before the first song was over.

“Ah, there you are. Izbel, my dear, you are so lovely you should be on display for the entire ballroom to see. It would be good for the court to be jealous of the Fifth Family for once.” Willat smoothed a finger over his thin mustache. She knew he fancied it made him look distinguished, but Izbel thought it looked like a caterpillar had crawled onto his face and died there.

“I fear you mistake me for Zara, cousin,” she said. “The whole kingdom envied us while she lived.”

“She was lovely, true, but she proved too weak to continue the family, didn’t she?” The smile he offered was likely meant to be sympathetic, but it was too close to a smirk. If Izbel hadn’t already hated him, she would have hated him for that.

Six months ago she would probably have hit him for saying such a thing. Just a few weeks ago she would have blistered him with choice words. But they were in public, at court, and at a ball. She must be a lady. Only a lady would catch the interest of a gentleman who wasn’t Willat.

“What’s to say your bloodline would prove any stronger?” Izbel fanned herself and blinked. “Is that why you always avoid strong drink?”

His expression froze. “If you wish for a drink, you have only to ask. I will be but a moment.” He turned and strode off.

 

To read the rest, check out The Midwinter Royal, going on sale tomorrow as an e-book only on Amazon!

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