A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith




  A POSSE OF PRINCESSES

  Sherwood Smith

  Copyright © 2010 by Sherwood Smith

  Smashwords edition

  All Rights Reserved.

  Published by Book View Café

  www.bookviewcafe.com

  Interior Map Copyright © 2008 by Sherwood Smith

  This book is a work of fiction. All characters, names, locations, and events portrayed in this book are fictional or used in an imaginary manner to entertain, and any resemblance to any real people, situations, or incidents is purely coincidental.

  Other YA Books by Sherwood Smith

  Set in Sartorias-deles:

  Crown Duel

  Senrid

  Over the Sea: CJ’s First Notebook

  Mearsies Heili Bounces Back: CJ’s Second Notebook

  A Stranger to Command (prequel to Crown Duel)

  Set in Wren’s World:

  Wren to the Rescue

  Wren’s Quest

  Wren’s War

  Wren Journeymage

  A Posse of Princesses

  Barefoot Pirate

  Map

  This map can be viewed online here

  Acknowledgments

  With grateful thanks

  to my beta readers at Athanarel,

  and to Tamara Meatzie

  for her generous help in proofreading

  CHAPTER ONE

  From the tower lookout in the royal castle—highest tower in all the kingdom of Nym—Princess Rhis peered down through the misting rain at a messenger on the main road.

  This rider slumped in the saddle of the long-legged lowlands race-horse plodding up the steep road, occasionally hidden by tall stands of deep green fir. The messenger had to be from the lowlands. Anyone raised in Nym’s mountains knew that the only animal for the steep roads was a pony. Their sturdy bodies and short legs fared better on steep slopes.

  The rider’s cloak was crimson, a bright splash of color even in the gloom of a rainy afternoon. None of Nym’s royal messengers wore crimson cloaks. This one must be an equerry from the Queen of faraway Vesarja. Rhis turned away in disappointment and resumed pacing around the little room.

  Once, many years ago, the old tower had been a lookout for Nym’s warriors, no longer necessary since the kingdom had established magical protection. Now the small, stone tower room had become Rhis’s private retreat.

  Her parents considered themselves too elderly to climb all those stairs any more; her older brother, Crown Prince Gavan, was too busy, as was her older sister, Princess Sidal. And Gavan’s wife, Princess Elda, was too stout—even if she’d approved of frivolities such as spending time in tower rooms, which she didn’t. Something she mentioned rather often.

  Rhis loved the lookout. It was cozy, and had a nice fireplace (with a magical firestick in it that burned evenly all winter long), a comfortable cushioned chair, a desk, a small case containing all her favorite books, and a tiranthe—the twenty-four-stringed instrument that Elda insisted only lowly minstrels played. Here Rhis could practice and not disturb, or disgust, anyone. Here she could sit and read and dream and watch the ever-changing weather and seasons over the tiny mountain kingdom. She could also write wonderful ballads.

  At least . . . she hoped they were wonderful. Would be, some day. Maybe.

  She stopped pacing and frowned down at the paper on the desk, close-written with many, many scribblings. She loved music, and stories, and ballads—especially the ones about people in history who had gone through terrible adventures but had succeeded in finding their True Love.

  When she’d begun her first ballad, it had seemed easy. All she had to do was picture a forlorn princess, one who was tall with brown hair—someone a lot like herself. Only instead of having a cozy retreat, this princess was locked up in a tower room, she wasn’t quite sure why yet, but for some horrific reason, which would require her to escape secretly down all 538 steps, slip out into the treacherous snows of winter, and away—meeting a prince along the road.

  Rhis frowned. She knew what kind of prince the princess had to meet. He had to be brave, and good at overcoming vast numbers of evil minions, but he also had to be kind. He absolutely must like music—especially ballads—but he had to be a good dancer. He had to look like. . . .

  That was the part that she always got stuck at. Rhis dropped onto her chair and reread her verses about the mysterious prince. Every line began with “The best” or “The greatest” or “The finest”—he had the darkest hair, the bluest eyes, he was the best dancer, but still, somehow, he seemed so . . . um, boring.

  With a heavy sigh she dipped her pen and struck out the latest words that just a while ago had seemed so wonderful. What were the bluest eyes, anyway? Were eyes the silver-blue of the morning sky bluer than the dark blue of evening?

  Blue eyes were stupid anyway. Everyone in ballads either had eyes of emerald or sapphire or amber. How about something really unusual, like red eyes? Or yellow and purple stripe? But would those be handsome? Rhis frowned and tried to picture a fellow puckering up for a kiss . . . handsome lips, handsome nose . . . and right above, a pair of yellow and purple striped eyes? No. Well, how about red? But what kind of hair would look handsome with red eyes? Not red, certainly, though her favorite color was ‘hair of flame’, which sounded more romantic than anything. But crimson eyes and hair of flame? He’d look like a measle.

  Not blond, either. She didn’t want a blond prince, for the people of Damatras far to the north were supposed to be mostly light haired and paler than normal people, and everyone knew they lived to make war.

  How about—

  A tinkling sound interrupted her musing. It was the summons bell that her mother had magically rigged so that the servants wouldn’t have to climb 538 tower stairs just to remind Rhis not to be late for dinner.

  The summons couldn’t possible be about the messenger. No one ever sent her messages, except for dull letters from Elda’s younger sister, Princess Shera, and those always came with the green-cloaked messengers from the kingdom of Gensam.

  Rhis wrinkled her nose. It could only mean that Elda wanted her—and always for some dreary task, or lesson, or duty, and if she dawdled too long she also incurred a lecture given in that sharp, annoyed tone of voice that never failed to send servants whisking about their business, and made Rhis feel two years old.

  Rhis’s feet knew all 538 of the worn tower stairs. She skipped down and dashed onto the landing. A glimpse of pale blue caused her to veer, and she narrowly missed running down Sidal, who tottered, struggling with a stack of books in her arms.

  Rhis reached up to steady her sister’s pile. “I’m sorry,” she said contritely.

  Sidal recovered her balance, and peered over the topmost book. “A slower pace, perhaps?”

  Rhis grimaced. Elda was forever lecturing her on always using a sedate step, as a princess ought. “I will,” she promised. “But I was in a hurry because someone rang the bell.” She looked around for one of Elda’s maids.

  Sidal smiled. “I did. Papa just received a letter from Vesarja. It seems that Queen Briath Arvanosas has invited you to attend the ceremonies arranged for Prince Lios, who is officially being appointed Crown Prince.”

  Rhis clapped her hands together. “Oh! Oh!”

  Sidal tipped her head in the other direction. “They are in there discussing it now.”

  “Oh, Sidal,” Rhis breathed, dancing in a circle around her sister. “I’ve never gone anywhere, done anything—”

  “I think,” Sidal said in a quiet voice, her eyes just slightly crinkled, “you ought to go in and hear what they have to say.”

  Rhis whirled around. Sidal was like Mama. She never raised her voice, or said anything unkind, but when either of them dr
opped a hint, it was always to the purpose.

  Rhis knew at once what Sidal was hinting at: Elda was in the audience room.

  Despite her promise to be more sedate, Rhis fled down the carpeted hall, her pearl-braided hair thumping her back at every step. She slowed at the corner just before the audience chamber, took in a deep breath, and with proper deportment walked around the corner.

  A waiting servant—Ama, mother to the upstairs maid—saw her, bowed, reached to open the door, then paused. She pointed in silence over one of Rhis’s ears, and Rhis clapped her hands to her head. A strand of hair floated loose. How Elda would glower!

  “Thank you.” She mouthed the words as she tucked the hair back.

  Ama smiled just a little, and opened the door.

  The first voice Rhis heard was Elda’s.

  “. . . and she has, despite all my efforts, no better sense of duty than she had when she was five years old.”

  Rhis stepped in, her slippered step soundless.

  The audience chamber was not the most imposing room in the castle, but it was the most comfortable. It had rosewood furnishings and gilt lamps and the stone walls were covered by colorful tapestries. The king did most of his work there, often joined by Rhis’s mother, when she could.

  King Armad was seated in his great carved chair, a fine table loaded with neat stacks of paper at his right hand. At his left side, in an equally great chair, sat the queen, a book on her lap, her pen busy on a writing board. She smiled at Rhis then returned to her work.

  “Is there nothing you can attest to in my daughter’s favor?” the queen said in her calm voice. Rhis felt her face go hot. She was reassured to see the humor narrowing her mother’s wide-set gray eyes, though her mouth was serious. “You have had the training of her for ten years.”

  Elda flushed, her round cheeks looking as red as Rhis’s felt. “I have tried my very best,” she said. “What she does well is what she wants to do well—singing, dancing, and reading histories. No one dances better, but a great kingdom like Vesarja will require more of a future queen than dancing, or knowledge of which clans fought which back in the dark days, before Nym became civilized!”

  “This is true,” the king said.

  Elda added, with her chin lifted, “As for what matters most, my own daughter—scarcely ten years old—knows her map better, and the rates of exchange, and can recite almost half the Common Laws. If Rhis knows twelve of them, it would surprise me.”

  The king was still stroking his beard. “But your daughter knows that she will one day rule Nym, after my son. Is Rhis’s character bad? Or her disposition?”

  Rhis bit her lip. She longed to point out that Elda’s disposition was none too amiable—and she’d married a prince. But she stayed silent, fuming to herself.

  Elda gave one of her annoyed sighs, short and sharp. “Her habits are lazy. She would rather loll about in her tower room, piddling with her song books, than apply herself to appropriate studies. Her disposition is not bad, for she does not argue or stamp or shout. She simply disappears when she does not agree with what she ought to be doing.”

  The king looked up at Rhis. “Is this summary true, child?”

  Rhis gulped. She wanted so badly to shout that Elda was not being fair. Rhis was not lazy—she kept busy all the day long. She simply didn’t see the reason to study those dull laws and tables, since she wasn’t going to rule.

  Yet Papa had not asked if Elda’s words were fair. Only if they were true.

  “Yes, Papa,” she said in a subdued voice.

  Her father stroked his long silver-white beard with one hand, and lifted the other toward Queen Hailen.

  The queen said, “We will discuss it further.”

  oOo

  Everyone from high degree to low knew that Elda was a princess, born and raised in Gensam, and Rhis’s mother was just a magician whose family had been farmers. They knew equally well that when King Armad was gone, Rhis’s mother would sail east to the Summer Islands to teach magicians and Gavan and Elda would rule Nym. Still, no one—including Elda—ever argued with Queen Hailen.

  “Very well,” Elda said, and walked out, scarcely giving Rhis a glance.

  “Come, child.” The queen rose to her feet. “I have worked the morning away. Now I need to stir a bit.” As she passed the king she bent a little and laid her hand briefly on his old, gnarled hand.

  The king smiled at them both, then returned to his work. Rhis glanced back doubtfully. She hadn’t really thought about how old her father was. She knew that after a long single life, refusing every match, he’d been nearly fifty when Queen Hailen was sent to replace the old Royal Magician, and he fell in love with her almost at once. Gavan and Sidal had been born each year following the marriage, but another fifteen years had passed before Rhis was born.

  She seldom saw her father, except for formal occasions. Now, as she and her mother passed out onto the roofed terrace, she wondered how she could not have noticed how frail he looked.

  The door closed behind them. Rhis turned to discover her mother studying her. She was now fully as tall as her mother. Who had aged, too. Rhis was eye to eye with her mother. For the first time she saw the tiny lines at the corners of the queen’s mouth and eyes, and her brown hair, so neat in its coronet, was streaked with gray.

  “Is Papa all right?” she asked in a whisper.

  “Your father’s health is good, and his mind is quite as strong as it was when he was young.” The queen smiled, but her eyes were serious. “I confess it would hearten him very much to see you well established.”

  “Well, I do know what my duty is,” Rhis said, trying without success not to sound resentful. “I’ve always known that Gavan and Elda will one day rule, and after them Shera.” Rhis thought of her thin, small niece, named after Elda’s own sister. Princess Shera was so good and perfect. She studied all the time, and never smiled, or laughed, or made jokes. Despite the fact that Elda never failed to hold Shera up to Rhis as an example of what she ought to be, Rhis sometimes felt sorry for her niece. “Sidal will be Royal Magician. And since I did not want to go away and study magic, my duty is to marry to the benefit of Nym.” On impulse Rhis pleaded, “Oh, but is it so wicked to wish for adventure and romance first?”

  “Wicked? No one could say it’s wicked.” The queen laughed softly. “Perhaps the wish for adventure is, oh, a rash one, as adventure is seldom comfortable for anyone undergoing it.”

  Rhis smiled. She had embroidered the saying she thought so wise, taken from one of her ballads:

  Adventure is tragedy triumphed.

  “And romance, for those who wish it, is not unreasonable. It can also lead to disaster, if one makes it an end in itself.”

  Rhis held in a sigh. How many lectures had she endured from the sharp-tongued Elda on the follies of young girls and love?

  A hesitation, a quick glance, then her mother said, “This invitation is a splendid opportunity. It will be a chance to practice courtly behavior among others your age, and to hear the wisdom of your elders in another kingdom. You could learn much.”

  Rhis curtseyed. “Yes, Mama.” She peered out through the misting rain toward the green mountain slopes. In the distance a waterfall thundered. Now that she’d gotten over the surprise, this invitation was beginning to sound more like a duty—and not very romantic at all. The invitation sounded more like a summons.

  “But . . . you wish that this unknown prince had come courting you here, am I right?”

  Rhis stared at her mother.

  “You remind me very much of my sister, who was even more romantic than you,” the queen said, still smiling. “At least you can be practical when it is necessary. Consider this: if you were to marry Prince Lios, you would be living in Vesarja. How else can you find out if you can adapt to their ways?”

  Rhis exclaimed, “Oh! I see. But why are they inviting me? No one knows me—I’ve met no princes. In fact, I’ve hardly met any boys my age.”

  Her mother made a quiet gestu
re of agreement. Nym’s rulers did not keep court. They met frequently with the guild council, and Elda and Gavan spent the summer and autumn months each year traveling about the country, the better to truly see what the various provincial governors were doing. Last year they had taken their daughter—as future queen, Elda explained, Shera ought to get to know her important subjects—but Rhis had been deemed unnecessary.

  The Queen said, “Your father knows Queen Briath, for they are close to the same age. He thinks that she has invited every young lady she deems eligible so she can look them over at once.”

  Rhis turned to her mother in silent dismay. “So it is a summons!”

  The Queen’s eyes crinkled—just like Sidal’s. “What that really means is that there will be parties, picnics, ridings, dances, and all manner of wonderful festivities planned for the young people. You can be sure that if there are princesses and girls of suitable high rank invited, there will also be boys who very much want to meet those princesses. Even if you and Prince Lios do not take to one another, there will be many opportunities to find another boy you might like better—and you’ll have the time to get to know one another. And meanwhile, you will be an ambassador for our own kingdom. Good relations with our neighbors is important.”

  Rhis laughed. “Being an ambassador might not be romantic, but the parties and dances sound like fun!”

  Queen Hailen patted her cheek. “I think it will be. Flirt all you like, but remember you cannot marry until you are at least twenty. That might be a comfort.”

  Comfort, Rhis thought indignantly.

  Her mother went on with a smile, “At sixteen we often make vows about the rest of our life, but the truth is, the rest of our life usually looks very different at seventeen, and even more different by eighteen. Enough talk! You have a long journey ahead, so you must prepare. And part of that preparation is to listen to Elda. She knows a great deal about the etiquette of court life. This is something I know nothing of, which is why she undertook to teach you, and not I.”

 
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