The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith




  Dedication

  With grateful thanks to Beth Bernobich, Marjorie Ferguson, and the gang at Athanarel on LiveJournal.

  Chapter One

  I woke up.

  By the time I’d drawn one breath I realized that if I’d had anything else to do, I ought to have done it. My head ached before I even tried moving it. I decided not to try. Some experiments just aren’t worth the effort.

  So I closed my eyes and drifted, hoping for a dream to slip into. Then the squeak of a door and footsteps banished the possibility of sleep.

  I turned my head—yes, it did hurt worse to move—and almost panicked at the fact that I couldn’t see anything until I remembered that my eyes were still closed.

  Oh.

  That’s how bad the headache was.

  Eyelids up, then. An old woman looked down at me, her hair hidden under a kerchief, her countenance anxious. When our eyes met, relief eased her brow.

  “Ah. So glad you have rejoined the living, child. Don’t worry none. My husband’s gone away straight to them’t should know, and you’ll be taken care of proper.”

  I tried to talk, but it came out a groan. So I tried again, making an effort not to move my head.

  “Thank you…” Ho! It worked! Though only at a whisper. I added, “Don’t know who ‘them’ is…but if you think ‘they’ should know…I won’t argue.” It took some time to get that out, and though I was trying to be reasonable, the poor woman was looking more anxious by the moment. “Uh, what happened?” I finished.

  “You do not remember?”

  “No.” Could be this headache… Where am I? I thought—or tried to think—but the process was like trying to chase fireflies in a fog, only it hurt. “Uh.” I made another discovery. “I know it’s going to sound somewhat scattered, but I can’t seem to place who I am, either.”

  “Those knots on your head would account for it,” she said in a soft, soothing voice. “I’ve heard o’ that. Don’t worry none. Your memory will return.”

  “Must have been some tiff.” I struggled for humor.

  “He found you face down on the south road, my husband did. You fell off a horse, hit your head against a stone.”

  I winced, trying again to remember, but the hammer inside my skull increased its frenetic banging. She straightened up. “Enough chatter. What you need is sleep.”

  My eyelids, by then, weighed about as much as a brace of draught horses, and I gladly complied.

  When I woke again, it was to noise. Lots of noise. Boot heels, clanking, and the old woman’s voice. “She’s in here. I beg you, your highness, not to make too much noise. She’s fearsome done.”

  (I’m a she. Good. I’d just as soon be, I decided.)

  “I’ve bade her sleep.” On that, the door creaked open again. “’Twas so good of your highness to come yourself. We hardly expected such an honor.”

  A man walked in, flanked by liveried men in violet, blue and gold. He was tall—his head nearly brushed the low plank ceiling. Red, wind-tousled hair lay on his shoulders, and hazel-green eyes looked down on me from a bony face. He threw back a fold of a green cloak, put his head to one side, and smiled at me.

  “And so we are reunited,” he said.

  “Glad someone seems to know me.” He bent to hear me, frowning slightly. “I wish I could say the same, but…” I ran out of breath again.

  “She’s lost her memory,” the old woman said.

  The man glanced her way. A diamond glimmered in one of his ears. A singularly beautiful gem. Was it familiar? How did I know it was a diamond?

  That many thoughts made me dizzy, and the hammer plonked my skull again. “Uhn,” I commented.

  The man gave me a quizzical look and turned around. The breeze from his long cloak sent cool, horse-scented air over my face. Horse. How did I know that?

  “You will be suitably rewarded,” the young man said to the woman.

  He gestured to one of the silent liveried men, who were about his same age—late twenties, say—both big, well armed. One handed the woman a clinking pouch.

  The fine woolen cloak moved, the lining gleamed blue as a long hand gestured toward me. The second liveried man stepped close, a tall blond fellow. He paused, looking perplexed, then bent and slid one arm beneath my shoulders, the other under my knees, and lifted me up.

  Aches tweaked all over me, and I tried not to groan, because I could see that he was trying to be careful.

  “P’raps she ought not to be moved yet,” the old woman said anxiously. “We can tend her.”

  “Ah, but this is your room and she has displaced you, has she not?” the red-haired man responded. And, smiling, “You may be sure she will receive the best of care at the castle.”

  “Perhaps a wagon?” The old woman’s voice was uncertain.

  “But I would worry. Poor little Cousin Flian.” The man smiled on everyone. “I’ll feel better to have her safely home.” He stepped near enough so that I could smell the scent in his hair, a subtle perfume that muted the aroma of horse and sweat and mail-coat that was under my nose now. “Kardier here will ride gently.”

  The woman clucked to herself and trailed after, offering suggestions and comments as, clomp, clomp, our procession passed through the small confines of the wooden cottage and out into the sunshine. I closed my eyes against the glare.

  The man’s breath was warm on my cheek as he set me across a horse’s withers then mounted behind me.

  The prince tucked my left arm across my middle and patted it. “It will be best. Thank you again.”

  His smiling voice had altered from assurance to command. The woman’s twittering protests stopped. Weapons clanked, well-shod hooves clopped. A quick glimpse: quite an armed company. All for me? And how, and why, was all this panoply so familiar?

  The man carrying me shifted his grip, picked up his reins, the horse moved forward, and I knew I was not going to enjoy this journey at all.

  A shadow on my face made it possible to open my eyes. The red-haired prince rode next to us. “We searched most assiduously for you, Flian,” he said. “I promise you will receive the most attentive care at my castle.”

  “Good,” I muttered, wincing at the increasing gait. “I’m going to need it.”

  The walk became a trot, and stars splattered across my eyelids; they whirled larger and larger and engulfed me. I sank with gratitude into insensibility.

  My next awakening inspired from me a bit more enthusiasm once I’d registered a few facts.

  First, no horses. Second, I lay in a soft, clean bed. A quilt of silk and down covered me.

  My bed was in a large chamber with white-plastered walls and blue patterns painted below the ceiling.

  Need made me automatically whisper the Waste Spell—which I was glad I remembered, even if I couldn’t remember where I was born.

  A sweet voice murmured, “Please, would you take some broth?”

  “Gladly,” I croaked. “So hungry I can’t even remember my last meal.” I was going to add, Ha, ha, natural wit can be counted out of whatever talents I might possess, but it took too much effort to speak.

  A stout, middle-aged woman sat near the bed, wearing livery that called the guards to mind. So some memories were staying, then. I remembered the old woman, the cottage, the blond-haired young fellow—what, Kardier? Yes, Kardier. Who had carried me so carefully out, as if I’d been a basket of eggs.

  And I remembered the red-haired prince who commanded them all.

  As these thoughts limped their way through my mind, the woman lifted my head from the pillow, and a very savory-smelling cup was pressed against my lower lip. I sipped, felt warmth work its way down inside me.

  Another cup, this one with the pleasantly astringent smell
of listerblossom steep, and then I lay back down.

  Slept.

  Woke up feeling much less nasty.

  Enough so that I could look about the room, note the bank of windows, one of which was open to let in a cool, pine-scented breeze. And over there against the far wall, a wood-framed mirror.

  A mirror.

  Intense desire made me struggle up, fighting against dizziness.

  The dizziness won. I flopped back, and my nightcap came askew. So I reached up, pulled that off, and with it unrolled a long length of waving blond hair. Dirty, twig-decorated blond hair, I realized, as I looked at the tangle lying across my lap.

  I was engaged in working my fingers slowly through the knots when the door opened and the woman came back in. She smiled. “Ah, you are awake, and if I may be permitted, you do look more awake.”

  “I feel it. In fact, I think I might even be hungry.”

  She moved from window to window, opening out the casements and letting more air in. It smelled wonderful.

  “His highness wishes to visit you as soon as might be,” she said.

  “Why not now? I have so many questions.”

  She straightened the quilt and fluffed more pillows to put behind me to help me sit up, as I chattered on.

  “Like who am I? Do I live here? What happened to me? I hate to be talking about myself so much. But it’s not like I’ll be hearing things I already know.”

  She smiled. “I can’t answer that, my lady. You met with an accident, is all I know for certain. The rest his highness can better relate.”

  “Well, then, tell me about myself. Am I ugly?”

  She laughed, a soft sound. “No. No one is really ugly, unless ugly inside, and it shapes the outward form. You are a young lady of medium height, I should say, and on the thin side, but good food will take care of that. You have gray eyes and blond hair, and you are covered with too many bruises and scrapes to count.”

  I touched my face as she spoke, discovered what had to be a black eye and swelling behind my ear. The headache was a dull reminder of my earlier awakenings. “May I comb my hair and put on a wrap first?” I added, looking down at the nightdress. “Unless that fellow you mentioned is…my brother?”

  For a moment, when I thought the word “brother”, an image flickered through my thoughts, too fast to catch. Trying to recapture it made the headache pang in warning.

  “Bide easy,” the woman said. “One thing at a time.”

  She brushed out my hair and brought me a silken shawl of a fine shade of violet. Presently that red-haired fellow entered the room. He was dressed in a long dark blue tunic with gold embroidery that made a fire of his hair. He did not wear a blackweave sword belt, instead a belt of golden links. More gold on his hands.

  “Good morning, Flian.” He studied me while I looked him over. “Feeling better?”

  “Well as can be expected. Will you answer some questions? It hurts to think, but I want to know where I am, and who you are, and who I am, to begin with.”

  “Don’t press for it, you’ll only feel worse.” He glanced at the woman, who moved swiftly to fetch him a chair. She set it, and he sat down, and smiled at me. “I am Garian Herlester of Drath. You are Flian Elandersi, my cousin. You were on your way to visit me before your marriage. You rode in an open carriage, and you encouraged your driver to go too fast. The carriage overturned and your driver was killed.”

  “Oh.” I winced. “I caused a death? No wonder I don’t want to remember.” Distress made my head pang again, more insistently.

  “Don’t be. He was drunk.” Garian waved a ringed hand. “Or he wouldn’t have driven so badly, for my roads, by and large, are quite good. The animals escaped injury, but your carriage was a ruin.”

  I sighed. “The old woman told me none of that, only that they found me face down in the road. And—did she not say I’d fallen from a horse?”

  “Well, they didn’t want to mention the driver, no doubt, and as for the horses, they’d worked loose and we recovered them farther down the mountain.”

  “Ah. Does my family know what has happened? And who are they?”

  “You have a father and a brother. They know. They wish you to stay here. You have never gotten on well with your father. He is old and autocratic, and favors your brother, who incidentally opposes your marriage because you are betrothed to a king. This will place you in a position of power. So you came here. We have always been friends.” He smiled, his hazel eyes unblinking as he watched me assess his news.

  “It doesn’t sound dull, does it?” I ran my hands over the shawl’s fringe, not sure what to think—or to feel. “My intended, does he know?”

  “Rode straight here, soon as my messengers reached him.”

  “So when can we meet? Er, that is, see one another? Again?”

  Garian hesitated, then stood. Without warning he bent and picked me up, quilt and shawl and all. He said over his shoulder to the open-mouthed woman, “Find King Jason, will you, Netta? We’ll meet him in my library.”

  “But—your highness—”

  “Now, Netta.” Garian sounded impatient.

  The woman fled.

  “I appreciate your wanting to help me sort it all out at once. It can’t wait? I feel like a fool being barefooted, and in a nightdress.”

  Garian smiled down at me. He smelled of wine—recently drunk, too. “But he’ll be seeing you in that soon enough, won’t he? And truth to tell he’s been up here and seen you sleeping, so why not awake?”

  “Then one last request, please? Step near yon glass. Maybe my reflection will jar loose this wall between me and my past.”

  He laughed a little. “Believe me, you’d regret it just now.”

  I groaned. “And this king is going to be glad to see this black eye?” I fingered my sore cheekbone.

  “Remember, you two are quite passionate about one another.” Garian passed out of the room and down a curving stone stairway. Past arched windows, old hangings, fine furnishings.

  A sense of the ridiculous chased away the anxious worries that I couldn’t place. Outside two caved doors, Garian stopped. “We’re here.”

  One of the doors opened.

  I turned my eyes toward my beloved.

  And stared, aghast.

  Chapter Two

  The two were about the same height, but Garian was built rangy and the other was as lean as a wolf. The similar height was all they shared.

  Whereas Garian possessed all the smiling grace of a courtier, King Jason was as expressive as a stone. A stone in the dead of winter, to give an idea of how much warmth there was in his countenance. His hair was black as a moonless night, combed straight back from his brow and tied with a plain black ribbon. His eyes were a light blue under long black brows, a long mouth set in a face made square by sharp cheekbones and jaw line. His only affectation was a thin moustache following the curve of his upper lips, angling down on either side just far enough to emphasize those sharp bones. It made his age difficult to guess, and its effect was rather sinister.

  He wore a long, black, heavy linen tunic-shirt with plain laces, trousers and boots—riding clothes. Something silver, a chain, glinted beneath the slack laces of his shirt. I wondered if I had given it to him.

  He withstood my scrutiny for the space of three or four long breaths, then glanced Garian’s way, then spoke. “Good morning, Flian. I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

  His voice was soft, with little expression, and the sentence seemed awkward—as if that much effusion did not come naturally.

  I was in love with that?

  I tried to hide my utter dismay.

  Puffing slightly, Garian set me into a large carved chair.

  I struggled for politeness, even if I couldn’t fake delight. “I am glad to meet you, Jason. I guess you’ll have to be pretty fond of me if you can stand the way I look now.”

  Garian laughed, but Jason didn’t. He stood there, gazing down at me with that stone-cold expression I was soon to disco
ver was habitual. Then he smiled. Very faintly. Not the big, edgy grin that Garian kept giving me. Jason shouldn’t have bothered. His smile was even more sinister than his stone face.

  He stepped closer, reached down, and lightly flicked my good cheek with a finger. “You asked for it,” he said.

  “You have always traveled much too fast,” Garian put in. “I fear one of the many instances of thoughtlessness that has given extra concern to those who know you best. But spoiled young ladies do like to have their way.”

  “I apologize for the extra concern,” I said, thinking: asked for what?

  Jason said, “Meanwhile, in your turn you’ll have to get used to my face.” His tone was wry.

  Garian spoke quickly. “We think you’ll be better off having the wedding here, so that you can go home with Jason and recover. That way you won’t be required to suffer the recriminations of your family while you’re still weak.”

  “Here? Isn’t that too much of a hurry?”

  Garian’s eyes narrowed.

  “I mean, shouldn’t I be able to recognize the guests at my own wedding?”

  Garian smiled. It was that impatient smile; the feeling it sent through me was not reassurance, but warning. “And here I thought you would be pleased with my efforts on your behalf. All the plans have been set in motion.”

  I closed my eyes. It still hurt to think. “Well, if you’ve gone to that much trouble.”

  “Maybe by the time the guests arrive and the gown can be made, you’ll have your memory again.” Garian spread his hands.

  “I didn’t have a gown made?”

  “Everything ruined.” Garian shook his head sadly. “Rain, too. Mud. Torn to shreds. Before you were found.”

  “What sort of a gown do you wish?” Jason asked.

  “I-I don’t know.”

  “We’ll sort it all out later.” Garian waggled his fingers, rings glittering.

  I started to rise, then spotted a fine, inlaid twelve-string lute lying on a side table. Two steps, three, took me to it. I reached, stroked the wood gently. My right hand moved over the frets, pressing, pressing, and my left strummed softly. Sound, rich, shimmering sound delighted me, and I closed my eyes, reaching—

 
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