The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

Puzzled, unnerved, mostly weary, I flopped down, my back to him, and listened to the rain on the roof.

  Chapter Twelve

  When I woke again, it was to the rumble of thunder. A flash of lightning had broken into my dreams. Rain roared on the roof of the cottage. A thin stream of water ran down inside the far wall, but at least it found another hole to run out of and our floor was not awash.

  I sat up and sneezed. My head now felt stuffed with cotton. My throat was scratchy; I’d been breathing through my mouth.

  The fire crackled, giving off welcome light and heat. Jason sat in the same place as before. Papers rested near his good hand, and a quill and ink.

  He pointed with his chin behind me.

  Neatly folded clothing lay to hand: a stout black linen shirt, and one of those heavy green woolen battle tunics. Under that was a handkerchief—a besorcelled one, I discovered, as I touched it. It had that same tingly feel as cleaning frames.

  I buried my face in it gratefully, snorting and snuffling.

  When I looked back, Jason’s attention was on his papers. He too had one of the handkerchiefs. He set down his quill, picked up the handkerchief, coughed, snorted and then resumed his work.

  I was embarrassed at the notion of asking him to turn around, for what if he refused? Or made some devastating comment? Despite having grown up with a brother, I was modest—private, in fact, and even under extreme circumstances such as these I did not want to change my clothes in sight of a man I not only did not know, but actively disliked.

  Not that there was any hint of expectation, of desire, of the awareness of physical proximity from Jason Szinzar. In short there was nothing remotely romantic, flirtatious or even friendly in my present situation.

  Jason’s pen scratched steadily across his paper.

  Though I’d exchanged the usual adolescent kisses and explorations, I’d come to distrust flirtation, wherein ambition was all too often masked by the sweet words of so-called love.

  Since those days I had confined my definition of love to the strictly familial. Always, balanced against the romantic songs and the sights of flirting couples at balls was the knowledge of my mother’s short, dismal life. Now, to me she embodied cowardice—not that I had ever spoken the words aloud.

  So here I was alone with an enemy—the circumstances uncertain—and yet I had to dress.

  I hesitated. Looked again. Jason was busy and I did not want to call his attention to me.

  So I turned my back, pulled the clothes under the cloak and wrestled them on over my chemise and drawers, which I knew were grimy and as blue-smeared as my flesh, but at least they were dry. The shirt and tunic were so large that it was actually no difficulty.

  When at last I shook out the folds, the battle tunic thumped straight down to the tops of my feet, forming an odd sort of gown above my walking slippers, which—mud caked and mossy—were still on my feet.

  The laces on the shirt began well below my collarbones; ball gowns scooped only a fraction lower. I pulled the laces as tight as I could and tied them into a secure knot, though when I bent, an edge of my grubby blue-stained chemise peeked absurdly out. The shirt was also vastly outsize. I had to roll the cuffs back several times to free my fingertips, but I did not care. It was warm.

  When I looked over, I saw Jason’s gaze on me. He did not hide his amusement. “If Markham were any bigger, those clothes would fall right off you.”

  “Contrary.” I sounded like a goose honking. So I dropped a dainty curtsey. “They are much too tight.”

  He gave me a sardonic half-smile, coughed hard into his handkerchief, and turned his attention back to his papers.

  There was more steeped leaf, soup and bread. While Jason worked his way through his papers, I had a quiet meal. The only sounds were the fire, the rain, and our coughing and snuffling. Jason’s cold, I noted with sour triumph, was far worse than mine.

  When I was done eating, I felt for the first time that I might actually stay awake. I looked around the cottage, which provided little to view beyond warped planking and mossy patches. The thundering rain outside made venturing beyond the door a prospect of limited appeal.

  So I sat down and fingered the worst tangles from my hair, then braided it. As I worked, I covertly studied my enemy, wondering what I ought to do, for I knew what would come next. He would go forward with the plans to extort my inheritance from my brother. Balanced against that I had only one small comfort: he did not intend to use it to fund an invasion of Lygiera.

  Or, that was what he’d said. A lie? I could not remember him lying to me. None of the Szinzars had lied, whatever else one could say of their motivations. Unlike Garian, who in retrospect had enjoyed spinning out falsehoods just to see me believe them without question.

  A stray memory recurred: Jason flicking my cheek with his finger, and saying, You asked for it.

  Asked for “it”? Asked for what, a smashing fall from a horse? That was as close to a lie as he’d come, for I had never asked for pain and trouble! Did it mean he thought I deserved such a fall? But his tone had not been gloating, as Garian’s had been. It had been more of a warning.

  “Question?”

  Belatedly I realized I was still staring at him. No, actually glaring. So I said, “You told me when I woke up in Garian’s that I’d ‘asked for it’. What did you mean?”

  His brows lifted. “Neither of us expected you to climb down the trees and ride off at the gallop in the middle of the night. Put Garian in quite a rage, by the way.” He smiled, obviously enjoying the remembered spectacle.

  For a moment I dismissed Garian and his rage, contemplating the fact that Jason had not really answered my question. Why not?

  “What happened to the man I bribed? I hope Garian didn’t—”

  “Took whatever it was you gave him and ran. What was it, your jewelry?”

  “Yes. Maybe I was foolish to ride in the darkness—though it seemed a good idea at the time—but how do you make that out to be cowardice?”

  “Didn’t say it was.”

  “Yet you said I was a coward yesterday. Or whenever it was.”

  “So?”

  Good question. Why did his opinion matter? It ought not to matter, not the least bit. I said in my grumpiest voice, “I don’t know why I even bothered to remember. You are all selfish, stupid blockheads, every single one of you. That’s the worst of what is laughably called courtship: men.”

  “So you females don’t court men—or women—who have money, power, or the promise of acquiring them?” he asked.

  I thought of Gilian Zarda trying to twine her little hands round Maxl’s crown, and made a face. “Everyone is an idiot,” I stated. “Except me. Because I don’t court at all, and if I did, it wouldn’t be for money, or power, or any of the rest of it.”

  Jason’s mouth quirked. “Easy to say from the position of vast wealth.”

  “I’d say it even so.” I hesitated, thinking, was that true? What would I be, had I not been born a princess? I would have found my way to music. Somehow.

  “You’ll be home soon enough, once your brother pays up, and you can spend the rest of your life reviling against me.”

  “You didn’t tell me what you want my fortune for.”

  “No,” he agreed. “Music. Now I understand why Garian was annoyed when you found that lute in his library.”

  “At first he denied me access to music. Playing or hearing. Just to underscore his authority. Another way to wear down my will and force me to accede to his plans, but after my memory blanked, I realize he was afraid that might bring it back.”

  “What is there in music that commands your attention?”

  “That you have to ask that question—” I paused to cough, and then to catch my breath. “That you have to ask implies that you find music at best frivolous. Bad music, I’ll agree, is frivolous. Worse, it jars on the spirit. Disharmony—” I shook my head. “Never mind. Good music is an art.”

  “Art being?”

  I remember
ed Jewel’s disparaging description of Lathandra’s barracks-like royal castle. Was he in truth so ignorant? No, ignorance implied no access. Art and army did seem contradictory ways of life; I could envision him dismissing the arts as irrelevant to the all-consuming passion for war.

  Despite my increasingly hoarse voice, I said, “There are as many ways to define it as there are forms of art, but the best of it takes skill and insight to create, and it is not merely pleasing to the senses, but can have meaning for us. As individuals. As people.” I stopped. That was usually far more than anyone would listen to.

  “Go on.”

  “With music you can tell the truth about human experience. My great-aunt told me when I was little that every choice, a shift from key to key, a new melodic line developed counterpoint to a known melody, each becomes a personal, that is, a unique, response to universal experience.”

  “What about those who only hear noise?”

  I hesitated, sorting his words, his tone, his expression. “Noise,” I repeated. “So many have said that to me, in derision. Accusation. Defense. I don’t have an answer, except for the observation that some people truly are tone deaf. Others, well, they haven’t had access to music from childhood, which—this is something else my grandmother told me—is akin to a person who was never taught letters looking at a book and seeing hen scratchings on paper.” I stopped again.

  “Go on.”

  “That’s pretty much all I have to say. For me music is true art, whereas words—so I’ve learned, growing up in a court—are at best artful.”

  He gazed past me at the fire. I couldn’t tell if he was thinking, bored, or just wondering when we’d eat next.

  I sneezed, buried my face in the handkerchief. Magic whisked away the nastiness of a runny nose and eyes. When I emerged, Jason said, “What I want to discover is whether Garian knew about your interests and dismissed them as frivolous, or whether he exerted himself to conceal them.”

  “Why should it matter? We all knew right from the start that your so-called courtship was an excuse to extort my inheritance by legal means. My brief lapse in memory hasn’t obscured that.”

  “Had nothing to do with you.”

  “I should have known that.” Pause to cough. “It never has! Just my wealth. Now I really comprehend why princesses—and princes—run away to become bards.”

  He cast the quill aside. “Leaving the field to the enemy.”

  Two against twelve, wasn’t that what his armsman had said? As thunder rumbled across the sky, I comprehended that we existed in vastly different paradigms.

  Instinct prompted me to say, You won’t understand. After all, I held the high moral ground, as victim, and he, as villain, had to be in the wrong.

  The words were there, my tongue ready to shape them, my throat constricted to utter them, but I couldn’t. He’d listened to me talk about music, which was, as far as I could tell, so much hen scratching to him. Though we were enemies, we did sit at the same fire, with time’s steady measure slowed to the movement of winter ice, and so I said, “You mean, making kingdom affairs into personal? I guess I can see the objection—if the princess who runs away to become a bard is the trained heir, abandoning responsibility because it’s boring. But—” I shook my head.

  He said, “But?”

  I glowered at the fire. “But when you say ‘field’ and ‘enemy’ either you mean war, or figurative language that suggests you see kingdom affairs in terms of war. And where is the virtue in doing one’s duty if ‘duty’ is defined as sending countless unknown people, on both sides, to death?”

  At that point Garian would either have laughed or slapped me. It was just that kind of answer that had provoked him.

  Jason Szinzar said, “What if every alternative you see ends with war?”

  “Every? I’d say it sounds like someone is seeking an excuse.”

  He looked down at his papers. I waited, while the fire snapped and the rain roared, until I realized he was not considering an answer, that he was not going to make an answer.

  Twice more this odd sort of conversation happened.

  Once he asked abruptly if I disliked the rain, of all things—I said no—he said I was the first court woman he’d met who didn’t, but his tone was not complimentary. It implied I was lying, and I retorted that most of the men I knew (I was thinking of Spaquel) hated rain. Anyone did if one wasn’t dressed for it. Then we were off on court clothes (him: expensive and useless) and court behavior (him: as flimsy as the clothing) and before I knew it I was into my mistrust of words before I wondered if I was lecturing and stopped.

  The second time he was even more abrupt, asking if I knew anything of Velethi history. Astonished, I stared—were his brains boiling with his fever? Taking up the implied challenge, I named their kings and queens going back three hundred years, and added in the major battles. It wasn’t until I said that our tutors had exhorted us always to know the enemy that he stopped talking.

  I turned my back and went to sleep.

  I woke to the sounds of arrivals. The armsman once more offered me food and steeped leaf, and when that was finished, he said, “Can you ride?”

  “Of course.” I was annoyed at the implication that all I knew how to do was sit in carriages.

  They were clearly relieved. The logistics of that big old carriage were daunting. I never did find out where Markham had managed to find it. I can only report that when we walked out of that cottage—which I fervently hoped never to see again in life, if I couldn’t avoid it in nightmares—horses awaited, their coats glistening in the light rainfall.

  As I mounted up, I caught several glances of amusement at my no doubt unflattering appearance. Yet there was no derision in those glances, or mockery. Just—humor.

  The journey was sedate, down a narrow trail alongside a tumbling stream. Markham and the four silent men-at-arms were watchful of their master, whose only betrayal of weakness was an angry sort of grimness by the time we reached a camp near a great waterfall. They took him into a tent. We were all soaked through from the rain, a state that was to be constant over the next couple of days.

  I did not see Jason again, except in glimpses, during that journey eastward.

  Brissot turned out to be the captain of a military company that included a number of women. These latter took charge of me, at first trying to hide their considerable amusement at the spectacle of me—dyed blue—in Markham’s battle gear. Or half of his battle gear. Once I was in their tent, one of the women produced some clothes that turned out to be for their young recruits. These fit me much better, right down to the warm softweave mocs—no riding boots for me. My long, bedraggled braid was coiled up and hidden under a helm.

  And so we proceeded, an anonymous troop of Ralanor Veleth’s army, riding on some kind of mountain maneuvers. Nothing was explained to me, but on the day or so it took to wind our way through the border mountains, we were met more than once by Drath’s violet-clad guard riding on their own unnamed errands. No one gave me a second glance, even though at one point an entire troop of them lined up to watch us ride single file over a bridge. Jason was too far ahead in the line for me to see, but presumably they didn’t recognize him either, for he was wearing clothing belonging to one of his warriors.

  I had no desire whatsoever to cry out, or draw attention and cause a battle—which might end with me back in Garian’s hands. So I stayed silent.

  The clouds were low, heavy and gray as we descended into Ralanor Veleth. I hadn’t a hope of escape. Just once, briefly, I envisioned myself managing to vanquish all these foes and galloping straight for home—except where would one possibly begin? “Vanquishing” has to start somewhere, but I hadn’t a clue what the first step might be.

  And wasn’t vanquishing another form of war? Yes, I decided. So my weapons had to be my wits.

  Use them.

  While I tried unsuccessfully to figure out how, the journey was not unbearable. I watched diligently when we stopped, but I was always surrounde
d when we ate, and though I might begin an evening alone in the women’s tent, the sound of laughter and the clash of swords outside made it clear their favorite campfire activity was dueling practice. Assuming I knew where to go, I wasn’t going to sneak past that with any success.

  Their conversations with one another were those of friends, punctuated by laughter, and their questions to me were at first tentative. When I recognized shyness, rather than the reserve of contempt, I exerted myself to bridge the gap between our two countries, and sensed them doing the same. Our talk was nothing political, or deep, or even all that interesting. But friendly in intention—mostly me asking questions about them, and their ready answers about a life that filled them with pride. But they didn’t confine themselves to talk about war-related things. Far from it. Friends, horses, food—all the easy subjects were canvassed, with only a single reference to recent events. One of them muttered a remark about Drath’s young guardsmen that caused them all to burst into laughter, but when I asked her to explain, she blushed, hastily said she had patrol duty, and whisked herself out of the tent.

  By the time we reached Lathandra, their capital, we had established about as good an understanding as any captive princess ever had or was likely to get.

  And so, after this journey I found myself with mixed feelings when we reached a formidable city built on a ridge and ringed with three sets of walls, their contours picked out by myriad torches. Silent sentries patrolled all the high points, and there were many.

  We rode up the cobbled streets toward the central, highest rocky hill and the last ring-wall, which surrounded the Szinzar castle and the peak it was built into. Through a massive and well-guarded gate into a broad courtyard in which a great host could gather. The women who had stayed with me offered me salutes before they departed, which surprised me, but I gave them friendly words in parting, as if I was about to visit my elderly great-aunt and not about to get thrust into a dungeon. Or whatever form my prison would take. I was determined not to show how hard my heart hammered.

  Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do, and did it with military efficiency. The company marched off one way, the supply people another, the stablehands leading the mounts toward a stable far bigger than ours at Carnison.

 
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