The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

  Out of this maze of ordered activity a liveried man appeared, and beckoned to me. “This way, your highness.”

  He led me through a heavy iron-reinforced door and up narrow stone stairs. My coughs echoed oddly. Down a hall, lit at intervals by torches in sconces. I remembered that dungeons could be above ground as well as below. In fact, I’d read that some stuck their prisoners in towers, and I’d seen plenty of torchlit towers standing squarely against the gray-black night sky.

  But then the man paused by a door and opened it, bowing slightly. I went through—and discovered that I was in what appeared to be the hallway leading into a residence wing. The floor was stone, but it was slate, cut and tiled, and the walls were a smooth cream-colored plaster, with doors inset along the way.

  A woman appeared. Her eyes were wide-set and merry, her wild dark curls barely confined to a sedate braid. She too wore the Szinzar green and a fresh apron.

  “Your highness.” She dropped a curtsey. “This way.”

  I was too astonished to speak.

  Numb, wet, I slogged after her, very aware of the squish, squish, squish of my mocs in the quiet hall, until she stopped at a double door, and bowed me into a spacious room with old-fashioned but fine walnut furnishings and what appeared to be a feather bed. There was even a rug on the floor, woven in pleasing geometric patterns of fish and birds and berries. Across the room a good fire in a huge fireplace made the air warm and mellow. In the corner stood a wardrobe, the right size to contain a cleaning frame.

  “Your highness,” the woman said, smiling. “Your choice is between a bath and a hot meal first, or sleep first.”

  “A bath?” I repeated, unable to get past that word.

  She shook with silent laughter. “This way.”

  I followed, my vision of iron bars and a dark stone cell fading before the sight of a room with a tiled sunken bath, large enough to lie in. Steaming water waited for me.

  As I skinned out of those oversized battle clothes, she talked lightly about the virtues of hot water, different types of soap. Always in that merry voice, respectful in word and tone, but mirthful in inflection. Not cruel mirth, or gloating, or contemptuous. It was obvious that this maid found my mute astonishment, like my blue-dyed skin, endlessly entertaining.

  She massaged my scalp and rubbed ointments into my hair, combing it out until it lay like damp ribbons down my back. Whatever she had used had tamed the tangles, though it didn’t smell like the flower-scented hair elixirs of home. I liked this astringent scent, I decided. It reminded me of summer fields.

  Soon I sat, robed in expensive, soft-woven yeath-fur, drinking a spiced broth soup. After it came chocolate, warm with cream in it. I sipped it, felt lassitude steal over me.

  Recognizing those waves of exhaustion, I finally spoke. “Drugged?” I set the cup down.

  “No,” she said, gulping on another laugh. “Hot milk makes a person sleep better. I always used to give it to her highness, Princess Jewel. She misliked the taste of plain milk, preferring the chocolate and honey. It’s become quite a fashion, truth to tell, for ours is a cold climate, this side of the mountains—either wet and cold, or dry and windy and cold.”

  I finished the chocolate, and then she turned back the covers of the feather bed. A real bed, after days of cold, damp ground. As I climbed in, she removed two warming pans and set them on the hearth.

  The bed was soft. Warm. Clean.

  I don’t remember putting my head on the pillow.

  Chapter Thirteen

  Her name was Berry. She had been Jewel’s maidservant, left behind when Jewel ran away. She didn’t say much about that—only that since then she had been working downstairs with the linens, repairing tapestries.

  That second day she brought me a lute, a very old one, newly strung, saying that the king sent it with his compliments—a piece of politeness that surprised me. The third day, two sweating footmen muscled a huge harp into the room. It was old, but newly restrung.

  I had ceased being astonished by then, and could only be grateful for the lack of threat or oppression. My duty was to escape, but I was uncertain how I’d even find my way out of this enormous castle filled with military people on guard night and day. I peeked out the door down the hallway on my first morning, to see a man-at-arms stationed there. There was no fighting my way past him, so the alternative was to wait and see what Jason heard from my brother—and plan from there.

  I tried to make friends with the servants, and take note of my surroundings. When the weather was pleasant, I rolled the harp out onto the balcony to practice. This balcony probably had served some kind of military purpose long ago, but had been closed in, with potted trees set at the corners. Beyond the low, crenellated wall was a sheer drop to a garden that was bounded by the castle walls on the other side. Jaim might have been able to shinny up or down. I couldn’t begin to figure out how.

  Up behind me the castle reached, dark gray stone, with the ever-vigilant sentries visible along the walls and towers.

  The garden was another surprise. Shaped like an L, it had been designed around a waterfall in the side of the peak into which the castle had been built. This garden, like the furnishings and the musical instruments, was old, for those trees had not been planted in my lifetime—or even in my father’s. At any given time you could find courtiers wandering the garden in Carnison, but here if there were courtiers, they did not appear in the garden. I mostly glimpsed servants and warriors out on the paths, or sitting sunning themselves in the brief intervals between the bands of rain. Birds twittered in the trees, and in the distance, over the walls, I sometimes heard cadenced shouts and the clash and clatter of weapons drills.

  Though this place was not like home, it was apparent that Jewel, in her loathing, had exaggerated to its detriment.

  Berry brought a couple of gowns, soft, well-made cotton-velvet overgowns with square necks and full sleeves that fell from shoulders to the floor. Under them I wore a cotton underdress. I had no idea if these things were current fashion here or something left behind by another woman at another time, but that didn’t matter. The clothing was warm in a very chilly climate.

  Music kept my mind occupied; in fact, I tried not to feel guilt at the fact that this existence was preferable to court at home, for no one pestered me for poetry readings, riding parties or to dance with hopeful sons who needed to marry money.

  There was no Gilian Zarda.

  And so several days passed, one folding into another without any jolts of terror or dramatic pulse pounding. My cold, mild to begin with, rapidly dwindled to an occasional cough, and my blue skin lightened to its normal color. I spent most of my time out on the balcony with the harp.

  I resolutely spent those first couple of days on elementary exercises to regain my fingering. Thus I learned the characteristics of each instrument. On the third day, at last, I gave in and played my entire repertoire. The lute, though a perfectly adequate drawing-room instrument, was nothing to the harp. That harp had been brought here by someone who knew and loved music. It was made of an extraordinary wood with brilliant resonance.

  There was no communication with Jason other than the delivery of the instruments. I did not know what to make of that, except, perhaps, from a practical perspective that a happy hostage is a hostage not making trouble.

  So since I couldn’t parse his motives, I thought about him as I played the harp. What he’d done, and most of all, what he’d said. It was easy but not very enlightening to dismiss everything he said as the utterings of a villain. That comment he had made about quitting the field—the fact that it kept coming back to me meant that somewhere in it some truth must lie.

  Quitting the field. As I brooded over the adventures into which I’d been unwillingly forced, the one common element was just that. I’d been forced. Garian, Jason and the others didn’t get bundled along by others. They made things happen. Wise or shortsighted, for better or for worse, they acted. And I just reacted.

  When rain came throug
h, I trundled the harp back inside.

  I sat by the fireplace as rain pattered on the terrace outside the windows, and ran my fingers through the chords, major, minor, major. Minor. So different, those chords, though both were required to make music. Could it be the same for differing views of the world? Passivity without strength created victims. Only where did strength cross over into evil? One answer was easy, the deliberate breaking of the bonds of morality, or of honor.

  On impulse I opened the door and walked out.

  The guard on duty approached and bowed, his eyes questioning. “I would like an interview with your king, please,” I said.

  He bowed again. Opened the hall door.

  Surprised at not being put off, I followed. In silence we traversed what had to be the length of the northern wall of the castle. Before long we were passing by chambers wherein people worked, mostly people in military garb, though without the chain mail or weapons. Through a room in which I glimpsed maps and busy desks to a narrow hall, and then the guard motioned me to wait, which I did, while he went on alone.

  Moments later I was ushered into a round tower room with an old carpet, and more of the walnut furnishings of the last century, plus two tall shelves of books. In fact, it reminded me so much of Maxl’s lair a snort of laughter escaped me when I faced Jason sitting in an armchair next to a desk.

  He wore the same plain riding clothes I remembered from the days in Drath; if he was bandaged it was not visible. He eyed me with a kind of wary appraisal that I found unpleasant. “You have a complaint?” he asked, words that took me by surprise.

  Since he had not invited me to sit I perched on the armrest of the other chair. “No. I thought of an alternate plan today. How about instead of your threatening Maxl I just give you whatever it is you want? I have controlled my own inheritance since my last birthday, except the land that came through my mother. We can’t actually claim anything in Narieth. Since you say you aren’t going to attack Lygiera, you can have it all. I go home, and there’s an end to my wealth—and incidentally to my problems with wealth seekers.”

  “No,” he said, but at least that wary expression was gone.

  “Why not? Why does it have to be through Maxl?”

  “It’s the mechanics of transfer. I’m in a hurry. Your suggestion would take months.” He added with that rare hint of humor, “There’s nothing like judicious threat to bustle the bureaucrats along.”

  So much for taking action.

  I left.

  A long walk back, and I resumed my practice with the harp.

  During the afternoon I contemplated throwing myself on Berry’s mercy. She was kind—she clearly wished me well.

  What would I say?

  Will you help me escape? I am here against my will.

  What would she say? She might not believe me, for to her eyes I had been in no danger. Had she a family? A lover? Would she want to begin again in Lygiera?

  Was she loyal to the Szinzars, impossible as that seemed? Except I had seen myself that Brissot’s company had not been unhappy or constrained by threat to carry out their orders. And Markham, who was Jason’s own liegeman, appeared to be unquestioningly loyal. Jason’d had no doubt that Markham would return after he’d sent him off for help after the ambush. And so it had come to pass.

  All right, then. The lesson here seemed to be that I had to rely on my own will as well as my wits. I would never use threat, but I wouldn’t try to twist someone’s sympathy to get me what I wanted, leaving them to face the consequences.

  I was surprised later that day to observe subtle indications of unease in Berry. Nothing overt. Her hands moved about without their usual purpose—smoothing what was already smooth, straightening what was already straight, checking for dust on the old tabletops that shone from across the room.

  And so I lifted my hands from the harp and faced her. “Is there something you wish to say?”

  “Um,” she said, blushing. “Your highness.”

  I laughed. “Uh oh. Whenever the titles come out, something awful is next.”

  “Nothing awful! But—presumptuous, perhaps. Have you noticed the crowds in the garden?” she asked in a rush.

  “Of course! Who would not take advantage of a stretch of fine days?”

  My own situation vanished like fog before the sun when she said, “They take advantage of your music.” She pointed to the door to the balcony, which was open. “Some have urged me to request you to take the harp back outside. Now that the rain is gone. So they can hear better. If you can ask such a thing of a princess.”

  I laughed. When she looked upset, I waved my hand and shook my head as I tried to regain my equilibrium. “Oh! Oh,” I said. “I was not ready for that. See, at home, I can’t play for anyone. I would if I could—but the truth is, I’m not nearly as good as the professionals. Even that would not stop me from getting up musical groups, as happened in the old days, but somehow some stupid custom took hold wherein it’s improper for people of rank to entertain.”

  Berry whistled.

  “A stupid custom,” I declared. “When my own grandmother can remember musical parties among the older people where everyone played to their own satisfaction, and they put together plays for the fun of it. Perhaps someone with the flair for leading could change the custom. Make it a fashion again…”

  I was smitten by memory, when I had tried that very thing, not long after my first formal appearance at court at sixteen. How my heart had sped, my palms had sweated as I invited some of the other girls to a musical party, but not one of them brought an instrument, and how stiffly they’d sat, how politely they’d clapped.

  And later, Gilian—whom I had not invited—asking in that sweet lisp she’d used ever since we were small, if it would become a royal decree to have to come listen to me exhibiting myself…

  I shrugged away the embarrassing memory. “But I don’t have that flair. So we must all be spectators. But here—” I laughed again. “Air goes where it will, and if the wind carries music as well as the scents of the garden, how can I object?”

  I rolled the harp back out onto the terrace, and played for the rest of that day, pleased that for the first time in my life, someone besides me was listening.

  Next morning a summons came in the form of one of those guards, a tall young man with big ears and a vague resemblance to one of the women of Brissot’s troop.

  “The king asks for an interview,” he said.

  “Well then, lead on.” I set down the lute.

  This time I met Jason in a small, plain sitting room that looked south over the great assembly court and the stables. Sunlight streamed through the windows, outlining his form as he stared out at the garden. The old rosewood furnishings were spare and somber. As soon as the door closed behind the servant, he turned around.

  “Your brother has refused.”

  “Refused?” My mouth shaped the word, but no sound came out.

  The unexpectedness of his statement was followed hard with terror, and stars wheeled across my vision.

  “Sit down.”

  He turned toward the windows again, his hands behind his back. “No one is holding a blade to your neck, so why are you acting like a trapped rabbit?”

  He was irritated. He was irritated?

  “So do you carry out the threat after the next meal? Or maybe next week?” I sounded like a mouse, not a rabbit, to my own ears.

  He waved his left hand with a quick, dismissive gesture. “There was no real threat. Just bluff. And your brother seems to have figured that out. He learns fast, your brother. I’ll remember that.”

  “No threat?” I repeated. “But—I don’t understand. Then what am I doing here?”

  “Spaquel was going to send you and my sister to Garian. I got there first.”

  “But—” I shook my head, bewildered. “Why did you—oh.” I frowned at the wine glass, then looked up. “If you sent Jewel back with Spaquel, who was hotfooting to his house after you—”

  “Then he
either had to tell the truth to your brother, or make the best of it and pretend to be a rescuing hero, since it was you Garian wanted. Not my poverty-stricken sister. If Ignaz Spaquel tries anything more, he chances to lose everything he holds in Lygiera. Your father might be living in a dream, but I’m beginning to suspect your brother won’t put up with treason.”

  “So Jewel was safe, and Spaquel thwarted. And you made me come here why?”

  “First, to see who intercepted my ransom letter, and what would happen.”

  I glared at him. “What would have happened to me had Garian managed to make us marry that day up in Drath?”

  “You were expecting to be strangled in the dark of night?” he asked, mocking.

  “Jewel was certain that was your plan—if not sooner, certainly later.”

  “You ought to know by now that Jewel’s imagination supplies more interesting convictions than the truth ever could.”

  “And so?”

  He gazed out the window. “My original intention was to bring you back here and establish you in the rooms you have now until you conveniently followed your mother’s path into a nearby river, as Garian insisted would happen before long—”

  “Ugh! Never!”

  “Yes, I realize now that the assumption was erroneous, but it’s irrelevant because I have an idea that Garian actually had some treachery in line for both of us. I don’t think either of us were meant to survive crossing his border. What I still do not know yet is if Garian was intending to come to the rescue of my empty throne, or my brother was.” Again he raised his left hand, and turned around with a kind of rueful smile. “We can discourse on that later. It appears we are about to be enlightened in some respects, and misled in most.”

  He moved to a sideboard and poured out three small glasses of wine; I noticed he used his right very little.

  Without any warning the door slammed open, smashing into the opposite wall, and in ran—

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