The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  “Flian! I hoped you would not still be here.” She whirled around, facing her brother. “You horrid, rotten, blast-mad villain! How dare you!”

  “The Elandersi court started holding Flian’s disappearance against you?” Jason asked as if he hadn’t heard all those insults.

  Jewel gasped. “How did you—”

  “I had people there waiting, in case that happened. Their orders were to pull you out as soon as gossip started blaming you.”

  Jewel rubbed her eyes. “I don’t understand. I’d rather stay there and face down the gossip, which is completely ridiculous—”

  “You can spend the evening in ceaseless lamentations,” Jason cut in. “Berry has your old rooms aired and ready. Here.” He pressed a glass of wine into her hands.

  To my surprise, Jewel took it and drank it down. “Ugh, my butt aches,” she moaned. “I loathe riding like that, day and night!” She beckoned to me. “Come, Flian. I have so much to tell you.” Her expressive brows lowered into a scowl line. “When he isn’t looming around like a thunderbolt about to strike.”

  Jason waved at the door with his good hand. “She’ll be along presently.”

  The door slammed, leaving us only with the mingled scent of Jewel’s favorite perfume and the distinctive odor of horse.

  Jason held out one of the wineglasses to me and sat down in the chair opposite to mine. “You’re still looking like the trapped rabbit,” he said dryly.

  I took a fortifying gulp, figuring if they could drink it, the days of sleepweed must have abated, at least for now.

  Jason drank his own, then set down the goblet. “How much does Maxl trust Garian?”

  I tried to figure out how my answering the question might harm my brother, and Jason said, “This information will not aid me. I have come to believe that Garian will betray anyone at any time. He has wealth, so his reasons appear to be obscure. Does your brother know that?”

  “He does now.” I thought back to my arrival at Carnison what seemed a lifetime ago. “I told him everything that happened in Drath, but he said to keep it to ourselves until he knew more. He’s hampered by not wanting to disturb Papa with added stresses.”

  “Jaim visited you there once, did he not?”

  “Visited?” I laughed. “He tried to abduct me.”

  “He needs money too. Did he, during your brief acquaintance, ever mention Garian?”

  “Yes! Said not to trust him.” I sighed. “That’s why I went to Drath in the first place, to spite him. But how was I to know?” My mind raced on ahead. “Don’t tell me Garian and Jaim concocted that nasty little plan between them?”

  “No. But Garian led me to believe that they had. Supposedly it was a bargain. Jaim would send you to Drath, and in return, Jaim got sanction to cross Drath while carrying on his lawless depredations in either my kingdom or yours. Garian represented himself as go-between, you see.”

  “So when Jaim came smashing in and carried me off, and you no doubt sent people like Brissot and so forth to find him, it looked like the two of you were betraying one another? Whatever for?”

  “To keep us at one another’s throats, and maybe get one of us to kill the other, so that Garian could find Jewel, force her to marry him, come over here and use his new status to take my army and march over the border into Dantherei.”

  “What? Why there? Does Garian want to be a king?”

  “Either a king or a lover to the rescue.”

  I drank my wine off as quickly as Jewel had, and leaned forward. “Wait. Wait. None of what you are telling me makes any sense. Rescue who?”

  “The queen’s sister, Princess Eleandra-Natalia—”

  “Her again,” I said, sighing. “From what Maxl has been boring on about since his stay there, she already has as many suitors as I have gowns.”

  “You have never seen her,” Jason observed.

  That was all he said, but I had not spent a couple days in his company without gaining a modicum of insight into the changes of his voice, his expression. “Oh no,” I exclaimed. “Not you too?”

  For the first time ever, I saw him laugh. “We have been secretly affianced for nine years, she and I.”

  My mouth was open. I shut it.

  “Unfortunately there have been political intrigues that have become increasingly complex. Garian appears to have joined the complications.”

  “So…what is your part in those complications?”

  “I promised her nine years ago that one day I would march in and remove her sister from the throne. At that time she would marry me and we could join the kingdoms. The benefits to Ralanor Veleth would be incalculable, for I’ve several generations of increasingly bad management to overcome.”

  I got to my feet and prowled the perimeter of the room. The mind-numbing power of surprise gave way gradually as I considered everything I had heard—bringing me to another surprising conclusion.

  “You told me all this for a reason,” I said. “What is it? Not another threat, I hope.”

  “A request. I promise, whatever the outcome, you will get safely home afterward, and I will never again interfere with your life.”

  I made another sightless turn about the room. The sunshine, the view out the windows, everything was blind to me but my thoughts and my memories. “You tried once to force Jewel to marry Garian. Is that true?”

  “I did. Before I really knew him. He promised the money I needed, and at the time I believed him. Just like I believed the ambush was made by Jaim’s renegades, as most were dressed in old green battle tunics. But Markham did not recognize a one. Circumstances being what they were, we only realized that later.”

  It all fell into place then, like the pieces of a stained glass window, only the whole was not nearly so pleasant to look at. “Garian was plotting not just against us, but against you, too?”

  “Yes. As for Jewel, marriage for treaty or wealth is traditional in our family,” Jason went on. “Our mother came here as part of a bargain between my father and his most powerful enemy among the regional lords. Not that the treaty held.”

  “Jewel told me much the same thing. To resume the original discussion, you want me to go to Dantherei, am I right?” I asked. “As your envoy? And you expect me to, what, do your courting for you?”

  He smiled. “That was done nearly a decade ago. I can’t cross the border now, not without international repercussions, and I don’t want to turn my back on Garian. I would like you to go see her. If she intends to keep her part of the bargain, send her back here, and then you can go home again whenever you like—bypassing Drath entirely.”

  I frowned. “You really expect me to speak for you?”

  “Say whatever you like, from your own perspective. But that’s the message from me.”

  “And meanwhile?”

  “Meanwhile I am going to find my brother. If my understanding of his real motivations is correct, I will offer him a new plan. Together we’re going to seek our needed finances from Garian Herlester.”

  “The threat at last!” I laughed. “A real threat, yet how comforting to hear someone else threatened for a change, especially someone I loathe. Well, I shall consider this request of yours—and your promise makes it seriously tempting. I take it Jewel would be accompanying me?”

  “I think she will like Dantherei’s court.”

  I did not know what to say—I was not about to thank him for the prospect of my getting home safely as he was the one who’d brought me in the first place—so I left.

  Chapter Fourteen

  Jewel’s rooms were the ones on the other side of the great tiled bath.

  I knocked and Berry let me in. A couple of maids had just finished changing the bed linens and dusting. Berry told me Jewel was in the bath.

  “Flian! Is that you?” came Jewel’s voice.

  I walked in, to meet a wide blue glare.

  “Berry says all the servants are talking—saying that you saved his life. Is that true?”

  I shrugged. “Yes.”

  “Why would you do such a demented thing? Did you delude yourself into thinking that he’d be grateful?”

  “Not for one moment,” I stated. “It never even occurred to me.”

  My calm certainty seemed to enrage her further. I studied her stony expression and black hair plastered to her skull. “You look exactly like him right now,” I added.

  Her jaw dropped. She ducked under water and came up again with her hair covering her face. “Is this any better?” Then she slung her hair back and laughed. “You must have been out of your mind!”

  “Well, I was, but I’d have done it even so. Think, Jewel. You wake up seeing this huge fire and a live person lying in its path. Would you let him or her lie there, no matter who it was?”

  She shook her head. “I’d say yes and good riddance, but I can’t really imagine what it was like. What was it like?”

  “Horrible. I didn’t wake up after we left Spaquel’s—not until that fire. In retrospect I think Markham and Jason were alone except for me, traveling by the fastest route in a racing carriage, and the rest of his people were either scouts or decoys. They gave me a couple of doses of sleepweed, so I slept through it all. We would have reached the border around nightfall, everyone gets a big meal, no harm done. Instead there was this ambush, which took them by surprise. The scouts riding ahead had been killed first, so there was no warning.”

  Jewel drew in a breath. “Oh, I hope the ambushers weren’t Jaim’s people.”

  “No. Garian’s people, dressed up to look like Jaim’s.”

  Jewel let out a sigh of relief.

  “Anyway, they fought the attackers off, but Jason got stabbed. It was at night. When they were down to the last couple of ’em, Jason ordered Markham to leave us and fetch reinforcements, in case there were more ambushers to come. Markham took one of the horses. I was all wrapped up in a cloak, lying in the smashed racing carriage. Jason had probably passed out, and woke as the fire began to spread. It was dark by then. He freed the other horse, which was closer to the fire—yes.” I closed my eyes, calling up the vivid images from that terrible night. “I nearly tripped over the traces. I think he was coming back for me, but he collapsed, for by then he’d lost a lot of blood. When I woke, the trees all around us were on fire and branches were falling.” I opened my eyes.

  Jewel gazed back at me in astonishment. “So what did you do?”

  “Rolled him onto the cloak and dragged him out of danger. And when he first woke, Jason did his best to provoke me into running—either that or taking his knife and finishing the ambushers’ job, and when I did neither, he scorned me for my cowardice.”

  “Eugh.” Jewel grimaced. “He must have been in an almighty sulk. That’s the only possible explanation.”

  “Maybe. But the truth is, I am a coward.”

  “A coward would have run and left Jason to burn to death.”

  “Then there are degrees of cowardice. I don’t see that as an act of bravery, only one of moral necessity.”

  She snorted. “I see it as an act of insanity. And my stone-hearted brother thought you not only cowardly but stupid, or why would he snarl and snap at you afterward so nastily? Because I must say, his reaction sounds surly and uncivilized even for him.”

  I knew by now that Jewel’s perception of her older brother was limited by vivid childhood memory. Jason was opaque to me as well, but I suspected that he exerted himself to be opaque. It was his armor against his own harsh early life. Whatever his true motivations or desires or feelings, it would be a mistake to assume that because one couldn’t fathom them he had none—or that they were uniformly evil. Especially in the light of his revelation about Princess Eleandra-Natalia.

  Remembering that surprising revelation, I laughed inside. Jewel heaved herself from the bath. “Berry? You here? Where are my gowns?” She grinned as she swathed herself in a towel. “I made Jason’s fools bring along my favorite dresses. And they had to carry them.”

  “They and the horses.” I followed her into the bedroom, where Berry was in the process of laying out clothes.

  I had forgotten Berry’s presence, and wondered how much of Jewel’s and my conversation she had overheard. Then I dismissed that thought with a mental shrug, remembering my days as a lady’s maid. She’d heard, all right, and would probably relate all our words to whoever wanted to hear them—but that, I thought, was the Szinzars’ affair. I would soon be going home, after my side trip to Dantherei.

  I waited until Berry had collected Jewel’s dishes and left before I said, “You are going to love the news I just heard. Only you better sit down first.”

  She was in the act of pulling on stockings. “Don’t tease, Flian. You cannot conceive how horrible the past five days have been—” She paused. “No, actually, yours were probably worse.”

  I couldn’t help a laugh. “Will you hate me if I admit that I did not find durance here very vile?”

  “Impossible!” Jewel sat upright. “What is there to do? Nothing! No court, no flirts, no dancing—”

  “But I had my music.”

  She shook her head. “Why do I like you so much when we are so utterly different? Never mind. Go on.”

  “I found out what Jason’s raising money for.”

  “Which is?” She straightened her sleeve ribbons, admiring their loops.

  I moved to where I could see her face best and said in my blandest voice, “He wants to take his army and march into Dantherei to rescue his beloved.”

  She jumped as if she’d been pinked with a fork.

  “What?” She glared at me, narrow-eyed. “You’re teasing! It can’t possibly be true.”

  “Isn’t it amazing?” I laughed. The revelation still felt peculiar, as if I’d stepped onto what I thought a floor, and found it was a boat. “What’s more, it’s that very same princess that my brother is in love with. And, it seems, Garian as well.”

  “Garian too? Oh, well, I don’t see why Jason shouldn’t have her, then,” Jewel said, in one of her characteristic, dizzying reversals of mood. “Maybe afterward she’ll keep him locked up writing love poems to her earlobes, and he’ll leave the rest of us alone. And Garian can gnash his teeth and wail over his lost love for the rest of his life.” She made a terrible face. “But I cannot, under any circumstances, imagine anyone in love with Jason.”

  “Especially for nine years.”

  “Nine? Years? I have to meet this wench.”

  “That’s my next news. It seems that we are going to.”

  She whooped with laughter. “So we’re going to Dantherei?”

  “That’s what he wants.”

  “Ow! Ow! Ow!” She shook with mirth. “My gut hurts! Stop. Show me what you’ve been playing during your durance vile, and I’ll tell you all the latest gossip from Carnison. You are going to steam when you hear the horrible things that Gilian said about me, just because I danced with Maxl twice at the ambassadors’ ball…”

  She followed me into my room, where I sat down to the harp and played softly. Jewel related in colorful detail who had danced with whom, when, who was flirting with whom, and who was dallying with whom, making no attempt to be fair or objective. I listened to the tone under the brave words and laughing insults, determining several things. One: though Jewel had flirted with every handsome fellow who smiled at her, she had trysted with none of them. And second, she and Maxl had been circling one another with what sounded to me like mutual distrust—and fascination.

  We were interrupted at sunset when Berry came back in, not accompanied by silent stewards carrying trays, as I had come to expect, but alone. “Your highnesses.” She gave us a grand curtsey, and I wondered if Jewel saw the humor in it. “The king requests your company for dinner.”

  Jewel’s brows swooped upward as she turned to me. “Were you forced to eat with him?”

  “Not until this moment.” I was still smiling—trying not to laugh.

  “Well, let’s go see what the slimy villain is d
emanding now.” Jewel looked in the mirror, flicked her curls back, twitched at her ribbons, and sashayed out the door, skirts swaying.

  Berry’s and my eyes met. She was biting her lip to hold in laughter. My own laugh escaped as I followed Jewel out.

  Though the Szinzar castle had proven, at least in this wing, not to be a grim and dim barrack, I did not expect elegance and dazzle for a private dinner—and thus was not disappointed.

  We were bowed into the same chamber we’d talked in earlier, and Jason wasn’t even there. Jewel went to the rosewood cabinet in the corner, clinked around impatiently, then reappeared with two fragile glasses shaped like bubbles, filled with an aromatic amber liquid.

  “Good mead.” She brandished the goblets. “No one drinks it any more in Carnison, but it’s so cold here, and mead warms you up better than those nasty Drath wines.”

  I took mine to the window where I could sip and watch the purples and roses of the sunset over the western mountains.

  Jewel prowled about the room, swirling her mead in the one hand and picking up and setting down objects with the other.

  Jason came in. Jewel stopped her peregrinations and scrutinized him. “You did get hurt!” she exclaimed.

  “Markham will bring dinner directly. Unless you wished to socialize first?” he addressed his sister.

  “Oh, most certainly. And a grand ball afterward,” she shot back, arrow for arrow.

  A few moments later Markham appeared, supervising the stewards who carried in the trays and swiftly and silently transformed the table near the windows. Cloth, napery, silver—unexpectedly elegant.

  We all sat down, were served, and then Jason looked up. Markham flicked his hand, and the stewards filed out and closed the door. Markham stayed.

  Jewel ignored them all and attacked her food with enthusiasm. Jason said, “Markham is assembling your entourage.”

  “I’m not so sure I want to go,” Jewel retorted with lofty scorn. “She’s your princess. You go fetch her. I want to go back to Carnison.”

  “You can’t. Garian has his entire force roaming the borders. It would actually be safer to go north into Dantherei and then southwest into Lygiera. Why not visit the capital on the way?”

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