The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  I gasped, my aches forgotten. “Jewel? What’s wrong?”

  “What’s wrong is that I’m a fool. Never mind. Where have you been? Not following my stupid advice, I hope?”

  “Just out walking.”

  “With grass stains all over your trousers?” She wrinkled her nose. “Not that you owe me any answers. Pardon if I intrude.”

  “I have been attending the dawn defense practices—something I’ve come to enjoy.”

  She raised a hand. “I’m glad. Jaim made me learn a lot of that, and I know I ought to keep it going, but—” A sob shook her frame. “But I’m a purblind idiot, and I never do anything right.”

  She whirled and dashed back into her own room.

  I followed. “Jewel. I won’t pry, but I wish I could help.”

  “You can’t,” she cried. “Unless you can really find a way to get us out of here the sooner. I hate, I hate, I hate being taken for a fool, but the truth is I am a fool, and the sooner we’re gone the happier I’ll be.”

  “Well, I guess I’ll approach Eleandra-Natalia’s steward, then. Someone at the practice mentioned Eleandra returned from her visit last night.”

  “They are all spies,” Jewel stated with teary passion. “For—who knows who for? Maybe for themselves. Don’t tell anyone anything.”

  I bit my lip. “This does not sound good.”

  She sobbed again, an angry sound, and dashed tears from her eyes. “I never said anything that can hurt Lygiera—or Ralanor Veleth. But it’s simply because I don’t know anything. Avars Darivei does, though. He had mentioned the ring before, but last night he tried to get me drunk. I went along with it. Curious. Truth is, we Szinzars must have inherited my mother’s iron head, for she used to drink as many as four bottles a night, and she only got more sarcastic. I can drink and drink, and I’ll get sick before I get drunk.”

  I waited; her words came, fast and breathless. “So between kisses he started in with the questions about the ring. I kissed back, laughing off the questions, and finally I outright lied. Said I’d taken it from our family collection because I liked it, and he was disappointed—I could feel it. He is a spy, and I don’t even know who for.”

  “But your other friend can’t be a spy as well,” I protested.

  She slammed her hand down on a table. “Oh, can’t he?” she growled, teeth showing, and again she looked very like her brothers. “The only advice my mother ever gave me I can still remember. Mostly she was too drunk or too angry to make sense to a small child like me, and I know I bored her. But on my ninth birthday she said, ‘When you start taking lovers, child, make certain you never have any fewer than two, and no more than four. One will assume rights not his; more than four and they don’t balance out their rivals.’ I thought I was so clever to have the two, and besides, I liked them! But after I slammed out of Avars’ apartments, I went to Begnin for consolation, and he was laughing at me.”

  “What?”

  “Oh, not in words or tone. But I chanced to look at his face when he didn’t know I was looking, and he was gloating. And his questions after the first two or three had less and less to do with my feelings, and more with what Avers had said—and why.”

  “Ugh.”

  “And so I lied to him, too. I don’t care what happens to Jason or his stupid princess, but I do have some pride. No one brings the Szinzars to their knees unless they wish to be there!”

  “I’m sorry, Jewel.”

  “Ah, there’s no use in being sorry—or anything else. And here’s the horrid thing. None of those fellows has the least importance. Not a one. They’re all conniving to move up by influence and connections, by using secrets as well as skill in flirtation. Eleandra has all the powerful ones dancing to her tune. I want to get out of here.”

  “All right. Let’s forget the steward. I’ll bathe and we’ll go to the morning swan-watch. Maybe Eleandra will come. If we exert ourselves, perhaps one of us might manage to get near her.”

  “Oh, we’ll manage,” Jewel vowed.

  Jewel meant what she said.

  At any court, the focus of attention is on those in power—or in favor. As the important people move about, noticing this person or talking to that, the watchers defer and then reform around them, little circles ever changing. You moved yourself forward by degrees, speaking to someone, being spoken to, everyone jostling by tiny roundabout steps either closer to power or closer to desire, for not everyone was there to political purpose.

  Eleandra did indeed come to the streamside with her sister, supposedly to watch the swans, but when the queen moved away the princess lagged behind, talking and laughing with a tall, languid, cold-eyed lord who gossip said had supposedly fought four duels this year.

  Jewel stood by me in silence, observing the patterns, listening to the soft, well-bred murmur of voices, but when the princess was parallel to our position, Jewel smiled at the people before us, snapped open her fan and elbowed her way past.

  I followed, aghast. If the princess gave us a direct snub (and we’d seen her do it, mostly to other women) we’d be the night’s gossip—and the next day we’d endure turned shoulders and other snubs.

  Jewel flung back her hair, her color high, and fetched up directly in the princess’s path. I stopped next to her.

  Eleandra looked down at us—she was half a head taller than I—with a sort of amused challenge. “You are Flian Elandersi and Jewel Szinzar, are you not?”

  I curtseyed, my heart thumping. At least she didn’t snub other princesses—under her sister’s eye.

  Jewel said, “We are.”

  “I trust you’ve found your stay agreeable?”

  “Yes.” Jewel smiled, snapped her fan open again, and plied it slowly, her wrist turned—and the sapphire ring glittered.

  Eleandra’s perfect bosom rose in a short breath. “Walk along with me,” she commanded. Then forced a smile, and a more dulcet tone. “Though this is my home, it is refreshing to see it through a newcomer’s eyes.”

  She stepped forward, her arms made a graceful, studied shrugging motion, as if she dropped a shawl, and the dashing Lord Galaki sketched an ironic bow of deference toward us, stepped away, and began a conversation with one of the other fellows.

  For now the three of us were alone.

  Eleandra turned to me. “Have you the same intent here?”

  “I do.” I strove to be diplomatic—to keep the promise I had made. “We are here to visit and to enjoy ourselves, which we have done. Your sister has been very gracious. But it is time to return to our duties in our own kingdoms. We are here to invite you to return to Ralanor Veleth.”

  Jewel said, “Shall I return to you this ring?”

  The princess flicked her fan open, a quick gesture, almost of warding—obscuring Jewel’s hand from the rest of court—and Jewel’s arm fell to her side.

  The fan waved slowly. “I am contemplating a journey,” Eleandra drawled. “Have you ever seen the argan trees before they drop their leaves?”

  “No,” we said together.

  “I assure you, it is a sight not to be missed. Accompany me on this little journey, and we will have more leisure to discourse upon the subjects that interest us.”

  I bowed acquiescence. Jewel bowed acquiescence. Eleandra bowed acknowledgement. Then glanced back—and the tall lord was instantly there, smilingly offering his arm.

  A few more general comments about the swans, about autumn, about the prospective masquerade ball—and she turned down another path, surrounded by a crowd that had accrued without my being aware. We were left on its periphery as everyone again traded places in the endless dance-duel for precedence, but I no longer cared.

  Jewel cast me a glance of triumph. “We did it. Now a boring detour to see these stupid trees, and then for home.”

  “Home?” I repeated as we walked along the garden paths. “You do not mean to Ralanor Veleth.”

  “No.” She gave me one of those looks, her color high, her eyes wide and glittery with reflected
light, her mouth pressed into a grim line.

  Ah. I waited for her to say more. When she didn’t, I left the subject for her to pursue or not. “At Carnison, court reconvenes after harvest. You’ll like winter festival. We skate on the ponds, and there’s dancing every single night. Plays, too. And our comedies will be funny, because you’ll know who’s being skewered.”

  “Beginning with Spaquel, I trust.” She rubbed her hands briskly. “Oh, if he’s still attending court, I shall write one myself.” She spun around, the light winking and glittering off her embroidered gems. “We’ll have to keep reminding ourselves of that pleasure.”

  “Why?”

  “Because we’re in for boredom until then, that’s why. Beautiful she is, but did you see those eyes? About as much feeling as coins. She will not be any fun to travel with. But.” She laughed. “You have to admit that she’s perfect for Jason!”

  Chapter Eighteen

  Two days later we were gone.

  Jewel’s daring had turned into a social triumph because of that private conversation with the princess—witnessed by so many eyes. We spent those two days being courted by everyone in the princess’s own circle. Everyone was either overtly or covertly curious about the subject of that conversation. I smiled, bowed, danced, ate, listened, deflected questions, and inwardly counted every bell toll until we could depart.

  Jewel veered between excitement at being the focus of attention and moments of intense gloom when anything reminded her of her failed romances. She flirted more than ever, but refused to go off alone with anyone, even to drink a glass of wine. Consequently we were much in one another’s company. Being with Jewel in an uncertain temper was like riding a little boat down a rushing river during a thunderstorm, but it was never boring.

  Late the second day we departed. The queen sent one of her heralds with a gracious message charging us to carry greetings to our respective royal relatives. A great crowd turned out in the city to watch us ride by.

  We did make a grand cavalcade, with long banners snapping from the poles in front, two for the princess (one for Dantherei and her own as heir) and one each for Jewel and me, and then the shorter banners of her chosen friends, in strict order of precedence.

  Her own household guard rode next. Unlike her sister, she did not mix men and women. Her guards were men only, all picked for their looks as well as putative martial prowess.

  We rode horses decorated with ribbons and late-season flowers. At the end followed a very long train of servants and wagons.

  We rode the rest of the day, though the wind became increasingly cold. We halted at a posting inn that, I suspect, outriders had cleared of any hapless travelers who had happened to be there, because the innkeeper and staff were all lined up waiting for us, and the entire place was empty when Eleandra’s servants began carrying in baggage.

  Jewel and I were given a suite on the same hall as Eleandra. I stayed there, waiting for steeped Sartoran leaf; Jewel went out and returned soon, flopping down into a chair opposite the fire. “Galaki has the room next to hers,” Jewel said, wiggling her brows. “Ought I to tell Jason—or not? No, I won’t.” She let out a slow breath. “He won’t care. He hasn’t enough heart to be jealous.”

  I couldn’t help laughing. “You really are cruel.”

  She grinned. “No, not cruel. I adore justified grudges, and you must admit that Jason makes a wonderful villain.”

  The door opened then and Lita carried in a tray of porcelain dishes for Sartoran brew. “Pardon, your highnesses, but Markham wishes to speak to you.”

  “Ugh.” Jewel rolled her eyes.

  “Is he here?” I asked.

  Jason’s tall liegeman waited in the doorway. I hadn’t seen him during our entire stay at Tamara’s palace.

  “Please come in,” I said. “Is there a problem?”

  “Her royal highness has requested us to return to Ralanor Veleth. Her steward just spoke with me. They are trying to reduce the number of personnel, at least those whose functions are redundant.”

  Jewel smiled, for the first time looking directly at Markham. “Well and good. Tell Jason we’ll be along soon with his princess.”

  “The king desired me specifically to remain with you, your highness,” Markham said.

  “But you’re not needed.” Jewel jerked her shoulders up and down, turned her back, and poured out steeped leaf.

  I looked up at those dark eyes, feeling uncertainty. “Who all is considered redundant?”

  “Cook and stablehands, as well as the outriders.”

  Jewel sent me an impatient look. “Since Eleandra is going back to Ralanor Veleth, why have the extra people cluttering the journey? Our own people can ride back to Lathandra and let Jason know she’s coming.”

  “Though she hasn’t actually said she’s going to Lathandra,” I pointed out.

  “Well, she said she’d talk privately with us—and she can hardly do that if we have a hundred servants clashing around into one another like too many dishes on a table.”

  “She seems adept at being private when she wants to,” I said.

  Jewel rolled her eyes. “Do what you like.” She flounced around in her chair and stared down into the fire.

  I turned to Markham. “What think you?”

  “I mislike this command. But if, in truth, her royal highness means to keep her troth, you will need at least a couple of us to ride on with you to Lygiera. Perhaps, if I may suggest a compromise, I can stay as well as Lita. I can see to your horses. They all know me. Between Lita and me, we ought to be able to oversee any unexpected difficulties.” His soft voice was as oblique in tone as Jason’s.

  I couldn’t understand him, but I had come to trust him after my experiences in the Drath mountains—that is, I trusted him to see to Jason’s interests and to keep his promises. Including the one about our safety. Two against twelve…if anyone could keep us safe, it was he. “A good suggestion. Let’s do that.”

  Markham went out, and not long after another knock came. One of the princess’s particular female friends, a lively red-haired woman not much older than Jewel and me, stuck her head in. “Dinner downstairs. Come, Jewel, make us laugh. Tomorrow Galaki goes back up north and Eleandra is glum.”

  We set our cups down and descended to the great parlor, where we found the rest of the aristocratic company gathered. Fresh-cut roses in crystal vases had been set here and there, fine linen of a violet hue covered the plain tables, and the princess’s own silver and plate had been set out. The room was as elegant as her servants could make it.

  The redhead, a baroness named Siana, dropped down next to her sister Eneflar, who had inherited a vast county somewhere in the west. Eneflar was an elegant, haughty woman. She had a light, drawling, very sarcastic sort of wit that kept them all laughing. Jewel responded with her own sarcasm, which was more passionate than witty, but the contrast made them laugh the more.

  The two men besides Galaki were handsome, one dark, one fair, and their reputations for gallantry were matched by their reputations for dueling and gambling and risky sport. They made themselves agreeable to all, but their jokes were all reserved for Eleandra, all obscure references to their shared past.

  I felt out of place in that company. Jewel and I were very much the youngest, as well as being the least experienced.

  For a time Eleandra included us in the general converse, her manner gracious. But as the evening progressed her mood became more distracted. After dinner she said, “Let us make up a dance, shall we?”

  Siana clapped her hands.

  Eleandra summoned her servants, and within a short time we had a trio playing for us. The two barons were assiduous in partnering Jewel, myself and the two sisters by turns; Galaki never gave us a second look. He stood up only with Eleandra, and their murmured conversation was conducted below the strains of the music.

  They left together at midnight, so absorbed in one another they scarcely heeded the others’ polite words. I watched them go, feeling that unsettled se
nsation inside. I could not define why. It was clear that Jason was not on Eleandra’s mind right now—but I had no idea how someone who had waited for nine years to be reunited with a lover would think and feel.

  It seemed too easy that she would change her mind, and thus resolve my moral dilemma concerning her sister. Then I thought of Jason perhaps even now ordering his army to get ready for the march over the border, and I felt even worse.

  Next day, Galaki was gone.

  At dawn I was woken by sounds of readying departure in the courtyard below the windows: horses, people walking back and forth carrying things.

  We discovered on arriving at breakfast that Eleandra expected to depart the moment we were done eating; she was already in her carriage. Jewel was in a spectacularly bad mood, for she loved to lie abed of a cold morning, but we complied, presenting ourselves in our riding clothes about the same time as the others, all looking rushed and grumpy.

  The sky was threatening, gray and low. By noon the increasingly cold wind brought spatters of rain. A downpour was due. Apprehensive looks turned skyward all up and down the line.

  Eleandra paid no attention. She rode between the two barons, laughing and joking with both. Just as the rain began in earnest, we arrived at Siana’s own home atop a hill overlooking the southern river valley. It was typical of many such places, an old castle turned by degrees into a palace: ancient walls torn down or made low to border gardens, windows widened and glassed, plaster and statuary or trailing vines masking the gray stone.

  The place was small, but quite comfortable. Siana gave up her own suite to Eleandra. Jewel and I had adjoining rooms again. No sooner had I changed than Lita came in to say, “Her royal highness requests the favor of your company.”

  “Thank you.” I had begun to wonder when that private converse would take place. That it hadn’t in the capital made sense. Too many ears. The day previous she had spent entirely in Galaki’s company.

  Now, it seemed, she was finally turning her thoughts southward.

 
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