The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  “He could be lying, but then he doesn’t lie, my big brother. That’s the problem! If he makes a threat, he goes right ahead and carries it out!” She grinned.

  “He didn’t tell us any plans, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have plans.”

  “Yes. Curious, how Eleandra picked this spot, when I would have staked my life she wouldn’t cross a room to look at a tree, much less cross a kingdom. You think they set it up, all those years ago? Sounds kind of romantic, doesn’t it? If I send the ring, I will meet you at the river’s bend. With my army.” Jewel looked sardonic. “Have to admit the only part that sounds like Jason is the last bit. But would he really do something so disastrously foolish?”

  “He did say that the resources of Dantherei would be of endless benefit to Ralanor Veleth, or something much like it.”

  “So why not trade? Surely a war is not cheaper.”

  “Not in lives, certainly.”

  She shrugged impatiently. “Lives probably matter nothing to him. All right. So their betrothal is a mixture of lust and power politics. What I want to know is, can there be real love in kings? Or does love have no place in those who command kingdoms?”

  We were back to Maxl—though she did not say his name. “Tamara loves. Though they are not married.” I had to admit the last.

  “No, treaty marriages are expected of kings and queens. Are love marriages even possible? Would that be the test of a good king and a good person, marrying someone despite her lack of power?”

  I shook my head. “My father is a good person and he married for love—he didn’t need wealth, or treaties. What he brought back was trouble in the social sense as well as in the personal.”

  “Perhaps it means you’re a bad person only if you know it’ll be bad for the kingdom and you do it anyway,” Jewel said, waving a hand.

  “But what if one is so besotted one cannot see the signs? Oh, my Papa is so unworldly I don’t think he would have seen the signs if they’d been painted on his nose.”

  “Did anyone warn him?” Jewel asked, leaning on her elbows.

  “My grandmother did, from all accounts. If anyone else did, no one has said.”

  Jewel laughed. “Apparently your father was worldly enough to not listen to his mother! Well, that much is like Jason, who doesn’t listen, he does what he wants.”

  “Yes.” I thought of Jason wearing that ring over his heart for nine years. I remembered it hanging blood-smeared against his flesh that terrible day on the mountain. And I remembered him slipping it from his shirt and dropping it to the table. “Yes, he does.”

  We passed a quiet evening—four women waited on by a small army of servitors. I could see the campfires belonging to the servants glimmering downhill, though we heard no sounds. If they had their own amusements as the day passed, those were conducted quietly.

  As for us, the three musicians played, Eleandra listened for a time, proposed a game of cards and then brooded, staring into the fire.

  We departed to our tents fairly early.

  Jewel lay in her bedroll without speaking. The silence was deep beyond the rush and chuckle of the river, and the sporadic sounds of birds. From the sisters’ tent came the occasional rustle and low murmur of voices. From Eleandra’s there was no sound.

  I prepared for sleep, leaving the tent opening ajar so I could look out at the argan trees, stippled with silver light from the moon, and listen to the river. Our campfire was kept burning high.

  Jewel wriggled to the tent opening, her bedroll around her, and lay with her elbows on the ground, chin in hands as she gazed at the fire, her features golden in the reflected light, the sheen of tears gleaming in her eyes.

  She whispered, “What are we going to do? Sit here and risk launching a war?”

  I scooted close next to her, my knees drawn up under my chin and my arms around them, the way I had sat as a child in my window seat, watching thunderstorms or first snow. “I have been thinking of the very same thing,” I whispered back. “We could try, the two of us, to make it to Carnison and lay the problem before my brother.” Only what could poor Maxl do, striving with Papa’s old court as well as the machinations of those our age, and at the same time trying to shelter Papa from stress? “Should we break out, right now, and run for home?” I asked doubtfully.

  “But we can’t. We’ve got Markham along. You graveled us there, Flian. He’d be after us like a bolt from a crossbow, and no one outruns or outfights Markham. Even Jason can’t beat him with a sword, Jaim told me. And there isn’t anyone else that can whup Jason. I thought that was only a lot of male swagger, but Jaim said to believe it; in fact, that’s why he ran away, really, because Jason kept making him stay in the practice courts for days and days, and kept sending all the biggest ones against him and they always thrashed him. Well, nearly always, there, at the end.”

  Jason must have done that as well, I thought, and contemplated the single-minded focus that would force someone to spend days and days “getting thrashed by the big ones” just to learn mastery. Supposing such a person liked art, when would he have had the time for it?

  “Of course Jason had to,” Jewel said cheerfully. “Just like he grew the mustache. Jaim said it was to make him look older. I mean, he was younger than I am, when he took over! And you have to be strong to hold a runaway carriage like Ralanor Veleth. Well, look at the years after my father died. While my mother drank up Drath’s vinery, civil war all over the place. Markham was a part of it, that much I know, though no details. And Markham, they say, was always terrifyingly good.”

  I remembered Markham’s calm words about Garian’s ambush, and how the thieves had made the mistake of thinking two against twelve a good balance.

  “No, you’re right,” I returned. “We’d never be able to outrun Markham. Who is he, anyway, besides part of your civil wars? He’s so, I don’t know, different. Doesn’t have the manner of a servant, though you can tell he’s loyal.”

  Jewel waved a dismissive hand. “Some big mystery. Jaim wasn’t sure of the details, or if he knew them, he didn’t tell me. Who cares? I never want to see Markham or Jason again!”

  “I suspect we’d better sleep before we have everyone listening outside our tent.”

  “Then I’ll tell ’em exactly what I think of ’em,” Jewel said, and crawled back inside the tent.

  Two more days and nights passed. The first was pleasant enough. We whiled the time with walks. Eneflar had her maid bring paper and chalks, and she sketched the river fork, her skill unexpectedly fine. I asked Lita to bring out my lute, and I practiced, which made the time pass pleasantly for me, if not quickly.

  At night the others asked me to play. They listened for two or three songs then talked as they had when the servants played, but I did not stop. I was only giving myself pleasure, but I was used to that, and I gave no one else any pain.

  The second day was more difficult, partly because of a light rain that persisted through the day, but mostly because Eleandra’s temper was uncertain. Jewel and I spent most of the day in our tent, playing cards—and it is a measure of the sisters’ boredom that they asked to join us. Though I knew what they thought of us, I gave no clue, and Jewel’s social manner was always easy enough. The sisters also made an effort to be pleasing, using their court manners, and so we managed to pass the afternoon until dinner was served in Eleandra’s tent.

  After dinner, as the evening shadows began to meld and shroud us in darkness, we heard horse hooves.

  Eleandra’s head came up, her eyes wide, reflecting the light of the campfire that she had insisted be made each night and tended until dawn. I had my lute out again, had begun a ballad. I faltered, and laid it aside. Siana looked around, puzzled.

  Eleandra swatted the tent flap open and walked out, her skirts flaring. The four of us followed as the sounds resolved into a great many horsemen.

  He had come.

  Anger burned through me—the anger of moral self-righteousness. Yet underneath tha
t I was aware of a strong sense of disappointment. I had kept my promise, but I was not going to let Jason Szinzar spend lives without delivering my opinion of so evil an act.

  The foremost rider leaped down, his long dark cloak swinging, and he threw back his hood.

  The firelight made a golden-hued blaze of his long red hair.

  It’s not Jason, I thought blankly, buoyant with relief. Yes, and joy. It’s not Jason.

  “Garian,” Eleandra cried. “You remembered!”

  Chapter Twenty

  “An invitation issued by you, Eleandra? How would it be possible to forget, when you are in my thoughts night and day?” He made an elegant bow and kissed her fingertips.

  Her delighted laugh was the first real expression I had ever heard from her.

  Behind her his guard dismounted. There had to be fifteen or twenty of them, all armed for war, and behind them servants.

  Garian’s gaze swept over the rest of us as he bowed. Jewel and I had gone as stiff as a pair of stalks. Garian’s expression altered. “Is that Flian Elandersi?” He laughed. “And Jewel Szinzar. I don’t believe it!”

  “They came to invite me to Lathandra.” Eleandra smiled, her tone teasing.

  Jewel gaped with the same mind-numbing astonishment that I was feeling.

  “It would, I admit, be strange to see Jason again after so many years,” Eleandra went on, in that same tone: a little laughing, a little challenging.

  “Seems a habit with you, meeting your suitors in secret,” Garian retorted.

  Eleandra glanced at us. This conversation was not following the oblique pattern that her court friends willingly followed. Siana and Eneflar were also staring in blank amazement. “Courtship is best done without an audience.” Her chin lifted as she threw her beautiful hair back.

  “But its completion requires one. Ironic, is it not?” Garian bowed once more, graceful and mocking. He saluted her hand with a lingering kiss. “It seems I shall eventually have to do myself the honor of calling on your sister again, but for now, we can while the time away here in this pastoral setting. What is it, watching the leaves grow? Fall?”

  Eleandra laughed, and turned away. “If you’ve no liking for nature, then entertain us with wit.”

  “Now that is a challenge, is it not, Flian?” There it was, that nasty derisive tone I loathed so much.

  Garian did not wait on my answer. He looked past me dismissively and instead asked questions of the sisters—who they were, how they liked their sojourn among the trees, and suchlike. They answered with court nothings, Eneflar’s edged with sarcasm that made Garian laugh.

  And so we stood about until the wind kicked up, blowing smoke into our faces. Eleandra gave the order for the campfire to be put out. It had been a beacon indeed, but not for Jason Szinzar.

  Siana said, “I think I’ll retire.”

  Eleandra responded with a polite wish for pleasant dreams. And so the party ended perforce. The sisters and Jewel and I returned to our respective tents. And though by then Garian’s staff had set him up a tent in the space Eleandra had designated, he and Eleandra withdrew into hers, and occasional murmurs punctuated by laughter drifted through the cold night air until, at last, they diminished into silence.

  I woke up feeling a whipsaw of emotions: relief that Jason had not come, wonder at how Jason was going to take the news, and apprehension at what Garian Herlester intended.

  Rain pattered on the tent, promising another dreary day. Dreary and anxious. Lita brought us breakfast. She looked as tense as I felt.

  As soon as she was gone Jewel muttered, “I won’t stay with that nasty creature around. As soon as the weather clears, I think we should tell Markham to saddle our horses and we will leave. Now that Garian is here with her, our part is done. Markham ought to let us go on to Lygiera, whether he escorts us or not.”

  “I suppose we ought to tell Eleandra we’re going. I don’t want to make any diplomatic trouble for Maxl.”

  “You can do that. I won’t talk to any of them. I hate it,” Jewel grumped. “I hate rain and tents and boring companions, and I really, really hate Garian Herlester. Well, heyo, let’s wander over and see if the other two want to kill time playing cards until Eleandra emerges and we can get the politesse over with and ride out of here.”

  There was no sign of Eleandra or Garian, so Jewel and I followed her suggestion. We sat in the sisters’ tent and played cards in a listless, desultory manner until the sun came out late in the afternoon. Siana and Eneflar elected to take naps, and Jewel did as well. Eleandra’s tent was silent, which could mean she was either occupied or else gone; good manners required us to wait until she wished to appear before us again.

  I began to walk around to the other side of the fork where no one could see me, with the idea of practicing a little of what I had learned in Dantherei. I was about to slide my way down to the riverbank, which had a wide, flat space, when I heard voices below me.

  Garian’s and Eleandra’s voices. They were walking at the water’s edge.

  “…afraid, my dear, you have no choice.” That was Garian.

  “What?” she demanded. “What do you mean?”

  I was eavesdropping. Etiquette warred with expedience—and expedience won. I stayed right where I was.

  “My invitation to return with me to Drath is more in the nature of a request. Send your friends home.”

  “But why? I told you I was going to break with Jason—if he doesn’t break with me first.”

  “But you have not done it, my dear.”

  “Why bother? You know why I gave him that ring. I only wanted someone strong enough to oust Tamara. I’m tired of being second, of begging and pleading for money, of pretending this and that ‘for the sake of the kingdom’. If I am queen, they have to please me. Jason said he’d put me there, once, but I don’t believe he has any intention of making the effort now. Or he would have sent me word long before this, and not through a pair of twittering young princesses.”

  “Oh, he always keeps his word, the fool. I know that much. None better.” His drawl tightened into anger. “He made sure of that when he and his damned brother visited me a couple weeks ago. He is quite predictable—and you, my dear, are famed for your fickleness.”

  She gasped.

  “A compliment to the man who wins you and keeps you constant.” The smack of a kiss. “So yes, whatever he plans he will never fulfill, for I am already ahead of him. You say you wish to be queen? Then you must fall in with me. I take you to Drath. Your sister will not interfere, not with Lygiera and Ralanor Veleth on the verge of war.”

  “What? When?”

  “Now. Soon. While Jason and his bush-slinking brother were busy helping themselves to the contents of my vaults at Surtan-Abrig and Ennath, my friends in Lygiera were busy filling the ears of Maxl Elandersi, in whom are combined the charming attributes of gullibility and earnestness.”

  “How can you provoke a war?”

  “The same way you wished to. Turn the private passions of the monarch into a matter of state. I will spare you the details of that particular exchange, except for the delightful irony of the putative cause being your guest, all unknowing, here in this rustic retreat.”

  “Garian!” she exclaimed—laughing, admiring.

  “Lygieran runners are probably halfway to Lathandra with their war declarations right now. You want a kingdom? Once Jason and Maxl have exhausted themselves in battle the winner will have to contend with me. I will give you”—another kiss—“an empire.”

  War? My brother?

  I had been listening so intently that I forgot the surroundings and myself in them. I knew only that the voices were increasingly clear—so clear that they had closed the distance between us before I became aware.

  Foliage rustled, and I stared up into Garian’s face. “Flian.” His eyes narrowed. “Doing some spying on your own? For whom, I wonder?”

  My thoughts fluttered about like butterflies in a windstorm.

  He stepped up to
me. “You will be accompanying us, you and the Szinzar wench. I hope association with you has taught her some manners. You two will be useful, and that reminds me.” He smiled, the gloating, hateful smile that made me burn inside with anger and fear.

  He grasped my chin and forced my head up. “A piece of news that ought to interest you, if you’ve discovered a taste for politics. You are one step closer to the throne. The old man keeled over dead when my courier informed him of your abduction by Jason Szinzar and your subsequent disappearance.”

  A sun exploded behind my eyes.

  Eleandra’s voice came from a distance. “Jason did what to her? Why did I hear nothing of that?”

  “You can ask for all the details on our ride. But get your people to pack. We will depart in the morning.”

  A cold frost solidified around my heart, quenching the impotent anger. The frost sent icy fingers up to freeze my brain, and like a string-puppet, I moved along when Garian gripped my arm, forcing me to accompany them.

  He let me go outside Jewel’s and my tent.

  I walked in. I lay down on my bedroll—

  How much time passed? I will never know.

  My thoughts were far away, imprisoned in a terrible place. They returned briefly when I heard Jewel’s voice.

  “Flian? Flian. Are you asleep? Tomorrow we leave. There’s a storm on the way, it seems, and Her Haughtiness does not want to swim aboard a horse down the river.”

  A voice spoke. “Garian is abducting her.” Was it my voice?

  “That so? Well, I must say it’s a relief to have someone else get a turn for that!” She chuckled.

  Time passed, or did it?

  “…something wrong?” Jewel sounded anxious. “Oh, Lita, that gown on top. Otherwise it crushes into a million wrinkles…”

  I dreamed. Riding horseback, wearing Markham’s clothes, Jason just ahead—

  The wind whisking, cold and pure and rainy, along mountain trails—

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