The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

The air was sharp and cold and smelled strongly of pine. I breathed deeply as I pulled the cloak close. Markham handed me the reins of the roan. The horses sidled and tossed their heads, fresh and ready to go. We mounted up. At a word from Jason, they sprang at the trail winding up westward behind the inn.

  The trail, or path, was narrow and difficult, zigzagging along the sides of great rocky cliffs and under tunnels of thickly branched trees. We passed through dark grottos where the air smelled so lushly of greenery you could imagine the legendary maulons passing through, singing down the sun; the sound of water, running, splashing, chuckling, was constant, though its source was as often as not unseen. We rode single file, with Jason leading. I noted he now had his sword slung across his back, and besides the knife at his belt, there was a hilt at the top of each of his riding boots.

  Markham rode behind me, similarly armed. From time to time one or the other of them would make a quiet remark, Jason turning or Markham looking up at us. Neither of them talked past me, nor, at first, did they address me directly but I realized very soon that I was included in the conversation—if I so chose.

  Though I’d avoided their company previous to this, now that we were all together the constraint I’d felt vanished. We whiled away the long morning with quiet-toned talk so our voices would not carry over the sound of tumbling streams or calling birds, or the constant sough of tall, wind-tossed pines brushing the sky overhead.

  Not that the talk was anything memorable. Weather—snow early on the mountains—which types of horse best for trail riding—horse shoes—a couple references to history, to which I contributed my own observations. Easy talk, on insignificant subjects, the atmosphere quiet, amicable, curiously removed from danger, threat—or emotional turmoil.

  I found myself enjoying Jason’s commentary, uttered in so dry a voice my reaction to his occasional humorous observations was sometimes delayed—which he and Markham in turn found funny. Markham’s prosaic responses were an entertaining contrast. Once I made them laugh, with a reference to the absurd red wigs that for some reason had been courtly fashion down in Sarendan, next to Sartor (in those days still under that terrible enchantment)—neither of them had known that, but my father had seen them on his single journey to the southern continent, when he was a prince.

  Ordinary conversation, but it seemed to take on life of its own, no matter how insignificant the topic. The quiet, acerb humor brought Papa to mind, reminding me of his better days when I’d been younger. I still missed him, but the news that he had died in his sleep had eased some of the pain of his death.

  But. I had forgotten the jolts and lurches of horseback riding—even when one didn’t have to constantly duck under low branches. After a time I put the reins in my numb left hand and slid my right up under my cloak to hold my shoulder. My responses were fewer. I was content to listen, wishing the pleasant talk would never end, even as my physical discomfort grew steadily worse. Mentally I chanted over and over: You can hold your own. You can hold your own.

  Late afternoon began to blend the shadows, making it difficult to see branches overhead, or ruts and roots. I was breathing slowly against occasional washes of faintness when my horse stumbled over a root on the edge of a precipitous drop. The horse’s head plunged, yanking the reins, which in turn wrenched mercilessly at my shoulder.

  I might have made a noise. I thought, ugh, not again as clouds of darkness boiled up before my eyes and I began to waver in the saddle, clutching tightly to the reins until hands gently lifted me down.

  When the blackness cleared, I found myself lying on a nest of cloaks in a mossy cave next to a campfire being set up by Jason and Markham. My shoulder ached with the sort of jabbing throb that I’d felt after Garian stabbed me, but otherwise I was unhurt. When the fire caught, Markham suspended a pan of water over it by a contraption of wires and good-sized rocks, then sat back. Jason dug in a pack and handed Markham something.

  Slowly the throbbing receded. At last I heaved a sigh without even realizing it, and both heads turned.

  “Flian,” Jason said, his voice the sharpest I’d ever heard. “If Markham hadn’t been watching you would have done Garian’s work for him.”

  “I thought I could make it. Would have.” I grabbed onto my other arm, determined I would not whinny. “If my horse hadn’t stumbled.”

  Markham moved between us, holding out the steaming water pan into which he dropped a pinch of leaves from a packet. I smelled strong listerblossom brew and gulped a stinging sip. My eyes burned, but as always the fresh steeped leaf felt so good going down.

  Markham sat back.

  I blinked the tear-haze from my eyes. Jason said, “I apologize. But why did you not speak up?”

  I recognized the sharpness in his tone: not anger, or judgment, but worry.

  “Because I hate. I loathe. I despise. Being weak.” My voice trembled on the last word. I looked away, at the fire, and drank more steeped leaf.

  Markham murmured something about horses, obtaining fodder for the next stage of the trail. Jason responded in a low voice, occasional words like “outpost” and “courier” discernable. Their attention was on one another, leaving me to finish my steeped leaf in peace. Much of the worst pain eased, and I lay down again. My mind, released from the ache, seemed to float somewhere between my head and the fire.

  I looked beyond the hypnotic flames to the two men. Jason was almost in silhouette. The ruddy gold flames fire-lined his cheekbone, an edge of his thin mustache, the veins and knuckles of one of his long hands as he raised a cup to his lips. On a couple of strands of his fine, straight hair that had come loose from his ribbon and lay, unnoticed, across his brow.

  Markham was taller and broader, his long, bony face firelit, but his deep-set eyes remained in shadow. His hair was also black, but heavy, waving, worn loose to his shoulders in the style of an aristocrat ten years ago. They conversed in low tones. Neither had a cloak on—I probably had theirs under me. The fire highlighted the contours of their arms in the heavy black cotton-wool garments. A thin ribbon of fire gleamed along the edge of the sword lying next to Jason.

  The fire leaped. Ghostly shapes formed in the flames, and faces. My brother’s. Jaim’s. Garian’s. The latter made me hiss.

  Jason’s head turned, and again he spoke sharply, but this time I clearly heard the worry: “What is it? Are you ill?”

  “No. I saw faces in the fire. Garian’s,” I added.

  They exchanged glances, and Jason shook his head. “I don’t know what to make of that. Can you control it?”

  “No. At least, I’ve never tried. It only happens sometimes, when I’m looking at water. Or fire.”

  “Do you hear thoughts?” Markham asked.

  “Never.” It took no special abilities to know that they, as well as I, were thinking back six years to the strange period during which the entire world had been under enchantment, during the Siamis War. We had learned that such abilities as mind-travel and mind-talk really had existed in humans before the Fall of Old Sartor many centuries ago.

  I said, “My grandmother told me that mind-talk is called dena Yeresbeth—unity of the three. Body, mind, spirit.”

  Markham retrieved my empty cup. “It’s awakening in the world again.”

  Jason sat back. “Never thought any of those ancient legends were anything but hyperbole about the good old days, and all the fabulous powers our ancestors had.”

  Markham said, “Fabulous or not, our ancestors nearly destroyed themselves.”

  Norsunder. Damnation. And our ancestors, for some reason none of us knew, had invited it into our world.

  Bringing the question: if our children, and our children’s children, were born with those amazing abilities re-emerging in the world, would that in turn bring Norsunder back?

  Jason’s face had gone remote again. He rose to his feet. “I’m going to ride the perimeter. Markham, make up a supper, will you? I hear rain coming. We’re far enough along that we can continue tomorrow morning, soon as the
sun is up.”

  I woke to find Markham sitting nearby. He put a cup into my hands. It was not listerblossom brew this time, but strong coffee, laced with honey. It was deliciously aromatic. Wondering how he’d managed to fix that, I sat up and drank it. The warmth spread to my fingers and toes, leaving me feeling refreshed.

  “Do you feel that you can continue on?” he asked.

  “Of course I can.”

  “The king wishes you to ride with me, if you will consent.” He made it a question only in form—I knew an order when I heard it.

  “I hate being a burden.” I sighed. “I’m sorry, Markham. I’d rather try to ride alone, but on the other hand I’d as soon not make any more dives from moving horses. Oh, if only Jewel was as good at escaping as she is at dancing!”

  “Jewel,” came Jason’s voice from behind us, “is only good at one thing: complaining. Her expertise there is unmatched.” He entered and dropped a saddlebag near the fire. It landed on the sword with a muted clank.

  “Only about you. After all, you did try to marry her to Garian.” I pronounced his name with all my pent-up loathing.

  Surprisingly, they laughed.

  “Would’ve served her right if I had,” Jason said. “Both of ’em. Let’s go, before the rain gets any worse.” He held out a hand to me, but embarrassed, I pretended not to see it, and got to my knees and then my feet, my left arm pressed against my side.

  I pulled my cloak on, feeling a strong but unexpressed relief that I would not be riding on my own, then wandered out, dusting my riding trousers off with my good hand. Behind were the sounds of the two breaking camp. The horses waited, trained and patient; there was no nipping or nudging, only the whuffing of noses, flicking of ears, as they exchanged signals with one another that were impossible for me to interpret. I went to the roan and patted its nose. These attentions were suffered with a good grace.

  Markham kicked dirt over the fire while Jason strapped on the bags. He put the sword into its sheath and shrugged it over his shoulder across his back. Then he mounted up, leading the roan, who now carried most of the bags.

  Markham waited for me to mount and swung up behind me onto the second horse. He slid his right arm round me. He was warm and comfortable and strong enough not to mind my weight; I knew this journey would be easier for me, if not for the horse, which was that same big, barrel-chested gray we’d ridden from Dantherei.

  Beyond the close-growing copse of trees a soft rain fell. The early light was blue-gray and diffuse, with fog drifting down gulleys and over streams. Again we talked, and I discovered that the dullest topic came alive. No, there was no dull topic. No courtly wit or innuendo, just an easy exchange of ideas from three different viewpoints and ranges of experience.

  We rode through two very old cave-tunnels that Markham said were probably left over from morvende travelers a thousand years ago. At night we stopped in another of those caves.

  Once again I got the pile of cloaks. When I woke up, Jason was gone. Markham had made a breakfast of toasted bread with cheese melted onto it, and more of that delicious coffee.

  Not long after we ate, noises outside caused Markham to slide his own sword from its sheath and step to the cave mouth, but a moment later he was back, smiling faintly as he resheathed the weapon.

  Jason appeared behind him, along with Jaim and several of his followers.

  “Heigh ho, Flian! You look grim,” Jaim said with great cheer.

  “I was fine until I saw you,” I retorted, and he laughed.

  “Any more of that coffee?” Jaim passed by me to Markham. Near the entrance to the cave some of Jaim’s followers encircled Jason, talking in swift, low voices. One of them I recognized—the woman with the masses of curling brown hair, now compressed into a single thick braid down her back.

  When the circle broke, she turned toward me. Our eyes met, she smiled and came over to squat down next to me. “We didn’t have a chance to meet before. I’m Vrozta. How are you feeling?”

  “Oh, fine.”

  Her brows contracted slightly. “Oh? Well, we ought to be all done by midday. It’s only a short ride from here. Prince Garian apparently doesn’t know about these old morvende caves, which is how we’ve managed to get about so deedily.”

  “Is there a plan?”

  Vrozta lifted a shoulder in Jaim’s direction. “He said he’d tell you. Meantime, you can ride with me, if you like. I’m strong, and”—she lowered her voice—“I know that I would rather let my arm fall off than permit all those arrogant males to act like I’m one step from dead while they go riding around with wounds ten times worse than a hole in the shoulder.” She tapped herself on the left side.

  I grimaced. “Am I so obvious, then?”

  “The pain lines are.” She grinned as she lightly traced her fingers on either side of my mouth. “Don’t you feel how set your jaw is?”

  I waggled my jaw as a flush burned its way up from my neck to my face.

  Vrozta’s grin turned rueful. “But even so, we all know what happened. Jaim said everybody in the Lathandra castle, from company commanders to the kitchen runners, was dying to do something for you—didn’t you even notice? You didn’t notice. Jaim was right! Oh, my! Now, you can be sure if I ever had the guts to pull a king out of a fire and go after a villainous prince with a dagger, I’d strut it for all it was worth. How often does a person get a chance to be a heroine?” She looked closely at me. “You really don’t see it,” she marveled.

  “But there is no heroism. In fact, if my mistakes are seen as heroic, what does that say about real heroes. Are they all fake?”

  Vrozta wrinkled her nose. “Good question! One thing for certain, I’d hate to meet the sort of fellow—or female—who brandishes a sword and blusters out heroic statements, knowing they’re heroes. Wouldn’t that be tiresome to be around?”

  I couldn’t help laughing. “Only if they really are tiresomely perfect. And remind you of it all the time.”

  “I think,” she said consideringly, “heroism is doing what has to be done. Despite perfectly normal fear. And, well, maybe regret. Like you did.”

  “I appreciate your kindly meant attempt to bolster my faltering courage, Vrozta. Were there any mite of heroism in my actions so far, be certain I’d swank about as happily as any heroine has a right to! The truth is, the one thing was instinct, and the other I nearly killed myself because I was too slow and untrained, and in short my own worst enemy. Everyone’s enemy—it’s the reason we’re up here.”

  “I think it’s quite possible we would have been up here anyway. But as for you… Hoo.” Vrozta fingered her braid. “This is worse than I thought.”

  “This what?” Then I remembered what she’d said previously. “What did Jaim say about me?”

  “He said the whole royal castle thinks you walk on clouds, and you are too, um, austere to notice.”

  “Austere.” I pursed my lips. “He didn’t say that. He said silly, didn’t he.”

  “No!”

  “Frivolous.”

  “No!”

  “Boring. It’s fair—I’m boring at court in my own kingdom, so I must be twice that here.”

  “No.” She was laughing now, a soft sound.

  “Weak.” I could barely get that one past my lips. It did seem to gall me more than a simple word ought.

  “Never, never, never.” She sidled another of those looks at me. “Innocent.”

  “Ugh.” It was my turn to grimace, my face now flame hot. “I would rather be called silly.”

  “No you wouldn’t,” she contradicted with cordial assurance. “Silly is always silly, but innocent is easy enough to fix. Why, I could name half a dozen fine fellows who would volunteer with overwhelming enthusiasm to help you amend that any way you wish!”

  I laughed and she did as well, but then she said, “You are one of those who can’t dally where they don’t love, am I right?”

  “I don’t know.” I flung my hands wide. “I don’t even know what love is, outside
of that for my family. And dalliance—flirting—for the sake of passing the time or for power or for pleasure doesn’t come much in my way—everyone is too busy trying to get their hands on my inheritance. That’s the inevitable result of being a rich princess, I guess.” But Eleandra had shown that she was quite capable of getting exactly what she wanted, and when. “No, that’s not true.” I sighed. “It’s mere self-pity. I’m afraid I’m being silly after all.”

  “No. Innocent. But the word can be a quality, and not mere lack of a certain kind of experience. You might lack the latter, but the former stays with a person all her life, I think. Or his. It’s an admirable quality—like honor. It is as much a part of you as your hair or your eyes.” She gave me a comradely pat on my good shoulder. “And you, you wear it as gracefully as a crown.”

  “You two done gossiping?”

  We looked up, equally startled, to find Jaim standing nearby, with Jason beyond him.

  “Sure,” Vrozta said, springing up.

  “Saying fine things about me, I hope,” Jaim added with a false smirk, sliding his arm around her and squeezing.

  “No, because there aren’t any.” Vrozta shook her head, and leaned up to kiss him. “I told her that you eat with your knife, and that you snore.”

  Jaim lifted his hands and turned away. “See? I get no respect from anyone. Come, Flian, you can ride with me.”

  I pointed to Vrozta. “She offered to share her mount.”

  Jaim shook his head. “No respect.”

  Several people laughed and Vrozta helped me get up. I was soon seated before her on a horse. Her arm was strong and steady.

  Jaim rode next to us.

  After a short time he looked across at me, the humor gone, the appraisal in his narrowed eyes reminiscent of his brother’s. “You’ll ride up to Garian’s lair with Randal and Terreth, who’ll be in my brother’s livery, because Garian will be expecting at least that much. The only way this plan will work is if you stay with them and do not dismount. Use whatever excuses you can think of, but don’t leave that horse, at least until you see Jewel move away from his minions. Get Garian’s attention away from Jewel, because as soon as she’s out of their reach, we’re going to attack his hidden ambushers.” Jaim grinned, his anticipation evident. “Because you can be firestorm sure that he plans a double-cross as well. Your part, then, is to keep Garian talking, get Jewel in range so one of the three of you can get her on horseback, and then ride for freedom. Leave the rest to us. I’ve had people sneaking into place all night long.”

 
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