The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  “But what if he doesn’t let her free?”

  “Oh, he will, if only because she’s no possible use to him. He wants you—and Jason. But if he doesn’t let her go, then Randal and Terreth will get you away again. It’s not your responsibility, it’s ours. Jason’s and mine. Your business is to get as close to Jewel as you can.”

  “He’ll have arrows trained on us,” I said.

  “Yes, but he’s going to suspect that we have them on him, and he’ll be right. But don’t think about that. You get Jewel, stay out of his reach, get away. Simple. Got it?”

  I tried to swallow, but my throat had gone dry as old wood.

  Chapter Twenty-Five

  The highest towers of Garian’s castle were visible above the treetops.

  Memory made my insides cramp. I did not want to be there again. We stopped in the mouth of the ancient morvende tunnel, beyond a long waterfall that hid the access path, and prepared to leave.

  The two young men closed in behind me: Randal, a big, broad redhead, gripping and regripping his sword hilt, and Terreth, a dark-haired, slim fellow whose build was a lot like the Szinzars’, staring with narrowed dark eyes through the falling water at those towers. Both fellows wore the Ralanor Veleth warrior gear.

  Vrozta gave me a quick hug, gentle on my left side, then wordlessly slid off the horse.

  Jaim and his people all withdrew, for Jaim wanted them in certain places, leaving only Randal and Terreth.

  Jason stepped up to the side of my horse, and absently stretched out his hand for the animal to whuff and nudge with its muzzle. His brow was tense. “Remember what Jaim said.”

  “You don’t think I can do it?” My voice came out strained and accusing.

  Color edged his cheekbones. “I don’t like this plan. I don’t like you in it.”

  “But it has to be me. It’s the direct consequence of my own action.” I paused, making sure my voice would stay steady. “Garian would never have bothered with me if it hadn’t been for what I did to him.”

  Jason looked up, then down, then away. “I don’t like you in it,” he repeated. “Should have asked directly for me.”

  “But he wouldn’t believe you’d go.” As I said it, I knew it was true—Garian would assume Jason’d behave like him. Had Garian a sister, he’d shrug off her death, and take revenge at his leisure if it suited his plans. Trade her for another hostage, maybe, if the plan seemed interesting enough.

  It was then I truly understood the differences between the two. Oh, I’d seen them right from the beginning, only now did I comprehend what they meant. All along there had been two reasons for everything Jason did, and most of the ambivalent words and actions had been Jason’s own way of throwing dust into Garian’s eyes. But he’d not actually brought anyone to harm, except by accident, and here he was, determined to rescue a sister he found more exasperating than fond.

  Everything he had done had obvious reasons—except his statement in that cave the night of the fire, If I get through this alive you’ll regret the outcome.

  That was the threat of a villain.

  Jason said, his mouth grim, “Given my preference I’d run an attack right now. Put ’em all to the sword.”

  Would he really have done that, had I refused to come along? “Then many would die.”

  “Jewel the first,” he agreed—making it clear why he’d consented to this plan at all. “I don’t trust Garian. Don’t you either. Stay with the plan.”

  “How many times must I say that I will?” My voice wobbled, and I turned away, fiercely angry with myself, because I could see how my tension made the others more tense. “Let’s get it over.”

  In silence we rode out of the cave, the falling water gracing us with gentle spray.

  Randal led us up a slope. There was no pathway. The horses’ hooves sank into the mulchy ground, still colored with the falling leaves. I glimpsed movement at the line of my vision; Randal and Terreth looked up.

  One of Jaim’s people high in the tree, holding a cocked crossbow, lifted his fist in a salute.

  Terreth nodded, Randal waggled his fingers surreptitiously and I forced a smile. I was terrified, my mouth dry, my armpits and palms damp. My shoulder ached, my heart thumped in my ears.

  We emerged from behind a great thicket onto the road, and within moments heard a whistle that was not quite a warbler’s call.

  “Signal,” Terreth breathed, without moving his lips.

  So enemy eyes were indeed watching.

  We rode up the fine road to the drawbridge. Below, water thundered over the rocks and away downslope. Overhead, the sun broke through the clouds, and I felt its warmth on my shoulders and the back of my head.

  Movement from the direction of the castle. It resolved into a small procession on foot, first Garian, and then Jewel—her hands bound and her mouth gagged, her brow a dark, angry line—and last several armed men.

  They stopped at the other end of the drawbridge, and Garian took hold of Jewel’s arm. Even across the bridge I could see that it was no easy grip. But Garian smiled his courtly smile, his green eyes were wide, their expression triumphant; I thought, I will never again like jade. He was dressed splendidly in his house colors, with a gem-hilted knife at his side.

  He took his time surveying us, turning that nasty gaze of ice-cold amusement last to me. His smile widened. I am in so much trouble.

  Terreth stirred, as though about to speak.

  Garian jerked Jewel up against him and drew the knife.

  “I’ve an idea, Flian, that the only person who wants her alive”—he pressed the knife-blade to her neck—“is you. Dismount, come here and I will let her go. If either of your swains steps onto this bridge, she dies.”

  Silence. A bird—a real one—somewhere up above twirtled happily, but none of the humans moved. We might’ve all been carved of wood except for the breeze flapping at cloaks, hair and clothes.

  “I don’t believe you.” My voice came out squeaky. “You’ve never told me the truth. Let her go. First.”

  “You can believe me now.” Garian favored me with another of those gloating smiles. He was obviously enjoying himself. “You know I have no scruples whatsoever, but a very fine sense of play. And you, my very dear Flian, made yourself a part of the game, there on the riverside in Dantherei.”

  “So I learned,” I said, anger helping me control my voice. “A steely tutorial. Let her go.”

  Garian laughed. “An attempt at wit! You have changed, Flian. I wonder who is the inspiration? We shall have leisure to discourse on the verities, and I almost think that what you say might be interesting.”

  “Let her go.”

  “But I am running out of patience,” he added softly, and his hand tightened. I’d thought I was already at the limits of horror, but I discovered how wrong that was when I saw Jewel’s face contract in pain, and a thin red trickle run down her neck from the blade.

  “Now. Or watch her die.”

  Again his hand moved, and there was more blood.

  Uttering a cry, I threw my leg over the saddle horn and stumbled onto the bridge, running as fast as I could.

  A heartbeat before I reached them, Garian flung Jewel away from him. She thumped onto the wooden bridge directly in the path of Terreth and Randal, who’d hot-footed after me.

  As I passed, Jewel shook her head at me, tears spilling down her cheeks. She tried to say something, but five relentless fingers closed on my arm, and Garian yanked me against him, the bloody knife pressing under my chin.

  Terreth pulled Jewel across the bridge to safety.

  Randal froze not two paces from me, hands out. As Garian’s grip on the knife tightened, Randal backed up slowly, his face pale with fury.

  Silence. No one moved, no one spoke.

  Garian stirred against me. “I was hoping that Jason might take an interest. Have I miscalculated?” he murmured into my hair. “We shall experiment.”

  And he paused, his red locks blowing against my cheek. Disgust tigh
tened my throat. I was already trembling too violently to shudder. He did not move—he was waiting. The knife now pressed up against my jaw, forcing my head back against him. Over his shoulder, I glimpsed one of the towers, and on it a wink of sunlight on steel—the jointure of a crossbow.

  I hoped Jason and the others saw it too.

  Five, six long, painful breaths, and Garian said, quite annoyed, “I must have misread the situation, then. Jason does not seem to be here. Where is he? If you tell me where he is, and what he’s minded to try, I will forego the pleasure of your company for now.”

  I said nothing.

  “Where is Jason, Flian?” he asked, in a low, intimate voice, and his grip on me shifted so that his thumb stroked over my left shoulder where the stab-wound was.

  “Lathandra.”

  “Then—I shall—make do with you.”

  So saying he dug his thumb into my shoulder. I yelped with pain. He kept up the inexorable pressure, until my knees buckled. I knelt at his feet, the edges of my vision going dark.

  I felt Garian shift position as he looked around, and then he gave an exclamation of disgust, reached down and backhanded me across the face.

  When I next became aware of my surroundings it was to find myself dumped into a tower room. I lay on a bed, my left armpit sticky. Heavy stone walls circled around me, but the room was warmed by a substantial fire. The only other piece of furniture was a fine table at the foot of the bed. At one of the long arrow-slit windows stood a female figure.

  Familiar sun-touched dark hair and the silk-draped contours of an enviable figure: Eleandra.

  “Unh.” Experimentally I eased myself up on my right elbow.

  Eleandra whirled round, her skirts flaring, then falling against her long, shapely legs. Here I am. Hysterical laughter fluttered inside me. Alone with the princess all those men are warring over.

  She came toward me, the glitter of tears in her glorious brown eyes.

  “Did Jewel get away?” My voice came out a frog-croak, but that was better than the squeak of fright.

  “Yes.”

  “But you haven’t.”

  She made an ironic gesture, as if presenting herself.

  I gulped in a breath, trying to calm my middle, which was boiling like a nest of mad snakes. “We have to think about escape.”

  “He’s got warriors all over the place. You can’t step without some castle-sized fellow armed with a crossbow glaring at you.” Her fingers slid up her arms and gripped tightly above her elbows. I recognized that posture. I’d used it a lot of late.

  So Eleandra had normal feelings, then. I also noticed that her face, even full of tears, was more staggeringly beautiful than ever. Whereas when I wept, I got puffy pink eyes and a glowing nose.

  Life is not fair.

  I said, “I got out of here once before. I can do it again. I think. If I can stand up. Why did he have to dig his soul-blasted fingers into my shoulder like that, if you’ll pardon my language?”

  “To force Jason out of hiding. His men were to shoot him in the knees, so that Garian could have him to play with.”

  I shuddered and fell back on the bed. “Ugh.”

  She tossed her long gorgeous hair back and wiped her wrist across her eyes. “I have been pretending to fall in with Garian’s plans in hopes my sister will investigate my disappearance and send someone here. Preferably an army.” She gave a bleak smile. “But I don’t know if Siana or Eneflar understood the situation—or if Tamara will care if they did.”

  “Of course she will. She’s your sister. I know my brother would care, very much, if he knew I was here.”

  Eleandra’s pretty mouth pressed into a line, and once again she wiped her eyes. “She might think that I deserve what I get, for she’s going to know what he’s really after. I never, never, ever thought Garian would go to these lengths. He was always so affable, and very amusing as a lover—few better.”

  “Faugh.”

  She gave me a wry, lopsided smile. The more human she acted, the more I began to like her. “He’ll never forgive you for that, by the way. He might sound so dispassionate, but in truth, he was very much stung by the fact that you made it very plain you don’t find him attractive.”

  “No. Never have. He has a fair form, but an evil mind. It shows in his face.”

  “Yes, I see it now. I see a lot of things more clearly. There’s little to do up here but think, when Garian doesn’t demand one as an audience to his cleverness.” Again the wry smile. “Where is Jason?”

  Probably halfway down the mountain now that Jewel is safe. Aloud I said, “I don’t know.”

  She drew in a shaky breath and came to the bed to sit down. Then she made a quick gesture with her hands, almost like wringing them. “I don’t blame you if you don’t trust me. But you must believe me. The only way for you to stay alive past this day is to convince Garian that Jason lurks somewhere about, so he can use you to trap him. Just lie. Say he is indeed here and wants you free for your money, or something.”

  I shook my head. “I can’t do that.”

  “Why not?”

  Because there was the vaguest chance it might be true.

  No, I only hoped it was true.

  If I get through this alive you’ll regret the outcome…

  I sighed. “I’m no good at lying, Garian sees through it. I may’s well not even bother. I don’t know where Jason is.”

  “Don’t you understand? Garian keeps threatening to kill you if you don’t tell.” She lost control of her voice then, and I felt real pity for her—more than for myself, actually, but only because I was so hazy minded. Now that I was actually in trouble and not anticipating it, I felt almost detached.

  “He will anyway, if he’s minded to.” I touched my shoulder tentatively. It throbbed fiercely. “Either that or he’ll keep piling on the threats, and smacking everyone who can’t hit back. He does like to play with his victims. Augh, I am so thirsty.”

  “Water or wine?”

  “Water. Please.”

  She moved to the door, opened it, spoke to someone outside. Guards. Probably more than one.

  The door shut. Eleandra wandered to the window again, running her hands up and down her arms. When the pitcher and glass was brought, she poured my water, which I gulped down.

  She said, “I’ll tell him you said Jason’s here.”

  “No. I can’t think of a convincing excuse why he’d be here. The money one is less believable since Jaim and Jason helped themselves to a good part of Garian’s movable wealth.”

  Eleandra snorted a laugh. “He did not tell me that.”

  “Well, they did. Are you certain that Garian doesn’t know you want to leave?”

  “As certain as I can be about anything. I’m very good at flattery, and all the rest, when I have to be.” She arched her brows at me. “It’s why I’m here—he believes I can winnow from you Jason’s whereabouts. Though I wouldn’t tell him the truth if you did tell me,” she added in haste.

  But he’d get it from you just the same.

  Out loud I said, “Then you are our key to freedom. Tell him that you want to take a walk, and I’ll dress as one of your maids. It’s the only thing I can think of, only I’d hope it wouldn’t endanger your maids even if they don’t know what is going on.”

  “Garian wouldn’t bother revenging himself on servants.” Eleandra waved a dismissive hand. “Not his style. Tormenting the powerless is boring, for they have no choices. Peers can be forced into terrible choices, which affords him exquisite pleasure. So does forcing the powerful into powerless circumstance. He calls it the game.” She drew a deep breath. “I admit I’m terrified—but I don’t see what else can be done. Let us try it, then. I will go see what I can arrange.”

  She went out.

  I watched after her, thinking better of her than I ever had during all those interminable affairs at her court that were designed to impress the impressionable. Then I was going to take another sip of water, when I remembered my co
nversation with Jason and Markham.

  Could I do it on purpose?

  I sat up, holding the glass close to my face so I could look into the distorted reflection of the flames, which leaped and sparkled in the liquid. There was Jason’s face, staring at me through fire and water. His light blue eyes were narrowed, his mouth pressed in a line. He was angry.

  I blinked—and it was gone.

  Again. I stared through the glass into the leaping flames, and this time thought of Markham. His face flickered, expression thoughtful. I blinked him away and tried Jaim. He was talking, and though I heard no sound, I saw the intensity in his face, and his hands gesturing.

  Jason. This time—it’s difficult to explain—I called to him in my mind.

  His head lifted, his eyes widened, then he looked behind him. As if he’d heard!

  But my vision was beginning to flicker around the edges, and so I drew a deep breath and set aside the glass.

  I lay back, trembling, my brow damp with sweat. How foolish, to wear myself out on such uselessness. Looking at faces in the glass was the kind of thing to play around with when one was not hurt, faint with hunger and under threat of death.

  I closed my eyes.

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  Before I could drift into sleep Eleandra returned.

  “What did you find out?” I asked.

  “Garian is convinced that Jason is indeed here, lurking about somewhere close by. He wants to conduct a search himself, which gets us rid of him for a time. It really seems to disturb him that Jason has a knack of getting in—and out—of places at will, no matter how well guarded. Is that true?” She regarded me curiously.

  “True enough He abducted me right out of our palace. Well, the grounds. In the middle of the day. Seems to have taught Jaim his tricks, because when I was a prisoner here the first time, Jaim and his gang came crashing through the windows to rescue me.”

 
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