The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  “I only met Jaim once. He was a gangly, ill-behaved youth. This was almost ten years ago, when I first met Jason.” She paused, and when I didn’t answer, she gave a faint shrug and went on. “Like all men, Jason came if I crooked my finger, but he was otherwise so very different from my other suitors. Never bothered dressing in fashion, but he beat all the best duelists at the games. Delightfully intense in private. But so boring in court—never opened his mouth. His training was clearly military, and that was what I wanted for my plans.”

  She paced about the room. “What a short-sighted fool I was! I’ve been thinking and thinking. All I’ve sought is someone strong enough to unseat my sister from the throne. She’s fat and dowdy, and I’ve always envied her being first. I thought a queen should be a graceful leader of society, so I ought to be queen. I suspect she knew all along what I was doing because she said once or twice that ruling meant endless paperwork, and the least she could do is make certain that no one saw any of it. That’s as ornamental as she was capable of being. And so when the years slipped by and Jason didn’t come, I shrugged him off, and turned to Garian—”

  She lifted her hands and whirled around, her skirt flaring. “I seldom saw this side of politics. I wonder if Tamara knew something of this sort would happen to me eventually.” She gave me a sad smile. “Alas, I never paused to consider the men themselves—and what it might be like to spend a life with them. I think, with Jason… Oh! I’m dithering at you like a sixteen-year-old, but here’s another truth. I am so very much a coward. I will never forget you jumping off that horse to keep Garian from slitting Jewel’s throat. How long does self-abnegation last? Probably not long. I was standing at the window down below, calling to you Ride out! Save yourself! In short”—she whirled again—“I would have let her die.”

  “But you weren’t there, and the choice was not before you. I too am a coward. It’s just that I was five paces from Garian and Jewel, and I saw that blood on her neck. There was only one thing to do so I did it. No time to think about bravery or cowardice or anything else.”

  “Instinct, you’re saying.” She came over and stared at me, frowning. Even her frown was lovely.

  “I guess it was.”

  “But, see, my instinct would have prompted me to run and leave her behind. I’d run faster so I wouldn’t have to see it.” Tears gathered. She wiped them away then gazed at me through those tear-drenched, tangled lashes. “I think what you are saying is that instinct is like habit.”

  “I don’t know, am I?” I carefully touched the side of my face. It was hard to think, truth to tell. “I guess I am.”

  “Well, then, it’s obvious.” She flung her hands apart. “Your habits are to make the right choice, so your instinct prompts you that way. My habits—” She shrugged, her mouth crooked. “Are to choose whatever pleases me most.”

  Now I felt on surer ground. “But you can begin to make the right choices here. Today. Now. And tomorrow. And the day after that. Except,” I felt obliged to add, “sometimes we make what we think is the right choice, and it isn’t. For example, when I tried to stab Garian, there at the riverside. I made a terrible choice, but thought it right at the time.”

  She drew in a deep breath. “So you really did try to kill him.”

  “Yes.”

  She laughed softly. “I cannot tell you how angry he was.”

  “What happened?” I asked. “I mean, after I left?”

  “The guards closed in round us, and he wouldn’t let anyone move from their tents until morning. He sent searchers after you—and whoever else it was who’d been in the tent after you left. But when they returned and hadn’t found either of you, he sent Eneflar and Siana off in a flurry, and issued orders to pack up for instant departure. Jewel was ordered to come along, and they had a towering fight. Raised voices—they make me ill, I’ve heard them almost never—and I cowered in my tent, but she squared right up, and the things she said! Told him what she thought of him—he knocked her down—she got up and went after him again—then he had his guards bind and gag her. That restored his good mood enough to give the order to leave. For a time he made Jewel ride with the servants.”

  “Was that supposed to be an insult?”

  “Yes. Until the sound of talking and laughter from the back caused him to halt the entire entourage. Then he had her gagged again, and she had to ride with us. And the rest of the journey he’d say these horrible things to her, laughing, and she would glare at him. It made me feel sick.” Eleandra walked to the window and whirled around. “So when you talk about making the right choice, what is right? How do you know it’s right? No, no, I’m trying to talk myself out of knowing that I would have left Jewel to die, and I would have found excuses for it afterward—I didn’t like her—she would have died anyway, for you have no idea how much Garian despises her—oh, no use in talking about it. You ran right into danger to save her life. I couldn’t do that.”

  “You could if you knew her, like I do, and if you knew it was your fault she was here.”

  “No I wouldn’t.” She gave me a sardonic look. “I don’t know her because I never wanted to, and it’s my fault all of us are here. It was a moral choice,” she said in a low tone. “And I know I have no morals—or at best what I have is amazingly adaptable. Maybe Garian and I are two of a kind after all.” She wiped her eyes again and shook her head. “Only why do I keep weeping? He only gloats.”

  “Tell you what.” I sat up wearily again. “Is there any chance of getting me something to eat?”

  “No.” She gave me another of those strange looks. “And that’s another thing I do not comprehend. Garian got angry when he discovered some of his own servants putting together a tray for you. Healer’s brew and some bread and cheese, but he was furious because they were going to sneak it up here.”

  “Uhn,” I moaned. “Why did you have to tell me that? My middle is hollow!”

  “Because I have not gotten anything but reluctant obedience from his servants, and yet they risked his fury, unasked, to make a tray in case you might want it. He’s forbidden them to come anywhere near this room on pain of death. I can’t imagine them doing that for me. Why do they do it for you? What is it about you that places you here, opposite me, that I am not descrying?”

  I touched my cheek again. Yes, a bruise was forming. “There’s no mystery. I’m here because I tried unsuccessfully to rescue Jewel, and Garian got his knife at my neck. And you and I are not opposites—or enemies. Garian and I are, not that he cares.”

  “You don’t see it, do you?” A distant bell sounded, and she swung about. “Oh! I forgot! There’s the dinner bell, and he will expect me to dine with him. I must hurry and dress.” She glanced behind me and her face blanched.

  I turned my head and felt dizzy when I saw the dark blotches on the quilt where my left shoulder had been. “Ugh. Trust Garian to reopen his handiwork.”

  She covered her face with her hands, and I remembered that this woman had laughed in anticipation when Garian talked so blithely about leading two, no, three kingdoms into war. She wasn’t evil—she just hadn’t known what that really meant. Oh, she knew she’d be the beautiful empress of three admiring courts, but as for the war beforehand, it would be a distant battle. She’d only hear about the glory and banners and charges.

  I couldn’t blame her, I reminded myself, because I’d easily agreed to go to Char Tann and send her back to Jason, knowing what he’d promised. At that time, the idea of an army marching into Dantherei hadn’t seemed real to me, either.

  When she lowered her hands and stared at me, I thought: Yes, we have both learned that when you cut people, they bleed.

  Her eyes were huge. She opened her mouth, then shook her head and left with a hasty step.

  Time to find a way to escape. I’d ask Eleandra on her next visit if she would go along with my plan of dressing as her maid. I couldn’t figure out how to get past the guards on the grounds but if we could get out of the castle, that would be a beginning.
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  I went to the corner and stepped through the cleaning frame there, which at least cleared away the grime of the mountain journey, and the stickiness from my shoulder—though that latter wouldn’t stay long if I was going to be moving about. Well, there was no help for it.

  I lay back down, closed my eyes, and this time fell profoundly asleep.

  And woke when I heard a sneeze.

  I opened my scratchy eyes. Someone was sitting on a chair next to the bed.

  My lips were dry, as was my throat, or I would have exclaimed, “Eleandra? What did you find out?”

  As well I did not, for when I turned my head the flickering firelight highlighted long red hair, a bony face and the physical contours of a man.

  Garian.

  “Pardon me, Flian.” He smiled. “And you were sleeping so peacefully.”

  “What a horrible sight to wake up to.”

  He laughed. “Think how much more unpleasant the surprise will be when Jason sneaks in here to rescue you.”

  He’d stayed, then?

  He stayed.

  “You’ll have to wait a long time, because—”

  “Don’t bother trying to lie to me, Flian. One of his men was rather clumsy in attempting to break my inner perimeter right after midnight. I regret to say that we were unable to apprehend him, or I would not have to bore myself in this manner, but—” He shrugged, waving a hand with a knife in it, firelight reflecting on steel. “The exigencies.”

  “So, what, if Jason manages to show up, you’ll knife me, is that your plan?”

  “This time,” he said with his courtly smile, “I’m unlikely to miss.”

  Firelight glinted on the dagger as he made a fencing gesture.

  At least he’d cleaned the blade.

  “So I have been sitting here listening to you snore. Salutary, I assure you.”

  “I don’t snore.”

  “You do,” he contradicted, again with that mock-apologetic air. “It’s a very soft, quite proper little princess snore. But you are not at your best.” He indicated my shoulder with one of those nasty smiles.

  “No thanks to you. So why haven’t you finished the job?”

  “Because I don’t know why Jason wants you. I would like very much to find out. There is a chance, a slim one”—his voice went grim—“that you will be more useful to me alive.”

  I said nothing.

  “No tears? No lamentations or accusations? A refreshing change from Eleandra.” He stared down at me and gave a soft laugh. “Such hatred! And no fear. How could I have misjudged you so completely, or have you changed? I suspect you are the only one of us all with unexpected depths.”

  As he spoke he touched my cheek. He was on my left side, or I probably would have struck at his hand—but he would like that, I thought. So I stayed still, willing myself not to react as his fingers stroked, back and forth, down my cheek to my neck, and then traced my pulse down to my collarbone above the edge of my riding tunic. Stroke, stroke.

  I did not move.

  “Too thin,” he murmured. “Ordinarily I prefer women with some flesh. Between Jason and I, we have almost ground you to dust, have we not? But your spirit grows brighter.”

  He bent, as if to kiss me, but I turned my head, and again he laughed, his breath on my cheek.

  He sat back. “Even I am not villain enough to seduce someone and then threaten to kill her. Or attempt to seduce, for you’d have none of me, would you?”

  “No.”

  “It might be worthwhile to postpone our accounting. The temptation to exert myself to win you to my cause is tantalizing, except you seem singularly ambitionless. Or is that another of your hidden depths? What do you want, Flian?”

  “To go home to my brother.”

  He shook his head. “What do you want?”

  I didn’t know what I wanted, but one thing for certain: were I to discover it, I would never tell him.

  “Peace.”

  He sighed. “Well, if it were that easy to get a true answer, the question would not be nearly so interesting.” He leaned back, the firelight reflecting on the fine silver embroidery of his dark tunic.

  A faint blue light glowed in the window. Dawn was near.

  Garian said, “Then tell me this—”

  He stopped at a soft tap at the door.

  “Garian?”

  Eleandra.

  Garian’s mouth hardened. “One moment.”

  He went to the window, looked out, and then to the door, which he unlatched. “Come in.”

  Eleandra slipped inside, and Garian relocked the door.

  Eleandra looked around, shivering. Her beautiful hair was disheveled; the gold silk gown she wore was in fact a wrapper. “Your man told me you were in here.” Her tone made it a question as she glanced at me on the bed.

  Garian said, “What do you want?”

  Her voice trembled. “There are people gathering down in your hall—servants—heard noises at some of the first floor windows. My maids are in hysterics. Can you do something about it?”

  Garian walked up to her and took her chin in his hand, forcing her head back. “If you are lying to me, Eleandra, you are going to regret it.”

  “Please, Garian.” Her voice caught. “We are all frightened.”

  “Show me.” His hand now gripped her arm, and they crossed the room. I heard it open, close and latch.

  I think I counted fifty breaths, during which I sat up, fighting against dizziness. It had been too long since I’d eaten. What now? What now? I thought wearily.

  But then the door unlatched and opened. Running steps, and Eleandra bent over me. “Quick—we must be quick. I don’t know how long my maids can weep all over him.”

  As she spoke she tugged on my good hand, and I got to my feet, and staggered as the tower room revolved.

  She gripped me against her and together we ran from the room, outside of which there were no guards.

  Eleandra said, “All the inside guards are searching round the outside of the castle. It won’t take long, so hurry.”

  I gritted my teeth and forced myself to match her pace. Down, down, down, then into a hallway. The whole castle seemed to blaze with lamps, torches, candelabra. Garian had not left a room unlit, except mine.

  Into a small, elegant chamber—the room with the mirror in it, I realized. From my almost-wedding day. The mirror was blocked by Jaim and four men.

  “Good work,” Jaim said to Eleandra, and saluted me with a casual wave.

  “Here,” Eleandra gasped. “Help. She’s so heavy.”

  As Jaim’s strong hand slid under my elbow Eleandra stepped back—and then raised her fists to her mouth.

  Garian stood in the doorway with several of his men behind him. He laughed in surprise. “Jaim? Well, well.”

  They advanced into the room, the men fanning out. Jaim let me go, gave me a gentle push in the direction of the beautiful carved desk, and pulled free his sword and knife.

  Clang! Clash! Blades met, whirled, met again.

  Eleandra’s eyes widened with terror. She backed to the window, turning to a beautiful silhouette in the strengthening dawn light. No help there.

  Door. It was maybe six or seven paces away. I readied myself for a sprint.

  Three battles raged furiously in that room, deadly weapons arcing and slashing in all directions. Jaim fought against two men, grinning with bloodthirsty joy as he held them off. One of the men staggered my way. I retreated—and found myself near Garian, who gave me a distracted look as he battled one of Jaim’s men. He shifted—to block my exit!

  I closed my hand around the nearest object on the desk, a heavy carved box full of letter seals. I flung it at him. The box hit him on the forehead and the wafers spilled down the front of his tunic like giant snowflakes.

  He struck out with his free hand, slapping me back against the wall. A whirl of the blade, he jabbed the point into the side of Jaim’s man, and then turned on me, white-faced with anger.

  “You’re f
ar too much trouble.” He shoved me against the table. I fell backward, and he pinned me down with one hand. “Goodbye, Cousin.” He raised his sword, watching me all the while. For what, words of surrender? Begging and pleading? I glared back, my teeth clenched against making any sound at all.

  Before he could bring the sword down a thin strip of shining silver flashed across my vision and rested against Garian’s upraised hand.

  Garian turned his head, and so did I.

  Jason lifted the blade in salute.

  Chapter Twenty-Seven

  Garian’s blade arced straight at Jason’s head, to be met in a smooth deflecting beat that sent it harmlessly to one side. Jason’s tip whirled in, to be blocked by Garian’s dagger.

  This battle was going on within arm’s length of me, understand. I was still lying on my back across that desk, helpless as an upended turtle.

  I finally got the idea of heaving myself onto my good side, though by then it felt as if my spine had cracked in two. I pushed myself away from the desk and made my way dizzily to Eleandra’s side. She clutched a curtain in one hand and watched Garian and Jason, her eyes wide in her pale face. Wide, but no longer in terror. Her expression was—ardent.

  She was enjoying that battle!

  I just wanted to get out of there. But Jason and Garian fought their duel between me and the door. No one was going anywhere, either in or out.

  Jason forced Garian to stagger back a step or two, then flung his blade up into the air and caught it with his left. Clearly his own wound, which had been far more spectacular than mine, had not yet completely healed.

  Garian tried again and again for the advantage, using both blade and dagger. Jason beat, blocked, once using a foot to kick the dagger-hand aside. Then he altered his grip, his eyes narrowed with intent, and struck the flat of the blade across Garian’s face, leaving a red welt.

  Garian snarled a curse and pressed to the attack—and at the door a crowd of his men appeared.

 
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