The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  They’d win now, out of sheer numbers. Jaim and his foes stopped fighting; everyone watched Garian and Jason. The man whom Garian had wounded staggered to the corner, breathing in harsh gasps.

  Garian seemed to realize that he’d won, for he laughed out loud, as he traded blows with Jason. You could see the triumph in his white-flashing smile.

  But Jason had been driving Garian steadily toward the cluster of Jaim’s men, while keeping his own back to a wall. Jaim moved two steps to Jason’s shoulder to shield him from those at the door as Jason’s eyes narrowed again and the blade flickered, a maneuver so fast it was a blur. Garian’s weapons went flying out of his hands—blood ran down his fingers on his right hand—and he staggered, Jason’s swordpoint pressed in the hollow of his throat.

  One step. Two. Jaim and the men were ranged all around them.

  Garian’s men froze.

  Everyone froze.

  Garian struggled for breath, flexing his bleeding hand. Jason gazed straight into Garian’s eyes.

  One move, and he’d thrust.

  “Well.” Jaim’s voice was startling in the sudden silence. He waved his sword at Garian’s armsmen. “You know what happens now. Retreat—nice and orderly—or your master will be shopping for a new head.”

  The men backed from the door.

  Jason glanced once, then flicked the sword to the side of Garian’s neck, against the main blood vessel that I had learned about during my lessons with Ressa a hundred lifetimes ago. “Move.”

  Garian started to walk, Jason matching him step for step.

  Jaim bowed outrageously to Eleandra and me, then twiddled his fingers at the remaining Drath warriors. They backed out, one or two glaring over their shoulders.

  We followed, and so a strange procession made its way through the castle. Eleandra’s servants followed behind us and Lita (who’d been disarmed back in Dantherei, so perforce had to watch for her chance to act) silently joined behind Jaim. She had taken a sword off of one of Garian’s men, which she held, now, at the ready. Jaim and Lita were on the watch lest anyone try a countermove against Eleandra or me.

  Down the steps and out into the courtyard, which was bleak in the blue-gray early morning light.

  When all had left the castle, Jason must have increased the pressure of the blade against Garian’s neck because Garian stopped, his hand jerking up then dropping. He could never touch the sword blade before Jason could rip it across that blood vessel.

  Jason said, “Your men will remain here. We will proceed alone. It is the only way you will live.”

  Garian was furious, the sword-welt on his cheek now purple. As I watched Garian debate within himself, I recognized that the welt on his face corresponded with my own sore face. The sword had struck him where he’d struck me the day before. Fair trade, I thought with sour triumph.

  Garian’s mouth tightened, then he made a staying motion with his unmarked left hand.

  The warriors faded back.

  And so we walked on to the drawbridge, where several of Jaim’s and Jason’s people waited, some with crossbows, and Vrozta with horses. I noted the bows were sighted on various portions of the castle: a balance of threat, then, with those hidden above.

  In low voices, Jaim and Vrozta got the servants sorted among the horses, and they began mounting up. Eleandra stayed back, and perforce I had to as well, for my knees were too watery and my balance too uneasy for me to walk on my own.

  Jason looked our way, then abruptly lifted the sword and sheathed it.

  “You will regret that decision,” Garian said.

  “I already regret it,” Jason replied.

  Garian turned around and walked slowly back toward his people; one sign from him, and though we might die from bolts, he’d be the first one down from Jaim’s people. And he knew it.

  Markham was holding the last two horses. Mounted, Jaim led the train of servants down the trail. Vrozta followed, her sword out, but she kept looking back from Eleandra to me. An intent gaze, as if containing some meaning or message that I could not read.

  Jason crossed the drawbridge in three quick strides, and Markham said in an undervoice, “Vrozta and Randal hobbled their horses and slashed their gear. It’ll take them some time to mount a chase.”

  “Ah. Thank you, Markham.”

  Eleandra clutched at Jason’s arm. “My dear, I believe you should send one of your people here to help Flian. She can barely walk.”

  Jason did not answer her. Step, step, then he was next to me, and his arm slid round me—checking when he felt the new stickiness down my left side.

  He picked me up and put me on the saddlebow of the nearest mount, then got into the saddle behind me. The world was revolving gently by then. I closed my eyes as we began to ride. My aching head rested against Jason’s shoulder as he gave the sign to ride out.

  We moved, slow at first, then faster. At some point they turned off the road, and the horses slowed again, making their way down the slope. Sounds—birdcalls, the rustle of trees, the rush of water—were unnaturally clear. Close sounds, too: Jason’s breathing, the rapid tattoo of his heart.

  Scents: pine, horse, the perfume of late jasmine, sweat. His, not mine, though I was clammy from my exertions and my earlier fear. The smell was not at all unpleasant. No, not at all. I fought against the urge to breathe in his scent, for his proximity was so reassuring. So warm. So…so compelling.

  And then at last I knew what the unthinking part of me had known for some time, making me dizzy with overwhelming sensation. I was acutely aware of the contours of his arms, the feel of his fingers through the heavy fabric of my riding tunic; I realized, with a kind of hilarious despair, that I had at last managed to fall in love, or rather in lust, for how could it possibly be love with someone I did not know, who had once threatened to make me regret sparing his life?

  I kept my eyes closed, my cheek pressed against the rough wool of his tunic, glad that I had at least the duration of the ride in which to get control of my mental state—and also, I thought weakly (knowing it was weakness, but right then I did not care at all) to bask in the fire of his proximity, a dear and burning brightness I would never again feel.

  Time passed, and I smelled the cold wet stone of the morvende cave.

  Jason said, almost too soft to hear, “Flian, are you awake?”

  “Yes.”

  “Did you endure any more of Garian’s maltreatment?”

  How to act, to sound normal? All my emotions as well as my senses had kindled to flame. Only pride stayed steadfast. Pride would keep my voice even, would reason for me, would not betray me.

  “No.” Because he stayed silent, I babbled on, “But I haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast yesterday. I guess he didn’t want to waste a dinner on the doomed. Did you know he was sitting at my bedside waiting for you?”

  “Yes. We sent a man under his window to provoke him into action. I had counted on something like it, and I apologize for once more putting you directly into danger, but it was the only way Lita could get Jaim and his boys in through the back way.”

  “Well, I spoiled the plan, so I guess it was my—”

  “It was not your fault.” He interrupted me, low and quite sharp. “The blame was mine, from the beginning.” He hesitated, then said, “You did not tell him that we were at hand.”

  “No, for I thought you might have gone back to Lathandra, once you had poor Jewel safe. How is she?”

  “Fine—angry but fine. You will no doubt hear more of her experiences than you have interest for, if not patience.” Humor warmed his voice, but then it was gone. “You expected us to abandon you?”

  I struggled with words I could not say, and words that I could. How to trust words, when I couldn’t even trust my own emotions?

  Start with where we are, and leave out the messy emotions completely. Be calm and rational. “How could I know? I saved your life once, and you were angry at me for it. Now you don’t owe me anything, if that’s what made you angry,
because you have saved mine.”

  His voice was flat. “So what you mean is, now we are quits.”

  “Yes.”

  He said nothing else.

  A short time later the horses stopped, and we were once again deep inside the long morvende tunnel. Jason dismounted, lifted me down, set me gently on my feet, and walked away. I leaned against the horse, bewildered and miserable. Now we are quits. My attempt to state exactly where we were had become a chasm that I could not cross.

  I heard his voice, giving orders for the organization of a camp. Then Jaim’s cheery tones, followed by Vrozta’s low laugh. I opened my eyes, and saw Eleandra’s golden form gliding through the camp in the direction Jason had gone.

  I turned my face into the horse’s side, my eyes aching, until a familiar deep voice murmured, “The king sent me to see to your comfort, Princess Flian.” Markham. “Come. You will soon have steeped leaf and something hot to eat.”

  I clung to his arm as we traversed the uneven, rocky floor toward an alcove divided off from the carved tunnel by a great, slanting slab of granite. Its edges glistened in the firelight. Markham handed me into a kind of small chamber and withdrew, vanishing behind me. The fire blazed and crackled, giving off welcome warmth. Jewel waited, pointing with pride at a nest of rugs and blankets. “Come in. Sit down, Flian. I made this ready and built the fire against your return.”

  Jason had sunk down. He looked tired, his expression the old winter stone one. Eleandra settled herself close to him, as one whose presence would be welcome. She put aside her cloak, shaking back her gleaming hair. She did not seem the least self-conscious to be sitting there in silken wrapper and nightgown, but she looked superb even when disheveled.

  Jason poked at the fire with a stick, and got to his feet. “I will see what there is to eat and drink.”

  Eleandra looked up in surprise. Jewel exclaimed in protest, “I told you I have that coming!”

  Jason stepped past me and disappeared.

  Eleandra shook her hair back again, combing the fingers of one hand through it. She held the other out. “Thank you.” She smiled. “For holding my pledge-ring for me. I believe I will have it back now.”

  Jewel’s eyes widened. She looked down as though discovering the sapphire ring for the first time, twisted it off and handed it to Eleandra.

  The gems sparked and glowed in the leaping light as the royal heir to Dantherei put it on her heart-finger, then held it up to admire it.

  “Handsome stones, are they not?” She lifted her head. “Flian. You must sit down. You look dreadful.” She pointed across the fire from where Jason had been sitting.

  Jewel winced, touching her neck as though the movement hurt. Her eyes were concerned. “Flian! Euw, is that blood on your sleeve?”

  I dropped down on the blankets that Jewel had set for me. “Never mind.” That was all I had strength for.

  Jason appeared, carrying a steaming pot and four mugs hooked by their handles through one of his fingers. “You were right,” he said to his sister as he stepped past me. “Good job.”

  “I’m not completely useless,” Jewel said, huffing.

  “Well I am,” Eleandra stated, smiling. “And I have never regretted it more than today. But it was truly splendid, my dear, seeing you defeat Garian.”

  Jason knelt before the fire, positioning the steaming pot on a flat rock. He seemed absorbed in the task.

  Eleandra reached up to touch his arm. “Was it your version of justice, or mere caprice, that strike with the flat across his face?”

  “A warning,” Jason said.

  Eleandra looked across the fire at me, a slight frown marring her brow. Then she lifted a shoulder in a shrug and flung her hair back with a grand gesture. Strands of shimmering chestnut drifted over Jason’s arm.

  “I take it Garian is not dead?” Jewel asked.

  “No.” Jason poured out the last mug. “Here, hand this to Flian, would you?” He gave two mugs to Jewel.

  She pressed one into my good hand. “Why ever not?”

  “Because he didn’t kill any of you.” Jason drank some of his own. “I expect I know his limits now.”

  “He came very close to stabbing Flian.” Eleandra looked from Jason to me and back again.

  I remembered Garian’s expression, and the table’s edge grinding into my spine as I waited for him to strike. “No he didn’t,” I said. “Not today, though I believed he would. It was different than when I tried to kill him. That time he really meant to return the favor, and except for Markham, he would have.” I flicked my good hand, trying to express my relief. “To be perfectly fair, I can’t really blame Garian for that one, for I’d just tried to stick a knife into him. But last night…this morning…he made the threats, but he didn’t seem in any hurry to carry them out. Even at the end there.”

  Jason sent me an appraising look, and then turned his attention to the fire. “True. He waited too long. He could have finished the job with the dagger at the same time as he blocked me with his blade, but he didn’t do that either. Truth is, he talks a bad line but unless he’s in a rage he seems to prefer to stop short of murder—at least with women. I expect it would have been different if he had gotten his hands on me.”

  Eleandra gave a delicate little sigh. “You do take the romance out of it.”

  I tried to hide a grimace. Jewel made no attempt to hide her disgust—not that Eleandra paid her the least attention.

  “No romance in him killing me.” He smiled faintly.

  “No! No! I meant—”

  “Or in my killing him and having to contend with uprisings all over Drath.” Jason lifted a hand toward the back of the cave, taking in the entire principality. “He’ll be looking for ways to get back at me, but that’s less of a headache than the prospect of settling Drath.”

  “I’m glad you have the strength to do that.” Eleandra scooted close to him again, and this time laid her head along his arm, her hair draping over his sleeve like a shining cloak. “All I know is, I longed for you to come to the rescue.” She sighed, her shapely bosom rising and falling. “I am, at last, safe.”

  Jewel turned my way, rolling her eyes and making a face like she was going to be sick. I tried to smile, but the wretchedness I felt at the sight of them was worse than the pain in my shoulder. I got to my feet and walked out; behind me I heard Eleandra’s voice, tender with affection, and her musical laughter.

  I wandered, scarcely seeing anything, until I reached the cavern where they stabled the horses. There I found a familiar tall, dark-haired figure.

  Markham turned. “Princess Flian?”

  My eyes ached, my head, my heart. “Markham, you can act on your own, can’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  “Take me home. Now. Don’t tell them. Just—take me home.”

  “You’re not well.” He frowned. “You really ought to rest that shoulder.”

  “I can’t.” I covered my face with my hands. I had lost everything that mattered—including pride.

  “I will,” he said at last. “But not now. The searches will be too thorough. Here. I have a place. I will bring you food, and you can rest. I will tell the others you are asleep, for they all know your wound reopened. And we will leave before dawn, when the search-lines have moved their way eastward. The search to the west will be at best desultory. Herlester will expect us to ride home.”

  Home. I gestured my thanks, my throat too constricted for words.

  And so that’s what happened. He led me to another side-alcove in that great, ancient warren, which was spread about with numerous bedrolls. I sank down onto the one he indicated, and waited there until he brought listerblossom leaf and food. I ate and drank, and fell into an exhausted slumber from which I woke at the touch of a hand.

  I rose, my head aching abominably, and followed Markham’s silent form through the quiet camp. I could not see Jason—or Eleandra. I realized I was looking for them, just to make myself feel worse, and confined my gaze to Markham’s broad
back.

  Down the tunnel, away, away. I wept, for there was no helping it, but at least no one would see it now, except for Markham, and I trusted his silent impassiveness.

  Markham had prepared a couple of mounts. He and I shared one, because I was not able to ride, and he led the other. We traversed several tunnels, only lit by the torch he bore in one hand.

  We finally emerged behind a great waterfall and rode down a narrow, precipitous trail that afforded occasional glimpses of the farmland of Lygiera.

  And so we journeyed westward, with no further adventures. It was a quiet trip, each of us absorbed with our own thoughts. Markham saw to everything; each day I was substantially recovered, at least in body, if not in spirit, and presently I was able to ride by myself.

  Thus we arrived in Carnison at last. Markham stayed with me until we reached the courtyard of the royal castle. “You are now safe. I believe I will return home.”

  “Please come in,” I responded. “My brother will wish to thank you and to repay you for the money you had to spend.”

  “It is unnecessary.” He smiled faintly. “Do you wish me to be the bearer of any message to the king?”

  I thought of Jason, of Eleandra and the ring she had decided to wear again. I remembered those last horrible words that had divided us, and shook my head. More words would only make the hurt worse.

  Markham took the reins of my horse, wheeled his and rode slowly back down the royal avenue.

  I stood where I was until I had control of the tears, and walked past the shocked stablehands, past the footman at the courtyard entry. Home, I thought, I’m home. I’m safe, I’m home. It didn’t make me feel any better.

  Not long after I stepped into my bedchamber, there was my brother’s step behind me. He looked worried.

  “Oh, Maxl,” I cried and threw myself into his arms.

  Chapter Twenty-Eight

  “I’ve spread the word that you were caught in that bad rainstorm a week ago. Got chilled, which turned into a lung fever,” Maxl said the next day.

  We were alone out on my terrace, overlooking the rose garden. The morning was balmy, almost summer-warm, the breezes carrying the fragrances of late blooms.

 
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