The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  Beyond the roses, atop a hill, I could see the gazebo where Spaquel had set Jewel and me up to be taken by Garian, beyond which Jason had stood, counting on Spaquel’s being too arrogant to notice that the men in blue weren’t his, and trying not to laugh at the absurdity of the situation…

  I turned in my chair, so my back was to the garden.

  Maxl frowned. “What is it, Flian?”

  He sat on the edge of my table, his hands absently fingering the ironwork edging. I knew he needed to be elsewhere—probably half a dozen elsewheres.

  “My arm aches.” I forced a smile. “Go ahead to your morning’s work. I’m certainly not in any danger here.”

  “It can wait. I’m more concerned about you.”

  Instead of answering that, I asked, “What happened to Spaquel? You didn’t say.”

  “Nothing. I let him know that he’d be fine as long as he confines himself to court socializing and to governing Osterog. One step beyond and he’ll get an escort to the border, and his land reverts to the crown.”

  “Ugh. I wish you had thrown him out.”

  “He’s actually a good governor—if for no other reason than because he needs the revenue. But that’s going to have to satisfy him, unless his taste for mixing in royal politics is so insatiable he wants to indulge it by being lackey to someone like Garian. He won’t give up a dukedom and his family’s lands lightly, though.”

  “I would have thrown him out. But then I already know my judgment is poor, so we can be glad that you were the oldest, and the heir, and that I am a disposable symbol for useful wealth.”

  Maxl got up and turned all the way around, then he sat down next to me, his restlessness gone. He frowned at me. “I’ve never heard you so bitter,” he said at last. “It’s not like you. It pains me. What have I done? What have I missed?” In that moment, he looked unexpectedly like Papa. “What did you not tell me last night?”

  I blinked my blurring eyes. “I told you everything that happened.”

  Maxl ran his hand through his hair and gave me a puzzled frown. “Something is missing.”

  “You reminded me of Papa just now. The news of his death is recent for me. And Maxl, I feel so badly that I was not here.”

  “Except he was quite proud of you. When I told him you’d gone to Dantherei, his face lit like a candle. Like this.” He opened his eyes and smiled. “He was so very pleased that you had taken an interest in what he regarded as a diplomatic mission to strengthen the bonds between the two kingdoms.”

  “I’m glad of that, but I can’t help regretting he believed a lie.”

  Maxl sat back, crossing his arms. “Not a lie. When Tamara wrote back after my envoy carrying the news about Papa got there too late to reach you, she said several flattering things about you. And she wrote herself—it was not some unknown scribe who is employed to hand out empty compliments.”

  “Empty—do you have any such scribes?”

  “Yep. Four of ’em.” He grinned. “And they’re good at what they do, which is greasing the wheels of the social…” He waved a hand round and round. “What? I was going to say ‘intercourse’ but that’s a fairly nasty image.”

  I choked on a laugh, most of it kindled by surprise, because Maxl had never spoken to me that way before.

  “Social carriage race? I like that. Everyone racing around in a circle. Sometimes it seems we don’t actually go anywhere, but then Papa did hammer on the fact that the path of least resistance gets the job done better. I’ve since experienced resistance, and what I assumed was tired-old-man talk has convinced me that he was quite wise.”

  I nodded. “He was, wasn’t he?”

  Maxl got up, and his fingers were restless again, tapping on the balcony rail. The breeze fingered his blond hair, hiding his profile. “He also talked about how power and position warps otherwise normal human interactions. Feelings. Relationships. He said, ‘Better for the monarch to be beloved than to love.’ I used to think that was just bitterness about Mother. But of late I’m coming to see the wisdom of that. What can happen when a ruler throws royal strength and resources into acquiring what he or she wants most passionately, be that another kingdom—or a person.”

  “A good ruler suddenly turns into a bad one?”

  “Well, more like a good ruler makes a bad decision. Papa fell in love with our mother, and it was his single worst mistake. Though we wouldn’t be here. But there are some who would consider us mistakes as well.” Maxl’s brows lifted in irony.

  “So you’re saying it’s better for us to marry without passion? To marry for political need?”

  “It’s one path. Not necessarily the best. Look at the Szinzars. The old king forced his biggest rival into treaty by marriage, and that did not save his life or his kingdom, nor did it—from what Jewel said once or twice—make for a very enviable home life.”

  “Did Papa want you to marry? Or is all this discussion meant for my edification?”

  “For us both. I am trying to figure out what I ought to do in that regard.” He lifted a shoulder in a rueful shrug. “Supposing the opportunity comes my way. As for your situation, I’ve been trying to follow it from a distance.” He gave me a comical grimace. “Since you won’t write letters.”

  “I still don’t trust words.” My voice started to go high, and I got an internal grip. “So far, experience has borne me out.”

  Maxl moved restlessly to the rail, staring down at the late, autumn-blown roses nodding in the morning breeze. “I wish I understood why, because I sense something missing. Never mind. Specifically I have been wondering if, balked of her plans with Garian, Eleandra is going to remember that I am now a king, and come courting me. And if she does, what I ought to do about it. Is she still beautiful? I’d probably look at her and become a rabbit before the wolf.”

  So why are you looking like a trapped rabbit—

  Argh! Go away, memory.

  My hands were in my lap, lying there loosely. Pride had reasserted itself. I would not burden my brother with my foolishness. “I’m afraid you’re too late. I told you last night only that she was safe, along with Jewel and their servants, when I left the border to come west. What I didn’t tell you was that she managed, in the time it took for everyone to dismount from their horses, to get to Jewel and reclaim the sapphire ring she’d once given Jason. That and some of the things she said while we were alone together make me fairly certain that her interest in Jason rekindled when she saw him circumvent Garian’s plans.”

  Maxl whistled.

  “No,” I corrected myself. Let your words be true. “I’m not being fair. I think her interest in him as a person rekindled as well. She said, um, things about him that made it clear she hadn’t considered him a completely bad bargain nine years ago, despite his lack of fashion.”

  Maxl grinned. “And what Eleandra wants Eleandra gets, eh? Well, that’s been true all along, so why not now? I’m not sure I like the idea of her as Queen of Ralanor Veleth. She might seduce old Jason into thinking a war against us not a bad idea after all. I know she has ambitions, and I know he would like sea access. Huh. Well, so much for me thinking myself such a prize.” He laughed and pushed away from the balcony. “On that most salutary note, I will get downstairs to the work I ought to have been at. We’ll dine together. How’s that?”

  “In truth, I am tired of my own company,” I admitted.

  Maxl gave me an apologetic smile. “In truth I would like my own company for a time—I wasn’t really ready for Papa to die—but then we Elandersis seem to be adept at wanting what we can’t have.” He bent down to kiss my forehead. “Sleep well. We’ll eat in the lair, just like we used to. How’s that?”

  “You still use the lair?”

  Maxl grinned. “I had a door from the king’s study knocked into that back wall. When you’re a king you can do that sort of thing.”

  It was a joke, and he paused, looking hopeful, so I smiled.

  “So you don’t have to go through Papa’s outer rooms.” He
whistled softly. “‘Papa’s rooms.’ I think of ’em that way even now. I wonder what he felt when he first moved into ’em? Enough chatter from me. I have to get to work.” He flipped a hand in a wave, and left.

  I looked out at the roses once more, wondering if Jason and his entourage had yet reached Lathandra. I remembered that huge battalion assembling in the courtyard, waiting at the Drath border. That impressive gathering would close safely around all three Szinzars, and Eleandra. And accompany them home. Their home.

  What would Jaim do then? How about his gang?

  What would Jewel do? The one regret I permitted myself was that I had not said goodbye to her.

  I turned my attention to the crystal water glass on my tray and stared down into it. Sunlight gleamed in the water, catching and scattering the light.

  Jason?

  He was there, clear and not clear, for the light flickered across and through his image. Sunlight sparked in his eyes. He looked up, and then his gaze went diffuse, as though he shifted his focus to the horizon.

  I closed my own eyes, knowing that this trick with the glass, however unexplainable, was just another form of spying. I had not been given leave for so intimate a connection, and so I put the glass aside.

  “Many have asked about you,” Maxl said three weeks later, when we dined together in his lair. His room was cozy and warm, while outside another autumn storm raged against the walls and windows. And there in the corner was the new door, to the king’s chambers—silent evidence that our lives, after all, had changed.

  “People have asked about me?” I didn’t hide my skepticism.

  “Some of them even wanted to hear the answer.”

  I snorted. “Swains who need wealth to fully realize their ambitions being the loudest, no doubt.”

  “Well, the music master. And Mistress Olith.”

  “The music school runs itself. They need my funds, not my person swanking about as presiding princess.”

  “They want you to hear the new children.”

  “I will. Soon,” I promised.

  “You’ve been saying ‘soon’ to me every day for what, a fortnight? Is ‘soon’ going to be another word for ‘never’?”

  I made a sour face. I did not believe anyone wanted to see me any more than I wanted to see them. But I’d kept busy: in between trips to the archive for reading on recent history, treaties, diplomacy…and personalities, I had taken up my own music again. I wanted music as a conduit to feeling. My studies of the intricacies of diplomacy reinforced my conviction that music was safer than words.

  I had also—slowly—taken up some of the exercises I had learned at those dawn practices in Dantherei, for I missed the feeling of strength that I had begun to enjoy there.

  My thoughts fled eastward, to that salle where once I’d seen Jaim and Jason, and were they, too, practicing?

  “Flian?”

  The reverie broke. I looked up.

  Maxl said, “You’ve been buried in here either playing your instruments or reading for the past week. What have you been researching?”

  “Knowledge. Answers to questions.”

  “Such as?”

  The history of Ralanor Veleth. But I would not say that. “Well, for one thing, the meaning of truth. Diplomacy seems so often the opposite of truth—is there any truth in a court? Then I wanted to find more about this trick I have of seeing faces in glasses of water.”

  Maxl snapped his fingers. “Dena Yeresbeth. Not that, but some kind of precursor to it. Did you see that book from Bereth Ferian that Papa ordered after the Siamis war? It explains a lot about that.”

  “I found it first thing. There still really isn’t much information.”

  “That’s because the whole subject is new. But it’s something our children might be born with. And in turn, that means we must think about…” He shrugged. “Everything.”

  About who the other parent will be—and what the person’s influence might be. But I forbore saying anything.

  Words.

  Just as I had not said anything about my own disastrous first attempt at the danger-fraught and ungovernable realm of passion, so had my brother kept to himself whatever emotional difficulties he was enduring.

  We passed the rest of the meal talking amicably about those current records that he’d been able to get. Maxl’s recent reading projects had been to find out why various ancient kingdoms flourished despite war and conflict, like Sartor, and why some sank into mediocrity, like once-glorious Everon.

  But as he talked, his hands betrayed a tension that I had not seen since that morning after my return. I did not ask; I did not want to risk breaking the calm good fellowship that we shared.

  The next day dawned bright and clear and cold.

  Midmorning I was sitting at my music when Maxl came in unannounced. I looked up in surprise, for this was the customary time for his interviews downstairs in the audience chamber. His eyes were wide. “I do not know if this is what you will like—”

  I heard a quick step in the hall outside my parlor. Moments later a figure in rose dashed in, arms wide. “Flian?”

  “Jewel!” I exclaimed.

  Chapter Twenty-Nine

  “Oh, it is good to be here again,” Jewel exclaimed, looking about at the old family dining room, to which we had gone for refreshments. “How pretty this room is! Enough of the blue and gold trim on the carvings to make the white attractive and not plain.”

  Maxl and I preferred the lair, and its lack of formality, but unspoken between us was the wish to compromise for Jewel’s sake. Now, sitting with her in the room that my great-grandmother had had redesigned, we saw its artistry anew.

  “You have different rooms for different seasons,” Jewel went on. “I love that. In Lathandra, all that military barricading makes the place impossible any time except in winter, when the light is low enough to be direct. And there’s only one decent room for socializing. Ugh.” A reflection not quite true, for I vividly remembered mellow summer lighting—but I said nothing.

  She reached to pour out more steeped leaf, pausing to examine the cobalt blue pot with admiration.

  “Are you here for long?” I asked at last.

  “I,” Jewel preened, her nose in the air, “am an Official Diplomatic Envoy—and I shall want to be Presented.” She cast a glance at Maxl. “Jason said he did write to you about it.”

  Maxl rubbed his hands. “He did, and I told him you’d be most welcome.” He smiled across at me. “I didn’t say anything to you because I thought you might like the surprise.”

  “I do. It’s wonderful to see you, Jewel.”

  “It’s wonderful to see you too, but why did you leave us so suddenly? I feared you were angry with me for not managing to escape, and thus landing you back into Garian’s clutches.” She pinched her nose. “I know I would have been. But I assure you I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t even eat. I had to know you were safe. I kept screaming at Jaim and Jason to hurry and get you out, until Vrozta finally dosed me with sleepweed. That’s why I didn’t come along to help on the rescue run.” She shivered. “There was this, too.” She flung back her carefully draped curls, exposing the hairsbreadth pink line on the side of her neck.

  Maxl’s mouth tightened.

  Jewel pulled her hair forward again to hide it. “I still have nightmares about that day. I probably always will. Ugh. Don’t let’s talk of that. I am so happy to be here again, and not as your pensioner. I have my own household for which you must find space, and even my own seamstresses. Like this gown?” She twitched her shoulders back and forth, showing off the clusters of cherry-colored ribbons up the sleeves, and the round neck with its fine embroidery. She then gave me a perplexed glance. “You, on the other hand, look like one of your housemaids in that old brown gown. Don’t tell me you’re yet recovering?”

  “Oh no, I’m fine. Nothing left but twinges if I swing my arm too hard at sword practice.” I touched my shoulder.

  “Sword practice?” She sighed. “Has everyone
gone mad? Jason’s gone completely mad. You cannot imagine what a relief it was to get away from the hideous boredom!”

  “What, boring? With Eleandra there? I would have thought she’d have reorganized your entire kingdom by now,” I said in surprise. “At least the social side.”

  “You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Jewel gave me the sardonic Szinzar smile. “There we were, up in Drath, free at last, and my, how she chased after him all over those caves. It was simply stomach turning.” She brandished her cup.

  I leaned forward, willing her to go on—but afraid, too, of what I might hear. All the feelings I had thought I’d defeated came back, like a pack of ravening wolves.

  “Go on,” Maxl said. “So Eleandra was courting Jason, is that it?” He sat back in his chair.

  “Courting! She was so sweet and charming, and, and…” Jewel gestured down her own pretty figure. “And so alluring, that I think half the escort was stunned by her. Oh, I don’t have to think, because they were. Everywhere she went, they watched her, practically licking their chops, and didn’t she adore it. Ut-terly revolting! And all of it aimed at my rock-headed older brother, for she totally ignored Jaim. You’d think Jason would be smirking worse than that stinker Garian did all the way up into Drath—when he wasn’t honing his sarcasm on me—but Jason kept everything organized, often going off to talk with his company leaders or Jaim, after Markham left so unaccountably with you.” She jerked her pretty chin at me. “But Vrozta said it made perfect tactical sense, to take you home to the west while we drew all the searchers east. Since tactical sense has nothing to do with common sense, of course I don’t understand it. But I’m glad it worked.”

  “So you did have a safe journey out of Drath, then,” I said.

  “Oh, perfectly safe. When we got out of the caves, there were all Jason’s people waiting, hordes of ’em. When Garian’s people inevitably caught up with us, there were far too many to attack. They ranged along the mountaintop and watched us. Eugh, that was creepy, but Eleandra apparently didn’t think so! Turn me into a cookpot if she didn’t look up at them and smile! Can she not stop flirting? Well, I suppose people say that about me, too, even when I don’t mean anything by it.” Her smile was contrite.

 
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