The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

  I smiled back. Maxl studied the ceiling as if reading a secret history.

  “Anyway, when we got to Lathandra, did Jason get out the old silver and have the nasty old barracks furbished up a bit and maybe get the play-season begun early, for Eleandra’s sake? Not he!”

  Maxl slid his hands over his eyes. I saw his shoulders shaking.

  “He left all her entertainment to me. You know what he dared to do that first night? He sat there in the south parlor with us, and he read military supply reports all evening! Why, you’d think he didn’t want her after all—and if I’d known that, I never would have gone haring off to Dantherei in the first place, you may be sure!”

  Maxl made a muffled noise.

  Jewel glanced his way. Her cheeks glowed with color.

  “Sorry.” Maxl coughed. “Sorry. It’s so unexpected. Please go on.”

  “You’re just like Jaim. When I told him I couldn’t figure out what Jason was about—I expected him to hustle her off to his rooms and stay there a month, especially with her dropping all these hints about as subtle as boulders that she was ready and willing—Jaim laughed so hard I thought he was going to fall out the window.” Jewel’s brow contracted in perplexity. “What is it with you men? You are all idiots, that’s what it is.”

  “I’ll agree to that.” I glared at my brother, who instantly assumed a sober face—if one didn’t look at his eyes.

  Jewel turned back to me. “I did what I could, but she was so bored. So obviously bored. Two days of that, and she started writing letters. Constantly. Must have sent half the garrison couriers north to Dantherei, but Jason let her do it. He stayed in his rooms almost all the time, except when he was over in the garrison. After Markham came back, Jason was scarcely even home. When he was, he always had work in hand.”

  “I don’t understand,” I said. “Perhaps he was annoyed with her for choosing to run off with Garian rather than with us. Yet I can’t believe he didn’t even talk to her.”

  “He did spend time talking to her after a couple weeks of excruciating boredom. Seems like it was a year! He didn’t seem angry with her, or really much of anything. Just…” She pulled a blank face. “Impervious. I don’t know what she did at night, and I don’t want to know. All I can tell you is that he wasn’t there to do it with. Oh, I didn’t mention that her pretense for coming with us instead of going home with the escort Jason offered her was that she had been made ill by her experiences and could not face that long journey.”

  She crumbled up a fresh apple tart. “So. We three had dinner that last evening. Now, I’d been reminding him—well, nagging and whining and threatening, truth to tell, because he did promise to send me here, and I saw no harm in bringing it up again because I didn’t know if he was about to go off and leave me to yet another week of boredom. So I said, ‘When are you going to keep your promise and send me to Carnison?’ He’d said initially that I wouldn’t go without a staff and accoutrements, but Berry had already seen to that. Took her two days to get things organized!”

  “Is Berry with you?” I asked, hoping that she was.

  Jewel shook her head. “Stayed. Says that if there’s ever a queen, she will be the queen’s head steward, and meanwhile, she doesn’t like to leave home. Imagine anyone wanting to stay in that gloomy old barracks who doesn’t have to!”

  Maxl was also crumbling an apple tart. “So did Eleandra offer to bring you here, is that it?”

  Jewel turned her attention to him. “Do you want to marry her?”

  “No.” He grinned. “But I wouldn’t mind her showing up with her full armor of allurements and battering at my door, I confess.”

  “Huh.” Jewel gave him a reluctant grin. “So anyway—where was I?”

  “Dinner. With Jason.” As I spoke I felt my brother’s gaze, and I wished I hadn’t spoken.

  “Oh! I asked when he might keep his promise and send me, and he said he would when you had recovered enough to resume your court duties.” She cast a glance my way. “He added that your four-day ride after leaving Garian’s had probably dealt you a setback. And Eleandra gave him one of those looks that she gives men—half the candles in the room melting to puddles.” She made a face, poonching out her lips and fluttering her eyelashes. “We saw enough of that at their court, didn’t we?”

  I nodded, my clammy hands now hidden in my skirts. “Go on.”

  “That’s really it.” Jewel lifted her shoulders in a careless shrug. “Oh, Eleandra said something like, ‘So you know her progress?’ and Jason’s answer was typical for him.” She shrugged again.

  “Typical like…” Maxl prompted.

  “He gave her one of those stone-faced looks of his own—and we know those, don’t we, Flian? He said something like Of course, or, no. It was, Can you doubt it? I think. Who cares? Anyway, next day she was gone, and no hint of coming here. Whsssst! Just like that!” Jewel flicked her fingers in the air. “Back to Dantherei, with the escort she’d turned down before. Good riddance! But the important thing is, as soon as she rode through the gates—I was congratulating myself on having seen the last of her—then Jason turned to me and said I could name my departure day. He told his own steward to see to my orders, and so you can be sure Berry and I scrambled it all together as fast as we could, before he could change his mind—which he’s clearly lost—again.” She laughed, hands wide. “And here I am!”

  “No problems through Drath, I take it,” Maxl said.

  “Not a one. But they were watching,” Jewel added. “I felt the temptation to wave at walls and trees, but there were all the banners, and the armed outriders and servants, and we never veered a step off the Treaty Road—and yours truly rode at the head of the cavalcade, being an Official Diplomat with all her might. That means I behaved myself.”

  Maxl and she exchanged grins.

  I hardly listened. Of course I was thinking of what concerned me most. “How could Jason know my progress?”

  Maxl said, “I didn’t tell you, since apparently you didn’t get along with him. He’s written to me a couple of times. About Jewel’s coming and about border concerns. Trade issues that I’m hoping we’re going to hammer out. Asked if you’d recovered from the stab wound.”

  “Well, that’s very polite,” I said, trying for the same casual tone.

  So Jason had rid himself of his one-time beloved, the old passion gone despite her strenuous attempts. Did that leave him heart-free? What matter if it did? There had certainly been no message for me.

  Of course there wasn’t. Didn’t he always keep his promises? There was his promise, made before the horrible rescue journey to Drath, that he would send me home and never again enter my life. And he always keeps his word, the fool.

  “That’s enough of my boring, stupid brother,” Jewel commanded. “Now that I am here, it is time to have some fun, and that means the subject of Jason Szinzar—and Lathandra—will never be raised again! And you, Flian, are going to stop roosting like a molting bird. It’s time to put on a nice gown and come to court.”

  Her Presentation gown was not her favorite rose, but green velvet, gold edged, with black silk beneath—Ralanor Veleth’s colors—relieved by pearls looped gracefully across the bodice, the ribbons all green silk, long and exquisitely tied.

  While that was being made up, the three of us worked out the details of our story. Maxl was quite firm about insisting we say nothing whatsoever about Garian Herlester. As far as court was concerned, Jewel and I had traveled together to Dantherei and then back to Ralanor Veleth on diplomatic visits. Only I was taken sick and came home early; Jewel followed upon receiving notice that I had recovered.

  Simple—and dull. No one would want to pester us for details of a dull story—which meant no one could use our story for their own purposes.

  In other words, diplomatic lies—and this time I was telling them.

  The day of Jewel’s Presentation was at the weekly formal Interview, the first day of the autumn season, which meant a grand ball that night. Maxl
insisted that I host it with him, establishing our positions in court, or rather mine as heir.

  We were going to host the reception afterward, too, until Maxl received a charming note saying that as a surprise, all the senior nobles had clubbed together to give the reception for us, as a salute to the new king.

  Organized—the note written—by Gilian Zarda.

  “Here we go,” Maxl said in an undertone as we stood side by side on the dais in the great throne room, which was used at most half a dozen times a year.

  We wore our sky blue and gold. Along the perimeter, in strict hierarchical rankings, stood those Lygieran nobles who were at court for the season.

  I watched Jewel approach, and felt strange. As if we were playacting. But when she swept a perfect formal curtsey to Maxl, princess to king, my vision rippled and underwent such a change I was almost lightheaded. For the first time in my life I was not, in fact, the young princess playing at the grownup games.

  It was now us in charge. Papa and his generation no longer held the real power while we played at it around them. We now held the reins. The older people in the room watched us go through the rituals, and I wondered how it must feel to the older people to watch power pass on to the next generation.

  A wash of shame burned through me at my self-involvement. Maxl had been so very forbearing, only hinting at how much he needed me to do my part, while I’d lurked in my rooms for a month feeling sorry for myself.

  As I watched Jewel rise from her curtsey and turn to me, I resolved not to shirk my duties any more. Whether I liked them or not was immaterial. A selfish queen would be like my mother—or Jewel’s—and a responsible one like Tamara, who didn’t care for court either. Surely that went for princesses too.

  Jewel curtseyed to me, princess to crown princess, for I was now heir. Her mouth was grave, but her eyes merry, sapphire-bright in the candle-glow, as she glanced at Maxl.

  Maxl spoke the formal words of welcome, and she curtseyed again and withdrew.

  Three more people were presented: the first, a daughter of an earl on her first visit. As I looked at that sixteen-year-old face, almost green with terror, I felt very old of a sudden, and I made a few comments, nothing of any import or even interest, just enough for her to be able to respond, and to relax, and finally—tentatively—to return my smile.

  Again, how strange, for I had grown accustomed to thinking of myself as the youngest, the gawkiest, the most awkward and inexperienced. But that was no longer true.

  Next were a couple of coastal aristocrats, here for their yearly visit. There were no inheritance-fealty vows to be spoken that day, which were long and tedious, so the formal ritual was soon over.

  Maxl held out his arm to me, I placed my hand on it, and we walked out, leading the way to the reception chamber.

  And so began the autumn season.

  The real work takes place year round, in the judgment chambers, and in the heralds’ rooms where the Lord Officers rule: the revenue office, the trade office, the farm office, the guild office. And in the archive, without whose scribes decrees do not get copied into law books and distributed throughout the kingdom.

  In court the social and diplomatic work follows its own rhythms, dictated by the seasons. As I walked down the center aisle, I wondered what goals were in the minds of the people we passed. Political, personal, known, secret? It would all unfold over steeped leaf, or wine, or dances, or games, or on sledding trips over the snowy gardens. Or in private rooms.

  Not in mine. The lips I wished to kiss had, the last time I looked on them, been grim, the arms I wished to walk into had set me down and withdrawn. The gaze that fascinated me had not looked on me with fascination, and the mind that I had begun to comprehend a little, had comprehended me and found little of merit.

  That was the truth, I decided. But it was also true—for I did not believe all those old records would lie—that mere passion would eventually die away, and perhaps I would be able to look about me for love. After all, what I felt for Jason was mere attraction, silly, superficial, it couldn’t be anything else. But until then—

  “Blade at guard, sister,” Maxl breathed. “Engage.”

  Gilian Zarda and her closest crony, the Baroness Elta—who had inherited at far too young an age—minced toward us, twinkly court smirks on their faces.

  Gilian carefully fingered one of her blond curls as she said in her most caressing voice, “Oh, Flian, it is so good to see you on the mend!” She linked her arm through mine. “You shall stand with us to receive. So many people have waited for word on your recovery. What a long bout of lung fever! But I can see at a glance that you have yet to fully recover.”

  All this said in the sweetest voice, just to make certain even stupid Flian understood that she looked dreadful.

  I knew what I looked like—which was no better or worse than usual. But Gilian was preoccupied with appearances—always had been, ever since we were children, and she had cheated at games and gotten round anyone older by batting her lashes and pouting about how small she was. She had learned early that if she couldn’t win, she would claim not to be a player. And those who did play were stupid or clumsy or common.

  She tucked her other arm through Maxl’s, and the three of us entered the west parlor, which had been beautifully decorated with hothouse lilies and pale, peachy-yellow roses. Elta, her chin elevated to a supercilious level, firmly thrust her arm through that of stocky, stolid Daxl Nethevi, heir to the powerful dukedom of Bharha, and fell in behind as Gilian pointed out the lemon cakes with warm custard, and the punch she’d concocted with her own hands—so very tiny!—pausing only for praise.

  Maxl gave it to her. I said nothing, not that she would have listened. Her entire focus was on Maxl.

  The rest of the guests arrived in order of rank, Jewel in the lead. Gilian took the primary position as hostess to the reception, the center of attention—with Maxl standing at her side.

  All of those hints he’d made, about courtship and marriage for the benefit of the kingdom, coalesced into a sharp fear. Was he considering marrying Gilian? How could she have contrived so startling a change between the time I’d left and my return?

  The reason why was obvious. Maxl was now king, and she did not have to deal with my father, who had loathed the Zardas and would never have permitted any of them to gain more power than they already held.

  Maxl has been facing this threat alone, I realized, watching that little hand firmly tucked round his arm. While I cowered in my room feeling sorry for myself.

  One of my duties was to help him. How? I had relied on music as my safest form of expression, but no one listened. I’d tried action, but just got hurt.

  Maybe it was time to venture at last into the realm of words.

  This resolution had been made when the doors were thrown open one last time, and the herald announced, “His highness Prince Ersin Aldi of the Three Kingdoms.”

  A tall fellow with long wheat-colored hair stepped in, threw his hands wide, and said with a rakish smile, “I take it I’m too late for Presentation?”

  Maxl hesitated, for we were no longer in the throne room. Gilian exchanged a look with her sharp-faced, sharp-eyed father, who smirked; she scudded forward, her baby-pink ribbons bouncing, and tucked her hand around Prince Ersin’s arm as he looked down at her in polite surprise.

  “I am Lady Gilian Zarda, and this is my party,” she lisped in her sweetest little girl voice. “Permit me to present you to Maxl—I beg your pardon. King Maxl.” She tittered, guiding him straight past Jewel and pausing near me. “And here is his sister, the Princess Flian…”

  Just like a queen.

  Maxl welcomed the newcomer as if nothing untoward had happened, though a faint flush along his cheeks betrayed a hint of emotion. Jewel, next to me, whistled softly.

  Chapter Thirty

  Frost from my breath bloomed in the air as I hurried across the courtyard toward the guard wing. A flicker on the edge of my vision brought me to a stop.

/>   Something arced through the air and landed at my feet. I bent, picked up a rose. The petals, cream-colored with a faint blush of pink, were still tightly furled.

  I held the rose to my face and looked up to the balcony above. Golden hair flashed, lit by the rising sun as Ersin bowed, grinning.

  I lifted the rose to my lips, swept a deep court curtsey. Ersin laughed, for I was not gowned for court, but dressed in old riding garb. He waved a hand and vanished back into the royal guest wing. On the other side of his balcony, Jewel’s windows were curtained. There was very little that would force her up at dawn.

  There were faces at two or three other windows, one sour and spade-chinned: Elta. She turned away, no doubt to rush off and report to Gilian.

  A shiver tightened the outsides of my arms and I resumed my walk, tucking the rose stem (from which patient fingers had removed the thorns) behind my ear.

  I was soon in the big practice salle, where the smell of sweat and the echoing clash of weapons smote the senses. The new recruits were already at work at the far end, their faces crimson with effort as they were put through their drills. My brother was busy in one corner with the sword master as I crossed to get some practice gear.

  I watched bouts until one of the minor trainers was free. When I was thoroughly drenched and my muscles felt like old lute-strings, I found Maxl standing at the side watching. “You are coming along nicely,” he said.

  “Yes. Who knows, in five years I might actually be able to engage in a match with some youngster without embarrassing myself,” I retorted with mendacious cordiality.

  Maxl snorted. “What standard are you holding yourself against? You are ahead of the new recruits, who will be sent out on their first tour in three months.”

  “And hopefully they will not be required to do much more than rescue mired carthorses or chase after some half-drunk bandits for at least a year or so.”

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