The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

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

  Everything else he had explained—but that.

  I sighed, watching my breath cloud. I looked up. The sky was covered by a thick white blanket. I wished the snow would fall.

  “Looking for the first flakes?”

  I turned. Ersin of Three Kingdoms strolled up onto the bridge, smiling at me. His smile was easy and warm, his long golden hair lying unbound over his black cloak.

  “Yes,” I said. “Thank you for the rose. It’s up in my window.”

  He leaned on the rail, his long brown hands dangling loosely. I glanced up, saw his profile, the clean line from brow to jaw, strong bones, features regular, countenance characterized by intelligence and good humor.

  He glanced down at me, his brows quirking. “I wanted to speak with you alone.”

  “Please do. How can I help you?”

  “Will you marry me?” He said it simply. No extravagant gestures, no cynical smirk.

  For a long moment the words opened up my life to a new path. I continued to stare at him, as though the future would be writ in his steady gaze.

  He waited, patient and polite. Consideration followed after a long space, long enough to register as embarrassing. I felt my face go hot. “I’m sorry. That was unexpected.”

  “It was, wasn’t it?” He gave me a wry smile. “And—unwelcome, I gather?”

  “I don’t quite know how to answer that. Shall I be courtly?”

  “Be true. Please.” He added disarmingly, “I will begin with the truth, if that makes it easier. It is my branch of the family’s turn to seek a spouse from outside the Three Kingdoms. A duty with which I did not find it hard to reconcile. I came to this kingdom to court a princess, my third such quest. Here I found one with whom I could share my life, if she found she could share hers with me.” He took my hand, bowed over it and kissed my fingertips. “You’re honest, smart, kind, and when one can get you to talk, interesting.”

  “That really is a generous compliment. I wish I could respond with more grace—”

  “But?” He made a courtly gesture, full of humor. “Is it ‘but’ or ‘yet’?”

  “‘But’, I fear.” I thought of Maxl and shook my head. I could not leave now, not until he had established his kingship—and though my help might not be much, he needed everything he could get. But I did not want to say it out loud, lest it seem to disparage Maxl.

  “Is it a lack in me? You know you would have perfect freedom. And though courts are courts, Three Kingdoms does have plenty of attributes.”

  “I’m sure you do. There is no lack in you. It actually makes it easier that you are not in love with me—”

  His smile was regretful.

  “—or pretending to be. That would merely make it unbearable for us both. In truth, I suspect your heart lies elsewhere—”

  “As does yours,” he interrupted, his voice gentle and tentative, his eyes, for once, completely serious. “It’s one of the reasons why I thought my proposal might meet with your approval.”

  I gazed at him in stricken silence.

  “Perhaps it takes a lover to recognize a lover. I don’t think anyone else has noticed. I have heard not one jot of gossip to that effect—and I delved for it, as discreetly as possible.”

  My breath went out, freezing in a soft cloud.

  “You are in love.” His voice was gentle, gaining in assurance. “But with no one here. And your old companions, possibly blinded by ambition or their own overriding concerns or by having known you from childhood, do not see it. But the fact remains that you are, and that it seems to be unsuccessful or you would not be here, alone. And so I thought that my proposal might suit you not only for the exigencies of good will between our kingdoms, but also for companionship. It would suit me quite well having you to smile with, to ride with, to watch the gardens with, to talk with on long summer evenings or short winter ones, when we were not presiding over the court at Three Kingdoms.”

  My eyes stung. “That is the most generous speech anyone has made me yet. And I thank you especially for doing me the honor of being truthful.”

  “It’s why we are here, with no witnesses.” He kissed my fingers again. How different from Garian’s mocking salutes! I had always wanted to scrub myself after his touch. Ersin’s touch gave me no inner spark, but no disgust, either: it was the warmth of human friendship.

  Jason had touched me three times. Twice before that interrupted wedding at Drath, and not again until that very last day, also in Drath…

  I shook my head, trying to banish memory. “It seems so unfair that kings—or queens—have less freedom of choice in so personal a matter than anyone else.”

  “We choose very carefully in the Three Kingdoms. We have three royal families presiding. This alliance has kept us stable since our treaty. There is enough trace memory of the bad old days to make us reluctant to tamper with the form. And so I seek a princess, or a lady, who is intelligent, and kind, and interesting to talk with, and my own sense of honor requires me to seek one who is not in love with me.” He touched my hand lightly. “Only who, I feel constrained to add, could be so blind as to not see your worth?”

  Pain constricted my heart. I turned away, wiping my eyes.

  “I’m sorry,” he said again, his voice husky and contrite. “I’m sorry, and not only for my own clumsiness.”

  “No.” I pressed his hand, and let go. “It’s all right. We’ll go back and dance and smile, and I’ll wear your rose in my hair tonight, and before long you’ll find a princess who might suit you better than I.”

  “I very much fear my search for such a person would take me round the world,” he said, and I laughed at his gallantry.

  And together we walked back toward the palace as above the first snowflakes of winter began to drift down around us.

  Chapter Thirty-One

  Ersin stayed only until the day after Midyear, and then he rode south, accompanied partway by Maxl and Lord Yendrian Redesi.

  Maxl returned before the evening bells, looking tired and dispirited. I followed him to the lair, ringing for hot chocolate. When he reemerged into public, he’d have to squash down Maxl and assume the outer demeanor of a king. I would help him find that balance if I could.

  But he did not want to talk, only stood staring down into his fire, until the ting of the suite bell recalled him to the time.

  “We’d better get ready for the Barons’ dinner,” I said. “And wear dancing clothes—apparently Jantian Weth returned from his journey south with the spring and summer dances from Sartor.”

  Maxl commented, “It might be midsummer in Sartor, but here we’ve got the longest nights of the year!”

  He wasn’t talking about our being in midwinter’s dark. I knew what he really meant, and I felt the same.

  But the Barons’ dinner for the Guild Chiefs went quite well. The Weths had brought back not only ideas but things: there were scented candles placed before mirror-bright silver panels so that each candle flame was magnified five times, and the candles themselves brought a faint, fresh scent of some astringent herb into the room.

  The foods, we were told, were the latest rage in Sartor. The older people who grew up knowing Sartor had lain under a century of enchantment were impressed. They were also cheered at this evidence of another defeat of Norsunder’s evil. The atmosphere was lighter than I remembered since before Papa died, the oldest talking about what their grandparents had said about Sartor before it was enchanted. Sartor’s court was now full of young people surrounding a young queen.

  Jantian, pressed to talk about his interview with Queen Yustnesveas, last of the Landises—the oldest family in the world—said she had the characteristic Landis protruding eyes. She was tall, and kind, and had brown hair. He didn’t remember what her gown was like, which disappointed the girls.

  He’d also brought back a singer-musician from Sartor, who’d been busy teaching our musicians (the ones who customarily played for balls a
nd dances) the newest songs. I resolved to talk to Jantian later about getting them over to the music school, and then it was time for us all to assemble.

  The promenade was old—everyone according to rank, moving round in a circle—but the music was new to us, cascades of exquisitely sung triplets under the melody, which was played by a combination of harps and silverflutes, the percussive counterpoint marked out by a whisk applied to a hollow wooden tube and shaken gourds with seeds in them. The songs were all in Sartoran, which none of us knew—but it has a lovely sound, and those triplets were a recognizable Sartoran flourish that had died out of fashion over the century Sartor was inaccessible.

  Next was a complicated line dance, full of braidings, twirls, changes of partner, still in triple-beat time. Some had prevailed on Jantian for secret lessons, for they moved with assurance. Gilian was one. But she’d always done that. I don’t think she’d ever made a single misstep no matter how many new dances were introduced.

  Jewel’s mistakes caused her to laugh, and she got the idea of kissing her partner’s hand in apology, a gesture which made Althan blush right up to his hairline. He promptly bowed and kissed her hand right back.

  And that started it off—errors were opportunities for gallantry, a happy gesture that filled the room with laughter until the dance ended, and there was Gilian standing near Maxl, plying her fan so her curls blew, and she tipped her head back and said in Jewel’s direction, “What a burlesque!”

  Jewel went on talking to Riana Dascalon and handsome, silly Malnaz Torquel.

  Althan blushed again. “Not all of us had practice beforehand. I think we did pretty well, considering.” He looked around, and several signified agreement.

  Gilian flirted her fan, then spread it flat in intimate mode. “I thought we did wonderfully. But Sartor, so ancient, so sophisticated—its dances so graceful, really requires the most graceful figures.” A pause, a coy twitch of her head.

  Lord Zarda shifted his smirking gaze from his daughter to Maxl.

  “…but I have long accustomed myself to the dreary truth. We tiny people never are seen, for few look over the rooftops, but alas one cannot make that claim for the lumbering bovine.” She finished, tittering, with an artful flick of her fan Jewel’s way.

  Jewel had never been prettier, the candle light making a blaze of her yellow gown with its gold and peach embroidery, her splendid coloring heightened by the dance, her lips curved in a smile full of mischief. Maxl gazed as one besotted.

  “To see a cow dance in a royal court!” Elta laughed without mercy. “Oh Gilian. You are too absurd.”

  “Alas,” Gilian said airily. “The absurdity is not as bovine as reality.”

  Jewel’s brows rose. She snapped her fan open with a crack, drawing all eyes, and she said, quite mildly, “Beg pardon, what did you say?”

  It was completely unexpected.

  Jewel was on the verge of laughter, and with an inward flutter against my ribs I realized what she was going to do. “I didn’t quite catch your remark, Gilian. Were you addressing me?”

  Now either Gilian retreated—insults are never funny if they have to be repeated to the recipient, especially one as stupid as that—or repeated. Gilian, no weakling when it comes to malice, whispered, “I was not. I was making an observation on clumsy dancing. If you wish to claim the attribute, I can only bow in polite acquiescence.” And she gave a dainty curtsey, every line a mockery.

  Jewel just kept looking at her with a puzzled air. “Bo—?”

  Several of the men muffled snorts of laughter, and Riana and Birdy giggled. Even Corlis’s thin lips curved in a tight smile.

  Jewel looked around, her hands making a helpless gesture. “Bo—vine? Is that what you said?”

  Half-smothered laughter spread through the circle. I had never seen such a clear division of reaction. Most of the young were laughing, most of the old, at least Zarda’s many allies, looked disapproving. How had he gotten so popular? No—not popular—that’s when people enjoy you. What was that Jewel said about leading through fear?

  Jewel rounded her lips.

  I nearly gasped out loud. She really was going to moo.

  It would be devastatingly funny, it would serve Gilian right.

  But it would also divide the court. And I could not let Zarda’s allies get any advantage over Maxl. Even social.

  I snapped my own fan open, walked right through the center of the circle, took Jantian’s arm. “Please? May we try it again?”

  Jewel cast me an arrested glance, her lips still parted, then the disastrous moment was gone. She held out her hand, a random gesture, and not fewer than half a dozen fellows stepped forward offering to partner her.

  Gilian tucked her tiny fingers possessively under Maxl’s arm, smiling up at him wistfully. I could feel him taking in the entire room—what he had missed, the fact that he’d missed it—with a kind of internal slap.

  He bowed to Gilian and led her into the dance.

  That night Maxl followed me to my room. I had stayed in case there might be a need to attempt to avert any more disasters. Maxl prowled around the perimeter of my room, touching things. When Debrec entered, looking enquiry, he said to me, “Let’s go to the lair.”

  Hot cocoa had been made in anticipation.

  My brother prowled around the perimeter of this room, too, gazing sightlessly into the dark outside the window, tapping his fingers on the back of the old sofa, the chairs, and on the mantel as he stood at last beside the fire, the stylized wheat pattern embroidered on his tunic gleaming like threads of molten gold in the ruddy light.

  “Power warps our lives,” Maxl said finally. “Tradition—treaty—put on thrones, kings and queens who are too seldom bonded by any regard outside of power, or expedience. Like our mother. And the Szinzars’ previous generation.”

  “There are exceptions,” I said. “And compromises.”

  “There seem to be two natures,” Maxl observed in a slow voice. “There’s the one that can find consolation—and pleasure—wherever it is offered, and then there’s the other that chooses once, and once that choice is made, no compromise is possible.” He looked over at me. “Do you agree?”

  I thought of Eleandra, dancing from lover to lover. And of myself, in whom mere memory of the all-too-brief ride in one man’s arms was far more compelling than all the graceful words, the ardent smiles, the caressing hand-kisses and oblique offers of more, from numberless men of four different kingdoms and one principality.


  Maxl turned around to face me. “Did Ersin offer marriage to you, then?”

  I nodded.

  Maxl wandered back to the window. “I thought he might have.”

  “And you didn’t want to influence me.”

  “No. I could see advantages either way. You would get a fresh start there. You might even like it. But I would miss you here. Yet you aren’t happy.” He turned to face me again.

  I said, daring, “Neither are you.”

  “No.” He spoke to the fire and not to me. “But I cannot leave.”

  A knock at the door.

  Maxl answered it himself.

  Jewel stood there, her dark blue gaze searching his. “Do I intrude?”

  “Of course not.” He held the door wide.

  Jewel entered, her gown rustling, her scent lightly perfuming the air. “I love the new dances. And would probably like the songs if I could understand ’em. A lovely evening, considering Ersin’s departure. I’d thought they’d all be glum as a row of crows.” She sat down next to me. “Though I must confess I am too angry with our favorite swain to admit how much he will be missed.”

  I laughed. Only Jewel could get away with such blithe illogic.

  Maxl’s lips twitched as he cast himself into the worn old armchair on the other side of the fire.

  “I really thought he would propose to you in form,” Jewel said to me. “How very romantic that would have been! I did not take him for a trifler. At least, not with you.”

  “He was fun,” I said.

  “That he was,” she agreed, and she glanced over her shoulder at Maxl, who had taken up his letter opener again, and was playing with it. “Not that he ever took me seriously for a moment. Not with all those outrageous compliments!”

  “That you returned. More than Ersin himself will I miss your preposterous flirtation.”

  “He told me that last night. That I’d made him laugh, and he’d always be grateful.” She grimaced. “Jewel, the royal clown.”

  “But you were not serious with him either. Admit it!”

  “Easily. I’d thought—I’d hoped—he was serious with you.” She frowned in perplexity at me, but then her eyes narrowed. “And he was. Wasn’t he? I can see it. Something happened.”

  I shrugged. “Nothing but a wish for friendship.”

  “Friendship,” she repeated. “No. Don’t tell me if you would rather not. But friendship was what he offered me—and most of the people here in Carnison. He was more, oh, tender with you, especially the past week.”

  I could see the hurt behind her smile, and so I said, “He spoke in private, and so I kept our conversation private.”

  She moaned. “Oh, Flian! That’s what I was afraid of. Are you impossible to please?” She ran her hands over her face. “Or is there more political subtlety at stake than is obvious to the barefoot princess from Ralanor Veleth?”

  She did not look Maxl’s way, but I felt the intent of her question veer and aim straight for him.

  Golden light flickered along the steel of the letter opener as Maxl spun it into the air and caught it. He looked toward the fire and twin flames burned in his widened pupils.

  “Ersin was not any more attracted to me than he was to you. His heart lies elsewhere, but he did me the honor to be honest when he offered me a treaty marriage.”

  Jewel’s brow cleared. “Yendrian. I thought there was something there!” She sighed. “Oh, how romantic. And tragic, for Yendrian is an heir, and Ersin from another kingdom.”

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