The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

  I gasped. I had expected—braced myself for—anything but that.

  “It’s true I was angry,” Jason admitted. “But though I directed it at you, I was really angry with myself. I was experiencing, not for the first time, remorse. I think—” He frowned down at his hands. “I said it to drive you into petty action, so that you would conveniently fit my previous judgment. It would have made my life so much easier.” He grinned. “That is, assuming I survived any attempt by you to actually stab me.”

  “Because?” I already knew the answer, but I desired—oh, so intensely—to hear it. As intensely as I remembered all his words to me.

  “Because every moment I spent in your company I wanted to prolong, yet I knew you did not, could not, possibly reciprocate. It’s the real reason I took you over the border myself, instead of sending Markham and a few trusted men.”

  Jason smiled a little, clearly thinking back. “Those two days you slept so peacefully in the summer carriage, Markham kept asking me my real reason for such an act of madness. And when he finally guessed, he didn’t stint in outlining, with a wealth of detail, just how much I was going to regret what I’d done. That was before the ambush.”

  Ambush. He meant what I’d said to him just after. I’d discovered early on that he did indeed have emotions like anyone else. Now I had to face the fact that I’d hurt him. “I apologize for those hateful words. Even then I knew they were not true, though it took me a while to see it. Yes, now I see why you thought your courtship would be about as welcome to me as Garian’s knife-waving.”

  He opened his hands. “It had seemed such a good plan at first. Get you away from everyone else. Trim Garian’s claws and those of his kinsman as well. Then it would just be you and me, only where would I begin? I haven’t any skills at courtship. And so, once we got home, I left you up in that room while I tried to figure out what to say. Days slipped by as I wondered if I was less loathsome than Garian—or more. And all the while I was aware of that accursed entanglement with Eleandra to resolve.”

  I couldn’t help a laugh. “Was it easier courting Eleandra nine years ago?”

  A brief grin. “She did the talking for us both.”

  I laughed again, thinking of what she’d said about him.

  “At first you talked. Once about trust, and again about music. Every foolish subject, no matter how irrelevant, came alive when you talked to me. Then you stopped,” Jason went on. “You talked to me when we were in the mountains, but in my home, you didn’t. I had come back to the conviction that I was indeed more loathsome than Garian.”

  He hadn’t moved. The width of a woven rug separated us, he standing by the fire, me sitting on the couch with my wine-colored gown billowing all around me.

  “I never thought you worse than Garian. Ever. But…well, it was more convenient, if unfair, to think you a villain.”

  “I have regretted my actions, and my words, ever since you left us, there in Drath. And I apologize for them all.”

  “I said far more hateful things to you. Let’s say we’re quits with the insults.”

  He flashed up a hand, palm out, in the old gesture of truce. Then he gave me a considering look. “The worst one for me was when you maintained I could never understand your perspective, just when I was coming to realize that your perspective was so close to my own, or close to the perspective I was trying to achieve. You were already there, looking back at me from unassailable moral and ethical high ground, and it was so clear that I was, to you, on the lower side of a gulf impossible to bridge.”

  “I tried to think it, though I don’t think I really believed it.” My throat had gone dry. “That wasn’t clear vision, it was only pride.”

  Jason shook his head. “No, it was true enough, for there remains the matter of my actions, which had seemed so reasonable and rational, previous to my meeting you. But became less so the more I began to see them through your eyes.”

  “I never understood my own actions.” I tried to laugh.

  He smiled, and went on. “I thought I’d graveled it forever, but Markham was convinced otherwise. He said we are too alike, you and I. Not in upbringing, but here.” He touched his heart. “But he said that after I had promised never again to interfere with your life.”

  I began to see then how farsighted not just my brother had been, but Markham—and how much I owed them both.

  “The ride up the mountain to Garian’s.” He made a gesture. “I don’t even have the words, the idea was so new. Not just passion, which I had learned to distrust. But the meeting of minds.”

  “Of friendship,” I whispered. “It was like I’d known you and Markham my entire life. I think that’s why I almost fell off the horse, because I wanted that talk never to end.”

  “And so did I.”

  I drew in a long, unsteady breath, wondering why Jason stood there unmoving, his face so blank. But tired as I was, amazed as I was to hear what I had never permitted myself to hope, I began to think past myself, for I was learning that to make a relationship work one must think past the self.

  Jason’s regrets held him back. He would stand there and explain himself as long as I wished to listen, but he would make no move toward me at all.

  So the move must be mine.

  I set aside my cup. My heart was now beating fast, so fast I heard it in my ears, but it was only anticipation, for I knew that there would be no turning away, no cold looks of indifference or rejection.

  Jason had made all the verbal efforts to bridge that gulf between us. It was time for me to complete the bridge, and close the gulf that had left me so desolate.

  Two steps took me across that rug, and I held up my hands. He stepped into them, and then moved swiftly, pulling me against him. I turned my face up, and ah, how can one adequately describe the sweet and consuming fire of a first kiss?

  Chapter Thirty-Four

  The day after the ball, Jason and Maxl went riding together on a tour of the city.

  As if they splashed across a river, the widening ripples of Jason’s presence in Carnison spread outward and outward, until, by evening, everyone at court knew, for they all showed up for an otherwise undistinguished play that Maxl had said he would attend. Not only were the audience seats crowded, others gathered along the back walls. Jason sat on the other side of Maxl from me, impassive, dressed plainly as always. He was probably the only one who watched the stage, for Maxl and I were covertly enjoying Lygiera’s courtiers staring at Ralanor Veleth’s infamous wicked king.

  It had been Maxl’s idea, as a protection for me. A foreign ruler who arrived in great state had to have a state reason. Maxl had felt that if his surprise was to be a mistake and Jason rode right back home again, the inevitable gossip swirling behind him could be twisted to intimate a secret conference between kings, and not touch me at all.

  So directly after the play Jason moved into the royal guest suite upstairs, next to his sister—who had vanished earlier on a sudden visit to friends.

  The second night after the ball, Jason walked into the concert hall with Maxl. I was already there, so I saw all the faces following them, like so many flowers marking the course of the sun. I wondered if anyone listened to the music the children had practiced for so many weeks.

  I left first, as was customary. Whispers about Jason were inevitable, but as yet it had occurred to no one to include me with the speculation. I was far too unexciting.

  At the gathering in the grand parlor after the concert, when Jason left Maxl’s side and crossed the room to sit near me, they all watched as well.

  “Music,” he said, dropping down beside me on the windowsill. “Once you said it functioned as a symbol for the heart of a people, or something very like it.”

  “What did you hear in that concert?” I asked, smiling.

  “Court mask.” He smiled back. “Children well trained, and performed well. Afterward, all that flourishing with the strings, the five melodies tangled, that was flattery aimed at your company, unless I miss my gues
s.” He pointed with his chin over his shoulder.

  I tried to subdue a laugh. “You’re right.”

  “On the ride west. Before I met your brother. One of the old posting houses. I’d stopped early because of snowfall, and mindful of what you once said about music, I listened to the singing in the common room. Old ballads, mostly. Past glories of war, that’s what my people seem to hold in their hearts—” He stopped, making a slight grimace.

  He was too well trained to ever turn his back completely on a room, so it was I, and not he, who was taken by surprise when Gilian’s familiar voice gushed next to me, “Dear Flian! How very fine was the concert this evening, did you not think? Of course you have ever been a leader in that regard. Some even say that you play yourself. Why, you could start a new fashion! Except for us poor females who are cursed with hands too small to compass an entire chord.” She sent a fond smile down at her fingers at this mendacious self-criticism, and as Elta and two or three others crowded around, making noises of protest, Gilian looked expectantly up at Jason.

  “That’s a curse?” he asked, rising politely, because she was waiting for an answer. “You don’t consider it a blessing?”

  I winced, feeling the doubled edge of that thrust, but her flush was entirely triumph, judging from the way she preened. She sent a covert glance at me, her expression so easy to read: did I see how easily she’d won his attention? How much he admired her delicacy?

  She chattered on, keeping the conversation strictly on her hands—and how simply awful it was to be too dainty for so many robust activities—until she seemed to realize that though her faithful followers were responding to her hints for compliments, Jason hadn’t said anything more. He just stood there politely, hemmed in by Elta and two or three others.

  Maxl came to the rescue. “We’ve spiced punch over here, but it has to be drunk hot. Any takers?”

  Gilian’s eyes flickered between the two kings, her mouth a moue of triumph. Which would she pick? In her view of the world, she had only to choose.

  The familiar won over the exotic. She slid her hand possessively round Maxl’s arm, but cast a coyly apologetic look up at Jason, as if to console him for his loss.

  They moved away to the refreshments, which broke up the circle. Jason and I followed last; several people vied for Jason’s attention, asking questions about music, and Ralanor Veleth.

  I drank a glass of punch and excused myself. My early departure would go entirely unnoticed, so used everyone was to it. If any of the more astute courtiers marked the private signal between Jason and Maxl and myself for our subsequent meeting in the lair, they gave no sign.

  Gilian certainly did not see. The last thing I heard as the footman opened the door for me was her complacent voice, in a loud whisper to Elta and Harlis. “Did you hear his compliment about my hands? A blessing! How charming! Why is it that the men all notice them first thing? He’s no different from all the rest, despite that awful reputation…”

  Maxl and I strolled along his own balcony a few days later. The sun was warm as long as we stayed out of the shadows; new snowfall lay over the garden, a soft white blanket with blue shadows here and there indicating where summer’s favorite pathways lay.

  It was the first time we had been alone together since the masquerade ball.

  “You are, at last, happy,” he observed. “I have only to look at you, and see that it is so. Yet I want the pleasure of hearing you say it.”

  “I am happy.” Once again joy suffused me. “Though I have difficulty believing it is real, or understanding how it could come to pass. Our backgrounds being so vastly different, and our first meetings disastrous.”

  Maxl smiled.

  I said, “But you did not invite me to walk with you to hear me extol at length about my bliss.”

  Maxl glanced back along the great balcony. “I had an idea Jason’s presence might strike through court like a thunderbolt. What I did not expect was for each faction to attribute his presence to its own reasons.”

  “Ah.” Here at last, and it was inevitable, the personal crossed into the political. “His unusual appearance?”

  “His sudden appearance,” Maxl corrected. “I did not foresee that the Zarda faction would see his presence as an oblique threat.”

  “A threat to equal theirs to you?”

  “Greater. Zarda has been most assiduous during the past few days—even when it became apparent to him, if not to her, that his daughter was not going to net Ralanor Veleth’s crown.”

  “Interesting,” I said. “And, I hope, prospective good news.”

  “As good as I’ve had since I took the throne.” Maxl closed his eyes for a moment, face up, as if tasting a rare and exquisite wine. “Whatever transpires, I shall always cherish the memory of Gilian’s attempts to glamour Jason. His rocklike blindness has been…masterly.”

  I grinned. “Oh, but she will never see her efforts as a failed attempt. She sees what she wants to see. I will wager anything you wish that she believes he’s secretly attracted to her. And will continue to believe it, and talk about it, long after we’ve gone.”

  Maxl opened his eyes. “Only Gilian could think herself the superior choice to Eleandra of Dantherei. I don’t know how that gossip got started—that Jason had turned Eleandra down—but even that has redounded to our benefit.”

  I strongly suspect that Jewel had been behind that particular rumor, from her distant vantage, but I said nothing. Some sort of rumor had been inevitable. Eleandra was too famous for it not to have been noted, even if the motives behind her journey to Ralanor Veleth were completely misconstrued.

  Here was another discovery. I was used to going about unnoticed, protected by my reputation for being boring. But the safety of being unnoticed and uninteresting was lost as soon as someone interesting paid attention.

  Jason was interesting. Ralanor Veleth’s history of violence added to the reputation he’d made early in his rule. Most of the rumors about those early years were true, I discovered over our nights of private talk, though his motivations were completely misunderstood.

  “When you come from violent people,” Jason said to me one night, “you have to strike fast, and hard. Be relentless. Afterward compromise is perceived as mercy, and not as weakness. To begin with attempts to compromise is to be perceived as weak, and an open invitation to a lifetime of trouble.” He added somewhat wryly, “I told your brother this insight. Though I expect he’s already learned it.”

  Maxl brought my focus back to the present. “I really believe Zarda thinks that I can whistle up Jason’s army if I want to. He can’t see an alliance based on economic need. He sees everything in terms of power, or force.”

  “I hope you won’t disabuse him of it,” I said.

  “I’ve learned my lesson. I used to believe that if I tried to explain my own motives—proving that they were to everyone’s best interest—others would in turn give of their best. Not true. They translate it into their own terms and act accordingly.” Maxl grinned at me, a hard grin. “A sizable detachment of Jason’s most restless hotheads coming over here to participate in some sort of spring training exercise will underscore that impression. As well as be good for our militia in the long run, though I foresee some bruised pride as the immediate consequence.”

  “Jason’s people are good at all that.” I swung my arm in a block and riposte. “Though he maintains they aren’t the best, that their training is generations outmoded. He wants Jaim to go to some other country down south, where they have this war school, and bring back new ideas.”

  Maxl’s brows drew together. “Marloven Hess?”

  “That’s the one.” I added, seeing Maxl’s concern, “I know that place has a terrible reputation, but Jason says their present king is trying to make that country over into something that doesn’t need to look to war to exist. Readiness, defense, patrolling against pirates and the like, is how Jason explained it to me. He’s been writing letters for the past five or six years to other monarchs with pr
oblems like Ralanor Veleth’s.”

  Maxl thumped a fist on the rail. “I knew about the letters, from a brief reference.”

  “You have to ask. He doesn’t mind answering,” I said. “I have learned that it isn’t in his nature to offer information. He’s so used to action, and survival made him good at hiding reaction.”

  “Ah.” Maxl gave a nod. “In that sense all three of us are alike, are we not?”

  I smiled and shook my head. “I didn’t talk because I couldn’t trust words.”

  “You spoke in music. But only I listened. I guessed at the cause. And I must say I come quite well out of a gesture I had meant only for your good.”

  I said, greatly daring, “I know you did, and I can only wish you the equivalent of my own happiness.”

  Maxl’s smile disappeared. “I do not know if that’s possible. The two of you are much alike, and I can see that it’s a real match, not merely the heat of attraction. For me—” He shrugged.

  “For you what? Please don’t tell me you are going to have to marry Gilian.”

  Maxl grimaced in distaste. “No. Not that. I have come to see that this sacrifice, made for the best of motives, would have been the worst of mistakes, for she would never be my ally. A crown would mean she would exert herself to the utmost to rule through me. Every day a battle. What a life! And I came so close.”

  The coldness of fear trickled through my veins.

  “Why did you not speak?” I asked.

  Head bent, Maxl spoke to the snow. “Because I knew what you’d say, and I also knew you would not understand my reasons. But since that time I have come to see that my own reasoning was at fault.”

  Maxl sighed, and his breath froze and fell.

  “No. Gilian will never rule, and I might see a way to curtail her attempts to ruin Lygiera. Assuming that I am stuck with her presence at court for the rest of my life, as Papa was stuck with her father. How did she get that much influence over me, despite my straining against it?”

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