The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith

  I said, “Fear. And her conviction she’s the center of the world. People went along because it was easier, but I don’t think anyone believes her. I don’t think even Elta believes her, but Elta is desperate to marry, and she’s courting Gilian’s brother through sister and father.”

  “Zarda will never let his son marry Elta. I realized when I was about twenty that he can’t stand the sight of her, but he tolerates her because she pays for Gilian’s good will.”

  It was the first time he had talked so straightly to me.

  So I said, “What about Jewel?”

  Maxl turned away, but not in anger. He kicked at snow piled between the carved supports of the stone rail, and shook his head. “She’s good-hearted, but as volatile as fire. She never bores me, ever. And every time I look at her I want to lock us up together for a week.” He grinned, and I was grinning as well. “Yes, you know that spark. What is it between the Elandersi family and the Szinzars? But—well, try to imagine you had the spark for Jaim.”

  “But I could never—” I stopped as my perspective shifted. “Oh. I see what you mean.”

  “Good-hearted, volatile, and not the least given to a single love for a lifetime, that sums up them both, does it not? Yet I—like you, and Jason, apparently—we seem to be impervious to everyone but one.”

  “But Jaim is loyal in his own way to Vrozta. I think, as much as one can predict, that he will always come back to her. She’s first in his heart.”

  Maxl nodded. “I could live with that if I was first to Jewel, and not my crown, because then she might take on the occasional flirt, but they would not be forced on me as favorites, which would create endless political strife. But I am not sure. And I don’t think she’s sure.”

  Suddenly Jewel’s own comments came into perspective.

  “No,” I said. “She’s not, and she hates herself for it.”

  Maxl looked pained. “You see my dilemma. It’s too much akin to what Papa went through with Mama, and I won’t deliberately put myself into that kind of nightmare.”

  “But unlike Mama seems to have been, Jewel is honest. And you yourself said it has been a mistake not to talk. Jewel likes to talk things out. Her silence of late, I suspect, is not just because she’s waiting—hoping—that I send Jason back home, but because she’s trying to very hard to live by what she thinks are your own rules. And mine.”

  Maxl pursed his lips. “You think so?”

  “I’m sure of it. She does have a very strong sense of honor. And she understands the workings of a court.”

  “Understands?” Maxl laughed softly, making a cloud of white crystals. “More than I can say for myself at times. I comprehend the blend of tradition and habit that makes kingship work. How court serves the double purpose of keeping those who serve as my eyes and ears bound here so that I can watch them—and they can watch me—and also serves to transform ordinary humans into mythic figures. A yellow-haired fellow of medium height and no particular brains or ability could come to a conflict and hand out orders, and both sides would turn on him. But I come—not Maxl, but King Maxl Elandersi—and I hand out orders, and everyone scrambles to obey. It is the gilded custom of court that imbues me with that power. Me, a mythic figure.”

  His brown eyes were quirked in irony.

  “You’re a good ruler,” I said.

  “No. I am trying to be a good ruler. Maybe I will become one—if I survive the learning process. The first lesson has been the hardest, to compromise my own standards. I had believed until very recently that if I had to be first in the kingdom, then I must be first in virtue, in wisdom and in brains. The first I can manage, but the rest?” He shrugged.

  “But you’ve picked good help.”

  “Yes. And I have to learn how to deal with the ones who aren’t good, the ones I have inherited. Because maybe they are good from someone else’s perspective. That at best is the balance of power, when you strip out personality. But we can’t strip out personality, can we?”

  “No,” I said. “So you talk to your allies.”

  “And know how far you can trust them, Jason told me.” Maxl flicked out a hand and dashed more snow from the railing. “His advice has been an enormous help.”

  We watched it fall into the garden below. I thought about this conversation with my brother, the first time he had been so straightforward. It couldn’t be because I would be leaving soon.

  No, it was because I would soon be a queen. A king talking to a queen, brother and sister; once again we were completely equals, and could share one another’s burdens. When I had come home so unhappy after Papa’s death, he had done his best to hide his burdens from me, and to resolve mine. The actions of a king.

  “I wish I could find out how Jason managed to make Markham Glenereth into a liegeman,” Maxl mused after a short pause. “I expect it might shed some insight. But he doesn’t talk about it.”

  “I asked him last night what is Markham’s story, and he told me that that rightly belongs to Markham. All I know is that he has a young child, a son, stashed somewhere. He’s polite and loyal, but so very intimidating!”

  Maxl grinned. “He is, isn’t he? Jason said he’d send him as his commander this spring, and I very much look forward to watching Zarda attempt to intimidate Markham.” He whistled softly, his breath clouding. “The little I know is that Glenereth was the biggest holding on their eastern border, and I only know that from old records. Same as I found out from reading some of Father’s early dispatches that Glenereth was the leader of the faction out to destroy the Szinzars—but this was some years ago, and the mention was of a female. Nothing since. Whatever Jason did when he took over isn’t in any records that I’ve seen.”

  A distant bell chimed. Maxl smacked more snow off the railing. “Curse it! Already our time is lost.”

  Jason came through the parlor door just then. He sent an inquiring look from Maxl to me, and my brother said, “It’s time to plan the engagement.” He whirled a forefinger in imitation of dueling, making of the word engagement a pun.

  Jason smiled. “Gesture of solidarity?”

  “Precisely.” Maxl rubbed his hands. “We can make the official announcement at Interview tomorrow. Be prepared for the resultant storm. And related to that, which do you prefer, a big, elaborate betrothal, or a big, elaborate wedding?”

  Jason looked to me, and I spread my hands. Jason said, “My preference would be to marry at home.”

  “I like that idea,” I said.

  Jason’s eyes showed his reaction, not that there was much of one, but I was beginning to be able to read him. His pleasure suffused me in turn with my own pleasure—much more than the prospect of Maxl’s big, elaborate affair.

  “Betrothal it is.” Maxl pointed the Royal Finger.

  “I have only one request,” Jason murmured.

  “Which is?” I asked.

  “That you invite Garian Herlester.”

  Maxl grinned. The two exchanged a look I could not interpret, unless it was to define it as anticipation and comprehension, but even that doesn’t quite encompass it. Something male? Probably.

  “Wouldn’t think of leaving him out.” Maxl smacked his hands together again and rubbed them even more vigorously. “Leave it all to me.”

  Chapter Thirty-Five

  Meanwhile, Jewel was still gone.

  She had been, it seemed, invited to visit the ancestral home of Riana Dascalon.

  I found it interesting that Jewel had formed friendships with Lygierans who had no connection with me. I wanted it to mean that she was going to become Maxl’s queen, but I knew—even in the midst of my own happiness—that real life seldom works out so neatly.

  It troubled me most that she had gone with no word to me.

  But the word did get to her, as was inevitable, after the shock of the announcement of Jason’s and my betrothal.

  What’s to say about the announcement? Courtiers are courtiers. Maxl made the announcement at morning court. The congratulations were all ful
some, some heartfelt and others false; quite suddenly I stepped from the background into the foreground, and many did not know what to make of it. By this prospective alliance, Jason’s interesting aura now extended outside me. I found myself the recipient of more speculative glances than I’d had in all my life, for Jason had made it plain to the more discerning that it was no mere match of political expedience. Not that he said anything, or behaved with courtly effusion, for that was not his way, and he seemed to be incapable of false fronts. From that day on, whenever there was dancing he simply refused to dance with anyone but me.

  The days passed quickly. My time was divided between the courtly rounds and with choosing or discarding the accumulations of my life so far, and packing for the move east, a task that gave me pleasure. I offered Debrec the choice of going to Ralanor Veleth or a pension, and I was not surprised when she accepted the second choice. Having overseen the last of my things on their journey east, she bade me fare well, and we parted.

  Bringing me to the day of the betrothal celebration. With it arrived Jewel. Though the winter weather was grim, freezing and gray, the aristocratic houses all down the royal way shone lights, and so too did the guest wings of the palace.

  I was thinking about Jewel and her long absence as the last touches were put to my gown and hair, when I heard her familiar tap at the door.

  “Come in!” I cried, rising.

  It was indeed Jewel. She sailed in, resplendent in blue and white and silver. She paused and looked around, her expression perplexed. The oldest pieces of furniture would stay, but the last of my things had been packed up and sent, for we would depart in the morning.

  “It is so empty here.” She rubbed her hands up her arms. “I-I know this will seem very odd, but this is the most convincing evidence that you truly mean to leave Lygiera. By your own choice.”

  “An act of madness?” I laughed and embraced her.

  She flung her arms round me and hugged me, hard, then she stepped back. “Oh, Flian. I have felt so terrible.”

  “Not on my account, I hope.”

  “Yours and Maxl’s, but mostly my own.” She grinned wryly, then looked around again, as though seeking someone.

  “We are alone. You may speak freely.”

  Tears gleamed in her eyes. “I had to go away. You see that, don’t you? Maxl came to me that morning after the ball when Jason first arrived, and said that I was to make a pretense of welcome, or withdraw.”

  “Ah.” I gave her a hug of sympathy.

  She nodded, one side of her mouth lilting up in a very lopsided smile. “Oh, did we quarrel. It was a merry brangle, quite long and loud and awful, but he wouldn’t budge.”

  “It had become a state question. That’s the way our lives are defined.”

  “I know that.” She shrugged sharply. “He told me that he had the good of the kingdom, and your happiness, as his priorities, and he stuck steadily to that position while I raged and stormed and stamped and declared that no one could possibly love Jason—that it was only a momentary madness on your part, and your inexperience had dazzled you but it wouldn’t last out a week, that Jason only courted you—if he did—to make inroads into Lygiera, that—oh, who cares?” She gulped and drew a shaky breath.

  “You don’t have to tell me.”

  “But I do, because you’ll soon be gone.” Her face contracted, and tears spilled over. “Gone! And I wasted what could have been our last weeks together in brooding far away.”

  “Because you wish to stay here, do you not?”

  Again a gulp. “Yes.”

  “And so you should,” I stated.

  She sighed. “I will, but first I had to think. I see now that my position was really this. I wanted Maxl to make me, and my feelings, his first priority. And he can’t. He never can. Ever.”

  Again I embraced her.

  She trembled in my arms, and then whirled free of my grip, and dashed her fingers across her eyes. “That’s the true meaning of monarchy, isn’t it? The kingdom must come first. Why didn’t I see it in Tamara, who is supposedly so powerful?”

  “And so?”

  “And so, if I want to win him, then I must make Lygiera my first priority, instead of merely loving it because it is not boring, gloomy, dreadful Lathandra!” She smiled, and straightened up. “So I will smile, including at Jason—though I shall wish forever that you had fallen in love with Jaim. But.” Her brows drew down. “If I ever find out that Jason has been cruel to you, I will come and kill him. I swear it.”

  I said, trying not to laugh, “If I thought such a vow needed, I would not be going away, Jewel.”

  She shook her head. “I don’t believe it. But no matter.” She smiled through the last of her tears. “I want you to prove me wrong.”

  And so she joined the three of us in the throne room for the troth ritual, which defined the treaty that our marriage would sanction. I scarcely remember what words I said or heard. That part of my mind stays numb. What I do remember is the expressions on their faces: Maxl’s pride, the light reflecting steadily in his eyes; Jewel’s passion, making her more beautiful than ever, and Maxl’s gaze straying her way; Jason’s steady regard, and the warmth of his hand clasping mine.

  Then my mind is a blur of candlelight, of brilliant reflections off crystal and silver, of the smells of hothouse blossoms and the fresh sprays of greenery. We were dancing alone, watched by uncountable eyes. I could not imagine what went on behind those courtier gazes. Even Gilian Zarda was coy but cooperative, her false joy expressed in dimpled smiles divided equally between Jason and me. An effort in friendliness due to the reputation of Ralanor Veleth, to the fact that I was going to be a queen, and to her hopes, not the least relinquished, of Maxl.

  But I did not speak to her, for I no longer had to pretend even a social regard. By the end of another day I would be gone, and we would dwindle to unloved memory in each other’s mind.

  What I do remember, with the distinct recall impelled by intense emotional response, was my first glimpse of Garian Herlester. For he was there, having arrived that day. Dressed splendidly in his house colors of violet and gold, he looked exactly as he always had: sardonic, laughing, and a little angry.

  The second dance was the signal for everyone to join, Maxl leading it with me.

  When it ended, and Maxl led me back to the thrones, Garian appeared at my side. He held out his arm, a gesture of grace and imperiousness that made me take a step back.

  But Maxl bowed and relinquished my hand. Jason’s smile was amused, betraying no alarm whatsoever. It was my choice, but I suspected that he wanted me to dance with Garian, and to listen to whatever he might inadvertently reveal.

  “Come, Cousin.” Garian slid his arm around me. The dance—I realized too late—was a waltz. Garian’s hazel eyes glittered in the blazing candlelight. He had been drinking. I could smell it.

  My heart slammed, and I felt sick. Maxl had vanished among the swirling, flashing velvets and gems. He danced with a foreign diplomat and did not glance once our way—but he was near, as was Jason.

  Three steps, four. I felt Garian’s breath stir the top of my hair, and dropped my chin down to diminish the sense of proximity.

  He said, “Tonight you are as beautiful as Eleandra, and you always were more interesting. I wish I’d realized that sooner.”


  Of course he’d intended to take me by surprise. I looked up into that mocking, passionate jade-colored gaze, the edgy smile that presaged cruelty as easily as it did humor.

  He steered us expertly between two couples. “Meaning I would be marrying you instead.”

  “Never,” I said. “Never.”

  He laughed, a soft laugh, and tightened his grip.

  I stiffened, seized with the longing to rip free of his grasp, but I knew that it would cause untold political consequences—even if I could actually get free.

  “On the other hand, since I intend to destroy Jason Szinzar, doing it through you has a certain appeal of co
mpleteness. But you might not survive it. We shall see.”

  I took a deep breath. “If,” I stated, “you are going to spend the entire dance gabbling threats like a fool, I’ll thank you to let me free, because I don’t want to hear it.”

  “You will stay with me until the music ends,” he retorted. “But pull your jaw in. I have spoken my warning.”

  Another glance. He smiled down at me, a strange smile that went beyond anger or revenge or pettiness or cruelty.

  He said more softly, “You do not feel it, do you?”

  “Feel what?” Though I knew, because his grip, his breathing, the rapid beating of his heart through his velvet and linen and my pearl-encrusted satin bodice all buffeted me with his desire.

  “Amazing.” He frowned, for a moment more puzzled than angry. “I can have any woman I want—half of them will be chasing me before evening’s end—except you. Is that, and that only, the lure? Or is it that innate sense of honor, even in the face of the worst intimidation, that doesn’t exist for the rest of us? The attraction of opposites?”

  I almost said, Except Jason has the same sense of honor, but I knew better than to say anything about Jason at all that could be used against him.

  So I returned a blank face.

  “So why Jason?”

  Possible answers whirled through my mind as we whirled across the ballroom floor, ending with the conviction that I did not owe him the truth, for it would be twisted to his own ends, and that, joined with his careless cruelty, was why I could never have loved him.

  “I am marrying Jason for his taste in clothes,” I said loftily.

  Garian laughed, sparking speculative glances from the couples near us. And as the music was ending, he brought us in a series of tight whirls to the edge of the ballroom, where I discovered with profound relief Jason stood.

  With a gesture of deliberate grace Garian placed my hand on Jason’s, bowed to me and vanished in the crowd.

  Jason led me out onto the floor. “He threatened me,” I began.

  “Too many ears now.” Once again we danced.

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