The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  Later, when we were alone at last in my nearly empty room, I told him what had happened.

  He listened closely, his face unreadable, and at the end he nodded. “I know how to deal with Garian,” was all he said, but it was enough.

  Chapter Thirty-Six

  We arrived in Lathandra at night, riding side by side at the head of a spectacular honor guard—most of whom had chosen to ride to the border and meet us. Had Garian wished to cause mischief, he would have found a war on his hands. I expect his own guard—and his hired swords—watched in silence from the heights, no doubt in relief that there had been no orders to waylay us along Treaty Road, for a good portion of Ralanor Veleth’s high-ranking regional commanders and their own guard had joined our party.

  Everyone was on horseback. The roads were still bad except along certain well-guarded military routes. I had left Carnison’s exquisite, perfumed palace and found myself surrounded by people in military dress, weapons polished, helms gleaming, chain mail jingling. But this was where I had chosen to be, and so I looked past the warlike image and contemplated the faces of the men and women who looked back at me.

  And what I saw was not the trained mask of empty politesse of home. I saw speculation, curiosity, cautious approval, sometimes wariness. The approval, I was glad to note, appeared most often.

  The night we arrived in Lathandra, we discovered the entire city turned out to stand in the snow, holding torches. Two thin rivers of fire led up the road to the castle, which was ablaze with light and streaming banners.

  “This is all for you.” Jason’s breath clouded in the frozen air.

  How long had those people stood in the snow? I met their gazes as we rode past, and I smiled and waved until my fingers were numb and my face ached. But I didn’t want to pass one of them without some kind of acknowledgement.

  Markham met us in the great courtyard. His face, in the torchlight, was as expressive as I had ever seen it. He bowed to me, actually smiling, and held out his hand as a gesture of welcome.

  Jason said, “Markham will take you inside. I’ll finish up here and be along.”

  I took Markham’s arm and we walked into the corridor so familiar from summer. How different were my emotions now! The residence wing was all lit and warm, with scented boughs put over doors.

  We walked in silence, but it was a companionable silence. I can’t say how or why I knew, for Markham was even less expressive than Jason, but I felt his approbation, and I wondered if he felt my trust.

  Markham led me down the main hall, past the stairs that would have taken me up to my old rooms next to Jewel’s. Instead, we walked to the end, and up a carved stairway that harked back hundreds of years. I had never known where Jason’s rooms lay; as we trod up the stairs I contemplated Eleandra walking where I had walked. Where was she now? Either in the arms of her cold-eyed Lord Galaki, or else courting some prince I had never met, her sojourn in Ralanor Veleth rapidly fading to mere bad memory.

  How strange life is, I thought as Markham opened two great carved doors onto a marble-floored vestibule. Two more grand doors awaited us. Markham opened one and bowed me inside.

  I walked into a huge sitting room, where all my things had already been set amid old rosewood furnishings. I turned around. Markham stood there, watching my reaction.

  “I take it this will be my room?” I gestured.

  “Queen’s private sitting room,” he said. And, “Welcome.”

  It was his tone that made me blush, for it conveyed more real greeting than any prepared speech might have.

  “I’m glad to be here.” Because it was Markham, I added, “It feels strange. But right.”

  He bowed again, a smile narrowing his deep-set eyes.

  I drew in a breath. “I have a question, but it does not concern the kingdom, or Jason, it concerns you. So if you don’t want to answer it, I won’t be insulted.”

  Markham gave me a thoughtful nod. “I believe I know your question. I also believe you would not want to hear the details,” he said after a long pause, during which his eyes had gone diffuse, as if he looked into a very dark past. “Suffice it to say that once, at a time when all the evidence was most damning, Jason Szinzar trusted my word. I lost everything I had once possessed, for that was justice. Any alternative would have destroyed the kingdom, in time. But I was left with my life, and more important, my honor. They belong to him. And now to you.”

  My palms were damp, my mouth dry. The quiet voice was exactly as emotionless as always, but I’d learned something about masks, and the cost of maintaining them.

  Do I thank him? No. “I understand.”

  “Yes. I thought you might,” was the response. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

  “I thank you, but if you’ve other things to see to, don’t think you need to stay with me. I’ll be happy to explore around these rooms. Get used to things. Until Jason is finished with his own tasks.”

  He bowed again and in silence withdrew, closing the door behind him. His past was his own to keep. But there was one gift I could give him, if he chose to accept it, and I would speak to Jason about it once I had settled in: I would invite Markham to bring his little boy to Lathandra, and I made a mental vow that the child would be treated exactly as any children Jason and I might have.

  That resolved, I looked about me once more, then walked the perimeter of the room, touching things. My porcelain statues of horses, inherited from my great-aunt. The portraits of Papa and Maxl and me as children, made once for my grandmother, and now mine. My crystal vases, which would be filled with flowers in spring. I came to the floor-to-ceiling window-doors, and opened one. Cold air blasted in, but I glanced out long enough to glimpse a terrace lined with pots awaiting plants once spring arrived. Beyond it was the garden, seen from a different perspective than the one from my old room.

  I closed the door and moved on. The sitting room opened onto a smaller sitting room, this one with desk and shelves already set with my books. Someone had worked very hard. Next over was a room with musical instruments. The harp I knew. Added to it was a fine lute that had to be recently made.

  Through that into a dressing room, which connected to a room with a sunken bath.

  One more door remained—but when I reached for it, the door opened and Berry stepped through. We both backed away in surprise. She pulled the door tight behind her and swept a deep curtsey.

  When she came up, she was so close to laughter I felt the urge to laugh as well. “You cannot go in, Princess Flian. They would be so disappointed if you did.”

  “They?”

  She waved a hand and then brushed it down her spotless apron. “The house. Jason’s own people. And now yours.” She did laugh then, that merry laugh that I had liked from the beginning. Unconsciously I had ceased to believe myself in danger when I heard that laugh, though it had taken a long time to acknowledge it.

  A moment later I heard Jason’s step behind me, coming in through the new music room. “Won’t let me into my own bedroom.” He gave me a humorous grimace.

  “You too? I was trying to nose about.”

  Berry curtseyed again—snorting on another laugh—and left.

  Jason said, “Markham, it seems, has taken everything in hand, leaving us little to do but wait for supper. They’re all gathering down in the great hall. Want some wine beforehand?”

  “Thank you.”

  He opened yet another door, this to his own private study, where he found the wine and glasses. We stood before the fire. Jason did not drink his, but held it in his hands as he looked at me.

  “Last chance,” he said, “to back out.”

  “I’ll not back out.” I set my glass down, took his and set it down. “Hold me. Better than wine.”

  His arms slid round me, and I nestled there, bathing my spirit in happiness, as my nerves sang with anticipation.

  “Is everything all right with the kingdom?” I asked, my voice muffled in his arm.

  “The kingdom is quiet.?
?? Jason’s smile I couldn’t see, but I could hear it in his chest. “A certain amount of speculation about the alliance with your brother, an unexpected benefit. No one fears his little army, but they do his mighty wealth, and his diplomatic reach. This alliance—the prospective trade route through Three Kingdoms to Lygiera’s northern harbor—might help revitalize the entire western region.”

  “And so the plan for the east is what?”

  “Soon’s spring thaw begins, I want everything and everyone in place to begin the diversion of the rivers. We’ll make the eastern plains into farmland again, though it might not be a success until we are old.”

  “I’ll wait.”

  “And you—you are to civilize us. They all look to you for that. I am very much afraid you have become a legend here.”

  “Impossible.” I laughed.

  He shook his head. “Truth. Honor and mercy—you saved my sister’s life, you saved mine. Justice with the knife when it was just.”

  “But—if that refers to my clumsy attempt to rid the world of Garian Herlester—I failed!”

  “You tried. The people are yours. I am yours.”

  He kissed me. And again.

  What more is there to say? The great hall was then as it is now, hung with banners testifying to past glories. I think not of the anguish and bloodshed of those glories, for I’m happy enough that there is no war now.

  Before all his regional commanders we spoke the marriage vows. There was no coronation, no layers of social artfulness, as my brother would say, to transform me into a queen. That was done by Jason himself, his words and his tone, as he performed his part of the ritual. I had first become his beloved. Now, before his people, he made me his partner.

  In this kingdom one had to prove one had the strength to hold what one promised to keep. Now there were two of us, each with different strengths.

  Afterward we retired, for it had been a very long day and the night was ours. I stopped in my new dressing room to divest myself of my traveling clothes and was in the midst of taking down my hair when I heard a laugh.

  Jason very seldom laughed out loud, so I had to know what was the cause.

  I flung on my wrapper, with my hair half-pinned up, and opened that last door, to see a large room with walnut furnishings. Jason sat on the edge of the bed, still in his riding clothes. He was laughing, though silently now, as he hooked his thumb over his shoulder at the bed.

  I looked past him and discovered the sheets strewn with roses. Roses! In winter! All the thorns carefully removed, the flowers perfuming the air.

  “Someone has been nursing these in some hothouse for months. Are we that predictable?” He held out his arms.

  I walked into them.

  And so, time swiftly passed. Good days and difficult days.

  Never between us. I have had no moment of regret for my choice. It was my sustained happiness that inspired me to write this record, my children, when you were born.

  Liara Viana, our blue-eyed, black-haired sprite! And Jaimas Maxl, our blond-haired dreamer of a son! Some day one or both of you will wish to know the inner reasons for our being here as well as the outer, and so this record is for you.

  There is so little to add! Markham did indeed bring his little son Lexan to live with us, and just as we promised, he has become a much-loved brother to my own children.

  But before that—just before my first child’s birth—Jewel returned, angry and passionate, storming tears and cursing Jason and even Jaim, who had returned from his sojourn abroad.

  It seemed she had fought with Maxl again—and had run away.

  A week of talking later, and she disappeared as suddenly as she had come.

  My next communication was a long letter from my brother, ending with the announcement of their forthcoming wedding. It was a spectacular wedding, one that will probably be remembered for several generations. Even Tamara broke her rule of isolation and attended, along with royal representatives from all the surrounding kingdoms.

  Jewel has been back twice since, both times angry and teary; we talk, and she calms down, and then returns to Carnison, and to Maxl’s arms. It seems that Maxl’s wish to never be bored has come true.

  So how can I finish? I guess what I want to say is that there are many roads to happiness, and that happiness does not depend on power, but occurs in spite of it. And that we who are growing toward middle age were once young and passionate, and uncertain, and determined. One day you will be taking the reins of government, and you will at the same time probably be trying to fashion yourself a life with love, and though I hope I am there to see it, in case I am not—power also means great uncertainty—I share my heart with you here.

  About the Author

  To learn more about Sherwood Smith, please visit http://www.sherwoodsmith.net. Send an email to Sherwood at [email protected] or join her LiveJournal Community Athanarel http://community.livejournal.com/athanarel/profile to join in the fun with other readers.

  She doesn’t know who she is or where she came from. But she knows she’s in love with the man who found her.

  The Wolverine and the Jewel

  © 2007 Rebecca Goings

  From the moment the Wolverine knight, Sebastian, finds the unconscious, badly beaten woman he nicknames “Jewel”, all he wants to do is protect her—no matter the cost.

  Jewel wakes with no memory of who she is. The only clue to her identity is a lavender-colored jewel around her neck—a jewel which the dragon, Mynos, recognizes as the talisman made by his long-dead mate. Through the jewel’s magic, they discover that the man who attacked Jewel is none other than her fiancé, Lord Merric.

  Violent and ambitious, Merric was enraged when Jewel mysteriously vanished on the eve of their arranged marriage. Now, he’ll do anything to force her to return. Even dark magic—or murder.

  Book II of the Legends of Mynos series

  Enjoy the following excerpt for The Wolverine and the Jewel:

  Sebastian was late. He couldn’t believe how hard it was to get out of the courtyard within an hour. Men seemed to come from everywhere needing his opinion, his instruction, his signature… By the time he was able to break away, he kicked Blaze into a gallop, sure Jewel would no longer be waiting. The powerful stallion galloped through the main gates of the castle as if the devil himself were on his tail.

  Still in a state of shock, Sebastian was unable to remember much of the morning after Jewel had come to him. A woman had never talked so brazenly to him. And it wasn’t just any woman—it was Jewel, the woman who plagued his dreams at night. He would move heaven and earth if she only asked.

  After riding his horse like a madman, he forced the animal to a slower gait, weaving through the trees on the path to the pond. He wanted to call out Jewel’s name just to make sure she answered him. She might no longer be there.

  But as he broke through the trees, he saw her, totally oblivious to him, swimming lazily through the water. His eyes widened at her gown draped across the boulder and once again his mouth hung open. Her bare shoulders peeked out of the water with each stroke she took, and he dared not look away as he quietly dismounted.

  She was a nymph, a water sprite, unaware of her unearthly beauty.

  For several long moments, Sebastian merely watched her on the shore until his horse snorted, getting her attention. Jewel spotted him and gave a startled cry.

  Relief poured through her at that moment. She was beginning to believe he wouldn’t come, that she’d made herself a fool by kissing him in front of the entire Wolverine Order.

  The pond wasn’t so deep that she couldn’t stand on the bottom, so she planted her feet and crossed her bare arms in front of her in a pose of mock anger.

  “You’re late.”

  “I’m sorry,” he answered. “I sometimes wonder how the castle manages to continue standing. I tried like hell to get here as fast as I could.”

  After a few silent moments of staring at each other, Jewel said, “Come here, Bastian.”

 
; “In the water?”

  She nodded, looking at him through wet eyelashes.

  “But I’ve still got my clothes on,” he protested.

  She gestured to the boulder. “Put them next to mine.” He was blushing. She smiled.

  “Shouldn’t we talk first?” he asked.

  “About?”

  “About who—or what—may be waiting for you.”

  “I’m not married, Bastian, I am sure of that. If I have a suitor, what makes you any different than him?”

  Sebastian didn’t answer. She knew it was his fear of the unknown holding him back.

  “Come here.” She beckoned again.

  “But…”

  “Bastian, if you don’t come here right now, I’m going to come get you, and your clothing will be hopelessly soaked.”

  He didn’t move at first. Jewel heaved a sigh and began to walk forward.

  “Wait!” he snapped. With quick jerky movements, he unstrapped his sword from his waist and laid it against the boulder. He leaned against the rock to remove his boots.

  Jewel watched him as he yanked his shirt from his breeches, lifting it effortlessly over his head. My God, she thought. He was breathtaking. She had wondered what he would look like bare-chested. What she saw amazed her. Dark hair covered his chest and made its way down his flat belly. His muscles bunched and played underneath his skin and she yearned to put her hands on them. He was perfection personified. She would never tire of looking at him. When he finally took off his breeches, Jewel turned the other way when she heard them fall to the ground.

  “Now you’re shy?” he teased before jumping into the water, making a large splash. He was completely underneath the surface and Jewel couldn’t find him. Something brushed her leg and she cried out in both fright and glee. She realized Sebastian’s hands were on her calves.

  As they worked their way up, so did his mouth, kissing her bare belly below the water line. It tickled and she tried to pull away, but his strong hands stopped her.

 
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