The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  Stiff from the long ride and the labor after many days of forced inactivity, I chose the ale, hoping it would help me sleep. Once I had my plate I discovered there was no table set aside for servants. They sat wherever they might around the kitchen, staying well away from the place where the cook and his two helpers worked.

  I spotted a stool by the roasting-fire. No one else seemed to want it, so I sat down there.

  A dark-eyed young woman said scornfully, “What are you? Lady’s maid come down in the world?”

  “What?” I looked around—to discover everyone eying me.

  For answer she got to her feet and minced over to the ale pitcher. She poured out a fresh cup, her movements so finicky, her nose so high, that several in the room laughed. “Swank,” she said over her shoulder.

  My face and ears went hot. “Way I was trained.”

  A man snapped his fingers. “Dancer. Right?”

  I nodded, relieved. And it was true enough: though I wasn’t a professional dancer, I’d been tutored by one ever since I was small.

  “I knew it.”

  The dark-eyed maid shrugged, looking a lot less confrontational. “I heard dancing is a hard life, unless you get some patron or a permanent placing.”

  “Or unless you can act as well. Or sing,” said an older woman dressed in faded livery.

  “I can’t sing,” I said. “But I’ve played the lute all my life. And the harp. Um, as well as dancing.”

  “Dancing has to be a better life than a mistress who’s too fond of the stick,” someone else spoke up, causing nods and mutters of “That’s right.” “She beats you, that black-haired weaver’s wench?” He touched his eye.

  Jewel was right. They do notice things.

  “It wasn’t she.” I wildly considered different explanations, for we’d forgotten to account for my fading black eye.

  But it was clear no one had any real interest. An old man cackled. “My auntie said, if they hit you, hit ’em back. You’re like to either be turned off or else you’ll teach ’em some manners. Her lady came to be known as the mildest in two provinces, after auntie was through with her.”

  They all found that funny. I smiled, sipping my ale.

  “All those weavers, they think they’re royalty,” the older woman grumped.

  “Silk-makers are the worst.” Another woman waved a dismissive hand.

  The old man grunted. “All of ’em the same. No more idea about how food gets onto their plate, and the costs during famine or fine weather, than a lord. Of course they get paid by the piece, come bad times or good.”

  “That’s true enough,” the cook spoke up, jabbing the air with his carving knife.

  Several agreed, and I suspected I could name who had come from farm folk and who hadn’t.

  Hoping to steer the gossip, I said, “There’s some I’d never hit back. Leastways successfully.” My heart slammed; would that raise suspicion?

  No suspicion, but general interest.

  “Talking of your weaver?”

  “No, but a cousin of mine was up in Drath, at G—the prince’s castle.”

  The old man whistled. “Now, he’s a bad one, and no mistake.”

  “Pays well,” said the dark-eyed young woman. “But you have to have a laced lip—you don’t dare make a peep. My sister knows the cook’s girl. She can afford to dress like a countess, but she daren’t say a single word, lest the prince find out she was talking, my sister says. Servants who blab have a way of vanishing.”

  The other young woman stretched, then flipped back her red braid. “No thanks. Me, I’d rather take my mistress’s old gowns, and listen to her chatter about her little dogs, and have my fun at festival time, with no shadow of a stick over my back. Or worse,” she added, with a gesture toward the one with the dark eyes. “People who vanish don’t turn up again, not if the likes of the Prince of Drath makes ’em vanish.”

  Several murmured agreement, and that ended the subject.

  When I was done eating, most of them had left. I went up to Jewel’s room and found her yawning. “Oh, good. It’s so boring, sitting here! But the parlor is all men, except for those two old women, and all they talked about was their children. So I came away. How did you do?”

  “Fine. Except for being accused of swanking.” I demonstrated. “Do I really move like that?”

  “No. I told you before, you move like a princess—like a toff.” She pursed her lips, considering. “It’s probably invisible to you, all those stylized gestures, the gliding walk, where you stand in relation to other people. You expect them to give you space. You’ve been trained to use fine posture and to move like a princess ought at all times, ever since you were little. It stands out, here.”

  I frowned. “I hadn’t been aware.”

  She grinned. “I wasn’t either, until I joined Jaim’s gang. But your training far surpasses mine. Besides you really do move well, when one actually watches you.”

  I shook my head. “That is so strange to hear.”

  “Why?” Jewel put her chin on her hands, her eyes narrowed in a way that brought her brothers unexpectedly to mind. “I know. You’re a watcher. Not a doer. Is that it?”

  “I’m not used to it. I’ve come to see myself more like, oh, a piece of furniture. Proper, in its place, but silent. Noticed when someone wants it.”

  Jewel snorted. “I think court is going to be ver-ry interesting. So. Did you hear anything of use?”

  “Garian’s servants don’t talk, according to the gossip. People are afraid of him.”

  Jewel fluttered her hands. “I am not surprised.”

  I looked at her tray of dirty dishes, and sighed. “I guess I’d better take that back down again.”

  “At least you don’t have to sleep on the floor, or up in the attic.” Jewel gave me a grin of sympathy.

  We climbed into the bed, which was a lumpy hay-stuffed mattress, but there was plenty of room for two. Jewel blew out the candle with an exasperated whoosh.

  “Something wrong?” I asked, trying to find a position that would ease my stiff back.

  “I started wondering. My situation is going to—well. You know, my brothers are, um. Well, one really is a villain, and the other one, it seems has, ah, had a disagreement or two with your family.” She coughed, and I looked away, trying hard not to laugh. But the urge vanished when she asked wistfully, “Will that make me not welcome?”

  “I’ll tell Maxl that you escaped too. And if need be, we can always make up some mysterious foreign alias.”

  “An alias! That sounds romantic.” Her voice dropped back into seriousness. “But what if your father doesn’t like me?”

  “Oh, he will. You’ve only to behave with good manners, and he’ll treat you the same. He’s good and kind, and has always been very wise about trade and treaties, but in recent years he’s become, um, somewhat unworldly. It’s Maxl who is slowly beginning to rule, though Papa reigns.”

  “What if Maxl doesn’t like me?”

  “He likes everyone. My brother is known for his good nature.”

  “Is he courting anyone?”

  “No. Not really. He gets courted, especially by that horrible—” I thought of Gilian Zarda, shuddered, made an effort to dismiss her from my mind.

  “Horrible?”

  “Just a court predator,” I said firmly. Then smiled at the image of Gilian, who worked so hard at her dainty and sweet image, hearing herself likened to a predator. “My brother hasn’t been romantic with anyone since he made his trip to Dantherei when he came of age, and he fell instantly in love with the crown princess, Eleandra-Natalia ru Fidalia. It’s the only silly thing he’s ever done, but he hasn’t swerved from his devotion. I guess he’s like father in that way. And since the kingdoms have to remain friendly, she’s been officially considering his suit for four years. I think it all pretense—though I don’t know her and haven’t been there.”

  “Eleandra-Natalia,” Jewel repeated. “Where have I heard her name before? I mean, beside
s her being Crown Princess of Dantherei and apparently the most beautiful female ever to walk in the world. I am certain I’ve heard her name in the context of some import, but what? Well, no doubt I’ll remember it some day, when it’s least needed.” She yawned again.

  We went to sleep.

  Chapter Seven

  Next morning we rose early, and again I had to toil up and down the stairs to get breakfast. After that I got Bard saddled and bridled. By the time I was done I was warm, and all the stiffness had worked out of my muscles.

  Then I hefted up our bags and trailed behind Jewel, mindful of my walk. What was considered “swank”? Not since my first experiences with the girls of court, and Gilian Zarda’s sweet-toned nastiness, had I been so self-conscious. As I slouched behind Jewel, hiding my face behind our armload of gear, I recognized that I’d tried to become invisible as a kind of defense since those painful early days.

  In any case Jewel was determined to draw attention from me. She sashayed out to the stable, her nose up, her hips rolling so that her skirts belled from side to side. She exhibited enough airs and graces for a dowager duchess at a grand ball—a duchess with a splendid figure. The male stablehands never gave me a second glance.

  We mounted Bard and rode out at our sedate pace.

  And the next few days passed in much the same manner. The weather was so warm and sunny we put on bonnets to keep the sun from our eyes, me wearing the worn, limp one with the faded ties. We crossed westward over farmland, past meandering rivers and rice beds, and through villages and small towns, avoiding the larger ones, where hostelries tend to be more expensive. As I learned my role, I thought of my own maid, Debrec. A woman in her forties or fifties, she was quiet, mild of voice and meticulous in her work.

  Did she like her work? She had not liked the prospect of going to Drath. She hadn’t complained, but I’d been aware of it. And had paid no attention, any more than the people I dealt with during Jewel’s and my journey across Lygiera paid to me.

  From the alacrity with which Debrec had accepted Garian’s invitation to go back to Carnison without me, I had discovered her dislike of Drath was more like hatred. Garian had met my brother’s honor guard at the border and had insisted on his own escort, and his own servants. It had seemed more diplomatic to concur, especially with my maid so unwilling to go on. On our arrival, while he was still acting the courting swain, he’d assigned Netta as my maid. She had been kind, efficient and untalkative.

  What did those women think? I had never thought to ask Netta, and I don’t know that she would have answered, but I resolved to talk to Debrec on my return home.

  Which was accomplished without any trouble. We had to wait out one day in a remote inn, while rain swept through. We spent it sitting by a cozy fire. I described all the prominent figures of court. Jewel listened with close attention, sometimes asking questions that I answered guardedly. I remembered how awful Garian’s slanders made me feel. I tried hard to be fair to Spaquel, and I avoided naming any more of the people I liked least.

  We ran out of coins on the last day, and so we arrived in Carnison’s outskirts late after sunset, our insides gnawing with hunger, and poor Bard’s head drooping. I was still wearing that limp bonnet, cast aside by some town girl and snatched on a raid by one of Jaim’s fast-riding outlaw women.

  As we wearily closed the last distance, I compared my journey home with the journey outward. I had never seen any of the towns or villages through which my closed carriage had dashed. I’d only seen some of the countryside, and then the well-ordered courtyards of royal posting houses. Servants had all deferred, smiling, where I walked; when I sat down, food appeared instantly, and the beds were down-stuffed, aired and fresh. I never had to carry anything more cumbersome than my fan.

  The city streets were busy with traders, sellers, loiterers, running children who’d been freed from the day’s labors, and savory smells drifted from every inn, hostelry, bakery. We passed a couple of the bake-shops that Maxl and I had explored when we were small and had ventured out into the city on our own. Time and duty had confined Maxl, and when he’d stopped the forays I had as well. My regret for those thoughtless, fun-filled days vanished when at last I spotted the towers of the palace.

  We rode up the royal avenue of tall cedars, Jewel stiff and straight-backed, her breathing audible. I pulled off the bonnet and shook my hair down. I was Princess Flian, and I was home.

  The familiar chords of the sunset bells echoed up the walls when we reached the stables. The stablehands stared at us in surprise and perplexity, some of them in the act of lighting the night-lamps.

  “Yes, it is I, Flian. Take care of Bard, please,” I added to the stable master, who bowed. “He’s been a wonder.” And, lest gossip race ahead and alarm Father, I said loudly to Jewel, “And so we win our wager, do we not?”

  Her thin arched brows rose, but she said in an equally modulated voice, “Yes! We won our wager!”

  I could see the mental shrug that passed through the stablehands. Oh, well, then, our odd appearance was accounted for by some strange bet, incomprehensible to anyone but the aristocracy.

  We walked inside.

  “Wager?” Jewel whispered.

  One of Maxl’s stewards approached and I breathed, “Later.”

  “Your highness,” the steward said, bowing. “Would you like to be announced?”

  Question infused his request—why was I here? Ought he to have known?

  For a moment I envisioned the grand announcement and dramatic appearance, but that did not seem right. “No. I’d like to surprise them, thank you. Are they in the rose room?”

  The steward bowed and permitted us to pass. The staff was going to find out about my appearance before Papa did. I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was court.

  The rose room was my father’s favorite informal interview chamber—and sure enough, there was Maxl, helping Papa to rise.

  “Papa,” I exclaimed as soon as the door was opened. I ran inside.

  Papa sat back down, surprise creasing his tired face, gladness widening his brown eyes as I kissed his hand and forehead.

  “Flian,” he murmured. “Daughter. Did I know you were here?”

  Maxl gave me a warning look. I straightened up, aware of the people in the room, all staring. Ignaz Spaquel, nosy old Duke Ydbar, Gilian Zarda—three of the very court people I’d hoped to avoid.

  I forced a smile. “No. A surprise, all in fun. A wager.”

  “Why don’t you tell us about it over dinner?” Maxl suggested. “We were about to part to get dressed.”

  “Why, certainly. I’m glad to be home, Papa.”

  My father patted my hand, and once again Maxl helped him to rise.

  From behind I heard Gilian whisper to her friend Elta, “My dear. Will you look at those gowns. If you can bear it.”

  When I turned they raised their fans, but their eyes betrayed derisive mirth.

  Jewel’s cheeks glowed, but she said nothing.

  Leaning on his cane, Papa started out, his own people closing in behind him.

  Gilian bustled in little steps to the side door, the little-girl flounces at the shoulders of her gown twitching. She was followed by Elta, who sent a scornful glance over one thin shoulder, as though memorizing details of our horrible clothes. Then they were gone.

  I led the way to Maxl’s suite, through the stately outer chambers to the room he called his lair—a room with shabby, comfortable old furnishings and lots of books.

  He appeared moments after we did, looking tense and tired.

  “Oh, Maxl.” I ran to him. “I have so much to tell you.”

  “I figured that.” He hugged me, giving a wry laugh. “Just because of the length of your typical lack of communication, I knew something must be going on. A couple days ago came word about your sudden, almost wedding. Lady Ordomar’s message was incoherent. I’d been wondering what to do. Whether or not to tell Father. Then yesterday—well, here you are. How did you get away? And are ther
e going to be repercussions I need to plan for?”

  He sank into his old chair. I regarded him fondly—and with relief. That’s why he’s going to be king, I thought. He looks ahead. I barely notice the here and now.

  Maxl turned to Jewel. “Ought I to rise? I am Maxl Elandersi.”

  “No, no bows or titles or trumpets. I am Jewel Szinzar.” She uttered a faint, almost soundless laugh. “I’ve never had bows or trumpets, yet, and I shouldn’t know where to begin.”

  Maxl’s smile had reached his eyes and Jewel’s tension eased.

  “We met in the mountains,” I said, and when Maxl’s attention turned to me, Jewel gave him a covert heel-to-toes scan. Maxl looks much like me: plain, medium height, slim build, fair hair, but his eyes are brown. “Life there is, um, somewhat rough and ready.”

  “It’s true,” Jewel said, palms out. “Rougher than ready, I confess.”

  “Trumpets you shall have, whenever you wish.” Maxl smiled. “In the meantime, welcome to Carnison.” He waved a lazy hand, a glance toward me expressive of question.

  Jewel dropped into another chair as I began a swift outline of what had happened to me. Papa always dressed slowly.

  When I’d reached the end, I sensed from the shuttered look to his brown eyes, which were so much like Papa’s, that Maxl had his own news. So I ended, “…and Jewel and I rode here without incident. But you said ‘yesterday’. And I am going to hate it, I can tell from your face. What?”

  “The rumor reached us yesterday that you ran off from Drath with Jaim Szinzar for a romantic tryst. I’m afraid it’s all over court.”

  “Of course it is,” I said with cordial disgust, thinking: Gilian is here.

  Maxl gave a brief, preoccupied smile. “Well, your showing up a day later, dressed like that, will scout the rumor”—he turned to Jewel—“or it might complicate it.”

  “I can be a lady of mysterious origins, if you like.” Jewel’s merry grin dimpled her cheeks. “I would love an alias.”

 
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