The Trouble With Kings by Sherwood Smith


  “Perfidious,” I declared.

  “Let’s go.” Jason waved a hand and turned away. He was! He really was on the verge of laughter. And so were some of his men.

  I glowered at his back, not believing what was about to happen.

  But it did.

  They ringed us so there was no chance of running (not that I could have run far or fast in that fragile gown) and someone came forward with lengths of cotton fabric and huge, heavy woolen army cloaks. Despite our efforts, Jewel and I had cloth wrapped round our faces as gags, sashes round our wrists, and the rest of us swathed tightly in those cloaks. When we had been wrapped like rugs, we were picked up and carried. It was hot and breathless inside that cocoon, making it impossible to struggle any longer.

  We were deposited in something that was soon shaking and rumbling.

  I suspect the binding and the cloaks were mostly to keep us busy. Jason, unlike Jaim, knew what he was about when he wanted to make off with a pair of princesses.

  When we had fought our way free of the cloaks and gags, gasping and sweaty, it was to discover that we were in a chaise. The windows had been wedged shut and the door locked from without. From the rocking, I was certain that four, perhaps six horses pulled it.

  Peering at the narrow windows showed outriders still wearing Lygieran blue. No one would stop us. I was angry—and amazed at the sheer effrontery, so audacious it was going to be successful.

  “Here, help me get these knots undone,” I said to Jewel, who wept in passionate fury. Her breath shuddered as she endeavored valiantly to suppress her tears, and we sat back to back.

  We wasted a lot of time getting the sashes loose, and then we wasted more time trying to pry the windows open. At last we sank back, exhausted, angry, and I have to admit, afraid.

  “Spaquel set us up,” I said. “For Jason? I do not understand. Something’s missing, I feel sure.”

  “Yes! His head! Or will be, when I get free and find myself a nice, big sword. Argh!”

  “Spaquel or your brother?”

  “Both! But especially Spaquel!” Jewel struck her fist against the cushioned seat. “That’s another thing that makes me desperate. I thought I was so clever in flirting with him, and he was intending this outrage all along!”

  “And probably saw to it that our real guards were nowhere near the rose garden or the gate beyond. And from there, with those fellows wearing our colors, no one will think to interfere. One thing, though, Maxl will get control of the guard at last when he finds out.”

  “If he finds out,” Jewel cried.

  “He has to. Spaquel might lie, but all those witnesses—”

  “But what did they see, beyond us being taken? If Spaquel hands some lie to them as well, how will they know it for a lie? None of those people would have followed us, much less tried a rescue.”

  “Poor old Luestor.” I shook my head. “I’m glad he didn’t try to rush one of those fellows with that old sword—and drop in heart failure.”

  Jewel’s color was high, but now she looked determined. “Jaim says that the essence of command is to turn surprises to your favor. You get your perimeter outside the enemy’s perimeter, and attack.”

  “What does that mean, exactly?”

  “Oh, I don’t know, some kind of military jabber. I was hoping you knew.” She scowled. “I never paid attention when he tried to teach me—I was too busy daydreaming about balls and parties. Now I wish I had.”

  A very long ride ensued; it was dark when at last we stopped, and the door was unlocked and opened.

  We climbed out, looking about cautiously. I was glad to stretch my legs. The silent liveried men closed around us and we crossed a moss-stoned courtyard into what appeared to be a fine house. The wall visible to us had diamond-paned glass windows amid ivy.

  Inside, down a narrow stone hall, to a gallery whose portraits featured fine-featured, red-haired people in various fashions of long ago.

  I knew where we had to be: Osterog, on our eastern border. Spaquel’s estate. At first sight, that would argue for some kind of alliance—except Spaquel was not there. The courtyard of the stable was empty except for Jason’s entourage.

  We were led straight to an old parlor, where a new fire had been laid. Jason was there, taking off his cloak. The fire had not even begun to take the chill off the room. Jason, who had gotten rid of his mail coat and battle tunic in favor of a plain tunic-shirt, appeared to be comfortable, but I was chilled in my fragile tissue gown.

  Jason dropped into a chair and stretched out his dusty riding boots. “Well, Jewel, what scheme is Jaim running now?”

  I knelt before the fire and held my hands out.

  “Jaim?” Jewel cried. “What? I haven’t seen him since we left!” She paused, then said in a sharp wail, “Oh, you stupid fool. You think he sent us to Carnison?”

  He stared at her and I could see his disbelief, question, even though at first he did not speak.

  “Oh, murder.” Jewel heaved a mighty sigh, flopping down onto the hearth. “I can’t believe—what lies did Garian tell you about Jaim?”

  I sat back on the hearth, thinking not of politics or war, but absurdly enough of my harp, which I wasn’t going to see unless a miracle happened—and which I would have been happily playing right about now if I hadn’t been a good princess and agreed to go to that cursed poetry reading. “Make that double murder.”

  “Where is Jaim?” Jason asked finally.

  “I don’t know!”

  Jason’s head lifted, and he considered her.

  “I helped Flian escape and I haven’t seen him since. I was enjoying myself for the first time in my life—”

  “Do you know where his hideout is?”

  “Somewhere in the mountains. That’s all I know.” She shrugged with her arms crossed. “If there’s anything I hate besides a villain, it’s a boring one. This is so unfair! You know I don’t have anything or know anything, but you just love being a bully and a stinkard—” She launched into a loud, impassioned list of his rotten qualities.

  Jason stared into the fire, then turned his head. It was a small movement, but his expression, his stillness, indicated sudden decision. “Markham. Take my sister to the adjoining parlor. See that she gets something to eat and drink.”

  Jewel gasped. “You weren’t even listening to me!”

  A very tall, silent figure, hitherto hidden by the shadows at the door, stepped forward and gestured to Jewel. She glanced back at me, angry, puzzled and now plainly worried. I rose to follow, but Jason held out a hand.

  “Not you.”

  Jewel began to protest. The henchman closed the door and her voice faded away into the distance.

  Jason said to me, “Where did Jaim take you? She was lying, but you have no cause to.”

  “I was blindfolded.”

  “But not when you left.”

  I shrugged. “His hideout was somewhere in the mountains near Drath, some winding trail I could never find again if I tried for a year. Look. As far as I’m concerned you and Jaim can go make war on each other with my full approval. But I like your sister, and for her sake I won’t willingly betray any more than that.”

  He looked at me meditatively for a long, neck-prickling wait. It wasn’t a Garian-like mocking assessment, the false air of concern contradicted by the subtle signs of anger. Of threat. If anything, the one narrowed eye, the slight furrow in his long black brows that reminded me of Jewel, indicated ambivalence. He said, “I could get it out of you. I’m trying to decide if it’s worth the trouble.”

  My heart constricted. My voice came out steadily enough. “I hope that means you could make me drink truth-herb. I understand you use it at your military courts now. But before you go to all that effort, let me assure you anything I’d say would be the same as I’ll tell you now. Except you’ll hear a lot more about how I hated that stay in Drath. Oh you’ll probably get a couple of lectures on proper fingering, the correct method of tuning that preserves harp strings, and how t
he ignorant think there is only discipline in war and not in music.”

  He got to his feet. I tensed. His steps receded, the door opened and shut.

  I whirled around—and there was a guard watching me, the fires reflecting in his eyes.

  Presently the door opened again. This time one of Spaquel’s servants came in, wearing his fussy livery. The man smirked at me as he set down a heavy silver tray. “Dinner, Princess. The Velethi king’s orders.”

  I ignored the goblet of wine and turned my attention to the plate. Fish cooked in wine sauce, fresh green beans, rice and custard made the meal.

  I set to with a will. When I finished, the man still stood there. “The wine as well.”

  “I won’t drink any wine poured by any Herlester or Szinzar ever again.” I was thinking of Jason’s threat—and kinthus, the herb that makes one tell the truth, plus anything else a questioner wishes to hear. “There’s always something nasty in it.”

  “Drink it,” the man ordered. “Now.”

  Not again!

  For answer I picked up the goblet and flung its contents in his face. And laughed as I said, “You drink it.” I flung the goblet at him too.

  He raised a fist, and I retreated round the back of the chair. Spaquel’s minion kicked the goblet so it spun away, and left. The guard at the door was so wooden I glared at him suspiciously, but he neither spoke nor moved.

  My heart thumped. It wasn’t long before the weasel-faced Spaquel lackey returned and behind him was Jason.

  “Care for some wine, Flian?” Jason was smiling—not the smirk of the weasel, but the sort of smile that verges on laughter.

  “Not if it’s got kinthus in it. I already told you the truth and I resent the implication that I am a liar—”

  “Not kinthus. Drink it up,” Jason invited.

  “No!”

  “Assist her,” Jason said to the weasel, who grabbed and held my arms. I writhed, now mad at Maxl for not insisting that I spend my entire day training for war. But who would have known my life would end up this way?

  The other guard rather fastidiously pinched my nose, and when I whooped in a breath, in went the wine. I coughed and after that realized I wasn’t going to win, so I drank it, and then mopped at where it had splattered down the front of my gown.

  “Very edifying,” Jason observed.

  “It’s your fault,” I said crossly, getting up to shake my skirts out. “Why this utterly uncivilized idiocy?”

  Jason dismissed the weasel, who glowered in disappointment but withdrew.

  “You’d better sit,” he said. “While we wait for our friend to ride for the capital with word of what just happened.”

  “I will, I will.” Then the words sank in. “You wanted someone to see me drink that stuff? Why?” I mopped at the gown, trying not to tear it. Already my hands felt heavy. Some officious soul had put in a hefty dose.

  Jason moved to the window. Through it came the faint sound of a galloping horse, rapidly diminishing.

  “My uncivilized idiocy serves a couple of purposes. We are going to make a journey, you and I. Of necessity I must cut down on the number of personnel accompanying us. So you are going to have a peaceful, relaxing ride.”

  “Ugh.” Not kinthus, then—sleepweed. My jaw felt heavy now. “Wh-what about Jewel?”

  “She’s asleep in one of the other rooms. If I am right, when she wakens she will discover that she has been ‘rescued’ by Spaquel, and she will, no doubt, be escorted back to the capital by her hero.”

  “Villainous,” I managed. “I mean, to make her grateful to that…that…”

  His light blue gaze swam and swirled into darkness.

  I woke up shivering. My face was wet. My nose hurt.

  Smoke?

  I struggled to sit up. I was bound in swaths of a heavy, sodden cloak.

  My brain yammered fire? Smoke? I peered stupidly around me. I was in an open carriage. Tall trees not far away whooshed and writhed, gigantic torches radiating hot, bright flame.

  Danger!

  I got a hand free and fought the cloak off, biting my lips against a scream of impatience. Just above, the burning branches weakened in the curling blasts of heat-wind, raining bits of flaming foliage on the wild grasses on either side of the road.

  I got free of the cloak and scrambled out of the carriage, stumbling from dizziness. I forced myself away from the carriage a few steps, then lurched to a stop when I discovered a human figure lying in the path of the flames.

  The glaring, ruddy light shone on a face.

  Jason.

  A deep, neck-tingling whoosh overhead made me throw my head back in horror. A fiery branch tumbled down, landing with a crash of upward spiraling sparks not ten paces behind me.

  I started to run. Looked back. Jason lay, either dead or unconscious, one arm flung out toward the ruined carriage, blood splashed across him. I backed up one step, two, my innards tight with anguish. I knew I could never leave anyone to burn to death, no matter how I felt about the person when awake and face-to-face. But was he already dead?

  I stared down at him, uncertain what to do, as the world revolved. His head turned slightly. One hand groped, and fell slack again.

  He was alive. But wouldn’t be for long.

  “I hate you,” I screamed stupidly, over and over, as burning twigs rained down around me.

  I sprang to him, grabbed one of his wrists, and tugged. He only shifted. So I grabbed at his sodden shirt, but it was summer fabric, and the rents already in it made it rip worse.

  Another branch crashed ten paces away, sending up a whirling fury of sparks.

  I leaped to the carriage, yanked out the cloak I’d been wrapped in, and flung it on the ground next to Jason. My hands trembled as I pushed Jason’s ribs, trying to roll him onto the cloak. He woke briefly, turned over onto the cloak and went still. I tugged the sturdy wool about him, and yanked at the gathered hem. He moved—a pace, two paces, and as I backed downhill, he slid faster.

  And just in time. A great branch crashed down where we had been. Weeping senselessly, I kept pulling Jason until I stumbled over an unseen root, lost my grip and rolled down a sharp mountain incline. I fetched up hard against a pine tree and lay for a moment trying to catch my breath.

  Darkness shadowed the land around me; it was raining. Only the great fire gave light, though the fire began to hiss and send up steam.

  I got to my hands and knees. The firelight beat with ruddy glare over a kind of rocky overhang not far below me. I looked back. The dark cloth fell away as Jason got slowly to his feet.

  I staggered to the rocky shelter, and in. The cold wind and the rain abated, though my shivering did not. I essayed a step into the darkness, tripped over a stone, gouged my scalp nastily on an unseen outcropping of rock, fell again, then finally gave up. I curled in a ball and eventually drifted into a cold, uncomfortable sleep.

  When I woke the second time, gravel ground my cheekbone. I stared in mute surprise into a pair of fever-bright blue eyes. Jason’s face was bleached of color.

  I closed my eyes. My face was stiff with congealed mud. I lifted a swath of my gown and rubbed it over my cheeks and forehead. The fabric felt cold and gritty, but at least it wasn’t caked with mud.

  When I opened my eyes again, I met Jason’s gaze. He did not speak.

  I looked around me at the fantastic roof of ancient, interlocked tree roots, grass and rock that formed the shelter. Just beyond was the steady thunder of rain.

  I discovered I was thirsty. But the sharp pain in my head when I moved killed the thirst: the residue of far too much sleepweed. I was beginning to know that sensation all too well.

  When I opened my eyes again, the pale light of day outlined the dangling vines. Rain hissed in sheets just behind. Jason was not going to go away if I ignored him.

  He lay against a great rock, his left hand clasped below his right armpit. A sluggish ooze of blood seeped between his fingers. What remained of his shirt on that side was stained, a gr
eat, frightening stain. More stain darkened the ground under him. The rest of him was filthy with mud and moss.

  I shut my eyes again, this time against an almost overwhelming surge of nausea.

  When I had that under control, I looked down at myself. My gown was a sodden, mud-smeared mess, ripped beyond repair.

  I looked up at Jason. “You’re bleeding to death.”

  “Most likely.” I could barely hear him.

  “I can’t look at that.” My voice came out sounding accusing.

  His eyes flicked toward the stream and beyond, and though he said nothing, the glance was clear: so leave.

  “I wouldn’t get ten paces in that storm.”

  His voice was barely audible above the rush of the stream. “Then suffer.” I saw the briefest narrowing of humor in his eyes.

  The ridiculousness of the situation overcame the sense of danger, making everything more unreal. “Well,” I said. “Do you want some help?”

  One shoulder lifted in a slight shrug, as if to say: what can you do?

  Good question.

  I looked about for something to staunch that horrible ooze. He had nothing, I had nothing. My gown was fragile and filthy—but my lace collar wasn’t.

  I found the catches, and shook it free of the gown. I moved to the edge of the overhang and held the lace out until the rain had pounded it clean of mud. Then I folded the heavy lace into a pad.

  Wishing myself a kingdom away, I examined the blood-soaked wad of cloth pressed between his fingers and his side. His hair had come untied, black locks straggling down into the gore. I shuddered. My own hair had come undone, lying in a sodden mass down my back and on the mud and moss-covered stone ground.

  “You’re a fool,” he murmured. “You should be making your way downstream.”

  “I don’t know where I am,” I said, as if that explained everything. “Move your hand.”

  “Why?”

  The Why did not mean Why move my hand? but Why are you doing what you’re doing? How did I know? I just, well, knew.

  “I may loathe and despise you,” I said as emphatically as I could despite my shaky, squeaking voice. “But I loathe my conscience worse. I’ll leave as soon as I know I did what I could.”

 
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