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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Tags: #ya, #Magic, #princess, #rhis

A Posse of Princesses (7 page)

BOOK: A Posse of Princesses
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The thin, dainty Grand Duchess of the Isle of
Wilfen said in her fluting drawl, “Seeing that one is scrawny as a
nestling, shouldn’t that be
coo coo
?”

Rhis grinned at the gales of laughter that
comment caused. Did Iardith have a sense of humor, at least? She
would never have dared clowning like that, not in this company.
Maybe the Perfect Princess was bearable after all.

“A sense of humor goes a long way toward
making someone likable,” Rhis said, trying to be even-handed. The
truth was, she was in a fair way of being jealous of Iardith, but
was fighting against it. “Sidal often said that to me, and I think
she’s right.”

Shera’s lips pursed. “No need to mention that
my sister Elda hasn’t one. Not even the tiniest speck of one.”

“Well, but she’s
dignified
,” Rhis
said.

“Yes, and as we all know, a prince chooses
dignity above all else in his future queen,” Shera said, as more
laughter, like the sudden chattering of birds, brought their
attention back to the terrace.

Iardith gestured imperiously, and her
admiring crowd, all older girls, followed her inside.

“Probably looking for Lios. Speaking of
flirtations, why don’t we walk out to the big garden where they are
going to hold the race? We can get a good spot to watch from,”
Shera suggested.

Rhis had no objections to anything that might
get them near Lios, so they made their way slowly around the
extensive gardens of Eskanda Palace.

By that time most of the prince’s guests had
begun gathering as well—those who were not going to compete.

When Rhis saw the fine, glossy-maned horses,
she felt a strong twinge of envy. She’d never learned to ride one.
They were rare in the mountains, and besides, Elda considered
horse-back riding vulgar and barbarian. Proper people were drawn
decorously in carriages.

Rhis did know how to ride a hill pony, but no
one rode those in the flatlands. They weren’t as fast as these
long-legged, high-stepping animals, but they were sturdy and didn’t
mind the cold weather. Rhis listened to knowledgeable discussion of
the horses’ attributes and shortcomings, strongly suspecting that
the Nymish hill ponies—were they to suddenly appear here—would just
be laughed at.

Before the races began, increasing clouds
darkened the sky, whipping up a chilly wind. People ignored the
changing weather as they watched expectantly.

Rhis peered at the starting line, where
riders and their nervous mounts milled around, or walked back and
forth. “What’s going on?” she finally asked Shera, who
shrugged.

A boy overheard, and said, “Stablehands have
to finish laying the course. They’re going to ride round the
perimeter of the estate.”

Shera pursed her lips. Remembering the long
ride up to the palace once the girls’ carriage had rolled through
the gates, Rhis wondered if the perimeter was quite a distance.

“Rough terrain,” a girl said. “I can ride,
but not like that.”

“We ride zo creeping, wiss ze mountains. Om!
I watch. No ride.”

Rhis gasped, and spun around.

The speaker was a short thin girl with a
cloud of wheat-colored hair, walking with her arm linked through
that of Prince Lios. She wore a fabulous gown embroidered in bright
colors, with bunches of ribbons at arms, waist, and down the front
of the gown. She had a round, pleasant face, with slightly
protuberant light blue eyes.

Lios stopped, bowed, and said, “Give me a
favor, cousin?”

This girl untied one of the ribbons from her
sleeves and handed it to Lios. She grinned, a wide, laughing grin,
as he bent down for her to tie it round his arm.

“That must be his cousin from the Isle of
Ndai,” Shera whispered. “I’ve seen her around, but never to hear or
speak to. How fun, to come from such a mysterious place, full of
pirates and magic!”

Rhis stared at the girl, who was shorter than
Shera, and even skinnier than Rhis. Ice seemed to trickle through
her veins when she recognized the accent, and the peculiar speech.
Ndai, though relatively close, had been settled by different
people, and then had endured a long history of battles with
pirates. They had a separate language, Rhis had learned in history
lessons. So Iardith hadn’t been clowning, she’d been mimicking this
princess—making game of her.

“You ambulate, Couzzin. Um! Um! Um, boh, I
forget ze word. Conquest zis race!” cried the princess from
Ndai.

Rhis stole a look, and sure enough, she saw
Iardith and her red-haired friend laughing behind their fans. Over
the buzz of general talk, Rhis thought she heard a faint “Um!”

“I’m off!” Lios stated, and strode away
through the trees.

The noon bells echoed from the far towers,
and then, closer by, someone blew a horn. They all turned their
attention to the grassy field that had been chosen for the start
and finish. Rhis hugged her arms close, glad of her long sleeves,
for the air was getting chillier. She felt cold inside, too, at
Iardith’s cruelty. She hoped the little Ndaian princess hadn’t
heard any of it.

The racers appeared, all mounted up, and
urged their horses into a long, ragged line. Prince Lios rode in
the middle, his hair whipping in the wind as he sat easily astride
his large, reddish-brown horse.

When the horn blew, he bent forward slightly
and his horse sprang into a gallop. For a moment he was lost in the
crowd, but shortly thereafter Rhis saw him again, riding like he’d
been born on horseback. He was one of the five at the lead by the
time they reached the end of the field, and swept round a corner by
a pond.

The crowd of watchers started leaving, some
to walk through the palace to witness the race at the halfway
point, some to retreat inside as large, cold raindrops began to
spatter their faces and clothes. Shera touched Rhis on the
shoulder.

“I’m going in,” she said, shivering. “I can
hear about it afterward. Want some hot chocolate?”

“I’ll meet you,” Rhis replied. “I’m used to
cold, and I want to see the end.”

Shera smiled, hunching her shoulders. “Then
you can tell me everything. If you don’t freeze first.” She hurried
up a trail toward the palace.

When at last the racers neared the end of the
course the rain was coming down in earnest, and Rhis was almost
alone, standing on a little rise to watch them come round the last
sweep of trail before they reached the field where they had begun.
A few others stood about, some under a rain canopy set up by
servants.

Rhis preferred staying where she was, so she
could see the winner. She was sure that Lios would be first; her
heart soared within her at the sight of Lios and his horse leaping
so effortlessly over a low hedge, neck and neck with two other
riders.

They vanished behind some trees and then, two
of the horses reappeared again, their riders bent low. One rider
wore bright clothes, her dark braids flapping on her thin back; the
other’s pale yellow hair was plastered to forehead and neck. Lios
lagged a full horse’s length behind the two leaders.

Taniva of the High Plains sent a grim look
over at Jarvas, who sneered back, then dug his heels into his
horse’s side. The animal seemed to tighten all over. Rhis winced,
knowing it must hurt, but the horse suddenly leaped, sailing over
another hedgerow, and Taniva’s horse was airborne a moment
later.

Jarvas reached the field first—just barely.
He slowed his horse gradually as he rode straight for the stable.
Taniva followed without looking back.

Lios galloped to the finish line right after,
and then more appeared, all riding at the same speed. When they
finished, they were laughing and calling mock-insults at one
another as they brought their sweaty, blowing mounts round to the
small knot of people gathered—the cold wind tugging and snapping
their clothes and hair—to watch the stragglers finish up the race.
Lios was at the center of the crowd.

Lios joked with his friends. Rhis didn’t know
any of the people any more than she knew their past experiences.
Feeling closed out, she left the garden and trudged back against
the wind to the palace.

With her tousled hair redone and warm, dry
clothes on, she rejoined the party, which was gathered on the
windowed terrace adjacent to the garden. They were still talking
about the race, mostly teasing the losers.

Iardith and her admirers crowded around Lios,
of course, and around pale Jarvas of Damatras, who had won. But
Taniva, who had nearly beat Jarvas, wasn’t included. She stood at a
window alone at the other end of the terrace, staring out at the
rain.

As everyone wandered about, talking or
helping themselves to the trays of hot snacks the servants brought
in, Rhis gathered her courage and made her way to the tall princess
in the bright vest, layered skirts, and crimson blouse. Vest,
blouse, and the top layer of her skirt were edged with tiny chimes;
in her black sash she wore a spectacularly handsome knife with a
black and silver hilt. The sheath was studded with brilliant blue
gems.

“Very fine riding today, Taniva,” she
said.

The princess turned her head and studied Rhis
for a long moment. She had long, slightly slanted greenish gray
eyes, broad cheeks, and a flat nose. Her skin was more pale in
color than the lowlanders’ and Rhis’s, with a yellowish cast. It
was a better color, Rhis secretly thought, than Jarvas’s pinkish
pale. Taniva’s clothes tinkled faintly when she moved.

“I do not know you?” Taniva asked. Her accent
was strong.

“I’m Rhis. Of Nym. Southern mountains,” Rhis
added awkwardly.

Taniva smiled, and her face was transformed.
“Ah,
mountains!
Then you too must feel this place a cage.
Pest! I wish to go home. But I promised to come. So I stay.”

“You don’t enjoy it here?” Rhis asked.

“Maybe I do, if . . .” Taniva shook her head.
“No. To complain is to whine like a zeem-bug. No one wants them
around. You are not afraid to be seen talking to me?” Her lips
curled.

“Why should I be? Do you kick people?”

“No. Nor do I stab, with the words,” Taniva
added.

Now Rhis knew what the princess was talking
about. And probably who.

“You’re too good with a sword,” Rhis said,
grinning as she remembered her conversation the night before.

“Have to be—” Just then Taniva gave a stiff
nod.

Rhis turned. The blond Jarvas, still
surrounded by Iardith’s crowd, raked his pale gaze down Taniva. His
eyes narrowed when they stopped at Taniva’s jeweled knife. He gave
a slow nod, unsmiling, over the short red-haired girl’s head. Then
he turned back to the beautiful Iardith.

“There is an enemy,” Taniva said, waving a
callus-palmed hand toward Jarvas, then placed it on the blue-hilted
knife in her sash. “Our people are enemies. We know it, but we
understand one another. That Iardith, now, I do not
understand.”

Rhis remembered the two or three times her
eyes had met Iardith’s. Each time the Princess had turned away
dismissively. Rhis had assumed it was just because Rhis was a
stranger, hadn’t been introduced. Now she wondered if it was
because she was younger, and plain, from a small kingdom.

“I’ve never spoken to her,” Rhis
admitted.

“You have not enough importance,” Taniva
said. Her tone was too matter-of-fact to be insulting. She was
making an observation, and Rhis ducked her chin in acknowledgement,
not particularly happy to find her thoughts corroborated. But it
was probably right.

Taniva gave the garden view a brooding
glower. She had little etiquette. Her face was as expressive as her
voice, and she obviously said what she thought.

Rhis tried to think of another subject,
something to make the girl smile again, but Taniva turned her head,
a quick, wary movement; a moment later Rhis registered the approach
of footsteps. Taniva’s face cleared, and she even smiled again, a
slashing, flashing smile that made her look very handsome to Rhis’s
eyes. “Ah! It is the little scribe, who knows my land so well.”

Rhis whirled around, delighted to see
Dandiar, one of whose brows arched just slightly at the word
‘little.’ Taniva and he were the same height, but it was obvious
the princess was used to very tall men.

“I came to tell you that everyone is moving
to the dining room.” The scribe pointed with his chin over his
shoulder.

Taniva hesitated, her dark gaze going from
Rhis to the door, and Rhis waved. “Come sit with us. Well, with me.
Usually I sit with Shera, my cousin. She likes music, as I do.”

“Gensam.” Taniva gave an abrupt nod. “More
mountains. You ride in your mountains? No pony-games, no?”

Dandiar said, “Nym has no highlands. It’s all
either up or down. Gems, that they’ve got. And some infamous old
mines, sites of some agreeably bloody wars, if you like that kind
of thing.”

Taniva grinned fiercely.

Rhis realized that the scribe and the moody
princess had established a good understanding, and she spoke on
impulse. “Have you duties to attend to?”

Dandiar’s face was suddenly blank, his voice
very polite. “You are inviting me to go find some?”

Rhis felt her neck go hot. “No! Opposite! I
was hoping, well, that you might want to sit with us. You know all
about our kingdoms, and you talk so easily with—uh, others—” She
realized she was rambling awfully, and thought with an inward wince
of Elda’s disapproval at her utter lack of grace and poise. Now not
just her face burned, but her ears and neck. Ugh!

But Dandiar’s quick smile, his swift gesture
toward the door, somehow made it all right. He obviously
understood, and Rhis thought gratefully that she knew the reason
why the handsome Prince Lios had made him his personal scribe.

The three followed the crowd into the dining
room as outside rain drummed hard against the windows. They sat on
the periphery of the crowd, near the windows, to which Taniva’s
gaze more than once strayed. But once Shera and another girl, whom
she introduced as Carithe, had joined them, the talk got more
lively as they described parties in the past that the weather had
made into total disasters.

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