A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  The innkeeper removed their dishes, and she put her elbows on the table, hands together into a fist, and rested her chin on them. “Questions?”

  “Lots of them.” And a pause.

  “Go on,” she invited.

  “First, why is it so important that he learn he can be taken? I mean, isn’t it obvious?”

  Not obvious, from the way she shifted her gaze to the fire and frowned. Then she looked up. “There are two problems here, can you see? If Norsunder sends an army against us, that means they want this land, and we fight to the last man or woman to keep them from taking it. But if they send in covert teams, they want him. To twist to their purposes and use as a weapon, maybe with us behind him. They learned during the Siamis time that though we could be forced to take Tdanerend’s orders again, at the risk of innocents being killed, nobody could make us fight well. It was a long, slow, silent war of attrition, is how my brother put it. Badly saddled horses, bad patrols that saw nothing, slow moving, everything utterly incompetent. They were too stretched to deal with us because the mages kept closing Norsunder’s rifts, which meant they didn’t have the forces they thought they’d have. Anyway, Senrid commanding us, now that’s different. And they have to know it by now. So if they subvert him...”

  “I see. He’d make a terrible weapon, marching against your neighbors at the head of this vast army.”

  “Exactly.”

  Shevraeth shook his head. “Then why did he stop growing? Smart as he is, and I’ve never met anyone smarter, if he’s got all these problems, how can staying a boy possibly accomplish anything? I’d think he’d regret there isn’t some way to grow faster.”

  “And then have to deal with being even more of a target? As well as, oh, personal reasons I don’t quite understand and don’t ask about. Not my business. But I do understand one thing. When he was a prisoner before, Detlev—he’s even shadier than Siamis—said to him, ‘You’re not worth my time,’ or something to that effect. Well, that was before Senrid helped Liere go up against Siamis. He doesn’t want to be worth Detlev’s time, and so he stopped growing as a way of hiding in plain sight—to seem not worth time, though he spends days and nights learning as fast as he can. But he wants them to think he’s only a boy, they should wait, and if they do get him, well, about his only defense is to be a stupid, tiresome boy, until he can get away. But we don’t want it to get that far. If they send coverts, we want him to run. He thinks running is cowardly. We think it’s smart. If he’s gone, we can play dead again.”

  “It’s an insane burden,” Shevraeth said.

  “Yes, but it’s one everyone is facing. Just, many don’t see it. Can’t, or won’t,” she answered soberly. “We Marlovens stick out a little farther. But the danger is shared by all. Even the courtiers in Colend. And the Delfin Islanders there in the middle of the ocean.” She jerked her thumb westward.

  Shevraeth grimaced. The chill of the outside air seemed to have fingered its way in, breathing ice down the back of his neck. “Well, all the more reason to get busy on our last assignment,” he said, pulling his slate in front of him.

  The last command class would be held after the academy games, which would also be discussed. It was the end of another year, one that had seemed both endless and swift.

  o0o

  Two things happened after the summer game, on which he was a riding leader for the losing army.

  The academy marched back, having sustained two thunderstorms on the way. Shevraeth was then swept off to command class, so he was not on duty when, somehow, Tevac and Mondar got half the scrubs organized and while everyone was either at the baths or in the city on liberty, they shifted all the furnishings of Scout-hound House out into their court, arranged as they had been inside, the trunks all in the right place but open—right before a thunderstorm.

  A score—but completely within the rules that Lennac had set.

  The scrubs thus lost any chance of an end-of-year scarfle, but they felt the triumph of that massive score against Scout-hound House would be sung about through history, so it was a fair trade.

  The second thing occurred on Shevraeth’s and Senelac’s last meeting in the city. The weather was cold, rainy, but he was there anyway, and so was she. They talked over the summer game, laughed about the triumph over Scout-hound House. Tevac and Mondar had been ordered to shift it all back by themselves, and put each piece of sodden bedding and clothing through the cleaning frame—but the work was considered a banner of triumph. They talked about winter plans, she with her horses at home, he with the studies he planned to make here, and then they began their walk back.

  And then Shevraeth said, awkwardly, flushing because he knew he sounded awkward, “I—I wanted to thank you for this year.” Silence. “For sharing your ideas.” Silence. “I’ve enjoyed these meetings. Here in the city. So much. Talking to you.” Silence. He was too distracted to notice that she’d abruptly turned, leading the way down a narrow alley at a brisk pace. Despite the cold, dreary mizzle, his ears burned, his collar had suddenly become too tight. Feeling abysmally stupid, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut, he finished on a mumble, “And, well, thanks.”

  They’d reached a little park. Most of the trees had already shed their leaves, though the perimeter was surrounded by thick shrubs. It was a secluded little spot in the midst of the city.

  “The girls come here when they’re twoing,” she said briskly, and before he could react, she grabbed his head, pulled it down—their noses bumped, her fingers were cold—but he forgot that, forgot everything, when her soft lips met his in a long, warm, exhilarating kiss.

  THIRTY-TWO

  She was gone the next day.

  He was left to watch the packing, departure, and gradual emptying of the academy, until there were a few of them left in the cold stone city under washing rain.

  The command was handed down to shift their things to the senior barracks—where next year he’d be living. Strange, that idea.

  Also strange was the order to report for new clothing. His wrists stuck out of his shirt cuffs, and the knees of his trousers had crept upward. So had everyone else’s, so no one noticed.

  When he went to pick up his new clothes, he saw something added, something long and black. In wonder he picked up the long, very fine-woven woolen cloak characteristic of the seniors and the Guard. The wool, which naturally resisted wet, was reinforced by magic, which made the cloaks highly prized.

  He looked up. The young Guard acting as quartermaster shrugged. “You’ll be a senior come spring, might as well have it now. Next year you’ll be doing night rides on the perimeter at games.”

  “Right,” Shevraeth said, and walked to the senior barracks with the fine black wool carried in his arms. Despite the cold, he would not dare wear it, even though maybe five people might see him at most. He already knew how fast gossip spread. There was no possibility he’d wear any of the senior gear until the orders came to move into the first-year senior barracks. He was so used to how things worked by now he scarcely ever thought about invisible rules. Because by now, most of them had become visible.

  o0o

  One moment Russav Savona was savoring the delight of a fragrant girl in his arms—their lips met—a heartbeat after that pain flared across his vision, a bolt of lightning. Not from the kiss. He sprawled on the ground blinking up at a face crimson with rage.

  “Anderic,” Savona said, trying to regain his wits.

  Renna had nearly fallen off the bench when Anderic shoved Savona. She jumped up. “You idiot!”

  Anderic Gharivar snapped back, “You’re only kissing him to make me jealous. Just like he’s kissing you to make Tamara jealous. That’s disgusting.”

  “To you,” Renna retorted, her thin cheeks flashing red patches. She crossed her arms. “I assure you, it wasn’t disgusting to me.”

  Savona got to his feet, uneasy and even awkward as he dusted off his tunic. “Not to me, either.” In the year since Anderic had followed the new Baron Debegri to court, Sav
ona had come to thoroughly dislike him. The fact that Anderic was right about why they were kissing only annoyed Savona more. “Take yourself off, Gharivar. No one invited you to interfere.”

  Anderic flicked a sneer his way, then deliberately spat.

  Renna whirled around. “How loathsome! Don’t ever speak to me ag—”

  Anderic caught her arm. She instantly began tugging to free herself.

  “You—I won’t—” he began, but was drowned out by her repeating “Let me go!”

  Savona brought his fist down hard onto Anderic’s arm. The other boy’s hand spasmed, and Renna jerked her arm loose from his grip.

  Anderic flung himself onto Savona, kicking, punching, and howling curses. Savona got in as many punches as he took—but Anderic only got angrier. He strove to get his fingers round Savona’s neck, shouting, “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

  It’s difficult to say how that fight would have resolved. Savona had not been all that angry when he began, because he knew he’d had mixed motives for a charming bit of dalliance that wasn’t the least serious for either of them, but a fist in his eye and strong fingers clawing for his neck changed that.

  Renna whirled around, reached down behind the bench, dipped her beautiful hat into the icy water, and flung the contents on them, splattering both boys equally.

  The water had no effect.

  What did was the voice of the king.

  “What’s all this?”

  The boys dropped one another with more haste than grace—though those watching knew better than to laugh. The two bowed, water dripping off their noses (mixed with blood in Savona’s case), and Renna curtseyed, her bared hair riffling in the wind, the ruined hat clutched tightly in her hand.

  “Nothing, sire,” she said, when she saw that neither boy would speak first. “Just a disagreement.”

  “Over?” Galdran prompted, his eyes narrowing as he glanced at Renna’s head. He did not like anyone bare-headed except at his invitation. How could they have missed him? He loomed there so huge and solid, his long red hair below the golden coronet lifting in the cold wind. He fingered his mustache, waiting for Renna to hat herself—and to answer.

  She gritted her teeth and crammed the hat on her head. Water dripped into her eyes and off her nose. The brim drooped soggily down, blocking half her vision.

  She heard a strangled “Whuff” behind her—someone trying valiantly not to snicker.

  Savona said, “A disagreement about a kiss.”

  Anderic sent him a poisonous look, adding in a surly tone, “A person has a right to resent it when he kisses everyone in sight.”

  “So Savona lacks discrimination?” Galdran asked, laughing. Har har, a heavy sound—less humor than mockery. But it served as a reminder, and behind the three came the obedient, if forced, laughs.

  “He can pester anyone else with his attentions. Not Renna. She and I have an understanding. She’s kissing him to rile me.”

  Renna flushed, her jaw locked against retorting.

  “Well, Savona?” Galdran prompted.

  Savona said, “No one was pestering anyone. Until he came along.”

  He regretted it. He couldn’t tell what Galdran wanted, but at the sudden smile on the king’s face, the widening of his pale blue eyes, he knew that he’d fumbled into saying what the king had wanted to hear.

  And sure enough. “So? Is that so? And no challenge? Have I a court full of cowards?”

  Anderic sent a sullen look Savona’s way, rubbing a stray lock of brown hair off his brow. “I’d like it fine to let a little of that hot blood.”

  “You already have.” Savona rolled his eyes toward the sky as he mopped his nose with his besorcelled handkerchief.

  Several muffled titters escaped from courtiers gathered behind. Savona rather thought one of those was Tamara’s.

  “Well, Savona?” came the hated voice. “Afraid to take up the challenge?”

  What was there to say? “No.” And, in a weak attempt to get them all away, so maybe the subject would be forgotten—“Here, I’m freezing. Why don’t we change?”

  “With such hot blood?” the king retorted. “Here’s a challenge. Pay attention, your grace.”

  Savona said somewhat desperately, “We have to arrange seconds, weapons. Ground. And my eye—”

  “Not,” Galdran Merindar said, “with me here to assure fairness. You may send for weapons. This ground will do.” He glanced up at the low white sky.

  They all noticed the tiny white flakes beginning to drift down.

  “No. Inside,” the king declared. “As for that eye,” he added with his usual cruel humor, “Would you stop defending me against invaders if someone from Denlieff hit you in the eye? I assure you, he wouldn’t stop to wait for it to heal. My fencing hall. Now.”

  He used the verb forms of must-be; it was a royal order.

  Everyone bowed. Galdran smiled, snapped his fingers, and one of the lackeys always at his heels sprang forward. “Matched swords,” Galdran said without even looking around. “Meet us in the hall.”

  The servant, Savona’s own age, sent him a frightened look, then ran off.

  Savona sighed. He and Renna had chosen the bench beside the stream, a pretty corner of the garden only partially concealed—they’d wanted to be witnessed. The idea had been a bit of cuddle, a few kisses, and gossip flying out to where it would do the most good. Like to a certain blue-eyed, curly-haired girl who seemed to think everyone existed to wait upon her whim. Especially everyone male.

  Savona glanced out of the corner of his good eye. Yes, there was Tamara, pale and furious as she glared at Renna.

  Renna herself looked furious, as much as one could see of her beyond the drooping brim of her sodden hat. She glared at Anderic, who refused to look her way—all his fury was reserved for Savona.

  Renna sighed, her insides cramping as they all followed the king inside. No one spoke, not with the king continually glancing back to see who was coming and who might try to peel off. Where had he come from, anyway? He was supposed to be in with the ambassadors.

  They’d reached the king’s rooms, which included the entire ground floor of the Residence as well as the series of beautifully decorated private rooms upstairs. The only rooms he never used were the library and archive.

  They filed silently into the big fencing salle, a room with windows all down one side, a polished wooden floor. The room was bare except for a sitting platform down one side, with plain military-style cushions. All except for the grand one against the inner wall, from which the king could watch easily. It was next to the fireplace, which was bare. No Fire Stick wasted here, as Galdran was seldom in this room unless he commanded a practice for his own amusement.

  The sound of feet pounding in the servants’ hall outside preceded two servants, their breath clouding as they ran to the king. One carried swords, the other was the original messenger, back for duty.

  The king gestured flat-handed toward the two, who each took a sword in hand. Savona gave a thought of regret for the straw-colored raw-silk tunic, already blood-splashed from his nose. If he took it off to fight in shirt sleeves, he’d be even colder. Not good.

  Anderic pawed uncertainly at his own tunic, which was made of royal blue silk. By the way he rubbed the thin fabric between his fingers, Savona suspected Anderic regretted the lack of padding. Savona wondered how much training he’d had—or not had. Anderic was a cousin to the Count of Mnend, ambitious, and had made it clear he was determined to marry well. “And he seems to think he’s picked me, and I’m supposed to be grateful because I’m plain,” Renna had said bitterly.

  Savona had said with a laugh, “We’ll fix that.”

  Well, they had. And now he faced Anderic as they measured their swords. The metal clanged and scraped, a sharp sound in the frosty air. No one spoke, there was no noise but the hiss and scrape of their feet on the floor.

  The king said. “I do not wish to lose my court. First blood will suffice.”

  Th
at ought to have been the choice of the challenged—though which of them that might be, neither knew. Anderic’s brow quirked slightly as he glanced toward the king, then drew down as he settled into a fighting stance. At least some training, then.

  Savona gripped the sword, surprised to find his hand sweaty despite the cold. He feinted, waited, and sure enough Anderic stamped in, swinging the sword in a wild attack. Savona blocked, stepped back, blocked. He hadn’t had any serious practice for at least a year, maybe more. His arm muscles protested. But Anderic didn’t seem to be any better. Savona grimaced, trying to see through his rapidly swelling eye as Anderic swung again. At least he was slow. He blocked again. Anderic came on a little faster. He was Savona’s height and build, obviously strong. With a flush of annoyance he attacked again. Savona blocked, glancing past the blades at the king. Galdran observed with a narrow-eyed assessment that was far more dangerous than his horrible semblance of humor.

  Savona made a couple of wild swings, the last one whistling a hand’s-breadth over Anderic’s head.

  Galdran laughed, slapping his thigh.

  Anderic swung, a fast, wild, deadly arc that would have half-decapitated Savona if he hadn’t deflected it. As it was, the hit was so strong—so much stronger than practice hits—that he stumbled back, whereupon Anderic flashed the blade down and jabbed toward his belly.

  Savona blocked it badly, but in time. He leaned up and hissed, “Clown, idiot!” in Anderic’s face.

  Anderic lifted his upper lip, showing his teeth in a sneer. He mouthed the word “Coward!” and swung again.

  So Savona settled grimly to the task of blocking the attack without making any kind of response. Galdran watched every move, his heavy face gradually tightening into the familiar lines of anger. Could Anderic not see it? Or did he think he was exempt? Why do you think Debegri has his favor? Savona thought, whirling around and then stumbling under another swing. Because of his prowess?

  But then anyone who could be Debegri’s friend—

  Snap! The blade flashed at the very edge of Savona’s vision, coming at his bad eye far too close—he got his blade up, which slipped in his hand. Again he managed to block a bad hit, but he lost grip on his blade, which flew out of his hand. He felt the air of a cut over his head as he stooped to pick it up.

 
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