A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith

  Shevraeth knew that last year, Forthan had been gone a lot—which was why Shevraeth had been asked to command the initial covert attacks on the city.

  “But, see, this year Stad is the assistant rad in our own House—and everyone knows that when you’re a rad in the first-year seniors, who aren’t supposed to need a rad, that’s as high as you’ll ever go. Though there isn’t any rule, it’s a tradition, that if you aren’t going to be a Valdlav, you finish as a senior rad so you get some credit. He should have been over the second-year colts, or even the first, like me. Everyone knows I’ll never be a Valdlav, but I don’t care, I don’t want to command an army. The Valdlavs are just about guaranteed higher command, if they haven’t an inherited rank waiting. Like Zheirban.” He made a rueful shrug.

  Shevraeth’s lips parted. His tongue had begun to shape the words—But Stad will be Danas Valdlav next year—then he remembered where he’d heard that. From Keriam, in his office. With no witnesses.

  Shevraeth had assumed it was so obvious a choice that it had become general knowledge. But if Marec didn’t know it, then...

  Another test?

  Keriam had not said, “You are not to tell anyone.”

  Shevraeth did not hear Marec, who was muttering curses about the obnoxious second-year colts who thought they could run the academy. Shevraeth was stunned to realize that he did indeed have the inside line of communication, at least in one sense.

  The spoken rules were: next year’s appointments were made on First Day. Unspoken rules were obviously quite different—that some knew Command’s thinking far ahead of time.

  So... what to do? If he told Marec and swore him to secrecy, then he put Marec in a terrible position.

  He said, carefully, “So that means, if Stad has to replace a radlav in a colt House now, it’s not really because he handles them any better than you do, it is because of his family being related to an ancient one. And that means, if the commanders do decide to put him in as Valdlav next year, these boys will think it was their pressure that accomplished it, am I right? Because they forced the change into the traditional pattern?”

  Marec made the arrow-to-the-mark gesture.

  “But—” But Keriam has to know what’s really causing the problems. He and the king, Shevraeth thought. He gulped ale so he wouldn’t say the words crowding from brain to lips, and drank too big a swallow. His nose and eyes stung. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve, then discovered Marec eyeing him narrowly.

  “Do you know something?”

  “Only that I do not, ever, want to be a rad over those second-year loudmouths,” Shevraeth retorted. “The idea puts me off food, and we haven’t even had the pastry. Ah, here it comes.”

  Marec glared at his pastry. “Here’s my thinking. Well, my mother helped me to it. When I got home that year.”

  Shevraeth knew which year he meant.

  Marec turned the plate round and round with his strong fingers as he muttered to the pastry, “M’dad wouldn’t talk to me about it. Forthan. What happened. I thought he was ashamed of me. My mother told me that everyone our age and older wears Forthan’s scars on our spirits, including my dad. Forthan was the only one to walk away free of that, though nobody would have traded places with him for a heartbeat. But he paid the price of someone else’s wrong, and he knew it. Oh, he let his temper get the best of him, so he wasn’t entirely free, but the cause had been just. And all knew it. Even Sindan admitted it, when the other seniors sent him to Norsunder for the rest of the year. I think some still won’t talk to him, is what I hear.”

  Shevraeth leaned forward, hearing the rapid rush of whispered words with some difficulty, as the drum beats and chorus rose and fell in the background, a minor key plainchant that was both compelling and sinister.

  “My mother said the little boys don’t know empathy, except for their close friends. Or family.” The word empathy was taken almost wholesale from Sartoran—but it had a Marloven pronunciation.

  So the Marlovens knew the term, and the emotion, but they didn’t talk about it, Shevraeth thought. So different from the Colendi, and as Marec morosely bit into his pastry at last, Shevraeth remembered his father saying a long time ago, The Colendi have at least twenty terms for variations on empathy. But many of those are not actually empathetic, and perhaps only a Colendi can fully understand them: “empathy-false, empathy-in superiority, empathy inferiority, empathy in condescension, empathy in shared guilt,” are a few of the distinctions. What it means is, they make war with words and the feelings that words evoke. Never forget that if events transpire to send you to Alsais.

  Shevraeth said easily, “If your colts ever do straighten up, this cake here would probably go down in history as the prime scarfle.”

  Marec’s brows went up. “It would, wouldn’t it?” He frowned. “They’re gonna earn it first.”


  Shevraeth was still wondering why Senelac had vanished the night before, as he rode slowly behind the marching boys the next day. This was his first game as a senior rad, riding a horse and wearing the black woolen cloak whose water resistant qualities were enhanced by magic against the threatening rain.

  Stad was the commander on this two-night game. The perfect behavior of Marlovair’s House would have astonished Shevraeth before his talk with Marec. He rode at the rear, accompanying the supply wagon, and watched the second-year colts marching in perfect order. Usually the column was staggered—still in pairs, but friends clumped closer together, others lagging farther behind so they could chat and not be overheard. The dust kicked up by shuffling feet hanging in the air, rising higher when the goal neared and they picked up their pace.

  Shevraeth gazed up the straight column, everyone in Jump House—he knew that was Marlovair’s House name this year, though he had no idea what had brought that about—marching in step, each squared spear-length behind the boy in front. The other House, not to be outdone, were almost as parade-ground perfect.

  Shevraeth shook his head. Meant nothing good. He peered through the golden dust to where Stad rode at the front next to Master Askan, who was right now the only master with them. They’d been told at the breakfast briefing that if needed, another would be along after the day’s lessons were finished: Shevraeth would have to be the runner sent to report, if Master Askan sent him. There weren’t any free masters as there usually were. One had been sent on an unidentified errand by Commander Keriam, and another had been given leave to go home to attend his wife’s childbirth.

  Keriam had said, “I will ride out myself if we cannot free up a master, and you feel there is need.”

  He had not said that in front of the boys, only to Master Askan and the senior radlavs. Shevraeth had thought Keriam might have spoken in front of the boys as an oblique threat, but he saw that to the colts it would not have been oblique at all. It would mean that the commander himself felt the need to stir on their behalf—and they’d take that as triumph, as a proof of the success of their campaign. Just as the older boys serving as rads would take it as a reprimand—that they might not have control over their charges.

  Shevraeth shaded his eyes, trying to pick out Marlovair’s skinny form. There he was, marching along—setting the step, in fact—face straight forward. Other than his obvious pleasure in stamping along, expressed in the rigidity of his arms and the emphatic thump of his feet, there was nothing to be read there. Not that Shevraeth could comprehend a boy who would court a public caning and think himself a hero.

  Shevraeth sighed, and felt his mare shift her weight. She bobbed her head, ears flicking back, as Shevraeth thought ironically that last night he’d been so certain he’d at last mastered understanding of these people, but today he felt as alienated as his first year.

  So what was Stad thinking?

  Stad, at the front, was furious.

  He had not spoken a word to Master Askan the entire ride. But as they neared the turn-off to the field they’d selected as their game site, he said, “Permission to alter the plans?”
  Master Askan took in the locked jaw and white, compressed lips of cold rage. “To?”

  Stad’s voice was as bleak. “River.”

  Master Askan said mildly, “Warm as it is here, you know the water’s still mostly snow melt.”

  Stad’s lips curled. “Yes.”

  Master Askan was silent for a long moment, then said, “Van, you know I can’t let you dunk those hot heads in snowmelt, satisfying as it would be.”

  Stad muttered under his breath, very aware of the banner-bearers riding the regulation ten paces behind, “Look, Uncle Kett, Cousin Van’s near to ruined me.”

  Master Askan was Stad’s uncle by marriage, through sisters. It was common—inevitable, really—that boys and now girls coming through the academy were going to have relatives as masters, or, eventually, mistresses. Everyone knew it, everyone knew who was who, everyone acted as if they had never met outside the academy gates. The masters were addressed by their titles, the boys and girls by their family names, and that was that.

  But these two were alone right now, facing a difficult problem. Master Askan would never have alluded to it, but Stad, by addressing him by the family title, made the conversation personal.

  Master Askan said over his shoulder to the banner bearers, “Shift in plans.” His hand flicked out, palm down, and they halted obediently, causing the long column to lurch to a standstill, everyone semaphoring “What?” and “I dunno!” with their eyes, as they were being too obedient for the usual covert whispers.

  So it was not Master Askan and Stad who rode ahead to confer, it was Kettrid Askan and his nephew Indevan Stad.

  The boy who had been so silent faced his uncle in open misery, and a rushing tumble of words came out so fast it was difficult to make them out. “They’ve ruined me. If I get shifted to the lower Houses, they win, and I can’t see any way around it, honor demands if I get—you know—next year, I’d have to refuse. And you know what happens if you refuse a command. Oh, not that the king would do anything to me for that. I know that. He has to know what’s going on. But on the other hand, he couldn’t put me anywhere of importance in the army, not with that gossip sticking to the bottoms of my shoes. I’d stink wherever I go in future. Oh, Uncle, I’m so angry I can’t think, I want to run those brats through the cold water until they drop, and then kick them into running more.”

  He flipped out a hand.

  “Look at ’em! No elbow fights, no talking, none of the usual fooling about that we don’t pay any attention to on long marches. Marching strictly reg—because they think they are going to win, because I’m in command today. Like they put me here. I want to make them as miserable as—” He stopped abruptly, face turned away. By his own code, he’d strayed into whining.

  Master Askan took his time surveying the line. The perfect double line, varying shades of blond heads gleaming in the hazy sunlight, the quiet breeze rustling the two banners. Not a peep. Indevan Marlovair at the front of his House, face rigidly forward. The haze, the glare, the slowly settling dust made it difficult to see his expression, but was that a smirk of triumph or a squint against the westering sun?

  He would not tell Van what Keriam had said about the matter—“This is actually the best kind of command problem, the one you didn’t plan for.” — or the king’s response, “Let Van Stad solve it himself, if he can.”

  Master Askan made a business of rubbing his thinning hair off his forehead. He did not want to give the final command here, so when his nephew frowned, staring through his horse’s ears, his mouth half open, he sat back and waited.

  And Van looked up, and smiled. “Right. You don’t spend your men in a fit of temper. Thank you. I think I ought to have doused my own head. We may’s well camp here. It’ll do as well as our usual site. And I have a different plan.”

  “Do it,” Master Askan said in his master’s voice, so the private moment was over.

  They rode to the line. Stad raised his fist, circled it in the air, then pointed toward the riverside. There they would camp. Usually this area was used in late summer, for water training. What was going on?

  As the line began to move forward, it was not so perfect as before because few could resist a comment, a question, an expression, and multiplied by twos, the whispers rustled in a susurrus down the line, where Shevraeth rode, thinking, There’s going to be trouble.


  Van Marlovair’s mood swooped about like a hawk in the sky.

  He’d woken that morning on fire with anticipation at the prospect of the best overnight game ever. Anticipation, and triumph. He was proving that his father was right. That the Marlovairs were born to command! He—he alone—was getting the entire academy to change. Didn’t that mean, in a sort of way, that he was really in command? Only in a way, and he’d never say it, even to his best riding-mate, Keth Jastan. It would sound so full of swank if said out loud. But still, he was in command, and by getting everybody behind him, he was going to make them put people born to leadership back into leadership. And all by proving that leaders led!

  It was as simple as that. His dad had even said—in a way—it was his duty. “The king is after all just a boy. Oh, he’s smart, and moreover, he’s got a temper. So you don’t tell him what his duty is. You get everyone who sees it behind you, and that will in turn influence him to attend to it.”

  That’s what Dad had said last year, before Marlovair came to start his colt year in the upper academy.

  And it was working!

  It was working, but it sure was not easy. Marlovair had to bite his tongue so often, to ignore good opportunities for scraps and jests, and he had to honey-bun some real horse apples at rec time, and pretend he liked their company. Just because they happened to be born to important families.

  His mood swung again, drifting downward on a cold draft as Landeth began making that irritating noise with his tongue on the roof of his mouth, the galloping sound. That hadn’t been funny since they were all first-year scrubs, but he still did it all the time, and those fatwit followers of his, Olavir and Penderic, loved it when he did it after lights out. Even though it had been centuries since it fooled the rads into going round and round the tents to figure out who it was.

  Still. Landeth and the two idiots had scarfled the very best tent site for him, right across from the cook tent so they’d always be first in line for grub, as he’d commanded. So he’d have to pretend not to notice.

  As he lined up with the rest of Jump House to wait for their assignments, he fought down the urge to pull Keth aside and put together a plan to scrag Landeth, Olavir, and Penderic accident-a-purpose during the night maneuvers, because they were annoying. Since there couldn’t be any tent or bed or gear scrags. On this game no scrags, no raids, no stings, everyone parade-ground perfect, under the command of a real leader, his own cousin, Van Stad. Best in the academy. That was The Plan.

  Marlovair took his place at the front of the line, Keth beside him, and Snakeface and Toss—his honor guard, he liked to think of them—behind. He listened in satisfaction as the others lined up behind Toss and Snakeface, no talking, just the shuffle of feet on grass, and one muffled sneeze.

  And there was Cousin Van, who looked like a hero of the old ballads. Not a single glance toward Jump House, but he wouldn’t do that, not in front of everyone. He was the tallest, and everyone knew he was the best rider in the entire academy, though some idiots talked about Holdan. That stupid foreigner at his right looked like a scrub next to Cousin Van. How Marlovair hated that foreigner. Every time he saw him, his shoulder-blades stung in memory. He sneered as much as he dared, hoping the foreigner would look his way.

  “Tonight’s assignments,” Cousin Van said. “We’ll start with boundary scouts and riding captains conferring—no, no,” he said impatiently as several people started moving, Marlovair among them. “I am picking the riding captains. I don’t care what you decided in your Houses. I’m the commander, after all, am I not?”

  No one spoke. The only sound
was a snort from a horse on the picket line adjacent the rushing river, and a bird whortling in the distant hedgerow.

  Cousin Van gave them a grim smile. With an internal shrug, Marlovair went back to glaring at the foreigner. Come on, come one, one look, just one. See what I think of you, you road apple—


  Van Marlovair jumped, his gaze snapping to his cousin, who said, “You may take that attitude to the cook tent, and work off your sulks with cooking rice balls. You’d best have all the washing done by midnight, because that will be your guard watch.”

  Marlovair gasped. A joke, surely?

  A couple of ill-muffled snickers behind him made it very clear how many thought that the joke, if there was one, was on him.

  Marlovair did not hear all the names of his riding, but from the soft sighs, the shifts from foot to foot around him, he knew that none of his own mates had been named for the fun chore of boundary scouting. The rest of the assignments went out for a night-time game of flag-prisoner. Not the usual scouting drill, done a million times, only worthwhile if you could pull a scrag, but a real game. And here he was, stuck on cook drudge!

  A fun game. But, Marlovair told himself as they were dismissed, it was kind of a babyish game. Taking prisoners—making raids and escape attempts—not a real war game. The men didn’t play at prisoner-raids. So obviously Cousin Van was giving the lesser boys a scrub game, while the future leaders were getting their chores out of the way. Yes, that was it! Everyone had to do some chores, so they were getting theirs over now... only what was that about a midnight patrol? Oh, surely he meant wing captain or advance scout on a night raid!

  Making rice balls was tedious but easy. You had to get the fire going, the cauldron on the boil, and the rice put in to steam while they got the big iron pans ready with crushed olives heating up on them. Then you got the onion browning gently while you separated off the cabbage leaves and dunked them into the ensorcelled bucket, ready for the rice to be plopped in the middle of each cabbage leaf with its pile of browned onion, a hunk of cheese on that, and then the whole rolled in the cabbage and set to crisp up on the pans.

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