A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  “That was a stupid idea, going up into trees.” She stopped, shocked at her own tone of voice.

  He stopped as well, and gazed down into her torchlit face, her eyes so wide he could see twin flames in them, reflected from the corbel overhead.

  He said, with care, “No, the trees were not stupid. But being overheard was.” He did not say that he was gong to find a way to make the tree plan work, but he didn’t quite know how yet. These were descendents of plains riders. Trees were obstacles. Even his friends had laughed at the notion of climbing trees. He hadn’t defended his idea, not without testing it.

  But he wasn’t going to explain that to her, though last year he might have.

  She saw his expression alter from remote to something harder to parse—thoughtful, maybe. Severe. “All right. I didn’t mean to say that, anyway. I don’t even know why we’re here. No, I know we’re here because I insisted—” She stopped. “There isn’t going to be trouble between you and Ret, is there?”

  “No,” he said, and then his eyes narrowed. “Were you expecting any?”

  She flushed. “I don’t want it. If that’s what you’re really asking.” The conversation was steadily getting more nightmarish—she had crossed some kind of boundary that she had not known was previously there until she crossed it.

  He tipped his head back, then said in a considering voice, “Forthan knows who instigated this encounter of ours.”

  She dug her fingernails into her palms. “So you’re saying I hurt him on purpose?”

  “I’m saying what I said,” he retorted lightly enough. “What I am implying is that he is aware I did not seek you out.” He hesitated.

  She said, “Go on. Say what you’re going to say.”

  His polite gaze was resting somewhere over her head. “I told him some time ago that you are I aren’t twoing. What I didn’t tell him—I only saw it recently. Today, in fact. The reason we weren’t twoing is because you were ashamed of me.”

  “Ashamed—?”

  “That’s what it seems like to me.”

  Her entire body flamed. “Your experience being so great,” she said, and hated herself again, but by now she was almost desperate to see him lose control of his emotions the way she had, because why else did she have to keep wiping her eyes?

  But he did not look at her defiant scrubbings of her sleeve across her eyes, he studied the row of torches on the battlement behind her head as he said in a ruminative voice, “What experience I have with girls is what you gave me. And I guess I didn’t see it because...” Because Vidanric Renselaeus, Marquis of Shevraeth, descendant of three kings, was not a Marloven. “. . . I didn’t think I’d done anything to be ashamed of.”

  “You make me sound horrible,” she said, though she knew what she really meant was, I sound horrible when you tell the truth. “I’m not going to be able to fix things, am I?” She glared up at him through burning eyes.

  “Fix?”

  She struck her fist against her thigh. “Make it so there is no attraction to you. Like a closed door. I don’t want to be divided between two people, especially one who will go to that—to your faraway home. I didn’t want to care about anything but kisses and a few laughs, but you kept making me care. Now suddenly there’s someone I will probably want to marry, but I don’t want any other pull on my... damn these tears,” she whispered fiercely. “On. My. Heart.”

  “So to make your own life more convenient you want me to pick a fight and be the villain,” he said—unbelieving—but she did not deny it, because she realized it was true—in a sense.

  And he knew it was wrong—in a sense.

  She sniffed, and gulped, and wiped her eyes again.

  He wanted so badly to kiss those tears from her eyelashes, he wanted to hold her. Even though she was rejecting all that he was except for the most trivial of ephemera, his looks. And even though he knew it, there was still this flame of attraction between them.

  The depth of unfairness turned the flame into anger long enough for him to say, “Consider it done.”

  And walk away.

  And keep walking despite the desolate sob behind him.

  She’d chosen the one who could comfort her, and he was a good fellow. Probably the best one in this entire cursed kingdom. So she could go find him now.

  Shevraeth kept walking to the great parade ground, which was empty. He crossed it under the ceaselessly vigilant eyes of the sentries on the battlements as they paced the worn, ancient stones, looking out for the ancient enemy that they knew was going to come. He walked until he reached the senior barracks. He passed that, too, and did not stop until he reached the outside wall of their court, with nothing beyond it but the paddocks for horse training, and beyond those, the wind soughing through the grasses all the way to the sea.

  He leaned his hot forehead against the cool stones of the wall, and wept.

  FORTY-FOUR

  Shevraeth hated the summer games.

  It wasn’t the games themselves. He had come to enjoy the competitions and demonstrations. It was the time in between that made him feel isolated and out of sorts, especially this year.

  Though by summer’s end the sharp pain that had knifed him every time he passed the stables, much less heard Senelac’s voice in the mess hall (and he could not stop himself from listening for her quiet voice, her soft laugh) had dulled to an occasional ache. They’d taken care to avoid one another. He hadn’t seen her at all. When the senior boys finally did hold their search game with the girls, it was to complete defeat. They never found a sign of the girls. The seniors were loud in their disappointment. For one thing, they’d had a bet going with the girls that resulted in a week of stable cleaning duty. And though Shevraeth made noises of disappointment along with the others, he was quite relieved, even though he had to rise early every day to wand out what seemed like endless stalls.

  Fewer parents showed up for the summer games than did for Winter Convocation, which required all the Jarls to come to renew their vows to the king. But those parents who did come to the summer games wanted to be shown over the academy, or walk over it again if they’d attended, and so the talking, laughing, reminiscing voices of fathers—sometimes grandmothers and grandfathers—echoed off the stone, mingling with the talking, laughing, bragging voices of boys.

  Shevraeth loathed the endless watches between the competitions, when the barracks were mostly packed up and half-empty, none of his friends about because they all seemed to be with their families. It was true that Marec and Stad had both offered to include Shevraeth with their families, but it took little imagination to envision everyone’s awkwardness, the trivial conversation forced on all by the presence of a stranger. Maybe even being regarded as a peculiarity by relatives. And in Stad’s family there’d be the added prospect of tension from his cousin’s family, who were the principal branch. No and no and no.

  He thanked them both, said that it would be wonderful if they all happened to find themselves in the same place at the same time—and saw to it that he never encountered any of them. Instead, once the seniors’ lance demonstration was over he hid out in the castle’s Residence wing, where absolutely no one went without invitation. There, in Senrid’s library, he continued his hunt for books by or about rulers.

  It was there that Senrid found him the last day.

  Shevraeth flushed with embarrassment, as if he’d been caught in a false position. As if that kingship speculation was made more real by his reading.

  But the sense that he’d commited an act of arrogance vanished like smoke when Senrid glanced down with immediate recognition at the book he was replacing on the shelves. “Ah.” He grinned. “I hoped you’d find that one. But that’s about the last of the useful ones here. My uncle got to most of the good ones before I turned seven. He didn’t want me getting dangerous ideas, like the king having to obey the laws he makes and enforces. So I borrowed some from friends in case you want to read ’em. But I don’t have ’em here. I’m keeping them upstairs. Ther
e’s a room next to my study. I hope you’ll read those over winter. You can copy them out if you like, there’s paper and pens and ink there. You can do that while the others are doing map work.”

  “Map work?” Shevraeth repeated, bewildered by Senrid’s rapidly changing subjects.

  “Yes. I asked Stad, Evrec, and a couple of the others to stay over the winter. Along with some of the younger commanders. They’re going to be memorizing the kingdom map, and then putting together what we’ve learned since spring, and planning retreats. Next spring the games will change to how fast we can get away and not be spotted.” Senrid opened a hand. “Anyway, far as they are concerned, you’ll be busy studying history.”

  Shevraeth was almost heady with relief. Senrid seemed to have assumed that he would study kingship. In Senrid’s context, he wasn’t being arrogant, he was being practical.

  The bells rang, and Senrid jumped up. “Come on, you have to watch the second-year colts’ demo.”

  The colts? A demo?

  Senrid led the way down one of the backstairs. They emerged at the very back of the stands. Senrid did not go below to the raised platform on which the kings had traditionally been seated. He wedged in among the people in the rear, high above the parade ground, Shevraeth following.

  They were in time to see Marlovair and his House ride out. Usually second-year colts didn’t ride—but obviously something had been agreed between them and Keriam. Shevraeth remembered that conversation with Evrec before one of the command meetings, in which Senrid had said he knew what they were doing. So Senrid had been in on it as well.

  And now everyone discovered what they had been doing in secret. They demonstrated, with exhilarating skill, trick riding of a kind Shevraeth had not imagined could even be done.

  An old man a couple rows down cackled, “Just like the old days, just like the old days!”—as around him the crowd cheered and whistled.

  Below, the boys leaped from horse to horse as the animals—all steady goers, Shevraeth recognized—galloped in a circle. The boys tumbled, they jumped down and up onto the next horse, and Marlovair and another boy even did handstands on the broad hindquarters of cantering horses. They tossed spears back and forth, and then—to drumming on the benches and shouts counterpoint to the horses’ hooves—they tossed swords from hand to hand. Risking life and limb, Shevraeth thought, and for what? You couldn’t do any of that in a fight... but you could do it if you wanted to regain the respect of your peers. Or regain your own self-respect.

  The insight was new, tentative. As the demonstration came to an end amid wild cheers, Senrid murmured, “What do you think?”

  Shevraeth considered his words.

  Senrid flicked him an impatient glance, then jumped to his feet. Everyone around them obligingly moved aside. There was no bowing, none of the protocol for kings that Shevraeth had grown up thinking was required, but somehow everyone knew Senrid was there, and deferred without noise or elaborate gesture.

  Shevraeth followed him through that back entrance into the castle.

  Senrid said, “Well?”

  “It was splendid,” Shevraeth replied.

  “But? I hear ‘but’ in your voice.”

  “Well, two things. If you will accept these as observations and not as cavils.”

  Senrid suppressed a sigh. Shevraeth might look and sound and move like a Marloven, but he was still a courtier. And one would be a fool to fault him for resorting to his early training when he must not only return to it, but resume it or be killed. “Go on,” was all he said.

  “The skills are great to watch. But of what use? Second observation, despite their being useless, I saw some of the first-year colts in the stands watching so closely you know they’re going to be trying the same tricks next spring. They looked like they were divided fairly equally between awe and envy. Is this sort of demonstration going to become a new rule, and will it require new and more spectacular trickery?”

  Senrid flashed his grin. “You are the only one who saw that. The only one! That’s exactly why my father forbade those tricks when he first came to the throne. Exhibitions were to be useful skills only, except for the riding patterns that go back to our forefathers. And those can be dangerous enough—as you know from lance practice.”

  “Ah.”

  “I gave them permission for a one-time. Regain their honor. You know what everyone said about ’em after they tried to run Evrec out. Everyone gated ’em. You probably didn’t see much of that, but all the lower academy did, and they caught fire from the little boys. So I made them a deal. If they got into any more trouble, no demo. If they did what they were told the remainder of the year, they got a one-time chance. No one will be permitted next year.” Senrid’s face tightened. “If we get a next year.”

  There was no answer to be made to that.

  o0o

  Danric? We had our first big cold storm, knocking the leaves off the trees. The rest have turned. That makes it an entire season without a letter from you—a record even for you. If you are dead, find a way to let me know. Or would you see this? A dilemma. Yours to solve. You’ll note my generosity here in writing to a dead man. Never let it be said I forget my friends whatever their state, regardless (pause to tuck behind my ear a single white rose) of how said friends treat me.

  So. News. Your father went off to Sartor to protect our trade, with Galdran’s good will, I am relieved to report. Apparently the marquise made enemies there—actually, according to the gossip, it was Fialma. That’s the real reason why they’re here again. The ambassador’s niece’s maid, whose sister worked in the Merindar relations’ house (got all that?) in Sartor reported that said relations booted her out with a lot of excuses about a hastily-arranged long-planned trip to somewhere or other. More gossip if you respond. This note is a test to see if the magic is still on this thing, and a prod to get you to reach for your pen again if it is. R.

  o0o

  Sorry, Russav. Nothing to say, and we had extra chores sending us constantly out of the academy boundaries. Too long to explain now. Then there were the Games to prepare for and do, and now I’m busy recopying books, which is using all my time. I haven’t heard from my parents, so I’m assuming that I’m to spend the winter again. V.

  o0o

  The window rattled.

  Shevraeth paused, his pen midway between the ink and the paper. The light in the window had weakened to the faint bluish light of a huge snow storm. He grimaced. The walk to the senior barracks would seem as long as a day march in that.

  He sat back and sighed, flexing his hands. He was actually enjoying this particular record from, according to Senrid, yet another relation, Valdon na Shagal, who’d ruled some form or another of the kingdom that Flauvic was in now. The record seemed to have fallen out of fashion, or else this copy was really old, translated into a very old-fashioned form of Court Sartoran. It had been difficult at first, but Shevraeth had enjoyed the long-ago Valdon’s voice so much he persisted far longer than he would have for someone less entertaining.

  He regarded the ancient book. Take Heed, My Heirs! If you considered all descendants, maybe he was one of those heirs. Valdon’s wife had been a Dei, his aunt married to someone whose name sounded uncomfortably like Marlovair, but wasn’t. It wasn’t Montredaun-An, either. Only written once, the name had an ink blotch, and so he could only guess at it.

  He leaned back in his chair, stretching as he regarded a folding screen painted with graceful reeds, butterflies dancing above. This screen was new since Shevraeth’s last visit in the Residence. Senrid had been rediscovering pieces of artwork his mother had brought to the castle on her marriage. According to Stad, the Regent had ordered it all be burned as ‘civilian decadence’ but Keriam had told certain servants to hide as much as they could.

  Keriam again. One thing Shevraeth had discovered was that Keriam had not only run the academy, but had in a sense acted as father to Senrid after King Indevan was knifed by his own brother. Now here was evidence that Keriam had pre
served a lot of the Montredaun-An family art and even some of the records. You could call him a kingmaker, though he hadn’t picked the king. Or had he? He’d also led a part of the army when the Marlovens had revolted against the Regent. So he’d been important. Would his name be remembered as long as Senrid’s might be, assuming (Senrid would be the first to say so) he didn’t end up dead, having had one of the shortest reigns ever?

  What will be my place in history?

  Sudden laughter gusted from the main room on the other side of the screen. On the nearest wall there was a new tapestry as well. A new old one, he thought, regarding the old-fashioned clothes, the stiff, upright posture of the two leaders of opposing armies in a scene that could not possibly have happened. For one thing, no horse would tolerate someone sitting like that, especially in full armor—even at a treaty gathering—

  More laughter, led by Stad’s distinctive voice. Next year they would be second-year seniors, the top of the school, as there would be no third-year seniors. What would happen after that? Shevraeth wondered if he’d ever see any of these fellows again, supposing his father did summon him home at last. Would they all promise to write, and then feel it an awkward obligation as time went by? What do you say when you part with people you’ve lived with for so long, and you suspect you’ll never see them again?

  The door opened and Senrid dashed in. “Give me that medallion.” He held out his hand.

  Shevraeth fished it out of his shirt and pulled the still-warm chain over his head. He tossed it to Senrid, feeling odd without it on him.

  The metal and chain rang faintly as it landed on Senrid’s palm. Senrid sat down in the other chair, unrolled a piece of paper he’d been carrying, and bent over the medallion. For a time he whispered softly.

  Shevraeth realized he was seeing magic done. Not that there was much to see, except for Senrid bent over the glinting gold on his palm, his lips moving, his eyes intent and steady. Tiny beads of sweat formed along his hairline. He dropped the paper, made a complicated gesture with his fingers too quick to follow. A brief snap of a weird scintillation—not quite light, more felt than seen—then Senrid sat back and drew a long breath. Shut his eyes, drew another, then opened them; whatever cost the magic had taken from him had passed.

 
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