A Stranger to Command by Sherwood Smith


  “Fair enough.” Senrid’s mood seemed to shift again. He leaned forward and picked up a pastry. “Like hot chocolate?” He pointed at the pot.

  Shevraeth bowed slightly, not wanting to say that he much preferred coffee—and hadn’t had any for months.

  Senrid said, “The academy will have coffee again in a year or two. Sartor seems to have reopened trade with their neighbors first.”

  The subject of coffee coming up when he’d only thought it, the casual reference to Sartor’s reemergence into the world after a century of enchantment, all unsettled Shevraeth, and intensified that sense of nothing being quite real.

  It was that off-balance sense that brought out the question he’d tried to find in the book—the question he thought he’d never ask. “Why do you break the Code of War?”

  As soon as the words were in the air he wished he could catch them again, and stuff them back down his throat. But Senrid did not frown, or jump up and demand a duel—a beating—whatever. He opened his free hand. “We never agreed to it. So we never practiced it.” He flashed that nasty smile, the one with the teeth. “It was forced on us, truth to tell, as part of a treaty, during the days when the empires were breaking up. That is, we could do whatever we wanted within our borders, but if we rode over the borders armed with bow and arrow, we had a fairly massive alliance of neighboring kingdoms ready for any excuse to come in and take us apart down to the last stone. And I have to say the particular ancestor forced into this treaty deserved it.” He laughed.

  Again the world shifted, but Shevraeth knew it was not a physical reaction, it was the mental whirlwind that results from long-held expectations blasted in a moment.

  Liere handed him a pastry. He thanked her absently.

  He was grateful to have something to do with his hands, and the pastry tasted better than any he remembered, probably because he’d gone so long without such things.

  Liere poured out chocolate for two—none for Senrid—drank hers right off, then poured a second cup in the time it took for Shevraeth to politely take a sip. He realized what seemed familiar. The words Galdran had used about Sartora—small, scrawny child—and the memory that she’d had another name, an unfamiliar name, brought him to realize that he was face to face with the world’s most famous person, outside of the Norsundrian Siamis, whom she had defeated. This scruffy little girl was Liere Fer Eider, universally known as Sartora.

  He stared, and saw a faint flush on her round cheeks. Her brow puckered faintly again, and he sustained yet another inward blow when he remembered what his father had said about her hearing thoughts.

  Embarrassment, sharp and painful, was his reaction. The girl looked up, and words formed in his mind, as if spoken: You have to learn to shield your thoughts. I can’t always shut people out. It takes a lot of effort because I’m learning, too.

  The mental voice was that of a young girl, the tone one of slightly self-conscious kindness.

  Out loud he said, knowing he sounded foolish, but he couldn’t help it. “You’re Sartora.”

  “Yes.” She looked down. “But I really, really hate that name. That is, not the name—it’s a good traditional name—but all the fuss that goes with it. I feel like a fraud.”

  Shevraeth stared at her, finding her reaction utterly beyond his experience. To have done what she had done, and to shun the admiration of others? But to him fame was a given. People recognized him when he rode into Remalna-city, or when he rode around Shevraeth doing his duty as marquis, which he’d taken over when he was ten. The fact that people would know who you were and look at you was a part of life, as unquestionable as having two eyes, or as the fact that winter follows fall. It just is.

  Instead he struggled to find some connective reaction in people at home. He couldn’t imagine Tamara, say, responding that way. She never got enough attention. Trishe would laugh and make jokes. Elenet, the quietest girl he knew, had wept last year when a foreign diplomat had mistaken one of her painted fans for the work of another girl. “Someone she thinks is less talented,” Shevraeth’s mother had explained. “Elenet’s pride was hurt. She’ll be all right. Leave her be—pretend it never happened.”

  Sartora and Senrid had experiences so wide and strange he had no way of comprehending them. He was too unsettled. He had to get away, to think. He finished the chocolate and set down the cup. “I had better return.” And then, remembering who he was with, “If I may?”

  “Of course.” Senrid flicked his fingers open toward the door. “If you want to read more, you’re welcome to visit the library. Anyone will show you where.” His tone, so normal, was reassuring in a curious way, as though Senrid was unaware of all these hidden surprises. But as Shevraeth bowed to Liere, no, to Sartora, for she had done the world great service, he suspected Senrid also somehow knew what he was thinking.

  The runner was waiting for him in the hallway. As soon as she saw him she pocketed the scroll she’d been reading and conducted him down all those halls, and all those stairs, and through the tunnel into familiar surroundings, if not exactly home. He was grateful for her silence.

  ELEVEN

  Upstairs, Liere and Senrid stood at the window. Presently they watched the two blond heads emerge from the tunnel, gold-touched in the torchlight. The runner’s manner was alert, the Remalnan’s head bowed as if he contemplated each step.

  Liere said, “I came before your jealousy made you say something nasty.”

  Senrid’s temper flared, but doused as fast. The fact that her words could cause that reaction meant that they were true, and so he laughed at himself. “Jealous! Jealous. I’ve never been jealous before.”

  He turned away and wandered to the desk, restless, unsettled. “Jealousy. All I recognized was annoyance. I thought if he mouthed out My father said one more time I’d knock him through the window.” He turned his head. “What am I jealous of? I never met the father. Thought him a toady at first, until I recognized the style of his writing. It’s very old-fashioned courtier talk. I saw it in some of the old Sartoran records, before the enchantment. But it conveys nothing of the man. Only something of his goals.”

  Liere struggled to put her thoughts into words. There were too many images to sort for an immediate answer: what she’d gleaned from Shevraeth’s unguarded mind, the beloved older figure central there, kind, loving, wise. Then there were Senrid’s own memories, cherished memories, glimmers he still probably did not know he had shared, so early in their adventures, before he mastered his own ability to shield thoughts. There, too, was a loving father, tall, powerful, smiling, a low, husky voice, a crushing hug, laughter, riding across the plains that smelled of summer sage, safe in warm, strong arms.

  And there was her own bitter upbringing, her father’s petty tyranny, his distrust of her interests, his dislike of her as a person—and his painful bragging to others now that Liere was both away, and famous. She would never go to that house in South End, Imar, ever again. It had never been a real home.

  She looked up. Senrid was waiting for an answer, and she knew the answer would hurt him, but they both had promised there would always be truth between them. “His father is alive,” she whispered.

  o0o

  At the end of the next week, Senelac said abruptly, “All right, enough practice. Before you know it we’ll be up against the gymkhana, and the mouthier hounds are wagering you Ponytails will lose to Mouse House. You don’t want to disgrace me, do you?” ‘Hounds’ being the oldest class in the lower school—next year’s colts.

  She grinned, and Shevraeth grinned back, but his heart began to hammer, because he knew what she expected him to try.

  He wanted to say “I’m not ready yet,” but you don’t say that in this place, he’d learned. Nor could he say, “I’ll never fight with swords on horseback, much less shoot arrows.”

  So he let her bind his hands behind him, not tight, but firm enough so he could not use his arms for balance, and he had to get up on horseback by running and using his legs to vault him high. Ag
ain and again his arms twitched and yanked, always instinctive reaction that he couldn’t control, not with all he had to concentrate on.

  He tried to remember those drills he’d been practicing over and over and over as he rode the obstacles. He managed not to fall off, but the horse was made skittish by his desperate leg grip, the convulsive, abrupt signals, his jerky balance. He rode too slow, and at the end, he couldn’t manage the jump—he knew it and the horse knew it, and she shied and sidled, and refused to go over.

  Senelac was waiting. “Not bad,” she said.

  He stared in amazement. “It was awful.”

  “Not for the first time. No one is good the first time, at least no one here. You’ll do better.” She grinned. “Tomorrow.” Then she stepped behind him, and gave the ropes one quick tug. They fell away. “Oh, better put some poultice on those, and wear your winter togs, with the long sleeves. You can change before breakfast.”

  He looked down, aware for the first time of throbbing and stinging from his wrists, but that was not what made him feel sick inside. These superficial scrapes would heal up in a day or two.

  No, what made him sick was the memory of Senrid-Harvaldar’s scarred wrists, and the conviction that they hadn’t got that way by riding games.

  TWELVE

  “Brushfire!”

  Shevraeth thought the whisper was in his dream. He said to Russav Savona, What’s brushfire mean in Marloven? Savona’s dark hair and eyes blurred, changing to Senelac’s dark hair and eyes—

  —and vanished.

  Shevraeth sat up in bed, bewildered. He couldn’t remember where he was. His mind tried to impose the enormous dimensions of his own bedchamber in Renselaeus, with its row of windows opening onto the roar of the vast waterfall, over this long, narrow room full of rustles and whispers and the drum of heavy rain—

  —and the muffled thud of heels hitting the floorboards. A hand knocked into his arm. A face, revealed by flickering blue light through the window, leaned over him. He was in the barracks in Marloven Hess. The face and dark hair belonged to Stad.

  “. . . going now,” Stad whispered. “Want to come?”

  Lightning flared in the distance again. The boys were wrestling into clothes and boots as fast as they could.

  “Janold asleep?” Shevraeth asked as he pulled on his tunic, his brain laboring to wake up.

  “Gone.” Evrec flung the word over his shoulder, pale hair flying as he dashed after a mass of boys.

  Shevraeth grimaced, yanking hard; his boots seemed to get tougher to force over his feet every day.

  Stad ran between the empty, rumpled beds and out the door into the dark courtyard. Shevraeth followed him, straight into a wall of warm rain so thick he gasped, ducking his head and raising a hand to cup over his mouth and nose.

  Habit prompted him toward the archway to the main passage, but a sock on the arm made him stumble after the others in the opposite direction, toward the wall bordering the lower school. They paired up, vaulting onto the wall with leaps, shoves, and pushes, the last ones reaching up to be yanked, feet scrabbling. Then they dropped into the narrow corridor between the upper school and the lower, running westward.

  Shevraeth had never been this way, because it was out of bounds. His mind caught up. They were out of bounds, running about at night, no rad or master in sight, long after lights out. How many of the rules were they breaking, and for what? Brushfire? Wasn’t that what someone had said? It couldn’t mean a plains fire, not in this deluge. But the only related slang he knew was ‘brush,’ as in ‘Sindan’s gang had a brush with Forthan’s yesterday.’ That meant an exchange of insults, maybe shoves or a smack or two.

  As Shevraeth splashed along behind Stad’s heels, he tried to shrug away the questions. The way the boys ran, tension and excitement rising from them all like a kind of invisible steam, the brushfire had to be something rare, something serious. Worth the risk of being caught breaking this many rules? Another unanswerable question.

  But he was not going to turn back. If the others could live through a beating, so could he. I wanted to see Marlovens fighting, he thought. This is probably the closest I’ll come.

  They ran across a rain-blurred expanse, made a sharp turn, and scrambled under a corral fence. Then they swarmed up onto a stone wall, one by one jumping to an adjacent roof. Other boys lined the slippery, overlapping tiles of the roof, the boys lying flat side by side. Lightning flickered far in the north, the weak blue light illuminating a huge gathering of boys. All the upper-school Houses except for the third-year seniors and a number of second-year seniors crowded on that roof, watching the fight below.

  They were looking down into the seniors’ practice court: forbidden territory.

  Someone shoved Shevraeth down, a flat-handed gesture with intent. He slapped full length on the slippery tiles as a body dropped next to him. An elbow jammed into his ribs, forcing him up against the boy on his other side.

  Below, dim figures struggled. They made long shadows in the courtyard, faintly outlined by the distant castle torches. Shevraeth wiped impatiently at the rain in his face as he tried to make sense of the roil of ghostly figures, then lightning flared again, this time from the south, and he was not the only one who gasped.

  It seemed like hundreds of them down there in a battle so fast, so skilled he couldn’t make out single moves. Nearly a hundred big boys fighting not only with their hands, here and there glinted the cold blue of steel.

  ‘Brushfire’ anywhere else means war, he thought numbly.

  Lightning flared overhead. In that one glare-bright moment the watchers could see that this fight was not like the shrieking grapple of younger boys, mostly noise and wild swings, it was a grim, voiceless, anger-driven striving by trained warriors to subdue, if not quite to kill. The younger boys—and it was only boys, none of the girls were there—savored the fight in silence, some excited, their avid young faces echoing the blood-lust they saw below in big brothers, cousins, or heroes they’d known all their lives. Some seemed uneasy. A very few, like Shevraeth, were appalled.

  Many of the boys were poised to leap, to join in the battle, given only a single word.

  That word did not come.

  Someone, not Ponytail House, had had the wit to set up a rough watch perimeter, so when the whisper flashed down the line, almost as fast as the lightning above, “King’s coming!” they removed themselves in reverse order, quick as they could. Shevraeth turned his head a little sideways to avoid the splats of water splashing up from Gannan’s feet.

  King’s coming.

  A thrill of horror coiled, cold and uneasy, inside his gut. He didn’t know why the seniors had thrown themselves into this battle that couldn’t possibly remain secret, but he knew there would be far worse trouble than gossip in the mess hall the next day.

  The colts all thought they reached their barracks without being caught, though Shevraeth was not the only one to feel that crawl between the shoulder blades that you get when you are sure you are being watched. He kept looking around—most of them looked around, braced for trouble—but the observers, far more experienced than they, merely counted the correct number sneaking back where they belonged, and moved soundlessly on, according to orders.

  Inside the boys dashed one by one through the cleaning frame, which took the dirt away, not the water. In the dark, lit only by intermittent lightning, their drumming heartbeats drowned by the crash of thunder, they wrestled out of their wet clothes, laying the wet things on their trunks under their bunks in hopes they might dry before morning.

  Then into bed, the overwhelming sense of impending disaster so strong that for a time all private boundaries were forgotten, the grudges and personal alliances, until Gannan said, “D’you think we’ll have an academy brushfire? All of us get to—”

  “Shut up,” Evrec ordered.

  Silence, except for the roar of hailstones on the roof.

  The hail passed as quickly as it had come, leaving the steady, unmusical plunk and splat
of drips. In the occasional flares of ever weakening lightning Shevraeth saw reflected gleams in other boys’ wide-open eyes. They were alone. Janold was not in his little alcove off the main entrance. This time it was their radlav who had first broken regs, and they all waited, knowing something would happen.

  But the drips slowed, and it had been a long, hot, tiring day, everyone striving in the knowledge that testing was nigh. Gradually, one by one, they began falling asleep again, Shevraeth—he without family here, without a stake in quarrels he knew nothing about—one of the first.

  o0o

  Evrec, Vandaus, and Baudan were still awake when Janold tiptoed in, his boots in his hands. “Janold,” Baudan, the closest, whispered.

  The senior paused in the door to his alcove.

  Those nearest woke instantly. Janold set his boots down. Most of the boys sat up in bed, pale faces limned in the dim light shining in the window from the distant torches on the walls.

  “What happened?” Baudan asked. “I mean, did the king come?”

  Janold gave a soft, bitter laugh, one with no humor, only self-mockery. “Oh, yes. Zheirban said you boys were on the roof. That true?”

  “We were,” Vandaus admitted, when the others hesitated. “But we left again on signal from Mud House. They were there, too, but they set up a perimeter.”

  Janold sat down slowly on the edge of Baudan’s bed. “Zheirban tried to stop them. Forthan tried at first, but they called him out on threat of—” He stopped, lifting his head and peering down the row. “Is the visitor asleep?”

  Shevraeth had been lying still with his eyes closed, once again fighting his way out of dreams. He could continue to lie there, but then he would be listening under false pretences, the sort of slinking dishonesty the king’s cousin Nenthar Debegri favored, and he despised.

 
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