Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Meanwhile Mouse skirted the entire field, collecting the flags, observed only by Noddy, Sponge, and Inda.

  And the masters.

  Chapter Nine

  TDOR was summoned to Fareas-Iofre in her private chamber.

  It was too early for study; as she straightened out her clothes she reviewed the war game. Her tangle with Branid was not a problem. Even if the Iofre had heard about that, there would be no objections. Except maybe from Branid’s old granddam Marend-Edli, and no one listened to her if they could help it.

  She ran to the Iofre’s room. When she saw Noren’s familiar small, round body, her hair neatly braided and her tunic fresh, she realized what the summons had to be, and her heart seemed to fill with light. The two girls exchanged grins before they entered the Iofre’s chamber.

  Fareas looked at the two faces before her, one thin and serious, the other merry and freckled and round, though right now Noren’s expression was strictly schooled.

  “Noren,” the Iofre said, hiding her own amusement, for this was a serious matter, “Tdor tells me that you have expressed an interest in becoming her personal Runner.”

  Noren slapped palm to chest, not daring to speak.

  “You are eleven, old enough to make the decision to begin the training. It means long days, and you will no longer live with your family, but upstairs. The training is hard. You must learn to defend your Edli, and care for her things. You will study, not just to write in Iascan but in Old Sartoran as well, and you will above all learn to keep your own counsel. Do you think you can do these things?”

  Noren nodded once, her little chin almost knocking her collarbones; then once again she smacked her hand over her heart. They all heard the thump.

  The Iofre smiled briefly. “Now, you know this, yet you do not really know it: though one day you might have lovers, Runners never marry. If they choose to marry and have children, they must give up Runner blue and the accompanying privileges. There can be only one loyalty for a personal Runner to an Edli, something I do not expect you to understand until you are older. But you must keep it in mind. Is this acceptable?”

  For the third time Noren struck her hand over her heart. This time she could not repress her grin.

  “Very well. Then you must go to your home and see to the transfer of your gear. Chelis will help you settle in.” Noren saluted and was gone in two heartbeats.

  “I think she is a good choice,” the Iofre said to Tdor. “But you must remember her honor is in your hands. If it turns out you cannot trust one another, if you grow apart, then you must speak at once. She could always be one of the House Runners. Your Runner is someone who will, we hope, be at your side for life. Remember that as time goes on.”

  Tdor saluted, and the Iofre rose and without further words led the way to the archive, a long corner room with double sets of windows that stood wide open. The cherished shelves of carefully dusted books and scrolls were set against the inside walls.

  There they found Joret waiting. As the Iofre moved to the far table, Joret semaphored a question with her brows raised, and Tdor murmured, “Noren. My Runner.”

  Joret smiled. Noren was a good match, just as she had found a good match in her own silent, tough Gdand.

  The Iofre approached with a scroll. She sat down at the worktable and gestured for Tdor to open it.

  Tdor bent over the rolled end of the ancient manuscript, recognizing it as the one that had just arrived the day before. The paper crackled as she unrolled it, and she smoothed it with careful fingers, setting weights along its length.

  “I think it’s a bad copy,” Joret said, frowning.

  The Iofre looked up with quick concern. “Oh, I trust not,” she murmured. “My sister sent it. The seal bears her sigil.”

  Tdor scanned the Old Sartoran lettering. Until she started parsing it, the flowing script, going top to bottom instead of side to side, looked like vines and strange, stylized flowers.

  “Here,” Joret said, pointing to the first row. “And here. Look!” She whispered the words to herself, feeling the world reform around her in a way she could scarcely define. “Shaping root-buds of light—isn’t it? Does that mean something?”

  “No . . .” The Iofre’s high forehead puckered in perplexity.

  “Shaping root-buds of light?” Joret and Tdor both felt, and hid, their mirth. The Iofre usually did not mind, but today she seemed tense. No, intense, Joret thought.

  “It is ‘cloud,’ ” the Iofre said in her soft voice.

  “But the word for ‘cloud’ ought to be written with the ‘ei’, not ‘eh’. ‘Clouds’ has the double vowel, does it not?” Joret asked.

  “Yes. Tdor? The ascription?”

  Tdor bent over the writing at the very end, mouthing the words, then translating out loud. “ ‘This taeran was copied from one captured from a Venn warship in Geranda.’ ” She looked up. “Dated three hundred years ago.”

  “That explains it, then,” the Iofre said. “Some mage in the Land of the Venn must have written it down as spoken out loud.”

  Tdor and Joret knew that Marlovan had altered its vowel sounds over the generations since they had been exiled from the Venn. Some words—such as Jarl—had changed a consonant instead, from “hya” to “jha.”

  The Iofre said, “Yet my sister writes that its title matches with one on an ancient list, a taeran purported to be one of the few that address magic as understood in Old Sartor.”

  Unsaid was how much of a price the sisters had paid.

  Joret looked up, her eyes wide, the color of rain-washed sky. “I see that phrase we have discussed before—‘dena Yeresbeth’—but it is spelled in the Venn pronunciation, ‘deneh Ieresbedh.’ ”

  Tdor rubbed her thumb over her lip. Dena Yeresbeth. Everyone knew that “beth” in Old Sartoran was “three,” and “dena” was a verb that usually meant “made of.” “Yeres” was the word that mages all over the world debated.

  “ ‘Shaping clouds of light.’ Now that sounds Sartoran,” Joret whispered to Tdor as the Iofre checked a glossary.

  “You mean makes no sense, right?” Tdor whispered back.

  Jarend-Adaluin, standing in the open doorway and looking in at the three of them, saw the secret mirth in the girls’ faces. Tdor was a dear child, but his gaze did not linger on her uncomplicated features and untidy brown braids. It tarried, painful as an unhealed wound, on the color under Joret’s smooth brown skin, the long eyelashes, the light that seemed to gather in her remarkable eyes. The shape of bone in socket and jaw and skull, the waving fall of her glossy black hair, all of it a fresh reminder of his own beloved Joret.

  He shifted his gaze away, used to the pain of that, too, and met his wife’s eyes across the width of the room. Fareas’ patient brown gaze never changed as the girls belatedly noticed the presence of the tall, straight, gray-haired man there in the doorway and rose hastily to their feet, slapping their hands to their hearts in childish politeness. The Iofre saluted and he returned it. They never relaxed the courtesies before any other person. They had far too much respect for one another.

  “Your pardon, Fareas-Edli,” he said, “for my interruption of your studies.”

  “You are welcome,” she responded, pulling from inside her robes his heavy seal-ring on its fine chain. She unhooked it and held it out on her palm. “Welcome home, Jarend-Dal. I can lay aside the work if you have need to consult with me at once.”

  “No, no, do continue,” the Adaluin said. “And you had better keep the seal,” he added. “I am not home long.”

  The girls looked from one to the other; then Joret sat down and returned to the manuscript. She knew that the Adaluin would never notice her unless there was a need, and then he would be formal, kind, impossible to understand. She no longer bothered trying to gain his attention. She saw him too seldom for that.

  Tdor sat down too, and bent over the manuscript, but she listened to the adults. Living people were more interesting to her than those in old records.

“Just before I reached our home gates I received a Runner,” the Adaluin said. “From Standas on the coast watch. There is word of a pirate ship having been seen. I must depart again tomorrow. But my route will take me close to Marth-Davan, so if you wish, I will escort Tdor there for her Name Day visit.”

  Tdor’s mouth rounded in surprise. Pride mixed with dismay.

  The Iofre turned her way, and smiled. “Should you like a royal Honor Guard, my dear?”

  Tdor rose and saluted. “Thank you, Adaluin-Dal.” There could be no other answer.

  “That means you must be prepared to travel tomorrow,” the Iofre said. “We had better see to your arrangements.”

  The Adaluin said, “I will leave you to it. I must rotate the ridings for our journey.” There would be no leave for the Adaluin, of course, but it would never occur to him to complain. The purpose of his life was to ride his lands all year long, defending, inspecting, judging, his household ready in case the pirates ever returned.

  Tdor, still watching, saw the Iofre look distracted, but not at all upset. Tdor wondered if she someday would feel just distracted, and not upset, if Tanrid were to send Inda away to inspect the coast. She couldn’t imagine not being upset, nor could she imagine Inda not being upset. Though he was excited to go to the academy, she remembered the quiver of his mouth as they said their farewells.

  She wondered what was missing in adults that was there for children. Maybe she had it backward, that something was missing in children which made adults so difficult to understand.

  “Come child,” the Iofre said softly. “This is not the time to stand over our studies.”

  Tdor realized she’d been staring at the scroll that now she would not get to read for an entire month, until her return. She followed the Iofre out, while the Adaluin crossed the castle to his own private rooms, unchanged for twenty-five years.

  He passed through his workroom and the small room he used for a bedroom, then opened the door to the grand and princely bedroom that everyone thought permanently closed, the chamber untouched by his command. Unlike his own rooms, which were as clean as they were austere, this room lay under a twenty-five-year film of dust, the bedding rumpled, his dead wife’s night robe crumpled on the brown-stained rug; the room smelled of dust and faintly of mildew, for even the mold-spells had not been renewed. No one had been permitted in the room at all except himself.

  The windows let in long, golden shafts of light. Jarend-Adaluin’s single step to the threshold was enough to stir the dust motes upward in lazy swirls. They floated, tiny points of fire in the light; out of the light they extinguished to the softness of ash.

  But the light, the dust, were not what held his attention. They only enabled him to see the form limned in gold luminosity, the young shoulders, the exqisite line of brow and jaw and neck, the soft fall of black hair a shadow-contrast to the shimmering, ghostly form of Joret, his beloved first wife, as she stood near the spot where she had bled to death, gazing through the windows into eternity.

  Chapter Ten

  THE scrubs’ first Restday finally arrived.

  “Beginning with Firstday tomorrow, you will revert to academy schedule: callover once a day, weekly inspections.”

  Master Gand ignored the whoop for one breath; then, he tapped against his boot the willow wand that all the masters either carried or wore at their belts. The voices stilled.

  Master Gand said, “After breakfast you still have your stable duties. There is no Restday for those under our care.”

  Meaning animals, a few thought, those few who had listened past the word “duties.” Sponge was the only one who heard the underlying message, though as usual he gave no discernable sign.

  “You will also,” Gand said, “beginning with the midday meal, be permitted to speak in the mess hall. All that is, except Lassad.” Pause, several smirking looks sent Smartlip’s way.

  “See that you do not lose the privilege again. Next time will be at least a month. You have liberty from noon to sundown bells, when you’ll report back for drums. Dismissed.”

  The boys stampeded from the parade ground.

  One good thing about morning stable work was seeing all the new foals. The scrubs all managed to find business at that end of the stable, and Master Olin smiled at tender strokes from small, grubby hands, the covert kisses on the velvety-soft newborn muzzles. The sooner humans and horses accustomed themselves to one another, the better for each.

  Midday meal, their first with the gag lifted, added their treble voices to the adolescent uproar in the mess hall, amid the clatter of wooden spoons against wooden bowls used by three hundred ravenous boys.

  Now that the scrubs could talk, the pigtails lost interest in teasing them by sign and grin, and the scrubs, left to themselves at last, squeezed onto one table instead of their usual two, ten to a side, in a rival-free merriment that they had never before experienced. The mess hall was the same: the hard butt-worn benches, the ubiquitous smell of baked rice balls and cabbage, slow-roasted garlic-and-onion rubbed chicken, and rye bread, but now that they could talk everything seemed new.

  But after all, only nineteen added to the general noise. Smartlip still had to sit in silence. And no one paid him the least attention. He attacked his food in a rage, sploshing his water and clacking his spoon against his bowl until he saw the glances of ill-concealed mirth sent his way.

  Oh, he expected frost from Cama (he was going to start calling him Meow) and Noddy the Slacker (another nickname Smartlip was trying to generate), but Kepa and Rattooth and Cherry-Stripe were supposed to be on his side.

  Cherry-Stripe never noticed Smartlip’s inward agonies. He was too busy fuming over his own problems.

  At least you were captain of your riding, his brother Buck had said, catching him on the way to the baths last night and slapping him two or three times to emphasize his words. But that Mouse Marth-Davan getting the enemy flags? You should have gotten at least one! Don’t disgrace me again.

  And then he’d vanished into the night, without even letting Cherry-Stripe have a chance to explain that Mouse had been a decoy, sneaking around to grab the flags while he, Cherry-Stripe, fought valiantly against Cama. Of course, then his brother might ask who made that plan, because it wasn’t like any plan they’d ever made at home. He’d have to admit it had been Inda’s.

  Cherry-Stripe rubbed his arm where his brother had gripped him, staring at the others. Cama’s face was puffy on one side and showed a new bruise under his unruly black hair. New bruises, from last night: Horsebutt had obviously thrashed him as well, probably for the same reason.

  Cherry-Stripe sighed. He didn’t want to sympathize with anyone who had to be related to Horsebutt, not when Cama stubbornly stayed friends with Sponge. Cherry-Stripe had his orders. Once Cama decided Sponge was no good to be around, Cherry-Stripe could take him into his own group.

  Sponge. Where was he? Sitting with Rattooth, talking quietly at the other end. That was another thing. Sponge was, everyone said, a rabbit, but Cherry-Stripe hadn’t seen any sign of it. Bad training, yes. He was the worst of the scrubs. Not that it mattered. He had his orders.

  What did matter was when people acted, well, like you didn’t expect them to act. How could you plan against that?

  Like that Inda. Truth was, he’d really been the leader yesterday, but he wasn’t strutting. In Cherry-Stripe’s experience, if you won, you strutted. Most likely it was all accident. Yes, that was it. Accident.

  Assigning motivations that he understood eased Cherry-Stripe’s inner debate, until noise broke into his brooding. He looked up, saw them all laughing—all except Noddy, who never changed expression, and Cama, who laughed soundlessly.

  “. . . and so we put an egg in each of their boots, see, and then—” Dogpiss’ face was crimson as he wheezed for breath.

  “C’mon.” Tuft smacked the table. “What happened?”

  Dogpiss shook his head, still wheezing with laughter.

  Inda reached over and pounded him on
the back.

  “M-me . . . mmmm . . .” Dogpiss gasped, tears squeezing between his eyes, and he waved a helpless hand at Inda.

  “Here’s what he told me in the baths the other night,” Inda said, grinning down the table. “Whipstick slipped into the bell tower and rang the alarm. So the guards ran out of the barracks.” He paused to snicker.

  “Th . . .” Dogpiss whimpered. “The . . . b-boots . . . oh!”

  Inda said, “Patrol jumped straight into their boots. Ran out. Or started. Some of ’em got four, five steps. Slowed down. Then they started dancing like their feet were on fire—”

  “Wailing!” Dogpiss forced the word out. “Howling!”

  “By the time they all got out to the parade court, they were all hopping around—” Inda said, then he caught sight of Dogpiss’ sweaty, snotty face, and he too succumbed to paroxysms.

  “What? What? What?” Ndarga demanded.

  Noddy sighed. “His Ain laughed so hard he fell off the bell tower. Broke his arm.”

  The listeners whooped. Noddy, of course, looked resigned.

  When the laughter had died down, Kepa asked, “So they found you out, huh?” And at Dogpiss’ nod, he bent forward, his freckled face eager. “Did you catch the willow?”

  “Oh, something fearful.” Dogpiss snickered. “M’ father whupped us himself.”

  Kepa giggled, wide-eyed and avid. “Didya get welters?”

  “We couldn’t lie on our backs for a month, and Whipstick with a broken arm.” Dogpiss wriggled his shoulder blades, and two or three boys twitched shoulders in unconscious empathy. “ ’Twas worth it. We started calling the captain Dancing Tderga.”

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