Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “To his face?” Basna asked, looking skeptical, impatiently tossing a drift of pale hair out of his eyes.

  Dogpiss looked at him like he’d grown another ear. “Of course not! You think we’re stupid?” He poked Inda. “Tell ’em the one about the paint soup.”

  Inda shrugged, grinning. “Not as good as the Egg Dance.”

  Kepa sniggered. “Just don’t try that here. Or you can, Inda. But not Dogpiss, unless you want to get flogged before the entire school.”

  “It’s not a real flogging,” Tuft said, waving a hand. “Just a dusting with a willow wand.”

  Kepa leaned forward. “Hundred dusters’ll raise weepers.”

  Most of the boys grimaced. Cherry-Stripe scoffed, “Oh, nobody gets a century unless it’s theft, or cowardice. Something big. Not stings.”

  “You Vayirs wouldn’t get it anyway,” Kepa said, still with that avid grin. “At least, you have to agree. Or your father does. So, Dogpiss, if you want to run a sting, better let Inda do it. Or Cassad. Or Sponge.”

  All the fun had gone from the talk, despite Kepa’s big grin.

  Sponge looked away; Inda said, “It’s a matter of honor. Not a matter of refusing to stand up to a punishment you earned just because of your rank. Read the histories. That rule came in the early days of the academy, when it was just Vayirs here, and there were accusations against boys for political reasons—”

  “No history! No history,” Dogpiss said, waving a hand. “If I think of a sting, I run it myself, Vayir or no Vayir.”

  Inda looked around the table, saw disgust, unease, even anger. “Look, everyone’s done! And now we got our first real liberty. Who wants to waste it blabbing?”

  They all remembered that it was really Restday, and yelling with joy—with relief—they grabbed up their dishes and fled.

  Inda followed more slowly. He didn’t like the way Cherry-Stripe had been watching him, before Kepa started that hare about flogging and the rules governing Vayirs. It had to either mean another scrag or else something worse.

  He dropped his dish into the barrel and ran out, looking for Sponge so he could find out how to get to Hadand.

  A rough hand on Inda’s shoulder made him jump. He whirled around and stared up into his brother’s face. Tanrid looked taller than ever, and old, and hard, with his hair pulled up in back, and his gray war coat outlining the shape of his arms.

  “Took you long enough to eat,” Tanrid snapped. “What did you do, go back for fifths?”

  Inda knew better than to answer, of course—and Tanrid didn’t wait for an answer anyway. “Come on, we’re going to Daggers,” he snarled, as if Inda had somehow resisted.

  Once Tanrid hadn’t shown up in the first three days, when everyone else had gotten sponsored—everyone, that is, except Sponge—Inda had accustomed himself to the idea that Tanrid would not come. He was now amazed, and it showed.

  Tanrid glowered around, chin jutting and eyes narrowed. Not angry, even if he looked it. Inda knew to a nicety all the gradations of his brother’s temper, but this mood was a new one.

  Tanrid let Inda go and struck off through byways Inda was just beginning to master, his pace so fast Inda had to skip-walk in order to keep up.

  As they emerged from the stable-scented austerity of the academy, Inda wondered if, like Cherry-Stripe and Cama, he too was going to catch it for not having personally snatched flags.

  They passed through the high gates and into the city itself. To one side was the outer boundary of the king’s castle, the honey-stone walls smooth, the windows so lofty nothing of the inside could be seen. To the right, little streets opened off here and there, narrow gaps between ivy-covered stone buildings.

  The weather was fine, so windows were open; Inda, rounding a corner, passed a low one at his own height and he glanced inside to see a snug room with bunk beds, a worktable, and steps leading down into some room on a lower level. The houses, though made of stone, were far more adaptable than castles, with walls pulled down or built up, rooms added onto rooms not just adjacent to them, but below or above.

  Then they were past, and he turned his attention to the Restday revelers in their best clothing, all except for the sentries. After a week of Marlovan it was strange to hear Iascan again.

  “Here we go,” Tanrid said abruptly, as they rounded a corner and now they heard Marlovan once more, the loud chatter and laughter of boys.

  Daggers Drawn was a long, low building, indistinguishable from the others around it except for the weather-beaten sign outside, the golden fox of the academy on a black background.

  That fox was so familiar to Tanrid he no longer noticed its strange beaklike muzzle or the raptorish slanted eyes. It was old, Inda thought, lingering on the threshold. Really old—

  “Move!” Tanrid thrust Inda through the low door.

  Inda kept his retort in his head, and looked around.

  Tanrid, unlike Inda, did not notice the long-familiar odor comprised of horse and boy-sweat and spiced cider and the thick, dark, mildly fermented brew that was called rootbrew though its main constituent was barley. He didn’t notice the tattered banners on three walls, donated years before by graduating horsetails after wins in the traditional banner games of summer, or the battered, knife-furrowed tables and benches. As Inda looked around, eyes wide, mouth open, Tanrid watched his brother and realized that Inda, far from being annoyed at how long it had taken Tanrid to get over to the scrub den to do his duty, had not expected him at all.

  Tanrid, so self-conscious his manner was surly, thrust Inda toward the proprietor, a gimp-legged old lancer who paused in the act of dipping ceramic mugs into the barrel with the magic cleaning spell on it, and set them down.

  “My brother, Indevan-Dal Algara-Vayir,” Tanrid muttered, hot-eared and self-conscious. And to Inda, “That’s Mun. Keeps score.”

  Ketha Mundavan, Lancer captain to the old king, eyed the Algara-Vayir pup with concealed interest. His sun- and scar-seamed face never gave the least sign of this interest, but he listened to all the boys’ gossip, freely canvassed in this retreat from the rules and regulation of the academy, and he’d heard a surprising amount about this newly arrived scrub.

  But he didn’t speak, just gave a nod, and that was that.

  Tanrid recalled vaguely that on his own introduction here, his father had spoken with Mun about old times, and felt that he ought to be doing something like it, or something, anyway. He wondered what he was supposed to say. “See that you never overrun your score,” he snarled.

  But that just sounded like a beak. Acutely embarrassed now, he thrust Inda so hard toward a bench he stumbled.

  Mun recognized that embarrassment with practiced ease, and so he resumed washing glasses, knowing that it would be a little while before Tanrid recovered.

  Inda sat where he was told and scowled down at his hands. On one side of them a party of pigtails laughed about some private wager; beyond them, in the stuffy corner farthest from either window or fire, were five scrubs, and Inda sensed five speculative gazes on his back. On the fire side of the room, the preferred area, several seniors in their gray academy war coats held court. Inda could hear their rumbly voices, but he didn’t look their way because that would be perceived as frost.

  Not that it mattered who they were, or what they talked about. They were all having a good time, and he wished he was anywhere but here, with Tanrid of all people, and wondered when he’d ever get the chance to talk about interesting old battles with Sponge, who, it turned out, loved reading old records as much as he did. Or if he’d ever get to see Hadand.

  He repressed a sigh, and Tanrid glared at him and said, “I had reasons for not coming sooner. All-day field runs, then got sent out on a two-day scouting run. Lasted till yesterday.”

  Inda once again looked surprised.

  Tanrid was so surprised to see his brother’s surprise that he forgot his own unease. “You thought I wouldn’t?”

  Inda mumbled a few words at the floor.

“Speak up,” Tanrid commanded, exasperated.

  “. . . or something,” Inda muttered, and a burst of loud laughter from behind them drowned out the rest of his words.

  Tanrid looked at those moving lips, the averted gaze, and suppressed a desire to slap some sense into the brat.

  “What’s with you?” He leaned forward so they wouldn’t be overheard. He, too, was aware of those staring scrubs, and if the rules about fighting hadn’t been even more stringent here than at mess, he’d go knock some heads together. “Who are those pugs, anyway?”

  “Oh, it’s just Ennath and Fijirad and them,” Inda said. Then he frowned at Tanrid. “If you’re going to thrash me, go ahead. I hate waiting.”

  “Thrash you?” Tanrid repeated. “Why?” Then a brief, somewhat bleak crease of humor deepened the corners of his mouth. “Even if I wanted to, Mun’d be on me fast. And then it would take a week to crawl back to the barracks.”

  “Oh.” That hadn’t occurred to Inda.

  “So don’t you fight here either,” Tanrid admonished, belatedly—and unnecessarily. He knew it as soon as he spoke, and saw the grimace of impatience that tightened his brother’s face. The unease closed in again. “It’s too strange,” he muttered to the opposite window. “This having brothers here. Where everyone can watch, and talk about how you’re training.”

  Inda’s lips moved, but there was no sound.

  Tanrid scowled. “Say it, don’t just sit there like a dog turd waiting for a wand.”

  “I already got enough people who want to thrash me.”

  “When do I ever thrash you except if you’re lazy, or give me lip?”

  “Lip being an opinion that’s not yours,” Inda retorted. “There’s also when I don’t—” Inda stopped, then shook his head. To his own ears, he sounded too much like Branid, whining about what couldn’t be helped. “Doesn’t matter.”

  Tanrid scowled even more ferociously. He didn’t even notice when Mun came near, set down the foam-topped dark brown rootbrew that Tanrid invariably drank, signed to Inda The same?, and got a nod in return.

  Tanrid didn’t notice because he didn’t like change, didn’t like thinking, really. He liked things orderly, the way they were supposed to be. He was Tanrid-Laef Algara-Vayir, future Adaluin of Choraed Elgaer. He would marry Joret, who along with his brother would defend his home when he was away, and about that his father had said once, Train your brother well, my son. I was too merciful to my own brother, your Uncle Indevan, who loved his ease. And you know what happened.

  That was clear enough: it meant thrash the silliness out of Inda, thrash out any sign of disrespect or of avoiding orders, of cowardice or sloth. Inda was no coward, and he was seldom lazy, and almost invariably the times he was idle were not spent lolling in the kitchen or his bed, but frowsting in the archive among their mother’s books. But he did get mouthy, and he’d started questioning Tanrid’s orders almost as soon as he could walk.

  So Tanrid thrashed him. Did it as hard as they got it here—that seemed a fair standard—but he never used a stick. How he hated being thrashed with a stick! Always his hands. Fair. Honorable.

  But he had no idea how to explain that and not lose his brother’s respect. Especially when everything was so . . . so different, so restless, so uneasy. “Talk,” he said.

  Inda shrugged as if to say, Here goes, then. Indeed he was no coward, but he saw no reason to invite pain.

  “It stinks, having Ains around all the time. Spying us out, landing on us when they don’t like what we did.” He recalled Cama’s bruises and seeing Cherry-Stripe Marlo-Vayir jerked by his Ain into an alleyway the night before, on the way to the baths. Not that he cared what happened to Cherry-Stripe, but all the boys had seen, and some looked around anxiously for their own Ains. It didn’t take any insight to know they were wondering if they were next. “Grabbing us and yelling orders at us and slapping us around, if they don’t like what we do. As if we weren’t already catching it from the beaks.”

  “Scrubs always catch it from everyone,” Tanrid pointed out. “Then when you make your way to the top it means something.”

  Inda shrugged, and slurped at his rootbrew. “Hoo.” His eyes widened. “That’s good. Much better than ours at home.”

  “I told you that.”

  “I thought that was just strut,” Inda said, testing.

  Tanrid knew it, and confronted thus with a semblance of normality, he sat back, giving a derisive snort.

  Inda could see that perplexity, even discomfort, underlay that scowl, though anger was there too. He waited.

  Tanrid said finally, “So you thought you’d catch a knuckle-dusting from me because Mouse Marth-Davan got the enemy flags t’other day?” A slight, sour grin, then he added, “I wasn’t spying—I was a day’s ride away—but I heard about it when I got back.”

  “It was a ruse, that’s why Mouse got ’em. But it was my ruse. And my riding didn’t lose their flag.” At a gesture from Tanrid to continue, Inda said, “It was also my idea to let Cherry-Stripe lead the main feint because otherwise we would have lost our flag, and the game, by the time Cherry-Stripe had to fight his way through us to be riding captain.”

  Tanrid gave a single nod, staring at Inda with narrowed eyes. “So you did scan the field, then.”

  Inda said, “I always do that. It’s easy enough. You made me start doing that before I could even read maps. It’s scanning the men that’s harder.”

  “Scanning the field at the start of an attack is not easy,” Tanrid said. “No matter. The flags. Why didn’t you get one?”

  “My plan won. Don’t care about flags.”

  “You should. That brings us honor . . .” Tanrid hesitated again, then shook his head. Then his jaw jutted. “Remember what I keep telling you about Uncle Indevan. You can’t go soft.”

  “There’s soft,” Inda said, “and there’s stupid.”

  “I’m stupid?” Tanrid was too taken aback for anger—yet.

  Inda had him actually listening for once, and hastened to speak. “No! Look. You’ll one day command warriors. If the Riders are away with you, as they were with our father, whom do Joret and I command? Mostly cooks and stable hands and weavers along with the few Riders left behind on home rotation.”

  Tanrid’s expression eased a little. “Go on.”

  Inda opened his hands. “Mama keeps saying to Joret and Tdor, You have to live with these people all your life. Your first reaction should be mercy. Well, I have to live with ’em too, don’t I? I mean, though I’m commanding the outer defense and Joret the inner defense, we pretty much share the same people. That means making everyone . . .” Inda twiddled his fingers together, seeking words to define a strategy for which instinct had hitherto sufficed.

  “You unite your command,” Tanrid said.

  Inda’s expression cleared. “That’s it! It’s how I get cousin Branid going one way and Vrad the other, the ways they go best, so they don’t just attack each other trying to be first. Forgetting the real plan.”

  Tanrid didn’t say anything about how the horsetails were just learning about uniting their command and that a lot of them still couldn’t see it, they just saw command as being fastest, toughest, most skilled in weapon and riding, competing against your men instead of deploying them where they would serve best. It had certainly never occurred to him before, and he frowned into his brew. Was that why Inda mouthed off so much when Tanrid told him what to remember, how to run a tactic? Tanrid struggled inwardly in the grip of a new idea: that Inda might not be arguing just to give him lip when he disagreed with Tanrid’s understanding of the rules of war.

  Maybe. Maybe. One thing for sure, he was glad now that he’d said nothing to Inda about the Sierlaef’s warning—delivered through Buck—When you see your Tvei, tell him to sheer off mine, and he’ll do better. Tanrid couldn’t see anything wrong with the younger prince, other than bad training, and that could be fixed fast enough, especially under Master Gand, who was by far the toughest of all the tuto
rs. But it fit with so many other strange things: the years of ugly looks Tanrid’s way, missed honors, and stricter punishments whenever the Sierandael commanded field runs; the Sierlaef’s hostility when they were small, his distance now. It all seemed to have something to do with bad blood between the royal family and their own.

  He drank off his rootbrew. “ ‘Mercy.’ I just hope if you defend Tenthen without me you won’t show pirates any mercy.”

  “No chance,” Inda promised, swallowing his own drink.

  They left then and walked back in silence, but it was a different sort of silence than before, for neither was apprehensive or embarrassed, only busy with his own thoughts. When they reached scrub territory Tanrid left after a flick of the hand and a grim sort of smile; Inda ran off in search of Sponge, and found him in their pit, which was warm, stuffy, and still smelled a bit like dog fur, even though all the windows were, as usual, open. Sponge was playing Cards’n’Shards with Noddy and Cama. Noddy had a new bruise forming on his forehead, his clothes looked rumpled as if from a struggle, and there was a white look to Cama’s jaw.

  All the scrub problems galloped back to Inda. “Deal me in?” Inda asked, and stepped behind Sponge, mouthing the word Cherry-Stripe?

  And Smartlip, Noddy mouthed back, his expression unchanging.

  “Markers,” Cama said in his kitten voice, pushing some over.

  The boys butt-sidled, making space, and Inda sat down. He dismissed the scuffle from his mind. That was business as usual. What occupied his mind now was Noddy and Cama being here, wasting time with cards. No brother was going to take Sponge to Daggers and the idea of the king doing it seemed somehow unthinkable. Kings were . . . kings were . . .

  Inda picked up the grubby, paint-chipped cards and looked at them unseeingly for a moment. Though the king obviously lived right behind them, somehow he seemed just as distant as he had from Tenthen Castle.

  No, it was right to give up Daggers until Sponge could go.

  And so they played until evening mess. Then they went together to eat, and after that it was Restday wine at the fireside. They did not have bread because there were no women to pass it out, so it was just drums and wine, like their ancestors had had in the old days, when riding the plains. They sang and played the old, familiar drum songs and chants, and learned new ones. And after that baths, then bed, and as Inda lay down, half-aware of the rustles and breathing of nineteen boys around him, he wondered again just when and how he would see his sister.

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