Inda by Sherwood Smith

  He still did not know what dangers threatened; so far he had never even seen the Sierandael. What he did know was that life here was far different than he expected, and that Sponge, though a prince, seemed to have fewer privileges and more worries than the lowest-ranking stable hand.

  Chapter Eleven

  FAR to the southwest, the villagers along the coastal hills above Pah Luwath watched the Adaluin’s entourage ride up in double columns, bridles jingling and pennants flaring.

  Tdor watched them watching, studying the people and their homes with intense interest. Pah Luwath: ancient estuary renamed Luwath Harbor by the Iascans, then Port Fera-Vayir by the Marlovans, names steadfastly ignored by the locals. You will see our shared ancestry in their homes, the Iofre had said to Tdor the night before Tdor’s departure. We abandoned our yurts when we moved into Iascan castles. The coastal folk rooted their yurts to the ground, replacing reed mats with stone, but keeping the old round shape.

  And there they were, round houses of stone with conical roofs still made with poles, but laid over with baked mud and grass tiles, neatly overlapped in patterns, doors all facing the east—houses built to ward off the frigid sea winds of winter.

  Tdor noted the houses, but it was the people she studied. They were like statues, except for the way the breeze ruffled clothes and light-colored hair.

  Tdor saw their faces turn her way. She rode next to the Adaluin and was the only child, though not the only female. The Iofre had sent Chelis, her youngest Runner, to look after Tdor, as Noren was not yet ready for this responsibility.

  Tdor met the interested gaze of a girl her own age who was holding a flat basket of round breads. Restday breads. Instead of summer tunic and riding breeches and boots, the girl wore a single long garment that reached to the tops of her bare feet, kept snug against her body by a colorful bodice that laced up the front. Tdor wondered if the girl had embroidered the poppies along the narrow sleeves and the hem; the girl, meanwhile, wondered who wove those fine boots the Marlovan girl wore so proudly, and if she did really learn to fight with a knife, like everyone said those women did.

  Tdor watched the girl vanish behind, as words from Hymn to the Beginning sang in her mind:. . . . led by three warlords wielding the sun:

  Montrei-Hauc the mountain-gift,

  Montrei-Vayir plains masters,

  Montredavan-An, lords of the forests.

  Three clans successively claiming kingship, the symbol of which was the display of gold in their banners. Supposedly the people of Pah Luwath were the descendents of the Montrei-Haucs, who left no art or written records after they swept down out of the northeastern mountains to the plains of Hesea, joining with the clans there that subsequently called themselves Marlovans. After the conquering of the entire kingdom of Iasca Leror by the first Savarend Montredavan-An, the Montrei-Haucs had vanished among the coastal peoples here.

  They hated us, the Iofre said. Though we are all related, them to ancient Venn explorers, us to more recent Venn outcasts .

  The Marlovans had ridden for generations looking for war—if not with outsiders, then with one another. Now, it seemed, since they had settled into castles and taken up reading and writing, war sought them. Marlovans protected the local people against roaming brigands and corsairs and the ancient threat of the Venn, the tall warriors from the part of the world so far away their winter came in summer and summer in winter: their common ancestors, now their enemies.

  Tdor felt an urge to slide off her horse and go running back to that girl with the poppies on her dress and talk to her.

  But the girl was out of sight now, behind an old line of budding trees planted to mark a border. And so the Adaluin’s party rode sedately along the shale-paved road with planted fields stretching to either side and then wound down a hill toward the shoreline cliffs. The breeze was suddenly cooler, smelling not just of soil and plants, but of brine.

  When he saw the sea, the Adaluin raised his hand. The cavalcade halted.

  Tdor studied the town below. It formed a semicircle on the last shelf of land before the estuary marshes, bisected by the river. Beyond the estuary was the sea itself, silvery blue, the afternoon sun stippling it with a path of sparkling light that seemed to stretch from the breakers to the horizon. Etched against the horizon drifted a flock of fishing smacks and way, way out beyond, Tdor made out the silhouette of a real ship, with two masts and a lot of beautiful triangular sails, gracefully curved in the wind, their shape reminding her suddenly of the tear-shaped shields of the Riders.

  Her mare shifted her weight. Tdor swung a leg up, crooking it over the saddlepad to ease her leg muscles. Her aching butt couldn’t be helped. Only twice a year did she ride all day—traveling to and from Marth-Davan for her Name Day visit.

  The Adaluin had ridden ahead alone to meet a waiting man who had to be Standas, his coastal eyes. Tdor could just hear Inda’s voice, If you want to take someone by surprise, you don’t use the roads. Inda. What was he doing right now? Was he happy? Tdor sighed and then heard the clop of horse hooves.

  Chelis eased her mare alongside Tdor’s. Behind them, the Riders talked in low voices. Chelis said, “Sore, Tdor-Edli?”

  “A little,” Tdor said. It wasn’t anything new. She’d been saddle sore since the end of the first day’s ride. But Chelis seemed to want to chat, or maybe she was asking questions that the Iofre had told her to ask, to make sure she was comfortable.

  Tdor thought back to the village and the girl and Hadand and Inda, and then said, “What do you know about love?”

  Chelis’ heavy brows went up, and she laughed. To Tdor’s surprise and interest, spots of color ridged Chelis’ hard cheekbones. Chelis was tall and tough, with two thick, shining, golden braids—tough enough to ride alone to the royal city despite having just turned eighteen. She’d left off children’s smocks two years ago, that Tdor remembered.

  “What sort of love were you thinking of, Tdor-Edli?”

  “Love love. Grownup love,” Tdor said.

  Chelis grimaced, leaning forward to run a thumb along her mare’s neck just below the mane. “What do you know?”

  “I don’t know anything, or I wouldn’t ask.”

  Chelis gave a nod. “Fair enough. You know about mating.”

  Tdor shrugged. “I’ve seen the dogs and horses at it, and I’m told that people are much the same.” She did not say that last summer she and Inda had talked about this very thing, knowing that they’d be expected to do it someday. So they’d retreated up to his room and taken off their clothes and stood looking at one another in their skin, and laughed at the idea of boys having nipples just like girls; they both knew it, but no one actually ever thought about it. Even funnier was how their butts looked exactly alike from the back. They snickered and looked at the parts that were different, but nothing happened. So then they’d lain on the bed together, and still nothing happened, except that Inda fell asleep, for he was tired from early rising. Tdor, thinking back, remembered how pleasant it had been to lie there with their arms and legs touching, how nice he had smelled, sort of like a puppy. But that hadn’t meant anything, any more than it meant to cuddle pups or kittens and sniff their fur. She said, “But that’s not love. Is it?”

  “Not really, though it can be.” Chelis grimaced. “You ought by rights to be talking to the Iofre, Tdor-Edli. You’re still in smocks. This doesn’t feel right, somehow.”

  Tdor waved a hand. “I want to know how it is that some adults can ride off for long times, and it doesn’t matter to the other one. Some are all kissy and such.” She thought of Hadand, how one day just before she had to leave Tenthen and return to the royal city, she’d said, I only get one more visit home, and she wiped her eyes, and then it seemed she’d forgotten that Tdor was there, for she’d said to Joret in a fervent, shaky voice, one Tdor had never before heard from her: This will probably be the Sierlaef’s year to cross from boy to man. Oh, how I hope it’s other men he’ll want, for it runs in the royal family, doesn’t it? How unf
air, how horrible, if— Then she’d seen Tdor and shut her mouth so fast her teeth clicked.

  Tdor said in a low voice, “Can hate turn into love?”

  Chelis grimaced again, then said, “I can tell you about fun in the pleasure houses, but I haven’t found love love, like you mean, and to tell you the truth, I don’t really want to. I like being a Runner. I don’t want to have to choose between the freedom of my life and life in a home with one person. Children.”

  “Oh,” said Tdor, puzzled now. How would someone know how to pick? She couldn’t imagine growing up and not knowing that Inda would someday marry her. Weird.

  Would I choose him, if I were to choose? she thought. She believed so, but she knew he was what she was used to. Would I pick him as a favorite? But the idea of lovers—people you liked to have sex with, but didn’t have families with—seemed another strange idea, like clothes that didn’t fit, and she turned her head to ask Chelis.

  The Runner, eyeing her with trepidation, saw the question coming but to her relief, the sound of hoofbeats caused everyone to quiet and form up again.

  Chelis eased her horse back into place, and the Adaluin rejoined Tdor, giving her a courteous nod.

  He looked back at his captain, now riding next to Chelis, and said, “All’s well enough here. The alarm was a false one.”

  They turned their horses and rode northeast until sunset. They found a pleasant glade on the side of a hill and set up camp, for the day was Restday, and unless there was war or similar emergency, no Marlovan rode past sundown on Restday. Tdor walked around, delighting in the new flowers, the scents of the trees, the ribbon of ocean still visible in the west.

  Swiftly the great fire was set up, and the guards who’d ridden round the perimeter to scout returned, the first watch sentries standing right behind the Adaluin to take a piece of the nut cake that the Iofre had sent with Tdor.

  It fell to her, as ranking female, to break the pieces off and to say, over and over to each male, from the Adaluin to the horseboys, “As strength to the body, so strength to the spirit.”

  Then the Adaluin was handed the wine flagon, and he squirted a red arc into the air, glowing ruby against the last limb of the sun, saying, “Wine in place of our blood.”

  First squirt to Tdor, sweet and stinging, then to Chelis. And then to the sentries of the first watch, who would only get to hear the drums from a distance, and not drink or sing or dance. One by one they swallowed their sip and then retreated to prowl through the deepening twilight as others brought out drums and reeds and began the old chants: Hymn to the Beginning, for the Adaluin liked tradition, and then other songs.

  As the wine passed round, laughter replaced solemnity, and some of the younger men got up to do the men’s dances round the fire, the beautiful water-marked steel of their swords flashing and gleaming. More than one speculative glance was cast Chelis’ way. This being Restday, when camp discipline was relaxed, and she the only female of adult age, she had her pick of the men if she wanted one.

  Not long after she vanished into the darkness with a tall fellow with bark-colored hair, her laugh drifting on the soft air behind, the Adaluin sat down next to Tdor, a tall, gaunt figure in his sun-faded green House coat, his furrowed, long face pensive. He smiled at her and then looked away, not at the fire, but into the purple smear on the western horizon.

  “Are you enjoying your studies?” he asked, quite kindly.

  Tdor said, “Yes, Adaluin-Dal.”

  “Do you read upon interesting subjects?” he asked. “Or are you confined still to learning the meanings of words?”

  “Oh, no, the Iofre wants us to find subjects we like, once we’ve done our part in parsing Old Sartoran texts. She says we make better leaders if we read what people did in the past. What they did right, and what they did wrong.”

  “Ah.” The Adaluin inclined his head, the firelight making his brown skin ruddy, smoothing the lines years of sun and wind had carved into his lean cheeks, and gilding his silver horsetail with golden highlights. “She is a fine scholar.”

  “Yes, Adaluin-Dal.”

  He shifted position. “The reports, I discovered, were confusing. Some insisted they saw a fleet of pirate vessels. Others a single one, a ghost ship. Though it had a Venn shape, there are too many witnesses that swear it flew black sails, impossibly black, and that it vanished into a-a tear in the world. Have you read about such curious things?”

  Tdor swallowed. “Do they think it went to Norsunder?”

  “I do not know,” the Adaluin said. “Such things are rare enough, except in stories, that at times I believe people see what is not there. I have never heard of anyone who has seen the damned taken beyond the world into Norsunder.”

  “Yet we read about it, time and again. Especially in the Old Records. But then Norsunder was supposed to have been made and shifted beyond time and place by Old Sartorans. Who still wait there, so the records say.”

  The Adaluin agreed. He’d heard enough about those great and mysterious powers in his own youth—powers impossible to even the greatest mages now. He had, in truth, no interest in Norsunder, or in magical powers. His interest lay with his own experience. “Have you read about . . .” A slight hesitation, too slight for Tdor to really notice. “Ghosts?”

  Tdor began, “Joret made them a study a year or so ago ...” And then she stopped, for she did not want to trespass on another of the secrets she had learned so recently.

  Hadand and Joret both had been quite earnest: Do not tell the Adaluin or Iofre about how Joret once saw her Aunt Joret’s ghost, on New Year’s night, coming out of the fire. How Joret had thought she was dreaming, for she’d been half asleep, and she’d been so small, but she could not have dreamed of her aunt saying “treachery” in Marlovan when Joret hadn’t even known the word in Iascan, much less Marlovan. Treachery, treachery. She’d said it three times, and then walked into the cold, dark night.

  Tdor had only told Inda, who instead of being excited and deliciously scared had just shrugged. He had no interest in ghosts.

  Now Tdor swallowed, and said, “I don’t know much, except what Joret told me. About her project. She has a lot of projects, you see, Adaluin-Dal. Ghosts were one. She said that there are only a few people who can see what most humans cannot. If someone sees a ghost at all, it’s because the ghost is tied to a place by violent death and violent emotion both. And those who see them share something with them. Like the experience, or a shared emotion, or sometimes shared blood. Then, some say that white kinthus will make some see ghosts where there are none, but of course we don’t know if those are dream-images or actual ghosts.”

  “Yet kinthus makes one tell the truth,” the Adaluin murmured, the shadows now hiding his eyes. “But it can kill.”

  “So I am told. At least, the Iofre said that people drinking white kinthus tell truth as they believe it. But you ought to ask Joret. Or Fareas-Iofre. They know more than I.”

  “Thank you, Tdor. So I shall. The Iofre says good things of you,” he added. “You will be missed at Tenthen during your Name Day visit.”

  I only get three more after this one, Tdor thought, and didn’t feel anything. She tried the idea that she was just tired, but she really knew, though it hurt a little to put it into words, that Tenthen was her real home. That except for her mother and Mouse, no one in Marth-Davan wanted her there. And now Mouse was gone.

  The Adaluin moved away to talk to the captain, who waited respectfully on the other side of the fire.

  Tdor sat yawning and finally decided to climb into her bedroll, where she lay watching the fire and thinking. Presently Chelis returned and rolled up into her blanket next to Tdor just as Tdor’s thoughts were beginning to weave into dreams.

  Tdor looked up, blinking tiredly. “About pleasure houses.”

  Chelis gave a muffled laugh, and then said with some asperity, “Did I not say you ought to ask the Iofre, Tdor-Edli?”

  “Just tell me about the first time. They tell you what to do?”
  “Yes. They tell you, and even show you if you want.”

  “Oh, well, then,” Tdor murmured, relieved. Of course mating required lessons, just as did riding and writing and reading and anything else. So she needn’t worry about it until the time came, and if she and Inda couldn’t figure it out, they’d just go to the pleasure house and hire some lessons.

  On that comforting thought she dropped into sleep, as across the low fires, the Adaluin paced back and forth along the edge of the campfire, staring out to sea.

  Chapter Twelve

  THE slow days gradually accumulated into a week, and then weeks, until the end of the month dawned on Tdor. By afternoon she was riding southward toward Tenthen under the green and silver banner of Choraed Elgaer.

  Tdor was glad to leave Marth-Davan. Her father had never troubled to hide his disappointment that she had not been born a son. He blamed her that his lands would go to a nephew. Her mother, kind but distracted, had little time for her. Her big cousin’s intended Jarlan ignored her as if she didn’t exist, and Mouse’s intended Randviar, jealous of her own rights, watched Tdor with an unfriendly eye, always anticipating presumption. She made it clear that Tdor’s last visit to Marth-Davan couldn’t be too soon.

  Inda moved down the line at evening mess, getting his food and listening to the high-voiced chatter around him. This was the eve of the first all-academy war game of the season. Tomorrow morning they’d all ride out and camp in the field for days.

  Everyone was excited. Inda hoped it would be fun, but he remembered some of Tanrid’s stories about how the older boys captured scrubs of the opposing army right off so they had to do all the camp scut work. Whatever the commanding horsetails’ grand strategy was, he and Dogpiss had decided over morning stable chores that their private strategy was to Not Get Caught.

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