Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Inda carried his tray to the scrub table and chose a new place to sit. He didn’t care whose group sat where. He wanted to sound out some of the others on his Not Get Caught strategy.

  Cherry-Stripe watched Inda sit between Lan and Mouse, of all people. Who would ever want to sit next to Mouse? The only thing he was good at was horses.

  Cherry-Stripe felt dissatisfaction boil in his gut as he got his last item, a cup of hot honey-milk, and headed over to the end of the first scrub table, where his crowd always sat. Why couldn’t he just go sit next to Inda? He reviewed the usual reasons: he was a leader, he had to set an example, his brother’s orders. He had tried it once, accidentally on purpose. Mistake. Inda joked and talked with just about everyone, but that time he didn’t laugh or talk. His face just looked distant. Wary. Like a scout in enemy territory. That’s right, Cherry-Stripe thought, he’s the enemy.

  The enemy who always had the good ideas. Not just once or twice, but always. That was the only thing you could predict about him. He never showed any strut or frost, he never insisted on being riding captain when they were put in ridings. In fact, the two times Inda and Cherry-Stripe had been teamed, Inda had said, right away, “Of course you’ll lead, Cherry-Stripe, but I hope you saw ...” And he’d point out something Cherry-Stripe hadn’t seen. It was all very well for Kepa and Smartlip and Biscuit to scoff, but they always lost. Then Smartlip would whine and lay blame, and Kepa would want to gang up and scrag someone, but Cherry-Stripe knew the truth. They were pugs. Licks. Followers. Inda was a leader.

  While he brooded, the rest of his group thumped their trays down next to and across from him.

  Behind them came big Cama Tya-Vayir, ignoring the older pigtails heading for their tables. Scrubs were supposed to be last and least, but pigtails got out of Cama’s way.

  Cherry-Stripe fought another hot surge of anger. He so wanted Cama as an ally. No one was stronger or fought as well, not Tuft, not even Flash, whose temper, changeable as a summer storm, made him the scrubs’ hastiest scrapper.

  Cama gave him a surly glare, then banged down his tray across from Mouse, who jumped, his thin shoulders hitching close to his ears. His small face flushed when he dropped his bread onto the table. Everyone saw his wince and compressed lips when he bent forward slightly to retrieve it.

  Kepa chortled, a smug, mean sound.

  Cherry-Stripe realized what must have happened, but the urge to laugh vanished when Flash and Fij gave him sour looks and sat with their backs to him. Cherry-Stripe grimaced. He couldn’t really say Flash was part of his gang. He sometimes joined the scrapping—he liked any excuse for a dust-up. But unlike Kepa, who seemed to really like everyone scragging a single victim, Flash hated scrags. He liked scraps and scraps only, loud with scorn if the numbers weren’t fair.

  Cherry-Stripe sidled a glance at Inda, who was busy talking to Lan, hands gesturing, while Sponge, across from him, listened.

  Cherry-Stripe said to Kepa, “You and Smartlip scragged Mouse?”

  Kepa smirked, and Smartlip sniggered.

  Cama sent an angry look their way and leaned forward to say something to Inda. His voice was far too low to hear.

  Tuft frowned. “Not the rules, scragging Mouse. Two on one. He wasn’t even with Sponge.”

  “He was with him just after chores,” Kepa protested, as if that explained everything.

  “Teach ’em something,” Smartlip said. He sniggered again, an irritating sound. “You shoulda heard him squeak. Eek! Eek!”

  Biscuit Tlen smeared jam on his fifth bun. “But the rules—”

  “ ‘Rules,’ ” Kepa sneered. “Are there rules in war? Don’t we want to win?”

  Win what? Cherry-Stripe thought, for the first time. Then he stared down into his tomato soup, appalled.

  Noddy sent a quick glance down the table. Those in the middle, Dogpiss included, were mostly involved in a foot-shoving contest under the table, judging from their unnaturally still bodies, their sudden jerks, and their smothered laughter. At the other end, Cherry-Stripe glowered at his dishes, Tuft glowered at Kepa, and Biscuit looked at the pigtails as if he was sitting out on a field somewhere.

  Cama said to Inda and Noddy, “Kepa needs a rein. Guard me?”

  The “guarding” being to watch for beaks.

  Inda stirred his soup around, then said, “Bad idea.” Noddy and Sponge both noticed how people wanted Inda’s approval of schemes.

  “Good idea,” Cama started, and as usual so hated the high squeak of his own voice—higher than Mouse’s!—that he shut up.

  Noddy sighed. “Kepa broke the rules in jumping Mouse.”

  “Rules,” Inda breathed, thinking how strange it was that even in covert warfare the beaks would punish them if they got caught breaking the rules. There were spoken and unspoken rules that were understood by everyone. Almost everyone.

  He leaned back and glanced down at the end of the table. Cherry-Stripe’s face was flushed as he said something to Kepa, who just laughed.

  Cherry-Stripe understood rules. Kepa didn’t. Smartlip didn’t either, but he seemed uneasy at times, was always watching the others, and then reacting the way they reacted. Kepa would show a friendly face; his words were usually friendly, but they all could see the only time he showed his real feelings was when he scragged someone. Or watched a scrag. Or during a beating. Cherry-Stripe loathed the way he licked his lips over and over.

  Cama leaned forward, breaking Inda’s thoughts. “Kepa wants his own war. Let him have it. Start with him.” He crossed his arms, waiting for agreement.

  Noddy, Lan, Mouse, Inda, and even Cama looked Sponge’s way, but as usual Sponge looked down, mouth tight.

  Inda said, “I know. I saw it comin’. When Kepa got Biscuit and Flash and the others to chase Noddy, after the shooting practice.” He twiddled three fingers, meaning three days before. Sponge and Noddy had been dismissed early. “Look. We get worse, you know what will happen? They get worse. Where’s it stop?”

  At his end, Cherry-Stripe repeated, “Don’t do it again.”

  Kepa just grinned. When Biscuit and Flash finished, Kepa followed them, whispering. All three looked back.

  Cherry-Stripe sat there hating Smartlip’s snicker, hating Kepa’s grin, hating the fact that he was losing his command.

  He did not see Cama get up and follow Kepa.

  When Secondnight bells rang, Cherry-Stripe lurked under the archway to the horsetail pit. He peered across the new stones of their court, past the slanted wide bars of golden light from the long row of windows to those windows themselves.

  Cherry-Stripe knew what would happen if any of the horsetails caught him even here, on the extreme edge of their turf, but he had to talk to Buck. He hoped the darkness, and the general liberty—customary the night before an overnight field game—would protect him until his brother emerged.

  They had to come out. Surely they’d be going off to Daggers, or more likely (being horsetails, with more freedom) one of the town pleasure pits that the older boys called Heat Street. But all he heard was horsetail laughter and talk, their voices lower than boys’ but not yet men’s, and from one of the windows drifted the soft, sinister thump of a war drum.

  The echo of Secondnight bells faded. A heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder and spun him around, leaving him gasping.

  “Well, what have we here?” drawled one of the horsetails.

  Not one of the Sier-Danas, either.

  Cherry-Stripe backed up against the wall and gaped in dismay at not one but three assailants, teeth and eyes fire-lit by the torchlight from the castle walls, stable gear needing repair slung over their shoulders, hands still strapped in the steel-studded wrist-and-palm guards that were given as horsetail training began. Apprehension gripped his gut when he recognized the heavy face, the almost-white hair of Horsebutt Tya-Vayir. Cama’s Ain! He hoped they didn’t bother learning who the individual scrubs were.

  They knew who he was. But they were not going to let Cherry-Stripe know that. These
three were second-year horsetails, and they remembered quite well last year when the Sierlaef and his gang had been mere ponies. And Horsebutt resented how the Sier-Danas strutted as if they ruled everyone, and how they had gotten their Tveis to bully the rest of the scrub pit.

  Not that anything was said directly to the king’s heir, who would one day rule. His strutting friends, that was different. So here was a tasty opportunity to get in an oblique strike at the Sier-Danas, maybe melt a little of their frost.

  “Came to wash our floors?” A hand thumped into Cherry-Stripe’s chest.

  “Naw. He wants our stable chores.” A shove, and Cherry-Stripe stumbled into the court. Now he was in their territory, and therefore their legal prey.

  “What are you doing here, scrub?” Shove.


  “No, he wants a duel.” Smack!

  “A thrashing.”

  Back and forth they slapped him, their easy strength bringing tears of pain to Cherry-Stripe’s eyes. They were still laughing when a voice from the doorway stopped them. “Scrub.”

  The Sierlaef.

  The horsetails backed away from Cherry-Stripe, picked up their gear, and flowed around the Sierlaef, who stood unmoving in the doorway. They vanished inside, leaving the two alone.

  Cherry-Stripe blinked, the light revealing his terrified face. He could not see the Sierlaef’s expression, for he stood backlit in the door.

  But the Sierlaef did not address him. He turned his head, motioned at someone. “Tvei,” he said.

  Buck appeared a moment later, dressed in his war coat, sashed, his boots polished. He stood there arms crossed, surveying Cherry-Stripe with no welcome in his countenance. The Sierlaef and the other four Sier-Danas filed past, the royal heir waving a hand around in a circle, meaning Get rid of him and come along. Their high-heeled cavalry-booted stride drummed down the stone alley toward the city gates: horsetails were silent as cats only when it suited them.

  Buck cursed under his breath, grabbed his Tvei’s tunic front, and hauled him back out of horsetail territory and into one of the adjacent passageways.

  He thrust Cherry-Stripe against the wall so his head thocked against the mossy stone. “What?” His tone—it had better be good—promised trouble.

  Cherry-Stripe swallowed and knuckled his eyes. “Kepa got jumped. Just now.”


  “Bunked. Can’t move.”

  Buck frowned. “Go on.”

  Cherry-Stripe went on rapidly. “It was Cama Tya-Vayir. Made him say he was a lick three times, then thrashed him. Bad.”

  Buck pursed his lips.

  “Look, Buck, it’s not working,” Cherry-Stripe whispered in agony. “We done everything you said. We hit ’em when they’re with Sponge, or try. But it’s hard because when they’re with him, it’s in a group. A group that gets bigger, not smaller.”

  Buck waved that off. “That Kepa Kepri-Davan is a lick.” Yet Kepa’s Ain, a horsetail, was popular. Strange, that.

  Cherry-Stripe almost retorted, He’s near all I have left to command—him and Smartlip. “He does what I say. Likes to scrag.”

  “Does he like getting scragged?” Buck laughed. “What’s Cama’s work worth?”

  “Bruised ribs, black eye, wrenched arm.”


  “We made sure Kepa told ’em he fell down the steps.” Cherry-Stripe shrugged, his voice scornful. “He won’t dare snitch. They know nothing. But he can’t go on the game with us tomorrow; he’s bunked three days.”

  His Tvei’s easy dismissal of the masters was the ease of ignorance; Buck suspected the masters knew what was going on. As usual. That might explain some of the sudden, savage punishments, the arduous assignments that seemed to come out of nowhere, the gatings when one expected free time.

  It had been a difficult month. In the past no one paid any attention to squabbles among scrubs. Buck had counted on that when he’d given his orders to his brother. It was different now because there were brothers here. That had to be it. At first it had been fun watching the brats busy scragging one another, on his orders, but since then there’d been trouble not just with the beaks but other horsetails.

  Not just horsetails. Even pigtails, like Whipstick Noth. Sidelong glances his way, and even the Sierlaef’s way.

  Buck sighed. The truth was that it was all on account of the Sierlaef and his insistence his brother was a rabbit—when no one had reported any signs whatsoever of cowardice from Sponge. Nothing but his bad training, and who was responsible for that? No, no, no it was crazy to even think that.

  While he brooded, with a lifetime of practice Cherry-Stripe successfully assessed his brother’s mood; not violent, not yet.

  So when his brother looked up, he went on. “They won’t stop running with Sponge.”

  “Why not? Don’t they see he’s poison?”

  “Somehow . . .” Cherry-Stripe’s shoulders tightened, and he looked away. “Somehow it’s become a matter of honor to stick it out.”

  “Honor,” Buck repeated, frowning. “How did that happen? Has Sponge come on the strut? Giving orders?”

  “No. He won’t. He won’t even captain a riding.”

  “So he is a rabbit, then?” That would make everything so much easier.

  “No,” Cherry-Stripe muttered. He, too, felt life would be easier if Sponge showed the least hint of cowardice or frost. “Everyone knows he tries the hardest, and he’s learning.”

  “Landred, if you’ve done anything cowardly—”

  “No, no, no,” Cherry-Stripe said, hopping from one foot to the other in his desperation to make his brother understand before he struck. “We did everything you said and we’re not winning. We’re looking stupid.”

  Buck’s lip curled.

  Cherry-Stripe went on quickly, “I think even Rattooth would be one of them if his Ain wasn’t a Sier-Danas, for he’s always sneaking off to talk to Sponge when he thinks I don’t see. And he always has an excuse not to scrag.”

  “Talk to Sponge about what?”

  “About history. Great battles. Rattooth knows the ballads best of anyone in the pit. He sings for Restday drums. He talks about the stories in the songs. Sponge reads all that stuff up there in the king’s books.”


  “And others are joining ’em, like I said. I hate it, Buck.”

  Buck shook his head. “Stop whining. Look, here’s what matters. You know the Sierlaef wants me as Sierandael when he’s king. If I get that, you’ll be Jarl of Marlo-Vayir. You want to be Jarl?”

  One nod.

  “Then you have to fight for it. I’m tough, so I get to be Royal Shield Arm. You get to be tough, and you’ll be Jarl. I’ll sound the Sierlaef, but I told you what he wants right now.”

  Cherry-Stripe grimaced, searching for words. His brother poked him in the chest. “You said it’s a matter of honor. If you haven’t rabbited, then someone made it that way. Who leads ’em?”

  “Inda,” Cherry-Stripe said with conviction, and then looked puzzled. “That’s another thing. He doesn’t give any orders; they always just listen to him, want to know what he thinks—”

  “Never mind. You know what the Sierlaef wants. Scrag Inda, then. And Cama. And Noddy as well, as he’s Cama’s riding mate. Don’t just scrag ’em, bunk ’em.”

  Cherry-Stripe grimaced. Buck looked down into his brother’s face and saw reluctance and dismay, and wondered just what was going on in that scrub pit. Before this strange order that brought brothers to the academy, he’d been fighting mean, trained to thrash anyone who showed any hint of competition. The perfect future Randael to uphold the family honor.

  Buck poked him again. “Clear strategy. They bunk one of you, bunk three of them. Cama, Inda, Noddy. All tonight. Make sure all are bunked before the game tomorrow. Got it?”

  Cherry-Stripe gulped. “Yes.” Talk was over, then and it was amazing that he’d gotten that much.

  “I want to hear scrubs squeaking and squealing about it
at morning mess. I’ll expect to hear it. Right?”

  “Right.” Cherry-Stripe wondered miserably who he’d get to carry out these orders.

  “Then get out of here, and don’t come back. Everyone knows you were here, and if there’s trouble from it, you’re the one who’s going to feel it.” Buck shoved his brother back toward the other side of the compound and strode rapidly off.

  Chapter Thirteen

  “BUT ... I can’t ... breathe,” Inda whispered.

  Gentle fingers brushed hair away from Inda’s closed eyelids, a furtive caress that brought his mother to mind so vividly and so suddenly that Inda sighed on his outgoing breath, “Mama.”

  Sponge winced. Inda seemed to be out of his mind. He tried again. “Inda. You must get to the east postern of the throne room. The archive is adjacent, and Hadand will be there. Do you hear? Hadand will be waiting for you, at Sec ondday bells.”

  A soft moan escaped Inda.

  Sponge put his mouth close to Inda’s ear. “Hadand. She will be there—I just saw her, for it was I the master sent to find the healer. It’s the only way you can see her. We’ll be on the road, no one here except Kepa, and you can sneak out.”

  Inda gave a single, brief nod.

  “As for getting up—if they offer you kinthus, take it. It kills pain.” He watched Inda for comprehension and reaction.

  Inda, roused to awareness by the urgency in Sponge’s whispering voice, felt his dreams dissipate in the running stream of pain, the effort that breathing took, in, out, in—not too much, not too deep, or he’d get that sharp stab of lightning.

  “Did you hear me, Inda? Kinthus. Take it.”

  Another nod. Inda did not seem to know what kinthus was. Or he knew but did not care. After a month of precious moments of wide-ranging conversations, of shared laughter and effort, Sponge was certain that Inda did not care—if he even knew about white kinthus, which was the strongest painkiller, far stronger than green. So strong it was dangerous, for it killed pain by sundering the ties of body and mind instead of just masking them. Some minds, unmoored, did not find their way back.

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