Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Sponge, looking down at Inda, realized that Inda would not care that the herb removed not just pain but inhibition, that under its influence one talked, that secrets were impossible to keep. Inda did not appear to have secrets, at least not the dreary little secrets of betrayal, of ugly ambitions, of covert cruelties and weaknesses that could occasionally be glimpsed behind the bland masks of those in power or those who tried to gain power.

  Sponge looked at Inda’s profile against the weak predawn light, and anguish stung his eyelids, for he knew that his own friendship was the direct cause of Inda’s pain, yet he could not bear to give it up.

  He touched Inda’s forehead again, just the smallest touch, a wordless gesture of friendship, of sympathy, of kindness, apprehensive that he might be perceived to have crossed a personal boundary.

  Inda said nothing, and so Sponge moved away and slipped back into his own bunk to wait, eyes wide open as he listened to Inda’s painful breathing until the wake-up bell.

  Dust motes hung suspended in the air far above Inda, who stood, panting softly, just within the door to the vast throne room. The light slanted down from the tall windows on the east wall, splashed with startling vividness along some of the banners hanging below the windows, and painted squares of light on the smooth stone floor. The silence was profound, the moment so still that he seemed to drift in light-stippled eternity.

  Those banners, motionless above him, he could just about name them all, and the battles at which they’d been borne. He could hear the war ballads in Marlovan, sung each New Year’s Week to the beat of the war drums, and on Restdays that fell closest to each battle during the year. Beyond the rumble of drums and soaring voices he could hear other sounds in the distance: the thunder of hooves, the shouting of voices, the clashing of weapons, the wind moaning across the plains—


  The gentle whisper sundered the vision and reformed the ties between spirit and flesh.

  Inda looked up, mildly pleased to see his sister at last. She seemed taller. Brown eyes much like his own, the same square-cut chin he saw reflected in steel or glass, wavy brown hair, though lighter in color, pulled back in the child’s tail. Her eyes brimming, he saw in vague surprise, with tears that glittered with refracted light.

  She took his hand, her own as rough as his, or nearly.

  “Inda.” Her voice trembled. “You’re hurt.”

  He smiled. “The orderly wrapped me tight. So I can’t turn sideways. The Healer said they can’t reknit bone. Only bind it together with magic. And then bandages, to keep it in place.” He winced slightly, paused to draw a slow breath. “Did you know the Old Sartorans used. To be able. To reknit broken bones?”

  Hadand gazed down into her brother’s face. His pupils were huge, his expression bemused. She considered what effect kinthus would have on him, other than bringing out the truth as he perceived it. He might remember this conversation all his life, or it might vanish like a dream. He couldn’t be one of those rare visionaries that occasionally turned up in records, ones who hear others’ thoughts, much less the one who sees beyond the veil of time. Not Inda, who Tdor said had shrugged off Joret’s ghost with total disinterest. Straightforward Inda, truthful Inda. She could not endanger him further.

  “Yes. Now, tell me what happened.” Hadand dug her nails into her palms. Be precise with those full of kinthus, or you will get their entire life history. “Last night. To your ribs.”

  Inda whispered, “Cherry-Stripe’s cousins and Smartlip. Cut out Cama and Noddy and me. Scragged us. All at once.”


  “I—I don’t know. Cherry-Stripe didn’t talk. I just stepped outside, and there he was. Punched me in the face. I couldn’t see. Fell on the stones. Torches, all alight. People yelling. Tuft and Noddy wrestling. Then Smartlip—that’s Lassad Tvei—kicked in my ribs. Laughing, like Branid at home . . .”

  “What did they say? Anything?”

  “I . . . it was all at once. Think you’re gonna run a riding, Prince Strut? That was Smartlip. That’s enough, that’s enough. Cherry-Stripe said that, very loud. Smartlip left me alone. Then I heard Cama crying out, My eye, my eye! And Cherry-Stripe yelling at Smartlip to stop.”

  “Damnation,” Hadand whispered, sickened. She’d heard that a boy had been carried over to the Guard lazaretto, but not why.

  “The rest all fades together,” Inda murmured, his voice hoarsening. “Why couldn’t I see you before? I mean. I know why I couldn’t come. Why didn’t you come. To see me?”

  “We are all watched, not just you boys. I’d hoped I could sneak down to see you, or Sponge could bring you, but it just wasn’t possible. I’m sorry, Inda,” Hadand said, and kissed her brother. His brow was warm and clammy; when the kinthus wore off, he’d be in considerable pain. She must get him back before it did.

  “Inda. Listen. Will you stay away from Sponge? You’re a target only when you are with Sponge. It—it’s his brother behind all this scragging. There’s reasons why, but I will tell you later.” When you are not full of kinthus, and blabbing everything you hear and think. “It is for you to choose to stay away from Sponge, because he won’t send you away.”

  “No,” Inda said. “And. Tell me now. Tdor said. Ask you. I’m asking. Why does the Sierlaef . . . hate Sponge?”

  Hadand repressed a groan. What could she say? No, what dare she say?

  She took his face gently in her hands and pressed her forehead against his the way she’d seen Tdor and Inda do when they were upset and talking just to each other. “Listen. But never speak about it. It’s because the Sierlaef cannot read. It’s the same with Barend, too, though not quite as bad.”

  “What?” Inda tried to pull away, but she kept him in her grip.

  “He cannot read. The healer once thought something might be wrong with his vision, but he can see a hawk on the wing as well, or better, than most of the men. But when he tries to parse the simplest writing he bleats like a sheep, much worse than he speaks.”

  “But Sponge?”

  “Well, that part is my fault. I was learning my letters at four, like we all do, but it seemed natural to me to practice by teaching him even though he was only two. He got it so quick, and he was so interested. It never occurred to me not to teach him. We were always together, see, when the Sierlaef was training, so we shared my lessons. So when it came time for the tutor to teach him, he was already reading.”

  Reading and thinking, Ndara-Harandviar had said just the year before. Reading and asking questions, and then beginning to check ancient history texts against the answers. My husband does not want a Sierandael who thinks, he wants one of brawn and no brain, one who will further tie powerful families to him in loyalty.

  Hadand did not dare voice that aloud, not now, when Inda was still full of kinthus. Maybe never, it was so very dangerous.

  Inda, meanwhile, struggled for clear thought, though it felt like trying to see underwater. Everything was distorted, except for the dancing, lancing shafts of light. He had been about to say that tradition required the second royal son to be Sierandael, but throughout history it had not always been true. The exceptions had always been trouble between grown brothers. In this situation, the Sierlaef, still a boy, was getting his way because the adults let him. Why?

  “Not enough,” he murmured.

  “Oh, yes it is,” Hadand retorted. “You were not there, but I was, when Sponge was just barely five. And the Sierlaef was trying to parse a line, and Sponge offered to help him.” She tried to force away the shocking memory: the little boy’s generous nature, the guileless kindness behind his offer, the Sierlaef turning on him with a snarl and knocking him down, and kicking Sponge as the tutor, a herald, watched, horrified, not sure if he dared to interfere.

  Hadand sighed. The Sierlaef had been ten then—huge and old and strong to the others so much younger, but now she could see how galling it had been to a ten-year-old boy who couldn’t read to have his brother, just out of babyhood, already at ease with ent
ire scrolls. She said shortly, “The beatings began then.”

  “But the . . .” Inda hesitated before saying, “Sierandael.”

  Hadand recognized that calm, unshakable expression. Inda was kind, even biddable, except when he was convinced of what was right. Or he had questions about what was morally right. Then he was worse than Tanrid for rock-like endurance. “Listen,” she said. “And obey.”

  He nodded, instantly obedient.

  “Mama has told me, if—if you got into danger, you are to train in the Odni.”

  “The women’s combat?” Inda said, looking bewildered.

  “Yes. But you will not tell anyone, anyone at all. You are off your stable gating, right?”

  “Yes. Two days, now.”

  “Good. So you have liberty before dawn, then.”

  “We can go . . . early to the baths.”

  “Then you’ll be the cleanest boy in the scrubs. You are to come here to the throne room, Firstday, Thirdday, Sixday, before dawn. Never fail. My own arms mistress will train you.”

  “But the throne room. Is forbidden . . . except on royal orders.”

  “That’s why it’s so perfect a place,” she responded, smiling with irony. She glanced over at the dais, empty now, except for the gold and crimson hawk banner of the Montrei-Vayirs, hanging above it. One day she would have to stand there with the Sierlaef by her side, and pledge him her loyalty . . .

  “But how can it help?” came the dreamy whisper, with slow, careful breaths between phrases. “Tdor told me. The Odni trains you . . . to disarm.”

  Hadand said, “You learned that women traditionally defended the camp when the men were away. Or stepped between feuding men on their own side. But you don’t really know what it means. Few do nowadays,” she added, thinking of the Sierandael, commanding the Guard, the army, the academy.

  But not the women.

  She drew a deep breath. “In our history women killed wounded prisoners with mercy. Fast. You see? And when men did get within home borders, we used their strength against them. To strike once. Fast, and final. You’re going to learn it, just to protect yourself. Promise me you will keep it secret.”

  “I promise.”

  “Then go back, and you are to sleep. And heal.”

  Inda smiled, and she shepherded him out into the fresh air and sunlight. She knew something of kinthus and its effects; she did not know if that strange focus in her brother’s eyes as he looked up at those thrice-damned, blood-smeared old flags was the borderland of vision or merely sleep, but she did not trust him in this vast room, imbued as it was with centuries of passion.

  Chapter Fourteen

  WHEN the sun touched the western edge of the great plains, the academy halted to set up camp. Soon a signal arrow, followed by the rumble of horse hooves, sent birds flying skyward. The scrubs paused in their labors and peered eastward, descrying two outriders with streaming pennants of gold and crimson: the king!

  Dogpiss whistled. Noddy turned to Sponge, who shrugged. Then their camp captain, Cassad Ain, strode over, smacking heads left and right. “Get busy! Those tents need to be taut, and the hay unloaded. Get moving!”

  “He thinks we’ll make him look bad,” Rattooth remarked sourly to Basna as he glared back at his brother.

  Basna snickered. “Like the king cares about camp setup.” He rubbed the back of his head with resentful vigor; Cassad Ain had showed a lofty impartiality with his palm.

  They were wrong, of course. The king, if he came at all, had a distressing habit of seeing exactly what he was looking for and remembering it, though it might be weeks, or even months, before he said anything. And the masters knew it.

  Awareness of the king’s approach was signaled through the camp. While the pigtails and scrubs chattered and wondered, the masters noted that the king did not wear his splendid crimson and red House battle tunic, but wore gray just as they all did. That meant the king was officially not to be noticed, so at least they could continue setting up.

  The relief at not having to drop everything and form up in ridings for parade was short in duration.

  “Why is he here?” Rattooth whispered to Sponge as soon as his brother was busy yelling at boys dragging hay off wagons.

  “To see how Tvei scrubs measure up to Ain scrubs, of course,” Tuft muttered.

  “You butt-brains sure took care of that,” Dogpiss stated, his usual humor gone. “Inda and Cama bunked, as well as Kepa. We’ll look soooooo good.”

  “Shitheads,” Noddy snarled, glaring with cold hatred at Smartlip. His expression was far more shocking than the insult, for it was the first time he’d ever been anything but expressionless.


  “Soul-sucking shitheads.”

  Several thought of Cama’s bleeding eye and Inda with those kicked-in ribs, and scowled at Smartlip and Cherry-Stripe.

  Sponge murmured, “Do our best. All of us. Can’t let them think we’re weak just because we’re Tveis.”

  It was the first semblance of an order he’d ever given.

  “Right.” “All right.” The agreement was different in tone, it drew them together into a superficial truce, all except for Smartlip, whose sycophantic “Right, Sponge!” went ignored by all.

  Cherry-Stripe didn’t speak and avoided everyone’s eyes.

  They heard the approach of horse hooves, and felt the scrutiny of the royal gaze. They kept working, intensely aware that the king was supposed to be invisible unless he spoke to you.

  No one could be less invisible. He rode slowly by, not pausing even when he saw his son, short red hair ruffling in the wind, slicing up the blocks of steamed rice wrapped in cabbage leaves. The king watched, for a moment, the small hands wielding the carving knife.

  Then the royal attention moved on, and tension released its grip on the scrubs’ necks, leaving them inclined to clown and snicker in an effort to shed their surges of giddy relief.

  The king rode by the pigtails and their horsetail commanders, some of whom paused and then at covert nudges and kicks self-consciously returned to checking saddles and gear. They were ready to ride the field and mark the perimeters with flags on lances, waiting only on the signal from the headmaster.

  Brath observed the royal progress in between questioning glances at his peers. They just stared back, awaiting his order to disperse the boys. Gand alone seemed oblivious to the king and his outriders with their snapping flags.

  “Go,” Brath said to the boy serving as signal captain, who thrust a crimson flag into the air. The drummers rumbled the ride out! tattoo, and horns blasted quick rising notes of three.

  The king wheeled his mare, who, nearly in heat, watched the young stallions. They kicked high, tails up, as they thundered by. The king bent, an absent hand smoothing the mare’s neck.

  Off they raced, boys and long narrow-flanked scout hounds and horses dashing through waving grasses, young animals all, strong and fast in their precise formations, hair flying, wind streaming over muscled bodies.

  The Sierlaef flashed a hand up in salute, mocking the invisibility rule. You could do that if you were royal heir, of course, but maybe the king would shame him by not responding.

  Up came the king’s hand in salute, and the Sierlaef turned away, gratified—and then angry that he had cared at all.

  As the boys galloped away to the designated battle perimeters, the king trotted back to the command post. He dismounted, the signal that he was now visible. Everyone in sight put right fist to heart.

  “Master Brath,” said the king.

  “Sieraec-Dal.” Brath’s hairline was beaded with sweat.

  “I count fewer first-year boys than I expected to see.”

  “Yes, Sieraec-Dal.”

  “Why is that?”

  The royal eyes looked green in this light, the royal hair mostly gray but with enough red remaining to echo the crimson of the royal banner just behind him. Brath felt the urge to turn his gaze away, to seek support from his masters, but he knew that they would
just peer back at him, trying to hide their dismay. Except for Gand, damn him, who was at the horse picket.

  “Accidents,” Brath said after a protracted pause.

  Wind toyed with clothing, flags, hair, long plains grasses. They all smelled rain on the wind; camp would be wet by morning.

  The king smiled. It was that same terrible smile his elder son sometimes had, only colder, more deliberate. “My brother,” he said, “will not like hearing about so much clumsiness.”

  Pause. Everyone reflected on the Sierandael, War Commander and head of the academy, and what he would and would not like.

  The king went on, then, to other subjects—horses, mostly. His questions were specific. Gand, listening just within earshot as he continued his inspection, reflected on how revealing those questions were. The king was far more conversant with the details of the academy stable than Brath had realized.

  Finally the king remounted, and everyone saluted. He rode away.

  Brath, blinded with relief, waved at the others to carry on.

  Presently the delicious smell of rice-and-cabbage cakes sizzling in olive oil drifted eastward on the soft twilight breeze. Under the hazy night sky rose the noise of speculation, laughter, bragging. In shadowy corners were softer, angry mutters; Brath saw Horsebutt Tya-Vayir gazing with hatred at the Sierlaef and his Sier-Danas, there at the first fire. Brath shook his head and wandered along the edges of the golden circles cast by the row of campfires, listening to unguarded young voices, and exchanging glances with various masters.

  He found Gand at the weapons tent, overseeing the cleaning and stowing of the gear that had been used on the scouting run.

  Gand looked up, appraised the headmaster’s face, and gestured to the darkness. “Carry on,” he said to the watching pigtails, who bent sedulously over their work.

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