Inda by Sherwood Smith

The two masters, veterans of years of barracks and camp life, knew exactly how far to walk to carry them out of earshot.

  They had not spoken of personal matters since the day Gand had warned Brath to thrash the Sierlaef.

  Brath winced, thinking over his own words: I fail to see how a dishonorable misuse of my position of authority will solve today’s trouble, much less that of a year. Stupid, stupid. “Honor” was one of those words that ended communication. Gand had not spoken of anything but academy matters since, and they both knew it was Brath’s duty to breach the barrier.

  And so, “No doubt you heard what he said.”

  Gand turned his thumb up.

  Brath resisted the urge to wipe his clammy palms on his tunic. Even out here, alone except for night birds and the chirring insects among the grasses, it was unsafe to say, “The Sierandael hates Evred-Varlaef worse than he hates the king’s mate, Captain Sindan.” They didn’t know why, they just knew it was true. He said, by way of reconciliation, “I’ve had Kandoth and Nem land hard on the first-year horsetails during the past couple weeks.”

  But Gand just shook his grizzled head. “And they’ll blame someone else, or else scout out ways to get around you. The damage is done. The boy now thinks he’s above the rules.”

  Until this year the boy had only meant one boy: the Sierlaef. Now there was the boy and the younger boy.

  “He’s the heir,” Brath whispered, bewildered. “He is above the rules.”

  Gand hesitated, knowing whatever he said would have repercussions that could cause more harm than good. There was so much they did not know about the relations between the royal family. But Gand had some guesses, which apparently were invisible to Brath. Brath had been picked by the Sierandael because he was obedient, because he was reliable with logistics, with all the outward details of the academy, not because he thought about the unseen.

  Gand restrained himself. “I suggest a lot of field exercises, the farther away the better. And pick good storms to send ’em out in. Might steady the reins a little.”

  It wouldn’t, but at least the Sier-Danas’ absence would give the masters some breathing space.

  Chapter Fifteen

  THE healer came once an evening to check on Inda. During the day, orderlies brought him food. Otherwise he was left alone to sleep. And since Cama was kept in the lazaretto on the Guard side, there was only Kepa, who either napped during the day or pretended to, if he thought Inda might be awake.

  Kepa was asleep when Inda passed noiselessly by.

  The last bell before dawn found Inda just outside the throne room, terrified that the Guard would discover him, that trespassing here was some sort of treason. He was alert to every sound; nevertheless, he was startled by a flicker of movement that resolved into a stout woman with long gray robes over loose trousers and scouting moccasins. He jumped. His ribs twinged.

  Hadand’s arms mistress, a tall, strong older woman, put a hand under his elbow. “Come along within, young dal,” she murmured in a gruff voice. “The pain will pass. And I will teach you how to breathe. Do this now: In through the nose, out through the lips. In-whish, out-whoosh.”

  Inda obeyed. This breathing just felt strange, didn’t seem to help, though the nausea did fade, then vanished, leaving only the familiar twangs of pain across his chest whenever he moved.

  “I don’t think I can lift a knife,” he admitted.

  “You won’t,” was the reply, as they moved across the vast flagged expanse of flooring. “Not for weeks. Longer. Until you learn to move.” The air smelled old in here, somehow. Old and cold, the flags overhead ghostly in faint angles of fluttering orange light from torches outside the high windows.

  “Today you’re just going to learn to fall,” she whispered. “All week. You learn to fall first. Then you learn how to move. Then how to block. All before you ever hold a knife. And you have to learn how to hold a knife before you fight with one. You men hold them like swords. Idiocy! Ignore the ribs,” she added. “In war, no one cares if you are ready and fit.”

  Falls. Inda thought about being knocked to the stone floor, and wondered if he’d live until dawn.

  The arms mistress said wryly, “They have their own ways, in your academy.” A snort, then, in a different, brisk tone, “You men, you fall hard. You expect to fall hard, except when you ride. With us, falling in a fight uses the same principle. You want to make the motion work for you, and against your opponent. Why help him by jarring your own bones? So you will use your leg muscles, not your middle. We make the little girls practice falling for an entire month . . .”

  Using her strong hands, she showed Inda where to bend, how to throw himself if attacked from the front or from the back, to use the speed of the fall to propel himself up again. She first eased him down slowly, and then had him do it himself, always keeping his middle straight, using his legs and arms. Down, roll, up. Over and over, until his middle was glowing with constant pain and his legs felt like string.

  Finally, she said, “That is all for today. You must return. Rest. But every time you rise, practice these falls. Again and again, until you fall like water and rise like the grasses after the wind has gone.”

  His second lesson was much like the first. By then Kepa was pronounced fit, and he was sent to the stables to tend foals. While Kepa was gone Inda forced himself to practice, using the entire length of the scrub pit between the rows of beds, falling and rolling until he was dizzy with pain, but it did come easier by the third day. And his ribs were healing, just enough for him to perceive a difference.

  His third lesson, on the day the academy students returned, involved more falling, this time sideways as well as forward and backward, plus learning the arcs of blocks. Women blocked differently than men, Inda discovered. Men beat the opponent’s sword back; women used the opponent’s own speed to change the direction of the weapon while they applied their own blows elsewhere to change the opponent’s balance. It was a new way of thinking about attacks, and he realized he was going to have to unlearn a lot of what he’d learned before he could use it, while still drilling in the old, familiar way.

  He practiced the new movements every time he was alone.

  Midway through the second week, he woke as usual, slipping out into heavy rain. The arms mistress ignored his sodden state and put him through the drills until he warmed from the inside.

  On his way back, lightning flared almost directly overhead and thunder caused the stone to reverberate. Rain hissed down in stinging needles, blinding him, and so he ran into Smartlip Lassad, who had been lying in wait just outside the barracks.

  Smartlip was afraid of thunder and lightning, something he would never admit. It was this fear that woke him earlier and now kept him close to the barracks, until at last he saw Inda stumbling through puddles back toward the pit.

  Triumph, fear, and curiosity roiled inside him when Inda recoiled, his hands going to the ribs Smartlip had kicked that horrible day, after which everyone suddenly turned against him.

  “Where were you?” Smartlip demanded.

  Inda looked around wildly, then his eyes narrowed into suspicion, his face slick with rain, lit by the torch on the other side of the archway. “I’m not gated.”

  “We are only permitted the baths before dawn,” Smartlip stated the obvious as an accusation. “And don’t try to tell me you went to the baths.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, in the opposite direction from which Inda had come. Excitement seeped past Smartlip’s fear. Inda had a secret. Inda of all people.

  “Who else knows we’re up?” Inda asked.

  “ ‘We.’ Uh-uh, you don’t drag me in,” Smartlip retorted. “I only got up because I saw you leave, half the night ago.”

  “It wasn’t half the night ago, it was only last-bell . . .” Inda realized he’d been trapped. He sighed.

  Smartlip yearned to use Inda’s secret to force him to run under his command. Inda Algara-Vayir. That would give him a weapon against those other turds! No one would even sp
eak to him now unless they had to. Anger boiled in Smartlip’s gut.

  And while he was thinking, Inda watched. Smartlip spoke with all that bluster, but the way he was standing, it was like he expected someone to hit him. Inda was so surprised, he felt his hatred ease a little.

  “Can you keep a secret?” Inda asked.

  Smartlip almost missed it, so busy was he with his own brooding. You think you are doing the right thing to be a leader, and what happens? Someone wisecracks, you make a better one, someone makes a fart joke, yours is funnier, they scrag, you scrag harder, but then they all suddenly just turn on you, like you’re a turd lying there in the sun waiting for a wand. No one had spoken to him for days. Even Cherry-Stripe. Especially Cherry-Stripe, when everything was all his fault.

  “Secret?” he repeated, hazily, his eyes first widening with hope, then narrowing in distrust. “What’s your threat?”

  He was afraid, Inda realized as he recognized at last what caused that furtive way of looking at people, that weird snigger that wasn’t a real laugh. Smartlip Lassad, who had kicked in his ribs, who had kicked in Cama’s eye, was afraid of them all!

  Inda pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, then looked up. “No threat. Look. The secret is yours to tell or not. I’ve been going to visit my sister, Hadand, who is going to marry the Sierlaef.”

  Smartlip gazed at Inda in disbelief. “So what’s the threat?” he repeated for the third time.

  Inda opened his hands. “Either you keep the secret, or you don’t.” He walked on by.

  Smartlip stood where he was, feeling cheated, until a shock of blue-white lightning over the castle tower sent him inside.

  Inda was changing slowly into his second smock and trousers, the sight of the bandages around his body a reminder that made Smartlip falter in his step. Neither of them spoke, not even when the bells rang, and tousled heads popped up from blankets up and down the room.

  During morning chores, Smartlip watched Inda from afar. Inda, he realized, paid no attention to the scrub gag. If he had to talk, he did, including to Smartlip. He just did not talk much, not even to Sponge, probably because of those ribs.

  At midday meal, Inda was sitting next to Cherry-Stripe, who gave Smartlip a sour face when he approached.

  Angrily, Smartlip marched past his accustomed corner, and thumped his tray down on Inda’s other side, glaring around at the others. It was the bravest act of his life so far; fear mixed with the heat of anger, his heartbeat loud in his ears.

  They all glared back. None of them knew what to do.

  He didn’t miss how most of them looked at Inda for clues, but Inda just went on eating like nothing had happened. So Smartlip picked up his spoon and pretended that nothing had happened, digging into the soup thick with onions, rice, carrots, and chicken, with a better appetite than he had had in days.

  On Restday, the king summoned his heir to the midday meal.

  The Sierlaef dressed in his crimson and gold House tunic, put on his embroidered sash and tucked his polished knife in at the correct angle, combed up his hair into its tail, and walked through the academy into the castle, where the sentries saluted him. He clattered past, ignoring them. Two more years of mucking about in the rain with little boys.

  But he also knew how much his father liked tradition, and the tradition was to join the Guard at age twenty.

  He was still brooding about that when he entered the residence wing. He stopped to pay his respects to his mother, hiding as usual in her rooms with all the strange furniture and frilly stuff. He knew his father would ask.

  She put aside her letter writing. “How are you, my son?”

  “I’m. Well. Mother,” he said slowly; Iascan made his stammer worse. His gaze roamed over the girls the queen had chosen this year as attendants. Were there any pretty ones? Of late that question, so uninteresting in the past, had become increasingly pertinent, ever since he’d discovered stubble on his chin, and had to go to the healer for the beard spell. “Field run. Rain.” He shaped his words to add that they’d begun taking the three-year-old horses out, but he could feel the flutter in his lips and at the back of his mouth that presaged the breaking up of his words into that hated sheep’s bleat, and so he gritted his teeth and just stood there.

  “Ah, good,” she said, and patted his hand. “Carry my best to your brother, will you? I have not seen him since he was taken to your academy. I wish you would bring him to see me.”

  “Can’t. Scrubs stay. In their pit.” He forced the words out.

  “Yes, so I am told. But my greeting? You will remember?”

  “Yes, Mother.” He touched his heart and withdrew down the hall to his father’s private rooms.

  They were in the study, before the fine tiled hearth extending out from the massive fireplace, each seated in one of the carved raptor-chairs at either end of the crimson and gold rug, his uncle dressed in war coat, riding trousers, and boots, his father in the long robe of the scholar, his feet in expensive soft leddas and silk indoor moccasins.

  His uncle grinned, his father smiled. “Enter, son.”

  The Sierlaef struck his fist against his chest and grinned back at his uncle, so glad to have an ally.

  Then he saw the third occupant of the room. Captain Sindan, who always wore plain Runner blue, gave him a grave salute.

  The Sierlaef returned Captain Sindan’s salute with a careless flick of his hand. No words were exchanged, the Sierlaef quiet from habit. The tall man with the gray-streaked black hair was too familiar a sight to evoke even a moment’s brief interest. He’d been present in the Sierlaef’s life since babyhood, a kind if somewhat remote figure whom all the royal children called Uncle Sindan. So too had the Sierlaef until the day his uncle considered him old enough to take him aside and say, The Sindans are poor cousins to the Sindan-Ans, so he has little clan interest. But worse, far worse, he gave up a good command—a well-earned command—in the Guard just to be near your father. I can’t respect anyone who gives up rank to be a mere Runner Captain, just for love. That summed up Captain Sindan in the heir’s eyes: no power, no rank, so worth only politeness.

  “Welcome back, my boy,” said the king in Iascan. Damnation! “Did you salute your mother?”

  “Yes. S-said to greet Sponge.”

  “I trust you will carry out her wishes, then.”

  “How was your first field run as a horsetail?” Uncle Anderle-Sirandael asked. “Which side were you on?”

  “Won,” the Sierlaef said.

  The Sierandael laughed. “Of course you did. Come, boy, I want details. Whom did you ride? How many prisoners did you bag?”

  While the Sierandael coaxed answers from the stammering heir, he watched his own brother sitting next to the fire. As yet Tlennen hadn’t mentioned having ridden out to view the exercise, a most surprising change of habit.

  Anderle-Sierandael hated change of habit. To him, it meant nothing but danger. Why would anyone change habit, unless dissatisfied? His brother was in many ways a great king, managing councils and guilds and money matters, foreigners and their demands. It was the Sierandael’s job to oversee the defense of the kingdom, and to his eye all was running as smoothly as trained four-year-olds on a straight road: the academy; the making of the heir into a future war king against the inevitable coming of the Venn; the Guard and the Jarls ordered to drill in preparation for that very same war; the focus quite properly with land and not with the sea, which no one but a madman could think a suitable field for war. How could anyone control anything on the sea?

  The king had interrupted the academy portion of that smooth run with his presence, and without discussing it beforehand. That meant something was on his mind.

  The Sierandael repressed a frown as the heir stuttered on in his account of the war game. All the while the Sierandael watched his brother, who listened without any change of expression. When the Sierandael got to the question he’d designated as his tactical shift, he turned to the king, saw Captain Sindan’s watchful eyes,
and forced himself to say, in the same tone of jocularity that he’d used with the heir, “And so you rode out to watch ’em, eh, Red?”

  The king spread his hands. “The Adrani envoy was ill and the Novid harbormaster canceled our meeting, as he had no news.”

  The Sierandael forced a laugh. “So the ships have not returned? And some think they can be relied on for defense!”

  “So I have come to believe,” the king murmured. “But I await the report of our captains. After all, this is the first cruise of our first fleet. And if all is well, it is your own son I wish to sail on the next cruise, a more venturesome cruise, to learn seaward command.”

  The Sierandael struck his fist against his heart. He knew Tlennen meant it well, so well that the Sierandael struggled to hide his distrust of ships and his contempt for his own son. Ships, dangerous and creaky, were not to be trusted—and Barend was better on them than on land, the noisome little rat, a magic-born rat of a Cassad without any vestige of Montrei-Vayir in his face or form.

  “And so,” the king continued, “as there was no ship captain or harbormaster to interview, and as it was a fine day, I betook myself to horse.”

  In other words, he was saying his visit to the war game was impulse. But in Anderle-Sierandael’s experience, his royal brother never did anything on impulse.

  The king discussed what he’d heard about the academy stables. When he was home the Sierandael had reports twice daily on every aspect of academy affairs (and when he was on maneuvers they were run to him once a week) but one did not interrupt a king, even when he was your brother.

  At last the king finished, adding, “I also thought I might see for myself how Evred is fitting himself to barracks life.”

  “What did you find?” the Sierandael asked.

  The Sierlaef grinned, thinking of Sponge’s clumsiness.

  “That he is obedient, willing, but badly trained, and apparently generally believed to be without much talent.”

  Exchange of looks between heir and uncle.

 
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