Inda by Sherwood Smith

  The king turned to his heir, who was so difficult to comprehend. “Is it not your duty, my son, to see that your brother will one day be fit to command the home defense?”

  The Sierlaef looked his uncle’s way, to be met with a faint shrug. Swallow, swallow, force the lips to shape words, the throat not to spasm: “Reads. Hates drill. Always in arch-ar-ar-books.” He snarled the last word.

  “Perhaps, when the season is over, you might persuade him to attend to drill a little more, and history a little less?” the king responded, smiling at his son. When he turned back to his brother, his face smoothed to seriousness. “More surprising, far more, was the number of serious accidents among the other first-year boys. Very serious. During the recent month it seems few of them could even emerge from an ordinary building without falling down.”

  The Sierlaef scowled at the fire. The king knew! Who snitched?

  The king said, “I am most concerned. Most concerned.” He looked up. “I must write a letter to Jarend-Adaluin Algara-Vayir, but I do not know what to say.”

  The Sierlaef, indifferent to the Adaluin of Choraed Elgaer, sensed his uncle’s wariness. His uncle had always spoken bitterly of the Algara-Vayirs, but he never knew why.

  “You all will remember,” the king continued, speaking in Marlovan now. The language of their ancestors, of war. “That twenty-five years ago we came to the rescue of Tenthen Castle—too late to save his family, but in time to kill the pirates who had lingered. It’s a credit to our House that half the wing riding the borders of Darchelde made their famed all-night run south in little more than a day, for we honor our oaths.”

  Old history. The Sierlaef stirred impatiently, then saw his uncle’s frown, his tight lips.

  The king went on. “Less known, and for a reason, is why Jarend-Adaluin was away. It is assumed he was riding his lands, and he has never revealed his real mission. A loyal man.” He paused to adjust one of the Fire Sticks, but on the periphery saw the quick glances, a third exchange, between his brother and his son. “A loyal man,” he repeated, sitting back in his chair. “He was scouting a traitor under my direct orders, when the pirates attacked his home. So though the official histories hold that he is obliged to me, in fact the obligation goes the other way. He was doing my work, visiting Uncle Eveneth on my behalf, because my forces were spread too thin. Because of this decision of mine his family was killed.”

  Silence, except the crackling of the fire.

  The Sierandael sensed danger—a lightning bolt out of a clear sky. “You never told me about Uncle Eveneth.” All I knew was that you’d sent a secret message to Jarend-Adaluin.

  “I was a new king then, as you will remember. I have not spoken about the difficulties of assuming the throne, the compromises between what I perceived as duty and as necessity; at the time I had to pretend there weren’t any difficulties, and since then . . .” A shrug. “It became ancient history, suitable only for boring children in the archives.” Now a smile. “You were away in the east, giving Stalgoreth a salutary show of power, do you remember? You had the rest of the Guard, outside of those we had designated to patrol Darchelde.”

  “Yes.” The Sierandael’s worry eased. He was not being blamed, then. He had been on the king’s business, of course. He repressed a sigh. His brother, smart, loyal, an excellent heir and then an excellent king, was just so soul-rotting secretive! The only way to contend with that was to spy on your own, and make your own plans to avert ever being taken by surprise.

  “Because you were away I did not tell you that Great-Uncle Eveneth had been ... courting the Montredavan-Ans.”

  Montredavan-Ans! Another danger, but an inherited one. The Sierandael acknowledged and then dismissed them. Their sons stayed home, or went to sea, or to foreign lands, and his own hand-picked men, under the command of one of the king’s most loyal captains, rode their borders year round. They could have no influence, no power now.

  Jened Sindan, watching all three, king, brother, and son, saw the indifference in the Sierlaef’s flat gaze, relief in the Sierandael’s change of color, and the nearly hidden regret narrowing the eyes of the king.

  “But that is the past. To the present. I do not want to write to Jarend-Adaluin, to whom I have owed obligation for twenty-five years, that his boy has broken ribs from falling down stairs, any more than I like the prospect of sending a messenger to the Tya-Vayirs with the news that their prospective Shield Arm is now one-eyed. We will try to mitigate that, at royal expense.”

  “As is right,” the Sierandael said, nodding several times.

  “You have great authority among the boys, my son,” the king said to the Sierlaef. “You have done exceedingly well. All your masters attest to it. The boys all look up to you.”

  The Sierlaef grinned. Well, finally! A little praise. For once. Tonight would be the night to ask to be transferred.

  “Therefore I know that this request—no, I really must make it an order, but nothing you cannot easily compass, situated as you are. I want you to oversee those boys yourself. From a distance, of course—do not interfere with Master Gand or the others. Just . . . make certain they are safe. Your brother and all the Tveis,” the king said, rising. “I do not want to have to write any more letters about their lack of safety in my city, in my service. Especially when we have so recently broken with tradition, and brought these future Randaels here, something I do not wish the Jarls to have cause to regret. Are we agreed?”

  “Yes, Father.”

  “Ah, good. Then let us go in to the midday meal. I know you will wish to enjoy some of your free time before the Restday drum.”

  As the sound of Lastday bells echoed through the stone streets, the Sierlaef passed back through the gate into the boys’ world again, his strides long and angry. After a long, tedious meal, the Sierlaef made his request, just to hear his father deny him the right for early entrance to the Guards. Behind his back his uncle had spread his hands in sympathy, indicating What else did you expect? But the Sierlaef had thought that his father’s strange, reminiscent mood might indicate a new mellowness, a willingness to listen for once. Wrong.

  The Sierlaef stalked his way to the scrub pit, heels thudding the stones like execution drums as he practiced words under his breath. He ducked through the doorway, the same beat-up, kicked doorway he’d run through seven years ago. The dark smudge was still on the wall above the door, from generations of boys leaping up to smack the top of the doorway, just to be doing it. Now he had only to stretch up his hand to touch it, not that he would. He was far too angry to be amused.

  The inside was as stuffy as all the barracks were, but did not smell like sweat and gear oil as did those of the older boys. It smelled like dusty pups. They were busy doing typically stupid scrub things: cards, of course, and a bunch of them were trying to train three kittens to do tricks. Another group was racing beetles, and in high, excited voices they bet things like chores and extra foods. Stupid puppies!

  When they saw him, they all stilled. In another mood the Sierlaef would have laughed at those goggling faces.

  But even that faint urge to smile burned to cinders when he saw his brother, who did not goggle or gape. He sat there on the floor with four others, his round face composed, looking startlingly like their father. He couldn’t read that face any more than he could read that damned squiggly dogshit in the archive rooms. Sponge even had their father’s red hair.

  The Sierlaef marched up to him, looking magnificent to the startled scrubs in his scarlet and gold, his boots loud on the much-swept wooden floor. The other three boys playing cards scrambled away, some of them dropping their cards and markers, leaving Sponge alone on the floor.

  The Sierlaef said the words he’d been practicing, and managed to get them out without a tremor. “Queen’s greetings. Any more accidents. You tell me. King’s orders.”

  Out he marched, boots scattering the debris of the boys’ game. He had better things to do, like figuring out how to make the masters sweat, and sweat hard, and
beg the king to send him to the Guard by summer.

  Inda and Sponge did not catch a moment alone until two days later, when they were both moving hay from a wagon into a barn. “What’s it mean, your brother coming in?” Inda asked. “Are we safe?”

  “Only from Cherry-Stripe,” Sponge whispered back, pointing with his chin in the direction of their pit.

  “But he already mutinied against Buck. We all heard that.”

  They’d all heard Cherry-Stripe getting thrashed behind the barracks, when his brother had confronted him. They’d also heard Cherry-Stripe yelling, “I don’t care! You do it. I won’t! Go away, this is our pit!”

  Sponge looked up. “I should say, you’re now safe from any more scraggings on my brother’s orders.”

  “Are we safe from your brother?”

  “I think so. I think my father must have interfered. That should buy us the rest of this year without any more trouble than we’d normally get.”

  Inda pitched more hay. The familiar clean, good smells, the sounds, were barely discernible to him. He only felt the pull of unexpected muscles, residue of the new training. He also felt his healing ribs twinge.

  He had promised Hadand he would keep his training secret, as well as the other secret, the one about why the Sierlaef hated his brother. As he looked at Sponge now, he wondered why Hadand wasn’t training him, but then he remembered that this breach of the women’s rules was on his mother’s orders.

  Before he’d come he would not have believed terrible things could happen, but since the night Smartlip had laughed as he booted in his ribs and then kicked in Cama’s eye when he was already down, he’d begun to realize that the academy was no place of safety. Not for those who were close to those who angered those in power.

  Inda thought back to that sudden appearance of the Sierlaef, his unsmiling face, the way he addressed Sponge as if he were a servant, the way he’d kicked apart their games. He remembered what Hadand had told him about the Sierlaef and his reading.

  Sponge caused anger in those close to power.

  So . . . he wouldn’t tell Hadand.

  Inda considered the matter from all angles, and found it good. Hadand would be protected by ignorance; Sponge, a prince, needed to learn to protect himself if his brother, for whatever reason, ordered anyone to attack him.

  And so, for the very first time in his life, he broke a promise. “I think I know something that will help,” he said. “We’ll start with how to fall.”

  Chapter Sixteen

  ONCE Inda started getting up extra early, it was easy enough to continue, especially when a quietly determined prince would waken him if he slept in.

  Life settled into a routine. The older boys were kept on grueling field runs and extended drills—in preparation, the masters said, for the war with the Venn that everyone knew was coming. The scrubs, left alone, started enjoying life at the academy.

  Except for Smartlip, who was still mostly an outcast, even after Cama (who’d begged and pleaded) was allowed back, wearing a black patch over his eye that looked so tough, so interesting, that half the boys would almost have surrendered an eye of their own to get to wear one as well. Inda sometimes addressed Smartlip, and so did Sponge, but no one besides Kepa spent any time with him—and that always in secret, when the others weren’t watching. Smartlip, hating that, watched with resentment the way Kepa grinned and flattered everyone, especially Inda and Sponge and Cherry-Stripe, and only gossiped about scraggings and who got flogged with Smartlip when no one was around to see or hear.

  Smartlip despised Kepa for that—and despised himself for listening to it—but it was better than no company at all.

  And so the sun, unnoticed, tipped past its highest arc and slowly started dropping northward each day. Now the topic of conversation was the academy banner game, which was a week-long wargame in the field, the entire academy divided into two armies, competing to capture one another’s flag, which could then be displayed outside a chosen barracks until the next spring.

  After the banner game came the academy games at the end of the season, which was the chance for the academy boys and the girls in the Queen’s Guard training to compete before the city and their families. The culmination of the games was a battle in the great parade ground between the older boys and girls over a construct erected solely for that purpose. The winners set it aflame and danced and sang and celebrated around the bonfire half the night.

  The older boys redoubled their efforts in drill, thinking they could bully their little brothers into doing their chores to give them more time for practice. But the scrubs were nowhere to be found during free time—they had some secret or other.

  Down in the pigtails’ barracks, Whipstick Noth smiled to himself, but as usual he said nothing.

  Far to the west, all along the coastal border existed a different sort of watchfulness. Not against the Venn, but against pirates. Everyone was afraid of pirates. Word of a bad attack somewhere in the southern seas was whispered from harbor to harbor, and the rumors Standas had reported to Jarend-Adaluin months ago of a mysterious pirate ship with sails black as a starless night had spread.

  The night before the games were to begin, at Tarual Harbor on the west coast of Iasca Leror, Barend-Dal Montrei-Vayir stepped onto his home soil after two long years at sea. The first thing he did was sniff the brisk autumnal air. During his four years as a ship’s rat he’d discovered that ports, and the land immediately around them, looked more or less the same. It was the smell that differentiated them.

  Mardgar’s southern port smelled like olives. The Sartoran port at Yldes smelled of steeped leaf, though Barend was assured the plants were many days’ ride away, on the mountainsides. He didn’t care. The offshore winds there carried the aroma of green, summery steep-leaf like nowhere else in the world.

  Home smelled of sedge, grass, and spiced cabbage, a plains smell also unlike anything in the world. Barend sniffed as he walked up the quay, stumping at each step because land always threw a sailor’s balance off until his body realized it didn’t have to adjust to the heel and roll of a deck.

  Then he looked around, seeing but not seeing the crowds of porters trundling goods to and from the various ships, the fishing fleet at the south end unloading the day’s catch, sailors of various lands lounging along Port Street, the row of inns and pleasure pits of various sorts and prices.

  He lifted his eyes to the sunlit hills behind Port Street and scanned the roads for the disturbance in traffic he dreaded. But instead of a crimson and gold, banner-waving Honor Guard that would force its precedence over everyone, what emerged from the jumble of traffic were four riders with no banners, two of them in Runner blue, the other two in the gray-dyed woolen coats that Marlovan plainsmen had worn for uncounted generations.

  His first impression—not a new one—was how short Marlovans were in comparison with most other people. It wasn’t obvious when living among them. Or when the warriors rode. Or when they looked at you.

  The realization, mixed with the relief of recognition, made Barend grin. None of his father’s men came, but Uncle Sindan had!

  Barend did not yell or run. His first ten years of rough treatment by his father, and in the royal schoolroom by the Sierlaef, followed by four rough years at sea, had made him learn patience. Uncle Sindan would see him in a moment. For now Barend could watch as his two worlds mixed and separated, like the intersecting ripples of two rocks thrown into a stream.

  People flowed around the four riders on their exquisite horses, animals so well trained that only flicks of their ears betrayed their awareness of the banging, bellowing noise of the harbor.

  On shipboard, each time he was reposted, Barend earned his rating, low as it was, until he was finally accepted on his own merit. Now he felt himself drawn back into the invisible circles of power that propagated out from his father, the Sierandael, and from the king—those rocks in the stream again.

  “Barend.” Uncle Sindan greeted him, his rare smile making his long, li
ned face look a little younger.

  “Hullo,” Barend caroled. He recognized Ranet, his mother’s favorite Runner, like Uncle Sindan wearing her blue tunic blank, without the crown over the heart. As for the two in gray, he thought he recognized his mother’s armswoman, but the man he did not know. This man held down his hand for Barend’s seabag and pulled it up behind him.

  “Come,” Ranet said, reaching.

  Barend took her hand and scrambled up awkwardly behind her, mostly tugged by the woman’s strong arm. He always had to relearn riding when he came home.

  Home. Barend felt his gut knot. When he was in far waters, he used to like to think of the cozy warm nursery rooms, drinking hot cider or chocolate and drawing endless pictures while farther down the table Sponge and Hadand sat reading, talking over what they read, and little Kialen listened, silent as always. Just the four of them, for he’d grown up knowing there would be no wife for the son of a Shield Arm, that he was basically a spare heir, and if something happened to Sponge, he’d have to marry Kialen and take his place.

  Four of them together, long pleasant afternoons, warm afternoons. Even the Sierlaef didn’t seem so bad when Barend was far away, shivering on watch during dark, bitter winter nights, because his memories would dwell on the days when they successfully hid from him, holing up somewhere—preferably with food snatched from the Sierlaef’s own rooms—in warmth and comfort, as the bullying heir stamped by, bleating Sponge’s name.

  But now that he was on home ground, his desire to see his mother again, and Spongie and Hadand and even quiet little Kialen, was outstripped by dread of his father.

  He wished suddenly that they were in Lindeth Harbor, at the northernmost limits of the kingdom. That would mean a long, quiet ride home. But Tarual Harbor was much farther south; home was only a week or so of hard riding to the southeast. So think of the good things, then.

  No one spoke as the horses threaded through the crowds. It did not take long. Harbor mobs were like a long rope following the shape of the harbor, unlike a walled city, where they formed a circle or rectangle, becoming more knotted toward the middle.

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