Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Quite suddenly the businesses gave way to warehouses, their weatherworn wood sidelit by the westering sun. Those gave way to houses, most of them round, and the open road pointing up over the palisades toward the plains of Khani-Vayir, one of the westernmost, and largest, of the Jarl-holdings.

  It wasn’t until they had passed a long row of wagons rumbling harborward that Uncle Sindan looked over and said, “And how was your journey, young Dormouse? Two years!”

  Barend wriggled on the saddle pad behind Ranet, delighted to hear his nickname again. Soon enough they’d cross some invisible line and Uncle Sindan would assume his wood face once again, addressing him as Barend-Dal. That meant the bad side of home: spies and Father’s sudden, unearned beatings.

  “Oh, it was mostly all right,” Barend said.

  He’d learned that nobody wanted to hear about splintered masts, or horrible storms and beating miserably westward against east-moving currents when no progress was made for one long month, or passing too near to a terrible sea battle between the powerful Chwahir and the even more powerful Venn. No one at home knew a thing about winds, or sails, or other lands, nor did they care. “Convoy duty is always the same, if there are no pirates. At the end of winter the winds were wrong in the straits, and we were months too late to make the big convoy out of the Sartor Sea, so we had to wait to come west. We were stuck at Ymar until the Venn and Chwahir finished their fighting.”

  “Ymar!” Ranet whistled. “Did you see any morvende? Are they really pale as bleached cotton? And bird-clawed?”

  Barend said, “White hair, yes. Whiter than winter snow. Pale skin too. You can see their veins, which is kind of disgusting, but they don’t let you see much skin, for they wear these robes of real thin material with lots of folds. But their fingers are like ours, just with long talons at the ends, kind of. They don’t wear shoes, either.”

  “Did they sing?”

  “Yes. It was a death wake for some ruler.” Barend looked back in memory to Ymar’s great harbor, gazing awestruck at the slow-walking figures with their drifting hair like bird down, the wide, light eyes, and he heard again the beautiful, antiphonal singing in running triplets, all plangent minor key, so beautiful it hurt his throat and made his chest ache. “The music was a little like the real old songs, the New Year songs, that some of the people in the south sing. Only better.”

  Ranet whistled again, this time appreciatively, then said, “It was the Queen of Ymar who died, was it not?”

  Barend smothered a yawn. “I dunno. I don’t know their lingo, and none of ’em use Dock Talk. But it touched off a war.”

  Sindan and Ranet exchanged glances. It was Ranet who—first wetting her dry lips—asked, “Did anyone say why the death wake was in the harbor, and not the royal city?”

  “Nobody tells us rats anything.” Barend gave a one-shoulder shrug. “And it’s not as if it was someone we knew. I confess I was more worried about the inns being closed and that we wouldn’t get a hot meal before it was back to rocks and gruff.”

  “I heard somewhere that they call ship’s biscuit rocks. But gruff?” Ranet asked, smiling.

  Barend’s mind suddenly shifted, making him feel he was on deck again and the ship giving a sudden lee lurch. “The Guards call it slurry. Same sort o’ thing, you know. Only potato, instead of rice. Cabbage, cheese, the same.”

  Uncle Sindan said, “The Venn did not give you trouble?”

  Was there something funny about Uncle Sindan’s voice? No, he was only looking at those people planting winter rye.

  “Not us. Once they saw us sailing west, they cleared the straits—the sea battle part of the war was east of us. The Venn don’t do anything if you obey, and don’t carry forbidden cargos, and if you pay up,” Barend said carelessly, watching some birds high overhead. The sea birds had given way to land birds now, but they still acted the same: the flights indicated a wind change nigh, and maybe rain out of the west. Ugh. If it was out of the west this time of year, that meant cold.

  “So, hear any news when you landed?” Ranet asked.

  Barend shrugged. “Lots of talk, of course. Too busy complaining about trade cuts. Any late convoys going east had to turn back—” A yawn caught him by surprise, a huge, gaping yawn that made his eyes water. “Sorry.” He smiled. “My watch this week began before dawn, y’see, and we had to prep the ship against coming in. Captain said I was good overall, says that I ought to be posted as a mid to the Talas. Or maybe even the Cassad, since . . . you know.” A whirl of the hand, indicating family influence. Another yawn took him. “It’s all in the letter to m’ father, he said,” Barend added, pointing to his battered seabag behind the armsman.

  “Full of praise?” Uncle Sindan asked. “May I read it?”

  “I would say yes, except it’s sealed.” Barend saw Ranet and Uncle Sindan look at one another, one of those annoying, adult sort of looks that meant they could hardly wait until he was gone to talk—and he might as well forget asking, because they’d just lie like rugs.

  “Did you see the Cassad at all, then? Or our other two ships?” Uncle Sindan asked, and Ranet looked sharply at him.

  Barend shook his head. “Heard they were supposed to make landfall at Novid or Lindeth, but you know what the winds are like. Well, you don’t know, I guess, but—” Another yawn.

  Uncle Sindan laughed. “Sorry, Dormouse. I suspect you need food and sleep, and no questions. We’ll see to just that.”

  Barend sighed with gratitude. “Oh, good.”

  Uncle Sindan clucked softly and the horses increased their gait. Barend daydreamed and dozed, noting with vague interest that they did not take the road turnoff inland but kept to the south, along the coast, though that was the longer way back home.

  He didn’t care. It was fine to ride like this, no watch bells, no rope’s end if he was caught napping . . .

  Not long afterward they settled into a crossways inn, just before the rain began tapping at the windows. The inn was old and plain and never used by aristocrats. Jened Sindan knew it well, netting them a small but snug pair of rooms up under the roof. While the armsman went down to the common room to eat and listen, and the armswoman to the stable to see to their animals and listen, Sindan and Ranet got a good, hot meal into Barend.

  For a time both stood there, looking fondly at the small, scrawny boy who, despite his fourteen years, seemed not to have grown much since he was about eight. But then that was the way of Cassad descendants, to be small, thin, with those distinctive broad foreheads and wide-set eyes, the narrow, pointed chins, the short upper lip and prominent front teeth. Barend did not look in the least like a Montrei-Vayir, but like his mother, Ndara-Harandviar, wife to the Royal Shield Arm.

  No one spoke while Barend ate with the concentration of a totally exhausted boy—a familiar enough sight—and then they offered him a bed, but he insisted on pulling his summer hammock from his seabag and slinging it from clothes hooks in adjacent corners of the room. “I’ll have to sleep in a bed soon enough,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Truth is, I sleep better aswing.”

  And it seemed he did. Within a few breaths he surprised them by going boneless, his breathing deep, his cheek pressed into the hammock in a way that looked uncomfortable, but apparently wasn’t.

  Sindan and Ranet turned to one another.

  Sindan’s loyalty was to the king, Ranet’s to Ndara-Harandviar; they were allied in their concern for Barend.

  He said, tentatively, “Shall you do it or shall I?”

  The question betokened not just alliance, but a measure of trust. It admitted that Sindan tampered with messages—and also implied that he knew she was also as skilled.

  She said with a slight grimace, “It ought to be me.”

  If there was reason to destroy the letter, he would not be lying if he said he had not touched it.

  Ranet pulled the letter from the seabag and expertly slit the seal. She read swiftly through, and then held it up. “Just what the boy says. He will take no harm of it.??
? She hesitated, then added, “And nothing about the missing ships.”

  Sindan scanned the neatly written letter, saw measured praise of the boy’s industry and courage, a formal letter, just what was expected from a captain whose parents were Iascan shepherds to write to the powerful brother of a king. And, indeed, no word of the tiny Marlovan fleet.

  Ranet skillfully remelted the underside of the seal and pressed it with delicate care back onto the refolded letter. When it had been replaced in the seabag, she turned to face Sindan, who frowned down at the floor, his gaze abstract.

  “Jened?” There were probably four people in the world who used his first name. He looked up, and she continued, “Shall we turn inland on the morrow?”

  Sindan said, “Why don’t we ride south a day, and listen? Give Barend an easy journey, to rest. And then, after a pair of days, if there’s no news, you return with him. The king ordered me to ride south to Algara-Vayir after Barend was safely met.”

  A delicate issue. Ships were kings’ business, home defense women’s. But Jened could understand Ndara-Harandviar’s concern, since her son was supposed to join the fleet next time he was sent out.

  Even more delicate: the method of conveying news back home. Ranet said nothing more, touched her heart, and withdrew to the room she was sharing with the armswoman. Once there she eased the bolt across the door, took from her pack a feather quill, a twist of dark-berry ink, and a tiny roll of paper, which she smoothed out one-handed. A tricky business, but she was practiced. She dipped the quill and wrote very swiftly in Old Sartoran: B safe. No word of 3.

  Ranet rolled the paper into a tight little wick, and then pulled from her shirt a golden locket on a thin chain. She opened the locket, put the paper wick in it, closed the locket, and held it pressed between her palms.

  She sat cross-legged, breathing deeply three times before she fixed the image of an identical locket, with the same three starliss flowers carved on its face, in her mind. Voicelessly she enunciated the words of transfer, felt her nose buzz and her bones tingle, held the image, held it, finished the last word—and sensed the inner snap of a successful transfer spell.

  Drained and dizzy, she threw the feather into her pack and then rolled gratefully into bed.

  Chapter Seventeen

  IN the royal city of Iasca Leror, Ndara-Harandviar felt the tap of magic transfer against her breastbone.

  Queen Wisthia noticed the little buck-toothed Harandviar stiffen. The queen’s slack-lidded gaze shifted to the muscular, dark-browed man standing next to the Harandviar. The Sierandael had noticed nothing. Though custom required them to be next to one another, he seldom looked his wife’s way. Instead he spoke in a low murmur to the Guard and academy commanders on his other side, who stood stiffly in their House tunics, their gazes straying toward the king at the window, hands clasped behind him.

  Wisthia hated the king’s brother, who never talked about anything but war, or training for war, never feigning any other interest even for politeness’ sake. Nor did he hide his scorn for her own tastes in music and art, but at least he kept his thoughts locked behind his sardonic expression, and never actually said anything. She had found over the years that if she pretended he was not in the room, she could bear his presence.

  In contrast Wisthia liked his little wife, who obligingly oversaw the dreary details of castle defense training, the education of Runners, and all the similarly repellent martial arts expected of a queen in this benighted land, but who seemed to enjoy the arts Wisthia had brought along with her—or she had the grace to pretend she did. Because of her indefatigable hard work all Wisthia had to do was preside at the summer academy games and the New Year Convocation of Clans, and yawn through the interminable ballads about glorious wars of the past—and sometimes she even managed to evade that.

  The queen lifted her head and signed to her musicians to strike up a livelier melody. The flourish of sweet-sounding stringed instruments drew attention their way for a brief moment.

  Ndara saw her husband’s back turn, and her hand strayed to her bodice. The queen understood immediately: magic message, though she did not know from whom. It was she who had given the pair of lockets to Ndara, long ago when she’d first come as a bride. The lockets had been a fad at home, where magic was far easier to come by, meant for lovers who were parted and wished to send little tokens. Wisthia had not known then that Ndara had no lovers, would never have any lovers.

  What she did have was some sort of communication web with quiet, impassive women, some in the castle, some in the great Houses, some who served. Wisthia did not react. It was Ndara’s business, and she never troubled Wisthia with any of it.

  The Sierandael frowned, his head turning—

  “The children are late, it seems,” Wisthia said to him.

  Everyone, including the Sierandael, faced her way.

  She beckoned to her lady in waiting. “Go find them, my dear.”

  The Sierandael’s back was now to his wife.

  Ndara-Harandviar felt a spurt of gratitude for the queen’s action. Surely Wisthia had done it on purpose. The queen might refuse to learn anything about Marlovan customs, but she was an acute observer of human beings, Ndara had learned over the years.

  She turned her shoulder and tried to slide a hand into her bodice. It was an act of madness. She knew she should wait. But, oh, two years, two long years she had not seen her son. Word had come that his ship had appeared at last; she had to know if he was safe—especially with the troubling dearth of news about the three Marlovan warships.

  Her fingers trembled. The queen said something to the Sierandael, he was engaged in a polite reply, and so, using their conversation as protection, she twitched out the locket, retrieved the paper, replaced the locket. Her fingers unrolled the wick. Then, holding her breath, she glanced down. Safe. Safe! She swallowed the rice paper, fighting against tears.

  Wisthia watched covertly, thinking: Ah. Message indeed. Politics, no doubt. Her mother had said, before Wisthia made the long journey to royal exile in Iasca Leror, Politics is another term for war with the mind. She had added, With us, political defeat means disgrace, for a time. With them—as with war—it means death. Her father had said, We made the marriage treaty to keep their warriors from crossing the border. They will treat you well enough if you do not meddle in their affairs. He’d then added with wry-voiced meaning, They will also leave us alone.

  Headmaster Brath cleared his throat. “Sierandael-Dal, what say you then to shifting the winter storage to the old stable? We haven’t used it these three years . . .”

  The Sierandael resumed his low-voiced conversation. Ndara looked bemused, her thin cheeks flushed.

  “Rain comes,” the king said, moving away from the dark window. “I trust it will not ruin the games.”

  Games. How odd, his tone. But Wisthia had long since given up comprehending her soft-spoken, distant spouse. It was enough that he was kind, that he had not required her to learn that barbaric tongue they spoke when they talked of war, or to ride for days in dirt and weather, smashing and clashing willow weapons, as poor Hadand would be forced to do on Fourthday, and then again on the day of the youths’ great siege.

  The maid returned with Hadand and Kialen, who saluted.

  “Enter, girls,” the king murmured. “Kialen, are you looking forward to this week’s prospects?”

  Kialen trembled when she saw so many eyes on her. But the king’s voice was kind and low, and she could talk to him without getting sick with fear. “Yes, Sieraec-Dal. This year we have permission to watch the new boys. I shall see Spo—Evred in the games, shall I not?”

  Wisthia shifted her attention away from the little lisping voice in time to see Ndara brush three fingers downward against her skirt and flick her thumb toward the window. Hadand’s eyelids flickered to the side and back. Otherwise she did not move or change her expression. What control the child had!

  The king—what did he see?—went on, “Indeed you shall. But you must remember h
e is just finishing his first season, and I’m afraid he will not yet be participating in the gymkhana, or the sword or knife exercises. What you will see is the horseshoe competition, the relay race, and some target shooting. Perhaps you will enjoy that.”

  Wisthia turned her attention to Hadand’s intelligent brown gaze in that still-childish round face, then to frightened little Kialen at Hadand’s shoulder, and felt her heart squeeze. These two she had helped Ndara to raise as daughters, and they had become dear to her.

  The only demand she’d made in the marriage treaty had been that any daughter of hers would not be fostered out among these barbarian Marlovans at the age of two, but would remain with her. There had been no daughter. Instead she had two sons, first her beautiful Aldren—called in their barbaric tongue Sierlaef—who had by degrees been transformed from a sweet babe in her arms to a steel-muscled boy, almost a man, who looked at her with killing indifference. Then there was Evred, he of the beautiful soul, who at first she had not dared to love lest the same happen to him. Now it was too late.

  She pushed aside the familiar ache, grown fainter with time.

  Kialen’s thin fingers fiddled with the ends of her flaxen braid as she looked up at the king. “Yes, Sieraec-Dal.”

  Wisthia saw her chief steward at the door to the dining chamber, and so she said, “Let us go in, then, shall we?”

  And the king came to her, grave, courteous, holding out his arm. She placed her hand on his sleeve and led the way into the dining room. She loved that room. The king had permitted her to strip out those ugly war tapestries and cover the walls with silken hangings of pale yellow, the floors with fine woven rugs in yellow and deep blue, and banish those hideous Marlovan chairs, so heavy and martial with their strangely styled wings and raptor legs ending in claws. What she had were graceful goldenwood furnishings that looked like chairs and tables, not like hunting birds. A civilized room, which now smelled enticingly of chicken pie and mulled wine; in her own chambers, the manners obtained in her own home prevailed. The wine was served in crystal flutes, not those ugly flat dishes with the square handles; and people ate with fine silver spoons, not those flat, round ones; and they cut their food with thin, dull knives. Those nasty, curve-tipped Marlovan knives they cut and served and ate with were kept in their sashes, where she could ignore them. Once she had hoped to teach this nation of barbarians proper manners; now she suspected that, though those around her were polite enough to heed her wishes, as soon as she was gone, her eastern manners would be forgotten.

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