Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Wisthia sighed inwardly. Tomorrow would be far worse, being Restday, the day that most of the leaders of the great Houses who had sons and daughters here would arrive, and there would be the tedious banquet filled with Marlovan war chatter, and those interminable ballads in harrowing minor keys, accompanied by the ever-present, sinister drums.

  Then six days of supposedly friendly combat, but she had seen those boys breaking arms; she’d seen bleeding mouths and slashed flesh, and the hot-eyed smiles of challenge between the older boys and girls before the Sixthday siege. Her insides tightened, and she leaned over and said to Ndara, “My dear, with this sudden change in the weather I fear I am unwell. Will you preside in my place on the morrow?”

  Ndara bowed her assent.

  The king murmured concern, for which she thanked him. The Sierandael attempted to hide his disgust. Hadand, Kialen, and Ndara continued with their meal. No one was surprised. It had been the same for the past ten years.

  Wisthia permitted herself to smile only when she was alone at last in her rooms, with her own ladies, with whom she could speak and write letters in her own tongue, and listen to the music of home, and thus spin away another year in the hope that some day, she might at last return.

  The Royal Shield Arm accompanied his wife back to their wing, a rarity that she would gladly have forgone.

  So would he. Pacing beside her, he looked down on her untidy hair, always slipping out of its comb, the flat front of her gown, the freckles and buck teeth, and he felt a surge of rage that had not diminished in fifteen years, ever since she finally consented to emerge from the nursery at age twenty, put off smocks for her first gown, and the night before their wedding, face him and say, You will never come to my bed, or ask me to come to yours.

  For her to make such a demand! Her! Ugly, small, repulsive. How close he’d come to reaching for a knife, but he dare not touch her, not the daughter of the powerful Jarl of Cassad.

  I want an heir, he’d said, blunt for blunt. There had not yet been a second child to the king and queen, and if there were, one could always hope it would be the girl the queen so desired.

  I will take your hand, and we shall see if the Birth Spell works for us, she’d retorted. If not, I will adopt any child you have by another woman. But there will be no one in my bed.

  Betrayal clawed at his vitals. The memory, fifteen years old, was still as fresh as a salted wound. Blow after blow, all pointless, undeserved: the mysterious Birth Magic had finally worked to give them a son, but instead of a big strong Montrei-Vayir boy, he was a rat-faced scrap of a Cassad. That blow was followed scarcely two years later by the queen’s bearing of a second boy.

  A boy who might as well have been born to heralds, who haunted the archives instead of the stables, who spoke his secrets to his father in Old Sartoran. How could anyone defend a kingdom with that as leader?

  The Sierandael shook his head, hating it when memory jabbed him. He couldn’t fix memory. And thinking about Tlennen and those scrolls and books was disloyal. Tlennen was a good king and a good brother. But his second son should never have been born. Or should have been sent away to sea. Or something.

  Well, he could not fix the past, but he could make plans for the future, and all for the good of the kingdom—that was the meaning of Sierandael.

  His goal—his true meaning—always reassured him. He turned to face his wife. The only way he’d found to control her had been to force her to watch him beat senseless the puling, buck-toothed boy that they’d made by the mysterious magic that no one really understood, that came, or didn’t come, as it willed. Or someone willed. No one could explain how the Birth Spell worked.

  His mind, as always, shied away from the threat of the unknown, the unknowable. When they stopped outside the doors to their opposing rooms, he snapped, “The king and I will preside tomorrow. There is too much of import to discuss with the Jarls. Hadand can preside at the Sixthday banquet. The Jarls will like that. When Barend returns, he stays in the schoolroom. I don’t want his sea habits embarrassing us before the Jarls.”

  They parted without any further words.

  Chapter Eighteen

  RAIN swept through the plains of Hesea all the next day, bringing mud-splashed cavalcades with sodden banners. The entire city was torch-lit that night, the streets full of armsmen and liveried servants amid the city folk, the castle full of clan leaders.

  Missing from those leaders was the Adaluin of Choraed Elgaer.

  Tanrid, prepping in the horsetail barracks, had received his father’s Runner and the message of delay with philosophical stolidity. Seven years, he’d been competing at these games. It had come to matter little who watched and who did not.

  But this year Inda was here.

  The next morning, the games’ first day, Tanrid was there when the scrubs marched out to the great parade ground adjacent to the Guard barracks. And so he was there to witness his brother’s mirthful, chortling grin, that, in Tanrid’s view, meant trouble.

  The scrubs gamboled, smothering snickers, until they reached the gateway. Then they straightened up. As they marched out onto the beautifully swept stones, most of them scanned the stands that the guard had set up. Heh. Sparse, just as their brothers and cousins had warned them so loftily and derisively they would be.

  Inda scanned the long picket line, set up the night before all along one wall, with tables of supplies, fodder, and tubs of water for the horses, who had been brought out at dawn, and now stood munching, shaking heads, or snoozing in the early sun, which was already warm.

  Inda had said a month ago to the other scrubs in a night conference on the middle bunks, No one will come to watch us anyway, and the few who do will come to laugh at the scrubs running about sabotaging one another. Who cares which riding wins? So let’s spit in the eye of those strutting pugs who happen to be older than us, and beat the sand-glass instead of one another!

  Cherry-Stripe snickered under his breath as a smirking pigtail pointed out the waiting shoes and equipment, as if they’d never seen horses or gear before. Cherry-Stripe restrained the urge to give the offending pigtail the back of his hand. For a whole month they had practiced in secret—only old Olin knew, and he’d promised, cackling and slapping his thigh, not to tell.

  The young Guardsman in charge of signals gave a blast on his polished brass horn, and the scrubs formed up in their line, growing mops of hair lifting in the wind, many of them with their shapeless gray tunics noticeably short at wrist and knee.

  Inda watched the other boys bump up shoulder to shoulder. The surreptitious nudges and whispered mutters were those of shared conspiracy, and not of threat or anger. Joy made him giddy—it was going to work, he knew it was going to work.

  Ra-ta-ta! Ra-ta-ta!

  Master Brath motioned them into ridings. From behind the wall came muffled laughs of anticipation.

  The scrub shoeing always provided vast amusement for the older boys who had once been down there, busily disrupting one another and fumbling in their anxious—and usually ineffective—efforts to get to the supplies first, fight off the other ridings, and get their horses shod, all before the sands poured through the glass. Horsetails drifted alongside the picket-fence and weapon racks. The scrubs heard their coarse guffaws.

  In the stands were a few Guards with the same expectation, and some city people who liked the free entertainment, and some of the scrubs’ family members who watched, out of either partisanship or appraisal.

  Blat! the last trumpet rang off the castle walls above.

  “Ready?” Inda breathed.

  Twenty pairs of eyes stared straight ahead.

  He whispered, “Begin.”

  And each boy leaped to his assigned post. The great bubble of laughter in Inda’s chest expanded as his plan unfolded with startling effect. All those watching stared in amazement. And then the comments started.

  “What’s that?” Manther thumped Hawkeye in the arm and pointed. The two stood at the end of the picket line. Hawkeye had b
een looking inward, appraising the moods of the horses.

  Hawkeye gave an impatient glance over his shoulder that swiftly altered to puzzlement. “What?”

  “They’re like bees,” Cassad Ain murmured, rubbing his jaw as he watched his brother handing shoes off to Mouse Marth-Davan, who assessed each horse, spoke briefly, and sent feisty Flash Arveas running down the row, to be replaced by big, strong Tuft. Tuft! Waiting for orders from Mouse! “Bees,” he said again. That was the closest he could come to that peculiar, utterly unexpected humming efficiency.

  Behind them Olin and the older stable hands watched in delight, promising one another tankards of ale later. The competitions meant nothing to them. What did was the rapid, drilled skill with which the boys worked.

  “They’re taking direction from Mouse?” Buck asked, sounding outraged. The smallest, spindliest scrub. And the other boys obeyed! All of them—including his brother!

  “Mouse knows horses. Gotta give him that,” Tlen murmured, watching the little boy’s rare assurance. “But he’s not in command.”

  “No,” Buck said, and he thought, And neither is my rockhead of a brother. He turned away with a sour face. Winter was going to be full of thrashings before he dared bring Cherry-Stripe back again. “Why?” he asked, feeling quite injured.

  The Sierlaef’s shadow fell over them, and the five looked up quickly. In answer he flicked up his hand, and showed them the back of it, the supreme insult. “To us.”

  The others made signs of agreement. Oh, that made sense. They’d been in the field for weeks, working on archery and lances, and training the horses in maneuvers. But on each return, when they could even find the scrubs, those with brothers had sustained exhibitions of lingering mutinous resentment.

  “Command?” the Sierlaef asked, narrowing his eyes.

  No one spoke, but they saw at roughly the same time that Sponge was not directing this remarkable exercise, never before seen, as far as any of them knew, in the history of the academy. The second prince was busy with one horse, and never looked up, except to watch for hand signals from—

  “It’s Jarend’s boy,” the Sierandael exclaimed suddenly, up in the stands, next to the king, as he watched the sturdy, brown-haired Algara-Vayir boy waggle a hand, whereupon the tall, weedy Ennath scrub at the other end of the line of horses ran to the Marth-Davan boy. He leaned forward, surprised and angry. That was not how the competition was to be run. He looked over, saw his brother nodding in approval.

  “It’s a remarkable feat,” the king said.

  The Sierandael knew he did not mean the fact that the horses were shoed, and neatly, at least three sand-glasses sooner than the best record. He meant command. That damn brat down there had somehow managed to turn all those boys’ loyalties to him, even if the main motivation was typical boyish rebellion.

  Tanrid was still silently laughing to himself later in the week. He, like the rest of the academy, had no trouble interpreting the scrubs’ remarkable performance in the shoeing as a defiant back of the hand to the Sier-Danas. It didn’t matter that Firstday’s afternoon competitions had proceeded regularly, that the Tvei scrubs had performed well at archery and relay races, but those were so basic few had stayed to watch them, finding basics boring, whether skillfully performed or not. Nor had it mattered how well the fifteen year-old first-year girls had done, to their own disgust. The talk was all of the Tveis’ shoeing.

  The sky was bright as a polished steel bowl beyond the army of marching lambkin clouds, the air hot and still. Yet the stands were crammed with spectators. Tanrid rode to the parade ground with the rest of the horsetails, his face impassive. His fingers checked the sweat-soaked wrist guards on each hand.

  He’d ceased to care about the competitions years ago, ever since he’d realized the Sierandael always called against him. But today he couldn’t let Inda’s gesture, however silly, go unsaluted. Today, he would win, no matter what the calls.

  Sitting in the stands, Hadand leaned forward, watching her older brother. Tanrid was uncommunicative at all times, but she, like Inda, had come to gauge his moods by how he carried himself.

  He looked different today. She ignored the sun baking her scalp and her back in its sturdy riding tunic—she would go directly down to the court to join the girls for their competitions—and watched Tanrid. Instead of his usual hard-faced carelessness, there was a lift to his chin, a stillness in the way he rode his mount that reminded her of the fox poised to run, just before the dogs stream over the hill.

  The horns blared, not just the two simple falls that called for the younger boys’ competitions, but the interwoven triplets in four chords that tightened muscles, sent blood rushing, causing the older boys to sit tall on their saddlepads, bootheels jammed down in their stirrups. Many flashed casual glances over their shoulders at the girls who stood, or sat, equally still, watching.

  When the last note died away, the Sierandael dropped the red pennant. Everyone paused now, watching for the red flutter to strike the ground—

  “Hi-YAH! Yip! Yip! Yip!” They were off, ridings thundering from both ends of the court over sun-reflecting stones worn by nearly two hundred years of Marlovan riders in rigid competition. Dashing around the spiked obstacles toward the central straw-stuffed men, horses nearly nose to tail in a precise line, the spears thrown in precision.

  They did not appear to perceive the danger of those obstacles over which horses had to leap or veer around, almost on their haunches, the targets were so narrow. A single miss from one of those spears would bury the steel point in the boy riding so close on the other side. Queen Wisthia, seeing the races for the first time as a young bride, had been sick with apprehension, her breath held, her guts cramping until the ridings had galloped past, the target buckling under the weight of the spears pincushioned all over it. She’d realized that this was not even the real competition, just the gymkhana. The howling audience regarded what happened as fun, as mere horse tricks! It was expected that they hit the target each time, with spear, bow and arrow, and knife as they rode past. Not to hit it culled a boy out of the riding, to hooting derision from people in the stands, children, townfolk, gray-haired oldsters.

  Back and forth, back and forth they galloped, the horses’ pretty, tapered heads held high, their gait smooth, their glossy manes and tails streaming as the boys’ hair streamed. The boys somersaulted on the horses’ backs, and dropped down and up again, and then leaped from horse to horse, laughing at one another, or harshly shrilling the fox yip, the ancient war cry.

  Hadand, watching, felt the trickle of sweat down her armpits, and not just from the heat. Horses picked up on moods; everyone knew that. Good the boys were, yet the eye was drawn to the loud thud of Tanrid’s spear, always right in the heart, and the speed of his mare, so fast she flew like a hawk on the hunt.

  The boys finished the last round, carrying streaming torches in each hand as the crowd howled and stamped their delight. Unnoticed, the noon sun blazed down on them all. Hadand began to surmise what the next phase would be like, and wavered between dread and anticipation.

  But she was still outside the mood that gripped them all, still an observer, as the trumpets called the end of the gymkhana and the girls began to flow onto the field to the roar of the off-duty females of the Guard and the women of the city. She was still an observer as the horsetails vanished to hand off their foaming, sweat-streaked mounts to the younger boys and dash water onto their heads and down their parched mouths as they readied themselves for the next phase, everyone’s favorite phase, girls against boys.

  In the beginning, it was just a weapons competition.

  Hadand was the youngest of the girls. This was her first year as participant, watched by everyone because one day she would be queen. Despite the years of personal training, her attitude with the big girls had always been circumspection, cooperation, deference. Listen, her mother taught her. You learn more being last than first, Ndara had told her. First will come soon enough, with all its responsibilities

  But those inward voices stilled, replaced by pride and triumph as Tanrid, last off the court, looked back straight into his sister’s eyes, mouth twisted in a faint smile of challenge.

  I dare you to win, the thought came, through the shimmer of heat and the fine white dust the horses had kicked up, through the roar of approval from the watchers.

  Done, she cried in her mind, even though he was now getting water poured on him by shouting boys, even though she knew such thoughts never got past the thin bone wall of her skull.

  But there is a kind of call that echoes from spirit to spirit at such times, transmitted not in words, but in smiles and posture and in the meeting of eyes; she felt the impact of her answer in her brother, a rare moment of communication—of kinship—that surprised her. Maybe the only one they would ever share. Make it good, she called, and he called back, Oh, we’ll make it good.

  And so all caution fell away, all the distance of the trained observer who tries to plan ahead to avoid disaster, who defers to diplomatic necessity, even in games—skills her mother had taught her since she was very small. She was young and strong, and the single thing she shared with Tanrid was the intensity of focus that could be terrifying to those who did not know them, yet thought they did.

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