Inda by Sherwood Smith

  The boys watched at first in careless amusement, then a shared wild joy as Tanrid won game after game in the boys’ eliminations, and the girls watched with surprise (and some of the older ones, who were superb, gracefully deferred) as Hadand won game after game, beating girls older than she with her strong arm and steady eye and remorseless aim, until the rest of the boys and girls seemed to recede into the distance, leaving the two Algara-Vayir siblings in a smiling, challenging duel of skill.

  At the end of the afternoon the two Algara-Vayirs, each champion for their sex, faced one another alone for the last game. The sun had set, a smoldering ball of fire, on the distant walls, and torchlight cast its uneasy, ruddy glow over the parade court when the last target appeared, the painted man, the weapon the thin-bladed double-edged dagger that both men and women wore in bristling multiplicity during times of war.

  The rhythmic stamping in the stands, the hands drumming war tattoos on fence and bench, the sight of the scrubs screaming themselves hoarse—Sponge and Inda among them—intoxicated Hadand with triumph, with the same recklessness that had goaded her brother to break his wall of indifference and strive to win.

  And so she jammed the knives in her sash crosswise, turned her back, held her hands out, empty, palms up. Some of the girls gasped. They knew what was coming. The older girls only performed this sort of sport for themselves. But Hadand whirled around, both hands pulling the knives in a blur of speed and hurling them to thud in the heart of the target.

  A shout of joy exploded skyward. In the stands, the king sent a mildly questioning look at his sister-in-law, but she did not see it. She stared down in horror.

  The Sierandael saw her pop-eyed dismay, and thought, She has no control over those girls. Out loud he said, “A mockery.”

  Ndara heard and clasped her hands, bone squeezing bone.

  She could not answer, but the king could. “No,” he said. “A display of skill. And the exuberance of youth.”

  Ndara looked up quickly, to meet his encouraging smile.

  The Sierandael grunted. He was used to the boys’ capers, and the masters had orders when the boys got out of hand. So girls cut capers as well! He’d never seen them, but then he only went over to witness their training twice a year. They were always strictly behaved, displaying drills in rigid formation.

  From the shock in his wife’s face, it was clear she had no idea what the girls were doing when she wasn’t there supervising them.

  He sat back, arms crossed, as down on the court Tanrid Algara-Vayir, now glistening with sweat, slammed two blades into his belt. He turned round, hands out, just like his sister; then, his fingers nipped the blades from his waist and he threw them high, whirling over and over, glittering red-gold in the firelight, until he caught them by the sharp steel tips and sent them speeding to slam to the hilts in the target’s head.

  Again, the crowd shouted, a vast upwelling voice of might.

  The Sierandael thought, He must have taught his sister those tricks. Only why haven’t I seen this from him before?

  Antics, for during war no one would do handsprings and then fling knives in a row down a target, nor would they toss them over their shoulders. But the audience indeed adored it. Even when the darkness, the flickering torchlight, the heat-scorched dizziness of which Tanrid and Hadand were as yet only subliminally aware, caused Hadand—younger, not as well practiced or as strong as her brother—to fling the knives more wildly, the audience no longer cared.

  The king said, apparently in answer to Ndara’s face of dismay, “It seems the people approve.”

  Tlennen would never trespass on his prerogatives. It was for his brother, the Royal Shield Arm, to choose to award the accolade or not. Anderle-Sierandael knew that despite the bravado, the flagrant disregard of strict rules, the two had earned it, but he hesitated, not because of the flouted rules, but because he hated being taken by surprise. A Shield Arm could not afford to ever be taken by surprise. Ever.

  The Sierandael looked down at the row of horsetails along the fence. There, outlined in torchlight, sat the Sierlaef and his five friends, all of them cheering madly, even Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir, whose father, full of overweening ambition, would thrash Hawkeye bloody for not winning. The Sierlaef had never won, though the Sierandael had overseen his training himself. The boy was just as strong as the Algara-Vayir boy, just as fast, but after he’d passed his sixteenth year he seemed to have stopped caring about winning. Yet he was cheering now.

  Then the Sierandael understood at last. The horsetails all cheered because Tanrid was one of them, and Hadand was the royal heir’s intended, so it was a horsetail win and a royal win.

  No, it was a Marlovan win.

  He breathed slowly, his puzzlement, his distrust, the ever-present anger, all leached away, leaving him with a conviction of the rightness of his training, of his far-seeing policy.

  It is a Marlovan win. If the Venn come to war, we will be the stronger. But it has to be on fields, not out on the sea.

  He thrust his fist into the air, and even the Guard on watch added their deep voices to the great shout that sent birds scolding to the far end of the city. Weapons brandished, torches waved, and boys and girls ran out onto the court, swarming around the two in the center, who stood, their mouths sticky, laughter and joy and exhaustion turning their bones to water.

  The Sierandael smiled, and the king smiled to see his brother’s smile; Ndara watched Hadand through a mist of tears, and inside she wailed in fear, Oh, daughter of my heart, what have you done?

  Chapter Nineteen

  THE night of the scrub exhibition with the shoeing, Sindan sat alone at a tiny table overlooking the great harbor at Ala Voar, listening to a pair of newly returned sailors talking to some other mariners about a sea battle.

  He felt the locket hanging against his chest thump as though an invisible finger had tapped it. He knew what caused it: a little puff of air through the tiny holes on top, the sudden shift in weight from the appearance of paper.

  “. . . so next thing we knew the Strait was full o’ Chwahir roundhulls, and them light-lined Everoneth war-trysails, all headin’ north-northeast, while the winds’re followin’ . . .”

  Magic was a strange thing, Sindan thought, his attention divided between the sailor’s words and the golden locket. A shame they couldn’t find a way to transport people instead of little paper messages. He sipped at his fresh autumn brew and looked around the inn room. Mages in other places could transfer people. He’d learned that after the king had seen Ndara’s gift from his bride, and had in secret sent Sindan seeking more of them; the military advantage had been instantly clear.

  He had also discovered on that trip the Marlovan reputation outside their own land. For a time it worsened the farther east he traveled. Mages there might have been, but they vanished like mist until he crossed the Sartoran Sea and ventured to ancient Eidervaen itself, capital city of great Sartor, where the lockets were for sale to anyone who had enough gold, and where the words “Marlovan” and “Iascan” were nearly unknown. He’d had just enough gold for three of the lockets.

  “. . . one of those neat little Delfin cutters come racing down the strait, sky-sails flying, and reported enough smoke clouds drifting over the water to look like a storm coming.”

  The sailor’s audience leaned forward. No one paid Sindan the least attention. Practiced after all these years, he hauled out the locket one-handed, removed the paper, and dropped the locket back inside his shirt.

  It was not from the king, who held the first locket, but from Pavlan, Sindan’s armsman, whom he had sent farther on so they could cover twice the territory in the given time.

  Sindan felt his heart slam against his ribs as he read the cryptic message: News of three. The rest told him where to go.

  He looked up, his gaze resting on the worn casement of the window, its frame carved with stylized wheat tips, an old Iascan decoration. His ears heard the sailor still going on with his account of the surprising sea-alliance be
tween the Chwahir and the Everoneth, old enemies, bound together against the greater threat of the mighty Venn fleet; his mind considered logistics.

  By midnight he was on the road.

  Five horses a day run to lather, three meals total eaten on the road, and very little sleep brought Sindan to sunset Fourthday, while the royal city talked about the remarkable exhibition made by the future queen and her brother at the games.

  The sun had just vanished into a mist moving slowly over the ocean toward the coast as Sindan rode down toward the third village above Rual Harbor, at the extreme western edge of Marlo-Vayir territory.

  Exhaustion caused the light from emerging stars and gold lights in distant windows to blur ever so slightly as Sindan rode along an old trail. There, hanging from a tree, visible only from that trail, was a lantern in blue glass.

  He clucked softly to the horse, which grunted up the hill to the copse. A pale blob of a face emerged and murmured, “Sindan.”

  “Pavlan. More news?”

  “Come now. We might even have lost him already.” Pavlan threw a wad of cloth to land across Sindan’s saddlepad. “You will have to be an herb healer, or they will not let you in.”

  Pavlan, tall, thin, dark of hair and eyes, had grown up in this area, part of the reason why Sindan had sent him here.

  Pavlan extinguished the lantern, relieved that Captain Sindan had been so fast, but sick with sorrow over what he would find. While they waited for their eyes to readjust to the darkness, Pavlan said, “This village is small, all Old Iascan, most folk in the sea trades. Fishers found a skiff drifting on the tides, and brought it in. Hesti is—was—on board the Cassad.” Pavlan looked away, then continued in a quick, dispassionate voice, “Ship’s boy. Thrown overboard with the fishing skiff before the ship sank, as far as we can make out. Been floating for days. Internal wounds. He is alive, but barely. He probably won’t last the night.” A faint ching of metal, and the third locket landed on Sindan’s leg. “There’s that.”

  Sindan dropped it round his neck to join his, then wrestled into the unfamiliar clothing made mostly of cotton instead of wool, loose instead of fitted, long and narrow. It would be uncomfortable for riding. The pale color was that of unbleached cotton, except for the spring-green dye edging the front lacings of the robe.

  Just as he looked up, lightning flared out over the sea.

  “That storm has held off for days,” Pavlan said. “But it’s coming now. We’d better hurry.”

  “I’ll need a healer’s satchel, will I not? Spell book?”

  “I have all that waiting.”

  Sindan thrust his rolled-up tunic into a loop on his saddlepad and mounted up. The horses’ ears flicked back and forth, and they sniffed the wind. They, too, smelled a storm about to break. But the ride was not long, and Pavlan was familiar with the old paths winding about the hills.

  They dismounted at the top of a rise and led the mounts down a narrow trail between terraced gardens, the neat rows of vegetables briefly revealed in the flare of lightning out over the water. They could hear the surf booming and hissing below.

  A small girl took the horses around the side of a cliff, toward what smelled like a byre for cows and chickens. Pavlan started down a narrow footpath to a round cottage, golden light glowing from its windows. Sindan followed in silence.

  Pavlan sent a curious look over his shoulder before opening the door, which was, like all the doors in these old, round sea cliff-hugging houses, located on the east. Doors on the east. Just like their Venn ancestors, those who were now their enemies.

  Pavlan’s glance was easy enough to parse. Sindan’s Runners, carefully chosen, were never asked for family details; in entering this house, he was crossing from the king’s affairs into a private life. Hesti was obviously kin. Sindan, feeling a surge of compassion, hoped the child was not close kin.

  Inside the single room a young woman waited, standing next to the clay fireplace in the center. Sindan cast a swift glance around, noting and dismissing the worn wooden furnishings, the brightly colored rugs on the stone floor, the ladder to the sleeping areas above. The woman wore an unbleached healer’s robe with the spring-green stripe down the front lacings.

  Her face was pale, drawn with repressed emotion. She said directly to Sindan, “I have been giving him the green kinthus. Now I will give him the white. Everyone is there: if he talks, they want to hear, for half the village youth had hired onto one or another of those ships.”

  Sindan said, “I understand.”

  “You are to be a master healer, summoned to help, though nothing will really help,” she said, her voice trembling. “Hesti wants to die. Whenever I ask you a question, answer with yes.”

  She thrust a bag at him, and pushed past, opening the door. Sindan took the unfamiliar weight and shape of a healer’s satchel, from which rose a faint whiff of some sweet herb, and followed the woman. Pavlan, silent, tight-lipped, fell in behind.

  The first big spatters of rain stung the three as they wound down the steep pathway to a double cottage below.

  The entire village appeared to be inside, all of them silent, gathered around a pallet laid next to the fireplace. Sindan repressed an inward wince when he saw the battered youth lying there, eyes sunken, mouth bleeding.

  The villagers made way. With gentle fingers, the healer took the kettle from the slate atop the fireplace and poured steaming water into a red clay cup.

  She looked up at the supposed master. “Is this the proper dose?”

  Sindan did not look away from the boy’s face. “Yes.”

  In went a pinch of fresh-smelling herbs, with the faint, uncanny not-quite-smell that seemed to brush the back of the eyes from inside.

  It was Sindan who supported Hesti in his strong, steady arms as the boy sipped, and his breathing eased, and he even smiled. Sindan wiped gently at the obscene crimson bubbles that leaked from the side of the boy’s blue lips, but he did not speak. The healer spoke in a soft voice, asking questions, to which the boy responded in a restless, almost voiceless whisper.

  “We sailed in a line, yes. We were to make fall at Novid. Some of us were to go on leave, before we sailed for Lindeth . . . but the lookout at dawn saw them just south of us, six sails all told, and they held the wind . . . captain said we could try to run, and if . . .they were larger, see. Fighting crew, sailing crew . . . we have to have both, captain said, but we could fight . . . no breakfast, the galley fires were doused . . .”

  The account rambled as the boy’s mind wandered from memory to memory, not just of the attack, but farther back, through good memories, mostly centering around his twin brother, who had been on one of the other ships. He tried to smile as he muttered about old pranks, secrets, plans for the future they shared.

  The mother wept, trying to be soundless, but her harsh breathing formed a counterpoint to the inexpertly guided rambles. Still, Sindan, who knew the intricacies of interrogation, did not speak, not even when it became clear that the binding between spirit and flesh was on the verge of becoming severed—not even the magic spells in the healer’s book lying useless at Sindan’s side could reknit it. The boy smiled, for in his sightless eyes his brother beckoned, unseen by those still dwelling on this side of the boundless divide.

  Custom was quite clear on the subject of healers and kinthus: what was said by the sufferer must never be repeated. There was no conflict here. The boy’s memories were those of a youth, and would remain locked in the hearts of the silent family.

  What Sindan could take away, and did, he wrote to the king by the light of a candle in the cow byre, and closed into his locket, as rain drummed on the roof:

  All three warships were sunk, the crews taken or killed outright.

  Chapter Twenty

  THE last bell before dawn rang, muffled by the roar of rain. Inda found his sister in the throne room instead of the arms mistress. He exclaimed in delight, “Hadand! But—my lesson?”

  “She can’t come,” Hadand whispered, her breath frost
ing in the air. The bite of winter was near. “Other duty. Too many people in the castle. Oh, Inda, I am going to command the defense today. Me!”

  He said in surprise, “I thought the older girls did that.”

  “They all gave me the thumbs-up last night. Everyone. It wasn’t me who suggested it, I wouldn’t dare, because I’m too young. I never even had a drill command. Not until next year.”

  Inda rubbed his hands up and down his arms. “I wish we could find Tanrid. Get some hints on the boys’ old tactics.”

  “We.” Impulsively Hadand hugged her brother. “We.” As always, anyone’s problem was his problem. “It’s all right,” she said. And, added proudly, “I never went to bed last night. I was in the archive all night, looking through the records for tactics on defense against enemies storming walls, because the boys always seem to storm, from what I’ve seen in the last few games. So I drew out a map, and planned where every girl will stand, and what she will do. When we go down to get in place, I won’t dither, don’t you worry.”

  Inda, thinking of his own games at home, grinned. “It’s after that you have to worry about. If the horsetails are half as smart as Joret and Tdor.”

  She heard distant footsteps. “Look, Inda, sweet, I have to go, and you too. The castle is too full. If I don’t see you before you leave, promise me you’ll continue your lessons at home. And here again in the spring.”

  The urgency in her voice made him nod fervently, feeling a wash of homesickness and excitement both. He would miss Hadand, and even more, he’d miss Sponge, and Dogpiss, and Noddy, and the others. But he’d see Tdor, he’d be home!

  A swift, warm kiss pressed against his forehead, and he reached for his sister, felt her solid body against his. Then she was gone, flitting along the hall. He made out her smock in the weak light from the high eastern windows, then he ran back to the barracks.

  Hadand continued on upstairs, hesitating outside of Ndara-Harandviar’s rooms. She knew her aunt was awake and busy.

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