Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Hadand pressed against the wall, fingers running back and forth along the painted head of a stooping hawk, dark gray against lighter gray, as she wrestled with the rare conflict between pride and doubt. It seemed a pretense, to be commander, when she stood here in the cold, empty hall of Sponge’s ancestors and thought about it. But she did know what to do, she did, she did. That careful map upstairs was proof.

  Yet she knew Ndara would be concerned about what the Sierandael would think, about a hundred ways for possible disaster. Just once, Hadand decided, just once she would not worry about disaster.

  Therefore the best use of her time would be to eat a good breakfast, and then visit the girls, and make sure each one knew her place for the coming attack. A strong Gunvaer must sound assured and be ready to lead with self-assurance and conviction.

  Rain slashed indiscriminately at faces and bodies, and drummed on the wooden ramparts dismantled from the Guard practice fields and brought to the great parade court by an army of sweating servants the day before. Lightning flashed. Thunder rumbled, almost drowning the trumpet call that released the waiting horsetails.

  While the horsetails splashed across the flagged court, Hadand took a moment to draw in a slow breath of anticipation and look around her. The wall, built roughly in a U shape, bristled with girls standing at the ready, willow knives in their sashes and hidden up their sleeves. A few of the older ones exchanged speculative comments about the senior boys.

  Then the boys arrived. Out came the makeshift ladders, as expected. Rickety ladders, barely able to hold them. The boys gave cadenced shouts and raised the ladders, one to the middle of each wall, just as Hadand had predicted, and she repressed a grin of expectation.

  The mass of boys pressed together, their faces upturned, as a few boys began laboriously crawling up those ladders. Hadand waited, jittery, feeling the weight of the girls’ expectant gazes. Don’t push the ladders down until the boys almost reach the top. Wait for my signal, she’d said.

  When the first group nearly reached the third rung from the top, she whistled sharply, and the girls sprang into action. The ladders began to fall back, the boys on them jumping to safety. Hadand glanced at the girls hiding behind trapdoors and false windows where she’d predicted the ladders would be set up.

  She whistled again. The girls streamed out below to attack the boys dealing with the falling ladders.

  But as soon as her girls emerged, yelling shrill insults, someone among the boys kekked like a hawk about to stoop, and the crowd of boys who had been waiting in front of the wooden wall produced two hidden ladders! Big, sturdy ladders!

  The ladders were hustled one to each outer wall, while the main portion of the girls were concentrated in the center!

  The boys streaming upward, Hadand screaming, “Wait! Wait!”

  Some of the girls looked her way, but all she was doing was waving her hands and yelling, “Wait!” so they threw themselves at the boys already topping those two big ladders onto the rampart wall, yelling, laughing, exchanging mock blows and insults.

  Hadand saw her defense splinter with those feint ladders, and listened in despair to the yips and crows of triumph as two wings of boys swarmed up, unimpeded. In two heartbeats her well-organized defense disintegrated into a brawling, laughing melee.

  At least, Hadand thought as rain beat down on her face, no one can see me weep.

  Then she had no time to think as scrambling boys began chasing the girls in order to get prisoner points. They chased all except her. The big boys dodged around her as if she were invisible. She turned around and around, dismay and humiliation thick in her throat as she helplessly watched the chases and scuffles, heard curses, grunts, and sometimes laughter.

  Without warning a hand seized her shoulder and she began to protest, but found herself flung facedown and her arms wrenched behind her. A knee thumped across the back of her legs. Her chin ground into the wood, lightning bolts of pain shot up her arms into her eyeballs, and all she could hear was breathing above her, and despite the rain she sniffed the wet-dog scent of sodden wool, the sharp odor of boy sweat.

  Boots appeared near her face. Knees appeared next as the boots’ owner crouched down. Two big hands clapped onto the knees. She craned her neck to peer up sideways. There was Manther Jaya-Vayir, her own cousin. His long horsetail, hanging over his shoulder, dripped rain onto her face. “Yield?” He was grinning!

  She grunted, and the hands holding her wrists let go. Someone grabbed the scruff of her tunic, catching some of her hair, and hauled her one-handed to her feet. She looked up into a rain-slick face: the Sierlaef. No one else would touch her.

  “Bad job,” he said, as around them the boys called, with hoots of derision, “She yielded!”

  And the girls made noises of resignation, disappointment, and even a few mutters; to one of them she heard Cassad Ain say, in no low voice, “Well, what do you expect? She’s just a baby. You were idiots to put her in command.”

  And the senior girl’s indifferent answer, “Wasn’t my idea.”

  Hadand’s eyes stung. It wasn’t? But just last night, the older girls had all smiled at her, praised her, and it was they, not she, who had brought up the idea of her commanding the siege. They’d all seemed to want her.

  Then she remembered Honeytongue Ola-Vayir’s extra-sweet voice, “Oh, Hadand, you are so clever, you should be in command tomorrow!”

  Hadand winced. Of course Honeytongue had been making fun of her. But Hadand hadn’t seen it then. She gripped her elbows, facing the truth: She hadn’t wanted to see it, even though she knew Honeytongue hated her, even though she knew Honeytongue’s compliments were always false, though there had been nothing false about the genuine cheer from the younger girls.

  Maybe that was why Honeytongue had fawned over her so. She knew I’d fail. I should have seen it, I should have stopped it, Hadand realized, wincing.

  Yes, she had seen what she wanted to see, despite all Ndara’s and Mother’s warnings about flatterers and how easy it was to believe them.

  She stifled a sob, crossing her arms tightly to hide the shuddering of her chest. The tears kept coming as the boys all separated off to the academy side and the girls to the Guard side of the castle, past the stands that had begun emptying as soon as she lost control of the exercise. The rain wouldn’t have stopped them from watching if it had been a good siege. She’d sat up there with them, year after year, ever since she was little, in all kinds of weather, and had watched the crowds packed on the benches, yelling.

  She wanted to be alone, but that wasn’t possible. She had to endure the well-meant reassurances of the oldest girls as she passed through the barracks on her way to the baths. There she had to endure the gazes of the younger girls she’d been jumped over in this disastrous command, the glances of contempt, compassion and sympathy just as awful as derision, and, worst of all, the false, sweet, gloating words of pity from Honeytongue Ola-Vayir, and pretend she did not care, that it was just another game.

  Pride steadied her just enough to enable her to dress in her House tunic of green and silver.

  Her personal Runner Tesar appeared just before she was ready, saying nothing, but holding out a ceramic cup that steamed faintly. Hadand took it, smelling the grass-bitter scent of a willow decoction. She drank it all down, ignoring the sting on throat and tongue.

  “Kialen?” she whispered, through aching throat.

  “In her room,” Tesar said.

  They both knew Hadand would talk it all out with Tesar later, when the pain eased. Now Tesar knew, without sign or speech, that Hadand would want her to sit with Kialen until Hadand could come and coax her out. Kialen, so easily terrified, could not bear seeing Hadand upset.

  Tesar took the cup and vanished noiselessly.

  The worst aches had begun to fade by the time Hadand reached the great dining hall. She stood straight-backed, head high, to salute each father, uncle, son, or daughter who entered, the young people all seniors of the great Houses who had com
pleted their last year of training.

  They walked in rank order down both sides of the table, each dressed in the splendid old-fashioned battle tunics adopted from the Iascans for use in formal ceremonies, the devices raptors and running beasts for old Marlovan Houses, some with the addition of stylized plants that they had taken from the Iascans along with their castles. Ndara stood at her right, wearing Montrei-Vayir crimson and gold, smiling in welcome.

  Shame also sharpened the ears. As the line passed by Hadand heard the Sierandael mutter to Ndara, “Why did you let her command the siege defense? You are made to look like a fool.”

  “The girls won year before last,” was the tranquil reply, as if it didn’t matter, as if this were just another game.

  Hadand watched the Sierandael grunt a nonanswer and proceed to his place at the right of the king.

  Hadand’s eyes burned again. She had to raise them to the banners hanging overhead to remind herself that time passes, and so does pain, and she must not disgrace herself with weakness. What hurt now was the faint pleasure in her aunt’s face, as though she were actually pleased at the Sierandael’s scorn.

  Ndara was indeed pleased. She looked with compassion on Hadand’s barely concealed misery, but refrained from speech—she would give the child time to regain her composure. What was far more important to Ndara was that the Royal Shield Arm had seen what he wanted to see, what he expected to see. He would assume Hadand’s knife exhibition was mere trickery, and forget it.

  The Sierandael smiled as the king entered at last, with the newly arrived Jarend-Adaluin at his side. The long habit of resentment pricked at the Sierandael as he surveyed the tall, gray-haired prince who looked so old and tired. He was sixty at least, for he’d had several years on the king, back in their academy days. Old, and could fall in battle against the brigands and pirates he rode restlessly in search of most of the year’s fighting season. The new Adaluin would be Tanrid, who was now under Anderle-Sierandael’s hands and who had surprised them all the other day during the games.

  I pride myself on being far-sighted, the Sierandael thought. But I have not been far-sighted enough.

  The king and Jarend-Adaluin both came to Hadand, for with the queen absent the table was hers. She laid her hand to her chest, doing her best to smile. Even if her father hadn’t arrived in time to see her disgrace, he’d hear about it.

  Ndara winced inwardly at the forlorn smile the child tried to summon, but noted that Hadand’s chin was high, and her lower eyelids, though rimmed with the gleam of unshed tears, did not puddle. She nearly had herself under control.

  Jarend-Adaluin stooped to kiss his daughter’s brow. He smelled of wet wool and grass and horse—newly arrived indeed. He took his place behind the chair at the king’s left as the king passed behind Hadand. He cupped his palm and gave her cheek a brief caress, and her eyes stung again, but just for a moment. The wordless gesture of sympathy buoyed her. He was not angry or disgusted by her failure today.

  The king sat. Everyone sat. Servants came forward to pour wine. Since Queen Wisthia was not there, they used the shallow Marlovan dishes, and their knives for cutting food, although they no longer sat on pillows, but at tables, on big chairs with high enough backs to make attack from behind difficult. Sweet wine gurgled into the wide, flat cups with handles at either end: they were made out of gold, instead of wood, as suited a royal household. But they were still cups that required two hands to lift, two hands that could be watched.

  Hadand lifted hers first, and everyone followed. The king nodded to her, they drank, everyone drank, then conversation began, an agreeable buzz of voices, as servants brought around the wine-braised chicken and the rice balls. Hadand looked down at hers, knowing she ought to eat. She plucked from her waist her dagger with its handsome golden handle etched with raptor wing markings, fit for a queen, and toyed with it.

  Ndara murmured in Old Sartoran, “What did you learn today?”

  Her voice was soft, and none of the guests looked their way; the focus was all at the king’s end of the table.

  Hadand sent a quick, hurt look at Ndara, who did not look back, only smiled a little, and lifted her cup to her lips. From behind the broad, shallow vessel she added, again in archival Sartoran—except for one word—“Would a Gunvaer have the leisure to cultivate her sorrows?”

  Hadand felt a sting of pain as if she’d been slapped. She sat very still, and then stole another sideways peek to see Ndara smiling at someone farther down the table.

  Hadand looked up to catch a curious look from Tdon Eveneth, a senior horsetail. She remembered him laughing as the boys slipped and slid down the wooden rampart after her defeat. Pride forced her chin up. He gave her a quick grin and saluted her with his cup, but before she could respond the Tlen sister—his betrothed—on his other side dug him in the ribs and he turned away, chattering in a low voice. They got along as merrily as Inda and Tdor. They laughed, easy laughter, and along the table Hadand saw sons who would be Jarls and girls who would be Jarlans or Randviars chattering about the games, about the year, and asking for news from home. She fought against loneliness and desolation at the thought of her own marriage. That way led to self-pity. So what can I learn? she thought.

  First observation: most of them think the siege was funny. Funny! It doesn’t matter to them. It matters only to me.

  Gunvaer, Hadand thought. Ndara said gunvaer. Not queen in Sartoran, or Iascan, but in Marlovan. I will be a Marlovan queen, not an outlander. I can’t be weak.

  Ndara, watching, saw the wide, blank look of pain in Hadand’s brown eyes narrow to resolution.

  “What two errors did you make?” she asked.

  Hadand thought: This talk, right here, right now, it’s practice for the real thing. A Marlovan queen will never be able to go to her room and cry, no matter what happens.

  And so she forced herself to eat a bite of rice. Then, “I let myself show off on Fourthday. I should not have.”

  Ndara drew a slow breath. “Good. Why?”

  “Because.” Hadand’s gaze strayed down to the Sierandael, who was talking to the Jarls. Laughing. “If there is war at home, we must be able to take them by surprise.”

  Ndara thought, She’s been saying it all her life because I taught her to say it, but maybe now she believes it. “Second thing. What did you do wrong today?”

  “I am too young. I should not have let the bigger girls praise me into command. I’m not ready for a real command.”

  Ndara sipped wine, looking down the table at her husband, the Sierandael. “But you might be forced to assume it anyway. You have read history. Do you think defense, ruling, violence—the bloody change of rule—only happens when one is ready?”

  Hadand drew a deep breath. Her perspective reeled again, and she murmured, “No.”

  “So what did you do wrong today?”

  Watched covertly by her father, Hadand reviewed the siege. Jarend-Adaluin saw his daughter’s expression alter from mute misery to concentration, and his own unease vanished. The king watched as well, and listened to the talk around him.

  “. . . when my warship gets back,” the Jarl of Cassad said.

  The king, shifting his attention to the Jarls, quickly reviewed the situation. No one here had had sons on board those ships, thereby requiring a private interview. Two of the Jarls had paid for the building and outfitting of a ship each, true, but they had the wherewithal to do so, and to do it again. But they must be convinced of the necessity.

  He said, “The ships were destroyed by pirates.”


  “Pirates! Damnation! Where?”

  “When did this happen? How many?”

  The reactions were surprise, indifference, anger. Only Hasta Marlo-Vayir sent a covert glance the Sierandael’s way, but that was to be expected. They’d been old friends since their academy days, and Hasta—as loyal a man as the king’s own brother—disliked and distrusted ships and the sea for what appeared to be exactly the same reasons as the Sieran

  It was time for a new point of view.

  “We will not be able to carry out our prospective treaty with the northern kingdoms unless we can build a fleet,” the king went on. “We cannot offer protection from pirates in return for bases if we cannot actually protect.”

  “We can take the north if they sneer at us,” Mad Gallop Yvana-Vayir, who was married to the king’s sister, proclaimed, striking his fist on the table, then looking to see who was with him.

  The king watched who agreed, who abstained. The Sierandael nodded slowly, his furtive, anxious expression meaning he flatly disagreed. But he stayed silent, which meant he would listen.

  So the king said, “Most of you were here when we announced ten years ago that we would commit time, and much gold, to building three warships. Beginning with those, I had intended to build a fleet not just to protect our own coast, but also to extend our protection north, all the way to the west end of the strait. We all know the Idayagans up north could never withstand an attack from the Venn. The Venn must know it, too. So it makes sense that they won’t attack us along our well-watched west coast, but along the northern coast, beginning with Idayago and its neighbors. And once they’ve taken both sides of the straight, they will use the northerners’ supplies to ride southward in strength against us.”

  He paused, saw nods, shrugs, pursed lips.

  “Where we have disagreed is in our response. I believe if we had bases along the peninsula and in Idayago, we could prepare for the Venn, no matter from which direction they come. If we knew they were about to launch an invasion, had we those bases, we could even launch a preemptive strike against them. I would prefer to meet them in battle in the north, keep them from destroying our land. Let them spend years recovering, instead of us.”

  Mutters of vexation, warlike exhortations, cursing at the damned pirates. But among the mutterers, there was old Tya-Vayir’s low voice: “Not if we make it our land.” He put down his ale—too much of it, damnation—and looked around, startled and uneasy, to see who had heard him.

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