Inda by Sherwood Smith


  But the king’s eyes were on his brother.

  At the other end of the table, in a low voice, Hadand said, “I lost control almost at the outset.” She sighed. “I memorized those words, but they didn’t really have any meaning: ‘Don’t lose control or you will not get order back.’ ”

  “Yes.” Ndara’s eyes flicked up at the sound of a thud.

  Marlo-Vayir thumped his fist onto the table. “So we can’t carry war to them across the strait. If they come, then at least we are on familiar ground. We are strong here, on home soil.”

  Mutters of agreement.

  Hadand felt her nascent self-pity vanishing like mist in the sun. “So then the girls’ defense teams lost integrity. They stopped looking to me and looked to each other.”

  “Give me specifics.”

  “Once I saw the new ladders, I should have had a back up plan. And I should have been ready to implement it. As it was, I forgot our hand signals,” Hadand said, after some thought.

  “Good. Go on.”

  “I didn’t see—no. I saw things, but I couldn’t make sense of them. It was just a big crowd of boys all swarming around, and climbing, and yelling, and not at all like drill. The girls turned into a swarm as soon as the boys breached the ramparts. Everything was moving too fast. When they all moved like during the drill, I could see and comprehend everything. Feel I was in command. But that wasn’t command, not really. My only real command was before the siege, when I placed them and told them the plan. I lost command as soon as it stopped being like a drill.”

  “The Venn,” the king said, and the men’s voices ceased, “want complete control of the strait, not just our end—they have that—but the eastern end as well. They tried for it, and reports are they lost recently, against an alliance of Chwahir and Everoneth. It was, from what I gather from my foreign contacts, a tremendous loss. Perhaps there will be no war in our generation, which gives us more time to prepare the next.”

  At that, the young raised their glasses and cheered.

  Under the sound, Ndara murmured, “And so shall battle be, quick and chaotic, according to true records. What else?”

  Hadand wriggled her aching shoulders, and could not repress a wince. “I forgot all my training. Just stood there and let the Sierlaef fling me down like an old doll.”

  “So?”

  “A commander can only command if she’s free. I should have at least tried the evasion blocks.”

  Ndara offered Hadand more rice balls. “The knife defense is worthless if you do not stay out of your enemy’s grip.”

  Hadand winced again. After years of drill and practice with her armswomen, she finally understood what she’d been told so many times: no matter how fast she could spin a knife into the air, or how good she was with a stationary target, no enemy was going to stand politely by and wait for her to take aim.

  It was time—past time—to start making her lessons real.

  Chapter Twenty-one

  TWO mornings later, a hand smacked Tanrid’s shoulder, spinning him free of dreams. He sat up, blinking at the weak light coming through the row of barracks windows.

  “Come.” The familiar silhouette was the Sierlaef.

  “For what?”

  The Sierlaef jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the castle, then walked quietly past the still-sleeping bodies of the other horsetails, most with their gear all packed and ready to go, neatly stashed by each bed. He was already dressed.

  Tanrid pulled his clothes on, shoved his feet into stockings and boots, then fingered his hair up into its tail, pulling it into his grandfather’s silver owl-in-flight hair clasp as he sorted through possible reasons for this strange, unexpected summons. Then he stopped at the door, lifted the dipper from the bucket, and drank a few mouthfuls, feeling the snap of cleaning magic over teeth and tongue. He dropped the dipper with a plunk and left.

  Outside he found the Sier-Danas conversing in low voices, their breath puffs of vapor. His cousin Manther gave him a covert salute. The others nodded without a break in their talk.

  Tanrid turned his face up toward the sky. He shook his head, blinking away the residue of interrupted dreams: jumbled images of riding mingled with the voices of the pigtails from their barracks, who had stayed up far too late, thumping the hand drums and singing the old Away songs. In their grandsires’ time, those songs had preceded raiding forays. Tanrid remembered his mother saying they were songs of nostalgia now, not intent, and she hoped they would stay that way. He thought it odd, but she often said odd things.

  The Sierlaef gestured for them to follow him to the stables.

  Though it was against regulations, everyone knew that the Sierlaef and his friends sometimes went over to ride morning evolutions with the Guard. No one resented this on the part of a future king, however they felt about the Sier-Danas being a part of it. Tanrid wondered why he was now to be included.

  The Sier-Danas accepted Tanrid’s presence with no particular emotion; most of them liked Tanrid, or at least respected his skill. His cousin Manther had thought all along that Tanrid ought to have been a Companion, though of course he’d never said anything aloud.

  The boys flung the light saddle pads over their favorite mounts, fixed halters and reins, all with practiced speed. Soon they were riding in the cold wind round the perimeter of the academy, over to the Guard garrison on the other side of the great parade ground, a place of much fascination and speculation.

  Early as it was, the Sierandael was waiting at the huge iron-topped gates, dressed also for riding, and holding the signal flag affixed to a lance. A trumpet call brought a wing of the Guard out, riding toward well-trampled fields.

  The morning’s evolution was lance practice. The Sierandael and the six horsetails watched from the roadside as the young men whirled the lances in unison up, round, side, round, forward, round, in maneuvers that would never be used in war, that were meant to build strength and versatility in arm and wrist. The horsetails, having experienced the rudiments of lance circles for the first time this year, appreciated just how tough it was to make it look so easy.

  The sun slowly mounted in the sky, and the wind rose, bending the brown grasses and rippling over the tops of puddles left by the recent storm, smelling pungently of mud.

  “Ride with me,” the Sierandael said abruptly to Tanrid. He handed his flag off to the Sierlaef. “Signal the change.”

  The Sierlaef watched his uncle ride off with Tanrid at his side with a surge of jealousy.

  “You depart today, do you not?” the Sierandael asked.

  Tanrid struck his chest. “Yes, Sirandael-Dal.”

  The Sierandael said, “Just as you woke up, too.” His tone did not mean that morning, causing Tanrid to look up in question.

  The Sierandael smiled. “It took seven years. And now that you’ve finally woken up, it’s time to go home. I want you to return awake in the spring. Then I’ll not regard the time as lost.”

  Tanrid rubbed his knuckles across his chin. Were there really hairs there? He’d had body hair for nearly two years, but he knew the beard usually came later.

  The Sierandael watched the Sierlaef wave the flag. The Guard obediently couched their lances and separated into ridings for the next stage of the evolution. As horses rumbled by, kicking up clots of mud, he said, “Nothing exceeded my pride the other day, when you finally exhibited some of the skill I have always seen as potential in you.”

  Tanrid looked over in surprise.

  The Sierandael’s mouth tightened in irony. “Why do you think I rode you as hard as I did all these years? Why I called against you when I could? I wanted you to wake up years ago. You have the potential to be a great captain. Not just of your own flight, or maybe a wing, but of an army. We will have need of such, if the Venn come.”

  Tanrid felt strange, as if still caught in his dream.

  The Sierandael stretched out a hand, rubbing his mare’s bony head between her ears. “They will come, someday,” he said. “They have establish
ed strongholds all along the north side of the strait. They need our plains, I’m told. Their lands in the far north are cold and soggy, and they need more food to feed their great army and their mighty fleets.”

  Tanrid turned his hand up. He’d heard that all his life.

  “My brother the king thinks we ought to carry the war to them. I think we are strongest here. Whichever way it happens, we must be strong. Strong leaders make for strong warriors.”

  Tanrid considered. Yes. That made sense.

  “Do you agree?”

  The Sierandael was asking his opinion. Tanrid heard again the measured words of praise, and years worth of puzzlement and resentment vanished, just like that. It made so much sense now. His own father had said much the same, over the years. War was hard, so you were hard on those who would command warriors.

  “Yes, Sierandael-Dal,” he said, and the Royal Shield Arm, who knew boys, heard the conviction in this boy’s voice.

  “Good. The king will need a strong arm in the south, whenever war does come. So work hard this winter,” he said. “Work hard not just on your own skills, but on your leadership.”

  The Sierandael watched Tanrid, saw a nod of conviction, and laughed. He had the boy, as simple as that. Why didn’t he do it years ago? Well, late was better than never. But there remained one very important matter. “Your brother. He resists leadership, which makes him a poor leader.”

  Tanrid seemed about to speak, but remained silent.

  The Sierandael said quickly, “You disagree?”

  Tanrid flushed. He knew better than to disagree with a commander. So he turned his head, watching but not registering the perfect lines of Lancers forming, galloping, wheeling, galloping, reforming. Resists leadership? From what Tanrid had seen—admittedly from afar—Inda was a hard-working scrub under Gand’s strict training. In fact, Tanrid privately thought the Tveis were far ahead of where the Ains had been at Inda’s age. Obviously Gand had given them more than a taste of dragoon training, but that was good, wasn’t it? It certainly had improved the one they called Sponge.

  He glanced up, and realized the Sierandael was still waiting for him to answer.

  Embarrassed, he said haltingly, “I think—he doesn’t mean to be disobedient. He thinks, see, his ideas . . .” Tanrid groped in the air, then shut up.

  The same flare of danger the Sierandael had felt on the games’ first day burned in him again. “If you are in the midst of war and you depend on one wing to take a hill, but the captain of that wing decides he has a better idea, what will happen?”

  Tanrid frowned. “If it works, well . . .”

  “Tanrid. If the entire army depends on you to take that hill, but you decide to follow a scouting party instead, however good your idea is, what happens to the army if they follow up, expecting the hill to be secured?”

  Tanrid’s eyes narrowed.

  The Sierandael said, “Use your strength to command your own brother. See that he learns obedience. That skill will help you to command men one day.”

  Tanrid nodded slowly, but not in resentment or disbelief. He thought back to the scrubs’ shoeing exhibition, silly as it was. What had seemed like an innovative idea now took on a new, more dangerous meaning: he realized what had really motivated his brother was insubordination. “I will,” he promised.

  The king found Sponge in the archive room. He smiled, having wondered when Sponge would find his way back to reading. In his own academy days, it had happened within two bell-changes. Sooner, if it was possible. “Did you miss books, then, son?”

  Sponge looked up from one of his favorites, an exquisitely illustrated Iascan translation of an old Sartoran ballad, complete with inked and gold-leafed illustrations. Now that he was old enough, Sponge could see in the handsome faces the careful resemblance to the few Marlovan portraits in the queen’s audience chamber (the old Marlovans themselves had no portraits—they passed down only flags and emblems of war), and the detailed shields all bore the raptors and wild canines of the Marlovans, though the battle in the ballad had taken place over a thousand years before, in Sartor.

  The king saw Sponge’s finger resting on one of the shields and guessed Sponge’s thoughts. “Diplomatic flattery from the Cassad queen, who was the supreme commander of the diplomatic arts.”

  Sponge sighed, unsurprised. He knew that history, how the Cassads—then known as Cassadas—had been the former royal family, how the queen had married the first Marlovan king instead of fighting a war the Cassadas knew they’d lose. And so, by changing their name and adopting Marlovan customs, this family had managed to keep their personal holdings and position in a way that never would have been possible if they had been conquered.

  “Diplomatic flattery, I might add, of the sort my great-father Anderle swallowed down like old wine. You know it was he who declared that every second or third generation we must marry outside the clans, and perhaps his view was long-sighted, but I suspect he just liked the presents.”

  Sponge laughed.

  “Are all your friends gone, then?”

  Sponge lifted a shoulder. “Don’t know. I didn’t want to say good-bye, so I didn’t go to breakfast mess, but came straight here.” With anyone but Hadand he would not say that much.

  “I never did either,” the king said. “So I always just left my things there and walked home. Your uncle used to stay until the last one was gone, seeing them off.”

  The king did not miss the flicker in his son’s eyelids at the mention of his uncle, the lengthened upper lip. And as always the king felt a pang of helpless regret that his first son should have so resembled Anderle and his second himself.

  He shook away the regret stemming from a situation about which he could do nothing. Sponge watched his father pace slowly along the shelves, one finger moving over the silk-covered spines with their graceful gold lettering. Sponge was still too unpracticed with the vertical Old Sartoran script to see it in groups of words. It looked like interwoven leaves to him, until he concentrated on each form and sounded out the letters.

  “Ah.” The king pulled down a book. “I think you might be old enough to discern the importance of this record.”

  Sponge studied his father’s expression. He looks sad because he tried to get my brother to read it, Sponge thought. From his earliest memories there was the Sierlaef’s halting voice in the nursery, cursing with passionate intensity about the stupid books and the fools that had nothing better to do than write them. How Marlovan kings of the past had never had to read, and they had conquered an empire.

  “It is a real description of a battle,” the king said. “By a prince. Not written years afterward, by a scribe with one eye looking to please a king, but for his own private journal. It was Fareas-Iofre of Choraed Elgaer—though she was still living in Darchelde then—who sent it to me as a gift, on the eve of my wedding,” he added. “She copied it out herself. That is her hand you will see there. It’s very clear. My Sartoran is not as good as it ought to be, but I can read it.”

  Sponge took the book with both hands, understanding that there was much of importance underlying his father’s words.

  “If you finish it, come to me,” the king said. “We shall discuss it.” He left; duties were always waiting.

  Sponge sat in his cushioned chair, so comfortable after all those weeks of hard benches, and looked out the windows, thinking. The light reflecting off the warm stone of the walls muted from golden to pale sand to a grayish blue: rain was nigh.

  In the distance the noon bells clanged, and he thought of Inda riding through the gates, bracing against the oncoming weather. Inda, riding south, not to be seen for the months of winter.

  Sponge crouched over the book.

  The Sierlaef leaned against a stone battlement and scowled into the distance, where bands of rain obscured the hills with gray shadows. The last entourage was just barely visible, a dark snake winding along those hills. He could no longer see the sky-blue Marlo-Vayir banners, but he could imagine Buck with the arms
men right behind the pennants, joking back and forth, Cherry-Stripe snuffling at the back, after the thrashing his brother had given him that morning out behind the stables for giving Buck frost about the scrub shoeing.

  Not that the Sierlaef cared. What he did care about was his uncle’s private talk with Tanrid Algara-Vayir. Why?

  The sound of boot heels recalled him. A Runner said, “Sierlaef-Dal. The Royal Shield Arm requests your company.”

  The Sierlaef dismissed the Runner with another wave and followed more slowly behind, taking the long way down through the sentry walks to the garrison. The aides, Runners, and stable hands all took one look at the arrogant tilt to the chin, the taut, hard-boned cheeks browned from weeks of sun, and stepped far out of the way as he stalked to the mess hall.

  Despite the ceaseless labor involved in the closing of the academy for the winter, and in addition to his ongoing chores, the Sierandael was on watch. His first glimpse of his nephew made him repress a sigh. “Later,” the Sierandael said to three aides, all waiting patiently. They bowed and withdrew.

  Royal Shield Arm and royal heir walked to the front of the line and got a plate of fishcakes and spiced slurry.

  The uncle said presently, “Why the sour mouth?”

  The Sierlaef thought, He will say he favors the best, so why does he truly favor me?

  The troubled brow, the wariness in the Sierlaef’s gaze, warned his uncle that the fit of sullenness he’d expected had somehow smoldered into something very close to rebellion.

  “If you’re missing your friends, the remedy is to keep busy. If it’s because Tanrid Algara-Vayir was part of our review this morning, it’s because you yourself ought to have invited him.”

  The Sierlaef’s eyes widened in surprise.

  His uncle waved his knife. “He’s good. Better than I’d ever thought he would be. He might even be the best.”

  The Sierlaef flushed.

  The king’s brother said, in a low, measured voice, “Here’s the truth of kingship. You don’t have to be the best, you have to command the best.” He sat back, watching the impact of that.

 
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