Inda by Sherwood Smith


  But the boys and girls would not see it.

  They emerged from the river, shivering violently, to find themselves surrounded and bundled up in heavy, severely cut dragoon winter coats, woven wool hats pulled over their wet heads, a fiery swallow of double-distilled rye shot into mouths, after which each was placed on a horse.

  Then they were riding hard to the north. They knew better than to demand halts, or reports, of Horsepiss Noth, no matter who their fathers were. There was no talk until they camped that night in a narrow grotto with two rings of guards in ceaseless patrol. Over the fire, as they stone-grilled newly caught trout and stale oatcakes, Noth questioned them. His hard face, its furrows harshened by the flickering shadows of the firelight, gave nothing away as he listened to their reports.

  Tanrid protested, “I still think we should have held and fought. I was ready to fight.” But his eyes were anxious with the implied question: were we cowards to run?

  He was still thinking like a boy who plays war games, it was clear, as was Manther Jaya-Vayir. Cassad Ain had a better sense of reality; he grimaced, then added in a low voice, “The only one who used his head was Inda. Um, Algara-Vayir Tvei.”

  Joret added, “Inda knows what everyone is capable of. It was a perfect defensive retreat. I think his mother would be proud.” Gdand opened her hand in silent corroboration.

  Dogpiss, his green-splotched face serious, ended on a sober note. “Captain Samred and the other Riders were killed. They cut their throats.” His voice was strained. “Dead.”

  Inda gave the briefest account, wonderfully succinct. “Dogpiss said the guards had been killed. We had to retreat. So we did.”

  “Who ordered the retreat?”

  “My brother Tanrid.”

  “Who made the decision to retreat?”

  Inda looked perplexed. “I don’t know. We all did, I guess.” And when Noth waited, he added, frowning into the fire, “Dogpiss had seen the territory. Tanrid and I had seen the map before we left home. It made sense to retreat, using the bows as cover.” He looked up and added soberly, “They didn’t try to kill us. I think they had orders to take us hostage. Doesn’t that mean they knew all about the plan beforehand?”

  Captain Noth said, “It’s possible.”

  Cama and Rattooth asked more questions than they answered.

  Whipstick, last, chewed his lip, poked at the fire, then murmured, “We woulda been dead. Inda took command without even knowing he took command, first by seeing what was there, not what he expected to see. We all just saw what the enemy wanted us to see. Me too, at first. Cassad Ain made the horsetails listen to him. Tanrid claimed rank, and after Inda laid out the strategy, his brother said to move. Then we moved.” Whipstick added, “We were betrayed.”

  His father pursed his lips, and that was that. He said little more, writing an official report for the Royal Shield Arm, who was the top of his chain of command; but his verbal report was saved for the king.

  Chapter Twenty-five

  WHEN the sun rose over the royal city a week after the battle at Marlovar Bridge, the Sierlaef woke up. He looked out his window. Plenty of time before he would have to order his gear shifted down to the academy for another long, wearying season with the little boys.

  Dawn. Old habit—dawn sword drill—prodded at him, to be dismissed. He no longer went down to the practice courts every day. His uncle had said, You don’t have to be the best, you have to command the best. What was the use of sweating sword work and archery drill when he would command his men to do that? No, he had far better things to do!

  He whirled out of bed, took a fast bath, dressed hastily and pulled his wet hair up into its clasp. As he did he thought scornfully of himself at this time last year, so proud of that horsetail at last. But he’d still been a little boy in the ways that mattered. The entire world had changed, ever since New Year’s Week, when his cousin Hawkeye took him upstairs for the first time at their old pleasure house, and he found out what the big boys had been doing while he and his Sier-Danas had been sitting below, drinking, playing Cards’n’Shards for real money and thinking themselves so old.

  He yanked on his coat, sashing it in place as he kicked his door open. Outside he heard Hadand’s familiar voice—“So how did it feel to really shoot someone?”—followed by a different voice, a clear female voice, “I don’t know, everything happened too fast. I thought of them as targets like the arms mistress always said, and just when the after shakes she told us about caught up with me, we had to dive into that ice melt—”

  That voice. It was so . . . compelling. He lunged through the door, and the voice stopped.

  The Sierlaef stumbled to a halt, staring.

  “Have you sent for Sponge?” Hadand asked, dragging the Sierlaef’s attention away from the girl accompanying her. “He should be seeing to his gear transfer to the academy, don’t you think?”

  The Sierlaef frowned, trying to remember where Sponge was, and why he should send for him, but his wits fled again when his gaze whipsawed back to the girl standing next to Hadand.

  The shock of Joret Dei’s startling blue stare made his entire body flame and then just as suddenly turn to snow.

  Hadand, looking into her betrothed’s face for clues to his thoughts, interpreted them closely enough. She said, “This is Joret, my brother’s intended, here for the queen’s training.”

  The Sierlaef struck his fist against his chest. Joret touched her palm over her heart, but did not speak.

  The Sierlaef liked how this girl with those amazing eyes, that beautiful mouth, that smooth black hair, didn’t giggle or bridle or ask him coy questions.

  “Shall I summon Sponge, then?” Hadand persisted. “If you’re busy, I can send Tesar.”

  The Sierlaef opened his mouth, but already he could feel the sides of his tongue quivering when he even thought of speaking, and so he just shrugged.

  “We’ll do that right away then.” Hadand set off briskly, and the other girl followed without any backward glance.

  The Sierlaef leaned against his door, watching them go: Hadand short, Joret medium tall, straight as an arrow, her body hidden by her smock and loose riding trousers. Long glossy black braids swung free down her back.

  Joret felt that gaze all the way down the length of the hall, breathing easily only when they turned a corner at last. “I take it he discovered sex,” she said in Old Sartoran.

  Hadand smiled. “Here I dreaded what it would be like if he decided he liked girls, but it has worked out so, so very well. He’s been on Heat Street nearly every day, almost never at the practice courts or stable. The Sierandael took a trip for treaty purposes—the king has been far too busy with his own troubles—so no one issued orders about Sponge at all.”

  Joret’s brows puckered faintly. “Has Sponge been left to work in the stable all winter?”

  “Yes. It’s been boring but at least no one had to beat him, because he obeyed the Sierlaef’s orders. He never trespassed in the archive, not once, after those first two or three horrible weeks. Then the Sierlaef was too busy on Heat Street to remember to issue any more orders.” She looked around when they reached an intersection, but except for one of the Queen’s Guard pacing a floor below on her rounds, no one was in sight and anyone listening at one or another of the hidey-holes that Hadand knew about would not understand Sartoran.

  Hadand breathed a soft laugh. “The Sierlaef is unlike his father and grandmother in not choosing his own sex, but he’s like them in that he’s already found a favorite. Kies is also very nice, and I’ve paid her a good deal extra to keep him very busy for a long time, and never ask him to speak.”

  Joret laughed. “So if he’s happy—”

  “Everyone around him is happy,” Hadand said. “I may be only fifteen, and sex is still a mystery to me, but I already know what my future strategy as queen will be: if Aldren is happy, everyone will be happy. And if he’s picked Kies as his favorite for the rest of his life, like his father picked dear Uncle Sindan at abo
ut the same age, well, he could have picked far worse. She’s kind, easygoing, has no interest whatever in war politics; she just likes her comfort and pretty things.” Hadand gave a short nod of satisfaction. “Life ought to be much, much easier now.”

  Joret looked back over her shoulder and murmured, “You haven’t had to use the Waste Spell for your woman’s cycle yet?”

  Hadand shook her head. “But probably this year,” she said, making a face. “Look at me.” She pulled her smock tight. “Last year Inda and I were pretty much of a size and build—but all of a sudden I got these and this.” With one hand she tapped her chest and with her other she smacked her hips, which had indeed widened considerably, though she was not any taller than Joret remembered. Hadand’s eyes narrowed. “You?”

  Joret took a step nearer, until Hadand could smell the horse scent on her clothes and the herb she stored them in. “Four months now,” Joret whispered, color heating her face and fading again. “But I won’t leave off smocks, as long as I possibly can. I don’t want sex, not with anyone I know. It’s unbearable enough, to feel eyes on you, like invisible crawling things. The thought of someone’s hands . . .” She shuddered.

  Hadand chuckled. “Well, you’re here. And Mama will expect you to work in the archives with us, hunting old mentions of magic. You won’t have time for sex, if you don’t want it. Ndara-Harandviar will see to that!”

  “Good.”

  They ran downstairs, down another long hall, through slanting rays of light from the western windows, then through shadow again, light and shadow, as Hadand smiled and said, “Even Sponge is happy. It was I who brought him reading from the archive, something new every night or two, especially after Barend was sent off to sea again. He’s been so good, everyone in the stable has come to love him as I do. He’s actually a little like his uncle in that when he has to do something, he does it all the time, hard, and doesn’t do anything else. He set himself to master shoeing and saddle repair and he did. The stable master reported to the Shield Arm that no one, at all, is faster or neater at trimming horses’ hooves.” They started down the last flight of stone stairs. “So, though he did not get any of the weapons training he was supposed to have, he is now so thoroughly accomplished in the stable that no scrub will be better this year. Here’s the stable, and the queen’s barracks is through that way. We may as well stop together.”

  They found Sponge out in the back, mending halters. He looked up at the girls’ arrival, his face unreadable, his attitude as courteous as if he stood in his father’s study.

  “This is Joret,” Hadand said.

  “Welcome,” Sponge said politely.

  “And Joret being here means Inda is here,” Hadand said. “He ought to be down at the academy now, unloading his gear.”

  Sponge’s face changed. Joret, watching with interest, realized he’d looked old, in a way, but now he looked like a boy again, a merry one. “I . . .” He sat down again, the joy fading from his expression. “My brother . . .”

  “Gave his permission. Go. I saw him on the way.”

  Sponge set the halter down, replaced the mending gear, and was gone before anyone could take more than five breaths.

  He stopped at his rooms only long enough to summon Runners to transfer the gear he’d already packed himself; then he raced down through castle halls, skipping round armsmen, bursting into the street and running through the mossy archway to the academy.

  He arrived, breathless, face glowing with delight, at their new barracks—officially in cub territory—to find Dogpiss, Cama, Rattooth, and Inda sitting on the worn wooden floor between rows of battered wooden bunks exactly like the ones in the scrub pit, playing Cards’n’Shards. As his entrance, they all sprang up.

  Inda was not much taller but a little broader, muffled in what was obviously one of Tanrid’s castoff gray academy tunics. His brown eyes were the same brown eyes, wide with honest emotion he never thought of hiding: surprise, and a delight to mirror Sponge’s own.

  “Sponge!” He pointed. “Good thing about getting here early is, we nipped the best bunks. There’s yours.”

  Sponge glanced at the narrow, plain bunk under one of the coveted windows; his joy belonged entirely to Inda’s arrival.

  But it did not do to fuss, of course. He said, “Good thing? As in there are bad things?”

  “Chores started right away,” Dogpiss said, sighing.

  Sponge bent closer. “Your face is green. Is it?”

  Dogpiss looked dismayed. “It’s not fading, is it? Think I could smear some more on?”

  Cama shook his head, and Rattooth said, “Strut.”

  Dogpiss sighed.

  Inda, eying Sponge, said cautiously, “Winter interesting?”

  Sponge shrugged again. “I did get lots of reading done, after my cousin was sent back to sea,” he said. “Mostly firsthand records. They differ from chronicles—”

  “No, you don’t,” Dogpiss said, waving a hand. “You two are not going to start blabbing about history first day we’re here. Save it for the beaks.”

  Cama looked relieved, Rattooth disappointed, but no one was surprised. Inda gave a one-shoulder shrug that promised private talk later, and Sponge sat down to watch the game.

  Before the current round was finished and he could be dealt in, they heard the quick tap of boot heels on the wooden floor outside the door, and looked up in time to see Tanrid Algara-Vayir stride in, resplendent in House coat, fringed formal sash, his best dagger, and highly polished boots.

  “Get to the baths,” he said briefly. “Clean up. Meet at the great court at the bell-change.”

  “What?” the boys cried, but Tanrid whirled and stalked out, his long brown ponytail flapping on his shoulder blades.

  Inda turned to Sponge, who said somewhat diffidently, for he hated displaying inside knowledge, “I think it might be that we’re all to attend Master Gand’s wedding. Since we’re here.”

  “Wedding!”

  “Master Gand?”

  “Masters can’t be married!”

  Sponge shook his head. “I’ll explain as we get ready.”

  They raced off to the baths. As it happened, only Rattooth Cassad and Inda were interested enough to listen as Sponge said, “It has to do with those ships that sank. Treaties. Master Gand and his wife will be Shield Arm and Randviar in the north.”

  Cassad looked amazed. “Gand? Married?”

  Inda splashed them. “Seems strange. Something’s missing.”

  Sponge thought of the things he could say, and what he ought not to say, and kept silent as he splashed back.

  Weddings were pretty much the same all over the kingdom, Inda thought later, after stuffing himself with lemon cakes. Even when held in the vast Guard Hall instead of a castle, the long tables exactly like the boys’ mess tables in the academy pushed against the walls, the stone floor swept clean, wreaths of fir fashioned round sconces for decoration, filling the air with a sharp scent of pine. Standing around clean and neat while the two people getting married, equally clean and neat in their wedding clothes, gabble the vows about fealty you’ve heard all your life, but afterward they share the wine and the cakes, and then comes the drumming and dancing.

  Men’s dances, women’s dances, men’s, women’s, the children weaving in and around them, either dancing in silly competitions or else playing tag games, or cramming more sweetcakes into their mouths. The youths watched one another dance, and the older adults watched the youths watching one another, and on the perimeter, the ranking guests sat at the plain wooden plank tables and held up wine cups to one another, talking in quiet voices, testing or redefining alliances.

  It seemed strange to Inda to see the academy masters in a wedding setting, especially strange to see hard-faced Captain Gand in a wedding shirt with a silken sash round his waist, all made by his new wife. But he smiled, and seemed pleased, and the boys were pleased for him—at a respectful distance.

  The king even came, but he didn’t stay, at least. Not that the
boys minded the king being there, except for the fact that they all had to behave like they were on parade.

  Afterward it was fun, trying to sneak wine and cracking a continual stream of jokes. Dogpiss’ face was crimson with laughter when at last the signal went round for the boys to retreat to the academy.

  The walk wasn’t long, of course. No one left in any kind of order. Inda looked around for Sponge, but not finding him, he started off, pausing in the doorway when he saw a tall man standing just outside, talking to two masters and blocking the way. The light from behind Inda shone on a familiar face: the Sierandael, Royal Shield Arm and overseer of the academy.

  Inda was not about to shoulder past the masters, much less the Royal Shield Arm, so he waited. The two masters presently saluted, fists to chest, and walked off speaking a last cheery wish for a good evening, and Inda, expecting the Sierandael to follow them, lifted a foot, ready to sprint for the academy.

  But then the Sierandael glanced over his shoulder, and his brows lifted when he saw Inda. Not just saw, but recognized.

  They had never spoken. Inda would hardly expect so exalted a figure to take notice of a scrub. In fact, he wouldn’t want that to happen, because far too often “taking notice” was just another definition of trouble. He mentally reviewed his behavior that evening. But that assessing look, that wasn’t puzzlement, that was definitely recognition.

  “You’re the young Algara-Vayir, are you not?”

  He was in trouble! Dismay made Inda stiff and solemn. Should he salute? His right fist balled, ready to strike his heart. “Sierandael-Dal.”

  The Sierandael, looking down into that face from which all the humor and intelligence had been studiously smoothed out, put his hands behind his back and assumed a more jovial tone. “I hear from Captain Noth you had a near miss with brigands.”

 
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