Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Inda worked to repress his relief. “We were disappointed, Sierandael-Dal.”

  “Come along. Tell me about your end of things.”

  Somewhat bewildered, Inda followed the Royal Shield Arm out into the cool night air. “Nothing really to tell. We weren’t part of the real plan—wasn’t it the king’s order?”

  The Sierandael smiled, nodding. “Yes. Though you boys have the courage, you do not yet have the experience for warfare.”

  “Well, we were separated off, as ordered. At dawn, we saw some riders. They looked suspicious. Dogpiss came back—he’d, ah, gone down to the river to scout—and found our guards dead, and so we had to retreat, and we did. Then Captain Noth was detailed to whisk us off here to the royal city, and we didn’t get so much as a sniff of the battle.”

  The boy was unprepossessing to look at, but the Sierandael remembered the games last summer, and said with a laugh, “I would have been put out when I was your age. A swindle!”

  Inda murmured agreement, thinking, Why does he laugh?

  Then the Sierandael said in the same joking tone, “So what do you think your father did, after you boys were whisked away?”

  “Well. We talked about it . . .” He began doubtfully, afraid of what Tanrid called Blabbing Too Much.

  “I don’t want to hear what the others thought. I want to hear what you thought,” the Sierandael said, which took Inda utterly by surprise.

  A flame of gratification burned through him. No adult in his experience showed the least interest in what he thought! So make it clear, dolt, he told himself.

  The Sierandael had fallen into step beside Inda, who gazed up at the torches on the castle walls, no longer oil-dipped as of ancient days, but kept alight by magic, painting with reddish glow the familiar wood-and-stone buildings of the academy that would comprise his world for the months ahead.

  What he really saw was the map lying there on his father’s table, overlaid by the glimpse of the bridge, of the terrain as seen from the river, that the boys got before Captain Noth took them away. And again he felt that strange sensation as all the details, past experience, what he’d heard, thousand of bright pinpoints of possibility coalesced into probability. His mind floated down that fast stream of conviction and he said, “My father would be angry, and he’d use that, I think, to reverse the plan. Since we were betrayed. So . . . instead of waiting for them he’d charge right over the bridge, straight toward where he knew they were lurking. They’d think their trap closing. But if Father sent Captain Noth’s dragoons to veer round to the headland that way, down along the riverside . . .” His hands dipped like moths in the ruddy light, over the map he saw so clearly in his head. “They think they’re closing a trap, but one closes on them.” He smacked his hands together. “The dragoons dropping off to fight on foot through the marshy area, the others forcing the brigands down to the water, which is the barrier. They’d have nowhere else to go, and so the dragoons could . . .” Inda talked on.

  The Sierandael felt his own palms prickle. The boy’s words were an eerie echo of the report he had received just two bells ago, from an exhausted Cassad galloper who had ridden straight from the thorough rout at the bridge, so complete, so merciless it would probably gain a name, and the king might even demand a banner for the Great Hall.

  The boy could be lying for effect. He could have heard some part of Jarend-Adaluin’s orders before leaving. Maybe he’d heard them without quite realizing. But Noth had been quite definite about plucking those children out of snowmelt waters, and about the fact that the boys had been nowhere near the commanders. Jarend-Adaluin’s anxiousness for his sons, an anxiousness intensified by his having survived the murder of one family a quarter century ago, would have driven him to get them away from impending danger just as fast as possible.

  Inda, realizing he was rambling, stopped, his face flushing. “Um, that’s how it works in my mind, but of course I haven’t actually seen a real battle,” he said contritely.

  The Sierandael forced another laugh, a forgiving one, an indulgent one. “Quite all right, boy. We all like to imagine what we might one day be called upon to command. No doubt you look forward to that, do you not?”

  The Sierandael smiled down into that face, thinking rapidly ahead. Of course he would set the same problem for the older boys, but he already knew what he’d hear: a lot of bravado, making maybe tactical sense, as he’d expect from seven years of good grounding. But none of them, not even Tanrid Algara-Vayir, would see the solution. No one except an eleven-year-old boy.

  Inda, meanwhile, was troubled by his reaction to the Sierandael, his commander while here, the king’s own brother and Shield Arm. He could not define why he felt so ill at ease.

  Prodded by a stab of guilt, of perplexity, he realized that he had been asked a question, and he said more than he ordinarily would. “Oh, I do, Sierandael-Dal. Well, not at home, not really. I’ve heard enough about the burning, and how long it took for the land to recover.” Adding in a burst of feeling, “If the Venn come, like Tanrid keeps saying, well, then, if it’s when the Sierlaef becomes king, then I shall be able to fight under Sp-uh, under Evred-Varlaef’s command. I’d like that.”

  The Sierandael laughed as they passed through the last stone archway between guard territory and the academy proper. Inda realized why he felt uneasy with this man, academy commander and king’s brother though he was: his was a laugh without humor, without cause. It was Kepa’s laugh, and Branid’s at home.

  The Sierandael, looking down at that reserved expression, forced himself to smile and to wave a casual hand in dismissal as he said, “And so perhaps you shall. But there’s much to be learned between now and then. Go get your sleep, then learn it.”

  “Yes, Sierandael-Dal.” Now Inda knew he should salute.

  The Sierandael watched him run down the narrow stone corridor between the walled-off barracks courts, saw the relief in that springing step, and pursed his lips. He had had command of men and boys for enough years to recognize in Indevan Algara-Vayir the most dangerous type of all: the born commander who is utterly loyal, and as utterly without ambition.

  And that loyalty had already gone to the wrong prince.

  Chapter Twenty-six

  SPRING slid into summer, Inda’s days resembling one another in their sameness: drill, work, never enough sleep, and occasional moments of conversation with Sponge, all the more cherished because they were so few. Their new tutor, handpicked by the Sierandael himself, saw to it that these boys were not “coddled” as they had been last year. Coddled? The boys’ surprise was immense at their first callover before Master Starthend, when with his very first words he declared just that. Coddled!

  But Starthend kept his promise. Because he’d been instructed to ride them hard, and because he had his own private grudge against Captain Gand—who’d been promoted over Starthend back when they were both dragoons—he decided he’d show these boys what real dragoon training was.

  At this year’s games, these boys would outshine everyone in the lower academy, and thus outshine Gand.

  The boys, used to rough handling at home and Gand’s exacting standards the year before, adapted. Inda still forced himself to waken early three times a week in the cold, often rainy hours before dawn, in order to make it to the Great Hall for his practice in the Odni with Hadand’s arms mistress. Lessons he continued to teach Sponge every chance they got.

  It was far from being a bad year. The boys loved getting training ahead of their year—they expertly judged the pigtails’ annoyance by the variety and heat of their insults about strut, frost, and stupid scrub clumsiness at mimicking dragoons, and thus the lessons Starthend had meant to be so grueling (and they were) were also secretly gratifying, though the boys knew better than to let Starthend see that.

  Smartlip was tireless in his efforts to please everyone. Kepa was subdued. Mouse Marth-Davan not only spoke of his own accord, but had become riding mates with Lan Askan, who was as horse-mad as he. Cherry-Stripe was
relieved when Inda, the unacknowledged leader of the barracks, made certain he was always chosen commander of ridings in scrub war games—when the boys could chose. It was an unspoken alliance that thwarted nosy brothers, and Cherry-Stripe was more grateful that Inda never seemed to expect gratitude.

  All Inda wanted was for the scrubs to win.

  The masters always picked the sons of the Jarls as leaders, except for Inda, son of a prince. No one wasted time questioning why. Cherry-Stripe and the others depended on Inda for plans; Inda’s plans didn’t always work but they were by far the best, and he always figured out why they didn’t work, explaining it to the others afterward. Not that everyone listened—indeed, along with Cherry-Stripe, only Sponge, Noddy, Cama, Cassad, and sometimes Flash (if he and Dogpiss weren’t busy with more important matters, like stinging off the older boys and getting away with it) listened.

  Inda, delighted when his tactical experiments worked, was content to keep his leadership strictly within the confines of their pit. He’d already learned the difference between being appointed leader by someone outside and leading because others chose to follow.

  But, unknown to most of the boys, political tensions rapidly worsened, tightened by the sinking of the three great ships that had been intended to form the core of the king’s envisioned fleet, and tightened again by the repercussions of the Battle at Marlovar Bridge.

  Men sent Runners back and forth with messages questioning the truth of the rumor that someone had betrayed the king’s plan—which meant that someone had put a price on the heads of the Jarls. And a prince.

  Of the young people only Sponge and Hadand saw some of what was happening, Sponge by watching the tension and whispered conferences among masters, and Hadand by observing Ndara-Harandviar’s tension, her worries about her Runners until they arrived safely back. But neither was able to see the other long enough to safely talk.

  Inda was oblivious to the political realm outside the academy. But he was not unobservant within his own world.

  “Dogpiss, I don’t think a sting is a good idea.”

  Dogpiss paused in the middle of pitching hay, his blue eyes wide and surprised. “What? Why?”

  Inda glanced at the hay sifting down through the tines of the pitchfork onto the hard-packed ground that they had just swept, and snickered.

  Dogpiss, glancing down, sighed. “Aw, horseshit.” He jabbed his pitchfork into the pile of hay on the cart and flung it over into the horse’s stall. “I think we need a sting.”

  Inda shook his head. “Haven’t you see how the beaks are always watching, whispering? I think if we do anything on the banner game, Starthend is going to use it as an excuse to gate us all. If not worse.”

  “I’m not afraid of Starthend.” Dogpiss frowned over his shoulder. “Why are you?”

  Inda sighed, knowing he’d expressed it wrong. “It’s not fear, it’s keeping your head low when there’s lightning all around. There’s something wrong somewhere. Haven’t you heard about some of the duels fought over in the Guard? Duels! If they get caught, it’s a flogging!”

  “That’s just Kepa drooling,” Dogpiss scoffed. “He wants to see a flogging, so he’s listening to every rumor he can find—”

  “Dogpiss, do you really think I give Kepa’s rumors the worth of half a horse fart?”

  Dogpiss sighed again, this time because he knew Inda was right. In fact, Whipstick had recently taken him aside and muttered, “Father says lie low. There’s trouble up in command. Don’t draw attention.”

  Dogpiss said, “But, see, when it’s like this is when we need a laugh most. A good sting would get everyone laughing.”

  Inda paused to wipe his forehead against his sleeve, hating the hot, still weather. He couldn’t remember so rotten a summer. Miserable heat trading with fast, violent storms. Maybe that was the reason for all the vile tempers.

  Vile temper. “If your great sting tosses a shoe, Master Starthend is going to land on us all with willow aswing. And you know he doesn’t think anything funny. Ever.”

  Dogpiss grimaced and for answer threw another load of hay so violently it scattered clear over the horse’s back like spindly snow. His last attempt at a practical joke, aimed at the pigtails just above them, who had been (in the scrubs’ opinion) far too assiduous in staff practice, had failed—they were spotted by a pair of pigtails illegally perched on a wall, gambling, who promptly snitched on them.

  Though only Dogpiss, Basna, Flash, and Fij had been involved, Starthend had punished them all, making the scrubs sweep down the great parade ground on Restday, since they obviously had too little to do. And he promised the punishment for their next infraction would be far more painful.

  Dogpiss thought about that, looked over at Inda, and said, “Maybe, but I tell you, that’s exactly why we need a hoot.” He grinned wryly, and then his smile faded. “And the horsetails need a lesson.”

  Inda grimaced. The way the horsetails—no, the Sier-Danas—had been riding the younger boys of late might be just a result of the weather, or it might be anger at the fact that they had been closed out of the great city-game. And Master Starthend had seen to it that the Tveis hadn’t enough free time to hide out like last year: in fact, he sent them over to the horsetail pit to work. “Training,” he called it. “In obedience.”

  Dogpiss leaned on his pitchfork and wiped his forehead. “Once we’re out on the banner game we might be able to hide.”

  “True.” Inda heard Starthend’s hard heels on the warped wooden flooring leading to the tack rooms, and hastily turned back to work.

  And while the boys did their best to look diligent, on the other side of the castle, Chelis the Runner self-consciously smoothed a plain tunic over her own Runner blue and joined the other girls. No one gave her a second look. They were too self-conscious themselves and too awed by their surroundings.

  Ndara-Harandviar appeared moments later, dressed as plainly as they were. “Come, we have plenty to accomplish.”

  She led the way to the first of the long barracks rooms used by the girls in the queen’s training, which looked like barracks rooms the kingdom over: bunks, trunks, windows. Dust circling lazily in the hot, still summer air caught the eye, drawing attention to slanting golden shafts that fell on worn linen quilting neatly smoothed over each bunk.

  “I have found that it is much swifter to do my yearly check on the bedding when the girls are out. They all have such different ideas on what constitutes wear and tear . . .”

  Ndara-Harandviar continued in a calm voice, describing exactly what to look for, and what to do, and the city girls hired for the occasion forgot they were in the very rooms the Queen’s Guard and future Jarlans and Randviars used, breathing their air, touching their things. There was practical work to be done, and they knew well enough how to do that.

  And so it began. One by one the girls were divided between the rooms, Chelis held back for last. “You will work here.” Ndara-Harandviar led the way down a dark, worn-stone hall.

  But no barracks waited. They turned through a narrow door, and climbed narrow stairs. Up, and up, to another door that opened onto bales and bales of undyed wool. The smell of it was strong in the windowless little chamber.

  With shaking hands Ndara clapped alight a glowglobe, shut the door, and kept her back to it. She observed Fareas’ chosen emissary, a tall, strong, quiet, capable girl, and drew a deep breath. “Fareas-Iofre has a message?”

  Chelis said, “My message is: What have you discovered about the betrayal of the plan for the attack at Marlovar Bridge?”

  Ndara said, “Brigands are not born from rocks. They come from families, and even have families of their own. Many are former Riders, dismissed for breaking rules or stealing or fighting. One of my Runners has a daughter who works for a tavern keeper in town who hears and passes on careless castle talk to his brother, who is an ex-Rider.”

  Chelis gripped her hands. “And so the treachery they all speak of. The betrayal of the plan. It was a gabby servant in the king
’s employ, or a drunken guard who hinted at the plan?”

  Ndara whispered, “I believe it was my husband.”

  Chelis felt her heartbeat in her temples. Pandet, the Runner killed, had been her guide when she first began training. She worked her lips, then said, “The Sierandael plots against the king, then, is that it?”

  Ndara gave an impatient, dismissive shake of the head, a gesture too desperate to be perceived as arrogant. “If only it were that simple! If the Sierandael sought to murder his brother and take the crown, I could shout, Treason! before the throne, and might even be heard. The Sierandael loves his brother. He adores his brother. He loves and adores him so much he would do anything to be first in Tlennen’s heart, first in his respect. And being first in his respect means proving that he is always right about matters military—even if it means careless talk of the sort that leads to pirates finding where our ships are and careless talk about Jarls and an Adaluin whom he considers troublesome, therefore bad for his plans, therefore bad for the kingdom. Do you see? He is in his own mind’s eye the rescuer of the kingdom.”

  Chelis turned her thumb up, her mouth still dry.

  “Further, you must remember that the king adores the Sierandael. Honor and love bind them both, and the Adaluin is also bound to the king by the same bonds. Therefore the message I have for you is for his wife, and not for him.”

  Chelis passed a hand across her forehead, then said, “I don’t understand. I mean, I see why we cannot tell Jarend-Adaluin without proof. But I do not understand how the Shield Arm is not betraying the king by talking carelessly, as you say, about the king’s own plan for the Marlovar Bridge attack, so someone heard and passed it on.”

  “Because he always has to be right. Up there with his brother, the Sierandael loves glory. If he can win glory and his brother’s regard, he would do anything. Anything,” she repeated, her voice a mere whisper. “Including bring war to us.”

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