Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Chelis looked confused. “War. But we are prepared for that, are we not? We always hear about the Venn coming—”

  Ndara sighed. “Never mind the Venn. For now, you must realize that you are now involved in high politics. Everything I tell you, everything the Iofre tells you, must stay secret. Who the person was who overheard him, and brought word to the tavern keeper to pass on to his brother, we may never know. My Runner’s daughter only accidentally heard the brothers talking out at the stable. What we do know is that the repercussions are severe. Angry Jarls who feel that betrayal of some could lead to betrayal of all. Others making demands for the price of alliance.”

  Chelis could understand that. So the Sierandael was feeling the effects of the betrayal, then, even if he wasn’t consciously aware of betraying anyone.

  Ndara said, “We must return, and you must leave with the girls, and wear that servant gown right out of the city. One of the Iofre’s Runners has already died this year, and three of mine. Brigands still exist, and for them torture for information is campside entertainment. Do you know how to go to ground?”

  Chelis’s mouth was now very dry. “We trained.”

  “Do it. Always. A different route every single time. No matter how bad the weather is. Pandet’s mistake was reusing the same route, thinking winter protected her.”

  Ndara saw comprehension in Chelis’ face and said, “Last. A spy—and I am one, make no mistake; I spy on my own husband—a spy seldom hears everything she must hear. Usually it’s a caught word, a night of searching papers for a single line, days of sitting and listening to the chatter of the unwary for the possible mention of a name, a place.”

  Chelis’ insides tightened. Here was something new.

  “So we have to listen to everybody my husband talks to when we can. One is the royal heir, the Sierlaef. One of my ears, shall I say, overheard last month a scrap of, oh, not protest, but surprise from him. The exact words were Inda Algara-Vayir? Why a disgrace? He’s just a scrub. Repeat that.”

  Chelis easily repeated not just the words, but also the careful tone. That had been one of her earliest lessons.

  “Fareas-Iofre must hear it exactly that way, so she can help us interpret what it might mean. We listen, we spy, but as yet we cannot fathom what it means.”

  Chelis rubbed her sweaty hands down the gray tunic. “The Iofre has been afraid for him ever since he came here. She fears he’s a hostage.”

  “He is.” Ndara sighed. “No one understands why the Sierandael does not like the Algara-Vayirs, it’s just accepted that he doesn’t. And it’s also accepted that having both his sons here would insure that Jarend-Adaluin does nothing in the south without the king’s sanction. We assumed that would be the end of it, and so it was last year, but not now. What inspired the Sierandael not just to notice Indevan, but to order the heir to disgrace him—if that’s what it meant—I don’t know for sure. I wish I did. There is something, as near as I can tell, about the Marlovar Bridge Rout that started this new plan. And I have been waiting a month for Fareas to send you to me, because three of my trusted personal Runners have died mysteriously since last summer, and I have only one left. I dare not send her south.”

  Lockets. Magic. War. Ndara pressed her thin fingers against her temples, and then sighed. She had a headache, a bad one, getting worse. Not the imminent storm, but the sense that clues, important clues, were escaping her, and the kingdom was sliding toward disaster. The mind wills unceasing vigilance, but the body is not, cannot be, unceasingly vigilant.

  Ndara said, “You must go. Whatever Fareas can do must be done soon. Of that I am certain.”

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  THE Sierlaef and Buck Marlo-Vayir perched on the north tower battlements, watching the Guards’ war game in the city below.

  The boys were sour. All summer they’d expected the horsetails to be running in this game as attackers. The Guard was in it, the girls were in it, but only the senior year horsetails from the academy were in it.

  The Sierlaef had been watching Tanrid’s betrothed perched on a low roof, her profile highlighted against the honey-colored stone of the high building beyond her. The girls were snipers, all armed with jelly-bag-tipped arrows, as the Guard and seniors chased one another through the streets below.

  The Sierandael had arranged for the two to watch on the excuse that they would one day be commanding such exercises, but it did not gratify them. They wanted to be down there now, running, fighting, shooting, being watched from behind windows by the civilians who had been forbidden to leave their homes this day.

  Instead, later tonight they had to take the brats out for a stupid, worthless banner game. Oh, once those had been fun enough, but that was when they were boys. Now they were too old for those games.

  Buck watched a riding of senior horsetails come charging around a corner, swords out, fanning efficiently. Up on the roof one of the Queen’s Guards gave a hand signal and nine girls shot, all hitting their targets, the blunt-edged arrows with their little jelly bags making an odd thumping sound.

  The horsetails faltered, looking down in dismay to see where they were wounded; those whose trunks had been hit had to fall, but the others who showed smears of red on limbs got to stagger off, scrupulously not using the “wounded” limb.

  Buck groaned, longing with the intensity of one who has rarely been thwarted to be down there with them. “Oh, what fun.”

  The Sierlaef’s gaze scoured down Joret’s body: hands, legs, shoulders taut, form perfect as she took aim, her profile cool, severe, unchildlike. Her shapeless tunic pressed against her by hot, fitful breezes, revealing the swell of her breasts, the enticing curve from waist to hip. Two years, he thought. She’ll be here two years. Surely she’ll leave off smocks.

  Frustration of a personal sort made his mood vile. “Go.”

  A stupid banner game. Fun for boys, but for men, it just meant a whole week out in the field, away from Heat Street—away from real fun. It’s all stupid, the Sierlaef thought.

  Well, if he had to do a banner game at least he was in command of one army. And the only master who would be along would be that stupid bootlick Starthend. Maybe he could get some fun out of his uncle’s stupid commands.

  Buck Marlo-Vayir glanced at that smile and sighed inwardly. Trouble ahead.

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  BANNER games were the oldest form of Marlovan war gaming, dating from before there ever was an academy.

  Banner games during Inda’s day were played by all the academy boys, who were divided into two armies. The regulations over the years had evolved into a bewildering complexity for the outsider, with rules both overt and implied, that it was nearly impossible to explain beyond the obvious goal of capturing one another’s war flags.

  Tradition dictated that the games be six days, the first three days on foot, weapons confined to willow swords, the second three days on horseback, weapons increased to blunted spears and imaginary knives. Most of the rules governing interaction in banner games were on the honor system, with a fierce emphasis on honor, stressed by residual memories handed down as stories of ancestors’ banner games suddenly turning into vicious brawls that did far more damage to one another than to any prospective enemy.

  The boys thoroughly understood that the banner game was a metaphor for war, that each boy represented a riding, and that if you captained a riding, you were in actually in charge of a flight—three ridings—or even a wing—three flights.

  Points were awarded by the master or masters accompanying the boys, otherwise the boys were completely in charge of themselves. The winning ridings got to hang the banner for their level outside their barracks for the rest of the season and the beginning of the next. To win over the group just ahead of you was considered a score off; to lose to a younger group was a deadly insult.

  As soon as his neat double column of boys was out of sight of the city, the Sierlaef’s interest in the city defense game faded. Out of sight, out of mind. As he rode at the fro
nt of the column, the academy fox banner just behind his right shoulder, and the second-year horsetail banner behind his left, he had to acknowledge that yes, his uncle was right, command was sweet. Especially when you had not just one goal, but several, at least one of them being secret.

  He was the one who picked the terrain, though Master Starthend had the final say. He picked the campsites, as usual with a stream that ran down the middle, marking an easy boundary.

  And though he really didn’t care one way or another about Inda Algara-Vayir (what was his uncle on about, anyway?) the Sierlaef’s emotions were stirred in the boy’s disfavor the first morning when he toured the camp for inspection and heard three scrubs—his own brother, Inda, and Rattooth Cassad—blathering away in Sartoran while setting up the campfire. Not just Sartoran. From the weird pronunciation, it had to be that archival stuff that Hadand sometimes used when she gossiped with Ndara-Harandviar.

  That made him angry, and he decided that his uncle was right, the scrubs were full of frost. Were they becoming a lot of damned heralds? Obviously they didn’t have enough to do.

  With a few stammered words to Buck, he fixed that.

  Five long, wretched days later, the scrubs rose well before dawn to set up campfires at both camps. That was quite within the rules. It was also within the rules to deny them horses and confine them to foot maneuvers. Five long days, three of them rendered superlatively hideous not only by the long hours of labor and horsetail willow-swats, but by fast-moving thunderstorms, had left them exhausted, wet, and miserable.

  So it was with considerable surprise that Inda saw Dogpiss smirking in the bleak light of a cheerless, cloud-streaked dawn as he returned from the other campsite across the creek. Summer, Inda was thinking grouchily as he watched his breath steam. Hah.

  “What are you so happy about,” he muttered. It wasn’t a question, but a statement of affront.

  To his surprise Dogpiss sidled looks in every direction. Inda’s glum mood eased a little, replaced by faint interest. Usually Dogpiss did not care who heard him talk—unless he had some sort of great sting forming in his mind.

  Dogpiss stuck his hands in his armpits. “Campfire done?”

  Inda waved a hand. “Fire’s started. Wash time.” He pointed at the cookware resting on a rock, then knelt at the edge of the stream, grabbed up some sand, and started cleaning. On banner games, there were no buckets with the cleaning spell. All very well to do things like the old days, except when it was you who had to do the grunt labor.

  Dogpiss dropped down next to him and snickered softly, his breath puffing. “He talked to me.”

  “He?” But as soon as Inda said it, he knew that Dogpiss meant the Sierlaef. Probably out along the inner perimeter, inspecting the other camp. “Talked to you?”

  The Sierlaef didn’t talk, everyone knew that. He stared at you with his pale eyes, never smiled, just tipped his chin, or snapped his fingers and pointed, and you’d better know just what to do, or one of the Sier-Danas would reinforce the order with slaps and kicks.

  Dogpiss sat back on his heels, his hands still in his armpits. He’d already had to wash the other camp’s gear, and his fingers were still numb; they were the only clean part of him, just like the other scrubs. “He said, ‘Good run?’ And of course I started blabbing the proper things—I don’t want to be wanding horse shit for the next three days, all by myself—but he cut me off and said ‘Good run?’ again in a real impatient voice, like he wanted a real answer. I said, ‘No.’ Know what he said?”

  Inda set aside one of the big pans and reached for the next, holding his breath against the smell of burned olive oil and old cabbage. He sighed. “What?”

  Dogpiss leaned forward, his blue eyes reflecting the distant sun, grimy yellow hair hanging across his brow, unnoticed except when it itched. “He said, ‘Need a laugh.’ That’s what he said. Just the same thing I was saying before we left.” He sat back, grinning in triumph. “And who better to come to for a laugh? When the future king comes to you, well, you’ve got a rep, right?”

  Inda frowned down at the pan he was washing. He knew if he tried to get Dogpiss to hold off on whatever it was he’d planned, the response would just be a scoff unless he had specific reasons. So what were his reasons? He couldn’t think of anything specific, just ... feelings. Tension. Looks.

  His mental review ended suddenly when Dogpiss smacked his arm. “Don’t mug like that,” he said, impatient. Inda was going to come out like a beak. He could just see it in his face.

  To prevent himself from hearing it, Dogpiss took off across the camp. He’d brought his itchweed along, hoarded all year. A sting, on a banner game, and all but ordered, practically, by none other than the heir to the kingdom. What a score! What could make it better?

  To sting the horsetails. It’d be a laugh, all right, but they’d be the butts of it. And they couldn’t say a thing. Or at least they could, but the Sierlaef couldn’t. After all he hadn’t said “Horsetails out of bounds.” No, he’d said, “Need a laugh.”

  Dogpiss’ gut fluttered with hilarity, half-repressed. As the scrubs drudged through cooking breakfast, watching the others gobble their food and eating last, before they faced the cleanup, he told three boys, ones as wild as he, as instantly ready to move, but quiet and quick as well. Just three, beside himself, for this sting of all stings. If, say, four of them moved in a group, they could nail every horsetail bed in a heartbeat.

  He was so excited he didn’t feel tired, though they’d had four days of no sleep until midnight and rising before dawn.

  After breakfast the trumpet assembled the two camps.

  “We’re still even,” Buck said, which of course they all knew. What he didn’t need to say was that if they didn’t capture the other band’s flag by sunset, then the rules changed: the last night you didn’t stop at sunset, you could carry on maneuvers all night.

  They all knew that meant they’d be up all night.

  The scrubs were just exchanging grimaces—no surprise who’d be guarding camp all night while the older boys were on the fun night sneaks—when the Sierlaef stepped forward to select the day’s riding leaders for their army.

  Older pigtails first. Inda watched with little interest as the Sierlaef snapped his fingers and pointed at various people. He had never been picked once this year, so he was taken completely aback when the long calloused hand shifted his way, the snap, the finger, and then picked out Basna Tvei for the second riding. Inda just stood there as the finger rapidly divided the scrubs into the two ridings.

  Riding captain! Joy, tiredness, apprehension all made Inda’s gut unsettled. He was glad he did not have to speak.

  “We’ll hide the flag twice,” Buck announced, his voice low, though the other camp on the other side of the stream was probably in the middle of plans, too. “That means we have to be covered when we make the switch.”

  He handed out the orders: one riding of pigtails on watch for where their opponents searched first. Another decoying them, so the older boys could shift the flag to where they’d already searched. Inda’s riding of scrubs to guard the old site, as if the flag were still there, Basna’s tending horses. If they came, retreat, call for the bigger boys, and they and the pigtails could make a pincer sweep and capture them.

  Easy enough, Inda thought, trying to rouse his foggy mind.

  So when can we get near the camp? Dogpiss thought, trying not to betray himself with laughter.

  The ground was too soggy for good riding, so nearly everyone was on foot. When Master Starthend appeared on the makeshift log bridge, the Sierlaef gave him a single nod, and the master signed to the trumpet boy, who blew the three triplets of the forward.

  So began another long day, a very long day, with no midday meal, just a lot of running, yelling, shivering when crouching too long, then more running, which at least created warmth.

  Sponge endured the day, miserable with apprehension. Long-honed instinct warned that his brother was planning something. There had been to
o many grim smiles the scrubs’ way. If only he could talk to Inda!

  Inda tried to comprehend the plan, but he was too tired; he just couldn’t see everything before things changed, and why was Sponge over in the other riding? If only they could talk!

  Dogpiss writhed with barely concealed impatience. The older boys never let them get anywhere near the bedrolls.

  Inda, who gave up trying to command about noon, was not the only one in his riding seeing light rings and double shadows when the sun began to set. He reacted when the pigtails or horsetails yelled at them, ran when the other boys did, dropped when they did. Too many days without enough sleep caught them gaping with yawn after yawn when they stopped, and so most of them never quite knew what had happened until it was too late: suddenly a riding of ponies surrounded them, yipping in triumph, and though they tried to run, and then to fight, then were all flung facedown in the mud and arm-bent until they flat-handed the mud, signifying surrender.

  They trooped miserably past the horse pickets toward the stream to cross to enemy territory. Dogpiss made loud comments about the smell of their captors, but the ponies just smirked, a couple of them gloating equally loudly over not having to do any cooking chores.

  Lan, Mouse, Fij, and Sponge appeared, horse tack in hand, to make sympathetic noises. Sponge’s eyes summoned Inda, and in a low voice he said, “They knew where you were.”

  Inda sighed. “We’ll lose points, but then we hadn’t a hope anyway. Why’d we get landed on so hard this week?”

  “You don’t have to ask,” Sponge said moodily. “I think—”

  “You prisoners fraternizing?” a gloating pony sneered.

  The two separated before they could get smacked.

  His brother, Inda thought. Again. But why did the Sierandael let the Sierlaef make a target of his brother? Did they think it good training? Except why wasn’t his real training any good? You could say he expected more of Sponge, except Sponge had been so poorly trained until he entered the academy. And he’d been learning steadily since, especially with all the extra secret practice in the Odni, but no one knew about that. Sponge worked hard, he never strutted, and he took smacks and cuffs just like everyone else.

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