Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “No one saw me come upstairs,” Inda protested.

  Tdor sat back, eying him with tolerant scorn. There was only a year and a half between them, but sometimes she felt years older. Only sometimes. Inda was the best commander on the field, quicker even than the fourteen-year-olds. But he was too honest to spy at stairwells, for instance, as Branid did.

  Right now she wanted his attention, so she said, “Everyone sees everything. Except you, right now. Talk.”

  So Inda told her about his interview, as clearly as he could. When he came to the end, she said, “And Joret was there from the start?” At his nod, she chuckled. “No wonder he was so nice to you. I wonder if she planned it that way?”

  “Who? Mama?”

  “Of course!”

  A brief silence ensued, during which Inda thought about how much Joret hated being stared at. She hated it so much she often hid when strangers came, unless her position as princess-to-be required her presence. Nor was it always strangers who were guilty of bad manners. Tdor had pointed out once how some of Jarend-Adaluin’s Riders stared at her, even though she still wore the shapeless children’s smocks and lived with the children, and Inda had realized it was true. Not that Joret complained. She just went silent—unlike her usual self when it was just the children alone. Then she talked and laughed like his sister Hadand, who on her visits home was as merry as she was loved.

  Tdor considered the news, for now she understood why the earlier messenger had come and gone so secretly. She also realized what Hadand’s note meant. Inda going to the royal city! She wondered why, what the real reason was. If there was a single reason. That, too, was a new lesson about politics, that there was seldom a single reason for anything. You were told reasons, but there could be hidden ones as well.

  This was the first year that Fareas-Iofre and Joret and Hadand had begun to tell her anything secret, and they didn’t yet tell her everything. What she was certain of was that sending Inda would increase the House expenses, already strained by the need to feed all those extra men and horses for the watchful guarding against another surprise attack by pirates so far inland. On top of that was Tanrid’s academy expenses. And now Inda would require the same. Somehow they would have to find the money. You don’t feed this many mouths, horse and human, and lie about in luxury, Fareas-Iofre had said, when the household was finding yet another way to make old cloth last through another season and to repair worn furniture.

  “Well, I wish I did get to go early, but that’s that. Now, look,” she said, grabbing Inda by the shoulders. “This is very important. No matter how busy you get in the royal city, you have to go see your sister.”

  Inda stared back in surprise. “Of course I’ll go see her.”

  Tdor shook her head, wondering how much to say. “Don’t forget, no matter how busy you are. She never sees Tanrid, for example. She says the academy boys are almost never inside the city. But sometimes they do go, and Hadand thinks it important enough for you to see her to send a message to me, in secret. She needs to tell you things. Dangers. Do you see?”

  Inda touched his sore eye with careful fingers. After a rough morning in the mud, and all this running about the castle, his head ached a little. Not that he’d whine, because that was weak. And, he knew, his anticipation faltering a little in its headlong gallop, if what Tanrid had said was true—he frequently began his thrashings with You think this hurts? You will never have to see real beatings, like we get in the king’s training—then aches, bruises and pains were about to become both more frequent and more nasty.

  “Dangers,” he repeated. “Do you mean in the academy?”

  Tdor’s thin face puckered. She leaned forward. He could hear her breathing, and knew from her eyes that she was upset. He leaned forward too, and their foreheads thumped together, the way they’d exchanged secrets since they were small.

  “There’s talk about the Royal Shield Arm, the Sierandael. How he doesn’t like this family,” she whispered. Her breath was warm and moist on his face, smelling of rye bread and of cinnamon-baked apple.

  “Why?” Inda thought of cousin Branid, whose grandmother thought Branid should have been the heir, and all the trouble that caused. “Is it because Father’s a prince? Someone wants his place? Or thinks he’s making claims to something higher?”

  “No,” Tdor said, twitching in impatience. “Everybody knows Adaluin is just an old territory title. Your family would never be kings. And Hadand says they all know your father is loyal to the king. They were good friends when they were in the academy. It’s something else, but if your mother knows, she hasn’t told me yet. Hadand either.”

  Inda thought of his father: old, patient, usually weary, riding the borders through all seasons in protection of Choraed Elgaer. Inda could not imagine how he could possibly make enemies, except of pirates, and sighed, grinding his brow gently against hers. Somehow it felt soothing. “I hope it’s something interesting.”

  Tdor put up her hands on either side of his face. “I always wanted to know secrets,” she whispered, low and soft. “But then I started hearing them. And they aren’t fun, most of them. Not ones about the grownups. They are sad, or terrible, or I don’t understand them.”

  “I promise to visit Hadand as soon as I can,” Inda said in a long-suffering voice. “And ask her then. Is that good enough?”

  Tdor nodded. “Yes.” She got to her feet, tipping her head consideringly. “If all the Randaels your age are going, you’ll meet Mouse.”

  Inda groped in memory, then remembered Mouse was Tdor’s cousin. Because Tdor had no brothers, Mouse would be Randael to the older cousin she’d never met, as he’d gone off to the academy each year just before her birthday visit and was now doing his first year in the Guard.

  Inda also remembered that except for her mother and this cousin Mouse, everyone in Marth-Davan was nasty to Tdor.

  Their thoughts had paralleled. Tdor said with her usual sturdy practicality, “My home visit will be worse than usual. At least I know ahead.” She shrugged, then smiled. “But you know about Mouse.”

  Inda tried to remember Tdor’s tales from home, but the truth was, he’d scarcely listened to stories about people he’d never meet. Now he recalled that Mouse was small, but he’d gotten his nickname from the fact that all the castle cats had been his friends and slept in his room all winter. Until he discovered horses. Now he was horse mad. “Mouse likes animals more than he does people,” Inda said.

  “He trusts them more. Because he’s small, people aren’t always kind.”

  “You want me to look out for him. If I can.”

  Tdor opened her hands. “He’s always been kind to me. Be kind to him.”

  Inda flicked his fingers over his heart, his mind galloping ahead from Mouse to the academy. “I won’t know anybody,” Inda said, realizing for the first time he’d be among strangers. Strange Runners came and went, sometimes old friends of his father’s riding through, but he’d never met any strange boys. “They’ll all be on the strut,” he said gloomily.

  Tdor laughed at him. “You’re the son of a prince, and they’ll be just sons of Jarls. They’ll think you’re on the strut.”

  Inda tossed up his head, indignant, then he realized she was probably right. Boys here accused one another of strut all the time, but that didn’t make it true.

  Inda got to his feet. “I’m going to tell the others the news about the academy.” He grinned. “Think Branid will be mad that I’m going, or glad to get rid of me?”

  “Both,” Tdor predicted.

  Downstairs, the Iofre called for refreshment as she considered her next words. Joret had not needed to be present for that interview. Of course it did the Herskalt honor, but the Iofre’s own presence would have been sufficient since the business did not concern Tanrid. By requiring Joret’s presence and exposing her thus to the almost-inevitable hot-eyed stare, she had transgressed her own private code, the one that guided her relations with castle inhabitants. But greater need had prompted her
. The young man almost certainly was hand-picked by the king’s brother. Distracting him had been a tactical success—he had expressed himself more freely, and she was convinced that she now had a better chance of hearing the truth. She also knew that to refer directly to the matter in any way would be intolerable to Joret.

  Refreshment came. Not child’s fare, but the precious, expensive golden-green Sartoran steeped leaf that smelled like midsummer after a rain, served not in their flat Marlovan wooden bowls but in pale, gilt-edged porcelain imported all the way from Colend at the other end of the continent. It was a silent gesture, one that Joret immediately understood: the conversation now would be princess to future princess.

  Joret held her dish in both hands, emulating the Iofre, who never spilled, or slurped, or splashed. Sip, sip.

  The Iofre said, “I desire you to take my place and command tomorrow’s defense. Practice cannot begin too soon.”

  Joret turned her palm up in agreement. Everyone in the castle knew the horrible story of Tenthen’s attack by pirates twenty-five years ago, when the Adaluin’s first wife—Joret’s aunt, for whom she’d been named—and the Adaluin’s brother Indevan-Randael had not been able to hold the castle. The fire marks were still to be seen here and there, and the story had shaped everyone’s lives.

  “Very well,” Joret said, both apprehensive and grateful, for she suspected that the Iofre was being kind, in her way, to make up for the rudeness of that fellow from the royal city.

  And so they talked about Joret’s study progress, switching between Old Sartoran and Iascan, then to Marlovan, when they came at last to the first House war game of spring.

  Joret finished her steeped leaf, saluted, and withdrew, her mind already dashing away into plans for that war game. How many were to attack the castle? Perhaps it would be one of the two flights of the Riders on home detachment, or a riding or two of the household, being given secret word right now by the former Riders’ captain who served as Randael, so they could get ready.

  As Joret considered plans for her defense, Fareas stood at her window, gazing out at the misting rain.

  She tucked her hands inside her sleeves, her mind flitting between images: Joret’s happiness at her first defensive command outside of children’s games; the tiny drops of rain forming along the edge of the rail of her balcony, un derlit by the reflected sunlight from beyond the passing clouds; Inda’s happiness at the prospect of the king’s training; how his expression had matched Tanrid’s, seven years ago, on the eve of his first departure to the royal city; how those drops there looked like pearls; and how that would that be a handsome effect on a gown, tiny pearls edging sleeves, a neckline.

  She permitted the images to skip and tumble through her mind, like the children below in the courtyard, and then she forced herself to examine the hard truth, the almost unbearable truth, that all three of her children would now be in the royal city, within reach of the power factions there.

  Custom took the oldest boy away to mold him into a Marlovan commander, and the oldest girl to be fostered into the family where she would one day marry. She had known Tanrid would be trained at the academy and that his personal alliances would form there. She did not know if that academy had shaped Tanrid into the hard young man he was now, or if his nature had found its true expression in that training.

  What she did know, with profound conviction, were three things.

  First: that she, and everyone in Tenthen Castle, was bound to the memory of the Adaluin’s first family, killed in their failed defense. Not only did the story of that horror inform the decisions and actions, of every single day, but she also endured the whispered comparisons to the dead Iofre. The stories of Joret-Iofre’s beauty had shaped the outlook of the younger servants, so that Young Cook knew as well as Old Cook what the first Iofre had liked to eat, and when, and why. The stable master knew what kind of mount Joret-Iofre had preferred. The grizzled old Riding Captain from the Adaluin’s generation who, until Inda came of age, served as Shield Arm, knew Joret-Iofre’s skills at castle defense; the equally old and tough arms mistress who knew her abilities at personal defense; and always, always, the comparisons, whispered, betrayed by speculative glances, driven by the question: if the next attack came while Jarend-Adaluin was riding the borders, would Fareas be able to hold Tenthen?

  Second: perhaps because of the memory of her husband’s first wife lingering in almost every person in the castle, or perhaps because Fareas had not been sent here at age two, but at sixteen, forced by royal policy to marry the widowed Adaluin instead of the Montredavan-An son she had grown up with in beautiful Darchelde, this place was not, and never would be, her true home.

  Therefore, the third thing, the unspoken one, which gave meaning to her life: she was devoted not to this castle, though her duty lay here. She was not devoted to the Montredavan-An family, though her heart lay there. All her devotion belonged to her children, most particularly her cherished third, he of the loving heart, of the brilliant mind. The first two children, if a boy and a girl, belonged to other people. The third was supposed to be kept at home, and so she had given him the education of a royal, looking to a future of enlightened leadership while his older brother rode the borders.

  He, too, was now to be taken to the royal city as a hostage.

  Chapter Three

  EACH spring since Inda was three his brother Tanrid had ridden off at the head of an Honor Guard, banners snapping, while the guard galloped like raptors in flight toward the royal city and the glories of the academy. Inda had watched, longing to go but never speaking of his desire. He knew his place was to remain at home all his life, first training and then defending the castle while his brother ranged the principality during the spring and summer seasons.

  He didn’t believe it would actually happen until he walked down to the courtyard and found his very own Honor Guard waiting, a Guard led not just by any Rider, but by Captain Vranid, his mother’s cousin, all of them wearing their green and silver House riding coats, tight through the body, long skirted, knives through the silver sashes. How splendid they looked! And all for him! Inda endured his mother’s embrace and whispered exhortations with a polite attempt at hiding his impatience.

  It was harder to say good-bye to Tdor, but his parting pangs eased once he rode through the gates into the cold wind.

  There was no galloping toward adventure for Inda. They had to camp in the lee of a hill while a bitter, sleeting storm from the coast battered them, their glorious coats hidden by thick gray cloaks and hoods. And when they resumed their ride, the road was filled with puddles the size of ponds.

  Their slow pace became a full stop when they reached the river that marked the northeast border of Choraed Elgaer, a river that looked to Inda’s eyes impossibly wide with rushing brown water surging over logs and swirling up onto the banks to shake the trees that grew there. The road leading up to the bridge had two logs laid across it, reinforced by stones.

  “You’ll have to halt,” came a voice from the hillock next to the bridge, where they saw a small round house with a pointy, conical roof of sandy-colored tiles.

  As rain pelted down a short, squat man emerged, holding a rain-canopy over his head.

  “We ride with Jarend-Adaluin’s son to the royal city,” responded Captain Vranid. He indicated the rain-sodden green banner with its owl in flight. “We must not be stopped.”

  The man shook his head. “The bridge isn’t safe, not with the water runnin’ past the mage-mark.”

  “Mage-mark?” Fiam muttered.

  Captain Vranid said, “We will retire to the guardhouse. Send a Runner when we may pass.”

  They rode back to the walled fort on a hill, and as the Guard saw to the horses, Fiam said to Inda, “I thought spells protected bridges for at least ten years. Or is the spell gone?”

  “No, or we’d have heard about Mages being brought in to renew all the water and mine spells,” Inda answered, watching as an aide spoke familiar words over a waiting Fire Stick. Th
at was everyday, boring magic. The kind one grew up with, not great spells of the sort only read about in the history scrolls.

  Flames shot up obediently in the fireplace, over which was set some water to boil. Inda slung off his wet cloak and plopped down next to Fiam on the hearth.

  Fiam was still looking perplexed, so Inda added, “A ‘mage-mark’ is a safe-measure mark. I guess on that bridge even magic won’t hold the water if it goes too high. Back in the old days your ancestors might have brought a Mage from the royal city to do it, Mages being common enough, but now it would take months to contact one and bring him here, always under guard.”

  Fiam nodded, more interested in warming his hands than in considering the old days, before his ancestors were ruled by Marlovans. “Glad we don’t have that big river near us,” he said. “If it bursts its banks.”

  “If that stupid rain doesn’t stop all of Choraed Elgaer will turn into a river,” Inda grumped, sitting back in disgust as the tapping overhead solidified to a roar.

  But they crossed the bridge at last, and two days later adventure seemed to beckon, in the form of the brigands that were seen riding parallel to them, like shadows, on the eastern side of the even larger river that formed the border of Faral-Thad. The shadows paced them as they rode up the river valley that bisected the mountains.

  Inda assumed that his seeing them meant they were fools, until Captain Vranid said, without once taking his sideways gaze from those distant green, clover-covered hills dotted with swarms of roaming, peaceful sheep, and the occasional glint of steel helms behind, “They’re letting us see them to gauge our reaction.”

  Inda asked, “Can’t we attack ’em anyway?”

  “If you were not along, we might,” was the smiling reply.

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