Inda by Sherwood Smith


  For a long, horrifying moment Inda tormented himself with thinking about what that meant: not only would he lose honor points, but as a riding commander, he’d lose double riding points for the scrub barracks. And wouldn’t that be worse now that something horrible had happened? Oh, much worse, much worse. Didn’t that kind of thing require punishment before the entire academy?

  But wait! He frowned. “A ruse for what?”

  “To get both flags and score off everyone else—a double win for the Tveis. Our army’s flag was in our camp. That’s why Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir was there on guard.”

  “But we didn’t know that. Did we? Maybe we did—I can’t remember. We didn’t know where the other side’s flag was.”

  “How can you prove Dogpiss didn’t know?”

  “Of course he didn’t. He’d tell us. Dogpiss was hot on a sting.” Inda struggled to sit, and forced words past his fiery throat. “Everyone knows what he’s like. All I have to do is tell them that it wasn’t a ruse. Of course he knew we were honor-bound to stay. He wouldn’t have touched the flags, not if they were lying in plain sight. He just wanted to sneak over. Plant his sting. Whatever it was.” A sudden hope. “They must have found it!”

  Noddy shook his head once. “He might have had it in hand when he fell, but if so it was long gone downstream by morning. And we did search. Rattooth, Cama, and I. Nothing.”

  Inda winced. “But Cama, and Tuft and Flash. They all heard me tell him not to run.”

  Noddy shook his head slowly. “Yes and no. They heard you say not to run, but Cama and Tuft admitted they didn’t hear what Dogpiss said next. Flash said he rolled up to go to sleep and didn’t hear a thing. But he was farthest away. Kepa said that the two of you were whispering plans—you being in command—and then took off together.” Noddy grimaced. “And Smartlip said he saw and heard it too.”

  “He did not! He was asleep! Wasn’t he?”

  “He says he wasn’t.”

  “But he lies. Kepa, too. We know that from last year.”

  “Everyone knows Kepa’s a sneaking, lying, bootlicking snitch, and that Smartlip can talk himself into believing whatever gets him attention. But we still have to prove they’re wrong. How? And listen to this, Inda. Brath has had Smartlip and Kepa in two or three times, and Cama, Tuft, and me just once.”

  Inda groaned, his hands roaming restlessly over the blankets. “I have to talk to them. Have to tell them it was a sting. Dogpiss was hot because the Sierlaef put him up to it.”

  “What?”

  “Yes. Didn’t Dogpiss tell the rest of you?”

  Noddy sighed. “I don’t think so. No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t, or I’d have heard. And he wouldn’t, would he? Most would think it strut, but he’d tell you.” The faint emphasis on “you” slid right past Inda, who was sick, distressed, and confused.

  Noddy got to his feet, coughing slightly, looking as distressed and confused as he felt. Maybe it was a bad idea to come. He and Sponge had thought it best to prepare Inda, except he looked so terrible, with those red patches in his cheeks and his eyes looking so wild.

  He couldn’t think of any way to take it all back, or to make it better, and so he retreated, as noiselessly as he could.

  Ten days later Inda stood before Master Brath in the office off the academy parade court, his fever too recently gone, leaving a heavy lassitude and a very soggy cough. Master Brath, with Master Starthend standing behind him, wooden of countenance, asked Inda for a report. Inda had had days to consider what he would say, and so out it came in logical order, sparing nothing. He watched those blank faces—blank until he recounted Dogpiss’s conversation with the Sierlaef, after which Starthend pursed his lips and Brath said only, “You overheard it? You didn’t? Ah. Continue.” Inda got the feeling they weren’t listening so much as waiting for him to finish.

  As soon as he realized that, he tangled his words; then he thought he sounded desperate, and his face burned, and his sentences tangled farther, and it was almost a relief when Master Brath said, “That’s enough, Algara-Vayir. You stopped making sense on your second, or was it third, iteration of your version of what happened in the prisoner-of-war camp before you and Kendred Noth broke boundaries.”

  Kendred. Hearing Dogpiss’ real name brought back, so vividly it was like a knife inside, those sightless eyes, the de fenseless hands that would never move again.

  Inda fought hard to regain equilibrium, and almost missed Brath’s quick, low voice. “You know the rules. The offense would have been serious enough for you both, but compounds because you were captain, and thus responsible for everyone’s honor. That a death occurred because of your actions requires public expiation. Ordinarily that is a hundred strokes before the gathered academy, for their honor, too, has been compromised. The king has seen fit to reduce the sentence to fifty, since this was so obviously an accident, and it was not your hand that struck him down. The sentence will be carried out before the gathered academy in three days. Do you understand?”

  “Yes. No.”

  Both masters reacted, one surprised, the other bemused.

  Inda went on, fighting desperately to keep his voice still. “I refuse. I have that right. I can’t be caned in front of everybody against my will, unless my father orders it, and so I won’t. Because I didn’t do anything wrong.” The Masters did not speak, and to fill that terrible silence, Inda gripped his hands hard behind his back and said, “I demand the right to tell my father what happened, and abide by what he says.”

  Master Brath said, “If you refuse my judgment, you must be remanded to the Sierandael for his judgment. He will decide whether or not you have the right to send a Runner all the way to Choraed Elgaer—which would take about a month, there and back, and we’re two weeks from the end-of-season games.”

  Starthend snapped, “Do you really want the entire academy kept here longer just so you can stand on privilege of rank?”

  Inda saw it then, that he had been trapped. He did not know why, or how, but instinct—no, conviction—sang along his nerves. He gritted his teeth and said, “I won’t do it.”

  Master Brath gave him an angry, cold look. “You could have that sentence increased for cowardice.”

  “I won’t agree to a punishment I don’t deserve.”

  “I have no choice but to place you in a holding cell pending the judgment of my superiors.” He sent a look at Master Starthend—what do I do now?—and then glared at Inda. “Wait here. And I mean do not move.”

  Inda’s knees felt like water, his head ached again, and tears threatened behind his eyes, but he gripped himself hard, determined to stand there all day and night if need be.

  Such resolution turned out to be unnecessary. Very shortly thereafter two big guards appeared, both with stiff demeanors that didn’t quite hide their embarrassment, and he had to walk between them over to the Guard side, and to the prison there.

  His last sight of his academy mates was brief glimpses of pale faces peering from archways and barracks windows, some of them looking as stricken as he felt, but some cold, forcing him to realize that there were those who believed the false story just because the beaks did.

  Chapter Thirty

  INDA sustained three interviews while he was in that stone cell. The first was by no means the worst. The Royal Shield Arm came that night, but the interview went exactly as Inda had come to expect. The Sierandael held to the story that Smartlip and Kepa told; he refused to believe that the Sierlaef had had any such conversation with Kendred Noth.

  “But it’s true,” Inda said almost voicelessly. “Dog—Noth Tvei told me himself. The Sierlaef said everyone ‘needed a laugh.’ D—Noth Tvei said the Sierlaef wanted a sting, to make everyone laugh—”

  The Sierandael’s eyes narrowed. “Are you asking me to believe that the royal heir, commanding the banner game, talked a boy secretly into scoring against his own side—against the rules? Into sneaking out of a prisoner-of-war camp, when you are honor-bound to remain?”

  In
da winced. Did it sound like he was trying to put the blame on the Sierlaef? Was that some sort of treason? “Oh, please, Sierandael-Dal. Ask Noddy—um, Toraca. He’ll tell you. I mean, he didn’t hear it or anything, but—”

  “I have spoken with Nadran Toraca, but it is well known that he is your own personal friend, and as such, his testimony might be, shall we say, suspect. As it is, I do not see why I should ask his opinion on conversations he never heard. Nor did you, by your own admission.”

  In other words, they believed that not only was Inda lying, but that Noddy was, too, which effectively shut Inda up.

  The Sierandael then said, in his most friendly, most persuasive voice, “Come on, now, boy. I don’t believe you’re a coward. You can face fifty smacks. It’s not even a whip, for you’re still in smocks. Just a willow wand, and if you like, we’ll stuff you full of liquor before and kinthus after. You won’t even feel the welts until they heal. You surely do not want to dishonor your father’s House. Why, what do you think he will say if we have to turn this into a kingdom-wide affair? Your father has a formidable reputation for honor.”

  “So much so that I know he will listen to me,” Inda said, lips trembling. “He knows I tell the truth. And I will abide by whatever he decides.”

  The Sierandael’s anger was more a relief to Inda than not. His persuasive voice contrasted with all the signs of hostility—the steady, searching gaze, the taut shoulders, the angry angle of jaw and elbow—signs Inda was scarcely aware of except that he was made uneasy in this man’s presence.

  “You might have forgotten,” said Anderle-Sierandael Montrei-Vayir, brother and Shield Arm to the king, “that refusal of justice on the grounds of cowardice, or untruth, is a dishonor that never can be amended. You could be stricken from the House lists, stripped of name and inheritance, and your father has the right to hang you as a thief, a thief of honor.” A narrow, white-mouthed look. “And so does the king.”

  “I won’t do it,” Inda whispered. “I did nothing wrong.”

  The door slammed shut.

  The next two interviews were harder, because he had no defenses.

  In the morning Tanrid showed up, in full dress, knife in his wrinkle-free sash, and not just an everyday knife, but his grandfather’s gold-handled knife, with the fine wing-markings along the haft, and his boots polished. All he was missing were wrist guards and mail coat and shield, which were never worn unless one was riding to battle. Even so he looked too large for the cell to Inda’s aching eyes; Inda’s fever had returned, because he could not eat and was too angry and frightened and grief-wrung by turns to sleep well.

  “Talk,” Tanrid said, his arms crossed, his strong right hand resting lightly over the left elbow in a way Inda knew well.

  Inda’s voice was going hoarse again, but he managed to get it all out. This time, when he recounted Dogpiss’ talk with the Sierlaef, his brother narrowed his eyes and looked quite angry. “I thought so,” he said. “The whole thing stinks. It was a damned setup, but I can’t figure out why. I will,” he promised, jabbing a finger toward Inda. “For my own honor, and yours. In the meantime, you have to uphold our honor and stick it out before the academy.”

  “But I didn’t do anything. You don’t believe me?”

  “Of course I do,” Tanrid retorted. “You are not, as some are saying, a liar. Never were. And no one has dared to say it to my face, either. I caught Kepri-Davan Tvei out, and he wouldn’t tell me to my face that you were a liar and coward—he tried to worm out of it. Is he a rabbit? His brother isn’t. Anyway, I gave him a prime thrashing out behind your barracks, and not one of your scrubs snitched, though half were watching on the sneak.”

  Inda said, “Does Whipstick believe me?”

  “He will. He’s waiting to find out what you tell me.”

  Inda opened a listless hand, swallowing with difficulty. His throat was raw again. Not that he cared. He couldn’t eat anyway. What he longed for was sleep, and no dreams with Dogpiss falling, falling. “So if you believe me, then you see why I won’t go out there and take that beating.”

  “No,” Tanrid said brutally, “I don’t. You have to stick it out, just like I said. Look, I know you told the truth and that Smartlip lied as well, and won’t I thump him when I do catch him out. Right now he’s sticking as close to the masters as a turd in straw. But see, Inda. You can’t stand out against the Sierandael, or even worse, force our father to do so on your behalf, which is really against the king. It’s riding too close to treason. Far too close. It’s not fair, and it’s not the truth, but they hold the power, not you. We find our own ways of getting justice, so long as the House retains honor. You have to go through with it, just like others have before, and no doubt someone else will next month, next year.”

  Inda shook his head. “I won’t.”

  Tanrid took a step toward him, mouth thin, eyes dangerous. “It’s our honor at stake.”

  “Honor,” Inda croaked, “requires me to stand to the truth. Dogpiss died.” He gulped on a sob. “And it was not. My. Fault. I. Will. Not. Take. The. Blame.”

  Tanrid raised his hand to strike Inda, but he looked down at Inda trembling there, his upper lip long, his eyes bruised, not from violence but by fever and grief and sleeplessness. He was a pitiful object, scrawny, dirty, obviously sick, but there was no sign of cowardice in that face, or of guile, just conviction, as total as it was hopeless.

  And so Tanrid lowered his hand, and even wiped it on his tunic, and then, because he didn’t know what to say, he did something he hadn’t done since Inda was two, before his brother had been given to him to train: he ruffled his head, scratching a little behind his ear, like you do to a favorite puppy, an awkward, wordless caress that made Inda’s lips quiver. Tanrid felt his own throat constrict, and so he left.

  The last interview was when the fever had worsened, and for a long time Inda thought he’d dreamed it. The night before he was either to give in and take a punishment he did not deserve, or to have his life ruined, maybe his father’s as well, he woke up to find a hand touching his brow, and Sponge was there.

  “Hadand found a way to get me in,” Sponge breathed. “She thought—we thought—it might be better if you weren’t alone.”

  Inda rolled over, his head pounding. Sponge touched his hot brow and drew his breath in. “Your brother said you might be sick, and asked the Sierlaef to get a message to Hadand—”

  “The Sierlaef?”

  “Yes. Mark you, he has not said anything to me. He wouldn’t. But he let Hadand know, even asked her to do something for you if she could. She thinks, just because he’s hiding out—he won’t talk about what happened to anyone—that he feels terrible about Dogpiss. That he never meant anything of the sort to happen. So anyway she arranged for me to be here. With this. Here, drink. You’ll sleep.”

  Inda didn’t care what it was. He sipped something pungent that smelled like flowers, that wiped cotton-softness through the pain behind his eyes. He whispered, “I told the truth.”

  “I know. We all know. But no one dares to speak. Yet. I promise you, Inda, on my honor, on my soul, you will get justice.” The voice was so soft Inda almost thought he dreamed it, except there was a deep tone, almost an adult note, a note of truth, that caught Inda’s fleeting attention and held it, just for a moment. And then he sank back, and Sponge’s arms closed round him, and held him, in compassionate, loving silence while he slept.

  Just before dawn the Sierandael was considerably surprised to hear the clatter of galloping horses echoing up the walls. He was, though he would never admit it, tense enough about the Algara-Vayir affair (really, why was that boy so stubborn? So stupid? What did he possibly think he could win?) that he was already dressed by the time his personal Runner arrived.

  He admitted the man, who smacked his fist against his chest in absent salute, his eyes wide as he said, “It’s Jarend-Adaluin of Choraed Elgaer.”

  “Impossible.”

  The man opened his hands. “He’s here, with an H
onor Guard.”

  The Sierandael frowned. “The fastest messenger would have taken two weeks, and then a two weeks’ hard ride back.” He did not say that he had had Runners on watch along all the southern roads to find out just who would have seen fit to apprise Algara-Vayir, outside of the official royal Runner who had not even been sent yet. Shoving aside that knowledge—and the memory of his Runners coming back empty-handed—he said, “Where is he? Seeking audience with me?”

  “No, he’s closeted with the king.”

  And so he was.

  Tlennen-Sieraec had been on watch, as much as a king can be on watch during his days of ceaseless activity, ever since he had sent a message to Jened Sindan about what had happened via the magic locket.

  Captain Sindan had been only a couple days’ ride from Tenthen Castle, for he was, on the king’s orders, painstakingly investigating the spectacular near-failure at Marlovar Bridge.

  Sindan had ridden straight to Tenthen to bring back Jarend-Adaluin himself, using not the regular roads that bounded provincial lands, but the narrow unmarked Runner trails that ran through them.

  Now the three men faced one another in the king’s study, two weary from almost ceaselessly riding day and night, one from stress. The king bade them both sit, and for once Jened Sindan relaxed his own rigid rule when in anyone’s presence but the king’s. He was too tired to stand, but he avoided the two great wingback chairs and chose the hassock farthest from the fire.

  In a very few words, the king told the Adaluin what had happened.

  The Adaluin’s mouth tightened at the end. Not anger so much as pain. “No, Inda won’t back down. He’d go up against the wall first.”

  “No one doubts his courage,” the king said, moving to the window overlooking the parade ground and the academy beyond.

  The Adaluin held out his hands. “Then what do I do? My choice appears to lie between ordering him to be flogged before the academy for something he swears on the honor of our House he did not do, or riding up to your throne and throwing down a war-pennant in Indevan’s name.”

 
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