Inda by Sherwood Smith

  She grabbed Sponge by the arms. “Inda’s alive!”

  Tiny lights flickered across his vision, resolving into tiny golden gleams in Hadand’s tears, reflections of the torchlight outside the high clerestory windows.

  “He’s alive,” she whispered again, just for the joy of saying it.

  Sponge’s throat had gone tight, his mouth dry. When he could speak, he said, “Where?”

  “They sent him to sea! On a ship, of all things! I just found out last night. A message sent to Ndara by Ranet.”

  “A ship,” Sponge repeated, because at first the words made no sense. Then meaning came, a superb protective strategy. “Like Barend. My uncle would never guess that.” Sindan told the truth. He is safe.

  Hadand’s thoughts paralleled his in an unsettling way. She sat down cross-legged, face in her hands. “Captain Sindan didn’t lie to me, then,” she whispered, and her shoulders shook as she silently wept.

  Sponge stood by awkwardly. Hadand almost never cried. He could probably count the times he’d seen her do it.

  And as always, it was brief. She drew in a shuddering breath, pulled down her hands, pressed them together, then looked up at him with those wide-set brown eyes so much like Inda’s, and said, “Do you forgive me?”

  Sponge stared at her in amazement.

  Hadand swung to her feet and faced him, chin turned up. He was fully a head taller than she. “Have you forgotten, then? The day after Inda disappeared.”

  It was Sponge’s turn to feel warm inside, the painful warmth of embarrassment, of regret. He remembered it well, the wild anger, the urge to strike out at someone. But he couldn’t strike at his father, or his uncle, or his brother, or his bunkmates who couldn’t be told anything at all, and so when Hadand had sent him a message saying, Come when you wish to, we can comfort one another, he had written in white-hot anger, not even troubling to convert it all to Old Sartoran, Comfort yourself with your secrets.

  Sponge winced. “I thought we talked that out. Before we started in here.” He flicked his fingers at the throne room.

  Hadand opened her hands. “Oh, you said you understood when I explained my promise to my mother to just teach Inda. My promise to Ndara. But I have never felt you . . . forgave me.” She still could not bring herself to say the real word: trust.

  Sponge sighed. “I did understand that it was not your secret to give out. That training Inda was your mother’s decision, and I agreed. How could I be enough of a pug to hold onto a grudge when you’ve trusted me enough with your training ever since?”

  There was the word, and he’d used it. But Hadand, sensitive to every subtle modulation of his voice, still felt his hesitation, the care with which he chose words. Real trust, the old trust, did not require one to choose words.

  He sensed her doubt, and said with even more care, “I just don’t want to compromise you any more than I already have, forcing you to choose between me and the secrets you share with your mother and my aunt.”

  Sponge watched Hadand press the heels of her hands into her eyes—Inda’s gesture. The real truth was, they were here because Inda had broken his promise. Hadand knew Sponge believed he’d done it because he had valued Sponge above the necessity for secrecy.

  The logical corollary was that Hadand did not value him as much, though she had grown up with him. He could not know how determined, how desperate the women were that their secrets not be discovered—for the good of the kingdom. If they had to make men stand down from violence, they needed to know skills that the men did not know.

  Hadand’s mother and aunt were not aware of these throne room training sessions. She had lived ever since with the sickening knowledge of just how dangerous it was to betray a single secret—that it could lead to more betrayals so very, very easily, even for the best of reasons. She understood why Inda had broken his promise; to try to mend Sponge’s broken trust, Hadand trained Sponge herself, and did not tell him about the nights of worry about what it might mean in the future.

  Her only reward was this precious time with Sponge all alone, where they could talk, however briefly, and exchange news, however much must be left unsaid.

  So she had better not waste any more of their time, then!

  She flexed her cold fingers. “All right. Now I’m being the pug. I’m unsettled because until last night I never dared to believe that Uncle Sindan hadn’t lied to comfort us.”

  Sponge felt his gut tighten. “You feared that as well?”

  “Yes, but I thought it was my burden,” Hadand stated. “At the time I was just glad to have Inda safe, away from him, but then I thought what if it was to a quiet death? That they sent me knowing that Inda would come without question if it was I who brought him?” Then her jaw came out. “My single comfort was that Uncle Sindan never lied to us before, not like—Never mind. Right now you must have your lesson, before we have to get ready for the war council with your father.”

  The war council was the reason Sponge could come so late in the day, instead of before dawn, as usual.

  Hadand watched Sponge straighten up. He was getting his height at last, the bony jawline and big knuckles, elbows, knees, and feet of the fifteen-year-old. But almost two years of intensive lessons from Hadand, every day they could, had trained him out of the coltish clumsiness that was characteristic of most boys his age.

  Hadand swung a practice knife at his neck. His forearm snapped at an angle across her wrist, binding round and using her own momentum to deflect her blow; she whisked her other hand in, flicked her knife from its position along her forearm to a stabbing angle, and before he could recover from the block, she slashed the wood across his gut.

  “Oof. What was that?”

  “ ‘Change of the Wind.’ You learned that sequence with your hands. Now learn with the blades.”

  They practiced the same move over and over, their breath smoking in the frigid air. Then they shifted from drill to sparring, the only sounds in the vast room their harsh breathing and the hiss of their shoes on the floor. Finally he managed to use his size to throw her off balance. She fell. He extended a hand and pulled her up. “All right,” she murmured. “You take the knives now.”

  She hadn’t begun teaching him the knife moves until New Year’s Week, and it was still new, how the girls held the knives angled up their forearm, blade out, not point out like a sword. It was lethally effective, he could see that, even though they only used a wooden simulacrum of a knife. Even the bruises were nasty when he was slow in blocking.

  They fought on until the bell clanged in the tower outside, echoing down the cold stone; the house stewards clapped out the torches. Morning light was no longer blue in the windows, but pale gray. They stopped at once, trying to compress their breathing. They had the same meeting to attend.

  The practice knives vanished inside Hadand’s robes—for she wore robes now, having put off smocks just before New Year’s—and they paced side by side toward the King’s Residence. Hadand’s profile was somber, her expression closed, and so Sponge turned his thoughts to Inda—alive and living somewhere on the vast ocean. Did he ever think back on the academy?

  Of course he did. And he probably thinks about my damned vow of justice, and how I have not kept it.

  It was twin expressions of bleakness that the king saw in their faces when they arrived in his chamber. The king’s brother and heir were already there, looking at the big map on the table and talking about their force, the Sierlaef confining himself to single-word responses, as usual.

  The king stood with his back to the fire and stared down at the map, wishing he could tell his younger son and his daughter-to-be that Indevan Algara-Vayir was well, was safe, was watched over, but silence was best. He could not risk one unwary whisper. The kingdom was too close to the conflagration of inner strife, and he had to exert himself to direct that outward, if he could.

  Anderle-Sirandael—or now Anderle-Harskialdna as he privately named himself, though he had yet to be officially named so by the king—
watched his brother for signs, and saw no hint of why those two brats had been summoned. At least Sindan wasn’t here. He hadn’t been seen for weeks, not since he was sent to inspect harbor defenses along the coast. That meant he had his brother to himself, and that meant he would listen to no one else but the Harskialdna.

  So he should think out what he must say. He frowned at the carefully inked territorial borders, all in gold. Those would change soon enough, at least. His promises would be kept to those who were loyal.

  As for the others . . . oh, he couldn’t really say that Cassad was disloyal. Nor Jaya-Vayir. Or even Algara-Vayir, damn him. Not when the king, his own brother, insisted the Noths were in Choraed Elgaer on his own orders. And so strange, for them to go there when Algara-Vayir’s damned boy had killed their own Tvei.

  Jarend-Adaluin now needs a Shield Arm for his heir, Tlennen had stated, using his King’s Voice. Captain Noth shall go to Choraed Elgaer, his boy training with them winters. When he is of age, his son shall be their Randael. Unanswerable.

  “Sit down,” Tlennen invited. “I want you two young ones to hear not just the plans, but the reasons for them.”

  A pause. The Sierlaef made little effort to conceal his impatience. Sponge and Hadand sat quietly.

  “The Venn,” the king said, feeling for words, “will come. We all know that. Over the past generation or so they have expanded their old watch-posts to garrison size on the north side of the strait.” He touched the map above the blue line that marked the strait. “We are taught by history that their plans are long. It would explain not just the garrisons, but their sea strategy.”

  To whom did he speak? The right words would come if he could identify that. To them all, that was the problem; he had a different message for each, but they heard in different ways.

  He turned his attention to the map. “We are isolated from land invasion by the Mountains of Ghaeldraeth to the north and east, the weak point being the Andahi Pass.”

  Here he swept his fingers across the west, north, and east of the subcontinent.

  “The terrain of the north, mostly hills and mountains, has held little lure for us. We can take the Andahi Pass, but we are not accustomed to mountain warfare. Neither are the Idayagans. Life has been too easy for them, too peaceful. They had only to wait for winter to come to their hills and freeze enemies out. This strategy, if it can be called that, will not suffice against the Venn, whose lands are reported to be far colder than ours. Meanwhile, none of these northerners can agree on what must be done to defend against imminent attack. Some of them think that treating with the Venn will prevent the attack, and the people of Olara on the peninsula do not really care who claims to rule them. All their walls of defense are aimed toward the sea. They fear pirates, not war from the land side.”

  A pause. No one spoke. The only sound was the snap of the fire, and the Shield Arm’s breathing.

  “If the Venn come, they will establish bases on the coast, then take the Andahi Pass. They can then attack us on land through the pass, as well as from the sea. If we march north, secure the pass, and establish our own bases first, we change a weak defense to a strong one.”

  A glance. The king watched his brother nod in agreement. It was his plan, after all. The heir looked out the window, his profile bored. He’d already heard the plan described, of course, as he must. Sponge studied the map. Hadand sat with hands hidden, in the manner of the women. She would make a good queen, if she and Evred together became strong enough to rein in the heir by the time he became king.

  A surge of pain forced Tlennen’s thoughts away from that. He said, “But I do not want a bloody rout. Those only touch off badly organized defenses of desperation and long slow wars of attrition. We will mass in Ola-Vayir’s lands and ride north fast, each to specific targets. No violence offered until they attack. No looting. We carry our own supplies, establish supply lines, and eventually trade. These orders are mine.”

  And so to violate them was not just a military matter, but treason. That message was not for the Royal Shield Arm, who had known it from the outset, but for the king’s heir, who still stared out the window.

  The next message was for the king’s brother. “Do not make the mistake of thinking that my strategy lessens our honor.”

  A flicker of a look. Until now Tlennen had not discussed the north other than to state his wishes. Now was the time for seeming prescience, a subtle reminder of who was king. Tlennen had never been to the north, but he had eyes in Sindan, wise eyes, observant eyes; he also had the benefit of instant transfer of messages, even if sparingly used. And so he said, using Sindan’s words, though the Royal Shield Arm would never know that, “They hate us in the north, with the deep hatred that fear inspires. This fear, this hatred, will do our fighting for us, if we let it. If we are fast and avoid senseless slaughter, they will surrender faster.”

  The Shield Arm sneered, of course; he expected, no, he wanted desperate, glorious battles, but he would remember Tlennen’s words.

  The king knew that his strategy was a gamble. If he was right, his foreknowledge would propagate through his people. If it turned out he was wrong . . . well, disaster, already threatening in those mighty outposts being built along the north shoreline of the strait, would probably just hasten.

  The king smiled at his brother. “You shall raise my banner and ride tomorrow, Anderle Harskialdna, you and my heir.”

  There, now it is done, the king has spoken, thought the Royal Shield Arm, with that expansive inward sense that at last hard work brought its reward, and the world was right. Tlennen had used the King’s Voice. Anderle was no longer a mere Sirandael. He was now Harskialdna, war leader. And Tlennen was no longer Siraec, but Harvaldar, war king.

  Anderle-Harskialdna, Anderle-Harskialdna Sigun.

  The king inclined his head, and they all rose; Hadand was the first out the door, Evred right behind her. The message for them was far more diffuse, because in a sense everything for them had been. The truth was, Tlennen thought bleakly as he watched his bored heir saunter out, the kingdom would one day rest in their hands—inner defense in hers, outer defense in his. Aldren would wear the crown, but those two would do all the work.

  The Sierlaef strode away, his sash dancing, his boots clattering. Why had his father insisted on having the brat there? He shrugged impatiently, knowing that his uncle would be rattling on about the very same question. The Sierlaef realized he really didn’t care. Sponge had been doing a competent job in the pigtails of late, but he wasn’t any Tanrid Algara-Vayir. No leader. That was Cherry-Stripe Marlo-Vayir. That meant Sponge was no trouble.

  And he wouldn’t ride to war, either. The Sier-Danas would, and the Sierlaef meant to see to it that they returned with drum songs already sung about them. Tanrid Algara-Vayir was fast, strong, and no one could stop him, but Hawkeye and Buck came close, and the latter was the Sierlaef’s right hand and would one day be his Harskialdna.

  How didn’t matter. It would happen. What his uncle wanted he eventually got; the Sierlaef had learned that much in life. So the heir was beginning to make sure his uncle knew what he wanted.

  And what he wanted right now . . . he paused before his mother’s doors and smoothed his clothes with suddenly damp palms.

  Then he thrust the door open, surprising one of the queen’s women, who bowed and stepped out of his way.

  They were still in the parlor. He could hear those string things sawing away and a voice reading. Was that Her voice? He licked his lips and felt sweat prickle in his armpits.

  Two steps, his heels unnaturally loud on the wooden parquet; in the parlor the voice silenced. He walked in and saluted his mother before he let his gaze seek Her out, and there She was, with a scroll open before her, a finger poised on a word. He repressed the intense desire to take that scroll and kiss the writing she touched. Blue eyes looked up, blank, polite, blue as the twilight sky over the plains.

  “My son?” Wisthia repressed a sigh. Poor boy, he still was enamored of young Jore
t, embarrassingly so. She’d thought he would have gotten over it by now, which was the only reason she’d acceded to his surprising request last summer, to invite the girl to stay an extra year as one of her ladies.

  The Sierlaef swallowed again. Now he’d have to speak. Before Her. Damnation! “We leave,” he said. “Dawn.”

  The queen gazed into his face. So this terrible talk of war was real. And her boy would be a part of it.

  She considered and discarded words. Her years among these frightening Marlovans had taught her that conventional wishes, such as one gave at home—that there be peace, that one come back safely—were unwelcome, were considered cowardly here. So what could she say? Kill lots of other people’s sons?

  Revulsion made her angry, a helpless sort of anger that was gone as soon as it came when she stared up at her firstborn. Instead she took his rough, strong hand and kissed it. At least he did not resist.

  “Be well,” she said. That, surely, was acceptable.

  He nodded awkwardly. And because he had not resisted, because his hand was warm, recalling for a precious instant the baby she had held against her breast, she said, “My dears, let us go in to breakfast. Joret, please return the scroll to the archive, then join us as you will. My son, will you carry it for her?”

  The Sierlaef flushed to the roots of his hair. Let him say good-bye, then, in his own way. Signs of tenderness in him were so rare, they probably ought to be encouraged, even if desperately inappropriate. Why did he have to yearn for the future wife of a prince? Because she was beautiful, of course. And they were young; silliness of this sort was expected in the young.

  The women began to withdraw, some with covert looks over their shoulders as they passed through the door.

  Joret paid them no notice as she rolled the scroll with quick, competent movements. The Sierlaef stood where he was as the women flowed around him, and watched Joret’s hands, so neat, so strong. His hot gaze traveled up her arms to the swell of her breasts, just hinted at beneath her robe, up to her long neck, to her face, which looked down, oh, that face, framed in the smooth hair that fell like silk down her back, the soft, austere lips. Her lashes brushed her cheeks, so long they cast shadows, hiding her eyes.

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