Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Tdor flexed her hands, thinking of Whipstick, the tall, taciturn son of Captain Noth. He was even quieter than Tanrid, but he was even-tempered, and at first had even been a little shy around the girls. They’d all known his reputation at the academy, yet when he arrived he did not thrash anyone, not even Branid, who on the arrival of the Noths had, as usual, made himself unpleasant. Whipstick was the best of the boys in everything, earning their respect.

  Out loud she said, “I hope Inda will be back before I reach marriage age, and I won’t have to.”

  “You expect justice? There isn’t any justice,” Shendan said, such words sounding very odd when spoken in that light voice, with a sidelong, merry glance. “We Montredavan-Ans are living proof of that.”

  Tdor stared at Shendan in silence.

  “I hope for your sake Inda returns. I met him once, did you know that? We liked him. My brother Fox liked him, and you cannot imagine how very rare that was.” Shendan waved at the archive windows. “You can do what you like during free time, but it’s good you’ll be joining the reading,” she said slowly. “Very good. What happened to us could happen to you, and might even, if the Harskialdna gets his way: you’ll lose rank and holdings, everything but the castle, the daughters can’t marry any of the Vayir families, the sons can’t fight. And so we girls ... we study magic. Or try.”

  Tdor felt as if she’d stumbled into an icy stream.

  Shendan gave Tdor a laughing glance. “As for now, we also have fun. This is the only time in my life I get to live among others, and I get as much fun from it as I can. Come! I’ll point you to the baths. You can get in a good long soak after that ride, and enjoy it, too. You won’t have much time there after today.”

  She left Tdor at the baths, but before Tdor could shed her clothes and sink into the clean water, a tall girl in Runner blue slipped through the opposite door and beckoned.

  Intrigued, and a little afraid, Tdor followed. She really needed a chance to think over what she’d heard and seen so far, but it looked like she wasn’t going to get that comfort.

  Now came another long walk, then up, and up, and down a carpeted hall with frescoes of hunting beasts and raptors, and above all horses—running, rearing, standing—in shades of light gray along the walls. The hall smelled faintly of beeswax candle smoke, years’ and years’ worth, she realized, and that recalled home, but nothing else did, especially when at last, with a smile, the tall girl opened a door and stood aside for Tdor to enter.

  The room was big, with a high ceiling painted with a view of the summer stars. Underfoot lay the broadest carpet Tdor had ever seen, woven gold braiding around the edges, stylized falcons worked in rows through the middle, the royal crimson as background. At the walls sat large chairs, all of them carved from fine dark woods, edged with real gold along the swept back wings and legs. Raptor chairs, old ones: at Tenthen there were only two, one in the prince’s own chamber, one in Tanrid’s. Fareas-Iofre had said that the Montredavan-Ans had even older ones.

  Completing the room was a great table against the wall opposite the windows. It, too, had stylized raptor legs. On it rested a huge map, beautifully drawn; even bigger and finer than the one in Jarend-Adaluin’s chamber.

  Tdor crossed her arms defensively. It was a masculine room, one filled with costly things, with a commanding view. She felt unnerved, as if she’d stumbled into a secret place, a place of power, one into which she was not entitled to step.

  “It’s all right,” came a familiar voice. Tdor whirled around. There was Hadand, laughing softly as she entered through an unobtrusive side door. “This is actually the safest place in the castle right now. The few who would dare to spy here are all somewhere else.”

  Tdor knew, then, without being told, that she stood in the king’s own room. She twirled around, staring. The windows looked down over a very large parade ground—that must be the one she’d stood in with Shendan, talking of magic—and the windows themselves were high, framed by heavy curtains, with wall carvings of raptors in flight above and below.

  At last she turned to the short figure in the center of the room. Hadand smiled as the door latched behind her. “If we see one another in company, the same sign I taught you is the one we use here for an unsafe room.” She brushed three fingers across her palm in the lily sign.

  Tdor whispered, “I remember.”

  “Two years, it’s been,” Hadand said, studying her from eyes that brought Inda right back into Tdor’s mind.

  “You’re in robes,” Tdor observed, then flushed at how obvious that was, how stupid it must sound. Yet it was so strange to see Hadand with Inda’s eyes, but a woman’s body. She had gotten short, somehow. Her fine soft-gray woolen robe, with its exquisite edging embroidery of intertwined silver owls, slit up the sides for riding, and her voluminous riding trousers edged with the same silver owls along their hems did not hide how wide her hips were, nor how large and shapely her bosom.

  Hadand flicked the robe open, revealing a fine high-necked linen shirt, laced neatly with silken ties, her trim waist sashed, the curved handle of her knife somehow accentuating the inward curve of what Tdor realized was a spectacular figure.

  “You’re quite a bit taller than I am, now,” Hadand said, making her own obvious statement, and Tdor knew it was to set her at ease. She laughed. “I always assumed I’d be a stick like my mother, and not a duck like mother says granny is!” She smacked her hips. “I can barely do a hand-spring any more, though this fine butt of mine centers me beautifully on a horse. I find I can balance with ease over the most daunting fences.” She laughed again, then her smile turned pensive. “I’d like to meet Gran someday. I hear Mother’s voice reading her letters.”

  None of that mattered to Tdor right now. “I’m so glad to see you again,” Tdor exclaimed, throwing herself forward.

  The two hugged, and when they parted, both were teary.

  “Oh, you don’t know how very good it will be just to know you are here, even if we seldom get to see one another,” Hadand said, her voice low and fervent.

  Prickles tingled along Tdor’s arms. Hadand just never showed emotion, at least not this kind. She was always practical, or at least merry, calm, kind.

  “Don’t you have Joret?” she asked.

  Hadand drew herself up, and there was the calm, practical, kind face again. “Oh, she’s here, but she’s so surrounded by spies we almost never exchange more than a word or two, and a few signs, except when we are in the archive, and then it’s back to the real work.”

  “Spies? On Joret? Why?”

  Hadand’s lip curled. “It’s that fool of a Sierlaef. Nobody expected him to raise the staff—to think he’s in love with her,” she corrected hastily, remembering that Tdor was still in smocks. Hurry up and grow, Hadand thought, fighting against the fire of emotion seeing this familiar face from home had sparked. How badly she needed a confidante, or at least a friend!

  Tdor, meanwhile, translated mentally, and though she understood in a general sense (staffs were men’s sex thing, and of course she’d long known where it was supposed to go, but the feelings that were supposed to go with all that were still a complete mystery) it was enough to make her blush. Hadand had grown up. Unsteadiness rocked Tdor for a moment, as if she were on a runaway horse. People changed so fast! She hadn’t changed; she felt the same as she always had.

  “Alas, we’re running out of time. The king will want his room soon, and you will have to take the fastest bath of your life,” Hadand said, laughing. “Tesar will take you back down. I’ll try to see you when I can. If you like, that is,” she amended contritely.

  “Of course I want to see you. And the princess commanded me to continue the studies, if that is possible.”

  “Oh, never fear, I can arrange that. Every girl gets some free time. Most of them waste it one way or another. Joret and I spend ours in the archive, along with Shen—you’ve met her?—just as Mama wishes. And I will say this: our assiduous reading is so boring to everyone’s spies t
hat that’s one place they generally leave us alone.” When Tdor ducked her head, Hadand grimaced, then said, “Most of the girls are fine, but watch out for Stara Ola-Vayir—some call her Honeytongue. She’ll bootlick you something fierce, until she winnows out any secrets you might have, and then you’ll wake up one day with everyone knowing, and Mudface—that is, Dannor Tya-Vayir—laughing at you. They both should have been gone by now, but the Ola-Vayirs put pressure for Honeytongue to be a queen’s lady, and this is—I hope—Mudface’s last year.”

  Tdor snorted a laugh. “Just as well I don’t have any secrets.”

  “You do,” Hadand said soberly. “The magic studies. And Inda being alive.”

  Tdor winced. Hadand gave her a quick, wordless hug again, and then opened the door to reveal that tall Runner standing outside, her hands in her sleeves. Tdor knew from her stance that those sleeves contained at least one knife, probably two. Even here in the king’s castle. Just as Chelis’ did, at home in Tenthen, when she guarded Fareas-Iofre. Real life. Adult life.

  “We saw a Runner on the way in,” she ventured, as they started down the stairs.

  Hadand lifted a shoulder. “Runners come in all day, most of them from the Harskialdna.” Her voice lowered to a murmur. “He was supposed to take a month, and he’s been there half again that long, and from the latest from Cassad’s Runners, it might be all summer before they get anywhere. Despite all the news, until Captain Sindan comes back, we don’t really know what’s going on.”

  Neither did the Harskialdna.

  Riding across the meadows and fields and farmland south of the Tradheval coast as they pushed east toward Idayago, looking for enemies that were not there, made him wish he could smash something.

  A battle in ordered ranks, that he knew he could fight and win. His forces were drilled into instant obedience, their skills unmatched. But where were the ranged forces they had ridden north expecting?

  The Idayagans had to be somewhere. It was too easy to envision them slipping along to the north or south, just out of sight, but of course if they were that good, that fast, they would come out and fight. At least if they were Marlovans they would.

  There was no order, no sense to it. It was like reaching for a stone and finding sand in his hand instead, he thought morosely as he scanned the hazy hills in the north, with their unfamiliar trees that blocked the terrain from view. He longed to set fire to it all.

  If he’d been alone, he would have done just that. Or if the northerners had not acted exactly as his brother had predicted. But they had. Oh, there had been some skirmishing in the pass, but nothing that really amounted to much. He mostly let the boys get blooded, though it left them all craving more; it was too easy. No one, obviously, wanted to face the entire army of Tlennen-Harvaldar of Iasca Leror.

  All they’d found since emerging from the northeast side of the pass and turning east were villages with farmers at the windows watching them with unblinking, angry eyes, a few towns, mostly empty, some deserted castles, and vast stretches of rice plantings in the low grounds and crop fields on the higher. Someone pointed out the Venn might have already been through, but nothing was destroyed, just abandoned. The Harskialdna was certain the missing inhabitants were forming an army . . . somewhere.

  His brooding was interrupted when his nephew urged his mount over. The Harskialdna looked up. The king’s heir jerked his head at the westering sun. Definitely time to make camp and secure a good perimeter before they lost the light.

  The Sierlaef waited impatiently until his uncle had finished inspection and was waiting for his cook to finish frying up some fresh fish.

  Now, he thought, and dropped down on his haunches beside the map. He jabbed the map with his finger, sweeping it eastward into Idayago. “We scout.”

  “Who?” His uncle scowled.

  The king’s heir smacked his chest and flicked his fingers at the Sier-Danas, three of whom waited at a respectful distance. Tanrid and Tlen were already seeing to the mounts.

  “What? Why?” the Harskialdna asked, frowning, his thoughts scattered between his ongoing worries and this new threat.

  For answer the heir swept his two forefingers together on the map, one proceeding east along the northern coast, as they’d been riding for the past month, and one speeding south, then cutting north along the foothills at the base of the Mountains of Ghaeldraeth and back west to meet in the middle.

  His uncle sucked in a breath. “But you can’t ride alone. Your father would never permit it.”

  “Not here.”

  “Aldren, if something happens to you, I might as well fall on my sword. I must keep you safe, it’s more important than anything else. You have to see that.”

  “Take our own men. Each. Flight of gradoo—guh, guh. Dragoons.” White-hot anger flashed through the Sierlaef at his stupid tongue.

  His uncle saw the anger and hesitated. Twenty-one, a man for a year, but the royal heir was still a boy to his uncle, and always would be. A boy more intolerant of the Harskialdna’s reins each passing day. The Harskialdna thought of the hints, persuasions, coaxings, even downright lies he’d been forced to speak in order to control the damned boy and knew that here, so far away from the king, his control was about as strong as a woolen string on a maddened charger. The heir was still afraid of his father the king, but that fear wasn’t enough to keep him under control, not here.

  He turned his head, and saw activity on the picket line. Successfully interpreting it—the Sierlaef had already given orders, assuming his uncle’s compliance—a surge of anger just as hot as the Sierlaef’s scalded him, all the more fierce because he knew that the day he’d dreaded was here, that the boy had chosen now, this moment, to revolt, and there was nothing he could do. The king had given his orders to them both; there was no lying, adding extras on, pretending they were from the king.

  So . . . undercut the revolt.

  His uncle forced a smile. “You show excellent command sense,” he said. “I was just now thinking along the same lines, only I was thinking it might be best if you were to take ...” Whom could he release? He had to keep the boy safe, but every riding he sent further divided their forces. “Buck Marlo-Vayir’s flight, and the coastal riders. Also take your father’s Runners.” Yes. He’d probably be stuck with Sindan showing up and poking his long nose into royal business before long. At least he could get rid of the other two spies whose reports home he could not control.

  And it worked. The Sierlaef’s flush of pleasure was easy enough to read. Later on, perhaps, the heir would translate that “excellent command sense” as meaning that his uncle had thought of the plan first. He must keep what control he could.

  Chapter Nine

  THE first friendly faces in two weeks belonged to young women.

  Tanrid Algara-Vayir looked in surprise at the pretty Idayagans standing along a fence, watching the Marlovans ride by. The Sier-Danas had broken formation to ride at the back; the dust still suspended in the hot summer air from the passage of their force made them sneeze, but they could talk freely, and when they arrived, camp would be set up.

  It had been a boring ride. Until now. One of the young women leaned against the fence so that the neck of her gown dipped down, half-revealing the promising round nesses beneath.

  Tanrid swallowed. The clothes these girls wore looked to the Marlovans like pleasure house garments, tight at the waist and hips, low at the neck, with gem-colored embroidery and lacy stuff that just called attention to what you weren’t supposed to stare at without invite. So unlike the girls at home, who put on the women’s robes as soon as they had anything to look at.

  Tanrid glanced across at the other Sier-Danas, and saw the Sierlaef’s gaze locked onto the one on the end who was lazily twining a curl of hair through her fingers. She too leaned against the fence, her skirt molding the extravagant curve of one hip.

  “You boys aren’t so bad looking,” one of the girls said in strongly accented Iascan.

  Another girl giggled. “We
heard you were ugly and your horses pretty.”

  No, these Marlovan boys weren’t ugly at all, with those severely cut long military coats sashed tightly at their slim waists, those splendid shoulders, the muscular legs just outlined by the wide-legged riding trousers stuffed into those glossy, high-heeled black-weave boots. Attractive, but dangerous, riding so slowly on their beautiful, mild-as-milk horses, dagger hilts winking at their sashes, at the tops of their boots, their wicked swords with the curved tips carried slantwise at their saddlepads. On their other side they carried those odd, tear-shaped shields, all of them with wings painted on, except the one with the long, stylized feathers overlaid in real, beaten gold. Yes, that one had to be the prince, thought one girl, and she gave him her most winning smile, practiced just that day in front of the mirror, while her cousin observed that these Marlovan boys all seemed to look alike, except maybe that rat-faced one in the middle, probably because of the strange way they bound their hair back up on their heads, hanging down like a long tail, and all of it more or less as yellow as old sun-bleached thatch, except the dark-haired one on the end.

  “You’re all pretty,” a third said. She was brown of skin and hair and eyes, her lips curved in a slow, secretive smile.

  The first one wore her wavy black hair in a lot of braids tied with ribbon. “We’re alone here,” she crooned, twirling a ribbon in a way that locked seven rapt gazes to the low neck of her gown. “It’s sooooooo booooring.”

  “Come in, have a bite?” That was the second one.

  The Sier-Danas glanced at the Sierlaef, their faces fairly revealing.

  “Ride,” the heir said in Marlovan, looking away, and then back again. He made a fist, brought it down: camp first.

  “After we see to our camp, we’ll be back along this way,” Buck Marlo-Vayir said, grinning. “Shall we bring something?”

  “Oh, maybe some wine, if you have it,” the black-haired one said in a low voice. “Though we have plenty, and no one to share it with.”

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