Inda by Sherwood Smith


  From his earliest days Tau’s mother had said, Smile, sweetie, you have my smile. Use it and you’ll get anything you want. And later, Smile for Mama, a pretty smile from Mama’s pretty boy, and the gold will pour in.

  “I’m sorry,” Taumad said, using his mother’s open gaze, her tip of the head. The same gestures he’d seen her employ so many times. He’d hated them for their falsity, but they came so naturally now. Inwardly he laughed at himself, the laughter of self-mockery, even though his heart beat fast.

  The Venn studied him with a dispassionate coldness.

  Tau said, “It’s just you won’t win any friends here, speaking that tongue, not with Idayagans among the hands.”

  Tigga sorted Tau’s Iascan accent, assessed his looks, the freedom with which he spoke, and decided he had to be the captain’s favorite. Vaki appeared from below right then, and Tigga waved Tau aside with a dismissive gesture.

  “Anything?” he asked Vaki, in their own tongue.

  “Nothing.”

  Well, he hadn’t expected to find any Marlovans hiding on this old tub. In the meantime, these Iascans would carry the story all down the coast, they and their consorts, who still had to be boarded, searched, and intimidated before sundown.

  Tigga climbed down into the barge, quite aware of the vast sense of relief, of release, that he left behind him, and Vaki and his men followed. They raised their oars, dipped them on a signal, and after they had rowed round the bow of the Pim Ryala in one last gesture of arrogant superiority, they headed back to the Reed-Skimmer.

  Captain Beagar gave the command to raise sail, put the helm down, and continue on. He did not stay to see his order carried out, but withdrew at once to sit at his table with his head in his hands.

  Up in the tops, Inda remained silent during the work of hauling round the foretopsail. When it was taut and drawing again, and the ship had once more come to life, the hands started down, some silent, others talking in low voices, eyes shifting right and left.

  Tau was still amazed at his own action. It was the first time he had ever stirred himself to take a risk on anyone’s behalf; he, who believed in comfort and trusted the predictability of human weakness, was giddy with amazement.

  Scalis kept an eye on his Marlovan. Oh yes, young Inda was a real Marlovan, all right, as if anyone had doubted it. Every top hand had seen him jump as if he’d been roped when that piss-hair Venn yapped out that jabber in Marlovan. Scalis had heard it before, when he was small. He didn’t understand any of it, but you remembered the sound of it, after those long-haired horsemen in their tight, long coats rode through your town, cutting down anyone who stood against them with a single stroke of those curve tipped swords of theirs. But Inda wasn’t one of those. No. Just a runaway. In Scalis’s experience, runaways never talked about their past.

  Norsh decided on silence for now. But as soon as they touched land he’d get together some people he could trust and have it out with that carpenter’s mate.

  Chapter Eleven

  TORCH making was an art, an old one. The torches used by the Marlovans had come across the continent from the Chwahir, who had mastered the art of winding oil-soaked, leddas-wax-dipped flax round and round carefully hardened wood, giving off a pungent smell that buzzed in the nose.

  Torches (and glowglobes) that burned by magic spell were imported, but the numbers that the distant, mysterious Council of Mages had deemed appropriate to be sold to Iasca Leror were far below what the Marlovans required.

  This limit was especially felt at the New Year’s Convocation that the Marlovan king hosted every year, and had ever since the days of the plains, when torches were set in a ring on the frosted ground, circling the celebrants who fought, danced, and sang night and day.

  New Year’s Week was yet a few days off, but Runners arriving with the news of the Harskialdna returning home in triumph had caused the king to order the city lit in welcome.

  The glow of the royal city, a dim golden dome against the cold winter sky, could be seen half a day’s ride away by the tired conquerors. By nightfall they saw every wall and tower outlined by firelight.

  Anderle-Harskialdna and the Sierlaef rode at the front, the Sier-Danas directly behind them, bannermen surrounding them, and an impressive sight they were.

  Only the king noticed how, despite his smiles and his fist raised in acknowledgment of the cheers, drums, and triumph songs raised by the royal city as they rode in, the Harskialdna’s brow was tense. And so he sent word for the victory supper to be held half a bell later than planned.

  How like our father he is, Tlennen thought. His foremost emotion was pity. He knew his brother conspired against imagined enemies as passionately as he did against the real, that he cherished grudges formed in boyhood. So had their father, as much as he’d craved order—and life was never quite orderly enough in spite of his constant vigilance. First to rise every day, the sounds of bells acting like a rope yanking him from one scheduled task to the next. Last to sleep, thinking of endless lists. Endless preparing, training.

  He knew why his brother was tense, but he must give no sign of it. He kept his brother’s respect partly because Anderle’s loyalties were as long-enduring as his grudges, and partly because of Tlennen’s own apparent omniscience that was perceived by his brother as wisdom.

  As soon as they were alone the Harskialdna said, before even drawing off his riding gloves, “Here is your treaty, Brother.”

  “Sit down. Here is some hot cider with bristic.” Tlennen indicated the pungent drink sitting on the side table, and while his Shield Arm poured out a drink and sipped gratefully, he took the heavy scroll weighted by seals. He already knew what it said from Jened Sindan’s precise reports, conveyed by magic weeks ago, but he took the time to read it through, noting little things like the deliberate angles of the writing here, the angry slants there. Whose name was writ large, whose small. That the king of Idayago wrote only Idayago in gold ink and none of his names or other titles at all.

  When he looked up some of the tension had already gone out of his brother’s face. His cheeks were flushed from the double-distilled bristic.

  “This is as good as we could expect,” the king said. “Yet you do not seem pleased with your victory.”

  The Harskialdna prowled around the room, his boots making muddy patches on the fine rug, which would have to be brushed clean. Usually he was aware of such things, as personal fastidiousness was a part of his craving for order, had been clear back in the nursery days, when he and their sister Tdiran would stack all Ndara’s and Tlennen’s papers and line up their drawing chalk according to size. The muddy prints testified to the depth of his distress. “It was not my victory,” he said finally, in short words. His captains would have stiffened at that tone, a little too loud for the room, a little too harsh; his wife had loathed it since they were small children together in the nursery. Too often it had presaged violence in those days. Tlennen knew it to be unhappiness. “It was Sindan’s.”

  Tlennen sat down. “Sindan’s? How is that?”

  The Harskialdna started to pour another drink, then set down glass and bottle. “I don’t want the fumes clouding my head.” He paced across the rug and back again. “You know how I chased shadows all summer. You know that your son . . . wished to ride east with his own wing.”

  “Was his reasoning sound, or was it just boredom?”

  The quick look from the Harskialdna’s dark eyes was more revealing than the words that followed. “Boredom, and the wish to flush the enemy. Bring them to a fight. He went ahead. I followed more slowly, along the great road. I kept looking for outriders, signs of an army. They knew we were coming. I sent my scouts ahead to find them.” He looked out the window, frowning, then turned. “Sindan caught up with me. He heard the reports while studying the map. Waited until he and I were alone, and he said, ‘I don’t like this situation. The heir is now an easy target.’ I said, ‘For what? We are here in empty land—they have abandoned their homes, their fields and farms, eve
n their villages. ’ He asked permission to send Runners out, not ahead as I had done, but out in orthogonals. I said I had already split my force more than I thought right, and so he sent his own Runners not east, as I had done, but northeast, southeast, all along Runner tracks, not the main roads. He kept urging me in private to greater speed, kept studying the map.”

  He paused, and the king said nothing.

  The Harskialdna looked down at his hands, the nails on his thumbs raw and chewed as they had been from time to time when they were young. He picked at the calloused skin on one thumb as he said, “One by one his Runners returned, reporting nothing. Nothing. Nothing, until the one from the southeast came back. He found signs of a mighty gathering in a valley against the mountains. To make sure he waylaid one of their Runners on the way south and got the plan out of him: the Idayagans had formed an army which was hiding in a river valley hard against the Mountains of Ghaeldraeth and were ready to spring a trap from the south and east to capture the heir. They planned to sweep west from there and meet me at the Ghael River with Aldren’s head on a pike they did not even know how to use.”

  Though the king had known about that plan—and how close it came to success—since the day Sindan first discovered it, his gut still tightened against a cold pooling of fear.

  “So my son rode unheeding straight into danger, then.”

  The Harskialdna raised a hand. “Yes, but he figured out their trap before they could close it. It is I who did not suspect any such trap. Sindan also figured it out. No honest or straightforward battle, appointed beforehand. It could hardly be called fighting. But it would have worked if Sindan had not discovered them. So I gave the order to abandon camp and charge. I had—I had death in my heart.”

  He turned around, a purposeless movement, then said, “And so we were in time. And—your son and his boys, they fought well against those uncountable numbers.” The king wondered what he had meant to say. “But the victory was Sindan’s. So I listen to the shouts of Harskialdna Sigun and preside over the victory sword dances, but it is a sham.”

  The king said, “No. You gave the right orders when it was the most necessary. That is required of a Harskialdna. It is also required you listen to your scouts when you do not have enough information.”

  Anderle-Harskialdna stood there, his breathing audible, his chin raised as if he listened to someone outside and far away.

  “You are also not done,” the king said. “Those people in the north do not think like us, and you have learned they do not fight like us. So they will probably test us, despite the treaty. They will look for weakness. We have to be strong. Sindan acted correctly, and you did too. Now you must appear to know everything. You cannot seem uncertain, or they will worry at us forever, distracting us from our real purpose, which is to strengthen their borders against the Venn, who have now cut us off from the rest of the world.”

  The king studied his brother closely while he spoke, and it was apparent that Anderle had not known about the sea embargo. It was also clear that something else was disturbing him.

  The king rose and touched his brother’s shoulder. “I fear I have further news.” Anderle’s head jerked up. “Bad news, yes. The embargo includes every ship that carries any Iascan goods, and they are killing any Marlovans they find in the crews. Your son Barend has been lost at sea.”

  Anderle’s mouth tightened. Then he said, “If he died with honor, if he died fighting the Venn—”

  “We know nothing more than their ship was put to flame. Either the Venn, or the pirates who are apparently in the service of the Venn, attacked it, and I am told that the usual practice of pirates is to burn captured ships with everyone on board. Of course, he might have jumped into the sea.”

  Anderle opened a hand. According to the histories, sometimes humans did that and drowned but other times, apparently, they were taken by those who lived undersea. But they returned again so rarely one might as well say never.

  Tlennen saw no real grief in his brother’s face, just anger, frustration, another disappointment. “We have the victory supper ahead of us. Or is there anything more?”

  The Harskialdna breathed out slowly, twitched his chewed fingers, then faced his brother. “No. There is nothing more. If you consider this battle a success, then I will as well.”

  “I do. You brought back a treaty. You and I have private reservations, but one thing I have learned from reading the records of our forefathers is that long-sighted kings always have reservations, but they know better than to show them. Part of winning battles is up here.” He touched his head. “If they believe us unbeatable, they may or may not try us, but they’ll expect to be beaten.”

  Anderle’s face eased. “That makes sense.”

  “Preside. Take pride. Be seen presiding and taking pride. It is only the beginning. The real war will happen when the Venn come, and everyone will be looking to you. My part, it seems, is to see that we will be equipped for battle, a job for which I am best prepared. You are best prepared to lead, and to win.”

  Anderle struck his heart with his palm and then left.

  Jarls converged on the torch-lit city from all over the kingdom, not just for New Year’s Convocation but to hear the news firsthand. Some came to meet sons who had been sent to battle; there were those whose sons had not returned, and there would be drums at First Night held in their honor, the first being for Manther Jaya-Vayir.

  Queen Wisthia, loathing the smell of those ever-burning torches, withdrew to her rooms after her obligatory appearance at First Night’s supper, windows and doors shut, musicians playing soft music to drown out the never ending thunder of drums, the shouts and clashes of steel and wood ringing day and night during the eight days of New Year’s. She did not want to see her sons wielding steel, or dodging it.

  She did not want to hear the tight, pain-laden, tear-repressed breathing of Ndara-Harandviar. Every day since autumn that brought no further messages from the harbors had increased Ndara’s conviction that the Venn had killed Barend. Hadand sat with her, in compassionate silence.

  And so Tlennen-Harvaldar sat alone in the stands on Third Night—Debt Day in the rest of the south—which was when a few invited academy boys performed their evolutions.

  Tlennen-Harvaldar watched Evred riding as captain. As heralds and chosen guards along the walls drummed, the boys rode in formation, miming a wing at the gallop, splitting into two flights to attack, then reforming, wheeling; gallop, split, sword-drill against the opponents, reform, wheel.

  Evred, well into his sixteenth year, was gaining height. His dark red hair was modestly pulled back into the club of the younger boys, but it suited the clean bones of his face, emphasizing the strength one could see emerging, his high, intelligent brow. The king watched Evred’s smooth handling of his mount, the clean strike and block of his sword work. Nothing brilliant, but strong, assured. Not for Evred the vicious competition ending in blood and broken bones that entertained so many spectators. Evred’s style was something new, boring to those who had come from a distance and did not recognize the connection straight back to the summer academy game several years before. The king saw the connection, though, and contemplated how his son had taken Indevan Algara-Vayir’s little-boy gesture of rebellion in the uniting of the scrubs during the shoeing and had trained these same boys to be loyal to him.

  No, not to him. There was something different about that bond, something not exclusive, the way the royal heir closed out everyone but his chosen Sier-Danas, but inclusive. The Sierlaef had made himself the center of his group. Evred seemed to have as center some obscure idea, if not an ideal: the others did not move around him like moons around a sun, but they all moved together, a chain of shared effort.

  The king sighed softly. The evolution finished with a loud thunder of drums and a trumpet call, echoing in blended chords up the frozen stone. Then they rode out, breath from human and horse puffing white in the frigid air, and the younger boys ran in for their display—including many of the sec
ond class of Tveis, invited here just for this exhibition—most glancing up to see if their families were watching.

  The king was aware of the gesture of contempt that the Sierlaef and his friends made to their siblings by not sitting in the stands. It was probably inevitable. They had seen battle. No longer did they care for academy games, and they were too young yet to yearn for those carefree academy days, never again to return.

  The king turned to look for his brother.

  The Harskialdna had been working hard these past few days, rising before dawn, seeing to reports, speaking to every one of the Jarls and their heirs, to dragoon captains, to Runners. He never seemed to rest; and though he did preside, and smile, and even dance the sword dance to the roaring approval of the Jarls, there was still something wrong.

  The Harskialdna did not see his brother’s searching eyes. He had chosen a vantage by the stable yard archway, where he could observe both the evolutions and the Sierlaef, who stood with three or four of his followers, making loud comments as the academy boys rode past.

  Or rather, Buck Marlo-Vayir led the comments. The Sierlaef wasn’t paying the boys any attention. His head was canted upward toward the stands.

  The Harskialdna frowned. There was Jarend, old and gray and lined. His son next to him, academy-trained and responsive to the Harskialdna, steady and unambitious; and next to him this girl who did not flirt. Did not smile at anyone but her own family. Her straight back, her quiet hands, the deep corners at either side of her smile, all drew the eye, especially his nephew’s, but she did not respond.

  No, the problem did not lie with Tanrid or his Joret.

  The problem lay with the Sierlaef.

  The Harskialdna frowned now at his wild colt of a nephew, who had avoided talking to him ever since their triumphant return from the north, and he had to find out why. The boy couldn’t possibly know that if it hadn’t been for Jened Sindan, he and his friends would all probably be ghosts drifting through fog-wreathed nights on the northern meadows.

 
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