Inda by Sherwood Smith


  She was fixing a bulky pouch to her belt, looked up, and dropped her hands to her knees. “Oh, there you are.”

  Tdor hesitated, not sure what to say.

  Shen gave a soft laugh. “No, our Runner isn’t here yet, and yes, we’ll make merry later. I only had one brother to lose, and I’ve finally accepted that he’s dead. So there is nothing to fear.” And before Tdor could fumble out something sympathetic, Shen tipped her head. “Your Name Day is in a month or two. Do you want a coming-of-age fete?”

  Shen’s asking now meant she must have somehow known that Tdor had had to use the Waste Spell three times now for monthly courses. Tdor wondered what about her had changed, since she was still as flat in front as she’d been at ten, and the rest of her seemed more or less the same as she’d always been.

  Her face burned. “I think I want to wait until I return to Tenthen.” She knew that many girls did that, celebrated their coming of age at home.

  Shendan opened a hand, and the subject dropped. Obviously Tdor wasn’t in any hurry to sample the delights of the pleasure houses; Shen, like some, went every chance she could get.

  Shen turned thumb toward the door. “Then let’s get to mess and eat fast. We’ll want to get right to our break-in.”

  Tdor sighed, relieved to have the personal questions over with. “I was just grumping to myself about it. You’d think at least the snowstorm could have waited a day. But no, we get all that mess to slog through—leaving huge tracks—and a clear sky, to assure we’ll be spotted even by girls half asleep. We’ll be caught before midday.”

  Shen’s smile deepened at the corners. “Oh, we’ll get in.”

  “We will?”

  Shen laughed without making a sound. “This place is rife with hidey-holes. The Venn will never be the ones to find ’em.”

  Tdor asked, “Is that why you volunteered to lead? I mean, you never have before.”

  Shen gave another of those smiles. “Do you think it would be universally welcome, a Montredavan-An wanting to lead?” She left without waiting for an answer.

  Tdor opened her mouth, and then shut it. Once Tdor had seen a brief look exchanged between Shen and Marend Jaya-Vayir—who had been Savarend’s intended—when the fox banner was seen streaming past at the head of a riding of horsetails, and Tdor remembered that that had once been the Montredavan-An banner, carried by the heirs.

  She flushed, though Shen’s words had in no way been directed at her as accusation. I keep thinking I’m the only observant one, Tdor thought as the two raced through the halls to the mess hall for a hasty breakfast. Maybe I’m like the girl in the old song, counting acorns on the ground and not seeing the crows in the air flying from the coming storm.

  The defending ridings were already at the archery court. The rules were that the riding assigned to break in had half a bell to get out and in place before the defenders were released to start guarding.

  Shen and Tdor gathered their riding and Shen led them past the older stables, past the outer wall, over the old road that was slushy from countless feet and hooves even at dawn, to the fields just south of the half-frozen river.

  “All right, girls,” she said with breezy cheer, her breath clouding as she handed out strips of cloth from her belt pouch. “This exercise is going to benefit us as well as the other girls. I am going to tie these on personally, and I will lead by voice. You, in turn, are to use all your other senses but sight, and after our win, we will compare notes on how much you observed of our route.”

  “After our win.” No one had won a break-in since last year, and that had been by a superb ruse, led by Hadand herself. She’d set the older girls in an uproar, for apparently quite a number of bets had been laid. It had also been her last training exercise with the girls before she moved to training with the Queen’s Guard.

  It was thus in an atmosphere of intense anticipation that the girls stood in a row, holding hands as Shendan tied on the strips of cloth, checking each one to make certain that no sliver of light penetrated. Each girl felt the visible world shut out, her head bound tightly, the sensation intensifying the helpless feeling. Hearing sharpened, smell, and touch, though in that they were limited by having to hold hands. Strange! Shen’s plan was so strange, but it did sound fun, especially if they managed to win.

  Tdor stood last in line, waiting for hers, but Shen shook her head, and indicated for Tdor to pocket the cloth and take the last girl’s hand. Then they began to walk, in a slow, snaking line. Tdor, closing her eyes briefly, realized she would have thought they were going straight when they actually veered from the road over to the rocky outcrop in the river where the falls would be in spring.

  Then they stood, and Shen said, “Hands down. Now, listen hard. Here’s the first exercise, just for us. It’s midnight, and foggy, and the enemy is coming, but we can’t see them. How will we sense them? Count up how many things you detect, and remember them for tomorrow.”

  Then Shen pulled a broom from behind some rocks, where it had obviously been placed to await them, and handed it to Tdor. Shen motioned to the snow up to the road, and Tdor at once moved away, smoothing out their tracks.

  When she caught up with the group, it was to find a hole gaping in the rocks behind where the fall would be. How had Shen found that? Inside was a tunnel lit by glowglobes!

  “Form hands,” Shen said. “Now we’re the enemy in the fog, finding our way. Again, listen, smell.” As she spoke she took the broom, then motioned for Tdor to gather snow in a shallow bucket that was also waiting.

  The girls were led into the tunnel, and from time to time Shen fanned the girls with a Colendi court fan that she pulled from her pouch—a strange, rare sight indeed—and then she dripped snow on them, just as snow might drift down from a roof in a light wind. Three or four times Shen brought from her pockets various pods and spices, and dusted the air with them.

  Tdor realized at last what Shen was doing: she had no intention of the girls discovering they had been inside a tunnel. That meant the tunnel was secret—a secret of the royal castle known by a girl who had not grown up there.

  Tdor set aside her conflicted feelings for later consideration and watched the girls register the smells, the snow, and several times the sound of water dripping, and once rushing by in an underground stream—all commented on by Shen in a misleading way, to make them believe they were aboveground.

  No one spoke except for Shen as they made their way steadily but gradually down, twice making sharp turns, and finally up, up, up.

  The tunnel appeared to be very old. Moss-covered walls, and there were a number of branches. It gave Tdor a strange feeling to know that it lay under the city, yet she had never heard of it, not even from Hadand. She wondered if Hadand knew about it, and how old it was.

  Shen’s thoughts ran in a stream: the girls, Tdor’s blank surprise and then speculation, the timelessness of tunnels, and what, really, is time, anyway? Is it truly imposed on us, or do we impose on it?

  Up, up, and again a stop, near water, then forward, through a wooden door that turned out to enter one of the old storerooms behind the kitchens. Shen led the girls through, and Tdor watched triumphant smiles crease the girls’ faces as they each registered the familiar cabbage and braised chicken and bread smells of the castle kitchens. “Bindings off.”

  The girls obeyed.

  “We’re in the kitchens,” said Ondran Stalgoreth, looking around in wonder. “How did we do that?”

  Shen grinned as, for a short time all the girls talked at once, each convinced she knew the route through the castle grounds that they had taken naming the two canals, and several buildings that had distinctive smells, not realizing those smells had been evoked by dust.

  Finally Shen said, “We’ll talk over your observations tomorrow. Now we have to capture as many as we can before they discover we breached the defenses. I suggest we capture riding leaders, for it shows far more finesse. Tdor and I,” she added, “are going for Mudface.”

  The girls all sm
iled. Tdor was certain no one actually liked arrogant, mean Dannor Tya-Vayir, sister of Horsebutt, who had gotten her nickname after she’d done something exceptionally vicious when small, vicious enough to cause the austere Jarlan of Yvana-Vayir, once a princess, to take her by the scruff of the neck down to the kitchen garden and scrub her face in the mud. Friends she did not have—and she made it clear how much she despised any girls below her rank—but she did have followers who obviously wanted her influence, for she came from one extremely powerful family and was marrying into another.

  It was either influence or something else that had gotten her leave to stay an extra year or two here in the royal city, when by rights she should have gone home for good long ago. But she was bored at Yvana-Vayir and liked the excitement of the city, so she was here, ostensibly as an auxiliary tutor. Hadand had said to Tdor, I suspect the Yvana-Vayirs are hoping she’ll learn a little civility while they’re rid of her.

  Shen nodded. “Now, in the interests of making ourselves look as good as possible, let’s divide up. We’ll be that much faster.” She assigned girls to the city and the outer buildings of the castle, reserving the residence portion for herself and Tdor. Everyone agreed—they all knew quite well that Mudface would consider it beneath her to patrol any area outside of the royal living area—and dispersed.

  Shen said, “Let’s get rid of Mudface first.”

  Tdor realized then that Shen’s brisk hurry all was to a purpose, one that lay outside of the game.

  “Shen?”

  The curly blond head turned, though Shen did not slow her pace as they bustled through the old storage hallways. “Maybe it’s a cheat to use a tunnel, though I don’t care. I will never have to defend this castle, so it’s no matter to me.” She laughed softly. “And yes, I knew about the tunnel. And now so do you.”

  Yes, and if I ever break confidence and tell someone, you’d find out, Tdor thought, feeling unsettled. Shen had obviously thought of everything. She’d also waited, with amazing patience, for the right time to use that tunnel.

  Their capture was absurdly easy to make. The two sneaked up the servants’ passageways and surprised Mudface, who was indeed dawdling outside the queen’s suite. They bound and gagged her, and left her, furiously glaring, sitting just inside the despised servants’ entrance, where she’d be sure to be overlooked, most scrupulously and correctly—servants never interfered in the games, unless, of course, bribed—until Shen’s triumphant band sent someone for her.

  “Now,” Shen said, laughing as she shut the door, her chin high, her eyes wide with more real emotion than Tdor had ever seen in her. “Now we meet the future.”

  Shen was not aware of sounding portentous. She was aware only of her heartbeat, faster than the drums for a charge. Time, she thought. It is mutable. When you love something enough time races ahead like the wind chasing autumn leaves, sending them skipping and dancing out of reach, no matter how fast you run. But when you want something and must wait to get it, time stops.

  Now the time had come for both love and want. She couldn’t walk fast enough, though she tried, despite the trembling in her knees and hands. Her mind reached ahead to the archive room where she knew Hadand waited, her body working as hard as it could to close the distance.

  Still, training was training: she noted Ndara-Harandviar’s own guardswomen at key intersections, and no one else about, for the king was busy in council below.

  Tdor, meanwhile, trotted alongside Shen, thinking: Meet the future? What does that mean?

  For a horrible moment she felt a little like she had the day she’d swum in the river in late spring, when the water was moving fast, and she’d stepped out confidently, remembering the shelf from the summer before, just to find herself underwater, struggling against the cold, fast current as she fought for grip or ground.

  Shen paused outside the archive door. Tdor waited for her to open it. Instead Shendan leaned her forehead against the door, her braids falling forward, half-hiding her face, her hand still on the latch.

  Tdor pressed her knuckles against her lips.

  Shen whispered, so softly her voice was scarcely audible, “If Foxy is truly dead, then it is my son your daughter will marry. And their daughter might go to Sartor to study magic.”

  Shen fought to still the trembling in her wrists as she thought of the future while Tdor stood there thinking not about magic, but about Shen. She calls her brother Foxy.

  And Tdor thought once again of those Montredavan-An runners in black and gold and the fox banner that the academy carried, belonging once to the Montredavan-An heirs.

  Chapter Twenty

  THE door opened, and Hadand looked relieved. Tdor realized that Hadand had arranged this interview, whatever it was, to occur while the game was going on.

  In fact, Ndara-Harandviar’s own women were on guard. That meant neither king, queen, nor Shield Arm knew about it.

  Hadand said in Sartoran, “This is Mistress Resvaes of Sartor’s Mage Guild.”

  Tdor’s mouth opened when she saw the old woman in the strange gown sitting there in the best chair. Both girls bobbed awkwardly; Queen Wisthia had taught them all curtseys when they served in her rooms, so they knew it for an outland sign of respect, though it felt peculiar.

  “Come. Sit down,” Mistress Resvaes said, indicating the chairs around her. Tdor obeyed, distracted by the green-edged linen robe the woman wore, how soft the fabric looked, how well it was made. “I come in response to a letter of invitation brought to me by an influential member of the Sartoran Royal Court, on behalf of the Duchess—what do you say—the Jarlan of Cassad, and on behalf of her sister, who is, I understand, a princess of . . .”

  “Choraed Elgaer,” Tdor whispered.

  “Ah! Yes, thank you. And you are . . .?”

  Shendan’s smile was practiced, her eyes appraising. Tdor’s smile was the quick, inadvertent smile of one caught by delight: that Sartoran accent was the real thing, and how beautiful it seemed! Not at all like the labored enunciation of their tutor at Tenthen, and yet Tdor could hear at last what the poor woman had tried so hard to teach them.

  Tdor spoke, glumly conscious of her inharmonious Iascan accent: “I am Tdor Marth-Davan.”

  “I am Shendan Montredavan-An,” Shen said, in a fair copy of Resvaes’ own accent.

  “The Mage Council has been told that you have been trying to collect rare and ancient scrolls, mainly historical. You want ones that concern magic. We wish to know to what use you intend to put these scrolls, should we release copies.”

  Shen worked to hide the elation caused by this woman’s presence; her mother had warned her it might be generations before they would get a hearing with so august a visitor.

  Mistress Resvaes watched their reactions: Tdor’s interest, Hadand’s sobriety, Shen’s triumph.

  She had been sent against her will to visit this rapidly expanding empire, a return of a favor owed to a well-respected Sartoran noblewoman who was sister to this Princess of Choraed Elgaer. What the noblewoman, and the sister, would not find out was that she came to observe and question with an eye to warding this empire of warriors, if necessary.

  “The study of magic use in history,” Shendan said.

  Hadand looked at Shen’s wide, unblinking gaze, the tips of her teeth showing in her smile, and instinctively tried to draw the visitor’s attention from the passion so plain to see there. “We study history. Our interest is in the far, far past. We know that women used to control magic, largely. That’s why there are spells for waste, and why there is the Birth Spell, and the spell that makes our wombs unable to conceive a child unless we take the herb gerda, though we know that women alone didn’t make that magic. There are, or were, some sort of beings that gave them the magic in the first place, who also made that magic.”

  “Because we couldn’t,” Mistress Resvaes said, her pleasant manner giving no hint to how closely she watched Hadand’s anxious care in choosing words, Shen’s hunger that she could not mask, and Tdor—obvio
usly a girl with a good heart—who seemed not to question the Marlovan view of the world.

  She said slowly, “Not even with the skills vouchsafed to us then. And as you probably know, those were far superior to what we know now. We lost so much in the Fall, knowledge and skills we might never recover. But you know that, too.”

  “All the old ballads attest to it,” Shen said, chuckling.

  “They do. Go on.”

  Hadand winced inside, sensing that this woman knew very well what they really wanted: access to magic. But she said, “We’ve learned that women were the first to get magic in coming here from some other world. And besides the other changes I mentioned, women were able to effect changes like eradicating terrible sicknesses.”

  They also killed, Mistress Resvaes thought. They killed sexual predators until that instinct was eliminated from humankind, because they knew if they didn’t, these “beings” you so blithely referred to were going to destroy us all, down to the oldest grandmother and newest born child. They tried to kill off the instinct for war, and maybe would have succeeded, but for one foremother’s taste for yet more power, inviting in what became Norsunder’s Host of Lords. But you are not going to find out any of that until I know a lot more about you.

  “We just want to understand how we are what we are. We don’t even know if those beings hinted at in the old records were wiped out by magic too, if they even still live.”

  We don’t know that either. Or what that means.

  Shendan said, “It is very difficult for us to get older works that we can trust and that we can comprehend.”

  Hadand said, “We know we have only pieces of what has shaped our lives. Fareas-Iofre, my mother, is a descendant of Lineas Cassad, as well as the Princess of Choraed Elgaer.” Hadand waited until she saw an encouraging nod. “Well, she told us we have only a leg of the table, and though we study its carving, and even its grain, we still are only speculating about the rest of the table, and the other legs.”

 
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