Inda by Sherwood Smith

  But Tanrid wouldn’t die. Nobody as brave, as smart, as loyal, as good at command would trip over a rock and break his head, like that stupid Noth boy long ago when they were still horsetails.

  The Sierlaef’s hands tightened on the reins. The mare tossed her head, snorting. His mind veered away from actively plotting treachery. I always get what I want, he thought. Somehow. I do what I want, and my uncle makes it right. He’s of no other use. He certainly can’t command.

  Chapter Twenty-two

  THAT night, far to the north, Sponge flipped his hand up.


  And with shrill yips of triumph an entire riding of scrubs burst from their hiding place in the hedgerow, charging toward the enemy. The two ponies spun around, torchlight revealing their dismay. A double trap!

  They fought, of course, but the well-drilled scrubs divided into two groups and each took down one big boy. By the time Sponge crested the slight ridge and surveyed the field of battle, the two ponies were crushed flat in the tall summer grass, pinned by four small bodies each.

  Was I ever that little? Sponge thought.

  “We won!” The fifth boy danced around, holding the red banner aloft. “We won, we won, we won!” And he yipped the fox yip, high, shrill, triumphant, joined instantly by the rest of the boys under Sponge’s command.

  Sponge jerked his chin as a signal to the two boys behind him, they dipped their torches with conscientious care, and from a distance came the triumphant bugle calls signaling a captured flag.

  Now that the banner game was decided both armies disintegrated into chattering groups, with bet payoffs, hoots of derision, scarcely heeded words of critique and would-be plans exchanged: everyone wanted to be talking.

  Or almost everyone. Sponge did not listen. What he contemplated was the relief in the two older boys’ faces when they saw him approach. Nothing said—nothing was ever said—but it was clear that they had both, without speaking to one another, mentally surrendered to the king’s son and not to a litter of scrubs.

  They reformed into one big group for a campfire dance, hoarded drums coming out of saddle packs, real swords brought out for the sword dances. Sponge sat on a rock near Noddy, who had been the opposing army commander. Noddy watched the boys with his usual impassive expression.

  “Not bad,” Noddy said. Lower, “Second spring.”

  Sponge opened a hand in acknowledgment. Only their own group recognized variations on Inda’s old plans.

  Noddy grunted, not a grunt of agreement. Sponge studied Noddy, whose dark eyes reflected fire, shadowed and lit again as silhouettes capered round and round between them and the blaze. “What is it?” he asked.

  Noddy’s eyes narrowed. “Heard my lot blathering about the summer with no banner.”

  Sudden reminders still kicked like an untrained colt. Sponge looked down at his hands. So much for justice. Ten heartbeats ago, he’d felt a mild triumph at having commanded a successful banner game; now he found himself face to face with his own powerlessness.

  Justice. He’d promised Inda justice, but if he came back there was no way to give it to him. Sponge had the desire to achieve justice, but not the power. He could not even prove that injustice had been done; to his father he would have had to bring proof, not just accusation.

  “Nobody knows the truth. Except us. Still,” Noddy went on. His voice had altered slowly to a mild tenor over the past couple of years. When he was angry his expression still didn’t alter much, but his voice lowered to a soft growl in his chest, the same timbre as Cama’s voice, which had still been a kitten squeak when they broke for winter last year, but when he returned it had dramatically dropped to a rough, husky burr.

  Thwack! A heavy hand thumped them each on the shoulder, and they looked up at Cherry-Stripe Marlo-Vayir, arrived just behind them. He turned away, stooped, then came up again gripping a wine bottle in each hand. Strictly forbidden on banner games, but nobody made trouble for the king’s son and his particular friends. Especially with all the talk of changing the once steel-forged rules. With all the trouble up north and spreading down the coast, the first Tvei class might be put into horsetails early, accelerating their training so they could finish and get home to guard their castles. The horsetails were not commanding this game, despite tradition, because they’d all been sent to the Guard early as replacement for the Guards sent north to reinforce the Harskialdna’s army. All, that is, except their leader, Whipstick Noth, who had been just recently sent down to Choraed Elgaer as escort to Tdor Marth-Davan, in order to take up his new life as Randael to the prince.

  They all missed Whipstick. He’d given them excellent challenges on the game field.

  “Good job,” Cherry-Stripe said, though he’d been Noddy’s second in command. He jerked his chin at some small boys nearby. They scrambled out of the way to sit elsewhere, one of them glaring and muttering about frost. Ignoring them, Cherry-Stripe dropped down where they’d been and passed one bottle to Noddy, who took a swig. “Inda, game upriver, second spring.”

  Sponge tipped his head in agreement.

  Cherry-Stripe uttered a laugh, motioned for Noddy to keep the bottle, and he took the other one to Cama, who was overseeing the packing and the horses. Noddy reflected on the past as the sweet wine sent fire through his veins. Their third year, the first one with Inda and Dogpiss gone, no one had talked about Inda. Not until their first overnight game. There under the stars somehow they couldn’t talk about anything else. Except that last banner game, once they realized no one knew anything. Instead they reminisced over Dogpiss’ stings, and discussed endlessly the details of Inda’s wins, what he’d said, how he thought.

  Noddy had come to realize that Inda had somehow found the weakness in their training strategy, which was to force the boys to a standard on games, but to favor the sons of the Royal Shield Arm’s privileged Jarls during training. Inda had known by instinct that practice would be more successful if the person was driven to match the standard, but on an action the goal was matched to the person who can best achieve it.

  It sounded so simple when put into words, but it first required being able to stand back and ignore rank and politics and see everyone clearly, their strengths and weaknesses.

  Politics. Noddy glanced Kepa’s way; he was clashing swords with Master Kavad to begin the dancing. Smartlip Lassad wavered, as always, between whoever was most friendly to him, but Kepa—now heir to a Jarlate in conquered Idayago, and so full of frost some of them privately had taken to calling him Snowballs—was bluntly loyal to the Harskialdna. Such words as he’d just been thinking, spoken aloud and reported to the Harskialdna, would be perceived as dancing mighty near the edge of treason. And there wasn’t any way to change it.

  A fist struck his arm, and Noddy passed the bottle into Tuft’s waiting hand. Tuft drank, then carried the bottle to Cama, who tipped his head back and chugged a few fast swallows, unaware of the cluster of younger pigtails who watched his every move with intense fascination.

  Cama and Flash, along with Mouse Marth-Davan, were the fastest and most reckless riders in the entire academy. Cama and Flash were the best with archery in the first Tvei class, and they were also the handsomest, though Cama’s curling black hair and above all his eye patch—for the embargo against Iasca Leror had prevented him from any more trips to finish the work on his eye—made him, in the eyes of all the younger boys, the most dashing senior in the academy.

  It was a matter of utter indifference to Cama. His interests, outside of rec time forays to Heat Street, were confined solely to competition in the field—and to winning them. He, Noddy, and Sponge, sometimes with Cherry-Stripe and Rattooth, often sat on the barracks roof (since Sponge never had been introduced to Daggers Drawn, the others had mostly forgotten about it) and talked strategy and tactics, shaping new plans from Inda’s old ideas. And they won, time after time. So far, no one outside the academy really noticed the wins, or Sponge’s popularity. The Sierlaef had been gone almost two years, and the Harskialdna sp
ent spring and summer riding the north and trying to put out Idayagan fires of resistance, sparked by increasingly bold pirate attacks along the northern coast. The king was reported to be struggling with the strains of trade agreements broken, of the need for more money, of the need for allies.

  Not that these distant, dreary doings mattered to the herd of little boys riding for glory here at home in the academy, which comprised all their world.

  Cama, Noddy, and most of all Sponge were not sure if they wanted them to wake up or not.

  The next day the academy rode back, group year banners streaming before the winners, and at the head of the cavalcade two banners, the Montrei-Vayir stooping eagle and the academy fox.

  Just about the time they spotted the welcome sight of the castellated royal city on the horizon, far to the south the Sierlaef—after a full day of brooding—had his plan. The Idayagans were constant trouble, so who better to send north to put down uprisings than the hero of the Ghael Hills battle?

  The Sierlaef smiled for the first time in weeks, and the ride home looked a lot easier to his much-exasperated Sier-Danas, who had been forced to behave circumspectly far too long, and who could think of nothing but the week (at least) they would spend at the pleasure houses, as soon as they got through the city gates.

  The pleasure houses were also on the minds of the older Tveis, who knew that coming back from a successful banner game meant liberty, and while liberty for the little boys meant Daggers and bragging, for the older ones, it meant time to get laid.

  When they dismounted, there was Headmaster Brath himself, granting liberty to not just the winners but to all of Sponge’s Tveis for their excellent conduct, on the recommendation of Master Kavad, who had accompanied them.

  As soon as Master Kavad was gone Cherry-Stripe leaned against the door of their pit, eyes closed in an ecstasy of anticipation. “Oh, Morgand! Here I come!”

  “And come, and come, and come,” Rattooth added.

  “I’m first with Mdan,” Kepa declared, eyes flicking from one to the next as he named one of the most popular dollies at the pleasure house the boys liked best.

  “First and worst, first and worst,” Smartlip taunted as he, too, sidled looks to see who was laughing.

  “Lances at ready: Charge!” Flash howled, leading the race to the baths, Smartlip yipping loudly right behind him.

  Sponge ran with them because it was expected. In the baths he avoided looking at strong, hard young bodies of the others who were now young men, envying them their careless, unconscious freedom. He was the first dressed, the second out, but the last through the academy gates. The others, as usual, never noticed that he did not run into the city streets.

  He ducked up the back way into the castle, hesitating outside the archive when he heard several female voices, then moved on to his room without noticing the ubiquitous, unobtrusive women on guard at key landings. Nor did he notice one of the Guards make a signal to a young Runner sitting in an ancient recessed window, studying her Old Sartoran letters. She crushed the scroll into her tunic and flitted back to the archive.

  So Sponge was surprised not long after he reached his quiet bedchamber when his door opened and in walked Hadand. He turned, unaware of how sharp his movement was until he saw her draw back against the door. “Should I have knocked?” she asked.

  He flushed. “Why? We never have before. What have I to shut out? Or shut in?”

  Hadand considered him, her brown eyes narrowed in the way that always called Inda to mind. “There was a problem on the banner game?” she asked tentatively.

  Sponge looked out his windows at the dust hanging suspended in the air over the practice fields: young horses in training. His emotions swooped, and he resolutely turned his back on the window.

  “No,” he said, when he saw her expression had altered to worry. She, too, still missed Inda, and still felt the shadow of that terrible summer. And he could see it. “We won.”

  Her brows went up. “You don’t look like you won.”

  He lifted a hand, palm out.

  It could have meant anything. She asked, in the same tentative tone as before, “Where are Cherry-Stripe and Rattooth and Noddy and the rest of your friends?”

  “Heat Street.” He saw the trap too late.

  It was a trap formed by kindness, its bait the best intentions. Hadand whispered, her eyes wide. “Sponge. Don’t tell me no one’s taken you to a pleasure house yet?”

  “I won’t, if you like.” He managed to sound wry.

  Hadand pursed her lips in a soundless whistle. “Your uncle wouldn’t, of course. And I don’t think your father has ever been in one in his life.”

  “I doubt it.” They both knew that he and Jened Sindan had formed their bond as senior horsetails, a bond never broken by either of them since.

  “Your brother?”

  “Oh, he offered. Before he left on his journey.” Sponge made an inadvertent gesture of warding. “But I wasn’t interested at the time.”

  “I see.” Hadand studied him.

  “It’s nothing I want, particularly. Or I think I could find my way there on my own,” he said. “I just want to sit and relax. Banner games are not days of comfort and rest.”

  That was weak—he knew it was weak as soon as he spoke—and Hadand quite properly ignored it. She was still studying him with that narrow, penetrating gaze that had characterized her ever since she was small. Inda had had it too. Sponge turned away, looking out the window at the long late afternoon shadows, wishing he was dead. No, he wished he was away, far away, maybe lost at sea . . .

  “It’s men, isn’t it?” she asked finally, not tentative but practical, as if she’d solved a puzzle at last. “Or are you not sure?”

  Sponge had to laugh, though the sound was as forced as his smile had been. “Oh, I’m sure.” His mind flung its way back through last year’s painful memories: waking up with what the older boys called saddle-wood, furtive experimentations with the older Tveis in the dark, in the baths, in the stable, hiding from discovery by the younger boys (who would inevitably hoot and crow with laughter or disgust, just as he and his fellow-scrubs had when they stumbled over evidence of the existence of sex); laughing and lingering fun during their rare moments of real free time and privacy, most of those in meeting places passed on by cooperative silence from the older boys to the younger who had just crossed the threshold as yet invisible to the rest.

  Shared laughter at the discovery of the real meaning of terms the older boys had used for years, the brief, violent passions for one another. His first real craze had been Cama, who had come back this spring handsome beyond belief, with that rough, compelling voice. Cama had, mercifully, remained unaware of Sponge’s crush, which seemed to last an eternity but was in reality no more than a month, followed by an even briefer, more violent infatuation with Flash, after a drunken encounter in the baths that Flash apparently forgot within a day.

  Sponge winced, remembering the exhilarating dreams he’d had last winter of a band of friends who were also lovers, as had happened now and then in history, burned into cinders when just this year Cherry-Stripe (of course it would be he) discovered the Real Thing: women.

  One by one the others had joined him, when they could, and there had been no turning back—except for Flash, who found boys and girls equally attractive, the more the better, but rarely the same one twice in a row. They were still pigtails, and Heat Street ought to have been two years ahead, as well as the privileges of command, but Sponge was not only a prince, he was also not the only one who had had to get the healer to do the Beard Spell within this last year. So the masters looked the other way. The Tveis were young men, with the brains of young men as well as the desire—and nobody said no to a prince.

  “Are we disgusting?”

  Sponge looked up, to meet Hadand’s considering gaze. She’d stepped closer, and he hadn’t noticed. “Huh?”

  “Are we—girls, I mean. Are we disgusting to you?”


>   Hadand tipped her head. “It’s seldom that definite, from what I understand. But it can be. Both ways. Our arms mistress loathes the smell of men even more than the sight.”

  Sponge, thinking of that grim, spear-backed figure, smiled. “I’m not surprised.”

  Hadand’s hands fumbled at her robe, and before Sponge could say anything, she had shed it, and brought her hands up under the generous swell of her breasts beneath the fine linen of her shirt. “I had to stop drilling in a shirt during summer,” she said matter-of-factly. “When I discovered most of the sentries watching as if they’d been struck by lightning. So I nearly die of the heat, wearing a winter tunic if I have to drill outside, but a future queen can’t be waving these things around and causing the lookouts to miss the occasional invading army.”

  Sponge laughed.

  “Are you the least bit stirred?” she asked.

  He looked at the extravagant curves in her hands; he looked at her trim waist neatly sashed with its knife handle curving upward, and watched as she thrust a hip out. He saw what the men saw, the spectacular figure of a young woman who is also in superb condition. But there was no inward flare of heat.


  “What do you feel?”

  Sponge shook his head. “It looks . . . motherly.”

  Hadand pulled her robe back on. “I know what to do.” She started toward the door.

  Sponge snapped, “Don’t do anything.”

  “Why?” She looked back, hand on the latch.

  “I don’t want a willow wand any more than I want a dolly.” He used the slang terms for professional lovers—male and female—in a sharp voice, and turned away, pacing back to the window to glare out at the sunlit court.

  “Why not?” she asked, sensible as always. “I mean, why not a man if you don’t want a woman?”

  Because none of my friends do, he wanted to say, but he hesitated.

  He’d already been through the difficult decision-making process, and was not going to thrash through it all again. There was nothing she could say that was new. They’d grown up aware that the taste for one’s own gender ran through the Montrei-Vayirs, men and women, that no one would be surprised that Sponge was the one in whom it emerged in this generation, though they’d all expected it would be the Sierlaef. He knew that eventually he’d act on it, and everyone would shrug.

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