Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Testhy straightened up, shrugging away pirate trade custom. “Ryala said it too, about Lindeth and the Nob. That must mean it really happened. What do we tell the others?”

  “It no longer matters whether the Nob is there or not.” Kodl rubbed his aching forehead. “She’ll lay information against us at all the kingdom harbors. We daren’t land in any kingdom port unless we want to be jailed. Maybe hanged outright. Until, at least, we somehow pay her back for the cost of ships and cargo. Which I had intended to do anyway, but did not get the chance to tell her.” That was my oath to my old friend Captain Beagar, not to the Pims. Kodl gave the skin between his brows one last pinch, then dropped his hands. “Just as well we’re successful here, then, isn’t it? Woof told me there are at least ten or twelve likely people who’ve been asking how to hire us on, and I guess I’d better talk to some of them. Freeport Harbor is our new home. We’re independent mariners.”

  Inda looked up then, his eyes bleak, his mouth tight. In a flat voice he said, “We need more people for boom crews once we build our own. We have to learn how to mount them and use them right. That means drilling with sail teams who can be in the tops, directing the crews of our hires. We’ll start the people you hire on our regular training. But until they catch up, they run the cut booms and sail so we don’t have to run both. We also need more staff drill—we need moves for that downward angle, when they’re boarding. Last, we also have to find ourselves a cutter to scout the p—” He pressed his lips together, then said, “What we used to call the outer perimeter. We need to scout the sea around us, not just wait until they are on us. We’ll need crew for that. Maybe some old weatherworn craft with good lines. We can rebuild them. But from now on we must always have scouts—we pick the fighting ground instead of allowing the enemy to do it, if we can.”

  The other two agreed, neither giving voice to the uneasiness they felt at the unhidden misery in Inda’s face.

  Chapter Twenty-five

  THE Harskialdna looked out the king’s window at the men marching out to the great parade ground to set up for the long postponed summer games. “You waited on my return.”

  Tlennen-Harvaldar opened one hand. “Too many of their fathers, cousins, brothers were with you up north. It was not . . . seemly to hold the games with stands so empty of banners.”

  The Harskialdna fretted at that pause. If only Tlennen would say what he meant. Just once. That, and stop looking so old. There wasn’t any red left in his hair at all. The Harskialdna, tired from the long ride, felt unsteady, as if he’d been gone ten years. It underscored his worry that, despite careful orders last spring before he left, things had changed without him here to oversee them.

  “You could have filled the stands with civs,” he finally said, an attempt to provoke his brother into being more revealing.

  “The city people always enjoy what they see, but they cannot evaluate the youth as you must do,” the king said. “Then we had to wait on the weather. After a dry summer, all the rain came at once, a hailstorm that smashed most of the crops. It took half a month to dry out the grounds.”

  “Of course, of course.” Crops didn’t matter. They’d grow more next year. What did matter was sudden change.

  A steward appeared to offer food. Tlennen deferred to his brother, who flung his riding gloves to the man and then dismissed him, all in the same motion. “That can wait.”

  Tlennen murmured, “What of recent developments?”

  “Little beyond what I sent by my last Runner. What I did not trust to written word was the totality of the destruction of both Lindeth Harbor and the Nob. The pirates with the red sails brought down every building and burned every single ship in both harbors.”

  “We must rebuild,” said the king.

  “Yes.” The Harskialdna began pacing back and forth. After so long a ride he needed to move. “And so I told our new Jarls.” He stopped, smiling with grim pleasure. “I told them to gather up those Idayagan and Olaran rabble who seem to have nothing to do but attack us from behind hedgerows and trees and force them to labor. If they will not work, put ’em to the sword. And the townsmen can pay for the supplies.”

  The king’s face did not change. “You misunderstand, brother,” he said. “We must rebuild. We.”

  “We?” The Harskialdna stopped and swung around.

  “It is in the treaty.”

  The Harskialdna frowned, remembering the silent figure standing behind him during the negotiations: Jened Sindan.

  They both considered those negotiations, the king through Sindan’s report, and the Harskialdna looking back in sour pleasure on the defeated and stricken, Idayagans.

  Sindan had noted, and the Harskialdna had gloried, in Idayago’s shock at the Marlovans’ savage mastery of the vast Idayagan hordes during that battle below the Ghael Hills, a shock so deep and severe they would sign anything. Almost.

  The fat, wily old king of Idayago had only spoken once: You declare you are here to protect the integrity of the continental borders. Does that mean that you defend them and rebuild if someone attacks? The Harskialdna, reveling in the privilege of speaking with the King’s Voice, had stated with an air of impatience, Yes, yes. And so the king had signed.

  “We should have acted.” The Harskialdna rapped a table. “By staying our hand afterward, by not rooting out the leaders of that trap and executing them publicly, we showed ourselves as weak. They think they can ignore a treaty they now say was forced on them. You’ve seen my reports: never an honorable battle. Constant cowardly reprisals. Sneaking around behind bushes and barrels at night, ambushing any of our people they catch alone.”

  “Nevertheless, it was a treaty. We must abide by it,” the king returned. He said in the King’s Voice, using the verbal mode of future-must-be, “In spring those harbors shall be rebuilt. We shall pay those who do the labor.”

  The Harskialdna saluted his assent. So precious gold would go north next campaign season. The Harskialdna must obey, but he could also see to it that he would not return a third time—not to oversee what by rights was a harbormaster’s job. “Shall we give the boys the signal, then?” He forced a smile. “They must be impatient enough.”

  “I will send it,” the king said, sensing how little his brother liked his decree. But the treaty must be kept.

  “Then I will ready myself.” The Harskialdna indicated his mud-splashed riding clothes and left.

  He expected to find the heir sulking somewhere about, and so was not surprised to find him waiting in his own rooms. The Harskialdna already knew from his ears among the heir’s Runners that the boy had had no success with that black-haired icicle Joret Dei.

  “Come with me to the baths. How find you things here?”

  “Same.” The Sierlaef was already in his House tunic.

  “Your brother’s progress?” The Harskialdna flung off his dirty clothes.

  The Sierlaef shrugged, making it clear he was no longer concerned with the academy and little boys. He was ready to take his place in the men’s world. “Headm-muh-mum. Brath says he’s good.” Another shrug. Of course Headmaster Brath would say the second son of the king was good. Of more interest was the report from his uncle’s castle Runner Retrend Waldan, chief among the spies.

  “Drink.” A waving hand. “Favorite. Liberty nights.”

  The Harskialdna ducked his head under the water and emerged laughing at the image of Evred Varlaef in a teenage drunken wallow with a dolly from the pleasure house.

  He rubbed the soap through his scalp, and flung back his long dark hair that, he noted with a spurt of pride, showed not the least hint of gray. “Never expected it.” He dismissed Sponge with a wave of his hand. “What is the talk of our progress in the north?”

  “Most want—” The Sierlaef smashed a fist into his palm. “Others—” He flicked his fingers. “Not much news. Hearsay.”

  His uncle surged out of the bath, and the royal heir broached the subject he’d been mulling for weeks. “Spring. Send Tanrid north.”
  His uncle paused in the act of toweling his hair, his eyes narrowing. “Haven’t you finished with that absurd pining for his wife-to-be? You’ll make a joke of yourself.”

  The Sierlaef waved a hand, hiding the angry jab of victory: his uncle had said just what he’d thought he’d say. “Draining marshland. Planting. Storms bad here, nothing in the south. Crop hoards.” It took some time to get those words out, but his reward was the lift to his uncle’s brows, and the considering expression.

  Iasca Leror was far from starving, not from one bad harvest. But they both knew that northern resources would be diminished greatly, between the embargo, harvests neglected by Idayagans unwilling to grow crops for the conquerors and whose farmers were slinking off to join the ambush parties, and the king’s insistence on rebuilding those harbors against his unrelinquished plan of launching an attack northward against the Venn. In the south—in Choraed Elgaer—the lack of war meant abundant crops, and people to plant and harvest. And that meant war tax increases, plus demands for men, horses, equipment, and foodstuffs for the next season.

  The Harskialdna flicked his splendid House tunic straight, the gold embroidery gleaming in the leaping firelight, then pointed a finger at the Sierlaef. “You’re beginning to think, my boy. I mean to see to it that my brother’s loyal prince in Choraed Elgaer meets the realistic needs of our kingdom. Perhaps having his son in the north will increase his . . . enthusiasm for meeting the realistic needs of war. And to the people, his hero of a son is being honored with a command in the troublesome north, eh?”

  The Sierlaef smiled, irritated though he was at being called “my boy” when he had been a man for nearly two years now and had seen war before that. But he’d gotten what he wanted, so he smiled. And as he’d been ready ever since the tired outriders arrived at dawn heralding the return of the Harskialdna, they descended together through the castle and out to the stands, talking of horses, new Jarlans, who had died in Idayagan reprisals (no one of import), and who replaced them.

  The Harskialdna was in a good mood as he signaled the start of the games. He listened to the crowd cheering and watched the eager scrubs running out to compete in the shoeing, as if anyone but their fathers really cared.

  He relaxed into a complacency he had not dared permit himself, not so long away, with success in pacifying an angry populace eluding him for months and months. He had come back to little change. His wife still moped, secluded in her rooms, running the girls’ training from there. Good riddance. The king dealt patiently and endlessly with those soft-voiced fools from the east about trade. Evred-Varlaef had apparently fumbled his way from frowsting about in the archives to frittering over a pleasure house dolly, which kept him busy and out of trouble. And the Sierlaef was still his to command.

  His complacency lasted through Thirdday, which was when the ponies ran their competitions. They were usually sparsely attended.

  The Harskialdna came down after a night of listening to his House ears’ private reports and reading copies of letters to see the stands crammed, which ought to have warned him that something was amiss, but he was tired. He noted only that the royal heir was gone, probably to Heat Street.

  The first sign of trouble was the tall, slim young man whose resemblance to a young Tlennen hammered him like a fist to his heart. He rode at the head of the ponies, with two full-grown, powerful young men, one pale-haired and one dark, riding at his left and right shoulders respectively—Marlo-Vayir Tvei and Noddy Toraca, who would be Randael to the influential Khani-Vayir family. Behind them the one-eyed Tya-Vayir boy, now looking impossibly dashing, and from the way the girls abruptly started screaming from the stands, extremely popular. Next to him was the second Cassad son, as rat-faced as the rest of that family. Every one of those boys from powerful houses—and obviously at least as tight as the Sier-Danas ever were. Tighter, in fact, judging from the exchanged grins, the joking back and forth, always with Evred-Varlaef in the middle. Aldren-Sierlaef had never led his followers like that.

  The Harskialdna snapped his gaze back and stared down in open-mouthed dismay at Sponge, who somehow, unnoticed, had grown into a handsome young man: high, intelligent brow, bringing Wisthia’s subtle, dangerous father to mind (only met once, but never forgotten), clean jaw, mouth shaped like Tlennen’s, even to the controlled lack of expression. Waving dark red hair worn properly in a club, but not the least childish. Severe, that was the word.

  The war games commenced, and any hope the Harskialdna had had that the boy—could one call him that anymore, really?—that he was still the ink-stained, awkward puppy of yesteryear vanished with the first charge.

  Now he watched with a sickening sense of just how vast his error had been to keep Evred-Varlaef upstairs an extra two years in order to send him down to be the oldest, the most awkward of the scrubs, to be laughed at with contempt by his brother and the heirs, while the Harskialdna firmly bound all those future Randaels to his own command against need in the coming war. The heirs had gone on, leaving the academy to the boy who had somehow learned not just competence but a fast, deadly sort of grace.

  Oh, but even that wasn’t the worst miscalculation.

  No, that came in the afternoon, during the mock war on horseback. Sponge had learned how to command.

  The Harskialdna, who had been gnawed all his life by the worry that without rank he would never have earned command, that he couldn’t command, recognized the flair when he saw it. He’d seen the natural flair in that Algara-Vayir brat and had gotten rid of him, though exactly how still troubled him from time to time. But as long as he was gone, so was the problem. Except that now he was seeing a far more potent version, for this was the king’s own son, who could hardly be made to mysteriously vanish, dead or alive.

  The Harskialdna leaned forward. The game did not matter. He concentrated on that slim figure in the center, watching in all directions, guiding his horse with trained expertise. Evred did not snap and point in the manner of his brother, the Sier-Danas obeying with the scarcely hidden resentment and then resignation that came from a realistic view of rank and its privileges. No.

  Tlennen, with hidden pride, and Hadand, with hidden pleasure, watched the evolutions through the rising dust as the ponies all turned to Sponge, and Sponge signaled with glances, with minute relaxations of his mouth, and finally just by attitude, what he wanted.

  The Harskialdna watched, watched so closely he scarcely breathed, but he still could not characterize what he saw. That oblique communication of his will, it was so different from what they taught, so subtle, almost too subtle to discern, built as it was on . . .

  Trust? The word “trust” had lost any meaning for Anderle-Varlaef his very first day as an academy scrub. In those days, the only younger brother permitted in the academy was the royal second son. It ceased to be a privilege when four dragoon captains’ boys jumped him to see just how tough the future Sirandael was and Tlennen-Sierlaef—seventeen, strong, admired by all, who had promised to watch out for him—wasn’t there to help, and didn’t come, because he was watching Jarend Algara-Vayir in the archery court.

  He ached, three fingers and one rib throbbed with the pain of breaks, all his front teeth felt loose, his nose dripped blood down his gray tunic, but he made it on watery legs to the fence just to see his brother staring at this older boy named Jarend with hot-eyed longing. Next to him, totally unnoticed, ten-year-old Hasta Marlo-Vayir stood, still trying to get his attention to come to Anderle’s aid.

  A shout! The memory was gone.

  Evred-Varlaef’s band won, amid echoing cheers, drumming of hands, and yells. And they were all—just as the wretched Algara-Vayir boy had been years ago, and why hadn’t he seen the danger then?—they were all loyal to him.

  “I’ll kill Brath.”

  “What’s that?”

  Tlennen’s voice jolted the Harskialdna. He’d spoken out loud! “What? Nothing. I’m astounded.”

  Tlennen’s austere mouth relaxed, that mouth exactly like his son’s

  Anger boiled in the Harskialdna’s guts. He clenched his hands, refusing to raise them, though he knew he would have to. Why had Brath not told him? Because he’d consider Evred’s improvement and the boy’s grasp of command testament to the success of the academy teachings; it was more effective displayed. No one could fault Brath for doing his job.

  He wouldn’t see that the true future king rode down there. One day the Sierlaef would be Aldren-Harvaldar, who would ride around seeking little instances of glory, while his brother gripped the true reins of power—not his uncle, with age and experience, who should be by his side, as guide.

  He had to be there as guide. He’d spent his whole life preparing to be there. But the Sierlaef was getting harder to control; perhaps another long inspection tour. To the south.

  More important: for the good of the kingdom, if he did not guide one brother, he must find a way to guide the other.

  He shifted his gaze to those boys below.

  Now all of the remaining first group of Tveis were there, ranged on either side of Evred-Varlaef: Marlo-Vayir, Cassad, Arveas, Basna, Fijirad, and Fera-Vayir ... one-eyed Camarend Tya-Vayir . . . Toraca . . . and the Tvei of the most powerful of all the eastern families, Kethadrend “Tuft” Sindan-An! All loyal to him.

  It didn’t matter any longer how it had happened, it was done, and must be mended.

  The crowd still shouted for the accolade, and he looked up to see not just Tlennen looking at him in question but Hadand as well. He raised his fist, thinking: Strut now, boys. This is your last game. When winter is over, it’s time for real life.

  Chapter Twenty-six

  HALF a year later, on the first day of spring, Sponge was checking his gear for yet another academy year when he was surprised by a summons to his father.

  Inside the interview chamber his father and uncle both waited. He turned his gaze to his father, who said, with his faint smile, “Your uncle feels that it is time for you to taste command. You will go north this season, and protect the shorelands, and see to the rebuilding of the harbors from which we will eventually have to launch our defense.”

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