Inda by Sherwood Smith


  Sponge was stunned. On the walk he’d been considering what window might be best to bunk under in the horsetail barracks. He shifted his gaze to his uncle, just to see the usual white grin, false as a summer wind midwinter. His uncle said, “You’ll have not just a wing or two, but an entire army, and your captain will be Tanrid Algara-Vayir, who has distinguished himself up north. Runners will be sent ahead to our holding forces that they are to report to you, and you will personally visit all the Jarls to oversee civilian matters.”

  Sponge swallowed. He wanted to protest, but he couldn’t. They’d decided. A protest would sound merely cowardly, not sensible, since it wouldn’t make any difference.

  The king, seeing the doubt furrowing his son’s brow, felt a pang of remorse. If the Harskialdna judged Evred ready, he was ready, yet he well remembered the uneasiness that came with the weight of command before one thought oneself ready.

  “We are stretched somewhat thin this year,” he said. “I need your uncle here in case there is trouble with the east.”

  “The Adranis march to war?” Sponge asked, eyes widening.

  Tlennen shook his head. “I don’t think it’s them. The king will stick to his treaty, but some of his ambitious nobles appear to see the Venn embargo as an excuse to try us.”

  The Harskialdna said, “Your brother remains in the south, reporting that we must send more detachments west to protect our own harbors against attack. Your brother was your age when he rode to Ghael Hills and victory.”

  The king, watching his son, knew that it had been a mistake to surprise him. Don’t tell him, the Harskialdna had said weeks ago, when the plan was first broached. We’ll wait until the first day of spring, and instead of playing at command with the horsetail boys he will have his own real command! Who would not love such a surprise?

  He said, “You will have Captain Sindan’s eyes and ears at your command.” And because he was watching his son (and saw the relief there, which eased his mind) he did not see the spasm of irritation that tightened his brother’s features.

  But Sponge saw. His uncle added, “You will also have Tanrid Algara-Vayir and your dragoon captains, to give you wise advice.” And, on Sponge’s nod, he said in a voice of dismissal, “You depart tomorrow, while the weather holds.”

  Tanrid already here? Of course. On orders given long ago. Everything was done without consulting him: he was a boy being given a man’s command. If he actually held any authority. That was not a question he could put to his father; what was said could mean less than what was not said.

  “Your mother wishes to see you before you leave,” the king murmured.

  Sponge saluted and left, feeling as if someone had put his head inside a bell and struck the metal.

  The first sound to break that strange ringing was his mother’s convulsive grip on his arms, her soft kiss, her whispered, “Remember, my child, every man is someone’s son.”

  Then he crossed back to his own rooms, acknowledging the salute of the duty captain. Strange. Though he himself had just been given the surprising orders, it seemed that everyone knew. The salute was not a flat hand to the heart, but a fist: the salute to a commander under royal orders.

  He ran up the back way, through an archway mossy on its south side, old Iascan carvings worn to random bumps. Color caught his eye and he stopped, head lifting as he watched young linnets braiding upward into the sky in a mating dance, their song faint on the spring-scented wind.

  He stood in his outer room, his gaze wandering from chair to table to the door to the bedchamber as if to find some meaning hidden there while his brain labored to disengage from the predicted path of his future. There would be no academy for him today. This spring, this year. Maybe never again.

  No Noddy, no Cama, no Cherry-Stripe or Tuft or Flash—

  Pain burned through him. Then he heard a noise, and Hadand and Kialen emerged from his inner room, Kialen pale, thin as a reed, her large eyes dark with the fear that seemed to shadow her through all the seasons. She didn’t speak; she almost never spoke anymore.

  Hadand turned her head to give a last quiet command, and when the servants were gone she paused, her hands hidden in her robe, aghast at the unhappiness she saw in Sponge’s eyes.

  He said, “I’m to go north.”

  Color highlighted Hadand’s cheeks and then leached away again. Her brown eyes—the warm, intelligent, sometimes relentless eyes he’d known all his life—lowered, hiding their expression. How often she brought Inda unexpectedly to mind! But this expression, a new one, had never been Inda’s. Inda had been absent from time to time, when his mind was racing the winds of possibility, Sponge had learned, but never secretive. “I know,” she said to the floor. “My brother told me this morning.”

  “You’ve seen Tanrid, then? What does he say?”

  “The Harskialdna has been keeping him busy since his arrival yesterday, and of course wants to oversee all the details himself. I breakfasted with him before dawn, and he showed me his map and outlined his orders.” A brief smile, more wistful than warm. “Your father invited him once before—a gesture of kindness that was a disaster. Did I tell you about that?”

  “I don’t think you ever have.”

  “It was when you were, oh, three or so. I was about six, I forget now, but it was when Tanrid first came as a scrub to the academy. The king invited him to a Restday meal in the nursery. It was horrible—your brother wouldn’t speak at all. In those days, I found out later, he never spoke at the academy because he didn’t want anybody to hear the stutter. Tanrid didn’t say a word, either. Just sat there shoveling the food into his mouth. He never talked much then, still doesn’t now, but he was far too intimidated to try. So we endured an entire meal in silence, and the king took pity on us all and it never happened again.”

  “Did he sit in silence today?”

  Hadand smiled, but again the smile was poignant, not happy. She was picturing her brother on the other side of the table, so unfamiliar, despite their being in the same family. He’d grown quite tall, and broad through the chest, and though he obviously was out riding in all weather, his hair had gone dark. “He spoke mostly about his preparations. He thinks the command a great honor.”

  “So it was explained to me,” Sponge said, but Hadand’s smile was gone, and though her hands were still hidden inside the sleeves of her robe, he could see that her shoulders were tight.

  She turned to Kialen, whose face was pale and stricken, the same expression she’d worn in the old days when Sponge or Barend had been beaten. They’d all comforted Kialen, who was so terrified it was as if someone had taken a stick to her instead.

  Hadand said in same the light, tender voice she’d used ever since they were all little, “Will you tell the queen we will be there in a few moments?”

  Kialen, one day to stand by Sponge as his wife, glided noiselessly away. He watched, feeling helpless as he always did around her, then he forced his mind back to his new command. “I should have seen it, or something like it, when my uncle so suddenly required me to drill all winter in the Guard, where I was all but forbidden before.” He did not talk about the strange conversations with his uncle, always one sided, full of empty laughter and meaningless jokes at others’ expense. He had known his uncle was testing him, but for what? He’d thought loyalty. Now, all his old speculations were blown. “You think it a plot to disgrace me? Or something worse?”

  “You are capable,” she retorted. “You know that.”

  Sponge shook his head. “I don’t trust what I know any more. Not after this morning. But this, it’s no secret my uncle has wanted to bind the Marlo-Vayirs more tightly to him, and one of his longest plans was to replace me with Buck Marlo-Vayir.” She inclined her head, and he went on, “I think he expected me to dishonor myself in action or by accident by now. It hasn’t happened. My first thought on receiving these orders was he sends me ill-prepared for command, meaning for me never to return.”

  Hadand made a tense gesture. “But you’v
e trained for years for command. You’re only a year or so off the time when your brother left. And you will have not just Tanrid, but Uncle Sindan. He will not let anything happen to you.”

  “True.”

  “I do know this. You must be vigilant, Sponge. No.” She shook her head. “I think—I really think I ought to call you Evred, now. They have decided you are to take a man’s place. It might help if you—if we all—begin to think of you with a man’s name.” Hadand’s face was tense as she turned away.

  Inwardly he thought: It is time to be Evred. It seemed right.

  “I gave the orders for all your things to be readied, including a mail coat, so the rest of your day is free,” she went on, walking with quick steps to the old ornament casket that sat unused in a wall niche. Evred had had it all his life but in her hands, now, it looked unfamiliar, a box so old the corners were worn, the color dull, the carving of overlaid raptor wings crude, as if carved in the field with a belt knife, which it was. As he watched, wondering what she was about, she opened the casket and pulled out the engraved gold hair clasp that had lain there for all these years, the one worn by his grandfather’s Harskialdna. She laid the clasp into his hand, replaced the casket, and walked to the doorway. “Be sure to put up your hair. And send for the ar morer, to fit you with proper wrist guards.” Then she was gone.

  He fingered the heavy gold clasp, the motions empty of intent; what needed to be done was being done by more experienced hands. The day’s liberty stretched out long and long before him, and so he tossed the clasp onto his table, gave in to impulse, and sent for Dyalen.

  Dyalen. He had always understood that it was better to observe than to ask. As summer had faded into the chill of autumn he came to understand that if he expected her to come when he summoned, then he must not just pay for the time but to contribute to her support; he discovered that somehow everyone knew about her, that he was envied by the other boys for having a favorite. Envied, and admired. Not resented. They accepted it as the prerogative of a prince.

  And because she was a female from outside the exclusively male confines of the academy, there was no speculation, no competition to become a favorite, which he knew would have happened if Dyalen had been a male.

  In his room, they were always alone, and so the servants did not know what happened there. Sometimes they only talked, for he’d discovered that sex was impossible without the distance that wine created between his thoughts and his body’s own desires, and sometimes he could not afford the luxury of waking up with an aching head. They talked about men and women, and her observations, within her view of the world, were acute. They did not talk about war, they did not talk about the future, and though he sometimes wished to ask if she cared about him at all, he didn’t, and after a time he realized that she came only when he summoned her, that on her free time she did not; and so he accepted that theirs was a relationship of need, one for sex and companionship, the other for a living. At his request—in case Kialen would, on their marriage, invite him to her bed, though he could not imagine that happening—she taught him how to give pleasure to women. There would be no other woman, he knew by now, unless it be his wife, in his own bed.

  Dyalen arrived, wearing her boy’s riding clothes, her hair short and free on her neck, like a city boy. When she sat she dropped down like a boy, knees apart, hands on her knees, head to one side. She always smelled of sage, of wind, and a pleasant hint of hay and horse. Smells he loved.

  “I am being sent to the north,” he said.

  “Ah,” she said.

  He gave her a bag of gold. “Here’s for you.”

  She tipped her head the other way. “I was told that after a long association, it’s not so easy, at the end.”

  He shook his head. “The rules. They govern the physical intimacy. But not that of . . .” He couldn’t say “love.” The word, misused, could be so sickening.

  “Of spirit, of heart,” she finished, her eyes steady. “We’ve shared a kind of binding, the kind that comes of pleasure shared, and I think yours is also a bond that comes of gratitude. I know mine is, for you’ve been generous and kind. I hope you find what you seek.”

  “Thank you.”

  Desire was impossible. She saw, as she always did, and departed. Time returned to its heavy tread. He endured it alone.

  Two weeks later Evred was jarred from reverie—he was still thinking over that last interview with Dyalen—by a sudden squawk. A flight of ducks launched from a nearby pond, their fat bodies stretching into the unexpectedly elegant arrowlike shape they took in flight. The beat of their wings diminished in the breeze, and Evred looked around. The plains were unchanged, showing the green tufts of early spring, pools of melted snow below dripping trees sending out slow rings that intersected and vanished.

  He rode at the front, two banners flapping just ahead of him. The horses were restless, he realized; his own sidled, her head plunging up and down. One of the horses behind him farted, causing a muffled snicker, and farther back down the line Tanrid Algara-Vayir spoke in a low, soothing voice to a young scout dog who obviously thought it was time to run and investigate whatever it was he smelled on the wind.

  Evred lifted his head, peering into the haze under a pewter sky, the silvery gray reflected in the ponds, and in the old sun-bleached stubble left over from the winter. Today silver, at sunset yesterday the sedge had glowed very briefly an astonishing ruddy gold, the sun dropping beneath the layer of clouds just long enough to send out horizontal shafts of radiance, backlighting the hawks drifting over the tips of new grass blades, before sinking beyond the western sea.

  Insects, birds, voles, busily went about their lives, noticed and then forgotten: humans looked about for danger, and that meant they watched for one another.

  Horse hooves approached from behind, mail jingling, and there was Tanrid, narrowed brown eyes that unexpectedly brought Inda to mind. “Outriders?” he asked.

  The asking was pure formality. They both knew it, but still they both scrupulously stuck to the forms. “Take what you need,” Evred said, and he watched Tanrid cut out a riding of his own armsmen, snap fingers to the delighted scout hounds, and gallop off to investigate.

  The columns stayed steady, everyone watching the scouts dash ahead, mud flying, some sighing in envy. Evred gentled his mare with an absent hand, thinking about Tanrid. He’d expected to despise him. His memory of Tanrid from scrub days had been of a huge, unsmiling tough whose expertise with his fists had been evident on Inda’s skin at the beginning of both springs. He’d been one of the Sierlaef’s Sier-Danas, too, after that first year. No recommendation in Evred’s eyes.

  Tanrid had proved to be not just competent but easy to ride with. He seldom talked, and it was never just chatter. He did what needed to be done without strut or indecision. The second night, when two of the older Guards got drunk while on watch, he hadn’t bothered with parade or saddle-bag searches, as Evred felt sure his uncle would have required, for it was regulation. He’d offered each of them the first hit—traditional but not regulation—after which he’d dealt out the punishment himself with no words wasted, an efficient thrashing with his own hands, not a stick, that left the two men able to ride. Just. Nothing was said, but Evred observed the silent comprehension of all, veteran and new rider. They respected him, young as he was, and all the dogs adored him.

  After that there was no breaking of regulations.

  The scouts returned almost immediately, their number considerably augmented. Evred recognized that leading figure, his pale yellow horsetail flying in the wind.

  “Cherry-Stripe!” he shouted, and then wished he’d been silent, but Marlo-Vayir Tvei crowed, “Hey, Sponge! We got word you’d crossed into our land day before yesterday, and my dad sent me as a welcome party!” He added, sick with envy and not caring who heard, “And none of us get to go north with you? That reeks worse ’n shit!”

  There was a brief whisper that echoed down the columns, obviously repeating his words; two or three
laughs, and when Evred did not respond, the entire command erupted into laughter.

  Evred grinned wryly. So much for worrying about protocol.

  The two parties joined, Cherry-Stripe riding beside Evred. He never stopped talking. Despite his frequently expressed envy, and his plentiful insults not quite naming whoever’d seen fit to deny Sponge’s own trained Sier-Danas this prime opportunity for adventure and maybe even glory, he exhibited pride in his land.

  Evred listened, noted, smiled when it seemed he ought to, and watched ceaselessly. He had not wanted to stay with the family who conspired to replace him, but those words could not be spoken out loud.

  The Jarl, Hastred-Dal Marlo-Vayir, was at his castle gates as befitted one greeting a member of the royal family; his brother Camrid-Dal, behind and to the left in Shield Arm position. The Jarl limped at Evred’s halter, leading them inside the court, his face seamed by two sword slashes: one from a border skirmish, one from a duel.

  As they exchanged words of greeting Evred listened to his tone. This man did not appear to be subtle. He was loud and jovial in his welcome, his light blue gaze keen but not threatening. Buck Marlo-Vayir was also there, at least long enough to speak the words of welcome. Evred expected to see, and did see, annoyance at the disturbing of their routine, which he found oddly steadying. Somehow it restored some sense to the changing world to see plain emotion in Buck’s face, instead of smiling friendliness that might conceal more subtle, and deadly, plans. In any case Buck’s mood changed for the better when he spotted Tanrid riding up the column from behind, and that, too, was easily seen.

  Buck beckoned to Tanrid and they vanished inside.

  Evred was conducted into the castle by both the Jarl and his wife, but the one who caught his eye was the tiny, long-toothed Cassad sister who would be Cherry-Stripe’s Randviar. Twice she gave him intense looks from unwavering hazel eyes, but she didn’t speak except to add her own version of polite welcome.

 
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