Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Evred did sense, and rightly so, that they were being watched.

  But they rode with two armed columns at their backs, scout dogs sniffing the wind, tear-shaped shields within easy reach, hooked on their saddles upside down so from a distance they looked like raised wings, bows slung and tested from time to time, dragoons with lances couched.

  As the old month blended into the new, the warm winds carrying hints of summer, they rode downhill into the Nob. Lindeth Harbor had been a grim enough sight. Evred was prepared for more fire-blackened desolation. What they found was that the Olarans, in typical and arrogant independence, had thrown up a shanty town on the edges of the ruins, bastioned against the crashing winter storms, while they waited for the great orders of wood and stone they had put out the autumn before, expecting that someone—whatever government claimed them—would pay when the orders arrived this year.

  With spring long wagon trains had begun to arrive, disgorging stacks and heaps and rows of building materials from the eastern harbors where the forming Guild Fleet was struggling to maintain trade despite the embargo. The makeshift houses swarmed with people, music poured from the tumbledown doors and cubbies. Everywhere, the sounds of pounding, rapping, sawing, some of it pausing as the newcomers were surveyed, riding down the hill in their long columns, steel glinting in the bright sunlight.

  Tanrid, at Evred’s side, turned constantly in his saddle, looking everywhere at once. Evred puzzled over this behavior until he turned his questioning gaze from Tanrid’s grim face to what he surveyed.

  Tanrid Algara-Vayir was not gauging walls and fortress layouts; he was searching faces.

  He was looking for Inda.

  Evred felt a cold certainty in his guts, but then his own attention was snared by a long, lean body lounging near a ramshackle house, the languid posture a contrast to the wary, staring people to either side. Evred stared across the muddy expanse of the street straight into the smiling, speculative gaze from a pair of light eyes. The eyes belonged in a narrow, bony face, surrounded by curly hair lifting on the wind. Evred turned as he rode past, and watched the young man shift his lounging stance just slightly; arms crossed, one long, muscular leg propped on an upturned wheelbarrow, scruffy riding boots.

  That gaze, unwavering, with just a hint of a smile—a sardonic smile midway between defiant and beckoning—sent fire straight through Evred, more potent than the most powerful distilled bristic.

  He forced himself around again, and made himself busy surveying the burned docks on the other side, the broken walls and rubble piles, as his ears burned.

  How many songs had he yawned through about the mysterious snap of magic when eyes met eyes! During his brief, mostly fun wrestling matches that had burned so swiftly into desire back in his academy days, it had always been laughter that caused the spark, or a grab, and from someone he’d known for years. This was the first time ever that a mere glance from a stranger smote him with a message so clear and strong.

  His mind stubbornly presented that light gaze to him again and again as he busied himself with the orderly fuss of setting up camp, establishing perimeters, and then negotiating the priority of those who had waited all winter to present their complaints and demands.

  Tanrid was equally busy, carrying out the logistics of survey and patrol, and then tramping all around the remains of the ancient harbor with the harbormaster, the head ship-wright, and guild representatives.

  Thus there was no time to talk until nightfall, when the tired Marlovans, glad to be finished with their long ride in full war gear, were given campfire liberty. Evred watched as the drums came out, the war songs sounded over snapping fire and reached skyward. Tonight they expected limits, but those makeshift hostelries were going to be a temptation. He had to decide what was wiser, to make them off limits now and try a few liberty parties, or set no limit and wait for the trouble that was probably inevitable.

  A note arrived, carried by a small girl in a ragged gown. She was waved from person to person by the Guards: no one questioned the intentions of someone no older than six.

  The girl came directly to Evred, frowned a little as she studied the crimson and gold splendor of the device on the breast of his war coat, and his crimson and gold sash, and then thrust out a crumpled piece of paper.

  He took it, but before he could speak she whirled, dirty hair and ragged skirts flying, and scampered away.

  Evred looked down, knowing whom it was from, and knowing made his fingers burn. He crushed it into his fist as Tanrid came striding around the rocks set up as an inner barricade and sat down next to him.

  “I’ll ride out tomorrow,” he said.

  They were alone, more or less; everyone else was busy. Messages—Runners—plans—that pale, intriguing gaze.

  Evred shook his head. “You’re leaving,” he repeated. One thing at a time. Then he looked at Tanrid’s dark eyes, bleak in the leaping firelight, and everything else spun away like burned cinders as he said, “You were looking for Inda.”

  He hadn’t meant to speak, but when Tanrid looked up, he was glad he had. “You know, too? Of course. Hadand would tell you. He’s alive, that’s all my mother told me, and she probably wouldn’t have said that much, had I never been sent north. But she did tell me, between my receiving my orders and my departure.” Tanrid looked grim. “According to her, Inda is alive and put to sea. My first reaction was to turn down the Harskialdna’s offer of a command unless he provided an explanation for that whole stinking situation that damned summer. Yes, I know what that means.” He waved an impatient hand at Evred’s startled reaction. “Same as flinging down a war banner before the throne. I figured why not now instead of later, when I inherit? But my mother insisted I take the command, that I could better find him if I were here myself. She’s right.” He looked up, waiting. Watching.

  Evred said, “Sindan put him to sea, that’s all I know.”

  They both looked across the fire at the tall Runner dressed in blue who stood talking to three other runners. “I figured as much. No use in saying anything to him. If he hasn’t spoken, it means he won’t. But it does tell us the king acted, and on my brother’s behalf. It makes a difference.”

  He didn’t say in what. Evred knew. They both knew that their talk now skirted the dangerous edges of treason, though the subject was a scrub and the incident some years old. Evred then saw what was needed, what Tanrid couldn’t honorably ask, and he said, “I will continue the search. And if I find out anything, I will send you word.”

  Tanrid’s face eased. They said nothing more; Tanrid had his ride to prepare for, and Evred had the paper in his hand. Tanrid saluted and left for his chores. Evred looked around, saw focus turning toward the cooks, and unrolled the paper, now damp from his tight grip.

  If you want a proper Olaran welcome, I’ll be waiting.

  No titles, no name, only a little drawing of three clover leaves. He flicked the paper into the fire, fighting to control the burn of anticipation, more potent than any liquor.

  In the morning Tanrid departed, halving their force, but Evred’s arrival with gold—and promise of more from the distant Marlovan king—had changed the locals’ attitude enough for the harbormaster, and then two guild leaders, to say after a morning’s discussion, “The Venn will be watching.”

  To which Evred replied, “Let them watch.”

  From then on he was plunged into a flood of activity that made for impossibly long days. Everyone, it seemed, wanted a better place to rebuild on what was essentially a long, narrow promontory. Evred had to learn about defense from sea attack, which was the exact opposite from building for land attack: with the former, you are looking for attack from the water, and the latter uses the water as a last defense, the constructs formed for attack from inland. He listened, he learned, and from time to time Sindan appeared at his side, offering in his quiet voice the king’s own view.

  Evred never questioned how Sindan knew. He’d grown up with the man at his father’s side; Sindan’s knowing wi
th almost instant certainty what the king would want done in this or that matter was, to him, no mystery at all. They thought with one mind, those two.

  Three nights passed, with liberty granted first to captains, and then, when dawn brought no trouble, more of the men. Sounds of merriment rose up the hill to the encampment—good smells, the tang of liquor. On the fourth night, under a downpour, Evred faced the prospect of yet another long, watchful night, and gave in.

  He knew where to go. Down the only street with buildings, and there was one, a low, raw-brick affair, with a freshly painted sign with three clover leaves.

  There he waited, with mulled wine, and that smile.

  After a drink or two, and no talk, the man said in accented Iascan, “You realize we are enemies, you and I.”

  Evred said, “I’m not here to make war.”

  A laugh. “What shall I call you, then, enemy prince?”

  “Sponge.” It came out, just like that. He really thought he was anonymous, but he was too bedazzled to consider how public his movements were.

  At the time his reward was a slight lift to those mobile brows. “Sponge. Short, uncomplicated. Call me Dallo.”

  Evred was unable to repeat the name, lest his voice squeak. Sweat beaded on his brow, his legs and arms had gone watery, his heart drummed in his ears.

  Dallo laughed suddenly, and pointed downstairs, to where the old cellars still existed, relatively undamaged and quite clean. A door clicked, and they were alone in one fitted up as a private chamber, with only a burning candle.

  The flame went out, and soon—far too soon—Evred was consumed by the sun. The second time took longer. The third, Dallo piqued and provoked instead of leading, spinning out anticipation just short of agony, and when at last the lightning struck and then shimmered into cool quiet, Evred fell briefly asleep. He woke up when someone commenced hammering somewhere outside. He found himself alone, so he dressed and walked out into the fresh, cold air of morning, with everyone busily starting the day. The family at the inn all smiled at him as he left, and he was happy enough to smile back.

  On his return to the camp, he found Sindan waiting. Wariness, worry, a little resentful anger for that observant watchfulness, all boiled in his empty stomach until Sindan nodded to the harbormaster, whose weather-seamed face showed no expression at all.

  “Fishing smacks had to come back in,” the man said without preamble. “Spotted a Venn scout craft on the horizon.”

  Sindan said, “They’ll see the building going on. How long can we expect before they send someone against us?”

  The harbormaster shrugged. “Don’t know. If they’re ahead of a fleet, tomorrow. If they aren’t—and word is, they’re massing against the new Guild Fleet building in the strait to try to defend it—they might send pirates, and we don’t know where they lie up.”

  The strait was north of Andahi Pass, that was all Evred knew. “Who can tell me more about this Guild Fleet?”

  The harbormaster’s gaze shifted down, then up, and the Marlovans successfully followed his thought: Ought I to have spoken? Why not? The Guild Fleet lies outside the borders. “All the big guilds, or most, are forming this fleet. To defend trade along the strait because the Venn don’t defend against pirates, all they do is cruise, take toll, look for anyone from our coast. There’s someone just arrived with news about the Guild Fleet from over the mountains. Staying for a time, we being cousins and we got our Guild refuge up first before returning down to Lindeth.”

  “I’d like to talk to your source,” Evred said, and the man bowed in the manner of local people. And, because it seemed he ought to say something about the problem, he added, “We’ll begin drilling for defense.” As soon as he spoke he realized they had already decided the same thing, if they hadn’t already issued orders.

  Jened Sindan saw in Evred’s narrowed eyes the recognition that his order had been anticipated.

  The harbormaster bowed again, and walked away to where his own people waited. As they closed into a circle, everyone talking at once, Sindan said to Evred, “We have discussed nothing else since the sun came up.”

  As a hint it was fairly oblique, but Evred had been subtle ever since he was small. Color burned in his face, but he only said, “Of course you’d know what to do.”

  Because they were isolated, and because Jened Sindan alone knew what lay in the king’s heart, he said, “Your father wants you to be ready for whatever happens. Think of this particular command as a long drill.”

  Evred’s gaze shifted to him, unexpectedly green, very like his brother’s in the clear morning light. “I know,” he said. He grimaced slightly. “I also have read the same records as my father has. I have seen that old Sartoran admonition that princes who feel ready to rule have ways of finding their way to power. I’m in no hurry.”

  “There’s enough to do here and now.” Sindan uttered the platitude as reassurance, and saw that it worked.

  Evred returned to Dallo twice more, each time after three days. He went there, Dallo did not come to him. The family greeted him with smiles and casual waves as they went about rebuilding their inn, but he spoke to no one, and they did not speak to him.

  The fourth time he broke his pattern and returned at sundown the next day, his excuse a driving rainstorm, which he thought provided cover. Instinct prompted him to seek a door at the back rather than face the entire family no doubt shut up inside the half-finished common room.

  He heard voices coming up through the unfinished wall from the room below: Dallo and another man. They were laughing.

  He’s got someone else, and they’re laughing about me! Fierce, jealous anger blazed through Evred, then the inward chatter of self-mockery smothered that laughter. What absurdity, to assume that laughter had anything to do with him—or that he had claim enough for jealousy!

  Still, he could not resist crouching down to listen to the low voices, despite rain dripping off the half-built roof onto his neck. He had to be certain.

  They spoke in the local language that Evred had studied so hard on the ride up the peninsula, their conversation not even remotely one of passion—and all the names and places were unfamiliar. Another jab of self-mockery caused him to turn away, but the clink of glassware froze him.

  Then the unfamiliar voice said, “I should run. This is usually the time your fierce little prince shows up.”

  “Not until day after tomorrow. I think he thinks he’s being unobtrusive.” And Dallo’s familiar laugh, musical and just a little sardonic.

  “Have you put Mardric’s questions to him yet?”

  “No,” and again, the careless laugh, once dangerously attractive, but now, in the cold, with no sight of that teasing mouth, just sounding smug. “It can wait. I want him devoted to me first, body and soul. Give me two weeks.”

  This time Evred did get away, backing up straight from the wall so no one inside would glimpse him, though the windows were shuttered against the rain.

  He backed up until he was between two other buildings, and nearly tripped over a pile of bricks awaiting the next day’s work. He swerved, orders to secure and kill the spy—to arrest everyone in the family—shooting like arrows through his mind. No. The family probably knew nothing. Mardric, Evred had learned, was the name a local resistance leader went by.

  Evred drew in a deep breath. Yes, he had been a fool. He would do nothing foolish now. Dallo was a spy, but had learned nothing, so far, beyond that the Marlovan commander was a fool. He had even admitted they were enemies, the very first time they met and Evred had returned that stupid answer that at the time he had thought so very sophisticated. Whether or not Dallo’s words were fair warning was immaterial. Dallying with the enemy had gotten people executed before.

  Evred wandered at random along the new street being built for the harbor officials. Humiliation made him long for isolation. His position in command, which he had come so very close to jeopardizing for the sake of a dangerous smile, required him to think through what he’d learned, an
d what he ought to do, before he faced anyone he knew.

  But he’d scarcely passed ten buildings when a tall, thin young woman caught sight of him in the generous golden light pouring from the windows of the harbor guild house, and her brows rose. Despite the pouring, shockingly cold rain (a cold he did not yet feel) her lips parted and she changed direction, pulling her green cloak tighter against the wind.

  Evred had just time to recognize the harbormaster’s chief scribe when she said, “You wanted to meet someone. She said she will meet you.” Her Iascan was heavily accented.

  Evred thought about spies, assassination, but his mood was so vile that right now he did not care. He lifted a hand, palm out: show the way.

  “In here.” The scribe gestured to the harbor guild house, which was now a warren of little makeshift rooms occupied by officials and displaced families.

  She opened doors and shut them again three times. Very soon he sat down, shedding pools of water, in a tiny parlor that smelled of baking bread, furnished with a small rough-planed table and four chairs. A young woman sat in one. The room was made smaller by a curtain drawn across half of it. From beyond the curtain the little clinks and scrapes and rustles indicated someone preparing a meal in a tiny space.

  The scribe motioned for Evred to sit, and so he took his place across from the tall young woman. For a moment they stared into one another’s faces, Evred seeing heavy dark brows, a mutinously angry mouth, thick black hair braided back, travel-worn clothing.

  And she saw, instead of the expected arrogance or contempt or cruelty, a young man with dark red hair, clear hazel eyes, and a courteous air.

  From the doorway came the voice of the harbormaster’s scribe. “Ryala Pim just arrived from the east. She saw the Fleet forming, but said she’d talk to you only if you answer some questions.”

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