Inda by Sherwood Smith

  The distant tower rang the midafternoon (Daylast, Inda thought, in Marlovan) bells. Inda’s stomach lurched. He hadn’t eaten since a very hasty slice of bread at lastnight bells, three hours before dawn.

  The king’s second son, he of the red hair, looked at the other boys, and saw varying degrees of uncertainty. His own dread of discovery and treatment (bad as well as good) that people gave to a prince as opposed to a person, the certainty of some cruel gesture on the part of his brother, became concern. He realized these others would not speak, and they did not know what to do. He glanced at Hadand’s brother, looking so much like Hadand he’d recognized him right away. Hadand had said, Please watch out for my brother. He would do anything she asked.

  He said, “I know a good bakery.”

  “Don’t got a flim,” Lemon-hair admitted, grinning as he pointed to the pockets of his worn breeches.

  “I happen to have lots left over from the journey south,” said another boy, the one with the long hound-dog face and short dark hair. “May as well get rid of ’em now.”

  Nods. The boys moved off in a group. The king’s son—still enjoying his anonymity—took them by a back route (away from the stables and weapons courts) to the gate to the city, and suddenly they passed from the austere military atmosphere to one of comparative light and color. The walls were still the same honey-colored stone, but the buildings were a jumble of sizes, some with signs, windows with painted shutters, and window boxes growing early flowers. People moved about, some on horseback, others driving carts and wagons, many more walking. Everywhere the new boys observed guild colors, and what seemed to their eyes, accustomed to the sameness of provincial castle life, a wild variety in civilian clothing. The air smelled of horse, of blooms, of roasting chicken and cabbage and bread.

  Then came the moment the king’s second son dreaded. Lemon-hair grinned. “So what shall I call you?”


  “Flash,” another said, laughing. He was a wiry boy with sun-streaked brown hair. “M’ brother started calling me that when I was little. On account of how slow I was.”

  “Lan,” mumbled another blond boy shyly. “Lan Askan.”

  “My family name is Toraca, but you may as well call me Noddy,” said the dark-eyed, dark-haired boy with the hound-dog face. “Everyone at home does. Noddy Turtle.”

  “Why?” someone asked.

  “Turtle on a fence post.”

  The boys snickered, even though it didn’t make sense.

  “Turtle?” Lan murmured. “Fencepost?”

  Noddy didn’t smile. They were to learn that he almost never smiled. “What I looked like when I was little.” He shrugged his shoulders up under his ears, his arms dangling, and they saw it: he did look rather like a turtle. “You never get away from these things.” He shrugged again, a normal shrug. “So why try?”

  Lemon-hair grimaced. “I thought about that all the ride down,” he said. “Picking a new name. Something heroic, maybe. I mean my first name’s Kendred, but I never heard it, that I recollect. If someone called ‘Kendred!’ I’d think it meant for one of the other Kendreds. Has to be a handful of ’em here.”

  Everyone agreed with that. Marlovan names were always repeated back and forth across generations, families, allies, and clans. Of course there would be others with all their names.

  “So,” Lemon-head went on, waving a grubby hand. “So I thought, a new nickname, see? Then I saw me the arms master that’s been to our house for sup at least once a year since I was born, and of course there’s my brother in the pigtails.”

  “So?” Inda prompted.

  “So you’re gonna hear my dad’s name, sure as fire, and then it’s all up,” the boy went on. And, as it chanced, the very moment he said, “On account of my dad being Horsepiss Noth, everyone calls me Dogpiss,” a local hound lifted his leg against the corner of a shop.

  The name, spoken just as the blithely unconscious dog let go the yellow stream, strengthened by the taboo nature of urine in a world where the Waste Spell had been almost the only magic to endure from the terrible war that had nearly wiped magic—and humans—from the world centuries before, it made them all laugh, even Noddy, though his laugh was a kind of snort, his long face still blank.

  The stream was only there for moments. A member of the Wanders Guild popped round the shop corner (probably following the dog, who’d been sniffing about) and waved his wand over the dark puddle. Glitter, flash, the puddle was gone, the Wander walked past, and the boys continued on, still gasping and shaking with laughter, some of them considering the news: here was the son of the famous Horsepiss Noth, who captained the King’s Dragoons. The Dragoons were tough (many said the toughest) and their captain had to be even tougher. Those boys with brothers in the pigtails had already heard of Whipstick Noth, Dogpiss’ older brother, and knew he was going to be the same.

  “Oh, oh, oh, it hurts,” Dogpiss said, holding his sides. “Oh. Someone say something quick! Something sour—”

  “We’ll be sour enough come morning,” Noddy predicted.

  “True,” Dogpiss agreed, but he still laughed, his thin body shaking, wisps of short, yellow hair hanging in his eyes.

  “How’d your Ain escape being a ‘piss’?” Noddy asked, his long face blank, which got the others laughing all over again.

  When Dogpiss could breathe, he wheezed, “B-brown hair . . . like Ma’s . . . I got the piss-yellow . . . like Dad . . .”

  When his snickers subsided they turned expectantly to the red-haired boy, whose voice and manner so subtly set him apart.

  Evred-Varlaef, the king’s second son, felt and instantly repressed the familiar sense of sick certainty at what was to come. His brother would see to that, he knew it, he just knew it. But he would postpone the inevitable as long as possible. “Well, you may as well call me Sponge.” At their surprise, he added, “Got it from my cousin, who was sent to sea.”

  The others nodded, thinking of the reddish-brown sponges pulled up from the ocean floor and used in cleaning.

  They turned to the last of the group, a tall, powerfully built boy with unruly black hair. He’d not spoken once, though he’d been quite helpful in shifting heavy chests without any apparent effort. Even his laughter was silent. Now his face creased in misery. In a tiny voice like a kitten’s squeak, he, well, he mewed, “Camarend Tya-Vayir. Cama.”

  Inda had to bite hard on his tongue to keep from hooting. Though he could not have described to Tdor how he knew, he recognized instantly that while Dogpiss didn’t mind being laughed at, this boy would feel terrible.

  Half the others identified him as younger brother to the horrible bully hated by most brothers: Horsebutt Tya-Vayir.

  Sponge studied Cama’s square face under his shock of black waving hair, and thought, He doesn’t look at all like Horsebutt. But he didn’t speak, for he was still elated over his anonymity, the easy acceptance of the others. He’d enjoy it while he could.

  They turned down an alley that dead-ended against the city wall, and ducked through a narrow door below a weathered bakery sign. Those with money crowded up to the counter. Inda sat on the edge of a bench, breathed in the smell of baking rye bread, a scent that reminded him so forcibly of home he felt a squeezing in his throat, and his tired eyes burned. He propped his elbow onto a barrel; on his other side sat a boy whose name he’d already forgotten. A moment later he heard footsteps, and a big plate of berry cakes appeared, with hot jam to pour over them.

  He took one, but scarcely tasted it. The other boys crowded onto the bench and passed the plate back and forth, chattering about home. Inda leaned his head on his hand, hearing only boys’ voices, no words.

  His mind slid away, back, back to being woken at lastnight bell, the third hour of the morning, for that cold, long ride across the plains of Choraed Hesea. He had not even had time to say farewell to Captain Vranid or Fiam . . .

  “Supper!” someone exclaimed, and Inda jerked awake, his hand numb, drool on his cheek. He wiped his mouth
on his shoulder, got to his feet, and followed, legs heavy, mind stupid, longing for bed.

  The musical clang of the sunset bells—sundown—announced the end of the day, as did the lengthened shadows. Inda followed the others into the mess hall, a long room with a wooden roof, bright with glowglobes and loud with skull-smiting noise.

  Sponge watched Inda covertly, but said nothing. At twelve—older than most of these boys—he was very experienced in the silent, deadly riptide of power politics, and had learned the still patience of prey.

  Inda carried his tray, received the doled out fishcakes into the worn, shallow wooden bowl that looked exactly like the bowls at home. Boiled cabbage. Rice. At the end of the serving table sat a dish of round wooden spoons, also like those at home. He picked one up and followed Sponge, glad to have the decisions made by someone else.

  The others sat at the end of a long wooden table, apparently for the scrubs, at the far end of the room. Images, unconnected, caught Inda’s attention: Sponge, sitting down, looking somber. Dogpiss, at the end of Inda’s bench, taking a bite.

  The riding boot that caught Dogpiss in the ribs and shoved. A boot belonging to a brawny boy with long, butter-colored hair.

  The world narrowed to dreamlike slowness as Dogpiss’ blue eyes teared from surprise and pain, his food went flying, and he landed backward, his head knocking the edge of the bench behind theirs. Bright blood spotted his yellow hair.

  Inda was too stunned to feel anything. He was only aware of his hands moving as if someone else moved them, and his mind was somewhere else, watching. That someone used his hands to thump his food on the table and smash the wooden tray across the laughing face of the brawny boy, who squawked in pain.

  Reality jolted Inda back into his body when another hand gripped his braid hard and yanked.

  Inda squirmed and managed to strike something meaty. The world narrowed to heat and yells and the struggle of arms and legs, until strong hands seized the scruff of his neck, ripped him free, and thrust him with a skull-rocking smack onto the bench.

  “Sit down and eat,” an older boy snapped in an urgent whisper. “You want to bring King Willow down on us all?”

  Inda tried to protest, but he saw another older boy fling the yellow-haired bully onto a bench. And there was Sponge lifting Dogpiss, who winced and touched his head, and Noddy picking up their cups and settling their trays. So Inda sank back onto the bench, his head and heart drumming, his breathing shaky.


  Inda didn’t even look up to see who spoke. He sat without moving, aware of everyone staring. Except Noddy, who glared at the yellow-haired boy and said loudly, “Already laying claim to tables and we haven’t even been sheared yet? What frost.”

  Frost. Frost. The eyes turned away pair by pair, and talk resumed, leaving only a last glare from that yellow-haired bully. Dogpiss and Inda picked up their spoons in trembling fingers.

  Chapter Five

  UP in the royal wing Hadand sat with Queen Wisthia, who insisted on the Sartoran word for queen, Sarias, which was put before her name, the way it was done in civilized kingdoms. Twice a year she endured the Marlovan word for queen, Gunvaer, the bloodthirsty connotations of which she detested. Her rooms were arranged in the Sartoran style of her youth, and she kept Sartoran customs. Music played during evening study. No war drums were ever permitted. Some of her women were trained in wind and string instruments, and these four sat with steel-stringed lutes and lap harps, plinking soft melodies that chased like butterflies up and down the scales.

  Hadand saw her own Runner, Tesar, drift across the open doorway. She forced her attention back to the scroll she was translating. The shearing songs calm the animals, and in turn the children are calm, and glad to see the lambs dash off into the fields, free, light, and dancing in the sun . . .

  Shearing. How odd, these coincidences. Tomorrow would be the infamous scrub shearing. Inda. Tesar’s being here meant something had happened, to either Inda or Sponge or both. Hadand could have groaned with impatience, but like Sponge she had long ago schooled herself to stay still. So her mother had taught her, a lesson reinforced by Ndara-Harandviar, wife of the king’s brother, the Sierandael.

  The music pattered on, syncopated as the last drops of rain from a passing storm, until the distant bells rang.

  “My dears, we will retire,” the queen said, rising.

  Hadand also rose. At last! But here was poor little Kialen Cassad, designated by treaty before she was even born to marry the king’s second son and be his Harandviar. Kialen’s frail fingers crumpled like spider legs close to her thin chest, her dark-ringed eyes wide and fearful. She’d seen Tesar as well.

  Hadand made the finger sign that represented lilies, the sign for danger, the signal for a smooth face. Kialen obediently did her best, trotting close behind Hadand as they moved to Hadand’s rooms down the hall. Hadand had been given her rooms at age ten, after eight years in the royal nursery with Sponge and the other royal children, though they still sometimes used the big nursery room for study. By the time she was twelve she did not require Ndara’s warnings—real lilies, drawn ones, or finger signals—to know which rooms were safe to speak in and which were not.

  Tesar, Hadand’s trusted personal Runner, fifteen and equally old in deception, said, “Kialen-Hlin, Hadand-Hlinlaef, the stable master bade me inform you that Evred-Varlaef has made his riding horses over to you for the summer. He awaits your orders.”

  “Very well,” Hadand said, carefully bland. She turned to Kialen. “There is just time enough to bathe, and then we might work on your Old Sartoran vocabulary before we attempt that scroll on the seasons. Tesar, please bring clothes to us in the baths.”

  They passed by the Runner, who saluted while her other hand, so deft, so practiced, slid a tiny roll of rice paper into Hadand’s fingers. Then Tesar vanished on her errand.

  On a landing down the narrow back stairwell, Hadand paused and read the tiny Old Sartoran script: He struck at supper, through Marlo-v. 2. I. fought back. Noth boy target.

  That was all. Hadand translated. “I” meant Inda. “Marlo-v. 2.” was Marlo-Vayir Tvei, the second son of the Jarl of Marlo-Vayir, who had done something to the son of the famed Captain Noth of the Dragoons. All of it designed to get at Sponge in some way—just as they had predicted. “He,” of course, meant Aldren-Sierlaef, king’s heir, the enemy, Sponge’s brother.

  Hadand’s future husband.

  Poor Kialen’s face was blanched with fear. “It’s all right,” Hadand whispered. “It’s about my brother, not Sponge.”

  The girls passed down the last stairway to the warm stream-fed baths under the castle, Hadand having swallowed the note. Voices of off-duty female Guards echoed from the old stone walls, and nearby two of the queen’s women talked quietly about the new fashion in the queen’s old country: chimes braided into women’s hair for dancing. They would never do that here.

  When Inda woke, just before dawn, he couldn’t remember where he was. He was aware of that wool and wood and puppy dog smell again, the sounds of many boys breathing; then, “Up! Up!” someone yelled. “You know we’ll have an inspection after the shearing. Let’s clean now, and save our backs.”

  Inda had no idea how to make a bed look smooth or how to sweep a floor. Fiam had always taken care of that. But Fiam was on the long ride home, probably looking forward to wargaming all the summery days . . .

  Trying to fight away homesickness, Inda thrashed into his clothes. Habit caused him to fling his nightshirt down, but he picked it up again. Those hooks on the wall beside the headboards, yes, they were for nightshirts. He watched the rest of the boys, did what they did, and at last stood back and in the blue predawn light compared his efforts with everyone else’s. He didn’t see any difference.

  “Straighten your breeches. You’ve got ankle rumps,” Noddy whispered to him, pointing down to where he’d stuffed his breeches into his riding boots, and Inda saw that they were flat in front and pouched out behind. He pulled at
the loose material until it draped more or less evenly around each boot; then, he reached for his braid—and dropped his hands. No use in struggling with two-day-old knots when it would soon be gone.

  Besides, the others were already running out to the parade court, to be in line before the sunup bells. Torches still lit the court, for the sun at this time of year still rose after the sixth-hour bell. A fine mist had moved in, making it darker, but at least it wasn’t miserably cold.

  On the first clang of the bell Master Gand marched out of the big building opposite the castle wall, where the masters lived. If he was pleased to see this year’s scrub class neatly lined up and ready, he showed no sign of it. His mouth soured. “So how many of you are going to waste my time telling me you’ve been riding from the time you could walk?”

  By now they’d learned not to volunteer any commentary.

  “Good. Because those would be the ones needing a month or two of wanding the stable floors, to unlearn all the rotten habits they’d picked up since they started walking.”

  Pace, pace, high-heeled cavalry boots crunching bits of gravel on the old, worn flagstones.

  “You are eventually going to learn command of cavalry. All three branches: light, heavy, dragoon. But if you think that means you are ready to ride horses, think again, my little lambs. You are ignorant. And as such you are more danger to the horses than you are to any enemy. You little Vayir-dals left the real horse care to your armies of stable hands at home. Well, here’s news for you: in the field, there are no servants, and farriers don’t follow you about in case your horse throws a shoe. You’re going to learn how to take care of your horses, including their feet. And you’re going to do it fast. And right. In the dark. Before you ever sit on a horse’s back.”

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