Inda by Sherwood Smith

  In other words, either he betrayed the trust of his son or his oath to the king.

  The Adaluin sat back in one of the great winged chairs, facing the king, who remained at the window, the side of his face highlighted with the blue colors of impending sunrise. Inda’s father pressed his lips together. First the betrayal of the plan at Marlovar Bridge, and now this business with Indevan. It was perhaps too easy, too convenient, to assume some mysterious form of treachery on the part of the Sierandael, whom he’d loathed ever since their academy days. The Adaluin’s memory of the king’s brother was of a shifty-eyed rat of a scrub, but that scrub had grown into a competent leader, an excellent trainer, and his loyalty to his brother was undoubted, a loyalty returned by the king.

  The possibility of treachery against House Algara-Vayir was not treason. Accusing the Royal Shield Arm without proof was.

  The king paced to the fire and back to the window again. “In a sense, the warded threat of war with the Venn has done us ill. We are not a people accustomed to peace. There are signs of internal strife, of frustrated expectations, that must be investigated, and shall be. For now, we must consider what is to be done with your boy.”

  The Adaluin realized that the political repercussions he’d foreseen on the long ride were, somehow, already echoing through the kingdom.

  “Young Indevan will not compromise,” the king said. “And I cannot see my way clear toward using my authority to force him. And without proof either way I cannot act.” The king paused, still staring out the window.

  The other two paused as well, seeing in the unforgiving morning light the pain deepening the lines in the king’s face. The Sierlaef obviously knew more than he was telling, but three times the king had tried to get him to talk, to no avail. The implied lack of trust hurt worse than any of the other troubling news of late.

  The Adaluin sighed and sat back. “From what you say, there is no clear trail of events, not unless someone can prove that those two boys lie.”

  “But we cannot. Headmaster Brath and my brother both have interviewed everyone concerned. There are two conflicting stories. Whichever way I decide, the political strife realigns, perhaps worsens.” The king turned away from the window. “During the past week I’ve had far too many Runners demanding justice be done, or I had better give my reasons why I did not believe the two boys standing against Indevan, for then they can claim their Houses have been dishonored.”

  The Adaluin remembered their academy days, how Kethadrend Kepri-Davan had veered between bootlicking the royal sons and complaining bitterly behind their heads about Vayir privileges. Of course Kepri-Davan would use this incident as an excuse to try to gain political advantage.

  “I see.” The Adaluin sighed, his hands flexing. “Either I act, and worsen your strife, or I accept dishonor.”

  Tlennen turned to the dark-haired man sitting on the hassock opposite the fire, rain dripping off his clothes and pooling on the floor. “Jened?”

  Captain Sindan said, “I believe there is a third way. But it will be difficult for you both.”

  Both men turned toward him.

  “Tlennen,” he said to the king. “Your part is easiest. You will say nothing at all.”

  The king’s brows rose faintly. “There are enough anomalies in the various stories to cause questions among those who are not sided with the Kepri-Davans and their ambitions for a rise in rank by whatever means. Perhaps a complete silence could be quite effective. If . . . ?”

  Sindan turned to the Adaluin. “If your son vanishes, without trail or trace, if you do not see him, or know where he has gone.”

  “I will agree,” said the king, “only if you will contrive that he be put in a place of safety. The boy is not at fault.”

  Sindan struck his fist against his chest. “That I promise.”

  They both turned to Jarend-Adaluin, who showed nothing of the pain those words gave him. In his long life he had learned to accept pain. He looked down at his hands, and then up. “Very well,” he said. “When must it be done?”

  “Today.” And, “Now.”


  Chapter One

  AS the merchant brig Pim Ryala drifted down the long Lindeth Harbor toward Lookout Point, the girl the ship was named for hitched up her skirts and thumped her skinny butt onto the taffrail. Two middies joined her, knowing the beck of command from the owner’s daughter when they saw it.

  Ryala Pim nodded at the taller mid, a swarthy Idayagan. “Heyo, Fass. Whatcha got there?” She examined the second mid, a compact boy with a thatch of rust-tinged light hair and the slanty blue eyes found all over the southern hemisphere on either continent.

  Fassun said, “Heyo. Testhy’s new, just come off snooze-watch. Captain hired him down south. Testhy, Ryala Pim.”

  Testhy made a creditable bow.

  Ryala snorted. “So you southerners think you know something about sailing the strait?”

  Testhy sucked his lip. That kind of challenge from another mid, or a ship’s brat, he knew instantly how to answer—and where—but this was the owner’s daughter.

  So he shrugged. “We’ll see.”

  Ryala and Fassun exchanged looks of qualified approval. A hotheaded answer might mean a hothead on watch. Mama Pim was fluent about keeping contented ships, which was why the Pim family usually got the best pick at harbor hiring.

  “So what’d ya sling at us this time?” Fass asked, leaning on the taffrail next to her.

  “Just three for you and one for Pim Olla. You get two rats and a likely-seeming carpenter’s mate.” Ryala felt her guts lurch—which was why she never actually sailed in any of her mother’s little fleet. “We also saw us a prime Delf topman, but he turned out to be related to the Gams.” Another look exchanged.

  Testhy, goaded, said, “I suppose that means something. I mean, I’ve heard of the Delfin Islands, but what’s a Gam?”

  Fassun’s answering grin was both amused and superior. “You obviously haven’t spent much time around those Delfin Islanders.”

  Ryala laughed. “The Gams are a clan.”

  Fassun added, “The Delfs’ clan feuds are worse than . . . worse than . . .” He groped in a circle.

  Ryala said, “Worse than a Bren at the bargaining table.”

  “Or worse than a Chwahir and an Everoneth in the same sluice-house,” Fassun offered.

  Testhy lifted sun-bleached, almost invisible brows. “You mean worse than the Brotherhood of Blood and everybody else?”

  This reminder of the pirate fleet that had become maritime traders’ biggest fear in the entire southern half of the world sobered the other two. “We don’t have many Delfs down south,” Testhy added.

  “They seem to mostly sail big waters, north and east.” Fassun shrugged. “Some say they even understand the Venn sails, though if they do, we haven’t met any.”

  “Maybe the Venn got ’em all,” Testhy said. “Square-rigging has to require more top hands, especially the way they flash.”

  Ryala wrinkled her nose at the notion of flashing sails. It was unnecessary to change sail all at once, a sort of showing off. If not worse. Merchant ships did not have all those skyscraping towers of square sail whose sheets and braces just had to get tangled, nor did they squander money on hiring too much crew. That was the sort of behavior you expected from warships. Or pirates.

  “Anyway,” Ryala lectured Testhy in a tone meant to be kindly. “Pricklish or not, every captain wants Delfs on board. Mama says it’s because their babies learn to net, reeve, and steer before they can walk.”

  Fassun waved a hand. “What I know is that they also drink too much, fight too much, get insulted over nothing, but they gang right up at the first sniff at their precious islands—and go after everyone else.”

  Testhy rolled his eyes. “So we only have the one, then?”

  “One is all you can ever get, unless they come with kin, or kin-allies. Niz is captain of the tops,” Ryala added.

  Testhy nodded. That explained everyth
ing. This was his first cruise on a merchant ship, but even on the little coastal brigs, your upperyard hands were the ones you valued most.

  He also decided he’d had about enough of Ryala Pim’s and Fassun’s condescension, but four long years as a shiprat had taught him not to react to anyone who ranked above him—which was everyone, as he was a newly hired rat. So he said only, “Who are the new hires?”

  Fassun sighed. “You said just two? I saw eight or ten brats over at the bench. The owner is pickier than . . .” He groped, but before the other two could offer comparisons, he said in haste, “. . . anyone I know.”

  Ryala lifted a shoulder. “One was barely eight years old. No sved on that one—they said she was ten, but she still had front teeth comin’ in. Ma says eight is too young, they cry for their own ma, nights. Biggest one smelled like drink, another almost as big talked snappish. Rough knuckles. Probably a scrapper.”

  Now it was Fassun and Testhy who exchanged a covert look.

  “This and that wrong w’ the rest. Mama says you’ll have to fill the other two berths round the Nob. Our two are the right age, though one’s an obvious landrat. But he looks young enough to learn.” She didn’t add that she thought she might have heard him speaking that nasty Marlovan to his guardian—it couldn’t have been family because there was no hugging at the farewell like happened with new rats just signing on and leaving families for the first time. Was it really Marlovan? She wasn’t sure. It wasn’t like she knew any—she heard it so seldom—and there were so many tongues around a harbor.

  She also remembered the misery in the boy’s face when he trod all alone up the ramp. No, much better not to bias the others against him. She knew that Norsh and his mates could be rough on new rats.

  She moved on to other, mostly technical subjects, while below, with a minimum of words and a maximum of shoves the mid of the watch, Norsh, directed the two new rats where to stow their bags and hammocks.

  “Yes, that’s it. Now you report to the purser. Turn in your sved. Get signed in, or you won’t get your pay.”

  Without waiting for them to respond, he batted aside the canvas doorway that divided the rat cabins from the other tiny cabins along the forepeak. They clambered down one of the ladders into the hold. Glowglobes swung overhead, their light blue-white and steady, though the shadows around the edges of the hold rippled with each swing.

  There, a neat, small, balding man sat at a desk directly under one of the glowglobes. He set aside his work, his mouth downturned, as the two newcomers were pushed in.

  “Here’s Indutsan. Purser.” Norsh paused in the doorway, a big, strong young man of twenty, dark of hair. The two silent newcomers had immediately seen from the tight sides of his mouth that he had a temper, and they hadn’t spoken once.

  “Thank you, Norsh,” the purser said.

  Norsh vanished down the companionway.

  “Now,” the purser stated, pulling a huge, somewhat battered bound book toward him. He opened to the right page, ruled neatly, and then peered up at the two before him. The girl was bouncing slightly on her toes, short brown hair, round body, an air of experience. She thrust herself in front of the other one, who just stood, face blank, hands stiff and slightly held away from his body.

  “Give me the sveds.”

  Each child handed over a hiring paper, given them by the ship’s owner on the dock. Indutsan scarcely glanced at them, except to verify they had the magical seal; in his experience people would lie to the scribes, but if Mistress Pim actually hired them, lies became her responsibility, not his.

  “Name?” Indutsan asked. “And previous experience.”

  “Jeje sa Jeje,” the girl stated, her voice unexpectedly low for someone of her size. “I been—”

  “Just a moment.” The purser neatly lettered the name in. “Now.”

  “One season on the Mrana. Before that, fishing smacks.”

  “What training?”

  “Sail-maker. I finished the cruise fourth mate to Sails on the Mrana.”


  “Twelve,” Jeje said, gloating inside as Indutsan wrote it down. She was really fourteen, but some merchants did not hire new rats older than twelve. This was her family’s ploy to get her out of fishing smacks and onto the big merchants, where pay was good and steady, and life was much easier.

  “You’re a rat now. If Sails wants you, she’ll speak up.”

  Jeje crossed her arms. “I know the ropes.”

  The purser turned to the other. The boy stood there, brown eyes utterly incurious. He looked sturdy enough, though underfed. Underfed and stupid. “Name?” Indutsan asked.

  The boy’s eyes blanked even more, as if he searched inwardly for something missing. Then he said, “Inda.”

  “Have you a family name? A village name, even?” Indutsan asked with exaggerated patience, and Jeje snickered.

  But Inda didn’t hear, because his mind snapped him back to the dock near the hiring bench where a woman was asking people incomprehensible questions in the slurring Iascan characteristic of northerners.

  How long must I be here? he had asked in Marlovan, looking up into Captain Sindan’s face.

  Light reflections from the water beside the dock flickered over the man’s face, showing deep lines that could be anger, or grief, but all Inda saw was the remoteness of his dark gaze. You are now a sailor, and this is your ship. You must find another name, another life.

  A lurch of the ship snapped him back to the present. The other two watched, the girl in disbelief, the man frowning.

  “Elgaer,” the boy said slowly, as if trying it out. Ducked his head. “Elgaer.”

  “Very well, Elgar,” Indutsan said in his northern slur, and the boy did not correct him. “Age?”

  Again the inward look. Jeje knuckled her lips, unsure whether to laugh or feel badly for someone who seemed to have to reach far, far inside his head for the simplest thoughts.

  “Be twelve in the fall,” the boy finally said.

  Indutsan wrote it down. “You are a rat, which means you berth forward. This is a privilege, one you will probably only appreciate if you are deemed, after a year, unable to be promoted to mid and so you join the crew, and thus have to share your hammock space with the other watches.” He paused, saw no reaction, thought that this dolt would probably join the crew in far less than a year, young as he was. “You are in Vorzscin’s watch for the nonce,” he said to the girl. “And you in Fassun’s,” to the boy. “But any mid, any mate, any warrant—and of course the captain—wants something, you hop. You hear the word ‘rat,’ you run.”

  Jeje snickered, sidling a glance Elgar’s way. Obviously a rockhead. His stolidly blank face, and her own apprehension of what it meant to start at the very bottom rank on a new ship, made her decide in favor of humor over sympathy. At least she wouldn’t get the grief that new rats usually did, not with such a good victim right at hand.

  “We’re a four-watch ship. That means you work two, third for learning and leave if you earn it, and one for sleep. Did you understand pay at your sign in? Each stop a portion, balance after we complete the cruise?”

  Jeje nodded, and after a moment the other did as well, though with no change of expression. Indutsan rather thought the boy hadn’t understood a word, and he was right, but he decided it wasn’t the time to go over it all again, not with a long cruise before them. He could always make the attempt before they paid off at their first liberty.

  “All right, then. Mess dawn, noon, sundown bells.” And to Elgar, “That’s when you eat, if you do, no matter what watch you draw. And the watches change each week. Your middie will explain it to you.”

  Jeje ducked her head, and when the other hesitated, Indutsan flicked his quill in dismissal. Then he sat back and watched the girl dash out toward the ladder to the tween deck, and the boy lurch with the stiff-limbed care of a landsman or a drunk. He shook his head and returned to his work, the new rats already gone from his notice.

  To be fair, the pursuer wa
s also gone from the rats’ notice. Jeje ran up to the deck to scout the other rats. She knew how important first impressions were in the small, confined wooden world of a ship at the start of a trade run that wouldn’t be under eighteen months, and could stretch two years or longer if wind and tide and human events conspired against them.

  Inda, still below, saw the ladder, tried to put a foot on, but the ship flung him against a bulkhead.

  A man’s face emerged into his swimming vision. A blond man, ordinary features characterized by good humor, who somehow reminded Inda of men from home.

  But the man said in one of those slurry northern accents, “Hands first, rat.” His voice was low, abrupt, but kind. “One for you, one for the ship, and you’ll stay on your feet.”

  Inda shifted his weight, grabbing onto the ladder with his hands, and then reaching with his feet. It worked. When he emerged in the next deck he looked around. Now he was lost again. The ship creaked, the wood sounding like something tormented, and his guts lurched. He tried to take a step, and fell into a bulkhead.

  “Way there,” came a voice, and he flattened himself against the damp-smelling wood of the hull as a row of brawny young men stamped by, carrying long, folded lengths of canvas.

  Now he had to find out who Fassun was, not to mention what a “mid” was.

  Inda poked his way down the narrow corridor. It looked vaguely familiar. It curved around, and there was a canvas flap—yes! He lifted it, and there were the four people in hammocks he’d seen before. Three of them were breathing long and slow, but Inda saw the fourth awake, eyes barely open. His face was a mess, puffy and bruised; Inda’s first reaction was the pity of the scrub for another scrub caught out behind the barracks by a horsetail, but of course that life was over. It had no more meaning. He just hoped the pain would end.

  Taumad, hanging there in the hammock, saw the new boy staring, but the stare was nothing he’d ever seen before. It looked like the new rat had gotten the thumping instead of him. So he swallowed back the insult he’d been forming and let his breath out in a snort.

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