Inda by Sherwood Smith

  The new boy seemed to see him then, and before Tau could speak, whispered, “Fassun? I am supposed to find this Fassun.” He spoke with care, in a flat voice. Was there an accent? Or was he just slow?

  Tau said, “On deck.”

  The boy looked around, and then his frown eased. “Oh. Up on the ceiling? The—the outside floor?” He pointed upward.

  Not slow. A landrat.

  “Up.” Tau spoke without moving. It hurt too much otherwise. And the landrat had better not stand around gabbling, or Tau would spit out the insult after all.

  But the rat gave a quick duck of the head and left.

  Inda found a ladder, climbed carefully up, and emerged into brightness and wind and the salty smell of brine. The lurching movement was just as nasty here, but at least he had air in his face, which helped his guts settle, if not his sense of balance.

  He looked around. People were busy everywhere, doing things with ropes and canvas and buckets and other kinds of tools. Overhead was a confusion of wood and more ropes, and at the front end, up high, a single sail. At either end of the ship stairs led up to what seemed to be balconies, where yet more people worked at incomprehensible tasks.

  A fresh wave of misery seized him, as he thought, Why must I be here?

  It was a question he could not ask during the entire ride west, at first because he’d been too sick, and then because the king’s Runner had been so silent, and Inda could not shake the horror of memory. Straight to the harbor, the buying of new clothes, the loss of his academy clothes and boots, all interspersed with whispered talks with unnamed Runners in blue, and long looks that were not angry. But no one had spoken to him, and then early this morning Captain Sindan said, They are hiring on the dock now. Come.

  A fresh jab to his innards. Inda tried to ignore it and searched the deck. There was that girl Jeje. She was talking to a group of boys and girls near the stairway to the front balcony, and when Inda turned their way, she pointed at him, laughing. Some of the others laughed as well.

  They were laughing at him, Inda realized, as the ship gave another of those senseless lurches and he staggered. He shrugged inwardly. Didn’t matter. Nothing mattered anymore.

  He reached the group, four boys and two girls. They all stared at him. “Fassun,” he said.

  “I hoped you might find the time to join us,” retorted the tallest of the boys, swaying easily with the motion. His hair, eyes, and skin were dark, and he looked strong and competent. Horsetail age.

  Horsetail. Academy. Another jab of memory, this time Hadand running into the cell, the healer behind her. Hadand’s face pale, her eyes red-rimmed. She put her arms around Inda and held him, whispering, Captain Sindan will take you away so you can disappear. They cannot find out who you are.

  Not finding out who he was, well, he’d taken care of that with the . . . the purser. So now he said, unaware how long he’d stood there looking inward at the pain of memory, “I couldn’t find you.”

  “Yes,” Fassun said, even more slowly. “I . . . see . . .”

  The others grinned, some of them laughing.

  “Well, let’s get you started.” The shortest one spoke with exaggerated care. “This . . . is . . . a . . . ship.”

  “These are masts,” Jeje said, pointing upward.

  “And sails are on the masts,” another girl enunciated.

  “Three masts,” the short boy with the invisible brows said, and when he held up his fingers and counted off each one the others all convulsed with laughter.

  “Foremast in the front, main mast in the middle, and mizzen last,” the girl said, pointing and waving her arms, her voice insultingly slow.

  “These are sails on the masts,” a boy said. “See these big sails right here above the deck, that you’re going to be raising? These are the mainsails, called courses!”

  “Courses . . . courses . . . courses . . .” Everyone repeated the word over and over, nodding their heads violently up and down as they made antic gestures.

  “So the captain has declared general leave, then?” a not-quite-genial voice interrupted, from a tall, tough-looking young man with pale hair sun-bleached almost white.

  Seven faces looked up, six displaying variations on guilt and apprehension, one empty.

  First Mate Kodl swung a rope-end suggestively, and everyone except Fassun and Inda scattered.

  Fassun said to Inda, “You’ll be expected to know the standing rigging before we show you running rigging, and how to bend and reef.”

  Kodl strolled on, his weather-browned face showing the faintest hint of humor. It was that slight narrowing of the eyes, the deepened quirks at the mouth corners, that brought Captain Noth to Inda’s mind, and again the invisible knife stabbed him deep inside.

  “Here’s the—are you going to puke?”

  Inda blinked, and saw dark eyes peering into his with wary impatience.


  “Better not. You do, and can’t manage the Waste Spell, you’ll scrub down the entire deck, and swab it dry.”

  “I said I won’t,” Inda replied.

  His voice was flat, and Fassun wondered if they might be wrong about his being slow, then shrugged. He didn’t care one way or another, as long as the rat did what he was told.

  “The very first thing we teach land rats is starboard is to the right, and larboard is to the left, when you’re facing forward. Now, you will see that the shrouds and stays are made of wire-strung weave,” he said, pointing to the complicated webwork extending down from each mast to the sides of the ship, and then to the lines slanting down between the nearest two masts, and out to the bowsprit. “These hold up the masts. The shrouds to either side, and the stays fore and aft. Or as you landrats say, forward and backward.”

  Fassun, watching, saw the landrat mouth the words “Starboard, larboard, right, left,” and “Shrouds and stays, fore and aft.” The boy’s brown eyes moved from one to the other, not in bewilderment, but with intent.

  Relieved that he might not have to repeat the simplest, most boring basics over and over, Fassun bestirred himself enough to show Inda each item, sometimes giving a brief reference to its purpose.

  Inda concentrated his attention, repeating the new words, a running stream. Gangway, the wooden path along the sides, waist the sunken space in middle of the ship filled with boats and spars and barrels, forecastle the flat-topped balcony in front, aft castle, or aft, the balcony at the back, which was where the higher-ups had their cabins, the captain’s deck the one highest up aft with the wheel on it. It helped, he discovered, to give all his attention to these unfamiliar things. Memory could then not devour his thoughts, nor could the endless questions he could not answer, that had no answer.

  The lessons broke off just about the time he was beginning to feel overwhelmed, and gaffs, booms, and beckets began to chase one another around the names of the various ropes and not-ropes-but-looked-like-ropes; there came a call of “All hands!” and Inda discovered that he was expected to run back, no, aft, to listen to pale-haired Kodl reel off a set of incomprehensible commands.

  He was pushed and jostled into place along the gangway, took hold of a heavy rope, and soon found himself helping to lower a small boat into which a well-dressed, scrawny girl who looked vaguely familiar from his hiring (“That’s the owner’s daughter!”) had climbed.

  “Yo, heave! Ho, heave!

  Stamp and go, stamp and go!”

  A fellow with a fine singing voice chanted out,

  “The water’s a-risin’, the sails ain’t set.

  The wind is a-howlin’, the watch’s all wet! And a . . .”

  “Yo, heave! Ho, heave!” the rest sang out, tromping forward and yanking in unison.

  Down, down the boat went, everyone handling the rope in time to the song, which mostly seemed to be about various types of disaster. As Inda wondered what a wrung mast was, the boat lowered in jerks, swinging, but staying level, until it smacked onto the waves. The girl did something, and a triangular sail sim
ilar to most of those above flashed out and the wind caught it. The girl grabbed a tiller with her free hand, and away the little boat sailed, leaving a flat path of a wake for a brief time. Inda watched her tack toward Lookout Point, which was where the Pims had their house, wondering how she knew how to judge wind and sail—

  Thump! Fassun rapped Inda’s skull smartly. “Did the captain give you liberty?”

  Inda did not answer, just turned to the next task.

  Fresh air, plenty of plain but good food, the roar of noise tween decks, more lessons, and then a climb up the mainmast, a trip that left him trembling and drenched with sweat, tired Inda so much that when at last he was sent down to sleep he had just enough presence of mind left to watch how Dasta, the other rat he’d been pulling ropes with, climbed into his hammock.

  Once he was in it, he disliked the motion, the way he was bent, but he was too tired to do anything except lie there. Accented Iascan voices blended with the weird creakings and thrummings. He realized incuriously that the boy in the next hammock over was not a boy but a girl—a sturdy girl with long black braids—then he sank down into sleep.

  He woke when a rough hand pitched him out of the hammock. Even in sleep his body remembered how to fall, and so he was more angry than hurt, but when he looked around he saw the other new boy, Dasta, lying on the deck rubbing the back of his head.

  “Bells,” Fassun said, and as Inda watched, his hands readying for self-defense, the bigger boy turned to the one in the hammock. “Healer says you got one more day, Taumad. You better be out sharp at dawn.”

  Tau said, “Watch me.”

  Fassun gave a crack of laughter. To Inda he said, “You got a good berthing, and don’t mistake it. Plenty of ships start the new ones on dead-watch circle, but your first week you get to sleep at midnight bells, nice and polite.”

  Inda said nothing.

  Fassun eyed him. “So what are you standing around for?”

  The girl, who had been changing, said in a slow voice, “It’s time to roust out your duds and get ready for mess.”

  Inda looked her way. A girl, right there, in the barracks!

  “What are you staring at?”

  Inda’s thoughts splintered. “You’re a girl.”

  Faura whooped. “You mean you noticed?”

  Fassun snorted a laugh and gestured with his hand in a circle. Inda knew that one: get busy. Trying not to think of Tanrid, who’d gestured just the same way, he dressed, hesitating when it was time to put back on the new flat-soled, fleece-lined green-weave shoes Captain Sindan had bought for him, and that he’d worn for the first time the day before. The shopkeeper had insisted these were sailors’ shoes, but Inda saw that the other rats were all barefoot.

  Dasta paused with the canvas flap up. “Sooner you get used to no shoes the better. Shoes are slippery aloft. We only wear ’em in winter.”

  Inda ducked his head and took them off again, sliding them into his bag, which was ranged along with the others against the sweeping curve of the cabin. It was almost a relief to feel his bare feet on the deck boards, somehow steadier. His feet were tough from all those years of going barefoot before he was sent to the academy.

  Inda straightened up. The light filtering in from a square hatch in the hull shone on hammock hooks overhead and painted a square on the stained canvas that served as a door. He gazed around without really taking anything in, trying to sort out his jumbled thoughts. Mess. He had to go to mess, though his stomach felt unsettled.

  A voice startled him. “They’ll run ya.”

  He swung around. The speaker was the one with the puffy face. Eyes a distinctive light brown, really more gold than brown, gazed at him—or one eye, anyway. The other was too swollen. Inda glanced from the face to the hand resting on the hammock edge, and he saw red, swollen knuckles. Not a beating, but fighting.

  He paused at the canvas door. “What exactly is a sved?”

  “Seal with magic on it. Guarantees cargo is as stated, and signed off to captains. The sved you got at hire promises you are not a deserter or criminal.”

  “But they say ‘sved’ to one another.”

  Tau sighed. “Slang for telling the truth.” And when Inda hesitated, wondering if it meant honor, the other said, “G’wan. You’ll not get any grub else.”

  Inda ducked through and followed the noise down the narrow, bending corridor to the huge tween decks area, where tables and benches had been let down from overhead, and square wooden dishes slammed down. The food was a lot like academy food, and like the academy, everyone ate fast, shoved their dish into the magic bucket, and ran out. The sight of that magic bucket reminded Inda of the academy, and he wondered if reminders would ever cease to hurt.

  Chapter Two

  THAT second day, Inda realized that his difficulty in understanding the others was not just a matter of accent or unexplained ship terms. The sailors spoke in something called Dock Talk.

  Not that anyone told him until he asked the fellow rat named Dasta. The other rats and middies seemed to think it funny to use it around Inda, switching back and forth from Dock Talk to Iascan. But Inda figured it out when he recognized familiar Sartoran verbs—often simplified to the singular and one or two simple tenses—tying together bits of other tongues. Dasta had been hired the month before Inda. He told him the name of the sailors’ trade tongue, and they shared what they learned as they scrubbed, hauled, practiced reeving, frapping, worming, and pulling ropes.

  Dasta realized that Inda was not stupid. In fact, he was the quicker with parsing Dock Talk, but like most small, skinny boys without any sort of influence, Dasta’d learned to keep his mouth shut.

  The third morning Taumad left his bunk, and Inda saw that those spectacular bruises masked another Joret. Tau was slim; his hair was not just the usual straw color seen all over the Iascan plains but gold, a gold with faint silver highlights, falling in waves, matching the gold of his eyes. He was so handsome that people stared or smirked; that girl Jeje watched him like a wolf watched a rabbit, and Faura giggled, fussed with her hair, or tried to poke or tickle him to get his attention.

  Taumad’s reaction was not to draw inward, like Joret did. He was sullen, goading, and rude. Inda was not surprised to see that the older boys goaded right back, the worst of them being the ranking mid, that senior-horsetail-aged one called Norsh, who also slapped, grabbed, shoved, and head-buffeted Tau more than anyone. Norsh’s knuckles were as red and swollen as Taumad’s.

  Inda watched, but he too kept his mouth shut. He had enough to endure with the running game about his stupidity and the corresponding stings: he was sent aloft to fetch horses’ feed bags—a search that caused derisive laughter until Dasta whispered to him that the “horse” was the rope one climbed along under the yard to work the single square sail on the foremast—he was sent to the hold to find ropes or sails that didn’t exist, he was sent to various officers to ask for insults cloaked in technical gibberish.

  The mates watched, enjoying it. They’d all endured much the same thing, and in their opinion rats learned their craft, and learned their place, all the quicker for good-natured ribbing.

  But was such behavior ever really good-natured? It never was to the victim, and could very rapidly turn poisonous. So Inda barely spoke. He never smiled, laughed, or frowned. He had been trained to endure, and so he endured, so thoroughly it seemed he had no reaction at all. And so the ribbing escalated by degrees, as the others sought a response for effect.

  Jeje came by the same degrees to regret her laughter. Everyone ganging up on one victim was not fair. She comforted herself with the thought that Inda was too stupid to notice.

  The fourth morning her comfort ripped away when her watch and his worked together to load new stores. Inda paused, and she heard his sharp intake of breath at the sight of a barrel of red sponges freshly dug up. She could not imagine what in the sight of a sponge bucket could cause such a reaction, but the look of pain in his compressed mouth and tight-closed eyes dealt a slap to he
r own psyche. His stolid face was not stupidity, but endurance. Solitary endurance.

  She, like Dasta, knew better than to speak up to Norsh and the other mids, not when she was at the bottom of all the ranks. It wouldn’t fix anything, and would only make her an added target. Instead, on the fifth evening Inda found a little gift of food in his hammock after he was too late to mess, and his hopeless tangle of a mended net—an assignment by Norsh that Jeje knew was to entertain his particular friends—neatly finished when he woke up on the sixth day.

  Restday morning Inda woke up just before the others, after a heavy sleep and wild, disturbing dreams. For a few moments, hearing the breathing of others, smelling the familiar dusty-dog smell of many children in a small space, he thought he was in the scrub pit at the academy.

  It was the movement of his hammock that broke the grip of dream and doused him with a cold, indifferent splash of reality. There was no callover, no Sponge. No fresh, crispy crusted rye-buns baking for early mess. Sponge and Tdor were gone. Gone. And Dogpiss was dead.

  Inda slid his hands over his face, dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, and held his breath. He thought he’d stopped crying on that long ride with Captain Sindan across the western plains of Hesea, where no one could see. Damnation. He must be the one damned. Norsunder could never be worse than this life.

  The ship’s bells rang, ting-ting, ting-ting. Dawn watch. Restday, and then another week in this place, and another. He could never go home again.

  No. Don’t think like that. Tanrid had believed him. And what was it Evred said about justice—

  Thump! A hard hand whirled him out of his hammock.

  And he landed, rolled, launched himself up, used the power of his own momentum to strike twice and fling his tormentor onto the deck, and for a moment he crouched there, knees immobilizing the enemy’s arms, knuckles pressed against his neck, until his mind caught up and he realized this was no academy scrap. He had Fassun pinned down. Fassun, a mid. On a ship. Who could have him beaten with the rope’s end for insubordination.

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