Inda by Sherwood Smith


  Fassun stared up in shock at brown eyes narrowed with murderous intent, but before he could form the simplest thought, that killing stare widened into realization, and the boy’s face bloomed from pale to scarlet.

  Inda lifted his hands and got to his feet, his mouth now set, his eyes averted. Fassun’s anger cooled into questions. He too got to his feet and stood for a breath or two, trying to control his aching gut as he gazed down at the smaller boy. “Where did you come from?”

  Another scarlet flush, and a low mumble. “Elgaer.”

  Silence from the others as they contemplated Choraed Elgaer, which to them just meant a stretch of extremely rocky coast that had no decent harbors. Faura grimaced, astonished that that stupid rat could deck cousin Fass. Maybe she would drop the rock-brain comments. Taumad rubbed his knuckles, watching.

  “No,” Fassun said. “What’s your family, what do they do?”

  “Where did you learn that fighting?” Testhy asked.

  Inda shook his head.

  “What’s all the thumping up here?”

  Everyone turned. First Mate Kodl stood at the canvas flap that served as their door. Then they looked Fassun’s way. It was within his rights to report what had happened.

  “I knocked over a gear bag,” Fassun said.

  Kodl pursed his lips. “Shall I tell the captain that the larboard mids are too busy yapping with the rats to hold inspection?”

  They all got moving, the atmosphere thoughtful, the looks sent Inda’s way covert.

  The lower ranks rolled and stowed their hammocks on deck between the shields hung along the railings as they would if they were attacked, scrubbed their cabins and then themselves, dressing in the plain, sturdy shirts and canvas trousers of sailors, and then lined up on deck for the captain and first mate to come by for ship inspection.

  For a time the ship was the only speaker, the timbers creaking with musical (to the trained ears of those whose lives were lived on water) contentment, the ropes humming to the percussion of the sails as the ship plunged through a gray sea under a low, gray sky.

  Inda and the captain saw one another for the first time. The new rat, to the captain, was unprepossessing but clean. To Inda, Captain Peadal Beagar looked alert and commanding in his green captain’s coat with its round brass buttons, and he exuded a benign sense of authority, settling to a boy whose world had been blown into scattered leaves by the winds of ambition.

  The captain studied the sails, the neatly coiled-down ropes, the swept deck, and then inspected cabins, galley, hold. All were clean, orderly. And so he gestured, and the bosun sent his mate to ring the bell for Restday mess. The upper ranks scrambled down tween decks: first served.

  Taumad, standing next to Inda, studied the shorter boy. Inda glanced up briefly, and then away. Tau liked that. This boy didn’t stare or leer like so many others did, didn’t grab, touch, caress. Tau remembered the first day, when Inda looked like someone had given him sixty with a rope-end before the entire ship’s company.

  “You’re going to have to sved the others,” Taumad said.

  “No.” It wasn’t a snappish response. Just unyielding.

  Inda was stubborn, but so far he had never been sullen or mean. He was interesting. Tau had grown up hearing his mother expose, in a mocking voice, far too many secrets of human weakness. Most of them were predictable. The other rats were very predictable. Inda was impossible to figure out.

  Nothing more was said between them as the rats were dismissed to stampede tween decks to fetch dishes and stand in line for grub. But there were those who observed the troublesome Taumad sitting by choice next to the new landrat and later offering to help him learn to use a needle and thread.

  One of those who noticed was Captain Beagar. Later on in his cabin, while the Restday singing floated down through the skylight, he said to his first mate, “Did you note your hot-blooded Prince Dawnsinger seems to have found manners, at least with that young landrat?”

  Kodl nodded, grinning. “Being as we’re landmates, I collared Testhy and got the sved. If he isn’t farting down the wind, the rat decked Fassun in about a heartbeat, at dawn bells. Small as he is.”

  “Fassun?” the captain repeated. “Decked by that small boy? Hm.”

  The two dined alone. The second mate had the watch, the third was asleep, and the skylight was closed. That meant they could talk, if their voices were low enough, with what semblance of privacy existed aboard a cramped wooden world.

  Kodl passed the Restday wine back, adding, “I hoped Taumad would find himself a mate. If he stops fighting everyone who looks his way, we might not have to put him off at the next port, promising as he is.”

  The captain dismissed Tau and his problems. What concerned him was the cruise, more specifically the return spring season after next, when they might be kept by weather from meeting the yearly convoy, and when they would emerge from the Narrows dividing the land bridge into waters that were dangerous, and becoming more so, for the last leg of their journey home.

  “Give the landrat a month to learn his ropes and sails, and then put him with the forecastlemen,” the captain said.

  Kodl hesitated; the captain, seeing his hesitation, indicated he had permission to speak his mind. “The forecastlemen will take assignment of a small boy, and a landrat at that, as an insult.”

  “I don’t care what they think,” Captain Beagar stated, and Kodl knew he would have to repeat the captain’s words. “Not when it comes to defending my ship.” He sat back. “If the boy is as good as you say, he will adapt.” He smiled a little. “In fact, if he is as good as you say, and he survives the forecastle’s welcome, Scalis will probably make him a pet. If so, whatever he knows had better show up in the repel-boarder drills. And if that comes to pass, he’ll move up to mid by next cruise.”

  Kodl opened his hand. That was an order, and they were captain and first mate again; it was not for Kodl to say that he had doubts a boy would be permitted to teach that irascible old Scalis anything.

  Chapter Three

  NEARLY two years passed before the Pim ships again reached the coast of Iasca Leror.

  The convoy that emerged from the Narrows that second spring was a magnificent display, stretching to the horizon, the complicated geometries of fore-and-aft-rigged ships with square topsails interstitched by the long, elegant triangles of single-masted cutters racing up and down the line, signal flags snapping in the strong, cold spring winds.

  The trade convoys always gathered in masses just south of Sartor as self-protection against the pirates infesting the unpatrolled southern waters. This year’s convoy, held a full extra month beyond the usual time due to contrary winds, had benefited from the strengthening of another forty vessels, discounting the odd little smacks that stuck close lest they be snapped up by the pirates lurking to the west in the inlets of the land bridge.

  Next cruise’s worry about getting safely through the Narrows was a year or two off. They’d made it safely through the Narrows in a long string, framed by cloud-touching cliffs, and now the Pim ships were sailing to the north, almost home, after nearly two years’ trading. Those who had family, friends, or lovers along the Iascan coast watched every plunge of the bow, how each sail drew.

  Inda watched as well, standing with ease on the foretopsail yard with Tau and Jeje. The rise and fall of the ship had become a part of life, as unthinking as breathing. The wind, a stiff breeze sweeping up from the southwest, stayed steady. No one had had to touch brace or sheet since morning, so the three were watching the other ships, how they handled their sails, and half-listening to the sailors on the mainsail masthead behind them, their words carried forward on the wind.

  “Well, I wonder if m’ wife’ll still be there. Night before I left she chucked a cook-pot at m’ head.”

  “My boy oughta be talkin’ by now.”

  “My ma’ll be surprised I made it a whole year and a half without being hanged,” Tau observed.

  Jeje snickered. They knew her home wa
s up in Lindeth, the next harbor north, but she had relatives in the Parayid Harbor, and she’d heard of Tau’s mother’s pleasure house.

  What Inda thought about was the land east of the harbor—his Fera-Vayir cousins’ land. Part of Choraed Elgaer, just a few days’ ride south of Tenthen. His homeland.

  He had tried to forget. But oh, sometimes at night, especially during the long winter they spent tacking grimly through the dangerous waters south of Sartor, he had shivered on deck picturing Tdor there on the dock as the Pim Ryala spilled wind and glided in on the tide. She would be waving and shouting, “Come home, Inda! Come home! It’s all made right.” His imagination never quite decided what “it” was. Sometimes the false accusations were denied by the Sirandael himself before the entire academy, and then he was surrounded by Sponge and his bunkmates, ready for him to join the games again. In other daydreams Tanrid spoke up on the parade ground denouncing Kepa and Smartlip. The worst dream was his father coming to explain why he had sent him away without seeing him, but Inda could never hear the words, because no reason he could think of made any sense.

  No, it didn’t make sense. It was just inescapably real.

  He turned away, a sudden physical movement. Tau and Jeje exchanged looks. They’d gotten used to that strange face of Inda’s, the way he’d go blind and deaf to whatever was around him, and then he’d shrug, or jerk, or move restlessly from one location to another, his mouth white and thin.

  Tau said, “Now, where’re you staying, Jeje?”

  She opened her mouth to say “With my cousins, of course,” but his tone, the meaningful glance Inda’s way, caused her to amend with an unconvincing, “Not sure I rightly know.”

  False as it was, Inda didn’t seem to hear it, or at least to react, so after a pause too long to be natural, Tau said, “Well, then, you can always swing a bunk at my ma’s. I’m sure she won’t charge—not much, anyway,” he added, thinking of the lightning and thunder at home before she’d sent him off to sea. “If business has been slow. But room, there always is.” He turned Inda’s way, adding in a casual voice, “You too, Elgar, if you’ve a mind.”

  To their relief, he said, “Oh, thanks. If there’s room.”

  “And I’m going with you,” came a loud, determined voice.

  They turned to see Faura hanging in the shrouds, listening, her dark gaze steady on Tau. For a time no one spoke, the only sounds the wind singing in the rigging and drumming the sails. Tau just stood, his face blank.

  Faura finally tried for politeness. “If there is room.”

  “There usually is, in a pleasure house,” Tau said evenly. “But doesn’t Fassun have digs for your family?”

  Faura tossed her head. “I can do what I want.”

  Jeje rolled her eyes. No one spoke as they all slid down to the deck.

  The landing of the Pim Ryala involved the entire crew. The Pim captains took pride in anchoring creditably. Inda, as the smallest forecastle hand, was in charge of foremast signal flags, which meant readying and hauling up the white flag on Kodl’s gesture of command.

  Then, when the lookout up high had bawled out that the harbor master had dipped their white, it was time to put the helm down, and bring in the topsails, jib, and last the mainsails while the ship rounded into the wind.

  The larboard watch had to tighten everything down and lower the boats, while the starboard watch lined up for pay.

  The larboard rats groaned and cursed. Inda said nothing, but as soon as his job with the signal flag was over, he swept a spyglass over the crowd lining the nearest dock.

  No one there for him. Of course no one was there. For a short, fierce time he loathed himself for being stupid enough to have expected anything else, but the anger gradually faded into the old numbness, and he made himself busy until the bosun tweeted the signal for the larboard watch to line up at the capstan for their pay. As he held out his hand for his share of coins, Inda thought, If she knew, Tdor would be here.

  It was true. Little else made sense, but that was true enough to ease some of the constriction in his heart. And more true, he thought as he dropped down into the long launch, and took up his oar at the third mate’s hoarse shout, life was easier with friends. Even if it didn’t make sense.

  He glanced across at sturdy dark-haired Jeje, and behind her Tau, who had taught him how to navigate in strange harbors. There was Dasta, his hawk nose lifted as he surveyed the town for family, and Yan, the quiet Chwahir boy.

  “Pull, ho, heave, ho!

  The ship’s on fire, the first’s a liar,

  but we’re done and gone for ho-ome!”

  So I will stay with Tau, he thought. Searching inside, he found that the prospect did not hurt; he knew that he, Tau, Dasta, Jeje—if her relatives let her loose—and the others would find things to do. They’d laugh. Odd, how many jokes they already had, jokes that had nothing to do with academy jokes and slang. Though he was very close to his ancestral home, no one would know, and his secrets would stay secrets.

  As the boat slowed to weave in and out of harbor traffic, some of the hands sat upright, one or two waving to people on the dock. Right before Inda, at mid-oar, sat yellow-haired Dun, the carpenter’s mate hired the same day as he. A strong man of medium height and build, seen most often in defense drill—for he shot a good bow—Dun had been kind to Inda in an absent sort of way over the long cruise.

  They had to pull in their oars to permit a fast little trysail to pass. Dun turned his head to scan the harbor, and caught Inda’s gaze. “Find a place to stay, young Elgar?”

  From his accent in Dock Talk, he was Iascan—southern Iascan—though he spoke Iascan with the slurry northern intonations. I’ll have to get used to hearing the sounds of home again, Inda thought. Out loud he said, “Sure.”

  Dun gave a nod, and squinted out over the harbor. His yellow hair was tied off in a stiff, four-strand queue like a sailor’s, and he wore sailor’s gear, but he still sometimes reminded Inda of a plainsman. He said, “So what did you think of your first voyage, eh?”

  Inda lifted a shoulder. He said what he thought he was expected to say. “I liked it right enough.”

  “Get drunk?” Dun smiled. “They always get the rats drunk at least once. A tradition, though every captain hates it.”

  “Just one time, during the first winter.” Inda grimaced and looked down, his upper lip lengthening for a moment. That day still knifed him in the heart: walking round a corner in a strange city and seeing a scruffy brown dog pee against the side of the building. He’d heard Dogpiss’ laugh so clear, so sharp! To get away from that pain he’d let Scalis and the other forecastlemen talk him into drinking whisky-laced punch until he found that though he couldn’t see, and he had to puke, drink didn’t numb memory. If anything it made it worse.

  But he’d never tell anyone that. “What I liked best was that I saw Sartor. Oh, just the coast, but still.”

  Dun grunted, wondering what had caused that long pause, the desolate gaze a thousand years beyond the horizon. He knew the boy wouldn’t talk, so he just said, “I think everyone ought to see Sartor once. Whatever your family name or place, we all connect there somewhere, if you go far enough back.”

  The third mate bawled, “All right, mates, if you don’t want to sleep in the boat, let’s put a little back into it.”

  The way was clear. Dun picked up his oar. Within a short time they pulled up dockside and clambered out, some of the crew making flourishing bows to Tau, who flushed but did not retaliate; even Tau knew, after all this long voyage, that the teasing—except from Norsh—had dwindled to mere habit.

  Dun was lost almost immediately in the crowd. Inda, Tau, Yan, and Dasta watched, grinning, as a group of short, barrel-shaped, deep-voiced people who looked just like Jeje trundled up in rolling sailors’ gaits, all talking at the same time.

  She threw a roll-eyed glance over the shoulder of a brawny-armed aunt who was squeezing the breath out of her, and the boys knew they wouldn’t see much of her for a time. Fau
ra smiled in satisfaction.

  They started down the dock to the street, all of them feeling the ground heave beneath their feet. Inda and Dasta stamped; only Tau walked with no less grace than usual. Faura hung back, watching Tau and thinking, I’ll have him all to myself with that frog of a Jeje out of the way, and why does he talk to her so much anyway?

  Tau led the way down a back alley that smelled strongly of fish, to the main street of the harbor. Up on the hills behind the harbor one could make out the round shapes of Iascan houses, but here they were square, built on a grand plan that the young travelers now recognized as modeled on Sartoran and Colendi buildings.

  Tau paused to peer through the tall ground-floor windows of a prosperous pleasure house. His laughing grin of triumph back at the other two caused a passing woman to falter in her step and then blush and hasten on when she saw by the nature of his clothing that he was underage.

  Tau ignored her. “Plenty of company within,” he told his two companions. “That means Ma will be in a welcome mood.”

  And indeed he was right. The golden-haired, beautiful Saris Eland scudded lightly across the shining floor, her draperies fluttering like the butterfly whose name she had adopted, and embraced Tau with tender emotion. She gave no sign that she had seen them through the window. Or that she had seen the woman’s reaction to Tau and his studied lack of response; that she observed Faura’s hungry gaze on her son.

  Tau mumbled something and she turned her glorious golden eyes onto Inda and Dasta, saying, “Of course, my darling. Your-your mates are welcome here! Take them back to your room, and I’ll order you a supper. You must be hungry!” She walked away, her skirts whispering over the shining floor.

  “Food,” Dasta murmured, his eyes wide and glistening. “Real food? No gruff? No rocks?”

  Tau grinned. “No gruff, no rocks. Sleeping as late as we want. No night watches, no rope’s end. No prison, either. We can run all over the harbor, and nobody can make us pick up a rope.”

 
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