Inda by Sherwood Smith


  Dasta rubbed his hands. “That,” he said, “is what I call liberty.”

  Chapter Four

  DUN the carpenter’s mate entered a small, weather-beaten inn behind the grand main avenue. The inside was dark, and the few customers all seemed to be landsmen.

  In the far corner near the kitchen partition, facing the room with his back to a wall, sat a tall, long-faced man with gray-streaked dark hair, wearing anonymous Runner blue: Captain Jened Sindan.

  Dun slid into the seat opposite.

  “Welcome, cousin,” Sindan said.

  “How is the family?” Dun replied in the pure central-plains Marlovan of their ancestors, his posture altered, though he still wore the loose clothing of a sailor. Now he was Hened Dunrend, King’s Runner.

  The short, buxom woman who trod heavily to their table did not betray the slightest interest in them or their conversation; if she understood Marlovan, she gave no sign. She stated—in flat southern Iascan—“The supper is either fish cakes with cabbage balls or chicken pie. We have summer ale, brown porter, and white wine from the north.”

  The men ordered, the woman trod heavily back toward the kitchen, boards creaking beneath her feet.

  “Is he alive, Dunrend?” Captain Sindan asked, leaning forward, his voice low.

  “Yes. Do you want me to show you where?”

  Sindan shook his head. “I must not risk being seen. Tell me everything.”

  “That encompasses much,” Dun said. He paused.

  Creak, creak, the floorboards groaned, announcing the advent of their porter. Thunk, thunk. The mugs clunked down, and creak, creak, the woman retreated.

  Dun smiled a little. “He was desperately unhappy in the beginning. But broke his isolation by befriending the wildest of all the rats, one named Tau, the one I’d least expected.”

  “Misery,” Sindan repeated, taking no interest whatsoever in Tau. “He said nothing?”

  “Not a word. Not one single word about his family, friends, or what brought him there.”

  “So they don’t know, then,” Sindan said, relieved.

  “Oh, they suspect he’s a Marlovan, but he doesn’t know that. The name he chose, I should mention, is Inda Elgar.”

  “Elgar.” Sindan frowned. “Too easy to put that together with the missing son of the Adaluin of Choraed Elgaer.”

  “But you have to remember how profoundly uninterested they are in Marlovans as individuals. To north coasters, in particular mariners, we are a mass of ravening villains, bent on nothing but conquering—what is it? Did I say something?”

  “My news,” Sindan murmured, “can wait.”

  Tromp, tromp. Two plates slammed down. Tromp, tromp.

  “How did they find out he’s a Marlovan? Language?”

  Dun’s fingers scrabbled emptily at his waist, where of course there was no sash and no knife and hadn’t been for two years. But speaking Marlovan again, smelling home food, brought back the habit he had so carefully suppressed. “No,” he said, using the fork to spear a cabbage ball. “It was his fighting. Which in turn got him promoted into the forecastle watches.”

  “That means nothing.”

  “Forecastle sailors are usually men, and big, for they are accustomed to handling the anchors and the head sails. In heavy weather . . . well, think of fighting to control, say, four runaway horses, all that wild strength connected by one rope, while balanced on a tree branch in a high wind.”

  Sindan nodded once. “Understood. So, to the fighting.”

  “He got angry and duffed a bigger boy. So the captain wanted him with the forecastle. Those men are largely responsible for repelling boarders on merchant ships.”

  “Go on.”

  “Well, the forecastlemen ran Inda, as you’d expect. Here’s this small boy, knows nothing about the sea, and the captain insults them with him instead of the sturdier shiprats. Inda said nothing. He never does. Just watched the repel-boarder drills, bad as they were. Did his part if told to move. But I’m not telling it a-right. He has this hothead friend Tau that I mentioned, run a lot by the biggest of the mids, who command the rats and oversee watches. Think of them as senior horsetails, training for command.”

  “Ah.”

  “The biggest is this one called Norsh, who had been riding Tau, Inda’s friend. Riding hard. There’d been two fights before we were hired on. So anyway, there’d been another tussle, and Norsh used his rank to get Tau roped. Inda didn’t say anything, but on the next real shooting drill, when Norsh was jawing at him, he turned away and shot fast, hitting the barrel—they float a barrel in the water with a target painted on—time after time, his form perfect, straight line fingertip to fingertip, just as we’re taught, and I was so careful not to show though they have me on that crew. It was a sting, and the forecastle howled.”

  Sindan frowned. “So he was betrayed by his training?”

  “Only in a sense. Merchant sailors are untrained. Some captains won’t even give them arrows, because they can’t be retrieved from the water, so they go up onto the mast-heads—few of them even have longbows—pull the strings a few times, and that’s drill! Ours shoot, but they send poorly made arrows out without any sense of aim, figuring they have to hit something. To them Marlovan means skill with weapons. They don’t recognize anything like styles of fighting.”

  “Good.”

  “So to resume, Norsh couldn’t thrash Inda for frost, because he’d followed the orders of the drill captain, and the forecastlemen were all shouting their approval. So Norsh says he will show Inda how to fight hand to hand.”

  Sindan toyed with his knife. “And?”

  “Well, at first Inda just stood there taking it, because he thought he had to. Rank’s privilege of punishment, that much he understood. It’d been impressed on him that you can be rope-flogged for insubordination. And he’s used to it from his brother, no doubt.”

  “You are right.”

  “It’s a bad way to train,” Dun said, his tone serious. “I didn’t see it until I got away. This tradition of boys beating boys in the families of rank, one day it’s going to cause big problems.”

  “Already has. Go on.”

  “So the boy said nothing, just stood there silent, taking it, until Scalis, uh, he’s the captain of the forecastle watches, well, he said, ‘This here’s drill! Go to it, boy!’ And Inda was like an arrow to the mark. They’d never seen anything like it. He was wild, his style reminding me more of the women’s Odni. That is, he did not have the knives, but it was the way he used his hands. Flowing like water, hands and kicks.” He demonstrated with the heel of his hand to his own chin and breastbone. “He had a broken wrist by then, not that he noticed. But he blackened one of Norsh’s eyes, knocked the wind out of him, and Norsh went down hard twice. The second time Inda flung himself onto his neck. The men all stood around with their mouths gaping. But before Inda could do Norsh serious damage—before I could find some way to intervene without betraying my origins or orders—that hand gave way and he dropped like a rock on top of Norsh.”

  Sindan looked grim again.

  “As soon as he woke up he apologized to Norsh for losing his temper, the first mate and captain approved, and so Norsh was forced to let it end there. The forecastlemen did not. They started teasing the training out of him, a block here, a strike there. Their fighting drill is not much beyond ‘Wade in and swing whatever weapon you’ve got, roaring like a bull.’ Inda sees that, and it seems a part of his nature to organize, to teach, perhaps to command. One day, finally, he showed one of the men staff work. Once his wrist had healed he was leading the drills, and they were like colts in clover.” Dun gave a rueful smile. “They have no idea what it is, of course, or only enough to permit themselves to think it, like his shooting, some sort of general ‘Marlovan’ defense. Their mouths are full of curses like ‘drunk as a Marlovan’ or ‘stinking as a Marlovan horse turd’ but they’re doing academy scrub drills, only without drums, calls all in Iascan, if you can imagine such a thing.”
<
br />   “You should not have permitted that to happen.”

  Dun said, “I thought about it, but two things stayed me. One, not one of those men will ever set foot a hundred paces inland. They’ll never know what they learned. And second, the rumors of pirates are growing worse. You did say to keep him alive.”

  “And that is still my mandate.”

  “Well, then, the ship’s crew had better know how to fight,” Dun stated with grim conviction. “Things are going from bad to worse in the east, and there’s troubling news closer at hand.”

  Sindan was silent for a time. Neither had really touched their food. Dun began to eat in an absent way.

  “Then leave be,” Sindan said finally, and Dun realized he was not going to find out what had happened to cause the son of a prince to have to vanish. Especially since the boy was obviously not a thief or a coward, the usual suspicions.

  Dun again regretted that his Runner duties had kept him so long on the coast, that his family background in ship carpentry had made it easy to assume this disguised self. But he’d been patient for a year and a half, and now that duty was done.

  Or? It’s still my mandate, and Leave be. Those suggested he was not free after all.

  Sindan broke into his thoughts. “You said he has the way of command. Is it just the drill, then?”

  “No. The reading classes.”

  Sindan raised his brows, and for the first time smiled a little. “Tell me, frivolous as it may seem.”

  “Little to tell. I didn’t know the academy taught them reading and writing, even Sartoran.”

  “They don’t. Classes are spoken. The education in letters was the doing of Fareas-Iofre.”

  “Ah. Well, few hands can even write their names, and of course it’s not needed. Now, mids can’t become mates until they pass a test, because there’s writing involved. Well, it’s the purser’s mate’s job to teach the mids, there being little clerical work while the ship is at sea, but this fellow either is an extraordinarily bad teacher, or else he doesn’t want competition. Inda didn’t know any of that. He saw a couple of the mids struggling over some text, glanced down, corrected them. Imagine their surprise that he could read! Soon he conducted classes in the rat-hole—uh, their cabin.”

  “But that’s teaching, not command.”

  “And I don’t perceive it?” Dun retorted, but without heat. “The cruise was largely uneventful, as I said. Until we got caught in the middle of a civil war in Khanerenth. The ship was impounded, all the sailors were seized and imprisoned in an old barracks. Nothing much happened while we waited for them to sort it out; this was beginning of spring last year, you see. We were penned in adjacent warehouses. Captain and mates controlled the sailors in the big one, but the boys, next door, started dividing into factions, fighting, that kind of thing. Kodl, the first mate, who was permitted to check on the boys, reported that Inda got several of them learning to read and write, and then drilling. Gradually they absorbed the rest of the young ones. The only ones who stood out were the older mids who despise the rats. That, my friend, is the instinct for command.”

  Sindan sighed. “Now I see. You’re right.”

  The regret in his voice silenced Dun. But only for a moment. Obliquely approaching the subject that meant most to him, he said, “You mentioned trouble.”

  Sindan leaned forward. “As soon as the ground dries out from the last snow, Tlennen-Harvaldar raises his war banner and sends Anderle-Harskialdna to march on the north.”

  Dunrend betrayed his shock only in the widening of his eyes. Tlennen Harvaldar, war king, not Tlennen-Siraec, ruling monarch. For though the Shield Arm could command defense, it was only the king who could declare war; his brother defending at home would remain Sirandael, but if he rode to war, he took the coveted title of Harskialdna.

  Sindan saw the question in Dun’s face, and murmured, “He was forced into it, of course. The Venn sea war in the east just postponed that trouble, and those who counted on glory and land have been poised to turn on one another. And so our excuse is the Idayagans’ refusal to accept the treaty sent north last summer.”

  “But I thought that the treaty offered our warships in sea defense, and had to be dropped when our ships were sunk.”

  “Another treaty was sent—the Sirandael went himself. The new treaty would shift the defense from sea to land, requiring them to quarter warriors there for defense against the Venn when they do come. The Idayagans have not answered, and the year they were given is up.”

  Dun compressed his lips. The Sirandael went himself.

  Putting that together with the remarks about brothers, and Dun knew what Sindan could not say, and something of what he himself had come very slowly to realize, ever since he’d traveled to other lands, and could compare what he saw to what he had always taken for granted at home.

  He had never been sent to the academy, of course, for his family had no influence. Runners were trained differently, but one of the ways they were trained was to comprehend those they might one day have to represent, to protect, and as they traveled ceaselessly around the kingdom, they listened.

  He had heard enough to imagine what the Sirandael’s life had been like: raised not just to train for defense at home, but for war. Everything in his life an arrow to that one target. It wasn’t just duty, it was his life’s meaning.

  Far away, while sitting and thinking in a Khanerenth jail, Dun came to realize that a man whose entire purpose for living is to command a war will not want to spend his life waiting for its possibility. He was going to have one, and he was going to see to it—after all, it made military sense—that he would have it on his own terms, the ones with which he expected to win.

  Dun leaned forward. “You’ll need Runners. Send me north.”

  “I need your skill as personal guard more. There is no one better than you, even among most of the Guard. You must protect Indevan-Dal.”

  Dun protested softly, “He will survive. When he discovers how capable he is, he will even prosper.”

  But Sindan shook his head, and said, reluctantly, “You have to understand that I speak with the King’s Voice in this matter. Though I do not wear the crown sigil”—he touched his breast—“and carry no written orders you see me as Herskalt, and these are the king’s own words: You are to stay with the boy as his shield.”

  Dunrend closed his eyes, drawing in a slow breath. He needed that time to recover from the nearly overwhelming bitterness the command caused. Then he saluted, fist to heart.

  “That’s it, then,” the server thought to herself, standing soundlessly behind the wooden divider, and she retreated through the kitchen, where the cook and her mates were busy, heedless of anything going on in the outer room. Step, step, out the door and up the back way to the barren attic room she’d held since she’d taken this job two and a half weeks ago, two days after the arrival of Jened Sindan, captain of the King’s Runners. Who had come here to sit every day, obviously waiting for . . . something.

  Back in the eating room, both men sat in silence for a time, Dun wondering if the war would come while he was gone, if his beloved Hibern knew he was still alive, above all if he would ever be able to return; Sindan watching his young relative struggle to master disappointment, and considering the reach of the Sierandael’s decisions, consequences the king’s brother would never know of. Some he exerted himself to make certain the king’s brother never knew of.

  Finally Dun said, “At least I can now tell Inda who I am.”

  Sindan frowned at the window, which looked onto the busy street and the cloudy sky above the rooftops. At last he said, “Do you think Indevan-Dal wishes one day to return home?”

  Dun said immediately, “I know he does.”

  “Yet you say he has not spoken.”

  “Not about his family, or homelands, or anything Marlovan. But you cannot spend close to two years watching someone, even a small boy, without coming to understand a little of what goes inside his head. I would say he longs for home. It??
?s there in his silences, the way the others tease him about bad dreams that he will never explain.”

  “Then he cannot know who you are,” Sindan murmured, his hands open. “Do you not see? If Indevan-Dal wishes to return home, he will return home with stories of his experiences while exiled, and those stories cannot include a guard ordered by the king himself.”

  Dun realized that the order extended to himself as well, and he sustained, in silence, the sharp pang of disappointment. If I do not know the reasons for the exile, then I too can return home one day. And he thought of Hibern, also a Runner. She knew about long missions, and silence. One learned to accept that in the royal service.

  But she would not wait forever, and he could not blame her.

  So the exiles must continue together, without the comfort of communication.

  A Sartoran would have negotiated, a Colendi might have smiled, agreed, and done what he wished, a Delf would have argued, and a pair from Old Faleth would inevitably have ended up outside fighting a duel of honor, but Dun was a Marlovan. “So shall it be,” he said, and saluted again.

  “Then let us part,” Sindan said, rising from his chair.

  Meanwhile, the former server crossed the alley to another small inn, where Ranet, Ndara-Harandviar’s Runner, waited. Ranet sat alone at a table, toying with bread and cheese, as she’d done every day since she followed Jened Sindan south. The server sat, murmuring, “I have found the Iofre’s son.” And leaned forward to describe everything she’d overheard.

  While out in the alley, Sindan arrived, and with his own silent step approached the door, waiting until someone came out. When at last a stable boy banged the door open, he glimpsed the two women in the crack between door and frame, smiled, and noiselessly withdrew.

  Chapter Five

  HADAND raced down to the throne room, her breath clouding in the cold air. Outside the last snows were still melting, but she was warm with inward joy.

  Sponge was there, standing just below the three steps to the throne on its dais, where the shadows seemed to pool the deepest, the air was coldest. Weak morning light just reached him; his silhouetted profile turned sharply at the soft sound of her footfalls on the stone floor.

 
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