Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Tau thought, I always get what I want. Except when I lose my temper. But that wasn’t the sort of thing to say aloud, and so it was just as well that Inda shifted the subject. “Who’s the brig? Anyone we know?”

  “A Captain Dirbin, out of Mardgar. She’s also a captain-owner, so even though she’s just a single little two-master brig you’re to fly the blue below the white.”

  Inda had to translate that long washing-line of messages after the green check flag (meaning messages coming), and presently he hailed the deck mate. “News but no mail; pirates seen; Venn two days west; dinner?”

  Inda waited while the deck mate relayed the messages down to the captain’s cabin, then sent up his counter-invitation.

  “Dirbin. Miserly. She’ll come here,” Kodl predicted. “But she’ll know the gossip from home waters, if you can understand her.” Kodl stumped toward the hatch. “Better change.”

  Inda soon reported that yes, Captain Dirbin would bow to Captain Beagar’s kind invitation and come over.

  A captain’s dinner meant that Inda’s ease-watch had just been curtailed. He was the lowest ranking of the mids, which meant he couldn’t get out of standing behind a chair to serve. But he’d hear any news from home!

  He dashed below to clean up and put on his single good shirt. He soon stood with Kodl, Dasta, and Yan, also dressed in their best shore-going shirts, belted with weave, long wide-legged deck trousers, and bare feet clean. Inda’s thick hair had been yanked back and neatly braided by Dasta; in turn Inda smoothed Dasta’s lank wood-colored hair back and tightly wove the four-strand sailor’s tail.

  Kodl gave them a quick inspection and just had time to nod in approval as a short, heavy woman with an apple-red, cheerful face heaved herself aboard, her green coat brushed and buttons polished, followed by her equally finely dressed second mate, her first being on watch, a well-scrubbed mid sporting, to Dasta’s disgust, striped deck trousers under his beautifully bleached loose white shirt, and then her barge crew, who were taken below by off-watch sailors for their own feast, entertainment, and gossip.

  “Hullo, Beagar,” Dirbin caroled in a voice made loud and unmusical by years of masthead pitch, as she flung her hand up in the age-old gesture toward her forehead and outward that once had been the doffing of a hat toward the captain.

  Beagar saluted her back, equally hatless; no captains wore hats anymore. They hadn’t been worn for generations, unless the weather was bad and they had to be on deck. But tradition on the sea was strong.

  Captain Beagar led the way down to the cabin. Inda took his place behind Kodl’s chair, ready to take the bottle from Dasta, who was stationed behind the captain.

  First the wine. Inda poured with care, still not used to these broad-bottomed wooden mugs, sensible as they were.

  Having managed to pour without a spill, he silently handed off the bottle to the mid in the striped trousers.

  “Fair voyage,” Captain Beagar said, hoisting his glass.

  “Fair voyage to you,” Captain Dirbin responded, and drank. The mates drank, as was proper, in silence.

  Dirbin drained hers off, smacked her lips, and said in Iascan, with a strange, gargling accent, “I haff so much news for you out of the west.”

  Yes, Inda thought. News behind us, out of the west.

  Beagar nodded, and Dasta gestured to the cook’s mates hovering just outside the cabin door. As the platters of grilled chicken and potatoes were brought in, Beagar said, “I heard some at the Nob last month. The Marlovans are taking the coast. Some say they’ll push as far as Idayago.”

  Dirbin thumped her fist on the table. “Damned horse turds. What expect you? Pooh! Pah! They don’t innerfere with harbor business, leastwise, and that is a boatload better than the Venn. Strange, these Marlovans! Hear you about their fighting, but! They can’t put up no fleet.”

  “Not with their warships sunk soon’s they launch ’em,” Beagar said with the indifference of the uninvolved.

  “These horseboys attract pirates.” Dirbin shook her head. “Not just pirates, but the soul-cursed pirates. Strange. Hah! But your news is month old. You know what’s said since about Ramis of the Knife in the west?”

  Inda waited, not breathing, and started when a hard elbow struck Inda’s ribs. “I’ll have that bottle any day now,” whispered the little mid in the striped trousers.

  Inda looked down, saw the bottle sitting there, and passed it as Dirbin finished her wine with a practiced flourish. “There’s this new pirate, Ramis.”

  Beagar sighed. “I’ve heard the name, but that’s got to be just fog. Such rumors always seem to be crossing just ahead, or just behind, never with any fact you tie an anchor to.”

  “Oh, so Ramis of the Knife is just a rumor, is he?” She gargled that “r” in “Ramis” like a hunting cat on the prowl.

  Beagar motioned to Dasta to serve the last of the potatoes. Dasta waggled his hand to the cook’s mate. Inda saw the mate helping himself to a drink right out of one of the bottles just being brought in. “Pirate independent, or Brotherhood of Blood?”

  “Oh, he’s an independent, they say. But as tough as the Brotherhood. Tougher, some say. You know how the Brotherhood, they wear a gold hoop in their ear after their first ship kill. But on Knife, it means Brotherhood kills. Not mere traders.”

  Ship kill. It was a Brotherhood of Blood tradition, Inda had learned from other shiprats—some terrified, some impressed. It didn’t mean capture, forcing the crews either to take to the longboats or switch allegiance, it meant taking a capital ship, looting it, and setting it afire, killing everyone aboard, just because they could. Subsequent kills were signaled by adding diamonds to the golden hoops.

  “He’s after the Brotherhood?” Beagar looked surprised.

  “So they said, so they said. He fired three Brotherhood ships. Midst of an attack. Took ’em one at a time.” Dirbin waved her finger back and forth three times, making a spitting sound. “Three. Makes the independents, with their rules and safe harbors and setting prisoners free inna boat, look like silk-weavers from Colend. As for Ramis’ ship, Knife is a captured Venn warship, and diddied up to be even faster.”

  Beagar whistled. “Took it off the Venn? Huh. So how does it steer? Did he keep the whipstaff, or put in a wheel?”

  The visiting mid smothered a laugh at the looks on the captains’ faces. As the two captains embarked on a highly technical discussion of what this Ramis had done to the Venn ship, the new mid whispered behind his hand to Inda, “Pirates! We never get within sniff of them.”

  “Us either,” Inda whispered back.

  The boy sighed. “You stay close to shore, like these merch captains always do, and with a lot of other ships, and pirates are just a story.” As he spoke he glanced at the captains, who were both leaning forward, illustrating what they meant by moving knives and spoons about on the table. With practiced ease that Inda admired, the mid’s fingers nipped the last piece of chicken.

  Dirbin finally said, “I had the sved off of half a dozen people, all stone sober. This Ramis is hunting ’em for Norsunder, he is. Taking ’em straight out of the world. Through a tunnel black as night he snaps up with his fingers. I tell you I heard it, with these ears.” She flicked both her ears, and then glanced at the apple tarts the mates had just brought in; the heel of the ship sent the tray sliding past her as she hoisted her cup. Unseen by either captain, her mid made good use of the movement to snag three tarts.

  “Well, that one I’ll believe when I see it,” Beagar stated with comfortable ease. Norsunder, in his worldview, was as distant as the time of his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfathers, when there were barbaric customs such as leaving condemned criminals out for the Norsundrians to find and harvest, saving the effort of a beheading. “Souleater” was the worst insult possible, but no one saw Norsundrians actually doing it any more.

  “Suit yourself, suit yourself. You know I never argue, not in the face of this here Alygran wine. Now, this battle. It reminds me of the time . . .

  The visiting mid, seeing that the captains were safely embarked on their battle talk, slid out toward the galley. Dasta poked Inda, holding up two fingers: fetch more bottles.

  Inda eased out of the stuffy cabin, glad at least to get a breath. The summer evening was still, warm, and he could hear singing forward; he longed to find someone who could tell him what was going on at home.

  No, that wasn’t home anymore. His home was here.

  He turned away, poked his head into the galley in time to see the mates passing a bottle from hand to hand, each swigging out of it. The new mid took it, glugged down at least six swallows, and then turned without a stagger as the cook expertly topped the bottle with an inferior wine.

  Inda silently held his hand out. The two bottles were put into it, and he eased his way back into the cabin.

  “. . . and so they fired three of ’em right on the water, but they took the biggest, and a fine, sweet vessel it is, fast and clean, danced even with the wind on the for’ard quarter.”

  He set the bottles down, and saw an efficient brown hand reach from behind and snag one of the last four pastries.

  Dasta watched, mouth open; his disgust at the mid’s fashionable clothes had changed to respect for so adroit a master thief.

  The mid stuffed the pastry into his mouth just a moment before Kodl looked up. “Are you hungry, boy?” he asked with somewhat heavy irony.

  Inda said quickly, “You might want to go up and see to it your barge crew has a harness handy for your mate.”

  The mid bobbed, grateful, his cheeks bulging, and dashed out. Kodl sent an expressive look at Inda, Yan, and Dasta. Dirbin might have a rep as tight-fisted with her crew, but if her mids ate like that one, it was a wonder she could keep her ship in provisions.

  The dinner finished up with mutual expressions of good will, and Beagar saw his guest up the ladder. Two big sailors appeared and in practiced silence hoisted the drunken mate—who hadn’t spoken once—up after the captains, while Dasta and Inda hastily gobbled down the remaining apple tarts, splitting the last one before the cook’s mates could get there.

  Captain Dirbin was seen over the side and into her barge as she began singing in her cheery crow’s squawk of a voice a ditty enumerating the adventuresome, if unlikely, sexual exploits of a sailor girl’s first night on the shore. Inda returned to duty, which was better than trying to make sense out of that patchwork of rumors about home.

  Not home.

  Chapter Eight

  TDOR’S first impression of the royal city was of noise. Carts, voices, horses, dogs, a constant clatter and hubbub magnified by the stone walls all around. Her second was alarm when the fast triplets of war horns sounded from the gates she’d just passed through.

  A Runner, a young man in mud-splashed blue, galloped in on a foam-flecked horse. Everyone gave way, even a riding of guards trotting out for a perimeter patrol.

  “Has to be news from the front,” said her escort. The man was Liet’s father, familiar to Tdor since she first came to Tenthen—the older Rider captains often stood as uncles to the girls brought in so young by marriage treaties.

  The Runner vanished among the jumble of carts, wagons, armsmen, city idlers talking, flirting, watching. There were sellers hawking fresh rye muffins, in short streets of close-set buildings running perpendicular to the city walls, most with a tree in the center around which people from the surrounding houses seemed to gather to chat, and children to play. Crossing these were the great streets that ringed the royal castle, streets so long she could not see the ends as they curved round the hills. It was a city, a real city, her first, filled with more people than she’d ever seen in her entire life.

  Nor was she invisible. People glanced her way, and she watched the progress of their thoughts in the progression of their glances: first the owl pennants and livery on her escort, then to her, at the front right of the bearers: another future Jarlan or Randviar, here for the Queen’s Training. No further interest.

  They passed beneath the heavy wall built over the main castle gate, waved on by the watchful sentries—male ones looking outward, female inward, at least in theory. Just like at home at Tenthen. Tdor was excited at the prospect of seeing Hadand again after two long years, and Joret, who had stayed an extra year on an invitation from the queen—an invitation she couldn’t refuse. Maybe I’ll even see the king, Tdor thought. At the Games, if nothing else.

  They rode into a vast stable yard and dismounted. A moment later a young woman in gray robes appeared before her.

  “This way, Tdor-Edli.” The woman indicated a door, then said to Noren, standing at Tdor’s right and just a little behind, “Bring her gear and follow.”

  Tdor glanced at Liet’s father, who gave her an encouraging nod and a salute, which she returned, and that was the last she saw of her escort.

  Tdor and Noren followed the servant, a girl Tdor’s own age. Noren was watching everything intently, her changeable face a tolerable mirror to her thoughts. When an especially attractive young guard passed by on his patrol, his yellow horsetail swinging, Noren gave Tdor a covert grin, her brows raised; the servant leading them never glanced aside.

  Immense arched doorways with heavy iron-studded doors led to shadowy passageways, stairs, and divided courts. From the courts Tdor and Noren glimpsed such a complexity of towers and higher walls that they wondered if they’d ever learn. Tenthen Castle seemed tiny by comparison.

  Tdor wondered where the academy was. How it hurt, that chain of thought: academy, Inda, their last meeting.

  Stop that. Watch and learn. They reached an intersection at the same moment a pair of female guards crossed from the adjacent passages. They saluted one another, and Tdor heard the taller woman say, “What’s new?”

  “Nothing in my basket, that’s for sure.”

  Tdor, who’d heard that expression for years without thinking of anything but a nice woven carryall, blushed. She’d recently discovered what those women really meant.

  “Here’s the girls’ barracks,” their guide said, paying no attention to the guards. She indicated the building beyond the last court. “This is where you will stay, Tdor-Edli. Runner—”


  “Runner Noren, come with me.”

  Tdor was left in a plain wood-walled room furnished with nothing but wooden benches. From an open window she heard the echo of girls’ voices in drill.

  A tall woman in the queen’s livery—gray robes edged with crimson—entered. “Tdor-Edli?”

  Tdor saluted, hand to heart.

  “Please come this way. I will introduce you to your bunkmate, who will show you around and explain. You will not be expected to attend drills until tomorrow.”

  “Thank you,” Tdor said, and followed the woman down clean plank-floored halls, past empty barracks rooms. They reached the last, which was close to a door opening onto a court.

  Inside was a single occupant, busy sanding down a bow. She looked up, and then smiled; Tdor studied the girl, who was short, slight, with a square face and curling pale hair escaping her braids.

  “Tdor-Edli, Shendan-Edli,” the woman said, and then she left without another word.

  Shendan Montredavan-An. Fareas-Iofre had said to Tdor, Your daughter will marry the Montredavan-An heir, and his sister will help raise your firstborn daughter, as their girls cannot marry out. Become her friend, if you can. It will make the loss more bearable one day.

  And on the last day of her last visit with her own mother, she had been given the same advice. Tdor felt peculiar at the idea of having a daughter; the idea seemed weird, even absurd. Mostly she was interested in this new person whose family had such a long, fascinating history. And now were exiles on their own land.

  “Hullo,” Shendan said in a cheery voice. “Long ride?”

  “Somewhat,” Tdor said, tentatively.

  “Well, you’ll be able to hit the pillow early tonight. Take it! Tomorrow it’s up before dawn, and whack, whack, whack.” Shendan grimac
ed. “I’ll show you what’s where. And don’t think you have to know all of it at once. I certainly didn’t.”

  The girl never stopped talking as they moved down the row of barracks and out into the practice courts. It was all quick talk, identifying both people and places, punctuated with laughing comments about mistakes Shendan had made.

  Tdor walked slowly, watching the young women who all seemed tall and competent, fighting with wooden knives, with short staffs, with bows, and many, of course, were busy training horses.

  Shendan was friendly and funny, but Tdor was wondering if she might also be a little scatterbrained when they stopped in a vast, empty parade court, and she pointed up at the castle.

  “The archive is just behind that set of windows, over there,” Shendan said, squinting against the high summer sun. “Next to the tower, which is where the king’s rooms start.” She turned to Tdor, the expression in her wide-set eyes speculative. “Are you going to join the readings on the history of magic, then?”

  Tdor drew in a deep breath. “I-I didn’t know—” That we could mention that out loud right in the open, she meant to say, but she stopped because it sounded so stupid. They were here in the middle of this mighty parade ground, with no one even remotely in earshot.

  Shendan laughed silently. “Surely you knew the Montredavan-Ans are part of it?”

  Tdor turned to Shendan, saw a sardonic quirk to those watchful dark eyes, and blushed. “I didn’t mean that. I only meant—I thought we were not to talk about it, well, so soon.”

  “I don’t, unless it’s safe. Which is why we are here on our tour. I don’t know what you’ve been told, but my family is actually the center of this quest, for we began it, and Fareas-Iofre became a part before she was taken away from us and made to marry Jarend-Adaluin. As you might be made to marry Whipstick Noth.”

  Tdor drew in a sharp breath. “No one has said that.”

  “No. They won’t, until the women negotiate, the men negotiate, and they finally negotiate with one another. Then both you and Whipstick will be told what to do.”

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