Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Inda described briefly what he had seen. Dun listened, not surprised. Norsh and his mates had been prowling around whispering; this was the first evidence, if it was evidence, that they might actually be planning an organized mutiny.

  But Dun had a more urgent question on his mind. “You were there when Vorzcin jumped ship?”

  Inda described that, too.

  Dun said, “Of course she’s not a thief. In fact, she just lost all her wages since, what, the Nob? We weren’t allowed on shore in Bren, were we? That’s a sizable sum.”

  Inda jerked a shoulder up and down.

  “She’s no thief, and some might call her practical. How much, they are asking, does anyone owe the Pims, since they cannot protect us from the Venn embargo?”

  Inda looked surprised. “You going to jump ship too?”

  Dun saw in Inda’s face that the idea had never occurred to him. “No,” he said. “But I hear it around me.”

  Inda wiped his sleeve over his brow, feeling cold. Once again his life seemed on the verge of disintegrating. He was not sure he owed any duty to the Pims if his life was threatened, but he did feel sure of one thing: if he could sail home in the ship Captain Sindan had placed him on, he would. This vessel was his last link with home.

  “I’ll stay until the captain, or the first mate, orders me off,” he said as carelessly as he could.

  Dun’s smile flashed briefly. “If they’re worried about pirates—or have time for mutinous muttering—maybe we ought to rouse the defenders up for some drill.”

  Inda grinned back. “Except who listens to us? But they’d listen to Scalis!”

  Chapter Thirteen

  “CAN you believe it?” Cherry-Stripe Marlo-Vayirmut tered on New Year’s Lastday, as he checked saddle, halter, and sword in its saddle sheath. “All six of ’em going home with us. Including your brother. What are they on about, anyway?”

  Sponge glanced over his shoulder. The royal stable was in an uproar as the Sierlaef’s and the Marlo-Vayir companies checked saddles, balanced gear on the remounts. Armsmen and heralds jostled for precedence. There was no custom to fall back on. Nobody could remember when a royal heir rode on a tour of all the Jarl-holdings, Ola-Vayir in the north to Jaya-Vayir in the south. Marlo-Vayir was to be the first stop.

  Sponge suspected the real intent, but as usual he kept it to himself. “Does it matter?” he asked. “The main thing is, they won’t be with you long.”

  “It’ll seem long enough.” Cherry-Stripe sighed. “Six of ’em! You just know they’ll run me like a scrub. Academy all over again, only I’ll be alone, and without any of the fun!”

  Sponge laughed in sympathy.

  A trumpet outside in the stable yard blared, calling the Marlo-Vayirs to horse. Cherry-Stripe sent one last grimace in Sponge’s direction, half-raised a hand, and then leaped into the saddle. Sponge watched him ride out, his ponytail bobbing. Cherry-Stripe had stopped wearing pigtails during winter, though the Tveis had two more years of pigtail level at the academy before they became ponies; so far their Ains had either not noticed, or more likely they’d decided not to deign to notice, now that they were Guards. The current horsetails never gave them any trouble, ostensibly because a prince was their leader, but it helped considerably that the first Tvei group almost always won the authorized games on the fields, as well as the unauthorized scraps behind the barracks.

  Men and Guards. And when I’m nineteen, I will be a first-year horsetail, Sponge thought as he dashed up the stairs. He hadn’t thought about that when he was twelve, and a new scrub.

  And when I’m a man? Sponge thought, passing along hallways glinting with freshly gilt raptor motifs.

  A Guard saluted, flat hand to chest. Sponge lifted a hand as he entered the archive, thinking: And when I’m a man, I still have Buck Marlo-Vayir to face the first Convocation my father is dead, because he expects to become Royal Shield Arm. Nobody says it, but everyone in the academy knows it. It wasn’t right, but there was no use in complaining.

  What was it he’d read? To complain about injustice is to hand power to he who resolves the question. There was nothing his father could do: the question would arise after he died, and then his brother as new king would order Buck to challenge Sponge to a duel. Inevitable as rain. Sponge had to see to it that he picked the ground, if not the time, or he would be defeated before he lifted a sword.

  Silhouetted against the middle window stood the king, hands clasped behind him, gazing out at the slate-gray sky stretching from horizon to horizon, the castle walls with the ceaselessly patroling sentries, and beyond, on the road winding between the gentle, snow-patched hills, the torch-bearing Marlo-Vayir party, riding neatly in column. Those torches looked, if one squinted, like a river of fire.

  Sponge was not aware of making any noise, but his father said, “That you, Evred?”

  “I stayed to wish Marlo-Vayir Tvei farewell.”

  His father did not immediately speak. This year’s lesson was that the king did not, after all, have unlimited power. That he could be forced to send people to a stupid war, though he hadn’t wanted it, and knew it would cost men and money; the original plan of truce with Idayago, bolstered by the seaward protection by the ships, would have been so much better.

  Yet my uncle, who is older than I, still doesn’t see it, Sponge thought. He sees only the possibility of glory. There was no glory in the prospect of a treaty without a battle.

  “I was pleased with your brother,” the king said at last, as horns blared, echoing from one wall to another. Outside, another family departed. The livery was white and blue: Hali-Vayir. “This is the first time he has acted as heir.”

  Sponge glanced at his father, saw his profile, so he did not hide his wince of remorse. He did not know that the king could hear his breathing change, could sense his reaction. Profound sadness gripped the king’s heart, not just because the Sierlaef’s true motivations were suspect, but because Evred felt he had to protect his father.

  “What did you learn this week?” the king asked at last.

  Sponge glanced up. There was almost no red left in his father’s gray hair. “I learned the Jarls all think the embargo is a joke, that we will be fine without outside trade.”

  “We will be, for a time,” the king acknowledged. “We can grow enough food for our people, especially with these new lands. But when the magical aids to life begin to dissolve, one by one?” He spread his hands. “They all talk confidently about living as our ancestors did, but no one will actually do it. It will have the effect of hurrying us into war, perhaps before we are ready. The Venn will be able to name the time. We have already named the place: our own land.”

  No mistaking that grim tone.

  The king turned his head. “Did you learn anything about the Battle of Ghael Hills from listening to the talk?”

  Sponge thought back through the wine-soused shouting, the songs and stories from New Year’s First Night, told by liegemen and his brother’s Sier-Danas. He considered, then dismissed, an observation about how pompous men sounded, with their “History will award Anderle-Harskialdna the accolade of Sigun” and the aggrandizement of individual stories. He’d already had that lesson, years ago. Men bragged. Men wanted to be remembered. Who and what, “history” actually gave the Sigun did not depend on individual desire, no matter how strong; the truth was that it was future generations who decided what to remember. And why.

  He said, “I think the crucial mistake the Idayagans made was in retreating after Uncle Anderle’s force appeared.”

  The king turned away from the window. “Sindan, in his private report, observed that our people were far more savage after the Idayagans broke and ran than during the actual fighting. I’ve since reread some of the older personal chronicles, and discovered that this is not, in fact, uncommon. Nor is it characteristic of Marlovans. It seems a human trait, to change from fright and desperation to commensurate anger when your enemy gives way.”

  The king walked to the fireplace. ?
??Do you know what your future wife, the future queen, and some of the other girls are doing in the archive?”

  Sponge did not hide his surprise. “Hadand says they are scouting out what they can of our history, since so little of it was written down until just a few generations ago.”

  “Yes,” the king said, “and no. They are scouting out the history of magic, as it relates to us. Think about it. We accept as part of everyday life some very strange anomalies. The lone woman in the cottage is enabled to perform the Birth Spell, and there’s a child with the look of his ancestors. We all know, without thinking, the spell to Disappear the Dead, when it must be done—all except those who took the life if it was not self-defense. Why? Who made it that way? Can they take it away again?”

  Sponge frowned in perplexity. When he actually thought about it, those things did seem strange.

  “Perhaps the project is even larger. I don’t know what Fareas-Iofre has in the way of records, as sent by her sister in Sartor or her mother, and it is she as well as the Jarlan of Montredavan-An who are directing the girls.”

  “Montredavan-An? How? I thought they were sequestered.”

  “They are. At least the Jarl is. He writes no letters, speaks no messages. That is not true of his wife, who has separate lines of communication. Women delivering cloth and books and luxuries such as Sartoran leaf, women riding through their lands on their way home, women who all know one another. The letters they write are duly read by our border Riders, but who knows what is spoken? I do trust their loyalty to the kingdom, and so I say nothing. But I wonder what success they will have, and what it will mean.”

  “History of magic?” Sponge repeated. “Why?”

  “So that they can find a way to learn it,” the king said.

  Sponge tried for a moment to imagine Kialen, his fearful, silent future wife, performing spells that made glowglobes light and bound bridges against collapsing. Kialen, who trembled in fear if anyone raised a voice and fainted if she saw a flogging. The image would not form. And then he realized that Hadand had never told him about these magic studies.

  Another secret.

  He looked at his father. “What are you saying? That we can’t trust the women?” He felt sick as he said it. He had already been over this ground with Hadand once before, and the truth was, he could not imagine honest, steady Hadand conspiring. His champion against his brother’s unthinking cruelty, his uncle’s well-thought-out cruelty.

  “What, really, is trust?” the king asked. “So slippery a word. I trust those girls to be loyal to Iasca Leror, none more so, in fact. To be loyal to you, and to me. But their vision of what constitutes loyalty is fundamentally different from mine . . . from your uncle’s.”

  Sponge considered his father’s words, and realized he would have to think again about trust. It was one of those words you thought you knew, that sparked an instant emotional reaction, but really, what did it mean? For example, his own father’s trust. “Sindan says.” Yet Sponge knew that Uncle Sindan had not been back in the royal city at all. He was now far north, inspecting, without anyone knowing it, just how well the new Jarls were carrying out their promises made at the treaty. There had to be another secret here, one he’d never before suspected.

  “But if the women learn magic, and keep it secret, won’t power shift to their hands?”

  “Power is another of those words,” the king said, smiling. “As long as men are stronger, the power of the sword will lie with them. But if women wielded magic, would that really be so bad a thing? We know that women wielded magic power exclusively in the early days of Old Sartor.”

  Sponge thought about the northern war, and the future war that it most certainly would bring on them. He thought about the isolation of the kingdom, about his uncle’s plans, all in the name of Marlovan glory. He thought about his brother being king one day. And he thought about the glories of Old Sartor, before Norsunder caused its fall.

  “No,” he said. “It would not.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  TWO weeks later Inda sat in the mizzenmast crosstrees, watching through drifting slants of snow as three pirate craft attacked the slowest Pim ship in the disintegrating convoy, and trying to remember the exact sequence of events during New Year’s Week at Tenthen Castle—the songs they sang, who usually drummed, what they ate. He no longer tried to fight memories. They came anyway, if not during the day, then during dreams.

  This was the second Pim ship to be taken in a fortnight of murderous sailing against wind, weather, and swarms of pirates in both small, swift sailing ships, and—when they neared one of the countless island clusters—low, fast galleys that skimmed out to overwhelm stragglers.

  Down below on the captain’s deck, Kodl braced himself tiredly against the binnacle. Already the sun was sinking westward from its low northern arc.

  Kodl knew they would never make it to Sartor. Now he wanted to get them to Freedom Island if he could. The island had been the target of vicious pirate battles three times so far during Kodl’s years on the sea. The new holders, once Khanerenth’s royal navy, supposedly established trade, but on their own terms. Free-trader terms.

  That meant Kodl and the crew would have their lives, but lose the ship because they were not affiliated privateers. And, being Iascans, they could not get letters of marque—no government would risk angering the Venn enough to issue one.

  The other choice was between becoming victims of pirates or becoming pirates themselves.

  Kodl was not the only one whose mood matched the frigid winter air. Captain Beagar had stayed in his cabin since leaving Khanerenth. All his long career he had been a good, careful captain, around the world times beyond count, just a few short years from an honorable retirement. And now his livelihood, his life, was all but gone, and for reasons that had nothing to do with him. The utter injustice had stunned him, leaving him unable to move, to think. The only thing that numbed the pain was the hardest liquor he could find.

  The two would-be mutineers still sat down in the hold, awaiting the captain’s judgment that everyone knew was not going to come.

  And in the mates’ wardroom directly below the captain’s cabin where Beagar stared sightlessly at his logbook, a half-empty jug at his elbow, Jeje sat at the table, watching the lamp swing, and fighting tears.

  “Hey, are you sickening for something?” Dasta plunked down next to her, shedding snow as he stripped off his jacket and knit cap.

  “Just a little cold,” Jeje lied, annoyed with herself. She’d thought the tears had stayed only a sting, but obviously her eyelids and nose were bright red.

  “Is Inda down yet?” That was Tau, sitting opposite them with unconscious grace. His coloring had heightened; Jeje found the sight of his ruddy cheeks and bright eyes so sharp and sweet a pain she had to look away.

  Dasta shook his head and wiped his weather-reddened beak of a nose, which had gone numb. “Leugre still snoring. Never took his watch.”

  “As well,” Tau commented, and no one disagreed, even if they had to miss sleep to cover him.

  “Inda stayed on for his watch. Snow’s thickening up some,” Dasta said, crouching down at the iron stove at the forward bulkhead of the mates’ wardroom. Ordinarily these lowly middies would be in their airless little cubby of a wardroom, one of the least pleasant spaces in the ship above the hold. But the first mate—now the unofficial captain—almost lived on deck. The second mate, Leugre, was sleeping off a drunken binge, and Norsh, now third mate, was nowhere to be seen.

  Dasta pointed a finger at Jeje. “She’s sick too.”

  Jeje peeked furtively. Tau turned his beautiful head, his eyes reflecting with golden radiance the lamplight that swung past, and darkening to shadow as the lamp reached the height of its arc. Jeje saw his quick concern, and not the least hint of the precious, magical fire of ardency that Jeje had so recently, and so secretly, discovered.

  “Shall I take the midnight watch? Nothing else to do,” Tau offered.

  “I hope,” Faura
said from the door, her dark gaze accusing, “someone is going to work tonight.”

  “On our way.” Jeje reached for the coat and hat that Dasta had set aside. They both smelled heavily of wet rope. No one having had liberty for over half a year, those who’d been growing shared their winter clothing around since they hadn’t enough stores left to make any. Inda had Jeje’s jacket, which was too tight in the armpits for her these days. “In fact, I may’s well go bring Inda off, and stay in the tops.”

  Faura remained silent as Dasta and Jeje passed. Then she stepped up to confront Tau, one hand toying with a ringlet she’d let escape from her knit cap. She glared at Tau. “Everyone leaves when I come. Plotting mutiny?”

  Tau said, “Don’t.”

  She said challengingly, “Convince me.” Tau saw tears of anger, even of shame, along the rims of her lower lids.

  Mutiny. For the past year Tau had been avoiding her hints, touches, gropes, and sulky comments, hoping she’d find someone else to pursue. But Fassun’s spoiled cousin seemed to be unshakable until she got what she wanted.

  Right now, though, something more than thwarted lust underlay her words, her attitude. He sighed inwardly. If not me, who?

  “Very well,” he said, and took her offered hand, raising it to his lips. He kissed her hand lingeringly, then turned it over and gave her palm a quick bite. Faura gasped.

  “Only I might not have time to talk,” Tau murmured, and when she smiled in triumph at having at last gotten his attention—and wouldn’t that toad Jeje burn!—he smiled back, thinking: You will.

  Jeje reached the deck and hunched against the slap of icy wind against her face. She saw Testhy’s shock of red-tinged pale hair instead of Leugre’s wheat-colored sailor’s braid, and relaxed. He waved a mittened hand then returned to overseeing the storm sail being set on the foremast. Jeje was glad Leugre was scamping duty; his rotten temper and cruelty were far worse when Scalis, Niz, and Kodl were below on their snooze watch.

  She pulled on gloves still warm from Dasta’s fingers, then scrambled up the shrouds. Timing her climb against the spectacular roll and pitch of the ship, she hoisted herself up onto the masthead and plopped down next to Inda. “Heyo.”

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