Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Inda watched Jeje stowing her stuff and pondered, for the first time in months, the mysteries of sex. He knew Tau had at least a year ago, if not longer, crossed over that strange bridge. He, Dasta, and Jeje hadn’t—though sometimes he wondered about Jeje, despite her preference for dressing like a rat in shapeless long smocks and old trousers. There’d been something different about her since late summer.

  “Inda! Come on!” A meal was waiting, they were starved.

  After that, they all fell into bed. When morning came they had just decided to explore the main causeway—called the King’s Saunter—when Kodl arrived.

  “Time to talk,” he said.

  Tau cast Inda an inquiring look. Inda remembered that sense of conspiracy—Niz and Scalis talking with Kodl, all while glancing his way—but he said nothing as Kodl led them downhill to a low, rambling, but clean inn at the very end of one of the quieter streets that catered mostly to mates and captains of the smaller craft, where he, Niz, Scalis, Dun, and some of the forecastle and topmen had taken rooms.

  Chapter Seventeen

  THE room Kodl led them to contained an old, battered plank table. The single window looked out over a narrow alley down which carts creaked and sailors on short liberty were already weaving along, drunk and singing merrily.

  Around the table sat all Scalis’ favored forecastlemen except one, Dun, Niz, three of Niz’s topmen, and the mids Zimd, Testhy, Yan, Jeje, Tau, Dasta, and Inda.

  “Now, here’s what us think,” Niz said.

  Scalis took over. “Way I see things is, no smart ship wants us merch hands when we aren’t trained for speed sail, and most of us are Iascan. So we offer something else, see, something they need so much they don’t ask where we’re from.”

  Another general nod, and Niz said, “Defense.”

  Everyone looked at Inda. He slouched on his bench, staring down at his hands. I’m a killer, he thought, wincing. They all think of me as a killer. Because I am one.

  Of those watching him, only Dun, Tau, and Jeje recognized the pain in Inda’s lowered gaze, the white line of his lips.

  “We’ll become marines?” Tau asked, arms crossed. Drawing attention his way. “Us?”

  One of the forecastlemen cackled, to be thumped on the arm by his mate. “Shaddup. It’s Scalis’ idea.”

  “Oh. Right.” The forecastleman hastily sobered his face.

  Tau went on as if no one had spoken, “Who will hire us? The only ships I see that carry marines are kingdom warships carrying their own people. Merches sometimes, when they are carrying very expensive cargos, but will they take on Iascans instead of their customary armed companies-for-hire?” He shook his head.

  “We offer ourselves to the independents,” Kodl said. “The ones that can’t afford the price of those companies of marines-for-hire. Begin with privateers in the Freedom alliance, the ones that sell cargos taken off their enemies, or smuggle past customs cruisers. No one looking deliberately for trouble, in other words.”

  Scalis rubbed his hands. “But if trouble comes, we got to be ready for it.”

  Kodl gave a nod of agreement. “In these waters, there’s a need. Piracy’s got worse ever since Khanerenth turned to civil war. We spent the night talking to people.” He indicated Scalis, Niz, Dun, and himself. “We all heard pretty much the same thing.”

  Scalis leaned forward. “Fact is, there’s no protection on these eastern seas. Sartor mostly trades west. Sarendan same. Some of them trade up the coast, but not enough to rate notice by their kings. Geranda is Venn held, so they ignore the islands and face north. Colend is land bound and never thinks of the sea at all, and the Chwahir fight everyone else, so what other big kingdom is there to patrol here in the east?”

  “Khanerenth used to,” Kodl said. “Until they got so busy fighting themselves. Half their old fleet is right here, as privateers—three people told us the harbormaster used to be the Admiral of the Royal Fleet. So everyone else out there, if they see something slower, weaker, they turn pirate. And who’s to fight ’em?”

  Scalis smacked his scrawny chest, snuffling a breathy laugh. “Us!”

  “How do we turn into marines, then?” Tau asked.

  Niz spoke. “There’s two things, ship chase, and then the fight. Us learns the fighting skills.” Then he turned Inda’s way. “Yes?”

  Skills. Inda looked up, feeling for the very first time the urge to tell them where he got those skills, that he was supposed to be a Randael, protecting his home, and not just a killer.

  But Leugre would have killed him . . . and become a pirate.

  Memory brought Tanrid’s voice, the single time they were in Daggers Drawn. I just hope if you defend Tenthen without me you won’t show pirates any mercy.

  He would have fought pirates at home, if they had come again. They wanted him to fight pirates here. Niz called it skill. That wasn’t being a killer, was it? He was supposed to do it at home, so why not here?

  He pressed his palms over his eyes briefly. I lost my home. My name. The ship Captain Sindan put me on. All I have left of home is the promise I made . . .

  So he would hold onto the promise. And maybe, just maybe, if he held onto honor—whatever that was—he would somehow be able to go home again.

  But first, it seemed, he had to fight pirates.

  He dropped his hands and looked up at the waiting faces. “I only saw my first pirates, same as you, when the Pim ships got taken.”

  “But you watched,” Kodl said in an encouraging voice. “What did you observe?”

  Inda shrugged again, feeling awkward. “Couldn’t see so much, as it was always dark when they attacked. But they seem to go in threes. Come up on either side, grapple to, board.”

  Niz poked his nose forward in his Delf manner of agreement. “What I heard, it’s all that way. So you need speed. It’s like this. Merch sailors, us trains while doin’. Practice bending sail on land, no one does it. Fighting, it’s nothing you can practice for. See you? They come up fast, tie on, everyone attacks everyone, so how you drill that, except for sittin’ in the crosstrees and sendin’ fire arrows into their sail? Merches don’t know fighting. Our convoy, watched you them? Us has someone trains us better, hire as hands on a big, independent merch. With something to lose. If pirates comin’ hull-up, us fights. You trains us, Inda Elgar.”

  “In staff and archery and sword, maybe.” Inda thought ahead, trying to find weaknesses. “But ship maneuvers? I don’t know any more than you do about ship warfare.”

  Niz snorted. “What us needs to know is speed. Get away. If no getaway, they comes, we fight.”

  Just like what happened to the Pim ships.

  “We’ve been training all along,” Tau murmured.

  “Yes, but not for—” Inda shook his head. They weren’t going to attack anyone. Marines were there for defense.

  He’d already figured out that defense of the Pim ship was akin to land warfare on an island. You couldn’t get off. Just the same as being driven against a lake or river or ocean at home.

  Land warfare to Inda had meant dragoons. Master Gand had told them that they’d learn dragoon skills first, the dragoons being the ones who charged, dismounted, then fought close in, on foot. Cavalry was war on horseback, dragoon was the toughest fighting, because it was both horse and foot.

  So he’d begun the training with dragoon skills, though they hadn’t known what it was called. He would continue with what he knew, and though it wasn’t what the older boys had gotten, maybe they could get fast enough and strong enough to make it work. That meant it needed to be all day. Like the academy.

  “I think . . .” he began, again feeling that urge to tell them about dragoons. But that would lead to questions, and more questions, and then he’d break his word.

  Dun held his breath, gaze switching from the waiting sailors to Inda, whose young face was so expressive of his inward struggle. He wondered bleakly if Inda would still keep his secrets after all this time, and what it would mean for them both if he tal

  But then Inda looked up, as brisk as when he conducted drill. “What about pirates? I mean, do they all fight alike? Do they have a different style?”

  Kodl said, “Most pirates, we were told last night, fight much like the privateers who go after warships. That is, they abide by certain rules once they take a ship. They board, but if you surrender, they stop killing. Set the crew adrift, take the cargo. Some take cargo and ships.”

  “Privateers attack only the enemy of a kingdom, and pirates attack anything weaker, is that it?” Inda asked.

  “Yes,” Kodl said, and Niz bobbed his head several times, his Delf nose poking forward. “Then there is the Brotherhood of Blood. They are the worst of all pirates,” Kodl added.

  Scalis made a spitting motion over his shoulder. “Brotherhood is Norsunder on water, what we called ’em at home. Some think that life a free one. No rules.”

  “But it’s a bad life.” Niz made a curious warding gesture, hand up, fingers fluttering. “Bad.”

  “The Brotherhood,” Kodl said, “kill innocent people and take not just their goods but their ships, or burn them just to watch the fire and listen to the screams.”

  Scalis put in, “Some do it just to swagger about with gold earrings, see everyone scuttle out o’ the way.”

  Kodl continued. “As for fighting ability, what I was told last night by an old captain is that they haven’t any order, they’re just more savage than anyone. Fighting any of ’em is a skill that seems to be in demand.”

  Scalis gave a crack of laughter. “We saw ya, boy, when that filthy soul-eater Leugre came after ya with a sword and a grappling hook. And Black Boots and his mates right after.”

  Tau sat back, again drawing attention from Inda, who had flushed and looked down again at his hands. “What about this Ramis everyone talks of?”

  Kodl shook his head. “All I know for certain is everyone is afraid of him. He sails the Knife, a fast Venn three-mast warship he took. Venn haven’t been able to take it back.”

  “The Venn?” Tau asked. “Is he a pirate?”

  “Some sez yez, some sez no,” Niz put in, pointing his thumbs in opposite directions.

  “The clearest sved we could get is that he seems to attack Brotherhood,” Kodl said. “He was here not long ago, and everyone said we’d have to talk to some fellow named Scubal, but in the next breath they claimed he’s a liar and a coward. He was the sole survivor of Captain Ramis’ last attack on the leader of the eastern arm of the Brotherhood of Blood.”

  Scalis snorted. “Why repeat all that shit? Sounded like drunk talk. Or rabbit talk.”

  “Excuses or stories, apparently this Scubal talked some strange stuff about this Ramis ripping a hole right in the air, and sending the pirates through into blackness. We heard he rode his ship out of blackness to attack,” Kodl retorted.

  “What?” Jeje asked. “Norsunder is a sea?”

  “I never heard that,” Dasta muttered.

  Inda said slowly, still looking at his hands, “That first thing, well, you can read it in old records. Norsunder isn’t in the world, but we know it still exists. If they rip a hole from beyond the world and pour in, no one can stand against them.”

  Uneasy glances all around.

  “But no one has actually seen this night-rip? Other than the drunk, what’s his name?” Zimd asked.

  “No,” Kodl said. “From what we heard, anyway.”

  “So let’s just forget all that,” Scalis muttered, waving his gnarled hands like he was shooing insects. “Moving on to this here Ramis, either he’s got mages that do things like that, or he don’t, but he’s gone, and so’s this Scubal, and there’s no straight sved, just sailor talk, so let’s get on with our plans.”

  They all looked Inda’s way.

  Inda flexed his fingers, resisting the urge to touch those blades up his forearms. Sharp and ready. At home it would have been the Venn, if not pirates. Here it’s going to be pirates. Yes, I can do that.

  He looked up and saw Tau watching him, arms crossed, brows raised, and he heard Tau’s voice again, If you think we are worth keeping alive.

  Inda sat up, knowing he’d already decided. It was time to act on it, then. “If I agree, you have to do it my way, or else go your own. Sailors don’t know how to shoot. Not really. Longbows in the tops only make sense when you have a huge ship with lots of room. And while most sailors are strong enough to pull the bows, they have no idea how to aim. You can’t learn to hit a target, shooting maybe twice a year, or even twice a month. So we have to make cavalry bows, and we all have to learn not only to shoot but to make arrows, and I mean good ones—my kind, fletched in a spiral. And then there’s staff and sword work. Knives are a last resort, because that means the enemy is already too close.”

  Scalis chuckled. “There’ll be nothin’ like us on east or west waters. Nothin’.”

  Dun murmured, “It will take time.”

  Kodl frowned. “Then I say we pool our shares of the take, to last us all the longer. If any leave, they get a portion back and fare-thee-well, but the rest of us ought to train as long as the money lasts.”

  Again everyone turned Inda’s way. He had no idea how long money would last. “All right,” he said, because they all seemed to expect it.

  Kodl sat back. “Good. That’s decided. Make no mistake. We’ll be laughed at, first off. If we get hired, it’ll be with something small and poor. We have to prove ourselves. Niz knows fast sail, which is different altogether from what we’re used to, so he can advise our hiring captains on evasion or attack. And young Elgar here will drill us in defense until we’re good.”

  He looked around. No one spoke.

  Kodl said, “Whoever is with me, stay; otherwise, go and I hope your life will be long and profitable.”

  No one left. Even Testhy stayed, chewing his lip.

  Inda, watching him covertly and wondered if he was in contact with Fassun, Faura, and Indutsan. Then he shook his head. He had enough to worry about, with the hands believing him to be some kind of dragoon captain though a dragoon of the sea, not the plains.

  Thinking of how long it took to really train people (Gand had been quite fluent about that, back in Inda’s scrub days), and about how ignorant he knew he was compared to the horsetails at the academy, much less the masters, he said, “Then we better begin right now.”

  Inda faced his scrubs: Kodl; Scalis and a cluster of big, brawny forecastlemen; Niz and his two topmen, both Olarans from the Nob; Dun, once a carpenter’s mate and now the carpenter for the marines; the mids.

  “It will,” Inda said, “take at least half a year before you can use a weapon and expect to do anything but lose against an experienced warrior.”

  Surprise, astonishment, dismay met his words. Disbelief, too. And a few shifty side glances and shuffles.

  “So let’s get started. Now, here’s your stance . . .”

  It actually didn’t take as long as Inda had feared.

  As winter closed in, Inda drilled them all in a little cup meadow up behind Lark Ascendant that no one knew about. They spent mornings in weapons training until their muscles felt like unraveled yarn and their clothing was drenched with sweat despite the snow on the ground.

  “Break for midday,” Inda called three or four times a week if they’d done well. “But be back at first-bell.”

  Groans and curses initially met his announcement, until they established a rhythm. Within a month they expected to spend afternoons clambering over a beached schooner in a dried creek bed in the next inlet over the hill from the pleasure house, or running uphill and down.

  Inda worked twice as hard. He still thought of himself as just a scrub, and how much could a scrub really know?

  Dun could have answered that. He had seen Inda working at daily drill for well over two years, gaining steadily in strength and speed as he grew; Inda saw his own advancement as having stopped when he left Iasca Leror. Mindful of his promise to Sindan, during those years of forecastle drill Dun had ta
ken care to introduce his own Runner training as suggestions, added so gradually that not just Inda but Niz and Scalis had been unaware of how much they had learned.

  After practice invariably Inda came to him, no matter how tired he was. “Dun?” he’d say. “Got plans for the evening?”

  “No,” Dun would always reply.

  And so at sunset, while the others retreated to well-earned rest and recreation, Inda and Dun moved to the outer court of the pleasure house, and by the light of the lamps along the rooftop, as music and the noise of revelry spilled out, the frosty air smelling of beeswax candles, perfume, and spiced foods, they sparred for bell after bell.

  Dun no longer pretended to make suggestions. During those private sessions they worked with sword, staff, and knife, the close-in knife work that the Runners learned that was not quite like the Odni, but related, being shaped around defense of one’s Dal or Edli, and thus adaptable to the confined space of a deck. In turn Inda trained Dun with the Odni, though he never said where he had learned it, and was relieved the man never asked. Dun criticized with fluent precision, and Inda, who wanted to go home as badly as he did, worked all the harder.

  He never questioned where Dun’s skills came from, never questioned how Dun was able to make—perfectly—the composite bows and the staffs that snap apart and were used exclusively by Marlovan dragoons.

  Neither spoke of anything but the work at hand. The two could have been one another’s greatest support, for they both longed for what they could not have—Dun for his beloved Hibern, Inda for his home. It would have been so comforting to talk about home.

  The only tie they had to the possibility of return was their shared conspiracy of silence.

  With the other mids, Inda was somewhat more forthcoming.

  “I want to find out more about this Ramis,” he said one night when they were all gathered in the mids’ back room at Lark Ascendant while a sleeting thunderstorm roared outside. It was a warm room, and they had expensive hot chocolate in hand—all of which was somehow arranged by Tau in ways they couldn’t guess, though Zimd was always trying to find out. They lived quite well, even though they were trying to be careful with their money. But then Tau sometimes vanished at night, Zimd insisted upstairs, and would appear at practice looking tired but determined to work.

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