Inda by Sherwood Smith

  How many knew that Sartor had had another alphabet, utterly different, more than three thousand years ago? Kodl hadn’t. Yet apparently Inda not only knew about it, he could read it. What kind of background trained for that? Niz said mage, when they discussed it after the mutiny attempt, but they all shook their heads. Inda had never made the smallest spell outside of the everyday magic they all used.

  Kodl looked at Inda sitting at the bow oar, bending slightly to listen to Tau. No ambition—but then he was only fourteen.


  The horn signaled the start, and Kodl yelled, “Pull!”

  He was echoed by voices from the other boats and from the spectators along the boardwalk, whose roar sent the few seabirds perched along the roof poles of the harbormaster’s buildings flapping skyward, scoldings unheard.

  The big launch promptly tried to ram them.

  Scalis howled, “Pull hard! Ho, yah! Ho, yah!”

  Their arms and backs straining, Kodl’s marines matched rhythm. The launch shot well past not just the big one (followed by drunken insults and invitations for the cowards to return) but past the three launches on their north side.

  They matched speed with two others, one of them a narrow, low-riding skiff, captained by a tough-looking, gray-haired woman who kept up a running stream of comments in a language Kodl did not know; as the launches converged on the stern of the ship, he heard her change her tone, and her crew whirled their oars in a well-drilled move. She yanked hard on the tiller, and Kodl saw that they were using their speed to ram them.

  Kodl tried to think of a command—he had not planned for attacks before they reached the ship. But then he saw Inda prod Tau, who rose, grabbing up Scalis’ staff from the bottom of the launch. He balanced perfectly, left foot on the rail, right arm cocked back with the staff held like a throwing spear. It was a throwing spear, Kodl realized, seeing the long, wicked blade affixed to it.

  Tau’s pose, the wind fingering his long golden hair in its four-strand sailor’s queue, the tight pull of his plain sailor’s clothing against what had always been a slim, graceful body and now, after six months of drilling day and night, was as muscular as one of the figures on one of those tapestries found in really rich nobles’ palaces.

  “Get ’em Goldenlocks!” The shout, in high, shrill female voices, rose above the clamor on the Saunter.

  “Commere, Sweetlips!” crooned the gray-haired captain from the threatening launch. “Come ’n’ wave your stick at me. Tickle my ribs, and I’ll tickle yours.”

  “Ooh, I’m so scared!” a man cried in a high voice.

  “Come closer, let’s see if your prick is as pretty as the one yer holding—” Another man yelled, amid raucous laughter.

  Tau made no move for two, three breaths, and then with a single, powerful thrust he drove the spear not into any of the taunting crew, but straight into their launch, just below the water line. Grinning, he jerked it one way, then the other, and yanked it free. The crew on that side instinctively lunged forward, and the laden boat dipped, water surging over the side as the captain screamed, “Backwater!”

  Wallowing dangerously, they fell behind. Two tried to stop the hole first with weapons and then their shirts, the others either paddling or bailing as their captain screamed abuse at them, at Tau, and again at her crew. On the Saunter, above the roar of laughter, a woman shrilled, “Go at ’em, Goldenlocks!”

  Bump! They reached the stern of the competition ship just as the other launches did, one on either side. Somewhere behind they heard a roar, a mighty splash, and another shout of laughter echoing off the buildings from the boardwalk watchers as a boat capsized.

  Scalis whirled grappling hooks and tossed them up, one, two, three; Kodl sent one fast glance at the other launch to see them doing the same as Inda and the others swarmed up the rope. Kodl was last. Two more boats smashed into their hired launch. Competitors scrambled over it, fighting to get to Scalis’ ropes just as Kodl gripped one.

  “Climb, climb!” Niz shouted.

  Fingers gripped at Kodl’s ankles. He kicked free, and a surge of strength sent him fast, hand over hand, up the rope. Then Scalis and Niz pulled sharp boarding blades from their waists and cut the ropes, sending the team swarming behind them howling down to smash into the boats or splash into the sea.

  Kodl straightened up. Have to see, have to see, where is everyone, must see—and pain sent lightning across his vision. Pain, then blood. He half fell, heard an indrawn breath behind him. Someone was raising a weapon again, and this time his well-drilled muscles took over and he whirled, slamming upward with his short staff, not even remembering when he’d pulled it from its sling at his side. The staff broke the descending stroke and angled right past the weapon to clip his attacker on the side of the jaw, the move automatic, the stroke powerful after all that drill.

  The boy—he was hardly older than Tau—stumbled back, clutching at his head with both hands, and fouling the approach of two cursing adversaries, both of them waving swords. Kodl whirled, then staggered, his head pounding. He couldn’t see. Red, sting. Blood in his eyes. He smelled the sharp stink of sweat, stale wine, brine, the sickening tang of fresh blood, heard thumping on the deck, howling, grunting, cracks and groans and curses and clangs.

  I’m in command, I have to—He scrubbed his sleeve across his eyes, and again he was accosted, this time by a pair of women who obviously worked as a team. They rushed him, and he swung the staff until it whistled, catching and tangling their whirling rope ends. He yanked, pulling both of the women off balance; a kick to the side of one’s knee sent her into her companion, and both fell, the one screaming, the other rolling up to come at him with a knife.

  Niz loomed up behind her, one gnarled hand grabbing her scruff, and with a grunt and a heave he tossed her overboard. She screeched invective all the way down.

  Kodl straightened up, scanning the deck, but all he saw was a roiling mass of surging, swinging, screaming, kicking, and punching bodies, some on the shrouds, others trying to bypass those by hurling grappling hooks into the rigging and climbing up. He’d lost them, lost—

  There was Inda, poised on one of the shrouds, facing his way, Tau and Dasta below him fending off attackers with enthusiastic swings of staff and rope end.

  I can’t do it, Kodl realized. His body hurt too much for him to feel any emotional reaction, and he shook his head slightly. Inda flashed three fingers in their hillside drill signal.

  Tight threes. Of course! Kodl’s original plan was already worthless. But their old war game drill of roving threes, yes!

  Niz and Scalis joined him at either side, weapons up, Scalis chuckling hoarsely.

  They moved as a unit, smashing their way up to Inda’s shrouds as backup. Kodl knew he’d lost command, but this was his first battle. He’d learn it. Now they just had to look good.

  Tau and Inda climbed side by side up the starboard shrouds, unhampered for the moment by rivals; Kodl and the two older topmen held the shrouds at deck level against all comers. Inda scanned the deck with speed honed by the war games of childhood, and he spotted those moving with purpose as opposed to those who fought wildly with no direction or plan.

  First priority: the two teams of adversaries now taking to the larboard shrouds.

  Wumma, Rig, and Zimd caught a boom with the last two of the grappling hooks, and Wumma swarmed up the rope, the other two behind him. Rig brought up his hand and blew a cloud of pepper into the open mouths and eyes of the climbers; Wumma grunted, sent the rope swinging so Zimd could smack down attackers with impartial zeal.

  Below, Dun, Hav, and Jeje formed a triad, fighting shoulder to shoulder to keep more competitors from jumping onto the larboard shrouds.

  Inda and Tau reached the crosstrees the same time as two of the peppered privateers, eyes streaming, through that was not slowing them down. A third appeared and tossed a glop of something glistening and slimy-looking onto the starboard shrouds leading to the topmast, just over Inda’s head, where it glistene
d with a slow-moving, oily sheen.

  The privateers dashed across the platform, knives upraised. Tau whirled in, a staff in each hand. Inda put his foot on the boom; he’d use the stay line if he couldn’t get up the mast the usual way. But then he heard the rhythmic shout from the boardwalk: “Goldenlocks! Goldenlocks!”

  Inda paused, and for a moment he did not see Tau, his old companion; he saw what they saw: the tall, slim figure moving with dashing grace, laughing as he fought back two, no, three enemies, holding them all for the moment, though they pressed forward a hand span at a time.


  Instinct thrust Inda in front of Tau, his own staffs whirling as he grunted over his shoulder, “You go!”

  And when he heard the frenzied howls from the spectators as Tau took in the situation, then leaped out and sped, hand over hand, up the stay line to the topmast cross trees and the bag of gold, he knew he’d been right.

  Inda was the better fighter—he wounded all three, sending them back into the shrouds—but no one was watching him except from below; another scream rose skyward, a wailing scream of triumph from countless voices as Tau made a spectacular slide down the backstay to the deck, his sleeve ripping to tatters and his arm wealing, the bag of gold clutched in his other, upraised hand.

  “Are you all right?” Jeje asked Inda later that evening, as the triumphant marines drank, laughed, and sang riotous songs in Lark Ascendant’s biggest hired room. “You’ve got some prime bruises. Want me to get some salve or steeped willow?”

  Inda sat alone at a corner table, an untouched cup of ale between his empty hands.

  “I’m all right,” he said. The bruises were no worse than what he’d gotten during overnight war games when he was a scrub; what hurt most was one shoulder, which he’d wrenched trying to favor his bad wrist.

  He turned the ale cup around and around with his fingers. What he had to think out was what he’d learned that day. Not about fighting. He had vastly overestimated the fighting skills of privateers, if that competition was anything to judge by. Of course some of the more raffish, gem-bedecked, swaggering ones had stayed on the boardwalk, drinking, betting, and shouting. But then expensive strut clothes and swagger didn’t necessarily equate fighting skills. All he could be sure of was that they were successful enough that they hadn’t needed to exert themselves to win that bag of gold.

  But there was something more to think about—and it came back to looks—swagger. Displays of wealth and swagger seemed to be taken as signs of success.

  Inda knew his instinct at the very end had been right. It was Tau’s dashing looks as much as the band’s skill that had resulted in the hire offers they’d received all afternoon since the gold bag run. Tau had been the focus of all eyes on both sides: it was he some of those competitors had aimed for, and it was he the crowd had cheered for. He drew them all, enemies and admirers, and just how close were fighting and, well, the mysteries of desire? To Inda, they both looked the same, though he knew the flame of satisfaction when a war game goes right, and the other one was still just puzzling.

  But to talk this matter over with Jeje would bring the hurt look into her eyes that appeared whenever Tau was the subject of discussion, and so he finally said, “If we’re really shipping out tomorrow, I need sleep. I hope I can get Kodl to go over the new hire before we leave. If we’re attacked as soon as we leave harbor, we’re gonna look pretty stupid.”

  “But we’ll be dead, so we won’t have to worry about looking bad.” Jeje snorted a laugh. “All right. Long’s you don’t need a healer.”

  “Naw. Just a scrape on the ribs, looks worse than it feels, and a wrenched shoulder.” He flexed his wrist, which he had broken so long ago; it had never healed right. Maybe a wrist guard, he decided. Though he wasn’t horsetail age . . . oh, yes. Of course. No more academy rules. Time to get one.

  Zimd appeared at his table, her broad face even broader with a triumphant grin. “Look who I found! I told you,” she added, pulling forward an old, scrawny man with a lined face and red-rimmed eyes, and a single earring in one ear. “I promised him you’d buy him some wine,” she added meaningfully.

  Inda said, “Testhy has my share of the money. Grab a coin from him and order the wine.”

  “Only if I can hear the good stuff, too.”

  Inda agreed, Zimd dashed away, and Scubal sank down at the table. He smelled of old clothes, salt, and stale drink. “She said you won’t scorf,” he muttered.

  “Huh?” Inda leaned forward.

  Scubal sent an apprehensive glance at the rest of the revelers, his Dock Talk an older version of what Inda had learned, jumbled with Sartoran slang and words from half a dozen other languages. “When I first come, they all scorf. Every ’un. I stop tellin’ me story, and ship out, topman, on the Royal Oak. I’m never goin’ out again, no, not if I have to spend me whole life in the workhouse, makin’ rope and blocks and sail.”

  Inda understood this blatant plea for a donation. He knew the workhouse wasn’t a bad setup—it was clean and the food plain but plentiful—but most sailors hated rules and compulsory sobriety, and both were in force there. Residents worked for food and board but didn’t get paid, so if they wanted to drink they had to find a way to it elsewhere. “I’ll give you what I can. Tell us what happened with Ramis.”

  A shadow drifted at the edge of his vision, and Tau sat opposite, next to Jeje, looking elegant despite various bruises and cuts, despite his bandaged arm; he’d burned it sliding down the rope.

  “I was takin’ pris’ner by the Damnation, Captain Lum. Head o’ the Brotherhood in east waters, and bad, bad, bad. Kill everyone right on deck, if you say no to join, and even then, just for fun, like, if he mislikes your voice or your face. Or forget to hop quick when he gives an order. But I’m quick and quiet, see. Those two years is bad. I do my duty in the tops and try not to see what they’s doin’ below. Ah, I need me a drink.” He shook his head, his earring swinging against his lean cheek. Odd, how gold metal looped through a hole in one’s ear added a savage kind of strut to one’s appearance; most people, seeing a man or woman with such a hoop, moved circumspectly out of the way. Even Scubal retained a faint trace of a sinister air, Inda thought, looking at the wizened old man, his strong forearms, his bony back under his thin old shirt ropy with muscle, and wondered what he had done, even if he hadn’t wanted to do it, to get that hoop.

  Zimd appeared, set down a tray with a wine bottle and four glasses. Scubal grabbed the bottle and took a long pull out of it. When he set it down and wiped his hand across his mouth, no one touched it or the glasses.

  “Go on,” Inda said, wincing as he pawed awkwardly with his good hand at his aching shoulder.

  Tau’s eyes narrowed, then he rose and stepped behind Inda. “Straighten your arm out,” he murmured, and Inda glanced up, distracted. “That shoulder. Let me try some of my mother’s trickery. Why waste years of enforced training?”

  Inda smiled, obediently stretched out his arm along the table, but turned back to Scubal. “Go on,” he said, and then he grunted in pain as Tau’s long fingers dug into his shoulder just beside the wing bone.

  “So one night, end o’ last winter. Two days’ sail out of Freeport. Lum’s formin’ a fleet, see. Four sail. Comin’ to take Freeport. But I looks up into the direction of the wind, blowin’ out of the northeast, and see the sky black from there to there.” He pointed up, then down. “It’s night, but this is blacker, no stars, and they all see it too, not just me. And suddenly we see this Venn warship come sailin’ out, square sails, studding sails, jibs’ls, all black, with lamps high and low, all alight. Single ship, see, but he comes out right in the middle, out of nowhere, because then when I look the stars is back.”

  “Clear night? No fog?” Tau asked, over Inda’s head.

  Inda had begun breathing somewhat harshly, his eyes half-closed. Jeje tried not to look at his face, tried not to imagine what those long hands would feel like on her flesh.

  “Clear as glas
s. No fog. I tell you there’s a rip in the world.” Scubal’s voice rose to a whine, and Inda motioned with his free hand for Tau to be quiet. Scubal gave them all shifty glances, drank again, and when no one had said anything more, he went on. “So they tack about, fastest I ever see, and swing out cut booms more vicious than ours, and take the shrouding down on the weather side o’ the Soul-taker, our consort. They lose all three masts, one after t’other, and they lose way, no steering, see, so they ram up tight against Glory, and I see nothin’ o’ what happened. The bosun swearin’ he sees that Ramis wearin’ an eyepatch. One side of his face all burned. Standin’ at the prow o’ the Knife. Stretch out his hand, and comes this green light, and then the sails on Abrin, our fourth, breaks out in flame.”

  Tau whistled softly. Jeje felt the sound go through her like someone had drawn a string of fire through all her veins.

  Scubal drank again, drew an uneasy breath, then said, “So then he comes after us. Lum roarin’ orders. No good. Knife closes with us, keepin’ the weather-side, and then boards, fighting real silent. Real good, all together-like, not like pirates where they just go in roarin’ and do what they want.”

  When he paused for a drink, Inda let out a long sigh of relief; all of a sudden the massaging had ceased to hurt, and felt good. His shoulder no longer ached, and Tau lifted his hands and moved back to his chair. He sat, giving Inda a meaningful glance in Scubal’s direction: their first real word on pirate fighting tactics, if the man was to be believed.

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