Inda by Sherwood Smith

  “Ramis’ crew kill half the Damnation’s crew before Lum’s surrender. I’m in the tops, hidin’. Lum’s on deck, first threats then pleading, when this Ramis come on the captain’s deck, and he just shakes his head, holds out his sword, a real old style. Black steel. Three strokes it takes, and Lum, long a fighter, he took the Damnation by fightin’ its old captain, and they say he killed fifty men in duels and the like before he turned twenty. Three strokes, and Lum’s dead. You can’t see that sword move, I tell you. Then they drive all the pirates down into the hold, and I think, what I do now, he looks up. The fire on Abrin spread to Glory, make all this light, see, and I see him clear as glass, patch, purple all down here.” He touched his temple down to his jaw. “He says, ‘Come down, Scubal.’ ”

  Zimd gasped. Jeje frowned, more aware of Tau’s breathing than she was of the story. She was stiff and achy too, yet Tau did not offer her any massage.

  Tau said, “So this Ramis knew your name.” The tilt of his head was one of polite inquiry.

  “He do, he do! It be true sved!”

  “Someone told him,” Zimd said, shrugging.

  “I know nothin’. Just says me name. Then he says to me—in me home language, I haven’t heard in years—‘You were never here by choice, and if you foreswear piracy, you may live.’ I comes down, and swear it’s true, I’m cryin’ like a baby, I admit it, and then he takes me arm, and I feel like he’s gutting me, only I blink and I be standin’ on Freeport shore, just like that.”

  “Transport magic? He’s a mage, then?” Inda asked.

  “All I know is what I seen. Then that rip come again, and the other ships, Glory and Abrin still on fire, sail in the blackness, and be gone. Like that.” He snapped dry, wrinkled fingers. “So then I tell people what happen, no one believes me. I ship out on the Royal Oak, free trader, but when she, Captain Gannis, I mean, is takin’ this big prince sort of yacht, probably full of goods, I’m sweatin’ and beg-gin’. Tell her what that Ramis say. She says they always use privateer rules even if everyone else be turning pirate now’t there be no law. But after half a year, every night I’m afeard to see that rip in the sky again, and so when she docks here yesterday I jumps ship, though it means only half-pay, and little enough o’ that.”

  He drank the last of the bottle, swayed in his seat. It was clear enough why he’d had little pay left on the Royal Oak’s books.

  Inda said, “Thank you. I’ll go find some coins, like I promised.” He got up and walked away.

  Scubal squinted after him then got up too, afraid he would be abandoned. Zimd went with him, asking questions in a low voice.

  Leaving Tau and Jeje alone at the little table. Tau said, “Quite a story, eh? Do you believe it?”

  Jeje’s throat was dry. She wished she had the courage to ask for a massage, but that wasn’t what she really wanted, and she was afraid he knew it, and would scorn her. No, he would never do that. But he would stiffen and withdraw, just like he had to Norsh and Faura and all the others who had wanted him. “Um,” she said witlessly.

  Tau smiled at her. “I’ll go see if Inda needs a hand.”

  She watched him go, then rose herself. Tears blurred her vision, and so she eased along the perimeter of the room, hoping not to be noticed. She did not see Tau slip to the front room and hold a quick exchange with the proprietor; she just was glad when she finally made it to the door and started down the hall toward their chamber in the back.

  Where she stopped, looking up in surprise at the bountiful figure of the proprietor, Mistress Lind, standing there right in the hallway.

  “Come along, my dear,” the woman said, and Jeje followed her exquisitely draped silken skirts. Upstairs, past the hired halls, to the quieter landing above, where she had never been, though she knew (and had tried not to know) that Tau had begun obliging the mistress—or himself. She tried not to know because she was jealous of the unknown people who chose his custom, who thus could touch him, hold him, and be held in turn. If she thought she could buy his custom she would, but she knew he would refuse. If she offered to buy what he did not want to share for free, she would forever lose his friendship.

  The woman said, “You people are good for business, and I suspect are going to be better. Turnabout is fair trade.”

  Jeje just stared at her as she opened a door.

  “This is Tivonais,” the mistress said, indicating a young man who waited in a pleasantly furnished room: table, chairs, a couch. A bed. “His art is with first timers.”

  Tivonais. A house name, Jeje realized, secretly relieved. A house name, putting them on anonymous footing, the fantasy image being that famous Sartoran Prince Tivonais of historical times whose reputation had supposedly sent half the females in Sartor running and half seeking him.

  Jeje darted a single look at the young man, who was of medium height, pleasing enough of person, dressed only in trousers and a loose shirt. He smelled clean, as if he rinsed his hair in herbs; she realized she’d left her share of today’s winnings downstairs, tied into a corner of her extra shirt. “I-I—”

  Tivonais shook his head, grinning. “Mistress Lind says your crew has brought us enough custom. And young Goldenlocks will bring ’em again when you return.”

  He took her hand, and drew her in, and shut the door. Fear and anticipation fluttered inside her, like moths frantic to find the flame inside the lantern. He led her to a chair, and she plumped down onto it. “Mistress Lind wants your mates happy, too. Starting with you.”

  “I-um, er—” she began, as he deftly began undoing her short braid, massaging her tight scalp, her rigid neck.

  A soft kiss pressed just behind her ear. “If Goldenlocks ever does notice you, why not give him something to remember you by?” was the laughing question, in a warm, breathy whisper that made her arms tingle with gooseflesh.

  The questions winked out, just like those inward moths, burned in the flames of pleasure.

  Chapter Nineteen

  THE next morning Kodl took Inda to meet their new captain and tour the ship while the marines assembled their gear and Testhy paid off their lodgings. They pulled up anchor the following day and began their first cruise, which turned out to be uneventful except for fierce weather; they spent two months as badly needed extra hands, beating against both wind and current until they finally reached Sartor. That journey gave them the chance to drill on board a real ship.

  Their second journey was even more eventful, though for weather alone. A series of bad storms dismasted the ship not once but twice, and again they served as hands, limping back after nearly half a year to Freeport a few days before New Year’s Week, not having fought a single battle, but having had plenty of time to drill and to work on Niz’s ideas on evasive tactics in managing sail. Inda sat in the tops with him, whatever the weather, absorbing the wily Delf’s knowledge.

  The morning they landed, they settled in at their usual lodgings. Kodl threw his bag into the small upstairs chamber he’d come to think of as his and ran downstairs, telling Scalis (who was putting on his best shirt before heading up to the pleasure house) that he was going to stroll the boardwalk to catch up on news and scout for possible hires.

  At the Lark Ascendant, Inda chucked his gear into the back room he still shared with Dasta and Jeje, then said abruptly to the others, “I’m going to see what the weather did to our meadow. Map out some new drills.”

  Inda had already made up new tactical ideas, adapting drills to support them, on the voyage in. Now he just wanted to be alone, for the first time in months. It was almost New Year’s, his Name Day had again passed without him noticing it, but again there was no family to celebrate it with. The urge to get up, keep busy, practice his Odni routine at full strength now that he was not confined to the heaving deck of someone else’s ship pulled at him, and he knew it for what it was: the only way he could escape the memories that still hurt when they came in dreams.

  So he sat on a rock gazing westward and let them come. First Tdor. Then Sponge. And Ta
nrid, Joret, his parents, the other Tveis—he could still remember exactly which bunk everyone slept in . . .

  And in Iasca Leror it was still night.

  Camped on the border of Choraed Elgaer, the Sierlaef sat brooding in his tent.

  On the cold night air the sudden and discordant clangor of bells echoed over the distant hills, followed by the screech of whistler arrows. Trouble! On the border of Choraed Elgaer! The Sierlaef’s first reaction was fierce joy.

  His camp was already rising, some of them groggy from the long day’s ride and half a bell’s sleep, but he strode among them, kicking those who didn’t move fast enough, and snapping his fingers as he pointed to the southwest.

  Three more signal arrows whistled, one on fire, a glowing red pinpoint against the sky.

  “Attack!” he shouted. “Rescue!”

  Buck took over, issuing a stream of orders that really didn’t need to be spoken, but his curses and buffets prompted haste. The camp divided, armsmen left to bring the tired horses of the day before, perforce now remounts. The royal heir, the remaining Sier-Danas, and the rest of the armsmen took the fresh animals, stringing bows as they rode.

  The half moon rode low over the distant hills, the sky brilliant with stars, all shining enough light to canter by.

  Orange light glowed ahead. Fire! Though there was no road he gave the sign for a gallop, already feeling the sweet fire of Joret’s reaction when he rode into Tenthen as the rescuer, just as his father’s own men had been thirty years ago.

  That inner vision spread its warmth through him as the fire spread in the distance, becoming doused, as the fire was doused, when they topped the hills. His signalers winded their horns as they clattered into the riverside village and saw the burning boat and half-burned houses, the dead men in the village square, and heard, rising on the cold air, the triumphant yips—academy yips—that meant Tanrid Algara-Vayir had no need of rescue.

  The villagers who were not involved in bucket brigades stared at the Marlovans who rode into the village in strict formation, but the Sierlaef ignored them. His attention was all for Tanrid, who’d won; he’d been too late.

  “What happened?” Cassad called. “Looks like we’re after the fun, but I assure you, we ripped out of camp fast enough.”

  He laughed, and Tanrid, surveying them in the torchlight, at first just saw tired faces. Buck yawned, and Hawkeye Yvana-Vayir looked disgruntled, but the Sierlaef’s white-lipped rage acted on Tanrid like a dunking in a winter stream.

  He turned away, fighting against his own fatigue; it had only been the day before that the heir had finally released him to go home and prepare for the royal visit. They hadn’t even been to bed yet when the villagers rang the alarm bells.

  “It’s nothing much,” he said. “Just some pirates, who the people tell me have been getting a lot worse since the Venn cut us off.” He indicated the dead or captured pirates, some of whom reeked of drink on the cold, still air. “I think they were raiding upriver, decided to stop here for a bit of diversion, just after we arrived. We thought there were more of them, which is why we used the signal arrows, but if there were, t’others slunk off and missed the entertainment.”

  Tlen gave a crack of laughter.

  Tanrid turned to the Sierlaef. “Shall I ride on home?”

  The Sierlaef was still furious. “Camp,” he said, looking at the drooping animals. “Horses.”

  His horses were tired, but the Algara-Vayir mounts hadn’t even been used. No one gainsaid him, of course. They set about making camp and Tanrid kept his distance from the tense heir, knowing quite well what the problem was: Joret.

  As he stretched out in his bedroll, Tanrid thought of Joret. Yes, she was now full grown, and yes, it had been a year, and yes, she was beautiful, probably the most beautiful of all the girls he’d ever seen. Beautiful, loyal, smart, and cold as that moon up there.

  Your visit, he thought grimly, watching the Sierlaef’s yellow head across the campfire, is not going to bring what you think.

  The Sierlaef brooded all the way to Tenthen, refusing to let Tanrid ride ahead. It had been difficult enough the first time. He couldn’t bear the thought of Tanrid being there with Joret first, maybe being permitted into her bed as celebration for thumping a few pirates. It didn’t matter that that was her right, and his, according to law and custom—his uncle always got around law and custom both when he wanted. The Sierlaef believed it was the future king’s right to find a way to do the same.

  They all rode together until they reached the company of green-and-silver Riders on their unending patrol of the outskirts of Choraed Elgaer.

  And so he had to see their excitement, their joy, their pride, when the armsmen retold the story of stupid little raid and rescue. And at the celebration on the night of their arrival at the castle he was forced to listen to the Algara-Vayir heralds sing hastily composed songs about Tanrid’s prowess.

  A celebration endurable only because she was there. An entire year he had waited, touring the entire kingdom, thinking about her, dreaming about her. And now she was here. In the same room. At first he could scarcely bring himself to look at her, yet all he could think about was her end of the table, listening for the rare words she spoke, and once he was certain he heard her breathing.

  She was breathing hard because she saw Aunt Joret’s ghost again, walking down the middle of the hall during a song, her blue eyes gazing above the royal heir’s head as Tanrid offered the Sierlaef the toast of honor.

  Stranger still was Jarend-Adaluin’s stark, unblinking gaze tracking the floating progress of Aunt Joret’s form until she drifted to the hearth, outlined for a single heartbeat in fire, then vanished. No one else saw it—they all smiled, lifting their glasses together in salute to the king’s heir.

  When the meal was half over the Sierlaef began to sneak peeks at Joret. Any more than just a brief glimpse and his face heated up, his body kindled into flame, and his hands trembled so he could scarcely hold his eating knife. But several gulps of wine, and the fact that he never once caught her gaze, enabled him to lengthen the glimpses into longer looks, sweet and dangerous as they were: it was all very well to think about flouting custom while in the saddle far from anyone, but he knew what his father would say if he broke custom while a guest in the Adaluin’s castle. Because custom was quite clear: it was for the host or hostess to favor or refuse your company if you wanted to dally.

  And he didn’t want just to dally. He wanted . . . he wanted . . .

  Drinking off his wine, he stared hungrily at her. She sat very still. She did not gaze at Tanrid, or whisper to him, or take his hand, for both hers remained above the table. She did not act, in other words, like someone who has been longing for the company of a lover for over a year.

  By the end of the meal the Sierlaef had regained his equilibrium, and had even begun to hope that the chase was done, and he just had to find her alone. And so he retired in a far better mood.

  He had no idea how many people had observed those hungry glances Joret’s way.

  In the royal castle Sponge finished another session with Hadand and then raced upstairs to check over his gear for New Year’s Convocation. Some of the other Tveis—still pigtails though, like him, some had reached seventeen—were coming to demonstrate riding exercises during the Fourthday Games. He checked his own gear because he still did not have a personal Runner—nor did he want one. There were enough spies in the castle reporting to his uncle without his accepting one attached to him personally. The thought was sickening.

  The sight of his academy gear cast his troubled mind ahead to spring. On the surface it seemed he’d return to another good year at the academy, an even better year, surrounded by friends, granted more freedom, and more interesting training: this year, for instance, they would be given battle problems for the first time, the solutions to be drawn out on paper. But it was that freedom, and those friends, that also troubled him. He could not endure the possibility of losing either of them.

you do nothing that the others do not do, then there is nothing to worry about, is there?

  At the north end of the castle, down in the queen’s barracks, Tdor did not spare New Year’s a thought.

  She was entirely preoccupied with Shen Montredavan-An. On Shen’s Name Day last year—this very week—she had proved that she was not as frivolous as she led the world to believe.

  Last year Tdor had gone to their bunks, having seen a Runner in Montredavan-An black and gold passing through the stable where she was working. She expected to find a happy Shen surrounded with little gifts and what was always more welcome, letters.

  Instead she found Shen face up on her bunk. Not weeping, no. That would have been easier, somehow. But that rigid body and compressed breathing, the blanched face, the tearless eyes staring upward, eyelids tight with just barely controlled anguish, had sent Tdor tiptoeing right out again.

  It was through Hadand that she discovered the news that Shen’s beloved brother Savarend, who had been making sporadic cruises at sea from a young age, had been aboard the Cassad, and her Name Day, by cruel coincidence, was the anniversary of the day she’d found out about its destruction six months after the attack. Tdor had realized, with silent compassion, that Shen, who professed not to believe in hope or justice, had silently passed the intervening years waiting for news that Savarend had survived, just as Ndara-Harandviar silently hoped that Barend might yet turn up alive.

  Apparently this anniversary she had decided it had been too long to wait.

  Now, a year later, Shen’s Name Day was again here. Tdor—again having been assigned early-morning stable duty—was braced to see that same unhappiness. She approached their bunk bed, her tread soft in case she must vanish again.

  Instead she found Shen sitting on her bunk, smiling a very strange smile, a characteristic one, wide, with the corners quirked tight. In anyone else it would be a sarcastic smile, but in her somehow it was merry, an inward sort of laughter that reminded Tdor again how little Shen actually revealed of herself. Remarkable in one who talked so much.

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