Inda by Sherwood Smith


  But that would be after his friends had gone home forever to their castles to take up their lives as Randaels.

  Because far, far more important than sex was that friendship. He would not have his passions separate him from his friends. If it had been any of them who’d turned to men, it wouldn’t have mattered, but this accursed rank as second son of the king—if he formed a craze for one of them, for anyone they knew, there suddenly would be the intrusion of rank. And imagined obligation.

  He struck a fist lightly against the window sill. Nothing, not even sex, was as important as the free, easy companionship with Noddy and Cama and Cherry-Stripe and the others, an unthinking bond of camaraderie that meant more to him than anything else in his life: unthinking on their parts, both guarded and cherished on his. And sometimes, sometimes, like on the banner game, he didn’t have to think, it just was.

  The urge to speak, to tell Hadand—talk to her as he always had—subsided. Women had their secrets, and he wouldn’t make his personal life one of them.

  The sound of the door closing brought his head around with a wary jerk. She’d gone out while he was brooding; now Hadand slipped back inside, and said, “I sent my Runner for some wine. I could use some, too.”

  It came, swiftly, and she poured out two glasses, talking all the while of her first visit to a pleasure house, with the other girls during New Year’s Week. “After all who could take me? Queen Wisthia summons her favorites to her. Ndara has nothing to do with sex, we all know that. Joret was gone, and anyway she loathed the very notion. My mother would have, but I can’t see her again. So Shen Montredavan-An made up a party. I thought I’d be the first clumsy one, the first silly one, and everyone would know, but I discovered that they have people who are trained just to be the first. They are everyone’s first. Did you know that?”

  Sponge gulped wine. “Yes. No.”

  She poured out more, and Sponge drank it, though he knew he must not return drunk, and he hadn’t eaten all day, so the fire of the wine burned through him with frightening rapidity. But to escape the uncomfortable subject, he drank anyway.

  Hadand talked on, making the story funny: her fumbling dialogue, her panic, her discovery just how much fun sex could be, and the inevitable violent crush, thankfully as short as it was violent. After a time she said, “Would you like to try with a girl? If you could have one who knew what to do?”

  He glowered, thinking, And what if I see this girl and can’t raise the staff? But he couldn’t bear to speak the words. His wine cup crashed down. “What have you done?”

  She gave him an exasperated look. “Sponge. You know, because the healer told us when we got that long lecture about sex, that if you let the heat build you burn up here.” She smacked her head. “If you were able to shed the heat with a trained dolly, and it would make your life simpler, why not at least try?” She waved toward the academy on the word “simpler,” and he realized that once again she had parsed at least some of his inner thoughts.

  “Look, Sponge, if it doesn’t work nobody will know. The pleasure house people have to guard their business, and big mouths can ruin it. They talk when someone wants to be talked about, and they also talk when someone is hated. You won’t be either.”

  His lips buzzed. “But castle people would find out. They always find out everything.”

  “That’s why I sent for a girl,” she said in that practical voice as she used her robe to daub the table clean of the drops of wine he’d spilled, and then poured out some more. “If your friends do find out, nobody pays the least attention. They won’t always be watching you in case you want one of them, and worrying about princes and privilege and favorites and the like. I can just imagine Smartlip trying to seduce you, just to get preference over the others.”

  Sponge flung up a warding hand, grimacing with distaste.

  “I can see you already thought that out, too. Listen, if this experiment doesn’t work, you can tell everyone I cried after that first time,” she said, smiling crookedly. “Oh, my, was I dreary to Tdor, boring on forever about how much I was so in love. Or thought I was.”

  Sponge snickered. He sounded to his own ears like someone else, a second-year scrub who couldn’t hold his wine. “How long did that last, anyway?”

  “Two weeks.” She chuckled. “Two very intense weeks.”

  A knock at the door.

  “Enter,” Hadand called, before Sponge could get his numbing lips to say, “Go away.”

  In came a boy dressed in riding clothes, about their age. No, not a boy, though at first she seemed to be one. The strong chin, the adze-sculpted cheekbones, the swinging stride and short curls, all signaled male, but the smoothness of her cheeks, the neck, the hands, were female.

  “Meet Dyalen,” Hadand said, and then she was gone—the traitor!—leaving Sponge to blink owlishly at this boy-girl and wipe at his sweaty forehead with shaky hands.

  “Where did you come from?” Sponge knew he sounded rude, but he was terrified.

  “You mean, just now? From Heat Street. House of Roses. It’s a short enough trip, if you go up the back way through the old sentry walk.” Dyalen flashed a quick grin, then sobered just as quickly. “Hadand-Hlinlaef has been good to my family.” Her voice was low, a husky contralto. “If I can repay her I will.”

  The women again, with their hidden webs of loyalty, but he lost the thought, because Dyalen had stepped up, and stroked his hair back from his forehead. With the other hand she took away the wine cup. She bent slightly. Her shirt was open at the neck, showing a brief glimpse of collarbone, and flat breastbone between two small breasts. Boy and not boy.

  “Humans actually cleave to both,” she said. “To degrees. Pretty youths, strong women. You probably have friends who like both males and females, don’t you?”

  Sponge thought of Flash Arveas. “Yes,” he said. “One, anyway.” If the others had been like me you wouldn’t be here.

  She laughed again, that free laugh, sounding like the Tveis in the bath house. “Come on, get to your feet.”

  “What? Don’t we have to—” He motioned toward his inner room, which was his bedchamber.

  “Nah.” She grinned, a wide grin with teeth. “We’re going to wrestle. Bet you can’t pin me, either,” she taunted. “I’m a lot stronger than I look.” And she reached up, casually, and slapped him.

  He stepped back in surprise. It wasn’t a hard slap, just a sting. A tingling sting, and she laughed again, swatting the air just before his face. “Try to get me back. I dare you.”

  He lunged. She caught his wrist and twisted it up behind him, sliding the other hand into his tunic, a fast grope that left a feeling of burning on his skin, kindling in his guts. Wrestling, like boys wrestle.

  She smelled of the outdoors—sage and wind, a little of snap-vine oil, and horse. Academy smells.

  He lunged, only half trying, but she evaded his grip and danced away, taunting, taunting, until he used some of his fighting knowledge and caught her, just to be flung off again. And so they played at battle, no blows made in anger, and she teased him with voice, with tongue, with teeth, with tutored hands, until the wine, and the warmth, and her easy strength, brought him spiraling down into the sweet urgency of desire, and even then she made him fight for it until he couldn’t hold himself back, and those expert hands brought them together, breath mingling, hearts thumping, until white, searing fire obliterated memories of the past, worries of the future, consuming him in the now.

  Chapter Twenty-three

  KODL’S marines’ third hire forced them through more sudden squalls full of lightning, choppy cross seas, and sinister drifts of fog that hid shoals and rock-bound islands, but this time they saw their enemies. Twice fast, small galleys swarmed out of the islands toward them, but both times they hauled their wind, as the mate of the deck followed Niz’s orders for setting fighting sail. The galleys’ glasses revealed the tops full of sailors armed with composite bows, and more sailors armed with steel lining the rail, obviously waitin
g.

  Both times the galleys veered off and sped back into the fog, oars lifting and splashing in strict rhythm.

  The marines were as disappointed as the captain was happy to have avoided battle; the benefit was that he paid off at journey’s end with loud-spoken enthusiasm.

  Their fourth hire was found that day. The captain of the Loohan, having heard about the marines who scared off pirate galleys, came directly to their lodgings in Khanerenth’s main harbor, begging Kodl to take ship with him at once.

  Kodl had been alone, studying the new charts he’d bought first thing off the ship. When the Loohan’s captain left, Kodl ran downstairs to the common room, where he found half of his marines eating, and he figured the other half had to be at the pleasure house across the square, spending their earnings a lot faster than they’d made them.

  “I’ll fix it, I’ll fix it,” Inda mumbled, awkward and red-faced.

  Kodl stopped where he was, observing the gawky teen picking at a ripped seam in the side of his weather-worn, stained, threadbare shirt as Tau and Jeje laughed at him. Who could look at him and guess he was the real force behind the marines’ skill? When will Inda realize it—and what will he do about it?

  “Why don’t you just buy one, Inda?” Jeje asked in exasperation. “Your sewing isn’t any better than it was when we were rats! You had plenty of money after the gold bag run!”

  Tau crossed his arms and leaned back, staring up at the ceiling as though he’d just discovered a fabulous painting there.

  Inda hunched over his food, his ears now scarlet. He mumbled something.

  Jeje leaned forward. “What do you mean, you ran out of money? Inda, you didn’t buy any new weapons, and you have never gone upstairs at the Lark. What did you do with it?”

  Inda’s shoulders hitched up, and Kodl thought, Good question. But a pang of self-loathing forced him to dismiss his suspicions, as Jeje said in haste, “Well, never mind, I know it’s none of my affair. It’s just, we want to look successful, so good liberty clothes make us look successful.”

  She instinctively reached for Tau’s arm, covered in very fine linen, then snapped her hand back, and brushed it down the front of her sturdy, green-dyed tunic. Tau picked up his mulled wine and looked intently at it, as though counting the cloves floating on top.

  Jeje said, “You got paid today, so how about I take you to the clothes makers’ street tomorrow? They can make you up whatever you like. Sometimes they even have ready made things. You just pull them on and see if they fit.”

  “There won’t be time,” Kodl interrupted, and all three looked up at him, Tau self-possessed, Inda miserable, Jeje startled.

  Kodl paused, framing the words, but a loud voice from the next table caught his attention.

  “. . . yes, we heard that too,” a tall, swarthy man spoke in a masthead voice to another table of sailors, his Dock Talk Brennish in accent. “The Delfs is sailing west, on account o’ the Venn sailing west. Badrik of the Fleet Deer says it’s on account of the Venn needing to protect the northern waters from them damned Marlovans on their flying horses—”

  Inda choked on a swallow of ale. Dun, at the table directly behind Inda, looked blank; Tau whacked Inda with unnecessary vigor on his back.

  “Nobody can beat soul-eaters ridin’ flyin’ horses. That’s everyday sense! But whatever’s goin’ on the land, the western waters been closed off. And the strait, they say, is so full o’ Brotherhood you can’t sail a bowline without hitting five of ’em in a single watch. We be stuck here in the east. And so we will go to try northern waters, up Everon way.”

  “Good plan,” Kodl said, and eyes turned to him. He opened his hand to his people. “As for us, we stand south for Sartor.”

  “Already?” Yan asked, putting down his fork.

  “On the tide,” Kodl said, laughing. And, lower, “We’re getting a rep, we’re getting a rep at last.”

  Three weeks later dawn brought three fast pirates bearing down, all sails set and taut.

  “Pirates ho!” called Yan from the masthead. The Chwahir was normally soft-spoken, when he did speak, which was seldom. His shout roused the deck, and the sudden running feet woke those belowdecks.

  Inda whirled out of his hammock, yanked from a vivid dream: he was still eleven, the air smelled of summer fields, and Dogpiss had joined Sponge and Inda in the secret practice out behind the stable. The dream vanished, abandoning Inda for moments somewhere between there and here.

  He strapped his knives on, and was thrashing his way into his newly-mended shirt as he raced up to the deck, where he found all the marines assembled before Kodl, faces grim, eyes alert, hands fidgeting and restless.

  The captain, a cautious older man whose stiff demeanor and well-brushed green coat called poor Beagar to mind, said, unnecessarily, “They have the wind.”

  Inda had known that with the first warm blast on his face and the sight of three blue-painted shapes, hull up, bearing down squarely on the beam, which meant that the Loohan couldn’t escape.

  Kodl held two glasses. One he handed to Inda and they both snicked the glasses out to the longest reach. For a time there were no sounds except the slapping of water against the hull, the creak of wood and rigging, and the low thrum of wind in the sails. No one noticed the cold, eye-stinging drops of dew falling from the rigging above.

  Inda and Kodl observed the pirates on their slow, inexorable approach. Kodl watched for changes of sail and direction; Inda watched those pirates visible on the deck.

  “What’re those booms?” he asked.

  Niz nipped the glass from his hand, peered, grunted, and said, “Them’s cut-booms.”

  Inda took the glass back and peered. Now that the primary pirate was closer, he could see the huge extended boom, an open angle secured to the foremast and to the hull for support, its end glittering in the sun, some kind of massive blade fitted to its end. The three booms, one to each mast, seemed to be maneuverable—there were teams on each side of a boom with double-blocked lines.

  Cut booms. Their effect would be like enormous swords or spears. Inda saw from the angle of approach, the way the booms jutted, that the pirate meant to come up at that angle and then throw the helm hard over, using the wind and the pirate’s own speed and mass to sweep that beam along the shrouds of the Loohan.

  With a flash of blue the sails on the first ship changed, some flapping down, others bowsed tight. The ship leaned, the wake changing, and Inda saw the plan—yes, this had to be the exact same plan used against the Pim ships. “Fire their sails,” he muttered, glass still raised. “Two will sweep our sides, and that third will run right up over our stern so they can board.”

  “Arrows aloft!” Kodl snapped, and feet drummed on the deck, racing to the weapons locker.

  Inda smacked the glass closed and turned to the bow team. “Arrows first, one to sail, one to a man on the cut-boom crews, sails, man, until they close. Make each one count so they think twice about us.” He hesitated, facing Kodl, who just nodded, hiding his own trembling hands behind his back. I only see what they’re doing. Inda sees what they will do.

  Inda said, “Dun, your band starboard, Scalis, yours larboard. Get rid of those cut boom crews first! Niz, see to it your band is ready with staffs and steel to hand on the captain’s deck in case they make it over the stern.”

  Scalis’ low, breathy chuckle of anticipation was the only answer as they all ran to fetch their gear, the arrow bands swiftly dipping threads in the oil that Thog had left open for them, in preparation for setting the shafts alight.

  The mariners’ swift deployment was watched keenly by the Loohan’s regular crew, who knew they could not beat off one ship, much less three.

  Inda never noticed them. He kept the glass pressed to his eye . . . not yet . . . not yet . . .

  “Now!”

  Spang! Tcheng! Simultaneously, in two disciplined waves, the bow teams sent arrows aloft, keening through the air, their flames leaving faint smoke trails. Fire arrows . . . Inda’s mi
nd flew back to lingering images from the dream.

  He was a scrub again. The dream was so vivid, not just the scents, but the quality of the light, a blue glow with faint gold undertones highlighting strands of Dogpiss’ untidy hair, warm and bright on the rough, reddish, scarred skin of his knuckles.

  “Yulululu!” That was Niz’s Delf triumph cry.

  Stinging dew dropped into Inda’s face, blurring the pirate ship. Just as he wiped his eyes the pirates hauled wind, weaving around to try another angle of attack, head on to diminish the target area of the fire arrows.

  “Them’s comin’ at a sharper angle,” Niz declared.

  Everyone muttered and grunted in agreement. This angle would make it tougher for the pirates to make the maneuver successfully, Inda saw.

  Loohan’s captain, seeing their sails change, shouted orders for his own crew to tack, orders carried out faster than Kodl had thought possible with this merchant crew.

  “Halt,” Kodl yelled to the bow teams. “Wait till they come round.” Jeje, far above, motioned to her band to change position. “Ready?”

  The wind favored the pirates, as did the shape of their craft—long and narrow.

  The first pirate came in fast, aimed now at the weather-side of the stern; the second one maneuvered in more slowly on the lee side, sails constantly altering to compensate for Loohan’s tacking.

  With a flash of courses the first pirate threw his helm over—

  “Now!” And to Loohan’s helmsmen, “Hard over!”

  The second pirate, still too far back, permitted them to yaw leeward, the deck slanting, blocks clattering, a spoon someone had laid on a barrel clattering down the deck.

 
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