Inda by Sherwood Smith

  Evred stopped the questions.

  There was therefore no trial of malefactors to slake the thirst for justice, no public execution to expiate the sense of shame—it was worse, far worse, than the Idayagans. Tanrid’s betrayal and death had been ordered by one of their own.

  And so there was only the torchlit gathering in the great court at dawn and the singing of the Hymn to the Fallen before Tanrid, one of his two personal Runners, his Dragoons, and the animals who died defending them were Disappeared.

  And during the ceremony, Evred stood by the bier on which lay the still figure, his tunic smoothed, weapons at his sides, watched by shocked, dazed, angry, weary, shamed men, grubby and sweating and looking ill in the weak blue light. Evred held the flaming torch, thinking: Once again justice is impossible. But if I confront my brother about what orders he gave his Runner, he will probably lie just like he did about Dogpiss the summer with no banner.

  The truth is, my brother had Tanrid killed, with my uncle’s permission, but I cannot prove it; therefore I can say nothing.

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  “IS that all you need, Elgar?”

  Inda tried witlessly to make sense of the question while not staring at the rounded neck of the clerk’s cotton blouse. He looked up at the rough-hewn ceiling, at the smoke-stained fireplace, at the west windows, as though the answer lay out there in the harbor.

  She chuckled, a soft, attractive sound.

  Heat flooded his face, rushing down to what was already painful enough. He winced, leaning against the counter. “Seizings.” His voice squeaked, compounding his wretchedness.

  The clerk took pity on him and turned away. “Seizings it is. You’ll want enough for the gaff o’ the cutter, then, and an extra set or two? Looks like it got mighty chewed up in that storm that brought you in.”

  He scarcely heard the well-meant chatter. From the back she was just as round, her worn skirt molded to the shape of her hips, and when she reached, that blouse pulled tight against the swell of her breasts—

  “Glarg.” His tongue caught somewhere in his throat.

  She glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes dark, merry, and knowing. “I’ll send the cordage over to the slip, shall I? Thog isn’t on board now, is she?”

  “Thog.” That almost sounded human. “Send. Thanks.”

  She turned away again, deliberately, for she was past twenty, and had brothers besides. Though she was amused, she had the kindness to hide it. Inda managed to get himself out of the cordage shop and into the open air of Freeport Harbor. It was a cool summer day, everyone busy, for after a miserable month of pounding storms the first clear weather had brought in fleets of sail. He walked with a kind of painful care, but at least no one paid any attention to him—

  “Inda! Caught your bowsprit in the shrouds?”

  Tau’s cheery voice caused Inda to sit down abruptly on a convenient pile of canvas rolls outside a sail shop, forearms over his lap. He looked up, his face a peculiar blend of misery and sheepish grin that caused Tau to hoot in delight. He looked back at the cordage shop, and comprehended immediately. “That Lorenda, gets you tight against the seam even if you’re blind. I heard she’s walking out with no fewer than three, besides Kodl—”

  Inda groaned. “She knew. I—”

  Tau’s smile turned pensive. “Inda, how long have you been getting torch without fire?”

  Every morning for months, Inda thought gloomily, about the time the others suddenly twitted him for face fuzz, making him hunt up a Healer for the Beard Spell. And he’d finally gone and bought a made shirt, because his old one had ripped seams during practice within the space of four weeks, after he’d reseamed it twice.

  He grimaced, recalling that morning’s dream, a jumble of images involving one of the women at Lark Ascendant, an older and much differently shaped Thog, and for some weird reason a grown version of Liet from back home. Only they’d been speaking in Marlovan, which made him feel homesick. “Dunno,” he mumbled, since Tau seemed to be waiting for an answer.

  Tau’s sympathy turned to impatience. “If today isn’t the first time, why haven’t you gone upstairs in the Lark?”

  Inda hunched and looked away at the forest of masts, glimpsed through the narrow opening between two weather-beaten buildings. He wished he were out there, preferably under water. “We’re low on money,” he mumbled. “Kodl just saying it a week ago. And Scalis keeps going up anyway.”

  “For an old geezer he’s sure hot at hand,” Tau agreed. “But he’s doing all their wood repair, so he’s square.”


  Over the past day or two Tau had been exchanging speculative glances with a hip-rolling young first mate who’d recently landed from Sartor. She was tall, handsome, red-haired, and from a successful privateer crew. And here she was, damn, having just spotted him.

  He forced his attention back to Inda; the red-haired first mate, in the mood for dalliance with the prettiest man on the island, saw his attention stray to the knot-limbed clod-pole hunched there on the sails, and so she passed by, thinking, Oh, what a waste!

  “Inda. I can see you being circumspect on board ship—I am myself—but why on shore? Girls here not—?” He hesitated on not good enough, frowning down at Inda’s averted face.

  When did a joke become a jibe? When there might be truth in it. Tau sorted through memory with the swiftness of habit. Though Kodl and Testhy had scrupulously kept their secret, Tau had very soon—once winter began and they were all holed up together—perceived subtle differences in their attitude toward Inda, and once he’d noticed, he tracked unerringly back through memory to the day it had changed.

  Tau had been taught well. He watched, listened, and during New Year’s Week, while Kodl and Inda took some of their new recruits out for a two-day training run on their rebuilt cutter, he got Testhy drunk, listening in growing amazement to the mumbled account of that confrontation with Ryala Pim.

  Now Tau rubbed his chin, staring down at Inda, who looked out at sea, his face closed and grim. Son of a prince! There certainly had been no royalty turning up at his mother’s harbor house, horns blowing and outriders clattering. Tau knew little of Marlovan royal custom. Maybe a brother or father or uncle was expected to haul him off and show him how to set his sails the first time. Or maybe an expert in first timers was brought in. Testhy hadn’t known any details about Inda’s family, being an outlander, and Tau knew better than to try Kodl.

  Inda’s mood soured as his thoughts winged back to Tdor. He’d always expected his first experiments would be with her. But she was still a child in his thoughts. He cherished that tender memory of the summer afternoon they had napped, limbs entangled, on his bed and despite their well-meaning intentions, no closer to solving the mystery of sex than to reaching to touch a summer sky. Where was she now? They might have sent her back to Marth-Davan . . . or there could be a new Shield Arm being trained. Maybe even Branid! The idea of Tdor being forced to marry that whining bully turned his mood to rage.

  Tau’s voice pierced through the fug: “You know, if it’s a tumble with the boys you want, we can walk over to Cock-Robin’s den, or you could go with—” Again he hesitated, not wanting to mention Yan’s name if no one else knew. The Chwahir was a friend, and Tau had worked hard to keep his friendship by pretending not to be aware of Yan’s long, hot gazes, the sound of his breathing. As he’d done with Jeje, until he’d asked Mistress Lind to show her upstairs.

  The idea of sex with friends was disgusting to Tau, he who had been raised knowing about the wide varieties of sexual tastes. He’d experimented with many of those, over the past couple of years, but never with friends, whom he permitted within his own personal citadel of friendship because they did not grab him, touch him, strive to bind him with the febrile, maudlin emotions of possession.

  Inda looked up, recalling the sounds, the stale, sweaty smells afterward, of Norsh and his friends, mostly Leugre, who’d liked an east and west wind—males and females—down in the dark h
old, when they should have been on night duty. Grimaced. “No Cock-Robin,” he said shortly. “All it reminds me of is Norsh and his mates.”

  Tau laughed softly. “My mother always said that sexual preferences are like boiled persimmon. If you’ve a liking, it’s superb, if not, it’s poison. And then of course there are those of us who say it depends upon the pie.”

  He looked down at the wide brown eyes before him, saw Inda’s confusion. His mother had also said: A secret without the why of it is as useless as speculation.

  “Come along. Kodl is down scouting hires now, and you won’t be any use to anyone hobbling around like a sea turtle caught on shore.”

  Inda blushed as deeply as Tau had ever seen him, but he managed to get to his feet and then shambled, shamefaced, at Tau’s shoulder back up the hill where Tau made sure to get Mistress Lind alone. Then he looked back in exasperation and a kind of hilarious wonder at their tough, even frightening marine tactical trainer who stood in the doorway as if fire burned his toes, his face now blanched. But then Tau thought, studying that compact, powerful body, the awkward elbows and feet of someone who has grown fast within just half a year: I keep forgetting—he must be somewhere around sixteen.

  “Oh,” Mistress Lind said, after a glance. “I wondered when that one would wake up. Inda, is it? Come along. You’ve arrived just at the right moment. Three of our first timers are free as business is slow, it being such a fine day. Everyone is down on the King’s Saunter if not on deck.”

  “Er,” said Inda.

  “Now, do you have any preferences? Lissan is dark and quite fiery, then there’s Ziri, who is fair and as cool as a spring stream. And also we have Nanog, who comes from Chwahirsland, and she’s probably our very best first timer—”

  “Um,” Inda said.

  “Ah. Like that, is it?”

  Nanog was tall, taller than Inda, with the kind of rounded curves he liked at once, her round face merry with dimples in her broad cheeks. She took Inda’s hand, and welcomed him into a bright room with a lot of rose-colored furnishings, and she didn’t seem to notice that his clothes were already drenched with sweat.

  Nor did she react after a very short time—far too short—when he gave a cry of dismay.

  “Never mind that, it happens all the time,” she said with that merry, dimpled grin, her black eyes sparkling with light from her windows. She ran an idle hand along his smooth, strongly muscled young flesh and leaned in to whisper, “Now it’s my turn.”

  A couple of weeks later Inda was perched high in the foremast of their new hire, thinking about sex.

  It was a mild morning, the haze just burning off, their convoy all in stations behind them. Their new scout craft wasn’t in view, but that wasn’t unusual, especially with the morning mist still lying heavy over the water, and a darkness in the east, diffused by the mist, that might be a series of squalls boiling up.

  So Inda wrapped an arm more comfortably around a shroud and thought pleasurably back. Sex was fun. Or at least, it was fun once you got over that first desperate time. He winced, thinking that the pleasure house people who dealt mainly with first timers probably had to train for years first in learning how not to howl with laughter.

  But fun as it was, it also lit a lamp on a lot of previous mysteries. Some ships had strict rules about affairs on board. Some didn’t mix genders at all and Inda could see why, now. But a rule like that wouldn’t have done any good for Norsh, who unlike Leugre and Tau, only sparked to his own gender. Or would it be worse for the ones who liked both? No, not for Tau, who didn’t dally with friends. As for Norsh, Inda found himself, after all this time, feeling a kind of sympathy for him; life on board ship, whatever the rules, would be terrible if you happened to find yourself yearning for someone who paid you no heed.

  Some sympathy, anyway. What he couldn’t understand was how he could want to destroy someone he felt passionate about but couldn’t have.

  Inda grimaced as he thought back over how stupid he’d probably looked, giving all those excuses to return to the cordage shop, and for nothing. Lorenda had been nice to him while making it quite clear she had no interest in dalliance. Yet he never wanted to destroy her, the way Norsh had wanted to hurt Tau. And Faura had wanted to hurt Tau as well, in a much sneakier way, at least as much as she’d wanted to bed him.

  Inda groaned with impatience. Thinking about Lorenda did nothing except bring on that burn belowdecks, as did thinking about that curly-haired cook’s mate on the other ship whom Inda really found attractive. The rules of their contract were strict: no pillow jigs at sea.

  Unlike Inda at this particular moment, Thog, daughter of Pirog, had her mind on business. This is not to say that Inda did not think about business frequently, and did not in fact do more than his share. But Thog was passionate about business—which she defined not as defense but as fighting pirates—and because she was passionate, she rarely ever thought about anything else. It was far better than the horror of memory.

  When Thog was on lookout duty, she stared outward in full expectation—almost anticipation—of seeing the red sails of the Brotherhood of Blood appear, hull down, on the horizon. Ugly raids in her hometown, time and again over a generation, had burned blood-red sails into her worst dreams even before the night all the adults in her family were killed, her home village burned by drunken, laughing pirates, and she was dragged aboard their ship to scrub and serve, to learn piracy or die, until she had escaped by diving overboard during a storm. She had intended to die, but then she saw she was not far from shore, and so had clung to wrack until she drifted to safety, leaving her alive and with a passion for vengeance.

  The ocean, she felt right now, was far too empty.

  She’d been up on the mizzenmast since the dawn bells. Tack and tack again; the four ships moved together slowly but smoothly on the calm ocean, just as they had each day of the week they’d been sailing. The wind had held steadily against them so they continued to tack night and day, all four on signal.

  Everything as it should be. So why did she feel this sense of impending threat?

  Because something was wrong. She just had yet to see it.

  She scanned for the scout, which ought to have appeared by now, though maybe it was up there in the east, caught in the crazy winds of those oncoming squalls. That wasn’t it.

  She glanced at the sun, then back at the Toola, last of the four. They were now on the starboard tack, so she ought to be seeing Yan at his fishing at any moment. Was that it?

  She trained her glass on the Toola, almost a silhouette in the glaring light reflecting through the dissipating haze. No sign of anyone at the sides at all.

  She scanned the deck at the base of the mizzenmast. Uslar, the young Chwahir runaway she herself had rescued from begging on the docks, was at the side, fishing for breakfast, Chwahir-style. Others not on watch stood about, some with work at hand, others sipping a drink and chatting idly.

  She felt wind on her cheek. Below her the great triangular sail bellied slowly and the ship came alive, beginning to pitch slowly forward as the wind rippled the smooth water up into playful cats’ paws.

  She peered under her hand down the row of ships, trying to block the strengthening glare. Heads moved about on two of them, but the fourth, still mostly silhouette, seemed oddly calm.

  Yes, there were lookouts’ silhouettes at the masthead. Then she glanced down at her own deck, saw tousle-haired Mutt, the next youngest new boy, moving forward to get out of the way of the expected command to take in sail.

  “Mutt,” Thog called, without moving.

  The boy squinted up through his tangle of brown hair.

  “Stroll over and tell Elgar I want to talk to him. Don’t hop, don’t make it look like alarm.”

  The boy’s face changed, and he sauntered forward with rather obvious care. Thog remained where she was, watching the Toola, listening to the rhythmic creak of mast, the hum of rope, which had changed slightly in timber as the wind began to freshen.

A very short time later Thog heard Inda’s voice from below; he stood directly forward of the mizzenmast, where no one aft could see him.

  “Yan isn’t fishing,” she said, without changing her posture. Yes, that foremast glass was trained straight on her, she could feel it. “No one is moving on Toola’s deck. Just at watch at their stations.”

  “Can you make out individuals?”


  Splash, creak. Inda said, “Seen the scout?”

  “Not aft.”

  “Not forward either.”

  Creak, splash. Thog realized that the entire ship had gone quiet. People still moved about their stations, but there was now an air of expectation.

  Inda dropped down into the waist, which would be invisible to the ships behind them. Thog saw his head near Dun’s and Kodl’s sun-bleached ones, both just woken from their snooze watch, and she turned her attention back to the sea and those ships.

  In the waist, as others drifted up, Kodl said, “We’ll send a scout band down under cover of that squall.” He pointed to the greenish-gray line growing in the east.

  “I’ll go,” Tau said, reckless as always.

  Overhead the bosun’s whistle tweeted and stamping feet thundered all around them, as hands swarmed aloft to reef up the sails and bowse them tight.

  “Wind’s swinging round,” Niz said, nodding in approval. “We’ll have to use the big launch to scout. Rig, Wumma, and the Fisher boys can go with Taumad.”

  Kodl opened a hand, said, “Dun, you take Rig’s watch, then, and check our gear in case.”

  Dun lifted a hand, signifying agreement.

  “Do we take weapons?” Wumma asked. He stroked his knife hilt. He wanted to fight pirates. Kill pirates.

  “Just your—”

  A wiry, shirtless body landed lightly among them and they looked over at Dasta. He pointed south. “Got a clear peek. Better send a boarding party. Not ours on lookout.”

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