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Fox's Promise

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Savarend Montredavan-An, Jarl of Darchelde—who preferred to think of himself as Fox, if he had to claim an identity at all—heard signal horns echoing from the distance, and lifted his head, counting to himself. The Darchelde castle bells began to ring before he reached ten. Good. The watch was not asleep at the walls.

He smiled, knowing that it was very unlikely that any of Marend's women would be asleep on the walls. He dipped his pen again, and finished writing the description of Eflis and Sparrow’s epic first meeting with Dasta. So much no one had seen fit to tell him, while he and Inda were on the other side of the strait!

He laughed to himself at the idea of mild, prow-nosed Dasta the unexpected recipient of an orgy with two women. Considering what had happened to him at the Battle of the Narrows, it was good that he'd been young and strong enough to reciprocate with enthusiasm.

Habit—instinct—were reliable time keepers: Fox knew how long he had before Inda and his entourage would arrive at Darchelde. By the time they clattered into the dusty courtyard below Fox’s tower retreat, he had tidied away all evidence of his writing. Inda, he had decided after that first visit, was never going to find out about the project any more than he would discover the details of Fox’s meeting with Ramis.

He greeted Inda at the massive front door to Darchelde castle. The summer having brought two weeks without rain, the Algara-Vayir entourage raised a dust storm as they rode in. The first one to emerge out of it was a small, stocky figure—Young Hadand, launching herself at black-haired Shen, Marend’s daughter by Keth the miller.

Girlish voices squealed as they exchanged news as fast as they could, after having not seen one another for an entire month. They vanished through the doors, their voices lingering, as Inda dismounted more slowly. He looked unchanged—maybe a little thinner, though that was difficult to gauge in one built so broadly across the chest.

“Fox.” Inda flashed his rare grin. 

“My ears already hurt,” Fox retorted. “Their squawking gets worse every year.”

Inda’s grin widened, dimpling his cheeks. He looked young again—though that was a bit of an anomaly, as he’d so rarely smiled during their desperate days as pirate fighters. Never laughed.

But he laughed now, a husky sound low in his chest, almost a burr as he said, “I tried to peg it, but you know, there’s so much river bending between our northern border and your southern that I’m not really certain where the halfway point is.”

“And?” Fox asked, leading the way inside.

Marend appeared, greeting Inda with a smile.

He smiled back as he handed off a packet of letters from the women at Tenthan castle, then said, “I wondered if it would be exactly halfway when Young Hadand stopped talking about everybody at home, and started speculating about everybody here.” His smile faltered. “Her fourteenth is coming too soon.”

Fox knew that Inda adored his children—as they adored him. “But not yet,” he said briskly, and watched Inda smile again.

“Right. Not yet. And I’ll be going from here to fetch Kendred back from the academy. I wonder if he got a name—if they do that anymore.” As they mounted the stairs, “Jarend never got one, but he’s in so many ways like Tanrid, who never got one either.”

Fox could have told him, but he decided that Inda would enjoy hearing about his son’s scrub year more from the boy himself. From his own boy’s report, conveyed to Shendan through Hadand-Gunvaer, Kendred was far more like Inda than like the boy he’d been named for.

Far more like him in cheerful personality, but apparently not the least like Inda in talent. And Inda has the scars to prove the cost, Fox thought as they emerged in his high tower retreat, which he knew Inda liked.

“So what news have you?” Inda asked, hitching himself onto the stone sill of one of the arched windows, apparently unperturbed about the long drop to the stable courtyard below. But then he'd liked to sit at the masthead now and then on their ships, arcing a lazy parabola a hundred paces above the water.

"News?" Fox held out his hand. “We are as you see.”

Inda gave him a skeptical half-smile. “And you aren’t in contact with your Treason?”

I’ll be on it as soon as you vanish over the horizon. But out loud, he said only, “Surely you hear everything I’d hear. Don’t they all write to you?”

“Who’s they?” Inda retorted, without heat. “Jeje hates writing almost as much as I do. Dasta, too. Gillor got hired up the coast of Drael somewhere. Tau writes, but he’s the one who said to ask you about Pirate Island.”

“Little enough to tell,” Fox said. “Jeje commanded that fleet—not that much needed doing after our would-be pirate kings took a look at the Death, the Treason, and Cocodu sailing into their harbor, flashing sails like a pack of Venn. Only worse." He grinned. "The harbormaster hadn’t expected to see us.”

Inda’s head turned sharply. “So you do use that . . . magical transfer thing Ramis has on that ship?”

“Of course I do. Faster than riding, and we won’t mention how much your king friend would enjoy having his minions shoot me if they spotted me hopping my border.”

Inda made a sour face. “As if you couldn’t sneak to the coast and back without them ever seeing you.”

“There is that,” Fox acknowledged. “And I did it that way the first couple of times. Just for the fun of it. But this is so much faster.”

“Fox, have you considered what Ramis might want?”

None better.

“You could find yourself on the other side of that black voice we saw off the coast.” Inda jerked his callused, scarred hand southward.

Fox was going to retort that the prospect was far less frightening than that of riding pointlessly round the perimeter of his lands his entire life, but that would be cruel. Inda loved riding his lands, and Fox knew it—Inda relished the sameness, the seasons, the people he talked with and shared meals with along the way, people who would never make decisions that affected populations, or whose words would be written for posterity by hoards of sycophantic scribes.

Inda prized obscurity with the passion of a man who had nearly sacrificed his life in order to gain it; Fox loathed it, and found the prospect of one day sailing the Treason into Ramis’s void irresistible, because he had no idea what he would find on the other side.

Fox glanced at Inda’s puzzled face, and knew he could ruin the conversation, and the visit, if he were not careful. He wanted Inda to keep visiting, and talking. So he made a spitting motion to the side. "And so? If Marshig, Sharl, and the rest are still there, don't you think at least half of them would go after each other's throats first thing they could? I could take them if I had to. But the other side of that black void might also be another world, a new start. A new adventure. The very idea makes me feel young again."

"I suppose that's all true," Inda said reflectively.

"Hungry?" Fox asked. And was privately entertained by Inda’s habitual inward look, followed by a subdued, Oh! As he discovered that yes, he was hungry.

Some things never changed.

Hiding his amusement, Fox said, “The harbormaster—brother to the one you met before we danced with Marshig—was on the take, we discovered. We cleared all them out. Sandis—the daughter—is now harbormaster. She sailed with Gillor for a while, the year after the Narrows battle. She set up a good defense, and so I think Pirate Island will now settle into contented obscurity. For a generation.”

He could have bitten his tongue when Inda’s expression shuttered, but all Inda said was, “A generation is good. We know nothing lasts forever.”

As they passed downstairs again, Fox saw the question Inda wouldn’t speak, and hesitated over what to say. Instead, he exerted himself to be entertaining by telling stories of the children’s exploits. He knew that Inda’s tastes had always stayed simple; when Fox passed his wife on the third floor landing, he cast a meaning look toward the tower where Shendan was in the process of building her magic workroom and library.

Fox finished up his recitation of minutiae when they reached the dining room. Shendan showed up with Marend just as the servants brought in a tray of savory fresh-water fish-and-pepper soup with hot rye buns.

“Inda,” Shendan exclaimed. “Here you are again! Off to the royal city, I understand?”

“Fetch away the boys,” Inda said.

“Speaking of.” Shendan dropped crosslegged onto her mat like a girl, and plopped her elbows on the table, chin on her interlaced fingers. “What ever possessed you to tell stories about bad behavior to small boys? You know what they will do and at the worst possible time.”

Inda set his rye bread down. “What? One of my boys?”

“Who else,” Shendan said, “but a ten-year-old would be brainless enough to put eggs into the shoes of certain masters his first week at the academy?”

“No, he didn’t,” Inda exclaimed.

“Ask Hadand! He got his entire bunk group in on it. And your boy came very near—very near—to being renamed Thunderchicken.”

Fox stole a glance at Inda, who shook silently on his mat, face crimson. “Thunderchicken,” he repeated voicelessly.

“Apparently nicknames are not done anymore—though there are, as always, special exceptions.”

Inda was still grinning, but he gave his shoulders a twitch, then winced. “I suppose he earned what he got.”

“Oh, but they were far too smart for that, Hadand says.” Shendan’s limpid gaze, the curl to her lips, cleared the sympathetic pain from Inda’s face; whatever had happened had not been terrible, or she wouldn't be suppressing a smile. “Mess gag for a month, and let us just say that those little boys are experts at stable wanding and boot cleaning. But I ought not to tell tales, I suppose,” Shendan said airily. “Kendred will no doubt regale you exhaustively with his misadventures on your ride back. With him as the misunderstood hero, no doubt. And we will hear the same when Indevan returns from Runner training for New Year’s.”

Inda turned from Marend to Fox to Shendan. “So your boy is going to be a Runner?” 

“It was Hadand’s idea,” Shendan said briskly, flicking a glance at her brother.

Inda wondered how much debate had gone on that he had never heard about. But he remembered small Indevan from earlier visits—a twig-thin, quiet redhead, even quieter than Young Hadand. When they played together, they seemed to communicate wordlessly. It wasn’t the way he and Tdor had been—she’d been the leader—but it wasn’t different, either. He sensed the same sort of, oh, companionship.

Or maybe that was him wanting to see it, wanting to leave his daughter where he knew she’d be happy. Everyone kept insisting she would be, from Tdor to his own sister. But he needed to see it himself. It was so easy to find yourself alone, abandoned.

Shendan went on talking. “Hadand says that he and Hastred-Sierlaef get along very well. Indevan will be a King’s Runner, you know.” She slanted a grin. “Inside line of communication. We’d like that to become a tradition, Hadand and I. Bind the two families together again, so that when the treaty is over, it’ll be as if it never was.”

“Except for the magic,” Fox murmured.

Shendan chuckled. “Except—I hope—we’ll know magic.”

“How is that going?” Inda asked.

“Slow,” Shendan admitted. “I’ve discovered that Signi gave us the magic equivalent of scrubs’ first reading classes. But one has to start somewhere, right?”

Inda nodded, and Shendan, about to launch into a detailed description of her experiments, bit it back with heroic effort. Magic filled her days, gave her life meaning, but she could see in Inda's patient gaze that he hadn't a vestige of interest. She changed the topic to the prospective harvest, and so the rest of the meal passed agreeably.

As Fox led Inda out, Inda caught a glimpse of Shendan hustling back toward the big library. He grimaced. Tenthan needed a better library—what they had dated back a couple centuries to the Algara days, except for what his mother had managed to get hold of, usually through her sister in Sartor. “Shendan seems . . .” Inda waved a hand.

“Happy,” Fox said. “Happiest I’ve ever seen her. Even when she’s cursing and stamping because she can’t make her illusions work.”

“Magic.” Inda shook his head. But he knew how important it was, and Tdor had told him that Shendan had been its champion ever since they were girls. He was still grateful to Signi for her gift. One of her many gifts.

The reminder of Signi threw him back to those hazy days so difficult to remember, full of so much emotional turmoil. She had been the best thing in them, until he was able to come home. But between those days and now was memory of the last sea battle, something Inda’s mind shied away from—like the Wafri days. And the days between signing the treaty and facing Evred. Inda hated any reminders.

Fox, watching him covertly, guessed some of this, and distracted him by offering to show him the new horses.

That brightened Inda again, as Fox had hoped, then casually and easily, he brought the talk around to training again. Fox had been writing up Inda’s training methods. He touched on subjects quick and easy as a moth around a light. Pirate fighters—fillies and colts—slyly, when he thought Inda was ready, “It must have seemed odd to come back and be training only boys.”

“It was,” Inda said. “I never thought about it growing up. Well, of course the girls have the Odni, which they could use on us. Still can,” he added, after reflection. “It was only going to be a surprise once. It so happened that Hadand was the one who got to spring that surprise.”

“Our Marlovens are unlikely to see the wisdom of that right away. No one wants change, it seems. But if they did. Would you put girls in with the boys?”

“Why not?”

“Even the barracks?”

“We did as shiprats, didn't we? I don’t recollect any problems,” Inda said. “We were all puppies. You grow up next to a girl, by the time you get hair under your clothes, the essential relationship hasn’t changed. You may or may not discover each other for a pillow jig, as we did or didn't, but you still defend alongside one another.”

“But you wouldn’t put women in heavy cav, for example.”

“You put your men where they are best, right?” Inda said. “Jeje—Thog—their band, they made the best skirmishers. Sea skirmishers,” he corrected. “Couldn’t you see Jeje leading a company of skirmishers?”

“I could see her winning a war,” Fox said. “She was the only one who saw what you did, once a battle began.”

“I know,” Inda said, grinning. “But she wouldn’t plan one.”

“Hated the politics of command.”

That was too obvious even to be commented on. Of the two of them, only Fox knew about the conversation between Evred and Jeje, on the way north to the Andahi Pass battle. It had gratified him far more than it ought to have, how Jeje had trenchantly told Evred that she didn't trust him past the next heartbeat. Perhaps Inda might once have enjoyed hearing about it, but for the other end of that conversation, when Inda and Evred had faced one another after the battle of the strait. Fox still found the memory of that, and how very close Inda had come to a hideous death, harrowing.

Ramis had given Fox the secret key to Inda’s memories, to his experience. He still did not know why, but he was driven to write it all up, exactly as he saw it, anyway.

The conversations about training were Fox’s own idea. He had no idea what, if anything he would do with them. Iasca Leror was not going to get the benefit of his writing while the Montredavan-An family was still sequestered over what had been a prime bit of treachery on Evred’s great-father’s part. (And Fox had seen that, too.)

Inda's smile faded. "Jeje . . . I miss Jeje. She was so honest. Accepted everybody as they were. Except us Marlovans." There was the sideways glance, Inda's scarred face looking pensive. Sad. Even old.

Fox took a chance. "Though I wasn't there, I recollect enough of her emphatically stated opinions to believe it was kings she objected to. Not Marlovans. From what I heard, she had no problem crossing the country until you met up with Evred."

Inda's gaze sharpened, then he opened his hand. "That's true. She has no use for kings." The smile was back, brief, but there. "Tau brings me news of her when he rides through on his way to the royal city."

And though Fox knew exactly what was going on with their former fleet, he coaxed a report out of Inda, who relaxed once again as they discussed Jeje's successes, and those of everyone else. Then, again, Fox gradually brought it all around to Inda's teaching, and elicited a few more anecdotes of Inda's time as Harskialdna. Inda laughed at his own mistakes, but in this conversation as well as others a general strategy had emerged, one that reflected Inda's command style, sharing power down the chain so that anyone could make tactical innovations in order to carry forward the general strategy. Inda and Fox discussed the details of creating a consensus force, as opposed to silent minions obeying their leader without question.

Fox enjoyed these talks—he enjoyed seeing Inda as teacher and father, still so very much like a boy in certain ways. So formidable in others, even without that ghost at his shoulder.

The evening passed without incident, Inda’s attention straying to the oblivious girls as they whispered over the evening meal, giggling softly.

After the servants took away the plates, they gathered to read a play that Marend had picked out, with a mind to the girls’ practice in Sartoran: the comedy adventure Isa Cassadas and the Boy with Gold Hair had been written by one of their Dei connections.

The girls insisted on dividing the roles of the snotty princes at the competition, and Fox was universally chosen to be the pompous king. Shendan insisted on playing the mean old queen, leaving Marend and Inda to read Isa and the Golden Boy respectively.

Inda liked reading—he had done a great deal of it as a young boy before his academy summers. He and Tdor had kept up the habit at Tenthan, though they read Iascan plays that the entire household could enjoy, with plenty of rousing battles and excuses to stop reading altogether to belt out ballads.

He read with pleasure, wondering briefly if there had ever been any Golden-Haired Boy, or if this was another absurdity like the stories about Elgar the Fox that Jeje apparently took great pleasure in, according to Tau. She only collected the ones that had never happened.

They parted to sleep, everyone in good spirits, and in equally good spirits rose the next day.

It was understood that Inda could break the rules by riding into Darchelde, unlike anyone else, but never longer than a day. He lingered as long as he could before giving the order to mount up. He could see in faces and hear in the quality of the small talk that his Riders had been entertained well.

As he prepared to climb into the saddle, he found Marend at his stirrup. “You know she is happy,” she said, looking up into his face, a lock of curly black hair escaped from her braid lifting in the breeze.

Inda still teared up at the oddest times. “I know.” He smiled down from the saddle as he thumbed his eyes.

"Ride easy, cousin." Marend patted his leg, and stepped away.

Inda clucked to the horse, the banner bearers fell into place, and they rode sedately through the gates.

Marend stepped up onto the promenade before the great doors, and stood leaning on the rail next to Fox. “The scars on his heart are worse than the ones on his flesh,” she said.

“I know,” Fox replied. “Thank you for giving him a good visit. It’s only to be done a couple more times.”

“I really do not mind,” Marend said. “You know how much I love his mother. And Shen enjoys it—she’s probably penning gossip for Hadand right now.”

Fox turned a hand over.

Marend’s eyes narrowed. “You’re taking off again, aren’t you. And not alone?”

“Lnar really wants to sail. And she’s sixteen. You know I bring them back if they aren’t happy.”

Marend said, “I know that, and Lnar has been begging for years. It’s not that. It’s . . . well, you.”

“Me? If this a way of objecting to my wholesale raiding of fresh greens from the kitchen? You know how difficult those are for us to get on board.”

Marend shook her head. “Fox. Every time you leave, I fear you won’t come back. It’s not for my sake that I ask—which is probably why I have to be the one to ask. It’s for all of them.” Her arm swept out, indicating Darchelde.

“But I do come back, don’t I? And I leave you in peace between times?”

Marend studied him, the rising wind whipping that errant lock into her eyes. Rain on the way at last. Poor Inda was in for a wet ride on his way to the royal city. “I think it’s important for Indevan to have his father for as long as he can,” Marend said.

Fox smiled. He loved his son. Of course. But he was aware that this love was the helpless love of a parent—that he and Indevan were not twin natures. Indevan was quiet, steady, very much like Marend, in fact. He and Young Hadand would live contented and blameless lives in sequestered Darchelde once Indevan returned from the royal city for the last time. The absurdity of the treaty would never weigh on them. And Shendan was laying her long plans for the family.

“He will have me,” Fox promised. “Until he’s a man grown, with children of his own. And when I do set sail for the last time, I promise to tell you. How’s that?”

Marend’s gaze searched between his eyes, then she let out an audible sigh, and turned up her hand. “It’s good enough, I suppose. But what will prompt your decision? I really hope it will not be his twenty-fifth birthday. That’s an unfair burden to lay on him. Or me.”

“I agree,” Fox said. “I foresee no fixed date.” It will happen when Inda dies, that much I’m sure of. “I plan to be around to read the pompous king to those grandchildren I mentioned.”

Marend laughed. “All right. You win. Go sail on your boat.”

Fox smiled back, kissed the youngsters, packed up a bag of fresh greens, and by nightfall he and the proudly grinning Lnar walked out onto the deck of the Treason, checking sea, sky, and sails.

“There you are, captain,” said his current first mate. “Who’s this?”

Fox said, "Lnar is here to sail the seas with us. Introduce her to the rest of the ship rats." Then he pulled his knives from his sleeves as he raised his voice. “General practice on the foredeck at the watch bell. There’s some trouble in the Delfin Islands we might look into. But first, let’s see how lazy you’ve gotten . . .”