Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 06
Five years ago
The massive funeral pyre burned so hot that they could feel the warmth even from their distant vantage point. The orange pillar lit the night sky. The tower of smoke blotted out the moons and stars. Their duty satisfied, the small group of Protectors stood on the hillside and watched the bodies burn. It was rare to have so many members of the Order in a single place at the same time, but the Capitol saw full-blown house wars as serious events, requiring a swift, merciless dispensation of justice. Their battle had lasted a few hours of the morning. It had taken a huge crew of untouchables the rest of the afternoon to gather up all the dead the Protectors had left in their wake in order to build that fire.
Of course, their instructor took this moment as a teaching opportunity. “Since there is nothing beyond this life, why are we required to give respect to the remains of our dead?” Mindarin asked his students.
It was a rhetorical question, but the inexperienced members of the Order were used to Mindarin constantly asking them questions. Mindarin was known as the philosophical, scholarly leader. Questions and reasoning were his method of teaching. He applied logic to the Law so that there could be no misunderstanding its principles. Most of the acolytes found his way preferable to Master Ratul’s method of severe beatings and long runs in full armor.
Ashok listened, distracted, as the young men rattled off the expected answers, it was tradition to appease the houses, or it was to prevent enemies from defiling the corpses as an insult which would lead to more strife between families, or even such practical matters as preventing the spread of disease, but because the Law requires it was the primary response. Within the Order, because the Law requires it was a safe answer to nearly every question.
The Law had required him to kill a lot of people today.
“Your answers are acceptable, as was your performance here.” Mindarin told the students. It was as close to a compliment as most of them had ever received from someone of his status. “Return to camp and rest, for tomorrow will bring new duties for us all.”
Ashok watched them walk down the hill, heads held high, because today they had made war on behalf of the Capitol, brought justice to a lawless family, and ended an unapproved house war. They’d fought hard, striking so fast and so efficiently that only a few hundred of their warrior escorts, and not a single member of the Order had died in the battle. Tonight they would celebrate, unaware that this process would never end.
“Ah, the hero of the day has decided to keep his old teacher company.” Mindarin stopped next to Ashok and gestured at the fire. “It is quite the sight, it is not? We taught a valuable lesson today, one that the great houses will not soon forget. They will tremble at the idea of violating the Law, and it is all thanks to you.”
“It was nothing.”
“On the contrary, Ashok. Your legend grows with every mission. Our obligations have increased tenfold since you joined us.” Mindarin looked around. “Where is your brother?”
“Devedas took a spear thrust through the stomach and will need time to recover.” The last time Ashok had seen him, he’d been in the healer’s tent, vomiting up coagulated blood. “He should be ready to travel in a few days.”
“That’s what he gets for trying to keep up with you, lad. I saw you fling yourself into their lines. Impressive work. I’m thankful every day that your house obligated you to our Order. If we hadn’t had you and that sword today, I have no doubt some of my boys would be on that fire.”
“I was only doing my duty, the same as everyone else.”
“You are too humble.”
“I had a teacher who said that all great swordsmen need humility, because humility leads to awareness, and awareness leads to victory.”
“Don’t use my own words against me. You may not seek praise, so I should know by now not to waste my time giving you any, but we both know your value to the Order,” the old master said. “When I was your age, the Order was a shadow of what it is today. We were fading, shrinking. You made us important again, effective and vital! You are a weapon, Ashok, a tool of justice. Your very existence has become a warning to all that they must comply with the Law. Your reputation is worth more than a legion of Inquisitors.”
Ashok nodded. After the way today’s conflict ended, it would be a long time before any other great houses grew so ambitious. “All must know their place.”
Mindarin smiled. It was usually him quoting the Law, not the other way around. “Adherence to the Law is the only thing that keeps the world from descending into madness. It was the Law which lifted man out of superstitious barbarity and brought us into an age of reason, yet the Law is always vulnerable. The Law is a dam, and on the other side is an ocean of chaos. If a chip isn’t repaired, the dam will crack. Today we simply plugged a leak.”
The only thing he’d seen leaking today had been blood from thousands of bodies. “I’m not one of the newly obligated children, Mindarin. Spare me the allegories. I do what I must, that’s all.”
“My dam example is a metaphor, not an allegory. Sometimes though, it is good to repeat the lessons learned in our youth. It helps us keep our minds focused the same way a whetstone keeps an edge on our steel…”
“You truly can’t help yourself, can you?”
Mindarin chuckled. “Only some of us carry swords that never need to be sharpened.” He looked pointedly at sheathed Angruvadal. “Tell me, fifteen-year senior, how many men did you strike down today?”
Regulations required him to be as exact as possible in his reports, so he’d trained himself to remember every blow, every cut, every face. “Twenty-six violators killed and thirty-four injured during the battle itself. I estimate half of those may survive their injuries. After House Makao surrendered, I executed another five specific officers as per the Judges’ sentence for fomenting rebellion, as well as their wives, and their firstborn sons.”
“That is a terrible burden.”
“It was just another day.”
The two of them watched the great bonfire in silence for a time.
“What troubles you, Ashok?”
“Absolutely nothing,” he answered truthfully.
The old master thought that over before speaking. He was no longer using his instructor’s voice, but rather sounded like any other tired old man. “The acolytes’ answers were acceptable, but wrong. We know there’s nothing beyond life. The fire doesn’t go somewhere else when the candle is extinguished. We are meat with a spark of life inside, nothing more. Yet still, something compels us to treat a corpse with the dignity we’d reserve for a whole man. They are wrong because the Law doesn’t command us to respect the dead, but rather the Law allows us to do something we would be compelled to do regardless, something ingrained into us since ancient times. We honor the dead so the survivors remember to live.”
Ashok had never been one for Mindarin’s philosophical contemplations. “If you say so.”
“With all the weight we have put upon you, don’t forget how to live, Ashok. At times I fear our people have forgotten too much as it is.” The master’s words verged on the subversive, but thankfully he did not continue with that thought. “Forgive an old man his ramblings.”
Ashok nodded after the young Protectors. They had taken up one of Ratul’s marching chants on their way back to the camp. “Was I ever that idealistic?”
“Was?” Mindarin put one hand on his shoulder. “Lad, you still are.”