Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 08
“I swear, you’re not going to be happy until I agree to duel you again, will you?”
“Someday, I’ll get my rematch,” Devedas said as he traced his thumb down the white scar that ran from his right eye to his chin. Even a Protector couldn’t fully heal from a wound inflicted by the black steel of an ancestor blade.
“I still feel bad about the scar.”
“No, you don’t. And even with it I’m still far better looking than you are. Regardless, I said I would deliver his message personally.” Devedas opened a pouch on his belt and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “It gave me an excuse to visit.”
Sure enough, Ashok’s name was on it, though the humidity had caused the ink to bleed. Ashok took the letter. It bore the seal of the Order and had come all the way from the Capitol, but he didn’t break the wax.
“What are you waiting for?”
The letter probably contained his next assignment. “In a moment.”
“Ah, the great Ashok and his legendary sense of commitment. You can’t read it yet because the moment you do you’ll be obligated to leap up and rush off to wherever the Order requires you next. The fiercest beasts, the harshest duties, the worst violators, all fall before the unflinching judgment of Black Hearted Ashok. You make the rest of us look lazy.”
“You don’t need my help for that.”
Devedas laughed. “I know you better than anyone. You’ve reached your twenty. You can leave the Order whenever you want and return to your house with honor. Vadal women are gorgeous, and no doubt they’ll pick the best-looking one to be your wife. Retire and that woman can start providing you with sons. Come on, man! You just defeated a pair of demons at the same time. That’s the stuff of legends! When was the last time one of us did that?”
“Kantelin Vokkan, twenty-eight-year master, in the year 540,” Ashok said absently.
“Of course, you’d remember the history lessons…You know how rare it is for a Protector to actually retire? Your house will name you to Thakoor for sure. They’ve probably already built a castle for you. Neighboring houses will cower at the mention of your name.”
Ashok just shook his head. “You’ve served your obligation, but you’re still here.”
“That’s because I’m far better at dispensing justice than you are. I’ll do this until I die,” Devedas grinned. “Besides, what do I have to go back to?”
He believed the real reason was because Devedas wanted to be the next master, but it would have been impolite to suggest such a thing. The Law declared its Protectors were not allowed to have personal ambition. Ambition got in the way of following orders. Ashok tried to change the subject. “So, do you have any news of the civilized world?”
“By civilized, you mean your house?”
Ashok had only been a small child when he’d been obligated, and Protectors were never dispatched to deal with lawbreakers in their own house so as to prevent bias, so it had been a long time since he’d been to his ancestral lands. “I barely remember it at all. The sword probably remembers more about Vadal than I do.”
“Ah, mighty Vadal, jewel of the houses. I was there last season when House Vokkan got uppity and tested your western borders. You didn’t miss much. It was a rout. Your aunt Bidaya still rules. Your cousin Harta is said to be the finest orator in the Capitol and has the judges dancing like puppets on a string. The women are pretty, the sun shines every day, crops grow year-round, and everyone is fat and happy, awaiting the return of their legendary son so he can bring home the family sword. What else do you want to know? Open the damned letter.”
“What of your house?”
“Devakula is snow, volcanos, and walruses.” Devedas grew somber. “Seriously, Ashok, open the letter or I’ll do it for you. Master Mindarin has been ill.”
“Ill?” Protectors didn’t get sick, unless…”Why didn’t you tell me?” Ashok snapped as he broke the seal.
“I only just heard myself from the messenger.”
Ashok read in silence. A cold feeling settled in his guts.
“I’m to return to the Capitol immediately and present myself before the master.” Ignoring the protests of his sore muscles, Ashok got up, and went to his belongings.
“Did it say why?” Devedas asked suspiciously.
“No.” He put the sword belt around his waist and cinched it tight. In this heat, fifty pounds of armor would travel faster in a pack on his back than on his body. He’d make much better time that way. It was about a hundred miles to get out of the jungle and to the Gujaran’s next real town. On foot, through this terrain, if he called on the Heart of the Mountain and pushed himself to exhaustion he could be there tomorrow afternoon. If they didn’t gift him with a team of swift horses there, he’d confiscate some. Riding them nearly to death and switching mounts at every settlement along the interior, this time of year with dry roads, he could be at the Capitol in less than three weeks.
“I recognize that face. As is said, when duty calls, Ashok does not hesitate.” Devedas didn’t seem inclined to get off the grass or leave the shade. “Mindarin is dying, isn’t he?”
“This letter was written a month ago. He may already be dead.” Ashok saw that the worker Devedas had yelled at earlier was returning with a wineskin and a basket of food. He snatched the skin from the red-faced and gasping inferior and took a long drink. The wine tasted almost as brackish as the water here. Then he tossed it over.
Devedas caught the skin, took a drink, and then spit it out with a grimace. “This is their good stuff?”
Ashok took a few rice balls out of the basket and then snapped at the worker, “I require a travelling pack, a few days’ rations, and one of those silks to keep out bugs and snakes while you sleep. What are you waiting for? Move!” Ashok kicked the man in the leg for emphasis. He immediately dropped the basket and ran for his life. The inferiors were odd here, the casteless took up spears, the warriors didn’t want to fight demons, and the workers were high strung. Ashok hadn’t even kicked him hard.
“If Mindarin is on his death bed, and he sent for you…” Devedas left that thought hanging.
“I’m sure it’s for something else.”
“There can be only one reason they’d call you back to the Capitol now.”
Ashok shoved a rice ball into his mouth and began chewing as he gathered his belongings. If his mouth was full, he wouldn’t have to answer. He knew Devedas had dreams of leading the Order. Ashok simply wanted to fulfill his responsibilities to the Law. Nothing more.
“I received no summons. They’re going to promote you to his office rather than me.” Devedas was silent for a long time, then he gave a bitter laugh. “Of course, a son of the finest of the great houses, who has a home to return to, and a sword that destines him to rule it, why not give him one more honor? What’s a promotion to a man like that? But for a man who has sacrificed just as much in service to the Law, who has no house to return to, and no future except for servitude, who could use such a title to rebuild his family name…To a man to whom such an honor would mean everything, it is not granted.”
Ashok choked down the too dry rice, and regretted tossing aside the wine. “It’s not a contest.”
“Of course not, there can be no contest with Ashok the Fearless,” Devedas raised his voice. “Because when you fight Ashok, all of his ancestors fight with him. I’ve done just as much as you have for the Order, only I’ve done it with the strength of my own arm, not that of the fifty generations who came before.”
He didn’t like when Devedas fell into one of his moods. “We all have a place in the Law. Accept yours, Devedas. There’s comfort in that.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“I don’t know why I’ve been summoned, but if it’s to take Mindarin’s place, so be it. I don’t want his authority. You know I never have. However, I’ll do whatever I’m commanded and I’ll ask for nothing in return.”
“Your obnoxious inability to lie annoys me to no end.” Devedas sighed as he stood up. “But it also makes it impossible to hate you.”
Several warriors were hurrying their way, and one of them was carrying a large marching pack. It was still dark with sweat from the soldier it had been confiscated from. “I must go.” He looked at his brother, and as was the custom in Vadal lands, gave a deep, respectful bow. Devedas returned the gesture. When he lifted his head, Ashok said, “Believe me, Devedas, if it were up to me, I’d much rather they picked you.”
“I know. So who’s in the grave, Ashok?”
“I buried a casteless.”
“Did you kill him?”
“He killed himself through disobedience”
“What an odd thing to waste your time with.” Devedas kicked at the freshly turned dirt. “Why would you do that?”
Ashok didn’t actually know the answer. “Farewell, Devedas.”
“Until we meet again, brother.”