Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 17
“You may go,” Ashok told her as he entered. The curtains were mostly closed. The room was far too warm. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. There was someone on the bed. He almost didn’t recognize the skeletal figure propped up on a pile of pillows because he had lost so much weight. Mindarin was a shadow of himself.
“Ashok.” Mindarin opened his eyes. Despite his haggard appearance, at least they were as clear and focused as ever. “I knew you’d come, lad.”
“I’m here to serve.”
“As always…For that has been your life, to serve without question…Never to question…” His words were slurred and clumsy. It was an unjust fate for the one who had been their most eloquent defender. Mindarin had accomplished more with his words than with the sword, because in his case they had been equally sharp. To hear him now made Ashok’s chest ache. “I knew that if I lived long enough for you to return, then this meeting was meant to be,” the dying man wheezed. “Oh, how I wish I could be as pure in my devotion to the Law as you’ve been.”
Ashok knelt next to the bed. “I am nothing more than what you made me.”
“No. You were the creation of another. The Order merely gave you purpose. You are a sense of duty made flesh. You are the living avatar of the Law. You were a blank canvas and on it was writ devotion. You were the perfect student because you were designed to be. It is easy to be the ideal Protector when you have no choice in the matter.” Mindarin gave a raspy laugh. “I suppose we are all slaves in some way.”
That made no sense. Perhaps the master’s mind wasn’t as clear as he’d first thought. “I was obligated to serve by my house, but I took the oath willingly, and it is the best thing I’ve done.”
Mindarin took a deep breath, as if preparing himself for a great labor. Ashok could tell that he was calling upon the strength of the Heart. When that borrowed energy was gone, the resulting strain would probably finish him off.
“Please rest. There’s no need.”
“I must.” When Mindarin spoke again, his words were stronger, far more forceful. Here again this was the man Ashok had known. “When I was struck down and knew I was dying, I had to make a difficult decision. Summoning you here was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I realize cleaning the stain from my own conscience is no reason to condemn you, so now I offer you a choice, Ashok. On one hand, I can remain silent and you will continue to live your life. I offer you my place as master or you may return to your house with honor…”
It was as Devedas had predicted, the choice he’d been dreading, to retire in glory or continue to serve the Order. “I’ll do whatever you ask of me.”
“You speak too quickly. That isn’t the choice…I’m offering your life, however you wish to live it, or the truth. Leave things alone, retain the lie, and do with the rest of your days whatever you desire, but the truth…the truth will ruin you. It will change everything.”
Uncertainty was an unfamiliar feeling.
Mindarin reached out one shaking hand and laid it on Ashok’s cheek. His skin was dry and thin as paper. “I have summoned you because I am selfish. I have failed the Law and failed you. My conscience isn’t clean.”
Ashok was no stranger to death, but right now he felt ill. “What would you have me do so you may die in peace?”
“Offering you this choice is enough. In that drawer is a message. It is the reason you are without fear. It is a secret known only to myself and master Ratul before me.”
It had been years since he’d heard that name spoken aloud by another Protector. Just thinking of the former Lord Protector filled Ashok with disgust. “His secrets should remain hidden. Ratul worshiped the Forgotten while he pretended devotion to the Order. I’m ashamed he’s the one I gave the oath to. He was a lawbreaker and a traitor.”
“Yet he was also my dearest friend, and his beliefs saved your life. Before he fled to join the heretics, he told me what the Heart of Ramrowan revealed you to be.”
“Ramrowan?” It was the first time Ashok heard the Heart of the Mountain given that unfamiliar name. “I know who I am. I know my place.”
“Good. That is how it should be. If you wish to continue living, burn the letter and never think on this moment again.”
Ashok was silent for a long time. “What manner of lie?”
“One that will cause no further harm, and I kept your secret for the same selfish reasons Ratul did. You have been our greatest instrument of justice. This Order is stronger than we have been in generations. We are respected, honored, even feared and it is a result of the legend you have created with that mighty sword. If you wish to know what Ratul saw in the Heart, read it, then do as you see fit.”
Ashok stood up, went to the writing desk and opened the drawer. The only thing inside was a sealed letter.
“It’s coded. If you wish, I will give you the cipher, but remember, sometimes lies are for our own protection. This is your choice. Do not make it lightly, Ashok.”
Was this some sort of test? A trick? He reached for the letter, and then hesitated. “What does the Law say I should do?”
“For once in your life, do not make this about the Law!” Mindarin’s words showed surprising strength.
“But the Law is everything.” Ashok picked up the letter. His face was flushed, his hands trembling. He was growing angry and wasn’t even sure why. “You know I was never one for your puzzles and word games. I’m not one of your riddles to be solved. I am a Protector.”
“You are a killer.”
“And the best one we’ve ever had!” Ashok snarled. “You tell me what to do and I do it. Point me toward the violators and I destroy them. Punishing the lawbreakers and striking terror in the hearts of those who even think of stepping over the line, that is my place. I follow orders. I keep order. I don’t choose. There’s no choice. If this is some sort of test of my worthiness –”
“Angruvadal decided that a long time ago, the question then became how many lies we were willing to tell to justify its decision.” The borrowed vitality was beginning to leave Mindarin. His skin turned ashen, his voice lost its previous strength, and he seemed to melt back into the bed, once again, nothing but a shadow, skeletal as the guardians on the mountain. “It’s remarkable what we can forget. We’ve forgotten our gods. Compared to that, what is one life? I don’t have enough time left to keep the lies straight anymore, Ashok. With truth comes suffering. With ignorance comes freedom. Choose.”
He quoted his lessons from memory. “There is no freedom. Every man has a place.” Then he recalled the stubborn casteless who’d refused to give up his spear on the beach in Gujara. “Truth doesn’t change the Law.”
Ashok broke the seal.