Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 21
Among the warrior caste, Jagdish was of low rank, young age, and minor status. His position on the Personal Guard of Great House Vadal had been earned due to his exemplary courage in battle, and the fact that his disregard for tradition and disrespect for stupid commanders had gotten him thrown out of his last unit. Jagdish thought of himself as a brilliant strategist who’d found himself working for careless fools, so he’d been happy to take the promotion. If he’d known the Personal Guard mostly stood around looking pretty while the first caste threw lavish parties, he’d have avoided the promotion and stayed patrolling the border. Continual skirmishing against other houses was always exciting. Watching the firsters drink themselves into a stupor was boring. Listening to high-ranking warriors — who were only of such status because their fathers had been great men — brag about their imaginary accomplishments was offensive. Rich workers pranced about in their silks and gold ornaments, as if their wealth made them equal to the first and second castes. These vapid, useless people annoyed him to no end.
“I wish they’d called off this affair,” Jagdish whispered to Derang.
The other warrior kept his expression neutral. They’d been ordered not to display any emotion. It made a better show for the honored guests. “A little rain is no reason to cancel a party, Jagdish.”
He’d been thinking of the recently arrived news about the border raid by House Sarnobat. Fifty men captured and a town pillaged demanded an immediate, exceedingly violent response, preferably with an entire legion of troops to put those uppity Sarnobat bastards in their place. Of course, Bidaya Vadal had spent more on decorations for this ball than she had equipping that particular garrison, so Jagdish doubted the thought had even crossed her mind.
The dress uniform was uncomfortable and wouldn’t so much as slow a sword unless he got lucky and it hit one of the multitude of medals pinned to his chest. And thinking of swords was another annoyance, since he wasn’t even allowed to wear his in the main hall. They were limited to knives, because it was a fad in the Capitol that wearing a sword at a party was an insult to the safety provided by the hosts, so the great houses had — as usual — copied Capitol fashions. That ridiculous custom had been carried to the illogical end of even limiting the men who were supposedly providing the host’s safety. If this was a proper warrior’s celebration, you wouldn’t be able to walk ten feet without tripping over a real weapon. Jagdish longed to take off the frilly uniform, throw it in a fire, and then return to the other warriors to take a sword in hand to smite his enemies for glory, as he’d been born to do.
Derang tried to hide a yawn and failed. Luckily none of their superiors noticed.
The main hall of the palace was a huge room and it was filled with people. Vadal was the lushest, richest house, so no expense had been spared to demonstrate those facts. The ceiling and walls had been decorated with so many flowers that it made Jagdish’s nose itch. Musicians played. Women sang. A multitude were dancing in their colorful outfits, the young and beautiful trying to impress each other, and though he doubted any of those high-status young warriors knew a damned thing about fighting, Jagdish had to admit that they were all very good dancers. So that’s what the privileged practiced while the rest of us learned to swing a sword…This was the sort of event where suitable mates were found and marriages arranged between the highest of each caste. Jagdish didn’t care. He was of no importance, so he’d be assigned a wife eventually. Hopefully she wouldn’t be too ugly.
Between each song, more arrivals were announced. They must have picked the house herald based upon whoever was the loudest person in the city. The man had a voice that could be heard over a battlefield, and as guests arrived, he would bellow out their names, offices, and status so that the entire hall could hear. The celebration had drawn guests of the highest status, and they’d even been joined by representatives of several other houses. Those ambassadors were probably the reason Bidaya had put out enough food to feed a village for a year. Vadal never tired of rubbing their wealth in other houses’ faces.
Derang looked like he might yawn again, so Jagdish stepped on his foot to warn him. The elderly leader of House Vadal had finally made her appearance, and she’d had guards flogged for far smaller offenses. The tune ended. The dancers came to a stop.
“Thakoor of Great House Vadal, widow of bearer Bhadramunda, mother of Chief Judge Harta, and lady of this house,” shouted the herald with the loudest voice in all of Lok. “Bidaya Vadal has graced us with her presence.”
Bidaya was standing on the balcony. She appeared haughty as ever, dressed in the richest silks of Harban, jewels from Kharsawan, and feathers from colorful Gujaran jungle birds. The giant warrior, Sankhamur, a beast of a man and Bidaya’s personal champion, stood behind her. She didn’t have a voice like the herald, but when you were that important, everyone made sure to listen closely. “Welcome to my hall.” Bidaya possessed a patient and patronizing smile. “Dance, drink, and feast. Enjoy the hospitality of Great House Vadal, for this season we have been truly blessed for our obedience to the Law.”
Bidaya was a terrifying old woman, and she’d ruled this place with an iron fist ever since her husband had died over two decades ago, through multiple house wars and the deadliest of politics. The guests obediently lined up to greet her, acting like she was their favorite grandmother. Bidaya began walking down the stairs, with Sankhamur shadowing her and cataloging every potential threat in the room. The giant’s eyes lingered on Jagdish for a moment but Jagdish took no offense, as he was probably the second best fighter in the room, and a good bodyguard truly trusted no one, especially not his fellow warriors. Jagdish was jealous. The wickedly curved blades Sankhamur was carrying certainly stretched the Capitol’s polite definition of the word knife.
The musicians began playing again, and those too young or too unworthy to greet the Thakoor returned to their merriment. Jagdish went back to watching for trouble. At worst, he’d probably have to remove anyone who became too drunk or smoked too much poppy and began molesting the slaves in public. If they were of higher station — which was likely — the most he could do was ask them politely to take it somewhere private. More important people were arriving. Derang seemed too nervous now to yawn.
There was some commotion at the entrance of the hall, a few raised voices suddenly silenced. Jagdish walked to the side so that he could see better. A tall, broad-shouldered man in a rough travelling cloak was showing something to some very chastised-looking guards. The guards bowed deep, and then fearfully moved aside. The dark, wet hood was very out of place among the bright, stylish guests. Panicked, one of the house servants ran to the herald and whispered in his ear. The herald looked like he might go into shock.
A female singer was in the middle of a verse, and the musicians hadn’t even gotten the signal to stop, so the drums were still pounding when the herald made his rushed announcement.
“After twenty years away, Bearer of mighty Angruvadal, Protector of the Law Ashok Vadal has returned!”
It couldn’t be. The music came to a crashing stop mid verse. The dancers froze. There were many audible gasps. Every head turned to see. Ashok was a legendary figure in this house. Very few of them had ever met the man who bore their sword. “My ass, that’s the bearer. There’s no way,” Derang whispered.
The tall man untied his cloak and let it fall on the floor in a wet heap, revealing that he wasn’t dressed for a fancy party. In muddy boots, and plain, damp clothing, he looked like a regular traveler, nothing more. When he turned, a sheathed sword was visible at his side. Jagdish couldn’t tell if that was the sword. You’d think that you’d feel something.
The newcomer wore the token of the Protector Order on a chain around his neck. That insignia was like a warning sign proclaiming this man could kill whoever he felt like, whenever and however he desired. His skin was darkened by the sun except for where it consisted of lines of white scar tissue. He scanned the room, seemingly taking everything in at once, and there was nothing polite in that gaze. It was as if he was passing judgment on them all. His eyes passed over Jagdish, and the warrior felt an involuntary shudder. Those eyes were cold, hard as the veteran warriors who’d seen so much that they were past feeling. This was a man completely devoid of mercy.
Bidaya broke the uncomfortable silence. “Can it be? Has our noble Lord Protector returned home after all these years? Now we have even more reason to celebrate.”
The newcomer began striding across the hall with purpose. The guests nervously moved aside, crowding toward the edges as if a tiger had just entered a pen full of sheep. The tales said Ashok Vadal had killed a thousand men. Seeing this one here, Jagdish could almost believe it. “Is that really him?” Jagdish whispered.
“I don’t know. Hardly anyone ever met the bearer before they sent him off.”
When the crowd parted enough that Bidaya could see him clearly, she called out, “Ashok, it has been so long. Is it really you?”
The newcomer stopped in the middle of the room. He slowly turned, taking it all in. “I have returned.”
“You’ve grown up,” Bidaya exclaimed. She was trying too hard to sound overjoyed. Jagdish could have sworn that he heard an element of fear in her words. “At last you’ve come back to us, and you’ve brought our precious Angruvadal home! Has your obligation ended? Is our house’s time of suffering finally over?”
“No.” Ashok turned back to glare at the Thakoor. “The suffering of this house is only just beginning.”
It hardly seemed possible, but the room got even quieter. The uncomfortable silence dragged on for several seconds as Bidaya’s forced smile slowly died. “What brings you back to your people, nephew? Are you on Protector business?”
“Tonight, I don’t represent the Order.” Ashok seemed to mull that over for a moment, before reaching up and lifting the chain over his head. He held the token in his hands, staring at it for a long time, as if trying to make a difficult decision, and then he dropped the amulet on the stone. It made an audible clang that made some of the guests jump. He looked up, dark eyes narrowed dangerously. “I have come on a personal matter.”
Jagdish looked down at the discarded symbol, and then back up at the grim, determined man who’d put such a high-status thing aside, and the experienced warrior felt a sick, sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Of course, nephew. There’s no need to trouble our guests with family business. Let us retire and discuss it.”
“No. Because this is a legal matter there must be witnesses. Your guests will do. I require restitution.”
The Thakoor tilted her head to the side. “I am afraid I –”
“Restitution.” Ashok kept his voice down, low and dangerous. Like the rest of the crowd, Jagdish found himself leaning forward to hear his words. “The Law is clear that when one is deprived of his property, he may seek a suitable compensation from the offender.”
“The bearer must be exhausted from his long journey.” One of Bidaya’s senior arbiters stepped forward. “Allow us to prepare a room so that he may rest for –”
“Silence,” Ashok snarled. He didn’t so much as raise his voice, but nearly every occupant of the hall took a nervous step away from him. Jagdish realized that Ashok’s hands had curled into fists and the man was trembling with anger. “I require restitution.”
The giant Sankhamur sensed the danger as well, and moved forward, placing himself between his charge and Ashok. Bidaya held up one hand and Sankhamur paused. “Well, nephew, whatever is it that you require restitution for?”
Bidaya forced herself to laugh. It was a hollow sound. “A casteless? Oh my. All this drama over a casteless? I thought it was something important!” She kept laughing. The sycophants and fools joined in. Even the privileged warriors who didn’t understand the terrible danger in their midst chuckled nervously. “Whatever is the matter? Did one of my guests run over one of yours with their carriage tonight?” The laughter in the room grew as they made the mistake of thinking Bidaya had just ended the tension, but Jagdish saw more rage building behind Ashok’s eyes. “Whoever ran down a casteless, please pay our Lord Protector for his dead so that we all may return to our merriment!”
“Restitution requires equal value. I demand a life for a life.”
The laughter tapered off. There was no joke here. Someone was about to die, and most of them were beginning to realize it. The guests exchanged nervous glances as they tried to figure out what Ashok was getting at. Jagdish slowly moved one hand to the dagger in his sash.
Bidaya’s expression turned hard. All the pretenses are gone, and now they could all see the iron fist of House Vadal. “A life? Will any do, or do you seek one in particular?”
“Your life, aunt.”
There were cries of outrage. Sankhamur drew his blades. Ashok and Bidaya were staring at each other with icy hate.
“That is enough, Ashok. I know why you’re here. Speak no more, or wound this house forever,” she warned.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded a senior judge from the Capitol. “You may be a Protector, but that doesn’t allow you to insult your Thakoor! What could possibly be so valuable about this casteless you speak of?”
Bidaya shook her head, almost as if she was pleading for Ashok’s silence.
But Ashok would not grant her that mercy. “The casteless was my mother.”