Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 29
Several weeks passed before anyone came to see him.
There were a few sets of footsteps in the hall, heavy and armored. They stopped on the other side of the door. “This is his cell, Lord Protector.”
It was about time. They wouldn’t have sent a Protector for anything other than dispensing judgment. Ashok was eager to meet his fate. There was nothing to do in prison but stare at the walls. He’d never been one for meditation, and he didn’t particularly understand the concept of self-pity, so he couldn’t even sink into a proper depression like so many other prisoners did.
“I must warn you, he’s still got the sword.”
The guards hadn’t even attempted to take Angruvadal from him. Word of Bidaya’s final party had reached the prison before he had. He’d respectfully asked to be directed to wherever he needed to wait for his judgment. The Protector in the hall must not have cared that Ashok was armed, because the heavy door creaked open a bit. They didn’t even bother to lock the cell, since there wasn’t anything they could do to stop Ashok from leaving if he decided to. It was an unusual situation for everyone involved.
For most of the prisoners the guards would simply storm in, barking orders, and administer beatings to anyone who didn’t get on his knees quick enough to suit them, but with Ashok it was different. There was a polite, almost timid knock on the partially open door. “Prisoner, you have a visitor.” And then the poor warrior got out of the way so the Protector could enter.
His old friend stood in the open doorway, Ashok sat cross-legged next to the far wall. One was in splendid armor, the other in blood-stained rags. A beam of sunlight from the single small window cut a dividing line between them.
Devedas looked as if he’d been stabbed in the gut. “Is it true?”
Ashok nodded slowly.
Blinking rapidly, Devedas looked away. “It can’t be. It has to be a mistake.”
“It isn’t. I was born an untouchable.” Ashok stood up to meet his fate. It wasn’t fair. Devedas already had more blood on his hands than any one man should ever have to bear. He shouldn’t have to execute his best friend as well. “I knew they’d send someone, but I hoped it wouldn’t be you.”
“Nobody sent me. I’m here on my own.”
“You’ve not come to pronounce judgment?”
“I had to know.”
Ashok spread his hands apologetically. “I’m sorry, brother.”
“Don’t call me that!” Devedas suddenly roared. He took a step forward, fists clenched. “How dare you call me ‘brother’?” Spittle flew from his mouth as he shouted. “Damn you, Ashok! After all we’ve been through…After everything we did for the Order, for the Law? How dare you?”
“I only recently learned the truth. I never intended to deceive anyone.”
Devedas was shaking. Protectors were taught to avoid showing emotion, but tears rolled down his cheeks. “You worthless whoreson, fish-eater bastard. You were the best of us. I believed in you. We all did.”
“You were mistaken, as was I.”
“Who knew the truth then?”
“Mindarin, Ratul, Bidaya…Dead. Harta knew as well. All that remain are the wizard Kule and Arbiter Chavens.” Ashok didn’t know where they were, or if they were even still alive. “They are beyond my reach.”
“Not mine,” Devedas vowed. “I’ll see to it they pay.”
“I don’t want your thanks,” Devedas snarled. “I want you to have never existed. I want your name stricken from the records. I want all references to your deeds scrubbed from the world. You’ve mocked the Law and brought shame to our entire Order.”
“For that I will pay,” Ashok agreed.
“And I’ll volunteer to be the one to swing the executioner’s blade when the time comes!” Devedas shouted.
There was an unfamiliar pain inside Ashok’s chest. For a moment he felt so weak that he thought that the Heart of the Mountain had abandoned him. “Very well.”
Devedas lowered his voice. “What happens to Angruvadal?”
“I don’t know.”
“All this time…You’ve thought you were better than me. I was deprived of my family’s ancestor blade because of the sins of my father, but you…You’re not even a real person. How did it pick you?”
That was a question Ashok had asked himself many times, even before he’d known the truth. They stared at each other. I am casteless. Should I avert my eyes? But that didn’t feel right either.
“I could prove which one of us is worthy once and for all.” Devedas placed his hand on his sword. His feet shifted into a dueling stance. He seemed furious enough to try it.
“You unfeeling thing. Black Hearted Ashok, with no more conscience than some wizard’s automaton. I should cut you down and end this now.”
It was tempting to just lift his chin and expose his throat. All it would take was a moment’s hesitation, and his scandalous existence would be purged from the world. No one would know that he’d accepted a dishonorable death…Except he’d know, and so would the sword. “I may not be a whole man but I still honor the Law. My judgment hasn’t been pronounced. This isn’t an execution, it’s a duel. If you draw your sword, as a bearer I’m obligated to give my best.”
“Offense has been taken,” Devedas stated the prerequisite terms for a legal duel.
“Offense has been given.” There was no denying that fact. “But remember what happened last time we fought,” Ashok warned. “Angruvadal found you wanting once.”
“I was only a child then.”
“So was I…”
The scar on Devedas face was a constant reminder of what happened when jealousy overrode common sense. They’d come down from the mountain, brothers, until celebratory drink and poisonous envy had made Devedas think that he could claim another family’s sword for his own. Ashok’s love had overridden Angruvadal’s desire to kill that day, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough now.
There was a subtle shift. Anger had been replaced by a focused intensity. Devedas was ready to draw and strike. Angruvadal hung from Ashok’s waist, and it was screaming at him to end this threat.
“Haven’t I caused enough evil already?” Ashok asked softly. “Don’t make me do this too.”
The long silence was painful.
Devedas slowly moved his hand away from his sword.
The decision had been made, and the Protector backed toward the open door. “If I ever see you again, Ashok, I’ll kill you. You have my word.”
The cell door closed. His brother was gone.
They called him unfeeling, remorseless, a black hearted killer the likes of which the world had seldom known, but that wasn’t entirely true. The wizard Kule may have shattered his mind, stolen fragments and filled the gaping holes with lies, creating a parody of a rational, feeling, law-abiding man, but it would have been better if Kule had taken it all. Instead, he’d left behind emotions that Ashok could barely articulate, and would never fully grasp. Ashok sank to the floor and wept.
* * *
Months after bringing justice to Great House Vadal, something woke Ashok in the middle of the night. He was lying on the pile of straw that served as his bed. At first he thought it must be the rats again, but the cell itself was dark and quiet. The noise was outside. A small bit of moonlight came through the iron bars of the small window until a shadow blocked it.
Someone had climbed up the stones to his window. From the sound, they were unarmored and barefoot, so it wasn’t one of the prison guards. No one else should have been on the grounds at night.
“Who has come to stare at the freak now?” Ashok snapped.
“You are indeed most curious. I’ve never seen a prisoner with a sword before.”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve come to speak with you, Protector.”
“I no longer hold that office.”
“On the contrary, you are a protector in the truest sense. It is in your nature. You’ve just been protecting the wrong thing.” The stranger’s manner of speech was odd. He was a westerner, probably from Uttara or Harban, but there was something else there as well, a sort of roughness to his pronunciation. He spoke well enough, but certainly wasn’t of meaningful status.
“Who are you?”
“I am Keta, the Keeper of Names,” the stranger answered.
That was an odd title. “Of what house?”
“I have no house.”
“No house?” It was possible he was obligated to an order that Ashok was unfamiliar with, the Capitol certainly had enough bureaucracies that it was impossible to keep track of them all. “Of what caste?”
“Free men have no caste.”
Free? This Keta was insane. The prison had a section for raving lunatics. One of them must have gotten loose. “No one is allowed in the square after dark. The guards will punish you when they find you.”
“No worries. I’m very good at not being found. Warning me like that though makes me curious. Do you still seek to enforce the Law?”
Old habits die hard. “That is no longer my place.”
“What is your place?” Keta asked.
Good question. There had been no word yet about what was to be done with him. “For now, my place is here, awaiting judgment.”
“Aren’t we all? Only you are thinking of the fallible judgment of man, and not the all-seeing judgment of the gods.”
“There’s no such thing as gods.” Ashok wasn’t in the mood to listen to the ramblings of a crazy person. “You’re treading dangerous ground, Keeper. Talk like that is grounds for execution.”
“As you’d know, having personally executed so very many! What a terrible burden that must be. Do all of those deaths trouble you? Don’t be so hard on yourself, Protector. Everyone has faith in something. You simply put your faith in the Law instead of the gods. But now your wise judges don’t have a clue what to do with you. You’ve caused quite the predicament.”
The lunatic had a gift for understatement. The Capitol would want him executed and Vadal wouldn’t want to risk the destruction of their sword. Eventually the judges would come to a consensus, and until then he would remain a voluntary prisoner. Ashok rolled over on his straw pile. “I’m going back to sleep.”
“But I’ve come all this way. Wouldn’t you like me to answer your questions?”
“What questions?” Ashok asked, annoyed.
“The ones that Bidaya couldn’t answer that night. You asked for names, and I’m the one that knows them all. The casteless of these lands prefer to give simple descriptive names. Your mother was called Addis, named after a type of flower because she was such a beautiful baby. Bidaya had her suffocated. You didn’t ask, but if you are curious, your father was called Smoke, named because his father was a cremator of bodies. He was sold to another house and died of sickness during the journey, only a year after you were born.”
Ashok leapt to his feet. “How do you know of this?” he demanded.
The man was hanging from the bars. All that was visible of him were eyes and the whites of his teeth. “As I said, I’m the Keeper of Names. It’s my duty to know. Your parents named you after the season of your birth, because the day you were born was when the first leaves died and turned to gold. So to answer your question, your casteless name was Fall.” Keta let go of the bars and dropped into the shadows.
By the time Ashok reached the bars, the strange man was already gone. The prison grounds were completely devoid of life. To disappear like that the Keeper of Names had either been a wizard or the remainder of a dream.
Shaking his head, Ashok returned to his bed of straw to continue his self-imposed exile.