Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 30
Grand Inquisitor Omand lived for the game.
The Chamber of Argument was often filled with heated rhetoric, but it had been particularly bad lately. The recent casteless uprisings were a matter of contention, and now the houses suffering from them had someone else to blame. Debates had turned into fist fights, offense had been freely given, and several duels had been fought. The usual ceremonial guard had proven insufficient to keep order, and had been replaced with a few masked Inquisitors armed with truncheons and very little patience. That had gotten the politicians quieted down.
“Enough of your slander! These charges are filthy lies, nothing but calumny and defamation,” Chief Judge Harta Vadal shouted from the speaker’s podium. “This report was written either by a liar or a fool.”
“Outrageous!” Another judge rose from the stands and bellowed his response. Why do they bother to set out a podium for the opposition speaker when they usually just yelled from the audience? Omand recognized the offended as one of the minor officials from Akershan. “How dare you insult my arbiter?”
“If your arbiter didn’t wish to be insulted, then perhaps he shouldn’t have delivered such an incoherent screed to the committee!”
“We wouldn’t even need this special committee if your mother hadn’t turned some casteless pig dog into a warlord!” Several other judges roared with laughter.
“Order!” The presiding judge banged his staff against the floor. The laughter tapered off, but Omand counted the remaining smiles. Those would be Vadal’s foes. Then he counted the frowns or looks of righteous indignation. The allies. The ones keeping their faces impassive or expressionless were the undecided that needed to be convinced one way or the other. “The Chief Judge has not finished his rebuttal. The staff has not recognized the judge from Akershan. Now be silent!” The staff struck the floor again for emphasis.
The official from Akershan sat down and the great game resumed. That round had clearly gone to the offended. Omand loved to keep score.
Chief Judge Harta’s jaw was clenched, and he lowered his head and pretended to study his notes as his political foes in the gallery continued snickering. Omand observed that Harta’s normally calm demeanor was slipping. He was an eloquent speaker, but he had a temper. Quick anger gave some men power, but it made others stupid. Omand decided that Harta fell into the latter category. The murder of Bidaya had put him off his game. Harta was sweating like a man about to go beneath the torturer’s knives. Omand was an expert on such things.
“This is an internal house matter which does not concern the Capitol. There is no need to involve the bureaucracy. We all grieve the loss of my mother. Mark my words, the traitor, Ashok, will be punished for his crimes.”
“By dying of old age?” someone in the back bellowed.
The presiding staff hit the floor again before anyone had a chance to laugh.
Harta scowled at the gallery, but he seemed unable to locate the speaker. The normally eloquent judge looked mad enough to declare offense and demand a duel, but only a fool did that before figuring out who his opponent’s champion would be. Omand had missed the speaker’s identity as well, but his men were providing security and he had spies everywhere, so they would give him a full report about every passed note and whispered conversation later. Very few things happened within the Capitol without Omand’s knowledge.
“Continue,” ordered the presiding judge.
“The demands for the traitor’s immediate execution have been noted. Believe me, my fellows, no man wishes for the traitor’s blood more than I. My own dear mother perished because of his evil. My heart cries for vengeance.” Having always had a good sense of the dramatic, he paused to look around the room before continuing. If he’d not been so high born he would have made a fine actor. “Yet, I would charge that these demands are nothing more than thinly veiled schemes designed to endanger mighty Angruvadal, and thus the safety of my house.”
Some of the undecided were nodding. It seemed that Harta was hitting his stride. He was appealing to the other houses’ desire to protect their own ancestor blades. Good recovery, Omand thought. Very few played the game as well as Harta.
“Vokkan is perched like buzzards to our west.” There were several angry shouts from that section. “Sarnobat are slavering wolves to the southeast.” More outraged cries, but the staff didn’t fall. Omand was curious what favors Harta had plied the presiding judge with to let Harta get away with such inflammatory speech. “They say they demand justice, but it isn’t justice they seek, it is advantage. They would risk Angruvadal to weaken their neighbor…” Harta stared directly at the biggest group of undecided judges. “And they would do the same to you.”
The Vokkan and Sarnobat delegations began loudly booing. Now the staff came down along with the demands for silence. A scuffle broke out in one aisle, but before it could get out of hand one of Omand’s inquisitors bashed an arbiter with a club and dragged him from the room by the beard. That shut them up.
Omand was sitting in the roped-off section reserved for important guests who had no vote, but who were of high enough status to attend various committee meetings if they wished. The only other occupant today was the newly promoted Lord Protector. It was always hard to guess a Protector’s age, since to a courtly man they all looked like leather that had been left out in the sun too long, but he was still a handsome sort, provided you didn’t mind scars. He had a reputation for being intriguing and mysterious to the courtly ladies, but Omand had no need to guess about anything, because he knew everything there was to know about this man. He was the firstborn of a house that no longer existed, the son of a disgraced bearer, and the Inquisition spies said that he had been a close friend of the fallen Protector. Omand was curious to see how easily he would be provoked, so he leaned over and whispered. “Your Order has been strangely silent on this controversy. What is your opinion on the matter?”
“We form no opinions. An opinion will be issued to us.” The reports said that this newly promoted Lord Protector could be rather charming when he wanted, so the fact he was only coldly polite to Omand told him how he felt about the Inquisition. “Then we will fulfill our duty.”
“Of course you will. You are Devedas?” He extended his hand in the southern tradition of greeting that he’d been told the Lord Protector favored. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person. We’ve corresponded by letter before, about that…peculiar situation your Order faced a few years ago.”
“The Order appreciated your discretion.” Devedas didn’t shake his hand.
“I am –”
“I know who you are, Inquisitor. The mask fools no one.”
“They aren’t necessarily meant to be disguises, Protector.”
“I’m familiar with the concept of intimidation, only we don’t hide our faces.” Devedas pretended to watch the bickering politicians. “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be off burning witches, or is the committee filled with traitors?”
You would be surprised. But Omand only chuckled, as if that was a good-natured jibe between peers. “It pained me to turn down your request to investigate Chief Judge Harta. His word outweighs that of an untouchable, even one accomplished enough to pretend to be a whole man for twenty years, and Harta says that he had no knowledge of his mother’s fraud. However, I assure you, the Inquisition will keep an eye on him.”
Devedas glowered in silence.
Omand asked a question that he already knew the answer to. “So did you know the fallen…this Black Hearted Ashok?”
“Yes.” Devedas didn’t elaborate further. Who could blame him? There was nothing but shame in declaring that you’d once been friends with the most infamous criminal in the world. Omand knew that the Lord Protector had recently travelled all the way to the Vadal to speak to the traitor in his prison cell, and though he wished he knew what had been said there, he couldn’t know all the secrets.
Omand waved one hand toward the intricate carvings and colorful murals that decorated the vast and beautiful Chamber of Argument. No expense had been spared to decorate such an important place. “So what do you think of the Capitol so far?”
“It’s hot,” Devedas muttered.
A beautiful young woman had approached one of the speaker’s podiums during the commotion. The colorful scarves told everyone that she was from House Zarger. Despite her age she wore the insignia of a high-status arbiter, so most of the judges would probably think she’d either married well, or slept with the right Thakoor. Omand knew that this one actually impressed some very powerful people with her keen intellect and earned her appointment through cunning. The desert house hadn’t taken a stand one way or the other yet, so most of the gallery was actually paying attention. The staff gave her the floor, and when she presented, she had the melodic voice of a songbird. “I believe we all agree the fallen Protector deserves the dishonorable death of a criminal, but his sword, and by extension, House Vadal, do not deserve to be punished. The loss of an ancestor blade weakens us all, and leaves all of us more vulnerable to the demons.”
There were shouts of agreement from Vadal’s allies. “What is your name, reasonable Arbiter?” Harta asked with a smile.
“Artya Zati dar Zarger, Order of Census and Taxation. However, the casteless uprisings are being spurred on by rumors about this Ashok. The casteless take courage from his murderous rampage. They speak of an untouchable armed with the most powerful magic, who has slaughtered whole men and who still lives to spite us. As long as he lives, Ashok inspires them to more rebellion and increased violence.” As she continued, Harta’s smile slowly died. “The fallen Protector has become a rallying cry for the criminal underclass.”