Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 37
“Where’s your cane?” Pakpa asked.
“I threw it in the river,” Jagdish answered. He’d be damned if he presented himself to his new assignment looking like a cripple. Besides, his leg only really hurt in the mornings, or when it was too cold, or too hot, or when he walked, or put too much weight on it. He spread his arms so she could see his new uniform. “How do I look?” he asked his new bride.
“Like the finest warrior in all of Vadal,” she lied, or perhaps she was so still so happy to have been assigned a higher-status husband that she actually believed that. To Jagdish, when he looked in the mirror all he saw was a warrior so pathetic that he’d managed to lose a duel even when his opponent had been unfairly outnumbered, and who’d had a Thakoor die under his watch as a result. It had taken months for his arm and leg to heal enough to return to duty, but by then, the story had spread, and no fighting paltan wanted him.
“The finest warrior? I doubt that.”
“You will make an excellent risaldar.”
Pakpa meant well, but she’d grown up in the worker caste. She couldn’t grasp the nuances of rank and assignment within the warrior caste hierarchy. To her, being married off to a miserable failure of a soldier was still a huge step up in life. She didn’t understand that his new promotion was really intended as an insult. Only the worst places received names related to water, and he was being sent to Cold Stream.
Jagdish kissed his wife. “I must go. I can’t be late.”
He limped from their small home, through the streets of the city, south toward his new assignment, guarding the very bastard who had ruined his life.
* * *
The fallen Protector’s appearance had changed. He’d not shaved or cut his hair since the slaughter. His beard was long and unkempt, his hair wild and filthy, and now he truly looked like the casteless dog that he was. Like the other prisoners, he was dressed in gray rags.
The only noticeable difference was that sword.
“What does he do?”
“Nothing much, Risaldar Jagdish,” the prison guard told him. “We let them out into the yard for most of the afternoon, but he keeps to himself. I think the other prisoners are scared of him. He exercises, sword forms mostly, then runs several laps around the yard, but that’s it. When their time is up, we ask him to return to his cell, and he does. Then he just sits there and stares off into nothing.”
Jagdish stood at the tower railing, looking down into the yard and the prisoners who’d segregated themselves into groups. Most of them were here because of crimes not severe enough to warrant execution, but a judge had found them to have temperaments unfit for a period of slavery. His new charges were mostly thieves, debtors, and deserters. The roster said he had a few murderers and rapists from the warrior caste, who would serve their time and then be returned to duty, where murder and rape weren’t necessarily crimes as long as they remembered to only do it to their approved enemies and not their own people. He also had some workers guilty of that level of crime who’d not been executed, which told him they came from families with enough money to bribe a judge. Then there were the hostages, warriors taken from other houses in border raids, held here until their families paid a ransom or they were traded for Vadal men being held in other lands.
But none of those mundane prisoners interested Jagdish right now. “Has the prisoner caused any problems?” He had five hundred charges, but there was only one who could be the prisoner.
“None, sir. He’s unfailingly polite. In fact, Nayak Suchart was surprised by one of the more violent prisoners, who started choking him with a length of chain. Before any of us could get there, Ashok appeared and beheaded the attacker. Cut his head right off like it was nothing. Then he just walked back to his cell. Saved Suchart’s life, more than likely.”
“Yes. I’m sure they call him the Black Heart because it overflows with mercy.”
“I wouldn’t say that, Risaldar. It wasn’t mercy so much as annoyance. He told the prisoners that were watching that he wouldn’t abide anybody breaking the Law in his presence…Scared them, that’s for sure. Assaults have been down and we’ve not had a single riot since he’s been here. We used to have fights between the different hostage gangs all the time, but now they’re all scared of getting on his bad side. Most of the prisoners seem happy, you know, having a bit of entertainment.”
“The Law didn’t condemn them here to be happy, Nayak,” Jagdish said, not that he particularly cared about the nuances of the Law. He just wanted to fulfill this dead end detail until a proper war started, because then his value as a border scout would far outweigh his reputation as a lousy personal guard. “What do you mean, entertainment?”
“The duels, sir…Wait…You’ve not been told about the duels?”
“I’m a soldier. Nobody ever tells me anything. What duels?”
“Chief Judge Harta’s orders. Anyone who wishes to try and take the magic sword is allowed to duel the prisoner for it. We’re required to let them fight. They show up all the time. Not just warriors, but Harta even said to allow workers. Maybe he thinks somebody will get lucky or the sword will find somebody it likes better? Hell, he’s even let men from other houses have a shot. Said if an outsider won, they’d be given a Vadal obligation and promoted to the first caste!”
That reeked of desperation…But a promotion to the highest status was a rare thing indeed. Jagdish watched the prisoner, who had found a lip of rock on the perimeter wall and was doing chin-ups with his fingertips. “How many has he beaten?”
“I don’t know, but probably every fool crazy enough to try and earn himself a better place in the entire region. So far? He’s been here six months, so forty-five, maybe fifty. I’d have to check the guest log at the gatehouse. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”
“I’ve been preoccupied lately.”
“We’ve even had a problem with spectators bribing guards to come inside so they can watch. That’s what got our last risaldar transferred. The judges must’ve not liked that one of us thought of a way to take bribes for something before they could…” He trailed off when Jagdish didn’t laugh.
“That nonsense ends. This is a prison, not a circus.”
“Well, it’s been like we’ve had our own personal arena and the prison has a champion gladiator. This must be how the first caste live in the Capitol,” the guard said with a wistful tone.
“How many of these challengers has the prisoner killed?”
“Not more than ten or twelve I think. It looks like he tries to let them live. Most, he soundly beats, then he gives them a lecture about how to fight better before sending them on their way. Them who piss him off though, they go into the furnace in parts. The Black Heart doesn’t strike me as the patient sort, but he’s got a particular sort of honor to him.”
The fact that one of his guards seemed so impressed by the prisoner annoyed Jagdish to no end. Only the lowest of his caste were given this assignment. There was never any chance for glory, but plenty of opportunity for failure. If they fulfilled their duty, none of their betters would ever notice, but if one of their prisoners escaped or killed a guard, there would be plenty of shame. The prison guards didn’t get to do the things a warrior was born to do, so it was no surprise they would be impressed by a fighter of the Black Heart’s skill.
“I want to speak to him.”
“You sure that’s a good idea, sir? I mean, I heard you were there that night…”
“Tomorrow, after exercise, send the rest back to their cells, but have the prisoner stay in the yard. I will meet him alone.”
* * *
That night Jagdish lay in bed beside Pakpa, thinking about what he was going to do the next day. Most would say it was foolish, but as a proud warrior, he couldn’t let such an opportunity pass. Low born, without any connections, the only other way he could rise in status was to become a war hero. A duel made perfect sense, except for that whole dying part.