Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 39
His guards were watching from the walls. They’d seen the limp and the giant scar on Jagdish’s arm. They’d heard the versions of the story that had filtered down from the Bidaya’s party guests, and now they were curious to see if their new commander was crazy enough to fight the Black Heart again…
I wonder what times they are betting on?
Jagdish was alone in the yard. There was a dark spot in the dirt in front of him where Nadan Somsak had bled that very morning. Surprisingly, the Black Heart hadn’t killed the foul brute. He’d simply drawn and struck him once, fast as lightning, right through the cheek. Nadan Somsak was returning to his mountains without a tongue. Jagdish wondered if Nadan had a wife. Would she be happier that he could no longer speak? Would Pakpa still love him if he came home missing any body parts? If Ashok cut off his ears, then at least he would be able to get some sleep.
The gate opened and the fallen Protector entered. He pulled back his matted hair, looked around, and seemed a bit surprised to see someone wearing a guard’s uniform waiting for him, because the prison guards had seen enough of his duels to know better. As Ashok approached, Jagdish put the marvelous little clock back inside his armor.
“I am Risaldar Jagdish, new commander of the Cold Stream Prison garrison.”
Ashok bowed. Jagdish hadn’t thought through the etiquette. The prisoner was technically a casteless which meant he deserved no respect, but he was also a bearer which meant he deserved great respect. The prisoner must have realized why Jagdish was standing there so awkwardly, because he said, “I’m a legal anomaly, but I’m not worthy of your respect. I was born an untouchable and I’m a criminal.”
Jagdish gave him a small bow anyway.
Ashok seemed confused. “There’s no need to be respectful to me.”
“Well, I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way.” Jagdish shrugged. “You beat a dozen warriors in a knife fight. If that’s not worthy of respect, then I don’t know what is.”
“A curious way of looking at things. Fighting is what I do. You wouldn’t praise an ox for pulling a plow. How may I be of service, Risaldar?”
Jagdish mouth was suddenly very dry. “I wish to duel.”
Ashok tilted his head to the side, curious. “I’m only a casteless, and you’re a warrior, but may I speak freely?”
It was an odd request, as Jagdish was having a very hard time thinking of the most terrifying combatant in the world as an inferior. “You may.”
“I wish to prove myself to Angruvadal and earn my family’s place in the first caste.”
“You have a family? Children?”
“She’ll miss you if you die?”
“Then walk away, Risaldar,” Ashok warned. “There’s nothing to be gained by dying here. I remember you. You were there the night of my crime and you were the best among them.”
“No. I was second to Sankhamur.”
“In experience, perhaps, but in integrity, you alone questioned Bidaya’s dishonorable commands, and you alone had the wisdom to not try to fight against an ancestor blade. How many of you died?”
“Eventually, six of us succumbed to our injuries.”
“My apologies for your brothers, but it would have been all of you, and perhaps some of the bystanders, if you hadn’t shaken me from my anger and reminded me of what was right. Then, despite your misgivings, you still followed your Thakoor’s command. Obeying such a command is one of the most difficult things for a warrior to do.”
Jagdish hoped that his men couldn’t hear him from the walls. “I was shamed by that defeat.”
“You fought well. There was no shame there.”
“If I wasn’t good enough, then I should have died. I’ve been mocked by my betters ever since. They say that if I had been stronger, then our Thakoor would still be alive and our house wouldn’t be vulnerable. Enemies harass our borders because of our weakness, which means my brothers are out there fighting and dying, and I’m not even allowed to help. This assignment is my punishment. They want me to have to look every day at the face of the man who ruined me.”
“I may have broken your leg, but it’s obvious I didn’t break your spirit. The Law says a warrior’s life belongs to his superiors, but your superiors are willing to spend your life stupidly. Anyone who mocks you is a fool, and would have done no better in your place. The next one who tells you that, tell him to come and see me.”
Jagdish actually laughed. “That’ll go over well.”
“If they’re so very brave, then I’m easy enough to find.”
“True, but it is simpler to insult my courage than it is to test their own. My purpose in life is to fight, serve my house, and prove myself in combat. I can’t do that if I’m wasting away the rest of my days babysitting hostages and criminals. I don’t see much choice but to fight you. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“And maybe I’ll be unlucky and kill another good warrior who deserves better. I’m tired of killing. If you wish to take Angruvadal, then I’m required to wield it, and when Angruvadal is drawn, mercy cannot be promised. I’m legally obligated to do my best against everyone who tests me, and I know you’re good enough that I’ll actually have to try.”
“Thank you.” For an unstoppable killing machine, Black Hearted Ashok seemed to be a very reasonable man.
Ashok appeared to mull something over for a moment. “So we can agree. You don’t want to die, and I don’t want to kill you. I have an idea, Risaldar. You’re good, but you’re not good enough to beat me today. I mean no offense.”
“If I was offended, I’d suppose we’d just have to duel about it.”
“True.” Ashok said thoughtfully, as if Jagdish had brought up some brilliant legal point. “But here is my proposition. I’ve nothing better to do, and I’m obligated to remain here until judgment is pronounced. While I await execution, I can teach you. Eventually you could be good enough to beat me, and then we can have a proper duel.”
Of the many possible outcomes of Jagdish’s challenge, he’d not expected that. But if he could learn even a fraction of Ashok’s skills, surely he could redeem himself among his caste. “Hmmm…Interesting. I’m listening.”
“I have no status. You’re the commander of this prison. There’s no reason you can’t order me to spar against you with practice swords. I’d have no choice but to obey. Let the city know that Risaldar Jagdish has so little fear that he trains against a monster. Let’s see if any of those high-status warriors have the spine to do that.”
“What kind of madman is brave enough to spar against such a fearsome killer? I like it. Let those soft-palmed fops lord it over me in their estates, because in their hearts they’ll know that Jagdish is braver than they are. Ha! I like this plan.” Jagdish turned and shouted at the guards along the wall, who were nervously waiting to see if their commander was going to get butchered or not. “You! Go to the armory and bring back two wooden swords.”
There were a lot of confused looks shared, but one of the nayaks ran off to fetch some practice weapons as directed. He doubted any of the men would win the betting pool today.
“I must caution you, Risaldar. I am trained in the ways of the Protector Order, and our methods are unforgiving at best. It isn’t uncommon for our acolytes to die during training.”
“I’m no mere student, Prisoner. I’m a four-year veteran who has seen a house war and more border skirmishes than you have fingers.”
Ashok smiled as if Jagdish had just told a very amusing anecdote. “Of course, Risaldar. I’m sure this will prove enlightening.”
“Very well. We will meet here every day…” Jagdish pulled out the pocket watch. He opened the lid and pointed at the slowly moving needle. “At this time.”
Ashok glanced down at the watch. “What does that mean?”
There were a lot of little marks. “I don’t rightly know.”