Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 07

Chapter 4

“You know, Ashok, I’ve seen you fill a lot of graves over the years, but I do believe this is the first time I’ve ever seen you dig one.”

Ashok glanced up and saw a familiar, scarred face. He’d been too focused on his labor to notice the other Protector sitting on the rocks above. His old friend could be quiet as a demon when he felt like it.

“Hello, Devedas.” Ashok had barely finished pushing the last of the dirt into the hole and stomping it down. It was said that the jungle scavengers were very persistent here, so he’d dug the hole deep. “What brings you to this muggy hell?”

“Looking for you, among other things. Who’s in the hole?”

“Someone who didn’t deserve to be eaten by crabs.”

“We don’t dig graves where I come from. The ground’s always frozen. Why are you digging anyway? Doesn’t this province have any slaves?”

“I felt like digging. That’s not illegal. How long have you been sitting there?”

“Long enough to be glad I wasn’t born in the worker caste. Can you imagine toiling under this miserable sun every day?”

Ashok stuck the shovel in the dirt so it would stand upright. “Do you think digging endless holes would be so much worse than endless fighting?”

“Spoken like a man who has nearly completed his house’s obligation. Twenty years is a lot of service for the Order to wring out of one man.” That was meant to goad him. Devedas had been doing this a bit longer than he had. “No wonder you’re curious to see how the other castes live.”

“There were two demons.” Ashok gestured toward where the alchemists and wizards were butchering the demon carcasses further down the beach. “Big ones too. If they’re getting into the habit of working in pairs, then I look forward to my retirement.”

“Two?” Devedas tried not to let his concern show, but he failed. “I didn’t say digging holes would be worse than what we do, but it would be terribly dull.” Devedas slid down the rock, hopped the last six feet, and landed effortlessly next to him. “Good to see you, brother.”

The men obligated to the Order were sons from each of the great houses, and they all brought some traditions with them. It was one of the small, allowable ways each Protector could maintain some of their history. Devedas was a southerner, so he preferred to shake hands rather than bow in greeting. It was probably because in the cold lands you had to wear such a pile of furs to live that nobody could tell if you were bowing or not, or as Devedas liked to joke, southerners didn’t like to look down because that’s when the bears ate you. Devedas’ grip was as firm as his own.

“If I’d known you were in Gujara I would have sent for you. I could have used the help last night. I’m not too proud to admit that I only survived by luck.”

“I’ll say you did. Two? I hope this doesn’t mean the ocean is acting up again.” Devedas scanned the surf, but the waters were their normal, unclean blue. Not the agitated red that often warned of a larger raid.

It had been two full seasons since the last time their duties had put them in the same province at the same time, but they’d both grown up in the brutal confines of the Order’s program. They’d survived the harshest training in the world together and fought at each other’s side so many times, that it was like no time had passed at all. They didn’t look alike at all, with Ashok being taller and darker in both temperament and features, but they had often been mistaken for real brothers of the same house. They might not have had the same father, but they had the same swordmaster, and to a Protector that was nearly the same thing.

“A pair is an anomaly, but it’s not unheard of.”

“Looking at your face, those demons must have beaten you like a practice dummy.” It was the sort of blunt assessment that could only come from an equal in station. An inferior would not have been so honest and a superior probably wouldn’t have cared. “You look awful.”

And that was with having most of the morning to allow the Heart to help him recover. It took a long time to dig a hole when one arm was so battered that the elbow didn’t want to bend. “It was a good fight.”

“You’re not usually one to put comfort over presentation. These Gujarans are going to think the Order’s gone sloppy. Why are you out of uniform?” All of them were hard as nails, but Devedas was a southerner, and he’d still arrived in this awful sweltering, chafing, jungle dressed in the full regalia and armor of the Order. “Where’s your armor?”

Ashok pointed toward the pile of steel and leather resting in the shade. His ancestor blade was sheathed and lying across the top of his damaged armor. Devedas’ eyes lingered on the mighty sword just a moment too long.

“I still can’t believe you just put that sword on the ground like that,” Devedas said incredulously.

“Sometimes you need to. It isn’t welded to my hand.”

“But still…What if someone tries to pick it up?”

“They’d immediately regret it. Angruvadal is easily displeased.”

“If I possessed such a thing I would never put it down. It seems disrespectful.”

“But practical. If it feels dishonored, it’ll abandon me, I’ll die in battle, and then it will pick a new bearer. I didn’t choose Angruvadal. It chose me,” Ashok explained for the thousandth time. Devedas might have been jealous of the sword’s power, but Ashok was the only one who understood the particular burden that came from bearing an ancestor blade. “It’s mighty, but it is still only a sword, Devedas. Religion is false and illegal, so don’t start worshipping it.”

“Coveting a holy relic is a serious offense…” Devedas snorted. “I’d have to arrest myself…Sorry.”

He knew exactly what Devedas was thinking about, and experience had taught him it was best to change to a lighter subject before his brother fell into one of his dark moods. “I don’t know how whole men live in this place. I was dying inside my armor. Remember Pratosh from the program?”

“The kid with the lazy eye?”

“He was obligated to the Order by House Gujara. He grew up in this very jungle. I remember he used to say that you got used to the heat. Now I know why he never liked to wear a proper amount of clothes.”

“And also why he was always complaining about how cold the barracks were.” Devedas chuckled. Not that the acolytes barracks hadn’t been miserably cold, but complaining only made the other acolytes meaner. “Whatever happened to him anyway?”

“Dead.” Ashok had to stop and think about it for a moment. Protectors died so often, usually alone and in the most forsaken corners of the world, that sometimes it was hard to keep every story straight. “He finally made senior at eight years, went to Zarger to stop an uprising, and ended up getting his throat slit on the way by desert raiders.”

“Well, at least he died where it was warm…But considering it was Pratosh, his last words were probably complaining that it was a dry heat.”

“He was a good man.”

“More than I can say for most of us. Hold on,” Devedas glanced around. “I’ve been running since dawn. Nobody spotted me, so I wasn’t even properly announced. What does a man have to do to get food in this swine hold?”

“Forgive the inhospitality. In their defense, half the place burned down last night.”

“That’s no excuse for incivility.” Devedas spotted a worker carrying a wrapped bundle of demon parts to a nearby wagon and shouted at him, “You there! I am Devedas, Protector of the Law, twenty-two-year senior.” He added that last part for Ashok’s benefit, because no one outside of the Order gave a damn about their relative experience or the fact that Devedas technically outranked him. In this backwater province, either of them was of far higher status than just about anyone they were likely to run into. “Fetch us some wine and something to eat. The wine had better be good. None of that watered-down swill.”

The worker dropped the heavy package in the wagon and then ran as if the demons had returned. He didn’t know Devedas. A demon was less dangerous. “You shouldn’t have announced yourself. Now the local warriors will descend on you with great ceremony and ass-kissing.”

Devedas sat on the grass in the shade a big tree. “I don’t know about ass-kissing, but I could certainly use a foot rub. It’s a long run from the great house to here. What do Gujaran pleasure women look like?”

“I don’t know. I’ve been too busy following a demon raider up and down the coast for the last few weeks to request any.” Ashok sat next to Devedas. The ache of his stiff muscles warned him that if he stayed still too long he would have a hard time getting back up, but it beat being dead. “So why were you looking for me?”

“I was sent here because the Inquisition requested a Protector in Gurjat. It’s a stinkhole of a city a few days from here. Smugglers found some old temple to the Forgotten out in the jungle and have been digging up artifacts to sell to wizards without papers. I’m to execute them all.”

“Do you need help?”

Devedas shook his head. “There’s only supposed to be twenty of them, worker caste so they won’t know how to fight, and they’ve got no useful magic to speak of. The only reason they requested a Protector is politics. Some Thakoor’s firstborn has been taking bribes, and you can’t have the locals disgracing each other and starting blood feuds when an outsider is more convenient. If one of us lops off his head, nobody will say a word. We’re impartial like that. If you hadn’t been busy chasing demons they probably wouldn’t have sent me. Anyways, I encountered a herald on the road to Gurjat. He saw my uniform and thought I was you. The man must have been half blind to mistake Devedas the Magnificent for some glorified northern cow herder with a magic sword.”