Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 15

Chapter 7

As the sun rose across the desert, the spires of the Capitol’s tallest towers were visible in the distance. It was the biggest city in Lok. There was no place farther from the sea, and thus purer, than the Capitol. Kept alive by endless caravans and mighty aqueducts, the city had grown out of this barren region to spite nature. It was the source of the Law, the home of the bureaucracy, and the depository of mankind’s knowledge. It was in the middle of a desert, in the center of the continent, and though no rivers flowed here, all power did.

He had crossed jungles, mountains, plains, and desert, both low and high, over the last few weeks, riding from before dawn until after dusk, driving horses to exhaustion or death, and then using his office to confiscate more from the next town. Ashok had commandeered barges to cross rivers, climbed thousands of feet to cross mountain passes where the air was so thin that it made his head ache, and traveled hundreds of miles on the trade roads. He’d passed dozens of villages, a handful of cities, more caravans than he could count, and had dispatched one gang of bandits stupid enough to mistake him for a normal traveler in the dark. All of that brought him here, to the shadow of the Mount Metoro, to the greatest city in the world.

Protector Ashok Vadal, twenty-year senior, was not happy to be here.

“A wise man once told me that the place where they make law is the place where they’re the least likely to obey it,” Ashok muttered as he watched the spires. Of course, his only companion had no response but to snort and flick an ear. The horse was exhausted. That was too bad. It was his last mount, there were still miles to go, and now that the sun was up they needed to go faster. He thumped the animal with his heels. “My apologies, horse. I don’t like this place either.”

The duties of his office had taken him to nearly every city on the continent. Most of them were surrounded by the smelly farms and smoking industries of the workers, with scattered compounds belonging to the warrior caste between them, the slums for the casteless in the least desirable locations, and all of those quarters existed to serve the will of the much smaller governing caste who usually lived in some form of central castle or palace, separate and aloof. That’s how society normally worked for the good and order of mankind.

The Capitol was different from every other city. There were still multitudes of workers who lived here to serve, and legions of warriors to defend it, but this was a city built from the ground up for the comfort of the greatest among men. There were disproportionate numbers of the ruling caste here. Within every caste were numerous subcastes, and levels within levels, until every man had a place. This was where the greatest among them gathered to conduct their houses’ affairs. The lowliest bureaucrat still had rank and connections beyond an outsider’s dreams. Every home was a palace, and each agency of the bureaucracy required a building that made those palaces look like a casteless shack.

The horse shifted nervously beneath him as it caught the scent of death on the desert wind. “Easy, horse. They have to hang the criminals somewhere.” They certainly couldn’t do it in town, where the governing caste would have to smell them rot.

To the north, separate from the city, high up the side of lonely Mount Metoro, was a familiar fortress. His dried out eyes could barely make out the clouds of black dots dancing over the Inquisitor’s Dome. Vultures. Hundreds of them. The executioners must have been busy lately, and recently too if the smell of decay was this strong, because bodies turned to jerky quickly under this sun.

The only good thing about his new orders was that he’d not been requested here by the Inquisition. When a Protector was summoned by the anonymous men in the masks and hoods, it was usually to deal with a lawbreaker using illegal magic, but once in a great while it was to be interrogated themselves. It was rare for a Protector to be questioned, but the Law declared that no one was above suspicion. Everyone answered to someone. Protectors answered to the Inquisition. Ashok would submit to their tortures if ordered, but he wouldn’t enjoy it.

The Capitol was strange. It belonged to no house, but all houses heeded it. It produced nothing but words, but it was the richest city in the world. All houses had their own form of currency, but the Capitol issued banknotes, which could be traded and honored by all. The houses supplied the Capitol with resources and people, and in exchange the Capitol gave them Law.

Along the road, Ashok passed dozens of wagons flying the banners of many different houses. He thought about stopping one of the caravans to trade for a fresh horse, but by the time he dealt with all the needless pleasantries, announcements, and workers sucking up, he wouldn’t be saving any time. Since he’d dressed in his full uniform for his presentation in the Capitol, he stuck out, and many of the drivers became obviously fearful when they saw a Protector approaching. Since it was legal for any enforcer of the Law to requisition whatever he needed to fulfill his orders, many poor merchants had been deprived of their goods along this very road after hauling them all the way across the continent.

Ashok knew there would be many sighs of relief as he passed them by unmolested. One eventually got used to being feared by nearly everyone he met.

* * *

The walls of the Capitol were too thin and constructed of sandstone. They existed primarily for decoration and would never survive a siege. The Capitol’s real defenses were made of ink and paper. No matter how far it might drift from the letter of the Law, no house would ever make war on the Capitol, because there would be several other houses ready to curry political favor by turning on their neighbor. It was a careful balancing act, but it had kept the peace for hundreds of years.

The city never stopped growing. It had been a few years since his last visit, and he marveled at how many new structures there were, and how many old ones had been torn down and rebuilt. For the source of all order in the world, it was certainly chaotic.

The headquarters of the Order of Protectors were just inside the gate, between one of the vast bazaars and a worker’s neighborhood. This position was strategic, separate from the decision makers, but close enough to still take orders. Compared to the rest of the government buildings, it was humble. Compared to the rest of the Order’s holdings across the continent, it was ostentations. Much like the walls, this building was also for show. The real — literal — heart of the Order was in the rugged mountains of Devakula, far to the south.

The bazaar was a packed mass of humanity, jostling about in the shade of hundreds of tents. The stalls came and went as merchants struck it rich or went broke. The arbiters and regulators didn’t usually bother with this area unless someone important complained. Some fool was trying to sell elephants, and the poor beasts looked miserable in the heat. Their giant piles of dung covered half the road. The road that had been here the last time he’d visited was now blocked by someone selling chickens. A new path through had been created where there had been a spice merchant before. This lack of continuity offended Ashok.