Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 16

“Protector business. Make a hole.” Most people were quick enough to get out of his way. Though his horse did knock over a few workers, they were of low enough rank that nobody would notice. “You must have some warhorse in your blood,” Ashok congratulated his mount.

The Order’s compound was a prestigious posting for the warrior caste, so the soldiers guarding the entrance were always alert, and they had spotted his uniform above the crowd. “Who approaches?” one of them shouted.

“Ashok Vadal, twenty-year senior.” The horse seemed very pleased to stop.

“You are expected, Protector,” one of the guards said as he took the reins.

Ashok slid out of the saddle. “Take care of this animal. It’s been tougher than expected.” He patted the foaming beast on the neck, then walked through the inner courtyard.

Several acolytes were crudely sparring, which consisted of mercilessly beating each other with padded sticks. It was good to see that there were so many of them. Though they remained a small, elite organization, over the last decade their numbers had grown. As the Protectors had regained their status, the houses had obligated an increasing number of recruits, and since no one wanted to be outdone, they only sent their best. The acolyte running the drills saw him coming, and snapped at his younger charges to get out of the way. They quickly formed a line and bowed. Ashok didn’t know any of them, so he gave but a small nod in greeting as he passed them by.

He could hear them whispering behind his back. Black hearted Ashok, the finest killer who has ever lived. He didn’t know them, but they knew of him.

The doors to the keep were open. In the high desert it was best to keep the air circulating. “Ashok!” the booming deep voice came from inside, followed a moment later by the broad-shouldered bulk of one of his brothers. “About damned time you showed up! Way to take your sweet time.”

“Hello, Karno.” Ashok outranked him, but they’d fought together, so he was used to Karno’s plainspoken ways. He was from House Uttara, a land so poor that even their first caste were little better than farmers. Bad manners were to be expected from them. “Good to see you too.”

The big Protector never seemed pleased, and he wasn’t about to start now. “Forgive my abruptness. You can clean up later. The master’s been waiting for you. Come on.”

The compound was too quiet. He saw no other Seniors. Normally they only had a small garrison here, but he’d never seen so few experienced Protectors here. He went up the stairs and the main chamber was just as dead. The only other living things were a couple of lazy dogs and a slave sweeping the floor. “Where is everyone?”

“Trouble down south. The Inquisition needed some muscle. Mindarin sent most of the Capitol garrison.”

It had to be bad if they’d called up that many Protectors. “Makao again?”

“Not this time. Casteless uprising in House Akershan. Cultists of the Forgotten got to preaching the old religion. They even have themselves a false prophet. So some lunatic hearing voices got them all riled up and they murdered an arbiter. Can you believe it?” Karno snorted. “Bunch of idiots hiding in the mountains. Next thing you know they’ll be crowning some fish-eater to be their king. The witch hunters are taking it serious though. They say the rebels have got their hands on some powerful magic. Fortress forged, I’d wager.”

There were very few things more illegal than Fortress alchemy. They were the last open practitioners of the old ways in Lok, but their impenetrable island kept them from safe from the Law, and their smuggled abominations were a terrible source of corruption in the world. If it was truly that bad, then Akershan was where he would be going next. Good. Crushing uprisings was preferable to dealing with politics in the Capitol. At least the religious fanatics were honest. “I need to speak to the master.”

“This way. I sent a slave to make sure he’s awake.” Karno lumbered down the hall. He was a head taller than Ashok, twice as big around, and shaggy as a bear in winter. He was one of the few men in the Order whom Ashok actually had to work hard in order to win a sparring match against. “I asked to be sent to smash this uprising you know, but I got stuck here. The casteless back in my own house got uppity a few years back, murdered some of our warriors, and then Devedas slaughtered the lot of them, the lucky bastard.”

“How is Mindarin?”

“Bad.” He wasn’t known as Blunt Karno just because he preferred to fight with a hammer. “Prepare yourself.”

His father had died when he was very young. Ashok couldn’t remember a thing about the man, couldn’t even picture his face. Mindarin, on the other hand, had taught him everything he knew, made him everything that he was. The swordmaster was much more of a father than the one who’d passed on his blood. Everyone dies, but Ashok didn’t have to like it.

They went up the stairs and stopped before a closed door. It was a sad comment that here privacy was worth more than the cooling breeze. Ashok reached for the handle but Karno stopped him. “Wait for the slave to come out. He can’t even sit up in bed on his own or clean himself. Let the master retain what dignity he has left.”

Ashok let go of the handle. “I was unaware.”

“Most are. He was struck down months ago. The surgeons said it was a seizure of apoplexy. There was paralysis for a time, and only recently could he speak clearly again, but his body continues to deteriorate. The Heart of the Mountain is the only thing sustaining him.”

“Is there no hope for him?”

“None. The rebels hiding in their mountain holes can pray to their false god for comfort, but for us, there’s only the harsh truth that such a great man will be remembered. I’ll leave you to your business.” Karno stomped back toward the stairs, but paused before going down. “Whatever reason Mindarin called for you, whatever your assignment may be, I know you’re the right choice. You are the best of us.” He bowed.

He cared little for praise, but coming from one as honest as Karno, the words actually meant something. Ashok returned the bow. By the time he looked up, Karno was gone.

A few minutes passed. There was a single chair in the hall. The Order was supposed to be above petty house politics and devoted entirely to the rule of law. They kept an office here only as a demonstration of that fact, and they kept that office humble in an attempt to keep their power from going to their heads. The chairs weren’t even padded. If they had guests then a slave would bring in a cushion. After weeks in the saddle, he wouldn’t have minded that minor comfort. So Ashok remained standing. He was so tired that he probably could have slept standing up. He’d done it before.

The door opened and a slave came out. “The master will see you now,” she said, keeping her eyes averted. Slaves were usually born of the worker or warrior castes, dishonored, demoted, and sold for some reason or another, but still needed to perform the necessary tasks that were above the filthy untouchable casteless, like tending to the needs of an honored hero suffering from disease.