Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 32

Chapter 15

After the public farce was over, the real business was conducted. There was a small Census and Taxation office across the street from the Chamber of Argument, except this compound had secretly been claimed by the Inquisition. Omand had made certain that none of his twenty important guests had been followed. Though only a few of them were fellow Inquisitors, all of his guests wore masks or veils to protect their identity. Their insignia and tokens of office were hidden. Omand was the only person who knew who everyone really was, and he was the only one whom they all knew by his real name. He wasn’t particularly worried about any of them betraying him, because who would they betray him to? They all knew he had ears everywhere.

The Capitol was a web of plots and secrets, and Omand was the spider at the center.

One of his men brought in their final arrival. She was wearing a veil and introduced with a code name, but only an imbecile wouldn’t recognize the young arbiter from Zarger who had caused such a stir earlier. “Excellent work.” Omand congratulated the newest member of his conspiracy. “You had them eating from the palm of your hand like adorable baby birds.”

Artya gave him a very respectful bow. “It was my pleasure, but my Thakoor wasn’t expecting me to make any proposals. We were to remain neutral for now. I’ll be severely reprimanded, possibly even demoted.”

“Don’t worry, a year from now when we’re rounding up all the untouchables you’ll be hailed as a visionary.”

“I’m sure he will wait to see what the scribes’ research finds before he announces my punishment.” Artya sighed.

The arbiters would debate, the scribes would pore over the scrolls, and a new report would be presented on the casteless problem. Omand already knew what those reports should have said because unlike most, he remembered their history. Legally speaking, the casteless were a necessary evil, kept around because of the vague threat of an even greater evil. To the dispassionate Law, it was all a matter of value, so to get what he wanted, Omand simply needed to rebalance the scales.

“I wouldn’t worry too much,” he assured her. Artya was rather attractive, and she struck him as intelligent, articulate, and conniving, all useful traits. If she had the stomach for hurting people, she would probably do rather well as an Inquisitor. “If the punishment is too severe for you to remain with your house, then I’m certain an important assignment could open within the Inquisition. Your Thakoor owes me an obligation or two.”

“I am humbled by your generosity, Grand Inquisitor.” She even managed to sound sincere as she said it, so she was also an excellent liar. It didn’t matter if she had an aversion to torturing confessions out of witches or not, when someone of his status offered an assignment, it was accepted.

The other conspirators were already seated on cushions around a low table. The slaves that brought their refreshments were deaf, and if he had even the briefest suspicion that any of them was paying too much attention he’d have them strangled and buried in the garden. It was amusing to him that most of his guests didn’t know how to eat or drink while wearing a mask. The trick was to keep it tight across the bridge of the nose and loose over the mouth and chin, then stick with finger foods in public. Amateurs.

One nice thing about taking over a census office was all of the maps and population tallies were already here. Most of the non-people had been located, numbered, and registered for their convenience, because all houses had to pay annual property taxes, and casteless were just a fleshy form of property, similar to — but sometimes less valuable than — livestock. For years Omand had been gently suggesting that the casteless were a terrible threat to society, so he’d been steering the many competing bureaucracies of the Capitol into doing all his preparatory work for him. Maps were spread across the table, and he was glad to see that the few members of the warrior caste who had joined his secret cabal were already making plans about how to conduct their war of extermination.

“Greetings, my friends,” Omand told his fellow conspirators. “Today we welcome a sister to our ranks.” There was some polite clapping as Artya took her seat. “Excellent. Thank you.”

Omand surveyed the room. These were the people who were going to help him achieve his goals. Staging a coup and overthrowing the government was simply not a one man job. They were all here for different reasons, politicians, warriors, wealthy bankers, even wizards, but the important thing was that they were all useful and connected. “Today I bring fantastic news and a wonderful opportunity before you. After today’s reading of the offense, you are all aware of the situation in the north, but you may not yet comprehend the dire situation in the south.” He nodded at one of the masked men to proceed.

This conspirator was from the affected house. “The rebellion is far worse than what has been reported before the committee. This prophet has inspired many to join their cause, and as a result he’s built a small army of religious fanatics who’ve been waging war against House Akershan. They’ve destroyed multiple settlements, disrupted trade routes, and sabotaged many of the iron mines. There’s no doubt that this is the costliest rebellion any house has experienced in generations.”

Most of the cabal took some sick pleasure at that news. They may have been united in their desire for power, but everyone retained some bias in favor of the house he’d been born into, so it was natural to delight in the suffering of another. It was poor Akershan that was burning instead of their ancestral holdings, so that was a cause for rejoicing.

Though they were all in disguise, it was easy to pick out the warrior caste among them from their sheer physical presence. The courtly types looked frail in comparison. One of his warriors spoke, “To be fair to our southern brethren, from examining the tactics of the rebels, I believe that some members of the higher castes have joined with them and are providing training and logistical support. This is no mere casteless mob.”

“Impossible,” said another.

“They’re certainly not fighting like fish-eaters,” said his southern spy. His real name was Faril, and it was his family holdings that were being torched. “Their leadership is hiding in the mountains and we’ve not been able to root them out. Someone has been supplying them with illegal magic, and there’ve even been indications that they’ve been in contact with Fortress.”

A warrior swore. “If only we could get an army across the sea without being torn apart by demons we’d destroy those lunatics once and for all.”

Omand watched their reactions carefully. Fortress had earned its name by being unassailable. The island was tantalizingly close to the mainland. The strip of ocean separating them was so narrow in a few places that in the coldest years a brave man could walk across the shifting ice floes. Over the centuries different houses had tried to send armies across, but any activity on the ice inevitably attracted swarms of demons. Small groups had made it to the island, only to perish against the great stone walls as the fanatics rained fire and thunder down on them.

As much as it galled the bureaucracy to have anyone not bend their knee to the Law, after many fruitless sieges and thousands of dead warriors, most of the first caste liked to pretend that the island of fanatics didn’t exist at all.

“It has been years since an army has tried to cross the channel,” Artya said.

“The fanatics cross somehow,” Faril spat.

“Doubtful,” said a northern judge. “That’s nothing but rumors southern houses use to excuse their inability to keep their untouchables in line. More likely it’s their lax standards of discipline stirring up trouble, than witches from Fortress.”

Omand put an end to that myth before his meeting degenerated into prideful house bickering. “It is extremely rare, but such crossings have been documented before.” No one, not even the best minds of the Inquisition had been able to figure out how they snuck across even during warm years. Theories ranged from magical flying devices to secret tunnels beneath the ocean floor.

“Recently, some of our soldiers have been killed by Fortress forged weapons, so either they’re smuggling things across, or worse, someone has taught the rebels how to recreate their alchemy here.” Faril paused to let that sink in. Now that was serious. No house wanted that madness spreading to their lands. The warrior caste was especially terrified of weapons which could make the lowest among them equals in battle to someone who’d spent his whole life training. “The rebels refuse to fight unless they have overwhelming numbers, and when they don’t they simply flee and blend back into the casteless slums to hide. Normally the rebellious would be given up by the other non-people with a few bribes or threats, but this prophet keeps the masses silent, through fear or adoration, we don’t know. Purging entire casteless quarters has only caused more to join his army.”

“Protectors have been slaughtering the rebels stupid enough to stand and fight, but they can’t find this prophet either,” supplied another conspirator. As the warriors were easy to spot, so were the courtiers of the first caste, with their smooth inflection, fine clothing, and skin that never saw direct sunlight because there was always a slave there holding an umbrella. He addressed Omand directly, “Even the witch hunters you’ve dispatched haven’t been able to catch him.”

“That’s because I’ve ordered them to look in the wrong place,” Omand explained patiently. That announcement caused quite a stir. “Calm down. I’ve had Inquisition spies hidden among the prophet’s followers for quite some time.” There seemed to be some confusion at that, and the southern members were aghast. Of course, with their home lands being ravaged by savages, an emotional response had been expected, but that was just part of the game. It was good to occasionally remind the other conspirators that he knew more than they did. “I’ve spared their prophet’s life because a competent foe is actually a good thing for us right now. If our plans are to succeed we’d need a villain eventually, and all these years I’d thought we’d have to manufacture one for the houses to unite against when the time came…” Omand raised his hands theatrically toward the heavens and spoke like the actors did when portraying a religious fanatic in a play, “but the gods will provide!”

“But what about my property?” Faril demanded. “My family is –”

“Your sacrifice has been noted. After we’ve consolidated power, you will be rewarded.” And just because a little bribery now was more certain than the promise of great bribes later, Omand added, “In the meantime, I will see to it that you are compensated for your material losses.”

“So you think this is the crisis we’ve been waiting for?” Atrya asked.

“It is a fine start, but sadly, no. We need something better. Every few generations some delusional casteless who can manage to string a few coherent sentences together gets them all riled up with talk of the Forgotten and tales of make-believe. A false prophet is hardly a unique threat. In time this rebellion would be crushed like all that have come before, and things will return to the way they’ve always been. The houses will go back to squabbling, never-ending competition over scraps, while the Capitol bloviates and guides with a lenient hand, and we will remain a nation in name only.”

Faril spoke, “We all know such stagnation stands in the way of progress. For society to improve, the Capitol must assume greater central control.” With us in charge, but that went without saying. “But if a mass casteless rebellion isn’t enough to force the houses to give up their autonomy, what is?”

“Something truly epic, a threat so vile that even the most independent Thakoor will beg for the Capitol’s help.” Omand was rather proud of his idea. It was rare that such a wonderful intersection of opportunity and good fortune arose. It would be a crime not to take advantage of it. “That my friends, is where our fallen Protector and his legendary sword come into play.”

“He’s so devoted to the Law that he’s voluntarily rotting in a Vadal prison,” said a courtier. “We all heard the offended’s asinine complaint today, but what does Black Hearted Ashok have to do with an uprising in the south?”