Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 38

He couldn’t sleep. Not because of nerves, but rather because Pakpa snored. Her wheezing sounded like the giant machines at the worker’s foundry on the other side of the military district’s wall.

How can someone so beautiful snore like an elephant?

Not that Jagdish minded that Pakpa snored and constantly rolled around in her sleep, gentle as an ox, shaking their small, flimsy bed, and occasionally scratching him with her toenails, because her positive traits far outweighed those few negatives. As a warrior of low birth, he’d expected his arranged marriage to be to an ugly, stupid woman, but he’d gotten lucky. The workers had traded one of their loveliest daughters to his caste for additional security on a trade route, and Jagdish had been single and recuperating from his wounds, and thus available in time to sign the arbiter’s treaty, so it had all worked out.

Even his arranged marriage had been meant as an insult, marrying him off to a baker’s daughter, instead of a proper strong woman of the warrior caste who’d provide him with superior sons. His children would be looked down upon as half-caste. Only he liked coming home to Pakpa’s warm smile and kind words, and he had no doubt she’d provide him with many wonderful children. Jagdish had actually come to love his wife, and she seemed fond enough of him.

So he didn’t want to die tomorrow.

He must have sighed, because Pakpa snorted herself awake and rolled over. “Huh? What’s wrong?”

“I can’t sleep.”

“How come?” She sounded confused. “Was I snoring? My sisters always accused me of snoring.”

All he could see in the dark was her lovely, general outline, but he had no problem picturing her beautiful face. “No. Your sisters lied because they’re jealous. You sleep like a songbird, delicately perched in a tree.” He thought about telling her what he was going to attempt — to better both of their lives — but he didn’t want to make her worry. “Go back to sleep.”

Pakpa rolled back over. “I love you.” She was snoring again within a few seconds.

Jagdish resumed staring at the ceiling beams, pondering dueling and death.

* * *

The next morning Jagdish watched the man he feared the most easily defeat one of the best warriors in the world.

Their guest was announced at the gate house as swordmaster Nadan Somsak dar Thao, from their mountainous southern neighbor, who had won high status through countless victories, until he’d become the Thakoor of a vassal family. His skin was covered in tattoos designed to strike fear in his enemies and he had a herald to read off a list of all the warriors he’d bested. He’d hired musicians to play drums and was even accompanied by an arbiter who announced that his travel papers had been approved by Chief Judge Harta himself, so Nadan Somsak had showed up with an entourage, legal standing, a great deal of fanfare, and a chip on his shoulder.

He walked to the center of the prison yard, spread his ink-covered arms wide, and shouted, “Bring me the fallen Protector so that I may defeat him! I have come to claim Angruvadal as my own! I will destroy the criminal and the whole world will sing praises to my name.”

“He’s a cocky one,” said one of the guards. “I’ve got ten notes says the Black Heart beats him in under two minutes.”

“You’re on, but only because he’ll slow down to give that tattooed mountain thug some pointers.”

All of the prison staff who could temporarily escape their duties had climbed the walls and towers to watch the duel. Jagdish noted that they were all making bets, but not a single one was betting on the challenger, but rather on how long he’d last or whether his life would be spared or not. The prisoner might have been the vilest form of criminal, but he was their criminal.

Haviladar Wat was his second in command and he joined Jagdish on the wall. “They’ve gone to fetch the prisoner.” He reached beneath one of the lamellar plates of his armor and pulled out a watch on a chain. “With your permission, sir, I’ll keep time. That way none of the men get into fights over who loses the bet.”

A timepiece small enough to fit in a pocket was rare and expensive. “How did you afford that, Wat?”

The young warrior grinned. “My winnings from betting on these duels, Risaldar. You see, there are marks for every minute of the day. It’s supposed to be very accurate.”

Jagdish had to squint, and even then he had a hard time seeing anything that small. “Remarkable.”

The drummer was beating a steady cadence. The man from Thao was still shouting below them. “Bring me the traitor Ashok, so that I may cut his throat and spill his casteless blood! The whore-spawned abomination must pay for the curse he’s brought upon this weak people!”

“What’s his problem?” Wat asked.

“The Somsak were a small house, renowned for their skill, supposedly some of the best mountain fighters in the world,” Jagdish explained. “Then a winter plague came through a few generations back and wiped out most of their army. Thao moved quick and invaded while they were weak. I suppose all those farmers were tired of being raided and decided to finish it once and for all. They say the Somsak bearer singlehandedly held a mountain pass while fighting five hundred Thao warriors, but his ancestor blade shattered on the very last one’s shield. They’ve been a vassal house ever since.”

“That’s quite the story, sir.”

“I’ve no idea if it’s true or not, but the Somsak think it is.”

“Still no reason to make an ass of himself.”

While the challenger continued his rant, the guards opened a gate at the far end of the yard and Black Hearted Ashok entered. There were no drums, heralds, or fanfare. He seemed far calmer than the night Jagdish had first seen him.

Nadan Somsak turned and saw Ashok coming. “I smell the ocean! It must be a casteless.” He hawked and spit in the dirt. The drummer quit playing and hurried out of the way. “Come here, so I can crack open your skull and wipe my ass with your brains. Look at you. You’re nothing. I can’t believe this is the casteless scum who made the Protectors into a bunch of dupes and fools.”

Ashok tilted his head to the side. Since he didn’t bother to raise his voice, it was difficult to hear what he was saying from up on the wall. “My life is of no value. I have no status, so you are allowed to insult me freely, but it is illegal to slander an approved order, so please refrain from maligning the Protectors.”

“The Protectors are a bunch of stuck-up idiots, all swagger, no heart, no balls, and wouldn’t be worth saltwater if they didn’t have the Capitol to prop them up. All the Protectors could be casteless as far as I know. You’re just the only one dumb enough to admit it. It wouldn’t surprise me if the lot of them had been sired by demons and squeezed out of whores. I piss on the Protectors.”

The warrior from Thao had succeeded in provoking the prisoner’s anger, and Black Hearted Ashok’s emotionless mask slipped just a bit, giving Jagdish a glimpse of the man he’d fought that night in the main hall of Great House Vadal.

“Hey, Wat, I’ll bet you two hundred notes against that little timepiece of yours that from the time the prisoner draws his sword to winning, you can’t count to ten.”

The young warrior was happy to take advantage of his naïve commander. “You’re on, Risaldar.”

* * *

Jagdish checked his new pocket watch. He could feel the gears turning inside through the thin metal body, almost like holding a mouse in his hand and feeling the vibration of its tiny, rapid heart. All one had to do was turn a knob several times a day, winding the springs inside, and a needle turned with the time, pointing at all the little dashes on the side that represented the minutes of the day. Though it was easier to just look in the sky and see where the sun was to know what time it was, this was truly a marvel of mechanical science. He’d heard that in the Capitol there were clocks now with two needles, so accurate they had one pointing at the hour and another for the minute.