Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 40

Chapter 19

The presiding judge slammed his staff against the floor. The sudden noise brought the meeting to order. The judges, arbiters, regulators, courtiers, scribes and other various functionaries all took their seats in their sections that were carefully sorted by house, status, and rank.

Bang! “Several months ago this committee asked for a report to be generated pertaining to the proposed eradication of the casteless. The report is prepared and the meeting will come to order.” The staff came down again. Bang! Considering they’d been using the Chamber of Argument for hundreds of years, Senior Archivist Rada wondered how many times they’d had to replace the floor with all that staff banging. She’d have to look it up. “Honorable judges, representatives of the great houses, your scribes have been provided with a copy of the Order of Archivists’ report. Are there any questions pertaining to the report?”

Rada was in the scholar’s section far behind the presiding judge. She could see most of the chamber from here, and she glanced about fearfully, waiting to see who would condemn her first for submitting an incomplete and academically dubious report to this august body. Surely someone would realize how shoddy it was. There were Inquisitors standing in the aisles to keep order. Once a judge pointed out her errors, one of those Inquisitors would drag her away for execution. Sure, she could say that it was some nameless Inquisitor who’d forced her to leave out pertinent information, but who would believe her?

Several minutes passed as the judges flipped through their provided summaries. Rada was sweating and she couldn’t stop one leg from vibrating nervously, but nobody stood up to accuse her of fraud or treachery.

Since there was no shouting or cries for Rada to be dragged through the streets and lashed to the Inquisitor’s Dome to sunburn, wither, and die, the presiding judge was able to speak freely. “As you can see, there appear to be no real legal mandates pertaining to this topic. There is some confusion as to the origins of the idea that the untouchables were somehow protected and a few oral traditions, but nothing in the actual statutes can be found. The last time a full report was done on this subject was two generations ago, and the only references found in that report pertain to customs, not laws. The idea that some number of casteless must always exist appears to be a tradition formed by the great houses hundreds of years ago.”

“Our ancestors didn’t have to put up with so damned many of them. They breed like rabbits!” someone shouted from the judge’s gallery. Many laughed. Rada had flinched at the noise, certain that it would have been someone from the unpopular and neglected Historian’s Order calling attention to her lies, but it had only been a stupid joke. Besides, there weren’t that many Historians, and none of them were here.

“Indeed,” the presiding judge said. “Let us honor the wisdom of our ancestors, and be respectful of their traditions as we debate. However, since there are no legally binding covenants the committee is free to vote as they see fit. Before we begin, does anyone have any amendments they’d like to make before this report is entered into the permanent records of the Capitol?”

She could stand up now and speak. There was a mistake. A page had been left off the summary. There was some pertinent history that really mattered to the discussion. Saying there was an error would bring dishonor to her family, since her father had signed off on this report himself, but being blamed for a mistake was more honorable than committing fraud. She didn’t know what her father knew about the Inquisitor’s threats, but after he’d put her back on the assignment he’d made her swear that she would only use the contemporary records. Even he — the respected head of an order — was afraid. She could say something, anything. This is my last chance to tell the truth.

But Rada didn’t get to find out if she was that brave or not, because one of the Inquisitors patrolling the aisles had stopped directly next to her seat. She looked up, and he was staring right through her, his eyes nothing but black holes in his expressionless metal mask. He had a polished club in one hand, and was resting it in his other palm, fingers tapping an absent beat against the wood.

We’ll be watching.

Rada put her head down and kept it there. She never should have stolen this assignment from that drunken imbecile Gurman.

“Since there are no comments, the report will be entered into the official records and used as the basis for all future discussions on this topic. The debate will now commence. The staff recognizes Arbiter Artya Zati dar Zarger.”

When Rada looked up, the Inquisitor had continued down the aisle and a beautiful woman had gone to the podium. She had such a lovely voice that it was almost like she was reading a poem, rather than estimates of how much it would cost to round up and slaughter millions of untouchables.

Though Rada had never met a casteless and had been brought up thinking that they weren’t people at all, now that she knew where they came from, Rada discovered that the discussion was making her nauseous. She certainly didn’t buy into any religious nonsense about forgotten gods and their prophecies, but now that she knew the untouchables’ history, she knew the term non-people to be inaccurate. They were a filthy, degenerate, and evil lot, but still people, and now these judges were arguing their fate without all the facts.

From watching them, she doubted any of the judges would really care, even if they knew the truth behind the Law, since their only philosophy seemed to be one of selfishness. But that didn’t make Rada feel any better. I’m a dishonorable coward and a failure of a librarian.

The debate was heated and seemed to go on forever. Rada didn’t like being around people to begin with, so listening to them bloviate, lie, and call each other names was particularly difficult to deal with, but she forced herself to stay. She had to see what she’d caused. The scribes around her were enjoying this and rooting for different factions as if this was some sort of contest.

The judges spent hours yelling at each other. Some houses didn’t seem to mind their casteless so much, because their labors earned money for their Thakoors. Others hated them, but even they had to admit that destroying them would be expensive and time-consuming. Nobody would admit to liking the untouchables, but other than a few who railed against the casteless menace, it didn’t seem like the proposal would go anywhere.

Rada breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she’d be able to return to her library soon, without having helped eradicate a quarter of the world’s population.

A judge from Akershan had reached the podium. The staff recognized him and gave him the floor. Rada wasn’t sure what he was talking about at first, as she didn’t really keep up on current events, but he was complaining about a huge rebellion in his lands. The news must have been dire, because it even got the annoying scribes to shut up and pay attention.

“The false prophet’s army has burned the vital town of Hamilwa. Three Protectors were in the area. Three…Yet somehow he was able to sneak right past them to flee back into the mountains unharmed.”

“Such a failure is unacceptable!” shouted someone in the crowd.

“I’m not so sure it was a failure at all…” said the judge from Akershan. “It is said that the only way you can escape the Protectors’ wrath is if they aren’t that inclined toward catching you to begin with.”

A shudder went through the crowd of oohs and awes and many whispered how dare he? Rada didn’t understand people very well, but even she understood that a dire insult had just been given.

“What are you insinuating?” There was only a single individual sitting in the section set aside for honored guests and visiting dignitaries, and that man stood up, folded his arms, and glared at the speaker. She didn’t know who he was, but Rada was fairly certain he was even more out of place here than she was. He looked more like a younger version of the crippled, battered representatives of the warrior caste than any of the governing caste here, but he was sitting in an important section, indicating a very high status, at least equivalent to her father’s station. The audience seemed shocked to hear this one speak up. “Don’t dance around. Give your accusation or shut your idiot mouth.”

The presiding judge banged his staff on the floor. “Please, Lord Protector Devedas. Representatives of orders must not speak in the chamber unless questioned.”

“My apologies, your honor. I assumed I was being questioned when this honorless dog insinuated that some of my men are traitors. If that was his intent, my answer is no, and my inclination is to give him the back of my hand,” the Protector said.

The audience roared and the presiding judge did his best to punch a hole in the floor with this staff. “Order! Order!”

She had to admit the Protector was a rather handsome man, lean and muscular, with broad shoulders and narrow waist, and a strong, square jaw. Rada didn’t like people, but she could still appreciate natural beauty as well as any woman. However, unlike the pretty first-caste men she’d associated with, this one looked like he could murder the entire chamber and sleep well at night.

But the Akershan judge wasn’t deterred. “Is the idea of a traitor amongst the Protectors so outlandish? How quickly we forget what brought us to this debate to begin with! We must examine the possibility that your men allowed the criminals to escape. Everyone knows the Protector Order was already infiltrated by one in league with the rebels.”

“Who is this everyone who knows so much? Ashok had no connection to your rebels.”

“How would you know, Lord Protector? He went undetected among you for twenty years. A reasonable man would ask if there are more like him. Perhaps the Black Heart was able to corrupt other Protectors with his lies? There were rumors only a few years ago of one of your predecessors who fell into religious madness…Whatever happened to him? I believe his name was Ratul.”

Rada looked back to see the reaction. The Lord Protector seemed angry enough to strangle the judge on the spot. He’d already walked out of his section, into the aisle, and was heading toward the podium. The judge grew frightened and fled. An Inquisitor intercepted the Protector and put out one hand to stop him.

“If you want to keep that hand, remove it from me now.”

The Inquisitor slowly backed away.

“Lord Protector!” the presiding judge shouted. “I implore you to calm yourself. Your place is to enforce the Law, not to threaten its authors. I’m certain he’s very sorry for this inadvertent insult, and will issue an apology to your Order. Isn’t that correct?”

The Akershan judge had fled back to the far corner of his section, surely hoping to put as many of his friends’ bodies between himself and the Protector’s wounded pride as possible. “Yes, your honor. I didn’t intend to give any offense. That’s the truth!”

“Truth?” Devedas spat. Then he looked around the Chamber of Argument. Most would not meet his gaze. “I don’t think the residents of this honored chamber would recognize truth if it was crammed down their throats.”

“Lord Protector! That is enough!”

“No, it isn’t. The judges sit here in the shade, fat and comfortable, as you casually propose a slaughter beyond imagining. I’ve traveled Lok from one end to the other, seen every great house, and I can assure you, though the casteless are individually weak, they are many, and when the warriors do as they’re told, all of the untouchables will rise up. Unlike most of you, I’ve seen bloodshed, and far too much to take such delight in it. All of you, pronouncing judgment about things you barely understand, spending lives like they’re banknotes, and questioning the integrity of those who’ve sacrificed more than you can imagine…” Devedas picked out one particular chief judge wearing Vadal colors to glare at. “Even while criminals lurk among you like rats –”

“Protector!” the presiding judge snapped. “You are dismissed.”

Devedas gave a very stiff bow toward the presiding judge, then he turned and strode from the room. The Inquisitors at the door rushed to get out of his way.

The instant he was gone the Chamber of Argument lived up to its name, descending into shouting and general mayhem.

“How dare you insult the Protectors?”

“He protests too much! Investigate the Order for treachery!”

“If the rebels can corrupt even our finest, then surely all the casteless must be destroyed!”

One of the men sitting next to Rada was giggling, then he leaned over and whispered to another scribe. “That southerner sounds like a grunting ape compared to Mindarin the Eloquent. I bet the Order is regretting promoting Devedas to the Capitol now!”

“That fool has no idea how to behave in polite society,” his friend agreed. Apparently the polite thing to do was lie and insinuate horrible things with impunity, all while never expecting any repercussions. “With a traitor in their midst, the last thing the Protectors need is more shame. Their support will vanish.”

This place was unclean. It really made Rada want to return to the quiet of her library.

The arguments calmed down and the regular debate resumed, but Rada had heard enough, so she slipped out. Inquisitors watched her the whole way, or at least she felt like they did. She didn’t think anything was going to be decided about the casteless right now, but worse, she’d helped lay a flawed foundation. She had no idea what horrible decisions might be made in the future because of her cowardice.

There was only one thing Rada came away from the Chamber of Argument certain of. There was no way that angry Protector who’d boldly stated the obvious truth could be in league with the Inquisitor who’d forced her to lie.