Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 41

Chapter 20

Rada stood in front of the mirror and examined the complicated dress. It was constructed of the finest silks and dotted with ornaments. She frowned. “I look like a whore.”

“I thought that was your plan.”

“I don’t have to like it.”

“You’re such a prude. This is the height of fashion now,” her little sister told her. “You’d know that if you ever left the library. No wonder you haven’t been assigned a husband yet. No other families can even tell you’re a girl beneath those librarian’s robes you always wear.”

“My arms are bare.”

“We live in the desert. It’s hot.”

“You can see my knees.” Rada awkwardly bent over to try and pull the silks lower.

That caused her sister to cluck disapprovingly, then reach over to untie one of the knots on Rada’s neck, further loosening a shirt which was already strategically loose in some places and tight in others. “You’ve got to give the boys a bit of a peek when you bend over.”

Though they were the same size, Rada had never borrowed any of Daksha’s clothing before. This outfit bore no insignia for house or family, the rank was indeterminate but still suggested a great deal of wealth, and was designed for anonymity at the secret parties thrown by the bored young people of their caste. “Father allows you out of the estate dressed like this?”

“Father pays about as much attention to the outside world as you do. I could paint myself purple and ride an elephant through the streets naked and I doubt our parents would notice.” Daksha was far more typical of a first-caste daughter than Rada was, since she was primarily interested in marrying well. “You’re not nearly as pretty as I am, but you’re passable. So tell me, Rada, who is this man you wish to impress?”

She didn’t want to impress anyone. She wanted to prevent the systematic execution of millions of untouchables, stop a terrible breach of one of their oldest laws, and free herself from the guilt of fraud, but she needed to do it in a manner that would avoid the Inquisition’s notice. She didn’t know if they really were following her, but ever since her experience in the restricted collection, she’d been noticing more masks wherever she went. “I can’t tell you.”

“Fine. Make me guess. I’m glad you like real boys and not just the imaginary ones in books. I was worried about you. Passing up marriage all these years to obligate yourself to a library always struck me as foolish. I figured you’d spend the rest of your life alone, reading books, until you shrivel into an old childless crone, and die between those shelves, and no one would ever notice until some junior librarian tripped over your mummified corpse.”

That didn’t sound so bad.

“It’s good to see you come outside and live life. I know our family status comes from father’s position, but you can’t live your life through someone else’s words. You need to do things that someone will want to write about!”

Daksha shouldn’t insult books. This particular idea had come from a book. The central library held all manner of books, including foolish romances designed to titillate empty-headed girls like her sister, but it was one of many the catalog had suggested under clandestine meetings. She almost avoided it as trash, but the basic idea — disguising herself as a pleasure woman — seemed sound. Though Rada’s goal was far different than the woman in the romance, she also needed to meet with a certain man while avoiding detection.

Rada covered her mouth and nose with the colorful scarf and tied it tight against her neck. Her sister had changed her hair and put paint around her eyes. In the mirror a stranger stared back at her.

“Is he handsome?”

“Yes,” Rada answered automatically, then cursed herself. “No.”

Daksha laughed at her. “Well, he must be of lower status since you’re wearing a disguise. Forbidden love is exciting. Except father is so desperate to marry you off at this point that he’d accept lower status…Wait…Is he lower caste?” She began to giggle because the idea was so scandalous. “Is he a worker? A merchant, I’ll bet. But no, you’ve never cared about having nice things. I bet you’ve fallen for a warrior! Trust me, they may have muscles, and they’re fun to play with for a bit, but they’re all stupid, and you certainly can’t bring one home to meet father! I can understand though, warrior boys are passionate — Wait…You know about…well…you know how everything works, right?

“Daksha, stop!” Rada exclaimed, embarrassed. “Of course I do.” She’d read several texts on the study of biology, so she was practically an expert. This was an important mission, so there wasn’t time for foolishness, but Rada twirled in front of the mirror a few times, and had to admit that she was a little impressed that she made a convincing woman of ill repute.

“Not my best work, but you’ll do.”

Daksha had been sneaking out for years and had never been caught by anyone other than Rada, and that was only because they used to share a room. “So what’s next?”

“The trick is to crawl beneath the back fence without getting your dress dirty. Come on.”

* * *

When Rada had discreetly inquired about Lord Protector Devedas to some of her gossipy junior librarians, it turned out he had already developed quite a reputation around the Capitol. Most Protectors chose to live a rather ascetic lifestyle, but it was said Devedas loved the companionship of women. As long as the Protectors were obligated to their Order, marriage was forbidden, but spending time with designated pleasure women was legal. However, the junior librarians whispered that because of his legendary prowess, Devedas had no shortage of willing companions seeking him out, including many thrill-seeking — often already married — ladies of the first caste.

She had never cared for social things, as society was just a complicated collection of individually annoying people, and she didn’t like most people to begin with, but as far as Rada understood it, consorting with the lower castes was a bit of a game to many women of her highborn status. There was a certain sport to seeking out handsome warriors. Unapproved relations between castes could result in severe punishment for the lower and public embarrassment for the higher. They might have all been sworn to uphold the Law, but technically speaking a dashing young warrior was committing no crime if he was unaware of his companion’s marriage status, and the Law was all about technicalities. Hence, the fashion of bored first-caste ladies disguising themselves as lowborn pleasure women, a situation which she’d been assured added to the excitement.

It made Rada question how many of her peers had secretly been sired by warriors…Most of the tall, athletic, dumb ones probably.

The plan was simple. She would pretend to be such a woman, thus avoiding the eyes of the Inquisition, and once she had the Lord Protector alone, she would tell him of the forced fraud. She would simply gloss over the part where she had disobeyed orders and broken into the restricted collection, and she would leave out the part where her father had knowingly signed off on an incomplete report as well. Then he’d do whatever unpleasant things it was Protectors did to lawbreakers.

Confident that she hadn’t been spotted leaving her family’s estate, Rada made her way across the Capitol. There wasn’t a single Inquisitor spotted along the way, not that she would have known if one had been watching her because all they had to do to blend in was take off their frightening masks. Other than the fact that she didn’t normally attract the attention of leering men, she’d passed through the worker’s neighborhoods and into the markets without incident. A woman of her status wouldn’t normally enter the grand market after sunset. That’s what servants were for. Crowds made her uncomfortable and her mother had often warned her that there were rampaging gangs of rapists and murderers frequenting the lower districts after dark, but it seemed safe enough.

Now all she needed to do was present herself to the Lord Protector. He would immediately be overcome with desire, and once he swept her into his compound, she could reveal the truth. Part of her was tempted to hold off on the truth-revealing part, but that was the same part of her that had secretly enjoyed the romance novel.

Her simple plan fell apart as soon as she arrived at the Protectors’ compound and discovered it was walled and had guards posted at the gates, and of course those gates were closed. Rada cursed her foolishness. What had she been expecting? An entrance marked pleasure women deliveries? The romance she’d read was of no help. That man had been expecting their secret meeting, and if she started making bird whistles to draw his attention it would just cause the local merchants to look at her funny. She had to find another way in. While she thought through her predicament, Rada pretended to shop at one of the many stalls in front of the Protectors’ compound. One in particular was selling glass pens — a fantastic invention beloved by all librarians — which was when Rada made the enlightening discovery that the merchants’ prices went down when their potential customer was attractive and showing off some skin.