Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 45

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They were coming for him.

The footsteps were getting closer. Some of them weren’t wearing guard’s boots, or prisoner’s bare feet or coarse sandals, but fine soft shoes. The prestigious visitors were approaching his cell. Ashok’s pulse quickened.

It was strange to be so excited for his own death, but the wizard Kule had burned away all that he had been before and replaced it with devotion. He’d proven that he was an imperfect servant of the Law, but the Law was still his foundation, his purpose, and now it required him to perish. As long as he lived, he would remain an aberration, an element of chaos in an otherwise orderly system. So Ashok would go to his death, not just willingly, but eagerly.

They stopped outside. “This is him.” Jagdish. “Do you wish an escort?”

“We require privacy.” Ashok didn’t recognize this voice. “Go home, Risaldar. You’re bleeding on your uniform.”

“If you would allow it, your honor, I would like to stay and hear the prisoner’s fate.”

“Clean yourself up, you disgrace. You may return tomorrow.”

Footsteps retreated as Jagdish was cast out of his own prison. That was disrespectful. But then Ashok corrected himself. He had been away from society for a year, and too much familiarity with the lesser classes had made him soft. A judge could do almost whatever he wanted to his inferiors, and they’d best accept those decisions. Ashok got on his knees, ready to accept his.

The door opened. Three men were standing in the hall, and in the instant before he put his forehead to the floor, he saw that one was wearing the blue-gray and bronze of a Great House Vadal judge, another was wearing the white robes of an Arbiter Superior, but most importantly, the one in the center was dressed all in black and wearing the ornate mask of the Grand Inquisitor himself, one of the most powerful people in the Capitol.

Ashok kept his face down. They wouldn’t have sent such important men if the time of his judgment wasn’t at hand. His heart rejoiced.

“Rise, Ashok.”

He lifted his head. The three men had entered and spread out. There were lesser Inquisitors in the hall. The arbiter seemed very nervous about the hems of his fine robes touching the straw.

The Grand Inquisitor stopped directly before him. It was hard to tell in the uniform, but he seemed to be an average-sized man, gone a bit plump, and the only part of his body that was visible were his small dark eyes and the crow’s feet around them. “You are aware of who I am?”

“Grand Inquisitor Omand Vokkan.”

“Correct. I wish to make this official so that there can be absolutely no question as to the validity of your sentence.” He reached into his sash and pulled out a piece of gold jewelry, shaped like a raven. “You recognize the symbol of my office?” Ashok nodded, so Omand handed him some folded papers. “Here are my documents.”

Ashok had no reason to doubt him, but Omand must have been as much a stickler for the letter of the Law as Ashok was, so he carefully inspected the papers. They had been signed and stamped by several extremely high-status officials. The criminal Ashok the Black Heart is remanded into Inquisition custody to be dealt with according to the Grand Inquisitor’s wishes.

“Do you concur?” Omand asked the Vadal judge.

“He’s all yours.” This was the one who had insulted Risaldar Jagdish. The haughty judge spit on the straw. “Good riddance.”

Omand looked to the arbiter.

“This transfer of custody is witnessed and approved.”

“Thank you, honorable gentlemen. Now I need to speak with the prisoner alone.”

The two of them walked out. A lower-ranked Inquisitor entered, placed a stool behind Omand, then left, shutting the door behind him.

“Inquisition business.” Omand sat down and made himself comfortable. “This shouldn’t take long.”

And then Omand remained there, perfectly still, silently studying him for several long minutes. It was difficult to tell what a man was thinking when you could only see his eyes. Such silent judgment probably unnerved most prisoners, but it meant nothing to a man incapable of fear. So Ashok studied him back. What he found behind those eyes was intense, cold, and somehow broken. Ashok knew it well, because he’d seen something similar every time he had ever looked into a mirror. It took hard men to maintain the sanctity of the Law.

“I will truthfully answer any questions you have to the best of my ability,” Ashok stated. “If you wish to confirm the accuracy of my answers, I will not resist any tortures you wish to apply. You have my word that Angruvadal will remain sheathed in your presence.”

“It is my understanding that you were an unwilling victim in this fraud.”

“I had no knowledge of my true origins until last year. When I found out, I took action.”

“You never suspected the truth, or doubted the false past which was created for you?”

“I did not, but ignorance is no defense. I was born a casteless and took honors which were illegal for me to take, so I must be punished.”

“You won’t ask for mercy?”

“Of course not.” Mercy was a strange concept that Ashok had always struggled with. Mercy was merely the weak trying to rob judgment. “I’m guilty.”

“So the Law truly is your essence…Kule wasn’t lying about you.”

Kule? Ashok tilted his head. “You know of the wizard’s treachery?”

“Yes. He has been interrogated and punished.”

Had Devedas brought them to justice? His former brother would never forgive him, but Ashok had known that Devedas would do the right thing. “How?”

“That is not your concern.”

“Harta? Chavans?” Ashok had no problem going into the eternal nothing, but he would die easier knowing that they’d gone first.

“I’m aware of Bidaya’s conspirators, and they will all be dealt with in time.” Omand waved one hand dismissively. Harta was an extremely important man, so doubtless the Inquisition had to tread carefully, but nonetheless, Ashok was glad justice would be satisfied. “They’re not why I’m here. One other question, an unofficial curiosity really…If you are such a devotee of the Law, why kill a member of the First to avenge a casteless? Was it so personal because she was your mother?”

“Regardless of my personal beliefs, Bidaya had committed crime.”

“Oh, so you weren’t avenging your mother, you were avenging the Law? If only I’d known your motivations were so pure all along, I wouldn’t have had to come all this way.”

Ashok paused for a long time, mulling over the Grand Inquisitor’s sarcastic response. He had sworn to tell the truth, so he was obligated to continue, no matter how uncomfortable those truths were. “I’ve had time to think about it since. Bidaya didn’t just take my mother from me, she made it so that she never existed at all. Gone. As if they never were. I know that I shouldn’t care, but that offended me. Anger clouded my judgment that night. It still clouds my judgment now. There’s no excuse for the evil I’ve done.”

“It is good that you recognize the magnitude of your crimes.”

Even now, after all this time rotting away in a prison with little else to do but try to remember, he only had tiny glimpses of his real past before the sword — a white smile on a tanned face, eyes bright and proud of her boy, a gentle hand picking bits of grass from his hair as they huddled together for warmth in one corner of a crowded shack — and for all he knew those were fabrications of his imagination. “Forgive my words, Inquisitor, for they sound harsh, but to the ocean with Bidaya. I know that the casteless are little more than animals, but she was my mother.”

“You learned the truth in the Capitol. Having just made the same journey myself I know how long it takes.” Omand rubbed his lower back, as if he was so terribly road weary from what had probably been a ride in a carriage filled with cushions. “This was no heat of the moment, crime of outrage. You had weeks to calm yourself, to seek legal counsel from the judges or to speak with your Order, but instead you committed an act of public premeditated butchery, supposedly for the Law, but really for someone you can’t even remember.”

“I would do it again,” Ashok said.

Omand nodded thoughtfully. “I’ve come to give you your new orders.”

That was a strange choice of word. Orders implied some necessary action on his part. There was only one order that seemed likely to be given, and his sword would disapprove. “Am I to kill myself then?”