The Blood of the People: VII
Juniper’s spirit was broken. Her father and brother were both imprisoned, awaiting judgment, she had lost her status, and she had lost her love just as she had found him. What made matters worse was that she still had to see him, still had to speak to him, knowing she could never touch him again, never again be in his arms.
As she made her way down to the dungeons that night, she had tried her best to keep the tears from falling but they rolled down her cheeks nonetheless.
Her brother didn’t seem to notice her tears as he harshly asked her why she had come.
“I thought you might be hungry,” she said and handed him a bundle of food through the bars.
Sullen, he reached for the bread and the meat. “Has the beast-men decided yet when I am to die?”
“You won’t kill yourself,” Juniper muttered and wiped the tears from her cheeks, not in the mood for her brother’s childish games.
“I am not submitting to their savage ways,” he huffed.
“They aren’t savages, and yes, you will,” she demanded. “Do as I tell you.”
“I have my pride and I will—”
“You will do as I tell you to,” she repeated harshly before sighing. “Has anyone been down here to feed Father?”
Sebastian shrugged. “They gave me bread and water earlier. I suppose they fed him as well.”
Juniper nodded, knowing that if her brother had been fed, her father would have been fed too. “He can manage on that.”
Sebastian looked up at her, surprised. “You’re not going to give him anything else?”
“Why should I?” Juniper spat. “He has hated me ever since Mother birthed me, because I wasn’t a son. He hates me so much he tried to sell me. Why would I care about him?”
Her brother fell strangely silent and looked down onto the floor.
“He might as well rot in that cell for all I care,” she muttered.
“You don’t mean that,” Sebastian mumbled.
“Yes, I do.” Then she sighed. “But it doesn’t matter. He will die soon anyway, but you don’t have to.”
Her brother was silent for a moment before asking, “Do you trust him? That general?”
Juniper clenched her jaw. She didn’t want to think about him, even though she could barely think about anything else. She nodded. “I trust him with my life.”
“So he’s a good man?”
Again, she nodded. “Yes.”
He was. Despite his harshness, his decisive views on right and wrong, and his occasional childishness, he was a good man. Perhaps, she thought, he was the best man she had ever met.
“Are you going to marry him?” Sebastian asked.
Juniper spurted out a chuckle but silenced quickly. “No.” She dropped her gaze and wrung her hands together. “There are no marriages within the Kasenon.”
“Why not? Do they all live in sin? Figures.”
“They don’t believe in matrimony,” said Juniper. “It’s not in their culture.”
“That’s odd,” Sebastian muttered. “If he married you, he’d have a greater claim to the city.”
She smiled, though half-heartedly. “He would, but they don’t care about names and lineages. They follow strength and respect. Besides, the city isn’t his to claim. They are three leaders.”
Her brother huffed but said no more. Juniper said goodnight and promised him that he wouldn’t have to stay down there for too long.
Lying alone in her bed that night, she missed the Vasaath’s warmth so much she could barely fall asleep at all. When dawn approached, she had tossed and turned the whole night without getting much rest. She met the Vasaath after she had had her breakfast, and it gave her some comfort to see that he too seemed as though he hadn’t gotten much sleep. He looked as miserable as she felt.
“The Vasmenaan requests your presence,” he said darkly. “She has settled on a role for you.”
She gazed at the general, coldness spreading in her chest. She closed her hands over her chest and swallowed. “What will it be?”
He shook his head. “She won’t tell me.”
Juniper nodded, but she was feeling faint. The uncertainty was horrible and she had a feeling the Vasmenaan did not care for her at all—what if she was spiteful as well?
“Juniper,” the Vasaath said lowly. “Are you well?”
She shook her head. “I’m frightened.” She looked about to make sure no one was near before she stepped closer to the general and said breathlessly, “What if she places me as a maasa?”
He clenched his jaw and she could see him struggling not to touch her. “No,” he then grunted. “She won’t. Your talents aren’t those of healing. You’ve healed me, indeed, but it was only wishful thinking you’d be my vas-maasa.”
“Are you certain?” She stood dangerously close to him, and all she wanted was for him to hold her and tell her that everything would be well.
He observed her face with furrowed brows for a moment. “Yes.” Their hands brushed against each other, but neither of them grabbed the other. Then he sighed. “You should go before anyone sees us like this. The Vasmenaan is in the study.”
“Aren’t you going to be there with me?”
“No. She wanted to speak to you in private.”
“No!” Panic rose within her and she quickly grabbed his arm. “Please, don’t make me go alone.”
“Don’t worry,” he said and gently pried her hands away from his arm as he gazed about. “It will be fine.”
Juniper stepped back and cleared her throat. “Thank you, sir.”
After a quick curtsey, she hurried away. Her heart was hammering against her chest as she wandered through the castle on trembling legs. It felt as though she was getting sentenced for a crime unknown to her. Wondering whether or not the Vasaath was right, she tried to calm herself by thinking that the Great Mother wouldn’t be as revered as she was in a culture ruled by respect if she wasn’t a good person.
When she stood outside the door, she gathered herself, thinking that no matter what the Vasmenaan’s judgment would be, she would at least keep her head held high. She knocked, with as much certainty she could without banging, and was invited by the Vasmenaan’s low, soft voice. She stepped in and found the Kas woman sitting by an open window, gazing out over the city.
“I must say that it grows on you,” said the Vasmenaan. “I like it more today than I did yesterday. The smell is still repulsive, but I suppose one does get used to it.” She turned to Juniper and smiled. “Please, sit.”
Juniper hesitated for a moment before she sat down in an armchair next to the Vasmenaan. “I understand you wanted to meet me in private.”
“Yes,” said the Vasmenaan. “We have something to discuss, woman to woman.”
Juniper’s heart dropped. She wrung her hands together in her lap, feeling the heat gather in her face. “And w-what is that?”
The Vasmenaan looked at her, into her soul. “The Vasaath has told me about your relationship.” She quickly burst into a smile, “Do not look so horrified, my dear. The Vasaath is a handsome man, even I can admit that. It’s no wonder he catches people’s eyes, and you just happened to catch his. Those are things no power in the world can hinder.”
Juniper was surprised by the warmth in her eyes—but she was still tense, her heart still racing.
The woman sighed. “I know it might be difficult for you to understand the importance, the gravitas, of a leader’s role in our society, but you are an intelligent girl. A Duke, as I understand it, has a divine place amongst his citizens, much like a King. His lineage was chosen by your god centuries ago. His importance is thus great, indeed, but there is an inherent flaw in such a government—the people are subjects, bound to obedience and to worship, and so the leader is not a leader at all, but a ruler.”
She paused to look out over the city again. A breeze passed through the open window, and the Vasmenaan closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Juniper swallowed nervously and wring her hands together.
“In Kasarath, a leader is not a ruler,” said the Vasmenaan softly. “He or she does not require worship, but are ready to lay down their lives for the People. If a vas of Kasarath isn’t ready to die for the People, we are not worthy of them. He or she leads the People, strengthens the People, suffers for the People, and ultimately dies—all for the People.”
The Kas took a deep breath, opened her eyes and leaned back in her chair.
“But a vas does not rule,” she then said. “A vas is not worshipped, is not feared, and is not divine. A vas is a symbol of something greater than itself. So we must cherish that symbol by leading our own lives purely and rightfully.”
The Vasmenaan looked back at Juniper, her eyes filled with sunlight.
“That is why a vas cannot have tethers,” she said. “A vas cannot have things, or persons, holding them back from doing whatever they have to for the People. That is why you cannot be his lover anymore, because you would be a distraction, something that might prevent him from doing what is necessary.”
Juniper dropped her gaze into her lap and sighed heavily. Even though the Vasmenaan’s voice and countenance were calm and warm, she felt the blame in her words.
Eventually, she nodded. “I understand.”
The Vasmenaan sighed. “Good. I must have you know, this isn’t just for his sake—it’s for yours as well. I will make you ohkasethen, an advisor of foreign matters, and you shall advise us and guide us through the transition of your people. As such, you, too, will have certain importance. It is vital that you maintain trust and respect from the People as well as the ohkas. Since a continued relationship between you and the Vasaath would be frowned upon by both our peoples, it simply cannot be. I hope you understand that the consequences for your continued liaison will be dire.”
Again, Juniper nodded. She knew this to be true, but the harsh reality of it was hurtful. She would never be free to love him.
“You are entitled to the services of maasas, of course,” the Vasmenaan continued. “In case you feel the need. We brought a few maasas with us, men as well as women, Kas and ohkasenon alike. I’m sure someone may tickle your fancy. That is, of course, until you forget the Vasaath and find someone else. There is plenty of fish in the sea.”
Juniper felt her cheeks redden as she dropped her gaze. The mere notion of going to someone else than the Vasaath was unthinkable.
“Now.” The Vasmenaan rose from the chair and slowly started to pace the room. “Your new role is effective immediately. I will inform the people later today. We have a lot of work ahead of us to bring order to this city. The first thing is placements. I want what is best for all, and thus I need to know what roles there are to fill and who should fill them. You will aid me with this. The placement ceremonies will begin tomorrow. It will take some time, but with your help, I am confident we will have a structured society in just a few months’ time.”
Juniper nodded, trying to steel herself and accept her task. She took a deep breath. “One way of compromising with the nobles and the gentry would be to place them first. I know it might seem unfair to put some people ahead of others, but I strongly believe it would grant them a sense of importance, no matter what role they were given. In that regard, they are simple people.”
The Vasmenaan hummed. “Very well. If you believe that could stifle any rebellion, then so be it.”
Juniper shifted in her seat. “What will you do with the prisoners underneath the castle?”
“As I understand, two of them are members of your family,” said the Vasmenaan. “As such, I expect you to be biassed towards them being spared but I cannot promise that.”
“I understand,” said Juniper. “I would not expect you to keep my father alive, and perhaps he shouldn’t—he’s a vile man, and would not understand the Kasenon even if his life depended on it. My brother, on the other hand—”
“I understand your will to save your family,” said the Vasmenaan, “but you are not just any family. The monarchists in these lands are many, and thus your family will pose a threat to our people as long as they are alive.”
“And what about me?” Juniper gazed at the Vasmenaan as she straightened her back.
The woman eyed her carefully before saying, “If you stand against us, then I could see how your lineage could become a problem. But if you stand with us, it would be an advantage. But you are a woman in a culture ruled by men. I would not suspect them to follow you as easily.”
Juniper set her teeth tight and almost had to swallow her tongue not to give a sharp retort. She knew it was correct, that the Vasmenaan was speaking the truth, but she detested hearing it. She wanted to believe her people wouldn’t care if their leader was a man or a woman if their entire culture was on the verge of destruction, but she was constantly being reminded that it was unlikely such old traditions would ever change.
If that wouldn’t change, she thought, how did anyone expect her people to ever accept something as different as the Kasenon? But she said nothing in return.
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Maasa – healer
Vas – leader; keeper; order
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”