The Blood of the People: XIII
The Vasaath thought intensely about his options. If he were to deny the Vasmenaan, he would lose the girl. That much he knew. The Vasmenaan would watch them like a hawk, and he knew not how much longer he could stay away from the girl; evading the Great Mother’s scrutiny would be a dangerous game—for Juniper, it could be lethal.
But if he were to accept the Vasmenaan’s bargain, he would lose the girl as well. Indeed, the Vasmenaan’s blessing was rarely bestowed, something he would be mad to turn away from, but Juniper would despise him. Working so closely together with the Vasmenaan, there would be no chance the girl would remain unknowing of the truth. Sooner or later, she would learn of his betrayal—and of his selfishness—and she would hate him for it.
But the feeling remained, that it was only a test. He knew he shouldn’t want anything for himself. He shouldn’t desire a single person. He should only strive for strength and order. He was a vas of Kasarath, and the choice between a girl and his people shouldn’t even be a dilemma at all. It appeared as though he would suffer no matter what he chose.
After Kasethen had left the tent, the Vasaath tried to get some rest. Sleep would not come easily as he lay in the darkness imagining her next to him. It was almost as though he could feel her curves, her skin, her softness—no maasa would ever fill the void he felt when she wasn’t with him, and the thought that she might be lost to him forever was unthinkable. He would rather have to meet in secret than have her hate him.
He wondered what troubles might lie ahead if he indeed spared the boy. They were already struggling with stifling the rebellion. The civil unrest was still raging; the starving were being fed, and the sick were being treated, and yet many were reluctant to accept the Kasenon. They only saw the People as oppressors, invaders. If Sebastian Arlington, the rightful heir to the Noxboroughian throne, were to survive and rally his people, what kind of bloodbath would the Vasaath have to initiate?
He scoffed at himself in the dark as he imagined Kasethen’s voice telling him that if they indeed had to slaughter every Noxborougher, they would never be able to repair their reputation. The people of the Free Cities of Nornest would want revenge. Soon, it would reach Illyria, and they would call for the aid of other great kingdoms, such as Varsaii. The Vault and the Pillars would gather their Holy Warriors from all over the Edredian world to defeat the Demon Army. The Saath was large and relentless, that much was true, but they could only face one great kingdom at a time.
The decision was difficult. Had it not been for Juniper, he would not have to think of it twice, but now, it tormented him. When he took on the role of Vasaath, he made a promise to the Great Mother and to his people that he would be the Great Warrior, their Sword and their Shield, and that he would lead them to victory, come what may. How could he ever justify saving a potential threat in order to keep a woman’s interest? By killing the boy, he would ensure the safety of his people.
As the sun rose in the east, the Vasaath awoke from a brief and troubled sleep, but he had decided. He drank his tea in silence, contemplating. No matter his decision, there would be disappointment. It would fall upon him, but he had to rise above it. The girl would be out of his reach either way and perhaps it would be for the best if there never would be a chance for them again. The boy was going to die.
He was fetched to attend a meeting with the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon and he made his way to the castle, his teeth gritted and with a deep frown on his face. As the walls of the castle towered before him, he hesitated. Facing Juniper was the last thing he wanted to do, and the risk of meeting her inside was overwhelming. But he had no choice. He steeled himself before he entered, and he kept his gaze forwards as he strode through the halls.
People hurried out of his way as he passed them, as though they were afraid to somehow anger him, and he tried to relax his features a bit. Repairing a damning reputation was difficult if he always appeared irritable.
When he entered the study, the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were drinking tea and chatting about nothing at all.
“Ah, Vasaath!” said the Vasenon and smiled. “We thought you were lost. What took you so long? Did you walk?”
“Yes,” the Vasaath muttered.
“We brought horses for a reason, dear,” said the Vasmenaan, but the Vasaath only huffed and joined them by the table. She smiled at him. “Tea?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “What was so important you needed me here?”
“Have you given any thought to our conversation yesterday?” asked the Vasmenaan.
The Vasaath sighed. “I have.”
“Please,” she said, inviting him to share.
The Vasaath clenched his jaw. “I recognise the danger the boy’s position might pose to us, and I respect your concerns. Letting him live might be a benevolent act, but it could also endanger our people. If I have to be cruel at times to protect those I’m sworn to protect, then so be it.”
The Vasenon hummed. “So you have changed your mind?”
“It would seem so,” drawled the Vasaath.
The Vasmenaan gently placed a hand atop of his. “You have a good heart, my dear, and your person is unrelenting. You will always have my respect.”
He glared at her. The mockery in her voice was perhaps imagined, but the mockery in her words was not.
The Vasenon, unbeknownst about the agreement between the Vasmenaan and the Vasaath, sighed. “So the Duke and the boy die tomorrow. Will that be enough to end the rebellion?”
“We shall see,” said the Vasmenaan. “We will give every one of them the chance of submitting. This will be their last chance. If they refuse, they will die.”
“How many is it?” asked the Vasaath.
“About fifteen, roughly,” said the Vasmenaan. “I have ordered the spies to round them all up. Come nightfall, they will have filled the dungeons.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply. Executions were his responsibility, but he had no desire beheading so many people in a day. On the battlefield, it was different—battle was mutual, and the opponent had the chance of defending himself as well. But an execution was a judgment where he who held the sword had the power over life and death. The Vasaath had never liked that, even if it was to protect his people.
“Well,” he said, “now that it is decided, do you need me for anything else?”
“Do you resent us that much, dear?” asked the Vasmenaan.
“I do not resent you,” said the Vasaath. “I have much to do, and I’ve never liked castles.”
“No, indeed,” sighed the Vasmenaan. “You never did.” She looked at him, narrowed her eyes, and gazed into his soul. “Before you go, however, I would like to speak with you alone.” Casting a glance at the Vasenon, she said, “Would you mind, dear?”
“Not at all,” said the Vasenon and rose. “I’ll take a stroll in the gardens and be back in about half an hour.”
“Thank you.” The Vasmenaan gently grabbed the man’s hand before he rose and left the study. When the two of them were alone, she sighed deeply. “I feel remorseful for what I said to you yesterday. It wasn’t fair of me to present you with such a dilemma.”
The Vasaath snorted. “No, it wasn’t.”
She clenched her jaw. “I am, however, true to my words. If you desire to go forth with your affair, I won’t stand in your way. You know it is highly inappropriate and you must take care. If you sire a child by this woman, not even I can save you from the People’s scrutiny and judgment. When the People find out about your indiscretion, there will be challengers and they will have good arguments to be accepted.”
“There’s no need,” he muttered. “You can have your blessing back. I don’t want it. The girl is lost to me either way. The second she learns the truth, she will despise me.”
“Why would she learn the truth?”
“Because it is the truth,” he said. “We have no reason to conceal anything. We shouldn’t conceal anything. We see him as a future King, and thus he will be judged as one. We cannot fool the people by claiming something else.”
The Vasmenaan nodded, her face serious. “You are perfectly right.” Her hand was warm and soft as it landed on his cheek, and her eyes deepened. “When did you become so wise?”
He sighed and leaned into her touch. It was many years since they had shared such intimacy, and it made him feel like a little boy again.
“Your heart is troubled,” she said. “Unburden yourself.”
He clenched his jaw and pulled back from her touch. “I had her brother’s life in my hands and I ended it even though I promised I would do what I could to save him.” He sighed. “It wouldn’t matter what brought this on—seeing me swing the sword will be enough. She will hate me, and I don’t think there is anything that would change that and it breaks my heart.”
The Vasmenaan narrowed her eyes. “Do you truly love her?”
He was silent for a moment before he nodded. “I do.”
“That kind of love is a rare gift,” said the Vasmenaan. “I must say I’m quite envious. But for us, it is also a curse, for we cannot harbour it. The love we hold for one can never surpass the love we hold for many. You, my dear, are young still and your heart has every chance of mending. But I see your struggles in this decision. I see you. That is why I think you should speak to the boy and see if you’re still confident about your choice.”
He frowned. “What? Why?”
“Vasenon and I trust your judgment,” said she. “If we have made you feel differently, I apologise. If you speak with him and deem him harmless, then we must abide by that. If you see a threat, then you’ll know what to do.”
“Why are you being so fickle?” he muttered and narrowed his eyes. “Yesterday, you were willing to do anything to have me change my vote. Now you want me to reconsider?”
She sighed and leaned back in her chair. “I’ll admit that I thought your feelings for the girl were purely sexual. I simply thought your time here, so far from your people and without a vas-maasa, had made you greedy, selfish, and unable to restrain your urges. I used that to my advantage, yes. It was wrong of me to do so, I admit it, and I beg your forgiveness.”
She paused for a second, long enough to have a sip of tea.
“I was also wrong about your intentions and emotions. You do have deep feelings for her, I see that, but you are willing to sacrifice your own desires for your people. You’ve always been dutiful—I’m sorry for doubting your honour, and I’m sorry for making you choose in such a cruel manner. I know you will do what is best for the People, and not what is best for you.”
She sighed, put her teacup away, and gazed at him with the stern eyes only the Great Mother could possess.
“But I also want you to make a choice you are willing to live with. Even though your physical affair must end, I see the hardship in the prospect of having the girl despise you. After all, it’s only a boy, and it’s quite difficult to undo an execution, you know.”
The Vasaath was silent for a moment. He was baffled, shocked, to hear that she had doubted him. It made him angry and disappointed. But there was no point. The Vasmenaan was right—again—and he thanked her for her patience and understanding and left the study.
He took her advice and made his way down to the dungeons. It was dark, the smell was foul, and there was hardly any air to breathe between the stone walls. He walked past several cells. Some were occupied by scrawny men with wild beards. He wondered how long they had been down there, and how long it had been since they last were allowed to wash.
Sebastian Arlington was locked in a cell deep into the dungeons. He spied around in the darkness, frightened and alert, with eyes wider than saucers.
“Who’s there?” he called into the darkness.
The Vasaath grabbed one of the torches from the wall and lit it with a quick flick of a dagger against the stone. When the flame sparked, the boy gasped and backed into the wall.
The Vasaath walked up to the cell door and observed the boy. He was not the same arrogant youngest as he had been when he sat upon his unruly white steed. Now, he was small, terrified, and when seeing him like this, he wondered how old he truly was.
“Have you come to kill me?” asked the boy.
The Vasaath furrowed his brows. “I am sure Lady Juniper has already told you of our agreement.”
“Yes,” said Sebastian. “But I—I don’t believe it.”
“You wouldn’t wish to save your own life?” The Vasaath bore his gaze into the boy. Was this frightened child capable of gathering great kingdoms against them?
“I would never submit to b-beasts like you,” the boy spat. “I have honour, and I have pride, and—and I would never bow down to the likes of you!”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw. “Don’t try my patience, boy.”
“I remember how you spoke of battle,” said Sebastian, his voice barely strong enough to hold. “As if you longed for it.”
The Vasaath sneered. “You’ve never seen real battle, have you?”
Sebastian did not reply, but he lowered his eyes.
“I could see it in your eyes that day,” said the Vasaath. “You had big words, big claims, but no experience. I told you what I did to frighten you, and it worked. Because of it, there was very little bloodshed that day—considerably less than what could have been.”
The boy slumped his shoulders, but as he looked up, his gaze was defiant. It struck the Vasaath how much like his sister the boy truly was, and his chest suddenly tightened.
He sighed. “How old are you, boy?”
The young man kicked some gravel from the floor and muttered, “I’m sixteen.”
“Sixteen.” The Vasaath shook his head. “You’re still a child, and far too young to understand the meaning of honour and pride.”
Sebastian huffed but remained silent.
“Your sister loves you,” muttered the Vasaath, feeling his patience slip away. “Despite all she has suffered in the past, she loves you. Despite your foolish stubbornness, she loves you. Are you so self-conceited, you’d rather die and send the one person that cares for you unconditionally into relentless sorrow than give up what made up fantasy you call pride?”
“My resilience will be rewarded in the afterlife,” muttered the boy.
The Vasaath swallowed a harsh retort. “You’re much like her. Stubborn, foolishly so. She asked me to spare you and I made her a promise. If you submit to the Kasenon, I’ll let you live.”
“Then—then she’s the fool,” the boy croaked. “She’s the fool for believing in you, for trusting you!”
His patience was wearing thin. Through gritted teeth, the Vasaath growled, “If you wish to die, then so be it.” Furious, he spun in his heels to leave.
“I knew you didn’t mean it!” called the boy. “I knew you lied to my sister! This is all a game to you, isn’t it?”
The Vasaath halted and clenched his fists. He turned to look the boy dead in the eyes as he said, “Death is not a game. You will die tomorrow. I will sever your head from your body, and you will cease to exist. No one will remember your pride or your honour.”
The boy’s face paled, his eyes widened.
The Vasaath took a few breaths before he straightened and said, “But I will honour my word. I will give you until tomorrow to decide your own fate, but know this: I am not one to make empty threats. Submit to the Kasenon, or you will die tomorrow.”
He swiftly extinguished the torch, leaving the boy to fumble in the darkness.
Maasa – healer
Saath – military; army; strength; protection
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”