The Fall of the Builder: X
The autumn had truly started to make itself known. The leaves coloured the ground in red, yellow, and brown, and some brave birds were still chirping lively in the mornings. This bliss wouldn’t last long. All too soon, the trees would be bare, and the world would lose all its colour. The nights grew longer and the darkness grew thicker.
The days were turning dreary and soon, even the sun would turn cold. The mornings were crisp, foretelling the bitter winds that awaited. Even the Kas, known for flaunting their impressive builds, covered themselves with tunics and pelts.
The mood of the city was tense, grim; the slow death of Thomas Wiltbourne had struck fear into the hearts of the Noxboroughers, and the harsh justice of the Kas had been publicly displayed; the Builder was gone, perhaps forever.
The ominous black banners with the crimson sun hung all over the city, the bay was still filled with their ships, and even though the gates had been opened, huge guards stood by them, preventing anyone unsolicited from coming or leaving the city. Fear was the ruler now, and everyone knew it.
Juniper struggled to keep the peace between the different peoples, and the different classes—Noxborough had been divided for centuries, and bringing the people together wasn’t easy. To also have them accept the Kas and live alongside them was nearly impossible.
The people were devastated from the loss of faith, the Architects denounced the wisdom of the ethens, and the nobles—or the former ones—detested sharing their family rights with paupers and peasants, let alone Grey Ones. Most of all, the parents mourned the separation from their children. The Vasmenaan had decreed that the parents could not see their little ones whatsoever, in an attempt to spare the young from the painful reminder of their parents’ sorrow.
Juniper was in the middle of it, trying to balance the one will with the other. But compromises meant that no one was content, and when no one was content, all were displeased. Despite receiving appreciated help from both Kasethen and Garret, it was exhausting work for a woman with little credibility.
Furthermore, she had to educate herself in Kasoch and the Kas history and philosophy. She woke early in the mornings, met with her tutors, settled feuds between the people, attended meetings, studied some more, served the Vasmenaan, and mediated points of worry from the Noxboroughers to the Triumvirate. After supper, she was often stuck in conversations with the Vasmenaan or spending time with the Vasaath.
Despite having very diverse feelings about the Vasmenaan, Juniper could not deny that she was indeed a very wise woman. Her reasoning was sound, her arguments were thoughtful, but there was always something frightful about her—her words, her voice, her posture; she was warm and cold at the same time, as though she passed death sentences wrapped in lullabies. Her eyes were sharper than any dagger, and every day, Juniper feared that she would see her betrayal, feel the scent of the Vasaath on her. Yet, she did not.
Even though it was perilous, she longed for the general’s company during the days—she longed for when she could rid herself of the day’s troubles and simply be. But something had changed about him, and she couldn’t put her finger on it.
After the torturous death of Wiltbourne, the Vasaath had not been himself. He said very little, often brooding, and he had grown demanding and dominant in ways she had never experienced with him before. He was struggling with something, in his heart and in his soul, but she did not know what.
She tried to comfort him, tried to calm him, and sometimes, she succeeded. Then, she could spy his old self, the one she learnt to know during those days after her escape, when everything seemed so much easier. Other times, she did not. Those evenings, it was evident he wanted to think about something else, feel something else, and she was the conduit. He was always careful, never violent, and she never felt unsafe or threatened; it was just a feeling, a mood around him, that made her wonder what dark throughs were brewing inside his head.
It was all wearing on her and she found herself tired and drained. One evening, after having tea with the Vasaath, she happened upon Neema as she was about to leave for Fairgarden. The women were happy to see each other, and they embraced.
Juniper was relieved—she didn’t know she had missed the woman so ardently. Neema, ever so observant, noticed the weariness in Juniper’s countenance and invited her for a nice, friendly chat.
“We never really had a chance to speak last we saw each other,” said Neema and smiled. “I heard you are now ohkasethen.”
Juniper nodded. “I am, whatever that means.”
Neema raised a brow. “Judging by the look of you, I think you’re beginning to understand.”
Shaking her head, Juniper sighed, “I never expected it to be this exhausting.”
The maasa nodded. “I know. It can be overwhelming at first, but it will get better. When the people understand the generosity and the goodness of the Kasenon, your troubles will lessen.”
Juniper glared at her. “I wonder if it will ever happen.” Then she slumped her shoulders. “But there are other things weighing on me, as well, exhausting me, body and soul.” Neema gave her a look that was impossible to misinterpret. Blushing, Juniper dropped her gaze. “I should have known you knew already.”
“The Vasaath kept asking for Shadow Veil, and I was quick to figure out why,” Neema muttered. “I thought I told you that you needed to end things.”
Juniper bit her lip. “I know. I tried—I did!—but he—” Sighing deeply, she wrung her hands together.
“I know,” Neema sighed. “It’s a fickle thing. As part of the People, you are obliged to obey the vas, but he shouldn’t ask this of you. Yet, he does. And still, if punished, you will receive it more severely than him.”
She looked up, gulped. “Please, don’t tell!”
Neema’s eyes grew dark, but she shook her head. “No, I will not. I am more disappointed with the Vasaath than I am with you. He is not a man you can easily refuse, and he should know better.”
“It wasn’t his decision alone. I wanted it, as well. Don’t put this strain on him,” Juniper muttered and gazed into her cup. “He’s already troubled as it is. If I can ease his mind, if only a little, I should—should I not?”
Neema knitted her brows. “It’s not your duty, Juniper.”
Tightening her jaws, Juniper muttered, “I can’t just watch him descend into darkness without doing anything. He’s not himself. I try to comfort him, but he won’t tell me what’s wrong.”
Neema pursed her lips. “The things that have happened as of late are certainly weighing on his shoulders. He is not a willing executioner and never was, the betrayal of one of his soldiers has brought shame upon the entire Saath and thus on him personally, and I can imagine that your relationship is weighing on his conscience as well. But, my dear, he is the Vasaath. If he crumbles under the pressure, he should not be the one to lead us.”
“We can all be overwhelmed at times,” Juniper huffed and glared into the woman’s green eyes.
“Not the Vasaath,” muttered Neema. “There are many men ready to mantle the role. The slightest sign of weakness and he will be challenged.” The maasa grunted and took a sip of tea. “Perhaps it’s good you keep him above. We can neither afford division nor a shift of power now. We have enemies everywhere, and the Vasaath is seasoned and steadfast.”
Juniper stared down into her cup. She knew the procedure; a challenge would mean a fight to the death. The Vasaath could not refuse, should the challenger be accepted by the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon. It was the People’s right. She shuddered at the thought.
“No,” she then said, “we cannot afford that.”
Neema clenched her jaw tightly. “Be careful, Juniper. The Vasmenaan treasures trust and justice above all. Her judgment will be fierce if she ever finds out the truth.”
Nodding, Juniper felt her heart quicken. “We’ll be careful, I promise.”
Gripping the cup tightly, she took a sip. According to the Kasenon, it wasn’t her role as ohkasethen to console the Vasaath, but it was her heart’s desire and she would not fail him. She was his and he was hers.
Ethen – wisdom
Maasa – healer
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Saath – military; army; strength; protection