The Fall of the Builder: XI
The crows had pecked away most of the flesh of the heads that were rotting on Town Square. The crowns of the nobles had all been removed—a month was enough to send the message—but the Duke’s skull remained.
The latest one to be added next to it was the one belonging to the traitor Wiltbourne. It took a long time for him to die, but such a treacherous coward did not deserve a quick death. While he was dying on the Town Square, the tunnel in the Keep had been sealed, the Triumvirate had decided to dismiss the thought of an accomplice, and the whole ordeal had finally come to a close.
The Vasaath always paused for a minute or so when he passed the traitor’s head to stare into the hollow sockets where his eyes used to be; every time, it felt as though he was staring into his own failure. He should have seen such weakness, sensed it, but he did not.
It was his fault. Had he spared the boy, he would still be there, governed by the Vasaath’s stern hand—who knew where he was now? The confession still rung clear in his mind, and how the traitor uttered Kasethen’s name—it was shameful, disgraceful, but there was an inch deep inside his head he could not scratch.
Kasethen had a soft heart, but he was not a traitor. Yet, it still ailed him, to doubt—but these days, he had doubt in abundance. How many more traitors did he have in his midst? How many more waited to put their devious plans into action? Did he have to suspect his own soldiers? Did he have to sleep with one eye open?
He saw traitors in most of them, but he tried not to. He tried to see the good in them, tried to make them feel like part of the People. He knew mainlanders responded well to flattery and kindness, but the Vasaath would never stoop to that level. Kindness did not make warriors. But he made sure to praise them when they did right—just as he made sure to scold them when they did anything wrong.
Thus far, he had seen admiration is some of them. Young boys seeking honour and glory, but struggling to find a place in this world—they were the ones easiest to mould. The older ones, those already formed by time and tradition, were more difficult. No one opposed the Vasaath’s authority—they dared not, at least not out in the open—but he could see who held potential, for good and for bad. Never before had he felt as though he had to have eyes in the back of his neck, and never before had he had to order his soldiers to spy on their brothers. But there were still whispers, still stubborn Nornish pride.
He was, however, not the only one to feel this looming doubt. His soldiers trusted him, but they did not trust the new recruits. It was a division he did not want—now was not the time to be divided—but he could not deny the suspicion they all felt. Distrust was poison, lethal enough to bring down armies and empires.
To make matters worse, the kaseraad brought news that the Vasaath had gained a most unflattering moniker. The townsfolk called him the Crimson King, for his brutality and bloodshed, and the kaseraad had intercepted messages to other cities with this awful name in them. So, he thought, the whole of Nornest and Illyria would speak of him as this King—such mockery of a vas of Kasarath!
He glanced at the people on the streets as he walked towards the docks. They were frightened of him, wary, and kept their heads down. Indeed, to them he was the Crimson King, the Demon of the North, the torturer and the executioner, the one chasing their god away from them. Whispers silenced as he came near, frames shrunk, and he could see that their hopes did not lie in learning the Kasenon, but in surviving it. Surviving him. It made him furious and devastated, all at once.
If only they could see the improvement that had been made in just a few short weeks, they would understand; the sick had been tended to, the starved had been fed, and the riches had been divided equally and fairly. The children were taught to read and to write, they were reared by men and women who could show them kindness and love, and they were taught the true meaning of respect.
Why did the people of Noxborough persist on only seeing the cruelty? Why were they set on seeing the Vasaath as the monster when he had barely done a fraction of what evil the Duke himself had done, their god’s anointed one?
When he arrived at the fort that afternoon, he longed for his beloved. She was his light in all this darkness—one smile from her could chase away any shadow, one kiss could ease his troubles, and the feel of her body was the only thing that could distract him.
At times, during the days, he would close his eyes and see her in front of him; her black locks falling over her shoulders, her round breasts peeking out from between the strands; her full lips slightly parted, calling to him in sweet, velvet tunes; her eyes glittering like the silver veins of the Mother’s Shadow, bewitching him. When he opened his eyes, he’d be disappointed, but all the more in yearning for when he’d see her again, for when he’d touch her again.
He was tired when he entered his tent that day, longing for some privacy and peace, and he barely paid any attention to anything but the jug of wine on his desk.
The silky voice caught him by surprise and he gazed up; from the lowered table rose a Kas woman. Her hips were wide and full, her girth was rich and plump, and her frame was soft and round. Over it hung a deep scarlet velvet gown, falling heavily over her long and wide legs; her dark hair was intricately braided, with beads and rings throughout, and her arms and neck were adorned with chains and leather bracelets; her eyes were sooted, from temple to temple, making her golden eyes appear almost luminescent.
Her posture, her apparel, and her air made it impossible to displace her—this was a vas-maasa.
She bowed to him, deeply, and the Vasaath furrowed his brows tightly. He would have remembered such a woman—so regal and powerful—but he did not. This was not, and had never been, one of his vas-maasas.
After a moment of contemplation, he gathered himself and nodded in respect. “Healer.”
The woman raised her chin and smiled. “You may call me Olaan. Vasmenaan sent me.”
Clenching his jaw tightly, the Vasaath sighed. He should have known. “I appreciate you taking the time to see me, but I do not require your services.”
The woman’s gaze was scrutinising, burning, as she cocked her head slightly. “Are you certain, Great Warrior? I see conflict in you.” Gracefully, she gestured at him with her hands. “Your paths are blocked, your frustration is teeming. It is not good for the spirit with such blockages. I can open you up, make your energies flow again, if you’d let me.”
He tightened his jaw. It would be suspicious of him to refuse such a woman—the Vasmenaan knew him too well. He frowned deeply, staring pleadingly at the woman in front of him. She would be loyal to the Vasmenaan, and would undoubtedly report back to her. If they mated, she would know—and if they didn’t, she would know everything.
Cursing to himself, he finally nodded. “Very well.”
It was early still. Juniper would not come until evening, if she came at all.
The vas-maasa, Olaan, motioned the Vasaath to sit by his reading nook. Reluctantly, he did. The woman strode to him, her feet barely touching the ground as she almost floated in her gracefulness. As soon as her hands touched upon his shoulders, warmth spread through the general’s body. Indeed, these were experienced healing hands.
She kneaded his shoulders, strong thumbs against hard muscles, and the sensation caused him to wince in delight. It had been so long since he had been taken care of like this.
The vas-maasa slowly kneeled behind him, meticulously beating and stretching the tense muscles in his shoulders and arms. It hurt most wonderfully, and the Vasaath felt himself slip away into bliss.
He felt her warm, voluptuous form press against his back, reminding him of a simpler time, and he shivered slightly as her hands sought their way around his waist, underneath the tunic. Her hands were soft against his skin, still kneading, still healing, and slowly but surely, they ran down to his belt, undoing it in an elegant motion. Her sweet scent encased him, fogged his mind, and drew him in. There was a stir in his belly, a rising desire, carefully pulsating through him.
He was abruptly awakened from his trance as her hand steadily sought its way to his manhood, and he grabbed her wrist in a determined grip.
“No.” Wide awake now, he knew he couldn’t do this.
Olaan pulled away immediately. “This is most irregular.”
The Vasaath turned to her. She had risen, shocked and perhaps a bit embarrassed. He set his jaw tight while he, too, rose, fixing his belt as he did. It was an irregular thing, indeed, even to him.
People did not own each other, and thus, there was no such thing as infidelity within the Kasenon—and yet, he felt the burning guilt in his chest as he thought about the heartbreak it would bring Juniper. If he were to bed this woman, he would break a vow he had never voiced but given nonetheless.
Juniper was a woman who cared deeply for propriety and she had professed her love for him; she had given him all she had to offer as a woman and in her world, she would be deeply shamed and hurt if the one she had given all that to would turn to someone else. He could not do that to her.
He sighed and shook his head. “It is not your doing, healer.”
Her round cheeks turned pink. “But I don’t understand. Vasmenaan said that you were in dire need of release.”
“Vasmenaan does not speak for me,” he said, and his tone was harsher than intended. Indeed, he felt vexed by this violation of agency, but he could not blame the maasa. She was only doing what the Great Mother asked her to.
Olaan sighed, bewildered, and readied herself to leave. “Forgive my intrusion, Vasaath. I will take my leave. Vasmenaan will be very perplexed by this.”
In one great stride, the Vasaath stood face to face with the woman, looking down at her with narrowed eyes—she was tall, but he was taller still.
Her golden orbs widened, her body stiffened, and despite her assertive manner, the Vasaath could see that her confidence was faltering.
He eyed her, frowned, and said, “That is why you will tell the Vasmenaan that you granted me pleasure and release.”
Olaan scowled. “I cannot lie to the Great Mother!”
“So you will disobey me?” he rumbled, and the woman shrunk before him. He knew it was unfair to be imposing, threatening, but he couldn’t take any chances. The Vasmenaan could not know he had refused such a woman, for she would know he was waiting for another.
The vas-maasa’s face paled, and she shook her head. “No, Great Warrior. I would never disobey you.”
The Vasaath observed her for a moment, sought truth in her eyes, and once he found it, he took a step back and sighed and nodded. “Good. Besides, it’s not a lie. I fully enjoyed our brief time together, and it did bring me pleasure.”
Olaan bowed. “Of course, Great Warrior.”
He eyed her again, feeling a slightly unpleasant tingle in the back of his mind. Few would ever dare to oppose him, but even fewer would dare to oppose the Vasmenaan.
“I trust you will do as I say and report to the Vasmenaan that you did your duty and satisfied the Vasaath,” said he.
“Yes, Great Warrior,” said Olaan. “I shall. You have my word.”
Satisfied with her promise, he stepped aside. “Then I bid you good night, Healer.”
“Good night, Great Warrior.”
He watched her as she left, and the unpleasant feeling in the back of his mind intensified. He wanted to believe the woman—he did believe the woman!—but he couldn’t stop wondering, couldn’t stop suspecting that by tomorrow, the Vasmenaan would know of his betrayal, of his selfishness.
Kaseraad – spies; “the shadow of the people”
Vas – leader; keeper; order
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”