The Fall of the Builder: XIII
The Vasaath paced inside his tent. Juniper had not come and it made him nervous. What if the Vasmenaan had told her that she had sent a vas-maasa to see him? He needed to tell Juniper the truth—the real truth. He needed to tell her that he considered it, for both of them, but that he couldn’t. He was cursed and blessed, all at once, and he needed to tell her.
He hardly knew what made him this foolish. He knew he loved the girl; that wasn’t the issue. She was, in many ways, easy to love. She was clever and thoughtful, kind and sympathetic; she was strong-willed but reasonable and diplomatic. She learnt from her mistakes, grew from them; she offered him perspectives no one else dared to offer him, and challenged him in ways no one else dared to challenge him.
He lusted for her. That was, in itself, an issue even if it wasn’t odd. It wasn’t difficult for him to desire her. Her scent, her eyes, her hair, her voice; the way she moved, the way her whole frame shook when she snickered, the way her cheeks glowed when she was embarrassed or enamoured; the way her skin felt against his, the way his touch made her body sing, the way her flesh sent shockwaves of pleasure through him—everything was alluring to him, but that wasn’t what troubled him.
What troubled him was the strange devotion he felt to her. He had always detested the mainlanders’ traditions and always considered his own to be superior in every way. The intrinsic needs in every living being had to be met, not regulated. To clear one’s mind, it had to be without shame.
Mainlanders had mastered the art of shame, of repression, and matrimony was a result of it. They tied the needs of the flesh to the needs of the heart, to societal propriety, binding them together in an unrelenting unison. It forced shame upon the people craving more than their spouses could give them, and upon those unable to give what their spouses craved.
That did not bring peace of mind—that brought frustration, and frustration bred recklessness, heedlessness. It fostered disrespect, justified the disregard and disdain for the female sex; a man’s infidelity was, according to the mainlanders, somehow less grave than a woman’s, even if she had the same needs. Promising one’s love and fidelity to one single individual was counter-productive.
It was a weakness to be so dependent on another person, and he, as the Vasaath, could not be weak. Yet, he did not have the heart to be with anyone else but her—he didn’t want to—and he didn’t even dare to imagine his own heartache if Juniper ever sought solace elsewhere. He loved her with all his being, and that made him a liability.
He had to gather himself, to weather the storm. He had chosen this fate on his own—chosen her on his own—and he had to either rise above it, or sink.
He tossed and turned most of the night, tormented by thoughts he rarely had, and by morning, he rose with a headache. The autumn rains had resumed after a night’s rest, and the Vasaath was tired of the dreary weather. This time of year, the rain would have stopped in Kasarath. The trees would be bare, the days would be chilly, and the first frost would have come already, crisp and brilliant on the ground.
He preferred such weather—at least it was dry. Then again, this year, Kasarath had probably already had its White Wakening, seeing as the first snow fell in the mountains as early as late summer.
A pang of sadness went through him as he thought of the cold that was tearing his homeland apart. Had it not been for it, he would not have to wage war against these savage lands—but neither would he have met his beloved.
He trained the ohkasenon with very little patience that day. They were clumsy, ill-coordinated, and feeble. Clearly, they were even more bothered by the weather. Many were embarrassed to fumble in front of the Vasaath, and he did not make any efforts of hiding his displeasure. It wasn’t until the afternoon that he realised that most of them weren’t embarrassed—they were terrified.
The Vasaath set his jaw tight and refrained from saying anything to the men for the rest of the day. He did not care if the civilians feared him—but he would not have his men fear him.
The cook had made venison stew that evening, suitable for the dreary weather, but the Vasaath had little appetite. He kept to his wine and by the time he was joined by Kasethen, the stew had gone cold.
“Odd… something that smells so delicious shouldn’t be left on your plate, my friend.”
The Vasaath only grunted.
Kasethen sank down by the table and poured himself a glass of wine. He seemed troubled, but not as troubled as the Vasaath felt.
“I suppose you ate well at the castle,” the general muttered. “Wine and cheese and bread and meat.”
“I did,” said Kasethen. “And I listened to conversations and discussions you ought to have joined.”
The Vasaath sighed heavily. “Probably—but I have little interest in politics.”
Kasethen glared at him. “You are part of the Triumvirate, and to be fair, Vasmenaan and Vasenon have spent far too much time together—they’re almost one single entity. While you spent all your days back home in Saath-an-arath, they grew into a single unity, just as they have here. Your presence is needed. Your strength is needed. Otherwise, there is no balance.”
“I will not be provoked!” the Vasaath muttered.
“Then don’t let them provoke you,” said Kasethen.
The Vasaath glared at his friend but sighed again. “They’ve never criticised me like this before. They have never doubted or insulted me like this before.”
“We are in a very strange situation that demands a great deal of us,” said Kasethen. “I’m certain Vasmenaan and Vasenon have the People’s best at heart, but they have not seen what you and I have. They never stood two hundred against five thousand. They never saw the chaos that had to be brought on to claim the city. They don’t know. The memories that are fresh in their minds are the cold summer nights, the withering crops, and the desperate cries of our home.”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw but nodded. “You’re right. They don’t care about this city. We might as well have killed them all.”
Kasethen settled his piercing gaze on him. “Do you care? Do you truly care about the city and its people, or do you care about one person?”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “And what’s the difference? The results are the same.”
“But the intention is not.” Kasethen sighed deeply. “Juniper is struggling. It’s not because the task is too big for her, but because there is too much resistance. From all. The people of Noxborough are in fear of our people, and our people loathe them. You care about one person, and she cares about everyone. She’s the only one making compromises.”
“That’s not true,” muttered the Vasaath. “We’ve all had to make compromises.”
“And what compromise have you made?” Kasethen muttered. “As far as I know, you’ve made none, just as I have made none.”
The Vasaath glared at him. “I had to give up the girl.”
Kasethen scoffed, shaking his head. “It’s not a compromise if it was never allowed to begin with.” He raised his brows. “Besides, you haven’t given up anything.”
The Vasaath tightened his jaw and diverted his gaze. He grunted. “Of course, you knew. Call me weak, if you will. I didn’t want to stay away.”
Kasethen chuckled. “I was impressed you turned down the Vasmenaan’s blessing.” Taking a sip of his wine, he huffed, “But I never expected you to take the consequences in stride. You’ve never been known for graciousness when being denied something you’ve wanted.”
The general glared at his advisor. “The reason I was denied her is ludicrous rules.”
Narrowing his eyes, Kasethen cocked his head. “You’ve never referred to the rules as ludicrous before.”
“I’ve never had reason to.”
The advisor smiled and huffed. The look in his eyes stirred something in the Vasaath’s belly, a suspicion he didn’t like. How did Kasethen see the rules? Did he disregard them? Would he disregard them enough to break them so grossly as to release a prisoner of war? Was there something in his eyes?
But the advisor dropped his gaze and said, “And what does the lady say of this secrecy?”
“We’ve had to hide it from the very beginning,” said the Vasaath and refilled his glass of wine, trying to rid himself of the troubling thoughts. “It’s hardly anything new.”
“That may be, but while your relationship would only have caused whispers and a few side-eyed glances a few months ago, it’s now a very different matter,” said Kasethen. “It could cost us everything.”
The Vasaath set his jaw tight. “There are many things that could cost us.” Glaring at his advisor, he said, “Her brother, for one, could destroy us.”
Kasethen sighed deeply. “If that is true, it won’t be anytime soon. He’s just a boy—naive and immature. Why would anyone rally behind him to fight us? To fight you, the Crimson King?”
The general grunted. The doubt was too much for him to bear. “Tell me the truth, Kasethen. Did you have anything to do with his escape?”
Tense silence settled between them, their eyes locked in an intense glare.
Kasethen took a deep breath. “I cannot pretend that I was content with the decision of killing him,” he then said. “I found it cruel and unfeeling. He’s only a child.”
“Did you, or did you not, help him escape?” the Vasaath growled lowly.
Kasethen weaved his fingers together on the table. “I did not release him.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes, scrutinised the advisor, before he sighed deeply. He felt ashamed to even have suspected it. “Of course, you didn’t. I’m sorry.”
Kasethen’s face softened. “This was hard on all of us, my lord, but the traitor confessed, did he not?”
The Vasaath nodded. “He did.”
Sighing again, Kasethen took a sip of his wine. “You’re right in worrying about Sebastian Arlington, but that’s for the future. We have more pressing matters to worry about as it is, such as your affair with the girl. That is more relevant to the Vasmenaan than the boy is.”
The Vasaath rolled his eyes. “I know the wrath of the Vasmenaan is relentless, but she isn’t spiteful. And she isn’t foolish. She’s just and fair.” Muttering into his glass, he said, “This is not the time for resentment amongst us, and she knows it.”
“So you’d rather gamble with fate than simply denounce the girl?”
“If I am to end it with Juniper, it will have to come from her,” said the Vasaath and took a rich sip of his wine. “My wishes remain the same, but the decision is hers to make.”
Kasethen smirked. “A man in love.” He huffed before he had a drink.
“You think I’m foolish,” the Vasaath grunted.
“Well, you are,” chuckled Kasethen. “As are we all, when we’re in love.”
The Vasaath sighed. “You were never foolish.”
Kasethen gazed at him, his golden eyes gleaming. “I was. I was just better at hiding it.”
Scoffing, the Vasaath drank from his wine. “You’re right. I’m a poor liar and an even worse actor.”
“Well,” muttered Kasethen, “you’ll have to get better, and soon, because you might have to act as both Vasmenaan and Vasenon come winter.”
The Vasaath knitted his brows. “Half the times, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Kasethen nodded, but the muscles in his jaw twitched slightly. Then he sighed. “It’s not a riddle. The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon have discussed their return to Kasarath. It seems as though they have decided to leave with the next shipment of grain, and you will be named sole leader until the war is over.”
The general nearly choked on his wine. “What?” Sole leader of what, he thought. The army? He already was.
Kasethen snorted. “I suppose your moniker will come true, after all.”
The Vasaath gawked at his friend, struggling to comprehend what the man was saying. “Don’t tell me…” he started, but his words failed him.
Never before in the recorded history of their people had the Triumvirate given the full power to one of its members—it was simply unheard of. Staring at Kasethen, he felt his heart rise in his chest.
The advisor looked back in dark pity and raised his glass. “Hail to the King.”
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”