The Crimson King: II
The Vasaath was renewed. Not only was he still floating on air after his ardent confession to the girl, but he was also cautiously positive about the coming winter.
When Kasethen had brought him the news that the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were planning on returning to Kasarath come winter and leave the governing to him, he had felt enraged and terrified. He knew how to lead an army, train soldiers, but he had no confidence in leading a people—politics rarely stirred his interest, and a position like that required more empathy and feeling than he could provide.
What made him positive was pure selfishness. After seeing Juniper, he had re-evaluated the position; if the Vasmenaan wasn’t there, and he was the sole leader, then who would have the authority to separate him from his love? That was an alluring advantage, indeed. But he could not be selfish—he couldn’t lead a city like Noxborough from his bedchambers, even if he wanted to.
He was pleased the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon had been so kind as to bring his horse with them to Noxborough. The Vasaath often preferred to walk the distance between the harbour and Fairgarden, and thus be able to truly keep an eye on the improvements in the city, but the weather was cold and unrelenting, and the way to Fairgarden was long. Travelling by horse was much more comfortable.
Aamos was a big, black steed he had trained himself—a proud animal, and a prime specimen of their Kasarathi breed. While mounted, the ohkas looked even smaller. Aamos’s hooves thundered on the cobbled stones as they trotted through the city towards Fairgarden. Passing the onlookers on the streets, he could see the fear in the Noxboroughers’ eyes. That had not changed, and it put disturbing thoughts back into his head—was he going to govern these people? Would he have to keep ruling by fear? Would he have to be afraid?
The animal pressed on, up the hill. Well inside the bailey, the Vasaath dismounted and handed the reins to a stable boy who looked at the black behemoth in terror.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the Vasaath. “He can smell fear.”
The boy, no older than fifteen, wailed out a quick, cracked screech, and trembled as he pulled Aamos along. The Vasaath snickered. The stallion was harmless—strong and stubborn, but harmless.
Looking upon the castle, a heaviness settled upon him and he immediately came down from the cloud of blissfulness he had been on. A gust of wind swept over him, chilling, and he pulled his pelted cloak tighter around his shoulders. The towering Keep reached to the dark skies, the grey stones coarse and cold. The seat of power.
He entered the dark gates, and the grey light of day was replaced by the leering darkness of a stone tomb. Torches lined the walls and bathed the hallway in warm light, but the Vasaath did not find it comforting. He sighed deeply and descended into the stone castle.
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon wanted to meet him in the study, so he climbed the steps, recited the turns in his head not to get lost in the vastness, and arrived by the doors he once had to fight to get to. The familiar smell of mulled wine met him as he stepped inside, and the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were in the middle of a cheerful conversation by the fire as he entered.
“Ah, Vasaath!” called the Vasenon. “It’s really getting dreary out there, isn’t it?”
“The White Wakening can’t be far off,” muttered the Vasaath. “What else is there to expect?”
“No, you’re quite right,” said the Vasenon. “Please, have yourself some wine and take a seat.”
The Vasaath removed his cloak, filled a cup, and sat down on a chair by the fire.
The Vasmenaan sat with a content smile on her face as the light from the flames danced over her. Without looking at him, she said, “I heard you had a pleasant time with Olaan.”
The general tensed, his breath quickening, and he swallowed. He was a poor liar. “Yes,” he then said. “I needed it.”
“You did, indeed,” chuckled the woman and had a sip from her cup. “We will send for some of your vas-maasas soon enough. Aita and—oh, I forget her name, the new one—”
“Kana,” muttered the Vasaath.
“Yes, Kana!” She smiled and looked at him. “She’s such a sweet girl. She would be suitable, don’t you think?”
The Vasaath frowned. “She’s a medicine woman. I do not lie with her.”
“Surely, she would indulge the Great Warrior if you asked her. I could—”
He clenched his jaw. “I know what you’re doing. Stop it. I liked Olaan, but I did not like you speaking for me.”
“No. Forgive me. That was uncalled for.” She clenched her jaw, and as the Vasenon rose to refill his wine, she leaned closer to the Vasaath and said lowly, “I just thought it must be difficult for you, spending so much time with the girl. Why do you torture yourself, my dear?”
The Vasaath glanced over at the old man by the jug and muttered, “I like her company, physical or not. It brings me pleasure to just see her.”
The Vasmenaan nodded and leaned back once the Vasenon joined them again.
“What did you want to discuss,” the Vasaath asked and took a sip of his wine.
“Yes,” said the Vasenon, “we have missed you on many meetings in the past weeks.”
“I’ve had other things to tend to.”
“Of course, but we’ve discussed the ambassador we would like to send to Illyria, and we would have needed your input.”
The general looked at the old man. “Are you sure we should send an ambassador to our enemies?”
“We need to assure the Illyrian Emperor that our intention is not to attack them,” said the Vasmenaan.
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “But it is.”
“Not yet,” said she. “Our first priority must be to make sure our people will have enough food and resources for the coming year, and Nornest is enough for that. Once we control Nornest, our next priority is to make sure our lands are safe. Illyria might pose a real threat towards us then—unless we strike a deal.”
The Vasaath pulled his brows together. “So, we aren’t taking Illyria?”
“Not if it can be avoided,” said the Vasenon.
“The ambassador has a crucial part in this, of course,” said the Vasmenaan. “If he or she can present our case with diplomacy and skill, we might have an ally in Illyria, instead of an enemy.”
The Vasaath set his jaw tight. He wasn’t certain such reasoning was sane, or if it was merely a wish, but he nodded. “Very well. Who are you sending?”
“We will send a kasethen from Kasarath,” said the Vasenon. “We want someone we can trust and someone who can represent us fairly. But we will need a convoy. Our representative cannot travel behind enemy lines unguarded. We want to send ten guards.”
Nodding, the Vasaath took a sip of the wine. “From the Saathenaan, I presume.”
“Preferably, if you could spare them.”
The Vasaath sighed heavily. How could he deny such a request? The safety of the representative was crucial. “And who do you want to send?”
“This is what we have debated rather vigorously,” said the Vasmenaan. “We have a suggestion, but we have yet to inform him. And we wanted you to have a chance to voice your opinion on the matter.”
Blinking slowly, the Vasaath ran his tongue over his teeth impatiently. “Well, who is it?”
“Your advisor,” said the Vasenon.
Scoffing, the Vasaath shook his head and chuckled darkly. Everything felt like a conspiracy against him. “So you wish to send my advisor on a highly dangerous diplomatic mission, hundreds of leagues away, while you plan on leaving me as your representative while you return home?”
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon both frowned.
“Well,” said the Vasmenaan, “we need to return to Kasarath to make sure our people make it through winter. Life at home continues, my dear. Don’t forget that.”
“Then why did you come in the first place?” He held the cup so tightly, his knuckles whitened.
“We needed to see the progress for ourselves,” said the Vasenon.
“And someone needed to organise the people.” The Vasmenaan straightened. “Now when there is some stability in this city, and food has been shipped to Kasarath, it’s high time for us to return and for you to continue this campaign.”
He tried to calm himself, tried to manage his temper, but it was slipping. So much was slipping through his fingers, and he could not stop it. “You keep making decisions over my head. If you had spoken to me earlier, you would have known—”
“If you had been to any of the meetings—” said the Vasenon harshly, shocking the Vasaath into silence. He had rarely ever heard the old man raise his voice, let alone to him. “—you would have been involved with our discussions. Of course, we didn’t just decide upon leaving you this great responsibility! It took much of us to do so! But we are in an extraordinary situation, one our people has never experienced before.”
The Vasaath shrunk a bit, ashamed.
“We cannot be suspicious to one another or fall into petty arguments—now is the time to stand strong, united, and rise to the occasion. We are responsible for the survival of our people, and we will do our parts.” The old man sighed, clenched his jaw, and continued, calmer. “Now, Vasmenaan and I have faith in you to be able to manage this city on your own during winter, but we will leave you with our most trusted advisors. Kasethen Eloch has attended every meeting I’ve had with the Wise Ones for the past ten years, and nemethan Baraam has taught the Chosen One herself for many years now.”
“And we will not send your advisor unless he accepts the mission.” The Vasmenaan’s voice was soft, regretful. “It’s only a suggestion, but we think he would be the perfect ambassador. He knows our culture, he knows theirs, and he is a saath-kasethen. He is also very clever, empathic, and has a high tolerance for mainlanders. He is our best chance. It’s either that, or risk facing Illyria’s army before we have had the time to properly establish ourselves here.”
The Vasaath had his jaw tightened. Any tighter, and his teeth might crack. “I can’t lead,” he growled. “I can’t govern these people. I can’t make political decisions. I can’t do it alone.”
“Of course, you can,” said the Vasmenaan. “You’ve been alongside us for ten years, and you won’t be alone. Eloch and Baraam will help you, and Olaan will keep you grounded. You have the ohkasethens to help you with the Nornish people, and you’ll have the winter to prepare the troops for the expansion. Thirty thousand men and women have come to fight for you, Vasaath. They all look to you for guidance and strength. Those who look to us are all left in Kasarath, in the cold. We need to go back, but you need to stay.”
The Vasaath weighed his words carefully. He knew the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were right. It was neither fair nor right of him to neglect his people back home. They needed the Great Mother with them, they needed her support. The Vasenon needed to return to the Wise Ones, to plan for the years to come.
The Vasaath needed to be here, at the front. He needed to claim the land for his people, and Kasethen was probably one of the few who would manage such an important diplomatic task as to forge an alliance with the Illyrian Empire. All that was true. And yet, he was terrified.
Sighing deeply, he finally nodded. “Very well, leave it to me. I will speak to Kasethen myself.”
“Good,” said the Vasenon. “I will proceed to send a letter of inquiry to Illyria.”
The Vasaath grunted. “I will do my best ruling this city, but I can’t swear I will be as peaceful and diplomatic as you’d have me be.”
The Vasmenaan’s expression was unfazed. “We’re at war, my dear. Win it.”
The general frowned, surprised at her resolve, but he gave a stark nod. Indeed, he would not fail.
Kasethen – advisor; seer; “wisdom of the people”
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Ohkas – (oh ma-kas); stranger; “not of Kas”; “not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Saathenaan – elite warriors; “deepest strength”
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”