The Crimson King: IV
“That was a rather bad move,” Garret sneered before he moved his Jester to knock down Kasethen’s King. “You keep on losing, and still, you keep using the same move over and over.”
Kasethen sighed deeply and furrowed his brows while staring intensely at the game board. He was usually quite good at strategy games, but he was used to another type. This one, King’s Hand, was almost impossible to understand. The rules seemed to change as the game went along, without much rhyme or reason.
In the end, he sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Very well. You win. Again.”
“I know I win,” Garret chuckled and sipped on his wine. “I could run circles around you, you know. You wouldn’t even know what hit you.” His eyes glittered in the firelight, like pale stars on the evening sky.
Kasethen had to look away. He had already realised that Garret was one of the most dangerous men in Noxborough, but he also happened to be one of the handsomest. And cleverest.
They had worked rather closely together for the past weeks, and as each day passed, the men gravitated towards each other even more. Kasethen couldn’t help but feel entranced. He cursed himself, his weak heart, but there is was. Kasethen was smitten.
What made matters worse was the fact that Garret seemed rather familiar with the Kas advisor, intimate even, almost to the point where he was flirtatious.
Perhaps Kasethen was reading it all wrong—ohkas of the mainland didn’t look kindly upon people attracted to their own sex. As far as he could understand, it was considered a sin. In some places, it was even punishable by death. It had been so with Tiku, and it pained Kasethen that he could express his feelings and intents without scruples, but his loved one could not.
He remembered Tiku’s stern face—his marked and wide cheekbones, his full brows, his wide and proud nose, his sturdy chin, and his full lips. His skin was rich and dark, inked. He was a beautiful Warrior of the Sun and he had told Kasethen that he had never seen anyone as astonishing as him, the Man of Ashes.
Kasethen, young and naive, had fallen head over heels for the strong and handsome warrior, and his love had been forceful, deep, and unrelenting—as had the sorrow. When Tiku was taken from him, he didn’t think he would ever find love like that again.
He knew he wouldn’t find it in Kasarath, and he feared it would be nearly impossible anywhere else. Now, after spending a scandalous amount of time with Garret, he wondered if there might be hope, after all.
Garret was kind and intelligent. His calmness was astounding but there was a charming deviousness in him, as well. Wiltbourne’s children, the ones Garret had threaten to hurt if Wiltbourne ever gave him up, were well taken care of. Garret had seen to it, and he visited the boys at least twice a week. Kasethen had been impressed by his attentiveness, but the human had reminded him that he would never hurt the children. Never.
Indeed, there was ruthlessness in him that Kasethen had seldom seen in anyone else. It wasn’t physical or authoritarian—no, it was hidden behind diplomacy and soft words, like venom. A fair agreement could turn into a deadly promise with the twist of a single word, for the man seemed to know every assassin and killer and dangerous person in Nornest, and he also seemed to know the weaknesses of said people. He controlled them all, like the spider in its web.
Strangely enough, it intrigued Kasethen to no end. It was exciting, adventurous, and alluring. The fact that he was handsome to look at was nothing but a benefit. The man was also fiercely loyal, and it hadn’t taken long for Kasethen to realise that it was never the Duke whom he had been loyal to, but his children.
Every ruthless decision the man had ever made, was in favour of the Duke’s children. Every threat that had ever fallen from his lips was in favour of Juniper and Sebastian. He had protected them since they came into this world, and he would protect them until they disappeared from it. That was a sentiment Kasethen could not look down upon. It was rather amiable. Admirable.
“Shall we play again?” Garret’s voice interrupted his thoughts, and Kasethen gazed up.
“Perhaps it’s best if I withdraw for the evening,” said he and smiled apologetically.
In truth, he wasn’t tired, and he didn’t wish to leave—but the knot that was forming in his belly, the wish to touch the man’s face in a gentle caress, was overwhelming. He wouldn’t want to cross any boundaries.
“That’s a shame,” said Garret as he took another sip of his Illyrian wine. “The evening will be much less exciting if you leave now.”
Kasethen raised a brow. “And what would happen if I stay? Would I win, do you reckon?”
Garret scoffed. “Never. But you never know.”
There was a twinkle in his eye, a look Kasethen wanted to misinterpret.
The man sneered again, a mischievous smile that caused Kasethen’s heart to leap, and said, “There are more things to do on a cold autumn evening than play board games.”
The Kas swallowed but tried to seem as collected as possible. “Such as?”
“I’m sure you have some ideas.”
His heart pounded loudly. It wasn’t fair of him to think the man’s suggestion meant what Kasethen wanted it to mean—this man was Edredian. He was bound by religion and tradition. But now, there was a look in the man’s eyes that was nearly impossible to misinterpret.
He swallowed again, feeling sweat pool in his neck. Surely, he thought, it would be better for him to seek help from a maasa than to fantasise about something that would never be.
But suddenly, Garret’s lithe and elegant hand landed upon Kasethen, who froze in place.
“I know your heart’s desires,” said the human. “We are more alike than you realise, you and I.”
Kasethen’s eyes widened. His heart almost jumped out of his chest. The hand upon his own was smaller than his, and yet, it felt immense enough to wrap around his lonesomeness altogether. Time seemed to stand still. He was no stranger to that sort of intimacy, but with a maasa, it was never truly intimate. It was physical, healing, but not yearning. Never passionate.
Now, he felt a longing, a burning slowly igniting deep within his heart. Perhaps, he thought, this was the cure to his loneliness. Carefully, he wrapped his hand around the man’s and slowly caressed his smooth skin.
“You don’t find it sinful?” he murmured. “Shameful?”
Sliding his fingers in between Kasethen’s, Garret said softly, “Others do.” He gazed at their intertwined fingers. “This has always been who I am. Tell me, am I wrong about you?”
“No.” Kasethen could barely speak properly.
“I’m not certain what more I can offer,” mumbled Garret, “than a warm bed and the company of someone who respects you. All I ask is the same in return.”
Kasethen gulped. He felt nervous—it wasn’t like him. “I respect you.”
“Then what do you say?” Garret’s smirk was gone, and at that moment, Kasethen sensed the same lonesomeness in him.
The Kas lifted the smaller hand, gently, and leaned forwards. Hesitantly, he brushed his lips against the knuckles, keeping a steady eye on Garret’s expression. If he wasn’t mistaken, there was shock and relief upon his brow. He planted a kiss upon the man’s hand, revelling in the softness of it.
“I haven’t been kissed by a man in twenty years,” mumbled Garret. His cheeks reddened slightly, the deviousness in his face had vanished, and he seemed rather nervous as well. “And then, it wasn’t even a kiss. It was a strange sentiment from a strange gentleman who would never admit to his wife that he fancied other men.” His pale eyes were focused on their interlocked hands. “We lay together. He hung himself the morning after.”
Kasethen clicked his tongue, affectionately. “I haven’t kissed a man for eight years. My dearest friend defeated him in single combat. He was my first kiss, and I’d always thought he’d be my last.”
“No,” said Garret softly and gazed up. “Not your last.”
A silent understanding settled upon the two men that evening, while they held hands in front of a crackling fire. They had found each other in a dark place, despite all odds. Indeed, they had many things in common—more things than what separated them. That night, they weren’t separated at all. They were as close as two people could be—joined, in flesh, heart, and soul.
Kasethen had been truthful. Tiku was the only man he had ever kissed, ever loved, and the only man he’d ever thought he’d kiss. When his lips touched Garret’s, his world changed.
The hopelessness he’d felt, the loneliness—gone, with a simple sentiment. But it wasn’t simple. It was anything but. Kasethen could sense that it was just as special to Garret as it was to him. Amongst the Kas, a kiss was only bestowed upon those of one’s deepest care, but for an Edredian man to kiss another man—that meant the risk of being shunned or even killed by his own. Garret put his trust in Kasethen, just as Kasethen put his trust in Garret.
Tender, intimate love. That was what the two of them shared, skin against skin under the covers of Garret’s bed. When Kasethen noticed the man’s wet cheeks, he softly asked what had brought the tears—was he hurt?
“No,” whispered the man, his lips brushing against Kasethen’s. “I’m astonished. And joyful.”
“As am I,” smiled Kasethen. He kissed him again, softly and tenderly, and enveloped the man in his embrace.
They were still wrapped in each other’s arms when morning came. Garret groaned wearily and stirred, causing Kasethen to slowly pry one of his eyes open. The sun spilt in through the eastern window, basking the room in the yellow morning light. The fire had died, but the two men were perfectly warm next to each other.
With a yawn, Kasethen opened his other eye and gazed upon the man next to him. Garret lay with his face towards the ceiling; his skin looked sun-kissed and golden, even though Kasethen knew it was as pale as any Noxborougher’s during winter; his straight nose was highlighted by the sunrays, and his greying hair looked almost silver, brilliant against his otherwise dark and rich head of hair; he had his eyes closed, but when he opened them, his irises were almost see-through in the morning sun.
Kasethen could gaze upon him forever. He was Tiku’s opposite in many ways, but they shared the same kind of beauty—strong, elegant, awe-striking. Without being able to stop himself, he let his fingers run over the man’s surprisingly smooth chest, light as feathers, and he watched the corners of Garret’s mouth turn upwards.
“This is not frowned upon by your people?” Garret asked. His voice was heavy with sleep, and it rumbled deep within his chest.
Smiling, Kasethen placed his palm against the vibrations. “No. We love the person, not the sex.”
“But what about the protection of the future?” Garret scoffed. “Surely, you must have a duty to marry and father children?”
“We do not believe in matrimony,” said Kasethen. “If I’ll ever be tasked with siring a child, then that will be my duty. That doesn’t mean I have to prefer women, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s wrong of me to prefer men.”
Furrowing his brows, Garret turned his head to the Kas advisor. “So, you may love whomever you choose, but you will be tasked with fathering children?”
“I understand it might be convoluted for an Edredian,” smirked Kasethen, “but we do not see families as you do. Parents do not rear their own offspring. Children have to be born, that much is true, and the process is the same as here. But, as you well know, it doesn’t take a marriage to produce a child.”
Garret huffed and placed his arm above his head. “That is certainly true.”
“To make strong individuals,” said Kasethen, “strong parents are chosen by the Vasmenaan. Not always, of course. Love-children are very common, indeed, and no less important or revered. But every man could be tasked with siring a child with a chosen woman, and vice versa. What we prefer when it comes to our hearts, there are very few rules.”
Garret only hummed, deep in thought.
Allowing themselves a few moments longer in bed, they rose before the sun had risen too high and parted in the hall outside Garret’s room.
Kasethen headed to the harbour, knowing the Vasaath would certainly wonder why he hadn’t joined him for breakfast. Like a love-stricken youngling, Kasethen wanted to share with his friend that he had found love in the most unexpected of places. Of course, the Vasaath would know everything about that.
The soldiers seemed to take advantage of the sunny weather. It was rare these days. Kasethen watched them spar for a moment, analysing the progress of the ohkasenon, before he entered the Vasaath’s tent.
He was speaking with one of his officers, a skilful warrior called Madeth, as they were going through the drawings for expanding the fort and building barracks for the soldiers. When he looked up and saw Kasethen, the general thanked the officer and dismissed him.
“I’ve been looking for you all morning,” muttered the Vasaath. “Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” said Kasethen, unable to keep from smiling. “I’ve been—”
“I have something of great importance to discuss with you.” The line between the Vasaath’s brows was quite foreboding.
Kasethen recognised that the tale of his romantic endeavours had to wait. He sat down by the table as the Vasaath poured him a cup of Redroot tea. “What’s the matter, my friend?”
The Vasaath sat down opposite him. His jaw was set hard, the groove between his brows deepened, and his gaze was troubled. “I spoke with the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon yesterday.”
The advisor took a sip of the tea and let the smooth liquid trickle down his throat. “And?”
The general grunted, grinding his teeth together, before he muttered, “They wish to send you to Illyria, as an ambassador. They wish for you to strike a deal with the Emperor, to hold off any attack while we conquer Nornest. We will promise the same to them, and offer a friendship.”
Suddenly, Kasethen felt empty. Garret’s pale eyes, his soft lips, the feel of his skin—it all faded before him. How dared he feel such hope, such happiness? He had a duty to his people, and that was not to love. His heart turned heavy, like lead, as it dropped inside of him, into the dark abyss that was once again torn open inside of him.
“It’s up to you, my friend,” muttered the Vasaath. “I wish you wouldn’t leave, but I cannot argue with Vasmenaan and Vasenon. You are our best hope of a truce with the nation, and I trust you more than anyone.” Grunting deeply, he said, “If you accept, I will send fifty of my best men with you. You won’t be alone, and you won’t be unprotected.”
He hadn’t kissed a man for eight years. Not since Tiku. He shouldn’t have put his hopes up.
“Of course,” he nodded at last. “It’s a great honour. Could you do without me?”
The Vasaath looked away, tense. “No.” He grunted, displeased. “I want you to stay, but for selfish reasons. So I must manage.”
Kasethen wanted to stay too, for selfish reasons. But he was a man of honour, so he could not. “You will do fine without me.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply and gazed back. His eyes told the same truth Kasethen already knew; he was stepping deep into enemy territory, and chances were he would be imprisoned again, or worse. Kasethen was not fond of chains, but he would do anything for his people. Anything—even die.
He clenched his jaw. “Don’t worry, I’ll return.”
“I will come and get you if you don’t,” muttered the Vasaath darkly.
Kasethen chuckled—indeed, he believed him. But there was worry in his chest, one he knew would be difficult to be rid of.
Maasa – healer
Ohkas – (oh ma-kas); stranger; “not of Kas”; “not of the people”
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”