The Crimson King: VIII
“Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier?” Garret spat while pacing the room.
Kasethen sighed heavily and leaned back in his char. “I—what was I supposed to say? It’s my duty.”
“And what does Emperor Cereo say?” Stopping for a moment in his erratic pacing, Garret’s pale eyes were desperate, his hair dishevelled. “Did he accept and invite you?”
“We haven’t received a response yet,” muttered Kasethen.
The human clenched his jaw tightly, fisted his hands, and huffed before he resumed his pacing. “Of course, the Emperor will invite you. He can’t resist the exotic. He’s a collector.”
“Should I be worried?” Kasethen scoffed.
Garret glared at him. “You’re heading to the Illyrian court. Of course, you should be worried!”
Kasethen clenched his jaw. Anxiety gripped his lungs, squeezed, and wouldn’t let go.
“You could, of course, look for Sebastian while you’re there,” he mumbled as his pacing slowed some. “We don’t know if he made it all the way, but if he did—”
“If he did, I will find him and keep him safe.”
The man placed his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. Before long, he sank down by Kasethen’s knees. “You must promise me to keep your guards close. Never trust anyone in that place. You think I’m a snake—well, those people are far worse.”
Kasethen observed the man in front of him, leaned forwards, and took his face in his hands. “Are there any honour with those people? Can I trust that they will let me go when my visit is over?”
Garret shook his head, his cheeks rubbing against Kasethen’s palms. “No. I would never trust their honour.”
Swallowing, Kasethen nodded. “Then how can we ensure my safety?”
The same ruthlessness Kasethen had seen when the man spoke of his game with Wiltbourne flickered in his blue eyes, and he rose. “I would advise you to threaten them.”
Kasethen gazed at him, pondering. “Threaten them how?”
Garret began pacing again, this time slower. “Explain to them what consequences would follow if they hurt you. The Golden Army is twenty thousand strong. You have thirty thousand men. Illyria hasn’t seen such a threat in centuries.”
Kasethen sighed and rose. “We can’t march south now, and we can’t face Illyria yet. That’s why I’m going there.”
“But they don’t know that.” Garret’s eyes, blue as forget-me-nots, were burning. “I’ve told you, Kasethen. You have to play the game. You have to learn the rules.”
He sighed and looked out the window, and Kasethen’s eyes followed. The snow from the storm had disappeared, but the cold northern winds swept in from the Winter Sea, relentlessly whipping against the naked trees.
Garret took a deep breath. “Give your stay a limit, a day when you are to be delivered back to your people. If you don’t make it back in time, unharmed, the general will launch his attack.”
The Kas moved to the human’s side and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “And if they expose our fraud?”
Garret looked at him. “Then let’s not make it a fraud. Don’t you think the Vasaath would throw everything he had on the Emperor if you were hurt? He did to us.”
Kasethen sighed. He knew he would, and it worried him. “I am going there to foster peace, not wage war.”
“It will be up to them,” said Garret. “If they’re wise, they will accept your proposal and keep you safe. Illyria has never been very keen on Nornest. They didn’t help us during the War of the Kings, and they haven’t helped us since. We are nothing but their uncultivated, uncivilised, and unrefined neighbour. There would be no sentimentality keeping them from entering into an alliance with you.”
Kasethen sighed deeply. “We aren’t ready to march south, Garret.”
“Not now, you’re not,” said the advisor, “but the Emperor doesn’t know that. In his eyes, you’re the Great Invaders of the North. If you tell them there’s an army ready to either foster peace or wage war, not trusting you would be a dangerous game.”
“Do you think it would work?”
“How many of you attacked the Westbridge Army during the Night of the Demons?”
Garret scoffed and smirked. “Fifty Grey Ones terrifying five thousand Illyrian soldiers? Thirty thousand of you could claim the whole Edredian world. If the general embraces the mythos that has flourished around him, the Golden Emperor would not risk it.” Turning to Kasethen and gripping his hands, Garret sighed. “If that won’t be enough, I know how to frighten the Emperor.”
Leaning in, Kasethen smiled. “I don’t doubt it.”
He captured his lips, kissed him longingly, and pulled him close. Garret locked his arms around his neck, and leaned back against the window, pulling Kasethen with him.
When they parted, Kasethen felt the anxiety clutch him even tighter. He would have to leave this man. Warmth fluttered in him when the thought about the fact that this man would do whatever in his power to keep him safe, but coldness spread in his chest at the thought that he might put himself in mortal danger.
A few months prior, he would not have worried as much as he did now. The thought of seeing Tiku again would even have him embrace death, but now—Garret kept him alive, kept him living.
But other things were causing his doubts. He would leave his dearest friend and leader to a fate he had not anticipated, or ever wished for.
Sighing deeply, he frowned. “Someone needs to help the Vasaath while I’m gone. He’s not a political man. You know more about these people and this city and any of us ever will. I am sure you have good thoughts on how it should be run. Will you help him?”
Garret straightened. “If he accepts it.”
Kasethen sighed again. “He will be reluctant. It wouldn’t surprise me if he sees you as treacherous. You were the Duke’s advisor, after all.”
“I’ve told you that I wasn’t loyal to—”
“I know,” Kasethen said and raised his hands. “I know.” Putting his hands behind his back, he seared his eyes into him. “But you will need to be loyal to Vasaath. He is a very clever and perceptive man, and he will see right through you if you do anything that won’t be in favour of the People.”
Garret’s gaze narrowed. “I will always protect Juniper first. I’ve failed her before, but I won’t fail her again.”
“The girl is safe,” sighed Kasethen. “She has captured his heart and he would do anything to keep her from harm. What you need to do is to keep him grounded. He’s clever and competent, yes, but he is always close to action. He has a very strict view of justice, one that might not work that well in this fragile political situation.”
Garret raised his brows. “Yes, I’ve understood as much.”
“He’s reasonable,” Kasethen continued. “Very rarely impulsive, but quick to judge. He is strong-willed, but not overly stubborn. He detests falsehood and values loyalty. If you cower before him when he exerts his dominance in an argument, you lose some of his respect. Stand tall, and you gain some.” He sighed. “He’s a good man, but he needs guidance and counsel.”
Garret nodded, and Kasethen caressed his cheek.
“Please,” he then said, “will you help him, keep him grounded? Ease my conscience?”
Kasethen smiled. “Good.”
Garret cocked his head, his face serious. “You say that Juniper has captured his heart, that he cares about her. What do you mean by that?”
Kasethen pulled his hands away and swallowed. Blinking slowly, he said, “They’re lovers.” He shook his head. “It’s not allowed, but that has never stopped two people in love before.”
Garret tensed. “I’ve expected it for some time, but—” He shook his head. “A sweet and innocent girl as Lady Juniper with such a, well, beast of a man, if you will?” The man crossed his arms, his face in a sour scowl. “And Juniper has gone willingly into such a liaison?”
Kasethen narrowed his eyes. “Do you think the Vasaath would force the girl into such an arrangement?”
“Men have always sought to take advantage of young, timid women,” muttered the man.
Kasethen huffed and crossed his arms. “Amongst your people, perhaps. Such behaviour would be despised amongst mine. The Vasaath would never pursue a relationship of a passionate nature if the lady wouldn’t want it.”
Garret seemed utterly displeased. “How long has this been going on?”
Kasethen shrugged. “For a few months. The Vasaath has had quite ardent feelings for the girl for a long time. I believe she feels the same. That’s my understanding of it, at least.”
“And is he planning on marrying her?”
“We don’t have marriages within the Kasenon. I’ve told you as much.”
“So he would force her into a life of sin,” Garret muttered. “A woman ought not to be with a man who isn’t her husband. It is a sin.”
Kasethen raised a brow. “As is our coupling.”
With a sigh, Garret dropped his gaze. A few moments of silence passed. Garret breathed, and then he gazed back up. “I see that girl very much like my own daughter. If I ever suspect that the general is hurting her, I will do all in my power to remove her from him.”
“I would expect no less,” said Kasethen. “It’s important, of course, that this doesn’t become common knowledge.”
Garret shook his head. “No, it can’t be. If the Noxboroughers find out, the little trust they have in her will disappear. As I said, Edredians don’t like women participating in extramarital activities.”
Kasethen scoffed. “And you worry the Vasaath would hurt the girl? It seems to me like she was already born into an atrocious world. Now, she is embraced by someone who respects her.”
Garret hummed. “I hope you’re right.”
With a sigh, Kasethen reached for the man and pulled him in. “We may be stern and brutal in our own way, but we love with more heart than anything and there is no shame for us. Respect is one of the eight tenets of the Kasenon, and to judge someone for their attraction, like you and me, is dishonourable. As is claiming ownership of a woman and depriving her of her own agency and will. Juniper is safe with the Vasaath, and you are safe with me.”
Garret closed his eyes, exhaled deeply, and leaned his head against Kasethen’s shoulder. “I will miss you.”
Kasethen wrapped his arms around the man. “Wait for me.”
“I will wait for you, always.”