The Crimson King: XI
Looking out over the bay from the window high above in Fairgarden, Kasethen felt remorseful. The events down by Fisher’s Lane had shaken Noxborough and exposed the feigned stability.
The Vasaath dealt with the situation the only way he knew how—with cold justice. There was no diplomacy, no compromise, and angry and desperate people were sent out to build the extensions of the city in the biting cold under gruelling supervision.
For a Kas convinced of the infallibility of the rules, it would not seem like a punishment at all, but for a mainlander unused to such physical labour, it could mean the death of either the body or the soul.
They had all advised against it, even Eloch and Baraam. But the Vasaath was set on making an example out of them. Both Garret and Juniper had warned him that the example set would not be understood as such, but the general was stubborn.
Kasethen feared what would happen once he had set sail for Illyria. In his hand, he held the invitation signed by the Emperor himself, with the golden sigil to prove it. It said that the Emperor would be delighted to house a representative of the Kas, and he was even wished a safe journey.
He hadn’t told the Vasaath yet about the message, and he didn’t know how to. The general was agitated, troubled, and believed there to be something in the making amongst the people. He didn’t trust them, and he wouldn’t find it any easier to do so once Kasethen left. Being here, Kasethen could at least keep the general’s head above water. He feared what would become of his friend when he was no longer there to guide him.
“You need to tell him.” Garret’s voice was soft.
Kasethen glanced over his shoulder. “I know.” He sighed. “How are the rebels?”
Garret glided to his side with a deep sigh. “Cold, and angry. It’s the perfect breeding ground for hatred and vengeance.”
Kasethen nodded. “He should have let them see their children.”
“He really should have.” Gently grabbing his hand, he mused, “Is there a way to make him change his mind?”
“I don’t think I can,” Kasethen said. “He has already passed his sentence.”
“You must try,” said Garret. “If not, people will retaliate. There are plenty of rebels still out there, I’d wager, and their numbers are probably growing each day.”
Kasethen frowned. “Juniper knew about this. I wonder how long she has kept it to herself.”
“Don’t blame the girl,” Garret warned darkly. “She didn’t want it to become violent. Of course, she kept it from the general.”
“I don’t blame her at all,” said Kasethen. “I understand her completely. She knows the Vasaath better than I could have imagined.”
“Well, the general is a rather predictable man,” Garret muttered.
“That, he is,” Kasethen sighed. “And I will have to tell him sooner rather than later that I will leave for Illyria within a fortnight.”
“So soon?” Garret mumbled.
Carefully, Kasethen raised the man’s chin to gaze into his eyes. “I’ll come back to you.”
“I’ll hold you to that promise, my dear,” Garret smirked. “I thought of a name for you.”
Kasethen raised his brows. “What?”
“Well,” Garret said, “with so many kasethens and ohkasethens, it doesn’t feel right to have you so… anonymous. And given the strong reaction you had when Baraam mentioned that name—”
Warmth spread in the Kas’s heart, making him a bit giddy. “And what is the name?”
Garret smiled. “I think you’ll like it. Ethan.”
Kasethen furrowed his brows. “Is that a name? It sounds like ethen, our word for wisdom.”
“Befitting,” Garret smiled and caressed his face. “A wise name for a wise man.”
“Ethan,” Kasethen said and nodded. “It’s strange. I like it, but wouldn’t it be odd to change my name just like that?”
Garret reached up and kissed his cheek. “Think about it.”
“What about your name?” Kasethen then asked. “You people tend to have two names, your name and your family name, but I have only ever known you as Garret.”
Garret smiled softly and nodded. “You’re perfectly right. I never received a proper family name. You see, I’m a bastard.”
Kasethen raised a brow. “Why? You’re pleasant enough.”
Garret chuckled. “No, a bastard. An illegitimate child. I was raised by my father, a nobleman, and his wife, but she was not my mother. I never knew my mother. I just know she was a kitchen wench, only a child herself, that was turned away from my father’s household the moment she’d given birth to me. Since I was born out of wedlock, I cannot bear my father’s name, nor can I bear my mother’s. Up here, such children are called Winter, but I dismissed that name long ago. Now, I’m just Garret.”
Kasethen hummed and frowned. “I didn’t know my mother either. None of the Kas do.”
“See,” Garret chuckled and pulled him close. “You and I have more and more in common, it seems.”
The Kas smiled, too. A tender kiss, a lingering sigh, and Kasethen left to find the general. The news was too important to wait and he found the general in the bailey.
It was a clear day, but it was cold was numbing. Every breath felt like a thousand needles tearing through the throat, squeezing the lungs with an icy grip. Kasethen pulled the pelts tighter around his shoulders and strode across the courtyard to the Vasaath.
He was training with his men, running in laps around the grounds, barking at them to keep up with his endless steps. Kasethen felt breathless just by watching them.
“Sir!” he called, and the general gazed up.
“Keep running!” the Vasaath ordered and jogged up to Kasethen. The air around him steamed as the heat from his skin met the chilly winter air. “What is it?”
Kasethen held up the parchment roll. “It’s from Illyria.”
The general clenched his jaw and nodded. Together, they made their way to the study where the Vasaath poured himself a cup of tea and sat down by the fire.
“So, the Emperor invited you?”
The Vasaath sighed, strained. “What can you tell from the letter?”
“It was informative enough,” said Kasethen and joined him. “Not overly extravagant. Quite sensible, actually. Have you given any thought to what we discussed earlier?”
The general grunted. “I will give them until River’s Wakening, the Equinox. If you’re not here by then, unharmed, we will march. Our fleet will sail to Valar’s Bay, and we shall obliterate that city.” He sighed. “When are you leaving?”
“In a week,” Kasethen sighed. “Just after Winter Solstice.”
“The bay has already frozen,” muttered the Vasaath.
“Good thing we know how to sail the frozen seas, then,” Kasethen chuckled.
The Vasaath wasn’t laughing. He sipped his tea, his shoulders squared. “How am I going to handle these treacherous scums without you?”
“They aren’t treacherous,” said Kasethen. “They are angry, sad, and frightened. You have to earn their trust, and you won’t do that by punishing them for fighting for their loved ones.”
The Vasaath grunted. “If they love them, then how can they deny them the opportunities we give them?”
“My lord, they think we’re torturing them,” Kasethen said. “You must remember that they’ve grown up with stories claiming that we eat their young.” He sighed deeply. “You have two of them in your midst. Ask them how to earn their people’s trust.”
“Juniper is too kind-hearted,” the Vasaath said. “And she keeps secrets from me. It ignites a rage hotter than any flame within me.”
“She doesn’t do it to betray you, venaas, but to keep an unnecessary conflict from blooming,” Kasethen sighed. “She’s a skilful diplomat, she knows her people, and she knows you. Give her some credit!”
The Vasaath grunted. “An ethen ought to tell me everything, not keep secrets.”
“Yes, but she doesn’t only have the role of an ethen, now, does she?” Kasethen replied with a glimmer in his eyes. “It might be an unofficial role, but it has become her role nonetheless. She calms you more than I ever did because it gives you another motivation.” He smiled softly. “You don’t wish to disappoint her.”
The general scoffed but said nothing. He only diverted his gaze like a little boy being confronted with undisputed truth. Then, sadness stained his stern face.
“There is still resistance in her whenever I speak with her,” muttered he. “I can sense her disdain, feel her disapproval.”
Kasethen sighed heavily. “Can you blame her?”
“I only want to protect her!” the Vasaath grunted. “I would never wish her harm, but it seems like whatever I do, I cause it to her one way or another.”
“Then speak with her,” said Kasethen. “But most of all, listen.”
The general pouted, again like a little child. But he admitted defeat. “I love her more than I can bear, sometimes. My heart aches when I know I must cause her pain to govern her people. What am I to do?”
“As I said, listen to her,” said Kasethen. “She knows her people. Let her help you instead of desperately trying to keep her from harm.” Then he sighed. “And she is not alone. Garret can also help if—”
“I doubt I can trust Garret,” the Vasaath spat. “He’s—well, he’s you, just serving another master.”
Kasethen scoffed. “We do have a lot in common.” Taking a deep breath, gathering his courage, he said, “In fact, we’ve quite found each other. It’s strange, but it’s familiar. As if it was meant to be.”
The Vasaath frowned. “What are you saying?”
“Well,” Kasethen sighed. “We have a connection. An intimate one.”
“Are you—” the Vasaath began, bewildered. “Are you saying that you—and him?”
Heat spread in the advisor’s face, and he dropped his gaze. “Yes.”
The general huffed. “Well. I must say I’m surprised.”
Kasethen glanced up. His friend’s voice wasn’t filled with anger or resentment—but worry. Genuine worry. “Why?”
“He’s a dangerous man,” said the Vasaath and furrowed his brows. “I’ve learnt how he works. Preferably in the shadows. Who knows what he’s plotting there?”
This caused a smile on Kasethen’s lips. “He was never loyal to the Duke,” he said and leaned forwards, “but to his children.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I am an excellent judge of character, my lord,” chuckled Kasethen. “And if he lies—well, so be it. I choose to trust him. I’ve taken a leap of faith, and it feels exhilarating! Perhaps you should, too.”
The general huffed. “All in good time, my friend.”
“You should let him help you,” stated Kasethen. “He’s a clever man, and he knows this city. He also knows that the best thing for his people is to make peace with us. We are in stark advantage when it comes to numbers, but continued resistance could make our endeavour considerably harder.”
Grunting loudly and discontentedly, the Vasaath crossed his arms. “I don’t like his character.”
“You’ve barely spoken to the man.”
“He shifts loyalties too easily.”
“No, he’s still loyal to Lady Juniper. And if you can trust her loyalty, you can trust his.”
“How do I know he won’t stab me in the back?”
“Now you’re just being difficult.” Kasethen glared at his friend whose behaviour more closely resembled a wilful adolescent than that of the Great Warrior. “Will you please trust me, venaas? He will not work against you.” Sighing, he muttered, “If it makes you less paranoid, please consider this: he would not want you dead—there are thirty thousand kasaath in this city and they would burn it to the ground if anything happened to you. Even more so, Lady Juniper would be devastated. Garret wouldn’t want that on his hands.”
Grunting again, the Vasaath only sank deeper into his chair. “Fine.”
Staring into the flames, Kasethen sighed. “And please, take care of him for me while I’m gone.”
Now, the Vasaath grinned. “Oh, I’ll coddle him like a babe.”
Kasethen glared at him. “If you kill him, I’ll cut off the dangly bits between your legs and feed them to the dogs.”
The Great Warrior smirked and shrugged. “Naturally.”
Ethen – wisdom
Kasaath – warrior; “strength of the people”
Kasethen – advisor; seer; “wisdom of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher