The Crimson King: XIV
The Crown Seat in Fairgarden was placed in a cold, dark room. It was evident that no one had entered it since the Kas took the castle—not even the Vasmenaan—and on the walls, the Osprey banners still hung over the dark stone.
Every step echoed ominously in the empty space, and the throne at the end of the room was nothing special. It was a tall chair draped with red silk and on the seat, there was a gold-threaded cushion.
“The Duke rarely sat in here,” said Garret. His voice was low, gentle, and still, it bounced throughout the room. “It was mainly used for ceremonies. Knighting, royal weddings, namings—”
“Why am I here?” the Vasaath drawled.
Garret turned on the spot, sighed deeply, and brought his hands together. “Kasethen tasked me with helping you in your endeavours of bringing stability to Noxborough. And—” Moving to the draped seat, he urged the Vasaath towards it. “—an important step to gaining respect and obedience from the people is to present yourself as a figure they can understand.”
The general huffed, but it would not deter the advisor.
“As of now, the people see you as little more than an obscure omnipotent voice acting through your army. When they think of you, they see the Grey Warlord, or the Crimson King, if you will, but they don’t see a firm hand leading them into a brighter future.”
The Vasaath raised a brow. “And sitting on that chair would make them see me as such?”
“It’s the gesture, my lord,” said Garret. “Let them know you’ve claimed the seat. Let them come with their issues and show them how you will help them, face to face. Lady Vasmenaan and Lord Vasenon acted through delegates, distancing themselves from the people. I am certain such a strategy is perfectly fine with people who are used to it, but the Nornish people aren’t. We have had one sovereign, one ruler, since the dawn of time. The Duke is a public figure—loved and hated equally, but known by all.”
“I am not that kind of leader,” the Vasaath muttered. “I’m not a Duke.”
“I know, my lord,” nodded Garret. “And I admire your strong conviction of it, but this is Nornest. You took the city, you executed the Duke, and you have been given the sole power of this Dukedom. In their eyes, you are the Crimson King.”
The advisor slowly touched the chair, let his hand slide along the silk, and sighed. The Vasaath waited patiently, but the man took his time.
“Being called a King is a rather special thing in the Free Cities,” he said. “Nornest haven’t had a king in five hundred years. That the people look upon you as one—the implications of that are quite serious.”
“I am not a King,” the Vasaath grunted.
“I know.” Garret raised his palms. “I’ve realised that the governing in Kasarath is very different from ours, and it will take time for the people to understand how it works. It might even take generations.”
The Vasaath tightened his fist and scowled. “A child will never swim unless it hits the water.”
“But without help, it will surely drown,” Garret muttered.
The general closed his eyes, tried to still his frustration. He had promised Kasethen to listen to Garret, but he hated where this was heading. “I’m not sitting on a golden cushion.”
“Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this chair,” said Garret. “You don’t even have to sit at all, if you don’t want to. All I’m suggesting is that we open this room up.” He sighed. “For the past five or perhaps ten years, the Duke didn’t let commoners into the castle. I can only imagine what an insult that must have been for the hardworking people of this Dukedom. Surely, that is partly why the resentment rose to such treacherous levels.”
“I don’t have time to meet the people every day,” muttered the Vasaath. “We have three times as many inhabitants in this city than before and most of them eat like, well, soldiers; we are building entire new districts, I have an army to prepare for—” Biting his tongue, he tightened his jaw.
Garret slowly paced forwards. “I know, my lord. Waging war can’t be easy.”
“It’s not, and—” He gawked at the man. “What?”
Garret snickered. “I’m not a fool, my lord. I never expected the Grey Warlord to settle for Noxborough, and an army like that? Well, the likes of it can only be found in Illyria. But starting with Illyria is, of course, a reckless move. There are many Dukedoms between them and us. Westbridge has no army left—I doubt many soldiers stayed after the Night of the Demons—but their city is like an impenetrable fortress. High walls and treacherous surroundings. If they man the walls, they would withstand almost anything. I say you go for Kingshaven first.”
The general cocked his head, bewildered. There was sincerity in the advisor’s eyes. “And what of Kingshaven? Why start there?”
“Because it’s the way to Eastshore, my lord,” said Garret. “Kingshaven holds Builder’s Pass, the only way thought the White Mountains. Control it, and you control the mountains. Once you’ve secured Eastshore, you’ll control the two biggest harbours in Nornest.”
“And this chair will help me in this effort?”
“This chair, or rather this room, will help you bring stability to Noxborough,” Garret nodded. “If you are going to wage war, my lord, you don’t want anarchy where you have your seat. But, in order to achieve that, you will have to make some compromises.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “What compromises?”
The advisor brought his hands behind his back. “I propose you let them come to see you once a month. Meet some of their wishes. Winter Solstice was a good start, but they won’t settle for that.” Before the Vasaath could reply, he raised his palms. “I’m not implying that you have to betray your convictions, but you will have to meet them in some matters.”
Sighing deeply, he looked around the room. “I don’t want that chair. Bring up the seat from my tent in the fort. And change the banners.”
“Of course, my lord.”
* * *
The Vasaath never thought he’d be nervous as a leader, but preparing himself for the first audience had nearly destroyed him. It wasn’t fear, but anxiety. How could he turn away from the Kasenon? How could he ever compromise with the corruption?
The moment just before the people lined up in the halls were about to enter the throne room, the Vasaath, dressed in his full leather armour with his black pelted cloak, took his seat upon the driftwood that had been brought to him from his tent.
The black banners with the red run hung where the Osprey banners used to be, with torches blazing between them. Juniper was there, standing next to the seat. She looked regal in her crimson dress and intricate braid.
Even Garret had dressed for the occasion. Baraam and Eloch stood behind them, as excited as a pair of learned of Kasarath could be in such a situation.
The Vasaath took a deep breath, clutching his hands on his knees as he straightened his back. He could barely feel the gentle hand that landed on his armoured shoulder, but he felt the comforting scent of lavender as Juniper carefully leaned in.
“It will be all right, my lord,” said she. “We all support you.”
The Vasaath glanced over his shoulder at her, and seeing her smile made him warm inside. Finally, he nodded and looked at the soldiers down the hall as they stood by the doors. “Let them in.”
The ordeal took longer than he’d anticipated and he was bored out of his wits after only a few minutes. The people coming to have an audience were from all classes, all districts, and they had the most ridiculous requests for him. Some, he could help. Those were the small matters, such as a house in need of repairs or a family in need of firewood for the cold nights.
But there were matters that made him furious, things he never even considered to be possible.
A woman, thin and weakly looking, came forwards and spun a tale that made the hairs stand on the back of his neck. This woman was a former pleasure worker, placed as a maasa, and exploited by all the men who didn’t have to pay for her services anymore.
She wasn’t alone, she said, and she wondered, her voice drenched in heartache, what they had done to deserve being treated so awfully without even getting some gold for their troubles. Without giving away too much of his emotions, the Vasaath promised to look into it and put an end to it.
More troubles arose. The former nobles were exploiting the hamas as slaves, the craftsmen and women of the city refused to work if not being paid their wages, and the people were still demanding to see their children.
Few of these people understood the correctness of the Kasenon—they refused to see the riches they could live with if they only submitted to the Kas way of life—and still valued their wares and services through currency. They even valued themselves through currency and refused to do anything for free. They seemed incapable of understanding that their lives weren’t bought, but shared.
“Enough!” the Vasaath barked when yet another mother cried for her child, causing the entire room to fall into silence. “Enough of this! You are all spoiled and weak-willed! The corruption has seeped into your minds like poison!”
He rose from his seat, and the first and second row of onlookers stumbled back in dread.
“There will be no payment. We provide you with comfortable lives; food, clothes, and security. All your needs are taken care of. All we demand in return for such generosity are your services and your respect. Your children will be properly educated and cared for, and they will be spared from the corruption. I will hear no more of it. As for the abominable exploits I’ve learnt of, make no mistake—justice will be served.”
The silence was deafening as the general gazed out over the terrified eyes looking back at him. His chest heaved, his fists were clenched, and he could hardly believe such stupidity existed.
They all looked like sheep as they peered up at him, shrivelled and petrified, and he scoffed before he turned and exited through a door in the back. It led to a narrow corridor that ended in one of the great halls of the castle, but it was so narrow, he nearly had to move sideways through it, and it was so unused, dusty cobwebs hung from the ceiling and hit his face.
The walls encased him to the point where he could barely breathe, and the nearly fell out through the door on the other side.
He started pacing inside the great hall, trying to calm himself. This was no role for him. He couldn’t stand listening to the whimpering, unappreciative, and ungrateful people demanding the impossible.
How could they not see? The Kas had released them from tyranny and given them the possibility of stability and prosperity, and yet they refused them. Perhaps, he thought, it would have been better if he scorched the land just like he’d wanted since the very beginning.
Juniper, Eloch, and Baraam hurried after him through the narrow hall and as they stumbled through the door, the Vasaath raised his eyes at them.
“Tell me they’ve left this castle,” he growled.
Juniper nodded and gathered her hands, just as she always did when she was nervous and cautious. “Garret is making sure they leave the grounds.”
“This was a failure from the start,” muttered Baraam.
“But the intent was wise,” said Eloch. “Perhaps we could reiterate and—”
“No,” groaned the Vasaath. “They don’t know what they want. They just come to complain, and I don’t have time for that.”
“It’s important to have a good relationship with the people, my lord,” said Juniper. “You need to listen to them even when you don’t want to.”
“Like your father did?” Baraam asked mockingly.
“No,” Juniper snapped fiercely and glared at the Kas woman. “And it ended with the people mindlessly attacking anyone and anything. We would not to wish for that to happen again, would we?”
“We are already there,” Baraam snorted. “They are already on the breaking point. Your father led them there.”
“The people are capable of change!” Juniper cried angrily. “If we show them kindness and fairness, they will see that—”
“Fairness?” shrieked Baraam. “They neglect their children, they neglect each other, and they neglect themselves! If there was any fairness in them, they would—”
“Enough!” the Vasaath boomed, and the two women silenced. “If the two of you can’t see eye to eye on things, then so be it. But don’t bicker like children about it.” Sighing deeply, he straightened. “Baraam, fetch Neema for me.”
The woman seemed confused. “My lord, she is a saath-maasa. What would you want with her?”
The Vasaath felt his blood boil as he glared at the woman. “It’s no concern of yours, but if you must know, that woman has intimate knowledge of the group of women who are being targeted and exploited. Are you going to ask any more useless questions or are you going to follow orders?”
The Kas blinked, clearly offended, before she bowed. “Yes, sir.” What that, she hurried out of the hall with Eloch close behind.
“That was unkind of you,” Juniper muttered.
The Vasaath huffed. “You don’t even like her.”
“Perhaps not, but it was unnecessary of you to berate her like that.”
Sighing, he closed his eyes. “Yes, you’re right. I’ll apologise once she returns.” He turned to her. “I thought you said they would be happy with seeing their children on Winter Solstice.”
The girl’s shoulders slumped. “I knew it wouldn’t satisfy them, but I believe it did quench some of the flames.”
He nodded. “And yet, they ask for more, just as I said they would.”
Gently, the girl placed a hand on his arm. “They will always ask for more, my love, even when they know they can’t have it.”
“But why?” he asked.
She smiled sweetly. “Because they have hope.”
He gazed at the hand on his arm. It was small yet filled him with security. Gently, he grabbed it and pulled her closer. His other hand caressed her cheek.
“What would I do without you?” he whispered.
Their lips met—a sweet yet yearning kiss. He held her close, wrapped his cloak around them both in the chilly room, and just enjoyed the small intimate moment. Her lips were soft, moist, and tasted just as sweet as honey. She squirmed in his grip, giggling and claiming that someone could walk in on them at any moment, but the Vasaath held fast and claimed her mouth again.
“My love,” she spluttered and pushed herself away with force, violent giggles escaping her as she looked at him with her silver orbs. Holding a hand over her mouth, she shook from her snickering.
The Vasaath grinned. Silliness like this was rare, but it did wonders to his annoyance. He was just about to pull her back to him when hurried steps echoed in the hall outside. The two lovers parted and wiped the grins off their faces just in time as a soldier rushed in.
“Vasaath!” he called. “Sir! They’re attacking the schools! They’ve come for the children! The Second Battalion is on their way!”
At once, the general tensed and clenched his fists. “Good. Surround the schools. No child is to be taken from the grounds. They are to be protected at all costs.” Glancing at Juniper, he added with a mutter, “And if possible, keep everyone from harm.”
“Yes, sir!” The soldier nodded and scurried away.
The Vasaath sighed deeply. With one last glance at the girl, he followed the soldier out of the castle and into the bailey.
The men rushed about like a well-trained unit and while the general’s horse was being saddled, the Second Battalion, containing a hundred men, had already lined up and started marching.
As soon as Aamos was saddled, the Vasaath mounted and rode on towards the schools. There were a lot of people gathered by the buildings, and there were shouting and screaming. The situation seemed to have blossomed in only a few short minutes.
The soldiers managed to separate the crowd from the school buildings, and the children that had been snatched from the nemethans were returned. The mothers and the fathers fought the soldiers, held on to their children for dear life, and clung to the men once they managed to retrieve the howling children.
Their cries and screams echoed in the fading light, and in the tumult, a man managed to grab hold of one of the nemethans and held a knife to her throat. The woman was a young Kas, lithe and delicate in comparison to her sisters and an easy target for a malicious rebel.
“Stop!” the man roared as he pressed the knife to the woman’s throat. Everyone silenced but the children, and the scene stilled. “Give us the babes, and this one lives!”
The Vasaath forced his horse to a stop and swung down from its back. “Release that woman!”
“Don’t come any closer, or I’ll cut her throat!”
The Vasaath stopped, his hand on his sword-hilt. “Calm yourself, man!”
“You are a tyrant!” the man yelled, his eyes bloodshot and strained like a madman. “A bastard tyrant! A demon! You’re all demons!”
“Lay down the knife and spare yourself,” the general barked. He motioned his men to carefully advance, but the madman shouted at them to stop as he pressed the blade further into the grey skin, drawing blood. The Vasaath tightened his hold of this sword.
“I want my son!” the man screamed fiendishly.
“Release the woman and let us speak in peace, man,” warned the Vasaath.
“Give him to me!” bellowed the man, his voice strained. “Give him to me! Give him to me! Give him to me!”
With another scream, the blade slid across the woman’s neck, cutting deep into her flesh. As the throat opened, dark red blood flowed from the wound and stained the white ground. The woman took one last breath, the light disappeared from her golden eyes, and her body fell lifelessly onto the crimson snow.
An abyssal roar echoed from the army, like a beast on the verge of dying, as one of the kasaath came hurtling forwards with his sword brandished high. With one swift movement, the large Kas had severed the madman’s head from his body. Devastated cries and gasps were heard from around, and the Vasaath strode furiously towards the two dead bodies.
The kasaath gazed down upon the woman and dropped his sword. Crying heedlessly, he reached for her but hesitated. When the Vasaath approached, he quickly fell to his knees, sobbing like a child.
“Forgive me, Great Warrior. She—she had my heart.”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw. The scene was gruesome, but he could not deny the injustice that had occurred. The nemethan, young and innocent, had been murdered in cold blood by a madman. The kasaath, whose loved one had been killed right in front of him, served the only justice there could be. But the judgment wasn’t his to make. He had taken matters into his own hands and let his emotions steer him into making a foolish mistake.
The general looked about. The people gawked at him, in anticipation and trepidation, as if all of them knew what was coming. He suddenly felt unsure, undecided. The crowd, including his own soldiers, waited for him to pass the ultimate judgment.
The soldier had made a decision that wasn’t his to make. He had acted well outside his station, a crime worthy of harsh punishment. This man had taken the life of another without the command. He had acted in ire, and that was beneath him—but the Vasaath could not see the justice in executing the man who was crying on his knees, mourning the loss of his beloved.
Taking a deep breath, he placed his hand atop the soldier’s head. “We shall never forget,” he muttered as he felt the trembles of the man. “Claim your sword.”
The soldier looked up in horror. His golden eyes were reddened, fearful, but he did not resist the order. He reached for his sword and rose to his feet, ready to fight for his life against the Vasaath himself.
But the Vasaath only sighed. “There will be no more deaths today. We will build her a pyre and you may call for the Mother’s blessing yourself.”
The kasaath almost collapsed as he exhaled, but as three more soldiers joined him, he gathered himself before they gently lifted the woman’s dead body onto their shoulders and carried her away.
The Blue Hour was upon them, and while the Second Battalion remained by the school buildings, guarding the children and the rest of the nemethans, the procession carrying the fallen sister disappeared into the deep blue of the night.
Hama – worker
Kasaath – warrior; “strength of the people”
Maasa – healer
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Saath – military; army; strength; protection