The Crimson King: XVI
He wandered through the dark, empty maze of the sleeping castle, listening to the howling winds outside. His heart was heavy and there was a rage in him he couldn’t be rid of.
Kasethen would have advised him to do something clever, to take a deep breath and think rationally about the recent events—the people fought for freedom only to be shackled once more. Of course, they would keep fighting. Of course, they would sacrifice their lives for their freedom. He could hear his friend utter the words, and the general himself scoffed at them.
He didn’t agree with Kasethen, not even in his head. No, he could not accept the people’s ridiculous attempts. They weren’t shackled—they had been freed from the chains that held them. If only they would open their eyes and see, they would understand.
But the rot ran too deep. He had realised that, despite everyone trying to convince him of otherwise—except Baraam and Eloch, and Vasmenaan and Vasenon. His people. They knew as well as he did that the corruption was too great. He had never met such malice, such madness. The Nornish people were vain, ignorant, and unwilling to better themselves. He should have burned the city to the ground.
And then there was Juniper, his Juniper—the woman who held his heart in such an iron hold, no power in the world could break it. She had lied to him, gone behind his back, and conspired against him. Yet, he loved her. He was a fool, he knew as much, but he believed her when she said she tried to stop them.
His mind kept telling him to reconsider, to look at the possibility that she was indeed trying to overthrow him, but his heart would not listen. He would not listen. He refused to believe she would do such a thing. She would remain innocent in his eyes until the day she drove a knife through his heart. He was foolish, yes, but he was decided. She would, nevertheless, need a punishment.
The other rebels caught in that house would be interrogated and punished accordingly, but the Vasaath recognised many of them. They had sought refuge in the encampment while their Duke burnt down their homes. And yet, it was the Kas they betrayed.
He wandered aimlessly. Sometimes, when he passed a window, he stopped to watch the blizzard outside. Sometimes, when he passed a burning torch, he stopped to warm himself. He was too troubled to sleep, too restless.
He wondered how many truly hated him, and how many out there conspired to kill him. He had enemies everywhere, but he found solace in the fact that he had the Saath. He was surrounded by the People. The city was thriving. The children were learning and making wonderful progress. He would not let the voices of a few speak for many.
But what troubled him most was the fear in his heart. He wondered if Juniper truly despised him now—he had acted like her captor for such a long time, and now, he was. He didn’t enjoy keeping her locked inside her room, especially not when he knew how much her freedom meant to her, but he was a vas of Kasarath. He could not let his heart speak for him—even if it spoke in volumes.
Perhaps that was why he suddenly found himself outside her door again. It was in the middle of the night and one of his men stood on guard outside her room.
“Go. Sleep,” muttered he to the kasaath. “I’ll keep watch.”
The solider nodded. “Thank you, sir.”
When the man had disappeared down the hall, he carefully opened the door.
Peeking inside, he saw the girl underneath the covers. Her dark hair was bound in a braid that lay over her shoulder. Slowly, he snuck into the room, mindful not to wake her. He had claimed a room to himself in the castle, but he did not want it. If he couldn’t sleep next to the girl, he wouldn’t bother sleeping at all.
Stripping down to his breeches and linen shirt, he slid down under the covers and the furs. The girl stirred, sighed heavily, and fell into his body the way she always did. His lips brushed against her hair and he inhaled deeply, taking in her essence. She was such a lovely creature, and it broke his heart to know that he would have to punish her somehow.
His troubles followed him into his dreams and he dreamt of the beautiful little bird he had trapped, and of how it died there in its cell, its feathers shedding to the bottom of the cage. He awoke, heart racing and sweat moist in his neck. He could still hear her dying song, even if she was sound asleep next to him. He sighed heavily and sank into the pillows.
The room was cold. The fire had died. As he couldn’t sleep anymore, he carefully rose to light the hearth. When the flames were eager enough, he returned to bed. He couldn’t yet spy a blush upon the heaven in the east, but he knew it must be at least close to morning.
He was conflicted. This day, he would have to pass judgment upon the rebels and Juniper. The fate of the rebels was known—a traitor could not be allowed to live—but he was still uncertain about the girl.
He rose early, before she had awoken, and made his way to the breakfast parlour. He arrived just as the hamas were carrying in the food and they gasped at his early arrival. The fire was burning freshly and the candles had just been lit. The hamas hurried out of the room and the general sat down by the window and gazed out into the dark morning for some deep contemplation.
Sometime after, he was joined by Garret. The advisor had a sullen face, but he said good morning and joined him for breakfast.
“I suppose we must arrange the gallows today,” the advisor muttered.
“No,” said the Vasaath. “They are ohkasenon and they may choose how to die.”
“The others didn’t have that choice.”
The Vasaath glared at the man. “Their crimes weren’t worthy of any respect. Treason takes courage and conviction; rape is a disgrace, an attack on one’s person and integrity.”
Garret pondered for a moment before he nodded. “So the rebels with choose, then.” He shifted in his seat and frowned. “And what about Juniper? Are you going to let her live?”
The Vasaath glared at him, furious that he would even think such a thought. “Of course, I will let her live,” he growled through gritted teeth. “She will be punished, but she will live.”
The advisor nodded, his shoulders relaxing some. “And what will her punishment be?”
The Vasaath grunted and stuffed a whole boiled egg into his mouth. “I don’t know.”
“What about re-education?”
The general frowned. It would be an insult to her intellect to re-educate her, even if he might have wanted her as something else than an ohkasethen. He shook his head. “You think I would make her work out in the cold?”
Garret cleared his throat. “No. Of course not.”
Eloch and Baraam eventually joined them and they both seemed to agree that the death of the traitors was the only choice. They were, however, rather reluctant to see the girl unscathed.
In their eyes, she was the mastermind. She was the one they pledged themselves to, the one they swore to fight for. Furthermore, her betrayal was greater since she had such an important position. The Vasaath was, nevertheless, determined.
That morning, he sharpened his sword. He knew not what the traitors would choose, but if they chose to die with honour, he would not send them off with a dull blade.
While standing by the whetstone, next to the crackling fire of the smithy, a commotion broke out in the bailey. Peeking out of the forge, he saw two of his guards dragging a stranger into the courtyard, just as the sun rose to greet them. He was badly injured, dark blood dripping onto the grimed snow. The Vasaath straightened and strode out to meet them.
“Great Warrior!” the soldiers greeted.
The Vasaath nodded at the bloodied man. “What is this?”
“We caught him as he was climbing the wall,” said the Kas holding the man. “He and three others were trying to get into the city under the cover of darkness.”
The general narrowed his eyes and slowly approached them. “And where are the other three?”
“Killed in combat, sir,” said the other Kas.
“We kept this one alive, sir. Thought you might want to question him.”
The Vasaath crouched in front of the man and stared into his swollen, beaten eyes. One of them was so badly injured, it was tightly shut, almost black, and swollen to nearly twice its size, the nose was broken and bleeding, and his lip was burst.
Furrowing his brows, the general dropped his gaze to the man’s apparel. It wasn’t Noxboroughian, but it was clearly Nornish. He reached out his hand and touched the bloodied mustard cloak that hung over his chest, and the man squirmed violently. Pulling it away, the Vasaath discovered an imprinted crest upon the chest piece. The Rising Sun.
“He’s from Eastshore,” he muttered. “A royal guard, I would guess—his armour is far too expensive for a commoner, and if he were a nobleman, or served one, he would wear another crest.” Tipping his head slightly to the side, he asked, “What is a royal guard from Eastshore doing here?”
The beaten man spat blood straight in the general’s face and hissed, “You beasts killed my brother!”
The Vasaath jittered as the red fluid hit him. Sighing deeply, he wiped it away and glared at the man. “If you hadn’t come, we wouldn’t have had to kill your brother in the first place. So why are you here?”
“My name is Sir Erick Revane, First Blade of Varsaii, Guard of the Dawn, and a member of the Knighted Brethren,” growled the man. “I may have failed, but know that the Red Sun will set and the Osprey shall fly once again! As long as the Blood of the First lingers in Fairgarden, Noxborough remains!”
The general clenched his jaw. Standing, he glared down on the man. “You arrived just in time. We are executing your friends today, and you will join them. I’ll kill you last so you may see that the Red Sun has only just arisen.” Turning on his heels, he strode back to the forge, his fists clenching and opening in the rhythm of his pulsating rage.
At noon, the rebels and the guard from Eastshore were taken to the execution site behind Fairgarden where Eloch, Baraam, Garret, and two rasaath waited. There, the ohkasenon were informed of their fate and allowed to choose their deaths.
All six of them chose to die by honour. The old man with the beard stood tallest, despite his fragile frame. Resentment shone in his eyes, and while the others cried and pleaded for their lives, he was stoic even as he kneeled in front of the block. He said a short prayer to the Builder and asked to be accepted into his halls of warriors, but he did not fear the blade.
Sir Erick Revane, First Blade of Vasaii, Guard of the Dawn, and a member of the Knighted Brethren, fought them all the way to the block. He was persistent, but no match for the Kas. His head was forced down onto the block by a heavy foot and his arms we held out to keep him in place. He roared, cursed, and spat at them, but the grey warriors didn’t even flinch.
The Vasaath did not waste any time and Sir Erick Revane’s head rolled just as unceremoniously as the rest, the feel of the first chop barely gone when the last was made. He despised executions.
By late afternoon, when the sun had already dipped behind the western horizon, it was time for the general to pass his judgment upon Juniper.
With the arrival of the Eastshorian guards, the situation had proved to be much worse than he’d anticipated. If there had been letters to Tallis, there might as well have been letters to every Edredian kingdom.
Were the Holy Warriors of Edred gathering at that very moment? Were they marching north, guided by faith? Had Juniper become their Holy Maiden that needed to be rescued from the wicked Demon? He knew the Army of Edred had dwindled in the past few hundred years, but war had a way of awakening old ideals and unify old enemies—and if there was something to drive those ideals, it was something to fight for. The Blood of the First.
He was disheartened, devastated, as he had her brought to the throne room. He wanted to pass the judgment on his own, but traditions had it that his council needed to be there.
So, as he saw down on his bench, his three advisors behind him, Juniper was brought in. The girl said very little. Her red eyes told him she had been crying and she stood with her head bowed in front of her judges, her shoulders slumped and her hands anxiously gathered in the front.
The Vasaath sighed. He hadn’t decided upon a punishment—not really. Had the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon been there, they would have voted for her death. If the rebellion indeed followed the Blood of the First, Juniper would always be their anointed champion. House Arlington was an ancient family, descendants of the first Kings of Nornest, but killing her was not an option for him.
Eloch and Baraam would want her to be re-educated and placed amongst the other criminals, but he did not want her with them. He wanted her with him. Nothing else seemed suitable. Nothing else seemed right.
Sighing, he finally said, “You will remain ohkasethen, and you will remain my advisor. Your punishment shall be that you will no longer have contact with the people. You will no longer be their voice to me, nor will you be mine to them. I will not shut you inside this castle, but you will not leave the grounds on your own. My men will accompany you always.”
Sighing, he waited for a reaction, but the girl was silent.
“It won’t be forever,” he muttered. “But it will be until we’ve stifled whatever rebellion is left in the city. If you break these rules—” He clenched his jaw and swallowed hard. “If you break these rules—”
“I won’t,” she mumbled and looked at him. Her silver eyes were soulless, defeated. “I swear it.”
Her gaze jabbed straight through his heart, sending a shockwave through his body. If the Mother could hear him, he prayed that the girl would still love him despite his cruelty.
He nodded stiffly and she was brought out of the room again. The general leaned against his knees, frowning deeply. Tapping his fingers against each other, he tried to be rid of the numbness that had seeped into them at every rapid beat of his heart. Had there been disdain in her gaze? Had he become like her father? What would he do if she didn’t love him anymore?
“You call that a punishment?” Eloch muttered.
“I can see her value as ohkasethen, my lord,” said Baraam, “but you should at least have restricted her movement a bit more. She should be forbidden to leave the grounds altogether. Who knows how many more of them there are out there? Who knows how many more have infiltrated this city?”
“Lady Juniper values her freedom,” said Garret and glared at the two Kas. “Depriving her of it was the worst thing her father ever did to her. Being watched rigorously will be punishment enough.”
“It’s a spoiled Nornish punishment,” Eloch spat. “People will think the Vasaath is favouring the girl! This will only cause annoyance and suspicion amongst all people, ours as well as yours.”
“We are all one people, are we not?” Garret muttered.
The Vasaath said nothing. With a grunt, he rose from the Crown Seat and strode out of the room. He needed solitude, peace.
Hama – worker
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Rasaath – officer; dutiful soldier; true soldier
Saath – military; army; strength; protection
Vas – leader; keeper; order