The Crimson King: XVIII
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” said Garret as he turned from the window. “A wedding might be exactly what the people of this city need. And you, my lord, marrying Juniper Arlington? It would make them more comfortable with your authority.”
“This is outrageous!” Baraam spat. “You are the Great Warrior! You are a vas of Kasarath! Why in the world would you lower yourself for such a preposterous union?”
The Vasaath sighed deeply. The discussion had been going on for nearly an hour, and it was always the same arguments. Baraam thought it to be a disgrace, Eloch found it utterly strange, and Garret thought it a good idea.
All the general could think about was Juniper’s happiness when he asked her to marry him, but it was a reckless decision—indeed, he didn’t regret it, but he had not thought it through. Not at all. It just came to him, like a desperate plea for forgiveness. He had seen in her the monster he was. How could he claim to love her when he put her through such misery?
But he could not be the spouse she wanted; he wouldn’t be able to give her a family, or a new status. She would not be Lady Vasaath. She would not follow him as he waged war on the continent. She would not bear princes and princesses or in any way secure a bloodline.
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon might accept their union as the only peaceful way out of the conflict in the city, but they would not accept him siring her children. He feared she might not truly know what she consented to.
While Baraam and Garret kept on bickering, the Vasaath slowly walked to the window. A storm was raging again, covering Noxborough in even more glistening, white powder. Even as the darkness fell, the hurling snow was blinding. It was the coldest month of the year, when the lungs almost exploded from the freezing air, and hardly anyone dared to poke their noses out of the door. Even the Vasaath’s elite warriors were allowed some leisure inside the warmth and comfort of Castle Fairgarden.
And yet, it was colder still in Kasarath. He needed to claim Nornest, for his people. To do that, he needed Noxborough to be secured. He needed his advisors to agree.
“And what will happen when the mainlanders realise that the ohkasenon won’t have any power to give them what they want?” Baraam barked, causing a deep crease between the Vasaath’s brows as he listened carefully.
“Well,” Garret barked back, “perhaps it’s rather good, then, that these people have a very limited conception of what women are capable of. She will be a symbol to them, a reminder that there is still something left of their own, but they know she won’t have any real power!”
“I agree with Baraam, it’s a strange affair, but perhaps it could be beneficial,” said Eloch.
“You’re all pathetic,” Baraam spat. “The Vasaath is a great man! He is a symbol of strength and resilience! That girl is just an ohkasethen.”
“Well, if it’s only a play to the galleries, that would hardly make any difference,” said Eloch. “The Vasaath would still have his court, and the girl would remain ohkasethen.”
“Well, if it hardly would make any difference,” sighed Baraam in ire, “then what is the point of it?”
“If the general accepts the conditions of matrimony, he will be bound to honour the promises he would make,” said Garret. “The people of Noxborough would not look kindly to their leader being unfaithful to his wife, and if this is a political statement, I am sure you would like the people to be satisfied. It is a strategy to keep them from rising, is it not?”
“It is an insult to suggest that girl could fill every need the Great Warrior would demand from a woman,” said Baraam. “She is a traitor and—”
“Enough,” the Vasaath grunted and turned to the party, glaring at all three of them. “Garret is right. If I am doing this, it needs to be on their terms. It needs to be in accordance with their traditions. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a compromise. It would only be a mockery.”
“But you are Vasaath,” Baraam said, devastated. “That girl is a traitor. She is nothing to you! Are you to be neglected of such an important aid as release just because she might feel slighted?”
“It would be a little more than a slight,” sighed Garret. “In Nornest, a woman’s only currency is her reputation. If she is slighted by a King—”
“I’m no King,” muttered the Vasaath.
“You are to them,” said Garret. “Whether you like it or not. You are an invader, a conqueror, and a King. Indeed, Nornest hasn’t had one in centuries, but they aren’t calling you the Crimson Duke, or the Crimson General. They are calling you the Crimson King, and it frightens them. Marrying Juniper is a wise choice, but you will have to do it whole-heartedly. If she is slighted by a King, the people will lose all respect for her.”
“I would be the one at fault!” cried the Vasaath.
“Indeed, you would,” scoffed Garret, “but she would have to answer for it. If she isn’t enough for her husband—”
“This is ridiculous,” Baraam huffed and strode to the door. “Insanity! I shall write the Vasmenaan at once and—”
“And tell her what?” the Vasaath boomed, and the woman halted. “That the situation in the city is stable? That this solution isn’t needed because there is a simpler and faster way to resolve the problem?”
“I have tried everything,” he growled as he stalked towards her. “I have limited them. I have frightened them. I have killed them. That didn’t work, so I negotiated with them. I listened to them. I gave them what they wanted and yet they remain resistant.” He glared down at her. “If this is the fastest way to stabilise this city, I will do it.”
Baraam gazed up at him, her golden eyes suspicious. But she nodded in respect. “Very well, my lord.”
He sighed deeply. “I know you only want what’s best for the People, Baraam. I respect that.”
She cleared her throat. “It’s no secret that I disapprove of many of your methods, sir.” She sighed. “But it is honourable, I suppose, that you are willing to give up your intrinsic needs for the People. After all, a good compromise is characterised by both parties being equally disappointed.”
He clenched his jaw, nodded, and took a step back. Guilt flared inside of him; there was nothing altruistic in this decision whatsoever. He would be able to be with Juniper openly. That was his only motivation. In fact, as everything seemed so clear, he was astonished that he never thought of it before—his pride had hindered him, but not anymore. If it would help the situation, then that would be a welcomed effect but it was never his intent.
“What shall I write to the Vasmenaan?” Baraam asked. “She needs to know. They both do.”
The Vasaath sighed. “Write her the truth. I have failed in bringing peace to the city, and this will be my last attempt.”
“And what of Neema? She’s your vas-maasa now. She is supposed to care for you, not the ohkasethen.”
“She will remain so,” said the Vasaath. Looking at Garret, he added, “A wife, as I understand it, would not be slighted if her husband would turn to someone else for medicine?”
Garret shook his head. “No, my lord. Only acts of intimacy would be considered infidelity.”
“And a wife is not, herself, obliged to know medicine and remedies?”
“No. It is not expected of her. A wife’s main task is to bear children.”
“That will be out of the question, of course,” said Eloch.
The Vasaath sighed heavily. “Yes, obviously. Do go on, Garret.”
“I have not fully understood the maasa’s role just yet, but as far as I can tell, such a person tends to many different facets of someone’s being.”
The general nodded. “Correct.”
“And, if I’m not mistaken, a maasa can choose what services to perform and to whom,” Garret continued, and the Vasaath nodded. “A wife by the words of Edred is bound to her husband and should follow him and him alone. She vows, as well as the man, to have no romantic or intimate relations with anyone who isn’t her spouse. She should support her husband, in all aspects, and care for him. She—”
The man swallowed and wrung his hands. The Vasaath could see the reluctance in his face. Surely, this was a matter he’d rather not discuss.
“It’s her duty as a wife to please her husband, and to know her place as his subject. She will be bound to him until the day any of them dies—a divorce can only be issued by the husband, or the regent. In this case, you will be both.”
Disgust grew in his belly, like a plague that ravished his conscience. He clenched his fists and shook his head. “No woman will be forced to please me. I may adhere to your traditions in this, but I will not force the girl into such a despicable role.”
He knew Juniper, knew she would never be happy with such crippling expectations. He did not doubt that she would please him, but he would rather die than see the day when she felt forced to it.
“So you will refrain from being intimate with the girl?” Eloch asked.
He wanted to laugh at the man. Asking him to keep his hands off her was like asking the wind not to blow. Rolling his neck, he sighed. “If she wants chastity, I will honour her wish. If not, I shall honour my duties as her husband.”
“But you cannot father her children,” said Baraam. “You simply can’t.”
He glared at her. “I know that, but we have remedies, have we not?”
The woman seemed stunned for a short moment before she said, “Yes. Good.” Baraam then sighed heavily and threw her arms in the air. “This is still ludicrous! The Vasaath does not marry!”
“Then what should he do?” Garret sighed. “Most people are too frightened to rise up against your army, but the few who are brave enough can cause enough ruckus to ruin things.”
“Especially if they have help from other nations,” muttered the Vasaath.
Garret concurred. “And we don’t know how many more out there have received the call to arms, and we certainly don’t know how many of them are ready to fight.”
The general nodded. “There will be an official wedding at your place of worship. Let the people see that we have good intentions.”
Garret nodded. “Indeed, my lord. When should this take place?”
“As soon as possible. Now, leave me and send up an officer called Kaal.”
The advisors all bowed and headed for the door, but Garret paused. “My lord,” said he, “may I have another word with you?” When Baraam and Eloch had left, Garret sighed deeply and placed his hands behind his back. “Do you understand what marriage will mean to Lady Juniper?”
The Vasaath huffed. “I think we’ve discussed it quite thoroughly this evening.”
“We have, but we never discussed the fact that you are already lovers.”
The general glared at him, narrowed his eyes, and then he shook his head with a deep sigh. “What else has Kasethen told you?”
“Enough so that I can help you,” said the advisor. “That, for one, would have been beneficial for your advisor to know.” He shifted on his feet and gazed down onto the floor. “I trust you have discussed the matter with Lady Juniper.”
The Vasaath scoffed. “Of course, I have!”
“And she agreed?”
“What do you take me for?” the Vasaath growled. “A savage? Of course, she agreed!”
Garret nodded. “Good, good. Last time I arranged her marriage, she had very little to say in the matter. I wouldn’t want to put her through that agony again.”
“Neither would I,” muttered the general.
“Thank you.” The man sighed. “I love that girl as if she were my own daughter. I don’t distrust you, my lord, but I need to know that she will be well looked after.”
“I consider Kasethen as what you would call a brother,” said the Vasaath, and the advisor’s eyes widened. “If you hurt him—break his heart, betray him, anything—I will kill you with my own hands. Now, I choose to trust that you won’t do any of that, just as you must trust me that I will never hurt Juniper.”
Garret nodded rapidly, his eyes widened in terror. “Of course, my lord.”
The Vasaath nodded. “You may leave.”
With one last bow, Garret left the room, and the Vasaath sighed deeply. He hadn’t thought this through at all—he thought that he could have her all to himself, but their union would be a public matter.
Before he met her, he didn’t care that it was a national matter who was chosen to carry his seed. He didn’t care that he was seen as a stoic symbol without tethers and vices. He didn’t want anything for himself before her—now, all he wanted was her. But he didn’t want the prying eyes, and he certainly didn’t want the expectations of others.
His thoughts were interrupted as Kaal entered. He nodded respectfully. “Anan, Vasaath. You wanted to see me, sir?”
The Vasaath nodded back. “Come in. What is the status?”
“The people have been quiet thus far, sir,” said Kaal. “The news of the traitors’ deaths seem to have reached most people, but I’ve heard whispers that they are relieved you never displayed their heads.”
The general clenched his jaw. “I want to make peace with them, not make them fear me even more.”
“Forgive me for asking, sir, but why?”
He looked at the officer before him. “Why do I wish for stability in this city?”
The soldier cleared his throat and shifted awkwardly. “No, sir. Why would you refrain from making them fear you? I have not been here long, but I’ve seen with my own eyes their lack of respect. Only fear will still them.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “I elevated you to rasaath because I wanted you to keep an eye on the people and the rebellion, not to make assumptions and judgments.”
“Of course, sir,” said Kaal and nodded. “Forgive me.”
But the Vasaath only shook his head. “No, it’s all right. I know how you feel about the mainlanders. You called her Alaana, did you not? The nemethan?”
Kaal swayed a little and swallowed. “Yes.”
“She was your lover, I take it.”
“Yes. We’ve been with each other for many years, since we were young.”
The Vasaath nodded. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
Sighing deeply, the Vasaath poured a cup of wine for the soldier and then poured one for himself. “I want to avoid such instances in the future.” He gave the cup to the officer. “Very soon, I’m about to enter into matrimony with the Duke’s daughter—”
“I’m not finished. I will marry the Duke’s daughter in order to prove to the people that we are here to stay. I want you to make sure that nothing interferes with these plans.” He drilled his gaze into the officer. “Use any means necessary, but keep things quiet until the wedding is over. Do not make me kill another soul before it.”
Kaal was silent, but the Vasaath could see that he was uncertain and chocked. He had a slow, thoughtful sip of his wine before he said, “Sir, this is just one city of six in Nornest. You have five more to conquer. If you’ve faced this kind of resistance here, you can’t expect there to be any less resistance elsewhere. What are you going to do then? You can’t marry them all—or can you?”
The Vasaath grunted and sat down by the fire. The night was pitch black by now, and the winds were still howling outside the castle walls. “I’m not going to marry anyone else. I’m not sure what to do with the other cities. Indeed, if we face opposition, we will need some sort of strategy that is more efficient than what we’ve been using thus far.”
“Sir, if you don’t mind me saying it,” said Kaal as he joined the general by the fire, “but I think you’ve been too kind to these people. They have shown you nothing but contempt. Clearly, they have no scruples killing us!”
“To be fair, most have shown me nothing at all,” muttered the Vasaath. “They have obliged and stayed away from trouble. It’s only a few who have caused me any inconvenience.”
“As far as we know,” said Kaal. “We don’t know how deep this rebellion runs. There might be no one left, it might be all of them. We don’t know. Do you truly think marriage, with their champion, no less, will solve anything?”
“It’s their language,” muttered the Vasaath. “They unite nations with marriages. They end wars with marriages. They have an obsession with bloodlines, and we might as well make use of it.”
“Indeed,” nodded Kaal and had another sip of his wine. “But, sir, what do we do if this is what we’ll face in the other cities when we invade?”
The Vasaath grunted again, gazed into the flames, and pondered. He was tired. Deep inside, he cared not for the mainlanders. They were pestilence in his eyes, corrupted. There was only one of them he cared about, and he would do anything for her. It ruined him.
“May I make a suggestion?” Kaal said cautiously, and the Vasaath nodded. “You, sir, took a whole city with only two hundred men. You sent the Westbridge Army home with their tails between their legs—and only with fifty men! We’ve all heard the stories. You became the Demon.”
Admiration exuded from the young soldier as he leaned forwards. He knew that look. It was the same look he had had when looking at the former Vasaath, just before he realised that the pride would be his downfall.
“So why not be the Demon?” continued Kaal. “These people have proven that they don’t care you’re not really fiendish, that we’re not beasts. Our efforts have been in vain, so why not just be what they already think we are?”
The Vasaath sighed deeply. “That was my very thought as I snuck into their camp in the dark of the night and slaughtered one hundred men. We tore their limbs off their bodies, open them from neck to crotch, strung them up on the walls, and let the crows feast on their flesh. We sedated them with Dreamgrass, forcing them to watch as we killed their brothers. We preyed on their worst nightmares, Kaal, and made them real. It was a vile act, one I can barely believe I did. Do you suggest we do the same in the other five cities?”
Kaal gulped. “No, sir. Of course not. I just meant—”
“I know what you meant,” grunted the Vasaath, “and I agree. We don’t have time for this kind of resistance. It’s a nuisance we could do well without. We must march before River’s Wakening to prepare for the Equinox, and we won’t have time for absurdities like the ones we’ve met here.”
“So what should we do when we advance to the other cities, if they refuse to submit?”
The Vasaath set his jaw right and stared into the fire. The flames danced in the dark like ribbons, flickering with heat and purity. He set his brows low. “We burn them.”
He gazed up at the soldier. “If they don’t submit, we burn the cities. We burn the corruption, burn the rot. We should have done so from the very beginning and it would have saved us a lot of grievances. No more negotiation. Order through submission. They are not our kind and do not wish to be. We have a war to win, and I shall.”
Strangely excited, the rasaath nodded. “Yes, sir! Aamon-at an Vasaath!”
The Vasaath nodded and swallowed, feeling oddly heavy. Instinctively, he gazed at the door and noticed that it stood slightly ajar. He thought he had seen a pair of silver eyes staring back at him, but he shook his head to be rid of the haunting guilt—yet, an icy sensation filled him as his muscles stiffened.
The girl would despise him. She would bind herself to a demon. He snorted—mostly to himself and his wretched guilt—and leaned back.
“Now, leave me,” he muttered. “And close the damned door on your way out.”
Kaal fumbled on his feet and bowed hastily. “Yes, sir! Good night, sir.”
He scurried out and the moment the Vasaath heard the door shut, he leaned forwards again with his elbows on his knees and gazed into the fire.
He thought he could spy a pair of golden eyes stare back at him through the flames and a shiver ran along his spine—who was he? Who had he become?
Aamon-at an Vasaath – “Honour to our Leader of Strength and Protection”
Anan – greeting; phrase of opening and closing (informal)
Maasa – healer
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
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
Vas – leader; keeper; order
Vasaath – general; military leader; “Leader of Strength and Protection”