The Bird and the Beast: III
“We have looked everywhere, my lord,” reported the soldier carefully. “We can’t find her.”
The Vasaath tightened his fists and glared at the soldier. “Then look again.” He tried to keep calm, tried to carefully articulate each word not to raise his voice, but his temper was slipping.
The Kas shifted slightly and said, “We have spent three days combing through the city, my lord. There hasn’t been a nook or a cranny we haven’t checked. The ohkasethen can’t possibly be in the city still.”
“And where do you propose she is, then?” the general barked and glared at him. “Do you propose she’s disappeared into thin air?”
“No, my lord,” muttered the soldier. “But we might have to look at the chance that she could have been taken from the city, or perhaps she left on her own.”
The Vasaath scoffed and started pacing. She hadn’t left him—she wouldn’t have. Not after their night together, not after his proposal. She would never leave him. Furiously, he demanded the soldier to fetch him Garret, and the Kas left as quickly as possible. The Vasaath kept pacing. His chest heaved and his fists were tightly clenched. He wanted to hit something—someone.
When he awoke that morning and she wasn’t there, he didn’t think that much about it. It wasn’t unusual for her to rise before him, and he made his way to the breakfast parlour as every morning. When he didn’t find her there, he started to wonder. When Eno met him and asked for the lady, he was getting suspicious.
He barked at the youngling, telling him that he had once again neglected his duties, but Eno was not to blame. And so the search began, and since then, three days had passed. Three agonizing days.
Indeed, the thought had appeared to him—did his vicious acts finally become too much for her? Had she reached her limit? He hadn’t truly given it any thought before, that his demands were compromising her being. Their love had always been forbidden, for both of them, but they had persisted.
When she took the vows and became part of the Kasenon, he knew it was going to be difficult for them. A vas of Kasarath wasn’t supposed to love—not like this. The rules forbade it. Yet, he didn’t want to think about life without her. He loved her too much, and it was killing him. Had he driven her away?
He had been faithful to her, protective of her, loving—but he had not been perceptive enough. Whatever drove her away, he hadn’t seen it. When she asked him to make love to her as though it was their last night together, he didn’t think much of it. He only thought to pleasure her, to pleasure himself, and nothing more. Now, he wondered if it was just an ironic coincidence—or if she had already decided.
When Garret entered the study, he was equally worried. “Any news?”
The Vasaath shook his head. “Nothing.”
The general sighed. “My men have combed through this city. If she was here, they would have found her by now.”
Garret grunted and poured himself a cup of wine. He downed it in moments and poured another. “We’ve searched the castle, the dungeons, the docks, and the entire city. You had men guarding the wall the entire night, had you not? But there was a violent storm…”
“Perhaps someone else managed to breach the walls?” the Vasaath said and looked at the advisor. “Four men from Eastshore tried to climb it, remember? What if there were more of them?”
Garret hummed. “Could be, but how would they have snuck into the city and into Fairgarden without anyone noticing? Did you share her bed that night?”
The Vasaath closed his eyes and sighed heavily before he nodded.
“Then how on earth could she have disappeared from straight under your nose?” the advisor barked.
“I don’t know!” the Vasaath barked back. “I’d kill anyone who would try to steal her from my bed! But she could have gone up during the night. Perhaps she needed to use the privy?”
Garret scoffed. “Do you think they would risk waiting for that?” He sighed and swept the contents of his cup before he refilled it again. “I think we will have to consider the possibility that she left on her own volition.”
“No!” the Vasaath bellowed and felt his entire body tense. “She would not leave me!”
Garret stood in shock and gawked at the man.
The Vasaath huffed, roared, and grabbed a chair and flung it into the wall, shattering it into tiny pieces. “Juniper did not leave me, do you hear? She did not—” A sob was caught in his throat. Leaning against the table, he let his head hang. After taking a few breaths, gathering himself, he looked up. “She would not leave me. Not like that. She would tell me if she wanted to go.”
Garret’s face softened. “Would you have let her if she did?”
He breathed deeply, heavily. Tears were edging his eyes, but he forced them back as he shook his head. “I don’t know. Am I a monster if I said no?”
Slowly, the advisor moved forwards. “Love is crippling, my lord. I wouldn’t have let her go. I love that girl, and I would chain her to a wall if that was needed to keep her safe.”
The Vasaath looked at him. “I fear I have driven her away.”
“Juniper has always been kind-hearted, but even such a heart has its limits. What has happened here is tragic in many ways, but I suppose it’s necessary for such peculiar circumstances.” He sighed. “She, on the other hand, might not be able to bear it.”
The general huffed. “Bear it or not, why would she disappear just like that?”
Garret shrugged in defeat. “If she hasn’t been taken, she could have gone out looking for Sebastian. If not, then perhaps the marriage proposal was overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for people to have cold feet before entering into matrimony. Builder knows Juniper has had quite terrible experiences in the past.”
“Why would she feel doubtful marrying me? She didn’t seem very doubtful when I pleasured her that night, and—”
“Thank you, my lord, that is hardly anything I should hear about,” cried Garret and raised a palm.
The Vasaath scoffed. “She did not seem uncertain, that’s all.”
“Well, my lord, uncertainty can appear quite suddenly. Being a married Edredian woman comes with certain expectations. I did tell you—”
“She knows I would never force any of that upon her!” the general spat.
Garret sighed and shook his head. “There is a plethora of reasons for why she might possibly leave. Perhaps she didn’t do so on her own accord. Perhaps she was taken, after all.”
The Vasaath glared at him. “Then what do we do?”
Garret placed his cup on the table. “I say we look for her, wherever it may demand of us. If she has somehow managed to get out there on her own, she is in grave danger. When Duke Arlington ordered the murder of Duke Cornwall, he doomed himself and his children. A crime like that is passed down. Since he’s dead, his children will have to answer for the crime he committed. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a price on her head. Regicide is a serious crime, and she will hang for it.”
The Vasaath clenched his jaw tightly. “So, they would take her to Westbridge?”
Garret nodded. “They would need her alive for the trial in the Vault.”
The general straightened. “Then we go to Westbridge. We take the city, burn their damned Vault, and take Juniper back. If she’s not there, we take all of Nornest—every city, ever Dukedom, and we won’t stop until we find her.”
The advisor frowned. “My lord, let’s not be reckless and—”
“Did you not just say that there was a price on her head and that we should go after her no matter what it demanded of us?” the Vasaath barked.
“Don’t you want her back as much as I?”
“Of course I do, but—”
“Then we go after her.”
“My lord,” Garret said through gritted teeth. “There is still the problem with the instability in this city. If you leave now, there is no telling what the rebels will come up with.”
The Vasaath took a deep breath and looked down on the human before him. “I’m tired of trying to get the people to accept me as their leader. Either they do, or they don’t. Those who do will live a comfortable life as a member of the People. Those who don’t will die. I should never have wavered from the very beginning.”
“If you hadn’t, you would have driven the girl away much quicker than this,” muttered Garret.
“It can’t be helped,” the general muttered. “I don’t care if she hates me, as long as she’s safe.”
“And the city?”
“Taking Westbridge won’t require all my soldiers,” said the Vasaath. “I will leave with ten thousand warriors. That should be enough, don’t you think?”
Garret sighed deeply and tightened his jaw. “I thought you were going to wait until River’s Wakening.”
“I’ve never said anything of the sort,” muttered the Vasaath.
“And Kasethen?” Garret’s voice trembled, either of anger or fear, but his eyes were hard.
The Vasaath furrowed his brows and tilted his head ever so slightly. “The condition is that Kasethen is delivered to us, unharmed, by the Equinox. If not, we march on Illyria. That’s what we agreed on, is it not?”
Narrowing his eyes, the general growled, “Then how do you suggest we march more than twenty thousand soldiers south if everything between here and Illyria is enemy territory?”
“I thought you would wait,” barked Garret. “This city is just waiting to burst, and when it does, it might be innocent caught in the fray. Children!”
“I was going to wait, to make it one great campaign when the weather is kinder, but things change.” The Vasaath turned towards the windows. “My men will keep order. The innocent and the children will be safe, but the people of Noxborough will know quite quickly that there will be no more mercy. We said we came to save you, but that’s not strictly true. We came to save ourselves, and the Kasenon and the People will always come first. As of now, however, finding Juniper is my first priority.” He turned back to the advisor. “So, is ten thousand Kas warriors enough to take the remaining cities?”
Garret sighed deeply, slumped his shoulders, and nodded. “We don’t know how many men are still stationed in Westbridge, but ten thousand soldiers are more than enough.” He took a seat. “Kinghaven have nothing. They have barely a City Guard. It’s a city of farmers, taverns and bards. Riverport has at least two thousand men, perhaps more. They have issues with River Bandits from the Wilder Hills of Illyria. Eastshore is like Kinghaven, they only have fishermen, and Ravensgate, well—they want to think of themselves as grand, but they don’t have more than a thousand soldiers at most. They are, like Riverport, all busy with keeping River Bandits away.”
The Vasaath hummed. “Good. I will make the arrangements and we will depart within the week.”
“My lord, a week is a very short time to prepare for a campaign, is it not?”
“Have you ever prepared for war, Garret?”
“No, my lord.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “No, but I have. My men have. They know what to do. They have been ready for war since they left the shores of Kasarath. We have horses, armour, and weapons at the ready. All we need is food and provision for the journey. Nornish people are greedy, are they not? Let us send out word of a reward immediately. How much gold do we have? How much can we offer?”
Garret frowned. “We have the gold reserve, of course, but would it be unwise to—”
“How much?” the Vasaath growled.
“It’s too much to count, my lord. A hundred thousand sovereigns, at least. Most of it is borrowed from Illyria, Tallis, Varsaii—it’s not ours.”
“It’s mine now,” muttered the Vasaath. “I’m not all that familiar with the value of gold, I’m afraid—but fifty thousand sovereigns for her safe return to me would be a most generous reward, no?”
Garret seemed to nearly faint. “M-my lord,” he gasped. “Fifty thousand sovereigns… such an amount could start a war!”
“Good,” said the general. “Then we know people will be inclined to find her, keep her from harm, and bring her to me.”
“My lord, would you really want to make her more wanted amongst ruffians and ruthless bounty hunters than she already is?”
“The rewards will, of course, only be given once she’s returned, unharmed and untouched,” muttered the Vasaath. “If they have put their hands on her—well, I will rip them apart slowly. They will feel it, I will make sure of it.”
Garret nodded, although a bit greenish. “Very well. And who will be in charge when you’re gone?”
The general glared at the advisor, and then he cleared his throat. “I will inform Eloch and Baraam about my decision, and I will leave one of my officers to act on my behalf. Make no mistake, if my orders are being ignored, I will know, and I will act accordingly.”
“Yes, my lord.” Garret sighed and rose. “I must know, what will you do once you find her? If she has left on her own accord—she knows quite a bit about you and your army.”
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes, feeling hot, desperate rage and fear rise within. “Are you suggesting that she would betray me?”
“No,” Garret muttered, “of course not. But if she does, I need to know what you will do once you find her.”
The two men glared at each other. The Vasaath could see that the advisor did care for Juniper fiercely, and he wondered if the general was going to kill the girl if it ever came to that. At that moment, he wondered the same.
Clenching his jaw tightly, he muttered, “Her punishment will depend on her crime.”
Garret took a ragged breath, his eyes watering, but he did not question the Great Warrior.