The Bird and the Beast: IX
The Illyrian court was a most peculiar thing to a Kas. It was improper to say what one actually meant, but it was equally improper to not mean what one said. Everything was done subtly, but with the strongest of intents. Kasethen rarely felt uncomfortable, but this was indeed quite bothersome.
Emperor Cereo was a lavish and extravagant man with a taste for pleasures and entertainment; the grey warriors seemed to pique his interest and the Emperor tried, more than once, to invite Kasethen to his bedchambers. Kasethen politely declined—surely, such intimacy was quite improper for his mission.
Any talks of military and political alliances were, however, strictly forbidden after supper and were preferably not mentioned before lunch, leaving Kasethen with a rather small window of opportunity each day.
It was thus a comfort not to be the only northern foreigner in the court. Sebastian Arlington was a quiet boy, more so than before. He was like a fish out of water, terrified by their free life and love.
After his surprise visit to Kasethen’s room, they had found a better understanding of one another. The boy had come to show his gratitude for what Kasethen had done for him and told him that he owed him a favour, and Kasethen replied that his morals cared not about gratitude or debt. Seeing the boy alive was enough.
They hadn’t had the chance to speak much more than that, seeing as the poor princess was trying to keep a distracting conversation with Ra and Kavas—neither of which was good conversationalists, even in their own tongue.
Kasethen had managed to convey that his sister was safe and well taken care of, and it seemed to calm the boy greatly. Sebastian had then returned the favour by warning the advisor of the Empress Dowager—she did not like the Kas. In fact, she hated them and would do all in her power to keep Illyria safe from them. An alliance would not be welcomed by the Mother of the Emperor.
This, Kasethen became painfully aware of during dinner one evening about a week after his arrival. Being an exotic rarity in Emperor Cereo’s court—the intelligent grey savage—he was expected to join the Emperor for every meal, much to the Empress Dowager’s dissatisfaction. On this particular night, the elderly woman could not keep silent any longer.
In the middle of a conversation about Kasarathi customs, the Empress Dowager slammed her napkin onto the table and barked, “How could you accept this, Cereo?” As the whole table silenced and all eyes turned to her, she cleared her throat, straightened her back, and nodded, “Your Imperial Majesty.”
Emperor Cereo, seemingly quite surprised by this, shifted awkwardly in his chair. “Stop embarrassing yourself, Mother. We are speaking about different cultures—learning. Isn’t that the mark of a great leader?”
But the proud woman would not have any of it. “This is a disgrace! You’re breaking bread with a monster, and he is speaking to you, the Emperor of Illyria, as if you’re his equal!”
“Now,” muttered Kasethen, “if I may—”
“No, you may not!” spat the Empress Dowager and glared at him. “You come here with the promise of a diplomatic intent, but meanwhile, your King has threatened with invasion if you don’t return in time for the Equinox! In what world is such a threat compatible with the promise of a truce?”
“Your Highness,” said Kasethen sternly, his voice bearing, “I can assure you that the Vasaath does not intend to in any way provoke you. It is merely an insurance of my safety, as I am sure you can understand. We recognise your strength as well as we hope you recognise ours. We do not wish to go to war against you, but to reach an agreement and help each other. Both the Kas and the Illyrian Empires could benefit from an alliance.”
“Empire?” The Emperor leaned back in his throne-like chair and hummed. “You consider yourself to be an empire also?”
Kasethen clenched his jaw. “I don’t know, Your Majesty. Our goal in conquering Nornest is the greatest endeavour we have ever taken upon ourselves. We do not know what we will call it once it’s no longer Nornish.”
“And why should we assume that you will be satisfied with that deprived, cold, and depressive excuse of a country?” muttered the Empress Dowager.
“We have very little ambition for grandeur, Your Highness,” said Kasethen. “Nornest suits our needs just fine. What we will call our gathered nation is thus far unknown.”
“But you have a King,” Emperor Cereo smirked. “So it can’t possibly be an Empire. It must be a Kingdom.” He chuckled gleefully. “It might be a bit too complicated for you, of course.”
Kasethen strengthened himself. “We do not have a King, Your Majesty. Our leadership consist of a Triumvirate where each part has equal power. One is chosen from birth, one by combat, and one is chosen by the people.”
There was silence around the table for a few moments before the Emperor burst out laughing, followed by everyone else. Even Sebastian snickered, although not as joyously as the others.
Kasethen scowled, feeling a slight vexation rise within. “Our leadership might be too complicated for you, Your Majesty.”
At once, the laughter quieted. The tension hung in the air as the Emperor glared at the Kas with furious, brown eyes. He shifted in his seat, clearly too insulted to do anything else, but then he huffed and relaxed.
With a dismissive hand, he said, “You’re right, it sounds ridiculously complicated. Three leaders? How quaint!” With that, he started laughing again, and the rest followed suit.
Kasethen sighed and returned to his meal as he watched the Empress Dowager excuse herself and leave the table altogether. Clearly, she did not approve of her son’s ease, and Kasethen wondered who really held the power. He would never assume the Empress Dowager to be a meek woman—quite the opposite, and that worried him.
“Kasethen!” the Emperor suddenly called. “Tell me again of this maasa.”
The advisor sighed deeply. “What would you wish to know, Your Majesty?”
The Emperor wanted to know everything, but most of all, he wanted to know if a maasa could be compared to a very expensive whore. Kasethen, quite angered by the assumption, told him no, and that started a discussion around the table that was wholly appalling in Kasethen’s mind.
These people, so frivolous about worth and dignity, had no shame in their bodies. While the Kas weren’t in any way embarrassed or ashamed by sexuality or needs, they would never discuss the matter with such grotesqueness as these royalties and nobles.
The Emperor did not seem very interested in political matters whatsoever. In truth, he had not once initiated a discussion about their budding alliance—it was all a matter discussed, or rather quarrelled, between Kasethen and the Empress Dowager. When the advisor when to sleep that night, he did so with the intention of reaching out to the old woman in the morning.
When dawn approached, Kasethen rose early. He knew the Empress Dowager had her breakfast before the Emperor, and so Kasethen made his way through the White Citadel towards the breakfast hall, closely followed by Kavas. It was a palace unlike anything he had ever seen before, with marble and gold throughout the building, and he struggled to find his way around it.
As he finally arrived, he noticed that the Empress Dowager wasn’t alone. Behind her by the wall, stood a large guard with full plate armour, a longsword at his hip, and a long, white cloak over his shoulders. Joining the Empress Dowager by the table, was Princess Celia, but the two women were not speaking to each other.
Turning to the warrior behind him, only to tell him to wait, he noticed that the kasaath’s eyes were firmly settled on the young lady in the large room ahead of them.
He cleared his throat, coaxing the attention of the man. “It’s a dangerous dream, Kavas.”
The warrior clenched his jaw and nodded shortly.
“Wait out here. I don’t want the Empress Dowager to feel more threatened by us than she already does.” As Kavas once again nodded, Kasethen entered the room. At once, he could see the sour expression grow in the old woman’s face as his presence was noticed.
“Celia, leave us,” muttered she.
“Leave.” The woman’s tone was vicious, and the poor girl gawked at her. But she knew better than to question such a powerful woman and rose from her seat with a rebellious scoff.
The girl passed Kasethen with her nose turned up, and he smiled gently as she left.
“She has the fire of a warrior,” said he.
“Not at all,” muttered the Empress Dowager. “She’s just spoiled. What do you want?”
Kasethen sighed and carefully sat himself a few seats down from the woman. Her grey hair was elegantly fashioned in an updo with pearls and gold. Her bearings were that of a woman with experience in all things, and she did not seem at all interested in what the Kas was about to say.
Kasethen, however, took a deep breath and said, “I understand you have quite strong feelings about me and my people, Your Highness, feelings of disdain.”
The old woman narrowed her eyes. “I am not as blind as my late husband’s daft bastard seems to be—I’m not enthralled by your stature or your prowess. I’m too old for such silliness. You see, unlike most people in this palace, my main concern each night is not whom I should bring to my bed but what I need to do to protect my son and his Empire.”
She took a slow sip of her tea while Kasethen held a scoff.
“I know your people,” said the woman. “I know your intentions, and it is not to enter into an alliance with my son.” She smiled coldly. “At the first opportunity, you will rip this country apart.”
Kasethen sighed and leaned back in the chair. “I wonder what we ever did to provoke such hatred in you.”
“You destroy everything you touch,” said the Empress Dowager. “My homeland, Tallis, has long endured your relentless attacks, and you’ve never shown us any mercy or kindness.”
“Ah.” Kasethen nodded. “A Tallisian.”
Indeed, it was true that the Kas had often raided the northern shores of Tallis under the leadership of the former Vasaath. He had been on a fool’s quest to rid the world of the so-called rot, something he had passed on to his successor—but unlike the current Vasaath, the former had not received the proper guidance, nor had he had the same reasonable nature.
“It has been more than a decade since we set foot in Tallis,” said Kasethen. “The Vasaath keeps away, knowing the harm we have done to you in the past.”
The woman chuckled darkly. “Instead, you land in Nornest and start conquering.”
“We have our reasons,” said Kasethen. “Illyria wasn’t always as grand and powerful as it is now. The Southern Reach belonged to its people, as did Blackwood, the Wilder Hills, and the Great Woodlands. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Vault and the Pillars with their Holy Warriors claim this land as sacred and made it their own?”
“That was over a thousand years ago,” muttered the Empress Dowager. “I hardly see the relevance in that.”
“It all starts somewhere,” said Kasethen.
“And if you start with Nornest,” said she, “what makes you stop there as well?”
“Why did the former Emperors of Illyria settle for this?” shrugged Kasethen. “They could have had this entire set of land, from the Southern Reach to Winter Harbour. It’s almost three hundred leagues of farmable land. But they chose to settle. There has never been an attempt to claim the North, has it? Why is that?”
“It’s cold and sad,” scoffed the Empress Dowager. “Why would anyone want it?”
“We want it,” said Kasethen. “And we will settle for it. Nornest is more than enough for us.”
The Empress Dowager observed Kasethen with cold eyes, but still searing. After a few moments, she said, “Why are you here, truly? Why have you come? What do you want?”
“I wanted to speak to you.”
“No, why have you come here, to Valaris? To Illyria?” She scoffed again. “Why not just take the North and be done with it? Why come here, claiming you want an alliance, and then threaten with war?”
Kasethen challenged her glare. “We do want an alliance. We want an insurance you won’t march on us as we’re taming the North.”
“So that’s what you fear?” she sneered. “Our strength?”
Kasethen clenched his jaw and sighed deeply. “We can match it, don’t imagine we wouldn’t. We, however, believe that we could receive greater benefits from working together.”
“Illyria will never ally with the likes of you.”
“That is not your decision to make.”
The Empress Dowager smiled. “You don’t think I can control my own son? I know exactly how he works.” The woman sighed and rose from her seat. “This is the Holy Land of Edred, and for all intents and purposes, you’re the Demons of the North. Mark my word, the bell shall ring clear across the Edredian world and every Holy Warrior will heed the call.” Nodding gracefully at the Kas, the woman added, “Take care, Grey One. You might think you’re safe in this city, but an enemy of the Builder is an enemy of Valaris itself. Not even the Emperor can protect such a threat. Good day.”
Kasethen felt his heart race as the woman made her exit through the back of the room, followed by her guard. He was furious—and terrified. Shooting up from his seat, he marched out the way he came in.
Kavas stood where he had been left, but his eyes were fixed in another room where the Princess was leaned against a sofa, reading a book. Clearly, she had very deliberately seated herself in that particular spot, just where the sunlight hit the window and made her auburn hair glitter like fire, in order to entice the kasaath—and it seemed to work perfectly.
Kasethen scoffed and grunted at the warrior, “If you wish to bed that woman, you should hurry up, before it’s too late.”
Kavas gawked at him, but all he could say was, “Why?”
Striding past him, Kasethen muttered, “Because we might have to leave this place much sooner than we’d anticipated.”
Kasaath – warrior; “strength of the people”
Maasa – healer