The Blood of the People: III
The Vasmenaan was not impressed. It was unclear what she had expected in the first place, but it was evident that she was disappointed. Her nose was wrinkled, her lips were pursed, and her sighs were heavy.
“This city smells of filth,” she muttered.
The Vasaath rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, one gets used to it.”
“It will have to get cleaned,” she sneered. “The waterways are too narrow and shallow, the gutters are barely gutters at all.”
“All those things can be improved, you know,” the Vasaath muttered.
The Vasmenaan shot her gaze at him. “I do not appreciate your tone, Vasaath.”
“Well, I am sorry,” the Vasaath spat and glared at the woman, “but I am quite exhausted after spending the entire summer in this wretched city, waiting for your aid—which never came.”
“You seem to have managed splendidly,” said the Vasenon.
“We were fortunate the people were already on the brink of civil war,” the Vasaath huffed. “If they hadn’t been, the fight would have ended very differently.”
“But it didn’t,” the Vasmenaan said sharply.
The Vasaath was boiling as he growled, “We almost had to face five thousand men. You have no idea what I had to do to prevent it.”
“Almost is the keyword here. You almost had to face five thousand men, but you didn’t.” The Vasmenaan sighed. “Whatever you did, you did it because you had to. I trust your judgment, and I trust your competence.”
“If you trusted my judgment and my competence, you would have sent me the army when I first called for it,” the Vasaath growled. “Did you even receive my message?”
“We can explain that mishap,” said the Vasenon softly.
“Yes, please, do,” the Vasaath muttered and turned to the man.
The Vasenon cleared his throat. “We received your first inquiry, but the Vasmenaan and I both decided it was too soon to send the army.”
“That decision is not yours to make,” the Vasaath spat. “You put this entire campaign at risk!”
“We had to put the army at work somewhere else,” the Vasmenaan said. “New land had to be worked in the south. I don’t suppose it will work, but we had to try. We couldn’t afford to ship them all here.”
“You have plenty of workers at your disposal, so why use mine when I needed them?”
“The soldiers are fed almost twice as much as the rest, Vasaath,” the Vasmenaan said. “It’s only fair they do twice the work as well.”
This, the Vasaath could not dispute—but his anger still fumed. Anger, as well as fear. “They why did you come now?”
“The recruits returned from the Northern Greeting a moon ago, because the snow has already started to fall in the mountains,” said the Vasenon.
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes. “Snow? In summer? It’s not supposed to come for another month or so.”
“Yes,” said the old man. “The cold is seeping further south earlier each year. Soon, the Everfrost will reach the Heartlands, and then there will be no more food. We knew then that your mission couldn’t fail, and since we hadn’t heard of your success, we knew the time was nigh.”
“What took you so long?” the Vasmenaan asked. “Why didn’t you take the city earlier?”
The Vasaath glared at her. “I was waiting for my army.”
“You left with your best warriors, confident they would be enough,” said the Vasmenaan as she raised a brow.
“And I was mistaken,” said the Vasaath, his jaw clenched.
“A mistake that could have cost us everything.” The woman challenged him, stared him down, and he wanted to scream at her, bellow in her face, but he refrained. She was the Great Mother and she deserved his respect.
The Vasenon sighed. “I sense there is some unresolved tension between the two of you. Clear the air, and then we’ll continue this discussion some other time. I will have a taste of that lovely dinner the ohkas have been so kind as to make us.” The man bowed to his two peers and left the room.
The Vasaath and the Vasmenaan kept glaring at one another before the Vasaath diverted his eyes. He would never win such a challenge, so he wouldn’t even bother trying.
The Vasmenaan sighed and wandered about the room. “I do not wish to fight, my dear. I’m tired from the journey, and quite frankly, I’m worried about what lies ahead.”
“Yes,” said the Vasaath and sighed. “So am I.”
“It must have been a dreadful summer for you, trapped in this place.”
Sitting down, the general huffed. “These people carry a madness I have never seen before. They turn on one another with such ease, it’s a miracle they’ve lasted this long.”
“All aren’t affected by this madness, I suspect,” she said. “That woman, the young one, with black hair—she had intelligent eyes. Who is she?”
“Lady Juniper Arlington,” said the Vasaath and tensed. “She’s the daughter of the regent.”
“Why was she standing next to you, and why was she wearing our colours?”
The Vasaath tightened his jaw. “She’s an ambassador of her people and her culture, but she is our ally. She has been of great value to us and our cause. She has been learning our ways.”
The Vasmenaan raised her brows. “She’s quite handsome, too. But you have already noticed that, have you not?”
His heart suddenly raced, and his thoughts ran wild in his head—how did she know? Careful not to give away his emotions, he replied, “I have, but I fail to see how that is of any importance to our mission.”
“There was a look in that girl’s eyes, down by the docks, earlier today,” said the woman. “A look I have seen many times, in many young men and women over the years—nervousness, fear, shame. Most people, Kas and human alike, look at me with awe. Only those with something to hide, look at me with shame. So what did this girl have to hide?” She looked at him, scrutinised him, before sighing. “Why did she, a petty noble whose city we have just taken by force, stand next to you, the great general of Kasarath?” She paced the room ever so gracefully. “You left without a vas-maasa, despite my warnings. Don’t take me for a fool, Vasaath.”
He searched his mind for something to say, for a lie to present—but he could not lie to this woman. He could not lie to the Great Mother. Defeated, he said, “I tried to resist her, I truly did, until I couldn’t fight it any longer.”
The Vasmenaan sighed and sat down as well. Her face softened, as did her voice. “I warned you this would happen, did I not?”
He huffed. “Not exactly.”
“I told you,” she said. “I said that sooner or later, your frustration would lead you to irresponsible choices. I don’t know what you were thinking, leaving without a vas-maasa.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply, irked by the suggestion that a maasa would have lessened his struggles. He might have believed it too, at first, but he knew now that it would never be enough.
He huffed. “I never thought it would take this long. I never thought I would be stuck here the entire summer, but that girl—well, she eased my troubles.”
The woman sighed. “It’s always a risk being intimate with an ohkas. They often attach themselves, develop feelings of dependence. All it takes is one instance.”
The Vasaath’s chest tightened, but he said nothing.
“At least, you haven’t led the girl on, I hope?”
Thousands of thoughts rushed through his mind as he tried to decide whether to tell her the truth or to keep the true nature of his affair with Lady Juniper in the dark. He didn’t want to lie, but he knew what reprimands he could receive if he revealed his feelings—and his carelessness.
“Vasaath?” The Vasmenaan’s voice was suspicious, and the more she pressed him, the more difficult he found it to answer. Finally, she said, aghast, “What is the nature of your relationship with that woman?”
He glared at her, a retort at the tip of his tongue, but he remained silent.
“Is she your lover?”
The Vasaath looked away, ashamed.
“Are you out of your mind?”
He grunted and returned his gaze. “It has been out of my control.”
“Out of your—you are Vasaath!” she gasped.
The Vasmenaan was seldom upset, her poise always calm and confident, but now, the woman was nearly fuming.
“You are the embodiment of strength and perseverance! If you cannot control yourself, then how can you expect that from any of your soldiers?” She took a few deep breaths, gathered herself, before she said, “One instance of weakness and desire, I could have turned a blind eye to, but you do not take lovers!” Sighing deeply, she leaned back in the chair. “Whatever you have with that woman, you need to end it. It’s for your own good, and hers.”
“I’ve never felt more at ease than when I’m with her,” said he.
The Vasmenaan let out a singing sigh. “We are not meant for such relations, my dear. It’s a great sacrifice, yes, but one we must be willing to make. It’s a difficult struggle, but one we must master. For some, it takes a lifetime, but we can only master it if we are vigilant.”
He sighed deeply, defeated and heavy-hearted. “You could make her a vas-maasa.” It was a stretch, a desperate attempt to cling to the little slip of happiness he had experienced, but he had to try.
The Vasmenaan looked at him, almost with pity in her gaze. “You know as well as I that I cannot do that.”
“Why not?” He leaned back, feeling his fighting spirit return to him. “Why is it that an ohkasenon can’t be a vas-maasa?”
“Ohkasenon aren’t apt for healing leaders,” said the Vasmenaan. “They cannot be trained for it.”
“Well, from my own experiences, I’m bound to disagree—I’ve trained her quite well,” drawled the Vasaath.
She glared at him. “Don’t be obscene.”
The Vasaath huffed. “Well, I’ve been content. More so than with any vas-maasa, and it doesn’t matter what you say or think about it.”
“She won’t be vas-maasa.” Her tone was final, stern. “You have to release her from the duties you’ve put on her. You left your vas-maasas in Kasarath, and that is your own fault. Frankly, I’m quite shocked at your selfishness. I’ve known you all your life. I held you at my breast when you were just a small infant. I kissed your head and saw greatness in your future. Don’t betray that great promise with selfish desires.”
He gritted his teeth and leaned forwards. “I have given everything to the People, to the Kasenon. Don’t call me selfish.”
The Vasmenaan seemed unimpressed by his statement. “Then don’t be selfish.” She sighed and rose. “I don’t even understand why we are discussing this. It should be self-explanatory. You will end your relationship with the girl, and I will hear no more if it.” Then she moved to the door. “Things will have to shape up in this city, my dear. Winter is almost upon us, and the larders in Kasarath are empty. We will need to draw up plans to farm the lands and to ration out the food, and we need to do it quickly.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply, but nodded. Indeed, it was important they focused on the mission, perhaps now more than ever.
Maasa – healer
Ohkas – (oh ma-kas); stranger; “not of Kas”; “not of the people”
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Vas-maasa – “healer of the leaders”