The Bird and the Beast: XIII
“How are you faring with these, well, extraordinary people, Sebastian?”
It was a rare occasion in the Golden City of Valaris that Kasethen could walk the gardens with the young boy without the suspicious glares of the guards.
Even Sebastian, though clearly unnerved by the large Kas warriors that guarded Kasethen, seemed relieved to be away from the Emperor’s court. “They are strange, to say the least.”
Kasethen chuckled. “I suppose we Northerners are a bit more reserved.”
“Well, I am more of a Northerner than you, of course.”
The boy huffed. “Not in Nornish measures.”
Kasethen only smiled. The day was quite chilly, but it was far from the raging winter in Noxborough.
“So, you will conquer all of Nornest?” Sebastian muttered after a moment of silence.
Sighing deeply, Kasethen said, “You must think of us as having the cruellest of intentions, but we aren’t the monsters as you think we are.” Seeing how the boy only scowled, Kasethen continued. “We want peace and safety, fairness and equality, just as much as anyone, but Nornest—you can’t possibly claim that the Nornish way is fair and equal.”
Sebastian only shrugged. “Is any? It has been the same way for hundreds of years—if it was so bad, then why haven’t people objected?”
“People are objecting everywhere,” said Kasethen. “But the problem is that their voices aren’t heard, because, to the ones in power, their voices don’t matter. Eventually, it all boils over as it did in Noxborough.”
“It wouldn’t have happened unless you were there.”
“Oh, make no mistake, Sebastian, it would have happened sooner or later no matter what.”
The boy walked in silence, his hands tightly closed in front of him. Then, he whispered, “I was a coward. I hid in the castle like a little child when my people were being killed outside the gates.”
“You weren’t a coward,” said Kasethen. “Courage isn’t about being fearless; it’s about doing something despite one’s fears. It’s also not about being reckless. Going out into that battle would have served you no other purpose than being reckless and losing your life for it.”
“I could have encouraged the men to fight harder.”
“And they would have died all the same.” Kasethen sighed, stopped, and looked at the boy. “The Vasaath and his Saathenaan are a force no army wishes to fight, let alone one that has never truly been to battle. The fight was over the moment the Westbridge Army turned on their heels. It’s regrettable, but your presence on the battlefield would have made no difference.”
“But I don’t understand,” said Sebastian. “How could two hundred soldiers beat more than a thousand? We outnumbered them five to one!”
“You forget the thousands of people—Noxboroughers!—who rioted,” Kasethen said and frowned. “That alone is a most terrifying opponent, but together with the Saathenaan, it’s no wonder you lost. A Kas soldier is said to be worth more than ten mainland soldiers. Whether or not that is true, I cannot tell you. What I do know is that the difference between your numbers and ours wasn’t enough to make up for the differences in experience, strength, and discipline. We came to conquer, and that, we did. We couldn’t afford to fail, so we didn’t. In this matter, I’m afraid Noxborough didn’t stand a chance.”
Sebastian sighed and shook his head. “All my life, I’ve been told that my right to rule Noxborough was undisputable. Nothing could ever take it away from me. We have Kingsblood in our veins, descendants of the last King of Nornest, anointed by the Builder himself. We nearly won the War of the Kings, you know.”
He smiled softly and Kasethen hummed in curiosity.
“Lord Calder Arlington, the Duke at the time, had found evidence that his wife was the illegitimate daughter of King Elfred. That would make their son, Lord Selwyn, the last living male with Kingsblood in his veins. The heir to the throne.”
Kasethen hummed impressively as the pair slowly began walking again. “According to your custom, shouldn’t that have been enough to end the war?”
“There were many men wanting to sit on that throne,” said Sebastian. “So, of course, once the other Dukes found out the truth, they set out to kill the Duchess and the child. But the Duke had two sons, one of whom was a bastard.” Sebastian scoffed. “I don’t know if it’s true, but legend has it that he disguised his bastard, George, to look like a proper little lord and sent him away with his wife while he kept Lord Selwyn in Fairgarden, disguised as the bastard.”
Kasethen raised a brow. “And no one had seen the boys before?”
“They were kept closed inside the castle because of the war,” said Sebastian and shrugged. “All people knew was to look for the Duchess and a child. They found her, of course, and killed both her and little George. Calder then realised that Selwyn would never sit on that throne. So, Selwyn had to live out his life as his half-brother, a lowly noble with little rights. When he became of age, he gained legitimacy. George Winter became Lord George Arlington, the heir of Noxborough. No one ever knew he was really Lord Selwyn, heir to the Nornish throne.”
Kasethen nodded, his brows furrowed. “The King’s Accords prevented this Lord Selwyn, to claim the throne once he became of age, thus preventing you from one day claiming it?”
Sebastian shrugged. “I haven’t read the King’s Accords. I don’t know what they say, more than that no one is allowed to call himself King in Nornest anymore.” Sighing, he said, “Suppose it doesn’t matter now. All I know is that I was told I carry the blood of Kings, Blood of the First, and that I was destined for greatness.”
The young man scoffed again and kicked a pebble on the ground.
“Apparently, that prophecy didn’t predict a devastating invasion by the Demons of the North, and it certainly didn’t predict me becoming the Duke of Nothing. I suppose I’m not even Duke at all, seeing as my father committed such a heinous crime.”
The advisor hummed again and put his hands behind his back. “We have similar sayings in our culture. Legend tells us that the spirit of nature, the Mother, seeks its way to a young girl who one day becomes the Great Mother. We claim that the wisdom of every star gathers in the eyes of the Great Thinker once he or she is elected. It is also said that once the Great Warrior is defeated in a challenge, his spirit enters into his opponent and grants him the strength and glory of all the past warriors.”
He looked at the boy and his silver eyes were sceptical yet filled with the curiosity of a child.
“They are all meant for greatness,” Kasethen continued, “but the stories are only make-believe. It isn’t the spirit of nature, the wisdom of the stars, or the strength of a thousand generals that fills them—it’s the symbolism, the implication of value and responsibility. Claiming that you have Kingsblood in your veins doesn’t grant you any special gifts or advantages, but it encourages you to seek your own future and to find honour and glory, because you have it in you.”
“And what is glory now when my birthright has been taken from me?” The boy looked at Kasethen, his eyes glossed over.
Kasethen sighed. “My dear boy, if you think that your only way to glory is through your birthright, you have cursed yourself.”
Sighing deeply, the boy wrapped his arms around himself. “I feel powerless. Useless. Who am I, really? Have I earned the title of Duke? I’ve done nothing. I’ve fled my home, that’s what I’ve done, when my people needed me the most. I’m no warrior, no ruler. I led an attack against the invaders but turned back with my tail between my legs because I was afraid. In the face of Death, I turned back.”
He scoffed in devastation, clearly forcing down a sob. Kasethen clenched his jaw.
“I still see him in my nightmares, you know, your general,” Sebastian muttered. “I see him raise his massive sword and take my father’s head again and again. I see his horrible wolflike eyes stare at me with a thirst for blood. I cowered in the face of danger, and I will live with that shame for the rest of my life.”
“Only a fool is unaware of his limits,” said Kasethen. “The Vasaath is a warrior, steeped in blood. He was raised with a sword in his hand, and his teacher was even crueller than he’ll ever be. People like you and I, however, aren’t warriors. Perhaps you don’t know yet what you are or will become, but I can see a lot of myself in you. You’re a thinker. The same doubt, the same worry about the future—”
“I’m no different! I, too, was raised with a sword in my hand!” muttered the boy.
“And yet, you shy away from battle,” said Kasethen. “One of the most profound things I have learnt during my time as the Vasaath’s advisor is that there is much more to being a warrior than wielding a sword. I know how to wield a sword, but I’m as far from being a warrior as anyone would ever be.”
He looked at the boy and smiled faintly. He was so young, so lost, so blinded by the mainland curse of grandeur and pride.
“It’s in your heart, you see,” he then said. “To be a warrior, you have to be able to close it, only for a moment. You see, if you can’t do that, you can’t kill on command—because at that moment, on that battlefield, you don’t see an opponent, but someone just as frightened as you. If you doubt then, only for a second, it could be the difference between life and death. A warrior cannot doubt, but a thinker must.”
Sighing in defeat, Sebastian mumbled, “I’ll never be who my father wanted me to be. For sixteen years, he raised me to be a ruthless ruler, a warrior, and all the while, he lied to me about the state of the world. I thought people loved me, praised me.”
“I never knew your father,” said Kasethen, “but I think it might be possible he lied to himself as well.”
“When I was a child, Father was the perfect Duke and Noxborough was a grand Dukedom,” said Sebastian. “I knew he would never truly love me, but I respected him. I tried to please him, all these years, and yet—I think he was ashamed of me when he died. He always saw me as a weakling, but I think he always hoped that he could make a man out of me in the end.”
Gently, Kasethen placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You aren’t less of a man just because you can’t close your heart. And you are still so very young. When I was your age, I barely knew which way was up. You have the world at your feet, Sebastian Arlington. Enter it with love, respect, and compassion, and it will give back tenfold.”
A quiet sob escaped the boy, but he quickly wiped the tears away. Then he cleared his throat. “I need to go. I have promised to join the Princess for afternoon tea.”
Kasethen nodded. “Of course. Enjoy.”
Sebastian hurried along, but turned after a few feet and looked back at Kasethen. “Do forgive me if I have offended you and your people. I am admittedly bitter about the defeat, and I can find no room in my heart to feel any love for your people, but you are a good person. If you are, there are undoubtedly more. I… I thank you for your wisdom.”
Kasethen smiled. “It’s water under the bridge, venaas. Now, go on. Don’t let the Princess wait. I hear she’s impatient.”
A ghost of a smile appeared on Sebastian’s lips as he disappeared down the lane.
Kasethen’s smile fell. He had promised Garret he would protect the boy, but his stay in Valaris had become noticeably more dangerous—just the other day, someone had poisoned his wine. Fortunately for him, he could smell Eldar’s Tears anywhere. The look on the Empress Dowager’s face when he did not touch the wine was telling enough. From that day, he slept with one eye open.
During supper that evening, the news arrived that the Vasaath had already taken Westbridge. It came as a surprise to everyone, most of all Kasethen. He had not expected the Vasaath to do anything before Kasethen returned—or didn’t.
“It says in the letter that he was last seen marching on Kingshaven, but this must have been more than a fortnight ago,” said the Emperor and glared at Kasethen. “How can I know he isn’t coming here?”
Kasethen clenched his jaw. “Your Majesty, it is not his ambition to take Illyria.”
“And are we supposed to believe the words of a demon?” spat the Empress Dowager. “What do you take us for? Fools? My son, I suggest we imprison this man and execute his guards. We don’t want a snake in our own backyard.”
“I can assure you,” said Kasethen impatiently, “that we have come only with peaceful intentions.”
“Such lies are difficult to swallow from the mouths of beasts,” growled the lady.
“Mother!” barked the Emperor and sighed. “Let us not quarrel over supper. That makes me lose my appetite. Indeed, I do find this rather worrisome, but we will discuss this tomorrow. I do not want to hear another word of it tonight.”
With that, the discussion ended, but Kasethen and the Empress Dowager glared at one another from each side of the table.
That night, Kasethen had a bad feeling. Something was brewing, and he did not like it. He told his guards to be alert, should anything happen. But the night seemed peaceful enough as he lay down to sleep. The Vasaath’s sword lay in its sheath next to the bed, just in reach, in case it would be needed.
He slumbered restlessly at first. Every little noise woke him up, and he tossed and turned as the feeling brewed heavier in his belly. Finally, after hours of twisting in his bed, he fell asleep.
He dreamt of Kasarath, of how the beautiful midnight sun shone over glistering ice and snow as it covered Vas-an-arath like a shield. Abandoned and still, the city seemed peaceful but forgotten.
Kasethen walked along the snow-covered streets and looked upon the white buildings. At summer, the water from the bay usually danced against the surfaces, but now, it was just white. The wind howled softly, the snow creaking beneath his feet.
In the distance, he saw a figure—dark, strange. He walked closer, but the figure never seemed to get nearer. Neither did it seem to move at all. The storm picked up, forcing him to crouch against the wind. Keeping his gaze on the figure ahead of him, he narrowed his eyes. The figure looked eerily familiar, but he couldn’t place him.
He stopped. He would recognise that voice anywhere. Turning on the spot, he stood face to face with Tiku. His dark eyes seared into his soul and his rich brown skin was a stark contrast to the white snow. His plump lips, his broad shoulders, his scars and markings—Kasethen wanted to touch him, but Tiku’s face was set hard.
“You need to wake up.”
Kasethen frowned. “What?”
“Wake up. There’s someone in your room.”
“What are you talking about?”
Kasethen opened his eyes. The warm darkness of the room was strange in comparison to the white storm of his dream, but Tiku’s words echoed in his head.
There’s someone in your room.
Indeed, he could sense a presence.
Without thinking, he quickly reached for the sword at his side and drew the blade. Trained movements guided him as he flung his arm up over him and grabbed hold of the fabric of a stranger.
Without a second thought, he tossed himself and his attacker to the floor, and he landed with his knee over the stranger’s throat. It was a man, his face half-hidden under a hood and a mask.
“Who are you?” Kasethen snarled as he placed the tip cold blade straight at his heart.
Ra and Kavas came bursting in through the door, clearly alerted by the ruckus, but Kasethen kept his gaze focused on the man on the floor.
“You have one chance before you meet your God.”
The man stared back at him and tightly clenched his jaw.
“Who are you?” Kasethen barked and the man only laughed.
The two guards rushed to their side and placed their swords against him as well.
Kasethen slowly rose, his blade still resting atop the man’s chest. “Who sent you?”
The masked man quickly reached for a small bag around his neck, but Kavas was quicker and trapped his arm underneath his boot. Hoisting the man upon his feet, keeping his arms safely locked behind his back, the kasaath held the intruder so that Kasethen could observe him.
The small pouch around his neck contained dried flower petals, purple and red, and Kasethen knew immediately that this was Heartsbane. A single petal was enough to kill a man in mere minutes, commonly used by people who couldn’t risk loosening their tongues but expensive enough to need careful acquiring.
He grunted as he crumbled the dried petals between his fingers. “This is the Empress Dowager’s doing. She tried using Eldar’s Tears to poison me, and now she even sends an assassin.”
“What do we do?” asked Kavas.
Kasethen looked at the soldier. “We’ve outstayed our welcome. Ra, tell the others. Be inconspicuous. We need to leave this palace without anyone knowing. I have a feeling we might be taken prisoners if we are discovered. Kavas, you stay with me.”
Ra nodded and hurried away into the night and Kavas nodded at the man in his grip. “What do we do with this one?”
Kasethen eyed the man. Contempt shot through him like venom. “Clearly, this man was ready to die. Why deny him it?”
Kavas only grunted as he, in one fluent movement, grabbed the man’s jaw and twisted his neck until it snapped. The ordeal was quick, and the assassin fell to the floor with his head turned too far over his shoulder.
Kasethen swallowed hard as he stared at the body on the floor. It was regrettable, but it couldn’t be helped. Singing deeply, he muttered, “May the Mother guide you,” before he quickly put his armour on. He fastened the sword on his hip, nodded at Kavas, and headed to the door.
The two Kas peeked out into the hall, making sure it was empty before they left it. The White Citadel was immense and there were a lot of halls to cross before they could escape the grounds.
Suddenly, as they rounded a corner, a whole troop of royal guards marched towards them in a hurry. They quickly withdrew to the shadows and listened to the orders being shouted down the hall.
“The demons have gone mad! Protect the Emperor!”
Kasethen and Kavas both looked at one another in confusion. When the troop had passed them, they hurried on through the palace as silently as they possibly could.
When rounding another corner, they almost ran straight into a person holding a lantern. It fell to the floor and shattered, and the person gasped in fright. It was a woman, and when the confusion had settled, they noticed that it was none other than Princess Celia Aurora.
Dressed only in her shift, her feet bare and silent, she stared at them for a moment, frozen in place. Kasethen and Kavas both stood ready and when she filled her lungs as to scream, Kavas took one long stride towards her and wrapped his large hand around her mouth. Pinning the girl against the wall, the warrior had her perfectly contained.
Kasethen clenched his jaw tightly. “We must escape this place at once, Kavas.”
But the kasaath had all his attention focused on the girl in his mercy. She cried into his hand, but the sound was almost completely muffled. The jaw of the warrior was strained, his body was tense, and his chest heaved.
“Kavas,” said Kasethen carefully. “Kavas, let her go.”
His words were not enough to sway the warrior, however, and he resolved to gently touch his shoulder.
“Kavas, the girl is not our enemy here.” Looking at the Princess, he said, “You won’t scream when my friend lets you go, will you?”
Her eyes were teary, widened, and she quickly shook her head as much as the warrior’s grip would allow her.
“See? Let her go, Kavas. She won’t give us away.”
The soldier let out a low guttural growl as he slowly removed the hand that covered the girl’s mouth, but he did not step away or divert his hard gaze.
“Good,” Kasethen said carefully. “Your Highness, what is going on?”
Princess Celia dared not look away from her captor for quite a few moments before she looked at Kasethen. “Your men attacked the guards,” breathed she. “A whole troop was killed.”
“That can’t be possible!” Kasethen felt his heart race—Ra and the other soldiers in the palace wouldn’t attack like that, not unless provoked. But why would the guards attack? “We must get back to the ship. Now. Kavas!” The soldier still had the girl pinned against the wall, and Kasethen was losing patience. “Kavas, let’s go! It’s an order!”
Finally, his spell seemed to be broken. He took a deep, deliberate breath and stepped away from the girl, but his eyes still remained on her. Slowly raising his finger to his lips, he hushed her with intent. The Princess stared wide-eyed at him, petrified by the ordeal, and the two Kas took the opportunity to dash through the hall.
Having no time trying to find Ra and the others, they rushed towards the balconies; below, there were trees they could climb to descend—risky, but necessary. Running out into the night, they were met by the sea winds as the harbour opened up for them—but the winds weren’t fresh, but stale as smoke hung heavily in the air.
In the bay, on the black waters, a ship stood ablaze as the flames reached the skies. The two Kas stopped in shock as they realised that the burning vessel was theirs.
The rustling of hundreds of armoured guards sounded behind them as feet came quickly marching. As they turned, the golden armours glittered in the firelight from the bay.
“In the name of the Emperor, you are hereby arrested for attempting a coup!”
Kasethen and Kavas glanced at each other. They both knew what this meant. They had stepped straight into the trap. They returned their gazes to the burning ship on the water, silently mourning the loss of their brothers and begging them for their forgiveness. They had been too blind to see, and now it was too late.
Kasaath – warrior; “strength of the people”
Saathenaan – elite warriors; “deepest strength”
Venaas – friend