The Blood of the People: V
The dinner for the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon was much smaller and more elegant than the victory feast had been. Only highly stationed people were expected, so Juniper was utterly surprised that her presence was requested by the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon.
She was asked to tell them about the city, about Nornest and the other Free Cities, and she was asked harsh and burning questions about her own loyalties, her impressions of the Kasenon, and what role she could see herself thrive in.
Juniper was unsure, but the Vasmenaan’s burning gaze forced an answer out of her. “I am not officially educated, madam—am I only a woman—but I am knowledgeable in politics and history.”
“My dear,” said the Vasmenaan, “being a woman should not be a hindrance. I am sorry to hear that you’ve been deprived of a proper education because of it.” She sighed deeply. “The Vasaath tells me you’ve been an ambassador for your people these last months.”
She swallowed. “Yes.”
The woman eyed her, her countenance serious. “And what is your assessment of the situation this city is in? As an ambassador, I mean.”
Juniper glanced around the table. The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon both looked inquisitively at her, while the Vasaath sat leaned back in his chair with a strained face, his gaze fastened onto his plate.
The three officers seemed rather nervous as well, but the newcomers—those who had not witnessed the tragedy that had swept through the city only a few nights prior—were all ears.
Golden, peering eyes gleamed at her, and she wrung her hands together under the table. The stern-looking woman, known as Baraam, and the man with the braids, Eloch, were both looking at her inquisitively.
She took a deep breath and steeled herself as she straightened. “The city needs time to heal, that much is clear. Not only from the occupation itself, but also from the wound that was cut many, many years ago. That will take time.”
“Of course,” said the Vasenon. His voice was gentle, thoughtful, as he asked, “How would you imagine your people will take to the Kasenon?”
“Some will be more receptive than others,” said Juniper. “But I think the nobles and the gentry will be difficult to sway. They will stand in opposition.”
“If the people want to stand in opposition, they are free to do so,” said the Vasmenaan softly. “We cannot decide what people think or feel. They all have free minds. There will, of course, be suitable measures taken if the opposition interferes with the rules of the Kasenon.”
This caused Juniper’s heart to drop. “What measures, madam?”
“Well, how do you usually punish criminals?” asked the Vasmenaan. “How would you punish rebels?”
“We would imprison them.” Juniper swallowed and looked down on her plate. “And execute them.”
“We do not believe imprisonment reflects the crime committed,” said the Vasmenaan. “Or any crime committed. To break laws is to break confidence, respect. That is an offence greater than anything, and oftentimes, it cannot be atoned for with anything but death.”
Juniper felt her chest tighten, but the Vasmenaan sighed.
“But death is not always necessary,” said she. “The rebels will be re-educated, taught right, and depending on the crime, they will spend a lifetime atoning for the deviancy done to others. They may choose not to if they feel that would compromise their integrity too much, and they may choose to die.”
A shiver shot through Juniper’s spine; there it was, from the Great Mother herself, the talk of death as a choice. Indeed, the judicial system in her own culture was faulty, as well—there was no denying it. Surely, most were afraid of dying. But she feared for her people. The rebels wouldn’t be murderers and thieves, but noble families being robbed of their lives, their heritage.
Perhaps it was true justice, sharing the resources and pulling one’s weight in favour of the collective, but she knew the pride of these men and women. They would rather hang than liken themselves to the peasants and the paupers. They would believe that the Builder would protect them in this life, or grant them paradise in the next. Those foolish enough to stand against the Kasenon—and she knew there would be many—would perish for nothing. She let her shoulders slump and refrained from any answer.
The Vasmenaan didn’t seem to mind. “Fear and suspicion from the people are expected in the beginning. With time, they will come to see the correctness of the Kasenon and truly submit.”
The Vasenon said something in their language and the Vasmenaan answered. Soon, a conversation followed, one that Juniper could not understand. The Vasaath was strangely quiet, brooding, but answered when addressed.
Juniper returned her attention to the food. She wasn’t particularly hungry anymore but ate all the same, mostly not to be rude. In the hurling sounds of the strange language, she imagined them speaking of punishments appropriate for her people unless they fully submitted, and her thoughts were suddenly all out of her control.
She saw horrible images in her mind, many from the terrible scenes she had witnessed in the city, and she had to remind herself of the generosity already shown by the Vasaath; why would the woman titled the Great Mother be stricter and less generous and good than the fierce leader of their mighty military forces?
“Miss Juniper, was it?” the Vasmenaan suddenly said and Juniper quickly gazed up.
“Lady Juniper.” The correction slipped out of her naturally, but she regretted it immediately as she saw the Vasmenaan’s unfazed and unamused expression.
“You’re not a noble anymore, my dear,” said the woman, her voice soft and warm, but treacherous. “Now, I believe the harvest is soon upon us. Is that correct?”
Juniper swallowed, ashamed, and nodded. “Yes, madam. The harvest season will begin in a few weeks’ time.”
She was then asked about the farming lands, their harvest, and their animal husbandry. She told them they had many farms outside the city walls where they grew all kinds of wheat and barley. Even potatoes grew in the marshes and the moors. There was plenty of sheep, pigs, and chickens in the city, some wealthy farmers outside the walls had cows, and the farming lands were large and plentiful.
The Vasmenaan’s eyes hardened as Juniper spoke. “All this food, and yet so many are starving.”
Juniper diverted her gaze in shame. Indeed, many people were starving even though food was abundant; most of it was in the nobles’ larders. Others simply couldn’t afford it.
Finally, she nodded. “It is a great sin, one that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. Only rectified.”
The Vasmenaan hummed. “Indeed.” Then she sighed. “Well, we shall call for the farmers for their placements. Soon, everyone in this city will be enjoying the fruit of their labour.”
Juniper nodded again, hoping from the bottom of her heart that the future for her people would be as bright as the Vasmenaan anticipated.
As the dinner proceeded, the Kas and the ohkasenon fell back into their own tongue, once again neglecting Juniper of conversation. She smiled, still keeping track of whoever had the word, even though they all knew she had no idea what was said. She felt ridiculed, belittled, and when she was finally allowed to leave, she strode up to her room.
She didn’t want to be angry or disappointed, but she could not help it—indeed, she knew not what she had expected to begin with, but she figured the reason for her foul mood was the dawning of the situation in itself. She would simply have to face the fact that Noxborough was no more, and the rules had changed because of it.
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”