The Blood of the People: XI
“You will be out any day now.”
“You say that every day, and I’m still here.”
“I know, but they won’t keep you here forever.” Juniper sighed and reached for the empty food basket. “I will speak with the Vasaath, I promise. I’m sorry it has taken this long, but I haven’t discussed your situation with—”
Sebastian huffed. “I didn’t expect you to discuss my release while the two of you are meeting.”
“Sebastian!” Juniper gasped angrily. After a moment, she sighed deeply. “I need to go. I will be back tomorrow morning.”
“Bring me some new clothes, as well,” Sebastian muttered.
“You could ask nicely,” Juniper muttered back.
“Bring me some new clothes, please,” Sebastian spat.
Juniper huffed. “Good night.”
With deeply furrowed brows, she left the dungeons. It was late and the castle was fast asleep. She made her way to her chambers, tired and longing for some time for herself. She had much to think about, much to swallow.
If anything, she had to figure out a way to convince the nobles that they shouldn’t sacrifice themselves—but they were stubborn, and wouldn’t listen to a woman. It didn’t matter that she knew the Kas better than any Noxborougher.
The Grey Ones wouldn’t accept many more compromises, but she would need to speak with the Vasaath to make sure that her brother was indeed going to be spared. She feared, however, speaking to him. In her heart, she wanted it more than anything, but she knew that she would only miss him more if she did.
She had seen him at supper but she had not dared to meet his gaze, even though she had felt his burn straight through her. He would have seen her anguish, her struggles—she was sure of it. She didn’t want him to worry about her, or to think that she couldn’t handle her tasks. Furthermore, she didn’t want the Vasmenaan to suspect anything that wasn’t true. They had stayed apart, they had ended their intimacy, even if it hurt like a thousand knives to the heart.
With a sigh, she placed a hand on her belly. Whether there was life there or not didn’t matter. She knew it could never be and she had made her peace with that. But there was still doubt in her.
She had never really had a wish for a child at this point in her life, but would she truly have the heart to get rid of it if she was carrying? She had, nevertheless, sworn the oath—she was ohkasenon, and she would have to abide by their rules. It was simply the way things had to be, no matter if she liked it or not.
And yet, in her dreams, she saw a little girl with dark locks and golden eyes smiling in the sunshine, and she knew, in her heart, that the child was hers and that she longed for her.
But the morning after, her blood came. That day, she wept. She wept for the child that never was, she wept for the child that would never be, but she also wept of relief—and because of that, she wept of shame. The Builder would see her indiscretion, her inconsideration, her carelessness, and she would be judged. Perhaps she would be spared in this life, but she would be damned in the next.
What made matters worse was that she still had important tasks to deal with during the day and she could not close herself inside her room and wallow in pain and sadness. She had to practice a language she couldn’t understand, speak to people who didn’t want to speak with her, discuss matters she knew nothing about, and decide things she felt she didn’t have the power to decide.
By nightfall, she was exhausted, but she knew she had to speak with the Vasaath even though she dreaded it. Reluctantly, she made her way to the harbour.
It was surprising how much had changed in a matter of days. The Noxboroughers didn’t dare to do anything to her, lest the Kas soldiers arrested them, even though some cast disdainful looks at her as she passed them—she was a traitor. She wrapped her cloak tightly around herself whenever she felt especially scrutinised, scurried her horse on, and was relieved when she finally made it to the fort in the harbour.
The barricades were torn down and the docks were again in full motion. People were still unloading supplies form the almost two hundred Kas ships that were anchored in the bay, and Juniper noticed former City Guards running about the harbour, helping best they could carrying weapons and armour from the longboats to the fort.
When she approached the gates, the guarding Kas soldiers bowed to her and called her ohkasethen. She was still not quite used to her new title, but she nodded back in respect before announcing that she needed an audience with the Vasaath.
As she entered the fort, she felt more at home than she did in the castle. It was a peculiar but strong feeling—a bittersweet sense of belonging. She was brought to the Vasaath’s tent but was told to wait outside. It was a strange feeling, she thought, having to wait for his invitation after she had been able to come and go almost entirely as she wished. It felt like an eternity before the canvas was parted for her, and she nodded gratefully to the soldier before stepping inside.
The Vasaath was sitting by his desk, looking up as she entered. She smiled at him and curtsied, and she could spy a ghost of a smile upon his lips.
Once they were alone, the Vasaath motioned her to sit while he poured them each a cup of tea. He did not sit down next to her, but opposite. She knew it was likely for the best but she couldn’t help craving his closeness. He seemed hard set, as well—tense and troubled. They drank in silence for a moment before the Vasaath set his gaze on her and asked what she had on her mind.
Juniper shifted in her seat. “Have you spoken with the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon about the prisoners?”
The general furrowed his brows and grunted deeply. “We are in disagreement at the moment, about what to do with the prisoners.”
She narrowed her eyes, trying to interpret his expression, but she could not ignore the fear that chilled her heart. “How? What is it that you don’t agree about?”
He furrowed his brows tighter, lower, and said, “Whether we should judge your brother as a civilian, or as a King.” He sighed. “The difference is that it requires a unanimous vote to execute a King. For a civilian, it does not.”
Coldness shot through her fingers. “So, you disagree on whether or not your vote will save my brother.”
The Vasaath grunted. “Yes.”
She lowered her gaze and fiddled with her cup. “And… do you have an inkling of when you might have agreed?”
“To stifle the nobleman rebellion, we want to execute your father as soon as possible.”
A chill ran along Juniper’s spine and she fought her trembling lip. She had accepted that her father was not going to survive the ordeal, but he was still her father. Knowing his life had an ending in sight was heartbreaking—she couldn’t help it.
The Vasaath sighed. “I suspect we will have to reach an agreement about your brother before that.”
“And how soon is soon?”
She suddenly felt rather nauseous. Her hands started to tremble, forcing her to place the teacup back onto the table.
“Menaan,” the Vasaath muttered softly, “I will do everything I can to keep your brother alive. I’m a man of my words.”
She shook her head. “It’s out of your hands, I understand that.”
The general shifted in his seat, set his jaw tight, and grunted. “I have just as much say as the other two, but if they go against me, I’m outnumbered.”
Juniper cleared her throat and slowly rose. She could not linger. “Thank you for the tea, sir.”
“You’re not leaving already?”
“I—I’m tired, and I don’t feel so well,” she mumbled. “Forgive me, I didn’t—”
“No, don’t worry,” sighed the Vasaath. He rose and slowly paced around the table, placing his hands behind his back. There was sadness in his eyes, defeat, but he nodded cordially. “Of course, you’re tired. I could call for Neema, if you’d like? She’s still here in the camp.”
“No.” She wrapped her arms around herself. “That won’t be necessary.”
She glanced up at him, seeing how close he stood. His chest rose and fell in deep patterns, making his markings slowly move. He was looking down on her, and she wished that he longed for her just as much as she longed for him. Juniper feared that once she stepped away from him, left the tent, it was farewell. Perhaps, she thought, he felt it too. But the time came for them to part, and the pain of the moment was tangible in the silence.
After a moment of stillness, she curtsied and said good night. She hesitated just as she approached the gates, feeling the sobs rise in her throat. She didn’t want to return to the castle, but she couldn’t go back to the Vasaath. Swallowing hard, she turned on her heel and headed deeper into the camp.
Neema was humming inside her tent and Juniper carefully called her name by the entrance.
Shortly after, the canvas parted, and Neema’s green eyes gazed upon the girl. “Juniper?”
Seeing the woman, hearing her voice, caused turmoil inside of her and she put her arms around herself.
“Oh, dear!” Neema gasped and gently pulled the girl inside. “You’re pale as a ghost! What’s the matter?”
“You were right,” Juniper croaked. “There never was a child.”
Neema’s countenance changed and she frowned in sorrow. She sighed deeply and put an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “Some children are not supposed to be. It would be a tragedy to bring them into such a violent world, lost before they even saw the light of day, unwanted. Trust me, it was for the best.”
“Yes, I suppose it was.” She tried to hold in her cries, but she could not help it. Her lip started trembling before she could stop it, and her eyes flooded almost instantaneously. Her whole body was shaking with the cries what wanted to escape her, but she closed her eyes hard, wishing not to show how devastated she truly was.
Gentle arms closed around her as the healer drew her into her warm embrace. Juniper couldn’t hold back any longer and sobbed mournfully against her shoulder. She held her tightly, lulled her gently, and allowed her sadness for as long as she needed it. She clung to her and cried her heart out, mourning the loss of her father, her brother, and what would never be.
Neema caressed her hair, hushed her gently, and understood her sorrow in a way only a woman could.
“It might hurt today,” she said softly, “and it might hurt for some time, but you will one day see that the loss of what might have been is lesser than the loss of what once was. You will recover from this, my dear. I promise you.”
On the way back, she had time to contemplate. Oh, how she loved that grey giant, and oh, how she mourned the future they would never have. The image from her dream came to mind, like a picture seared into her memory for all eternity, of the smiling little girl with black locks and golden eyes, and a phantom hand squeezed her heart tightly.
Once she reached the walls of the castle and peered upon Castle Fairgarden, there was heaviness on her chest she did not like. She had no desire to return to the silent and cold stone tomb, to heartless halls, and her empty room. Instead, she made her way to Sebastian’s chambers to fetch a new linen shirt before she entered the kitchens, filled a basket, and then left for the dungeons.
“You are late tonight,” said Sebastian as she pushed the basked inside the bars.
“Forgive me,” said she. “I have spoken with the Vasaath.”
“And?” Sebastian muttered.
Juniper clenched her jaw. She knew not what news to bring to him. Should she tell him that he might be released in two days, or that he might as well be killed? She had tried to convince him all this time that the Vasaath would protect him, but now she knew that he might not have that power.
Sighing, she said, “You will need to submit. There is no other way.”
Sebastian was silent for a while, but then he muttered, “And forfeit my soul in the process? I’d rather be judged by the Builder.”
“That is only foolish stubbornness,” Juniper spat. “Why are you so determined to cause me pain?”
“And why are you so determined to strip me of my pride?” Sebastian countered.
Juniper sighed, devastated. “Is your pride more important than your life?”
“I will never live my life in servitude!” said Sebastian. “These beasts took my birthright from me, and you expect me to show them my neck?”
“Whenever you open your mouth,” Juniper growled, “all I can hear is Father.”
The boy was speechless by this, but scowled and crossed his arms.
Juniper sighed deeply, defeated. “I know you never wanted this. I never wished for a life in servitude, either, but that is the life I was cursed with since birth. I’d be happy if they took that birthright from me.”
“And you believe the Grey Ones will set you free?”
“No.” She swallowed. “I will never be free. I realise that, and now I have to come to terms with that, as well. All I can do is to choose what kind of prison I want. Our ways offer me tradition, but the Grey Ones offer me respect. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather choose respect before a tradition of oppression.”
“Yes,” Sebastian muttered. “I see the gain for you, Sister. You deserve something better than Lord Christopher, that is true, but there is another way.”
She chuckled humourlessly. “And what is that? We flee to Kingshaven? Or Eastshore? Those are our only friends now, if we have any at all.”
“Think grander, Sister,” said Sebastian. “We flee to Illyria.”
“There is no life for us in Illyria,” Juniper muttered. “The Golden Emperor does not care for us Northerners. We are nothing but scum in his eyes, especially now when we’ve lost our nation. I bet there is a fortune on our heads because of Father’s thoughtlessness, and that will not stop just because we go to Illyria.”
“But we have to try.” Sebastian moved closer to the door. “We have to try to escape this! To escape them!” He grabbed the bars. “Please, Juniper! Can’t you see it’s madness to pretend like they are our people?”
“They’re not!” Juniper huffed. “But they have won, Sebastian! And in truth, they have brought stability to the city! The rich are no longer in control, the poor are being fed, and the sick are being healed. They’ve had the city for less than a month, and yet, they’ve managed to start mending what our House has spent generations ruining.”
Sebastian looked at her, pleadingly, but then sighed. “If you won’t flee with me, will you at least help me?”
Her heart dropped. “Sebastian, I—”
“Not if it gets too dangerous for you, of course,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t want them to hurt you because of me.”
“Please, Brother,” she sang and placed her hands atop his. “Submit and live.”
“I will live,” said he, “but I will not submit.”
Defeated tears rolled down her cheeks and she didn’t care if her brother saw it or not. She knew that if he didn’t change his mind, he would never leave Noxborough alive.
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher