The Fall of the Builder: III
No stone was left unturned. Three days had passed since Sebastian had disappeared without a trace, and the city had been torn apart in the search for him. The citizens were terrified, and the Kas were relentless. Someone was harbouring the criminal, they said.
Sanctioning was promised to the one giving him up, no matter who had hidden him. But the army had combed through the city without finding the boy, and so the Triumvirate had to look at the alternative—Sebastian must have made it out of the city. The only question now was how, and who helped him.
Juniper was the first suspect. The Vasmenaan seemed quite convinced that she had helped her brother escape, and she did not care that Juniper told her again and again that she had not released him—although, she would have, if she knew there was a chance.
“I never suspected you to understand the profound betrayal this would be, but I must say I am deeply disappointed in you.” The Vasmenaan paced the room, her eyes colder than ever. “You held such potential, such promise, and then you do this?”
Juniper shifted uncomfortably in the chair. For the longest time, the Vasmenaan had said nothing, but Juniper saw that she was upset.
“I have already told you the truth,” muttered Juniper. “I did not help my brother escape.”
“Who else, then? Who else cares for him as you do? Who else has the means to release him?”
“I love my brother, yes, but I did not do it,” Juniper sighed. Swallowing, she felt anger boil underneath her skin. “Frankly, I wish I did. But I did not.”
The Vasmenaan narrowed her eyes as she glared at her, and Juniper felt her gaze bore into her soul. “Where were you on the day of the executions?”
“I have already told you. I was in my chambers.”
“And why were you there?”
Juniper huffed. “I cried and mourned.”
Again, Juniper huffed, surprised such a question would ever be asked. “I—I mourned the loss of my father and my brother!”
“But you hated your father and your brother never died, so why would you mourn?”
“Because it was my father! And I was certain my brother, too, would be killed!”
“And how did that make you feel? Angry? Vengeful, perhaps?”
Juniper had had it with this impertinence and rose from the chair. “I will not sit here and be accused of something I am innocent of!”
“I will not say another word of the matter until I get to speak with the Vasaath.”
The Vasmenaan challenged her determination, but in stubbornness, Juniper had faith in her family trait. In the end, the Kas woman sighed and nodded, although displeased.
She said, “The Vasaath might take your side out of sentiment, but his judgment will be far more ruthless than anything I could think, say, or do.”
“But your law is supposed to be fair and just, is it not?” Juniper muttered. “I have done nothing wrong and if your law is as just as you claim it is, it will recognise that.”
The Vasmenaan eyed her, scrutinized her, and raised a brow. “Our law also states that wrongness will be punished. If you are lying, we will know and your punishment will be swift and harsh.”
“I wish to speak with the Vasaath.”
The Vasmenaan sneered. “Very well, but I can tell you that he is not happy. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen him this furious.”
Juniper felt her heart quicken. Surely, he would know it wasn’t her fault. She swallowed. “I don’t care. I wish to speak to him.”
The Vasmenaan raised her hands in surrender. “As you wish. I will have you escorted to the fort.”
“I can go there myself.”
“Oh, I know.”
Juniper did not reply. She was too angry for that.
On the Vasmenaan’s orders, she was escorted to the fort, despite her objections. She made sure to keep her eyes from the heads that were mounted on spikes on the Town Square, one of which belonged to her father—but the crows’ chatter was more difficult to ignore, as was the smell.
The few days following the executions had been chaotic beyond measure. The nobles sentenced to die were all executed that day; no one was spared, despite the Vasmenaan’s promise. The escape of Sebastian was too upsetting, and she believed it to be part of the rebellion. Such offence, she had said, was unforgivable.
The Noxboroughers believed the great storm that raged over the city that day was an omen that the Builder had forsaken them, once and for all.
Juniper had indeed spent that day in her chambers, weeping. She had never felt such grief in all her life, and she had never felt such shock as when she heard the news that no one was spared and that Sebastian had somehow escaped his cell in the dungeons and vanished.
He had not submitted, and could thus rally an army in his name and be a nuisance to the Kas. It didn’t matter how much Juniper told the Triumvirate that House Arlington had no allies—they refused to listen. Neither did she tell them how happy she was that he had escaped—that he was still alive.
She held her head up high as she strode through the camp. The dusk cast long shadows over the stone flooring and the camp was eerily quiet. Kas and ohkasenon alike gazed at her as she headed for the general’s quarters.
Juniper swallowed, feeling more nervous than she had in months. Would the Vasaath truly mistrust her? Did he believe she was the culprit? When she entered his tent, he was sitting by his desk, scribbling away at some letters. He hardly looked up to greet her, but she could feel the tension. He was not in a good mood. She stood only a few steps inside, her hands clasped together.
“You wished to speak with me,” he muttered without meeting her gaze. “So speak.”
Juniper clenched her jaw. Worry mingled with anger and she huffed. “You must know I am innocent.”
The muscles in his broad jaw twitched, but still, he did not raise his gaze. “Had I been a man of your culture, I would have believed in your words. Surely, a woman wouldn’t have such bravery and willpower to do such a deed. But I’m not of your culture, Juniper.”
He then raised his eyes to meet hers, and they were dark. Juniper shuddered.
“I know you, and I know your resolve and your stubbornness,” he said. “You would never sit idly by and let your brother be killed.” He tightened his jaw even further and leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes fixed on her. “Do you know what punishment follows such treachery?”
“I am telling you the truth!” she cried and flung her arms about. “If you don’t believe me, then execute me! Cut my head off like you did my father’s and be done with it!” Tears flooded her eyes as the sobs surprised her.
The Vasaath tilted his head, eyed her scrutinisingly, and grunted. “Why do you challenge me?”
“Why do you mistrust me?” She glared at him, felt her knees tremble underneath her, and her courage was failing her.
There he sat, the Great Warrior, the Demon of the North. One word from him would be her doom, but one touch would be her undoing.
She swallowed but straightened. “I did not do it. I swear to you, I am telling the truth.” Her whole body trembled, but she kept her head up high. “I wish I did it. I wish I could refuse your foolish judgments and show my discontent! I wish I was brave enough to save my brother from your injustice and release—”
Slowly, he rose, and Juniper silenced abruptly. His expression was relentless, unforgiving, and as he walked towards her, Juniper inhaled deeply and uncertainly. She should never have said the things she said.
He closed the distance between them, stopped so close that she could feel his hot breath on her head. She gazed up, peered into his golden eyes, and shivered. They were so dark. He studied her face, his jaw still tightened, and slowly caressed her cheek and brushed his thumb over her lips. Her heart thudded violently in her chest; his touch was hypnotic.
“I do not like lies,” he growled lowly and gently raised her chin.
Juniper could barely speak. Her heart raced so fiercely, her chest hurt, and her breath was short. She had nearly forgotten the feel of his touch, but she had dreamt of it, yearned for it. “I am not lying.”
The Vasaath’s dark eyes clouded and his face softened as he slid his hand underneath her hair to gently cradle her head.
“This separation is torture, menaan,” he breathed huskily. “Such folly to keep us apart. I cannot be away from you any longer. Even now, in this bit of anger, I want you.” His dark gaze roamed her face, he moved closer to her, and he took a sturdier grip of her neck. “I want to see you, all of you. I want to feel you, your heat, your want.” He leaned down towards her. “Stay with me tonight.”
“I—” she started, but knew not what to say. Her body was aching with longing—the anger she felt, the devastation, craved his attention and his remedy. “What about the Vasmenaan?”
He leaned further down to brush his lips against hers. “She won’t know.”
“Do you believe me, then?” she breathed against him, but he did not reply.
Instead, he claimed her lips with a soft growl. His kiss was passionate, deep, needing, and she yielded, sighing in relief, her needs just as urgent.
She should be furious at him, she should be disgusted—he murdered her father, several innocent nobles, and he would have killed her brother as well—but her needs, her desires, burned with the heat of a thousand sun’s, for him alone, and the anger only fuelled it.
He kissed her lips, her jaw, her neck, and her shoulders—passionately, desperately; he grazed her skin with his sharp teeth, teased her, forcing a gasp to escape her, before he took a steady grip of her backside, hoisted her up to his waist, and carried her to his bed.
Juniper clung to him, kept her lips on him, and allowed herself to be greedy. The tension was still there, the issues at hand were still unresolved, but neither of them could be bothered with any of that until they had gotten this out of the way. The separation was to subdue their longing, but it had only made it worse.
She tugged at his armour, impatient and frustrated, and he tugged at her dress with the same vigour, nearly ripping the fabric. They were both eager, fighting for dominance as they tasted each other, and Juniper revelled.
Here, with him, she could forget all the things that troubled her, that weighed her down, and simply just be in the moment. She didn’t have to think about manners or tradition and felt freedom in feeling bold and impatient.
The power in his body amazed her, seduced her. He did things to her—marvellous things—no gentleman would ever dare to do, and she gladly succumbed to him.
Breaths hot, blood searing, and loins burning, they lusted for each other like two lovers reuniting after what felt like years apart. She sang his name, wailed in delight, gripped his hair, scratched his skin, and demanded all his ferocity and power. He did not fail her.
Satisfied, spent, and exhausted, they lay entangled. The hour was long past midnight, and the haze of their love-making was heavy around them. He caressed her arm and she caressed his chest. She had missed the feel of him, his scent, and his security. Everything was as it should be again, but she was troubled.
Indeed, she should be furious at him—disappointed, at least. The Vasaath had cut the head of her father mere days earlier, without any scruples, and would have done the same with her brother if he hadn’t disappeared. How could she love her family’s killer?
And yet, she did, with all her heart. It made no sense, and she felt ashamed of herself and made her doubt her morality, her goodness. It even made her doubt love itself—was it true love, or was in only an irresistible attraction?
“I have missed you, menaan,” he hummed in the darkness.
His voice, so dark yet so soft, stirred her heart so profoundly, it crushed any doubt she had. It was love—harsh, cruel, and unrelenting love. Juniper sighed and nestled herself closer. “I’ve missed you too, my love.”
They lay silent for a long while before the Vasaath sighed. “I didn’t want to have to kill him. I asked him to submit that morning, but he would not. I had my soldiers with me, and he called me beast. I couldn’t—”
Juniper tightened her jaw. She had told him that her brother needed more time, that he had a strange disillusion about duty and pride, and that he would never submit if the Vasaath himself demanded it. She had told him all this, and yet, they had pressed on.
Indeed, the promise the Vasaath had given her about sparing the life of her brother was only bestowed after Kasethen had been kidnapped and imprisoned. When he had realised how much it hurt to have a loved one ripped away, he felt sympathy for her.
Had his most trusted advisor never disappeared, he would never have promised Sebastian’s life, to begin with. His life had been in danger from the moment the Vasaath had set foot in Noxborough. That he somehow escaped was only a stroke of luck.
“Do you hate me?” the Vasaath asked her.
She sighed. There was still anger inside of her, still resentment. She hated his cruel sense of justice, his lack of empathy for her brother, and his unyielding person—but above all, she hated the fact that she could not find it in her to hate him whatsoever. She had chosen him, and she would rather be cross with him than be without him.
“I should, but I can’t,” she finally said. “It’s the rules I detest.”
“We would be savages without them.”
“Sir, it appears as though we are savages both with and without them.”
The Vasaath huffed. “It appears so.”
Juniper traced her fingers over his black markings. By now, she knew them by heart. “You said you didn’t want to do it,” she then said, “but what did you expect of us once you sailed here? Did you expect us to bow down to you without question?”
The Vasaath grunted. “We have long seen the rot in this land, the corruption, and I would lie if I said that I planned to be a kind and diplomatic invader. That was always Kasethen’s thinking, not mine. I was ready to eradicate the rot, spare the world from the clutches of gree—but then I met you.” He looked at her, his golden eyes warm. “I met you and everything changed.”
She gazed into his eyes, saw the honesty in them, and sighed as she caressed his cheek. “You are not that cruel. I refuse to believe you would kill everyone for a belief that limited. You’re better than that, my love.”
The Vasaath smiled faintly. “Best not speak of it now, menaan. Not here, not now.”
Juniper sighed and turned to her back. “The Vasmenaan doesn’t believe me. She thinks I let my brother out.”
“Of course, she does,” muttered the Vasaath. “She’s not blind, or stupid.”
She bit her lip. “But you believe me?”
Juniper nodded, relieved. “If the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon both consider me to be a traitor, do you think—would they sentence me to die, as well?”
The Vasaath tensed before a low rumbling escaped him. “No.” In one sweeping motion, he wrapped her in his tight embrace and placed his forehead against hers. “They would have to kill me before that happens.”
“You said it yourself,” she muttered against him. “You only need two votes out of three to kill someone who’s not a King.”
He yanked her chin upwards; his brows were furrowed tightly and his jaw was set hard. “Listen to me, Juniper Arlington. For as long as I draw breath, the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon won’t touch a hair upon your head. I’d kill anyone who would do you harm.” He eyed her intensely and nearly growled as he said, “You are mine, menaan.”
The deep rumble that escaped him as he uttered the words made her tingle with want, and she didn’t care about the implications of them.
Softer, he added, “As I am yours.”
She reached for his lips in earnest, and he was as eager. Despite their weariness, they resumed their lustful union and didn’t stop until they both had found release yet again. After a moment of rest and recovery, she kissed him softly before she stirred and slipped out of bed.
“Do you have to leave?” he muttered.
“The Vasmenaan knows I’m here,” sighed Juniper. “If I don’t come back until morning, she will know. I’ve already lingered for too long.”
“We could claim that it was too late for you to return, so you stayed here, with me,” he said. “It’s not a lie.”
She smiled half-heartedly. If she could, she would stay with him and not return to the castle at all—but as it was, she could not. “We should give the Vasmenaan no reason to suspect our intimacy.” Sighing deeply, she added, “and I need to cleanse.” She dropped her gaze. “There was no child.”
The Vasaath was silent for a moment before he exhaled deeply. “It was for the best.”
“Yes,” she muttered. “I know.”
There was an awkward silence between them before the Vasaath grunted, displeased. “Stay here. I will fetch you some herbs.”
“Thank you,” she mumbled.
The general rose from the bed and dressed. They were both mindful to make them look presentable, as if their only pastime had been a conversation.
Surely, Juniper thought in embarrassment, it was impossible that the men out in the courtyard hadn’t heard them in their pleasures. His soldiers had undoubtedly already understood the nature of their liaison, but none had yet said one word of it.
The Vasaath left the tent only to return a few minutes later with a bundle of herbs in his hand. Juniper received them with a half-hearted smile. She did not look forwards to drinking the concoction.
“I suppose Neema was rather suspicious?” she said.
The general huffed. “Shadow Veil has many uses. For all she knows, it could have been a bad stew for dinner.”
Juniper scoffed but nodded. “Thank you.”
Gently, he touched her hair. Their goodbyes hung heavily in the air. “Let me have one of my men escort you back. It’s in the middle of the night.”
Juniper nodded, and the soldier the Vasaath commanded to escort her back to the castle accepted the order without hesitation, despite it being rudely late.
Fairgarden was quiet when she arrived. As she passed the bailey, she stopped and looked upon the place where the executions had been held. The bodies had been moved, the rain had washed away the blood, and the block had been removed from the scene; as the moon basked the stone in light, it was as though the horrors had never even occurred. Only the memories remained.
She wandered through the empty halls of the castle and up to her lonely chambers with heavy steps. She made the concoction with the herbs she had been given, not wanting to take any chances. He had given her quite a lot, and she wondered if—or perhaps wished that—he had planned on meeting her again, intimately. The taste, however, was just as horrid as ever, and she wondered how something so sweet as her joining with the man she loved had to be followed by something so foul. It was never going to be different.
The hour was late—or perhaps it was early—when she slipped into bed, the Vasaath’s kisses still fresh upon her lips.
Menaan – (ma enaan); “my love”; “an ardent confession of my deepest care”
Ohkasenon – foreign follower of the Kasenon; “follower of the faith of the people but not of the people”
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher