The Fall of the Builder: V
Everyone spoke of the Vasaath as a patient man who was level-headed in most endeavours. He was calm, collected, rational—those were the attributes that had made him the man that he was. Juniper, on the other hand, knew him as utterly impatient.
After their secret kiss, and not to mention their passionate intimacy the night before, the general was more impatient than ever. She was aching for him, as well—indeed, it seemed as though their lust for each other was close to insatiable—but they both knew they had to be careful and the Vasaath had some difficulties keeping his hands to himself.
During the following fortnight, he would quite often call for her, for what he referred to as foreign strategy counsel, and she would join him for a few precious moments alone. Most of the times, it only meant friendly conversation.
She had missed their compelling discussions, their deep dialogues that made them equal in all matters and made her feel as though her mind was her own. She had missed his rare silliness, his booming laughter she had learnt to treasure, and the calmness and safety she felt with him. To sit down with the Great Warrior and know that he respected her thoughts and opinions as much as his own made her feel seen and heard in ways she had never experienced before he stepped into her life.
On rare occasions, however, their needs were too strong to deny. She had missed his company, missed his touch, his passion—indeed, she had craved it—but the union wasn’t permitted in any of their cultures. In his, she needed to be his vas-maasa, and in hers, they needed to be husband and wife—and neither seemed possible. Them being together was indeed a great risk for both of them.
When they first had fallen into each other’s arms late that summer, the only risk they took was his men hearing them—now, men from the City Guard roamed the fort, and she was rather certain they would not be as respectful as the Kas.
Furthermore, the little respect she had gained with the Vasmenaan was hanging on by only a thin thread. The Kas woman knew Juniper was spending a great deal of time with the general, but she did not question it—which made Juniper even more nervous. The Great Mother put her faith in them both, trusting them to keep their hands off each other. If they broke that trust, there would be no atonement. She could not afford to have spiteful men talk of her sins.
Moreover, the ordeal with the escape of her brother was far from settled. The Vasaath had managed to ease their suspicions against her, for now. It seemed, however, as though they had settled their eyes upon the other likely suspect, namely Garret.
When Juniper was made aware of their suspicion, she immediately sought to speak with him.
“Oh, Garret,” she said as she gently grabbed his hand. “I’m so sorry.” Frowning, she sighed, “Please, don’t tell me you did this!”
Garret scowled. “Of course, not!” Sighing deeply, he shook his head. “I would have done anything to save Sebastian, indeed, but I had no idea that they stopped because of the rain.”
She nodded. “No, of course. Forgive me.” Biting her lip, she furrowed her brows. “How could he have escaped? How could he have avoided the guards? It’s so strange.”
Garret set his brows low as the cogs in his mind began turning. “Perhaps not. Your forefather Calder Arlington built a tunnel in the event of a siege, and it’s been a well-kept secret for centuries. It starts deep in the dungeons and leads to the river, and one of its purposes is to act as an escape for the Duke and his family if the Keep is lost.”
“A tunnel?” Juniper hummed. “But they would have searched the river.”
Garret nodded. “Yes.” Then he pursed his lips. “The downpour was heavy that day, and the river was already flooded. There is no chance the boy made it upriver in such a flood.”
Juniper’s breath quickly thickened. “You think he’s washed out into the sea?”
Grief and pain could be spied in the advisor’s eyes as he said, “If we’re in luck, he’s made it to the Lonely Islands. If not, we can only pray to the Builder and hope that he has managed to stay by the coast and headed for Eastshore.”
Juniper set her jaw tight and nodded. The Builder would not spare his life only to cruelly claim it right after.
“But the question of who set him free remains,” she said. “You said it was a well-kept secret, so who else knew about the tunnel?”
Garret shook his head. “The Commander of the City Guard would have known. He’s dead. He died defending your father, but he would most likely have shared the secret with his second-in-command.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Captain Wiltbourne?”
Garret raised his brows and nodded.
She didn’t know the captain, but she had heard that he was a vile man with a reputation of being cruel and improper, but also that he was a coward. He had knelt to the Kas and pledged his life and sword, as many of his brothers-in-arms, but the castle household whispered that he had done so without any regards to loyalty or affinity—some even said he cowered behind a young boy; she could scarcely believe him to be capable of brave and heroic feats such as helping the son of the Duke to escape his prison.
“Why would he do that?” she asked.
“Promises?” Garret muttered. “He is easily bribed.”
Juniper bit her lip. “I wonder if my father knew about that.”
Garret chuckled humourlessly. “Why do you think your father kept him on?”
She scoffed. “Of course, he knew. But are you sure?”
“If there was anything for him to gain from it,” Garret muttered, “he would do it.”
The girl sighed heavily. “What if he’s innocent?”
Garret scoffed. “Whether or not he released Sebastian, he is far from innocent.”
Juniper pursed her lips. “We cannot subject an innocent man to the Triumvirate’s judgment.”
Huffing impatiently, Garret put his hands on his hip. “As I’ve said, if there’s anything for him to gain from it, he’d do it. I’ve known him for years, and I wouldn’t trust him for all the riches in the world.”
It would have made sense, she thought, if Sebastian had promised the captain something in return for his help—perhaps land, and a noble title. If the man lacked loyalty altogether, then dangling a noble title, a fortune, and perhaps something even more alluring in front of such a man would certainly do the trick.
She grabbed hold of Garret’s hands. “Let me speak with the Vasaath. The captain has converted, and is now a kasaath.” She swallowed. “I think the general would like to investigate this himself.”
Garret set his jaw tight, hesitant. With a deep sigh, he finally nodded.
Juniper exhaled in relief. “I will not let them pin this on you, Garret.”
“I have been loyal to House Arlington for as long as I can remember,” mumbled the man. “Of course, they suspect me.”
“But I do not,” she said determinedly and locked her gaze with his. “And I won’t let you die for this.”
Garret took a deep breath, nodded, and thanked her dearly.
When she arrived at the fort that evening, the Vasaath was training his new recruits in the chilly night, and their spent forms huffed and puffed in the flickering firelight, trying to match the stronger Kas soldiers.
She indulged in watching the general as he instructed the recruits, marvelling at his glorious build—indeed, she didn’t want to waste any time, but this was hardly something she could ignore.
When he noticed he had an audience, he declared that the training was done for the evening—much to the humans’ relief.
The general walked towards her, his eyes brilliant in the lights. “Lady Juniper,” he smiled, his intent clearly shown in his countenance. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“My lord,” she smiled and curtsied, enjoying their playful formalities, but now was not the time for flirtations. “I have some things I need to discuss with you.”
The general swept hungry eyes over her form, slowly and possessively, and he clicked his tongue. “Well, we’d better go somewhere we could speak, then.”
He led her to his tent and the warmth and the familiar and comforting scent of spices met her upon entering. The Vasaath offered her tea, but she politely declined, and he curled his lips into a charming grin, baring his sharp teeth.
Determinedly, he pulled her to him and breathed huskily in her ear, “Good. I’m in no mood for tea.”
His advances were flattering, his body was alluring—indeed, she felt lustful as he slowly caressed her—but she had to steel herself. She had more important matters to discuss. Just as he sought her lips, she pulled away.
“No, my love,” she mumbled. “Not now.” Sighing, she slithered out of his grip. “I really do have something I must discuss with you.”
He grunted disapprovingly and scowled before slowly stretching his neck. “What is it?”
Juniper brought her hands together and took a deep breath. “The Vasmenaan has accused Garret of helping Sebastian escape.”
The Vasaath shrugged his shoulders. “Well, next to you, there aren’t that many suspects left.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to gather herself. “He didn’t do it.”
He glared at her from under furrowed brows. “And how do you know that?”
She sighed. “I trust him, like you trust me. I just know.”
The muscles in his jaw moved. “He was your father’s most trusted advisor, yes? And he has been loyal to your family for a long time, yes? Then he’s probably the one who let the boy out. If it wasn’t you, then it must have been him. I would applaud his loyalty.”
Juniper crossed her arms. “He’s clever enough to know that it would get him killed, and he would never do that to me as long as I am in—” She bit her tongue and huffed.
The Vasaath narrowed his eyes and slowly started towards her again while cocking his head. “As long as you’re in what? Danger?”
She glared at him, but felt sudden heat in her face. “As long as I’m in your mercy.”
He took her chin in his hand, trailed her lips with his thumb, and a soft rumbled escaped from his depths. “Yes—but you don’t mind being in my mercy, do you?”
Her breath quickened, her heart raced, and her knees nearly buckled. His touch was arousing, his words enticing, but she swallowed, decided not to digress. “I am being serious, my lord. He is not the culprit, but I am fairly certain I know who is.”
“Then tell me,” he breathed against her lips.
“One of your new recruits.”
The Vasaath suddenly pulled away. His golden eyes were clouded with disbelief, his heavy brows tightly knitted. “Who?”
“A man whose loyalty can only be bought by sovereigns,” she muttered.
The general’s face twisted into a feral scowl as his body tensed. “Who?”
Juniper took a quick step back. “A captain of the City Guard, Thomas Wiltbourne.”
There was a shift in his eyes, coldness almost, as he grunted, “And you are certain about this?”
Her heart skipped every other beat as her mind rapidly sifted through thousands of thoughts. Was she certain? Garret had said it himself, he was far from innocent. She had heard plenty of rumours saying the same thing, but she didn’t truly know. In truth, she had never even spoken to the man. But if he knew the secret, and if he was promised a generous reward, then surely he would be just as suspicious as any—but what if the rumours were false? Was she perhaps in the wrong?
The Vasaath’s cold eyes demanded an answer from her, so she took a deep breath. It didn’t matter—whether or not Garret was innocent, he needed protection from the Vasmenaan’s judgment. She didn’t care that he might be lying to her, she would not see him dead.
Finally, she nodded. “I cannot be fully certain, for I don’t know, but there are whispers about his disloyalty and greed.” She sighed heavily. “If there was anything for him to gain from it, he would do it.”
The Vasaath balled his hands into fists and strode past her out of the tent. Juniper felt her knees buckle beneath her, and she had to sit. Her heart fluttered frantically and she felt sweat break upon her brow—shame.
“Builder,” she breathed, “forgive me.”
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”