The Fall of the Builder: XII
Supper was as it had been for the last few weeks. Juniper sat listening to the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon as they discussed political matters, and she only spoke when being spoken to. She had started to understand some of their words but she was still far from fluent in their language.
Most nights, the table was filled; ten or more discussed different strategies of diplomacy and defence—if the other six Free Cities were to band together and attack Noxborough, they needed a plan. The Vasaath seldom appeared for supper; he did not like the castle or political drabble, and many of the decisions were thus left in the open.
In this, however, Garret was a most valued asset to the Triumvirate and the Kas. He had intimate knowledge of the city’s fortifications and guaranteed that five hundred men were enough to keep Noxborough against thousands. Indeed, the city was built to hold, and could even withstand attacks from the sea.
“Two hundred Kas warriors took this castle without much effort,” the Vasenon reminded him.
“Indeed,” said Garret. “The city is not without faults, but in its defence, it is built to withstand attacks from the outside. Not from within.”
Juniper had been surprised by Garret during the past few weeks—he had quickly adapted to the new rule, and he often spoke of the improvements in the city; the harvest had been plentiful this year and instead of selling the valuable grains to the highest bidder, or simply locking it up in the Duke’s larders, it had been equally distributed. The children were being schooled, waterways were being broadened, medicine and healing were given to all, as well as food—indeed, it was all proof of the Kas generosity, but Juniper was surprised to see her father’s most trusted advisor turn so easily.
But there were things that Garret never mentioned, like the death of Wiltbourne. The captain had confessed, Juniper knew as much, but she found it rather odd that Garret wouldn’t even mention it. Perhaps, she thought, he felt guilty for being the one to name him in the first place.
Even odder was the fact that Garret never spoke of Juniper’s father. It was as though the man had simply moved on. He now served the Kas, faithfully it seemed, but something was awry with his compliance. It was too smooth, too quick—or perhaps Juniper had thought her people were tougher. A Northerner will never yield, her father always told her when she was a child. Perhaps, she thought—a bittersweet thought—it only applied when they weren’t forced to yield to giant grey warriors.
Later that evening, she withdrew to her room. She was too tired for a conversation with the Vasmenaan, and she was too tired for an evening with the Vasaath. She simply needed some time to herself, to contemplate and reflect.
She had called for some tea to be brought up, and while she waited, she lighted the fire in the hearth, put on her night robes, and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. Sitting on the window sill, she gazed out over the city.
The autumn rains had ceased for the evening and the clouds had dispersed momentarily. The end of summer had brought the dark nights with it, and every candle lit in the city painted a mirror image of the starry sky. It was a beautiful sight, but it was sombre. The silence was welcomed, but it was, in a way, also deafening.
Nothing would ever be the same. She had always known as much, but when the turbulence from the riots had begun to settle, the truth had caught up with her. Her father had been killed by her lover, her brother had escaped and was either dead or alive somewhere outside the city walls, and her city had fallen to the rule of the relentless Grey Ones.
It was true that they had bettered the lives of hundreds in the city, perhaps even thousands. Their justice was swift, yes, but fair. Their stern code of conduct was rigorous and stiff, but it brought the city back from the precipice. Noxborough was at peace—but the people lived in fear. She knew she had no right to criticise their rule, given that the one before wasn’t any better—but if she had a choice, she would choose neither of them.
“Builder,” she whispered in sudden melancholy. “I pray to thee, let my brother live. Let him be safe, wherever he might be. Let him find solace, and let him find peace. Release him from the shackles of tradition and let him see a better road ahead of him. Don’t lead him back here, where only Death awaits him.”
A tear rolled down her cheek, and she slowly wiped it away.
“I beg thee, keep the Vasaath in the light. Steer him away from the Darkness that consumes him. I know he doesn’t look to thee, but I know his heart and it is good. It is true. I’ve seen it, and I have felt it. He is only lost. Please, Builder, lead him onto the right path. I pray to thee, to save those in need of saving. Thy mercy is what will save us from the Darkness ahead.”
She had not noticed that more tears had escaped her eyes before a soft gust of wind slipped through the small crack in the window and chilled her face, and she snivelled and wiped them all away. It had been many years since she had prayed so ardently—she wasn’t even sure the Builder was listening—but she had never felt this burdened before.
She glanced back over the city. In the houses and cottages, the people were gathering. Some were mourning their children, who were all housed in the upper regions of the city where they had turned several buildings into schools, and some were revelling in their new food, clothes, and warmth. Some were still celebrating the end of a tyranny that had lasted for hundreds of years, while some feared the beginning of a new one. Some, like Juniper, still prayed to the Builder for protection, comfort, and guidance out of the dark and into the light.
Down there, by the docks, the Vasaath would be waiting for her in his tent. He always waited for her. He never blamed her for not coming, but when she did, she could feel his lonesomeness, his yearning, and her heart ached for him.
She wondered what would have become of them both if they hadn’t defied the Vasmenaan and the rules, but she barely dared to think about the longing she would feel—indeed, she prayed to the Builder to keep him from the Darkness, but the truth was that he was the one who kept her away from it, and she imagined herself to be the one who kept him from it as well.
Raising her gaze, she looked out over the bay. The moon glittered in the still water, and the glimmers of the stars could be spotted, even from as far away as Fairgarden. She hoped—oh, how she hoped!—that Sebastian was safe, somewhere out there. If Garret was right, and he had gone into the river, chances were that he had washed out into the sea. Only providence knew where he was, if he was still alive. She grieved him nonetheless. It was unlikely that she would ever see him again.
A gentle rapping on the door pulled her back to her room, and she quickly dried her tears before she sprung to her feet and opened her chamber door. A servant woman stood in the hall, carrying a tray with a teapot and a cup. It smelled of Redroot, and the comforting scent quickly spread in her room.
Juniper smiled and received the tray. “Thank you.”
The woman nodded, and before she released the tray, a small note was slipped into Juniper’s fingers underneath it. The woman stared into her eyes as she hissed, “Milady, Noxborough remains.”
Juniper stood bewildered. The woman left before she could ask her what she had meant by it, and she hurried inside again to see what the note contained. Placing the tray onto the bed, almost spilling the hot tea, she quickly unfolded the note and skimmed through it.
The Red Sun will set and the Osprey shall fly once again. We hereby pledge our fealty and allegiance to the one true ruler of Noxborough, Lady Arlington. As long as the Blood of the First lingers in Fairgarden, Noxborough remains.
Her heart quickened, thudding loudly in her ears, and her hands started to tremble. She read through the content many times, and every time, her heart raced even more.
No, she thought. This could not be real. This was a fool’s dream, a dangerous fantasy.
Quickly, she looked about, making sure no one was in the room—even though she knew she was alone. The note in her hand burned her fingertips, as though she knew what terrible things it could lead to, and she knew not what to make of it. Desperately, she looked around the room, and her eyes fastened on the burning hearth. Without hesitation, she tossed the note into the fire and watched the flames devour it.
It didn’t matter whether it was real or not—if the wrong person ever found a note like that, the whole city might be put onto spikes before winter’s end.