The Crimson King: I
Every whisper felt like a death sentence. Juniper could barely walk the streets of her own city without hearing them. They were everywhere, whispers of treason and danger. Did she hear more and more refer to her as Lady Arlington, instead of simply ‘milady’? Did she see more and more people bowing to her? Was it all in her head?
Noxborough remains. That certainly wasn’t in her head. She burned the note, but it felt as though she still held it in her hand.
The Vasmenaan could see her uneasiness, and it made her even more nervous. The Kas woman did not question her about it, luckily enough, but Juniper felt eyes follow her wherever she went—friends’ as well as foes’.
Whenever she passed a Noxborougher on her way down to the harbour, she thought she saw them bow—something they rarely did before. But whenever she thought she saw a person bow, she felt the looming eyes of someone who was watching. Perhaps it was all in her mind, but she couldn’t rid herself of the feeling. Her heart was racing once she entered the fort.
The Vasaath was waiting for her. She hadn’t come for some nights; she was too nervous to face him—what if he had heard the whispers as well? But his whole face turned into a relieved frown when he saw her.
“Menaan,” he whispered softly, intimately, as he pulled her to him.
His kisses were yearning, wanting, and in her relief, she wished nothing else but to pull him with her into his chambers and forget about the world outside, but she gently pushed him away.
“No, my love,” she sighed lowly.
The Vasaath tensed, his brows tightly knitted. She half expected him to be impatient, brisk, but he was cautious. “Are you tired, menaan? Are you unwell? Are you—disappointed?”
She was confused. Disappointed? She shook her head and dropped her gaze. “You never know who’s watching.”
“Why?” he grunted darkly. “Has the Vasmenaan said anything?”
“No,” she mumbled. Looking up at him, she bit her lip. “It’s just—I feel watched.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply, scowled and backed away. “It’s my fault,” he muttered and sank down by the table.
Juniper frowned, perplexed. “Why?” She sat down next to him.
He grunted, pulled his brows together, and gazed at her intensely. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was shame in his eyes.
“The Vasmenaan sent a vas-maasa to see me,” he muttered.
Juniper’s heart suddenly stopped. She knew what that meant. Even though the general had told her, several times, that he loved her, he had never promised her devotion.
The Vasaath was not supposed to seek comfort with anyone else but a vas-maasa. It wasn’t appropriate. Neither could she expect him to swear himself to her—such were not the ways of the Kas. They loved many, had no significant other, and even if they did, they would still be entitled to visit a maasa whenever the need arose.
She knew this. And yet, she felt betrayed. Painfully so. Her heart might as well break at any moment. Did love mean anything if she would never be enough? Perhaps he would only love her until another one, more suitable, came along?
She swallowed, but the motion echoed in emptiness. “I see.”
The Vasaath gently grabbed her hand and caressed her palm with his thumb. “I didn’t lie with her. I couldn’t.”
A slight thud of the heart—chest tightening. Baffled, she blinked several times. “What do you mean?”
His jaw squared, as it usually did when he was troubled, and he tightened his grip just a little. “I mean—” He sighed again, huffed, and grunted. “I couldn’t lie with her, because I didn’t want it.” Pulling her closer, he whispered, “I just want you and you alone.”
She felt a tingle spread through her body as her heart begun again with a rumble. In her world, it was a wonderful thing to confess one’s devotion to another—it was what every little girl dreamt of as a child, and it was what every woman hoped for to hear from her beloved. It was the promise two lovers made in front of the Builder himself. Indeed, she never thought she would experience such a thing in her lifetime. And now, could it be?
In his world, this was most irregular. The Kas didn’t devote themselves so exclusively to anything but the Kasenon, and the Vasaath was certainly devoted to their tenets. She could hardly believe his words—but the Vasaath did not lie. He would not lie.
She couldn’t stop herself as she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him forcefully. He jerked, clearly startled, but quickly wrapped his arms around her and returned the sentiment.
She straddled him, pressing herself against his rippling torso, savouring the taste of him and the scent of him. His large hands traversed her legs, her backside, and her spine, cupped her head and pinned her to his body.
She imagined him stirring beneath his belt, and the mere thought made her quiver with heat. She pressed her tongue against his, drove it along his teeth, tugged at his lips, and groaned into him.
Impatiently, she ran her hands over his tunic, under it, feeling his hot skin against her fingertips. His muscles tightened as she touched them, shuddered, and when she reached his belt to hastily undo it, the general grunted and grabbed her wrists.
“No, menaan,” he grumbled reluctantly. “If the Vasmenaan is suspecting us, we have to be careful.”
Frustrated, burning, Juniper pulled back. It wasn’t because of their forbidden affair she felt watched, but she couldn’t tell him that. She couldn’t tell him that there might be a budding rebellion in the city, one that had appointed her as the one true Duchess.
Sighing deeply, she crawled out of his lap and fixed the skirts of her dress and wiped the moisture from her lips.
“You’re right,” she breathed, trying her hardest to gather herself. “Just some tea, then?”
The Vasaath cleared his throat, clearly trying to calm his own arousal. “I ordered the maasa to tell the Vasmenaan that she granted me satisfaction—it would be too suspicious if I had turned her down.” He furrowed his brows and glanced at her. “I was afraid the Vasmenaan had told you.”
Juniper smiled and shook her head. “She did not.” Then she sighed. “And now you fear that the maasa has told the Vasmenaan the truth?”
He grunted and nodded.
She bit her lip. “Can we deny it? Well—can you?”
The Vasaath furrowed his brows tighter. He wasn’t a liar, she knew that, and even less so in front of the Vasmenaan. “I don’t know.”
She chewed on the inside of her cheek, feeling a slight nervousness arise. She nodded. “Do you think she might have me followed?”
The general grunted again. “I don’t know. I could place someone with you, someone keeping an eye out for you. I know a skilful youngling in need of an honourable mission. I trust him.”
Juniper scoffed. “I don’t need supervision.”
“No,” said the Vasaath and took a strand of her hair between his fingers. “I know you don’t. It’s for protection.”
She pulled her brows together, tilted her head a little, and looked into his eyes. “Protection from what? The Vasmenaan?”
Something dark stirred in the Great Warrior’s eyes as he gazed deep into her soul, something worrisome. “No. Everyone.”
Juniper swallowed, suddenly understanding the danger of their love. Even the great general of Kasarath was worried about it, and it was unlike him. It felt wrong—not their love, but the secrecy and the need for it. What was love if they weren’t free to express it?
But permitted or not—she would not lose him. Grabbing his hands in hers, she looked into his eyes and said, “I love you, Vasaath. No matter what happens, no matter what comes between us, I love you, and neither the Vasmenaan nor anyone else can change that.”
His countenance softened, his eyes like honey, and he gently caressed her face. “An elos ma enaan.”
Leaning into his soft touch, she chuckled. “My mind is too clouded at this moment. What does that mean?”
“It means that you own my deepest devotion,” smiled the Vasaath and leaned his forehead against hers. “It means that you own my heart.”
“I didn’t think the People owned anything,” she huffed as the smile seemed unable to go away.
“You own me,” he breathed.
She kissed him then—a sweet kiss, but filled with longing and burning regret. She knew not what the people of Noxborough were planning, or what the Vasmenaan had in store for them. At that moment, it felt as though it was the two of them against the world.