The Crimson King: III
Her breath puffed into sheer clouds around her as she walked through the streets towards the lower districts. The cold, moist air seeped in under her cloak and she pulled it closer around herself. The cobblestones were still shiny from the mist that had hung in the air that morning, thick and unrelenting, and the crows and ravens screeched in the sky above her as they flew across the grey clouds. The city was quiet—unusually so.
Juniper shuddered. She had been tasked by the Vasmenaan to speak with the common folk, to make sure they had all they needed now when the weather was turning. Her face would be a comfort to them, the Vasmenaan had said, but Juniper doubted it.
She had invited the people of the lower districts to a meeting in a warehouse down by the docks where she knew they usually held balls and dances and such. All too often, those happy occasions had been stormed by City Guards, because they hadn’t had the proper permit for such a gathering. How quaint, Juniper thought bitterly, that the Duke’s own daughter would be the one to gather them there once more.
Distrust loomed over the entire city. Everyone felt it, Kas and humans alike—leering gazes, quiet mutterings, deep frowns.
On the orders of the Vasaath, a Kas youngling was escorting her; his shoulders had yet to fill the armour he was wearing, his dark hair was only shoulder length, and his arms and legs seemed disproportionate from the rest of his lanky body, but he was able and skilful. His name was Eno, and even though he was hesitant to even look at the ohkasethen, afraid that he might offend with his curious eyes, she had learnt that he was seventeen years old and that this was his first time away from Kasarath.
It was evident he regarded it as a great honour to escort the ohkasethen who was still considered by many as royalty. He took his task very seriously and even stepped in to protect her from a bucket of soiled water that was being thrown out of a small window onto the narrow, crooked street.
While staring disgustedly at the waste on the ground, he uttered some words in Kasoch she had yet to learn—but it sounded like obscenities. “Why are the people throwing their dirty water out onto the streets, ohkasethen?”
“They don’t know where else to put it.”
“But—” Eno looked about. “The waterways?”
Juniper chuckled. “Yes, well, it takes some time for people to get used to it.”
“You’ve never had waterways?”
Juniper gazed at the boy. The innocence in his witless expression made her frown. “Down here, it’s been too crowded to have waterways. It will take some time for people to get used to another way of doing things.”
Eno wrinkled his nose but said no more of the matter.
Juniper felt her ears heat up—of course, she was embarrassed. She lied. It was crowded, yes, but it wasn’t too narrow for a ditch. The Kas had proved that. She distinctly remembered one of her first conversations with the Vasaath, where he blamed her for the misery of her people. The streets were clean in the upper districts of the city, and the rich people who lived there cared not for the filth down here. No one bothered to rectify it, including her.
The Kas did. They dug the waterways, built the gutters. They cared when no one else did. Still, the Noxboroughers wouldn’t trust them, and Juniper could not blame them for it. She wouldn’t trust them either, had she not known them as she did.
Some people peeked out of the windows as Juniper and Eno passed them. Some scoffed, spat, and hissed at them, and Juniper unwittingly sought herself closer to her young guard. She remembered when she ran from the City Guards after escaping the castle, when she heard so many horrid things being said about her on these streets, by these people. She doubted they had a better opinion of her now.
“Ohkasethen,” said Eno, his voice wary. “Why are we going deeper into this maze of destitution?”
“We are heading for the docks,” said she. “People have gathered there to bring forth their thoughts to me, so I can inform the Vasmenaan.”
Although not entirely convinced, Eno grunted and nodded.
The closer they came to the warehouse, the faster Juniper’s heart thudded. There was something eerie about the city when it was so lifeless. This time of year, the people were often occupied with mending their houses, selling their pelts, and buying their grain before the White Wakening. Now—nothing.
When the warehouse appeared in the small slit between the houses up ahead, Juniper swallowed. She didn’t know if anyone had come at all—but the closer they came, the more distinct the cacophony of voices became. Chattering, laughing, cheering—she thanked the Builder and allowed herself a deep sigh of relief. Eno walked only half a step behind her as she finally entered the large building.
Warmth and stuffiness met her as she stepped inside. There was a stale smell of ale and mead, of sweat and dirt, and she tried not to breathe in too deep. She was met by hundreds of faces belonging to men as well as women. They all silenced, and Juniper could see that most of them shifted their menacing stares from her to the tall, grey boy behind her. She might not have been all too welcomed, but Eno certainly wasn’t at all. She wondered then if she had made a fatal mistake and stepped right into the fire.
Out of the crowd came suddenly a man she recognised, and he bowed deeply to her. “My lady.”
Smiling, relieved, she peered down on him. “Vincent!”
The Kamani straightened and smiled widely. He looked cleaner, well-fed. He wore nice, new clothes, and his beard was well-groomed and thick. He definitely seemed as though he had thrived under the rule of the Kas.
He politely motioned her forwards. “We have saved you a seat at the head of the table, my lady. Come.”
When the elderly man placed a hand on her shoulder, Eno immediately stepped forth, glaring down at the Kamani. Vincent released his hold, swallowed, and backed away.
“Eno, it’s all right,” said Juniper. “Vincent is a friend of mine. There is no need. But thank you.”
The Kas youngling nodded and stepped back.
“I’m glad to see you’re being respected, my lady,” nodded Vincent and glanced at the tall soldier. “I hear you have quite an important occupation.”
Juniper smiled and followed Vincent into the crowd who had now started to whisper and mutter amongst themselves.
“Yes,” said she. “I wish to do what I can to make sure you have what you need.”
“Yes,” said Vincent. “We are very grateful you could take this time to see so many of us.” He led her to a seat at the end of a large table, and she sat down.
Eno, tense and agitated, leaned down to her and growled something in Kasoch.
Juniper had to think for a moment to interpret his comment. The only words she could understand were ta’am, meaning “many”, and oh m’ethen, meaning “no knowledge”. She knew not if he meant that many didn’t know, or if he meant they didn’t know it would be so many. Looking out over the discontented faces, she settled for the latter.
Looking at him, she whispered, “Don’t worry. They won’t hurt me.”
Eno straightened, but he did not seem any less alarmed.
Juniper swallowed. She had seen the travesty left on the streets after the battle, after the riots. She had seen the maimed bodies, the blood—she had seen the hanging corpses of the nobles; she knew what a mob like this could do to her if they were pushed to the limit.
Taking a deep breath, she plastered a smile upon her lips and said, “I’m very pleased so many of you could come here today.”
“We’re wondering if you’ve lured us in here to kill us all!” shouted a woman from far back, and several concurred. “Are hundreds of those grey beasts waiting outside with spears and swords?”
Again, more concurrence.
Juniper raised her palms. “No, no! They don’t wish you any harm! I promise. I was tasked with making sure that you have all you need before winter. Do your houses need mending? Do you require new boots, cloaks, furs? Do you have enough firewood? Do you—”
“They are taking all our grain!”
Juniper frowned. “No, there is plenty of grain left for everyone, I promise.”
“My boy had been drafted to their wicked army! I’d rather die before seeing him wear the black!”
“Aye, mine too!”
“I assure you, they will receive the best military training there is. They will become formidable warriors and—”
“And what about our little ones? We want our children back!” The shout came from just one person in the crowd, but the whole roof seemed to burst when everyone suddenly started roaring. Indeed, they all wanted the same thing.
“Aye, we aren’t even allowed to speak to them!”
“We aren’t even allowed to see them!”
Juniper’s shoulders slumped. The children were one thing she couldn’t give them. Sighing deeply, she steeled herself. “Your children are being well cared for, I promise. They have plenty to eat, warm clothes, nice beds to sleep in, and—”
“They’re getting their brains washed, they are!” shouted another. “Putting that kasan-shit into their little minds! Blasphemy!”
“Kasenon.” Eno’s comment was hardly heard by anyone but Juniper.
“And they are away from their mothers and fathers!”
“Aye! That’s unnatural, it is! It’s against the Pillars, it is!”
She sighed and rose. “Please! Calm yourselves!”
The crowd silenced a bit, but there were still angered mutterings amongst them.
She huffed. “What if I speak with the Triumvirate and ask if the children could be allowed home for Winter Solstice? I know that will not fill the holes left in your hearts, but at least it could be some comfort?”
The people seemed to ponder this for a moment before one said, “It’s a start! But we want our children back for good!”
Juniper bit her lip, not knowing what to say or do to assure them their children were safe.
“They are getting a proper education,” she finally said. “They are being taught how to read and how to write. They are being taught our history, and even of the Builder.”
The last thing, she wasn’t entirely sure about. She did know that a few of the city’s Architects had been placed as nemethans, teachers—surely, they would teach the children at least some words of Edred.
“Don’t you want what is best for your children?” she asked softly. “Will you not give them the chance of a rich and thorough education?”
Mutterings, mumblings—someone nodded, someone huffed, another scoffed.
Finally, a man rose and said, “Milady, if you could bring our children home for Winter Solstice, we’d be delighted. It’s not what we want, but it’s at least a small comfort.”
Several nodded and muttered in agreement.
Juniper smiled. “Of course. I will do my absolute best.” She looked about. “Is there anything else? Is there anyone in need of medicine?”
About an hour passed. The people discussed their experiences—mostly, they were terrified of the large grey soldiers that patrolled the streets, and told dreadful stories of the demons. One of them had ravished someone’s friend’s daughter, and another had strangled someone’s sister’s husband’s friend after losing a gamble.
The tales were plenty, and Juniper suspected they were all made up. The people, however, all agreed that the arrival of the Saath, the Vasmenaan, and the Vasenon was almost nightmarish. Awe-striking, but nightmarish.
No one could deny that the Kas had improved their lives—for some, drastically. They did all agree that the city was being taken care of, even though they did say that they could not understand how things could get done when no one got paid. How could people be expected to work without any wages? Nothing was ever done for free.
Juniper tried to explain, but she feared she wasn’t the best teacher—she, herself, hadn’t fully comprehended how they could have built an entire society without currency and wealth.
When the townsfolk seemed satisfied, Juniper thanked them for their time, rose, and headed for the exit. Her heart was pounding loudly—there was still time for an attack, if anything was planned. Eno seemed to have the same thought and stayed close to her as she walked through the warehouse.
Juniper turned about and Eno clutched the hilt of his sword, but it was only Vincent as he hurried to her side.
He smiled, bowed, and frowned. “My lady, would it be too much to ask to ask for a minute of your time?”
Juniper smiled back. “Not at all.”
Vincent furrowed his brows even tighter. “Is it possible to speak with you alone?” He glanced at Eno, but quickly returned his gaze.
Juniper bit her lip and looked about. Nodding, she turned to the Kas youngling. “Eno, it’s all right. Wait over there, and I will come to you shortly.”
The soldier hesitated, but he knew better than to question someone who outranked him. So he nodded and placed himself a good ten feet away from the two humans.
Vincent spied about before he leaned in to whisper, “I must have you know, we are many in this city that are on your side, and we are ready. If you need us, you will find us down by Fisher’s Lane. The Red Sun will set and the Osprey shall fly once again. As long as the Blood of the First lingers in Fairgarden, Noxborough remains.”
Juniper widened her eyes. Her breath came to a halt. When Vincent straightened, she wanted to ask him what he meant by it and how many they were, but her voice betrayed her.
Vincent bowed once again and said, “My lady,” before he withdrew back to the crowd.
Juniper felt her knees sway beneath her. She could hardly move. Before she knew it, Eno was at her side.
“Ohkasethen,” he said worriedly. “Are you unwell? What did the man say?”
Shaking her head, she croaked, “Nothing. It’s nothing—he said nothing. I’m well.” Gazing up at the young boy’s face, she tried to smile but failed. “Let’s go back to Fairgarden. I believe the Vasmenaan would like to hear the townsfolk’s opinions.”
Leading the way, she hurried back through the streets. The air was colder now—haunting. Underneath the calming city, something wicked was brewing.
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Saath – military; army; strength; protection