The Crimson King: V
The White Wakening came with a storm. Strong northern winds blew in from over the sea, bringing the biting cold with it. For three days, the storm raged on, and only the bravest ventured into the white tempest.
The winds howled outside the Vasaath’s tent, and the red canopy fluttered above as he lay in his bed. The waxing on the canvas was impeccable, letting neither wind nor moisture inside. That was how the tent could remain warm during even the harshest of winters. But even though he did not like castles, he preferred the stillness of stone in weathers like this.
Retreating to the castle was, nevertheless, not an option and the small rooms in the halls of the fort were already occupied. His men garrisoned inside, sheltering themselves from the unforgiving winds. The Vasaath had his tent, the finest there was, and there was no need for him to seek shelter elsewhere.
While listening to the whistling, raging winds outside, his mind wandered. The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were relieved to hear that Kasethen accepted the diplomatic mission, but the Vasaath was still sullen about it.
Indeed, he knew Kasethen was better suited than anyone to do it, and he would send fifty of his best men to accompany him, but he had a disturbing feeling in his body that he was sending his dearest friend and most trusted advisor straight into the dragon’s belly. It might not even matter how skilful the diplomat was—if Illyria had decided to fight the Kas, they were at war already.
Sighing bitterly, he missed Juniper’s warmth. Her presence would have calmed him, and her gentle breathing would have lulled him to sleep, but she was high up in Fairgarden, inside her room with a warm fire burning beside her. She deserved nothing less, but he wanted her with him.
He kept clinging on to the thought that once the Vasmenaan had boarded that ship, her prying eyes would be gone and he wouldn’t have to be as careful. All he had to care about then were the Vasmenaan’s whispering birds; Eloch, Baraam, and Olaan would most certainly be tasked with keeping the Vasmenaan informed about the progress of the city—and the conduct of the Vasaath.
He wouldn’t just be representing himself any longer, he would represent the Triumvirate as a whole. His mistakes would be their mistakes, and their judgments would be even harsher.
On the fourth day, the storm had calmed. Noxborough was left buried underneath a glistening white blanket of ice and snow. The change of scenery had seemed to lighten the mood, and some younglings were even seen tossing snowballs at one another as the sun softened the ice.
It was the sign the Triumvirate had been waiting for. The crewmen of the grand ship had been told to be ready to set sail at the first snow, and from the first sign of sunshine that morning, they had gone to work.
The Vasaath rode to the castle first thing that morning. Aamos’s hooves thudded mutedly against the soft ground, the air fogged as his nostrils flared, and the white snow was blinding against his black coat.
The Vasaath inhaled deeply, savouring the fresh, cold air of winter. There was something special about it, something invigorating. The cold air cleaned his lungs and the silenced surroundings calmed him. He knew it would all disappear in a day or two. The ground was still too warm—winter had yet to seep into it properly. But he would savour it nonetheless. Until the real winter arrived, this was the best he would get.
His fur-lined armour felt heavy and clunky as he tried to pass through the narrow halls of the castle. The cloak billowed behind him, forcing people out of the way as he passed them. It was one of the reasons he didn’t like castles—he felt confined, trapped.
The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon were eating breakfast in one of the parlours. It took the Vasaath a few wrong turns to finally find the right one, and he was greeted with smiles and a table filled with all sorts of bread, honey, and cheese.
“Vasaath!” greeted the Vasenon. “You look as though you’ve just come down from the peaks of the Mother’s Shadow! Aren’t you dying of warmth underneath those things? Come. Remove your cloak and join us!”
Muttering, the Vasaath did as asked. Inside the stone, the fur was suffocating him. He removed his cloak, his chest and back piece, and his pauldrons before he sat down by the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon.
The Vasmenaan sighed. “So, the winter winds have finally reached Nornest.”
“Seems like it,” the Vasaath said. “It’ll be interesting to see how much or how little the real winter will spare them.”
“Indeed,” nodded the Vasenon, “but I am less keen on seeing how merciless it has been on Kasarath this year.”
“And the worst is yet to come,” muttered the Vasmenaan.
The Vasaath clenched his jaw. Thinking about all the men, women, and children back home freezing to death in their huts and houses brought a sadness he had rarely felt before.
“The ship is being loaded as we speak,” he finally said. “You will leave tomorrow?”
The Vasmenaan nodded. “If another storm is brewing, we want to anticipate it.”
“I presume Kasethen is preparing to leave soon, as well?” the Vasenon asked.
The Vasaath sighed deeply. “We have yet to figure out the details, but don’t worry. We must wait for the Emperor’s response, for his invitation. It’s only been a week since the inquiry was sent.”
The old man nodded. “Speak with ohkasethen Garret. He has intimate knowledge of the diplomacy and politics between Nornest and Illyria. He’ll have some suggestions, I’m sure.”
The Vasaath scowled. Kasethen had spoken well of the man, but the general still didn’t trust him. He had been the Duke’s closest advisor, and if he was that quick to turn, then how could they expect him to be loyal to them?
But he nodded. “Very well.”
“While we’re gone,” said the Vasmenaan and looked at the Vasaath with stern eyes, “you will have to remain vigilant. Mainlanders are fickle. When the cat’s away, the rats will play. You need to keep reminding them what the Kas way entails.”
There was also a very clear message in her gaze, that he needed to remember what their ways entailed. The Vasaath nodded, but guilt was stirring in his belly.
“We will have a feast tonight,” said the Vasmenaan and lightened, “to wish you good luck and to wish us luck for the journey. We will announce the new order at the feast as well.”
The Vasaath loaded a plateful of bread and cheese and ate with a good appetite. He wanted to hide his nervousness, his anxiety—and his longing.
When the evening arrived, the feast commenced. It was held for everyone who wanted—who dared—to attend, and the official reason was to welcome the winter and bid farewell to the autumn.
Only a handful of commoners arrived, but the great hall was filled with former nobles. They still seemed rather wary of the Grey Ones but they would not miss an opportunity to celebrate in the grand halls of the castle, reminiscing about how their lives used to be.
The Vasaath kept his gaze on the young, silver-eyed woman who danced between the people with elegant smiles and diplomatic words. The Kas respected her, the noblemen and commoners seemed to like her, and her role seemed to suit her well.
Now and then, their eyes met and the Vasaath could spy drunken giddiness on her cheeks, and a tint of coyness in her eyes. He clenched his jaw tightly; all he wanted was to kiss her, hold her tightly, and make love to her through the night. But such passion had to wait, even though he was impatient—just as she seemed to be.
At the height of the feast, the Vasmenaan rose from her seat at the high table and slammed her cup into the wood three times, and the hall fell into silence.
When all eyes were settled on her, she cleared her throat and said, “My friends! The White Wakening has come, and winter is finally here. Because of this, it is time for me and the Vasenon to return to Kasarath for the season.”
She smiled and turned to the Vasaath. While gazing out over the crowd, and reached her hand out to him.
“The Great Warrior, the Vasaath, shall remain here and carry all our words, all our judgments. He will be the acting Head of State and Head of Philosophy while the Vasenon and myself care for our brothers and sisters in Kasarath. Difficult times await us all, but we shall weather it together. Look to the Great Warrior for guidance and justice, and he shall give it. Look to your peers for support and love, and give it yourselves.”
There were some murmurs, some widened eyes, and some restrained gasps from the crowd—such an arrangement had never before been attempted.
Ignoring the reactions, the Vasmenaan raised her cup. “Let us greet winter, together!”
The participants all raised their cups as well and cheered before taking a collective sip, but the Vasaath kept a watchful eye on Juniper. There was surprise in her face, horror; so, the Vasmenaan had not told her of their departure? No—and now was the first time she had heard of the arrangement.
He watched her closely, observed her as she drank her toast; she seemed pale, stiff. The sparkling giddiness was gone, and worry stirred in the Great Warrior’s chest. Would she find it uneasy to be with him once he held the power, once he ruled the city by himself?
Indeed, there had always been inequality between them—he was the Vasaath, a great and powerful Warlord, and she was a young woman in a world ruled by men—but this shift of power was greater, tipping the scales even further. In her world, there would be no difference between him and a Duke. Perhaps she would find it too uncomfortable.
When the festivities resumed, he noticed Juniper slipping away from the crowd. He excused himself and followed her through the halls of the castle. She was heading back to her room, closing the door behind her, and he hesitated outside, wondering if he should be there at all. Perhaps she needed time. But he steeled himself and his let his knuckles fall in a soft rapping upon the door.
“Juniper,” he grumbled. “May I come in?” No sound was coming from the room, and the worry grew in his chest. “Juniper?”
A few moments passed, and he finally heard shuffles inside the room and the door squealed as it opened. The girl stood in the small opening, her face barely peering out from the slit. She didn’t look at him, but he could see that she was upset.
“May I come in?” he repeated and gently placed a hand on the door. Juniper moved aside, letting him push it open. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
The girl folded her arms around herself and sat down on the bed.
“So,” she said, voice thin, “you will speak for all three of you now?”
The Vasaath sighed. “Do you disapprove?”
“No.” She moved her hands to her lap and settled her gaze on her fingers. “Of course, not. I was just—shocked, I suppose.”
“So am I,” he nodded. “Well, I was when I first heard it. I thought they had lost their minds. But they need to go, I need to stay here, and the city needs governing.”
“But you’re a general.” She looked at him, her silver eyes confused and terrified. “You’ve said how much you hate politics. How are you going to rule an entire city?”
The Vasaath chuckled humourlessly. “And what am I to do, then? Refuse?”
She bit her lip and sighed. “No.”
He grunted. “I won’t be a Duke. You won’t have to worry. I will never be like your father.”
Juniper shook her head and dropped her gaze. “That doesn’t worry me.”
He frowned and crouched down in front of her. Grabbing her hands, he murmured, “Then what frightens you, menaan?”
The girl observed his hands, and he did the same. They were big around hers, enfolding them—devouring them.
She tightened her hold, begging him to do the same. “What if there’s another riot?”
He huffed and let his thumbs lightly brush over her knuckles. “Why would there be another riot?”
“No, but if.” She gazed up at him, her eyes troubled. “You’d be their target. Not the Vasmenaan, nor the Vasenon. They’d be across the Winter Sea. What if—they come for you?”
The Vasaath gritted his teeth. “I have thirty thousand soldiers at my disposal, Juniper. Only a fool would attack us.”
She blinked slowly, her long, dark lashes sweeping through the air sensually. “And yet, all it takes is one.”
Gently, he put a strand of hair behind her ear. “Let them try. Many have done so throughout the years, and there will be many more to come.”
He knew he shouldn’t have touched her like that; at once he felt the silk underneath his fingertips, he wanted her. Her eyes, although still troubled, were hazy, her lips slightly parted. He felt the eagerness rise within him, like fire. He wanted to wait, but he couldn’t.
While keeping a keen eye on her gaze, he grabbed a fistful of her skirts and slowly pulled them up. Her breath quickened, and just as he thought she would stop him, she closed her eyes and braced herself on the bed.
He knelt, letting his hands caress her calves, her knees, and her thighs as he gathered the skirts at her hips. Her breaths were heavy as he slowly tugged at the stockings that covered her, revealing her pale, smooth skin.
He coaxed a gasp out of her when his breath tickled the insides of her thigh, just above the knee—a whimper when he kissed her an inch further up, kissed her soft flesh. Gently wrapping his hands around her knees to pry them open for him, she gasped again and quickly placed a hand on his shoulder.
“No, my love,” she breathed. “Stop.”
Bewildered, he gazed up. “You don’t want it?”
“I—” Her face was red, her breaths were still heavy, and her hands were slightly trembling. Then she sighed and fixed her skirts. “I do want it, but I—” She huffed and fixed her dress some more before she placed her hands back in her lap. “Now is not a good time. They’ll—they’ll probably wonder where you are, and the Vasmenaan will surely see that I’m absent too.”
The Vasaath sighed, but nodded. His want was urgent, aching—unbearably so—but he rose from his knees, glad his belt and leather shielded his excitement.
“Please, forgive me,” the girl mumbled and dropped her gaze.
The Vasaath scowled and grunted. “Never apologise for your integrity.” He cleared his throat, trying to ignore the surging need. “Soon, it’ll be just you and I, menaan. We can share a bed once more, we can love—”
He swallowed bitterly. He hadn’t lain with the girl in over a fortnight, but now wasn’t the time to be impatient. Soon, he thought, they would not have to worry about the Vasmenaan’s prying eyes.
He sighed again. “Do you want me to stay for the night, just hold you?”
Juniper smiled half-heartedly. “Don’t worry about me, my love. Return to your celebrations. You should spend time with the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon before they leave.”
The Vasaath nodded, knowing he could hardly stay with her anyway—it would be torturous, unbearable. With one last longing glance at the girl, he left the room and returned to the high spirits of the grand hall.