The Crimson King: VI
Juniper still felt his warm breath tickle the sensitive skin of her inner thigh, still felt his large hands wrapped around her knees, and still felt his warm lips seeking their way to her longing. Her belly and loins burned, her breath was still short, and she wished he would have stayed. Oh, how she wished he would have stayed and brought her bliss.
One word from her, and he would have. One single nod of approval and he would have brought her pleasure until she forgot her troubles—he would have reduced her to nothing but a shivering pile on the bed, aching for more. But she was too troubled, too afraid.
Just as she had come to terms with the fact that the Triumvirate was the new authority in Noxborough, it was to change again. This time, the Vasaath—her Vasaath—was to be put as the sovereign of the Dukedom, just as a rebellion was growing in the city. What made matters worse was that she didn’t know how deep it ran. Would he be in danger, and what form would his rage take once he recognised their resistance?
It was evident that he did not realise the hardship that would come with being the Duke. He said he would not be one, and perhaps, in his mind, he wouldn’t. But Juniper knew better.
To the people of Noxborough, three rulers—one of which was a woman—was a frightful thing. It kept them uncertain, hesitant, and if anything, three rulers were more difficult to overthrow than one. A single ruler, a man, was more familiar to them—even if it was a foreigner and a terrifying warrior. They would see him as a Duke and they would feel stronger in their own discontentment, more certain.
The Vasaath had been right. Her people were savages when they were being pushed to the brink. She wondered if—no, feared that—the people felt cornered. The Kas were forcing their hands. The glares she received from the people inside that warehouse were burnt into her memory. She had told the Vasmenaan afterwards, said that the people wanted their children back and that their anger was rising, but all the Great Mother had said was that they would understand in time. By then, Juniper thought, it would already be too late.
Commoners moved around the Vasaath all the time. All that was needed was a well-hidden blade and a true strike. She shuddered at the thought. She had never feared an assassination of her father—but then again, she hadn’t suspected such fury from the people. What she saw that day, after the battle, would never leave her. That was the moment she understood the power of the rage of the many. The Vasaath put his belief in his army and in himself, but Juniper felt cruel doubt.
She tossed and turned throughout the night. At dawn, her mind was numb from thinking. How was she going to help the Vasaath govern these people? Would he listen to her? How was she going to protect her loved one if the rebels decided to attempt to kill him? Could she protect him? How was she going to stop the budding rebellion? Did she want to stop it?
She lay in her bed for a long while, the thoughts still rushing. A soft rapping landed on the door when the sun stood well over the mountains, and the chambermaid Tilly peaked inside.
Juniper smiled. Sweet Tilly. She had been placed as a hama, a worker. Her role had changed very little, except that she now could choose which household to work in and she didn’t have to fear losing her livelihood whenever someone was displeased with her or her work.
“The Vas-madam requires your presence down by the docks, milady,” said she. “They’re leaving shortly. Ma’am wanted me to help you get ready, milady.”
Juniper sighed and nodded. “Very well, Tilly. Thank you.”
The chambermaid stepped inside. She lighted a fire in the hearth and once it burned brightly, she meticulously folded the cover that lay over Juniper before she turned to the red dress that hung over the edge of the daybed.
Observing the craftsmanship keenly, the chambermaid said, “This is a beautiful garment, milady, but it looks a bit odd.”
Juniper smiled. “It’s typical Kas fashion, as I understand it.”
“Oh, it’s a handsome dress, indeed, milady!” Tilly gasped. “I didn’t mean to offend.”
“You didn’t,” Juniper said and rose.
Tilly seemed quite embarrassed as she helped the lady to dress. “I’ve heard that the general is to be the new Duke now.”
“He won’t be a Duke.”
“Well, what’s he going to be, then? A King?”
Juniper tightened her jaw. “Don’t be preposterous, Tilly. There are no Kings in Nornest.”
The chambermaid shrugged. “That’s what they’re calling him, it is, the Crimson King. You must’ve heard that, milady?”
Juniper sighed. Yes, she had heard of his moniker, but it a cruel one—an unfair one. “There will still be three leaders. He will just carry their words.”
“But they’re leaving, milady,” said Tilly.
Juniper sighed deeply. “They are. But the Vasaath is not going to be a Duke, nor a King. He will still be the general, and the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon will still be part of the Triumvirate, and their words will still rule Noxborough. No, not rule—lead. He’ll just be the messenger.”
“I don’t see much difference, in all honesty, milady. Don’t think many people will,” Tilly muttered as she pulled the leather strings in the back. “I think he’s proper scary, that one. Well, apart from his build, which is mighty scary, there’s something in his eyes I don’t quite like. It’s darkness there, milady.”
Juniper snapped her head at the chambermaid. “Stop speaking such nonsense! You don’t even know the man.”
“I’m sorry, milady,” Tilly mumbled and dropped her gaze. “You’re right, I don’t know him. He’ll make a fine lord, of course.”
Clenching her jaw tightly, Juniper refrained from saying anything else, afraid that she might turn cruel.
Tilly laid her hair in a decorative braid, hung a woollen cloak over her shoulders, and Juniper then headed to the bailey where Eno waited for her with a saddled horse.
People were gathering in the docks, curious about why the soldiers had made a display with their shields and spears. Juniper and Eno carefully made their way through the crowd once they had dismounted, and the closer the came to the pier, the harder it was for the girl to see—the Kas were all eager to wish the Great Mother and the Great Thinker farewell, and all she could see was black leather on broad backs.
Eno pushed forwards, proudly declaring that he had brought the ohkasethen, and his brothers and sisters made way for him and the lady.
Juniper spied Kasethen in the crowd and quickly joined him. Eno seemed rather disappointed that he didn’t get to present the ohkasethen to the Vasmenaan, but Kasethen offered the girl his arm and secured her in place.
The Vasaath was further ahead, with the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon. They were waiting for the longboat to be ready for departure, and Juniper watched as the Vasaath placed his forehead against the old man’s while their hands were connected. It was a beautiful gesture, an intimate one.
When they parted, the Vasaath moved on to the Vasmenaan. Even though they stood a few feet away from Juniper, the girl could still see how tightly the general grabbed the woman’s hands and how deeply he gazed into her eyes. No words were spoken, but anyone could tell that many things were being said between them. When they placed their foreheads against each other, their eyes were closed.
The two Kas leaders stood connected for a long while, and when they parted, Juniper could see the strained frown on the Vasaath’s face. A peculiar ache began in her heart—the woman wasn’t only the Great Mother, but she was also his mother. Perhaps not in blood, but in spirit.
The general stepped back. His golden gaze met Juniper’s grey, and he squared his jaw as he placed himself next to her. The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon bid the soldiers and the onlookers farewell as they boarded the longboat and departed from the pier.
Juniper could hear the Vasaath’s sharp breath. Gently, carefully, she slithered her hand into his and clutched it comfortingly. As the longboat floated away over the bay, the Vasaath clutched back.
The general joined Juniper at Fairgarden after the farewell. The sat down in the breakfast parlour, just the two of them. He hadn’t said a word all morning, and Juniper didn’t know what to say to console him. She just held his hand and gently kissed away his tears.
When their tea had gone cold and the fire in the hearth had faded, Juniper stirred. “Would you like me to fetch Kasethen for you? I’m sure he has an agenda for the day in mind.”
But the Vasaath just took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. “No.” He squeezed her hand before settling his eyes on her, warmly and intently. “I just want you.”