The Crimson King: X
White glistening snow fell silently over Noxborough, landing softly in a powdered sheet over roof and tree. Beneath its soft, crystal crust, were the memories of the blood that had run over the stones only a few moons prior. Now, even the memories seemed trapped inside the cold blanket. Life simply moved on.
The change of administration had sparked rumours amongst the citizens. The news that the Crimson King had claimed the throne terrified the people; while the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon had been foreign rulers coming to impose their ideas on the people, the Vasaath was the warlord that stormed the city with his mighty warriors and cut the head of the Duke himself. He was the Demon of the North. To know that someone was holding his reins was a comfort to many people, but now, the beast was free.
Juniper tried her very best to stifle the rumours. No, he did not eat children. No, his plan was not to burn the whole Edredian world. No, he did not want to release the malevolent gods from the Netherworld. Common sense seemed to have gone with the last shipment to Kasarath, and Juniper was only one woman in a city full of people ruled by fear.
Her task wasn’t that different from what she had done before, but the mood was. She reported back to the Vasaath, and he seemed to spend a lot of his time worrying about her well-being. If there had been raised voices and agitated moods in one part of the city, the general had forbidden her to return to those places. Almost all of the lower districts were currently forbidden for her to venture into. Juniper knew he only wanted to protect her, but it was getting tiresome and interfered with her duties. She eventually had to ignore his restrictions.
Eno was getting more and more nervous. It was evident he wasn’t comfortable with Juniper’s disobedience. His tall frame shadowed her every footstep and he was always ready to thrust himself in harm’s way to protect her—the youngling was visibly frightened by the prospect of having to face the Vasaath’s wrath if his advisor was hurt. Juniper had had to tell him about her worries, careful to make him swear to her that he would keep it to himself. It was a gamble, but the boy was loyal to a fault.
On this particular day, when fresh snow was softly falling onto the blinding white blanket, Juniper had learnt that there was something planned. The whispers had been growing in volume, and there was talk about a march at the schools. The Noxboroughers wanted their children back and the Vasaath had yet to decide whether or not to allow them to meet and celebrate Winter Solstice, which was closing in rather quickly. Juniper needed to speak some sense into them.
She had heard of a meeting that was to be held today, and she knew where to find them. Fisher’s Lane. She walked with determination, working up the heat beneath her woollen cloak. The snow crunched and squeaked beneath her feet and the cold stung her face and caused her lashes to stiffen, but she kept moving forwards.
Eno was at her heel and the pelts around him made his silhouette and shadow look much wider than he was. The people they passed gazed in horror at the lady and the large Kas warrior as they were striding through the lower districts, promptly towards Fisher’s Lane.
“Ohkasethen,” Eno muttered, “are you certain about this?”
Juniper sighed. “I need to speak with Vincent. If anyone knows that they’re planning, it will be him. And if anyone could talk them out of whatever they’re planning, it will be him as well.”
“But ohkasethen,” Eno said, “don’t you think it’s best if we inform the Vasaath about this? It has to do with everyone’s safety. I don’t feel comfortable keeping such an important piece of information from the Great Warrior.”
Juniper stopped abruptly, causing Eno to crash into her. She turned on her heel and glared at him.
“Eno,” she said lowly, “you know what will happen if the Vasaath learns about this. He is a rational man, but he isn’t a forgiving man. He will pass his judgment before he has heard any of them, and that would only make the situation worse.”
The young man sighed in devastation and shifted on his feet. “Why don’t you advise him on the matter, then? You are wise, you are forgiving. The great general listens to you—why this secrecy?”
Juniper sighed. “Let me try to stop this before it gets out of hand.”
Eno clenched his jaw. “If anything happens, I will report it.”
She nodded. “Very well. But if I manage to calm the situation, you must promise me to keep this to yourself.”
The Kas grunted, but nodded. “As you wish, ohkasethen.”
She could see that he was still hesitant, but she nodded. He would not betray her—the boy was too good-hearted for that. So she pressed on.
Fisher’s Lane was just around a corner up ahead, and it was evident why this part of town was where most of the Noxborough commoners resided. The street was filled with people; vendors, bards, fishmongers, and commoners. Here, they still traded with currency as if money still held value in the city. There were hardly any Kas patrolling, and it was clear that Eno wasn’t very welcomed amongst the people. Most nodded respectfully at Juniper, but only glared at her Kas escort.
Carefully, Juniper approached a woman selling fish. “Excuse me. I’m looking for a Kamani man named Vincent.”
The woman, wrapped in multiple layers of knittings and pelts, glared suspiciously at Eno before she leaned into Juniper and hissed, “I’m not going to tell you when the Ash Man can hear.”
Eno puffed up his chest, but Juniper quickly defused the situation by gently forcing him to take a few steps back.
“Please, ma’am,” she then said and looked at the woman. “He’s a friend of mine, and I can assure you that I am a friend of yours.” Looking around and clenching her jaw tightly, she hissed, “Noxborough remains.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and the disdain was quickly exchanged for fear as she glanced at the Kas soldier once again.
“Don’t worry,” Juniper said. “Your secret is safe. Can you please take me to Vincent?”
The woman set her face hard and nodded. “Come with me, milady.”
Juniper smiled, relieved. Ordering Eno to stay put, despite his objections, she followed the woman down Fisher’s Lane. All eyes were on them, and Juniper took a quick look around in the blinding white day before she ducked into a dim-lit room.
At once the door was shut, the outside world effectively disappeared. The woman swiftly moved through a very small room, disappearing into a narrow doorway. Juniper heard voices from within, and soon, Vincent’s bearded face peeked out from the doorway.
“My lady!” he gasped. “You came!” He smiled. “Please, come in!”
Juniper smiled nervously and moved through the cramped room. As she ducked in through the doorway, she descended into a larger room filled with people. The warmth made her sweat, and she impatiently tugged at her cloak.
“My lady,” said Vincent. “Welcome.”
A man offered her his seat and she hesitantly sat down. Looking about at the inquisitive faces, she swallowed nervously. At this point, she started to regret leaving Eno out on the street.
“Milady,” a woman started. “Do you have any news about our children?”
Juniper swallowed. “No, not yet, I’m afraid. The Vasaath has been quite busy.”
“Oh, I’d say!” a man barked. “His brutes are terrorising the city, we are unable to make a living, and the only thing we ask for is to at least see our little ones!”
Several people agreed with the man, and Juniper sighed. “I’m very sorry, but if it is any comfort, the Vasaath has not outright denied your request.”
“The Winter Solstice is only a week away!” said another.
“How long does the King need?”
Juniper sighed. “Please, he is not a—”
“And what is this poppycock that we can’t even see them?” cried another, and many more concurred.
“I’ve said it the whole time,” said a woman. “We can’t trust King Kas. They want to take our children from us! They want them to forget about us!”
The people in the room all nodded vigorously, and Juniper felt her heart race.
The woman continued. “They want to create mindless creatures that will follow their every footstep.” More concurrence. “They want to add to their bloodthirsty army; they want to erase the words of the Builder and impose their brutal and savage ways!” Standing up, the woman looked around. “I say we show those beasts that we are not going to be pushed around by yet another tyrant sitting on the High Throne of Fairgarden!”
The room went wild. Juniper gazed about, not knowing what to do or what to say. Finally, they all looked at her.
“My lady,” said one man, thin and fragile looking. “As long as the Blood of the First lingers in Fairgarden, Noxborough remains.” Staring deeply into her eyes, he removed his hat and brought it to his chest. “I swear my life and my devotion to you, Duchess. I choose you.”
A breath was caught in her throat as she watched the man in shock. More and more people around the table removed their hats and bowed to her, and for a brief moment, she couldn’t disregard the sudden pride that welled up inside her chest. Duchess. They had chosen her as their champion, as their protector.
Nodding stiffly, as though her neck had fastened in place, she swallowed, trying to moisten her dust-dry mouth.
“Please,” she then croaked. “I know you want to see your children, and I am doing all I can to let you, but don’t do anything rash, I beg you. The Vasaath has many soldiers at his disposal. He is not a vicious man. He would never hurt your children. But if you disrupt the peace, he will have no qualms killing you. Don’t leave your little ones without mothers and fathers.”
“So you say we should do nothing? We should leave our children to the savages?”
“Your children are safe. Upon my honour as an Arlington, they are safe.” She took a deep breath. “Please, let me handle this. Let me speak with the—”
The door burst open, letting the sounds from the crisp winter day spill in through the small room and into the doorway. There were agitated voices, screams, shouts—in from the small, cramped room came an adolescence boy stumbling. He panted heavily, leaned against the doorframe, ignoring his lopsided hat.
“The—soldiers… they’re fighting—in the streets… they’re coming!”
Panic erupted in the room. People disappeared into other rooms, presumably to hide or to exit through a back door.
Juniper, on the other hand, sprung from her seat and headed to the front door and back out on the streets. To her horror, more than ten—perhaps fifteen—Kas soldiers barked and forced people into a line against the buildings, and the people fought back, hindering the Kas from entering through the door.
She gawked around, not understanding what had happened and why. She had entered only minutes earlier, and now, all of Fisher’s Lane seemed to be in complete disarray. She was petrified at first, not knowing what to do or what to make of herself, but her arms flung out before she had time to think as she pushed herself in front of a woman to plead to the soldier before her.
The large Kas ignored her and continued to bark at the people, and while Juniper tried to get his attention, she was roughly shoved aside by the same woman she had stepped in front of, and she fell to the ground.
She looked up. Everything seemed to stand still as her mind was trying to take in the scene. The Noxboroughers fought with all their might, with anything they could get their hands on. The Kas moved in well-trained patterns, blocking the Noxboroughers as though they were children—and there she was, unable to do anything. She couldn’t defend them. She couldn’t even defend herself.
Her heart thudded loudly in her ears, overpowering any other sound around her, and for a moment, she thought it wasn’t real. This was not happening. Clumsily, stiffly, she tried to get back onto her feet, but she was suddenly grabbed and brought to the side.
She was snapped out of her strange haze, and the world came rushing back. Gazing up, she met Eno’s tense face. His jaw was hard, but in his eyes, she could see the fear and the panic.
“Come, my lady,” he muttered. “We have to get you back to Fairgarden.”
Juniper tried to say something, tried to ask what was happening, but she found herself incapable to speak. She was too bewildered. She didn’t even fight the Kas as he scurried through the streets with a steadfast grip around her. It wasn’t until they had reached Merchant’s Street, she could gather herself enough to dig her heels into the ground.
The boy halted and looked at her. “I would not wish to keep you from Fairgarden for much longer, ohkasethen.”
She took a deep breath. “What happened? Where did all the guards come from? How did the commotion start?”
Eno squared his jaw. “They saw you enter the house. When they came to aid you, the ohkas stopped them from entering, and the guards responded accordingly. I think I saw a rider or two head for the castle. The Vasaath must know already.”
Juniper sighed heavily and dipped her head. “Very well,” she then said. “The Vasaath needs to know that the people are restless. Come. Let us go.”
The bailey was filled with soldiers. The Vasaath had moved them from the fort to escape the biting winds of the sea, and seeing as some led their giant horses from the stables, most of them—if not all—had probably already heard of the commotion down by Fisher’s Lane.
Eno, the poor boy, was terrified. Juniper knew he feared being blamed for the incident, but she would not let him suffer such a blow. Indeed—she would yell at the Vasaath if she needed to. She was not afraid of him. Taking a deep breath, she clutched her fists and headed to the study where he would usually sulk.
Upon entering, she found the Vasaath by the windows, leaning heavily against the sill with his head deeply sunk between his shoulders. Kasethen stood next to him but looked up the moment Juniper stepped inside. She saw the alarm and worry in his countenance, but he nodded respectfully at her.
She nodded back, straightened, and cleared her throat. “My lord.”
The Vasaath muttered, asking Kasethen for some privacy. The advisor nodded and started towards the door. When passing Juniper, he put a comforting hand on her shoulder before he left.
The Vasaath sighed and straightened. Without taking his eyes off the windows, he muttered, “I told you I didn’t want you down there.”
Juniper sighed heavily. “If I am to perform my duty, I cannot have such restrictions. If I need to see the people, I need to see the people.”
He turned, his eyes not dark but troublesome. His brows were set low, furrowed, and his jaw was promptly fixed shut. “You could have been hurt.”
“But I wasn’t.”
He gazed at her. “But you could have been.”
She swallowed. “Are you angry with me?”
He furrowed his brows tighter. “Yes.” A muscle in his jaw twitched. “To be frank, I’m furious.” He sighed. “But you’re right. I shouldn’t give you such restrictions.”
She swallowed. “And the boy?”
“Did you order him to stay outside?”
“Then he did his duty.” He sighed again, deeper, and sat down in a chair by the fireplace. “I heard the commotion started because my men were refused to go in after you. Why were you there and why were my men stopped?”
Juniper gathered herself before she also sat down by the fire. “I’d heard whispers of a meeting, so I went. They are angry because you haven’t yet decided whether or not they can see their children on Winter Solstice. They are on the brink, my love. You have to give them something, or they will lash out.”
He kept his eyes on the flames as he rumbled, “How long have you known such resentment was brewing?”
Juniper felt her heart skip a beat and her mouth run dry. “I don’t understand, my lord.”
He snorted vexedly. “The night before Vasmenaan’s and Vasenon’s departure, you asked me what would happen if there was another riot. Why?”
She nervously brought her hands together. “I know my people, sir. I know their thinking, their fears. After what happened the night you claimed this city, I fear for what the people might do when pushed far enough.” She swallowed. “I told you that I spoke with them and that they shared their concerns for their children. They have not subdued, my lord, but worsened.”
The man brought his hand to his chin and grunted. Pondering for a moment, he then huffed. “If they think this preposterous and juvenile outburst would make me sympathise, they are wrong. There will be no happy reunion on Winter Solstice.”
Juniper gawked. “Didn’t you hear a word of what I just said? It will only get worse if you don’t let them see their little ones!”
“I will not reward such behaviour,” he said darkly and leaned back. “Had they been civilised, I might have allowed it.”
“The Vasmenaan would understand that stone cannot be met by stone without a clash!” Juniper cried. “She would know that—”
“Do not presume to know what the Vasmenaan would have done!” the Vasaath barked.
Rising in haste, she spat, “You asked me to advise you on matters of this city, and I am advising you to give them what they want. You may have forgotten the horror of the battle, but I have not. I don’t want to see that ever again. Let them see their children on Winter Solstice—what does it matter to you? They will see that they are perfectly fine, and they will be satisfied for now!”
Slowly, the Vasaath rose as well. His eyes were dark, unrelenting, and he towered before her as he rumbled, “And then what? When they’re no longer satisfied, then what? What else will they start demanding?” Clenching his jaw tightly, he said, “If we give them a finger, they will take the whole hand. They will learn, sooner or later, that we do not accept such behaviour. You will not go there again in case they turn violent. These people have no scruples attacking a defenceless woman.”
Juniper felt hot rage within her. This stubborn, grey man refused to listen to reason. Through gritted teeth, she growled, “If people get hurt because of this, their blood will be on your hands.”
“Rather their blood than yours,” he huffed darkly and gazed down upon her.
“I am not a fragile porcelain doll, Vasaath,” she growled. “If I have to bleed for my people, then I will!”
Without waiting for his response, she stormed out. She knew not where to turn, but she knew she had to find a way to expel her anger. Her feet suddenly steered her towards the bailey where she found Eno carefully tending to his weapons.
He straightened when he noticed her and bowed. “Ohkasethen.”
Juniper huffed. “Eno, I want you to teach me how to fight.”
The boy seemed confused. “Is—is it an order from the Vasaath?”
She scowled. “I don’t need his permission for that, do I? Doesn’t all within the Kasenon know how to defend themselves? Even women?”
“Yes,” Eno mumbled.
“Very well,” Juniper muttered and grabbed one of the swords from the rack. “Then teach me.”