The Crimson King: XII
Letting her anger and frustration out in combat training helped her keep her head levelled when dealing with the stubborn leader. She wasn’t very talented, but at least she made progress.
Eno was perhaps not the most patient of teachers, but he was respectful enough. He taught her a great deal; when fighting larger opponents, always make sure to use their size against them; when being stuck in an unfavourable situation, always look for openings like a raised arm or an extended leg.
She was taught how to swing the sword properly, how to parry, and where the softest parts of a body were. But perhaps the most important lesson Eno taught her was to make sure that her aggressor was dead. Never take anything for granted. In a matter of life and death, he said, there was no room for mistakes.
In truth, Juniper found it rather enjoyable practising swinging a sword, even if she was rather bad at it. Despite the dark seriousness of it, she couldn’t deny the freeing sensation of holding such a weapon in her hand and knowing how to use it. For a man, swordsmanship was natural, expected; for a woman, it gave her the means to protect herself, and that gave her freedom.
The only problem was that the Vasaath didn’t know at all. He only learnt the truth when he found Eno swinging a blade at the girl, and he didn’t even have to utter one word to the youngling for him to know that he had done something unforgivable.
Eno was terrified, mortified, and Juniper swore she could see a tear roll down his cheek as the Great Warrior glared at him with murderous eyes. When the Vasaath ordered Juniper to meet him in the study, she knew he would scold her—and she was ready.
“Before you say anything,” she barked the minute the door to the study was closed behind them, “I was the one telling the boy to teach me! I wanted to learn how to fight—to protect myself—and I don’t care if you think it’s wrong. Don’t blame the boy. He’s done nothing wrong!”
“I don’t blame him.” His voice was strangely calm and if she wasn’t mistaken, there was even amusement in his eyes. “He was teaching you something he isn’t apt to teach, and he knows that. It’s not wrong, it’s just not proper.”
“What do you mean?” She relaxed, calmed, and walked further into the room. “He’s a fine teacher.”
“I’m sure he’s done well so far,” said he. “Of that, he should be proud. But you should learn from someone qualified for the task.” Pulling a large dagger from his belt, he handed it to her. “I’ll teach you, if you’ll let me.”
Juniper accepted the blade in slight bewilderment and gazed at the Great Warrior.
He took a deep breath. “Everyone within the Kasenon should know how to defend themselves. I’m ashamed I didn’t offer you lessons earlier. I think I had a delusional thought that I could protect you. That was a selfish and vain thought. Of course, you should know how to defend yourself. Forgive me.”
She shook her head, feeling suddenly very flustered—and ashamed for thinking that he might scold her for learning something that wasn’t befitting for a woman to learn. “There’s nothing to forgive, my love. I’m not very good, anyway.”
Sighing, the Vasaath stalked behind her, stopping so close, his warm body pressed against her back. Gently, he raised her sword arm while placing a warm hand on her belly, and she gasped.
“Strike hard, strike true,” he said, his dark voice vibrating through his chest. “Remember to follow through with every movement. The blade is an extension of your arm, of you, not just an instrument. Your strength starts here.”
He drew a slow circle on her midriff, causing her to yelp slightly as her skin prickled. It had been some time since he’d last touched her, and much of it was her own stubbornness—her body had craved for him for sometime.
“You need to feel it in your core,” he continued.
Slowly, he moved his hand upwards, caressing her tantalisingly. Juniper closed her eyes and allowed her to lose herself in his words, his touch.
“Your intent,” he whispered as he rested a heavy hand to cup her bosom, and her breath turned ragged, “starts here.”
Juniper breathed heavily, trembling, and leaned against him ever so slightly. His breath was hot, wanting, his hand was firmly holding her, slowly kneading, and she let out a soft sigh.
She had been so riled up, so ready for an argument, she hadn’t prepared for such intimacy. It took her by storm—he took her by storm—and she spun on her heels and sought his lips in earnest. She was tugging at his lips, begging for his kiss, and he obliged.
Her blood ran hot, screamed for him, and she wanted nothing but for him to claim her inside that room—but their passions had to wait.
When they parted, she longed for when she would have him all to herself again in her bedchambers, or his. She smiled, stepped back, and observed the dagger in her hand. It was a beautiful blade.
The Vasaath sighed. “Would you like some tea?”
He gently pried the dagger from her hands and sheathed it again before he made them a cup of tea each. Sitting down by the fire, he motioned her to join him. “You are still angry with me, I take it?”
Juniper’s smile faded as she sat down. “I’m disappointed.”
The Vasaath hummed. “You don’t think I should have punished them?”
“I don’t know,” Juniper sighed. “Perhaps it was right to punish them for causing the commotion. But you are punishing them twofold. They are working day and night in this biting cold, and still, they won’t be blessed with seeing their children on Winter Solstice.”
She studied the general carefully, but his face was difficult to read; the line that had appeared between his knitted brows, indicating deep thought, was neither sympathetic nor angry. He stared into the flames, his golden eyes illuminated.
“So,” he then rumbled, “if I allow them to see their children for one day, they will thank me?”
She didn’t know she had held her breath until her body released it. Her head felt light as the relief washed over her.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Yes! Tell them that the labour was necessary for their disobedience, but prove to them that you recognise their suffering! Prove to them that you aren’t the cruel Crimson King!”
He gazed at her. “And that will make them respect me, and not fear me?”
She smiled softly, tilting her head. “My love, it will take years for these people to know how to separate their fear and respect for you, but I believe this would remove some of their resentment.”
He nodded and returned his eyes to the fire. “Very well.”
Juniper tensed. “So you’ll let them see their children?”
“It’s only for a day,” he muttered. “The parents will come to the schools, see that their offspring are well cared for.” He huffed, drearily. “To see that we haven’t eaten them.”
“Thank you,” she said and reached for his hand.
He met her hand with his and grabbed it lovingly. After a moment of silence, he sighed. “I learnt something quite extraordinary the other day.”
She hummed, curious to know more.
“Kasethen and Garret—well, they’re lovers.”
Juniper snapped her eyes to him. “What?”
He raised a brow, but then he frowned. “You didn’t know that your father’s advisor prefers men?”
She was shocked. Aghast. It was a sin, unthinkable. And yet—in a way, the thought didn’t repulse her. Not even a little. In fact, it felt obvious.
She huffed. “I’ve always wondered why he never took a wife. Such a handsome gentleman, he could have had any woman he wanted.”
The Vasaath chuckled. “You haven’t had a single thought of it earlier?”
She shook her head, slowly. “No. Not at all. I—” She felt shame well up inside of her. “I’ve always thought they were degenerates.”
He clicked his tongue. “It’s not your fault. I believe it’s all within your beloved Structure, is it not?”
Juniper nodded and snorted. “It says in the Scripture, in the Architect’s Draft, that the dark gods corrupted men and women to ignore the rules of nature, such as the union between a man and a woman. But it’s just an old book written by old fools thinking they could harness the words of the Builder to solidify their dominion over men and women alike.”
The Vasaath smirked at her. “I think you’ve spent a bit too much time with the Vasmenaan.”
She glanced at him, ready to stick her tongue out, but she only grimaced. Then she sighed. “So, Kasethen and Garret.”
And just like that, a giggle rose from her throat and trilled into existence. The Vasaath joined into her snickering, his dark voice rumbling with each vocal bounce. Their giggles grew into joyous laughter that danced delightfully between the walls. Soon enough, they gasped for air as they clutched their jittering bellies.
Juniper sighed between resistant giggles. “Kasethen and Garret. What a pair! Will they ever agree on anything, or will they only be stuck in endless bickering and philosophical discussions?”
“I get tired just by thinking about it,” the Vasaath groaned breathlessly. “It’s an odd pairing, I must say.”
“Or, they might be perfect for each other,” sighed she and sank into the chair.
“So you’re not against it?”
“No.” She shook her head, feeling absolutely content with the notion. “Not at all. Love is love, is it not?”
Looking at the Great Warrior, she saw that his whole face was turned into a warm, soft smile.
“It is,” he whispered.
* * *
The sky was clear and brilliant blue on the day of the Winter Solstice. The spirits of the city were higher than they had been for many moons, and the people wandered arm in arm towards the school buildings in the upper districts above Merchant’s Street.
They were singing, rejoicing, and Juniper watched it all from the back of a black mare. She was to oversee the meeting and appear as a comforting face, but the people hardly needed that. Seeing their little ones was far more comforting than Lady Arlington could ever be.
The nemethans had dressed the children well for the chilly day, with furs and wool and knittings, and Juniper had rarely seen such happiness as when the families were reunited with their chuckling, walking little balls of fur underneath the clear blue sky.
A whole day was promised, and the parents were shown the facilities and shared a hearty meal with their children. Upon the Blue Hour, as a mark of the beginning of the longest and darkest night of the year, the families said their goodbyes with tears and pain.
Such a happy day ended with so much heartache, but at least the mothers and fathers knew that their younglings were safe and well-provided for. The parents were left with the promise that all children were allowed to light a candle each in the windows to chase the shadows away.
Winter Solstice was a night of celebration—and for once, the colour of one’s skin didn’t matter, be it grey or else. They all celebrated equally. The Kas built a pyre on Town Square that burned brightly in the thick darkness, while the Edredians lit candles in their windows.
Those who remained from the former City Guard lit torches all along the city walls, as the City Guard had done for hundreds of years. The stars glimmered like jewels on the black canopy, and by the northern horizon, the green Light Giants wandered silently across the heavens, unbothered by the concerns of men and beasts.
Juniper sat by her window, leaned against her lover’s chest, as they enjoyed the view of the celebrations with cups of mulled wine. The crackle of the fire mingled with the faint singing from the joyous celebrators, and a feeling settled inside of her that she had not felt for a long time—peace. She knew it would most likely be gone by morning when she once again had to face the grim reality of a war-torn city, but for tonight, she felt at peace. She lit a candle of her own and placed it next to her by the window.
“Why do you do that?” the Vasaath asked softly.
“To ward off evil spirits,” Juniper replied. “When the night is at its darkest, it is said that the veil to the Netherworld is at its thinnest. We light candles to protect ourselves from the shadows and to show them that we do not want them here.” Humming, she pressed herself closer to him. “Why do you light your fires?”
“We welcome the rebirth of the sun,” he whispered as he gently dragged his fingers through her hair. “In Kasarath, the sun doesn’t rise for nearly a month. At the Solstice, or the Long Night, the sun dies and is reborn from the ashes of darkness and begins its long climb once again. We light fires in its honour as a token of our gratitude, and as guidance so it knows where to rise.”
She sighed deeply, contently. Pulling the arms of the Great Warrior tighter around her, listening to his steady heartbeats, she took a sip of her wine and marvelled at the beauty of the darkest of nights. Tomorrow, she knew, would be a little brighter yet.
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman