The Crimson King: XV
They called her Alaana, the nemethan who was killed in the fray. She received an honourable burial where they burnt her pyre down by the frozen waters while the Light Giants danced in the distance. The young soldier who mourned her, the one who avenged her death, was called Kaal. He was the one to light the pyre and he cried desolately while it burnt.
The man who was executed was named Nicholas Cooper. He was the father of a seven-year-old boy, a widower, and he was buried in a shallow grave outside the city walls—or so the people were told. His body disappeared and was never seen again. There was no ceremony, no prayer to the Builder. A man driven to madness by the longing of his child was cast aside like filth.
The brief calm that had settled upon the city after Winter Solstice was gone. The Vasaath was quick to smother any sign of rebellion, the soldiers were relentless in their struggle to keep order, and Juniper tried her very best to convince the people that it was for the best. She tried her best to convince herself of the same.
As the days went by, dark and cold, she kept reminding herself that the Vasaath was a good man. He didn’t want to hurt the people. He wanted their best, even if his views differed from theirs. He wasn’t a politician, nor was he a diplomat. He was a soldier, a warrior—someone who never wanted this kind of power. It was thrust upon him, despite his objections.
She kept reminding herself that he wasn’t an evil man. He was no demon. He was the man she loved, and who loved her. Whenever she was alone with him, she tried to persuade him to ease his grip around the city, but he refused. The only way to fight the rot, he said, was to cut it out, root and stem.
Neema had been called to the castle and repositioned as vas-maasa, much to her dismay. She enjoyed her life, had close friends within the Saathenaan, and felt as though she couldn’t fulfil her purpose in the castle, bound to a single vas. But her main objective was to find out the truth about the exploits in the city, and each day, she reported back horrid crimes.
The Vasaath’s judgments were swift and hard. Those admitting exploiting the workers were re-educated and placed to work with the expansion of the city, and when men admitted to the crimes of harassment and rape, they were hung by the gallows behind Fairgarden. There was no place for such deviancy and disrespect.
Juniper did her best to keep the general grounded, to still his judgments and his temper. She tried to keep him in a good mood and tried to occupy him from his troubling thoughts.
Sword practice was one pastime, conversation another. She tried to appeal to his rational thinking, challenge his stubbornness, but she was no Kasethen. No one was. Eloch and Baraam only vexed him, and after the disaster in the throne room, he wasn’t very inclined to trust in Garret’s opinions. Juniper was the only one he would even consider listening to, besides his officers and the kaseraad, but she didn’t have experience enough.
A new annual had begun, the nights grew shorter, but the coldest month was still raging. The Vasaath spent his nights in Juniper’s room and she rejoiced in the warmth he offered. It was also the only time they could be alone, just the two of them. Some nights, when it was as coldest, they made love to get warm and to forget. Closed inside that room, they didn’t have to think about politics or rebellion. Inside that room, there was a world of their own.
One such night, they lay close just holding each other after their fervent intimacy. Juniper was still floating on air, her mind hazed, as she kissed his chest.
“I received a message today,” he suddenly said, his dark voice rumbling softly.
She gazed up at him. “From where?”
He clenched his jaw, released her, and rose. His belt hung over a chair and he pulled a small scroll from one of his pouches and handed it to her. “Read it yourself.”
Intrigued and bewildered, she sat up, undid the scroll and skimmed through it. The words seemed foreign even if it was her own language and she had to read it a few times to understand. Her heart began racing, her breath was caught in her throat, and she felt faintness come upon her.
Nobles in Tallis wrote to pledge their loyalty to the one true ruler of Noxborough—to her.
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.
The sob that erupted took her by surprise and she clasped her hand over her mouth, bile rising in her throat.
The Vasaath was calm as he resumed his place next to her in the bed. “Explain. What is this?”
“P-please!” she sobbed and quickly spun to face him. “I didn’t—I never—please, you mustn’t—” She burst into tears as she buried her face in her hands.
She felt shameful, guilty, terrified. Most of all, she feared for her people. She had promised them safety, and they trusted her. The Vasaath would never forgive her, and even though he might love her enough to keep her alive, he would never show the others the same mercy.
“They claim to have eight thousand men,” he muttered darkly, “all ready to fight for you. I can’t help but wonder, in what battle?”
She pulled her knees to her chin and trembled as she bawled into her hands, and the more she cried, the worse the trembling became. She didn’t care what would become of her—she had condemned her people to die. If she only put an end to it the minute she learnt of the rebellion, this would not have happened. She had lost herself in the vanity of being the champion, the chosen one.
“How long have you kept this a secret?” he demanded. “How long have you lied to me?”
“I didn’t know,” she breathed and raised her eyes. “Please, you must believe me! I didn’t know!” She knew not what compelled her to lie in such a situation, or how she could even be confident enough to do so, but she could not stop the words that came out of her mouth.
He was silent for a moment, gazing intensely at her. She worried he might see through her falseness, but he only sighed and nodded.
“Very well,” he rumbled. “I believe you.” His golden gaze was dark yet disappointed, but he reached out for her. “Come, menaan. Don’t cry.”
She dried her tears, hesitated for a moment, and then crawled back to him. He embraced her, held her tight, and she pressed herself even closer. The guilt was tearing her apart, but if it meant that she would keep the people safe, she would lie to him as many times as needed.
She kissed him, desperately trying to convince him of her innocence, and he responded in earnest, pulling her beneath him to mount her once more.
The following day, Juniper wasted no time. She rushed to Fisher’s Lane alone, keeping away from as many people as she possibly could. The winds were thrashing as snow fell almost vertically. With her hood over her head, she kept to narrow alleyways and dodged any kasaath patrolling the streets.
When she arrived at Fisher’s Lane, the street was mostly empty. A few people walked with their hands deep into their pockets, their chins tucked into their knitted scarves, and their heads covered by woollen hats. Juniper stopped by the door to the building where she last had seen the resistance.
Taking a deep breath, she rapped on the wood. An old woman unlocked and peeked out from a thin slit.
“What do you want?” she asked.
She swallowed. “I—I’m looking for—”
“Out with it,” muttered the woman. “It’s bloody cold outside.”
Juniper took a ragged breath and lowered her voice. “Noxborough remains.”
The woman glared at her through narrow eyes. She then spied around, motioned Juniper closer, and hissed, “Down the lane, last house on the right. Go ’round the back door, knock twice.”
Juniper nodded. “Thank you so much.”
The woman nodded and forcefully shut the door.
Juniper looked around to make sure no one was watching before she continued down the lane. She kept her head down, kept glancing over her shoulder, and once she had reached the end of the lane, she found a house on the right with boarded-up windows and doors.
It looked completely abandoned, but she did as the woman had instructed and made her way to the back door. It was hidden in a very narrow ally. The doorframe was crooked, the hinges were frozen, and ice crystals covered the murky wood. As told, she knocked twice.
A few moments later, the door opened. A short man with a grim face peeked out and glared at her. She swallowed and repeated the words of the rebellion and she was promptly let inside. The room was brightly lit by tens upon tens of candles, but it was cold and drafty. The moment she had stepped inside and the door had been closed, the short, grim man stuffed a woollen blanket into the crack underneath the door.
Juniper looked around. A few people sat by a table in the small room and she recognised some of them. It was some of the Kamani who stayed in the encampment. She removed her hood, and the people immediately all rose to their feet to bow. Juniper raised her palms.
“Please,” she said, “stand.”
The Kamani greeted her with smiles, and some even grabbed hold of her hands. She smiled back, happy to see them being well.
“I am looking for Vincent,” she nodded. “It’s urgent.”
“He’s out, milady,” said a woman, “but you are free to wait.”
She immediately offered her seat, and Juniper gratefully accepted.
The woman brought her hands together. “I am terribly sorry, milady, for the cold. Vincent is fetching us some firewood. He should be back any minute now.”
Juniper smiled, pulled her cloak tighter around herself and nodded. “Then I shall wait.”
The mood was strained, and Juniper was nervous. She had no idea if Vincent knew about the Tallisian nobles pledging themselves to their cause, but someone from Noxborough must have informed them. Her heart was racing—she knew not what measures the Vasaath would take to put an end to this resistance, and she needed to warn them as quickly as possible.
It didn’t take more than twenty minutes before another two knocks landed on the door and Vincent stumbled inside, carrying logs in his arms. The winds howled and snow hurled inside before the door was once again closed. His beard was white from the cold and the snow and his nose was brilliant red, but he smiled when he saw her and greeted her kindly.
“My lady,” he said, “what an honour! I’m thankful you found us again.”
Juniper smiled and stood. “I’m glad to see you’re well, Vincent,” she said, “but there is some urgent news I have to share with you.”
Swallowing, she looked around the room; all eyes were settled on her in anticipation.
“The Vasaath intercepted a message recently, from Tallis,” she then said. “Five noble houses have pledged themselves to you and your cause. They have eight thousand soldiers to spare, and the Vasaath is anticipating a fight.”
The people looked at each other in terror, and Juniper clenched her jaw.
“I must know,” she begged, “what did you write? Who else have you written?”
Vincent swallowed and bowed his head. “I am sorry, my lady. Of course, we should have consulted you before reaching out. We were advised by a former council member to ask for support from Illyria, Varsaii, Tallis, and the rest of the Free Cities. We send the inquiries before the White Wakening.”
“So more replies might be coming?”
The man nodded. “We didn’t know the messages were being intercepted.”
Juniper nodded and sat down again. She hadn’t noticed her hands trembling until she placed them atop the table. Quickly hiding them inside her cloak, she looked down on her lap.
A young man started a fire in the hearth and as the flames grew and spread light and warmth, Vincent joined her by the table.
She sighed and looked at him. “When they do reply, the Vasaath will know.”
Vincent clenched his jaw and nodded. “Indeed. But at least, we have eight thousand soldiers. It’s more than we could ever hope for.”
Juniper sighed, frustrated and devastated. “And when those soldiers get here, then what?”
“Then,” said Vincent, “we fight.”
Carefully, Juniper grabbed his hands. “Vincent, I beg you to listen! The Vasaath has thirty thousand warriors. This is no rebellion. To him, this is nothing but a nuisance. We are but ants under his boot!”
“My lady,” smiled Vincent. “Fewer people have defeated armies before us. All that is needed is a well-aimed arrow, or a knife in the dark.”
She stared at him, horrified, and just as she was about to reply, both the back door and front door burst open. She jolted, flew off her seat, and gripped her cloak. The people shrieked, fell from their chairs, as the cold winds tore through the small house.
Kas soldiers, one of which was Kaal, spilt in from every direction and forced the people onto their knees. Juniper could barely breathe as she slid down to the floor with her hands tightly closed around herself.
Shortly after, the Great Warrior himself stepped inside. He had to duck not to slam his head into the ceiling, and his broad build seemed massive with the pelted cloak. He said nothing as he gazed about. His golden eyes only momentarily drifted over Juniper, but she barely dared to meet his gaze.
Looking at one of his officers, he muttered something in Kasoch. It was too low for Juniper to hear, but the soldiers swiftly grabbed the humans and started dragging them out into the cold, despite their screams of resistance.
Not a single one laid a hand on Juniper. The operation was quick and before long, she was left in the room with the general. Reluctantly, she raised her gaze. His golden eyes were fastened on her, and they were both silent for a long while.
Then, he muttered, “There will be consequences for this.”
Juniper swallowed and she felt the blood drain from her face. A bit light-headed, she nodded.
He scowled. The muscles in his jaw twitched violently. Taking a deep breath, he offered her his hand. “Come now, my lady. I will have to take you back to Fairgarden. There, you will be confined until your trial.”
She stared at his extended hand. “Confined? You mean imprisoned?”
“I will not put you in the dungeons.”
“Juniper.” His patience was slipping. The extended hand reached further, almost as if to grab her, but it did not.
With a defeated sigh, she took his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. He steered her out into the blistering cold and led her to a giant, black horse. He swiftly hoisted her up in front of the saddle, forcing a surprised gasp out of her.
Grabbed by sudden vertigo, she seized hold of the beast’s mane while the Vasaath sat up behind her. He secured an arm around her and grabbed the reins. The grand stallion snorted in the cold and its heavy hooves slammed decisively against the ground as they cantered away towards Fairgarden.
Juniper held on tightly and buried her face against the general to shield it from the whipping winds, and to hide her tears from the world.
She was escorted to her room by the Vasaath himself. He said not a word as he ushered her forwards, but she could feel the tension in the air.
She thought he would just leave her there, leave her to wonder how angry he truly was, but he closed the door behind them and stood awhile in silence before he said, “I had you followed.”
Juniper huffed and angrily removed her cloak. “So much for trust and honesty.”
“Honesty?” he snarled and glared at her. “I asked you, no later than last evening, what you knew about all this, and you told me you didn’t know! You lied to me!”
“You asked me about the letter!” Juniper spat. “You asked me how long I’d kept the secret, and I said I didn’t know, because I didn’t!”
He narrowed his eyes. “You knew very well what I meant.”
She clenched her jaw. Indeed, she did know. She crossed her arms and sank down on the daybed. “What does it matter? Clearly, you don’t trust me either way.”
The Vasaath sighed deeply and frowned.
Juniper felt the anger spill over as she cried, “Just say something! Scream at me! Tell me how angry you are! Tell me how disappointed you are and—”
“I will not shout at you.”
“—what a traitor and am and—”
“I will not shout at you!” the Vasaath roared as he took a step towards her, and she fell silent with a gasp.
His body was tense, a Darkness looming behind him that she did not like. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest and her limbs trembled.
He breathed shallowly, his fists were clenched, and he grunted as he gathered himself. “Please, menaan,” he then said, calmly but strained. “I will not shout at you. You’re a terrible liar. Only a person with guilt in her heart would react the way you did. At least, your tears were honest—but I knew they were of guilt and fear.”
She formed her lips around a sharp retort, but no sound escaped her. Instead, she scoffed and looked away, her heart still hammering inside her chest. “How long will you keep me in here?”
“Until I have decided what to do with you,” he muttered.
She tried to keep herself gathered, tried not to show him how terrified she was, but the truth was as cold as ice.
She had conspired against him. She had conspired against the Crimson King, the Demon of the North. There was no law in all of Nornest that was kind to traitors. She doubted the Kas were any kinder. A traitor without head was better than a traitor in the bed. It was known.
The knowledge that he would be considering her death was too much for her to bear. She bit her lip to quench a sob, but her tears spilt over and ran down her cheeks unhindered.
She glanced up at him, her lip trembling, and said, “If I am to die, please know that I would never do anything to harm you. I tried to stop them, tried to make them see sense. I did what I did to bring peace.”
The Great Warrior’s face paled, his golden eyes widened, and he was in front of her in two long strides. He fell to his knees, took her hands in his, and kissed them tenderly.
“No, menaan,” he whispered. His broad shoulders—broadened even more with the pelts—covered her view. “Don’t think such thoughts. I would never—” He grabbed her cheek, gazed into her watery stare, and gently wiped her tears away with his thumb. “I must find a suitable punishment for your, well, foolishness. But I would never hurt you. Never.”
She leaned into his hand, wishing dearly that he meant it. “Will you ever be able to trust me again?”
“We all make mistakes,” he murmured as he leaned closer. “I’ve made many, myself. Trusting you wasn’t one of them.”
“But I betrayed you,” she breathed against his lips.
“Yes, and you will never betray me again.” And with those words, he kissed her.
Kasaath – warrior; “strength of the people”
Kaseraad – spies; “the shadow of the people”
Nemethan – teacher; wise woman
Saathenaan – elite warriors; “deepest strength”
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”