The Crimson King: XVII
Her hands trembled as she sat down on her bed. She should be grateful she was still alive, but she couldn’t feel anything else than numbness.
She thought about the poor Kamani that had been sent to their deaths for nothing else than believing in her. She thought about Vincent and about how he had been so thankful to her when she protected him and his people in the encampment only a few moons prior.
They believed in her. They trusted her. They did not think lesser of her just because she was a woman. And now, they were dead. It was all her fault. She sent them to die. If she hadn’t made her way to them, the Vasaath would never have found them. He would never have found Vincent. They would still be alive. Tears rolled down her cheeks again as the hopelessness that gripped her heart tore it to pieces.
She didn’t know when she had laid down or how long she had been staring into the ceiling when a soft knock landed on the door. Not strong enough to answer, she remained silent. The handle moved and the Vasaath’s large frame loomed in the opening.
“May I come in?” he asked.
Juniper mustered enough will to turn her head to him, but she said nothing.
The general sighed deeply and entered. His face was troubled, his brows set low. He walked slowly to the window, his brilliant eyes sweeping across the room. Juniper followed him with her gaze, raising her head slightly to see his back as he faced the view of the city.
“You think me cruel,” he said as his hands gathered at the back. “I take your city, I murder your people, and I punish you for protecting them.”
A tear fell down her cheek as she lowered her head back to the pillow and resumed gazing into the ceiling. “Yes.”
The Vasaath was silent. There was a long, heavy pause before he moved again and sat down on the daybed. “Do you see me as a tyrant?”
The sound barely escaped her as she breathed, “Yes.”
There was another heavy pause before he grumbled, “Do you love me still, despite all that?”
She swallowed. Her mouth was dry, her throat aching. “Yes.”
She didn’t have to think twice about it, but it escaped her reluctantly. How foolish her love was, but she did indeed love him. She loved him so much her heart ached with longing and sorrow.
She wanted to hate him for his viciousness, for his judgmental nature, and for his blind devotion to the Kasenon, but she could not. She knew it was as much of a result of his upbringing as anyone else’s. She couldn’t change what he was, who he was, and she loved him—not in spite of it, but because of it.
The weight shifted as he lay down beside her. She was enveloped in his strong arms and he pressed her close to him. Juniper exhaled deeply and let herself melt into him, despite her troubles, and cry.
As the minutes passed, his heat became hers and it was difficult for her to tell where she ended and where he began. Now and then, she thought he had drifted off to sleep, but slight movements and sounds from him let her know that he was still just as awake as she was.
After a long, long silence, he said softly, “People are undoubtedly starting to wonder why I linger in here for so long.”
A strange, sharp, agitated sensation shot through her fingers and before she could stop herself, she snapped, “Then tell them about us.”
The Vasaath was still for a few seconds before he propped himself up on his elbow. “What?”
She looked at him, wondering why she had said anything—but once the words were out, it felt like a giant stone had been lifted from her shoulders. Her father was gone, no one owned her anymore.
She was no longer expected to marry into a noble house, to become the obedient wife of someone who would hate her with intent. Their affair had been a secret for so long, but now, she was free. They both were.
He was the sole leader now. He was a King, whether or not he wanted to be.
“Then tell them,” she said. “Tell them about our love.”
He scowled. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” She sat up and glared at him. “The Vasmenaan and the Vasenon are gone. They are no longer here to pass judgment. And why would it matter to them, anyway?”
The Vasaath sat up as well and sighed heavily through gritted teeth. “You know why.”
“Yes,” she nodded in feigned solemnity. “I know the reason. It’s why I must continue drinking that vile concoction every time we’re intimate. It’s why I must abandon my dreams of ever having a family.”
She took a deep breath, feeling the heat upon her cheeks. Her anger invigorated her, even when her nervousness wanted to hinder her.
“It’s why I must abandon my title, my heritage, and my culture in favour of yours. It’s why all those people had to die today, and it’s why a poor widower and the father of a young boy had to die when all he wanted was to have his child back with him. Because those are the rules, and Builder help us mortals if we break them.”
He clenched his jaw as he swung his long legs over the edge. “Is that how you’ve felt all this time?” Rising from the bed, he stretched his neck until it popped. “Have you always felt as though you’ve had to give yourself up?”
She suddenly felt uncertain. The anger had slipped away in an instant, but she did not regret it. All that had spilt out of her mouth had been the truth, albeit raw and perhaps unfair. Biting her lip, she nodded.
He huffed deeply and put his hands on his hips. He paced the room, back and forth, back and forth. At times, it seemed as though there was something he wanted to say, but he just kept on pacing.
Juniper feared she had said something horrible, something that might change the way he felt about her. “Please,” she whispered. “Say something.”
The general grunted and paused. “I don’t know what to say.” With a devastated sigh, he sat down on the bed again. “You’re right! It was naive and selfish of me to believe you’d simply accept whatever rules I gave you. I just—” He grunted again and dropped his head to his hands with a deep, deep sigh. “Forgive me, menaan. I just want to love you, but I never asked you what you want.”
Chewing on the insides of her cheek, she pondered for a moment. What did she want? Gently, she said, “I want to love you, too, but I want to feel as though I’m free to do so. I’ve always thought I’d be married to a man I detested. Love is a luxury for a woman like me. But then I met you.”
She bit her lips, wrapped her arms around herself and gazed at him. His large frame was sunken, remorseful.
“Yes,” she then said. “I would like a true family, children I could raise with love, that much is true, but if you can’t give me that, then so be it. I could live with that, as long as you and I may love freely.”
She shifted to his side and his heat pulled her to him like a relentless force.
“But as long as we’re not free,” she murmured and took his hand in hers, “loving you means signing away everything I am, which means I must neglect my people. I must neglect who I am. I am torn between my heart and my conscience, and if this is the way things have to be, then—” She took a trembling breath. “Perhaps it’s better if we don’t—”
“No!” The Vasaath turned to her. “No, don’t.” He grabbed her hands, held them tightly in his, and caressed her knuckles. “Don’t say it.”
He then brought them to his lips and kissed them softly. The feeling from his touch seeped from her fingers and all the way to her heart—indeed, she loved him.
“I have been greedy and selfish,” said he, “but my love for you is limitless.” Gently, he brought a hand to her face. “I am the one at fault. I’ve chosen my people, but I’ve punished you for doing the same with yours. You’ve acted in accordance with your conscience, and I with my vanity. I know this. But please, menaan, don’t lose hope. I know I’ll have to change.” He tightened his jaw. “It will be difficult, and there are things I cannot change, but I will do what I can. What do you want? Tell me what you want me to do. I’ll marry you, if that’s what you wish.”
Numbness spread through her body as his words reached her ears. Snatching her hands from his grip, she breathed, “What?”
He pulled his brows together, bewildered. “You don’t want that?”
“I—I…” She almost felt faint. Her head was spinning, her heart was racing, and there were no words that could describe what she was feeling at that very moment. “Y-yes, but—”
“Then I’ll marry you.” In one swift movement, he had fallen to his knees in front of her. “My lady, will you take me as your husband?”
Her heart thumped so hard inside her chest, she wondered if it might jump right out of her. Staring at him, eyes wide, she tried to understand. “But you don’t agree with marriage! You don’t believe in it!”
He sighed, squared his jaw, and grabbed her hands again. “No, but you do. If I were to take you as my wife, as a compromise between your culture and mine, no one would have reason to question our union. We could love freely, just as you wish.”
Her breath was caught in her throat. She couldn’t pretend like she hadn’t wished it, like she hadn’t dreamt of him proposing to her, but there was a nagging thought in the back of her head that told her that he didn’t mean it—he didn’t understand what would be expected of either of them if they entered into matrimony. But she wished it was true—oh, how she wished it!
He kissed her hands. “Marry me, Juniper. Be mine.”
She nodded, her heart racing so fast, it just felt like one, long beat. “Yes—yes!”
She sought his lips, kissed him ardently, and felt the raging fire within her. Sliding down to the floor, she pressed herself against him, slithering her arms around his broad neck. It was a proposal, a proper one. It was everything she had ever dreamt of as a child, being the wife of a man she loved, but it felt almost too good to be true.
Quickly, she pulled back from him and braced herself against his chest. “What about the others? What will it mean?”
The Vasaath furrowed his brows. “What will what mean?”
“Well…” Sighing deeply, she climbed back onto the edge of the bed. “What would the Vasmenaan and the Vasenon make of it? Would they accept it?”
The general huffed and sat next to her. “For all they know, it’s a—well, it’s a political alliance, is it not?”
Juniper sighed. “When nobles marry it’s often political, yes.” Looking at him, she swallowed. She felt flustered, but she didn’t care as she straightened. “It’s often a way to unite two powers, two nations.”
“Then we’ll say it’s to unite the People and the Noxboroughers,” said the Vasaath. “Vasmenaan will know better, of course, but she handed me the power. If I tell her this is the only way to solve the problems at hand, she will have to accept it.”
“And what of my punishment?” she whispered. “What will become of me? Who will I be when I am your wife?”
The Vasaath set his eyebrows low. “You’ll be you.”
She smiled faintly. “Yes, but will I remain ohkasethen? Will I become vas-maasa? What responsibilities will I have to my people?”
“I don’t understand,” he muttered. “A marriage is a contract, is it not? A promise made before your Builder between two people to be faithful to one another, is it not? Your role or responsibilities shouldn’t change.”
Juniper bit her lip and shook her head. “But they will. Being a wife is a role. I’ll be the wife of the Vasaath, of the Crimson King.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“The wife of a Duke is a Duchess, and the wife of a King is a Queen,” she sighed. “It’s not just a contract between the two of us. It’s a political contract, an alliance. Just as you said. It’s a statement, and what will ours be?” Doubt clouded her mind; it was too good to be true. She sighed deeply. “If you don’t want to do it, then—”
“No,” he said and placed a hand on her knee. “This is what you want and I wish to give it to you. You have sacrificed many things.” He sighed. “I never thought of it as sacrifices, I must admit. They were necessary things to give up in order to receive the Kasenon. I still know it is, but I never thought about your will either. I never thought about your wishes and I never considered how much you’ve had to give up. It not fair of me to demand so much of you and still wish for your love when I have barely given up anything at all. This is my gift to you, first and foremost. It is a promise, only to you. We will figure out what it means later.”
She brought her hands together, struggling to contain the storm of emotions that welled up inside of her—conflicting, overwhelming emotions. “Thank you.”
Perhaps, she thought, an official union between them would be the solution, the salvation. Surely, it would please her people to see her, Lady Arlington, as the sacred wife of the Grey Warlord. She would be Duchess—if not in title, then in station. She would be by the Vasaath’s side, with the Builder’s blessing, and she would no longer have to hide her love.
Ohkasethen – foreign teacher
Vas-maasa – “healer of leaders”