The Crimson King: XIX
She ran through the halls, her heart hammering in her throat. The words echoed in her head. We burn them.
It was never her intention to eavesdrop—when she had had her dinner, she wanted to know how the meeting had gone with the other advisors. She had been giddy, anxious to know whether or not they would be wed, but when she reached the study, she had found the door ajar and she heard voices from inside.
She still wasn’t particularly good at speaking Kasoch, but she could understand it sufficiently enough. She knew she shouldn’t have lingered. She shouldn’t have moved closer to the door just to hear the conversation. She thought it would be with Baraam or Eloch. Once she had realised it was with an officer, she had crept even closer. Curiosity had burned within her. She wanted to know what they were talking about. Perhaps there was news concerning the townsfolk.
But then there were words of war. Invasion. The other five cities were next. Her dinner had turned in her stomach, her knees had almost folded underneath her, and she had clasped her hand over her mouth to cover a gasp.
She had leaned forwards only to make sure that it was truly the Vasaath—her Vasaath—that was saying all those awful things. There he had sat on a chair in front of the fire; his chiselled jaw had been squared, his brows had been lowered, and his golden eyes had stared into the flame just before he had muttered the words. We burn them.
It was horror, terror, that had spread in her heart at that very moment. She heard the words of the Kasenon, vas-an lit basran—order through submission—and the stoic, unyielding Kas she had first met that day in early summer had all of a sudden resurfaced in that very room.
She hurried away as quickly as possible, before anyone saw her, forcing down the horrified screams that wanted to escape her. She stumbled into her room and burst out in shrill cries as she paced on unsteady legs.
There were thousands of thoughts that rushed through her mind, thoughts she couldn’t control. Why had she been so naive? Why had she been so insufferably gullible to believe that a man like the Vasaath would settle for a city like Noxborough? How in the world could she have missed such a thing when it was dangling right before her face? She groaned loudly at her own foolishness as she paced back and forth with long strides.
There was no point in being angry, at the Vasaath or at herself—her rage would do nothing to change the Kas’ plans to invade Nornest. They had already taken her home, and thirty thousand soldiers were hardly brought to preserve peace. It was silly of her to believe so, to begin with.
She had been too occupied by her own efforts to make the transition for her people go as smoothly as possible—and by the torments of failing miserably.
She could barely breathe as she thought of the shaming looks she had received when the Kas army had first arrived. Her own people had looked at her like a traitor, like a puppet, and now she was complicit in the Grey Ones’ conquest.
The only thing she could possibly do was to warn the others.
She hastily sat down by her writing desk and pulled out a piece of paper, her goose feather pen, and a bottle of ink. In her hurry, she spilt some of the ink, but she didn’t mind.
With trembling hands, she started writing to the Duke of Kingshaven. She warned him of the coming war, of the thirty thousand Kas soldiers that would march before River’s Wakening. She told the Duke to evacuate the city, to lead his people to safety for there was no army in Nornest that could stand against the Saath of Kasarath.
When she started writing her second letter, to the Duke of Riverport, she suddenly remembered that all correspondence was being watched. How could she possibly smuggle the letters out of the city if Eloch watched all the messages coming to and leaving Noxborough? How could she find a messenger when her every step was being shadowed by Kas guards?
In a fit of panic, she crumpled the letters and tossed them into the hearth. Her chest heaved rapidly as she watched the fire devour the yellow paper, and she sank to the floor. She should have known. That was all that kept going in her head. She should have known. Her father would have known. Sebastian would have known. Did Garret know?
Submit or die, that was the rule. The resistance from the Nornish people wouldn’t be any less in any other Dukedom. They were all the same people and they were all proud. Thousands would die because the Vasaath was tired of negotiation and there was nothing she could do about it.
At that moment, she missed Kasethen more than anything. He, if anyone, could talk some sense into the man. But Kasethen was a thousand miles away and the Vasaath’s patience had already run out.
Quietly sobbing, her knees pulled to her chin, she wondered. What person did she want to be? She would be a traitor, no matter what, but who would she rather betray?
She could marry the Vasaath, be safe and loved, and watch as her brothers and sisters of Edred were slaughtered—or, she could risk everything for a chance of saving as many as possible.
She thought about the promise she had made to her people when the city fell. She had promised that she would weather the storm with them, that she would stand by their side and be their voice. She promised them that she would do all in her power to protect them.
Since then, many had died. They had died because they longed for their children or because they found it difficult to adapt to a new order. It wasn’t because they were criminals, or because they had evil intents; some died because they didn’t see enough liberty in the new rules while some died because they had seen too much of it. Some died because they refused to be disloyal while some died because they weren’t loyal enough.
She saw the reasoning for the executions, the logic behind them, but there was no heart. There was no love for her people, no sympathy for them. The Kas were as cold as they were grey and the bright future they kept making promises about was only bright for those they found worthy. For all else, the future was nothing but dark.
She had tried her best to protect her people, and she had failed, but it wasn’t all over just yet. She still had one solution, one weapon; she still had herself and her own resolve. She would be her own messenger. There were still many innocent lives she could save, even if that meant betraying the one she loved. He would never forgive her—he might even kill her for it—but would she truly be able to live with herself if she didn’t even try?
There was no courage without fear, and if she wasn’t prepared to risk her life for her people, she wasn’t worthy of them. The Vasmenaan had taught her that.
The Vasaath knocked on her door later that evening. Juniper had had hours to think, and she had gathered herself and almost felt at peace. She smiled at him as he entered, pushing away all feeling of fear and pain and only giving room for the love she felt for him.
He took her in his arms and whispered to her that she would soon be his wife and that he would be her husband. The council had agreed and the wedding would go on.
She beamed at him, caressed his cheek, ignoring the pain she felt in her heart. It was everything she wanted—to love him freely, to know that their union was blessed, and no longer having to hide her affections. In her dreams, it would be perfect. Her happiness was her deepest sorrow.
“Good,” she said and leaned into him while placing her hands around his strong neck. “Now, I want you to make love to me as though it was our last night together.”
The Vasaath frowned, perplexed, but did not object. He kissed her with passion, undressed her, and brought her to the bed.
Juniper submitted to him without hesitation, letting herself be immersed in pleasure like never before. She allowed herself to be claimed, to be enveloped by his being, his soul, and his want. No one knew what tomorrow would bring, but tonight, she could enjoy him, the Demon of the North, in every sinful way there was.
He did not spare any means giving her what she wanted, or taking what he wanted, and she rejoiced. The tenets of the Kasenon seemed to fly out the window as he ravished her, and she was grateful for it. She would never have another lover like him. She had always known as much, but tonight, he proved it, once and for all.
She dragged it out for as long as she could and demanded as much from him as she could, wanting to remain in the blissful thrill of lust and pleasure for as long as possible. When they both were too exhausted to go on, she pressed herself as close to him as she could, breathing deeply of his scent.
“I love you,” she murmured.
He stroked her hair, gently and softly. “I will always love you,” he breathed against her scalp.
A knot grew in her belly at his words and she fought the tears. She wondered if she could perhaps stay with him, marry him, and persuade him to reconsider his plans—Builder knew she wanted nothing else!—but she knew in her heart that he would not.
His mind was set; she had heard it in his voice as he spoke to his officer. He had always sought to eradicate the rot. After everything that had transpired, it was too late for her to convince him that her people were worthy of a second chance.
She waited until he had fallen asleep. It took him a while as neither of them could keep their hands off each other, but eventually, his breaths deepened and his eyelids ceased twitching.
Juniper carefully slid out of bed. She hissed involuntarily as she sat, fighting her body that didn’t want anything else but to rest after the passionate seduction it had just endured. The ache lessened as she moved across the floor, but she wanted it to remain as long as possible, as a reminder of him and this night.
She downed a vial of Shadow Veil, cleaned herself, and carefully proceeded to dress. Thick woollen socks, a woollen dress, and an overcoat. She felt stuffed like a sausage, but the winds outside were unkind and she had a long way to travel.
While reaching for the candle on her nightstand, she watched the sleeping Kas and felt a profound sorrow in her heart. She would never love anyone as she loved him—she hadn’t even known him a year, but she knew that he was a kindred soul. No, not just a kindred soul, but the same soul. They shared it, for better and for worse.
Quickly but silently, she grabbed the candle and left the room before she burst into tears. She allowed herself to breathe for a few moments in the empty hall outside her room, just to gather herself. She couldn’t waver now. Either she did what she had set out to do and gave the people of Nornest a fair chance, or she returned to the comfort of her room and crawled back under the covers next to the Vasaath, her soon-to-be husband, and accepted her fate.
Determinedly, she clenched her jaw and moved through the castle. Some guards wandered the hallways but she knew the ways around them. In the kitchen, she made herself a sack of provision—bread, dried apples, and nuts—and in the servant quarters, she found some outerwear and a sturdy pair of winter boots that fit her.
Her whole life, she had snuck through these parts of the castle, but while she knew how to get out of Fairgarden, it was a bit trickier to know how to escape Noxborough. The tunnel had been destroyed and the walls were being manned. Going along the shores would mean wandering straight through the city extensions, and to the east, the wall ended in the sea. But the bay was frozen. If she was carful, she might be able to make it around the eastern end of the wall.
She had to try, knowing that she had very few options. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and head, put on a woollen cloak and headed out into the night. The storm was relentless as the winds howled all around her. The air was so cold, she could barely breathe. The piercing crystals picked at her face like needles and every step she took felt like wading through water.
The dark was impenetrable, and she made her way by touching the walls of the castle. Now and then, she was guided by lights coming from windows in the city, but as soon as she arrived by the shoreline, the night was pitch black again. By then, her eyes had adjusted to the low light and she was able to see shapes and silhouettes in the dark. The storm was her biggest enemy now.
She knew it would be dangerous. The wall was high and the rocks below were sharp. The snow was deep and the way around would take her far out onto the frozen waters. If the ice wasn’t thick enough, she might fall through.
Looking back, she saw Castle Fairgarden high up on the hill. There, in one of the northern towers, the Vasaath was still sleeping. He would expect to wake up next to her, but he would find the bed empty. Perhaps, she thought, she would never get to wake up next to him again.
A low wail escaped her as she turned back to the white bay. Wading through the snow was exhausting. She was all out of strength, but she had to press on. She kept close to the rocks at the foot of the wall, hugging them as her feet fell through the snow. It had drifted far up against the rocks, creating a solid but treacherous surface with layers of sharp ice. She avoided the crust, knowing very well that she might tear her legs open if she fell through it.
Walking slowly, putting one foot carefully ahead of the other, she made her way to the farthest end of the wall. Standing by the edge, the unbridled winds almost knocked her to the ground. The howls were deafening as they thundered around her. She clung to the frozen stones while cautiously climbing around it.
This was the point of no return. It was now or never. This was the moment she stopped being a helpless girl and started being a woman in control of her own destiny.
When she finally made it to the other side, the frozen delta opened up before her. The Mud Mire was covered in perfectly untouched snow dunes and in the darkness to the east, the White Mountains towered over the land. South of her was the Evergreen Wilds, far away on the other side of the moors.
That was where she needed to go. It was a dangerous path, she knew as much, but it was the fastest way to Kingshaven. That was where she needed to go. She took a deep, painful breath and prayed to the Builder to protect her before she began trudging through the deep, untouched vastness of snow and ice.
Every breath was like needles and knives in her lungs. Her legs screamed, she was chilled to the marrow, and she couldn’t feel her face anymore. Her hands were tucked underneath her armpits, the scarf was wrapped around her face and neck so tightly, she almost choked, and not even three layers of wool could protect her.
The blistering winds were as unkind as they were cold and when she had walked until she couldn’t take another step, there was no telling which way was which. No matter where she turned, all she could see was darkness and snow. The storm had wiped away any trace she might have left behind, preventing her from turning back.
Not even Fairgarden could be seen in the distance anymore, at least not through the blizzard. Warm tears formed in the corner of her eyes but chilled and froze against her skin almost immediately. She sobbed in panic and devastation. She was tired, spent, and her body was so cold, she could barely move a single muscle. But she had to keep on moving.
When she was a child, her father had taken her hunting with him one especially cold winter’s day. It was very rare—hunting was an activity solely for men, but Sebastian dreaded the cold and had not wanted to come with. Juniper wanted nothing else, and her father had allowed her to come with him if she promised to keep quiet.
They had ventured only a mile into the Evergreen Wilds, far enough for a Duke and his small daughter in a forest ruled by bandits, Mountain Folk, and the Wild Gods. They had found a spot near a meadow where they sat for many hours.
The cold eventually crept closer, and young Juniper had quickly been frozen to the core. She had wanted to turn back, but she had been too afraid to say so—the child feared that if she said anything, this would be the last time she was ever allowed to spend time with her father.
“You have to move,” her father had then told her. “In weathers like these, you need to keep moving. You see, at first, you feel so cold, you can barely move. Then, your limbs start to numb. Soon, you will feel a strange sensation of warmth, almost as if you’re too warm, almost burning up. When that subdues, that’s when you’re starting to feel at ease. You might forget where you are, who you are, and feel as if you could fall asleep. When that moment comes, Daughter, you are already lost. So even if it hurts, wiggle your toes. Even if you feel as though you can’t, move.”
So Juniper moved, through the thick snow dunes over the moors, through the wailing winds, until she felt as though she couldn’t feel her body anymore.
Everything was tingling, but there was no pain. Knowing this meant grave danger, she pushed even harder, but she fell and disappeared into the snow. With great effort, she dug herself out and pulled herself back onto her feet, but she could barely stand any longer.
Still, she was trapped in the middle of a sea of darkness and snow. Huffing in defeat, she dropped to her knees. She barely felt the winds anymore as strange warmth started to spread from her legs. She imagined being held by the Vasaath, imagined feeling his muscled chest behind her and his hefty arms around her.
The snow was soft and as the exhaustion had taken its toll on her, she slowly lay down, still imagining being in the general’s gentle and safe embrace. She knew it was dangerous—if she gave up now, she would certainly die out there. But she needed to rest. She needed to rest her eyes, if only for a bit.
Then, in the distance, she thought she could see a small, golden light, like eyes flickering in the dark. She cried out coarsely, wishfully, “Vasaath!”
He had come for her, come to save her.
Slowly, the eyes grew into a lantern. She narrowed her gaze and a figure appeared in the storm. She had no strength left to raise her head, but the figure was growing nearer. Relief washed over her and she could finally breathe without pain as she slowly closed her eyes. He had come for her.