The Bird and the Beast: VIII
Sweeping the floors, washing the dishes, serving drunkards, and baking bread were tasks Juniper had seldom done earlier in her life, but lately, she had done it quite a bit. She used whatever she had learnt from Wayla, and even though her bread was salty and her soup was tasteless, the hungry workers of Kingshaven seemed satisfied enough.
Dressed as a common girl, no one would have ever imagined her to be Noxboroughian royalty. The looming threat of fifty thousand sovereigns was, however, worrisome and caused her great agony. But there was no need for it. The people were laughing at the mighty Kas.
“Them Arlingtons seem like a slippery bunch of people, eh?” folk said.
It was a joke that her father had eluded the Vault and that both she and her brother had escaped the mighty Demons of the North. The Arlington name had almost become a legend amongst the commoners—the Ones That Got Away.
Rumours had, however, reached Kingshaven telling that Sebastian had already been brought to Illyria, but people were reluctant to believe it. Ten thousand gold pieces were indeed a lot of money—and fifty thousand was even more. If someone was to catch both Arlington children, they would have earned a fortune, and money was scarce in Kingshaven.
“I’ve met Lady Arlington once,” some men claimed. “Big tits and nice, juicy lips! Went well around my cock, they did!”
It was always followed by booming laughter, making Juniper quite uncomfortable. There was always one or another who had a wild tale about his passionate night with her.
She tried not to mind but it was difficult to ignore. She wouldn’t want to touch most of those men with as much as a stick, let alone engage in any intimate activities. To hear her name besmirched in such a manner was infuriating and devastating.
“Don’t mind them, Jane,” Isobel told her one night after they had locked the door for the evening. “All men are pigs.”
Juniper snickered. “I’m inclined to believe you.”
Isobel only laughed. She was Juniper’s age, but she was independent and fierce. Her father had fallen ill and she had been the one to keep the tavern on its feet. But money was scarce and winter made everything harder.
Sometimes, Juniper would catch her brooding over a wedding ring on her finger and when the barmaid caught her looking, she sighed. “I married my husband not two months ago.”
Isobel scoffed. “For what? Being chained? No—I wasn’t ready to be a wife, but my husband, Robert, is a merchant with money.” She huffed and continued wiping the countertop. “He’s quite the pig, to be honest. Ill-tempered and cruel, but without him, this place would surely have perished.”
Juniper bit her lip. Seeing the defeat in the woman’s countenance broke her heart. “What would you have wished to do, had you not married?”
Isobel sighed audibly and sat down by a table. “I would like to go to Valaris one day, see the Golden City for myself.” She chuckled. “Then, I would like to travel east, towards the sunrise.”
“That sounds like beautiful dreams,” said Juniper and joined her.
“Yes, well,” sighed Isobel, “now, it’s too late for that. If he hasn’t put a child in me by the next moon, I’ll be mighty surprised. What about you? What are your dreams?”
Juniper shifted in her seat. “I—I would like to be free. Free from expectations, traditions, duties.” She huffed. “Free from conscience.”
Isobel raised a brow. “What’s stopping you? You’re unmarried, a vagabond—no offence, Jane, but the world doesn’t care about you.” She sighed. “Those noble ladies, they have such constraints. Take Lady Arlington, for instance. Fifty thousand sovereigns! Builder’s balls! I can’t help but wonder what she ever did to the Crimson King to be so valuable.”
Juniper swallowed hard, careful not to show her blushing cheeks.
“But women like you and I,” Isobel continued, “we can do anything, really. Well, not here, obviously, but in the east! In Aranthe, a woman can educate herself, make a name for herself, acquire wealth on her own, you know. She doesn’t need a man to supervise her. Or, so I’ve heard.”
Juniper knitted her brows. “Where have you heard that?”
Isobel pursed her lips, diverted her gaze, and sighed. “I heard it from someone I knew. Someone quite sophisticated. Someone very dear to me.” She turned her ring once more, deep in thought.
Juniper tipped her head to the side, her eyes fastened on Isobel’s ring. “I was engaged to a man not many months ago,” she said. “It was arranged by my father and against my will. What made matters worse was that I was already in love with someone else.”
Isobel gazed up. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Juniper smiled faintly. “Don’t be. We—well, we broke it off.”
“Was it because of the other man?”
“No.” Juniper nervously plucked her nails. “He passed before we could be wed. My fiancé, that is.”
“I’m sorry,” said Isobel. “But that means you could be with the one you love, no?”
Juniper scoffed. “It’s quite complicated. We’re not supposed to be together, at all. We should be bitter enemies.”
“But you are still in love?”
Swallowing hard, Juniper dropped her gaze and nodded. “Terribly.”
Isobel sighed. “So am I, but he has gone and will surely stay away.”
The two women said no more about it that evening.
Juniper missed the Vasasth so much it hurt. She missed his unyielding safety, his unwavering love to her. She missed his embrace, his kiss, and his golden eyes that always told her how things were, even if he didn’t.
She missed his voice, his laughter, and even his brooding and discontent grunts. She missed how he made her feel, intimately and otherwise, and whenever she thought of his proposal, she couldn’t hold back the tears.
Days passed, and after nearly a week in Kingshaven, Juniper could finally attend the city assembly. The City Hall was an enormous, elegant wooden longhouse upon a hill. It had three hearths, one of which was so large, they could fit entire logs in it.
In one end, in front of one of the other two hearths, stood a long table, and in the middle, on a wooden throne, sat a woman.
Over her silver-streaked chestnut hair rested a golden circlet and in the dim light within the longhouse, the woman’s eyes appeared black as the night and the corners of her mouth were turned downwards in a constant frown. Warm pelts were wrapped over her shoulders, her dress was green, and from large golden broaches hung wooden and golden beads in a cascade over her chest.
Duchess Sophia had the air of a Queen and carried her husband’s colours and sigil with pride—the Telling Tree was an old crest, worn by Kings for centuries. When the Duchess raised her hand, the people silenced. She welcomed them all, her voice rough and harsh, and then she let the people express their questions and concerns.
While the people spoke, Juniper gathered her courage. Most of the meeting went by, and she felt her heart race. This was her only chance.
Finally, she stood from her place in the back and raised her voice. “I have an important announcement.”
Duchess Sophia furrowed her brows and nodded.
Juniper took a deep breath. “The Crimson King will march before River’s Wakening!” She knew he hated that name, but she knew she would have to instil fear in them to open their eyes.
Gasps sounded throughout the longhouse as the people turned their heads at her. Everyone was quiet, anticipating.
“And who are you, girl?” asked the Duchess.
Juniper felt the blood disappear from her face. Her gaze flickered about, and she wondered how many of those people would kill for fifty thousand sovereigns. She swallowed and said, “My name is Jane Goodchild, Your Grace.”
“Goodchild?” asked the Duchess. “As in Eli Goodchild, the pelt trader?”
Juniper tightened her jaw and nodded. “Yes. He’s my… uncle.”
Duchess Sophia shifted in her seat and scoffed. “I didn’t know he had a niece.”
“Well, he does,” she quickly said. “I’ve recently come here from north of the Evergreen Wilds, and I come with a warning: the Ka—the Grey Ones intend on claiming the whole of Nornest before River’s Wakening.”
While a loud and concerned murmur quickly rose within the longhouse, Duchess Sophia hushed them with a calmly raised hand.
“So you’re telling me,” she said as the silence fell once again, “that you know the demons are planning on marching south? The niece of a simple hunter?”
“I do,” Juniper nodded.
The Duchess narrowed her eyes. “And how would a common girl like yourself have acquired such information?”
Juniper opened her mouth to say something clever, but nothing came out. Instead, she wrung her hands together and bit her lip. She had to tell them something, she had to give them a plausible explanation. If she told them exactly how she knew, they would quickly figure out her true identity.
Before the silence had lingered for too long, she said, “I have a reliable source from within the walls. The Crimson King has readied his troops for marching and there are thirty thousand soldiers in his army.”
Again, the murmur arose loudly, but again, Duchess Sophia silenced them. “Forgive me, Miss Goodchild, but I’m rather reluctant to believe the word of a girl with flour on her face.”
While some in the crowd snickered, Juniper quickly and embarrassedly wiped the flour away. “I understand your concern, Your Grace, but you have to believe me! The Grey Warlord will stop at nothing! He will burn this city to the ground if you won’t submit to him! Claiming your city will be but child’s play to him.”
“You come here—a foreigner!—and belittles our fighting men?” the Duchess’s voice was quite stern as she bore her black eyes into Juniper.
“Not at all,” said she. “I believe the best of your men, but the only army within a thousand miles that can match the Grey Ones in number is the Golden Army, and the Grey Ones are coming. Now, I know very little of warfare or strategy, Your Grace, but I would not assume the Crimson King to ignore a city like Kingshaven. You hold the mountains, you and Eastshore.”
Duchess Sophia chuckled darkly. “You seem to know quite a lot about strategy, Miss Goodchild.”
Clenching her jaw tightly, Juniper said sternly, “My father was a City Guard and he perished at the Night of the Demons.” The lies just kept coming, but there was no stopping them. “Some things, he passed on to his daughter.”
The Duchess seemed to waver. She eyes Juniper for a short moment before she nodded. “I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Goodchild.”
Juniper took a deep breath and bowed her head. “Thank you, Your Grace. I’ve seen firsthand what they are capable of, and I suggest that you flee this city before it’s too late.”
Another storm of murmur and chatter as the people were horrified by the notion of leaving their homes.
Again, the Duchess silenced them as she stood from her chair. “Good people of Kingshaven. This city has stood for centuries, and it will stand for many more to come. If the Crimson King turns his eye to us, our brave men will be ready to fight and to die to protect us, and the Red Fortress is big enough to house you all. You may rest calmly tonight, knowing that the Builder watches over you.” As she sat down again, she said, “I will hear no more of it. Next.”
Juniper sank to her chair, feeling quite foolish. If this was what she would face in the other cities as well, she would need a different approach.
As she was heading back to The Green Leaf, she noticed quite quickly that she was being followed. Grabbing the hilt of her dagger tightly, she took a few extra turns in the dark, keeping a steady eye over her shoulder.
Her follower was small and not at all subtle, even though the person clearly tried to be. It was a youngster—perhaps a child—but it was unnerving nonetheless. If someone had recognised her, she would have to run for her life.
Juniper ducked in behind a corner and pressed herself against the wall, waiting for the stalker to appear. When she heard the sneaking footsteps in the dark, she quickly reached out to grab the person and pressed the stalker against the wall, her dagger resting firmly against the throat. Her hand was trembling, but she tried to hide it with a menacing stare.
“Who are you?” she hissed.
“Please, my lady!” It was a young woman—a girl—and as the hood fell to her shoulders, revealing her face in the pale moonlight, Juniper was met by a pair of green, terrified eyes.
At once, Juniper lowered the dagger and took a step back. “Who are you?”
“M-my name is Ella,” said the girl and nervously stroked her throat. “Ella Edding. I’m—I’m the daughter of the Duke of Kingshaven.”
Juniper gasped and sheathed her dagger at once. “Oh, my goodness! My lady! I’m so terribly sorry! Please, do forgive me!”
“Oh, no, please,” said Lady Ella. “It is I who should apologise, I should never have followed you. I was just worried that if I addressed you at City Hall, there would be curious ears all around us. I wouldn’t wish to expose you.”
Juniper narrowed her eyes. “I beg your pardon?”
“Oh, of course, you don’t remember me.” The girl nervously fiddled with her chestnut hair. “I was at your sixteenth birthday celebration. Of course, I was only a child—”
“Little Ella,” Juniper sighed and frowned. “Of course, I remember!”
The girl smiled brightly, dimples showing in her round face, and Juniper felt deeply ashamed. She remembered her sixteenth birthday. For an Edredian woman, it was an important year. It meant that she was no longer a child, but a woman, and that she had become of age and ready to marry.
Lady Ella had been only a small child—perhaps eight or nine years of age—and Juniper didn’t wish to play with children on the day when she became a woman. Now, that child had almost reached that same age.
Sighing again, she gazed around. “You shouldn’t be out on your own like this, my lady.”
“Neither should you, my lady,” said the girl. “Is it true? Is the Crimson King really coming here?”
Juniper nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“But how do you know?”
Sighing deeply, Juniper slumped her shoulders. “I—I just know. I know him, and that is enough. I know he will come, and when he does, he won’t show mercy unless you all submit.”
Lady Ella nodded and sighed. “Mother tries her best, you know. She has had to struggle quite a bit to have her authority recognised by the townsfolk, and the Architects. She wouldn’t want to frighten them. But if what you claim is true, my lady, then perhaps we should do as you say and flee the city.”
Juniper nodded gravely. “The Grey Warlord and his people have one primary rule—submit or die. Those who won’t yield to them will die, no matter if they’re commoners or nobles. All are equal under their blades.”
The young girl paled and gulped. “What can I do, my lady?”
Clenching her jaw, she sighed in determination. “Make your father see the danger. Have him call for an evacuation as soon as possible. Your people need to flee to Illyria, or Tallis, or Varsaii. Anywhere by here. The Grey Ones will have conquered Nornest by River’s Wakening.”
The girl nodded, her face quite pale. “Very well. But what if my father wants to speak to you? Where can I find you?”
“The Green Leaf, but I can’t stay much longer. I must move on to Eastshore to warn them as well. The Vasaa—the Crimson King is looking for me, and he won’t stop until he finds me, I’m sure of it. I can wait for a few more days, in case the Duke wishes to see me, but we must hurry.”
Lady Ella nodded. “Of course.”
“And,” Juniper said and tightened her jaw, “you must keep my identity a secret. The Crimson King has promised a hefty reward for my capture, and I cannot risk it. I need you to promise me to keep this secret.”
The girl nodded gravely. “You have my word, my lady.”
The two women shook hands before the younger put her hood back on and disappeared into the darkness.
A chilly gust of wind crept underneath Juniper’s coat, and she felt a strange sense of urgency, like a bolt of lightning creeping along her spine—it was as if the Vasaath was already there, lurking in the shadows.