The Red Sun

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The Bird and the Beast: XIV

Eastshore was the City of the Rising Sun. Resting quite peacefully by the sea, it was always greeted by the sun before any other city in Nornest. Even Ravensgate, straight south, was shadowed by mountains, but Eastshore was wide open for the reaching rays of the first light.

Juniper was in awe as she wandered through the city that morning, after more than a week of travel. It spanned far along the shoreline; its houses were built like nothing she had ever seen before. It was a strange fashion, with Nornish wood but eastern carvings—the foreign heritage was marked upon the city, to further distinguish it from the rest of the Free Cities.

Everywhere she looked, people seemed well-fed, well-clothed, and healthy. No one seemed poor or starving, but neither were there many people that stood out as finely dressed or particularly rich. No one paid her any special attention as she entered the city with many other refugees, but the terrible news of the approaching army was enough to cause disarray.

Rumours spread fast and even though the White Mountains stood resolute between them and Kingshaven, people were still dropping everything they had to rush back to their homes. Juniper knew she had little time—she could not linger in Eastshore longer than necessary.

Approaching the closest merchant on Old Nellie, she demanded, “Duke Mortimer! I need to speak with Duke Mortimer!”

“He-he’s in the mansion just north of town!” the merchant stuttered with wide eyes and pointed along the main street.

Juniper nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

She hurried away along the street, urging Old Nellie into a trot, and kept a steady eye forwards. Some guards shouted after her to slow down and watch out, but she ignored them. Following the last, soft bend of the street, the buildings opened up to a majestic scene over the eastern steppe.

Far into the distance, almost a hundred miles away, the White Mountains stood in all their ancient glory; having crossed them felt almost like a distant dream.

A few hundred yards up the paved path stood a wooden mansion, tall and grand. The nearer she came, the clearer she saw the eastern markings and the fine woodwork on the corners and the ridges.

The sun beamed warmly on the mossy roof, and it seemed perfectly at ease as it rested upon a small hill, just above a small, glittering lake. Juniper brought Old Nellie to a walk, and the horse snorted and breathed heavily.

Gently, she stroked the animal’s neck. “I’m so sorry, girl. You’ve worked so hard. Let’s take it slow from here.” Walking the rest of the way, she came to a stop just outside the front gates.

Two guards stood with their spears crossed in front of them, and one of them said, “State your business.”

Juniper sighed deeply. Now was not the time for lies. “I am Lady Juniper Arlington, daughter of the late Duke of Noxborough, formerly an advisor to the Crimson King, and I come bearing news. It is imperative that I see His Grace Duke Mortimer as soon as possible.”

The guards glanced at each other, clearly surprised. The one guard said, “Certainly, my lady. I think His Grace would gladly receive you. This way, my lady.”

The two guards stepped aside and the one guard took a firm grip of Old Nellie’s reins. As woman and horse were led up the path, guards patrolling the grounds looked at them in curiosity.

Juniper had heard of the Guards of the Dawn—a small, but skilful, company serving as Dukesguard in the eastern Dukedom. Every year at the Norn, the nobles spoke of the Dukesguard from the East as something of an oddity, but they almost always outdid everyone else.

Here in Eastshore, Juniper felt like the oddity. Few people sported the same Nornish attributes as almost everyone else west of the White Mountains. Freckles, pale skin, light eyes—their skin was rich olive, tan ochre, dark brown; their eyes were deep steel, beetle, or hazel; their hairs were of all lengths, qualities, colours; many of the soldiers had the distinctive thick and wavy hair of Varsaii, long and flowing.

Seeing the Guards of the Dawn in all their diversity reminded her that the world was much greater than Nornest and Illyria. Eastshore had opened its gates to it, invited it in, and reaped the benefits from divergence. In a way, it reminded her of the Kas.

Perhaps, the largest difference was that the Kas sometimes had rather aggressive ways of recruiting whereas Eastshore was only a simple little fishing town on the Nornish east coast with a dream of something bigger.

The soldier stopped just by the gates to the mansion and reached up to assist Juniper off the horse. Not wanting to embarrass the man, she accepted his help. She was most capable of dismounting on her own—living under the guise of a common girl had certainly had its freedom, but she was a lady and it would be rude of him not to offer his assistance.

Old Nellie was brought away by a stable boy while Juniper was led inside. The gates were rather small in comparison to the size of the building and as she entered, she was immediately struck by how warm it was inside.

A servant scurried away to fetch the Duke and only a few moments later, a tall man appeared, dressed in muted orange robes lined with fur. It was a perfect complement to his tanned skin. A heavy gold necklace hung over his shoulders, clearly of eastern origin, and his long, steel grey locks were crowned by a golden circlet.

Duke Edmund Mortimer was known for being quiet and rumoured to be meek, but behind those onyx eyes, Juniper saw wisdom and cunning—a sharpness of wit she had rarely seen before.

The Duke bowed. “My lady.”

Juniper returned the respects and curtsied. “Your Grace.”

“Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

The Duke furrowed his dark brows. “No one accompanied you during your travels?”

“I was lucky enough to find guidance through the Evergreen Wilds, but the rest of the way, I’ve travelled on my own,” said Juniper.

The man hummed, impressed. “You must know it is dangerous for you to mention your name,” said Duke Mortimer and placed his hands behind his back. “A fortune on your head, the Vault at your heels—dangerous, indeed.”

Juniper swallowed and raised her chin. “I figured it was worth the risk rather than not being believed.”

“Brave,” nodded he. “Reckless, but brave.” He sighed. “You’re safe here, my lady. I don’t serve the Grey Ones, I don’t wish to, and as I told your brother, I will not blame you for your father’s wrongdoings.”

Juniper almost lost her breath. “You—” Her eyes quickly filled with tears. “You’ve seen Sebastian?”

“I have,” nodded the Duke. “He was brought to my doorstep before the White Wakening. He had had quite the journey.”

“But where—where is he now?”

“In Illyria,” said the Duke. “I sent him there with some of my most trusted men, and they returned and confirmed that the boy had been greeted by the Imperial Guard. He’ll be safe there. I am on good terms with the Emperor, I know he wouldn’t hurt an innocent boy.”

Juniper nodded. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

He smiled and shook his head. “I must follow my conscience, and I would never send innocent people to die.”

“Yes, about that. I have some urgent business to discuss with you, Your Grace,” said Juniper.

The Duke frowned and nodded. “Please, follow me.”

She was taken through the mansion to a drawing-room where a large fire burnt in a hearth. He sat down by a table and invited her to join him.

Smiling, he gazed into the fire. “My daughter always sits in this room and yells at me for not doing things her way.” Chuckling, he looked at her. “She got that from her mother, I dare say.” Sighing soundly, he weaved his fingers together. “Now, my lady, what is it you wish to discuss with me?”

Swallowing hard, Juniper told the Duke of the Vasaath’s plan. She told him of the Kas army, their armada, and that there wasn’t an army in all of Nornest that could withstand the full force of the Saath.

The Duke listened attentively, his brows tightly furrowed. He nodded and said, immediately after she had finished, “I’m quite doubtful that Illyria would be much safer for us. If what you say is true, then the Crimson King commands an army that would best even the Golden Army. Even with the help of the Shadow Riders, they would lose by numbers alone. If their skill is as you say it is, well…”

Juniper nodded. “There is no point fighting unless you wish to perish. You could, of course, submit. You people would live, and they would live well, but they would have to adapt to the Kas ways. They would have to send their children away, they would have to accept being placed within a role, and they would have to strive to follow the eight tenets of the Kasenon.”

She carefully watched the Duke’s dark eyes, but he was listening keenly.

“For some, it might be an improvement,” she continued. “Builder knows there are plenty of people in Noxborough who have flourished under the Kas’ rule. But for many, the changes will be difficult. For some, quite impossible. Had the Kas had patience, it wouldn’t be so terrible, but they have not, and my people have suffered because of it.”

“Yes, I know about the rebellion,” said the Duke. “‘As long as the Blood of the First remains in Fairgarden, Noxborough remains.’ It’s a powerful message, one I’ve been happy to support.” Sighing deeply, he frowned. “I suppose you haven’t met the soldiers I sent to save you?”

Juniper sighed and shook her head. “I’m afraid not. The first I heard of them was in the Evergreen Wilds. An old couple had met them on their journey north, but they haven’t been seen since.”

Duke Mortimer hummed. “We always knew it was a wild shot. I sent them to rescue you from the beasts, at the request of your brother. Clearly, they failed. But, you are safe. Their spirits can rest easy knowing at least that, if they aren’t still alive somewhere. It could have been anything—the cold, the mountains, the many perils of the Evergreen Wilds… Tonight, we shall drink in their honour.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss, Your Grace. Had I known—”

“There was nothing you could do, my lady,” said the Duke. “The men I sent were some of my best. Two of them were even First Blades of Varsaii. Brothers, in fact, knighted by King Frederich himself.” Then he smiled. “I am sure that if they are still alive, they will return. If they’re not, I have no doubt they died with honour. Now, why don’t you stay for a few days and recover?”

Juniper bit her lip. “Your Grace, I need to move as soon as I can.”

“Surely, you can wait a few days? Only until you’ve gathered your strength?”

She pondered this. She was in a hurry, yes, but she was utterly exhausted. “The Vasaath—well, the Crimson King, is on the move. It’s only a matter of time before he finishes his conquest, and I need to warn the remaining cities. Riverport is my next stop, and I need to get there as soon as possible. I need to tell them to run or to yield. Fighting will only bring them death.”

“For some, fighting is the only way,” said the Duke. “Had my daughter been here now, she would have told you that a Mortimer would never yield. I, on the other hand, recognise that our strength does not lie in our military force. I will not subject my people to the harshness of the Grey Ones.”

Juniper nodded. “I think that is wise, Your Grace. Nornish people seldom take well to such drastic changes, I’ve realised.”

The Duke frowned. “If I may, my lady—I would advise you to stay clear of Riverport. It’s closer to Kingshaven, and I doubt the Grey Warlord would brave the mountains with his forces. It would take him too much time. Any military man would go around this time of year.”

Juniper saw the sense in that and hoped, for Eastshore’s sake, that the Duke was right. That would give them more time to flee.

“Stay here for a few nights,” said the Duke. “Rest and recover. If you wish, I could arrange for a carriage and two guards to accompany you on the road to Ravensgate instead. I’m sure such a long journey would be more comfortable for you in a carriage, and Guards of the Dawn will, of course, be received immediately by Duke Payne. ”

She nodded. “Very well. Thank you, Your Grace, for your kindness and your advice. You’re right. It would be dangerous to go to Riverport, and I do need some rest. The horse I brought with, Old Nellie—will you take care of her?”

He smiled. “Don’t worry. Old Nellie is in good hands in my stables.”

“Thank you.”

He rose from his seat and bowed. “I thank you for your courage, Lady Arlington. Few would have sacrificed what you have. I will move my people across the Deep, starting at first light. The Crimson King may have this city if he wishes—it is nothing to me without its people.” He closed his hands together. “Now, have a proper meal and a good night’s rest. I’m sure my daughter has many questions for you.”

It had been a month since she last enjoyed a meal made by cooks inside a royal hall. Her frame was frail from the journey, her bones weary—Lady Adelaide, the Duke’s daughter, commented on her hollow cheeks quite crudely, but admired her for making such a difficult journey in the coldest of winters all on her own.

Juniper went to bed early that evening and slept like the dead. By morning, she was asked by Lady Adelaide to accompany her to the city. There, Juniper watched as the guards readied the people for the evacuation. Merchants were paid considerably to carry refugees on their vessels, and even though one journey with each ship wasn’t enough to carry them all across the Deep, this was a start.

The people listened and obeyed, knowing their Duke did whatever he thought best for his people, and slowly but surely, the city was emptied.

Two more nights, Juniper stayed in Eastshore. Her sleep was riddled with nightmares, and she often awoke in tears. She dreamt of him, of his warm embrace and of his relentless justice; she missed him as much as she feared his judgment. There was a pain inside of her that she could not be rid of, a pain she knew would only be relieved once she was united with her beloved—it was her soul being ripped apart.

On the third morning, a carriage was prepared, pulled by two fine Nornish bred horses, just as promised. Two guards sat on their mounts, ready for the long journey ahead.

Juniper thanked the Duke most kindly and wished him luck. He was brave, she said, to forfeit his ancestral home in favour of his people.

He then told her that home was whatever one makes of it—his was with his people, no matter where.

With those parting words, Juniper entered the carriage and the coachman urged the two horses on.

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