The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 12
Click here to read parts 1-11.
Tristan was getting nowhere with her foster parents. One was outright refusing to listen to her; the other was struggling to keep the peace while finishing his dinner. It shouldn’t have surprised her, of the two, Connor had always been more willing to give in to her demands. Tristan hopped around Sarai, nagging and arguing as her foster mother tried to put away the sword she’d been working on since the argument had begun.
“Enough,” Sarai snapped. She slapped the whetstone onto the hearth next to a basket of polishing cloths. “I’m not having this conversation anymore.” The warning tone in her voice didn’t stop Tristan from plowing ahead.
“You’re not even listening,” she shouted. The cottage was shrinking around her as she fought back the welling tears of frustration. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I want to fight with my brother. I want to be out there.” The fine lines around Sarai’s eyes and mouth deepened as she scowled at Tristan.
“We decided long ago that you could go back to the rebellion once you’ve come of age. You can’t wait two more years?”
Connor snorted. “I don’t remember that being a ‘we’ decision. All I remember is you screaming that that was how we were gonna do it, and we never talked about it again.” Sarai narrowed her eyes at him.
“Now is not the time,” she hissed. He sighed and turned to Tristan, shoving his still-full plate away.
“Little One,” he rumbled. Tristan hated that nickname–she was nearly as tall as Sarai now, and old enough to know that they still thought she was a child. She also hated that tone. It was the same one he’d used to coach her into eating vegetables or finishing her lessons.
“Don’t call me that.” She drew herself up to her full height. “My name is Tristan Elysia Julianna De Soriya, and I’m not little anymore.” Connor’s jaw sagged. Tristan felt a pinch of guilt and imagined herself beating it back with an ax. She had to make them understand, even if it hurt their feelings a little.
“We know, Princess,” he stumbled over the title, long abandoned in their years hiding out at Tutti’s cottage. “But I’m afraid you can’t just—”
“If you want me to be a princess so bad, start acting like it! Let me join my people at the front. I’m tired of hiding in the shadows, I want to be of use.” Tutti sighed around her pipe.
“And what would you do, little Princess,” she asked.
“I would fight,” Tristan stuttered. She’d almost forgotten the old woman was there. Tutti raised an eyebrow at her.
“Fight who? Where?”
“The Doermans,” Tristan growled. “Wherever I can find them. I’d make them leave here, and return Vamaser to its old glory.” She could almost see it: a country where she didn’t have to hide, where she could show her friends her true face. A world where her brother could stop looking over his shoulder and rest, and they could catch up on the years they lost between his visits. She wanted that—that vision of a world where she had the power to actually change things. Tutti snorted, knocking her out of her reverie.
“What,” Tristan demanded. The old woman, her brows hanging heavy over her wizened eyes, regarded Tristan like she was an interesting lump of bloom.
“You say that you aren’t a child, but you act and sound like a toddler that hasn’t gotten their way.” She turned her judging gaze onto Connor and Sarai. “You’ve failed spectacularly at teaching her the ways of the world, congratulations.”
For some reason, that stung more than anything she could have said to Tristan. She felt like she’d been slapped as Sarai hung her head and Connor scrubbed his hand through his beard. They didn’t say anything in their defense. She felt a tear escape. Did they really think she was so incompetent? A child living in a fantasy world? Just the other day, Sarai had praised her for her sword technique, and Connor had gifted her one of his rare smiles as she completed an analysis of the first set of laws concerning the governing of a province. Had they just been humoring her? Tristan bit her lip to stop the remaining tears from cascading down her face. She hated crying. She bolted for the door.
She made a bee-line for the trees, leaping over the branches and roots, following the invisible animal track that she’d known since childhood. She was so busy trying to blink away her raging emotions, that she didn’t see the figure approaching through the trees until they were right in front of her. Angie’s wide eyes were the last thing she saw before they ended up sprawled in a pile of leaves on top of each other. Sarai would be so disappointed that she’d let her guard down like that.
She groaned and rolled off the friend she’d unintentionally accosted, only to find Angie staring at her like she’d never seen her before.
“Angie,” Tristan gasped. “I’m sorry I didn’t see you.” Angie shuffled back and hunched over herself protectively.
“Who are you?” she barked. “How do you know me?” Tristan tilted her head in confusion.
“Angie,” she said slowly, worried she might have injured the other girl. “It’s me, Tristan.”
“No you’re not,” Angie shrieked. She jolted away from Tristan and scrambled to find a weapon. The only thing that met her searching fingers was a stick that she held in front of her like a sword. “Stay away from me.” Tristan tried to reach out to her, but a long tendril of blonde hair caught her eye. She grabbed hold of the strand and realized with dawning horror that she’d left her ring on the hearth, the same place she always left it at the end of the day. Instead of the red curls and freckles her friends were used to seeing, she now had her mother’s straight blonde hair and angular features Connor insisted she’d grow into.
“Angie,” she said, quiet and afraid. “I know I look different, but I swear that it’s me, Tristan.” Not having the ring made her exposed. The woods were suddenly filled with people looking for the rebellion, looking for her and her brother. Behind every tree and in every shadow was the laughing shape of Mikki that haunted her nightmares. How could she have imagined herself brave minutes ago when she argued with Sarai and Connor? They were right; she was just a child playing at being an adult. Fresh tears welled up, and she shrank in on herself. Angie’s stick wobbled, and the leaves beneath her feet crunched as she stood.
“Prove it,” she demanded. “What’s something only the two of us would know?”
“The first time you saw my brother,” Tristan began. “You called him ruggedly handsome and said I should let you marry him so we’d be sisters for real.” Angie’s face flushed, and a giggle bubbled up around the knot in Tristan’s throat. She looked like a shocked rooster. She kept listing things. “The first time we went swimming in the river, your skirt caught on a branch and tore, I had to help you hold it up all the way back to your house. Your brother laughed at us, so the next time he and his friends went swimming, we stole their clothes. You also—”
“Stop, I believe you!” Angie dropped her feeble weapon and sank to the forest floor in front of them. “Why do you look different?”
“This is my real face,” Tristan admitted. “I can’t tell you why I hid it. Please don’t ask.” Angie leaned forward and pinched a tendril of her hair, tugging on the strands. Tristan hissed. “Ow!”
“Sorry.” Angie offered her a sheepish smile. “I had to be sure.” The smile widened. “We match now.” This close to the border, blonde hair was a rarity. Tristan had liked that there was another girl with the same color. Even if no one could see it, she liked not being alone. Angie had always had near-platinum hair and eyelashes. Against her paler skin and blue eyes, she looked like a fairytale creature, something made out of cream and ice, though she was anything but. Between the two of them, Tristan secretly thought Angie looked more princess-like.
“What were you doing here, anyway?” Angie frowned and tugged on the knee of Tristan’s pants. “You ripped it again.” The poor, abused piece of clothing had been mended to the point where it was more patch than pant. Tristan ignored it in order to rub her palms over her nose. Her effort to stifle the uneven hiccups of breath that were escaping without her consent wasn’t successful.
“I yelled at Sarai,” she whimpered. “I yelled at Connor too.” Angie frowned.
“Why’d you yell at your parents?” Tristan gulped in a steadying breath of air.
“They’re not my real parents,” she said quietly. Angie rolled her eyes.
“I knew that.”
“They don’t want me to go back to my brother,” Tristan snapped. “They want me to stay here for another two years because they’re afraid I’ll screw things up.” Angie nodded and stood up, shaking out her skirts.
“My mother is the same way. At least yours still lets you do things. Mine wouldn’t even let me go outside if she can help it.” she gestured at her face and pulled Tristan out of the leaves she’d been laying in. “Maybe they’ll listen after your uncle leaves. He stopped by to ask directions earlier, he should have reached the house by now.”
Tristan sniffled again. “Uncle Anfir is here? He knows how to find our house.” Angie shook her head.
“Not him, someone else,” she said. Her lips puckered into a frown. Unease started chirping in the back of Tristan’s head, not loud enough to be an alarm, but impossible to ignore. “He was pretty rude about it too. There were some other men with him. They weren’t dressed like soldiers, but they acted like them.” Her eyes turned hard. “Their horses had shorn manes and weren’t scared of the dogs at all.” The chirping had turned into a gong.
“I have to go home.” Tristan lurched back into the trees and ran, her lungs working overtime to push air through her body and keep her moving. Her legs ached by the time she reached the stump that marked the edge of Tutti’s property, but fear kept her going. Angie was jogging after her, but Tristan couldn’t stop. She had to warn Sarai and Connor.
An arm shot out and caught her around the middle. Tristan tried to scream, but Tutti’s work-worn hand clamped over her mouth and dragged her down into the brush.
“Shut up,” she whispered. Her voice sounded raw, like it ached to speak. Tristan wriggled in her arms, but Tutti paid her no attention. Tristan wriggled again to try and follow her gaze, and nearly sobbed at the sight that greeted her.
In the distance, Tutti’s house was on fire. Bright orange flames were licking at the wood and reaching for the stars as a pillar of smoke. Men wandered in front of the flames making sure to toss more fuel into the doors and windows. The forge was ablaze, white-hot, and devouring the wall that bumped up against it. Even from such a distance, Tristan could see that the roof wasn’t going to last. Her heart squeezed painfully in her chest.
There was no sign of Sarai or Connor.