The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 14
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Everyone had days where they wished that sleep was something permanent, something that would stop them from opening her eyes and seeing the carnage strewn around. Only one clear memory of that feeling stood out like a monolith in Sarai’s mental landscape. After the Doerman’s attacked her home, she had passed out inside her house and woken up in a makeshift tent with a healer looming over her. That day she had been too weak to move. Shock and blood loss trapped her in her bed as the healer worked around her. As screams and whimpers rose from the surrounding beds, Sarai had wanted so desperately to hide under the covers and fall back into the blackness where her parents would be waiting with her brothers and sister. The healer refused to pull up the blanket when she asked. It would be too easy to mistake her for a corpse if they did that.
As sleep ebbed away, pain replaced the all-consuming darkness. Sarai couldn’t move, could barely breathe through the still air hovering over her that weighed her down like lead. She drifted against scratchy cotton, hovering above the ground. Between the oppressive black of her memories and a strange half-sleep, she didn’t know which was worse. All she knew was that waking up was too painful an option to consider. She cast her senses around the room, hoping to find an anchor to stop her drifting.
She knew she was in Copper’s house. The pervasive smell of wood hung in the air like smoke at a bonfire. Dry wood, burnt wood, magicked wood, shavings, and resin-heavy slabs situated in every corner of the room formed a scent map that her nose followed while her eyes stayed stubbornly shut, and her ears buzzed. She was awake and dreaming at the same time.
Pain filtered through along with nausea. Neither stopped her fingers from twitching against the callused hand wrapped around her wrist. She whimpered as it pulled away. Anfir’s voice shushed her, and his fingers smoothed her brow.
“You’re alright, darling,” he whispered. Her head swirled at the sound of his voice, muffled like it was coming from underwater. Still, her eyes refused to open. “You did your best, we’re all alive and protected… For now.” Pain bloomed in her throat, but Sarai couldn’t get her vocal cords to agree on what to say. Instead, she heaved in a phlegm studded breath and tried to understand something besides the pain in her stomach and the ash coating her tongue. Too soon, she was slipping back into the black, torn between welcoming it and fighting it.
“Wake up soon, Sarai,” Anfir’s voice whispered again. The words were playful, but they crackled like snapping twigs, with an undercurrent of fear. She almost felt pleased with that. Finally, Anfir was not smugly in control and holding all the cards. He’d joined the rest of them on the mortal plane. If she could have, she’d smile. “Our girl is in danger. You don’t have time to sleep.” Mentally, Sarai nodded. She didn’t have time to rest, not when she felt the soldier’s hesitation when he’d sliced at her stomach, seen the way his eyes widened when the smoke started filling the air, trapping him along with them. Just another young man fighting in old men’s wars. He wasn’t even old enough to remember the war’s beginning. Anfir had struck him down with studied neutrality. Whatever his reason for joining, the boy was a soldier and was dealt with as such.
Sarai pushed back the blackness and struggled until her eyes opened, hazy and itchy. Her breath punched out of her lungs in short pants that jarred her stomach wound and left her gasping. Without meaning to, she gripped Anfir’s hand, squeezing until he returned her grip. She struggled to pull herself up, not succeeding in any sense of the word.
“She safe?” The words were thready and soft, but Anfir nodded and forced her shoulders back to the cot.
“I only said wake up,” he chuckled. “Don’t get up, Copper would have my head.” Sarai groaned. There he was again, all smooth and unbothered despite the clouds brewing in his eyes. He fluffed her pillow and offered her a cup brimming with water. “Tristan is safe,” he continued. “She came here with Tutti and her friend. They’re all sleeping. Enjoy the quiet while it lasts.” Sarai sipped the water slowly as Anfir held it steady against her lips. A quick sweep showed most of her family lying on the floor in a pile made up of blankets and each other. Only Tutti was sleeping in the remaining cot, her breathing gurgling softly to Sarai’s right.
Sarai supposed ignoring her well-being had to have been learned from her mentor, Anfir and Connor had been smart enough to put wet rags over their face when the fire started. Sarai and Tutti had been too busy to act on that bit of self-preservation. A chuckle rasped out of her throat. They were a pair, weren’t they?
“How’d they find us?” Goddess, it hurt to talk. Her throat throbbed with every word, and Sarai nearly thought she’d go out of her mind if the pain lasted much longer. Her grit teeth locked half the moans away, but the rest escaped and hung between them, evidence of her current, abominable helplessness. She hated bed rest. She hated being weak.
Anfir held another cup to her lips; this one steaming gently and smelling like earth.
“It’s medicinal and tastes like plain nasty,” Anfir said. “But it’s good for pain. Go ahead.” He tipped the cup, and she obediently drank, choking back a gag as the mix hit her tongue. It was vile.
“You’re right,” she hissed. “Plain nasty.” Anfir chuckled and silence descended. “You never answered my question,” she finally said once the quiet stopped being tolerable.
“We had a mole,” he admitted.
“He’s been handled. Drink.” Sarai hummed around the last swallow of medicinal tea and shuddered as the sludge coated the back of her throat.
“Did you kill him?” She wanted to know. Anfir was prone to taking on too much responsibility for the actions of people he trusted. No matter how much he pretended the world rolled off his back, she knew better than most how easy guilt could drown him.
“Promptly.” He set the cup aside. The stiffness in his hands telling her just how much he was holding back.
Anfir settled on the floor, back leaning against the frame of her cot, their hands still linked. His eyelids drooped more and more with every passing second, resisting despite her telling him to rest. It took an hour of cajoling and pleading to get him to give in.
“I’ll just close my eyes for a minute,” he said before drifting off. Sarai was left alone in the darkness that was slowly giving way to the dawn peeking over the trees outside. She was tired of sleeping. No matter how she wished the world would go away for a little longer, she wasn’t a child anymore who believed it could happen. Instead, she thought. She planned and plotted from the cot on the next steps to take. How could they move forward? Finally, when her head was spinning and dawn had fully taken hold of the world, she had to concede that she didn’t have enough information to make a decision. She’d have to wait for everyone to wake up.
‘Don’t borrow trouble,’ her mother used to tell her. But is it really borrowing if the trouble is coming anyway? Connor stirred at the edge of the pile, rolling until his body began to inhabit its own space. Sarai watched him blink at the room before struggling up.
“Morning,” he yawned.
Connor had been blessed with rarely having nightmares. Worry seemed to only eat at him during the days, respectfully retreating during his nights. When his compatriots had woken screaming on the battlefield, Connor had jolted into alertness, with no ghosts behind his waking. Looking at Sarai, her bruised eyes and bloody middle, and at Anfir’s haggard and pinched expression even as he slept clutching Sarai’s hand, Connor wondered if his undisturbed sleep came from his ghosts walking beside him for the past few years. Maybe once this was all over, when Tristan sat on the throne, he’d finally have those nightmares, start to understand what it meant to put things behind you.
“How long have you been awake,” he asked coming to sit by the woman that had become his best friend in the past decade. Sarai’s cracked lips parted in a flat grin.
“Long enough to know we have no plan and very few options.” Her eyes were harsh, but there was grim humor slung around her words. Connor raised his brows in mock surprise.
“So, five minutes, then?”
Sarai’s wet chuckle ended in a full-body flinch that pulled her hand out of Anfir’s. She steadied her breathing and maneuvered her hand to rest against Anfir’s head, stroking through the messy red strands. Connor smiled as the other man’s face relaxed at the fingers carding through his hair.
“I keep waiting for the two of you to run off together. I even bet against Tutti on when it’ll happen.” It was an off-handed comment, one that he’d tossed at her every time Anfir came to visit. It did its job, forcing Sarai to level him with an amused stare.
“You’re going to lose that money,” she replied, the same as always. The amusement faded into something uncertain. “What are we going to do?” she asked. “We can’t go back or to the town. They’ll be looking for her.” Connor nodded and patted Sarai’s knee.
“We’re going to wake everyone up, eat, and then let Anfir explain a few things,” he said firmly. “And you’re not going to be doing anything until Copper gives you the go-ahead.”
“Goddess, you’ve already scared our daughter enough for three lifetimes, and now you want to do it again by insisting on walking around half-dead?” Connor winced as the words escaped, burning like bile in his throat. Using Tristan was cheap, but it was effective. Sarai looked like he’d slapped her. Her hand had stilled in Anfir’s hair.
It was unfair, he knew, but Sarai was stubborn, just like he was. He forced himself not to care at the hurt in her expression. It was his job to keep her safe when she was hurt, just like she did for him. Sometimes the only way to do that, to make each other take the fall and stay down, was to pick at their sore spots, to fight dirty until the other could do nothing but lean into the pain.
“We’ll figure it out when you’re back,” he said, gentler this time. “Don’t give her any more worry about until we know what there is to worry about. Yeah?” Sarai scowled, but relaxed against the cot. Her hand resumed its path through Anfir’s hair.
“I hate you sometimes,” she mumbled. Connor chuckled, a brief rumble that came out low and self-deprecating.
They waited in silence for the sun.