The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 15
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They were leaving again. Angie plodded along beside them, thrilled to set out on an adventure her mother had unknowingly agreed to when Anfir offered to “hire” her daughter. It didn’t hurt that the woman was fond of Anfir and thought he was a distant nobleman. Tristan wrung her hands as they waited for the boat. It felt strange being out with her natural face. She felt exposed. Sarai rattled along beside her in a wheeled chair that Anfir pushed with no care for safety or comfort.
Sarai’s hands gripped the handles of the chair as Anfir, laughing, jolted her over a large bump in the road. Her chair landed with a clack, and Sarai filled the air with swears.
“If you do that one more time,” she snarled. “Mage or not, I’ll skin you for a carpet.”
Anfir cackled. “Lighten up, love,” he said. His fingers ran over Sarai’s shoulders absent-mindedly. “Feel that sea air, listen to the dock folk. A man can’t help but be happy when he’s greeting his one and only lady.” He whooped and started running headlong down the dock towards the Loyal Damned. Angie leaned towards Tristan.
“I thought Sarai was his ‘one and only’?” she whispered. Tristan shrugged.
“She is; we just don’t say it out loud.” Angie frowned, then shrugged as if she completely understood. Tristan was glad someone did—she’d given up.
The Loyal Damned gleamed in the morning light. It was situated towards the end of the way between a cherry-colored schooner and a dilapidated Galleon. The nut-brown wood had been polished within an inch of its life by some enthusiastic cabin boy that Anfir was likely overpaying. Anfir had a simple policy when dealing with his crew; pay them well, and treat them with respect. Hence the spit shine that made the Loyal Damned stand out more than necessary. Connor winced at the crew, yelling around them.
Unlike Sarai, Connor would be traveling with them. It would be strange; Tristan was so used to them practically sharing a shadow. Sarai waited patiently for them at the ramp, glowering at Anfir, who was sporting a red mark on his right cheek. Tristan winced. Getting hit by Sarai’s prosthetic hurt. Anfir seemed to agree–he’d quieted down significantly, rubbing his cheek.
“Welcome to your new home for the next few weeks,” he said, directing his words at Connor’s unenthused expression. “We’ll make good time to the camp,” he promised. Anfir stopped looking at Connor and turned to Tristan.
“Your Majesty,” he said. “If you want to put that ring on, do it now. If not, just know that you’ll have to be a princess from here on out, whatever that entails.” His lips firmed. There was no softness in his face anymore. Tristan understood that he wasn’t talking to her. Anfir didn’t see gawky, giggly Tristan. He was talking to the heir of the Vamaseran throne. He was talking to Tristan Elysia Julianna De Soriya, and that name had never felt more like a burden.
Tristan’s fingers picked at the new ring dangling around her neck. She’d snuck a peek into a mirror after trying it on. She’d found dark hair that brushed the tops of her shoulders and a pale face whose chin and cheekbones closely resembled Tristan’s. The only difference between this face and her real one was that the nose was smaller and rounded, and the eyes were blue instead of their normal green. She could almost pass as Connor’s natural daughter.
For a string of moments that felt like a strand of time plucked from of a vast tapestry Tristan wanted. She clutched the piece of wooden jewelry and wanted so badly to say she didn’t need it. Then she looked at Sarai’s chair, at her foster mother still tender and healing from the attack on their home, and the strand snapped back into the weft and continued weaving. She slid the ring over her finger.
“I’m not ready,” she whispered. The magic settled over her skin like a silk veil. Sarai’s gnarled flesh fingers, the knuckles split in places and the fingers rough but warm, settled on her shoulder.
“You don’t have to be,” she said. “Take your time. We’ll wait for you to get there.” Connor’s hand joined Sarai’s with a grunt of confirmation. Tristan released the sobs clogging her throat and fell into Sarai’s arms, already missing her.
They left Sarai on the docks with a rebellion officer. She promised them that she and Tutti would begin preparing weapons until she could rejoin them. Their ship traveled day and night towards Palmina, docking just shy of the naval border where they dismounted to travel inland. They took back trails and dirt roads barely wide enough to accommodate wagons. Tristan preferred it to the roiling of the ship deck. All Connor’s stories about her enjoying traveling by boat as a child did nothing to hide the fact that she’d lost her sea legs permanently.
Connor stayed grim throughout the trip, and Tristan mimicked his mood, much to the dismay of Angie, who wandered around with the wide-eyed awe of a child in a baker’s shop. They stayed carefully quiet about Tristan’s identity, only introducing her as Connor’s foster-daughter. Many of the rebels they traveled with knew who she actually was, but their superiors were quick to shush the whispers citing their safety and hers. That didn’t stop the stares. It seemed that everywhere she looked, Tristan caught the glance of someone. Men, women, and even a few children seemed to devote a significant portion of their day to finding Tristan’s eyes and searching them for something she couldn’t name. It was suffocating.
Even as the stared got bored and began to taper off, she felt exposed. When the settlement they were approaching began to peak across the next hill, her heart felt stretched, and her stomach was wrapped in a permanent knot. As they moved into the cluster of heavy tents and a few semi-permanent buildings, the knot clutched tighter.
Their party was filled with a blend of those new to the cause and those who’d been there since its conception. The old-timers drifted off to where they knew they were needed. The others huddled in what passed for a town square. Even Angie was subdued. Her head moved around in stiff, aborted jerks, trying to take in everything but unable to focus on one thing at a time. Tristan reached out to grip her hand, trying to pull courage from it. Angie’s brief returned squeeze and shaky smile was enough to make her feel steady again. Anfir was the one that finally saved them from the awkward waiting.
With crisp words that crackled against their ears, he directed everyone to disperse. Angie, along with most of the others, were ordered to the bunks to get an assignment from one of the women there. A few were sent straight to the kitchens or the med bay. Soon, only Connor and Tristan were left standing in the open space.
“You two,” Anfir declared with a crooked finger. “Come with me.” They marched behind him between tents, avoiding the worst of the roots that poked through the soil and crunching over the fallen leaves that littered the paths. Tristan tried to take it all in while keeping her head down to avoid attention. As more and more people approached Anfir, bearing a question or a greeting, she began to understand the scope of this rebellion.
There weren’t just Vamaserans in the camp. There were mages with the stark blonde hair and blue eyes of northern Palmina and Barati men and women dressed in colorful skirts and sarongs. One man sat outside a long tent that was filled with adults and teenagers around Tristan’s age taking the evening meal in silence. The tent was settled away from the rest of the tents and more under the trees. The man’s hollow eyes wandered over her and Connor, not pausing, only acknowledging their presence with a nod. A brand stood out starkly on his face. The puckered skin framed a word Tristan didn’t know in a language she recognized. She had a feeling she knew who they were. When the tent faded from view, Tristan tugged on Anfir’s shirt.
“The people back there,” she asked. “Who are they?” A sick feeling flooded her stomach when he hesitated. “They’re Doerman aren’t they?” It was Connor that answered.
“Most likely they’ve been marked as traitors,” he rumbled before snagging Anfir’s attention. “Does the old soldier always keep watch like that?”
Anfir nodded. “Sometimes he changes with a younger lad. I’m ashamed to say it’s necessary.” Tristan gaped.
“Shouldn’t we be more afraid of them?” she snapped, her voice shrill against the quiet of the evening. “Why are they even here?” Anfir stopped and leveled her with a gaze that held an ocean’s worth of disappointment and a puddle’s worth of ire.
“Because, Princess,” he began. His tone left no room for her to ignore it. “They are on our side.”
“Did you think the cause was only for the Vamaseran?” he snapped. Connor shuffled nervously but stayed silent while Anfir began to lay into her with vigor, his words measured and calm, but no less sharp. “Princess, do you remember that I am not from Vamaser? Did you think our allies came out of the goodwill of their hearts? They came to ensure that what happened here would never occur in their own countries. The few Palmina allies we have want to protect the mages and their borders. They don’t care that your mother died fighting off the enemy’s soldiers or that you’re the princess of their neighbor.” Tristan flinched. “A rebellion is not just for certain people, even if they’re the ones most affected. It’s for the ones that want to be on the right side of history, who want to push the tide in the right direction. Sometimes that means getting rid of our biases. Those Doermans—” He pointed in the direction they’d come from— “are not the enemy. Many of them lost just as much as you have, if not more.” He paused for a breath, and Tristan had never felt so small before her normally smiling uncle.
“I’m sorry.” The words were meant, but they didn’t feel true. She could tell that Anfir noticed the war in her heart but didn’t comment.
“You don’t have to like them,” he said, gentler this time but still firm. “But by the Goddess, you will treat them with the respect and diplomacy a royal should have when meeting their allies, or you’re not half the princess I thought you could be.”
Tristan bit her lip, refusing to cry, and nodded.
“Good girl,” Anfir ran a finger under her eyes, collecting an escaped drop. His voice gentled. “You’re learning, and sometimes learning is hard, but you have to look beyond your pain and seem them as people first, maybe even friends.” His hand cupped her cheek and raised her eyes to meet his. The scraggly red beard that had bloomed on his cheeks accentuated his tired eyes and the fine lines around his mouth. Belatedly, Tristan realized that he no longer wore the earrings she’d been infatuated with as a child, wanting some for herself. The fading dimples in his lobes mocked her. Everyone around her had grown old without her noticing, while she’d remained innocent. Ignorant. Tutti had been right; she’d been acting like a child. Anfir smiled warmly after she’d calmed down, her eyes finally dry after the lecture.
“Remember, darling,” he said. “We’re all human, no matter where we come from. No human should ever hate another just for existing. It’s one of the greatest crimes in existence, and we excuse it every day.” He heaved a sigh like the very words made him feel tired. “A queen, a good one, should never excuse that. You understand?”
Tristan swallowed and nodded. She understood.