The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 17
Click here to read parts 1-16!
Rebellions did not pick up traction quickly. Tristan was slow to learn that lesson. Connor laughed at her nervous energy, having learned years ago that a soldier’s and rebel’s closest companion was boredom. Her whole being felt rushed to move the cause forward, but reality dedicated that they must be slow and cautious. For every victory, there was another setback. Every inch gained, another mile lost. None of which Tristan was allowed to assist directly in.
Weeks passed and Tristan tried her best to incorporate her new Doermen companions. Sometimes it went well, others, she had to push her new companions into the safe haven of their brethren’s tent. Many times, she snarled at Petya for being a stubborn ass who wouldn’t recognize polite behavior if it shoved a sword through his eye. Frustration and a pervasive sense of uselessness invaded her nights. It didn’t help that the aura surrounding the camp had completely shifted once she’d openly admitted to being the princess. It was hard to find people willing to let her work with them. Everyone seemed to have decided that ordinary chores around the tents were beneath her.
She’d tried working with the healers but was rushed out of the tent. If she’d had magic, she might have been able to trick her way into staying, but with no ability and no real expertise, it was decided they couldn’t risk her catching anything she might come in contact with. The same had occurred with the kitchen and with the horses and mending. The forgers hadn’t even let her into the tent. Each time the excuse was different, but the air of impatient dismissal was the same. Tristan got the feeling it was less because they’d deemed her too important to help and more because they’d assumed that she’d be useless at whatever she tried. Bringing that concern up to Anfir did nothing.
“Princess, you can’t blame them,” he said, handing her another document to parse through. This one was about the geography surrounding their next target, a fort along the coast that shipped out the grain procured from Vamaser’s fields. Tristan curled her lip in disgust at the thought of the farmers that had been forced to toil for a kingdom across the ocean. She automatically began jotting down formation techniques and weaknesses in the stronghold. “They know nothing of the princess they’ve placed their hopes on. You have to show them that they can rely on you to do more than just sit and look pretty.”
“They won’t let me,” she whined. She signed off on the document and set it onto the stack that had steadily grown once she’d taken refuge in Anfir’s office. It was the only place she felt of use. “How can I prove anything to them if I’m not allowed to help?”
Anfir smiled into his paperwork. “I can’t guide every one of your decisions, highness. You have to make your own marks here and there.” He handed her another paper. Tristan growled and began reviewing the manifest from the last ship that’d brought supplies from their allies.
“How are your two foundlings, by the way?” Tristan’s face tilted towards him, though her eyes never left the report.
“Petya and Tia?”
“Yes, them.” Anfir’s pen clattered to the desk as he abandoned the forms and reports, slumping in his chair, chin propped on one hand, and studied his ward. “How have our troops reacted to your little experiment?”
Tristan hummed. “Most have stopped growling when they approach. Angie helps involve them. She’s always been good at drawing others into a conversation. Tia knows a great deal about traditional Doerman beadwork. A few other women have begun considering ways to use it for messages.”
“Have they now,” Anfir drawled, hiding an amused smile in the palm of his hand. “I suppose soldiers would be slow to recognize espionage in what they consider women’s work.”
“Men always are,” Tristan said. She dropped the finalized manifest and leaned back as well, mimicking her uncle’s slouch. “The women like Tia, she’s sweet and eager to please. Petya has no such charm.” Anfir’s smile twitched a bit wider when Tristan huffed. “He’s rude and crass. If he had an ounce of his sister’s charm, we wouldn’t need to fight for his place at the table, but he continues to act as if he’s above it all.”
“Even boys have pride, Princess,” Anfir muttered. “Not everyone is thrilled to be singled out by royalty, especially when it can be construed as charity.”
“He’ll just have to get over it,” she snapped. “Either way, I’ve given up on him.” She rustled some paper pompously and ignored him. Anfir chuckled, stretched, and started on the remaining pile of things to be sorted. A small moan escaped when he realized that the pile, previously at the height of his shoulder, hadn’t shrunk that much after a morning’s worth of work. With a mournful sigh, he picked up his pen and got back to work. Scratching filled the tent again.
“You may say you’re done with him, Princess, but I can tell he’s growing on you. They both are.” Anfir scowled at a request for items that would barely count as supplies by the most liberal of terms. He passed the missive to Tristan. “Politely tell them to shove off for me.”
Tristan scoffed but accepted the paper, already having an idea of who she’d be telling to shove off.
“What makes you think I’ve grown fond of them?”
Anfir smirked—she didn’t even realize it did she? “The entire time you’ve complained to me,” he began. “You haven’t referred to them as ‘The Doerman’s’ once. Did you notice?” Tristan stilled, her ears turning pink as being caught out.
“Return to your reports, Captain Anfir,” she said haughtily with a flip of one long braid over her shoulder. “Pass me a few of our spy codes, I’d like to try translating again.”
“Of course, your Majesty.” Anfir smiled and shifted for a challenging code to pass over. As she became more engrossed, Tristan’s shoulders hunched and she gnawed her lip. The translated writing on her page continued to grow. That’s our future Queen, Anfir thought with a flash of pride, luxuriating in the hope that filled his chest as he watched Tristan work.
His happy bubble was popped as Fenrir barged in bringing the noise of the camp and its problems into the sanctuary Anfir had created.
“Morning, chief,” Fenrir called. Anfir glanced down at the pile of paper and whimpered.
Tristan stormed across the camp. The first frost of the year sparkled across the ground, and her furious puffs of breath hung in the air like small clouds. Few people offered her a good morning, even fewer tried to get in her way. Only one tried to comment on the sword she carried in one trembling palm. The morning had not started well. She’d woken feeling frozen and with a headache lurking around her temples. Fenny had coughed the entire night through, the beginnings of a cold rattling his chest, keeping her awake. Walking into the mess tent, seeing all the faces that barely wanted her there, sent her over the edge. She’d turned on her heel, collected her sword from her and Fenny’s tent, and gone to find a victim to take her anger out on. If no one presented themselves, a dummy would do.
“Good morning, Princess?” A young man, probably a merchant’s son-turned-pirate based on the lilt of his accent. Tristan recognized him as one that made himself available to the women around camp, charming his way into their good graces, and beds, with sweet words and offers of assistance. Briefly, she considered him for her victim, then tossed the idea aside—he wouldn’t be nearly a challenge. “Would you like me to take that for you?” He was already reaching for it, the bastard.
“No, I bloody fucking would not,” she growled, relishing the look of shock that passed over his genteel features. She shoved past him, marching toward one of the constant sources of her bad moods. “You,” she snapped, snatching Petya’s arm and dragging him off. “I need a sparring partner.”
Petya stumbled behind her, unable to fight the surprising strength of the thin girl hauling him bodily across the camp and into the empty clearing.
“Shouldn’t you find another girl to play fight with,” he grumbled when she finally released him. Tristan drew her blade and held it out to him.
“Blunt it,” she ordered. “I know you have magic. Blunt yours too while you’re at it.” Petya stiffened. How did she know? Who told her?
“How—?” Tristan cut him off with a groan.
“Stop being a brat and blunt them already.” Dazed, Petya followed orders, coating her blade and the one at his hip in a thin layer of reddish-gold magic only he could see. “Prepare yourself,” she commanded, sinking into the ready position far too easily for a princess. An inkling of understanding trickled into Petya’s mind, telling him he might be in over his head. The princess scowled when he finally mimicked her.
“Your forms are atrocious,” was all she said before attacking.
Petya dodged, blocked, and parried as best he could, falling to the onslaught of strikes she leveraged against him. He stumbled once and the blunted tip of her sword nipped his ribs.
“You pay too much attention to your feet,” she snapped. “You should be watching your opponent.” The advice was followed by a whap to his shoulder. From the corner of his eye, he spotted people gathering, some snickering at his clumsy attacks. Petya felt his ears begin to burn.
“Don’t look at them, look at me.” The words were followed by a whoosh of air. Without thinking, there wasn’t time to think, he raised his sword, meeting Tristan’s with a clang that echoed over the clearing. Tristan observed where the metal ground together before glancing at him with a nod of respect.
“Better,” she muttered. “But you forgot your stance.” Petya only had a moment to consider what she’d said before a foot hooked around his ankle and he was falling. His weapon clattered to the ground an instant after he did, and Petya cursed at the bruise forming from landing on the frozen ground. Tristan stood over him, cheeks flushed and manic looking as she glared down at him.
“What do you think of me,” she demanded quietly. Petya hissed in pain.
“I think you’re a sheltered princess that knows nothing of this war.” He bared his teeth. “You should have stayed where you were, one less thing for us to worry about.” The elder would be mad, but Petya was tired of pretending that he respected this girl who came out of nowhere. As if she had a right to stand in front of people like Petya and the other Doerman’s that had fled their home only to be met with hatred and harsh stares. Her fake attempts to include them only made that rage burn brighter. Tristan watched him with a neutral face, picking up the blade he’d dropped, studying it impassively.
“You hate this sword,” she said, shocking him with the truth of that statement. “You prefer your spear. Why carry this?”
“It was my uncle’s.” He didn’t want to answer, but there was a tugging feeling in his stomach, similar to when he used magic, that said he must.
“Was he a soldier?”
Petya shook his head. “Once, before all this. He was a good man.” He glared as if daring her to contradict his words. Tristan frowned.
“You can’t wield a weapon you hate,” she said sagely, plunging the tip into the ground. It wobbled there as she turned and walked off. “Bring your spear tomorrow, we’ll work on forms.” Petya didn’t know what to think, but he knew, somehow, even if he refused, he’d do exactly what she said. The thought unsettled him.