The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 18
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Sarai didn’t know what she’d expected after arriving at the camp, but this hadn’t been it. She settled against a tree, unnoticed by her daughter. She’d let Tristan finish before announcing her arrival.
“I wasn’t aware you’d be using her as a training instructor,” she mumbled to Anfir. The two of them stood tucked into the shade around the edge of the clearing where Tristan was leading a miniature battalion. Teenagers and adults worked through forms under Tristan’s hawk-like gaze, each holding a staff. One particularly sulky looking boy in the front deftly maneuvered a spear.
Anfir chuckled. “Don’t blame me,” he said. “The princess is the one that found this to be a better use of her time than being my assistant.” Tristan barked out commands and her troupe followed orders, shifting into the different stances smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. Sarai was impressed.
“How long has this been going on?”
“About three weeks now. The mornings are for armed combat, most of the younger fighters attend. Evenings are for unarmed and self-defense.” The class entered the final form and paused. Sarai could tell that quite a few were panting, but they stayed still, maintaining their stances until Tristan said they could release. Watching her foster daughter work through the rows of students, correcting their grips, their feet, and sometimes their attitudes warmed Sarai’s heart. The expressions of surprise or pride on the faces of bystanders sent an uncomfortable flutter through her gut. Joy blended with dread. When had she forgotten, she wondered, that her daughter was not just hers and Connors? When did she begin to lie and tell herself that they’d never be separated? Across the field, Tristan seemed so close and so far.
The class dispersed into a loose ring, students sitting or standing around a pair in the middle. Anfir clapped his hands, rubbing the dry palms together.
“Sparring time!” His gleeful shout drew in more onlookers who paused various chores to direct their gazes to the ring. A red-haired young woman emerged from behind them looking harried.
“I’m here,” she shouted. Tristan waved to acknowledge that she’d been heard, and the two students began to spar. The woman fumbled to a stop beside Anfir and Sarai, out of breath and rummaging through her bag. A healer’s kit. Sarai frowned. Something about the girl was familiar, maybe the shade of her hair, a few shades darker than Anfir’s, or possibly the tilt of her face as she watched the lessons. Then her hair slid away from her face, revealing a mage mark high on her cheek, just below her eye. Recognition hit Sarai like cold water.
“I know you,” she said in that vague way that indicated the words were more reflex than conscious thought. The young woman flicked her eyes towards Sarai, the hazel gaze barely settled on her before bouncing away.
“We met when you came through the Barati Islands with the princess,” She seemed to locate the jar she was after and stilled, passing the glass from hand to hand. “I didn’t think a great swordmaster would remember a mage child.” There was a testing sort of wariness to the words.
“You helped us.” The girl nodded. “It was Freya, correct?” Another nod.
“Freya Ardonsdottir,” she said, sticking out her hand to shake. “I’m one of the healers for this camp.” Sarai shook the offered hand.
“You seem too young,” she said before tilting her head in consideration. “But, you were too young then too.”
“Freya is one of our best,” Anfir broke in. “If you ever need healing, be sure to bother her over it.” Freya smirked sharply. She released Sarai and dipped her hand back into her kit.
“He says that and does the exact opposite,” she said before handing him a string of beads. “This is from Obel.” Once it was handed over, she bounded off to address the two students that had finished sparring.
“We use beads now?” Sarai studied the strand, interested in the secrets they held. Shiny bone beads patterned next to glass, clay, porcelain, metal, and wood in various colors, some repeating others not. The last one bore a carving. Anfir ran his fingers over the strand in a practiced fashion.
“Only for the lords in Vamasere,” he said. “They face the most danger if their names get out.”
“Are these the same lords that broke their allegiance to Bankin when this whole mess first started?” Anfir laughed in the face of her carefully neutral tone.
“Was Bankin worth anyone’s allegiance?”
“They break from their monarch when the enemy attacks and all of a sudden you believe they’re trustworthy enough to stand beside my daughter?” Sarai’s voice hardened.
“Calm down, Darling,” Anfir said, holding out the strand for her to take. “I don’t trust anyone. There are spies in every house that are loyal to me and oath-bound to serve Sarai’s best interests should the lords suddenly turn.”
Assassins. He’d planted assassins in the noble houses. That shouldn’t have surprised her. The question was, how many of them?
“Only the nobles that seek to join our cause? Or did you put someone in each house?” Anfir stared at her, incredulous. The chill air had turned his cheeks and nose red, heightening his expression.
“I’m not sure if you know this, but I am not made of money! I had to hedge a few bets, but we put someone in each strategic and influential house. Unless something suddenly changes and the entire operation goes tits up, we’ll have the nobility under control when it’s time for the regime change.” It seemed that much of the groundwork had been laid, all that was left was for Tristan to take her rightful place. Sarai struggled to look unimpressed.
“And when will that be?”
“Soon.” He jerked his head at the strand. “Hold that up and I’ll show you.” She dutifully extended the beads. “Tristan’s new friend, the Doerman refugee Tia, showed some of the women how Doerman beadwork was used to tell stories. We adapted it. See here—” he pointed at the first three beads— “The first three are location, rank, and initials. The wood bead means he’s in the north. The blue porcelain one means he’s wealthy and a duke. This third one is the initials.” Sarai studied the bead. It was purple clay with a flower painted on the outside.
“What does it mean?” Anfir’s hand rested on hers, tilting the bead toward the sun.
“It’s purple so the first initial is ‘P’. A flower so ‘F’. That should be Viscount Proteus Filichem.” He nodded to himself as if it was decided. “And it’s clay, so he’s sworn to the cause.”
“And these?” She pointed to the remaining beads. These were each colorful and made up of different materials one after another.
“That’s how many men he’s willing to lend us. The color doesn’t matter, just what it’s made of. Porcelain for thousands, clay for each five hundred, wood for hundreds, glass for tens. Try it.” Sarai ran her fingers over the beads, whispering to herself.
“Three hundred and fifty?” When Anfir nodded she moved to the second to last bead, made of metal. “And this one?”
“That means he’ll give funds as well. That we arrange in person. The last bead tells me who sent it.”
“We’re really doing this?” She couldn’t help but feel awed. She’d been hearing from Anfir and the generals for years, listening to Fenrir’s stories, but it had all seemed so removed in Tutti’s workshop.
“We’re going to oust them from Vamaser,” Anfir promised. “Doerma is too busy fighting with their neighbors in the south to properly fight back, and Palmina has agreed to lend us men and funds until we transition to avoid them coming any further north. Palmina’s been at peace for nearly three decades, they don’t want that to change. Nearly all the lords have pledged some kind of funds or men towards the cause. All we have to do is set the date.” He paused, leaning into her like he could hardly believe it either. The bead strand hung forgotten between them. “We’re going to win,” he whispered. “All of Vamaser will rise up and send them back across the border. Reestablish the old divides. Your country will be whole again.” Sarai hummed.
“And then it’ll be up to Tristan.” The sounds of staffs clacking together pierced the morning air, laughter interspersed through it. Tristan’s voice rang out, shouting advice. She sounded happy.
“And then it’ll be up to her.”
It was a mark of pride for servants to remain unnoticed. It meant they were doing their jobs. Priscilla had always been a servant, had grown into a role passed down by her grandmother and mother before her. For the first few years of her employment, she’d been thrilled at the idea that no one knew her, no one saw her. She could slip through the halls without anyone stopping her. She was a ghost.
As time passed, that thrill had vanished. She didn’t care that she was a perfect servant anymore. She continued taking in the laundry as always, beating out the stains and the secrets of her masters. The joy was gone, replaced with a desire to be known. But good servants were neither seen nor heard. So Priscilla began to watch and listen.
The things she noticed didn’t startle her at first. Like a child listening to their parents, she barely registered what was said. Words like invasions and raids had no meaning to her until they became her reality.
Her master was one of the many that submitted to their invaders. He caved and swore fealty at the first sight of the Doerman battalions. He was required to pay a tax and to house a certain amount of Doerman soldiers on his land at all times. Every day, she was greeted by the blue uniforms and the peaked helmets. Every day she washed clothes bearing the Doerman crest and washed sheets that they slept on. She and the other servants tiptoed around these strange men and allowed them to act any way they wished. Priscilla learned that shame could be a strangely comforting bedfellow.
Still, she kept watching, ever the perfect servant. She saw the Doermans, but she also saw the fire, banked but burning, in the eyes of her friends and family. As she watched, those fires burned stronger. As she listened, whispered words set them ablaze. Soon she was speaking, not knowing when her heart had created its own kindling and accepted the spark. She told them what she saw, whispered in dark corners what she heard. She could not write, but her fingers, knobbed and rough from decades of hard work, composed messages in clever beaded code. She became a spy in her own house, living to feed the flame that let her face the days of washing blue uniforms.
She didn’t expect it to be dampened so suddenly.
“Where did you find this,” the captain asked, waving the circle of wood emblazoned with the sign of the rebellion.
“I don’t know, sir,” she whimpered.
“I think you do.” Priscilla’s hands, so used to rough work, trembled as they were tied down and a hammer was revealed. “You’re going to tell me.”
Tears filled her eyes and her pride vanished. At the end of the day, Priscilla was not some great hero. She was a servant born of servants, living only to work and die. She had failed at her calling. She was no longer the good servant she’d prided herself on being. Good servants were not seen, as she had been. They were not heard or sought out. Most importantly, they were never caught.
The hammer raised, and Priscilla prayed that she would not fail at this.