The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 20
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Tristan played with the hems of her pants. Her shoes had been taken. The cold nipped at her exposed toes and turned the nail beds blue and purple until she tucked them under her legs. Since being taken, Tristan found herself shivering nonstop. She kept waiting for them to take her to some horrible dungeon or a chopping block. Nothing. They stood outside the door and stayed quiet. They only opened it twice a day. The first time to give her food and water, then it closed, and she was left alone with her thoughts until the King’s mother called her to ask the same question: where was the rebellion hiding?
Her name was Lady Sorcha, she was the old Doerman king’s second wife, her son was called Sean. Every day, she called Tristan into the immaculate sitting room, where the king played in the corner and asked her the same questions over and over. In the few days she’d been there, Tristan had also been directed to play with the boy-king. The child didn’t care what his mother had to say or why Tristan was there. He didn’t react when Sorcha smirked over her teacup as Tristan awkwardly played with him. Sorcha gained some pleasure from watching Tristan play with Sean, but Tristan had no idea what it could be.
Tristan knew she was being kept as a bargaining chip, something the king’s mother could throw at the rebellion if they started to rumble. She was more useful alive than dead, and Sorcha intended to keep her close just in case.
When evening fell and the light faded through the window, Tristan was collected and taken to the room and deposited on a green velvet couch, her numb feet dragged against the floors. Sean’s buckled shoes slapped against the floor, echoing through the room as he launched himself into her lap. In the few days she’d been coming to the royal chambers, he’d begun to think of her as a plaything. Not so much a friend, as something akin to a large doll. He was just another toy that talked and moved on its own. He still called her monster now and then. Tristan preferred it. She hated when he called her Tris. She sat stiffly as Sorcha swept into the room.
It was infuriating how elegant the woman could look while sitting in front of her prisoner. Today she had on a burnt orange gown that one of Sarai’s finest swords couldn’t have paid for. Tristan wasn’t usually jealous of clothes, but in her shoeless and exhausted state, she was envious of the warmth the thick material provided.
“I thought we’d try something different today,” Sorcha said with a small smile. “Here, dear.” She snapped her fingers at a servant who placed a tray of tea on the table between them. She poured a cup for herself and placed another in front of Tristan. “Drink it while it’s hot. Sean, let her go and play with your toys, mommy has things to discuss with the princess.”
Tristan’s hands trembled as she accepted the cup. The delicate porcelain felt as if it would burn her fingertips the longer she let it rest there for long. Rebelliously, she pressed against the cup until she heard a slight creak and her fingers felt like they were aglow with heat.
“Drink it, Princess, don’t stare at it,” Sorcha commanded before taking a dainty sip from her cup. “It’s not poisoned.” Tristan gulped at the hot liquid. It scalded her tongue, but the line of warmth that ran down her throat was the best thing she’d felt in a while.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sorcha began. Tristan tensed, already not liking the smug smile that curled the older woman’s lips. “We don’t have to be enemies, do we, Princess?” Tristan frowned.
“I believe you and I do,” she snapped. Sorcha tittered at her.
“Of course not. I believe we could actually be very helpful to one another.” She took a sip. “I’ve been thinking. We could easily give you control of old Vamaser, name you regent, and leave this place behind with only the governors present. It would free our army up just enough to let us focus on the south. You’d have your country back.” As much as Tristan’s heart pounded at the prospect, there had to be a catch.
“What would you get?” Sorcha’s lips curved even more.
“Sean will need a wife sooner or later, and the money from Vamasere’s fields and trade would be useful at Doerma’s southern front.” Tristan’s stomach clenched in disgust.
“That won’t happen.” Her cup chipped as she slammed it down, the saucer below it snapped in half. Sorcha frowned.
“Think carefully,” she said, her voice turned cold. “Sean only has a little more growing up to do to become a worthwhile husband. And this way, you can become the leader you were meant to be while enjoying the protection of the Doerman Empire. I’m sure even your rebel friends would jump at the chance.” She set her tea aside and leaned forward. “No more running, no more hiding. I can teach you everything you need to know to be a princess and ruler.”
“All the while I’d be under your thumb.” Sorcha’s smile dimmed as Tristan stared at her, but Tristan refused to look away. “You’d be in control, just like you want.”
A bolt of white-hot rage spread through Tristan’s body, warming her from the inside out. She grabbed her cup and flung the cooling contents onto the woman in front of her.
“I refuse.” Savage glee lit her eyes as the tea spread over the expensive fabric of Sorcha’s dress. She didn’t get to really enjoy it though. As soon as the cup flew towards Sorcha, the guard that had stayed by Tristan during her stay had his spear leveled at her throat. The whole room held its breath while Sorcha brushed at her gown. The Queen Mother stood, her entire frame quaking with rage and her face pale as she glared at Tristan who stared back defiantly.
“Bring her,” Sorcha snapped. “She should know the consequences of her actions.” Any trace of friendliness was gone. She left the room, and Tristan was frog marched behind her.
They went deeper into the keep. The rooms became cold as they descended past the kitchens and the cellars until they were underground Tristan could see her breath in the air. This was a dungeon. This was what she’d expected when she first arrived. Sorcha led them to the last sell on the block. Inside, a man with red hair was chained to a bench, breathing heavily. Tristan’s heart clenched at the sight. Another man wearing a stained uniform stepped out of the cell and bowed.
“Your Majesty, Captain.” Sorcha nodded.
“How fares our little rat,” she asked viciously. “Has he spoken yet?”
“Not yet, but he will.”
Sorcha pursed her lips. “Sit him up. We have a guest that needs to learn her place.”
Tristan gasped as the slumped figure was pulled upright. There was blood on the front of his shirt where he’d been carved up with a knife. His face was pulpy around the nose and one of his lips was swollen and purple.
“Uncle Anfir,” Tristan sobbed. She tried to run forward, only to be pulled back by the captain. His hand bunched the back of her shirt and held her in place. She screamed as the torturer picked up a pair of pliers and set them to one of Anfir’s nails. He groaned but didn’t try to move away. Tristan whimpered.
“This is what happens when we disobey,” Sorcha whispered into her ear.
Three fingernails sat in front of her on the table beside the broken saucer and cup. Tristan stared at them. Bile clawed up her throat, but she couldn’t look away.
“I take it you’ve reached the correct decision?” Sorcha asked. Tristan nodded dumbly. “Good. Keep an eye on Sean while I change.” She swept out of the room, the maid on her heels. Sean toddled over to inspect what was left of the refreshment tray, completely ignoring the fingernails. Tristan hated him as he selected the treat, ignoring the horrifying sight of the three fingernails on the delicate kerchief. One hand grabbed a cookie, while the other reached for her cup, intent on the liquid inside. Almost too late did Tristan remember the broken saucer.
“Wait,” she yelped. Out of reflex, she smacked his hand away and collected the shards. They weighed heavy in her hand, sharp pieces of porcelain. For just a moment, she fantasized about digging the larger piece into Sean’s flabby neck and running. Whether she’d make it to Anfir was a question that was best left unanswered.
“Cup, Monster,” the boy demanded, pouting. Just like that, the fantasy popped like a soap bubble. Tristan handed him the cup and swept the remaining shards to the side. The white lacquer gleamed at her for a moment and she considered it. Quickly, she palmed the larger piece, slipping it into her waistband. She wouldn’t be Sorcha’s pawn, and a broken shard was better than no weapon at all.
Connor and Petya snuck down the halls. The stolen uniforms had worked well to get them in the door and hand Anfir off to be questioned. It had broken Petya’s heart to hand over the man that had welcomed his people into the rebellion and given them a home. It was their best chance, though.
It had taken days to get their created tunnel to connect properly with the old siege tunnels, then to clear the cave-ins that had made the original tunnel unusable. He could feel beneath his feet how the earth was groaning at the changes, but his magic held. Freya and Sarai should be on their way to collect Anfir, while he and Connor skulked about to find Tristan.
Petya had to admit that the large soldier unsettled him. The man moved too quietly, for one thing. For another, when they’d gotten uniforms, he’d torn through the Doerman soldiers with a frightening level of ease. Petya was determined to avoid falling into Conner’s bad graces in the future.
“How many guards,” Connor hissed when they approached a corner that led to the servant’s quarters. Petya huffed and wiggled around his partner, peering into the dim hallway.
“Two patrolling.” He pulled back. “Are you sure this is where’d they keep her?” Connor nodded.
“Royal prisoners, even in Doerma, are treated differently. Kill her, you make her a martyr. Keep her locked away, to get the nation’s compliance. She won’t be treated well, but they won’t risk her dying outside of their agenda.”
“But… The servants’ quarters?” Petya frowned. “Hardly the most secure part of the keep.” Connor began striding down the corridor, leaving Petya to run to catch up.
“This keep used to host a temple years ago. It quartered priests and priestesses who were meant to live without worldly possessions and comforts. Those cells should be unoccupied right now. It’s safe and out of the way of the normal workers, less chance she’d convince someone to help her.”
Sure enough, as they got further down the hall, two guards appeared, stationed outside a door. The door opened and a third uniform walked out. Connor stiffened beside him.
“I know that man,” he growled. “He was in Mikki’s entourage years ago.”
“A bastard.” Petya decided to take his word for it.
Connor watched the third man leave then crept out from their cover. In moments, the two guards were on the ground. Petya released the hilt of the knife in his belt.
“Is this what all Vamaver soldiers are like,” he asked, concerned and intimidated. Connor ignored him and shoved the door open, and Petya waited for Tristan to walk out, but nothing happened.
“She’s not here.”
Photo by Brownyn Erb on Unsplash.