The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 22
Click here to read parts 1-21!
They moved through the halls as quietly as possible, Tristan’s feet now safely encased in a found a pair of boots. Sean had been bundled up in Connor’s arms, finally giving out after nearly a half-hour of sneaking around. Petya had used a little magic to help him along to sleep. Either way, the child was finally quiet, and they could focus on moving to the meeting point.
“Why did Anfir have to get captured?” Tristan was still unsure about the illusions being the reason her Uncle was so banged up. Despite what Connor said, she didn’t understand why they had put themselves in danger in the first place.
“You’re a high-profile prisoner,” Connor whispered while they waited for a patrol to pass. “They’d expect someone to come after you. It gave us an excuse to get inside. No one would question two Doerman guards that spotted a rebel while delivering messages.”
“Why Anfir, though?” Tristan knew Anfir had plenty of talents, but she didn’t think getting kidnapped was one of them.
“He’s a smuggler, Tris,” Connor answered patiently. “And an information broker. We needed to get the word to some of our folks in here about what was happening. Many of them need to know that our code’s been noticed and potentially solved. They know Anfir, and Anfir knows how to escape a noose.” The maid gasped behind them.
“If your code was discovered,” she asked, lower lip trembling. “Doesn’t that mean they can find everyone here who was involved?” Connor nodded and her face paled. “I have to warn them.” Without another thought, she turned and fled. Connor shrugged and didn’t try to stop her. Tristan was a little more torn but followed his lead and continued on their way.
They hurried back through the dungeons and chased the bird drawing to an indention that didn’t look at all different from the rest of the floor. Connor knelt and knocked on the surface. It rang hollow. The bird slipped beneath the surface and they heard it tweet.
A thin crack appeared, and a circle of earth was lifted, revealing Sarai, her dark skin smudged even more to disguise her against the backdrop of earth.
“Mom!” Sarai’s arms were already open when Tristan flung herself into the tunnel to join her foster mother. She sobbed into the soft fabric of Sarai’s shirt that smelled of the forge. Metal and smoke had been a constant scent since she was a child, and Tristan’s heart clenched further at the familiarity. “I’m sorry,” she cried harder. “I tried to fight back.”
“It’s alright, baby,” Sarai soothed. “I saw. You were so brave.” Tristan muffled her sobs in Sarai’s shoulder until she didn’t have any left. When she was finished, she looked around.
“Where’s Uncle Anfir?”
“He’s coming back,” The tall man in the corner said. Tristan vaguely recognized that he was Freya’s fiance. “There was something he had to get first.”
Alarm bells started ringing. Amid the obnoxious clanging, the cover of their underground bolt hole slid away and Anfir dropped in to join them.
“Let’s move,” he said, already pulling Tristan along. “They know the prince is missing, and they know that Tris is gone.”
They started running. Freya was carried by her fiancé, Sean was in Connor’s arms, still spelled asleep. Sarai stayed behind, guarding Petya’s back as he brought down the tunnel, pulling the earth into its original state of half collapse and burying their footprints. No one would know they came this way. Tristan turned to Anfir as they stumbled over roots and loose bricks.
“What did you go back for?”
“Just a little something.” He jiggled a pouch. “When Kol told us you were bringing the king. I had an idea.”
“Later, darling,” Anfir said firmly. “Let’s get out of here first.”
Sophie didn’t like trouble. She just wanted to live her life as quietly as possible, keeping her head firmly on her shoulders. Coming to work at the noble Sulrene family’s keep had been almost a dream compared to feeding the pigs on her parent’s farm. Life was hard when you were a small child underfoot. Priscilla was her guiding light those first few years. Sophie didn’t have the luxury of being a servant by lineage and the training and power that came with it. Priscilla didn’t have any children to pass her knowledge down to. They’d come together naturally, and Sophie had moved through the ranks until she found a position serving the nobles directly.
Now, as she ran through the halls, she tried to remember the fire Priscilla had had when she spoke of the rebellion and how much she’d wanted Sophie to join . Sophie couldn’t place her faith in the sharp-featured girl that had cornered her and stolen the boy-king, but she could protect the rest of Priscilla’s compatriots.
The servant’s quarters were awash with activity as the bells started to ring. Sophie dashed to Charlotte, who had worked closely with Priscilla. She was bent over the bed, laying her things in neat rows and bundling everything up neatly. Sophie didn’t stop to question why.
“You have to run,” she panted. Charlotte didn’t look up.
“We know.” She neatly folded the last skirt in the pile and rolled everything up. “The boss told us himself. The messages were discovered. We couldn’t stay if we wanted to. Grab your things.”
“I wasn’t involved,” Sophie protested. Charlotte glared at her while she tied her bundle in place.
“Do you think they care?”
Sophie thought about how questioning had begun as soon as Priscilla had been discovered, and how a dozen servants had disappeared overnight, no one knew where. Only a few had been actual supporters of the rebellion.
“I’ll pack my things.”
Together she and Charlotte crept through the servant’s passage, the stones worn smooth by thousands of feet. When they finally emerged outside. Dawn was breaking and another handful of servants had joined them.
“Is this all?” Charlotte asked. Henry, the keep’s huntsman, shouldered a crossbow and sighed. His gray head was barely upright under the weight of the bags slung over his shoulders.
“As many as would come.” He adjusted the weapon and started moving deeper into the trees. “There’s nothing to be done for them now. Let’s leave before they send out the hounds.”
Sophie clutched her cloak and shuffled forward. Behind them, the sounds of the bells and shouting followed their steps as the soldiers began to move.
Anfir led them on a merry march for five days. Sean was complaining the entire time. By the third day, though, he seemed to understand that he’d been kidnapped. Tristan didn’t think it was healthy for a child to be that unaware of the situation, especially one that was meant to be a king. However, when she thought about Sorcha’s sickly sweet method of shielding her son from everything, it was less surprising.
Sean began escape attempts that resulted scraped knees and bruised elbows on all sides. They eventually ended with the child back in custody and often screaming about how evil people had caught him and how he’d have them executed. He had to be spelled to sleep or drugged with one of Freya’s medicinal concoctions to keep him quiet. Tristan thought it a little unfair that her first round as a kidnapping victim had been so different.
Along the way Tristan and Sarai caught up on what had happened to the camp. They’d moved of course. The survivors were camped at a town called Kelna to the North, hidden at the base of Mount Vedu. Some were camped in the forests to keep out of sight in a makeshift hospital. The rest were in various houses with other like-minded supporters of the cause. The town was quiet and unnoticed, off the beaten path and away from any major city. As such, the Doerman governor assigned to the province often ignored its existence.
Walking into the town felt strange. Tristan had grown used to looking over her shoulder when out in public. In Kelna, townsfolk milled around with the rebels as if they did it every day, and nearly every door bore the mark of the rebellion proudly, unafraid. She followed Anfir to the square, and the town hall just beyond it. Inside, groups of people were clustered around a table covered in maps and paperwork. Tristan recognized none of them.
“Anfir,” One called, a large black man dressed in a Barati sarong, but wearing the rough pants of a mainlander. “Glad the fox could return to its den.” Freya and Aston detached themselves from the group to grip the man in a fierce hug.
“Don,” Anfir laughed, slapping him on the back. “It’s good to see you.”
“I brought Obel, as requested,” Don continued. A pale-skinned boy with a bluntly handsome face waved from the corner of the room. Freya and Aston disentangled themselves from Don to tackle him as well. Tristan imagined there was a story there.
Anfir smiled at the display. “We’ll need him, but it can wait until later. For now, I have someone I need to introduce to you.” He turned to the remaining guests in the room and bowed. “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for my delay in appearing. Thank you for heeding my call so quickly.” There were nods and bows back. Tristan was taken aback at the sudden formal language but found herself caught in the way Anfir controlled the room. “May I introduce my lady, Tristan Elysia Julianna De Soriya, Heir Apparent of the late King Bankin.” Tristan remembered to nod to the room and offered a half curtsey. In her present state, she thought it was excusable that she didn’t do the full song and dance. An elderly woman came forward, offering Tristan a half-bow. Her intricately braided hair framed an austere face and hard eyes.
“We welcome the young princess to our table,” she said in a creaking voice. “On behalf of my country, Palmina, and King Rajko of the Northern sun, we offer you our assistance and our hand in support.” Tristan thought back on how Anfir had warned her that every ally they had was out for themselves first. The elder in front of her seemed genuine, but Tristan had long since come to terms with Anfir’s wisdom. She chose her words carefully.
“Vamaser accepts Palmina’s gracious assistance in this endeavor. May we remain allies once the Doerman threat is gone from both of our borders.” The elder smiled, a slight crack in her otherwise stoic face.
“Let us hope for such a bright future.” She bowed again and returned to her place. Tristan glanced at Anfir, beaming once she saw him nodding in approval. The remaining tabel members offered similar introductions and were similarly dealt with. By the time they’d finished, Sean had awoken and was making his presence known.
“Let me go!” His shrill voice carried over everything and made many in the room frown in disapproval.
“Who else have you brought us, Fox,” Don asked. Freya, Aston and Obel had rejoined his side. “He certainly cries loudly enough to be a Doerman.” A few chuckles rang out.
“That,” Anfir said with a great deal of exhaustion leaking through. “Is the current king of Doerma.” Gasps and a few shouts were quieted by Anfir’s raised palm. “Our information was incomplete, I’ll admit it. It took our princess getting taken into enemy territory to reveal much of their plans. But we know now, and the king is a hostage. He’s also why I called you here on such short notice.” He paused. “We’re going to use him to end this much sooner than we’d hoped. But first, Your highness?” It took Tristan a beat too long to realize he meant her.
“Yes,” she fumbled.
“Tell us exactly what you heard and saw.” Tristan took a deep breath and prepared to tell her story.
Featured Image by Brownyn Erb on Unsplash.