The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 5
Sarai took Tristan away under the cover of a heavy storm. As thunder rolled through the slums, stinging rain washed over the streets, wiping them clean of dirt and trash, pooling it in heavy streams down towards the harbor. Tristan was small enough that Sarai found it easier to carry her over the rivulets while she followed after Anfir.
The captain loaded them into a skiff and set them into the harbor, sliding them expertly around the exposed beams of the docks at low tide. As the raindrops dimpled the water, they moved around the harbor and out of sight of the docks. Sarai watched the vanishing forms of Fenrir and a few other members of the crew that hid out of sight along the docks. Fenrir offered a sad wave before melting back into the alley. Nestled against Sarai’s chest, Tristan sniffled and waved back.
The city wharfs faded behind them, and the skiff turned to run along the tree-lined cliffs. Sarai held her breath as the waves rocked their craft and sent spray and rain into her mouth. She’d never appreciated Anfir’s skill as a sailor, but he handled the rudder with a steady hand, working with the water as it tried to push them back to shore. The skiff bobbed and danced between waves and rocks, and Sarai’s fingers went numb from clutching onto the girl still huddled under her cloak. Tristan stayed quiet, not even uttering a peep at a sudden, drenching splash of water. Sarai peeked down at her only to find the small face scrunched in concentration with Tristan’s bottom lip lodged firmly between her teeth. Sarai rubbed the poor girl’s back in what she hoped was a soothing manner.
“We’ll be on the ship soon, kid,” she whispered, barely heard above the rain and water. “Just a little further.” Tristan nestled into her even further and Sarai sighed.
The plan was to sail out to the island chain that bordered Old Vamaser’s territory. Anfir would lead them to a ship hidden a way down the coast, and they’d leave from there to avoid detection. The Baratosi islands were numerous and home to dozens of colonies, tribes, and ports. The Doerman grip there was loose. It would be easy to get lost. Once they arrived at the Island, Sarai and the mysterious guard she’d yet to meet would have to make their own ways in the world.
“We’re here, Love,” Anfir shouted over the roar of rain. “Get ready.”
Sarai could barely see the small ship through the curtains of water. It was like heaven itself was crying. The dark hull and rolled sails made it almost invisible in the small cove Anfir had hidden it in. She gathered the girl and their bags and shakily stood on the shifting boat. They pulled up alongside the hull and Anfir tossed a hook over the railing.
A pair of dark figures holding lanterns arrived to inspect the noise. When they spotted their captain, they began calling for others. A ladder was tossed down to Sarai and another rope was thrown down for Afnir. Sarai climbed up the side of the ship and nearly fell onto the deck. Her muscles ached at the weight she was bearing, but the constant movement of the ocean was what set them trembling and turned her stomach to knots. She’d never been fond of the sea and recent experiences weren’t changing her opinion. Maybe it was youthful vigor, but Tristan didn’t seem to have the same problem.
The girl popped out from under Sarai’s cloak and, upon recognizing familiar surroundings, began running around the deck. She stopped at individual crewmembers, exchanging a hello or a hug here and there before diving into a door that probably led below decks to the bunks.
“Nice to have you aboard, Madame Swordmaster.” A man with a patchy beard and spectacles leaned over the railing beside her, huge arms straining as he helped pull up the skiff with Anfir still in it.
“Can’t say it’s a pleasure, Specs.” The ship gave a particularly hard roll and Sarai nearly turned to vomit over the side. Specs guffawed at her distress and kept pulling.
She’d met Specs at the hideout. He only had one real job on the crew, and that was to be the ship’s doctor. He pulled his weight in other ways too. He was the oldest member of the crew, silver at the temples where most of the others were Sarai’s age or younger. She’d found Specs to be the most entertaining member so far. As Anfir’s head began bobbing up over the railing, Sarai got out of Specs’ way. The captain hopped on deck and helped his men finish pulling the skiff up and securing it.
“All right,” Anfir hissed, flicking water off of his face. “I say we have a chat in my cabin, yeah?” Sarai nodded around the nausea and followed.
Once they were in the Captain’s Quarters, Anfir celebrated by undoing the tie that held his hair together. He drained as much water out of the red strands as possible before retying it. “I’ve yet to give you the tour, but that can wait until the skies are done with their little temper tantrum.” He shucked off the coat that had soaked through all the way down to his shirt. Sarai turned away as he tossed that off as well. She heard him snicker behind her. “I never would have pegged you for the modest type, Sarai.” Sarai’s cheeks flamed at the implications and memories behind his tone, but she refused to rise to the bait.
“What did you need to discuss?” Anfir’s answering hum of disappointment was followed by a rustle of cloth.
“I’m decent, Darling,” he sighed dramatically. She peeked first just to be sure. The undershirt he’d put on was unbuttoned, showing the tattoos and scars that littered his ribcage, but it would do. Anfir lounged against his desk, rummaging through one of the drawers.
“Glass?” he asked once he’d located the bottle of whiskey he’d been hunting. Sarai pursed her lips but accepted a tumbler of the dark liquid. Who was she to refuse the captain’s private store of liquor? She inhaled the spices in the brew while Anfir took a hefty swallow of his. “As to our discussion, there’s a third party we need for that.” A knock sounded at the door. “That’ll be him.” Anfir set his glass aside. “It’s unlocked,” he yelled while readying another cup.
Another man entered, this one much taller than either her and Anfir and pale. He moved like a soldier, back straight, and a neutral face that observed the two of them and the entire room before he settled into a watchful pose. Sarai noted that he wore an adapted Doerman Guard uniform. The padded blue vest had obviously seen better days, as had the pants, and he’d foregone the gauntlets and the gorget. The uniform was ill-fitting, tight in places and loose in others, obviously something collected on the run. Heavy, black stubble and the curly black hair that hung in his eyes added to the travel-worn, fugitive look.
“You called for me, Captain?”
“Have you seen Majesty, Connor?” Connor nodded before turning to bow low to Sarai, who’d just taken a sip of her drink.
“She tells me you’ve agreed to help us,” he said. With his face turned to the floor, Saria couldn’t gauge his expression.
“I’m not anyone worth bowing to,” she said. “From what I’ve been told, you’re responsible for getting Fenrir and Tristan back across the border safely.” Connor unfolded from his bow and nodded. “Then I’ll be relying on you to help me keep her safe.”
“And we’ll be discussing the plan to make that happen now.” Anfir set down his cup and gestured to the both of them to come to the desk.
Connor hadn’t been sold on the idea of bringing in a Swordmaster. In his experience, they were all a bunch of sanctimonious pricks, with their vows and honor and whatnot. The young lord had thought it was an excellent plan, but Connor knew the boy was just desperate to be elsewhere for the first time in a year. The lad was understandably anxious for his first mission as a full-blown rebel, but not used to a rebel’s life. Connor had been living in and out of soldiers’ barracks since he’d turned fifteen and joined the army. He was used to the constant presence of people and little-to-no privacy.
It had been an anxious few weeks as he watched the group sail off with the boy in tow and waited for some kind of message. Fenrir wouldn’t be returning to the ship, staying on the mainland with the bulk of the revolution’s forces. Connor mourned the boy, but the lad could hold his own. He’d trained him well enough when they were in hiding. When they’d moved Tristan to Belsmeth to meet with the Swordmaster, Connor had been a mess. He wasn’t to travel with them, too recognizable as one of the old king’s guards. Instead, he’d worn grooves in the deck while waiting for word of his charges. It was risky to introduce the princess to this unknown figure. Anfir had waved away his concerns, saying that she was the only person that could possibly hate the Doermans as much as he did. Sneaky bastard that he was, the Captain offered no explanation as to why he trusted her so implicitly.
“She’s too honorable to leave us in the wind,” was all he’d said, smirking.
As she watched Anfir discuss their routes, Connor watched her. This woman was the first Swordmaster he’d given a thought to since that shameful night when he’d obeyed orders and fled with the king and Lady Julianna. Tristan seemed to believe the woman was a holy being. When she’d charged into the bunks below deck, announcing herself by flopping into his hammock, where he’d been sleeping off his last watch shift. Half-awake, he’d listened to the sweet girl jabber about the lady Swordmaster she’d brought him.
“She’s so nice, Con’,” Tristan had gushed. “Your job’ll be so much easier now!” Connor was inclined to respectfully disagree with the child sitting on his stomach, but let her keep talking. By the time she got around to telling him that Anfir wanted him, she’d exhausted herself. Connor left her to nap in his hammock and made it to the Captain’s Quarters in time to hear Anfir offer someone a glass.
Sarai hadn’t been what he’d expected. The woman was lean and imposing, taller than most, and with enough muscle to seem intimidating. Dark skin, long hair, and a face fleshed out with high cheekbones and a wide nose, she didn’t strike him as anyone really of note. The obviously elf work prosthetic was the most interesting thing about her. Still, he couldn’t judge too harshly yet.
When he’d first learned about woman Swordmasters, he’d been sixteen and listening to his first captain prattle on.
“You want to steer clear of them,” the captain said, smoking in the barracks while a few other soldiers threw dice half-heartedly. “Men you can reason with. Them lady Swordmasters, they take no prisoners. I ain’t ever heard of none of ‘em having trouble finding or finishing a fight.” Connor, like many others in the barracks, snorted at the warning. Believing that woman Swordmasters had to be a fairy tale. He’d learned differently. As he’d moved into new ranks and responsibilities, his world had broadened. When the wars had started they’d tried to get Swordmasters to join ranks against Doerma’s expansion, and had been turned down each time. Men and Women alike had snubbed their efforts at resisting invasion. Traitor’s was the first thing Connor thought when they came to mind. What made this one so different, from them he’d have to find out for himself.