The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 8
Click here to read parts 1-7.
If Sarai had any say in it, she’d never get on a boat again in her life. The short trip to the Islands had been nausea-inducing, the ride to the port closest to Tutti’s village was a carnival of torture. Out of sight of land, they maneuvered between Doerman patrols where they could and hid Tristan below when they couldn’t. Sarai started wearing her trousers and sword openly. The crewmen were decent enough to hide that it made them twitchy.
Tristan wasn’t taking well to the voyage. Sarai had noted on the islands that she’d started to act poorly. They’d begun Tristan’s lessons once they’d been in the open water for a few days, but the girl had barely shown any of her previous enthusiasm. Instead, she’d taken to napping more, huddling in her hammock. The first few times, she and Connor had been content to let the girl be, but after a few weeks of the belligerent attitude, they were beginning to worry. Sarai, fleeing the tossing deck, found her curled into a tight ball in Connor’s hammock one blustery day.
Soft moans and shivers came from the ball that was Tristan. Sarai pulled back a blanket, only to be greeted with a splotchy red face that was wet with tears and snot. She panicked.
“Tristan,” she whisper-yelled, tugging the girl into a sitting position. “Come on, love, work with me.” It was awkward; she’d taken to leaving off her false hand, letting the stump breathe and become chapped by sea air. With her good hand, she tugged Tristan into the circle of her arms, bracing her with the handless one. The girl’s sweaty face tucked into her neck, warm, but not with fever. The small body in her arms trembled, and Sarai instinctively began to rock her.
“What’s wrong, sweet,” she murmured, holding the girl tight to her chest. “Do you want Connor?” Tristan shook her head.
“I want momma,” she hiccuped. “I want Fenny.” Sarai’s chest grew hot with shame. They’d spared little time for Tristan to get used to her new surroundings, simply bouncing the child from safehouse to boat to safe house and then back onto a boat. It had only been a few weeks since they’d left Fenrir behind, but to a child, that could feel like a lifetime. The stress and loss would be a lot for an adult, even more for such a young child.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, still rocking. Tristan sobbed harder.
“I miss momma,” she wailed into Sarai’s shoulder.
“I miss mine too.” She hadn’t meant to say it, but with the admission came memories.
The images bubbled up like sea foam, floating at the top of Sarai’s conscious thought, but ephemeral and, just like foam, impossible to grasp. In her mind, she saw her mother leaning over the table to kiss her father. She saw her sparkling eyes as they helped calm skittish horses ready to be shod. She clutched onto Tristan’s small body, not really knowing who she was trying to comfort anymore.
The memories were swift and ruthless, rushing to attack now that she’d finally slipped and let them in. With a lightning crack, they ripped through the wall she’d been building since the war began. Like a tide, they swirled around the anger and the resentment that had kept the stabbing pain in her heart at bay. For the first time in seven years, her mind confronted her with all she’d lost.
Her father letting her and her older brother man the bellows, her sisters bouncing their own children on their knees as they visited their parents. Her baby brother, Bastian, the only sibling younger than Sarai, his cheeks dimpling as he showed off his missing tooth, unaware that the next morning would be his last. For an instant, present and past overlapped, and Sarai was holding Bastian at eighteen, instead of twenty-five and mapped by lines of healed tissue. For a moment, Sarai wanted to abandon it all. Let the dull pain carry her onto some far shore where she could see them again.
“Will you stay with me forever?” Tristan asked. Her warm, little face was still lodged in the crook of Sarai’s neck and shoulder. “Even when I’m a Majesty?” Sarai’s heart clenched. Tutti’s lesson’s told her to say “no”. They whispered that this could only bring her more pain. But she’d already grown attached to the girl; she already felt pain at the sight of Tristan being hurt. In her minds-eye, she could already see an older version of Tristan sitting on the reclaimed Vamaseran throne, Connor behind her, ever the watchful guard dog. She wanted to see the brave little girl grow up and lead. She’d already broken her vow.
“Of course, darling.” Tristan nuzzled into Sarai’s collar. She was hot and uncomfortable, but in the woman’s arms, she felt safe. Safe like she had with her mother, though Sarai was bonier than her momma had been. She sniffled, willing the tears to stop, but heat streaked her cheeks.
“‘M not supposed to cry,” she said, wiping the salty tears away. “Majesties don’t cry.” She hiccuped and swiped at her eyes and nose again. When Sarai gently pulled her arms away from her face, Tristan wanted to hide. Queens don’t cry, she thought furiously, sucking on her lip. Queens are strong. She had to be strong for Fenny, for Connor and Sarai. She wouldn’t cry, no matter how sad and afraid she was. She’d be good and strong and a Queen. Her conviction lasted for as long as it took Sarai to wipe her face with a kerchief.
“I think,” the woman said softly. “I think Majesties do get to cry, sometimes. And even if they don’t, you can cry with me. I won’t tell.” Tristan’s lip trembled, and she sobbed, burying her face in Sarai’s shirt again.
“It’s alright,” she heard Sarai coo. “I’m right here.”
Tristan decided that she loved Sarai. She loved Sarai and Connor and Fenrir, and she even loved Anfir a little. They would never leave her. Connor always watched over her, even when she was sick or bad. Fenrir was her big brother and chased away the bad things under the bed. Sarai taught her new things and wanted her to be strong. The memory of her momma, washing away a little every day, crumbled a bit more. She couldn’t remember what her momma’s hugs felt like, but Sarai felt the way a momma was supposed to feel. So Tristan clung to that.
“Do you love me?” Tristan’s heart pounded as she waited for Sarai to answer. Moments ticked by, and she started to worry.
“Yes.” Tristan sagged in relief as the word filled the space in her heart that had expected a ‘no’. “Yes, sweetheart, I think I do.”
“I love you, too.” Tristan sagged against Sarai’s chest. She was still sad, but she was also tired. Sleep floated just behind her closed eyes. Above her head, she heard Sarai whisper.
“You can come in.” Connor’s footsteps sounded as he entered the room.
“Did you even mean it,” he asked. Tristan frowned at his angry tone. Sarai shifted, her warm skin skidding against Tristan’s face. Tristan let out a little moue at her human-bed not behaving like a bed should.
“Of course I meant it.”
Sarai stood and laid her in the hammock, and Connor tucked a blanket around her. Tristan wanted them to stay, but sleep closed her mouth before she could ask. When she woke, it was to the sound of heavy footsteps and shouting.
Sarai was standing over her hammock, sword bare and gleaming. Her false hand was shaking Tristan awake. Connor guarded the door, also wielding a sword.
“Come on,” he yelled. Sarai sent him an irritated frown before hefting Tristan’s drowsy form.
“What happened?” Tristan rubbed her eyes and tried to wake up enough to understand why there was screaming from the upper deck.
“We’re being boarded.”
Connor could think of better places to be at the moment. Shouts echoed in his ears, and the deck shifted beneath his feet. His brain stopped trying to catalogue what was happening and focused on Tristan and, by extension, Sarai. The girl was bundled between them, Sarai defending their rear as Connor plowed through the people squabbling onboard. Their goal was the dinghy tied to the outside of the ship, and the entire way Connor berated himself for peaking above deck.
The patrol had stopped them, unavoidable in this section. Papers of transit had to be produced and then verified by the commander of the Doerman ship. Only this commander had been persistent about checking the living quarters and the merchandise. Connor hadn’t thought much of it, still rattled by the conversation he’d overheard between Tristan and Sarai, and had ascended. Though keeping in the background, he’d recognized the face of the commander, a turncoat named Mikki, who’d apparently recognized him as well. As soon as the grizzled man saw him, he’d smirked. Connor heard the command as he raced to Tristan.
A merchant ship wasn’t prepared for an attack by soldiers, even though they had men aboard to protect the crew and cargo. Men fell around him or bled where they stood. Connor hacked at their attackers, abandoning finesse and focusing on force. They’d nearly made it to the dinghy when he heard Sarai cry out.
The Swordmaster was doing a remarkable job of holding her own, slashing and whirling on her attackers like an angry goddess of death, all the while holding Tristan close. Her shout came from a sword that had slashed through her shirt and nipped her side as she fended off three Doerman soldiers. Even with all the training in the world, at three to one, odds were hardly ever in one’s favor. Connor reached over and swiped at a man before snatching Tristan and freeing up Sarai’s other arm. She shot him a grateful look and slipped a knife from her belt. With a yell, she dove back into the fray, and he continued the rush to the boat.
A sharp pain bit into his leg, and Connor fell. Tristan tumbled out of his grasp as more hands and feet arrived to keep him down. Connor growled and fought like a bear, but to no avail. A particular pair of boots encroached upon his line of sight.
“Take the child; we’ve no need for this piece of shit.” Mikki smiled down at him. “Isn’t that right, Sir.” Connor growled and lunged at the man that had once been under his command, but the few hands he was able to throw off did nothing about the others that leaned on him more heavily. He heard Tristan start to cry.
“Mikki,” he panted. “I swear to the gods—”
“Swear all you like, commander.” Mikki grinned, rotten teeth silhouetted between thin lips. “The gods don’t take much notice anymore.” A line of fire sank through the muscles of Connor’s shoulder, and he realized he’d been stabbed. Warm blood soaked his shirt. “I’ll take care of her,” Mikki whispered, before yelling, “Retreat.”
Connor tried to move, but the sword impaled him to the deck, and he could only watch as they stole Tristan away. She sobbed as she was carried off, and Connor screamed at his helplessness before blackness took him.
For three days, he slept. His injuries were bound and tended by Sarai.
“We have one of theirs,” Sarai informed him when he woke. Her rage was controlled, but he smelled bloodlust. She led him to the brig, where a Doerman sat, pale and shivering.
“I left you the honors.” Sarai unrolled a cloth filled with certain instruments. Yes, Connor knew what to do with them. He smiled as she left him with his victim. He was getting his daughter back, and pity the sailor Mikki left in his clutches.