The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 6
(Read Previous Parts Here)
Planning couldn’t happen in a vacuum. Throughout the journey, Connor and Sarai sat through many edits and decisions made on their behalf with only mild complaining. Connor likely accepted it because he was a soldier and used to taking orders, Sarai because she could barely focus over the roiling in her stomach. In fact, most of her complaints revolved around how quickly they could get back to land. Anfir assured her that they were making good time. The wind was at their backs and the sea was accommodating. Sarai spent most of her time below deck hunched over a bucket. Tristan was often present for the bouts of nausea. Her constant questions reminded Sarai of Fenrir, but they helped her focus on something other than being sick. Connor was much less present when it came to Sarai.
From what she could gather about the man, he wasn’t very impressed with her, nor she with him. Their longest interaction had been when he’d offered her mint tea to help settle her stomach. They danced around the topic of working together, neither committing to a partnership or outright denying one. Sarai couldn’t tell what he was thinking much of the time, but his stiffness in her presence was telling enough. He didn’t trust her, not yet, maybe not ever. He tolerated her presence around the little Princess.
It was obvious to Sarai that Connor cared very much about Tristan. For such a large man, he was incredibly gentle with her. When Tristan barreled across the deck, latching onto his knees, he dutifully picked her up, letting her settle on his shoulders until he was done with his task. Tristan took instruction from him very well, learning to read under the swaying lantern belowdecks. As Conor’s gruff voice sounded out words for her, Tristan wrote them down and rolled the word around her mouth like a piece of candy. Sarai was of no use during these sessions, but she was even less helpful on deck where sailors crawled over the ship like ants in their nest. No one had time to guide her through new tasks, so she was left to her own devices.
Sarai could only meditate for so long and training with her sword was near impossible on a ship this small. So, like Connor, she began teaching Tristan. The difference was that her lessons would revolve around something more practical than letters; learning how to defend herself. Sarai may have been a Swordmaster, but she’d trained just as hard in hand-to-hand combat so that she’d never be defenseless again. It was a skill Tristan would do well to learn early. Connor had been livid when she’d suggested it, the first sign of genuine emotion Sarai had seen directed her way, but she talked him around to it. Tristan begging for the chance to learn had only helped her case. Of course, the Princess’ guard dog insisted on being present while Sarai conducted these self-defense lessons. Sarai would have suggested it anyway; they’d need a practice dummy every once in a while.
They cleared space in the part of the hull devoted to storage and Sarai laid down a few blankets for cushion. She began by teaching Tristan how to stand to make her punches effective, correcting her form until the girl could do it correctly in an instant. Connor’s first task as a training dummy was to let Tristan punch repeatedly at his blanket covered palms until the motion felt natural. By the time the ship landed in the Baratosi Island Chain, Tristan was able to execute most punches and a few kicks effectively. Sarai had also taken her aside to teach her different techniques to use on male attackers versus female ones. On their last night aboard Sarai nodded approvingly as Tristan ran through all of her punches and kicks without falling, then demonstrated the more simple groin and throat strikes. Her blows would be nothing to a full-grown attacker, but with a bit of luck, Tristan would be able to catch them by surprise and get away. If she couldn’t she’d at least slow her attackers down.
“Don’t forget the eyes and nose as well,” she cautioned, stopping the training for the night. Tristan beamed up at her. Sweat turned the girl’s hair dark and tightened the curls into ringlets. Sarai tried not to be affected by the smile, but the pride that swelled in her chest whenever her pupil did something particularly well felt more parental each time. Connor straightened from the impromptu mat and shook out his hands. His palms were both bright red after the long training session. They’d abandoned the blanket pads so Tristan could get a feel for skin-to-skin contact. Surprisingly, it had been Connor to suggest they do so.
“It’ll do her no help if she’s afraid to actually hit someone,” he’d grumbled. Sarai believed he still had reservations about training Tristan, but he’d come around to see why it was a necessity. Tristan still considered the training to be fun—she didn’t yet see its importance. Sarai hoped she’d never have to.
They sent Tristan up to wash before dinner. As she bounced up the steps the two adults regarded each other. Connor had been an excellent training dummy, letting Sarai take over most of the teaching but offering a tip here and there. She’d been surprised when he started encouraging their young charge. She had had to break him of the habit of lurching forward to help the girl each time she fell. Wordlessly, Sarai offered Connor a tin of balm for his hands and began collecting the blankets, restoring the storage room to rights. They moved around each other without speaking, watching but not engaging until Connor broke the silence.
“She’s doing well,” he said. Jars clinked as he placed the balm in the medicine bag Sarai had taken to bringing down for their training sessions. Sarai nodded.
“Much better than I would have at that age.” She stretched and collected her sword and boots. “I was always too impatient.” As they made their way to the ramp that led back to the deck Connor adopted the mannerisms of a man that believed he was being sly.
“How old were you when you began training then?” He forced his gaze straight ahead and fiddled with the medicine bag.
Sarai narrowed her eyes. “Eighteen.”
“Was that when you lost your hand? Where did the elf work come from?”
His questions hung in the air while Sarai’s mind whirred; not with annoyance, but with amusement. She knew what he was doing. She knew Connor had been watching her, she even knew he’d been asking Anfir questions. Apparently the Captain had been keeping his mouth shut. Now Connor had decided to get information from the source.
“How old were you when you joined the army?” she asked, countering his question with one of her own, even though she already knew the answer. Just because Fenrir wouldn’t give him a straight answer, didn’t mean she couldn’t get one. Connor’s lips drew tight across his teeth.
Sarai nodded. “As soon as you were able to then. And you’re twenty-eight now?” She could tell that he was shocked at her knowledge, but he didn’t deny it. “But you joined the King’s Guard at twenty-one just after the war started. Tell me, how does a man go from being a lowly foot soldier to the King’s personal guard in only five years?” She didn’t expect an answer, but she did hope to force him into a corner.
As she predicted, he didn’t say anything. It was a bit hypocritical, unsettling him this way, but he’d been the first to go behind her back. She wrapped herself in that childish logic as they stopped in front of the ramp and his fists clenched around the strap of the bag. Sarai settled into a relaxed pose, waiting.
“You’ve made your point,” Connor said. She watched as he forced himself to relax and look at her as an equal. “I apologize.”
“You may ask me what you really want to know,” she said. “I won’t bite, and I won’t be offended.” He hovered in place, obviously unsure of how to proceed. Sarai wondered how a man that was so calm with a child-like Tristan and the members of the crew, floundered so spectacularly when it came to her.
“I do need to know a few things,” he finally admitted. He looked down at Sarai, all traces of assumed politeness gone and only the soldier remaining in his face. Perhaps it was his easiest mask to wear. “How long have you been a Swordmaster?”
“I started my training at eighteen and earned my title when I turned twenty-three. I’ve been on my own for two years now.” She watched him do the math. Understanding that she would have begun training just after the war started.
“You wouldn’t know how your kind turned us away when we asked them for help, then.” His tone told Sarai exactly what he thought about that.
“I do, actually.” His eyes snapped to hers and widened in surprise. “It’s foolish of you to believe a few men and women would have turned the tide of the war. They were better off where they were, helping people evacuate in the villages they passed through.” She inhaled deeply before irritation could get the best of her. “Just because they weren’t on the front lines, doesn’t mean Swordmasters weren’t helping. My own mentor was turning out swords and axes as fast as she could to arm villages preparing for attacks.”
He frowned. “However that may be,” he growled. “I need to know that you won’t turn away from Tristan as soon as your vow comes into question.” Sarai bore his scrutiny calmly. She understood the need to grasp at allies and to reaffirm their motives a thousand times before you believed them. She’d done the same with Tutti.
“You have my word, that I’ll never abandon Tristan when she needs me.” It was painfully true. Sarai had gone and gotten attached to the little cherub, and there was nothing she could do about it now.
Anfir guided his small entourage through the island markets. The Barati people welcomed outsiders because outsiders brought coin. Black men and women, with pierced ears, noses and lips hawked wares and tried to cajole them over to different stalls. Tristan gaped at everything from Connor’s shoulders. Sarai followed Anfir closely, her eyes drifting over the bright fabrics and lighting up when she saw particularly nice jewelry or swords. Anfir smiled to himself; she really was the same girl from all those years ago.
He led them down a rough path away from the bustle of the market. The house awaiting them was cloaked. Only a sphere of blue mage fire, invisible to his companions, told Anfir what was there. He flicked a small tendril of his own red power in the direction of the building, just enough to make it visible for a moment. Tristan squawked in confusion while Sarai and Connor stiffened and reached for weapons as the building appeared. A tall Barati native stood in the door, his hand situated over a sign that bore the Ravens’ symbol, then another that showed a tree blooming out of a cracked box. Anfir opened his arms wide.
“Don! It’s good to see you again, friend.”
“The fox has returned to the islands,” he rumbled with a grim smile. “The Valley welcomes your assistance and will help you and your friends in return.” Sarai and Connor’s heads twitch at the name ‘Valley’.
“How many uprisings are you a part of, Anfir,” Sarai hissed, not relaxing under Don’s benign gaze. For a moment, Anfir considered telling her the truth. Truth about himself and who he was. Then again, it was probably best to leave some mystery in their relationship.
“As many as I need to be, Darling.”