The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 10
Click here to read parts 1-9.
This story contains themes of violence, death, blood, and torture
Of the many duels Sarai had been involved in, only one stayed as fresh in her memory as each yesterday. There had been a young man from a village, thin and barely getting by with the work he could get in the town. Claire had only stopped in the town for three weeks, mending blades or beating them into plowshares with help from their blacksmith. The boy’s name was Andrew; she didn’t know at the time that she’d never be able to forget it.
Andrew hanging around the shop wasn’t anything of consequence; many children did so. He’d never asked Sarai anything about the plows or the axes she mended. His interest lay with the swords she sharpened and the knives she beat into shape. Claire had mistaken his interest for the desire to learn a trade. She’d shown him how the swords were handled, going so far as to teach him basic moves that any sword wielder would know.
“A craftsman shouldn’t just know his trade, but how his creations will be used,” she’d said, feeling smug at the awe in his face as he’d held the blade aloft.
He’d taken to the knowledge well. Sarai had thought she’d found a potential student, perhaps a swordmaster should he choose the path. She didn’t know what her interference would lead to.
When the duel was announced, Claire had been preparing to leave. Young Andrew, barely out of his teens, would be facing a Doerman guard. Sarai’s breath had stopped in her throat. Immediately she went after the boy, wanting to strangle him for his idiocy.
Andrew hadn’t cared for her warnings. He’d only begged that she not interfere. Against her better judgment, Sarai stood to the side. On the day of the match, Andrew fell to the Doerman’s steel, bleeding out from a stab to the stomach. Saria had held him. She’d never be able to forget how he’d thanked her while his eyes fogged, and she knew he no longer saw her.
Immediately after, she challenged his opponent. When she won, she didn’t kill him. Instead, she’d laid the blade against his skin. The point of her falcata wasn’t ideal, but she wanted to use it instead of her knife. She carved a crude ‘A’ into the guard’s stomach. “For the boy you killed.”
She’d left after helping to bury Andrew, only then learning that his father and older brother had been in the army and died during the early stages of the invasion. Andrew’s mother had called her a bitch for teaching him. Sarai thought she deserved it but also wondered why Andrew hadn’t thought of his mother when he chose a duel he knew he couldn’t win. Looking down at Mikki as he struggled to stand amid the chaos of the watch post, Sarai understood.
Tristan was bruised, and that fact was the only thing playing in her mind. Sarai herded the girl as close to the door as she could get her and waited. She prayed that Connor was staying out of sight on the walls. His injuries were still too fresh to be down with the men. When Mikki was looking her in the eye, Sarai attacked.
Mikki wasn’t a bad swordsman. He handled the blade-like any competent soldier, but he seemed taken aback by her skill. Sarai took advantage. She slashed and hacked like a wildcat, meeting Mikki blow for blow. He could keep up with her sword arm but didn’t have the same luck with her knife. Sarai felt a fiendish sort of glee when the short blade pierced his side. Blood bloomed like a flower, and she grinned savagely. The bastard became sloppy in his attempts to retaliate. Around them, the fighting ebbed. The Doermans were surrendering.
Mikki was making mistakes that she’d never excuse in even a student. For that, she began using her fists as well. Where Mikki expected a slash, he met knuckles. Where he thought she’d punch, she kicked instead. Sarai could almost call it therapeutic. He was disoriented as she rained righteous terror down on him until he laid in a slump at her feet. Sarai knew she should cut his throat and bent to do that very thing. The edge of her knife was pressed against his jugular, ready to slice from ear to ear, when little Tristan’s voice rang out.
“Stop.” Sarai looked up to find the girl staring at her, face filled with a blend of horror and sadness. Whatever resided in Sarai’s stomach curdled. Tristan’s face was smudged with dirt and grime, and tear-tracks cut through it all. She hadn’t closed her eyes.
“Tristan,” she said quietly. “He can’t be allowed to live.” The little girl looked horrified but nodded.
“I know,” she whispered. “But why did you want to hurt me?” Her teary eyes focused on Mikki, who laughed and spat blood onto the cobblestones.
“Doerma gave me power and gold,” he said. “Vamaser only gave me piss and ill. You’ll be dead soon enough,” he growled. “The Doerman king is on the throne, and he’s looking for Bankin’s heir day and night. You’ll go the same way as your father, mark me.” Sarai’s anger reignited, and she pressed the blade into his throat. A dribble of blood appeared. Mikki only laughed.
“Wait,” Tristan said again. Her thin voice was at odds with the mess around them. The Doerman guards were either captured or dead. A few of Natalia’s pirates gathered to see what was happening. “He is a traitor,” Tristan said. “He must be executed for his crime.”
The blood drained out of Sarai’s face.
Tristan had never had anyone executed before. The only time she’d heard the word was when people talked about someone the Doerman king had punished. Connor had told her not to worry about what it meant yet. Anfir had been the one to teach her.
“Listen, my queen,” he’d said one day when she’d caught him going over reports. “Do you see these?” he gestured at the mound of paper. “These are all the people I’m in charge of leading and protecting.”
Tristan nodded. “You’re like their king.” Anfir smiled at that.
“In a way, aye,” he said. “And if something tries to harm my men, I have to protect them. Sometimes that means ordering someone killed.”
It was a simple solution in Tristan’s mind, so she didn’t put forth any objection. “But,” Anfir continued. “Taking a life, or ordering it, is a big decision. One you’ll be faced with as Queen. So you should only do it if there’s no other option.”
“How do I know?”
Anfir smiled sadly. “You’ll know, dearest. And when you know, here’s what you’ll say…”
Tristan stared Mikki in the eye and tried to think of her mother; how she stood and talked, the way she’d walked into the bedroom after killing Bankin. She thought about Anfir and how he led his men. She was five now, old enough to be a Majesty, a Queen.
“Do you have any last words?” she asked.
“I have no regrets,” he hissed. “Vamaser is done. Long live the Doerman king.” His grin was manic.
Tristan nodded. The next bit, Anfir had told her was very important. “I,” she began, trying to imitate her mother. “Tristan, rightful Queen of Vamaser, declare you a traitor to your country and its people. For these crimes, I sentence you to death. May the gods show you mercy.” She looked at Sarai, whose face had become muddled as she’d talked. Mikki was still smiling in that scary way. Tristan tried to find some comfort in Sarai, something that meant she was doing the right thing.
“Miss Sarai,” she began, her voice wavering. “Will you kill him? Please?” Sarai’s face turned sad like Tristan had hurt her, but she smiled anyway.
“Please close your eyes, my Queen,” she said. This time Tristan did. She heard the grunt and gurgle as Mikki’s throat was cut, but when Sarai told her she could open her eyes, the corpse was already gone, only a red streak left in its place. Tristan felt sick, and when Sarai offered her open arms, she fell into them sobbing.
“He was a bad man, wasn’t he? He would have hurt more people?” She wanted Sarai to tell her that he was. She wanted Mikki to be irredeemable. She felt Sarai nod against her head as the pirates began to cheer. “I protected them, right,” she asked. Sarai patted her back soothingly.
“You did what you had to do.” Tristan was grateful no one else could see her tears.
Connor had been on the wall. If he’d been in the square, he’d have done anything, given anything to stop what happened. How had Tristan even known about that? He hardly believed it when Sarai told him how the pirates had watched the execution without a word. How, when the deed was done, they began to chant, “Long live the Queen.” Over and over, he heard those words echo in his ears. He could only imagine what it would have felt like for Tristan and Sarai to be in the middle of it.
After Sarai put Tristan to bed back on the ship, she’d rounded on him, socking him in the jaw hard enough to dislodge a tooth.
“The rebellion could have waited until she was of age,” she screamed at him. Connor didn’t refute her—in fact, he agreed. As she stormed out, he studied the bloody tooth on the floor. It was a small price for his Queen’s suffering. It seemed that guilt was doomed to be his frequent companion until the day he died.
The pirates escorted them the rest of the way to Tutti’s village. Sarai tried her best to cheer Tristan up, but the girl remained withdrawn. She and Connor barely spoke, unless it was to hand the young Queen between them, hoping the other could make her smile again. The journey passed in a haze, and before she knew it, Sarai found herself back home, in front of Tutti’s forge.
The muscular woman was much grayer than Sarai remembered. She didn’t stop working as they cautiously approached her.
“If you’re here as my student,” Tutti began, her voice like gravel as the words slipped out from around her pipe. “You’ve come to the wrong place. You’ve lost the right to call yourself such.”
Though Sarai had been expecting it, the words still sent her world turning. Like a puppet with broken strings, she listed to the side, stung and ashamed.
“So you heard?” Tutti’s tools clattered down, ringing uncomfortably in Sarai’s ears. Connor held Tristan tighter and stayed wisely silent.
“Aye, I heard,” Tutti snarled. “You’ve turned your back on my teachings and joined a rebellion, have ye?” Sarai stared at the ground.
She expected the blow but was still shocked when it landed on her cheekbone, throwing her head to the side. Tristan cried out, and Connor looked startled, but Tutti’s eyes were calm.
“Don’t hurt Sarai,” Tristan yelled, wiggling in Connor’s arms. Tutti ignored her.
“As your teacher, you’ve betrayed me,” Tutti said coldly. Then she sighed. “As your friend, I could expect nothing less.” Sarai was shocked stiff when those muscled arms wrapped around her and pulled her close. “I knew the first I laid eyes on ye, that your path was a twisted one, filled with turns I could not suspect, but you’ve found something worth fighting for, so I forgive ye.” Sarai’s eyes filled with tears that she blinked away.
“Thank you,” she managed to warble out.
Tutti smiled. “Come and show me our future queen then.”