The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 4
Tristan blinked at the two adults and her brother as they whisper-argued over her. The black lady that her brother had brought had a weird arm. Fenny had told her about her “tree hand” but she didn’t understand what he meant exactly. She didn’t find the fake hand to be very interesting. She was more enamored with the woman’s long braid and strange clothes. Her mother had never worn the kind of soft leggings this woman had on. She played with the lace on her dress and watched. The scrap of ribbon that held Tristan’s short, tawny curls in place was slipping, but she didn’t care, Fenny could just fix it for her after he was done with his friends.
The lady kept turning to look down at her, her mouth scrunched like the dried cherries some of the sailors offered Tristan as a treat. They always held out the fruit with a chuckle of “Here, your Majesty”. Tristan didn’t know why they said that. She wasn’t a ‘Majesty’ yet. Fenny always told her she would be someday. Fenny’s friends stopped talking and were watching her. Tristan tried her hardest to stop fidgeting and stand properly—the way Fenny taught her to.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lady Sword,” she said, dipping her best curtsy. Mister Anfir snorted into his fist and the black lady’s face scrunched some more. She knelt down in front of Tristan until they were eye to eye. Tristan gripped her dress again. The sword lady wasn’t scary, but she looked fierce. Tristan felt very small next to her.
“Hello, little one. Please call me Sarai.”
Tristan bobbed her head quickly. “Yes, Miss Sarai.”
Sarai smiled. “How old are you?”
“Five.” Tristan smiled. Five was a very distinguished age. Fenny would have to start treating her like an adult if she was five. Her brother chuckled.
“She’s five next month,” he said. Tristan frowned, now Sarai would think she was a baby.
“Who is your mother?” Sarai asked, but she wasn’t looking at Tristan any longer. Tristan bit her lip and stared at the ground. She hated being a baby, no one asked her the important questions. They always let Fenny answer for her.
Sarai would be lying if she said that she wasn’t charmed by the adorable girl. The child was very similar to Fenrir. Already Sarai could tell that the girl would grow up lean and tall. All of her baby fat was concentrated in her cheeks while the rest of her body seemed to devote itself to grow taller than most five-year-olds. The siblings shared the same lanky build, soft olive complexion, and light brown curls. They must take after their mother. From what Sarai remembered, Bankin had been described as a sallow-faced man with black hair and a paunchy frame.
“Countess Julianna, Count Mortimer’s widow,” Fenrir said. His voice held a peculiar bitterness. Little Tristan grumbled as Fenrir answered, but Sarai had no clue as to why the girl’s face had turned mulish. “Mother became Bankin’s mistress soon after the Count’s passing.”
“Who exactly are you upset with?” she asked. It was nosy, but Sarai was owed a bit more explanation after she’d been manipulated here. Fenrir’s face pinched but he didn’t close himself off the way Sarai expected him to.
“The Count may have been my father, but he was not a good man,” he said. Tristan maneuvered herself under Fenrir’s arm looking up at him with an understanding Sarai wasn’t used to seeing on children’s faces. She didn’t think Fenrir noticed his hand moving to play with Tristan’s curls. His posture seemed to relax as the girl gripped his arm and held on with a vengeance. He smiled warmly down at the resolute child. “My mother didn’t deserve the Count or Bankin,” he said. “But of the two, his Majesty was far more generous. When he fled, he took us with him away from the war, across the border into Palmina. Mother was pregnant by the next winter.”
Sarai frowned. There had been no announcement of Bankin’s death. No Doerman guardsman or governor had made the decree that the disgraced king had passed on. There had been rumors that spread like a virus through the country, unconfirmed but heavy in their importance. His assumed death wasn’t so much a disappointment as the fading of the last spark of hope. Bankin hadn’t had any children, and with no official king, even a fleeting one, there was no ruler to rally behind.
“How did the king die?” Sarai had to know. She wouldn’t mourn, but she wanted to hear it. If the bastard had died peacefully while his people were overrun by the enemy, she would find and spit on his grave personally. Fenrir grimaced.
“Tristan,” he said sweetly. A faux smile curled over his mouth that made Sarai’s stomach drop. “Could you go and see if dinner is finished?” Tristan perked up and bounced out of the room, leaving Sarai with a somber Fenrir and Anfir. The latter seemed content to let the teenager explain everything, but Sarai knew him well enough to know he wasn’t completely at ease. Fenrir waited for the door to close and Tristan’s footsteps to fade before continuing.
“My mother may have left with the king,” he said quickly. “But she only did it to protect me. Bankin disgusted her, but his protection was necessary if we were to survive. The Count had put her on a monthly allowance in his will, only accessible by the estate’s named overseer, his nephew. It was barely enough to live on.” Sarai nodded. She’d heard of such relationships, common in unhappy noble marriages. It was one of the reasons she avoided the nobility and their problems.
“Bankin would never name a girl his heir.” He looked annoyed. “When Tristan was born, Mother had the midwife tell Bankin she was a son. He named her Tristan before bothering to check and see if it was true. For three years, she pretended Tristan was a boy. As soon as Bankin declared Tristan his legal heir, Mother killed him.” Sarai’s mouth dangled open. It was certainly a plot, and definitely one Tristan should never learn until she was of age. Sarai had never cared much for the nobility, but she suddenly felt the need to light a candle in the woman’s honor. Anfir smirked at her expression.
“I know, Love,” he said. “It’s my favorite part too. Tell her how she did it, Lordling.” Fenrir frowned at the pirate captain but continued with the story.
“She waited until Bankin called her to his chamber for the night, and stabbed him in the neck with her robe pin,” he said harshly, but there was a note of pride. “Mother would not have a king that abandoned his country. We have eyewitnesses that will testify to Bankin’s decree. The priest that oversaw the naming ceremony, the midwife, and Bankin’s guards. Mother even got him to sign legal documents declaring her right to the throne.” He regarded Sarai across the room, looking far older than any boy his age should. Sarai recognized that look on the faces of the defeated soldiers and widowed refugee women. “My sister has the right to the throne, but we need to keep her alive long enough to win it back. The Doerman King knows of her existence, but he believes he’s looking for a boy. My mother sent us away before his men could find her.” From his expression, Sarai felt safe in assuming the Countess was no longer alive. She thought for a moment.
“Your mother was a brave woman. I’ll say prayers for her in the temple tomorrow.”
She leaned back against the wall, wondering why she suddenly felt old. More than old, she felt tired. The boy in front of her was war-weary and desperate. The pirate to her right was as tired as she. Sarai could read it in his slouch and the way he tried to keep up his spark of levity. That same spark was drowned out by the vicious satisfaction of Fenrir’s mother’s accomplishment. There was too much bloodshed by this war, too much anger borne by the defeated. The entire country creaked under the weight of fury unexpressed. Every Vamaseran countryman bore a hunger deep in their bones, the cry of wolves long denied their freedom. Their spirits wandered restlessly up and down their veins ready to pounce, salivating with the thrill of fresh blood to quench the old, still drying killing fields. Even Sarai wasn’t immune to it. The haunted looks and the grime of the refugee camps still clung to her skin; even when she scrubbed it to the point of chapping. She was tired.
She thought of little Tristan’s bouncing step, the owlish tilt of her head, the fresh light of her childish pride. She thought of Tristan and her heart bled and roared in anger. A small child didn’t deserve all their hope. Little girls should not stand at the head of revolutions. Children shouldn’t bear the sins of their parent’s enemies. Sarai could not see the future, but she knew that this revolution would break Tristan, as it was slowly breaking Fenrir and Anfir. Her light would be snuffed out by their desire to preserve it.
“I still don’t know what you want from me?”
“Take her away from here,” Fenrir pleaded. “You’ll have one of Bankin’s guards, one I trust implicitly with her safety. But she must be kept away from this until we can reestablish Vamaser. She must not see the blood we spill in her name.” His eyes shone a bit in the dim light, glints of tears against the dark irises. “Please keep my sister safe?”
Sarai, nodded slowly. She had resources that could hide the girl. For what the boy was asking, it would be breaking her oath to refuse.
In the kitchen, Tristan nibbled on a piece of sugar cane given to her by the Raven’s cook. Fenny would tell her about whatever they discussed later. He liked to think she didn’t know about her father, not her real father, but the king. Fenny hadn’t been awake, but she had seen her mother come back to their bedroom covered in blood. Even drenched in red, her mother was pretty. Tristan had only been three then, so she hadn’t realized that when her wonderful mother scooped her up in her arms, she would be covered in her fake father’s blood. She was five now and shivered at the memory.
“You will be a queen, my little one,” her mother had whispered, brushing Tristan’s curls aside and leaving a red streak. “My little empress.”
Tristan nodded to herself. Fenny wanted to send her away with Sarai. She’d listened enough through keyholes to have an idea of what was happening. She sucked on the sugar cane, thinking longingly of leaving the damp hideout behind. Maybe Sarai could take her to the mountains. She’d always wanted to see them. Sarai could teach her how to use a sword, then Fenny would let her fight with him. Her stomach growled and Tristan wondered when the adults would be done talking about her.