After fourteen hours of scrubbing white cuffs and collars at the laundry, Tess trudged back up the steps to her flat. The staircase was narrow, dark, and the steps sagged.
Her knees and back ached, but she forced her fogged brain to focus, and her body to keep moving. Her day wasn’t over.
Jacqui clutched one of her hands. His little legs had to move twice as fast to keep up with her on the stairs. He’d whined for her to carry him, but with the basket of food in her other arm, she’d given him a firm no. He could hold her hand, or walk by himself.
He’d blinked back petulant tears, sighed dramatically, and then taken her offer.
His small body was at least as tired as hers. He’d spent the day working with her at the laundry – performing small and simple tasks. He stumbled, and she tightened her grip on his hand, holding him upright.
Once inside their room, he flopped down in front of the stove with his slate and chalk to copy the letters she’d drawn onto the side of the stove for him, while she started chopping vegetables. Purchased at the end of the day, they were whatever the farmers had failed to sell, offered for less as they packed up. Two squishy tomatoes. Broken carrots. A bag of just-soft potatoes.
Her stomach twinged. She’d given half her lunch to Jacqui, after he’d devoured his own.
She glanced down. He lay on his stomach, tracing out a crooked line of Es, his face wrinkled with concentration.
He was improving.
Even if she had the extra money for school, she couldn't trust him to not betray himself, yet. Fortunately, with dark hazel eyes, his glowing turquoise rings rarely showed any time other than the dark hour. And she’d brought him here, to Ninove, because they said there hadn’t been a real Magician at their king’s court for fifty-something years. She was gambling that most people wouldn’t know what they were seeing, if he accidentally manifested his aura. But she couldn’t be too careful.
She was so close – he was almost ready. Soon, they’d leave this life she’d built here, and they’d go find Adele.
Her daughter would be eighteen soon. Each birthday Tess missed weighed on her heart like a stone. She’d have transformed from a child to a woman, and Tess hadn’t been there. The fear and confusion on her face as Alexandre Lafarge took her away, was Tess’s last memory of her first child.
That image would consume her if she dwelled on it.
Alexandre had been missing when Lafarge sent for him – to bring Adele back to the manor, after–
She swallowed hard.
Lafarge spent those following three days alternating between terror, rage, and utter despondency. He’d pinned his last hope on his son’s return with Adele. Tess, too, had waited with that same hope pushing her through.
She’d had a few weeks left, before anyone would guess her secret. Naturally, if Lafarge had even suspected her secret, he’d have locked her safely away.
After the attack, with Margot taken by Roland, without any other options, and pregnant with a Magician's child, Tess had made the agonizing decision to disappear – to take this new child somewhere he’d have a chance at freedom, and wait for him to grow.
She wiped her eyes on the back of her wrist and stirred the stew, breathing in the savory aroma of bone broth and wild herbs. Judging it ready, she placed a lid over the simmering pot, and, taking a thick dishcloth, lifted it from the stove. She adjusted her grip to carry it more comfortably, and called for Jacqui to get the door.
He leapt up – brimming with fresh energy – and dashed over, holding the door open for her. He’d learned how to use the key to lock it behind them, and she nodded encouragingly, as he did so.
The dim halls always made her nervous about his eyes, but no one seemed to notice or remark on it.
He reached up a hand. “Can I carry it?”
She shook her head. “It’s too hot and heavy. But,” she shifted her grip. “If you take a corner of the towel, you can hold this handle and help me.”
She shifted her grip further, to give him a place to hold as he twisted the towel around his hand. Naturally, this made the pot that much harder to carry, but he so loved to help. She couldn't bear to refuse.
They reached her first stop, and knocked on the door. A hoarse voice from inside muttered that it wasn’t locked.
Hellen Faw sat in a narrow bed, her legs wrapped in filthy blankets, and her shoulders draped in shawls. Her wispy white hair floated around her head, and she glared at Tess through filmy eyes. The room was heavy with body smells of an old woman.
Her lips formed their habitual scowl, now etched permanently on her face in a thousand wrinkles.
Jacqui let go of the pot, and rubbing his nose, bounded forward.
“Hullo, Gran Faw.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I can’t imagine why you bring that brat along.”
Tess ignored her, setting the pot on a stool, and stoking the fire in Hellen’s stove. Jacqui joined her, and using a second stool to clamber up, brought down the woman’s single bowl from the shelf. Tess ladled the steaming stew into it, and placed it in the woman’s arthritic hands.
Hellen squinted, tisking. “I swear to the saints – this blasted soup gets thinner every day – why don’t yeh mind your own business – feed your own brat before yeh end up on the street? Yeh think any of the ingrates here will take you in? Nah – give any of em a bit and they’ll take it all, without so much as a thank you, and shut their doors in your face,” she raised her head, grinning nastily. “Trust me girl – they’ll always turn on yeh. Yeh can’t trust nobody.”
Tess smiled, and adjusted one of Hellen’s shawls. “And yet you trust me enough to eat my stew.”
Hellen raised the bowl to her lips, and slurped through toothless gums. She snorted. “‘Cause you’re stupid enough to bring it around. But don’t come to me when you’re out on yeh head, or yer brat’s cryin for supper.”
Tess’s stomach growled assertively as she waited while Hellen to slurp down the rest. Then took the woman’s bowl and rinsed it with a small amount of the water she’d brought up for her that morning.
As she carefully changed the woman’s filthy linens, Hellen launched into a retelling of her story with a dark relish. This was the reality of life and how people will always treat you in the end, she muttered. She’d worked her hands to the bone keeping her husband and children alive and fed, and the moment her husband died, his family took the children and kicked her onto the street.
“Never trust no one – what I say,” Hellen announced, prosaically. “You’ll see. You young people – believe the world’ll treat yeh fair. Yeh gotta see reality. No one’ll care for yeh. No one’ll –.”
The soiled sheets placed in a pile by the door where she’d pick them up in the morning, Tess hefted the stewpot again. “Good evening, Hellen. It was lovely seeing you.”
The old woman sniffed, and Tess left the room, Jacqui closing the door extra gently behind them. Hellen had yelled at him for slamming it a few days ago.
Tess glanced down at his curly head. “Thank you for being kind to Gram Faw,” she said softly.
He took his place beside her, helping with the pot, and raised his eyes. They were large and thoughtful. “You said she’s sad.”
“Yes. She needs friends.”
He wrinkled his forehead, the expression achingly like his father. “But, then, why’s she mean to everyone?”
“She’s scared. She’s scared that people will be mean and cruel to her.”
“She’s scared that you’ll be mean to her?”
“Yes,” she said, softly.
He chewed on his lip, thinking, as they reached her second and final door. A widower who worked as a day laborer left it to his daughter, ten-year-old Emma, to keep her two younger brothers alive and fed. Their big eyes were always hungry.
Every surface in this single room was covered with grime, dirt, or dust. The single chamberpot usually smelled, and the two beds were covered with ragged blankets. Emma did what she could, but all three children were rarely anything close to fully dressed, washed, or fed.
When Tess entered, their shouts of joy at the food made Tess very nearly start crying.
Tess filled bowls with stew as Emma set the table. The two boys and Jacqui scrambled for stools. The youngest was about a year or so younger than Jacqui, and Tess let her son play with them, as long as it wasn’t dark. Balancing the safety of her son, against his need for friends – the compulsion to shut him safe away forever was a daily battle in her heart. But this was why she’d brought him to Ninove.
If she let herself, she’d drown in regret for not doing the same for Adele the moment they realized the princess had taken their secret to her pyre. That not even her husband Edouard knew about their union or their child. Jacques had begged her to leave him then – to take Adele, and go somewhere far away where he could never find them. She’d refused, but, if she’d known Edouard would take a child from her parents out of pure spite –
The children were slurping down the stew, the bowls held to their mouths. This was probably the first time they’d eaten today.
Jacqui wasn’t as ravenous, but his own stew disappeared rapidly as well, and Tess refilled their bowls. Her pot was quickly emptying. Finally giving into the insistent urging from her stomach, Tess served herself a bowl, and ate quickly. The warmth of hot, good food flooded through her, washing away some of the dark thoughts lurking in the back of her mind.
Then she served up the rest, dividing it evenly between the four children.
After emptying her bowl for a third time, Emma used her fingers to wipe the remaining drops of stew from her bowl, then sucked them clean.
Tess closed her eyes, finally allowing herself to feel the day’s exhaustion. There was food in her belly. Jacqui had eaten.
Feed your own, Hellen had said.
Happy childish chatter began to fill the room. These are mine, she thought, angrily. And so was Hellen – whether she liked it or not.
● ● ●
Twenty-six years ago
Tess stopped to rest on the fifth landing and shifted the rough basket handle from one hand to the other. Her chest was heaving with the effort. The air was heavy and hot inside where the wind couldn't reach her.
Every step of the never-ending staircase creaked, and she had to be careful – the mouldering wood was slippery, and there was nothing to hold herself, if she started to fall. At each landing, she could just see the halls that stretched away into the gloom. Those would lead to rooms and rooms and rooms filled with people, just like where Clara’s family lived, one more level up. People shouted, sang, and muttered at each other. Footsteps creaked. Flies buzzed. Dishes clattered.
The hall across from this landing seemed to belch a particularly strong stench of urine and gin. Her eyes watered, and shuddering, she hefted the basket and started her final climb.
Visiting Clara always made her grateful for pa’s job in the coal mines, even if he did come home covered in black and coughing like he’d break a rib. At least, that’s how ma described it.
As a foreman, he made more than the average laborer, and their three rooms felt like a palace compared to this warren of rotting tenement buildings crowded into Tatter’s court. Of course, no one lived like a king in the Taudis district.
When she reached the door, tip-toeing carefully around piles of something rotten, she knocked. A wracking cough was her only answer, so she pushed the door open.
It creaked inward, hanging on rusting hinges, and revealed a room filled with hanging dirty sheets, to create a tiny bit of privacy for the family members.
The rusty stove in the center of the room was unlit, but still, the air was hot and sticky.
Tess shuffled forward, plopping the basket on a single stool beside the stove, and pulled one of the sheets back as more coughing filled the air.
Clara, Tina, Maria, and Cal were all in one large bed together. Clara’s ma and pa were in the other.
Cal was awake and coughing. The boy’s dark hair was soaked with sweat and plastered to his face. He opened bleary eyes.
Tess inched forward. Ma would have felt all their foreheads, and made tea, and given then broth, all somehow at once. But this time, it was just Tess. She stared back at Cal, hoping for some idea of what to do, now that she was here.
“Do – water?” He asked, voice rasping.
She nodded, and spun around, to grab the jug she’d brought. Of course no one had brought them any from the well in the center of the courtyard. Selfish – all of them, their neighbors.
She poured Cal a cup full, and, after propping himself up, he gulped it down.
“Tess.” It was Clara’s ma. Her voice was weak, but clear. She sat up. “Thank y’kindly, dear. For comin’. But y’can’t stay.”
Tess nodded. “Ma told me to come straight home.”
The woman shook her head. “Na, Tess. Y’need to leave right away. It’s na safe.”
Tess frowned. “But, ma said –”
Clara’s ma waved her hand. “Na the sickness, dear. There’s talk’a spies an’ rebels hidden here. Y’shouldn’t be here right now. You shouldn’a come.”
Tess frowned. “But, what –?”
Clara’s pa stirred and coughed. Her ma glanced his way, concerned. “Y’need t’go. An’ don’a let ‘em see ya go.”
Tess frowned. “I will, ma’m. But –” She reached into the pocket in her skirt. “Renn wanted me to give this to Maria.”
The woman frowned, then smiled. “She’ll feel the better for’n it.”
Tess hadn’t planned to wake the eldest sleeping girl, but she’d sat up at Renn’s name, and she grinned weakly up at Tess.
“Did Renn send me somethin’?”
Tess held out the small crudely carved figures her brother had placed in her care that morning. A man and a woman, embracing. At least, that’s what it was supposed to be. On the woman was a rough “M” and on the other, an “R.”
Maria took it, squinting at the letters. “These – that’s –”
“That’s an M, for Maria, and an R, for Renn.”
Maria bit her lip and looked away. “Right,” she muttered.
Tess studied her muddy toes, trying to think of something to say, and feeling very odd. Of course, like Clara, Maria couldn't read. She nodded. “Yeah. So – well, Renn said to tell him what you said – so – you – you like it?”
Maria brightened. “Oh, yes. It’s lovely. I’ll keep it with me, right here – until I feel better.”
Tess grinned back at her. Renn would light up at those words. If she told him straight off. She might make him beg a bit. Maybe even make him trade her for it.
She unpacked the basket. Tea. Broth. Coal for the stove. Fresh water. Half a loaf of bread tied up in a napkin.
She filled the kettle, and started a small fire. She placed the corked pots with broth and water on the stool. She balanced the bread on top, then looked around for something else to do, reluctant to just leave them.
“Go, dear,” Clara’s ma commanded firmly from behind the sheet. “We’ll be fine. We live here – they wonna suspect us’f treason.”
Tess lifted the now light basket. “Yes, ma’am. Saints preserve all in this house.”
She slipped from the room. Back into the fetid heat of the halls, down the terrifying staircase. Finally, she reached open air and light. A soft breeze was blowing, and it brought fresher scents to Tatter’s court.
She skipped from sunken cobble to cobble on her toes, light and free after that gloom.
She was nearly out to the street, when she heard the stamp of feet. Marching in time, their boots landing on cobblestone and mud.
Heart pounding, she dashed for the nearest alley, then came to a stop. Pa’s voice in her head said to go home directly, to get out of the way. But – but she wanted to watch. She wanted to know what was going to happen.
She stood there, quivering between curiosity and fear for several minutes, listening to the marching feet enter and fill the open space.
A halt was called. And she slipped back up the alley, to watch from the dim shadows.
A rat the size of a cat scratched through some foul smelling refuse nearby. It was lucky no one around here had trapped and stewed it yet. It shot her glances with bright little eyes, and she glared back, then turned to watch the soldiers form up in a half circle, facing Clara’s building.
They carried spears propped against their shoulders, and in the center, mounted on giant horses, sat two figures in splendid clothes.
Heads poked out of windows around the court and then disappeared as quickly. She could see blankets and sheets tacked over windows shift and wave as they were pulled back, just enough for an eye to peek out, then dropped in place again.
Tess had seen one of the mounted figures before. The Bastien’s Feast royal parade. When he’d tossed handfuls of coin into the crowds, and watched them trample each other into the mud. Old men in rags with tangled white hair. Half-naked children with eyes that were too big and arms that were too skinny. Screaming women shoved aside by burley laborers.
He’d watched, laughing.
Pa had held her and Renn back from joining the rush, their backs pressed against the wall of a bakery. Away from the street. She’d decided then that she would hate him forever.
This was the son of King Lorraine. Prince Marceau.
The other mounted man had graying dark hair, and, unlike the prince, he wore subdued colors. He kept his horse a shoulder behind Prince Marceau, and looked to the younger man as they drew reign.
Marceau nodded to one of the soldiers. The man stepped forward and took a deep breath. “People of Lorraine, your most Majestic King, Alexandre Fernand Grégoire Lorraine, whose sacred duty is to protect this city from enemies without, and within, is also a gracious and compassionate sovereign,” the soldier announced in a loud voice. “He offers life and pardon to all who will place themselves on his mercy, and surrender. Either spies of Roucy, or those who harbor these foul enemies of our peace. For all who dare to trouble our city, if you refuse this offer, your blood will be on your own head.”
The court was silent. No one moved. All these buildings were a mess of stairs and halls, leading to a thousand different rooms. Tess smiled. Prince Marceau would never find them, and he’d have to leave in shame.
But Prince Marceau laughed. “Last chance? No? Right.” He turned to the older man. “An example it is. Dumont? Burn it down.”
The words seemed to ripple through the suddenly still air, and Tess stared at the elegant figure who’d spoken so casually. Surely – surely – he didn’t mean –
She glared at the other man – Dumont. He wouldn’t – couldn’t –
But Dumont slipped from his saddle and walked forward. He raised his hand, glowing yellow, and then struck a light. The flame exploded into something alive, wicked, and bright.
Both horses shied, and soldiers stepped forward to help the prince, but Marceau waved them away.
Tess gasped. This was magic. She watched, frozen with horror, as the flame seemed to rise into the air, swirling into a flickering vortex that shot tongues of fire around the massive, rotting building with Clara and her family.
She screamed, then, and like an echo, terrified shouts and screams began from every building around the courtyard.
A roaring, crackling heat filled the air as people fought to get out by the door. They climbed out of windows, and hung by their hands, wanting to jump, but afraid of the fall.
Then, Tess was running, down the alley, away from the horror. She just wanted to get home, to hide her face forever in pa’s shoulder.
“Tess!” She skidded to a halt, at her name, and looked around. Renn was hurrying up a side street, covered in coal dust. “What’s going on?”
Why wasn’t he at work? She dashed to him, barreling into his chest.
“I heard about the spies at Tatter’s,” he whispered frantically. “What’s going on?” He squinted up at the sky. Smoke was boiling up, catching in the wind, and flowing off over the city through the forest of chimneys.
Tess, suddenly sobbing and shaking, managed to just mumble the words “magic” and “fire” before he’d slipped from her grasp and taken off again at a sprint. Refusing to follow, she sank, shaking, onto the front step of a building, pulled her knees up to her chest, and hid her face.
Crowds of people began to fill the street, talking in soft, bitter tones, or just, staring blankly.
Eventually, Renn returned, more black than ever. He sat heavily on the step beside her, his hands clenched into fists. Finally, he spoke in a rasping voice. “I couldn't find any of ‘em, Tess.”
He dropped his head to rest in soot-covered hands. “That Gale-blasted butcher.”
One of the men nearby, heard his remark, glanced down, then joined them. Sitting on Renn’s other side, he added his own thoughts. “If I ever find who sold ‘em out t’Lorraine, I’ll see ‘em roasted – slow an’ alive.”
A second man spat, and chuckled. “Yeah’d be strung up fer that.”
“It’d be worth it, though,” Renn muttered darkly.
“That’s the Gale-blasted truth,” the first man replied.
The second man shook his head. “Nah. The ones yeah want are the bloody fools eatin’ Roucy’s lies. The ones that brought ‘em here – blasted bloody idiots.”
Renn pushed to his feet, his face twisted with rage. “At least they aren’t burning women and children in their home, like our own sovereign majesty.”