The soft knock on the door startled Tess awake. She’d been dozing.
She sat across the foot of her bed, propped upright by the wall. The baby was still on her shoulder. Asleep. Breathing softly.
Tess had won this battle.
She yawned, her face splitting in half as she fought to fully wake up. She shifted her hold on the baby and slipped off the bed.
So opened the door to reveal a young woman. Cheap makeup was smudged across her face. The dress hanging from her bony shoulders might have been fine once, but now it was ragged and soiled. Her cheekbones stood out from sunken cheeks, beneath eyes with that hollow, dull look of hunger and deprivation. The effect made the woman look old, but Tess was pretty sure she was barely more than a girl – possibly half Tess’s age.
She glanced at the baby in Tess’s arms, then up at her face, then back to the baby. “That’s – that’s mine, I think,” she stammered.
Tess smiled as warmly as she could manage after so little sleep, and stepped back, gesturing with her head inward. “Come in for a cup of tea first.”
“I – I should take my children and go – she’s sleeping.” She wouldn't meet Tess’s eyes. “The – the neighbor – she said she sent Teddy your way last dark.”
“No,” Tess replied, her voice quiet but firm. “You need to sit down, take a cup of tea, and then join us for breakfast.”
Teddy sat up, rubbing a fist in his eye. Jacqui rolled over, blinking. He grinned, then sat up as well.
Tess nodded toward the boys. ‘My name is Tess. Teddy’s a smart boy – he knew he needed help with Essie and found me.”
As if on cue, the baby released an ear splitting wail. Tess patted her. “I imagine she’s hungry. You sit down and feed her while I get some food together.” She led the dazed girl to a stool, sat her down, and placed the baby in her arms. Moving mechanically, the girl presented her baby with a swollen breast and Essie latched on. Silence filled the room, broken only by the baby’s contented sucking. The young woman sat there, rocking forward and back, her eyes on the floor.
“Just say it,” she mumbled. “I’m a worthless mother – what decent woman leaves her sick baby all evenin’ and dark.” She drew in a quivering breath.
Tess pulled over another stool and sat, facing her. “Dear girl – you’re simply a mother. You’re doing whatever you can to keep your babies fed.” She smiled. “Would you tell me your story?”
The girl shrugged, and then started talking. “I”m Alice. There’s not much to tell. I – I was married to a … a dock worker. Married – right and proper. He’d – he’d – they caught him smuggling. Put ‘im in prison. ‘E died in there a few months later.” She shifted her hold on the baby. “A man who knew ‘im – the one who’d give him work – he was all sweet, and, and I had nothing I could do with a babe. That would be Teddy there. So, I went with him. Then ‘e moved us here. But –” she started to sob. “The ‘e was up ‘n gone, no’a word, an’ me six months pregnant.”
The baby pulled away to scream again. She fumbled, trying to get her to eat more, but Essie just screamed. Tess reached out, and the young mother handed over her baby. Tess stood up, baby pressed to her shoulder, and started heating the kettle.
Alice watched her, a helpless look in her eyes. “I got no skills, an no one wants a pregnant girl all alone. So, w’Jamie gone, I took what work as’n I could find. An’ it wasn’t never enough. An’, with little Essie sick now, an’ the doctor said the medicine was – was so expensive, an’ rent due.” She wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, shuddering.
Tess nodded. “I’m so sorry Alice. That’s,” her own voice caught, remembering those first few cycles – pregnant and alone, in a foreign city. “I’m so sorry.”
“I was a ’spectable woman once,” Alice whispered. “Ah swear I was. Married right an’ proper –” she wrapped her arms around herself, shuddering again. “I didn’t never mean fer –”
Tess took the stool beside her again, placing her free hand on her shoulder. The girl flinched, and Tess pulled back.
“Alice,” she hesitated. “I see you – I see your children, and I see a mother who loves her children more than anything. I see you fighting to keep them alive, and whole, even if it costs you everything.”
Alice’s eyes swam with tears, and she hunched over, hiding. Tess reached out again, and Alice didn’t pull away.
Behind her, both boys whispered in the bed. She glanced over her shoulder. Wrapped in blankets, and framed with tousled hair, they watched their mothers with big, uncertain eyes.
Tess grinned at them. “Jacqui, would you show Teddy where to find biscuits? And we’ll use the watberry preserve this morning.”
Her son’s face lit with joy at the mention of the sweet jam, and he jumped out of bed, with Teddy following. Teddy still cast concerned glances at his crying mother, but Jacqui’s enthusiasm was contagious.
The baby at Tess’s shoulder quieted. After a whole evening without eating, Essie would be making up for it this morning, demanding another meal soon. Finally, Alice’s sobs quieted as well.
The kettle began to whistle as her son set dishes and food on the table. Tess pushed to her feet, and, one-handed, placed a skillet on the stove. She tossed in one narrow strip of fatty bacon to snap and sizzle in the center. As it browned, she added four eggs. The room filled with the smell of bacon.
She filled a chipped teapot with tea leaves and boiling water, then set it on the table beside the biscuits and watberry preserve.
Alice sat up, wiping her eyes, as Tess brought over the steaming skillet. The boys clambered onto the last two stools.
“Alice, This is my son, Jacques.”
Her son grinned. “How do you do,” he said with practiced politeness, then added in an eager tone, “I’m five. Teddy’s my friend now.”
The other little boy nodded. “Jacqui sa’e‘s got toy sol’jers we’ll play wit.”
Tess smiled. “After breakfast.”
Alice’s eyes widened at the food, as Tess went to serve up the eggs. Her stomach growled, but she ignored it, shifting to divide the eggs three ways. More for a rapidly growing Jacqui, more for a ravenous Teddy, and Alice looked like she hadn’t eaten in the last day or so – she’d never be able to keep feeding Essie if she didn’t eat.
Alice opened her mouth to protest, but snapped it shut again. The poor girl was starving. She wasn’t going to protest any extra food.
Tess would eat biscuits. She’d be fine.
Alice hesitated for a moment, then, shoveled the food into her mouth, mirroring her son. Tess smiled. Some things were nourishing to your soul, rather than your body.
● ● ●
Twenty years ago
The Magician stalked beside her as Tess led him through the twisting mess of tenement buildings and dark alleys. He’d insisted they avoid the king’s soldiers, just as Renn had said. This Magician was trying to hide his actions from Lorraine.
He’d dressed in subdued colors, but any pickpocket would recognize the impossibly expensive make and cut of his suit and cravat. The coin it cost would feed a whole family for a cycle.
He recoiled from the piles of refuse in the street, and carefully skirted the drunks passed out anywhere with half a shelter. He stepped carefully but even so, his shiny boots were rapidly splashed with thick mud. Of course he’d be discomforted by the world his kind had forced her family and friends to live in.
She must not think about the terrifying power lurking behind those eyes. Whole families burned to ash at Tatter’s court just for the crime of living there. This Magician even shared a name with that monster.
Her palms were damp, and her heart raced as memories of that day – and then miner’s march – hung at the edges of her thoughts.
Percy said it would be good if she looked timid and afraid. “He’ll see you as nothing,” he’d said. “A scared rabbit who’d never be able to harm him. He’ll never suspect a thing.”
That was fine for Percy. He wasn’t the one who’d spend all of tomorrow tethered to this terror.
Percy – the only name the Roucy spy had given when she’d met him – was tall and handsome, with a narrow pointed black beard and dark skin. He was everything she’d expected from a spy. True to Renn’s word, he’d paid handsomely for the news she’d brought.
Then, Percy made her a second offer – twice the coin, for a day of her service. He had a plan to capture a Magician and rescue the imprisoned miners.
She’d agreed immediately. Whatever it was, if it meant Renn’s freedom, she’d do it for free. Saints – she’d pay every coin she’d earned for the chance. Hot with fresh rage over that broadside, the idea had been exciting.
Now, five days later, in the growing darkness as the sun disappeared behind Foncé, all she felt was cold dread at being alone with a Magician.
Beside her, the Magician suddenly hopped awkwardly, just avoiding something particularly foul that had appeared out of the growing gloom. He covered his nose, then, flashing her an uncomfortable grin, he made a joke about being overdressed. She refused to reward him with a smile – whatever he had planned for Percy, it certainly wasn’t sitting heavily on his conscience.
If Percy’s plan failed – how many people would be dead before the sun returned? Herself, certainly. Percy. And how many of the innocent people asleep all around them?
She took a deep breath. Focus.
Percy should be here. Somewhere. The tension surging through her body was almost more than she could stand.
“How much farther,” he asked quietly, his voice coming from the almost complete darkness nearby.
She jumped, then, answered in a quivering voice. “Down the next alley.”
“Could we see it from here?”
“No, not yet.”
“Good,” he muttered, and raised a hand that was suddenly glowing with green light.
She sucked in a startled breath, freezing.
She knew he was a Magician, but, to see it – that light was so strange. Eerie. It was wrong.
She shivered, pulling her shawl close, and moved to the far reach of the low light.
They were a stride past a dark doorway, when a low, commanding voice spoke rapidly from the darkness. “Jacques Dumont – stop walking. For the next hour, starting immediately, do not attempt to capture or kill the Roucy spy, myself, or Tess – the woman who guided you here.”
The light from the Magician's hand disappeared as he sucked in a sharp breath, the air whistling between his teeth.
Tess cringed, and her heart leapt into her throat. This all was going to go wrong. Percy would fail, and this alley would explode with deadly magic.
A tinder sparked, and a candle flared to life in the doorway. Percy’s face appeared, lit from below. “Follow me inside.”
Illuminated by the candle’s flickering light, she could see the Magician comply with the commands, his motions wooden.
Tess gaped, scarcely able to believe her eyes. Was this actually going to work?
Percy had told her about his unique magical ability. It gave him the power to control a person for short periods of time – long enough to make a Magician fight for them. After they’d freed the prisoners and seized the palace, the Magician would be given the choice between renouncing his allegiance to King Lorraine and using his powers to serve a liberated city, or hang for his crimes against the people.
Considering what Magicians had done to her city, the choice was more than merciful.
Inside the tiny room, several sheets of paper with pen and ink filled a small table in the center. Percy pointed. “Sit. Write out every Obligation you currently have – be completely honest.”
Incredibly, the Magician sat, picked up the pen, and began to write.
Tess hung back – Percy hadn’t told her much of how his magic worked, or what his role would be. But now she had to believe him. Percy – a Magician who was using his powers to help and serve people in need, rather than growing fat supporting bloody tyrants. He stood there, behind the Magician – in control, unafraid. Her heart gave a little lurch, and she turned away, trying to hide the sudden flush she felt on her cheeks.
The Magician set down the pen. “Finished.”
Percy leaned over his shoulder, reading. “Your liegeoath is to Claudette only? Not to the king?”
“Yes,” he said. His voice was low and tense. “I’m only forbidden from inflicting bodily harm on King Lorraine and his other children.”
“What of your brother? – Is his liegeoath –?”
“The same, but to Prince Marceau.”
Percy laughed. “Wonderful. That spiteful old fox outfoxed himself.” He slid another sheet of paper from the table, already covered with writing, wrote a few additional notes as he spoke. “Starting now until the end of the next dark hour – for a full day – you will stay within ten meters of this woman – Tess. During that time, you must do Tess no harm, and you must protect her from any and all harm. You must do nothing that will attract the attention of any other person, and you will do exactly as she commands, just as if it were I speaking. When, and only when, she speaks the name ‘Saint Martyn,’ you will destroy the wall around Talli Prison. You will do so in a way that renders it easily crossed by humans on foot. When she speaks the name ‘Vespas,’ and indicates a specific wall, you will create an opening in that wall large enough for two people to easily walk through. Do you understand?”
The Magician flinched at the mention of Talli Prison, but he nodded.
Percy smiled at Tess, and held out the paper he’d been writing. The instructions he’d promised. The code names – those were important to get right, he’d said. She’d have to say them exactly correct, or he might find a way around them. And the list of things she must not tell the Magician to do. Some made sense, but the one about hearing was odd.
“Do not give him any orders to attack. (Other than the failsafe – see note at end.) If you are in danger, he will protect you. At the prison, use the code words. I will try to meet you there as soon as possible.”
“Do not tell him to do or to not do anything that relates to myself or Roucy.”
“Do not tell him to do anything that relates to his ears, hearing, or not hearing. Do not tell him to touch or cover his ears in any way.”
Finally, at the bottom, he’d added one final direction.
“If it becomes obvious that the Magician will be rescued by Lorraine forces, or has found a way to free himself from my spell, if, in that moment you are able, give him one final command: to kill King Lorraine. I’m not sure how the magic will work, exactly, coming from you, but, think of this as a last failsafe. DO NOT use this unless you are sure our plan is failing.”
And then, he’d written a reminder of his verbal warning:
“Remember: do not trust anything he tells you. He will try and trick you into releasing him, and he’ll say whatever he thinks will help. My truth spell will not work without me present, I’m afraid.”
He met her eyes and gave her a reassuring smile. The kind that made her heart skip and her head feel wooly. “Do you have any final questions for me?”
Tess pressed her lips together, and shot the Magician – still seated at the table – a dubious glance. Now that it came to it, she was reluctant to see Percy go.
Percy reached out, gripping her shoulder, and flashed her with his smile. “Trust me, Tess. I know what I’m doing. You’ll be safe. Just follow my instructions, stay hidden, and your brother – Renn – he’ll be a free man by this time tomorrow.”
She nodded, and her face flushed with warmth again as he touched her. She ducked her head, trying to hide the blush that must be there. He squeezed her shoulder, and then was gone.
Leaving her alone. With the Magician.