After bundling Alice, Essie, and Teddy back to their room for some needed sleep, Tess returned to find Jacqui still seated on the floor, surrounded by his army of tin soldiers. They were painted in Ninove royal green. Frozen at parade attention, they wore tiny white sashes and held pikes against stiff shoulders.
She settled down on one of the stools, fighting a wave of exhaustion after a nearly sleepless evening.
This would be a long day at the laundry.
Her mind was wooly and her eyes itched. She let them close, and leaned back against a wall.
Jacqui was humming the Ninove marching song.
As often as she dared, she’d let him watch their military parades through the city. She’d fill his ears with plugs of soft wax, lest random words or commands spoken by any Noblemen reached him. He’d stand perfectly straight, with sheer delight on his face as they marched past, rank upon rank. But wax was only a temporary prevention. He hated it, and – in her experience, voices, like water, always had a way of getting through. Even with the wax, when she spoke directly to him, he’d hear and respond.
A dark corner of her mind was always searching for a way – one, blessed, horrible way – to deafen him. Without pain, or any other damage. Permanently.
She opened her eyes and leaned forward, fighting to wake up. To get moving.
Below her, the tin soldiers were marching toward the table in two neat rows.
“Where are they going?” she asked.
His head spun around, curls bouncing. “They're flyin’ on the wind daemon to attack the dark on Foncé.”
She smiled, hiding the twinge in her heart – he’d absorbed the idea that darkness was a danger to him, so naturally, “the dark” was an enemy to be attacked and vanquished. “Foncé – the planet?”
He nodded. “Yep. There’s a whole city of abercorns there.”
“What are –?” She tried to ask, but he wasn’t finished.
“They climbed up Mount Teirlinck and that daemon gave them a boost to ride on the wind.”
“Does – does Mount Teirlinck have its own daemon?” She honestly wasn’t sure how that worked.
He smiled slyly. “Yep. Knotweed told me. All the plants talk to Mount Teirlinck and they say Mount Teirlinck is boring. But I don’t believe them. A mountain’s gotta see everything. So Teirlinck’s jus’ tryin’ to ‘member everything.”
Tess studied her son, trying to sort out truth from fantasy. Did he know things from the daemons around them? Had – had he been talking to the knotweed vine clinging to the back corner of the tenement building? She smiled at the image of her child engaged in a serious conversation with a weed, but, she also cringed. What if someone saw him? What would they think?
“Okay,” she said. “So then they fly on the Gale –”
He shook his head vigorously. “Nope. Not the Gale. It’s another wind daemon. It’s named the – the Nale.” He broke into a laugh, and Tess had to join, even as her brain searched fruitlessly for the joke he saw there.
Oh dear sweet child of mine, she thought.
If only the Gale was a joke.
She noticed one soldier sitting alone, away from the rest. “What about him?”
He scooted over to the solitary toy. “He needs a friend, but he’s scared. Like Gram Faw.”
“What’s he scared of?”
Jacqui shrugged and picked up the soldier, his small face pinched in thought. Then he looked up. “Teddy’s mama was cryin’ – does she need a friend?”
Tess slid from her stool to sit beside him on the floor. “Yes, she does. Her heart hurts, and she needs a friend.”
He thought for a moment, then dropped the toy and tackled her – wrapping his arms around her neck. “An’ you’re her friend now.”
She grunted, falling backwards. Then, recovering her balance, she squeezed him back, burying her face in his fluffy curls. She planted a kiss on the top of his head.
“I hope so,” she whispered, to herself as much as to her son. Teddy wouldn't have missed those eye rings in the dark. Would he tell his mother? Could Alice possibly know what they meant? Or would she take it as a child’s fanciful story?
Take care of your own – that was Hellen’s mantra. But what kind of a world did that build? What kind of a man would Jacqui grow into, if she guarded and protected him, ignoring the lives around her?
He’s my brother – I’ve got to think of him first, she’d once said. How might things have ended if she’d taken another way?
● ● ●
Twenty years ago
This was not the time to look worried.
Even so – Tess felt like she was leading a lion on a string. Like the one she’d seen once at a traveling circus. Coiled and deadly, looking for a way out of its cage. Despite the warm wind, she shivered, pulling her shawl closer.
They had all day to make their way to the inn Percy had told her about. Take your time, Percy had said. Go slow, stay away from soldiers. Don’t attract attention, and forbid the Magician from using magic, and from speaking with anyone, when you’re out on the street.
That morning, after Tess made tea and they ate the small amount of food Percy had left for them in icy silence, Tess had given the Magician those orders in a stumbling voice, feeling strange for it. Then she’d ordered him to go change into the normal clothes that Percy had left for him.
So far, as they wound their way through the morning market, he seemed to be doing exactly as she’d said. There’d been no hints of magic, and he’d kept his mouth shut. The Magician glanced her way, and she turned back to looking along the stalls for some decent food.
As she watched the faces around her, she realized they all looked worried and frightened. Everyone in Taudis seemed to know something was about to give. People made their way along the stalls with their heads down, making their purchases, and moving on without the normal chatter that usually filled the square.
But even so the market was still filled with the sharp tones of savvy haggling, arguing over the price of melons, crates of chickens, and skeins of wool. Children ignored their parents tense commands to be still, and chased each other between carts and stands, screeching just as loudly as ever. The wind carried the smells of manure and damp straw, mixed with garlic and ginger.
Her inner skirt pocket bounced against her leg, heavy and bulging with coins that Percy had said to demand from him. Another order that had felt so strange to give, but then he’d promptly pulled a handful of coins from empty air. He could create money.
The Magician's arms hung limply at his sides, but his hands were clenched in fists, and his eyes constantly moved through the crowd.
She snapped her gaze forward again, and pushed her way through to a vendor selling meat pies. The savory smell made her stomach growl.
“Miss Olivier – ”
She stiffened at the Magician's voice, suddenly right behind her, his hand on her shoulder. She pulled away. “What?” she hissed.
He nodded his head in the direction of three children, mostly hidden behind a cart loaded with cabbages. Could he use magic to stop them, he asked.
She followed his gaze. Two children in rags were tossing something back and forth over the head of the third child. His eyes were covered by a narrow strip of filthy cloth, but it didn’t hide the helpless rage on his face, as he attempted to catch the object, following it by sound. He was blind.
Tess spun around, glaring. How dare he use a blind child to manipulate her.
“You don’t need magic for that,” she snapped.
He returned her angry glare, but then turned and stalked away from her, heading for the children anyway. The bullies saw him coming, and scampered away. He started after them, only to come to a stumbling halt. Percy’s ten-meter tether.
Stepping back, he turned, and bent down by the blind child, who was sitting on his heels, sobbing. What was the bastard up to now?
She hurried over as the Magician reached out to touch the boy’s filthy little head. He stopped, his hand hanging in the air, and muttered a sullen request to speak to the boy.
“Leave him alone,” she snapped, and he pulled back. The boy looked like he’d do anything for a coin. Like carry a message.
She crouched down by the child herself. “Hey there,” she said. She meant to sound reassuring, but when she touched him on the shoulder, he flinched and pulled away. “Are you hurt?” she asked. “Can you tell me why you’re crying?”
The boy mumbled something she didn’t catch.
The Magician, standing behind her, said the boy had a flute, but the two larger boys took it. She didn’t miss the reproachful edge in his voice. As if this child meant a wit to him.
Tess tried another question. “Where did you get the flute?”
“Made it,” the boy finally answered.
The Magician tried wheedling this time. He might just be able to make a new flute, if she let him do some magic. Just enough to make a flute. She glared into his eyes, searching for a key to his plan. To break through that mask of studied innocence.
Finally, she huffed out a frustrated breath, and nodded. “Fine. You can do just that magic. Don’t you dare pass any kind of message in or on or with the flute to the boy, or anyone else. Don’t draw the attention of anyone – don’t let anyone see anything suspicious.”
The Magician hesitated.
She needed to tell him to make a flute, he said. What did he want – her permission engraved in gold and presented with trumpets?
Something felt wrong about this, and a thread of fear twisted in her stomach. There was a trick here, and she was missing it. “Why?”
The Magician opened his mouth, shut it, then finally spoke. He needed a direct command to do the magic, he said. Without it, Percy’s magical binding would hold him back.
The child had stopped crying, and sat there, listening. This wasn't good. She shouldn't have let the Magician talk at all. But, now that she’d agreed to the flute in the boy’s hearing, disappointing him would be cruel.
So, glaring up at the Magician, she told him to make a flute. He gave her a thin, mocking smile, and stalked over to a sickly tree growing up near one building where it had found a ray of sunlight. He reached up, and placed his hand on a branch.
She’d seen his green magic in the dark, and she saw the hints of it now, glowing just where his hand touched the branch. He shifted, and his back hid whatever he was doing. Then, he turned around, clutching a short length of the branch. It seemed to have shed its insect-infested bark and smoothed out.
He stopped behind her, and held out a rough flute. It wasn’t rough the way a carving knife would leave it. It was rough the way nature seemed to make things never quite straight. The outer edge rippled slightly, flowing along the grains of wood and knots.
He muttered that he could have done better without Percy’s control. She moved to take the flute, then grimaced. She’d seen the binding magic work – he couldn't do anything she didn’t allow him to. Maybe talking to a suffering child might actually be good for him.
“You may speak quietly to the boy – only the boy. Don’t tell him anything about who you are or where you got the flute, or give him any messages for anyone.”
He gave her a little nod, and knelt down by the boy, placing the flute in his hands. He shifted the boys fingers to the holes, and lifted the end to his mouth. Hesitantly, the boy placed it between his lips, and blew. The sound was – it wasn’t good, but, as the child moved his fingers up and down, there were definitely variations of tone there.
His little face split into a grin.
He held the flute out, to the Magician. The man shifted to sit cross legged on the muddy ground, and placed the flute to his own lips. It warbled out a short, jaunty tune.
The boy laughed and clapped his hands.
The Magician handed back the flute, and, placing the boy’s grubby fingers back on the holes, began to teach him the series of notes, whistling each one, and manually shifting the boy’s hands.
Finally, he asked the boy’s name, and started to offer his in return. Tess, mesmerized, had missed the danger, but Percy’s magic stopped him anyway, and the Magician cut off abruptly.
The boy didn’t seem to notice, fortunately, and informed the Magician that he was San, and that he was seven. Then, he smiled slyly, and lowered his voice to whisper. “How come you’re not suppose’ta tell me your name an’ how you made’a flute? Are you the Raven Piper?”
The Raven Piper – a popular figure in stories Tess had been raised with – he had a magic flute, and when he’d play it, cruel people and misbehaved children would turn into ravens, who were then forever trapped to obey the song of his flute.
It sounded an awful lot like Percy.
She suppressed a grin. Maybe there was some truth to the story after all – a man who could control and command an enemy of the people. Had Percy’s sort of magic been the inspiration long ago for the Raven Piper?
But the boy’s guess was also frighteningly near the truth. She shot the Magician a warning glare, but he wasn’t looking at her. No – he wasn’t he, he said.
“Oh.” The little mouth twisted into a disappointed frown.
Tess opened her mouth to say it was time for them to leave, but the boy spoke again, smiling brightly. “Can you teach me that song again?”
Tess stepped back, frowning. How did she reconcile the powerful monsters she’d seen Magicians to be, with this man, who was patiently walking a filthy child through a simple tune, over and over. His face reflected the child’s innocent – exuberant – delight.
He looked so – young. Was he much older than Renn? Or –
The sparse, uneven stubble growing on his smooth chin caught her eye. Could he be younger than Renn?
A distant clocktower began to ring. Noon. Tess jumped. They’d been out here where anyone might recognize the Magician for nearly two hours. Was that his game? To delay her, or increase his chances of being seen and recognized by a soldier?
It was time to go, and she said so.
The Magician pushed heavily to his feet, all while San begged him to stay. “I do’n’ know the song yet.”
The Magician ruffled his hair, reassuring the boy that he knew it better than he did, now. San grinned, but it slipped into a frown as they left him.
Crossing Lorraine on foot, while moving with the crowds and blending in took hours. Last evening, the Magician had met her just outside Taudis district, traveling there in a coach. He’d probably never even seen some of these parts of the city before.
Taudis – once a mining town separate from Lorraine, had been swallowed by the growing population of the city, and had finally been encircled by the newest city wall about seventy years ago. The concentric city walls and gates precluded any direct route from Taudis to the prison. The walk was double that to avoid any areas where the wealthy frequented – anywhere the Magician might be noticed and recognized.
They only had a few hours left before dark when Tess reached the inn where Percy said she’d meet the freedom fighters.
The main room was occupied by just a few old men muttering to each other over watery ale when she entered. The woman behind the counter glanced up when they entered. Tess gave her the short passphrase, and the woman directed her to a door in the back.
Stuffed into the room were possibly twenty men. They grinned as she entered, their eyes locked on the Magician.
“He did it – that blasted Percy actually did it,” one muttered.
“Is it – he – safe?” asked another voice.
Tess nodded, smiling. It was time to test Percy’s next step. She called the Magician to the center of the room, and read from the instructions paper. “Give these men as many weapons as you can right here and now. You may not harm any of them in any way.”
He shot her an angry glance, and she could see his jaw clench, but, he held out his hand, glowing green, and a dagger appeared there. Followed by another, and another. After he’d made a large pile of those on the table, other weapons followed: disassembled parts of crossbows and their bolts. Heads of polearms.
Tess watched him, frowning. The Magician could create money and weapons – some with wooden parts, but he needed a tree to make a flute?
Finally, he flexed his hands, shot her another resentful glance, and announced that there were no more he could summon. She gave him a nod, and he found a chair set against the wall at the back of the room, as the men divided up the weapons, hiding as many as they could under clothes and in bags to distribute to the rest of the freedom fighters. Eventually, they slipped, one by one, from the room. She’d see them again at full dark. They’d be waiting, lurking in every alley and dark corner, ready for the moment the prison wall came down.
For a few minutes, Tess sat in the room, alone with the Magician again. Then the woman who’d been working at the bar brought in a platter of food. “Percy wanted to make sure you had a good meal,” she said, smiling. “This is on us. We’re all with you.”
Tess met her eyes. They were glowing with a fierce pride, and took the tray from her. “Everything’s going to change after today.”
Tess placed the food on the table, and selected a crusty bun baked with sausage and greens inside. She told the Magician to help himself. He took just an apple, then stalked back to his chair in the far corner, refusing to look her way.
She settled into her own chair, watching him as she ate the savory treat.
She’d almost forgotten her fear while he’d played with San, and then in the excitement of the freedom fighters, but alone with him again, she felt the tension return. His free hand drummed nervously on the edge of his chair.
Don’t trust him, Percy had written. My truth spell won’t work without me.
“What do you mean – you had no more to summon?” She’d asked the question almost before she’d thought it. “And why didn’t you make the flute from nothing – like the money and weapons?”
He swallowed a bite. “I didn’t make anything. I just summoned things. From the castle armory.” His tone was surly – belligerent. But then, he stopped, the apple halfway to his mouth, and just stared at the far wall for a few seconds. “You don’t know.” He said it quietly, a statement, not a question. “The spy didn’t tell you.”
Tess flushed. Sure, she didn’t understand how magic worked, but she didn’t need to, did she?
The Magician turned to face her, a crease between his eyebrows. “That Roucy spy – he’s just using you. Whatever he’s told you about magic – whatever promises he’s made – he’s lying. Those men? They’re going to die.”
“Our own king is murdering us – so it’s a reasonable risk, I think.”
He snorted. “That’s ridiculous.”
Don’t talk to him, Percy had said. But she couldn't help it – all these words she’d choked back for so long surged into her mind. It wasn’t like she had anything to lose now. And the Magician was doing a horrible job of it if he thought this would convince her. She pushed to her feet, glaring.
“The miner’s march? Prince Marceau killed twelve and injured – permanently – plenty others.”
“They were a dangerous mob.”
“That’s a Gale-blasted lie!” she shouted, not caring about who heard her. “They were defending themselves – there were women and children there!”
The Magician looked away, into the far corner, refusing to answer – to even try and justify the act. He took another loud bite from the apple.
Now that she’d started, she couldn’t stop. “I knew most of them – the ones who died. They were fathers – husbands. Brothers. Others were so injured they’ll never be able to find work again. Their families are going to starve. Babies – they’ll be on the street. You new friend San? Chances are he lost someone, between the cave in and the march. Because his king doesn’t give a fig for his little life.”
She had to pause, taking a breath.
“Those miners didn’t have to do the work,” he muttered. “Gale – they could leave if they hate this city so much.”
“Oh, and how do you suggest we do that? That takes money – or do you expect these families – they’ve got children and babies – to cross hundreds of miles walking. Without a coin for food. And what do they do when they get wherever they’re going? Beg? Take work from the citizens? I’m sure that will go well.” She laughed, humorlessly. “We’ll die if we stay. And die if we go. And you ask why we’re risking our bet on Roucy.”
He didn’t respond.
“Look me in the eye and tell me to my face that you support those deaths. That you really don’t regret selling yourself – your magic – to that tyrant,” she demanded. “Tell me you’re content slavishly supporting his every whim.”
He spun around, his motions wooden. Stiff.
His eyes met hers. “I support those deaths,” he whispered. “I don’t regret selling myself – I’m content.”
Saints – Percy’s magic. She’d forgotten. But, she hadn’t expected the haunting look in his eyes. He – he looked like he was in pain.
She stumbled over her words. “I meant – I mean if you do.”
He dropped his eyes to the apple in his hand. “It doesn’t matter – I don’t have a choice.”
“You’ve always got a choice between right and wrong. You could help people instead of yourself. Saints – you just helped San – why don’t you use your magic for that? You made one child happy – think what you could do – ! Tell me this – why ever do you have no choice?”
He hunched forward, letting out a long breath. As he rested his arms on his knees, the Magician began to talk. He described a complex system of control and the Gale’s power. Of daemons, Noblemen, and Magicians. He spoke in a soft, halting voice. His fingers, moving with nervous energy, played with the half-eaten apple, twisting the stem around and around, until it broke off.
She frowned. This – this was nothing like what Percy had said.
He’ll lie – try to trick you into releasing him. Saints – if the Magician was actually telling the truth – she couldn't release him if she wanted to.
A horrible thought made her stomach lurch. That couldn't be right.
She chewed on her lip as a heavy silence filled the room. “But that’s –” she cleared her throat. “Are you saying –? If that’s how an Obligation works, you – that’d make you King Lorraine’s – slave.”
He winced, then nodded. “Yeah. Something like that. But – a slave could chose to disobey. Escape. Defy an order. Saints – I wish I had that kind of freedom.”
This had to be an elaborate lie – didn’t it? Was this what Percy had warned her against? Or – or was Percy hoping she wouldn't learn the truth?
She pulled out the folded sheet of instructions. That strange one about hearing. She’d never mentioned it to the Magician, but, he’d all but answered that very question. “What if two of – of them tell you to do things that are opposite?”
Her instincts screaming to not trust him, she pushed to her feet, and, crossing the room, held out the paper.
He took it in his free hand. He glanced over the instructions, then, he sucked in a sharp breath. “That – his failsafe – it’s not to kill the king. It’s to kill me. Two mutually exclusive Obligations’ll – that will –” he shuddered.
She blanched. “Why?” Percy didn’t say anything about killing him. “Why would he want – ?”
The Magician shrugged. “Strip Lorraine of a weapon in this game with Roucy?”
Tess tried to take a breath, tried to calm the horror tightening around her chest. This all fit with a horrifying perfection. If this were true – could she use a person like that? Wouldn't that place her on level with the king?
“If – if I asked you – if you had the choice – would you help us? Rescue Renn – my brother – and the others?”
He lifted the half eaten apple, still in his other hand, studying it. “No.”
“It’s hopeless. People – your people – will die. I can’t help you against the prince. Or Lorraine. And if – if I could, I’d have to fight my own brother. Or my father.”
Renn’s face – alive with hope and eagerness – hung in her mind. He was depending on her – he trusted her. She wanted to scream. Or cry. Or – or something. They were so close – but –
But, Renn. She’d never save Renn without the Magician. She bit her lip, her insides twisting into knots.
“Miss Olivier –” he said softly. “Please – don’t trust the spy. He won’t use me to take the castle – I can’t. He’ll use me to cause chaos and then –” He glanced down at Percy’s instructions that he held limply in his hand. “If he’s got an idea to keep my Obligations suppressed – he’ll take me back to Roucy. I – I could be useful –” He let the paper drop from his hold. It slid to the floor, landing at Tess’s feet.
He just sat there – in that same hunched position, his hands now perfectly still.
She opened her mouth, shut it, and then opened it again. “But –” it sounded like a sob in her ears. “But – he’s going to help me rescue my brother.” She bit her lip, fighting to keep control of her face, to stop her chin from trembling. “I’m – I’m sorry – Jacques. He’s my brother – I’ve got to take care of my own brother. Can you understand?”
He nodded, then, he sat up, speaking in a rush. “I – there’s another way to save him. Without fighting. If you took me to the princess – Princess Claudette, I mean – and if you told her everything – I know she’d release your brother.”
Tess froze, and the spell he’d been weaving over her broke. He’ll lie – try to trick you into releasing him. Had the Magician been building to this from the first? Carefully manipulating her emotions?
So that was his game all along. The manipulative bastard. She’d all but fallen for it. She took a step back. “And what will happen to all these freedom fighters?”
He looked away. “You’d probably have to help set a trap for them.”
“What? Who do you think I am?” Her voice shook now with shock and fury. “Betray my friends? They trust me. You think I’d buy my brother’s freedom with their deaths? And you acted like you cared about my friends dying.” She snatched up Percy’s paper. “But all you really cared about was your mistress!”
Tess turned and stalked away from him. True, she wasn’t sure what to believe about Percy and his magic anymore, but – Gale blast it – she wasn’t going to betray her friends, and they were counting on her.