Tess’s feet ached. Her head ached. Her knees ached. Her shoulders ached. Her body begged for rest and sleep as she forced her legs to move, one stair at a time.
Her day at the laundry was brutal after skipping most of her sleep. This evening, Jacqui seemed to understand, and didn’t pester her for a ride up the stairs.
She was just too exhausted to make her normal detour through the closing market this evening, so today, the soup would be extra thin. Some boiled barley, some more root vegetables, and a few slices of bacon.
Finally in her room, she leaned against the door to shut it, fighting the urge to slide down and sleep.
Jacqui could get himself food.
Emma. And her brothers.
And now Teddy.
And Alice, with Essie.
But, she –
She opened her heavy, itching eyes. Jacqui sat on the floor, dutifully bent over his slate. He shot her a concerned look, his eyes wide. She forced a reassuring grin onto her face, and pushed away from the door.
She wasn’t done yet.
A soft knock sounded on the door, just as she started the soup. Jacqui’s head spun around, a question in his eyes. She nodded, and he bounded up and to the door.
It was Alice, with her children.
She shot Jacqui a quick, thin smile. It didn’t reach her eyes.
Tess beckoned. “Come in, please.”
Alice flushed, averting her eyes. She was wearing the ragged dress again. Her face was covered with a fresh layer of cheap paint. “I just – please,” she whispered. “Essie is still sick – an’ – an’ I have to go out. Would – can I beg you to look after my babies? You don’t have to feed ‘em. I gave Teddy ‘is supper.”
Tess reached out, but Alice stepped away from her touch. “You don’t have to go,” Tess said, softly. “I can help you find work – the laundry – I can teach you –”
Alice turned away. “I – I can’t ask that ah’you, it’s too much.”
“Alice – ? Please let me help you.”
Alice shook her head. “If you juss look out fer my babies – they’re everythin’ in the world t’me.”
Tess sighed, and nodded, holding out exhausted arms to take Essie. Alice handed her the baby, then, shooting her final timid glance, she slipped out the door.
Jacqui plopped down by his slate, but shot her a pleading look as he picked it up, as if it were a great burden to be shouldered. Teddy sat quietly beside him. Tess propped Essie against her shoulder and turned back to the soup, smiling at her son’s dramatics. “You can leave that for tomorrow, Jacqui. You can get out your soldiers.”
He squealed with delight and dashed for his box, Teddy following. Essie squawked at the noise, and Tess bounced her, humming a lullaby as she finished the soup.
Behind her, she could hear the tin soldiers engaged in a violent conflict.
● ● ●
Twenty years ago
Tess clung to her hot, comforting fury.
The Magician had tried to trick her into betraying her friends, Renn, and Percy. This painful, churning feeling in her stomach was only nerves about the coming conflict. Good men would die today. That was unavoidable.
In the final rays of the rapidly vanishing sun, she led the Magician through emptying streets, a short walk from the inn to the prison. Its walls rose up dark and forbidding in the gloom.
She couldn't see them, but she trusted the freedom fighters were all around, waiting for the moment she’d command the Magician to drop the wall.
She stopped, facing it. As high as a house with two floors, it was built of heavy stone blocks, held together with mortar. The light winked out like a snuffed candle, just as she reached out to touch the rough surface, plunging the alley into total darkness.
She took a deep breath. This was her last chance to walk away.
She spoke the name.
It started with that green glow, then, the ground shook and in a roaring, grinding, crashing rush, the wall collapsed into a narrow crevasse that opened beneath it.
She coughed from the dust, then, her sleeve over her mouth and nose, she started running. This was it – either Percy’s magic – or his Obligation – would protect her, or she was dead. He ran beside her, his hand casting just enough light to avoid tripping on the scattered and broken stones – remnants of the wall. The rest of the freedom fighters followed right behind.
The first prison guards appeared out of the darkness, pikes driving straight at Tess. She missed a step, startled, but a wave of green light slammed into them, tossing them off their feet and back, into the darkness.
Despite her heart thumping in her chest, Tess grinned. That had been spectacular. Exhilarating.
The men behind her dispatched the remaining guards as she reached the wall of the prison building proper. The Magician was breathing lightly beside her. She spoke the second name. “Open a way through this wall.”
His hand glowing, he touched it, and with more grinding and scraping, a dark hole appeared, rapidly growing to human sized.
She stepped through, into the dark passage, and the Magician raised a glowing hand. She nodded. “Lead me to the cells where they’re keeping the miners.”
He glanced around, hesitating a minute, then set off. She followed, and soon several of the freedom fighters had joined her.
As they rounded a corner, they walked straight into a group of startled guards. Tess simply stepped further into their circle, trusting the Magician’s green light to stun them when they moved to respond. They went down, and the other fighters dispatched them.
She found herself grinning again. A Magician made this almost too easy.
Then, they arrived at a row of cells she knew well. Tess pointed, giving him the code again. “Open up all those cell walls.”
He stepped forward and his green light shot down the line. Stone, doors, and mortar crumbled away. The first bewildered prisoners emerged.
One was Renn.
She shouted to him, and, for a moment, he searched through the dim green light and dust filling the passage. Then his eyes met hers, and his face split with joy. He dashed forward, and she met him halfway, wrapping her arms around him. He felt even thinner, but he returned her embrace with a fierce urgency.
He was the first to pull back. “Time later for this – let’s go!”
She nodded, and let him take the lead.
The armory was their next target, and on the way, she explained her strategy with the Magician. “He won’t let them hurt me – you have to see it.”
The guards had rallied at the armory, and filled the passage, hunkered behind spears and shields.
Tess glanced over to make sure the Magician was with her, then, taking a deep breath, she raised a short spear she’d taken from a fallen guard, and stepped forward.
They held their formation, waiting for her to come to them.
For a heartbeat, she hesitated. Then, shooting another glance at the Magician, she sprinted forward, her breath catching in her throat.
A wave of green crashed into the shield wall, and she skidded to a stumbling halt, almost among the sprawling guards. The fighters charged around her, she released the breath she’d been holding.
Once in the armory, they added spears, shields, and heavy crossbows to their light weapons. Most grabbed helmets. Tess stood at the door, the Magician beside her.
He stared at his feet, not looking her way, or watching the freedom fighters.
It was such a strange feeling – he was both her enemy and their secret weapon. His power – it was like an intoxicating drug – to charge straight at leveled spears, knowing he’d have the soldiers on their backs before she reached them. It felt like – like nothing could hurt her. Like she could do anything and go anywhere.
Was that how it felt to be a Nobleman? Her conscience twinged.
The freedom fighters were ready to head out, and she settled comfortably back into her place of command, directing the Magician to lead them out.
It was time to face the king. And rendezvous with Percy.
She carefully avoided the Magician’s eyes.
They formed up, moving as an army now. Two abreast, smiling grimly, ready to march on the castle.
At the door the Magician led them to, Tess stepped back, letting the freedom fighters enter the prison courtyard first.
That was how she avoided the wave of blue that, for an instant, illuminated the yard. She stared, trying to understand what had happened. Then, the Magician seized her arm, dragging her back down a flight of steps.
Behind her, voices shouted, and several screamed.
A Magician. There was a Magician out there.
Panic washed through her, and for a minute, she just stood there in the dark.
There was a Magician out there.
But, she had one too.
She had to get out there – she had to protect her friends and – and Renn!
She jumped away from the wall, and dashed for the steps, taking them two at a time. The Magician caught up with her, just as she reached the open doorway.
His hands closed around her wrist, holding her back. Before she could shout at him to let her go, his voice was hissing in her ear.
“No – don’t go out there! Please – no!” The desperation in his voice shocked her, and, she turned, eyes wide. His eyes reflected the blue flashes from the courtyard, and – she realized with a start – they glowed with their own light.
His breath came in short, panicking gasps. “Please,” he whispered. “Don’t make me go out there. I – I can’t – If you go out – please – that’s my brother. I’m begging you – please – don’t go!”
Tess froze, letting her arm hang limply in his grasp. From behind, the sounds of a hideously one-sided battle raged. Someone shouted, rallying the freedom fighters.
She spun, to see the fighters follow her brother, as he took cover behind a pile of fallen stones in the dim light of a few lit torches carried by the soldiers now filling the courtyard.
“My brother’s out there too, Jacques!” Her own voice sounded like a sob in her ears. “He’ll die!”
He dropped her wrist, and pulled back. “At least he chose to be there,” he said to the floor. The pain in his voice physically hurt.
But so did watching as Renn suddenly emerged from his cover at a sprint, leading a small force straight toward the source of the blue light. He made it only a few steps before the line of soldiers closed around them, stabbing with their spears.
She didn’t even have time to react – to run to him.
She slid, numb, down the stone wall to sitting in the darkness.
She was shaking.
Jacques took her wrist again, gently. “Tess – I have to get you out of here. Please.”
She couldn’t move.
His grip on her wrist tightened, and he took her arm with his other hand, pulling her to her feet.
Back down the stairs, where she couldn't see out anymore.
Into the passage filled with black darkness.
Out another door.
Into the alley, still and quiet on this side of the prison.
The voice that came out of the darkness was smooth and crisp. “Jacques – for the next twenty-seven hours, do not attempt to capture me, do not harm me in any way, and protect me from any injury. Do not move more than ten meters from my person.”
Jacques flinched beside her and dropped his hold on her arm.
“About all Obligations to, for, from, and about Tess – from those – I release you,” Percy added.
“Percy,” she whispered, picturing his face in the darkness. His voice carried that confident assurance. And then, she was sobbing out an account of what had happened in jumbled rush. But she didn’t include Renn. It was like her mind and mouth refused to say what she’d seen.
She felt the man step to her, pulling her into a tight hug, and she clung to him, trying to hold back tears.
“Oh, Tess, I heard. I know,” he murmured. “We were betrayed. One of our people sold us out – I came to find you as soon as I heard. My binding spell will wear off soon – you’d be totally in the Magician's power.”
He stepped back, his unseen hands on her shoulders. “Tess. There’s still a chance – you made sure to keep the Magician safe, so we’ve still got our ace. And I’ve got a plan – we can make sure today wasn’t in vain. I need your help one more time – do you think –?”
“Yes.” The words sprang from her mouth before she even thought. To do something – anything – to not let the numbness smother her again. “What do you need from me?”
She could hear the grin in his voice. “The same thing you so brilliantly did before. Go to the prince. Tell him you’ll sell me to him – me, in trade for the freedom fighters’ lives. Get the prince to send his Magician with you.”
From the darkness, she heard Jacques’s voice, choked with fear. “Please – no –!”
“Shut up,” Percy snapped.
She couldn’t see Jacques’ face in the darkness, but she vividly remembered the terror and pain she’d seen there earlier.
Don’t trust him, Jacques had said earlier. He doesn’t care about you.
Saints – she was only here because Percy said they’d free Renn.
Renn was dead.
A cold, terrible certainty suddenly settled the turmoil in her heart. She straightened, and smiled grimly into the darkness. “I’ll do it. Tell me what to say.”
Something like a sob came from Jacques’ direction, but she could hear the triumph in Percy’s voice as he gave her his instructions.