Back in their room, Tess sat Teddy down, and explained that Jacqui’s eyes were an important secret.
“Horrible things could happen to Jacqui if people find out his eyes glow,” she said.
Teddy’s shoulders slumped, and his eyes filled with tears. “Oh,” he mumbled.
Tess reached over to wrap her arms around his narrow shoulders. “You didn’t know – I’m not angry with you.” She knelt down to look him in the eye. “Just – don’t talk about it anymore, now that you know – yes?”
He nodded, his lower lip protruding.
Tess glanced over at her son. He sat stiffly, sensing her fear and unsure of what to say to his new friend. She pulled back, and grinned. “I think there’s a little time you can play before bed.”
Jacqui jumped on the suggestion, and retrieved his soldiers. The unease of a moment ago forgotten, they settled back into their game of war with tin soldiers.
Rocking Essie, Tess watched the little men fall on the imaginary battlefield, one at a time – still frozen at attention – their little pikes held against metal shoulders.
She’d nearly dozed off, when she heard the footsteps. Heavy, booted feet, stomping without regard for who might be asleep. Down their passage. The footsteps of powerful men.
Her heart seemed to stop, and for a minute, blind panic filled her mind. She push to her feet and sternly instructed Jacqui to crawl under the bed – as far as he could go, and to not come out until she said, no matter what. To press his hands over his ears.
“Teddy,” she snapped crisply, “Can you do something for me? Can you pretend to be Jacqui? It’ll be a game we’ll play.”
He nodded, eyes wide, as a fist slammed against her door.
Tess’s heart was pounding in her chest, but, at the same time, she felt as if she were separated, far away from this moment.
This couldn’t be happening.
There was no way they’d know about Jacqui.
This was a mistake.
They couldn’t have found him in a city of thousands.
She opened the door.
A man in expensive livery stepped back, to reveal a tall man dressed in a fine suit. He wore a short, carefully trimmed gray beard. A narrow scar marked one cheek.
He held himself with the air of established power. And then he nodded to the slight figure beside him.
Tess’s heart beat once.
One, painful, crushing thump.
It was Alice.
Pale, hunched, eyes on the floor. She nodded, and the man stepped forward. Tess stared at her in horror. How did she know? Where did she learn what Jacqui’s eyes meant?
“Jacqui – come here.” His voice was loud, commanding.
Tess opened her mouth. To – to say what? To tell her son to stay hidden?
Teddy moved to respond, but seeing his mother, he drew back, looking between his mother and the Nobleman with concern in his eyes. His mother beckoned, and he slunk out to slide behind her ragged skirt.
Meanwhile, Jacqui emerged from the bed, his face pinched in confusion. He shot Tess an apologetic look.
The Nobleman knelt down, to look him in the eye, his beard twisting with a slow smile. “Tell me your name, and your father’s name,” he said.
Jacqui shot Tess a worried look before answering. “I – my name’s Jacqui –” He looked to Tess again, his eyes pleading for help.
Tess’s throat felt thick when she spoke – and her voice sounded strange in her ears. “Your name is Jacques Dumont, and that’s –” She was shaking.
“That’s my papa’s name too,” he finished, a little note of pride in his voice.
The Nobleman nodded. “Perfect. Jacqui, you must never ever plug your ears in any way, or hurt them, or let anyone else do that – do you understand? Not even –” he glanced up briefly at Tess. “Not even your mother.” Jacqui nodded, eyes wide, as the Nobleman went on, slowly. Rewording that horrible liege oath to be understood by a child. “You must – you must not hurt me or my family in any way, and you must not let anyone or anything hurt me or my family in any way. Do you understand?”
Her son nodded again, his eyes wide.
The Nobleman pushed back to his feet, lightly brushing gloved hands together. “Right. Where’s that woman?”
Alice shuffled forward, Teddy clinging to her skirt. The Nobleman nodded to one of the liveried men with him, who handed Alice a heavy bag of coins. She snatched it, then turned to Tess for the first time.
“My baby,” she mumbled at the floor. “May I –”
Tess stepped back. “Why?” she asked, her voice cracking with emotion. “Why did you do it?”
Alice raised her chin, her face pale. “Why?” she snapped back, but in a quivering voice “He’ll be fed and cared for and given everything – an’ – an’ you – acting better’n the rest of us – why shouldn't I take a chance when I see it – for me and mine?”
She held out her hands for Essie, who’d begun to cry, and Tess numbly handed her over. Alice took the baby, turned, and fled.
The Nobleman nodded. “Right. The boy comes with us. Jacques – you must come with me to the castle.”
Tess opened her mouth, forcing her exhausted – terrified – mind to work. “Wait – please. You – you must let me come with him.” The man glanced her way, irritation in his eyes, and Tess pushed on. “Please – he’s five. You – he’ll be more use to you if I’m with him.”
He shrugged. “I could command the boy to forget you.”
“Sir –,” she choked out, recoiling at the thought. “I’m his whole world. What do you think that might do to him – to his mind? You’ve got him completely in your control – what danger could I be? Please.”
Jacqui’s wide eyes were locked on her, making this somehow even worse. Her stomach twisted violently.
The Nobleman shrugged again. “Fine. Come.” He turned and began to walk briskly away, Jacqui moving to follow him, like he was on a string.
Then, with effort Jacqui pulled back. “My – my soldiers –” he said, his voice small and frantic. “Wait – I need to get my soldiers.”
“Leave them,” the Nobleman snapped. “Let’s go.”
Her son shot a final despairing glance at his scattered toys, then followed. There were tears on his cheeks.
Then, a different childish voice echoed down the hall. “Wait!”
The girl stood in the darkness. Her eyes filled with fear and confusion. “Miss Tess – where are you going?”
Emma’s hair. The morning. She’d promised.
The Nobleman and Jacqui were already at it to the end of the hall. Tess would have to run to catch them.
“I’m sorry – I’ll come back when can,” she called to Emma. “I promise. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t – don’t go,” she repeated, her small voice desperate. “Don’t leave me!”
For a horrible heartbeat, Emma’s face blurred into another girl from Tess’s memory. Adele had that same look on her face, the last time Tess saw her.
The child Tess had failed to save.
Would never save, now.
Why did it always have to end like this?
Why couldn’t she save even one?
● ● ●
Twenty years ago
Tess was wearing her best dress, freshly washed. She smoothed it out, and sat.
Princess Claudette could look regal even pouring tea. She glanced up, a perfectly practiced smile in her lips. “Do you take sugar, dear?”
Tess shook her head, and the princess handed her a teacup.
“Now – Miss Olivier. I thought we should have a short chat.”
“Yes, your highness?”
She poured a second cup for herself. “I want to thank you for your service to me.” She looked appropriately sad. “This whole business with Roucy – the miners – it’s been tragically mishandled by my father. And my brother is only making it worse.” She glanced up. “I’d like to offer my deepest sympathies for the loss of your brother. How very heartbreaking,” she murmured. “If only you’d come to me at the first – I’d have been able to free him and set your family up for life.”
Tess studied the lacy pattern on her cup, hiding the surge of anger, grief and resentment that those words produced. She gripped the delicate cup tight enough for her knuckles to whiten.
The princess went on. “I shall have his ashes released to your family, of course. You are free to chose any garden you like for him. All expenses are on me. And your father – he will have all the help my physician can offer. I take care of my own, you see. And for your safety – it would be deeply unfortunate for you and your family, should your fellow conspirators hear how you’ve served me.”
Tess nodded, her stomach twisting.
“I have a manor outside the city – I keep a very small staff there. I think I’ll move you and your family to a small cottage on the grounds – set into the forest. You and your mother will be able to help where you best can, and your father will have better air.”
Tess’s mouth dropped open. Was the princess actually going to help her family?
“Now – there’s another little matter,” she said, as she stirred her tea with a silver spoon, each motion careful, graceful. She placed the spoon gently on the saucer, and lifted the cup. She met Tess’s eyes over the rim. “You’re quite taken with my Magician, I believe.”
Tess choked on a sip of tea, feeling her face flush with heat.
The princess continued. “I happen to think you could add a healthy – stability for the boy.” She smiled with just her lips. “Do you think he feels the same about you?”
“I – I don’t know.”
She arched an eyebrow, and Tess looked down, flushing again. “I – I think so,” she amended.
“I could, of course, Obligate him to feel so,” she remarked blandly.
Tess froze. “You – can – ?”
The princess set her cup down. “Oh – I’d never want to intrude upon his will in that way – I’m sure I’ll never have to do such a horrible thing.”
Tess’s stomach twisted violently. The princess took another graceful sip of tea. “It’s such a crude way to do things. But I doubt he needs any encouragement where you’re concerned. Now – there is something I need from you, dear.”
“What is it?” Tess choked out the words.
“I need this connection between the two of you to stay absolutely secret. No one on my staff or in your life can know.”
Tess frowned. This wasn’t what she’d expected. “Yes, your highness?”
“In return, you and your parents will have the hidden little cottage.” She smiled slyly. “It’s a perfect place for my Magician to come see you in perfect secrecy. I take care of my own, you see, dear.” She lifted the pot. “More tea?”
Tess shook her head, and the rest of the time passed with the princess asking her questions about every aspect of her life, and Tess numbly answering. Her hands were shaking when Claudette finally dismissed her.
Jacques was waiting just down the hall, exactly where he said he’d be. He pulled her into an alcove, hidden behind a draped curtain. He took one of her hands, unfolding her clenched fist, and squeezed it in one of his.
“What did she threaten?” he asked softly.
Tess bit her lip, not meeting his eyes, horrified to even say it. Instead, she buried her face in his shoulder. She could feel his rapid heartbeat.
“She – can –” Tess finally whispered. “She said she could make – make you care about me, if she wanted to.”
He drew in a sharp breath. “She could,” he said. “She could – she hasn't. She won’t. She just wanted you to know what kind of power she really has over me.” He shifted so that he could see her eyes. “You do need to know that –” He grimaced. “You’re not a Magician – you still can – you should – run away. Hide.”
She shivered. “She’d never let me go now.” Even if Tess thought she could get herself and her parents safely away – alone, without money, she wasn’t going to try it. Not if it meant leaving Jacques behind.
He was shaking too, she realized. “This won’t end well,” he murmured.
She closed her eyes. “Maybe. But even then, we’ll still have the beginning and the middle.”
● ● ●
After Tess and Jacqui climbed into the Nobleman's carriage waiting on the street outside their building, he stiffly introduced himself as Tobias Cheval Faverau, the brother to Queen Therese Ninove.
The queen was ill, and her crowned consort Henri was currently absent from the city, he said. And Tess and Jacqui would likely never meet either.
Tess barely heard him, sitting in the dark with Jacqui wedged against her, his little hands gripping her arm like a lifeline.
When do you give up?
When do you stop fighting for how the world could be?
When do you surrender to the way things are?
Take care of your own, Hellen said.
Hellen had lived through the ends too often to care about the middle.
I’m sorry Jacques, she thought at the darkness. You’re right. The ends just hurt too much.
It was so dark.
The light had all gone.
● End Part One ●