A full day after the failed revolt – twenty years ago
They ate breakfast in silence. Pa was still asleep, and neither Tess nor her mother cared to wake him.
What was there to say?
Even the normal sounds of chaotic life in Taudis were muted. Everyone had lost someone, now. And like the days after the miner’s march, no one would dare drape their windows in black. No one wanted to advertise their connection to the failed revolt to the soldiers who’d appeared in tens on every street corner yesterday morning.
Commerce would start up again this morning. The stoic population who lived so close to death every minute of their life would just go on with their business. Death didn’t stop bellies from needing to be full, and shifts to be worked, and laundry to be cleaned.
When Jacques had brought Tess home yesterday morning, he’d quietly told her that she wouldn't need to worry about money anymore. She didn’t need to do anything that day. That the princess would make sure she was rewarded.
Dead-tired, she’d barely heard him. Now, a day later, she should feel concerned about her place at the Crescent Sun, but she just – it just didn’t matter.
Why did grief feel so much like fear?
What was she afraid of?
She wasn’t hungry. And she needed to get out of their rooms. Ma didn’t look up as Tess slid from the table and left their flat.
The sky was clear today, and people had started to move through the streets, going about their business.
A figure unfolded himself from where he sat on a crumbling stone wall. She almost looked right past him, before recognition caught up.
It was Jacques. Wearing that set of clothes Percy had given him to fit in.
He gave her an uncertain little smile, but he hung back. “Tess? I – I had business here, and, thought I might see how you’re doing.”
She stared. Trying to sort out what to say.
His eyes dropped to the toes of his muddy boots. He scuffed one deeper into the mud. “Well, then – I’m sure the princess will send for you soon. I’ll see you then.”
He moved to turn away, but she hurried down the steps after him. “No – don’t – don’t go.”
He stopped and spun back around, his eyes lighting up. “I wanted to try and find San. Would you help me?”
She blinked. “I thought – you had business.”
He glanced away again, shrugging. “That’s – he’s –”
“You came for San.”
“What about Percy?”
“He’s out of the city – the princess’s Obligation was only to bring her an agent I can capture in the city.”
She stepped up to join him, suddenly wanting to hug him, but – was that appropriate, considering, she barely knew him? Yesterday morning had been – what had it been? Instead, she folded her arms together. “How are you?” She asked, reaching for something to fill the awkward silence.
He shrugged again. “Well, my life is back to normal.” He started moving at an aimless stroll down the quiet street, and she followed. “The princess is pretty angry with me for –” he flashed her a sheepish grin. “For falling for your bait. And emptying her armory.” He dropped his eyes to the muddy street, grimacing. “I actually am Obligated to be here – looking for any of your friends who got away. But – you and San seem like the good places to start. So –” he met her eyes, his expression a cross between worry and hope. “I’m sorry – if you want to leave – I completely understand.”
She unfolded her hands, stepping closer to touch his arm. “You’re doing a horrible job of being sneaky, then.” She let herself grin, and a thread of warmth slid into the cold numbness inside. “I might know some,” she added, impulsively. “You’ll just have spend today trying to trick me into telling you.”
He hesitated, then let out a long breath. He returned her grin, his eyes shining. “Nah, I thought I’d play my magic flute and draw them to me. You’re just here to help me blend in.” His hand glowed briefly, and a polished reed flute fell into his hand. “For San.”
She let herself giggle. “Did you make that one too?”
He shook his head. “I bought it like a normal person.” The flute vanished again. “The princess – she’s not someone I could ask for such an Obligation.”
Tess frowned. She’d been so terrified for Jacques, exhausted from the fight, and numb over Renn, that she didn’t actually remember that much about her conversation with Princess Claudette. “You said she was angry with you.”
He grimace, looking away. “I – she – yeah.”
Tess stopped walking, and her chin went up. “How can she be angry with you? None of that was your fault!”
He shrugged, eyes on the ground. “I could have left a note,” he mumbled. “To hurt your brother if I wasn’t back in a certain time, or I could have used you as collateral to make him help us, or vise versa.”
Tess froze. Renn. She’d never even considered that. Of course Percy hadn’t mentioned the possibility.
“Gale!” he muttered, jerking his head up. “Oh – Tess – I’m sorry.” His forehead was creased with worry. “I didn’t mean to –” He grimaced. “How – are you –?”
She forced a smile. “I’m – I don’t think it’s really sunk in. That he’s gone. But,” she took a deep breath. “So what you’re saying is that she’s angry you treated me so decently when I showed up.”
He shrugged, shoving his hands into trouser pockets. “She had to use something big to make Percy let me go like that. She’s not happy about it, and next time –” he winced. “I’ve got to speak with her before I follow a new informant anywhere.”
He was afraid of what Claudette would make him do. Tess could see that in his eyes, on his face, in the slump of his shoulders.
She fought the sudden urge to wrap her arms around him. But – saints – they were in a public street. She settled for a hand on his arm.
He placed his other hand over hers, holding it there, as they started walking again.
She suppressed an awkward grin. The neighbors could talk themselves to the Gale about her hand on the arm of a strange man. Renn was dead, and right now, she didn’t care a wit about their opinions. His hand felt warm, and his touch made her numb heart feel a little warm, too.
Watching him, she could see the effort he was making to focus on her, and ignore the filth lining the street. Growing up here, she barely noticed, but, as she’d observed that first evening, this was far from where he was comfortable.
She couldn’t help her own curiosity, though, and asked the question burning in the back of her mind. “What did the princess use to scare away Percy?”
Jacques shook his head. “I don’t know. She only tells me what I need to know. You saw how he could command me to tell the truth.” He gave a low slightly bitter laugh. “That morning – after the revolt – he wasn’t happy to discover how little I could tell him about her plots and plans.”
“But – then – why? Why did he do it? What, by all the saints, did he hope to accomplish?”
“A chance to take one or more Magicians from Lorraine? Another step in this war of disruption they’ve been waging for years.”
He grimaced. “Lorraine is the only city in this area that has any Magicians. The other two – they used to, but don’t anymore. And with the growing scarcity of resources, they’re gonna end up fighting it out, eventually, if we can’t all work it out. There’s been something of a balance between all of us, with Lorraine as the unspoken arbitrator. But – when Lorraine dies –.” He shook his head, and let out a long breath. “It’s gonna be a mess. So Roucy’s been working to keep Lorraine so inward focused that he won’t have time to worry about conquest. Stirring up revolution. Encouraging the feud between the princess and Prince Marceau.” He shuddered. “Lorraine’s refused to choose between them out of pure spite, I think. But it’s everyone else caught in the middle who are going to suffer when they finally fight it out.”
“Like you,” Tess said, welcoming the warm anger pushing away her numbness. “And your brother.”
He nodded. “Yes. But, not just my own family – this whole city. Frankly, the princess – all things considered – is the best possible option right now. And that’s not just my Obligations talking.” He dropped his eyes to the muddy street. “At least – I don’t think,” he added, softly.
Tess bit her lip, watching him, her hand tightening on his arm.
He looked up, smiling again. “But. In the meantime, do you have any idea of where we might find San?”
Tess forced a smile in return and shrugged. “We might start at the market.”
“Then please, lead the way.”
The street began to fill with more and more people heading about their business, as she led him back to where they’d met the boy. The crowds were quiet. They walked with eyes down.
At the market, they asked at the booths near where the cabbage cart had stood, and finally, they were pointed to a greasy little man seated outside a shabby tea house.
Tess frowned, her heart sinking. She pulled Jacques around a corner to explain. “That’s Bull. He doesn’t look like much but they say he’s part of a ring of smugglers. And –” she winced. “And other things. They say he owns a whole string of beggar children.”
Jacques narrowed his eyes. “Owns?”
“Basically. They beg for him, and he beats them if they don’t get enough.”
He stiffened. “Smugglers, you say?”
She nodded, and a slow smile spread across his face.
“Smuggling is sedition. And I’m here to look for traitors.”
Tess felt her eyes widen, a queasy feeling churning in her stomach suddenly. “You –”
He squeezed her hands, grinning. “Don’t worry – no one innocent is going to get hurt.”
He turned and walked straight up to Bull. Tess followed, a little worried, but also desperate to watch.
Bull raised his eyes lazily, and dug a finger in one ear. He gave Jacques a nod, then spit at his feet. “Ya want somethin’?”
Jacques pulled out the chair across from the little man and sat down, nodding in return. “Let’s start with a child named San. I’d like to know where he is.”
The man squinted at him. “An’ why’s that.”
“He’s got information I need.”
The man leaned forward, flushing with interest. “What kinda information?”
Jacques raised his hand, glowing green for a heartbeat, and a bag of money dropped onto the table. “Valuable information,” he said, casually.
Bull jumped back, pushing to his feet and swearing. His chair crashed backwards. For a second, Tess wondered why he wasn’t running, but she realized his feet had sunk into the muddy brick surface. He twisted wildly for a few more seconds, trying to pull himself free, and cursing.
Jacques had barely moved. He still sat casually in his chair, elbows resting lightly on the table, and smiling warmly. The money bag seemed to vanish back into his hand. “See, now, I even offered to do this the easy way.” He pressed his fingers together. “But since you decided to resist, let’s do this the hard way. Where can I find San?”
From both directions, Tess could see several soldiers who’d been patrolling the market edge nearer. They stopped within easy earshot, to watch and listen. Several shuffled nervously. The rest of the market had gone totally silent. Empty of people other than herself, the soldiers, and the two men at the tea shop.
Of course. They all saw Jacques as a monster or a tool of their butcher king. Many of them had seen his brother in action. She winced, her heart suddenly heavy for him.
Bull stammered an excuse, and Jacques’ smile disappeared as his eyes narrowed. His hand shifted slightly, and Bull whimpered, then finally muttered a reply.
“I moved ‘im to Sater Street. Outside the Prancin’ Calf.”
Jacques smiled, then beckoned to the soldiers. He gave them a series of quick instructions, then released Bull. He collapsed onto the ground, as the soldiers surrounded him, giving Jacques a wide circle.
He rejoined Tess flexing his hands. “Do you know where that is?”
She shook herself, trying to push past her shock at watching soldiers bind a man who actually deserved it, and nodded.
The Prancing Calf was a low, dark tavern that belched eye-watering alcohol fumes. San sat cross-legged one door down, trilling not quite clean notes on the flute Jacques had made.
A bowl with a few coins sat on his lap.
The filthy bandage across his face and the ragged, oversized shirt he wore were the same. But the bruise on his cheek and cut on his lip was new.
Jacques crouched down, saying his name in a quiet voice.
The playing cut off, as his little face split with a lopsided grin around his swollen lip. “Not-Raven Piper!”
He brandished the flute. “I can play the song – see?”
He launched into the simple tune, and Jacques clapped, then, bending forward, he asked if San would like to play with him today.
The boy’s face clouded. “Can’t. Half’ta beg,” he mumbled.
Jacques winced. “If you can help me with something, I can make it so you won’t have to sit here and play your flute for coins anymore.”
San shrugged. “Wha’dah want?”
Jacques shifted to sit beside him. “What can you tell me about Bull and his smuggling?”
The boy seemed to shrink into himself, shaking his head.
“San – I – I work for the princess, and she wants to stop people like the smugglers,” he said, gently. “If you help me, she’ll take care of you.”
The boy jerked back, scowling. “Yer a snitch?”
Jacques winced, and Tess stepped in.
“No, San. He’s not the kind of person who sells out people. He –” she avoided Jacques’ eyes. “He’s like you – he has to do as the princess says, like you do what Bull says. But he can –”
It had been the very wrong thing to say, and he kept shaking his head. “Nope. You’re no Raven Piper – ’e stops bad’uns. Not, snitches for ‘em.” He raised his little chin. “Go away. Not gonna help.”
Jacques let out a long breath, and his shoulders slumped. Tess couldn't see his face, as he stared down at his hands. “Can – can we still be friends? If I don’t ask about Bull?” He asked San, a painful, pleading note in his voice.
San sucked in his cheeks, considering. Then he nodded. “You can teach me another song. If yah put some coins in m’bowl.”
Jacques’ hand glowed again, and a few coins dropped into his hand. He placed them carefully one by one into the bowl. Soft enough that they wouldn't ring, but hard enough that the blind boy would feel them. Then, the new flute reappeared in his hand. “I brought you a gift – this one works better than the other,” he said, quietly. And held it to his lips.
He played a much more complicated tune, then placed the flute in the boy’s free hand.
San stroked the polished surface, feeling the simple instrument with his sensitive fingers as a slow grin spread across his face. Then, he lifted it to his mouth and played the song Jacques had taught him two days ago.
The notes flowed out with a beautiful resonance, and San flushed with pleasure. “I’ll get more coin wit’ this one,” he said. “Teach me the new song.”
Again, he carefully walked the boy through the notes, over and over and over. Finally, Jacques sat back. “I’m hungry. Will you come get food with me?”
San shook his head. “Half’ta stay here,” he mumbled.
“Well. Can I bring you food? Will you eat it if I bring it to you?”
He nodded. “I’ll eat all’a food.”
He pushed to his feet. “Then I’ll be back in a few minutes. You’ll be right here?”
The boy nodded, cradling the new flute.
Out of earshot, Jacques finally spoke to Tess. “I don’t – I did this all wrong, didn’t I.” He met her eyes. He looked worried – sad. “How do I help him now? Will he just suffer for how I approached Bull?”
“I don’t know,” she mumbled, feeling helpless. “No one’s ever tried before.”
His shoulders slumped and he nodded, looking away. “I thought – back there – with Bull – that I could actually – actually do something worth doing. Now –? He’ll probably sell out to the princess and be back out here by tomorrow. And San’s gonna be the one to suffer for that.”
Tess watching him, feeling tears prickling in her eyes.
I’d do anything to use this power to save life, not take it, he’d said a day ago – the morning, after the revolt. How did it feel? To see the pain around him, and possess all the power in the Dusk, but be so helpless to use any of it to help?
She stepped closer and reached out, taking his hand.
He glanced up, eyes shining with gratitude, and squeezed her hand back.
“We’ll find a way to help him,” she whispered. “We’ll figure it out.”