... Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die. ...
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
● ● ●
High above Ninove, a flock of ravens wheeled and called to each other in the windswept sky.
Their sharp, bright eyes had seen the caravans fleeing the city. These people had left their homes, their livelihoods – for the wind-swept slopes, ravines, and peaks of the the Teirlinck mountains. Some carried blankets and food. Others carried crying children and supported elderly parents.
The ravens saw the empty streets of a city that should have been alive with commerce and laborers and markets and children playing. They saw the streams of smoke from too few chimneys. They saw the silent houses with shuttered windows, hiding families too wise, or too afraid, to flee.
Their eyes didn’t miss the solitary figure who presented himself to the soldiers guarding a small side gate. He was dressed in simple clothing, but the soldiers came to a startled attention, bowed, and granted him instant entrance, and a horse, to ride for the castle.
They observed the flurry of activity around that ancient structure, placed on the top of a hill at the center of the city. At every gate and fortification, soldiers sharpened swords, worked their arbalests, and fingered the charms they wore to saints and daemons.
Rumors of Lorraine’s coming had reached the people two days ago.
No one knew or cared how many cavalry he rode with. Only that he had a Magician.
Across the city – just outside the postern gate , the ravens saw a cluster of figures, guarded by two companies of soldiers at attention, their eyes to the hills, watching for any sign of the enemy or of his spies.
Only one figure was looking to the sky.
The flock of ravens wheeled again, heading for the mountain pass.
Tess followed the birds with her eyes until they disappeared into the distance, small points of dark against the gathering clouds and shivered. She could smell rain on the air.
She pulled her woolen cloak closer around her shoulders, and dropped her eyes, back to her son.
His shoulders hunched against the wind, Jacqui scrunched up his face, concentrating. He crouched down to place his little hands on the hard clay, and a turquoise glow spread around his fingers and shot outward.
A light tremor shook the ground, and a narrow crack formed in front of him.
Jacqui sat down with a bump, the glow of his hands winking out. Tears of frustration and exhaustion sparkled in his eyes.
The Nobleman – Lord Tobias Faverau – snapped his fingers to his grandnephew, calling the scrawny teenager forward. Prince Lucas Faverau shot Tess a sullen glance, then slouched past, scuffing his shining boots through the freshly disturbed dirt. He carried a beautiful old book carelessly in his hand.
The prince opened the book and held it out, not bothering to look at the page himself. The Nobleman bent over him, squinting at the ancient sketches and descriptions of gestures and motions.
Jacqui watched him, his eyes dull.
Finally, the Nobleman called to her son, sharply commanding him to get up and come over. He demonstrated the series of movements again, and Jacqui tried to imitate.
They’d been out here for hours today, and Tess ached to beg them to give Jacqui a short break. But after two cycles spent watching helplessly as they forced her son through this grueling training regimen, she knew the Nobleman would either ignore her or send her back to the castle.
Now, with Lorraine's impending attack, the pressure was only increasing. These last three days, the Nobleman had shifted from terse and demanding, to positively cruel as he drove Jacqui to master techniques he himself only barely seemed to know.
She clenched her hands into fists.
Jacqui tried twice more before he was able to widen the crack into a fissure.
“Right,” the Nobleman announced, turning to the prince. “Lucas – your turn. Give the boy a command.”
“Can you –” the prince started, but the Nobleman cut him off.
“You know better than that,” he snapped. “Give him a direct command.”
The prince ducked his head. “Right,” he mumbled. “Set that tree over there upright.”
Her son raised a hand, glowing, and concentrated again. The fallen tree trunk glowed faintly, and rolled sideways. Jacqui bit his lower lip, and walked closer, trying again.
The Nobleman huffed out an impatient breath. “Use the ground, boy. Make a hole for the trunk to fall into.” He turned, cuffing the prince on the back of the head. “And you – use your Gale-blasted brain. The tree’s daemon’s gone.”
Jacqui succeeded in opening another fissure, but he’d placed it wrong, so the trunk simply rolled over again. He stopped to rub the back of his knuckles in his eyes.
The Nobleman snapped at him to stop crying and then briskly rescinded his command with the tree. He slapped the prince again, and the boy rescinded his original Obligation in a mutter.
Jacqui pulled back, his little shoulders slumping.
“Now try again,” The Nobleman ordered the prince. “Give it to him in steps, blast it.”
Tess knelt by her son, who’d begun to shiver in the wind. She adjusted his coat, tightening the fastenings.
He rubbed his nose. “The tree wouldn’t go.”
She nodded, holding back her own angry tears. “You don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
“I got it wrong.”
She wrapped her arms around his little body, pulling him against her. “You’ll get it,” she whispered. “You’ll figure it out. Just like your letters.”
“Jacques –” The Nobleman snapped. “Come here.”
Her son pulled away and hurried over, his small feet stumbling over the uneven ground.
He was exhausted.
● ● ●
Six years ago
Henri Lannoy Faverau, crowned consort of Queen Ninove, glowered at his grandson.
The freckled and twiggy boy held his wooden sword like a child playing with a stick as he faced the swordmaster, the two circling each other as Henri watched. Lucas moved his feet with all the grace of a fat scullery maid, even with his eyes focused more on his own toes than the sword master’s face.
The later, moving with slow exaggeration, began a stabbing lunge, and Lucas swung his sword wildly.
The practice blades slammed together with a shuddering clack, and Lucas’s point dropped as his fingers briefly relaxed and nearly lost their hold on the hilt.
Henri grunted and signaled to the swordmaster. The servant lowered his wooden sword and stepped back a pace as Henri rounded on the boy, cuffing him on the back of his head.
“Eyes – Lucas,” he snapped. “Where are your bloody eyes?”
Lucas stared at his toes and mumbled inaudibly, rubbing his sword hand against his leg. Of course it stung.
Henri held out his hand for the swordmaster’s wooden sword. The man placed it carefully in his hand and stepped back, as Henri raised the tip. Lucas’s eyes stupidly followed the motion, so he was completely unprepared for the numbing blow as Henri stepped into his guard and slammed the hilt down on his knuckles.
Lucas yelped and dropped the sword. He bent over, cradling his hand like he’d lost a finger and sniffed.
Henri growled and lowered his sword. “You deserved that – stop sniveling and act like a prince.”
Lucas nodded and rubbed his eyes with his wrist, then hefted his sword again. This time, at least, he kept his eyes up. Henri feinted a thrust, and the boy reacted without any control. Then, his eyes focused on something past Henri’s shoulders, and he straightened, fixed his posture, and went on the attack. Still no control, no focus, but at least he was showing a bit of spirit.
Henri glanced over his shoulder.
Audrick – Lucas’s father and Henri’s eldest son – was there with Tobias, waiting. Henri stepped back and lowered his sword.
Lucas took that as an invitation, and made a final thrust. Henri shifted to the side, and tapped the boy’s hand again with the wooden hilt. Lucas yelped, and pulled up short, but at least he wasn’t whimpering, now that his father was watching.
Henri nodded to his son, who stepped up to join them, Tobias following.
Audrick slapped Lucas on the shoulder as he passed, and grinned at Henri. “A courier just arrived,” he said. “Edouard Lafarge is dead. His Magician with him.”
Henri frowned. “Lorraine’s down to one Magician, then?”
“It seems so. Our man isn’t sure what happened, other than Roland’s taken all. But he didn’t get the Magician alive, it seems.”
“This is our chance to move on Roucy,” Tobias said, quietly.
Henri nodded. The growing population of their city, and diminishing resources had pushed his father-in-law into a long plan to take that city. Years ago, he’d tried and failed to have Tobias born there. Then, he’d insisted Henri and Therese try again with their second son. That time, they’d been successful, and Nicolas could take that throne, if they successfully wiped out the Delisle heirs.
“Lorraine will still protest – maybe even come to their defense,” Audrick said.
Tobias shook his head. “Not if he’s down to one. Roland’s cautious. He’ll keep the Magician close – and I doubt he’d risk coming himself. Not for Roucy.”
Henri smiled grimly. “But – when we’ve taken Roucy – we could lure him out – set a trap for his Magician. With Roland dead, the Magician would be ours free and clear. He doesn’t have an heir yet.” Henri glanced down, meeting Lucas’s wide eyes. He ruffled the boy’s hair. “What do you think, princeling? Fancy inheriting an empire? Maybe we’ll even have a Magician or two for your court, by then.”
His grandson straightened and grinned.
Present day – Ninove castle
Margot clenched her hands and took a deep breath.
In. Out. In.
The massive gates of the Ninove castle rose up before her, seeming to touch the very clouds – all imposing black iron and stone. The castle had been built on a hill in the very center of the city, where it could loom over its people.
She raised her chin. She was a princess. She could do this. She pushed back her hood, and approached the guardhouse.
“Please tell whomever you report to, that Marguerite Charlotte Lafarge, princess of Lorraine, demands to speak with your king. I have an offer of vital importance for him.”
The guard laughed. “Really.”
She flushed, but forced herself to meet his scornful eyes and keep her voice steady, no matter how much the words terrified her. “Please carry this message to your master: I am here to offer my help against Lorraine. I have a highly skilled Magician at my disposal, and I’d like to work out an acceptable arrangement to defend this city.”
That caught their attention. Then, she handed over two copied volumes of her mother’s journals that she’d brought as proof of her identity and good will.
Before they’d returned the originals to Alexandre, Adele had insisted they make these. Margot had only glanced through them herself in the intervening cycles.
Alexandre. She took a deep breath, fighting a burst of panic at that thought.
They brought her into the castle, where, surrounded by guards in rich green uniforms, a courtier carefully and respectfully searched her for weapons, then passed her off to someone else.
She fought to look calm. In control.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
She started counting, focusing on the shapes the numbers made in her mind.
… 389, 390, 391, 392, ...
As long as she didn’t think about all the people around her, watching her. Or the strong chance that they’d kill her today.
… 432, 433, 434, 435, 436, …
● ● ●
Six years ago
Therese was resplendent this evening.
Relatives and courtiers in rich colors swirled around her like notes of music from the orchestra. She wore that shimmering gown of deep red and diamonds sparkled at her throat, neck, and waist.
And her queenly smile – the one that still made Henri feel like a giddy teenager when she used it on him. A teenager with knees that protested when he moved, a back that twinged, and a gut that wouldn’t take the liquor shots it once could.
But growing old wasn’t a bad thing, if you had good sons you were watching grow into their own.
Audrick led his wife Virginie onto the dance floor, moving with the same grace he’d always had in the dueling yard. It was a pity Lucas seemed to be lacking there. But the boy was still young. He’d make them all proud, eventually.
Henri smiled, swirling his glass of dark red wine, savoring the flavor.
Any hour now – he’d hear from Nicolas that Roucy had been taken. That he had the city, and the city daemon.
Tobias had insisted on going with him, but Henri had been firm in his refusal. This was Nicolas’s fight. A chance for the younger brother to shine – to prove himself apart from Audrick and his uncle.
A servant leaned down. “Your majesty – a messenger has arrived from the prince.”
Henri sat up. “Well – bring him in, man!”
The servant grimaced. “Sir – I – believe you should go to him.”
A thread of fear slid into Henri’s belly. What was this? He hesitated, then, tossing the rest of the wine down his throat, he pushed up from the table. Audrick caught his eye from the dance floor, missing a step. A question in his face.
Henri beckoned for his son to follow.
The messenger was in a back room, attended by a physician. His arm was caked with blood. The rest of him was covered in mud.
Henri tried to take a breath, fighting against the sudden crushing fear of what the man would say.
The messenger pulled away from the physician to bow. His voice shook. “Your majesty – I –”
“Where is my son?” Henri demanded.
“Roucy, my lord.”
“What happened?” It was Audrick, appearing at the door.
“We walked right into an ambush. Roucy’s got a Magician from somewhere – we didn’t have a chance.”
Henri fought to think. To understand. “Where is my son,” he repeated, his voice shaking.
“They – they have him, sir.”
“Where is the army?” Audrick asked.
“Scattered and dead,” was the whispered answer.
The cold fear was replaced by hot rage, and Henri drew himself up. “The cowards – running from their prince.” He turned to his son. “How quickly can you marshal a force?”
“No!” This time it was Therese. She stood at the door, steadying herself against the frame. “They wouldn’t dare leave him alive – he’s already dead. Audrick cannot go, too. I won’t allow it.”
Henri exploded at her. “Then he’ll retrieve Nicolas’s body, blast it! You’d leave Roucy to plant our son in some damned pauper’s pyregarden far from home?”
She made a helpless gesture, eyes welling with tears. “I — I won’t lose another living son.”
Audrick shook his head. “Mother – forewarned is prepared,” he said, grimly. “They won’t take us by surprise again.”
Henri gripped his son’s shoulder. “Take Tobias. Between the two of you, you should be able to neutralize the Magician.” He pulled Audrick close. “And if you have the chance – burn Roucy to the foundations.”
Audrick’s answering smile was icy cold. “I’ll bring him home, mother.” He met Henri’s eyes. “And pay them back in tens if he’s dead.”
Henri nodded. Grief would come later – when his son was safely home.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove city wall
Standing on the outer city wall top, Tess could still see the final refugees – small points of dark struggling up the foothills of the distant mountains. The last to leave before Tobias ordered the city gates closed. She dropped her eyes to the stonework. Directly below where they stood, a team of soldiers were securing the iron structure with massive beams that locked into place.
She couldn’t let herself care about those people. She couldn’t worry about how they’d survive in the driving rain on the mountains, or how they’d feed their children when the little food they carried ran out.
It didn’t matter.
She couldn't save them.
This morning, Jacqui had asked her who was bringing Gran Faw stew and drawing her water. She told him she didn’t know. He’d looked at her with large solemn eyes, and asked if Tess wasn’t her friend anymore.
She’d told him she couldn’t be, and his eyes had welled with tears.
She took a deep breath.
Only one little life could matter right now.
Feed your own.
Fear shone in the eyes and faces of the men – boys – in royal Ninove green, who stood to stiff attention as the Nobleman and prince passed.
The Nobleman pointed to the soldiers, speaking to her son. “When the king of Lorraine attacks – you must help my soldiers fight and protect this city. Just like we practiced.”
Jacqui gazed up at the young men. They carried pikes at their shoulders, just like his toys, and wore daggers at their belts. The officers carried swords.
“Like them?” he asked, with just a trace of his old enthusiasm. “Like, a real soldier?”
The Nobleman nodded as he peered at the distant horizon – watching the mountain road. Lorraine would come down through that pass. “Yes,” he muttered. “Like a real soldier.”
Jacqui pushed onto his toes to see over the parapet beside the Nobleman. “Then,” he asked in a small, hopeful voice. “Can – can I have a uniform, like they wear? With shiny buttons and green like knotweed and a white stripe?” Jacqui added, his face lighting up. “And boots? An’a sword? Can I?”
Finally, the Nobleman seemed to hear, and glanced down, scowling. “Of course not.” he snapped.
Jacqui’s shoulders slumped. “Oh.”
It was too much for Tess. “Please?” she asked. “That uniform would mean so much to him – you need him focused – that uniform –”
The Nobleman interrupted, his voice cracking with impatience. “Where do you expect me to find one that fits him? Open your Gale-blasted eyes woman – I’ve got a thousand things more important to deal with than a bloody dress-up game!”
Beside her, Jacqui stared blankly at the stonework in front of his face. He’d begun to shiver again.
She swallowed. “Sir. You need him rested – let me take him back to the barracks for a nap.”
The Nobleman considered, then nodded. “I’m assuming they won’t attack until the storm hits or dark. But be ready to wake him at any moment.”
She gathered her son up into her arms, and he wrapped his arms around her neck, pressing his face into the hollow under her chin.
Two guardsmen followed her into the massive guardhouse by the main gate. The Nobleman wasn't going to give her any chances to take her sleeping son and run, out here by the wall.
Six years ago
Hot vengeful rage can be a powerful drug.
Half sober, Henri paced the battlements through cold wind and driving rain for seven and a half days. Servants tailed him, until he growled at them to leave him alone. After that, they dropped back – still within sight, but too far to curse at in the Gale-blasted wind.
Audrick would be coming home, safe, alive. Victorious.
Therese, of course, spent the days making offerings to the tree of Saint Ninove, for protection. For the safe return of her sons. For her brother Tobias.
If anything, Saint Owain was the one to pray to, if she thought it would help. Ask Owain to send their fallen son home to be planted with his family.
The marching column that appeared there – on the mountain road on the eighth day carried defeat in their stumbling feet, their torn banners, their stretchers.
Only one figure rode on a horse. Tobias.
Henri’s blood seemed to run with the same chill as the Gale-blasted rain.
They brought Audrick in on a stretcher and laid him in his rooms. Henri found him propped up on pillows, face gray and drawn. He tried to sit up, but Henri waved him down.
“I brought Nicolas home,” he whispered. “You can – plant him –” he winced. “Plant him where he belongs.”
Henri knelt by his son, gripping his shoulder, trying to speak. To say – something.
The door slammed against the far wall, as Therese stumbled into the room, white faced. Henri pushed to his feet, making room for her, as she flung herself beside his son’s sickbed.
This was a deathbed.
She was sobbing, but – but what could he say?
She rounded on him. “This – you did this!” she was hysterical. Screaming. “You murdered my sons.”
Henri opened his mouth to protest, but –
But, what was the point?
He shrugged helplessly, and leaving her to cry over Audrick, wandered off to find Tobias.
A physician was stitching a nasty arrow cut across his cheek, as he drank from a strong smelling jug.
He held it out as Henri entered. Henri took it, savoring a mouthful of the burning liquor. Tobias shook his head, and muttered a curse.
“We had ‘em, Henri. We bloody had ‘em.”
Henri slumped onto the stool the physician vacated. “What happened this time.”
Tobias took the jug back. “The plan was flawless – we had the blasted Magician in our control. Used ‘er to get to Nicolas’s body.”
Tobias cursed again. “Audrick hesitated. One second of indecision too long – and –” Tobias waved vaguely down the hall with the jug. “Roucy got the Magician back under their control. And there he is.”
Henri narrowed his eyes, growling “What do you mean – my son hesitated?”
“We’d planned for such a contingency. Kill the Magician.” He huffed out a breath. “But – the Magician? Turned out to be a child – a girl. Something like Lucas’s age, I think.”
Henri sat back. “And Audrick hesitated.”
Tobias nodded grimly. “Picked a bloody unfortunate moment for it too.”
Henri held out his hand for the jug, and Tobias passed it over. “Finish it, if you like. I have to see to my men.”
Tobias left the room, shoulders sagging with exhaustion. Frustration. Defeat.
Henri took another long, comforting drink.
A warm haze filled his mind as he sat there, slowly emptying the jug.
Outside the room, people hurried along. Going one way and another.
A bell began to ring.
Slow and muted.
That meant something, didn’t it?
He took another long drink.
This wasn’t …
… Not his fault – he didn’t – murder his sons.
… Just – horrible luck.
And his sons’ failures.
This wasn’t –
A small freckled face appeared around the door.
Henri squinted, trying to focus on his grandson.
The boy’s eyes were red, and he was shaking.
“Wh-what’dja want?” he muttered.
“I –” Lucas rubbed his eyes on his wrist.
Henri leaned forward, growling. “Stop cowering – act like a bloody man – what d’ah want?”
The boy flinched, then, raised his chin. “Grandmother and maman are saying – they say – did you kill my father?”
Henri launched himself forward in a sudden rage. The jug in his hand slammed against the door frame. It shattered, sprinkling himself and the boy with the final drops. “Get, out,” he shouted. “How dare you – blast it – I did not kill them! Get out – I did. Not. Kill. My sons!”
Lucas turned and ran. Henri stumbled, collapsing into a heap on the floor.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
Margot stood, surrounded by guards in green, before an ornate set of doors within the castle.
This was it.
She took a deep breath.
The doors opened from the inside, and a measured voice announced her name.
“The Prince Marguerite Charlotte Lafarge of Lorraine, for an audience with the crowned consort of Ninove, King Henri Lannoy Faverau.”
She raised her chin, pushed her shoulders back, and followed her guards into the audience room. Two rows of white stone pillars lined the way to a dais, where the king sat in a gilded chair.
The room was hung with heavy drapes of dark green, accented with bright gold. Pages, dressed in matching livery, stood along the walls.
The pillars towered over her, and she felt small and shabby in this opulence. Saints – she’d forgotten what a castle felt like.
She stopped walking as the guards stopped, and dropped into a quick curtsy. As a princess of Lorraine, she was pretty sure that was enough.
The king watched her with narrowed eyes as she straightened. She forced herself to meet those eyes. Cold, calculating. She wanted to shiver and run away.
She straightened her shoulders just a little.
“They tell me you’ve brought a Magician into my city,” he said. There was a menacing threat in his tone.
She swallowed, and nodded.
Don’t drop your eyes. Don’t bite your lip. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Make him believe.
She took a breath. “Yes, your majesty. I have a skilled Magician at my disposal. I’m offering your city the temporary use of her skill. Naturally, if you hold me as prisoner here, or kill me now, you will never find her. If you agree, you do so with the understanding that she is Obligated to perform magic at only my command, alone, along with her liegeoath to myself.”
The king’s fingers drummed on the arm of his chair. “And why would you offer this?”
She bit her lip, flushing. “That’s my concern,” she said, cringing at the quaver in her voice. If he even suspected her real motives – he could simply threaten to hurt the child, or –
“I have given you the copies of my mother’s journals as a symbol of my good will,” she said, her voice not quite steady. “I have renounced my claim to Lorraine, but not my responsibility. My brother must be stopped before he destroys this city.”
The king smiled, but his eyes were cold. Untrusting. “You expect me to take your word unsupported – and then welcome you into my defenses with a Magician?”
Her heart was racing in her ears, but she refused to let her eyes slide away from his face. She felt her face flush again. If only she could match that cold, imperious, tone. “Do you have a choice?”
His eyes flashed dangerously, and she looked away. “I will consider your offer,” he said. “In the meantime, please enjoy our hospitality.”
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove city wall
Curled up beside her son on the narrow barracks bed, Tess had fallen asleep herself.
She opened her eyes to see that Jacqui wasn’t there.
Panic pushed the fog from her brain, and she bolted upright. Then she took a deep breath, willing her heart to slow. Of course, he’d be back out on the wall top.
Instead, she found him in the guardhouse kitchen, seated at the long table and bent forward over a plate with the remnants of a berry pie. His face smeared with sticky purple, he was engaged in a serious conversation with a larger figure sitting hunched across from him at the table. Books and papers were spread out there, between them.
She let out a breath, and they both jumped, turning toward her.
The – the prince?
He shot her a sullen look, then dropped his eyes back down to the table, as Jacqui slid from the bench and dashed over to her, beaming.
He was dressed in a sharply cut green uniform – a perfect replica in miniature of the soldiers uniform. He skidded to a stop, came to attention, and gave his imitation of a salute with a sticky purple hand.
She dropped to one knee, to look him in the eye. “Where – how –?”
“Prince Lucas.” He declared, proudly. “He gave me my soldiers uniform.”
Tess bit her lip, fighting a sudden wave of tears. “Did he.” She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket to wipe some of the mess off his face.
Jacqui nodded, presenting his hands for her to clean as well. “He sayed it was his. When he was my size. Now he’s too big, and I’m my size.”
She glanced up at the prince. He still sat there, slouched at the table. He’d turned to sit straddling the bench, and he fiddled with an ink pen.
Jacqui grinned. “His granpapa came home. An’ Lord Tobias went off ta see him.”
Tess frowned. The king – Henri?
The Nobleman said the king was absent when they first met, but she’d since learned most in the castle secretly thought he’d run away. Or – or worse. Just as they also whispered that the queen’s illness keeping her to her rooms was no physical ailment. A broken heart, they said. She’d lost her will to live or be queen.
The prince jerked his head in assent. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “They say my grandfather just showed up at the gate earlier. An’ now he’s taken over again up at the castle.” His mouth twitched into a smile. “I’ll wager Uncle Tobias is furious.”
He turned around, sweeping up handwritten books and notes into a jumbled pile, then glanced back, a shrewd look on his eyes. “Is there anything special about Jacqui – that you haven't told my uncle?”
Tess frowned. “N – no?”
That was when the warning bell began to clang, its brassy voice cutting through the tense quiet of the guardhouse. Booted feet echoed through the building, followed by nervous shouts and the metallic clatter of armor and weapons.
All the terror Tess had kept at bay seized her heart like a vice, but Jacqui’s eyes lit up. “I gotta be a soldier now.”
The prince’s freckles stood out in a suddenly pale face. “My uncle’s not back yet.”
Jacqui shrugged. “He said you were him, when he’s not here.”
The prince nodded, that sullen look returning to his face. “Go get your metal helmet and jacket, Jacqui,” he muttered.
Tess watched him scamper off, then, turning to the prince, she begged him to let her join them on the wall.
He shrugged, stuffing books and papers into a satchel. “It’ll be dangerous,” he muttered.
“Considering my son will be out there,” she started, angrily, but stopped, as the prince slid from the bench and shuffled from the room, ignoring her.
Lorraine’s forces had been spotted, just before the rain started. Slanted, icy, lashing, it pelted the wall top and drummed on metal helmets and shields held by the ranks of soldiers as they formed up.
The soldiers now wore chainmail and thick leather jerkins over their uniforms. Half carried long pikes, and the other half were armed with powerful arbalests.
The sergeant directing the company around the prince gave her a single nod when she appeared, wrapped in an oiled cloak. He pointed her to a corner between the back parapet and a guard tower. Four ranks of soldiers separated her from her son, but at least she knew he was right there, even if she couldn't see him.
And then, everything went still. They squinted out into the storm.
Despite the rain, she could hear the heavy breathing of the men around her. Fear and expectation seemed to hang in the wind.
Her own heartbeat in her chest.
The rain stung on her cheeks.
One year ago.
The hazy depths of the liquor kept the accusations in his head quiet.
But this pounding on his study door wasn’t in his head.
Henri blinked, trying to pull his thoughts together, as Tobias marched in, ignoring protests from the servants stationed outside his office.
Tobias slammed his hand, palm down, on the desktop. Empty bottles and dirty cups rattled together. “Guildmaster Philippe is leading a blasted insurrection over the price of iron, and now the bloody mine owners are joining him!”
Henri shrugged and lifted a bottle to his lips. “Tell Therese. She’s the Gale-blasted queen. Roust her out’a bed.”
Whatever she claimed, the woman wasn’t ill. She just refused to leave her rooms – leave her bed – if servants were to be believed.
Tobias huffed out a breath. “Saint Ninove help me – if neither of you will deal with Philippe –”
Henri coughed, then laughed. “So she’s not lettin’ you in either. So ya came to me.”
“Because you’re the king, blast it!” Tobias shouted.
Henri hiccuped. “No, see, I’m just the husband of a queen. Theoretically. So, you run along and try to see her, if Philippe matters so bloody much to you.”
When his wife refused to even see him for the better part of a year, did that mean he could still count her as his wife?
Tobias snatched the bottle away from him. “Between the bloody two of you – I’ve still got a city to run.”
Henri nodded and reached for another bottle, muttering several obscene things Tobias could do with the city if he was tired of playing king.
Tobias snatched that bottle away as well, his temper bursting. “Wake up – blast you – you – and Therese – you act like you’re the first parents to ever lose a son!”
“Two sons,” Henri corrected. “And I didn’t lose them. I killed them – weren’t you listening to your sister?”
“Ninove would be better off without the both of you,” Tobias snapped back, his voice a growl. “If you both would just – step out of the way for Lucas.”
Henri sat back, laughing. “You – your own sister? Isn’t family wonderful.” He hiccuped. “See, now, the boy – Lucas – he’s spineless enough for you. You’d like that – tell him to do whatever you like.”
Tobias slammed the bottles back down onto the desk and stepped back, loathing in his eyes. “You’re pathetic.”
Henri snatched a bottle and lifted it in a toast. “Yup.”
Tobias spun on his heal, slamming the door behind him.
Henri took another gulp, then grimaced and slammed the bottle back down on the desk, cursing.
He pushed to his feet and stumbled to the window.
The Teirlinck mountains loomed over the city. A wild, dangerous place. Filled with malicious daemons and empty space.
Far from the ghosts of the fathers he’d failed.
The sons he’d killed.
They’d never find him out there. Never bring him back to plant here in their bloody pyregarden.
Just unbroken, unsullied, wilderness.
He rested his forehead against the cool glass and closed his eyes. He grinned.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
They’d locked Margot in a richly furnished sitting room within the castle. Massive windows had been placed to let in the light, but now they were dim from the drumming rain and the rivulets of water.
She sat on a long, low divan, her knees drawn up to her chest, and stared blankly at the wall.
Adele had been positive the one thing they wouldn't do, was simply lock her away and forget about her. She’d guessed that the king would pretend to agree, then wait for a chance to kill Margot after she led them to Adele. “They can’t afford to ignore the danger you pose, and the possibility of a Magician able to face Alexandre,” she’d said.
But Alexandre had arrived, and Margot hadn’t convinced the king.
A cycle ago, a contact of Adele’s told them the rumors about a Magician recruited to the Court of Ninove.
A little boy, their source had heard. His name was Dumont. Jacques Dumont.
Adele took the news in her cold way, but Margot saw her flinch at the name and the sudden tension in her eyes and mouth. Adele had casually asked for more information, but it was all he had to give.
With a name like that, this child had to be a close relative of Adele’s – a secret cousin, or – or a brother? Either way, he was the first clue they’d had in a year of searching for Tess.
But they’d arrived at a city franticly preparing for a devastating siege.
“It’s the boy,” Adele had guessed. “Alexandre wants to kill or capture him before he can become a threat.”
They’d talked all evening, trying to work out a way to get Jacques safely away before Alexandre arrived, but Adele shot down each idea in turn. There just wasn’t time, she said. They didn’t know where the child was being held. They didn’t know what Obligations bound him, nor what Noblemen would inherit those Obligations if they killed the king.
Adele finally sighed and dropped her head into her arms, resting on the table. “There’s really only one option,” she whispered. “Alexandre’s way.”
“We have to stop Alexandre first – and who knows? Maybe in the confusion of battle, we’ll be able to take the child and run.”
Margot blanched. What – what was she proposing?
Adele raised her head. “You’ve got to offer an alliance to the king – tell him you’ve got me, and you’re willing to help him fight. It’s basically what Alexandre did for years with me. But, the catch is–” she grimaced. “Either of us could end up dead.”
Margot felt her eyes widen. “But – what’s the point, then?”
Adele sighed again, her eyes on the table in front of her. “That child – I can’t let them make him fight. And I’m not gonna stand back and watch Alexandre capture him.”
“I’ve been there,” she said, softly. “I was a child against an army. Ranks and ranks of soldiers scaling the wall, and I had to kill them. I heard them curse, or scream and cry. I saw how fragile human bodies were.” Her eyes seemed to fix on something far away. “And that was just the first time they attacked.”
“The first?” Margot asked in a hushed whisper. Her friend had said almost nothing about her time with Alexandre since they’d met.
Adele nodded. “The next time – they set a trap for me – I was twelve. Of course they caught me. They –” she sucked in a quivering breath. Then another. Finally, her breathing slowed, and she picked up her story. “They turned me against Roucy – the city I was supposed to be defending. Houses filled with families – children. They burned.” She went silent again for several long minutes.
Finally, Margot couldn't help herself, and asked what happened.
Adele snorted. “Alexandre’s a slippery bastard. He got me back under his control. Of course, at that, he decided it was time to disappear from Roucy for a long while. They’d be none too happy that the Obligations he’d given me, while preventing them from commanding me, didn’t protect their city from outside Noblemen.”
She turned away, her voice dropping again. “I dreamed about it for years, but Alexandre wouldn’t even let me cry.”
“But – is there no other way? I can’t – I won’t –” Margot choked, and her stomach twisted with fear. She’d just freed her friend – now she’d have to lead her straight into the reach of Noblemen again? She blinked back tears. “I – is this truly what you want?”
Adele nodded. “It’s the only way I can see for the child to escape the battle and Alexandre. We don’t have time for a plan.”
Margot forced herself to meet her friends eyes. “Then, I need to know what to do.”
The last thing Margot said to her friend, was to revoke all Obligations, other than the one for Adele to protect herself from bodily harm. Adele tried to protest, but Margot shook her head. “I’m Alexandre’s sister. I have no idea what they’ll do to me – and I don’t – “ She hesitated, thinking. Then, she resorted to paper to finish her thought.
“I don’t want you to risk yourself to rescue me. If you don’t hear from me – please – leave the city. Get away from Alex.”
The rain drummed on the window of her soft, opulent cell, and, Margot hid her eyes in her knees, a sob rising in her throat. Why had Ninove ignored her offer? She was their best chance to capture a Magician.
What had Adele missed?
She sat in a city braced for a fight they had no chance to win. Somewhere out there was her friend, waiting. And elsewhere, one small child stood at the very center of the oncoming invasion.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove city wall
A wedge of blue light shot through the gray rain, cutting toward the city gate.
The massive city wall shook, then shook again, followed by the rending, crashing, grinding cacophony of falling stone.
Men around Tess screamed, and sprinted away from the crumbling section of wall as it fell into a crevasse that had opened in the ground. An officer shouted for them to hold ranks.
As the wall continued to shake, a wave of blue slammed into the damaged section, knocking Tess to her knees. She landed hard, and spikes of hot pain shot up her legs.
The stones around Tess began to shift, the mortar cracking.
The wall lit again, this time with turquoise, and the collapsing wall seemed to slow, the stones hanging in the air, for a heartbeat. Then, they began to fall again.
Another wave of blue hit the wall, then, and that section seemed to explode. Massive stone blocks, chunks of mortar, clattering armor, and screaming soldiers were tossed into the city.
The wall was breached.
Tess pushed painfully to her feet, and started to run toward where she’d last seen the prince.
An officer, in a shaking voice, called for the arbalests to shoot, and a wave of bolts hissed into the rain, toward the light. The rain flashed blue in answer.
Dashing between terrified soldiers, Tess finally spotted the prince with Jacqui. They were hurrying down a narrow flight of steps to the ground, heading toward the gap. Broken bodies, cracked stones, and scattered armor spread across the ground.
Men groaned and cried, and Jacqui seemed to take it in with wide, frozen eyes, as he followed the prince down into that horror.
The Nobleman – Lord Tobias – was there – leaping from a horse lathered with sweat. He sharply commanded the prince to leave the battlefield.
The boy seemed to shrink into himself at his granduncle’s voice. Jacqui gave him a frightened look, but the prince merely nodded, withdrawing the commands he’d given in a mutter.
Then he shuffled back, and the Nobleman, with a sharp word to Jacqui, sprinted for the breach, leaping over blocks of stone and bodies. Jacqui followed, picking his way through, his chest heaving. He’d lost his helmet, and the rain plastered his hair to his head and ran down his nose. He shivered violently.
The Nobleman called to him again, and he began to run, then skidded to a stop beside the man, right there at the center of the opening.
Tess couldn’t help him. She couldn’t save him. She couldn’t even protect him with her own life, so she pulled back, against the wall. All she could do was be there with him.
He raised a small hand, glowing turquoise in the gloom.
A wave of blue seemed to appear out of the rain, and Jacqui’s light met it.
For a heartbeat, the light seemed to hang there, one against the other, then, Jacqui’s light flickered, and blue slammed into man and child.
The Nobleman dropped nimbly into a hollow in the mess of stone, but Jacqui was tossed back, in a flurry of more flying rubble.
Tess screamed, and was running for him before she even fully realized what had happened.
The Nobleman leapt back to his feet, and shouted for Jacqui to get up.
Jacqui pushed himself up onto his knees. He was bleeding in several places, including from his head. A stream of red mixed with rain ran down his face. He started to stand, then, collapsed again, whimpering. Tess reached him, dropping to her knees and wrapped her arms around his little shaking body.
From the corner of her eye, she saw another wave of blue in the rain, coming. She shifted by instinct to shelter him with her back.
The blue light slammed into a wall of earth filling the breach.
It glowed with purple light.
A young woman knelt there, her glowing hands on the broken ground. Not looking around, she spoke in a low, angry voice that cut through the rain and shouting soldiers. “Let him go. Use me.”
Tess felt her heart stop. Suspended. Caught between hope and horror.
“Let him go,” the young woman repeated.
The Nobleman had jumped back at her sudden appearance, but now, he edged closer. “Speak truthfully – who are you? Who is your liege?”
“My name is Adele Dumont. I’m Obligated to Marguerite Lafarge for one thing only – to protect myself from bodily harm.”
The Nobleman smiled grimly. “Do me and the house of Queen Ninove no harm, nor allow us to come to harm. Now, protect this city.”
Jacqui struggled weakly against her arms, trying to pull away. “No – le’go. I have’ta protect the city.”
“Adele,” Tess said in a strangled voice.
Her daughter finally turned her way. Her eyes were cold – angry, and she gave Tess a stiff nod, before turning back to the Nobleman. “Sir,” she said. “Do you want this child injured or killed? Let him go.”
The Nobleman muttered a curse, then in a quick, sharp voice, rescinded the boy’s Obligations to fight, adding a command to heal quickly. To fix what was broken inside. Then he nodded to Tess. “Take him back to the castle – have the physician look him over.”
Jacqui, released from the Obligations driving him, slumped into her arms.
A glowing blue fissure split Adele’s earthen wall in two, and she spun around, hands raised, to counter the attack.
Tess hesitated a moment longer, her eyes locked on the daughter she hadn’t seen for seven years, aching to run to her.
But, Jacqui. She had to get him out of here. She struggled to her feet, cradling her son, and turned away, once again leaving her daughter for the sake of her little son.
One year ago
“We want the same thing, it appears, Henri Faverau.”
Henri felt his foot slide straight through the ground, breaking the illusion, but he clung to the dream. This was what he wanted, wasn’t it?
Wasn’t this what he’d climbed a cold, miserable mountain, looking for?
As his body lurched forward, he reached out, instinctively, clutching at more illusion. Then, it began to fade away.
“Too much of a coward to do it yourself. So you came to use us, as your kind do.”
The last image was of a satisfied smirk on the daemon’s face.
“But this, we are happy to oblige.”
He was plunging off the side of a cliff.
The air whistled past his ears.
He screamed, scrabbling for a handhold.
He was going to smash into the rocks far below.
He was going to die.
He didn’t want to die.
His legs crumpled against something soft and slippery. White hot pain shot up his legs. He’d landed on a tiny moss-covered outcropping.
He grabbed at hanging roots for his very life, and gasped for air. His heart slammed painfully in his chest.
His hands shook, and all around, stones continued falling into the depths of the canyon.
Saint Ninove – he wanted to live.
He risked a glance up. It wasn’t far – he’d hardly fallen at all, considering. But all the same, the top of the cliff might have well been hundreds of meters away, for all his ability to reach it. Soon, these shaking limbs would give way, and he’d feel it happen. One inch at a time, until he was plunging, falling – again.
Awake and aware, with no illusion to hide behind.
He shivered violently as the icy wind flowed past and around him. This cold would sap his strength.
“Oy – hallo down there!” The voice was very human.
Henri almost let go in surprise, then carefully looked up again. A young man lay with his head poking over the edge. “I saw you jes’ – jes’ walk off the edge, man. D’ya need some – help?”
Henri could have kissed him – right there on his grimy face. His own voice felt weak as he tried to answer. “Can – do you –”
“I have a rope,” the man said, interrupting. “Will that help?”
Henri nodded dumbly, and the young man lowered it, a loop tied on the end. Henri slid it around his leg.
The moss gave way, and he grunted in pain as the loop caught him, jarring his hip and digging into his thigh. The rope swung out, above the chasm, and he clung to that narrow lifeline with all the strength left in his body.
The man pulled on the rope, and Henri slid up the cliff face, his shoulder dragging against the broken rock and clay, sending a cascade of stones and dust rattling down around him.
Finally, he slid – gasping – over the edge, and rolled to safety. The young man held out a hand to pull him up. Henri took it and tried to stand, but his feet wouldn't take his weight. He dropped to his knees on the loamy ground, gasping at the fresh pain.
The man frowned. “That’s not good.” He nodded his head toward the cliff. “Saw yeh jes’ walk right off the edge. Looked like yeh’d been chewin’ poppies.” The man eyed him. “Ah mean – have yeh? That’s a dangerous thing ta do up here.”
Henri shifted his weight so he could sit up. “No – nothing like that,” he muttered. Saints – he’d been falling to his death mere minutes ago.
He shivered. “Just – I was – disoriented.”
He could feel the man’s continued scrutiny. “Well – ah say yeh should come around home with meh. It’s jes’ over that rise.” He pointed to a thin stream of smoke in the wind. “There. D’yeh think yeh can make it with meh help?” He shot a pointed glance at Henri’s injured feet.
Infernal pride pushed Henri’s answer out before he even stopped to think. “I don’t have any money – I couldn't pay you.”
The man grimaced. “Ah wasn’t thinkin to charge yeh,” he muttered, his voice frosty. “What happened – were yah robbed? They say brigands are out here. They leave me alone.”
Henri shook his head. “No – nothing like that. I – I didn’t bring any with me.” He reached for his flask, to find it gone. Of course. He’d dropped it when he fell.
“Ah see.” Then he shrugged. “That’ed be your business, and none ah mine.” He stooped down. “Can yeh put yeh arm over my shoulder?”
Henri let the husky young man pull him upright, wincing as he began to hobble along. Finally, he remembered to ask for the man’s name.
“Mah name’s Tomn,” he said simply. “What about yeh, then?”
“Hello Tomn – my name’s – ” he hesitated. “Call me Henri.” He squeezed his shoulder. “You wouldn't happen to have a drink on you?”
The man nodded good-naturedly. “Of course – back at ma house.”
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
In the castle infirmary, Jacqui’s little chest rose and fell as he slept.
The physician could only guess at what internal injuries he might have suffered, he said. And how much his little body had begun to mend with the Nobleman’s Obligation on her ride back through the city to the castle.
The cut on his forehead wasn’t dangerous, and while he seemed to have some fractures, they weren’t complete and didn’t need to be set. That was normal for small children, he said.
Jacqui had been awake but sobbing inconsolably the whole way, so he’d been completely exhausted when they arrived at the castle. So the physician recommended she let him sleep, for now, even if it would slow down the healing magic.
The room shook with tremors from Jeoffroi’s attacks, and Adele –
Tess squeezed the edge of Jacqui’s bed, fighting a sudden wave of emotion. Adele. Here. Alive. And now like Jacqui – in the thrall of Tobias.
Her daughter was in desperate danger, but she was here.
And Tess had no more power to protect her eldest child than she had to protect her son. She took his little hand, stroking his soft skin with a calloused thumb.
She’d been hiding from her own mind and heart for two cycles. Putting off the despair. Refusing to think – to feel. Just react. Comfort Jacqui – pretend she wasn’t falling to pieces inside –.
No. She’d been hiding long before that.
Was that all Hellen, Emma, Alice – Alice –. Were they merely her drug of choice? Had she been hiding from her own pain in theirs? Had – had she done the same with Jacques? Renn’s death – pa’s death – had she buried herself in his hurts?
But, no drug can solve pain. Just mask it, until you run out. Break down. Fall to pieces.
When you can’t run another step.
When there’s nowhere to go for more.
When you’re too tired.
She massaged his little hand. Please live – please – please live, she thought. That thought shifted into a prayer – to – to which saint? She didn’t even know. Any of them – if they were even listening or had any power here.
The sobs came. Deep, shaking cries from her very soul. She laid her head down beside her sleeping son. And cried.
Finally, she’d cried herself out, and she lay there, staring into his little face. A few hairs stuck to his forehead, still drying from the rain and water the physician had used to wash his face.
Emma. Hellen. Teddy. Even Alice.
The hundreds of innocent, trapped people dying in the city this very minute.
These people weren’t just a drug to hide from her pain. They were also people, and they still needed someone to care.
But she couldn’t fix this cruel, unjust world. She couldn't save them all – saints – she couldn’t save any of them.
She couldn’t even save herself.
Nineteen years ago
They were walking near her family’s cottage at Claudette’s country manor. The forest smelled of loam and damp leaves and cherry blossoms. Tess took a deep breath.
Jacques reached out to take her hand, entwining his fingers in hers, and pulled her closer. “You look tired,” he murmured.
She turned away so he couldn’t see the dark lines under her eyes. “Nothing a little sleep won’t fix. Pa just needs someone to help him sit up in the dark – to breathe.”
She turned back to face him, a smile firmly in place. “What?”
He frowned, his eyebrows coming together. “Don’t do that.”
“What – help my pa?”
“No – this. I know you’re upset about your pa – Saints, you’re still grieving Renn – but you won’t let me into it.”
She slid her free hand around his waist, pulling him into a tight embrace. “And you’ve got enough to worry about with the princess. Leave pa to me.” She closed her eyes, savoring the warm, solid feeling of his body against hers.
But he pulled back, trying to catch her eyes. “This. You shrug it off, but –.” He sighed. “My brother does this to me. After our mother died – I can tell him anything, and he’ll listen, but he never trusts me enough to do the same. Please don’t do this to me, too.”
She frowned. “I – I don’t know what you’re asking for. You know about my pa. You know he’s dying.”
He winced. “The way you’ll talk about it, like it’s nothing. But I know you – it’s not nothing to you. I want to know what this is doing to your heart. I want you to trust me enough to let me help you carry it.”
He looked pained, as she met his eyes. “But – you’ve got more than enough to carry,” she protested, feeling a thread of fear worm its way into her heart. What was she doing wrong?
He let out a long breath, his eyes dropping to the ground. “Tess – when you shut me out of your heart – it feels like you don’t trust me, and if you don’t trust me, how can I believe that you actually want me?”
She stared at a twisted tree, several meters behind him, feeling suddenly cold. Was – was he saying – ? Her eyes pricked with tears, and she tried to blink them away. She took a deep breath. “I don’t understand. What are you asking me to do?”
He sucked in a sharp breath and stepped to her, wrapping his arms around her. “I just need you to stop trying to pretend like you don’t feel sad or hurt or scared. Tell me what’s going on inside right now – without trying to make yourself stop feeling it first.”
She bit her lip. His heart was beating there, just above her own.
“I –,” she started in a halting voice. “I’m – I’m scared I’ve made a mistake, and you’re going to leave.” Her chin quivered, and, reflexively, she tried to make it stop.
His arms tightened around her. “Thank you,” he whispered. “I’m sorry – I don’t want you to think that I’ll leave. I just – you have a big heart – but you can’t carry us all, alone. You have to let us – you have to trust someone. Hopefully more than one.”
She buried her face in his shoulder. He’d asked to know what was going on in her heart with pa. But – what – what was she feeling?
She raised her head as more tears prickled in her eyes. “I don’t know how I’m feeling about pa,” she whispered. “I’m just – I’m tired, and I’m tired of seeing him hurt, but, thinking about him being gone – I’m scared.” The tears began to spill out onto her cheeks. She was shaking. “And sometimes, I just don’t want to go home and help ma, and see him hurt. And – and I feel horrible about that.” She was sobbing now, and he just stood there with her, holding her.
When she finally forced herself to meet his eyes, there were tears there. She’d given him another reason to hurt – as if he didn’t have enough –
He smiled. “Thank you. Thank you for trusting me.” He raised a hand to wipe the tears from her cheek. “You’re not made of stone, Tess – don’t hide this away – these feelings – being weak, that’s what makes you human.”
All those years with Jacques – she’d slowly learned from him how to trust the people she loved enough to help her carry her heart. And he’d offered her the same. He’d freely spoken about the crushing loneliness of the Lorraine court – living as a tool of the Lafarges. The loss of his mother, then, his father.
A few times, he showed up unexpectedly, after carrying out some horrible order of the princess. She’d sit with her arms around him, listening, as he told her what he’d done in a broken, halting voice. Claudette kept her promises. And her threats, without regard for age, or innocence.
It was the only way to keep his heart from turning cold and dead, he said. Like his father. And brother.
But Jacques was gone now, and she was still here.
She’d cared for Hellen, for the children, for Alice, but she’d never trusted any of “her people” with her heart. She’d never offered any of them the chance to be strong for her. And so she’d fed their bodies, but not their souls. Not really.
Held back by fear for her son, by distrust and pain. She hadn’t been any different from Hellen, even as she’d smiled at the old woman’s rants.
And despite her caution, the worst had come anyway.
A new wave of tears came, soft and quiet. Jacques was gone. She had to learn to trust again. What did she have to lose now?
Jacqui shifted in his sleep, and she reached out to stroke his cheek, embracing these tears.
Goodbye, my love, she thought.
The door behind her scraped open, and she spun around.
A man with grey hair stood there, dressed in fine, dark clothes and wearing a green sash across his chest. It was elaborately decorated with gold and carried the royal crest of the city.
This was the king, newly returned to Ninove.
One year ago
Henri opened his eyes, focusing on the dim ceiling.
His stomach felt – it felt normal. Normal, as it used to feel.
His head – the splitting ache was gone.
He raised his hand, pushing back a worn blanket. His arm felt heavy, but his hand didn’t shake.
He let it drop, closing his eyes.
It had been four? No, five days since he’d arrived at Tomn’s house – as he’d called the cluster of small buildings made of wood, straw, and mud.
Henri’s last clear memory was of an old woman taking one look at him and stubbornly refusing him a single drop of alcohol.
He’d become desperate, and – he reached to rub the side of his head where Tomn had finally hit him. That, too, felt normal again. Well, a bit tender.
They’d bundled him into this little building, where Tomn had literally tied him down, to prevent any delirious wandering on injured ankles to find a drink. Someone had brought him water and broth and changed the linens of his bed. He remembered that much.
He should be angry at them – laying hands on his royal person like that – literally holding him prisoner, but he was just too exhausted to bother right now. He opened his eyes again.
What would Tobias say if he could see him now? The thought was strangely amusing. He’d have locked Henri in the deepest dungeon in a minute if he’d thought he’d get away with it.
Childish laughter drifted into the room, and memories flooded his mind.
His sons, gangly Audrick and little Nicolas – playing on the grass with a litter of wiggly hound puppies. They were all exuberant flapping velvet ears and little wagging tails. The boys, oblivious to the dark green stains and muddy prints covering their linen shirts, sat in the very center as the puppy's mother watched with docile, watery eyes.
Audrick – older – teaching Nicolas how to hold a sword, how to move his feet. How to read intent in an opponent's stance and glances ...
Henri clenched his hands, focusing on the ceiling.
The door banged open. It was the old woman this time. Her leathery face was a mass of lines as she grinned, displaying a few remaining teeth.
She bustled around the room, setting food and tea beside the bed, and pulled clothing out of a cupboard, remarking vaguely that they’d washed his clothes, so he was welcome to put them back on and join them outside, if he liked. Then she gave him a sharp nod, and left.
He carefully pushed to his feet. His ankles were still painful, but they’d take his weight. He dressed, surprised by how heavy his body felt. How had he never noticed the masses of flesh he’d formed around his middle, hands, and neck. No wonder Tobias had looked at him with disgust.
He was pathetic.
More laughter rang from outside, and he hesitated, feeling a strange reluctance to look these people in the face after they’d seen him at his lowest.
It was a battle to limp to the door, open the latch, and step out into the slant sun and biting wind.
Three children – muddy and barefoot – were chasing each other in some complex game of tag, while the old woman watched and carded wool. She nodded to him.
“Tomn’s out with the goats, but he’ll be back later. I’m Nell.”
He went to hold his hand out, realized her hands were full, and tried to hide the awkward gesture, as he returned her nod.
He squinted against the sun at the children, who’d just tumbled into a screeching pile of skinny limbs, knobby knees and elbows. “Are they – your grandchildren?”
“Yup. They not Tomn’s – though.”
“Yeah. Tomn’d be me youngest. Those’re me oldest boy’s.”
She slapped the bench. “Sit. There’s room for another. Take ye weight off them feet.”
Henri sat, gratefully.
“He – lives around here too?”
She carefully set her carding brushes down and pointed a bent finger at a tiny garden of mountain wildflowers, planted in a raised bed. Before two distinct little clumps of flowers were small piles of trinkets – stones, childish drawings on bits of wood. A golden ring.
“There ‘is pyreflower grows. Beside ‘is brother, see?” She retrieved her brushes and started working again. Henri sucked in a breath, fighting the sudden, crushing weight in his chest.
He forced his voice to stay steady, as he asked what happened. She shrugged. “They both joined up, see? Soldier's pay was good – Tomn was able to buy our goats – an’ so ‘is brother decided to join up as well. I tell you – the boys looked fine in royal greens. An’ then – Taft was home – uniform torn and bloody – draggin’ ‘is brother’s body. He wasn’t long for this life neither. Two – three days – he lingered.” She took a deep breath, the air whistling through the gaps in her teeth. “So we planted ‘em there together. Lettie – their ma – she works as a maid down in the village now – an we have the goats, so we make it well enough. We were the lucky ones – they say. We’ve got em here with us. Most boys – they didn’t make it home.”
Henri stared at the flowers. Royal green. Ninove. His scattered army. The men he’d cursed for running away from his son at Roucy. The men who’d died in the wilderness, with no one to bring them home.
One of the children started crying, and Nell shouted a sharp word, heading off an argument.
These children were fatherless. Nell had lost two sons.
You think you’re the first parents to lose a child, Tobias had spat at him.
Henri gripped his legs, trying to hide the tremor in his hands. He’d killed more than his own sons. He’d killed the sons of this woman. Of hundreds of other mothers, and he’d never even given them a thought.
We were the lucky ones.
One of the drawings lovingly placed by the nearest flower was of a child – a simple stick figure – holding the hand of a much taller figure in green.
He needed a drink. A strong, burning, powerful drink.
● ● ●
Seven cycles ago
Wielding a hammer in place of a sword was a strange feeling. But Henri was enjoying it.
He stepped back to analyze his work. Tomn was down in the village, so Henri had volunteered to fix the shutter before gathering rain clouds reached them. It wasn’t great. The nails had gone in crooked, and the board didn’t line up with the others.
He was embarrassingly exhausted after this light labor. But then, four years of inactivity, followed by two cycles of rest while his ankles healed would do that to any man.
Even so, this felt good. He felt alive. Useful.
Nell hobbled around the corner and squinted at his work. She sniffed, but slapped his back with a bent hand. “Well an’ that’s an honest job off yeah.” She grinned, and Henri chose to enjoy her half-hearted praise.
Kate joined them. “Gram – when’s Uncle Tomn comin’ back?” The eldest girl shot Henri a guarded look as she spoke.
“Now, an’ I don’t have a guess, girl.” Nell replied, squinting at the far slope.
Henri gave her a smile. “Is there something I can do?”
Kate narrowed her eyes. “Only uncle knows how ta’fix the ball,” she muttered stubbornly.
“The one you were kicking around?”
“I’ve made those before,” he said, quickly. “Can I try?”
She glared up at him, considering. Finally, she nodded, a skeptical look in her eyes. “You can try.”
Henri grinned. “Sounds good.”
She lead him around the cottage to where her siblings crouched over a ball that had spit down one of its crude seams. It was leaking sawdust.
The children had tried to repair it, but filling it completely full and then closing that last little bit, so that it was completely firm and didn’t collapse when kicked was an art. And large, strong hands helped.
Kate hovered by his shoulder, watching, as he completed the work with a few deft motions, holding the seam together with his hands and stitching it up as tight as he could manage.
Then, he dropped the dense, not-quite round ball to the ground and gave it a sharp smack with the side of his foot. They dashed after it over the rocky ground on bare feet. Holding their toes back, they kicked it back and forth without hesitating.
Then Kate flashed him a sly grin, and sent the ball spinning in his direction. He made an awkward hop sideways on still-weak ankles, and nearly missed. But, recovering, he stopped it with the outside of his foot, then sent it rolling toward the youngest child.
The child pounced, but, stepping down on a patch of slippery mud, his feet flew out and he landed with a bump. His siblings collapsed, laughing.
Their laughter was contagious, and Henri felt himself drawn in.
After a few minutes, he was exhausted and dropped onto the bench by the door. A minute later, Kate plopped down beside him. “How come ya know how ta’ fix a ball?” She demanded.
“An’ kick. You know how ta’ kick the ball.”
She gazed up at him, eager and unabashedly inquisitive. Like his own sons had been, once. The answer that sprang to his lips surprised him. “I had two sons.”
She wrinkled her forehead. “Where are they?”
He swallowed. “They’re planted in the city.”
Kate’s eyes grew big, and for a heartbeat, Henri regretted telling the girl, but then, she shifted closer and lowered her voice. “Like my pa. An’ uncle. They’re planted here.”
Henri nodded. “Your gram told me.”
“Do ya miss ‘em?”
Henri wasn’t prepared for the question, and for a minute, the pain in his chest was too much to speak. He nodded.
“I miss my pa,” she said, resting her head against his arm. “The others don’t remember him, but I do. Are you gonna stay with us forever?”
The change of subject was almost too sudden for him to follow, and he stammered. “I – I don’t –” Nell had told him he was welcome to stay with them as long as he wanted, as long as he made himself useful. Everyone, even the youngest child, had chores for survival in this family. “I don’t know,” he finished.
“Oh.” She pulled away and slid from the bench, then took off running, back to the ball and her siblings.
Originally, he’d stayed out of fear. After his fall, he had no desire to face a wild daemon again, but both the way home, and the way onward would be guarded by the creatures.
But now, why did he feel like his answer to Kate had been a mistake? Did he want to stay here forever – nailing shutters, tending the vegetable garden, and milking goats?
This wasn’t a bad life. Up here, far away from the city.
● ● ●
Two days ago
Henri squinted against the rays of sun, listening for any bleating on the wind as it whistled through the trees, peaks, and stones of the mountain. It was strange how, in less than a year, these cold, unwelcoming slopes could feel more like home to him than any castle.
Tomn’s goat and her kid had disappeared last evening, then failed to appear this morning. They’d split up, spreading out to search. Henri had taken Kate.
Now, he watched her jump from moss-covered stone to hillside, to stone like a little goat herself, light on her feet. Standing on the very top of a massive stone, she shaded her eyes. Then, she pointed, calling down to him. “Somethin's going on over by that ruin!” She slid down the mossy rock face to land beside him. “There’s people over there – Uncle Henri. Maybe they have our goat,” she added, her face clouding.
She nodded. “It’s an old city or somethin’. Most of it turned inta mountain, but there’s a few walls an’ bits.” She pointed up at the massive stone. “Like this one.”
Henri frowned, peering between gaps of moss at the stone. Or – pile of stones. Not just stones. These were worn and weathered blocks. “What was this place?”
She shrugged. “Gram says it was a city – named same as the mountain. An’ there was a war years an’ years ago, an’, after – there was no one left ta rebuild.”
Henri froze, hand hanging in the air, as he’d been reaching to touch the stone. “This is Teirlinck?”
She nodded energetically. “Sometimes, we come an’ play hide and search out here. But –” she dropped her voice to a whisper. “Gram says to stay away – cause there’s still ghosts from people who got buried under the mountain, an’ never got a proper burn and plantin’. But I never seen nothing,” she added with a note of disappointment.
Henri nodded, running a hand over the ancient stonework. Now that he was looking, the ruins were obvious. It might not be haunted, but there was a strange chill about the place.
Kate grabbed his other arm. “Common! Let’s go see if they stole our goat.”
Henri let the girl lead him between stacks of stone that he could see for ancient, broken walls.
The first sound they heard was the cry of an infant on the cold wind. Then, he began to hear other human sounds. But these were all subdued, tense. There was no laughter, no smell of cooking fire or food.
Henri pulled his coat closer.
A group – maybe twenty people – huddled together inside a distinct structure where three walls mostly stood and sheltered them from the winds. They had no fires, no tents, and few blankets. A man was rocking a crying child, murmuring to him, as a young mother wrapped in shawls tried to feed the screaming infant. They raised bleary, frightened eyes as Henri and Kate approached.
Kate shrank back, hiding behind him.
Henri nodded a greeting, trying to look friendly. “Hallo there,” he said.
They exchanged uneasy glances. Finally the father with the child returned his nod. “Hello.”
He crouched down, sitting on his heels above the damp ground. “You look like you need help.” It was a pointless thing to say, but Henri wasn’t sure how else to start.
The father shrugged. “We’ll take any offered.”
Kate whispered loudly from behind. “They’re not from the mountain.”
“We’re from Ninove.”
Henri frowned. “What brings you out here?”
“Didn’t you hear, then?” The man asked, his voice dropping.
“Hear what?” Henri asked. Little needles of worry slid into his heart.
“They say Lorraine’s coming. Bringing a – a Magician.”
The woman beside him nodded, her eyes wide with fear. “Like in the stories – a real Magician.” She hugged her baby against her body. “The kind that buries an’ drowns cities.”
Henri pulled back, startled. Off balance, he fell heavily to sit on the damp moss. “Lorraine! A –!” What had happened? What had Tobias done? Why now? He wanted to take the man by the shoulders and shake him for every scrap of information, but that was probably all he knew.
The threat would have been very real and immediate to send these people fleeing from the city without decent provisions and clothing.
Kate whispered in his ear, reminding him to ask about the goat, but he shook his head, and pushed to his feet. Then he pulled her away from the camp. “Go straight home, and tell your Gram what you heard, then lock your doors.”
She gaped at him. “But–?”
“I’m not coming with you. Tell your Gram –” he hesitated. “Tell her I’m deeply grateful. You – you’ve all been more kind to me than I could possibly deserve. but I have to go.”
She stared at him, tears welling in her eyes, then, she pushed her chin up, nodded, and turned to run.
Henri started in the other direction. Down the mountain, winding his way through the ruins of an old war.
He couldn’t run from his responsibilities anymore.
And what are you going to do when you get there?
The thought sliced through the fog of panic in his mind, bringing him to a standstill.
Gale – what indeed? He had no Magician. The last time his army had faced one, they’d been cut to ribbons.
He had only his voice as a Nobleman, and –
He focused on the structure before him. He’d come to the very heart of the city – a circle of broken stones. The years had mostly erased their engravings, but he knew what this was.
In the center of the stones stood a broken, rotting snag. A few weathered spires of wood stood stark and white, stabbing into the sky.
It had been built identical to the shrine of Ninove. The castle would stand just to the left from where he faced.
This was the tree of Teirlinck. Twin shrines for twin cities, founded by two siblings – twins as well, the legends said. Teirlinck and Ninove had been allies immortal.
Until the war.
The songs and paintings said Teirlinck had turned on Ninove, but it was a lie. Anyone who studied history knew better. Ninove feigned innocence as a balm for the guilt she carried.
Like the lie that Henri and his fathers deserved this power the wind had bestowed on them – the very power they’d used to wipe out a hundred cities. The power his son used to decimate Roucy, before he’d been consumed by the very same power.
Gale – he’d tried to start the war anew himself – he’d thrown his own sons, and Nell’s sons, and hundreds of mother’s sons – to die at Roucy.
Why be shocked that Lorraine would do the same? Wasn’t this simply the harvest that he and his fathers and his father’s fathers had sown?
This power – it was no blessing. It was a curse. Those who used it, brought blood upon one’s own house. On one’s own children. What could one expect, taking power from such a dangerous daemon.
His eyes followed the broken spires of Teirlinck’s tree, up, into the windswept sky.
So – that’s what he went home to do.
He’d face Lorraine, and die for the misdeeds of his house. Eventually, every last Nobleman would consume the others, and the curse would end. Spare my grandson, he thought. Surprised, he discovered he’d meant it as a prayer. Spare him from this curse.
It was time to go home.
This was his responsibility. His fate.
Present day – Ninove sky
As the rain lightened, the flock of ravens wheeled through the air. Far below, the Ninove city wall stood as a ragged, broken line. Rubble and earth filled some gaps. Others were marked by deep tears in the ground.
Through the wet gloom, the bird’s eyes could see the Magician and the Nobleman, standing in the center of the wreckage, lit with a purple light, waiting, watching, guessing where the next attack would land.
The lead raven turned, diving for an abandoned farmhouse outside the wall. A lone figure stood there in the rain, waiting for it.
The man lifted a leather-cuffed wrist, and the raven landed there, its head cocked to the side, bright black eye meeting two hazel eyes that shone faintly blue in the wet gloom.
He winced, his expression darkening.
Then, with a flurry of wings and rain, the raven took off, back up into the weeping sky to rejoin the flock. They continued to circle the city – above the lines of exhausted soldiers who still stood. Above houses, broken by the clash of magic.
The ravens saw the grim determination on the face of the Nobleman, and the cold, knowing smile on the Magician, as she watched them soar through the rain.
They watched as the battle began again, now a careful dance between potentially conflicting Obligations.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
Tess brushed tears away from her cheek, and moved to stand for the king, but the royal figure waved at her to stay.
He advanced into the room, to stand over her and Jacqui. He sighed, his shoulders slumping. Then, glancing down, he dropped onto the second stool. “How is he?” he asked, softly.
She shrugged. “He’s sleeping.”
“Madam. My name is Henri Faverau.” He drew in a breath. “While I know you have no reason to believe me, I need to say that I’m deeply sorry.”
She frowned, fighting the surge of anger those words raised. Why was he here?
He gripped his knees, his eyes fixed on her sleeping son. “I – I don’t know what to do. I’ve thought it through a dozen ways – and I don’t know.” He looked up. “What do you know of the princess Marguerite Lafarge – of Lorraine?”
Tess flinched. Adele had said her name on the wall. Margot – little Margot. Was she here? What kind of a person had the daughter of Claudette and Edouard Lafarge become? What – how was she using Adele, to leave her with that Obligation?
He went on – mumbling an explanation as Tess watched him, frozen.
The princess was here, he said. She’d offered to help the city with her Magician. “I understand another Dumont has appeared. At the wall – saying she’s Obligated to the princess. I can only assume this was the Magician.”
He opened his hands, studying calloused palms. “I could do nothing – hide safely away as Tobias uses her to defend this city.” His hands clenched into fists. “Or I could free her from our service, leaving her bound to this princess and able to carry out whatever plan she’s here for – or – or I could try and force the princess to release her, or –” He grimaced. “Killing her in cold blood feels equally wrong. But what I do know, is if I let Tobias use the Gale’s power to protect this city, it will bring a curse on my house. It will destroy – Saints – it’s already taken my sons. I must protect my grandson. Yet, if I – if I free Jacques and – and the other one at once – I doom my city – my people. They’ll suffer in place of my family.”
He raised his eyes, glittering with tears, to meet her own. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, softly. “What do I do?”
Tess stared into his face, her mind struggling to believe the words he’d spoken. Did he – did he ask her if he should release her children?
The room shook. The battle was still raging outside – Adele, in mortal peril.
But to run to safety.
To leave Emma and her brothers.
Teddy and Essie.
And – and Alice.
She couldn't save them. Not by herself.
Could she – would she –?
Tess took a shaking breath. “I – as a mother – I hear you speak of safety and freedom for my children, and I want to grab that with both hands and never look back. I – I want to tell you to go to the Gale for what your family has done to Jacqui.” She glanced down, taking his little hand in hers, then met his eyes again. “But,” she whispered. “But your city is dying. And I can’t hide from that.”
He frowned. “Are you telling me to use this cursed power – to keep your children here? I know my history. The Dusk is filled – Shadow to Gale – with the bones of cities. Those of my blood – we’ve been cursed to consume each other.”
She pressed her lips together. “Not exactly. No.” Saints – what was she saying? “I don’t believe this curse as you call it is from the Gale. The Gale is – is power. Is it fair? No. Power never seems to be. But however it’s come to you – you’ve been given power to shape this world with the words you speak. If this power is a curse – then it is one fashioned and built by Noblemen – by your own fathers. They spoke pain, oppression, misery onto the Gale, and that’s the world the Gale formed.”
She took a quivering breath, her eyes on the far wall. She had nothing to lose. In a soft voice, she began to recount the ways her life had been touched – broken – by a Nobleman’s use of that power. By the systems of oppression they’d created.
She hadn’t spoken any of this in years, and she felt a fresh wave of tears come. She didn’t hide them.
“I spent years watching my husband fight for joy and hope,” she concluded. “As his body and soul were bound by horrifying commands from a Nobleman who saw him as nothing more than a tool. My daughter – torn from me as a child. And now, my son –” She squeezed his hand. “If this is the world you build, then, as you live in it, it’s only natural that some of this pain will reach you and your family as well. That is what you see as a curse.”
She turned to meet his eyes, feeling empty and exposed.
But there were tears there, in King Henri’s eyes. Pain. Grief. Despair.
He drew in a long, shaking breath. “Saints,” he whispered, dropping his eyes again. “This – the destruction of my city. We – I – deserve this.”
“Yes,” she said. “You do. But your death – the death of your people – what will that solve? How will that repair the pain and injustice of this world?”
“Then what do I do? Please – what do you want from me?”
Hundreds, maybe thousands of lives hung on her words. And those of her two children. She massaged Jacqui’s hand, and he stirred, took a deep breath, then settled into his sleep again.
Saint Esme guide her.
“Use your power – speak a new world into existence.” She wiped her eyes. “My husband – Jacques – his deepest wish was to save lives, not take them. To be an agent of justice – to protect. But – he couldn’t do that alone. Not without a Nobleman to speak for him.” She leaned forward. “You cannot build a just world with slaves. You’re right – you must free Adele and give her the choice – if she will freely stay and fight for this city, or flee. As for Jacqui – if you free him, he and I will stay and save what lives that we can. He cannot protect the city, but I think he can help your people escape.”
She placed a hand on his arm. “Your majesty. My husband may be dead, but his wish remains.”
He wiped his eyes. “You – you’d trust me with your son?”
“If I’ve learned one thing, sir – it’s that safety is a lie. I could build a wall as high as the Dusk is wide around Jacqui, and I’d simply be making him a prisoner. A perfectly safe life is no life at all. I have to risk my trust – I can’t – none of us can do this alone. I may be free from the Gale, but I’m still bound by common need and humanity to those around me. So if you free my children at such a moment, that action speaks truer than any promise.”
The castle shook, and he pushed to his feet. “I shall send for Tobias and Adele immediately.” He grimaced. “The princess. What –?”
Tess smiled. “At the wall, Adele said she had but one Obligation from Margot – to protect herself from injury.”
King Henri froze, then spun back around. “What?” He dropped back onto the stool. “What do you know of her?”
“When I last saw her, she was a sweet child who loved my husband like a father. Or, an older brother, at least.”
“Why didn’t she –?” he broke off, rubbing his hands over his face. “Of course,” he muttered, letting out a long breath. He looked up. “I need to have a talk with your princess. Will you come with me?”
On their way, he called for a courtier and told him to personally bring Tobias back to the palace. “Tell Adele – the Magician – to come at once with you. Make sure Lord Faverau is unable to command her to stay.”
The man frowned. “Your – your majesty?”
“Now, Lord Pierre. Do not question me.”
The man bowed and left. King Henri shrugged apologetically. “He’s a Nobleman. But – I’m not sure Tobias would bring your daughter away from the defense otherwise.”
Tess nodded, feeling a new tension in her heart. This choice likely meant death for the soldiers who’d remain.
There were guards outside the room where they’d locked Margot. They stepped back, bowing, when they saw their king. Their captain spoke. “You should know, your majesty, that the princess isn’t alone.”
King Henri frowned. “Open the door.”
Inside, two slim figures bent over a desk spread with paper filled with hurried notes. They spun around, nearly in unison.
One was Prince Lucas.
The other, was Margot.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle – one hour ago
Margot was curled up on the divan, wishing she could shut out the sounds of Jeoffroi’s attack, when the boy appeared at the door. He was taller than she, but in a long, stringy way, and he hunched his shoulders, like he was trying to hide, even in the open.
He flushed and made an awkward half bow, introducing himself as Lucas. Prince Lucas. He carried those two copies of her mother’s journals.
She sat up, gripping her knees. “What’s – what’s going on out there?” Her voice sounded small and childish.
He shrugged. “Lorraine’s still trying to break our defenses.” He rocked forward and back, his motions stiff and nervous. Then, he blurted out the question. “Was it Adele – the Magician you said you had? She’s – she’s at the wall – defending the city.”
Margot froze, horrified. “What?”
He slouched into a chair by the desk, sitting sideways, and dropped the books there. He nodded. “She showed up. Offered to fight so my uncle would send Jacqui back here.”
So now, both siblings were trapped.
The prince’s next words seemed to come from a long distance. “You were trying to save Jacqui, weren’t you? You and Adele. She said she was only Obligated to you to keep herself safe. Not you. Not your family,” the words poured out of him in a bubbling rush. “She’s his sister – isn’t she? You were trying to help her. To get Jacqui safe away from –” His voice died away, and he studied his hands, tracing a finger through the elaborate carvings decorating the back of the chair.
She looked up, her chin quivering. If they had Adele, there was no reason to pretend anymore. They could simply command her to tell them everything. “Yes – you’re right,” she said, a sob filling her throat. “Please – please don’t hurt my friend. Or – or her brother. If you let them go, I swear I’ll find a way to pay –”
What was a Magician worth? Wasn’t just one priceless to a king?
His hand tightened on the carving for a moment, then he spun around, snatching up one of the books. “I’ve got a plan, see. Grandmother had these brought to me, and I think I’ve spotted a code.” He launched into a rapid and convoluted explanation about a consistent reference to something in his city, and how that related to something from his family line, and some obscure literary references. His hands moved with nervous energy, pulling loose papers filled with hasty notes from inside the books, spreading them out over the desktop.
She watched him, blankly, as she fought to hold back tears.
Adele had lost her freedom. Her brother was still bound to these Noblemen. And now Adele was being forced to fight against Jeoffroi – and Jeoffroi – how was he managing with his Obligation to protect Adele? Did he know it was Adele? Was he in danger of a conflict?
A few days after she’d returned the original journals to Alexandre, Adele had asked her to promise that she’d never intentionally conflict a Magician again.
“Even if their life is at stake,” she added, softly.
Margot blanched. “W–why?”
Adele shook her head, refusing to answer. “I’m grateful for being freed – and I don’t blame you for what you did, But please – don’t ever do that again.”
“But –” Margot had hesitated. She’d wanted to ask about Jacques, but the look in Adele’s eyes frightened her too much.
Breathe. She had to breathe. In. Out.
If Alexandre won this battle, they’d all be his prisoners, and Adele would be back under his control again. Of all thoughts, that one was the most horrible.
“... If you can help me sort out the rest – we might be able to use it to get him to release Jacqui and Adele,” he finished eagerly.
Those words broke through to Margot, jolting her out of the spinning, suffocating thoughts. She gasped. “You think – you want to – can we –?”
“We can try. I need your help – I’m sure you know Lorraine and your history better than I.”
Margot slid off the divan to join him by the desk.
He’d bookmarked parts of the journal that she’d read as a mundane log of affairs. She’d never really tried to break this code. Honestly, she’d never even cared to do more than glance through these books before. But, hunched awkwardly over his notes, Lucas’s enthusiasm for untangling her mother’s cipher was contagious.
He was right. It did make sense.
Adele was still in mortal danger at the city wall – but, despite herself, Margot was drawn into this mental game – she and Lucas against her mother. The prize? Something – anything – they could use to buy the freedom of two Magicians.
When the door behind Margot opened, she spun around. And froze.
She’d filled Margot and Adele’s conversations for the better part of a year, but, her, here, now, was terrifying. It was as if Margot had separated them into two people – Adele’s missing mother, and the woman Margot had failed to help Jacques protect.
The last time she’d faced Tess, it was those few minutes when they’d planted Jacques’ ashes. She’d presented Tess with a handful of seeds she’d collected from her special place. He always said he loved it there, so it seemed right, and Tess didn’t object.
Before that – it was, when, Tess’s hands still covered in his blood, she’d taken Margot by the arm and physically pulled her back to the manor – away from Jacques.
When Margot had failed to save him.
Her throat and lungs seemed to have collapsed in on themselves, and she gasped unsuccessfully for a breath of air. She drew her knees up to her chest. If only she could fold herself up and disappear completely.
“Margot – Margot, look at me.”
The voice seemed to come from a long distance. She fought for another breath against the crushing pressure.
Two strong hands took her shoulders, and she forced her eyes open.
It was Tess. She was kneeling on the floor in front of her. “Margot – breathe.”
“I’m – I’m sorry,” she gasped. “I – Adele – she’s –”
“Oh, dear girl,” Tess said, softy.
Margot was shaking. “Adele – I failed –.”
“Breathe,” Tess murmured. “Oh, Margot.”
Margot finally met her eyes. There were tears in Tess’s eyes, but she was – she was – smiling? “Tess? I –” But the rest didn’t come. Instead, her chin started to shake. As she started to cry, Tess wrapped her in an embrace.
● ● ●
Henri gazed into his grandson’s eyes. The boy had grown so much taller in the year he’d been gone.
“She’s – Adele’s her friend,” Lucas mumbled, his shoulders hunched. “They were trying to – to save Jacqui. From having to fight.” Then, his chin came up. His hands clenched into fists. “It’s not right. I don’t care what you or Uncle Tobias says – and I’m not going to help any of you keep hurting Jacqui – I’ve read all about the war, and the horrible things Noblemen have done with Magicians. I don’t care what happens – I’m done, and now I have –!”
Henri raised a hand, cutting off the rush. “Lucas. I plan to free both Magicians just as soon as Tobias arrives.”
Lucas’s eyes widened. “But – you –? I don’t – understand.”
Henri smiled, grimly. “If I do this, it could mean both our lives – and possibly this city. As heir to the throne – do you support this?”
His grandson nodded, his face solemn. “Yes. I do.”
“Grandfather? I – we,” he turned to indicated the desk behind him, spread with papers. “We found something you should know, I think.”
That was the moment when Tobias appeared at the door. Seething with fury. “Gale – man – what possessed you to withdraw our Magician from the defense?” The words hissed through clenched teeth. “Lorraine may be through the wall as we speak!”
Several steps behind him, the Magician – Adele – appeared. A narrow frame. Taller than her mother. Dark curly hair pulled back in a tight knot. Her gaze was an insolent challenge as she met his eyes.
Henri nodded to her, but focused on Tobias. He wasn’t going to like this any better. “Lord Tobias, I order you to release both Magicians from all Obligations to our house and city immediately.”
Tobias’s face went blank. “What.”
“I’m releasing the Magicians.”
Tobias cursed. “You think – you turn up from whatever Gale-blasted hole you ran away to, just to – to what? Destroy this city?”
“As your king –”
“No, Henri. I’ll protect this bloody city with or without you. Adele –!”
Henri’s fist was moving before he even thought it. A punch straight to the mouth. His knuckles slammed against teeth, and Tobias staggered back, dumb shock in his eyes.
“Adele,” Henri commanded, flexing his hand. “Go find a place out of earshot to wait while we sort this.”
Tobias, recovering his balance, spat blood and roared with rage. The guards nearby, shaken out of their own shock, moved to step between them.
Meanwhile, Lucas was talking in that babbling rush of his. “I’ve got proof – Uncle Tobias – he’s a traitor. He worked for the former queen of Lorraine.”
The room went completely quiet. Tobias froze, then turned to Lucas. “What did you say?”
The boy shrank back, his eyes on the floor. “It’s in the journals Princess Marguerite brought. You worked for Queen Claudette.”
Tobias wiped his mouth, speaking in a low, cold voice through swelling lips. “Years ago – for the good of Ninove, I allied with that woman. No – blast it – I had nothing to do with our defeat at Roucy. And I did not tell Lorraine about the Magician boy. But all the same, some bloody spy told him anyway, and he demanded I turn the boy over to him, or he’d reveal this very information. When I refused,” he breathed out, shoulders slumping. “When I refused – apparently, he decided on a full-on invasion instead. I swear – if I worked for Lorraine – would I have withheld the boy from him?” He spat blood and glared at Henri, and his voice dropped into a growl. “I’m as loyal a son of Ninove as any. I’m not the one trying to destroy us. Blast it, man – Adele’s the one who killed Audrick and Nicolas!”
Henri winced. “She was –?”
“The same bloody Magician. Are you gonna make the same mistake? Take this whole city – your own blasted grandson – down with you?”
Henri’s throat constricted as Tobias echoed the very words he’d asked himself an uncounted number of times in the two hours before he’d given up and gone to Tess Dumont. He’d paced along the castle wall, watching the battle at the city gate.
He’d searched his mind and heart for clarity, feeling only fear and panic in every option. Longing for the sense of purpose he’d found in the ruins of Teirlinck. Before he’d known they had the – had captured Jacqui. Before the princess and Adele had appeared. Back when running away or dying with his people had been his only choices.
He’d left Tobias to hold this city together – to sort out the mess Henri had run from, and Therese hid from.
But, Audrick had been right to hesitate. He hadn’t been a fool. Henri let out a long breath.
Speak for Jacques Dumont.
Even if it killed them all.
He opened his mouth, but stopped as the guards snapped to full attention.
Henri turned, and his heart seemed to freeze.
Therese, trailed by two servants and a squad of guards, strode down the passage. She was pale, and her gown hung from a shrunken frame. But she wore her royal regalia, and her white hair was pulled up and back, into the royal crown of Ninove. She held the arm of a servant girl, but her shoulders were square and her head high.
She met Henri’s gaze with cold eyes, and a painful something seemed to burrow into his chest. Had it been almost two years? There were deep lines in her face that he didn’t recognize.
The hall went absolutely quiet.
He dropped his gaze to the floor as, following the others, he offered her a bow, and stepped back.
“You defer to me now?” she asked, icily.
He winced, but she didn’t wait for him to respond. “Lord Tobias Faverau.”
Henri watched her face. Set, blank of emotion. He held his breath, waiting for her to countermand his order.
She let go of the girl’s arm and took a step closer, unaided, to face her brother. “This is right. We command you to free both Magicians. Refuse us, and you will face the headsman, condemned as a traitor to this crown. Comply, and we will be lenient.”
How had she –? Henri found himself grinning. Her eyes still cold, she gave him a small nod.
Tobias stared. “You’re – you’re – out of your bed.”
“Yes, thank you, brother. Guards?”
Tobias drew himself up. The blood seemed to have drained from his face – a stark contrast to his bleeding mouth. “Would you kill my daughter as well? If I refuse?”
Therese shook her head. “We doubt the Lady Sophia will take it so far. Make your choice.”
The castle shook.
Tobias glared, at each of them in turn. Lucas. Henri. Therese. Then, wiping his mouth with his wrist, he let out a long breath. “Gale blast it – if we survive this, Ninove’ll need one sane voice.”
When they brought Adele, Tobias glared murder, but he quickly and clearly revoked every Obligation he’d given the girl.
She gave Henri a small nod, and he stepped forward. “To thank you for your service – however unwillingly given – I will find a way to get you out of this city and away from Lorraine.” She stared at him, her face blank. “Alternatively,” he said, quietly. “I can only beg you to stay and fight – if we survive, you would be rewarded with whatever we have to give.”
She laughed. A sharp, humorless sound. “And why would I do that?”
“Adele.” It was her mother. Henri stepped back and looked away – giving them a very small bit of privacy.
Present day – Ninove sky
The hail of crossbow bolts flying from the broken wall didn’t slow as the rain cleared, but the lead raven circling overhead could clearly see the absence of the Magician who glowed with purple and the Nobleman. The ones who remained were mere frightened boys in metal hats and armed with sticks.
There were so few of them now – a narrow line wherever they could find cover. Without the man and the girl, a hopeless hush had fallen over the defenders, far below.
The ravens also saw how many more of them had been tossed about in the rubble, like so many broken and forgotten toys.
Blue flashed again, and again, there was no answering purple glow.
The birds wheeled, and the leading raven peeled away, diving for the source of blue, summoned by a command it sensed like another instinct.
The raven must return to the man with the leather cuff. The man must learn what it had seen.
Two minutes later, the valley shook as a great chasm opened beneath a stretch of wall, consuming both stone and defenders in a roaring rush.
Then, the remaining wall rippled like a shaken ribbon. Stones and mortar shifted and cracked, the sounds echoing off the mountains, and reverberating through the ground, then it crumbled like sand.
The surviving defenders ran in terror, a few rallying at an inner wall, surrounded by homes and bakeries and taverns and cobblers’ shops. The threads of smoke rising from chimneys marked those buildings where people hid in inner rooms praying to the saints for protection.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
Tess rose from where she knelt, holding a shaking Margot, and faced her daughter.
She swallowed as a thousand emotions churned in her chest. She was shaking too, she realized. Every fiber of her being ached to grab her daughter and never let go. But the cold look in Adele’s eyes held her back.
Did Adele hate her for running away to protect Jacqui – leaving her to the capricious cruelty of Alexandre?
She took a step. Then another. And another.
“Adele,” she repeated in a whisper. “I –” What do you say to the child you left behind?
Adele nodded. “Hello, mother. I’m glad you’re alive and well – but right now, I’d like to get out of this Gale-blasted city.” Her voice was crisp, dispassionate, cold.
Tess flinched. “I’m – Jacqui and I are staying.” She choked the words out.
“You – what? Why?”
“People are dying,” Tess whispered as the castle shook again. “Alexandre will kill this city. Jacques would have stayed – to help –”
Adele glared. “But instead, he’s dead because a Nobleman murdered him – you were there, blast it! I don’t owe this city and these Noblemen a bloody thing.”
Margot appeared beside Tess, pale, but on her feet, and a note of determination in her voice. “Adele – I’m – I’m staying as well.”
“You too?” Adele hissed. “Gale – bloody – blast-it, Margot! Why?”
“I – I ran away from Alexandre once, and – and people are suffering for it. I – I have to face him.” She bit her lip.
“I – I’m safe from Jeoffroi, remember? He can’t attack me. I might be able to stop him or hold him back – don’t worry – I won’t conflict him.”
“Oh, no – he can hurt you plenty bad. He just can’t try and kill you.”
Margot nodded, eyes on her toes. “I know. But I can make time for you all to survive. To get away.” Her voice shook, and was nearly a sob. “This is my family – my fight. I’m not going to send you or any other Magician in my place.”
Prince Lucas joined them. “I – I’ve got a suggestion.” His hands twisted nervously. “Researching magic – for uncle. I found plans. For a device. I’ve been trying to build it. For Jacqui. But, I can’t finish it – it needs magic to make it work. But, the book says if it’s made right, it will totally block hearing.” He stopped talking and flushed. “Adele – can – do you think you might be able to do the magic?”
Adele stared at him. “You mean – that’s wrought daemon work.”
He nodded as the castle shook.
King Henri interrupted. “Whatever we do, we must do now. Lorraine is through the wall by now. If the princess is determined – I won’t refuse her help, if she thinks she has an advantage against Lorraine’s Magician –”
“Jeoffroi,” Margot said.
They turned, and she stepped toward King Henri, her chin raised. She wasn’t shaking anymore, and her voice was confident.
● ● ●
Margot hoped she didn’t look as terrified as she felt. “His name is Jeoffroi,” she repeated. “And whatever happens, you must all swear you won’t hurt him.”
The king met her eyes, and he gave her a nod. “I’m going with you – you need another Nobleman to face him. I swear I won’t do or say anything to intentionally harm the – to harm Jeoffroi. Will that suffice?”
The castle shook, and she spun around. “Adele – we’ll buy you time – whatever you choose to do.”
“Fine. I’ll do it, blast you,” Adele muttered. “Just don’t – don’t die.”
There was one more thing, and Margot dashed back to the desk to scratch out a note. “Please try not to kill Alex.”
She shoved the paper into her friend’s hands. Adele glanced down, and swore. She crumpled it in her fist. “That’s too far.”
“Please?” Margot choked. “He’s my brother, and my family has killed each other for too long. This has to end.” She bit her lip. “I know – I know he doesn’t deserve it. I know you have every right to kill him. That you deserve anything and everything from my family. I’ve got no right at all to ask – but, he’s my brother.”
Adele simply glared, then turned to Lucas. “Let’s go.”
As Margot followed the king to the castle armory, her hands were shaking, and she struggled to breathe through the crushing band of fear around her chest.
When she’d come to the king, she truly hadn’t considered the possibility that they might kill her. But this – every terrifying moment with her brother crowded into her mind, all jumbled together. From the cruel childhood bully to the moment Alexi told Jeoffroi to kill her. His mocking laugh rang in her ears.
Breathe. In. Out.
She pushed through the fog, fighting to hold one image in her mind instead.
Her friend. Jacques.
She was doing this for him. Because, it’s what he would have done.
That thought grabbed her with heartbreaking clarity. All those things she hadn’t understood as a child – how and why he’d chosen to die. To free Tess. And – and to save Margot. Her father would have found some horrible way to punish her – to make sure she was far too afraid to ever help Jacques again.
The storm in her mind and heart began to settle just a little, and the square outline of the king’s back blurred with tears. She rubbed her sleeve across her eyes, and smiled.
She didn’t have to win against her brother. She just had to survive long enough to give Adele and Lucas a chance.
Jacques had shown her there were ways to save the ones she loved, without killing the ones she feared and hated. And this was her turn. To risk her life to save this city. To save Tess and her son and Adele. To save Jeoffroi.
At the armory, they buckled her into a set of light armor they said was made for young boys.
A soldier arrived with an update on the battle. His face was white, and he was covered with blood and mud. Lorraine had blasted through the inner wall with hardly a pause, he said. And was now cutting a slow swath of destruction through the city, heading for the castle. They were holding him back with as many bolts and arrows as they had left, but while some of his soldiers had fallen, his Magician kept up an impenetrable shield of light around himself and the Lorraine king.
The king’s pitifully small force of royal guards were tight-lipped and pale as they mounted up. Their mounts shifted uneasily, sensing fear in their riders and disturbed by the shaking ground.
The king faced them, and tersely explained their goal. To be a distraction. “The Magician is unable to kill Princess Marguerite, so she has the best chance of stopping him. That being said, we believe he can do nearly anything else to her, and she then, is your priority to protect.” He grimaced. “Remember – the Magician is only unable to kill her. The rest of us have no such protection. But I’ve given my word to the princess that we will do all we can to avoid hurting the Magician, and –” He shot Margot a look. “And, the princess requests that Lorraine be taken alive, if possible. But do not risk your life to spare him.”
Margot gave him a small nod, smiling her thanks.
Then they were off.
As they emerged from the castle stables into the lighter gloom of an overcast sky, the ground was shaking and the roar of crashing stone seemed to fill the city.
She breathed in. Out. She didn’t have to survive this to defeat Alexandre. She only needed to do what she could.
They had to keep a tight hold on their skittish horses, as they rode as fast as they dared through the empty streets. From a distance, Margot could see the tops of buildings collapsing into themselves, like a pile of blocks when the lowest ones are pulled out. But this wasn’t a child’s game. These were houses, shops, factories. Some of them would still have people inside, facing a choice between death inside, or death outside.
A flock of ravens circled in the air above, following their progress.
She glance across at the soldiers who rode beside her. Beads of sweat rolled down their faces in the cold wind.
Strangely, though Margot’s heart pounded in her chest, and her palms were slick with her own sweat, she didn’t feel that overwhelming urge to run away, to disappear, to hide.
Her rapid breath came freely.
As they reached the line of battered pikemen and crossbowmen, they dismounted. Their horses would be unmanageable from this point. The king shouted a few instructions, and the soldiers surrounded them in a mass as they moved out onto the main street, to face Alexandre.
Far away, she could see they’d dismounted as well, and were walking slowly down the center of the muddy street.
Jeoffroi glowed with blue, and every few paces, a fissure opened up in the ground on either side of the street, consuming and crumbling buildings. Beside him, Alexandre was laughing. Drunk on the power he wielded.
An officer barked an order, and a wave of vicious bolts flew toward him, and glanced off the blue wall appearing across the street. Almost at once, the bolts were answered by a wave of blue. The soldiers around her dropped to their faces in the mud as it came, and Margot followed, a heartbeat later.
Then, blue seemed to cut through the street, a narrow crack opening in the ground and aimed straight for her. She rolled to the side just in time, and one of the soldiers offered her a hand, pulling her upright.
“Run!” the king ordered. “Toward them – we have to get within earshot.” With the crash of buildings all around them, that would need to be very close. The soldiers around Margot nodded, and looked to her.
She moved forward, breaking into a run.
Another wave of blue came her way, and a soldier pushed her away, dropping into the crack himself. He screamed with pain as it slammed closed around his knees.
Another soldier pulled her back and down, as he and the others slammed their shields up and together, to meet a wave of hissing bolts. The bolts thudded into the metal plates and some found gaps to slide through, piercing exposed throats and tearing through raised forearms and shoulders.
She shut her eyes, breathing fast. Fighting to find the calm she’d had just minutes ago.
Someone shouted, and the shields dropped, and a soldier pulled her to her feet. They started to run, and she followed. She just needed to hold Alexandre back and stop Jeoffroi.
Two massive crevasses opened at their flanks, and soldiers on her far right and left tumbled into the earth.
She raised her eyes from the muddy ground. They’d halved the distance, and her eyes met Alexandre’s. He grinned.
She took a deep breath to shout – to tell Jeoffroi to sleep, but, her brother said something first, and she had to leap away as the ground opened beneath her feet again.
She landed sideways, and her feet slid from under her in the mud. A soldier leapt to cover her with his shield as another wave of bolts hissed around her. This time, they were too scattered for a shield wall.
The soldier covering her fell across her, dropping his shield. He was covered with mud and blood. And now, so was she.
It was warm and sticky and coppery.
Her throat tightened with that familiar panic, and she thrashed to push his inert body off hers – she couldn't think – couldn't breathe.
“Marguerite – Margot!” the king shouted, pulling the body away. Somehow, his voice yanked her back to the present. This soldier wasn’t Jacques. But, like Jacques, he’d died protecting her. So that she could save her friends.
That was her goal. Focus on that.
The king pulled her upright, and they ran together, straight into the danger.
The street seemed to ripple like a wave, tossing her from her feet again. As she fell, the king shoved her away from another crack opening at her feet. He dashed forward, shouting for Jeoffroi to sleep. His voice seemed to melt into the chaos, and a wave of blue tossed him backward.
She raised her chin, meeting her brother’s mocking eyes, and she pushed to her feet, her chest heaving with exhaustion, and ran again.
“Jeoffroi – sleep for ten hours now!” she shouted. She could barely hear herself, but she shouted it again. And again. She leapt from one, then another crack that opened beneath her feet. Bolts slammed into the mud behind her, and more screams filled the air.
She was sliding, slipping downward. Jeoffroi had finally caught her in one of those cracks.
She landed with a jarring lurch, something like half a meter deep.
The earth and stone slammed shut with crushing force. She screamed at the white-hot pain, and her vision swam.
No. She – she had to – to stop. Jeoffroi.
Alexandre was laughing, but, she screamed her command one more time, with all the force of pain and desperation.
Alexandre swore, and Margot forced her eyes open.
Jeoffroi lay on his side in the mud, breathing softly. A breath of a smile hovered on his lips. Her brother shouted at him but he didn’t respond. Alexandre kicked him in the ribs, viciously hard. Jeoffroi moaned, his eyes fluttering, then, closed again.
Another wave of bolts sailed over Margot’s head, into whatever remained of Ninove’s army, and Alexandre stepped forward, a terrifying smile on his face.
He drew his sword – half a meter of shining steel.
“Well done, dear little Margot,” he said. “You’ve surprised me again. But, now I see what a mistake it was to let you live, last time. I truly thought you were harmless. Even with a Magician. Where is Adele, by the way? I’d really like to know, now that she’ll be free from whatever silly Obligations you’ve given her.”
That wicked, metal point of his sword floated nearer, and she struggled to pull her legs free from the earth’s agonizing grasp. Her vision swam, and she gasped out a sob of pain.
He was standing right over her.
She tried to think of something clever to say, but all she could think of was that blade, the overwhelming pain in her legs, and the cruel grin on her brother’s face.
She squeezed her eyes tight, releasing a sob of pain and fear.
Her eyes snapped open, and he flew backward in a wave of purple light.
Her friend stepped into view.
Strapped to Adele’s chin was the strangest thing Margot had seen. A bulky mass of spinning, whistling wheels covered both sides of her face, right above her ears. If Margot could hear the hissing, squealing, and shrieking, even in the surrounding chaos, the sounds had to be physically painful for Adele. But she was grinning – a nasty, delighted, wolfish smile, as she stalked toward Alexandre.
He picked himself stiffly from the ground, dawning horror in his eyes. He shouted something, but his words melted away into the noise.
His hand jerked, and a knife flew through the air, but Adele blocked it with hardly a glance.
At that, Alexandre turned and ran.
A wall of earth appeared, right in his way, and he slammed into it.
He hung there for a heartbeat, then, he slid down the wall to his knees, then curled into a fetal position.
Margot’s vision swam again as she watched her friend move to stand over him. Adele drew a dagger from the back of her belt.
Margot shook her head. “Please,” she thought at her friend. Then, “Why do I feel so cold?”
Alexandre kicked out, but his feet were instantly encased in a glowing mound of earth and stone. Now, Margot could see his face.
He shook his head from side to side, stark terror in his eyes. His lips formed a plea.
Adele glanced around, then her eyes widened with horror. Slamming her knife back into her sheath, she dashed back to Margot.
She grabbed one of Margot’s wrists to hold her upright, and waved her other hand, opening the earth. Then, she pulled Margot out and laid her on the street.
Margot’s vision blurred and she screamed at the fresh, stabbing waves of pain.
Her consciousness dropped away, and this time, she embraced the peaceful blackness.
She was just, so cold.
Present day – Ninove
Tess found Prince Lucas and Adele as they, along with the tattered remains of the Ninove army, dug through the rubble. They were working straight through the dark hour, using torches, oil lamps, and Adele’s purple glow.
Alexandre had cut a horrifying path of destruction through the city. The scattered and collapsed remains of buildings stretched for several kilometers.
How many lives had been taken? Livelihoods lost forever?
This broken landscape felt totally alien, and yet, the odd half-buried sign, the incongruous standing structure, told Tess that she knew this neighborhood.
They were laying out the bodies they found in a long line between two flicking torches, where the survivors, some covered with mud and blood as well, could claim their loved ones.
They shot Prince Lucas confused glances as he worked beside them. His fine suit was plastered with the same filth as their own, and as he directed their efforts, he dug his hands into the mud with them as they pulled away rough beams and piles of cheap bricks.
A howl of pain and grief from the very soul split the air.
A man dropped to his knees by two small figures who’d just been added to the line of bodies.
Tess felt panic flow down her body like an icy wave. The torchlight hit his face, and she knew him. This was Emma’s father.
She walked slowly forward, terrified of what she’d see, as the man stooped, and lifted a small body to hug to his chest, rocking back and forth, sobbing.
Badly cropped dirty blonde hair.
Emma was dead.
Tess forced her legs to move, until she stood over the child’s grieving father. Her brothers lay there with her.
Tears came again as she looked up at the ruins of what had been her home for several years. Strange, the things that die and the things that survive. Jacqui’s knotweed friend clung, undamaged to a bit of still-standing corner.
A shout for help from one of the soldiers brought Prince Lucas and Adele running. Tess followed, feeling small and useless.
“Down there,” the man said, pointing into a crevasse and holding up a torch. The choking cries of a baby echoed up from the darkness.
The whole crevasse began to glow purple, and Lucas leaned over, studying the now visible destruction. Then, he pointed and gave a quick command. Then another, and another. Each movement had to be careful, deliberate, slow. Soon, they’d opened a hole large enough to crawl into, and one of the soldiers slid in. He came out backwards, holding a crying infant, followed by a tiny boy.
Tess gasped. “Teddy!”
He looked up, blinking in the torchlight. “Ma – she in d’ere!”
Lucas dropped to a knee, to look the child in his mud-streaked face. “Is she hurt? Was she with you?”
He nodded, and Lucas glanced up at Adele. “Do you think–?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. It’s deep in there. I might bring it all down.”
As they went back to work, sorting out this life and death puzzle, Tess crouched down, reaching out to the shaking boy. He noticed her for the first time, and, with a cry of joy, dashed to her. Essie, still held in the soldier’s uneasy arms began to scream, and Tess held out her hands, taking the baby from the grateful boy.
Lucas shot her a glance. “You know – you know these children?”
Tess nodded, grimacing. “I lived right here. Before –”
Teddy clutched her muddy skirt. “Before ma brought the men who took Tess an’ Jacqui away.”
Adele froze, then spun around. “What did you say?”
Teddy shrank behind Tess, his eyes clouding at Adele’s sharp tone.
Lucas frowned. “I heard that – that a – a prostitute came to the castle – asking for money in return for –”
Tess took a deep breath, propping Essie against her shoulder. “Yes. That is correct. Alice – Teddy’s mother – was the one.”
Adele narrowed her eyes. “That – that – she – sold you out!” She stepped back. “And you were just gonna let us dig her out without saying anything?” She glanced around. “I’m sure there’s plenty others who need our help right now.”
Lucas opened his mouth, then, shut it again. He looked away, chewing on his lip. Then, he quietly asked if Adele would like him to revoke the last two commands.
What was Tess feeling about Alice? About saving the woman who’d started all – all this.
Emma was dead.
And Margot –? Tess winced.
Did Alice deserve to be rescued?
She glanced around. There were so many who’d died. So many who, unlike Margot, had no one to care for them. People who’d have to find their way in this hard world without arms or legs, or family.
Children without parents. Parents without children.
Enough people had died.
More death wouldn’t bring them back.
More death wouldn't return the innocence that Jacqui had lost, or give him back the grueling cycles that stole his joy. It would never take away an ounce of pain from every survivor today, nor return a second to the lives stolen. Pain and revenge didn’t work that way.
Margot had been right to plead for Alexandre’s life.
“No,” Tess whispered. Then, louder, “No. We know she’s down there. We need to get her out.”
Adele glared. “I’ve got no reason to help the woman who sold my brother.”
“Then I’ll do it myself,” Tess said, holding the baby out to the soldier again.
Adele stared. “You can’t go in there – it’s too dangerous.”
Tess hitched up her skirt. “I can’t save everyone, but I can save this life, here in front of me. All I’m asking for, is your help.”
Her daughter blocked her way. “Fine,” she hissed between clenched teeth. “If you’re so Gale-blasted set on this.”
She raised her hands, and the structure gleamed with purple again. With one final bit of magic, Adele opened the way for Alice to climb out. Blood ran down one side of her face, she was covered with mud, and she moved on unsteady feet, but Alice was alive.
Teddy ran, screeching to her, and she dropped to the ground, allowing him to wrap his little arms around her. She looked up, seeing Tess, with Essie in her arms.
Alice’s face went white, and she pulled away from Teddy to hide behind shaking hands.
Tess crouched down, beside her.
Later, as Foncé slid away from the sun, they gathered around to eat food brought down from the castle.
The soldiers and people of the city who’d ventured out to help had begun to relax around Prince Lucas, and now he was surrounded by a group of his people. As each one spoke, he watched them intently, listening. Asking questions. Probing past the walls they’d put up around the boy who would be their king.
Tess made sure everyone who’d gathered had food, before serving herself. Filthy. Exhausted. Many of them wearing bloody bandages on heads, arms, legs. Some smiled, some muttered thanks. Others waited to be served with empty eyes.
Finally, her own meat pie in hand, Tess glanced around the scattered group.
Adele sat away from the others on a stone, staring at the ground.
She was afraid.
Afraid her daughter hated her. Afraid that Adele would reject her. But she couldn’t hold herself back anymore, because she was also bursting with the need to hold her daughter.
Adele didn’t look up as she sat down, but, after a moment, she spoke. “Why did you make us save her?”
Her tone was so cold, and Tess winced. “I – I had to. Why are you still here? In the city? Helping Prince Lucas?”
Adele shrugged. “I’m not leaving Margot, and Lucas asked.” She gave a sharp little laugh. “He’s picked up Margot’s pen and paper thing –” Adele broke off, grimacing. “How is she?”
Tess sighed. “Margot? It’s not good. The physician has her on laudanum for now. At least he’s not going to amputate. But – but at best, he doesn’t think she’ll ever walk without crutches.”
Adele muttered a harsh curse, and Tess winced again.
“Why – why didn’t you kill Alexandre?” she asked, softly.
Adele drew her knees up to her chest and stared into the distance for several long heartbeats. “I just – looking down into his blasted pathetic face. I realized the satisfaction I’d get from driving my dagger into his body – it – it wouldn't cover a tenth – no, a hundredth of –” She took a shaking breath. Then another.
Tess fought the agonizing urge to wrap her arms around her daughter and never let go, but Adele had yet to invite that. So Tess sat watching, her hands clenched into fists in her lap, as Adele fought with her emotions, alone.
Finally, Adele started again. “But – not killing him – that meant so much to Margot. She’d never hold it against me – but – it would hurt her. I know it would, and – I – every time I’d face her –? It just didn’t feel worth it,” she muttered. “There’s not – not enough of him – in him – to pay –” This time, as she choked up, she kept talking, forcing the words out. “I hate him, and right now, what I hate him for most is that he can’t – that there’s not enough of him –”
After she went silent, Tess waited another long minute, before finally asking the question that terrified her. “Adele? Do – you hate me too? You have reason enough – I didn’t protect you like I should have – and I left you – I took Jacqui, and I ran. I didn’t come for you – and I’m so sorry –” Tess cut off, sobbing.
“Mother – I’m not – I don’t –” But, finally unable to hold back her own tears, Adele opened her arms, reaching out. Tess didn’t hesitate. She grabbed her daughter in a tight embrace, holding her for the first time in seven years.
● ● ●
Present day – Ninove castle
Margot tried to roll over in her sleep, but her legs were held in a vice.
A painful vice.
She was still in the ground.
She opened her eyes, fighting to wake up.
A hand reached out to touch her shoulder, and someone said it was okay. She was safe.
Tess was sitting by her bed.
Beside Tess, a small face framed with light brown curls watched her with large eyes.
Margot grinned. He grinned back. That was Jacques’ smile. A twinge of grief suddenly mixed with her relief.
“How do you feel?” Tess asked.
Margot tried to move from this painful, aching position, and stopped. That wasn’t a cramp. Her legs – the ground –
Tess’s face filled with concern. “Do you need some more laudanum?”
Margot shook her head. She didn’t want to go back to sleep. She needed to know what – what was happening now.
“My –” her voice seemed to be working again. “My legs?”
Tess winced. “They’re still there. If that’s what you’re wondering. But –”
Margot tried to sit up, but Tess gently pushed her back down. “The physician thinks you’ll –” she sighed. “He says you’ll probably always need crutches. I’m so sorry.”
Margot let herself relax back into the pillows, her stomach twisting painfully. “What about –” she started again, whispering. “What about the king?”
“He took a bad fall.” Tess murmured. “But he’s alive.”
“And Jeoffroi and Alexandre?”
Tess smiled. “Jeoffroi has been confined to a room, where we’re watching him. He says keeping him asleep for long stretches of time is his most preferable option right now. But he’s safe. Alexandre is heavily guarded in a cell. He’s alive.” She searched Margot’s face. “Ninove will be deciding his fate soon.”
Margot nodded. Of course. It was out of her hands now.
Tess glanced down at the little head beside her. “Margot, this is my son, Jacqui – Jacques.”
He grinned at her. Margot grinned back. He climbed up to sit on her bed, as Tess warned him to be gentle. He nodded. “I was hurt too,” he announced. “Protectin’ the city. But I’m almost better. Mama says it’s magic, cause Tobias Obi-gated me to get better.” He played with the quilt. “Can he Obi-gate you to get better too?”
She shook her head. “No, only you can do that, because you’re a Magician.”
He nodded, solemnly.
Tess pulled him off the bed, cuddling him in her lap, as he went on. “I got to be real soldier – cause I’m a Magician,” he announced, proudly. Then he squirmed out of Tess’s arms and slid to the floor. He stepped back to show off the miniature uniform he wore. It was torn, but clean. “My friend Lucas gave it to me.”
His smile was infectious, even as it made her want to cry for the memories of Jacques. “I see,” Margot said, laughing. “You know – your papa was my friend. I’d like it –” Did she need to be extra careful with how she phrased things, because of how little he was? “I’d love it very much, if you decide that you would like to be friends with me, too.”
He bobbed his head, curls bouncing. “Yep.”
Margot lay back, wincing, and she met Tess’s eyes. Tess was smiling, but there were tears in her eyes.
Present day – Ninove castle
They carried Margot to the throne room on a stretcher. King Henri had insisted she be present, Lucas said, when he came to sit with her after Tess left.
King Henri entered the room alone. He walked with limp, moving slowly, and he winced when he sat in one of the two thrones that had been placed on the dais. Queen Therese came last. She met King Henri’s eyes as he rose and bowed. She gave him a stiff nod, and continued regally to the other throne, her eyes straight ahead. His eyes followed her all the way.
Lucas stood beside them. He was tracing a seam in the marble floor with a toe of his boot and toying with one of the clasps on his jacket. But he glanced up and met Margot’s eyes. He grinned awkwardly and she glanced away, feeling the first fingers of anxiety grip her heart, over the thing she’d been contemplating all evening and morning. She bit her lip.
And then Alexandre was there. He walked slowly between his guards. He was limping, with chains on his ankles and wrists between guards. They brought him to a stop in the center of the room. He offered a mocking bow to the king and queen.
“Lorraine.” Queen Therese began. Her voice wasn’t strong, but it carried a note of power. “You have attacked our city unprovoked. You have murdered our people, and by any law, we would be fully justified to end your life.”
Alexandre raised elegant eyebrows. “Would be?”
She glanced at Margot. “We are still deciding. We have little reason to spare you, other than from gratitude to your sister.” She turned to Margot. “Princess Marguerite. Do you still wish for your brother’s life to be spared?”
She nodded, and Alexandre seemed to notice her presence for the first time. He grinned, nastily. “Ah, yes. Still little –”
Queen Therese spoke again. “We have no other reason to preserve your life, but, we give you a choice: release the Magician, and you will live, be it in a cell, for your natural life. Refuse, or attempt to harm him or any of us, and you will die, instantly.”
He laughed, bitterly. “You make it sound so appealing. So – death or free Jeoffroi. Anything else? What do you plan to do with Lorraine, if I’m to stay here forever? My dear sister has insisted she doesn’t want that throne. Even if she did, the daemon won’t have her. Of course – if you leave me alive, it won’t have anyone.”
Margot spoke up. “I stand by my word, Alexandre. I don’t want that throne – but –”
Jeoffroi, in the few minutes they’d risked allowing him to be awake, had given them all the horrifying news. Under her brother’s control, the Lords and Guilds – the rich and powerful, who’d always been taken care of by previous members of Margot’s family, were on the edge of revolt. Commerce was failing. The city was starving, and even the rich were feeling the effects of his shoddy, careless rule.
“I know there’s no history of it,” Margot continued. “But – I’m going to find a way to break the city away from you anyway. Somehow.”
Here it was, time to present the idea she’d been quietly pondering. Her belly twisted nervously. She opened her mouth, and almost lost her nerve. “Your Majesty, Queen Ninove, as heir to the throne of Lorraine, I’d like to propose an alliance by marriage. I will not take the throne myself, but the contract would require that my first child from this arrangement would be born in Lorraine, to assume the throne in my place, when the child is of age.”
The room went perfectly still. And then Alexandre started laughing. That laugh.
Queen Therese shot him a glance that contained daggers, then met Margot’s eyes, thoughtfully. “To our grandson and heir – Prince Lucas?”
Margot nodded, feeling her face flush with heat. She didn’t dare look his way, now. The queen considered, pressing her lips together, then, she turned. “Prince Lucas. I will not speak for you. I will only say that I believe the city approves of this. What do you say to this alliance?”
Margot bit her lip, focusing on a green drape above her head, her stomach churning. She’d rarely thought about marriage before – and, not like this. She barely knew Lucas. And now – with her legs – would he turn her down? Flinch away in pity and horror at the thought of being bound to such a person? She should have waited to suggest this in privacy. Not here – in front of Alexandre.
His voice was low, halting, when he spoke. “The Princess Marguerite – she’s lived with a Magician for a year, and – Adele – she calls her a friend – her best friend. I can think of nothing that speaks more about her character. And – then to risk her life to save my city – that –”
Margot finally found the courage to look at him. Lucas had turned bright red, and he was speaking to his toes.
He raised his eyes, shining with admiration, and met hers. “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Alexandre snorted. “Saints save us,” he muttered. “If this is what you’re going to curse Lorraine with.”
A smile hovered on the queen’s lips. “Very well, we accept.” She focused on Margot’s brother again. “You see how things stand. You can free Jeoffroi and place yourself on our mercy, or we will have your head this day.”
He laughed again, but Margot could hear the edge in his voice. He was beaten. He knew it, and he hated it. He offered a dramatic bow. “As you say, your Majesty. I place myself on your mercy. Bring me to the Magician, and I will revoke all Obligations.” He offered Margot a second, mocking bow. “Enjoy married bliss, sister. Take lots of long walks together,” he added, nastily.
She met his eyes, and smiled. “I’ll figure a way, I’m sure.”
He – Adele had told Margot why she’d spared him, and she was right. There just wasn’t enough of Alexandre for his words to hurt anymore.
When they’d carried her back to her room Tess joined her, followed by a bouncing Jacqui. He grinned. “Mama says you an’ Lucas are gonna be married.”
Margot blushed, and he clambered up beside her on the bed again, and laid his head down on her pillow, facing her.
Tess carefully sat beside him. “Margot. I don’t know how much this means – but I think Jacques would be deeply proud of you this evening.”
Margot flushed. “No – it – I,” she tried to think of something to say. “Thank you.” Then, she grimaced. “Tess? What – what if we have children – or grandchildren – who turn out like Alexandre? How do I protect Jacqui?”
Tess sighed. “You can’t protect anyone from the future, Margot. The future is an inherently dangerous thing, and your children and grandchildren – they will each have to decide what kind of a world they want to build and pass on. All you can do is to start a new legacy. Show the Dusk what justice and mercy can do. No matter what the future holds, I believe such things can never lose their power.”
Margot nodded, frowning, and then her deeper fear spilled out. “Do you think – will I –? I never wanted to be queen, and now – can I be a good queen for Ninove – without –” she glanced down at her legs. “Will they want me?”
Tess reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “You were injured protecting these people and this city. They will be proud to have you as their queen.”
“But – but Lorraine? What –?”
“Oh Margot.” Tess smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. “The powerful and safe may despise weakness – but – the people beneath them – show them your heart, and they will love you for it. The Dusk doesn’t need more warrior kings. The Dusk needs people who’ve been broken – who can heal its wounds.”
Margot tried to smile, but it turned into tears. Jacqui, from where he lay beside her, reached out and wrapped his little arms around her neck.
She laughed, sniffed, and reached out to squeeze him back. “Thank you,” she whispered into his little ear.
● ● ●
Three years later
Walking over a garden path in leg braces was hard no matter what. It didn’t help that Margot’s husband kept obsessively reinventing the braces several times a year – just when she’d gotten used to the last pair. Never mind that Ninove had a thousand more pressing needs for his growing skills.
But pregnancy made her feel even more off balance, so she clung to Lucas’s arm.
After years of negotiations between Ninove and the Guilds and Lords now running Lorraine, they’d formally invited Margot to return and deliver her baby within their walls. She’d been accompanied by Henri, Jeoffroi, and Lucas.
She’d become especially grateful for Henri’s force, as he’d tackled the more recalcitrant voices.
Now, she’d finally had a chance to slip away from Lorraine for a few days – the baby wasn’t due for another cycle – and visit Tess, Adele, and Jacqui.
Stepping onto the manor grounds, Margot had felt that instant welcome from the old manor. It knew and remembered her. But she could also feel how its soul had changed. She’d read about the orphanage in Tess’s letters but now, she could see and feel how Tess had transformed it from an imposing, empty building filled with frightening memories, to a bright home filled with children’s voices.
Out here, their shouts and laughter was muted by the trees and bushes. These, too, remembered her.
She shot Lucas a grin. “This – these were my friends. When I was little.”
Lucas gazed up at the trees, eyes wide. “Do you want to go on, alone?” he asked, softly, as they reached the end of the path. She shook her head. “No, I want to introduce you.”
The grass was short and even around a clump of simple bushes and a single young tree, ringed by evenly placed stones. So this was what grew out of that handful of seeds she’d thrust into Tess’s hands, nearly nine years ago.
The sunlight filtering through the leaves seemed to glow unusually green.
“Hello Jacques,” she whispered. “I miss you.” She was shaking, she realized. She closed her eyes. Something about the quality of the rustling wind seemed to change. Was she just imagining that feel of his arms around her?
The words seemed to float into her mind.
Well done, Margot. Daughter of my heart.
● ● ●
... I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long. ...
... And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in? …
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde
Chapter 11: Bonus Scene
I wrote this as a bit of a "here's some exposition I couldn't fit in the story proper," and also, because I wanted to give these characters a little more time together. It's a bit rough.
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.”