Navigating a conversation with Adele felt so very different from one with Tess or Jacqui. In a way, Jeoff could most relate to his niece – she’d known the reality of living as a Magician under Alexandre’s capricious control.
She’d known – briefly – Jacques. And she was equally uncomfortable with her emotions.
Now, Adele stood beside him on the castle walltop, enjoying what little heat they could from the sun in cold Ninove.
Below, new buildings filled the broken spaces. Adele had worked with Lucas for much of the process. Lucas had suggested that Jeoff stay hidden. For now. The people wouldn’t understand how the Obligation system worked, and it could just make more problems for them all.
Instead, Jeoff had spent long hours shut away with Henri and Margot, talking through Lorraine politics and the desperate state of the city. It was work for the mind. It was work that didn’t require magic at all.
He wasn’t in the room as a tool to be commanded and used, but as a thinking, observing man who knew the city. A full part of the initial negotiations who brought his own insights, thoughts, and suggestions to the table.
Adele glanced his way, squinting against the slanting rays. “When do you think you’ll go?”
He focused on the far horizon – considering. “The messenger could return any day – we’ll know then if they’ll accept an initial visit from the king and I.”
“And you’re willing to – to risk it?”
Jeoff smiled wryly. “I’ll have the helmet worst case – and Henri’s Obligations. I doubt Lorraine will risk any kind of treachery. They don’t dare at this point. Ninove holds all the cards and they know it.”
“Won’t that make them desperate though?”
Jeoff laughed humorlessly. “Oh, they’re desperate alright. But these are businessmen – guild leaders. They know an invasion from Ninove – even if they had me – would finish them. And – Gale – some of the bastards are still loyal enough to Margot’s family that they’re ready to crown her today if she’d have it.”
“She really won’t.”
“Oh, I know,” Jeoff muttered. “She’s made that very clear. I think it’s for the best, frankly, because plenty of the city is equally death on crowning another Lafarge. But a child they’ll get to see grow up – a Faverau – they’re more willing to consider the idea.”
Adele nodded. Of course she’d known Margot intended to take Prince Lucas’s name almost immediately. The girl was eager to leave the last pieces of her horrible family behind. Start over with a new home. A new name.
He still cringed a little when he saw her in the chair they carried her around in. He’d done what he could, considering, to not injure her more than he had to, per Alexandre’s order to break her legs.
She’d told him constantly to not blame himself, and he knew it wasn’t his choice. But it still – it still – it hurt. To see her like that.
“Adele – Jeoff, have you seen Jacqui?” It was Tess.
Adele turned, and frowned. Tess was smiling, but there was a hint of tension around her mouth.
Jeoff shook his head, a thread of – of fear sliding into his mind.
“Is he missing?” Adele asked.
“I – I’m sure he’s around –” Tess broke off, biting her lip. “I’m sorry. I’m not being honest. Lucas hasn’t seen him, and he hasn’t been up to see Margot all morning. I’m worried.”
Adele pushed away from the wall. “Where’s Lucas?”
“He’s looking in the garden – calling for him.”
Adele hurried past her mother. “I’ll join him.”
Jeoff glanced to the sky. The flock wasn’t visible. He reached out – calling for them to return. He gave Tess a smile. “Go on – I’ll be along in a minute – with some eyes in the sky.”
A minute later, the air filled with fluttering wings, and Jeoff raised a hand. A raven landed, and he passed his command onto it. Find the child. The little Magician – the little friend.
The birds took to the air again, and Jeoff hurried down through the maze of stairs and halls. To the gardens. He could hear Lucas’s voice – calling very specifically for Jacqui. Just for Jacqui. The boy had become as careful with his words as Margot in the last six months.
Then, his shouts stopped.
Jeoff wanted to believe the child had been found, but somehow, he was sure this wasn’t going to be good. He sprinted around the corner, and found Tess, Adele, Lucas, and the captain of the guard standing around a side door in the castle wall.
Built of thick hardwood and reinforced with steel, it was normally barred. It wasn’t now. It hung ajar.
The captain was studying it. He shook his head, and addressed Lucas. “It’s no accident, your highness. See here – the stones fell away from the wall.”
Jeoff pushed passed to look himself. The bar usually slid into a solid stone block. But that block had been removed from the wall. Not crushed.
He turned to meet Tess’s eyes. “Magic,” he said, quietly.
Tess sucked in a breath, but Lucas spoke first. “Do you think a Nobleman is involved, then?”
Jeoff smiled grimly. “If it’s magic, then it would have to.”
Adele swore, and met Jeoff’s eyes. “The helmets,” she said. He nodded, and she dashed for the castle.
He turned to Lucas. “Give me a specific Obligation for the ravens.”
The boy straightened, nodding nervously. “What do I say?”
Jeoff quickly composed the words and Lucas repeated them. Now, armed with focused control over the birds, he called for the ravens again. This time there were new instructions. Search the city. Search outside the city.
Tess followed the birds with her eyes as they headed skyward again. Then she met Jeoff’s eyes. “I – I wondered, you know. During the invasion – if they were yours. I – I almost hoped they were,” she added. “That they might – help you not hurt Jacqui.”
Jeoff nodded. “They found him the first time easy enough. They’ll find him now.” Maybe he sounded less worried than he felt right now.
And the blasted Nobleman who’d somehow slipped past their defenses. What had he missed? Had he been wrong about Lorraine? A Delisle from Roucy – some relative of the Nobleman who’d kidnapped his brother years ago?
Think – bloody blast it! What –?
Lucas’s voice broke through his thoughts. “I’d like to know if you want me to come with you.”
Jeoff nodded. “Definitely. If we’re dealing with a hostile Nobleman, we need you.”
The boy nodded, his eyes wide. “Do you – do you think –?”
Jeoff shrugged. “I don’t know anything right now.” But that didn’t stop his mind from speeding through all the worst ways this could end. It couldn’t stop him from remembering that horrible dark hour when the prince sent him to put down an insurrection led by a Magician with a green aura.
“Sure – he’s your brother,” he’d said. “But as long as the bloody rebels have him – he’s the enemy.”
He hadn’t appeared – and Jeoff had spent hours pacing, waiting for his ravens to find some hint of Jacques. Some lead he could pursue. And then, blessedly, they found him, riding for the castle.
Jeoff had tackled him as soon as he’d arrived and nearly carried him to the nearest bed.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This wasn’t the time to let himself fall apart. Right now Jacqui needed him. He swallowed and opened his eyes to see Adele returning, the helmets clutched in her hands.
She thrust one at Jeoff. “Let’s go.”
Jeoff held up a hand. “We need to be smart about this – let me see what the ravens have found.”
He reached out, calling to them again. Adele clenched and unclenched her free hand, kicking one foot restlessly against a clump of grass.
Tess watched them quietly, but she held the Saint Esme charm she wore squeezed in her hand. Her lips were set in a tight line.
The birds returned, and Jeoff held out a hand, calling for his primary bird. It landed and turned its head. Communicating – or connecting – with the birds was always easier – clearer – with direct Obligations. Now, powered by Lucas’s command, he understood the shadowy images and sensations the bird could convey.
Bright small turquoise friend. Bad feeling. Stranger. Unease. Wrong.
Flashes of images. An old iron gate. A ragged disguise.
Where, Jeoff demanded, a cold, sick feeling growing in his stomach. Show me where.
The raven hopped from his hand to the top of the small gate. Jeoff nodded grimly at it. “We follow the bird.” He hefted the helmet in his hand and slipped out of the castle grounds. Adele and Lucas following behind.
The side gate led out onto a city street. In the afternoon, people strolled along – leisurely after a long day at work in their shops, or at trades.
The town sloped away, down from the castle, and the wealthiest sections had circled the castle. Henri’s economic reforms and Lucas’s rebuilding projects were changing the city’s layout, but much of this area was unchanged.
Jeoff paused a minute, scanning the street, falling back on training that had become habitual from years of enforcing Lorraine’s – whichever one – oppressive laws. Not all of it was bad, per se. Now that he was able to use these skills for something worth fighting for.
He gripped the sound helmet and clenched his jaw. We’ll find him.
Ahead, the raven landed on the awning over a vendor’s stall, and Jeoff hurried forward. As they reached the stall, it moved on. It landed, waited for them to catch up, and moved on again.
Jeoff tried to keep his pace steady. To not look too alarmed, or alarming. Don’t give the bastard any hint they were on to him, if he had spies out watching. Stay with the crowds, but keep moving.
The raven led them – hopping from stall to sign, from sign to window box – downward, deeper into the city. The places where the difference between new and old was stark.
The fence. The iron fence came into view as Jeoff stepped around a bend.
He pulled back, raising a hand for Adele and Lucas to stop. He nodded with his head. “We’ve reached where he was. I’ll send the bird in to check again.”
Jeoff raised his hand, and the raven landed, briefly, before flapping away again.
They stood in the shadow of an alley, barely breathing, waiting. The bird returned. All was the same. Little turquoise friend was still there. Wrong human was also still there.
Jeoff turned to the others. “I’ve no idea why, but they haven’t moved.”
“Do you have a plan?” Lucas asked, cautiously. “What would you like me to do?”
Jeoff pictured the fence in his mind. Tall. Old. Thick trees lined the far side. A street followed the fence on their side. If he understood the images from the raven – Jacqui and the bloody Nobleman would be around the corner.
“Lucas – Adele – you’ve been building in this area – do you know what this place is?” He gestured around the corner for them to take a look.
Lucas shuffled forward and stepped carefully out onto the street, then returned. “I – I – yes. I do know.” He grimaced. “This – that’s the pyregarden where we’ve been planting. Well –.” He grimaced and looked away, shrugging.
Adele arched an eyebrow and finished for him. “Your victims.”
Jeoff looked away. At Tess’s urging, he’d been trying to reach out to Adele, but – but she was so much like him. Too much.
He nodded. “Right. So the bastard’s got him there. So – I think they’re near a gate. How – what’s our best approach – Adele?”
She frowned. There it was again – that thinking face of Jacques. It was odd how Jeoff had to remind himself that she was also Jacques’ daughter. Probably because of how different she was. Jacqui made the resemblance easy to see.
“I think – if they’re at the gate,” she started, almost talking to herself. “I think we could split up and come around from two sides. The garden isn’t large. We could walk around it quickly enough. Come at him from two sides.”
Lucas glanced down at the helmet in her hand. “Do you think – are you going to use the helmet?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “They’re as loud as the Gale and I want to take him by surprise if we can.” She shot Jeoff a look. “And you’re sure it’s just one?”
Jeoff nodded. “As I can be.”
“And how much is that?”
“Enough. He’s alone.”
She hesitated again, then nodded. “Fine.” She started to move, then stopped again. “Wait. Lucas. You go first. And we’ll be right behind you. Give me – us – a command to protect Jacqui.” She shot Jeoff another look. “I assume that’s fine?”
Jeoff always found it just a bit amusing how uncomfortable the young prince always seemed when giving an Obligation. Well – he prefered that to Marceau. Or Roland.
They split up, Jeoff following the fence in the other direction. Left alone with his thoughts, this place made him decidedly uneasy. By his decision or not – he had been a part of the deaths of the people planted here. Of course, here by the fence, these were flowerbeds. They would predate Alexandre’s invasion. But, still.
Moving quickly, it still felt like days before he reached the corner and turned. And then the other.
That was when he heard Jacqui’s shout.
He started running.
As Jeoff rounded the final corner, he could see Lucas crouched down by a large and small figure.
And the disguised stranger.
Over Lucas’s head, Jeoff could see Adele, also running.
They reached the three figures at about the same time. Nothing about Lucas’s body language spoke danger, and now deeply confused, Jeoff slowed to a walk as he approached. Tense. Listening carefully for any hint of an Obligation.
Jacqui looked up and squealed. “Uncle Jeoffy! I gotta new friend.”
Jeoff blinked, mind blank.
He scanned the dangerous stranger. The man was thin, wrapped in a ragged cloak, and sitting on a strange low seat.
No. Not a seat. A pallet. With wheels. The man reached out a hand wrapped in dirty rags, and pulled himself a few centimeters forward, the pallet rolling across the ground.
A human who was wrong. Bad feeling. His shoulders slumped with relief. But also deep confusion. And a bit of pain.
This man had lost his legs. Probably from Alexandre’s invasion.
And sensitive Jacqui would have been heartbroken to see him – at first, anyway. He seemed fine with his new friend now.
Jacqui was talking eagerly with Lucas. “He’s here askin’ people for food, cause he’s not had any supper, see – I told him you were my friend and you’d make sure he would.”
Lucas nodded. “Yes – but –” He shot Adele a pleading look. She stepped in. “You need to tell us how you got out here. Right now.”
Jacqui glanced away, scuffing his toe in the dirt. “I – walked.” He glanced up at Jeoff, a look of pure innocence in his eyes. “I had ta come visit Emma and Tom, an, Taft. Their papa planted their flowers, here, see? An’ they’re my friends.”
Jeoff grimaced. He’d heard the story of Emma in bits and pieces from Jacqui. Tess had never talked about the girl and her brothers to Jeoff directly. She was probably trying to spare him, considering they’d died in one of the buildings Alexandre had made him destroy.
Adele frowned. “But – blast it – the little castle gate! How – who – did you break the gate?”
A little sly smile crossed the boys’ face. “Um.”
Jeoff frowned. “Jacqui?”
~ ~ ~
Four hours earlier:
Henri dug through the piles of paper on his desk, searching for the notes he’d taken in the last meeting with Margot and Jeoffroi. The messenger would be back any day, and –.
A small knock on the door broke into his thoughts. “Come in,” he muttered.
He glanced up as a small frizzy head appeared by his desk.
“Yes?” He’d – he’d put the paper – somewhere – here.
“I wanna visit Emma’s flower.”
“Do you,” he muttered.
“Uh huh. Can I go?”
“Yes, of course. If you go with someone, you can go.”
“Are you sure?”
There the notes were. He pulled the stack of papers out. “Yes, Jacqui. You’ll go visit Emma’s flower.”
“Okay.” The head vanished.
~ ~ ~
Back at the castle, with servants taking care of Jacqui’s new friend, a “family” meeting was called.
Once Henri had been found and fetched and the full story of Jacqui’s “Granpapa told me to go” was unraveled, some new guidelines were put into place for speaking to Jacqui.
After Tess took her son away for a stern talking to about when it was okay, and not okay, to twist words, Adele shot Jeoff a look. And suddenly, all the tension of the day melted away, as they started laughing.
Jeoff leaned back in his chair, gasping for breath. This child was going to survive just fine. He definitely did not inherit this from Jacques. Tess.
Lucas glanced between them, obviously confused. Finally Adele explained. “You gotta understand – subverting and twisting Obligations is – well – it’s pretty bloody useful. If you can. I’ve just – never seen it done so – so wholesomely before.”
Jeoff started laughing again.