Jeoffroi heard the small voice from the doorway. He turned to see his nephew clutching the door frame with a worried expression. He put his book down and turned in his chair to face the boy.
“Are you... busy?”
“How can I be of service?” he said, almost automatically. Something inside his chest tensed. He hadn’t meant to phrase it like that. He's talking to family.
His brother’s five-year-old son.
He changed his tone and quickly restated it. “Can I help you with anything, Jacqui?” he said softly.
Jacqui didn’t seem to notice the effort. He shyly wiggled his toe into the floorboard.
“Could I - meet your raven friends?”
His mind rushed back to his youth for a moment. Raven friends. It had been forever since he’d thought of them as such. He used to show what his bird friends could do for his little brother when they were both learning magic. Again he felt that something in his chest, but now it felt a little painful, like a hot spot.
“Yes,” he said with a stiff smile. “We can go see them.”
He got up gingerly and walked out his doorway and saw there was a castle servant in the hall with the boy.
“Thank you for watching him.” He was glad the child wasn’t wandering the castle unsupervised.
“Of course,” the servant said stiffly, not meeting his eyes. She waved at Jacqui and told him cheerily that she’ll be working with the cook now, and left down the hall at a light jog.
The Ninove servants were still unnerved by him. The Magician that tore through their army’s ranks with ease... And left deep gashes cutting across the ground and through the city during Alexandre Lorraine’s assault. How many of their people had he killed? Has he killed someone she knew?
He shut down the thought quickly. It couldn’t be helped. He had no choice.
“This way,” he muttered, refocusing on his current goal, to show his nephew the ravens. He led the way to the stairs that went to the rooftop, to where the ravens were kept now in the Ninove Castle.
On their way down the hall toward the stairs he felt something soft brush his fist and he flinched. He didn’t realize his hands were clenched. He looked down to see that he had startled Jacqui by pulling away from his touch.
He held his little hands together looking at them then to Jeoff’s hand. “Sorry... M-Mama says to hold hands when using the stairs.” Was he worried he did something wrong? That he had upset Jeoffroi?
What was he doing? Jeoff reprimanded himself. Still on guard, preparing for a confrontation at any moment. Focusing on getting the next task done without thinking of who it’s for... How did he come to treat this boy’s request like an Obligation? He took a long breath to take a moment to remind himself of where he is. He then knelt down to the boy’s level.
“Don’t be sorry,” he said softly, putting one hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “Your maman is absolutely right. Would you like to hold hands up the stairs?”
Jacqui looked up with his big eyes, his face glowing happily and nodded twice vigorously.
Jeoff gave himself a moment to study his nephew’s features. He clearly had his mom’s frizziness in his dark curls, and a darker complexion as well. But his eyes and smile had the lively eagerness and kindness he remembered in his late brother. Deep hazel eyes with his aura rimming his pupils, turquoise for Jacqui instead of the green aura his father had. Brimming with life and energy and love, untainted by years of cruelty that his family has gone through.
“Call me Jeoffy, if you like.” His brother used to call him that when he was this age.
“Uncle Jeoffy!” Jacqui shouted happily. He seemed to really like the sound of it.
Jeoff let out a short quiet laugh and smiled solemnly again to himself. He ran his hand from the shoulder through the boy’s fluffy hair as he stood up. He left his hand open for Jacqui to grab a hold of before continuing on their way.
Jeoff struggled with loosening something internally that he held shut for many years. Emotion was a liability, his father had always said. A luxury a Magician couldn’t afford. Just react, his father said. Don’t think – don’t feel. After Jacques and he were separated, given to the princess and prince of Lorraine, he learned with each Obligation from his prince how to lock those feelings away. They made him hesitate, they made him hurt, and his emotional state or concerns was of no use to the prince. Nor to his son. Nor to Alexandre. And after Jacques was gone there was no need to keep it. Jeoff locked it.
But he knew, that wasn’t right. And especially now, it wasn’t needed. Jacques had held on to his empathy, his humanity and two kingdoms were now better for it.
Jeoff needed to open that old door, and revisit how it was when the brothers were kids. When he loved, and cared for others, and it was okay to feel each other’s pain.
Maybe Jeoff could relearn with Jacques’ boy, his legacy, who wears his heart on his sleeve as his brother once did. A little at a time.