The trick to commanding an animal was their willingness to be controlled. With a tree, he merely directed thought and intent and the daemon would respond with a reasonably linked Obligation. With an animal, it felt a little like a negotiation.
And that always went best when the animal knew and trusted him.
He wasn’t sure why Jacques had always struggled with the skill, but Jeoff thought it might have had something to do with his empathy. To use the ravens well, he’d learned to mold and control the raven’s will – to override their natural desires and turn them into his tools.
It wasn’t all that different from riding a horse, really. Other than, instead of reins, he used a mental connection with the birds. And Jacques couldn’t get past that. But he never said if it did bother him, so Jeoff could only guess.
Be as it might – Jacques had excelled at commanding plants, and Jeoff had inherited the raven flock from their father.
After Alexandre Lafarge had freed him from every Obligation, glaring murder at the Ninove Noblemen surrounding him – holding a knife point hovering at his eye, Jeoff had asked one of them for an Obligation to keep the birds nearby – he’d put too much time into raising them to lose them now, so far from their home.
The old king – Henri – had given it to him, devoid of any liegeoath. It had taken Jeoff several minutes before he realized what was missing, after living under that Obligation for so many years.
When they’d taken Lafarge away – he’d never been able to think of him as Lorraine in the last year – Henri had explained that Tess and her son – Jacques – was here under their protection, as was Adele. And Jeoff was free to stay or leave as he desired. Equally, he was invited to ask for any Obligations he’d need to safely live.
That had been a long, strange ten days ago. He’d accepted Henri’s offer to stay, but in a castle filled with servants and the remaining soldiers who shot him guarded, fearful, bitter glances as he passed. In a bedroom with windows that looked out over a city he’d tossed into chaos.
And he suddenly had, not just a niece, but also a nephew. He’d met his niece only once before, a year ago. If you could call it meeting. He’d nearly killed her. Gale – he’d only learned of her existence when young Lafarge had shown up at the castle, begging to be allowed to serve Roland.
Because that evil bitch of a princess had Obligated Jacques to keep Tess an absolute secret.
A small hand tugged on his own, and Jeoff realized he’d stopped walking. His nephew looked up at him with wide eyes.
Jacques – Jacqui – his mother called him – had asked to see the ravens, and Jeoff had stiffly agreed.
Jacqui’s eyes spoke concern – a silent question, as Jeoff had just stopped walking, lost in his thoughts.
“Are we gonna see’a bird friends?” He asked in an uncertain voice.
Jeoff nodded. “Sorry – yes. Come on, then.”
They started climbing more stairs to the roof.
Out in the chilly wind on the walltop, the ravens greeted him. They were here, as he’d told them to be. The servants were leaving them food and water – he checked on that daily.
Jacqui squealed and dashed forward, scattering the birds.
Jeoff shouted after him, too late. “Jacqui – no! That’s not how you –.”
The boy stopped at the battlement, and turned, worry in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Did they run away.” He bit his lip, and his eyes filled with tears. “Did I hurt them?”
Jeoff knelt down in front of him on the uneven weathered stone. His tone had been sharp and commanding – it wasn’t like Jacqui was going to hurt the ravens, or frighten them away from the castle. They’d return as soon as he called them. He’d just – reacted. Without thinking.
Gale – he didn’t have a clue what to do with a child.
Was this – was this how his father felt?
His father’s voice rang in his mind. “Stop crying – Grow up.”
When Jeoff was something like Jacqui’s age, he’d had a kitten. He named it Pumpkin for its orange fur. Pumpkin would sleep curled up under his chin at night, and would be there in the dark when Jeoff woke, crying from a nightmare. Pumpkin would purr so loudly, he could feel its whole little body rumble.
One day, one of the king’s hunting dogs broke out of its pen, and dashed for where a group of castle cats were sunning themselves. Several dashed for trees, a few for little holes in the stone walls, but Pumpkin – Pumpkin wasn’t fast enough. And the dog caught him, and with a quick shake, Pumpkin was dead.
Devastated, Jeoff had carried Pumpkin’s limp body to his papa, and tearfully asked him to fix his kitty – he could do magic. Papa was a Magician.
His father had shot him a cold, dispassionate look and told him to forget about the cat. “Magic doesn’t fix anything, Jeoffroi,” he’d muttered, turning away. “It breaks and destroys, and you’ll learn soon enough to stop crying about it. Grow up.”
Jeoff had learned. He’d learned to break and destroy, and to stop crying about it. To close his eyes to the pain and death he caused on command.
He winced, trying to think of something to say to Jacqui. To reassure him that he wasn’t angry – that he’d done nothing wrong.
“Are’a bird friends gone?” the boy asked, his lip trembling.
Jeoff reached out, the action awkward, and squeezed his shoulder. “Jacqui – I – I’m sorry,” he said, hoping his voice sounded reassuring. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It’s okay – you didn’t ruin anything. They’ll come back if you stand still.”
Jacqui hesitated, his eyes still wide, and swimming with tears.
How was this so easy for Jacques? How did his little brother always know exactly what to say? And yet, here he was – free and alive, and Jacques – Jacques deserved to be here with his son. Not Jeoff.
He closed his eyes, fighting to hide the wave of anger washing over him. He’d locked this all away so well before, but it seemed the moment he tried to let himself care about this family he’d suddenly been given, all he felt was rage.
He took a deep breath, pushing it away – for now. And opened his eyes. Jacqui was still standing there silently, wide eyed.
Ravens. They came here for ravens. Jeoff pushed stiffly to his feet and lifted a hand, calling for the lead raven to come. A few minutes later, it landed on his wrist, and carefully, Jeoff knelt down to show the boy.
Jacqui’s pinched expression split into a grin, like the sun re-emerging from behind a heavy cloud. He squealed, then, cut off abruptly, looking at Jeoff apologetically.
Jeoff forced a grin. “It’s okay,” he said. “I told the raven to stay put. If you’re very gentle and careful, you can stroke his feathers.”
Jacqui’s eyes widened with wonder, and he reached out a single chubby finger to touch the raven’s wing. It turned to watch him with its bright black eye.
His own little eyes glowed with joy.
It was an achingly familiar expression – he’d seen just that look years ago on Jacques’ face.
He couldn’t remember what that kind of joy felt like, himself. The danger with joy, he’d learned long ago, was it could be crushed, taken away, stolen.
Like his little brother.
He closed his eyes again. Stop. Focus on Jacqui.
He let the raven fly away – he could feel it getting stressed. Jacqui squealed again as it flew past his face – a wave of black feathers and wings.
He clapped his hands. “Can I talk to’a bird friends too?”
Jeoff squinted up at the circling flock. “It depends. It’s different from other daemons – because it’s in an animal – but if it wants to communicate with you, it can. Otherwise, you’d need an Obligation.”
Jacqui nodded solemnly. “An Obi-gation. I play that game with Lucas.”
Jeoff smiled. “And what kind of a game is that?”
Jacqui grinned. “Wanna see? Adele plays with us – but you could too. I think.”
“Oh.” The excitement faded from Jacqui’s eyes.
Bloody blasted Gale – how did he keep doing this? “Well,” he started again. “Do you want to feed them – the ravens?”
Jacqui squealed again. Was squealing a normal way for small children to communicate?
A small wooden firkin sat protected by the shelter they’d built for the birds. He knelt, pried it open, and waved the boy closer. Jacqui squeezed against him, his frizzy head just beneath Jeoff’s chin.
He looked up. “What’s this?”
“This,” Jeoff explained. “Is what the ravens eat for food.”
“Can I feed ‘em?”
“Yes you can. Take a handful – like –” he choked back a sharp correction that sprang to his lips. The boy was fine. There was no shortage of bird feed. His bulging fist full wasn’t a problem.
Jacqui’s head came up again, a hint of worry in his eyes. The boy was frightfully perceptive. Like his papa.
He smiled. “Perfect. Now, go sprinkle a few seeds around you on the stone, then sit down in the middle and hold the rest in your hand, where the ravens can see it.”
The boy wrinkled his forehead, lost in the long directions. Jeoff took a small handful as well, and demonstrated. “Like this. Then, you sit perfectly still and wait.”
With a perfect seriousness, the boy carefully dropped one seed at a time in a circle around him. Then, he crouched down, his hands cupping the rest.
Jeoff squinted up into the clear sky again, and sent out a call for the birds to return.
They came in a flurry of wings and feathers, landing on the wall top and battlements. Jacqui laughed as they hungrily pecked up the food, then noticed the pile in his hands.
Jeoff nudged them to try it. Not all at once. Slowly. Let the boy feel like they were choosing to come to him.
Jacqui looked one in the eye and grinned. “You’re my first bird friend,” he said quietly, to the raven. “Do you want to be friends?”
It cocked his head, and Jeoff realized it was the one he’d summoned down earlier. They were all identical – Jacqui couldn't possibly have recognized it – could he?
He grinned up at Jeoff. “It’s deciding if it wants to be my friend.”
“Is it,” he muttered, dubious.
With a flying hop, it landed on Jacqui’s hand, and he giggled. “It tickles.”
The raven cocked its head again, staring up at the boy. Jeoff watched, bemused. He is communicating with it.
Jacqui held his hands perfectly still as the raven ate, watching it with wide eyes. “Uncle Jeoffy?”
“Miss Nell says you broke the city.”
Jeoff winced. “Who is Miss Nell?”
“The nice lady who looks after me sometimes when mama or Lucas are busy.”
Jeoff glanced out at the scars he’d left on the city – vast stretches of broken buildings. The shattered city wall. It was a subject most people carefully avoided talking about around him, but he saw the expressions on the faces of servants and soldiers as he passed.
Somewhere out there, he’d broken Margot’s legs, per Alexandre’s command.
Years ago, Jeoff taught himself to just, not ever think about those sort of Obligations after they were finished. To lock them away in an ever expanding corner of his mind.
He focused on Jacqui, blocking out the city. “What do you think about that?” he asked, his voice measured and even.
He scrunched up his face, thinking. “I had’ta protect the city.”
Jeoff focused on the gray stone of the battlements. Gale – he was not prepared to have this conversation right now. Without Jacqui’s mother – Tess. He hadn’t directly meant to – but Jeoff had been avoiding her. He wasn’t sure why.
Jeoff nodded dumbly.
The raven finally sprang away from the boy’s hand. Dropping the rest of the seed on the stone, Jacqui stood up and joined Jeoff by the battlements.
He grinned. “Lucas said me an’ you were like my tin soldiers – an’ Lucas gave me new ones, cause my old ones were lost. An’ he plays soldiers with me, and he said you an’ me were big tin soldiers – fightin’. Like me an’ him’s games.” He leaned against Jeoff’s leg, looking up at him, a triumphant look on his eyes. “But I won, ‘cause then we got to keep you an’ you turned into my Uncle Jeoffy.”
Jeoff knelt down to look him in the eye, emotions he couldn’t name churning in his chest. “That’s what Lucas told you?”
Jacqui nodded. “I asked him about you breakin’ the city. An’ he said it was like when I make my tin soldiers do somethin’ – ‘cause it’s not really them doin’ it. He said it was like that.” He rested his elbows on Jeoff’s knee. Suddenly solemn. “But a lot of soldiers on the wall broke.”
Something painful gripped Jeoff’s chest, and suddenly just breathing was a struggle. He drew in one shallow, shaking breath.
Jacqui looked up, meeting his eyes. “Mama says my heart might hurt sometimes when I think about it, an’ when it does I gotta tell ‘er or Margot or Lucas or Adele. Does your heart hurt too?”
Jeoff focused on the stone, fighting for control again. It wasn’t like that was the first time he’d caused death. Why –?
His nephew leaned his head against his shoulder. “I like you, Uncle Jeoffy – an’ your bird friends.”
He drew in another shaking breath, fighting against the invisible crushing weight on his chest.
Jacques. That had been Jacques he’d heard, speaking through his son.
Maman says I’ve gotta tell her or you when my heart hurts, he’d said as Jeoff had scoffed at the notion. He’d been twelve by then, and Jacques had been seven. Jeoff had brusquely told him that tears didn’t fix anything and he just needed to grow up. Jacques’ little chin had come up, his expression set and stubborn. “No. Maman says – she says papa’s way will kill your heart.”
Gale – Jeoff had nearly broken their friendship over the next few years, mocking Jacques’ determination to believe their mother and do as she’d taught him. But then – then she’d died when Jeoff was just seventeen. And then Jacques was all he had. He worked hard to repair the damage he’d done in those subsequent years. They’d grown close, then. Until it all went to the bloody Gale when Old Lorraine died, and his half-sibling children had started a war between the two of them and their factions. He’d only seen Jacques a handful of times after that, and then – and then Jacques was dead.
Jacqui wrapped small strong arms around his neck, yanking Jeoff out of his thoughts. “If your heart hurts, you can tell me or mama or Lucas or Adele or Margot, too,” he said, brightly into his ear. “You don’t hafta be afraid of bein’ friends. We’re not gonna hurt you. You’re our Uncle Jeoffy.”
Jeoff smiled crookedly, and gave him a squeeze back. He opened his mouth to say – something. But it came out as a sob.
Jacqui’s arms tightened around his neck. “Mama says I gotta cry when my heart hurts – you can cry too.”
Jeoff nodded. He couldn’t speak.
Jacqui shifted, pulling back, and Jeoff looked up, raising his free hand to wipe his eyes. Tess – his brother’s wife – stood there, facing him. She looked – uncertain? Confused?
The painful, choking pain welling in his chest drained away, replaced by twisting embarrassment.
He pulled away from Jacqui and pushed heavily to his feet. At least it wasn’t the blasted king – Jeoff cringed at the thought.
Tess looked down at Jacqui and raised an eyebrow. “So this is where you’ve been hiding.”
Jacqui’s shoulders slumped, and he nudged a leftover seed on the stone walltop. “I wanted to see a’bird friends with Uncle Jeoffy,” he mumbled. Then, he looked up at Jeoff, his eyes large and pleading. He reached for one of Jeoff’s hands, wrapping his little fingers around one of Jeoff’s. “A’bird friends needed feedin’.”
Tess nodded. “Yes. I see.” She looked back to meet Jeoff’s eyes. She opened her mouth, then shut it, then opened it again.
Jeoff cleared his throat and blinked. Maybe she’d missed the tears. Bloody fat chance. “Were you looking for Jacqui?” His voice sounded excruciatingly hoarse.
Tess pressed her lips together, then nodded.
Jeoff slipped his hand out of Jacqui’s grip and stepped away from the boy. “Go on – your maman wants you.” He started to walk off along the wall – away from Tess. Behind him, Jacqui whined something about practicing letters, and his uncle Jeoffy.
Jeoff clenched his jaw, shutting out the sound.
Tess’s voice followed him. “Jeoffroi – please – don’t go – his letters and Master Philip can wait.”
He came to a stop before he realized there was no Obligation with that imperative. He’d spent so many bloody years just following orders his mind reacted, even without the blasted Gale. He started walking forward again.
“Gale blast it – Jeoffroi – stop avoiding me!” Tess’s frustrated shout brought him to a halt again, this time with blank surprise. He turned around to see her redden and look down at a wide-eyed Jacqui.
She bit her lip, then, raised her chin and walked up to him, her strides long and determined. Her dark eyes flashed.
He’d seen Tess worried about Jacqui, exhausted from a long day helping the survivors of his – of Alexandre’s – attack. He’d seen her sitting primly across the room when they joined the king – and sometimes – the queen at supper.
He’d assumed she was even more mousy than his sensitive little brother. He’d never seen her like this.
She stepped up to him. She was shorter than he, but he took a step backward.
“We need to talk,” she announced.
Jeoff shrugged, half turning to look out over the battlements. “Do we?” he muttered.
“You’re my brother-in-law. You’re my childrens’ uncle. And you’ve been treating us like you don’t know us.”
Jeoff looked down at Jacqui, who’d followed his mother and now hung back, watching with wide eyes. “I don’t know you,” he muttered, staring at the stone. “What do you want from me?”
“Stop it!” Her voice was sharp, and he flinched.
“Stop pretending you don’t care – saints –!” she broke off, glancing down at her son. “Margot told us all what you asked from her a year ago – to protect Adele. You can’t tell me you don’t care about these children.”
A year ago, in the middle of the dark hour, he’d been suddenly confronted with his brother’s daughter – a girl he’d never met. Somehow, that moment had transported him back to the days when he and Jacques had dreaded being forced to face each other in a life or death match. And if he was going to die protecting Roland – at least it might feel worth something if he were also protecting his niece.
Years ago, Jeoff’s father had died just like that – protecting old Lorraine – the old bastard. It had meant nothing, and he’d died for nothing.
In that moment facing little Margot, he’d decided he’d do everything he could to not end the same. He’d fully expected Alexandre to use Adele to kill him at that point. He hadn’t cared all that much, then. As long as he was dying for something other than Marceau. Or his scrawny kid.
He hadn’t cared all that much, since. With Alexandre.
He didn’t care now – did he? Adele and Jacqui were safe – what other responsibility did he have for these – these strangers.
He shrugged. “I did what I could for Adele. What more do you want from me.”
Tess crossed her arms. “What Jacques wanted. For you to – just – for once –.”
Jeoff wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe the way she said his brother’s name. Maybe – maybe that he’d literally had this argument with Jacques the last time they’d spoken face to face.
Lefarge had sent Jacques on some mission, and he’d found a way to see Jeoff on the way. For years, there’d been a distance between them, in the rare times they’d talked. Jacques was always the one to try and bridge that gap, to share something. But so much of what he most wanted to speak about – it was obvious he’d been Obligated to not. So, he’d talked about little Margot. The late queen’s daughter. Jacques’ eyes had lit up as he shared a story about her, and there’d been a hint of pride in his voice. Almost as if she were his, and not the daughter of two monsters.
And then he’d tried to get the same from Jeoff. He’d insisted that Jeoff tell him – tell him what? That Roland was using him to beg favors from the city guilds and leaders? That he was a scrawny little weasel? That Jeoff found him mildly to extremely obnoxious?
And Jeoff had told Jacques he didn’t have a bloody thing to say about himself. And to stop asking. That he’d say so if he had anything to tell.
Jacques had just – looked at him in that pained way he had. It always seemed to touch a nerve with Jeoff. So he’d shut down and muttered a goodbye to his brother.
It was the last time he saw him.
Well, he’d learned from his raven spies that Lafarge had discovered Jacques’ family. The family he’d never told Jeoff about. He didn’t blame him for that – it had either been to protect them, or out of Obligation.
And then he was dead.
Now, Tess had touched that same nerve. Something painful surged up again, and he could hear it in his voice, even as he snapped back.
“And Jacques is dead because he was a weak, sentimental child,” he muttered, his tone acidic.
Tess flinched and stepped back. “If you really think so – then why did you wince when I said his name?” Her voice shook slightly, but her eyes were clear and bright.
Had he? Bloody Gale.
She didn’t wait for him to respond, but went on. “For once in your life – stop hiding from your own self. Who or what are you really angry at, Jeoffroi? Courage to speak your pain isn’t weakness, Jeoffroi. It’s certainly not childishness.”
He look away – over the city he’d – Alexandre – had flattened.
“Tears never fixed anything,” he muttered. He was shaking again. Why was he shaking? What was wrong with him? What had Jacqui done to him a few minutes ago?
Tess moved closer to touch his arm. “That’s only true if your own heart and soul are nothing.”
He pulled away like she’d burned him. Where was the safe numbness of a minute ago?
She spoke again. Her voice was now even. Thoughtful. “You think – you tell yourself you don’t feel anything. That there’s nothing to tell. You’re fine. That you’ve taught yourself to be strong and not hurt. That you’ve nothing to be angry about. This is your life – what good is it to wish it were anything else. You can’t fix it. No point in letting that hurt you inside when it already hurts on the outside.” She took a breath. “You tell yourself you – you’ve really got no reason or right to hurt – to be angry. That life could be worse than it is. And it certainly would be if all this crap hurt too. Jeoffroi – I know what it’s like – that was me.”
“I grew up in Taudis. You had to be strong to survive. And even so, many of my friends – they did not. But I learned that there’s another kind of strength – the kind that can actually change the world – from your brother. His soft heart allowed him to see the ones even Taudis had tossed away. It allowed him to see the humanity and pain in the child of his cruel master.”
She drew herself up, a quiet confidence in her voice now. “His strength planted the seeds of this day – here. Neither of us would be here – safe – free. Without his courage to face – to name and grieve – and then release – his pain and anger for wrongs done to him, so that he could continue to see and to care for those around him.”
He realized with a start that she’d started crying at some point. He clenched his jaw shut, holding back something – something that had broken free earlier with Jacqui. With the child – he’d somehow gotten inside his defenses.
“What are you afraid of, Jeoffroi Dumont?” She asked, softly. “You’re not being strong – you’re afraid.”
He clenched his hands into fists. Why are you angry? What are you afraid of?
A vortex of images as powerful as the Gale seemed to be spinning in his mind. His father’s scorn of his childish tears. Marceau’s use of callous violence – use of Jeoff – to kill and crush. His little brother’s tears. Driving his knife – on Roland’s orders – into a drunken Edouard Lafarge after the bastard had murdered his little brother. Then serving that same man’s crazy son – Alexandre. The city of Ninove. The guards on the walls who’d fallen, screaming to their deaths.
Magic never fixed anything, his father had spat out bitterly that day.
What are you afraid of? Why are you angry?
If my heart hurts, I’m supposed to tell mama. If your heart hurts, you can tell us – we won’t hurt you.
“Control,” he whispered, meeting her eyes finally. He was shaking. “It’s the – it’s all I’ve ever had. To control.” They could make him do what they wanted, but – Gale blast it – they couldn't make it hurt.
Tess reached out again, and this time, he didn’t pull away. “Old Lorraine – Marceau – Roland – Alexandre – they violated your humanity. You’re angry because they used you like a tool. You’re in pain, because they forced on you the weight of their evil. You didn’t choose this – but you still carry the weight of innocent blood on your soul. As long as you hide from this – as long as you hold onto this anger and pain – you don’t have control. They do.”
A small touch on his hand startled him. Jacqui, who’d hung back this whole time, watching nervously, had joined him by the wall, and now reached for one of his fingers again.
He opened his hand, drawing in a breath. And then that wall that Jacqui had damaged earlier broke. What was there to hide from anymore? What did he have to lose? Whose scorn was he afraid of?
Jacqui squeezed his finger.
Tess stepped to him, wrapping her arms around him, as he tried to speak through shaking sobs, then gave up. “I – I don’t know how – to – to –.”
“Like this,” she said, softly. “You start like this.”
After several minutes, it was Jacqui’s voice who broke through. He was giggling. “A bird friend came to be your friend too.”
Jeoff pulled out of Tess’s embrace, to look down at the boy, still holding onto his hand. The boy’s other hand was raised, holding one of the ravens perched there. “He came to tell you that you can talk to him too, if your heart hurts.”
Jeoff blinked in blank surprise. Then he laughed. Jacqui’s happiness was strangely infectious. He wasn’t even sure if the boy wasn’t actually communicating with the bird.
He knelt down by Jacqui, and held out the back of his hand, and the raven hopped onto his wrist. Jacqui clapped his hands. “See? A bird friend came to make you happy.”
He met the boy’s eyes. There really was so much Jacques in there. He smiled, and Jacqui lunged – giving him another choking hug around his neck. The startled raven hopped away – up to the battlements – as Jeoff wrapped his arms around his nephew.
Thank you Jacques, he thought. Both of you.