“H-How much time do you have?” Tess asked, dreading that he may leave again when they reached the cottage.
“Th- I- I have a day. I was given until the end of the next dark hour.” He avoided mentioning the princess.
Tess gripped his waist a little tighter. She was simultaneously relieved and upset. They had another day, but really, it wasn’t enough time. He was ‘given a day’, like it was a privilege instead of a necessity.
“You’re clearly staying the night,” she forced out in a mock-playful tone.
What can she do? Would distracting him be good? Or should she be silent and just hold him? Definitely a good meal was a must. But would he be able to eat? Was there any way to comfort him?
“So, how have you been?” She flinched as his whisper broke through her thoughts. She stopped walking for a moment to look at his eyes. He looked away at first but then met her eyes.
“I – I would like to keep my mind on you. Please.”
“Y-Yes. Of course. L-Let’s get inside and warm up first.” She left their embrace to grab his hand and hurry into the cottage together.
What could she talk about? Tess worked on listing things she could say to Jacques when he came but it all vanished with her rage for the princess and helplessness for Jacques.
“This is an oddly familiar scene,” Ma murmured solemnly to herself as Tess and Jacques walked together into the cottage completely exhausted from their emotional stress. “Food’s ready if you’ll have it. I’ll make some tea in the meanwhile.”
“Thank you,” Jacques whispered as Tess guided him to the kitchen table. There were bowls set for the three of them and Ma asked Tess to bring over the pot of stew from the stove while she got the tea boiling.
“Ma? Jacques is spending the night with us.”
Ma spoke quietly, “Well of course dear, we can’t let him leave like that. He needs to be refilled with something wholesome.” And she added in a whisper in Tess’s ear, “And I don’t mean my soup.”
Over supper with Ma’s help, Tess recounted anything and everything she could to fill Jacques’ thoughts with. Tess and Ma tried a new recipe, but Tess burned it the first time and they had to air out the kitchen for two days. One day there was a strange scratching sound, but they found it was a groundhog that got stuck under the porch and they helped free it. She tried to talk to the plants in the forest once, but it felt like a one sided conversation.
He’d listen silently for the most part, and would comment or ask questions in a quiet voice if Tess fell silent, without having more to add.
Tess hoped she helped. But something was still missing.
Ma encouraged them to wash up before the evening was over. She told them both to stay seated and finish their supper while she started preparations for a bath. Tess rushed over to help, exasperated by her mother’s forcefulness. She didn’t want her mother overdoing herself, but she was also thankful for her overwhelming support.
Tess muttered these thoughts to Ma as they prepared the bath water. The basin for washing was just outside behind the cottage by the kitchen in a clearing. It was walled off with fencing and a gate which allowed some privacy in the open air. They mixed boiled water and cool water to the basin until it was full and the temperature was right.
“Are you alright with Adele tonight?” Tess asked quietly.
“Of course. She’s a good babe. She’s not a problem compared to how you were, child.” Ma gave her daughter a little nudge. “I’m an experienced mother. You just take care of your love, sweetheart. He needs it.” Ma kissed her on the forehead.
“Thank you.” She gave her mother a quick kiss and a hug, grateful that she could focus on Jacques without the weight of guilt for neglecting their child.
She came back to the kitchen and found Jacques absently staring into his tea.
He didn’t hear her. She came over and sat next to him, bending to look up into his face.
“Jacques?” she called softly.
He blinked and slowly turned to look her in the eyes.
“Tess.” He looked at her blankly, almost confused.
Her eyebrows creased. How can she help him? What is he thinking about?
“Ma insists we get clean before tonight. The bath water is ready,” Tess tried.
Jacques’ awareness came back. He saw her.
“R – Right. Sorry,” he whispered. He let go of his cup and flexed his hands, putting feeling back into his fingers.
Tess grabbed his hands with both of hers and put a smile on her face. “Come on. It’ll be good to get cleaned up.”
She stood and tugged on him lightly. He pushed to his feet and followed her, a smile playing on the corners of his lips.
Jacques insisted that Tess go first. She was the less dirty of the two. Sitting in the forest had only soiled her clothes, not her skin.
He helped wash her back with a cloth and played with her hair. They talked and bantered and laughed lightly about little things. How different their hair is. Where his touch made it tickle. How beautiful her skin is.
It wasn’t shallow, but something deeper wasn’t being said. But it was ok, right? He asked to be distracted.
After she was rinsed, dried, and dressed in a simple gown, it was Jacques turn.
They continued to joke and tease back and forth. Jacques could keep his mind off what recently transpired by focusing on this silly bashfulness he had from taking a simple bath in the presence of his wife. He wished he could have so much more time to spend with her.
The water was still quite warm. He let the warmth sink into his skin, filling him. He was safe, warm and had Tess with him. Behind him, Tess gently took the wet washcloth and applied it to his neck.
The water dribbled down his back and across – his mark.
Jacques abruptly fell silent and shuddered, acutely aware of it now. He absently touched his right shoulder.
That mark – the princess’s liegemark was on the other side, plainly in view. Tess put her hand on his and gave it a squeeze.
They’ve talked about it before. The physical symbol and reminder that he was a tool and weapon of the princess. Shame and guilt from what he’s been forced to do welled up inside. It pushed and closed in on his mind.
He took a breath and held it. He shut his eyes tight, grimacing. He latched on to Tess’s hand, trying to tether himself to something as he slipped into a void.
She moved, readjusting and wrapped her arms around him from behind, holding him securely. She brought their faces together, holding her cheek against his. He opened his eyes and let out the air he had trapped.
“Whatever they make you do, I know it’s not you,” Tess repeated softly in his ear.
He could feel her pressed on his back, his shoulders. He felt her heartbeat against his skin. Tess was with him, solid, grounded.
He could breathe. He was pulled out of the emptiness. A tether, a connection.
He closed his eyes and sensed his surroundings. Warm water, open air, and sunlight kissed their skin. He lightly pressed his face into hers. She smelled of lavender-scented soap.
They stayed like this for a short sweet eternity.
“How are you feeling?” Tess asked gently.
Jacques smiled. “Content. It’s a beautiful day.”
She pushed off and kissed him on the cheek. He looked at her, not wanting to let go just yet, and his ears turning pink. Her front was wet from her embracing his wet back.
He turned away again, fighting a stupid smile on his face. “Sorry. It seems I’ve gotten your clothes wet,” he said through a chuckle.
She laughed. “It’ll dry. We better get you clean before we sit out here until the dark hour. Or before you turn into a soaked raisin.”
She picked up the washcloth again and silently started gently rubbing his neck, behind his ears, scrubbing away dirt, sweat and dead skin. He relaxed, tension melting away as he became captivated in her touch and motions. A calm smile on his face.
She moved on, down his back, to his shoulders. Her motions, intentional, careful, loving. Even across his right shoulder blade.
He closed his eyes and leaned forward, taking it in. Silent tears came as something was released inside him. He felt it. No matter what happened or what he may be made to do, she loved and cared for all of him. He accepted this.
It was freeing.
Everything fell away, and it was just him and Tess.