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Jacques was on autopilot after this recent mission. He had to report to the Princess. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye. He didn’t really look up at all. He reported to her that he accomplished the task. And… gritted his teeth staring holes into Claudette’s desk.

His voice cracked as he asked for time with – with Tess. He tried to keep his normal image of her beautiful face in his mind, and not allow the recent events to mix in and crush him.

Claudette accepted. Her Magician is ragged. Allowing him to recuperate was in her best interest. She gave him till the end of the next dark hour, more than 27 hours before she wanted him back to work.

 


 

Jacques hit his knuckles once on the door to the cottage but didn’t lift his hand for a second knock. It took a moment before Tess opened the door and found him... just…

“Jacques?” Her voice is deeply concerned. He was exhausted, eyes red. He couldn’t look her in the eye. He can’t get a word out. There’s only a choked noise. He felt so cold. He wasn’t there.

She grabbed one of his hands with both of hers. They felt hot compared to his. “Jacques?” Her voice pressed further and had a sense of urgency. He could barely hear properly as his mind swam with different thoughts and images he didn’t want to hear or see. It was building in his mind and his face screwed up into a grimace as he tried to shove everything away. He turned his face away from Tess and slammed his eyes shut, trying in vain to shut out the intrusive thoughts. 

Not now. Not yet.

He was then forcibly pulled away, by Tess’s strong grip on his wrist, out, toward the forest by the cottage.

 

He let her direct him. She was saying things but he couldn’t really hear yet. She stopped somewhere within the forest limits and his legs finally buckled. She barely caught him and gently leaned him on a tree.

“Jacques, talk to me please!”

He absently stared away, eyebrows furrowed, trying to make words. He can’t – he can’t look at her. Not like this.

She touched his face and gently turned it toward her. He finally looked her in the face and the most recent horrible intrusive image violently connected with what was in front of him.

The face of a dead mother and her child.

Tess – dead.

Jacques – breaks.

His eyes go wide in horror and pain.

Not Tess. Not Tess. Not Tess.

He wildly grabbed his head with both his hands and crumpled forward into a mess in front of her. He was screaming. He wanted to lose the memories from the recent mission. He didn’t want to hear them, see them. He didn’t want to think of how it could be Tess, or their own.

He felt Tess’s arms around him. She was shaking. Saying something.

He cried and wept until the stress became exhaustion and took him over and he fell asleep as a whimpering mess in Tess’s arms.

 


 

He was awake, but his eyes were so heavy he left them closed. Where was he? He smelled moist dirt and plants. He was in the garden of the castle. He rolled his head a little and felt cloth behind his head and something else. Maman’s lap? She would comfort him and ask him to tell her what happened. Maman says I’ve gotta tell her or Jeoffy when my heart hurts.

He breathed in. This wasn’t Maman’s lap? A hand held his and squeezed it gently. Jacques opened his eyes partially and looked up slowly to see Tess’s face.

“Jacques!” Tess looked at him with concern but bit her lip, not wanting to trigger anything.

“Tess-” Jacques croaked. 

He was still in a daze, both knowing where he was, and lying in his memory of his Maman. He relaxed his neck and looked off into the distant leaves.

“My heart hurts,” he whispered simply.

She was crying. “D-Do you need to tell me about it?”

His mind was still disjointed enough that he could speak without leaving it unfinished. He needed to say it, needed to share it and let it out. Otherwise, it would eat him from the inside out and destroy him.

She held his hand with hers. He felt her warmth sink into him.

“The Princess-” His voice was hoarse, he had to pause and swallow a few times.

He explained the mission he was Obligated to do. His mission was to kill a wife and child as punishment of some traitor who thought he hid his family from the princess safely.  Jacques started crying again with silent tears. He kept going. A distant, broken, halting voice.

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He couldn’t change the end result, but he tried to be as merciful as his Obligation would allow. With any task to kill, he’d – he’d try to do it while they slept. Let it be quick. Let it be peaceful. Then, if the Princess didn’t ask for their ashes as a bargaining tool, Jacques would either deliver their ashes to a loved one, or bury the ashes himself. 

This mission – he had to kill two. They were innocent people. The one that made the offence was the husband. 

The princess always follows through with her promises. And the princess always follows through with her threats. 

Why did the princess have to find out about this family. Why did they have to be a mother and a child. Why couldn’t the child be in a separate room. Why did the mother have to wake.

 

He gripped Tess’s warmth for support as he hissed in pain from recall.

It was the dark hour. He made it in without a sound. He stood above the boy’s bed.

He… hesitated. 

No… It wasn’t just hesitation, he couldn’t. He could never… 

He must. — 

He couldn’t. — It was his Obligation. —

An innocent child! — The knife was already in his hand.  

He shook violently. It felt like his heart was ripping itself apart. His head was aching. One of his legs buckled and his knee hit the stone floor with a thud. He was hopeless and helpless. 

He couldn’t help them.

It was too much. His mind and heart fled, leaving him empty, allowing the Obligation to take him.

And swiftly, it was done.

 

Now for the woman before she —

He heard movement from the bed where the woman slept. Jacques soul cried as he hoped to the Saints that she didn’t see the child in this pitch darkness. 

In one swift motion he went to her and instinctively covered her eyes instead of her mouth as she SCREAMED. 

She went limp and silent as he let the Obligation take her life. But her scream kept ringing in his pounding head. 

 

He had completed the Obligation. It was done.

 

Jacques squeezed his eyes shut and clutched at Tess. He tried to regulate his breathing, taking large gasping breaths before he could continue.

 

He carefully burned their remains and collected their ashes and send them through the armory stone.

The princess had commanded that their ashes be delivered directly to her this time. She needed the bargaining chip to put the traitor back on her leash again. The ashes will be planted in whatever garden with whatever seeds the traitor asked for, but only if he complies to her next wishes. 

Jacques wasn’t all there when he reported to the princess. He was weak. Vulnerable. Empty.

But he needed to reach for something. Strong, grounded, wholesome.

Tess.

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He regained his senses again. His eyes had run dry. He was in the forest. Tess held him in her lap, holding his hand. He took deep shaking breaths and tried to calm his heart and throbbing head. He shifted a bit in her lap to allow Tess to get more comfortable on the forest floor. He practiced careful and paced breathing.

He took his time. Taking in the scent of dirt, the sight of green foliage above, the sound of leaves rustling all around him, the feel of Tess. Warm, alive, and with him.

Jacques sat up carefully after he couldn’t think of what else to say. 

 

His head was pounding. His heart ached.

Jacques looked Tess in the eyes and took her hands. She stared at him with a horrified expression.

“Tess, I – I’m scared to death of the thought that I could be Obligated to-”  He swallowed hard and pulled her into an embrace. “to hurt you in any way.” He took a shuddering breath. He felt her arms reach around and hold him.

“It would kill me,” Jacques choked out quietly. He tightened his hold on Tess.

 


 

She didn’t say anything for several long minutes. What was there to say? She held him as tight as she could, and they sat there – on the ground – together. 

Eventually, Tess spoke. Her voice was soft, and shook. “Jacques – whatever she –  they – make you do. I know – I know it’s not you.” She drew in a shaking breath. “But I know that doesn’t make it hurt – any – less –” she’d started sobbing. “I – I love you.” She forced the words out. “No matter what they make you do. You’re – you’re the best – kindest person I know.”

He thought he’d cried himself out, but her tears started his own again. He nodded, unable to speak.

There just wasn’t anything else to say.

He closed his eyes – holding her, as she held him.

 


 

After a while, Jac pulled back, held Tess by the shoulders and looked her up and down. She’s here. She’s real.

He smiled crookedly as he grounded this truth.

He let the memory of the mission slide back. The overwhelming effect it had on him was released like an echo. It had happened and it’ll never be completely gone but-

 I know it’s not you.

 

Now, he wasn’t trapped in his mind anymore. He can move forward.

“Thank you, Tess.”

He looked up at the forest and silently thanked the daemons there too.

Jacques’ voice was still hoarse. “It’s going to get dark. Let’s get you home.”

He braced his weight on a tree and got up slowly with shaking legs. He offered his hand to Tess. She took his hand, but she avoided putting her weight on him as she got up. They held each other, one arm around the other, for warmth and comfort as they walked carefully back through the forest and out to the cottage.

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“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. 

“Jacques?” 

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.