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“Ready?”

Juliette turned towards the voice to see nothing but a cloth covered sternum. Honestly, if she was not accustomed to people being taller than she was, she might have freaked out a little bit.  However, she was the only daughter in a family of large German boys, so the sight was nothing new. Slowly, she tilted her head up until the sternum grew shoulders, a neck, and a handsome face she vaguely recognized. She smiled at his expressionless face. Somehow, the lack of emotion did not make him frightening or detract from his handsome features. His blue eyes were as rich and deep as the sky in his chiseled face. He reminded her of a statue she had seen in a book once. She could not remember what the book was about now, but she remembered the feeling it gave her.

A sense of strength, a dangerous edge, and a feeling of safety as if nothing would harm her so long as those eyes were open. She had never seen anyone like him, and she had lived in Germany all of her life.

“Oh, Percival,” she said, “I swear you get bigger every time I see you.”

Percival said nothing, and his expression was as opaque as it had been the first time they met. If she were a lesser woman, she may have let out a defeated sigh. As it stood, she adjusted the bag on her shoulders and promised him that she would get him to laugh one day. Silence was his response. It did not feel dismissive or offended, just a strange combination of calm and aware that she was beginning to associate with Percival.  

A trunk and a few bags hovered beside him, and she felt a phantom twinge of pain in her back from the size of his traveling pack. Though he never looked as though his size was pure height, it never ceased to amaze her exactly how massive he seemed to be. He carried two German-style swords with him that looked as though they were too large, too long, and too heavy to wield. One of them rested on his hip, and the other was attached to his back beneath his traveling pack and large shield. The weapons, the bags, and the trunk seemed to make up the entirety of his worldly possessions. He stood tall, shoulders straight and broad under the weight as if he could carry a mountain easily. He reminded her of old stories about warrior gods fighting to stave off the end of the world.

Ah, she thought with a hum, That’s what the book was about.

It was an old history book about the gods whose names had long since been lost to history. She did not remember who the statue was meant to be, but the resemblance in demeanor was striking. It was interesting that in all of her time in Germany, not once had her mind wandered to tales of warrior gods, yet when she met Percival, it seemed to be the only thing that came to mind. There was something about him that she had been trying to figure out since they met. It hid just beneath his placid expression and flat tone as it laced the seams of his tunic, pants, and boots and weighed his bag down. Her instincts said it was different from what she could not place about the large caravan of people who had drifted into Freiburg all of two months prior dressed in the thickest of winter clothing, but she had yet to figure out what it was.

From what they wore, everyone knew them to be people of the Black Forest. To Juliette’s knowledge, the people of the Black Forest left their mountain towns in the second year of the impenetrable storm system that still hung over the Black Forest, yet the group had arrived a full three years after the first frost. Percival had arrived nearly a week after the group from what members of the caravan told her. Collectively, they had taken every open job in Freiburg, worked them as hard as they could, and stayed together to survive. Now, two months later, they were leaving Freiburg, and Juliette was tagging along.

As far as Juliette was concerned, they were a saving grace and a sign from the gods to finally take a chance on her dreams. She had been saving her meager salary from working in Freiburg and living with her family for years, just waiting for the chance to move to Paris where she could make a way for herself. In another three years, she might have been able to hire a caravan, but her sanity would not have held out until then between her parents and her brothers.

The caravan planned to go to Nancy for now and then on to Troyes over the next couple of months. With any luck, enough people in the caravan would be hoping to go farther and willing to let Juliette tag along. As the rest of the caravan began to amass, Juliette took note of its strange composition. For one, there were no children. The youngest among them seemed to be around eighteen years old, maybe a little younger.  There also did not seem to be anyone elderly. She guessed that the oldest man she had seen was in his early forties.

If perhaps that was not strange enough, they all seemed to be unable to be near Percival without succumbing to a look of shame or derision. The few who had attempted to approach him quickly changed their minds and the rest never attempted. The eldest of the caravan, the kind old man who had welcomed Juliette to join them upon hearing her story, strode over to Percival without fear. There was something in his posture that spoke of subordination, respect, and guilt. Percival’s posture was all but neutral. Alert, attentive, concerned even as his expression was a stoic as a mountain.

After exchanging a few words, the man nodded in thanks and walked towards the fountain to announce that they had all been accounted for and would be heading out now. She followed the caravan heading out of the city, and it was not until they were firmly out of Baden-Württemberg that any of them seemed to breathe easy and ease their pace. Even still, they were an oddly solemn bunch. Juliette could only attribute it to how much of their property they had to leave behind in the snowdrift and how many people they lost during the trek.

They took their first break in Sélestat to refill their water, eat, and do a little trading for necessities. She noticed that of the band, Percival seemed to be the only one without any companions. Eating alone at the back of the caravan and staring out into the distance when they stopped, Juliette gathered that he was acting as some sort of rear guard. To guard against what, she did not know, but she did notice that the entire caravan seemed completely content to let him remain at their backs.

Expectant, she thought with a glance at their faces.

They expected him to be there.

Maybe he was a knight who had been assigned to their town?

There was something covetous in some of their expressions, but she could not understand that either. Percival had come into Freiburg like a wraith out of the snowdrift the same way they had. While the food he packed looked a great deal more substantial than most people’s, they all had the same opportunity to earn money to buy food and presumably comparable skills to prepare it. She tucked the thoughts away in hopes that she might come to understand the people she was traveling with and team up with the best of the bunch to survive in Paris.

With the size of their caravan and the pace they set, it took two days to reach Nancy from Freiburg. They set their rendezvous point in the middle of town and planned to meet in a few weeks’ time to give people some time to make a little extra money for the trek to Troyes.  Once the announcement is over, Percival turned and left the group.

“Don’t,” Adolf told her as Juliette turned to call out to him, “Percival…”

Juliette looked at Adolf as he tossed his bag on his back and shook his head. The way his voice faded, made something in her blue. There was a resignation, a sadness, and a longing in the words that had gone unsaid and the name that had fallen from his lips. It made her even more curious about the mysterious Percival and the group from the Black Forest.

“He’ll be here for the rendezvous,” Adolf finally said, “Come on; maybe we can secure a room at the inn up there with everyone else.”

“What about him?”

Adolf shook his head, “Even if we invited him, he wouldn’t come.”

Juliette looked back for a moment before following Adolf. The sentiment struck her as odd considering that Percival was one of them, but she did not question it. She was already an outsider in the caravan, the last thing she needed was to throw her lot in with the outsider who had chosen to be such, yet somehow, she could not shake the feeling of guilt of not offering.

She turned back, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, but found that he was gone. In the weeks between their arrival and the rendezvous date, she nearly forgot her questions about Percival. Staying with other members of the caravan in an over-booked room and attempting to earn a little more money for the trek had taken all of the energy and focus that she had. On the morning of the rendezvous, she headed to the spot alone, rubbing her eyes and counting her coins.

Percival was there at the exact spot like a lone beacon in the early morning, eating a roll of meat, cheese, and bread that smelled so good it made her stomach cramp with hunger. Seeing him eating, his eyes scanning the roads leading to the rendezvous spot, she almost regretted not following her first instinct. Had she gone with him, or even just reached out to him rather than taking Adolf’s lead, perhaps she would have had something better to eat than the inn’s far too expensive watery soup and hard bread. Even with the menial work she had managed to secure, it had been barely enough to cover the expenses of living in a room with five other people.

“Guten Morgen,” she greeted as he continued eating, “Wondered where you got off to.”

From the way he scanned her, he was either surprised to see her, or he expected to see her in better shape. It made her almost self-conscious. She knew that she had lost a great deal of weight and grown paler from malnourishment on the trek and even more so from the poor quality of food at the inn, but it hardly mattered as she was not interested in impressing anyone on this trip.

Her stomach growled soft and angry as if it too was too tired to put up much of a fuss. She ignored it. His gaze jumped down towards her stomach, and then back to her face.

Did he hear that? She heard that some families had retained levels of magic in their blood that heightened their senses. Maybe Percival was from one of those families.

She worried her lip and quickly forced a smile on her face, “I missed–”

Percival tore his sandwich in two and held out the larger section to her. Her excuse died in her throat as their gazes met. His eyes and mouth said nothing, but it was not hard to tell that he was giving her food.

However, the question of why bothered her. Why her? Of all the people in the caravan, why her? She was an outsider. He did not really know her from any other stranger on the street, yet he was literally giving her the food from his mouth. Given how hard old Germany had suffered under the winter of the Black Forest, she knew the value of food. She also knew that kindness was not usually free.

“Thank you,” she said taking it from him. Whatever Percival wanted, he had not explained it yet; maybe he wanted nothing at all.

Don’t get your hopes up, Juliette.

He said nothing and finished his sandwich as the rest of the caravan began to arrive. Once everyone was accounted for, they set off, and Percival headed up the rear. Adolf and the small group who were definitely heading to Paris were somewhere in the middle of the large caravan, and for a time, they walked quietly through the forest. The trek to Troyes took all of three days, and when the caravan arrived, most of them cheered in celebration. To Juliette’s ears, it was a celebration of relief, not of joy.

“You all still intend to go to Paris?” The old man asked.

Juliette nodded, “I do.”

Adolf and his company agreed, “We’ll have to work hard while we’re here, but with enough time we should be able to make enough to go to Paris.”

The old man wished them luck, and the small group of seventeen made plans to find lodging, find work and head to Paris in six months.

“What about Percival?” Juliette asked.

Adolf looked over to where Percival was speaking with the old man.

“It would be nice to have someone with a sword along,” one of them said looking at the sword on Percival’s belt, “It’s not like we don’t know he’s well capable of using them.”

Juliette thought it odd that she would say that. How could anyone reduce a person to his or her utility? She turned her gaze towards where Adolf and Percival stood together talking. She could tell from the way they looked at one another and stood together that the two of them had a history of some sort. Perhaps they were friends, lovers, or simply knew each other from living in the same town, she could not tell. Adolf returned to their circle looking a little relieved.

“He said he’ll meet up with us in six months’ time, and we should meet a week or so before then to be sure that we’re all ready to go.”

Juliette nodded, “Well, where is he going?”

“He didn’t say,” Adolf said with a shrug, “But I wouldn’t worry about him. He can take care of himself.”

Juliette sighed and turned following the rest of the group while Percival walked down the street and further into the town. Something told her to go with him, but the more logical part of her said to stick with the group that obviously stuck together. There was safety in numbers, safety in the dynamics she had already built more so than the mysterious Percival who had given her half his breakfast without speaking a word to her. He was a mystery, for sure, but one she did not have time to think about if she meant to get to Paris in the state that she wanted. She needed letters of recommendation, money, directions, practice with her French, and a better plan. The mystery of Percival would just have to wait.

***

Nearly a month later, Percival found himself walking to the room he had been given in the estate. His body was heavy with the need for rest as a pleasurable ache pulsed through him that he could not quite explain. It was a new sensation, one that had blotted out any other feeling with its intensity and left him feeling relaxed. He crawled into bed with a sigh and sunk into the depths of the cushions as his body drifted off to sleep. For the first time in years, he slept through the night.

In the morning, he tried his best not to make it awkward at breakfast with his employer and his son no matter how the son looks at him with all the memories of what Percival looked like when he was beneath him twinkling in his eyes and at the corners of his lips.  Percival was hired to be an extra day laborer, the son’s manservant, tutor, and whatever else he could do for the man’s estate. The beginning of a nightly tryst with the son was simply a fringe benefit that Percival had stumbled upon and was hard pressed not to indulge.

Today, Percival was to teach the son the rudiments of accounting, something that the other man was notoriously terrible with despite his years of schooling. It did not take long for Percival to realize that his accounting foundations were too weak to complete the sort of procedures necessary to run an estate, so he started from the very basics.

“How did you learn this?” He asked, “You’re better at explaining this than my usual tutors.”

Percival swallowed at the sound of male laughter in his ears and a comforting, phantom hand on his head ruffling hair that Percival had long since cut off.

Good job, Percy. You’ll be a fine merchant yet. Let’s try another one.

“My father was a merchant,” Percival replied.

He cannot be sure what it is in his reply that makes the son change the topic, but he does. That night, the man apologized with lips, tongue, fingers, and hard thrusts of pleasure that blotted out every thought, every fear, and every pain Percival carried. It was enough to make the working days go by quickly. Reviewing the man’s books, tutoring the son on various topics, and assisting with the running of the house took enough attention to keep him busy during the day. The son kept him busy at night so that he never had much time to think about why he was in France, why he was alone, or why he still carried the old trunk although the contents were of no use.

One month before the six-month deadline, the seventeen planning to head to Paris met again at a little restaurant in town. By the time they arrived, Percival had been seated for at least ten minutes. He had grown a little broader and a little darker from working out in the sun. Despite having not changed much, they almost do not recognize him in his new clothes and without his weapons. It was such a shock that they could barely stop staring at him throughout the meeting. He neither smiled nor said anything besides that he would be ready to go in a month’s time if they were. Everyone else seemed to be agreeable, so they agreed to meet at the restaurant again in a month’s time and head to Paris afterward.

Juliette sighed and remained at the table with the rest of the group as Percival headed back to work. Seeing Percival had made it painfully obvious that she had not planned well enough for this trip. She was doing better than when they left Freiburg, but not as well as she could have been if she had a plan like Percival’s, whatever it was. The next time they saw one another, she would remember to ask him how exactly he went about being so employable.

“We should have gone with Percival,” one of them said with a sigh, “It doesn’t look like he had a hard time finding work at all.”

“Percival is talented,” Adolf said with a shrug, “I told you he could take care of himself.”

“Wonder if he’s selling more than just his talents.”

Juliette gawked at the woman who suggested it, appalled that she would say it and appalled that only Adolf was as affronted as she was.

“Don’t speak about him that way,” Adolf said.

“What? Surely I’m not the only one thinking it.”

Juliette huffed, “It isn’t nice to slander, especially not out of envy. How do you expect good fortune with such a disposition?”

Adolf grinned as the woman’s jaw dropped and she stomped away from the table, muttering in angry German.

“Nice,” Adolf said with a nod, “I can tell we’re going to be good friends.”

Juliette hoped so. Of the entire group, Adolf and Percival were the only people who seemed to have a full plan. Teaming up with Percival did not seem to be an actionable option, so she would have to team up with Adolf and hope that it was not a façade. She could not afford to tangle her plans with someone who had no plan of their own.

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