The Thursday after running into Adolf and Juliette at the Zephyrinian Embassy, Percival walked to Henry’s office once more. The last time had been to fill out the preliminary paperwork with regards to his guardianship and contract with Henry, this time would be to hear his parents’ wills. Henry met him at the front desk with a smile he was sure the man thought would be comforting.
Percival followed him into his office where Henry had already set up the scrye mirror. He took a seat across the desk from Henry and pulled out the thread of Ariadne he carried with him at all times as Henry connected them with the executor of his parents’ will.
From what he can see, the executor of the will was sitting at his desk; he was an older man whom he’d met once before so long ago that it’s a little bit of a shock to see him several years older. He smiled kindly, before addressing the rest of the room, his aunts and uncles he imagined. First, there was a letter, a general message to those who had survived them.
Apparently, they wrote a joint will inclusive of all of their remaining family. He could hear the two of them in the turns of the letter. They’d written it together, pouring over it to word it properly, and his heart trembled. Henry remained quiet as Percival began to work on a pattern of knots in the growing, glowing golden thread. He held the length of thread carefully as he weaved a pattern into it and focused on keeping his breathing even and his mind present. The healer had been right about using meditation techniques to lessen the sharp prick of his flight instincts. He had been keeping busy with Le Belle and looking for other work around the city, so it was only in Henry’s office that he needed to do this as much as he hated it. It felt like a defeat.
“The custody of our children who may be underage at the time of this letter, we leave them in the care of their eldest sibling…”
Percival swallowed thickly, his fingers moving faster as the man read the letter that detailed that there was money put away to be given to the oldest to care for the younger children until the time which they could take care of themselves. The money was then to be split evenly between the twelve. The house was to be given to the eldest until the time they were all of age at which point they were free to sell or keep it.
“…To our children, though we may be gone, and no matter how close you remain in the years ahead, remember us fondly and know that you were the wind of our arrows, the swing of our swords, and the strength of our shields…”
Percival’s lips moved to repeat the familiar words as the man’s voice washed over him and a memory bit the skin of his face with blistering cold. For a moment, he can hear them in the howling of the wind as he fell to his knees, his gloved hands slick with blood, enemies advancing over the snowdrift. Whether by cold or vicious teeth he would die.
Sometimes even to live is an act of courage, they’d say, an old saying from ancestors whose names and essence had been lost in time, to the mountains and forests of Germany.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the strength to meet defeat and to not be defeated.
His hands stopped, and Henry’s office morphed and shifted to a dark night a year prior to this moment in Henry’s office.
He spared only a moment to the thought that he’d been sitting in an esquire’s office a moment before as he was pulled deeper into the memory. Someone was screaming behind him.
He felt his shoulders tense as he drew his sword. The night was dark around them as he stood his ground to fight for them enough time to escape, but there were more than he thought there would be, so many more.
“Take her with you,” he said placing a small shivering body in the arms of a woman.
“But Perci’,” the small voice coughed as he kissed her head and for the first time in his life felt like he was lying to her.
“I’ll be right behind you, Aggie. Now get going.”
The woman took off running with her husband, and the floating trunk of their family followed after her as he turned back to the oncoming bodies and charged over the snow to meet them.
He lowered the skull of the white wolf over his own and became one of them. Where they had claws and thick sinew, he had a sword and the will to stall them just long enough that the living of his hometown would make it into Freiburg in one piece.
The wind howled along with the dying gasps of men and wolves. Blood stained the snow beneath his feet as he fought them back. Snow drifted but he could hear them making their way to the lights of Freiburg.
“Perci’,” her little voice called, and he turned towards where they had fled.
The trunk hovered near her as the woman went rushing away from her.
Traitor, he thought and forced himself to run towards her and ignore the ache and pain of his wounds.
From behind her, a great black form emerged from a cave. Percival’s breath heaved as he struggled through the snow and wolves that moved between them. He swung hard and screamed for her. What he said he couldn’t remember but it had to have been something like run or get behind the trunk.
It would have protected her.
He heard the sound of her small dagger exiting the scabbard as she and the wolf stared one another down. The wolf snarled at her and she cut it through the eye and across the face with one swift movement.
“I’m sorry, Perci’,” she said as she dropped the blade in a fit of coughing, “Love you.”
The wolf growled with its one bloody eye and opened its mouth to grab her.
He heard himself screaming as a wolf sunk its teeth into his shoulder and kept him from getting to her, but she didn’t scream.
A soft choking, half-coughing sound escaped her as the wolf closed its jaws around her. It placed a paw on her leg and tore her arm with a vicious jerk of its head. Blood sprayed over the snow as it swallowed her arm whole.
Percival got free and ran towards it, but it grabbed the rest of her body by a leg and drug it back into the cave from which it appeared. The last he saw of her was those brilliant blue eyes that always had a smile for him staring vacant, cold, and dead from within her blood-splattered face.
He screamed after her and ran after the beast who had his sister between its jaws, driven by some illogical need, some illogical hope to save the half mangled corpse. They had only disappeared into the darkness of the tunnels moments prior, but Percival only met a solid stone wall rather than an entrance.
He beat on the stone as if it would open to him as tears streamed hot and wet down his face. He screamed into the snow drift cursing the gods for their cruelty.
Take me with you, he thought as his strength gave out, and he kneeled weeping against the stone wall, I can’t do this. Please, I can’t do this.
The snow was cold and wet, sinking into his the fabric of his pants as he heard the sound of paws advancing on him from behind. He was surrounded. He turned around and sat in the snow. Beyond the advancing wolves, he heard the struggle of the rest of the townspeople running for safety.
It was Adolf’s mother, Emilia, he was sure, but he didn’t have the strength to yell back so he whispered to the wind.
“Go,” he said, “I promised to be right behind her.”
He listened until he could no longer hear anything but the wolves breathing hot puffs around him and closed his eyes. The trunk continued to hover near him as he tried to breathe around his broken heart.
What were they waiting for? Why couldn’t it just be over now? They’d taken everything from him: his home, his family, his sanity. They’d been so quick to cut down everyone else and he knew that the white wolf’s camouflage did nothing now that he had no will to fight.
They could see and hear him now. They could probably taste blood in the cold air. What were they waiting for?
Gods, he was tired. His entire body ached from cold and hunger, from exertion as the bits of hope and strength he’d had drained out of him with his still bleeding wounds into his clothing and the snow beneath him. The wolves advanced slowly and his sword fell from his hands. He leaned his head back against the stone and let out a breath, accepting the ending, accepting that he’d done it all and ready to see them all again, ready for valkyries to come get him or demons to drag him to hell, ready for a taste of oblivion rather than another moment of this.
What were they waiting for?
Meet defeat often and well, Helena would say when he messed up the casting and had to start over, Fail and fail again– better each time– but never be defeated.
Never be defeated.
He felt something surging in him at the words and the sound of paws advancing on him as a small voice told him to just keep his eyes closed and pretend that it was just a needle.
It’ll all be over soon. You’ve done enough.
Never be defeated. I am descended from good. I am descended from justice.
You’ve done enough.
The tears went cold on his face, frozen in the harsh winds as he opened them.
I am never defeated.
The wolf nearest to him stepped back in something like shock.
Right behind you, he thought, A warrior’s death.
She’d been just a small, sick girl with a dagger, and she had stared her death-maker in the face and made her mark on it before the Valkyries took her. He would never see her or any of their family again if he did not stand and do the same.
One beast or a hundred, he picked up his sword and struggled to his feet as another wolf took another step back. Something golden spilled over the ground like a light and reflected in the eyes of the beasts. His sword’s rune glowed and the wind picked up around him.
Never defeated, he thought, Never defeated. I am descended from hard-won victories.
He opened his mouth and screamed something more like a roar that shook the snow from the mountains. It was the dying sounds of his brothers and sisters last moments, of townspeople, of the thousands of lives lost in the Black Forest: loud, angry, vengeful, and strong. He stalked forward dragging his sword and they stepped back, eyes widened in a mock expression of horror and fear.
He bared his teeth and lifted his sword before charging at them. He dragged his sword through bodies, through hearts, necks, and heads with all the strength of those who had died in the Black Forest.
One growled and electricity filled its grey fur. It leaped at Percival as it roared, and he roared back charging through the snow and lightning to slide his blade into its mouth and through its brain. They howled as he turned and rendered another wolf’s head from its shoulders and sent its body flying into another. He only heard the shredding of flesh, the sound of his boots in the snow, and screaming.
He felt a lot like that scream shaking the air. There were no words, no meaning, just emotion pouring out him because there was nothing left but defeat after defeat. When they went running, he chased after them. He shot them down as they retreated with his crossbow and hacked through the ones he caught up to with his sword.
No mercy, no time, no thoughts. His screaming would haunt them for years to come in the wind and become the fuel of their nightmares as their howls had been for the people of the Black Forest for the last nine months keeping them awake at night and frightful in the day.
Eventually, he stood alone surrounded by large wolf bodies, human corpses, and blood. He was alone, but not defeated. He looked up at the lone wolf standing at the top of the mountain bleeding from the dagger wound in its face and waited.
It turned and walked away just as his strength left him and everything went black.
When he came back to the present, Henry had pulled out a package addressed to Percival and slid it across the table. He glanced at the package and then to the scrye mirror where the executor had laid out twelve envelopes and said that they would not open until they were at least a mile apart from one another. The letters to the children would open when they became of legal age; thus, none of the letters would open until the next July when Percival turned eighteen.
He watched hands take each of the letters before the executor told them that he would call them back in individually to discuss what had been left to each of them after he spoke with Percival. Each of them left sniffly softly.
“Percival,” the man started, looking directly into the mirror after the door had closed. “Since you are not of age yet, we will speak again for your eighteenth and your twentieth birthday, until then, should you have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me.”
Percival nodded and thanked him before disconnecting and letting out a deep breath. The thread of Ariadne grew longer and pooled over his boots as he tried to slow his heart down and assure himself that the snowy battlefield had been a year ago.
It was time to move on.
“I can keep them here for you until next year, if you’d like,” Henry offered softly.
Percival nodded and Henry pulled the package towards him and crossed the room to place it in the safe. Henry passed his court date information regarding his petition of self-guardianship and all of the certifications that Percival would need to work in Paris, across the desk. The only thing missing was the judgment from the Roi about whether he could have self-guardianship in Paris or not.
Henry scheduled the official court hearing a few days later. Percival walked into the court with Henry and took a seat in the antechamber to wait to go in. When they entered the official courtroom, the noble officials were in their seats for spectating and a burst of whispers swept around the room. Most of them were curious as to why a German man was in the French court, but some were speculative about what he could have done.
The Roi, Frederic V, exited a room farther back and smiled at him kindly. He was an older man, maybe as old as his eldest uncle, and took his paperwork before ushering him and Henry into the private room behind the courtroom. Percival took the seat offered to him as
Frederic smiled at him kindly and began looking over his paperwork. Percival’s stomach churned uncomfortably in the silence and his hands itched to pull out the thread of Ariadne, but he needed for this to go well so he could get on with his life. Appearing unstable would have been antithetical to the purpose.
If the Roi did not grant him guardianship in Paris, he would become a part of the monitored Zephyrine wards and would be forced to move into one of their group housing in Paris. He knew that they were generally nice houses, but Percival knew that living in a large house or estate with a bunch of random people would have driven him over an edge he knew there was no coming back from.
With self-guardianship granted, he could remain where he lived and simply check in with a caseworker from time to time as an independent ward of Zephyrine.
“I understand that you have family in Germany, yet you have no desire to live with them. That is perfectly alright. I will give you the name of your caseworker, as is customary you will have to check in with her at regular intervals whenever you set. Contact her within a few days to set up a time to meet, alright?”
Percival nodded stiffly and accepted the stamped and sealed pages with thanks before leaving the courtroom as quickly as he could to get outside in the fresh air. What Henry had to speak with Frederic about wasn’t the least of his concerns now that he had all the documentation needed to sign contracts for himself and work legally in Paris.
If he could have managed it, he would have been envious of Juliette and Adolf who didn’t have to jump through any legal hoops upon arriving since they were both already of age. As it stood, he was just grateful that the Roi had seen fit to let him be an independent ward of Zephyrine.
When Henry exited, they boarded his carriage which carried them to the police station in Le Chesnay to meet with the caseworker, get his identification changed and verified, and set a schedule for their regular meetings.
She was an older woman with defined Italian features, a warm smile, and a bowl of chocolates on her desk. Percival had a feeling that the Roi and Henry had spoken at length about Percival as she offered him another length of the thread of Ariadne and a small welcome basket filled with things he would have found in a German market. She spoke with him about the things he could and couldn’t do until he turned eighteen in the city of Paris as Henry stepped away to scrye with the bank and executor of his parent’s wills on his behalf.
By the end of the day, Percival had gathered all the documentation he needed to work for anyone in the city. Thanks to the executor of the will, the bank accounts that had been opened for his siblings had been closed out and their balances had been transferred into a separate trust to be held until he turned eighteen. Henry gave all the documents regarding the trust to Percival in an envelope for him to open in his own time before getting him home and inviting him over for dinner with him and his family that weekend.
Percival accepted the invitation to his own surprise and didn’t have much time to reconsider or think about it while working for Le Belle the next day.
The dinner with Henry’s family went over well with the exception of Henry’s son eye-fucking him across the table through dinner and dessert. It wasn’t that the young man wasn’t handsome and near enough to his age for there to be no legal problem, it was that the man didn’t attract Percival’s attention which made it slightly uncomfortable. It made the dinner only slightly awkward, but at least he had someone who would gladly be his tour guide for all of Paris if he wanted.
When Emilia arrive the next Wednesday, he was still reeling from working at Le Belle that he couldn’t even be tense about sitting down to dinner with her, Adolf, and Juliette. As Adolf promised, there was no mention of his birthday or a celebration. They ordered dessert because Juliette and Emilia had a craving for French sweets.
Months wear on, and before long, Emilia had been converted to an outpatient and encouraged to get as much fresh air as she could manage. Adolf moved her into the little townhome and gave her his room after finagling a change of contract with their landlord and Juliette. Juliette seemed to be absorbing more knowledge about the French court and the dynamics between countries than even she anticipated thanks to her frequent meetings with Mirabelle and Desiree.
Adolf had begun courting Armond and his sister separately in an arrangement that had surprised Juliette but couldn’t surprise Percival.
“But they’re twins,” Juliette said as they shared lunch one weekend in September, “How will that even work.”
“I didn’t come up with it!” Adolf said with his cheeks glowing red, “They proposed it.”
“Does that mean you sleep with both of them at the same time? Separately?”
Adolf cleared his throat, “We haven’t discussed such things yet.”
Juliette rolled her eyes, “You’re a blushing virgin, aren’t you?”
Adolf gawked, “As if you can talk!”
“I never said I was a virgin,” Juliette said, “What gave you that impression?”
Adolf huffed, “Well, excuse me if certain people were thinking about other things! Right, Percival?”
“I don’t think I’m the proper person to ask for support,” Percival said.
Juliette’s eyes widened as Adolf’s jaw dropped, “You… you… When?”
Percival felt his face heat as he huffed, “Why is that important?”
Adolf gave him a look that Percival could only interpret as he wouldn’t be deterred from getting an answer.
“Fine,” he said, “In Troyes.”
Adolf’s jaw dropped, “What?”
“So… you were very busy in Troyes?” Juliette asked with a sly grin, “How busy?”
“Are we really discussing my sex life?”
“Yes,” Adolf said, “You’re younger than me!”
“Get with the times,” Juliette said, “It’s 3900.”
“It’s not like you were offering,” Percival said. Juliette’s eyebrows drifted up to her hairline, “Was I just not good enough because my eyes match?”
Adolf scoffed, “N-Now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“You and Percival, huh?” Juliette said, “I could see it. Who’s topping?”
“I’m not discussing this!” Adolf said.
“He’d probably say he would because he was oldest.”
“But he doesn’t have any experience.”
“I suppose I could top from the bottom.”
Adolf lowered his bright red face to the table as Juliette laughed, “I think we overheated him.”
“I’m not sure how he’s going to handle twins then,” Percival said, “Having more than one bedmate isn’t easy.”
Adolf lifted his head sharply with a horrified expression, “But… you’re younger than me… It’s so… wrong like imagining my little brother having sex.”
“You don’t have siblings,” Percival said, “Not sure why that thought crossed your mind.”
Percival watched Adolf chug the rest of his drink and pull on his cloak, “I have work to do.”
“Remember to use protection!” Juliette called as he scurried out of the building.
She laughed and looked up at Percival, “We make a good team, Perci’. He’s always so serious.”
Percival swallowed around the lump in his throat at the nickname and lifted his mug to finish his tea before they parted ways.
It took another month for Le Belle to start producing gowns and procuring accessories to sell in the shop. Two weeks into looking for jewelry to sell with her gowns, Anya asked him if he made anything besides awnings.
“Are you asking me professionally or personally?” He asked as he adjusted the chandelier in the middle of the store floor.
“Both, I suppose,” she said with a sigh, “Father is taking me to a party to meet suitors, but I want to use it as a chance to network and advertise. I’d pay you fair price for it, of course, and anything you’d consider selling to Le Belle. It would obviously be a separate contract.”
“I do,” he said, “Would you like to see?”
She came from behind the desk where she would put the register to where he stood on the ladder and he handed down his portfolio to her.
“Do you usually carry this around with you?”
He paused as he couldn’t actually remember placing it in his pocket that morning, “I suppose I like to be prepared.”
In the end, she does commission him for a piece to wear and several pieces for the gowns that are being made. She doesn’t talk about how the event went, but there is a pleased smile on her lips when she comes in the next day.
By the end of November, Le Belle is fully ready and the grand opening was announced. Percival was sure that there was no person with a paid job that was as busy as he was in the days leading up to it and the week after.
He had no time to think about anything other than filling requests, picking up orders, and hauling in fabric from deliveries. Le Belle opened in the first week of December with a catalog large enough to sell at least a dress a day until the end of the year. By the end of the second week, they had sold out of their original stock and had to hire an assistant for the two seamstresses. It’s the kind of success that makes the exhaustion of everyone worth it at the end of every day.
On the Monday of the third week, he met Anya’s father and brother after she hired a new seamstress who had no name for herself but great skill with finer fabrics. The winter ball season was coming and people were beginning to look towards spring, so Percival suggested that Anya meet her competition and network among the other dress shops to stay on top of trends and the desires of Paris.
As work died down at Le Belle, Percival found himself a contract with a small art dealer shop to have first pick at whatever he’d made that wasn’t strictly commissioned work. The shop specialized in figurines of multiple materials, but the original figurine maker could no longer carve or do much crafting with his shaking hands, so the family had shifted to buying pieces from various artists to sell.
“All of them,” the old man told him, “Bring whatever you have.”
Percival had obliged the man and relished the strangely proud feeling of walking past the shop on the way to Le Belle nearly every day and seeing plenty of his own works in the front window. Each of them was marked with the Lang family seal though it wasn’t blatantly stated on any of the store’s banners or posters.
For a while, Percival is content to simply sell whatever pieces he makes at home that he was ready to let go and work for Anya at Le Belle.
In February of the next year, when the spring fashion rush had just begun, Percival told Anya that he was going to look for a steady job soon. Anya is in tears at the thought, but she understood. She told him that there was no way she would be able to afford to pay him what he was worth. He told her he had no desire to work for a dress shop.
“I’m a merchant by necessity, not by trade,” he said, “You won’t have to worry about me going to any competition.”
“I’ll have your letter done by the end of the week,” she promised, “Thank you for all of your help.”
He told her not to rush, but when she gives him the letter at the end of the week it practically sings. He promised to stop in and help when he had time to after he’d found stable employment, but Anya and the other women of Le Belle only want him to promise that no one else short of the Royal Seamstress would make him a suit.
“Where are you going to apply?” Anya asked, “ I may have an in.”
“The Royal Forge.”
Anya’s eyes widened, “I don’t, but I can wish you all the luck in the world.”
“Thanks,” Percival said, “I’ll need it.”