Beyond the door, he could hear the steady thump–whoosh, thump– whoosh of the man’s heart beating and the scratch, scratch, scratch of his pen across paper. It was a familiar sound. It made him think of his parents, and the long hours, sometimes late into the night, they spent managing the family’s finances. He remembered being small enough to crawl into his father’s lap when he couldn’t sleep to watch them work. Before the pain of those thoughts could distract him, he knocked three times and waited for the man to grant him entry. It wasn’t long before he heard the man’s voice.
As soon as Percival opened the door, the older man smiled, kind and open like he had the first time Percival met him. He wasn’t burning the incense he usually did, but Monsieur de Sauveterre was wearing his favorite cologne today. It had been a gift from his late wife years ago. The scent of it tinged the air with a brightness that almost distracted from the deep-set melancholy that always followed the man like a specter. It always made Percival think of his mother after his grandfather had died. The entire family had mourned, but it had been Helena Leonhard that the scent had clung to until the end. Percival knew now that it was a scent that once truly settled never left and there was no amount of incense that could mask it, even if he didn’t have a heightened sense of smell. Perhaps it was just a scent that came with the Leonhard and Lang inheritances.
He winced as his stomach turned uncomfortably and that same scent grew stronger the longer Percival lingered on the memory of his mother in her mourning clothes. The roiling guilt and terror in his gut had not gone away in all the months he had been here, but he had done his best to avoid thinking of anything except how exhausted he was since leaving Freiburg the year before. In a few hours, he would be leaving the estate and all of its latent scents for the sights and scents of Paris. He knew that the city of love would be so unfamiliar to him and his senses that nothing in him would think of the time before Troyes and that was all he needed.
“You wished to see me, sir?” Percival asked.
Monsieur de Sauveterre was a wealthy man who had inherited half of his wealth from his late wife and her family. The other half of his estate came from his own hard work and investments. The man had only one son by the late Mademoiselle who had inherited his mother’s eyes and wicked sensuality. She had been a descendant of the Wind-Riders of the Swiss Alps, and like most children of magical lineage, he had inherited some of that old magic as well. The young master could not fly, but Percival had never seen or smelled someone who was so loved by the wind.
The older man’s heartbeat tripped with nerves but smoothed out to its normal rhythm. There was a tension in his shoulders, but it eased as he grabbed the parcel that had been resting beside him on the desk. Monsieur de Sauveterre came around the desk with the page-sized parcel in his hand, placed it in Percival’s hands and ushered him to sit across the desk from him before Percival could manage to ask about it. It was thicker than it should have been if it simply contained his severance pay. He would know since he handled the man’s financial accounts and his own impeccably. The folder smelled new and effused the scent of sand, sparkling air, and fresh water.
Scrye magic, Percival thought. It was the only thing that smelled like that and would be present in a merchant’s study. Though Percival’s senses could give him an idea of what was in it, he couldn’t know exactly what was inside without opening it.
“Before you ask,” he said; his eyes twinkling, “It’s the rest of your pay, letters of recommendation from me and the staff, and a gift for your exceptional service. Go on and open it.”
Percival opened the folder to pull out payment receipts, legal documents regarding a bank account and a deed to a house in Paris. He lifted his startled eyes to meet the ones twinkling across from him. His heart sped up to a panicked rush. If he could translate such feelings still, he may have dropped his jaw, perhaps lifted his eyebrows towards his hairline. As it stood, he could only look at the man and hope that something of his shock showed in his eyes.
“Sir,” he began. The man held up a hand, stopping him from saying anything more.
“Eventually, I’d like to convince you to work for me again, but until then enjoy Paris, young Percival.”
Percival closed the package.
“I can’t accept this.”
“I’ve already transferred it to you,” the man countered, “It is yours whether you leave the paperwork here or not.”
Percival’s hand clenched around the package. He didn’t understand why the man was doing this and was unable to find the words to ask.
Why? The thought was a small, broken sigh from the back of his mind. The voice seemed younger than Percival was yet had a life-tired quality to it. Why are you doing this?
Monsieur de Sauveterre let out a withering sigh. Percival had heard the sound frequently since arriving at the estate. He had once thought it was because he made mistakes and the man had grown tired of them. It had taken months for him to realize that it was the sigh of someone who wanted to understand but did not know how to ask the right questions.
Weltschmerz, he thought. Resignation.
So long as the man sighed, he would never ask Percival questions that Percival could not answer and that suited him just fine. After all, he was attempting to lock his ghosts into a trunk, not allow them to roam free in his mind.
“You came to work for me willing to do any job at any hour no matter how hard, though you had all of the documentation to have a high paying salary. You told me about how long you expected to be here, and while you have been here, you have done everything I asked and more than I could have hoped for,” Monsieur de Sauveterre paused to meet Percival’s gaze. He supposed whatever the man was searching for he found because he continued a moment later with that smile and the light scent of satisfaction emanating from his skin, “I am a man who rewards a phenomenal performance. I am also a man who sees a young man who needs time to face whatever has happened to him. The world has been hard enough on you. Let me be kind to you, Percival.”
Percival swallowed the protest and blinked the burning in his eyes away.
Kind, he thought. It had been a long time since someone had been truly kind to him. He had almost forgotten what that could mean. His parents had known what kindness was and had instilled it in Percival and his siblings, yet it had all been lost with them.
Kindness, Percival thought. Kindness.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I’ve taken the liberty of setting up an account for you in Paris and giving your information to a lawyer I trust there. He’ll make sure you get settled properly. All the information you’ll need is in there. If you need anything else, know you can always contact me.”
The man stood and shook his hand before Percival left the room. The man’s son leaned against the opening of the corridor apparently waiting for Percival to exit the study. In his dark eyes, there are memories that make Percival’s cheeks heat. The man smirked at him, satisfied with his flush maybe, before approaching him. He reached up and tugged Percival down into a brief kiss. His hand was shockingly warm around the back of Percival’s neck, and he smelled as if he wanted to do a lot more than just kiss Percival.
“Be safe, Percival,” he whispered, “Keep in touch?”
Percival nodded, thanked him, and wished him luck on his budding romance with the half-merman he’d known most of his life. What Percival and the young master had wasn’t emotional. They both knew that and maybe had preferred it that way. Percival knew that he couldn’t even fathom it, still couldn’t in some ways, but the way the young master looked at Percival made his stomach flip and the thought of staying just a little longer more appealing.
A panicked scream echoed in the back of his mind, Run, Percy!
Percival shoved the thought and the memory away. Even in Troyes, the screaming was still too close. It roared to the surface the moment the young master’s hand was off his neck. The screaming was the only thing he could hear until he realized that it was ten minutes until the appointed time and he was already sitting in the agreed upon restaurant with no recollection of how he got there.
He shook his hand clear of the haze and looked around as the sights, scents, and sounds of the restaurant began to become more apparent. He’d lost another chunk of time it seemed. From the state of his clothes, he knew he’d at least bathed before leaving the manor. That meant he’d probably packed everything and said the proper goodbyes as well.
“Your meal, sir.”
He thanked the man who set his plate down before him.
Perhaps I didn’t eat? he thought.
It wasn’t like him to do anything unnecessary or impolite during those chunks of time he lost. At least that was what he assumed since no one ever seemed to think anything was amiss when he finally did regain consciousness. His stomach rumbled, and he ate to quiet it. It was a simple meal of mostly roasted meat, potatoes, and vegetables and seasoned just enough that it didn’t grate his taste buds.
When he finished, he took his cup with him to the window and looked out to the place where people parked all of their luggage. He recognized the stack that belonged to him by the large trunk that formed the base of his stack and the large shield and swords affixed to the side of it.
To the eyes of most, it would look like a knight’s pack and even most thieves in the city wouldn’t dare attempt to steal from a knight of France, let alone any other country. Based on the height of the stack, all of his things, new and old, gifts and purchases, were there. Slowly, the goodbyes he must of have said come through the still settling haze around his senses along with the contents of the newer, smaller trunk he didn’t immediately recognize. Inside was a set of knives from the chef, leather gloves from the stable master, books, silks, blankets, and more from other staff members. He’d said goodbye to the people of the estate and the estate in its entirety.
He turned at the voice as she walked in. Juliette was wearing a newly mended dress and still carrying the same bag she’d had in Freiburg. It seemed a little heavier than the last time he’d seen her but not by much. He nodded in greeting and led her to the table he’d been occupying earlier. She ordered food as the rest of the group arrived. He recognized them all, but it’s Adolf who shocked him the most. He looked a good deal more together than the last time he’d seen him although his eyes seemed exhausted with worry. No doubt, Adolf worried about his mother even as he fought through the days between leaving her and now. He ordered food and ate without hesitation. Whether it was he and Juliette’s first meal of the day or not, he couldn’t know, but he suspected that it was.
The rest of them looked more run down than the last time he’d seen them. The scent of hard work, exhaustion, and hunger wafted off their tattered clothing, but they didn’t focus on filling their stomachs. Instead, they took in his appearance and saw fit to comment.
“You seemed to have been doing well for yourself,” one of the women said primly as she collapsed into the chair beside him.
Percival chose to say nothing and simply enjoyed his ale as Juliette and Adolf shoveled food into their mouths as politely as their stomachs would allow.
Definitely their first meal today, if not in a few days, he thought as a strange, uncanny sensation passed over him, and something in his mind turned blue.
He didn’t know. It had been so long that he couldn’t recognize his own emotions. Sometime before the iterations of himself had begun to surface and argue with one another he’d been able to identify what that feeling was and maybe even know how to alleviate it. As it stood, he could only wait for them to be finished and hope that the feeling would go away.
When Adolf and Juliette had finished, and the rest of the group had arrived, they left the restaurant, and Percival stopped to collect his luggage. The group flinched at the sight of the stack and looked away. He knew that it wasn’t simply that he had luggage, but what formed the bottom of the trunk. Though it was the oldest trunk in the stack, it was one of the largest and the most unique. The runes etched into the sides of the old trunk gleamed from a metal that no longer existed and an age that had long been lost in his family history. It was a haunting and necessary relic from the three years that everyone knew not to speak about even among each other. It was also the only remaining relic of their community after those three years.
He strapped one sword to his back, the other to his waist, and left the broad shield attached to the tower of luggage for protection. With his new traveling cloak and his old pack in place, he followed them down the street. People watched in horror and fascination as they walked through the city. Kids pointed, jerking on their caretaker’s hands to see them.
“He’s got all that nice luggage, and he still keeps that old thing?”
Adolf shrugged as they walked ahead. Out of the corner of Percival’s eye, a child with dark hair waved to him with a toothy smile. He waved back and tried not to think about which of his siblings the child resembled most.
Otho, the small voice reminded him. He looks the most like Otho.
“It’s his to keep,” Adolf said.
“If I could afford such nice luggage, I sure wouldn’t want to keep an old relic like that,” the woman hissed in a low and biting tone.
“It was my mother’s,” Percival said.
The woman gasped a small, embarrassed sound, and Percival hoped that they would all take it as a sign to keep their mouths shut about things they could never understand. The old relic had been passed down through the Leonhard and Lang family since the beginning of the lines and the beginning of the place they’d once called home. There was neither a storm, petty jealousy, nor any amount of anger that could separate it from him. Only death could sever the bond.
Juliette looked back at Percival; their gazes met for a moment. She was curious, obviously, but Percival did not intend to explain himself or the others. Instead, he directed his attention to the sounds of the forest around them. For now, there were only deer and other mostly harmless creatures watching them trek out of Troyes, but he knew that bandits would appear eventually. The roads to Paris were all well watched by bandits. A band of people this young and this small would seem like an easy target for any band of bandits worth that title. Adolf and Juliette spoke quietly between one another filling the space between Percival and the rest of the group who seemed to want to put as much distance between them as possible.
Good, he thought. It was best that they traveled under no illusions about their relationship.
When they stopped for the night, Percival anchored his things beneath the tree that faced the wind and left them to find the stream he’d heard during their walk. He found it quickly. Taking a seat and filling his water skein, he tested the waters for fishing. Luckily, there was life in the stream. He set the skein aside and made a fishing line from the pole and wire in his traveling pack.
Aside from Juliette stumbling towards the stream, the forest was quiet around them. She stumbled through the brush as he cast his line and leaned back against a large rock.
“Hey,” she said. He glanced at her as she flopped down beside him and dipped her own skein into the stream, “Didn’t see you any of the time we were in Troyes except for the meetup. It looks like you were doing well for yourself.”
He remained silent as she sighed. Juliette’s sigh held some of the same tones that Monsieur de Sauveterre’s had.
Resignation, he thought. Weltschmerz.
“Sorry. That sounded really surface. How have you been?”
“Is there a reason that you don’t seem to care much for the others? I got the impression that you all knew each other rather well.”
Juliette snorted, “Like you stole someone’s lover?”
“Like they’re just like their parents,” he said as the line went taut. He pulled the fish out of the water with a sharp tug so that it landed in his hand. Once he’d freed the fish from the hook, he placed it on the bank beside him and recast the line. Perhaps he’d be able to catch enough fish for them to make a full meal on their own at this rate.
“Should I ask?”
“You can,” he said, “I may not answer.”
Juliette went quiet. Whether she found the answer rude or answer enough, he didn’t know. His stomach turned again. It wasn’t hunger nor fear. He knew those both well enough to recognize the feeling. What was it then?
Nerves, that voice whispered, soft and nervous. You’re being taciturn.
He leaned back against the rock again. Sometimes that voice didn’t make much sense. He had answered the question. There was no need to go into details. The river babbled, whispering the secrets of the forest and soothing the fish in his basket into an easy death. As the fish died with its last flop, he heard another rustle in the underbrush. He pulled off his boots. In a fluid motion, he rolled to his feet and picked up his dagger.
Slowly, he stepped on the large stones and crossed the river. This close he could identify exactly what was making that sound. A fox and a rabbit locked in a moment of the chase that could end the rabbit’s life. Between the darkness of the trees and flashes of moonlight, he saw them and leaped forward. The dagger fell through the air. The rabbit went quietly, and the fox went with a soft wounded sound that faded into the voice of the river.
“Percival?” Juliette called, her voice tinged with a bit of fear. He picked up his kill and walked back through the brush and downstream. Without the thick cover of the trees, he could see the color of their furs more clearly.
A white rabbit and a rich red-brown fox were rare finds and would be worth a great deal. The fishing line went taut again as he sat down and placed his kills beside him. Juliette’s eyes widened.
“You’re quite good.”
Percival glanced at her as he removed the fish from the line, “Thank you.”
He cast the line again and began to inspect the rabbit’s eyes for clarity and its fur for snags. The line went taut again, and he pulled the fish in. Juliette scoffed.
“I wish I had a useful skill like that,” she said almost wryly, “Probably would have done a lot better in Troyes if I did.”
Percival didn’t say anything as she continued speaking. She told him that her parents hadn’t been able to send her to school. He thought the sentiment strange since Zephyrine paid for the education of all of their citizens, unlike France. He assumed instead that they couldn’t afford to spare her as a potential breadwinner. Juliette learned to read, write, and speak languages by serving the upper class’s daughters in Freiburg and Stuttgart. She wanted more out of life than what she’d grown up with and saw her chance for it in Paris.
Her voice drowned out the screaming enough for him to remain conscious of what he was doing. It was a familiar process that didn’t carry with it any dark feelings. His father had taught him to hunt and tan furs with the Lang methods from a young age because it was a useful skill. He skinned the rabbit and the fox quickly and used some of his fishing wire to string them up. After dousing them with curing powder, he fashioned a drying rack out of a few sturdy branches, so they hung flat against the open air. With the skins, his kills, his water skein, and a cloth full of fish in hand, he led Juliette back to their small camp.
The rest of the group had managed to get a fire going on the other side of the clearing. Percival set his bag down beside his trunk and began his own fire. He could feel their eyes on him, glaring at him long before the flames began to rise beneath his hands. He could have started it with magic, but he had a flint handy and didn’t need them to know anything more about what he could and could not do.
They didn’t deserve to know anything more about him.
“Do you mind if I sit with you awhile?” Juliette asked. Percival found no reason to say that he would.
Adolf and Juliette had taken a strategic position. They would probably sleep on their packs with the openings of them pressed closed by their bodies so they would wake up if anyone attempted to mess with them. In the shadow of the tree away from the firelight, they would just look like two runaways beneath a blanket. No bandit would bother with them.
The rest of the group had no such qualms, and would probably sleep close to the fire and use their bags as pillows with no precaution as to where the opening was or trying to shield them from tampering. He knew it had more to do with his presence among the caravan than any sort of trust built between them.
They weren’t the type to develop bonds of trust beyond what they needed. He knew that once they arrived in Paris if they could find a way to live without one another, they would and try to use one another for whatever they could. Percival shook his head and looked up.
How did they expect to get anywhere like that?