“Are you alright, mademoiselle?”
Anya looked up at the older man as she stood beside the carriage. Henrei had been her mother’s coachmen since she was a young and unmarried woman. When Anya’s parents married, she’d kept Henrei on as her driver and set aside money so that Henrei could continue to be Anya’s driver even after her death.
Anya had only ever asked once why, and the answer had surprised her. Henrei had been a knight back when the title meant more than a simple trial and conferment by the crown. He was a man that could be trusted with their lives.
For does not every lady deserve a noble knight to protect her?
It was early in the morning, a full hour before she’d agreed to meet the not-at-the-moment merchant who had agreed to become her guide to the marketplace. It was not until she’d arrived home that she realized that she had not gotten his name and, therefore, had no way of contacting him if plans changed or to be certain that he would arrive at the appointed time.
It seemed that in her excitement and relief she had lost her mind.
“Tell me, Henrei,” she began, “Is it odd for a man to step in, agree to be hired, yet not know for how much or how long?”
He hummed thoughtfully and shifted the reigns into his other hand, “There are people in this world who take the jobs that come to them so they do not have to face whatever they run from.”
She swallowed, “Do you believe men such as that can be trusted?”
“If only because they have nothing to gain beyond an escape.”
She prayed that he was right and boarded the carriage.
The ride to Le Belle wasn’t long, but she felt as if she was crossing a vast desert in search of water. Somewhere in her heart, she knew that it was fear that made it seem so long. Fear that she wouldn’t be able to do this and that the mysterious merchant who had helped her wouldn’t be there, that she’d lose this piece of her mother with the wind. Perhaps it was fear too that she would lose Henrei as well. The man was older than her father, and though, he never seemed to be in failing health, time selfishly claimed everything without respect for the wishes of anyone sooner or later.
Le Belle, she thought. Her father seemed to be doing everything in his power to make sure that it would never be opened again. Having usurped the money set aside for Anya to pay for his business’ troubles and setting up this ridiculous challenge between her and her brothers, it was as if his hand rested firmly on her brothers’ side of the scale while Anya was forced to enlist others to stand on hers in an attempt to even it.
However, it had always been that way. Her father was a bit of a bitter man from years of realizing that he had little talent for business. He was made even more bitter that his wife had surpassed him in that realm and had left so little to cling to after her death.
Should it be that Le Belle is beyond saving, it will be revamped and given to your brother to run.
The words had burned her inside and out upon hearing them and finding out the mountains of wrongs against her mother’s wishes and her that he’d committed since her mother’s death. Part of her wanted to burn it down before handing it over to her father and brothers, but she kept herself calm and opened her book of merchant trade as the carriage brought her through the city. She bet that their father was leading her brothers around on his daily routine and giving them first-hand knowledge on how to run a business, information that he’d probably learned from her mother.
You must not take to heart the wrongs done against you, her mother would say, A woman has no time to entertain the shortcomings of others. She always has better things to do.
She smiled a little at the thought of her mother’s voice and her wisdom. Her parents did not have a marriage of love but one of convenience. While her father was looking to wed her off to someone just like him, Anya had other plans. She would reopen Le Belle and take it to new heights. She would live her life the way she wanted to, the way that her mother always said she could if she simply worked for it.
You must have faith, le Belle, she’d told her in her last moments, The gods answer prayers no matter how many men wish you ill.
She arrived a little before ten o’clock, and her heart quaked at the sight of the building. It had once been such a busy shop, but it had been five years since her mother had died and all the windows had been boarded up, the awnings removed, and the distinctive lettering had long since been taken down. She’d wept for days when they took down the lettering and sold all the equipment. Seeing the faint imprint of the lettering and the awning now gave her hope. She wasn’t a little girl anymore. She had power, a bit of money, and the will to do what had to be done.
Have faith, petit beau, her mother would say.
Hopelessly, she checked her watch for the time. The man had about ten minutes before the clock struck ten, but the fact that he was precisely on time if not late could mean trouble.
“Isn’t that him?”
She couldn’t breathe upon seeing him. The man sat on the bench across the street from Le Belle and looked up at the building and the faded imprint of the letters as if he knew it. With a small notebook in his hand, he seemed content to write or draw to pass whatever time he’d been waiting.
When the carriage stopped, she practically jumped out of the carriage to cross the street. He looked at her and stood as she approached him. He was clean-shaven, clean in a casual tunic and trousers tucked into his boots. He wasn’t carrying a sword, but she still had the feeling that he was dangerous without them.
“Thank you,” she said, “Thank you for coming. Really.”
He nodded looking at her without expression. Anya turned and waved at Henrei. He waved back and guided the carriage away from the building to park it somewhere nearby.
“I assume you have a cart inside, ma’am.”
Her cheeks heated, and she laughed nervously, “No, actually. My brother is meant to be–”
“How quaint,” her eldest brother’s voice sneered. She turned to see him sauntering towards her with a cart full of things floating behind him, “Little squirt has herself a boyfriend.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “He’s my escort for the market, actually. Where is my cart?”
He stepped aside and shoved the smallest cart from behind his filled cart towards her. Her jaw dropped open at the state of it as it stuttered to a stop before her, and he left without another word.
Anya swallowed and grit her teeth. This was not what they spoke about. How could four people do so much damage to one cart? She’d asked for one cart, the last Le Belle cart, yet it had been reduced to this. Anya cursed and circled the cart hoping that there was something redeemable about it.
For the love of the gods, what had they done to it? Had they never taken it for maintenance? She winced as a large piece of wood fell off the cart. Anya’s eyes burned as she hung her head and tried to calm herself. Another piece of wood fell, and it lowered in the air as if the hovering charms were wearing off.
“I can’t go to the market with this,” she said, “No one will take me seriously.”
“No, they won’t, and you would never make it there.”
She sighed; trust her to find a market escort with a wry sense of humor. She shook her head and checked her watch once more. The women she was meant to be hiring should have arrived already. She told him to follow her inside to discuss his contract, and she hoped that someone among them had an idea about how to fix the catastrophe that was the cart.
She nudged the cart gingerly towards the shop as he picked up the pieces of fallen wood. He opened the door for her and looked around. The women already inside looked at the two of them with confusion then to the cart Anya nudged forward as pieces of wood clattered to the ground. The man picked them up as they entered the building.
Louise was an older dark-haired woman with deep grooves worn into her face from her near-perpetual scowl. Anya couldn’t remember ever seeing the woman smile, but she supposed that it helped in her line of work. Louise was an esquire and had agreed to draft and oversee all contracts Anya had to sign.
Jeanne worked for the court and had agreed to help with looking over the paperwork that needed to be submitted and those processes. While she was older than Louise, her mixed heritage and generally easy going disposition rendered the marks of time almost unnoticeable save a few laugh lines around her mouth. She had dark, Spanish curls and an olive complexion, but Anya had no actual idea where her people were from.
Beatrice was a seamstress who had lost her job when Le Belle closed. Of the three of them, she was the oldest and the closest to Amelia’s age, but she did not look it. The harshness of her life and her temperament had long worn grooves into her face and hands. Anya had thought that she was at least twice Amelia’s age growing up. Though Amelia had paid her fairly and left her a great deal of money in her will, Le Belle meant almost as much to her as it did to Anya. Amelia had told her to start her own Le Belle, but Beatrice had no head for business nor a tolerance for people. She needed someone with charm and business knowledge so that Beatrice could simply do what she did best: sew.
“Anya,” Beatrice said, “Dear what is that?”
“It’s… my cart.”
Her eyes widened, and Anya could almost hear the lashing she wanted to give her father and her brothers. Hoping to diffuse the rage rising like a red tide up Beatrice’s neck, she turned to introduce the man the other two women stared at as he looked around the empty building and his gaze stopped on the mannequins in the window
“This is…,” she blinked, “I never did get your name.”
“Percival,” he said.
Louise and Jeanne stood to pull her aside as Beatrice continued to watch Percival with a wary eye.
“Dear, where did you meet this man?” Louise asked, “It is not often that a German man is in Paris.”
She shook her head, “He helped me in the marketplace, and I asked him if he would be willing to be hired as a tutor of sorts.”
“Anya,” Jeanne said, “I would have thought that you would have learned about trusting strange men after the last time.”
“That isn’t fair,” Anya said, “I was a child, and clearly, my caretaker wasn’t around.”
Jeanne glanced at Percival and turned as he walked across the room. Anya turned to see him walking towards the photo on the wall. It was the first thing that Anya brought into the store when she’d received the keys. She’d put it there as a reminder and intended it to be a part of the shop when it reopened.
“Lady Hevereaux,” he said softly.
“You… knew her?” Anya asked.
“I met her once when I was a child,” he said, “She did business with my father.”
“A son of a merchant?” Beatrice asked skeptically as he turned and looked at her. His gaze paused on her briefly then turned to Anya, Jeanne, and Louise.
“Who was your father?” Louise asked.
Anya’s eyes widened. She’d heard about Wolfgang Lang but had never met him. She knew his family seal and that he was married to Helena Leonhard. She also knew that Helena’s father, Hans, had crafted the metal awning that had once hung over the shop. How was it possible that she had simply come across their son in a marketplace in Paris?
“Wolfgang Lang… of Stuttgart?”
“Of Löffeltal,” he corrected, “Married to Helena Leonhard of Löffeltal.”
Anya smiled at him, and hopelessly, offered up thanks to the gods for his presence. He turned back to the photo.
“She gave me a caramel.”
Anya laughed, “Yes, that was my mother.”
Percival turned to her, “Your mother was the Lady Hevereaux?”
She nodded and turned back to the cart, “Come on to the back where the chairs and things are, and we’ll see if I have anything to make this cart serviceable.”
He followed her as the other three women followed behind him. The back of the shop was filled with scraps of fabric and thread all organized as if they had been a part of a larger stock once upon a time. It had surprised her that her father had left the organizational equipment unsold. There was a small stack of wood from old shipping crates and other odds and ends besides the chairs that Beatrice and the others had already set up. There were only four chairs, but Percival didn’t hesitate to commandeer an old shipping crate to sit on. He emptied the slats of old wood on the floor beside him and turned to the four women.
“My father is the owner of a few high-end boutiques here in Paris,” she said in explanation. “Mostly catering to noblemen, but Le Belle was my mother’s.”
Le Belle was the only boutique Amelia had ever opened and it outsold and performed all of her father’s boutique’s combined, so much so that he’d sold them to her just before she died. Now that she was gone, there was the question of who would take over the family business.
Her father wasn’t as close-minded as most men in Paris, but he wasn’t open-minded either. He’d given her elder brothers each their own boutique under his original brand to run and, reluctantly, included her in the contest by giving her Le Belle to reopen on her own after Anya had cried foul on her mother’s grave when he’d spoken of transforming it into another one of his shops. They had three years to prove they had what it took to inherit because his health was failing.
She wanted to point out that it was hardly fair competition as her brothers had all been allowed and encouraged to attend university for business and often followed their father in their youth, but she didn’t. It wouldn’t have made much difference, and it would have wasted what little time she had.
Three years was only a long time for someone who was already established.
“So here I am,” she sighed, “trying to rebuild this place the way she would have wanted it without the first clue on how to do so.”
Amelia had been the daughter of a merchant and a seamstress. Anya had been all but cut off from such things save the few years during which Amelia had been alive. She was taking classes at the university now, but they taught at a pace slower than she needed to know, so it wasn’t doing her as much good as she’d hoped.
“What are you hoping to hire me to do?” Percival asked.
She winced, “Well, I was hoping to have your help at the market and pick your brain a bit. I’m unfortunately not in a position to pay you as a full employee, I can’t even pay these ladies or myself yet since getting the shop re-opened and inspected is becoming a great financial pit but as much as you are willing to give me for what little I can offer you.”
By her calculations, it wasn’t even a proper wage, but it was all she could spare. Perhaps she could scrape together more money if she found a job, but that would mean less time to attend the store.
“You can keep it,” her heart nearly skipped a beat in terror as she opened her mouth to ask him what he meant, “I don’t need you to pay me. I’ll take a letter of recommendation at the end as compensation.”
She blinked and then laughed, “You are quite the strange man, Percival! Someone working for free in Paris.”
“I did not say for free,” he said as he stood and began to examine the stack of wood, “I said you did not have to pay me in French currency. There are other currencies than gold and silver.”
“You will have to explain what you mean,” Anya said before Beatrice could speak. The woman closed her mouth tightly, but the three of them watched him carefully each with their own pads of paper.
“He means that he will extort you later,” Louise grumbled, “Much like your father extorted your mother.”
Anya gave her a warning glance.
Percival did not turn to look at her, “I can secure a job making more money than you could ever pay me easily. I need not extort you to make money in Paris.”
Beatrice huffed, “So very confident.”
“If you would please allow Percival to explain,” Anya said looking at the two women, “Perhaps we could all come out for it for the better.”
Jeanne nodded with an apologetic smile on her lips. Amelia told Anya once that Beatrice and Louise were quick to temper and hard to calm. While Jeanne was a calming presence, she was almost too meek to douse their tempers to manageable levels and tended not to get involved until they had tired themselves out.
You must be a bucket of water at all times with them petit beau, even when the situation needs fire.
“You are the new Lady Hevereaux,” Percival said sifting through the stack of wood. He set aside a few and left others in the pile, “With that name comes a reputation for business and skill. Your mother may be gone but her reputation still lives on and can be used to your advantage. She was not one to hire lackluster staff, volunteer or not. A letter of recommendation on my work from a well-known Parisian name will mean more to anyone in Paris than the letters I have now. If without it, I can secure a job paying more than you could ever pay me, then with it I can acquire a job I’ll actually want.”
Anya swallowed and wondered how this man had arrived at such an understanding so quickly with his broad shoulders and blank effect. She had known there was a keen intellect behind those blue eyes, but she had not imagined how keen it was.
“Are you sure about this, Anya?” Louise asked.
“Not a single coin?” Anya pressed, “No matter what I may need of you, what I may ask, or how annoying and endless my questions may be?”
“So long as they are about business,” he said gathering the pieces of wood that he selected and walked to where the cart shook in the air. He inspected the wood of the cart as Louise and Beatrice began to murmur between themselves.
“Just a letter?” she asked, “That’s what you’ll take in payment?”
“Yes,” he said dragging his shipping crate to where the cart hovered. He took a seat and pulled a knife out of his boot, “That’s all.”
She regarded him as his large hands skimmed over the edges, and he muttered something about alignment before she spoke, “Okay.”
She was at a loss of what else would need to be said.
Louise narrowed her eyes skeptically at him, “Since you won’t be on payroll, she has no need for your paperwork, but as you’ve agreed to be treated as a full-time employee, I will draw up a contract stipulating your work and that you are not to be monetarily compensated for anything that you do. Is that agreeable?”
“So long as your contract is what we’ve agreed upon” he replied, “I have even less reason to trust you than you trust me.”
Anya smiled to hide the grin as Louise flushed.
“Fantastic,” Anya said, “Please Louise draw up a contract for Percival effective today.”
Louise narrowed her eyes but nodded. Jeanne gave Anya an amused grin as Beatrice stood and pulled Anya out of the room. Percival pulled a nail out of the cart as they passed.
“I do not trust him,” she said, “How can we be sure that he is who he says he is? No one has seen or heard from Helena Leonhard or Wolfgang Lang in years.”
Anya shook her head, “Have you considered that may precisely be the reason why he is in Paris and not old Germany?”
Beatrice grit her teeth, and Anya could see that she was truly struggling with the decision.
“If you do not trust him, or my judgment, will you at least trust Louise?”
“I do trust her,” she said and sighed. “And perhaps I will trust you, judgment more if he signs the contract.”
It took Louise an hour to draft the contract and hand it to Percival. He read it and pulled out a small scrye book. He folded the contract and placed it between the pages.
“Who are you sending it to?”
“My esquire and current guardian,” he said.
Beatrice’s eyes widened, “Guardian?”
“I’m not yet seventeen,” he said, “Unless you’d like me to sign it and take you to court later for a null contract.”
Anya chuckled, “I’m sure it will be fine. Though I am surprised that you are not yet seventeen.”
“It shouldn’t take long,” Percival said, “It’s a simple contract.”
She smiled and nodded, “The inspector should be here soon, so we’ll have to follow him around for a little while. Will it be okay to leave you alone?”
He snorted, “Please attend to your business. I, at least, have something to busy myself with for now.”
Anya thought it was a strange response, but as the inspector knocked on the front door, she didn’t have much time to think about it. When they walked back in, the cart had ceased hovering and he had apparently not moved from his seat on the floor. So they take seats and go over what the boutique needed as Percival worked quietly on the other side. Anya had her mother’s old designs, ones she hadn’t had a chance to make. They were gorgeous by far, but they needed the right fabric and hands that could manage that fabric. She needed the building to be inspected and certified for business use again. She needed steady merchants and vendors. The boutique had run with only five women in the shop at any given time including Amelia and Anya wanted to keep it that way.
They gave her the latest report from the building consultant who’d stopped by to help them get ready for inspection and Anya could practically hear the ticking clock in her head. With every moment she had to plan, her brothers were taking leaps and bounds forward, and the noose was closing slowly on Le Belle and everything her mother had worked for.
“No reserve cash as it all went to father,” she said with a sigh. “Somehow, I believe that he didn’t want this to work.”
The three trade glances, but said nothing before glancing over to where Percival has begun to whittle away at the sheet of wood he’d deemed worthy and realigning the boards on the cart. They’d been talking for the better part of a few hours when he reached for paint and a piece of weak wood that he frayed into a workable brush and began to paint the lettering.
They turned to watch him curiously as he finished, blew over his work, and set the cart upright so the bottom faced the ground. He tapped it twice and they watched the sigils, now recarved and smoothed, light up and the cart floated off the ground, holding steady at the appropriate height. He held a hand over it until it registered it and moved it up and down so it lowered and raised as expected. Then, he drew his hand along the sigils and watched it expand in width, then in height and depth before returning it to its former size. Then, he placed both hands in the bottom of the cart and lifted himself off the ground with just his arms, holding still for a full minute before setting his feet back on the ground. It would at least carry several stones. Satisfied with it, he turned it so they could see what he’d done.
They gasped, and Anya’s eyes burned because the lettering is perfect, the true Le Belle font that no longer graced the storefront. The shop once had a few carts with that lettering emblazoned on them, but that had been so long ago and all of those carts had become possessions of her father, then her brother, and remodeled for the other shops. She bet the cart that Percival had just remodeled had been the oldest cart the businesses owned. The women trade looks of surprise as it came closer.
“Are you… handy with plumbing?” Anya asked looking at him as the other women stared at the cart like they’d seen a miracle.
“If you have the tools,” he said, wiping his hands on a cloth he pulled off the utility rack as he stood and put his knife back in his booth.
It takes three weeks for Percival to get through the entire building, doing whatever maintenance was fastest, cheapest and didn’t require them to go buy anything. The storefront was still boarded up, but at least the windows were still intact, the only thing was the lettering and something to announce that Le Belle would be opening again soon.
The women got a banner together, and Percival spends his waking hours in the workshop in the back, carving the store’s name in huge intricate letters in the original Le Belle font. He sent them with the cart to buy paint while he moved everything to the back and prepped the walls for painting. When the paint arrived, he put the buckets on the covered floor, and they headed out to procure decorations to blend the old feel and the new together and Percival gets the chance to focus entirely on recreating the feel of Le Belle from the photos that Anya selected for reference.
The patterns on the walls are difficult to recreate, but it gives him something to focus on and something to do besides listening to the screaming. While he painted in his common clothes, bare-armed in the summer heat, they brought in ideas and asked him questions.
Soon enough, the older women seemed to take a liking to him and treat him more as a son, or a grandson, than a laborer. They left him lunch while he was working on fixing something in the building or building something they needed and generally asked after his well-being.
Anya’s brothers stopped by every once in a while to check on things, and she firmly kept them outside of the building every time they came to gloat or spy. When the walls are painted fully, he hung the old decorations, pictures of the Lady Hevereaux in polished and cleaned frames along with new photos at their direction then set to work on cleaning the floor on his knees until it gleamed. He sanded, stained, and polished the floors until the redwood gleamed with its old shine.
The four women are almost speechless when the interior work is all done, “It looks like her store again.”
For the months of helping Anya and the ladies revive Le Belle, the screaming is quiet. He’s too physically exhausted to wake up screaming some days, and when he isn’t there is something waiting for him to be done, so he can’t think longer than a few moments about the screaming. He got the matter of his self-custody mostly squared away with Henrei and access to at least enough money to live on for a while from his previous jobs and other things he finds to do around Paris.
Today, he was on a ladder setting the letters above the store in his work clothes smudged in various splotches of paint. People stop to watch him work. Women giggle and point, some men do as well, but overwhelmingly people are curious about this Le Belle, and that’s a good thing. When he finished the lettering, he hung the “Coming Back Soon” banner beneath it and brought the ladder into the workshop behind the building.
“There’s a marketing opportunity waiting outside for you,” Percival told her as he settled down at the makeshift forge in the back.
She checked her reflection and walked outside to greet people and answer their questions. The other three women leave him in the forge alone as he started up the fire and stretched what little tension he’d managed to accumulate in his shoulders.
Le Belle’s awning was one of the most iconic in Paris in that it was completely hand-embroidered on a weave that was strong enough to face any element and still look fabulous. The weave was actually metal spun into thread and woven, and the embroidery was been cast on. It was something that Anya and the ladies had not known, but Percival had after seeing the photos.
He steadied the fire of the forge to warm the metal as he weaved it together. Somewhere inside, his heart is wrenching because it was something he’d watched his grandfather do as a child, helped him do on occasion. He’d learned this sort of delicate casting from his mother. He wasn’t sure what his heart would do when he was ready to cast the awning, but he knows that he has to power through it even as his blood is screaming that there was no time for any of this and his heart hammered in his chest.
He sat still, eyes down on the weave, then on the casting of the filigree. They’d given him soundproof headphones so he wouldn’t get distracted when they came in and out, but he rarely wore them as it only trapped him with the screaming.
When it was finished, he embossed it with the Leonhard seal of business and waited three days to hang it. It was enough time to go over Anya’s business course material and take her and the older women to the market for a crash course in vendor procurement and haggling with merchants. They were rather timid with the first merchant until Percival stepped in and asked for documents they didn’t even know you had to have to sell certain things in Paris.
Procuring materials for Le Belle’s operations and productions was a learning experience for them and a constant challenge that kept Percival from remembering that the reason he was walking to Henry’s office several months after he had started working for Anya.
It was his seventeenth birthday, and the documents in his hands would make him legally his own guardian and a pseudo-ward of the Zephyrine government. Henry had gotten in touch with the executor of his parent’s will and set up a date to read the will in a few months time as it had been a greater trial than anyone had anticipated getting a hold of him and verifying everything else that needed to be verified.
He didn’t have to travel back to old Germany for the reading, but he did have to go to Henry’s office where they would scrye with the executor of the will to make sure everything was legal and in line.
He felt the thread of Ariadne growing longer and warmer in his pocket and knew that it wouldn’t be the easiest meeting he would ever get through.
[ Author’s Note: Stones here is referring to a unit of weight, not actual stones. Thanks for reading!:)]