(Yes, I wrote on Christmas day. Aren’t you proud? In other news, it seems we’ve been wandering around in the ether of “Chapter 8” for quite some time. I should probably fix that.)
[chapter 8 continued]
Theo looked up at Mira from bandaging her ribcage, his eyebrow cocked. “If you had come to me sooner, this wouldn’t hurt so much.”
Mira winced as he pulled the bandage snug. “I didn’t think it was that bad,” she said.
He just shook his head and rummaged through his supplies. The infirmary was quiet today, just two trainees chatting in the corner while they each iced a sprained joint. Mira had been here a few times before to pick up a hot or cold pack, but in the past the long, narrow hall of the makeshift Jade League infirmary had been filled with people. Although Theo was the only mage they had with significant skills in the healing arts, he had a few apprentices and now the help of a few non-mage doctors and nurses who had sought refuge with the Jade League. The non-mages easily handled the people who came in complaining of a sore throat and other everyday maladies, but only Theo and his apprentice mages could speed the healing of a deep cut, or properly set a broken bone without an x-ray first. Even then, the range of abilities for mage healers was narrow and crude at best; the Chinese mages had a better grasp of healing, and the Jade League had no one with that kind of expertise. But as it was, the facilities here were functional, even with hard tables lined against the walls as exam beds and only rudimentary supplies carefully sorted and stocked in carts throughout the room and inside the cabinets in the back corner. At worst there was nothing the mages could do, and modern medicine took over. What the doctors lacked in equipment, they made up for with ingenuity, and one of the board members had been able to maneuver access to an outside medical facility when necessary. And it helped too that the members of the Jade League had been extremely lucky thus far in the dangerous streets of Paris.
Theo had set a spell in place to mend Mira’s broken rib, but he couldn’t do much about the bruising that had blossomed around the break, or the peppering of half-healed bruises all over her torso from training. His only advice was to get better at blocking, to which Mira agreed sheepishly.
He tucked the loose end of the tied bandage under the knot to keep it from getting caught and bothering her. “This dressing is just to keep you from twisting around too much while the spell does its work,” he told her. “You should be able to take it off by tomorrow afternoon, but you can’t be sparring or terrain running in the meantime. Don’t worry if you feel a little tired all day; the spell draws its energy from you and the fatigue just means it’s working. But like I said, no strenuous training until that’s healed.”
“Okay,” she said. “Do I have to come to you, or can I take it off myself?”
Theo checked his watch and squinted at the ceiling for a moment while he calculated. “I’ll be down at the sparring ring when it’ll be ready to remove. You can find me there or just cut it yourself around three o’clock.” When she nodded, he picked up his medic pack and slung it over his shoulder. “But next time you take a hit like that, come see me immediately, all right? The longer you wait, the more your body takes over healing, and the harder it is for me to properly set the bone. So see me right away, understood?”
Mira nodded meekly. Once she had demonstrated that she couldn’t move far from neutral, Theo let her go. She hopped down from the exam table, pleased that her jarring landing didn’t cause pain to shoot up her side. After thanking Theo, she made her way out of the infirmary, weaving between the tables. Long curtains hung from the ceiling to create nooks of privacy, the bright colors of the fabric bringing life to the otherwise plain room. Mira ducked around them as best she could, the bandage pinching her sides each time she tried to turn. She picked up a heat pack by the door for a strain in her arm that was still healing from a few days before, then headed out into the hallway. She was occupied trying to wrap the heat pack around her arm and didn’t see Jean-Pierre rounding the corner, nearly bowling him over.
“Pardon!” she exclaimed, catching him by the arm to help him regain his balance. “Desolé, j’étais occupée.”
Jean-Pierre just laughed as he hopped up and down. His antsy excitement was almost contagious. “Mira, salut!” he greeted her. “Guess what just happened!”
She couldn’t help but grin. “I don’t know—what?”
“Briand and Etienne are moving me up to patrols!” he exclaimed, barely able to contain his excitement.
“Felicitations!” she congratulated him. “I knew it was only a matter of time. I’ve seen you train—I always knew you belonged out with the patrols.”
“Really?” he asked.
“Of course. You’re young, but you’re as good as any of the other patrol mages.”
He rolled his eyes, trying to deflect her praise as exaggeration, but she meant it. It was a shame the Jade League didn’t seem to take him seriously because of his age. She knew Etienne trusted him to a certain extent, enough to let him train the refugees in self-defense, but until now he’d always been given a secondary task. But he had proved his worth, and she was glad to see him getting rewarded for it. Mira was sure she hadn’t been that strong at his age; in fact, at his age she hadn’t even started serious training with any mage society.
Besides, she liked Jean-Pierre. He was remarkably mature for his age, although Mira supposed the same could be said for Etienne, Olivier, Charlotte, and even herself. It was easy to forget that under normal circumstances, they would have all been living much less serious lives, in law school for Olivier, college for the rest of them. And Jean-Pierre would have soon been starting to figure himself out au lycée, enjoying his teens and chasing girls instead of hiding underground and training with the best mages in Paris in order to fight for his life on the streets of his home. Mira had never explicitly asked, but it seemed his parents were out of the equation; instead this intrepid, precocious boy forged his own path through the Jade League.
“Which patrol group did they put you in?” she asked.
“Regular evening patrols in the 15th arrondissement,” he said. “Not special operations like you.”
Mira smiled. “Yes, well not everyone gets to have that kind of fun.”
She could tell he was trying not to let his longing show on his face, but she saw anyway. “I wish I were as good as you,” he said. “You haven’t been here long, but already you’re on special operations…”
She put a hand to his arm. “Jean-Pierre, I trained for years before I came to France and joined the Jade League. Every step of the way to the top is going to be hard. Getting promoted to patrols is already a huge step—you should be proud.”
He smiled up at her, but she saw hesitation in his eyes. “I know, and I am. I just—” He paused, trying to pick the right words. “What if I’m not good enough? My distraction spells are still slow, and half the time I can’t get a misdirection spell to work.”
“The same goes for most of the mages when they first join the patrols. You’ll sharpen those skills quickly as you get more practice on the outside.” He still didn’t look entirely confident, so Mira gently pushed him in the shoulder. “Tell you what,” she said. “I’ll help you practice in the mages’ training room tonight. There are a couple things I’ve found that helped me—we can see if they work for you, too.”
Jean-Pierre was still eyeing her dubiously from the push she’d given him, but he started to smile. “Really? You’ll help me train?”
“Of course. I can’t battle you or anything—Theo’s forbidden it—but we can work on your misdirection spells.”
He grinned. “That would be excellent.” He hopped up again, some of the antsy excitement from before returning. “Mira, thank you. I better go find Racquelle,” he said, referring to his best friend who helped out in the kitchens. “She’ll kill me if she finds out from someone else.”
Mira waved him off with a laugh. “I’ll see you in the training room later,” she called after him. He nodded as he jogged out of sight, and she turned her attention back to wrapping the heat pack around her arm. Every time she got the two bandage ends in hand, they slipped free when she tried to knot them together.
“Here,” said Etienne’s voice from behind her. “You look like you could use some help.”
She started slightly at his presence but accepted his assistance. His hands were steady on her wrist as he placed her good hand on the pack to keep it in place while he tied off the ends in a neat knot. She hadn’t been alone with him in weeks—not since the resistance began. Since then he’d been lost among others, be it a crowd of advisers, a group of mage trainees, or drifting off into his own distracted thoughts. They had lost that unusual closeness from her first few weeks with the Jade League, the closeness she understood as circumstance and convenience, not true friendship. All the same, she worried about him as if he were a close friend. She doubted he noticed his own exhaustion anymore, the tiredness that etched lines across his brow and around his eyes and mouth.
“Thank you,” she said when he finished. She tucked in the loose tails of the knot, watching him as she did. “Everything all right?” she asked, jerking him from his blank gaze.
“Yes, sorry,” he said, blinking. “My mind was elsewhere.”
Mira examined his expression for a moment. Ever since the Jade League began fighting Favreau in earnest, Etienne had closed himself in tighter and tighter. The stress was getting to him, although she wasn’t entirely sure that anyone else noticed except maybe Charlotte and Olivier, both of whom had enough stress of their own to deal with. Mira hesitated—it wasn’t exactly her place to say anything, but if not her, who else?
“I don’t mean to tell you what to do,” she began, “but you need to get out around headquarters more.” That wasn’t the root problem, but she thought it might help.
He fixed her with a skeptical look, both eyebrows raised. “Do I?” he asked.
“Screw security,” she said. “You know how to drop anyone who’s threatening you. It’s not doing you any favors to stay cooped up in your office all day.”
He frowned slightly. “I go to the mages’ training grounds.”
“And then straight back to your room after that,” she pointed out. “Have you even been eating?”
At this, Etienne turned away from her to hide a small laugh. “You sound like Charlotte,” he sighed, shaking his head.
She laughed too, but forced her expression serious again. “You look tired, Etienne,” she told him softly. Then, to lighten his mood, she added, “And you need a haircut.”
His eyes jumped up to meet hers, as if puzzled but ever so slightly pleased by this comment. “I do not,” he protested as they started down the hall.
“Yes, you do,” she insisted. “You look shaggy.”
“Shaggy?” he repeated, his tone rising in disbelief.
She nodded as if breaking tragic news. “I can’t even see your ears.”
“What on earth do you need to see my ears for?” he demanded. He flattened his hair over his ears and frowned at her.
Mira was pleased to see him willingly get pulled into her teasing, although the ease with which he slipped into this mood made her think he might be repressing the urge to act like this more often. Favreau’s regime and leading the Jade League had forced him to grow up, but that didn’t change the fact that he was only twenty-one. So Mira let him have this moment, and somewhere in the back of her mind, she resolved to give him more.
“Well, if you’re hoping to start disguising yourself as a girl, it’s working,” she told him. “Keep this up and soon your hair will be longer than mine.”
Etienne set a hand on top of his head and mussed up his hair. He gripped a handful of hair in his fist and tugged at it, examining how it fell back over his forehead. “I suppose you’re right,” he sighed. “I’d better do something about this.”
Mira crossed her arms self-righteously and huffed. “I thought you Parisians were fashionable,” she muttered.
Upon hearing this, he laughed—a deep chuckle that came from his stomach—and a genuine smile spread across his face. “Some would argue that the amount of time I spent in England makes me more of an Englishman than a Parisian,” he said.
But Mira shook her head. “I bet Charlotte doesn’t agree.”
“No, she doesn’t,” he admitted.
They turned a corner in the empty hall, the still hush of headquarters pressing in around them in the wake of their conversation.
“I heard you talking with Jean-Pierre,” Etienne commented after a lull.
Mira nodded. “I’m glad you finally let him join patrols.”
Sighing, he rolled his neck and stretched his arms skyward. “Briand and I wanted to promote him months ago, but the board kept refusing. They just couldn’t see past his age—this after nearly a year of taking orders from Olivier and me.”
“Well, now he’s where he should be,” she said with pride. She glanced over at him and saw a slight smile pulling at his mouth.
“Thank you for helping him train,” he said quietly.
“Of course,” she said, shrugging. “It’s the least I can do.”
Etienne nodded. “And I appreciate that.” They paused for a moment at the junction of hallways. “You know,” he began, looking thoughtful. “When Jean-Pierre first joined us, he was an awful nuisance.”
“Well you know how curious and persistent he can be. He had a habit of getting underfoot, and I’m sure I snapped at him more than once when he first joined. But the moment we put him to work, it was like magic. His enthusiasm drove him to great lengths we never saw from others who were more experienced, and theoretically more capable. And now he’s become a valuable member of the Jade League.”
Mira smiled. “At age twelve, he’s not just valuable, he’s also an inspiration to the rest of us.”
“That he is,” Etienne murmured.
Mira tilted her head to scrutinize him, unafraid while his gaze drifted off into the empty hall behind her. “Etienne, I’m not sure if you know this already…” She let her voice trail off, unsure of whether or not she actually wanted to say what she had begun.
“Know what?” he asked.
She hesitated to put her thoughts into words, but she felt compelled to tell him. “You inspire greatness in people,” she said at last.
His eyebrows shot up at this, but he let her continue without interruption.
“What you said about Jean-Pierre going to great lengths—you gave him a chance, and he pushed himself to prove his worth to you. You make people want to do that. It’s not just Jean-Pierre. Olivier and Charlotte might not even be here if it weren’t for you—”
“They might argue that was coercion,” he interrupted. His words cut sharply, half joking and half tinted with serious argument. But his expression was gentle as he listened to her continue.
“The point is… people respect you. They see that you have the strength and wisdom for leadership.” She felt a little strange saying these kinds of words, but for once these abstract ideas felt laden with meaning. “I just—I don’t think you have to lead the Jade League from behind closed doors. There are people here who joined up before the ultimatum who would lay down their lives for you. They would march into the mouth of hell if you led them there.”
His eyes watching her were somber. “Then what?” he asked quietly. “I lead them to their deaths.”
“You lead them to greatness.”
He scoffed and started walking again. “Mira,” he sighed, “don’t put me on a pedestal like some god.”
But she stayed firm. “I’m not,” she countered, following him down the hall. “You’re turning yourself into some abstract concept of a leader by hiding away. Put paranoia aside, Etienne. Trust the people who have come to the Jade League, and help them dream of a just world in which Favreau no longer has a death grip on the city of Paris. And look, already he’s starting to slip. Make allies of these refugees. We can take back this city.”
He stopped then, facing her in the narrow hallway. His steady gaze searched her eyes for a long time. “Who made you so wise?” he asked softly, although he wasn’t really asking.
Mira shrugged. “You hungry? The mess hall is about to serve dinner.”
She watched him consider this option, this step out of the safety of his closed doors, until he finally nodded and smiled. “I’m starving.”
[end chapter 8]
(OH HAY I ENDED CHAPTER 8 YAY)