Lupiac, France, 1655
EVEN IN THE darkness, we could see it: the door half-open. A shadow angled across the threshold, spilled into the falling night, then disappeared.
“Stay here,” I said.
“Tania—” my mother whispered, but I was already headed down the twilight-stained cobblestone that led to the front of our house, my fingers clasping onto the fence Papa built me four years ago, right after my twelfth birthday—something to hold on to for balance when the dizziness became too much.
My fingers passed over the smooth, worn stakes. I inched my way along. Soft step after soft step. At the door, dizziness overtook me in an onslaught of gray and black waves. I pressed my face to the cool wood. Once the cloud lifted, I peered around the door.
The kitchen was in disarray. Pots were scattered everywhere; my gut wrenched as I took in the spatter of red along the cabinets—no, not blood. Crushed tomatoes. The table, the countertops, everything was dusted in flour.
Papa hadn’t returned from his trip yet. Maman was by the front gate. And here I was, empty-handed.
“Dammit—check again.” Voices floated short and sharp from the shadows. There wasn’t any time to go to the barn, to draw my sword from the weapons rack. A kitchen knife wouldn’t do any good, unless I was in close combat … or somehow managed to throw it, but the very thought curled my stomach. I’d probably end up injuring myself. My eyes scanned the room, finally locking on the fireplace. The fire poker was the best option. The only option.
Fingers vise tight on the iron, with my eyes closed … with the feel of metal against my palm, I could almost pretend it was my sword.
I followed the voices to Papa’s study. Two men, cloaked: one riffling through the desk while the other kept watch by the window. We’d taken a shortcut home from the market. He wouldn’t have seen us; his view was of the main road, the one we hadn’t taken. Please, Maman, please stay where I left you. Let me protect you for once.
“Did you hear that?”
My heart lurched at the unfamiliar voice: raspy, as if it was being used for the first time in weeks.
“Probably nothing.” A different voice this time, not as strained, oily and smooth. “It’d be better if the wife and their little invalide show. We could gut them and leave the remains for de Batz to find. Make him think twice about sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.”
My focus slipped, foot sliding along the loose floorboard with a creak. And with the movement, a wheeze of breath.
“Now, what do we have here?”
A man loomed in the doorway, so very tall. The second voice. His eyes lighted on the poker. “And what, pray tell, are you planning to do with that?” I brandished it, doing my best to mimic Papa—fierce, strong, unflappable—even as my legs trembled, even as my vision narrowed. He leered at me, at my unsteady legs; my pulse crashed in my throat. “The invalide has a bit of fire in her, non?”
My world blurred. But even my dizziness couldn’t mask how his body stiffened at the sound of carriage wheels on stone. Had my mother gone to alert the maréchaussées? This would usually have hurt, frothing behind my chest—why did she never trust me?—but for once, with my screeching heart, with my wobbling legs and the tall man in the black cloak, I didn’t care.
The men transformed into a flurry of footsteps and papers. In their haste to escape through the window, one knocked over their lantern. I lunged, but I wasn’t fast enough: It slipped and fell to the floor, flames catching the frayed carpet and careening toward the wall. In the glassless, unshuttered window, the hem of a cloak fluttered, then melted into the night.
I stumbled through heat, through ash, until I reached a side table with a water pitcher and used the last of my strength to overturn it on the fire licking at the curtains. The flames cooled with a slow, charred hiss. My throat was tight with smoke and tears.
I’d let them escape.
Papa wouldn’t have let it happen. Papa was stronger, and faster, and he didn’t have dizziness biting at his corners.
My pulse wouldn’t slow, couldn’t slow, was throbbing in my teeth. The horrible, unshuttered window doubled, then tripled. Three gaping black holes sucked me forward, legs buckling, kneecaps snapping to the floorboards with a crunch.
And then, hovering above me: my father’s worried gaze. It had to be the dizziness warping my vision. He wasn’t here. “Papa,” I tried to say. But my tongue was sealed to the floor of my mouth. The next moment, I was swallowed in pitch.
* * *
“Slowly, ma fille. You took quite a spill.”
I winced at the light and pushed myself up so my back rested against the wall. Papa’s desk settled sideways on the ground like a corpse, curtains mauled beyond recognition … a trail of ash, fire-eaten wood, and half-charred papers.
And when I turned, there was Papa. I shied away, failure still bitter on my tongue.
“I was so worried,” he said, his eyes darting to his pocket watch. “It felt like so much longer than five minutes, waiting for you to wake.” Then he studied me with a creased brow. “Tania, what happened?”
“Robbers. I couldn’t stop them. I tried, really I did, but there was a fire and I had to—but Papa, how are you here?”
“My meeting ended sooner than I expected. I thought I’d come home a day early. A surprise,” he laughed, hollow, as he surveyed the overturned room.
Papa traveling to nearby towns was nothing new. Wealthy locals were always looking to start a new fencing academy, and Papa was an ideal candidate for head swordsman. He’d never yet agreed; he’d received plenty of requests since retirement, and would occasionally humor the would-be founders: give a few lessons, pocket their money. But I knew him better than to think coin was the major factor luring him away. The visits provided an excuse to visit friends, his comrades from days in service of la Maison du Roi—the Royal Household of the King of France—who now held influential positions as maréchaussées across France or as military advisers. Papa would never admit to it, he wouldn’t, but I knew part of him longed to return. Not to Paris, the dangerous and glittering city with its leaden underbelly and blood-dappled alleys, but to the friends he’d risked life and limb for, day after day. To his family of brothers.
I’d met a few of them, when I was little. Vague childhood memories of large men with booming laughs—but it was like looking through a pool of water at people on the other side: light fractured, features distorted, the final picture not always resembling the original. And with things the way they were now … with the dizziness, with Papa’s friends spread across la France, busy with work and families and protecting the country, it wasn’t likely we’d have a chance to meet again.
Papa ushered me into a chair where he worried over me until I assured him I was fine—well, he knew what I meant. Through the haze, I watched him bend down, trail his finger along the dusty remains of a journal with a cover curled from heat, its leather boiled black. I thought I saw relief on his face. His gold signet ring, stamped with the French fleur-de-lis and intersected with two sabers, sparkled against the ash.
He straightened. “How many were there?”
“Two.” Shame leached into my words. I’d done my best. But then, my best was never good enough. “I should have done more.”
“My dearest, most foolish daughter … how, exactly, would you propose fighting off two intruders while also ensuring our house didn’t burn down?”
I didn’t respond. Not that it mattered; he was too busy combing through the unscathed papers, the broken desk drawers and their scattered contents.
“What did they take?” I asked.
“Nothing of value.”
“Why were they here, then, if not to take anything of value?”
There, there was the tick in his jaw, the way the corners of his eyes narrowed into dagger points—the face I’d tried to mimic earlier to hide my fear. “No doubt they were rummaging for your mother’s jewels when you walked in.”
“But they knew your name. They said … they said they’d kill me and Maman and leave us for you to find.”
Anger flickered in his eyes. But then his arms looped around me and pressed my cheek to his shoulder. And I couldn’t see his face then, not at all. “I’m proud of you.”
“If it wasn’t for the fire … if I hadn’t been so dizzy, I would’ve caught them. I would’ve protected us.”
He pulled back to look at me. “How could you ever say—no, even think—such a thing? You showed courage. A true de Batz.”
I wanted to ask where Papa thought they were from. Who else but other villagers knew about us … knew about me? But then, the sound of footsteps—and there was Maman in the doorway. Her face wasn’t stained with tears; it was hard as rock. Her gaze swept over me and the destroyed furniture, lips locked, before landing on my father. A look passed between them that I didn’t understand.
“I wasn’t expecting you home for supper. It’ll take a while to pull something together. You see, I’ll have to find food currently not plastered to the walls.”
“Ma chère…,” he attempted, but her eyes blistered him on the spot.
“And don’t even get me started on you,” she said, rounding on me. “Running off in the dark to play hero. You’re just a girl, Tania. And you could have fainted! This very minute, I could have been scraping you off the floor.” Her mouth trembled. “You did faint, didn’t you? The bruise is already forming on your forehead.”
Yes, I was just a girl. A sick girl. One who, when the time came, was helpless. Because that was what being a sick girl meant.
“I’ll see about finding a locksmith in the morning,” Papa finally said, hesitant. “I won’t let anyone hurt us.”
“You can’t guarantee that,” she shot back.
His hand twitched—the right one, the one not supporting my elbow in case my world started spinning—as if he was reaching for her. But by the time I’d closed my eyes and opened them again, my vision was filled with Papa’s frame. Then by my mother bustling around with bowls, the creak of wooden chairs, and Papa’s laughter melting together into a song, one that was less of a memory of years past and more of a feeling, one amid the past few months’ arguments and icy eyes I was sure I’d forgotten.
* * *
What do they call someone like me? Fragile. Sickly. Weak. At least, that’s what doctors one, two, and three told my mother when she presented me to them at age twelve, the sky swimming like some inverted lake above me.
Each one looked at me like I was something not of this world. Then again, maybe I wasn’t. That was what the priest thought, at least, when my mother took me to the local church in a last-ditch attempt at a cure.
The dizziness hadn’t happened suddenly. I didn’t wake up one morning and, instead of leaping out of bed bright-eyed and ready to start the day, fall over in a dazed stupor. No, it was slow, careful, pernicious. It crept in, only soft waves at first. A bit of blurred vision while playing in the marketplace, an ache that whined in my head. Then came the weakness in my legs upon standing.
At first, my mother thought it was a trick. I was, after all, a child. That was what children did, wasn’t it? Faked being sick to keep from doing chores?
Normal girls didn’t have to grasp the sides of their chairs before standing. Normal girls didn’t see everything drowning in pools of black ink, didn’t feel their hearts screaming against their rib cages, didn’t have legs that trembled before collapsing underneath them. Normal girls didn’t watch helplessly as men—men who’d threatened to kill their mothers, who’d threatened to kill them—escaped into the night. Normal girls didn’t let those men run between the dark spires of trees with swords ready and waiting until the next time, until the next time they came back and slit their throats through—
I woke up gasping so loudly it almost drowned out the whispers carrying through the cracks in the paneling.
The robbers. They were back.
No—my parents; the lilt of their voices. They were talking about what had happened. Which meant they were talking about me. And this time was different, somehow, than their past discussions. There’d been something different in how my mother regarded me as I stood up carefully amid the ruined study, the blaze in her eyes the one she always used to conceal hurt and pain. Once, when she’d slipped and hit her knee against the table, turning the skin mottled and blue, she’d had fury in her face for days. She’d never looked at me like that before, though. Like she could no longer only blame my body for all the trouble I caused.
Maybe I didn’t know, truly, what normal girls did and did not do. But what I did know? The way how, under my mother’s gaze, I shrank to something so small, so insignificant, I wasn’t sure I could recognize myself in the mirror. And oh, how I wanted her to see me as someone strong and worthy of her arm always supporting mine. How I wanted to be a reflection of her carefully controlled blaze.
“I don’t understand what I did wrong.” My mother’s voice.
Careful not to overexert myself, I raised myself out of bed, paused until my world had righted itself, then went to press my ear against the far wall. My bedroom used to be Papa’s library. But that was before I became sick, before stairs were no longer an option for my dizzy body, my crumbling legs.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Papa soothed. “You and Tania, ma chère, you are all I’ve ever wanted.”
“It’s bad enough I couldn’t give you a son, but I gave you a daughter who’s … who’s … broken.”
Papa said something I couldn’t hear.
“I don’t want you training her anymore. No more fencing—promise me. I know you want to impart your talent, but you can’t expect to live vicariously through her without consequences. I can’t have her wasting every waking moment, all her energy, on something that will never aid her in the future. She doesn’t need to know how to protect herself—she needs to learn skills. Women’s skills. For when she is…” She stopped, but I knew. I knew what she was going to say: when she is married.
“We’ll figure it out. No, listen to me. We will.” A pause; words muffled by the wall. My father’s voice again: “Those bastards waited until I was out of town. Well, they’ve underestimated my willingness to stay home when my family is concerned. They won’t dare try anything while I’m here.”
“You know there’s more to it than that! What will she do when I’m gone? When you are gone? You’re not infallible, especially now that—”
There was a loud sigh. Some crying and the distinct rustling of fabric. I retreated to clutch the bedposts. My head bowed, my feet purpling gray, as they always were when the waves of dizziness were at their strongest.
No matter what my mother said, no matter how much I wanted her to see me and not just my weaknesses, she wouldn’t take fencing from me. I’d heard it all before. How a girl didn’t need to learn the proper way to hold the grip of a sword, didn’t need to learn the angle at which her arm should tuck into her side as she prepared for the onslaught of her opponent’s attack. Girls did not need to know these things—especially not sick girls.
Until tonight, Papa’s response had always been a shake of his head. That wasn’t who I was, he explained. “She is Tania,” he liked to say. It irked my mother to no end. “She is Tania.”
Tania, the daughter who should have been a son, the daughter who should have carried on her father’s legacy. But no one would want a sick girl for his bride. Even if she was a Musketeer’s daughter.
Copyright © 2022 by Lillie Lainoff