It’s prologue time!
To get some obvious/usual questions out of the way: Good Intentions IV: PAST DUE will be available in paperback, ebook, and Audible has expressed interest but we haven’t got a contract yet. I therefore cannot give a release date or guarantee Tess Irondale will be back to narrate (though that’s 100% my goal). I will probably move on to my next Tanner book from here, but again, no guarantee, and yes, Wandering Monsters will also continue.
Oh, and I’ll post a big chunk of Chapter One on my Patreon today along with the ongoing short stories and sneak-peeks.
Here you go!
Everyone said the city escaped the war unharmed, but Elena knew that could not be true. The buildings and the countryside around Paris were mostly fine. That much was clear. As she expected, the people of the city carried wounds in their eyes and in their spirits. Even now, months after the occupiers were driven away, she saw their sorrow, their shame, and the fear that still haunted many. The old woman could sense the absence of so many in the streets.
The war left everyone scarred. Elena didn’t need magic to see it.
Random passersby on the street sometimes stared at the old woman in her drab, road-weary overcoat and head scarf. She noted regret in the eyes of some, resentment in others. The war brought change, yet some things remained the same. France handed over many of her people during the occupation. Her people and others. Tales of the brave resistance inspired hope and strength, yet many people met the Nazis with a different stance.
She kept walking. She had an obligation to fulfill, and little time to meet it.
Elena found the library right where she’d been directed. It took her only four tries before she met another librarian who knew where she wanted to go. Even in the libraries, some did not want to talk to an old Roma woman, but perseverance won out. She had started with a name, a city, and a profession. Once she reached the city, she only needed to keep asking around.
“Bonjour,” said a stiff voice as she entered. He must have seen her coming through the windows. The man stood near the door in a crisp white shirt and tie and looked almost as old as Elena. The suspicion in his eyes was older than both of them. “Can I help you, madam?”
“Yes. I am looking for a librarian. Her name is Marie. She works here.” Elena saw the twitch of recognition in the man’s eyes. “Would you please take me to her?”
“Ah—may I ask what this is about?” he stammered.
“You may ask, but it is private and personal.” Were it not for his clear disdain, Elena might have been more tactful. Now she didn’t see the point. His prejudice made him little more than another tiresome obstacle.
“I’m sorry, but Marie is out of the building right now,” the man lied. “If you could—”
“She is behind you,” said Elena.
He hesitated as if sensing a trap, but he could not escape by standing still. “Pierre? What’s going on? Who is this?” asked the young woman behind him.
She was exactly as Elena expected from her picture: young and thin, her eyes sharp with obvious intelligence, her red hair pulled back tight. Only her clothes differed from the picture, all black now rather than brighter colors—that, and the absence of the same light in her eyes. She held a small stack of books in her hands. It went with the job.
A humble gold band adorned her left ring finger. “You are Marie,” said Elena.
“Yes?” she replied.
“Marie, I will take care of this,” said Pierre.
“I must speak with you. Privately,” Elena added.
“About?” Marie asked.
“Marie, please, let me—”
“I am not here for money or shelter or for any crime you have already assigned to me,” Elena interrupted, finding him more tiresome with every word. “Please step aside.”
“Madam, I have accused you of nothing,” said Pierre. “If you expect such, perhaps that is your own—”
“It is about Simon,” said Elena.
Marie gasped. Pierre fell silent. The younger woman pushed her books into his care before taking Elena’s hand. She led her through aisles of bookshelves without a word. Across the main floor they came to a small office near the back, passing only a couple of people along the way. Elena knew there was no good time for a moment like this, but it was better to find the library empty rather than busy.
The younger woman shut the door behind them. She took a deep breath, steeling herself. “A pair of soldiers visited me a week ago,” said Marie. “Americans. One was a chaplain. They told me about Simon.”
“Yes,” said Elena. “I am so sorry.”
Marie held some of her feelings in check. Some, but not all. “They asked me about a burial since I am his closest family now. Asked if we had ever talked about it. If I had been in touch with his family in America.” Her voice cracked. “We were together for only months. Weeks.” She bit back tears. “People laughed. Said we were fools. Said it was a mistake. I knew better.”
“You were right about him,” Elena told her. “You were right.”
The young widow blinked hard, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I am ahead of myself. Who are you? What is this about Simon? Did you know him?”
“Elena. I was with him in the end,” she explained.
“It was not far from Schonebeck. I was with others trying to escape the Germans.”
“Others? Other Roma?” asked Marie.
Elena did not quite smile, but it was close enough. “Most use another word. Yes. Other Roma. Thank you.”
“Of course. Go on, please.”
“We were caught by a large group of Germans. They were finished as soldiers. More like bandits with tanks. Your Simon and his men stumbled upon us. He did not care that the Germans outnumbered his men. They saved us.
“I am old,” Elena went on. “I have had family and friends, but…I cannot remember anyone ever defending me from danger. Never.” She shook her head. “Simon saved us, but at a cost. I am so sorry.”
At that, Marie closed her eyes tightly. The tears still escaped. With a breath, she gathered her words. “I heard no details yet. Only confirmation and condolences. They said his belongings were stolen.”
“I have seen years of war. I know how soldiers loot the fallen.” Elena pulled a ring and wallet from the pocket of her overcoat. A gasping sob escaped Marie’s throat. “Forgive me,” Elena said gently. “His friends seemed like good men, but I did not know if they could care for all this.”
As Marie took the belongings, Elena produced a little more: a small envelope with a handful of pictures and notes, a small key attached to a leather square embossed with the number nineteen, and a set of dog tags. Overcome, Marie snatched it all from Elena’s hands, leaving only the dog tags still tangled around the older woman’s fingers. “Apologies,” Marie whispered immediately for her indelicate grasp. She stared at the key through tearful eyes. “The hotel.”
“I have not read the notes,” said Elena. “Perhaps they are trivial, but they were not for me.”
Marie nodded. She tried to speak, but her words of gratitude stuck in her throat. Shaking her head in apology, Marie strode out of the office with her lover’s belongings in hand to shut herself in the lavatory across the hall.
The dog tags still dangled from Elena’s fingers. The Americans all had them. She knew little about their uniforms and customs, but the purpose of the tags seemed obvious. Whatever the American army thought, they belonged to his widow now, along with all the rest.
Elena wondered if Marie might let her keep them, or at least one. She’d wondered that all the way here. She knew a good soul when she met one.
Through the open office doorway, Elena heard a muffled sob from the lavatory. Marie would need time. Better to wait out in the open than to linger in the office, she decided. Pierre or some other random person would think ill of a Roma left alone where she might steal something. Ordinarily, Elena would tolerate no such nonsense, but Marie’s feelings merited patience. Outside the office, she found an open area with tables and chairs. Her eyes scanned the stacks for the judgmental man she took for the head librarian.
“It’s a good time for a cigarette, old man,” said a sneering voice near the door. His French carried an Austrian accent. “Why don’t you take a walk outside?”
Elena recognized the power of magic in those last words—forceful magic, reckless and crude. She heard footsteps across the tiles, followed by the opening and closing of the front door. Her eyes darted left and right. She listened intently. The library seemed deserted except for the newcomer near the front.
No. Not one newcomer. Several.
“A handful of cash would have done the job, Malike,” said a woman’s voice—in a language Elena didn’t recognize. Elena didn’t speak French naturally, either; magic helped her with that, and now it helped with this new tongue. Other magic helped her hear the hushed words as if she stood right beside the speaker. “Subtlety would serve better. We don’t want to scare her off.”
“I’m sick of hiding my power, Pelest—sorry, Kashvi,” corrected the first voice, but in German now rather than French. Malike sounded young and brash.
Elena winced. Multiple languages, names that fit neither by culture or accent, and magic. It could only mean one thing. She turned back to the little hallway with the office and the lavatory, hoping to find a back door. No such escape presented itself.
“I haven’t gone by Pelest in a long time, little brother.”.
“You haven’t been a woman again in a long time, either. And I haven’t been myself in a while, for that matter. It’s easier to adjust if I remember the beginning.”
“You say that every time,” said Kashvi. “Stick with the present. This is why you should stick to your birth name. Reverting to the old ones only causes confusion.”
“Could we get back on task?” said another man in yet another language Elena didn’t know. “We’re too close for bickering now.”
“Ming is right. That way. Center, left,” Kashvi instructed, though Elena couldn’t tell who she pointed to for which. After that, she heard only their footsteps on the tile.
Her prospects were grim. The library was small. Tall shelves thick with books offered some cover, but she couldn’t turn completely invisible. There weren’t many shadows to work with, either. What little magic Elena might find useful here would surely give her away. She was too old to crawl under tables and far too old to run. Too old to win a fight like this.
Too old to fear what might happen if she tried.
Perhaps that was the answer. She’d done all she set out to do. Marie was safe as long as she didn’t come out of the lavatory. Grief would distract her. Best if she had no reason to come out. The war was over, and all Elena could save had been saved. Her last obligation was fulfilled.
Elena brought her right hand to the collar of her worn-out overcoat, gathering the chain of talismans around her neck. Charms for protection and fortune dangled together. She ran her fingers across each until she found a glass bead mounted on a simple brass square. With a wince, she crushed the bead with her thumb, cutting her skin on the fragments and releasing the raw power within.
“Hsst!” warned a whisper to her right.
“I know,” hissed another voice to her left.
Elena quietly walked down one empty aisle. It was worth a try. She made it halfway before she heard the footstep behind her. “Old woman, where are you—?”
“Stop,” Elena replied with words backed by magic—and he did. Malike halted in mid-stride, his arms out and his weight shifted too far forward to stay upright. The blond Austrian fell to the floor without ever moving a muscle. Stiff arms and fingers struck the tiles and left him tumbling onto his side as if his entire body was a single carved piece of wood.
She advanced two more steps. A rush of movement up ahead culminated in another man whirling around the far end of the shelves to block her path. Elena knew little of China and its neighbors, but the man’s appearance explained her unfamiliarity with his language.
“Ming is thoroughly warded,” said Kashvi at the other end of the aisle behind Elena. “It would be a waste of power to try the same trick on him. Or me.” Her long grey skirt and jacket over her shirt let her fit in on the streets of a city still recovering from occupation. Something in her walk and her posture suggested she was used to more glamour than this. Kashvi’s pretty brown face bore a crooked smile. “We’re not here to hurt you, sister.”
“We are not sisters,” said Elena.
“Oh, but we are, dear. We’ve been looking for you for ages.” Her brow knit together as she looked Elena up and down. “I’m sorry it took us all so long.”
“Perhaps I do not want to be found.”
“That’s only because you don’t know who we are.”
“I know enough,” said Elena. “This is not the first time. Leave me.”
Kashvi shook her head as if speaking with a child rather than a woman perhaps three times her age. “You wouldn’t be saying any of this if you understood, sister. You don’t remember us. We’re here to help with all that.”
“I do not need your help.”
“You’re sure?” Kashvi looked her over again, her mouth quirking with skepticism. “I can see you’ve managed some sorcery, but this life has clearly not been kind.”
“Who are you to judge my life? Who are you to say if my life has been good?”
The younger woman smiled. “We’re your family.”
“You are not.”
“You say that because you don’t remember who you are.” Kashvi stepped around the still-frozen Malike on the floor.
“I know exactly who I am. I remember all I need. The rest is meant to be forgotten.” Elena watched Kashvi closely. The subtle twitch of the younger woman’s eyes told her all she needed to know about Ming behind her.
“It’s always so tiresome when we find each other too late in life,” said Kashvi.
They all moved at once. Elena couldn’t hope to match the speed of either danger, but she had the benefits of experience and resolve. She didn’t worry when Ming grabbed her arms. Her coat unraveled under his grasp, every thread coming undone and allowing her to slip free. She met Kashvi’s advance head-on.
The younger woman reached out, her fingers now glowing with runes of power. Elena caught hold of Kashvi’s left hand with both of her own. The dog tags still dangled on their chain of tiny metal beads.
Golden light flashed in the aisle between bookshelves. Elena fell to the floor. Ming and Kashvi looked down at her in shock, one holding a formless mass of woolen threads, the other holding nothing at all. Behind Kashvi, Malike stirred.
“Damn,” Kashvi hissed. She knelt at Elena’s body to feel for a pulse, though she already knew what she would find. “She’s dead. Damn her.”
“She was too old to handle the reawakening,” Ming fumed.
“No, it wasn’t that,” said Kashvi. “She twisted the spell.”
“How’s that possible?” asked Malike. “How much power would that take?”
“All she had, apparently,” said Kashvi.
“What do we do?” Malike wondered.
“Clean all this up and leave, obviously,” replied Ming. “Hurry. No one will wonder what happened to her if she disappears. No one will care where she went.”
“No one but us,” Kashvi agreed. She stood up again. Metal tags dangled from her fingers bearing a name none of them knew. “We’ll catch her next time.”