"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."