Home > Exiled (Madame X #3)

Exiled (Madame X #3)
Author: Jasinda Wilder


 

ONE


   Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a boy. His name was Jakob.” Your voice is a murmur I must strain to hear. The cadence of your speech, the length of your vowels, and the hardness of your consonants . . . they shift and cross continents. “Jakob? He was a spoiled little brat. Anything he wanted, he had. And more. If he wanted it, he had but to point, and it was his. Never was he told ‘no.’ His father, you see, was a wealthy merchant who had the good fortune to marry an even wealthier Jewish woman. So this boy, he grew up believing in his very heart of hearts that he owned all of Prague. This little brat, this spoiled princeling, he would march about the city, trailed by his doting father and adoring mother and watchful nanny, shouting and demanding and pouting and scheming. He was not forced to attend anything so pedestrian as school, this Jakob. Oh no, he was educated by a private tutor. History, maths, science, the classical languages, Jakob was given a world-class education in his very own library. He was taught to play the piano, which he detested. Also the violin, at which he was a virtuoso. He learned fencing, horsemanship, politics, economics. Jakob, as spoiled as he was, possessed an exceedingly keen mind and an even keener hunger for knowledge.

   “His world was small, and perfect. Until one day, mere weeks after his sixteenth birthday, young Jakob returned home from a riding lesson to find his home empty. His father and mother were both gone. And the housekeeper, she was incoherent, babbling in her native Greek so fast no one could understand a word, except ‘sick.’ Sick, she said. Over and over and over, sick, so sick. ‘Who is sick?’ she was asked, but the poor woman could only shake her head and weep.

   “And for the first time in Jakob’s charmed life, he felt the touch of a truly unpleasant emotion, heretofore unknown: fear. Just a seedling. A germinating sprout of fear. So Jakob went with his nanny to the hospital. He was received by a kindly and sympathetic nurse, and guided down hushed corridors to a darkened room. The curtains were drawn, bathing the room in shadows. It smelled. Like sickness, like death. Jakob didn’t know that, then. Just that it smelled horrible. He approached the bed with trepidation, tiptoeing ever so carefully, as if by walking too loudly he might accidentally make his worst fears come true.”

   You pause, a long, fraught silence. Unblinking, unmoving. A stone statue.

   “Jakob’s father, he was a strong man. You must understand this. So strong. Tall, quiet, and stern. He was not a man given to outbursts of emotion. He loved his wife very much, however. Very, very much. Too much, perhaps. To him, she hung the moon, and scattered the stars in the sky, and even set the very sun to blazing. It was obvious to all, though Jakob’s father never said as much. It was merely a fact, as true and undeniable as gravity. But he was strong. So when Jakob, with trembling knees, moved through the shadows and stench of that hospital room, and saw his father weeping . . . it was as if the sun had failed to rise. A shocking blow, the kind that leaves an indelible impression upon a young mind.

   “‘What is wrong?’ Jakob asked his father. Jakob refused to look at the still form in the bed. He was too petulant, you see. As if by refusing to see, the truth could be denied. But Jakob’s father would not speak. He could only weep, his shoulders shaking like dead leaves on a tree branch in autumn. Jakob grew angry. It was his way. When faced with anything untoward or unpleasant, spoiled little Jakob would grow angry. Stomp his feet, scream and shout and curse and throw things. Even at sixteen, nearly a man, he would throw these tantrums if he didn’t get his way instantly. So Jakob grew angry. He hit his father. Beat him about the face and shoulders with his fists and demanded to be told what was going on. But his father was not moved. Could not be roused from his tears. So Jakob finally was forced to see his mother. He was forced to look at the bed, and see his mother there.”

   Another long, long, pause. A silence that feels . . . deep. Chasmic. I cannot speak, do not dare move for fear of breaking the spell.

   “She was so still. So pale. Like a sculpture carved from porcelain. There were tubes in her nose, and in her mouth. To young Jakob they looked like . . . like translucent serpents, sneaking their vile way into her body so they could steal her life away. Jakob was a child, you see. He had never been forced to grow up. So when he saw her lying there, his reaction was that of a child. No, he said. No. No. He screamed, and stomped his feet, and cursed. He even tried to wake her up. He grabbed her shoulders, and shook her. Not hard, not violently. Just . . . to wake her up. But this . . . this finally roused his father. He leaped up out of his chair, rushed at his son, at Jakob, and threw him to the floor.

   “‘Leave her alone!’ Jakob’s father shouted. He never shouted. He never raised his voice. He rarely even spoke at all, really. So a shout? It was . . . Jakob could not fathom it. He lay on the ground, disbelieving, truly afraid for the first time in his life. His nanny drew him away. Led him from the room. Sat the boy in the waiting room and brought him tea and promised him it would all be okay. But it wouldn’t be okay. Jakob knew this, in his heart of hearts, he knew it. The way he’d once known he was the master of all of Prague, he now knew nothing would ever be all right ever again. A day, he sat in that waiting room. Two days. He was dragged away finally by his tutor and his nanny, forced to eat. Forced to sleep. But he returned as soon as he could. He tried to gain entrance to his mother’s room, but his father refused him. Shoved him away. Without words, but with sudden and frightening violence, his father threw him out of the room. He was blind with grief, you see. Unreasoning.

   “And then, after nearly a week of waiting, Jakob’s father emerged from the room. He was . . . stooped. Thin. Frail. It was as if that week in the hospital room had sapped him of all life. As if a vampire had drained the blood from him, leaving only a half-alive shell. He did not look at his son. He merely shuffled out of the hospital. Alone. Jakob threw off the attentive and worried hands of his nanny and tutor, and went after his father. He followed him home. Into his office. Jakob’s father locked the door, and remained there for many hours. Young, terrified Jakob sat on the floor outside his father’s office and waited. There was a very long period of utter silence.

   “And then there was a single gunshot. Jakob did not go in. He was a child in a young man’s body, and a coward. So he remained sitting on the floor as the police arrived. Jakob was carried away, eventually. He allowed this, because he knew what had happened. He knew where his father was. But Jakob was pretending not to know. So Jakob allowed himself to be dressed in his finest clothes. He gripped the handle of the suitcase that was placed in his hand. He boarded the large, intercontinental airliner and took his seat in the first-class section. He sat there as the airplane flew him to America. He was brought to a distant cousin’s house, a cousin of his father’s. But his father’s cousin was not a good man. He was selfish, and mean-spirited, and cruel. So Jakob lived in a tiny room in a place called Harlem, with a distant cousin who spoke no German, no Czech, no Yiddish, not even French and certainly not Greek or Latin. He only spoke English, which, Jakob had always been taught, was a barbaric language. Jakob did speak English, of course, but poorly.

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