NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Thorneau Storyline.
It wasn’t until his third day of waiting that Jean-Louis was finally granted an audience with the judge.
Having spent the whole morning and most of the afternoon sitting upon a wooden bench in the Palais de Justice, Jean-Louis was close to dozing by the time the bailiff called his name, and he almost failed to rise. He had arrived in Voûte three days prior and, each morning, before dawn had broken above the city’s grand spires, he had presented himself to the Clerk of the Court, and had demanded a hearing. Each day, he had been escorted to the audience chamber and told to wait for his name to be called, and, each day, Jean-Louis had sat helplessly while his name was not called.
Yet, each day, a parade of noble supplicants dressed in the prevailing fashions of the season – all of whom had arrived after Jean-Louis had – had been ushered in and out the judge’s chambers like honored guests, while he and a score of other peasants from the countryside waited on benches for a chance to plead their cases. They sat silently, with their eyes cast down at the floor and their hats clutched anxiously in their hands, and they waited.
It was maddening. By the end of the second day, Jean-Louis felt as though he were nearing the end of his rope.
But he still came back the next morning. What else could he do?
On the third day, his patience was rewarded. Evening had fallen, and men in blue uniforms with candles at the end of long sticks were lighting the lamps inside the Palais, when the armed and armored bailiff stepped into the audience chamber and demanded:
“Jean-Louis Albus, step forth.”
Jean-Louis rose from his bench, and held his worn felt hat respectfully against his chest.
“I am Jean-Louis Albus,” he said.
“You are summoned,” the bailiff said, with a quick jerk of his head. “The Grand Magistrate will see you now.”
Jean-Louis bowed respectfully. Silently, he followed the bailiff, first through a vaulted wooden door, then through a set of purple velvet curtains, and finally into the judge’s chamber.
As he stepped inside, Jean-Louis’s mouth fell open slightly. The office of the Grand Magistrate was unlike any room he had ever seen before. The walls were paneled with mahogany of the deepest, purest black, and the floor was inlaid with an alternating pattern of gold and lapis tiles. Gracefully-arched windows ran the full length of one wall, offering an unobstructed view of the city’s statue garden, and the Baroness’s estate beyond. Wooden rafters hung from the high, vaulted ceiling, which had been carved with intricate, winding scrollwork, and hundreds of candles flickered atop no fewer than five crystal chandeliers.
The room was so opulent, and so big – everything about it made Jean-Louis feel plain, and small.
The woman seated behind the carved mahogany desk at the far end of the chamber had a similarly intimidating effect. The judge was younger than Jean-Louis had been expecting. He had assumed that the Grand Magistrate would be a personage of age and wisdom, but the woman who sat regally atop a richly-upholstered chair – all while regarding him with a cold, implacable gaze – could scarcely have been beyond her twenties. Her skin was clear and unblemished, and her hair – which she wore pulled-back into a braid, which was tied round with a thin, golden rope – was dark blonde. Her eyes were light gray, like drifting smoke, while her lips had been painted a purple so dark they were almost black. She wore a black satin jacket with a ruffled purple cravat. Braided golden ropes hung from the shoulders and sleeves of her exquisitely-tailored ensemble, ending in loops which looked disconcertingly like nooses.
“Approach,” the judge commanded, without rising from her seat.
Jean-Louis complied, walking across the tiled floor to stand before the judge’s desk. His own footsteps sounded unnaturally loud as they echoed around the walls of the massive chamber. The metallic footfalls of the armored bailiff – who followed closed behind – were even louder still.
A single chair, carved from fine rosewood and upholstered with purple velvet, sat empty in front of the desk. Still holding his hat in his hands, Jean-Louis drew to a halt next to the vacant chair.
The judge did not bid him to sit. Instead, she extracted a silver quill from a nearby inkpot, and picked up a heavy parchment from one of the many neat piles atop her desk.
“Name, address, and occupation,” she said.
Jean-Louis cleared his throat.
“Madame?” he asked, feeling unsure about what she meant.
Anger flashed across the woman’s gray eyes.
“Your name, address, and occupation,” the judge said again, her quill hovering above the parchment, which was printed with dense-looking text that Jean-Louis could not read.
“A thousand pardons, madame,” Jean-Louis said urgently, bowing slightly as he tried to collect his thoughts. “I am Jean-Louis Albus, of 17 Rue des Escaliers, in the village of D’arnaud, and I am a baker.”
For a moment, the only sound in the chamber was the scratching of a pen, as the woman wrote down what Jean-Louis had said. Then, setting the parchment back down atop a different pile, she turned her cold stare on the peasant who stood nervously before her.
“And what is your business, Jean-Louis Albus?” The judge glanced at an ornate bracket clock which sat atop her desk. “Speak quickly – the Baroness is hosting a soiree this evening, and I must change before attending.”
Jean-Louis nodded. His fingers tightened their grip around his crumpled hat.
”Madame, I come to intercede on behalf of my only son, Michel Albus. I come to beg your mercy for him.”
The judge raised an eyebrow. “Should I know this name?” she asked.
Jean-Louis nodded again. His throat felt dry, and he found it difficult to meet the judge’s unblinking gaze.
“He appeared before your court this past fortnight, madame. You…” Jean-Louis had to swallow, before continuing. “You… sentenced him to hang.”
The woman shrugged.
“Just today, I sentenced eight men to hang,” the judge said, and a strange note of satisfaction crept into her otherwise officious voice as she said it. “I cannot be expected to recall them all by name.” She leaned back slightly in her chair, and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Tell me, what was your son’s crime?”
“He was accused of poaching a pheasant from the Baroness’s woods,” Jean-Louis said.
The judge smiled, and nodded.
“The penalty for which is death,” she said. “I fail to understand why you trouble me with this matter. What objection could you have to my sentence?”
“Objection?” Jean-Louis could hear desperation creeping into his own voice, and the back of his neck felt warm. “Madame, my objection is that my son is innocent!”
In response, the judge simply shook her head.
“That is impossible,” she said. “I have weighed your son’s case, and found him to be guilty. Therefore, he is guilty.” The judge shrugged her shoulders, which sent an unnerving ripple through the noose-like loops dangling from her sleeves. “There is nothing else to be said of this matter.”
“But, madame,” Jean-Louis insisted, taking a step forward, “surely the law—”
“—You forget yourself,” the judge said, her voice dropping dangerously. “I am the Grand Magistrate, commissioned by the Baroness herself to serve as the guarantor of justice within her lands. The law is what I declare it to be.” Then she gave a quick nod to the bailiff, who suddenly grabbed Jean-Louis by the arms and forced him roughly down into the empty chair.
The woman’s voice had grown cold, but she smiled as she spoke. The contrast was disconcerting, and it sent a shiver down Jean-Louis’s spine.
“Please forgive my impertinence, madame,” he stammered, as he felt the weight of the bailiff’s hands upon his shoulders. “But, you see, I have evidence which was not produced at my son’s trial – evidence which, had it been presented in your court, would surely have demonstrated his innocence!”
For a moment, the woman was silent. Then she leaned back in her seat, and arched an eyebrow.
“What evidence do you speak of?” she finally asked.
“My son was arrested while crossing the Baroness’s land and carrying a pheasant. The guards who arrested him claimed that he must have poached the bird, but he did not!” Jean-Louis shook his head for emphasis. “My son bought that pheasant in the market that morning, and he was crossing the Baroness’s land only because the market road was blocked by a fallen tree! My daughter-in-law will swear that she sent Michel to buy the bird, and that she gave him the money for it, and the butcher will swear that he sold it to him!”
A look of annoyance – or was it anger? – flashed across the judge’s face.
“And why did you not produce this evidence at the trial?” she snapped. “Why have you come to me only now?”
“Madame, the guards who took Michel did so without informing his family! We had feared him taken by bandits – we did not even know of his arrest until this week!”
For a minute, a heavy silence descended upon the luxurious chamber. The judge stared up at the ceiling, and she tapped an enameled fingernail against the top of her desk. Jean-Louis, meanwhile, twisted his hat in his hands, and tried to think of what else he might say to save his condemned son.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the judge picked up her quill.
“This butcher?” she said. “You say he will swear to your son’s innocence?”
Jean-Louis nodded emphatically. “Yes,” he said.
The judge slid a sheet of parchment in front of her.
“Tell me this butcher’s name and address,” she said.
“The butcher is called Marc Cerveau, and lives at 23 Place des Cygnes, in D’arnaud.”
The judge filled-in her paper, then readied another one.
“And your daughter-in-law?”
“Collette Albus,” Jean-Louis said. “Her address is the same as mine.”
The judge nodded as she copied this information as well. Then, looking up, she spoke to the bailiff.
“Leave us,” she said.
The bailiff released his grip on Jean-Louis. Then he saluted stiffly, before marching out of the room, and drawing the velvet curtains closed behind him.
Jean-Louis exhaled as quietly as he could. He waited to see if the judge would dismiss him, too. But she did not. Instead, she glanced again at the clock on her desk, which, as if on cue, chimed. The lateness of the hour took Jean-Louis by surprise.
The judge sighed. “I fear that I shall miss the masquerade,” she said. She clicked her tongue, before glancing down to study her nails. “After I have finished with you, there will be no time to put myself together.”
Jean-Louis felt his stomach tighten. He averted his eyes, and bowed his head in apology.
“Madame, had I known—”
But the judge silenced him with a raised hand.
“It is of no importance,” she said. “Your appearance before me tonight has provided the opportunity for an even more satisfying diversion.”
For a long moment, the judge simply stared at Jean-Louis with a strange look on her face – one that the seated man did not know how to interpret. Then she stood up, and she walked around to the front of her desk, so that she stood directly in front of Jean-Louis. Her movements were controlled and graceful, but there was something forceful about her presence – something inquisitorial, and portentous – that made Jean-Louis feel as though he himself were on trial.
With each step the judge took, the golden nooses which hung from her sleeves swayed and bounced. Jean-Louis tried to ignore them, but he found that he could not take his eyes away.
“It took great courage for you to come here today,” the judge said to him. “There are few in Foraine who would dare accuse me of committing an error. I am aware of my own reputation, as I am sure are you.”
Despite his increasing feelings of unease, Jean-Louis forced himself to shake his head, and to smile.
“Surely, madame, the people think of you only as a servant of justice.”
“Come now, it is hopeless to lie,” the judge said to him. She leaned back against the edge of her desk, and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “You know the name which ‘the people’ whisper behind my back.”
“Madame du Collet,” Jean-Louis whispered, and no sooner had the words left his mouth than he felt the blood drain from his face. He had not meant to say that name – certainly not in the presence of the judge herself. It was as though the terrible appellation had just escaped, unbidden, from his mind.
If the judge was upset, though, she showed no sign of it. Instead, she smiled at him, and Jean-Louis shuddered involuntarily.
“Madame du Collet?” the judge repeated.
“I beg your forgiveness, madame,” Jean-Louis began. “I meant no offense…”
The judge laughed – a high, clear laugh.
“Offense?” She smirked. “I delight in my titles – official, and otherwise. They are dear to me. Very dear.”
A dark glint appeared in the judge’s pale eyes, then, and – suddenly – Jean-Louis found himself very much wanting to be out from beneath her sight. But, unless she granted him permission to rise, he knew that it would be a grave offense to attempt to leave. So Jean-Louis simply looked down at his feet.
He felt the judge place a hand beneath his chin, and direct his gaze back upward.
Her fingers were cold.
“When I was a girl of thirteen,” the judge said, “I took a brooch from my mother’s armoire. I wanted it for a game, and, in a moment of foolishness, I lost it. When my mother discovered it was missing, she sent for me, and she asked me if I had taken it. I denied it, of course. I told my mother that I had seen her chambermaid steal the brooch.” For a moment, a sort of distant look passed across the judge’s face, and her smile widened. “My mother had the chambermaid dragged before us. I didn’t even know her name. She was just one of the servants – a peasant. She was so terrified, she could hardly even speak. My mother offered her the chance to confess, and promised mercy if she did.” The judge shrugged. “The girl refused, of course – for what did she have to confess to? Well, my mother had her arrested as a thief, and she was sentenced to hang.”
As the judge spoke, a new tone crept its way into her voice – one of excitement, almost. A sort of sadistic pleasure.
“The next day,” she continued, “my mother took me to watch the maid hang. I think that, in her heart of hearts, she did not fully believe my story, and she wanted to give me one final chance to confess. As they brought the maid up to the gallows, I could feel my mother’s eyes on me, searching my face for any sign of guilt. But I did not feel any guilt. Do you know what I felt?” The judge’s eyes seemed to bore into Jean-Louis, but she did not wait for him to answer. “I felt excitement. I felt an excitement unlike any other, knowing that I held this chambermaid’s life in my hands. Knowing that, with just one word from my lips, I could save her. Knowing that, with my silence, I could kill her.”
The judge seemed to shiver, then, as though someone had run a feather across her skin. She closed her eyes momentarily, and inhaled sharply.
When she opened her eyes again, she fixed them on Jean-Louis, and the seated man found it increasingly difficult to breathe.
“I will never forget how I felt as I watched them put the noose around her neck,” the judge said. “It was the greatest feeling I had ever known.” Then, unexpectedly, she sighed. “This maid was just a slip of a girl, I’m afraid, and, when she hung, her neck snapped like a dry twig. She hardly struggled. She didn’t even scream. She just died, which was quite the disappointment. Still, that was a deficiency of technique, not one of principle – and it is one which I have since corrected.”
As she spoke, the judge walked in a slow circle, so that she stood behind the chair in which Jean-Louis sat.
“The lesson I learned that day was a valuable one,” she said, her voice suddenly coming from close behind Jean-Louis’s ear – very close. “Why should one pay for one’s own crimes, when a peasant can be found to pay instead? And a peasant can always be found. After all, there are so many of you.”
Jean-Louis tried to stand – protocol be damned, he decided – but, suddenly, he felt the judge’s hands on his shoulders, holding him in place. Her grip was unnaturally strong.
“Jean-Louis Albus,” Madame du Collet whispered into the terrified man’s ear, “I find you guilty of my crimes, and I sentence you to hang from the neck until you are dead.”
Jean-Louis opened his mouth to protest. But, before he could utter a word, a golden rope had tightened around his neck, and he was hoisted into the air.
* * *
When the bailiff reentered the judge’s chamber, he made no comment about the blue-faced body he found slumped in front of her desk, or about the excited flush he could see on the Grand Magistrate’s face. He simply walked to stand before her, snapped his heels together, and stood at attention.
“Madame?” he inquired, with a crisp salute.
The judge raised her hand for a moment’s silence, while she waited for her breathing to calm. Then, once the rising and falling of her chest had slowed, and she had regained her look of composure, she collected three parchments from her desk, which she handed to the bailiff.
“Officer of the court,” she said, “I hereby present you with these three warrants of arrest, for the crimes of bearing false witness and conspiring to pervert the cause of justice. One warrant – for the peasant, Jean-Louis Albus, of the village of D’arnaud – I have executed myself.” The judge indicated the corpse which sat before her, and, as she said the word “executed,” she smiled. “The other two warrants are for the peasant Collette Albus and the peasant Marc Cerveau, both also of D’arnaud. See that the provincial guards have them arrested and brought before my court, where they shall answer for their crimes.”
The bailiff accepted the papers with a solemn nod.
“Your word shall be law,” he said.
“Yes,” said the judge, with a smile on her face. “It shall.”
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