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Enough Rope to Hang By


NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Thorneau Storyline.


     Slouching in his seat at the head of the table, Henri le Douce tried his best to suppress a yawn, and to pay attention to what the spymaster was saying.

     But it was difficult. 

     This latest emergency meeting of the Standing Committee of the People’s Revolution – of which Henri was the nominal Chair and First Secretary – had run all through the night, and, even as dawn had begun to break over the red clay roofs of Mont-sur-Mer, the assembled revolutionaries continued to talk, to deliver reports, to formulate stratagems, and to debate what seemed – to Henri’s mind, anyway – like abstract points of philosophy, all in hushed but insistent voices.

     Henri had been doing his best to follow along, and to look interested – or, if nothing else, to at least nod in all the right places. But he was also feeling exhausted, and was struggling to follow the current thread of conversation.

     “Word has come from our spies in Voûte that the Baroness is marshalling her forces,” Patrice was saying, and the spymaster’s hooded eyes flitted back and forth between Aurélie Cerveau and Vocal Henri as he delivered his report. “She appears to have summoned her entire order of chevaliers, who are massing their troops as we speak. But we have no word as yet that the Baroness has appealed to the Queen for support.”

     Patrice paused, as though waiting for a reaction, and a moment passed in silence, before Henri realized that Patrice was looking at him.

     Realizing that he was meant to speak, Henri glanced furtively at the blonde-haired woman seated just to his right, desperately searching her pale blue eyes for some cue as to what he ought to say. But the scarred face of Aurélie Cerveau was a distant blank. The revolution’s true leader appeared to be deep in thought, and she took no notice of Henri.

     Once he realized that no help was forthcoming, Vocal Henri cleared his throat. 

     “This is excellent news,” he said, trying to sound confident – although, judging by the expressions his comment elicited on the faces huddled around him, he immediately began to fear that this might not be the case. 

     Still, Henri decided to press on. 

     “Surely,” he said, “it is much better to find ourselves opposed by the forces of a single barony, rather than the whole empire. It means that our enemies are divided.”

     “It also means that our efforts to spread our cause beyond the boundaries of Fleche have not succeeded,” Aurélie said, suddenly focused and present. “The Baroness believes that she may yet confine us within her borders, and crush us without outside aid. To do so would be a demonstration of her strength, whereas appealing to the Queen would be an admission of weakness.”

     “Just so, citizen Aurélie,” Patrice said, nodding his head in agreement. 

     Henri, feeling slightly bruised, kept silent for what struck him as sufficiently long to create the appearance of thoughtful deliberation. Then he nodded his head, too.

     “Thank you, citizen Patrice,” Henri said, doing his best to look and sound grave, even though his tongue nearly tripped over the purposefully-banal honorific favored by Aurélie and her companions. “I trust you will keep us informed of any further developments along these lines?” 

     “Of course, citizen Henri,” Patrice said, placing his hand over his heart, in a gesture of solidarity. “My life is yours.”

     Henri felt as though he ought to say something in reply, but he could not think of an appropriate response. 

     So, after an awkward moment, silence descended upon the small attic where Henri and Aurélie’s inner circle were gathered around a makeshift table. The attic’s few windows had been blacked-out, save for one, which was covered by a heavy wooden shutter, so that the only light in the low-ceilinged room came from the yellow flicker of a single oil lamp. The tiny flame cast long shadows across the assembled faces, which only seemed to heighten the sense of gravity which hung over the room. 

     Meanwhile, outside, the gulls were announcing the arrival of morning across the port of Mont-sur-Mer. 

     The rebel leadership had arrived in the seaside village only two days prior, and, since the sleepy provincial town was not home to one of Aurélie’s network of safe houses, temporary lodgings had been quietly arranged through the intercession of a local weaver, who was sympathetic to the cause. She and her elderly husband kept a small, tile-roofed house, just a block from the town square, which they shared with their adult daughter – an invalid who suffered from thinness of the blood, and was confined indoors during daylight hours. The weaver and her husband had agreed to allow Aurélie and her comrades to stay beneath their roof, and had refused all attempts at payment. 

     It was a bit of a tight squeeze, for Henri’s taste, sleeping nearly a dozen agents inside an attic that was already filled to bursting with bolts of cloth and spindles of yarn – especially since the raftered ceiling was so low that Henri could not stand to his full height, and had to walk stooped-over, until his back howled from the strain of it. But the location was a convenient one, and the fact that the house’s windows were always kept shuttered – for the sake of the invalid daughter, Henri assumed – suited the revolutionaries just fine.

     As Henri ruminated on his accommodations, the silence lengthened uncomfortably, yet still no one spoke, until the atmosphere in the attic grew anxious, and tense. Glancing around, Henri was startled to discover that all eyes appeared to be fixed on him, as the agents of the revolution looked to their leader for guidance. 

     Again, Henri cast an imploring glance in Aurélie’s direction. This time, mercifully, she granted him deliverance.

     “Citizen Henri, I believe you meant to inquire about the outcome of citizen Remy’s conversation with the printer’s son?” she said, elbowing Henri between the ribs, but taking care to do so below the level of the table, so that none of the others could see it.

     “Yes! Of course,” Henri said, as though that had been his intention all along. “Citizen Remy, your report, if you please?”

     Remy nodded his head.

     “At citizen Aurélie’s suggestion, I visited the local printer’s shop this afternoon,” he said. The lamplight cast strange, oblong shadows across Remy’s face, with his uneven eyes and crooked nose – the legacy of a brutal beating at the hands of the Baroness’s guards, from which he had never fully healed. “The printer was not home, but I found her son on the premises, and I spoke to him instead. I sought to engage him in conversation, under the pretense of having a pro-royalist pamphlet printed, and, without revealing my own allegiances, I sounded him out about the attitudes of the local people.” 

     As he spoke, Remy kept glancing in Aurélie’s direction, and – much to his own surprise – Henri felt himself growing mildly annoyed by that. Remy was perhaps Aurélie’s oldest, most-trusted confidant, and he was among the few people to know that Vocal Henri was little more than a glorified figurehead, and that it was Aurélie Cerveau who really took meaningful decisions on the revolution’s behalf. 

     Vocal Henri was the revolution’s infamous face – that much was true. But it was cool and unassuming Aurélie Cerveau who served as its heart and its head. And that knowledge irked Henri, even though he was not particularly proud of the fact. 

     After all, Henri had never wanted to lead a revolution. He had never wanted anything of the sort. All he had ever wanted was the recognition and respect which he had always felt he had been due. 

     But, now that Aurélie had roped him to her cause – now that it was his neck which was on the line – Henri’s lack of real influence left him nursing a private sense of impotence.

     So Henri tried to infuse a little authority into his words as he asked Remy: “And what did you learn from the printer’s son?”

     “If what this man told me can be relied upon – and I see no reason why it cannot,” Remy said, “then our initial reports were correct, and Mont-sur-Mer is ripe for the cause.” Holding up one gnarled hand – Remy had been a woodcutter, before the Baroness had seized his land to make room for her winter palace – he began counting off relevant points on his uneven fingers. “The port has been flooded this summer with ships from the north, each bearing load upon load of wheat, barley, and cotton. The northern marches have had their most favorable season in a generation, it seems, and the farmers there have sold their bumper crops to traders, who in turn have brought the goods south, in search of better markets. In ports like Mont-sur-Mer, this has driven down the price of grain and cotton to the point where the local farmers cannot sell their goods. Fearing that they will starve come winter, the farmers have formed a delegation, which has been agitating to close the port. They have threatened to burn the next ship which arrives with grain or cotton in its hold, unless prices are fixed at a level which will allow them to survive. This has angered the tradeswomen, who have appealed to the Comtesse for her protection.”

     “Tell us of the Comtesse,” Aurélie prompted. “I understand that she is new to her title, and that she inspires neither fear nor love among the people?”

     Remy nodded in agreement. “Brigitte LaRoux, Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, holds no authority beyond that of her title. She is barely twenty-two, and has ruled for less than a season. Her mother, who abused these lands for nearly two-score-and-twelve years, was a petty tyrant, and won few friends among the people. Brigitte, meanwhile, was the youngest of three daughters, and was never meant to rule. She has received little preparation for the act of governing, and is naïve to the point of comedy in affairs of state.”

     Henri arched an eyebrow. “If this Brigitte is the youngest of three, then how did she become Comtesse?”

     “As I said,” Remy continued, sounding mildly perturbed by the interruption, “the title was never meant for her. It was always assumed that her eldest sister, Margot, would inherit upon her mother’s passing. But, last year, Margot was thrown from her horse and trampled. Meanwhile, the second sister, Elise, was sickly as a child, and seldom seen beyond the walls of the chateau. She might have grown out of her infirmity and into her mother’s favor, had she not been exposed as a mage, and banished from the Comtesse’s home at the age of sixteen.” Remy shrugged. “As such, when the old Comtesse died, Brigitte was her only successor.”

     “And you think the people can be rallied against her?” Aurélie asked.

     Remy nodded his head. “If the Comtesse sides with the tradeswomen, the peasants will starve.”

     Aurélie glanced covertly at Henri, who cleared his throat.

     “We will not allow the good people of this city to be sacrificed upon the altar of greed,” Henri said, calling upon one of the revolutionary slogans he had forced himself to practice in front of the mirror. “We will rouse the people of Mont-sur-Mer, and we will show them that they have a choice: They can submit, and starve, or they can fight, and live as free women and men.” 

     “I know which choice the people of Mont-sur-Mer will make,” Aurélie said, to a chorus of murmured agreement from around the table. “To that end, we must be prepared to mobilize at a moment’s notice.”

     Just then – as if by fate – a small knock interrupted the proceedings. Aurélie stood up from the table and picked her way across the cluttered attic to the door which led out to the stairs. Opening the door by just a crack, she appeared to exchange whispered words with someone outside. 

     “Henri, Patrice, Remy,” Aurélie said, turning back to face the suddenly-silent group, and gesturing for the three men to follow after her. “We are needed downstairs, at once.”

     Nervously, Henri stood up from the table, and made his way over to the stairs. Remy and Patrice followed close behind him.

     “What is it?” he asked Aurélie, as the four of them followed the elderly weaver down the narrow staircase.

     “One of our scouts,” Aurélie said, her voice a hushed whisper. “Just now, she appeared on the doorstep, and gave the emergency knock.”

     Henri slipped a finger inside his collar, which had suddenly begun to feel tight around his neck.

     “Why would she do that?” he asked. “What could possibly have happened?”

     Aurélie said nothing in reply, and they completed the journey in silence.

     Once they were inside the weaver’s tiny parlor, Aurélie walked over to stand next to the closed-and-bolted door to the street. Kneeling down to whisper through the keyhole, she said: “No one is expected at this hour. You must have the wrong address.” 

     As he waited for the reply to Aurélie’s challenge – which would reveal whether the scout had returned of her own free will, or was acting under coercion – Henri was startled to realize that he was not only holding his breath, but he had also drifted in the direction of the unlit fireplace, where his hand hovered next to the iron poker.

     “The mistake is mine,” came a whispered voice from outside. “In the darkness, I could not read the numbers.”

     Henri exhaled, and Aurélie opened the door. 

     In a flash, Aurélie’s most trusted scout, Beatrix, came darting in from the street. Her dark cloak was wrapped tightly around her, her hat was pulled down low, and she was visibly out of breath. Just as soon as she was safely inside, Aurélie closed and bolted the door behind her. 

     Standing in the center of the room, Beatrix bent over double as she tried to catch her breath. Somehow, Remy had had the presence of mind to pour a generous measure of apple brandy into a large snifter, which he quickly offered to Beatrix. Henri, still standing next to the fireplace, and feeling stupid for having gone for the poker, reproached himself for not having thought to make such a gesture. But, as soon as she had regained her composure, Beatrix waved away the offered glass. 

     Henri was about to ask the scout to report, but Aurélie was a step ahead of him.

     “What has happened?” she said, kneeling down to look Beatrix in the eyes. “What have you seen?”

     “The Baroness’s army,” the scout said, between ragged breaths. “They are here. They are in Mont-sur-Mer.”

     Aurélie’s face seemed to grow pale at the news, and Henri felt himself swallow. He walked over to Remy and took the glass of brandy from him, which he drained in one gulp.

     “That’s not possible,” Patrice said, looking dumbfounded. “The Baroness’s troops were assembled in Voûte not five days ago. My agents all swore to it.”

     “This is not the main army,” Beatrix said, shaking her head. “A separate force, smaller, but well-equipped, and marching under a different banner. We had no warning. They seem to have come from nowhere.” The scout looked up at Henri, and her eyes were apologetic – as if she had failed him, and were pleading for forgiveness. She shook her head a second time, before removing her hat, which she clutched to her chest. “At midnight, when I checked along the walls, everything was as it should be. But then, just now, as dawn broke above the port, there were ships of war blockading the harbor – three corvettes, all at anchor. And my watchers at the main gate have sent word that four columns of soldiers have arrived, and are already entering the city.”

     Henri poured himself another glass of brandy, filling it all the way up to the rim.

     “Then we are trapped,” he said. His voice felt suddenly shaky, his knees doubly so.

     “They knew we were here,” Patrice said. The spymaster looked dumbstruck. “They knew just where to find us, and they drew our gaze away while they marched.” Then, in a flash, his expression hardened from one of shock into one of anger. “We have been betrayed,” he said.

     “Be silent, both of you!” Aurélie commanded, abandoning all pretense of deferring to Henri. The tone of her voice seemed to shock the rest of the room into obedience. After pausing for a moment to collect her breath, she added: “There are more ways out of a city than can be closed by three corvettes and four columns. We are not trapped. Not yet, anyway.” Turning back to Beatrix, who had slumped down into a nearby chair, Aurélie said: “This army, you say that it does not march under the Baroness’s banner, but a different marque entirely?”

     “Yes,” Beatrix said, nodding her head.

     “What marque?” Aurélie said.

     “A purple fleur-de-lis,” Beatrix said, “atop a white diamond.”

     Henri downed his drink and scratched his head. “Whose marque is that?” he asked.

     Aurélie turned to look at him, and, as she did, Henri saw something flash across her blue eyes which he had never seen there before.

     He saw hatred. He saw pure, undisguised hatred. 

     “I know whose marque that is,” Aurélie Cerveau said.

 

* * *

 

     Brigitte LaRoux – the twenty-seventh LaRoux to hold the title of Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer – winced as her speeding carriage struck a rut in the street, causing her handmaiden to scratch her with the tines of a tortoiseshell comb. 

     A horrified look passed across the handmaiden’s face as blood welled-up from a tiny scrape along the Comtesse’s neck, and the servant tried to offer a groveling apology. But Brigitte pretended to take no notice of the minor indignity, and concentrated instead on sitting as still as the bouncing carriage would permit, while a second maiden finished putting up her hair, and a third frantically attempted to lace the back of her blue satin dress. 

     There had been no time for the Comtesse to put herself together properly before leaving the chateau. She had been awoken by Sir Ruth – the LaRoux family’s longest-serving chevalier – who had roused her from her bed with the news that military ships had appeared overnight in the harbor, and that armed troops were marching into the city even as they spoke. 

     In that moment, Brigitte had felt panic grip her heart. She had tried to ask herself what her mother would have done, what Margot would have done.

     But neither her mother nor Margot could help her. So, instead, she had turned to Sir Ruth.

     “What are we to do?” the Comtesse had asked her chevalier. 

     “You must ride down to the gates at once,” the chevalier had said, “and demand an explanation for this gross offense.”

     So, before Brigitte could even get properly dressed, she had found herself in her formal carriage, sitting across from the stoic-faced Sir Ruth and rushing down towards the village square, where only Goddess knew what awaited.

     “These troops,” Brigitte asked Sir Ruth, as the carriage bounced and shuddered beneath them, “whose banner do they carry?”

     “Madame, they march under the marque of Perrine Labelle, Vicomtesse of Voûte-Sud.”

     If the identity of the invading commander provoked any great feelings in Sir Ruth, the chevalier took pains not to show it. Her sun-weathered face was impassive, and she sat with her gauntleted hands folded neatly in her lap. 

     The Comtesse, by contrast, felt her breath grow short, and her face flush.

     “The Grand Magistrate?” she asked, in a voice that was barely above a whisper. “Why would she come to Mont-sur-Mer – and at the head of a force of arms?”

     “That is what we must find out from her, Madame,” Sir Ruth said, and shrugged. “The Vicomtesse has no right to enter your city without your knowledge and consent. Whatever her motives may be, she has shown you a great disrespect.”

     “Surely, you don’t think…” Brigitte started to say, before her voice trailed off, and she drew a hand up to cover her mouth. Slowly, the color drained away from her cheeks, and she searched her chevalier’s face for signs of worry. “You do not think she could possibly know about… well, you know?” the Comtesse said. “Do you?”

     Sir Ruth shook her head.

     “I should think it unlikely,” she said. “Although we must consider the possibility.”

     Brigitte swallowed.

     “In which case, what shall we do?” she said. 

     “You must do whatever you think best, Madame,” the chevalier said. “You are the Comtesse.”

     “Yes,” Brigitte said quietly. “I suppose I am.”

     “When we arrive in the square,” Sir Ruth said, turning to the matter at hand, “you must demand that the Vicomtesse present herself to you, and you must demand that she explain herself. To do anything less would be an admission of weakness, and an insult to the honor of your family.” Then the chevalier reached down to the floor of the carriage, where she picked up a long, lacquered, wooden box. “You will also need this.”

     Sir Ruth handed the box to Brigitte, who accepted it with obvious trepidation. With hands that shook – and not just from the vibration of the carriage – she undid the box’s ornate bronze clasps and lifted its lid, revealing a long, slender epee inside. The sword, which rested atop a dark velvet cushion, had a golden hilt inset with nine star sapphires, and the LaRoux family marque – a lion rampant atop a field of stars – engraved upon the guard.

     Somehow, Brigitte LaRoux’s face went even whiter as she stared down at her family sword.

     “Why would I possibly need this?” she asked Sir Ruth, though her eyes were still fixed on the engraved blade.

     “It is possible, Madame, that there is an innocent explanation for this whole affair,” the chevalier said. “However, absent such an explanation, the Vicomtesse’s arrival in such a fashion heralds an act of war, in which case you shall have to choose between two possible replies: You may choose to surrender the city to her, or you may choose to challenge her to a duel of honor, in single combat.” Sir Ruth nodded down at the box which the Comtesse held in her trembling hands. “In either case, you will require a sword.”

     Brigitte swallowed involuntarily. She could not take her eyes off the blade. 

     “How could I challenge Perrine Labelle to a duel?” she asked. “She would filet me before I drew my sword.”

     Sir Ruth gave her head a small shake. 

     “A weapon is necessary for issuing the challenge, Madame,” she said. “But you would not fight the Vicomtesse yourself. Rather, as your chevalier, I would fight in your stead, just as the Vicomtesse’s chevalier would fight for her honor.”

     Upon hearing her chevalier’s explanation, the Comtesse found herself suddenly gripped by both relief and shame. The notion that she would call upon Sir Ruth to fight for her – and that Sir Ruth appeared to regard such a prospect with simple and unquestioning equanimity – felt arbitrary to Brigitte. 

     It felt arbitrary, and it felt wrong.

     After a moment’s hesitation, the Comtesse closed the lid on her family’s ancestral sword, and re-fastened the bronze catches.

     “I will not carry a sword that I do not know how to wield,” she said, handing the box back to Sir Ruth, who accepted it with a confused look. “I will not embarrass myself thus before the Grand Magistrate.”

     “You must have a weapon, Madame,” Sir Ruth insisted. “Protocol demands it.”

     “Then give me that,” Brigitte said, pointing to a small dagger hanging from Sir Ruth’s pauldron. “It may not be fit for a duel, but at least I will know how to hold it.” 

     The chevalier gave the Comtesse a skeptical look. But, with an obedient nod, she unhooked the dagger and its scabbard from her armor, and she handed it to her Comtesse, who tucked the little dirk into the belt of her dress.

     As she did, the carriage slowed to a halt and stopped. A small door opened in the front, and the driver’s face appeared.

     “We have arrived, Madame,” he said.

     The Comtesse nodded. Then she and her chevalier climbed out of the carriage. 

     Outside, the streets were eerily quiet. Dawn was just beginning to break across the steel-blue sea, and the city should have been humming with the first signs of the day’s commerce. Traders in the village square should have been opening their stalls, and the wharf should have echoed with the rough language of fishermen. 

     Instead, the village was empty, and quiet. It was as though all of Mont-sur-Mer were watching nervously through shuttered windows, waiting to see what would happen. 

     All around the square, row upon row of armored women and men stood at attention in neatly-formed ranks, but they were perfectly silent and still as the Comtesse descended from her carriage. The invading force had been deployed across the village square so that it guarded all avenues of ingress and exit, and, in the distance, the Comtesse could hear the rhythmic, regimented footfalls of yet more soldiers, where they apparently presumed to patrol the streets of her city. Meanwhile, in the very center of the square, beneath the town’s red-roofed bell tower, men who appeared to be sappers, or engineers of some sort, were measuring various lengths of timber, and assembling them into a pattern whose design the Comtesse did not recognize.

     Brigitte moved to stand in the middle of the assembled ranks of soldiers, with Sir Ruth following just behind. She could feel the weight of hundreds upon hundreds of eyes on her, so she tried to carry herself with confidence, and dignity, just as she felt sure Margot would have done.

     “Who is in command here?” Brigitte demanded at the top of her voice. “I am Brigitte LaRoux, Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, protector of its people, and steward of these lands! You are present in my city without my permission, and I request – no, I demand! – an explanation!”

     “An explanation which it shall be my honor to provide, Madame la Comtesse,” purred a voice in response. 

     As Brigitte watched, the front rank of soldiers suddenly parted, allowing two figures to pass between them. One was that of a tall, elegant woman, with dark blonde hair and light gray eyes, whom Brigitte assumed to be the Vicomtesse. The woman was dressed in a crisp, white uniform, with fringed golden epaulets, and a purple silk sash across her chest. Around her neck, she wore a simple gold choker, and golden cords knotted in braids of rank hung from the sleeves of her jacket. She carried herself with the confident demeanor of a woman who is used to giving orders, and who expects to be obeyed, and she smiled as she approached the Comtesse, as though she were an old friend, merely paying a social call. 

     The Vicomtesse was also wearing a sword, Brigitte could not help but notice. It was a thin, elegant rapier, with a large amethyst in its hilt.

     Standing at the Vicomtesse’s side was a shorter woman, clad in full plate armor, with a massive sword slung across her back. This second woman, whom Brigitte took to be the Vicomtesse’s chevalier, had a broad, hard face, with cropped black hair and wary brown eyes. Where the Vicomtesse’s movements were fluid and performative, the chevalier’s every motion was forceful, and compact, and she gave the impression that she might never smile. She, too, wore a band around her neck, although the Comtesse could not quite make out what it was. It seemed to be made from a single loop of thin rope, and it looked more like a collar than a necklace. Stranger still, it had no knot, as though it had somehow been fashioned around the chevalier’s neck, rather than being tied.

     Beneath the rope, the chevalier’s skin was red, and rough, as though the strange collar she wore her fit her just a bit too snugly.

     “Madame la Comtesse,” the woman in white said, bowing gracefully as she approached, “I am Grand Magistrate Perrine Labelle, Vicomtesse of Voûte-Sud, and the most humble servant of her noble excellency, the Baroness de Fleche. And this,” she said, motioning to the armored woman who stood next to her, “is Sir Lisette, Champion of the Order of the White Rose, and my chevalier.”

     As the Vicomtesse bowed before her, Brigitte hesitated for a moment before extending her hand, which the kneeling woman kissed.

     The Vicomtesse’s lips, Brigitte noticed, were cold.

     “You may rise,” the Comtesse said to the woman of lesser nobility. 

     With a smile, the Vicomtesse complied.

     “I apologize for our manner of entry into your most charming city,” the Vicomtesse said, speaking in a warm tone that did not match the coldness of her eyes. “But I have come at the behest of her grace, the Baroness, on a matter of the most vital importance.”

     Brigitte crossed her arms in front of her chest. “You say you travel on the Baroness’s orders,” she said, “yet I received no notice of your impending arrival. I received no notice of any kind! What do you mean, by entering my lands in such a way: without my permission, and at the head of a force of arms? To do so violates my rights of sovereignty under the Accord of 6491.” Brigitte could feel Sir Ruth’s eyes on her, and, almost without meaning to, her hand drifted towards the hilt of the dagger she now carried. “I would be within my rights to demand satisfaction for this insult,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

     If that threat bothered the Vicomtesse at all, she gave no sign. Instead, she snapped her fingers. 

     As if summoned by magic, a herald in the Baroness’s black livery stepped forward from the front rank of soldiers. He was carrying a large scroll, tied round with thick, black ribbon, which, with a bow, he presented to the Vicomtesse’s chevalier. With a salute, the chevalier presented the scroll to the Vicomtesse, who offered it, in turn, to Brigitte. 

     “What is this?” Brigitte asked, handing the scroll to Sir Ruth, who undid the ribbon.

     “That, Madame la Comtesse,” the Vicomtesse said, “is a special commission given to me by the Baroness herself. It charges me with a sworn duty to hunt-down and bring to justice any women or men within this land who would foment treasonous rebellion against their rightful rulers.” The Vicomtesse’s smile widened, and something strange seemed to flash across her gray eyes. “This commission also empowers me to take any and all such measures as I deem fit to accomplish this righteous task, and it compels any and all of the Baroness’s loyal subjects to assist me in its execution – upon pain of death, naturally.”

     Brigitte glanced anxiously at her chevalier, who was studying the offered scroll.

     “It is as the Vicomtesse says,” Sir Ruth eventually said, rolling the commission back up and returning it to Brigitte, who quickly read it herself. “In the name of her grace, the Baroness, we are compelled to place ourselves at the Vicomtesse’s disposal, if, in so doing, we may further her mission.”

     “We will, of course, do as the Baroness commands,” Brigitte said, slowly, feeling a sense of unease rising in the pit of her stomach as she did. She felt trapped, cornered – as though she were suddenly a prisoner within the walls of her own city. 

     Worse still, she could see no other option but to acquiesce to the Vicomtesse’s orders, which carried the weight of the Baroness’s law. 

     “What I do not understand, though,” she eventually said, “is why you have come to Mont-sur-Mer?” Brigitte handed the commission back to the Vicomtesse, who accepted it with a much more perfunctory bow than before. “Surely, we can have no need of you here. I am loyal. My people are loyal. You will find no rebellion within my lands.”

     “My dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, while draping her arm around Brigitte’s shoulder, in a gesture that was grossly overfamiliar, “your personal fealty is, of course, beyond question – as, I am sure, is that of your people. However, I have received credible reports that a cadre of outside agitators – among them the infamous Vocal Henri, the self-styled leader of this treasonous revolt – are, at this very moment, present within the walls of your city. As such, you can see why I was compelled to act, and to do so swiftly and unannounced.” 

     The Vicomtesse’s hand drifted up to the Comtesse’s neck, where she brushed away a strand of hair that Brigitte’s maids had failed to comb. The Vicomtesse’s fingertips lingered there for a moment longer than was proper, and a strange look flashed across her face, as she peered at the fresh scratch that marred the smooth skin of Brigitte’s neck. 

     “I have come only to bring justice to those who would seek to harm you, my dear,” Perrine Labelle said, before lowering her hand back to her side, with a smile that feigned tenderness, but had a very different effect. “Now that I have arrived, you need not fear. I assure you, justice will be done.”

     The Comtesse swallowed deeply, which did little to wet her throat. Then she nodded her head.

     “If what you say is true,” she said, “and this Vocal Henri is indeed here, then he must be caught.” She shook her head. “However, I must be the one to catch him. My honor demands no less. Treason will find no home within my walls.” The Comtesse glanced quickly in Sir Ruth’s direction, looking for encouragement, which the chevalier offered with a single, discreet nod. “As such,” Brigitte continued, once again addressing the Vicomtesse, “I would ask that you stand your women down, while my chevalier assembles the city guard. She will lead them in a house-by-house search of the village, until these traitors are found.”

     But, in reply, the Vicomtesse merely smiled, and shook her head.

     “I am afraid that is not possible,” she said. “These rats we seek are the lowest of the low, of course, but they are also devious, and resourceful, and they will stop at nothing to further their so-called revolution. Therefore, to catch them, we must be more resourceful still. And one does not catch a rat by following it into its hole.” The Vicomtesse shook her head again, and her smile widened. “No. To catch a rat, one must draw the rat out of its hole, and into the daylight.”

     A look of confusion passed across the Comtesse’s face.

     “I do not understand,” she said. “How will you possibly draw these traitors out?”

     The Vicomtesse opened her mouth to reply. But, at that precise moment, one of the Vicomtesse’s engineers made his way over to stand before the group. There, he saluted, before whispering something into Sir Lisette’s ear. The Vicomtesse’s chevalier, in turn, nodded, and, for the first time since Brigitte had laid eyes on her, she spoke.

     “Madame,” the collared knight said to the Vicomtesse, “we have everything we need to begin construction.”

     The Vicomtesse nodded her satisfaction. “Excellent,” she said. “We shall begin at once.”

     No sooner had the Grand Magistrate spoken then the sounds of hammers and saws being put vigorously to work filled the square.

     The Comtesse turned towards the foot of the bell tower, where a score of engineers had set feverishly to their task.

     “What is this?” she asked. “What are they building?”

     The Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle smiled, and, as she did, her hand drifted up towards her own neck, where she traced a delicate finger along the length of her golden choker.

     “My dear Comtesse,” she said, with a terrible look in her eyes, “we are building a trap for your rats.”

 

* * *

 

     Aurélie Cerveau sat, silent and stone-faced, on a faded settee in the safe house parlor, and watched through the shutters as a gallows took shape outside the window. 

     She could feel that her jaw was clenched tight, her lips pressed into a thin, bloodless slash. Her eyes did not blink. She hardly felt herself breathe.

     Outside, in the village square, Perrine Labelle’s purple-liveried engineers were nearly finished erecting the scaffold. They worked quickly, with the coordinated efficiency of a veteran dance troupe performing a well-practiced routine. The town bell had only chimed twice by the time a thin, cord-like rope was being hung from the gallows.

     The engineers worked fast, Aurélie reflected, coldly. They knew their task. They had done it many times before.

     All the while, as hammers pounded and saws hissed, Perrine Labelle stood at the center of the proceedings, conducting the affair as though she were an impresario. When the rope was being lowered into place, the Vicomtesse herself made a few minute adjustments to the knot, before motioning for the noose to be raised ever so slightly.

     As she watched through the window, Aurélie’s attention was so focused on the Vicomtesse that she almost failed to notice that Henri had resumed his pacing.

     “We cannot just sit here, waiting to die,” he said, wearing a path in the threadbare carpet as he stalked back and forth across the tiny parlor, barely stopping to breathe between sentences. “We need to escape! You have to do something!”

     It was the same refrain that Henri had been repeating over and over, ever since Aurélie had named Perrine Labelle as the leader of the royalist forces now camped almost literally upon their doorstep. Henri’s panicked pleas for action had gotten so bad that she’d had to send Patrice and the others from the room, lest Henri’s desperation grow infectious.

     “We will escape, Henri,” Aurélie replied through gritted teeth, without taking her eyes off the window. “Just not yet. It would be foolish to leave now.”

     “Foolish?” Henri cried, incredulous. Aurélie heard the sound of a drink being poured – she had lost count of how many brandies Henri had downed, but she felt sure that he must nearly have emptied the decanter. “As opposed to just waiting here, waiting for us all to be killed?”

     “Yes,” Aurélie said. Outside, the engineers had carried a sandbag up onto the gallows, and positioned it atop the trap door. “Consider our situation, Henri – use your head! There are twelve of us in this house alone, not counting Beatrix or her scouts. Perrine Labelle, meanwhile, has over four hundred armed women at her disposal, and that does not even account for the town guard. For us to leave in broad daylight would be madness, verging on suicide. We must give Beatrix time to work. We must wait for the cover of night.”

     “The cover of night?” Henri laughed. He was beginning to sound drunk. “Come nightfall, we will all be hanging from our necks.”

     In a flash, Aurélie was on her feet. She whirled on Henri, moving so quickly that he did not even have the chance to protest when she snatched the nearly-empty snifter of brandy from his hand and hurled it into the fireplace, where it exploded with a shower of glass. Then, before Henri could move, she clamped one hand atop his mouth, jammed the other into his stomach, and shoved him brusquely up against the wall.

     “People are going to die here today,” she said, taking pains to speak clearly, her face just inches from Henri’s, her voice a low, intense whisper. “Lives will be lost. That is inevitable now.” She could feel Henri squirming beneath her grasp, but she did not let go. “The cause requires a face, which is why I will do everything within my power to see that you survive the night – unless you continue to carry on like this.” Aurélie fixed Henri with an icy stare, and he stopped squirming. “Because, Henri, if I must choose between having you remembered as a coward, or as a martyr? Do not doubt for one second as to which of those two fates I will choose for you.”

     For a tense moment, Aurélie held Henri pinned against the wall, and she waited until she was sure that he had understood what she had said. Then, slowly, she took her hand off of Henri’s mouth, and she let him go.

     After several short, ragged breaths, Henri drew himself up straight, and he stared back at her. There was a wounded look in his eyes, and his hands shook slightly as he tried to straighten his collar.

     “You are cold as ice,” Henri said. “Do you know that?”

     Silently, Aurélie nodded her head. Then she crossed the room to sit once more beneath the window.

     “Yes,” she said, peering out through the blinds. “One of us has to be.”

     Outside, in the town square, Aurélie saw a stocky, armored woman pull the lever at the base of the gallows. The trap door fell open, dropping the sandbag to the ground below, where it burst apart at the seams.

     Just then, a dark shape hurried past the window, followed a moment later by five knocks at the garden door – two quiet, two loud, one quiet. 

     “Quickly,” Aurélie whispered, and she was gratified by the speed with which Henri opened the side door to let Beatrix inside.

     Although the streets of Mont-sur-Mer were thronged with hostile soldiers, Beatrix had slipped out from the safe house no fewer than three times that morning, as she tried to make contact with her agents in the town, and to reconnoiter the position of the royalist forces. And, even though her comings and goings were carefully timed, and Beatrix was a true master of her art – she could move quick as a fox, while remaining silent as the grave, with the uncanny ability to pass unnoticed through either a bustling crowd or an empty boulevard – the danger inherent in what she was doing was profound. 

     For her part, Aurélie knew perfectly the risk that Beatrix was taking each time she left the safe house, and, under different circumstances, she would have counseled restraint, and reminded her friend not to sacrifice prudence for bravery.

     But, given the circumstances she now found herself in, Aurélie had purposefully held her tongue. Given the choice of risking Beatrix’s life against the possibility of identifying an escape route for the trapped committee, that calculation was a simple one for Aurélie to make. 

     A cold calculation, to be sure. But a simple one, nonetheless.

     Aurélie found herself reflecting on Henri’s condemnation of her – cold as ice, he’d said – as she sent him to fetch Patrice and Remy to hear Beatrix’s report.

     Once the principals had been gathered in the parlor, Beatrix spread a heavily-annotated map of Mont-sur-Mer across the floor, and she began to mark the royalist positions.

     “There are two full companies of soldiers guarding the main gate,” she said, scribbling furiously with a stick of charcoal. “Plus, a detachment of cavalry patrols just outside the wall.”

     Aurélie shook her head. It was hardly surprising that they would not simply be able to walk out through the main gate.

     Patrice rubbed his hooded eyes. “Can we scale the walls?” he asked.

     “There are several places where we could fix a rope without being seen, or jump from a nearby roof,” Beatrix said, indicating those spots on the map of the town. “But none are close to the square, so we would need to move carefully. Furthermore, once we are over the wall, we would be on foot. The risk of being discovered by one of the cavalry patrols cannot be discounted. The country around the city is flat and open for miles.”

     “Can we summon help?” Remy asked. “Arrange for some horses, or an escort, once we’re over the wall?”

     “Such a thing could be possible,” Beatrix said. “I could send one woman over the wall, with minimal risk, and she could make for Gallais to the east, where Patrice has several contacts.” The scout’s tone of voice indicated that she did not put much stock in the idea, though, and she shook her head as she spoke. “But that is a half-day’s ride, at least – longer if she must travel on foot. We cannot assume that any help would reach us tonight.”

     Aurélie glanced at Beatrix. “You have a better plan, I take it?” she asked.

     Beatrix nodded.

     “Our best chance is to make our way to the harbor,” she said. “The streets between here and there are narrow, and there are many possible paths. If we wait until night, and we time our moves carefully, we should be able to avoid the patrols. The Vicomtesse has a sizable force, but not enough to blanket the whole city, and her women will be tired from the march.”

     Henri, who had remained silent until then, cleared his throat. 

     “Even if we reach the docks,” he said, “you yourself told us that there are three corvettes anchored at the mouth of the harbor.”

     “This is true,” Beatrix said, adding the positions of the blockading ships to her map. “And there is no ship afloat that could hope to outrun three royal corvettes. But there are some oared longboats at the port that we could commandeer. Between the darkness, and staying so low to the water, we would have a better-than-even chance to slip out of the harbor unnoticed.” Beatrix traced her finger across the map. “If we keep close to the southern cliffs, the coastline is far too rocky for the corvettes to follow, and there is a network of smuggler’s caves all along this coast. They run for miles underground, and have many exits. Once inside, we would be virtually impossible to follow.”

     Aurélie glanced up at Henri. His face was still ashen, but he seemed to have steadied himself somewhat.

     “You have done commendable work, citizen Beatrix,” Henri managed, and the others nodded their agreement. “You are a credit to the revolution.”

     “Thank you, citizen Henri,” Beatrix said.

     “Then we are in agreement,” Aurélie said, rolling-up the map. “We wait for nightfall, then escape from the harbor.”

     “What will we do until then?” Henri asked.

     “We lock the doors,” Remy said. “We keep away from the windows, we hide ourselves in the attic, and we pray that the Vicomtesse does not decide to mount a thorough search of the town.”

     “She won’t,” Aurélie said. “Perrine Labelle will not search for us. She wants us to come to her. She wants us to crawl to her, to beg for a mercy that we will not receive.” Without realizing that she was doing it, Aurélie touched the scar on her cheek. “She craves submission above all else.”

     The room grew silent, and Aurélie realized that all eyes had turned to her.

     Henri cleared his throat, and was the first to speak. “I didn’t realize you were on such familiar terms with Madame du Collet,” he managed.

     Aurélie’s eyes glinted in the darkness, and her mouth hardened. 

     “Perrine Labelle is a sadist, and a killer, whose lust for power is matched only by her cruelty,” she said. “And you are correct that I know her crimes better than most. But I also know that she is not some smoke-wreathed devil, to be whispered about beneath hushed breath. She is but a woman, like any other. And, like any other woman, she can be killed.”

     Henri wiped his brow nervously. He was sweating. 

     “You sound as though you might march outside and challenge her to a duel,” he said.

     “The thought had occurred to me,” Aurélie said, trying and failing to conceal the venom she could feel rising inside her. 

     “This isn’t just about the cause, is it?” Henri said, slowly, as a frown crept across his face. “This is personal for you. You–” 

     From outside, the village bell tolled. 

     It rang once, then twice, echoing through the streets of the occupied town, and it kept on ringing as the people of Mont-sur-Mer began to emerge nervously from their houses, and to assemble in the town square, where they waited silently beneath the shadow of the newly-completed gallows.

     “The bell,” Henri whispered, his earlier question now forgotten.

     Aurélie Cerveau closed her eyes, and she steeled herself for what she knew would come next.

     “Now it begins,” she said.

 

* * *

 

     Mothers profess to love all their daughters equally. But children – as is often the case – know better, and Brigitte LaRoux had known for as long as she could remember that her mother did not love her.

     This was a silent understanding, kept between the two of them, and the matter had never been openly discussed. But, as ever, gestures revealed what words did not: A look of genuine reproach, glimpsed before it could be concealed, whenever a drink was spilled, or a title was forgotten, or a bow was either too deep, or not deep enough; a cutting remark, offered across the dining room table, only to be laughed-off as a jest, but which bore the weight of truth; a maternal embrace that was just a bit too perfunctory, a bit too short – a gesture necessitated by custom, rather than by affection.

     Brigitte had always assumed that the problem was that she took after her father. The Comte had been a gentle man, a quiet man, fond of music, and books. He had loved Brigitte – of this she was certain – and he had been available to her in a way that the Comtesse’s myriad responsibilities would have rendered impossible, even had she desired such intimacy – which, clearly, she had not.

     On the day that her father had died, Brigitte had wept so piteously that she had been banished to her room, lest she make a display of herself in front of the formal mourners. Once upstairs, she had tried to throw herself from a third story window – she had opened the grate, and had even climbed up onto the transom – and she might have succeeded, had her sister Elise not pulled her back into the room, and held her in her arms for hours until there were no tears left to cry.

     Her mother had never loved Elise, either, Brigitte knew. But the nature of their offenses had been different, for Elise had been doubly-damned: Once by birth, which had cursed her with ghostly hair and pink eyes – “like a white mouse,” the Comtesse had despaired – and skin so pale that it could not bear the sun, and then once again by her gift for sorcery. 

     Elise could hardly have been blamed for the defects of her body, and, had that been her sole crime, she might, in time, have been forgiven. But her covert practice of magic had been her own choice, and, in her mother’s eyes, it was an unforgivable sin. As a consequence, Elise’s name had not been spoken aloud within the walls of the chateau since the day of her exile.

     Brigitte’s own failings, she suspected, were more straightforward – she was, put simply, a disappointment.

     Or, put differently, Brigitte’s crime was that she was not Margot. For Margot had taken after her mother, and the Comtesse had loved Margot with an intensity that bordered on obsession. 

     Brigitte had understood why: With her fair looks, and her flair for conversation, and her disarming laugh, Margot had been easy to love.

     So it was Margot who had been groomed to lead since she was old enough to speak. Margot who had been taught to dance, to ride, to fence, to rule. Margot who had presided over fairs, and festivals, and civic events of all kinds. Margot who – even as a young woman – had commanded the love of the people almost without seeming to try.

     But it was Margot who had died. And her mother – stricken by grief more than by illness – had followed soon after, leaving Brigitte to rule in their place.

     On her deathbed, the Comtesse had kissed her youngest daughter’s hand – but not held it – and had offered her first and only lesson in governing.

     “You must rule the peasants as a mother rules a child,” the Comtesse had said, between whistling, pneumonic breaths. “You must offer them protection, and, in return, they must offer you obedience. Be just, and be fair, but be strict as well, and do not spare the rod – your word must be law, and you must brook no dissent. For what is true for families is true for cities as well: If a child loses respect for her mother, disrespect will turn to defiance, and defiance will lead to anarchy.”

     “But, Maman,” Brigitte had asked, as the old Comtesse’s breathing began to fail, “how do I get the people to love me?”

     The Comtesse had asked her: “Why should you care if you are loved?” 

     And then she had died.

     Thus, with her mother’s final words to her still echoing in her ears, Brigitte LaRoux had become the twenty-seventh Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer.

     Standing at the head of her mother’s funeral procession had been the first time that Brigitte was called upon to address the entire village, and she had found the weight of that occasion almost too heavy to bear. Seeing hundreds of faces turned towards her, their eyes fixed on hers, their quiet attention hanging on her every word, Brigitte had not known what to say. 

     Should she offer her people wisdom? Solace? Reassurance?

     Brigitte did not know how to offer any of those things.

     In that moment, Brigitte had not felt as though she were a stern-but-just mother. She had felt very much as though she herself were still a child. A strange tightness had gripped her chest – fear, she thought, made manifest – and she had excused herself after only the briefest of remarks.

     Now, as she ascended the steps to the scaffold at the foot of the village bell tower, Brigitte LaRoux found herself face-to-face with the people of her town for only the second time since becoming their Comtesse. And, as she looked out across the gathered crowd, she felt that terrible tightness in her chest come rushing back.

     On the day of the funeral, the mood among the crowd had been somber, and grave. But, now, as Brigitte rose to speak, there was tension in the air, too – palpable tension, and fear. 

     Fear hung over the square like a pall, and its effects were visible in the way that parents clutched their children, the way that people bunched together into small groups and whispered anxiously, the way that they shifted their weight from foot-to-foot, even as they clasped their hats to their chests, and stared deferentially at the ground. The knots of purple-clad soldiers interspersed among the crowd – most with stoic expressions on their faces, many with hands resting on their sword hilts – did little to ease the sense of doom that charged the air like static before a lightning storm. Nor did the looming specter of the gallows, whose noose swung idly in the breeze just behind Brigitte.

     The Comtesse was clearing her throat when she felt a hand brush against her back, and she nearly jumped from the shock of the unexpected contact. Brigitte’s startled reaction prompted a small smile from the Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle, who had evidently ascended to the platform while Brigitte had been lost in her memory, and had moved to stand next to the younger noble.

     “A thousand pardons, my dear Comtesse,” the Vicomtesse said, and she executed a textbook bow, by way of apology. 

     Not too deep, Brigitte thought, but just deep enough.

     “I had not realized you were there,” Brigitte managed to stammer.

     “The fault is mine. I should have asked your permission before rising to join you, but I sensed that you felt some nervousness, and I had hoped that my presence nearby might reassure you.” Perrine Labelle’s smile widened, and Brigitte felt herself shiver. “Furthermore, as Grand Magistrate, it is only fitting that I should be by your side as you deliver the proclamation.”

     Brigitte could only muster a nod.

     “Have no fear, my dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, giving Brigitte a small pat on the back. “You must simply recite the lines I have prepared for you. Then it will all be over, and you may retire to the edge of the stage. I have had a seat prepared for you, directly next to mine.”

     Brigitte nodded again, then swallowed. She took a small step to one side, creating some distance between herself and the Vicomtesse, under the pretext of straightening her posture. 

     Then she opened her mouth, and she heard herself begin to speak.

     “People of Mont-sur-Mer,” Brigitte said, hating the way that her voice quavered as it carried across the square, “I stand before you today as your Comtesse, and your rightful ruler, to inform you that a foul treason now stalks our lands.” Pausing for a moment to steady her nerves, Brigitte drew a great breath. “I know that you are loyal,” she said, deviating from the script that Perrine Labelle had given her. “I know that you love your Baroness, and that you love your Queen, as do I. There is not a woman among you for whom I would not vouchsafe with my own life.”

     Brigitte risked a glance to her side, where the Grand Magistrate continued to smile, but shot her a pointed look in reply. Feeling the tightness growing inside her chest, the Comtesse turned back towards the square, and continued:

     “Sadly, I have today been presented with proof that there are outsiders in our city who harbor treason in their hearts. Chief among them is the infamous Henri le Douce – he is a murderer, a traitor, and the slayer of our beloved Baron. Until he and his accomplices in this unspeakable evil are caught, no one among us is safe. Therefore…”

     Looking down, Brigitte hesitated. She hesitated for so long that the Vicomtesse’s clerk, who had been hurriedly transcribing Brigitte’s remarks until that point, stopped writing. The clerk’s pen hovered expectantly in the air above her record of the proceedings, and she was staring up at the Comtesse, along with every other soul in the square.

     “Therefore?” Perrine Labelle prompted, whispering quietly through gritted teeth.

     “Therefore,” Brigitte continued, tripping slightly over the word, so that she had to repeat herself. “Therefore, I am declaring a state of martial law in the city of Mont-sur-Mer, and I am hereby naming the Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle – a duly-appointed representative of her noble excellency, the Baroness, and the Grand Magistrate of her courts – to serve as executrix of the city until further notice. I afford her any and all such powers as she requires to bring all traitors among us to justice, and to see that they are properly punished.”

     Brigitte looked out across the crowd, which seemed to have frozen in place. No one moved – even the wind did not dare to flutter the banners. The square had fallen so silent, it would have been possible to hear a pin drop.

     “Vive la Reine,” Brigitte concluded, drawing a muttered chorus of replies. 

     Then, feeling as though she had just abrogated a sacred trust, the Comtesse Brigitte LaRoux walked silently to the chair that had been placed for her at the edge of the platform. She sat down just in time to watch the clerk notarizing her proclamation with a series of official stamps.

     “You did well, Madame,” whispered Sir Ruth, who stood quietly behind the Comtesse’s chair, with her arms clasped behind her back. “As well as could be expected.”

     “Not well enough, I fear,” Brigitte whispered back, pressing her palms against her forehead, and squeezing her eyes shut. “What happens now?”

     “The Vicomtesse is about to speak.”

     Brigitte LaRoux opened her eyes to stare at the woman to whom she had surrendered her city, and who now stood alone at the front of the platform.

     “Thank you, Madame la Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, taking a step to one side, so that she occupied the spot where Brigitte had just stood. “I am humbled that you have entrusted me with so great a responsibility, and I give you my most solemn vow that the cause of justice will be served here today.” 

     The Vicomtesse bowed in Brigitte’s direction, before turning back to face the wary villagers. 

     “Now, where is the Postmistress?” she asked, in a voice that carried over the square. “If you are here, step forward.”

     A woman in a dark blue postal uniform, wearing a three-cornered hat with a red ribbon around its brim, made her way solemnly to the front of the crowd.

     “I am the Postmistress, Madame,” she said, removing her hat in a gesture of respect.

     “Very good,” the Vicomtesse said. “Tell me, Postmistress, what is your name?”

     “Marie, Madame. Marie Duvall.”

     “Very good,” the Vicomtesse repeated, before motioning to her clerk, who appeared to record the Postmistress’s name. “Tell me, Marie Duvall, how accurate is your register of addresses?”

     “Very accurate, Madame,” the Postmistress replied, a note of pride in her voice. “It is complete, and it is accurate.”

     “Excellent,” Perrine Labelle said. “Go to the post office, then, and return with your register. Immediately.”

     “Yes, Madame,” the Postmistress said, before replacing her hat, and vanishing back into the crowd with as much haste as decorum would permit. 

     As everyone waited for the Postmistress’s return, the silence that descended over the crowd was so heavy that Brigitte felt as though she could cut it with a knife. Finally, after minutes that felt like hours, the crowd again parted to make way for the blue-uniformed woman, who approached the foot of the scaffold cradling a thick, leather-bound book in her arms.

     “Please be so good as to give that to my clerk,” the Vicomtesse said, indicating the woman who sat behind a small table at the base of the scaffold, with reams upon reams of official papers and parchments spread out before her.

     With a deep bow, the Postmistress handed the town’s register of names and addresses to the clerk, who accepted it with a perfunctory nod. Then the Postmistress turned, and looked as though she were going to retreat back into the anonymity of the crowd, when the Vicomtesse’s voice froze her in mid-step.

     “A moment, please,” Perrine Labelle said to the retreating functionary. “You are not dismissed. I have a question to ask you.”

     Ashen-faced, the Postmistress turned around, and bowed hurriedly in the Vicomtesse’s direction. 

     “I am sorry, Madame,” she stammered, once again removing her hat. “I beg your forgiveness. Please, ask me anything you will.”

     “As I said, I have but one question,” the Vicomtesse said, stepping forward to the edge of the platform, so that she loomed directly over the Postmistress. Crossing her arms in front of her chest, she looked down at the cowering woman, and she asked: “Where is Vocal Henri?”

     A look of non-comprehension passed over the Postmistress’s face.

     “Madame, I do not know,” she managed to stammer.

     “I do not believe you,” Perrine Labelle said, drawing a visible flinch from the stunned functionary. The Vicomtesse raised her hand, and, in an instant, a circle of soldiers had materialized behind the Postmistress, separating her from the remainder of the assembled village, and cutting-off any avenues by which she might try to flee.

     “Madame, I do not understand,” the woman said, her voice audibly shaking, her knees visibly so, as a pair of soldiers took hold of her by the shoulders.

     “It is simple enough,” Perrine Labelle replied, with a little shrug of her shoulders. “You are the Postmistress of this town. You know every citizen by face, by name, by address. You deliver the post to them each day. You know all of their comings and goings.” The Vicomtesse waved a hand idly in the air. “Surely, if anyone in this city would know where an outsider like Henri le Douce would be hiding, it would be you.” Then the Vicomtesse’s voice turned cold. “So, I ask you again: Where is Vocal Henri?”

     The Postmistress was silent. Then, for a moment, she shook so terribly that it seemed as though the soldiers who gripped her shoulders would have to hold her upright. Finally, in a voice that cracked as she began to sob, she cried: “Madame, I beg you – I know nothing!”

     Perrine Labelle turned to her clerk. “What was this woman’s name, again?”

     The clerk consulted her records. “Marie Duvall, Madame.”

     The Vicomtesse turned back to the crying woman, and she smiled.

     “Marie Duvall,” she said, “I find you guilty of sedition, of conspiring to pervert the cause of justice, and of high treason. For your crimes, I sentence you to hang from the neck until you are dead.” 

     The Grand Magistrate gestured to the soldiers, who lifted the Postmistress up off her feet and began to carry her, kicking and screaming, up the steps to the gallows.

     Suddenly, the entire square seemed to erupt. Voices cried out, women yelled, children screamed. Throughout the crowd, steel scraped across steel as soldiers drew their swords, and levelled their blades at the surrounding peasants. Atop the platform, Brigitte LaRoux tried to stand, but a pair of strong hands gripped her by the arms, and held her in her seat. 

     “You must stay seated, Madame,” Sir Ruth whispered urgently in the Comtesse’s ear. “It is for your own safety.”

     “Let go of me!” Brigitte cried, trying but failing to squirm free from the armored woman’s grip. “My safety be damned – I command you!”

     “Please forgive me, Madame,” came the chevalier’s reply, heavy with guilt. “It is for your own safety.”

     The knight relaxed her grip on Brigitte just slightly, and the Comtesse turned in her seat to see that fully a dozen soldiers had materialized on the platform behind her, with swords in their hands. The Vicomtesse’s stone-faced chevalier, Sir Lisette, stood at their center, and was holding a drawn blade close to Sir Ruth’s throat.

     “Release her!” Brigitte demanded, her heart pounding inside her chest. “At once!”

     “I do not understand your request, Madame,” the Vicomtesse’s chevalier said, her voice cold. “We are merely here to protect you.”

     That comment drew a hollow laugh from Brigitte. Then the Comtesse turned back around to look out across the square, which seemed to be on the verge of a riot. 

     Suddenly, the Grand Magistrate’s voice boomed above the rising din.

     “Be advised than any woman or man who so much as lays a hand on one of my soldiers will be hanged as a conspirator,” the Vicomtesse declared, and her admonition appeared to give the crowd pause, because, after a few moments, the shouting and screaming of the gathered villagers gave way to a low, rolling murmur, which descended to almost complete silence as the soldiers finally managed to get the struggling Postmistress into position beneath the swinging noose.

     “People of Mont-sur-Mer,” Perrine Labelle said, “for so long as you will harbor traitors in your midst, you are all guilty of treason. But I offer you a chance for absolution. If you love your Comtesse, then I invite you to step forward, and to denounce the traitors among you. Bring me this Vocal Henri, and I will show you mercy.”

     The Vicomtesse paused for a moment, as though waiting for the villagers to produce Henri le Douce in chains. When no such event transpired, the Grand Magistrate merely nodded her head.

     “Very well,” she said. “If you persist in condoning treason, then I shall be forced to hang one citizen of this town every hour, on the hour, from now until such time as the traitors I seek are brought before me.”

     “You cannot do that!” Brigitte cried out, and again tried to rise, only to feel Sir Ruth holding her in place. “You cannot simply condemn my people to hang! They are innocent!”

     “My dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, with a sympathetic nod of her head, “there are no innocents in Mont-sur-Mer. That you cannot see this is a credit to your kind heart, but also the reason why it has fallen to me to do what must be done. And, as for choosing whom to hang? My clerk shall draw the names from your register.” The Vicomtesse’s smile widened, and her grey eyes flashed. “I can think of no fairer method than that. As your Postmistress has said, the register is accurate, and complete.”

     Then the Vicomtesse motioned to her soldiers, who slipped the noose around the Postmistress’s neck.

     “Have you ever witnessed a hanging before, my dear Comtesse?” Perrine Labelle asked. She walked across the platform, and seated herself atop the chair next to Brigitte’s.

     Brigitte said nothing. She just stared at the gray-eyed woman in furious disbelief. 

     The Vicomtesse traced her hand across the side of the Comtesse’s neck, causing Brigitte to recoil in horror.

     “Come now, my dear – there is no cause for that,” Perrine Labelle said, smiling. “If this is truly your first time, then you are in for a genuine treat.” Her voice dropped to a sadistic purr – like a razor cutting silk – and she whispered softly into Brigitte’s ear. “A word of advice, my dear – watch her eyes, as she dangles. I believe you may find the experience quite stimulating.” 

     Before Brigitte could reply, the town bell tolled above their heads, sounding the hour.

     Brigitte LaRoux closed her eyes tight as she heard the lever being pulled.

 

* * *

 

     The Postmistress took forever to die.

     At least, that was how it felt to Henri le Douce, who stood, transfixed, before the parlor window, and peered from beneath the corner of the drapes as he watched the woman hang.

     Henri had seen a hanging once before – as a young boy, he and some friends had snuck into the city, thinking that it might be exciting, to watch a thief die – and his chief memory was of the moment when the condemned man had fallen through the scaffolding – how the rope had snapped taut, how his body had come to an abrupt stop, how his neck had broken, and his head had lolled to one side. Henri could still recall the sense of horror he had felt then, as he watched the dead man’s body swing lazily back and forth – no longer alive, no longer a man, really – just so much dead weight, hanging at the end of a rope.

     It had been terrible, like something out of a nightmare. But at least it had been over quickly. And Henri had vowed never to witness a hanging again.

     But here he was. And, as he watched the Postmistress fall, he felt as though he were going to be sick. Because, this time, when the rope snapped taut, the Postmistress’s neck did not break, and her body did not go limp. 

     Instead, she fought terribly as she hung. Her hands clawed at the noose around her neck, her feet kicked futilely at the empty air beneath her, and her whole body spasmed, as she swung beneath the gallows, struggling, thrashing, like a fish, hooked and dying, on the end of a line.

     “Her neck did not break,” Henri whispered, feeling a chill come over his body, as he watched the Postmistress swing. “There must be a fault in the mechanism.”

     “There is no fault in the mechanism,” Aurélie said quietly. She was standing next to him, but she did not watch. She had turned her back to the window as soon as the bell had tolled. “The mechanism is performing exactly to specification.”

     “How can you tell?” Henri asked.

     “I have seen it before,” Aurélie said.

     “Why doesn’t someone cut her down?” Henri asked. The Postmistress’s flailing was growing weaker, now. Her kicks were coming further and further apart, and one of her arms had fallen limply to her side. “To leave her to struggle like this, it is sick, grotesque.”

     “Yes,” Aurélie said. “It is.”

     Her voice sounded as cold as Henri felt.

     Finally, after what seemed to Henri like an eternity, the Postmistress stopped moving. Her feet kicked their last, and then she was still. 

     Just so much dead weight, Henri thought, hanging at the end of a rope.

     Henri let the corner of the drape fall from his hand, and he took a shuffling step back, away from the window. A sense of revulsion washed over him, then, and he felt bile rise suddenly in his throat. 

     He hated himself, for having watched an innocent woman die, and having done nothing. 

     He had not wanted to watch. He had wanted to look away. But, in the moment, he had found that he could not. A sort of morbid fascination had gripped him, and had held him firm until the end.

     Henri looked across the room at Aurélie, who stood, stone-faced, in front of the fireplace.

     “Why didn’t you watch?” Henri asked her. He felt unsteady, and he wanted her to say something – anything – that might absolve him. “How did you look away?”

     “It is as I told you,” she said, without returning his gaze. “I have seen it before.”

     Henri walked to the sideboard, and, opening the drawer, he searched briefly inside, hoping that there might be an unopened bottle of brandy. 

     There was not. 

     Leaning back against the wall, Henri put his head in his hands, and he sank, slowly, down to his knees.

     “That woman,” he said, speaking quietly. “Did you know her?”

     Peering out from between his fingers, he saw Aurélie shake her head.

     “No,” she said. “She is a stranger to me.”

     “To me, too,” Henri said. “But she died because of me. She died in my name.”

     “She was not the first,” Aurélie said. “Goddess willing, she will not be the last.”

     Henri looked up at her.

     “Anything for the cause?”

     Aurélie glanced down at him.

     “Whatever it takes,” she said.

     “How is this so easy for you?” Henri said. There was an edge in his voice, now. “I feel like I want to scream. I want to put my fist through the wall. But you?” Looking at her, he had to shake his head. “You don’t seem to feel a thing.”

     “Maybe not,” Aurélie said. 

     She looked away, and turned her face up, to stare at the ceiling. 

     “Or maybe I just hide it better than most.”

     Henri was still for a moment. Then he exhaled a breath he had not realized he had been holding, and he nodded his head.

     “Maybe,” he said.

     And the two of them waited together in silence until Beatrix returned.

     Beatrix had gone out into the square when the village had been summoned, so that she could observe the situation, and report back about what was said. At the time, this had seemed to Henri to be an extraordinary risk – for all her skill at deflecting attention, Beatrix was, after all, a stranger in the village, and it seemed impossible that her presence in the crowd would not be remarked upon. When the scout had proposed the plan, Henri had expected Aurélie to forbid her from going. But, to Henri’s surprise, Aurélie Cerveau had considered the scout’s request for a silent, tense moment, before nodding her assent, and tasking Beatrix with attempting to memorize the positions of the troops in the main square, provided she could do so while also following the proceedings, and not calling undue attention to herself.

     It had seemed, to Henri, like a death sentence. And, now, as he reflected upon it, he heard Aurélie’s words in his head once more: “Whatever it takes.”

     But Beatrix had returned. Alive, and, in so far as anyone could tell, unremarked upon. Henri could not believe it. She must have been a ghost.

     He was trying to choose the appropriate compliment to pay to the scout, but Aurélie spoke before he could.

     “Please report, citizen Beatrix,” she said, and it was all that she said. It left Henri feeling cold.

     But, if Beatrix was at all troubled by Aurélie’s lack of sentiment, she gave no sign. Instead, she executed a perfect salute in Henri’s direction, and she gave her report.

     What Beatrix said, though, left Henri trembling.

     “She cannot mean it,” Henri said to Aurélie, after Beatrix had relayed the Vicomtesse’s decree. “She cannot just hang the people of this village – one-by-one, with no evidence at all, for no crime at all! She can’t. She just…” Henri shook his head, in disbelief. “She just can’t.”

     “She can,” Aurélie said. “And she will.”

     “The whole village?”

     “Yes.”

     “One-by-one?”

     “Yes.”

     “On the luck of the draw?”

     “Yes,” Aurélie said. “If it pleases her to do so, then yes.” Her eyes hardened. “And I think it will please her very much indeed.”

     “It is cruel.” Henri shook his head again, and wished desperately for another apple brandy. “It is cruel beyond belief.”

     “And so is she. Which is why we must take her at her word.”

     Henri was silent. He wiped his brow, and was surprised to find it coated in a layer of cold sweat.

     “Then what do we do?”

     “We do nothing.” Aurélie crossed to the window, and glanced discretely through the blinds. “We wait for nightfall, and we make good our escape, just as we have planned.”

     Henri blinked in astonishment.

     “And how many will die, between now and then?” he asked.

     Aurélie glanced out the window a second time.

     “It is still some hours from midday,” she said, “and, at this time of year, the sun does not set until late. So, at my best guess?” She shrugged her shoulders, and seemed to do some quick mental arithmetic. “I would say the bell will chime at least nine more times before nightfall.”

     Henri could not believe what he was hearing.

     “So I will have nine more deaths on my conscience?” he said.

     “At least nine, yes,” Aurélie said. “Potentially more, if the villagers resist, or if Perrine Labelle grows bored with her own game.”

     “And you are content to just allow this to happen?”

     Aurélie was silent for a moment. When she spoke, she did not turn around.

     “Citizen Beatrix,” she said, addressing her words to the scout, “would you be so good as to find our gracious hosts, and escort them up to the attic?” She waved a hand in the direction of the small kitchen, where the weaver and her husband had been waiting, under Patrice’s watchful eye. “I believe they would be safer upstairs, for the time being.”

     “Yes, citizen Aurélie,” Beatrix said.

     “And, perhaps, you would send citizen Remy downstairs, when you see him?”

     “Yes, citizen Aurélie.”

     Beatrix saluted one last time, before disappearing through the door.

     Henri laughed a hollow laugh.

     “You’ve a strange way of repaying kindness,” he said to Aurélie, after Beatrix had gone. “These people risk their necks for you, and you make them prisoners in their own home.”

     “They will be safer this way,” Aurélie said, still not turning around.

     “We will be safer, don’t you mean?”

     “There is that, too.”

     “You don’t trust them,” Henri said, and, again, he laughed. “They have shown us nothing but courage, and kindness, and you don’t trust them.”

     “They are good people,” Aurélie said. “But they are frightened. And they are right to be frightened.” She sighed. “I have known good people to do terrible things, and with far less cause.”

     “And what about you?” Henri asked. “What will you do, for your cause?”

     Aurélie turned around, and she looked at him.

     “I have never claimed to be a good person,” she said.

     “And so you will do nothing,” Henri said. “You will do nothing, while, just outside this window, people will die.”

     “And what would you have me do?” Aurélie said. There was an edge of frustration beneath her voice now, which had not been there before. “Tell me, Henri – what would you have me do?”

     Henri was silent for a long time, before he made up his mind. Then he swallowed, and he spoke.

     “Send me out,” he said.

     “Out of the question,” Aurélie said.

     “You heard what Beatrix told us,” Henri said. “Madame du Collet will hang the people of this town until they surrender me to her.” Henri stood upright, and straight, and, for a moment, he felt a courage that genuinely surprised him. “In that case, there is only one thing we can do. I must give myself up. I must give myself up, so that others may live.”

     “No.”

     “No?” Henri leveled a finger at her, which shook as he spoke. “You once asked me to do something good with my life – you dared me, practically! And, now that my chance has come, you tell me no?”

     Aurélie pushed his finger aside. “No good will come of you surrendering yourself to Perrine Labelle,” she said.

     “I could save nine lives! Perhaps more!”

     “No.”

     “No? Is that all you can say?”

     “Henri, open your eyes!” Aurélie snapped at him, before stepping closer. “You could present yourself to Perrine Labelle on a silver tray, and tie the noose around your own neck, and you would not save one life!” She bore down on him. Her eyes were like ice, and her words were like knives. “Perrine Labelle will kill who it pleases her to kill, regardless of what you, or I, or anyone else does. That sentence was passed from the moment she set foot in this town. Death has come to Mont-sur-Mer – it carries the force of law, and wears only the finest silks.”

     Henri tried to look away, but Aurélie would not let him.

     “If I had a hundred women, then maybe – maybe – I could do something to prevent what is to come,” she said. “But I have no such force at my disposal. So, instead, the choice we are left with is simple. We can keep ourselves alive, and keep our cause alive, so that we might one day see justice done for those who will die here today.” Her eyes were locked to his. “Or we can join the ranks of the dead. And who will avenge them then, Henri? Who will avenge them then?”

     Henri glanced at the door, then back at Aurélie, then back at the door again.

     “And if I try to leave?” he asked.

     “Then I will prevent you,” she said.

     “By whatever means necessary?”

     “By whatever means necessary.”

     For a moment, Henri considered putting her words to the test. But he did not. Instead, he stalked back across the room, and he sat on the low settee, where he cradled his head in his hands.

     “I hate this,” he said.

     “So do I,” Aurélie said.

     “I hate you,” he said.

     “If that helps you? Then, by all means, do,” she said.

     Henri was still trying to think of a suitable reply, when, outside, the bell tolled.

 

* * *

 

     It was only as the citizens of her village were being put to death, one-by-one, that the Comtesse Brigitte LaRoux was reminded that she did not know their names.

     Had she ever stopped before to reflect on this – and she was fairly certain that she had not – then, most probably, she would not have thought very much of it. After all, the villagers were peasants. 

     They were her peasants, to be sure – they were peasants to whom she owed a duty of care.

     But, still, they were peasants. How could she be expected to know them by name?

     This had never bothered Brigitte LaRoux before.

     Now, it did. 

     The first name to be called, after the bell had sounded, and the people of Mont-sur-Mer had once more assembled in the square – slowly, this time, in portentous silence, with their eyes cast downward, for fear of catching the gaze of a friend or neighbor who might be about to die upon the gallows – was that of Gustave DuMond. 

     After leafing casually through the town register, and picking an entry seemingly at random, the Vicomtesse’s clerk had announced the poor man’s name with a kind of banal officiousness, as though she were nothing more than a simple bureaucrat, summoning the next petitioner in a queue. 

     “Gustave DuMond,” she had said, without even bothering to look up from her record as she spoke. “Gustave DuMond, come forward, please.”

     Gustave DuMond, it transpired, was a man of middle age, with a shuffling step, and a farmer’s tan, who, after a moment of interminable suspense, had made his way to the front of the crowd, where, after clearing his throat, and removing his hat, he had announced himself to his Comtesse.

     “I am Gustave DuMond,” the man had said, with an almost impossible dignity, and he had bowed to Brigitte, who was so taken aback by the gesture that she had almost failed to acknowledge it. 

     After a startled second, the Comtesse had finally managed to nod her head at the bowing man, which granted him permission to rise. And, as he did, Brigitte tried to study his face, which was not familiar to her. 

     The Comtesse had wondered briefly if she had ever met Gustave DuMond before, and, if so, whether or not she could simply have forgotten about it. She did not want to think so, but, in truth, there was really no way of knowing.

     Next, the man had turned, and had bowed again, this time to the Grand Magistrate, who looked down at him from the scaffold above.

     “I am Gustave DuMond,” the man said.

     “Gustave DuMond,” the Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle said, “you are hereby charged with sedition, high treason, and conspiracy to pervert the cause of justice.” 

     As the Grand Magistrate spoke, she would occasionally glance down at her clerk, who was scribbling furiously as the charges were read. 

     “Before rendering my verdict,” the Vicomtesse continued, turning back to the condemned man, “I have but one question for you: Where is Henri le Douce?”

     Gustave DuMond cleared his throat.

     “Madame, I do not know,” he said.

     The Vicomtesse gave her head a curt, perfunctory nod.

     “Very well,” she said. “Gustave DuMond, I find you guilty on all counts, and, for your crimes, I sentence you to hang from the neck, until you are dead.”

     And, with those words, the Grand Magistrate’s cruel pantomime of justice had set into motion: A pair of armored soldiers took Gustave DuMond by the shoulders and led him up the stairs to the gallows. Another pair of women in black shrouds fitted the noose over his head. In the square below, the Vicomtesse’s clerk made a few, final notes on the parchment before her, which she then stamped with six separate stamps. 

     The Vicomtesse herself returned to her chair next to Brigitte, where she perched eagerly on the edge of her seat, and Brigitte could see the glimmer of anticipation in Perrine Labelle’s eyes as she raised a single finger into the air, then brought it swinging down.

     Brigitte LaRoux covered her eyes as the trap door fell open. But that left her with no hands to cover her ears, and she heard every sound that Gustave DuMond made as he died. 

     There was a loud snap, followed by a startled, strangled gasp. Then a desperate, wet choking, that seemed to go on forever. 

     When the choking finally did fade away, it was replaced with a low, whistling wheeze, until, eventually, even that, too, fell silent, leaving only the creak of the rope as it swung from side to side.

     Then, finally, silence.

     Brigitte LaRoux opened her eyes and saw that the Grand Magistrate was sitting next to her, with flushed cheeks. Her breathing was short, and fast, and she had a terrible look of satisfaction on her face.

     For the longest time, nobody spoke.

     “You are dismissed,” the Vicomtesse eventually said to the silenced crowd. “This court will reconvene in one hour’s time, at which point your presence will again be required.”

     And that was how the day went on, hour after agonizing hour.

     The next peasant to be summoned to the gallows – a young man by the name of Jean Mireau – did not go nearly as stoically. When the bell tolled next, and it was his name that was called, Jean Mireau cried out, and tried to run. But he was tackled by a group of four soldiers before he could so much as flee the square, and the Vicomtesse’s armored women dragged him – kicking, and screaming, and shouting lamentations – to the foot of the gallows. 

     When the Vicomtesse asked him where Henri le Douce was, Jean Mireau did not even bother to answer her question. Instead, he assailed the Grand Magistrate with a stream of invective, followed by a redoubled effort to break free from his captors.

     It did him no good, and Jean Mireau’s protests were silenced moments later, when he swung from the end of a rope.

     The hour after that, it was the turn of a woman named Sofie Delamard to hang.

     The hour after that, it was a Maxime D’Aubrey who took the long walk to the gallows. 

     When next the bell tolled, and an Antoine LaSalle was called, no one stepped forward to answer to that name. Looking genuinely aggrieved, the Vicomtesse dispatched a company of women to the address listed in the town register, and, when the soldiers returned, they brought with them an infirm man, who could barely walk – even with the aid of his stick – along with his wizened wife, who, although she looked as old as he, had to help bear her husband’s weight as he made his way through the crowd.

     Perrine Labelle seemed to take special pleasure in watching Antoine LaSalle swing, Brigitte had noted. 

     Then, just as the dead man’s weeping wife had turned away, and made to return to her home, the Vicomtesse’s soldiers had blocked her path, and she hung, too.

     It was only then that Brigitte LaRoux realized that, at some point during the day’s grisly proceedings, the soldiers who had been holding her and Sir Ruth hostage had faded back to the edge of the platform, where they had sheathed their weapons, and were keeping a respectful distance. 

     With a cold shiver, Brigitte understood why she had been let off of her leash: The Vicomtesse no longer feared that she might attempt to disrupt the proceedings. For the blood of her people was on Brigitte’s own hands, just as much as it was on the Vicomtesse’s. 

     The Comtesse had stood by, and had done nothing, as her people were led to their deaths. How would she resist now, when she was already complicit?

     That realization was almost too much to bear. So, with Sir Ruth now standing behind her, like a comforting bulwark, Brigitte LaRoux had broken down, and begun sobbing into the folds of her gown. 

     It was useless to cry, Brigitte knew – and unbecoming. If her mother had been alive, she would have excoriated her for weeping in public. Such behavior, she knew, was not befitting a Comtesse. 

     In that moment, though, Brigitte LaRoux did not care, for she did not feel very much like a Comtesse. After all, a Comtesse’s first responsibility was to protect her people, and, on that score, Brigitte knew she had failed, and abjectly so.

     So Brigitte did the only thing she could think of to do: she wept. And she was still weeping when the next hour struck, the bell tolled yet again, and one more name was called.

     “Lili Magret,” the clerk announced, making a notation in her records. “Lili Magret, come forward, please.”

     As Lili Magret’s name was read, an agonized wail erupted from somewhere deep in the crowd, and the rawness of that cry jolted Brigitte back to the present. 

     After quickly drying her tears on the sleeve of her gown, the Comtesse looked up, and she saw an ashen-faced mother being pushed to the front of the square, with a little girl – whom Brigitte took to be the woman’s terrified daughter – in tow.

     “Lili Magret?” the Vicomtesse said to the woman, whom a trio of soldiers were positioning at the foot of the scaffold.

     “No, Madame,” the woman said, shaking her head frantically. “I am Marjorie Magret.” 

     Then, reaching down, she wrapped her arms protectively around her young girl, who buried her face in her mother’s dress. 

     “Madame,” the woman continued, stammering, as she clutched the shaking girl tight, “Lili Magret is my daughter.”

     The Grand Magistrate raised an eyebrow. 

     “Your daughter, can she speak?”

     The woman nodded her head, slowly.

     “Yes, Madame,” she said, with a tremble in her voice.

     A smile appeared on the Vicomtesse’s face that made Brigitte’s blood run cold.

     “Bring her up here, please,” the Vicomtesse said, motioning for her soldiers to usher both the panic-stricken mother and the terrified girl – who could not have been a day older than ten – up onto the platform. 

     One soldier took hold of the little girl’s arm, and, after prying her away from her mother’s leg, she half-walked, half-carried the girl over to where Perrine Labelle stood. Marjorie Magret looked as though she were going to protest, but the Vicomtesse silenced her with a single, wordless glance. 

     Then, kneeling down so that she was the same height as the quivering girl, Perrine Labelle placed one hand on the girl’s shoulder, and she ran her other hand through the little girl’s hair.

     “Lili,” she said, in a voice that was suddenly soft, and sugared, “I have a question to ask you. And, if you love your mother, then I suggest that you answer me honestly, for it is very wicked to tell lies.” The Vicomtesse slid her hand beneath the little girl’s chin, directing the girl’s gaze up into her steel-gray eyes. “Do you understand, my dear?” 

     Lili – seemingly too terrified to even speak – merely nodded her head.

     Perrine Labelle’s smile widened, and Brigitte felt a shiver corkscrew down her spine. 

     “Very good, my dear,” the Vicomtesse said, stroking the little girl’s hair. “Now, you must tell me, where will I find Vocal Henri?”

     For a moment, the girl said nothing. She just stared, transfixed, at the Grand Magistrate. Then, glancing back over her shoulder, the girl’s lips began to quiver, and tears appeared at the corners of her eyes.

     “I want my Maman,” she said.

     “Then you had best tell me what I wish to know, my dear,” the Vicomtesse purred, even as a soldier clamped her hand over Marjorie Magret’s mouth, and another drew her sword. “Or else, I shall be forced to hang your poor mother, and you know that I do not wish to do that.” The Vicomtesse smiled, and she kept one finger beneath the little girl’s chin. “Now, my dear,” she said, “I shall ask you once more: Where is Vocal Henri?”

     It was at that moment that Brigitte LaRoux found herself on her feet. 

     This came as something of a surprise to the Comtesse, for she could not recall having consciously decided to stand. But, not only was she standing, she was practically charging across the platform, with one arm outstretched, and one finger pointed squarely at Perrine Labelle.

     “Madame, this is grotesque!” the Comtesse said, as she hurried towards the Vicomtesse. 

     Brigitte could hear armored footsteps close behind her, and, for a moment, she was not sure whether they belonged to Sir Ruth, or whether, perhaps, what she heard was the sound of the Vicomtesse’s chevalier, coming to restrain her. 

     But, in that instant, Brigitte decided that it did not matter, that she did not care. 

     What mattered was that she was going to do what she should have done hours ago. What mattered was that she was going to stand for the people of her city, as a Comtesse was supposed to do. 

     The Vicomtesse, meanwhile, did not turn around. 

     “Justice is never grotesque, my dear Comtesse,” she said, in the same matronizing tone with which she had just spoken to the little girl. “It is a thing of exquisite beauty, to one who understands it as I do.”

     Then the Vicomtesse moved, so that Lili Magret was between her and Brigitte, and she put her hands on the little girl’s shoulders, so that the child could not move, and so that Brigitte had a clear view of the girl’s terrified face.

     “Madame, she is a child!” Brigitte insisted, even as she drew up just a few paces short, her attention suddenly focused on just how close the Vicomtesse’s hands were to the little girl’s neck. “She can know nothing!”

     The Vicomtesse shook her head, and made a tsking sound with her tongue.

     “You would be surprised, my dear Comtesse, by what children may know,” she said. “Provided that one knows the proper way to ask, of course.”

     Then, kneeling down, the Vicomtesse traced a finger across the small girl’s neck, in a gesture that was at once both affectionate and threatening. She drew the shaking girl close, and she whispered into her ear: “My dear, I shall not ask you again. For the final time, tell me, where can I find Vocal Henri?”

     The girl seemed frozen.

     “If you do not know, my dear,” the Vicomtesse purred, “then you must tell me as much. If you are telling the truth, then I shall believe you.”

     The girl’s lips parted, and her voice shook.

     “I do not know, Madame,” she said, quietly.

     “Thank you, my dear,” Perrine Labelle said, and she petted the girl gently on her head.

     Brigitte LaRoux could feel herself exhale. The Comtesse glanced over at the girl’s mother, who seemed ready to collapse from relief, and, silently, Brigitte tried to reassure the woman with her eyes.

     The Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle, meanwhile, tousled the little girl’s hair one more time, before leaning forward to whisper once more into the girl’s ear.

     “Lili Magret,” she said, softly, “I find you guilty on all counts, and I sentence you to hang from the neck until you are dead.”

     For a second, the world fell silent.

     Then, all at once, it seemed to explode.

     Lili Magret screamed, and burst into tears. Brigitte LaRoux had to stifle a cry of her own. 

     Perrine Labelle just smiled. 

     Marjorie Magret fought like a wounded animal, and tried desperately to break free from the soldiers who held her. She bit the hand of the woman who was covering her mouth, and, with a piercing scream, she lunged in the direction of her daughter. But Sir Lisette – the Vicomtesse’s chevalier – came up behind the desperate woman, and, with a swift, powerful stroke, she struck the screaming mother across the back of the head with the flat of her sword, which dropped the woman where she stood, without even so much as a gasp. Lili herself, meanwhile, had also tried to run, but Perrine Labelle just wrapped an arm around her waist, and hoisted her up off the ground, so that her tiny feet kicked madly in the air. 

     Out among the crowd, Brigitte could hear shouts and yells, intermixed with the barked orders of soldiers.

     “You cannot do this!” the Comtesse screamed at the Grand Magistrate, abandoning any pretext of decorum.

     The Vicomtesse’s smile only widened, as she tightened her grip on the screaming child.

     “My dear Comtesse,” she said, “she is just a peasant, and a small one, at that. Surely you can spare her. They breed so quickly, that I doubt you shall go wanting.”

     “She is not just a peasant!” Brigitte screamed, drawing even closer, so that she could see the sadism glinting behind the Vicomtesse’s gray eyes. “She is a child – you cannot hang a child!”

     The Vicomtesse appeared to consider that for a moment, before nodding her head.

     “Of course, you are right, my dear,” she said. “The noose will not reach her – she is much too short.”

     Turning to Sir Lisette, Perrine Labelle handed the screaming girl to her. 

     “We shall have to find a chair for her to stand on,” the Vicomtesse said to the chevalier, who nodded.

     “I will not be party to this!” Brigitte said, jamming a finger into the Vicomtesse’s chest. “This, you cannot make me do!”

     Perrine Labelle grabbed Brigitte’s wrist. Her grip was startlingly strong.

     “You forget yourself, Madame,” she said, her voice suddenly hard, and cold. “I am the Baroness’s servant, as are you. We are both party to the maintenance of her rightful rule – to the maintenance of our rightful rule.” The Vicomtesse tightened her grip, and Brigitte winced. “If your heart were not so soft, my dear Comtesse, then surely you would understand.”

     “Release me,” Brigitte said, “at once.”

     After a long, tense moment, the Vicomtesse let go of Brigitte’s wrist.

     “You should return to your seat, Madame,” she said. “It is safer there, and it would be a shame for you to miss what is about to happen. It will be a rare treat, I assure you.”

     Brigitte shook her head.

     “No,” she said, “I will not stay here. I will not be complicit in any more of this depravity.”

     “My dear Comtesse, I urge you to reconsider.” Perrine Labelle smiled. “I fear for your safety, should you descend among the rabble.”

     Brigitte balled her hands into fists.

     “I shall take my chances among the rabble, Madame,” she said. “Unless you intend to prevent me from leaving – for my own protection, no doubt?”

     The Vicomtesse studied Brigitte’s face for a moment, before shrugging her shoulders.

     “You are not a prisoner, Madame.” Her smile widened. “You are, of course, free to go where you please. This is, after all, your city, and you are, after all, the Comtesse.”

     “In that case, Madame, I take my leave,” Brigitte said, and she turned her back on the Vicomtesse without so much as a curt bow.

     As Brigitte LaRoux stormed down the steps to the roiling square below, a wary-looking Sir Ruth fell into step behind her.

     “Take me to the carriage,” Brigitte said to her chevalier.

     “Yes, Madame,” Sir Ruth said, looking anxiously from side to side. “You will be safe back at the chateau.”

     “We are not going to the chateau,” Brigitte said. She was walking so fast that the chevalier could barely keep up. “There is something in the carriage that I must retrieve.” 

     Turning her head, briefly, she caught Sir Ruth’s eyes. 

     “Then we are going to see my sister,” the Comtesse said.

 

* * *

 

     There was a wrong knock at the door.

     Henri le Douce, who had been sitting in a corner, with his knees pulled up beneath his chin, and his face buried in his hands, glanced anxiously up at Aurélie, and he could see that she, too, looked anxious, which only made Henri feel doubly so. 

     Silently, the two of them both turned to Remy, who was sitting on a low chair next to the garden door. Remy, for his part, had gone ramrod-straight as soon as the knocking had begun, and he looked just as surprised by the sound as either of his fellow revolutionaries. 

     Aurélie had installed Remy next to the door directly after her earlier disagreement with Henri. Nominally, Remy had been tasked with facilitating Beatrix’s comings and goings, by way of the small garden in back of the house. But Henri knew why Aurélie had actually posted her most trusted comrade to that particular spot: Remy was where he was so that he could stop Henri, were the revolution’s nominal figurehead to make a bolt for the door. And Henri had noted – with some tinge of resentment – that Aurélie herself had not strayed more than a pace or two from the front door, either. 

     Of course, all those precautions would shortly be rendered moot if the Vicomtesse’s soldiers had somehow found them out.

     As Henri reflected bitterly on that point, the knocking came again. Not five distinct knocks, as Beatrix would have done – two soft, two loud, one soft – but a continuous, incessant pounding, that seemed to grow louder and more hurried the longer it was denied a response.

     As Aurélie and Henri watched, Remy rose quietly from his seat and crept to a nearby window, where he drew back the heavy blind just far enough to get an angle from which he could see whoever was outside.

     “It is the Comtesse,” Remy whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse.

     Henri felt his pulse quicken. He looked across the room at Aurélie, and was scared to note that the blue-eyed woman had a knife in her hand – a long, thin stiletto, with charcoal black rubbed all along the blade. 

     Henri had not seen Aurélie draw the weapon. He had not even known that she carried it.

     “How many soldiers are with her?” Aurélie asked Remy, in a hushed whisper of her own, as she moved to peek out the parlor window into the square, as if to assess for herself just how completely the house might be surrounded.

     “There is only the one,” Remy said, sounding slightly confused by that fact. “A woman in armor – the chevalier, I think.” Remy twisted this way and that, trying to see in all directions without raising the blind any further. “If there are any others, they are keeping themselves well hidden.”

     Even as the rebels struggled to assess their situation, the knocking grew louder. 

     “Madame Remarque?” called a hushed voice from outside. “Madame Remarque, if you are inside, open the door – I cannot stay here, or I shall be discovered.”

     Aurélie crept across the parlor, so that she was just beside the garden door.

     “Who is it that is knocking?” she asked Remy. “The chevalier, or the Comtesse?”

     Remy squinted through the blinds.

     “It is the Comtesse herself,” Remy said.

     Aurélie pressed herself flat against the wall, and she shifted the dagger in her hand. Her eyes were hard.

     “Then I believe that manners dictate we should let the Comtesse in,” she said.

     She nodded at Remy. Remy nodded back. 

     Then, standing well to one side, he reached out with his arm, and he unlatched the door.

     No sooner had Remy’s fingers left the bolt then the door swung open, and a harried-looking young woman – whom Henri took to be Brigitte LaRoux, the Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer – came rushing in from outside.

     “Madame Rem—” the Comtesse started to say, but, before she could finish uttering the name, Aurélie – who had been concealed behind the door as it opened – clamped a hand across the Comtesse’s mouth, and pressed the edge of her dagger beneath the startled woman’s throat. 

     “—Not another sound, Madame,” Aurélie hissed, as she pulled the wide-eyed Comtesse further into the room, and away from the still-open door. “Now, signal for your guard to come in, but take the greatest care, for if she so much as draws her blade, I will cut your throat before you can blink.”

     Carefully, Aurélie pulled her hand away from the Comtesse’s mouth.

     The young Comtesse – who Henri could see was shaking like a leaf – cleared her throat, and called quietly to her chevalier outside.

     “Sir Ruth,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, “please come inside, but, whatever you do, please do not take alarm.”

     Henri held his breath as the door swung wider, to accommodate the armored form of the chevalier as she stepped inside. The knight held a long wooden box in her gauntleted hands, and, after she had crossed the threshold into the house, Remy closed the door swiftly behind her. Then he removed the broadsword from the chevalier’s scabbard, and held it with its tip pointed at the knight.

     “Who are you?” the Comtesse had begun to demand of Aurélie, when the young noble’s gaze fell on Henri, and all the color drained from her face.

     The Comtesse swallowed, and Henri could see that the skin on her throat was white, where Aurélie’s blade was pressed against it.

     “Where is Madame Remarque?” the Comtesse asked, her voice shaking. “What have you done to her?”

     “A fine question, coming from you,” Aurélie said, wrapping her free arm around the Comtesse’s waist, and drawing her further back into the room, and further away from her chevalier – who, even disarmed and unmoving, made for an imposing presence, and appeared to be scanning the room with a calculating, battle-hardened eye. Aurélie kept her knife close against the Comtesse’s throat, and she nodded for Remy to come closer, which he did.

     “Where are the Grand Magistrate’s soldiers?” Remy asked, never taking his eyes off the chevalier, even as he directed his question to the Comtesse.

     “They are not here,” the Comtesse said. She looked like she wanted to shake her head, but, with Aurélie’s dagger so close beneath her chin, such an act might have proved fatal. “We came alone,” she insisted.

     Aurélie herself was free to shake her head, and she did.

     “I do not believe you,” she said. “Tell me, are Perrine Labelle’s women preparing to storm this house as we speak? Or are they waiting for you to bring us outside?”

     Henri saw anger flash across the Comtesse’s face at the mention of the Grand Magistrate, which took him by surprise.

     “Perrine Labelle does not know I am here,” the Comtesse said, her voice suddenly forceful. “I would die a hundred deaths before I would bring her to this place.”

     “I do not believe you,” Aurélie said again. 

     “I do,” Henri said, quietly.

     Henri saw Aurélie’s eyes dart towards him.

     “I do,” Henri said again, and he shrugged his shoulders.

     For a moment, a tense silence descended upon the room, which was broken only when Aurélie Cerveau cleared her throat. 

     “If you have not come for us,” she said, sounding uncertain for the first time that day, “then why have you come here at all?”

     “She came for me,” said a small voice that Henri had never heard before.

     Henri’s eyes snapped to the spot from which the ghostly reply had come, and he was startled to see that the door to the stairway was open by a crack, and that a pair of red eyes was staring out at him from the darkness beyond. Then the door opened wider, and, as what little light there was in the parlor crept into the stairwell, and fell across the face of the hidden woman, Henri was startled to see that her eyes were not red, but pink. 

     “She came to see me, Madame,” the woman said again, as she took a small, timid step into the room. 

     She was willowy, and thin, and wore a simple, gray robe, and her skin was so pale that, for one, gape-mouthed moment, Henri almost thought that she was a ghost. And, although the woman’s face and voice were young, her hair was as white as her skin, so that her only color seemed to come from her pink eyes and lips.

     She had to be the weaver’s infirm daughter, Henri realized with a start. In all the days which he had spent in the house, he had never actually seen her before.

     “Why would the Comtesse come to see you?” Henri asked the robed woman.

     The woman did not look at Henri. Instead, she was staring at Brigitte LaRoux – and at Aurélie, who was still holding a knife to the Comtesse’s throat.

     “Because she is my sister, Monsieur,” the woman said. Then, softly, she added: “Please, do not hurt her.”

     Henri glanced at Aurélie, who – for once – looked as confused as Henri felt. 

     “Is this true?” she asked the Comtesse, lowering her knife just a fraction of an inch as she did.

     “Yes, Madame,” the Comtesse said, finally daring to nod her head.

     After another tense moment, Aurélie lowered her arm, and her dagger vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

     The Comtesse did not wait to be given permission before dashing across the room and wrapping the pale woman in her arms.

     “Oh, Elise!” the Comtesse cried, and she kissed her sister’s pale cheeks not once, but twice, before burying her face in the woman’s gray-robed shoulder, and beginning to cry. “Oh, Elise, everything has gone wrong!” 

     The Comtesse sniffled, and she wiped at her eyes. 

     “Everything has gone wrong,” she continued, “and I did nothing to stop it! I did not know what to do – I just kept wishing that Margot was here, and I did nothing to stop it…”

     For a moment, the Comtesse’s voice trailed away, leaving nothing behind but the sound of her crying.

     “I did not know what to do,” she said one last time, before her sobs fell silent.

     Henri glanced over at Remy, and saw that a look of understanding was slowly spreading across the woodcutter’s face.

     “You are the middle sister,” Remy said to the pale-skinned woman. “You are the mage.”

     “Yes,” the pale woman said, as she held the shaking Comtesse, brushing her fingers through her hair.

     “You were supposed to have been banished,” Remy said.

     “Yes.”

     “But you never left the city?”

     “No.”

     “Your sister has been hiding you,” Aurélie said. “She has been hiding you – right here – the whole time.”

     “Yes,” the pale woman said.

     “But how?” Remy asked, shaking his head. “How did no one know? How did we not know?”

     “It has all been done very discretely,” the chevalier said, and it almost startled Henri to hear her speak. “Madame Elise’s face was not much seen beyond the walls of the chateau, owing to her… condition… and the money for her care has been passed through many hands.” Sir Ruth nodded in the direction of her mistress. “Madame la Comtesse has gone to great lengths to maintain this arrangement, albeit at arm’s length, and the Remarques – who have been paid a great sum for their cooperation, yet have not been told from whence their windfall has come – have asked very few questions.”

     Henri almost had to laugh at that. Aurélie had been right not to trust the old weaver after all.

     “But why?” Remy asked, shaking his head. “Why take such a chance, and for a mage?”

     “Because she is my sister,” Brigitte LaRoux said. The Comtesse drew herself upright, and, still sniffling, she wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Because I love her.”

     “You must forgive me if I am stinting in my praise for your compassion, Madame LaRoux,” Aurélie said, with an edge creeping into her voice, “but it hardly speaks to your character that you would go to such lengths for your noble sister, yet you do not raise a finger while Perrine Labelle commits murder on your streets.”

     “I did not know what to do!” Brigitte LaRoux repeated, miserably. “At first, I assumed the Grand Magistrate had come for Elise, and, when I found out that she had not?” The Comtesse’s shoulders slumped. “All I could think of was trying to protect my sister.”

     “And the women who hung in your square today, while you did nothing but watch? Were they not sisters, too? Were they not deserving of your protection?”

     “Yes,” Brigitte said. “Yes, they were, and I failed them. And, for that, I am sorry.” She shook her head. “I am more sorry than words can express.”

     “I am sure that will be of great comfort, to the families of the dead,” Aurélie said, her words practically dripping with acid.

     “I did not know what to do!” Brigitte LaRoux insisted.

     “You could have done something!” Aurélie snapped back. 

     “And what would you have had the Comtesse do, citizen Aurélie?” Henri asked, dryly. Taking a step towards Aurélie, he put his hand on her shoulder, and he felt her tense beneath him. “The Grand Magistrate has four hundred women marching under her banner, as you yourself noted. The Comtesse never had a chance against her.”

     Aurélie looked daggers at Henri.

     “That is not an excuse,” she said.

     “No, it is arithmetic,” Henri said. 

     Aurélie looked at Henri as though she might kill him, but, before she could reply, Brigitte LaRoux interrupted. 

     “Your friend is right,” the Comtesse said to Henri. “I should have done something, and it is too late now for me to wash the blood from my hands. But it is not too late for me to try to prevent yet more lives from being lost – and that is what I mean to do, now, if you will let me.”

     Henri raised an eyebrow.

     “What, precisely, do you mean to do?” he asked.

     Brigitte LaRoux seemed to ignore Henri’s question. Instead, she just stared at him for a long time, and she seemed to be making up her mind about something.

     “Vocal Henri,” she said, “can you protect my sister? More to the point, will you protect my sister, even though her blood is mine?”

     Henri le Douce felt himself blink. No one had ever asked him a question like that before. 

     For a moment, he tried to think about what a leader of women would say, what a hero of the people would say.

     But Henri le Douce was not sure he was either of those things. So, in the end, he settled for the truth.

     “Madame, I do not know that I can,” he said. “But I do promise that I shall try.”

     Slowly, Brigitte LaRoux nodded her head.

     “And if I help you to escape from Perrine Labelle,” she said, “can you stop her? Can you see that justice comes to her, for what she has done?”

     “Yes,” Aurélie said, taking Henri by surprise. “Of that, you have my word.”

     The Comtesse nodded her head again, more forcefully this time. 

     “Then I shall help you to escape,” she said. “Or, more precisely, Elise shall help you to escape.”

     “And how will she do that?” Aurélie asked.

     For the first time, Henri saw the Comtesse smile.

     “Come on, Elise,” she said, taking her sister by the hand. “Show them what you can do?”

     Elise LaRoux looked nervously at her sister, who nodded her support. Then the gray-robed mage took a deep breath, and she closed her pink eyes. She held her hand out in front of her, palm open, facing up, and, softly, she began to chant. 

     The first thing Henri noticed was that, inside the room, the air began to feel cool, and clammy. Instinctively, he went to turn his collar up against the sudden chill, and, as he did, Henri le Douce was surprised to see that his breath fogged the air as it passed between his lips. And it was then that he saw what looked almost like a small cloud forming in the air above Elise LaRoux’s outstretched hand. As the pale mage’s lips mouthed the words to some arcane incantation, the cloud hovering above her open palm seemed to swirl and grow, until it began to fill the room with a thin, cool mist that grew denser and denser as the woman chanted and chanted.

     “Sorcery!” Remy cried out. “She means to poison us – do not breathe her air!” Frantically, he tried to cover his nose and mouth, nearly dropping the chevalier’s sword in the process.

     The mage’s pink eyes shot open. A look of shock formed on her face, and the haze in the room evaporated away as quickly as it had appeared.

     “No, no!” she insisted, holding her hands up in a protestation of innocence. “My spell, it is just fog, no different from the morning mist that comes down from the sea!” Staring down at her own feet, the mage’s voice came close to breaking. “When I was a girl, I could never go outside, except on those days when the fog was so heavy, like a gray blanket, that it blocked out the sun, and, well,” she shuffled her feet, “I always wanted to play with my sisters, so I taught myself to summon the mist when I wanted it, and not just when it came on its own.”

     Remy looked as though he was far from mollified by that explanation, and he appeared to be about to press the point, when Aurélie held up a hand to stop him.

     “This mist,” she asked, suddenly focused on the pale-skinned woman with an intensity that made Henri nervous, “how thick can you make it?”

     Elise shrugged. 

     “As thick as soup-aux-pois, if that is what you want,” she said.

     “And how much of it can you summon?” Aurélie asked. “Enough to cover the village? Enough to conceal our escape?”

     “I have never tried to conjure so much at once,” Elise said. “But, I believe so, yes.”

     The Comtesse squeezed her sister’s pale hand. Then she turned to Henri.

     “You must take as many people with you as you can,” the Comtesse said. “Elise will lead you to the harbor. There is a ship moored there – a fast ship, a galleon – whose captain owes me a debt. She is a trader from the north, and the farmers would have burned her ship when she made port, had I not extended my protection to her. And, with tensions being what they are, I should expect her ship to be fully-crewed, and ready to sail at a moment’s notice.” 

     There was a gold-and-sapphire signet ring on the second finger of the Comtesse’s right hand. With some effort, the Comtesse worked the ring free, and she pressed it into the hand of her sister. 

     “Go to the galleon,” she said, “and show this to her captain – she will be obliged to offer you her aid.” The Comtesse looked at Henri. “With a ship such as that at your disposal, and with Elise aboard? Not even the Vicomtesse’s corvettes shall be able to track you.”

     Henri glanced at Aurélie, and, after the two of them had exchanged silent nods, Aurélie turned to Remy.

     “Remy, gather everyone from upstairs, and bring them here,” she said. “Tell them to be ready to leave at once. Anything we cannot carry, anything we do not need, we leave behind.”

     Remy shook his head. He looked profoundly uneasy.

     “You would trust our lives to a noble?” he asked, incredulous. “A noble, and a mage at that?”

     “Henri trusts her,” Aurélie said, and she shot Henri le Douce a long, hard glance. “He is the leader of our cause.”

     Henri tried to ignore the poison look that this remark earned him from Remy. Instead, he turned to face Elise. 

     “How long will your spell take to prepare?” he asked her.

     Elise blinked her pink eyes, and, for a moment, she appeared lost in thought.

     “I do not know. I have never tried to work so much magic before,” she said. “To gather myself, I believe it will take me a little time.”

     The Comtesse Brigitte LaRoux cleared her throat.

     “Then a little time is what I intend to buy for you,” she said. Glancing nervously over at Aurélie, the Comtesse added: “If you will permit me to go to my chevalier, she has something which I require.”

     Aurélie looked first at the Comtesse, then at the chevalier, then at the long wooden box which the chevalier held in her arms. 

     “Go,” Aurélie said, and she nodded her head. 

     Brigitte crossed the room to where Sir Ruth stood waiting. The chevalier made to drop to one knee, but, with an exasperated sigh, and a wave of her hand, the Comtesse bade her to rise. So the chevalier simply held the box out to her.

     Brigitte LaRoux undid the box’s bronze catches, and she lifted its lacquered lid. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, she extracted a slender, elegant epee from inside. 

     Henri would not have thought it possible for Elise LaRoux to grow any paler, but, when the mage caught sight of the sword which her sister now held – awkwardly – in one hand, the mage’s already-white cheeks seemed – somehow – to grow whiter still.

     “Brigitte, no,” Elise said, giving her head a violent shake. “No, no, no…”

     But Brigitte LaRoux just shook her head, too.

     “I have to,” the Comtesse said, and she shifted her grip on the sword, as though unused to its weight and feel.

     “Brigitte, please!” There were tears in the mage’s eyes as she crossed the room, and took her sister by the shoulders. “Please, no…”

     “Elise, I have to,” Brigitte said, and Henri saw that there were tears in the Comtesse’s eyes, too. “She is murdering my people. I must stand for them.” The Comtesse closed her eyes. “That is what Margot would have done.”

     “Margot could fence,” Elise said. 

     “I know,” Brigitte said.

     “You cannot fence,” Elise said.

     “I know,” Brigitte said.

     “Brigitte, she will kill you,” Elise said, her voice trembling.

     Brigitte opened her eyes. 

     “I know,” she said. 

     Henri heard the sound of a throat being cleared.

     “Madame, let me go in your stead.”

     It was Sir Ruth who had spoken, and Henri turned to look at the chevalier, who, despite the Comtesse’s earlier admonition, had bent to one knee, and was bowing her head. 

     “Madame,” the chevalier continued, “please let me stand for you? It may be your duty to stand for your people, but it is my duty to stand for you.”

     A faint smile crossed Brigitte LaRoux’s face.

     “No, Sir Ruth,” the Comtesse said, and, again, she bid the chevalier to rise. “It is your foremost duty to obey my orders, and my order to you is this: You must go with Elise. You must keep her safe. You must protect her.” Through her tears, Brigitte smiled. “Elise will be your Comtesse very soon, and she will have need of you, just as I have.”

     “Madame—” the chevalier started to say.

     “—No,” Brigitte said. “I have given my order, and it shall stand. Besides, there is much that must be done, and we are wasting precious time.”

     As if to emphasize the Comtesse’s words, the village bell tolled.

     Although her hands were shaking, Brigitte LaRoux’s face looked calm as she took her sister in her arms, and kissed her once more on each cheek. Leaning in close, the Comtesse seemed to whisper something into the mage’s ear. After sniffling, and choking back a sob, the mage nodded her head, and, drawing close to the Comtesse’s ear, she whispered a reply. 

     Then, before anyone else could try to stop her, the Comtesse Brigitte LaRoux walked to the garden door, and she drew it open.

     Turning back one final time, she said: “Remember your promise, Henri le Douce.”

     Henri nodded his head.

     The Comtesse nodded back. And then she was gone.

     As soon as the door had closed behind her, Remy and Aurélie both sprang into action, heading up the stairs to brief their comrades on the newly-conceived plan. Sir Ruth, meanwhile, crossed the room to look through the parlor window, and into the square outside.

     Thus, for a moment, Henri found himself alone with Elise LaRoux.

     “Your sister,” Henri said, finding himself not quite able to look right at the mage. “What did she say to you?”

     Elise sniffled, and she wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe.

     “She said, ‘Bury me next to Margot,’” the mage said.

     Slowly, Henri nodded his head.

     “And what did you say to her?” he said.

     “I told her, ‘You are a good Comtesse,’” Elise said.

     For a moment, Henri looked into Elise’s pink eyes. 

     “I am inclined to agree,” Henri le Douce said.

     Then Henri stepped off to one side, and he left the mage to prepare.

 

* * *

 

     “Perrine Labelle, come forward!”

     Brigitte LaRoux could feel the eyes of the village upon her as she made her way to the foot of the gallows, sword in hand. The crowd parted before her, as if guided by an invisible will, and Brigitte tried to ignore the looks of hopelessness and betrayal she glimpsed upon the faces of her people as she made her way past.

     It was good that they looked at her. It was good that they stared.

     Brigitte wanted all eyes upon her, for as long as she could keep them.

     Atop the scaffold, a group of soldiers had been dragging a struggling man towards the noose, but both they and their captive froze in place at the sight of the Comtesse’s approach. Perrine Labelle, who had been reclining upon her chair, leaned forward in her seat as Brigitte found her way to the foot of the platform. 

     The Grand Magistrate raised one eyebrow, and a little smile crept across her painted lips.

     “My dear Comtesse,” she said, “I am so pleased that you have decided to grace us once more with your presence. I have kept your seat for you, as you can see.” The Vicomtesse traced a purple nail across the cushion next to her. “Won’t you join me, my dear?”

     Brigitte ignored the Vicomtesse’s insincere politesse. 

     “Perrine Labelle, come forward!” Brigitte repeated, raising her voice as loud as she could, so that no one in the square could fail to hear. “I am Brigitte LaRoux, Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, the twenty-seventh of my name, ordained by Goddess herself as the protector of these lands and their people, and you are not welcome in my city!” Brigitte gestured in the direction of the city gate. “I demand that you take your soldiers and leave, at once!”

     Perrine Labelle straightened a bit in her seat. Her posture assumed a more formal bearing, and she steepled her fingers together in front of her chest.

     “Madame, I can see that you are distraught, but do take care,” the Vicomtesse said. “You tread dangerously close to insulting my honor, and there are witnesses present.”

     “You are a woman without honor, Madame!” Brigitte replied. “You are common and vile, a murderess in noble garb, and your so-called ‘justice’ is a travesty against Goddess and woman.” Brigitte leveled the LaRoux family sword in the Vicomtesse’s direction. “For your crimes here today, I demand satisfaction.”

     The Grand Magistrate leaned further forward in her chair. If anything, her smile appeared to widen.

     “My dear Comtesse,” she said, nodding her head at the blade Brigitte carried. “Spoken with a sword in your hand, those words are a challenge. Surely you understand this?”

     Brigitte LaRoux nodded her head.

     “Perrine Labelle,” she declared, in a voice that, somehow – miraculously – did not break, “I challenge you to a duel of honor, in single combat.”

     The Vicomtesse regarded Brigitte with an expression that bordered on amusement, before nodding her head.

     “Naturally, I am compelled to accept,” she said, smiling. Then, raising one hand in the air, the Vicomtesse summoned her chevalier with the crook of a finger. “Sir Lisette shall stand for me.”

     The Vicomtesse’s chevalier stepped forward. She knelt briefly before her mistress – who acknowledged her supplication with a wave of her hand – before rising to face Brigitte. The short, powerful woman drew her sword and held it out before her, with both hands on the pommel, and the blade pointed downward. The chevalier stared down at the Comtesse with eyes that were impassive and cold, as she waited for her mistress’s command.

     “And where is your chevalier?” Perrine Labelle asked the Comtesse.

     “Sir Ruth is elsewhere,” Brigitte said. “But her presence shall not be required.”

     Perrine Labelle tilted her head a bit to one side.

     “I assure you, Madame, your chevalier is required.” The Vicomtesse shrugged her shoulders. “Unless, of course, you prefer to elect someone else to stand for you? I can supply a highly competent woman from among my forces, if that is what you desire.”

     “No, Madame,” Brigitte said. She held her own sword out in front of her, in an imitation of Sir Lisette’s posture. “I shall stand for myself.”

     At that, Perrine Labelle arched an eyebrow. 

     “Such is your right, Madame, but I urge you to reconsider.” The Vicomtesse smiled. “In last season’s Royal Tournament, Sir Lisette killed six other knights in single combat. Had you been in attendance, I very much doubt you would wish to face her.”

     “No, Madame,” Brigitte said. “I wish to face you.” She locked eyes with the Vicomtesse. “Provided you have the courage to accept, of course.”

     The Vicomtesse was silent for a moment. Then she laughed.

     “You wish to duel me? Yourself? In your gown?” Perrine Labelle covered her mouth, and she laughed again. “My dear Comtesse, that simply will not do.” The Vicomtesse nodded in the direction of that hour’s condemned man, who was waiting anxiously beneath the swinging noose. “I beg you, Madame, allow me to attend to this traitor first? And then, if you wish to continue with this farce, we shall find you some proper clothes.” The Grand Magistrate smiled. “It shall only take a moment, and will be much more sporting that way.”

     Brigitte shook her head.

     “You evade my question, Madame,” she said, keeping her eyes on the Vicomtesse, determined not to give ground. “I have put a challenge to you, personally, and that challenge still stands: Do you have the courage to face me?”

     For a long moment, the Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle looked down at Brigitte. Then the Vicomtesse rose from her seat and walked to the edge of the platform, where, rather than make use of the stairs, she vaulted nimbly over the wooden railing and dropped to the cobbled square below, landing softly on the balls of her feet.

     Brigitte LaRoux felt herself swallow.

     The Vicomtesse walked over to where her clerk sat behind stacks of parchments.

     “Please be sure to note, for the record, that it was the Comtesse who slandered a duly-appointed agent of the Baroness, before impugning the righteous workings of this tribunal.” Perrine Labelle glanced up at Brigitte, as the clerk hurriedly took dictation. “Please further note that it was the Comtesse who first issued the challenge.”

     As the clerk finished her notation, the Vicomtesse turned back toward Brigitte. She moved with long, languid steps, treading lightly across the cobblestones, as she began to pace in a slow circle around the Comtesse, smiling all the while, her gray eyes fixed on Brigitte with a focus that felt predatory in its singularity of desire.

     “Very well, Madame,” the Vicomtesse said. “You have asked for me, and you shall have me.”

     Drawing her elegant rapier from its scabbard, the Vicomtesse passed the blade from one hand to the other, and then back again, before giving the sword a dexterous twirl, and raising it into the air, with its point directed straight at the Comtesse. The Vicomtesse then turned herself sideways, so that only her slimmest profile faced Brigitte, and she spread her booted feet apart, with her knees slightly flexed. She slipped her left arm behind her back, where she held it out and slightly raised, so as to center her balance over the middle of her stance.

     “Whenever you are ready, my dear,” the Vicomtesse said, and Brigitte could hear the anticipation in the other noble’s voice.

     Before she replied, Brigitte risked a furtive glance at her surroundings. From the corners of her eyes, she could see that people were gathering in the square, bunching together into a series of jostling circles with the two noblewomen at the center. And it was not just the villagers who were crowding the square, in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the contest to come. The Vicomtesse’s soldiers, too, were drifting away from their posts, and were craning their necks in an effort to see over the heads of the collected citizenry.

     Brigitte thanked Goddess for that, and she prayed silently for her courage to hold.

     The Comtesse knew that she could not hope to outduel Perrine Labelle. But she did not have to. Her only aim was to draw out the contest for as long as possible. 

     As such, to the extent that her corseted gown would permit, Brigitte LaRoux attempted to assume a stance that mirrored Perrine Labelle’s. 

     “En garde, Madame,” the Comtesse said.

     Brigitte could see the Vicomtesse’s eyebrows draw themselves up into an amused expression, and a sardonic grin flitted across the other woman’s face.

     Then, faster than Brigitte LaRoux could react, Perrine Labelle lunged at her.

     The Vicomtesse’s thrust was so quick, and came with so little warning, that Brigitte had no hope of parrying it. Instead, she tried desperately to twist out of the way of the Vicomtesse’s flashing blade. But Brigitte’s feet were spaced too far apart, and her weight was positioned poorly, so that, as she tried to move, she tripped over her own feet, and tumbled awkwardly to the ground. As she fell, the Comtesse tried to put out her arms to brace the impact, but she landed badly. She felt her wrists scream as they suddenly absorbed her weight, and she hit the pavement with a jarring thud.

     Brigitte could hear Perrine Labelle laughing as she picked herself back up, and tried to collect her bearings.

     “Oh, my dear Comtesse, this will not do,” the Vicomtesse said, with a click of her tongue. “I hardly even tried to strike you, and look what has happened? We must improve your stance, or I fear you shall do yourself harm.” 

     Now that she was back on her feet, Brigitte tested the motion in her wrist, which howled as she tried to hold her sword. Again, she tried to imitate the Vicomtesse’s posture.

     “No, no, Madame,” the Vicomtesse said, shaking her head, and smiling. With a little flourish, she directed the point of her rapier downward, and tapped it against the toe of her boot. “You must point the toes of your front foot towards me, like so, but you must keep your back foot sideways, as I do, or else you shall simply fall over again, and we cannot have that.”

     Glancing nervously down, Brigitte tried to position her feet in the manner that the Vicomtesse had indicated.

     “Much better, my dear,” Perrine Labelle said, and she lunged again. 

     This time, as Brigitte dove desperately to one side, she at least did not fall, but she felt her heart leap into her throat as she realized that the Vicomtesse had anticipated her movement, and had actually directed her thrust not at where Brigitte had previously stood, but slightly off to one side, to compensate for the Comtesse’s attempt at evasion. Brigitte heard herself gasp as the tip of the Vicomtesse’s rapier came to a sudden stop in mid-strike, barely a hair’s width from her face.

     “You must also learn not to betray your movements, my dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, “or else you will offer me no challenge at all.” And, with a little flip of her wrist, the Vicomtesse clipped a lock of Brigitte’s hair with the point of her sword, before withdrawing the blade. 

     Brigitte could feel her cheeks burning. Angrily, she lashed out with her own blade, sweeping it towards the Vicomtesse in a glittering arc. But Perrine Labelle took one nimble step backwards, and the point of Brigitte’s epee passed harmlessly in front of her.

     Again, the Vicomtesse clicked her tongue.

     “You must lunge, my dear!” she said. “You must thrust! An epee is a thrusting sword – do not swing it about, like some common brute.” Then, in a gesture of pure provocation, the Vicomtesse lowered her own guard, and took one long step forward, placing herself clearly within striking range.

     Brigitte LaRoux raised her sword, but hesitated.

     “If you will not amuse me, my dear,” the Vicomtesse said, “then I shall be forced to find a more satisfactory diversion – and I do not suppose that you shall like it. There is still a man on my gallows, after all, whose sentence I am sworn to carry out.”

     Brigitte LaRoux screamed, and she lunged. 

     The Comtesse tried to plunge the tip of her sword into the center of Perrine Labelle’s chest – just at the spot where her sash of rank rested above her heart – and, for a split-second, Brigitte did not see how she could miss – the Vicomtesse was so close, and her guard was down. But, just as soon as Brigitte’s momentum had committed her to her attack, the Vicomtesse sprung to life. 

     Moving with an alacrity that seemed almost preternatural, Perrine Labelle spun on the balls of her feet, and pirouetted deftly out of the path of Brigitte’s strike. Instead, as the Comtesse lunged past, the Vicomtesse brought her own sword up, and struck faster than Brigitte could react. Perrine Labelle did not go for a killing blow, though. Instead, she brought the flat of her blade square across Brigitte’s back, where it cracked like a whip, and the Comtesse yelped in surprise and pain as thin steel stung the bare skin atop her shoulder blades.

     The pain was unlike anything Brigitte had ever felt, and she almost doubled-over from the shock of the blow. Her skin burned where it had been struck, as though she had been branded by a hot iron, and the Comtesse could feel the long, painful welt that was forming across the length of her shoulders.

     “My dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, as she resumed her dueling stance, and bounced nimbly atop her booted feet, “did no one ever teach you to fence?”

     “No, Madame,” Brigitte said, through gritted teeth, as she fought to regain her breath, and to ignore the haze of pain that she could feel dulling her senses.

     The Vicomtesse made a tsking noise, and shook her head.

     “Your mother should have arranged lessons for you, as soon as you were old enough to hold a sword,” the Grand Magistrate said. “My mother, bless her soul, found a wonderful old chevalier to teach me.” Perrine Labelle grinned, and something terrible flashed in her eyes. “I was very gifted, as you can see. I practiced ceaselessly. During the day, I had my lessons, and, at night, I would sneak down to the stables, and I would order the stable boys to fence with me. That was wonderful fun, at least until my mother put a stop to it – she complained that I was killing too many of the servants, you see.”

     Brigitte gritted her teeth, and winced. Every time she tried to move her arm, she felt as though her back were on fire.

     “It was my sister, Margot, who learned how to fence,” she said, hoping to keep Perrine Labelle talking. “Not me.”

     “And what did you learn, my dear?”

     Brigitte tried desperately to keep the point of her sword up, to hold it steady.

     “My father taught me to play the violin,” she said.

     Perrine Labelle laughed.

     “A charming talent, my dear, I am sure,” the Vicomtesse said. “But not, I fear, very applicable to our current dilemma.”

     And then, almost before Brigitte LaRoux could understand what was happening, it was over.

     Brigitte felt a strange sensation – like a pinch, almost, or the sting of a bee – just above her navel, and a little to one side. Looking down, she was stunned to see that the Vicomtesse’s sword had pierced through her, to see blood oozing out from the wound, staining her blue dress black, and glistening red on the thin blade. Brigitte’s mouth fell open, and she felt more surprise than pain, as her eyes flickered back upward again, and came to rest on the smiling face of Vicomtesse Perrine Labelle, who now stood barely an arm’s length away. 

     Brigitte blinked once, then twice, and she almost shook her head. The thrust had come so fast, she had not even seen the Vicomtesse move.

     “You would have done better to stick to the violin, my dear,” Perrine Labelle said. As she spoke, she took another step forward, and Brigitte LaRoux watched with a kind of morbid, disembodied fascination, as the Vicomtesse ran her through, until her rapier’s amethyst-studded hilt was pressed against the blood-slicked satin of Brigitte’s dress, and the two women’s bodies were so close that the Comtesse almost felt as though she had been pulled into an embrace.

     “Do not fret, my dear Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle whispered into Brigitte’s ear. “I have placed my strike very carefully. It will not kill you.”

     Brigitte opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. She could feel her fingers loosen around the grip of her sword, and she knew that it had fallen from her grasp when she heard the sound of metal striking stone.

     “I have something wonderful planned for you, my dear,” the Vicomtesse whispered. She drew back so that Brigitte could see the hunger in her eyes, and, when she spoke again, she practically purred: “You see, my dear Comtesse, yours is a truly exquisite neck, and, from the moment I laid eyes upon you, I knew that I wanted it.” 

     The Vicomtesse reached up with her hand, and she drew one fingertip delicately down the side of Brigitte’s neck, leaving a trail of warm blood as she did.

     “You see, I have never hung a Comtesse before,” Perrine Labelle said, and her gray eyes danced. “So this is going to be a new experience for both of us. I do not know about you, my dear, but I – for one – am excited.”

     Then, with a surgeon’s precision, the Vicomtesse withdrew her sword, and, this time, Brigitte LaRoux felt the movement of the blade as it exited her body. Next, she felt her knees buckle, and she practically collapsed into the arms of the Grand Magistrate, who held her upright, and whispered once more into her ear.

     “Brigitte LaRoux,” she said, “I find you guilty of my crimes, and I sentence you to hang from the neck, until you are dead.”

     Brigitte LaRoux’s skin felt cold, and, for a moment, she wondered if she was dying.

     Then Brigitte exhaled, and, as her ragged breath escaped from between her lips, she watched it turn to fog.

     From somewhere in the distance, Brigitte LaRoux could hear shouting, and growing cries of alarm. Directly in front of her, through a rapidly-thickening haze, she could see that the Vicomtesse’s eyes had gone wide.

     Brigitte LaRoux tasted blood in the back of her mouth, and she shivered from the sudden chill. But, even as she felt herself fading away into nothingness, the Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer smiled.

     “Vive la revolution,” she said.

 

* * *

 

     The Comtesse’s sister was as good as her word: The fog that descended upon Mont-sur-Mer really was as thick as a three-day-old soup-aux-pois. 

     So, even though Aurélie Cerveau made a point of staying close enough to Henri le Douce that she could have reached out and touched the back of his shoulders, he was visible to her only as a slightly darker patch of gray through the all-enshrouding mist, which now concealed the revolutionaries as they warily made their way through the alleyways down to the port.

     The silent procession had formed itself into a single file – the better to move quickly through the narrow, winding streets – with Aurélie roughly at its center. Beatrix was at the front of the column, for she had mapped the fastest route between the safe house and the harbor, and, with her keen sight, and quick reflexes, the scout could navigate in a blindfold as well as most women could with their eyes open – which was no bad thing, Aurélie reflected, for the mists that Elise LaRoux had conjured from thin air had all but blindfolded the entire city. 

     Remy followed behind Beatrix, with the armored chevalier – Sir Ruth, the Comtesse had called her – following after Remy. Although Aurélie knew that the armored woman was making every effort to move as stealthily as she could, every one of her metallic footfalls was far too loud for Aurélie’s comfort. So Aurélie kept her dagger close at hand, and her ears alert. But it was hard to make out any distinct sounds amidst the general chaos that had erupted after Elise’s spell had engulfed the town. In the distance, Aurélie could hear shouts, and screaming, and barked orders, but, in between the twists and turns of the alley, and the general sense of confusion that being enveloped in an endless fog seemed to engender, Aurélie found that she was having difficulty identifying the origin of any given noise.

     She could only pray that, if she herself felt so disoriented, then any of the Vicomtesse’s soldiers who might be in pursuit would be similarly encumbered – if not more so. 

     Directly ahead of Aurélie was the only place where the single file widened to two. When Elise had worked her magic, it had become painfully obvious to Aurélie that casting a spell of such magnitude was pushing the pale woman to the very edge of her ability – and a bit beyond it, even. As her chanting had reached its crescendo, the white-haired woman’s knees had begun to wobble, and she would have fallen over, had Henri not rushed to catch her. Even now, the concentration required to maintain her spell was so all-consuming that the mage could barely walk. As such, Henri le Douce – suddenly very gallant, Aurélie had noted – had taken the young woman’s weight upon his shoulder as they left the safe house, and had been by her side ever since, so that he could guide her through the streets, while she bowed her head, and chanted, with her eyes half closed, as if in a trance.

     That was going to pose a problem, Aurélie thought to herself. That was going to pose quite the problem, indeed.

     But there would be time to worry about that later, after they had survived the day.

     Aurélie herself followed close on Henri’s heels – the better to keep an eye on him, in case he attempted to do something foolish, or heroic – although, now that Henri had the mage on his arm, Aurélie found herself markedly less concerned that he might attempt to make a bolt for it. 

     Patrice had taken the spot directly behind her, and the remainder of the Standing Committee trailed out behind him.

     The instructions that Henri had given to everyone (upon Aurélie’s prompting) were simple: Move quietly, keep your wits about you, and stay in sight of the woman in front of you.

     So that was what they had done. And – so far, at least – it had all gone to plan. 

     Aurélie knew that they still had some ways to go before reaching the harbor, and that, once there, the danger would be far from over. But, silently, she was thankful for the Comtesse’s unexpected intervention, and for the very peculiar talent of her fugitive sister. 

     That was when Henri stopped so abruptly that Aurélie very nearly walked into his back.

     “Why did you stop?” Aurélie asked him, in a hushed whisper. “We must keep moving.”

     “I thought I heard something,” Henri said. He was standing stone still, frozen in mid-stride.

     Aurélie, too, stopped, and, for a moment, she listened. 

     “I do not hear—” she began to say, but, before she could finish, Henri started in place, like a startled deer.

     “—There it is again!” he hissed, far too loudly. “Listen!”

     Aurélie was about to tell Henri to keep his voice down, when she, too, heard it – a strange noise, almost like a muffled cry, that seemed to be coming from somewhere behind her in line.

     Turning around, Aurélie saw that Patrice, too, had come to a stop. His body was still, and tense, and he was turning his head from side to side, as he searched for the source of the unseen disturbance.

     Aurélie opened her mouth to speak, but the spymaster silenced her with a raised hand. 

     “I heard it, too,” he said, voice anxious, eyes wide. “It almost sounded like—”

     Before Patrice could finish his thought, a dark shadow took shape behind him, and something flashed in the mist. 

     Before Aurélie could utter a word of warning, a sword sliced through the fog.

     Patrice did not have time to turn around, did not have time to cry out – the spymaster did not even have the chance to look surprised – before a single, powerful stroke sliced clean through his neck. His head simply slid off of his shoulders, carried along in the direction of the blade’s swing, while his body – suddenly lifeless, and limp – crumpled forward, so that Aurélie had to leap backward to avoid being struck by the corpse as it fell.

     Aurélie’s grip tightened around her dagger, and she took another backwards step – only to bump into Henri.

     “Aurélie, what—” Henri le Douce started to say, but Aurélie cut him off.

     “—Go!” she yelled, shoving at Henri with her free hand as she worked desperately to regain her balance, and to brace herself for the attack that she knew was coming. “Henri, Remy – everybody – go!” 

     Again, in the mist in front of her, something flashed, and Aurélie ducked and rolled, just in time to see a bloodstained sword cut through the air above her head. As the sword’s momentum pulled its owner forward, Aurélie saw a short, dark-haired woman emerge from the fog, with a hard look upon her face, and a thin collar of rope around her neck, and Aurélie felt adrenaline surge through her body as her eyes met those of the Vicomtesse’s chevalier.

     Aurélie saw that the chevalier had not expected her to dodge the killing stroke, which left her with a brief window of opportunity while the chevalier was caught off-guard. Seizing her chance, Aurélie lunged at the armored woman’s knees, and tried to jam her dagger into the gap between the plates of her greaves, hoping to find either cloth or soft leather in the joint. 

     Instead, though, Aurélie felt the tip of her blade deflect off of hardened mail, and, although the force of her unexpected lunge had staggered the armored chevalier, the other woman managed to stay on her feet. For a split second, Aurélie searched for another joint in the armor that she could attack, but, before she could locate a suitable weakness, she felt the chevalier move, and saw a blade slicing through the air above her.

     Aurélie dove to one side, just in time to avoid the chevalier’s downward stroke. The massive sword sparked against the cobblestones barely an inch away, where it would have cut her in half had she not rolled out of its path just the second before. Aurélie looked then for an opening to counterattack, but the chevalier was too fast, and, almost before Aurélie knew it, the other woman was practically on top of her, and was raising her arm for another strike. Again, Aurélie tried to roll, but, before she had moved more than a foot, she felt herself bump up against a stone wall, and she realized that she had run out of room in the narrow street. 

     Aurélie looked up just in time to see the chevalier looming over her, to see the horrible smile that formed on the dark-haired woman’s face as she brought her sword down, and Aurélie was about to close her eyes, so as not to see the blow that would kill her, when, suddenly, a dark form appeared above her, and she heard the sound of metal striking metal, followed by a loud grunt. 

     Aurélie rolled quickly in the opposite direction, and, scrambling to her feet, she saw the Comtesse’s chevalier, Sir Ruth, standing in just the spot that she had occupied the moment before. Sir Ruth’s face was contorted into a painful grimace, and her sword arm dangled awkwardly at her side. Aurélie could see blood dripping from the chevalier’s pauldron, and she realized that Sir Ruth had used her armored shoulder to deflect the blow that would have killed her. 

     As Aurélie watched, Sir Ruth tried to shift her sword into her other hand, but the Vicomtesse’s chevalier was ruthless, and, before the other knight could ready herself, she swung her sword at Sir Ruth’s neck, leaving the bleeding knight no choice but to throw her arm up, and to use her armor to absorb the incoming blow. Aurélie heard another crash as metal struck metal, and she heard Sir Ruth gasp in pain as the powerful strike smashed into her arm with the force of a hammer blow, nearly shearing off her gauntlet in the process. As Sir Ruth staggered backwards, the Vicomtesse’s chevalier closed the distance between them, and, rather than take the time to raise her sword, she head-butted the bleeding knight square in the face. Aurélie heard a sickening crack as Sir Ruth’s head snapped back, and, as the stunned chevalier toppled over backwards, her sword dropped from her hand, and clattered to the ground.

     Desperately, Sir Ruth tried to get back up on her feet, but the other chevalier was almost directly on top of her, and was already bringing her sword down. Sir Ruth got an arm up in time to again deflect the worst of the blow, but Aurélie could see that the Vicomtesse’s chevalier was stronger, and unwounded, and it was only a matter of time before one of her swings would land, with deadly effect. 

     Sir Ruth’s sword lay on the ground where she had dropped it, just inches from Aurélie’s feet. Bending down, Aurélie picked up the broadsword, and she was about to swing it at the Vicomtesse’s sneering chevalier, when – suddenly – she saw movement off to her right, and she heard a blood-curdling scream. 

     “For the revolution!”

     Aurélie turned just in time to see Henri – Vocal Henri – come flying out of the mist like a man possessed. Somehow, in all the confusion, Henri must have managed to get around behind where the fight was taking place, and, before anyone could react to his sudden appearance, he leapt into the air, and landed atop the chevalier’s armored back.

     “For the revolution!” Henri shouted again, as he wrapped one arm around the chevalier’s neck, and clung to her like a monkey. 

     “For the people!” Henri screamed, as he raised what looked like a loose paving stone in his hand, and brought it down onto the back of the chevalier’s unarmored head. 

     Aurélie saw the chevalier’s eyes bulge, saw blood spurt up into the air, and splash across Henri’s face. Desperately, the chevalier thrashed with her shoulders, trying to shake Henri off, but Henri le Douce clung to her, and, thanks to her armor, she could not reach far enough behind herself to grab him. So, before the chevalier could dislodge him, Henri swung the heavy stone, and he struck her again.

     “For the revolution!” Henri screamed, as he caved in the chevalier’s head. “For the people! We will not submit! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight!”

     Henri screamed that slogan over and over, as he hit the knight again, and again, and again. Aurélie watched, gape-mouthed, as the chevalier’s knees buckled, and she tumbled forward, carrying Henri with her all the way down to the pavement. 

     Even as the chevalier lay still and prone, face-down in the street, with blood pouring out from the back of her shattered skull, Henri scrambled to his knees, and, as soon as he had regained his bearings, he hit her again, and again, and again.

     “For the revolution!” he kept yelling, as he rained blow after blow down on the dead chevalier’s corpse, pulverizing her head until there was almost nothing of it left. “For the people! For the people!”

     It took all of Aurélie’s strength to pull Henri off of the chevalier’s body, and, even then, he struggled against her, until she grabbed him by the wrist, and pried the blood-soaked paving stone from his hand.

     “Henri,” she said, as he thrashed beneath her grip, trying to break free. “Henri! That will do!”

     At the sound of Aurélie’s voice, Henri stopped shouting. He looked up at her, and he blinked his eyes, as though awaking from a dream.

     Staring down at his hands, which were clenched into fists, and slick with blood, Henri blinked again, and shook his head.

     Henri le Douce looked up at Aurélie. His eyes were wide, and his hands were shaking.

     “Aurélie?” he said, voice trembling. “Aurélie, what did I do?”

     Henri was still shaking as Aurélie helped him to his feet.

     “What you had to,” she said.

     Henri’s face looked haunted, but Aurélie knew there was no time to dwell on that. She could hear shouts coming from not far away, and armored footsteps running in their direction. Meanwhile, all around her, the fog was beginning to grow thin, as the sun started to burn it away.

     Aurélie turned around, and she saw why the fog was lifting. Elise LaRoux had abandoned her spell, and was instead trying to help the grimacing Sir Ruth to her feet. 

     “Elise!” Aurélie snapped. “The fog – we need cover!”

     “She is hurt!” Elise said. She was trying to help the chevalier up, but the armored woman was unsteady, and too heavy for the willowy mage to lift. “We must help her!”

     “No, Madame,” Sir Ruth said, speaking through gritted teeth as she clutched her broken arm. The chevalier shook her head. “You must leave me here, and go on yourself.”

     “No!” Elise shouted, as she continued to try to help the wounded woman to her feet. “No, Madame! My sister – your Comtesse – gave you an order! She ordered you to stay with me, and, by Goddess, you will stay with me!” There were tears in the mage’s pink eyes. “No one else will die here today, because of me – I shall not permit it!”

     Silently, Aurélie walked over to where Elise was trying to lift Sir Ruth. The mage had the chevalier by her good arm, so Aurélie took hold of Sir Ruth’s broken arm, and, as Elise pulled upward, Aurélie pulled, too.

     The chevalier gasped in pain, but, with the combined aid of the two women, she managed to make it onto her feet.

     “Can you stand?” Aurélie asked Sir Ruth, just as soon as she was upright.

     The chevalier’s face was a mask of pain, and she was breathing through gritted teeth, but she nodded her head. 

     Aurélie glanced over her shoulder, where the thunder of footsteps was growing nearer.

     “Can you run?” she asked the chevalier.

     Again, the chevalier nodded her head.

     “Good,” Aurélie said. “Then do it.”

     Putting one arm around the bleeding chevalier’s waist, Aurélie started moving in the direction of the harbor, pulling the armored woman along with her. What they were doing could not properly be called running, Aurélie thought, ruefully, but as they stumbled down the rapidly-clearing street, they at least achieved some semblance of speed.

     There was no point in attempting to maintain stealth now, Aurélie knew. The only thing left to do was to run, and to hope that they could reach the harbor before the Vicomtesse’s soldiers could reach them. 

     Not much further now, Aurélie thought to herself. Not much further now.

     Aurélie glanced to one side, where Henri and Elise were also running, hand-in-hand. 

     “This galleon that your sister spoke of,” Aurélie said to Elise, between panting breaths, as the distant docks began to take shape through the lifting haze, “the one that she said would be fully-crewed, and whose captain would be willing to help us – how will we know it?”

     “You cannot miss it,” Elise said, between ragged breaths of her own, as she and Henri ran. “It will be the biggest ship in the harbor, painted royal blue, with gold trim, and her name will be printed right there on her stern.”

     “And what is this ship called?” Aurélie Cerveau asked. She could just see Beatrix and Remy off in the distance, waving frantically to her from the foot of a pier.

     “Madame, she is called the Mourning Reign,” Elise LaRoux said.

 

* * *

 

     “Wake up, Comtesse.”

     Brigitte LaRoux tried to open her eyes, but her eyelids felt heavy as lead. Her stomach hurt. Her back hurt. But, most of all, her heart hurt.

     A hand slapped her across the face – hard – and she moaned in pain.

     “Wake up, Comtesse,” the same voice repeated, harsher this time. “I have a question that I must ask you, before you die.”

     Brigitte LaRoux managed to open her eyes. Through a haze of pain, she saw the face of Perrine Labelle staring down at her. The Vicomtesse’s expression was one of pure rage. 

     “I know that this was your doing,” the Grand Magistrate said. Her insincere politesse and feigned concern were gone, replaced by a simmering anger, and a terrible darkness in her gray eyes.

     Brigitte tried to clear her throat, only to cough up blood. Glancing around, she was vaguely aware that she was still in the village square, and that she had been propped-up into a sitting position, with her back resting against the wall of the bell tower. But, unlike in the tableau she remembered from before she had passed-out, the square was empty and deserted, and the heavy fog seemed to have lifted.

     “My dear Vicomtesse,” Brigitte managed to croak, “I am sure I have no idea what you mean.” 

     “Do not lie to me!” the Vicomtesse hissed. “I know that you had a hand in this! I know that you helped Henri le Douce to escape!”

     So, Brigitte thought, Vocal Henri had – in fact – escaped. 

     Although it hurt to do so, the Comtesse managed to smile.

     “Yes, my dear Vicomtesse,” she said. “I did help him to escape, right from under your nose.”

     Brigitte could practically see the rage boiling over inside Perrine Labelle.

     “Henri le Douce killed my chevalier,” the Vicomtesse said, and she threw something into Brigitte’s lap.

     Brigitte looked down, and she saw what the Grand Magistrate had dropped. It was a thin band of rope, which was somehow formed into a circle, even though it had no knot. It was also soaked in blood.

     Once she remembered where she had seen that peculiar rope before, Brigitte’s smile widened.

     “I am so sorry to hear of your loss, Madame,” she said. Picking up the collar, she held it back up for the Vicomtesse. “But, your chevalier, she was just a peasant, my dear Vicomtesse – surely you can spare her?”

     The Vicomtesse snatched the rope back from Brigitte, then she slapped the Comtesse again, even harder than before. Brigitte’s head swam, and she might have passed out, had the Vicomtesse not grabbed her by the neck, and hauled her bodily to her feet.

     “I have one question for you, Comtesse,” Perrine Labelle said, her eyes smoldering, “and one question alone.” The Vicomtesse spoke slowly, making sure that Brigitte could hear her: “Where is Vocal Henri?”

     Brigitte LaRoux smiled.

     “Madame,” she said, “I do not know.”

     For a long moment, Perrine Labelle just stared at Brigitte, practically vibrating with anger. Then a company of soldiers came into view at the edge of the square, and the Grand Magistrate whistled sharply, to call them over.

     The company’s commander – a woman in a dark purple uniform – drew to a halt in front of the two noblewomen, and offered the Vicomtesse a crisp salute.

     “Madame la Vicomtesse,” she said, “the sorcerous fog has lifted, and my women stand ready to obey your command. What are your orders?”

     “Assemble your division, commander,” the Grand Magistrate said, “and have your fellow officers do the same. Be prepared to ride as soon as our business here is concluded.” 

     Perrine Labelle did not look at the soldier as she spoke. Instead, she kept her eyes fixed on Brigitte.

     “Yes, Madame,” the commander said, and saluted again. “What would you have us do then?”

     “Commander, as you have witnessed here today, the mages have revealed themselves to be traitors, and have cast their lot with Henri le Douce, and his peasants’ revolt. From this day forward, every living mage is to be regarded as an enemy of the state, and their sorcery is to be regarded as a crime, punishable by death,” the Vicomtesse said. “Do I make myself clear?”

     “Yes, Madame.”

     “Good. Once you have marshalled your women, I order you to put this treasonous city to the torch. Let the fate of Mont-sur-Mer serve as a lesson to any in Foraine who might harbor traitors in their midst.” 

     The Vicomtesse smiled in apparent enjoyment at the strangled cry that her words provoked from Brigitte, before she tightened her grip around the Comtesse’s neck, so as to be sure that Brigitte could not speak. 

     “Yes, Madame,” the commander said again, and, after another formal salute, she and her company took off on the double.

     Perrine Labelle glanced over her shoulder, and waited until the soldiers were gone, before she turned to face Brigitte again.

     “And now, Comtesse, all that remains is the execution of your sentence,” the Grand Magistrate said. “And I shall take great pleasure in executing it, personally.” 

     A look of pure sadism appeared on Perrine Labelle’s face. 

     “Do you have any last words, my dear?” she asked Brigitte, as she loosened her grip on the Comtesse’s neck.

     “I am Brigitte LaRoux, the twenty-seventh of my name,” Brigitte said, forcing herself to look Perrine Labelle in the eye as she did. “I am Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer, and I shall gladly give my life for my city, for my people.”

     Perrine Labelle’s smile widened.

     “How charming, my dear,” she said, and she ran a finger along Brigitte’s throat. “I accept your offer.”

     The Vicomtesse held up the bloody loop of rope that had once been fixed around her chevalier’s neck, and, to Brigitte’s astonishment, the collar parted in the middle, as if cut by an invisible knife. Then, suddenly, the rope began to undulate, and to lengthen, and to extend out from both ends.

     One end of the rope slithered its way up the wall of the bell tower, where, once it had reached the top, it disappeared into the belfry. 

     The other end of the rope slithered up Brigitte’s body, like a snake, until it looped itself around her neck, and tied itself off in a knot.

     Brigitte LaRoux’s mouth fell open, even as she felt the rope tightening itself around her neck.

     “You… are a mage…” the Comtesse managed to stammer, in between strangled gasps.

     “Yes, my dear,” Perrine Labelle whispered into Brigitte’s ear, before kissing her once on each cheek, and tracing a loving finger along the noose around her neck. “But, please, my dear, keep that to yourself?”

     Then Perrine Labelle smiled, and, before Brigitte LaRoux could do or say anything else, the rope around her neck snapped taut, and the last thing that the Comtesse of Mont-sur-Mer heard as she was hoisted up into the air was the sound of the bell tolling above her.

 

* * *

 

     Henri le Douce was sitting in a darkened cabin, alone. He was staring down at his hands with eyes that did not see, as the Mourning Reign rolled gently beneath him.

     There was a knock at the door.

     Henri looked up. But he said nothing, and he did not rise.

     The knocking came again, and Henri ignored it.

     After a third knock went similarly unanswered, the cabin door opened, and Aurélie Cerveau entered. She closed the hatchway behind her, and she leaned back against it, and, for a moment, she and Henri simply looked at each other in silence.

     “We have left the harbor,” Aurélie finally said. 

     She sounded tired, Henri thought. 

     After a long beat of silence, Henri nodded his head.

     “Are we pursued?” he asked.

     “No,” Aurélie said. “The corvettes could not see us through the fog, let alone follow us.”

     Henri nodded again.

     “That is welcome news, citizen Aurélie,” he said, and his voice sounded tired, too. “Welcome news.”

     “Yes,” Aurélie said.

     Again, the two of them fell silent. So Henri just listened to the soft, rhythmic rocking of the ship, and he waited for Aurélie to speak.

     “I have had a frank conversation with the captain,” she finally said.

     Henri raised an eyebrow.

     “And will she help us?” he asked.

     “I believe she will,” Aurélie said. “So long as Elise LaRoux remains with us.”

     “And will Elise remain with us?”

     “I believe she will, yes.” Aurélie looked at him. “So long as you remain with us, that is.”

     Henri stared at Aurélie.

     “You’re going to use her, aren’t you?” he asked, quietly. “You’re going to use her, just as you used me.”

     Aurélie stared back.

     “If I can?” she said. “Then, yes, I will.”

     Henri shook his head, and he looked away.

     “Where is Elise?” he said. “I would like to see her.”

     “For now, she is resting,” Aurélie said, after taking far too long to answer. “She has exerted herself greatly, and I fear that this day has taken something out of her.”

     In the darkness, Henri laughed. 

     “She is hardly alone in that respect,” he said.

     Aurélie walked across the cabin, and she sat down next to Henri.

     “What happened earlier, in the street,” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

     Henri shook his head.

     “No,” he said. “I do not.”

     That was a lie. Henri did want to talk about it. 

     Just not with Aurélie. 

     Instead, he asked: “How many did we save?”

     Aurélie shrugged her shoulders.

     “As many as we could,” she said.

     Henri looked at her. 

     “Is that enough?” he asked.

     “It will have to be,” she said.

     They sat together in silence for another minute, before Aurélie stood up.

     “As soon as you feel ready,” she said, “you should come above decks, and make yourself known.” She nodded in the direction of the door. “After all that has happened today, the people need to see that their leader is with them. They need to see you, Henri.”

     Henri closed his eyes, and he shook his head.

     “You may tell ‘the people’ that I will be up shortly,” he said. “But, just now, I do not feel like being seen.”

     When he opened his eyes again, Aurélie was still staring at him.

     “You may not wish to hear this,” she said, “and you may especially not wish to hear it from me. But, Henri? You did well today. You did very well.”

     In the darkness, Henri blinked.

     “Did I?” he said.

     “Yes,” she said. “Better than I had expected.”

     Henri looked at her.

     “Your expectations for me must have been quite low,” he said.

     After a moment, Aurélie nodded her head.

     “Perhaps,” she said. “But you exceeded them, regardless.”

     Aurélie offered him her hand.

     “If you are ready to be seen,” she said, “then you have work to do.”

     Henri did not take her hand. But he stood next to her.

     “No, citizen Aurélie,” he said. “We have work to do.”


"Enough Rope to Hang By" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.


Aurélie Cerveau, Henri le Douce, and Remy are original characters created by RavenoftheBlack for the Expanded Multiverse.

Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use. 

All works copyright their respective creators.


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