To get you in the mood to read this:
Rating: 12 (mentions of off-camera violence)
J'ai tué un homme pour en sauver cent mille
Dancing the Carmagnole
Paris, le 25 Messidor, an I
(Paris, 25th day of the Harvest Month, Year One)
The wind was chilly in the first light of dawn. It smelled of wood smoke, rotting vegetables, and other, more unpleasant things. It was trying to suck the heat from her body, and Charlotte shivered and pulled her tattered woollen shawl more tightly around her shoulders. She glanced upwards, where between the jagged roof-eaves and upthrust chimney-pots the eastern sky was peeking through, growing paler and turning from grey to blue. But then she almost slipped, and muttered a curse and directed her gaze downwards again, to the greasy, slippery cobblestones beneath her feet.
The haversack over her shoulder jostled against her hip as she walked. It was military issue, a dirty off-white. Its previous owner had no further use for it, being dead. Charlotte had taken it to carry the materials she'd found - papers and documents and an oddly-carved silver bowl encrusted with dried blood. Evidence, that hopefully would prevent more men dying the way that soldier had - assuming that wiser heads than her own could find the clues hidden among it. And for that reason, her steps turned her eastwards into the heart of the city as the sun rose and drove away the shadows. Some of them at least: in the dank alleys and tumbledown tenements shadows lingered still, even in the full light of day.
As she turned the corner onto the main road Charlotte muttered in frustration at the crowd blocking her path, even at this early hour. She craned her neck and leaned from side to side trying to see past the blocking bodies, to find out what was going on. Then she heard the clatter of hooves on the cobblestones, the rumble of wheels, the rising wave of voices in the distance, and she knew.
There were just two carts today, carrying enemies of the People to their appointment with justice. Charlotte could only see glimpses of them between the packed onlookers, but she could hear the jeers, the mocking shouts, the catcalls; and so she guessed these were aristocrats. Doubtless convicted of treason, or conspiracy with foreign powers. Ordinary criminals usually played up more to the crowd, making their final journey a spectacle: and were rewarded by laughter and cheers as they were driven to their execution. But the nobility were too proud to make themselves into an entertainment that way - or perhaps, too bewildered that this could possibly be happening to them. Or just too terrified by their imminent death. Charlotte felt a little sympathy for them, in an abstract sort of way; but she'd seen too many deaths to be worried by just a few more.
Right now, she was more concerned about finding a way through the crowd. At last she saw a brief opening, and took her opportunity. She ducked and weaved through the milling horde of people then dashed across the open roadway to the other side, her haversack swinging behind her. The opposite pavement was just as solidly packed, but a coquettish glance at the burly man nearest to her - a butcher or a fishmonger by trade, she guessed from his clothes - caused him to stand aside and even use his bulk to clear a way for her. She rewarded him with a dimpled smile and a word of thanks, then promptly forgot him as she moved deeper into the crowd.
There was an alleyway cutting through the row of houses behind, and Charlotte made her way into it then took a deep breath as she found space around her once more. The alley was oddly empty, so close to a crowded street; and the footing underneath was treacherous. It had once been paved, perhaps, but most of the cobblestones had been dug up over the years leaving muddy pools of water behind. She made her way along carefully, holding the hem of her skirt up so it wouldn't get splattered in the mud.
She rounded a corner and discovered why there was no through traffic: the alleyway was blocked off. A barricade stretched from one wall to the other, made of an overturned cart, joists of timber, and what looked like most of the paving stones from the rest of the alley behind her. It was old, probably left over from last year's riots; but it was higher than her head. This was awkward.
Charlotte took a careful look around, but nobody was in sight. The windows looking down into the alley were shuttered, or else too grimy for anyone to see through. Reassured, Charlotte reached down and bundled her skirt and petticoats up over her hips. Then she leaped, bare-legged, up to the top of the barricade; a standing jump of nearly two metres. She balanced there on the top for a moment, feeling the makeshift structure shift beneath her; then judging her moment sprang lightly back down on the other side. She let her skirts fall back into place and adjusted them to make sure they were neat again, smiled to herself, and walked on out of the alley.
Very soon after she found herself on the broad embankment that ran along the bank of the river. That alley was a useful short cut; she'd have to remember it. The Seine glittered grey and gold in the clear light of the morning as it flowed beneath the creamy-coloured stonework of its bridges. Traffic was still light this early in the morning, so Charlotte was able to make good time towards her destination.
The high iron railings reminded her of her childhood. She'd come here, long ago, with her mother and father; a family of provincials up for the day to gaze in awe at the King as he was driven through the streets in his fine carriage. After the parade, she'd begged Papa to lift her up to his shoulders so she could peer through the railings that surrounded the gardens of his palace, hoping to see him again. Instead they'd been accosted by a royal guard, arrogant in his spotless white uniform, who'd insulted them as if they were beggars and told them to be off before he had them thrown in jail.
That she could now walk right through the gates of that same palace, and nobody would stop her, filled Charlotte with a certain amount of justified glee.
There were still guards, of course. The King might be in his grave these last five months gone, but the Republic still needed to be governed. The soldiers now wore comfortable homespun blue uniforms, not royal white, with brightly coloured cockades in their hats. A group of them stood around the gate, muskets leaning against the wall, idly scanning the passersby for any sign of trouble. Charlotte drew herself up, walked forward confidently as if she'd been entering royal palaces all her life, and the soldiers didn't even challenge her. They looked at her, all right; Charlotte could feel their gazes on her even after she'd walked by; but one girl alone was hardly a threat to anyone, was she?
Inside, the courtyard was a hive of activity even at this early hour. Some soldiers were drilling, marching to and fro and slamming their muskets down at the shouted words of command. A cart was being unloaded, the workers swearing as they lugged down the heavy boxes - Charlotte wondered what might be in them. She kept going, though, deeper into the palace complex, and gradually the noise level dropped. There were still people around, but they were well-dressed and hurrying on missions of their own, carrying important papers and messages for the Assembly and the Committee.
At last Charlotte came to a door, that was guarded by two soldiers in blue. Their uniforms might be the same as the guards on the gate, but their demeanour was not. Their muskets had bayonets fixed, and as she approached they levelled them into the ready position. One of the men challenged her, his eyes staring suspiciously at her dirty, unkempt clothing.
"I'm here to see the Citizen Deputy."
Technically there were many Deputies, of course; but there could be no mistaking which of them Charlotte meant. The solder looked a little more wary at her words, and a little more respect tinged his next words; but he still needed proof she had legitimate business here. Charlotte nodded, then reached into the neck of her bodice and pulled out an envelope. Unfolding it, she handed the creased paper to the guard. He looked at it blankly for a moment - Charlotte found herself wondering if he could even read - then muttered, "Wait here" and opened the door before disappearing inside.
For a few minutes Charlotte stood there waiting. She smiled winningly at the remaining guard, but he just stood there awkwardly and didn't speak to her. Finally footsteps were heard and the door opened again. An elaborately-coiffed young gentleman in a much cleaner, shinier and more expensive version of the soldiers' uniform stood there, holding her letter; the original guard was standing respectfully behind him. He smiled at her condescendingly. Charlotte took an instant dislike to him.
"Ah, delightful. I am so pleased to make your acquaintance, Mademoiselle—"
"That's Citoyenne." Charlotte snapped out the correction, but to her disappointment the young officer barely blinked.
"But of course, forgive me: Citizen. One must move with the times, no? I understand you are here to visit the, *ahem*, Citizen First Deputy?"
"As I already told your man here; yes."
"Of course. Might I enquire the nature of—"
He blinked, then drew himself up in indignation at her effrontery.
"Excuse me. The security of the National Assembly is my responsibility, Citizen, and I will not have ragged beggar-women traipsing round the Tuileries without..."
"Have you read that letter?"
"Yes, of course, but I hardly think..."
"Do you recognise the signature at the bottom?"
His anger seemed to deflate instantly, like a bladder pricked by a bodkin. Behind him, the soldier listening to the conversation hid a sudden grin.
"Well, I - yes..."
"So you know the authority by which I'm acting. I am here on the People's business, and you have no right and no standing to question me on my duty. A more suspicious woman than I might even wonder what your motive is, to be interfering in secret matters of State security this way."
By now the officer was looking utterly intimidated, grey and sweating. Charlotte was almost regretting her harshness... almost. But frankly? She was enjoying herself too much to stop. And by the carefully hidden smiles of the two soldiers as they listened to their officer being harangued, she guessed he wasn't too popular with his men either. She thought about demanding his name to report to her superiors; but instead contented herself with simply putting out her hand for the return of her letter of credential.
He gave it back without another word, and the two soldiers saluted her smartly as she swept past them; a gesture not lost on their officer. She waited until she was out of sight before tucking the letter safely back into the bosom of her dress.
Inside the palace, the atmosphere was cool and formal. In all honesty Charlotte did feel a little out of place; maybe she should have gone home first to change into her formal clothes, bathe and powder herself. But no; her mission was too urgent to allow such a delay. She made her way through long corridors, up a staircase, past more guards who watched her passage with alert eyes.
At last she came to an ornate waiting room, its windows looking out toward the river. A clerk was there, sat at a small table just outside the heavy wooden door. Charlotte greeted him in a friendly fashion; they both knew each other well.
"The Citizen Deputy is seeing some representatives from the Loire departements at present, but he should be free in—," the clerk glanced at his pocket watch, "About twenty minutes. Should I interrupt him?"
"Thank you, Claude, but no. My business can wait that long."
She looked around the waiting room. There was only one other person there: another young soldier, but this one in the uniform of a captain of artillery. He was deeply engrossed in a book, a rather heavy and intimidating-looking tome. As Charlotte took a seat opposite him, he glanced up from it and greeted her politely. If he gave a slight double-take at her appearance and her gender, he hid it well: he also addressed her as 'Citoyenne' unprompted. Charlotte felt herself warming to him immediately. She decided that making some polite small talk wouldn't hurt.
"Good morning, Citizen Captain. You are waiting to see the First Deputy as well?"
"I am". If he was surprised that a woman was able to recognise his rank from his uniform, he hid it well; and since Charlotte had intended her comment as a test, she was pleased that he passed it. He had a broad, pleasant face, somewhat darkened by the sun; and his voice had a trace of an accent. She guessed he was from the south, the warm shores of the Mediterranean: come to the capital just as she had, to play a part in the events that were shaking the whole world.
He confirmed it readily enough. He had written a political pamphlet, he told her; one which the Citizen Deputy's brother had been kind enough to take note of and recommend to his kinsman. With that as his introduction, he now hoped to persuade the First Deputy to use his influence to give him a command; a senior role in the army.
"Hmm. Shouldn't a soldier be good at, well, soldiering rather than politics and writing pamphlets?" Charlotte replied lightly, but there was a certain sting she couldn't keep out of her words. His response was good-natured, however.
"Naturally. I trust that when it comes to the test, I shall prove competent. I do have combat experience already, you know. But under the old regime birth always counted for more than talent when it came to assigning ranks and positions in the army; something I hope will now change!"
Charlotte agreed strongly with that sentiment, then politely deflected the return question about what her own business might be. Instead she pointed to the artillery captain's book.
"That's not what you wrote, is it? It seems a little large to be called a 'pamphlet'".
He laughed in genuine amusement, then shook his head. "No, for my sins, this is professional reading. 'Observations on the political and military constitution of the armies of his Prussian majesty' by the Comte de Guisard. My appointment isn't till later this morning, but I took the opportunity to come here early. It gives me the chance to read in peace."
"Oh! I'm sorry, if you want to--"
"No, no", he reassured her. "I overheard the clerk telling you the First Deputy will see you in twenty minutes - from which I conclude that you are a person of some influence, as well as considerable charm." For some reason the compliment didn't annoy her the way the previous officer, downstairs, had done; she felt herself smiling back at him.
"No", he continued, "I confess I rather welcome a short break from the old Count's writing; he's quite heavy going even if his work is important."
"They say the Prussian army is the best in Europe, don't they? Do you think we should copy their tactics - is that why you're reading the book?"
He looked surprised, then nodded respectfully. "Indeed. King Frederick was the greatest soldier of his age, perhaps of any age. But no, in answer to your question, I don't think we should copy their tactics."
"Of course not. We should improve on them!" He grinned, and she laughed.
He continued, "Frederick's army had to be whipped into battle; his soldiers were little better than slaves. But our armies are made up of free citizens. Imagine a million patriots, fired by love of glory and their country - uh, and love of the Revolution too - marching to war! We could use Frederick's tactics, but with far greater flexibility and flair. Imagine, if you will, that this is the enemy, and our troops are... but I fear I'm boring you."
"No, please, go on." Truth be told, Charlotte wasn't really all that interested in military matters, beyond a certain commonality of experience to her own duties. Even so, she was swept away by the enthusiasm burning in his eyes, the energy in his face and his sweeping gestures as he explained to her his plans to revolutionise the face of warfare - if only he were ever given a position of senior rank in the French army.
So engrossed was she, in fact, that she failed to notice the three men leaving the chamber behind them, or the clerk rising from his chair to put his head around the door to the inner office. It was only when the artillery captain fell suddenly silent that she turned round and jumped in surprise.
The First Deputy had left his office to come and greet her in person - and he was even apologising to her for keeping her waiting.
Her companion looked at her with even more respect as she quickly stood up, smiled a farewell, then followed the most influential man in the Republic back into his office.
He wasn't much to look at, perhaps. Still young - only ten or so years older than Charlotte herself. His clothes were neat, almost fastidiously tidy, and completely à la mode. His face was mild, like a family lawyer or a kindly clergyman... until you looked into his eyes. His eyes burned with cold fire. His eyes said that here was a man who would pay any price to meet his goals, in gold or blood or sacrifice - whether his own or that of others.
Charlotte met those eyes without flinching, then took the chair he politely offered her. He waited until she was seated before resuming his own position behind the large desk.
"You are unhurt, I trust? And your mission? A success?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. They aren't."
He gave a cold smile at her brief summary, then gestured with a raised palm for her to continue.
"Your informant was correct about where they were gathering. Some kind of ceremony, black magic. I think they were trying to summon one of Satan's fiends into the world."
He clucked his tongue. "This talk of devils and demons has no place in a rational universe, you know."
It was an old argument, and she smiled at him.
"Has your natural philosophy found an explanation yet for horned monsters appearing out of nowhere with a reek of brimstone, then? Or for men who drink blood and turn to dust in the daylight? Or, for that matter, for me?"
He smiled back at her at that. "Nothing can explain you." But then he was all cold business again, the moment of banter forgotten. "You killed them, then?"
"Yes. There were thirteen in total. The bomb got six, my pistols two more, the rest died by steel. None escaped."
"Good. But no prisoners to interrogate?"
"I apologise, but no. I did try to spare one, but... He was trying to complete the summoning ritual despite his wounds. I judged it better to prevent that."
The First Deputy nodded. "Probably wise, but it's a shame--"
"I brought these, though."
She leaned down and picked up the haversack she'd set next to the chair. He quickly cleared a space on his desk, then took an oilcloth out of the drawer and spread it fastidiously over the surface. She placed the dirty bag down on it.
"There's this." She took out the bloodstained silver bowl. "And these papers seemed important."
He took them, then raised an eyebrow at the dish.
"Human or animal?"
He meant the blood, of course. She swallowed. "Human. I'm afraid... I was too late to save the soldiers."
Most of them had died before she got there; she'd had to watch the last getting his throat slit even as she moved into position for her attack. Their blood had been shed to power the summoning ritual, which she'd interrupted seconds before it was too late. As she explained this, the First Deputy was riffling through the papers.
" A pity. Still, it was their disappearance that put us onto this... sect in the first place."
"Have your agents been able to trace where their orders came from?"
"No, not yet. It is clearly someone very senior, though, to be able to cover his tracks so thoroughly even from me."
"A member of the Committee, then?"
"Perhaps." He said it absently, his brow furrowing as he studied one of the documents. Then he slid it over the desk to Charlotte. "This one seems more like your field of interest than mine."
It was yellowed parchment, not paper, and the handwritten symbols around the edges were drawn in dark, rusty red ink. Charlotte skimmed her eyes down the text, struggling a little with the archaic vocabulary.
"It seems to be a prophecy. Their lord will arise, his thirst quenched by the blood of sacrifice, all shall tremble, etc etc. He will show favour to his worshippers, all others shall become slaves. Ten milliards of the sons of men shall give their flesh for him to feast upon... why can't they just write '100,000'? Much simpler."
"So your actions last night saved the lives of 100,000 citizens of France from this hungry lord? You should be congratulated then - even if it does sound more like a metaphor for monarchy than anything real." He said it lightly, but Charlotte frowned.
"No, wait..." She read further, her frown deepening. "Uh oh. The demon they were trying to summon last night wasn't their lord. He was just some sort of, uh, harbinger. There to acknowledge the sacrifice and prepare the way. There could be more like him."
"You mean, more people will attempt ritual sacrifices like the last? That could be very serious, especially since the ringleader is still at large."
"It will be even more serious if they actually succeed in their rituals and summon this dark lord."
"Yes, yes." He didn't quite dismiss her worries - he'd learned enough of the supernatural threats facing his nation not to discount them, and to value Charlotte's assistance in fighting them. Even so, he still tended to think more in terms of human conspiracies, plots and uprisings. They were real to him; at some fundamental level of his mind the monsters she fought were not. Still, they were on the same side.
"So what now? If we can't track down their leader and cut this off at the head, do we just have to wait for more innocents to be kidnapped for the next sacrifice?
"I'm afraid... wait." He was staring at the piece of paper in his hand, a small folded sheet smaller than the rest and near the bottom of the pile. Slowly, very slowly, a thin smile spread across his features. "Or perhaps not."
He handed her the paper, and she took it in curiosity - then gasped aloud as she read it.
It was an official document, a set of movement orders for a unit of the National Guard. Mundane enough - though as she read the details she quickly realised that these were the very orders that had lured those poor soldiers to their doom. Their leader presumably still had them with him when they were caught, which was how they ended up in the pile of papers she'd grabbed. But that wasn't what made her gasp.
No: it was the three short words at the bottom of the paper that did that. A signature. A name she knew very well: a name most people in France, those days, would recognise.
The First Deputy's smile had faded, replaced by a sad frown. He shook his head slowly. "Jean-Paul, I thought I knew you better than this."
"Is he - could there be some mistake?"
"None. In fact... this confirms some things my agents reported. Things I refused to believe, because I counted Jean-Paul a friend and did not want to believe them." He drew a breath. "And so the men who died last night suffered from my weakness. No more. Action must be taken."
Charlotte was under no illusion what kind of action. The First Deputy had often expressed his belief that showing mercy to the enemies of the People was a far greater cruelty in the long term. Better to strike quickly and cut out the poison, he argued.
"You will have him arrested?"
"I can't! His support is too great among the people. The commander of the National Guard is his close ally; many in the Assembly follow him. If I moved against him, it would tear the Republic apart. There would be civil war, and our enemies abroad, the Austrians and Prussians - they would take the opportunity to pounce. We would see a king again sitting in Versailles."
He spread his hands on the desk. "He must die - but not by official means. Do you understand me?"
She nodded. "You want me to kill him."
"I didn't say that." He lifted a finger. "I cannot say that. If you act, you must act alone. If you were to be caught, I could not help you; I would have to deny you."
She grinned sardonically. "Like St Peter." Although he now called himself a rationalist, he knew the reference well enough. He could not bring himself to smile back at her in return, though.
"It's my duty. Kill one man to save a hundred thousand, eh? Not to mention saving the Republic. Very well." She stood up from her chair; automatically, driven by ingrained pre-revolutionary manners, he stood up too.
"Before the next dawn, Jean-Paul Marat will be dead. If all goes well, I'll be back - if not, I suppose this is goodbye."
Maximilien Robespierre, First Deputy for Paris in the National Assembly, bowed formally to her.
"The Republic thanks you for all your services, Citoyenne Corday."