The Lorelei Signal

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Blood

Written by Kristina Dyer / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

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François slunk, catlike, through the deserted streets of Laval-sur-Fleuve. The night was cool and crisp, the clear sky an inky blue with a handful of stars winking brightly like diamonds on velvet. The moon was full, and cast a silvery glow on the silent village. He crept up the wide road leading to the castle, his soft leather boots making no noise on the even flagstones.

Château Aubray stood, tall and arresting, against the moonlit sky. As François approached he noticed the guards atop the battlements, spears glinting in the moonlight. He had never seen them stray from their watch; they were silent sentinels, eerily still and upright, more like statues than men. A shiver ran over François as he turned his gaze away.

 

He hated the waiting. His belly clenched and squirmed as though live eels roamed his innards. He wondered, as he did every time, whether Jacques would come. He half-hoped, as he always did, that he wouldn't.

 

François' eyes flicked upwards to one window, larger than the rest, on the third floor of the castle. The curtains were drawn back, and even from below he could see that the chamber beyond was a bright, jarring red. The color made his stomach lurch; it was grotesquely scarlet, like blood had been daubed on the walls with reckless abandon. He was about to look away when a naked figure passed before the window.

 

It was her. She walked languidly, like a slinking cat, her skin luminescent in the pearly moonlight, her hair shining like purest gold. Her breasts were large and full, her stomach round and soft, her legs long and shapely. Lust stirred in François despite himself.

 

A hiss from a little distance away made François jump. He shifted guiltily, hand on his belt knife, but relaxed when he saw the familiar stooped form of Jacques beckoning him from the shadow of the rampart. François hurried to the serving man, and sighed as the blindfold was placed over his eyes.

 

"Is this really necessary?" he asked for the hundredth time as Jacques secured the blindfold at the back of hid head.

 

"You got it?" Jacques asked, his gruff voice grating against François' ears.

 

"I got it," he confirmed smugly. "The usual place."

 

"She'll be pleased."

~ * ~

 

Morelle glared at herself in her mirror, frustration bubbling in her stomach. She looked old. She raked her hands down her face, grimacing as the wrinkles creased her eyes and mouth. She lifted her sagging breasts, watching them drop heavily against her chest. Old. She hoped François would have good news for her.

 

She applied rouge to her lips and draped a crimson robe around her shoulders. She cinched it tightly, pulling in her waist, and slid her feet into black heeled slippers. She didn't care that she was inappropriately dressed. She liked watching François sweat as he tried not to admire her. Though she was hardly at her best, she knew she was more attractive than any woman François had ever seen. Casting a last, irritated look at her reflection, she left her bedchamber, heels clicking on the stone floor.

 

~ * ~

 

The library always made François nervous. It was large, but the tall shelves filled with leather-bound books gave it a claustrophobic feel, like the walls would close in on him at any moment. An enormous bearskin lay before the fireplace, its glassy eyes regarding him suspiciously. Portraits depicting various members of the deVeau family were interspersed among the bookshelves. François never looked at them too long; their cold, gray gazes made him uncomfortable. The fire burned low in the grate, making long shadows creep and flicker about the room.

 

The door swung open and Marquise deVeau entered the library. She was barely clothed, François noted with a tightening in his groin. A thin silk robe in the same indecent shade of scarlet as her bedchamber covered her, and as he glanced at her he saw the outline of her breasts, pert nipples protruding from the thin fabric. She stood a full head taller than François, and her mouth was painted a deep crimson, highlighting her full, sensuous lips.

 

She wielded her sexuality like a weapon. The quirk of her mouth told him she knew just how ill at ease he was, as though she could see the swell of his cock against his breeches. François bowed low, though he disliked exposing the back of his neck to her; his skin prickled as she cast her piercing gaze over him. He hated that she could stir such desire and such discomfort in him.

 

"You have news?" she asked. Her voice was rich and smooth, like honey but without the sweetness.

 

"I do, my lady," he said, keeping most of the quaver from his voice. He considered himself a brave man, but he forgot his usual swagger when he stood before her. "I have secured another specimen for you. I believe you will find it to your liking."

 

"Bring it to me."

 

François went to the door. Jacques, accustomed to the ritual, had been waiting outside. He glanced at François with dull, disinterested eyes as he entered. A young woman followed him into the room on bare, shuffling feet. Her gray eyes were wide and vacant, her hair tumbling in a golden waterfall around her shoulders. She wore only a linen shift, and her body was clearly outlined in the firelight. The Marquise drew in a breath, and François knew she was pleased.

 

"Where is she from?" she asked.

 

"Far from here, my lady," François replied quickly, reassuringly. "We were careful. There is no way to trace her disappearance back to you."

 

A nod. "How old?"

 

"Sixteen, my lady."

 

"And she is pure?"

 

"She is."

 

"Good." The Marquise wasn't one for exuberant praise or shows of emotion, but François had been working for her long enough to know when she was impressed. This one was worth the arduous cross-country journey. He would be well paid tonight. The Marquise waved her hand dismissively and Jacques approached him, blindfold in hand.

 

~ * ~

 

Morelle had to admit François was very good. The girl was perfect. Morelle had provided François with the drug she favoured, one of her own concoction, which gave the user a placidly doe-eyed expression and effectively eliminated their free will. Secretly administered to them in their morning ale, Morelle’s servants followed her orders without question. It made them obedient, but not insensible. Just the way she liked them.

 

The bath stood in the middle of the room, steam curling from the water's surface. The serving man had lugged pail after pail of water up to fill the enormous tub, and the old maid had set out fragrant oils. Morelle selected a few in complementary floral scents and poured them into the steaming bath.

 

The girl stepped out of her shift and into the tub when Morelle ordered her, sinking down into the perfumed water. Morelle washed the girl, then scrubbed her hair with rose-scented soap, admiring the golden gleam of it. It shone even more brightly with water streaming down it, and Morelle's breath caught in her throat as she ran her fingers through it. Like liquid gold.

 

The girl stood staring into the fire as Morelle dried her with a soft towel. Morelle's eyes raked the young, supple body. The girl’s breasts were small, with pink nipples that stood erect from her chest, and her private parts were dusted with soft golden curls. She was pale and unspoiled, like a spring flower. Morelle couldn't help herself; breathing raggedly, she ran her hands over the smooth pink skin, a feeling that wasn't quite lust filling her like wine pouring into a glass. The soft skin beneath her fingers was intoxicating, the hills and valleys of flesh unmarked by scars or blemishes. She placed her hand on the girl's breast, feeling the steady beat of her heart, and groaned in pleasure.

 

"Sit," she purred, and the girl sank into the chair by the fire, unperturbed by Morelle's handling. Morelle went to the vanity table, where her instruments waited. The enamel basin was deep and rectangular. With the familiar jewelled hilt of the dagger in her hand Morelle's excitement grew. Her heart was racing, she felt drunk, but she took a deep, steadying breath, forcing herself to stillness.

 

She took the bowl and blade over to the girl, kneeling beside her. She shrugged off her own robe, letting it puddle around her knees, and set the bowl at the girl's feet. She raised herself up, reaching with her free hand to turn the girl's face towards her. She looked closely at her, and pressed a tender kiss to the girl's rosebud mouth.

 

With a practiced move she reached behind the girl's head, forcing her forwards over the bowl. One quick, sure slice and the delicate skin of her throat gave way to a gout of shining crimson. The girl jerked and choked but Morelle held her. The metallic tang filled Morelle’s nostrils, and her desire swelled as the dark blood gushed, then trickled, then dripped into the bowl. When the river ran dry she laid the girl back tenderly in her chair, brushing her golden hair back from her face. Her eyes were glazed and empty, her mouth ajar.

 

Morelle lifted the basin, careful not to spill a single precious drop, and carried it to the far side of the room. She pressed the stone that triggered the hidden door, and stepped into the room beyond.

 

Just being in this chamber made Morelle's skin tingle. It was tiled in white marble from floor to ceiling, with a wide claw-footed bath in the center. It had been specially designed, with a plugged hole in the bottom to drain away the contents once she was finished. Water steamed in the bath as Morelle approached it, the basin in her arms. Heart pounding, she poured the blood into the bath. She used a paddle to mix it thoroughly, then stepped out of her heeled slippers.

 

Slowly, slowly. Savor it. She dipped one foot, then the other into the scarlet sea, her skin tingling in anticipation. She lowered herself slowly down, delighting in the hot, metallic sting. Her body sank beneath the surface, and she felt the years melting away. She dunked her head, her eyes fluttering closed, and when she surfaced she knew the lines and wrinkles were gone from her face. Her breasts were round and firm, her hands smooth, her hair thick and lustrous. She was herself again. The joy of it, stronger than any sexual pleasure, made her cry out in ecstasy, her voice ringing around the marble chamber.

 

~ * ~

 

Sitting at a small table in the crowded inn, François and Emile were well on their way to drunkenness. François didn’t normally dine with his servant, but he had decided, in an uncharacteristic show of generosity, to treat the old man. Celebrating their success and their large pay packet, they had eaten well and ordered a pitcher of ale to accompany the meal. Then they had ordered another.

 

They had worked together for five years, doing the secret work the Marquise required. Emile was a useful man, reliable but not clever. He did his work without question or complaint, and liked having no responsibility beyond caring for the horses and seeing to their baggage. He was short and thickset, with a squashed nose like a pug and small, beady eyes. He had served in the army before an injury had lamed him; a sword slash that healed badly and twisted his leg with ragged scars. He was a good sort, if not a bit sanctimonious. He had found God while recovering from his war wound, and kept a small, tattered Bible in his breast pocket. Emile’s piety didn't extend to ale, however, and he could put it away with the best of them.

 

The inn was busy. It was late, but darkness never put off the determined drunk. Serving girls meandered through the tables, pouring drinks and eying the customers lasciviously, determining which of them might be looking for more than a cup of beer. François had already been propositioned once, but the girl’s shining blonde hair had put him too much in mind of the Marquise, and he had refused.

 

"Did little Marie seem happy when you left her, boss?” Emile asked, eying François blearily. Drink had loosened his tongue and dulled his limited wits still further. He wasn’t meant to talk about their work and he knew it. François glared at him.

 

“She did,” he replied shortly. Emile had started getting attached to the girls, asking after them and giving François clumsily scrawled notes to give them when he went to the Château. He would have to put a stop to it.

 

“She were a darlin’, that one,” Emile slurred, leaning back in his chair. “So sweet and thoughtful. You know, she brought me an apple from her dinner one night?”

 

François knit his brows together. “Emile,” he said sharply, “You know you aren’t supposed to spend time with the young ladies.”

 

“I know, boss, I know. So, what did her ladyship say? Will Marie be a lady’s maid, as she hoped for?”

 

“She will.”

 

“Ah, I’m glad for her. She so wanted that. We prayed together, her and me, askin’ the Lord to grant it that she would serve the Marquise herself. She didn’t want to be put in the kitchens, peelin’ potatoes and washin’ dishes. She wanted to better herself.”

 

“Emile,” François sighed, setting down his ale cup. “I meant what I said. You’re not the kind of man they should be associating with, are you?”

 

Emile bowed his head. “No, boss.”

 

“When we pick up the next one, you will remember your place.”

 

They drank in silence for a while.

 

“So, boss, did you see Amandine when you were up at the castle? Or Beatrice?”

 

“No,” François said exasperatedly. “They would be about their work, wouldn’t they?”

 

“Funny, that. You’d think you’d see at least one of—”

 

“My God, man, didn’t you hear what I said?”

 

Emile’s offended silence stretched long. François filled his mug, setting the pitcher down on the table without pouring for Emile. The other man looked rueful as he filled his own cup.

“Listen, boss. I only ask because I care about them girls, you know?”

 

“I know.” François’ irritation softened a bit as he met Emile’s fuzzy gaze, and he ordered another jug of beer from a passing barmaid.

 

“So,” Emile said, with the air of deliberately changing the subject. “How was the Marquise tonight?”

 

François sighed. He never discussed his patroness with Emile. He didn’t like thinking about her if he didn’t have to. The memory of her cold eyes made his stomach twist like he’d eaten bad meat, even as the thought of her body reawakened his stifled desire. He shifted in his seat.

 

“Emile, you know I don’t speak about her. I like to accord her the proper respect, and not divulge personal information about her.”

 

"I know, boss. I only ask because…” Emile leaned in conspiratorially. “Because I got to talking with a man in Laval-sur-Fleuve.”

 

François rolled his eyes. “I told you not to speak to anyone in the village,” he said sharply, and Emile looked sheepish.

 

“I couldn’t help it! He comes up to me as I’m repacking the wagon, and asks what I was about. I says I’m waiting for my boss, that he’s gone up to the castle with a new maid for the lady.”

 

François groaned.

 

“He laughs at me, and says, ‘a new maid? A new victim, more like!’ That didn’t make sense to me, so I asks him what he means. He says that everyone in the village talks about her. Know what they call her? The _Marquise Maléfique._ The malevolent Marquise! They say she's more than sixty, but she don't look a day over twenty-five. She's been livin’ alone up in that castle for over forty years, ever since her husband died. They say she kills all her maidservants, and keeps a little graveyard in her garden. They say she bathes in the blood of virgins to keep herself young."

 

"The blood of virgins?" François' guts turned to ice even as he shook his head. "That's just peasant talk. They like to gossip about their betters."

 

"That’s what I thought at first, boss. But then I got to thinkin’. Why does she have us runnin’ around the country findin’ little blonde girls?" Emile demanded. Tears had sprung to his beady eyes, and his voice shook as he said, "she told you to make certain they're pure, didn't she?”

 

François regretted letting slip that bit of information. "Look,” he said firmly, “she's a wealthy, beautiful widow. People don't like powerful women. She's eccentric, no doubt about it, but she pays a small fortune for those girls. Why would she kill them? Besides, how can a virgin's blood make someone young? It's impossible!"

 

"It's not, boss," Emile said darkly. "I've seen things on my travels. When I was in Africa, you know?"

 

François nodded resignedly. Emile liked to talk about his time in Africa, and François was sure he had heard every story, true or not, a score of times in their years together.

 

"There were tribes who bathed in the blood of their enemies to gain their strength, and ate their brains for their wisdom. I saw it, boss."

 

"How?" François asked.

 

"I don't like to talk about it, boss. I'm lucky to be here talking to you, is all I'll say. The things I saw, well, they stay with a man. I'll remember my time in Africa for the rest of my days."

 

François snorted and took another gulp of ale. "Even so, the Marquise isn't an African. A noblewoman isn't likely to be bleeding out virgins and bathing in their blood, is she?"

 

Emile looked comforted for a moment. Then, as if it had occurred to him for the first time, he asked, “Why does she need so many maids, then?”

 

"I don't know." François shrugged. "I don't ask, either. I like my job the way it is. I get the girls, I take them to her, and I get paid. That's it."

 

"Why does she want blonde ones, though? Why are they always blonde?" Emile's voice was low and thick with drink, and François had to lean in closer to hear him over the rowdy tavern talk.

 

"I think she's got some... strange interest in them," François admitted in a hushed voice, casting a glance to left and right.

 

"What kind of interest?"

 

François felt uncomfortable even as he said it. “I think she keeps them for...for her own pleasure."

 

Emile looked revolted. He screwed up his nose so he looked even more pug-faced, and shook his head as though clearing a cloud of midges. "No. She couldn't. She wouldn't. That's..." He shuddered. "That's too terrible, boss."

 

"Worse than killing them? Worse than having a little graveyard in her garden?"

 

"Well..." Emile furrowed his brow, thinking. It looked painful. "I mean, killing 'em's bad, boss. It is. God knows I got fond of those girls, and I hate the thought of ‘em bein’ killed. But that? It’s against the word of God; it’s disgusting.”

 

François shrugged. He felt that any sexual act the Marquise may engage in was a far lesser crime than murder. But he had never killed anyone. Emile, serving in the army, had likely taken a few lives. François could see why the man would deceive himself into believing that other sins were worse than murder. It was the only way he could be sure to get to heaven.

 

"Let's not think on it," François said, reaching for the ale pitcher and refilling their cups. "Let's talk about what you’re going to spend your share of the money on."

 

"You know, boss," Emile said miserably, eying his brimming mug, "I don't think I can take her money, knowin’ what she does. I think I'm done."

 

"Done?" François repeated, shock tingling through him as he stared at the other man. "What do you mean, done?"

 

"I'm finished, boss. I can't do this anymore."

 

François watched in disbelief as Emile downed his ale, rammed his cap on his head and stood up. Swaying slightly, Emile nodded to François, turned, and staggered out of the inn. François watched him go and felt a pang of regret. Then, horror engulfed him.

 

"Emile!" he breathed, lurching to his feet. He was drunker than he had thought; the bustling tavern swam around him as he stumbled to the door, and he apologised distractedly to a serving girl when he bumped into her.

 

"Emile!" he called as he almost fell out of the door. The cool night air struck him like a slap to the face and his stomach rebelled, threatening to spew the night's overindulgence onto the cobbles. He belched, pressing a fist to his mouth, and willed himself not to vomit. He had to find Emile. If François knew him as well as he thought, he knew what Emile would do next. He couldn't let him.

 

But he couldn't see him, either. François whirled stupidly on the spot, his goggling eyes reducing the town square to a moonlit blur. The motion was too much for his protesting stomach, and he heaved bitter ale onto the cobblestones.

 

~ * ~

 

Morelle stepped from the bath, skin pink, hair shining. She felt better than she had in months. It had been too long since the last girl had been brought to her, and she had felt her years creeping up on her, like insidious fingers around her throat.

 

She sat before her mirror and brushed out her hair, admiring its new golden gleam. She stood and turned slowly, taking in the smooth flesh of her rounded belly, the firm curves of her breasts. She ran her fingers over her unlined face, and admired the beautiful woman in the glass.

 

She wished, strangely, that she had a man to share this body with. It had been so long, she could barely remember the brush of lips on her skin, the delicious pressure of a hard body on top of her. She considered summoning a serving man. But no. She'd made that mistake once, long ago. The man had made puppy eyes at her for months afterward, until he had been found hanging in his room. She sighed. Men were so weak, so easily manipulated. She didn’t understand how they held such power, when they were so quickly swayed by a pretty face and a willing body.

 

Sitting in her chair by the fire, the flickering light dancing on her bare skin, Morelle felt replete, sated in a way nothing else could sate her. The girl, still draped over the chair opposite, stared with glassy gray eyes. Morelle sighed, the warmth of the fire stupefying her, and fell asleep.

 

She was awoken several hours later by a tentative tapping on her door. Fools! The servants knew to never disturb her when she was in her private chambers. She got to her feet and wrapped her red robe around herself, striding angrily to the door.

 

"What is the meaning of this?" she raged as she flung it open.

 

"Forgive the intrusion, my lady." Jacques was pale and cringing as he spoke. "Marshal Guillot is at the gate, asking to speak to you. He says it is of grave importance. He says he has had a report of cruelty against your maidservants.”

 

"I beg your pardon?" Morelle’s heart stopped for an instant. Surely not. Recovering herself, she glared at Jacques and he quailed, taking a step back from her.

 

"I'm very sorry, madam. He was quite insistent.”

 

Morelle sighed. She glanced back at her reflection in the mirror and ran her tongue over her full lips. "Very well. I will see him in the library."

 

The Marshal bowed as she entered the room. He was tall, with sandy hair and wide blue eyes that went wider as he looked at her. There were two others with him. One was a priest, his white collar standing out starkly against his sombre black robe. His dark hair was streaked with gray and his brow was deeply furrowed; he looked like a worried badger. The other man was swaying visibly, beady eyes rolling drunkenly in a pug face. Morelle eyed him distastefully for a moment before turning her attention to the Marshal. He cleared his throat nervously.

 

"My lady, I have received a report regarding the ill-treatment of your maids."

 

Blunt. He didn't waste time with pretty words. "Sir," Morelle purred, "I think you will find that all my servants are well-treated. They have good food, their own beds, and generous wages. They are free to leave if they wish; I hold none here against their will.”

 

She put a hand to her mouth as she spoke, drawing a long nail across her bottom lip. The Marshal's eyes went to where she led them, and she watched his eyes darken.

 

“That’s not true!” The drunken man’s words exploded out of him, and he pointed a chubby finger accusingly at Morelle.

 

“Marshal, who is this man?” she demanded.

 

“Emile Berger, my lady.” The priest spoke now; his voice had the deep, resonant timbre of a singer. “He came to me, very distressed, and explained that several young ladies of his acquaintance had been accepted into your service, but that he had not heard from since. He has made several attempts to contact them, but has heard nothing.”

 

“I know what you’re doin’ to ‘em,” Emile slurred, his eyes brimming with tears. “I know what you’re doin’, you evil witch!”

 

How dare he speak to her so? “Get him from my sight before I cut his wretched tongue from his mouth!” Morelle spat, and all three men looked alarmed. She had forgotten herself. She took a breath and turned her eyes to the Marshal, who glanced at the priest.

 

“Father Michel, gain control of your charge. He is here on my sufferance.”

 

Father Michel took Emile’s arm and whispered in his ear. Emile scowled but said no more.

 

“If we could but see the young ladies Emile seeks,” the priest said. “If you could have them brought here, then he would be comforted. May we see Marie?”

 

“She is busy,” Morelle replied coolly. “I cannot distract her from her work.”

 

“Beatrice, then”

 

Morelle sighed. “I’m afraid Beatrice is ill. She has kept to her bed these two days to recover.”

 

“I told you, sir!” Emile burst out. Father Michel placed a placating hand on his shoulder but Emile shoved him off. “She’s killing ‘em, sir! She’s killing ‘em!”

 

“Emile!” Marshal Guillot looked scandalised. “That will do. Father Michel, please escort him out.”

 

Father Michel looked displeased, but he led Emile from the room. Morelle turned to the Marshal and narrowed her eyes, flicking her tongue across her bottom lip.

 

“M-my lady,” he stuttered, and she felt more comfortable. She could put an end to this, she could persuade him, make him believe there was nothing to this. “I understand that this is a terrible accusation. I’m sure there is no truth to it. However, you must see that I have no choice but to investigate such a claim?”

 

“But there is nothing to investigate,” Morelle said. “This man is clearly drunk. His story is ridiculous. Why on earth do you give him any credence?”

 

“Father Michel was…persuaded. Emile gave a detailed confession. I agree with you, my lady, but I must do my duty.”

 

“Of course you must.” Morelle’s mind was whirling; she had to put an end to this quickly. The Marshal took a step towards the door.

 

“I will conduct a search,” he said.

 

“I will accompany you,” she replied smoothly.

 

“I’m afraid I cannot allow it, my lady.”

 

"I will go where I please; this is my house," Morelle countered, dropping her sugary tone, but the Marshal shook his head regretfully.

 

"You will stay here."

 

She took two steps to bar the library door. She matched the Marshal in height, and when he approached her she could look him straight in the eye.

 

“My lady, I must ask you to step aside.”

 

“I will not.”

 

The Marshal looked at her, and though she could see desire in his eyes, she also saw determination and stubbornness. Recklessly, she dropped her hands to loosen the tie of her robe. It slid from her shoulders to pool at her feet, and she heard the Marshal’s indrawn breath with satisfaction. She licked her lips, and his eyes darkened with lust. But just as she moved to take his mouth in a kiss, she heard a shout from the other side of the door.

 

“Sir! Sir! We’ve found something!”

 

The Marshal started; the spell was broken. He pushed Morelle aside and opened the door. She stood, stunned, her belly clenching in fear and shocked thoughts whirling in her head. Emile and the priest! Had they gone through the house? Snuck upstairs and rattled around the rooms unbidden?

 

What have they found? Oh, God, what did they find first? She sank to her knees and wrapped her robe around herself, suddenly unwilling to have anyone see her body, and waited.

 

~ * ~

 

François stood in the crowd, his face shrouded by a wide hood, his stomach gurgling uneasily. He had fortified himself with wine before coming—he couldn't have faced it sober—and as his head swam and his guts protested, he regretted it. The air around him was static with excitement, waiting for the Marquise to appear. The "Marquise Maléfique," some named her. Other, less genteel folk called her the "Bloody Bitch". All of them wanted to see her die.

 

It was said Marshal Guillot had discovered five recently deceased girls in the Marquise’s private apartments, and the remains of over three hundred in the gardens of Château Aubray. The sheer volume of bones had taken months to sort into complete skeletons, and people whispered that some bodies were headless, and others had sustained terrible injuries; bones broken clean in half, sword slashes, burning, and God only knew what else.

 

François knew most of this was lies; he hadn’t brought the Marquise nearly as many girls as the townsfolk were claiming. But it seemed the people were determined to make her as evil as possible.

 

Although the Marquise had not confessed, Emile’s testimony at trial had condemned her. He had sung like a nightingale, naming François and the Marquise as partners in crime, and himself as the clueless lackey. He hadn’t known what was happening to the girls; he’d believed they were being offered a better life. Once he learned the truth, he had gone immediately to the priest, who had advised him to report to the marshal. Father Michel vouched for him, breaking the rules of confession to protest Emile’s innocence. François felt sick at his old servant’s betrayal. He spat bitter phlegm into the dirt, pushing murderous thoughts from his mind.

 

There was a roar from the crowd as the Marquise was brought out. François barely recognized her. She wore a sack dress, nothing like the crimson silk robe she had always worn to receive him, and her hair was an unkempt tangle around her face. Despite her long imprisonment she was still tall and imposing, dwarfing the men who led her onto the platform. François couldn’t help thinking she was as beautiful as ever. As she scanned the crowd and caught François' eye, the familiar, confusing lurch of unease nudged him.

 

The crowd was yelling too loudly to hear her final words; François strained to listen, but he could only see her mouth move. Then the two guards pushed the Marquise roughly to her knees before the swordsman. She kept her eyes open, as though desperate not to miss a single second of the remains of her life. Her lips, bare of paint, mouthed incomprehensible words, and François wondered if she was praying. Then, the swordsman stepped up and swung.

 

With a sickening slice and a spray of crimson, her head came off, landing with a thud on the raised platform. The executioner bent to lift it high, and there was a scream from the crowd as they saw, not the beautiful face and gleaming golden tresses of the Marquise, but a shrunken, aged head with straw-like gray hair. It was the face of a harridan, a crone; her eyes wide and staring, her rotten teeth bared in a snarl, as if daring them to judge her. Cries of "Witchcraft! Witchcraft!" were taken up, as though they would kill her again, and the crowd pushed forwards, people in the front row trying to seize the ancient head from the swordsman's triumphant grip as those in the back strained for a better view.

 

The Marquise Maléfique, indeed­, François mused. He pushed through the press of the crowd and strolled away, the yells of the people ringing in his ears and the image of the scowling old face pressing into his mind. He walked calmly down a deserted alleyway, took several steadying breaths, and puked his guts up into the gutter.

 

François had awoken from his drunken stupor the morning after Emile had gone to the priest to find he was a wanted man. He disappeared and assumed a new name, as he had done once before. It was very inconvenient to lose the Marquise’s patronage, to have to start over, but he would manage. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, adjusted his hood, and slipped down the alley to rejoin the crowd.

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Kristina is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. When she's not writing she enjoys baking and being overly emotional about her dogs. Her short stories have appeared in 101 Words, Firefly Magazine and Anti-Heroin Chic."