Paris, Summer 1803
During the day, the stretch of the Rue du Temple that extended north from the Seine to pierce the heart of the third arrondissement might pass for any other poor district in the city. Barefoot children as thin as scarecrows chased alley cats; drunkards lolled in the gutters, unconscious of the sewage that seeped around them; prostitutes and their pimps reclined on balconies, nursing their hangovers from the night before; vendors hawked wares of cheap trinkets and false remedies for venereal diseases to passersby.
While the sun shone, the police found the courage to brave the densely packed neighborhoods, never less than five in a group. They’d been sent forth from Napoleon’s recently established Prefecture of Police, an organization headed by a man named Louis-Nicolas Dubois, who carried a chip on his shoulder from the revolution and still felt the need to prove himself. In the few years he’d been in power, he’d demolished two of the strongholds once held by criminals, making way for fishmongers, blacksmiths, and other honest merchants of their ilk to move in.
His aim was to rid the city of her slums. The rebel leaders of the counter-cultures that flourished within them knew what he was after and had started turning the districts against his gendarmes. Soon, it might not be safe for Monsieur Dubois’s forces to come here even during the day. They already knew better than to risk it when the sun slipped below the horizon, and ensured they were safely away by the time the last of the dying rays bathed the cobblestones in the colors of blood and gold.
It was then that the district rumbled to life, and the meaning behind its name, The Court of Miracles, became apparent. Before the first torches were lit, the streets filled with beggars, some squabbling with flea-bitten fury over the most profitable corners, still others streaming outward from this den of cutthroats and thieves to plead coin from those better off than they were. The horde was made up of mutes, blind men, and cripples, with the spare raving lunatic and doomsday prophesier thrown in for good measure. Come the end of their shifts – which usually occurred when they’d scrounged enough coin to fill their bellies with cheap wine – the lame would stand tall, the blind would see, and the mutes would find their voices. Miraculously.
Ah, the court and all her jesters, I thought, a smile tugging at my lips.
I strolled arm in arm through the thick of it with a man dressed as one of the many vagrants that haunted these boulevards and back alleys. He was utterly forgettable, neither too handsome nor too hideous to draw notice. The shirt he wore was threadbare and tattered. It flapped open to reveal an expanse of concaved chest, above which sharp collarbones jutted like knives. The trousers that sat low on his hips were in no better condition, stained at the seat and torn across each knee. They were two sizes too big, held in place with a length of rope he’d scavenged from the nearby docks.
He walked with a staggering limp, reliant on my support as we made our way down the middle of the street. Anyone that remarked upon his gait would be met with an unintelligible story of how he’d sustained the injury. Many would see the madness in his eyes, and paired with his slurred speech and rank breath, they would decide against further conversation in favor of fresher air. The few that were too deep in their cups to notice the smell were usually frightened off when he pulled a knife and brandished it as he threw himself into the retelling of his tale.
I sashayed alongside him, bold as any other woman for rent, exaggerating the sway of my hips in the sensual, rolling gait of my peers. My dress was fifteen years out of fashion, once a vivid, violent red, but faded now into an orange mockery of its former glory. The bust was too large, sagging open to reveal my sweat-stained corset and the small, mounded tops of my breasts.
Just last night, the lace that edged my left sleeve was yanked free by the grasping hands of a “mute” beggar, and now it swayed to and fro with every step I took, a noose dangling in the wind. My hem was stained six inches up with mud and dust, more than half of my muslin bows and ribbons were missing, and instead of the fine stays that once held it closed, my bodice was laced shut with yellow silk that clashed spectacularly with the color of the gown.
We were a matched pair, my drunkard and I.
Around us, people threw open windows and doors to greet the coming evening and the patrons it would bring. Candlelight and boisterous laughter poured out into the dusk. Somebody struck up a fiddle inside a tavern as we passed, and a handful of rowdy voices rose in chorus with it.
I glanced to my left and saw a steady stream of men already flowing into one of the district’s more infamous brothels, where patrons would find even their darkest desires met with enthusiasm from the whores who worked it. We passed beneath its balcony, and I lifted my gaze. Women filled it to the brim, leaning over the rails to taunt the crowd below, flashing tantalizing glimpses of creamy calves and voluptuous thighs as they cooed down at us. In the forgiving light of early evening, some of them even looked pretty. Those would find it easy to part the men of the quarter from their coin and their seed, for the men were as desperate and damaged as the women who serviced them, drowning in booze and flesh just to forget their desperation, just to feel alive, if only for a few blissful moments.
The moon’s wan light struggled to penetrate the warren, its silver beams impeded by row upon row of laundry hanging from the innumerable lines strung overhead. I tilted my head back and gazed upon its fractured light, and a young boy, nothing but skin and bones, saw my upturned face and moved in to take advantage of my distraction. I watched him weave toward me out of the corner of my eye. He was so slight that I lost sight of him for a moment as he darted past swishing skirts and unsteady legs. He re-emerged just to my left, and when he tried to cut my purse, I cuffed his ear and took his own, my hands nearly as fast as they’d been when I was his age and much more skilled than him at freeing wallets from the wealthy.
Feeling how light my plunder was, I tossed it back to the youth and sent him a stern frown. He needed to learn how to choose better marks; not all would be as forgiving as I. He needed to learn a lot of lessons. For starters, he shouldn’t have approached me from the front, and he shouldn’t have weaved through the crowd like that – it was a sure way to get noticed. The cutpurse that had tried to free me from my coin two days past had made as many amateur mistakes, and I was beginning to think that the Beggar King who ruled them had grown slack in his training of foot soldiers as he prepared to war with the police.
My companion snorted, and I realized that I’d never divulged that particular talent of mine to him. Our familiarity was weakening my walls.
“Be careful tonight,” I told him.
“I’m always careful,” came his purring response, voice pitched so low that only I would hear it.
I shivered. Ah, that voice. As much as I tried to deny it, it set my blood on fire. I would have recognized him by it in any of the disguises he donned, and I would never, ever get sick of hearing it, even when it told me lies.
“You’re never careful,” I said.
He laughed, the sound loud and boisterous as he grabbed my wrist and hobbled toward a side alley choked with refuge. People shouted as we swerved between them and trod on their feet, but their anger quickly turned to amusement as they realized what he was about. I threw a bawdy smile over my shoulder before he pulled me into the shadows, and the group of men I’d aimed it at bellowed and cheered, waving us onward.
A moment later, I found myself pressed into the far corner of the alley. The rough-hewn bricks scratched my shoulder blades. My heels sank into the muck beneath us. People passed by not fifty feet away, but there were high walls on either side of us, and I knew they couldn’t see us this deep in the shadows.
My companion crowded into me, palms on my chest, fingertips brushing the tops of my breasts.
“Jean,” I breathed, staring down at him.
“Wish me luck,” he said, straightening to his full height.
I had to look up at him now. Gone were the protruding bones and the hollowed torso, gone was the lame leg, the thin lips, and the vacant look in his green eyes. Mischief filled them now, and I felt an answering recklessness rise up within me as I stared at his handsome, shadowed face.
Lean muscle and taut flesh stood out beneath my fingers as I slid them into his shirt. “Yes,” I said to my brave, arrogant lover, my partner in crime, the French royalist spy, the Vicomte de Chauvigny.
He didn’t hesitate; there wasn’t much time left before he was to meet the man who had promised to sell us the secrets of the empire. There, surrounded by scurrying rodents and the stench of decay, he took me against the wall, shoving my voluminous skirts up to find me already wet and waiting.
I wrapped a long leg around his waist, giving him greater access. He put his hand into the crook of my knee and lifted it higher as he freed his cock and shoved inside of me. I arched forward to meet him, careless of the havoc that the bricks were wreaking on my back.
I wanted him. Always. Was wild for him. Always.
The fingers of his other hand fastened over my chin when he was fully seated, forcing me to meet his gaze in the dim light. He rocked his hips forward, slow, steady. His message was clear: this wasn’t just for him. Or maybe it was, and seeing my pleasure only increased his own. Either way, he sought my release first, moving with the hard, deep thrusts he knew would tip me over the edge.
I didn’t disappoint, our public setting and impending danger only serving to heighten the arousal coursing through me. He let go of my chin and slipped his hand up my skirts. His thumb pressed against my clit, demanding my release. A heartbeat later, I came for him, digging my nails into his shoulders as I cried out into the night, careless of those who might hear me. He tumbled over the edge while I still throbbed around him, his face so close to mine that I saw his jaw clench as he came in shuddering silence.
“Feel your heart race,” he said afterward, pressing his hand between my breasts. “Evidence that it exists after all.”
“I never said that I didn’t have one. Just that I was born without the accompanying emotional instability they cause their owners.”
“Lies,” he said, leaning his forehead against mine. His eyes filled my vision, some unidentifiable emotion mingling with the teasing gleam that lingered around their edges. “You love me. You’ve just never felt the emotion before, so you can’t identify it.”
I laughed, pulling a handkerchief from between my breasts as he slid himself out of me. I handed it to him, so that he might rid himself of the evidence of our coupling. “You just don’t want to confess your own devotion without knowing whether the sentiment will be returned.”
It was his turn to laugh as he wiped his member clean and tucked himself back into his trousers. “A gentleman never says it first.”
I snatched the kerchief from him and cleaned away the warmth that dripped down my inner thigh. All this talk of love reminded me that I needed to buy another posset from the alchemist to ward off pregnancy. Once done, I tossed the rag into the corner with the rest of the waste and then smiled up at Jean. “And a wise woman never says I love you at all.”
He snorted, but let the subject go, as he always did, and I waited in silence while he reassumed his drunken disguise. He bowed his spine forward and bandied his knees, shrinking half a foot. Then he relaxed all the muscles of his face, jaw slackening as his expression filled with the vacancy of the lost. Finally, he raised his shoulders and curled forward, distending his natural form until he was thin and sickly and utterly forgettable once more.
I pulled my own ruse in place, a much easier task as it required far less from me physically. With a twitch of the hips and a wanton curl of the lips, I was ready, my heavy cosmetics carrying the brunt of the burden this evening.
“Remember to stay in the front room,” he told me. “I don’t want them to think you’re anything but a whore.”
I slipped my arm through his as we reemerged from the alley. “You always say the kindest things to me.”
“I mean it, Anne.”
“I’m sure you do,” I said. I planned on heeding the order, but as always, I was reluctant to admit it. Our battle of wills was a constant one. He opened his mouth to continue the familiar argument, but I cut him off. “Hush now, too many ears.”
Wisely, he let it go, cackling madly and pinching my rump as we re-entered the crowded street.
The tavern we sought was unnamed and unmarked on a map, as most in the district were. We were meeting a senator there – one of the many who had taken their place among the roman-modeled government Napoleon had implemented. Napoleon might have rid himself of the Ancien Régime’s political system when the last Bourbon king’s head bounced from the platform of the guillotine, but he would never be free of its supporters, those hidden monarchists like the young man beside me, who had nothing left to lose and everything to gain thanks to the revolution.
Without it, Jean would have been a prosperous landowner, with servant-filled châteaus and serf-ridden farms. He would have followed his king from Paris to Versailles and back again, dipping his wick in the pretty, perfumed ladies of the court, losing huge sums of money to nights filled with good wine and bad cards, fighting duels over the smallest slight, one of the young lions drunk on their own power, beauty, and wealth. Now, he had nothing but the clothes on his back and what little coin his vagabond-king, Louis, the eighteenth of that name, the Count of Provence, le Désiré, could scrounge from his exile in Courland, where he was holed up in the safety and sumptuousness of Jelgava Palace whilst his future subjects risked their lives for him.
Kings. They were all the same.
I was there because my own, before he’d succumbed to his latest fit of madness, had wanted to set the French one back on his rightful throne. Revolutions were dangerous things; George III learned that the hard way when a bunch of disjointed colonies banded together and declared themselves free men. Their victory had sent a shockwave around the world, and the French, having so heavily assisted those rural farmers and scythe-wielding militiamen, had been infected with the fire of their freedom. Not twenty years after the onset of the American Revolution, the king who had helped to bring about its victory had found himself a victim of its ideals.
King George and most of the aristocrats beneath him feared the spread of these bourgeois-led rebellions above all else, for it threatened everything they held dear: namely themselves. They would do anything to keep this infectious ideology from reaching the shores of their homeland. I didn’t give a fig one way or another. Thanks to my humble upbringing, I was apt to side with the peasants, but orders were orders, and I would follow those I’d been given like the good foot soldier I was.
“Here we are,” Jean said.
And he was right. While I’d been lost to my thoughts, we’d descended into the very heart of the Court of Miracles. Here, the streets were narrower and darker, the doorways guarded by large, burly men who stood with their arms crossed on either side of the thresholds, pistols and cudgels dangling from their belts, badgering anyone who sought entrance. Beyond them, the princes of paupers gambled and bickered amongst themselves, those sly, dangerous men who ruled these quarters with the violence and savagery that befitted their ranks.
The women here were as heavily guarded as the doorways, their dresses modern confections made of silk and muslin, faces expertly painted, hair piled up in complicated coiffures. Their creamy skin was clean and heavily perfumed, and around their throats, paste gems glittered in the darkness, drawing the eye to the cleavage below. They called themselves The Court of Courtesans, but they were nothing more than expensive whores. My mother, a true Venetian courtesan, could have exposed their lie for what it was just by walking down the street, so different was the truth in comparison.
We stopped in front of the thugs that guarded the doorway we sought.
“What?” one ground out at us, his lips turned down in displeasure.
Jean fished into his pocket and handed them a scrap of cloth with the crude mark of a coin stitched on it – the sign of the Thief King’s favor. They let us pass without a word, eyeing my poorly applied rouge and sagging dress with disgust.
One might think the tavern we entered would be as dirty and run-down as the rest of the quarter. One would be wrong. The men that ruled the court had been born into its squalor. They wanted to set themselves aside from their subjects, raise themselves above the dirt and decay. The room was large and brightly lit, the floorboards beneath our feet swept clean, the tables and stools made of sturdy oak. Men filled the tavern to bursting, banded together in groups around the tables, crushed into the booths, their heads bent as they discussed the business of the day.
I squeezed Jean’s arm as a sign of good luck before releasing it and sashaying over to the bar. He continued onward, toward the rear of the room, where a door led deeper into the building. It was within those dark recesses that he would meet our mark, the son of a guillotined Marquis. The man had initially sided with the revolutionaries but had since realized that the common people were no better off than they’d been before, that they’d merely exchanged one tyrant for a shorter one bearing a different title. We had many such as him feeding us information from the inside, which we then passed on to Courland and England.
I focused my attention on the man seated next to the wall, ignoring every other look and call sent my way. He was one of the older men in the room, his hair and beard flecked with grey, his face a mass of scars and wrinkles. I doubted that he saw much attention from other women when surrounded by so much youth and vitality, and I used that to my advantage. He caught sight of the sway of my hips first, his bloodshot eyes rising slowly to my own. I smiled at him, and he clambered down from his barstool, giving me a gap-toothed grin as he offered me his abandoned seat. I thanked him and settled myself, happy to have the wall at my back and the room spread out in front of me so I could watch all that transpired within it.
My chivalrous elderly cutthroat leaned over the bar and flagged down the tender. “Marcel! Wine for the lady!”
“Thank you, kind sir,” I said in flawless French, my accent filled with the nuance of the Parisian gutter I pretended to be born in.
While Jean met with our new accomplice, I flirted and teased the old man. He began to puff up in response, some of the energy of his youth revitalizing his tired bones to have such a young thing doting on him.
Half an hour passed, and I was on my third glass of cheap wine. The noxious liquid soured my stomach. I would have to make myself sick once we left, or risk having a pounding head and an aching belly come morning.
And then it happened.
An echoing boom sounded from the rear of the building. The crowded room fell quiet, the patrons recognizing the sound of a gunshot for what it was. I set my wine down before I shattered the glass in my grip.
Jean! I screamed internally. Outwardly, I turned toward the rear door and adopted an expression of mild curiosity.
Sound crept back into the room as the men around me returned to their cups and conversations, well used to such violent interruptions. The old man leaned in close to whisper a flirtation in my ear. I laughed when he pulled away, his dark eyes wrinkling with mirth.
“Well,” I said, preparing myself to return the flirtation.
My next words cut off as the rear door banged open. A large man I didn’t recognize dragged a smaller one in his wake. I caught the flash of familiar brown hair and threadbare clothing. Jean. My heart hammered against my ribs.
“Poor bastard,” the old man said with a laugh.
I forced myself to smile in return, leaning in to continue our tête-à-tête. I couldn’t break rank, not now. Plenty of men were thrown out of bars every evening, no need to involve myself, no need to expose myself. Jean could handle his own.
Then I heard the second gunshot echo from outside, and all thoughts of my personal safety fled. I made some hasty excuse to my aging paramour and slid from my stool to land on unsteady legs. Jean. Forcing myself to a sedate pace, I wove through the crowd, hearing nothing but the roaring of my pulse within my ears. The door loomed before me. I sidestepped a drunk and then I was through it, out into the humid, putrid night air. My footsteps faltered and my training fled, a low, tortured moan slipping from my lips. There, just in front of me, sprawled out over the cobblestones, was the body of my lover, the top half of his head missing, bone fragments and brain matter glittering like maggots in the moonlight.
No. No, no, no.
I was so consumed with disbelief that I didn’t notice the other men, didn’t see one dislodge himself from the shadows and approach me. Pain exploded from the back of my head, and the scene in front of me blinked out as I was swallowed by darkness.
Copyright © 2022 by Navessa Allen
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.