There was more than mud on the streets of Paris today, something other than earth drawing and sucking at the feet of the thousands who trod here, heads bowed and shoulders hunched against the summer rain. From the Place de la Révolution a roar erupted, louder than thunder and more violent than lightning, the sun disappearing behind a jet-black cloud in deference to the violence below.
Held fast in the grip of the Terror, the city trembled, and everyone, from the highest to the lowest, had their secrets. For some, like the residents of a fine house on the Rue Saint-Honoré, secrets had seen a father chained in the Conciergerie, awaiting his date with the National Razor, whilst for others they were currency, life itself.
Every morning William Knowles woke in his unassuming room and donned the identity of Yves Morel as other men might step into a favorite pair of comfortable shoes. For two months, he had existed under the name of a man feared from the south of the country to the north and that, he knew, meant that his time could only be running out.
Here in Paris, Morel was known as a figure of unflinching cruelty, those who could put a face to the name all safely occupied with the business of government hundreds of miles away. Yet one day, and he knew it must be soon, one of them would return to Paris. Before that happened he would be gone, vanished once more into a world of shadows and secrets.
Tomorrow, perhaps the day after that, the last surviving conspirator of the Rue Saint-Honoré would climb the steps to the scaffold and take with him the only hope William had of a successful completion to this most lucrative of missions. Valuable days had been lost on the journey to Paris in response to reports of Philippe Plamondon’s arrest, William expecting to find the man dead by the time of his arrival. Instead, he found him deep within the Conciergerie enjoying the special attentions of Vincent Tessier, the Butcher of Orléans who could, so rumor had it, convince a man to confess to any number of crimes, both real and imagined.
One chance, William told himself as he opened the window in an effort to dissipate the stifling heat.
One chance, then the last link to the Star of Versailles was gone forever.
A cheer rent the air and he shuddered. There came a second then a third explosion of approval from the distant crowd, each one louder than the last. As the day grew darker, he bowed his head and pictured the blade being hauled back to the skies, the shuffling feet on their way to the scaffold, the moment of silence before the razor edge fell and ten thousand spectators released their breath at once.
Then came the next soul, the clattering thunder of the guillotine and on and on it went until the blade grew dull and the crowd grew hungry for something more tangible than blood.
Another shudder ran through William and he drew the window down with a note of finality before picking up his coat as he crossed the bare boards to the door.
Sometimes, William reflected as he stepped out onto the landing, deep undercover work was boring, pointless hours spent reading dispatches and copying out messages. On other occasions, it was dangerous, dodging bullets and torture, and once in a while, deep undercover work, even as a revolutionary firebrand, meant traveling for a week to spend one hour with a man beyond rescue.
If he knew anything at all.
For all the excitement among the Academy’s members over recent developments, there was really nothing here but more rumor, nothing tangible whatsoever besides the usual anti-Revolution pamphleting and some ill-advised rabble-rousing.
Now and again, Professor Dee would send a dispatch to his agent and William would follow it to the letter, stealing from his bed to creep through the house as everyone slept and copy this paper or that missive. During these excursions, he had learned from experience that Tessier, his genial host, was given to sleeplessness. After midnight, he roamed the rooms, pacing the stairs up and down or sitting in his study staring at the darkness beyond the window, still as marble and just as cold.
Two evenings earlier Tessier had sat there as William, snooping just for the sake of snooping, pressed back into the wall and barely breathed. For long minutes, they’d shared the same space, William clutching the documents he had been reading by moonlight when the door handle had turned, his knuckles bleached white.
That had been the last time he’d searched the study after dark. Now he confined his efforts to the gray hours before dawn when the house had yet to wake. Where once these walls had echoed with the whispers of those who carried messages through Paris for Philippe Plamondon and his counter-revolutionaries and watched fleeing prisoners escape to a new life, now it was silent, Tessier’s thin voice the only sound that occasionally ended the quiet.
Not so long ago, the house had rung with a child’s laughter, with the gentle lullaby of Claudine Plamondon and the cheery greeting of her husband, but now those memories were as gossamer as a dream. The homely building was a shadow of its former self, picked apart by its new tenant, so consumed was he by his search for the illustrious treasure. Carpets and rugs were torn up until the floorboards themselves were pried apart, paper stripped from the walls and furniture dismantled to no avail. After two months in residence, Vincent Tessier was no closer to the prize, the jewel that half of Europe searched for proving utterly elusive.
At the top of the stairs William paused as something, he hardly knew what, stilled his tread.
Somebody in Tessier’s study?
Finally convinced that there was, indeed, someone else in the house, William made his way along the landing with all the care he could muster in his heavy boots, taking each step with utmost delicacy.
For a moment, he peered at the bare floorboards where Philippe had been caught as he’d fled and where, local gossips had told him in the alehouses, ‘his spilled blood had stained the most beautiful rug you ever did see’.
‘It stank like a butcher’s slab. They had no choice but to burn it. You can still see the stain on the boards. That dark patch, that’s where they caught up with Monsieur Plamondon. That bonny wife and little François, well, they’ll catch up with them too one day and it’ll be all the worse when they do.’
‘Such a lovely family…’
And with each telling the tale grew more grotesque, the violence more bloody and the stain deeper and darker than before.
‘That house has seen its share of sadness—we used to have such lovely times with Madame Plamondon and the little one, and what do we have now?’
‘Men talking politics from dawn until dusk, paddling mud and blood and Lord knows what across the rugs and up the stairs.’
‘Mark me, there’s more than one stain in this house.’
Once word had gotten around as to who they were addressing the gossips fell silent and William stopped frequenting the alehouses, marked out as the man in Robespierre’s pocket. It was a compliment of sorts, he supposed, that he could be so convincing as a monster to whom betrayal and punishment were second nature.
Though Vincent Tessier makes Yves Morel seem like an amateur.
As he trod lightly, William realized that the gossips were right. The house was pockmarked with the scars of battle and the dark stain of Philippe’s blood on the board was the most tangible of them all. William stilled before the door and breathed in the atmosphere of damp that lingered about the place when the rain fell. It felt heavy, twisting his stomach for no more than a second.
As the door swung open beneath his hand William stepped over the threshold, his eyes fixed on the man who stood with his back to him. The intruder was beside Tessier’s desk, head bowed low. William found his attention drawn by the stranger’s vibrant blue outfit, more suited to the opera than a filthy day in Paris. As William watched, the man spun to face the door, one hand held up in surrender.
“Alexandre Gaudet?” William asked, momentarily wrong-footed by the unexpected appearance of the toast of London theater here in this fetid city. It made sense, of course, yet he would never have expected a dandified playwright, more used to perfume and silk than muck and politics, to make such a dangerous trip. With that thought in his head William lowered his voice and asked, “You’re looking for your sister?”
“Claudine,” Gaudet confirmed, searching William’s face with green eyes. His voice was almost convincing but there was just a trace of a wobble, a small break that betrayed his fears. “This was her home—”
A veil of realization descended over his face then his gaze dropped to William’s hands in a search for the leather gloves, Vincent Tessier’s trademark.
“You’re Morel,” Gaudet breathed after a moment, taking an involuntary step backward. “Please—”
A hundred possibilities presented themselves then, chief among them being the fact that this man, this pampered society darling, was the last free link to the Star of Versailles. If indeed it had left Paris with Claudine Plamondon when her husband had been dragged to the Conciergerie, then might Alexandre Gaudet be able to find her? Wouldn’t a brother know the mind of his sister, the places she might hide herself?
“Trust me—” William began, the words silenced by the sound of a slamming door and voices from below. There came the heavy thud of damp boots crossing the stripped, bare floorboards of the entrance hall and William whispered, “Say nothing.”
He knew that the words were wasted as the feet continued on and up the staircase. Praying that they would pass by, William weighed up his choices, not sure what he could do to help this possibly God-sent new arrival without giving away his own subterfuge.
Gaudet made a run for the door. The force with which he hit William sent him careening into the dresser. The intruder wrenched the door open, seeking escape and, instead, came face to face with Vincent Tessier. Behind him, three men were clustered and, anticipating nothing more thrilling than an afternoon of politics and debate, they were quick to respond to this unexpected excitement.
As William recovered his footing, Gaudet was dragged from the room and William followed, too late to witness anything but a commotion of feet on the stairs. He knew that the intruder’s efforts to escape would be hopeless—Tessier would not allow Alexandre Gaudet to leave the house a free man.
That’s if he even leaves it alive.
William descended the stairs quickly, reaching the hallway in time to see Gaudet being hauled toward the door. His arms were pulled back at a painful angle and a thick loop of rope encircled his wrists, tight enough to draw a thin streak of crimson that just made its way down the pale skin of his hand.
Tessier looked to William with malice glittering in his eyes and told him brightly, “I owe you a debt for this, Morel—a valuable head.”
In the seconds before he was pushed into the street and taken away, Alexandre Gaudet glanced over his shoulder at William. For a moment, their eyes met and he recognized in Gaudet’s gaze the flare of hatred that the name of Yves Morel always provoked.
William decided that he would not remain in this skin for long, bowing his head and turning back to the stairs.
Soon it will be time to travel on.