There was a knock at a door. Not her dressing room door, beyond which was only the chaos of the theater as it readied itself for curtain. No, the sound came from a thin, green prop door. Made of paper and paste, it leant forgotten against the far wall. She could see it behind her in the reflection of her vanity mirror. In perfect stillness, she watched the painted-on knob twist and turn.
Watched it open just a crack.
A clawed, mottled hand, the size of a child’s, stretched through the breach and dropped a letter. “For the lady,” a gruff voice rasped.
“Merci beaucoup,” she muttered, her eyes fixed on the reflection. The paper door closed with a soft thump. The letter remained on the floor. Alone again, she stood to retrieve it.
It was addressed to Mme. Corday. She noticed at once that it was fine parchment, leagues better than what she usually saw these days. It felt smooth and soft under her fingertips. Warm too, almost like living skin. In the back of her mouth, her wisdom teeth buzzed gently. Magic, she thought and examined the spellwork that encased the message more closely. They were well-crafted and powerful. The sort that would cost a small fortune to the man or woman who couldn’t make their own, or a great deal more than just money to learn. She turned the paper over and examined the wax seal.
A series of rapid knocks sounded on the dressing room door and a harried voice said, “Madame Corday, five minutes to curtain.”
She grunted some affirmation and broke the seal. A small spark singed her fingertips as the curse released. Potent. Had she not been the intended recipient, the effects would’ve been lethal instead of merely unpleasant. On the page were instructions.
At last. A job.
Her work was astonishingly simple in concept. Kill people, for other people, for lots and lots of money. Certainly, there were finer points to be considered – details like Who and How and Where and When and, crucially, For How Much – and those details could and often did make a straightforward job difficult. But more often than not, the most complicated part of her existence was finding things to do in between commissions. It was, unfortunately, a problem she’d become especially well acquainted with since the revolution began.
There was a misconception she’d encountered time and again that wars and revolutions were a busy time for assassins. In her experience, all the many centuries of it, it was the opposite: when everything turned to chaos, most people were confident they could handle their own dirty work. No need to keep ones’ hands clean when plague or pillaging soldiers could be blamed. Or now, when looking at someone the wrong way could send them to the guillotine.
It was a method she begrudgingly admired for its efficiency, but she despaired of the mess it made. It went against her standards as a professional.
Whether or not things ever worked out as neatly as hoped, she didn’t know and didn’t care. What mattered to her was this: when the blood started flowing, the money stopped. And when the money stopped, she left.
Except this time, she couldn’t. Agents from any number of dueling factions were paying her fae handlers a cumulative fortune to keep her and other assets off the field. But! They all still wanted her close at hand. Just in case.
With her work denied her, she’d devoted herself to her newest hobby.
She’d begun acting a decade or two ago as part of a cover, then found she enjoyed the challenge of it. It kept her apace with the world, exposed her to gossip regarding clients and their enemies, and when a commission came along, she could move through nearly every social class almost without question. And if she needed to disappear in a hurry? Well, actresses, you know. And to her relief, even bloody revolution and the gory afterbirth that was the Terror couldn’t kill the Parisian theatre.
At the time the letter arrived, she’d been performing for months under the name Charlotte Corday, and had actually begun to achieve some minor fame. It had been an interesting change of pace, being someone for so long. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn a single Name and Face for so long. The novelty, however, had begun to wear off. Truth be told, she rather longed for her anonymity again. Being so known made her itch terribly. This new job was a most welcome diversion.
The instructions were straightforward. Immediately after her performance that evening, she was to exit the theatre at the western gate. An unmanned carriage would be waiting to convey her to a private residence, where she and the client would discuss the particulars of her contract. It was not an unusual request. What was peculiar – what had no doubt convinced her handlers to break with the extant contracts – was the client themselves.
It was not often a Witch needed her services.
The Verborgen’s were an old Witch family. They had been an established coven centuries ago, when she was still a babe. The name had been different. Their crest, however, remained the same: an eagle carrying a branch of flowering elder wood. The same crest that marked the letter.
She’d bought things from Witches before – tools, weapons, spells, any number of tricks and charms to make things go smoothly. She could recognize and name the craftsmanship of most of the major European covens after all these years. She even kept abreast of their rivalries and factions; well, as much as any outsider could. But she’d never been hired by one.
Witches did not speak of their needs with outsiders. They settled matters amongst themselves. They had their own rules and their own loose government that kept the worst of them in line. They obeyed their own secret faiths and harbored unknown fears. There was no room, no allowances, for those whose blood had not awoken. Witches were of the world, but did not always remain a part of it.
Her mother had been one of them. A Witch. She, on the other hand, had been born… something else. Something impossible in her own right, but not a Witch. She could trade with them, gossip a little. But never join them.
She was too old to feel resentment. They had reasons for their secrecy, and she knew them too keenly to hate them for it. What she felt now as she read and reread the missive was simply the heady mix of curiosity and eagerness.
One of the oldest and most powerful covens she knew of had sought her out for a commission. The fae were allowing her to do so, breaking faith with an untold number of less magical clients and knowing she would need to be spirited out of the country as soon as possible afterwards. She could be nameless once more.
What an invigorating way to come out of retirement.
True to the letters’ promise, a carriage was waiting for her when she left the theatre that night. She crossed the courtyard with senses ready and wary. It was too quiet; the western gate may have been rarely used, but there was always someone loitering in the dark. Tonight, there was only a carriage; old, unmanned, and hitched to two massive stallions, black as shadow and just as silent.
Soon, she was settled in the cab, with skirts arranged comfortably and weapons easily retrievable from a bevy of hidden pockets in her shawl and bodice. The curtains closed with a snap. There was a rumble of wheels turning as the carriage rolled to life, though she felt none of the bounce of the cobblestones nor heard the clatter of hooves. The rumble grew in volume – they were going faster – followed by a vague shift in gravity, then the sound stopped entirely. Inexplicably, she sensed that the carriage was still moving. It wasn’t entirely unlike moving along the roads of Faerie, but she had never been denied her sight while traveling those ancient paths. She closed her eyes and waited.
Minutes or even hours later, the carriage stopped and released her. It was still evening and summer stars looked down on a vast, ruined chateau. The windows were dark and most shattered, the paving in the courtyard cracked and riddled with weeds. Looking around, she saw only darkness; silhouettes of trees encased the house and yard entirely. She could have been on the outskirts of the city or at the feet of the Pyrenees for all she knew.
The door creaked as it opened on rusted hinges, and warm, welcoming light poured out onto steps and courtyard. Seeing no other path, she stepped into the light and went inside.
She had long stopped being surprised when the innards of a place differed drastically from their facades – wasn’t that the nature of living things, after all; to deceive and survive – but some human feeling she could never rid herself of still shivered within. Instead of the fallen grandeur she’d anticipated. she’d stepped into a small, cozy study.
The walls were lined with books and scrolls and a purposeful kind of clutter that would resent being disturbed. The inkwell stood open and at the ready on a desk strewn with the same rich parchment she’d received. A pair of stuffed chairs, the velvet worn thin on the seats and arms, sat before a low fire. A large bird perched on the back of one chair. She sat on the other.
The door shut behind her with a quiet thump. There was a muffled clatter on the other side, then it opened again. This time there was a well-lit corridor. And a man carrying a tea tray.
A hand span of heartbeats passed in silence while they took each other’s measure.
“I hear they call you Mademoiselle Corday, now,” he said in rough, worn voice.
She shrugged elegantly. “It’s a name. Most people seem to require one. I can get another should it wear out. You are Lord Verborgen?”
He grunted, stared at her a moment longer, then nodded towards a small empty table. “Bring that nearer, will you?” She rose and placed it between the seats. He set the tray down, poured them both a black, sweet smelling tincture from the pot, and settled himself in the other chair, giving the bird an idle scratch on its’ neck.
In the fire light, she could examine him more clearly. He was old, but not. As was the way in strong families, Time had laid only the gentlest of hands on him. Grief had been less kind. It had carved lines into his face that mapped the path of tears. It sat on his shoulders like a yoke, weighing him down, tripping him up.
“My grandfather knew your mother,” he began abruptly, as though the words had been pulled from him by force. “He spoke of her often, before he died. And you. The fearsome angel of death and her monstrous daughter. It still surprises me that she never tried to establish her own house.”
“I think she found raising me to be trying enough,” she replied wearing a wry grin. “More children could only mean more trouble and more time diverted from her work.” He nodded as though he understood. Considering the prolific reputation for his own house, he probably did.
They drank more. Then, “I think grandfather regretted not doing more for you both.”
“It was a bad time for everyone; I bear no ill will.”
The Verborgen nodded and the two of them fell into silence.
“I’ve never had to rely on another to settle my debts. But these are difficult times as well, and I need aid, if you’re willing to give it.”
Lord Verborgen straightened in his seat and looked her in the eyes, his gaze furious. “My son is dead. Treaties signed at the beginning of the revolution prevent my coven and its allies from entering Paris. The man who killed him knows this and stays within the city where we cannot go.”
“And I can go anywhere,” the woman called Corday supplied. “I see. And who am I to kill?”
“A man. A human. I don’t care how you do it so long as he’s dead and a certain family invention retrieved.”
She took another drink of her tea and observed him. Then, “Who?”
Jean-Paul Marat was not a man anyone had marked for greatness, and the fact of this seemed to have aggrieved him deeply. He fancied himself a Renaissance Man; a practicing physician, a scientist, and a talented essayist, writing often of philosophy and politics. He was in thought and deed certainly above the common man. But whether from a lack of true brilliance or just poor politicking, he’d never garnered the respect he felt was owed him. In recent years, however, he’d established himself as a vox populi. It seemed an unexpected turn of fortune.
According to Lord Verborgen, that’s because it was.
Marat and the younger Verborgen, Henri, had met years ago in London. Henri had been there for a gathering of the covens; Marat was in exile from France. They shared an interest in electricity and human sciences and Lord Verborgen assumed that was how the two had met. There was no surprise that Henri had made friends with the sickly mortal; according to his father, Henri been the amiable sort. He made friends easily and everywhere, mortal and Witch alike. The men had parted ways when Henri returned home, but maintained a correspondence up until Marat’s return to France. Then, four years ago, they had bumped into one another quite literally on the streets of Paris.
Henri was in town at the invitation of two covens, to lend an outsider’s eye and arbitrate a dispute. Marat was publishing his essays. They remembered one another fondly and, in the weeks that followed, he and Marat rekindled their friendship. This much the old man knew from his son’s missives home. But as to the depth of that friendship and of Marat’s intentions towards his son, he could only speculate.
It must’ve been great, Lord Verborgen thought. Marat knew so much, things Henri would not have shared carelessly.
Within a month, Henri fell out of contact with his family. The covens he’d come to help could find no trace of him. Until, some weeks later, Henri Verborgen’s bloated, poisoned body appeared further down la Siene, washed out with the city’s waste and refuse.
Whilst Henri was still missing, Marat’s pamphlets grew suddenly in popularity. It was that which gave away his guilt. The Verborgen’s had always possessed an affinity for charms of compulsion. Lord Verborgen knew his son had a method to produce ink that influenced the reader to believe whatever was written in it.
And Marat, for all that he’d once traveled, did not leave the city limits.
She approached Marat’s house an hour before dusk. Illness had forced him out of the Convention earlier in the summer, but he still ran his press and was rarely alone. People were in and out of the house at all hours – visitors, servants, employees of the printing press. Sycophants would gather throughout the day to try lay eyes on his greatness or appeal for an audience with him. But at that moment, the house was empty accept for Marat, his young wife, and a single maid. There wouldn’t be another chance as good as this.
She slipped in through a side door, and skirted past the kitchen where the maid fussed by the fire. She was light on her feet and a common maid would not be expecting an assassin. Nor magic.
Swiftly, she made her way to what she estimated was the center of the house. This spell, it worked best when she was absolutely center, equidistant from steeple to cellar, from wall to wall. But there was no opportunity for a better study, and no time to investigate on her own. Already, she could hear someone coming. She would be discovered in an instant.
She pulled the pocket watch from her apron and wound it tightly. Then she set it on a table near where she stood and waited. The approaching footsteps slowed, then stopped. As did the chirps of birds in the eves. There was still movement in the streets, but that was all right; had the stasis strayed that far, it would’ve caught far too much attention.
A second glance at the clockface confirmed that she had an hour before the stasis retreated. She got to work. First, fae wards on the doors and windows. They’d make anyone who got too close to the house shift away, and anyone who wanted to come inside remember an urgent errand somewhere else. Then began the search.
Lord Verborgen didn’t know exactly what his sons recipe was, but he had an educated guess. He’d passed that knowledge on to his assassin, along with a few other tells to better spot Witch work. A half hour into her search, she was glad of it. Her sensitivity to spellwork had made the ink itself easy to find, along with few slim volumes of Witching treatises. But there were other signs. Symbols in Marat’s scientific writings which did not belong to mortal writings. Family names she might’ve assumed were related to his work, but which she now knew were Parisian covens. She burned what she could. Hid the rest for later removal.
The ink was saved for last. It was easy to find and easier still to render mundane. All she had to do was ruin the proportion. If the ink was unusable, the charm had nothing to attach to. She found the lead vases and added to each a measure of wine taken from the kitchen, then stirred. The ruined ink wouldn’t be discovered until well after Marat’s demise, and by then, who could say what had gone wrong?
The hour was winding down. Orange dusk pressed hot palms to the window, demanding to be let in. She returned to the watch and, with a deep bracing breath, smashed it under her heel.
Life returned to the house at once. Bird song and the splash of water from the bath and foot steps coming closer. It was time for Charlotte Corday to take the stage.
Charlotte Corday had come for an audience with Monsieur Marat. She had information about Girondins in hiding in Paris. Would he see her? He would.
His wife protested, but nevertheless, she was shown to his bathing room. Marat sat soaking in a tub, a wooden board resting across the rim. He was still writing.
She found him a small man and unpleasant in appearance. But he had a presence. And, as she gave him invented enemies among the theatre patrons, she noticed he possessed a smile that put one at ease. And his passion! Human bodies were not meant to hold such zeal. Rooms were not built big enough to contain it.
Had she cared at all, she might have been moved. But his concerns were those of the mortal and dying. She was beyond that. Only amateurs empathized with the men they were to kill. Professionals pretended.
“How far you’ve come, monsieur,” she said to him once her report was through. “Once, every door was closed to you. Now, only illness can constrain you.”
He flushed at the praise, but his brow was furrowed. “That has always been my lot, even when it may have seemed otherwise. But the work! The work sustains me. And the people to whom I give voice.”
Charlotte sat silently and waited for him to finish writing. Kept her peace as he read over his own writing. Then, “And would the people still love you so if they knew you would kill for their ear? No, never mind, that is a foolish question. They would love you more, for it would mean your hands are as bloody as theirs.”
Marat slowed his examining. Then stopped. He’d gone very pale. “You knew Henri.”
“His family wishes you a safe journey to Hell.”
She pulled the knife from her apron and struck, swift and true. The blow pierced beneath his clavicle and bled out rapidly. He was dead in a moment. She overturned his inkwell, the last one she’d seen, and ran for the door.
With so many of her resources tied up in contracts and unavailable, and with Marat’s house being such a hub of activity, she’d known making a clean escape would be difficult. Unlikely, even. But even knowing this, the speed with which she was caught staggered her.
“A mortal with sight noticed something odd about the house. He watched you through the windows. That’s how the mob gathered so quickly,” Hezek explained.
The Redcap sat across from her in the cell, squat and a little bloody, but meticulously dressed. Hezek had been handling the practicalities of her commissions for the past century. He was not her first keeper, but he was near to the top of her favorites. It was tradition between the two of them that when something went awry, they discussed the fallout together over food. That night, he’d brought a flagon of wine and fresh bread to share, and ginger snaps from that bakery in Weimar she liked. She wasn’t going to like what he told her, was she?
“We cannot remove you before the execution. We’ve stretched too many promises for this job as is. All we can do is see this through to your death and move on.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “I know Marat was well known, but I’ve killed better legends than him before. And my escapes have certainly been worse. The Porto affair, and that thing in the Vatican, you remember! Why can’t I be spirited away this time? What’s changed?”
She sent him a look that few lived to recollect. She ate a gingersnap.
Hezek sighed and rolled his eyes meaningfully. “You gave a name to the lady of the house, yes? You said Charlotte Corday was seeking an audience.”
“Yes I gave a name.” She hissed and ate another cookie. “That’s what they’re for, to give and take and use! Mortals think something’s wrong if you try to do business without one. You think I carry the cumbersome things for fun? Now what of it?”
“The name Charlotte Corday is known in Paris. It has become a name with gravity. People hear it and remember.”
He nodded and poured a stream of wine into his gaping maw. “You’ll go to the guillotine. Probably within the week, the way the mobs keep carrying on. They’re making a martyr of him, you know?”
“Is Lord Verborgen pleased with the outcome at least?”
“Very. He couldn’t care less what’s thought of Marat so long as he’s dead. He’s tacked a very nice bonus on top of the usual fees. For your coming inconvenience, I believe. Try not to spend it all too quickly.”
She huffed but said nothing.
“You might also be interested to know that the books were retrieved. Only some of them belonged to the late Henri. The others had a most interesting provenance. I doubt we’ll hear any more about the matter, but oh, I do wish I could be a fly on the wall at the next Calling.” Hezek chuckled darkly and grinned. That was always an unsettling sight with teeth like his, even without the grim implication.
“There’s a conspiracy?”
“They’re Witches, there’s always a conspiracy somewhere.” She thought about her mother and agreed. “Bah, I’m letting myself get distracted. Have I forgotten anything?”
“Just where I’m going next,” she said. “And whether I’ll be able to work again once I’m out of France.”
“Mmm.” Hezek reached into his waist coat and removed a think journal. “Most of your sponsors will likely want you immobile for a while longer; punishment for both of us for running around and breaking contract. The fact that the hiring party was Verborgen will only placate them so far. Then again, there are several parties interested in your services sooner rather than later. So. London? You usually have fun there.”
“Not for a few years. I suspect I’ll need some time to get Corday out of me after being her for so long. And there are too many emigres there to remind me and be reminded. No. Ask me again in the new century.”
“What about the Kingdom of Hungary?”
“I’ve had enough of Hapsburg machinations.”
Hezek hesitated long enough to make her suspicious. “There has been…an offer. To host you until we can get you back to work.” Well! That was new.
“A Witching family in Wales. They’re friendly with Verborgen and appreciate your interference.”
“They go by Ddyfais. Though,” he hesitated and fidgeted in his seat, “you may recognize them an earlier name? The Da Vinci’s.”
It had been a long time since she’d laughed that hard.
Four days after she murdered Jean-Paul Marat, the woman named Charlotte Corday was brought to the guillotine. She did not go as actress, however. The gathered masses saw a young noblewoman, sympathetic to the Girondins.
The frenzied crowd hated her, but already her words from the trial were spreading.
“I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand!”
She heard the swish of the blade as it descended. Perhaps she would try her hand at writing next.
“I don’t understand.”
Two women were sharing tea in a hotel room overlooking the Siene as they talked about the past. One was named Isobel Panby-Device, a young Witch and recently married to the woman’s friend and god-son, Mal Device. Isobel was more than just the common Witch, however; she was a scientist, researching the legacies of Witching families> How they lived, how they died out, how one branch would thrive while another withered. She sat across from the woman with a portable typewriter sitting between them. They were eating petit-fours with candied ginger.
“Why did you have to stay for the execution?” Isobel demanded with her usual intensity. “Hezek said it was because too many people knew you, but at your trial and execution, no one placed you as the actress. They just completely accepted you as a lesser noble from the back end of France. How?”
“What can I say? Fae work fast when they’re motivated.” Isobel frowned, but the look was ruined when a section of auburn hair loosened from a clip and fell in her face. The woman laughed; this was the fourth time in the last half hour alone Isobel’s hair had acted out in sympathy with her frustrations. She smiled and looked out onto the river, reminiscing. “It just took some well-placed glamours and the power of gossip. Hezek said it, didn’t he? The name had achieved its own gravity. Normally what that means is that the name has stuck in the mind too strongly to be overwritten by common magic. And I’d been acting for a while, so my name was not only known reasonably well, it was known to many. There would never be enough time or magic to unpluck the memory of me from every mind that had known of me. But glamours could redirect what the name was attached to. Instead of Charlotte Corday, actress, I could become Charlotte Corday, the angel of assassins. Does that make sense?”
“Not even a little, but fae magics are always frustratingly indefinable.” Isobel readied her hands above the typewriter once more. “Tell me what happened next.”
What happened next was that Hezek had the agency’s goblins craft her a new face and toss her a name no one was using. Then? “And then I moved in with your husbands’ family for a few years! The end. Unless you care to hear about my revivification?” She leered.
Isobel grimaced. “No thank you. I’ve read Owain Ddyfais’ notes on your vivisection. I think I can fill in the details about a beheading. But now that I’m thinking about it, was that why he made all those murder machines?”
“No, he’d already made, mmm, most of them before he met me. He was delighted that I gave him the chance to test and improve them, though.”
“Noted,” Isobel said in a dry deadpan. For a few moments the women sat in silence while Isobel typed.
“You know? There was one more thing that happened. I nearly forgot to mention it, I’ve become so used to it.”
The typing paused.
“The name. Charlotte. It started following me.”
Isobel raised a single brow.
“Oh, how do I describe it? It just started attaching itself to me in odd places. People would call me Charlotte and not know why. Or they’d say I ‘looked like a Charlotte’ to explain themselves. And there are those street magicians, you’ve seen them, the kind who try to guess things about you and claim they read your mind? No matter where I go, they guess Charlotte! Or their languages approximation of it. And before you ask, only one or two of them have ever been gifted in a meaningful way.
“Most annoying of all is when I find myself falling into it too. You can only guess how many times I’ve had to stop myself from signing Charlotte on checks and paperwork. It’s maddening!”
Isobel raised both brows and said, dryly, “Fae magic. Weird.”
They both laughed. “Well then, I think that settles the Corday affair on my end! Do you have enough?”
“More than. I can’t thank you enough for this.” Isobel was beaming. “There’s plenty of records about the conspiracy and the Verborgen family’s suit against the Lavelle’s, but very little about Marat’s part in it. This fills in more than a few gaps.”
“Any time.” From across the city, the bells of Notre Dame rang out the hour. “I need to be on my way. Parties to attend, people to defenestrate.”
“Anyone I know?” Isobel asked, grinning wickedly.
“Walk me down and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Together, they packed up the typewriter and polished off the petit fours. They gossiped about their work as they rode the lift down to the lobby. And as they left, the woman signed the guest book Charlotte.
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