Paris, Feb 1, 1793
Daylight was waning, and the sentries on duty at Paris’ West Gate were looking forward to their evening meal and the pint of ale that would accompany it. Traffic through the gate had slowed to a trickle, particularly since the latest edict restricted travel by aristos wanting to flee the city. The lieutenant smirked at that thought; soon enough, the despised aristocrats would have more reason to flee. Even now, the Committee was arresting the traitors, destined to follow their deposed king to the guillotine.
The creaking sound of a cart approaching the gate caught his attention, as did the doleful ringing of the bell carried by the old man following the death cart. "Unclean!" the bell proclaimed, and the soldiers guarding the gate drew back as they cast uneasy looks at the slow-moving cart pulled by the old man’s hulking son. The lieutenant took a quick look at the cart with its burden of bodies bound for the charnel pits and then nodded familiarly at the old man.
"A light load today, old father," he said.
The man shrugged eloquently. "L’ange de la morte, she has her moods. There will be more dead of the plague tomorrow, or next week."
The lieutenant faltered in his stroll towards the cart even as his men drew back further. The word ‘plague’ still had the ability to freeze a man’s blood and anyone would think twice before risking its embrace. He turned away from the cart, gesturing to his men.
"Open the gate!"
The cart made its slow way through the gate and down the winter-rutted road leading away from the city. The old man followed, ringing his bell and muttering to himself, causing the few travelers they met to give the little procession a wide berth. At a branch in the road, the half-wit son pulled the cart onto the path that led to the charnel pits outside the city. A rough hut stood in the shadow of the woods, some distance away from the stench of death, and the half-wit halted outside of it. He set down the handles of the cart and began struggling out of the harness. The old man, moving quickly for his advanced years, hurried forward to help him with the stiff buckles.
"Are you all right, Lord Tournay?" he asked softly, in a more cultured tone than he’d used with the guard at the gate.
The man nodded, shrugging out of the rough straps with a wince, his shoulders unaccustomed to such heavy labor. "My wife and son?"
The old man turned to the cart, flipping back the burlap sacking that had shielded the bodies from public view. One of the corpses blinked at the sudden light, pushed up into a sitting position, and looked around. Her eyes lit up at the sight of her husband and she held out her arms to him.
"My love!" she said, her voice anxious. "Are we safe?"
"We are out of the city but not yet safe while we are in France," he said as he helped her down from the cart
The younger corpse sat up and grimaced as he brushed at the ugly pustules afixed to his arms. "La, these will be the very devil to wash off!"
"Easier than blood would have been, Philippe." A handsome young Englishman walked out of the hut as he spoke, and the young Vicomte de Tournay's face lit up.
"John-Paul! You are our savior, m’sier."
"Not I," John-Paul said, helping the young man down from the cart. "The honour goes to that man," he added, gesturing toward the old man who was now leaning against the cart with his back toward them as he began wiping off the heavy make-up distorting his features. "And he is Eroica."
"The Prince of Thieves?" the Countess de Tournay queried, casting an intrigued look over at the man.
"The very same, my lady," John-Paul said, bowing slightly to her. "But we must move. Soldiers will be patrolling the woods shortly and it is a long ride to the coast."
The man who had played the half-wit, now revealed to be the Comte de Tournay, turned to John-Paul. "Never-the-less, we are in your debt, my lord. You have stood our friend, as you swore. If ever I may repay your kindness, be assured that I will."
They mounted, the Comte and his lady on one horse, John-Paul on another with the young Vicomte de Tournay mounted pillion behind him. As they rode off towards the woods and beyond that the road to the coast, a stocky man emerged from the hut bearing a basin of water. Eroica pulled off the grey wig and his curly blond hair tumbled to his shoulders. He plunged his hands into the basin.
"Well, Bonham?" Eroica asked as he splashed his face with the icy water.
"The old man and his son be inside, snoring o'er their pints," Bonham said, gesturing with his thumb towards the hut. 'They'll wake in the morn, none the wiser 'bout their part in today's doin's."
"Good. I'll be happy to return to stealing artwork; smuggling out the de Tournays has nearly shattered my nerves."
"The Daydream be off the coast, m'lord, ready to sail for England once we're on board."
"Excellent." He rubbed a wet rag over his face, finishing the task of removing the make-up that disguised his aristocratic features. "Take no chances as you make for the coast – stick to the woods along the road and watch for patrols."
"You’re not coming with us, m’lord?" Bonham asked, watching as his employer shed his rough coat and heavy brogues, exchanging them for garments more suitable for his station in society.
"And miss my sister’s soiree this evening?" Eroica asked in mock horror as he settled the coat about his shoulders. "She would murder me - it is her lord husband's birthday."
Bonham gave him a shrewd look. "I expect it ain't Lady Margaret’s party but her guest list that draws you, m'lord, if Major von dem Eberbach be invited. Still hopin’ to give him a tumble?"
Eroica made a face as he tied his cravat, knowing that without a mirror it wouldn't look as elegant as usual. "Bonham, my blushes!"
"When'll you give up tha' pipe dream?"
"Never!" he said, standing up and shaking out his ruffles as he finished his transition from the Prince of Thieves to the foppish Earl of Gloria, Dorian Red. His air changed from brisk efficiency to languid dreaminess as he said, "The Major is my Destiny!"
"Aye, m’lord, and he punched you the last time you said that," Bonham said drily. "And pulled his pistol on you the time 'fore that."
"His response is becoming less violent!" Dorian said brightly. "A sign that he is relenting."
Bonham rolled his eyes. "Keep telling yerself that, m’lord."
Dorian laughed. "I will spend a few days in Paris, Bonham, then my entourage will make its leisurely way to Brussels while I make a rather quick side-trip to Bonn. There are a few pieces I want to add to my personal collection."
"James will have a fit," Bonham said drily.
"I'll bring him back something pretty to sell," Dorian promised. "Have the Daydream standing off the coast of Belgium in a month."
"Aye, m'lord," Bonham said. He gave Dorian a leg up, then mounted his own horse and spurred it after John-Paul. Dorian watched until Bonham had reached the safety of the woods, then gave a cursory glance over the scene. Satisfied that nothing would give away the game, he turned his horse onto the road and made his leisurely way back toward Paris.