Check out Luminous Chaos, book two in the Mysteries of New Venice series by Jean-Christophe Valtat, available now from Melville House!
It’s 1907 in the icily beautiful New Venice, and the hero of the city’s liberation, Brentford Orsini, has been deposed by his arch-rival—who immediately assigns Brentford and his friends on a dangerous diplomatic mission to Paris.
But their mode of transportation—the untested “transaerian psychomotive”—proves faulty and they find themselves transported back in time to Paris 1895… before New Venice even existed. What’s more, it’s a Paris experiencing an unprecedented and crushingly harsh winter. Between attending soirees at Mallarmé’s house, drinking absinthe with Proust, trying to wrestle secrets out of mesmerists, and making fun of the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower, they also find that Paris is a city full of intrigue, suspicion, and danger.
The Steam Guillotine
It was the cold that brought Blankbate back to his senses. He realized he was outside, blindfolded amidst what sounded like a bustle of people, his breath reeking of chloroform, his hands tied so tightly together that his wrists hurt, and with the dull, cold pressure of a gun’s muzzle pressed hard against the nape of his neck. His could feel that his false beard and tinted glasses had been torn away, and he found that painful and humiliating, after all these years—to have his real face exposed, even to strangers. The scene at the Red Castle came back to his mind in hazy flashes. He could not believe he had been so naïve.
The pressure of the gun muzzle relaxed a little, long enough for someone to unknot the blindfold. Blankbate flexed his muscles, ready to react, but what he saw stopped him dead. He found himself standing amidst the roofless, charred ruins of some immense palace, the night visible above him and through the rows of chipped arches that circled the building at every level. Through one of the arches the moon shone, bulbous and pale, like a blind man’s eye. The ground was snow-covered, scattered with broken stones, weeds, and dry shrubs, and dark, snakelike ivy crept up along the remains of the walls. About twenty men surrounded him, all of them wearing wolf masks and fur coats with carnations in their lapels, some carrying torches that sent bulky shadows slowly pulsing across the ruins. A rectangular shape that seemed two stories tall, covered with a black drape, stood on a flat stone. In front of Blankbate, a fat man with a long white beard, his face unmasked, sat in a spiral-wheeled chair, a fur blanket on his knees. He spoke softly, but with an ominous hiss.
“It has come to my attention that you were interested in meeting the owner of the Blackamoor. At the moment, that happens to be me. What is it I can do for you?”
“Let me go,” Blankbate answered, straightening his aching spine. He had been beaten, and now his body effloresced with vivid patches of pain.
“Ah, this I cannot do, unfortunately. Neither can I offer you the Blackamoor, of which I am only the keeper, and which it is my duty to protect. But I can assure you that you will see it tonight.”
“Where are we? What are you going to do to me?” Blankbate shouted, his voice laden with anger.
“Where? The former Court of Accounts, which was burned down during the Commune. But, as you can see, it is still a Court. And of course, what we are going to do is settle some accounts.”
“Is this some kind of trial?”
“It is more than that, I am afraid. It is an execution.” He made a slight move of his plump hand, and two Wolf-men stepped up onto the flat stone, and pulled the black drape off the large structure.
The guillotine appeared, vertiginous, its oblique blade gleaming in the torchlight. Its posts were laced with vines or ivy and topped with bunches of mistletoe. Two metallic horns darted from the upper mantle, fastened to curved tubes of steel that were themselves inserted into mechanical contraptions on either side of the legs. The heavy “mutton” that held and weighed the blade was not suspended by a rope but fixed to a pair of telescopic pistons, which were in turn connected to some sort of engine. It was, in short, a steam guillotine.
All of the Wolf-men had dropped to their knees, heads down, as soon as the death machine had appeared, and now they slowly got back on their feet.
Blankbate knew this was the end. He stood fascinated, for a while unable to summon the strength to fight.
“Meet our Queen, the Widow, the Mother of Men and Eternal Maiden, She who turns Life into Death and Death into Life. She demands blood to bring spring back to our accursed land,” the man in the wheelchair declaimed, encompassing the snowy ruins with a wide swipe of his arm. “It is our great honour to offer a sacrifice to her, and a great privilege for you to have been chosen as her consort.”
“Why me?” Blankbate howled. He felt the anger building up in him, streams of strength flowing to his aching muscles. But there was nothing he could do.
The man in the wheelchair gave a smile that the torchlight twisted into a grimace.
“It is well known that a stranger brings either trouble or abundance. In both cases, sacrifice is required. And, as a benefit, we get rid of strangers—all these Jews and Dagoes, all the vermin that invade France these days. It used to be a land of Plenty, but it has been abused and defiled, and it is our mission to purify it from its waste, so that it can grow again, back to the full splendour of its past abundance.”
Reasoning with these men, Blankbate realized in a drench of cold sweat, was as useless as fighting them. The word “waste,” though, struck him. This man was not only an enemy but also a colleague, a garbage collector. That was why he had the Blackamoor. But he had committed the most basic mistake and, in Blankbate’s eyes, the ultimate sin: that of thinking that the mess should or could be cleaned, that it was not part of some mysterious balance. And of course, that mistake had made him crazy.
But it was too late for understanding. Another wave of the man’s hand sent one of the Wolf-men over to the Widow. With careful, solemn gestures, the screw that blocked the spring of the lunette was undone. A fat piece of rope from a figure-eight-shaped ring was unfastened and hooked to the blade. Pulling the rope, the Wolf-man lifted the mutton up to the crossbar mantle, then coiled the cord around a hook on the left post.
Another Wolf-man had joined him, feeding charcoal to the firebox of the steam engine. The glow was reflected on his feral head, and embers flickered in his black, opaque eyes.
“I made two journeys: one through the forest, one through the fire,” the bearded man in the wheelchair suddenly declaimed. The engine started to puff and purr in the silent night. From time to time, the Wolf-men spoke among themselves in a language that sounded like twisted, inverted French, but Blankbate could not understand them. He tried to focus, dispel his fears, find a way out, but his mind, too, seemed bound in tight chains.
He watched hopelessly as the dressing of the Bride continued. A large wicker trunk, padded with vine leaves, was brought alongside the platform. A zinc pail was hung over the lunette, and another Wolf-man, perhaps the tall one who had framed him, stood near the Widow, a crude curvaceous metal vase in his hand.
Blankbate knew what it was before the man in the wheelchair had time to tell him.
“The Blackamoor. Your blood will be the wine of our harvest. We’ll feed the earth with it.”
“Let an impure blood water our furrows!” the Wolf-men chanted, as, with a hiss of pressure, wraithlike smoke from the engine rose around the guillotine.
Blankbate closed his eyes. He suddenly understood that his mistake at the Red Castle had only been the outcome of another, earlier, bigger blunder. His dream of the Blackamoor had been a dream of his own death. He had come to Paris not to prevail, but to meet his fate. Some part of him, he realized, had known it all along. This was why he had walked into the Hall of the Dead. The grail was to be filled with his blood.
He took a deep breath, summoning courage. Hands seized him and pushed him towards the stone. He elbowed them back and straightened his spine.
“I’ll walk,” he spat out at them.
The man in the wheelchair nodded.
“Actually, the ritual demands a fight,” he decreed.
And the Wolf-men grasped Blankbate again and he fought back in despair, twisted, kicked their shins, but they were strong and they were many and they dragged him up to the stone. The time came for them to tear off his collar, and he faced the guillotine rising darkly against the night sky, and he looked for the Great Bear to say his prayers. But before he could find it, he was toppled, face down, over the teeter. Someone tried to pull his hair to pass it through the lunette, but it was too short-cropped, and the hands had to take purchase below the neck, strangling Blankbate as they pulled him forward. He had lived most of his life as a pariah; couldn’t he die with dignity? His head was forced into the lunette and its upper half-moon was lowered to hold him in place, and locked. He felt he was going crazy as multiple hands held him down on the teeter and a large, masked man advanced towards him, holding a spiked hammer.
“You’ll be pleased to know that we are not barbarians,” the man in the wheelchair said. “Unlike the unclean Jews and Musselmans, we are merciful enough to kill the offering before we cut its throat. Proceed, please.”
The hammer was lifted, passing against the face of the moon.
“Long live the Widow, Mother of the Universe!” the Wolf-men shouted.
Blankbate held his last breath, and watched the hammer as it fell.
Luminous Chaos © Jean-Christophe Valtat, 2013