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Once, during the terror of the French Revolution, a handful of women fought for starving citizens, rescued innocents marked for death -- and watched their dreams drown in a sea of blood. They risked their lives for a collection of ancient Madonna artifacts, in the hopes that someday one of their descendants might use them to save the world.
That first earthquake was not my fault.
Even if God did smite sinners, would He not use the standard thunderbolts? I am no saint. But even I haven't the conceit to claim an entire natural disaster!
My grandmother could. One of her favorite sayings was, "This is your fault, Catrina." Although if anyone could will earthquakes into existence, she... But I digress.
A rush of feathers and coos startled me from self-pity as I strolled from the hospital. Grateful for the distraction, I looked up. Doves burst from the sycamore trees that lined the avenue and scattered into the blue Parisian sky. Hmm.
I glanced over my shoulder to see that, certainement, the slight, gray-haired figure who'd been following me on and off for more than a week had returned as well.
I ignored him to look back to the birds. "What is wrong now?" I whispered -- I am French, by the way, but I will translate for you.
I snorted at my understatement. A great deal was wrong. I had gone months without a lover. My job as curator at the prestigious Musée Cluny dissatisfied me of late. That damned old man really was following me, though I had yet to manage a confrontation -- I feared he had something to do with a past mistake of which I am not proud.And the grandmother who had raised me, no matter how poorly, lay dying in thenearby Hôpital Saint-Vincent de Paul.
But did I mention, months without a lover?
Fine. If you must know, my grandmother was of even greater concern than my sex life or the mysterious old man, at the moment. Grand-mère disliked me even more than I disliked her, but in a rare attempt at decency, I had just visited her.
Who would have thought so old and sick a woman could shout so loudly or throw flowers with such vehemence? But today, our mutual disdain had held a terrible undercurrent of finality.
Far easier to worry about birds.
At first, I thought I heard the rumble of a truck's approach. But I saw only automobiles and scooters darting along the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. A young couple, strolling and cuddling ahead of me, looked about in concern. Springtime in Paris meant music and sunshine and love and flowers and birds --
Fleeing, frightened birds.
My legs trembled, as if the visit with Grand-mère had upset me more than I cared to admit. Unlikely. Finally, I recognized the sensation from my two years in the USA.
In California, to be exact.
Logic denied my unsteady legs. Surely not. In Paris? Then the sidewalk rolled, buckled. I fell hard against an iron fence circling a sycamore and caught at it, clung to it. Other pedestrians ran or stumbled, their shouts lost beneath the earth's alien growl.
So much for logic. An earthquake. In Paris. Losing my balance on the pitching pavement, I managed to secure one elbow around an iron bar, trying to take everything in. The old man had caught himself against a lamppost. Even in chaos, his stare unnerved me. The young couple stumbled together. Her hand wrenched from his as she fell to the asphalt.
The bastard ran on without her. Over the woman's screams for him -- his name, it seems, was Eduard -- the very earth began to shriek in protest, like something huge and maddened.
Clinging beside the sycamore, on my knees to lower my center of balance, I watched a crack open and dart into the road -- quick, like the run in a nylon, but not as straight. This was worse than I'd seen in California.
It ran right under Eduard's lover's hips.
Her screams choked into horrified whimpers.
The crack widened beneath her. Jagged chunks of concrete crumbled into the fissure spreading, gaping across the avenue. Dust plumed upward. A smell of tearing cement burned the air. Once-solid ground shifted, sagged. The din crushed my ears.
And that foolish, abandoned girl had to look over at me, wide eyes brimming with terror.
I am no saint, but...merde.
I tried reaching toward her with one hand, hoping the little fence would hold. "Quick! Come here!"
Since she may have been a tourist, I repeated the command in English. Then exasperated German.
Surely the little fool understood something!
All she had to do was crawl toward me. Instead, as one of her knees dropped into the widening crevice beneath her, she began to weep.
Better her than me. Lest it escaped you, I am not a very nice person. And yet...she looked so very helpless.
With a groan of disgust, I loosened my elbow-hold on the fence and attempted to hang on with one hand, tight and sweaty on the iron. I stretched closer toward the girl. "Now!"
She stared at me and trembled. My fingers began to slip on the age-pitted iron. I wanted my elbow hold back.
"Fine," I screamed at her. "Die, then!"
The motivational ploy, were it one, had no effect. Suddenly the ground heaved harder, surging up, then dropping. The crack stretched wider, now gushing dust. Steel reinforcing bars ripped from the buckling concrete they had once supported. The girl's legs dropped into the opening, as if the earth were swallowing her. Her nails tore on the pavement as she tried to hold on.
Gravity sucked her downward.
And unexpectedly -- under some sisterhood impulse? -- I let go of the fencing and dove for her. Spread flat across the walkway, I reached for her wrists with both hands and actually succeeded in catching one. That gave me purchase to grab the other and hold on.
As she dropped deeper into the fissure and my chin slammed into the asphalt, I recognized my mistake. I swore. Loudly.
I was not saving her. She was dragging me down. This is why I avoid being nice! Now I could not let go even if I tried, not without beating her off. The idiot dug into my wrists with what nails she had left, sweat stinging the wounds she inflicted. Straining -- to escape as much as hold her -- I tried to bury my face into my own shoulder, to catch even one breath that wasn't thick with debris. I choked instead. I couldn't get my knees beneath me. I couldn't find purchase. My body slid inexorably toward the widening hole.
With a final shriek, the girl vanished into the road's gaping maw. I lurched forward with her, then caught on the edge. Jagged asphalt cut me under my arms as I momentarily held her. She kicked and writhed upward -- now she struggled to live?
My arms felt pulled from my shoulder sockets as I inched forward. Downward. The lip of torn rock dragged past my breasts. Past my ribs. I was hanging headfirst, into depths I could only imagine. For the record? I dislike heights. And then --
Then I dropped into the void.
This is your fault, Catrina, I thought, as dusty darkness swallowed me. Worse, I knew of nobody who would even care.
Except perhaps the mysterious old man. Depending on why he was following me in the first place.
Regaining consciousness was a pleasant surprise, relatively speaking. I ached from scrapes, bruises, and pulled muscles. My wrists bled from the helpless girl's nails. I'd landed on something hard and uneven, so my back half felt little better.
On the plus side, I was alive. I am quite the fan of survival. Especially my own.
The earth no longer pitched. It loomed in total stillness, as earth should. Compared to the chaos of before, the muffled cries from the street above and the distant car horns and wailing sirens, seemed almost peaceful.
Dust-thick sunlight and sycamore leaves filtered down past broken pavement perhaps four or five meters above me. Nothing more damaging seemed in immediate danger of crashing down. On the ground just in front of me...
Amidst some dirty white fragments, a small key gleamed.
Perhaps I could not think clearly. Oddly drawn, still gathering my senses, I reached, touched it....
A sea of red -- red hats, that is. A drumroll. Uncertain steps to the scaffold. She clenches her teeth, tries to breathe past the stench of blood-soaked wood. She mustn't vomit the swallowed key, or the soldiers will find it, might find everything. If she must die, her secret must go with her.
Better it lie dormant than be destroyed.
They strap her, standing, to the bascule. It, and she, drop into place. Her neck fits easily into the lunette, sticky with the fresh blood of her sisters, her friends, blood that stains the basket into which she must stare.
It is either that, or close her eyes. And her eyes will close soon enough.
The crowd shouts encouragement to the executioner and insults at her. They call her a traitor -- she, whose idealism helped launch the utopia that has now maddened into slaughter. Here lies proof that her ideals were born too soon. Such savagery is no way to change the world.
Certainly not to change it into any place she would wish to live.
As ever, she tries to distract herself with story. This is when the hero should arrive, sword flashing and musket barking, to save her. It does not work. Her hero is long gone.
The drumroll reverberates louder, louder, or is that her racing heart? Then, worse -- it stops. Does the executioner move? Is that the sudden slide of the blade?
Somehow -- impossibly, wonderfully -- she pushes herself backward. She wrenches free of the ties binding her to the bascule -- were they not properly fastened? -- and rolls to her feet, blind to the deadly thud behind her.
There remains a chance. Still a chance!
I blinked, swallowed hard and quickly pushed myself into a sitting position. Something bit into my hand. I looked down to realize that I had cut my palm on a broken rib bone. Not mine.
That was somewhat less disturbing than the vision of blood and guillotines that had shaken me, even when I shifted my gaze.
An unattached skull leered back at me as if delighted for the company. Near it, arm missing and chest half-shattered...
Apparently, I had landed on a skeleton. Perhaps a victim of the Revolution? To consider that would involve remembering the vision, which I was not ready to do. Instead, I drew my knees beneath me. Now I noticed a second skeleton, and a third. They lay in a hewn cave the size of a freight elevator, cluttered with rubble and debris.
I stopped counting when I noticed the girl who'd dragged me down. Unlike my other companions here, she moaned, alive.
Absently pocketing the key, I crawled past another skeleton to reach her and touched her shoulder.
She opened her eyes with a start, looked past me... And began screaming. Loudly. With echoes. "Stop that!" I've often wondered if slapping hysterics will really silence them, or if that is merely dramatic convention. I was quite ready to try it, but she slumped to the floor, unconscious. So instead, I looked over my shoulder.
A white avalanche of skulls and femurs and hip bones sloped downward from the remaining rock overhang to the floor. We'd fallen into the catacombs.