By Luke Wildman
The Dungeon of the Aristocrats stuck like an ugly boil from the southern edge of Paris, all sharp angles and dark stone. The surrounding structures comprised a forest of glacial curves clung with statuary, but the sky above Paris mirrored the dungeon. Thick. Gray. Swollen with smoke from dozens of clockwork factories. “The machinery of the New Revolution,” men called it. It was necessary, but it stank.
Citizen Bibot eyed the dungeon as he stepped from his carriage, noting the bricked-up windows and black, iron doors before him. He rubbed the gleaming brass buttons of his uniform. Bibot’s face was chapped and craggy, but his hair, beard and clothes were immaculate as ever. His eyes narrowed at the empty street. Every detail could be significant.
How had a prisoner escaped from this place? The dungeon was a repurposed factory that now held the most disgusting criminals France had ever known. Criminals who—ah. No. Bibot smiled and brushed away that flit of emotion. Unbridled anger, even when righteous, weakened the strength of reason. And Citizen Bibot of the Second Republic of France was nothing if not reasonable.
“Let me in,” he said to the guard who approached.
“Of course, Citizen. Follow, please.”
The gates clanged as the guard rapped his knuckles against them. Deep within, a lever clicked and gears whirred as they tugged back the bolts. The door swung open.
Bibot entered the dungeon with the wariness of a hunting beast, gaze lingering on the lock mechanisms, on the square-faced guards who stood in their long blue coats, and, finally, on the little whiskered man who rushed to meet him, juggling a ledger with hands encumbered by too-long coat sleeves. A fresh bruise puffed beneath the man’s left eye.
“Citizen Bibot!” the warden said. “An honor, a true honor!”
Bibot nodded. “Where did the prisoner reside?”
“Come! Back this way.”
They strode into a corridor, long and filled with doorways that had once been offices. Heavy locks now secured the doors from the outside.
“The air smells sour,” Bibot said. “The prisoners?”
“We do not wash them, of course. Madame Guillotine does not discriminate.”
“Filthy aristos,” the warden said, sneering. “Confiscate their luxuries and they smell as bad as the rest of us.”
“Oh my,” Bibot said. “You consider aristocrats equal to other citizens?”
The warden paled. His eyes flicked to Bibot. “No, not that! They are loathsome, decadent enslavers. Our grandfathers shed the same blood as theirs to free France from the first monarchy—how dared they set themselves as our new rulers? They deserve the guillotine, every man, woman, and child. Long live the New Revolution!”
Bibot nodded. “They deserve the guillotine, and the Ministry has sent me to ensure they find it. Lead on.”
They passed through more corridors of blank-faced doors, then through workrooms forested by enormous, rusting vats. As they descended a stairway into a storage cellar, darkness and dank air rose to meet them.
The warden lit an oil lamp. Its flickers revealed cages lining the cellar walls, crowded with figures of pasty skin and hollow eyes. Many of the prisoners didn’t have enough space to sit; they slumped against the bars, limbs dangling. They only stirred to hide their eyes from the new light.
The warden pressed a scarf over his nose. Mingled smells of urine, sweat, and rot thickened into a smothering blanket. Bibot gagged but did not hide. As a boy, he’d slept in many sewers that smelled worse than this.
“The prisoner was in that cage,” the warden said, pointing. Bibot stalked toward the corner.
Two figures stared at him from behind the bars. One was a girl, no older than twenty, with golden hair that might’ve been pretty had it been washed and untangled. She fixed her wide eyes on the warden. The woman beside her looked plump and maternal. Grime and faint smears of old makeup caked her face.
“Did you know the prisoner?” Bibot asked. They barely stirred.
“They are his mother and sister,” the warden said. “Their swine abandoned them.”
“Did I address you?”
The man gulped.
“You must feel your brother will return for you,” Bibot said to the girl. He reached through the bars to grasp her chin. “Your brother must be very clever. Perhaps even brave.”
She trembled but said nothing, only clenched her lips into a thin line. Bibot turned her face so he could study her left cheek. Three long scratches showed scarlet on the pale skin. Fresh. Barely scabbed.
“Still,” Bibot said, “I wager your brother will weep like everyone else when his head rests beneath the guillotine.”
“You will not catch our Percival!” the mother said. “You have the intelligence of a dog, Monsieur! No one is so smart, strong, or daring as my son. My Percy.”
She spat on Bibot’s cheek, her spittle as warm as new blood. Bibot smiled.
“Your son will be caught. I guarantee it.” He turned to the warden. “Take me up.”
They ascended the stairs, echoes of the mother’s shrieks pursuing them. Only when she was out of sight did Bibot wipe her spittle from his beard.
“Where will you look next?” the warden asked. “How will you catch him? We do not even know how he escaped.”
“I do, in fact.”
“But of course.” Bibot whirled and jabbed a finger at the bruise under the warden’s eye. “He escaped through your incompetence.”
“You decided to enjoy the girl. The sister. Tell me: did he knock you unconscious while you were distracted, or merely threaten you, demand your uniform, then walk freely from the dungeons in the guise of an officer?”
“That is . . . outrageous! You have no proof!”
Bibot sighed. They were back in the corridors, now, walking past padlocked offices.
“Citizen,” he snapped to a passing guard. The man saluted. It was the same guard who’d first ushered him inside. “I am placing your warden under arrest. Take him to a holding cell until the interrogators arrive.”
“It shall be done. With pleasure.”
“You cannot do this!” the warden said. “This is an injustice!”
“There is no injustice in the New Revolution, Monsieur. We have already received our second chances.”
The warden’s screams echoed through the Dungeon of the Aristocrats as the guard led him away. Bibot checked his pocket-watch. Time to catch an aristo.
Half-an-hour later, Citizen Bibot stepped into a backroom of The Theater of Faces, then let the double doors thump behind him. The space was dimly lit. It sat behind the larger auditorium: a private salon for actors to gather and discuss their craft.
It had not escaped the wrath of the New Revolution.
Bibot gazed about. The air smelled like old, spilled wine. Rioters had gouged graffiti into the dark wood paneling of the walls. Sofas lay on their sides, ripped cushions bled stuffing, and the overturned drink bar was in shambles. The mirrors behind it, at the back of the room, were webbed with cracks. As Bibot stepped forward, glass crunched beneath his heels. The destruction around him was complete.
He gazed at a framed playbill from an old production. Bright ink depicted a masked gentleman peeping up a lady’s petticoats. Bibot leaned closer, then noticed the young lady’s mustache. She was winking at the viewer while holding a finger to her lips.
Armand Beaumont and Percival St. Just, the billing read. Then, in enormous red letters: THE MATCHMAKER’S HEADACHE.
Bibot studied the picture. Makeup and faded ink obscured the visage of the actor who pretended to be a woman, though he obviously had delicate features and sheer cheekbones. Bibot gazed at blue eyes that both sparkled with intelligence and drooped lazily, half-lidded.
Those eyes belonged to Percival St. Just. Bibot felt certain of it.
St. Just had performed regularly at this theater: upon the stage, he’d lived out Hamlet, Tybalt, Macbeth, and a dozen other lives. A dozen lives, when he’d not deserved even one.
Bibot poked further through the rubble, but found nothing of interest. Still, when he strode from the theater, he understood Percival’s world better.
A world reduced to shredded frivolities and broken glass. Where could the aristocrat hide?
Bibot’s private carriage hissed to a stop—a puff of steam rose like a ghost from the engine. Bibot shook his head. He’d now served France’s new government for some time, yet still marveled at owning his own clockwork and steam-fueled devices. How had he risen so far from the gutters? To a street urchin, these machines had seemed untouchable.
He stepped from the carriage, then gaped at the ruined mansion before him. Lawns of overgrown grass were dotted with smashed statuary, dry fountains, and elaborately crafted hedges. A white stone road cut through the center of the lawns, followed a small bridge over a stream, then led to the foot of the main house. ‘House’ was too mild a term—this was nearer a palace. But the glass in its shattered windows looked like broken teeth, and looters had heaped furniture in the yard.
The St. Just mansion. Where Percival St. Just had been raised.
Bibot strode up the drive, coat bouncing against his calves. He entered the house through an open door.
Percival’s room was easy to find: it was on the second floor, with a balcony that afforded a view over the city. The surrounding neighborhoods had been opulent before the New Revolution, but now their theaters sat abandoned and looters had burned their cafes. In the distance, occasional airships rose from the port, drifting into open skies.
Had Percival stood here, Bibot wondered, watching those blimps drift to safety while rioters beat down the gates of his home? Had he dreamed of escape amongst the clouds? This was a majestic view. It reminded Bibot of his days begging for scraps on street corners, gazing after the aristocrats who strolled by in their peacock dresses and lace shirts.
To seea better life within arm’s reach—yet be unable to touch it. Bibot understood his quarry. Empathy was the first step of the hunt.
He peered further eastward. Beyond the airship port lay one of Paris’s worst slums, sprawled in labyrinthian squalor. These aristocrats had feasted and laughed within sight of that misery. Sickening. Worse than sickening: inhuman. How did one feel no remorse, no—
The cry of a broken clock rescued Bibot from useless anger.
He stalked back through the house, past slashed tapestries and toppled suits of armor. Spoiled wealth, built upon gilded blood.
This aristocracy had emerged after the first revolutions liberated France from her corrupt monarchy. The grandparents of the St. Just family, along with many others, had likely fought side-by-side with Bibot’s ancestors. Then, while Bibot’s ancestors returned to the trash heaps, these revolutionaries operated the factories that made clockwork for Napoleon’s armies, amassing new fortunes. Fresh money birthed fresh aristocrats. Rich peasants set themselves as counts and countesses after the Emperor’s fall. They forgot their origins. Squandered their second chances.
Bibot would not squander his.
He stepped into the foyer . . . then started at the sight of another figure. A stooped old woman cackled at him.
“Ha! Thought we were alone, did we? I can see by your dress you’ve got money. Well, this house is free pickin’s for everyone! I gots as much rights here as you, Monsieur.” She clutched her basket of stolen candlesticks wrapped in loose scraps of paper.
“Of course.” Bibot bowed. “Carry off as many dishes as you like. This wealth is for all citizens, Madame.”
The crone leered with rotten teeth. “That’s right, and don’t forget. What’re you doing here? Look at you—you’ve no need of aristocrat money.”
“I would not take their money were I starving. I am hunting the previous occupants of this house. Were you familiar with them?”
“The St. Justs? ‘Course I knew ‘em. Did their washing, I did. And I unlocked their front gates for the mobs.” She laughed. “There was a girl—pretty young thing. And a young man, quiet but learned. They liked the theater.”
Bibot nodded. “If you hear anything of them, report it.”
“Hear anything? Like that they’re being taken to the guillotine, even whiles we speak? I don’t imagine the young man will stay so quiet under the blade!”
Bibot blinked. Breath snagged in his throat. “The guillotine?”
“Oi, heard it a few minutes ago. Good riddance to that lot. Long live the New Republic—idn’t that what we say, now?”
Why were they being moved? Who had ordered their execution? In the dungeon, Percival’s mother and sister were secure—but, if Bibot himself had wanted to rescue them, he’d have waited till they were traveling outside its walls.
Had some fool given this order? Or was it the work of Percival St. Just? Bibot slapped his palms to his brow. St. Just might be freeing his mother and sister even now, while Bibot wandered uselessly in his old haunts!
The Ministry of the New Revolution never forgave failure.
Bibot smashed open the front door and sprinted down the drive, spitting curses at whoever had ordered the St. Justs to the guillotine.
The clockwork guillotine stood in a famous square of Paris, crowded by hundreds or thousands of spectators. As Bibot dashed through the crowds—he’d abandoned his carriage in the choked avenues two blocks prior—he glimpsed hungry, brutish faces. Ahead, the guillotine’s blade rose. Tick, tock, tick. The gears clacked a percussion of death as they wound themselves tight. Scarlet pooled around the machine.
A line of wagons waited to deliver prisoners to the blade. Old women sat in rocking chairs before the guillotine itself, their knitting needles clacking with a sound that resembled the gears. At every death, they bellowed laugher. Hair from the scalps was piled around their feet—grisly trophies from the day’s work.
“Wait!” Bibot bellowed, pushing into the open. “Not another head! Where is the warden from the Dungeon of the Aristocrats?”
“Here, Sir,” came a breathless voice.
Bibot turned. A man with enormous muttonchops stood beside a wagon. “You replaced the previous warden?” Bibot asked.
“That is so. He was arrested on charges of—”
“I arrested him.”
The new warden’s eyes widened.
“Who ordered the St. Just mother and daughter brought here?”
“The command arrived from the Ministry itself, Sir. I have the papers. Do you wish to—”
“No time! Which wagon?”
The warden waved vaguely at the line of carts behind him. “One of these.”
Bibot growled and strode down the line. “Were I a clever, bold young aristocrat bent on rescuing my mother and sister, I would wait till they were outside the dungeons, being transported,” Bibot said. “Then I would strike.”
“I only followed orders, Sir.”
“And it may cost your head.”
Bibot reached the end of the wagon line and cursed. “Not here! They’ve slipped free.”
“Oh! Sir—while we drove through the city, we were interrupted by an old woman. She claimed she was driving her plague-sick nephew out of Paris. Could that . . .” The warden shivered. “This aristocrat is the devil himself! Perhaps the prisoners slipped into the plague cart while it passed.”
“Damn!” Bibot said. “I would bet all of Paris that the wagon driver was none other than Percival St. Just. He imitated an officer well enough to escape the dungeon—an old crone would pose no challenge.”
The new warden looked ready to faint.
“Do you have transport?” Bibot asked.
“Good. Take me to the airship port. Immediately.”
They clattered through the city, past crowds that smelled of sweat and excitement. Somehow, all Paris murmured about the escape. Fervor spread like cholera: would the famous Citizen Bibot catch these aristocrats, as he had so many others? Or would the mysterious family elude capture? Opinions seemed divided.
“Citizen,” the warden said, “how do you know these aristos will attempt to leave by airship? Would they not flee into the countryside?”
Bibot forcibly unclenched his teeth. Anger would not help with a cool head.
“I visited their home. From the balcony of the boy’s room, he had a view of departing airships.”
The warden frowned. “And?”
“Have you ever been hopeless, Monsieur?”
The warden blinked.
“When you are hopeless, begging for food on the street corners, you stare after the aristocrats who pass by. You imagine yourself among them. Wearing their clothes. Living in their world. Their life becomes more than hope to you—it becomes an obsession. The only true means of escape.”
“I do not understand, Monsieur.”
“I do not expect you to. But I am inside Percival St. Just’s head. He will make for the airships.”
Their carriage puffed to a halt beside the stone entrance to the airship station, and Bibot and the warden leapt out. Two guards followed, shouldering rifles.
“Search everywhere!” Bibot commanded. “Especially any ships that will soon depart. The prisoners will be disguised.”
They marched in, barely pausing to demand information from the Port Authorities. No, no aristocrats or old ladies who might’ve been aristocrats had been seen, today. Yes, two blimps were set to fly within the hour: one private schooner for Germany, another for London. None had departed recently. All ships could be delayed, if the revolution required it.
The blimps were anchored in a deep trench that was cut like a scar in the heart of Paris. White sky gleamed at the top of the trench, shining into the dingy station. Bibot hurried down the wharf, boots thumping on tile. Ships bobbed beside him.
There! The schooner bound for Dresden. The name Daydream was painted in bright yellow on her prow. Her captain stood on the gangplank, arguing with a port official.
“Move,” Bibot said, drawing near. The captain gaped. “Move!” Bibot hauled a pistol from his belt and cocked the hammer. The captain stumbled back, frantically gesturing for Bibot to pass.
Bibot stowed his pistol as he entered. Inside, a dozen or so passengers sat in the ovular cabin. They looked like frightened businesspeople, mostly—one or two who might’ve been agents of the revolution. Or spies of the enemy.
“Check them all,” Bibot told the warden and guards.
He walked down the aisle, examining papers, scrutinizing faces. No need to rush, now. The aristocrats would be caught—it only required time. The questions were where, and on which ship?
“Reason for travelling to Dresden?” Bibot asked a fat priest.
“I live there! I only came to assist in the efforts against cholera. And this is how you treat me!”
“Indeed. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
He moved on.
“What if they are not here, Monsieur?” the warden asked.
Bibot smiled. “They will be. But if they were not, it would mean your head and mine. We would have failed the revolution.”
The warden moaned. “Then we would have no grace! We have already received our second chances.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then Bibot turned to the warden.
“I said that. To your predecessor. But you were not there. How—”
“Well, Citizen. I was there, you see.” The warden smiled. Then he peeled the sideburns from his cheeks.
Bibot’s mouth ran dry. His lips parted, and he felt his heart tick the percussion of a broken clock.
“The guard!” he said. “You—you let me into the dungeons!”
“Actually, it was the other way around. Thank you for that. Escaping was tricky—but returning for my mother and sister was far harder.”
“Idn’t it, then, Citizen?” The man hunched over and his voice turned raspy, melting into the old crone from the mansion.
“How else could I make you visit the guillotine, eh? I had a delicate schedule to keep.”
“Astounding! Guards, seize him.”
The soldiers stared with serious eyes.
“I’m afraid these are my people,” Percy said. “Mother, sister, why don’t you greet Citizen Bibot? I fear he won’t be travelling with us to Dresden.”
“I . . . what?”
“There was no old lady with plague, you see. I made up that story. But don’t feel bad, Citizen—you almost won. I struggled to fake my way as the new warden, command my mother and sister to the guillotine, converse with you in my old house, then arrive at the guillotine before you. If you hadn’t been caught in traffic, I’d never have made it.”
Bibot shook his head. He felt dizzy.
“I’m deeply grateful for the ride in your carriage,” Percy said. “Most appreciated. Do you know, I was worried about roadblocks? I had to visit my home to secure some financial documents—they’ll help me arrange a comfortable life in England. Far more comfortable than yours will soon be, I’m afraid, once your precious revolution learns of your failure. But fetching those documents took time, and it seemed inevitable someone would notice my family’s absence before we set sail. Hence, my need for you. You’ve been splendid.”
Something about his words—the sheer arrogance, perhaps—jolted Bibot’s nerves, unfreezing him. This man was a devil; a fiend who tread upon commoners for pleasure. A decadent, cruel man. Less than a man. An aristocrat.
Bibot’s hand flew to his belt, but grasped nothing. Where was his pistol?
Percival winked at him. “Time to say au revoir. Except I fear we won’t meet again—I’ll leave you to the mercy of your New Revolution, such as it is. Ready to fly, Anthony?”
“Sir Anthony is an old friend,” Percy said, bowing to the grinning captain. “I’ve many friends, in England. They’ll find us a new life.”
“You will be caught at the blockade!” Bibot said.
“You’d best fret about yourself, Sir.”
Percival waved a pistol in Bibot’s face—Bibot’s own pistol. Bibot backed from the ship, down the gangplank.
“Viva la revolution, Citizen!” Percival called. “And remember: you’ve already had your second chance.”
With a roar of engines and a puff of steam, the airship lifted into the slit of white sky. Bibot watched it soar.
No second chances. That damned aristocrat was correct. Bibot would receive more mercy from his quarry than his countrymen.
“Citizen?” A port official strode toward him.
Bibot stared at the trench where the other airships were moored. Briefly, he considered seizing one and giving pursuit. But no, he had no crew. No way to fly. And even if he caught the St. Justs, he had already failed the revolution—and the revolution did not forgive.
“Where is that ship going, Citizen?” the port official asked.
“To a new life,” Bibot said. Then he stepped off the edge of the trench.
His body tumbled into the scar in the heart of Paris.
The story behind the story
Scarlet Citizen was the first story I submitted to the Writers of the Future contest, way back in 2017. It received an honorable mention–a long-awaited sign of progress in my writing career. I was so enthused that I swore a rash oath to submit to the contest every quarter until I died, won, or pro-ed out.
After 14 submissions, I can now officially say I am a Writers of the Future second place winner. Scarlet Citizen started me on that path, so I thought that sharing it here would be a fitting way to celebrate. I hope you enjoy!