Chapter 8: Le Premier Mort

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"Lucienne Reneault, what a surprise," said Nicholas in that foppish tone he affected. The tiny black mouche he had affixed to his face accentuated his high cheekbones, as did the rouge. "I should have known you would be on the guest list."

The sight of him had hit her like a blow to the stomach. For so long she had plotted what she might say should she meet him on the street, and, since the invitation had arrived, she had plotted how she might kill him and the words she would say as he gasped for his last breath.

With the suddenness of his appearance, she found herself gaping and speechless.

"I'll have some bets to pay out," Nicholas continued. "Bastien and Guillaume wagered that against all odds, you would be in attendance. I had thought your family's humiliation would have stopped you, but I see you do not mind humiliation." He gave her dress a once-over, then raised his carefully manicured eyebrows. "Clearly, you did not pay for that rag you call a dress? At least, I hope you did not. Did you?" he asked, when she did not protest. He gave her a pitying look. "You must tell me the name of your dressmaker, then. I will have his business in shambles by tomorrow evening."

It was all she could do not to whip the stiletto from her bosom and slice his throat along the red ribbon he wore. She needed to get him alone before she killed him.

She bit her bottom lip and looked up at him through her eyelashes. "You are truly a gentleman to offer such a service. Perhaps..." Here she arched her back a little. "I could show my appreciation in a more private setting?"

Nicholas squinted a little, his eyes flickering down to Lucienne's décolleté and back up. For a brief moment Lucie thought he might just agree – until he burst out laughing.

"Oh, my little Lucienne, I do hope this is not an attempt to seduce me! If I were in the least bit interested in a female companion, certainly I would not choose one fallen so far as you." With a sharp laugh, Nicholas bowed deeply. The sneer on his face made him look sharp and cruel. "Until we meet again, which hopefully will be never."

She held onto her dignity by a single, tenuous thread. She glared after his departing back before looking about her with lips pressed tightly together to keep from crying or screaming – she was not sure which emotion would burst forth.

Two paths lay before her: to the left, a staircase leading to an upper level, where there would be private rooms, and to the right, the open door leading outside into the cool night air. She could end this all now: escape before she committed a crime which would condemn her both in this world and the next. She could once again become the invisible Lucienne, one of the hundreds of thousands of middle class. Perhaps, one day, she might find that she liked her position, that it offered her more freedom than this frippery.

But the stairs.... Lucienne considered how she might regroup herself. Perhaps she might prey upon those lords and ladies who had wandered away to steal a kiss, or more. She could christen her blade, and return to the party better prepared to cut off the sneering, sarcastic head of Nicholas Lamoignon.

Lifting her skirts, Lucienne made her way up the steps. She did not look to see if anyone noticed her, least of all Nicholas. Here the floor had a carpet that softened the sounds of her footfalls, and the music was not so loud. She meandered down the hallway, pretending to look at the portraits on the walls as she peeked inside the open rooms.

She almost did not notice the young man coming up the stairs until he was near the top, and she darted into the nearest room, hoping he had not seen her. Perhaps he might think her a wraith.

The room she had entered was dark, with only the light of the moon to illuminate the couches and chaises scattered about. She crept deeper into the room, careful to avoid a rogue ottoman or a side table. Her eyes began to adjust, and though she could not see anyone, she had a creeping sensation that she was not alone.

She glanced back toward the open door, wishing she had shut it. Who knew where the approaching gentlemen had been headed. Perhaps his lover awaited him in this very room.

Not likely, seeing as how she could hear no one else breathe, no whisper of a silk gown nor scuff of dancing slipper on carpet or parquet floor. Why, then, did she feel the hairs raise up on her neck, as if an invisible someone stood directly behind her?

Unable to stop herself, she glanced back over her shoulder, and when her eye caught movement she gasped and stooped to duck behind the chaise. After a silent moment, she rose back up, only to see a large gilt-framed mirror hanging there. She must have seen her own reflection, then, though the distinct impression she had was of a dark figure. The room's darkness must have rendered her a shadow.

An exhale of relief escaped her lips. "Foolish girl, jumping at shadows," she scolded herself, and moved around the chaise to sit down.

"Oh," she said, her voice loud in the room that was clearly not empty.

The figure lying on the couch did not stir. Lucienne only had to make out the hair to realize that this was Chretienne Laurent. The girl's legs were sprawled wide and her arms draped across her chest.

"You did not seem so drunk only ten minutes ago," Lucienne said. She took Chretienne's legs and shoved them aside to make room to sit. She supposed she could go sit on one of the other couches, but she preferred the company. "I suppose it has been a long time since even one so privileged as you had a fine champagne. I had heard that the nobles never went without their wine and bread, but it seems I was mistaken."

Chretienne did not make a sound.

Lucie patted her ankle. "Nothing to be ashamed of. I am certain some fine young gentleman had designs on getting you so drunk you could not fight off his advances. It does seem, however, that he has found you rather dull and gone off to find someone better at conversation."

Looking at the wide-spread legs, Lucienne chuckled. "I only wonder if he did not take what he wanted before he took his leave."

The lack of a response led to the smile fading from Lucie's face. Was this who she had become, one who joked about a man taking advantage of a girl in this manner, even if the girl was despicable? Chretienne had a head full of fluff, but she was not the embodiment of evil like Justine. Lucie reached over and arranged the sheer layers of Chretienne's gown to better cover her legs.

The girl had fake blood splattered all over her costume now, and Lucie grimaced as her fingers encountered the slick substance in the dark. "Disgusting," Lucie murmured, and wiped the blood onto Chretienne's dress. "Perhaps the world would be better off without someone so... so... air-headed."

Without anyone about to make an element of surprise an issue, Lucie carefully withdrew her stiletto from her bosom. Perhaps she could rid the world of these awful people. One by one, as they passed out drunk. She stood and moved toward Chretienne's head. It would not be so difficult to pierce Chretienne through the eye as she had imagined earlier, especially as the girl was not moving. Quickly enough and she would never feel pain. It would be almost a mercy.

As she aimed the blade over Chretienne's eye, she noticed a dark mark that was not a shadow. She bent closer, only to recoil in horror at what she saw.

Another blade had already taken Chretienne's eye. The dark blood that had crusted around the wound had spilled across her face and clumped in the curls of her hair. The blade that had done the deed was long gone, but the cavity it left appeared of similar size to Lucie's stiletto.

Lucie looked at the weapon in her hand, noting the gleam of it in the meager moonlight, then remembered the blood she had touched on the girl's gown. That had not been fake blood. With a trembling hand, Lucie moved to hide her blade, so that no one would see her standing over a corpse with a weapon in hand – then stopped and whirled around, thrusting the small knife out in front of her.

The wound was not so fresh that the killer would not have had time to escape. She held her shaking blade out anyway, staring into the shadows for any sign of movement.

Finally, she relaxed her guard, though she kept the stiletto in hand, and turned to look back down at Chretienne.

Could it be coincidence that Chretienne's wound was precisely where Lucie would have placed it? Coincidence that another roamed through the bal des victimes hungry for blood?

Lucienne took a deep breath to steady her breathing. She did not know who might want to kill frivolous aristocrats at a party, but she knew she would much rather not be alone.   

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