25 July 1794
‘So, are you ready to die?’
Ada’s face was cast in shadow as she spoke. The cramped medieval streets were unlit, and the buildings gathered too close for any moonlight to reach them. A meaty scent of offal and human waste wafted out of the gutters; in the distance the faint sound of bells tolled midnight. Summer had turned, bringing a sticky heat with it even at night. Paris was rotting.
Beside her crouched Guil, eyes wide and wary as he watched the narrow opening of the alley they hid in. It was clear; they were unobserved.
Ada raised her eyebrows in question. ‘I can do it now or we can keep waiting, but you’ve got to die in the next half hour or I won’t make it home in time.’
‘Perhaps we should locate ourselves somewhere a little more noticeable first.’ Guil wrinkled his nose. ‘If I die here I’m not sure anyone will be able to tell me apart from the refuse.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, I’ll take your artistic sensibilities into account choosing the next spot.’
She gathered up the battered canvas bag that held her supplies and followed him to the street. Here at least were a few signs of life: lights in mullioned windows, voices coming from the leaning upper levels of the timber framed houses.
‘There.’ Guil pointed to an alcove closer to the main road where dray carts and drunks were trundling past. ‘That’s our stage.’
‘You’re sure the resurrection men will come?’
He shrugged. ‘Léon may not like me as much as he likes Al, but I trust he still gives me good intelligence. The dead go missing from the slums in the hour after midnight, though no one can guarantee they will pass through tonight. If they do, we will only have a few moments’ warning.’
‘You’d better hope they turn up. All these late nights had me falling asleep in my soup yesterday.’
Guil folded himself into the alcove, looking hurt. ‘You seem very eager to kill me. I wonder if I should be taking this personally.’
‘What, and lose the suitor my father is so delighted I’ve finally found? Heavens, what a scandal that would cause.’
‘I think he would be delighted if you were being courted by a pot plant.’
Ada snorted and tucked herself in beside him. ‘As long as the plant had never belonged to Camille.’
She had met Camille when she still used her family name, du Bugue, but when she had formed the batallion she had taken the name Laroche after her mother. Camille du Bugue was the girl she’d fallen in love with, but Camille Laroche was the one with whom she had built a life.
As far as her father was concerned, Ada had abandoned Camille and finally decided to go ‘home’. He was only too happy to believe that the business with Olympe and the Revolutionaries had scared her enough to leave the Bataillon des Morts; Guil turning up as her so-called suitor had made him all the happier. His daughter home and a handsome young army officer interested in her hand was the realisation of near all his dreams. Ada was disgusted by how simple his hopes for her future were.
Camille and Al had long since left for England. Ada and Guil had spent the whole time investigating, but they’d learned nothing of the duc’s plans. Each plot they formed, each thread they followed, came up blank. The grisly abbey laboratory had been abandoned, his former hôtel had been seized by the Revolutionary army to billet soldiers, and the servants who had worked for him were impossible to track down. He seemed to have no allies, no home, nothing.
He was a ghost.
For a while, Ada had let the thought grow in her mind: maybe he really had gone; the blow of being defeated by a gang of outsiders had been too crushing and he’d bowed out. It was a nice thought, but from what little she’d experienced of the duc, she knew it couldn’t be true. He was out there, somewhere, doing god knows what to god knows who. Only she and Guil could stop him.
Now they were down to their last hope. Their last foolhardy plan. A very, very bad, stupid, dangerous plan – but that was the Bataillon des Morts. The Battalion of the Dead. They wouldn’t give up until they’d tried everything.
They had been settled into the alcove for only a few minutes when a scrawny girl appeared. Her lank hair hung loose around her gaunt face and her clothes were held together by dirt and wishful thinking. She looked them over, then gave Guil a curt nod.
‘There’s two of them tonight,’ she said. ‘Took Marcel Leclerc already.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I saw them do it. I’m not a liar.’
‘I know you’re not.’ He dug in his pocket and tossed her a coin. ‘Get out of here, mousling. Stay safe.’
The girl snatched it out of the air and bolted. Ada’s thrummed with adrenaline. It was now or never.
Guil pushed her bag of supplies over. His eyes were dark, unreadable. ‘I’m ready to die.’