The clock strikes two and he figures that two has always been his unlucky number.
Peter is brought to the outskirts of the Grand Roquette prison where the guillotine waits for him at the epicenter of everything else. People titter and stare as the guards walk him through the masses, the none-too-subtle collective buzzing of look, there goes Queen Victoria’s killer whispering past his ears.
The King and Queen of France sit on pedestals higher than everyone else, their plump faces stretched out in severe displeasure. They have never been intelligent, so they only see a murderer and not the catalyst for a new war. The cogs on the guillotine are turning in preparation, each tweak raising the blade even higher.
“Any last words?” Peter doesn’t answer because the guard asking probably doesn’t care.
Once he is secured to the bottom of the frame, he finally sees them. In the shadows, he sees the red of her cloak and the bright blue of her beast’s eye before the guillotine stops whirring, painting blood on cobbled stone as the clock chimes at two.
“Here, your last meal.” A plate of meager dining is shoved through the slot toward Peter. “Do yourself a favor and eat it. We’re not feeding you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow – his execution.
“And why would you?” Peter says, a sardonic smile playing at his lips. “Maybe you could give me my other arm back so that eating my last meal would be easier?”
“I thought you said the arm wasn’t yours?” the guard laughs, kicking the door once as he walks away.
Peter eats and sleeps well for the first time in years.
He sees her, dressed in chainmail and iron, and huffs out a derisive laugh.
“Where’s your dog?” Peter asks.
The girl leans against the bars of his cell and he can see parts of her familiar red cloak peeking out of the padded garments. Now that his head is uncluttered, he can see that the little town girl he once knew, the little girl he once rescued, has become a different creature entirely.
She smirks, dangerous in the night. “Feeding on everyone down in one of the lower levels,” she smiles wider, shrugging.
“You came here to feed your pet?”
“I’m here to make sure you hold up your end.”
“Can’t be much of a bargain when I was forced into it.”
“Queen Victoria was dead the minute she stepped into France,” the girl murmurs drolly. “The rebellion people are planning? It can’t happen. The people of this country may have a lot of heart, but they’re still very stupid. A rebellion would only devastate France.”
Peter glares at her. “And you think a war wouldn’t have the same effect?”
“Don’t be daft, monsieur. A war would save this sorry state of an economy. You know this already,” she says, her lips pressing into a thin line. She looks genuinely sad in this moment.
“This war has been planned for years. I’m sorry we had to use you, but remember, you said you wanted this, Peter.”
“I meant it as a joke then. And I didn’t realize you were capable of feeling apologetic.”
The girl smiles again, still a little sad, and disappears off before he can get another word in.
“You idiot.” Another punch is delivered, this time right to the corner of his mouth, and Peter staggers to his knees. “You stupid man! You had one job! Your job was to escort the queen back to the train station, not kill her! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“No,” Peter spits out blood. “Why don’t you tell me one more time?”
“You started a war, imbécile! You have dishonored France,” the guard snarls, kicking him in the sternum. To the other guards, he says, “Keep kicking him until this gets through his thick skull.”
Peter tries to tell the whole truth only once. In one desperate attempt, he tries to tell them of the real murderers – of the girl in a billowing rouge cloak and her half-mechanical, half- living pet dog.
“This arm was attached to you when you were discovered near the queen’s dead body,” the questioner replies, tone neutral, as he lifts up the armored gauntlet that would have fit perfectly into the crook of Peter’s right elbow.
From wrist up, the gauntlet’s palm and fingers have been replaced by the barrel of a large-caliber pistol.
“I had another arm that didn’t contain a handgun in it! That gauntlet belongs to the girl—”
“Whose footsteps were never found, implying that she does not exist.” The questioner’s gauntlet has the butt of a quill at the end of his wrist, systematically writing down every word for him so that he doesn’t have to look away from Peter’s eyes. “And a half-mechanical wolf? You sound mad, monsieur.”
Don’t even bother telling the truth. No one would believe you anyway.
“The time,” Peter ends up croaking. “Please, the time?”
The questioner’s brows furrow at the sudden change in subject and demeanor, but nods nonetheless, twisting the gear on the lower part of his gauntlet until the slot steadily slides across to reveal an embedded clock in the metal.
“It’s two hours past noon, monsieur.”
When Peter wakes up, there are hands forcing him to his feet.
Someone twists the gauntlet completely off of his right arm, the one attached to a pistol that has never been his. To the side, Queen Victoria lays like a detached marionette, a bullet hole sitting between her eyes.
He is halfway to the train station when it happens.
Something heavy collides with the carriage and his foot slams on the brakes, attempting to regain control, when the vehicle skids in wobbly lines across the pavement. The back engine makes a terrible popping noise, thick clouds of smog clinging to his face as the carriage topples over with a loud groan.
Peter almost screams once he crawls out of the dismantled wreckage, coming face to face with a thing so monstrous that it can’t be real. The cyclopean wolf hovering above him is a mess of flesh, fur and machine, so mottled that Peter cannot decipher where animal ends and automaton begins. Some parts are blackened fur and other parts are wires, cogs and vectors that hum a haunted lullaby.
One eye is an artificially bright blue while other is a scarred, plain brown orb.
“Please, please—” Peter hears begging and dares to turn his head away from the creature, watching the queen flounder with her skirts as a girl donned in a cloak of carmine silently drags the former out of the carriage. “W-What is it that you want? Money is not an issue if—”
“Oh, do shut up.”
With that said, the red-hooded girl extends her gauntlet, waits for the barrel of a handgun to pop out, and pulls the trigger by twisting her wrist. Queen Victoria falls back with a small hole in her face, her mouth frozen in shock.
“Why did you—” Peter starts, but the wolf snaps its teeth in his face, steam blowing out of its muzzle.
“Because she needed to die,” she cuts in, unperturbed by the gravity of her statement. “France needs a war if she expects to survive the next century, not a silly revolution. It had to be done.”
The girl turns, her face very pretty. He doesn’t know why, but something about her is eerily familiar.
Peter considers making a run for it, but he still remains facing a wolf – thing – that can end his life by ripping his face off and the end of a pistol that may just do the same thing. He slumps against the broken carriage, his body admitting defeat before his mind does, and the girl smiles at him as if he’s done the right thing.
“It’s nice seeing you again, Peter,” the girl says, bending down to detach his civilian-issued gauntlet from his arm. He watches in terror as the girl throws his limb right into the wolf’s waiting mouth, metal grinding beneath the weight of large molars as the animal chews on it.
“I don’t recall ever meeting you before,” he says warily.
“And why would you? It was quite long ago.” The red-hooded girl snaps off her own gauntlet and quickly inserts it into the gaping hole that makes up Peter’s right elbow.
“You’re framing me?”
“Like I said, we need a war to boost this economy. Imagine people working again and factories hiring people to make more weapons like this.” She gestures to the gauntlet he is now wearing, running a finger along the protruded gun.
“But why me? I’ve done nothing to you!”
“Peter, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So was Victoria. It could have been any monarch from a neighboring country and any stagecoach driver and I would have done the exact same thing. I only needed two people for this to work.”
“You can’t do this. They’ll put me on the guillotine for this,” Peter begs, trying to rip the goddamn thing off, but then the wolf roughly shoves against him, causing his head to slam back against the carriage.
He becomes dizzy then, his head sporting an ache so hard that he can see the sheer white behind his eyelids. Minutes away from passing out, he watches through heavy-lidded eyes as the girl sticks a new gauntlet into her empty arm before jumping onto the wolf’s back.
She shoves the sharp end of the gauntlet into a slot that sits on the side of the wolf’s neck. Once it is inserted, the cogs and vectors clink together, silver and copper shifting as the half-animal completely rises on its haunches.
“You did say you wanted a better economy. And don’t even bother telling the truth. No one would believe you anyway.” The girl grins. “Oh, and say hello to your wife for me when you do make it to that guillotine.”
His eyes close as soon as they take off, a mechanical drone pilfering through the wolf’s howl.
“Peter, you’re escorting the queen to the station at two.”
“I thought James had that shift?”
“No, he had to leave. His wife just went into labor.”
“Ah.” Bitterness still twanged in Peter. “Alright.”
Before Peter was a stagecoach driver, he was a lumberman.
In the middle of cutting down a tree, Peter hears a loud scream that takes him directly to an estranged cottage at the center of the woods. Through the opened door, he sees a rather large wolf stalking towards a red-hooded girl that couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.
Oh, he thinks, seeing scraps of a frilly nightgown. The wolf’s eaten her grandmother.
Adjusting the axe at the end of his gauntlet, he jumps on the beast and starts hacking at it, his arm moving in jarring arcs and his blade hitting any space of black fur he sees. He let outs his anger through this – anger at his loneliness, anger that his wife was dead.
“Stop!” the girl yells just as he is about to bring down his axe one last time. “Don’t kill it. It may still be of use to me.”
The request is strange coming from a little girl like her, but he doesn’t question it. In the end, the wolf is nearly dead anyway, blood thickening on the floor and several patches of fur and flesh slipping off its bones. He wonders why the girl would want to keep something so grotesque.
The girl stares up at him. “What can I do to repay you, monsieur?”
Peter barks out a harsh laugh. “Can you fix this sorry state of an economy? Can you find a way for me to see my dead wife?” The smile he gives her is almost hostile. “No, you can’t. Just stay out of trouble, girl.”
The clock strikes two – Peter’s wife goes to sleep and never wakes up while an old woman sews together a red cloak.