Tied With a Bow

By: Lora Leigh
Upon a Midnight Clear


To Carolyn Martin, who knows a thing or two about angels.

Chapter One


The angel came down in the long gallery of the Conciergerie prison, the notorious antechamber to the guillotine.

Stone walls could not keep him out. Stench and darkness offered no deterrent. He was a child of the air, elemental, immortal, one of the First Creation. As long as he did not materialize completely, he could go anywhere.

Cold seeped through the blocked grates and up from the flagstones along with the miasma of human misery. The corridor was alive with sighs and sobs and vermin. In the bloody wake of revolution, the prisons of Paris were filled to bursting with the ci-devant aristocracy and their suspected sympathizers. Few had the money or influence to secure the comforts of a private incarceration, a bed, food, firewood, perhaps a chamber pot. Cells intended for one or two prisoners held four, six, a dozen men, women, and children, packed together on the filthy straw like so many bottles of wine.

In the stone blocks adjoining the exercise yard, some poor soul had scratched BIENVENUE EN ENFER. Welcome to Hell.

But this was not Hell. There were still those here who called on God in their distress. So the angel had come, drawn by a dying mother’s prayer to provide . . .

Not escape, the angel acknowledged. He felt the brush of some unusual emotion, threatening his angelic detachment. Frustration, perhaps.

The children of air were forbidden from interfering directly in worldly affairs. With rare exceptions, humans must work out their own fate, their own salvation. But the angel could offer comfort to ease the woman’s soul from this life to the next.

His frustration—if that’s what it was—deepened. Tonight, solace did not seem enough.

He flexed his shoulders at the admission, feeling a prickle between his shoulder blades. He was an angel of God. Comfort was his stock in trade. It must suffice.

A woman’s hoarse Latin slipped through the bars to hang like frost in the air. “Sancta Maria, Mater Domini nostri, ora pro nobis pec-catoribus.” Holy Mary, Mother of our Lord, pray for us sinners. “Nunc et in hora . . .” A cough. “Et in hora . . .”

More coughing, deep, wracking.

“Lie quiet, Maman.” A girl’s voice, sweet and clear and welcome as water in this dirty hole, speaking the King’s French. “You must save your breath.”

The angel followed the voice through the square iron grate into the cell. Two women—a woman and a girl, rather—huddled on the straw inside. The girl knelt on the brutally cold floor, supporting her mother’s shoulders, trying to ease her breathing.

The child was very pretty, the angel observed dispassionately, with a delicate nose, a heart-shaped faced blunted by a firm, rounded chin, and eyes as blue as an October sky. But it was the mother who had called him here. Citoyenne Solange Blanchard, former Comtesse de Brissac, convent bred and barely thirty.

“Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae,” the comtesse whispered. Now and at the hour of our death.

“Maman, you must rest,” the girl scolded gently. “You need your strength.”

The angel could have told the girl that no amount of rest would make any difference. The infection in the comtesse’s lungs had attacked her already weakened system.

But the girl’s tenderness moved him anyway.

He spread his power over the dying woman like wings, extending over her the peace of the presence of God.

Solange opened her eyes in the darkness, focusing on his face. “An angel,” she whispered. “Come to save us.”

He was hardly surprised that she could see him. She was very near death. “I cannot,” he told her gently.

Must not.

“Save her,” the woman insisted. Her daughter, thirteen-year-old Aimée. “When I am gone, she will be alone.”

The girl chafed her mother’s hands. “Maman, you must not upset yourself.” Doubtless the child believed the comtesse was talking to herself, out of her mind with fever and grief.

The whole country was mad. After centuries of privilege, the Old Regime was paying for its sins of pride and abuse of power. In three short years, the comtesse had been stripped of everything: lands, tithes, and titles. The life of her husband. Their son.

These humans went too far in redressing old wrongs. They had no concept of Heavenly justice, no understanding of divine mercy.

Comfort, the angel reminded himself.

“Your family will be reunited soon,” he assured Solange.

She would be dead by morning. And her daughter would follow, executed within the week, sacrificed to nationalist fervor and bloodlust.

Underneath the familiar flowering of compassion, anger stirred, like a worm at the heart of a rose.

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