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The Crow and the Phoenix

Estelle knew to avoid the men known as Les Corbeaux in their long, filthy coats, scavengers wielding shovels and pry bars in calloused hands. They were seen less often than they had been in her mother's time, there being no shortage of bodies for the anatomist's table during the long years of Revolution, but here and there one heard of a grave opened and a body missing. It was not unheard of to find a pair of them in the dark of a new moon, or beneath a cloud-bound starless sky. Only a man foolish or desperate would commit his blasphemy alone on a clear night by the light of the Harvest moon.
Perhaps Estelle was the fool for being there. She had been glad of the light when she had set out from the factory in Javel to visit her lover's grave, wilted red roses clenched tight in her hand. Now, though, she stood exposed as she came upon a man bent over a weathered marble slab.
He'll never get that one up, she thought, and the body below has long ago rotted away. What good are dusty bones, which is surely all that's left inside a grave so old?
But that didn't seem to be his purpose at all. The man was well-dressed, his cloak of fine fabric and cut; he had no shovel, no hat to cover his bald head or hide his lined face from view. He held up a hand to test the wind, then lit four candles, one at each corner, and as he did the candlelight brought his tools into view: a hammer and chisel, a battered roll of leather and a bit of chalk--and a knife, long and slender, with a wicked curve at its end. Her hand clenched reflexively on the roses, and she bit back a cry as a thorn punctured her thumb--but she had been heard.
Whatever he was about, he had not wanted to be discovered. He ran for her, and she saw the knife in his hand, a blade meant for swift gutting, or for silencing young women who bore unfortunate witness to whatever blasphemy he had been about to commit. She ran, but she was neither fast enough nor nimble enough in this garden of stone, and he caught her easily--he had her first by the arm and then by her waist, and she felt herself flung backward where she landed with bruising force against the top of a tomb, flat as a table and low to the ground.
He stood over her, eyes narrow and jaw set. He had her pinned with the weight of his body--he was not a young man, but still fit, and larger by far than she was.
"I have searched too long," he hissed through clenched teeth. "Death pursues me like a hound. And I'll be damned if I'll let a little shit like you ruin what may be my last chance to outrun it." He pushed himself up with one hand, and appeared to gather his strength for what he must do.
Whether it was luck, or God, or her love's own ghost that caused the man's hand to slip on the marble just then, Estelle did not care, though she thanked and praised all three when it was over. He was off balance, and the knife was loose in his hand as he tried to right himself. She grabbed at it, never minding the pain as her hand came to grasp more blade than hilt, ignoring the blood that ran down her arm as she slashed and fought for her life.
And then it was over: He lay in a heap on the ground beside the stone, one battered rose resting on top of his lifeless form, the others scattered in the dirt beyond. Blood from her wounded hand dripped black into the dust.
Estelle struggled to quiet her sobs as she climbed down off the blood-slicked tomb. She backed away from the dead man slowly, and stumbled as her foot struck the raised lip of the marble. The candles still stood, burnt wicks extinguished by a breeze. A satchel rested in the shadows--did the man have money?
She lit a candle and emptied the satchel on the ground. A purse, with money enough to pay her way for months--she'd have gladly cut the other hand for half as much. She fumbled open a packet of papers and held each page up the light. Travel papers, including a receipt for passage to New York--no good to her with a dead man's name on it, but she kept it in hopes she might find a way to have it altered or sold.
Last she unrolled the piece of leather, to which was bound an aged parchment, and a separate leaf filled with writing. The parchment's script intertwined with arcane signs and symbols in red, all spiraling inward toward a golden sun. She held the loose page up to the light and began to read.
Sweat chilled in the cold night air and she shivered, but as she began to make sense of the words on the page she felt her face grow hot and her heart pounded in her ears.
Yes, she thought, this would be enough to kill for. She looked over at the crumpled body, the man's fine cloak spread over him like a blanket. Not a crow at all. A phoenix, had he succeeded.
She grabbed the satchel and ran out the northern gate, pausing only for a moment at her love's modest marker. She touched the stone for love and for luck, leaving a smear of blood that shimmered wetly in the night.
Until this moment she had believed the priests, that her reward for a life of suffering, poverty, and loss was the promise of Heaven, and reunion with her lost Joseph. At times that had even seemed like enough.
But this--this was so much better.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 9th, 2018
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