A whip cracked. Horse hooves clacked on the cobblestones. The cart moved away, and Charles lost his footing.
The rope tightened. Like a python around his throat, it squeezed without mercy, crushing his windpipe. Choking, he grasped at the rope, his body swaying back and forth. Back and forth. Time stopped.
“. . . him down!” The shout rose over the crowd’s wild cheers, accompanied by a horse’s neigh. “. . . papers signed . . . into my custody. . .”
“Comte de la . . .”
“Cut him . . . !”
Anxious voices and cheers jumbled and mixed, morphing into a roaring hum. His vision blurred, then faded. Evil. Darkness. It surrounded him. Taunting. Waiting.
The python's bruising grip relaxed. Charles' legs, chest and face smacked against the cobblestones, but he barely felt it. He opened his mouth, his face heating as he strained for air. His lungs wouldn't expand. Tears dripped down the sides of his face. The crowd booed. Voices argued above him.
“These papers have been signed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and the bailli of Nord-Pas de Calais,” someone said in surprise. “Has this man been proven innocent?”
“Monsieur, it matters not whether he is innocent or guilty,” came a familiar baritone. “It is the will of the king’s administration that matters.”
Uncle? No doubt he came to gloat. Perhaps Father was there too, celebrating with him. Starting to intake air, Charles turned his face toward the voice, coughing and gasping.
Comte de la Motte-Piquet was decked out in a polished, spotless uniform that announced his rank as Lieuntant General of the Naval Armies. He looked down his nose at Charles with his usual condescending sneer, as if Charles was an annoying little bug he had but to squash with the heel of his boot. “Salut, Nephew. I should have let you die the death you deserve, but ironically, someone thinks you're useful. I’ve come to take you home.”
Charles growled weakly, unable to respond.