This story is by Eva Adair and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
My legacy is secure. I will be remembered as the father of modern police forces, lauded for implementing safety, street cleaning, and flood and fire control in Paris- the first city in Europe to do so. Mortality decreased tenfold. I have saved countless lives.
Yet, thirty years hence, there is no relief from the memory of her eyes staring through me. Flames licked her feet, rising, consuming her robes. Nebulous smoke infiltrated the Parisian throng intent on purging the conurbation of seamier alternatives to prayer.
It would be vulgar to admit I took pleasure from it- the beauty and wickedness of burning sorceresses alive. The deeply pious multitude, their shared proselytization of sacerdotal Catholic rituals from birth, serving witness to exquisite torment. Burning a witch at the stake is a spectacle unlike any other under God.
The year was 1677. The sophisticated, libertine, xenophobic French aristocracy turned their fancy to vice, and murder by poisoning. They experimented and perfected techniques on the poor and infirm at the Hôpital Hôtel Dieu near Notre Dame, before turning on capricious lovers and inconvenient obstacles to inheritance. Autopsies revealed internal organs blackened and corroded. The king charged me, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, with investigating what became known as The Affairs of the Poisons.
In my tenure, I charged 442 people, many of them high-born, with crimes related to evil spells. I subpoenaed 319 alchemists, potion-makers, fortune-tellers, perfumers, and divineresses. I arrested 194 witches, most of whom rotted to oblivion, chained to dungeon walls. Thirty-six of the unusually unrepentant burned in chambres ardentes.
Nefarious webs of black magic practitioners within the nobility fueled mystical trials conducted stories below La Arsenal, the Royal Munitions warehouse. Judgement, by thirteen magistrates, lit solely by flaming torches against windows shrouded in black cloth, contrasted with the gilded decadence of the refined French court.
Interrogations and forced confessions extracted under torture, without semblance of truth, never weighed upon me. The condemnations and convictions placated the paranoid imagination of The Sun King, enhancing my reputation, and purse.
I lie in what is surely to be my deathbed, my own stench choking the air in my elegant rooms in the same manner as the blaze choked the air around her that tempestuous, unforgiving night. I recall the spiritual esurience with which it all began: the couturiers at the palace tempering their excess-bred boredom with transgressive pastimes. The bankrupt and starving peasants tithing, begging for scraps, wholly removed from life at court.
When death comes for The Sun King, will he be haunted, as I am, by her defiant eyes staring from the pyre? Each time I close mine, her anguished face appears, as if tattooed inside my lids. The inferno surrounded her probable innocence. I knew it at the time, the night of her arrest in the king’s bedchamber. Was she merely a raindrop in a sea of royal mistresses, cast out for a single leather trunk stuffed with love letters, mysterious vials of aphrodisiacs, and arsenic? Had she engaged in Satanism and diabolical rites, infanticide even, to celebrate black masses in the nude to eliminate rivals for the kings’ affections?
What of the other thirty-five? I think of them collectively, and only in reference to her. Was I truly secure in the pronouncement of their guilt? Why does she alone persist in thoughts of my final, unattainable penance? I fear I will soon have chance to ask her, in purgatory, awaiting my judgment. Will the balance of justice favor those whom I saved, or her, whom I failed?