Marie Anne Sanson watches her husband wring his capable hands behind the kneeling man. He’ll not take the man’s head yet, he knows to stretch the performance. She waits for him to search for her over the sludge-coloured crowd. She always wears an ostrich feather in her hair, he always looks. Today she wishes he’d hurry, her back is aching and there’s something about this crowd, they’re restless. The traitor's likely no murderer—they rarely are—it’s a detail that’s never been allowed to matter and it’s not for Charles Henri to question. That’s the first Sanson rule.
Charles-Henri inherited the red coat but Marie-Anne keeps their family warm in it. She designs the routines, gives them a proper show. She watches Charles-Henri score a bloody mark on sweating flesh. The guards tighten their linked hands. He lifts his sword but from the hush the crowd surge forward. An angry mob charge the platform-steps and in a quickening in Marie-Anne’s heart their baby—destined to be the next executioner—it’s written in his blood—slowly turns breech.
Safe, later, Charles-Henri is curled around her on their bed. A muscle twitches in his jaw. A tiny elbow, or perhaps it’s a knee pushes up beneath her taut cotton nightdress.
‘This little one’s destiny is yours,’ she says, stroking her thumb up along the crease between his eyebrows. ‘If emperors, kings and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn't an executioner?’
In all the years, Marie-Anne’s never missed an execution, except just after Gabriel was born— she was as good as gone then—she knows all about blood. Yes her boy is pale but his stomach is strong, he’s a capable apprentice, it doesn’t matter what anyone says.
She watches Gabriel slide the cold flat edge of his sword across the bones on the woman’s neck, exactly like rehearsals, he’s warming the crowd up nicely. Father and son, what a team they make! She wants to nudge someone, tell them, see, he’s got you all in his hands.
Silence ripples the lace on the traitor’s dress and slowly, Charles-Henri winds the guillotine cord around his gloved hand and the blade rises. They worried the guillotine wouldn’t have the entertainment value. It's not like the old days. Though some things are, Marie-Anne waits for her husband to meet her eye, she nods, he releases the blade.
And now it’s their Gabriel’s moment. Marie-Anne watches him lift the woman’s head from the basket. There’s a roar and then a gasp because off-script, unplanned, the weave joining chestnut hair to white-dusted wig tears under the weight. What’s this? Marie-Anne’s heart taps. The bloodied head thuds on wood. Hands slap over open mouths and the colour drops white from Marie-Anne’s face. Gabriel tries to stop it rolling—his cheeks glow as they never have—and he slips backwards off the stage, destined to depart just as he entered, feet first.