The French Disease
by Sarah Parke
Issue 9: Alternate History | 3,543 words
British Library digitized image from page 310 of “Incwadi Yami; or, Twenty years’ personal experience in South Africa”
Archibald Gilchrist, London’s War-Lock, trudged through the foul-smelling streets from Spitalfields to Charing Cross. It would have been easier to take his coach to the meeting place, but Archibald was never one to do things the easy way. He hated the ostentatious carriage, marked by the Empyreal crest; it was nothing but a gilded cage. Another reminder that his life—and everything in it—was provided through the benevolence of Emperor Bonaparte.
The afternoon sun glanced off the vacant display windows along Bond Street. Before the French occupation, this street would have been clogged with carriages, the sidewalks mobbed with shoppers carrying on conversations at a deafening volume while their servants trailed behind them, burdened with armfuls of boxes. Now, the once-popular shopping district was a shadow of its former self. The harbor blockade limited importation of fabric, ceramics, and spices. The peace treaty had also stripped most of England’s oldest families of their titles and fortunes.
Archibald’s strides were short and uneven at first as he stretched the muscles around his injured hip where a bit of shrapnel was wedged tight in the joint. Sleep had been beyond his grasp the past few nights, but that had little to do with the constant, dull throb in his leg.
The sudden missive, after nearly two years of silence from the Emperor, troubled Archibald.
Archibald’s spellwork on the battlefield had pleased the Emperor. He had conjured countless monsters from myth and his imagination to attack the Portuguese and Spanish forces at Salamanca. He was less proud to have summoned the dragon that slew Wellington. In a single moment, he became the most despicable villain to his countrymen. Only the French victory allowed him to return home again without being executed on sight.
Thousands of British soldiers died on the continent. Archibald had returned home to London with a townhouse, unlimited resources to perform magic for the new Franco Empire, and a new title, London’s Empyreal War-Lock.
The note, emblazoned with the same bee-shaped seal that his coach brandished, had instructed Archibald to meet one of Bonaparte’s representatives beneath the dragon statue in the middle of Charing Cross.
As he crossed the street toward the meeting place, the dark green marble seemed to blaze in the afternoon light, capturing the reptilian grace of the creature. It had taken the Empyreal sculptors eighteen months to sculpt the life-size replica of the dragon that had slain Wellington in Spain. Riding astride the stone beast, looking the size of a child’s toy, was the figure of Emperor Bonaparte.
But Bonaparte had never ridden the dragon at Salamanca. No one had. Archibald had spilled his own blood to summon the beast, and so he was the only one who could influence its path of destruction.
Sometimes, at night, he could still feel the heat of the dragon’s fire across his skin and taste the warm blood coating his tongue.
The man standing beside the dragon’s scaled haunch was dressed not in the dark blue uniform of an Empyreal soldier, but in gentlemen’s clothes. He was a young man, barely out of boyhood, with a smooth face and olive-toned complexion. His suit, though perfectly tailored to his slight form, was wet beneath the arms from perspiration. His left arm sagged from the weight of a heavy wooden box clutched in his fist.
“Greetings, Lord Gilchrist,” the young man said, giving a short bow in Archibald’s direction. He spoke with a heavy French accent. “My name is Dr. Gabriel Andral. I am a member of Emperor Bonaparte’s court and a pathologist at l’Académie Nationale de Médecine.”
“I did not think the Emperor put much faith in science these days,” he replied by way of greeting. With a court full of sycophants and the Empire’s most powerful war-lockswarlocks, what use could Bonaparte have for scientists? The Emperor had never cared to understand the way magic played with the rules of science; Archibald thought it safer that way.
“Why have you summoned me, Dr. Andral?”
“My apologies, sir. I was told you did not like to receive visitors in your home, so I thought a public meeting would be preferable to you.”
“No offense taken,” Archibald replied drily. It was just as well since he had no housekeeper to serve tea—nor any food to offer the foreigner.
The young doctor glanced around the square. A carriage rattled through the intersection. A maid tossed the contents of a chamber pot into the gutter. And a pair of Empyreal guards stood on the opposite corner, watching them. Dr. Andral leaned closer. “I have something of a… delicate nature… to discuss with you on behalf of the Emperor. Let’s return to my suite at Mivart’s Hotel. We can talk freely there.”
Archibald didn’t miss the furtive glances the doctor kept shooting toward the guards. The Frenchman hailed a hackney. It was a tight fit for the two men, but Mayfair wasn’t far. The driver offered to stow the doctor’s large box beside him on the bench, but the doctor refused.
Archibald’s curiosity about the gentleman and his strange box increased.
“You guard that parcel as if it were a newborn. What does it hold?”
Again, the furtive glance toward the driver before he spoke, “An instrument so delicate and dangerous that it had to be smuggled into the city.”
There was any number of illegal items that could be procured through the Dark Market merchants, but Archibald guessed that the object in the box and his summons were connected.
Dr. Andral led Archibald to his suite on the third floor. The living area was crowded with at least a dozen travel trunks and boxes, all open and spewing their contents. There were dozens of books, small books closed inside larger volumes like terribly shuffled playing cards. Plates of half-eaten food lay forgotten beneath a spread of open notebooks and parchment paper arranged in a manner that must have held some meaning to the doctor. There were glass-stoppered vials, some filled with clear liquids and others colored crimson or black.
“What was it you studied back at the Académie?” Archibald asked as he walked the perimeter of the room.
“The chemistry of blood.” Dr. Andral had cleared a space on one of the tables and hoisted his wooden box up onto it. He busied himself sliding open a panel in the front of the box to reveal a brass microscope. Gingerly, he lifted the instrument from its case and set it out on the table. Then, he turned toward the table containing the vials, selected one, and studied it against the waning afternoon light.
“So, you’re a chemist.”
“A pathologist, actually. I am studying the unique properties of blood.”
“I saw plenty of blood during the war. Every man bleeds the same, and all blood stains the same.”
“I doubt you have ever seen blood this way,” the doctor replied. He had prepared a glass slide with a sample from the vial. “Take a look through the scope and see the secrets blood hides from the human eye.”
Archibald had never used a microscope. It took a moment of squinting and maneuvering to bring the object into focus. The color was bright red, lighter than he had expected. And there was movement, something within the red stain wiggled and squirmed.
“That is human blood. Our blood is alive within us.”
Archibald felt a tremor run through his body; there was something unnerving about the idea of tiny, sentient objects flowing beneath his skin. “What does any of this have to do with the Emperor or me?”
“My work at l’Académie brought me to the Emperor’s attention. In the months after the war, a sickness spread across my country, but it wasn’t a plague. Men and women returning to their homes, where the villages had been ravaged by battles and the fields steeped in blood, were,” the doctor paused, “changing.”
“One day after plowing his field from dawn until dusk, a farmer went home and fell into a deep sleep. The following morning, his wife could not wake him, and all subsequent attempts to rouse the man proved futile. After three days, the man woke, but he was wild, violent; he knew not his family, nor his name. And he had physically changed. His jaws stretched into a snout and filled with dozens of jagged teeth. His spine bent until he moved about hunched in half, almost on all fours. He left his farm and roamed the countryside for a few days before he was caught by the Empyreal police. They took him to a prison where he awaits trial for attacking one of his neighbors and nearly eating the man.”
“Perhaps it was caused by magic, but men fall prey to bad magic all the time. I don’t see why one man losing his mind should warrant the Emperor’s special attention.”
“If it had been just one man, it might not have. But these incidences have been happening more and more frequently all over the continent in the past six months. The emperor suspects a curse.”
“But you disagree?” Archibald asked.
A slight smile tugged at one corner of Dr. Andral’s lips. He removed the slide and turned away from the microscope to wipe it clean. “Yes, I think the Emperor is wrong.”
To speak such words in the company of an Empyreal official was grounds for treason and immediate imprisonment. Archibald let the words hang in the air and studied the young man.
“You weren’t sent by the Emperor. I’d wager that Bonaparte doesn’t even know you’re here.”
The doctor’s cheeks flushed slightly, but he kept his attention on his hands as he prepared a new slide. This one was from a different vial.
Archibald glanced around the cluttered room again. It wasn’t the laboratory of an Empyreal scientist, just the makeshift office of a desperate man. It was this desperation that piqued Archibald’s curiosity. “You put yourself at great risk coming here under false pretenses. Your theory had better be good.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the windowsill.
“All the victims, former soldiers, farmers, laborers—even women and children—were in perfect health until they returned to their homes after the war. The only thing they have in common is the physical proximity of their homes and work to the battlefields where magic was employed as artillery.”
“So, you do think it’s magic?”
“Not a spell or a curse, but what if magic could leave a stain, like blood? I think the dark magic used during the war left a kind of stain on the soil, the water, even the plant life. If this lingering magic could be absorbed through the lungs, the skin, even into our blood, perhaps it could cause a transformation like the ones I’ve seen.”
Archibald shook his head. “I’ve never known magic to behave in this way. It needs intervention, a shaping hand to apply it to a specific purpose, like diverting water to spin a wheel.”
“You may be the expert on spells and curses, Lord Gilchrist, but I am the expert on blood. I was able to collect a sample from one of the afflicted soldiers, and there is something unnatural about it.” He motioned for Archibald to step closer to the microscope and take a look.
Again, there was the period of adjusting his eyes before the sample swam into focus. The blood was the same bright red as the previous sample. But the movement of the things within the blood was faster, almost frantic. Sparks flashed and arced between the racing bits like lightning.
“What do you want me to do?” He took a step back.
“Provide a small sample of your blood for me to examine.”
Archibald knew that his blood, war-lock blood, was a potent thing. “You don’t know what you ask.” He placed his hat back on his head and prepared to depart. “I wish you luck with your research, Dr. Andral, but I cannot oblige you in this.”
“Lord Gilchrist, men are dying and families are being torn apart! Think of your own family.”
Archibald had never married. Even before the war had made him a traitor to his countrymen, he had never pictured himself with a wife or children. His work was too dangerous. He had a younger sister, married to a peer in the countryside, but they hadn’t spoken in years.
“It’s a medical—not a magical—matter. Let Emperor Bonaparte deal with his new French disease.”
“If I am right, the mutation will spread across borders and bloodlines. It has already come to London. Let me show you.”
Dr. Andral led Archibald to a cell in the back corner of Newgate Prison, the hideous sore in the center of London. There was no barred window to allow light into the cell from the corridor, so when the cell door was opened, its occupants stared blindly at the backlit men in the doorway.
“These poor creatures are your countrymen,” Dr. Andral said.
Archibald took a torch from the bracket beside the door and stepped into the room, bathing the trio of prisoners in light.
One man was curled on his side facing the corner, either asleep or dead. Another had been pacing the cell until Archibald stepped inside. He turned to face the flames and revealed an overgrown beard disguising a misshapen jaw, elongated like the snout of a boar. Large, teeth-like tusks protruded from his closed lips. He seemed to scent the air and made a grunting sound in Archibald’s direction.
“These men have undergone the Change?” Archibald whispered the question to the doctor.
“They were found wandering the streets. Here they will be of little danger to themselves or others.”
The third prisoner stared hard at Archibald as the war-lock assessed his condition. His clothes hung in tatters, and there was a disturbing emptiness on either side of his torso where his arms should have been. The prisoner’s back arched unnaturally. Then four claw-tipped appendages appeared over the man’s shoulders and flexed like the tails of a scorpion.
Archibald stared in horror. “I haven’t seen creatures like this since the war.”
The arachnid prisoner lunged toward Archibald. Though the war-lock was a head taller and at least two stone heavier than the other man, he was forced back to the wall. The prisoner was on him, appendages caging them both against the stone. Archibald’s right hand still gripped the torch, but his arm was pinioned against his hip; his left arm had been crushed between them.
The prisoner gnashed his teeth as he glared into Archibald’s face. “Murderer,” he hissed with foul-smelling breath. “I’ll put an end to you.” One of the talon-tipped appendages slashed Archibald’s face.
A warm trickle of blood obscured Archibald’s right eye. In the distance, he heard Dr. Andral calling for the guards, but he was running out of time. The prisoner was stronger than any human. Luckily, Archibald was more than human himself.
He reached deep down, into the place of nightmares and the things he tried hard to forget. There, he found it; a pool of oily darkness licking at the edges of his consciousness and eager to be set free. The power built from the center of his abdomen and spread out through his limbs. It felt like frostbite; cold at first, then burning hot. As the magic breached the boundaries of his body, it spilled over and out, making his skin spark and crackle with tendrils of energy.
Then he let go.
The spell shot from Archibald’s left fist, sending his attacker flying backward and knocking his own teeth together. Blood filled his mouth where he had bitten his tongue, and the room smelled like burnt hair.
Then three guards rushed in to restrain the prisoner with a pair of iron shackles.
Dr. Andral ushered Archibald, half-blind, to a bench further down the corridor where he could see to the wound. Archibald could hear the guards beating and taunting the prisoners. He forcefully pushed the doctor aside. “I can take care of myself.”
The doctor stumbled, catching himself against the corridor wall. He fumbled with the knot of his ascot, unwinding the length of muslin and holding it out to Archibald. “At least take this. Do you see now why my research is so important? If we can determine the cause of the Change, perhaps it can be reversed. These men do not have to be monsters.”
The note of optimism in the doctor’s voice was painful to Archibald. Accepting the ascot, he wiped the blood from his face. “There are a lot of things that make men monsters—war, poverty, pain.” He thought then of the punishment that would likely befall the prisoner who had attacked him. “It has been my experience that magic can only create monsters, never cure them.”
“I don’t believe that.” The doctor held out his hand for his ascot.
Archibald thought he saw the man’s eyes widen with anticipation at the sight of his blood. “I’ll be keeping this,” Archibald said, stuffing the ascot into his coat pocket. He would need to dispose of it properly. “You can bill me for a new one,” he added as he turned and left.
A week later, the angry red ridge that bisected Archibald’s face had crusted into an irritatingly itchy scab. He heard a knock at his door. Upon opening, he found Dr. Andral and a second man, a stranger staring boldly at Archibald’s scar. “I thought I made myself clear at Newgate. Why—”
“My lord, my name is Lieutenant Jonathan Faber. I was the man who attacked you on that day.” The war-lock jerked his head in the soldier’s direction. “Had I known you would be the one to save me, I would have fallen at your feet instead!”
The ex-prisoner was cleaner, better dressed, and two-armed, but Archibald could see a resemblance in the man’s eyes, which were now clear and bright. Archibald seized Dr. Andral’s throat and hauled him into the house. The lieutenant followed, his hand resting on his rapier though he did not draw it. The ascot? No, he hadn’t let the doctor have it back. “What did you do?” Archibald said through gritted teeth.
Dr. Andral winced, “Please, Lord Gilchrist, I will explain. If you’ll just release me…” The doctor’s voice trembled as he stared at tendrils of magic that crackled around Archibald’s arms from elbow to fingertip.
A familiar haze of rage clouded Archibald’s senses—his gaze was fixed on the doctor’s lips, slowly turning purple as the man sputtered and tried to break free.
“Lord Gilchrist,” Lieutenant Faber said. His words seemed to echo from far away. “Your magic was not meant for this.”
Archibald had believed that once. Before the war had made him a master of nightmares. Magic was a tool; it was the war-lock’s intent that turned magic from a gift to a curse, from a weapon to a cure.
With magic, Archibald had created monsters, but he could not—would not—let magic make a monster of him.
Slowly, the red veil of anger started to recede. Archibald took a deep breath and concentrated on pulling the power back inside. After a moment, he forced his fingers to release the doctor’s wrist. “Explain what the hell is going on.”
“I found your blood on the cell floor. A few drops, but enough. Enough to create an antidote. I administered it to Lieutenant Faber and within hours it had reversed the Change.”
“Dr. Andral saved my life. With your help, Lord Gilchrist, he could save thousands more.”
Archibald paced around the room. “So, I am to empty my veins for the entire Empire? I have already spent enough blood in my duty to the Emperor.”
“Lord Gilchrist, you could be the key to these strange mutations. Allow me to take another small sample of your blood back to my laboratory at l’Académie. It will be safe in my possession; I will protect it as I would my own life. If we can identify the properties of your blood, we may be able to replicate them.”
Archibald admired the man’s boldness. “Your mission is a noble one. But can I trust you, Dr. Andral?” Archibald met the man’s eyes, just inches from his own. The doctor’s throat was already colored by a shadow of the war-lock’s fingers.
“Are you familiar with the Hippocratic Oath, Lord Gilchrist?” he asked, his voice a rasp.
Archibald was not.
“It is the moral code that doctors swear to abide by—to do no harm to the patients who are in our care. I swore to protect those in my care, and that includes you.”
The doctor and the soldier left shortly after that, a vial of Archibald’s blood tucked safely inside the doctor’s bag.
Archibald considered the doctor’s oath, wondering if there had ever been an oath shared by war-locks, shamans, or witch doctors. He swore his own oath that day—to do no more harm.
He wondered about the men languishing in gaol while their bodies Changed. Something had to be done for them, but the doctor’s cure could take years.
Luckily, Archibald Gilchrist had nothing but time.
Sarah Parke is an acquiring editor by day and an aspiring novelist by night (and sometimes weekends, too). She has an MFA in Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program. She lives in New England with her husband and a menagerie of pets.