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The Executioner's Heir: First Chapter


April 1753


“This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined crate. “It first belonged to your great-grandfather.”

Great-grandfather—the first Charles Sanson in the profession, the first to hold the Paris title, Master of High Works for the City and Provostry of Paris and Versailles. His sword was a family heirloom, of sorts, Charles knew, but the kind you didn’t boast about.

Engraved near the two-handed hilt, the single word Iustitia—Justice—glinted in the light. The gentle spring sunshine spilled through the door into the shadows of the windowless shed, giving murky outlines to other, less graceful objects: coils of rope, oaken planks, leather whips, a brazier, an iron cudgel, a cart wheel.

The sword was three and a half feet long, with a fine, narrow blade kept oiled and gleaming. It was a beautiful thing, if you could manage to forget what it was meant for.

“Go on, take it,” his father said. Charles guessed what he’d left unspoken: You’ll have to lift it one day.

“It’s heavy!”

“It has to be. You’ve been looking through the Treatise on the Human Skeleton—don’t you remember what neck bones look like? Slicing through them isn’t easy.”

“No, Father.” He balanced the sword in his hands, the point upward, wondering how much it weighed and if his forefathers had found it as intimidating as he did. He would far rather have been back in Jean-Baptiste’s library, leafing through the medical and scientific books that his father, his grandfather Charles Sanson the Second, and great-grandfather Charles Sanson the First had collected over the past sixty or seventy years.

“Charles, have you any idea how one beheads a man with a sword?”

The question, almost matter-of-fact, quietly asked, jerked him back to the present. He glanced up at his father, who gazed at him, unsmiling as always.

“You’re fourteen now, old enough. You’ll have to learn.”

“I…” Occasionally—before his stepmother hurried him away—he caught sight of Jean-Baptiste practicing with a sword, or a facsimile of one, in a yard well away from the house, beyond the stable where he kept the horses and cart that transported criminals to execution at the Place de Grève. But his father was merely aiming at a standing post or at bundles of straw, a harmless enough pastime, you’d think.

“I suppose you lift it up in the air,” he said, groping for words, “and—and chop down—like chopping firewood.”

“No,” Jean-Baptiste said, taking back the weapon, which Charles willingly relinquished to him. “That’s not how it’s done. Chopping with an axe on a block—that’s a clumsy method. Crude.”

No doubt his father expected him to show some respectful, though not unseemly, curiosity about the family profession.

“How do you do it, then?”

“You have to swing it sideways.”


“Like this.” Jean-Baptiste gripped the long hilt in both hands, raised the sword almost to shoulder height and parallel to the ground, and slowly described a wide, horizontal arc at arm’s length. The steel glittered, flashing in Charles’s eyes, as it swept past.

“The patient kneels in front of you, upright, with his back to you.”


Charles stifled an uneasy giggle at the euphemism. Patient—as though the executioner were a doctor. The final cure for all ills.

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