In those days, the year of our Lord Jesus Christ one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven, Paris was a city abuzz with death. It buzzed as a topic of conversation: in the private apartments of His Majesty King Louis XVI at Versailles; in the salons of nobles (who fretted, too, about the aroma of revolution in the air); and in taverns, soon to be called bistrots, in which lesser men shouted and sang around mouthfuls of veal. It buzzed in the clouds of pernicious insects thickening the air over churchyard cemeteries. And it buzzed in the streets, as soldiers, executioners, and laborers made use of what few livres they earned, some by killing, others by handling the remains.
For it was in that year that millions of erstwhile Parisians, some nestled safely in the arms of their Father above, some wailing and roasting beneath our feet, saw their mortal remains transported from the overflowing Cemetery of the Holy Innocents and many other places into quarries nearby. These tunnels, first mined by our Roman forebears, were to be employed as an Empire of the Dead, an ossuary that stretched on for leagues. Thus, the noxious smells and gruesome remains of our ancestors from centuries past were to be relocated between earth and Hell. I, like many others who lived in the shadow of Montparnasse, had been hired by the Council of State to assist in the exhumation and transportation of bodies. It was grim, malodorous, pestilent work, the kind that draws men together even as it enflames their weary spines. Yet I suppose even the most burdensome labor may grow routine after a time; and so it was that I struck up a friendship with a fellow I was proud to call Henri. A large man, broad-shouldered and strong as a wall, he seemed to have been made for such work. Never once did I observe him so much as scowling or flinching, though the spectacles of Hades affronted us daily.