An Affair of Poisons(11)

“I need another draught,” Lesage says, bursting into my new laboratory. It is a cold subterranean chamber that used to be a dungeon. Menacing hooks and chains still dangle from the walls, and soiled rushes litter the floor. I could have chosen any of the gilded salons with velvet divans and marble mantelpieces abovestairs, but then I would have been forced to hear the clashing swords and earsplitting screams. My windows would have overlooked the carnage. Down here, it is muffled. Apart. If I close my eyes, I can pretend I’m back in the garden house—if I can ignore the stink.

Lesage clips across the chamber and deposits himself on a stool. He has always been thin and sallow, but now he looks like a corpse brought to life. His tunic is spattered with gore, and dark bruises sag beneath his bloodshot eyes. I doubt he’s slept since Versailles. His fingers quiver as he rolls up his sleeve and lays his arm across the table. When I don’t spring for my lancet, he glares at me.

I fold my arms and stand my ground. “I thought we agreed to fight by natural means? Mother said seizing the Louvre would be simple compared to—”

“Does that sound simple to you?” He gestures wildly overhead. Even deep beneath the palace, the blasts shudder through the walls, rattling the phials. Grout crumbles from between the stones. Not for the first time, I gaze up at the ceiling and wonder how heavy it will be when it buckles and buries us.

Gris gives me a gentle nudge. “Perhaps Lesage is right.” He shuffles across the room and offers me a porcelain bowl and lancet. “We are a society of alchemists and fortune-tellers. It’s foolish to think we can battle officers hand-to-hand.”

I glare at Gris. Groveling to Mother is one thing, but to Lesage is another. I’ve done more than enough for the sorcerer, and I intend to remind Lesage of this, but another explosion groans through the ceiling. Shaking the cabinets. Rocking my stomach until it threatens to expel the few gulps of tea I choked down this morning.

“Fine.” I take the equipment, Lesage makes a fist, and I nick the blue vein below his elbow. Rivulets of blood snake down his arm and drip into the porcelain bowl. I have to turn away, knowing the violence it will bring.

Gris lays a hand on my shoulder. “The sooner we quell these dissenters, the sooner we can return to making curatives.”

I nod and cast him a weak smile. I want to believe him, but trapped in this unfamiliar laboratory with the king’s death on my conscience, brewing naught but Lesage’s blood magic, it’s hard to believe I’m capable of anything beyond destruction.

Gris prepares the cauldron while I grind stinging nettle, monkshood, and horehound and add them to the pot. Then I return to Lesage to collect the basin of blood. He coughs and collapses against the table, his face gray and his hair slick with sweat. His shallow breath rasps like stones.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep this up,” I say over my shoulder as I incorporate his blood into the mixture.

Lesage lifts his head just enough to look at me. “Shouldn’t you be glad of that?”

“I would be exceedingly glad. But Mother would not.” I place a tin cup before him and fill it with the crimson draught. “Pace yourself, magician.”

Chuckling, he downs the potion like ale and wipes the bloody dregs on his wrist. “Would that I could, La Petite Voisin.” He pats the top of my head, specifically because he knows I despise it, and flashes a peevish grin. The same weaselly smile he wore two years ago when he first appeared in my laboratory, asking prying questions about my abilities, about Father’s death. I didn’t trust him from the first. He reminded me of a slippery, squirming leech, attaching to the plumpest vein. I told Mother as much, but she ignored me, as always. And she didn’t resist when he began courting her the very next week. She saw only a powerful man who looked on her as if she were a rare jewel, who bowed to her every whim, who kissed her knuckles and whispered pretty words. All the things Father never did.

I watch Lesage totter away, so weak he can hardly make it abovestairs without aid, let alone vanquish the Paris Police. But the following morning, the palace is deathly quiet. The walls have stilled and the bellowing in the courtyards has ceased.

Thankfully, I did not witness the massacre, but Marguerite flits down to relay every gory detail. How Lesage conjured beasts made of smoke that tore the officers limb from limb, sparing only the lieutenant general, whose head is now spiked on the Louvre’s curtain wall. A warning to anyone else who might challenge our rule.

“You see? The worst has passed,” Gris says, echoing Mother.

I am so desperate to believe him, for my life to return to some sense of normalcy, I agree to attend Mother’s victory banquet the following night.

I glide down the Grand Galerie, my navy skirts whispering against the gleaming parquet, my hair parted down the center and curled on either side of my head. I’m tempted to peek at my reflection in the leaded window panes—I doubt I’d recognize myself, bedecked in all this finery like a proper courtier—but I do not look. I am an alchemist, first and always, and once Gris and I resume making curatives, everything will be as it was before. Only better, as our reach will extend a thousandfold with the Shadow Society controlling the city.

The banquet hall is so bright with golden filigree, I squint as I step through the doors. Gilt roses and curling vines snake up the walls and pilasters, crisscrossing in a glittering canopy overhead. Intricate chandeliers spit flares of bronze candlelight, and sumptuous tapestries adorn the walls. The impossibly long table is littered with buttery yellow goblets and platters heaped high with sugar plums and pomegranate seeds, with roe deer and spiced sturgeon.

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