An Affair of Poisons(2)

“Good, good.” I reach for my stirring spoon and expect Gris to do the same, but he thumbs the cutting board and continues to peer into the cauldrons.

“Do you think she’ll notice?”

No. Mother never notices the improvements we make to her draughts. But I can’t bring myself to say this. Not with Gris standing there looking so hopeful and earnest, with his cinnamon eyes peeking out from beneath his sandy mop of hair. He’s the most imposing person I know—a good head taller than me and built like an ox—but where Mother is concerned, he will always be a skinny, orphaned eight-year-old desperate to prove she did right by taking him in.

I seize Gris’s goggles from the hook beside the hearth and fling them at his chest. He yelps and scrabbles to catch the strap. “What was that for?”

“A watched pot never boils. You know that. And if we fail to finish these draughts before Marguerite arrives, Mother will definitely notice that.” I tighten my own goggles for emphasis.

Gris glances once more at the pots, then quickly out the window at the house before finally donning his eyewear.

Like two parts of a well-oiled machine, we fall into the easy rhythm of our work: he whisks the curls away from my face when I lean forward to grind herbs, and I dab the sweat from his brow while he stirs the cauldrons. After more than a decade of toiling side by side, his arms feel like an extension of my own; we know what the other needs without having to utter a word. We’re so consumed with our alchemy, I scream and Gris bangs his head against the hanging pots when the laboratory door flies open.

“Must you barge in here like a brigand?” I whip around, ready to scowl at my sister. But it isn’t Marguerite who has come to collect Mother’s order.

It is Mother herself.

The stirring spoon drops from my fingers and rolls into the coals, making the fire crackle. Gris straightens and furiously brushes the yellow flecks of camphor from his hair and tunic. Which seems a wasted effort, since Mother herself looks so uncivilized. I gape at her filthy, loose-fitting shift. Stare at her dirt-smeared cheeks and the threadbare cap atop her tangled hair. She looks like a fishwife. And, worse, she smells like one. I cover my nose, but the vile odor seeps through my fingers, strangling me.

“Lady Mother!” I stammer. Ordinarily, she is immaculate—clad in the finest satins and silks. Rumor has it that it’s more fashionable to be received at our shabby house on the rue Beauregard than the palace at Versailles, but she looks nothing like the most powerful devineresse in Paris or “Queen of the People” at present.

She pins me in place with her inky stare and clears her throat.

I hurriedly draw out the sides of my soot-stained petticoat and lower into my most practiced curtsy. Gris follows suit and sketches a bow. “To what do we owe this honor?” I ask.

She waves a hand and ventures into the room, sidestepping a stack of dusty grimoires and an overturned sack of milk thistle. “Can’t I visit my beloved daughter and favorite son without cause?”

Gris looks like he might die of happiness, and for half a second, I allow myself to hope. But then Mother flashes her most honeyed grin—the one she reserves for noble clients—and dread coils in my belly like a sickness. She does nothing without reason. And she hasn’t stepped foot inside the laboratory in years. The garden house reminds her too much of Father. I remind her too much of Father. I quickly scan the laboratory for the true purpose of her visit, and my pulse pounds at my temples. She has a dozen reasons to eviscerate me. The mess, for one. When Father was chief alchemist of the Shadow Society, these floors were as pristine as glossed parquet and the cauldrons gleamed like fresh shoe polish. But my mind works better when I am mired in mixtures. When I’m surrounded by my phials and bottles and barrels—a part of my alchemy, both body and spirit. Besides, Father’s methods proved ineffective. What use are alphabetized cupboards when your experiments are so explosive that they quite literally blow you to bits? Mother should be glad that I strive so hard to be his opposite.

So it must be the late order. I rush to her side, already babbling excuses, but instead of stalking to the hearth and clucking her tongue at the disastrous array of half-finished tinctures, she moves to the board instead. “Is this my special concoction for the Duc de Barra?” she asks, holding the Aqua Tofana toward the firelight.

I nod.

“And you altered it according to my instructions? So it kills upon contact with the skin?”

“Of course.” Aqua Tofana is usually dispensed in liquid form, but Mother asked me to reduce it to a powder. So it’s twice as potent. “He’ll be dead from the barest brush of his fingertips.”

Mother’s grin curls all the way up to her eyes, and she looks truly pleased. Proud, even. Then she does something that has happened only in my most outlandish of dreams. A favor usually reserved for my older sister. She places a hand on my back and leans in close. Her dark hair dances around my shoulders and her almond-scented breath puffs against my cheek. “Well done,” she whispers.

I do not move or breathe or blink for the space of five heartbeats as a tiny seedling of pride sprouts inside my chest. I know better than to let it take root. She will change her mind. Or her praise will transform into a barb, as it always has before. But when neither happens, the shoots curl around my heart and grow. Mother is like the sun. Vibrant and flashing. It’s impossible not to bask in the warmth of her esteem—no matter that I’ll likely be burned.

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