An Affair of Poisons(3)

Though, perhaps not. This could be a sign—a beacon of change. Perhaps she’s finally beginning to trust and appreciate me.

I look again to Gris, and we exchange a bewildered smile.

“Don’t stand there gawking like a dullard,” Mother says with a laugh, linking her arm through mine. “We’ve much to do.”

That jerks me from my stupor and I spring toward the hearth. “Of course. The rest of your order is nearly ready. We’ll bring it along—”

“Gris can finish the order.” Mother tightens her grip on my elbow. “You shall come with me.”

My eyes widen and I try not to stutter. “Surely I’m not invited?” She has never welcomed my presence at her consultations; she and Marguerite handle that side of the business. I am hardly better than a servant. A lowly lab rat. Unless that is changing too … A thread of excitement hums through my core, but I bite down hard on my lip. Best to keep my delight hidden, or Mother will sniff out my desperation. She despises weakness above all else.

“Don’t be daft.” Mother shakes the phial at me. “You are the genius behind the poison, so you must witness my triumph.”

My brow furrows. I fail to see anything particularly triumphant about watching a man suffer—even one so wanton and despicable as the Duc de Barra—but I know better than to argue. If Mother considers his death a victory, it must be. And she wants me to take part in it.

Gris beams and raises a celebratory fist as Mother tugs me into the garden. The morning air is deliciously cold and it slams down my throat like a hammer, enlivening my mind and making my skin tingle. Every window of our cottage is ablaze with candlelight and movement. Shadows dash behind the velveteen curtains as Marguerite and La Trianon arrange their gilded Marseille decks and fill the scrying bowls with water. In lieu of morning birds, the chatter of anxious customers queuing up and down the rue Beauregard welcomes the sun. Like a windup clock, the Shadow Society is grinding into motion, and I am to be a part of it.

Matching Mother’s stride, I hold my head high as we slip through the kitchen door. Command respect. Prove you belong. But my feet stutter to a halt the moment we enter her salon, and for once it has nothing to do with the oppressive black curtains and damask papering. The room writhes like a hornet’s nest, packed wall to wall with visitors. And these are not the poor serving girls or the cotton-headed duchesses they often entertain. These are the leaders of the Shadow Society.

La Trianon, Mother’s second, quits pacing and fastens her watery eyes on me. Ordinarily the old woman’s eyes glint with fire and spark with mischief, but today they are drooping and exhausted—the same dirty gray as the snow in the gutters. Mother’s infuriating lover, the royal sorcerer, Lesage, winks at me from where he lounges on a divan, and Marguerite whispers with her fiancé, Fernand, in the corner. On the other side of the room, Abbé Guibourg, the priest who oversees the Society’s spiritual affairs, pulls his rosary beads through his knotted fingers. And beside him, Mother’s most prominent client, the Marquise de Montespan, former ma?tresse-en-titre to His Majesty, Louis XIV, whips her lace fan back and forth with agitated strokes.

Warning bells blare in my mind. Why are they assembled at such an hour? They can’t all have a vested interest in the Duc de Barra. He is one man, of little consequence, especially to someone as elevated as Madame de Montespan.

“What’s all this?” I ask, trying to keep my face blank and serene. Like Mother’s.

“We are waiting for you. Clearly.” Madame de Montespan rolls her eyes as if I am the simplest creature alive. I cringe without meaning to, and she titters behind her fan. I wouldn’t be laughing had the king dismissed me in favor of a younger mistress, I long to snap at her, but I bite my tongue and turn to Marguerite. She will enlighten me. But she looks pointedly at Mother’s arm, linked through mine, and her lips flatten.

My sister and I are either best friends or mortal enemies depending on one important variable—Mother’s favor.

“Up. All of you. It’s time to be off.” Mother claps and waves down the hall. Abbé Guibourg rises with a grunt and shuffles to assist Madame de Montespan, but La Trianon wrings her gnarled hands through her skirt and looks pleadingly at Mother.

“Please reconsider, Catherine. This is madness. We’ll burn at the Place de Grève.”

Mother’s dark eyes flash, and she advances on the old woman. Not yelling. Mother never yells. She whispers, which is far more terrifying. “Do you mistrust my judgment?”

“Of course not.” La Trianon retreats behind the divan like a mouse cornered by a cat. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Mother points down the hall. “Then go.”

Lesage extends his arm to La Trianon in vicious mockery, and with Mother watching, she can’t refuse. Marguerite sends another glare in my direction, then stomps down the hall with Fernand. But her hostility wicks away like water off a duck, for Mother continues walking arm in arm with me. She clutches the crook of my elbow tightly in one hand and the poudre de succession in the other. I try not to look overly pleased as I climb into the six-horse carriage waiting on the street.

We ride in silence over the Pont Neuf and out of Paris, onto the dusty, rutted country roads. I glance around the carriage, at Mother beside me and Marguerite across from me, certain they’ll tell me where we’re headed and what they’ve planned now that we’re en route. But they purposely avoid my gaze.

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