An Affair of Poisons(4)

I swallow back a knot of disappointment and shift in my seat. I suppose this is to be expected. It’s my first foray into the Shadow Society. In order to be trusted with greater knowledge, I must first prove myself in small things. And if this is some sort of initiation or a test of loyalty, I intend to pass. Better than pass—I intend to excel. I paint a smile on my lips that I hope mimics Mother’s—oozing lethal confidence—and fold my hands in my lap.

After some time, Mother peeks out the curtained window and I catch a glimpse of the enormous red and white palace at the end of the road, the golden crenellations and blue roof shimmering like pearls in the sun. The palace at Versailles. A tiny thrill courses through me and I lean forward to get a better look. The king’s new residence is said to outshine the Louvre the way the sun outshines the moon. It is swiftly becoming the beating heart of his royal court.

Which shouldn’t interest you, I remind myself before Mother has to scold me. I sit back and stare straight ahead. The palace is nothing but a lavish den of iniquity. A mockery to the people.

The footman drops us in front of the sprawling chateau, where a massive crowd of petitioners writhe before the gilded gates. On the last Friday of each month, King Louis comes to the courtyard fronting the palace to receive petitions from his people, but I cannot fathom why we would come now. It will be far more difficult to slip inside and poison the Duc de Barra during such a disturbance.

We gather in a tight circle at the back of the crowd. “Is everyone in place?” Mother says softly, though no one could hear us over the cries of the petitioners.

Marguerite and Fernand nod.

“What do you mean, ‘everyone’?” I ask, looking at our small group.

“Quiet, Mira,” Marguerite snaps.

“Excellent. Wish me luck,” Mother says, “though I shan’t be needing it.” She dons a pair of gloves, uncorks the phial of poison, and sprinkles it into a roll of parchment that Abbé Guibourg procures from his robes. Then she disappears into the rabble, pushing toward the gate.

“What is she doing?” I demand. “I thought …”

“Watch and see.” Madame de Montespan points to the palace.

A queer feeling rises in my gut, as if I’ve eaten spoiled meat. I fan my face furiously, but I’m sweating like a smith at the forge. There are so many petitioners making so much noise. I try to fall back, but Marguerite and Fernand grip my wrists and drag me forward.

“We need a better view,” Lesage mutters, bludgeoning people out of our way.

The Abbé squints his tiny eyes. “Where is she? Do you see her?”

“There, there!” Madame de Montespan points to the left, where the crowd is thickest around the gate, and I catch a glimpse of Mother’s blue cap. Hundreds of people thrust their arms through the gilt swirls and flourishes, waving their petitions wildly, and Mother joins them.

She’s naught but a single stalk of wheat amid a vast and rolling field, but I see the exact moment the Sun King notices her parcel. It’s as if he’s bewitched. His eyes contract and he strides purposefully down the fence line, his cape billowing like a banner behind him. The dauphin, in sky blue velvet, tugs his father’s arm and whispers in his ear, but the king shrugs him off and continues on his course. Straight to Mother.

“She isn’t. We wouldn’t …” I babble, looking for someone to confirm I am mistaken, that this isn’t what it seems. “We came to poison the Duc de Barra!”

“Did we?” Marguerite says with a laugh.

Time slows as Louis XIV reaches for the scroll. His gold and silver rings flash in the sunlight. The ruffles at his wrist dance in the chilly breeze. A scream builds in my throat as his fingertips brush the tainted parchment. Stop! I want to shout, but my clenched teeth are a prison, trapping the word.

The poison is deadly quick—just as Mother ordered. As soon as he unfurls the missive, a high-pitched wail spills from the Sun King’s lips. He staggers to his knees, and my own lungs burn as I watch him rip open his doublet and claw at his lace collar. His face turns purple then blue, and for a terrible moment, everything is frozen. Silent. Then the dauphin bellows—the low, guttural keen of a dying animal—and the stillness shatters like a broken pane of glass.

Mon Dieu.

The petitioners rear back, dashing about the courtyard like a flock of chickens with a fox in the coop, and I watch in horror as the dauphin yells his father’s name, shouting for help, crying for a healer.

All too late.

The king collapses face-first to the cobbles. His immaculate wig topples from his head and his crimson cape pools around him like blood.

An invisible fist slams into my stomach, and I vomit all over my shoes.

“Better steel your nerves, girl,” Lesage says. Then he flings his arms into the air and emerald fire bolts crackle from his fingertips. A deadly living fire called désintégrer.

The fire smashes against the palace gates, and amid the screech of rending metal, figures in jewel-toned cloaks and velvet masks race past, appearing from nowhere and spreading throughout the crowd—like a swarm of flies, a descending plague.

The whole of the Shadow Society.

Marguerite and Fernand don velvet masks of their own and shout as they rush into the fray. They probably expect me to join them, but my shaking legs refuse to cooperate. Another wave of nausea drops me to my knees. This is madness and all my fault.

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