An Affair of Poisons(5)

I haven’t rid the world of one abhorrent duc.

I have murdered the King of France.



There are a good many chores I should be doing. Rixenda’s list is endless: peel the turnips, scour the pots, sweep the scullery, harvest the leeks. On and on and on. Sneaking over to the royal chateau and hiding in the hedge beneath the second-floor window, third from the left, is decidedly not on that list. But I can’t be blamed. Not really. I was headed to the garden to dig up the leeks when the morning sunlight struck the path in such a way I couldn’t help but notice how round and smooth the pebbles were, shining like precious drops of silver.

The perfect size for tossing at windows.

A thrill shivers through me as I lob the first stone, picturing Madame Lemaire up there, coiled like a dragon inside the keep. The old governess is far uglier than a serpent, and her tongue is sharp enough to spit flames, which is precisely why I must rescue my sisters.

Plink, plink, plink.

The rocks bounce off the gilded shutters like bullets. A few more go unanswered, but I am nothing if not persistent.

Come on, you old crone.

Three more and the shutters fly open.

Without waiting to hear her bray like a donkey or watch her wrinkles flap like a turkey’s wattle, I grip the trellis and scamper up. I’ve had loads of practice climbing. Mostly trees in the garden to avoid tumbles with the courtiers’ brats when I was young, and now the curtain wall surrounding the maids’ quarters for a different sort of tumble.

Madame Lemaire spots me immediately, but before she can call me a flea-bitten bastard hog and slam the shutters, I dive through the window and nearly knock her on her backside. She screams and crashes into the cream and pink papered wall, and her curled wig plummets to the floor. It looks so much like one of Madame de Montespan’s miniature poodles, I half expect it to bark. Or bite me.

Anne and Fran?oise shriek with laughter—the best greeting I could have hoped for—and I rush across the room and snatch them from their chairs. Their teacups clatter to the floor and I stomp through the steaming brown liquid, making an even bigger mess. Madame Lemaire is right: I’m quite like a pig, sullying the rich mulberry rugs with my muddy boots, shaking leaves and twigs from my hair. I do it on purpose. First, because it’s amusing to watch Madame Lemaire clutch her chest and sputter. And second, because it’s easier to blow around like a tornado and make a wreckage of everything rather than stare at the mahogany bed frames and silk-threaded coverlets and try not to compare them to my thin straw mat in the servants’ quarters.

“How are my girls?” I ask, balancing one on each hip. At five and seven, they’re almost too big to carry, especially with their full satin skirts, but I grit my teeth and boost them higher so we can rub our noses back and forth. Our special greeting.

“Better now that you’re here,” Fran?oise, the elder of my half sisters, says. She pats my cheek and my heart melts like a warm pot de crème. “These lessons are awfully dull.”

“We hoped you would come for us,” Anne says behind her hand. Only she hasn’t quite mastered how to whisper, so Madame Lemaire hears every word.

The old woman smashes her wig onto her head and advances on us, arms outstretched to the girls. “Come along, sweetings. Lessons may be dull, but they are necessary. Children who ignore their studies end up like him.”

I gasp and crumple my face so it looks like a crab apple and, coincidentally, a good deal like Madame Lemaire’s. “We wouldn’t want that now, would we?”

My sisters giggle and shake their heads. Their silky auburn curls brush my cheeks and tickle my nose. They smell of honeysuckle and rose water. Like happiness and home. I squeeze them tighter because despite incessant conditioning from their ma?tresse-en-titre mother and their snub-nosed tutors, they do want to be like me. They want to see me, and not just to laugh at my expense. They’re the only ones who give a piss about me—besides Rixenda, I suppose.

“You cannot take them.” Madame Lemaire folds her arms and positions herself before the door. “We are in the middle of an important etiquette lesson. You would do well to sit in on a few such lessons yourself, Josse.”

“Ah, but then I might be expected to act princely, and we can’t have that. I am, after all, just a kitchen boy.”

I see no point in trying to win the king’s affection when my fate will be the same as my mother’s: cast aside like rubbish as soon as the novelty fades. As soon as he tires of watching his ministers drop their forks to stare at me—his spitting image—pouring wine and serving mutton in the great hall. I am a trifling form of entertainment, like a dancing monkey.

“Release the girls this instant,” Madame Lemaire demands.

Smirking, I dodge the sweep of her arm and hold my sisters tighter. “One hour,” I beg. “Look at their faces—so wan and melancholy. They need sunlight, exercise. It’s unhealthy for young girls to have so many lessons.”

“I’ve had a terrible headache all morning,” Fran?oise adds with a dramatic sniff.

“What they need is to be kept away from scoundrels like you. Their mother has forbidden it.” Madame Lemaire puffs out her chest, making herself as large as possible. I will have to tackle her to get through the door, and she likely outweighs me.

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