An Affair of Poisons(7)

My sisters loudest of all. Their high-pitched voices rake across my skin like claws. A surge of panic lifts me to my knees, and I crawl to where they’re huddled safely beneath Rixenda—thank God. Beyond them, it’s utter chaos. The palace gate collapses with a crash so violent that the ground shudders beneath me, and a cloud of dust plumes into the air, thick enough to devour the sun. The petitioners stream onto the grounds and run for cover, pointing at cloaked figures flying toward the palace like bats in the night.

Where’s my father? The musketeers? His porters? Anybody?

“What’s happening?” Fran?oise shouts.

I haven’t a clue, but we need to move. Now. I swing Anne onto my back and yank Fran?oise up by her hand. “This way,” I yell, but Rixenda hobbles in the opposite direction. I catch her elbow and spin her around. “What are you doing?”

“Go on! I’ll only slow you down.”

I shake my head and tighten my hold.

“Go! Get the girls out. I’ll meet you outside the palace.” She presses the knife she brought to debone the chickens into my hand and shoves me off with far more strength than a woman her age should possess. “Be strong, Josse,” she calls as she skitters around the curtain wall.

I stare after her, my eyes watering, my heart screaming. Another flash of emerald lightning smashes into the palace, and Anne shrieks in my ear, “Run, Josse!”

I tuck the knife in my boot and spin toward the outer wall, but the gatehouses are overrun with figures in purple and green cloaks. Arrows assail the courtiers attempting to flee, putting them down like deer on the hunt. I look back to the grand chateau, but hordes of intruders are charging up the steps. Inside the palace, eerie green light streaks through the hallways, setting the draperies aflame.

There’s no way out. Nowhere safe.

Think, Josse.

I close my eyes and imagine each hall, each level of the palace, until my attention snags on the hidden passage beneath the stairs outside the Venus Salon. My best friend, Luc Desgrez, and I discovered it years ago, when I was desperate to evade my chores and he wanted nothing to do with the Latin lessons his scholar father taught Louis. It used to be a discreet entrance for carpenters and masons during construction—my father couldn’t have commoners traipsing across the cour d’Honneur—and it leads from the main chateau to the stables and into the woods beyond. Brilliant.

With a grunt, I boost Anne higher up my back and tug Fran?oise toward the nearest window. I’ve never stepped foot inside this wing of the palace—the dauphin has expressly forbidden bastard scum from entering his apartments—but it’s the fastest way to the hidden passage, so I smash my boot through a window and duck past the shards of glass.

For all I’ve heard of its beauty, Louis’s bedchamber is a scorching, incendiary hell at present. The gold damask walls are spattered with sickening green scars that drip onto the parquet floor, and two gentlemen of the bedchamber lie in the center of the room, their skin greener than leaves and their faces frozen in agony.

I look away and charge ahead, willing myself not to scream.

The stairs. Get to the stairs.

I careen through the door and into a wood-paneled antechamber, where I slam into an intruder. The man is my height but twice as broad, and his face is covered with an intricate black mask. “What luck,” he says with a husky chuckle. “Just the girls I was looking for.” He leans forward in a mock bow and reaches into his scarlet cloak.

Anne and Fran?oise scream, and I don’t wait to see what he’s grabbing for. Rage flash-boils the blood in my veins. I have never killed a man, never trained with a sword like Louis, but my time in the kitchen serves me well. Faster than I’ve ever moved, I set Anne down, pull the knife from my boot, and plunge it into the man’s belly. Up and in. Gutting him like a pig. He coughs and sags against me, his blood rushing warm and thick over my hands. I wait for my arms to tremble with horror, for nausea to squeeze my throat, but I only feel fury. A ferocious desire to stab him again for even thinking of harming my sisters.

I dump him on the ground, return the knife to my boot, and take Fran?oise and Anne by the hand, cringing at the blood that smears their skin. The smoke thickens as we run through the next antechamber. Servants pour from the dauphin’s library and grand cabinet, screeching and crying as ghostly green flames blaze down the hall. “Everything’s going to be fine,” I call, as much for myself as the girls.

We burst into the forecourt and the marble staircase comes into view. So close. But a cry pricks my ears as we pass the Diane Salon, and my stomach bottoms out.

I think I recognize it.

Clenching my teeth, I take another step. If our roles were reversed, they wouldn’t stop for me. Anne and Fran?oise are my only responsibility, the only ones I care for in this rutting palace. But the cry comes again, even louder. Wrenching me between the two halves of my life.

Be strong, Josse, Rixenda’s voice echoes.

I whirl around and pound on the door. “Marie? Are you in there?”

The door flies open and my half sister, Madame Royale—the king’s eldest daughter—pokes her face into the hall. Her porcelain complexion is blotchy enough to be poxed, and her eyes are swollen into slits. She’s coughing so hard she’s unable to speak, but silence from her isn’t unusual. In my eighteen years, we’ve only exchanged a handful of words.

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