An Affair of Poisons(8)

“What are you still doing here?” I demand.

“There’s nowhere to go. Louis says we simply cannot rush into the fray.”

“Louis?” I choke on his name. “He’s here? But I saw him at the gates… .”

“When Father was struck—” she begins, but she collapses in the doorway, weeping. Anne and Fran?oise burst into tears again, and I scoop them up and step past Marie.

The Diane Salon is the most decadent of all the sitting rooms, with rich violet hangings and ebony furniture, but like the dauphin’s apartments, it has been transformed into a picture of gory contradiction. Three intruders lie strewn across the glittering tiles, swimming in pools of blood, and the Grand Condé, the most celebrated general in the French army, sags against a divan and clutches his side, a deep red stain spreading through his ivory justaucorps. Beyond him, Louis leans over a table laden with snuffboxes, quills, and decanters arranged in the shape of the palace. He points to a wall on the far end of the table, and Condé shakes his head. His Royal Highness roars a black oath.

I’m tempted to turn on my heel, grab the girls, and leave the court to sort out their own escape. They will never listen to me, and every moment could be the difference between making it to the passageway. But Marie moans into her palms, and my insides wring like a washrag. Deserving or not, I cannot leave them to die.

I situate my sisters against the wall and stride toward the men, clearing my throat since neither of them have bothered to acknowledge me. “I know a way out,” I announce.

They jerk at the sound of my voice, and even though he’s halfway to death, Condé manages to frown down his bulbous nose at me. “Thank the saints! The royal bastard has come to save us.”

“This is hardly the time for politics,” I bark. “Come.”

The old general waves a hand. “They’ve posted guards at every gate. They’ll kill us on sight.”

“Thankfully my way doesn’t require a gate. Follow me. And make haste.”

Louis’s blue eyes flick up from the table and flay me open like a butcher’s knife. “If myself and the Grand Condé cannot find a way out, you certainly cannot.”

“Fine. If you have a death wish, I’ll happily leave you to rot.”

“I would be careful, brother, how you address the King of France,” Louis quips.

Louis is king? That means our father, the Sun King, is dead. I hardly knew the man, but I still feel the loss deep in my gut. Like the heel of a boot. “The queen?” I whisper.

Condé glances at Marie, who bursts into another fit of tears, then he quietly says, “Her Majesty is dead on the veranda. I was defending the dauphin and didn’t reach her in time.”

I toe the masked corpses strewn across the carpet. “Who are they?”

“Hell if I know,” Condé says, “but the court magician, Lesage, is leading them. Turncoat rat. He’ll burn us all to cinders with his devil magic.”

A shiver races through me from crown to toe. “Please come.”

Louis slams his fist against the table and bellows, “Be gone!” At the same moment, the window nearest the door shatters. Bolts of fiery green light shoot into the room and strike the wall a hair’s breadth from where Anne and Fran?oise stand. Hissing green ashes nip their arms, and they yowl like mice caught in the traps beneath the kitchen cupboards.

No, no, no.

I fly across the room, scoop them up, and brush the burning soot from their skin. Then I leap over Marie, who stares at me with a pained expression before rising to her feet and clinging to my tunic. To my surprise, the heavy thump of Condé’s step and Louis’s grumbling about how he should be leading our exodus trail us down the hall.

Fancy that. Following a bastard is preferable to burning alive after all.

“This is your brilliant plan?” Louis says when I press the notch on the stair rail and the panel slides. I’ll admit, it looks a bit ominous. The walls are splintered and bowed and the sharp tang of rot makes me cough. Louis hesitates, but thankfully he’s a good deal shorter than me and slender as a bean pole, so I shove him inside, hard enough that he falls to his knees. Without an apology, I push the others in behind him. Then I crowd in and bar the door.

Blackness swallows us. The air is heavy and sour, and the damp walls soak the sleeves of my tunic as we inch forward. Marie sniffles, Condé groans and lists against the wall, Louis curses as he tries to keep the old general on his feet, and the girls cry silently onto my shoulder. That’s when I notice the specks dotting their skin like freckles. They’re round with raised centers that glow a faint, otherworldly green. My ribs squeeze around my heart, and I hold my breath as I wipe my thumb across a spot on Fran?oise’s finger. It doesn’t smear.


No one utters a word as we blunder through the dark. My arms ache from the weight of my sisters. It feels as if we’ve been walking for hours. Days. I take a deep breath and readjust for the hundredth time. Whatever it takes to keep them safe.

Except you’ve failed already, I think, looking at the sores and feeling sick.

When we reach the hidden door behind the stables, Louis lets out a whoop, but it’s quickly followed by a horrified scream from Marie. As soon as I emerge from the tunnel, I bite back a scream of my own. The south woods are drenched in molten-orange flames. Heat lashes my face, and smoke pours down my throat like gravy. I have led us straight to the gates of Hell.

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