An Affair of Poisons(9)

Condé’s scowl bores into the side of my face. “Don’t stand there staring while we burn alive, boy! You brought us here.”

I cast around for the safest route while praying for Rixenda to hobble from the barn or beckon from the forest’s edge. Guilt drags at my feet until they’re heavy as boulders. It was foolish to think an old woman could make it through the chaos.

“It seems I must lead us to safety.” Louis shoots me a disgusted look as he charges into the north woods. I raise my eyebrows but decide not to mention that the Petit Parc is the nearest thing he’s seen to wilderness—and he gets lost on those manicured paths.

With one more glance at the barn, I follow the others.

We tromp through the underbrush, slower and more painfully than a royal procession. Flames crackle through the canopy and fiery leaves rain down atop our heads. They fall faster and hotter as we aimlessly twist and turn, wandering farther from civilization and help. I need to say something, need to do something—I’ve picked mushrooms in these woods hundreds of times; I could have us to the road in minutes.

Be strong, Josse. Rixenda’s admonition plays in my head so loudly that I whip around, hope banging in my chest. But it’s only the blaze, spitting and snapping at our backs.

I shake the sweaty strands of hair from my eyes, heft the girls higher, and make my way to the front of the group. “We need to head north along the road and find a carriage out of Versailles, perhaps out of France entirely.”

Louis glares at me as he mops his forehead with a silver-stitched handkerchief. “The king cannot flee his own country.”

“You won’t be king if you perish in these woods,” I retort.

“Watch yourself, boy.” Condé moves a trembling hand to his sword—as if he could cut me down in his condition. But by some miracle, when I stomp off, he and the others follow.

We pick our way through the burning trees, the fire dying out as we near the road. Gruff voices shout orders, and a chorus of whimpers follow. My heart thuds in my throat as I squint through the branches. Two masked intruders are herding a cluster of bloodied servants and courtiers down the road at sword-point. And there, second from the front, is Rixenda. Her petticoats are charred and her white hair billows around her like a storm cloud.

Relief crashes through me, and my eyes fill with a blurry wash of tears. She’s alive. But for how long? Desperation blows me forward like a violent gust of wind, and I dodge through the underbrush.

Momentarily forgetting that I’m carrying my sisters, a twig rakes across Anne’s cheek and she yelps.

The voices on the road go silent. The line of prisoners grinds to a halt.

“Show yourself!” one of the masked intruders calls.

The girls tense in my arms, and Louis mutters an oath.

Rixenda peers over at the trees, her face pinched with a brazen expression I know all too well. Fingertips of worry trace up and down my spine. I hold every muscle still. The sky is dark and thick with smoke and we’re a good ways back from the road. Look away, I plead. But her pale eyes lock on mine through the bramble.

One of the men starts toward us.

Rixenda wipes her palms down the front of her apron and stands taller. Sparks from the fire dance in her eyes, and I know what she’s going to do.

No, I want to shout, but it’s too late. She hefts her petticoats to her knees, steps out of line, and runs in the opposite direction. Drawing the attention away from us.

The intruder wheels around to give chase. The man at the head of the group glances at the trees, then back at his line of prisoners. Torn.

“Go!” Louis whispers as he runs deeper into the forest.

The others follow, but my feet are rooted to the spot. My throat burns as if I’m screaming, but I’m not making a sound.

The man overtakes Rixenda in less than ten steps. His sword slashes through the flesh between her shoulder blades, and her shriek raises every hair on my body. Pain shudders through me like an earthquake as I watch her hit the ground. A raw, warbling sound sputters from my lips as her blood seeps across the road.

Marie clamps a hand over my mouth. “Don’t waste her sacrifice,” she says softly. Then she is dragging me.

I want to curl into a ball and weep. I want to lie down in the leaves and let the fire devour me. But as Rixenda’s screams fade away, her final words to me linger in my mind.

Be strong, Josse.

So I force myself to inhale. Force myself to boost my sisters higher and run. Tears streak my soot-caked cheeks and numbness settles over me—as murky as the charcoal sky. By the time we finally stop to catch our breaths, my bones have turned to jelly.

Louis leans against a tree and mumbles something about scampering about like godforsaken rats. His words slowly permeate my grief-stricken haze and spark something inside me.

“Rats …” I repeat.

“What about them?”

“If these rebels want to treat us like rats, we might as well oblige.”

Louis eyes me like I’m out of my mind. And maybe I am.

With a wave to Condé at the rear, I forge ahead, marking a straight course toward the last place anyone would think to look for royalty.



Our carriage rumbles away from the smoldering remains of Versailles, trailing a wake of corpses. I sit straight as a lance and stare at the frayed window curtain flapping in the breeze. Each time it billows, an icy gust whips through the compartment, but I am too numb to feel it. My tongue is too raw to form words. I squeeze my eyes shut, but the Sun King’s face fills the blackness: foam dripping from his mouth, fingers clawing at his standing ruff. I see the green glow of Lesage’s désintégrer and the courtiers’ bodies strewn across the manicured lawns, their satin gowns and jewel-encrusted doublets riddled with arrows and seeping scarlet.

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