An Affair of Poisons(10)

What have we done?

I grip the edge of the bench, tighter and tighter until my forearms quake. No matter how deeply I inhale, I cannot catch my breath—as if invisible hands are cinching my stays. I know better than to utter a word of objection, but I must look like a cauldron threatening to boil over, for Mother takes my chin in a firm grip and forces me to look at her.

“Trust me, Mirabelle.”

I wet my lips and swallow hard. How can I trust you? You deceived me, used me. We poisoned the king.

Mother makes her voice as smooth as honey and brushes a wayward curl from my face. “This was necessary. For the greater good. We will care for the people of Paris far better than the Sun King ever did. There will be no hungry, no infirm.”

Everything inside me goes quiet. So still, I can hear the blood pounding in my ears. What does she mean, we will care for the people?

“As someone with intimate knowledge of our former ruler, I can assure you he deserved this fate,” Lesage adds in a breathy voice. He leans against the carriage wall, so weak from expending his magic that he can hardly keep his eyes open. I glare at the ghoulish green light still radiating from his fingertips, fear and fury scorching through my veins like wildfire. I gave Lesage that power—or, my alchemy enhanced it. He was nothing but a performer, a conjurer, creating illusions that vanished like smoke before I invented a tonic that made his magic tactile. Until I turned him into a sorcerer at Mother’s behest.

Another bout of nausea surges up my throat, and I lean out the window, retching my sickness down the side of the carriage.

“Really, Mirabelle. Show some fortitude,” Mother barks, though I notice her own face is as waxen as a tallow candle.

Marguerite straightens and inclines her chin so she’s looking down at me. “Do you suppose the great Charlemagne united an empire without some bloodshed?” She sounds as if she’s reciting from historical texts to impress a tutor. It works. Mother’s countenance lightens considerably at the comparison. “It is better that a few might perish in order to help the majority.”

“And think of all we will accomplish with the royal coffers at our disposal,” Lesage puts in. I cut my eyes at the auburn-haired jackal. Of course the coffers are his primary concern.

My fingers begin to tingle. My vision shimmers gray and black. Breathe, Mira. The king was a gluttonous, slothful man. An abhorrent leader. Perhaps Mother is right. The people will fare better without him.

The remainder of the ride passes in silence, though it’s not the somber quiet of a torn battlefield or the reverent stillness of a graveyard. It is a raucous silence. A giddy, rasping hum that grates on my ears and makes my skin crawl with weevils. Fernand and Marguerite continue whispering, as always, and Abbé Guibourg strokes his crucifix, a satisfied smile on his withered lips. Even La Trianon looks pleased, shaking her head and fanning her flushed cheeks.

Madame de Montespan is the only person other than myself who doesn’t join the silent celebration. I had thought she was in on Mother’s scheme, the instigator even, but when Fernand and Marguerite donned their masks and rushed toward the palace, she collapsed beside me in the dirt and wailed at the top of her voice.

Now she’s ashen and listless, knocking into the carriage wall whenever we round a bend or rumble over a pothole. She fingers her limp corn-colored curls, and her azure eyes stare through me. She mouths the same two words over and over again: “My girls, my girls.”

For once, Mother and Lesage do not rush to console her. They purse their lips and shoot her wary glances.

I was not the only one deceived this day.

As we pass through the Faubourg Saint-Germain and approach the left bank, the sprawling yellow fields give way to crooked half-timbered houses that teeter and lean like tired old men. The familiar stink of bilge water and the haze of chimney soot coats our throats. Marguerite breaks the silence with a long sigh. “We shouldn’t have burned the palace at Versailles,” she laments, peeling back the curtain to stare longingly at the distant pillar of smoke staining the skyline. “It was so much grander than the reeking city center.”

“That is precisely why we burned it.” Mother flings the curtain shut. “We are nothing like the former king, tucked away in a lavish country chateau where it’s impossible to see to the needs of our people. We shall live in the heart of the city. We will open the gates of the Louvre and welcome all to court. The worst has passed,” she says emphatically.

I nod along with the others. Forcing myself to believe it. Willing her declaration to be true.

Despite Mother’s promise, the nightmare continues.

We sequester ourselves in the belly of the Louvre while battles rage in the outer baileys. Cannon fire shakes the great stone walls. I take a small measure of comfort knowing we aren’t attacking unsuspecting citizens this time. The ministers and courtiers residing at the Louvre surrendered as soon as they saw the host of Shadow Society rebels scaling the battlements, and the servants happily switched allegiance when Mother offered to double their pay. And the citizens of Paris voiced no objection. On the contrary. They cheered in the streets and stitched banners of emerald, cerise, and plum-colored rags in support of Mother, their champion.

Our only opposition is the Paris Police. The officers are as relentless as roaches and just as impossible to kill: more skilled with the sword, more organized in their battalions, and more prepared with reserve armories scattered about the city. They have every advantage. Save for magic.

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