An Affair of Poisons(6)

“It seems we’re out of luck, ladies,” I say.

Anne whimpers and blinks tears to her eyes, but Fran?oise squares her shoulders and levels a steady finger at their governess. “You will stand aside, Madame Lemaire, unless you wish to be dismissed. I am a daughter of France and you are nothing but a lowly retainer who has been sent to serve me. Father will be most displeased to hear of my unhappiness.”

Madame Lemaire’s cheeks pale. Her perpetually frowning mouth drops open but not a sound escapes. I almost feel sorry for her as she bobs a shaky curtsy and removes herself from the door, tripping across the room like a brittle, wind-tossed leaf.

Fran?oise tips her head and laughs. “That’s how it’s done, brother. Proceed.”

I steal a glance back at Madame Lemaire—even though I know she doesn’t want my apologetic shrug—and carry the girls into the hall. They’re chattering away as if nothing is amiss, but the bravado I felt before, the laughter and excitement and warm sense of belonging, curdle in my belly like sour milk. I’m all for riling the old bat, but that was cruel and demeaning. I like to think my girls are different from the other nobles, but Fran?oise sounded so like Louis or Father or their mother, Madame de Montespan.

A current of ice trickles through my bones. How long until she says those things to you? Until they realize you are the son of a scullery maid? Even lower than Madame Lemaire?

Technically, the girls are bastards like me, but the daughters of the royal mistress are a far cry from the son of a servant.

I don’t realize I’ve stopped walking until Anne pokes her finger into the side of my face. “Josse? Are you ill?”

I blink and force a smile. “There was a stitch in my side, but it’s better now.”

“Then let’s go,” Fran?oise says. “I’m desperate to visit Rixenda. She promised to let us pluck chickens.”

I raise a brow. “You want to pluck chickens?”

“Oh, yes,” Fran?oise says, and both she and Anne bob their heads energetically. “We’ve been dying to try it for ages. Madame and Mother never let us have any fun.”

Fun. Not the word I would choose to describe my chores, but I swallow my annoyance.

“Then to the kitchens we go,” I say, raining kisses on their cheeks. They clutch my neck and giggle in my ears and I feel both better and worse. I hate myself for ever thinking poorly of them. They are nothing like the others. Will never be, if I have any say in it.

We race down the spiral staircase and out of doors, past the guardhouses where the ceaseless petitioners batter against the golden gates, and burst into the smoky galley. A dozen maids in plain gray dresses flit about, stirring pots and tending the ovens, but none of them acknowledge me. They never do. No matter that I’ve been slaving beside them all my life. To them, I’m half prince. To the courtiers, I’m half commoner. Which makes me one hundred percent invisible to everyone besides Rixenda.

“It’s about time you showed up, you worthless bag of bones!” she crows, slapping her floured hands on her apron. “You’d best have harvested the entire crop of leeks for how long you were gone.”

“I brought you something even better.” The girls peek out from behind me, and Rixenda’s smile broadens until her wrinkles cover the better part of her eyes. How I love that ugly, crinkled grin. My antics usually make her frown and fret—she says I’m the reason her hair’s gone so white—so it’s good to do something right every now and again.

She leads us into the courtyard and the girls attack the waiting barrow of chickens like starving weasels. I thump to the ground beside them and shiver. The spring breeze still has the frosty chill of winter on its breath, and it slices through my tunic like a knife. Anne and Fran?oise don’t seem to notice—they’re too busy blowing smelly feathers at each other. And it clearly hasn’t deterred the petitioners. There are twice as many as usual, and their fervent cries carry back to where we work.

“What do you think it is this time?” I ask Rixenda, nodding at the commotion. “Are they as greedy and ungrateful as Father claims? Or is he as callous and condescending as the broadsides report?”

“The riot at the gate has naught to do with us, Josse, and thank the Lord for it. And you shouldn’t be reading those treasonous pamphlets.” Rixenda tweaks my nose.

I squint at Father and Louis pacing the fence line, their heads tilted together in official business. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be included in their diplomacies. How it would feel to wear Louis’s pearl-embroidered doublet or Father’s silken cape. But most of the time I want to march over there in my feather-specked tunic, knock the massive wigs off their heads, and force them to see, to really look, at the peasants dressed in rags.

Rixenda’s withered hand pats my knee. “His Majesty thinks it best you work with me for now.”

Of course he thinks it best to banish me to the kitchen, where he doesn’t have to lay eyes on me unless he needs a laugh. I am an embarrassment. An unsightly stain on his otherwise pristine line.

With a touch more vigor than necessary, I slam the plucked chicken into the barrow and am reaching for another when a blood-curdling cry erupts from the gate. A second later, a wave of ungodly heat hurls me to the ground. My head collides with the cobbles, bits of plaster and brick pelting my back like hailstones. Vibrant green sparks rain from the cloudless sky, and the gate clatters and clangs like shattering dishes. I press my palms against my ears, but it does little to block out the noise; the entire world is screaming.

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