“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson is a charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.
Sylvain had just pulled up Annette’s skirts when the drips started. The first one landed on her wig, displacing a puff of rose-pink powder. Sylvain ignored it and leaned Annette back on the sofa. Her breath sharpened to gasps that blew more powder from her wig. Her thighs were cool and slightly damp—perhaps her arousal wasn’t feigned after all, Sylvain thought, and reapplied himself to nuzzling her throat.
After two winters at Versailles, Sylvain was well acquainted with the general passion for powder. Every courtier had bowls and bins of the stuff in every color and scent. In addition to the pink hair powder, Annette had golden powder on her face and lavender at her throat and cleavage. There would be more varieties lower down. He would investigate that in time.
The second drip landed on the tip of her nose. Sylvain flicked it away with his tongue.
Annette giggled. “Your pipes are weeping, monsieur.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, nipping at her throat. The drips were just condensation. An annoyance, but unavoidable when cold pipes hung above overheated rooms.
The sofa squeaked as he leaned in with his full weight. It was a delicate fantasy of gilt and satin, hardly large enough for the two of them, and he was prepared to give it a beating.
Annette moaned as he bore down on her. She was far more entertaining than he had expected, supple and slick. Her gasps were genuine now, there was no doubt, and she yanked at his shirt with surprising strength.
A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.
This was a problem. The pipes above were part of the new run supporting connections to the suites of two influential men and at least a dozen rich ones. His workmen had installed the pipes just after Christmas. Even if they had done a poor job, leaks weren’t possible. He had made sure of it.
He gathered Annette in his arms and shoved her farther down the sofa, leaving the drips to land on the upholstery instead of his head. He craned his neck, trying to get a view of the ceiling. Annette groaned in protest and clutched his hips.
The drips fell from a join, quick as tears. Something was wrong in the cisterns. He would have to speak with Leblanc immediately.
“Sylvain?” Annette’s voice was strained.
It could wait. He had a reputation to maintain, and performing well here was as critical to his fortunes as all the water flowing through Versailles.
He dove back into her, moving up to a galloping pace as drips pattered on his neck. He had been waiting months for this. He ought to have been losing himself in Annette’s flounced and beribboned flesh, the rouged nipples peeking from her bodice, her flushed pout and helplessly bucking hips, but instead his mind wandered the palace. Were there floods under every join?
Instead of dampening his performance, the growing distraction lengthened it. When he was finally done with her, Annette was completely disheveled, powder blotched, rouge smeared, wig askew, face flushed as a dairy maid’s.
Annette squeezed a lock of his wig and caressed his cheek with a water-slick palm.
“You are undone, I think, monsieur.”
He stood and quickly ordered his clothes. The wig was wet, yes, even soaked. So was his collar and back of his coat. A quick glance in a gilded mirror confirmed he looked greasy as a peasant, as if he’d been toiling at harvest instead of concluding a long-planned and skillful seduction—a seduction that required a graceful exit, not a mad dash out the door to search the palace for floods.
Annette was pleased—more than pleased despite the mess he’d made of her. She looked like a cat cleaning cream off its whiskers as she dabbed her neck with a powder puff, ignoring the drips pattering beside her. The soaked sofa leached dye onto the cream carpet. Annette dragged the toe of her silk slipper through the stained puddle.
“If this is not the only drip, monsieur, you may have a problem or two.”
“It is possible,” Sylvain agreed, dredging up a smile. He leaned in and kissed the tips of her fingers one at a time until she waved him away.
He would have to clean up before searching for Leblanc, and he would look like a fool all the way up to his apartment.
At least the gossips listening at the door would have an enduring tale to tell.
Sylvain ducked out of the marble halls into the maze of service corridors and stairs. Pipes branched overhead like a leaden forest. Drips targeted him as he passed but there were no standing puddles—not yet.
The little fish could turn the palace into a fishbowl if she wanted, Sylvain thought, and a shudder ran through his gut. The rooftop reservoirs held thousands of gallons, and Bull and Bear added new reservoirs just as fast as the village blacksmiths could make them. All through the royal wing, anyone with a drop of blood in common with the king was claiming priority over his neighbor, and the hundred or so courtiers in the north wing—less noble, but no less rich and proud—were grinding their teeth with jealousy.
Sylvain whipped off his soaked wig and let the drips rain down on his head one by one, steady as a ticking clock as he strode down the narrow corridor. He ducked into a stairwell—no pipes above there—and scrubbed his fingers through his wet hair as he peeked around the corner. The drips had stopped. Only a few spatters marked the walls and floorboards.
The little fish was playing with him. It must be her idea of a joke. Well, Leblanc could take care of it. The old soldier loved playing nursemaid to the creature. Age and wine had leached all the man out of him and left a sad husk of a wet nurse, good for nothing but nursery games.
A maid squeezed past him on the stairs and squealed as her apron came away wet. She was closely followed by a tall valet. Sylvain moved aside for him.
“You’re delivering water personally now, Monsieur de Guilherand?”
Sylvain gave the valet a black glare and ran up the stairs two at a time.
The servants of Versailles were used to seeing him lurking in the service corridors, making chalk marks on walls and ceilings. He was usually too engrossed in his plans to notice their comments but now he’d have to put an end to it. Annette d’Arlain was in the entourage of Comtesse de Mailly, King Louis’s maîtresse en titre, and Madame had more than a fair share of the king’s time and attention—far more than his poor ignored Polish queen.
The next servant to take liberty with him would get a stiff rebuke and remember he was an officer and a soldier who spent half the year prosecuting the king’s claims on the battlefield.
By the time Sylvain had swabbed himself dry and changed clothes, Bull and Bear were waiting for him. Their huge bulks strained his tiny parlor at the seams.
“What is the little creature playing at?” Sylvain demanded.
Bull twisted his cap in his huge hands, confused. Bear raised his finger to his nose and reached in with an exploratory wiggle.
“Down in the cisterns,” Sylvain spoke precisely. “The creature. The little fish. What is she doing?”
“We was on the roof when you called, monsieur,” said Bull, murdering the French with his raspy country vowels.
“We been bending lead all day,” said Bear. “Long lead.”
“The little fish was singing at dawn. I heard her through the pipes,” Bull added, eager to please.
It was no use demanding analysis from two men who were barely more human than the animals they were named for. Bull and Bear were good soldiers, steady, strong, and vicious, but cannonfire had blasted their wits out.
“Where is Leblanc?”
Bull shrugged his massive shoulders. “We don’t see him, monsieur. Not for days.”
“Go down to the cellars. Find Leblanc and bring him to me.”
The old soldier was probably curled around a cask in a carelessly unlocked cellar, celebrating his good luck by drinking himself into dust. But even dead drunk, Leblanc knew how to talk to the creature. Whatever the problem was, Leblanc would jolly the silly fish out of her mood.
“Our well-beloved king is an extraordinary man,” said Sylvain. “But even a man of his parts can only use one throne at a time.”
The Grand Chamberlain fluffed his stole like a bantam cock and lowered his hairy eyebrows. “The issue is not how the second throne will be used but how quickly you will comply with the request. We require it today. Disappoint us at your peril.”
Sylvain suppressed a smile. If royalty could be measured by number of thrones, he was king of Europe. He had at least two dozen in a village warehouse, their finely painted porcelain and precious mahogany fittings wrapped in batting and hidden in unmarked crates. Their existence was a secret even Bull and Bear kept close. To everyone else, they were precious, rare treasures that just might be found for the right person at the right price.
The Grand Chamberlain paced the silk carpet. He was young, and though highborn, titled, and raised to the highest office, responsibility didn’t sit well with him. He’d seen a battlefield or two at a distance but had never known real danger. Those hairy brows were actually trembling. Sylvain could easily draw this out just for the pleasure of making a duke sweat, but the memory of Annette’s soft flesh made him generous.
“My warehouse agent just reported receiving a new throne. It is extremely fine. Berlin has been waiting months for it.” Sylvain examined his fingernails. “Perhaps it can be diverted. I will write a note to my agent.”
The Grand Chamberlain folded his hands and nodded, an officious gesture better suited to a grey-haired oldster. “Such a throne might be acceptable.”
“You will recall that installing plumbing is a lengthy and troublesome process. Even with the pipes now in place servicing the original throne, his majesty will find the work disruptive.”
Installing the first throne had been a mess. Bear and Bull had ripped into walls and ceilings, filling the royal dressing room with the barnyard stench of their sweat. But King Louis had exercised his royal prerogative from the first moment the throne was unpacked, even before it was connected to the pipes. So, it was an even trade—the king had to breathe workmen’s stench, and Bull and Bear had been regularly treated to the sight and scent of healthy royal bowel movements.
The Grand Chamberlain steepled his fingers. “Plumbing is not required. Just the throne.”
“I cannot imagine the royal household wants a second throne just for show.”
The Grand Chamberlain sighed. “See for yourself.”
He led Sylvain into the cedar-scented garderobe. A rainbow of velvet and satin cushions covered the floor. The toilet gleamed in a place of honor, bracketed by marble columns. Something was growing in the toilet bowl. It looked like peach moss.
The moss turned its head. Two emerald eyes glared up at him.
“Minou has been offered a number of other seats, but she prefers the throne.” The Grand Chamberlain looked embarrassed. “Our well-beloved king will not allow her to be disturbed. In fact, he banished the courtier who first attempted to move her.”
The cat hissed, its tiny ivory fangs yellow against the glistening white porcelain. Sylvain stepped back. The cat’s eyes narrowed with lazy menace.
A wide water drop formed in the bend of the golden pipes above the toilet. The drop slid across the painted porcelain reservoir and dangled for a few heartbeats. Then it plopped onto the cat’s head. Minou’s eyes popped wide as saucers.
Sylvain spun and fled the room, heart hammering.
The Grand Chamberlain followed. “Send the second throne immediately. This afternoon at the latest.” The request was punctuated by the weight of gold as he discreetly passed Sylvain a pouch of coins.
“Certainly,” Sylvain said, trying to keep his voice steady. “The cat may prefer the original throne, however.”
“That will have to do.”
When he was out of the Grand Chamberlain’s sight, Sylvain rushed through the royal apartments and into the crowded Grand Gallery. There, in Versailles’ crowded social fishbowl, he had no choice but to slow to a dignified saunter. He kept his gaze level and remote, hoping to make it through the long gallery uninterrupted.
“Sylvain, my dear brother, why rush away?” Gérard clamped his upper arm and muscled him to the side of the hall. “Stay and take a turn with me.”
“Damn you,” Sylvain hissed. “You know I haven’t time for idling. Let me go.”
Gérard snickered. “Don’t deprive me of your company so soon.”
Sylvain had seen his friend the Marquis de la Châsse in every imaginable situation—beardless and scared white by battle-scarred commanders, on drunken furlough in peat-stinking country taverns, wounded bloody and clawing battlefield turf. They had pulled each other out of danger a hundred times—nearly as often as they’d goaded each other into it.
Gérard’s black wig was covered in coal-dark powder that broadcast a subtle musky scent. The deep plum of his coat accentuated the dark circles under his eyes and the haze of stubble on his jaw.
Sylvain pried his arm from Gérard’s fist and fell into step beside him. At least there were no pipes overhead, no chance of a splattering. The gallery was probably one of the safest places in the palace. He steered his friend toward the doors and prepared to make his escape.
Gérard leaned close. “Tell me good news. Can it be done?”
“My answer hasn’t changed.”
Gérard growled, a menacing rumble deep in his broad chest.
“I’ve heard that noise on the battlefield, Gérard.” Sylvain said. “It won’t do you any good here.”
“On a battlefield, you and I are on the same side. But here you insist on opposing me.”
Sylvain nodded at the Comte de Tessé. The old man was promenading with his mistress, a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, and the two of them were wearing so much powder that an aura of tiny particles surrounded them with a faint pink glow. The comte raised his glove.
“I wonder,” said the comte loudly, as if he were addressing the entire hall, “can Sylvain de Guilherand only make plain water dance, or does he also have power over the finest substances? Champagne, perhaps.”
“Ingenuity has its limits, but I haven’t found them yet.” Sylvain let a faint smile play at the corners of his mouth.
“Surely our beloved king’s birthday would be an appropriate day to test those limits. Right here, in fact, in the center of the Grand Gallery. What could be more exalted?”
Sylvain had no time for this. He nodded assent and the comte strolled on with an extra bounce in his step, dragging his mistress along by the elbow.
The doors of the Grand Gallery were barricaded by a gang of nuns who gaped up at the gilded and frescoed ceiling like baby sparrows in a nest. Sylvain and Gérard paced past.
“You don’t seem to understand,” Gérard said. “Pauline is desperate. It’s vulgar to talk about money, but you know I’ll make it worth your effort. Ready cash must be a problem. Courtiers rarely discharge their obligations.”
“It’s not a question of money or friendship. The north wing roof won’t hold a reservoir. If the king himself wanted water in the north wing, I would have to refuse him.”
“Then you must reinforce the roof.”
Sylvain sighed. Gérard had never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by gold or force. He couldn’t appreciate the layers of influence and responsibility that would have to be peeled back to accomplish a major construction project like putting reservoirs on the north wing.
“Pauline complains every time she pisses,” said Gérard. “Do you know how often a pregnant woman sits on her pot? And often she gets up in the night? The smell bothers her, no matter how much perfume and rose water she applies, no matter how quickly her maid whisks away the filth. Pauline won’t stop asking. I will have no peace until she gets one of your toilets.”
“Sleep in a different room.”
“Cold, lonely beds are for summer. In winter, you want a warm woman beside you.”
“Isn’t your wife intimate with the Marquise de Coupigny? I hear she keeps a rose bower around her toilet. Go stay with her.”
“The marquise told my wife that she does not cater to the general relief of the public, and their intimacy has now ended in mutual loathing. This is what happens when friends refuse each other the essential comforts of life.”
“I’ll provide all the relief you need if you move to an apartment the pipes can reach.”
“Your ingenuity has found its limits, then, despite your boasts. But your pipes reached a good long way yesterday. I hear it was a long siege. How high were the d’Arlain battlements?”
“You heard wrong. Annette d’Arlain is a virtuous woman.”
“Did she tell you the king’s mistress named her toilet after the queen? Madame pisses on Polish Mary. Pauline is disgusted. She asked me to find out what Annette d’Arlain says.”
Two splashes pocked Sylvain’s cheek. He looked around wildly for the source.
“Tears, my friend?” Gérard dangled his handkerchief in front of Sylvain’s nose. “Annette is pretty enough but her cunt must be gorgeous.”
Sylvain ignored his friend and scanned the ornate ceiling. The gilding and paint disguised stains and discolorations, but the flaws overhead came to light if you knew where to look.
There. A fresh water stain spread on the ceiling above the statue of Hermes. A huge drop formed in its gleaming centre. It grew, dangled like a jewel, and broke free with a snap. It bounced off the edge of a mirror, shot past him, then ricocheted off a window and smacked him on the side of his neck, soaking his collar.
Sylvain fled the Grand Gallery like a rabbit panicking for its burrow. He ran with no attention to dignity, stepping on the lace train of one woman, raking through the headdress feathers of another, shoving past a priest, setting a china vase rocking on its pedestal. The drone of empty conversation gave way to shocked exclamations as he dodged out of the room into one of the old wing’s service corridors.
He skidded around a banister into a stairwell. Water rained down, slickening the stairs as he leapt two and three steps at a time. It spurted from joins, gushed from welded seams, and sprayed from faucets as he passed.
The narrow corridors leading to Sylvain’s apartment were clogged with every species of servant native to the palace. The ceiling above held a battery of pipes—the main limb of the system Bull and Bear had installed two years before. Every joint and weld targeted Sylvain as he ran. Everyone was caught in the crossfire—servants, porters, tradesmen. Sylvain fled a chorus of curses and howls. It couldn’t be helped.
Sylvain crashed through the door of his apartment. His breath rasped as he leaned on the door with all his weight, as if he could hold the line against disaster.
Bull and Bear knelt over a pile of dirty rags on the bare plank floor. Sylvain’s servant stood over them, red-eyed and sniffling.
“What is this mess?” Sylvain demanded.
His servant slowly pulled aside one of the rags to reveal Leblanc’s staring face, mottled green and white like an old cheese. Sylvain dropped to his knees and fished for the dead man’s hand.
It was cold and slack. Death had come and gone, leaving only raw meat. All life had drained away from that familiar face, memories locked forever behind dead eyes, tongue choked down in a throat that would never speak again.
The first time they met, Sylvain had been startled speechless. The old soldier had talked familiarly to him in the clipped rough patois of home and expected him to understand. They were on the banks of the Moselle, just about as far from the southern Alps as a man could be and still find himself in France.
Sylvain should have cuffed the old man for being familiar with an officer, but he had been young and homesick, and words from home rang sweet. He kept Leblanc in his service just for the pleasure of hearing him talk. He made a poor figure of a servant but he could keep a tent dry in a swamp and make a pot of hot curds over two sticks and a wafer of peat. He’d kept the old man close all through the Polish wars, through two winters in Quebec, and then took him home on a long furlough. Sylvain hadn’t been home for five years, and Leblanc hadn’t seen the Alps in more than thirty, but he remembered every track of home, knew the name of every cliff, pond, and rill. Leblanc had even remembered Château de Guilherand, its high stone walls and vast glacier-fed waterworks.
Close as they’d been, Sylvain had never told the old man he was planning to catch a nixie and bring her to Versailles. Under the Sun King, the palace’s fountains had been a wonder of the world. Their state of disrepair under Louis XV was a scandal bandied about and snickered over in parlors from Berlin to Naples. Sylvain knew he could bring honor back to the palace and enrich himself in the bargain. The fountains were just the beginning of his plan. There was no end to the conveniences and luxuries he could bring to the royal blood and courtiers of Versailles with a reliable, steady flow of clean, pure water.
She’d been just a tadpole. Sylvain had lured her into a leather canteen and kept her under his shirt, close to his heart, during the two weeks of steady hard travel it took to get from home to Versailles. The canteen had thrummed against his chest, drumming in time with hooves or footsteps or even the beating of his heart—turning any steady noise into a skeleton of a song. It echoed the old rhythms, the tunes he heard shepherds sing beside the high mountain rills as he passed by, rifle on his shoulder, tracking wild goats and breathing the sweet, cold, pure alpine air.
Sylvain had kept her a secret, or so he’d thought. The day after they arrived at Versailles, he’d snuck down to the cisterns, canteen still tucked under his shirt. A few hours later, Leblanc had found him down there, frustrated and sweating, shouting commands at the canteen, trying to get her to come out and swim in the cisterns.
“What you got there ain’t animal nor people,” Leblanc had told him. “Kick a dog and he’ll crawl back to you and do better next time. A soldier obeys to avoid the whip and the noose. But that little fish has her own kind of mind.”
Sylvain had thrown the canteen to the old man and stepped back. Leblanc cradled it in his arms like a baby.
“She don’t owe you obedience like a good child knows it might. She’s a wild creature. If you don’t know that you know nothing.”
Leblanc crooned a lullaby to the canteen, tender as a new mother. The little fish had popped out into the cistern pool before he started the second verse, and he had her doing tricks within a day. Over the past two years, they’d been nearly inseparable.
“Ah, old Leblanc. What a shame.” Gérard stood in the doorway, blocking the view of the gawkers in the corridor behind him. “A good soldier. He will be much missed.”
Sylvain carefully folded Leblanc’s hands over his bony cold breast. Bull and Bear crossed themselves as Sylvain drew his thumb and finger over the corpse’s papery eyelids.
Gérard shut the door, closing out the gathered crowd. Sylvain tried to ignore the prickling ache between his eyes, the hollow thud of his gut.
“Sylvain, my dear friend. Do you know you’re sitting in a puddle?”
Sylvain looked down. The floor under him was soaked. Bull dabbled at the edge of the puddle with the toe of his boot, sloshing a thin stream through the floorboards while Bear added to the puddle with a steady rain of tears off the tip of his ratted beard.
“I don’t pretend to understand your business,” said Gérard, “But I think there might be a problem with your water pipes.”
Sylvain barked a laugh. He couldn’t help himself. A problem with the pipes. Yes, and it would only get worse.
Sylvain had rarely visited the cisterns over the past two winters. There had been no need. The little fish was Leblanc’s creature. The two of them had been alone for months while Sylvain fought the summer campaigns, and through the winter, Sylvain had more than enough responsibilities above ground—renovating and repairing the palace’s fountains, planning and executing the water systems, and most importantly, doing it all while maintaining the illusion of a courtly gentleman of leisure, attending levées and soirées, dinners and operas.
Versailles was the wonder of the world. The richest palace filled with the most cultivated courtiers, each room containing a ransom of art and statuary, the gardens rivaling heaven with endless fountains and statuary. The reputation it had gained at the height of the Sun King’s reign persisted, but close examination showed a palace falling apart at the seams.
Sylvain had swept into Versailles and taken the waterworks for his own. He had brought the fountains back to their glory, making them play all day and all night for the pleasure of Louis the Well-Beloved—something even the Sun King couldn’t have claimed.
The tunnel to the cisterns branched off the cellars of the palace’s old wing, part of the original foundations. It had been unbearably dank when Sylvain had first seen it years before. Now it was fresh and floral. A wet breeze blew in his face, as though he were standing by a waterfall, the air pushed into motion by the sheer unyielding weight of falling water.
The nixie’s mossy nest crouched in the centre of a wide stone pool. The rusted old pumps sprayed a fine mist overhead. The water in the pool pulsed, rising and falling with the cadence of breath.
She was draped over the edge of her nest, thin legs half submerged in the pool, long webbed feet gently stirring the water. The little fool didn’t even know enough to keep still when pretending to sleep.
He skirted the edge of the pool, climbing to the highest and driest of the granite blocks. Dripping moss and ferns crusted the grotto’s ceiling and walls. A million water droplets reflected the greenish glow of her skin.
“You there,” he shouted, loud enough to carry over the symphony of gushes and drips. “What are you playing at?”
The nixie writhed in the moss. The wet glow of her skin grew stronger and the mist around her nest thickened until she seemed surrounded by tiny lights. She propped herself on one scrawny elbow and dangled a hand in the pool.
With her glistening skin and sleek form, she seemed as much salamander as child, but she didn’t have a talent for stillness. Like a pool of water, she vibrated with every impulse.
A sigh rose over the noise. It was more a burbling gush than language. The sound repeated—it was no French word but something like the mountain patois of home. He caught the meaning after a few more repetitions.
“Bored,” she said. Her lips trembled. Drips rained from the ferns. “So bored!”
“You are a spoiled child,” he said in court French.
She broke into a grin and her big milky eyes glowed at him from across the pool. He shivered. They were human eyes, almost, and in that smooth amphibian face, they seemed uncanny. Dark salamander orbs would have been less disturbing.
“Sing,” she said. “Sing a song?”
“I will not.”
She draped herself backward over a pump, webbed hand to her forehead with all the panache of an opera singer. “So bored.”
As least she wasn’t asking for Leblanc. “Good girls who work hard are never bored.”
A slim jet of water shot from the pump. It hit him square in the chest.
She laughed, a giddy burble. “I got you!”
Don’t react, Sylvain thought as the water dripped down his legs.
“Yes, you got me. But what will that get you in the end? Some good girls get presents, if they try hard enough. Would you like a present?”
Her brow creased as she thought it over. “Maybe,” she said.
Hardly the reaction he was hoping for, but good enough.
“Behave yourself. No water outside of the pipes and reservoirs. Keep it flowing and I’ll bring you a present just like a good girl.”
“Good girl,” she said in French. “But what will that get you in the end?”
She was a decent mimic—her accent was good. But she was like a parrot, repeating everything she heard.
“A nice present. Be a good girl.”
“Good girl,” she repeated in French. Then she reverted back to mountain tongue. “Sing a song?”
“No. I’ll see you in a few days.” Sylvain turned away, relief blossoming in his breast.
“Leblanc sing a song?” she called after him.
There it was. Stay calm, he thought. Animals can sense distress. Keep walking.
“Leblanc is busy,” he said over his shoulder. “He wants you to be a good girl.”
“Behave yourself,” she called as he disappeared around the corner.
Sylvain paced the Grand Gallery, eyeing the cracked ceiling above the statue of Hermes. There had been no further accidents with the pipes. He had spent the entire night checking every joint and join accompanied by a yawning Bull. At dawn, he’d taken Bear up to the rooftops to check the reservoirs.
Checking the Grand Gallery was his last task. He was shaved and primped, even though at this early hour, it would be abandoned by anyone who mattered, just a few rustics and gawkers.
He didn’t expect to see Annette d’Arlain walking among them.
Annette was dressed in a confection of gold and scarlet chiffon. Golden powder accentuated the pale shadows of her collarbones and defined the delicate ivory curls of her wig. A troop of admiring rustics trailed behind her as she paced the gallery. She ignored them.
“The Comte de Tessé says you promised him a champagne fountain,” she said, drawing the feathers of her fan between her fingers.
Sylvain bent deeply, pausing at the bottom of the bow to gather his wits. He barely recalled the exchange with the comte. What had he agreed to?
“I promised nothing,” he said as he straightened. Annette hadn’t offered her hand. She was cool and remote as any of the marble statues lining the gallery.
“The idea reached Madame’s ear. She sent me to drop you a hint for the King’s birthday. But—” She dropped her voice and paused with dramatic effect, snapping her fan.
Sylvain expected her to share a quiet confidence but she continued in the same impersonal tone. “But I must warn you. Everyone finds a champagne fountain disappointing. Flat champagne is a chore to drink. Like so many pleasures, anticipation cannot be matched by pallid reality.”
Was Annette truly offended or did she want to bring him to heel? Whatever the case, he owed her attention. He had seduced her, left her gasping on her sofa, and ignored her for two days. No gifts, no notes, no acknowledgement. This was no way to keep a woman’s favor.
Annette snapped her fan again as she waited for his reply.
It was time to play the courtier. He stepped closely so she would have to look up to meet his eyes. It would provide a nice tableau for the watching rustics. He dropped his voice low, pitching it for her ears alone.
“I would hate to disappoint you, madame.”
“A lover is always a disappointment. The frisson of expectation is the best part of any affair.”
“I disagree. I have never known disappointment in your company, only the fulfillment of my sweet and honeyed dreams.”
She was not impressed. “You saw heaven in my arms, I suppose.”
“I hope we both did.”
A hint of a dimple appeared on her cheek. “Man is mortal.”
“Alas,” he agreed.
She offered him her hand but withdrew it after a bare moment, just long enough for the lightest brush of his lips. She glided over to the statue of Hermes and drew her finger up the curve of the statue’s leg.
“You are lucky I don’t care for gifts and fripperies, monsieur. I detest cut flowers and I haven’t seen a jewel I care for in months.”
Sylvain glanced at the ceiling. A network of cracks formed around a disk of damp plaster. Annette was directly beneath it.
He grabbed her around the waist and yanked her aside. She squealed and rammed her fists against his chest. Passion was the only excuse for his behavior, so he grabbed at it like a drowning man and kissed her, crushing her against his chest. She struggled for a moment and finally yielded, lips parting for him reluctantly.
No use in putting in a pallid performance, he thought, and bent her backward in his arms to drive the kiss to a forceful conclusion. The rustics gasped in appreciation. He released her, just cupping the small of her back.
He tried for a seductive growl. “How can a man retain a lady’s favor if gifts are forbidden?”
“Not by acting like a beast!” she cried, and smacked her fan across his cheek.
Annette ran for the nearest door, draperies trailing behind her. The ceiling peeled away with a ripping crack. A huge chunk of plaster crashed over the statue’s head, throwing hunks of wet plaster across the room. The rustics scattered, shocked and thrilled.
He crushed a piece of wet plaster under his heel, grinding it into mush with a vicious twist, and stalked out of the gallery.
The main corridor was crowded. Servants rushed with buckets of coals, trays of pastries, baskets of fruit—all the comforts required by late sleeping and lazy courtiers. He pushed through them and climbed to a vestibule on the third floor where five water pipes met overhead.
“What have you got for me, you little demon?” he seethed under his breath.
A maid clattered down the stairs, her arms stacked with clean laundry. One look at Sylvain and she retreated back upstairs.
Sylvain had spent nights on bare high rock trapped by spring snowstorms. He had tracked wild goats up the massif cliff to line up careful rifle shots balanced between a boulder and a thousand-foot drop. He had once snatched a bleating lamb from the jaws of the valley’s most notorious wolf. He had met the king’s enemies on the battlefield and led men to their deaths. He could master a simple creature, however powerful she was.
“Go ahead, drip on me. If you are going to keep playing your games, show me now.”
He waited. The pipes looked dry as bone. The seal welds were dull and gray and the tops of the pipes were furred with a fine layer of dust.
He gave the pipes one last searing glare. “All right. We have an understanding.”
Leblanc’s coffin glowed in the cold winter sun. Bull and Bear watched the gravediggers and snuffled loudly.
Gérard had taken all the arrangements in hand. Before Sylvain had a moment to think about dealing with the old soldier’s corpse, it had been washed, dressed, and laid out in a village chapel. Gérard had even arranged for a nun to sit beside the coffin, clacking her rosary and gumming toothless prayers.
The nun was scandalized when Bull and Bear hauled the coffin out from under her nose, but Sylvain wanted Leblanc’s body away from the palace, hidden away in deep, dry dirt where the little fish could never find it. Gérard and Sylvain led the way on horseback, setting a fast pace as Bull and Bear followed with the casket jouncing in the bed of their cart. They trotted toward the city until they found a likely boneyard, high on dry ground, far from any streams or canals.
“This is probably the finest bed your man Leblanc ever slept in.” Gérard nudged the coffin with the toe of his boot.
“Very generous of you, Gérard. Thank you.”
Gérard shrugged. “What price eternal comfort? And he was dear to you, I know.”
Sylvain scanned the sky as the priest muttered over the grave. A battery of rainclouds was gathering on the horizon, bearing down on Versailles. It was a coincidence. The little fish couldn’t control the weather. It wasn’t possible.
The gravediggers began slowly filling in the grave. Gérard walked off to speak with a tradesman in a dusty leather apron. Sylvain watched the distant clouds darken and turn the horizon silver with rain.
Gérard returned. “Here is the stonemason. What will you have on your man’s gravestone?”
“Nothing,” said Sylvain, and then wondered. Was he being ridiculous, rushing the corpse out of the palace and hauling it miles away? She couldn’t understand. She was an animal. Any understanding of death was just simple instinct—the hand of fate to be avoided in the moment of crisis. She couldn’t read. The stone could say anything. She would never know.
Without Leblanc’s help, Sylvain’s funds wouldn’t have lasted a month at Versailles. He would have wrung out his purse and slunk home a failure. But with Leblanc down in the cisterns coddling the little fish, the whole palace waited eagerly in bed for him. And what had he done for the old soldier in return? Leblanc deserved a memorial.
The stone mason flapped his cap against his leg. The priest clacked his tongue in disapproval.
“He must have a stone, Sylvain,” said Gérard. “He was a soldier his whole life. He deserves no less.”
There was no point in being careless. “You can list the year of his death, nothing more. No name, no regiment.”
Sylvain gave the priest and the stonemason each a coin, stifling any further objections.
The gravediggers were so slow, they might as well have been filling in the grave with spoons instead of spades. Sylvain ordered Bull and Bear to take over. The gravediggers stood openmouthed, fascinated by the sight of someone else digging while they rested. One of them yawned.
“Idle hands are the Devil’s tools,” the priest snapped, and sent both men back to their work in the adjoining farmyard.
An idea bloomed in Sylvain’s mind. The little fish claimed she was bored. Perhaps he had made her work too easy. The lead pipes and huge reservoirs were doing half the job. He could change that. He would keep her busy—too busy for boredom and certainly far too busy for games and tricks.
“Tell your wife she won’t wait much longer for a toilet of her own,” said Sylvain as they mounted their horses. “In a few days she can have the pleasure of granting or denying her friends its use as she pleases.”
Gérard grinned. “Wonderful news! But just a few days? How long will it take to reinforce the roof?”
“I believe I have discovered a quick solution.”
The new water conduits were far too flimsy to be called pipes. They were sleeves, really, which was how had he explained them to the village seamstresses.
“Sing a song?” The little fish dangled one long toe in the water. Her smooth skin bubbled with wide water droplets that glistened and gleamed like jewels.
“Not today. It’s time for you to work,” Sylvain said as he unrolled the cotton sleeve. He dropped one end in the pool, looped a short piece of rope around it, and weighted the ends with a rock.
“Be a good girl and show me what you can do with this.”
She blinked at him, water dripping from her hair. No shade of comprehension marred the perfect ignorance of those uncanny eyes. She slid into the water and disappeared.
He waited. She surfaced in the middle of the pool, lips spouting a stream of water high into the air.
“Very good, but look over here now,” he said, admiring his own restraint. “Do you see this length of cotton? It’s hollow like a pipe. Show me how well you can push water through it.”
She rolled and dove. The water shimmered, then turned still. He searched the glassy surface, looking for her sleek form. She leapt, shattering the water under his nose, throwing a great wave that splashed him from head to toe.
How had Leblanc put up with this? Sylvain turned away, hiding his frustration.
As he pried himself out of his soaked velvet jacket, Sylvain realized he was speaking to her in court French. A nixie couldn’t be expected to understand.
The next time she surfaced he said, “I bet you can’t force water through this tube.” The rough patois of home felt strange after years wrapping his tongue around court French.
That got her attention. “Bet you!” She leapt out of the water. “Bet you what?”
“Well, I don’t know. Let’s see what I have.” He made a show of reluctantly reaching into his breast pocket and withdrawing a coin. It was small change—no palace servant would stoop to pick it up—but it had been polished to gleaming.
He rolled the coin between his thumb and forefinger, letting it wink and sparkle in the glow of her skin. The drops raining from her hair quickened, spattering the toes of his boots.
“Pretty,” she said, and brushed the tip of one long finger along the cotton tube.
The pool shimmered. The tube swelled and kicked. It writhed like a snake, spraying water high into the ferns, but the other end remained anchored in the water. The tube leaked, not just from the seams but along its whole length.
“Good work,” he said, and tossed her the coin. She let it sail over her head and splash into the pool. She laughed, a bubbling giggle, flexed her sleek legs, and flipped backward, following the coin’s trajectory under the surface.
He repeated the experiment with all of the different cloth pipes—linen, silk, satin—every material available. The first cotton tube kept much of its rigidity though it remained terribly leaky, as did the wide brown tube of rough holland. The linen tube lay flat as a dead snake, and across the pond, a battery of satin and silk tubes warred, clashing like swords as they flipped and danced.
The velvet pipes worked best. The thick nap held a layer of water within its fibers, and after a few tries, the little fish learned to manipulate the wet surface, strengthening the tube and keeping it watertight.
By evening, her lair was festooned with a parti-colored bouquet of leaping, spouting tubes. The little fish laughed like a mad child, clapping her hands and jumping through the spray. But he didn’t have to remind her to keep the spray away from him—not once.
When he was down to his last shiny coin, her skin was glowing so brightly, it illuminated the far corners of the grotto. He placed the last coin squarely in her slender palm, as if paying a tradesman. The webs between her fingers were as translucent as soap bubbles.
“You won a lot of bets today,” he said.
“Good girls win.” She dropped the coin into the pond and peered up at him, eyes wide and imploring.
He cut her off before she could speak. “No singing, only work.”
“You sang once.”
He had, that was true. How could she remember? He’d nearly forgotten himself. He had crouched at the edge of a high mountain cataract with icy mist spraying his face and beading on his hair, singing a shepherd’s tune to lure her into his canteen. She’d been no bigger than a tadpole, but she could flip and jump through the massive rapids as if it took no effort at all.
She had grown so much in the past two years. From smaller than his thumb to the size of a half-grown child. Full growth from egg in just two years.
But two years was a lifetime ago, and those mountains now seemed unreachable and remote. He wouldn’t think about it. He had an evening of entertainments to attend, and after that, much work to do.
Sylvain had almost drifted off when Annette dug her toes into the muscle of his calf. He rolled over and pretended to sleep.
He had given her an afternoon of ardent attention and finished up splayed across her bed, fully naked, spent, and sweating. Though he was bone tired from long nights planning the palace’s new array of velvet tubes, he had given Annette a very good facsimile of devotion and several hours of his time. Surely she couldn’t want more from him.
She raked her toenails down his calf again. Sylvain cracked an eyelid, trying for the lazy gaze of the Versailles sybarite. Annette reclined in the middle of the bed draped in a scrap of pink chiffon. The short locks of her own dark hair curled over her ears like a boy’s. She had ripped the wig from his head earlier, and he had responded by pulling hers off as well, more gently but with equal enthusiasm.
“No sleeping, Sylvain. Not here. You must be prepared to leap from the window if my husband arrives.”
“You want me to dash naked through the gardens in full view of half the court? My dear woman, it would mean my death and your disappointment.” He couldn’t suppress a yawn. “The ladies would hound after me day and night.”
“I forgot that about you,” she said under her breath.
Sylvain rolled to his feet and lifted a silken shawl off the floor. He wrapped it around his hips like a savage and returned to bed. He lifted an eyebrow, inviting her to continue, but she had begun playing with a pot of cosmetic.
“What did you forget about me?” If she meant to insult him, he intended to know.
She put her foot in his lap. “I forgot that you are a singular man.”
That didn’t sound like an insult. Sylvain let a smile touch his lips. “Is that your own assessment, or do others speak of me as a singular man?”
“My judgment alone. How many people in the palace ever take a moment to think of anyone other than themselves? Even I, as extraordinary as I am, rarely find a moment to notice the existence of others. Life is so full.” She nudged him with her toe.
“In this moment, then, before it passes, tell me what you mean by singular.” To encourage her, he took her foot in both hands and squeezed.
A dimple appeared on her cheek. “It is a contradiction and a conundrum. By singular, I mean the exact opposite. You are at least three or four men where many others have trouble achieving more than a half manhood.”
“Flattery. Isn’t that my role?”
“I mean no flattery. Quite the opposite, in fact.” She dipped her finger into the cosmetic pot and daubed her pout with glossy pigment. Then she stretched herself back on the velvet pillows, arching as he kneaded her toes.
“Sylvain the wit may be a good guest to have at a dinner party but no better than any other man with some quickness about him. Sylvain the courtier contributes to the might of the crown and the luxury of the palace as he ought. Sylvain the lover conducts himself well in bed as he must or sleep alone. I can’t speak to Sylvain the soldier or hunter but will grant the appropriate virtues on faith.”
“I thank you,” he said, kneading her heel.
She fanned her fingers in a dismissive gesture. “All these are expected and nothing spectacular to comment upon. But the true Sylvain is the singular one—the only one—and yet he’s the man few others notice.”
“And that man is?”
“I don’t know if I should tell you. You might stop massaging my foot.”
“You enjoy being mysterious.”
“The only mystery is how you’ve gotten away with it for so long. If anyone else knew, you’d be run out of the palace.”
“I will stop if you don’t tell me.”
“Very well. Sylvain, you are a striver.”
A lead weight dropped into his stomach. “Ridiculous. I thought you were going to say something interesting, but it is all blather.”
She nudged his crotch with her foot. “Don’t be insulted. Striving must be in your nature. Or perhaps you were taught it as a child and took it into the blood with your host and catechism. But it will all end in disaster. Striving always does.”
He kept his expression remote and resumed stroking her foot.
“You seek to raise yourself above your station,” she continued. “Those who do have no true home. They leave behind their rightful and God-given place and yet never reach their goal. It is a kind of Limbo, a choice to begin eternity in purgatory even before death.”
“And you have chosen to become a lay preacher. Do you have a wooden crate to stand on? Shall I carry it to a crossroads for you?”
“Oh, very well, we can change the topic to Annette d’Arlain if you are uncomfortable. I find myself a most engaging subject.”
“Yes, keep to your area of expertise because you know little of me. I don’t seek to raise myself. I am where I belong. The palace would be poorer without me.”
“If you remained satisfied with being a lover, a courtier, and a good dinner guest, I might agree with you. Your uncle is a minor noble but I suppose his lineage is solid, should anyone care to trace it, and you’re not the first heir to a barren wilderness to manage a creditable reputation at court. But you want to be the first man of Versailles, even at the destruction of your own self and soul. You are striving to be better than every other man.”
“That is the first thing you’ve said that makes any sense.”
Sylvain eased her into his lap. He slid his fingers under the chiffon wrap and began teasing her into an eagerly agreeable frame of mind. She would declare him the best man in France before he was done with her, even if it took all evening.
The monkey clung to Sylvain’s neck and hid its face under his coat collar. Sylvain hummed under his breath, a low cooing sound shepherds used to calm lambs.
The dealer had doused the monkey in cheap cologne to mask its animal scent. The stink must be a constant irritation to the creature’s acute sense of smell. But it would wear off soon enough in the mist of the cisterns.
Sylvain rounded the corner into the little fish’s cavern and tripped. He slammed to his knees and twisted to take the weight of the fall on his shoulder. The monkey squealed with fright. He hushed it gently.
“Work carefully, be a good girl!” The little fish’s voice echoed off the grotto walls.
He had tripped over the painted wooden cradle. The little fish had stuffed it with all of the dolls Sylvain had given her over the past week. The family of straw-and-cloth dolls were soaked and squashed down to form a nest for the large porcelain doll Sylvain had brought her the day before. It had arrived as a gift from the porcelain manufacturer, along with the toilets Bull and Bear were installing in the north wing.
The doll’s platinum curls had been partly ripped away. Its painted eyes stared up at him as he struggled to his feet.
The little fish perched on the roof of her dollhouse, which floated half submerged in the pool. The toy furniture bobbed and drifted in the current.
“Come here, little miss,” he said. She slipped off the roof and glided across to him. She showed no interest in the monkey, but she probably hadn’t realized it was anything other than just another doll.
“Do you remember what we are going to do today?” he asked. “I told you yesterday; think back and remember.” She blinked up at him in ignorance. “What do you do every day?”
“Very good. Work hard at what?”
“Good girls work hard and keep the water flowing.” She yawned, treating him to a full view of her tongue and tiny teeth as she stretched.
The monkey yawned in sympathy. Her gaze snapped to the creature with sudden interest.
“Sharp teeth!” She jumped out of the pool and thrust one long finger in the monkey’s face. It recoiled, clinging to Sylvain with all four limbs.
“Hush,” he said, stroking the monkey’s back. “You frightened her. Good girls don’t frighten their friends, do they?”
“Do they?” she repeated automatically. She was fascinated by the monkey, which was certainly a more engaged reaction than she had given any of the toys Sylvain had brought her.
He fished in his pocket for the leash and clipped it to the monkey’s collar.
“Today, we are adding the new cloth pipes to the system, and you will keep the water flowing like you always do, smooth and orderly. If you do your work properly, you can play with your new friend.”
He handed her the leash and gently extracted himself from the monkey’s grip. He placed the creature on the ground and stroked its head with exaggerated kindness. If she could copy his words, she could copy his actions.
She touched the monkey’s furry flank, eyes wide with delight. Then she brought her hand to her face and whiffed it.
“Stinky,” she said.
She dove backward off the rock, yanking the monkey behind her by its neck.
Sylvain dove to grab it but just missed his grip. The monkey’s sharp squeal cut short as it was dragged under water.
Sylvain ran along the edge of the pool, trying to follow the glow of her form as she circled and dove. When she broke surface he called to her, but she ignored him and climbed to the roof of her dollhouse. She hauled the monkey up by its collar and laid its limp, sodden form on the spine of the roof.
Dead, Sylvain thought. She had drowned it.
It stirred. She scooped the monkey under its arms and dandled it on her lap like a doll. It coughed and squirmed.
“Sing a song,” she demanded. She shoved her face nose to nose with the monkey’s and yelled, “Sing a song!”
The monkey twisted and strained, desperate to claw away. She released her grip and the monkey splashed into the water. She yanked the leash and hauled it up. It dangled like a fish. She let her hand drop and the monkey sank again, thrashing.
“Sing a song!” she screamed. “Sing!”
Sylvain pried off his boots and dove into the pool. He struggled to the surface and kicked off a rock, propelling himself though the water.
“Stop it,” he blurted as he struggled toward her. “Stop it this instant!”
She crouched on the edge of the dollhouse roof, dangling the monkey over the water by its collar. It raked at her with all four feet, but the animal dealer had blunted its claws, leaving the poor creature with no way to defend itself. She dunked it again. Its paws pinwheeled, slapping the surface.
Sylvain ripped his watch from his pocket and lobbed it at her. It smacked her square in the temple. She dropped the monkey and turned on him, enormous eyes veined with red, lids swollen.
He hooked his arm over the peak of the dollhouse roof and hoisted himself halfway out of the water. He fished the monkey out and gathered the quivering creature to his chest.
“Bad girl,” he sputtered, so angry he could barely find breath. “Very bad girl!”
She retreated to the edge of the roof and curled her thin arms around her knees. Her nose was puffy and red just like a human’s.
“Leblanc,” she sobbed. “Leblanc gone.”
She hadn’t mentioned Leblanc in days. Sylvain had assumed she’d forgotten the old man, but some hounds missed their masters for years. Why had he assumed the little fish would have coarser feelings than an animal?
She was an animal, though. She would have drowned the monkey and toyed with its corpse. There was no point in coddling her—he would be stern and unyielding.
“Yes, Leblanc has gone away.” He gave her his chilliest stare.
Her chin quivered. She whispered, “Because I am a bad girl.”
Had she been blaming herself all this time? Beneath the mindless laughter and games she had been missing Leblanc—lonely, regretful, brokenhearted. Wondering if she’d done wrong, if she’d driven him away. Waiting to see him again, expecting him every moment.
Sylvain clambered onto the dollhouse roof and perched between the two chimneys. The monkey climbed onto his shoulder and snaked its fingers into his hair.
“No, little one. Leblanc didn’t want to go but he had to.”
“Leblanc come back?”
She looked so trusting. He could lie to her, tell her Leblanc would come back if she was a good girl, worked hard, and never caused any problems. She would believe him. He could make her do anything he wanted.
“No, little one. Leblanc is gone and he can never come back.”
She folded in on herself, hiding her face in her hands.
“He would have said goodbye to you if he could. I’m sorry he didn’t.”
Sylvain pulled her close, squeezing her bony, quaking shoulders, tucking her wet head under his chin.
There was an old song he had often heard in the mountains. On one of his very first hunting trips as a boy, he’d heard an ancient shepherd sing it while climbing up a long scree slope searching for a lost lamb. He had heard a crying girl sing it as she flayed the pelt from the half-eaten, wolf-ravaged corpse of an ewe. He’d heard a boy sing it to his flock during a sudden spring snowstorm, heard a mother sing it to her children on a freezing winter night as he passed by her hut on horseback. The words were rustic, the melody simple.
Sylvain sang the song now to the little fish, gently at first, just breathing the tune, and then stronger, letting the sound swell between them. He sang of care, and comfort, and loss, and a longing to make everything better. And if tears seemed to rain down his cheeks as he sang, it was nothing but an illusion—just water dribbling from his hair.
Sylvain stood on the roof of the north wing, the gardens spread out before him. The fountains jetted high and strong, fifteen hundred nozzles ticking over reliably as clockwork, the water spouts throwing flickering shadows in the low evening light.
The gardens were deserted as any wilderness. Inside, everyone was preparing for the evening’s long menu of events. Outside, the statues posed and the fountains played for the moon and stars alone.
Sylvain was taking advantage of this quiet and solitary hour to do one final check of the velvet pipes. He had already felt every inch of the new connection, examined the seams all the way to the point where the fabric sleeve dove off the roof to disappear through a gap above a garret window.
Bull and Bear waited by the main reservoir, watching for his signal. There was no point in delaying any further. He waved his hat in the air. The sleeve at his feet jumped and swelled.
Sylvain ran from the north wing attics down several flights of stairs to Gérard’s apartments. Pauline greeted him at the door herself. She was hugely pregnant and cradled her belly in both hands to support its weight. Breathless, he swept off his hat and bowed.
“Go ahead, monsieur,” Pauline said as she herded him toward her dressing room. “Please don’t pause to be polite. I’ve waited as long as I can.”
Not only were the velvet pipes lighter and easier to install, but they could be pinched off at any point simply by drawing a cord around the sleeve. Sylvain waited for Pauline to follow him, then pulled the red ribbon’s tail and let it drift to the floor. Water gushed into the toilet, gurgling and tinkling against the porcelain.
Pauline seized him by the ears, kissed him hard on both cheeks, and shooed him away. She hiked her skirts up to her hips even before her servant shut the door behind him.
Sylvain arrived fashionably late at the suite of the Mahmud emissary, a Frenchman turned Turk after years at the Sultan’s court. Sylvain saluted le Turque, lifted a glass of wine, and assumed an air of languid nonchalance. Madame and her ladies swept in. Their jewels and silks glowed in the candlelight.
Annette carried Madame’s train—a sure sign she was in favor at that moment. Sylvain saluted her with a respectful nod. She dimpled at him and made her way over as soon as the host claimed Madame’s attention.
“Is that for me, monsieur?” she asked.
Sylvain glanced at the monkey on his shoulder. “Perhaps, if there is a woman in the room who isn’t tired of gifts.”
“Jewels and flowers are all the same. This is something different.” She caressed the monkey under her chin. It reached for Annette like a child for its mother. “What is her name?”
“Whatever you want, of course.”
“I will ask Madame to choose her name. She will love that.” Annette cradled the monkey against her breast and nuzzled its neck. “Oh, she smells lovely—vanilla and cinnamon oil.”
It was the only combination of scents Sylvain had found to kill the stench of cheap cologne. He allowed himself a satisfied smirk.
Across the room a subtle commotion was building. Le Turque had lifted a curtain to reveal a pair of acrobats, but Madame was watching Annette and Sylvain. The acrobats were frozen in a high lift, waiting for permission to begin their performance as the musicians repeated the same few bars of music.
“You had better go back. Madame has noticed the monkey and is jealous for your return.”
Annette awarded him a melting smile and drifted back to Madame’s circle. The ladies greeted the monkey as if it were a firstborn son. Madame let the effusions continue for a few moments and then took sole possession of the creature, holding it close as she turned her attention to the performance.
Sylvain struggled to stay alert, despite the near-naked spectacle on stage. He had barely seen his bed since Leblanc’s death, and the warm wine and rich food were turning his courtier’s air of languid boredom into the prelude to a toddler’s nap. The spinning and leaping acrobats were mesmerizing—especially when viewed in candlelight through a screen of nodding wigs and feathers. The bright silk- and satin-clad backs in front of him dipped as they lifted their glasses to their lips, swayed from side to side as they leaned over to gossip with the friend on the left about the friend on the right, then turned the other way to repeat the performance in reverse. Men and women they might be, but tonight they seemed more like the flamingoes that flocked on the Camargue, all alike in their brainless and feathered idiocy.
At least a flamingo made a good roast.
Sylvain spotted Gérard sneaking into the room, stealthy as a scout. He took his place by Sylvain’s side as if he’d been there all evening.
“Thank God, Gérard,” Sylvain whispered. “Stick your sword into my foot if you see me nodding off.”
Gérard grinned. “It’s the least I could do for the man who has brought such happiness to my wife.”
The acrobats were succeeded by a troupe of burly Turkish dancers bearing magnums of champagne entombed in blocks of ice. Children dressed as cherubs passed crystal saucers to the guests.
“This will keep you awake, my friend. Champagne cold as a cuckold’s bed.”
“I’ve been in such a bed recently. It was quite warm.”
Le Turque himself filled Sylvain and Gérard’s saucers. “Tonight, you are in favor with the ladies, monsieur.”
“Am I?” Sylvain sipped his champagne. The cold, sweet fizz drilled into his sinuses. His eyes watered as he forced back the urge to sneeze.
“So true!” said Gérard. “My own wife is ready to call Sylvain a saint. She has set up an altar to him in her dressing room.”
“But I refused the honor,” said Sylvain. “I would prefer not to have those offerings dedicated to me.”
They laughed. Le Turque gave them a chill grimace.
“My apologies, monsieur,” said Gérard. “It is not a private joke, just too coarse for general consumption. We are soldiers, you know, and are welcomed into civilized homes on charity.”
Le Turque demonstrated his kind forbearance by topping up both their saucers before moving on to the other guests.
Sylvain studied the champagne and their enclosing blocks of ice as the Turkish dancers circled the room, trailing meltwater on the carpet. The bottles couldn’t have been frozen into the ice or the wine would be frozen through. They must be made from dual pieces carved to enclose a bottle like a book. He stopped a dancer and examined the ice. Yes, the two pieces were joined by a seam.
A simple solution, too practical to be called ingenious, but effective. The guests were impressed, even though many of them were fingering their jaws and wincing from cold-induced toothache. Not one guest refused a second glass, or a third, or a fourth. Bottles were being drained at impressive rate.
Annette drew her fan up to her ear and flicked Sylvain a telling glance from across the room. He took Gérard’s arm. “Come along; we are being summoned to an audience with Madame.”
The royal mistress was dressed in white and silver. Her snowy wig was fine as lamb’s wool, her skin frosted with platinum powder. A bouquet of brightly clad ladies surrounded her like flowers around a statue. The monkey slept in her lap. She had tied a silver ribbon around its neck.
The standard palace practice was to praise Madame’s face and figure in public and criticize it in private. Sylvain had seen her often, but always at a distance. Now after months of maneuvering, he was finally close enough to judge for himself.
“A triumph worthy of our Turkish friends, is it not?” Madame offered Sylvain her hand. “I shall never be able to enjoy champagne at cellar temperature again. It is so refreshing. One feels renewed.”
“Our host has distinguished himself,” said Sylvain, brushing her knuckles with his lips. Madame let her fingers linger in his palm for a moment before presenting her hand to Gérard.
“Le Turque is an old man and has resources appropriate to his age and rank,” said Madame. “I wonder how young men can become distinguished in the king’s gaze.”
“Perhaps by murdering the king’s enemies on the battlefield every summer?” said Gérard.
The ladies tittered. Madame slowly drew back her hand and blinked. Pretty, thought Sylvain, at least when surprised.
“Excuse my friend, Madame. Cold champagne has frozen his brain.”
Madame eyed Gérard up and down. “Everyone respects our valiant soldiers, and your devotion to manly duty is admirable.” She turned back to Sylvain. “If your brawny friend the Marquis de la Châsse is content with his achievements, who are we to criticize? But you, monsieur, I know you care about the honor of France both on and off the field of war.”
“Every Frenchman does, madame, but especially when he has been drinking champagne,” said Sylvain. Gérard lifted his glass in salute.
Madame flicked her fan at Annette. “You may have heard an idea of mine. At first, it was just an idle thought, but now le Turque has thrown down the gauntlet. Is there a man who will accept the challenge?”
“No man could refuse you anything, madame. The rulers of the world fall at your feet.”
“I would rush to serve you,” said Gérard, “if I had any idea what you meant. Madame is so mysterious.”
Madame dismissed Gérard with flick of her fan. “Be so good as to fetch me one of those dancers, monsieur.”
“A Turk with a full magnum, Madame?” Gérard saluted her and set off with a jaunty military stride.
Madame shifted on the sofa. She seemed to be considering whether or not to invite Sylvain to sit. Then she lifted the monkey from her lap and set it beside her.
Not nearly so lovely as Annette, Sylvain decided.
“You may not know, monsieur, how highly you are praised. I am told that even when the Bassin d’Apollon was new, fountain-play was a parsimonious affair, the water doled out like pennies from a Polish matron’s purse.”
She paused to collect dutiful titters from her ladies for this jab at the queen. Perhaps not pretty at all, thought Sylvain. Hardly passable.
“You have found a way to keep all of the fountains constantly alive without pause. Some members of the royal household call you a magician, but the word from the highest level is less fanciful and more valuable. There, you are simply called inspiring.”
Sylvain puffed up at the praise. Gérard returned with a beefy Turk. The dancer’s fingers were blue from the cold, and he struggled to fill Madame’s saucer without dribbling.
“Just like a commander on the battlefield, a woman judges a man by his actions.” She lifted the monkey and planted a kiss between its ears. “Any other man would have collared this monkey’s neck with a diamond bracelet before presenting it to a lady of the court. We would call that vulgar.”
Her ladies nodded.
“You have taste and discernment. So give me champagne, free-flowing and cold. That is a triumph worthy of Versailles.” She presented her hand to Sylvain again, then waved him away. The ladies closed around her like a curtain.
“Vulgar, indeed,” said Gérard as they retreated. “I’ve never seen woman greet a diamond with anything other than screeches of delight. Have you?”
“My experience with diamonds is limited.”
“Madame knows it. She was spreading you with icing.”
“She wants to secure a valuable ally. Compliments are the currency of court.”
Gérard drained his champagne and rubbed his knuckles over his jaw as if it ached. “She just wants to drink champagne at another man’s expense. As with most pleasures, it comes with a little pain. She wants the pain to be yours, not hers.”
“The champagne fountain is a whim. She will ask me for something else next time.”
“Very well. Madame will ask you to do something expensive and original with only a few pretty words as payment. Will you do it?”
Two full glasses of red wine had been abandoned at the foot of a statue. Sylvain fetched them and passed one to his friend. After the sweet champagne, the warm wine tasted flat and murky as swamp water.
“Only a fool would pass up the opportunity.”
“Papa, come play!”
The nixie swam backward against a vortex of current, dodging spinning hunks of ice that floated like miniature icebergs, splintering and splitting as they smashed together. Overhead, the red-and-blue parrot climbed among the fern fronds, screeching and flapping its wings.
As he had suspected, the little fish loved ice. He had once seen a nixie swimming at the foot of a glacier, playing with ice boulders as they calved from the ice field’s flank. The nixie had pushed them around like kindling, building a dam that spread a wide lake of turquoise meltwater over the moraine.
“Papa, come play!”
“Papa!” The parrot screeched its name.
Sylvain had purchased the bird from an elderly lady who was moldering in a north-wing garret, wearing threadbare finery from the Sun King’s reign and living off charity and crumbs of her neighbors’ leftover meals. The parrot was a good companion for the little fish. It was old and wily, and with its sharp beak and talons, it was well equipped to protect itself if she got too rough. It could fly out of reach and was fast enough to dodge sprays and splashes.
“Papa?” The nixie levered herself up the lip of her nest and stared at Sylvain expectantly. “Papa come play?”
Sylvain felt in his pockets for the last of the walnuts. “Here, little one. See if you can lure Papa down with this.”
“Bird! Food!” she yelled, waving the walnut aloft. The parrot kited down to the nest and plucked the nut from her fist.
“Come play, Papa?” she asked. She wasn’t looking at the bird. Her uncanny gaze was for him alone.
“That’s quite enough of that,” he said. “The bird’s name is Papa, and you’ll do well to remember it, young lady.”
She leaned close and spoke slowly, explaining. “Bird is Bird, Papa is Papa.”
“Papa,” agreed the parrot, its beady gaze fixed on Sylvain.
“You are impossible.” Sylvain waved at the surface of the pond, which was now carpeted with icy slurry circulating in the slowing current. “Clear away your toys or I’ll freeze swimming across.”
“Papa go away?”
“The bird is staying here with you. I am going to see about my important business. When I come back, I’ll bring more walnuts for Papa and nothing for you. Now clean up the ice.”
She laughed and dove. The water bubbled like a soup pot, forcing the slush to congeal into wads the size of lily pads. As the turbulence increased the leaves tilted and stacked, climbing into columns of gleaming ice that stretched and branched overhead.
The parrot flew to the top of a column and nibbled at the ice. It was solid and hard as rock.
“Very impressive,” breathed Sylvain.
He had spent the past few days running up debts with the village icemongers and pushing cartloads of straw-wrapped ice blocks down the tunnels. Though she had never seen ice, she had taken to it instinctively, tossing it around the grotto, building walls and dams, smashing and splitting the blocks into shard and slag, and playing in the slush like a pig in mud. But now she was creating ice. This was extraordinary.
“Come here, little one,” he said.
Obedient for the moment, she slipped over the surface to tread water at the edge of the nest. Above the water, her pale green skin was furred with frost. Steam snaked from her nostrils and gill slits.
“Show me how you did that,” he said.
She blinked. “Show me how, Papa?”
He spoke slowly. “The ice was melted into slush, but you froze it again, building this.” He pointed to an ice branch. The parrot sidestepped along the branch, bobbing its head and gobbling to itself. “Can you do it again?”
She shrugged. “You are impossible.”
He scooped up a fistful of water and held it out in his cupped hand. “Give it a try. Can you freeze this?”
The little fish peered up at him with that familiar imploring, pleading expression. He could hear her request even before she opened her mouth.
“Sing a song?”
Gifts were one thing but blatant bribery was another. If he began exchanging favor for favor, it would be a constant battle. But he had no time for arguments. He could risk a small bribe.
“I will sing you one song—a very short song—and only because you have been such a good girl today. But first freeze this water.”
“One song,” she agreed.
Heat radiated up his arm. The water in his fist crackled and jumped, forming quills of ice that spread from his palm like a chestnut conker. He was so astonished that he forgot to breathe for a few moments. Then he drew in a great breath and let himself sing.
The foresters of home played great lilting reels on pipes and fiddles. Their lives were as poor and starved as the shepherds in the meadows above or the farmers in the valley below, but they were proud and honed the sense of their own superiority as sharp as the edges on their axes. Their songs bragged of prowess at dancing, singing, making love, and of course at the daredevil feats required by their trade. The song that came to his lips told of a young man proving his worth by riding a raft of logs down a grassy mountainside in full view of the lowly villagers in the valley below.
He only meant to give her the first verse, but the little fish danced and leaped with such joy that he simply gave himself over to the song—abandoned himself so completely that halfway through the second verse, he found himself punctuating the rhythm with sharp staccato hand claps just as proudly as any forester. He sang all six verses, and when he was done, she leapt into his arms and hugged her thin arms around his neck.
“Papa sing good,” she whispered, her breath chill in his ear.
He patted her between the shoulder blades. Her skin was cold and clammy under a skiff of frost. Sylvain leaned back and loosened her arms a bit so he could examine her closely. Her eyes were keen, her skin bright. She was strong and healthy, and if she was a bit troublesome and a little demanding, it was no more than any child.
“Annette tells me you had your men run water to the north wing.”
Madame reclined on a golden sofa, encased and seemingly immobilized by the jagged folds of her silver robe. Her cleavage, shoulders, and neck protruded—a stem to support her rosebud-pale face. Her ladies gathered around her, gaudy in their bright, billowing silks.
Annette avoided his eye. Sylvain brushed imaginary lint from his sleeve, feigning unconcern. “I believe my foreman mentioned that they had finally gotten so far. I gave the orders months ago.”
“Everyone has a throne now. Madame de Beauvilliers claims to possess one exactly like mine. She shows it to her neighbors and even lets her maid sit on it.”
“Your throne was one of the first in the palace, Madame, and remains the finest.”
“Being first is no distinction when a crowd of nobodies have the newest. No doubt our village merchants will be bragging about their own thrones in a day or two.”
Sylvain twitched. He had just been considering running pipes through the village and renting toilets there. Merchants had the cash flow to sustain monthly payments, and unlike courtiers, they were used to paying their debts promptly.
“No indeed, Madame. I assure you I am extremely careful to preserve the privileges of rank. I am no populist.”
“And how will you preserve my distinction? Will you give me a second throne to sit in my dressing room? A pedestal for a pampered pet? If a cat has a throne, surely you can give me one for each of my ladies. We shall put them in a circle here in my salon and sit clucking at each other like laying hens.”
Her ladies giggled obediently. Annette stared at the floor and wrung the feathers of her fan like the neck of a Christmas goose. Just a few more twists and she would break the quills.
Madame glared at him. Angry color stained her cheeks, visible even through her heavy powder. “If every north-wing matron can brag about her throne, you may remove mine. I am bored of it. Take the vulgar thing away and throw it in the rubbish.”
If Sylvain took just two steps closer, he could loom over her and glare down from his superior height. But intimidation wasn’t possible. She held the whip and knew her power. If she abandoned her toilet, the whole palace would follow fashion. He would be ruined.
He strolled to the window and examined a vase of forced flowers, careful to keep his shoulders loose, his step light. “My dear madame, the thrones don’t matter. You might as well keep yours.”
Madame’s eyebrows climbed to the edge of her wig. Annette dropped her fan. The ivory handle clattered on the marble with a skeletal rattle. Sylvain sniffed one of the blossoms, a monstrous pale thing with pistils like spikes.
“Is that so,” said Madame, iron in her voice. “Enlighten me.”
“We need not speak of them further. If possessing a throne conveyed distinction, it was accidental. They are a convenience for bodily necessity, nothing more. Having a throne was once a privilege, but it has been superseded.”
“By what?” Madame twisted on her divan to watch him, unsettling her artfully composed tableau. He had her now.
“By the thing your heart most desires, flowing freely like a tap from a spring. So cold it chills the tongue. So fresh, the bubbles spark on the palate. Sweet as the rain in heaven and pure as a virgin’s child. I believe you hold a day in February close to your heart? A particularly auspicious day?”
“I do, and it is coming soon.”
“You will find your wishes fulfilled. Count on my support.”
A slow grin crept over Madame’s face. “It’s possible you are a man of worth after all, Sylvain de Guilherand, and I need not counsel my ladies against you.”
She dismissed him. Sylvain was careful not to betray the tremor in his limbs as he strolled through her apartment. The rooms were lined with mirrors, each one throwing his groomed and powdered satin-clad reflection back at him. He could put his fist through any one of those mirrors. It would feel good for a moment—the glass would shatter around his glove and splinter this overheated, foul, wasteful place into a thousand shards.
But if he showed his anger, he would betray himself. Any outburst would reveal a childish lack of self-control and provide gossip that would be told and retold long after he had been forgotten.
Sylvain found the nearest service corridor and descended to the cellars. He got a bottle of champagne from one of the king’s stewards—a man who knew him well enough to extend the mercy of credit. He bought a bag of walnuts and half a cheese from a provisioner’s boy who was wise enough to demand coin. The Duc d’Orléans’ baker gave him a loaf of dark bread and made a favor of it. Then he slipped out of the palace and made his way to the cisterns.
The little fish dozed on a branch of her ice tree, thin limbs dangling. The bird was rearranging the nest, plucking at fern fronds and clucking to itself.
“You’re fancy,” the little fish said, her voice sleepy.
Sylvain looked down. He was in full court garb, a manikin in satin, wrapped in polished leather and studded with silver buttons.
He pulled off his wig and settled himself on a boulder. “Do I look like a man of worth to you, little one?”
“Worth what, Papa?”
He grimaced. “My dear, that is exactly the question.”
He spread a handkerchief at his feet and made a feast for himself. Good cheese and fresh bread made a better meal than many he’d choked back on campaign, better even than most palace feasts with dishes hauled in from the village or up from the cellar kitchens, cold, salty, and studded with congealed fat. A man could live on bread and cheese. Many did worse. And many went gouty and festered on meat drowning in sauce.
The parrot winged over to investigate. Sylvain offered it a piece of cheese. It nuzzled the bread and plucked at the bag of walnuts. Sylvain untied the knot and the bird flapped away with a nut clenched in each taloned foot.
The little fish stretched and yawned. She slipped from the branch, surfaced at the edge of the pool, and padded over to him.
“Stinky,” she said, nose wrinkling.
“The cheese? You’re no French girl.” He pared a sliver for her. She refused it. “Some bread?”
She shook her head.
“What do you eat, my little fish?” She had teeth, human teeth. Had he been starving her?
“Mud,” she said, patting her belly.
There was certainly enough mud to choose from. “Would you eat a fish?” She stuck out her tongue in disgust. “The parrot eats nuts. Have you tried one?”
“Yucky. What’s this, Papa?” She lifted the champagne bottle.
“Don’t shake it. Here, I’ll show you.”
He scraped off the wax seal and unshipped the plug. He held it out. She sniffed at the neck of the bottle and shrugged, then took the bottle and dribbled a little on the floor. It foamed over her bare toes.
“Ooh, funny!” she said, delighted.
“It’s like water, but a bit different.”
She raised the bottle overhead and giggled as the champagne foamed over her ears. It dribbled down her cheeks and dripped from her chin. She licked her lips and grinned.
“Don’t drink it. It might make you sick.”
She rolled her eyes. “Just water, Papa. Fuzzy water.”
“All right, give it a try.”
She took a gulp and then offered the bottle to him, companionable as a sentry sharing a canteen with a friend.
He shook his head. “No, thank you, I don’t prefer it.”
He watched attentively as she played. She drank half the bottle but it had no apparent effect. She remained nimble and precise, and if her laughter was raucous and uncontrolled, it was no more than normal. The rest of the bottle she poured on or around herself, reveling in the bubbles and foam. Sylvain wondered if the ladies of the palace had tried bathing in champagne. If they hadn’t, he wasn’t going to suggest the fashion. The foamy sweet stuff was already a waste of good grapes.
When she lost interest, she dropped the bottle and arced back into the pool, diving clean and surfacing with a playful spout and splash. A finger or two was left, and when he poured it out, it foamed on the rocks fresh as if the bottle had just been cracked.
He nodded to himself. If the little fish could force water through pipes and sleeves, could make ice and keep it from melting, could chase him around the palace and make him look a fool while never leaving the cisterns, what were a few bubbles?
Sylvain knelt and pushed the empty bottle under the surface of the pool. He had done this a thousand times—filled his canteen at village wells, at farmyard troughs, at battlefield sloughs tinged pink with men’s blood—and each time, his lungs ached as he watched the bubbles rise. He ached for one sip of mountain air, a lick of snowmelt, just a snatch of a shepherd’s song heard across the valley, or a fading echo of a wolf’s cry under a blanket of moonlight. Ached to crouch by a rushing rocky stream and sip water pristine and pure.
The little fish stood at his side. In her hand was a cup made of ice, its walls porcelain-thin and sharp as crystal. He raised it to his lips. The cold water sparkled with fine bubbles that burst on his tongue like a thousand tiny pinpricks and foamed at the back of his throat. He drank it down and smiled.
The Grand Gallery streamed with all the nobles and luminaries of Europe, men Sylvain had glimpsed across the battlefield and longed to cross swords with, highborn women whose worth was more passionately negotiated than frontier borders, famous courtesans whose talents were broadcast in military camps and gilded parlors from Moscow to Dublin, princes of the church whose thirst for bloody punishment was unquenched and universal. This pure stream was clotted with a vast number of rich and titled bores with little to do and nothing to say. The whole world was in attendance for the king’s birthday, but Sylvain had only glimpsed it. He hadn’t left the champagne fountain all evening.
“If you don’t come, I’ll brain you with my sword hilt. Mademoiselle de Nesle is Madame’s sister. If you snub one, you insult both,” Gérard said, then added in an undertone, “Plus, she has the finest tits in the room and is barely clothed.”
“In a moment.”
The fountain branched overhead. Crystal limbs reached for the gilded ceiling and dropped like a weeping willow. Each limb was capped with ice blossoms, and each blossom streamed with champagne.
Madame had offered the first taste to the king, plucking a delicate cup of ice that sprouted from the green ice basin like a mushroom from the forest floor and filling it from a gushing spout. The king had toasted Sylvain and led the gallery in a round of applause. Then the guests flocked eagerly for their turn. They drank gallons of champagne, complained about toothache, and then drank more.
Sylvain had planned for this. He knew the noble appetite, knew the number of expected guests and how much they could be expected to drink. The fountain’s basin was tall and wide, and the reservoir beneath held the contents of a thousand magnums. The reservoir was tinted dark green with baker’s dye. It was too dark to see through but Sylvain calculated it to be about half full. More than enough champagne was left to keep the fountain flowing until the last courtier had been dragged to bed.
But the guests were now more interested in the king’s other gifts—an African cat panting in a jeweled harness, a Greek statue newly cleaned of its dirt and ancient paint, a tapestry stitched by a hundred nuns over ten years, a seven-foot-tall solar clock. The guests were still drinking champagne at an admirable rate but sent attendants to fill their cups. The novelty had worn off.
Sylvain slipped off his glove and laid his hand on the edge of the basin, letting the cold leach into his bare palm. The little fish had been eager to play in the fountain’s reservoir, but she’d been inside for hours now and must be getting bored. Still, she had played no tricks. She kept the champagne flowing fresh, kept the ice from melting just as she had agreed. All because he had promised her a song.
“The fountain is fine,” Gérard insisted. “We’ve all admired it. Now come see Madame and her sister.”
Sylvain replaced his glove and followed Gérard. Guests toasted him as he passed.
“I need a fountain in my hat,” said Mademoiselle de Nesle.
The two sisters were holding court outside the Salon of War, presenting a portrait of tender affection and well-powdered beauty. But their twin stars did not orbit peacefully. Madame held the obvious advantage—official status, a liberal allowance from the royal purse, a large entourage, and innumerable privileges and rights along with her jewels and silks—but her sister had novelty on her side and emphasized her ingénue status with a simple gauze robe. Goodwill bloomed between them, or a decent counterfeit of it, but their attending ladies stood like two armies across an invisible border.
Annette stood apart from the scene, dimples worn shallow. A line of worry wrinkled her brow. Her fan drooped from her elbow. No coy signals tonight, just a bare nod and a slight tilt of her eyebrows. Sylvain followed her gaze to the ermine-draped figure of the King of France.
The two sisters had captured the king’s attention. He was ignoring Cardinal de Fleury and two Marshals of the Empire, gazing down from the royal dais to watch his mistress and her sister with obvious interest, plumed hat in his hand, gloved fist on his hip, alert as a stallion scenting a pair of mares.
Sylvain moved out of the king’s view. The ladies were on display for one audience member alone, and Sylvain was not about to get between them.
“A fountain in my hat,” Mademoiselle de Nesle repeated. “My dear sister says you are a magician.”
Sylvain bowed deeply, hiding his expression for a few moments. A ridiculous request. The woman must be simple. Did she think he could pull such a frippery out of his boot?
“The fountain will have its naissance at the peak of my chapeau, providing a misty veil before my eyes.”
“But mademoiselle would get wet,” Sylvain ventured finally.
“Yes! You have grasped my point. My dress is gauze, as you can see. It’s very thin and becomes transparent when wet.” She smoothed her hands over her breasts and leaned toward her sister. “Do you not think it will prove alluring, Louise?”
Madame caressed her sister’s hands. “No man would be able to resist you, my dear sister.”
Mademoiselle laughed. Her voice was loud enough for the opera house. “I care for no man. Only a god can have me.”
The king took a few steps closer to the edge of the dais, the very plumes on his hat magnetized by the scene.
Across the room, the Comte de Tessé approached the fountain with the careful, considered step of a man trying to hide his advanced state of drunkenness. The comte waved his crystal cup under the blossom spouts, letting the champagne overflow the glass and foam over his hand. The cup slipped from his hand and shattered on the fountain’s base. The comte sputtered with laughter.
“Do you not think it would be the finest of chapeaux, monsieur? A feat worthy of a magician, would it not be?”
The comte was joined at the fountain by a pair of young officers, polished, pressed, and gleaming in their uniforms, and just as drunk as the comte but far less willing to hide it. One leaned over the fountain and tried to sip directly from a blossom spout.
“I think it would be a very worthy feat,” Madame said. “Monsieur, my sister posed you a question.”
The officers were now trying to clamber onto the fountain’s slippery base. The comte laughed helplessly.
“No,” said Sylvain.
Madame blinked. Her ladies gasped.
The officer grasped a blossom spout. It snapped off in his hand. His friend slipped on the fountain’s edge and fell into the basin. His gold scabbard clanged on the ice. Two women—their wives, perhaps—joined the comte to laugh at the young heroes.
“Excuse me, mesdames.”
Sylvain rushed back to the fountain. One snarl brought the two young officers to attention. They scrambled off the fountain, claimed their wives from the comte, and disappeared into the crowd.
The comte’s gaze was bleary. “Well done indeed, Monsieur de Guilherand. The palace is ablaze with compliments. But remember it is I who gave you this kingly idea in the first place. As a gentleman, you will ensure I receive due credit.”
“You can take half the credit when you bear half the expense,” Sylvain hissed. “I’ll send you the vintner’s bill. You’ll find the total appropriately kingly.”
The comte turned back to the fountain and refilled his cup, pretending to not hear. Sylvain plucked the cup from the comte’s hand and poured the contents into the basin.
“You’ve embarrassed yourself. Go and sober up.”
The comte pretended to spot a friend across the room and tottered away.
Sylvain examined the broken blossom. Its finely carved petals dripped in the overheated air. The broken branch gushed champagne like a wound. Had the little fish felt the assault on the fountain? Had it frightened her? He tried to see through the dark green ice, watching for movement within the reservoir.
“Perhaps we ask too much,” said Annette, “expecting soldiers to transform themselves into gentlemen and courtiers for the winter. Many men seem to manage it for more than a few hours at a time. One wonders why you can’t, Sylvain de Guilherand.”
She posed at the edge of the fountain, fan fluttering in annoyance.
“Perhaps because I am a beast?”
The reservoir ice was thick and dark. In bright sunlight, he might be able to see through it, but even with thousands of candles overhead and the hundreds of mirrors lining the gallery, the light was too dim. He should have left a peephole at the back of the fountain.
“I speak as a friend,” said Annette. “Madame is insulted. You have taken a serious misstep.”
“Madame has made her own misstep this evening and will forget about mine before morning.”
Annette’s fan drooped. “True. She has made a play to keep the king’s interest, but I fear she’ll lose his favor. Maîtresse en titre is an empty honor if your lover prefers another woman’s bed.”
“She’ll be naming something vile after her sister next,” said Sylvain.
Annette coughed. “You heard about Polish Mary, then?” Sylvain nodded. “It’s her way of insulting those she despises. It makes the king laugh.”
A shadow moved in the fountain’s base, a flicker of a limb against the green ice just for a moment. He should have given the little fish a way to signal him if she was in distress.
“I begin to perceive that my conversation is not engaging enough for you, monsieur.”
“I beg your pardon, madame.” Sylvain turned his back on the fountain. The little fish was fine. Nixies spent entire seasons under the ice of glacier lakes. It was her element. The fact that the champagne continued to flow was perfect evidence that she was not in distress. He was worrying for nothing. Offending Annette further would be a mistake.
He swept a deep bow. “More than your pardon, my dear madame. I beg your indulgence.”
“Indulgence, yes.” She looked over her shoulder at Madame and her sister. “We have all indulged ourselves too much this evening and will pay for it.”
He forced a knowing smile. “Perhaps the best practice is to let others indulge us. Although a wise and lovely woman once mentioned that most ladies prefer a long period of suspense first. It whets the appetite.”
The empty banter seemed to cheer her. Her dimples surfaced and she snapped her fan with renewed purpose.
“Would you join me in taking a survey of the room?” He offered his arm. “I don’t beg your company for myself alone but in a spirit of general charity. If all this indulgence will lead to a morning filled with regrets, at least we can offer the king’s guests a memory of true beauty. With you on the arm of a beast such as myself, the contrast will be striking.”
She glanced at Madame. “I was sent to scold you, not favor you with my company.”
“You can always say I forced you.”
She laughed and took his arm. He led her through a clot of courtiers toward the royal dais. The king had returned his attention to his most favored guests but displayed a shapely length of royal leg for the two sisters to admire.
“Much better, my dear Sylvain,” said Gérard as they approached. “I hate to see you brooding over that fountain. My wife strokes her great belly with the same anxious anticipation. You looked like a hen on an egg.”
Sylvain dropped his hand onto the pommel of his sword and glared. Gérard barked with laughter.
“Your friend the Marquis de la Châsse can’t manage civil conversation, either,” said Annette as they moved on.
“Gérard doesn’t need to make the effort. He was born into enough distinction that every trespass is forgiven.”
“You sound jealous, but it’s not quite accurate. His wealth and title do help, but he is accepted because everyone can see he is true to his nature.”
“And I am not?”
“A bald question. I will answer it two ways. First, observe that at this moment, you and I are walking arm in arm among every person in the world who matters. If that is not acceptance, I wonder how you define the word.”
“I am honored, madame.”
“Yes, you most certainly are, monsieur.”
“And your second answer?”
“You are not true to your nature, and it makes people uncomfortable. Everyone knows what to expect from a man like the Marquis de la Châsse, but one suspects that Sylvain de Guilherand would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. Heaven knows what.”
Sylvain closed his glove over hers. “Not at all. I am exactly where I want to be.”
“So you say, but I do not believe it. Our well-beloved king toasted you this evening. Many men would consider that enough achievement for a lifetime, but still you are dissatisfied.”
“We discussed my character before. Remember how that ended?”
A delicate blush flushed through her powder. “I am answering your question as honestly as I can.”
“Honesty is not a vice much indulged at Versailles.”
She laughed. “I know the next line. Let me supply it: ‘It’s the only vice that isn’t.’ Oh, Sylvain. I can have that kind of conversation with any man. I’d rather go home to my husband and talk about hot gruel and poultices. Don’t make me desperate.”
Sylvain stroked her hand. “Very well. You enjoy my company despite my faults?”
She nibbled her bottom lip as she considered the question. “Because of your faults, I think,” she said. “The fountain is successful, the king is impressed with you, and you have my favor. Take my advice and be satisfied.”
Sylvain raised her palm to his lips. “I will.”
They walked on, silent but in perfect concord. As they circled the gallery, the atmosphere seemed less stifling, the crowd less insipid, the king’s air of rut less ridiculous. Even Madame’s poses seemed less futile and her sister’s pouts less desperate. Sylvain was in charity with the world, willing to forgive its many flaws.
The guests parted, opening a view of the fountain. A girl in petal-yellow silk reached her cup to one of the blossoms. The curve of her bare arm echoed the graceful arc of the fountain’s limbs. She raised the cup to her lips and the crowd closed off his view of the scene just as she took her first sip.
“Nature perfected, monsieur,” said a portly Prussian. “You must be congratulated.”
Sylvain bowed and drew Annette away just as the Prussian’s gaze settled on her cleavage. The king rose to dismount the dais and the whole crowd watched. Sylvain took advantage of the distraction to claim a kiss from Annette, just a brief caress of her ripe lower lip before they joined the guests in a ripple of deep curtseys and bows. The king progressed down the gallery toward Madame and her sister, his pace forceful and intent as a stalking hunter.
Annette slid her hand up Sylvain’s arm and rested her palm on his shoulder. A pulse fluttered on her throat. He resisted the urge to explore it with his lips.
“I suppose it is too early to leave,” he whispered, drinking in the honeyed scent of her powder.
“Your departure would be noticed,” she breathed. “It is the price of fame, monsieur.”
“Another turn of the room, then?”
She nodded. They moved down the gallery in the king’s wake. The African cat gnawed on its harness, blunted ivory fangs rasping over the jewels. Its attendant yanked ineffectually on the leash.
“Poor thing,” said Annette. “They should take it outside. This is no place for a wild animal.”
Sylvain nodded. “I have not thought to ask before now, but how is the monkey? Happier, I hope, than that cat?”
“Very well and happy indeed. My maid Marie coddles her like a new mother. They are madonna and child, the two of them a world unto themselves.” She glanced up at him, a wicked slant to her gaze, daring him to laugh. He grinned.
“And what name did Madame give the creature?”
The color drained from her cheeks. “Is that the viceroy of Parma? I would not have thought to see him here.”
“I couldn’t say. He looks like every other man in a wig and silk. Are you avoiding my question?”
“Show me your fountain. I haven’t had the chance to admire it up close.”
The crowd parted to reveal three young men in peacock silks filling their cups at the fountain. One still kept his long baby curls, probably in deference to a sentimental mother.
“There!” Annette said. “Not quite as delicate a tableau as the girl in yellow, but I think I like it better. You must make allowances for differences in taste, and I have always preferred male beauty.”
“I am sure you do. What did Madame name the monkey, Annette?”
“She is called Jesusa. It is a terrible sacrilege and my accent makes it bad Spanish too, but what can I do when I am presented with madonna and child morning, noon, and night? God will forgive me.”
“Madame didn’t name the monkey Jesusa.”
“Don’t be so sure. Madame is even worse a Christian than I am.”
“Very well. I’ll ask her myself.”
Sylvain strode toward the Salon of War. The crowd was thick. The king was with Madame now. The tall feathers of the royal hat bobbed over the heads of the guests.
Annette pulled his arm. “Stop. Not in front of the king. Don’t be stubborn.”
He turned on her. “Answer my question.”
The jostling crowd pressed them together. She gripped his arms, breath shallow.
“Promise you won’t take offence.”
“Just answer the question, Annette.”
She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. “She named the monkey Sylvain.”
He wrenched himself out of her grip and lurched back, nearly bowling over an elderly guest.
“It is a joke,” said Annette, pursuing him.
“Does it seem funny to you?”
“Take it in the spirit it was intended, just a silly attempt at fun. It isn’t meant as an attack on your pride.”
“Madame thinks I am a prize target. Did you laugh, Annette?” His voice rose. Heads turned. Guests jostled their neighbors, alerting them to the scene. “Who else would like to take a shot at me?”
“Sylvain, no, please.” Annette spoke softly and reached out to him. He stepped aside.
Sylvain paced in a circle, glaring at the guests, daring each one of them to make a remark.
“I have done more than any other man to make a place for myself at court. I’ve attended levees, and flattered, and fucked. But worse—I’ve worked hard. As hard as I can. You find that disgusting, don’t you?”
“No. I don’t.” She watched him pace.
“I’ve worked miracles. Everyone says so. The magician of the fountains, the man who puts thrones throughout the palace. Everyone wants one. Or so it seems, until everyone has one. Then it’s nothing special. Not good enough anymore. Take it away. Come up with something else while we insult you behind your back.”
“Madame is difficult to please.” Annette’s voice was soft and sad.
“Nothing I do will ever be good enough, will it? Even for you, Annette. You tell me I try too hard, I’m a striver, and I’m not true to my nature.” He spread his arms wide. “Well, this is my nature. How do you like me now?”
She opened her mouth and then closed it without speaking. He stepped close and spoke in her ear.
“Not well, I think,” he said, and walked away.
The crowd parted to let him pass, opening a view to the fountain. Two of the young men were leaning over the basin. The boy with the curls crouched at the side of the reservoir. Sylvain broke into a run.
The boy was banging on the ice with his diamond ring. The reservoir rang like a drum with each impact.
Sylvain grabbed the boy by the scruff of his neck.
“There’s something in there, monsieur,” he squealed. “A creature, a monster. I saw it.”
Sylvain threw the boy to the floor and drew his sword. The boy scrabbled backward, sliding across the marble. The two friends rushed to the boy’s side and yanked him to his feet. They backed away, all three clinging to each other. Behind them a crowd gathered—some shocked, some confused, most highly entertained. They pointed at him as if he were a beast in a menagerie.
Several men made a show of dropping their hands to the hilts of their dress swords, but not one of them drew.
The fountain sputtered. A blossom crashed into the basin, splashing gouts of champagne.
Gérard shoved through the crowd, wig askew, slipping on the wet floor. He skidded into place at Sylvain’s side.
The fountain sprayed champagne across their backs and high to the ceiling, snuffing out a hundred candles overhead.
“Go to your wife. Get her out of the palace,” said Sylvain.
Gérard ran full-speed for the door.
Sylvain raised his sword and brought it crashing down on the fountain. Ice limbs shattered. Champagne and ice vaulted overhead and fell, spraying debris across the marble floor. He shifted his grip and smashed the pommel of his sword on the side of the reservoir. It cracked and split. He hit it again and again until the floor flooded with golden liquid. Sylvain threw down his sword and shouldered the ice aside.
The little fish was curled into a quivering ball. Sylvain slipped and fell to his hands and knees. He crawled toward her, reached out.
“It’s all right, my little one. Come here, my darling.”
She lifted her arms. He gathered her to his chest. She burrowed her face into his neck, quaking.
“Noisy,” she sobbed. “Too loud. Hurts. Papa.”
Sylvain held her on his lap, champagne seeping through his clothes. He cupped his palms over her ears and squeezed her to his heart, rocking back and forth until her shivering began to subside. Then he pulled himself to his feet, awkward and unbalanced with the child in his arms.
He stepped out of the shattered ice into a line of drawn swords. Polished steel glinted, throwing points of light across the faces of the household guard. Sylvain shielded the child with his body as he scanned the crowd.
The jostling guests were forced against the walls by the line of guards. The plumes of the king’s hat disappeared into the Salon of Peace, followed by the broad backs of his bodyguards. Madame, her sister, and their ladies clustered on the royal dais, guarded by the Marshal de Noailles.
De Noailles had personally executed turncoat soldiers with the very same sword that now shone in his hand.
“Let the water go, my little one,” Sylvain whispered.
She blinked up at him. “Be a bad girl, Papa?” Her brow furrowed in confusion.
“The water pipes, the reservoirs. Let it all go.”
“Go ahead, little fish.”
She relaxed in his arms, as if she had been holding her breath a long time and could finally breathe.
A faint rumble sounded overhead, distant. It grew louder. The walls trembled. Sylvain spread his palm over the nixie’s wet scalp as if he could armor her fragile skull. A mirror slipped to the floor and shattered. The guards looked around, trying to pinpoint the threat. Their swords wavered and dipped.
The ceiling over the statue of Hermes bowed and cracked. Plaster rained down on the guests. The statue teetered and toppled. The guests pushed through the guards, scattering their line.
The ceiling sprang a thousand leaks. The huge chandeliers swung back and forth. Water streamed down the garden windows, turning the glass silver and gold, and then dark as the candles sputtered and smoked.
The guests broke through the wide garden doors and stormed through the water streaming off the roof and out onto the wide terraces. Sylvain retrieved his sword and followed, ducking low and holding the little fish tight as he fled into the fresh February night.
He ran across the gardens, past the pools and reservoirs, though the orangery and yew grove. He climbed the Bois des Gonards and turned back to the palace, breathless, scanning the paths for pursuing guards.
Aside from the crowd milling on the terraces, there was no movement in the gardens. The fountains jetted high, fifteen hundred spouts across the vast expanse of lawns and paths, flower beds and hedges, each spout playing, every jet dancing for its own amusement.
“You can turn the fountains off now, little one.”
“Papa?” The little fish was growing heavy. He shifted her weight onto his hip, well balanced for a long walk.
“Don’t worry, my little girl. No more fountains. We’re going home.”
One by one the fountains flailed and drooped. The little fish leaned her head on his shoulder and yawned.
The palace was dark except for an array of glowing windows in the north wing and along the row of attic garrets. At this distance, it looked dry and calm.
And indeed, he thought, nothing was damaged that couldn’t be repaired. The servants would spend a few busy weeks mopping, the carpenters and plasterers, gilders and painters would have a few seasons of work. Eventually, someone would find a way to repair a fountain or two. The toilets and pipes would stand dry, but the nobles and courtiers would notice little difference. What was broken there could never be fixed.
Dawn found them on a canal. Sylvain sat on the prow of a narrow boat, eating bread and cheese and watching his little fish jump and splash in the gentle bow wave as they drifted upstream on the long journey home.
“Waters of Versailles” copyright © 2015 by Kelly Robson
Art copyright © 2015 by Kathleen Jennings