Authors: Kelly Robson
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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 dampâperhaps 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 seductionâa seduction that required a graceful exit, not a mad dash out the door to search the palace for floods.
Annette was pleasedâmore 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 puddlesânot 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 wingâless noble, but no less rich and proudâwere 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 stairwellâno pipes above thereâand 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
maÃ®tresse en titre
, and Madame had more than a fair share of the king's time and attentionâfar 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.”