Authors: Kelly Robson
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-Belovedâsomething 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 repeatedâit 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!”
, 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 mimicâher 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 TessÃ© 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. Butâ” 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 fruitâall 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.
GÃ©rard 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. GÃ©rard 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. GÃ©rard 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.” GÃ©rard nudged the coffin with the toe of his boot.
“Very generous of you, GÃ©rard. Thank you.”
GÃ©rard 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. GÃ©rard 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.
GÃ©rard 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 instinctâthe 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 GÃ©rard. “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 busyâtoo 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.”
GÃ©rard 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.