PodCastle 544: Waters of Versailles — Part 3

Show Notes

You can buy Kelly Robson’s book, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, now. It’s also available in audio.

Below are a few links from Kelly’s recommendations and comments during the interview:

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.

A Study in Oils” by Kelly Robson, published by Clarkesworld.

The Uncommon Reader, a novella by Allan Bennett.

Mysteries by Sarah Caudwell.

The Tremontaine serial, seasons 1 to 4 by Ellen Kushner.

Kelly Robson’s Tremontaine tie-in story “The Eye of the Swan.”


Waters of Versailles

by Kelly Robson

[Note: This is Part 3 of a three-part novella. Visit our previous posts to read Part 1 and Part 2.]

10.

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.”

11.

“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.

12.

“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.

“Thirsty, Papa?”

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.

13.

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.

“Papa?”

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.”

“Papa?”

“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.

About the Author

Kelly Robson

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Kelly is an award-winning short fiction writer. In 2018, her story “A Human Stain” won the Nebula Award for Best Novelette, and in 2016, her novella “Waters of Versailles” won the Prix Aurora Award. She has also been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, John W. Campbell, and Sunburst awards. In 2018, her time travel adventure Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach debuted to high critical praise. After 22 years in Vancouver, she and her wife, fellow Spec Fic writer A. M. Dellamonica, now live in downtown Toronto.

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About the Narrator

Heath Miller

Heath Miller Narrator

Heath is an actor from far away, who currently finds himself living on an island off the coast of Maine with two cats (one human, one feline), an improbably fluffy dog and six chickens. You can find his narration at audible.com, the Uncanny Magazine podcast, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and elsewhere. For photos of the aforementioned animals & other day-to-day minutiae follow him on Twitter at @veryheathmiller.

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