Rated R for adult themes.
Waters of Versailles
by Kelly Robson
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.
This concludes Part 2 of “Waters of Versailles.” Part 3 is up now!
About the Author
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.
About the 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.