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The enchanted clock in the salon chimed three o’clock in a bright outburst of colored paper and glitter, signaling the end of the party.
Yet the revelry had been winding down for some time already, and general indifference met the disbanding of the string orchestra. As the musicians stretched and exchanged tired nods, the scraping of their chairs on the parquet floor echoed in the unnaturally quiet gilded rooms of the château’s ground floor. Like a flower closing up for the night, Versailles gently drifted into sleep.
The train of my shimmering gown clutched in one hand, and one of my silk shoes in the other, I stepped gingerly across the cluttered floor. The king had decreed the party’s theme should be “Nature, Nymphs, and Fauns,” and the magicien in charge of the court entertainment, the Comte de Saint-Aignan, had made it so. Hours ago, a select group of Louis’s relatives and friends had gathered in the newly renovated small castle, wearing all manner of magically enhanced costumes. Ignoring the April chill, they’d strolled in the manicured gardens, danced to Lully’s latest compositions in the salons, eaten pastries off silver plates by the open windows, and drunk gold-dusted wines under sparkling chandeliers. For a while, music and chatter and laughter had filled the king’s château, like a rehearsal of the grander entertainment he hoped to provide here soon for his entire court.
Now, however, the revelers scattered, some wandering off outside, others retiring to their chambers. A few still dotted the salons as I made my way to my own apartments: snoring figures collapsed on settees like puppets with their strings cut, giggling people shuffling along with their arms linked in an attempt at balance, flirting lovers still whispering in corners under the illusion of privacy.
And as the party slowly dissolved into the night, so did the magic conjured by the count. All around me the temporary scenery meant to turn the salons into hubs of lush greenery faded before my eyes. The ivy on the walls shrunk and crumbled, the flower garlands withered and fell to the floor, the feathers and glitter in the air vanished, and the candlelight dulled, casting long shadows onto the gilded ceilings. Fauns and nymphs turned human again, their glittering costumes now garish, the stains or rips sustained in the course of the evening like many faults in a formerly perfect painting. The cool night air coming in through the open windows billowed the sheer curtains like sails and dissipated the sweet smell of magic in the rooms.
My stockinged feet snagged on a thorny branch, and I released a sharp breath, my musing interrupted. With a wince, I stepped away from the already crumpling rosebush.
“Madame! Are you all right?”
A well-meaning gentleman appeared at my side with a respectful bow, his hands extended should I need rescuing. Dark-haired and dressed in a bottle-green outfit with lace fashioned in the shape of leaves, he sported a thin mustache and a familiar face, and I blamed the late hour and the excitement of the night for the moment it took me to recognize him.
“Charles Perrault, Your Highness.” He bowed again. “In charge of literary and artistic matters at court for the benefit of His Majesty. Monsieur Colbert introduced us…?”
He shot me a hopeful glance, and I hid my mortification at having failed to recognize him behind a grin.
“Of course, Monsieur Perrault, do forgive me. I’m afraid I’m very tired.”
As if on cue, the draught from the open windows reached my fragile lungs, and I had to turn to cough into my handkerchief. Monsieur Perrault tactfully looked away. My illness was well-known around court, and he was gracious enough to not gawk until the fit passed. At last my breathing eased, and I put away my handkerchief with a reassuring smile. Concern was still etched on his features, however.
“May I be of any assistance, Your Highness?”
His gaze traveled to the shoe in my hand, down to my stockinged feet. Another wave of embarrassment shot through me, which I brushed away with a self-deprecating roll of my eyes.
“You’re very kind. And I’m afraid you’ve caught me in quite a discomfiting position. As you can see, I have lost a shoe and my retinue, and even making my way to my apartments appears an endeavor fraught with danger.”
I gave a pointed look at the disappearing rosebush and let out a theatrical sigh. Although I was playing my part and dismissing the whole situation with a laugh, I couldn’t help but wish no one had noticed it. But this was the Sun King’s court, where every step one took was scrutinized and gossiped about. However, as far as nosy courtiers were concerned, I could have had worse luck than running into Monsieur Perrault. Eager to please yet more discreet than many, he took the hint and held out his arm.
“May I offer you my company on your way to your chambers?”
I thanked him and linked arms with him, hopping over the remains of the rosebush to show him I wasn’t at death’s door nor above making fun of myself. It did the trick, and his eyes twinkled with amusement.
“Have you been working on any more of your fairy tales?” I asked to avoid an awkward silence as we ambled through the salons. I had enjoyed the story in verse, “Donkeyskin,” that he’d published the previous year, about a princess with magical dresses who refused the marriage arranged for her. Hopefully the writer had more tales of this sort to entertain the court next winter.
“I have, Your Highness, thank you for your interest.” A slight blush crept over his cheeks under my encouraging smile. “I’ve been writing a new tale, about a merchant’s daughter whose wicked stepmother and stepsisters make her life miserable, until she marries a prince.”
I widened my eyes, my curiosity piqued. “How does she manage that?”
“Thanks to a spell she goes to a ball in disguise, and the prince falls in love with her.”
“Magic, a prince, and a romance?” I said. “People are going to love that!”
Despite my encouraging words, my enthusiasm was already waning. Unlike his previous tale, this new story sounded less daring in its content. A girl whose life was made perfect by magic and a marriage to a prince—this was pure fantasy.
In real life, the girl’s magic was the cause of half her problems, and her husband the source of the other half. I shook my head to chase away my sudden bitterness, likely brought on by my weariness after a long night. Being a Source—the vessel for magic that a magicien could wield to perform a spell—had allowed me to serve my king, to defeat a dark magicien, and to save the life of the people closest to me. And being married to the king’s brother had given me safety and love. None of it was perfect—magic had also brought danger into my life, and my relationship with Philippe was complicated by many standards—but it was real.
Oblivious to my train of thought, Monsieur Perrault blushed deeper at my compliment and shook his head.
“I do hope so, but I must admit it is still very much a work in progress. For instance, I can’t fathom how the prince will recognize the girl once she’s robbed of her magical disguise. I’m thinking of having her pass a test, but what, I don’t know.”
“I’m certain you will find the answer very soon,” I replied in a confident tone. “You are a very talented man, and I, for one, am pleased you’re among us at court.” This last compliment undid him, and he muttered something incomprehensible as we reached the doors to my apartments. I dismissed him with a gentle wave. “Thank you very much for this lovely walk, Monsieur Perrault. I wish you a good night.”
He bowed, thanking me in return, as a guard opened the gilded door for me.
“Oh,” I added as an afterthought, one stockinged foot over the threshold. “And if you come across a lone silk shoe somewhere in the château, you will know it’s mine.”
He smiled with a nod, and the door closed behind me before I could hear his reply.
With a relieved sigh, I pulled out the pins holding up my long hair while I crossed the candlelit antechamber. My train trailed after me, its gems thudding against the parquet floor with each step. On any other night, at least three of my ladies would have been fussing over me at this moment, eager to help me with my gown, my hair, and the shoe in my hand. Since Athénaïs had left court to marry and Louise had started devoting all her time to her secret affair with the king, the Queen Mother had appointed new ladies-in-waiting to join my household. But they were all young and far more interested in finding their one true love or a wealthy husband than in waiting on me, especially on a night like this. As the party had unfolded tonight, they’d drifted off one by one, no doubt assuming the others would remain by my side and cover for their absence. And so by the time Monsieur Perrault had come upon me in the salons, I had been left to my own devices for long enough to have the time to be bored and annoyed with the world—and to lose a shoe in the gardens’ parterres.
It was in those moments that I missed Moreau, the magicien in charge of the king’s security whom the dark sorcerer Fouquet had murdered last summer at Vaux. Whenever I had found myself alone or feeling vulnerable at court after my arrival a year ago, he’d materialized at my side, always with a kind word and a helping hand. No one now filled his role, and tonight I felt his absence even more keenly than usual.
Excited barking inside my bedchamber distracted me from my thoughts and teased a smile out of me as I crossed my private salon. I pushed open the decorated wooden panel and dropped my lone surviving shoe to the floor, but the clunking noise it made as it hit the carpet was covered by my dog Mimi’s welcome. I greeted her by scratching her belly and cooing at her, and called for a maid without looking up from her adoring eyes.
“I swear you love this dog more than me.”
I gave such a start Mimi let out an alarmed yelp and tore out of my embrace. My heartbeat thumping against my corset, I stood up and took in my surroundings for the first time since entering my bedchamber. The heavy velvet curtains were drawn over the windows, lending a cozy darkness to the room lit by soft candlelight. My nightgown lay on a silk-upholstered armchair, and a chocolatière sat with porcelain cups and silver spoons on an ornate tray on my desk. And on my canopy bed, spread out in a lazy pose with his dark hair pooling on the embroidered bedcover, rested my husband in nothing but his nightshirt.
“Philippe,” I managed once my heart had somewhat settled.
“Henriette.” He mimicked my tone with his eyebrows raised in irony.
“I … didn’t realize you were here.”
He propped himself up on one elbow. “So I gathered from the shock on your face and that small frightened noise you just made.”
I coughed, the last of my body’s reaction to the fright he’d just given me. A frown pulled his eyebrows together as I covered my mouth with my handkerchief, and he pushed himself off the bed.
While Mimi orbited around us in anxious circles, he steered me toward an empty armchair and poured some hot chocolate into a cup. The warm liquid soothed my throat a little, and I recovered enough to put my handkerchief aside.
“I really didn’t mean to frighten you, my love,” Philippe said, sheepish. He knelt in front of me, both his hands on my knees in the absentminded way he had of touching me. “I just didn’t think my grand gesture would be upstaged by your tiny dog.”
I suppressed a laugh to avoid sparking another coughing fit, then set aside the cup to give Mimi a reassuring pat on the head. She settled on the carpet, her tail wagging. Still acutely aware of the warmth of Philippe’s hands seeping through the fabric of my dress, I met his gaze. Since he wasn’t a magicien, his eyes weren’t tinged with gold but were a reassuring shade of brown. Unlike his brother or any other magicien, he would only ever see me as his wife, never a Source. Knowing this meant I had trusted him even before I had learned to understand him.
“I’m all right, really,” I replied at last. “I just wasn’t expecting you here. I haven’t seen you all night. Someone said you and Armand had absconded with ten bottles of wine and hidden in the gardens with all your friends.”
He grimaced in false disbelief. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I resent anyone who’s been spreading such slander. Rest assured I attended my brother’s tasteful party with all the expected decorum, and it is mere chance that we didn’t cross paths.”
This time I did laugh. Philippe’s relationship with Louis was complex at best—he having been raised by their mother Anne d’Autriche in the shadow of his older brother so that he would never be tempted to challenge his right to the throne—but since the birth of Louis’s son last November, the pressure of being his brother’s sole heir had lifted off Philippe’s shoulders, easing his interactions with Louis.
“See,” Philippe said in a soft voice. “I made you smile.”
Pushing thoughts of the royal family aside and echoing his earlier act, I tilted my head and pretended at naivete. “And what did you mean to do, if not frighten me?”
“Well.” His expression turned mischievous. “I heard there was this beautiful princess who attended some very dull party in this castle in the middle of nowhere, and I thought, as a handsome prince with singularly good taste in clothes and unparalleled charms, I would seek her out and steal her away.”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head at his antics, rising from my seat to hide my warming cheeks. This was how Philippe went through life: by jesting and pretending nothing was ever serious. It had taken months after our wedding for him to show me the real Philippe—a far braver, cleverer, and more able man than anyone took him for. A man I had fallen in love with.
“I fear you’ve been misled,” I replied, choosing to play along so the mischief in his eyes would linger. “The princess you’re thinking of is already married, and she doesn’t need rescuing.”
He gasped and stood back up. “No! What’s her husband like?”
“Tall. Strong. You don’t want to be here when he arrives.”
He gathered me into his arms and began unlacing my corset. “I think I’ll take my chances. The princess is very pretty.”
I silenced him with a kiss, our lips meeting in gentle collision as his fingers deftly finished freeing me from my gown. It pooled around my feet, and Philippe lifted me up to take me to the bed without breaking our kiss. When my back landed on the bedcover, I slid my hands along his neck down to his chest, opening his nightshirt. The familiar scent of his perfume mixed with the smell of hot chocolate in the closed air of the bedroom. I removed the fabric from his shoulder, but he pulled back to catch my gaze.
“It’s very late. We don’t have to if you don’t want—”
I traced the side of his face with my fingertips, my earlier weariness and my coughing fit forgotten, all thoughts attuned to his presence in my arms.
“I want to.”
A grin lit up his face. He leaned forward to resume our kiss, and the rest of the world vanished.
Afterward, we lay in the tangled bedsheets in the soft glow of the candles. One arm around my waist, Philippe played with a strand of my blond hair, the thudding of his heart back to an even rhythm under my hand on his chest.
“We ought to get some sleep,” he said with a yawn. “Louis wants to return to the Louvre in the afternoon.”
And so it went. The Sun King threw a party in his private castle, and we followed. He returned to Paris, and so did we. For as much as Louis wished for Versailles to be a château important enough to hold his entire court and to be the center of his power, it still was only large enough to welcome a small number of people, and it was too far from the French capital to lead the country from. His court, his ministers, his archives, his palace … everything was in Paris—much to his mounting frustration.
Copyright © 2021 by EM Castellan