By Kelly Robson
“Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson is a charming novella of court intrigue in 1738 Versailles as a clever former soldier makes his fortune by introducing a modern water system (and toilets) to the ladies of the palace. He does this with magical help that he may not be able to control.
Sylvain had just pulled up Annette’s skirts when the drips started. The first one landed on her wig, displacing a puff of rose-pink powder. Sylvain ignored it and leaned Annette back on the sofa. Her breath sharpened to gasps that blew more powder from her wig. Her thighs were cool and slightly damp—perhaps her arousal wasn’t feigned after all, Sylvain thought, and reapplied himself to nuzzling her throat.
After two winters at Versailles, Sylvain was well acquainted with the general passion for powder. Every courtier had bowls and bins of the stuff in every color and scent. In addition to the pink hair powder, Annette had golden powder on her face and lavender at her throat and cleavage. There would be more varieties lower down. He would investigate that in time.
The second drip landed on the tip of her nose. Sylvain flicked it away with his tongue.
Annette giggled. “Your pipes are weeping, monsieur.”
“It’s nothing,” he said, nipping at her throat. The drips were just condensation. An annoyance, but unavoidable when cold pipes hung above overheated rooms.
The sofa squeaked as he leaned in with his full weight. It was a delicate fantasy of gilt and satin, hardly large enough for the two of them, and he was prepared to give it a beating.
Annette moaned as he bore down on her. She was far more entertaining than he had expected, supple and slick. Her gasps were genuine now, there was no doubt, and she yanked at his shirt with surprising strength.
A drip splashed on the back of his neck, and another a few moments later. He had Annette abandoned now, making little animal noises in the back of her throat as he drove into her. Another drip rolled off his wig, down his cheek, over his nose. He glanced overhead and a battery of drips hit his cheek, each bigger than the last.
This was a problem. The pipes above were part of the new run supporting connections to the suites of two influential men and at least a dozen rich ones. His workmen had installed the pipes just after Christmas. Even if they had done a poor job, leaks weren’t possible. He had made sure of it.
He gathered Annette in his arms and shoved her farther down the sofa, leaving the drips to land on the upholstery instead of his head. He craned his neck, trying to get a view of the ceiling. Annette groaned in protest and clutched his hips.
The drips fell from a join, quick as tears. Something was wrong in the cisterns. He would have to speak with Leblanc immediately.
“Sylvain?” Annette’s voice was strained.
It could wait. He had a reputation to maintain, and performing well here was as critical to his fortunes as all the water flowing through Versailles.
He dove back into her, moving up to a galloping pace as drips pattered on his neck. He had been waiting months for this. He ought to have been losing himself in Annette’s flounced and beribboned flesh, the rouged nipples peeking from her bodice, her flushed pout and helplessly bucking hips, but instead his mind wandered the palace. Were there floods under every join?
Instead of dampening his performance, the growing distraction lengthened it. When he was finally done with her, Annette was completely disheveled, powder blotched, rouge smeared, wig askew, face flushed as a dairy maid’s.
Annette squeezed a lock of his wig and caressed his cheek with a water-slick palm.
“You are undone, I think, monsieur.”
He stood and quickly ordered his clothes. The wig was wet, yes, even soaked. So was his collar and back of his coat. A quick glance in a gilded mirror confirmed he looked greasy as a peasant, as if he’d been toiling at harvest instead of concluding a long-planned and skillful seduction—a seduction that required a graceful exit, not a mad dash out the door to search the palace for floods.
Annette was pleased—more than pleased despite the mess he’d made of her. She looked like a cat cleaning cream off its whiskers as she dabbed her neck with a powder puff, ignoring the drips pattering beside her. The soaked sofa leached dye onto the cream carpet. Annette dragged the toe of her silk slipper through the stained puddle.
“If this is not the only drip, monsieur, you may have a problem or two.”
“It is possible,” Sylvain agreed, dredging up a smile. He leaned in and kissed the tips of her fingers one at a time until she waved him away.
He would have to clean up before searching for Leblanc, and he would look like a fool all the way up to his apartment.
At least the gossips listening at the door would have an enduring tale to tell.
Sylvain ducked out of the marble halls into the maze of service corridors and stairs. Pipes branched overhead like a leaden forest. Drips targeted him as he passed but there were no standing puddles—not yet.
The little fish could turn the palace into a fishbowl if she wanted, Sylvain thought, and a shudder ran through his gut. The rooftop reservoirs held thousands of gallons, and Bull and Bear added new reservoirs just as fast as the village blacksmiths could make them. All through the royal wing, anyone with a drop of blood in common with the king was claiming priority over his neighbor, and the hundred or so courtiers in the north wing—less noble, but no less rich and proud—were grinding their teeth with jealousy.
Sylvain whipped off his soaked wig and let the drips rain down on his head one by one, steady as a ticking clock as he strode down the narrow corridor. He ducked into a stairwell—no pipes above there—and scrubbed his fingers through his wet hair as he peeked around the corner. The drips had stopped. Only a few spatters marked the walls and floorboards.
The little fish was playing with him. It must be her idea of a joke. Well, Leblanc could take care of it. The old soldier loved playing nursemaid to the creature. Age and wine had leached all the man out of him and left a sad husk of a wet nurse, good for nothing but nursery games.
A maid squeezed past him on the stairs and squealed as her apron came away wet. She was closely followed by a tall valet. Sylvain moved aside for him.
“You’re delivering water personally now, Monsieur de Guilherand?”
Sylvain gave the valet a black glare and ran up the stairs two at a time.
The servants of Versailles were used to seeing him lurking in the service corridors, making chalk marks on walls and ceilings. He was usually too engrossed in his plans to notice their comments but now he’d have to put an end to it. Annette d’Arlain was in the entourage of Comtesse de Mailly, King Louis’s maîtresse en titre, and Madame had more than a fair share of the king’s time and attention—far more than his poor ignored Polish queen.
The next servant to take liberty with him would get a stiff rebuke and remember he was an officer and a soldier who spent half the year prosecuting the king’s claims on the battlefield.
By the time Sylvain had swabbed himself dry and changed clothes, Bull and Bear were waiting for him. Their huge bulks strained his tiny parlor at the seams.
“What is the little creature playing at?” Sylvain demanded.
Bull twisted his cap in his huge hands, confused. Bear raised his finger to his nose and reached in with an exploratory wiggle.
“Down in the cisterns,” Sylvain spoke precisely. “The creature. The little fish. What is she doing?”
“We was on the roof when you called, monsieur,” said Bull, murdering the French with his raspy country vowels.
“We been bending lead all day,” said Bear. “Long lead.”
“The little fish was singing at dawn. I heard her through the pipes,” Bull added, eager to please.
It was no use demanding analysis from two men who were barely more human than the animals they were named for. Bull and Bear were good soldiers, steady, strong, and vicious, but cannonfire had blasted their wits out.
“Where is Leblanc?”
Bull shrugged his massive shoulders. “We don’t see him, monsieur. Not for days.”
“Go down to the cellars. Find Leblanc and bring him to me.”
The old soldier was probably curled around a cask in a carelessly unlocked cellar, celebrating his good luck by drinking himself into dust. But even dead drunk, Leblanc knew how to talk to the creature. Whatever the problem was, Leblanc would jolly the silly fish out of her mood.
“Our well-beloved king is an extraordinary man,” said Sylvain. “But even a man of his parts can only use one throne at a time.”
The Grand Chamberlain fluffed his stole like a bantam cock and lowered his hairy eyebrows. “The issue is not how the second throne will be used but how quickly you will comply with the request. We require it today. Disappoint us at your peril.”
Sylvain suppressed a smile. If royalty could be measured by number of thrones, he was king of Europe. He had at least two dozen in a village warehouse, their finely painted porcelain and precious mahogany fittings wrapped in batting and hidden in unmarked crates. Their existence was a secret even Bull and Bear kept close. To everyone else, they were precious, rare treasures that just might be found for the right person at the right price.
The Grand Chamberlain paced the silk carpet. He was young, and though highborn, titled, and raised to the highest office, responsibility didn’t sit well with him. He’d seen a battlefield or two at a distance but had never known real danger. Those hairy brows were actually trembling. Sylvain could easily draw this out just for the pleasure of making a duke sweat, but the memory of Annette’s soft flesh made him generous.
“My warehouse agent just reported receiving a new throne. It is extremely fine. Berlin has been waiting months for it.” Sylvain examined his fingernails. “Perhaps it can be diverted. I will write a note to my agent.”
The Grand Chamberlain folded his hands and nodded, an officious gesture better suited to a grey-haired oldster. “Such a throne might be acceptable.”
“You will recall that installing plumbing is a lengthy and troublesome process. Even with the pipes now in place servicing the original throne, his majesty will find the work disruptive.”
Installing the first throne had been a mess. Bear and Bull had ripped into walls and ceilings, filling the royal dressing room with the barnyard stench of their sweat. But King Louis had exercised his royal prerogative from the first moment the throne was unpacked, even before it was connected to the pipes. So, it was an even trade—the king had to breathe workmen’s stench, and Bull and Bear had been regularly treated to the sight and scent of healthy royal bowel movements.
The Grand Chamberlain steepled his fingers. “Plumbing is not required. Just the throne.”
“I cannot imagine the royal household wants a second throne just for show.”
The Grand Chamberlain sighed. “See for yourself.”
He led Sylvain into the cedar-scented garderobe. A rainbow of velvet and satin cushions covered the floor. The toilet gleamed in a place of honor, bracketed by marble columns. Something was growing in the toilet bowl. It looked like peach moss.
The moss turned its head. Two emerald eyes glared up at him.
“Minou has been offered a number of other seats, but she prefers the throne.” The Grand Chamberlain looked embarrassed. “Our well-beloved king will not allow her to be disturbed. In fact, he banished the courtier who first attempted to move her.”
The cat hissed, its tiny ivory fangs yellow against the glistening white porcelain. Sylvain stepped back. The cat’s eyes narrowed with lazy menace.
A wide water drop formed in the bend of the golden pipes above the toilet. The drop slid across the painted porcelain reservoir and dangled for a few heartbeats. Then it plopped onto the cat’s head. Minou’s eyes popped wide as saucers.
Sylvain spun and fled the room, heart hammering.
The Grand Chamberlain followed. “Send the second throne immediately. This afternoon at the latest.” The request was punctuated by the weight of gold as he discreetly passed Sylvain a pouch of coins.
“Certainly,” Sylvain said, trying to keep his voice steady. “The cat may prefer the original throne, however.”
“That will have to do.”
When he was out of the Grand Chamberlain’s sight, Sylvain rushed through the royal apartments and into the crowded Grand Gallery. There, in Versailles’ crowded social fishbowl, he had no choice but to slow to a dignified saunter. He kept his gaze level and remote, hoping to make it through the long gallery uninterrupted.
“Sylvain, my dear brother, why rush away?” Gérard clamped his upper arm and muscled him to the side of the hall. “Stay and take a turn with me.”
“Damn you,” Sylvain hissed. “You know I haven’t time for idling. Let me go.”
Gérard snickered. “Don’t deprive me of your company so soon.”
Sylvain had seen his friend the Marquis de la Châsse in every imaginable situation—beardless and scared white by battle-scarred commanders, on drunken furlough in peat-stinking country taverns, wounded bloody and clawing battlefield turf. They had pulled each other out of danger a hundred times—nearly as often as they’d goaded each other into it.
Gérard’s black wig was covered in coal-dark powder that broadcast a subtle musky scent. The deep plum of his coat accentuated the dark circles under his eyes and the haze of stubble on his jaw.
Sylvain pried his arm from Gérard’s fist and fell into step beside him. At least there were no pipes overhead, no chance of a splattering. The gallery was probably one of the safest places in the palace. He steered his friend toward the doors and prepared to make his escape.
Gérard leaned close. “Tell me good news. Can it be done?”
“My answer hasn’t changed.”
Gérard growled, a menacing rumble deep in his broad chest.
“I’ve heard that noise on the battlefield, Gérard.” Sylvain said. “It won’t do you any good here.”
“On a battlefield, you and I are on the same side. But here you insist on opposing me.”
Sylvain nodded at the Comte de Tessé. The old man was promenading with his mistress, a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, and the two of them were wearing so much powder that an aura of tiny particles surrounded them with a faint pink glow. The comte raised his glove.
“I wonder,” said the comte loudly, as if he were addressing the entire hall, “can Sylvain de Guilherand only make plain water dance, or does he also have power over the finest substances? Champagne, perhaps.”
“Ingenuity has its limits, but I haven’t found them yet.” Sylvain let a faint smile play at the corners of his mouth.
“Surely our beloved king’s birthday would be an appropriate day to test those limits. Right here, in fact, in the center of the Grand Gallery. What could be more exalted?”
Sylvain had no time for this. He nodded assent and the comte strolled on with an extra bounce in his step, dragging his mistress along by the elbow.
The doors of the Grand Gallery were barricaded by a gang of nuns who gaped up at the gilded and frescoed ceiling like baby sparrows in a nest. Sylvain and Gérard paced past.
“You don’t seem to understand,” Gérard said. “Pauline is desperate. It’s vulgar to talk about money, but you know I’ll make it worth your effort. Ready cash must be a problem. Courtiers rarely discharge their obligations.”
“It’s not a question of money or friendship. The north wing roof won’t hold a reservoir. If the king himself wanted water in the north wing, I would have to refuse him.”
“Then you must reinforce the roof.”
Sylvain sighed. Gérard had never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by gold or force. He couldn’t appreciate the layers of influence and responsibility that would have to be peeled back to accomplish a major construction project like putting reservoirs on the north wing.
“Pauline complains every time she pisses,” said Gérard. “Do you know how often a pregnant woman sits on her pot? And often she gets up in the night? The smell bothers her, no matter how much perfume and rose water she applies, no matter how quickly her maid whisks away the filth. Pauline won’t stop asking. I will have no peace until she gets one of your toilets.”
“Sleep in a different room.”
“Cold, lonely beds are for summer. In winter, you want a warm woman beside you.”
“Isn’t your wife intimate with the Marquise de Coupigny? I hear she keeps a rose bower around her toilet. Go stay with her.”
“The marquise told my wife that she does not cater to the general relief of the public, and their intimacy has now ended in mutual loathing. This is what happens when friends refuse each other the essential comforts of life.”
“I’ll provide all the relief you need if you move to an apartment the pipes can reach.”
“Your ingenuity has found its limits, then, despite your boasts. But your pipes reached a good long way yesterday. I hear it was a long siege. How high were the d’Arlain battlements?”
“You heard wrong. Annette d’Arlain is a virtuous woman.”
“Did she tell you the king’s mistress named her toilet after the queen? Madame pisses on Polish Mary. Pauline is disgusted. She asked me to find out what Annette d’Arlain says.”
Two splashes pocked Sylvain’s cheek. He looked around wildly for the source.
“Tears, my friend?” Gérard dangled his handkerchief in front of Sylvain’s nose. “Annette is pretty enough but her cunt must be gorgeous.”
Sylvain ignored his friend and scanned the ornate ceiling. The gilding and paint disguised stains and discolorations, but the flaws overhead came to light if you knew where to look.
There. A fresh water stain spread on the ceiling above the statue of Hermes. A huge drop formed in its gleaming centre. It grew, dangled like a jewel, and broke free with a snap. It bounced off the edge of a mirror, shot past him, then ricocheted off a window and smacked him on the side of his neck, soaking his collar.
Sylvain fled the Grand Gallery like a rabbit panicking for its burrow. He ran with no attention to dignity, stepping on the lace train of one woman, raking through the headdress feathers of another, shoving past a priest, setting a china vase rocking on its pedestal. The drone of empty conversation gave way to shocked exclamations as he dodged out of the room into one of the old wing’s service corridors.
He skidded around a banister into a stairwell. Water rained down, slickening the stairs as he leapt two and three steps at a time. It spurted from joins, gushed from welded seams, and sprayed from faucets as he passed.