The tinkling of shattering glass, along with the shriek of childish laughter, alerted Vatel to the possibility of mischief on the garden paths. No sooner had he hurried over from the kitchen than he saw two children, richly dressed, gamboling down the paths and knocking the elaborate decorations down from the archways with a stick. The delicate glass ornaments crashed to the pavement, the intricate floral weavings tore apart, and the ripe fruit was squashed and dented. Immediately the steward ran to the children, dodging a swing of the stick that he charitably assumed was not really meant for him.
“Children, children, stop that!” he admonished, taking the stick away.
The little boy scowled up at Vatel from under his expensive wig. “Don’t you know who I am?” he asked with the air of someone unused to having to pose the question. “I’m the Baron d’Ely! When I grow up I’ll be the Duc d’Anon!”
Vatel was unimpressed by the boast, though the societal rules insisted he show deference to the young noble. His mind raced as he tried to think of a way to tell the children no without actually saying the dreaded word—his master would be furious if he did yet another thing to upset the King, no matter how minor.
“Then you ought to start acting like a duke, and not a spoiled child,” said a new voice, bubbly and admonishing at the same time. Vatel looked up to see the lovely young woman in pink he’d noticed earlier. “Run along now.” The children stuck out their tongues at her rudely, but they scampered off without further destruction. “In truth the Duc d’Anon behaves like a spoiled child himself,” she confessed with a giggle. “Here, allow me to assist you.”
She started to reach for the broken garlands on the ground. “No, milady,” Vatel corrected, a bit brusquely, as he began to clean up the mess. “The glass is sharp. You would cut yourself.”
She accepted this but moved to another pile. “What lovely fruit,” she commented, retrieving some of the apples and pears and setting them on the low stone wall. “Wherever did you find it?”
“The poor of the county gave up the produce for their King,” Vatel replied, with only the barest hint of irony.
The woman smiled a little. “I hope they believe he greatly appreciates it.” Vatel wasn’t certain how to safely respond to that, so he merely kept working. He hadn’t been able to ascertain the woman’s identity yet, but from her expensive gown and gaudy jewels he judged her to be the wife of someone quite rich. Or the daughter. Far above his own station, at any rate. “Oh, I’m afraid this one’s ruined,” she remarked of a pear already beginning to brown on its injured side. “May I eat it?”
The royal guests could do whatever they liked with anything on the estate—though Vatel tried to guide them towards the less destructive activities—and they rarely asked permission first. “Fruit is generally for eating, milady,” he answered with a little bow.
She smiled and took a delicate bite. “I’m told you come from Ile Saint-Louis,” the woman said after a moment, conversationally.
Vatel, already uncomfortable with her continued presence, stiffened almost imperceptibly. “Yes, milady, it’s true. I was apprentice to Rosier, the great patissier.”
“How lovely,” she replied, seemingly with genuine delight. “I worked at a little bakery there myself, not so fine as Rosier of course.” She laughed a little. “Mostly I fetched water and fed the fire. And ducked my mistress’s cane.”
At this Vatel couldn’t help but stare. “You… worked at Ile Saint-Louis?” It was quite a long way from that impoverished area infamous for its houses of ill repute to Versailles (at least in official society). “In a bakery?”
“Found her right next to the sticky buns,” said a cold, sharp voice, and Vatel was careful to keep his expression neutral as he turned and bowed to the Marquis de Lauzun, possibly his least favorite person in the whole party. And that was saying something. The Marquis looked down his not-inconsiderable nose at the steward and then stepped over to his wife, snatching the fruit from her hand. “You mustn’t eat bruised fruit, my pet,” he told her in a tone that was equal parts condescending and menacing. He discarded the fruit carelessly on the ground. “You’ll upset your digestion. Now go back inside.”
She pouted slightly. “It’s so stuffy and warm in the house.”
“But that’s exactly where you belong, my little hothouse flower,” de Lauzun insisted, accepting no resistance. “Go.”
The Marquise gave a long-suffering sigh and nodded politely to Vatel, though the steward rather wished she hadn’t acknowledged him at all as now her husband’s gaze was drawn to him, narrow and suspicious. The young woman turned and gracefully carried herself back towards the house, with her husband watching her retreat for a long moment. Then, just when Vatel thought he might be able to slip away unnoticed, the Marquis wheeled back around to glare at him.
“If there is need for you to speak to my wife in the future, steward,” the nobleman said with disdain and just a hint of menace, “I will let you know.” Vatel acknowledged the order with a slight nod. The Marquis gave him a final warning look, then moved on. “The King requires a gift from your master,” he began in a more business-like tone.
“The entire estate is a gift to the King today,” Vatel replied, again with a bit of irony that was too subtle for most nobles. Hadn’t his master given enough to please the King already? The creditors were already beating down his door, demanding payment for the current festivities when there was no money to be had.
Of course the Marquis didn’t care about all that. This was the way the court lived, demanding tribute and entertainment from its citizens, with no concept of what it really cost. “The King would like a spun sugar creation,” de Lauzun went on. “Fruits and flowers, the color of flesh and blood. To go to a lady of respectable rank.” That would probably be the luminous Anne de Montausier, lady-in-waiting to the Queen (in more ways than one).
“I’m sorry, milord,” Vatel replied in his busy manner. “There is no one on the estate skilled enough in that art.” Except of course—
“I’m told you worked for Rosier,” the Marquis reminded Vatel. “Surely you are able to complete the King’s request.”
“I’m sorry, milord, I don’t have the time,” Vatel risked, starting to walk away with an armload of ruined garlands. They had to be repaired or replaced before anyone else of importance showed up out here.
“Make the time, steward,” de Lauzun told him crisply. He was so used to getting his way in everything that he didn’t bother to even sound angry—of course Vatel would do it, there was no question. “I’ll send my man to pick it up tomorrow morning. Early. Flesh and blood.” With that he turned to leave. “And clean up this mess,” he added over his shoulder, kicking one of the few surviving glass ornaments and breaking it. “It’s most unsightly.”
The Prince de Condé’s house was large and impressive; but the visiting royal court was large and demanding. Every available bit of space was being used—and then some—to bed the nobles, their servants, and their animals, although in some cases ‘bed’ was hardly the correct word. The Marquis de Lauzun’s valet, for example, made do with a pair of mildly uncomfortable chairs outside his master’s room, to which he was sent with an icy look when the Marquis dismissed him for the evening. “Out,” the Marquis repeated, when the man didn’t move fast enough. “Everyone out!” he added peevishly, directing his attention to the elaborate screen behind which his wife fluttered.
“I am not done undressing,” she reminded him with exasperation. Her maid continued to pluck at the stays of her lady’s corset, as fast as she could without damaging it.
The Marquis had already removed his most elaborate accessory—his wig—and was carelessly tossing his expensive coat and vest aside, impatient to be alone with his wife. “Tell your servant that either she leaves now, or she joins us in bed,” he threatened.
“You may go,” the Marquise told her maid. “Thank you.” The woman curtsied and stepped out from behind the screen, eager to escape the unpleasant nobleman.
De Lauzun struggled to control his expression when he saw the blocky, cow-faced servant emerge. Her hunched shoulders didn’t quite mask the scowl on her face as she froze before him. “Well?” he sputtered as best he could, suspecting that his wife was secretly laughing at him. “Which is it?” The woman lumbered out the door, pulling it shut behind her. The thump of the Marquis’s jeweled shoes being flung at it followed her.
Marie-Therese giggled behind the screen. “Who was that?” her husband demanded. “Your maid is… a little less well-fed.”
“She also took sick in Lyons, don’t you remember?” she replied. Jean stepped around the screen to finish unfastening her dress himself. “Louise is one of the house maids who’s been helping me.”
“You don’t need to make do with a house maid,” Jean scoffed. “I’ll have the Princess send you one of hers.”
“It’s no trouble,” Marie-Therese assured him, smacking a hand that wandered from its appointed task. “First the dress comes off properly,” she admonished him. “You spent a lot of money on this dress, you know.”
He nuzzled her neck. “I have a lot of money to spend. Enough to cover your rather impressive losses to the Duchesse du Loren,” he added, a bit pointedly.
Marie-Therese rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll win it all back from her husband tomorrow,” she told him. She leaned back into his embrace for a moment. “Mmm. Dinner was quite lovely, don’t you think? Monsieur Vatel is very talented.”
Jean snorted and drew them both out from behind the screen, flinging clothes aside right and left despite his wife’s protests. “Monsieur Vatel is altogether too sure of himself for a mere servant,” he opined, pulling her onto the bed.
She rolled her eyes again. “He doesn’t cower before you in fear, hmm?” she translated. “I don’t see why you need to be so rude to him anyway.”
“He was speaking to you,” Jean reminded her, pulling her close.
“I spoke to him first,” Marie-Therese pointed out. “Anyway, you know all this jealousy is just silly.”
“Well what else is one supposed to do around here?” Jean muttered. “This is surely one of the dullest ages we’ve ever been in.”
Marie-Therese poked at his shoulder. “You’re just upset because the King told you that you couldn’t duel anymore,” she accused. Only Wayland could find the court of the Sun King ‘dull’ simply because he wasn’t allowed to swordfight.
“He’s just trying to protect his generals,” Jean sniffed. “Who all need a few more lessons in hand-to-hand combat, by the way.” He’d dispatched two of them in the last few years—generals tended to take offense quite easily.
The Marquis de Lauzun stared up at the whale with barely a trace of interest, though many of the other courtiers were fascinated by the process of its construction and stood around the lawn as though at a garden party. De Lauzun’s main concern, if he had one, was whether the contraption would be finished in time for tonight’s spectacle. The King was disturbingly easy-going about such things, and even more serious ones like the incident with the grief-stricken “mad” woman; he left it up to others, like the Marquis, to raise h—l about it for him. So on the one hand, an unfinished whale would allow de Lauzun to unleash some vitriol on the master steward; but it might also mean the King would be displeased with him, for not making sure the whale was complete in the first place.
“Milord,” said his valet, appearing at his elbow. He carried an exquisite spun sugar basket overflowing with small flowers and fruits of incredible realism. It was art of a superb caliber—another hidden talent of Vatel, apparently. “She sent it back, milord.”
De Lauzun blinked. “Sent it back?” This Montausier woman was denser than he realized. Or perhaps she really didn’t want to play the court games—currying the King’s favor by currying de Lauzun’s. Ah well. He wouldn’t have slept with her anyway, not unless Marie-Therese wanted to join in as well. He glanced around the gawking groups of nobles speculatively. “Take it to my wife,” he decided, spotting her giggling with some ladies. “Be sure you explain to her which parts are edible and which aren’t,” he added warningly. He couldn’t trust her to figure it out on her own.