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Upon the grounds of Versailles, wealth took an entirely new meaning. Under the wings of the Viscounts of Harling, I thought I had experienced richness. Banquets had been frequent, physical labor non-existent, and a festive air was often upon us. We had lived like royals at the Shaded Oaks.
Now the Harlings' wealth seemed laughable.
Only recently opened by the king, Versailles had once been a restricted playhouse of royal splendor. For centuries, the kings and queens of France had basked amid their glory. The chateau itself is impossible to fully describe to one who has never seen it. Room after glorious room, each more adorned than the last, filled the entire building. Paintings, gilded chairs, plush carpets and massive four-poster beds, vases and wonders from the East — we saw all of these in every chamber. As a private residence, it was beyond comparison.
At one point though, after seeing another of the countless rooms, Logan stopped, transfixed by a painting. The piece showed a quiet country scene. In one corner, peasants labored over their farm, digging rows for planting in the dirt. Elsewhere, a beautiful girl, her billowing clothes hanging off her gorgeous frame, was singing. Maybe she was calling to the laborers; I'm not sure. But, her voice had attracted the attention of a noble hunting party which passed by. These men, all in flashy colors and silken shoes, paused to hear the maiden sing. Their faces though, were not appreciative.
They were lusting.
They lusted for the beautiful peasant. And it didn't take an artist or scholar to know what would happen next. The piece was simply entitled "Quarry."
"My god," whispered Logan. Before I could ask, he moved, rushing into the next room. There, he suddenly stopped and turned back. Now we stood in the hall of mirrors, and the look of pain that crossed his face was reflected again and again along the walls of the long hallway.
I blinked at him; the look troubled me. When it didn't disappear, and he didn't say anything, I grabbed his arm and drew the man aside. "What is it?" I said. I chuckled. "You look like you're Louis XVI and the mob has come for you."
He continued to stare at me, ignoring my joke. "The painting," he said at last. As I watched, the sadness I glimpsed flickered into shame. He ran to a window, leaning out and sucking in the fresh air. His wild eyes stared at something.
I followed and looked, seeing nothing. "What?" I pressed.
At first, he only pointed. I followed his finger. There, out along the shaded paths, a grounds' crew was busy snipping away at the trees and lawn, ensuring that everything looked perfect. They sweated in the heat, and their clothes were shabby and worn — simple working folk by their looks. I looked at Logan again. "What is the matter with you?"
Finally, he spoke. "We're touring the palace of a king, and those poor devils are slaving to ensure it looks nice."
"So what?" I said.
"Even after their Revolution, the French are still divided. There're still classes, Nathaniel! This . . . this is what privilege does." He waved his arm around, indicating intricate pottery, gilded tables, and the sheer wealth of the room.
"And what of it?" I said. Then it caught me, and I slapped him on the back. "Oh, come now! You're not feeling guilty, are you?" His blank eyes gave the answer, and it terrified me. In all our years of friendship, Logan had never once offered any apology for his noble birth. "Logan, you and your family are nothing like these kings. You've . . . you've adopted a peasant family for heaven's sake. My family! Your kindness for the Fletchers—"
"What of it?"
"Doesn't that make you an exception to the rule?"
"To you and your family maybe," he said. "But what about the beggars? Those workers? And what about that student in Le Moniteur's article who murdered a gendarme?"
That trail of logic caught me off guard. "What about some murderer, some bloody criminal?"
"Don't you get it?"
"Enlighten me," I said drolly.
"That student murdered because the government tried yet again to throw him back into the poverty of his birth. That student isn't the criminal; the gendarmes are."
I held up a finger, quieting him. "Are you out of your mind? Since when, have you ever thought like this? It's an established tradition, a thousand years in the making, and a good one. People like your family are bred to rule for everyone's benefit. No more of this class nonsense. Your grandfather fought France to stop such bilge, for heaven's sake."
He didn't look at me. "There's never been a need to think like this. It makes me sick. And Nathaniel, aside from a fluke, that tradition you're lauding makes you worthless."
Despite the public setting, I grabbed his lapels. "What does that mean?"
Logan stared into my eyes then. "You're a noble too. If not in blood, in practice. You're the reason they slave for the 'better' classes. You're a part of the system too."
I blinked, the world reeling now. "That's . . . that's not true." Even I didn't believe my lie.
"You're not a noble," he said, not unkindly. "Why aren't you working in the fields now? Why, Nathaniel?"
"I . . . "
The impressive luster of the gilded room died.
I couldn't breathe in the stuffy palace, so we went outside. For miles, we saw the manicured gardens and meticulously trimmed groves of trees that dominated the landscape. Pools and fountains dotted these fields, and brass nymphs and sculpted gods sprayed jets of water from their open mouths into the overflowing fountains. Yet more palaces, still a part of the Versailles' grounds, waited across those fields. We didn't bother entering them. There was too much to see.
But at every point, poor, exhausted and broken workers cleaned the grounds, slaving over the aristocracy's palaces. I tried not to think of their families back home. My family had been adopted by the Harlings centuries ago for some good deed my ancestor performed for Logan's. By some happenstance, we prospered.
After Logan's comments, I found that I couldn't meet the eye of the workers, the laborers who should have been me. What's more, as we made our way back out of the grounds and towards our distant lodgings in the city, I began to notice other, less majestic aspects of the Paris I had come to love. Bodies lined the streets. They weren't dead of course, but I couldn't tell from their appearance. I had seen corpses which looked more life-like. These beggars, whose existence I hadn't even allowed myself to acknowledge before, now stared, their gazes impossible to escape. They begged every passerby for a crust and received nothing but curses.
"Did you notice them before?"
I looked up. "No. And you?"
He shook his head without looking at me. "That beggar who asked us for money . . . He was telling the truth. He had kids. They were starving. And we did nothing." He paused, then laughed bitterly. "We did worse than nothing. We lied to ourselves to ignore his existence." He stared out the carriage's window. His eyes fixed on a pale, old woman who sat in the dirt and swatted at the flies swirling around her ripped clothing. I looked down and felt sick, but our carriage kept rolling.
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