From the book
It was in the Hotel de St Pol in Paris, where I was born, that I chased my sister through the rooms of the palace, shrieking like some demented creature in torment. Michelle ran, agile as a hare pursued by a pack of hounds, and because of her advantage of years I was not catching her. She leapt up the great staircase and along a deserted gallery into an antechamber, where she tried to slam the door against me. There was no one to witness our clamorous, unedifying rampage.
I flung back the heavy door so that it crashed against the wall. My breath was short, my side clenched with pain, but my belly was so empty that I would not surrender. I pounded in my sister's wake, triumphant when I heard Michelle whimpering in distress as her feet slid and she cannoned into the corner of a vast oak press set against the wall. From there she lurched into yet another audience chamber, and I howled with imminent victory. There was no way out from that carved and gilded room. I had her. Or, more importantly, I would have what she gripped in her hand.
And there she was, standing at bay, eyes blazing, teeth bared.
'Share it!' I demanded.
When, despite her laboured breathing, she stuffed a piece of bread into her mouth, I sprang at her, and we fell to the floor to roll in a tangle of foul skirts, unwashed legs and greasy, unbraided hair. Teeth and nails were applied indiscriminately, sharp elbows coming into play until, ploughing my fist into Michelle's belly with all my five-year-old weight, I snatched the prize from her. A stale crust and a charred bone of some unidentifiable animal that she had filched from the kitchens when the cook's back was turned. Scrambling up, I backed away, cramming the hard bread into my mouth, sinking my teeth into the flesh on the bone, my belly rumbling. I turned from the fury in her face to flee back the way we had come. 'What's this?'
Despite the mild query, it was a voice of authority who spoke. I pulled up short because my way was barred, yet I would still have fled except that Michelle had crept to my side. In our terrible preoccupation we had not heard the approach, and my heart was hammering so loudly in my ears that I was all but deafened. And there, beating against my temples, was the little pressure, the little flutter of pain, that often afflicted me when I was perturbed.
The mildness had vanished, and I stood quietly at last, curtseying without grace so that I smeared my skirts even more with grease and crumbs. There was no governess to busy herself about our manners or our education. There was never any money in our household to pay for such luxuries.
'Well?' The King, our father, lifted agitated eyes to the servant who accompanied him.
'Your daughters, Sire,' the man replied promptly, barely respectful.
'Really?' The King blinked at us. Then smiled brightly. 'Come here,' he said, at the same time as he drew a jewelled knife from his belt.
We flinched, our eyes on the blade, where the light slid with evil intent as the King slashed indiscriminately at the space before him. Our father was known to lash out at those nearest to him when the mood was on him, and we were not encouraged even when the servant removed the knife from our father's hand-no cleaner than mine-and tucked the weapon into his own belt. Our father's eyes were alight with a strange, knowing gleam. Unperturbed when I shrank away, he stretched out his hand to lift a lank curl of my hair from where it clung against my neck in matted hanks, like the fleece of a sheep after a long winter. His fingers tightened and I tensed all my muscles, waiting for the pain when he forgot his...