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A Mermaid Arrives in Versailles in Vonda McIntyre's The King's Daughter

This alternate history book beat out A Game of Thrones for the Nebula Award in 1997.

The King's Daughter

Vonda N. McIntyre was known for creating expansive, detailed, and immersive worlds, and The King's Daughter is no exception. 

Published in 1997 under the original titleThe Moon and the Sun, the novel was based off of McIntyre’s short story, “The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea.” 

The novel is set in 17th century France in the court of Louis XIV, who has becomes obsessed with everlasting life. He sends his natural philosopher after a sea creature he believes holds the secret to immortality. When his philosopher returns with his discovery, a low-ranking member of Louis' court, Marie-Josèphe, finds herself entranced by this otherworldly creature. 

The book has been adapted for a 2022 film, The King's Daughter, which stars Pierce Brosnan, Julie Andrews, and William Hurt, among others. The movie comes out January 21, 2022—which leaves you time to read the brilliant source material first. 

RELATED: The Clarion West Writers Workshop and Vonda N. McIntyre Sweepstakes

Read on for an excerpt from The King's Daughter, then download the book!

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The King's Daughter

By Vonda N. McIntyre

A scream of rage and challenge filled the twilit forest. Marie-Josèphe clutched the door and the edge of her seat. The horses shied and snorted and leaped forward. The carriage lurched. The exhausted animals tried to outrun the terrible noise. The driver shouted and dragged his team into his control.

The scream of the tiger in His Majesty’s menagerie awoke and aroused all the other exotic animals. The elephant trumpeted. The lion coughed and roared. The aurochs bellowed.

The sea monster sang a challenge.

The wild eerie melody quickened Marie-Josèphe’s heart. The shrieking warble was as raw, as erotic, as passionate, as the singing of eagles. The tame forests of Versailles hid the same shadows as the wildest places of Martinique.

The sea monster cried again. The Menagerie fell silent. The sea monster’s song vanished in a whisper.

The carriage rumbled around the arm of the Grand Canal. The canal shimmered with ghostly fog; wavelets lapped against the sides of His Majesty’s fleet of miniature ships. Wheels crunched on the gravel of the Queen’s Road; the baggage wagons turned down the Queen’s Road toward the Fountain of Apollo. Marie-Josèphe’s coach continued toward the chateau of Versailles and its formal gardens.

“Driver!”

“Whoa!”

Marie-Josèphe leaned out the window. The heavy, hot breath of tired horses filled the night. The gardens lay quiet and strange, the fountains still.

“Follow my brother, if you please.”

“But, mamselle—”

“And then you are dismissed for the evening.”

“Yes, mamselle!” He wheeled the horses around. Yves hurried from one wagon to the other, trying to direct two groups of workers at once.

“You men—take this basin—it’s heavy. Stop—you—don’t touch the ice!”

Marie-Josèphe opened the carriage door. By the time the footman had climbed wearily down to help her, she was running toward the baggage wagons.

An enormous tent covered the Fountain of Apollo. Candlelight flickered inside, illuminating the silk walls. The tent glowed, an immense lantern.

Rows of candles softly lit the way up the hill to the chateau, tracing the edges of le tapis vert, the Green Carpet. The expanse of perfect lawn split the gardens from Apollo’s Fountain to Latona’s, flanked by gravel paths and marble statues of gods and heroes.

Marie-Josèphe held her skirts above the gravel and hurried to the baggage wagons. The sea monster’s basin and the shroud in the ice divided Yves’ attention.

“Marie-Josèphe, don’t let them move the specimen till I get back.” Yves tossed his command over his shoulder as if he had never left Martinique to become a Jesuit, as if she were still keeping his house and assisting in his experiments.

Yves hurried to the tent. Embroidered on the silken curtains, the gold sunburst of the King gazed out impassively. Two musketeers drew the curtains aside.

“Move the ice carefully,” Marie-Josèphe said to the workers. “Uncover the bundle.”

“But the Father said—”

“And now I say.”

Still the workers hesitated.

“My brother might forget about this specimen till morning,” Marie-Josèphe said. “You might wait for him all night.”

In nervous silence they obeyed her, uncovering the shroud with their hands. Shards of chopped ice scattered over the ground. Marie-Josèphe took care that the workers caused no damage. She had helped Yves with his work since she was a little girl and he a boy of twelve, both of them learning Greek and Latin, reading Herodotus—credulous old man!—and Galen, and studying Newton. Yves “of course always got first choice of the books, but he never objected when she made off with the Principia, or slept with it beneath her pillow. She grieved for the loss of M. Newton’s book, yearned for another copy, and wondered what he had discovered about light, the planets, and gravity during the past five years.

The workmen lifted the shrouded figure. Ice scattered onto the path. Marie-Josèphe followed the workmen into the tent. She was anxious to get a clear view of a sea monster, either one that was living or one that was dead.

The enormous tent covered the Fountain of Apollo and a surrounding circle of dry land. Beneath the tent, an iron cage enclosed the fountain. Inside the new cage, Apollo and his golden chariot and the four horses of the sun rose from the water, bringing dawn, heralded by dolphins, by tritons blowing trumpets.

Marie-Josèphe thought, Apollo is galloping west to east, in opposition to the sun.

Three shallow, wide wooden stairs led from the pool’s low stone rim to a wooden platform at water’s level. The tent, the cage, and the stairs and platform had been built for Yves’ convenience, though they spoiled the view of the Dawn Chariot.

Outside the cage, laboratory equipment stood upon a sturdy floor of polished planks. Two armchairs, several armless chairs, and a row of ottomans faced the laboratory.

“You may put the specimen on the table,” Marie-Josèphe said to the workers. They did as she directed, grateful to be free of the burden and its sharp odors.

Tall and spare in his long black cassock, Yves stood in the entrance of the cage. His workers wrestled the basin onto the fountain’s rim.

“Don’t drop it—lay it down—careful!”

The sea monster cried and struggled. The basin ground against stone. One of the workers swore aloud; another elbowed him soundly and cast a warning glance toward Yves. Marie-Josèphe giggled behind her hand. Yves was the least likely of priests to notice rough language.

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“Slide it down the stairs. Let water flow in—”

The basin bumped down the steps and onto the platform. Yves knelt beside it, unwrapping the net that surrounded it. Overcome by her curiosity, Marie-Josèphe hastened to join him. The silk of her underskirt rustled against the polished laboratory floor, with a sound as soft and smooth as if she were crossing the marble of the Hall of Mirrors.

Before she reached the cage, the tent’s curtains moved aside again. A worker carried a basket of fresh fish and seaweed to the cage, dropped it, and fled. Other workers hauled in ice and a barrel of sawdust.

Her curiosity thwarted, Marie-Josèphe returned to Yves’ specimen. She wanted to open its shroud, but thought better of revealing the creature to the tired, frightened workmen.

“You two, cover the bundle with ice, then cover the ice with sawdust. The rest of you, fetch Father de la Croix’s equipment from the wagons.”

They obeyed, moving the specimen gingerly, for it reeked of preserving spirits and corruption.

Yves will have to carry out his dissection quickly, Marie-Josèphe said to herself. Or he’ll have nothing left to dissect but rotten meat on a skeleton.

Marie-Josèphe had grown used to the smell during years of helping her brother with his explorations and experiments. It bothered her not at all. But the workers breathed in short unhappy gasps, occasionally glancing, frightened, toward Yves and the groaning sea monster.

The workers covered the laboratory table with insulating sawdust.

“Bring more ice every day,” Marie-Josèphe said.

“You understand—it’s very important.”

One of the workers bowed. “Yes, mamselle, M. de Chrétien has ordered it.”

“You may retire.”

They fled the tent, repelled by the dead smell and by the live sea monster’s crying. The melancholy song drew Marie-Josèphe closer. Yves’ workers tilted the basin off the platform. Water trickled into it.

Marie-Josèphe hurried to the Fountain. “Yves, let me see—”

As Yves loosened the canvas restraints, the grinding and creaking of the water pumps shook the night. The fountain nozzles gurgled, groaned, and gushed water. Apollo’s fountain spouted water in the shape of a fleur-de-lys. At its zenith, the central stream splashed the tent peak. Droplets rained down on Apollo’s chariot, dimpled the pool’s surface, and spattered the sea monster. The creature screamed and thrashed and slapped Yves with its tails. Yves staggered backward.

“Turn off the fountain!” Yves shouted.

Snarling, the creature struggled free of the basin. Yves jumped away, evading the sea monster’s teeth and claws and tails. The workers ran to do Yves’ bidding.

The creature lurched away and tumbled into the water, escaping into its prison in the Fountain of Apollo.

Marie-Josèphe caught Yves’ arm. A ripple broke against his foot and flowed around the soles of his boots, as if he walked on water. Water soaked the hem of his cassock.

My brother walks on water, Marie-Josèphe thought with a smile. He ought to be able to keep his clothing dry!

The fountains spurted high, then gushed half as high, then bubbled in their nozzles. The fleur-de-lys wilted. The creaking of the pumps abruptly ceased. No ripple, not even bubbles, marked the surface of the pool.

Yves wiped his sleeve across his face. Marie-Josèphe, standing two steps above him, almost reached his height. She laid her hand on her brother’s shoulder.

“You’ve succeeded,” she said.

“I hope so.”

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