I imagined his rooms to be messier. I imagined wilder stacks of papers, forgotten books, teacups and curiosities. I imagined him a bit lost in all this work.
I imagined so much.
His study is flawlessly clean, papers and books disciplined like tamed animals. They're everywhere, yes, but they're not invading. There is no mess here. The only mess that can be found, is me.
As I walk closer, he doesn't raise his head from his letter, this I imagined quite well.
But he does have a jump and stares right at me when the valet announces my name, and I wasn't expecting that.
I fail at bowing. I always did. He notices. Of course.
I pat my thick sturdy dress, absolutely commonplace, and cough. Behind him, against the wall, still partially wrapped in the linen I had it sent to him with, is my painting. I can't read his face. I've observed him for days, and I still can't read his face. God, he's terrifying. He's the most beautiful nightmare I have ever seen.
He elegantly gets up, and even if by a nonsense of nature, we are of the same height, it bloody feels like he's looking down at me. How does he do that? I almost take a step back. I only don't because the invitation note was cordial. Come on. He can't kill me right here.
-”I suppose, Mademoiselle, you are aware for what reason I have summoned you here.”
God, I love his voice. He sounds like he suffered. He sounds like he rules the world.
I have a nod towards the painting.
-”Yes, Your Eminence.”
He has a glance at the portrait over his shoulder and walks closer. I can't read his face. I am trembling, for God's sake, breathe, you're not arrested yet. I try to remember how confident I felt when I finished the last brushstrokes, highlighting the red lining of his cape with golden hues. I felt moved, I felt divine. I felt gifted. I didn't hesitate once before I sent it as a present.
There is something dark, now, in the corner of his mouth, reminding me I am no one.
I am no one.
God, what have I done?
-”You called me here because you didn't like the painting.” I stammer.
Did he frown?
He did look at the painting again. Did he smile?
-”No, Mademoiselle.” He quietly states. “I called you here because I liked it. A lot.”
Nom de Dieu.
I exhale something pathetic. It's not even a word.
Should I bow again? I'll try.
He definitely frowned. Lord, those men should come with a manual.
He starts pacing around me, I knew he would. I've seen him do that once or twice, for shivering courtiers or sweating valets. The key is to focus on the floor. If you meet his gaze, you're dead. I lower my eyes.
-”I wonder how you did manage such...” He has, I suppose, one more glance for the portrait, “... accuracy without the usual posing?”
I knit myself a relaxed face, wishing my voice wasn't so damn low when I'm panicked.
-”I have been charged with the restoration of the Galerie des Portraits in the Main hall. The work takes time, and has allowed me to witness your presence on many occasions. I painted this portrait based on my sketches and memories.”
He stops in front of me. If I don't look up, I'd be rude. I do look up, try on a smile.
Damn, he's magnificent. I got his eyes right, I know I did. They've been obsessing me for long enough. He had his hair trimmed since the portrait. Pity.
He looks like he tries to remember me. Well, no need to worry, no one noticed the woman in dirty aprons sitting on awkward scaffolding, trying to revive ancient paintings with patience and candlelight.
I don't serve wine, I don't play music. I don't bring clothing or food.
So for everyone in the Louvres I am no one.
-”I like your work.” He breathes, with half a smile and I might be dying, for all I care.
-“I didn’t even dare to hope for so much” I let out. I should bow, but I won’t, because I’m a disaster at it, and I don’t want him to frown anymore.
He starts pacing again, and almost against my own will, my eyes follow the waves of his cape, just to confirm myself I choose the right hue of candlelight gold. Mh. Could have been brighter. Truly, this must be the richest silk of the Louvres. Does the King even have that fabric? That embroidery is inhumanely delicate, I wonder if he chose it himself.
Damn, he said something. What did he say? Oh Hell.
-“I beg your pardon?” I stammer.
He frowns. Dammit, he frowns. I want to shrink until I disappear.
-“As I was saying” he sighs, “I am particularly interested in the fact that you can paint without too much posing time.”
I nod. I don’t need to explain exactly how many hours I have spent staring at him from that bloody scaffolding, stealing sketches, blackening countless sheets of practice paper with the black lead of daydreams.
He doesn’t need to know my miracle of memory painting only works with him.
He’s suspicious enough by nature, I heard.
His pacing leads him back to his desk somehow, where he picks up one small letter, bearing the King’s seal if my sight is correct. I try not to lose myself again in the way his long slender fingers hold that paper, God if I had my sketchpad.
-“I am forced by protocol to have a series of portraits made wearing my … more official Cardinal attire, and I do find tiresome to conciliate these clothes and the heavy schedule of my usual days.”
He doesn’t look at me, so I suppose he doesn’t need a reply. Good, for I have no idea where he wants me to go. The lights from the chandelier on his desk caught in his eyes, almost whitening them out, turning his pupils in the brightest steel that could be forged, and that’s all I understand right now.
When this frozen stare darts up to me, I jump, breath hitching, eyes wide, looking, I’m sure, like a deer cornered by the King’s hunters.
-“How much posing time would you require for this kind of work?” he asks, and I bite the inside of my cheeks.
Stop. Think. That’s what you do with a man such as him. You don’t utter a word until you’ve thought it the Hell through.
How much time? Two hours. But he surely hates to pose; I’ve never seen him standing still for more than twenty minutes straight. He’d want that time to be as short as possible. So if I announce two, he’ll demand one and a half.
-“Four hours.” I let out, hands clenched around my dress so tight it’ll hurt later.
He winces, shaking his head, dropping the letter on his desk with an exasperated sigh.
-“That’s much more waste of time than I can afford.” He hisses.
Alright, you got this. He can’t get you killed, he needs those portraits.
Calm down, look at his hands, count to five, breathe, speak.
-“I could do it in two, if we stay uninterrupted and in correct daylight.”
His eyes lit up and his mouth twitch. It lasts for one second, even less. It is short enough to doubt it ever was, but I watched him for so long. The blank mask falls back, sealing any emotion in a sarcophagus of lead.
-“This is closer to what I had in mind.” He murmurs.
I smile. I feel my cheeks burning. I can’t believe it.
My painting behind his desk, my shadow upon his floor, he’s there, he’s real, he likes my work.
He walks towards me again. There’s something more in his gait, something incredible.
I watch the way his eyelids throw brushstrokes of shade upon his pale hollow cheeks, and before I realize it, I feel I am gaping.
I clap my mouth shut. God, he must think I’m a complete fool.
-“What would be, Mademoiselle, your conditions?” he breathes, suave.
Time to be brilliant.
-“My what?” I blurt.
He tilts his head to the side. A flash of confusion, half a second. Blank mask again.
-“Your price, Mademoiselle.”
I stare, silent, helpless.
I just shrug, gesturing at my washed-out dress, the only one I own, my paint-stained fingers, my messy hair. My plain face, my plain shoes, my plain everything.
He suddenly has a strange, lopsided smile, and I am surprised not to find any kind of disdain there.He doesn’t laugh at me, he doesn’t sneer.
He almost looks like he understands.
He nods to himself, spinning around to his desk, picking up another sheet of paper, a sturdier, thicker one, looking like a table of law.
-“Here is a copy of the usual contract signed for official painters of the Crown.” He states. “The basic fee is of four hundred livres for each portrait made within reasonable delay.”
I choke on my own breath, coughing like a dying hound for a while, and while he looks up at me in disbelief and concern, my cough turns into a shuddering, deranged laughter.
Oh for God’s sake I am insane.
Breathe in, breathe out.
I wipe tears off my eyes. I blink twice.
When my vision clears, he’s right in front of me, and he’s holding my hand.
He’s holding my hand.
-“Are you alright Mademoiselle?”
His hands are cold.
They’re soft, and weightless and sure, but God in Heaven, they’re cold.
I nod, wiping the tears away with the sleeve of my free arm, keeping my other hand as still as I can, as if moving it would break a spell. I’m fine, I really am, but I keep quiet for one more second, just to see if he’ll smile a bit more.
None of my drawings ever had him smiling. I never could see that wonder for long enough. I focus with all I can, but it’s like trying to reproduce lightning. It shines too bright, it fades too fast.
-“The restoration of the Main hall…” I start.
-“.. will have to wait. “he finishes. “I will order your replacement.”
I close my eyes in pure bliss. No more scaffolding, no more back pain. No more agony in my arms, on my shoulders. No more bitter frustration of being nothing more than furniture.
He can do that. He can make and unmake lives, between two signatures and a quick meal. He can make a man rich, he can have a man killed. The slightest sentence from him has dreadful consequences.
He is a storm, he is the tide.
God, I wouldn’t like to be in his place.
I nod, and I am rewarded by another flash of a smile. He gives my hand a gentle squeeze, and goes back to his contract with the same guarded contentment in his stance. He carefully dips a quill into ink, and while he makes some changes in the writing, filling gaps, signing twice, all I watch is the way his hair, despite the clever efforts to have it tamed inside his skullcap, still rebels to any kind of rule, curling defiantly around his worried temples.
This man is a masterpiece in motion.
He invites me closer with an delicate wave of his hand, and offers me the quill. Unlocking my tense legs is harder than I thought. I walk, stiff as an old horse, pick up the quill. I watch his signature for a while. I love the way he makes the ‘r’ dance, extending it boldly, though not vainly. God, even his name is beautiful.
I’m almost ashamed to write my shorter, meaningless own right next to his.
I hand him back the quill. Oh.
Now he looks surprised. What, did I do wrong?
-“You didn’t read the contract, Mademoiselle” He breathes.
I look back down to the condensed writing. God, there’s loads of text. I hate text.
I shake my head helplessly, spreading my arms a bit.
-“It could force me to paint my house red and wear your coat of arms on my chest until my dying day for all I care.” I laugh. “Please, Your Eminence, just tell me where and when.”
He stares for a short while, and might have blinked once or twice. He doesn’t think me stupid, or he’d be sneering already. He just looks like I remind him of something he had forgotten for a long, long time.
-“Next Friday, at noon, in my office.” He lets out, dreamy. “See with my secretary for any necessary supplies.”
With that, he half-heartedly nods towards the door.
I bless him with one of my fantastic bows again, and leave stepping back. I heard that’s how it’s done.
I’m already halfway out when he seems to snap back into instinctive mode, ignoring me completely, his frown falling back on his brow like the curtain falls at the end of a brightly lit play.
As I follow his secretary Charpentier into his office for the fourth time this winter, counting the paint-pots in my bag once more, I hear echoes of his voice, and I already know they’re still trying to put those robes on him.
I grin while I still can.
Because as soon as the door to his study opens, I bite hard on any kind of smile and walk to my easel and stool without a word.
I don’t look right away. I don’t salute, I don’t bow. He likes it that way. Get in, get to work, not a sound.
I wait patiently for his voice to soften a bit, then I look up.
Two servants are still arranging his red cloak upon his shoulders, and by the exasperated look on his face, he’s been asked to be still for far too long already.
I unwrap my second canvas.
A first portrait has already been finished last month, a full body figure with the same golden light as the first gift I made. Simple background with classic perspective and curtains, his coat of arms above, his full name and titles below. I had less time, but I had the best pigments the Crown could buy, so I could make it good.
He did like the portrait. I am sure that what he liked the most about it was that it required only three posing sessions of one hour and a half each, only two with robes on, and each one of them taking place at the insane hours his busy schedule allowed. He had a messenger sent to bring me to his office at midnight for the second one, and the third started somewhere around six in the morning. The next day.
I have to be available to his call at any instant. I had known, if I had read the contract in the first place. He summons me in, gives me one hour and a half to sketch anything I like, then he hurries away, and has my painting sent back to my workshop where I have to continue without him.
He has no idea how I don't mind at all.
For one hour and a half, we are alone, His Eminence and me, and even if he firmly demanded complete silence, he accepted a few comments about the weight of his robes, the meaning of his coat of arms, the rainstorm above Paris.
He welcomed, once, a foolish praise about his slender wrists I forgot to just think and not speak aloud, his whole face twitching in the effort of hiding a soft smirk.
He did like the portrait. I politely invited him to have a look as the third session came to an end, and I’ll remember the slight huff of air in the back of my neck as he sighed in relief and contentment all my life.
-“Very Good, Mademoiselle” he whispered.
I must have spun around and smiled so bright he almost jumped back in surprise.
I took his hand, kissed it blissfully. That’s a madness all artists share, we all lose our senses if the painting turns out good. When I realized my fingers had left a golden stain of candlelight upon his palm I laughed, and the sound died in my throat when I remembered I could hang for this on a nod.
He didn’t frown. He just stared at me that way again, in dreamy, pondering disbelief, and leaned towards me the slightest bit, just to say in gentle, yet very firm words:
-“Try and control those outbursts of yours, Mademoiselle. The Louvres is a world where innocent things are often crushed in pain.”
I nodded, flustered, and apologized in panicked tones. He waved away my concern, muttering that he didn’t mind, that I should just beware, that’s all.
I wanted to tell him we were alone in his wide study, but I saw his jaw clench, I saw him looking around, and I just offered him a clean rag dipped in turpentine oil to clean his hand.
I have been wondering, since then, if the rainstorm ever stops, in that brilliant brain of his.
I pull out my pencils, and sharpen their leads. We agreed on a knee-length cut, so he can actually lean upon a high stool, and that’s a good thing, because he looks exhausted. I politely guide the servants about the folds of the coat, and when it’s all good, I nod that I am ready.
He sends everyone out, then, and notes the time. One hour and a half, not a minute more, he says.
I don’t reply, I’m already sketching.
Forty minutes have passed in comfortable silence, and I watch closely as the delicate veins on his brow throb in agony. Headache. Exhausted, really.
I hurry to finish his face, then softly, timidly speak up:
-“I will be focusing on the shoulders now, Your Eminence.”
He has the faintest start, blinks, and looks at me in puzzlement.
-“ How am I supposed to be interested by that?” He spits.
I smile, pouring as much love as I can in a few words.
-“It means you can close your eyes.” I say.
He doesn’t reply. He stares again. I hold his bloodshot glare for a second, then I do indeed focus on the volumes of that damned coat around his shoulders.
Fifteen minutes pass before I realize that somewhere, he has closed his eyes.
It eased the pain on his temples a bit, and it allows me to watch him, truly watch him for a while, with this idiotic, enthralled face I know I must have.
God, he is beautiful. As if all this work, all this power, murders and plots, wars and battlefields, those things that kill or break any man, have only sublimed him, giving him this dry, tired elegance. Worry might have painted his hair grey, focus might have narrowed his bright eyes, but time barely dared to touch his skin, only to brush a few lines around his thick eyelids.
Not to age, not at all. To emphasize, no more.
This man is a masterpiece in motion.
Will I ever do him any justice.
I stare at my pencils again, as if they had lost all meaning, all purpose.
I watch my sketch, find it worthless, and I have to close my eyes and breathe because I know that feeling, I have destroyed good things while crushed by that storm.
Calm down. Breathe in. He likes your work. Breathe out. He smiled for you.
I open my eyes, focus on this cloak again, and start working. He didn’t notice a thing.
After twenty more minutes of complete silence, I begin to wonder if he’s sleeping. A man can’t sleep standing like that, can he? God, if he falls, he’ll have me killed just because I witnessed it. Should I cough? It hurts me to break into his twenty minutes of peace, though. He really looked tired.
The door slams, and nothing will persuade me it isn’t a whimper I heard, as Richelieu’s eyes snapped open and his whole body tensed so hard it could break.
Charpentier barges in, panicked, and by the deadly look on the Cardinal’s face, the loyal man might be part of a very closed group of five who might do this and live to tell the tale. He trots closer, holding out one sealed envelope in his hand, his head low, but his eyes justified.
-“Father Joseph sends this, Your Eminence.” Charpentier huffs. “The messenger said the password right. It’s about Corbie.”
Richelieu literally hisses.
I instinctively shrink on my stool and hide behind my canvas. I narrow my eyes upon the last lines I had to find, because I have the growing feeling the posing session is over.
I hear paper being torn, and some silken rustling. Five seconds of silence.
-“Spanish scum, damn their blood!”
The stool he was leaning upon falls with a sinister crack. I dare a quick glance, gripping my pencils tight against my chest. He’s standing, furious, a crumpled letter in his hand, biting his lips in concentration, the most terrifying frown I’ve ever seen twisting his white, white face. He thinks fast for a while, and I could almost hear him growl. Then, he snaps his fingers at Charpentier and spits :
-“Send a fast courier to the Dutch ambassador. The movements of Dutch troops along the northern borders have to be accelerated. Use the newest code. Now!”
Charpentier, his hands shaking, bows quickly and leaves running.
Richelieu bites his thumb, the twitches of panic threatening the corners of his eyes. He seems to hesitate, tortured by the infinity of options his clockwork mind provides him. He could almost look scared, if he didn’t look so angry. Before his secretary closes the door, he finally calls:
The humble man timidly steps back in. Richelieu, still standing tall, gripping the paper tight tough to bruise his own hands, has a short, desperate sigh, before he asks, his voice toned down to a nervous, exhausted rumble:
-“Call back the hunt party to the Louvres. The King must know.”
The man nods in resignation and this time disappears for good.
Silence falls back upon the study, as sure as night time.
I watch the Cardinal’s worried face, awaiting the inevitable. I don’t have to wait for long. Richelieu hisses another curse, makes to stride towards his desk, then realizes his legs are tangled in countless yards or red brocade, and he remembers me.
He spins around, his glare piercing holes in my forehead.
Oh God, he really forgot I was there, didn’t he?
I watch, breathless, the weight of my life being measured on the scales of his mind, my worth alive, compared to the things I shouldn’t have heard. It doesn’t last, not more than a minute, but by the end of it one of my pencils breaks, I jump weakly, and start crying.
I sit there, shaken by sobs, not really because I don’t want to die, but because I have just achieved the greatness I craved all my life, and I’m to die before I can finish my work.
I am almost unable to stop crying, but I manage to look up at him in between tears, and when I only see annoyance and concern in his stern, controlled stance, my breathing unlocks itself.
He opens his mouth to speak, but seems to give up halfway, and just nods towards his coat.
-“Just help me out of this burden.”
I get up, struck by lightning, and rush to his side, clumsily hiding my pencils in my apron. I stop dead in front of him, subdued by the smell of new silk and fresh ink. I rub my hands together, because they’re always cold, and he frowns his impatience. I gently unclasp the silver buckle hidden in the fabric around his shoulders, then, and the heavy brocade curtain falls at his feet in defeat.
He sighs in relief, and turns to his desk, but I mumble that there is one outer layer of robes that could be peeled off, if needs be.
-“You’d still be impressive, well.” I cough. “… decent for an audience.”
His breath is a bit short, and I sense he’s already halfway gone, his mind running a hundred yards ahead of mine. But after a few frozen heartbeats he huffs, nods, and has an imperative gesture towards his desk.
-“Bring me that red marroquin folder over here while you do that.”
I obey, and I find myself wordlessly allowed to unbutton his outer robes while he shuffles through letters and accounts. I wish I had more time to ponder on the breathtaking blessing this soft touch is, but truly; five minutes ago, I was dead. All I can do is sniffle and be quiet.
Ten minutes before the thick silk falls, and that’s the best I could do. The second he’s free, he’s gone like the wind, to his bookshelf, a flat wooden trunk, his desk, and back to the shelves.
My family never could afford any kind of education for me, and if I know how to read and write, it’s only because old art master Verhuys thought I had enough talent to be hired by the bourgeoisie someday, and I had to offer them at least some decent knowledge.
If he could see me now.
Uneducated as I am, I’m not entirely stupid. I know war is raging North, and that if the news from Corbie are bad, the Spanish might be knocking on Paris’ walls soon enough. I don’t think I understand why the Dutch ambassador needs to know, and truly, I don’t want to.
It is his work, his purpose, his burden, and every shred of it is already aflame in his eyes.
Whatever needs to be done, he’ll get it done. By teeth, by claw, by honey and milk.
I trust him, blindly.
I carefully fold his outer robes and cloak back in the wide trunk he stores them in, and walk away. I push my easel and stool against a wall, wrap my canvas, close my pencil box. Without a word, my work hugged tight into my arms, I slide towards the door. He doesn’t notice. He’s gone. He’s far away, he’s up North, he’s with the King, and he’s at war.
He does what is necessary.
I trust him, unconditionally.
I glance over my shoulder before I step out. I know I should be marveling at the fact that he doesn’t even feel the need to threaten me, or make me swear silence. Het lets me go with secrets of the State, unruffled, uncaring. It can only mean I’ll be dead within the hour, or he does, indeed, trust me just as well.
I should gape, I should wonder. But the only thing I can do, before I shut that high wooden door, is wince in sympathy at how tired, truly tired he looks.
Spring had already painted the gardens of the Louvres into fragile hues of green when I found myself summoned to his study once more.
Months had passed, and during this dreadful winter, the Spanish armies did graze Paris’ walls. The people panicked, most of the nobility fled to the South, and terrified townsmen sat at the gates of the palace shouting for the King or the Cardinal to speak to them.
Days passed without a word from the Louvres, and Paris grew desperate, flooding the roads to the Loire.
Even through his Eminence of course had been true to each word of his contract, and unbelievable amounts of money were delivered to me each month, I didn’t change a thing in my life. I stayed.
My workshop is humble, but sturdy, with thick walls and solid windows. It is well lit, it can be cleaned and warmed easily. There is no more I expect from life. I stayed.
I did buy new things. Things I had been needing for years, like cutlery, linens, a mirror, a few shelves, and God, one decent dress. But every loaf of bread, every warm soup, every piece of meat I tasted, every soft pleasure those nice things gave me had his name on it. How could I leave at the first threat? How could I be anything else than an extension of his hand?
I am His Eminence’s portraitist. I stayed.
One rainy, dull midday, the gates of the Louvres banged open, and our rightful King marched to the North, forty thousand men behind him, and on a tall white horse at his side, His Eminence Armand Du Plessis Richelieu in riding armor. I was there, as I was almost every day, passing by the palace and hoping for a glimpse.
The walls of my workshop are covered with sketches of this moment, because, truly, I think I cried at how magnificent he was. As they passed through the North city rampart, I heard the troops were blocked by a messy barricade the city folk was trying to build, to stop the Spanish from entering. They say Richelieu dismounted in an instant, helping the people clear out a part of the barricade to let the soldiers out with his own hands. They say the people, who used to hate him so much, and will surely hate him again in a year or so, cheered their breath away.
A month later, the Spanish were pushed out of France, and the King walked back to the palace in glory. Te Deums were sung in Notre Dame for twenty days. The nobility who stayed was rewarded for their loyalty.
His Eminence had a silver case delivered to my workshop, with his arms inside, along with a set of the finest sable brushes I have ever seen.
I stayed. He knew.
Overjoyed, I followed Charpentier to his apartments again, to find him already dressed, standing proud, his robes arranged in thick waves, dictating a letter to another clerk behind him. He didn’t even look at me.
I checked the windows. The warmest golden light sunny days could offer was beaming through, bathing the room in blessed warmth. I inhaled deeply. For the first time in months I was complete.
Easel, stool. Pencils. Not a word.
I unwrapped my canvas to reveal the knee-length figure, almost finished by memory, as it’s the main reason I was chosen after all. I compared the painting to nature for a whole half an hour before I let out a sharp laugh of delight.
I didn’t fail him.
At the sound of my laughter he did look down, frowning, and gestured me to control myself. In my bright, idiotic smile, though, there was no fooling him. When he went back to his dictation, the corners of his bright clear eyes were smirking just as much.
One hour passed where he kept on working, sometimes moving so much I had to cough to remind him of my presence. But eventually his tasks came to an end, and all of his men left the room. By this time, I had made all corrections to the painting, set it aside, and started a new one in the same run, because I know he’d appreciate it. The next piece was supposed to be a bust, a smaller piece meant for his own castle in Richelieu.
I was focusing hard on his face, as it had to be perfect.
Every time I looked at him, I met his eyes.
He looked peaceful.
He had reasons to be. He had come back victorious from the Somme, and for a while, the people loved him. The King gave a magnificent ceremony where he was among the most praised, and when His Majesty embraced him in front of the whole Court, I saw the thunder of a thousand triumphant marches blazing in his eyes.
Enemies were still countless, and his desk hadn’t cleared of the tamed mess he always crumbled under, but this day, Richelieu was peaceful.
Being allowed to capture that forever made me ecstatic.
But strangely, every sketch of his face was a failure.
Panic grew in my chest as I watched my precious minutes pass by without a solid sketch I could work upon at home. God, he was beautiful, his face relaxed as he might never get again, the lenient springtime sun making his silver hair glow like a clean blade. I couldn’t let that moment pass. Next time, for all I know, there could be death at our door again.
He noticed my terror, and asked if I was alright. Twice I think. The second time, I was biting my lips so hard I couldn’t reply.
I tore the fifth sketch in half. Ten minutes left.
I needed a miracle.
I watched him, trying to breathe. Then, something hit me.
The sun had moved, and half of his face was hidden in creeping shadows.
-“Could you turn your head to the left?” I let out.
He paused for exactly one second, lifting one eyebrow just enough to remind me I forgot the “please” and the “Eminence”.
I winced, muttering a confused, botched apology.
He huffed a quiet chuckle and gently turned his head.
-“A little more to the back…”
No. I cursed under my breath.
Eight minutes. I got up.
Miracles must be made.
I walked to him, resolute, blinded by my soul-crushing will to capture that moment, rubbing my hands together to warm them up. He watched me approach with widened eyes, a defensive instinct making him sway slightly backwards, his hands shifting towards the desk where, I am sure, his letter openers are as sharp as a dagger.
But as I carefully let my hands hover around his face, waiting for his consent, his steel eyes softened a little, and he gave me half a nod. I only grazed him with my fingertips, but we both jumped at the touch. His skin was fresh and smooth, just like his hands. But a handshake or a hand kiss is something almost usual for him. His face must be something else entirely, because his confused wariness looked genuine. I gently tilted his face backwards to the left, until the golden sunlight emphasized both his eyes. A few seconds was all I needed.
But I did let my hands linger a little more, because I swear he leaned into the touch.
Nothing much, nothing anyone would notice, except maybe someone who spent months of his life carving that face into eternity.
Oh, Heavens above, how untouched this ruthless, terrifying man must be.
Untouched is not the right word. I know he has mistresses. Anyone, really. This man isn’t refused. He is touched, he is stroke and caressed.
Untouched isn’t the right word. Unloved wouldn’t be neither. He is loved. Not by a lot, but those who love him, love him to the sky and beyond. He couldn’t have achieved so much without trust, without loyalty, without a shred, a fragment of love.
But this craving I saw in those wide, frozen eyes, painted a heartbreaking truth upon the golden light.
Those who touch him, do not love him.
Those who love him, he cannot touch.
My trembling fingers around his hollow cheeks might have been the first sincere, loving touch he had in years.
When I cupped his face with my whole palms, he didn’t utter a sound, rage and confusion boiling in his eyes.
When I stroked his high cheekbones with my thumbs, he didn’t protest, at war with his own heart.
When I shifted closer to him, he closed his eyes, giving up the fight.
The silk whined as I pulled him into my arms, gasping at how thin, yet how strong he was. Made of iron, or made of willpower alone, he returned the embrace with a frightening force, and for the first time in my life, I felt blessed with my height, my wide shoulders, my sturdy frame that could lift a whole barrel, but never fit into a dress.
How long it lasted, I’ll never know. A while, I suppose. He stood very still, rigid and tense at first, then as warmth actually reached his skin through the armor of red silk, he relaxed a little, and I felt the moment when he stopped trying to understand. His shoulders dropped, as if letting go of a thousand burdens, and he exhaled something into my hair. I didn’t understand. It didn’t matter.
I didn’t speak. I stroked his back instead. Something grew, shaking him a bit, and it could have been laughter or sobs for all I cared. We fit, as we were, in our unlikely embrace, both of us recluse, all our lives submitted to one purpose.
For him, France.
For me, him.
How long it lasted, how could I know. After a while, I sensed him letting out a long blissful sigh, and he unlocked himself from me. He didn’t put back his frozen mask, though, he didn’t close the open book, he didn’t lock the door left ajar.
He softly kissed my cheek instead, and I swear I could have died a hundred times in joy and in delight. He murmured a word of blessing into my ear, and I babbled something stupid about being his friend forevermore.
-“I know.” He said. “Now, call Charpentier and tell him to change my schedule. I’ll give you one more hour. Make it count.”
I am still smiling, insane with joy, as I carefully pin the precious sheet on the wall. My wall, above my bed.
In the extra hour he gave me, I could make two worthy sketches. One sketch of his face bearing neutral features for the bust, then another one. For me.
And in this one, I drew him just as he was.
The faintest of all smiles, his eyes distracted and alight with iron mirth, joyful force.
I even sketched his usual black attire on the volumes his robes gave me, because it is in those clothes I saw him for the first time, and forever how I picture him in my lonely, lonely nights.
Once the paper solidly pinned, I let my fingertips graze his cheek of black lead for a while, whisper his name, and blow off my candle.
I quietly hum an old drunkard song as I seal the linen wrapping around the finished bust portrait. My workshop is singing in warm summer light, and the stew brewing in my kitchen has prime cut beef in it. The Cardinal’s courier will be there shortly to take the painting and carry it to the town of Richelieu. Not without, of course, the duly signed letter of approval from His Eminence’s office pinned to the fabric.
No wrapped object enters his castle without it. As if I could, I don’t know, smear my painting with arsenic or something.
But well. His wariness kept him alive, I must admit.
I don’t mind. I am happy.
I lay down the portrait on the floor against the wall, and walk to my dinner, rubbing my hands together again. A strange habit that grew on me recently, no idea why. I put small wood into the cast iron stove, and stir the thick sauce for a while, my stomach growling. That stew smells delicious. Another blessing provided by Armand’s patronage.
When did I start to call him Armand in my head?
Long, so long before I even met him I guess.
I have been talking to him long before he even knew I existed.
I must be deranged.
I don’t mind.
I am happy.
I prepare a small plate and a glass, calling around for my old cat again. I barely see anything of that beast except dead mice on my doorstep. I don’t even have swallowed the first mouthful when someone bangs on the door. I groan. His Eminence’s courier is in advance.
I get up and walk to the door. It’s not the courier. It’s Courreau, the woodworker, unloading a massive object off his cart.
-“Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” He sing-songs. “Your order is finally finished!”
I let out a scream of delight.
Control those outbursts, I hear him say.
I wince once more. Not for long.
I rush at Courreau’s side, and lift the wrapped structure off his hands, carrying it straight into my workshop. I hear behind my back the craftsman let out an amazed curse. Well, he shouldn’t be surprised. I’m just as heavy as he is, why shouldn’t I be just as strong?
-“I live alone, here, Master Courreau” I shout over my shoulder. “I have no father, no brother, no husband. Women like me grow strong if they want to grow old.”
The broad rugged man barks an honest laughter, following me to the workshop to get paid. Once there, while I search around for scissors, he muses softly:
-“And yet the word on the street is that you have found quite a fine sponsor. Trust me on this, Mademoiselle, no one in Paris will dare to harm you now.”
I freeze in my moves, my small scissors in my hand. I look around at those walls covered with countless works, at all stages of progress, from rough sketches to nearly finished compositions.
In the middle of all that gentle mess, a huge piece, so high I need a ladder to work around it. Standing in white light over a background of the Louvres’ skyline, covered in red silken glory, His Eminence Du Plessis Richelieu, holding a book in his pale, delicate hands.
My latest work. A portrait for the soon to be built Académie Française, one of Armand’s dearest endeavors. In a month or so, there will be a grand ceremony below the dome of the Académie, and my officially sealed invitation card has been hidden under my bed for weeks now.
What could have me killed if Paris had become Spanish is indeed likely to be protecting me now. Richelieu is known to never let any damage on his belongings unpunished. It makes me feel good, somewhere inside. It makes me feel warm.
Yes, the word is on the street. I never tried to hide it. He would have been vexed.
Let the word spread. Let the name be whispered.
I cut the ropes around the wrapped structure, and pull sharply on the soft fabric around it.
My brand-new easel is revealed, in sturdy oak and iron lining. As additional support plank, nailed upon the central cog, a thin square piece of cherry wood, splendidly engraved in Richelieu’s coat of arms.
I laugh, ecstatic. Let the sign be seen.
I pay Courreau a hundred lives in gold, and send him away with a joyful smile. I stand alone in my kitchen, warmed by summer light, rubbing my hands together, enjoying the glorious feeling of sheer power his mere shadow gave to my nameless face. My stew is cold.
I don’t mind.
I recognize this knock on my door. I’d recognize it until I die. I have a tired look through my workshop’s window. God, it’s at least two in the morning. I sigh. I should have gone to bed four hours ago, God, I won’t be very good.
I still instinctively wrap my brushes and pencils, a few practice sheets, my colors, shove everything in what has become my emergency bag, and get up to open the door. My back cracks. God I won’t be good enough.
It’s the usual late-hour courier, Temploux, bearing an apologetic face. I offer a wide smile, shrugging his concern away. I hand him my sturdy leather bag, going back inside to fold and grab the new easel.
-“His Eminence didn’t speak about a new piece.” I try as I push the tall oaken tool in the small carriage the Cardinal always sends.
-“He doesn’t even look like he intends to pose” Temploux huffs, rolling his eyes. “I warn you, Mademoiselle, he’s in the foulest of moods.”
I flinch, closing the carriage door. God, I won’t be good at all.
As the small litter passes the gates of the Palace, Temploux shouts at the horse to slow down. It’s unusual, so I lean outside to have a look. I barely see anything, except one man on a horse, riding full speed out of the Louvres, wearing, I think, the blue cloak of the Musketeers and the angriest face a soldier can have. I watch the mighty figure disappear in the narrow streets, and I furtively think that someone’s audience didn’t go as smoothly as planned.
I fear I won’t be any luckier.
If Temploux’s warning wasn’t enough, Charpentier opens the door for me and gestures me in, instead of walking in front of me. The study is dark as a cave. My jaws hurt from being clenched tight for too long. I still straighten my back, exhale, and step in.
I know this room as much as I know his face, so I don’t have to narrow my eyes, but really, one chandelier on his desk, and another where I am supposed to work is all he allowed. He is standing, leaning against his desk behind him, gripping a few letters he doesn’t seem to be reading. His face is twisted by fury, frustration, and God, an awful lot of pain.
Hence the darkness.
Easel, stool, not a word.
I still bite my lips, anguished. He doesn’t wear the robes, he has this black silk cloak thrown over his usual leather doublet, boots and pants. He never asked to be sketched that way. That wasn’t the point.
God, I have no idea what to do. He looks in agony.
I hear his breathing, even from where I sit, short and ragged, as if he spent the last hours shouting. Something dark is rumbling in his throat, like road mud after a storm.
I unroll one sheet, but don’t draw a single line. I watch him. I wait.
He doesn’t look up.
After a while, because it’s either that or start crying again, I search my bag of colors to fetch a bottle of that strong hypocras my father used to blend. It’s the only thing I relied upon to keep me going at this late hour. I fetch my humble wooden goblet, wipe it in my apron, wince, wipe again.
I pour a good serving of the sugary wine, and with a resolute sigh, I get up to offer it to him.
I take three steps before his stare darts up to me, his hand twitching towards his letter opener again. He looks like he sees me for the first time in years, has a confused glance for my face, my goblet, my apron.
For the easel.
There, his tortured eyes slowly widen.
I look over my shoulder. Yes, Courreau is skilled alright. This crest is magnificent.
I take two more steps, hand the goblet out to him. Not a word.
When he frowns in the effort of unknotting his fingers off the papers he was holding and take the wooden cup, pain seems to recede around his temples. I smile, bright and happy like the idiot I am.
-“Good.” he breathes, and I have no idea if it is meant for the wine or the easel.
I don’t mind.
I stand there, three inches away from him, my useless hands patting my stained apron, just like the very first time. I stand here wondering why he summoned me here, if he clearly doesn’t want me to paint anything. I stand here smiling, because I am so enthralled his mere presence is enough, even in that boiling, exhausted state. I stand here for an eternity, desperate to understand what purpose he sees in those hands of mine if they can’t spread black lead on a sheet, until it hits me like a winter breeze.
Oh, of course.
Carefully, silently, I start rubbing my hands together.
There is an anger that could burn this whole city down in those clear, red-rimmed eyes. There is a hunger that could devour a thousand souls in the corner of his lips. He still doesn’t make a sound, and quietly puts the goblet aside.
I lift my warmed fingers around his face. He nods, and closes his eyes.
I cup his hollow cheeks as if France couldn’t hide a more precious treasure.
He sighs, his head falling forward just an inch, and because we are indeed of the exact same height, our foreheads touch, and we both jump.
We fit, as we are.
In our unlikely embrace.
Minutes pass where I softly stroke his cheeks, listening to his breathing as the only song Heaven ever sent me. I open my mouth to speak, something silly no doubt, I never could control myself after all. But he just raises a hand.
-“Shh.” He lets out.
And he pulls apart.
His eyes open, curtains of ice in summertime. I could paint that. But he doesn’t want me to.
What he wants is written in blue pools of frozen water, clear as noon, bright as day.
The meaning of his call, the purpose of my hands.
I can’t breathe.
I give out a weak gasp, twitching backwards, and those treacherous eyes of mine that could never lie are already tearing up. I can’t breathe, but I won’t let go of his face, not for a whole Spanish army.
-“Eminence, please.” I whisper, desperate. “You can’t. Look at me, I am …”
He does look at me. He looks straight at me, then down, and up again. He frowns, and I know he could growl, but he just exhales:
-“You are what?”
-“Huge. Plain. Dirty. Commonplace.” I list, stammering, and those tears, they’re already blurring everything.
I expect a flinch of disgust; God I almost hope for it. But all I find in his eyes is a dreadful flash of raw need, a gunshot, a thunder, covering a distant noise of frustration and sorrow.
Lord above, how lonely this warrior is.
I read on his pained face the effort he makes to tame his rage for a moment, while he distractedly lets his fingertips test the texture of a thick stain of red on my apron. He knows whose red it is. My hands, my shoes, my hair are all speckled in that red. With a distant smile I don’t think I’ve ever seen on him he seems to choose his words, and speaks in soothing tones:
-“If I told you it would please me, are you willing to do as I say?”
This rasping breath in his words, like a thin barrier of restraint holding back a hurricane, screams at my face how crucial this question is. So, I don’t reply, not right away.
There are so many things I wish I could say. I’ve seen the ladies at Court, I know his mistresses are among the best of them. Their bodies are flawless, their skins like velvet, their voices aerial. They know every move, they know every word. The only technique I master is shading. I want to warn him, you’ll be disappointed, I don’t want to disappoint you, not now, not ever.
I want to explain, I want to plead.
But truth is, I think he knows.
Those mistresses are much easier to summon than me. Their rooms are just below. If he wanted one of them, I wouldn’t be here.
I know, I know.
Those he can touch, he doesn’t want.
Those he wants, he cannot touch.
I might be the only way around around that cruel, merciless law he could find tonight.
I may not be velvet and smooth, but I am happy to spend my days painting sunlight upon his brow forevermore.
If this isn’t love, God, what is it.
The purpose of my hands.
There are so many things I wish I could say. But there’s only one word he needs to hear.
-“Yes.” I breathe.
I swear he sighed in relief. I sense the barrier break, tension dropped from his shoulders, replaced by a terrifying strength, wildfire and thunderstorm. His burning eyes meet mine, shift down to my lips, then up again. His tongue darts out for a second, oh bloody hell. I nod, shivering.
His kiss is gentler than I thought.
His hands gripping my apron still won’t tolerate compromise.
Before long, I open my mouth wider, and I think he growls, delving in with an expertise I could be jealous of, if I wasn’t already feverish. I realize I am grasping his face a bit harshly by now, and he likes that a lot. He tastes of my father’s wine, he smells of candlewax. Oh God, it’s him.
I have to pull apart, or I might cry again.
He still finishes to prove his point by licking a short path down my neck, and by the smile I feel when he bites the skin there, tearing a whimper out of me, I understand that’s all he was waiting for.
He lets me breathe, and doesn’t release my apron until he’s sure I can stand on my feet. With that, he passes a satisfied hand on my messy hair. On, not through, he’s clever enough.
He elegantly stands up, walking to that door on the left I never saw opened. He pushes it ajar, and waits, confident, suave. My doubts roar in my chest. My love only yells louder.
A desperate frown narrowing my eyes, I unknot the ties of my apron, leave it neatly folded on his desk, and join him with guarded steps. My hands straighten my dress on their own will. That makes him laugh. That is the most beautiful sound I ever heard.
His bedroom is everything I could imagine. Because of course, how I imagined.
The high canopy bed in velvet brocade, fleur-de-lis and crosses entwined, I am sure he had it ordered it so himself. His crest again, above the mantlepiece, carved in priceless Carrare Marble. More chandeliers than in the study, pouring generous light on the thick wooden floor. There’s a portrait of the King, as everyone is his close entourage is expected to have, and behind me, a delicately drawn map of the town of Richelieu, no doubt by his own hand. Nothing superfluous, nothing useless. Trunks and chairs. A low buffet.
A fierce woodfire is rumbling in the hearth. There’s something quiet about that room, something secret. Something safe. Mesmerized, I reach out to touch a corner of the canopy, watching the heavy fabric catch the light in a thousand hues of gold rims and silver braids. I smile once more, wide, cheerful, stupid.
I heard the door slide shut and I spin around. He steps closer, magnificent, and I have no idea what to do, nothing clever to say. I don’t know how he’d like it to be, oh Lord, there hasn’t been four men in my whole life, all of them mountains of brute strength and simple needs, because those were the only ones I didn’t scare away. None of them could even compare…
Armand, help me, please.
He freezes in his steps and I wonder for a dreadful second if I didn’t speak out loud. I didn’t. I’m biting my lips too hard. I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t understand. He has a patient smile, calmly retreating to the buffet, pulling out a delicate chiseled glass, and pouring a thick red liquid in it. He hands it out to me.
-“Sit down.” He whispers, nodding towards the bed.
I grab the glass, brush the back of my dress, and slump on the bed. I have a timid taste of the red wine. Oh, it’s good. I gulp it down. His eyes widen. I flinch. Wrong, I guess. No, he laughs again. I lay down the glass upon the floor and, boldened by the gunshot of wine, I want to ask him what to do, but he lifts a finger on his mouth before I utter a sound. I watch him, then, petrified, as he removes his coat, cross and hat, unbuttoning that leather doublet of his, swiftly pulling his boots off.
His skin, for the glimpses I can see, is everything I imagined, and Lord, how I imagined.
He’s pale, of course he is, lean and resolute, in silver and milk. When his doublet falls, his shirt is pushed open, and he knows I am blushing. He walks back to me, in chemise and pants, and God above, I need an hour to sketch those feet.
He takes both my hands in his, searches for my eyes, offers me something reassuring, a twitch of his lips no more, and asks:
-“Do I look less frightening now?”
-“You’d still be frightening stark naked in a swamp.” I blurt out, before I clamp my teeth on my tongue in shame.
He raises his eyebrows, amused to no end.
He gives me time to rethink my answer. Who said he was merciless?
-“Yes.” I finally sigh.
-“Good.” He nods. “Now, will you let me undress you?”
No. No, I swear, you don’t want anything of this. Call up a mistress, anyone would do, no, Armand, please…
Stop. Breathe. Remember. He called you.
The purpose of your hands.
He smirks like the beast he can be, and dives back into my neck. If I gasp, it’s because my arms went flying to grab his, and thought the thin shirt, I felt his skin burning. His fingers find the lacings of my plain tunic dress, he doesn’t even need to look. All my mouth can reach is his jawline, so I lay down soft kisses there. He doesn’t say anything, busy devouring every inch of skin his unlacing reveals, so eventually, I cease.
-“Don’t.” He rasps.
I smile in sheer joy.
He likes my work.
I keep on, daring a quick lick of his ear, and he growls in approval. Soon enough my dress falls open, the rude fabric insulting the embroidered covers. He doesn’t seem to mind. His lightweight hands crawl up from my thighs to my chest, exploring for no more than an outline. I straighten my back, is he disappointed?
-“Lie down.” He rumbles.
I wonder how, but his bed is soft and warm, welcoming me, huffing quietly. He’s kissing me again, deeper, hungrier, one hand gripping the covers next to my head, the other sliding inside the font opening of my chemise, cupping a breast, circling a thumb there. I let out a frantic whimper, my fingernails scratching his back. He growls again, and I feel him shifting down to lick the heated flesh he was touching, oh God.
His hand grabs one of mine, and with his glassy eyes still fixed upon mine, he guides it down to the front of his pants.
-“Would you?” he breathes.
He seems to love that word.
If I make a quick work of his pants, that’s because I wear my father’s in my workshop sometimes. Those things are handy. My hands slip in, and both our breaths hitch. He’s impressed.
So am I.
I don’t know if he expects anything special from me, but the way his subtle mouth circles in wet paths around my nipples is maddening, so I just want to be good. And there’s one thing I’m good at.
I wrap my fingers around him, careful not to touch too much, starting slow, but starting firm. He isn’t too heavy, he’s soft, and God, he’s so hard. Is it for me? I wonder how. He bites my neck, I stroke deeper. He cries out. He didn’t do it to please or encourage me, I felt that twitch. He’s not lying.
He likes my work.
He lets me pleasure him for a while, until at some point, his own moves loose their focus. They stutter in their expert circles, their rhythm crumbles. I try rubbing the tip gently, and grazing down the whole length to cup him whole. He cries out more. I do it again. Twice. Five times.
At six, his hand rushes to grab my wrist.
-“Stop.” He says, and there was the first note of a whimper in that word.
His eyes are glistening with want when he looks up at me, and he surely finds that overjoyed smile again, because he looks confused for a second. He’s panting, a bit dizzy maybe, and he slowly pushes my hand away, pinning it on the covers. His other hand rolls up the lower rim of my chemise with deference, then grips my other wrist. When he’s sure there isn’t a move I can make, he allows himself a lopsided grin, and sinks down between my legs.
-“Armand!” I shout. Oh, no.
He freezes, and God, his eyes on mine, from down there, I never even dared to picture them.
His breath is shattered, erratic, and when the next order falls, it almost sounds like begging.
-“Say that again.”
God, the moan he lets out.
I want to praise him, but I can’t, because he lowered his head, his clever tongue finding my spot with dreadful accuracy, and all I can do is arch into him and yell. I twist in his grasp, and I’m quite strong. But my arms don’t escape his, not a second. He settled for slow circles, and I’m crazed, calling, pleading, the fire in me growing so high, so wild I am afraid I might just die.
Because he’s good, because I’m lost, because it’s him, I soon find my hips bucking up and down to the tide of his tongue, and the cries I let out turn desperate. He knows. He lifts me to the white lights of pleasure, eyes half closed, almost dreamy. Then, he pulls away.
I groan and beg and cry, but he only smiles, kissing a lazy pattern on the insides of my thighs, his hands confident enough to leave my wrists, and gently squeeze the flesh around his mouth.
-“You amazing woman” he breathes, and by the rugged gravel in his voice I realize he must have been moaning too. “So delicate in your artwork, yet strong enough to fight a man.”
I wanted to protest some more, beg him to keep on, but I simply stare, panting, dumbfounded. Because never my body had been praised that way, and never in a thousand years I would have imagined the praise to come from him.
-“You could grab me and throw me on the floor, couldn’t you?” He speaks against my skin, in between kisses, sluggish as a drunk man.
I flex my hands, try to gauge his weight.
-“Yes.” I whimper.
-“But you won’t.”
Then, his hands claiming my waist, he dives down again, and the fire roars.
He’s right, I won’t fight. He licks and rubs and circles again, and this time if I bite on my screams a bit, I actually hear his low moans of raw pleasure, peaking with every shudder he gives me.
He lifts me on the edge again. Freezes, kisses my thigh, and talks.
-“My artist.” He says.
I only pant.
He chuckles, and slides downwards.
He plays that game three times, I think. I don’t know. I only know there is a moment when he stops once more, and my nerves break like a twig.
-“Armand, please, stop. Please.”
He blinks a few times; his vision must be blurred. We both realize I am crying at the same time.
He just pauses and watches for a while, then reaches a hand for my cheeks. Are his fingers trembling? I wonder why.
He wipes a tear or two off my skin, and licks them delicately. It seems to ignite something in him, and in a second he’s lying on top of me, with all his weight, which isn’t quite painful, but impressive alright. He kisses my neck, his lips reddened and overused, oh God.
I feel him against my thigh, rock hard, dripping, and I understand exactly how he enjoyed playing me.
-“Tell me what you want.” He commands, exhaling in my ear. I shudder. He smiles.
-“Armand, please, take me now.” I beg, grabbing his shoulders, stroking his hair, anything he would find nice, anything that would help my case.
But my words seem to be his only need right now.
-“Do you want me inside you?” He groans. “Tell me.”
-“Yes!” I scream, and he lets out a strangled whine, his eyes rolling up for a second.
The next heartbeat, he’s filling me deep, and we both cry out on the same note.
Playtime is over, his eyes say, and his pounding is merciless. He doesn’t tease, he doesn’t stop. The only leniency he has is to wait for me.
He waits for me.
Crazed as he is, high on pleasure, grabbing my hair, his thrusts making the whole bed creak, he still watches me closely. He waits for me.
God, how kind he can be.
Moved by him, blurred into him, I yield to the urge to gently cup his cheeks again, smile a softer smile for once, and breathe:
-“My candlelight, my masterpiece.”
He lasts for a few moves no more, then orders me to come for him, and because his voice is broken and his eyes are wet, I obey.
I obey. I’ll always do.
I scream his name, twitching around him, my legs pushing him further in. The shudders almost hurt. The spasms almost break me. I barely sense him burying his head in my neck and shout something there, and I wish he’d say it again sometime soon, because he never spoke my name before.
The Fleur de Lys above our heads welcome our shivers in indulgence.
Much later on, as the first yellow hues of dawn rise above the Louvres' rooftops, he opens his eyes. There’s an instinct of alarm first, his whole body tensing at the sight of me next to him, his hand sliding under the pillow, God does he keep a dagger there?
But he remembers soon enough, and his face softens.
Hell, what kind of life does he have?
I smile. Idiotic smile again, I am sorry. I stroke his hair, he almost purrs.
When we both caught our breaths last night, he gently kissed my forehead, asking me twice if I was alright. I rolled my eyes, and he laughed. I rolled my eyes at the Cardinal Richelieu, and he laughed.
He removed his shirt, then, and pushed his pants out of the bed. He used a corner of his own sheets to wipe sweat and tears off my brow, asked if I wanted to leave.
He sounded nonchalant enough, but stupid as I am, I wasn’t fooled.
-“I am yours.” I said.
He growled some more and kissed me deep.
-“Mine.” He moaned.
He kept his eyes on me for almost one hour, waiting for me to fall asleep, but I begged him not to.
-“I have all my other nights to sleep, Armand.” I pleaded. “Not this one.”
He frowned, confused. But eventually exhaustion washed over him, and he made me the honor of closing his eyes. It took some time, but he fell asleep. Somehow, at this exact moment, as his shoulders relaxed, and his breathing evened out, I felt rich, I felt divine.
Me, the nameless face, the plain spinster. Me, huge and commonplace, I felt higher than a Queen.
Higher than the Queen.
-“What is this?” he asks.
I look down at my knees.
As the sheets, merciful, had moved away from his slender frame during the night and I woke up before him, I couldn’t help myself. I got up, found a wide sturdy book in his buffet, and a white sheet of paper. The pencil there wasn’t good, but I wouldn’t have dared take a step in the study for a Kingdom.
I had to capture him. I had to steal that moment, carve it into black lead, bring it back home.
-“I didn’t draw your face” I plead, turning my sheet, with the old book as a support, towards him. “No one can tell it’s you.”
He frowns, but he doesn’t reply. He just smiles, and inspects the drawing.
-“I like your work” he finally whispers.
Can any artist be blessed by higher praise?