Chapter 1: Swordsmanship Experts
His Majesty sends them on their way three times. Having d’Artagnan oversee their lesson was a novelty before, but for the second time, he only seems to be annoyed by his presence, too. After five minutes of fruitless practising, and an underwhelming performance of the first position, he puts his overcoat back on, then harshly dismisses the both of them.
The day after that, he shuts the heavy practice room doors on their noses.
“Nobody comes in!” he yells. “I don’t need this today! Go, bother Montpensier. She always says she has some understanding of the sword. Why won’t you try her?”
Bernardo looks at d’Artagnan, they open their mouths and close them at the same time, knowing that arguing with His Majesty is futile. They report back to Mazarin, who takes the news with theatrical stoicism. He loves that about his uncle, the performative value in everything he does. His anger is just as measured as his happiness and pride, leading the way for his nieces and nephews. He is never overflown by emotion, never bursts from anger. Everything he does has a controlled elegance about it. It is truly remarkable to be emotional within bounds.
When he forgets how much of his personality consists only of following orders, Bernardo likes to think to himself and toy with the idea of becoming the next Cardinal. They say he also only learned his craft under Richelieu.
Perhaps, he used to be called stupid too, once. And perhaps, you learn by following orders closely, then find yourself in a situation where you must give them out. Being the captain of the guardsmen is similar in this manner, but there is still so much parroting involved. If he did not have his uncle to look up to, the royal palace would be in shambles. And… maybe it would be the time to reunite the musketeers, too. Without his uncle, the king would not be safe, either.
The third time, His Majesty does not even appear at the venue. They find the practice room locked off, and even though they wait a good hour at the antechamber, not even a servant comes to pass a word from the king. When they look for him, they find him in his ballet gear, frantically trying to make a choreography up for the Mazarinettes that they can bear with their clumsy little legs. He hates having to negotiate the quality of the performance for the lack of better dancers. Maybe that is why he is so desperate about opening a royal ballet academy.
“Out!” the king yells at them when he notices their heads peeking into the room.
He throws Lully’s stick at them, and it crashes on the door they barely close to shield themselves, rapping on the wood. They stand in silence for a while, listening to the other side of the wall, curious whether His Majesty would follow to chastise them.
When nothing comes, Bernardo breaks the silence.
“This won’t work. He doesn’t want to practice with you anymore. He hates you because you’re a rude bitch.”
“No, he hates you because you are too formal and rigid, and you have no idea how to make fencing engaging,” d’Artagnan retorts, under his breath.
Is that so!? He was not the one who got mercilessly fired in the middle of his trial lesson, after all. Bernardo pushes his arm a little, his face distorting from outrage.
“No. He just hates swords. I’m lovely."
That makes d’Artagnan laugh out loud in his deep, scratchy voice until they can hear the sound of heels approaching them from the other side of the door and they decide to flee. No matter how frail and innocent His Majesty may seem from the outside, deep inside they were all endlessly frightened of him.
These are the circumstances of the beginning of d’Artagnan’s new life in the palace as Bernardo witnesses it. And, to be sure, he witnesses a large portion of it, too.
Once d’Artagnan shows him affection, he returns it a tenfold, and demands even more in return. Surely, he needs no better support system than his own family. Philippe and he might bicker and find one another embarrassing (embarrassingly frilly - embarrassingly monochrome, embarrassingly manly - embarrassingly bland, embarrassingly loud – embarrassingly shy), but they are devoted to one another in the end. They fit together well, making up for the shortcomings of the other. And Marie Louise and the other sisters might be the wispiest creatures in this whole palace but if he would ever need a gown again, or some hairdressing…
That said, showing physical affection to one another is not something the Mazarin family is known for. They show their love in different ways. Their loyalty lies in unwhispered secrets, and threats of violence to those who dare to cross their relatives.
Bernardo did not notice any of this, the lack of physical affection, until that night in the tavern and a stolen kiss. Ever since then, his lips have been itching and his skin was burning for more. But it is not until he has d’Artagnan leaves his bed for the first time that he realizes what exactly he’s been yearning for.
They part ways once the king dismisses them in the morning, Bernardo heading back to his uncle and d’Artagnan to attend his other duties. He spends the day restlessly waiting around for something, anything. When he hears the sound of someone approaching the saloon in heavy boots, he sharpens his ears. Time goes slowly and even the sun shines through the windows differently lighting everything up with a dim, orange glow. Something changes, and he tries to look for resolve all through the day: during lunch, in the afternoon while watching his sisters practice again, then at supper, staring above his uncle’s shoulder without even attempting to follow the conversation at the table.
He understands at night, only, when he returns to his room. It is cold under his blankets alone, when he gets under them. The sheets are so chilly, they feel wet to his skin as he touches them. Bernardo takes a moment to roll around, and once he constates the cold creeping up so far as to his bones, he leaps out of bed. Slipping into his dressing gown, he closes the door behind himself and sets out to meet d’Artagnan, with his head bent, so people would not look him into the eye and ask about his nightly adventures.
“Which one is d’Artagnan’s?” he brays at a maid, once he gets to the part of the palace where he knows of Claude and Robert have their own quarters. It is not often that he would need to come to this part of the building. Even the air smells different.
She points towards a door quietly and asks no questions. Good. Bernardo would not be able to give her a straight answer anyway.
He only knocks on the door because it is locked when he tries to barge in at first. He bangs on the door with his wrist-bone. After a while, a confused, tired d’Artagnan opens the door for him, still dressed in his uniform.
“… Bernardo?” he asks, suppressing a yawn.
He won’t get corrected this time.
“Well, won’t you let me in.”
He shoves the man away before he could answer and aims at the man’s bed, climbing into it. D’Artagnan is still too confused, so he stands petrified by the open door.
His room looks sad. Even from the point of view of someone currently lying in his bed. There is only one window, small, looking out on a narrow courtyard, opposite of another window of the same size, presumably belonging to similar quarters. If people were looking out of them at the same time, they could clearly see one another. The walls are a little damp and they smell heavy of sleep and of the previous occupant. He can hardly pick out the sun and the earth – and he has a delicate nose.
D’Artagnan only has a chest worth of things open in front of his bed – most of them still unpacked. There is a simple chair next to a small desk, with some food on top, perhaps his dinner he never finished. His boots are left by the door and even now he stands stock still where Bernardo left him, gaping at him.
“D’Artagnan, come now,” he demands, gesturing towards himself. “You did not come to visit my chambers this evening.”
Finally, the man’s face lights up and he closes the door behind himself. Then, he latches it, too, before he would approach Bernardo.
“You did not invite me,” he says, simply. Perhaps to explain himself.
Bernardo extends his arms towards him until he lowers himself enough to be pulled into bed. When he is close enough, he grabs him and yanks him down, demanding the embrace he’s been missing ever since last night. No. Perhaps a lot longer than that.
The guardsman uniform is easy to take off, and he eases it off of d’Artagnan without meeting much resistance, throwing it somewhere on the floor behind them. With a kiss on the fat cheeks, with a kiss on the nose, he finally reaches his lips, smiling even without realizing it. D’Artagnan’s thumb finds his dimple and thus absent-mindedly brings attention to it by caressing the skin. (That is a sore spot. Ruthless, cold-hearted swordsmen did not often have deep dimples to account for. Even the most vicious snarl turns him into a cherub if he forgets to control his face.)
“Your room stinks.” He tries to filter the words through his pressed teeth, then nuzzles his face into d’Artagnan’s neck. “And you stink, too.”
Compliments are still difficult, he notes. They could be kissing for weeks to no end and he would still choke up if he had to say anything remotely positive about his man. It is just impossible. He surely thought a lot of things about d’Artagnan in the privacy of his own head – sometimes even hiding these thoughts from himself. But mountain ranges would crumble down if he admitted any of it loudly. Perhaps d’Artagnan can bridge that gap for them in return.
“Charming.” A cheeky grin. “Perhaps I can find somewhere else to sleep if it bothers you so.” Bernardo clings to him, teeth and claws before he can even attempt to move away.
“I will endure,” he quickly says, before he would be deprived of affection.
When he kisses d’Artagnan again it is clumsier than before. Without the competition born in his own head over who gets to kiss first and last (he must have both), he loses half of his confidence with it, too. It was easier to kiss as Bernadette, and it was also easier to kiss a harmless, gullible d’Artagnan under him on the floor. Now it is calm, and inexperience can rear its head before it would be silenced again. By his sheer desire to be pampered. He takes d’Artagnan’s arms by force and wraps them around himself, demanding to be held.
The man holds him, quite diligently, and takes a hand so he can play with Bernardo’s locks as well, scratching the back of his head. He is warmer already. Then, after a while, d’Artagnan speaks up.
“You know… you still haven’t told me anything about yourself.”
He turns his head a little, so he can look up at him. What does that mean?
“I know plenty about you,” he brags. “I had people to report on you. I know where you live. I know when you came to Paris, I know how you came to Paris… About the Inseparables… You are like an open book. Although, thinking about it now. You know, your friends are a lot more mysterious than you are.”
“Not all of them. Even without asking, Porthos would probably try to flaunt everything about himself,” d’Artagnan thinks. If he is uncomfortable hearing about being spied on, he does not show it. He captures Bernardo’s chin in his hands and turns his head towards himself, thumb brushing his lips. “But. Don’t change the subject. I still don’t know anything about you.”
Bernardo does not respond at all – not realizing that this is a request to share himself with the man. They look at each other for a while, the silence ringing in his ears. D’Artagnan nudges him.
“Won’t you tell me anything about yourself?” He coughs out the first thing he can think of. “I am the best swordsman in Italy.”
D’Artagnan gives him a look. It is not pure disapproval, but there is some sort of sadness in it. “You play with me! That was probably the only thing I already knew about you.”
“You never heard about me before you came here to talk to my uncle? Is that what it is?”
Before saying anything else, d’Artagnan sits up a little, so now Bernardo would settle down at his chest. Lying down this way, he cannot see his eyes.
“They do not say many flattering things about your family,” he says then. “They say your uncle pockets all the tax money and uses His Majesty as a puppet.”
Bernardo’s face flushes from anger and he peels himself out of d’Artagnan’s arms immediately. He turns away from him, finding it difficult to keep his voice down.
“If he is only my uncle’s puppet, pray tell, why won’t he even practice swordsmanship when he begs him to do so!” He brings his knees close to himself, curling up into a small ball. “It may be all that you see, that my uncle takes that tax money, but he uses it for the sake of the kingdom. He has the well-being of his family in mind too, as much is true, but he was always loyal to His Majesty.”
Cautiously, d’Artagnan places a hand on his back in an attempt to calm him. Bernardo presses his lips together and tries to resist the warmth.
“Then why dismiss the musketeers?”
“Don’t you understand? As long as there are guardsmen and musketeers, the court will always remain divided,” he repeats his uncle’s words without giving them much thought. “His Eminence’s personal guard can serve as His Majesty’s too. Without that, it would only bring useless rivalries. It’s not like you have to protect His Majesty from us.”
Without answering, he rubs his hand on Bernardo’s back a little, swaying him back and forth, until he stops being so tense. He feels like a sulking child who needs to be appeased.
“I told you it was nothing flattering. You heard in the tavern, as well.”
Bernardo snatches his hand roughly and pulls him closer, forcing himself back into the embrace. He can feel d’Artagnan breathing into his neck.
“Just don’t say anything else tonight, so I won’t feel the need to kill you.” D’Artagnan is not satisfied with that approach.
“No, no. I refuse to go to bed with any ill-feelings between us. That is my parents’ teaching. One – you know about that already -, you cannot lie to the sword. Two, no matter what happened during the day, you cannot fall asleep holding any grudges to one another.”
Well, Bernardo cannot remember the last time he did not fall asleep while bathing himself in resentment. Right… the night before, in d’Artagnan’s arms. He was too busy to think about his grudges for once.
“We are already in bed,” Bernardo tries but it does not seem to satisfy the man, so he adds. “If you press just close enough, I am sure the ill-feelings won’t fit between us anymore.”
For the first time, he oversleeps. He has to run back to his own quarters in the morning in his dressing gown, while his men all wait for him, lined up for the briefing. Even d’Artagnan arrives earlier than him because he has the advantage of waking up in his own room, close to his day clothes.
When he finally arrives, with sleep still deepening his voice, and his skull pained from exhaustion, all eyes are on him. It is normal, for guardsmen to look up to their captain. It is less normal to stare at him because he made them wait longer than usual. Jean is sitting on the ground, having given up the wait. Paul is next to him, resting his head on his knees. D’Artagnan is first in line, grins and looks fresh as ever. He gapes at all of them, at loss for an explanation.
"I am late,” he announces then. “I was with my lover at night and we lost sleep.”
When he looks at the way Claude’s face turns pale, he remembers that wretched Montpensier. At least his excuse is embarrassing enough for everyone to refuse to ask any more questions. Surely, they will whisper about this behind his back anyway, no matter what he says.
He tells d’Artagnan to come to his chambers instead from that day onwards. If anyone is going to be late and chastised for it, it should be d’Artagnan, after all.
That night he wrestles him to bed, trying to show him who is stronger, but d’Artagnan does not go easy on him. He ends up wrapped in his blanket like a cocoon. Bernardo wakes up with bruises all over his shins and arms and tries to suffocate the man with a pillow instead of a good morning kiss. Thankfully, d’Artagnan is already awake, so he stops him effortlessly.
“I still want to fight it out once,” Bernardo tells him once he’s been convinced to put the pillow down. “See which one of us is better.”
“In a fair fight, yes? If you suffocate me, you cannot see whether I’m truly a swordsmanship expert as they say. Or perhaps you have your own doubts about your abilities, after all?”
“… Go to your morning meeting!”
The third night they enter his bedroom quarrelling about why His Majesty would refuse to practice with them. Bernardo holds out, claiming that it is all because of His Majesty hating the very sight of d’Artagnan to begin with. It’s not difficult to hate such a rude countryman. D’Artagnan disagrees, of course.
“Well, I cannot blame him for resenting you, after you tackled him to the ground. It is all because you are a big, strong, rude…” He bites his lower lip and mumbles the rest. “… rough Gascon.”
“It was because I do not know a single thing about the etiquette at court, so the circumstances made it look a lot worse than it was.”
“My sister wanted to kill you for it, you know.”
D’Artagnan thinks it is a joke, so he laughs appropriately. He gawks at him with wide eyes until the man realizes that it is no laughing matter. D'Artagnan is being disrespectful towards his family: he could hardly do anything more outrageous than that.
“Have you met my sister? She broke my nose once.”
D’Artagnan seems happy: finally, he gets to learn something about Bernardo. Anything. They continue talking about His Majesty as they sit around on his bed, and Bernardo tells him about his uncle’s plans, should the queen of Spain not be a match for him.
They occupy themselves with that until the early hours of the morning, then end up falling asleep with their heads knocked together, in the middle of a sentence.
The next day, His Majesty finally receives them, willing to waste an hour on them to practice some fencing. They find out when he opens the door of the antechamber at them, sticking his head out.
“Are you coming in or what!” He spots d’Artagnan, walking in after his captain. “And that’s d’Artagnan. What. Is he attached to you now wherever you go?”
“Your Majesty, we arrive today to try and make you find some fondness in the sword. D’Artagnan has some ideas to make it more enjoyable.”
“Enjoyable or no, the sword is still used to take lives. Why would I have any fondness for that? On the other hand, dancing never murdered anyone.”
Bernardo is sure that this is not quite right – there must be some poor soul who was killed by ballet. It is so easy to fall victim of ridiculous accidents in this world. If not, then Marie Louise and her nerves are still threatening to be the first ones to give in to it. He takes his hat off and puts it on the side, so it would not bother them while practising. Then, he fetches a sword for both His Majesty and himself.
“Well, let us hear what this d’Artagnan has in stock, then,” the king demands, as he swings a little, readying himself for the challenge.
“We do not need the swords, for now.”
Bernardo and His Majesty both give him an empty, confused look, refusing to put their swords anywhere. D’Artagnan tilts his head.
“Your Majesty detests fencing, we all know that. So, I thought that instead of practising with the sword first, we can find something he would enjoy doing more, to warm up.”
“Like dancing?” the king asks, his eyes sparkling. He throws the sword on the ground, interested.
Bernardo tries to protest but he is silenced with a single motion of hand, and he is too baffled to make any sounds. Just what is d'Artagnan up to again?
“Not exactly… but perhaps.” He extends his arms towards His Majesty, showing him his palm. “We talked about the importance of keeping eye contact before. ... I have a game. Your Majesty hovers his hand above mine, without touching. It is prohibited to look at our hands, and in an unexpected time, I will try to strike Your Majesty’s hands with mine. If I hit, we change positions. If I miss, we continue until I successfully struck Your Majesty’s hand.”
The king purses his lips up, absorbing the information. It is unclear whether he is entirely disinterested or finally lured in a little. When he does not react in any way, d’Artagnan continues.
“We know Your Majesty as a playful creature, so we thought this might interest him more than the sword.”
For sure, Bernardo did not think any of this. Finally, His Majesty hovers his hands above d’Artagnan’s, a little sullenly, then shrugs.
“Alright. Let’s give it a chance, should we?”
Bernardo watches them play for a while. At first, both d’Artagnan and the king seem nervous: d’Artagnan probably remembers his mishap at his trial lesson, which worries him. It would be a pain if he made the same mistake, and hurt his king on an accident. Even with that, he cannot bring himself to hesitate. He successfully strikes His Majesty at the first attempt and then they change positions.
His Majesty is not so quick to score, and he constantly needs to be reminded to look up. After a while, both of them are laughing, with their hands red and itchy all over. Bernardo observes them with his head tilted to the side, and he can feel a very distinct sense of jealousy wash over him.
One, how dare d’Artagnan take up the teaching in his place? Two, how dare His Majesty seem to enjoy this child’s play? Three, how dare d’Artagnan himself enjoy it so shamelessly too!? It reminds him of nothing else but the time when he would be left out of a game as a child, then scolded for sitting around in a corner, a lonesome, morose little boy. It is not a nice memory. Even when he was young, he hated to be scolded for being left out – as if that was his choice, to begin with.
“That was plenty for now,” he snaps at them, stepping closer. It is threatening enough.
His Majesty and d’Artagnan stop in motion and look at him in a synchronized manner. Their smiles melt off their faces, as well. The king looks away, chewing on his lips and trying to regulate his face, so all traces of amusement would disappear. D’Artagnan looks concerned.
“Perhaps… you would like to join us?” he asks, trying to pinpoint the source of Bernardo’s anger. “It seems like His Majesty has already learned my methods quite well. Maybe some he would enjoy it more if we mixed things up a bit.”
Both Bernardo and the king are reluctant at first but then he steps forward, showing his palms. D’Artagnan steps on the side and watches over them from there, reminding His Majesty of keeping eye contact every now and then. He takes some time to get used to his new partner, and after a few games, they exchange it is clear that his concentration declines, having reached his limit for today.
Even with this, he had his attention on them for far longer than it was expected. Bernardo knows that as soon as His Majesty starts losing interest they are treading on thin ice, so he stops the game immediately.
“His Majesty seems tired,” he claims, then turns towards d’Artagnan. “I think he had enough for today. Perhaps we can use what we learned today with the sword tomorrow.”
“Ha? How do you use this with the sword?” the king asks. He already produces more interest in fencing with this simple question than he ever did before.
“With this game just now, Your Majesty started to learn how to attune himself to his partner at hand. After all, he could move his hand away even when he could not see our hands moving to attack him. Thus, Your Majesty learned the importance of the eye contact, which Bernardo was teaching him about the other day.”
His Majesty nods then takes his jacket and considers their meeting closed. Both of them bow their head until the door closes behind him. Then, with a deep sigh, d’Artagnan collapses on the floor, sitting down next to the sword the king left behind and Bernardo buries his face in his hands.
“I was scared,” d’Artagnan admits. “Of His Majesty’s rage, if this does not end up the way I planned it.”
“What! You already had the musketeers disbanded. How could you make that any worse?” He sits down next to him on the ground and nudges him by the arm. “Hey, d’Artagnan. Let’s match our strength.”
Instead of taking the sword up, the man offers him his hands, as they played with His Majesty before. When Bernardo gives him a dissatisfied look, he explains, although it is nothing more than an excuse made out of thin air.
“I cannot fight my captain.”
“I need to polish my skills with someone, too.” But he strikes d’Artagnan’s hand, and they end up immersed in the game for the next half an hour, forgetting about their duties.
Before they would leave the practice room, d’Artagnan sneaks a kiss on his lips as a farewell. He does not scold him for being too reckless, the affection is welcome. If he was any smarter than this, he would also limit their meetings and avoid having d’Artagnan over in his chambers every night.
He is really not smart.
“Go, see what the other guardsmen are up to,” he commands. “Report to me later."
Bernardo himself sets out to meet his uncle too, excited about sharing their progress with him. It is already a reason to boast that he was not dismissed from his post under three days – but the fact that His Majesty was willing to practice with him put the icing on the cake. There is a reason, after all, for the captain of the guardsmen to assume this position. He is halfway across the saloon, to make his way towards his uncle’s personal chambers when he hears a familiarly annoying sound. Without mistake, that screech can only belong to Montpensier.
“Your Majesty, I had a word with God!”
Soon, Bernardo finds that this Father Aramis, dubbed as God himself by the duchess of Montpensier, has very little original advice to spare. He knows this because Montpensier ends up getting the very same advice he was given only a few days ago.
To leap into his arms.
Surely, for Bernardo, it worked. And worked flawlessly, too. But, d’Artagnan received him with open arms. His Majesty has no arms for the duchess of Montpensier. Not at all.
“I… ugh… don’t like women,” he says in a flat voice, entirely untouched by Montpensier’s offer. To say that he is untouched is wrong: the king certainly is scared. He tries to scramble as far away from her as possible.
Bernardo cannot help but feel some sort of a kinship with the king at that moment. With the things he says, and with the way he presses his elbows to the side, and attempts to flee the scene with his head bent, lips thinning to a straight line. His Majesty is a short, delicate-looking creature, but for a moment, they could be brothers. At this moment, Bernardo understands his omnipresent desire to protect and shield him.
He puts a hand on the shaft of his sword and steps forward to help, but he is just a second too late. Before he could rush between the two, Montpensier has already leapt into His Majesty’s arms. Or, for the lack of a better method, she has already grabbed him from behind, attaching herself to him as if he was the last rope to cling into to save her pathetic life.
His Majesty screeches and soon Montpensier joins him in screaming, too.
By the time Bernardo arrives to his rescue, his uncle, Philippe, and the Mazarinettes are also there, all beckoned by the sound of distress, and ready to assist His Majesty. He peels Montpensier off of the king.
Then, his entire world turns upside down.
“He’s a woman!” he explains later that evening to d’Artagnan with lively hand gestures, still in disbelief. He probably never showed his naive side to the man before, but the news shake him up entirely, and he forgets about his image. “His Majesty. Is a woman! A woman in the flesh.”
If he thought that they were kindred spirits before, this is an entirely new discovery. The way His Majesty is wearing his breeches, Bernardo wore his gowns as well, when trying to spy after the musketeers. Now he understands all the pent-up anger and frustration in the king he never understood before. It surely is uncomfortable to pretend you are someone you are not and have all these people stare at you empty-eyed, not realizing that something is amiss.
Only those with an uncomfortable secret can simultaneously wish they could tell everyone to lift the weight off their shoulder – and live in constant fear of the scandal that is to follow, once the truth is out in the open. Bernardo felt strained after a few days: His Majesty has been pretending for twenty years. She must have been itching to come clean and live with the truth, the same way he wanted to dismiss d’Artagnan’s feelings for a non-existent “Bernadette.”
D’Artagnan does not seem to follow him into excitement so he needs to slow down and explain it to him like he was a child.
“Do you not understand? His Majesty… has been a woman all along. The whole time we knew him. This is why they kept saying his build was more fragile than an average man! Naturally!” Bernardo feels like he suddenly understood all the secrets of the universe. “Because he is a woman! So, he cannot be the average man.”
Perhaps d’Artagnan is too daft even to understand this. Or perhaps he is smart enough not to be openly fascinated by the news as he slowly puts two and two together, discovering the true depths of His Majesty’s secret. He does not even smile (although even Bernardo believes this incident is something to smile about - how charming it is that both he and His Majesty were caught doing the exact same thing!). He simply stares into space.
Bernardo knows he should be patient with him. The past week, nothing happened but several people come forward about having pretended to be something they are not. It is probably too much for him already. There are so many new things to get used to day by day.
“… how do you know of this?” he asks then, once he snaps out of it.
“Oh. Montpensier grabbed him… by the bosom… and found out.” D’Artagnan’s lips curl, which is the first sign of understanding he shows. Bernardo continues, suddenly remembering the outrageous things Montpensier was planning to do. “Then, she immediately told everyone about it. She also wanted to apply to the Parlement to remove His Majesty from the throne. Over such a minor thing - it’s ridiculous.”
“Such a minor thing? If this is all true, she was not even supposed to be crowned as king. They lied about her identity.”
They are sitting on Bernardo’s bed, cross-legged, their uniforms half undone. He edges closer to the man, so they can intertwine their legs with one another as they sit face to face. D’Artagnan’s face tells about some sort of an outrage he cannot really decipher. He must be entirely confused, for him to be in so much distress. Bernardo kicks him a little, so he would come to his senses, and it half works.
The owl-light looms outside the window of his chambers, leaving the walls tinted in sleepy grey. It is cosy and starts to feel like he never knew anything else before this.
“Yes. I lied about my identity too and got a kiss out of you as a reward. Twice.” D’Artagnan gives him another kiss now to ascertain, pulling him closer by the chin. “With that, you just proved that it really does not matter whether someone is a man or a woman. You kiss them anyway.”
“In your case, it was entirely harmless.” First, Bernardo wants to remind him that in his case it was intended for spying but he thinks better of it. “In His Majesty’s case, I bet this was the scheming of Richelieu and your uncle again. But anyway. What happened to Montpensier?”
“She is under house arrest for high treason, and currently held in her room. My two most trusted men are guarding her before she would be taken to the prison of Loches sometime tomorrow.”
“Well, what are we expected to do? Let her appeal to the Parlement and dethrone His Majesty just like that? It is treason.” Bernardo licks his lips and continues, calming himself. “Although, His Majesty appears to hate some aspects of this, especially the wedding. Getting out of it would please him. He… she seems to have a twin brother, strangely enough.”
“A twin brother?”
Bernardo presses his lips together and gives a curious look to d’Artagnan. Once he heard it, he was also just as baffled about the news, so he understands the confusion. He always knew that his uncle was hiding many things, but his loyalty to the king went so deep that he would not even tell his closest family about his true identity. Even though, Bernardo and his siblings would surely protect her with teeth and claws, no matter what.
As long as that is what Mazarin wants.
“They were switched at birth by mistake. The girl was supposed to be sent away to the convent and brought up there in secret.” At least this is what the Regent and Mazarin told them, once they felt the need to provide everyone in the room with some explanation to gain their sympathy. “The Regent had some sort of an amulet she gave them. A two-headed pigeon, or what… Everything was happening at the same time, so I did not pay attention to every detail.”
Something about this two-headed pigeon seems off but he cannot really pinpoint what. And finally, he has d’Artagnan’s full attention on him, which he seemed to be lacking for the whole evening. It makes him happy, so he continues to share what he learned. It is so often that d'Artagnan is completely occupied with something else, like His Majesty...
“But, before they would arrive at the convent, the envoy who took the boy by mistake was pursued by thieves and died. The boy disappeared, they have no way of knowing whether he is dead or alive, and where to find him.”
“So… if he is still alive, they can switch them back?” d’Artagnan asks.
Bernardo tilts his head. Mazarin was quite frugal with information, perhaps for a good reason. The downside of his secrecy is that Bernardo cannot act smart in front of his lover now. Which is something he quite enjoys doing (it makes him feel important).
“Why on earth would they want to switch them back!? His Majesty was raised to be a king his whole life. If the other boy is alive, he surely did not get anything close to royal education, wherever he’s been for the past twenty years.”
“Even so,” d’Artagnan insists.
“Remember when you came into the palace for the first time? The way you looked? The way you acted? Like a peasant who came straight from the fields, still dressed in his worst, stinking of the earth, who had no idea of etiquette or dress-code?” D’Artagnan scratches the back of his head instead of giving an answer. “Do you want to have a king like that? Who cannot even address his people well because he lacks the words to do so? If you want the royal family to lose face, by all means, find that boy and replace our king. But I think people should know their place.”
“His place would be rightfully on the throne,” d’Artagnan reminds him.
Bernardo looks at him as if he went mad, his brows knitted together.
“Not on this one, for sure. He is not the one who was crowned.”
“Due to a mistake… and your uncle’s greediness.”
Bernardo hops off of the bed as he considers their conversation to be over, drawing the curtains of his chamber. Having to think so much tires him to no end, he is used to seeing eye to eye with his uncle. Or at least, he is used to his uncle proving to be the smarter person. With d’Artagnan, this is not the case. There are so many things they see differently (which is to say, there are so many things d’Artagnan is wrong about), but he cannot understand his viewpoint. To be so passionately against Mazarin makes his heart heavy.
When he spends too much time staring blankly at the black drape, forcing a response back on his own throat, d’Artagnan steps behind him, placing a hand on his shoulder. His palm radiates warmth, as always. His voice, too.
“I won’t change my stance just to make you more comfortable,” he tells him. It is just a statement, nothing more and nothing less. There is no apology in it, but no accusations, either. “And I suspect you also won’t change your ways to accommodate me. It is fine that way.”
Whether it is truly fine, only time can tell. He nods.
“We can fight it out,” Bernardo agrees.
At least they have the resignation to accept disagreement. As for him, it is perhaps only because he would die if he needed to go back to the nights where he would not be kissed and held through the night. D’Artagnan must have an incentive, too.
He beckons Bernardo back to bed and allows him to rest his head on his shoulder as they sit up. The blanket reaches up to his chest. For a long time now, the sun keeps smelling so kind to his nose. A little bit like home.
“You are determined to fight me, still.”
“Of course, I am. Once it has to be settled. You cannot get away with pretending to be France’s best.”
D’Artagnan finds that amusing to no end. Does he really think that he would be able to best Bernardo in a fight? If there is something that is not endearing, it is people having misconceptions about their own abilities at the sword. D’Artagnan sure is a strong man, but strength alone does not correspond to talent. Which brings him to…
“In any case, we still continue the fencing lessons with His Majesty tomorrow, no matter what. So, you better have another idea or two as to how to entertain her.”
“You trust me with that? To bear the brunt of teaching?”
D’Artagnan teasingly pokes him with his nose, possibly thinking that he is adorable. It certainly is not the case so soon, d’Artagnan experiences the man’s hand pressed into his face, intently pushing him away. He laughs as he tries to free himself, and Bernardo can hardly swallow his giggles, too.
“At least I can keep an eye on you. If I did not let you share your ideas, you would be rude enough to do so anyway,” he explains, although it is nothing more than an excuse.
He does not know what would happen if he had to be away from d’Artagnan for a second longer than necessary. How can you get attached to such an insufferable man so quickly? It is almost as if all of his pent-up annoyance, his unceasing attention on him, and the obsession turned into fondness. Unfortunate.
He wonders if there was ever a time when his uncle lost his cool, too.
Bernardo cannot wonder for long: d’Artagnan’s hands creep up under his shirt in an unguarded moment and mercilessly tickle him, attempting to take the rest of his clothes off. He screams, forgetting about the sound travelling too quickly in this palace, and twists d’Artagnan’s hand, forcing him to stop.
“Get your hands off of me.” He pulls his shirt down, his side still tortured from all the poking. “And don’t do that again. I have enough to worry about without you attacking me: the palace guards are lacking number for the reception of the queen of Spain, and besides escorting Montpensier to Loches tomorrow, I will need to figure something out about that too.”
“Oooh, was it a bad idea to dismiss the musketeers, after all?” d’Artagnan teases.
Surely, he must know that none of his men would be trusted enough to come and help out anyway – even if they swore to protect His Majesty. Musketeers are snakes. Everyone knows that. They would find a way to twist the truth and explain how treason serves their king.
“Rather than that, it was a bad idea to open your whore mouth.”
By the morning, he forgets it anyway. They leave Bernardo’s bedchamber together as if it was not at all risky to be seen doing so. Mazarin never warned him beyond being wary to dress up in skirts. Then, again, it is entirely unclear how much he understands about their relationship. Does he know that they keep kissing, even if d'Artagnan has learned about his true identity?
D’Artagnan was always reckless to the point of stupidity and Bernardo is still not smart. They turn up at the practice chamber in time, waiting on the king.
When she finally arrives, Bernardo receives an anxious, distrustful look from her.
“D’Artagnan again?” she asks.
Perhaps she rightfully thinks that she needs to hide her identity from him. Well, in a way she is not wrong. Mazarin told Bernardo too that it is best to contain the scandal as much as possible. Many people might think the same way as Montpensier.
“I will soon escort a prisoner to the Loches, as you might know, Your Majesty,” Bernardo explains. “I thought d’Artagnan could stay with you to practice in the meanwhile.”
“Right. What game do you have this time? D’Artagnan?”
She already has her palms turned upwards, waiting for them to start. Bernardo abruptly steps between the two, so they would not be able to touch. ... What do they think they are doing?
“That was a one-time thing,” he declares.
D’Artagnan’s head pops up above his shoulder, curling his arms around him, so he can show his hands to His Majesty. Now, he stands trapped between them.
“I suppose we can warm up with that a little,” d’Artagnan thinks, completely disregarding his captain’s word. “But, we will need to use a sword too, this time.”
His Majesty arches an eyebrow but does not comment on the scene. Instead, she accepts, sliding her hands under d’Artagnan’s.
“This will make it harder for you,” the king says. “Bernardo, that is.”
D’Artagnan does not let him go anyway, resting his chin on his shoulder.
“It’s all the more interesting, Your Majesty.”
He wants to say something, but nothing comes to mind, so he just suffers the abuse for a while. Once he has enough, he squeezes d’Artagnan close to his side by pressing his arms down, preventing him from continuing the game. He bickers.
“It is time to start the real practice.”
Both d’Artagnan and the king seem quite underwhelmed by this, but they get their practice swords with the blunt tip. His Majesty seems to threaten with leaving the scene at any given moment: it is never safe when things do not go the way she imagined them, and it seems like silly child’s games interest her more than fighting.
“If you think about fencing,” d’Artagnan explains, “it really is the same game as we played. Try disarming me, this time, instead of hitting my hands.”
His Majesty purses her lips up and stares at the ceiling for a while. Bernardo cannot say if she is unconvinced, or finally lured in.
“Very well,” she says. “Let us try that. I will give you some time to convince me.”
Bernardo watches them for a while, then excuses himself: Montpensier needs to be taken to the Loches as soon as possible. It is clear that he can leave d’Artagnan and the king to each other, and somehow that makes him worry. Why is it that His Majesty sent him away once, and now they can still play with one another like carefree children? ... Why cannot he make His Majesty as happy as d'Artagnan does now? Is he too unimaginative? Too pragmatic?
Is he not stinky enough?
If His Majesty clearly did not enjoy the fencing lessons, he would not have such a hard time leaving them behind. Inflicting suffering upon d’Artagnan is much better.
“How do you feel about this? Boss?” Claude asks him once they meet at the entrance to Montpensier’s chambers.
His voice is low, and there is something sympathetic about him, which is certainly new. His awkwardness has not diminished. Bernardo stares at him for a while, puzzled.
He still believes it is Montpensier he is kissing at night.
“Treason is treason, no matter what,” Bernardo finally says in a measured tone. “My uncle was right in condemning her. I would do the same.”
“I think that is right, Captain.”
He takes a deep breath before entering the room. Can it be that he finally escaped the allegations of an affair with this? Now Claude must think that he lost faith in his lover, and he never has to think about kissing Montpensier again. Not even in his worst nightmares.
Montpensier whines through the whole journey, and she is so violent, sometimes he thinks that Claude and Robert alone won’t be enough to apprehend her. She is a strong, willful woman, after all.
“I’m part of the royal family!” she tells Bernardo like that means anything.
Beaufort is also part of the royal family… Look at him now.
“His Majesty is, too,” Bernardo decides on saying. “Yet, you ended up spitting out all these ugly allegations at him. It is just that they detained you.”
Montpensier keeps moaning about until they reach the Loches and suddenly she cannot be the centre of the attention anymore. The first thing Bernardo notices is… absence. The castle seems fine from both the outside and the inside, and yet, when they pass Beaufort’s cell, there is nobody inside to greet them with a bitter look.
“The musketeers broke him out last night.” That is the answer he gets.
“… last night!? And when were you supposed to send word to the palace about this?”
The guards look at each other, trying to pass down the speaking role to someone that is not them.
Montpensier finds this extremely entertaining – as if she suddenly decided to side with the musketeers on a whole, now that she could not marry His Majesty.
“We… didn’t know what to do,” one of the guards admit.
“Well. Clearly!” Bernardo shoves Montpensier away, nudging her to go inside the now empty cell. “Now, do a better job with this one instead. I will inform the court about the breakout.”
Which means that he will have to take Mazarin’s anger for them too if it comes to that. It is tragic enough on its own, but Montpensier gives him the last push (here, it is rather a pull), grabbing him by the jacket through the bars of her cell. From the surprise, Bernardo feels like he swallowed icicles that are now running down his throat, but his face is already flushed with embarrassment.
When Claude looks at them, he sees a lie.
“You will regret this,” Montpensier spits. “You Italian bitch!”
She tosses Bernardo away and there is no recovery from that, no matter how much he tries. Perhaps, if he stayed back to practice fencing with His Majesty, or play the red hand game with her, someone else could take the blame and the humiliation. Why is it that even now, d’Artagnan is the more favoured one? He should be grateful for having been able to grasp this position under Mazarin and stay humble. Instead, he enjoys his life in the palace, while Bernardo takes all the abuse.
Even if right now Bernardo enjoys the life d’Artagnan is leading with him… it can still be annoying. His jealousy perhaps runs deeper than any other emotion he can feel. It grabs him by the stomach and makes him feel nauseated: being inadequate in others’ eyes.
He snaps out of it and commands his group to return to Paris. His uncle should learn about Beaufort’s escape as soon as possible.
Bernardo announces the flight of Beaufort as soon as he arrives, without even considering his surroundings. The king is there dressed up in the Sun King costume, and the Mazarinettes accompany her, as well as Mazarin and d’Artagnan, who seems not to be able to let go of His Majesty. That, or he is a guardsman after all, and it is his duty to look after Mazarin. Envy sometimes makes him even more simple.
The reaction is just as severe as he suspected, although, Mazarin does not blame him. It does not mean that the situation is any brighter than it was before. Beaufort is still out there somewhere, possibly in Paris, and planning an insurrection. Their defences are still the weakest, lacking palace guards. Maria Theresa is still approaching and could arrive any time. His Majesty is still a woman.
That in itself is not a problem, but when Bernardo takes it into consideration that she should produce an heir with Maria Theresa… things get a little more frightening.
Once everyone is out of the saloon, he drives d’Artagnan to the closest wall.
“And what do you have to say about all of this, you little swordsmanship expert?” he hisses. “Do you have anything to say about your musketeer friends?”
He does not try to peel Bernardo off of himself. Perhaps he finds the distrust reasonable enough not to put up a fight. His face is not calm, however. Something deeply upsets him.
“I only heard about the escape now.”
“Is that so? Maybe you are complicit in this. Maybe you planned all of it with them.” D’Artagnan looks away, giving a pointed look to the window behind Bernardo’s back. Then, he continues in a tired tone.
"While I was sleeping in your bed, right beside you?”
He places a hand on Bernardo’s, which is twisting the front of the uniform at his neck. He does not want him to let go, it is only for safety. Right. He mostly supervised d’Artagnan well these past days.
“Your friends committed treason,” Bernardo says, as his heart settles. “Beaufort planned to dethrone His Majesty once.”
“Mazarin threatened the existence of the musketeers.” A pause. “In fact, he successfully erased them, on a whole. You cannot expect them to let it pass by without trying to grasp for any man who could support their case. Do you expect them to let your uncle win and give up entirely?”
Bernardo does not even need to think about this.
Then, he releases d’Artagnan with a sigh. There is some truth about what he says but he does not want to acknowledge it. He does not want the musketeers to be underfoot. To soften how he lashed out on d’Artagnan, he pats his chest a few times, fixing the creases on his uniform.
“I heard what your friends said in the tavern,” he says then. “They did not need to be disbanded to do so.”
“I saw that your men paid them to say those things.”
“Nobody paid the ginger menace.”
D’Artagnan forms an “o” with his mouth, possibly thinking how he could shift the blame back to Bernardo. It is true, though, he thinks. Some men were paid to slander His Eminence and the king. But most of them did it for free.
“In any case. You should sleep in your own bed tonight,” Bernardo tells him finally.
He perhaps does not want d’Artagnan’s arms around him tonight. D’Artagnan looks into his eyes, then his gaze lowers, and he glances at his lips. Subtle sadness.
Maybe d’Artagnan finally wanted to spend the night with him properly. Perhaps he is only lamenting that. It's been quite long that Bernardo kept avoiding it, after all.
“I will have a lot to settle today. Perhaps I won’t even be back in my chambers until the early hours of the morning,” he explains since he cannot bear to see the darkness in his eyes. “Stop looking at me like that. Maybe you can go and practice some more fencing with His Majesty.”
D’Artagnan squeezes his hand before he leaves, as a sign of affection. He wants to return it with a multitude of kisses as always, begging for attention but this time, he somehow controls himself.
When tomorrow comes, he can trap d’Artagnan in his arms again.
The palace guard problem needs to be settled. There are always strong fellows in the Capital who are ready to lend their strength to provide reinforcements for some money and food. It is not the best decision, but he sends his men out to recruit a handful of these and get them ready for the reception.
“Tell the other guardsmen to do the same, when you meet them,” Bernardo bids them before they leave. “My uncle says that we must be well-prepared. His Majesty cannot lose face in front of the queen of Spain and her entourage.”
After this, he has a meeting with his uncle and Philippe, trying to gain a clearer picture of the situation. There is something ominous about Beaufort’s escape and they all realize that. The problem is that even Mazarin cannot predict what the musketeers’ next step will be. He tells them to look out for everything, but cannot say anything more useful.
Bernardo spends the worst night alone. He is cold, and he is vexed. D’Artagnan’s arms are missing from around him. He longs to feel his scent in his nose, for those stolen giggles, forgetting that the maids and the courtiers may overhear them as they are frolicking.
Miraculously, he can command himself to keep his cool the entire night. Well, at least if it comes to not visiting d'Artagnan. He tosses and turns in his sheets, half asleep. When he forgets about the musketeer affair, he cannot get d’Artagnan out of his head. Bernardo bites his lips and closes his eyes.
It does not help.
By the morning, he loses his patience. Even if he is a filthy musketeer, it does not matter. He must steal a kiss, at least, before the briefing. It is dawning already, although the lights are still glowing dimly, in a faint yellow. Thinking about the kisses he will shower d’Artagnan with, he slips into a dressing gown, and dashes through the hallways.
They never meet each other though.
He is sneaking through the guardsmen’s compartment when servants stop him, disgraced, in practically no clothes, clearly hungry for an embrace.
“The queen of Spain has arrived! The queen of Spain is here! Preparations must start immediately.”
The two-headed pigeons are a homage to Koike sensei, who allegedly kept mixing up the name of the two-headed eagles during rehearsals.
The first night of the three-day-long celebration welcoming Maria Theresa is a masquerade ball.
She arrives early in the morning, catching Bernardo in a dressing gown and on top of that, also desperate for d’Artagnan’s kisses. Well, she probably does not witness him, after all, with her protective entourage encircling her in the entrance hall as she yells about being sweaty, bored, and uncomfortable. Even if she cannot see, Bernardo catches a glimpse of her as he rushes back to his quarters, trying to blend into the wallpaper as much as possible as he passes by their group.
The encounter makes him clear his head, and suddenly he is faced with the realities of what he has done. Is he truly so obsessed with d’Artagnan that he would sacrifice that little dignity he had left? He scolds himself.
What is it in d’Artagnan’s scent, in his entire being that beckons him so strongly? He cannot give an answer to that. Perhaps because there is none. It is difficult to look deep into himself and reflect on the whats and whys of his feelings. Especially if they concern this man. It is troubling enough that the has them to begin with. The more he meditates them, the more real they become.
Once he arrives back to his quarters, he throws his uniform back on himself and tries his hardest to ignore whatever happened earlier in the morning. Now that Maria Theresa is here, he cannot be caught off guard. Especially not as the captain of the guardsmen. He washes his face too, carefully, even though he already had a very effective wake-up call. It always just so happens that he blacks out for a few moments and the next thing he knows is that he found himself in d’Artagnan’s arms again.
An awful habit. Entirely uncalled for.
Before the morning briefing with the guardsmen, he rushed to his uncle’s saloon, who already had his sisters and Philippe gathered around him. The girls are in their ballet outfits, most of them on tiptoes, so they can hear the conversation better. Mazarin pays him a quick glance.
“That is not what you will wear this evening, I hope.” His voice is dry.
Bernardo looks down at his clothes: he thinks he dressed up quite neatly, considering everything. He clears his throat before answering.
“It is the guardsmen’s uniform.”
“This evening you will be present at the ball firstly as a guest, and only secondly as the captain of my guardsmen. I wish you found something more appropriate than this uniform.”
Bernardo nods, accepting his fate. It is not a long battle.
“And with that… also, try wearing something that is not your usual colour. The point of a masquerade is to deceive people about your identity, after all.”
“W… what do you mean by that?”
“He means no black!” Philippe exclaims, impatiently. “Maybe some ribbons. Be a little creative, baby brother.”
He retorts without missing a heartbeat. (Maybe spending time with d’Artagnan and his cheek rubbed off on him, after all.)
“Does that mean you won’t wear your awful ribbons this time?”
Mentally, Philippe is stabbing him in the eye for that comment a few times, then pulls at his hair for good measure, even though his face remains completely neutral as he fantasizes about all of this. Philippe only squares his shoulders, proud of his bows and ribbons. But he knows him ever since they were children, so even without the subtlest wince, he can understand what goes through his mind.
“Your brother will look as alluring as possible, so Maria Theresa can take a liking of him,” Mazarin quickly explains. The girls make inappropriate sounds in the background. “Since the engagement is still our priority, you and your sisters are to make sure everything goes smoothly with His Majesty in the meanwhile. You do recognize – I hope – that doing this in a guardsman’s uniform would stand out too much. When wearing your uniform, even the most pleasant chat with a guest can seem like a troubling official errand. It only raises suspicion.”
“The more unassuming we look, the better it is?” Marie Louise interjects.
“My love, nobody would think you could even hurt a fly.” Bernardo’s eyes pop out, but he says nothing. “You and the rest only need to make sure that you look pleasant in your gowns and that His and Her Majesties are both comfortable during the evening. This way, Bernardo looks… intimidating. We must fix that.”
He elevates his chin, with the most transparent smile. Maybe in this case being intimidating is something they will have to find a cure for, but in his everyday life, it means he is all the more successful. A soft, delicate captain of the guardsmen can get nothing done. Bernardo, on the other hand...
“I will find something, uncle,” he promises, although he has no idea where could he even find anything in his wardrobe that is not purely black.
Maybe he can ask d’Artagnan for something… No, definitely not. He will wear anything from Philippe’s wardrobe before deciding to humiliate himself with putting on those clothes: washed-out blue fabric sloppily stitched together, or sometimes even worse.
He thinks about this as he heads towards the briefing. Everyone is already there, and he fleetingly remembers the early morning, clearing his throat when he looks at d’Artagnan.
“I hope most of you were successful in gathering men who could supplement the palace guards. We need them to be ready for duty as soon as possible. You all must already know that the queen of Spain has arrived at the palace earlier in the morning.”
Some of the guardsmen nod and others look nervous: perhaps they were not lucky enough in scouting men yesterday. There is nothing they can do about it now, the visit must be carried out with a poor number of people and a possible insurrection in the making, with dangerous political prisoners being broken out of the Loches.
That’s fine! Worse things must have happened.
Bernardo does not exactly know how or when, but they must have happened.
“Where is she now? The queen?” Paul asks.
“She is in her chambers with her entourage, getting ready for the reception in the evening. I want all the men you recruited ready by the time she officially presents herself to His Majesty. With Beaufort on the run, we cannot look unprepared. Understood?”
He makes d’Artagnan stay behind, once everyone has left the room and returned to their posts, or began to fetch their men. D’Artagnan looks at him with clear, warm eyes.
“I missed you last night,” he announces, as a matter of fact.
His voice always comes out rough and scratchy, too excited to speak in a calm, quiet tone. That is also the characteristic of the countryman, he reminds himself.
Bernardo pretends to dust his uniform off instead and then lazily combs the man’s hair back with his fingers, trying to arrange it into a pretend-ponytail. D’Artagnan lets him do as he wishes, although he seems baffled by the sudden intimacy.
“You need to make yourself look presentable for the masquerade,” Bernardo tells him, echoing his uncle once again to cover up for his actions. “What will the queen of Spain think if she sees a guardsman looking like some dirty peasant we picked up in the countryside?”
“What will you have me do? I am already wearing your uniform.”
“Comb your hair, for starters. It will do wonders to you.”
He is aching for a fleeting embrace at least, but d’Artagnan slips out of his hands without that and he remains alone in the room. Duty calls both of them away, and they are unable to meet until the evening reception is launched.
Bernardo does not meet the new palace guards – he is not in fact in charge of them, and he does not have the time to spare. Instead, him, Claude, and Robert spend the afternoon scrutinizing the guests who enter the palace, one by one.
After the escape of Beaufort, it would be foolish to let any aristocrats in without strict inspection. The last thing they would need is that man sneaking up on them and ruining the engagement with something. Bernardo does not really know what exactly, but it could be anything. He attempted a rebellion once already, after all. If his little helpers, the musketeers, are large enough in number…
Beaufort is nowhere to be found, of course. Every letter of invitation seems to be legitimate and the guests arrive without a mask, barefaced: they are being distributed once they were cleared for entrance. To be safe, Bernardo also scrutinizes those aristocrats again who arrived days earlier or resided in the palace anyway.
After the palace is considered to be secure, the gates are closed, no egress or regress. One thing is left: finding something that is not his uniform, and less black than anything he normally wears. His first trip leads to Philippe, who is in the middle of spraying an entire bottle of perfume on himself.
“It is not alluring,” he thinks. “At this rate, you could be strangling the queen of Spain with your hands, too.”
Philippe sniffs into the air.
“You think so? It’s a pleasant smell. Not yet strong enough, though, I cannot feel it properly.” Two more sprinkles.
Bernardo leaves without even asking for the clothes he came for. If he needs to breathe this perfume in for a single second longer, he might just go entirely mad. The smell is too poignant. With that failed attempt, he heads towards Marie Louise’s room instead.
She is already fully prepared for the masquerade, helping Hortense with her hair. He is never considerate enough to knock, and his footsteps seem to be light enough, so none of the girls heard him enter. For a while he watches Marie Louise work, then he clears his throat to get her attention.
“Bernardo?” she asks, halting back in surprise. “What is it? Is there something wrong? Is the ball called off?”
“Then what are you doing here? You look pale.”
“I need your help.” He gives Marie Louise a pointed look.
“My help?” She returns the very same look, her hands stopping in movement in the middle of braiding some pearls into Hortense’s hair. “Again?”
“It is a masquerade, is it not!?”
Hortense looks from Bernardo to her elder sister, almost breaking her neck so she can stare into her face. She is clearly demanding an explanation.
A few minutes later, she is the happiest little bird, foraging Montpensier’s abandoned quarters for the perfect gown to use tonight. Her pick is something Bernardo would never even consider: a light blue gown with brocade patterns, generously decorated with ruffles and lace at the chest and the sleeves. This dress is by far the most ostentatious he has ever had the privilege to put on, and he is unsure how comfortable he feels with that.
She also helps Marie Louise forcing their brother into the dress, then combing and styling his ringlets into submission. They powder his face and exposed shoulders to make him look paler, and dab light pink rouge all over his lips.
“Uncle said you should be less intimidating, yes?” Marie Louise asks as she proceeds to turn his powdered cheeks into healthy pink. “You almost look like a pretty girl.”
“Now, this is real masquerade!” Hortense adds as she jumps up and down, clapping. Visibly, she is a lot more interested in Bernardo’s appearance than her own. “You don’t even look like yourself.”
Well, that is the plan. Bernardo looks down on the floor and recites his excuse again.
“Isn’t this what uncle would like? Nobody will suspect that a lady is the captain of the guardsmen.”
“Although, you won’t be able to carry a sword with yourself. That is dangerous,” Marie Louise reminds him. “And, if it’s not dangerous, then it still raises suspicion. … How will you protect His Majesty without a sword?”
“Uncle said I am a guest first and foremost. My men know what to do, even if I am not there to instruct them.”
He is not so sure about that, in fact, but he is already all dressed up. Perhaps he will leave a note for Claude somewhere to make sure that nobody loses their heads while he is away, helping his sisters out, and looking out for the king. As silly and unprepared he is, of course, he forgot about the necessary preparations beforehand.
“And… I can surely hide a dagger somewhere in here.”
Marie Louise makes a sceptical face, but hunches the skirt up, to look for any places that could conceal a dagger safely. She finds it hard to get under the gown since her own skirt is also too wide for her to move comfortably and it gets in the way.
“Maybe the stockings,” she thinks. “But we need something that covers your face when the masks are off.”
Hortense leaves one more time and gets a fan from Montpensier’s room to complete the look. He tries to tuck it away somewhere, so it would not be in the way while he is holding his mask.
Once everything is on him, they make him stand on the other side of the room and have a good look at him again, to make sure that his disguise is perfect. Hortense puts some feathers in his hair, then decides against them, because they remind her too much of the hats Bernardo would normally wear.
They go down the hallway together and head towards the throne room, but Bernardo enters without them. To avoid suspicion, he stands far away from the Mazarinettes in the crowd at the beginning of the ceremony. Most people look straight through him, especially with the masks on, so he can easily survey people without being recognized.
He spots Mazarin close to the regent, who also inspects the throne room, possibly looking for Bernardo’s location. Now, bringing the attention to himself would not be a smart idea. Claude and Robert are standing somewhere at the back, and they at least have the appearance of composed guardsmen.
The number of the palace guards is abundant, although the hall is not overcrowded by them. Bernardo hopes that his uncle is satisfied with the turnout as well. Since Maria Theresa also brought her own guardsmen, which adds to the secure atmosphere of the palace. Bernardo is almost entirely sure that the musketeers and Beaufort will not try anything nasty this evening. Although, it is not entirely sure whether it would be easier for him to round them up now for treason, or keep playing this waiting game.
They will come anyway. Everybody knows that.
Once the introductions are over, everybody transfers to the ballroom, where the real feast starts. Bernardo follows the crowd and catches up with his sisters. He can smell Philippe from across the ballroom. Marie Louise sways towards him, speaking from behind her mask.
“They say there is a gorgeous Spanish guard among the guests.”
“Thank you, I’m fine,” Bernardo says, a little hesitantly.
“… I meant it is a shame that we have to keep a close eye on only His Majesty.” Marie Louise lowers her voice, although it is still not enough. “His Majesty does not like girls. I am not fine.”
He can feel his cheeks blaze up under all the powder. Then, he collects himself and lowers his mask, filtering the words through his teeth.
“First, we must make sure that the king is entertained while we give some space for Philippe to introduce himself to Her Majesty.”
“I entertain His Majesty enough with that stupid moon dance, now that Montpensier is gone. And look where it got me.” Marie Louise is foaming at the mouth from frustration, so he rubs his arm against hers a little, to get her attention. Soon, her face turns tranquil and pleasant. “Right. Let us look for our precious king.”
She waves towards Philippe who joins them too, giving a glass of champagne to each. Since Bernardo has his mask off, his identity is not a mystery to him: he was there when he transformed into a girl once. Nevertheless, he raises an eyebrow at the costume of his choice.
“It is creative, to be sure,” he murmurs under his breath. “Although this is not what I meant.”
Bernardo raises his chin up, and this way he is clearly taller than his brother. He sips from the champagne.
“I am humouring His Majesty.”
“Are you really?”
“Go, and talk to the queen. We will take care of the rest,” he filters through his teeth, then pushes Philippe forward.
Sometimes, siblings just cannot be grateful for any great sacrifice you do for them. In the right moment, Marie Louise goes for the king, which separates her from Maria Theresa.
She stands between the two of them, dragging Bernardo with herself as well. He finishes his drink quickly and throws the empty glass at the closest servant to them.
“Your Majesty! Can I partner you in a dance?”
His Majesty looks relieved for a moment, then she regulates her facial expression once she sees that Philippe is successfully stealing the queen’s attention. Bernardo makes a face, his tummy hurts a little: perhaps he should have eaten something properly before drinking champagne. He forgot to think about that while they were preparing for the reception and skipped all the meals possible.
“Alright, why not. … And who are you?” she asks, looking Bernardo up and down.
His eyes pop out, trying to search for a suitable response in his brain. He can’t really just… reveal himself like that. Before he would open his mouth, someone shouts at them from a distance, his voice echoing in the ballroom.
D’Artagnan stands a few guests away from him, pleasantly surprised to recognize an old love in Bernardo once again. He heads towards the three of them since he cannot catch the murderous look in Marie Louise’s eyes. With his hair in a neat ponytail, he is almost unrecognizable.
Alright, he is perfectly recognizable, and just as Bernardo imagined him to be. He hides his face in his fan and prays for a safe outcome. Champagne paints his face even more scarlet.
“D’Artagnan… you know each other from somewhere?” the king wonders as he gestures towards Bernardo, seemingly more confused with each passing second.
He does not like the way d'Artagnan and the king look at each other.
“… I’ve been waiting to see her again for a while now.”
D'Artagnan does not even apologize for barging into their conversation like that without as much as an invitation. It shows him just how close those two are, after all. The king sends a questioning look towards Marie Louise, who only shrugs as a response. D’Artagnan, either oblivious, or understanding that their situation is pressing, takes Bernardo by the arm and steals him from the others.
“I didn’t think I would see you here,” he says. “I’m surprised. Do you dance?”
“With you? I doubt.”
D’Artagnan pulls him closer by the wrist, unable to accept a no as an answer. He does not remember where his mask went, perhaps he dropped it accidentally in all the confusion.
“Bernadette!” His voice is warm, but it aims to scold. “When will you have a chance to dance with me again?”
So, they dance, and it really is not detestable. In fact, it is too good to simply just go back to their real lives after this, in guardsmen uniforms and unable to touch each other so intimately in public.
“I wish we could do this any time,” d’Artagnan whispers, leaning close to his ear. "I wish I could call you my Bernardo whenever I please."
“They are all looking at us, though.” He peeks at the guests from above his shoulder and it feels like everyone is staring at them with judging gazes. “… do you think they know?”
D’Artagnan looks too, to check.
“Nobody is looking at us. They are all occupied with themselves.”
He gets away from d’Artagnan and steals another glass of champagne from the tray at the side of the ballroom. Reluctantly, but d’Artagnan accepts some from him as well. He probably does not like drinking. It is not that Bernardo indulges in it normally either, but something needs to calm his heaving chest, and champagne is the closest. Maybe after a glass or two, he will stop thinking that the entire royal palace is looking at him and passing judgements.
“A pretty costume,” d’Artagnan thinks and reaches out to hold his free hand. “I meant it when I said that I wanted to see it again.”
“I thought you liked the captain more,” Bernardo bickers. He wishes he had his fan to hide his face in.
“I don’t mind.”
D’Artagnan laughs at the miserable face he pulls, and he visibly struggles, fighting the urge to kiss him there in front of all the guests. He whacks the second empty glass of champagne back down on the table and shoots a lopsided smile at the man.
“Stop making that face, little swordsmanship-expert…” He remembers his duty fleetingly.“I need to go back to take care of His Majesty.”
He also remembers the way d'Artagnan looks at His Majesty, and exhales sharply. Why did he leave those two alone again?
D’Artagnan stops him by drawing him back by his waist.
“Your sister is doing a brilliant job at that,” he claims, looking over Bernardo’s shoulder. “His Majesty does not need that much attention.”
At least that is something he wants to hear.
“I am on duty here!” Bernardo insists, still.
“Me too. But you are my superior, I need your attention more. You were neglecting me all day.”
There is something alarming about the way he puts that. He feels neglected? He wants someone else's attention?
Bernardo’s features distort on his face as he takes a threatening step closer to the man. In a skirt, it probably does not look frightening enough, but d’Artagnan still halts back. Bernardo takes his fan and folded together presses it against the man’s chest, driving him out of the ballroom. He cannot wipe the stupid grin off his face, but it does not make d’Artagnan feel more at ease.
They only stop when d’Artagnan’s back hits into the wall in the hallway. Bernardo removes the fan and replaces it with his arm, putting some pressure on the man’s chest so he can lean forward and steal a kiss from him. D’Artagnan makes a surprised but satisfied sound then pulls him closer. Soon, Bernardo’s hands are in his hair, ruining the perfect ponytail.
He presses as close to d’Artagnan as possible before a raspy voice disturbs them in whatever they are doing.
“D’Artagnan! Your captain disappears for an hour and you already find a guest to kiss in secret!?”
It is Mazarin, so he turns away as quickly as possible, lowering his head so his face wouldn’t be recognized. No matter how much he wanted him to put on a good disguise, he also said to stop putting on gowns for the meanwhile, some time ago. D’Artagnan clears his throat, but he cannot answer.
“You are on duty tonight, are you not? Make sure you report once you found Bernardo, too.”
He waits with bursting out in laughter until at least Mazarin leaves them and d’Artagnan joins him, embracing him from behind. He sprinkles small kisses on his neck, unafraid of being caught again.
“I did find you,” he says, proud of himself. “But now your uncle thinks I am having an affair.”
“What!? Because deliberately showing my face just like that would have been better? He made it explicit he does not want to worry about me wearing skirts for now. So now that we did this, you cannot report about finding me at all.”
“Do you think he would mind, after all? If it came out to the open?”
Bernardo laughs. It’s half the champagne.
“Let us not try.”
“If he doesn’t mind the king marrying another girl…” They giggle, but Bernardo tries to put a finger on the man’s lips to silence him. The fact that he is equally as loud does not concern him. “Surely this should not bother him too much.”
It is not really about Bernardo kissing other men, however.
He turns Bernardo back towards himself, nudging him to move. His scent beckons him, and it is increasingly hard to remember his duty towards his uncle.
“I have to go back, to look after His Majesty,” he tries, placing one last kiss on his cheek. D’Artagnan gives him the saddest puppy eyes as if he thought it would work. It does. Bernardo licks his lips. “But…”
There is no way he will ever hand this man over to His Majesty, or anyone else. There is no way he will let anyone do more things to him, or better. No matter what he has to do, he is ready to keep his freshly achieved attention on himself. He takes d’Artagnan by the hand and leads him towards his quarters. His legs are somewhat weak, perhaps from the champagne. It is all in his head now.
“Come with me.”
“What is it all of a sudden?”
A second of hesitation (something d’Artagnan would never allow himself, and he is jealous of that), some space for breath. Perhaps fear. But no. He cannot bear to think about d'Artagnan seeking someone else's embrace, because he is being neglected.
He doesn’t resist.
They stumble upstairs in the hazy darkness, the hallways empty and quiet around them. As they sprint through the corridors, his skirt gathered up in his arm, he must realize that d’Artagnan is clearly a lot more sober than he is. After all, he only saw him accepting one drink. The door was left open, but he latches it behind themselves as they enter now.
He shoves a very amused d’Artagnan down on his bed, and with some graceless, drunken struggle, hikes his heavy skirt up to straddle him. Their laughs are breathy but melodic. Using the opportunity, the man’s hands run up his thighs, feeling around until they stumble into something.
“Oh!” A giggle, d’Artagnan extracting the dagger from the ribbon holding his stockings in place. “That’s dangerous.”
“I am on duty, have you forgotten!” Bernardo scolds him with a straight face. Then, he takes the blade out of d’Artagnan’s hand and throws it on the ground to make a point. “We don’t care about this now. We care about me.”
The man can agree with that, edging forward to continue kissing his neck as he fiddles with his stockings, where he left off.
“I can’t believe you are wearing boots with this,” he comments, between a peck and a bite, realizing that he won’t be able to take them off of him as easily as he first thought.
“Makes it easier to move. And besides… I did not have other shoes to wear. You know how small my sisters’ feet are?”
He kisses d’Artagnan deeply to make him shut up for a while, and tries to reciprocate by at least stripping the uniform jacket off the man. Last night made him realize just how much he was yearning for his touches. In the middle of undoing his bodice, dotting kisses all over the exposed skin, d’Artagnan stops for a second.
“Are you sure about this? You are drunk. Have you ever…”
“I am tipsy at most! I know what I want.” He cannot have d'Artagnan slip away from him. Then, faking some of his lost confidence, he adds, half yelling. “You want to go, or what!?”
D’Artagnan laughs, palming both of his cheeks so he can give him a heartfelt smooch.
“You truly are lovely,” he confirms. Then, there is fleeting understanding in his eyes. “Innocent, too. Give me a minute.”
He lifts Bernard off of himself, with close to no ease and lays him on the bed before he would stand up. On his defence, he is too surprised to resist him before it would happen.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to my room. Just… get those boots off in the meanwhile, alright?”
Bernardo kicks his boots off quickly enough, and when d’Artagnan is still not back, he uses the time to unstring whatever shape has Marie Louise hairdressed his curls into. It’s been hurting and itching all night long anyway. He dangles his naked feet on the bed for a while and feels that he has started sobering up already. That is when he begins to doubt for a moment that d’Artagnan would come back. Maybe he changed his mind. Maybe he set him up… maybe he is making fun of him somewhere with his musketeer comrades. ... or His Majesty.
Before he could be taken by those thoughts entirely, he can hear the door open and then get locked again. It is d’Artagnan, with something in his left, and another glass of champagne in the other. He holds the glass out for Bernardo then makes him drink a few sips.
“You might need this, after all,” he claims.
His eyes do not let Bernardo go for a second as he strips the shirt off as well. When he sees that Bernardo has had enough champagne, he takes the glass back from him and places it on the windowsill. There is something in the air – or maybe it is only his heart beating in his throat telling him that. The champagne clouds his mind, so all his actions seem unnatural, he has awareness of every part of his body, even the smallest motion of his hands.
He brings his hands upwards and with painstaking focus, gets rid of his bodice completely, then waits for the other to help him get rid of the skirt as well. From somewhere far back in his head, he watches d’Artagnan put a knee between his legs, then lifts his chin to look up at him.
“Will you help me?” d’Artagnan asks when their eyes meet, like he cannot undress alone. There is nothing challenging in that.
Still, he helps him, with slightly trembling fingers (it must be the alcohol), revealing him completely.
“Oh my, d’Artagnan.”
At his weakest point, he fakes bravery once again, as if he knew what he was about to do. He drags d’Artagnan down on himself and plans to kiss him until his worries disappear. Bernardo does not necessarily want to be in good hands anymore. He had lost his patience last night, having spent a night apart from him. The champagne and jealousy do not help either.
D’Artagnan’s hands roam his body, properly exploring for the first time. He cannot explain, but it feels like they are running out of time already. His head hurts, his throat is dry. It feels like they are running out of time.
“Just get over with it already!”
D’Artagnan laughs at that, and no matter how warm his voice sounds, it does not help his case. Bernardo is filled with ideas of murder again. A well-aimed kiss on his neck melts them all away, however.
But even saying so, d’Artagnan does not hesitate.
He is gentle, but he does not hesitate. And he is stronger than Bernardo.
(Although that is not something to fight out when he is half in a stupor from alcohol and little else.)
D’Artagnan turns him over. His hands are incredibly warm.
He pays attention to everything he does, silently, and solemnly, as if he was not even within his own body. He’s been impatient until this moment came and now he cannot seem to be able to give the right responses. Jealousy and fear well up in his heart. D’Artagnan presses a kiss on the nape of his neck and rolls him to his back again.
“Wrap your legs around me,” he asks, bringing his thumb across Bernardo's lips.
Suddenly life pours right back into him, his heart has been beating too fast, now it is entirely out of control. Instead of flushing, his face feels icy.
“Wait…” D’Artagnan does stop. He nods towards the window. “First, I want the rest of the champagne.”
Something passes through d’Artagnan’s eyes. He nods and does what was asked of him.
The last thing he clearly remembers is the bubbly liquid tickling his throat as some escapes from the corner of his mouth, running down along his neck.
That last part went through a censor countless times because it didn't sit well with me that it did not align with pure, proper, beautiful. It still does not, really, but at this point, it feels truncated already. I might come back to make something better out of it.
Chapter 4: Runaway King
I apologize for that awful wall joke.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It does get better overnight. He has a hazy recollection of all of it, the way d’Artagnan moved, the way their limbs tangled up, or the way he pressed a palm on his own mouth, so no incriminating sounds would come out.
It does get better.
He does not remember when exactly the heaviness lifts off of him, but soon enough, the champagne imbues the night with mirth and light laughter. Similarly to the nights they spent sleeping in the very same bed. Weightless and warm.
In the morning, he wakes up with d’Artagnan’s face pressed into his neck, his lips resting on his collarbone. He has his hands at the back of the man’s head, and lightly caresses his hair as he stirs awake. D’Artagnan makes a sound.
“No,” he murmurs and squeezes Bernardo in his arms harder. “Not yet.”
“I haven’t even said anything yet.”
“We must stay a little longer,” d’Artagnan announces stubbornly.
Rather roughly, he pulls him up by the hair to plant a kiss on his lips.
“Who said we wouldn’t.”
Bernardo rolls on top to straddle him, his hair falling on his face. He shakes his head a few times, so his curls would clear out of the way. It’s comfortable with him. He traces d’Artagnan’s skin with his fingers.
“I am sure that the queen of Spain is still asleep, too. Maybe you want to give another fencing lesson to His Majesty?”
D’Artagnan muses for a while.
“Maybe it would be wise to do it while we can.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?”
He gives d’Artagnan a pointed look.
“How much time do you think His Majesty will have for fencing and the likes once he gets engaged to Maria Theresa?” Then, he looks at the ceiling, thinking to himself for a while. “And besides, if the queen of Spain truly likes swordplay that much, the king could benefit from learning a thing or two about it.”
“Do you really think an engagement would make His Majesty so busy? My brother is supposed to entertain the queen. Everything would go the same way as it used to.”
“If your brother is entertaining the queen, who will entertain His Majesty?”
The question sounds innocent enough, yet it makes Bernardo punch him wherever he first reaches him, then get off him promptly. He presses his lips together and tries not to let jealousy wash over him entirely. After all, his uncle also said it is difficult to find loyal men and women at court. It is only natural. Is it natural!? All of these things he feels. (A lot more than he ever let himself feel before.) He takes a deep breath.
“Do you like the king or something? If you want to have more lovers, I will not stop you. But stop being so vague.”
He cannot see d’Artagnan’s face, but he can feel the man trying to turn him back towards himself. There is no struggle, he rolls back on his side again. He cannot tell when did d’Artagnan’s features become so lovely. The hooked nose, the puffy cheeks, everything.
“Bernardo… I might cross a line with this, but right now, and right here, I couldn’t care less.” He says that as if he ever cared about crossing lines. “… I love you.”
He purses his lips up, and no matter how much he tries to fight, it soon turns into a satisfied smile. He shows his teeth to d’Artagnan. Warmth spreads all over him as the words sink in.
“Say that again.”
D’Artagnan is not the sort of person who would be frugal with his affections, so he says it again, and again, as many times as he wants to hear. He puts his chin on Bernardo’s shoulder, as their legs and locks get tangled up again.
His bad feelings from last night disappear completely, and jealousy is replaced with joy. Jealousy might truly be the most vicious poison of them all: this is the first time that he experienced this when it was not in relation to his uncle and his own position as the favoured nephew.
D’Artagnan nudges him.
“Will you not say it, too?”
On one hand, it is easier to reciprocate once he was prompted to do it. On another, it is uncalled for and alarming. He needs to meditate on the answer, and it does not come out the way he wants it, at first. Again, he still has trouble complimenting d’Artagnan, especially out loud.
“I… You… “ He gets distracted by d’Artagnan nibbling at his earlobe and thinks of the first time they kissed, instead. Whatever comes to his mind, he says it without thinking. “…You are my wall.”
“I like you too!” he splutters, before he could change his mind, and shoves a pillow in d’Artagnan’s face. His heart beats too fast for his own good. “You are stupid and you stink.”
Even though he tried to get out of it, d’Artagnan still seems to be contented with the confession he got. Besides the worst declaration of love, he also had what he asked for before: a few more minutes in bed together. It should be enough for him, Bernardo decides.
“How do you feel?” he asks. “Do you regret drinking all that champagne already?”
He cannot even feel his head hurting, possibly because he has better things to do than to experience a hangover. Maybe d’Artagnan truly is a miracle. Maybe his head is not troubling him, but sure enough, he feels like drinking an entire river, to ease his thirst.
“Not sore,” he claims.
When he stands up, he can certainly feel a shooting pain in his head as well, but it is not too difficult to ignore it. He drags the sheet until it is not stuck under d’Artagnan anymore and wraps it around himself until he finds something warmer to wear.
“We have no idea how the masquerade ended,” he muses to himself. “I did not think we would be gone for the entire night.”
“So to say, your uncle will kill us?”
He prepares his uniform, and throws d’Artagnan’s clothes on the man’s face, urging him to dress up as well. For a moment, he stops to consider how funny he looks, barely visible under the uniform.
“He will not kill us per se unless something horrible happened at the reception, and we were not there to stop it.” He shrugs. “By the looks of it, nothing happened. If there was an uproar, surely the whole palace would have been shaken up by it. The news would have carried this far.”
He watches d’Artagnan dress up, then looks at his gown on the floor. Since Montpensier is in prison, she surely would not miss the skirt, even if it was not returned immediately. She can wait. In fact, all she can do there is to wait – if she is lucky, soon enough Beaufort can provide her with some company. He must be a blast. All alone for ten years.
Before they would go out to the hallway, and back to real life, he stops the man.
“Wear your hair like last night more often. It makes your face look more tolerable.”
D’Artagnan pretends to be outraged, then gently pokes his nose as a response. He probably understands that this is as close to a compliment he can get for now.
They walk to the briefing together, although there is nothing Bernardo could say to his men, without knowing how last night transpired. Everybody looks about as tired as he feels, and if he allows himself to think about it, his head definitely is killing him. He turns to Claude and Robert.
“I will personally supervise His Majesty for the most of today. However, I also want the two of you to keep an eye on him, when I am not available.” The two of them nod. “I do not want him to get in any trouble, now that Beaufort is on the run.”
“Captain?” It is Claude.
“Do you not want us to send some people to the Loches, to make sure that the duchess of Montpensier is guarded well?”
Bernardo tilts his head. Is he worried about Montpensier being broken out? Or does he still believe in the genuineness of that affair? In any case, sensible. It almost makes his heart soft.
“We do not have enough capacity to do that. Surely, the guards at the Loches also learned from their mistakes, and will not let anything like that happen again.”
He meets d’Artagnan by the entrance to the practice room, wondering if His Majesty would make an appearance today. She is late, but Maria Theresa surfaces at the end of the hallway with clockwork precision, when the lesson is about to start. It seems like she comes all alone – probably having escaped from another event that was meant for her entertainment.
“I hear there is fencing here!” she yells at them, pointing at Bernardo with her closed fan as she approaches. “Are you practising fencing here?”
“We are practising with His Majesty,” Bernardo explains. “He is late.”
“I want to see sword fighting! And blood, if possible.”
She ushers the two of them into the practice room, and since she is still the queen of Spain, they comply without saying a word of complaint. The doors are left wide open, and she takes a seat on the chaise longue, slowly fanning herself with her left. Her expression is halfway between demanding and desperate.
“I ache to see a match,” she repeats herself. “Fight each other.”
“Your Ma…” d’Artagnan tries, but Bernardo cuts him off before he could even finish his sentence. He puts a hand on the shaft of his sword and turns towards the man.
“Just fight me.”
Perhaps he would not get a better opportunity to match strength with the man, and he knows this too well. With the pretext of performing some light fencing for Maria Theresa, they could finally settle the matter between one another. (Although he understands, deep inside, that the only person really concerned about this is him. D’Artagnan does not care.)
He pulls his rapier on d’Artagnan before he could change his mind. As a response, d’Artagnan also assumes the beginning stance. They get to cross swords, and finally, unlike the night before, there is no hesitation in him. He is not doing this for Maria Theresa’s entertainment – he finally wants to show d’Artagnan who is the best in this country. Every single move is calculated, so it would surely impress him, and only him. Maria Theresa does not exist.
They don’t get to finish or get too much into the match at all. Even before they could properly challenge one another, even before they could make each other sweat, the king storms into the practice room, catching them in the act.
“Bernardo! Were you here all along? What are you doing?”
Maria Theresa jumps up from the chaise longue with a shriek, which makes the king acknowledge her. She gives the queen a tired, fed-up look.
“… Your Majesty. I think my mother has been looking for you all morning.” Then, she turns towards the two of them. “And Mazarin has been looking for you. D’Artagnan, you disappeared without a trace last night.”
“I had something to take care of.”
The king raises his eyebrows. Then, she cracks her neck and snatches the rapier from d’Artagnan’s hand, who is still standing stock still. She faces Bernardo.
“For now, a short lesson, yes?” She speaks to the queen from above her shoulder, her head slightly turned towards her. “Maria Theresa, you are here because you want to watch, I suppose?”
The queen sits back down on the chaise longue, anticipating the outcome. It seems like His Majesty’s behaviour finally starts to please her: her eyes grow large and glossy as she cranes her neck to see everything perfectly. With a motion of her head, a curt nod, the king tells d’Artagnan to sit down all the same. Or, to at least get out of their way.
“Come at me,” she urges Bernardo. “Let Her Majesty have a good time.”
Bernardo nods in acceptance, and even though he is still a little mad at His Majesty for barging on them in the perfect moment before the truth could come out, he does as she wishes. He even makes sure he would help her show off to the queen, so her talents would impress her in the future. Gaining the favours of Maria Theresa is important, and he knows that well. He is even willing to set aside his jealousy. After all, he has utmost loyalty to his uncle, who would do anything for the king. He would do anything for the king, too.
He can fight it out with d’Artagnan later.
For now, love between the queen and king must happen.
Maria Theresa is swinging to and fro on her seat, loudly cheering for the king. (“Poke him, Louis! Hit him harder, Louis! Now you have a chance! Go all in!”) It is delightful, only because she is supposed to be rooting for her future betrothed. Otherwise, Bernardo would have taken it to heart already. If he was not about to count the fact that he is indeed a cold, inhuman swordsman, of course, who does not care about the approval of his peers.
They are finished with the match when light perspiration is shown on the king’s brows, and she seems to start losing focus. She hands the sword back to d’Artagnan.
“Interesante!” Maria Theresa turns to Bernardo. “Louis won with such ease! I thought you were supposed to be Italy’s best.”
He glares at her until his eyes are threatening to fall out of their sockets.
“I am,” he says after an uncomfortably long silence, filtering the answer through his teeth. “I think it is time for Your Majesty to go back to her aunt.”
“And you, go and see Mazarin,” the king tells the both of them. “D’Artagnan? He does not appreciate what you were doing last night.”
D’Artagnan pats his back as the other two leave the room to show his sympathy. Perhaps he is also lamenting the fact that they could not properly have a match.
“Let us go. I cannot wait to watch my uncle kill you.” Then he thinks, furrowing his brows. “What were you doing last night?”
“It probably has to do with disappearing completely from the ball after being seen kissing a mystery guest in secret.”
Right. He forgot about that.
D’Artagnan’s hand is still on his back, so he ducks into a stolen embrace from there, putting his chin on the man’s shoulder. They stand that way for a while, holding one another as tightly as possible. At least they have a minimal time to spare when they are not checked by either the king or Mazarin.
Unless it is midnight, in Bernardo’s own quarters, locked away from reality, it is hard to find a time when the palace does not have its eyes on them. For a moment, he remembers dancing in front of a crowd last time. He wonders if a time will ever come when they can do that again. Was he truly not recognized? Are Marie Louise and Hortense skilled enough in creating a lie and deceiving the entire court? D’Artagnan had trouble recognizing him before.
They walk to the doors with their fingers interlaced, and then once they are out in the hallway, they pretend as if nothing happened. Bernardo’s nose is tinged pink with new-found, strange happiness.
Mazarin is already waiting for the both of them. He sends a pointed, judgmental look towards d’Artagnan and addresses him first, flatly.
“Where were you last night.” He glances at his nephew, with remorse in his black eyes, although this does not stop him from asking. “Was your affair with that lady fruitful last night? I told you to look for Bernardo, and you never came back.”
For the first time, he feels like stepping between the two of them and defending d’Artagnan. The urge is strange enough to fight it. Something heavy presses down on his chest. D’Artagnan does not answer, only stares at the ground, as if he has done anything remorseful. It would be difficult to explain, so they just continue pretending.
“But as for you, Bernardo. Well done, my love,” Mazarin says, and his tone suddenly gets warm and velvety, caressing him.
“… well done?”
“Philippe and Marie Louise told me.”
His eyes widen in surprise. His siblings told Mazarin that he dressed up in a skirt again and he approves, even though there were so many risks that night?
“When I was looking for you, they told me about the report on the former musketeers’ headquarters, and that you decided to leave His Majesty to the two of them and investigate the matter yourself. Smart.”
Bernardo coughs himself to death. They told him about the what? He was frolicking with d’Artagnan all night and if anything, he completely forgot about the existence of the musketeers by now.
“Have you found anything useful?”
D’Artagnan also looks at him, somewhere between impressed and amused. His cheeks pod up in an adorable manner when he smiles.
“… I… it would have been unwise to go in all alone.”
“That, I understand. If you can confirm that Beaufort is with the former musketeers, you should take your men and annihilate them as soon as possible, however,” Mazarin advises. “The quicker we get rid of the musketeer-problem, the better we will sleep at night. Good job. I am proud of you.”
He takes the praise, although it is hard to accept it, given that he has done nothing his siblings suggested he did last night. There is something heart-wrenching about being praised for things you haven’t even thought of doing.
At the same time, he marvels at the loyalty and bond between brothers and sisters – they would go as far as to make up blatant lies to distract Mazarin, while they know full well that Bernardo is off somewhere, frolicking with his lover.
The only question now is of the musketeers. How will he go and annihilate them, when in reality, he knows nothing about their hiding place? He can easily be destroyed by this.
Once they are alone, d’Artagnan looks at him in disbelief.
“What on earth was that?” he asks, gesturing towards Mazarin’s back, who walked out of the saloon.
“My siblings’ doing, I suppose.”
“They gave you an alibi, and not me?”
He looks at d’Artagnan as if he went mad, his eyes asking if the man truly believes that he earned their support.
“When you are part of the family, you can expect their support. Until then, be grateful that they are not trying to actively murder you.”
They share a grin, resolving that apart from the king and other family members, nobody should expect the help of a Mazarin. Bernardo drops his shoulders.
“The musketeers, however. Now we will have to solve that matter before we are running out of time.”
“Do you know where they could be?”
“No. Do you?”
D’Artagnan shakes his head, signalling a no. Even if he did know, he probably would not tell him. But, if his men truly kept spying after the other former musketeers, Bernardo believed that a clue would come up, sooner or later. But maybe not soon enough…
And it is, in fact, Claude and Robert who lead them towards the musketeers.
They spend a day in idleness, Bernardo finding transparent reasons for being able to spend some time with d’Artagnan while they look after the king or prepare the next feat for the queen of Spain. At night, when Bernardo beckons the other to come to his room again, impatient to lock themselves away from reality, Claude comes rushing to his door.
He is already half undressed, so he growls, through closed doors.
“What is it! It’s late.”
“Concerning news, Captain. His Majesty the king was seen leaving the palace in the guise of a young lady, just now!”
Bernardo’s hands stop in motion and he gives a look to d’Artagnan He does not seem to be amused at all.
“Have you reported to my uncle already?”
“Aye. He wants us to restore the king.” Clearly. “He is afraid that His Majesty is trying to run away from the prospect of marriage.”
“Get Robert, and whoever else you can find: we will trail His Majesty, to see what he is up to, then escort him back.”
D’Artagnan helps him put his clothes back on, and he picks a hat as well, to cover his face once they are outside. It is incredible, how His Majesty would not even let them have some stolen moments at night anymore. He wonders what she could be up to.
They get ready soon enough and follow His Majesty downtown. Thankfully, she does not realize that she is being trailed, even though she looks back to check a few times. Maybe he should have taught her how to be more observant during their swordsmanship lectures. Even if it is to their advantage, now.
The king approaches the Tavern to the Chevalier. Bernardo knows that place: for one, it used to be the musketeers gathering place. For another, he also came here dressed in a gown himself, not long ago. He finds it strange that the king would choose the same location for her nightly outings. They exchange a look with Claude.
“We wait a few minutes, then get His Majesty out of there, no matter what he is doing.”
From the outside, the tavern seems to operate the same way as it used to when Bernardo visited. Loud voices, singing, and yelling are permanent, but the whole public house goes quiet when he steps in with his men. He never remembers being able to display so much power and authority, especially at a musketeer-ruled place before. After a quick glance, he can surmise that His Majesty is not among the guests upstairs.
“In the basement,” he tells his men, and motions towards the stairs, urging them to follow.
“Bernardo.” It is d’Artagnan. “What if His Majesty just wanted to have some fun in private? Are you going to drag him back to the palace like that? For everyone to see?”
“I won’t drag anyone back to the palace. I will escort His Majesty back. He is the king.”
If upstairs went quiet when the guardsmen entered, the cellar is like a crypt. Entirely soundless. A second later, the guests start making small conversation but there is uneasiness in the air. He scans the guests.
“A pretty girl entered this tavern a little while ago,” Bernardo says, clearing his throat. “She ran away from the palace. We are here to safely escort her home.”
He walks up to a woman, who is sitting with her back shown to him. Since His Majesty was wearing a mantle on her way here, Bernardo realizes he has no idea what he should be looking for under the purple cloak. Clearly, he would not be wearing that inside.
“Is it you?” He turns the woman towards himself, but he is met with the face of a stranger. “… it is not.”
He nods towards the rest of the guardsmen, indicating that they should keep looking for the king as well. D’Artagnan awkwardly stands in the middle of the room but he has no time to instruct him. He goes through the guests, trying to observe their faces one by one until he spots something familiar in one corner.
A mop of ginger curls. Oh, he was danced by that before.
“Oh, my!” he exclaims, shoving some people away to clear up the way. “But it is a musketeer!”
The boy stares at him, without trying to defend himself, or even reply in any manner. He seems unsettled, as he should be.
“You rude bitch like to make unwilling women dance, don’t you?” he asks, then turns around. “But if you are here … The rest of the musketeers are, too!”
The guardsmen lead out most of the culprit.
“You broke a traitor out of prison, who attempted a coup before. You are all under a warrant of apprehension, you know that. Yet, you come here for drinks, songs, women, all the same? Have you got no shame?”
He sees the ginger eyeing d’Artagnan, probably realizing that his former friend is now supporting their enemy. There is no time to spare. Musketeers and guardsmen reach for their rapiers at the same time, but a high, anxious voice stops them.
“Enough! I do not want any of these people to get hurt because of me.”
It is His Majesty, the king, running out from a shady corner, with a gaudy, pink dress on. This is the first time Bernardo truly sees her dressed as a woman. For some reason, she looks just as awkward as he felt with all these obstacles (called skirts, stays, petticoats, and such) on, and for a second, it makes his heart tremble. He even forgets about his stupid jealousy towards the king. What a lovely creature! If his uncle wanted it too, he would probably want to protect him with his honour, with his reputation, with his life on the line. When would the musketeers be ready to make such resolutions?
Then, he remembers why he is here when the king speaks again.
“I made a mistake when coming out here. If you take anyone, take me back with you. Please settle the rest later.”
Bernardo turns his head and exchanges a look with Claude, then with d’Artagnan. If he does not agree now, the king will simply order him to do as she pleases, anyway.
“That shall do,” he decides then, even though it is difficult to come to that conclusion. “I will escort Your Majesty back to the palace. Let the musketeers go for now, and follow me.”
He takes the king by the arm, and they leave the tavern. Once they are out on the streets and they are walking back towards the palace, he whispers towards her.
“If Your Majesty wants to come out and have some fun, please make sure to come to safer parts of the Capital, not a shady tavern like this, and above all: not to worry my uncle.”
The king does not answer – perhaps too shaken up by the events. She comes willingly but there is some sadness or anger in her. Once they go back to the palace, they hide her from the public eye and make sure that the wet nurse assists her dressing back into clothes befitting a king. After that, she is taken to Mazarin and the regent, to have a quick word about her escapade. Bernardo finds it the most important to make sure that no scare like this would happen again.
D’Artagnan leaves waits for him in his quarters.
“I just wanted to feel like a girl again!” His Majesty yells, with her cheeks puffed up in anger and shame. “I cannot bear to deceive Maria Theresa and deny a part of myself anymore! I want to feel like a woman. And if I cannot do it here, surely I must escape the palace.”
“Once the engagement is settled, the queen shall go back to Spain until the wedding, and Your Majesty is free to act however he likes in front of his loyal retainers,” Mazarin thinks. “My nephews and nieces will not mind providing Your Majesty with the attention and care he needs. In a dress, or in trousers.”
“It is true,” Bernardo agrees, perhaps too eagerly. “Your Majesty does not need to go to cheap taverns like that if he wants to feel like a woman.”
Her lips tremble slightly, but she nods, without saying a thank you. With her hands fiddling at the front of her jacket, she looks up at her mother, who steps forward, and addresses her. Disappointment and anxiety tint her voice.
“Louis! Will you promise not to do anything reckless like this again, until this reception is over?”
A resigned, pained answer.
Mazarin nods. It seems like he also finds it hard to be so harsh with the king, feeling betrayed by her mistrust. If only she turned towards the Mazarin family when she felt unhappy and unsafe! Bernardo thinks.
“Bernardo. Escort His Majesty to the secret chambers. She should spend the night there, and calm down before we continue the celebrations tomorrow morning. After that, make sure that nobody enters or leaves this palace until Maria Theresa is headed home.”
She is quiet all the way through, mad at something, or someone, but she would not say. It is not often that His Majesty would remain quiet instead of yelling and throwing insults at people for not performing the way she expected them. On a whim, he stops her from entering the chambers first and closes the way off with his hand.
“If Your Majesty does not want to spend a night in these chambers next time…” he says, his palm accidentally banging too hard on the pillar behind her. “He really should start putting faith in my family. Turn to me, instead of running away.”
The king looks him up and down, then shoves his hand away, before she would walk into the chamber on her own.
“Goodnight,” she brusquely says, locking herself in.
Bernardo wonders if he said anything inappropriate. He turns towards the guardsmen next to him, who both look uncomfortable and are heaving for breath like they had to run here. Bernardo wrinkles his nose and yells at them.
“Make sure that His Majesty does not leave the room as he pleases. And pull yourselves together, these uniforms look horrible on you! Did you just throw them on yourselves!? The queen of Spain is on a visit, at least try to give her some respect with a good impression.”
It is almost light outside when he can finally enter his quarters again. D’Artagnan is already sprawled out on his bed, dozing off as he lies on his tummy with his arms apart. He kicks his boots off and undresses before pressing up against him, trying to wake him up with small, wet kisses wherever d’Artagnan’s hair is not covering his face or neck. He grumbles something unintelligible as he stirs up.
“Don’t sleep yet,” Bernardo whispers the command in his ear, simultaneously poking his side to get enough attention. “I want you.”
D’Artagnan is wide awake, immediately.
It is definitely bright outside by the time they fall asleep in each other’s arms, with tangled hair, Bernardo brushing d’Artagnan’s moppy, dry locks as he is slowly taken by a dream. With the pretext of having had to run after the king the night before, they can allow as much as to wake up late.
They dress one another slowly, Bernardo planting lazy kisses on d’Artagnan’s naked shoulder – kisses that soon enough will be returned to him, as well. Taking their time, they walk out to the main hall together, to join the last day of the celebrations. It is the afternoon, so his sisters should be getting ready for the Sun King ballet already, to see Maria Theresa off, finally.
He nods at them when he sees all the Mazarinettes dressed up in their costumes, pushing and pulling one another, still unsure about the choreography. Lully is standing on the side, with his face planted in his palms. It is not an endearing sight, but he still grins at d’Artagnan. He is proud of those girls for powering through this.
“Let’s go,” he nudges d’Artagnan and assumes his position next to Mazarin. “Good morning, uncle.”
“It is the afternoon, Bernardo.”
He draws his chin in, trying to find a way to recover from that. Thankfully, it seems like the girls are ready to start, which would obscure his answer anyway. Even though the music is already on, instead of the entrance of the king to the stage, a desperate announcement arrives.
“Louis has disappeared!”
I know that Louis is supposed to sneak out after the first night of the reception, not the second. But you know what? I changed it because I can.
Chapter 5: The Final Night
I'm sorry. Now you know why it took me so long to let go of this chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Everything turns pale with panic. The colour drains from the throne room and perhaps even time stops. Bernardo can faintly hear Maria Theresa’s surprised yawp – then she pretends she heard nothing. Mazarin and the regent turn towards him as one person.
“Bernardo! You were supposed to look after His Majesty!”
It is true… Did she run away again? Was she kidnapped? He even forgets how to form sentences in French – no words come to his tongue for the longest seconds. Everyone in the saloon is staring at him.
“… it was a mistake to trust the palace guards with this.”
It is a mistake he cannot fix now, either way. He sees the disappointment in Mazarin’s eyes, but it is overshadowed by genuine concern. His Majesty might be in trouble. (Or, His Majesty might drag all of them into trouble.) Bernardo clears his throat.
“But… ever since the king’s last escape, I personally made sure that nobody would leave the palace. Which means, he must still be somewhere in here. If all my men went and looked for him, we could surely restore him in no time…”
Mazarin seems to doubt this. At first, he nods, letting Bernardo go forward with his plan, then he stops him again.
“At first, we must make sure that Her Majesty is engaged by something else, to distract her from the disappearance. A scandal would be more than unfortunate.”
“Did we not invite that swordplay troupe?” the regent suggests.
They decide it is time for this so-called Bigot and his men to come on the improvised stage. Bernardo is unsure what Maria Theresa liked about them so much: they seem like a group of peasants, in cheap clothes, a pathetic excuse for costumes, especially compared to the Sun King gown.
The music they make almost sounds outlandish to his ears, too. At first, he wanted to excuse himself and go to look for the king while the rest of the guests are occupied with this feat. He even nudges d’Artagnan to go, who is seemingly would be more than willing to leave the room with him. Then, something in this simple performance still captures him, and he forgets to make the next step altogether.
He watches the procession, slightly tilting his head as he tries to understand the story. There are a few fancier costumed actors mixed with the group, one of them sings, and two are playing the leading role in the small masque. Two knights.
Maybe, Bernardo is too obsessed with the concept of knighthood. Maybe it’s something else: but he still stays, mesmerized. On the other side of the ballroom, Hortense is enthusiastically teetering to the rhythm, forgetting herself. He would allow himself a transparent smile at that, but he is too busy paying attention himself.
Soon enough, swords come out, and the forever-bored Maria Theresa is appeased, too. The swords are interesting, too, of course, but what really grabs the attention is something a lot subtler. The twin knights share a memento, two halves of the same two-headed eagle. (Now he remembers clearly! It was never about the pigeons, after all.)
Bernardo turns his head, and nudges d’Artagnan, to get his attention. This is the thing I was talking about! What a coincidence! He wants to say. Except, d’Artagnan is not looking in his way, at all. He pokes him harder, but it yields no better results.
At the same time, Maria Theresa yells, too. In the meanwhile, she somehow worked her way up to the makeshift stage, and wrestling through several actors, she finally took hold of the props they used. She lifts it up in the air, to have a better look.
“But this is the sigil of our house!”
The music stops.
People are swarming. Some are trying to see the pendants from up close, others gape at each other in awe and disbelief. Above them, there is the regent, who shoves even Maria Theresa aside and takes the medallion from her. During the time he spent at court, Bernardo does not remember seeing her this way. She was always a calm, stern creature, who appeared composed in front of an audience. Now, she is nearly choking in disbelief and panic. It is painful to see.
“There is only one of this pendant in the entire world,” the regent claims, as she attaches the pieces together. She turns to the closest actor around her. “I got this from my father as a keepsake, when I left home. Now, the two halves of this medallion should belong to my daughter and my son. So, how come you have this?”
Bernardo’s eyes flick over to Mazarin, checking what his uncle thinks about this chaos born out of thin air. And some music. Once again, it is impossible for him to read the man’s face. He wishes he could become like Mazarin once, close to stoic, theatrical, measured. The elegance of his is unparalleled. Not even a court lady or a queen could have more poise. At least, this is what Bernardo sees, whenever he looks at his uncle. And if he sees it, the rest of the world must think so too.
Then, before he even finishes that thought, a high, feminine voice comes from behind them, catching everyone in the room off-guard.
When he looks, he does not recognize the king, at first. If it was not for her pageboy-cut, she might as well be another person entirely. Bernardo gapes at her, and her blue, creamy dress, embellished with rich, flower-patterned lace. Truly, once again it hits him as a wave and Bernardo feels the kinship between the two of them.
Now he knows that the king is uncomfortable in trousers, but he can see that she also looks awkward, out of place, when wearing a dress. She cursed herself with yearning for having both, and never quite knowing which one to choose, in the end.
Her dress is pale peach under the laces, just as pale as her face is now, clearly anxious. Perhaps even afraid of the outcome. She must be very brave, for standing in front of the whole court's scrutinizing eyes, looking like this. Bernardo almost died from it, a few days before.
“The other half of that pendant belongs to my twin brother.” More groans of disbelief from the audience. She motions somewhere behind them. “Well, show yourself, Louis!”
A young boy, perhaps around Bernardo’s age, steps out among the swordplay company. He’s Bernardo’s age, but his exact opposite: stocky, blond, bright-eyed. There is some glow to his cheeks like a thousand suns shone down on him at the same time, then also left an easy-going spark in his eyes. It does not change the fact that he looks more out of place than d’Artagnan used to when he first came here. His clothes are neat, for a peasant. But for the king’s proclaimed twin, to wear cheap, unembellished hemp clothing! That is an entirely different matter.
“Would this be the real Louis?” the regent asks, with a hint of hope in her voice.
“He was picked up by the troupe as an infant, twenty years ago. The pendant was hidden in his clothing.”
Bernardo sees his uncle panic for the first time. He catches the slightest glimpse, and he cannot make himself look anymore. Instead, he stares at this so-called Louis, the peasant boy, and laughs. He tries to convince himself that the story cannot be true. And by the time he looks back at his uncle, he is laughing again.
“What a foolish farce! Who would believe this? Everything falls into place too conveniently.”
“Surely, they must have heard this rumour somewhere, and chose a peasant, to pose as the lost twin to curry favours!” Philippe adds.
It all sounds plausible to him. It must have happened that way. Someone leaked the secret of the court, and now they must deal with the consequences.
“Just arrest the impostor,” Mazarin tells Bernardo.
He nudges d’Artagnan one more time, and when he seems to be in shock, still, he decides to go alone. Before he could approach the boy, His Majesty steps between the two of them.
“No! Mazarin. I do not wish to be king anymore!”
“Kingship is not something we choose,” his uncle answers, without missing a heartbeat. “It is something we bear. Most do not choose to be sovereigns, and those who do should never be trusted with such authority. Worry not, Your Majesty. The regent and I will keep on aiding you in political affairs.”
The king’s lips tremble. Mazarin gestures towards the boy once again.
“I said take him.”
The second time, it is the regent who stops him. The plot is getting more complicated from there, making Bernardo’s head hurt already. The lost prince had a birthmark on his arm, which would resemble a star, the regent says. That way, they could ascertain his identity. Some servants rush forth and examine the boy’s arms. Quite tragically, he has such a birthmark.
Bernardo looks back at his uncle, who is now pale as a ghost. He is even paler than Bernardo used to be when Marie Louise and Hortense made him up with thick white powder for the masquerade. Gesturing towards his nephew, he tries to tell him that the impostor should still be arrested, no matter what.
“No. I won’t allow that happen. The identity of the real king of France has just been revealed to you. Is this how you choose to react, Mazarin? With more treachery?”
If the past events were not enough, now it is Beaufort who appears in the ballroom (as Mazarin’s shout announces him), who was conveniently hidden by the actors of the troupe until now. Bernardo feels a flood of anger washing through him. How dare a political prisoner on the run preach about such things? Was he not arrested for plotting against the king all those years ago?
“I want to step down!” the king insists, begging her mother, too. “Now that my brother is found, he can be crowned with your permission, and I can continue to focus on ballet, as I always wanted.”
“Kingship is nothing one can simply step down from!” Mazarin interjects, even before the regent could think about her answer. He points at the peasant boy. “You would hazard letting a boy sit on the throne, who possibly cannot even read?”
“He can be taught! Just like I was, with time. Mother! I am ready to resign.”
He looks at his uncle, who now looks visibly upset – even Bernardo can tell. It is one thing that the king does not enjoy being king, even though it breaks his heart to know. But to arrange for someone else who can take the burden, when he already has both Mazarin and the regent to handle her affairs? Just who brainwashed her into making this move, and into thinking it would benefit her?
Beaufort? Bernardo looks over at him. Yes. It had to be him. Him, and the musketeers, who broke him out of prison. They talked the king’s head full of promises of dancing ballet freely as she wishes, and a simpler life, so they can install their paw, this peasant boy, and gain control of the French court! God… Beaufort, go to hell! The musketeers, too.
Mazarin seems to know that all is lost. The king wants to go – others are eager to fill her place immediately. No… If anything, they cannot have that. Didn’t his uncle say? As long as the king is on the throne, and she is protected, the Mazarin family should prosper as well. He goes up to His Majesty and grabs her by the arm. If there is no king in this room, there is nobody to negotiate with, and the exchange cannot be made between her and the so-called twin.
“Good try,” Bernardo tells Beaufort. “But I am not handing His Majesty over to you just like that!”
He nudges d’Artagnan to come with them, as he drags the king past by everyone, without a plan as to what to do next. Sure, His Majesty will be taken out of this situation, but that cannot go on forever. He cannot just keep taking her away from wherever Beaufort is. But... he will think about that later. D’Artagnan seems too shocked to follow, but he doesn’t have time to spare on that.
As he pulls the king with himself (hearing loud protests as he does so), more people arrive at the scene. A very familiar voice announces himself, and the former musketeers.
“The three musketeers will not let you lay a finger on the king!” He only looks for a second, to realize that the sound comes from Father Aramis. They met before.
Of course. Why would he think that the musketeers of all people didn’t want to join the celebrations, now that half of the Loches was already gathered here…
“Go after the musketeers!” he tells his men before he would finally leave the room, trying to disappear from sight on a hallway.
“Enough! Bernardo. Unhand me. You know that I am still the king!”
“I know, I know, Your Majesty. This is why I am saving you.”
Louis struggles in every way she can think of, although she is not an unruly child, so she does not bite, trample, or spit. It makes Bernardo think that deep inside she knows that this is all for her benefit, too.
“Save me? From what!?”
“From bad decisions.”
The king stares at him blankly for a while, before trying to push him away again. Bernardo hugs her closer to himself, for safety, so she wouldn’t tear herself away again, and proceeds to walk.
“Your Majesty, you need to open your eyes. Beaufort and the musketeers are not on your side! They only want to grab power for themselves, by manipulating you and making you resign.”
“You are the one who needs to open his eyes!” The king stops once again, bristled up, refusing to move. “Who do you think is being manipulated here? It is not me! Just who do you think made this possible? Let the former musketeers in, and led me to my twin brother?”
Bernardo blinks at her.
“It was your d’Artagnan.”
He pulls harder on the king, but suddenly he also feels like his legs were clogged into the floor. No movement forward, nor backwards.
“Why do you think he joined the guardsmen so willingly?”
“He was after … his sweetheart.”
Bernadette, that is. He came here, so he can finally be reunited with the woman he met in the tavern the night before. As incredible it is, as true it proved to be. Bernardo has been through this many times. He experienced the truth in this answer, too.
“What? No. He was sent here to spy by Athos and the rest. You told him about my identity, and then he sought me out, offering the help of the musketeers in pursuing the real Louis. At first, I thought you were helping them, too. But after you did … this, now I see that he was only dragging you on strings, too, like a puppet.”
His heart skips a beat, and the hand he keeps on the king’s is visibly trembling, but he does not let panic wash over him at all. No. It is something else coming to the fore. It is anger.
“No! Don’t talk of him that way!”
It can't be that d'Artagnan... No. That is impossible.
The spell is broken at last, and his legs start to move again. Without further delay, he tries to get the king even farther away from the danger that is Beaufort, leading her into another saloon. This small interlude lets Claude and Robert catch up with them, and it seems like they are taking some musketeers along, too. Bernardo doesn’t care about that. He wishes he could slay every single one of them.
They are supposed to be serving His Majesty. They are supposed to be living for her sake, and the poisonous snakes they are, all they do is plotting to dethrone her. Real loyalty looks nothing like that.
Behind them, d’Artagnan appears. His hair is undone (as always), and he stripped the coat of his guardsmen uniform, so he only stands there in his white shirt, rapier on his side. At first, he thinks the man was injured for be so underdressed, but he cannot see any red, or pink patches on the shirt, to much of his relief.
“Unhand His Majesty,” d’Artagnan says.
That is not to his relief.
Not at all.
His face feels as if it was dipped into ice cold water: the iciness hurts his skin. For a moment, he almost does what d’Artagnan tells him, out of pure shock. Can this mean… does this mean?
D’Artagnan stands opposite Claude, shoulder to shoulder with the musketeers.
“Unhand His Majesty,” he demands again, as he nods towards Bernardo. “It’s over. Let her go, and let it be. She does not want this. She does not want the Mazarins.”
His lungs collapse. Perhaps they do not. Perhaps they grow bigger than his ribcage and break his bones. They tighten in his chest, turn into stone. His heart sinks to his stomach. Then to his knees. Then to his ankles. His head is so light – oh so light! – and yet he is clogged down to the marble floor as if he grew roots in the past seconds.
Can it be true? Can it all be…
The ginger menace chases Mazarin and the rest of his family inside the same saloon from another entrance. Other guardsmen enter, trying to fend off the musketeers and whoever else is in their way. Montpensier is there!
“D’Artagnan!” His voice pierces through the air and commands silence in the whole saloon. Nobody breathes, not even the king, who must feel crushed under the strength of his grip. His own fingers hurt from clinging to her. When d’Artagnan looks at him there is something in his eyes. A shadow. “D’Artagnan!”
“Unhand the king, and allow everything to go according to the duke of Beaufort’s plans. Please.”
“Robert… Take His Majesty,” Bernardo tries to say, but it only comes out as a weak whisper. Then, in a much louder voice, to d’Artagnan. “You stupid bitch!”
His voice is shaking just as much as his legs shake, and even so, he already has his hand on the shaft of his sword, ready to draw, and go. Without thinking – for the first time without any inner hesitation – he sets off and moves towards d’Artagnan, ready to meet him any time.
For the straightest man he ever knew to blatantly lie in his face all this time. For him to see all the hints, consider them, and then allow Mazarin and the rest to convince himself of their falsehood and throw them away like that! God, he is stupid.
Is there something he didn’t give to d’Artagnan!? Is there something d’Artagnan did not steal from him by force at first, then by lies and deceit? The stench of a liar followed him all the way through and he mistook it for the scent of the sun and earth and love. Even for so much, he would deserve to die.
Perhaps death would be too merciful.
There is an even darker shadow crossing through d’Artagnan’s eyes as he realizes that Bernardo is going for him, and will not stop anymore. Is it regret? Is it fear? Bernardo can faintly hear his uncle in the background, advising against doing this. Why! He is the best in Italy, or what. He was at least, the last time he checked.
“I will kill you. I will show what happens to overreaching Gascon peasants like you when they attempt something like this.”
He always said he wanted to fight it out once, after all. He always wanted to see how their strength and skill would compare to each other. And choose a better time to do this…
The man probably even hesitates for a second there – Bernardo cannot tell -, but their swords meet just in time with a loud clank. Bernardo can barely see from his eyes stinging, his movements feel alien to him, as his limbs are too light and too heavy at the same time. It feels like they have a duel above the clouds, everything is white around the edges, nobody exists, just d’Artagnan, him, and his resentment.
It goes smoothly, a lot unlike a duel. Rather than that, it reminds him of their dance a few nights ago, no winners, no losers. Everything is equal. He cannot forget about the eye contact. (He wishes the king would watch and learn! What an opportunity.) Their swords cross, but it is not about that at all. This is never about the rapiers.
He can see something in d’Artagnan’s eyes, now clearly, it is darkness, it is a shadow he never noticed before, but it is also … is it remorseful? It only makes him hate this man more. It only makes him want to thrust his sword through him for once and all. If only he could give back the pain he received!
But more importantly… if only he could take back all that he gave to this man. Every fragment of warmth. Every word. Every kiss, every embrace. Every single attempt at trying to tell him something Bernardo was so horrible at telling.
Bernardo always took pride in being a cold-hearted, inhuman swordsman, but this is the first time that his chest would feel so empty. It would perhaps sound hollow, too.
Then, he realizes that they will not move on from this, ever, if everything continues the same way. They would have a never-ending clash, uninterrupted, smooth, equal. Something has to change.
“Do not go easy on me,” he growls at d’Artagnan.
“I would never lie to the sword,” the man retorts immediately.
He has to laugh.
“The sword? Not. But you would shamelessly lie to your… your…” He cannot finish the sentence. There is no ending to that sentence. He never knew what he was to d’Artagnan, after all. So now, he also cannot define it properly. Instead, he calls out, deciding to finish all of this. “Robert! Lend me your rapier.”
It needs to move forward. They lingered in the moment for long enough. Robert sounds intimidated by him, perhaps the way his voice cracks, or perhaps by the determination he fights with, as he steps forward and hands the sword over to his captain.
By that time, he is so angry, he is almost entirely calm. His whole body is taken over by resentment, but it somehow elevates him, giving him more power to work with. Such strong feelings have this effect, but they only make people all the more careless. If the king was trying to fight him in such a state during one of their practices, he would immediately try to lecture her on it and advise against it.
The next moments are completely blank in his head. At first, d’Artagnan seems to be intimidated by being faced with two swords instead of one. He does not talk, because he is a good swordsman, after all. Talking distracts your opponent, but it also steals your own energy and attention. Ever since Bernardo brought in the second sword, it seems like d’Artagnan’s attention is finally on him, and only on him.
Is this not what he always wanted? Now, it is truly only the two of them existing in this world, above the clouds. And before he could enjoy the idea, the sensation, the idea, his own wandering thoughts disrupt the duel.
When he comes to himself, he is already on the floor, sprawled out, legs open. One rapier is in d’Artagnan’s hand, the other one is scattered somewhere on the ground next to him.
If he was wounded during the duel, he cannot remember. And he cannot feel anything either. No pain. Nothing at all.
“Did I show you?” d’Artagnan asks, from somewhere above him. His eyes finally learn how to focus again. “What a Gascon can do?”
Normally, he would have enough fight in himself to jump to his feet again – he is not wounded! – and go for his opponent with his bare hands, until he can suffocate all the smugness out of him. Until his heart does not feel so broken. Until he had at least the slightest payback for betrayal. Now, he is stuck to the floor.
If he could choose, he would never want to emerge from here. It is good down there. It is comfortable. He could just die here. Disappear. Melt into the ground. Nothing matters anymore. He hears his own voice, but it sounds like it comes from the other side of the room.
“For sure.” D’Artagnan showed him in more than one manner what a Gascon can do, too. “You are the best of our time.”
The man drops both of the swords he is holding, throws his gloves away, then offers a hand to Bernardo. He only stares at it for a while, until he realizes that he means to help him up. Does he really have the cheek to do that? After all of this?
At first, he does not want to accept it. Then, this is the last time he will ever feel that sort of warmth. He stares at d’Artagnan’s hand for the longest time from the floor, as if in the process of bewitching it. Then, he rips the leather glove off of his hand, and slowly, reaches out for d’Artagnan. He lifts him up easily, and as they stand there, breast to breast, suddenly the clouds disappear, and the rest of the world is present again, in the saloon around them.
Bernardo can feel d’Artagnan’s heartbeats against his. Sweat drops frame his face, and Bernardo is panting, too. They are all the same. Tired and desperate.
But d’Artagnan has no words for him. His d'Artagnan, who always kept running his mouth off, even when nobody asked him to say a word. He only has those sad brown eyes, expecting the other to understand everything that is written in them. Well, Bernardo was never good at this sort of thing.
“I understand now,” he forces the words out of himself, and they break through his throat with a strange, raspy sound. “You have truly been my wall, all this time.”
“Bernardo.” His name sounds nothing like it used to, on his tongue.
This is the moment when the explanation would come, but he does not have the heart and the courage to listen. The king already told him of d’Artagnan’s betrayal, and d’Artagnan did nothing but confirm it with his actions. There is no reason for breaking his heart anymore. He releases d’Artagnan’s hand and turns on his heels, sharply.
When he walks away from the man, he knows he will not look back at him again, until d’Artagnan can see him. If they ever exchanged looks, it would all turn upside down. In fact, he never wants to think of this again.
He wishes everything d’Artagnan did to him, everything they did to each other could be locked up in a small, intricate casket, and consigned to oblivion forever. If it was possible to throw this shameful past away, never to be revisited again, he would do it. He wants to refuse to have any awareness of this episode in his life.
By the time he is able to join the events again, most things are decided. Georges appeared from somewhere again, and Beaufort is here, too. The king is standing with her mother and d’Artagnan on her sides. Bernardo does not want to but he remembers the time he was jealous of His Majesty. He understands now. Who knew his gut feeling was right about one thing? He anticipated d’Artagnan to betray him to the king, but he was never smart enough to see past kissing. What a fool believes that there cannot be anything more painful than a stolen kiss!?
The regent seems to give in. She will allow the king to resign, and continue dancing.
“But if so,” Mazarin asks, in one last, desperate attempt. “Who will rule and protect France?”
“We still have the real Louis for that.” Beaufort steps forward, proudly and victoriously. “And until I can make an excellent king of him, I promise to be the teacher he needs, and oversee his every step.”
Mazarin drops his shoulders. It dawns on all of them at the same time. The fact that it is final. Beaufort will claim the exact place he used to have, and he will do it by posing himself as a selfless hero, as well. Hand in hand with his musketeers, who will go down in history as the epitome of loyalty, for their devotion to a pawn, peasant king. For betraying His Majesty. Bernardo wants to throw up.
“Mazarin.” It is the regent. “On the dawn of the ascendance of His Majesty, the real king Louis, I will stop being regent, and you will resign from your position as Cardinal and return to Italy with your extended family.”
A long pause.
So, that’s it.
There is not much else to do, and now they all realize that no attempts could save their position at the French court. Mazarins, go to hell… It has been going on for long enough. It is his uncle, who leaves first, gesturing towards the rest of his family, to follow.
Bernardo does not want to stay a moment longer, and yet, he ends up betraying himself too, and looking behind his shoulder one last time. Cold-hearted and inhuman...
Then, he follows.
“Let us pack our bags. It will feel a lot better, once we arrived home.”
Mazarin does not look at Bernardo, but he clasps his shoulder for a few moments. He probably knows that it would start a flood if he said anything directly.
“Everything has to end once, and even if we expected to stay longer in France... we made the most out of it. We took what we could.”
Well, if Mazarin took all that he could... Bernardo only lost here.
Marie Louise and Philippe come to his room, to help him gather his things. None of the servants or the palace guards are there to help them. Some guardsmen decide to stay, and some, including Claude and Robert, express their desire to remain in Mazarin’s service, even once he returns home.
Bernardo left his rapier in the saloon, and he has no plans to retrieve it. When he looks at his belongings in the room, he wishes to leave most of them behind. They are all tainted by memories he never wants to visit again.
He only watches the room he used to call home, so Philippe grabs a few things that look important from his table and places them in a box for him. They don't say anything for a while. Marie Louise, still in her ballet costume, kneels down on the floor, having noticed something under the bed.
“Ah look!” she exclaims, pretending to be cheerful.
For sure, she must be bursting with anger. But when Marie Louise is putting on airs to make others feel better, it must be something serious. Bernardo wonders just how miserable he could look right now.
She extracts the dress from the masquerade from under it. They must have kicked it under the bed the morning after, being too lazy to bring it back to Montpensier’s room. Marie Louise tries to smooth it, then folds it, and hands it over to her brother. She looks into his eyes.
“I think you should keep it as a memento, no? You looked very pretty. And happy, too.”
Words are hard to form, so Bernardo only answers with a nod.
I rearranged some events from the last part of the musical to fit my narrative better, so if you notice that things did not happen in this order, or if some parts seem to be missing, or modified, it was not on an accident.
Sorry again about the wall "joke."