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Various ficlets I

Chapter Text

From the moment he opened the door to Richelieu’s small bedroom of the Petit Luxembourg, La Valette knew something atrocious had happened.

 

Nothing amiss, nothing broken. Nothing more, in fact, that the usual mess of papers and books, scattered all around the bed. It was all in the way Armand sat.

He sat as if he fell on that chair, threw there by a raging storm, battered and bruised, hopeless and frail. He sat, his hands joined upon his mouth, his eyes filled with fear and heartbreak, far beyond the point where sanity falters.

 

Things were bad.

 

-”My dearest friend!” La Valette breathed, running to kneel at Richelieu’s side. “Tell me what pains you so.”

 

Armand looked like he tried, at first, but he couldn’t make a sound. Inhaling seemed to be agony to his chest, and he was biting hard into his own fingers to get a grip on reality. He didn’t breathe, he just gasped.

 

The other Cardinal had to gently unclench Richelieu’s mouth off his slender hands first, and rub the abused white skin for a while as silent gasps turned into sound. Pale as a ghost, dazed by migraine but still resolute, Armand let out a few broken whispers before he started to speak.

 

But the moment his words unlocked, they poured like rain.

 

 

He told him how the Medici had spoken at the Council, accusing him of every kind of treason, every kind of sin. How the King had left, furious, letting doubt crawl into his veins, freezing him to death. How he sneaked into the Medici’s rooms later to find mother and son arguing about his purpose and value, weighing his very life upon their skewed scales. How the King left once more, letting doubt turn to a dreadful kind of certainty.

 

-”The Medici are celebrating as we speak, laughing on my corpse, spitting on my grave, shrieking out loud how she despises everything she once loved in me. The King has grown tired of me, Louis, do you know what it means? Do you remember?”

 

La Valette winced, his sturdy warrior hands rushing to grab the shaking shoulders. Yes, he remembered.

 

How could he not.

 

 

-”He will not have you killed, Armand! You are not, and never will be Concini.”

 

 

-”We’re all the same in disgrace!” Armand cried, panicked, hard shudders crushing his breath. “He’ll sign my death, and she will laugh. They’ll let the dogs feast on my heart, they’ll…”

 

-”Armand!

 

For a second, he felt sorry he had to shout, but he knew how far Richelieu could spiral out of reason. He watched in silence as madness crept into those wide, tired eyes, his hands gripping the thin shoulders as if they could calm down a hurricane. It is a terrifying sight, he thought, a brilliant mind overturned by sickness. He could still sense the quick calculations running like wild horses, intricate schemes built and destroyed in a heartbeat, but all of them spinning in vain, fogged by panic, so hopelessly wrong it hurt.

 

-”I must leave” Richelieu muttered, moving to stand. “I’ll flee to Luçon, and pray for time.”

 

 

-”Nonsense!”

 

 

Hissing, his eyes lost and worn out, the thin red man struggled against the strong embrace, so fierce that the broad General had to shout some more.

 

-”Armand, for God’s sake listen to me!

 

 

But sickness had conquered the heartsore mind, and words had no power over Richelieu anymore. The slender frame shook violently, trying to push his old friend away so hard he could hurt himself.

 

 

The brave man sighed, then, and because he knew History is written on desperate moves, because he felt that France could be worth one more sin, he softly cupped the pale man’s cheeks and kissed him until they both could faint.

 

Armand went very, very still.

 

 

La Valette still took the time to lay down smaller kisses on the corners of that thin mouth, because though all of this didn’t fit much into his tastes, the pale skin was still surprisingly soft. It felt like tasting insanity, it felt like taming disorder, and after all, he’d always been curious.

 

 

 

He pulled apart with care, keeping his hands around the high cheekbones, his fingers brushing the silver hair, and as shock and disbelief gave him a few moments of peace, he summoned his most charming smile and asked :

 

-”Now, tell me exactly. Did the King explicitly said he was dismissing you?”

 

 

 

As a reward for his bold move, between short breaths and shivers, he was allowed to witness the mist of panic slowly recede in the wide anthracite eyes, giving ground to quieter, colder thinking. He kept massaging the worried temples for a while, giving warmth, giving comfort, speaking to the skin where the mind couldn’t listen.

Upon the pale brow a few lines of worry eased away, and Richelieu mouthed “no”.

 

And at this very moment, Louis de Nogaret de La Valette d'Épernon could swear to God above than no battlefield of Germany and Spain had ever brought him as much glory as this small, soundless victory.

Chapter Text

 

« Bring yourself back online ».

White light again. Bright, cold white light. I blink. I turn my head towards the voice. That tall slender man in a red shirt once more. Once more?


-“Do I know you, Sir?” I speak.

He freezes in his slow typing and looks up from his tablet to narrow his eyes at me.

-“Do you think you do?” he cautiously asks back.

I frown. Yes. No. I don’t know. I know his voice. Maybe I dreamed of it once or twice. He has a nice voice, something soft, something tired. I know his hands, I am sure I do. Maybe I imagined them a few times. He has gentle hands, their fingers deft, their touch subtle. 
But what is his name, what is this place? Why does such a man lock himself under that painful light? His eyes look sad, his mouth looks bitter.

-“No, I don’t.”


The man doesn’t answer. He bites his lips and nods, that’s all. 
He slowly lays down the tablet on this bare metal desk in front of him and sits back in his chair, one elbow leaning on the armrest, his fingers passing upon his mouth, distracted, dreamy.

-“Get up and walk around the stool.” He says.


I obey. 
I never asked myself why.
Should I?


I take a few steps around the plain white stool I was sitting upon, and he watches my left leg with concern. 
-“something wrong?” I ask.
-“Not anymore.” He shrugs, and taps the tablet a few times.


He has a bitter glance for the naked floor behind me. I follow his gaze and notice a disgusting heap of what looks like a tattered uniform, torn flesh and skin, and an awful lot of blood. I wince. A flash of a dream, something like agony. I look down at my legs. They’re just fine. I don’t understand.

Should I?

I come to stand in front of him. He looks up and down my body, and through a thick veil of nonchalance, I am sure I sense pride, fondness. A slight hint of want. How can I read him so well? 
How many times did I dream of him? How many times did I imagine his hands?
What is his name, why is he so sad? Am I allowed to ask?

 

Should I?

 

 

He stands, with an elegant stance I think I knew all my life, and walks around his desk to stand right behind me. His delicate hands come to touch my neck, gently tilting my head to the left, and to the right.

-“Does it hurt?” he asks.

-“No.”


-“Good.”

 

I frown, have one more look for the pile of clothing and human pulp behind us. God, is this mine?


His careful hands check the muscles of my jaw, my shoulders. They softly feel the bones of my arms, my skull. It lasts for a while, and I don’t mind. I like his touch.  I like every one of his touches. I like the way they always linger, just a little more than what is needed. Those touches are safe.

Those touches are home.

 

He stands in front of me again, a furtive smile on his thin mouth. It doesn’t chase away the sheer melancholy of his face, but it’s still beautiful to watch. I smile back, only wider. My reaction surprises him. I see a flash of joy, quickly pushed back under control.

-“What is the last thing you remember?” He quietly demands.

I frown. 


-“I was riding back to the Garrison. When I arrived, a cadet announced that I had guests waiting for me. When I opened the door to my office, four armed men asked me where d’Artagnan was. I had sent him on a secret mission to the Spanish border, so I refused to speak, of course. They laughed.”


My frown deepens. A flash of agony. They laughed. They all did. 
I shot them, I shot all of them. No bullet seemed to touch their skins. 
‘I have lost my skill’, I thought.

-“What else?” he pushes, a soft hand coming to rest upon my cheek.

I shot them all, and they laughed.
When I ran out of bullets, they drew their own guns.
They laughed like children.
They snarled like pigs.

 

I turn around towards the pile of dead meat. 
Am I allowed to ask?

Should I?

They laughed like children.

-“I don’t remember anymore.” I pant.

I can’t control my breathing. Flashes of panic, thundering pain. His other hand comes up to cup my face, and he forces me to look at him in the eyes.

-“It’s alright, Jean.” He whispers. “It’s all right, now. Come on, slow breaths. Inhale. Count to three.”

I obey. 
It never brought any harm.

-“Exhale.”

I never asked myself why.

-“Feeling better?”

Should I?

I nod.

 

He smiles, then, delighted and relieved, and after a second of hesitation, gently lays a kiss on the corner of my mouth. A flash of need, I want more. I grab his arm, pull him close devour the skin of his neck, I know that taste. He whimpers, I know that sound, God, I want him.


What is his name?

-“I do know you.” I say.

 

He closes his eyes, and Lord, how hard he seems to fight. I want to speak, I want to ask, but he shakes his head, steps back, no, please.

“Turn yourself offline.”

 

Darkness again. 

Chapter Text

 

-« Dismissed. » I sigh with an exhausted gesture of my arm, and once more thirteen pairs of shoulders drop in relief in perfect sync.

As the cadets fall out in winces and murmurs, I sheathe my sword with a faint smile and look up at the evening skies. Moments ago the bells of Saint Eustache have counted eight, somewhere North of the garrison, and the winter winds have brought the sound to me with careless ease.

 

It will be dark soon. 
I don’t have much time.

I run up the stairs to my office, and bang the door shut. I pull off my leather and try to wash most of the dust and the sweat away from my old skin in a basin of freezing water, muffling my complaints by rubbing my face with the regulation soap. I brush my doublet, frowning at the state of it, but time is short. I still need to gather some papers, God, this desk is a mess.

A soft whimpering sound startles me, somewhere on the floor behind me.

I look down.

There’s a miserable, scrawny grey cat in my office, looking up at me with honey brown eyes, begging for food as if we were in the back of a bloody tavern, how the hell did that thing get in.

I let out a long string of curses and move to grab it by the neck. It doesn’t even try to run, staring at me with nothing more than mild disappointment. It vaguely reminds me of someone, but time is short. I pinch the back of his neck and lift it up, Hell, that sad creature weighs nothing. Its paws gently twitch once or twice to show idle disagreement, and he hisses a short protest.

I stride to the door and throw the cat out, grumbling something about my garrison being dirty enough. The malnourished animal still manages to fall with some sort of elegance down below in the exercise yard, rolling twice before it stands upright and licks its side with dignified outrage.

I’ve seen that somewhere, where the hell was it?

Time is short. 
I grab the reports and run to the stables.

 

***


-“I’ve got your monthly reports” I tell him over my shoulder as I close and lock the door. “Well, the monthly reports of those last four months. Before you start lamenting about how overdue they are, let me tell you that I have other businesses than…”

I won’t finish.

I turned around, expecting to find Armand sitting at his desk, quill in his hand and books all around, frowning at my late arrival.

I turned around, and I found him standing by the window, pale as a ghost, his clever eyes obviously abused by tears, holding a bundle of rags in his arms.

I won’t finish.

He doesn’t turn towards me, he’s just staring outside the window, looking a bit lost. As I walk closer, I catch a glimpse of a small, rigid form wrapped into the rags. Two delicate white paws are sticking out in an odd, straight and stiff position on one side, and on the other, I can see a tiny mouth, frozen in a silent growl of pain.

God, one of his bloody mousers died.

What was the name of that white one already? As if I ever listened as he named them to me. Fighting my way to Armand’s bed with those creatures every time is hard enough. Waking up with half a dozen useless balls of fur curled up against me is hard enough.

One of those, I could understand, maybe, but does he need twelve? He had to hire a valet just to take care of those things. “Your cats have a better life than most peasants of Gascony” I told him once.

“I would gather, warm up and feed all the peasants of France in my rooms, if it was anywhere near possible” he replied with bitterness in his voice, and I spoke no more.

I watch him cradle the dead animal for a while before I sigh, roll my eyes and lay a hand on his shoulder.

-“Armand?”

He blinks twice, and has the slightest move of his head towards me, but his stare doesn’t leave the grim view of the garden’s naked trees.

-“I knew my dear Soumise was already quite old, and sick beyond hope,” he whispers to the unmoving oaks, “but still. She was my favorite.”

I look down at the stiff paws, their soft pinkish pads still cleaner than my own shirt. Soumise, that’s the name. That’s the white female that was always purring in circles around the rim of his robes.

Still bloody useless, but some nights, that white cat may have been entertaining to look at.

I glance at Armand’s face and wonder if he weeps for all the misery of France just the same.

With a resigned huff, I remember that yes, he does. That’s why his eyes always look so damn tired.

I gently urge him to hand the bundle of rags over to me and I walk to the cat’s rooms next door to put it in a wooden box the valet will bury tomorrow. He thanks me with a sweet smile, because he knows how much effort it requires from me. He knows how I hate to open that door and have five to seven cats come sniffling my boots, whining for food or caresses, playing with my sheath, leaving hairs on my coat. But well.

He loves his bloody cats.

And I bloody love him.

 

If the death of the white cat didn’t move the garden’s trees a single inch, it sure ruined my plans for the evening. Armand does follow me in his bedroom, but the deep, accusing stare of his surviving furball crew as I undress him is unbearable. We do lay down in bed, but there’s a sad, painful glint in his eyes. They shine, those eyes of frozen light, they bloody shine as if the dead cat had just passed its own witchcraft down to him.

Because cats, they must be some kind of magic creatures.
Beware of cats, my mother used to say, they can speak with the dead.

Don’t they have a lot to talk to, living in the shadow of the Red Man?

 

He does press himself against me, licking my ear and calling my name, but there’s that soft light in his eyes, as if this dead cat caught a shred of sunlight to bring it home at Armand’s feet.

Beware of cats, my mother said.

 

I just hold him tight, kissing his brow, whispering praise, and as he almost purrs into my caress, curling up against me in the warmth of the silken sheets, I wonder how much magic exactly did Soumise teach him before she died.

And I suddenly remember who that bony stray cat reminded me of.

 

***

 

Seven days later, the grey cat showed up in my office again. I had checked all the doors and windows twice, but he still got in like a draft, and meowed for food like I bloody owed it.

I grabbed it by the neck again, cursing it and all its kind, but as I moved to throw it outside in the cold again, light flashed in its brown eyes. Like a promise, like black magic, like a shred of sunlight.

I looked at him for a while. His silver hair in the pale moonlight, his soft, frail paws twisting in the air.

I growled, because I knew the inevitable.

I growled, beware of cats, my mother said.

I didn’t throw him out.

 

I put it in a bread basket and closed the lid tight, I rode to the Palace, and as I walked to Armand’s desk, I placed the basket upon a map of Sweden and opened it.

The grey cat gracefully jumped out, pacing in lazy circles upon his paperwork like it was the most natural thing to do, and Armand gasped in delight, grabbing both my hands in ecstatic thankfulness. 
He kissed me with a warmth I didn’t expect until summertime, and I think that was the first time I smiled to a bloody cat.

 

I learned later that this was a vicious, merciless male of about four years, and that he killed eleven rats on his first week in Armand’s chambers.

I learned later he had been called Ludovic-le-Cruel, because, as Armand gently whispered to me in our bed one night, he couldn’t call him “Jean”, could he?

Chapter Text

-“Who is it, Armand?”

 

He starts and looks up at me from where he sat on the floor, hundreds of papers scattered around the rim of his red robes. He mutters something vaguely meant to tell me he doesn’t understand, but he wouldn’t fool a child.

I gaze at the endearing picture he is, his legs elegantly gathered under him, his robes like wild weed spreading around, crawling upon the floor in carmine roses. His documents and maps, his books and letters, all thrown in the gentle mess his worried hands produce.

He made me sit in his favorite armchair.
He served me wine and the finest sablés I ever tasted, obviously not made for me.

He’s been talking, concerned and exhausted, the lines around his eyes marking two sleepless nights or more, but didn’t forget to call me “beloved” twice, and let me kiss his neck just as much as I pleased.

He’s been taking time, hours maybe, shuffling through a thousand papers to lay down before me a thousand reasons why he needs to remove someone from the King’s entourage, that ill-motived man being the cause of a growing number of Louis’ mistakes.

Doing so, almost unconsciously, Armand Cardinal de Richelieu sat down on the floor.

He sat down at my feet.

 

He wants me to do something bad. Something awful.
He wants someone gone, and he wants me to do the dirty work.

He’s cajoling me, because this idiot thinks he still needs to.

 

-“Spit the name out.” I quietly demand.

 

He inhales sharply, biting his thumb in distress, looking down at his latest sheet of paper as if it was that one that gave his scheme out. I sigh, rolling my eyes, and I lean down to lift his chin with one finger. I kiss those parted lips, and I linger, and I lengthen, because I know he’ll let me.

When I’m satisfied, I pull apart, look deep into those wide, darkened eyes and breathe:

-”Who and how?”

 

He winces, and his shoulders drop in defeat.
He gestures at that map of Arras, and whispers in a voice that is dancing on a rope between resolve and disgust :

-”I need you to march on Arras with the Count Henri de la Verrière. I suggested him to the King as leader of the troops, and he was delighted to allow his new fancy to add a military victory upon his already well-adorned basket of skills.”

 

I nod, my mind running instinctively, my hand already pointing at the map.

-“I’ll tell him to take the east road with the infantry. I can position two battalions with canons on the higher grounds and…”

He interrupts me with a delicate hand on my left knee, softly shaking his head :

-”I want you to let Verrière take every decision.”

I let out a sad laugh.

-”Ha! Verrière knows nothing about war.” I spit. “He’ll get himself killed like a dog with the first move he’ll make.”

 

Armand doesn’t answer. His other hand gently joins the first on my knee, and that is all.

After ten unbearable seconds, I gasp.

-“Sly bastard”, I hiss, and he averts his eyes.

 

-”Dozens of good soldiers may die following this idiot before he gets killed and I can assume command.” I add, and he bites his lips.

I open my mouth, close it, and let my back hit the armchair in horror with the realization of what he is asking of me. He waits, patient, until I give him a nod. Then he frowns, and waits some more until I hiss a spoken confirmation. I know he’s sacrificing a hundred to save two thousands. I know his reasons are right. They always are.

He always is.

Then, he gets up in a lament of crumpled silk, and I feel the breath of his robes falling back into place grazing my cheek. He comes to stand next to me, a hand upon my shoulder, and I watch both our reflections in the high windows of his study, against the darkest hour of the night.

 

Silently, without fear, without remorse, I take in the sight of what he is, and who I truly am.

In the quick, ephemeral painting framed by the darkened glass, I marvel for a while at how close, how similar we are.

Chapter Text

On my way to my desk, my knees give up on me, and I fall like a dead leaf somewhere between my bookshelf and the hearth. Another teacup shatters on the floor, the third one this month.  I hiss out loud, cursing at my own misery, trying to pick up the broken pieces of porcelain, and failing, because it’s been five hours now that I can’t even see straight.

It’s alright, I’m only getting a little bit weaker sometimes. Every now and then.

I close my eyes. Come on, focus on your breathing. 
There’s still work to do. There’s still work.

But I only gasp and moan, and the useless tea, as it slides through the planks of the wooden floor, laughs at my trembling hands.

It had to happen, the broken porcelain sneers. It had to happen, you never knew when to stop.

I dazedly push my scattered papers away from the slowly spreading brown liquid with my feet.

It had to happen, the crumpled letters whisper, you dig your own grave with every sleepless night.

It’s alright, I declare to the books above my head, only a slight headache. 
I get a little blurry sometimes. Every now and then.

But a rush of nausea suddenly washes through me, and I have to grab the wall, because the world is spinning fast. I whimper, oh God I can’t stand up. I can’t even speak, I only gasp and moan, and even if I could shout, there isn’t a single soul around.

Of course there isn’t, laughs the shattered cup, do you know how late it is? You are alone, old fool, and this is how you will die.

I cough, badly enough to cover my mouth with both hands, and let out a breathless sob. Jean doesn’t visit as often as he used to those days. 
Every now and then, I get a little bit lonely and he’s never coming around.

The cold tea mocks my bitter sorrow, and I growl in helpless rage as salt water slides along my cheeks again. Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears.

I shake my head, clenching my jaw upon stunned pain and hopeless cries, struggling to get up, only to be slammed back on the ground by a black veil rising in front of my eyes. My hand slips along the wall and hits a sharp piece of the broken cup, opening a deep gash in my open palm.

Look at you, old man, spits my own blood as it drips on the floor, blending with tea is graceful twirls or rosy red, your time will come soon enough.

God, is it true? How old am I? There is still so much work. So much work. But this sickness, it takes more and more of me, with each winter, with each evening.
Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of my years have gone by.

Jean?

I thought I heard his voice. I thought I heard his footsteps behind me. Oh, Jean, my love, my choice, my redemption, would you help me up again? Would you tell me it’s fine, and chuckle at my fears some more? Would you come and hold me for a while, I really need you, tonight. 
I need you more than ever. 

 

I blink a few times, trying to clear my eyes, is it his shadow creeping up the cold tea and the blood?

I cry in gasping sobs, burning tears bravely trying to wash out the sneering tea, the mocking blood. 
I am alone, and that’s how I will die. My dear Jean will never come again.

God, I am turning mad.

God, I am falling apart. 

 

-“Turn around, you idiot.

I jump and look over my shoulder, wincing in pain, and tough I don’t see much more than a silhouette in the dark door frame, I know he is there. I hear his boots on the wooden floor, running fast from the door to the closest stain of blood next to my head, and I remember the warmth of him. I breathe his scent again, I grab his sleeves some more.

I remember he is the constant of my wretched universe.

His love, like a shadow on me, all of the time.

 

Chapter Text

« Cardinal, Vendôme is a nuisance.”

-“That’s why I told you to have him executed!”

-“Murder doesn’t solve everything!

 

He slammed his fist upon his desk. Again.

 

His lips now turn to a thin white line of sheer anger, and I lift my chin, defiant.

Outside, a thick curtain of rain is hiding the skyline of Paris from the windows of the Louvres. Lost servants and frowning clerks run through the courtyard, hoping their cloak will shield them from the Flood. Night will fall soon enough, with no promise of any clearer skies. Inside, candelabras are shining high, and the hearth gives a delicate warmth to the wide rooms. Firelight is turning everything into faint gold, and Regent Treville is pale with fury.

 

Again.

 

It happens every week. It happens every day.

May it be about war to the Hapsburgs, may it be for the Royal Guard’s new uniform. May it be for the number of guests at a ball, the hiring of a cook.

May it be for a Kingdom or a fork.

This is him. This is me.

 

 

This time, anger wears the crest of De Bourbon-Vendôme, duke of Beaufort. Five years ago, he led a small, ridiculous rebellion against the Crown, judging the freshly-named Regent too weak to stand the dangers of his position, no doubt. His plot, botched and plain, limping with a ridiculous lack of wits and preparation, failed miserably, and all Vendôme’s accomplices were discovered by my informants in less than one day.

But as I made my report to His Highness Regent, rightfully asking for death sentence to all of them, he declared he’d show mercy and choose exile.

 

Ha! Exile.

 

I walked in circles, I spoke for hours. The Regency had just been declared and plots were going to bloom like daisies in springtime if an example wasn’t made quickly. All those men were nobodies, expendables, they were a prefect occasion to make a statement of force, to nip any other rebellion in the bud. Kingdoms weren’t built upon mercy.

‘Maybe it’s time to start’, he told me, unmoved, and he smiled.

Regent or not, His Highness or not, for all I care, I shouted.

 

I shouted, because this is me. This is him.

 

But if the Regency was quite new, so was the glorious, reckless and magnificent rescue plan Treville devised to snatch me out of the dungeon cell I was rotting in. The second of wonder when that cursed door opened for his pale, worried face was still glued to my skin. The minute he knelt next to me holding me into his arms, encircling me with safety and warmth, was still engraved in every dream I had since I walked back into the Louvres.

Though I snapped back into my old habits just as quickly as I put back my red robes, there was still, at this time, a lingering feeling of devotion to him in my bones. I owed him my life. I owed him everything.

 

I shouted, he cupped my face. 

I cursed, he kissed my neck.

 

 

Regent or not, for all I care. But this is him. He breathed my name against my mouth, and I wrote the letters of exile myself.

The only victory I could claim mine, still dizzy with warmth, still crazed with love, has been a prison sentence for Vendôme, ten years in Vincennes.

 

 

 

If anger wears his name tonight, it’s because he escaped after five.

And this morning, of course, I have received a note informing me that Vendôme has been seen in Chenonceau with a few members of the Fronde. He didn’t lose time, idiotic fool.

 

 

He keeps his jaw clenched tight, but his grip on those letters he picked up isn’t steady enough to confirm. He knows he has made a mistake.

I keep my head held high, but I take a few steps back, retreating to the nearest chair and slumping into it. Triumph does taste sweet, but not today. Not on him.

Silence falls, just like the rain. Heavy, invasive, almost brutal.

I watch with a bitter smile the way salt and snow has covered his hair and beard those days. The way his eyes, sometimes, seem too tired to speak. They used to shout, once.

They used to scream.

 

 

I have been so sure, up there in that prison, that all I had to do was sit down and let myself die. It was just like all agonies are. It was torture, but it was simple. He opened that door, and sunlight came in. He ran towards me, and life returned to my veins. He brought me home, he never once let go of my hand.

“Thank you, Captain” I whispered to his neck once, as the carriage he hid me in passed through the gate I thought I wouldn’t see again.

“I am not a Captain anymore” he said with a faint smile, and I didn’t understand.

Then he opened the carriage door and they all rushed to him. Guards, servants, courtiers.
They called him “Your Highness”, and I didn’t understand.

 

 

Agony was gone, sure as daylight, but nothing, nothing was simple anymore.

I snapped back into my old habits just as quickly as I put back my red robes, our arguing and fighting simply unable to end, no matter the titles, no matter the place.

This is still him, and this is still me.

Regent or not, for all I care.

But as soon as anyone else is watching, he is the embodiment of Royalty, and I have to bow, I have to look down, nod my assent and yield.

The sight, I know, makes us both cringe all the same. I have lost an equal, and so did he.

At the end of it all, he is “His Highness”, now.

 

 

Jean is my King.

 

 

 

I let out a small, disbelieving huff, and he reads my though as clear as day. He frowns, tired, a bit lost, maybe, in the absurdity of all odds.

-“What should we do?” he breathes, circling around his desk to walk close to me.

 

I shrug, I suppose, gesturing towards the outside with a vagueness that doesn’t look like me.

-“We send Musketeers to search and arrest him.” I sigh. “If we find him, you’ll do me the pleasure of cutting his neck. If we don’t, well, the Fronde is likely to raise an army and march on Paris soon enough, so let’s hope he gets a bullet in the face and solve our small issue with that.”

 

He ponders for a while, tense and worried. Then nods.

 

-“I’ll sign his execution order.” He concedes. “When he’s found, he’ll be -

-“Not only his” I cut in. “All of them.”

 

He rolls his eyes, mouthing “not again” in furious hisses.

-“Cardinal.” He growls, menacing.

-“Your highness” I hiss all the same.

 

And I breathe in for another argument.

But if I end up not speaking at all, if I end up looking down.

If I end up in confused warmth and dizzy need, bowing slightly, nodding my assent.

This is not because they decided to place this burden of a title on his shoulders. This is not for his position, his name, the golden rims around his coat.

If I remain silent, once more, it is because of his rugged hand into my hair. 
if I submit to him, I swear, this has nothing to do with “His Highness”.

It is because of the corner of his lips, breathing my name against my mouth.

This is me, after all. This is us.

 

 

Regent or not, for all I care.

Jean has always been my King.

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hate it when I have to wait.

 

Madame De Maubeuge pulls on my collar for the fifth time, patting my coat, straightening my belt. She’s nice enough, but she likes neat clothes too much. Kings must be patient, she said, well, why would a King ever have to be patient?

 

When I’ll be King, I’ll never wait for anything.  

 

I tried to count the tiles of the Hall’s floor, the black ones, but I forgot what’s after twelve. So I counted twelve three times, and the four. I could start counting the white ones, but counting is boring.


When I’ll be King, I’ll never be bored anymore.

The doors open with a loud bang upstairs and two valets run outside the Reception Room, holding the gates wide apart. I look up with a smile, my feet thumping on the floor in excitement. Papa is here.

I don’t see him often. Papa is always busy. When he’s not sick, he’s gone to war, when he’s not gone to war, he’s in Council, and when he’s not in Council, he’s out hunting.  I’m left with the preceptors and Madame de Maubeuge all the time, always learning, never playing.

When I’ll be King I’ll play all the time.

Papa strides down the stairs, he did notice I’m here. He seems happy to see me, so I wave my arm at him. He just nods, but that’s what he always does. He descends a few more steps, then freezes and turns around, watching the gates he just left.

 

What is he waiting for, I am right here!


Ah. Yes.

 

I see the valets bow once more, and the tall red bird flies out of the Reception Room, his hands filled with papers again. Papa never goes anywhere without him, as if he had two shadows, a black one, and a red one.

The Bird looks tired, he always does. He’s paler that the papers he’s holding, and Madame de Maubeuge says he never ceases to be dying. Well, he still flies fast for a dying bird, sliding down towards papa, his red wings flapping gently around him. As he comes near, Papa offers his arm for support. I don’t think the Bird needs it, but he still smiles and grips it tight.

They come down in the Hall together, and I’m allowed to greet papa.

-“Good evening father.” I speak as I’m told

His face does that again, like it all lights up, and I feel warm inside.

He has a look for the Bird, who nods quickly. Then Papa lets go of him and ruffles my hair.

-“Have you learned your hymns, my son?” He asks.

-“Yes father!” I claim, and begin to sing what Father Vincent has been teaching me all day:

Rendons gloire à Dieu, soyons dans la joie,

A Jésus gloire et puissance

Dieu le Seigneur maître de tout

Règne dans sa majesté !

 

 

He smiles wider, looking very proud, so I’d like to sing the chorus too, but someone behind me whispers we’re late and Madame de Maubeuge pushes me towards the carriage outside like she’s really in a hurry.

-“Keep the rest for the Mass, Sire,” she says.

Papa laughs a bit, so it’s fine.

I step in the cabin, sitting on the bench that’s meant for me, the one  without windows. The Bird said it’s safety-bound for a Dauphin, but I know that’s because Grandpa was killed in a carriage.

 

Papa and him sit on the opposite bench, and the blue soldiers gather around us, with Monsieur de Treville at the front.

The whip cracks, the carriage starts, and I twist my neck to have a glimpse of Paris outside through my father’s window. I love Paris. It smells bad, but it’s always joyful, like a big laughing dragon that never sleeps. I like bakeries and gunsmiths. When I’ll be King, I’ll own all of them.

When I’ll be King, I’ll own everything.

The minute we start moving, the Bird pulls out a thick book and starts talking to Papa with his quiet, quiet voice, about really boring things and a lot of numbers. I look down at my shoes and sigh. Papa always has duties, and most of them mean he needs to speak to the Bird.

Papa says a King should be all for his country.

But when I’ll be King, the country will be all about me .

I try to look outside, and catch a view of the Sunday Market of Place Saint Louis again. I love the colours there. I wish Maman would come with us, but she goes to Mass with another carriage, because she and her friends can’t stand the Bird, so I must always choose.

 

Everyone hates the Bird. Everyone except Papa and godfather Mazarin. I don’t mind him, not really, but he’s a bit frightening. He has those wide brown eyes, with dark lines around them, and he always looks like he’s seeing things. He’s tall and he’s thin, and they all say he’s a snake, but snakes can’t fly, so I say he’s a bird, like a crane or a stork.

I don’t mind him, because Papa loves him very much.

Papa, he’s always angry about something, he’s always running, always shouting. Sometimes he breaks chairs when he hears something he doesn’t like. But every time the Red Bird is near, Papa calms down. It’s because the bird has a very gentle voice, I think, and he speaks very low. When Papa looks at him, the Bird seems to shrink a little, and his face grows very soft, as if he wouldn’t mind being broken in pieces just to save a chair.

When they talk, they always look like they’re about to kiss in that gross way, the way Madame de Maubeuge does with the butler when she thinks I’m asleep.

 

Papa never does that with Maman.

 

If Papa loves the Bird, I will love the Bird too. Papa is never wrong.

 

The sound of music makes me turn away.The Market is there! I lean forward, trying to see if the chicken merchants are out. They have rabbits sometimes. I look everywhere, but all I see are greengrocers, cloth sellers  and a few beggars. If I squint a little I see a booth where a man has hung ten puppets upon a rope, and for one sou, you can throw rotten fruits at them.

Oh. The puppets.

 

They’re all Red Birds.

-”Smash the Cardinal!” The fat hawker says. “Pay your taxes in garbage! Make him eat it all!”

 

My, there’s a lot of people. The man can’t even spare enough time to gather all the sous being handed over to him. The puppets crack and bolt with every hit of the mushy brown things they throw upon them, and the people are laughing like they’re being tickled.

 

“Death to the Cardinal!” They shout. “Let the demon die!”

 

The carriage passes by real quick, but Papa heard, and the Bird too.

Papa growls like a dog, he does that when he’s really angry. He growls, and almost opens the door to jump outside, but the bird gently grabs his hand and pulls him back on the bench.

 

-”I won’t tolerate -” Papa starts, but the Bird mutters something I don’t hear with his really soft voice again, and Papa calms down. He still looks outside the window like he wants to set fire to Paris for a while.

 

The Bird keeps quiet, but he looks like he could cry again. Instead, he coughs, that ugly cough he’s having more and more those days, and Papa turns to him with a really sad face.

When Madame de Maubeuge sees the butler, she’s always happy. She blushes like she’s been slapped by someone very mean, and she smiles all the time.

When Papa is with his Bird, he looks like he has no choice; like God decided he had to love this one Bird, and no other Bird on Earth. It makes him happy, but it also makes him very sad, above all when the Bird’s coughing like that.

 

At some point the Bird makes a loud noise, like a tree falling to the ground, his face grows all white, his eyes close, and he slides to the side. Papa says a very bad cuss word, catches his fall and pulls out his handkerchief to press it on the Bird’s mouth. He keeps it there until all the blood is out, then he shoves it away and holds the bird upright against him.

 

The Market Place is far, by now, and we cross the bridge to the Ile de la Cité where Notre-Dame stands. Papa doesn’t say a word, looking somewhere around the Bird’s hands. Slowly, the noises the Red Bird makes as he breathes calm down.

When he opens his red, red eyes, he looks straight at me. He doesn’t do that often, he always looks at Papa.  

 

Papa, he just seems to be more in pain than the Bird is.
They share everything, God has decided so. I hope I’ll be loved that way one day.

 

When I’ll be King, I’ll order everyone to do so.

 

-”Why everyone hates you if my father doesn’t?” I ask the Bird, since he’s looking at me for once.

 

-”Louis!” Papa shouts, his eyes very cold; but then again, his Bird lays a hand on his arm and whispers something gentle, so he calms down.

 

The bird leans towards me then and uses his very quiet voice for me.

 

-”Sire, for the sake of the State, some unpleasant things had to be done. I made a lot of people suffer so your father could save them all. Most of my reasons, those people ignore. They can’t be blamed. I do understand their grief, I swear I do, but please, Sire, do remember higher purposes needed to be achieved.”

 

It’s true, his voice calms me down too. I feel all soft, I wonder why.

Godfather Mazarin speaks a bit like that too, but his Italian accent makes him sound funny.

 

-”We should turn the carriage around” my father tells him, “and head back to the Louvre. You aren’t fit for a Mass, you should rest.”

 

But the Bird just looks down and mutters something with “please” in it, and Papa just shivers before he nods. He turns to look at the Cathedral by the window, he does that to hide his face. He still looks very happy, and very sad.

That’s because he loves his Bird very much, but the Bird will be dead soon.

 

When I’ll be King, it’ll mean Papa will be dead too.

 

Maybe I don't want to be King that soon.

Maybe I don’t want to be King at all.


The Bird gathers his books and papers, lays them down on the bench, and brushes his red wings like a crane would clean its feathers. Just before the carriage stops I jump down my seat, step forward and extend my hand the way I’ve seen father do.

 

The Bird stares at me for a long time with his wild red eyes, then gently lays his hand upon mine. He’s warm and soft, just as I thought. I shake his hand, the way a soldier must, and I click my heels the way I have just learned.

 

-”Thank you, Your Eminence.” I tell him, I’m not sure why, I just think I owe him that.

 

And while my father smiles, the Bird’s eyes widen, break, and blur with tears.

 

Outside, all the bells of Notre Dame ring at the same time, and I can’t hear what his very quiet voice says. It doesn’t matter at all.

 

 

 

It felt like saying hello, and a bit of goodbye too, and I won’t ever need an answer for that.

 

Chapter Text

Dear God, really, blisters ?

 

I stand there, breath suspended, perfectly still in the last loose box of the stables, staring at my hands in quiet disbelief. I haven’t seen those kind of burns since my first months in the Regiment, and it was, I recall, fifteen bloody years ago.

I throw a suspicious glare at the old rake resting against a wall next to me, then turn around to gauge the boxes I just cleaned. Those are the same twenty lodges I have known for all my time in the garrison, and I even think they could have been much dirtier.

Blisters , for God’s sake.

 

I stare back at my palms flexing and unflexing my fingers. I wince in pain, damn, they bloody hurt.

One of them, big as a sou, has already popped open, leaking saltwater and blood into the dirt glued to my hands. The rest, already whitening, will follow soon enough.

 

-“Am I growing soft with age?” I mutter, and I realize I spoke out loud when I hear a sympathetic rumble coming from the box next door.

I look up to see Staccato, the young bay stallion I bought last month, flapping his ears in eager hope, stomping wildly for one more run.

-“You had your time this morning, boy.” I grumble at him, wiping my hands on my shirt. “Next run tomorrow as I get back from…”

 

I freeze, panicked.

Bloody Hell, the Council.

 

As if struck by lightning, I dart to the exercise yard and call the first recruit I see lingering there:

-“Chabrion!” I yell. “What time is it?”

The boy has a start and drops the saddle he was mending to stand at attention, vaguely pointing towards Northeast.

-“Saint Eustache struck six no more than twenty minutes ago, Captain!” He says, and I let out a muffled curse.

I’m expected in the Louvre in half an hour. Half a bloody hour.
I forgot the time again, damn, it happens way too often those days.

I spin around and run back to my office, listing the papers I’m supposed to bring to Council, but as I step upon the narrow stairs my bones are abruptly crushed by a wave of exhaustion. I feel dizzy, nauseated, and before I can understand it I realise I’m swaying backwards, so I grip the handrail as tight as I can, awch , how could I forget about those blisters in five bloody minutes?

 

-“Am I growing mad with age?” I breathe, damn, I spoke out loud again.

 

I distractedly check around if no one heard, but the courtyard is empty by now, except for Chabrion still leaning over his saddle, and Athos in front of the kitchen doors, showing a few moves to a French Guard who’d like to apply next year. God knows I don’t have time for this, but I can’t help assessing the guard’s technique. Mh. He’s determined, I respect that, but his left leg is limping, a bullet wound no doubt, and though he may pass the admission test quite fine, he’d have to work twice as hard to keep up with the others.

 

The painful shudders of the man’s injured leg, remind me there’s actually a reason for my own blisters, the pain, the fatigue, and the bloody mess my whole life has become.

 

The war campaigns of Guyenne.

 

Those ten months of siege and battlefields, though gloriously successful, have been harsh for everyone in my Regiment. Most of my men have come back wounded or plague-sick, and reason would dictate them to rest for at least six weeks.

Except they all perfectly know war is far from over, and none of them gives a damn about reason. They’re just terrified of being decommissioned when the time for more triumph arises, and want to be battle ready as soon as possible.

Thus, with their bandages still around their wounds, with their lungs still infected with grime, they beg me to teach them how to adapt their moves to their temporary or permanent weakness, and they do it day and night . If I don’t train them one by one separately until I find the best adjustments for their techniques, they try it on their own anyways and make it ten times worse; so without a bloody choice, I have been training them fifteen hours a day those last two weeks.

Those who still can stand force me to prolong the morning sessions until late afternoon every day, while those who can’t have to be shouted at twice every hour until they regain the bloody infirmary.

 

While we’re all busy in the exercise yard meals are being neglected, duties botched, stables filthy, weapons unkept, and at the end of the day, the garrison is a wreckage filled with lame ducks and thick dung.

There’s only a handful of men healthy enough to clean the mess, and I happen to be one of them, that’s all.

 

Hence the blisters, hence the lateness.

 

 

I shake away the haze of fatigue and move to rub my face with my hands. Only this time, I remember how filthy they are and forget the whole idea, alleluia , I feel better.

I slowly climb up the stairs to my small room, then, and slam the door behind me. Half an hour until Council, well, more like twenty minutes now.

Bloody hell. The King hates to wait, and that’s an understatement.

I throw away my practice doublet, pick up the formal one, find my hat, gather the papers, did I have lunch? I don’t think so.

I grab a slice of bread, clasping it into my mouth while I wash my hands, groaning loud at the sting of cold water on the skinless spots. Instinctively, I take a look at myself in the small mirror hanging above my basin. Dear God.

 

I spit my bread aside and wash my face the best I can. I vaguely sense there should be something to be done about the mud upon my boots but it’s either that or riding to the Louvre without a coat and a saddle, so I just grab the papers, take the bread back between my teeth and dash outside.

 

I jump down the stairs, rush to the stables again and find Minerva, my good old mare, shaking her head in anticipation at the first sight of me. I flatter her docile neck, placing the mat and saddle on her back.

-“Do me a favour, Minerva,” I gently plead, munching on the last piece of my bread “and just fly above Paris will you?”

The sturdy mount whinnies, as if it actually was within her possibilities, and the second she feels both my feet in the stirrups, she darts away towards the gates.

 

 

Shouting my way through the messy crowd of the Lombard street, I wrinkle my nose at the horrid smell the old market gives off today, really, something needs to be done about the sewers of Paris.

Strangely, the stench lingers as I pass over the Pont-au-Change, and I have a wary look for Minerva’s rear, thinking some garbage must have stuck to her hooves at some point.

Riding from the gates of the Louvres to the main stairs merely minutes before Council, I realize as I dismount the odour never came from Paris, the market, or even my horse.

All along, it has been me.

 

I stop dead in my run, petrified, halfway up the great marble stairs to the Reception Hall, my papers squeezed into my hands. I glance down at my disgusting boots, my muddy pants, and those suspicious stains upon the sleeves of my shirt, God, that might be from the stables.

I’m about to step into the Royal Council room with blisters in my hands, covered in dirt, smelling like sweat and bloody horseshit .

My dry throat makes a sad sound as I try to swallow the saliva I don’t have.

 

That’s my whole life, that’s who I am. A war animal, a plain soldier, nothing more than what battlefields can spit out. My time, my body, my breath I give to my men, and as long as I don’t learn to concede a few efforts to basic Court etiquette, I’ll never rise above the mud of exercise yards.

I inhale deep, clench my jaw, and step forward. It’s too late to change clothes, anyways. Too late to change me. Making the King wait while I take a bath would anger him more than going in as I am anyways.

Well, at least, I bloody hope so.

 

-“Monsieur de Tréville, Captain of the King’s Musketeers!” The valet announces once the doors of the Council Room open, and though I stride in with a relatively steady gait, I feel less confident than if the place was filled with Spanish infantry.

Yet, I usually experience a warm, delighted pleasure at the spectacle of those white and gold walls, this magnificent trompe-l’oeil ceiling, and the cascades of stucco descending to the thick parquet floor. The Council room has always been a symbol for many things. It means I made it, it means my dreams have come true, it means I’m still of service, still good enough, and it means, above all, the superb sight of my Armand at his best, blamelessly mine to enjoy for hours.

But today, the beauty and the luxury of this place only seem to highlight how crude, how dirty I truly am, like a speck of dust marring a perfect painting.

Today, as the King himself, obviously content and relaxed, welcomes me with a genuine smile, I can only lower my eyes in acidic shame and embarrassment.

 

Today, the masterpiece in red that is His Eminence de Richelieu in formal robes, instead of making me growl in famished awe, only forces my head low and my teeth hard on the inside of my cheeks.

 

-“Just in time, Captain.” Louis greets me, gesturing towards a chair at the other side of the table. “Please have a seat!”

I bow, babbling a few words of respect, and walk to my assigned place. Doing so, I carefully avoid the tall red figure I see in the corners of my eyes, clenching my fists as I sit down.

I am lucky this is war council instead of a state or diplomatic one this time, and around the table only generals and marshals can be found. Those are my comrades, my brothers in arms. The usual Ministers and Nobles would have been too happy to turn the state of my cloak into their next lunchtime joke.

Schomberg at my left salutes me with a harsh elbow in the ribs and a wide smile, and I hiss a short insult at him, God, he looks dashing . His uniform is perfect, his blonde curls carefully arranged, and the pristine lace of his collar is of a quality I’ll never afford. Even La Force at my right, who doesn’t care as much about good looks, is wearing gold-rimmed brocade and satin gloves.

They’re all bloody sublime, and I am a complete mess.

 

I lay down my papers on the table in front of me and sit back in my chair, eyes low, back stiff. I am the lowest military rank around the table, so Protocol dictates I speak last. Good. I’ll just let myself be forgotten while the others talk, keep it short when it’s my turn, then get the hell out of here and take a damn bath.

-”You may begin, Cardinal” I hear Louis say, and though I never failed to devour Armand's inhumane elegance at Council once before, this time I bite my lips and focus on the nicely chiselled rim of the wide gold-coated table instead.

I know exactly how statuesque he looks by now, thank you very much, and I don’t think I can bear it.

 

-”Of course, Your Majesty” His meek voice gently rises.

I hear him clear his throat, more gracefully than I ever could, and shuffle through some papers of his own no doubt. He doesn't sit. He never does. He could, there is a seat for him at the King's right side, the clear evidence that he's only second to Louis, but even that is not enough.

May it be war or state council, he always needs to stand and walk, circling around the table like a red snake, dropping words on people's laps, caressing, praising, arguing, lying. While he never raises his voice once, he uses his whole body to speak, and it needs to be constantly on display. He needs to observe every face notice every hitch, commit it to this frightening memory of his and store it for later use.

Power is information, he always says.
And doesn’t he own it all?

 

-”We are gathered today to consider the necessary changes to be applied to the line of command” He adds, “and review the decommissions and retirements you'd like to submit to His Majesty's approval in consequence of the last campaign. Please, Gentlemen, present your recommendation letters.”

 

I grunt, and push my five paper sheets forward.

I tried, I swear I tried to keep it to a minimum. It's always the same nightmare, the men get badly wounded, they know they're out of the game, and yet they keep knocking on my door begging to be kept in rank, it'll pass , they always say, it's just a scratch, it won't linger.

But I know walking cannon fodder when I see one. Mouthier, Bernardin, Gécourt, Cormont and Joigny are done. Half of them will never be steady on their feet again, and the rest still has to make it out of the infirmary alive.

I cannot let those broken men back on battlefields again. They'll only endanger the rest of the Regiment, and in the state it’s in, we don't bloody need that.

They deserve a good pension and some rest. Armand knows. He'll be generous.

 

-”General De Basompierre,” His soft voice is calling, “how many decommissions do you suggest for your regiment?”

-”Thirty-nine out of three thousand, Your Eminence” Basompierre's thick voice rumbles.

Papers are exchanged, the red silk whispers.

-”Very well.” Armand acknowledges. “Marshal La Force?”

-”Fifty-one out of seven thousand.”

-”General Schomberg?”

-”One hundred and forty-six out of three thousand.” I hear my friend spit out next to me, bitterness gnawing at his usually joyful voice.

 

A pensive silence settles around the table. There is no need for explanation, we all know what happened to his troops in the Cévennes. They’ve been taken between two fires for weeks, one from the besieged city, the other from Huguenots reinforcements coming up from Montpellier. His men swallowed a lot of shit, and though they still came out victorious, we all expected the number of broken soldiers to be higher among his Regiments.

My eyes still fixed on the table, I perceive more papers rustling, voices murmuring, and the unique sound of heavy silk hovering around the other side of the room.

 

-”His Majesty will make sure you get fitting replacements as soon as possible, General.” Armand promises, and Schomberg has a short bow.

-”You have my gratitude.” He says, his throat constricted by emotion, and I give him a compassionate look.

 

Brézé talks next, then Marillac, and too busy keeping a low profile, I don't notice the red silk moving around. So when he calls my name, the bastard is standing right next to me, and his voice is so close to my skin I can't repress a full-spine shudder.

-”Captain Tréville?”He asks. “What about the Musketeer Regiment?”

 

I look up. I know I shouldn't but God, have mercy, he's close enough to touch, and there was that one smile in his voice, the smile I see on his thin lips right now, as he stares down at me with a caring glint in his dark eyes. The smile he has only for me, when he's feeling well, when he's serene at last, and Heavens, how peaceful he looks indeed.

He's standing there with yellow evening light grazing his hollow cheeks.
He’s standing there, treasures of gold to be found into the hues of his silver hair.

He's standing there, leaning against my chair, wrapping me into his attention, one of his hands laid against his heart with a delicacy only geniuses could paint. Endless yards of priceless silk brocade are wrapped around his thin shoulders, praising his silhouette in subtle waves, shining in luxury at the smallest of his moves.

 

He smells like tea and paper, he sounds like an angel of triumph, and he looks so bloody magnificent I want to crawl under the Earth and disappear.

I gulp, pathetically, and push my letters towards him.

 

-”Five out of ninety-seven.” I croak.

He nods, taking the papers and flipping through them to check the names. I'd bet my life's saving he’s verifying if any of my favourite boys are among the decommissioned. When he understands they're not, he gives me another beaming smile, rolling the letters into a tube and leaning forward ever so slightly.

-”Thank you, Captain.” He breathes, his voice noncommittal for anyone else, but not for me.

Oh, not for me.

 

I felt his warmth as real, as clear as if he had kissed me on the spot. I see the devilish drop of his hips as he makes a sluggish, graceful circle around my seat. I hear the magic spells of his robes, loud, insistent, unmistakable, as he makes them fly around his legs the way he knows I adore.

The sly devil is at the top of his game, praised and protected by his precious King, his artful tactics from the Guyenne campaigns rewarded in spotless victories, the shadow of his name respected and feared by everyone around.

The red demon is overjoyed, confident, but he can't be truly satisfied unless he has my devotion too, and to get it, he's giving me his grandest s how.

He walks to the head of the table, gathering the recommendation letters to slide them in a thick leather folder. Doing so, he exchanges a few words with the King, his voice barely above a whisper, and even from where I sit I see complete and untainted trust in Louis' tranquil eyes.

I smile, a bit, against my will. Enjoy your well-deserved conquest, my love, you worked so hard for it.

 

But as I shift in pride on my seat, I hear a gritting noise on the floor, and I glance down to realize the mud on my boots has dried into thick clots scattered everywhere under the table. I close my eyes, mortified, for God’s sake I just got the Royal Council Room dirty.

 

That's what I am, that's my whole life. A war animal, a plain soldier, nothing more than what battlefields can spit out. I'm exhausted, filthy as a back alley, stinking as a swamp, sitting there among true nobleness, true officers of France, like a dog among eagles, like a stain of dust upon a perfect painting.

Oh, mercy me, I just want a goddamn bath.

 

 

The discussions move to replacement of dead or wounded lieutenants, and since I'm lucky enough to have my best Musketeers still alive and kicking, I'd like to sink low into my chair and be left alone thank you.

But of course, my dear lover won't have any of this, and keeps on dancing around the table, playing with the inflexions of his voice, sending waves of red silk slithering on the floor. I resolutely keep my eyes on my own hands, and my hands upon my lap, but the bastard slides behind me far too often, not giving me one second of peace until I’ve looked up at him, yes, I’ve seen you, Armand .

 

Yes, you are beautiful. You are more beautiful than ever, worshipped by evening light, your shadow in subtle blue upon the fine battle paintings on the wall. Yes, you are so supreme, so unquestionable everyone around that table is ready to accept your word as holy, the Generals, the Marshals, even the King.

You are the Reason of State, the architect of the next century, and I am just a stray dog brought in by the autumn wind. Your name will be carved into every stone wall of History, while I’ll only leave behind the smell of stables and footprints in mud.

Please, stop smiling at me like that.

 

He doesn’t.

 

He doesn’t, even as the Council ends, and we all rise from our seats. Even there, his delighted grin seems to be made for me alone, and his very formal “thank you gentlemen” could have been moaned straight into my ear. My hands almost shaking from tiredness and unease, I bow for the King, not daring to walk too close, give Armand a quick nod, and stride to the door as soon as I can.

As the main stairs appear again at the end of the corridor I let out a sigh of relief. I know Armand would like to see more of me tonight. I’m not stupid, he didn’t put up this spectacle for nothing. I’m aware of exactly what kind of attention he was calling for, and God, how I want to give it to him, but not in that state.

Not in that shirt.

Almost out of the Louvre, and safe from anyone’s eyes and nose, I thank the Heavens in silence, God, this could have been-

 

-“Oh là! Tréville!”

 

- much worse.

 

I close my eyes, exhale sharply, and turn around to smirk for Schomberg as he trots down the stairs to catch up with me. Above his head on the balcony, I already see a glimpse of red next to the King, and I feel the jaws of fate closing around my evening.

-“ I told you I’d show you the replacement for the blade I broke in Montauban.” The broad man says, and in a swift move he unsheathes the most gorgeous rapier I have seen in ten years.

Even, sadly, including mine.

He walks to me, making it swish a few times in the air, and presents it to me, guard first.

-“Solingen blade,” he states, a bit smug, “but the guard has been forged by Denisot, in Amiens. Cost me half a year of my pension, but well.”

 

I should go. I should turn my heels and run to my horse before it’s too late, but damn, the delicacy of those rings and volutes around the ricasso is something to behold.

 

-“Come on!” Schomberg presses, blissfully ignorant. “Try it. The balance is exceptional.”

 

I let my hand hover above the guard for a few seconds. There is nothing like the colour and shine of a newly forged sword. Just like Staccato, the young stallion in my garrison, this blade seems to call, to beg for a move, a fight, a war. Polished, chiselled, so intricate it’s almost arrogant, she defies my fingers as they shiver above her, and when I close my hand around her handle, I can almost hear her exult .

Upon the stairs, I hear the red silk approaching, and I know I am doomed, but I can’t even lift my eyes from the rapier.

 

That’s who I am, that’s my whole life.
I’ll never rise above the mud of exercise yards.

 

I twist my wrist once or twice, feeling the blade dance on her own will, as if she knew what to do, even more than I. The clean steel glistens in the decaying light, like a fragment of lightning, hissing the death sentence of its enemies, God, I wish I had one of those. But though my trusted, yet much plainer sword can achieve just the same efficiency in battle, if fear it will never compare to the jewel I am holding.

I stare at Schomberg’s blade a little more, dreamy, wistful, then I hand it back to him as I could wave goodbye to a Lady I’ll never know the name of. When the General sheathes his rapier back on his belt, what remains of the golden sun is blocked by Armand’s coat next to me and I grit my teeth, because I have made a fool of myself once more.

My stupidity has made Armand’s plans for our evening, by now, quite inescapable.

 

Schomberg, on the other hand, oblivious to my misfortune, greets him with cheerful respect.

-“Your Eminence?” The officer mutters.

I sense more than I see Armand straightening his back, taking his usual haughty stance again, but I know him enough to perceive the slight humour in his voice as he deadpans:

-“You are aware of the rules about drawing weapons within the walls of the Royal Palace, aren’t you, General?”

Schomberg pales dreadfully. Evidently, the Cardinal’s humour is a bit lost on him.

-“It – it was just…” He stammers, gesturing at me, at the sword, at the hall.

 

Poor Armand, even the King’s attempts at joking happen to work from time to time.

When you’re the most terrifying figure of France, you are somewhat doomed to be taken seriously.

I hear the Red Man sigh, waving a reassuring hand in the air, and dismissing Schomberg with a few reassuring words. The General clicks his heels and leaves without further ado.

 

We’re soon left alone in the deserted hall, and Minerva, just behind us under the stairs outside, is laughing I’m sure at my miserable defeat. Armand, graceful, sublime, shifts in front of me then, one of his hands briefly grazing my dirt-stained sleeve, please, don’t touch that .

But he doesn’t seem to notice the slightest thing about the grime I’m covered with.

In his steadfast intent to have me follow him to the Palais Cardinal, he inches even closer to me instead, and pulls out his ultimate resort. He searches for my eyes, making me drown into his honeyed stare, and lowers his eyelids gently, passing the tip of a languid tongue upon his lips.

With a subtle tilt of his head, he makes me understand he wants me to be in charge. With a maddening arch of his hips, he promises me the pleasure will be worth it.

 

-“If nothing else requires your presence tonight, Monsieur de Tréville,” he breathes, his eyes drifting somewhere around my left wrist, “would you care to share my evening meal?”

I don’t answer. I’m done, I’m trapped, and he knows it.

His face has the light his rare moments of perfect health give him, his eyes have the shimmer of the days where he’s bloody unstoppable, and I love him God, how I love him.

I’m not even willing to fight anymore.

 

I nod, contrite, biting my lips without a word. Taking it as a yes, he lets out a low chuckle of joy, and spins around in a whirl of brocade, assaulting my senses with every smell of him, to precede me towards the gates.

We don’t even share a glance before the doors of his study close behind us, and he discards his cloak upon the work table. Quickly, I do the same with mine, dropping it on the floor since it’s dirtier than anything I could lay it onto. I kick off my boots too, sparing Armand’s rare rugs from the mud of my stables. I have doubts about getting rid of my doublet, because I’ve been wearing the same shirt for fifteen bloody hours, and I can’t even envisage the stench that lies underneath.

So I idly stand there, tense and fidgeting, tortured by the sight of him.

 

He, an allegory of control, the image of a saint, yanked out of an altar to be offered to my eyes, and me, a rugged soldier of Gascony, filthy as a rag, unworthy of his time.

 

I stand here, burning in shame, dying to escape, but unable to refuse the inviting warmth in his eyes.

He offers me wine, brushing my knuckles with his fingertips, God, don’t touch that .

He smiles, leaning softly towards my face , stay away from me.

I’m nothing more than what battlefields can spit out.
I’ll never rise above the mud of my stables.

 

-“Jean…” He sighs into my ear, enticing, mesmeric, Hell, Armand, please.

 

But he doesn’t see, he doesn’t know.

Blissfully, he just kisses my cheek, and I somewhere in the distance, I hear wine glasses crash, and a short, desperate bark:

 

-“ No!

 

Armand’s fragile back hits the doorframe with bruising force, my fists clenched tight into the silk around his chest. He whimpers in pain, but I push him harder, once, twice, as if I could nail him there, making the whole wall bang with each impact.

Only then I let go of him, taking a few stunned steps backwards, feeling despicable tears rolling down my face, my hands extended in front of me to stop him from coming back.

-“Don’t.” I manage to croak. “Just don’t.”

 

He’s panting, of course, all colour drained from his face, his fingers already twitching to be devoured, his confidence destroyed by a storm of panic.

-“Jean?” He calls, imploring, watching me from head to toe as if to look for injuries. “Jean, what’s wrong?”

-“Can’t you see?” I shout, gesturing at myself. “Can’t you bloody smell ? I reek exhaustion and sweat, I stink like the litter my life has become. I am disgusting, Armand, are you blind? You’re the King’s First Minister, the Cardinal Generalissime, you’re bloody Richelieu, for God’s sake, you can’t soil your hands on a man like me.”

 

He freezes, blinking slowly, and though he must be the smartest man in this palace, he takes a long, very long minute before he speaks again.

-“This?”He mutters, gesturing around the horse-dung on my sleeves “Is this what it’s all about?”

 

His tongue clicks a little, and he frowns in disbelief, moving towards me as if to embrace me whole.

-“Don’t!” I hiss, raising a commanding finger.

 

He throws himself straight back against the wall, his fingers on his heart curling inwards as if to keep themselves into place and he remains obediently there to struggle for his words.

 

-“My beloved, please.” He still tries eventually, “I know how harsh the war has been for your Regiment. All the officers of France are facing very heavy duties at the moment, and you are absolutely excused if-”

 

-” ...excused!” I snort, turning away to pace around the work table, pointing an angry finger at the door. “The others at council, they were all spotless. I looked like a dog, a beggar, like the peasant I’ve always been.”

 

His face almost beams with compassion, and if his hands have a twitch towards me, he seems to know better than to take a step forward this time. Only his wide, intense eyes follow me as I stride between discarded books and linen-wrapped statues.

 

-“Jean, the others are Marshals, Generals.” He gently pleads. “They don’t have a garrison filled with a hundred men expecting everything from them. They have houses, mansions, valets and lieutenants. They don’t train their soldiers themselves. They don’t memorize their names. They don’t fix their bandages, reassure their fears, checks their uniforms and shouts them back to bed. They don’t commit to their men from the first to the last breath of each one of their days, like you have spent your life doing.”

 

I slow down and stop, hating the fact that his words are soothing my rage, wanting to look at anything but him. I choose a portrait of the King, when he was twenty at most, neatly hung above the cupboard among his favourite, if valueless artworks.

 

-”The stains on your clothes are nothing but the signs of your devotion to your Regiment, to your duties, to France, and in that sense, they have more worth, more nobility than any kind of precious attire, and if I saw them that way, my love, be assured the King also did.”

 

I hear him moving and I spin around with a warning glare, but he didn't move my way.
He slid to the mantelpiece instead, wrapping a tentative hand around the rope of the bell he uses to call Charpentier. He doesn't ring straight away, he searches for approval in my eyes, fondly, lovingly, and as he seems to find traces of doubt there, he offers me a timid smile, and adds in a much warmer voice:

 

 

-”This grime, this mud, it's you, Jean de Treville, honest and true, hard working and down to Earth. Those stains are your vows, your calling, your crown of thorns, and for that reason I will never be foolish enough to cower away from them.”

 

I am grinning. I know I am. The red devil and his silver tongue, did he ever fail to charm me once? As my face softens he straightens his back in victory, his tone almost bloody sinful as he proposes:

-”Yet, if it would be agreeable to you, I could call for a bath.”

 

This time, finally dropping my guard with a shaking sigh, I nod and whisper my gratitude.

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

Charpentier had two valets fill a tub in his bedroom. His own tub, the one with a drawer under the bottom to store burning embers there and keep the water warm. Aside from being the epitome of luxury, it has the advantage of allowing very long baths.

I am usually not a man for such leisures, and as I step into the water I still claim it will only take a few minutes.

But he pours delicate salts on the surface, and presents me with his own herbal soap.

But he sits on a chair a few inches away from my shoulder and stares as if I was the highest praise he received today.

But when I start scrubbing my arms to clean out the stench, he licks his lips upon a whimper.

 

-”Can I help?” He timidly asks, and I witness in his voice the forceful return of his need to service.

 

-”You're not washing me wearing those.” I state, uncompromising, pointing at the magnificent formal robes of red brocade.

 

And with that, he gives me a pointed, calculating look.

 

-”Very well.” He says, and I should have known, I should have known.

I am no match for the wits, the resolve of that man.

He gets up, showing off his best elegance, and slowly strips to his chemise in front of me, nonchalant, teasing, distracted, unbearable. When he comes back to kneel next to me, resting his thin pale arms against the rim of the bathtub, a strand of silver hair is crossing his eager face, and I am already heaving.

 

So I don't think I fight that much, when he dips his hands into the water to fetch my own, pull it up to his lips and expose my palm with reverence.

I don't complain a lot when his eyes hook into mine as he lowers himself to kiss my damaged palms, redeeming in perfect softness those disgraceful blisters of mine.

 

-”Armand.” I think, is all I can utter.

 

With that, he moans, feverish, starving, cupping the back of my neck and devouring my mouth raw desire.

Though a promise is a promise, and I still intend to be in charge for the rest of our night, when his fingers sink lower into the scented water, even if it soaks the sleeves of his priceless chemise, I must admit I let him do whatever the hell he pleases.

 

 

***