Who can say when the roads meet
That love might be in your heart
And who can say when the day sleeps
If the night keeps all your heart
Night keeps all your heart
Treville eyed the Cardinal suspiciously. They were alone with the King, their presence requested for a private audience in the failing light of day. At least Treville had thought it would be a private one. But the Red Devil could practically be considered to be a part of the King, so he refrained from wondering what he was doing here.
He must admit, he had thought the King knew better than to put them both in the same room, without anyone else to act as a barrier between them.
The rest of the court knew better. No one wanted to listen to the two of them fighting.
Which they did.
“Ah, very good, Captain! You’re here!”
“Your Majesty.” He knelt, taking off his hat as was proper, ignoring the pale figure at the king’s side for now.
“How is my favourite regiment faring?”
“They are well-trained and hungry for a fight, Your Majesty. I would trust every single one of them with my life, and with yours.”
“Rise. That, I am glad to hear. There are no new recruits to train? No horses to break in?”
“Your Majesty would surely know about them, if there were new recruits, We are currently training a few more horses to not shy away from burning obstacles, but they are smart beasts and trusting of their riders. I don’t think there will be any problems with them being ready for an emergency in more than a couple weeks. But I assume this was not why you called me here?”
“No, it isn’t. Well observed, Captain! But I am in need of your service as the best swordsman of France, and I wanted to make sure that I am not disrupting any work of yours.”
“Your Majesty would never disrupt anything with his requests. How may I be of service?” His hand placed on the hilt of his sword, he stared at the king, waiting patiently for him to continue.
“As you know, we find ourselves in a moment of peace in France.” The king looked pleased, a smile curling the corners of his lips upwards. “I do not know when we are due to ride out again, but I thought we might use this time for an affair long overdue.”
A frown crept onto Treville’s face.
“I ride into war with the best France has to offer, in body and in mind. I am blessed, as a King and as a person, to be surrounded by people I can trust with my life, no matter what is to come. I am trained to defend myself, of course, should the need arise. But the last time I was on campaign I realised that this is not the case for all those travelling with me.” He finally turned to the Red Beast by his side, whose lips were pressed together in a white line, paler than Treville had ever seen him before.
“I need you to rectify this, Treville. I cannot allow my most trusted advisor, Generalissime of the French Army, no less, to be unable to defend himself, even if attacked with a stick or something equally ridiculous. As long as there is peace, you will teach his Eminence how to properly use a sword.” All colour drained from the Captain’s face, he opened his mouth as if to protest. “Is that understood, Soldier?” The pleased sparkle had disappeared out of King Louis' eyes, leaving them pale and challenging.
Ire flashed across blue eyes, but he bowed, stiff and clipped. “Yes, Your Majesty. It is understood.”
“You were in the army, once?”
Treville greeted the clergyman without turning around. Not even a week had passed since that fateful meeting in the twilight of the Louvre, leaving him with the task of dealing with a man he despised above all else on a regular basis. He tried to suppress the shakes of anger, succeeding just barely, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around, offering his Eminence the courtesy he deserved.
“I was, yes–” the Cardinal started, only to be rudely interrupted by the Musketeer.
“Great. Grab a sword; let’s see what you’ve kept from your time there.”
Without further interlude, he swirled around, his rapier ready and only waiting for his new student to pick up his own weapon to start attacking.
A fast slash aimed directly at his head, just barely diverted by a panicked hoicking of the older man’s blade. A step forward. Richelieu stumbled back, his other arm rising in front of his face as if to shield himself from the view of the Captain. The hand holding the weapon, still trying to keep Treville’s sword away from his head, was starting to tremble from the exertion.
The Gascon snorted in disgust, pulling his own blade away only to launch another attack at the now exposed stomach of the Cardinal. The older man somehow managed to bring his rapier down in time, but the blade clattered uselessly to the ground when the Captain’s met with his. His fingers cramped around empty air and this time his knees actually gave way beneath him, with another staggering step backwards.
Failing to regain his balance, Richelieu crumbled sideways, his expression one between shock and fear.
“Is that all you’ve got?”
Richelieu flinched, wild eyes turning to Treville.
“Arm yourself. We are not finished here.” He took one step in the direction of the Red Beast, rapier cutting through the air in a sluggish swish-swash. The Cardinal tried to scramble backwards, tremors wracking his whole frame.
“Is this enough to bring you down to your knees, Cardinal? Three seconds of fighting? Are you this weak?” His voice was a dangerous hiss, like the blade dancing in his hand. Another step. He loomed over the Red Menace, now, his body singing with energy.
“Get up and grab your sword. We have barely even started.”
It was true that both of their schedules were surprisingly empty right now. There were no grand preparations to make, no overly important treaties to form and the nobles seemed to hold their feet still for the moment, too. But this meant that they actually had the time to meet every other day for another session.
Treville hated every second of it.
After the first session, which had only become more disastrous the longer it went on, he hadn’t believed the Cardinal would turn up again to the next meeting, not with the way he couldn’t even look the Captain in the eyes by the end of it.
Yet there he was, wearing something more fitting than before, no regular fabric but something more resembling a finely-woven doublet. It accentuated his frail form, limbs too long and too thin when not hidden below his ridiculous robes of red silk.
“Captain,” he greeted Treville, a strain in his voice. The younger man nodded brusquely in acknowledgement. He already had his rapier in his hand, gesturing with its tip to the rack where he had placed Richelieu’s weapon. So far, the only thing the First Minister seemed to have kept from his time in the army was the way to wrap his fingers around its hilt. Which was a lot less than most of the noble recruits for his Musketeer regiment had to offer.
The Cardinal looked as if he was dreading the upcoming session about as much as Treville was, if for entirely different reasons. The study they used as unobserved, neutral training ground was filled with warm sunlight, a complete contrast to both their moods. Glancing at the Musketeer he made his way over to the offered sword, reaching for it hesitantly.
As soon as his fingers wrapped around the hilt, he whirled around, sword already in what he probably thought was a good defensive position, clearly expecting an attack from the veteran. Treville hadn’t moved.
They stared at each other for a long moment, frozen in time, before the Captain strode one and a half steps forward to disarm Richelieu with a small twist of his hand.
Robbed of his balance by the tip of the weapon pointing at his face, Richelieu faltered, stumbling to the ground like a new-born foal without any sign of his usual grace. Where other men transformed from the greatest cripple to the finest dancer, all his elegance seemed to leave the First Minister when he had a blade in his hand.
Treville sneered, putting his own rapier back into its scabbard.
“You do not decide when to point a sword at me. You proved your prowess with a weapon well enough the other day. I will tell you – What do you think you’re doing?!”
In the blink of an eye he was at the Cardinal’s side, ripping the blade Richelieu had tried to use to get into an upright position again out of his hand.
“Do you think this is a walking cane? Don’t you have any respect for a weapon? What do you think happens to a sword when you stick it into real soil instead of some fucking carpet?!” Treville yanked his hat off his head and smashed it against the wall behind the Minister. He moved in closer, staring into the wide eyes of the most powerful man of France.
“You might not have grasped this concept, but a well-crafted blade like this is worth more than a year’s income of a regular peasant. If you stab it into the ground like some bloody stick, you not only spit on its creator but also on every craftsman in France trying to make a living with the taxes you press onto them!” Their faces were inches apart, Treville’s hot breath ghosting over the pale cheeks of Richelieu.
A low, frightened whine escaped his opponent. The Captain stepped back, still trembling in pure, unadulterated anger.
“Ignorant fool,” he hissed and turned back, his hand caressing the tip of the Cardinal’s blade.
“Get out. I don’t have the patience to deal with you right now.”
“I can’t do it!” Treville strode from one side of the room to the other, hands cutting through the air in angry gestures.
“He has no respect for a blade, no concept of its design and how to properly work with it and he already breaks when I barely breathe in his direction!” He whirled around, his blue cloak billowing behind him, to stare at Louis, sitting with a thoughtful expression, his chin propped up in his right hand.
His shoulders slumped down in defeat.
“I can’t do it. Even a five-year-old would be a better student than he is.”
The king eyed him in silence.
Shifting uncomfortably, Treville continued: “I despise him, Your Majesty, as I am sure you are aware. And this does nothing to help raise him in my estimations.”
“I am sorry to hear this, Captain, but I think you might have misunderstood me when I asked you to teach him how to defend himself with a sword.” He pulled his chin out of his hand, sitting up a little straighter.
“There is no ground for a discussion here, Treville. I am sure that not everyone knows how to appreciate a fine blade like you or me. However, I do not care how long it takes for him to become a proficient fighter, or if he has to start with the most basic, most mundane things. You are the best swordsman France has to offer, and you train the wildest youngsters in your regiment.
“It might be that neither you nor he are very happy with your current predicament, but he has to be able to wield a weapon in an emergency. If you can’t do it, you are free to go. But I have no use for a Captain of my personal guard who cannot teach the most basic things to an inexperienced newcomer.” Louis stood up, stepping closer to his favourite Musketeer. His eyes were hard and unyielding.
“It’s very easy, Treville. Teach him, or go back to Gascony. It’s your choice.”
The Captain stared at his king, completely aghast.
“Your Majesty…” He stepped closer, his hand wrapping around the hilt of his rapier to keep it from trembling. Eyes pleading, he slowly went down to his knees, staring up at the Royal. “Your Majesty, please.”
Louis closed his eyes, swallowing dryly.
“I need him, Treville,” he offered softly. “Without him, my mother would still rule in my name, surrounded by courtiers lapping at her feet. Without him, France would be nothing, only another dirty spot on the map of Europe, a swathe of land between Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. He did more for France than the rest of the court combined.
“He is everything, and there are not enough people in France willing to take a bullet for him. But he is burning up. His own sense of duty is killing him, eating him up from the inside. I cannot afford to lose him. He is the only one able to help me achieve my dreams. And I won’t always be there to save him, not from his enemies and even less from himself.”
When he opened his eyes again, his lashes came away wet, and there was a deep desperation in his gaze, a fear that shook the Musketeer to his very core.
“He has given me whole cities, Treville. All I ask of you is to prevent him from losing himself to his own insanity.”
A soft knock made the Captain turn around, away from the windows with a view down into the courtyard.
The door opened, slowly and carefully, to allow Richelieu to step into the study. He looked tired, his head bent as if under considerable strain. He didn’t even bother to face Treville; only let his haunted gaze search the room for the weapon rack offering him his training rapier.
When he wasn’t able to find it, he finally looked up, staring at the Musketeer questioningly. His eyes were a dull, muddy grey, without the usual spark – bothering on feverish intensity – that could usually be seen when he was dealing with any kind of courtier or envoy.
This was harder than Treville had thought.
He turned back to the window, pulling off his hat to ruffle a hand through his hair.
“Our last few sessions have shown me that I will need a different approach if I want to teach you how to use a blade. And we don’t need to be armed for that.” He pulled his own rapier out of its sheath, finger dancing over the polished blade.
A glance back to the other man showed him that the Cardinal seemed to be listening; at least his eyes were focused on the Captain. He nodded to one of the chairs shoved against the wall to offer them more freedom for the real training – that wouldn’t be happening for quite some time, as the Musketeer feared.
Gaze full of mistrust, Richelieu moved to the offered seating, sinking into the cushions with a soundless sigh. Treville followed only a moment later, not sitting down but stopping before the Minister, rapier still in hand.
“A rapier consists of two different parts: the hilt and the blade.”
“I know that –”
“Listen, Cardinal. You tried to use your sword as a walking cane and nearly got it cut in half if I hadn’t stopped you in time! I do not care if you already know any of what I’m telling you now, but you lost your right to have any say in what I am teaching you when you showed your complete ignorance towards your own weapon.
“So I will start at the very beginning if you like it or not! And I swear to God, I will teach you to respect the blade you wield, if it’s the last thing I’m going to do.” He heaved a heavy sigh, willing the anger crawling up his spine to stay out of his head. “Is that understood?”
Richelieu had shrunken in his seat with every word, every sentence he had said, looking more like a chastised schoolboy than the First Minister of France. “Yes,” he whispered, nearly inaudible. “It is understood.”
Treville stared at him a while longer, sitting in this chair weak and old, broken and pale. “Very good,” he finally stated, his voice calmer than when he had started. The older man flinched, visibly, his eyes locking onto the corner next to the Captain.
“A rapier consists of two different major parts, the hilt and the blade. You hold a rapier here, at the grip, with your index finger below the blade, wrapped around the quillons, like this, and your hand is protected by the quillons,” he pointed to the cross-guard, “the guard, also called siderings, and the knucklebow.” His fingers followed the delicate looking steel ornament while he talked like another man would caress a lover.
“The weight at the end of the grip is called pommel and can be used in some combat situations to incapacitate your opponent without injuring him too badly. More importantly, though, it is there to support the weight and balance of the blade. A finely crafted rapier, like this one, has its mass centre here, a little bit before the guard.” Treville demonstrated his words with balancing the weapon on his left forefinger, a smile ghosting over his face.
“The lower part of the blade is the forte, starting here, above the ricasso,” Treville explained, pointing at the smaller part of the blade below the siderings, “as this is the part where you have the most strength in your weapon. The upper part, starting here where this gouge – the fuller – ends, is the debole, where you are faster and more versatile, but also weaker. When you try to block an opponent’s weapon, you try to use the forte, you are missing the strength to stop an enemy’s blade with the tip of your sword or your debole. Attacks are mostly executed with the debole.
“But, as you can see, your blade is not evenly thick, it’s more flat – unlike a rondel dagger, which is used for stabbing. Because of this shape, you do not, under any circumstance, block your opponent’s weapon with the edge, not with the true nor with the false one, for if you do your rapier might break or at least will be carried off with a notch, reducing the stability in the whole blade.”
Treville looked up from his sword, to find Richelieu listening intently, contradicting his earlier claim that he already knew what the Musketeer would have to say. He put his rapier back into its sheath and walked over to the window he had stood next to before to take the other sword placed there.
“Here. I’m going to show you how to properly hold a rapier.”
Their sessions started to improve, after that. Very slowly, but continuously.
Richelieu was an incredibly smart student, absorbing the theoretical teaching with his strange hunger for knowledge. He didn’t try to use his rapier for anything it was not intended to after the first few disastrous training sessions, and more than once Treville found himself impressed by the pure intellect the other man displayed, with his thoughtful questions and nearly impeccable memory.
The only thing that was sorely missing in his student was even the tiniest fraction of stamina and strength, for it was usually the lack of one of these that stopped any further improvement or demonstrations in their sessions. Where Treville hadn’t even really warmed up, the Cardinal would already be trembling in exhaustion.
It was frustrating, on the better days.
Still, the Captain found himself shouting less and less at the Politician, content with the progress they were able to achieve nonetheless.
Unlike most other occasions, Richelieu was already waiting in their study when Treville finally reached the remote room, carrying not only the two rapiers but also a pair of soft leather gloves, not completely new anymore but still in good shape.
The Cardinal raised his eyebrows questioningly when he saw the younger man, his head tilting just the barest fraction as he silently waited for some form of explanation.
“I think I finally found a good idea on how to give you a better understanding of the proper feeling of the blade.” He placed the rapier on one of the tables, still pushed against the wall, and laid the gloves on top of it. “Put them on.”
Treville narrowed his eyes, staring at Richelieu. He looked less confused, more slightly uneasy.
“The gloves. Put them on. Your silken toys are too slippery to get a proper grip on the rapier, so you are unable to feel the important nuances. You could fight completely without gloves, but I prefer something as protection – for yourself and for your sword.”
“Thank you,” the Cardinal said, piqued, “but I will stick to my own pair of gloves.”
A dangerous growl vibrated through the Captain’s chest.
“You will do no such thing. Get your gloves off, now, or I will help you get rid of them. As long as you stay in this room, my rules apply!”
Richelieu ducked his head at the sharp tone of his trainer but finally complied with shaking hands. He stepped past Treville, turning away from him, but the Musketeer was still able to get a glimpse of his long, bared fingers.
His hand on the First Minister’s shoulders turned the other man around faster than he could blink. The other hand wrapped around one of the Cardinal’s wrists, staring at it in blank horror and disbelief.
“How are you even– no wonder you can’t feel a bloody thing with a sword in your hand!” His grip on the hand loosened and Richelieu recoiled, retreating a few steps backwards until his back touched the wall behind him. As if out of instinct, one of the hands twitched upwards, probably to allow another bite wound to adorn the already battered digit.
Before he could reach his aim, Treville followed him, pinning the hand next to him against the wall.
“Don’t you dare.”
“There is no use – not a single use – in teaching you how to fight if you cannot even properly hold a sword without being half distracted by some obviously self-inflicted pain! This has to heal before we continue. And I do not want to see you trying this again in the future. You have two weeks. If not, I am sure there will be people very interested in the fact that the First Minister is masticating his own hands like a fucking child. Do you understand me?”
He nodded, still trembling, white as a sheet.
“Good. Go. You can find me here again in a fortnight, at the usual time.”
Richelieu’s hands had healed quite nicely in the two weeks- not entirely but enough for Treville to pick up their training again. And after another week he stopped checking them every time for new injuries, only inspecting them every now and then.
Even if it seemed to be difficult for the Cardinal to refrain from biting them bloody whenever he felt stressed or agitated or afraid or whatnot – which was the case most of the time, Treville believed – he was unable to deny the sudden boost in efficiency and skill in handling the rapier, replacing the constant ache in his fingers.
He was finally able to make sense of Treville’s talk of nuances, in feeling the power and pressure points against his blade whenever he blocked or defended himself against an incoming strike or delivered an attack himself.
He was finally able to feel from which direction the pressure was coming, slowly learning to react appropriately and carefully answering with new actions himself.
The Cardinal was running late. It was to be expected for an envoy was staying at the Louvre and the discussions of a new trade agreement had taken all day. Treville spent the time warming up, trying out a few new techniques he had thought about teaching his recruits the other day, watching his image in the mirroring glass. Darkness had already fallen, leaving the room lit by a handful of candles and oil lamps.
When the door finally opened it revealed the pale figure of Richelieu, clearly exhausted from the hours-long negotiations.
“Ah, there you are. I wasn’t sure if you would still come.”
The First Minister flashed him a smile, barely more than the twitching of the corners of his mouth, and padded over to his rapier.
Treville was about to turn away, going over the techniques he had planned to show Richelieu, when he saw the Cardinal swaying forward, just barely grabbing the table the sword was placed on before righting himself again and reaching for the weapon.
In the blink of an eye the Captain was by his side, his hand wrapping around the older man’s biceps.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Sit down.”
The Minister was deathly pale, skin ashen, and he complied without any further protest. If his appearance hadn’t already told Treville that he certainly wasn’t feeling very well, the fact he didn’t mutter a single word against this treatment would have made it very clear something wasn’t right.
He had hardly sat down before the trembling started- not one of fear, but one of pure exhaustion. It spread, starting with the hands and taking over his whole body until he was shaking, his teeth clacking against each other in a sharp staccato.
Worried, the Musketeer grabbed his cloak and wrapped the Cardinal in it, holding his shoulders when he was finished and looking straight into his student’s face.
“When did you last eat?” he asked, not unkind, yet still with a growl in his voice.
Treville’s gaze hardened.
“S-s-sometime yesterday, m-m-maybe.”
“Are you serious?”
Richelieu looked away, pressing his jaw together to stop the angry rattle. He didn’t mutter a word. It was answer enough.
Treville cursed angrily, but let go of the shivering man as if to stop himself from shaking him for his stupidity.
“What do you usually eat?” he asked when he had calmed down enough to form a coherent sentence again.
The Cardinal took his time to answer but finally pressed: “Bread. Cheese. Dried fruits, sometimes.” He still didn’t look at the Captain, still stared at the corner behind him.
Without another word, Treville turned and trudged to the door, calling for a servant after opening it.
“What are you doing?!” Richelieu hissed, trying and failing to rise from the chair, getting even paler.
“Organising you some food. Your usual strength is not above that of one of your kittens and I won’t have you breaking down here because of your inability to properly look after yourself. You will eat, and if I’m satisfied with your display, I might show you one or two new techniques I have been thinking of trying out.”
It turned into some kind of a ritual, the food, the demonstrations.
The next time Richelieu came into the study, a small plate with a bite of bread, a little cheese and a handful of dried fruits was already waiting for him, together with the Captain, who swung around his rapier as if it was a natural extension of his arm.
After the third time, he stopped protesting.
It wasn’t a lot but it was a regular meal, and within a few weeks a more natural flush replaced the sickly white of his skin even beyond their sessions. His stride had more energy. His gaze more fire. His hands danced through the air in complicated patterns, emphasising his passionate speeches.
He was like a phoenix. Reborn from his own ashes, burning, soaring.
And even if he wasn’t the greatest fencer himself, his ability to analyse and observe the many ideas and techniques Treville presented, with his profound theoretical background, won the Captain’s respect, until he actively asked the Cardinal for his opinion, every now and then.
Their training still continued.
If the Musketeer aimed to disarm him, he still did so in the blink of an eye. But they were finally able to make real progress in their sessions.
Their blades met with a metallic clank. His eyes forming slits, the first drops of sweat already grazing his brows, Richelieu tried to hold against the Musketeer’s weapon, knowing the other man’s sword had met his in the Cardinal’s forte, giving him the advant-
“Don’t hold against it.”
Treville stepped back, lowering his blade. Richelieu’s rapier, suddenly bereft of its opponent, swished through the air, pulling the tall Minister with it and robbing him of his balance.
“And don’t let the blade control you. You are equals, both dependent on each other. If you let yourself be led by your rapier, it is no wonder you end up on the ground instead of in your opponent.”
His sword twitched beside him, lazily yet threatening nonetheless. It stilled when Treville’s gaze turned serious as he waited for the embarrassed blush on Richelieu’s cheeks to disappear.
“You know enough of the basics by now to think a little further, Your Eminence. You can hold a blade all right, but you still mostly try to copy me when I don’t give you a specific technique to follow. It’s nice to know you think so highly of my skills,” another smirk lit up his face, “but I think it’s time to try and build your own style.”
He sheathed his rapier and stepped closer, not waiting for the Cardinal to do the same.
Without missing a beat, he pulled out his fighting dagger and gently pressed its tip to the exact same position on Richelieu’s blade where their rapiers had touched, moments ago.
“You tried to take control of my sword here, which is generally not wrong. I would have done it myself if I were you. But while I have more than half a lifetime of experience won in real and – more often than not – deadly battles to fall back on and more dirty tricks up my sleeve than you can count, you are inexperienced and weak.
“I hold against the weapon because I know what to do afterwards. You might have my blade in your forte, here, but holding against an incoming weapon is both exhausting and robbing you of your advantage.
“When I stop a rapier like this, I offer my opponent a new aim I’d like him to attack, a hole in my defence, put there on purpose. Because if the enemy follows this opportunity, I am already one step ahead of him. It’s like playing chess, it’s just a bit faster, and it’s your own life at stake if you do something wrong. A skilful player offers one of his bishops or castles, but gains the enemy’s queen, thanks to this.
“An inexperienced fighter should look for his own safety first, though. Especially because the original intent of a rapier was not to be a primary attack weapon.”
He stepped away, and, after staring at Richelieu thoughtfully for a moment, replaced the dagger with his own sword, again.
“There are only a handful of fighters in my regiment strong and persistent enough to actually hold with pure strength against an opponent’s weapon without tiring out too soon. I try to train all of my recruits in their best asset first, though. For some it’s speed. For some it’s dexterity. Some are just able to hold out longer than the rest. One or two might have a knack for dirty tricks. But I do not recommend anyone to use strength in a battle. Because in the end, speed and skill usually triumph over strength.”
The Captain placed his blade against the Cardinal’s in en garde and when Richelieu answered this with a perfect cavazione without seeming conscious of the small movement, the younger man smiled, a pleased little smile that put tiny wrinkles all around his eyes. He switched his tip back, controcavazione, to the original, advantaged side.
“You have neither strength nor any stamina. If you want to win in a fight, you have to finish it fast. Before your opponent knows what is happening.” He didn’t move, their blades still just barely touching. “Yet you also lack the speed and dexterity that comes with youth and years of training. As soon as your opponent gets you on the defensive without you being in control, you have lost.”
Richelieu frowned, lowering his tip.
With a low growl, the Captain lunged forward, his rapier stopping mere inches before the Cardinal’s throat. Moving back as fast as he had moved in, still glaring at the suddenly ghostly pale Minister, he hissed, “Don’t let your guard drop when there is a blade pointing in your bloody face, not when you don’t have anything planned to counter-act!”
Richelieu swallowed heavily, a soft tremble visible in his rapier. The tip stayed where it was, close to the ground.
“If I do not match any of your criteria to train in, which path am I supposed to follow?”
It sounded hopeless, bordering on bitter.
“Easy,” the Captain breezily answered, his anger dissipating in the face of the Cardinal’s obvious despair, “we build you an individual style.”
“I lack the strength, the speed and the stamina to hold against any real fighter, you said so yourself! Why are you laughing at me?!”
There was a wild, delighted sparkle in the Musketeer’s eyes, his blade dancing through the air in a private show.
“Because” he grinned, “you are probably the brightest mind in France, maybe in all of Europe, yet you still cannot see.
“You’re thin, you’re weak, you’re old, you’re a man of the church, and you can analyse a complete duel faster than most of my men can draw their swords! If you pick up a blade, no one is going to take you seriously. No one is going to view you as a threat.
“You ask me what your biggest strength is? What I will let you train to prepare you for the emergency? The ignorance of the people. They all will underestimate you. And you are smart enough to use that against them. Do what you’re best at. Offer them what they want. What they expect.
“You’re so good at that at court. You make His Majesty believe what you propose has been his idea all along – don’t deny it, I have seen you working against his stubbornness more than once – and then feign surprise when he finally agrees with your notion. You play the nobles like I use my sword and musket. None of them know whether your reaction is genuine or simply a well-trained fraud. And you can use all that in fencing, too.”
Treville whirled around, marching up and down the length of the study, agitated, passing the windows with every stride.
“I taught you the most common mistakes of an inexperienced fighter and how one would usually react to them. If you build your individual style upon your acting skills, this is what we will use.”
A frown wrinkled the Captain’s forehead when he finally stopped his wandering to stare at the blade in his hand.
“They don’t expect you to know how to wield a rapier. No one except the King even knows I am teaching you. So, when you pick up a blade –”
“They will expect me to make all these obvious beginner’s mistakes. Oh! This is brilliant!” Richelieu breathed. “I will behave like the greatest fool with a weapon in hand, yet when they come –”
An excited blush spread across his cheeks.
“Yes, exactly,” Treville grinned, proudly, “The only thing you have to keep in mind is staying in contratempo. As soon as you fall into due tempi, you will hit problems. It should be fine for one fight, but then they will be aware of the fact that you actually know what you’re doing. So finish them off in contratempo and feign surprise at actually beating them at their own game.”
“Oh, you are brilliant. That might actually work.”
“’Course it will. Men with a sword in their hand tend to skip thinking in favour of showing off.”
“You don’t,” the Cardinal pointed to the blade in Treville’s hand, resting there as if it was the only place it truly belonged. “You even seem to think more clearly when holding a weapon.”
This time the smile was bothering on mischievous.
“And that’s the reason why I am the captain of the most prestigious regiment France has to offer.”
Richelieu’s breathing slowly began to even out again while he stared out of the windows, idly watching the snowflakes falling. Some part of his mind registered that, for the first time he could recall, he wasn’t freezing despite the harsh weather. A smile curled around the corners of his lips, and he successfully fought his lids from falling close, once again.
“You should go to sleep, Your Eminence,” Treville proposed, wrapping the weapons into oiled cloth at the other side of the room. “We’re finished for today, anyway.”
The Cardinal turned away from the window, settling his half-lidded eyes on the Musketeer. He seemed content, at peace, and offered a friendly grin when he caught Richelieu’s gaze.
They had come a long way to reach this kind of mutual understanding.
The Minister watched the other man for a minute or two before disrupting the peaceful silence. “Why do you teach me? I mean, not in general, but how to fight in a way so that I might actually be able to triumph against stronger opponents? You are well known for your personal love for honour. It’s a major part of the reason why you are still able to hold your position at court, despite your refusal to partake in politics.
“Yet you still teach me how to fight, using guile and deception instead of the noble honesty you so adore.”
Treville lowered his arms, hands placed next to the wrapped weapons. His brows were drawn together, as if deep in thought, yet his eyes were filled with a world-weary pain.
“I teach you because my personal beliefs include helping any man to their way with a weapon. And even if I might live for my personal honour, in the end, I am still a survivor. I will die for my king and my country without thinking twice, but I’ll be damned if I don’t take as many of their enemies with me as I can.”
He turned away, staring at the bundle before him.
“France’s safety is my first concern, before honour, before honesty, before my own life. And it doesn’t take a genius to realise how important you are to our country and our king. He chose you over his own family, after all.”
The smile was more wistful than cheerful.
Richelieu looked troubled.
“Still, he would never choose me over his favourite regiment.”
“You underestimate your own value to His Majesty. Because he already did.”
When they met for the next session, the Cardinal brought two letters he was currently writing and, after they finished their dance with the blades, carefully started to explain them to the Captain.
They didn’t meet outside of their sessions. They weren’t friends, after all. They still fought at court, were still able to clear a whole hall of every living thing when clashing with their beliefs against each other.
But there was respect, there, too. Respect for the dancing with the blade, and respect for the dancing with the words. The soft whispering silk and the hard flapping of the cloak. They might not agree with everything the other did, but they learned, slowly, awkwardly, to understand why they acted like they did.
And for them, it was enough.
Richelieu whirled into the room as if he owned the place and threw himself into one of the cushioned chairs standing in the corner. A deep, angry scowl dominated his expression, his fingers knotting themselves in a ball only to separate again moments later to drum on the wooden armrest in a fast staccato.
“This is a bloody waste of time,” he hissed, his eyes burning into the back of the completely unfazed Musketeer.
Treville still didn’t turn.
“This charade is like spitting on the whole of creation only to amuse a handful of people who believe themselves to be above God’s grace!”
“You’re making a fuss, Your Eminence.”
“Why couldn’t I stay back in Paris?! Why did His Majesty demand my presence for this useless display of male idiocy! And what, in God’s name, are you doing!?”
He sprang up, striding up and down the room in front of the door, his gaze never leaving the back of the other man. The red silk hissed threateningly at every turn, emphasising the dark mood of its bearer.
“Cleaning my equipment. Waiting for the king to get ready to ride out. And the rest of the court is here, too. What would you have done in Paris, anyway, eh? Without the king to sign all your little treaties and edicts? Be glad that he values your company so much that he even wants you with him when leaving the Louvre for a hunt.”
Richelieu stopped, the scowl deepening.
“I do not want to accompany him on a hunt, no matter if it lasts a day or a whole bloody week! It’s stupid, it’s a waste of time and valuable resources, and it’s completely senseless! What have these animals ever done to deserve their lives being torn from them in blood and pain, only to amuse some high lords on their high horses with their hideous laughter and false praise? How can you even bear to be near them?”
The Captain finally turned away from his armour and weapons to the looming Cardinal, his expression calm, bordering on sympathetic while facing the thunderstorm the First Minister displayed with all his being.
“He is restless. War rages in all of Europe, yet France has been mostly at peace for close to three years.” His voice was soft, so unlike the tone he used during their training sessions or in his garrison. “You know better than I do how His Majesty hungers for the triumph of a hard-won battle. Of the blood of his enemies on their fallen banner.”
Treville looked back to his belt on the table, rapier hid in the scabbard; dagger gleaming in the light falling through the windows like it welcomed the warmth of the sun on the well-kept blade.
“I for one am quite thankful that he decides to take his hunger out on some innocent deer or fox. Let them suffer if it helps our people not to. I would choose a fallen doe above a fallen comrade any day.”
Troubled and surprised by the words the Captain had offered him, Richelieu lingered, the scowl softening to a mere frown before he turned around without another sound and stalked back to the door.
His hands had barely touched the handle when Treville added, not much louder than the honest answer he had given Richelieu, “We can try to let some of your frustration out with a little swordplay after I come back if you’re up for it.”
The Cardinal looked back, only to find the Musketeers gaze settled on him, eyes still soft and inviting. He shifted, uncomfortably, insecure.
“I don’t think we will find any room suitable for it, Captain.”
“We’re surrounded by forest, Your Eminence. It’s not even a five minute walk to disappear from everyone’s sight. But even if they saw us – by now you’re better than most of them. I wouldn’t mind scaring off one or two of these peacocks. Not even with you.”
Treville smiled lazily, and Richelieu opened the door to leave before the stunned blush he felt creeping up his neck could reach his face.
Shirt discarded on his bed, he carefully inspected the spot where he had smashed against that stupid branch, wincing slightly when the dull pain flared up again in response to his ministrations.
But his ribs seemed to be fine. And right now there wasn’t even a bruise visible.
Treville was pretty sure his side would be dark blue or purple come the morning, but a bruise would be fine, a bruise was harmless. What counted was that there was nothing broken, nothing seriously inj–
The door flew open behind him, and the Captain grimaced, his muscles tensing.
“De Maillé, I told you I need – you’re not the Maréchal, are you?”
He raised his head just enough to spot the familiar whirlwind in red and gaze at him through the mirror.
The Cardinal stood in the doorway, frozen, and stared at Treville’s bare back with a dumbfounded expression, a blush creeping up his neck and reddening his cheeks. When he didn’t talk, didn’t move, the wide, surprised eyes still glued to the Musketeer’s rear, Treville growled and turned around, stepping up to Richelieu in two long strides.
Offering a disapproving glare, he gently pushed the still rigid Minister out of the way to shut the door to his and de Maillé’s shared room, separating them from the laughter and conversations from the rest of the court.
Flexing his muscles, still a little sore from the daylong hunt, he commented, “There are currently more than eighty percent of the male attendees of the court here in Versailles, Your Eminence. Do you think it’s a good idea that the impenetrable, ever-eloquent First Minister is seen in a private room that is not his, staring like a bloody innocent recruit, while there’s another high-positioned courtier only half-dressed inside? One who is well-known for his nearly constant quarrel with said Minister?”
He stepped even closer, the silken coat brushing over his naked chest, soft and cool against the usual heat he radiated. Richelieu stumbled backwards, searching for support he couldn’t find. His back hit the wall, eyes darting over the broad frame of Treville before twitching upwards to settle on the other man’s eyes.
Richelieu’s gaze was somewhere between terrified and helpless, not for fear of the Captain but for the rising awareness that he was utterly unable to control his own reactions, his own body.
Treville couldn’t suppress a sardonic grin.
He started to follow the Cardinal in light, fluid steps, while Richelieu tried to press himself flat against the wall, looking like he wanted to crawl into it. With a low hum, the Captain placed his hands next to his head; palms sprawled comfortably on the smooth surface, effectively trapping the Minister in this exposed position.
The Musketeer didn’t stop his advance though, but moved in closer, until their faces were only inches apart, their breaths mingling, ghosting over each other’s cheeks.
Richelieu’s eyes started to blur with the desperate effort to keep them locked on Treville’s, his breath coming in short, wheezing gasps.
Deliberately slow, the Captain let his gaze slide down, settling on the half-opened lips of the Cardinal and consciously wetting his with a well-measured twitch of his tongue. The wheezing stopped, hungry anticipation replacing the panic.
“You forgot to knock, Your Eminence,” Treville finally breathed, after what felt like a small eternity they had spent locked in place, close enough to feel their body heat yet still ever out of reach before he stepped away and towards his bed.
With a helpless mewl Richelieu sagged against the wall, his blush rapidly replaced by an ever-so-faint tremble.
The Captain didn’t look back at his visitor, offering him as much privacy as he could to recover some of his wits, while he put on the shirt with short, efficient motions.
“Would you still like to train?” he asked, finally turning around after he had also finished putting on his belt. The Cardinal had righted himself again, stance poised and taunt, jaw clenched. He wasn’t looking at Treville, cheeks ghostly pale now.
The Captain’s smile was kind. “I’d be ready now. If you’re up to it, that is.”
The wind had picked up, howling around the Louvre and crashing against the windows in violent gushes, filled with cold autumn rain. It didn’t faze the two men behind the rattling glass, circling around each other with their rapiers tips pointing in each other’s face, touching every now and then.
“Your precious Swedes failed, Your Eminence.”
Anger flashed in the Cardinal’s eyes, and he smashed Treville’s blade out of the way for a wide lunge the Captain skilfully danced away from.
“As did your Germans. What did they say? Twenty-thousand men dead or taken? And less than four thousand casualties among the Spanish?”
The Musketeer’s eyes were hard, challenging, while he let a fast combination of three hits from different directions rain on his opponent, which Richelieu defended himself against without missing a beat. They went back to circling each other, eyes boring into their counterpart’s.
With the rising tension in the diplomatic relations with the Habsburgs, their training sessions had slowly become rarer. They were only able to meet once a week, by now, their schedule – especially Richelieu’s – too tight to allow the luxury of this leisure they both shared.
Of course, the Cardinal would never be a swordsman comparable to the likes of Treville, but with his own style nicely engraved and mostly mastered and the burning need to offer his mind an outlet to the tapering situation, they had started to practice serious fighting, a few months back. And even if Richelieu’s stamina would never reach the levels of one of the Musketeers, they could still fight for a decent amount of time now, without the older man tiring out after the first one or two exchanges.
“Our allies are blown to pieces, and they won’t be able to help for quite some time. France stands alone.”
With a wild howl, Richelieu rushed forward, the desperation eating him up since he had gotten the news of the disaster of the Battle of Nördlingen bleeding into the powerful strokes. Treville clenched his jaw, his dance not as careless and light-hearted as it had been before. Sweat started to glisten on both their foreheads, more prominently visible on the dark tan of the Captain.
Still, without any major effort, he managed to jump back, out of measure, going in en garde and effectively bringing a halt to the Cardinal’s charge. The older man was breathing heavily and used the short break to push a silver strand out of his face. They started circling around each other again, exchanging a slash or two every now and then but no serious attack, more a testing of the waters, a looking for a hole in the other man’s defences.
“By the end of the year, there will be war with Spain,” Treville predicted darkly.
“I will not allow it! France cannot afford a war on its own ground, its own borders!”
He made a step forward, to reduce their measure from misura larga to misura stretta, when a violent cough ripped through his chest, nearly bringing him to his knees.
The Minister didn’t even see the blade coming, distracted by the searing pain in his lungs, yet some part of his mind registered the incoming threat nonetheless, primed and vigilant after all their joint sessions drilling his instincts for self-preservation to maximum efficiency.
He somehow managed to twist his body enough to parry the incoming strike, a clear, bell-like sound vibrating through his hand, cramped around the hilt, while he whined in anguish after pushing himself beyond his body’s limits. Unable to regain his balance, his shoulders smashed against the chest of the lunging Captain, the brutal collision pressing all the air out of Treville with a low wheeze.
They tumbled to the ground in a mess of limbs, both robbed of their equilibrium, the Cardinal atop the Musketeer, ending up lying on the younger man’s ribcage, rasping for breath, positively shaking in exhaustion and pain. His lungs felt like bursting, burning coughs and shame driving helpless tears into his eyes. He couldn’t move.
Not loud, but completely soundless, every vibration palpable for Richelieu, still unable to pull himself away, up again. He felt the younger man relaxing below him, one hand finding its way to the Cardinal’s back, softly rubbing small circles to ease the pain.
“I am impressed,” the Captain admitted after a few more moments of silence, Richelieu’s breathing slowly starting to normalise again. “I did not expect you to be able to defend yourself against that strike, at least not that successfully.”
The Cardinal closed his eyes, the tension in his shoulders starting to fade when Treville continued his administrations.
“Still,” he added thoughtfully, laughter in his voice, “I would appreciate if you’d let go of your rapier in the near future. That grip can’t be very healthy for your hand, and I would feel a little safer if the only thing between your blade and my throat wasn’t just my hand anymore.”
Richelieu tried to sit up, his eyes widening at the implications of the Captain, but the hand on his back stopped him, holding him down.
“Please, Your Eminence,” Treville’s voice was more earnest now. “Ease your grip first. Or let go of the blade entirely. If you push yourself up like this, I am not sure how long I can hold it away from me without getting injured.”
His hand, indeed still wrapped too tightly around the hilt of his sword, felt numb yet somehow he managed to loosen the hold enough to feel it slipping from his fingers, the pommel meeting the ground with a single clanck. Treville released his grip on Richelieu’s back, finally letting him pull away.
The Cardinal managed to sit up, still not trusting his legs enough to carry him, and stared at the Captain before him. He looked weirdly content, his gloved hand previously protecting his throat now carefully grabbing the blade resting on it to place it next to him on the ground. The other hand, the one that had been caressing Richelieu’s back lay uselessly on the ground next to him.
His rapier was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is your blade?” Richelieu frowned.
Treville grinned, his eyes sparkling with delight, while he pushed himself up, cracking his neck.
“You disarmed me.”
Ignoring the expression of disbelief of his counterpart, he looked around, once, and walked over to his sword when he found it. He fondly stroked the weapon before putting it back in its scabbard, finally turning back to the Cardinal, still sitting on the ground.
Picking up Richelieu’s rapier on the way back, he offered the Politician a hand and helped him up, not letting go of it even after he was sure the older man had regained his balance.
Treville looked him square in the eyes, presenting the blade like a king would to his newly appointed knight. The contact didn’t break while he stated, his voice confident, “I might not be able to ascertain what’s going to happen once war has been declared. But I know that I at least won’t have to worry about you.”
Richelieu wrapped his hand around the weapon, their hands touching. Treville, pride in his expression, stepped back to draw his own rapier and offer the traditional fencer’s greeting.
“May your sword never fail in times of need, and may your blade be always as sharp as your mind.”
The Cardinal repeated the movement, slower than the Captain and deeply aware of every motion.
“For France,” he replied quietly.
“For France,” Treville agreed.
And, for one blissful moment, frozen in time, all was well.