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In Our Wonder And Astonishment

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Cardinal Richelieu, so the people of Paris say, is a stern man.

Firm, his partisans might say. Honorable. Duty-bound. The very model of a proper Dominant.

Stiff, his detractors would argue. Rigid. Unbending. Controlling. Just the opposite of what the modern submissive wants.

What Cardinal Richelieu actually is, in his own mind, is this: proper. Dutiful. Respectful. Traditional. And if some people approve, and others disapprove, the distinction between them is clear: the right-minded approve; the wrong-minded merely require… counseling.

Counselor, coincidentally, is one of the many roles the Church assigns to its princes.

This morning Richelieu is taking counsel of a cup of well-brewed tea, some fruits and breads, and the morning’s letters. Many people write to Richelieu. Not all of those letters make it to his desk, of course. He has secretaries for that. What letters they can’t handle usually suffice to occupy Richelieu’s breakfast. Whether the experience is pleasurable or annoying depends entirely upon the contents of the letters.

But pleasurable or annoying, intolerable or joyous, still every morning Richelieu reads his letters. He rises at his usual time, breakfasts in his usual way, and attends to the needs of his flock.

Order, Richelieu knows, is the key to authority. He finds it exceedingly annoying when that order is disturbed.

Shouting in the courtyard is exceedingly annoying. And yet Richelieu’s head jerks up, jolted out of his focus on the latest dispatches from Rome, when the unmistakable sounds of raised voices reaches his ears.

“- is he?” someone cries, angry and frustrated. “I must – ”

“No, you – ” another voice replies, before breaking into a series of swears. That voice at least Richelieu recognizes: Bernajoux, one of the lieutenants of the Red Guards, and not coincidentally the leader of the detachment on duty today. It’s rarely a good sign when Bernajoux swears. It’s even less good when the sound of pounding footsteps grows louder, as if their owner is approaching, instead of quieter, as if their owner is being ignominiously shown the door.

That bodes ill for the resumption of his quiet breakfast. Richelieu sighs. He would like to think that, one day, the rest of the world will appreciate the benefits of order.

He would like to think that.

“Hey, you! Stop!” Bernajoux cries.        

“No, I have to see him!” the voice shouts again. It’s clearer now, and now Richelieu recognizes it: young d’Artagnan, the recently-commissioned Musketeer. Richelieu doesn’t commonly recognize the voices of Musketeers, or distinguish one from another on parade, but the circumstances of d’Artagnan’s arrival in Paris had made it impossible for Richelieu not to recall the young Musketeer most precisely.

Concern and interest follow so closely on the heels of recognition that it’s not worth trying to untangle which had come first. This is no common interruption, then: no spy deceived on the topic of their own importance, no messenger deceived about their master’s same. Musketeers do not come to the Palais-Cardinal any more than Red Guards go to the Musketeers’ garrison. And yet young d’Artagnan – who knows these unspoken rules as well as anyone, if the recent duel he’d fought with Boisrenard is any guide – is attempting to break into the Palais-Cardinal to gain an audience with his nemesis the Cardinal.

Richelieu rises from his desk and strides over to the door, pulling it open.

D’Artagnan looks up, panting, from where Bernajoux is holding him back. Relief flashes across his face at the sight of the Cardinal. “Your Eminence! I have to speak with you at once, it’s urgent.”

“Let him in,” Richelieu says to Bernajoux. The Guardsman scowls, but releases d’Artagnan. Also present is Boisrenard, the other half of the recent duel. Boisrenard glowers even worse than his squadmate. But, obedient to Richelieu’s order, they let d’Artagnan enter.

Not alone, though. Bernajoux and Boisrenard follow the young Musketeer into Richelieu’s office, taking up posts on either side of the door and eyeing d’Artagnan dubiously. Their demeanor makes it clear that they’re only waiting for an excuse. Richelieu considers this and decides that no comment on that circumstance is required.

“Well, young man, you’ve caused quite a ruckus,” Richelieu says instead, mildly, as he reseats himself. “What’s this all about?”

D’Artagnan opens his mouth, hesitates, closes it again, and stares at Richelieu with naked indecision on his face. Richelieu’s interest, already piqued, doubles at this odd behavior. After having spent so much effort to gain an audience, what now causes d’Artagnan to hesitate?

And where are d’Artagnan’s companion Musketeers? Richelieu flicks a glance at Bernajoux, who shakes his head subtly: d’Artagnan had come to the Palais-Cardinal alone. None of the other three troublemakers are with him. Athos’ absence at least had been obvious from d’Artagnan’s ruckus; the steady, experienced Dom usually keeps a firmer hand on d’Artagnan than this. But Porthos and Aramis at least Richelieu would have expected.

It gives him a conversational opening, though, and Richelieu moves to exploit it. “You are alone?”

“Yes, I – Athos is at La Rochelle.”

Richelieu frowns. “I see. I had thought he was to be left behind, to command the Musketeers remaining in the capitol in Captain Treville’s absence.”

“Captain Treville isn’t absent,” d’Artagnan says wretchedly. “He’s still in Paris.”

Curiouser and curiouser. Treville has sent Athos to La Rochelle instead of going himself? Treville isn’t one to lead from the back, and he’s made no secret of his discomfort with palace intrigue and courtier games; he never misses a chance to lead his men out to battle and – conveniently – away from Paris. So why has he sent Athos in his stead?

Richelieu gives d’Artagnan a careful look. There’s a line here it would be unwise to cross; Richelieu has no familial or social ties to the young submissive who stands before him wearing Athos’ collar with unconscious pride. But a little firmness won’t go amiss. And it’s clear that the boy needs settling.

In fact – “How does it come that you remain in Paris, then, with Athos at la Rochelle?” Richelieu asks in some surprise. It’s unusual for a collared pair to separate like this, at least willingly. And while the Musketeers may be full of rash young subs who evade their Doms' firm hands at the first opportunity, Captain Treville usually manages his men better than this – not that Richelieu would ever admit such a thing out loud.

Which is why it doesn’t come as a complete surprise when d’Artagnan says, “It wasn’t part of the plan. Athos had to go, he – someone had to go, when the Captain couldn’t, and he’s most senior.”

“Why couldn’t the Captain go himself?”

“This time tomorrow morning he isn’t going to be Captain.”

This bombshell is wholly unexpected, and Richelieu is left gaping at d’Artagnan, showing far more surprise than he usually tries to allow. But his mind is reeling and his thoughts are scattered. A thousand catastrophes whirl through his mind at once – the King assassinated, his faithful guard wounded unto death, the destruction of France, civil war. He must give some outward indicator of his sudden dismay, because d’Artagnan curses and says, “No, it’s not like that, I’m sorry.” He holds up his hands. “It’s – God, what if you – oh, what the hell, you’ll hear it all soon enough anyway – ”

“What on God’s earth is it?” Richelieu cries.

“Treville’s being outed,” d’Artagnan blurts.

This statement makes no sense. Richelieu stares.

“As a sub,” d’Artagnan finishes in a small voice. “He’s being outed as an uncollared sub.”

Richelieu is suddenly very, very glad he’s sitting.

“Start at the beginning,” he croaks. “Tell me everything.”

Everything, or at least everything known to d’Artagnan, is very soon told. D’Artagnan sinks into the chair Boisrenard drags up behind him, accepts the cup of wine Bernajoux shoves into his hand, and relays the entire story in a single breath.

Captain Treville – the annoying, the implacable, the honorable, the steadfast – is a submissive. Has always been a submissive. Somehow (and Richelieu intends to find out how) Treville had kept it hidden from the world. He’d enlisted in the army as a youth, passing as a Dominant, and risen steadily through the ranks to hold his present position. Until he’d angered the wrong noble, and said noble had gone digging for blackmail material. Material that the Comte de Rochefort had apparently gotten in spades. Material that, according to d’Artagnan, is to be made public tomorrow.

“Rochefort confronted the Captain with it yesterday. In the middle of the garrison!” d’Artagnan says angrily. “Said he’d give the Captain twenty-four hours to ‘do the honorable thing’, whatever that means, and then rode off laughing. I wanted to teach him a lesson but Athos said that wouldn’t help.”

The pout d’Artagnan is giving would be adorable under other circumstances. The boy is gorgeous, and Richelieu had considered making d’Artagnan a temporary offer when he’d first come to Paris. Richelieu's most recent arrangement - with a pretty young submissive named Adele - had ended nearly a year ago, at the conclusion of their contract term. Neither Richelieu nor Adele had been inclined to re-up it. They'd been compatible enough at the outset, but by the end of the term their preferences had begun to diverge. Richelieu's had only the occasional casual partner since then, though, and he's beginning to long for someone to be his again. True, his caretaker tendencies can be safely channeled into work. And they have been; but even France can be over-cossetted, though under Louis' rule it sometimes is hard to believe.

In the end, though, Richelieu hadn't offered d'Artagnan a contract. The young man’s head had been full of Musketeers; he'd made it very clear that he was only interested in a partner insofar as it let him obtain the waivers necessary for a submissive to enter the armed forces. No temporary contract Dom could sign them. Under the law, that authority reposes only with a submissive's legal guardian. With d'Artagnan's father's tragic death that had meant the young man had needed a collar, not just a contract, from a Dominant willing to sign.

Treville had arranged it. And Athos seems to be being good for d'Artagnan, stunts like this morning's notwithstanding. So it's all worked out for the best.

And none of that is either here or there. “Why did you come to me?” Richelieu asks bluntly. He’s not Treville’s ally. Just the opposite, in fact. And his position on proper behavior for submissives is well-known. He’d been the one to craft the most recent set of laws on the subject, in fact. The laws of which Treville is most decidedly on the wrong side. Military service is permitted to subs, as d’Artagnan’s commission and regimentals prove. But with no Dominant’s signature on properly filed exemption waivers, everything from Treville’s current captaincy to his first youthful enlistment are illegal and about to be revoked.

Richelieu doubts, somehow, that he’ll find a waiver on file with Treville’s Dominant parent’s signature – his father, hadn’t it been? Not that that matters. Both of his parents are dead now regardless. There are no siblings; as far as Richelieu knows, not so much as a cousin. And d’Artagnan had specified that Treville is uncollared. Meaning, in the eyes of the law, there’s no one left to sign.

“You hate Rochefort,” d’Artagnan says with the certainty of the young. “I know you and the Captain have never gotten along, but you don’t hate him the way you hate Rochefort. You’ll help Treville because it means beating Rochefort.”

Richelieu sets his teeth. The boy is right about how much Richelieu would love to put Rochefort back in his place. But that doesn’t change the facts. “The law is on Rochefort’s side.”

Public office is only permitted to submissives with the explicit authorization of their Dom. An ungrounded sub is dangerous. Volatile. Some submissives simply shut down without proper care, but others lash out. In many spheres – the home, the convent, the merchant world – that unpredictability can be tolerated. Moderated. Worked around; accommodations made. But when it comes to the business of state risks like that simply cannot be accepted.

Technically the law contains provisions for this: Treville is hardly the only uncollared, orphaned sub in France. But those provisions are wholly inadequate to the awkward situation Treville now finds himself in. A child would be placed with a guardian of appropriate rank, in an arrangement mediated by the local priest, whose future would then be properly assured. An adult of means usually chooses a collaring of convenience; there’s a grace period for such things, under the law, so that all can be arranged. For those with truly nowhere to go and no one to offer a collar, the convents and their charity always wait in reserve.

“You wrote the laws,” d’Artagnan cries. “You can change them!”

Richelieu shakes his head. “It’s not that easy,” he says. “And anyway, it wouldn’t matter. The law isn’t retroactive. It was illegal for Treville to enter the military in the first place – changing the law won’t change that.”

D’Artagnan knows this as well as Richelieu. After the death of his father, he’d had to accept Athos’ collar before he’d been allowed to enlist. That happens often with the Musketeers; how many times has Richelieu asked Treville, acerbically, if they’re a military unit or a dating service? That question takes on uncomfortable new meaning now. Treville is an unbound sub. His Captaincy – indeed, every military rank he’s ever held – are and have always been illegally bestowed and obtained.

They’ll be stripped from him, of course. At least Treville’s title will remain. A Dominant relative could sue to claim it, but if Treville had had any of those, they’d have been able to sign his waivers long ago. Would have done so willingly, in exchange for the title, and Treville would have been more than shrewd enough to offer the bargain. No, the title is secure. But it’s unlikely that Treville will remain at court. Not after this. He’ll probably retire to his estates. Accept a collar from some landless noble or younger child who will let Treville manage it all his own way in exchange for estate and comfort. He’ll certainly never be able to show himself in polite company again.

And Rochefort will have won. Richelieu frowns. That’s undesirable, to say the least, but – the law is the law. And Treville is what he is.

Richelieu shakes his head. Satisfying as it would be to triumph over Rochefort, on this score the Comte will have to be allowed his victory.

“I’m sorry,” he starts to tell d’Artagnan. He’s interrupted by the door flying open.

Both Richelieu and d’Artagnan crane their necks to stare at Jussac, breathing hard in the entryway with mud splattering his boots and breeches.

“You’re needed at the palace,” Jussac pants. “The King has summoned you at once, with all haste, to a most urgent council.”

Richelieu rises immediately. “I’m at his Majesty’s service,” he says to Jussac. To Bernajoux and Boisrenard: “See Monsieur d’Artagnan out.”

D’Artagnan scrambles to his feet before one of the Guardsmen can help him out of the chair. He has the temerity to catch at Richelieu’s sleeve as he goes by. The Cardinal stares at him, astonished.

“It’s about the Captain – it must be. Help him,” d’Artagnan implores.

“It’s in God’s hands now,” Richelieu says as gently as he can.

The young Musketeer sags back into the chair, ashen. Richelieu tries not to look at him as he passes out of the room and makes for his carriage.

The distance between the Palais-Cardinal and the Louvre is not large, but it’s more than large enough for the astonishment of d’Artagnan’s tidings to settle and leave rational thought again in its wake.

Treville. A sub. Astonishing – and yet – and yet, not. Now that Richelieu knows it, several seemingly inconsequential things become significant. Treville’s disinterest in scheming for more power. His satisfaction in his role as the King’s loyal servant. His habit of playing fast and loose with the enlistment laws, matching unbound subs up with equally unbound Doms in tacit collarings of convenience within the Musketeers. His attendance at the Comtesse de Larroque’s salons, which Richelieu had put down to a clumsy attempt to secure political allies, but which is more probably grounded in support for Larroque’s unabashedly pro-subs’ rights agenda.

In fact, the more that Richelieu thinks of it, the only truly astonishing thing is that Treville should have kept it hidden so well. The members of Louis’ court are not the most observant of mortals, Richelieu allows to himself with a small smile, but he himself had had no idea of it.

Treville didn’t spent much time in his company, to be sure. In fact he had surprisingly few intimates for a man in his position. The Comtesse de Larroque – she must know, or at least suspect. The Musketeers? Some of their officers, perhaps. A conclusion strikes him and he nods to himself. Athos must have known. Treville wouldn’t have sent him to La Rochelle unless Treville had felt he could trust Athos with his Musketeers.

Probably all of the troublemakers had known. That would at least explain why d’Artagnan had wasted so little time in astonishment before taking action.

And d’Artagnan had come to Richelieu for help. Richelieu climbs the steps into the palace and has to shake his head. In the final analysis, that may yet prove to be the most astonishing part of this morning’s events.

The Louvre is quiet. There’s no uproar of shocked indignation as Doms shout their protests, no twitter of fans as subs gossip about the news. By this alone Richelieu may conclude that Rochefort’s apparent twenty-four hour moratorium on disclosure of Treville’s status is still being observed. Why the Comte had offered such is an intriguing question. Rochefort is not terribly known for his patience. And to offer Treville the opportunity of a quiet resignation and withdrawal rather than be scandalously exposed is quite out of character. Whenever there are stones to be thrown, Richelieu can usually count on finding Rochefort front and center, holding the first one.

Despite the silence, Richelieu walks quickly and cultivates an air of being preoccupied by matters of state. He has no wish to be drawn into idle conversation. There is something afoot, and he doesn’t yet know what it is: a bad combination, and one he has no wish to advertise.

Louis is in his private chambers. His usual courtiers are absent. Even his favorites appear to be banished. Only the usual attendants are present, and they may as well be furniture; one doesn’t become valet de chambre to the King of France without knowing when to pretend to be as inanimate as the wardrobe. For all intents and purposes, Richelieu finds the King alone with his faithful Captain of the Musketeers.

Richelieu bows and then waits. He doesn’t have to wait long.

“Thank goodness you’re here, Cardinal,” Louis exclaims. “I need your assistance.”

“I am at your Majesty’s service,” Richelieu says warily. He mislikes the King’s authoritative attitude. He hopes Louis hasn’t called him here to lecture Treville or publically shame him. Treville may need to be ruined, but there’s no need to be cruel about it. It will be hard enough for Treville as it is to take up his proper role after so long living unnaturally. Hard enough to regain any credit in society’s eyes after such a deception as this. With no powerful friends to give him their protection, with no accomplishments left to give him honor, with a title so minor as barely to be worth noticing – Treville will have little enough left as it is, and Richelieu sees no advantage in taking away what might remain.

“It’s not my service we need to discuss; it’s Treville’s,” Louis says briskly. “Now, Cardinal, this is going to come as a shock to you – perhaps you’d like to sit down?”

“Thank you, I am fine,” Richelieu says. He readies a look of astonishment.

“He knows already,” Treville says suddenly.

Louis gapes. “Surely – ”

Richelieu is surprised, too: by Treville’s perspicacity. But he rallies quickly. “The Musketeer D’Artagnan has spoken to me,” he admits. “I am already passingly familiar with the situation.”

Louis recovers. “Well, that will make it easier.” He gestures Richelieu to a chair; Treville is already seated. “You’ve no doubt guessed, then, why I’ve called you here.”

“No,” Richelieu has to confess. “No, I do not.”

Treville leans forward and smiles. “You’re going to solve my problem for me.”

A few minutes go by while Treville continues to smile and Richelieu gapes openly. Belatedly Richelieu’s observational skills kick in. Treville isn’t tense or anxious-seeming at all. He’s relaxed in his chair. Calm. Even smug.

Not at all someone who is about to have their life destroyed. On the contrary. Someone who is about to win a dearly sought victory against a deeply hated opponent.

Treville thinks he’s about to win.

It’s Louis who finally tires of the stalemate and puts Richelieu out of his misery. He slaps one hand on the armrest of his chair and announces, “Richelieu, it’s very simple. You’re going to offer Treville your collar.”

When another few moments pass in utter silence, Louis frowns. Adds – ludicrously – “I can promise he’ll accept, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

This piece of absurdity is what finally shakes Richelieu’s thoughts out of limbo and back into motion. “Your Majesty, with all due respect – ”

Treville interrupts him. “The law is quite clear, Cardinal. Uncollared subs may not serve in the military. At least not without permission – which I haven’t got. No one left to give it! And as d’Artagnan no doubt told you, Rochefort is about to publish my dynamic abroad. Ah, but if I produce a collar, he’s suddenly left without a leg to stand on.”

“I – but – ”

“I thought you’d be glad for a chance to put one over on Rochefort, Cardinal,” Louis says briskly. “You and he don’t get along, after all.”

“Well,” Richelieu says faintly. “That’s true, but – ”

“And you’d never pass up the chance to achieve my gratitude.”

“I’m a priest,” Richelieu says desperately. “Ecclesiastical law – ”

“Doesn’t prevent you from taking a sub, I’m assured.”

“But – ” A million protests are jostling behind Richelieu’s tongue, longing to be let out. But the thought that flashes across Richelieu’s mind – the one he would never dream of speaking; the one he denies, even to himself, whenever it disappears – is how painfully, earnestly, and yet futilely he had once hoped to find a submissive who could love him. The thought of collaring anyone else - never mind someone who hates him - is insupportable.

But the silence does Richelieu no favors. Louis straightens in his seat. For a brief, fleeting moment, he looks like the monarch Richelieu has tried so desperately to mold him into.

“This is my will, Richelieu. You will offer Treville your collar, and he will accept, and remain at court at my side.”

Or else, Louis doesn't have to say. Of all the times for the King to remember that he is the law and the power!

Firmly Richelieu shoves the lovesick boy he'd once been back in the small closet in his mind. Freed of his lonely wailings, reason reasserts itself again, and a new thought occurs to Richelieu. He nearly smiles in sheer relief.

“Your Majesty has no doubt forgotten the dating clauses in the law,” Richelieu says as smoothly as he can. “It is not enough for Captain Treville to be collared today. He was uncollared when he received the promotion – indeed, he was uncollared when he enlisted in the armed forces, which is the relevant date under the law. I’m afraid a collar now, whether mine or anyone else’s, would simply not suffice.”

At last Richelieu allows himself to look at Treville, who is looking dismayed. “I am sorry,” he adds, sincere in his compassion.

He may be relieved to have escaped the onerous burden of being forced to collar the Captain, but it’s not entirely an unmixed blessing. Richelieu’s day-to-day life may grow easier without the need to be ever sparring with Treville at court. Yet there will be negative effects from the Captain’s removal from his position. The transfer of power won’t be at all orderly; that always has its issues. Whomever steps into the role – probably Athos – will have no more love for the Cardinal than Treville has had. Less, perhaps, if Treville is injudicious in minding his tongue about today’s little meeting and Athos decides that Richelieu bears some responsibility for Treville’s demotion. Indeed such a position would not be entirely ill-founded; as one of the original drafters of the law, Richelieu had been involved in writing the dating clause that will now prove Treville’s downfall. And that’s all before Richelieu even begins to consider the petulant fit Louis is no doubt going to throw over his friend’s removal from court –

“Why, Cardinal, I’m surprised at you,” Louis says.

Richelieu turns his head slowly, working to conceal his sudden horror. The King doesn’t sound petulant. He sounds gleeful.

Why does the King sound gleeful?

“Your Majesty?” Treville asks after a moment, when it becomes clear that Richelieu isn’t going to get his voice to work anytime soon.

“Let me enjoy this moment,” Louis says, holding up a finger. “It’s not often that I am quicker on the draw in political matters than my First Minister, after all.”

Richelieu’s heart sinks.

“It’s frightfully simple,” Louis says, apparently deciding his moment has gone on long enough. “I’m surprised you didn’t think of it yourself, Cardinal.”

“Your Majesty?” Richelieu manages to say. He’s frantically trying to think of what he’s missed. But the dating clause is ironclad.

“You said it yourself. According to the dating clause, Treville has to have been collared when he’d entered the armed forces. When would that be, Treville?”

“1614, your Majesty,” Treville says promptly.

“When did you first arrive at court, Richelieu?”

He answers, “Sixteen four – oh, your Majesty, you can’t seriously mean – ”

“It must have been a whirlwind courtship,” Louis giggles. “You two must have been absolutely swept off your feet by each other, to have met and decided to formalize your relationship so quickly.”

“Brilliant,” Treville says with a wide smile. “Your Majesty means to suggest that the Cardinal and I have been together the entire time?”

“Thereby rendering your entry into the armed forces and all subsequent promotions completely legal,” Louis says in triumph.

Treville’s smile takes on an edge. “Why, Cardinal, I’ve underestimated you. Do you mean to say that you allowed your bonded sub not only to join the army, but to rise through the ranks, and then to argue with you in open court – you must be quite the subs’ rights activist. I had no idea you had it in you.”

“Neither did I,” Richelieu says through gritted teeth. “Your Majesty, no one will believe it of me.”

“You may have to modify a few of your positions,” Louis says carelessly. “I’m sure you were planning to anyway.”

“Planning – ”

“Surely you weren’t really going to go on preaching all that claptrap about subs needing to stay at home, Richelieu.”

“Yes, Richelieu,” Treville echoes. Now his smile has teeth. “Surely not.”

“Your Majesty has perhaps not considered that I am also a member of the Catholic Church,” Richelieu tries desperately. “The recent Papal Bull on the subject of submissive propriety – ”

“Was a terrible load of hogwash,” Louis says crisply. “Why, it wasn’t even predicated on strong theological grounds. It almost completely contradicts the teachings of Saint Augustine, and if the Jesuits’ new translation of the gospels is to be believed, it comes dangerously close to defying the words of Jesus, too!”

Richelieu feels his jaw drop open without his conscious consent. “Your Majesty… has consulted the works of Saint Augustine… on the topic?”

“Ninon de Larroque has. She was quite irate over that bull, you know, Cardinal. I didn’t quite see why at first. But she has explained the whole thing to me thoroughly. Amazing mind for a sub, you know. I suppose you hadn’t considered Augustine? Now that you know, of course you’ll welcome the chance to speak with Ninon at length, and work on using your influence to adjust the Pope’s position on the matter.”

“The Pope hates me,” Richelieu says before he can think better of it.

“Already spoken to him about it, have you? Good for you, Richelieu. I knew I could count on you.”

“That’s my Dom,” Treville says sweetly, coming close and slipping his arm through Richelieu’s.

Richelieu nearly chokes.

Louis yawns. “Anyway, we’ll be making the announcement tonight, so you have until then to get everything you need in place – talk to your family, and so on. Treville, you’ll need to start actually wearing your collar.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” Treville agrees.

“The Captain doesn’t have a collar,” Richelieu says faintly.

Louis gives him an irritated look. “What on earth do you think I’m giving you until tonight for?”

Richelieu gapes. A proper collar, in eight hours? A collar befitting Richelieu’s rank and Treville’s bloodline? A collar with enough age on it to make it plausible that Treville might have been wearing it in private for almost two decades? A collar practical enough to be worn by a solider and rich enough to be worn by a Comte – no, a Duc, damn Treville’s eyes, if he’s wearing Richelieu’s collar than he shares Richelieu’s precedence – to be made in eight hours

It’s impossible. It’s madness. It’s utterly irrelevant for Richelieu to be thinking of his father’s collar – which meets all of those standards, has been well cared for by Richelieu’s servants all these years, and is conveniently located in the Palais-Cardinal.

It’s beside the point. The point is that Richelieu hasn’t agreed to this, and even if he had, it would never work. Who would believe it? Even if Richelieu weren’t a priest, even if Richelieu were inclined to take a sub for political reasons instead of love, who is going to look at Richelieu and Treville’s history of personal enmity and see a match in that? If they attempt this it will all be for naught. The collaring will be exposed as a fraud, and all that will change is that Richelieu’s political career will be over, too – just in time for him to be recalled to Rome to stand ecclesiastical trial for a host of charges, if Louis’ apparent enthusiasm for legal reform has its way.

“I’m truly glad this has all worked out so well,” Louis says cheerfully.

“And I’m grateful for your Majesty’s consideration,” Treville replies. He turns his head slightly and – oh, for the love of God, is he attempting to gaze up at Richelieu through his eyelashes? It’s not working; he just looks cross-eyed. “And yours, my dear, dear Cardinal.”

“Ulp,” Richelieu replies, thereby living up to his well-deserved reputation for eloquence.

“Congratulations to the both of you,” Louis says with a wide smile. “Now you may go. After all, you have work to do.”

Chapter Text

Jean takes a deep breath as soon as he’s in Richelieu’s carriage. He’d be even more relieved to be in the carriage alone – or nowhere near the carriage at all – but considering the situation as it had stood yesterday afternoon, to be sitting the Cardinal’s carriage with the Cardinal himself represents a considerable improvement. Jean’s entitled to a little relief for that, he thinks, even though he knows the current calm is that before a storm.

Actually, Richelieu had taken the whole thing surprisingly well. He still seems slightly dazed. Under other circumstances that would be something to savor: the First Minister of France, flummoxed. Unfortunately, today Jean needs all the man’s wits about him.

No help for it, he thinks with a sigh. Then he says, “Cardinal?”

No response. Jean frowns. “Richelieu!”

Still nothing. The Cardinal’s gaze remains turned inward, his entire air abstracted with a faint hint of dismay.

Jean grits his teeth. Better get used to it, he tells himself. Still it’s hard to make himself lean forward. Rest a hand on the Cardinal’s boney knee and say, with at least an approximation of a respectful tone, “Armand.”

That has the desired effect. Richelieu’s gaze snaps immediately back into focus, brows lowering, his attention suddenly and entirely focusing on Jean.

“Glad you’re back with me,” Jean says, unable to entirely resist the barb. It’s not often he really scores on the Cardinal – on Richelieu – oh, God damn it all, he’s going to have to get used to it sooner or later. On Armand.

“It doesn’t seem as if there’s anywhere else for me to go,” the other man grinds out.

Despite his best efforts, Jean flinches a little. Automatic, instinctive, the apologetic feeling at having angered another. Jean’s spent a lifetime squashing the instincts he’d been born with. The inclination to give whenever someone else presses. To drop his eyes and bow his head and murmur yes, my lord or lady.

Richelieu has always been one of the hardest to resist. Not all Dominants are created equal. The Cardinal is one of the strongest-willed men in the land. Jean can shrug off most Doms without a blink. Hell, he’d shrugged off Rochefort, when the man had strutted into the garrison yesterday and exerted the full force of his not-inconsiderable will. The look on Rochefort’s face when Treville hadn’t fallen to his knees had been priceless. Jean smiles a little, savoring the memory.

“Well, I’m glad you’re having fun,” the Cardinal says acidly.

Jean blinks, recalled to the presence he’s currently in as the carriage draws to a halt. The door opens from the outside. Through the opening Jean can see they’ve arrived at their destination. The Palais-Cardinal.

Richelieu climbs down from the carriage. Then he turns around and extends a hand. Waiting to assist poor helpless Jean down, in front of God knows how many people.

Jean’s temper flares. “Get that out of my face,” he hisses. “I – ”

“Are no doubt fatigued by the revelations of the day,” Richelieu cuts in smoothly. “Come inside with me, my dear. We shall dine and discuss our evening plans.”

The endearment stuns Jean momentarily. He draws in a breath that shakes for reasons he doesn’t care to examine, and opens his mouth to tell Richelieu exactly where he can stuff his my dears.

Except that Richelieu gets there first. He takes advantage of the moment’s hesitation to seize Jean’s hand and lean forward. Lowering his voice, Richelieu murmurs, “Play your part. Dear.”

Devil take the man, but he’s right. The courtyard is still enough of a public place that a fight between them now would be the worst kind of mistake. If Richelieu hadn’t decided to help Jean out of the carriage like a blushing debutante no one would probably have noticed the lack, but now that he’s started, failing to follow through will cause gossip. The kind that could be fatal.

Jean swallows his anger and humiliation and lets Richelieu help him out of the carriage. He even drops his eyes, the better to conceal the fact that he’s trying to use them to murder Richelieu where he stands. The Cardinal’s hands are smooth and dry, the skin slightly papery, and he doesn’t release Jean’s hand even after Jean is standing on packed dirt. Instead Richelieu tucks it proprietarily under Richelieu’s own and steers them both into the main wing of the Palais-Cardinal.

“Unhand me,” Jean mutters through gritted teeth.

“Smile,” Richelieu admonishes in an equally low tone. “People are watching.”

Jean summons up all of his not inconsiderable willpower to resist telling Richelieu exactly where he can stick his smile. He has to fight back a growl when Richelieu stops their progress across the yard. Jean has to stand there on Richelieu’s arm, smiling, which Richelieu has a low-voiced conversation with the Captain of the Red Guards.

The conversation doesn’t last long, thank God, and then the Captain is jogging away and Richelieu has resumed tugging Jean along. The moment they’re safely indoors and away from prying eyes, Jean plants his heels and yanks his hand back from Richelieu.

“What was that?” he demands.

Richelieu huffs in frustration. Then he grabs Jean’s arm and begins to bodily haul him along the corridor. “My office, dear.”

“Stop calling – ” Jean permits the towing. It’s that, or start a physical fight. Despite it all he’s somehow unwilling to escalate to violence.

Somehow. Yeah. Somehow. Some mysterious reason, which has nothing to do with the fact that Richelieu is, theoretically, Jean’s Dom now.

God help me, he thinks, and doesn’t attempt to conceal from himself that the thought is touched with panic.

Richelieu finally does release Jean once they’ve reached the Cardinal’s office. He drops Jean’s hand as abruptly as he’d taken it and leaves Jean standing in the middle of the expensive carpet while he goes back to close and lock the door.

“Now we can speak privately,” Richelieu says.

“All right,” Jean says carefully. He may not be the grand deceiver, but he can tell when a storm’s brewing around him. Not the kind he’s good at – not the kind with swords and blood. Richelieu’s kind of storm.

The best thing to do, Jean’s found, is to try and defuse it before it starts. It takes a moment, during which time Richelieu is no doubt marshaling his rage, but Jean manages to override enough of his usual controls to alter his body language. Muscles relaxed slightly, stance open and inviting, head slightly tipped to one side. Wrists visible, though Jean draws the line at showing his throat. Appeasement behavior. Jean had learned all the tricks at his mother’s knee, though he doesn’t practice them often, and they no longer come naturally to him unless he’s down. But he remembers the theory well enough. Maybe it will help.

“I have certain expectations for submissives,” Richelieu begins abruptly.

Jean stiffens immediately, all of his good work towards relaxing ruined immediately. “How nice for you. As it happens, I have certain expectations for Dominants.”

“Have you.”


“And I suppose you expect me to live up to them?” Richelieu’s voice drips with disdain.

Jean makes sure his smile shows teeth. “To the exact degree that you expect me to live up to yours.” He waits a precisely calculated beat, then adds, maliciously, “My dear.

He takes a perverse pleasure in watching Richelieu’s expression freeze. Then it transforms, becoming icily remote. Jean recognizes it as the expression Richelieu wears when bargaining with foreign diplomats at the treaty table. It’s an entirely different kind of bland than the face Richelieu wears when interacting with the nobles at Louis’ court, which is still different from the suppressed annoyance that is often visible when Richelieu deals with Louis’ latest folly – or, as the Cardinal is sometimes pleased to term it, Treville’s.

How odd that Richelieu has an expression very nearly reserved for Treville. How much odder to only realize it when it vanishes, and Jean is left facing the blank smooth stare with which the rest of the world must contend.

“You have asked me for a favor,” Richelieu bites out. “An extremely large and extremely personal favor. Surely you had anticipated that there would be – conditions.”

If this is calculated to put Jean’s back up, it’s fulfilling its purpose admirably. “And why should I obey them?” Jean challenges. “What will you do if I don’t? Repudiate me?” He leans back, toying with his sleeve to cover the way his hands shake, a little, at the thought of Richelieu backing out and leaving Treville unprotected. Says, “I wonder what Louis would think of that.”

Richelieu’s expression hardens further. “This is a harebrained scheme concocted on short notice without the necessary planning and background. It requires more than you wearing my collar to be believed. There are a dozen dozen details that need to be attended to. Who is attending to them? Louis? Hardly. Yourself? Would you even know where to begin?”

Jean doesn’t reply. He doesn’t need to. Richelieu knows perfectly well that Jean wouldn’t.

“So you’re relying on me. But mistakes happen,” Richelieu says softly. “Even I make them.”

The threat prickles all over Jean’s skin. He’s been on enough battlefields to listen to the instinct: he’s in danger.

“Once the announcement of our supposed relationship is made, your reputation is at stake, too,” Jean says carefully. “You will pay for mistakes as much as I.”

“Pay for them? Yes. As much as you? That depends entirely on what mistake I make.”

“If you think – ” Jean begins.

Richelieu silences him with a single raised hand and a stern look. Jean wants to speak more – intends to speak more – but the air thickens around him, and his throat closes. Richelieu’s force of will is overwhelming. Jean pushes against it, but it’s like fighting a river: he may make some minor headway, but the water simply flows around him and has its way regardless.

God help me, he thinks again. Jean’s never felt a push this strong. How can anyone stand against it? How is there any opposition to Richelieu in all of France, if he can do this whenever he likes?

“I think that you are the one who requested my help,” Richelieu says. His voice is calm, but Jean’s not fooled: he’s heard Richelieu sound like this before, and knows that there’s anger burning underneath, cold, where no one can see. “Oh, yes, I’m sure you let Louis think the idea was his, but it wasn’t. It was yours. And your campaign was successful. My compliments. I’m involved in this now too. Well, you may have tied your reputation to mine, but I won’t permit you to drag it down in the process.”

Fury is too small a word for the fire burning in Jean’s veins at this dismissive summation of the day’s events. Reputation? Jean’s reputation is at risk? Try his entire life. Try his freedom, his accomplishments, his autonomy –

Richelieu isn’t done. “This deception being revealed would hurt me, but it is possible for you to behave in such a way that keeping the deception would be even more damaging. I will not permit that. I am a dutiful servant of the King’s will – ”

Jean badly wants to snort, but the sound won’t come. His breath catches in his throat instead, frustrated and mute.

“ – but there is a line, and you would do well not to cross it.”

Richelieu pauses, waiting for an answer. Jean grits his teeth. He doesn’t trust himself to speak, even if he could get words out around the continuing pressure of Richelieu’s will. If he speaks he might tell Richelieu exactly what he can do with his expectations. That would be satisfying for the moment – but then the moment would pass, and Jean would have destroyed his only chance of escaping Rochefort’s trap.

Jean still doesn’t know what Rochefort’s real goal is. This had started when Rochefort had attempted to weasel his way into the King’s good graces and been blocked by Jean’s Musketeers, but that offense hardly seems to merit the dedication with which Rochefort had devoted himself to uncovering Jean’s secrets.

Whatever his reasoning, though, Rochefort had set out to ruin Jean. And he’d come within a hair’s breadth of succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. When he’d strolled into the garrison and dropped the secret of Jean’s dynamic like a bomb, it had been hard to tell who had been more surprised. As to who had been more horrified, there’s no contest.

Jean hadn’t hated his dynamic as a child. That had come later. But the hatred is in his bones now, and it’s only fed by the knowledge of what would happen to him now if he were outed without a Dom to claim him. Richelieu’s threat of a carefully calculated mistake is all too potent. Jean knows it. And Richelieu knows he knows it.

Trust Richelieu to find a way to set conditions on his compliance with a royal decree.

Jean grits his teeth – but nods.

“Then if we are understood, let us state our mutual expectations of each other, so that our positions are quite clear.” Richelieu goes around to his desk and sets himself. With an autocratic gesture he waves to the chair placed across from it.

Jean sinks into the provided chair without comment. Any quip about the gracious Dom giving him permission to sit would no doubt be met with equally pointed permission to kneel instead, if Treville prefers it. As he most certainly does not, that verbal exchange would end in defeat for Jean, so he chooses not to essay it.

Instead Jean jumps into the conversation, seizing the high ground of having spoken first. “You will make no stipulation of any kind that prevents me from executing my commission as Captain of the Musketeers.” His commission – his rank – it’s the only thing he has left, really. He’d built it with his own hands. It matters more to him than his title or his dynamic or his place in society. As long as he can keep it, he can keep hold of himself.

And triumph over Rochefort. Call it petty, but Jean still finds he cares about that.

“Anything else?” Richelieu inquires, deceptively calm.

“You will not presume on my – my person. In any way.” Jean has to stop to swallow. “Beyond that – ” Jean would prefer to cut off his own tongue rather than speak his next words, but what he wants has had very little to do with the past twenty-four hours. “Beyond that, I will defer to you.”

“Those are your stipulations.”

“Yes,” Jean says. He tilts his chin up and meets Richelieu’s gaze firmly. No doubt Richelieu, were he to find himself in Jean’s position, would have a dozen requirements. All neatly laid out, as airtight and comprehensive as any procurator could wish. Jean has only his own wits, and he knows where they’re lacking. He usually makes up for it by relying on the honor of those with whom he deals.

“Then I will state mine,” Richelieu says.

There are times, Jean reminds himself hopefully, when Richelieu behaves very honorably indeed.

“Go on.”

Richelieu smiles without warmth. “I understand that you have duties – duties that the King wishes for you to continue performing. Naturally I would never gainsay his Majesty. But there may have to be adjustments, to account for your dynamic.”

“I can’t think of any,” Jean says, somewhat disingenuously.

“A failure of imagination, then, for I most certainly can.”

Jean sighs. “I am listening.”

“I will not attempt to restrict your movements within Paris. However, I will expect you to sleep in the Palais-Cardinal every night unless there has been a prior arrangement. And you will consult with me before traveling outside of Paris. I will be reasonable,” Richelieu adds. “I know that you often conduct training in the King’s forest.”

Reasonable. Jean resists the urge to press his lips together and reminds himself that it could be worse. Once Jean wears his collar, Richelieu could forbid Jean to stir outside the Palais-Cardinal, if he really wanted to. And Jean couldn’t say a word. Legally and socially he’d be bound.

But Jean is no longer the younger son of a country noble, without resource or recourse. If Richelieu does decide to become – in his parlance – unreasonable, Jean can always appeal to the King. And for the moment, it’s in his best interests to appear complaisant.

So Jean nods. And Richelieu, satisfied, continues. “As to your dress, I make no stipulations about soldiering gear, but at formal events you will dress as befits your dynamic. Beginning with tonight’s announcement.”

Showy, that means. Flashy. Lace and ruffles. Loose waists and low collars. Brighter colors. Exactly the sort of thing Jean had always hated when his mother had forced him into it as a child. Oh, Richelieu’s got better taste than that – not to mention he’s rich enough that his tailor won’t have to make do with last year’s silks and grandmother’s lace, the way Lady Treville had had to do. Anything Jean wears at these events will be the height of fashion, impeccably made, tasteful and refined. And no less confining for it.

Wait. Beginning tonight, Richelieu had said, no doubt meaning the formal court appearance that will announce their partnership to the world. There’s just one problem.

“I haven’t got anything like that,” Jean says brightly.

His fun is dented somewhat when Richelieu’s calm air doesn’t waver. “I didn’t imagine you had. Even if you did, I doubt it would have been suitable.”

That stings Jean’s pride. “We can’t all have three lucrative positions each bringing in the millions,” Jean snaps. “My estate won’t support your notion of proper dress.”

“Your old estate may not have. Your new estate will. You’re not a backwater noble anymore whose rank is more important than his title. You’re a Duc. And you’ll have to dress like one.”

“Oh,” Jean says blankly. He’s gotten so used to ignoring his irrelevant title that he’d forgotten that there are people for whom their title, not their rank or their place at the King’s side, is their primary claim to status. Not that that’s true in Richelieu's case – he’s Louis’ First Minister first, and a Cardinal second (or is that the other way around?) and a Duc a very distant third. But a Duc is still higher than either a Captain or a Comte, and once Jean appears in public with Richelieu’s collar around his neck, Duc – not Captain – will be Jean’s proper title.

Jean wants to say that that doesn’t matter – won’t matter. But he knows better. Dress does matter. Precedence matters. Power matters.

Richelieu adds, “My tailor is coming to knock something together for tonight. Then there will be time for a new wardrobe.”

“Nothing too complicated,” Jean says resignedly.

Richelieu raises an eyebrow. “Fashion is generally complicated.”

“I won’t know what to do with it. I’ll hardly make a good impression if I trip.”

“Hmm. A fair point. Tell the tailor to start plainly, for now.”

“To stay plain,” Jean stipulates. “Even if I’m at a party on your leash, I’m still the King’s protector.”

Richelieu tilts his head. “I will consider it.”

“Consider – ” Jean snaps his mouth shut before he can say something impolitic.

Richelieu will consider it. Because from now on, Jean’s preferences are something to be either indulged or dismissed. They have no value on their own.

Stupid, Jean tells himself. Castigates himself, because otherwise the traitorous feelings choking his throat will well up farther and become curses. What did you expect? This is how Dominants are, this is how they always are, or have you forgotten what hides beneath the pretty promises?

“Next. Your behavior – rather, your etiquette – will have to adjust to match your declared dynamic.” Richelieu begins ticking off points. “You will be chaperoned at all times.”

The image of a Red Guard following Jean everywhere pops into Jean’s mind. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Jean tries to imagine what his Musketeers will do to such a chaperone. Poor Guard.

“Perhaps you have not considered the effect of a chaperone when I am on the King’s business?” Jean suggests, as delicately as he can.

Richelieu frowns. “You mean that they would need to take care of themselves?”

“I mean that soldiering and chaperones rarely mix.”

“Your own troop would seem to give the lie to that. How many missions do you send young d’Artagnan on without Athos by his side?”

Low blow. But Jean’s not out of ideas yet. “Are you saying you will accompany me into the field?”

Distaste makes itself plain on Richelieu’s face. “Propriety doesn’t demand that I chaperone you at all times.”

“Propriety, perhaps not. Practicality? I guarantee you, anyone in a red cloak is going to have a hard time of it, if you insist they follow me back to the garrison.”

From Richelieu’s slight wince, quickly recovered from, Jean deduces that his point has been made. He smiles.

“Athos,” Richelieu says suddenly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Your second in command, Athos. Or perhaps I should call him by his title?”

“And what of it?”

“It’s unorthodox, but most would agree that the Comte de la Fère is an acceptable chaperone.”

“You want me to be chaperoned by my own second in command,” Jean says slowly.

“Well, you had issues with my first idea.”

Jean lets his breath out slowly. “The chain of command must be inviolable.”

Richelieu waves a hand. “If a servant may be a chaperone, then why not a subordinate?”

Jean has to admit this is a fair point. “As long as you understand that. You’re concerned about propriety – ”

“Yes, yes, and you’re concerned about practicality. This will hardly be the first time I’ve done something just for show.”

Another fair point. Jean inclines his head in acceptance. “Fine. Athos it is.”

“When you’re on the King’s business. The rest of the time, it will have to be someone from my – from our household.”

Richelieu clearly has no idea how little time Jean spends out of uniform. “Agreed.”

Or perhaps Richelieu does, because he adds, “There will be more of that than you’re used to. I know better than to expect you to engage in politics, but I am a politician, and once our relationship becomes widely known you will need to attend events at my side.”

“It can’t interfere with my duties,” Jean says at once.

“If you’re on campaign, no one will dispute your absence. But if you’re in Paris – ”

“I’ve scheduled practices.”


“Whenever your parties are scheduled.”

“Treville,” Richelieu says, exasperated. “You are trying to hold on to your position. Grant that I may be trying to do the same! You are not the only one who are taking on obligations here!”

“And one of these obligations is to show me off at fancy parties?”


“In God’s name, why?”

Richelieu huffs. “For the same reason that people don fancy clothes and expensive jewels and serve fine wine! Because – ”

“Because a bonded sub is yet another kind of status symbol!” Jean yells. “And you want to reduce me to that!”

“It’s the way things are,” Richelieu says sternly.

Jean folds his arms across his chest and doesn’t care that it makes him look petulant. “And why on earth is that a reason that they should continue to be that way?”

“What would you have it replaced with? Chaos?”

Richelieu sounds horrified. Jean has to fight down the wholly inappropriate urge to laugh. “Change and chaos don’t have to be the same thing,” Jean says, gentle in spite of himself.

“They always have been,” Richelieu says.

“And so they always will be?”


Jean doesn’t have to fight the urge to laugh anymore. Richelieu’s argument is circular, but he doesn’t see it, and it doesn’t help that he thinks he’s trying to do the right thing. Jean’s spent his whole life navigating a world filled with Doms like Richelieu. The truly prejudiced ones are easier to deal with, in comparison. There’s no one so stubborn as someone who believes themselves to be morally righteous.

And isn’t that Richelieu in a nutshell.

“Jean,” Richelieu says.

Jean looks up, unwilling, but unable to resist when Richelieu – when Armand calls Jean by his Christian name, in that peculiar tone of voice that means that the mighty Cardinal is swallowing his pride.

“What?” Jean says after a moment.

“Being Captain of the Musketeers is important to you, isn’t it?”

“Very much so.”

“You want to keep doing it.”


“You want, in fact, for me to interfere with your life as little as possible.”

“I know that’s not – ”

Richelieu raises a hand. “I speak here not of what’s fair,” he says. “Nor of what price I could charge you for my collar and my protection. I’m asking you: if you could, you’d have me give it to you gratis, and in all other ways behave as if nothing has changed.”

As if nothing has changed. Rochefort wouldn’t let them, but – “If it were possible – yes, that’s what I’d want.”

“Being Captain is important to you,” Richelieu repeats.

“Yes,” Jean agrees for the second time.

Richelieu spreads hands. “Being First Minister is important to me,” he says simply. “France, its people, and its King – they are my Musketeers.”

“Oh,” Jean says softly.

“If I could, I’d spend all of my time in France’s service,” Richelieu says. “…well. France’s and God’s. Unfortunately, in order to have the power to effect change, I must play a certain game. Giving you my collar changes the rules of that game. Unavoidably. And under the new rules, you have a part to play, too.”

“And if I don’t play it, your position is damaged,” Jean says in resigned understanding.

Richelieu nods. “Just as your position would be damaged if I didn’t agree to Athos as a suitable chaperone.”

Jean sighs.

He doesn’t like it. In fact, he hates it. There’s no world in which this is fair; no world in which the sacrifices Richelieu is asking of Jean are equal to the sacrifices Richelieu is making for Jean. But if the world were fair none of this would be necessary. And Jean needs Richelieu. Needs his collar and his protection.

Jean thinks again of finding someone who will require less. Someone for whom the chance to be a Comte or Comtesse would tempt them to agree that Jean might do whatever he pleases. There are a dozen landless nobles for whom Troisville and its environs would mean comparative wealth. For whom Jean’s connections might mean wealthy trades for Dominant children and good matches for submissive ones. For whom attendance at court, as Jean’s collar-mate, would be the zenith of hope and daring dream.

And not one of those nobles could possibly stand up to the pressure that Rochefort will bring to bear, as soon as he hears that Jean has slipped the trap and found salvation elsewhere.

Jean hadn’t come to Richelieu for a collar because Jean had thought Richelieu would be reasonable about this. He’d done it because Richelieu is the most powerful man in France, not even saving His Majesty. It had to be he: no one else would have done. No one else could outmaneuver Rochefort. No one else has both the titular precedence and the real power to make it stick. It had to be he.

It had to be he, Jean tells himself, and tries to pretend the feeling behind those words isn’t despair.

“I’ll go,” Jean whispers. The words stick in his throat, but he gets them out nonetheless.

“You will need to adopt submissive etiquette at these events, as well.”

Jean nods woodenly.

“You are familiar with – ”

“I was raised according to my dynamic,” Jean manages to say. “I didn’t start passing until I was – older.” Jean has to stop and catch his breath against the memories; Richelieu at least has the decency to pretend he doesn’t notice. For that, Jean swallows back the curses he wants to hurl and says, instead, “I know how to act in polite company. I won’t –” The next word catches in his throat. He forces it out. “ – shame you.”

“I never thought you would,” Richelieu says. It sounds reflexive; it sounds diplomatic. It sounds like a lie.

Jean doesn’t even bother trying to respond. The silence stretches, grows uncomfortable.

Let it.

Some part of Jean whispers that he’s being unfair; that what Richelieu is requesting of him is small compared to what he could demand, and that he seems to be trying, however clumsily, to make the best of a situation that is favorable to neither of them. Jean ignores that voice. He’s done making allowances for Doms. He’d been done with that the day he’d left Troisville.

And he wants to know what Richelieu will say or do next.

Unfortunately, no one else is privy to Jean’s wish. Which no doubt explains the knock on the door that comes to rescue Richelieu just as the silence grows truly painful.

Richelieu doesn’t bother to disguise his relief. “Yes?” he calls.

The door opens; the Captain of the Red Guards enters. “I’ve started the wheels turning,” he reports.

“Thank you, Jussac,” Richelieu says.

“What wheels?” Jean demands.

The Captain – Jussac – raises an eyebrow. “We’re going to have to pretend you’ve been sneaking in and out of here for the last fourteen years,” he says to Jean. “Sneaking is the operative word, so we don’t need every scullery-maid to be in on the ruse, but there will have to be some corroboration. I’ve been arranging it.”

You’ve been arranging it?”

Richelieu bristles slightly. Jussac just shrugs, apparently unfazed by Jean’s tone. “Yes.”

“You’re the Captain of his Guards, not his – his sidekick!”

Jussac shrugs again. “It comes out much the same.” He cuts an amused gaze sideways. “Sometimes I’m his nursemaid.”

“Yes, thank you, Jussac,” Richelieu says hastily. “Anything else?”

“Tailor’s here.”

“Excellent!” Richelieu brightens. Jean views this with a dim eye, but Richelieu’s enthusiasm remains as he turns to Jean. “You should go see him now. The more time he has to put something together for tonight’s announcement the better it will look. We can resume this conversation later.”

That chance for escape explains Richelieu’s relief. Jean finds that he shares it. They’ve nowhere near covered everything that needs to be arranged between them, but he’s suddenly desperate for a break. They can talk again after Jean is fitted.

“Shall we?” Jussac indicates the door. “There are a few things I should – er – update you on, with regard to the household, as well.”

“Robert,” Richelieu sighs.

Jean turns, confused, until a set of significant looks between Richelieu and Jussac tips Jean off that Robert must be the latter’s Christian name.

That’s interesting. A new idea strikes Jean, and he studies the Guardsman more carefully. What’s Jussac’s dynamic? Richelieu hasn’t revealed what methods he relies on to vent his Dominant instincts. There have been contract subs in the past, Jean knows. But the last one he can recall had been a year ago or more. That’s a long time to go without relief. Perhaps Richelieu had looked closer to home after the dissolution of his last contract.

Not that it matters. Richelieu is free to look where he likes to slake his needs. He had certainly better not look to Jean; collar or no collar, Jean is off limits, as he’s made clear. And Richelieu can’t possibly desire Jean, any more than Jean can desire Richelieu. If Richelieu has a lover in his household that will only simplify matters. And it would be the height of absurdity for Jean to make any sort of fuss over that. To the contrary. Jean must be sure to establish from the start that this is a collaring of convenience only. That neither of them have any claim on the other. That if Richelieu wishes to bed his lovers in the chambers next to Jean’s, on the other side of the inevitable connecting door, that that is right and natural and none of Jean’s business – just as the reverse will be.

“Where’s the tailor?” Jean asks abruptly, trying to stop that train of thought in its tracks.

“Your chambers,” Jussac answers. “I’ll escort you there.”

Annoyance flares again. “I don’t need an escort.”

“Do you know where you’re going?” Richelieu inquires.

Jean bites his lip stubbornly, but has to shake his head.

“I misspoke; excuse me,” Jussac says placidly. “I meant to say, I’ll show you the way.”

Richelieu raises an eyebrow at Jean. Jean’s duty – not to mention Richelieu’s expectations – are quite clear. And the longer Jean goes on standing here, the less he looks like someone occupying the moral high ground and the more he looks like a petulant child.

“Thank you, Jussac,” Jean says grudgingly.

“An escort is part of your station,” Richelieu says.

“You mean part of my dynamic.” Jean tries to keep the bitterness out of his voice and fails. “But even the most proper sub doesn’t need an escort in their home.” Which this is supposed to be, now. Servants, gilding, overbearing Dom and all.

“In public,” Richelieu begins.

Jussac is the one who jumps in to cut Richelieu off. “We all know that public and private are two different things. We should go, Jean. The tailor?”

“Yes, I’m coming.” Jean makes a token effort to hide that he’s hurrying towards the door; Richelieu no doubt catches it regardless, but Jean can’t make himself slow down. He’s too eager to get away from a conversation that keeps veering into dangerous territory.

“I’ll see you after you’re done,” Richelieu says. “We need to sort out a few more details before tonight.”

“Right, right.” Jean nods agreement. “Absolutely.”

“This way,” Jussac says, gesturing down the corridor.

“And – ” Richelieu begins.

Jussac gives Richelieu a look. It’s the same sort of look Athos gives Treville when Treville’s about to put his foot in it again; there’s something comforting about seeing that Treville isn’t the only one cursed – or blessed – with subordinates who are sometimes too smart for their own good.

“Later,” Richelieu sighs.

“Later,” Jussac agrees, and closes the door behind Jean.

Chapter Text

Jussac closes the door to Richelieu’s office, then turns to incline his head and gesture down the corridor. “This way, my Lord.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me that,” Jean says as they start off. “I’ll get enough of that at the society parties I’m about to get dragged to.”

“I could call you Richelieu,” Jussac says wryly. “But I think that would get confusing.”

“Just call me Treville.”

Jussac doesn’t say anything in response to this, but from one old soldier to another, his sudden silence speaks louder than words. Jean sighs. “What?”

“You know that’s not your estate anymore,” Jussac says bluntly. “The estate goes to Richelieu. Now, I don’t care a sou what name you want to use around here, and I’m sure the Cardinal will call you whatever you like in private. But in public you’ll be addressed by his title, and you’ve got to at least respond to it.”

Jean presses his lips together. He knows the facts of inheritance and collaring law as well as any noble. He’d been raised with them. Raised to expect that one day he’d accept some noble’s collar and become their sub, take on their precedence and their title just as his older brother would inherit Troisville and find himself a nice sub of his own.

For a while it had even seemed as if real life would conform to those comfortable notions. The engagements had been contracted to the son and daughter of a merchant family, whose wealth would prop up the faltering Troisville farms and pay off Jean’s older brother’s unwisely contracted debts. Jean’s parents had never cared overmuch about bloodline; they’d only wanted their children to be happy. Jean’s brother had certainly seemed happy. His limited ambitions had never stretched beyond having enough money to indulge his vices and a docile sub obedient to his every whim. And Jean –

Joseph had seemed so wonderful, at least at first.

But all of that had changed. And among the whole tragic, sordid mess, the person who had emerged on the other side had borne very little resemblance to the youth who’d been before. The boy Jean had expected to change his name when he took a collar. The older Treville had expected to grow old alone, and believed that his name would be the only thing that would survive of him.

“I don’t want his name,” Jean says roughly. “I don’t want anything from him.”

“You want his protection. You must have known there would be a price.”

“What do you care?” Jean knows he sounds snappish, but can’t bring himself to moderate his tone.

“I don’t know what skewed version of events you see from your Musketeers’ garrison, but Richelieu is a good man – ”

Jean can’t help it. He laughs. It feels good to laugh, to forget the events of the past twenty-four hours in a moment of honest mirth. He doesn’t try to rein himself in. As a result the laugh goes a little longer than is entirely polite, and Jussac’s look of tolerant displeasure has morphed to outright hostility by the time Jean’s done.

“He is,” Jussac repeats, angry now. “I don’t care what fairy tale you live in; this is the real world. You and he have the same goals if only you’d see it. But if you’d rather be stubborn, be my guest. As long as the only one you hurt is yourself. If you start hurting Richelieu – ”

Jean’s suspicions flare up again. “What’s it to you?” he demands, stopping in the middle of the corridor and turning on Jussac. “Our domestic disputes are no problem of yours.”

“If you are capable of keeping your disputes domestic than it is indeed no concern of mine,” Jussac says tightly. “If it begins to spill out, then it threatens more than just yourself and he.”

“What are you so worried about?” Jean laughs again; this time it’s much darker and bitter-sounding. “The great Cardinal has nothing to fear from me. It’s quite the other way around.”

Jussac makes a noise of disgust. But he doesn’t say anything else. He escorts Jean the rest of the way in stony silence. Outside an ornate set of doors, he knocks briskly, then offers an elegant bow.

“Good day, my lord Duc,” Jussac says, with perfectly correct malice.

Jean’s temper flares, and he opens his mouth to say something cutting. He’s prevented from doing so by the door opening. Under the curious eyes of a maid, Jean swallows his retort. Instead he makes an insultingly dismissive gesture and watches in satisfaction as Jussac’s eyes narrow.

The Guardsman doesn’t retort, though. He simply turns on one heel and leaves.

“My lord?” the maid says tentatively, when Jean simply watches Jussac retreat and makes no move to enter.

“Yes,” Jean says distractedly. He tears his attention away and gives it to the maid. “Yes, um – ”

“Sally,” she whispers in an undertone, darting a glance inside the room where, presumably, the tailor is waiting. “Came to Paris in 1620. Started in the kitchens then was promoted to maid. Started waiting on you in 1622. I have Thursdays off. Usually I go visit my sister and her kids. She’s a mercer’s wife. My nephew is Henri and my nieces are Agathe and Charlotte. All under ten. Do you have that? We can fill in more detail later.”

“I – yes,” Jean stammers. The rapid delivery of information temporarily stuns him, as does Sally’s calm, cool-headed delivery of it. He should have known that even Richelieu’s maids would be ruthlessly competent. But being faced with the proof of it takes Jean aback.

Belatedly it hits him that Sally will need to know something about Jean, too. “I – ”

“Jussac gave me the bare bones,” Sally interrupts, still in an undertone. Then she steps back and raises her voice. “Good afternoon, m’lord. The tailor is here, as you commanded.”

“Ah.” Jean manages to hang onto his composure, at least enough to step into the room like he owns it – or, well, at least like he’s not a country cousin visiting his relatives in town for the first time. He even manages not to flinch when Sally curtsies as he enters. At least she hadn’t gone completely to her knees. If she’s supposedly been his maid since 1622, there’d certainly be enough history between them that he’d have long ago told her that the more informal curtsey would suffice.

Though – Jean affects a tone of exasperated familiarity, and says, “Sally, how many times must I tell you to call me Jean?”

She laughs back at him, picking up the cue easily. “At least once more, m’lord, as always. You know how the master insists.”

That puts a sour note back into Jean’s spirit, but he manages to convert it to a long-suffering sigh that hopefully at least counterfeits fondness. “Yes, I know.”

“My lord?” The tailor has turned from where he’d been arranging his samples and comes forward, claiming Jean’s attention. There’s a faint sense of Dominance in his aura, but it’s almost entirely effaced by his respectful demeanor, and the bow he offers Jean is a marvel of precision. It acknowledges their relative dynamics, titles and social classes in equal measure. It also tells Jean at once that this man is not part of Richelieu’s household. Jean had assumed that Richelieu would keep a personal tailor. But this man is clearly an outsider to the household’s dynamics, which further explains why Sally had made sure to intercept Jean at the door and give him his cues.

This allows Jean to turn towards the man with a raised eyebrow. If the man maintains a practice independent of Richelieu, there’s no reason for he and Jean to have ever interacted before; most tailors specialize in one dynamic’s fashions or the other, and few noble couples patronize the same tradesmen unless they serve the household only. Jean acknowledges the bow he’s received with a tilt of his head, and says, “Monsieur…?”

“Lefavre.” The tailor bows again. “I understand that my Lord needs something for tonight?”

“That’s correct.” Jean finds a small smile and a wave that says what can you do. “Will you be able to accommodate that, Monsieur Lefavre?”

“Short turnarounds are my specialty!” Lefavre assures Jean effusively. “If Monsieur will just step to the center of the room, where I have adjusted the light… so. Yes. I often help nobles in just such your position, my lord. Last-minute needs. I have a wide array of partly-made pieces, which can be fitted and altered on short notice. We have only to select the one you like best!”

Jean’s heart, which had temporarily stopped beating at the words nobles in just such your position, resumes its normal pace. He nods with some semblance of grace. “Then let me see your wares.”

With Sally seated decorously in a corner of the room with a workbasket, Lefavre whisks Jean through a breathless series of outfits, each more awful than the last. Jean puts his foot down firmly against any kind of lace, to Lefavre’s visible dismay, but suffers the man to thread ribbons around the hems of a loose-fitting tunic. The sleeves end above Jean’s wrists, which will keep them out of his way if he needs to draw his sword, though they billow somewhat awkwardly.

“The height of fashion, my Lord,” Lefavre assures Jean, tucking and pinning as he goes. “And the neckline is so dramatic.”

Dramatic is one word for it. Scandalously low, Lady Treville would have said. All Jean’s childhood clothes had been high-necked. But that had been the proper style for an uncollared sub. Now Jean’s formal clothes will all be cut lower, the better to show off Richelieu’s collar.

Which doesn’t actually exist. Damn. Hopefully someone is attending to that.

Richelieu’s probably handed the task off to Jussac. One part of Jean is angry about that, but the other part is nursing a quiet sense of shame. While Jean may not agree with Jussac’s ludicrous assertion that the Cardinal is a good man, there had really been no need for Jean to insult Jussac so obviously over it. As the afternoon progresses, Jean curses himself more frequently for his stupidity in making an enemy of Jussac. Not that the two of them were ever going to be friends – Musketeers and Red Guards aren’t friends – but this would be a lot easier if Jean had some of the household on his side.

Jean knows how to behave as a member of a noble household. Honestly, he does. He’d been brought up to it, and he remembers its rhythms, the way power distributes between Master and servant, Dominant and submissive. Troisville hadn’t had its own guard corps, so there had been no one in Jean’s youth who had filled Jussac’s shoes, but he needs no imagination to guess how the role would slot in to the power structures with which he’s familiar. In the court of King Louis XIII, Jean plays the same role. And – Richelieu’s frequent allegations to the contrary – Jean knows exactly what his power is at court, and how it can be used.

Jussac would never have wavered in his primary allegiance to Richelieu, but he’d been extending the hand of friendship, and Jean had missed that. Had picked a fight with him instead, as an outlet for all of the emotions that Richelieu had stirred up that Jean had been unable to vent directly on the Cardinal.

And now Jussac will probably be picking out the collar Jean will have to wear and appear to cherish at every formal gathering for the rest of his life. Jean will be well served if it’s a huge clunking ugly thing with heavy metal embellishments. Ugh.

“There,” Lefavre says at last, tying off the last thread and nodding in satisfaction. “Would my Lord care to look in the mirror?”

Sally comes to her feet and goes to adjust the standing mirror, drawing Jean’s eye and saving him from having to betray that he doesn’t know where the mirror is. Thanks to her assistance Jean can stride over to it with every appearance of habit and look himself up and down.

Very nice,” she approves. “Didn’t I tell you that you’d look well in that red?”

Lefavre looks up from where he’s adjusting a hem, surprised. “Does my Lord not usually wear red?”

Jean doesn’t know how to answer that; fortunately, Sally is more than happy to jump in, with the gossipy tone some servants adopt between themselves. “Blue, blue and more blue, that’s what he likes! Light blue in the morning, dark blue at dinner. Even the nightclothes – that is – begging your pardon, m’lord;” (this to Jean) – “I forget my place.”

Jean would bet any amount of money that she’s done nothing of the sort, and that the apparent slip is deliberate. It’s somewhat terrifying to watch Sally work, as she giggles and tilts the mirror further and appears not to have a thought in her mind beyond silks and ribbons. Certainly Jean had never thought Richelieu would employ fools, but to find this degree of cleverness in his maidservants is disquieting. It makes Jean wonder how many of Jean’s supposed victories at court have actually been the Cardinal manipulating Jean in his turn. Had Jean ever succeeded in reining Richelieu in, in restraining him from doing something he’d wanted to do? Or had Richelieu already taken the decision to hold back, and simply let Jean believe what he’d wanted to believe?

He’s a good man.

“What do you think, my lord?” Lefavre says to Jean.

Jean nearly starts, before he realizes that the tailor is asking for Jean’s opinion on the clothes, not on Richelieu. “Very nice,” Jean says automatically. “Very – ” he catches sight of himself in the mirror, and his voice slows. “Very… good.”

Jean hasn’t worn submissive fashions in almost two decades. Actually, he hasn’t worn any fashions in almost two decades. His uniform had always served for any public appearances he’d needed to make. In his private life a shirt and trousers had been all that he’d ever felt necessary. Between the evolution in fashion from Jean’s youth to the present, and the usual differences between a child’s attire and a collared adult’s, Jean finds himself looking at himself in the mirror almost for the first time.

He looks good. The hose are closely fitted, but thanks to the long drop of the tunic don’t show anything that would make Jean blush. No one’s going to be looking at his legs anyway. Not with the way the low neck exposes his shoulders. And the colors –

“You know, Sally, I think you’re right about that red,” Jean manages to say.

She smiles comfortably. “Of course, m’lord. Shall I reinstate that order than?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” Mostly because there is no order. Not yet.

“As m’lord wishes.”

“My Lord, that does put me in mind, if it’s not too forward…” Lefavre waits for Jean’s gesture to continue. “To have found yourself in a position where you need clothes on short notice… I specialize in such things, as I have said. And I often find that it comes about through a dissatisfaction with the old tailor. Perhaps you find yourself in such a position? If so, my lord, I may say, without I hope undue immodesty, that others of your dynamic have been very happy with my services.”

“Hmm,” Jean says noncommittally. Lefavre’s apparently trying to break into the submissive market and sees this as an opportunity. Jean supposes that it is at that. To think, this is what Jean’s reduced to: the first decision he’s called upon to make as Richelieu’s sub is choosing a tailor.

“You’re going to have to do something, m’lord,” Sally interjects. “Why the wardrobe’s half bare, with the way you’ve been neglecting it, that’s what.”

“Half bare,” Lefavre repeats in a tone of wonder. Jean can almost see the pistoles piling up behind the man’s eyes.

“Right now my concern is with this garment,” Jean says, more firmly. “Have it ready for tonight. Tomorrow will take care of itself.”

“Yes, my lord,” the tailor says. “If you would slip your arm out here…”

With his help and Sally’s, Jean manages to get out of the clothes without tearing any of the hastily done seams or sending any pins flying. He breathes a sigh of relief once he’s back in his old, familiar clothing, though the sideways look Lefavre gives it is enough to send tension back up Jean’s spine.

“When will it be ready?” Sally asks, helping Lefavre fold up the excess cloth and pack it away into his hampers.

“Two hours,” Lefavre promises. “I’ll bring it back myself.”

“Thank you for your help.” Sally tugs the door open and smiles sweetly.

Her meaning’s unmistakable, and Lefavre takes the hint, though he casts a glance longingly at Jean’s wardrobe as he goes – the one that is supposedly half empty. It’s probably actually completely empty, unless any of Richelieu’s previous contract subs had left clothing behind. Which is unlikely in the first place – clothing is money – and irrelevant in the second place. Jean has no intention of wearing the castoffs of another sub. They’d have dressed to entice. Jean needs to be able to move about in a fight or wield a sword. And he’s certainly no interest whatsoever in enticement.

Sally helps Lefavre out the door. She lingers outside the room long enough to talk to another passing maid. When she comes back in her air is satisfied. “They’ve just got the bathwater hot,” she says cheerfully to Jean. “You can have a soak and then we’ll see what we can do about your hair.”

Jean touches his close-cropped cut self-consciously and sighs. At least the bath sounds nice.

Sally remains while he soaks, as is (Jean sighs) only proper, and keeps up a gentle flow of talk that somehow keeps the room from feeling as empty and cavernous as it would otherwise. Jean’s never seen much of Richelieu’s private dwelling, but if all the rooms are built on the same scale as the chambers given over to Jean’s use, they’ll be enormous. He’s glad Sally is here, suddenly; such ostentatious displays of wealth make him uncomfortable. And her chatter is soothing.

Soothing and informative. Jean tunes it out at first, thinking it to be only idle gossip. And it is; but that gossip, Jean slowly realizes, is concealing vital information. Jean has supposedly been part of this household for two decades. As Jussac had said, every scullery-maid in the Palais-Cardinal won’t have been in on the secret. But there will still have been a circle of trusted retainers who should have been familiar to Jean. With whose concerns Jean should be acquainted. Over whom Jean should have been exercising Richelieu’s authority, for the entire time this secret relationship has supposedly been carrying on.

Jean needs to know that Cook’s third daughter’s oldest has made a good match – finally, after having been much despaired of – and that Cook’s new daughter-in-law has agreed to take on her second daughter’s middle son as an apprentice. He needs to learn the names of this bewildering array of children. Their dynamics. Their aspirations. One of Jean’s duties as the keeper of the house is to manage such concerns. To make the right connections and talk to the right people so that Sally’s sister’s daughters are well settled, the head groom’s son gets proper treatment for his chronic condition, and the butler’s aging mother’s pension is adequate to her upkeep.

As Jean moves from the tub to the vanity, wrapped in a dressing-gown that he supposes is his now by default, his childhood lessons and habits start to come back to him. He finds himself asking for more information about the head groom’s son’s illness and making a mental note to ask the Musketeers' physician, Doctor Lemay, to stop by. Thinking of the newest orphan to arrive from the countryside in search of a commission with no Dom to sign for him, and wondering if Cook’s second daughter’s youngest might be a suitable match. She’d had an ill-advised fling with a merchant’s son, Sally says, and needs someone to give the babe legitimacy.

“But who wants an undercook’s collar?” Sally sighs, shaking her head even as she does something deft with kohl that Jean, his eyes closed, can’t see. “Of course, the master would add to her wages, but money’s not the concern.” The undercooks live on site, and the housing isn’t exactly ideal for a collared couple. But if the sub in question has his own quarters at the garrison, and Jean makes sure their free hours lined up…

A knock on the door startles Jean out of his contemplative state, and he starts to turn his head. Sally catches his chin to keep it still. “The paint hasn’t set yet,” she scolds. “And you can’t go opening doors yourself when I’m here. Stay put.” There’s the sound of a paint-pot being set down on the vanity, and then Sally’s back at his side.

“The clothes have come,” she says. “And very pretty they look too. Now let me do your lips and we can get you dressed.”

“No,” Jean says, hastily opening his eyes and waving Sally away. “No lips.”

She huffs. “You’re only half-done, my lord. You won’t look right without the full effect.”

“I thought I said to keep the paint light,” Jean protests.

“This is light. Hold still.”

Against his better judgment, Jean submits. It strikes him suddenly that this is the first time in a long time he’s spent such a long stretch of time on… nothing. On relaxing, if he can call it that. On being pampered, certainly. In spite of himself he seems to have calmed somewhat. He’s hardly dropped, but there’s a lassitude to his thoughts and feelings that tell him he’s susceptible to going down the rest of the way, with the right nudge.

And that won’t do. Maybe right now, with only Sally for company, his relaxed state is acceptable. But a glance out the window at the darkening sky tells Jean that any grace period he’s been given is about to come to a close. The clothes are here, he’s going to dress, and then Jean’s going to have to back out into the real world. With Richelieu at his side holding his leash.

“All right,” Sally says at last, releasing Jean’s chin. “And now let’s get you dressed. It’s nearly time to be going.”

The clothes are easily donned, at least. Sally does up the ribbons for form’s sake, but there’s nothing here Jean couldn’t manage on his own, thank God. Some subs actively prefer clothing that they can’t put on or take off themselves; it’s another form of submission, putting their bodies under the control of another. Jean can see the theory, but he has no desire to put it into practice. Fortunately there are plenty of sub-friendly designs that don’t include that constraint.

“Take a look,” Sally says when they’ve finished, guiding Jean back to the mirror again.

Jean looks. He doesn’t know exactly what he expects to see, but if he had to say, it would be something like: a middle-aged man wearing clothing much too fine, with makeup trying and failing to cover the worst of his scars. Someone awkward and out of place.

Instead he sees someone –

“Beautiful,” Sally says out loud, and it’s everything Jean can do not to flinch.

The person in the mirror may indeed be beautiful. Their clothes are fashionable and flattering at the same time. Sally had been right to point Lefavre towards the deep red. It gives warmth to Jean’s skin, even through the weathering of a lifetime on campaign. It picks up the long-forgotten auburn tint to his hair and turns the grey from something tired to something distinguished. The clothes’ cut highlights Jean’s musculature and downplays the stockiness that had been his mother’s despair. Sally’s deft touch with kohl and paint have added sharpness to his features, and per Jean’s request, there’s no lace to take the edge off and make Jean look more like a doll than a person. The person in the mirror is elegant, with an unmistakable presence and the teasing hint of experience.

Abruptly Jean can’t breathe. Whoever this person is that he sees in the mirror, it’s not him. Soldiers don’t wear rouge; orphans from impoverished farms don’t wear silk. The Captain of the King’s Musketeers doesn’t wear a red so rich and deep it’s impossible not to think of the Cardinal’s brilliant vestments.

Jean doesn’t wear a tunic with a neckline cut so low, the eyes are immediately drawn to the skin above it. Tanned and weathered and cut with a long thin scar disappearing below Jean’s clavicle from a blade that had struck just to the left of fatal. Empty skin. But not for long. Waiting, rather: waiting for the weight of a collar that’s coming closer with every beat of Jean’s heart.

“I can’t,” he says abruptly. “I can’t do this. I – ”

Sally’s hands come and cover Jean’s, stilling them. “Of course you can,” she says sternly. “That’s in no doubt. If you mean to say, you won’t, that’s different. If that’s how you feel, it’s not too late. It’s not too late until you step out of the carriage at the Louvre. But you should know yourself better than to say you can’t.”

The piece of pragmatism does more to steady Jean than a dozen platitudes about strength would have. This will hardly be the first time Jean has done something distasteful. Sally is absolutely right: Jean can do a great deal more than he’s willing to do. The question is whether or not Jean will do this.

And that’s really no question at all. How quickly Jean’s forgotten the threat against him, when given even the illusion of safety. Standing in these walls, somehow, Jean feels protected. But he’s here on sufferance. This protection has a price, and it’s time to pay it – or else face what comes without it.

Jean draws a deep breath. “Thank you, Sally.”

She pats his hands and releases them. “All part of the service, m’lord.” Her eyes slide to the door. “If I’m not mistaken, the master’s brought the last of your outfit.”

The last – oh. Jean’s gaze goes back to the empty space above his neckline, compelled.

There’s a knock on the door. Sally goes to open it, bobbing another curtsey as she goes.

“Thank you, Sally.” Richelieu’s tones are unmistakable, as are his footfalls as he enters the room. “If you would, go alert the coachman to harness the horses. And I believe my – my companion – may wish for a cloak. The night has turned chilly.”

“Yes, my lord,” Sally says. There’s something in her voice that catches the edges of Jean’s attention: something like a warning.

“Is that what you’re calling me now?” Jean says. “Your companion?” He doesn’t turn around, even as the door closes and the subtle presence of another sub fades away. Comforting, that, in a very hind-brain sort of way. Unnoticeable until it’s gone. Jean doesn’t turn around in part because speaking to the reflection of the person in the mirror is easier than speaking to the Dom lingering in the doorway.

“I thought you’d prefer it. It’s certainly a more neutral term than some of the traditional appellations. But if you – ”

“I like it,” Jean interrupts. “It’s good.”


Richelieu can be heard to sigh. “Very well.”

Jean tells himself sternly he’s stalling. He turns from the mirror and steps more fully into the center of the room. “You don’t approve? I suppose you prefer the more traditional.”

Richelieu doesn’t respond. He’s staring at Jean, eyes widening.

“What?” Jean asks impatiently. Then he catches the direction of Richelieu’s gaze and becomes abruptly self-conscious. Richelieu’s looking at Jean. Really looking. Scanning slowly from Jean’s hair to his feet, steadily downwards except for when Richelieu’s gaze skips back up to Jean’s face, for all the world as if it’s involuntary.

And the nature of the gaze is… different, somehow, than Richelieu’s usual. Evaluating, yes. Assessing. But the usual edge is lost. It doesn’t seem as if Richelieu is digging for weakness. Searching for something, yes. But what?

Jean falls back on sarcasm to cover his sudden unease. “What do you think of what your money and power have bought you?” he demands. “Will I pass muster, your Eminence?”

That at least has the effect of snapping Richelieu out of his daze. “Indeed, your dress is most proper,” he says stiffly. “Except for one final detail. Which I have brought.”

He holds something up.

Jean’s breath leaves him all in a rush. He forgets everything else – the clothes, the makeup, the whole foolish situation. Nothing else matters but the collar in Richelieu’s hands.

Richelieu lets Jean take it. Jean does so reverently. Something in Richelieu’s bearing, in the hush of his air, tells Jean that this is precious.

It's made of supple black leather deep as night, with cream-colored stitching that reflects the light of the candles. There are no jewels, no rings, no precious metals – except perhaps the buckle, but even so the buckle’s only silver, or perhaps white gold. It’s simple. It’s almost plain.

It’s exquisite.

And it’s not new. That’s obvious from the first moment Jean takes it in his hands. The leather is too relaxed in Jean’s hands, too broken in. As Jean turns it around and around, old scars catch the light. A scratch here, a place there where the leather has been torn and repaired with stitches so tiny and perfect Jean can only see them after he’s felt the imperfection under the pads of his fingers. This collar has known use. Jean’s will not be the first neck it encircles. And yet it gleams as if it’s new. The leather has been oiled, the tears mended, the metal buckle shined.

Old, worn, damaged. And yet loved. Jean feels his throat tighten and bites the inside of his cheek until the coppery taste of blood lets him breathe.

“You didn’t just send someone to a store for this,” he says, when he trusts his voice again.

Richelieu is suddenly fascinated with the painting hanging just over Jean’s left shoulder. “No. I had it here already.”

“Waiting for your dream sub to come along?” Even as Jean says it, he knows that’s wrong. That’s not the story behind the piece of leather in his hands. This leather hadn’t been bought on a whim and kept under glass for years in pristine condition. It’s been used. But by whom?

Richelieu provides him with the answer. “It was my father’s.”

Jean lets his breath out slowly. He can’t think of anything to say to that. Or to be more accurate, he can think of a dozen things, but they’re all wrong. Half of them are too sharp and cutting to be a fair repayment for this moment of openness, this glimpse into a private life Jean is sure Richelieu would far rather remain hidden. The other half are too tender for a relationship Jean needs to make sure remains professional.

“If you’ll permit me?” Richelieu says at last, holding out one hand.

Jean catches his meaning immediately, but he doesn’t return the collar right away. He takes another moment to study it. To memorize it. To come to grips with the realization that, whatever and whomever’s this collar might have been in the past, it’s about to become Jean’s. His prison. And yet his freedom. With this one simple piece of clothing Jean will place himself beyond the world’s touch – and irrevocably beneath Richelieu’s.

It was my father’s.

Richelieu does nothing without purpose. His most casual gestures have hidden meanings. This gesture – this decidedly uncasual gesture – has layers that Jean can never hope to grasp. And yet there is one message here that even Jean can see, if he chooses to do so.

There are times when Richelieu behaves very honorably indeed.

Jean hands the collar back to Richelieu and bows his head.

Richelieu’s fingers are warm, skin-warm, not cold as Jean had half-feared. No one would call them soft, but neither are they rough. Jean’s hands are rougher. Richelieu hasn’t handled a sword himself in many years. Jean swallows away the thought of what else Richelieu may have handled in that intervening time. Then he has to swallow again, in reaction to the way his Adam’s apple catches against the leather Richelieu is binding inexorably closed.

It only takes a moment. Then Richelieu is stepping back. The deed is done. Jean’s collared.

Jean looks up again, just in time to see a nameless, indefinable emotion chase itself across Richelieu’s face.

“Will I pass muster?” Jean asks again, and the question leaves his lips in an entirely different fashion than it had the first time.

“Admirably,” Richelieu says hoarsely.

A brisk knock on the door makes Jean jump nearly out of his skin. It opens a moment later to admit Sally, who has a cloak draped over one arm and a taper held in her other hand. She sets the cloak down on the nearest chair and goes about lighting extra candles. It’s grown dim in here while Jean’s been getting ready; he hadn’t noticed, but the pools of light shed by the day-lanterns have grown less, their edges more sharply defined by the encroaching dark. The night-lanterns brighten the room back up again, until the gilding glitters and the beginnings of a headache throb behind Jean’s eyes.

Finished, Sally sets the taper down and picks the cloak up again. Before Jean can react, she’s whisked it around his shoulders and fastened it tight.

“I’ll wait up for you, m’lord,” she says to Jean, not unkindly. “Remember to breathe, if you can, and know that their words have only the power you give them.” She bobs another curtsey to them both. “Master Richelieu.”

“Good night, Sally,” Richelieu says to her. He offers his arm to Jean. “Shall we, my dear?”

Jean stares at Richelieu’s arm a beat too long; he knows he does it, and he can feel but doesn’t see the stillness settle over Richelieu as Jean hesitates one final time.

Fool, Jean tells himself, curiously without heat. He watches his hand move and settle on Richelieu’s outstretched arm. It would almost belong to someone else, if not for the weight that settles around Jean’s neck as he does it.

He’d expected it to feel oppressive. Restrictive. Choking. Instead it feels almost steadying. As if the connection grounds him, rather than keeping him leashed.

“Lead on, my lord,” Jean hears himself say, as calm and steady as if there’s nothing he fears.

Chapter Text

The carriage waiting to take them to the Louvre is different than the one Richelieu had been using earlier in the day. That had been a plain, serviceable four-wheeler, good for getting about town quickly. This one is larger and more ornate. The black-and-red color scheme leaves no doubt as to its occupant. Just in case, though, the Richelieu arms are painted on the side. This is the formal carriage, for paying formal visits in. Like official court appearances.

This time, Jean is ready for Richelieu to hand him up, and manages to accept the assistance with aplomb if not precisely grace. Jean hasn’t been helped into a carriage since he’d been considerably younger, and the muscle memory just isn’t there. But he can learn it again. It’s such a small gesture to make, really. As prices go it’s cheap. Jean finds he can afford to pay it.

The interior is comfortable, of course. Richelieu would have nothing less. Jean settles down and stares out the window as they pull out of the carriage loop. The scenery goes by in the proper direction, for once. Jean rarely rides in carriages; when he does he’s a guest, and a guest of Jean’s minor status and presented dynamic rides backwards. But tonight Jean had settled into the forward-facing couch without a thought. And Richelieu had taken the other side without a murmur.

Jean’s not so far from his upbringing as he likes to pretend, after all.

“Treville,” Richelieu says, drawing his attention. “We should resolve a few additional details before we arrive.”

“Jean,” Jean says without thinking.

Richelieu stops mid-breath. “What?”

Jean shifts in his seat. “You can’t call me Treville in public,” he says uncomfortably. “As I was reminded by your Guard today, the estate is yours now.”

“And as I was reminded by that same Guard, public and private are two different things. If you wish me to continue to call you Treville in private – ”

“Too confusing,” Jean says, brusque now that he’s chosen his course. “And we’re supposed to be in love. Call me Jean.”

“Jean,” Richelieu says carefully. Like he’s feeling it out. “All right. Thank you. And by the same token, you must call me Armand.”

“I – yes.” Jean had expected that. He’d been thinking, earlier, that he’d better get used to calling the other man by his Christian name. So there’s no reason for it to suddenly seem so difficult – and yet so natural, all at the same time.

“Jean, then.” Richelieu – Armand smiles. It’s a different sort of smile than Jean has ever seen him wear. “Tell me about yourself, please, Jean. I don’t wish to pry, but there are things I’d learn if we’ve been together for the last two decades.”

“I hate being waited on,” Jean says without thinking. “I hate being coddled and treated like a possession. I hate wealth and its trappings.”

“I guessed,” Armand admits. “But …”

“You have a position to maintain.”

“I do.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll behave.” Jean leans his head back against the seat and closes his eyes, swaying slightly to the movement of the carriage.

After a moment of silence, there’s the rustling of fabric, and Richelieu’s sigh. “While I appreciate that insight into your character, I think you know that that wasn’t exactly the sort of insight I was asking for,” he says.

And maybe it’s the quiet of the carriage, or the strangely comfortable air between them – but Jean finds himself telling Armand about his history.

Some of it, at least. The parts that don’t hurt. His childhood hadn’t been that bad. His parents had loved each other and both of their children. But their relative poverty had thrown gloom over their lives. Jean had been young, too young to understand what had really been going on, but he’d understood that whenever his older brother had come home to visit his parents had gotten sadder. He’d understood that after his brother had left again there had always been less money than there had been before. He’d understood that the old family friends who’d come to visit while Jean’s brother had been home had always shaken their heads as they’d left, and that they’d talked of needing to find someone else, someone more reliable, to fill the position they’d had in mind.

Jean’s brother had never wanted to go outside with their father and learn to hunt or ride or fight. Maybe that’s why Lord Treville hadn’t had the heart to discourage Jean when Jean had picked up the old practice sword and started swinging it around. Jean had loved the time spent with his father and his father’s friends. And it hadn’t been as if military service were forbidden to subs, as Lady Treville would say to those so-called friends who’d tittered at the sight of the youngest Treville charging about the estate swinging at practice dummies. It hadn’t been as if Jean hadn’t also been learning everything a good sub had to know.

“But be careful, please, dear,” Lady Treville would sigh to her Lord, in the evenings after the visits had ended. “How’s Jean to find a Dom if he keeps on like this?”

“He needs someone who will understand him,” Lord Treville would reply.

“And where’s such a one to be found?” Lady Treville had often looked troubled, to the young Jean peeping through the door. “The rest of the neighborhood’s so stodgy.”

“De Foix’s daughter is only a few years younger,” Lord Treville would say hopefully. “We must have them to stay next summer.”

Next summer had always been one summer away, though, as the Treville finances had straitened further and further with every new excess on Jean’s brother’s part. Until finally there had been a confrontation about it. And Jean’s brother had put forth his solution, his plan to save the family…

“Anyway, one thing led to another and I ran away to Paris,” Jean says abruptly, skipping to the end without caring that the omission is obvious. “Where, apparently, I met you and we lived happily ever after. Sort of.”

Richelieu looks considering; across the carriage, Jean tenses in anticipation of the inevitable next questions. Why did you run away? What was your brother’s plan? What made you decide to start hiding your dynamic?

To Jean’s shock, though, Armand lets it lie. He merely asks, “And your family passed away not long after, I take it? Since you inherited.”

“I – yes.” Jean nods, fumbling after his wits. “The measles – there was an epidemic, not long after I left. I wanted to go home. My mother wrote me and begged me not to. They all had it, even my – ” fiancé, Jean doesn’t say. “ – even my brother. Mother said, if I came home, all I’d do would be to catch it myself. She was probably right. But I never got to say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry,” Armand says gently. His fingers squeeze; Jean looks down, realizing belatedly that Richelieu’s put his hand on Jean’s knee at some point during this conversation.

Jean could shift his position. He’d slide out from under Armand’s hand. Maintain that necessary distance. But remembering the last letter he’d ever received from home – the one that had reported the death of his entire family and half the people he’d ever known – Jean lets himself have that moment of comfort.

“I suppose in one sense it worked out,” Jean mutters eventually. “No one was left to out me. I went back to claim the title after the epidemic was over. Most of the survivors were children too young to know who I was, or elders who couldn’t remember which brother had been the Dom and which the sub.”

“What about your father’s friends?”

“Yes, some of them knew. But it made no difference to them. They never told.” They’re mostly dead now anyway. His father’s generation, of old age; Jean’s generation, of bad luck. Jean had finally met Lucie – his father’s friend de Foix’s Dominant daughter – after coming to Paris. They’d served together for a time. She’d been more of an older sibling to Jean than his brother ever had. Her death on campaign had hit him hard.

They hadn’t been lovers. Jean had still been too scared to allow himself to go down for anyone, even someone he’d trusted like he’d trusted Lucie. But Jean thinks, looking back at his life with the gaze of hindsight, that they would have been. If she’d lived.

“And so we met,” Richelieu says, drawing Jean back to the present. “Fell in love, and formalized our relationship. Just in time for you to join the military with my blessing.”

“I suppose so,” Jean says quietly.

“Why did you continue passing?”


“If we’ve supposedly been together all these years – once I was willing to sign your waivers, what need was there for you to continue passing?”

Fear. Old but real. And not an answer anyone at court would accept.

“Perhaps I didn’t wish to ride on your coattails,” Jean says instead. “Perhaps I wanted to know that any advancement had been earned, rather than given as a political favor to you.”

“Perhaps,” Richelieu says consideringly. “People would believe it of you, I think. It fits well with your reputation. Both for independence and for honesty.”

“What about you?”


“That reason would work for me. It wouldn’t for you, would it?”

“No.” Richelieu considers it further. Says, slowly, “Perhaps – yes – perhaps I agreed to it to protect you.”

“Protect me?” Jean hears the surprise in his own voice. “From what?”

Armand’s gaze turns inwards, looking back. Something flashes over his face almost too quickly for Jean to see. In the half-light, it looks like vulnerability.

“Those first years in Paris were dangerous,” he says quietly. “I had very little power then, and what little I had, people were committing murders left and right to obtain. I nearly died several times. As did those I cared about.” Armand’s voice slows at the end. Jean wonders suddenly if there had been anyone for whom death hadn’t been avoided.

“So you kept us secret to protect me,” Jean says aloud instead. It sounds – ridiculous. Noble. Self-sacrificing. Almost heroic. Very definitely not like the Cardinal.

“It’s a romantic notion,” Richelieu says. The moment of vulnerability is gone: his mask is fully back in place. “People like romance.”

So it would be telling people what they want to hear. That, Jean admits with a sigh, sounds a great deal like Richelieu.

“Agreed, then,” Jean says.

“Agreed,” Richelieu says.

They arrive not much longer after that. It’s not actually a long drive between the Louvre and the Palais-Cardinal; Jean suspects Richelieu of having instructed his driver to take the long way to give the two of them more time to talk privately. Well, they’d apparently needed it.

Armand helps Jean down from the carriage again, the model of propriety though there’s no one to see but servants and the King’s Guards. Already, though, Jean can see eyes widening in the torchlight. Some of them have recognized him. Some of them have already seen.

“The gossip will move quickly,” Richelieu says in a low voice, taking Jean’s hand again and leading him up the steps. “All the better. In fact, let us take a short detour by my office. I have a letter to drop off. A pretext, of course. Let the news begin to spread.”

“Don’t we want to preempt the gossip?” Jean murmurs back.

“Just the opposite.” Richelieu’s smile is shark-like. “The more people who are waiting with baited breath for our arrival the better.”

“Ah.” Anticipation curdles in Jean’s stomach. “Well, this is your specialty. I defer to you.”

“Worry as little as you can,” Armand says, patting Jean’s arm proprietarily. Jean ignores the way this makes his skin tingle. “We’re in this together now. And I am very good at this.”

So you’re relying on me. But mistakes happen, Richelieu says softly from Jean’s memory. Even I make them.

Jean swallows hard and doesn’t answer – either the shade in his mind or the flesh-and-blood man at his side.

Fortunately Richelieu doesn’t seem to require a response. He leads Jean straight to his office, hands a letter to the Guardsman waiting there, and closes the door behind the Guard with an air that makes it obvious that the Guard is to remain outside.

“We don’t need to wait long,” he says to Jean. “Perhaps five minutes.”

Jean nods, too wound up to speak.

The silence stretches out until, perhaps halfway through the appointed time, Richelieu breaks it. “There is one other thing,” he says, and if Jean hadn’t known any better, he would have thought Armand sounds hesitant.

“What?” Jean asks.

“We have already discussed matters of etiquette – and I have no doubt that you will behave admirably,” Richelieu adds hastily when Jean moves to speak. “But there is one particular point I thought it would be as well to cover explicitly.”

Jean can’t help tensing. When Richelieu’s speech reaches that level of precision, ambassadors tremble. Jean, a mere Musketeer, only tenses – but that tensing is enough to let Richelieu know that Jean knows he won’t like what’s coming next.

Richelieu’s mouth twists into the parody of a smile. “Just so,” he says. Sighs, rather. “Court etiquette is mixed on this point,” he proceeds carefully. “But the common practice – say rather, the conservative practice – is for a submissive to kneel when their Dominant enters the room.”

Jean flashes into fury between one breath and the next. “The hell I will!”

Braced though he must have been, this reaction still catches Richelieu off-guard. He takes a step backwards in shock.

Jean wants to retreat too. Wrap his arms around himself, drop his gaze and apologize like a good little sub. But he’s not sorry. He’ll never be sorry. Not for this.

There are some things Jean is willing to do for his own safety. And there are some that he simply is not. Spreading his legs is one. This – this is another.

He’s aware that his reaction is outsized for the request. Kneeling in that way – in greeting and respectful acknowledgement, divorced from the intimacy of the bedchamber – is a casual gesture. No more humiliating in the eyes of the world than a handshake. The submissive equivalent of a Dominant’s bow. Proper. Dutiful. In no way derogatory or oppressive. A well-bred sub can be on their knees and back off of them again in a heartbeat. And will be, several times a day, if they attend at court.

Richelieu doesn’t know – can’t know – mustn’t ever know why the idea of kneeling for him (for anyone) in public (anywhere) is so awful.

“Jean, think about it,” Richelieu says after a moment. He almost sounds pleading. “My position on proper submissive behavior is not exactly a secret. If we are to convince people that you’re mine – that you have been for years – they will expect you to behave accordingly. If you won’t behave, why would I have taken you?”

Jean swallows. This is Richelieu at his most persuasive, rational and reasonable and well-argued. And the push of his will is back. Not as strong as before, but yet harder to resist. More supple. It molds itself around Jean, coaxing instead of demanding, encouraging Jean to just relax and let his Dominant decide what’s best.

That’s not Jean. That’s never been Jean. That will never be Jean.

And that makes Jean’s course plain. “My behavior has been public for those same years. You’ve apparently been tolerating it before – but not now? Why?”

“Well. The need for secrecy – ”

“There’s been plenty of time for small alterations to add up, if you’re subtle – and everyone knows you are. I could have mellowed with age, and I haven’t. I am as I am. The obvious answer is that you’ve accepted that.” Jean pauses, then delivers the coup-fourre. “Or else why would you have taken me?”

Richelieu stops. Somewhat helplessly he says, “Well…”

“We’re trying to play this off as a love match.” Jean doesn’t suppress the rueful snort, and he’s glad he’d let it out when he sees the imperceptible relaxation around Richelieu’s eyes. God love him, when had Armand gotten all of those crow’s feet around his eyes? Jean’s reminded forcibly that his own beard trimmings are more salt than pepper, these days. They’re neither of them as young as they used to be.

Which is the point. Twenty years it’s been since Jean had first come to Paris. Twenty years in which he’s gone from a hotheaded young lieutenant into the Captain of the King’s Musketeers. Twenty years in which Armand has gone from Marie de’ Medici’s private confessor to the First Minister of France. Twenty years in which – so the people of Paris must believe – they’ve fought by day and made love by night. Learned each others’ foibles and accepted them. Run into each others’ walls and made peace with them. Understood each others’ desires and compromised on them.

As Jean’s parents had. His maternal grandparents had never forgiven their daughter for becoming Lady Treville and eschewing the rich match they’d picked out for her. They’d withheld her dowry in punishment, laying the groundwork for the near-poverty that had characterized Jean’s childhood. But she’d been in love. As had his father. They’d never been more than respectable socially, and if there’d some left over for ribbons after the necessities of life had been purchased it had been as much as could have been hoped for. And yet none of that had ever dented the happiness they’d clearly found in each other.

Jean had lost them so long ago that most of the memories have gone dim with age. But the happiness – that has never faded. Nor had the lessons. Neither Lord nor Lady Treville had been behindhand in making sure Jean had known how happiness is to be found, however he’s ignored their advice since.

“In a love match, people compromise,” Jean says out loud, letting the sincerity into his voice. The wistfulness comes too, not entirely with his consent, but needs must. “Things they used to think were inviolable are suddenly – not. You allow things, forgive things, that you wouldn’t otherwise. Maybe you’ve spent the last twenty years telling people that submissives should kneel, but I’ve spent them on my own two feet. You’re the great judge of people, Armand. I’ll leave it to your canny judgment which people are more likely to believe: that I’d kneel for you, or that you’d allow me to stand?”

“In public,” Armand says.

Jean looks at him in confusion. “Yes, of course in public.”

“Because in private, they’ll have to believe you’ll kneel,” Armand continues.

“Yes, I – yes.”

“Will you?”

“Will I what?”


Jean recoils. “This isn’t – you can’t really expect – ” he stumbles over his own words. He’d thought he’d won – and that Richelieu has reframed the argument means that, yes, Jean has won – but only on his initial point. Now Richelieu is raising a new point. Jean has seen this at court far too many times not to tense in worried fear.

Richelieu raises a hand. “I do not ask for your company in the bedroom,” he says. “I recall your stipulation about presumption. But you have asked me to convince others that you are mine. That will require a certain amount of trust. Your point about publicly kneeling – that is well taken. But there will be other displays of submission. Polite society requires it. Will you be able to make them?”

“Of course,” Jean says, heart and voice full of a terrible pride. As long as he doesn’t have to kneel – as long as he can keep that much of his dignity intact and his past buried – he can do whatever else is required. “You have my word.”

But Richelieu is shaking his head. “That’s not enough.”

“What more do you want?”


“You just said – ”

“Not in public. Here. Now.”

Jean can’t help the step he takes back. He can’t even lie to himself that he takes it in anger rather than in fear. He is afraid, and what’s the point of hiding it?

Give a Dominant an inch and they take a mile, the old voice of caution whispers in Jean’s ear. He may pretend he cares now, but all he really wants is a bitch to keep chained by his bed –

He isn’t pretending he cares, Jean reminds himself. That clears his head enough to look up and meet Richelieu’s eyes. He means to ask why. The words don’t come out.

Richelieu anticipates the question regardless. “It’s not enough for you to bat your eyelashes at me over dinner,” he says. He has the decency to sound regretful. “You’ve lived as a Dominant long enough, you must know – these things go both ways. We need something to build on. A moment of trust.”

“Of vulnerability,” Jean spits.

Richelieu inclines his head. “The term applies.”

“My word isn’t enough?” Jean whispers.

“Would mine be, for you?”

No. No, it wouldn’t. And it’s a fair request.

Not fair. Nothing about this is fair. But it’s a reasonable request. Richelieu is right about what society will expect to see. And right too, damn him, about what they’ll need from each other in order to put on the proper show.

Trust. A measure of trust. A measure that neither of them have ever extended the other. That they must gain, and quickly.

Richelieu could have asked for other things. He could have asked for secrets. For promises. For sexual favors, though Jean would have told him to go to Hell. But Richelieu’s asked for this, and in comparison, it’s little enough.

It would be little enough to anyone else.

Once he’s outed, Jean will have to kneel for the King, instead of bowing as true Dominants do. The only saving grace is that, once he wears Armand’s collar, no one else will have precedence over him. Louis will be the only one Jean has to honor so.

And Richelieu – right now.

A small enough price to pay.

Do it, Jean orders himself brutally.

His knees lock up. Something burns in his throat.

“I’ll make it easier,” Armand says. Jean hears the words first as mocking, but their tone is at odds with that. Richelieu’s voice seems deeper somehow. Richer. And the air thickens slightly. “Kneel, please, Jean.”

Jean shivers a little. He tells himself it’s because the Car – Rich – Armand is nudging him, exerting his will on Jean to make Jean obey. It’s certainly not because the sound of his Christian name on the other man’s lips is unbearably intimate.

Unwelcomely intimate. Jean doesn’t want this man’s collar; he doesn’t want anyone’s collar. But thanks to that little weasel Rochefort, Jean’s stuck with one. And not just any one. The one belonging to his greatest enemy. Whatever Rochefort may think, he’s a pussycat compared to Richelieu; the Cardinal is the tiger of France.

And yet it is this man to whom Jean has allowed himself to be shackled. Not just allowed: demanded. He had hatched the idea after a sleepless night and too much wine, but even in the cold light of day the principle is sound. This collaring will do more than just spoke Rochefort’s wheel. It will establish Jean’s position in court. Give Jean a precedence and rank he would otherwise never attain. It will cement the King’s loyalty to him – the King, who had greeted the idea of an alliance between his two most trusted advisors like a child being told his parents had reconciled and everything would be well from now on.

It will set Jean beyond the power of anyone to make any such threats again. It’s the ultimate protection. And the ultimate cage.

“Jean,” Armand says again. “I swear to you, on the blood of the cross, that I will demand nothing of you while you’re on your knees.”

And then, softer, while Jean wrestles with whether or not he can trust this astonishing promise: “I know we’ve had our differences – but you are safe with me.”

It’s true. It has to be true. Or else Jean has been played false so many years ago that it doesn’t matter any more.

Jean hadn’t needed a sleepless night to invent the notion of coming to Richelieu for aid. It had been his first thought, the immediate impulse of the moment in which Rochefort had sprung his trap: Richelieu. Richelieu will help.

It had simply needed all that sleepless night to convince himself to actually go through with it.

Why had Jean’s thoughts turned so immediately and faithfully to the Cardinal? Jean had spent that night asking that question of himself. The next morning, Louis had asked it. Even Richelieu had wondered, in that sideways way he has where he’d never actually come out and ask, but just sort of lets it be known that he’s curious…

Richelieu has France’s best interests at heart. Jean knows that. They may fight, but underneath it Jean knows that Richelieu is a patriot, first and foremost. Jean is necessary to France – or at least to Louis. And Rochefort is a parasite that Richelieu would dearly love to excise. Taken together, it’s no wonder that Jean’s thoughts had immediately turned to the First Minister when seeking his own salvation.

There are times when Richelieu behaves very honorably indeed.

And it’s not Richelieu’s fault if it turns out that Jean has bought more than he can keep.

“Jean,” Armand repeats. “Kneel.”

This is the best way. The only way. Nothing else matters. Not even the memories of what had happened the last time Jean had knelt for someone he’d thought he could trust.

The push intensifies. And yet it doesn’t feel oppressive. It doesn’t feel, actually, like a push at all. It feels like Jean’s already falling. It feels like Armand is here to catch him.

Jean’s knees fail abruptly, and he collapses to them with a soft sound of frustrated pain.

Some distant part of him observes: the carpet in here is remarkably fine. It’s soft beneath him; his knees are well cushioned. The weave is fascinating. Jean finds himself contemplating the blend of colors for an endless minute, even as a dim alarm starts shrieking in the back of his mind. Danger, it’s saying. But what could be dangerous about this?

A hand settles on his head, warm with just the right amount of weight to it. Comforting but not oppressive. Jean twists his head slightly, just enough to press a little bit into it. Perhaps the hand will stroke his hair. Perhaps it will seize and tug. Perhaps –

The hand vanishes. “Jean,” a voice says insistently. “Treville.”

Reality intrudes back into Jean’s bubble with all the jagged sharpness of a shard of glass piercing flesh. He’s fallen back on his rear before he knows it, and shoved himself so far backward – away from Richelieu, away from the Dominant, away – that the wall is an uncomfortable plane against his shoulder-blades.

Richelieu, for his part, is making no effort to approach Jean. He remains where he’s standing and looks as shocked as it’s possible for Richelieu to ever look. Which is to say, not very – but a little.

“Are you all right?” Richelieu asks carefully. “Do you want to sit?” He gestures towards the only chair in the room, the one behind his desk.

Jean keeps his eyes on Richelieu. He says the first thing which pops into his mind, which is, “I thought you wanted me to kneel.”

That actually startles a chuckle out of Richelieu. It vanishes quickly. “Not like that,” Armand says. Regret is thick in his tone. “I owe you an apology, Jean. That was presumption in the truest sense. I didn’t know you’d react like that – but that is no excuse. Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Jean says brusquely. He staggers to his feet, ignoring Richelieu’s outstretched hand grimly. “I should have more control over myself than that. It’s not your fault.”

Richelieu’s hands fall back at his sides as smoothly as if he’d always meant to rest them there. “I do not take my responsibilities as lightly as you think I do,” he says. There’s regret and dismay commingled in his tone; Jean wonders if he dares believe in it. “My apology stands.”

“Then I accept it.” Jean shakes his head, walks a circuit around the room for something to do. The motion helps. It rounds off the lingering edges of the drop, and helps him ignore the memory of it, too.

“Jean,” Richelieu says carefully. “May I ask you something?”

Jean’s startled out of a bitter laugh. “Because you’ve been doing so much holding back up until now.”

Armand doesn’t rise to the bait. He simply waits, gaze steady on Jean. Steady with what Jean might almost think is compassion.

“Ask,” Jean says.

“Lest I assume – you do feel the need to go under, from time to time?”

“Yes,” Jean admits. Most subs do, just as most Doms need to spend time in control. How often, for how long, how deeply – these things vary from sub to sub. But the need is almost universal. Jean’s life would be easier if he’d been among the lucky few who escape it. But his life has never been about what’s easy.

Richelieu nods. “How have you been meeting that need?”

Jean hesitates to answer, but – it’s not an unreasonable question. Especially not in the light of what’s just happened. Dropping so quickly, despite being in a strange place with a strange Dom – collar or no collar, Jean and Armand have no shared basis of trust – that had been what the kneeling had been supposed to give them, but still not that much, not that quickly –

Jean may as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says my needs aren’t being met. That’s a problem. It had used to be Jean’s problem. Now, thanks to the collar Jean’s wearing, it’s Richelieu’s problem just as much as it is Jean’s.

In the eyes of the world Jean is under Richelieu’s care. Independent of Jean’s personal well-being, Richelieu will pay social penalties if it seems he’s executing that responsibility poorly. And Jean can admit, if only to himself, that Richelieu probably will care about Jean’s personal well-being. Richelieu is a man who takes care of what he views as his. Socially, legally and morally, Jean is his now.

“I go to the Court of Miracles,” Jean says finally. “There are people there who – ”

“Service Doms.”


“Jean,” Armand says. He starts to say something else, then stops. Sighs. It’s obvious even to Jean’s somewhat frayed wits that the Cardinal is choosing his words with utmost caution.

“Jean,” he begins again after a moment. “I – such places, such people, I have no doubt of their discretion. But they are not precisely secrets, are they? Their services – and the providers – are well known. Or would be, for the asking.”

“That’s right,” Jean says, unsure where this is going.

“So it would be no trouble for someone to observe you going into one of these establishments, or visiting one of its employees in a more private setting. It would be no trouble for someone to learn what services those places or people sell.”

“In twenty years no one has learned it.”

“In twenty years no one has cared to learn it. No one had reason to believe you were anything other than what you say you are. Now they know it for a fact. Now you have enemies.”

“Rochefort,” Jean whispers.

“Why did Rochefort give you twenty-four hours, Jean?”

“To watch me squirm.”

“Is that the only reason?”

“I don’t know,” Jean says through suddenly dry lips. “I – I hadn’t thought about it.”

“I have thought about it,” Armand says gently. “I don’t have an answer yet – but I know neither of us will like it. He’s got something else up his sleeve. There’s something else he’s planning. I don’t know what it is, but I know that our ruse being exposed would help him.”

“He may not realize that it’s a ruse,” Jean says desperately. Not because he believes it. Because he sees where this is going and he doesn’t like it. But –

“He will,” Armand says in a tone of finality.

Jean’s shoulders slump.

“Jean, you can’t go back to the Court of Miracles.”

“I know,” he admits on a long exhale.

“If it helps, I’m in the same position as you.” Armand’s lips twist in what could charitably be called a smile. “Neither of us can seek our usual outlets. We are left with only each other.”

Only each other. Armand, or no one.

Still an easy choice to make. “Then you will have a chance to live up to your vow of chastity,” Jean says dryly.

Somewhat surprisingly, Armand’s smile doesn’t waver at the jibe. “The vow ceases to apply after seminary, unless I retake it or join a cloistered order,” he says. “Which you obviously know, or else you wouldn’t have come to me for a collar. Jean, there are nonsexual ways of – ”

“No,” Jean interrupts.

“If you find yourself unable to manage it alone, though…” Armand’s voice trails off.

“You’ll be the first to know,” Jean snaps.

“Will I?” Armand waits; Jean says nothing further. Armand sighs. “I will have your word on this.”

“I swear to tell you first.”

“Jean.” You know that’s not what I meant, Armand’s tone says clearly.

Now it’s Jean’s turn to sigh. “I won’t seek relief elsewhere,” he says with weary resignation. He’s tired; tired enough not to stop himself from adding, “Believe it or not, subs can keep it on their feet.”

“I believe it,” Armand says. Jean ignores the gentleness in his voice.

“Then let’s get out there. Let’s get this over with.” Jean takes a deep breath and runs a quick hand down his tunic, straightening it out from where it had picked up creases in Jean’s impromptu flight. Attire attended to, Jean turns towards the door, expecting Armand to follow.


It’s the surprise in Armand’s voice more than anything else that has Jean pausing and turning back around. “Yes?”

Armand looks surprised, too, which is so unusual that Jean forgets his weariness for a moment. “Don’t you have something to ask of me, in return?”

Oh. Yes. Quid pro quo. That’s the rule of this relationship, isn’t it? A favor asked and answered, an obligation incurred. Anything else – trust or no trust, anything else is in Jean’s foolish mind.

“I’ll save it,” Jean says in a rare flash of prudence.

This doesn’t seem to ease Armand’s confusion. “Save it?”

“Yes. For the future.” He’s pleased with the notion. Now, the next time Armand makes an unreasonable demand, Jean will be in a position to counteract it. “There’s no rule that says we have to use our favors right away.”

“Favors,” Armand says slowly.

Jean sighs. He really doesn’t know what Armand is getting at. Among the lingering wrongness of having dropped too fast and too ill prepared, without anyone to catch him – with the looming dread of his first court appearance as a sub, and all of the spectacle that’s bound to engender – Jean’s wrung out enough that he really doesn’t care. “Let’s go, Armand,” he says tiredly, turning away again.

“Then have this for free,” Armand says abruptly. “I swear to you: as long as you wear my collar, I will be faithful to you in word and deed. As you have promised me, so I promise to be yours and yours alone, on my honor and by our bond, until we part or are parted.”

Jean freezes. Something prickles at the back of his neck; all the hairs on his body seem suddenly to stand on end.

Armand says nothing further. The silence stretches on long enough to be uncomfortable.

Jean breaks it first. He tries a laugh, and has the dubious pleasure of hearing it fall flat, clumsy and far too loud. “What is this, a collaring ceremony?”

“We may never have one.” Armand doesn’t look surprised anymore; all of the emotion has left his face, leaving it remote and austere. “But its promises are still binding on us.”

“Only if we let them be,” Jean says weakly. “In private, who will ever know?”

“I will know.” Now Armand is the one to turn away. “I shouldn’t have asked you for your word earlier. It went too far. In public, yes, I must demand your circumspection. But within my walls – as you’ve seen, the servants will lie. Sneak your lovers in if you will. You are correct. The vows are only binding insofar as we choose.”

“And you choose to be bound?”

“I am many things, Jean, but never yet – at least so far as I may prevent it – a hypocrite.”

“Neither am I,” Jean says. He wonders why his voice sounds hoarse. “If you will be bound, I will be bound likewise.”

“As you say.”

Armand’s face is in shadow now. Jean can’t make it out. He wonders when it had become so important to be able to know what Armand is thinking. What he’s feeling. Where Jean stands in Armand’s estimation – what measure of Armand’s respect Jean commands.

But when the impulse to ask takes him again, Jean turns it aside. He’s never pretended to be brave.

“Let us go, then,” Armand says finally. Jean strains his ears, but if there are any emotions present in Armand’s voice, they’re invisible to Jean.

Armand offers Jean his arm. Jean takes it, and they go out to face the glittering court together.

Chapter Text

The walk from Richelieu’s office to the assembly room in the Louvre is short. Far too short for Richelieu’s whirling thoughts to have time to settle. And yet settle they must, for when faced with the assembled court of Louis XIII – knives whetted by the gossip that Richelieu had deliberately allowed to circulate – Richelieu will require his full attention.

Said attention, usually so well disciplined, is showing a marked tendency to wander. Again and again Richelieu catches himself thinking, not of moves and countermoves and shifting alliances, but of the man at his side. Jean walks towards his fate with every appearance of outwards serenity. Richelieu knows how much of that serenity is a lie.

He’d dropped so fast. That doesn’t happen. That shouldn’t happen. That Jean hasn’t been taking care of himself properly is obvious. Armand tries to focus on that, and on devising strategies for helping Jean while respecting his boundaries, instead of –

On his knees, shoulders and neck bare except for Armand’s collar, head bowed – except that when Armand touches him gently he looks up, gaze distant, a thousand miles away and yet present –

Vulnerable. In need. In a way he’d never consented to be.

Oh, Jean.

And the moment Armand had snapped him out of it, Jean had retreated. Put his walls right back up and refused any further care.

That he needs care is obvious. Pre-care, aftercare, daily care – how long has it been since someone had cared for Jean?

This morning Richelieu had thought of the Captain, if he’d thought of him at all, as another obstacle. Someone to be worked around if possible. Worked with only as the situation might call for. It doesn’t seem right or just, that within the space of time between breakfast and supper, all of that should have changed. Such a short period of time shouldn’t wreak so massive a change. Richelieu should still be thinking of ways to blunt or channel the man’s damnable passion, not ways to preserve it in the sea of piranhas they’re about to enter. Richelieu should not have gone from thinking of the Captain to worrying about Jean.

It is a day of surprises. Some distances are so long; some are far too short. They’re running out of their current distance already.

The King’s herald waits by the doors to the largest receiving room. This is a full formal court being held tonight, unusually for Louis, who usually prefers to categorize his evenings as ‘intimate gatherings’. Of course a King has no such thing, but still, calling them such had relaxed matters somewhat. Not tonight. The purpose of tonight, after all, is to make a statement. It’s an announcement; a coming out, for lack of a better term. And there is no better way to make a statement than, first, to hold an event in which anyone who can attend will attend – and, second, to have a royal herald proclaim the news to all and sundry.

The herald nods as Richelieu and Jean approach. Richelieu nods back. There’s no need for speech. They’d already worked out, earlier this afternoon, how they are to be announced.

“Jean – ” Armand starts to murmur, though what he means to say he’s not sure. Jean starts to turn to him, gaze flicking up to catch Armand’s, and he leans in slightly to hear what Armand might have to say.

It’s an affectionate pose. A domestic pose, one might even say. An intimate pose, if viewed in the right light.

The herald is no fool. Richelieu had had a word with him earlier today; the King has probably done the same. The man knows his part in tonight’s drama. He certainly knows better than to miss a cue like the one Jean’s just handed him.

He throws the door wide and bangs his ceremonial staff on the floor. Three times – one for the First Minister, one for the Cardinal, and one for the Duc. As the only man in the Kingdom to hold three roles requiring recognition at formal state events, there can be no doubt whom the herald is announcing, even before the man opens his mouth.

At Armand’s side, Jean draws in a deep breath.

The formal preface is easily recited. They’re nothing anyone here hasn’t heard before. Everyone knows Armand’s titles. The only interesting part is –

“Messieurs Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu.”

– how the two of them have chosen to style themselves, as an acknowledged couple.

Jean’s fingers tighten on Armand’s hand when the herald announces that part. Belatedly it occurs to Armand: that might have been something to discuss with Jean, before the decision had been made and publically announced.

Ah. Yes. Perhaps.

It’s not as if Armand had chosen this particular style as some kind of – it’s simply logical. Armand doesn’t delude himself into thinking that Jean had come to him, had chosen him for this charade, for any other reason than sheer raw power. There are plenty of nobles Jean dislikes less; plenty of nobles whose professed beliefs about submissives are more liberal than Armand’s. Armand is conservative and strict and finds himself in opposition to Jean three days out of every four. The only reason for Jean to come to Armand is that Jean needs all the power he can get. That, far more than any personal preference, had informed Armand’s choice of style for them both.

First Minister is an appointed position; it can’t be shared. Cardinal is an ecclesiastical position, and Jean isn’t ordained. As far as titles are concerned, the best Armand can do for Jean is to elevate him in the ranks of nobility. To make him a Duc instead of a Comte, with all the precedence that implies.

Well enough as far as it goes. But if merely becoming a Duc would be sufficient, Jean could have gone to another. On paper at least, all duchies are equal. What Jean really needs isn’t the right to the style Duc. It’s the right to call himself Richelieu, with everything else that that implies. The best Armand can do for Jean isn’t to give Jean his title. It’s to give Jean his name. Hence the style Duc de Richelieu that Jean will now be known by, Armand relinquishing the day-to-day use of the title in Jean’s favor and declaring Cardinal to be his new default.

Jean would have understood that, if Armand had put it to him that way. Armand has no doubt of it. Just as he has no doubt of the fact that, by having failed to put it to him, Armand has erred. Damaged the fragile trust that has been building between them, and damaged Armand’s chances of improving Jean’s situation in private as well as in public.

This is what Jean has done to him. He’s making foolish mistakes that the greenest political rube would have known to avoid.

And it’s too late now. At least in the short term, Jean will have to live with it. Later, perhaps, there will be the opportunity to adjust it.

If they make it that long. While Armand has been rapidly cataloguing all the ways in which he has misstepped, the assembled nobles of Louis XIII’s court have been staring their fill. At least that much is part of the plan. But what have they seen? Armand doesn’t dare look over to evaluate Jean’s reaction. The Lord send that it hadn’t been too obviously displeased.

Louis is on his throne, of course. The crowd rustles, separating, until a clear path stretches from the doorway to the King.

Richelieu dons his most gracious smile and urges Jean forward. These next few moments are absolutely crucial. First impressions are nine tenths of any battle: the expectations set and the statements made will define how Armand and Jean, loving couple, are received by a court far more used to the Cardinal and the Captain, hated rivals. Richelieu keeps his air serene and strides forward with every appearance of calm.

The murmurs increase in volume as they pass; out of the corner of his eyes, Richelieu catalogs the expressions and bearings of the courtiers they pass. What he sees is heartening. That the court is surprised is obvious. But the kind of disbelieving shock that would have meant they’re doomed before they start is conspicuous by its absence.

If anything, Richelieu thinks, the assembled nobles look… vindicated. And while a few people are shaking their heads and making other signs of negation, they’re not doing it in the way of people who reject what they’re seeing. They’re doing in the manner of people who have been proved wrong, and resign themselves to the new reality accordingly.

This will work, Richelieu realizes in astonishment as he and Jean reach the throne.

“There you are!” Louis’ voice cuts through the quiet murmurs that have been slowly gathering volume since the herald’s announcement had caused a hush to fall over the crowd. “My good friends. My two right hands, as it were. May I be the first to publically offer you my very much belated congratulations?”

“Thank you, your Majesty,” Richelieu says for them both. “We have both been very grateful for all of your support, and hope to continue to be so in the future.”

“I am glad you’ve decided to lay secrecy aside,” Louis says, loudly enough that even the outer rows of nobles can clearly hear him. “When I blessed your union twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us knew secrecy would be necessary for so long. It’s a joyous day indeed, my good friends.”

Louis holds his hand out to them both, a token of great favor and approval. Richelieu bows over it. And Jean –

Jean goes to both knees as smoothly and calmly as if he does it every day of his life. Nothing betrays the slightest hint of discomfort. His countenance is tranquil. There’s no aberrant movement when Louis rests his hand briefly on Jean’s head in benediction. When the King withdraws his hand and Jean rises again, though Jean’s hand has remained on Richelieu’s arm the entire time, Jean comes to his feet without needing to lean on Richelieu at all. Nor is there any hitch to Jean’s step when, formal presentation over, Richelieu is allowed to draw them both away from the royal presence.

Only Jean’s hand on Armand’s arm had betrayed the faint trembling to Armand. Only that point of contact had communicated the great strength it must have taken to seem so unconcerned.

Away from the King, as the chatter slowly starts up around them again, Armand can look at Jean directly. He’s relieved at once to see that Jean’s gaze remains clear and that Jean is tracking well. Whatever had caused Jean’s abrupt and unplanned fall in Richelieu’s office has passed away. Or else something about these conditions is materially altered. Whatever the reason, there has been no repetition of the event.

Jean catches Armand’s glance and, incredibly, quirks a slight smile. That’s what does it. Armand knows perhaps a tenth of what troubles Jean about his dynamic, but it’s enough for Armand to know something of how difficult it had been for Jean to have done what he’d just done. And that Jean had done it with a strength and aplomb… an unexpected wave of fierce pride sweeps Armand, leaving him almost dizzy with the force of the emotion. He’s sure his return smile shows a few too many teeth to be entirely proper.

“Incredible,” Armand tells Jean sincerely, before he can think better of it.

Jean’s eyes widen. “Armand – ”

“Messieurs?” The interruption is unfortunate, but not, all things considered, unexpected. Jean closes his mouth and turns with Armand to face their interlocutor.

Or, rather, the Cardinal and Duc de Richelieu turn. The Baronne greeting them has not come to speak to such pedestrian individuals as Armand and Jean. She offers congratulations to them both in a tone that makes her naked curiosity clear. The reminder recalls Armand to himself. The hard part isn’t over yet. The hard part has just begun.

“Thank you, Madame Baronne,” Richelieu says for them both.

“I must offer my congratulations as well,” she says, barely restraining her obvious curiosity. “Such a shock, Cardinal – Duc. Though I suppose we should all have realized there was something more behind all of those arguments than there seemed. Who else argues so often but lovers, of course! Still, I at least had no notion… yes, well...”

Not the most subtle of approaches, though she’s at least managed to refrain from asking probing questions outright. Others won’t be so circumspect. A quick glance shared confirms that Armand and Jean are united in their approach.

“Thank you, Madame,” Richelieu repeats gravely.

“It’s so nice to hear such things,” Jean adds, seemingly artlessly letting a touch of relief enter his voice. “I had begun to think this day would never come.”

“This day – oh, of course,” the Baronne sympathizes. “The King alluded to a need for secrecy…”

“At last we may be secure enough to reveal this, our greatest secret,” Jean says with a sigh and a fair bit of editorializing with regard to the truth. This is in no wise Richelieu’s greatest secret, though it may be Armand’s: the distinction between the public servant and the private individual is a curious one, and complicated by the fact that, for much of the past twenty years, Armand has spent very little time on being a private individual. In one sense that’s helpful; there is no history to elide, nothing that must be concealed or rewritten to enable this charade. Armand’s personal life is a blank slate to the citizens of Paris. One that is about to be written upon.

And Jean is doing an excellent job of writing. While Armand nods in all the proper places and makes all the proper noises, Jean doles out the first of many tellings of the tale. The Baronne gasps, nods, sympathizes in all the right places. Then she sails away to relate what she’s heard, suitably embellished, to all of her friends.

That sets the pattern for the next hour. Courtiers approach, using the guise of offering congratulations to inquire – with varying levels of discretion – about the missing twenty years and the relationship Armand and Jean are now attempting to assert. Armand and Jean take turns telling the tale. It’s never quite the same story twice, nor ever quite complete. To offer the entire fiction ready-spun would be a fatal error. Instead they tell the story in pieces, edges bleeding from one snippet to the next. The courtiers retreat and compare notes over glasses of the King’s wine, assembling it into a unified whole.

Slowly, over the course of that hour, the rough outlines emerge. The Baronne hears of a young boy’s desire to be a soldier. Two chevaliers hear about Jean’s parents, always supportive, tragically dying of the measles before they could sign his waivers. Richelieu tells a young Vicomte with stars in his eyes of Jean leaving his ancestral home and coming to Paris to seek his fortune, unwilling to remain any longer in the village that had claimed the lives of everyone he’d loved. Jean enchants a dowager Duchesse with the tale of finding new love in Paris with the young ambitious Bishop of Luçon. Nearly everyone hears about how the two of them had eloped in a fit of youthful ardor. The general reaction indicates that most people believe the ardor to have been mostly on Jean’s side, but that’s all right. They only have to believe that Richelieu had done it. What reasons they attribute to him are – not irrelevant, but certainly not of the first importance.

What is of the first importance is the mutual vow of silence, regarding their relationship, that they two of them had supposedly taken. That tale is the most delicate to tell. They tell it the least and most simply. Least, because it can only be dropped in the ears of those who will believe it: everyone else will hear it from the believers, where it can gain credence thereby. Most simply, because the court will embellish it for Armand and Jean, if given half the chance. And people are always more inclined to believe something if they’ve invented it themselves.

Armand finds the time to be surprised, privately, that he and Jean work together so well in spreading their story about Louis’ court. Of course they have some experience coordinating their efforts in the service of France, but this is an entirely different level of integration. Armand would have laid good money down on their making at least one blunder of fairly serious magnitude. To attempt to work a room full of professional courtiers and politicians, on fewer than twenty-four hours’ preparation, should be a fool’s errand.

And yet it is not. Armand and Jean work together so seamlessly that there are times when Armand forgets that they are only pretending to have been bound to each other for twenty years. They trade stories and attention back and forth seamlessly. Armand laughs at Jean’s jokes and Jean finishes Armand’s sentences. They share meaningful looks and reminisce about past intimacies until Armand is dizzy from remembering two sets of memories at once: the ones that had actually happened and the ones that Jean is recounting gaily with laughter on his lips.

“And then he said to the Queen Mother – ” Jean pauses long enough to gesture with his wine, and Armand realizes suddenly what’s coming.

“No, don’t tell them this – ” Armand protests, too late.

“He says ‘it’s terrible what time has done to you’. The look on her face!”

The young Vicomte they’re talking laughs along with Jean. Armand sputters for a moment before giving up and laughing too. It had been one of his better lines.

“You shouldn’t tell that story, though,” Armand says, getting himself back under control.

Jean shrugs. “Why not?”

“Because the King might have you thrown in the Bastille?” the Vicomte suggests.

Jean shrugs again. “Armand will pay the pistolefor me, won’t you, dear?”

“I’d be right in there next to you,” Armand says without thinking.

Jean’s lips part on a look of astonishment. Armand feels warm, all of a sudden, and has recourse to his wine to hide behind as Jean’s face softens.

The Vicomte coughs and excuses himself. Armand finds himself still standing there, held in place by the unexpected force of Jean’s gaze.

“You old softie,” Jean says, surprisingly without mockery.

“I – it’s only what anyone else in my position would do,” Armand tries to defend.

Jean shakes his head slowly. “Anyone else in your position? You mean any other First Minister would anger the King to the point of being thrown in the Bastille, all because a battered old soldier tells an unfortunate story about the Queen Mother?”

“I mean that any Dom would make sure that nothing happens to their sub that hasn’t happened to them first.”

Jean is still looking at Armand, his usual defenses oddly lowered, emotions plain and easy to read. Perhaps that’s why it hurts so much when Jean says, calmly, “Bullshit.”

Jean doesn’t say it in anger. He doesn’t say it in fear or betrayal. He says it like it’s a fact of life, unquestioned and immutable.

It hits Armand somewhere below the ribcage, and sticks there, like an arrow broken off just below the fletching. And he has no time at all to deal with it, because that’s when the next noble approaches. They have to fall back into their routine. If the smoothness of their give-and-take only accentuates the protective ache Armand finds himself carrying, well, perhaps he has no one but himself to blame.

The Comtesse de Larroque appears at the end of the first hour. Her congratulations are quickly given and obviously formulaic. She makes no bones about the fact that she only half believes what she’s saying, and that her actual goal, in approaching them, is to get Jean alone.

“If you’ll resign him to me, of course,” she says. Her eyes are narrowed behind a beautifully carved fan, and her voice is pitched louder than is strictly necessary. A few postures incline, carefully and oh-so-casually, in their direction. Eavesdropping and gossip are the grease of Louis’ court, of course.

Richelieu grits his teeth. He has no desire to be parted from Jean. It’s dangerous, for one thing; so soon into the charade, without the benefit of long practice, it would be far too easy for one of them to contradict the other if they don’t stick together. Their shared story is still far too new and limited in detail.

For another – well. Richelieu simply doesn’t wish to be parted from Jean, that’s all. Therefore he tightens his grip on Jean’s hand and prepares to tell Larroque that he will not.

But Jean turns to look at Armand. Says, with that unconscious assumption of authority that makes him so infuriating most of the time, “Of course he will.”

Armand nearly chokes, but manages to swallow back the words that had almost slipped off his tongue. Mindful of the listening courtiers, Armand makes himself ask – somewhat more flatly than is entirely appropriate for their supposed love match – “But my dear, I thought you said you’d remain at my side all night?”

Larroque’s eyes narrow further. She, at least, is not the dupe of this piece of gallantry. “Surely you can manage on your own for a short while,” she says, just short of asserting it outright. “A strong Dom like you.”

Jean’s fingers tighten in their turn, digging into Armand’s wrist. “I know, Armand, but I had forgotten I had agreed to speak with Ninon about – you remember.”

It takes all of Armand’s skill at presenting a certain front in public not to either stiffen, glare, or give Jean a betrayed look. This is unfair, and they will have to have a discussion about this later. They had agreed to stay together. And yet Jean has just maneuvered him very neatly – despite Jean’s much-vaunted ineptitude at politics! – into a position where Richelieu has no choice but to agree.

“Do you know, my dear, I had entirely forgotten,” Armand sighs, giving Jean a look that the onlookers will interpret as fond. Jean knows better how to read it, as evidenced by the half-smile that appears on Jean’s face. It’s a look Jean always gets when Armand – when – that is, at a particular well-worn stage in their frequent arguments. It certainly does nothing to mollify Armand at all.

“We’ll just be over there,” Larroque says, as if that helps. She indicates the far wall with a wave of her fan.

Richelieu follows her wave with his gaze and has to hold back an intemperate word. Court is well and truly in full swing now, and many of the couples who had entered together and remained together for a while for show have since separated. The room is now rather neatly divided into two groups by dynamic. The far wall is where the submissives are gathered.

Lord protect him, it’s as if he has no idea what goes on at these parties. While the Dominants are lingering over their wineglasses and talking politics or war, the submissives are smiling with their lips and committing murder with their words and eyes. This crowd of professional courtiers will have Jean drawn and quartered within moments. Then they’ll break out the fine tools and really go to work.

Armand nearly swallows his tongue at the thought of Jean being at their mercy. He lowers his voice and leans in a little, creating the illusion if not the reality of privacy. “Do you truly wish to go, my dear? Today, of all days?” Armand dares to lay the stress upon the word, trying to persuade Jean to change his mind. It’s a futile task at the best of times, but hope springs eternal.

Jean seems to hear what Armand’s actually saying. But after a moment’s consideration, he nods. “This is important,” he adds, though whether that’s true or whether it’s merely a cover to justify his insistence is a tangle Armand cannot undo.

Armand sighs. He’s really got no choice. And Larroque, at least, is experienced at maneuvering in these dangerous shoals. If Jean is determined to eschew Armand’s protection, perhaps he’ll at least accept Larroque’s? Armand looks down at Jean, wishing he could at least be sure.

“As you wish, my dear,” he says resignedly.

Jean gives Richelieu a tolerant smile. “I’ll be fine,” he says reassuringly. Then he transfers his hand to Larroque’s, and lets her whisk him off into the crowd.

Richelieu watches Jean disappear into the swirl of courtiers, feeling strangely adrift and curiously alone without the submissive by his side. It’s ridiculous. Richelieu has been attending court as a solitary actor for twenty years; he’s had Jean by his side at court for perhaps sixty minutes. There’s no reason for the space to his left to feel suddenly empty.

“Your Eminence!” a voice hails him. Richelieu turns automatically, just in time to return the Marquis de Mayeux’s bow. The other man smiles. “Quite the surprise,” he says conversationally. “Never thought you were the type, Richelieu. Always thought you’d taken a vow of solitude, in fact.”

“Merely one of fidelity, M. le Marquis,” Richelieu replies.

“Ah.” Mayeux is silent for a moment. Then, awkwardly – the Marquis is usually awkward – he says, “My condolences.”

Richelieu lets his head tilt slightly forward in acknowledgement. It happens almost automatically, freeing Richelieu’s mind to work rapidly on this new topic. Condolences? For what?

“You’re not the only one,” the Marquis adds, which does little to illuminate the matter. His next words do better. “Annalise and I – it’s not the same as your situation, but. We haven’t had any luck either. Not sure if it’s she or I, but that doesn’t make it easier.”


The ache in Armand’s heart intensifies, because now he knows to what de Mayeux is referring.

Richelieu has always screened for discretion in his contract subs. All of them had well understood the extra stipulations that would be in their contract before they’d even been approached to sign one, and Richelieu’s generous payments had guaranteed that they’d maintained their circumspection. But that circumspection doesn’t extend to the mere fact of their existence. Richelieu has never kept it a secret that he’s had contract subs. Somehow he hadn’t thought of what that would mean in the context of his supposed relationship with Jean.

This could have been a disaster. It could have been used to paint Richelieu in an unflattering light – the faithless Dom who fools around publically with a series of contracts, all the while insisting that the sub who wears his collar hide his very self. But there is one circumstance under which adding a contract sub to an established relationship is not only acceptable, not only legal and moral, but widely practiced and applauded.

The laws of God and man say that collarings are between a Dom and a sub. Mother Nature says that reproduction is between a man and a woman. The need for a solution to this dilemma had been what had led to the invention of contracts in the first place. That they are now used, in the modern day, to allow two parties to gain the benefits of a relationship in the short term without delving into the complexities of collaring and inheritance law is immaterial. Their original purpose had been – and their primary purpose remains – to facilitate the begetting of heirs between a Dom and a sub who would not otherwise reproduce.

And – through what is either a stunning coincidence or the divine hand of the Lord – all of Richelieu’s contract subs have been female.

“Thank you,” Richelieu says to Mayeux, letting his genuine sincerity out fully to color his tone. Mayeux need not know that Richelieu’s gratitude is for the most excellent explanation and excuse Mayeux has just handed him, and not, actually, for his commiseration on the scourge of infertility. The discretion clauses in all of those old contracts will pay their dividends yet again. No one need ever know that those arrangements had not been contracted between Armand and Jean, and a sub they had hoped might give them children.

The smile Mayeux gives him back is full of sympathy. He bows and withdraws, saying nothing further. Perhaps there’s nothing more to be said, after something like that.

Richelieu takes a deep breath and snags another glass of wine from a passing server, using it to gather his equilibrium up again. Foolish to feel so sentimental over the exercise of rewriting the last twenty years of his life to include someone whom, this morning, Richelieu would have said he didn’t even like. And Richelieu had gone to great lengths, with each of those contract subs, to prevent children. Yet it’s impossible to fall into the role without being touched by its ephemera. Richelieu has always been good at rewriting his own reality to meet the needs of the moment. He’s used to doing it for reasons of state – and indeed this is for the good of the state; is Richelieu not operating under a royal command? – but there’s something personal about this one that says that it will not be easily shaken off. This is part of the story, now. Part of the ruse. Now Armand and Jean have spent the last twenty years trying, futilely, for children.

Armand doesn’t even know if Jean wants children. And because Armand had allowed Jean to go off with the Comtesse de Larroque, he can’t ask. Armand scowls into his wine. At least that makes him feel more like himself, and he’s able to turn to the next person to call his name with something more like his usual composure.

“Good evening to you,” Richelieu says to the Duc de Guise, attempting to establish a safe line of approach.

“Don’t know how you’ve done it,” de Guise says, cutting right through the pleasantries to get to the point of interest. “Twenty years! Everyone’s going to be asking for your story, I’ll wager. Everyone will want to hear your advice, now that the old leash-and-collar is off with the other subs and they can get you alone.”

“There’s nothing much to tell,” Richelieu says self-deprecatingly.

“Yes, well, they’ll want to hear it all anyway. You and Treville! Though I suppose I mustn’t call him that anymore, hey? Wouldn’t have thought it of you, but… I suppose it just goes to show you never really know anyone.”

“Wouldn’t have thought what of me?” Richelieu asks, cautious.

De Guise blinks. “Any of it! Why, just look at him – Captain of the Musketeers, an illustrious career, friends with Larroque and her rabble-rousers – and all the while you’re plodding along, crafting your laws, saying all the usual things without a hint that, in private, you’ve earned his trust. They say politics make strange bedfellows. But if you’ll pardon my saying so, your Eminence, this has got to be the strangest.”

“My primary concern is with a strong France,” Richelieu says truthfully. “In pursuit of that goal, my own personal preference and opinions are rarely involved, and never the first thing I consult. Whatever I may feel privately, the fact remains that the current political situation – ”

“I hear you, Cardinal. If you tried to change the laws, Lord, wouldn’t some of these Doms howl! Something wrong with a Dom who can’t see past the idea of a sub as property, that’s what. But they have power nonetheless.” The Duc’s eyes sharpen. “But your announcing your relationship just now… Richelieu, is there something I should know about?”

Merde. Richelieu curses silently to himself. It’s easy to forget that the Duc’s affable and folksy demeanor conceals a sharp mind and a canny political wit. The Duc isn’t a fool, he just likes to play one to lull the unwary. Usually Richelieu’s too sharp himself to fall for it. Usually he hasn’t just had the most distracting twelve hours in existence.

Richelieu’s silent a moment too long. The Duc nods slowly, seeming to reach his own conclusions. Says, “One of these days the sub and I will have to have you over. A dinner-party. Yes. We can talk more then. Bit private, hey? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the upcoming legislative session. Very interested indeed. I’m with you, you know, for what it’s worth. And I think you may be right… The winds are changing. There may be an opportunity now that there hasn’t been before.”

It’s by the grace of God alone that Richelieu doesn’t give the game away right then, by gaping at de Guise too blatantly to be ignored. De Guise bows again, and Richelieu manages to return the gesture with a deep nod. Then de Guise vanishes into the crowd, leaving a deeply disturbed Richelieu behind.

The Duc de Guise has never been a fan of Richelieu’s politics or a supporter of his maneuvers. But that invitation to a dinner-party had been more than just an offer of food and companionship. It had been an offer of support. Support for the policies de Guise apparently believes Richelieu’s about to introduce.

Sub-friendly policies. Good Lord above. Richelieu has been at court with Jean for sixty minutes, and he’s receiving declarations of support for his perceived new legislative agenda.

A passing footman pauses near Richelieu, tilting his tray enticingly. Richelieu avails himself of the opportunity to dispose of his glass of wine. Otherwise, he’ll probably drink the rest of it. And it’s imperative that he keeps a clear head.

He has a feeling he’s going to need it.

Chapter Text

Separated from Jean, the second hour finds Richelieu being passed from noble to noble like a hot pastry from a market-stall. Everyone wants a word with him; everyone wants to express their astonishment. There are more professions of support, which continue to astonish Richelieu. He’d anticipated that the political situation would shift with their announcement of his most unorthodox alliance, of course. But he hadn’t realized that he would be implicitly declaring a new position on subs’ rights just by claiming to have collared Jean.

Jean’s voice whispers to him, from Richelieu’s office mere hours ago, bare moments before he’d knelt with such shocking and heart-wrenching vulnerability. Maybe you’ve spent the last twenty years telling people that submissives should kneel, but I’ve spent them on my own two feet. You’re the great judge of people, Armand. I’ll leave it to your canny judgment which people are more likely to believe: that I’d kneel for you, or that you’d allow me to stand?

Jean had known that Richelieu would be making this declaration. He’d even tried to warn Richelieu about it. Richelieu hadn’t listened, the more fool he.

So much for the canny politician.

As the second hour passes away, though, Richelieu finds himself wishing that more people were approaching him with subtle declarations of support for his supposed new stance on subs’ rights. That would be preferable to the number of Doms who take him a little to one side, shuffle their feet, and after mumbling congratulations on his collar-mate ask if Richelieu has any advice to give them? Because their own sub is unruly, or headstrong, or disrespectful, and surely Richelieu must have great experience in managing that sort of thing…

Score one for de Guise. Everyone’s going to be asking for your story, I’ll wager. Everyone will want to hear your advice, now that the old leash-and-collar is off with the other subs and they can get you alone.

It is apparently a night for Richelieu being given prophetic warnings that he dismisses at his peril. He will have to keep careful watch, lest there be a third instance. Superstitious, perhaps: but these things do so often come in threes.

“We haven’t been together long,” a young Vicomtesse is saying, frustration leaking clearly into her voice. She’s new to court, and it shows. “Just a few months. Arranged, you understand. Well. There just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day, Cardinal! I had no idea – she must not understand all the demands on my time!”

Richelieu pastes the most sympathetic look he can find on short notice on his face, and makes a humming noise of general understanding. “Yes, cohabitating can be difficult. I find that it helps if each party begins by stating their own needs, and then working towards an amicable agreement.”

“Difficult! That’s one way of putting it! She seems to think we should eat our meals at the same time, and then she wants to sit together in the drawing room, or join me in my office with a book, or, or…”

Richelieu tunes the Vicomtesse out at this point. He has a pretty fair idea of what’s coming next. He’s provided spiritual counseling on this matter numerous times before, so he feels himself well-equipped to answer, even independent of his nonexistent relationship with Jean.

“My time is far too precious to be spent on – on fripperies,” the Vicomtesse is ranting. “That’s what I need to explain to her!”

“Some people need time with others,” Richelieu says calmly. “Others prefer time apart – as you do, my dear Vicomtesse. Every relationship is a process.”

“A process. Yes.” She nods, gaze faraway. “Obedience is not trained within a month, of course. I will work harder. Thank you, Cardinal.”

Richelieu starts to nod. Then he pauses. Something about her phrasing catches his attention.

Any other day he’d dismiss it.

Any other day he wouldn’t have the indelible image of Jean, kneeling and vulnerable, painted behind his eyelids whenever he blinks.

“Obedience is, of course, an important component of the bond between a Dominant and a submissive,” Richelieu says carefully. “But it is certainly not the only component. Indeed, in your case, my dear Vicomtesse, I might consider focusing on some of your other shared attributes first.”

“Other shared attributes?” The Vicomtesse looks confused.

“Your submissive likes to read?”

“Unfortunately,” she says with a grimace. “I told her she’s wasting her time with that rot, but she doesn’t listen. That’s exactly the problem.”

“The problem is that you don’t understand why she likes reading?” Richelieu tries, without much hope.

“The problem is that she keeps doing it!” Now the Vicomtesse just seems annoyed. “I’ve told her I think it’s rot, but I just found two new novels in her rooms!”

A sinking feeling opens up in the pit of Richelieu’s stomach. “Well, if you’re spending time in her rooms together, surely you can’t be too dissatisfied with her, Madame?”

“Oh, she went to her knees fast enough when I pushed,” she says impatiently. “She’s obedient enough there, at least. But her job is to look pretty in public and please me in the bedroom. Reading! What good is that?”

“Perhaps it passes the time between court appearances and bedroom play.”

The Vicomtesse’s mouth opens and closes a few times without sound. “The time between?”

“You are not at court always, are you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Nor always in the bedchamber.”

“Certainly not.”

“You have a myriad of other things going on, as I think you’ve said.”

“Yes, I – ”

“What do you expect your submissive to do during those times?”

“…I – I suppose I thought – ” she flounders, then rallies. “Grooming is very complex for submissives, I understand.”

Richelieu can’t help it: he laughs. “Surely you don’t think she should spend all of her time primping?”

She flushes. “Well – why not? Isn’t her purpose to serve me?”

Richelieu stills, mirth drained out of him. Here it is, the sour note he’d caught earlier, the dissonance that had made him pause and dig deeper.

“What then is your purpose?” he asks carefully.

The floundering is back. “I – to serve the King, of course. And God,” she adds hastily.

“Are you a God, Vicomtesse?” Richelieu inquires, deceptively mild. “Or a King?”

The Vicomtesse is sharp enough to catch the threat. “Of course not,” she falters.

“Do not set yourself up as one, then,” he advises ominously.

“Yes, your Eminence,” she says, abashed. “Then – your advice is – ”

“My counsel,” he says precisely, laying extra emphasis on the ecclesiastical term, “is that you look for ground you may hold in common with your submissive, apart from your bedroom activities. Perhaps that is reading. Perhaps that is music or art. Who knows? But I certainly do not advise that you forget, even for a moment, that your submissive’s happiness is in your charge.” Richelieu makes a point of casually scanning the room. “I wonder what she would say about her happiness, if I were to ask her when she next takes confession.”

The Vicomtesse goes white. “I – I am sure that she would tell you she is happy,” she says faintly.

“Are you?” Richelieu smiles sardonically. “How nice, to be so sure. Calm and placid indeed must be the soul who has no doubts. Truly they will be exalted in Heaven. How does that Bible verse go? ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ The word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” the Vicomtesse says automatically. Then her eyes widen. “Yes. Thank you, your Eminence. I will think on your words. I will think on them most prayerfully.”

“Then you will be blessed, my child. God be with you.”

Richelieu lets his smile turn benevolent. The Vicomtesse seizes the opening for what it is, and bolts.

As soon as she’s safely gone, Richelieu lets out a long breath. That… had not at all been what he’d expected. A normal enough situation on the surface, but when he’d dug into it, there had been a pit of vipers underneath.

How many other Dominants think as the Vicomtesse had? How many others are neglectful, and ignorant of their neglect? Yes, certainly, the Dominant is the head of the household. But a virtuous submissive is worth more than rubies, and Proverbs makes no mention of grooming as the particular skill by which a submissive’s worth may be judged.

Whatever effect a well-groomed sub may have on their Dom.

“Your Eminence?” Another voice interrupts his musings; Richelieu turns, to be greeted with an elegant bow from the Duc d'Angouleme. “Your Eminence, congratulations on your happy news! Well. I suppose it’s not news to you, any more. But as it is to the rest of us, I will repeat, congratulations.”

“Thank you, Monsieur le Duc,” Richelieu says with as gracious a smile as he can manage. “Your kind thoughts are most gratifying.”

Richelieu expects the Duc to move on now, but instead the man lingers.

“I was wondering,” the man says abruptly. “I had not thought to ask you, thinking you had no experience in these matters – but since it seems as if you do – I wonder, your Eminence, might I trouble you for some advice? Some, er, pastoral advice. As it were.” His gaze slides sideways. Following it, Richelieu sees a slim young man in the Ducal colors, clustered among several other submissives.

Richelieu stifles a groan.

The Duc’s advice is more easily given, at least. His submissive’s sister is giving birth soon, and the Duc cannot possibly be away from Paris; is it all right, is it proper, to let his sub travel alone? Well-chaperoned, of course. The Duc’s mother had advised against it, quoting Deuteronomy. But the passage is vague, and it would mean so much to Michel…

Richelieu cites Matthew on filial piety and gives his approval to the journey. The relief on the Duc’s face makes Richelieu feel better. Angouleme, at least, is taking his responsibilities seriously. But the next several conversations veer back into dangerous territory. In twenty years at Louis’ court, Richelieu can’t recall ever having spent so much time talking about submissives and the proper management thereof. It’s as if the moment he shows up with one at his side, he’s suddenly an expert. It’s baffling. He’d had no idea so much conversation would concern the topic.

What has happened to the more pressing business of state? Richelieu tries several times to bring up the new trade terms they’re negotiating with Savoy, or the troubling rumors coming out of Austria-Hungary, to no avail. Even the usually reliable topic of Spain’s perennial aggression fails to interest anyone for more than a few sentences. By comparison, domestic concerns are all-consuming.

Matters come to a head when Richelieu finds himself pinned by the self-centered and obnoxious Comte de Chalus. The pompous fool has never been one of Richelieu’s favorite noblemen, but Richelieu’s never found him this insufferable before. The man craves flattery; Richelieu doesn’t mind paying a few compliments for the sake of harmony, and as a result Chalus has historically been a strong supporter of Louis. Since the Comte has wealth as well as old blood, Richelieu usually makes sure to seek him out and flatter him appropriately whenever he attends court.

He’s regretting that today. Richelieu’s never seen Chalus with a sub before, though Richelieu had known the man had had one; he’d always assumed they had been off with the other submissives at gatherings like this, talking about… whatever submissives talk of.

Grooming, perhaps. Richelieu has to hide a wince at the thought, remembering the Vicomtesse.

“But as I was saying…” the Comte continues. Richelieu nods hastily.

The sub at Chalus’ side says nothing. She’s kneeling, which, while somewhat unusual, isn’t outside the bounds of proper behavior. She’d gone to her knees most prettily in greeting to Richelieu and then simply not gotten back up. Nor has she spoken at all.

Some subs, Richelieu knows, are more comfortable not taking part in Dominant discussions. Some subs prefer to remain low so as to avoid notice. Some subs are shy.

Perhaps Chalus’ sub is merely shy. Perhaps that’s why Richelieu has never met her before. Perhaps Chalus is generous when it comes to honoring his submissive’s preferences.

That train of thought would have somewhat more traction if Chalus had said as much. Or if Chalus had bothered to do so much as introduce her.

Instead Chalus had done what many the others so far tonight had done: taken the opportunity to bend Richelieu’s ear on the theme of the evening, which, roughly summarized, seems to be submissives and their place.

“The important thing,” the Comte insists for at least the third time. “The most important thing is making sure your sub knows their place.”

The woman kneeling at Chalus’ side twitches. Richelieu only catches it out of the corner of his eye, but it’s enough to see that she’s trying to curl in on herself, make herself smaller and less obtrusive. And Richelieu knows, he knows, that she’s not kneeling because she’s shy.

Years, decades of practice are the only thing that keeps the sudden white-hot anger shooting through his veins from showing in his face or voice. Frost appears in its place. The words feel like icicles in Armand’s mouth when he says, cuttingly, “The most important thing is making sure my Jean is happy.”

The Comte reddens. He opens his mouth to reply. Richelieu has no intention of letting him, and is getting ready to say or do something that control or no control will probably result in the man and his coffers running straight off to support Gaston, when –


A tall blond coiffure married to a low-necked dress swoops down on Richelieu, inserting itself between the Comte and the Cardinal. She leans in for the two-cheek kiss, scandalous from a sub to a Dom, but the Comtesse de Larroque has never much cared about scandal.

“Richelieu, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. I need to talk to you. Oh! Monsieur le Comte de Chalus! You’ll pardon me, I’m sure. I didn’t notice you were there.”

Richelieu observes, to his shamefully vindictive pleasure, that the Comte is now nearly purple-faced with rage.

“But I’ve been looking for his Eminence everywhere,” Larroque continues, “and I absolutely must talk with him at once about the King’s – well, yes, discretion! Richelieu, walk with me?”

“Of course,” Richelieu says promptly, glad for the escape. He offers the Comtesse his arm out of sheer reflex and curses himself a moment later. She’s never accepted it before; the handful of other times Richelieu had tried, Larroque had stared at his arm with the contempt usually reserved for dead rodents, and then swept on ahead to wherever he’d been attempting to escort her with icy disdain.

It’s therefore a shock when Larroque lays her fingers primly on his forearm. Richelieu hides it immediately, of course, and guides her away with all the aplomb he can muster on short notice. They stroll casually towards the fringes of the court, smiling and nodding at anyone they pass, until they’ve reached a place they can speak with some semblance of privacy.

Through it all Richelieu strains his eyes for Jean. He has no success. Jean isn’t with Larroque, and he doesn’t seem to be among the main crowd, either. Larroque has left him behind.

“Where’s Jean?” he demands, as soon as he judges it safe to speak.

“He’s fine. Mamie and Fleur are with him. Frankly, he’s doing better than you seem to be. Another minute and you were going to give Chalus a heart attack.”

“He deserved it,” Richelieu says, unable to keep the annoyance entirely from his voice.

“You didn’t used to think so.”

“He never used to speak to me in such a way before.”

Larroque has dropped her hand from Richelieu’s arm and produced her fan instead; she twirls it in front of her face now, where it serves as a socially acceptable barrier to offset the intimacy of being seen to converse privately with a strange Dom. A perfectly normal piece of subtext that nevertheless has Richelieu on edge. Richelieu is conversing with a strange sub, but his behavior hasn’t changed an iota. Ninon de Larroque is the one who has to take steps to protect her reputation. And if she weren’t who she is – if her reputation does take damage from this risqué tête-à-tête – she’s the one who would be blamed, and the one who would pay. Not Richelieu.

“Are you really that blind?” Larroque demands of him now. Her eyes are snapping above the delicate lace edging her fan, and this time, when she gives him that scornful look, Richelieu begins to feel he deserves it.

“Tell me about it,” Richelieu says impulsively. It’s worth it almost for the look on Larroque’s face.

“You were single before,” Larroque says slowly. Not as if she’s choosing her words carefully, but as if she’s explaining a simple concept to a dim-witted child. “You wrote laws they liked, backed the causes they favored, and so that was enough. They believed you were on their side and there was nothing further to say.”

“And that’s changed because I’m – ”

“Yes,” Larroque says, speaking to fill the silence left by Richelieu’s inability to complete that sentence in a satisfactory way. “Now they want to gossip.”

“That’s not gossip. It’s disgusting.”

“Oh?” Larroque’s eyes have cooled not one molten degree. “What’s so disgusting about it, your Eminence?”

“They’re not concerned with their subs’ happiness, only their obedience,” Richelieu hisses. “And the sort of obedience they have in mind doesn’t come from an equal’s consent.”

“Yet they see nothing wrong with that,” Larroque finishes. “They see it as the right and natural order of things.”

“The Vicomtesse was annoyed that her sub wanted to spend time with her,” Richelieu says, seemingly unable to stop. “She thought a sub was like – like a necklace. That her sub was there to adorn her, and should remain quietly in a drawer the rest of the time. She was irritated that she liked to read.”

“You’re seeing the worst of it now.” Larroque snaps her fan shut, tucking it away. The barrier gone. “I’ll do you the favor of telling you that this is no more representative of the populace at large than the idyllic delusion you lived under before. The average sub doesn’t get punished for reading or standing or talking. The nobility magnifies everything, here as with everywhere else. In the middle classes subs run businesses next to their Doms. In the poorer classes subs work as hard as Doms. Anyone may scrub a floor; the floor gets just as clean. Ah, but the wage you have to pay for the scrubbing…”

“They’re cheated?”

“Don’t be a fool.” Larroque sighs. “The sub is paid a fair wage. It’s just that the Dominant is paid a little more. Because they’ve got a family to support, don’t you see? And if tomorrow you can only have one person scrub your floor, well, that sub didn’t really need their wages, did they? Their Dom will take care of them. Whereas the Dom – ”

“They’ve got a family to support.”

Richelieu thinks, inconsequentially, of telling Cook’s second daughter’s youngest that he’d increase her wages if she found a sub to wear her collar. He’d thought he’d been helping. A sub would give her babe legitimacy. And of course, with two more mouths to feed she’d be needing more income.

“Is there anywhere this doesn’t touch?” he asks Larroque, bitterness tasting like ashes in his mouth.

“Very few places,” she answers honestly. “Between some couples, I have seen true equality. But even they, once they leave the house, have their roles to play. Society extracts a powerful tax from those who don’t comply with its dictates. I should know; I’ve been paying it all my life. And then there is the law.”

Larroque shows uncharacteristic restraint. She says the law, rather than your law. Richelieu hears the latter all the same.

“Why are you helping me?” Richelieu asks. It’s blunter than he’d normally dream of being, but the Comtesse de Larroque abhors artifice of any kind. He’d used to pile it on even higher, just to get under her skin. He’d used to do a lot of things.

“Because you looked like you needed it,” she says in equally blunt return.

“That’s never mattered before.” He thinks about it. “Ah. You’d known about Jean…”

Larroque inclines her head in acknowledgement, but doesn’t speak.

“He asked you to help me.”

She smiles. “Yes. Just now. Right after he apologized for not warning me before showing up at court on your leash.”

Richelieu exhales through his nose, unsure of how to react. His ego feels the pinch. When he’d first come to Paris and tried his hand at politics, he’d gotten his nose bloodied but good. He’d sworn then that one day he’d be on top of the heap. And here he is. He shouldn’t need anyone’s help.

He certainly shouldn’t need anyone’s help to protect his sub. Let alone said sub’s help. Jean is his to protect, not the other way around.

Because protection isn’t a sub’s place, of course. Richelieu sighs again.

“Thank you,” he makes himself say. It’s almost worth it for the way Larroque’s eyebrows shoot straight up in sheer astonishment.

What had Jean told her? In the retelling of this afternoon’s events, Richelieu doesn’t make a very good showing. From his and Jean’s argument at the Palais-Cardinal to the unforgiveable imposition of asking Jean to kneel in Richelieu’s office, Richelieu has been showcasing some of the worst behavior of his dynamic. And Larroque has no good feeling towards Richelieu to begin with. She’d have had every reason to expect that Richelieu would behave as badly towards Jean as the Comte de Chalus does towards his nameless sub.

And yet she’d come and rescued him anyway.

What on earth had Jean told her?

“Come on,” Larroque says after a moment, seeming to come to a decision. “There are some people here worth knowing. I’ll introduce you.”

With Larroque accompanying him, Richelieu finds the next hour at court to be much more pleasant than the last. The various couples to whom Larroque introduces him give Richelieu skeptical looks at first. He can’t blame them. His public positions certainly do not make him out to be their ally. But Larroque’s presence procures civility. Richelieu is left to do the rest himself; he exerts himself, and flatters himself he makes some headway.

No fewer than two Duchesses, three Comtes and a Vicomte all make what they fondly believe to be veiled threats to Richelieu’s limbs and sexual organs should he fail to treat Jean the way Jean deserves. Richelieu has no compunction about making promises about Jean’s safety in return. Nor is he above subtle reminders that, in the last twenty years, Jean has certainly showed no signs of ill-treatment. How often had Jean spent time with the threateners at the Comtesse de Larroque’s salon, again? And isn’t Jean’s military career impressive? Captain of the Musketeers! Quite an accomplishment. Yes, Jean is very devoted to his career. Well, Richelieu supposes it does take up rather a lot of time, but dear Lord, Richelieu can hardly throw stones on that account. The two of them do argue quite a bit, don’t they? Jean is very opinionated. But then again, so is Richelieu. Quite well-matched, the two of them, wouldn’t the threatener agree?

They all eventually do agree, persuaded by Richelieu’s apparent confidence and ease. Only Larroque is silent. She watches the exchanges with veiled eyes, holding herself above the give-and-take, listening but not speaking.

She knows the truth, of course. But if she’s half the political mind she’s previously professed herself to be, then she’ll hear what lays behind these lies. They’re promises. By stating his position thusly, Richelieu may be winning an entrée into these nobles’ society that he otherwise hasn’t earned. But he’s also setting the standard by which he’ll be judged. If Richelieu deviates from it in the future, if he attempts to restrict Jean’s activities or curb Jean’s tongue – if he fails to treat Jean as the equal he’s professed Jean to be – then each and every one of these smiling nobles will eviscerate him for it. The game would not be worth the penny, if Richelieu did not fully intend to win it.

Perhaps Larroque does see that. Perhaps that’s why she holds her own tongue as Richelieu makes these promises.

This third hour may pass more pleasantly than the second, but it’s still not an unmixed blessing. The space by Richelieu’s side remains empty. He’d come here with Jean. All but promised to keep Jean safe from the knives of Louis’ court. And yet he’d let Jean go off with barely a murmur. True, Larroque had been with him. But Larroque is not with him now. Richelieu doesn’t know Mamie and Fleur; he doesn’t even know their titles. All he knows is that Larroque had trusted them to take care of Jean.

And that Jean trusts Larroque. Jean had wanted to go earlier. That counts for something. Although Richelieu can’t help but suspect that he’d less wanted to go and more been resigned to going. Still, it should not be possible for matters to have gone so badly wrong that Jean could not come back to Richelieu any time he pleases.

But two hours is more than long enough for Jean to be alone in the snake pit. Especially since the Queen is once again taking the waters. When Anne is in presence, she imposes a modicum of restraint on the gentler dynamic. Without her the harsher elements at court have free rein. And they take advantage of it.

Richelieu says as much to Larroque in a quiet moment between introductions. Surprisingly, she agrees with him.

“Go get some wine,” she tells him. “Jean will need it, believe me. I’ll go fetch him out. You’d never get a foot into that crowd.”

Richelieu knows she’s right. He bows acknowledgement and goes to find a footman.

True to her word, Larroque emerges from the swirling crowd of submissives a few moments later, Jean’s arm firmly linked through hers. They wend their way through the crowds to meet with Richelieu, who, in a burst of foresight, has secured not one but three glasses of wine. He hands the first to Jean and the second to Larroque, keeping the third for himself.

“Are you all right?” he asks Jean, keeping his voice low. The room’s still too crowded for truly personal speech, so he has to keep the question generic, instead of asking what he really wants to ask. What did they say to you? Why are the corners of your mouth pinched and your shoulders tight?

There will be time for those questions later, and Richelieu will be asking them. For the moment, it will have to be enough that Jean nods, and transfers his hand from Larroque to Richelieu as soon as he properly can. The tightness in Jean’s shoulders eases as he does. It’s ever so slight, and Richelieu would never have noticed if he hadn’t been watching Jean so closely, but it feels like a gift. It feels like more than he deserves and everything he’d never known he’d wanted. Richelieu hates to admit it, but the moment Jean’s arm is tucked back under his where it belongs, he feels a great deal better. More settled. Calmer.

How many hours can one day have? How can the Richelieu of this evening be so different from the Richelieu of this morning? He sets this question aside to ponder later. Tonight, Jean is back on his arm and all is right with the world. Richelieu takes a sip of his wine and beams out at the crowd.

That good feeling lasts for approximately thirty seconds.

The main door opens again. The herald steps forward and strikes his staff upon the floor. Only once. An ordinary noble.

A surprised hush falls over the crowd. Who is arriving at this hour? Etiquette frowns very strongly on joining court late. If you can’t be bothered to show up within the first hour, propriety says, you oughtn’t to show up at all. A late arrival implies importance; it implies that one’s own concerns were more pressing than timely attendance upon whomever had opened their home. When visiting political subordinates, one might arrive late to reinforce one’s superior position. When playing power games, a late arrival might be a flanking maneuver, or a statement, or even an opening of hostilities. But to arrive late to the palace of the King…

“Monsieur le Comte de Rochefort,” the master of ceremonies announces.

Richelieu finds himself tensing as the Comte steps into the room. He tenses further when he realizes that the Comte isn’t alone. But it’s Jean who takes the step forward. He’s gone pale, and his hand has tightened on Richelieu’s arm tightly enough that his fingers tingle.

“And guest,” the master of ceremonies adds, almost as an afterthought.

The man who enters at Rochefort’s side is richly enough dressed, but the clothes hang loosely over a thin frame that seems more wasted than mere nature can attest. Richelieu’s immediate theory of a long and debilitating illness is further supported by the prominent and ugly scars visible on every exposed inch of the newcomer’s skin. They’re not the thin fine scars of blades or the round puckered scars left by rifle balls. They’re the jagged scars of skin lesions: an unmistakable signature left by disease. There had been a plague epidemic three years or so ago which could account for it. Not that there’s any easy way to tell one disease’s scars from another’s. The same measles that had wiped out half of Troisville village could have left this legacy on the newcomer’s skin.

There’s a rustle throughout the court as the man steps further into the light at Rochefort’s side and his scars become more widely visible. A few of the more ignorant step back, afraid of catching something. Under other circumstances Richelieu would spare some attention for them. For the entire rest of the room. But all of his focus – everything not taken up with watching Rochefort, two tigers eyeing each other across the Serengeti – is on Jean. Who has also tensed. And not, Richelieu thinks, because he’s worried about catching disease.

“Joseph,” Jean says faintly.

His grip on Richelieu’s arm loosens. A moment later his hand slips off entirely.

“Jean?” Richelieu remembers to keep his voice down just in the nick of time. Everyone is looking at them. Rochefort and his guest had sought them with their eyes the moment they’d entered, and the rest of the assembled court is following their gaze.

Richelieu doesn’t like the smiles on either of the newcomers’ faces. The only thing he likes less is the faintest tremble of Jean’s hands as he clenches them by his sides.

“There you are,” the stranger says. “I’ve been looking for you for so long, Jean.”

Jean tenses. And then he does something extraordinary. He raises his hand and touches the collar he’s wearing. Armand’s collar.

To the surrounding courtiers it probably looks unconscious. Reflexive. A sub seeking reassurance.

The newcomer’s gaze catches on the collar. It sharpens. And Armand would wager everything he owns that Jean had drawn the stranger’s attention there on purpose.

“What’s this?” the stranger breathes. There’s something wrong with his tone of voice. As if he’s trying to sound authoritative – calm – but manages only to sound greedy. Grasping. Cruel. “After all this time, do you dare to say you’ve been faithless?” His eyes narrow. “You forget your – ”

“Hold your tongue,” Armand snaps, outraged. He wants to say more, but he takes his own advice. To condescend to argue with this stranger would elevate this stranger’s position insupportably. As much as it would please Armand in this minute to deal the stranger a set-down before all of Louis’ court – this stranger who presumes to speak this way to Armand’s Jean – the fact that this man has walked in at Rochefort’s side makes him dangerous.

Jean’s arms hang limply at his sides, but Armand doesn’t need the touch, this time, to know that Jean is shaking. That is the priority. Foolish political games can wait.

The stranger doesn’t attempt to defy Richelieu’s injunction in order to speak further, but neither does he desist from glaring at Jean. The rest of the court, too, has fallen silent. Joseph and Jean stare at each other. Rochefort and Richelieu watch them both. And the court – Louis included – watches all four of them.

Everyone’s waiting to see who acts first.

It’s Jean. Without a word – without another look, at the newcomers or at the King or at Larroque – without even a gesture that might bid Richelieu to follow – Jean spins on his heel and slowly, deliberately, stalks out of the room.

Jean doesn’t move to pass Rochefort or Rochefort’s guest. He walks to the back, where one of the Musketeers standing around the walls of the room promptly opens a servants’ door. The Musketeer just as promptly closes it again behind Jean, and moves to stand in front of the door. His gesture has all the subtlety of a bayonet to the throat: none shall pass.

Richelieu doesn’t even try. Jean had made it clear he’d had no wish to be followed. All Richelieu can do is stand there, attempt to look composed, and turn slowly back to face Rochefort.

Rochefort, who is smirking. And his companion, who is looking at the door through which Jean had exited, and wearing a smile that mingles possession and cruel anticipation in equal measure. It stretches his thin lips, and the scars on his cheeks twist in new and uglier ways.

“Oh dear, Monsieur de Treville must be feeling unwell,” Rochefort says urbanely. “But that’s all right. We’ll catch up with him later.”

He turns his head and meets Richelieu’s eyes squarely.

“After all,” Rochefort says, soft now. “He’ll be so eager to reunite with his beloved Joseph.”

Richelieu holds Rochefort’s gaze as firmly as he can. Larroque, at his side, gasps quietly. It’s a slip. But it hardly matters. No one hears it over the way the court bursts into excited speech.

Louis beckons the newcomers forward, and they obey the silent summons. Richelieu steps back with the rest to allow them to pass. He doesn’t imagine the way both Rochefort and his mysterious guest flick Richelieu identical looks of smug self-satisfaction.

Richelieu wants to cross his arms, grind his teeth, say something precise and cutting in return. He allows himself to do none of those things. He returns the two newcomers his most bland and uninterested look, letting his eyes pass seemingly sightlessly over their countenances as they pass.

The forced stillness at least affords Richelieu the opportunity to study the newcomer more closely. The man – Joseph? – may be scarred and emaciated, but his gait is arrogant. He is not someone who relies upon his physical prowess to cement his position in life. If Richelieu had had any doubt about what the stranger does rely upon, a closer study of his dress answers the question. The man doesn’t merely wear extremely stereotypically Dominant fashions. He takes them to the very edge of what is acceptable, blurring the line between the throne room and the bedroom.

And not just any bedroom. The man exhales sadism with every breath. As he approaches the King, his aura brushes up against everyone he passes. An old trick, to make sure everyone in the room can feel the strength of his Dominance.

Richelieu wants to sneer. Joseph’s little display is gauche in the extreme. Richelieu would never resort to pushing the members of Louis’ court around with his will. However easier it might make something in the moment, in the long term it’s a losing strategy. And Richelieu had thought he’d been building a better atmosphere at court than this. One more focused on collaboration and a mutual investment in the strength of Louis’ rule. Yet, as Joseph passes, some of the attendees at court blink, and one of the unattached subs standing close to the center of the crowd visibly shivers.

It would be interesting, Richelieu thinks coldly, to stack his own will up against Joseph’s. Richelieu entertains no delusion that even the impressive amount of will Joseph is displaying represents the upper limit of his capabilities. But Richelieu still thinks that this Joseph would learn, if it came to such a barbaric contest, that the tales Richelieu has allowed to circulate of his own willpower still fall short of the true mark.

Joseph turns his head ever so slightly as he passes Richelieu. Rochefort doesn’t. But Joseph and Richelieu lock eyes briefly, and Richelieu’s estimation of the probability of that contest coming to pass doubles instantly.

The moment Rochefort and his guest are past, caught up in the web of the King’s attention with no immediate method of escape, Larroque’s hand is on his arm.

“He’ll be busy with the King for a few minutes,” she hisses urgently. “Then they’ll be heading straight for you. You don’t want that fight, not yet, you don’t know all the history in play. Get out of here. Find Jean.”

The sense of this pierces through the veil of irrational anger and dismay. Richelieu nods abruptly. “You?” he asks quickly.

“I’ll play rearguard. My people can tie them up in inanities for the rest of the night. Just go, Richelieu. Find out what’s going on and fix it.”

“I will,” Richelieu promises her. Then he takes her advice and strides back along the path Rochefort and his guest had just walked, past the startled herald and out of the receiving room.

There’s one more advantage Richelieu has that Larroque doesn’t know about. The Musketeers guard the King, but the Louvre draws its guards from many different regiments. Tonight – the schedule having been cleverly rearranged – the halls are patrolled by Red Guards.

Cahusac falls into step with Richelieu as soon as Richelieu rounds the first corner. “The word’s already out. We’ll keep an eye on him, boss. He won’t go anywhere without one of us knowing.”

Not for the first time, Richelieu is grateful to have such loyal and trusted subordinates. “Thank you,” he says with as much sincerity as he can muster. “Stay on site here. Find out what men Rochefort has, if any.”

“Will do.”

“One other thing,” Richelieu adds. “The Comtesse de Larroque. Provide her any assistance she requires.”

Cahusac blinks, but that’s the only evidence of surprise he betrays. “Right.”

There will be questions about that later – Richelieu’s lieutenants meddle in his life nearly as much as their Musketeer equivalents meddle in Treville’s – but later is later, and right now Richelieu has bigger matters to worry about.

He leaves Cahusac behind at the entrance to the access corridors, and strides through them corridor at the fastest pace he can manage short of an outright run. They’re more direct than the formal corridors, in addition to being less observed. It takes only moments before he’s reached the courtyard of the Louvre.

His carriage isn’t there. Of course not; Jean would have taken it. But Jussac is waiting, holding two horses’ heads.

“Right after you left Milady sent word that Rochefort was back in town,” Jussac explains before Richelieu can form the question. “She’d lost him in the slums, and we didn’t pick him up again until he arrived at the Louvre tonight. I sent word to Cahusac. Then I thought one or both of you might need extra transportation.”

“Jussac, you’re a jewel,” Richelieu says with heartfelt sincerity.

“Just a Red Guard,” Jussac says modestly. He tosses one set of reins to Richelieu. “Jean took the carriage back to the Palais. He told me to tell you that, so I think he’d like your company. And that’s where all the reports are being sent.”

“Then that’s where we’re going.”

Richelieu mounts, and with Jussac at his side he turns his horse towards home – and, hopefully, answers.

Chapter Text

The ride back to the Palais-Cardinal is swift. Richelieu dismounts in the carriage-loop and tosses the reins to Jussac.

“Funnel all of the intelligence through yourself and Milady,” Richelieu orders, already striding towards the main house. “If you both agree that something is important enough, bring it to me. Otherwise don’t interrupt until I say differently.”

“Right,” Jussac says with a nod. “Armand – ”

Armand pauses, though only briefly.

“Be careful with Treville. Something’s wrong. I only talked to him for a few minutes earlier, but that was more than enough to – something is really, truly wrong.”

Armand nods. “Yes. I know.”

“Right.” Jussac leads the horses away. Armand jogs up the remaining stairs and into the main house.

He passes quickly through the entryway and down the main corridor into the private wing. The hour is late and the servants are few; those who are awake move with soft feet. Guards likewise muffle their footfalls. Richelieu has no real doubts that everything is in order, but he still tarries a moment to check in with the lieutenant in charge of the night watch. Boisrenard has the short straw this week. He’s uncharacteristically solemn as he assures Richelieu that, yes, he is aware of the situation, and yes, he’s making extra sure everything is secure.

That seen to, Richelieu turns his steps towards the private bedchambers. Those reserved for the heads of the household are in the very back, and, of course, next to each other. There’s even a connecting door. Armand wonders if Jean knows that, then dismisses the thought. Jean had been raised traditionally. Of course he knows that the chambers are connected. And Armand is stalling.

There’s a soft glow coming from beneath Jean’s door. Armand knocks, announcing his presence, then opens the door and slips inside.

Jean’s chambers aren’t fully dark, but neither have they been well lit. Scattered candles give the room the dim illumination of a cave. That can be satisfying to people in emotional turmoil, Armand knows. It provides a primal sense of safety.

The fire is burning well, at least, and the room is warm. Armand suspects that Sally is more to thank for that than Jean. She’s in the room, sitting with Jean on the chaise, holding his hands as he stares blankly past her at the far wall. Armand’s spare dressing-gown is draped loosely over Jean’s shoulders. Underneath it Jean is still fully dressed. The firelight illuminates him. It gives his skin a coppery tone that invites touch; the sweep of the dressing-gown caresses one shoulder in a way Armand would dearly love to emulate. But Jean is curled up in on himself. Seeking to hide. And it may just be the flickering light, but Armand thinks Jean may still be shaking.

Standing there, watching Jean, Armand comes to a very serious realization. It’s a surprise only in how little surprising it actually is. That is to say, it should be earth-shaking. Instead it’s only the quiet acceptance of something that has been known and understood on a certain level long before it has come to the attention of the rational mind.

“Jean,” Armand says as gently as he can, “I’m here.”

Jean and Sally both look up. Sally looks relieved. Jean looks – Armand can’t tell how he looks.

“You told Jussac where you were going,” Armand adds. “I understood that to mean that you wished for my company, but if I’m mistaken – ”

“No.” Jean shakes his head, repeating the negative. “You’re not mistaken. We need to talk. We need to – you need to – ”

“Sally,” Armand says quietly, when Jean stops talking and doesn’t start again. “Would you go see if Milady needs anything?”

“Yes, m’lord,” Sally says. The nod she gives Richelieu as she rises is more than just respectful: it’s an agreement with what Richelieu had left unsaid, that the rest of this is going to be private.

“Thank you,” Armand murmurs as she goes by. He doesn’t have to say for what: she knows. She’d been one of his best agents, before she’d quit the field. Even in retirement as a maid she’s worth her weight in gold. Twice over, if she’s been able to help Jean in some way.

“My pleasure,” she replies. She gives him a look that mingles support and warning as she leaves.

Be careful with him, Jussac had said.

Jean is winning hearts everywhere he goes. And hadn’t it been Armand, earlier, who had had the superstitious thought that these things tended to come in threes?

“I’m sorry,” Jean says, as soon as the door closes behind Sally.

Armand blinks. “For what, my dear?”

He wants to take back the endearment as soon as it leaves his mouth – they’re not in public anymore, and Jean has made it clear he’ll only accept such things when he has no other choice – but Jean doesn’t even seem to notice.

“For what I’ve dragged you into,” Jean says.

Despite the situation, Armand feels a corner of his mouth quirk up. “You didn’t seem sorry for dragging me into anything this morning.”

“This morning I thought it was just a little play-acting. I didn’t know it would have consequences.”

Armand is honestly speechless. As soon as this mess has been sorted out, Armand is going to sit Jean down and interrogate him further on the ludicrous notion that Jean could have forced Armand into a fake collaring without consequences.

Jean seems to realize the foolishness of his own statement too, laughing at himself in a way that clearly lacks mirth. “Well. Of course there would be consequences. But not – I didn’t expect you to actually get hurt.”

“I’m not hurt,” Armand tells him. “I’m not going to get hurt.”

Jean goes own as if he hasn’t heard. “And the worst part – ” Jean breaks off, shakes his head, and laughs at himself again, that horrible pained sound. “The worst part is that I have no idea what their plan actually is. I have no doubt that they have one. But I can’t even warn you about what they plan to do to you.”

“My dear,” Armand says. This time he says it with full forethought and intention, and this time, too, he lets some of the welling tenderness out into his voice where Jean can hear it. That Jean does hear it is proved by the way his head comes up from his hands, fully, and he doesn’t drop it back down again. “You came to me for a reason. You came to me because I can outmaneuver and overpower Rochefort. I honor your desire to warn me about what’s coming, but never think that I am helpless without that aid.”

“Do you know what they’re planning?” Jean asks. The first glimmers of hope appear on his face. “Did they reveal it?”

Armand shakes his head. “No. I left shortly after you did.”

“You left them at court?” Now Jean sounds panicked. “Where they’re doing God knows what?”

“I made a strategic withdrawal. Our presence is required for the next act in this little drama. By removing it, we delay their opening salvo and give ourselves time to maneuver for position.”

“What maneuvering are we doing here?” Jean’s gesture takes in the dimly lit chambers. “The courtiers are all at the Louvre, with Rochefort and – and Joseph.”

Armand doesn’t miss the way Jean’s voice falters over the name, but for the moment he lets it lie. “The Comtesse de Larroque and her coterie had a great many questions for Rochefort and his guest. She expected it would take the rest of the night for them to be properly answered.”

“God bless Ninon,” Jean breathes.

“As for what Rochefort and his guest are up to…” Armand sighs. A reputation for omnipotence is all very well, but Armand is only a man, and his spies move at the same speed as any men. They’re hard at work now.

Armand could wait for them. But he suspects that the answers he really needs can be found faster than that. He suspects that they’re already here in this room. At the end of the day this is about Jean. Somewhere in Jean’s knowledge is the key to Rochefort’s plan – and Joseph’s. It merely waits to be drawn out into the open.

What they lack is not an answer. What they lack is the right question. And Armand is a master of questioning.

“How was Rochefort going to out you as a sub?” Armand asks carefully.

“I beg your pardon?” Jean looks confused.

How was he going to out you? You’re a sub, and you know it. And you admitted it to the King – you admitted to me – and so none of us ever asked the question. How was Rochefort going to out you?”

“By telling people about me!”

“And what possible good was that going to do?” Without really meaning to, Armand begins to pace. “It’s not like there’s good records about this sort of thing. Without any living family to tell the tale, or even anyone who’d known you as a child – you said it yourself, the measles killed half your village. You said the only ones left were children or elders. That no one was sure anymore whether it had been you or your brother who had been the Dom.”

“Yes,” Jean says dazedly. “Yes, that’s true.”

“You’ve never – you started passing before you’d attained your majority, didn’t you? Any legally binding contract you’ve ever signed, any piece of paper you’ve ever put your name to, you did it as a Dom. Showing up at court tonight undid all that good work, but until then – it would have been your word against his, and as long as you didn’t go to your knees for him – ”

“Never,” Jean says in instinctive, mindless horror.

“You went back to your childhood village to claim the estate, announced that you were a Dom, and no one questioned it! If Rochefort stood up in court and said you were a sub, and you stood right back up and called him a liar, how could he prove otherwise?”

Jean turns pale. “Oh my God.”

Armand, watching him narrowly, feels his heart stop. “What is it?”

“There is one thing. One legal document that names my true dynamic.”

“And Rochefort has it?”

Jean seems to shrink before Armand’s eyes. “He must.”

The realization of exactly how trapped he is comes to Jean in waves. They seem to break around him, never quite touching. The numbness is probably a bad sign. But for the moment Jean accepts it gratefully: he doesn’t know what he would do with a breakdown.

“What is it?” Armand asks. “This document that Rochefort has?”

When Jean doesn’t answer, Armand comes closer. He drops to his knees before Jean, and takes Jean’s hands in his, rubbing Jean’s wrists gently with his callus-free fingers. Jean looks down at him and thinks almost hysterically of what people would say if they could see this role reversal; the most powerful man in France, the famous Dominant, on his knees before his sub.

“Jean,” Armand repeats. Something thickens in the air. Jean barely recognizes it as Armand’s push. It’s changed so much from the overwhelming, aggressive force that Jean remembers from – God, can it only be earlier this very same day? It doesn’t feel forceful anymore. It doesn’t feel the way Jean has always known Dominance to feel. It doesn’t seek to impose the Dom’s will over Jean’s. It seeks to comfort, to support, to give Jean the strength that he’s momentarily lacking.

“Jean, please.”

And then the request. And it is a request. Armand needs to know the answer to this question, but he behaves as if he’s got time. As if he could go on kneeling here all night waiting for Jean to find his courage.

That’s what gives Jean the courage he needs, of course. Once he’d lived down to someone’s expectations of him. To Joseph’s expectations. He’d sworn after that that he’d only ever live up.

He looks down at Armand, waiting, patient and – and kind, yes, Jean must admit it. Lord knows Jean’s given him very little cause for kindness, but Armand’s shown it to him all the same, an odd brand of kindness that Jean’s been mistaking as the same pragmatism of the last twenty years. Perhaps from Armand’s point of view the two are one and the same. Perhaps Armand is only kind because it’s pragmatic to be so. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is kindness. And despite all of the other things Jean has been rich in in his life – brotherhood, respect, purpose – kindness has somehow been lacking.

“It’s Joseph,” Jean says despairingly. “He was my fiancé.”

Armand seems to turn to stone at Jean’s feet. “This was contracted?”

“By my brother.” Jean swallows. “It was his plan to get us out of debt, you see. Their family had money – their oldest sub would go to my brother, with her fat dowry. And I would go to Joseph, with my nobility and my father’s service to old King Henri… Joseph wanted to go to court. At my side the King would receive him.”

“You were a minor.”

“I was sixteen. That’s old enough to take a collar.”

“You were a minor,” Armand repeats. “Meaning that your parents wrote the contract for you – ”

“And stated my dynamic correctly.” Jean sighs. “That’s how Rochefort was going to be able to out me. Joseph must have had a copy of the contract. Proof.”

Armand looks like he can’t decide what to ask first. “But then how – if you were engaged – how did you – ” Armand shrugs almost helplessly. In other circumstances Jean would laugh. The mighty Cardinal, the great orator, rendered speechless.

“How did I end up in Paris, passing as a Dom to join the military?” Jean suggests.

“No,” Armand surprises him by saying. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m curious about that, too – and I have no doubt that you’ll tell me – ”

“Of course I will,” Jean says lowly.

“ – but the part that really baffles me is – Jean, you had a fiancé. Why didn’t he ever come looking for you?”

“At first he couldn’t find me,” Jean says. “I didn’t want him to, to find me, and then he was dead. I thought, I thought he was dead – ” something falls on their joined hands, something wet and salty: with a start Jean realizes he’s crying. “My mother wrote me and said he’d caught the measles and – and then she never wrote to me again, but when I went back to the village he was gone, all of his family was gone, the villagers said they’d all caught the measles and they’d all died – ”

“All right, all right,” Armand says soothingly. “All right, you thought he was dead. All right.”

“But he wasn’t!” Jean says wildly. “He wasn’t dead at all!”

“You didn’t know that.”


“So it’s all right.”

“Nothing is all right,” Jean whispers. “Don’t you see? If Joseph isn’t dead then his contract stands. It predates my coming to Paris, Armand. It predates you and I.”

“You and I start whenever we say we start,” Armand says. “Or have you forgotten?”

“We said we started when I came to Paris.”

“We said you took my collar when you came to Paris. Perhaps we met earlier. Perhaps that’s why you ran away and left Joseph – because you loved me instead.”

Jean laughs. He has to laugh, because he’s already crying, and that’s not doing any good so laughing is all that’s left. “I was a minor,” he says, almost choking on his laughter and his tears. “Who I loved makes no difference at all in the eyes of the law. My parents contracted me to Joseph – that’s what matters.”

Armand’s fingers tighten around Jean’s wrists. “You believed Joseph was dead. Our contract was made in good faith. It’s been twenty years. No court would set that aside. And even if they did, the King would simply dissolve your contract with Joseph, and you’d be free to come back to me.”

Jean stops laughing abruptly and stares at Armand with wide, dark eyes. Back? His lips shape the word, though no sound comes out when he tries to speak.

Armand pales, enough that it’s visible, even in the dimly lit chambers. He drops Jean’s hands abruptly and staggers to his feet. “I – of course.”


Armand turns away from Jean. Walks over to the candelabra and busies himself with flint and tinder. “What I meant to say was, you’d be free of obligations. To anyone. Myself included.” It takes him five tries to strike a flame. The candlelight wavers, nearly as much as Armand’s voice. “It’s – Jean. You’d win. You’d be free of us all.”

Jean stares at the candle-flame. He feels lost. Adrift. And each of Armand’s words push him farther away. Until the shore is vanished, and Jean can only drift, helpless and alone.

He must make some noise – some involuntary, pleading noise – because Armand spins. Armand stares at him, then curses, vile and shocking.

“Jean, I didn’t mean – oh, Lord, help me. Jean? Jean, can you hear me?”

Yes, Jean says in his head. He can hear Armand. But nothing comes out.

Armand comes back over to him. Jean turns towards him instinctively, and after a moment Armand sits down next to him. Part of Jean is fighting for coherence, for reason, for distance. The rest of Jean is simply too tired and hurt to fight. All he wants to do is curl up with someone who will pet him and tell him that in spite of it all, Joseph’s scars and the abandonment and the lifetime of lies, that Jean is still worth something. And it seems to pointless to try to resist when Armand is right here, holding out his arms with a look on his face that promises all of that and more.

Armand’s arms are warm. His shoulder’s a little boney, but a quick wiggle finds softer planes below the clavicle. Best of all is the way Armand’s hand immediately settles on the back of Jean’s neck, gentle and firm and grounding.

“Jean,” Armand says after a few moments. “I’d like you to do something for me. Will you try?”

Jean makes a soft sound of assent. Lying like this, he can hear Armand’s heart beating. Every beat helps ground him further, pushing back the fog of pain and abandonment that had been trying to enshroud him. Like this it’s all pleasantly distant. A tragic tale, but one that belongs to someone else. Not one that defines Jean.

“I’d like to know about Joseph.”

Some of the distress burrows closer again. Jean frowns, shakes his head. He doesn’t want that here. Not in this warm safe place. He hasn’t had a safe place in so long. Joseph mustn’t come anywhere near here.

“I know,” Armand soothes. The hand on Jean’s neck firms further, presses Jean’s collar flush against Jean’s skin. That collar means something. Jean waits a moment; the knowledge will come if he waits.

That’s right. The collar means safety. It means protection. It means that Joseph can’t touch him. Jean already belongs to someone else.

Jean belongs.

The thought is enough to help Jean pull himself somewhat together. He doesn’t attempt to move away from Armand, but he surfaces from the deep haze he’d been floating in. It’s seductive, and part of him wants nothing more than to dive right back in. God, it had been so long since Jean had gone that deep.

So long and not long at all. Jean has done it twice today – once just now, and once earlier, in Richelieu’s – Armand’s – office at the Louvre.

Jean’s more coherent now, but he’s no less tired, and considerably more mentally frayed. The weight of Armand’s collar is comforting. That of Armand’s hand, pleasant. Armand’s arms are warm. His heart beat is reassuring. And Armand says he wants to help.

Our contract was made in good faith. It’s been twenty years. No court would set that aside. And even if they did, the King would simply dissolve your contract with Joseph, and you’d be free to come back to me.

Jean wonders, without it really mattering, when they’d both stopped pretending.

“Joseph was my brother’s friend,” Jean says. Whispers, really. It’s hard to speak of. Even now. Even, perhaps, particularly now. “They met while my brother was off doing… whatever it was he did. I never really knew. He was so much older than me, and he spent all of his time away from home, wasting our family’s money. Joseph was like that too, though I didn’t know it till later. The difference was that Joseph’s family had the money to waste. Ours didn’t.”

“What did you know?” Armand prompts, gently, when Jean fails to continue.

“My brother spent too much. He wouldn’t settle down, get employment, or even work at learning to be Dom of the manor. My parents tried to help him, but nothing did much good. Until finally it got to a point where something had to be done. There simply wasn’t any more money, you see.”

Armand makes a sound of understanding. The hand still resting on the back of Jean’s neck starts to play with the short hairs at the base of his scalp.

Jean shivers, half-ticklish, half-pleasurably. “My brother came when they called him home. In retrospect that should have been a sign. My parents said, something had to be done. And he said, I’ve already got it figured out.”

“An exchange of collars,” Armand recalls.

“With a wealthy merchant family in the village. A fat dowry to pay our debts, in exchange for the air if not the title of nobility. My brother had had the contracts already drawn up. He and Joseph had cooked the whole scheme up between them.”

“And your parents signed them?” Now Armand sounds angry. “Just like that?”

“No. Not just like that. They insisted that we should meet. Joseph and I. That I should have the chance to see if we’d suit.”

The anger ebbs out of Armand’s voice. “And you thought you would?”

“Joseph was so charming,” Jean sighs. He remembers it all. The flowers. The wine. The rides. The heady focus of all that attention on Jean. He hadn’t been used to so much attention. As the younger child, as the sub, as the one who hadn’t been off spending money the family hadn’t had… Jean had always been in his brother’s shadow. Until Joseph.

“Joseph was charming. At least at first. Nice. Interested in me. He wanted to hear about everything I did. My interests, my hobbies.” Joseph had wanted to know absolutely everything, down to the tiniest detail. And Jean, young and foolish, had told him. Joseph had seemed grown-up, then. Mature and worldly. Yet Joseph had been interested in him. In little Jean who had liked to fight with swords and ride horses. Jean had thought that Joseph had understood.

“I thought I was in love,” Jean summarizes. It all seems so terribly predictable, viewed in hindsight.

“So your parents signed the contract.” Armand sighs. “Yet you weren’t bound right away?”

“My brother and Joseph’s sister were, but Joseph’s family didn’t want to pay the whole dowry right away, it was so large... They insisted on installments. My father said that would be all right, but I wouldn’t take Joseph’s collar until all the money had been paid. It was to have taken a year.”

“I take it you learned in that year that Joseph was not all that you thought him to be,” Armand says after a moment. Jean can hear, in Armand’s voice, the effort Armand is making to sound calm.

“We started fooling around.” It embarrasses Jean even to admit it, but – “We were affianced. It was normal.”

Armand nods, a motion more felt than seen as his chin dips to touch the crown of Jean’s skull. “Very normal. I don’t think any less of you for it, nor are you devalued in my eyes.”

Of course Jean isn’t. Doms are expected to have multiple partners before they settle down; Jean will insist that he be held to no less of a standard. And yet it eases something in him, that Armand agrees so readily, that Jean will not have to fight to make Armand see Jean’s worth.

Instead Jean says, “At first Joseph was kind in the bedroom, as he was elsewhere. Being with him was like nothing I’d ever felt up until then. Playing alone – it just hadn’t been the same. Well. You know.” Their dynamics may be different, but solo play can’t be any more satisfying for a Dom than it is for a sub.

“Of course,” Armand agrees readily.

“Then it started to change. Slowly, but… Joseph started to have… expectations.” Jean doesn’t miss the way Armand winces. “I wanted to live up to them. I wanted him to be satisfied with me. And if what satisfied him was a partner who spoke less or knelt more, well… it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t think it was a big deal. It was just in the bedroom, after all.”

Jean’s voice breaks at the end. He hates it, but it’s beyond his control. He stops talking and lets himself lean into Armand’s warmth.

“It wasn’t just in the bedroom, was it, Jean?” Armand says gently.

Jean shakes his head. “No. Not for long.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“You can probably imagine the rest quite well enough.” Jean lets himself lean more into Armand; his head lolls back, and he smiles ruefully into Armand’s eyes. “The rules began to get stricter. Don’t speak unless spoken to, even outside the bedroom. Never contradict him. Seek his permission before leaving the house, even if I was just riding around our own estates. Be chaperoned, by my father or my brother or one of Joseph’s siblings, at all times. Kneel when he entered the room – ”

Armand’s been holding it together fairly well up until then, but when Jean gets to that part he stiffens. Jean lets it happen, waiting until Armand gets it together enough to say, “I am so sorry.”

Jean waits. After a moment Armand adds the wholly predictable addendum: “I will bring you his head.”

“If I want his head I’ll take it myself.” Jean sighs. The story is too common to excite him much, any more: even on the cold nights at the garrison, when the nightmares would wake him, he wouldn’t feel anger or fear so much as well-worn despair. He’s met a hundred other subs with similar stories. That’s just the way things are, for far too many of them.

“Then I will hold him down for you. Jean, I’m – ”

“No, don’t – ”

“ – I’m sorry. I asked those things of you too.”

“Yes,” Jean agrees resignedly. “And you meant it when you did it, so don’t apologize.”

Doms are Doms, the world over. They may care on an individual level; care about their sub, their children, their parent. But extending that to submissives in general is beyond them. Armand, who seems so supportive now, had been lecturing Jean on proper submissive behavior not twelve hours ago. The only difference is that now Armand considers Jean his.

Armand’s hand slides up Jean’s neck, nudging his chin until Jean looks at Armand. “Jean,” he begins. “I…”

There’s really nothing he can say, though, and Jean knows it. Armand must realize it too. He trails off without adding anything else.

“What do we do now?” Jean asks, when the silence has stretched on long enough that it becomes obvious.

“We wait.” Armand shrugs. The movement presses them farther together.

“I hate waiting,” Jean says ruefully.

“A soldier spends half their life waiting.”

“And I’ve never gotten used to it.”

“In this case I’m afraid there’s nothing else to be done. My spies are working as fast as they can.”

“And us?”

“Tomorrow we will probably be summoned before the King to answer Joseph’s claim on you. It would be as well to be rested.”

Jean sighs. “Sleep when you can, huh?”

“As any old soldier knows,” Armand agrees. “I’ll send Sally in to you.”

Jean shakes his head. “I know I’ll have to get used to it,” he adds, forestalling Armand’s inevitable protest. “But I would prefer to be alone. Tomorrow night will be soon enough to start acting my part in your household, won’t it?”

Armand hesitates, but finally nods. Maybe he agrees. Maybe he just doesn’t wish to push Jean any farther. Either way, he nods.

“Then I will leave you.” Armand rises and offers Jean an unusually solemn smile. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Jean says. He rises to watch Armand leave, and doesn’t move until Armand has closed the door behind him.

Back in his own chambers, Armand makes quick work of readying himself for sleep, and dismisses his valet with the intention of reading for a short time to calm himself. His mind refuses to focus, though, and finally he puts the book from himself and sighs. Sleep rarely comes swiftly to him. On nights like this it’s worse. But it would be the height of foolishness to not snatch what rest he can. Tomorrow is likely to be… tumultuous.

Replacing his book on its shelf, Armand extinguishes all the lights in the room and turns towards his bed. Then he pauses. There’s still a source of illumination somewhere; a thin shaft of light lays itself across the foot of his bed. He looks around and sees no candle still burning. No torch lit. The door to the hallway is closed –

Ahh. The other door is still open. The door that connects his chambers to Jean’s. It hasn’t been used in years; therefore closing it isn’t part of Armand’s nightly routine. One of the maids had left it ajar, no doubt, after preparing Jean’s chambers for habitation this afternoon. Assuming, innocently, that the master and his new companion would wish to have congress through it. It might even have been left that way by Sally, trying to help.

No matter. Armand walks over to the door, footfalls silent, and reaches out to close it.

He makes the mistake of looking through.

Jean is in the act of turning away from the vanity. The wet cloth left behind is testament to a clean face. Thinking himself alone, Jean moves to stand in front of the armoire and lets the dressing-gown that had been draped over his shoulders slide carelessly to the floor. As Armand watches, Jean raises his fingers to the laces of his tunic and begins to undo them.

The faintest sliver of skin becomes visible beneath Jean’s collar as the already-low neckline of his tunic slips farther with every lace undone. The perfectly cared-for leather of his collar gleams. Even with the paint scrubbed from his face, Jean is still adorned from their court appearance. Beautiful. An ornament for his Dominant to flaunt.

The setting of the bedchamber casts a different light on the situation. Despite the threats of Rochefort and Jean's ex-fiancé, despite the distress Jean had been in – remains in – despite the inherently false nature of their relationship, lust pools hot and low in Armand’s belly. Danger or no danger, royal decree or no royal decree, Armand wants Jean. Wants to tangle his hand in that too-short hair again and feel Jean push into the touch. To see how well the deep red hangings of Armand’s bed compliments Jean’s tanned skin. To find out how enthusiastically Jean will moan when Armand gives him pleasure.

The collar Jean wears gives Armand legal rights to Jean’s person. Despite Jean’s stipulation that Armand not presume, despite Armand’s verbal agreement to the same, if Armand chose to press his claim it would be no more than his due in the eyes of the world.

Well – why not? the Vicomtesse had asked. Isn’t her purpose to serve me?

Armand shivers. Yes, Jean is beautiful. Yes, he wants Jean. But he’s not so blinded by his lust that he can’t see the weariness in Jean’s shoulders or the tension in his frame. Jean is upset. More than upset. Threatened by a ghost of his past, newly associated with a demon from his present. Forced out of the comfortable life he’d built and into a world he’d thought he’d left behind with his childhood estate. A role he thought he’d never have to play again.

Jean has been denying himself proper care for years. And Armand begins to suspect that Jean has been afraid of that ghost, that role, all the time, for that entire time. Jean needs care. This is what all of those callous courtiers had failed to grasp. What that unforgivably naïve law has failed to enforce. Armand has always known that it is a Dom’s responsibility to offer care first and foremost.

The law disagrees. Therefore the law may go to Hell. With Cardinal Richelieu’s compliments.

Armand closes the door and retreats to his empty bed alone.

Chapter Text

Jean’s awoken from a fitful sleep when the room is suddenly flooded with light. He’s sitting up before he knows it, groping for a sword that’s not there. What’s happened to his sword? And when had his window started facing east?

“Your sword’s hanging by the armoire, where you left it yesterday,” Sally says. She finishes throwing back the drapes and turns around to regard Jean steadily. “Are you going to stab me?”

“I should,” Jean says, surly. It’s too early to be awake. Or, to be more accurate, it had been too late last night when he’d finally gotten to sleep. Court appearances and a respectable soldiering schedule are poor companions.

“I wonder if you could.” Sally’s eying him speculatively. “Of course, if I let you come after me with a sword, I’ve already mishandled the situation.”

Jean blinks, then shakes his head. “It’s probably safer for us both if you don’t say things like that,” he says. Not to mention spies give me hives.

Sally shrugs. “All right.” She walks over to the wardrobe, opens it, and sighs. “We are really going to have to do something about your wardrobe.”

“Ah,” Jean says somewhat lamely. He hadn’t considered this problem. Having refused Sally’s help last night, he’d hung up his court wear to the best of his faded recollection, and taken advantage of the comfortable, loose-fitting pants that had been folded in the base of the wardrobe. Those pants had been just about the only clothing item in the wardrobe, though.

One recollection prompts another. “Didn’t you say you were having my uniform cleaned?”

“Yes, I have it here.” Sally indicates a pile of clothing draped over her arm; closer inspection indeed reveals it to be Jean’s uniform. “But is this what you want to wear?”

“Yes,” Jean says, as patiently as he can.

Sally turns away from the wardrobe and gives Jean a cautionary look. “At some point today, and probably sooner rather than later, you’ll be summoned to court. Have you considered what it will mean to wear your uniform there?”

“It will mean that I am still myself.” That’s a point Jean will be very much interested in making.

“I thought the whole point of this was to proclaim as openly and loudly as possible that you were aligned with Richelieu.”

“That’s what the collar’s for.” Jean can’t entirely help the edge that creeps into his voice. That’s not entirely fair to Sally; she’s been nothing but helpful. But as the cold light of day dispels the protective cocoon of sleep, all of the pretty lies Jean’s been telling himself fade away like morning mist.

Yesterday had been such a whirlwind that Jean had spent the entire time running forward as fast as he could without time to stop or think. The sleepless night searching for an escape from Rochefort’s trap had bled into his early meeting with the King. Which had, in turn, led to Richelieu’s summoning to the Louvre, and all the events that had followed from that in such inevitable sequence.

Jean hauls himself out of the unnecessarily large bed. He intends to go claim his uniform from Sally. But he finds himself standing by the nightstand, caught, staring at the circle of leather that he’d left sitting atop it the night before.

That’s not exactly proper collar care. Given the condition in which the collar had been presented to Jean, Jean will have to do better in the future. Sally will be able to provide the necessary oils and cloths. Whatever servant had attended to this duty before, it’s Jean’s responsibility now. How well he does it will be immediately visible to the world. And to Richelieu.

In the light of day, Richelieu’s Christian name doesn’t come as easily to Jean’s mind or lips as it had last night, when the bright lights of Louis’ court and the shock of Joseph’s reappearance had dizzied Jean so thoroughly. If Jean were a blushing man, he’d be blushing now, thinking of the way he’d so thoroughly broken every rule he’d set for himself last night.

Separate, that had been the rule. Distant. Polite. An act. Somehow, last night, Jean had gotten so wrapped up in acting a love match that he’d forgotten it isn’t real.

Every step he’d taken – they’d taken – had seemed natural then. All the while leading to a result that is as far from natural as possible. This bright, clear morning, in which Jean wakens in a strange room that is nevertheless his, as a person he doesn’t recognize – but must nevertheless be.

Duc de Richelieu. Submissive to the famous Cardinal, statesman, churchman and First Minister. Who – kind as he had seemed last night – is probably reevaluating his choices right now, by the same cold light of day as Jean.

Jean mustn’t forget himself in that way again.


Sally’s voice breaks into his reverie. Jean starts, looking up from the collar.


Sally’s gaze is suspicious. “Are you all right?”

“Yes. Yes, perfectly,” Jean says.

True, Jean’s trapped in a false collaring with a man who’s proving far too adept at breaking down Jean’s barriers. He’s declared his dynamic openly to the world and brought on himself all of the risks and the barriers and the pressure that comes with it. His old fiancé, the ghost of his young manhood, has returned from beyond the grave to threaten him with a fate worse than death. And his own mind and body have betrayed him, submitting not once but twice to the force of nature that is Cardinal Richelieu.

But Jean’s fine. He has to be. There’s simply no other way to be that leads to an acceptable outcome.

“Hand me my uniform,” Jean says. The old tone comes back to him easily. Requesting, familiarly, with an undercurrent of command. Not ordering. Never ordering: Sally may technically be a servant, but her place in the hierarchy is nearly equal to Jean’s own, and she could ruin the standing Jean needs to achieve with the household before Jean even gets that wardrobe filled. Jean will need all the power he can get to survive the coming days. He’d known, coming into this, that he would be fighting a battle out in public, to retain his position and his credit in spite of his dynamic. What he hadn’t realized – what yesterday had taught him – is that he’ll also be fighting a battle in private. To establish himself in Richelieu’s household as an independent equal.

Both battles will mean falling back on old ways and old habits. In public Jean can still emphasize his aggressive traits and fight to be viewed as he always has. Within these walls Jean must take a different approach. He has no position here to maintain. What he can have is a position he makes for himself. One that seizes the empty spaces Richelieu has left and consolidates them into a coherent whole.

Richelieu has filled all the Dominant spaces. But he’s a creature of his own beliefs and policies. He’s left all the submissive spaces empty. Jean can use that. He knows how to behave as the sub of the manor. It’s a different power than Jean is used to wielding. A softer power. But his mother had made sure he’d known that it’s power nonetheless.

Help me, mother, Jean begs in the quiet of his own mind. Don’t let me drown.

Sally hands over the first of Jean’s uniform pieces. The rest she sets on the bed, down where the coverlet is undisturbed. Then she goes over to the washbasin and pours out steaming water. On a cloth nearby, a razor and comb lie waiting.

Jean begins to don his armor.

The small breakfast-parlor is actually small, to Jean’s surprise. He’d been expecting ‘small’ to have been relative. The formal dining-room seats sixty. But this parlor appears to only seat four, and two of the chairs have no places laid in front of him.

“A nice quiet breakfast,” Sally says brightly.

Jean would like to say something snippy to her, but he’s too busy returning Richelieu’s nod of greeting.

“Good morning, Armand,” Jean adds, tone as warm as he can make it. The intimacy of the Christian name still comes to Jean reluctantly, but it’s one of only two acceptable options for the role Jean is determined to play. And referring to Richelieu as my Lord Dom will happen on the day that horses sprout wings.

“Good morning, Jean,” Richelieu says. “Would you care for some breakfast?”

Jean’s stomach growls before he can come up with an excuse that would let him eat alone. He nods, reluctantly, and pretends he doesn’t notice Sally stifling a laugh as she slips out the door. Traitor.

“Please join me.” Richelieu stands as Jean approaches the table, and pulls out Jean’s chair courteously. Jean grits his teeth, but manages not to say anything rude. He simply takes the chair. Richelieu returns to his as soon as Jean is settled, and passes across the teapot.

Jean’s resolve to remain silent, to maintain a polite decorum, lasts approximately five seconds. There are matters more pressing than fostering an improper atmosphere over their first breakfast together as a collared pair. “Has there been any news?”

“Nothing earth-shattering, or we would have been disturbed earlier.” Richelieu butters a roll. “I asked for a report to be made as soon as you were available. I have no doubt Sally is going to fetch Jussac and Milady now. In the meanwhile, you should eat.”

Jean opens his mouth to say something about not being a child, hears the words in his mind’s ear, and closes his mouth again. He certainly won’t prove his maturity by sounding petulant.

But that doesn’t mean he likes the casually paternal air Richelieu has adapted. Jean stews over this through two cups of tea and most of a hearty breakfast. Every swallow reminds Jean of the collar around his neck. Every bite of Richelieu’s food repeats that Jean is a dependent now.

Jean tells himself that it’s no more than he’d expected. The oddities of last night are hardly going to guide either of their behaviors going forward. By the cold light of day Richelieu is exactly as he always is. Jean would do well to take the reminder to heart, and return to Richelieu the behavior of a model submissive.

He sets down his teacup carelessly enough to rattle, a tactic guaranteed to draw Richelieu’s attention. And indeed it does: Richelieu looks up from what appears to be a pile of letters, and inquires, “More tea?”

“No thank you.” Jean casts about hastily for a smile, finds one and fixes it to his lips. “What are you reading?”

“Letters from my various subordinates. They keep me appraised on the various goings-on of which I need to be aware.” Richelieu makes a wry face that Jean has never seen before. It’s odd to see something that isn’t disdain or smug confidence coming from Richelieu. He adds, “If I get through them all, there’s a treatise my brother Alphonse sent on the proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea.”

Jean shakes his head. “Then I hope your letters go on forever.”

Richelieu looks surprised. “Oh, no, it will be very interesting. Alphonse is an amazing researcher. I’ll be sending him back my notes, when I find time to get through it.”

“You want to read it?” Jean shouldn’t be surprised, he supposes; Cardinal isn’t a title that gets handed out to everyone, but he’d always assumed…

“Very much.” Richelieu sighs almost wistfully. “I should send him a note, though. With everything going on it’s likely to be a while.”

“Oh,” Jean says, somewhat at a loss for words. “I’m… sorry.”

Sorry for what, he can’t quite say. Sorry for assuming that Richelieu would find a treatise on the Council of Nicaea as boring as Jean would? Sorry for assuming that Richelieu’s rank of Cardinal is more about political power than religious investment? Sorry for assuming that Richelieu isn’t close with his brother? Sorry that involvement in Jean’s own concerns is delaying Richelieu’s leisure pursuits?

Sorry that Jean had never realized that, underneath the robes and the titles and the ruthless use of power, Richelieu might be human enough to promise himself a small reward at the end of a long period of work?

“Don’t be,” Richelieu says, before Jean comes to an answer. “Alphonse will understand. It’s hardly the first time it’s taken me a while to review one of his treatises; and Lord knows it’s for a good cause.”

Richelieu’s smiling. After a moment Jean smiles back. It’s only natural, Jean tells himself. Of course Jean needs to respond to Richelieu’s shows of emotion. To do otherwise would be going past polite distance and into open hostility.

Jean can’t afford Richelieu’s hostility any more than he can afford Richelieu’s suffocating solicitude.

“Will you want to arrange to have your correspondence sent here?” Richelieu asks.

Jean starts. “What? I – yes, of course, I thought – ” He swallows. Propriety, he reminds himself. Establish boundaries. “This is my home now,” he says with as much quiet dignity as he can muster.

Naturally his correspondence will need to be sent here. Anything official will need to stop being sent to Jean at all; it will instead be directed to Richelieu. Jean’s goal must be to make sure that Richelieu will allow him to keep his personal correspondence private. He’s cautiously optimistic. If anyone will understand the need for discretion, it will be Richelieu.

“If you would prefer it continue to be sent to the garrison,” Richelieu says, tone careful, “I would not object.”

“You – what?” Jean forgets discretion and proper, polite distance. He stares openly. “But – ”

But it’s unheard-of. Richelieu should want all of Jean’s letters sent here. He should want the official ones to be directed to him, so that he can dispose of his property – which now includes Jean – in the manner that seems best to him. If he asks for Jean’s opinion on the matter, it’s more than Jean’s due. As for private correspondence… well. Most Doms read their sub’s letters. They have to stay in control, after all.

“I have been thinking about it,” Richelieu says quietly. “I have been thinking about a great deal, since last night. I believe we could argue – legally – that the Captain of the Musketeers is a different person than the Duc de Richelieu. Anything pertaining to the latter will regrettably have to come through me. But the former can maintain a separate identity. Not just for correspondence, either. I am not yet sure – I will have to consult with legal scholars – but we may be able to keep Troisville in your name. Or rather, your rank.”

Jean stares at Richelieu. His mouth flops open; he knows it’s undignified, but he can’t close it. He can’t even begin to process what it is he’s just heard.

“It would give you a source of income and rank unconnected with me,” Richelieu goes on. “Which is not to say that you wouldn’t retain full access to the Richelieu funds and estates. I sent to my executor this morning; you’ll have drawing and signature rights independent of mine – ”

This latest shock drives Jean to speech. Independent signature rights – “You can’t!”

Richelieu comes to a halt. “I beg your pardon?”

“You – you can’t. You mustn’t!”

“I can,” Richelieu says simply. “And I have come to believe that I must.”

“I could spend you into the ground!”

“You won’t.”

“I could commit you to anything I liked! Legally!”

“As long as you wear my collar, I can commit you likewise,” Richelieu observes. “This way it is reciprocal.”

“How can you trust me with that?” Jean cries.

Richelieu shakes his head. “How can I expect you to trust me unless I extend you that same trust in return?”

Jean becomes aware that his hands hurt and his eyes are burning. He blinks a few times to relieve the strain in his eyes, then looks down. His hands hurt because they’re curled around the edge of the table so tightly that his knuckles have turned white.

He makes himself release his grip. Then he sits there for a long moment, staring blankly at his hands. They’re empty. And yet they now hold more power, with the strike of a pen, than they’ve ever wielded with sword or musket.

“The law,” Jean whispers. “None of this is required of you. None of this – ”

“There may be some legal battles ahead if we wish to attach Troisville to your captaincy instead of your person,” Armand agrees. “I will leave the decision to you.”

“You can’t do that!”

Armand raises an eyebrow. “Why not?”

Jean’s out of his chair and gesticulating before he realizes he’s done it. “That’s not how things are!”

Armand rises as well, though more slowly. He’s starting to look worried. “Jean… I thought you didn’t like how things are.”

Jean stares at him again. Dimly he’s aware that his breathing is coming fast.

“I don’t,” he says finally. “But you of all people should know that there’s a limit to how much you can change.”

“I know no such thing,” Armand says serenely. “Neither, if I may say it, does your friend the Comtesse de Larroque.”

“Ninon?” Jean’s already staring, but he redoubles his efforts now.

“She had some interesting suggestions for legislative avenues to pursue.”

“Let me guess,” Jean says faintly. “The Troisville idea was hers.”

“As a matter of fact, yes. She mentioned it to me last night. She’s promised to send me some of the relevant legal texts, which she believes establish a precedent.” Armand manages to look rueful. “I will have to expand my library again.”

“Ninon means well,” Jean says, trying to make Armand see reason. “She thinks she can change the world. But she doesn’t have the support for it.”

“No,” Armand agrees.

“Neither do you.”

Now Armand’s smile looks familiar. It’s the same smug, self-confident smile that Jean has wanted to punch off his face a dozen times. “That remains to be seen.”

Jean opens his mouth. Closes it again. Somehow he can’t think of a single thing to say.

Armand’s face softens. He comes around the table to stand by Jean – far enough away that it’s not invasive, but close enough that his meaning – his desire – is plain. “Jean,” he says quietly. “I had thought you supported Larroque’s agenda – ”

“I do,” Jean says hastily. Jean loves Ninon like a sister, and he would cheerfully fight to the death for her goals and ideals, because some things are worth dying for – even the death in spirit that the court of Louis XIII would inflict. But Jean’s always known in his heart that nothing will ever really change. Ninon had never had the power to change things. Ninon never will have the power to change things.

Armand – might.

“I learned a great deal last night,” Armand says. “Both of Larroque’s agenda, and of the kind of support it enjoys. Much of that support is quiet now. But it is not the silence of the few or the weak. It is the silence of a movement that has not yet had its moment. Whatever else you may think of me, I hope you have enough faith in my political skills to believe me when I say that its moment may be fast approaching.”

“Two days ago you would have opposed this movement with all of your strength,” Jean reminds him, grasping for a touchstone in a world fast spinning far – farther – out of control.

Armand nods. “Two days ago I would have been wrong.”

“How can you decide that so quickly? How can you change your mind so quickly?”

“How quickly do you change your mind on a battlefield, when conditions change?”

“Instantly,” Jean says at first. He makes himself stop, give Armand the more honest answer. “No. Not always instantly. But I should.” He swallows. “It’s when I don’t that lives are lost.”

Armand nods. He doesn’t speak. Perhaps he realizes that Jean’s own words are speaking very loudly and eloquently indeed.

He also doesn’t attempt to make any physical contact with Jean. And yet Jean is suddenly sure that Armand wants to.

Maybe Jean should move first. Indicate that touch would be welcome. But Jean isn’t sure that it is. And maybe the well-bred, proper sub would encourage it anyway, if it’s what the Dom obviously wants. But maybe the two of them can find a way to coexist without walling each other off behind barriers of propriety, too.

So they only look at each other. The moment stretches out between them. Despite the lack of touch, the air is warm and heavy with something unsaid.

The door opening puts time back into perspective. They both turn to face it. Armand doesn’t move back to his seat, though. He stays standing next to Jean’s chair, only turning his head, while Jean twists around to see.

It’s Sally who sticks her head in. “Milady and Jussac are here,” she says. “Do you want this in here or in your office?”

“In here,” Armand says.

Sally looks at Jean. Jean says, “Yes, here.” He’s not sure he wants to trust his knees right now. And not just because the one he’d injured on campaign a decade ago sometimes gives him trouble in the mornings.

She nods and withdraws. A moment later Jussac and Milady enter.

Armand doesn’t greet them immediately, turning instead to Jean. With a start Jean is recalled to his titular duties. “Come in,” he says for them both. Fumbling, he gestures to the table, clumsy with lack of social practice. “Have you eaten?”

“We’re fine,” Milady says for them both. Her gaze is sharp. Assessing. After a moment she smiles. It’s still a fairly closed-off smile, but nevertheless Jean gets the feeling he’s been provisionally accepted.

“What news do you bring?” Armand asks.

He seats himself again. Jean does the same. There are two other chairs at the table, the ones without places set before them, but both Jussac and Milady shake their heads when Jean indicates them. They prefer to stand.

Jussac speaks first. “Larroque and her cohort kept Rochefort and his guest occupied last night until they realized they weren’t going to accomplish anything else there and left court. They have lodgings in the Luxembourg. Their movements are being watched."

Armand nods. “And?”

“Rochefort’s guest – Joseph Marchmont – has spent the last twenty years in Spain. He is a member of their spy network, and was given a grant of nobility there. He is, however, a Frenchman by birth.”

“He grew up in my village,” Jean volunteers. He means to add more, but it’s still difficult to speak of.

“We know,” Milady says calmly. “Richelieu brought us up to date. Early this morning one of my subordinates had occasion to visit Rochefort’s lodgings. Her window was brief, but she was able to confirm his possession of a collaring contract, drawn up March 1613, between the de Troisville estate and the Marchmont family.”

Jean presses his lips together and rearranges his silverware unnecessarily. It’s not that he’d expected Armand to keep last night’s revelations a secret. The information is far too valuable, and Jean had deliberately not extracted a promise of secrecy. But he still doesn’t like hearing it spoken of aloud so casually.

“Rochefort and Marchmont were also visited this morning by a procurator of some renown, one Coquenard,” Jussac says.

“Joseph is going to try to have the contract enforced,” Jean says heavily. “I didn’t come to Paris until 1614 – ”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Armand interrupts.

Milady lifts a hand, catching both of their attentions. “So far we have reconstructed events as follows. Rochefort arrives in Paris, seeking to gain power. He discovers he has a problem with the Captain.”

“Jean has too much influence over the King.”

Milady nods. “Rochefort wants to control Louis completely. Therefore, he needs to remove the Captain.”

Jean frowns. He looks from face to face, but all three – Armand, Milady and Jussac – seem to be taking this seriously. “That doesn’t make sense,” Jean says slowly. “Even if I were to be killed in battle tomorrow, Rochefort will never achieve complete control over Louis as long as Armand is alive.”

Jussac makes a peculiar noise. Armand makes what appears to be a silencing gesture, which only succeeds in catching Jean’s interest farther.

“What don’t I know?” he demands.

“It’s not important,” Armand tries.

Jean gives him an unimpressed look, then turns his head to raise an eyebrow at Jussac. Milady will ignore him, but Jussac is a soldier, and the command gaze is universal.

Jussac sighs. “There have been three attempts on the Cardinal’s life already. One with a knife and two with poison. So far so good.”

“What?” Jean cries, outraged.

“People trying to assassinate me is hardly news,” Armand says, shockingly calm.

“Rochefort is good at it!”

“No better at it than Marie de’ Medici,” Armand shrugs.

Jean’s lips part in dismay.

“If I may continue,” Milady says impatiently. “As I had said, Rochefort realized he has a problem. He reached back to Spain for assistance – ”

“To Spain?” Jean cries again. He hears his voice crack with astonishment and dismay. His old fiancé, a Spanish spy. Just when he would have thought Joseph couldn’t sink any lower.

“He’s been a Spanish agent since he spent three years there as a prisoner of war,” Armand explains.

“That was five years ago,” Jean says numbly.


“Did you think Rochefort was just another scheming noble who wanted more power than he could handle?” Milady shakes her head. “Where did you think he gets his money from? His connections?”

“I assumed the Rochefort estate was wealthy,” Jean says weakly.

“The Rochefort estate doesn’t exist. The title is landless.”

“The man we currently know as Rochefort used to serve in the armed forces,” Armand says, drawing Jean’s attention. “He had a certain level of skill at spycraft, and my predecessor, Concino Concini, admitted Rochefort into his service for a time. Soon enough Concini realized how dangerous Rochefort actually was. When the Spanish captured Rochefort during an ill-considered raid, Concini refused to ransom him.”

“Just how ill-considered was the raid?” Jean asks.

Armand smiles slowly, like the predator he is. “From Concini’s point of view, I believe it was very well considered indeed.”

Jean nods, equally slow, appreciating what had been left unsaid.

“Concini retired shortly thereafter – ” Jean snorts at Armand’s choice of phrasing, but lets it pass – “and I inherited his role. A few years later the man we now know as Rochefort escaped from Spanish prison and reentered France. This period in Rochefort’s life is sketchy. We know that he inveigled an elderly, childless Comtesse into naming him her heir. In the fullness of time she died, passing the title down to Rochefort. Five years ago he reappeared at court. That reappearance you remember, I think.”

“I do,” Jean sighs. Rochefort had opened his political career by having the Chancellor of the Exchequer assassinated and taking over the post for himself. Not that either Jean or Armand could utter those words in public: Rochefort would call them out for libel on the spot. As far as anyone had ever been able to prove, the Chancellor had died of a heart attack.

Armand nods. “So. Rochefort’s ‘escape’ from Spain was nothing of the sort. He was broken by the Spanish and remade into their spy. He has been advancing their cause the entire time he’s been here in France. His ultimate goal, as you have observed, is to gain complete control of the King. You and I both stand in his way.”

Jean presses his lips together. “Last year,” he says abruptly. “When I was shot in the market-square – ”

“Rochefort’s doing.”

“My God.”

“In that case, yes, I suspect His intervention was all that saved your life.”

Jean touches his chest; under his fingers, still faintly discernable beneath his linen shirt, a scar still remains from the bullet that had nearly killed him.

Milady takes over. “After that your Musketeers became more protective of you. Other factors, too, made assassinating you less practical. Hence this next maneuver.”

“Okay,” Jean says, pulling his fingers away from the old bullet-wound and trying to regain his equilibrium. “Okay. So if Rochefort is working for the Spanish, and so is Joseph – ”

Milady nods. “Rochefort reported back to Spain that he was having difficulty removing you. I believe that Marchmont heard of this, put two and two together, and realized that his old contract with your family held the key.”

“And so here we are,” Jussac concludes.

“Here we are,” Jean says weakly.

Armand looks over at Jean, then back to his servants. “All right. Thank you. Our next step is proof. I assume we don’t have it yet?”

“Not that will hold up,” Milady says. “Rochefort is as slippery as always. But Marchmont opens up a whole new angle. We’re working it as fast as we can.”

“If we can nail Marchmont we may be able to take Rochefort with him,” Jussac says.

“God willing,” Armand agrees. “As soon as you find anything – ”

“You’ll be the first to know,” Milady promises.

“Thank you,” Armand repeats.

A moment passes. No one seems to have anything to add.

They’re all saved from the awkwardness when a knock comes on the door. A moment later the door opens and Boisrenard sticks his head in. He has a rapid conversation with Jussac which ends with him passing over a parchment.

“Ah,” Jean says, then stops talking. All the breath has left his lungs.

Armand rises and takes the parchment from Jussac. Boisrenard leaves as quietly as he’d entered. Armand comes around to where Jean still sits and unfolds the parchment where he and Jean can both see.

Jean tries to read it, but the words swim in front of his eyes. He shakes his head and turns away. This somehow ends with him leaning against Armand’s hip – bony, just like his shoulders – while Armand scans to the end.

“Just tell me what it says,” Jean mutters, not looking up.

“We are summoned to the King’s presence, to assist him in answering a petition brought by the loyal French citizen, Joseph Marchmont.” Armand’s cultured tones don’t betray a hint of what he might be feeling; he names Joseph loyal in the same tone of voice that he might observe the weather. “In an hour.”

“Will Rochefort be there?” Milady asks immediately. “At the palace, away from their lodgings?"

“Rochefort is not named by the summons,” Armand answers. “But probably.”

“Right.” Milady nods briskly. “If you’ll excuse us, your Eminence, this is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.”

At her side, Jussac nods support and agreement.

“Go,” Armand says.

They do.

“An hour,” Jean murmurs as the door swings closed.

“Just enough time to prepare ourselves, if we’re swift.” Armand folds the parchment back up with neat, economical movements. “Do you need to send a note to the garrison?”

“What for?” Jean tries to think of what Armand might be referring to; he comes up empty.

“To appraise them of your whereabouts? Cancel practices, or whatever it is you Musketeers do all day?”

The barb startles a laugh out of Jean. It’s said in the customary acerbic tones of Cardinal Richelieu, but there’s a teasing fondness to it that’s all Armand. Then Jean shakes his head.

“The Musketeers are at La Rochelle,” he reminds Armand. “They left the day before yesterday, under Athos’ command. There are only a few squads left here in Paris. To guard the King. They’ve a duty rotation and will train by squads. I’m not needed.”

“You planned it this way, didn’t you,” Armand says in understanding.

Jean shrugs ruefully. “I couldn’t be sure how things would go for me,” he admits. “Even in the best case I might have found myself… unavailable… for a period of time. I thought it best to be prepared.”

“Of course it was,” Armand agrees. “Of… course…”

“Armand?” Jean frowns. Armand’s gone silent, and he’s staring out into the distance with an abstracted look upon his face.

“It’s best to be prepared,” Armand says absently.

“Yes,” Jean agrees.

“Of course it is. Because with preparation you can do many things. Why, look what you did with twenty-four hours’ notice. You made sure your Musketeers could carry on without you for a while, you were beforehand with the King – you even found yourself a collar to wear, to protect yourself from Rochefort’s manipulations.”

“Yes,” Jean repeats, decidedly less sanguine the second time. He stops even pretending to be comfortable with this line of questioning, leaning back from the table in a transparent bid to give himself room to maneuver. “I remember.”

“Why did Rochefort give you twenty-four hours?”

That question again. Jean gives the only answer he has: “I don’t know.”

“Look at what you did with it.”

“Yes,” Jean says a third time.

Armand’s gaze comes abruptly back into focus. “Where are your Musketeers?”

“La Rochelle.”

“You were going to be there with them.”

“Yes, until – ” Jean’s eyes widen and he trails off.

Armand nods decisively. “Until Rochefort told you he was going to out you. Then you stayed behind.”

“He wanted me to stay behind,” Jean says in dawning understanding.

“Rochefort would have put this plan into motion months ago.” Armand picks up the parchment and unfolds it again, scanning it and nodding to himself. “Rochefort had to write to his masters in Spain, then wait to hear back. Marchmont had to be found. Probably several approaches were considered, before Marchmont was selected as the best. Then Marchmont himself had to travel here from Spain. It took time for all of this to come together.”

“So when Rochefort found out I was leaving for La Rochelle, on the eve of his triumph – ”

“The siege will last for months.”

“A year at least,” Jean agrees.

“And once you’re out of Paris, outing you becomes much less effective. You would have time to think, to react, to maneuver. In the middle of leading a siege against the Rochellais you’re a hero. Marchmont’s appearance would have been seen as an attempt to smear you. Anyone trying to get to you at La Rochelle would have had to go through the entire French Army first. Once you’d broken the siege, you would have had more than enough political clout to get Louis to void your contract with Marchmont, at the very least. Who knows? If you’d played your cards right, you might have drummed up enough outrage to overturn the provision in the law that would have stripped you of your commission…” Armand trails off again, political considerations being balanced and rebalanced behind his eyes.

Jean has to clear his throat twice before his voice comes out. “I wouldn’t know how to play those cards,” he rasps eventually.

“Rochefort doesn’t believe that.” Armand puts the parchment back down, tapping the table twice for emphasis. “He may know it, intellectually; he’s been at court long enough to see you in action, and you certainly don’t make your distaste for politics and power games a secret. And yet. And yet you’re still the King’s favorite, you still lead his favorite regiment, you still get him to change his mind half the time you don’t like what his mind is – you even win fights against me, sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” Jean tries to joke, feeling the crooked smile form on his face without his conscious consent.

Armand smiles too. “What I’m saying is – you say you don’t know how to play your cards, but the reality belies that. It’s hard to believe that your place at court is an accident.”

“It’s not an accident,” Jean protests. “Not everything is earned by politicking. I got where I am by working hard and honestly.”

“And that is what Rochefort will never understand,” Armand says with finality.

“So Rochefort gave me twenty-four hours’ warning so that I would stay in Paris.”

“Yes. So that you would be here, alone, and vulnerable.”

Jean swallows. His gaze drops, to the mangled toast and cold tea sitting on fine china, to his own hands flat on the table. But his voice sounds steady when he says, “I’m not alone.”

A hand appears in his vision. Armand’s, settling over his. “Nor are you vulnerable,” he says. “I may not always have appreciated it, but I have always known. You are strong.”

Jean looks up, just in time to catch the quirk of Armand’s smile. “I certainly held up fairly well against you, all these years.”

“Yes. You did.”

Jean nods. He finds himself staring, preoccupied, at Armand’s hand resting over his. It’s a protective gesture, but not, Jean doesn’t think, a possessive one. Or maybe that’s all in Jean’s head. Maybe Jean’s just seeing what he so desperately wants to see.

Or maybe he’s seeing what’s really been in front of him all along.

After a moment Armand adds, “You should have no problems in handling a louse like Marchmont.”

“Is that one of your expectations of me?” Jean tries to laugh, tries to make it a joke, to cover up the indefinable feeling bubbling up inside him.

Armand shakes his head. “No expectations,” he says. “Just faith.”

Jean looks up, intending to say something in return to that, though he knows not what. The unformed words die in his throat. He finds himself caught by Armand’s regard, and speech suddenly feels unnecessary.

Armand is watching him with that same indefineable something coloring his gaze. His thumb moves gently over Jean’s hand, a small caress. His lips part slightly; the faint sound of his breath is all the sound in the room.

Just when Jean thinks Armand might move closer – slide his arm higher up Jean’s – step further into Jean’s personal space – Armand clears his throat, breaking the moment. He does squeeze Jean’s hand tighter, but then he releases it entirely, stepping back.

“We should prepare for our audience,” he says, gentle but firm.

“Oh,” Jean says. He clears his throat, too, using the action to remind himself of a few pointed truths. After a moment he’s regained enough of his senses to say, “Yes. Of course.”

“I will meet you out front in an hour,” Armand says. “If you’re ready sooner, you may find me in my office.”

“Of course,” Jean says a second time.

Armand steps back further. “And if you need anything – ”

“Yes?” Jean stands slowly from the table, watching Armand. “If I need anything?”

Armand opens his mouth.

Sally opens the door and enters without knocking. “I’ve got some cloth samples in,” she announces. “Jean, come and look at them, please? We really must do something about your wardrobe.”

Armand closes his mouth again.

“Right,” Jean says faintly.

“You should attend to that,” Armand says. “I will meet you out front, as agreed.”

“All right,” Jean whispers.

Armand hesitates for a brief moment. Then he nods. Then he flees.

Jean watches him go with something tight in his throat.

“Jean?” Sally prompts. “You have an hour, I think Milady said?”

“Yes,” Jean says quietly. “Yes, I do.”

And if looking at cloth samples isn’t exactly Jean’s idea of the best use of his time, well. Cardinal Richelieu probably has everything else under control.

Chapter Text

The Louvre echoes on the best of days. It’s enormous, and its roots as a fortress are not so easily concealed to Jean’s eyes as they are to many of Louis’ courtiers. Wall hangings and rugs only do so much. As Jean and Armand walk down the main corridor, Jean can tell their steps are in sync solely by the echoes coming back to them from the marbled walls.

Jean’s back in his familiar uniform, walking with his familiar stride. Even the Cardinal’s presence at his side is familiar. Well-known as their rivalry had been, they’d still often made common cause in the service of France.

Of course there are changes. But Armand’s collar no longer feels like an anchor around Jean’s neck. Armand’s arm feels supportive rather than constraining. And, just as Jean derives reassurance on the eve of battle from the presence of his sword and musket, he derives reassurance from Armand’s presence now. This is a different kind of battle from the ones Jean usually faces. But he’s armed himself with the best weapon with which to fight it.

They reach the throne room and are announced.

Joseph is already there. So is Rochefort. Which means that they both get to watch as Jean kneels before the King. Jean knows better than to look – and Armand, bowing at his side, neatly blocks any potential view – but Jean can still feel Joseph’s gaze on his back, hot with lust and possession. Rochefort’s imagined smirk slides like oil down Jean’s spine. Jean wants to shiver. Recoil. Lash out.

Now is the time for all of the discipline of the past twenty years to show its quality. Now Jean needs every inch of control he’s sweated and bled and wept for. He reaches for that hard-won serenity and comes back to his feet as smoothly as any debutante.

“Now that they’re finally here, we can settle this,” Rochefort says as soon as both Richelieus have straightened. “The matter at hand – ”

“Good morning, your Majesty,” Richelieu says, keeping his focus on the King and completely ignoring Rochefort. “I trust you are well?”

Jean doesn’t laugh. That would be most improper. Impolite. Unbecoming. And his Dom has certain expectations of Jean that Jean suddenly finds himself most desirous of meeting.

“Thank you, Cardinal, very well,” Louis says, genuine warmth in his tone and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. Louis likes Rochefort, or else Richelieu would have gotten rid of him long ago. But like any little boy Louis enjoys tweaking his favorites as much if not more than his enemies. And – as Rochefort has never quite managed to grasp – Louis adores being made much of. Rochefort attempts to drag the King around, muscle him into position and force him to act in a certain way. Richelieu lures Louis down the path he should walk with sweet words and sweeter treats.

“The gathering last night was most enjoyable,” Jean offers as his contribution to the conversation. Jean had found it to be nothing of the sort, particularly its conclusion, but there’s no need to mention that to the King.

“Indeed. I thought the wine was particularly well chosen,” Armand adds.

Louis puffs himself up further. He also likes to be thought an expert, a connoisseur, and compliments on this front are always welcome. He opens his mouth to respond, but is beaten to it by Rochefort.

“His Majesty’s taste in wine, though excellent, is not at issue.” The Comte steps forward, all but intruding into the King’s personal space in order to force himself into the Richelieus’ line of vision. Joseph follows Rochefort like his shadow. Jean has to work to keep his face still. He manages to keep his eyes on the King, but it’s impossible not to see something of his old fiancé out of the corners of his eyes.

The past twenty years have not been kind to Joseph. He’d been a broad-shouldered, well-built man when Jean had known him back in Troisville. Tall. Dark. Handsome. Healthy. Well-dressed. Well-liked, too. As Jean had learned to his sorrow, Joseph can be very charming when he chooses it. All of Troisville had loved him, that finely-made native son who had seemed to be on the fast track to the top.

The Joseph who stands in Louis’ throne room today has none of the old charm of manner or feature. Somehow he’d survived the measles, but it must have been a hard fight. The scars tell part of the story. The spare frame tells still more. Jean has seen such persistent gauntness in those men who survive injuries that should have been mortal. The body has to consume itself in order to sustain life. But with some men it’s not merely fat and muscle that gets consumed. For some men, what’s lost cannot be regained by eating well and training hard. Something essential gets sacrificed, and the man who survives may bear little resemblance to the man who had been injured.

In this new Joseph Jean sees very little of the charming exterior that figures so largely in Jean’s memory. The cruelty and lust for power that had once been carefully concealed are visible now, naked on Joseph’s face for the world to see. Joseph stares at Jean with a fire burning in his eyes. In one hand he’s holding what must be the old collaring contract. In the other hand he holds a set of restraints. It requires no imagination on Jean’s part to deduce that those are meant for him.

While Jean has been evaluating Joseph out of the corner of his eye, Louis has been making an exaggerated pout at Rochefort’s interruption.

“You just don’t appreciate wine like I do, Rochefort,” the King sighs. “Nor as Richelieu does. You should take more of an interest in it. It is one of the many signs of a truly refined gentleman.”

Once again Jean has to fight the urge to smile. Louis is Louis, and he probably always will be. Sometimes that causes headaches. But sometimes that’s comforting, too. And predictability is its own virtue.

Rochefort does not disdain to smile. His is a tight-lipped, chilly thing, but he dons it, and Louis takes it at face value. Says, “All right, if you’re so impatient, we can proceed. Your petition?”

“It is not my petition, your Majesty, but my companion’s.” Rochefort inclines his head. “You were so good as to permit me to introduce Monsieur Marchmont at your gathering last evening.”

“Yes, yes. Well, Marchmont? What is it?”

Joseph’s smile makes Rochefort’s look warm. “I have come to you, your Majesty, because of your well-known reputation as a just King,” he says.

Louis preens. Jean is too busy swallowing his shock to really notice. In his memory Joseph’s voice is rich and honeyed. Everyone had liked to hear him talk; he’d had many friends, and had often held the tavern spellbound with one of his stories. Now Joseph’s voice is rough and thready. It scrapes out of his throat like a shovel over gravel.

“His Majesty’s love of justice is central to his character,” Richelieu is saying, keeping his presence felt in the conversation.

Joseph nods. “When I first came to Paris to seek justice, I consulted a procurator, thinking that I would have to bring suit to assert my rights. But my old friend Rochefort assured me that that would not be necessary. He said that the King loves justice, and would give it to me without the need to resort to the courts.”

“I am listening,” the King repeats.

Joseph holds up the parchment in his left hand. “I come before your Majesty to claim my rightful property,” he says. “I trust you will make it over to me immediately, in consequence of my legal and preexisting claim.”

Louis takes the parchment. Then he blinks, tracking Joseph’s gaze as it swings back from the King to Jean.

When Louis’ eyes meet Jean’s, Jean nods ever so slightly. Louis’ eyes widen.

“Please, review the document my companion has provided,” Rochefort says urbanely. “I have done so myself, and am confident that you will find it all in order.”

Louis’ mouth opens and closes a few times without any sound coming out. Then he steps away from them, head already bending over the closely-written parchment.

The King likes to walk and read. He claims that the motion helps him think. Jean had never found that habit to be so unfortunate as he does right now, as Louis’ meandering takes him out of earshot of the four of them.

“You know what Louis is reading right now?” Rochefort asks perfunctorily. He keeps his voice low and his words short, ready to be cut off should the King return.

“Of course,” Richelieu says, equally terse.

“Surprised he told you,” Joseph says in his newly gravelly voice. “Thought he’d be too ashamed. He’s too ashamed to even look at me, because he knows what he owes me.” Joseph’s gaze hasn’t shifted. It remains on Jean, as if riveted in place. “You’ll pay it, slut. I promise you that. You’ll pay it.”

Richelieu steps between Joseph and Jean just as Jean’s gaze swings up from Louis’ pacing towards Joseph, outraged and angry. That had been the point, Jean realizes a moment later. Joseph wants Jean to look at him. Joseph wants to be acknowledged. Joseph wants to see how Jean reacts, so that Joseph can learn how best to stick his knives in Jean. And he would have gotten what he’d wanted, except that Richelieu can play this game ten times better than both of them, and acted to prevent it.

“I will say this once, and once only,” Richelieu says precisely. “If you ever use such a term in reference to my submissive again, the crows will dine on your entrails while you yet live.”

“An empty threat,” Joseph sneers. “Your submissive? He was never yours. He’s mine. He’s been mine all these years, and soon enough he’ll know it.”

The chains Joseph’s hand jingle, almost musically. The air thickens. Twenty years isn’t enough to have forgotten what this feels like. Joseph is trying to exert his will on Jean.

Once Joseph had been able to push Jean under just by flexing his Dominance. Jean had been younger than. Untried. Unpracticed. Now Jean stiffens his spine and redirects his gaze, away from Richelieu’s back and towards one of the King’s fine paintings. The one just inside the door depicts Michael the Archangel, standing barefoot over the bodies of sinners, flaming sword held aloft. The painter had given Saint Michael a look of utter serenity. The confidence of someone who has no doubts. Jean draws on that confidence, taking it within himself, and pushes Joseph outside. Away, and away, until the waves of force break around Jean as harmlessly as the tides lap at the shore.

There’s a startled sound, and then the force of Joseph’s will abruptly vanishes. Jean doesn’t whirl around – not from within this place of peace – but he does turn his head, calmly. For almost the first time since Jean had arrived, Joseph isn’t looking at Jean. He’s looking at Richelieu, and the expression on his face is full of outraged shock.

For his part, Armand hasn’t moved a muscle, except those in his jaw that permit him a small smile. Jean smiles too when he realizes what has happened. Armand has put Joseph back in his place using nothing but his own force of will. And suddenly Joseph looks like every other recruit Jean has ever trained. Flat on his ass in the mud, spitting blood and teeth into the dirt of the practice-yard, because the pretty sword-thrust that had impressed all his friends back in his home village hadn’t worked a damn against an actual soldier.

That’s my Dom,” Jean says softly. It’s the first thing he’s said to Joseph since entering the room, and he makes sure that his tone carries all of the deep satisfaction that he feels.

Joseph’s scars turn white when he’s furious. Jean watches it happen, still somewhat detached. Later he’ll appreciate the sight.

Louis’ footsteps grow louder, signaling the King’s return. Everyone falls back into place – Richelieu at Jean’s side, Joseph and Rochefort a few steps away – and hastily dons their best respectfully placid look. Joseph manages it worst of any of them, Jean thinks. Joseph still looks murderous.

“This is extraordinary,” Louis says as he returns. “Absolutely extraordinary.”

“I thought the same thing, your Majesty,” Rochefort says before Armand or Jean can speak.

“Treville – er – Richelieu – oh, damn it all, Captain, how did you end up here if you were engaged?” Louis demands.

Jean spreads his arms. “I was told that my fiancé had died,” he says, letting the truth of his words be apparent. “I had left home to visit a friend of my father’s in Paris. While I was away, my mother wrote to tell me to extend my visit, because the measles had struck my village. When I’d heard nothing else for a few weeks, I wrote to another friend. He wrote back and told me that half the village was dead. Including my family – and my fiancé.”

“Well, that’s certainly a good reason,” Louis begins.

“But I’m not dead,” Joseph finishes for the King. “Your Majesty, it’s true that I was sick, and much despaired of. My family heard of a doctor in Spain who was said to have a miraculous cure for the measles. Desperate, they sent me there. It worked, as you can see, though not in time to save the rest of my family.” He pauses here to adopt a look of mourning.

The King ignores this in favor of his own puzzlement. “But if you survived, why did you not return immediately?”

“Indeed, it’s not as if Jean was hiding from you,” Richelieu adds, infusing his tone with what Jean knows to be a carefully studied air of confusion. “He inherited his family’s title, and has continued to use it publically in spite of his relationship to me. Why, the Captain of the Musketeers is quite the public figure. You would have had no trouble finding Jean at any point in the last twenty years. That you did not seek him would seem to indicate that you, too, considered your engagement to be at an end.”

“I am aware of no statute of limitations on contracts to collar,” Joseph says shortly to Richelieu. He turns back to Louis, and resumes his attempts to charm. “It took many years before I had regained my strength. Even more before I had regained enough of my position in the world to offer Jean the comfortable life which any Dom must wish to give their sub. I have done it now; and so I am come to claim what is mine.”

“Your removal to a Spanish village no doubt explains the false news Jean was given of your death,” Richelieu says before anyone else can speak. “It’s no wonder he thought himself free to engage his affections elsewhere.”

“What he thought is of no consequence,” Joseph says sharply. He’s starting to sound irritated at Richelieu’s continued pointed not-quite-questions. “The law, not the foolish thoughts of a flighty sub, are at issue here.”

“And the law is quite clear that intention frames an issue,” Richelieu says. His voice doesn’t get sharper; if anything it slows, mellowing, as Richelieu assumes the attitude of a teacher to a student. “The doctrine is known as ‘good faith’. Perhaps M. Coquenard can educate you on it further, M. Marchmont. When a contract is made in good faith, it must be considered at least as equally valid as any other contract it might contradict.”

“That matters only for penalty – ” Joseph begins.

“Which we understand you are within your rights to claim,” Rochefort interjects, smooth as always. “M. Marchmont is willing to provide monetary compensation to you, in recognition of the loss of your contract.”

Jean bristles at this cool, callous accounting. Richelieu, by contrast, all but yawns. Then he smiles one of his most disingenuous smiles. The one that shows teeth. “If you think that the value of Jean’s love can be reduced to a monetary sum, then I shall pay you that sum, and keep that which I value beyond money.”

“Perhaps I should have both!” Joseph snaps. “I didn’t come here to seek damages from you, but after twenty years of making yourself free with my property – ”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” the King says impatiently. “You give me a headache. And you, Marchmont. Cease this nonsense of ‘property’ and ‘damages’ at once. Don’t you know you’re speaking of one of my oldest and closest friends?”

Joseph doesn’t look like he’s going to take the hint. Rochefort is quicker on the uptake, and intervenes for his ally. “Your forgiveness, your Majesty. M. Marchmont was quoting legal precedent, which is well known to be dry, and does not take into account the human element.”

“The human element is exactly the point,” Richelieu says. Jean makes himself admire Richelieu’s composure, as a distraction from what he’d rather be doing, which is drawing out his sword and killing Joseph and Rochefort where they stand.

Richelieu goes on, “Here we have two contracts, both made in good faith, that have come into conflict. What distinguishes them is that there is an individual at the center. We can’t ask a wagonload of goods which stall it would prefer to be sold out of. Jean, by contrast, is quite able to speak his mind.”

“There is nothing in the law that considers – ” Rochefort starts.

“If you wanted to argue the law you should have gone to court,” Richelieu cuts Rochefort off. “You have come to the King. And as you so wisely pointed out, the King is concerned with justice.”

“Indeed I am,” Louis says, asserting himself into the conversation. “How fitting it is that the text last week was Solomon, Cardinal. It really must be divine intervention, for I’ve thought of the perfect resolution.”

A moment of silence greets this proclamation. Jean finally breaks it by saying, tentatively, “I hope your Majesty will not suggest cutting me in half?”

Louis laughs, which had been part of the point. Joseph looks like he’s about to mock Jean for his jest, which would have been the other part. Unfortunately he appears to thinks better of it at the last moment.

“No, no,” Louis says when he’s done laughing. “I think we can manage with just cutting the contracts in half.”

“You mean invalidating them both,” Richelieu says smugly.

“Your Majesty!” Joseph protests, sounding nowhere near so calm.

“And then the good Captain may reenter whichever relationship he likes.” Louis sounds pleased with himself. “That satisfies the law and also the demands of justice. There! Aren’t I a marvel?”

“Equal to Solomon, your Majesty,” Richelieu says gravely.

“Indeed your Majesty’s wisdom is a shining light for us all,” Rochefort says carefully. “I wish only to raise a single, an almost minor point…. If your Majesty dissolves both contracts, and the Captain simply enters into a new one with the Cardinal, my good friend Marchmont’s claim has been destroyed with no recompense.”

“I have already offered recompense,” Richelieu reminds him.

“But as you so eloquently pointed out, money cannot be considered to be a substitute for the object of one’s love.” Rochefort sighs insincerely, while Joseph endeavors to look as besotted as he can. Jean finds the attempt laughable. If only this were a laughing matter.

“What is a substitute, then?” the King asks.

“Alas, I fear there is none,” Rochefort says solemnly.

“I can think of one,” Joseph says unexpectedly.

All eyes turn to him – even Jean’s, though only for a moment.

“During my long illness, I had much occasion to read the Bible, and much comfort therefrom,” Joseph says sanctimoniously. Some of his old winning ways have been recalled to him, for now that he has everyone’s attention he holds it most effectively. “I particularly meditated upon the wise words of St. Paul. That chastity is a virtue prized above all. Contracts and collars are all very well, if one cannot remain chaste: but if one can…”

“What are you suggesting?” Louis asks, sounding befuddled.

Joseph smiles. “That in lieu of any monetary damages, I will accept an edict from your Majesty – in whose justice we all stand illuminated – that Jean is barred from entering into any other contracts. Ever. If he will pledge himself to the virtuous ideal espoused by Saint Paul, I will withdraw my claim, and consider the piety of my beloved to be more than adequate recompense for the loneliness I will suffer.”

Jean isn’t Armand, but he has his own wits, and the situation reads as plainly to him as words on a page. Rochefort knows – or at least has guessed, and rightly – that the arrangement between Armand and Jean is one of convenience, lately concocted to protect Jean from the contract Louis is currently holding in one royal hand. Joseph, somehow, does not. Joseph believes that Armand and Jean are genuinely in love. Or, more likely, Joseph believes that Armand is the same kind of Dom he is. Possessive and grasping. Unwilling to give up something he views as being rightfully his.

Joseph has put this proposal out there to force Armand’s hand. He expects Armand to react by closing his fist. By asserting, in offended, outraged majesty, that Jean is his. At which point Joseph may suggest to Louis that, as in the judgment of Solomon, it is easy to tell which of the Doms in the room truly holds Jean’s heart. Joseph has no idea that Louis had been in on the ruse of Armand and Jean from the start.

Rochefort’s lips part. The word they shape is probably no! He restrains himself at the last minute, but the sentiment is clear to Jean.

Rochefort will know it’s a ruse, Jean remembers Richelieu saying, yesterday before they’d met the King.

And then, later that evening: You’d be free of obligations. To anyone. Myself included… You’d win. You’d be free of us all.

Rochefort is horrified because this opening should be the answer to Jean’s prayers. From Rochefort’s point of view, it must look like Jean is on the verge of total victory. If Louis dissolves both contracts, edict or no edict, Jean will have emerged from the revelation of his true dynamic completely unscathed. Position, title and reputation will still be his. He won’t even have to pay the penalty of wearing Armand’s collar. All he’ll have to bear is any anger Armand may have for Jean for having been inveigled into this scheme and then beaten out of it. Since Rochefort believes Armand and Jean to be mortal enemies regardless, this is hardly an issue. And as to Joseph’s edict – what cares Jean? He’s been contract-free and apparently happy for twenty years. Joseph has just handed Jean a triumphant return to the old status quo. No wonder protest springs so readily to Rochefort’s lips.

The Comte doesn’t speak, though. He closes his teeth over his silent no and directs his gaze to Richelieu. His ally has spoken: his die is cast. Rochefort’s best hope is that Richelieu will reject this plan, and return the privilege of being the outraged one to Rochefort.

That hope is dashed a moment later. Richelieu inclines his head and says, “A very wise and holy notion indeed, M. Marchmont. Your Majesty, I believe that that would be a most equitable arrangement.”

Jean knows the briefest flash of betrayal, before reason overwhelms emotion and snuffs it out again. Irrationally, emotionally, Jean wants Armand to reject the notion. To inform both Rochefort and Joseph that Jean is his and will remain so. That he wants Jean, and that he will fight for Jean, whatever it takes.

Foolish. This is Armand fighting for Jean. Any protest on Richelieu’s part will damage their side’s position, perhaps fatally. The best move is to appear to embrace this solution. To force Rochefort to bear the burden of gainsaying his own ally.

And – ruse or no ruse – there’s no relationship between them to betray. Jean had told Armand as much. Right from the start, when they’d stood in Armand’s office and stated their expectations of each other, Jean had made it perfectly clear.

You will not presume on my person. In any way.

When Jean had said it, he’d meant it in a sexual sense. But Armand has taken it more broadly than that. When Jean had knelt for Armand in his office at the Louvre, and taken his unplanned fall, Armand had said it. I owe you an apology. That was presumption in the truest sense.

To behave otherwise would be to play into this farce of Jean as a piece of property to be disposed of though a legal document. In some senses that’s necessary. But in this case? Suppose Richelieu steps back. Suppose that Rochefort also chooses not to protest. Suppose Rochefort bows gracious defeat and lives to fight another day. Suppose the King accepts Joseph’s unorthodox solution and decrees it so.

Then Jean will have gained his freedom. Whereas if Richelieu presses, if he attempts to assert a claim, he may only end up escorting Jean back into the chains Jean had specifically begged Armand to keep him free of.

To someone of Armand’s character, failing to step back would seem like presumption, indeed.

There are times when Richelieu behaves very honorably indeed.

Damn the man, anyway.

The King is nodding slowly. He taps the parchment on which Joseph’s contract is written and opens his mouth to seal Jean’s fate.

“No,” Jean says, loudly and firmly, before Louis can.

Because that’s what they’ve all forgotten, in their scheming. Joseph says aye and Armand says aye; Rochefort does not speak, and the King will rule. Thus they have all calculated.

But there is a fifth person in the room. And as Armand had pointed out earlier, Jean has a tongue, and may use it to speak.

All eyes swing to him.

“What?” Louis says blankly.

“I said no.” Jean shakes his head for emphasis. And then, for good measure, he takes a step closer to Armand and reaches out to the other man.

Armand takes Jean’s hand as it’s offered. But he leaves it to Jean to slide his arm through Armand’s. To choose to stand at Armand’s side, close enough that Armand’s robes brush Jean’s sword-hilt.

Jean will have trouble drawing his sword like this. Jean had always decried that piece of submissive propriety especially. The Dom stands to the right, and traps the sub’s right hand, keeping them dependent. Keeping them reliant on their Dom to protect them.

But as much as he hates it, Jean has to admit that as visual statements go, it’s very effective.

“What are you saying?” Louis asks, confused and astonished.

There’s a bad moment then when Jean hesitates, briefly unsure of his chosen course. He doesn’t have to do this. He could drop Armand’s arm and step away again; Armand would let him. He could let the King dissolve both contracts. He could have the freedom and the independence he’s always craved. And he could have it without the fear of discovery and the pressure of constantly living as the other dynamic.

Jean could step away. It’s not too late. He could have what he’s always thought he’d wanted.

He’d be alone.

I’m not alone, he’d said to Armand just this morning.

Nor are you vulnerable, Armand had said. I may not always have appreciated it, but I have always known. You are strong.

Walking away would be easy. Staying – choosing to find out where this might yet go, with no surety and no guide – would be insane.

It would certainly require strength.

Jean reaches up with his free hand and touches Armand’s collar again.

Worry as little as you can, Armand had said, as they’d entered the Louvre together for the first time as a pair. We’re in this together now.

“I’m saying that I won’t accept Joseph’s offer.” Jean takes a deep breath and commits himself. “I’m saying that I won’t agree to anything that parts me from Richelieu.” A moment later Jean corrects himself: “From Armand.” From somewhere, Jean finds a self-deprecating smile and puts it on, hoping to defuse the situation somewhat. “I suppose I’m not ready for sainthood just yet.”

There’s a moment of silence following this proclamation. In it, Armand puts his right hand over Jean’s where it rests on his left arm, and squeezes it tight.

Jean turns his head to look up the few inches that separate him from Armand. Armand is looking back. There’s something in Armand’s eyes Jean can’t name, but recognizes in his own heart as well.

A stifled sound from Louis draws Jean’s attention back eventually. Sudden worry ambushes Jean. The King knows that Jean’s relationship with Armand had started out as a fraud. How will Louis react to Jean declaring that he wishes to continue it now? Will Louis let the secret out in his astonishment? Will he insist on annulling the contract regardless?

Thank God, Louis does neither of those things.

What he does do is hold out his hand to Jean, and say, “Walk with me.”

The King takes Jean out into the gardens. Armand, Joseph and Rochefort are permitted to follow at a discreet distance, along with all of the King’s usual attendants, but they are left at the fountain while Louis and Jean stroll the well-groomed paths.

“All right, Jean. Tell me what’s really going on,” the King says, after they’ve rounded the first turn and are out of sight of the others.

Jean considers trying to put Louis off with half-truths, but only for a moment. He’s known Louis too long and owes him too much for that to sit right with his conscience.

Instead he says, “I don’t know.” And laughs, a little, at how ridiculous he sounds. “It’s – it’s not like I thought it would be. Being collared. I thought it would be awful.” Jean shudders then. “It would have been awful, with Joseph.”

Louis nods. He knows some of Jean’s history; Jean is one of the only people Louis can count as a friend and not just a subject. Louis doesn’t know it all. No one else on earth knows it all, not even Ninon. But Louis knows enough to nod.

“I take it that you’re not finding it awful with the Cardinal,” Louis says carefully.

“I – no.” Jean rolls his shoulders, buying himself another moment to try to think. To put some of it in words. But a moment is too small to accomplish such a task. His feelings are too complex to be easily expressed. The best he can do is to say, “It’s not awful. I would never have guessed it. But it’s not. There are a million ways in which he and I disagree, but…”

“But?” Louis prompts.

Jean shrugs again, helplessly. “There’s more to him than I ever imagined,” he says. “I – we suit each other. Or so it seems.”

Silence greets this proclamation. As declarations of love go, it’s distinctly underwhelming. Louis would be well within bounds to find it unconvincing.

Battered old soldiers have no words for love. Middle-aged men with bleak pasts can’t speak of happy endings. And Jean, who has lived so long as something he’s not, who even now refuses to be fit back into the mold he’d theoretically been made from – what right has Jean to hope for something better than spending his twilight years unmolested by the demands of the world?

And yet Jean does hope. Hope, even more than a love he’s not yet sure he knows how to feel, had been what had moved Jean to speak out against Joseph’s proposal. Jean knows everything he needs to know about protecting himself. He finds, to his astonishment, that somewhere along the line he’s become brave enough to decide he’d like to learn about being happy.

“Does he make you happy?” Louis asks, unknowingly echoing Jean’s thoughts.

Perhaps that’s why Jean answers, unhesitatingly, “Yes.”

A thousand caveats immediately crowd Jean’s tongue. Yes, Armand makes Jean happy – for approximately three seconds at a stretch. The rest of the time Jean is alternately frustrated, furious or amused. Again, not exactly the most ringing of endorsements.

Jean swallows all of those words back. Three seconds of happiness at a stretch is still more than he’d had in his life before Armand. And Jean’s no stranger to hard work. He’s willing to bet that with practice, they can get up to three minutes.

Louis is silent again. Jean risks a glance sideways at the King. “Your Majesty?”

Louis turns towards Jean more fully, coming to a halt and letting Jean see the smile his King is wearing. It’s wide and honest. The sort of smile that, as the years go by and France’s politics gets bleaker, Jean sees less and less often. It makes Louis look younger. More like the boy King Jean had first sworn himself to.

“I’m so glad,” Louis says simply.

When Jean had first gone to Louis after Rochefort had threatened him, arriving in the Louvre almost before the sun had crested the spires of Paris in his haste to be first to the King, Louis had listened to Jean’s desperate plan with confusion. But as Jean had gone on that confusion had changed. When Jean had told Louis that he wished for Armand’s collar, Louis had looked hopeful. Like someone who had gotten the dearest wish of their heart. Like a child learning that their parents had agreed to stop fighting, and that better days were ahead.

Louis looks like that again, now. And this time, instead of feeling guilty for the false hope he’s raised, Jean smiles back.

“I will tell Monsieur Marchmont that his contract is invalidated,” Louis says. “I should offer him something, to take the sting off. What do you think? Is a title too much?”

“Far too much,” Jean says hastily, imagining the horror of another Spanish spy at court with a grant of nobility and fewer morals than Rochefort. “Money, perhaps.” Though Joseph had disclaimed money, and giving it to him anyway might offend…

“Hm. I’ll think on it.” Louis starts walking again, heading back to the fountain where Armand, Joseph and Rochefort had been left. Imagining the look on Joseph’s face when the King tells him he’s lost his claim entirely, Jean lets himself smile again.

Before they turn the final corner, Louis’ steps slow. He claims Jean’s attention with a wave of one hand. When he has it, he says, seriously, “If the Cardinal ever harms you, you will tell me at once. The position of First Minister is not a life title, you know.”

Something sticks in Jean’s throat. He knows how much Louis relies on Richelieu, and not just politically. Offering to dismiss him on Jean’s behalf might be the most valuable thing Louis has to give to another.

Richelieu had done much of the work of raising Louis himself, after his father had died and his mother had proven far more interested in politics than in the son in whose name she’d supposedly reigned. The only interest Marie de’ Medici had taken in her son had been to scold him for not acting properly Dominant enough. But she could not teach her son behaviors she herself lacked. Richelieu had stepped in to the void, providing a role model on whom many of Louis’ more Dominant traits are patterned to this day.

Half of dynamic assignment is interpretive. For some children, like Jean, dynamic is obvious from a very young age. His mother had always laughed over how easy it had been to assign Jean. He’d used to twist himself up in his sheets before falling asleep, so tightly that when his Lady Treville would sneak in later to untangle him his fingers would be white and his limbs asleep. As Jean had gotten older he’d apparently taken to curling his fingers around the bars of his bed instead, holding the position all night. There are other behaviors that Jean can remember, which with the lens of hindsight are unmistakably submissive, that had been with him all his life. Some of them his parents had known about. Some of them – like the summer of his ninth year, which he’d spent innocently playing tie-up games with two of the boys from the stables – Jean is grateful they’d never discovered.

Not all children are so obvious from such a young age. Some are assigned later, when they reach puberty and their sexual fantasies reveal a distinct bent. And some children’s signs are so ambiguous that a parent’s wishes probably have more to do with their eventual assignment than any real preference.

Jean remembers Marie de’ Medici scolding Louis, sometimes. He remembers gestures Anne has aborted and the occasional oddity of his monarchs’ interaction. He remembers the way the young Louis had liked to hang out with Jean’s own younger self, and the way the King would watch Jean closely sometimes, copy Jean’s mannerisms and behaviors, in the same way Louis would watch and copy Richelieu’s.

What Jean most certainly does not do is wonder. Wondering is not his place. And wondering is dangerous. So Jean only remembers. And nods, gratefully, to the King who has always had Jean’s back.

“You will be the first to know if anything should happen, your Majesty,” Jean manages to say. “Thank you.”

Louis starts walking again. “It’s the least I can do,” he says, suddenly brusque. “Now. Let’s go break the bad news to Marchmont.”

Chapter Text

It would be stretching the truth to say that Marchmont and Rochefort take Louis’ decision well, but not so far a stretch as to be outside the bounds of polite fiction. Rochefort is disappointed but resigned. He had probably realized, as soon as Jean had stepped aside to talk to the King, that the battle is lost. He’s probably already moved on to his next scheme. With a man like Rochefort there’s always a next scheme. Richelieu recognizes a kindred spirit, though a twisted one.

Marchmont’s reaction is the more interesting of the two. When Louis announces that Marchmont’s contract will be voided and appropriate recompense made – such recompense to be determined by the courts, upon whose assistance Louis often relies in his quest to retain his moniker the Just – there is a moment where Marchmont’s true feelings are plain to be read on his face. Richelieu just happens to be looking in Marchmont’s direction. And on Marchmont’s countenance he sees a thwarted rage that is unfortunately familiar to him.

Richelieu’s dealt with Marchmont’s type before: it comes with the territory, alas. Angry young Doms who believe they’re owed something and that the world has failed to deliver. Raised from youth with the belief in their own innate superiority, they expect to have only to put themselves forward before title, money, and respect all fall their way. When reality fails to live up to their expectations…

Rochefort will accept this setback philosophically and move on to his next scheme. It’s just another step in the tango he and Richelieu have been dancing together for the past five years. Marchmont, though. Marchmont has no stake in the long game. Marchmont’s goals are all short-term. He may have been brought in to this because he and Rochefort have the same master in Spain. But it’s plain to Richelieu, though it may have eluded their Spanish spymaster, that Marchmont’s goals and Spain’s goals diverge dramatically on this point. Rochefort had wanted to disrupt Jean’s influence over the King; it matters not to him how this goal is accomplished. Marchmont wants Jean. Full stop.

It has already occurred to Richelieu that the Spanish spymaster may not be ignorant of Marchmont’s divergent priorities. Marchmont’s presence here may be as well-considered as Rochefort’s presence in Spain had been, during the raid that had rid Concino Concini of him. The entire purpose may be for Marchmont to do something foolish and pay the price.

Richelieu usually dislikes being used as a cat’s-paw. This may be the rare exception, provided that Richelieu is the one who gets to extract the pound of flesh.

After the King’s announcement their audience is most palpably at an end. All four participants withdraw. Rochefort and Marchmont disappear down one of the Louvre’s many corridors, obviously desirous of avoiding further interaction with their opponents. Richelieu lets them go. He walks to his office on autopilot, barely registering his destination, until he’s standing before his desk. Jean, who has followed, closes the door.

Richelieu looks down at his desk, the scattered papers and half-read letters, the minutiae of running a nation. France may be between crises at the moment, but there’s always something do to. Richelieu should read his spies’ reports. Review the diplomatic approach his designee will be taking on their next visit to London. Consider the latest Papal announcements and their effect on the political turmoil in the Holy Roman Empire. He should – he should –

“You told the King you wanted to stay with me,” Armand hears himself say aloud, with no conscious intent.

He doesn’t turn around. He remains standing before his desk, staring blankly down at it, and the only way he knows Jean is moving closer to him is by the jingle of the latter’s sword-belt.

In Armand’s mind he’s still standing in the throne-room. He’s hearing Marchmont make his hideously clever suggestion. He’s running down all the paths of action in his mind, and realizing, slowly and painfully, what his only possible reply can be. Mastering his emotional reaction and speaking the words that might cut off what’s flowering between he and Jean before it has a chance to bloom. And then hearing, as if in the answer to his prayers, Jean tell the King that he will not allow them to be parted…

“I did,” Jean agrees from perhaps two paces back.

“Why?” The only question he can ask. The only question that matters.

“Because I wanted to.”

Armand closes his eyes. “Why?” he repeats.

Jean’s shrug is more imagined than heard. But Armand can picture it clearly in his mind’s eye: the wry twist of lips, the uneven movement of shoulders, the head-tilt that conveys ruefulness. “Because. I wanted to.”

Now Armand turns. Jean is exactly as imagination had painted him, down to the well-balanced stance and the curl of his forelock. When had Armand learned Jean’s behaviors so thoroughly that he can predict Jean’s movements blind? Correctly predict his mannerisms without looking? Know, even unseen, that Jean’s smile is kind and wistful and covers a vulnerability he dares not show?

Some of that vulnerability is manifesting as uncertainty now. Jean says, “I thought you wanted me to stay, but if I have misjudged – ”


As the echoes of Armand’s voice return to them from the walls, Armand smiles weakly, and holds out his hand. “No. You have not misjudged.”

Jean closes the last steps between them and takes Armand’s hand. Armand tugs Jean closer still. Jean sighs, and leans his head against Armand’s shoulder.

It’s awkward. The pommel of Jean’s sword digs into Armand’s stomach; Jean’s shoulders are too wide to comfortably embrace, and his cloak seems determined to get in the way. It still feels wonderful to have Jean in his arms at last.

Armand’s not a man used to doubt. If he wants something, he goes after it. Usually he gets it. Sometimes he doesn’t. But either way there is certainty. He either wins or he loses. The criteria for both are well-defined. A treaty signed, a painting purchased, a spy returned home safe, a plot against the King foiled. These things spell victory. Unfavorable trade terms, an auction lost, critical intelligence mislaid, a noble assassinated – these things spell defeat. Either way the result is understood. Is predictable. Is controllable.

Jean is not predictable. He is most certainly not controllable. And from the moment that Armand had realized that he wants Jean, Armand has been lost in a fog of uncertainty, because he’s had no idea how to go about gaining him. He’s so unlike anything Jean might want in a Dom. He’s traditional and conservative and set in his ways. Even if he tries to change, there will be areas where he fails. There will be times when his actions or behaviors or words hurt Jean. Jean has to know it. Jean has to know he’d be safer apart.

And yet. Jean had asserted their relationship before the King and insisted on keeping it. And Jean shifts slightly now, trying for a more comfortable position, apparently preferring the dig of Armand’s bony shoulder against his cheek to stepping away entirely.

Perhaps God loves fools after all. Even fools like Armand.

“Jean,” Armand murmurs, daring to hope. “I would like to kiss you now.”

Jean’s breath is warm against Armand’s throat as he exhales. “I’d like that.”

Armand keeps it gentle. Just the far side of chaste. He knows that Jean isn’t a blushing virgin, but the experience Jean does have is almost worse than Jean having none at all. A few boyhood fumbles. An adulthood of treating sex as a duty, measuring submission by the hour and paying for the privilege. In between, separating the two by an endless gulf, a year of abuse by the man Armand had inexplicably left alive behind them.

He hopes very much that Marchmont puts a foot wrong, before he leaves Paris to return to his Spanish masters. It will take some time for the courts to decide on appropriate compensation for the breaking of Marchmont’s engagement contract. Marchmont will have plenty of opportunity to err.

And in the here and now, Armand is kissing Jean. Softly. Jean has kept his tellings to broad strokes. But as Jean had said, Armand can imagine the details. One thing Armand is sure of is that Jean has known very little gentleness.

He doesn’t seem to know how to respond to it, either. Jean keeps trying to push forward, to deepen or strengthen or otherwise amp up the kiss. Armand remains firm. The last thing he wants to do is move too quickly and trip some wire Jean doesn’t even know he has buried. Even if it’s its own kind of torture to restrict their contact to Armand’s hands on Jean’s arms and two sets of lips pressed together.

Jean pulls away eventually. Armand lets him, though he keeps Jean from moving too far. Intoxicating as it is to kiss Jean, a part of Armand is on alert at all times, and he surveys Jean rapidly from head to toe. No obvious tremble, pupils wide but still focused, only a faint breathlessness. Thank God.

“Isn’t there anything else you’d like to do to me?” Jean asks. It’s perhaps meant to sound coy or enticing. The breathlessness ruins that somewhat, but the innocent desire it exposes is even more intoxicating than the most practiced seduction would be. Armand has been seduced by the best. Jean’s artless question, and the way he licks his lips as he watches Armand, is better than any deliberate lure.

Armand curses his imagination now. It’s far too easy to picture Jean on his knees, Armand’s robes parted, hand tangled in Jean’s hair as Jean –

Discipline. Armand sighs.

“I would like to do a great many things with you,” Armand says, not neglecting to stress the preposition. “But I will not.”

Jean stills. Then his strength seems to leave him. He sags, and Armand’s hands on his arms are suddenly doing more than their fair share, holding him up.

Armand deduces the problem a moment before Jean’s head drops. He pulls Jean back into his embrace, and makes sure that Jean is situated in such a way that he can fully feel exactly how much Armand would like to take Jean up on that artless, impossibly arousing offer.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking, please stop,” Armand murmurs into Jean’s ear. “The problem isn’t that I don’t want you enough. It’s that I want you too much. I will not sacrifice what might be the happiness of a lifetime in the quest for the gratification of the moment.”

Armand waits a moment for this to sink in. Then he adds, just as Jean begins to stir, “Is that not the same decision you took, when you refused to let the King part us?”

Jean laughs. It’s somewhat wobbly, but he laughs. “You great charmer,” he says. To Armand’s relief he sounds affectionate rather than incensed or betrayed. “No wonder you always get your way in court.”

Armand would be lying if he’d said that this praise doesn’t make him swell slightly. But he doesn’t lose sight of his original point. “So you’ll leave off tempting me?”

“Have I got anything better to do?” Some of the humor turns dark. Some of the humor vanishes entirely. “I sent my Musketeers to La Rochelle without me. I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to ride off after them. But I haven’t much to do without them.”

“No practices that need running,” Richelieu recalls.

“Of course that’s only half my job. But the other half is attending at court. And I’m not sure it’s a good idea for me to be doing that right now, either. At least not alone.”

Richelieu nods slowly. Jean is no fool, of course. Rochefort has been dealt a setback, but his long game is far from over. And then there is Marchmont.

In some ways their new alliance makes them weaker. They’re more vulnerable like this. An attack on one of them is now an attack on both. Cut Jean, and Armand will bleed.

But that’s true of any partnership or team the world has ever seen. And Armand has never yet known a soldier who prefers to go into battle alone. Risks or no risks.

“I think it’s best if we both maintain a low profile. Today, at least. Let the ripples die down.” A thought occurs then, or rather a suggestion, and Armand gives it voice. “Doesn’t the Comtesse de Larroque hold her salon tonight?”

“She does,” Jean agrees. He sounds surprised. “Are you saying I may go?”

“I was hoping we might both go,” Armand says. He smiles. “That is, if you don’t think I’ll embarrass you.”

“Never.” Jean’s smile widens. Delighted, now.

“In the meanwhile, unfortunately, there are things I should attend to.” Initial reports on Marchmont will be arriving soon. Even if they contain little of actual use, Richelieu should be familiar with the background material. And then there is all the other business of state, which does not pause even as other matters loom large. “You can go back to the Palais-Cardinal. Make yourself free of it. There should be plenty there to occupy you.” Armand tries a joke. “You could run the Red Guards through training, though you’ll have to be prepared for rather more competence than you see in the average Musketeer.”

Jean doesn’t laugh, though. Doesn’t reply with a quip of his own. Nor, however, does he seem hurt or offended. He merely seems… thoughtful.

Then he asks, quietly, “May I stay?”


“With you. While you work.”

The question shouldn’t come as a surprise. That it does speaks more to the circumscribed nature of Armand’s life to date than Armand really wants to consider. Submissive companionship he’s had aplenty. But only in the bedroom. There’s never been anyone who’d wanted to share his life.

Armand has almost forgotten, over the years, how much he’d once hoped for exactly that.

One thing at a time, Armand tells himself. It’s quite the distance from spending an afternoon together – an afternoon they’ve already agreed it would be unwise to spend apart – to sharing an entire life.

Still. He’s smiling, and he doesn’t want to stop.

“Of course,” Armand says. He makes sure his pleasure shows in his voice. “I would like that very much.”

The rest of the morning passes quietly away. Eventually they do adjourn from Armand’s office, returning to the Palais-Cardinal for a light luncheon. Possibly too light. Armand prefers simple fare, fruits and breads and some light cheeses. Jean plows through an enormous portion and looks around in vain for cold cuts that aren’t there.

Sally, hovering by the door, raises an eyebrow at Armand. Armand nods hastily, and Sally quietly vanishes. He has reason again to be grateful for the competence of his subordinates when Sally reappears moments later with another tray. This spread is more substantial, and Jean does it justice, finally looking satisfied as he tears the last roll to pieces.

Armand’s forgotten what a soldier’s appetite is like. He’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again, though Sally has probably already attended to the matter for him.

They part in the afternoon. The running of a noble household is work of its own variety, and Jean has his role to play there, too. The domestic matters have hardly been unattended to in the past – Richelieu employs a housekeeper, and a very good one, too – but Jean will no doubt want to put his stamp on everything. And there are a dozen things that Jean will require for his own personal use that Richelieu’s household is not yet in a position to supply.

The afternoon seems to drag on longer than the morning had. Richelieu finds his correspondence drier and the various political situations harder to untangle. Richelieu puts this down to a delayed reaction from the events of the morning, and refuses to consider that he misses the quiet sound of Jean’s breathing.

Matters improve at Larroque’s salon. Jean spends most of the night beside Armand, though he’s much taken up by conversations with the other members, many of whom he’s known for years. The discussions and reading material are all revolutionary in nature, of course. But Armand listens with an open mind and finds much to appreciate. Being himself, he also finds much to critique. Before the night is over he’s ventured one or two points of his own. There are a dozen more in his head, as well as several small-scale plans and two promising avenues for gaining the support of the King, more or less formed. As a relative outsider, though, Armand judges it unwise to air all of these proposals at once.

There will be time for all of that later. Armand watches Jean laugh at another member’s joke, relaxed in a way he seldom seems at court or with his Musketeers. Jean likes this place, these people. He likes this company. He likes their ideals. He’ll want to keep attending. And Armand will want to keep him company. So there will be time.

Time has seldom been Armand’s ally. Never has it sounded so sweet as it does now, when Armand imagines all that might yet be ahead of him, with Jean by his side.

Returning home from Ninon’s salon, the atmosphere in the carriage is relaxed and warm. Jean’s self-aware enough to know that part of that is the wine. Usually he walks to and from Ninon’s townhouse. Tonight, knowing that he’d be conveyed away in the comfort of the Richelieu carriage, Jean had indulged rather more than usual.

And if Jean’s being honest with himself – a practice he usually tries to maintain – the carriage isn’t the only reason he’d wanted the extra lubrication.

Armand helps Jean down from the carriage when they arrive as naturally as if they really have been doing it for the past twenty years. Armand’s arm is warm under Jean’s hand, and Jean walks closer to him than is strictly necessary, enjoying his presence. Jean’s equal parts nervous and eager. The wine’s buzz casts the deciding vote, weighting the balance towards anticipation.

Jean’s boots sink into the carpet as they turn into the private wing where their bedchambers are. Armand gently disengages his arm as they reach the door to Jean’s chambers. Jean makes no objection. It may sound romantic to tear each others’ clothes off in a fit of passion, but realistically it’s probably better if they separate briefly and avail themselves of their respective domestic assistants, before they also take advantage of the connecting door.

But then Armand says, “I’ll bid you good night.”

“What?” Jean’s startled enough to simply blurt it out. His eyes fly up to meet Armand’s, shocked.

Armand breaks the gaze after only a moment. He seems to find the curtains fascinating. “You must be tired. You’ll want your bed.”

“Bed, yes. Sleep, no. Armand, I thought…” Jean trails off. Perhaps he’s misread the situation. Perhaps Armand had been letting him down gently, this morning. Perhaps what Jean had thought he’d felt between them had only been a transient response, the natural human reaction to stimuli, not something more significant.

And yet, on the shrinking list of things Jean is sure of, there is this: Armand is just as swept up in these unexpected feelings as Jean is.

“What I want is you,” Jean says, gentle in spite of himself.

Armand still doesn’t look at Jean. “Last morning you made me swear that I would take no liberties with you. Now you ask me to share your bed. Jean, forgive me, but how do I know which request to honor?”

“Last morning you wouldn’t have wanted to share my bed,” Jean points out. “Now you do.” Doesn’t he?

Armand doesn’t dispute what Jean has said. “It has been a very long and very trying day,” he says instead. “Perhaps neither of us are thinking clearly. Perhaps in the morning – ”

“I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow.” Jean tries to smile.

Slowly, Armand lets his breath out.

“Why don’t you prepare yourself for bed,” Armand says carefully. “I’ll do the same. And then we’ll discuss it farther. If you still feel – ”

Jean’s pride stings. “I don’t need you to tell me what it is I do and don’t want,” he snaps. “I know my own mind.”

For perhaps the first time in their long association, Armand doesn’t rise to the bait. “I do not know mine.”

Jean deflates. “Oh.”

He’s been foolish. After all, it has only been a few days. A few long, fraught, complicated days; a few days that had begun badly and almost ended worse, except for the astonishing discovery that there might be something here, that what had been envisioned as a farce might in fact be – be –

“Jean.” Armand tries to smile. “I’m not saying I don’t want to.”

Now Armand lets their gazes meet. Something catches in Jean’s throat. It might be hope.

“I just don’t want to hurt you,” Armand finishes.

Slowly Jean nods. “I understand that,” he says. “But – ” a dozen ways to finish that sentence cross his mind. But I’m afraid. But I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find out this was just a dream. Or worse. I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find out that this is a nightmare.

“But,” Jean repeats helplessly.

The atmosphere of the room shifts. It’s still intimate, but less pleasantly soft around the edges. Jean feels oddly sharp. He can sense Armand’s will, a quiet stream running beneath the surface, but it doesn’t push him.

“Why do you want me to stay?” Armand asks. The question could be a simple one. It’s not. It’s probing. It seeks more than a glib response. It seeks an explanation. And there’s something compelling about Armand’s gaze, something that hadn’t been there before.

When Jean gets it, he’s almost embarrassed by how long it took him to realize. They’re negotiating. This is a negotiation.

“I don’t want to be alone,” Jean says. It’s the truth. That’s the first rule his mother had taught him as a young child. When negotiating, always tell the truth. Your Dom isn’t a mind-reader.

“Your maid will be with you.”

Yes, of course. Last night Jean had slept alone, a concession to the newness of their relationship, but starting tonight Jean is expected to abide by the usual rules of noble households. An arrangement he’d accepted when he’d stood before the King and declared his attention to stay. There’s a small chamber attached to Jean’s quarters for just this purpose. And Jean likes Sally. If all Jean wants is another human being, this would be an excellent solution.

It’s not. Jean says: “I want you.”


Because as much as he likes Sally, as much as he has no doubt that she could kill a man with her bare hands, it’s not physical protection he wants. Nor generic companionship. He wants Armand.

Be specific, his mother had always taught him. “I want my Dom.”

Armand draws in a breath, quick and sharp. “Jean – ”

“Don’t. Don’t act like we’re still pretending. We’re past that, you and I.”

“Once again, Jean. Why?”

He’s not a mind-reader. And Jean has already told Armand – well, not everything else; but enough.

“Because I want to feel safe tonight.” Jean commits himself. “Because I want to feel loved.”

Armand takes a deep breath. Jean sees for the first time that his hands are shaking.

“Go make yourself ready,” he says hoarsely. “I will do the same. Then we will discuss how to meet this need.”

Sally is waiting inside Jean’s chambers when he enters. He’s trying to formulate the right way to tell Sally that the nightwear that had been delivered this afternoon won’t, after all, be immediately necessary. Fortunately Sally reads it on his face. That saves them both the travesty that would be Jean attempting to say it out loud.

“I’ll just lay these out for later,” Sally says diplomatically, setting down the pile of clothes in her arm. “You wash your face. I’ll get out your dressing-gown.”

“It’s not mine,” Jean says, remembering. “It was in the closet. I don’t have a gown.”

“I know, dear, I put it there. It’s yours now.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to start this off by appearing in an article of clothing left behind by a previous sub,” Jean says carefully.

Sally laughs. “Oh, precious. This wasn’t left behind. I fetched it out of the master’s closet the day you arrived. It’s his spare. And I’m quite sure he’ll like seeing you in it.”

Oh. Jean closes his mouth. Then, before he can think too hard about the implications of that statement, he obeys Sally’s first suggestion and walks over to the small wash-table.

The wash-water cools him down, and he hangs up his sword and unlaces his boots with at least the outward appearance of serenity. Sally takes his cloak and outer layers from him to hang up. Down to his smallclothes, Jean reaches for the gown.

Sally slaps his hand away. “Take off the rest.”

“Sally!” Jean protests, shocked. He can feel his face growing red.

“Don’t be shy. If I let you walk in there with your smallclothes on I’m afraid you’ll walk back out in the same condition.”

“It’s not your job to make sure I sleep with Richelieu,” Jean hisses, mortified.

“It’s my job to make sure you have everything you need, and honey, you definitely need him. Off.”

Jean closes his mouth and obeys. He tells himself it’s not worth arguing. After all he is, most emphatically, trying to sleep with Armand. The clothes will only get in the way. And Sally appears to have quite the forceful presence, when she wants something done.

It’s not immoral. Jean wears Armand’s collar. Maybe they’d never had the ceremony, but they’re bound all the same. Consummation had been a valid contract in the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Certainly Armand would never allow this to proceed if they were on theologically shaky ground. So Jean need have no concern over his relative nudity.

Even still, as Jean wraps himself up in the dressing-gown, he feels dreadfully exposed.

Sally lights a brace of candles right by the connecting door to Armand’s chambers, then draws the curtains and makes sure the bed is turned down for later. “I’ll retire now,” she says, indicating the door to her own attached chamber. “When you’re done, if you need anything, knock. Otherwise – ” her poise breaks into a wide grin. “Have fun. And don’t think too hard, all right?”

Jean nods, mutely watching her retreat. She closes the door with a wink. Jean is left staring at the wood of it. It’s nicely carved, even though in the normal way of things no one will ever see it. There are few circumstances under which that door will ever be closed. Usually Sally is to be chaperoning Jean. But the contract bed is most definitely an exception to that rule.

Slowly Jean turns and faces the other door. The one that leads to Armand’s chambers.

You wanted this, Jean reminds himself. And at the thought he feels again the small kernel of excitement that’s still burning in him. The memory of how safe he’d felt with Armand, how well kept and protected. How much he wants to feel that again.

He walks calmly to the door. Opens it. Walks through.

Armand looks up. He’s standing next to his own wardrobe, clad in his own dressing-gown. His valet is nowhere to be seen. The small drops of water that sparkle in Armand’s newly-trimmed imperial are the only evidence that the servant has been here tonight.

“Come in, please,” Armand says. He’s speaking warmly, and a little slowly, as if Jean needs to be gentled.

Perhaps Jean does. But he’s already decided not to let his disquiet hold him back, so he walks towards Armand, and smiles as he does it.

Armand meets him halfway, which happens to be right by the bed. At his gesture, Jean climbs in, seating himself cross-legged as Armand does the same.

“I can see that you haven’t changed your mind,” Armand says.

“No.” Jean takes a deep breath. “You?”

“I still want you,” Armand assures him.

“Good. That’s good.” Jean steadfastly refuses to admit that he might have been worried. Jean knows he’s no prize, but then again, in some ways, neither is Armand. They’re well-suited. It hadn’t been rational to worry.

Of course he’d done it anyway.

“What’s your word?” Armand asks.

Jean already knows what Armand’s going to say. “Musket.”

Indeed, Armand’s lips quirk upward. “Truly?”

Jean shrugs. “Half the point of the word is to tell the Dom to stop; the other half is to snap me out of it so that I can properly advocate for myself. Nothing kills the mood faster than thinking of the garrison.”

Armand shudders theatrically. “Point made.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Jean, was that the same word you used with Joseph?”

“No.” Jean stops and swallows. “I changed it, after Joseph.”

“Did he – ”


“Jean – ”


Armand nods slowly. “One day?”

“Yes.” Jean owes Armand that much. “But not tonight.”

“All right.” Armand reaches out, then pauses, hands hovering inches above Jean’s shoulders. “All right?”

Jean breathes. “Yes. Please.”

Armand’s hands slide under Jean’s dressing-gown. Jean doesn’t move. He’s not physically restrained, but he feels caught by Armand’s gaze. He stays frozen as the gown slides over his shoulders and pools around him.

He’s naked beneath it. He should blush for shame. He can only shiver, and not because he’s cold.

Armand urges him down. Physically, so that Jean is supine on the sheets, nearly melting into the bed with how heavy his limbs feel. And emotionally. Jean looks up at Armand with wide eyes from what seems to be a very great distance away.

Armand’s gown is still on, but it’s loosely tied, and the exposed skin mesmerizes Jean. Perhaps Armand shares the sentiment. He’s looking down at Jean, and his fingers trail down Jean’s naked chest, dipping into the divot between his pectorals.

“What do you like?” Armand asks.

Jean wets suddenly dry lips. “I, uh. Anything,” he stammers.

That earns him a stern look and the sinking knowledge that he’s disappointed Armand. “I genuinely doubt that, Jean. Anything covers a lot of ground. Do you want me to hurt you?” His fingers drift sideways and tease one peaked nipple, a silent implication in their caress.

“Maybe,” Jean breathes. The idea scatters electricity down his spine.

Armand’s fingers tighten. Jean feels it first as pressure, then as a single sharp burst of pain, before it vanishes and is replaced with the soothing sensation of Armand’s tongue. Jean arches into it, panting. Just from that alone he’s achingly hard.

Armand lifts his head and looks down Jean’s body, seeing the same. He raises an eyebrow. “Duly noted,” he says, dry. “But I think we should put that aside to explore at a later time.”

“Later? Why later?” Jean would very much not object to more of that.

“The last two times you went down for me, you went very far very fast. This is the sort of thing best explored at a shallower level. At least at first.”

Jean sighs. That makes sense, but he can’t help regretting it. Suddenly his life holds so many possibilities. He wants to try them all. To seize at the chance while it lasts. He’s still so afraid of it all going wrong.

Armand must misinterpret this sigh, hearing it more as protest than resignation. “Jean, you could go down so deeply I’m not sure you’d be able to tell me to stop,” he entreats. “You may not think so, but I’ve seen it before.”

“So have I,” Jean whispers. Joseph had excelled in finding that place within Jean. Pushing him down into it and holding him there. Until, drowning, he’d agree to whatever Joseph had wanted.

The look Armand gives him is stricken. His hands slow in their gentle caresses. A moment later Jean feels warm air where they’d been. “Perhaps – ”

“No, don’t.” Jean clutches for him. “Please, you can’t – ”

“Shh. Shh. I’m sorry. I’m here. I won’t go.” Armand rearranges them, so that instead of kneeling over Jean he’s lying on his side next to Jean, warm skin in contact from Jean’s shoulder to the curve of his shins. In this position Armand’s collar catches on Jean’s throat when he breathes.

“I’m here,” Armand repeats. “God, you’re deep already. I’m sorry I frightened you.”

“Just don’t go,” Jean murmurs.

“I won’t.” Armand puts his hand on Jean again. His other arm is trapped under Jean’s head, where Jean is using his shoulder as a pillow. It’s hard, but not with muscle, the way Jean half-remembers Joseph being. Armand’s is hard with bone.

The Joseph who’d appeared at court last night hadn’t been muscular. He’d been skin and sinew. If he’d succeeded in asserting his claim to Jean, his shoulder might feel very much like Armand’s does now.

The thought is disquieting. Jean does his best to push it away. He doubts, somehow, that Joseph’s plan for him had involved lying together in intimate comfort. Joseph had brought restraints to meet with the King this morning. What Joseph had had in mind had been punishment. Not pleasure.

Armand’s hand is warm. Jean’s thoughts scatter as it slides lower, stroking down Jean’s cock and cupping his balls. A gentle roll and Jean gasps.

“Sensitive?” Armand has angled himself so that he has an uninterrupted view of Jean’s face. “If you don’t like something, you have only to say.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jean whispers. “I don’t want you to stop.”

“That’s not the same thing as liking it.” Armand leaves off, returning to grip Jean’s cock loosely.

“But if you – ”

Armand shakes his head. “There are a hundred things we can do with each other. Somewhere in there there is at least one that we both adore. Why then should we settle for the things we only tolerate?”

The very newness of this idea renders it strange. It resonates with memories, some so old that Jean had almost forgotten them. They come from the time before Joseph. When Jean hadn’t been afraid of what his submission might mean.

Jean had had fantasies like any other young child. Read the same secret books that had been passed around by the adolescents of the village. Fumbled with his own body at night after the candles had been extinguished. Dreamed, in the safety of his childhood bed, where he’d known himself to be secure.

“I like being tied down,” Jean says, recalling those old memories. A dim part of him stirs, frightened. It wants Jean to keep this to himself. That baffles Jean. Why shouldn’t he tell Armand? How will Armand know, if Jean doesn’t tell him? Your Dom isn’t a mind-reader.

Armand nods. “I would very much like to tie you down,” he promises. His voice has deepened, become dark and rich. “Are there any restraints in particular you favor?”

Jean shakes his head, jerky. He only knows what he’s seen in books and heard in stories. Silks and leathers, fine-braided rope in intricate knots and the peculiar bruises left by hands squeezing fair-skinned wrists. Joseph had favored harsher restraints. Chains. Jean knows he doesn’t like that.

“Not metal,” Jean says.

Armand nods gravely. “Agreed.” He makes no move to get up, though.

“Not tonight?” Jean guesses.

“Indeed. But thank you for telling me that. I know that wasn’t easy.”

“No,” Jean whispers.

“You’re trying so hard. I’m proud of you.”

Armand adds a physical reward, sliding his fingers down Jean’s cock in a smooth caress. Jean gasps. Whether it’s the words or the action, Jean doesn’t know. But, impossibly, Jean feels himself get harder.

“What else would you like me to know about you?” Armand asks.

Jean tells him.

The candlelight blurs in Jean’s eyes. Time stretches and elongates around Jean as, haltingly, Armand coaxes Jean’s old fantasies and fears out of him. Joseph’s harsh idea of training and proper submissive behavior is a raw wound that they skirt around, touching only the edges, to establish that Jean doesn’t like to be bound with metal or called a slut or ignored as being beneath his Dom’s attention. Armand promises gravely never to do any of those things. He promises to stop immediately the moment Jean asks him. And he praises Jean lavishly, with words and with gentle insistent strokes of Jean’s straining cock, as Jean tells him other things. Tells him of the childhood fantasies that still make him warm today. Fantasies of being possessed. Kept. Cherished. Cared for. And yet, sometimes, hurt. As chastisement or correction. Or merely to feel pain for his Dom’s pleasure. Because he likes to feel it, because his Dom likes to see it. To be an ornament. To be made beautiful.

That earns Jean a kiss that burns in his blood from the tips of his toes to the roots of his hair. The pressure of Armand’s hand, up until now so carefully light, firms enough that Jean sees glorious stars.

“Please,” Jean begs, broken and gasping. “Please, let me – ”

“As soon as you wish,” Armand agrees. He continues to stroke Jean. He doesn’t stop. Doesn’t back off at the last moment and leave Jean incomplete. Nor does he increase the pressure to the breaking point, choking off pleasure and leaving Jean with a completion in name only, unsatisfying and aching.

After less than an hour in bed, Armand apparently knows Jean’s body better than Joseph had learned it after nearly a year. Armand keeps the speed and the pressure exactly where Jean likes it best. He coaxes the pleasure from Jean in waves and never says no or slut or dirty. And when he murmurs in Jean’s ear that Jean is sweet and beautiful and so, so good, Jean shakes apart beneath him and forgets to think that it’s a lie.

Armand lets him shake. Lets him ride the orgasm through from start to finish, and continues to hold him afterwards, murmuring praise in the aftermath and behaving as if the hardness Jean can feel pressing against his hip doesn’t exist.

It takes Jean an embarrassingly long time to realize: Armand is waiting for Jean to indicate that he’s okay. That he’s willing to do his part in this relationship.

A small thread of shame begins to wind through Jean. That’s not proper. Nor is it proper for Jean to have had his pleasure before Armand. The Dominant comes first. Or at least they’re supposed to. The submissive comes later, if at all.

Perhaps Armand won’t mind if Jean is sufficiently apologetic. With this in mind, Jean starts to roll over, to give Armand better access. Jean could suck him off, but in terms of contrition a fuck is better. Even Joseph had said that Jean’s ass is the best part of him. Perhaps –

This train of thought is abruptly derailed when Armand’s arms tighten, preventing Jean from moving. “Where are you going?” Armand asks. He sounds bemused. That could be good. Amusement had been one of Joseph’s better moods.

“I thought you’d prefer me on my hands and knees,” Jean says, trying to recall the flirtatious, seductive tone that Joseph had liked. “But if you’d rather I was on my back – ”

“I’d rather you were relaxed,” Armand interrupts gently. “What’s wrong? A moment ago you seemed fine, but you’ve since gone tense as a board.”

“I’m fine,” Jean says, trying to laugh it off. “I just thought it was time I stopped being selfish.”


Some of the amusement is leaving Armand’s tone now. Jean winces internally. He’s left it too long; now Armand will realize…

But Armand’s voice only changes as far as puzzlement. “Jean, in what universe was that selfish?”

He’s watching Jean carefully. Jean makes himself look back. “You’re still hard,” Jean says carefully.

“Yes,” Armand agrees. “Watching my beautiful sub lose himself in pleasure is very arousing.”

“Well,” Jean says, not entirely sure what to do with this. “I – don’t you want to do something about that?”

“I would,” Armand concedes.

“Then – ”

“Jean.” There’s a note of command in Armand’s voice now. “We are not yet finished discussing selfishness.”

Jean’s limbs grow heavy with the weight of Armand’s gaze. They don’t want to move. He’s trapped again. He’s displeased Armand, and now he’ll be punished for it.

“Jean?” The weight vanishes abruptly; Armand looks dismayed. “Jean, look at me.”

Jean is looking at him. He’s maintaining eye contact, just as he’d been taught. He’s watching his Dom’s face carefully for the slightest hint of reaction, of instruction, so that Jean can anticipate his moods and react accordingly.

“Look at me,” Armand insists. “I don’t know who you’re seeing, Jean, but there’s no one in bed right now but we two.”

Jean nods mechanically. Yes, of course, he knows that, but…

Armand tightens his arms around Jean and pulls. Jean goes with it, expecting restraint. He’s shocked when Armand dips his shoulder and rolls backwards, until Armand is the one supine on the bed and Jean is on top of him. Above. Unrestrained. Free.

“You are only here as long as you want to be,” Armand says softly. “Jean. Tell me your word.”

“I,” Jean says helplessly. He knows he’s been ordered to do something. He wants to obey. But the right word doesn’t come out.

Armand sighs. He caresses Jean’s cheek, and Jean leans into the touch, frightened and desperate.

“It’s musket, Jean. Do you remember?”

Abruptly Jean does remember. He gasps, shaking his head back and forth, like he’s just come up for air after diving into a cold lake. A dozen details crowd his mind suddenly. He needs to rework the muster order, to rotate squads back and forth from La Rochelle, for training and leave. He needs to write to Athos and give him the news from court before gossip does it for him. He needs to check on the new batch of muskets that are making, and ensure that his men have sufficient powder and shot while on siege, and arrange for there to be amusements for them so they don’t go finding them on their own, and, and, and –

And Jean is in bed with his Dom. Who is Armand. Not Joseph. Armand, who had probably never considered punishing Jean for having come before him, especially not when it had been Armand’s idea that Jean should come at all.

“I’m sorry,” Jean whispers.

Armand hasn’t moved his hand. Jean should move, toss his head or just lean to one side. Break that point of contact. Of comfort Jean hasn’t earned.

As if sensing Jean’s thoughts, Armand slides his hair upwards, tangling it in Jean’s hair and preventing Jean from doing just that.

“Don’t be sorry,” Armand says. “I was under no illusions that this process would magically be smooth.”

He smiles. Jean tries to do likewise, though he knows it’s wobbly and weak.

“Still.” Jean swallows. Armand’s grip on his hair bends his head ever so slightly back. Just enough that the pressure around his throat is noticeable. Jean tilts his head further. Not trying to get away. Chasing that pressure, so that it’s stronger. So that Jean can draw on it and center himself.

“Everything’s all right,” Armand says. His hand slides down the back of Jean’s head to settle at the nape of his neck. Gentling. Jean shudders with the relief of it. Joseph had never done this for him. Had explicitly told Jean that he would never do it. Subs who needed gentling were weak, he’d said. Subs needed to learn to control their base urges. Those who couldn’t were little more than animals. Joseph had been going to ensure that Jean had been properly trained.

Armand just rests his hand there, snug beneath his collar, and smiles when Jean breathes deep.

“What do you want?” Armand asks, after a few moments have gone by and Jean’s settled back into his own skin somewhat.

“Let me do something for you?” Jean’s hands flutter helplessly, finally ending up on Armand’s shoulders. “Please. I don’t want to feel like a complete failure.”

“You are not a failure,” Armand says firmly. “If we were to stop right now, I would be completely satisfied.”

“I wouldn’t be. Please, Armand.”

Armand tugs on the hand in Jean’s hair; confused, Jean follows the direction of the tugs, until he catches on and bends fully to let Armand kiss him.

“All right,” Armand agrees. Before he lets Jean move, though, he insists on cleaning Jean up. This is accomplished with a small cloth, already damp, that had apparently been sitting on Armand’s small night-stand the entire time. Jean hadn’t noticed it. He decides not to mention that to Armand, just in case his Dom changes his mind about letting Jean serve him properly.

When Armand pronounces Jean clean and lets him go, Jean wastes no time in arranging himself on his stomach. Armand watches him. Jean can’t quite make out his expression. Lust is certain. But there also seems to be a sadness and reserve that Jean can’t understand.

Still, when Jean’s in position, Armand fetches a small jar from next to the discarded washcloth. His fingers come out of it wet, and Jean relaxes. Everything will be well. He’ll make sure Armand enjoys him. It’s the least he can do.

This plan goes sideways immediately. Armand slides his hand between Jean’s legs, but not up to his ass the way Jean expects. Jean’s confusion only grows when Armand’s cock follows, wet and slick, nestling between Jean’s thighs instead of finding a home inside Jean’s body.

“Cross your ankles,” Armand encourages. The note of breathlessness in Armand’s voice is the most aroused Jean’s heard him all evening. And he’s still the Dom. So Jean obeys, even though he doesn’t understand any of what’s going on.

Armand’s cock slides between Jean’s thighs. One hand is braced on the bed by Jean’s head. The other is gripping Jean’s shoulder. That at least is familiar, but the grip isn’t tight, doesn’t keep Jean pinned or pull him back and forth to act as a better sleeve for Armand’s cock. It’s almost gentle. And when Armand starts talking, he still doesn’t tell Jean how dirty he is, or how loose or sloppy, or that even as a cocksleeve he’s subpar. Armand tells Jean he’s good. That he’s sweet. That he’s taking it so well, even though Jean isn’t taking anything at all.

When Armand comes, it spills on the sheets below them and splashes sticky on the inside of Jean’s thighs. The feel of warm semen squishing under his balls is at least familiar. But a moment later Armand is urging Jean to roll over again. Jean finds himself settled in Armand’s arms, on his side, well away from the cooling release on the far side of the bed. Armand has the cloth again. The stickiness vanishes in its sweep, until Jean is clean again. As if he’s not dirty anymore.

Even after the cloth is laid aside and there is no further excuse for Armand to touch Jean, he does. He keeps Jean in his arms. Pets Jean everywhere he can reach, still murmuring praise. After a few moments of laying there stiffly trying to make some sense out of his, Jean finally gives up. He relaxes into the warm embrace and the sweet words and enjoys it, even though he doesn’t have any idea of what he’d done to earn it.

It’s nice. It’s better than nice. It would be better if Jean could understand what the cost will eventually be, or what Jean could do to earn it again. But even if this is the calm before the storm – even if this is the only time he’ll get to have it – it’s so wonderful that Jean just stops thinking for a while.

A while stretches out. First it’s seconds. Then it’s minutes. Then Armand’s breath evens out behind Jean.

Unconsciously Jean matches Armand’s breathing.

And then, before Jean knows it, he’s asleep.

Chapter Text

Armand wakes again while the moon is still high and the stars shine in the firmament. That’s not unusual. He’s a light sleeper, and often finds himself awake for short stretches during the night. Jean, he knows, is a heavy sleeper. Soldiers often are. Barring certain sounds which would have Jean instantly on his feet with his sword in his hand.

Jean has left his sword in his chambers. He sleeps now, ears clear of any call to arms, and even manages to look peaceful while he does so.

It’s tempting to look down at that relaxed form, so young-seeming in the darkness, and think that Jean is as peaceful as he appears to be. Armand knows better, to his regret. Beneath the tranquil countenance lurks turmoil.

Armand hadn’t expected everything to be smooth. But he’d hoped that Jean going down voluntarily would make a difference. The other two times Jean had dropped for him he’d done so unintentionally, unprepared. This time Jean had had plenty of time to think about it in advance. Plenty of chances to back out. He’d gone into this with his eyes open. But he’d still looked at Armand and seen Joseph, when it had come down to it.

It had started well. Armand reminds himself of this. Jean had felt secure enough to tell Armand what he likes in bed, or rather, what he thinks he’ll like. Part of Armand had been angry at the realization that, even twenty years after Joseph, Jean had never dared to try any of his fantasies with any of his previous contract lovers. But another part of him had also thrilled at the idea of being the one to give that to Jean. To be trusted to create the safe space in which Jean could express and explore what he had heretofore been denied.

Jean had looked so beautiful, lost to pleasure. It had taken a great deal of self control not to simply rub off against Jean’s hip while watching him come. In retrospect perhaps Armand shouldn’t have resisted. That might have helped short-cut the downward slide that had followed.

No. Armand sighs. Avoiding a problem never solves it. Jean would still have had these old beliefs and fears lurking beneath the surface. Armand would have tripped them eventually, and perhaps in a much nastier fashion. Distressing as it had been to confront Jean’s belief that Armand would punish him for his pleasure, it could have been much worse. Jean had come out of it readily when Armand had reminded him of his regiment’s concerns.

But Jean had still laid himself out on the bed afterwards like a toy, and clearly expected to be used that way…

Armand smooths a hand down Jean’s flank meditatively. Jean twitches in his sleep, murmuring something indistinct, before settling back down. He responds to Armand’s touch. Another thing to be grateful for. If words ever fail them, the language of touch will remain.

But Armand’s coming to realize that there is no act of submission that is untouched by Marchmont’s poison. They’ll have to purge each act in turn, and Armand will have to be very, very careful to make sure that Jean knows what Armand is thinking and planning at any given moment.

It won’t be such a hardship. Armand loves to talk. Some of his past subs hadn’t liked that. They’d preferred to be kept guessing. They’d wanted to put themselves completely in their Dom’s hands, and had felt that Armand’s narration had rather broken the mood. Armand suspects that Jean will be the opposite.

Jean rolls over. Armand relaxes his embrace to enable this, and is rewarded by the soft sound of happiness Jean makes as he nestles back down against the pillows and Armand. In this new position, Armand sees that his collar is still around Jean’s neck. Neither of them had remembered to take it off.

That’s not entirely safe, though Jean would no doubt say he runs greater risks on the battlefield. Still, most subs don’t wear their collars overnight. The risk of strangulation may be low but it’s not worth courting regardless. Should Armand try to remove it? A second look decides him against it. It would certainly disturb Jean. And sleeping with another person lowers the risk; Armand will notice if Jean begins to choke, and can help free him. Besides, the collar is well-made and well-maintained. It shouldn’t snag like cheaper collars would. Jean will be safe enough.

And, if Armand is being honest, he relishes the chance to simply look at it, there around Jean’s neck. During the day he tries to avoid staring. But he wants to. He wants to smile when he sees Jean wearing it. Proclaiming his allegience to the world. Reminding everyone that it’s Armand who Jean trusts with his life and his body.

It looks so natural, as if it had been made for Jean. It hadn’t; it had been made for Armand’s father, and for the first fifteen years of Armand’s life he’d only ever seen it around Francois’ neck. Francois may even have worn it to sleep. No matter how late or how early in the day, it had always been there. The funeral had been the first time Armand can ever remember seeing his father’s throat bare.

Susanne had never found anyone else to give that collar to, and she’d died, too, not that long after Francois. She’d left the collar to Armand in her will, as the only Dominant among his siblings, though even then it must have been obvious to her that Armand had been unlikely to find someone to wear it.

Armand had cared for the collar, of course. Treasured it. It had been a reminder. Of the parents who had loved each other despite the cold start to the arranged collaring that had brought them together. As a reminder of the love they’d borne their children, even when those children had taken difficult paths. And as a reminder to Armand not to settle for anything less than that.

Jean snuffles in his sleep, and relaxes still further into Armand’s embrace.

He’d thought he’d been disloyal to that remembrance by offering Jean his father’s collar. Now he thinks that maybe he’d been honoring it. He thinks that his parents would have liked Jean. He thinks that they would be proud of them both.

Armand drifts back off to sleep in the warm glow of that thought.

Armand is woken again at dawn by Jean, who is trying, unsuccessfully, to sneak out of bed.

“Good morning, Jean,” Armand says, saving Jean from himself. “Are you going somewhere?”

“Ah,” Jean says foolishly. He collects himself a moment later. “I was going back to my own chambers.”

“So early to rise?” Armand glances towards the window, where the first rays of the rising sun are losing the battle against the fine muslin curtains. “Practice at dawn?”

Jean shakes his head. “No, I was planning to sleep more, I just – ” he sighs, beginning to look rueful. “I didn’t think you’d want me here when you woke up. I thought that because Joseph never did. And now you’re going to tell me that you do want me here, because you’ve made it your mission in life to be the exact opposite of Joseph.”

“Not the exact opposite,” Armand says softly. “I also desire you.”

Jean ducks his head, staring down at the bedsheets like they hold the answer to all of life’s mysteries. Even so, Armand can see the helpless smile beginning to spread over Jean’s face.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you for nothing, then,” Jean says at last.

Armand casts another glance at the curtain. He usually rises early – indeed, dawn is not an uncommon time – but there’s nothing pressing today. And Jean is naked in his bed.

“I see something very much worth being disturbed for,” Armand says. He sits up, too, and touches two fingers to Jean’s chin, a silent request.

Jean obeys. He lifts his head and looks Armand in the eyes. Armand reads nervousness, worry, embarrassment – and a shy, pleased pride that makes Armand’s cock twitch.

Armand can see why Joseph had been so unwilling to let Jean go. That thought he keeps to himself. Marchmont has no place in their bed.

“Come back to bed, my dear,” Armand entreats. “Let me show you.”

Jean obeys readily, his initial protest seemingly forgotten. He shifts, getting comfortable. The sheets tangle about his legs. Jean kicks at them ineffectually.

It gives Armand an idea. He stills Jean’s legs with a hand on his calf and adjusts the tangle himself. One sheet he pulls free. The other he tugs tighter, tucking its edges under the heavy coverlet. The first sheet he takes up to the head of the bed and winds around Jean’s arms. He ties no knots; with the focused effort of a few moments, Jean could untangle himself easily, or else simply pull free with a burst of strength. He’s not truly restrained. But there’s cloth binding his wrists and ankles and pressure will be a warm weight on his limbs.

Jean watches all of this. He watches as Armand gets out of bed long enough to push the curtains aside. The half-light had been soothing for sleep, but this is play, and Armand wants to see everything.

“There.” Armand returns to bed. Kisses Jean, pleasantly abuzz with the sight of Jean, glowing in the morning sun against the pale sheets. “Now relax and let me disturb you.”

Armand nips the sensitive skin under Jean’s chin. Jean gasps, already going lax and pliant under Armand’s hands.

“Shouldn’t that be the other way around?” he says breathlessly.

“You can disturb me second,” Armand promises, and begins to kiss his way south towards his goal.

The next week passes relatively peacefully. Marchmont is still in Paris, a guest of the Comte de Rochefort as the courts weigh his compensation for the voiding of his contract with Jean. He doesn’t seem to have the good sense to avoid gatherings where Jean may be present. After a lengthy conversation discussing the merits and pitfalls, Jean decides that he will opt for the better part of valor and temporarily desists from attending court. Milady and Jussac both approve of this course of action. The two of them agree rarely, and Armand has found that, when they do, they’re almost always right. He shares this piece of advice with Jean. Perhaps that plays into Jean’s decision to take a step back; perhaps it doesn’t.

If Marchmont decides to remain in Paris after the courts have ruled, a different approach will be necessary. But Armand is cautiously hopeful that Marchmont will leave once he’s been made his recompense. Rochefort will certainly want Marchmont gone – will want the whole almost-fiasco metaphorically behind him and literally several hundred miles away – and Rochefort has ways of making his preferences into realities. Not to mention the Spanish, who will also be wanting their agent back.

If Marchmont stays in spite of these things, Richelieu will know how to proceed.

So Jean spends his days alternately managing the garrison and the household at the Palais-Cardinal. Armand is perfectly aware that Jean only has this much time to spare because the Musketeers are at La Rochelle and court attendance is temporarily fraught. He enjoys the time for what it is. It’s nice having Jean at home, bringing everything into smoother alignment. It’s even nicer to be tempted away from his morning correspondance or his afternoon letters by Jean, who shows quite the playful side when submission is not the matter to hand, and who manages to look radiant even when riding on a cloudy day. But at the same time, the space by the King’s side is beginning to look awfully empty. And Richelieu’s own court attendance has started to lack a certain spice.

No one argues with Richelieu at court anymore. Not the way Jean had used to, loud and direct and obvious. All that’s left are vaguely murmured insults and laughably simple counter-plots. It’s rather upsetting. All things considered, Richelieu will be glad when Jean can come back to his usual pursuits and the world resumes its proper shape.

Their more intimate concerns show slow but steady progress. Jean returns to Armand’s chambers the very next night, and though they don’t scene together, they slumber in the same bed then thereafter. One night Armand is detained at the Louvre so long that he sends Bernajoux back to tell Jean to retire without him. Jean must obey, for the lights in his room are out when Armand finally returns. But a few hours before dawn Armand is awakened by his sub creeping quietly into bed.

“Couldn’t sleep,” is all Jean says, refusing to look at Armand.

Armand is wise enough not to respond directly to this. He merely lifts his blankets and opens his arms, and lets Jean slide into both with a long slow exhale of relief.

They both sleep late that next morning. Armand still wakes first, as is his habit, and puts that to good use, waking Jean with a long slow teasing blowjob that has Jean actually tightening his hands in Armand’s hair as he comes. Jean’s apologetic and terrified after, but happy, too, when the terror passes. He spends the rest of that morning with a wide smile and overbright eyes and a wild laugh Armand has never heard from him before.

There are many areas still left untouched between them. The serious restraints lay neatly coiled in the bottom of Armand’s wardrobe; the flogger is oiled diligently by a servant each day, untouched by other flesh. The lubricant sees use only to smooth a handjob or Jean’s thighs.

They both want to do these things. Armand fantasizes about them as he holds Jean at night. And Jean wakes from dreams of them sometimes, hard and almost frantic as he begs Armand to please, please, please

But although Jean is forgetting his fears enough to enjoy himself in the moment, he’s still always so frightened after. He still has to be coaxed into accepting aftercare. He still has to be reminded that Armand cares about what Jean wants, about what he needs, about making him feel good.

Until that changes, Armand won’t take matters any farther. No matter how much he wants to.

A week after Jean sends to La Rochelle, the breakfast mail includes a letter for him which bears the seal of the Musketeers. Jean looks worried at first, but his face relaxes after he opens it, and as he scans down its neatly-penned lines he even begins to smile.

“Would that be from Athos, my dear?” Armand ventures.

“It would.” Still smiling, Jean refolds the letter and sets it aside. “He sends his regrets on my terrible match, and hopes that I will at least not stoop to helping you murder widows and orphans.”

Armand lets his own lips quirk upwards. The complexities of rivalry are well-known to him, and of course a Musketeer would never admit to a single positive emotion where the Cardinal is concerned. Still, he understands quite well the message Athos means to convey.

He doubts that that’s all that the missive had contained. The letter Jean had sent out to Athos had been thick, six or seven sheets of closely-written paper, whose contents Armand had not read but can guess at. Athos’ return letter is hardly shorter. But its contents are Jean’s business. Armand contains his curiosity and returns to his fruit, pleased to see that the smile lingers on Jean’s face throughout the rest of the meal.

Jean’s smiling more lately. Armand is glad to see it. Jean smiles at night when they’re together, and he smiles in the daytime, too, which is in many ways even better. Armand has no doubts about his skill as a lover. He has rather less confidence in his skills as a life partner. And the life they’re living now, where Jean tends the household and oversees practices that don’t need to be held, is an aberration. It goes against Jean’s very nature. Jean hides it well, and Armand trusts Jean to believe that Armand will not hold Jean to it once the threat is gone, but still Armand can tell that Jean is restless and beginning to chafe. When Jean finds himself happy enough to smile in spite of all of that it’s a victory indeed.

Happily, Jean’s social life had never included Rochefort, and so most of it may continue uninterrupted. Armand can’t accompany Jean to every visit and salon – nor, probably, would Jean want him to – but he can encourage Jean to go. And go Jean does, after a brief fit of guilt over leaving Armand behind.

“You just spent all day at the Louvre, and now that you’re here, it seems wrong to go out without you,” Jean had protested, the first night this had been an issue.

“My paperwork today is endless,” Armand had sighed. “I may seem to be here, but I’ll be about as engaging as a block of wood. I only came home because I needed a change of scene.”

“And the chairs here are nicer,” Jean had murmured.

“That, too. Go. Enjoy yourself. Lord knows one of us ought to.”

“Lies,” Jean had accused fondly. “If you didn’t like this you wouldn’t be in this position.”

Armand had inclined his head in rueful acknowledgement. And Jean had gone, though not before brushing a kiss over Armand’s lips that had been almost thoughtless and mundane and astonishing because of that. When Jean kisses Armand in bed, he does so with his full attention, and his courage is plain to see on his face. When Jean kisses Armand like this, it’s like he’s forgotten to be afraid. It’s like he’s forgotten there’s anything to be afraid of. These kisses may not be arousing in the same way Jean’s bedroom kisses are, but they’re exciting in an entirely different way, and they thrill Armand for hours after the fact.

He’s no good at being someone’s life partner. But he’s praying for guidance daily, and the Lord seems to be keeping him from the worst of the pitfalls. The Lord, and Jussac, and Sally.

He only hopes it will last. He only hopes he learns how to make it last. He’ll make any required changes without hesitation, if only Jean will continue to smile, and kiss Armand as if he isn’t afraid.

Richelieu is at court when he hears that Marchmont’s ruling has finally been handed down. The official notice is brought to the King, who reads it and promptly hands it to Richelieu.

Richelieu skims it rapidly. The courts have settled on a total sum to represent Marchmont’s losses in having his contract voided. They’ve then subdivided it into means of payment. Half is to be in money, with an emphasis placed on investments with a high rate of return. Richelieu can make over shares in one of his ventures. The fishery in Acadia, perhaps. It’s reached the limit of its growth, and Richelieu had been considering disinvesting from it regardless. Richelieu has no desire to be in business with Marchmont.

After the money is paid, the court has specified that the remaining recompense should be in land or livestock, ‘in consideration of the renewability of such resources and the limited means of M. Marchmont’. Acadia is looking better and better. Lafayette has been trying to get Richelieu to purchase a small farm there. He could do so, reap the political capitol, then turn the whole over to Marchmont. Farm, livestock and fishing rights will make a tidy little package that the court could not but approve as a settlement. If they’re all lucky Marchmont will even retire there, an ocean away from Jean, and never trouble them again.

The King is chatting with another courtier; he waves his hand carelessly when Richelieu asks permission to withdraw temporarily. Returning to his office for paper and pen, Armand scribbles a quick note to Jean detailing his tentative plans and encloses the court’s ruling. One of the Red Guards on duty carries the package back to the Palais-Cardinal as Richelieu returns to court.

He’ll want to discuss the matter with Jean before any decisions are made. These are Jean’s assets now too, for one thing. And for another, what assets are made over to Marchmont may influence what Marchmont does next. That matter most certainly concerns Jean.

That discussion may have to be tomorrow. Richelieu can already tell he’ll be at court late, and Jean will be attending the Comtesse de Larroque’s salon tonight, as is his custom. But perhaps Jean won’t mind staying up a while after he returns from Larroque’s townhouse. It would be nice to spend some time together, even if they don’t discuss business. Perhaps especially if they don’t discuss business.

Cheered by the hope, Richelieu returns to court and the tedious business of nudging France’s path in the correct direction. Matters are beginning to shift, delayed ripples responding to the shock wave of Richelieu and Treville announcing a relationship. Nobles that were previously cool to Richelieu are beginning to warm. Worryingly, nobles that were previously warm are beginning to cool. It’s beginning to look as if Richelieu is going to have to rebuild his coalition somewhat. Hardly the first time he’s had to do that, and hardly cause for concern, except for the tone of betrayal some of his former allies are beginning to adopt. Richelieu is nowhere near foolish enough to announce a new slate of laws wholesale, however rapidly his positions have shifted behind the front he presents to the court. But on sensitive issues, even the dullest courtier can prove remarkably quick-witted, and some of Richelieu’s former allies – including the Comte de Chalus – have made it clear that they both know where Richelieu is going and do not approve.

Many of them are old court hands, who will take the shift in balance for what it is and act accordingly. But there are a handful of rash young Doms who are known for taking rash young actions. There may be some lamentable incidents before this is over. Richelieu’s already regretting the necessity of imprisoning some of them.

Deeply regretting it. So much so that he’s already had a word with the keeper of the Bastille about making sure any such stays are… appropriate… to the prisoner’s stance.

He’s particularly hoping Chalus tries something.

The Comte isn’t at court tonight, at least. That’s something to be grateful for. He’d been plaguing Richelieu mercilessly for the last three days, demanding to know what Richelieu really thinks, and how could Richelieu ever imply this or that, and surely Richelieu knows, and the natural order of things, and so on and so forth. Richelieu has been as plain as he can be. But still the Comte insists, as if words alone can reverse him…

When they hadn’t – well. Last night Richelieu had seen Chalus deep in conversation with Rochefort and Marchmont. It’s a safe bet that those hadn’t been interested in Chalus for his conversation.

And tonight Chalus is absent from court. Well, well. Richelieu smiles automatically at a passing Vicomte and scans the room. Rochefort is here, of course. He’s talking with another small knot of nobles. But Marchmont isn’t at his side. That’s unusual. Richelieu lets his gaze broaden. Marchmont is apparently nowhere to be found.

A prickle of unease teases at the back of Richelieu’s neck. Chalus and Marchmont are both absent. By contrast, Rochefort’s been easy to find all night. Always standing in prominent locations talking with prominent people.

Almost as if he wants to be seen.

Foolish, Richelieu tells himself. Spending time with Jean has him thinking like a soldier. Chalus is probably at home tormenting his sub. Marchmont is probably consulting with his procurator now that the court has ruled on his compensation. As for Rochefort, he’s a peacock. He loves the limelight and contrives to seize it at every opportunity, no ulterior motive required. Therefore there is really no cause for unease.

None at all.

And yet.

Richelieu moves smoothly over to the throne and bows before the King. “Your Majesty, it’s getting late,” he says. “I wonder if you would excuse me.”

“Late? Why, Cardinal, it’s barely midnight!” Louis blinks at him in puzzlement. Then a knowing smile graces his lips. “But, of course, you have many matters to attend to at home. Naturally you may be excused. I shall hope to see both you and my Captain tomorrow?”

Richelieu bows again. “Of course, your Majesty, and my thanks,” he agrees.

Outside the reception room, Bernajoux and Boisrenard fall into step beside Richelieu.

“Nothing’s been reported from the Palais,” Bernajoux says before Richelieu can speak. “What’s got you worried?”

“Marchmont wasn’t there tonight,” Richelieu says, knowing how it sounds even before the words leave his mouth.

Still, his two Guards take the matter seriously. “Do you want the carriage to home, or a horse?” Boisrenard asks.

Richelieu considers the matter. The horse would let him get around Paris faster, but only if he has a destination in mind. So far all he knows is that he’s uneasy.

The sensible course of action is to return home. He’s best in any crisis if he has all of his resources about him. Milady’s informants route themselves through the Palais-Cardinal; so do Jussac’s Guards. The Palais is also well-fortified, though Richelieu doubts anyone plans to launch an outright assault.

There are easier places to target any of the Palais’ denizens, should violence be Marchmont’s goal.

Unbidden Richelieu recalls the memory of Marchmont standing at the King’s throne. Showing his old contract. Asking for Jean’s return. And in his hand already he had held the restraints…

Now that Armand and Jean are allied, there’s no reason for Rochefort to waste resources on Jean. If Armand falls, Jean goes with him. Jean should be safer now than he’d been before.

Safer from Rochefort. Not from Marchmont.

He’s hardly wandering the back streets of Paris, alone and vulnerable, Armand tells himself sharply. He can take down any three casual attackers. He’s at Larroque’s townhouse. And Sally is with him.

Armand doesn’t require that Jean be chaperoned to visit Larroque. But Sally, perhaps sensing Armand’s unease with Marchmont’s continued presence in Paris, had professed a desire to go for her own benefit. From what Armand hears, Sally fits in well. Her conversation is lively and her interest in the subjects is genuine. She’s making friends. And if, by doing so, she assuages some of Armand’s worry about Jean going about Paris alone with Marchmont nipping at his heels… well. There’s a reason Sally had been so successful at her old profession, before choosing to retire to a quiet life of domestic service.

He could go to Larroque’s townhouse. Say he’s there to pick Jean up, and apologize later for any awkwardness this may cause. It puts Armand in an unfortunate position, where he appears domineering and possessive, interrupting Jean’s leisure and demanding Jean’s attention. That could damage Jean’s trust. But Armand considers it seriously nonetheless. Trust he can repair. There are some things that can’t be fixed.

Armand doesn’t know exactly what it is that he fears. But the tingle at the top of his spine isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting worse.

He opens his mouth to tell his Guards that he’ll be taking the carriage.

“Cardinal,” a familiar, hated voice calls, interrupting. “A word with you, please?”

Bernajoux and Boisrenard both tense. Richelieu, by contrast, schools his face to calm. Then he turns to face the Comte de Rochefort.

“I do apologize for the interruption,” Rochefort says smoothly. “I have meant to speak with you all evening, but you know how court is – one can’t take three steps without being interrupted! And then when you left early… do forgive me, but I felt that this matter couldn’t wait.”

“Then you should tell me about it at once,” Richelieu says tersely, “and waste less of your breath on pleasantries.”

Rochefort laughs. He has a good laugh, genteel and well-bred, seeming to share amusement rather than take it. It wins him many allies who don’t look past the cordial mask to see the snake beneath. Richelieu is not fooled.

“You have no doubt heard from the King that Marchmont’s case was settled,” Rochefort says.


“Some of the recompense was left to your discretion. I wish to discuss your intentions.”

“Alas, I am fatigued,” Richelieu lies. “Perhaps another time.”

He begins to turn away. Rochefort starts forward, pulling Richelieu’s attention back.

“It’s very important to me that Marchmont receives his just due,” Rochefort says. “If you think you can fob him off with failing investments and a herd of diseased sheep – ”

“I assure you I have no such intention,” Richelieu says impatiently. “If you are so worried, then enlist the services of an advocate. The court will have to approve the final settlement in any case. Your friend will be taken care of, and better than he deserves.”

“That’s what I’m making sure of.”

There’s something wrong with Rochefort’s tone, but Richelieu doesn’t have time to figure out what it is. The sense of unease is increasing with every beat of his heart. It’s superstitious and irrational; it’s also undeniable. Richelieu knows, in his bones, that something’s wrong.

“Then if you’ll excuse me – ” Richelieu says.

“Of course.” Rochefort’s smiling again; by some trick of the light, it seems to glimmer, sharp as a knife’s edge. “I shall let you go now. I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

Richelieu doesn’t freeze. He’s already begun to turn away, and he completes the motion naturally. Habit and practice handle that much. It takes iron self-control to do the rest. To walk away from Rochefort, down the corridor and around the next corner, without betraying the slightest unease.

I’ve taken up enough of your time.

How much time had Rochefort needed? How much of a delay had he set out to engineer, when he’d realized that Richelieu had been leaving court earlier than expected, with the potential to disrupt whatever Marchmont is planning?

“Richelieu,” Bernajoux murmurs. Just from that one single word Richelieu can tell that his Guardsmen are both fully aware of the true meaning of Rochefort’s words. Usually Bernajoux and Boisrenard are laid back, relaxed. Boisrenard likes to tell jokes. Bernajoux likes to laugh at them. Others – Musketeers – underestimate them at their peril. When matters become serious, the laughter falls away, leaving the clipped words and economical movements of the best-trained soldiers.

“How many horses are saddled?” Richelieu asks.

“Your Strider and the carriage-horses,” Boisrenard says promptly.

“Send the carriage home with someone else.” There are others of Richelieu’s servants on duty here who can handle such a task: Bernajoux and Boisrenard’s particular skills will be far more valuable put to other use. “I’ll take Strider. You go to the stables and saddle two more horses, then catch up to me.”

“Wherever you’re going you shouldn’t go alone.” When Richelieu starts to bristle, Bernajoux shakes his head. “If nothing’s wrong, you lose nothing by waiting. If something is wrong, and you ride into it alone, what are you going to accomplish besides getting yourself hurt?”

That stings, but this is no time for posturing. Bernajoux is speaking the simple truth. Richelieu’s weapons are his authority, his wits and his words. If something is wrong, it’s because Rochefort is moving against Richelieu, and no one Rochefort employs will be swayed by Richelieu’s silver tongue.

He prizes his subordinates precisely because they speak the truth to him in spite of his power. This time, though, he can’t keep himself from glaring at them both. As if the delay is their fault. As if any of this is their fault. Never mind: they’re here, and convenient. And if they both give each other fond looks when they think Richelieu’s not looking, it’s because they know that if everyone gets through this in one piece, they’ll be enjoying a week’s leave, courtesy of a contrite and relieved Richelieu.

In the meanwhile, Richelieu changes course and begins walking towards the stables. And says, short and terse:

“Saddle quickly.”

Chapter Text

Once Bernajoux and Boisrenard are mounted, Richelieu heads straight for the Comtesse de Larroque’s townhouse. It’s the last place Jean had been known to be. Richelieu only hopes that it can provide some answers.

As it turns out, he doesn’t need to go that far. The route to Larroque’s townhouse from the Louvre, and the equivalent route from – or to – the Palais-Cardinal, join up fairly early. Along that route Richelieu and his companions are soon forced to slow their mounts to accommodate a large crowd of Parisians gawking at something.

Bernajoux stands up in his stirrups for a better view. “Oh shit,” he says succinctly. “It’s Jacques.”

“Robert?” Boisrenard says.


Richelieu hisses a curse. Robert Jacques is a former Red Guard. He’d been badly injured in a street brawl – intervening in it, not brawling in it; that had been the Musketeers – and though he’d had the best medical care money could buy, he’d still come out on the other side with a distinct limp and a shortness of breath that had precluded a full return to active duty. He’d accepted a position as coachman instead. And if he still occasionally takes light practice with the Guards, and brings his sword with him while carrying out his new duties, well. An extra layer of defense is often useful. Particularly when it comes from an unexpected quarter.

Bernajoux and Boisrenard urge their horses forward, making a path through the crowd. Richelieu follows. He’s taking no pains to conceal his identity, and both his face and his Guards’ uniforms are well-known to the denizens of Paris. They fall back as soon as they recognize him.

Jacques is slumped against a wall, one hand clasped to a bleeding wound in his side. In the other he still holds his sword. This seems to exasperate the man leaning over him, who is trying to get at the wound. Bernajoux and Boisrenard draw their swords at the same moment.

There are two other bodies nearby. They aren’t wearing uniforms. Richelieu glances around the crowd and has to suppress a curse; their pockets will already have been emptied by opportunists. That information is lost. But Jacques is still breathing, albeit shallowly, and Richelieu hopes to keep him that way.

“Step away from my man,” Richelieu orders the stranger kneeling by Jacques.

The man kneeling over Jacques starts and spins. “I’m a doctor,” he says. “I’m trying to help.”

Richelieu can’t make out the man’s face; the wall Jacques is leaning against is out of range of the torches that line the main thoroughfare. He thinks he recognizes the voice, though. He says, “Step into the light.”

The man stands and steps forward. Now Richelieu can see his face. And recognizes him.

“You’re the physician for the Musketeers. Doctor Lemay.”

“Yes,” the man says. “May I – ” He gestures back to Jacques, to the doctor’s bag that is now visible, previously hidden behind Lemay’s crouching figure.

“Please.” Richelieu will want to get Jacques under the care of his own personal physician as soon as possible, but Lemay will do for now. Surprisingly few Musketeers die of the many reckless stunts they perform, so Lemay must be good at his job.

Richelieu thinks of the Musketeers, of the foolish and ill-considered activities in which they often engage, and prays that he’ll get to see Jean perform just such an action again.

“Can he speak?” Richelieu asks Lemay, reverting to business with an ironclad discipline.

“I’m fine,” Jacques says before Lemay can answer.

Lemay glares. “I’d prefer he didn’t.”

“He’s my coachman.”

“Then where’s the carriage?” Lemay doesn’t look up. He’s inspecting the wound, reaching into his bag for a vial to pour over it to clean it.

“Presumably in the hands of my enemies. Jean was in it.” Richelieu corrects himself, using the name Lemay will be most likely to recognize: “Captain Treville was in it.”

Lemay twists around now to look at Richelieu. Lemay’s back in shadow, but he can presumably see Richelieu well enough. He turns back to Jacques and says, “Speak as little as possible. Breathe every third word.”

Richelieu nods his thanks. Then, to Jacques: “What happened?”

“Ambushed.” Jacques breathes as ordered. “Th’ master started feeling ill. At the salon. Sally ordered t’ carriage. Said t’ be careful.”

“She suspected something,” Richelieu infers, sparing Jacques the need to say it.


Lemay pours the contents of the vial over the wound. Jacques breaks off to cry out. Lemay peers at the result, then nods and reaches for some bandaging.

Jacques has to breathe a few times before he can continue. “Ambushed here. ’Most a dozen men. Swords and pistols. Fought. Sally too. But no good.”


“Never got out.”

Started feeling ill, Jacques had said. Richelieu would bet money that the illness had not been natural. Drugs, probably. The Lord send it hadn’t been poison. But – “Where is the carriage?”

“Two got in. Forced Sally in too. Two on the box. Two behind. Drove off. Others stayed back. To finish me.”

Richelieu looks at the two dead bodies next to Jacques. “They underestimated you.”

“Aye,” Jacques says again. His voice is thready, but the pride is unmistakable. “Killed yon – injured a’ more – they ran off.”

“Probably figured they’d gotten what they’d wanted,” Bernajoux says.

“Do you have any idea where they went?” Richelieu asks.

Jacques shakes his head. “Turned left at the square. That’s all.”

“They didn’t say or do anything – ”

“Professionals,” Jacques says in unmistakable disgust. “Nothing. ’Cept – ”

“What?” Richelieu demands, intent and desperately hopeful.

“Th’ leader. Got in the carriage. Saw his face. All over scars.” Jacques shudders, and Richelieu doesn’t think it’s all because Lemay is mucking around with his guts on a public street. “Mean looking fucker.”

Richelieu closes his eyes briefly. “Marchmont.”

“Didn’t say a name.”

“I know.” Richelieu forces his eyes open again. Makes himself focus. “Doctor Lemay, how soon can Jacques be moved? There are comfortable rooms at the Palais-Cardinal for his recovery, and I keep a physician on staff.”

“He can be moved as soon as you have a way to move him that won’t make his wounds worse,” Lemay answers. “A carriage, well-sprung. A cart if that’s all there is. And I’ll be staying with him for at least tonight. I’m sure your physician is excellent, but he’s my patient until I’m satisfied he’ll be all right. The garrison will cover my fees – ”

“Cost is not an issue,” Richelieu interrupts. “Jacques has been in my service for many years and will have everything money can buy. Of course you shall stay with him until you’re satisfied. Your ethics do you credit. And we may have need of a second pair of medical hands shortly regardless.”

Lemay looks wary. “What are you going to do?”

“Get Jean back.” Richelieu turns to his Guards. “One of you remain here with Jacques and Lemay. The other with me.”

“Back to the Palais-Cardinal?” Bernajoux asks. He exchanges nods with Boisrenard, who positions himself protectively in front of Lemay and Jacques.

“I need to know where that carriage went.” For that, he needs his spy network. And for after that he’ll need his Guards.

To Lemay Richelieu says: “I’ll send the large carriage back after you. Do you need anything sooner? Medical supplies?”

“I have everything I need,” Lemay answers. He’s taken off his own coat and tucked it behind Jacques’ head. “Your man is in no real danger, barring infection.”

Or another attack. But Richelieu doesn’t expect one. The men who’d fled had probably only been hired muscle, with no real ideological devotion to whatever Joseph professes his cause to be. The five who’d gone with Joseph would have been the loyalists. The others will have gotten their money already, and will feel no need to return to try to finish the job.

And if Richelieu is wrong, Boisrenard will be here.

“Half an hour,” Richelieu promises for the carriage. Then he turns his horse towards home, where Jean will not be waiting for him.

The large carriage is still waiting in the loop at the Palais-Cardinal when Richelieu arrives. He’d taken it to the Louvre earlier, then ordered it sent back here. The team has been unhitched and are presumably being tended to. Yet the carriage hasn’t been put back in its house. Someone had found some initiative. Richelieu makes a mental note to find out who it had been and reward them appropriately.

Another set of stable-boys run out to take Strider and Bernajoux’s Pistis. Richelieu dismounts and hands over his reins. “Get a fresh team for the carriage and hook them up,” he says. “Bernajoux, take it back to Lemay.”

“Right,” Bernajoux says.

“Take a few extra hands – send a runner if Jacques has remembered anything. Join me when you’re back.”

“Will do.” Bernajoux gives Richelieu a reassuring nod. Richelieu interprets this correctly and stops giving unnecessary orders.

Inside the Palais-Cardinal Richelieu heads straight for his office. When he opens the door and sees Jussac and Milady bent over a pile of papers he has to stop for a moment and sag with relief. They’re both here. He won’t have to waste any more time looking for them.

Jean doesn’t have time. Richelieu keeps remembering Jean leaning into him, the evening after Marchmont had reappeared at Louis’ court. Frightened. He remembers the way Jean had flinched from him in bed, expecting Armand to punish him for the least little thing. Remembering Marchmont standing arrogantly in Louis’ throne room. Restraints in one hand. Saying: he knows what he owes me… You’ll pay it, slut. I promise you that. You’ll pay it.

Jean had begged Armand not to let him fall back into Marchmont’s hands. And yet Jean is there now. Armand has failed him.

Now Jean needs rescue. Armand must not fail him again.

Milady’s and Jussac’s heads fly up at Richelieu’s entrance. Milady keeps her neutral mien, but Jussac’s eyebrows shoot straight for his hairline. Richelieu doesn’t want to think about what Jussac might see in his face.

“What’s wrong?” he demands.

Richelieu fills them in quickly. Jussac exclaims. Even Milady swears.

She recovers quickly, however. “Then this intelligence is particularly well timed,” Milady says.

“What is it?” Richelieu comes over to the table where they’ve spread out the documents. “Where did you get these?”

“Rochefort’s house. If you recall, he was absent from his dwelling – as was Marchmont – when they went to the Louvre to try to plead Marchmont’s old contract. I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the place. Rather than remove documents wholesale and alert them to the theft, I arranged for the opportunity to return. I, as well as others in your employ, have been sneaking back in at times when the house is empty to copy out the various documents.”

“I recall,” Richelieu says somewhat impatiently. He takes a moment to breathe deeply and control his temper. Milady likes to explain herself, even when Richelieu already understands the tricks and schemes she’s employing. It satisfies some need in her to demonstrate her competence. Merely assuring her that Richelieu appreciates it is not enough, he’s learned. She’s edgy if she’s worried her value isn’t fully known. She’s at her best when Richelieu allows her to expound. And Richelieu needs her at her best.

Jean needs her at her best.

That in mind, Richelieu inclines his head in apology. “Forgive me. Jean is in Marchmont’s hands, I am… not myself.”

Milady nods forgiveness. “I understand your worry,” she says. Her voice is surprisingly gentle. “Let me finish. For the last two nights, neither Marchmont nor Rochefort were home. They were probably making the arrangements for tonight’s caper; I regret we didn’t realize that sooner. But it afforded us the chance to copy a large portion of their documents. Including this one.” Solemnly, she presents Richelieu with a folded piece of paper.

He opens it hastily. It’s a letter. A copy of one sent to a housekeeper, it seems. Instructing that all be prepared for a favored guest. To arrive tonight.

The letter is apparently unremarkable. Except that it’s not written in French. It’s written in Spanish.

“We thought someone was arriving from Spain,” Jussac says. “But in retrospect ‘honored guest’ must be code for ‘prisoner’.”

“Do we know where this was addressed?” Richelieu asks.

Milady smiles. “Turn it over.”

Richelieu does. Beneath a broken seal is the direction. A small estate several hours’ ride from Paris.

“Jean is there,” Jussac says.

“Muster the Guards,” Richelieu says. “We leave immediately.”

It’s late evening, the sun already dipped below the Paris skyline, but the candles inside the Palais-Cardinal push back the dark. Jean watches the light dance over Armand’s face. There’s a firm grip in his hair holding him in place, on his knees at Armand’s feet. Another hand strokes gently down his face. A thumb presses to the hinge of Jean’s jaw and it falls open, obedient to Armand’s touch. He’s ready to receive Armand’s cock, ready to accept whatever Armand gives him. It turns out to be fingers. Two at first, then a third as Jean stretches his jaw open wider. Pressing down on Jean’s tongue and tracing his teeth. Jean’s mouth closes slightly, involuntarily, as he finds himself sucking on those long clever digits.

“Nice and wet,” Armand murmurs. “You know where they’re going next.”

Jean moans at the thought. Armand hasn’t touched him there, not really, not in any way that counts. He’s waiting for something. Jean finds it equal parts endearing and frustrating. It’s novel and thrilling to be treated like something precious. But there are some forms of pleasure that are greater than others, and wonderful as the handjobs and blowjobs and slow teasing rimjobs have been, he still wants to get fucked…

Jean sucks harder. Spit is a poor lubrication, but Joseph had used no other. It doesn’t occur to Jean to question what has happened to the small clay jar Armand keeps at his bedside.

Armand watches Jean from his lofty position, something dark and possessive lighting up his eyes. Jean shivers. Excitement and dread starts building low in his stomach. This, for Jean, has always been the dichotomy of submission. The need for belonging, in daily life so easily met, turns in the bedroom to something harsher. Joseph had manipulated those feelings so well. He’d known what Jean’s stammered, fumbling desires had been. And while he’d pushed Jean’s limits further and faster than Jean had been ready for, everything he’d done had been something Jean would one day have wanted to do, in his own time and place, with a partner who’d truly loved him.

Jean’s stunted, vanilla sex life in Paris hadn’t only been a function of limited opportunity and a lack of a steady partner. It had also been an issue of trust. Joseph had poisoned so many things Jean would otherwise have loved to try.

But now there is Armand. Armand who slides his fingers free from Jean’s mouth and inspects them, wet and gleaming in the uneven candlelight. Armand who nods satisfaction and uses his grip on Jean’s hair to push Jean into position.

It’s uncomfortable, prone on the hard floor like this. Why aren’t they doing this on the bed? Jean turns his head to try to catch Armand’s eye, make the suggestion. His attention is caught instead.

There is no bed piled high with pillows and warm coverlets. There are no windows draped with rich crimson hangings. There are no furnishings, no fixtures, no candelabras burning bright with good wax candles that give clear even light.

The light is uneven. The floor on which Jean lays is uncarpeted. And the hand in his hair tightens suddenly, harsh and painful and bringing involuntary tears springing to Jean’s eyes, even as the fingers he’d sucked on so diligently trail down the curve of his ass and shove their way inside without preamble –

Jean cries out.

“I’m just saying that you can’t rely on Plato for everything,Sally is saying. A footman comes by with fresh glasses of wine. Jean takes one. Sally declines, goes on speaking. “Yes, certainly, book five is useful, but it’s hardly the only text in the world. Le Livre de la Cité des Eromenoi – ”

“The average blustering Dom is more likely to respect Plato than a sub who wrote in the vernacular,” Ninon observes.

“Then we will make them respect us,” another attendee says fiercely.

Jean leans back in his seat and sips his wine, watching but not speaking. This is a common attitude for him to adopt. For a long time he had had to be careful what he’d said, even here. Ninon had known about him, but most of the others hadn’t. Jean hadn’t been the only Dom to attend. But he’d been a minority, and it had been safer, wiser, to keep his own counsel.

Now he can speak, if he wishes it. He mulls this odd thought, continuing to enjoy the fine vintage. Living as a sub instead of a Dom means that in general he has less power. But in this society of subs, living as himself makes him freer.

And living as himself has brought other benefits. Jean watches Sally debate Ninon, eyes sparkling and tone lively, and thinks about how glad he is to have moments like this. When Rochefort had threatened to out him, Jean had thought that all of the peaceful times in his life were over…

The light seems brighter, all of a sudden. Jean blinks. The room begins to sway. He peers down into his wine-glass. It’s still half full, and only the second glass he’s had all evening. He shouldn’t be drunk. But –

“Jean?” Sally’s noticed his distraction. Of course she has. She’s frighteningly observant. And she’s always watching. Old habit, she claims. Jean knows she’s protecting him. He doesn’t say anything about it. Once he’d have thought his Dom setting guards on him would be just another sign of possession and control. But now Jean knows how much Armand worries. It seems a little thing, to ease those worries. It’s not as if Sally is a burden. Ninon hasn’t had such a good debate in years.

And Jean’s thoughts are wandering. He blinks again, trying to bring them back into focus. Sally’s face is hovering before his. Her hand plucks the wineglass from his and sets it safely aside. It had begun to droop. Then he feels her cool hand on her forehead.

“Too much wine?” Ninon asks, from somewhere seemingly very far away.

“Just tired,” Jean manages to say. That’s all, surely. He certainly hasn’t had too much wine. But he’d slept poorly last night, then taken advantage of his sleeplessness to make time with his Dom. And then he’d run practices all morning, feeling guilty for having shirked that duty, though honestly the small cohort of picked soldiers he’d held back from La Rochelle hadn’t needed their Captain to run them through their daily drills. If they’d needed oversight they’d be at the siege, where there is a great deal more of it. The men Jean had kept back had been men Jean can trust to manage their duties alone if need be.

He’s wandering again.

“ – the carriage,” Sally is saying. Jean’s surroundings have changed. He’s no longer in the main room, surrounded by the other attendees at Ninon’s salon. This is a more private room. Quieter. Dimmer, too.

“I can call a doctor here,” Ninon offers.

“I’m not sure that’s necessary.” Sally’s hand is on Jean’s forehead again. Jean blinks his eyes open, unaware of having closed them. “I’d just like to get him home.”

“Of course,” Ninon agrees.

Jean tries to pull away. The man who is kneeling over him stops him with a hand on his shoulderblades. It shouldn’t be so easy to press Jean down. But Jean’s limbs have stopped obeying him.

Perhaps they never had obeyed him. Perhaps that had also been a dream, like thinking that the man who is kneeling over him is Armand.

Armand would never treat him this way.

The man who is kneeling over Jean reaches out and picks something up off the floor. When he brings his hand back, Jean’s gaze focuses on it for a brief second. He feels sick. It’s a large plug, nearly as thick around as someone’s wrist, and knobby. Jean knows where that’s going. Knows how it’s going to hurt.

As it turns out, it hurts more than he remembers.

The carriage sways. Sally sits next to Jean, who isn’t sitting so much as slumping against her side. One of her hands is still on his forehead.

“We’ll be home soon,” Sally murmurs to him. “You’ll be all right. It just needs to get out of your system. We can speed it up once we get home.”

What needs to get out of my system, Jean wants to ask. The set of Sally’s mouth is distrustful. What does Sally not trust?

The carriage begins to rock harder. There’s a loud noise. It’s familiar. Jean is sure he’s heard it a thousand times before. He tries to reach for the memory, but something – whatever it is in his system? – filches it away from Jean with tricky fingers.

“Stay here,” Sally says, tense. The carriage has stopped. She pulls something out of her skirts and moves towards the door.

Don’t leave me, Jean wants to say. If you’re worried I’m worried too –

After the tearing of the plug fades, Jean is rolled over onto his back. Something’s wrong with his vision. It won’t focus more than a few inches before his face. Sometimes, as with the plug, something passes close enough to Jean’s eyes that he can make it out. Sometimes he is left to the tender mercies of sound and touch, and only knows that pain will come after it has already arrived.

Jean tries to catalog what’s being done to him. The plug he is certain of. The clamps, too, he sees briefly before they’re attached to tender nipples and screwed far too tight. The sounding rod he knows only by the feel of it invading his tender slit. Jean suspects it’s locked in place. The cock cage must have been put on Jean before he’d attained even this small measure of lucidity, but its inward-facing spikes make its presence known every time Jean’s tormentor manhandles him into a new position.

There’s more. Jean knows it. But knowledge keeps slipping away. At intervals Jean is given more to drink. At one point the sound is unscrewed and he pisses a fountain into a chamberpot he can’t see, a foreign hand on his downward-bent dick keeping the stream aimed in the right direction. There’s been no food, but with the haziness brought on by what must be drugs Jean doesn’t feel hunger. He thinks he sleeps at one point. He’s not sure. A different sound is screwed back in, this one wider and with small rounded bumps of its own. It burns going down.

His hands are bound behind his back. Then more bonds are attached, marching up to Jean’s elbows. Jean can’t bend that way, not anymore, he’s never been that flexible, but his tormentor attaches the bonds to a small crank and forces Jean’s elbows to touch. Jean thinks he may scream then. He knows he screams when he’s forced onto his stomach, and his ankles, already lashed together, are folded back and bound to his waist.

The old campaign injury in his knee is burning. Jean tries to focus on that. Seize the pain and use it to clear his head. It scatters away when the chain connected to his nipple clamps is tugged down, between his legs and attached to his wrists and ankles, so that any attempt to ease the strain in one direction causes it to worsen in another. When the chain tightens fully it forms a ligature around Jean’s balls. It’s an awful, effective way of keeping him in position.

Then the person steps away. Comes around to stand in front of Jean, right in the space where Jean can finally focus on him, and Jean sees.

Sally gets back in the carriage. Two others get back in with her. One of them offers Jean something to drink.

Jean doesn’t need a clear head, much less the subtle shake of Sally’s head, to refuse.

The person leans forward. The light from a passing streetlight falls onto their face.

Jean wants to shout. Wants to run. Wants to lunge forward and wrap his hands around Joseph’s neck and squeeze –

But the second person’s got a knife, and it glints silver where it’s pressed to the large artery in Sally’s throat.

Joseph offers the drink again.

“Don’t,” Sally cries. The knife cuts her when she speaks. Blood runs down her throat, black in the darkness.

Jean takes the cup and drinks.

The world goes away.

Joseph smiles. It’s a terrifying expression. It always had been; the scars make it worse.

“Back where you belong at last,” Joseph says in dark satisfaction. “And this time I’ll make sure you stay there.”

Jean doesn’t respond. Can’t respond. The gag that had been forced between his teeth fills every inch of available space. It presses down on his tongue, cuts the tender inner skin of his cheeks, and tickles the back of his throat so that Jean has to keep swallowing lest he choke. He doubts that’s accidental.

“Ah, Jean,” Joseph sighs. He sounds almost fond. It’s the most frightening thing that’s happened yet. “If only you hadn’t run. I wouldn’t have had to be this harsh.”

Liar, Jean thinks. This is always where Joseph had been leading their relationship. It might have taken longer for Joseph to get Jean here, but this is always where he had wanted Jean.

Joseph walks away again. Jean’s vision must be improving, for he successfully tracks Joseph all the way to the door of what Jean belatedly realizes is a room of middling size. It’s unfurnished except for torches burning in sconces on the wall and the thick curtains covering a single window. Jean takes all of this in, wondering in the back of his mind how long it has been since Joseph had drugged Jean last. How long it will take for the drug to clear his system.

You’ll be all right, Sally murmurs from memory. It just needs to get out of your system. We can speed it up once we get home.

Sally. She’d been in the carriage too. Joseph had threatened her to make Jean drink. Where is she? Why hasn’t he seen her? He’d demand answers of Joseph if he could; the gag makes it impossible.

All he can think of is the blood trickling down her throat. Had it just been a nick? Had it been lifeblood? In the dark, hazed with drugs, Jean cannot remember.

“I’ll leave you here to think of the error of your ways,” Joseph says coldly. Jean’s attention yanks back to Joseph, standing back in front of him again. Joseph drops his hand to Jean’s face. Every muscle in Jean’s body yearns to flinch away from that hated touch. He’s bound too tightly for it. But Jean hopes Joseph knows, as Joseph traces Jean’s lips, how dearly Jean wishes he could bite.

The door is still open. Someone leans in through it. Says something harsh and censorious.

Joseph pulls his fingers back with a scowl, already snapping an answer. Jean’s skin prickles. He doesn’t understand the words, but he knows the Spanish language when he hears it.

Joseph pulls a thick cloth from his belt. He loops it around itself, and then lowers it to Jean’s eyes, cutting off Jean’s vision and leaving him in darkness. Jean can feel Joseph fumbling with it, getting it properly settled and tied. He can hear Joseph’s footfalls moving away from him. He can hear the click of the door being closed and locked.

Then Jean’s left with nothing to focus on but the pain of his bondage.

Jean’s limbs ache. Then tingle. Then, worse, go numb entirely. The pain of the plugs and sound remains. As does the stabbing, nauseating sensation any time Jean manages to shift position even the tiniest amount. Whenever he moves the spikes on the cock cage stab deeper into Jean’s sensitive flesh. Whenever he moves his nipples shriek in agony. Whenever he moves he strangles his balls, until he has to gasp for breath against the pain.

He loses track of time. Seconds blur into minutes. Minutes, he thinks, blur into hours. Hours? Has it been hours? Has it been days?

Please, God, don’t leave me here, Jean thinks with a hint of hysteria. He doesn’t know what would be worse: Joseph returning, or Joseph not returning. As little as Jean wants to see Joseph again, as little as he wants Joseph’s touch, part of him is frightened enough to hope for Joseph’s return. Harsh bondage isn’t safe for extended periods of time. Left like this too long, without adequate blood flow to his limbs… Jean isn’t a young man anymore. He’s not as flexible. It could cripple him.

And that’s what Joseph wants. Jean realizes it in a flash of cold, blinding, horrified insight. Joseph doesn’t care if Jean can stand; Joseph believes subs should remain on their knees. Joseph has no use for Jean’s sword-arm or horsemanship. The only parts of Jean Joseph cares about are his holes. Everything else is a distraction. Everything else is dangerous.

It makes terrible, horrible sense.

Jean had run from Joseph once.

Joseph is going to make sure Jean never runs again.

Chapter Text

It’s all very well for Richelieu to say we leave immediately. In practice, of course, it’s different. Guards have to be turned out of bed. They have to be equipped. Their horses have to be saddled. They have to be formed up. Their leaders have to be briefed.

Tactical decisions have to be made. Riding out of Paris with the entire regiment would be the height of foolishness. Even if Richelieu had lost his senses to that extent, Jussac would prevent him from leaving his base undefended. And Milady would prevent him from doing anything that so openly and obviously screams war. War may be what is ultimately called for, but nothing irrevocable should ever be done when something more subtle is possible.

So Jussac musters only the most experienced Guards and brings those lieutenants who aren’t aware of the situation up to speed. Cahusac draws the short straw and has to stay behind. He tries to convince one of Bernajoux or Boisrenard that they should swap places with him, since the two of them have been on duty since noon, but they’re having none of it. Boisrenard still has some of Jacques’ blood on his cloak. It’s hard to see – there’s a reason the cloaks are red – but they all know it’s there, and Cahusac has to content himself with a promise that he’ll have first watch if Marchmont is brought back to the Palais-Cardinal alive.

Richelieu makes no promises. He is by no means sure that Marchmont will live out the day.

It takes them nearly three hours to ride out; three hours Richelieu feels trickling by like blood draining from a mortal wound. Jean is in Marchmont’s hands. Marchmont could be doing anything to him. Anything at all, and there is no one to stop him.

Sally is with Jean, Armand reminds himself. It brings little comfort. Sally would never have let Marchmont take Jean if she’d been able to prevent it. Richelieu must assume that Sally is hors de combat. Perhaps even dead herself.

There had been no body. That’s the most hope that can be mustered for Sally. That, and Milady’s faith in her former operative.

“Sally didn’t retire because she’d lost her touch,” Milady tells Richelieu in a quiet moment. “You know that. She’s taking care of him, I’m sure of it.”

“I wish I could believe that,” Richelieu sighs.

“She’d be offended at your lack of faith.”

“No she wouldn’t.” Sally knows him too well for offense. Her loyalty runs deep, rooted in a bloody past that leaves her with no doubts about the path she’s chosen to walk and the man she’s chosen to follow.

Milady shrugs. “No. I suppose not. But you should have it all the same.”

Richelieu tries. Right now, faith is hard to come by. Imagination, unfortunately, is far too easy.

Finally, finally they’re ready. Milady has gathered the best information available about the estate where Jean, they hope and pray, is being held. She shares it with the Guards. Everyone counts their shot one more time. Richelieu says a brief formulaic blessing, his heart in his throat and his faith running desperately thin.

Then they mount and ride out. Above the buildings of Paris, dawn is breaking.

The first thing Jean does is tell himself, sternly, don’t panic.

Jean’s been tortured before. There’s a trick to it. Your enemies want something from you. Until they get it, they have to keep you alive. Whatever else they do to you, they have to keep you alive. And where there’s life there’s hope.

Don’t panic.

Jean focuses on hope. On all of the reasons he’s not ready to give up yet. There’s still so much more he wants to do. One person in particular he wants to do it with.

So much more he wants to say. One person in particular he wants to say it to.

For a while Jean loses himself in daydreams. He constructs elaborate scenarios in his mind, the perfect sweetness of the impossible. Finding love with Armand. Working together to change the laws. Playing together at night. Reclaiming everything. Jean rejects the sensations of his body and replaces them with simulated pleasure. Imagines that it’s Armand who’s tied him in place, as Jean had asked him to on their first night together. Imagines that it’s leather binding him instead of chains. Imagines that it will all end the moment Jean says musket.

But he can’t speak. Joseph’s gag shatters the illusion. Jean tries to rebuild it, but it’s harder this time. He’s more aware of the points of pain all over his body, strengthening rather than ebbing over time. Soon enough they’ll ebb. That won’t be a good thing.

Jean abandons imagination and starts counting instead. One number for every breath. He loses count around five thousand. Starts again. Ignores the pain. Ignores the numbness. That’s harder. Pain means the nerves are still active. Pain means the body is still fighting back. Numbness is emptiness. Numbness is surrender. Numbness is acknowledgement that a battle is lost.

Don’t panic –


The sound of breathing, so close as to be right in front of him. Not Jean’s. Jean can hear his own breathing, faster than it should be, and beneath it his heart races almost out of control.

Calloused fingers fumble at the back of his head. The blindfold, Jean’s mind supplies. Instinct wants to flinch away. Reason overrules it. He holds still until the blindfold is tugged away.

Almost immediately the cloth is replaced by a pair of hands, one over each eye, blocking out the light.

“Don’t try to look just yet,” the same voice instructs. It’s a woman’s voice. Calm and knowledgeable.

Sally, Jean thinks. Hopes.

The fingers gap slightly. Just enough to let the faintest sliver of light in. It’s almost too much as it is. Jean shivers convulsively, the only way he can physically react to the near-blindness the light provokes.

“Blink,” Sally coaxes. “Keep blinking. Let your eyes adjust, that’s it…”

Sally continues to let light in, a little more and then a little more past that. All the while she keeps up a steady, quiet stream of encouragement. Eventually she pulls her hands away entirely, and Jean can see her face at last, illuminated by the last rays of sun.

“Are you all right?” she asks. “I don’t mean physically. Are you still with me?”

Jean blinks several times. It’s the only method of communication Joseph had left him. Judging by Sally’s smile, it suffices.

“I knew you were a fighter,” she says encouragingly. “I’m going to get you out of these bonds, and then we’re going to escape.”

Jean badly wishes he could snort. She makes it sound so easy. But he doesn’t relish the idea of waiting around for Joseph, either, so he blinks again.

Sally reaches for his mouth first. “Relax as much as you can. I know this part isn’t pleasant.”

Jean obeys, consciously letting his jaw go slack. Sally works the gag out with deft fingers and stops Jean with a finger to his lip when Jean goes to close his mouth.

“Don’t try to close it entirely; it’ll just stress the muscles farther. Rest your jaw. Let it go where it wants.”

Grudgingly Jean obeys. He doesn’t like the idea of letting Joseph have any further effect on him, but the advice is good. His mouth seems to want to hang half-open. Sally tosses the gag into a corner and presses her thumbs against Jean’s cheeks, rubbing gently and helping the muscles relax further.

This close, Jean can see a scab on Sally’s neck. Short, and apparently not very deep. The knife had only nicked her. Jean exhales in relief.

She says, “I’d offer you something to drink, but our hosts were not that considerate. Will you be okay?”

Jean concentrates on speech. It’s hard after so long in that damnable gag, but after a moment he manages to croak, “Yes.”

The next order of business is swallowing. It hurts. Something pops in his jaw. Sally slides her fingers deeper into the hinge of Jean’s jaw and presses. Hard. Jean wants to shriek; he doesn’t have the breath. Then suddenly everything seems to relax and he can close his mouth completely without too much of an ache.

He’s not sure whether to thank her or curse. He decides to do neither and save his strength.

Sally doesn’t seem to notice. Just says, “All right. Limbs next.”

This part Jean finds himself dreading. Sally undoes the bonds holding Jean in the contortionist’s position slowly. He wants to protest, demand that she go faster, let him out of this torture. He wants to shriek at the agony of blood rushing back into his extremities. Sally helps rub his arms and legs, encouraging the return of circulation. She even drops a hand on the back of Jean’s neck, helps him breathe through the pain of it. She’s not Armand – she’s not even a Dom – and Jean is aware, with an entirely nonphysical sort of pain, that he can feel every inch of her hand; Joseph had taken Armand’s collar while Jean had been too drugged to stop him, and there is no friendly strip of leather to interrupt the sensation. But at least Joseph’s leather no longer touches Jean’s body. And Sally’s calming touch helps, if only as a reminder that he’s not dealing with this alone.

After Jean’s limbs are free, Sally helps him lie on his side.

“Close your eyes,” she says gently.

He does, falling gratefully into a temporary darkness while Sally gently, dispassionately, removes the rest. Tugs the plug from his ass. Unscrews the clamps from his nipples. Unhooks the cruel cock cage and slides out the sound. That part of his anatomy Jean insists on massaging himself, when Sally helps him sit back up again. It’s hardly erotic either way, but still. It’s the principle of the thing.

“Let’s try standing,” Sally says.

Standing takes effort, several tries and many more false starts, and Jean feels the panic beginning to claw its way back up his throat. This is worse than stiffness or cramps from hard training or a day in the saddle or a forced march. His old campaign injury feels like it’s on fire. He can barely bend that knee, and the rest of him is scarcely in better shape.

Joseph had wanted Jean immobilized. He’d gone about it with terrifying efficiency.

Sally is patient and understanding. She’s also, Jean comes to realize, utterly furious.

“It will be okay,” Jean says clumsily, trying to comfort her.

She just gives a sharp nod and goes back to massaging a cramp out of Jean’s calf. Jean watches it happen, his own fingers far too stiff to assist. Her anger shows in the twist of her lips and the occasional too-hard jab she gives the stubborn leg muscle. On a certain level Jean understands. Even for someone who’s lived in the world and seen much – and Jean is fairly sure that Sally has seen more than the average person – someone like Joseph defies belief.

Jean wishes he had the luxury of anger. All he has is fear.

Sally goes on working Jean’s limbs while time ticks agonizingly by. Jean tries and fails to twitch his toes. Dread starts creeping up his spine.

“Even if we get me on my feet I won’t be able to walk,” Jean whispers.

“You’re not the first person I’ve gotten out of a tight spot. I’ll get you walking.”

Jean shakes his head. More loudly: “We don’t have time – ”

“I don’t have anywhere else to be.”

“You should go back to Paris.” The words try to stick in Jean’s throat; the terror of being left behind, of being abandoned to Joseph, makes it hard to say what his rational mind knows to be true. He forces the words out. “Tell Richelieu where I am. Come back with force.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“Think about it. What’s the plan? Fight our way free and walk back to Paris?”

“I just need you to be able to walk. I’ll go ahead and take out any guards on our route out. You’ll follow in stages. We’ll take two horses and ride back to Paris.”

“Sally,” Jean says, putting his hands over hers and forcing her to stop massaging his unresponsive limbs. “I can’t ride.”

“I’ll tie you to the saddle if I have to,” she says fiercely. “I’m not leaving you.”

Sally pushes Jean’s hands aside – more easily than she should be able to – and goes back to digging her fingers into Jean’s knee. Jean gasps. Pain radiates out of the knee.

All the way out. Up to his groin and down to his ankle.

It’s the first thing he’s felt below the waist in hours.

“See?” Sally says, watching Jean’s toes twitch. “I told you I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m starting to believe you,” he gasps.

“Let’s try standing again.” Sally comes to her feet and bends down to grab Jean by the waist.

This time it goes better. “Good,” Sally says, sounding distinctly more cheerful. “Now, walking.”

Jean doesn’t groan.

He does, eventually, manage to walk, though not before turning the air blue with curses. Sally sticks with him every step of the way – literally, at first – displaying astonishing strength as she supports Jean’s dead weight through his first stumbling attempts to get his limbs to obey him.

“I hope you’re not expecting stealth out of me,” Jean gasps, turning to humor, however dry, to offset the tense atmosphere. “I’m not very stealthy even when I haven’t just been tied up for – however long.”

“Five hours.” Sally’s mouth is a thin line. “I’m sorry it took so long to get you.”

A new horror strikes Jean, and he can’t help lifting his head up from where he’d been staring at his feet. “Did he – ”

Sally tries for humor, too. “Marchmont is distressingly good at tying someone up. Even when he isn’t trying to maim them into the bargain.”

“Fortunately you’re better.”

“Fortunately he underestimated me.”

“You’re a sub.” Jean can’t shrug, but he thinks his tone conveys the same approximation. “He doesn’t think we’re capable of anything.”

“Yes.” Sally lightens her grip, letting Jean take more of his own weight. Adds, “Richelieu will tear Marchmont limb from limb for you. If you like that sort of thing in a Dom.”

“It has its appeal,” Jean mutters. He’s usually against it, but right now he’s ready to make an exception.

That must come through in his voice, because Sally frowns.

“Think seriously about it,” she advises. “That’s not hyperbole. Richelieu would flay them alive if you asked him to.”

Jean only nods. His mouth’s dry again. He knows, anyway. He knows what Richelieu is capable of. He’s seen it before.

“Will he not do it, if I ask it of him?” he finds himself asking.


“If I asked him not to torture them? To give up his pound of flesh? The information they might have? Would he do that for me?”

Jean doesn’t know why he’s pressing. Maybe it’s because he needs the distraction. Maybe it’s because the thought of Joseph, hanging from chains with his skin flayed from his bones, is disturbing in how little it disturbs Jean right now. Maybe it’s because he wants to know how far Armand would – or wouldn’t – go for him. Maybe it’s all three.

“All that and more,” Sally promises. Her voice rings with conviction. “Jean, he’d do anything for you. He’s probably tearing the countryside apart right now looking for you.”

Jean finds himself laughing a little. “I could have used that kind of help when Joseph was chasing me the first time.”

“Why, Jean.” Sally lightens her tone, keeping it playful, and Jean focuses on that as he pushes himself to a faster pace. “As I recall, that’s right when the two of you met! So you have had his help all along.”

“Right, right.” Jean finds himself smiling. “Still. This does make Armand’s overprotectiveness seem a bit more warranted. Maybe if I’d let him surround me with bodyguards I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Jean, I like you. I like your friends and I like their salons. But I’d come to fewer of them if I weren’t protecting you.”

A harsh step jars Jean, and he grimaces at the recurring flare of an old pain. Not the knee injury this time, though. This time it’s the bullet-wound from his shooting that had never healed quite right. The scarring isn’t hideous, but it limits Jean’s range of motion if he’s not properly warmed up. Being contorted into heavy bondage for hours does not qualify.

Jean bites back the curses and gestures to his chest instead, where the old wound lies. “Well, I wish I’d met you sooner, then. Might not have gotten this.”

“No, you wouldn’t have,” Sally says immodestly.

“Still. Could have been worse.”

“An inch to the left and you’d be a dead man,” Sally agrees.

Jean smiles faintly. Then the expression slips away, replaced by a frown. There’s something in Sally’s tone that recalls an old worry to Jean’s mind.

He says, “Or a second bullet.”

“Assassins tend to only have the one.”

“Why not a second assassin?”

“You’d have to ask Rochefort that.” Sally shrugs.

“No, I mean – not the first time. Why wasn’t there a second attempt?” At Sally’s look, Jean continues, fumbling his way towards what he’s already realized. “I could believe that Rochefort could only conceal one assassination attempt. That he felt a second would be too risky. That he didn’t want to expose himself.”

“Very reasonable,” Sally agrees.

“But this – Joseph – blows all of that out of the water. Kidnapping me? Kidnapping you? That’s risky.”

“You’re assuming that Rochefort knows about this. He may not. Marchmont may be acting independently.”

“Yes…” Jean shakes his head. “No. That is, yes, maybe Joseph is acting independently. But Rochefort knows about it. I’d bet my life. So why didn’t Rochefort stop Joseph?”

“Maybe something’s changed.”

“Something’s changed all right. My relationship with Armand.”

“That must be it,” Sally says. “Let’s try walking without me supporting you now.”

She draws her hand away. Jean takes a deep breath and starts trying to walk.

He doesn’t stop thinking. He knows a delaying tactic when he hears one.

“Last week,” Jean says after two steps. “At the Palais-Cardinal, Armand observed that my Musketeers started being more cautious with my life, after I’d been shot.”

“They did,” Sally agrees. “They stood guard while you slept, and you never went about alone again.”

“I noticed.” Jean’s joints are burning now, but he doesn’t stop, either walking or talking. “But they still leave holes an assassin could slip through.”

“Don’t you have faith in your men?”

“They are as they are.” Jean concentrates. Two more steps. “And you are as you are. Sally, Armand said that other factors had made assassinating me less practical.” Jean reaches the end and stops, breathing. Turns to face Sally. “Were you one of those factors?”

Sally smiles. “Richelieu always valued you,” she says. “Oh, he thought he hated you. He’d rail against you to anyone who would listen. Jussac, mostly. Or me. Sometimes Milady. But after a while it started to be hard to ignore the fact that, angry as he’d claim to be, it was always Treville this, Treville that.”

Jean stares at her. He has no idea what to say to this. He knows what Sally’s implying, but it doesn’t seem real. He and Armand had used to hate each other. Maybe now that’s changing. Maybe now they’re taking the first tentative steps towards something better. Maybe now Armand’s touch brings comfort and his hand on Jean’s head brings calm and his collar around Jean’s throat brings steadiness. But that’s all recent. That’s all new.

Isn’t it?

“When you were shot Richelieu was furious,” Sally goes on, apparently interpreting Jean’s silence as a request to continue. “He said it was a personal failure. That it reflected badly on him as First Minister, if he couldn’t even keep his political allies safe.”

“We weren’t allies,” Jean whispers.

“None of us were foolish enough to tell him that,” Sally says bluntly. “Richelieu put protection on you. Not so much that you’d notice, but enough that Rochefort was forced to resort to alternate means to eliminate you from Louis’ court.”

“Means like Joseph.”

“That’s probably when Rochefort wrote to Spain, yes.” Sally sighs. “I suppose that makes it sound like this is Richelieu’s fault, but – ”

“No. I – no. That’s not what it sounds like. Joseph isn’t anyone’s fault. Except maybe his own.” Jean shakes his head. “But I – ” he trails off. Starts again: “Richelieu was protecting me that long ago?”

“Physically, yes. Politically – much longer.”

“How much longer?”

“Marie de’ Medici had you thrown into the Bastille at one point, didn’t she?”

“Yes.” Jean blinks. Then it dawns. “The anonymous nobleman who paid the pistole – ”


“That was fifteen years ago,” Jean says blankly.

Sally shrugs. “Yes.”

“He paid – ”

“It wasn’t much money,” Sally interrupts. “Not for him. And he didn’t like the thought of you in squalid conditions, since it had been supporting Richelieu’s ascendance that had gotten you there.”

“I hadn’t been supporting him,” Jean protests.

Sally waves a hand, dismissing this. “You opposed Marie de’ Medici. That was enough for him.”

“Enough to – to – ” Jean’s voice fails him.

“Enough to show gratitude.” Sally strides over to the door and kneels before it, peering through the lock, apparently deciding that they’d delayed long enough. “That’s all it was. At least back then. He was always drawn to you. I don’t think he ever understood it. Well, after all, Richelieu likes subs. And we all thought you were a Dom.”

Jean hesitates, unsure if he wants to ask this next question. But he may never have another chance. He may be able to walk now, but he’s not in fighting form. Even if he were, they have no weapons, and are unlikely to find any. Sally may talk about tying Jean to a horse, but Jean knows – perhaps even better than she does – how little chance of success that has.

So Jean asks.

“If Richelieu had known I was a sub in 1614, would he have offered for me?”

Sally continues studying what little of the corridor she must be able to see through the lock, then stands. She seems to be thinking. Jean doesn’t interrupt her. He doesn’t want any distractions. He doesn’t want her to have any excuse not to answer.

“We’ll never know,” she says at last. “And I suspect that, even then, he would have had to have been pushed and tricked into love. But we all could have gotten started on the pushing sooner.”

Jean nods slowly. The ambivalent answer rings truer than any flat affirmation or denial would have. Jean isn’t yet ready to claim that he really knows Armand, the true Armand, the man who lies beneath the Cardinal and the First Minister and the Duc. But Sally does. And Jean believes Sally’s reply.

It doesn’t really change anything. Jean has already committed himself. He’s already accepted that he wants Armand in his life. That he wants Armand as his Dom. That he wants a Dom, in his life, at all. Wants a collar and a household and all of the things he’d thought he’d cast aside when he’d fled Joseph. All the things he’d built a life without after he’d realized how they’d hold him back from his dreams.

The Jean who had come to Paris in 1614 would never have accepted Armand. That Jean would have looked at Armand’s collar and seen only chains. And that Armand would probably only have been able to offer chains. Would a young, ambitious Armand have been willing to accept a sub who wouldn’t throw themselves wholeheartedly into his climb? Join him in the politically correct pageantry of court and the sly stabbings of back-alley dealings? Probably not. A relationship between them in 1614 would have been a disaster. It had taken all the intervening twenty years for Jean to even be ready to consider wearing a collar again.

Even so he’d nearly decided to jump into the Seine instead.

Jean takes a deep breath. Lets it go. Takes all of this, the new knowledge and the new feelings and the new realizations, and sets them aside. Later there will be time for them. Later he will wade through them all and decide how he feels. Later he will speak to Armand. Ask for answers, details, explanations. Later there will be time for many things.

Right now, Jean’s primary concern needs to be making sure that later comes. He’s going to get back to Armand, and nothing is going to stand in his way.

Jean walks back across the room to stand next to Sally, as steadily as he can manage. She watches him. Takes in the continuing unsteadiness of his gait, the limp at his bad knee that he can’t control, the unevenness of his balance. Takes in, too, the stiffness in his spine and the determination in every line of his body.

“That’s as good as we’re likely to get,” Sally says. “I know where the stables are. We take two horses and ride. If we encounter a better plan along the way, we take it. Agreed?”

“Agreed,” Jean says in determination, and Sally grins fiercely and pushes the door open.

The bareness of the room Jean had been held in proves to be the rule rather than the exception. The corridor is equally bare, as are the rooms Sally peeps into quickly before waving Jean on past. Jean hadn’t realized how much he’d grown used to the Palais-Cardinal. In Richelieu’s house, the floors are thickly carpeted. There are fires in every room. The air is perfumed with flowers. The walls are covered with priceless art, the windows richly curtained, every corner illuminated with good clear light.

Joseph’s estate has none of those things. The chill seeps into Jean. It enters through his skin, through his bare feet on the cold stone floor, into his lungs when he breathes. He’s stopped caring about his modesty, but he regrets his lack of clothing now for far more primal reasons. Sally still has her boots, but she’s in little better shape: her cloak and shawl are gone, too, leaving her only in a thin bodice and a ripped skirt. Jean had been hoping to find something he could use as a cloak. Even a curtain would have been welcome. But there’s nothing. The only light comes from torches, set at infrequent intervals and guttering in the draft.

“At least it will make it easier to hide,” Sally murmurs. Jean acknowledges that with a tip of his head. It doesn’t stop him from shivering.

Their progress is achingly, frighteningly slow. Any positive effect moving may be having on Jean’s body is offset by the cold seeping into his bones, cramping his muscles anew and slowing him down. At intervals Sally has to leave him behind, leaning against a wall shivering while she goes ahead and eliminates a guard or a servant. There aren’t many of the latter. The place is clearly not regularly inhabited.

“Almost there,” Sally murmurs. Jean hopes that it’s true, and not just something she’s saying to keep his spirit up.

She’d had to explore a fair bit to find Jean, so she knows where they’re going. Only one wing has been opened for the visitors. Joseph and his cronies are there, as are most of the servants. The first thing Sally had done had been to lead Jean through the servants’ corridors into the other, disused wing of the house. The stables are on the far side. They can emerge through the laundry and have only a short sprint to reach the stables.

Of course, the laundry isn’t empty.

They both hear the chatter from up ahead, before they’re in sight. Sally opens a nearby door and pushes Jean inside.

“The housekeeper’s office,” she murmurs. “She’s in the kitchens. Stay here. I’ll get rid of the laundresses.”

There’s a desk. Even more excitingly, there’s a chair. Jean collapses gratefully into it and nods.

Sally disappears, closing the door behind her. Jean wants to close his eyes and sleep for a year. He forces himself to study the room instead. This is one of the few rooms he’s seen that isn’t utterly deserted. It shows signs of fairly recent habitation. It’s windowless, but there are candles for reading and a braided rug rag under the chair. Jean rests his sore feet on it in gratitude.

There’s more. The desk he’s sitting at has letters in pigeon-holes, several pens and a pot of ink still wet from recent usage. Maybe Jean’s been spending too much time with Sally – maybe Jean’s been spending too much time with Richelieu – but it suddenly occurs to Jean to be curious about what’s in those letters. He sits up straighter and carefully reaches for one of them.

His fingers, stiff and swollen, refuse to work properly. Jean grits his teeth and tries harder. A small bundle of letters comes free all at once, falling over the desk like improbably large raindrops. Jean picks up the closest and fumbles it open.

My dear Maman, it begins. We enjoyed seeing you last Christmas –

A personal letter. Jean drops it and picks up the next one. Grandmère, Maman says I must write to you and thank you for your gift, even though I told you thank you when you were here. Why must I write you again, Grandmère? I want to know.

The entire stack are personal. Jean shakes his head at himself. If Sally had been here, she would probably have picked up the one letter in all the bunch that would immediately give the key to Joseph’s plans. There’s a luck and a knack to spying that Jean utterly lacks.

Somewhere in here must be something useful. If Jean can’t find it, maybe Sally can.

Or Armand. Jean is going to see Armand again. So there’s no reason Jean can’t bring the letters to him.

Jean starts pulling the rest down from the pigeon-holes, stacking them as neatly as his clumsy fingers allow. There are sheets of fresh paper beneath the ink-pot. Jean pulls out a few and tries his best to fold all the letters up in them. His goal is a neat bundle, easily carried. The result is ugly and will probably fall apart the minute it’s picked up.

Jean forces his mind to work. A housekeeper’s duty often includes handling the whole household’s letters. How would she bundle them up for delivery?

Jean looks around. Looks up. There. Twine. He has to practically mummify the stack, but at last, when he picks it up, nothing slides threateningly. Good enough.

And just in time. There’s a rapid knock on the door, followed by Sally pulling it open.

“Jean?” she whispers.

“Here,” Jean answers. He struggles back to his feet, bundle in tow.

“I fed them a tale about a terrible wine-stain in the upstairs carpet,” Sally says, coming to help Jean up. “They’ll all be – what’s that?” She’s looking at the bundle.

“Letters.” Jean tries to shrug, suddenly unsure. “Thought they might be useful.”

“Clever thinking,” Sally approves warmly. “Okay, let’s go. We only have a few minutes before they realize I’ve lied.”

Fortunately the laundry is small. They cross it in moments, and then Sally is pulling open a door that leads outside.

“There’s the stables,” she says, pointing to a building perhaps two hundred feet distant. “We just have to cross that as fast as we can, all right?”

“And then deal with the hostlers,” Jean frets.

“You just worry about crossing the distance. Leave the hostlers to me.” There’s a glint in her eye. Jean reminds himself not to underestimate her.

He takes a deep breath. “Ready when you are.”

“Come on!”

Jean doesn’t run. He can’t, as it turns out. He tries. The best he can manage is a rapid limp. Sally stays with him, half-pulling half-carrying him. The whole time Jean is expecting to hear a shout. He’s expecting pounding footsteps behind him. He’s expecting someone to look out the window.

No one does. That may be why he’s not expecting to stumble to the finish line, through the door that Sally’s flung open, and stop dead so suddenly that he nearly loses his precarious balance and pitches to the ground at Joseph’s feet.

“What in God’s name?” Joseph cries out.

The stables are full of men and horses. Half of them are leading saddled horses out, presumably to mount up. The other half are in the process of rubbing down horses that have clearly just been unsaddled.

Joseph’s clothes are clean and unstained by travel. He’d been leaving. He’d been just about to get on his horse and leave, with what looks like most of the men at the house.

No wonder the manor had been so empty. Everyone had been here.

“Fuck,” Sally summarizes.

Joseph hands off his reins to one man and gestures to several more. They seize Sally and Jean’s arms, hauling them apart and holding them captive.

“You,” Joseph says to Jean. “I will deal with you shortly.”

In spite of himself, Jean shivers.

“As for you.” This is to Sally. Joseph reaches down and draws his pistol. “I thought you might be useful. You might have known something, or you might have been a bargaining chip. If nothing else another toy is always welcome. But you’re proven to be more trouble than you’re worth.”

Sally spits at his feet. “Me cago en tu puta madre,” she says, in crude soldier’s Spanish that even Jean understands.

Joseph snarls. He aims the pistol right at her face and pulls back the hammer.

Then there’s a shot. But it doesn’t come from Joseph’s gun.

Outside there’s a sudden eruption of noise. Men shout. Horses scream. More weapons fire. Jean’s heart speeds up in automatic response.

Sally’s lips stretch. Her smile has no mirth, but manages to distill more menace than all of Joseph’s threatening speeches put together.

“Company,” she says softly.

Chapter Text

There’s a brief moment where everyone freezes. That’s the opportunity. Jean’s been on the lookout for it, though he knows he’s in no physical shape to do anything with it. Watching for it is instinctive. Not all the instinct of an old soldier, either. The ability to spot the critical moment had been what had gotten Jean out of Troisville and away from Joseph in the first place.

It fails to achieve so much this second time. Jean wants to leap across the intervening distance and tackle Joseph. There’s a moment when it could be done. A moment when the two men holding Jean’s arms slacken their grips in shock. A moment when Joseph would be too frozen to shoot Sally before Jean can get to him. But Jean’s body fails to respond to his mind’s urgings. He manages only to tense before the moment passes.

And Joseph’s reaction is predictable, so predictable. He swings his pistol to Jean. Shouts to the rest of his men: “Get out there!”

The men not holding Jean and Sally drop everything – reins, saddles, currycombs – as they hurry to obey. Jean spares a brief moment to be glad that all of the horses here are well-trained. Some of the stall doors aren’t closed, and with the sudden explosion of motion and shouting, panic is a nontrivial possibility. But although several horses whicker in alarm, and a few hooves are stamped, none of them rear or bolt. No one is trampled.

That raises the possibility of what else these horses might regularly be used for. Jean sets that aside. His world has room in it for only a few concerns right now. The gun pointed at his face. The arms holding Jean in place. And the shouting and clashing of swords Jean can hear from outside.

He can tell an unbalanced battle when he hears one. Shouts of defiance turn very quickly into shouts of dismay. There’s no sound of organized defense. Joseph’s men had rushed out haphazardly, at Joseph’s command, into a battle already underway. They’d had no chance to dig in or form up. And they don’t strike Jean as independent thinkers. If set upon by a disciplined troop, they’d make a poor showing, by Jean’s estimation.

It takes only a few minutes for silence to reign outside. Then the door to the stables open.

Richelieu isn’t the first one in. Of course he’s not. He couldn’t be. His men wouldn’t let him do something so foolish. It’s Boisrenard who enters first, followed by Bernajoux. Jean imagines Jussac is holding Richelieu back. He doesn’t care if it’s true or not. It comforts him to think it, so he does.

The Red Guards have their own weapons out, which they promptly point at Joseph. “Drop your weapons and surrender,” Bernajoux says.

Joseph laughs. “Why should I?”

“Your men have been defeated. You’re outnumbered and outgunned.”

“Numbers aren’t everything. Not once you weight the scale.” Joseph’s smile is empty and haunting. His free hand rolls ironically, indicating the pistol pointed at Jean’s face.

“You kill him and you’re dead.”

“I lower my weapon and I’m dead, too.” Joseph sniffs. “This is a waste of time. You didn’t come here alone. Send Richelieu in, and we’ll talk.”

The two Guards look at each other, communicating without words. Joseph snarls, impatient at delay. He always had been impatient. Never willing to wait; always grasping and demanding what he thought of as his.

“Send him in, I said,” Joseph snaps. He doesn’t do anything so foolish as gesture with the barrel of the gun pointed at Jean’s face, but everyone’s attention is on it nevertheless. “Or does he value the slut so little?”

“I believe I told you what would happen if you ever used that term again,” Richelieu says sternly, stepping into the stable.

Jean wants to look at Armand. He wants to turn away from Joseph and fling himself into Armand’s arms. He wants to distract Armand with a kiss, slide Armand’s pistol from his belt and shoot Joseph, right dead center of mass, where he’ll drop like a stuck pig. Then Jean wants to grab Armand’s sword and finish the job.

Joseph still has a weapon held on Jean. Jean stares down the barrel of the pistol and does not move.

“Lay down your weapon and surrender,” Richelieu says, wonderfully calm.

“Or what?” Joseph doesn’t sound calm; he sounds wild, but underneath it all there’s still a thread of cunning woven through the madness that Jean fears most of all. “You’ll kill me? Two can play that game. I’ll kill your beloved sub.” The sugared disgust with which Joseph pronounces the words beloved sub makes Jean shiver.

“For someone who had once claimed to care for Jean excessively, you show remarkably little concern for his life now,” Richelieu says.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” Joseph spits. “He brainwashed you, didn’t he? Look at what he’s got you doing. Permitting. Military service? Advice to the King? Good Lord, you let him run around in fine clothing and talk back to his betters. You need putting back in your place as much as he does.”

Richelieu doesn’t rise to this transparent bait. “This discussion, while fascinating, is utterly beside the point. Lower your weapon and I will offer you consideration in return.”

“Will you?” Joseph doesn’t take his gaze from Jean – doesn’t relax his trigger finger one iota – but a wondering note enters his voice. “Do you have him that whipped, Jean? Did you twist him up so thoroughly that he actually thinks that you’re worth something? One sub’s just like another. You’re all toys. Just a way to keep score.”

“Then why did you want me?” Jean whispers. “Why did you come all the way back from Spain for me? Surely there were subs in Spain, surely – ”

“You tried to defy your betters,” Joseph says, as if it’s that simple. “You had to be taught a lesson. Can’t let that thinking spread. When one cow shows signs of disease, you kill it. Save the rest of the herd.”

“Lower your weapon,” Richelieu repeats, “and I will leave the decision of your fate in Jean’s hands.”

That gets Joseph’s attention in a big way. “Have you utterly lost your mind?” Then his face morphs into a sneer. “Or is it just your dick?”

Richelieu makes some reply, but Jean doesn’t hear it. He’s thinking furiously. The immediacy of Armand’s offer catches him off guard, but Sally had warned him, in her own way, that this had been coming. Think seriously about it, she’d advised. Richelieu will flay Marchmont alive, if you asked him to.

Will he not do it, if I ask it of him? If I asked him not to torture them? To give up his pound of flesh? Would he do that for me?

Yes, Sally had said.

And suddenly Jean can see how they might all get out of this stalemate alive.

“Prison,” Jean blurts out.

“What?” Joseph looks as taken aback as it’s possible for him to look, holding a gun and supremely confident in his own Dominant superiority.

“Put Joseph in prison. Let him rot there. That’s what I want.” For the first time Jean looks away from Joseph. Makes himself look away. It’s hard. Joseph has a gun pointed at Jean’s face and no control whatsoever. But if Jean is going to sell this, he has to sell it to Armand as well as Joseph.

At a first glance Armand looks strong and serene, the very picture of the King’s First Minister, the strong Cardinal, completely in control and fearing nothing. Jean can see a little bit past the mask, now. Jean can see that Armand is tired. Worried. Furious, too. Furious with a barely contained violence seething below the surface like a roiling wave.

Armand indeed wants to flay Joseph alive. But Jean meets his gaze, makes his own open and pleading, and does not disdain to let his vulnerability shine through.

“Please,” Jean adds. Begs.

It takes a moment. The struggle is visible on Armand’s face, at least to Jean. But at last Armand nods.

“If that is your wish,” he says, regret so thick that surely Joseph must hear it, “I will honor it.”

“Put down the weapon,” Jean says, returning his gaze to Joseph. “Prison’s no picnic, but it’s better than death.”

“And considerably longer-lasting,” Bernajoux mutters.

“Prison’s no fit punishment!” Boisrenard cries. “He’ll just break out! Or have Rochefort buy him out!”

“I have more faith than that,” Jean says quietly. “Joseph. Please. You meant something to me once. Put the gun down.”

Joseph stares at him. He stares at Richelieu. “You will really agree to this?” he demands of the Cardinal.

“I will really agree to this,” Richelieu says. He sounds as if the words have to be dragged out of him, but their sincerity is unmistakable, and all the more so for being grudging.

Armand will really do this. For Jean. In that moment, Jean loves him more than he’d known possible.

If this backfires, if Jean dies here, at least he will have known this feeling.

Joseph laughs. It’s long and loud and mad. Then he uncocks the pistol and tosses it to the ground at Jean’s feet.

“You’re all fools,” Joseph says. “I will enjoy the next round, whenever it comes.”

“Seize him,” Richelieu says.

Bernajoux and Boisrenard do. The men holding Jean and Sally release their grip and suffer themselves to be disarmed by the other Red Guards, who march them out of the stable, where they will presumably rejoin their fallen brethren under Jussac’s watchful eye.

Armand springs into motion the moment Joseph is restrained, coming to Jean’s side as immediately as if the distance between them doesn’t exist. He reaches for Jean, and Jean has to catch Armand’s hands and hold them still, because they’re not done yet.

“Give me your sword,” Jean says.

Armand blinks. “Why?”

“Because I feel naked without it.”

Armand’s expression twists through a complicated range. Jean picks out surprise, guilt, anger. Jean’s nudity is still literal as well as emotional, and that slides right past Armand’s usual calculating defenses to cause him to immediately draw his sword and present it to Jean, hilt-first.

“Thank you,” Jean says. He takes it. Then he turns back to Joseph and runs him through with it.

Joseph chokes. He clutches instinctively at the sword, though given that he’s being held by two Guardsmen, he can’t quite manage it. His knees buckle.

“But – ” Joseph gabbles.

“You meant something to me once,” Jean says quietly. “You promised to love and cherish me. You lied.”

“I didn’t owe you anything,” Joseph says furiously. “You were meant to – ”

“I know very well what I am meant for.” Jean doesn’t let his voice grow any louder. “You lied to me twenty years ago, when you made those promises. I lied to you just now. A lie for a lie: our debts are repaid.”

“Yes,” Bernajoux breathes, watching as Joseph’s shirt darkens with blood.

Jean turns his head. “Sally, when we were crossing the courtyard, did you happen to notice if there were birds?”

She shakes her head. “I was focusing on getting across the open ground.”

“I saw birds,” Boisrenard volunteers. He, like Bernajoux, looks fiercely satisfied by the condition of his prisoner.

Jean nods. “Then take Joseph outside and stake him out.” Jean turns back to Armand. “I believe you said something once about letting the birds feast on his entrails.”

Armand’s expression is something Jean can’t quite read. Satisfaction is part of it. So is regret. “If that’s what you want,” he says, and somehow still sounds sorrowful.

“It is.”

Armand nods. Bernajoux and Boisrenard take that as concurrence and drag Joseph outside.

“Someone in this group must have had the sense to bring a spare cloak,” Sally says. “I’ll go find out who it is and get it for you, Jean.” She leans down and scoops something up: the twine-wrapped parcel of letters that Jean had gathered, perhaps fifteen minutes and a lifetime ago. Then she suits action to words and leaves, shooing the other Guards along with her, so that when she closes the door to the stables behind her Armand and Jean stand alone.

“I thought you wanted Joseph dead,” Jean says to that sorrowful visage in bewilderment. “I thought you wanted it to be painful.”

“I did,” Armand says heavily. “I thought you didn’t.”

“I did,” Jean says. “I always did.”

“Oh, Jean.”

Armand reaches out again, hesitant and questioning. This time Jean acquiesces to the silent request. Lets himself be wrapped up in his Dominant arms. Lays his head on Armand’s shoulder, and lets himself crumple slightly.

“I used to dream about it,” Jean whispers into Armand’s cloak. “Not right at first. At first I was too scared. But later, after the measles. It was too easy of a death for Joseph. When I had to live on, and pretend to be someone I wasn’t, and be so scared all the time… I used to have nightmares of being found out. I thought that it would be the end of everything. Joseph made me think that all Doms were like him. That if I were ever found out, I’d be sold off at auction like a cow, and spend the rest of my life in bondage.”

Armand’s arms tighten around Jean, perhaps instinctively. A moment later Armand loosens his grip, as if realizing, belatedly, that this might be something Jean fears. Jean brings his own arms up and holds Armand’s in place. Keeps himself held. Secure. Protected.

“When I got too panicked to sleep, that’s when I’d imagine it. All of the ways I’d hurt Joseph, if I could go back in time and find him before he’d died. I’d do everything to him that he’d done to me. Everything that he’d planned to do to me after we were bound. I’d overheard him, you see.” Jean’s never told this part to anyone else. “One day when I came home early from the village, I heard Joseph talking to my brother. Laying plans. For after Joseph had his collar around my neck and I hadn’t even the small bit of freedom I’d managed to hold on to up until then.”

“Say the word and I will make his death last weeks,” Armand swears darkly.

“No.” Jean turns his head to press his cheek into Armand’s shoulder, craving the pressure and the burn. “His death is mine. And I’ve allocated it.”

“As you wish.”

“I want to go home now.”

Jean can feel Armand nod, chin brushing the top of Jean’s head. “You mean…?” The hesitance is audible in Armand’s voice. It sounds wrong there. Armand is never unsure.

“I mean home. Our home.”

Armand drops his arms from around Jean, and for a moment Jean feels the full force of the cool air highlight his sudden isolation. Then Armand’s hands are framing Jean’s face, and Armand’s lips are on his lips, and Jean is warm from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.

Outside Joseph has been tied to four stakes, hastily driven into the ground. They’re on the same patch of earth that Jean had hobbled across so painfully. Had it only been minutes ago?

Joseph is turned towards the sun. The wound in his gut has been widened, entrails spilling out across the lush grass. None of the wheeling birds have been tempted yet. Deterred, probably, by the presence of other humans. Jean knows it’s just a matter of time.

Part of him wants to stay and watch. It’s a small part. He has better things to be doing with his time.

There are other bodies on the ground, already dead. Only a few. The Red Guards aren’t the kind of incompetent soldiers who have to kill an opponent to make sure they stay down. Better than a dozen men are bound and seated on the ground, none too far from their former master, whose fate appears to be serving as an illustrative lesson in the wisdom of compliance. A handful of Red Guards are holding weapons on the prisoners under Jussac’s direction. Their horses are being led back into the stables now that Jean and Armand have emerged from it.

Jussac’s staying behind, then. Securing the manor and taking possession of the place. Probably waiting to see who or what else arrives. Making sure the place can’t be used against Richelieu again. Milady will want to go through it, too. And when all of that’s been said and done – the estate will need a new master. The Richelieu holdings will have increased again. Spoils of war.

Joseph is watching Jean as Jean takes all of this in. Jean looks at Joseph for a moment. Then he turns away. Joseph doesn’t matter anymore.

“Home,” he repeats to Armand.

The sun has climbed higher in the sky since Jean and Sally had made their desperate half-run to the stables, though it can’t have been that long ago, not really. It’s still not quite high enough for warmth. In the stables, with the shelter and the body heat from so many horses, Jean hadn’t cared for his nudity except as a tool to be used to gain his end. Now the wind blows through the trees, and he shivers.

A warm weight settles over his shoulders. Jean clutches it automatically and turns towards Armand. Armand smiles at him, though it’s a fragile thing, and tugs the cloak around so its folds overlap in front, covering Jean fully.

Bernajoux comes over with Armand’s black stallion and another horse whose saddle bears an unfamiliar crest. One of Joseph’s men’s horses, probably. Which makes it Joseph’s horse. Jean shakes his head at it.

“I will take nothing of Joseph’s with me from this place,” he tells Bernajoux. Then, to Armand: “I will ride with you.”

“Yes,” Armand agrees quickly.

Sally is already mounted. She smiles when she sees Jean in Armand’s cloak, and says something to Bernajoux that Jean doesn’t even bother to try to catch.

Armand mounts, then Jean mounts up behind him. It takes a helping hand from Armand as well as a boost from Boisrenard, who’s still on the ground. Jean refuses to be embarrassed. He’s not that far removed from an extended period of time in extreme bondage. The most limber youth would need help mounting after that. Still, he feels better when he’s properly settled on the horse. He slides his arms around Armand’s waist and sighs contentedly. With Armand’s cloak behind and Armand’s back before, Jean is quite warm.

“Let’s go home,” he says to Armand a third time.

Boisrenard and the other unmounted Guards mount up. At Armand’s wave, the column glides into motion.

Jean thinks he hears Joseph screaming something as they ride away. But it may just be birdsong.

Jean dozes for a while, there on Armand’s horse. Strider, the horse is named, isn’t it? An appropriate name. He has a smooth even gait that manages to lull Jean amazingly, even given that Jean’s forcing his abused muscles to perform the heavy labor of riding.

Dozing is probably dangerous, but it doesn’t feel that way. Not when Jean’s arms are around Armand’s waist and his head may rest against the firm planes of Armand’s back. What harm may come to him there?

There’s a brief pause halfway back to Paris. Jean collects that Armand had ridden out in some haste, and now that the danger’s past and their needs aren’t pressing, many of the Guards would appreciate breakfast and the chance to relieve themselves. Jean finds that he appreciates those things, too. He eats bread and cheese on a small moss-covered rock and drinks warm water from a skin that had been out in the sun for hours. It’s a feast. Jean turns his face towards the sun and smiles.

Back on Strider afterward, though, Jean’s aches have intensified to the point where he can’t lapse back into his former peaceful doze. He needs to stretch. Carefully, deliberately – there are special stretches for use after extended bondage, just as there are special stretches for strained shoulders and wrenched backs and sprained knees and all the other myriad aches a sub and a soldier might endure. Jean hasn’t practiced this particular set in years, but he knows them. Others in Armand’s household will know them too. Will be able to spot him. Sally, certainly. Jean is beginning to believe that Sally knows everything that is practical and useful.

Jean wants to be home. He’d wished it before, with the wistfulness of the impossible dream, when Joseph had bound Jean so tightly Jean had despaired of ever being free. He’d wanted it badly enough to taste it, after Sally had untied him. Badly enough to force his body to get up, to walk, to almost-not-quite run as they’d attempted their escape. He’d wanted it firmly enough to order Armand around in the aftermath. Armand had borne it, too. Joseph would have beaten Jean for that until his bones had broken. Armand had looked as if he had only wanted to know what else he might do for Jean.

Armand’s doing it. Right now, on Strider’s back, Jean longs for home so strongly that the yearning catches in his throat and makes it hard to swallow. He ducks his chin so that the fabric of Armand’s cloak rides up. Takes a breath and lets the familiar scent comfort him. Soon they will be home. Soon there will be hot baths and soothing liniments. Thick carpets and rich coverlets. Clean comfortable clothes and a pleasant weight around Jean’s neck –

Jean’s fingers come up to brush his empty neck. “Oh no,” he whispers, involuntary and wrenching.

“Jean?” Armand can’t turn to look at him, but he tilts his head, enough to let Jean know that he’s attentive. “What is it?”

Jean doesn’t want to tell him. Foolish, of course. Armand probably already knows. Jean had been standing there in the stables without a stitch of clothing on; Armand is observant. But it’s still hard to say out loud. Easier, at least, to say it to Armand’s back than to say it to his face.

“My collar. Your collar. Joseph, he – he must have taken it – it was gone when I woke up – ”

“Forget it.” The swiftness of Armand’s response tells Jean that Armand had already noticed. Already considered the matter and decided upon this response.

“I can’t.” The midday air, previously so still, suddenly seems to whistle down Jean’s neck. Now that he’s realized the loss, it’s suddenly pervasive. He feels naked despite Armand’s cloak. He feels abandoned and unprotected. Without Armand’s collar, what does he have to shield him from the world? His old armor, the lie about his dynamic, is gone. Destroyed by Rochefort and Joseph. Armand’s collar had been its replacement.

Jean has destroyed Joseph. Perhaps Richelieu will destroy Rochefort, now, too, with the proof that Jean hopes they will find. But that won’t change the world. The world will still be as it has always been. There will always be another Rochefort. Jean will always need Armand.

“I’ll have another one made,” Armand says.

“But it was your father’s,” Jean says blankly. Armand had entrusted Jean with that piece of his heritage, and Jean had failed to protect it. Why doesn’t Armand sound angrier?

“And you are mine. I’d rather have you than any strip of leather.” Armand shifts the reins to one hand, letting the other fall to rest on Jean’s knee where it nudges up against Armand’s hip. “He should have been buried with it on. I appreciated that my mother passed it down to me, but he looked wrong without it, at the burial… I will believe that it is with him now, where it should always have been. And for you I will have the finest collar in France made. Made to your specifications.”


“Any way you like,” Armand promises. “Thick or thin, wide or slender, leather or some other material. Anything.”

Warmth blooms through Jean. He can hear Armand’s sincerity. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he knows Armand’s sincerity. Armand regrets the loss of the collar. Jean does, too. It had been beautiful. It had been rich in history and symbolism. It had meant a lot to Armand. It had meant a lot to Jean, too, and not only as the visible symbol of the oppression he’d expected to find at Armand’s hand. Jean will miss it.

But he’d miss Armand more. He understands, therefore, why Armand says the same about Jean.

Armand says, “There is a new kind of collar I’ve seen that looks like a necklace. Very discreet. You could choose that, if you liked.”

“No,” Jean says. “I don’t want discreet. I want everyone to see that I’m yours.”

Armand’s hand squeezes tight for a moment on Jean’s knee. It relaxes a moment later, but it doesn’t move.

It’s still there, an hour later, when they finally arrive home.

Being home feels every bit as wonderful as Jean had hoped it would. Sally passes on the bundle of letters to Milady as soon as she gets off her horse, and then absolutely refuses to be seen to separately from Jean. Richelieu calls for the physicians and hovers until they arrive. He’s shooed out of the room at that point, for all his protests. Jean tells him to go.

“You still have work to do,” he says.

“But you’re injured,” Armand protests.

“Not badly,” Lemay says. Jean had been pleasantly surprised to discover Lemay is already at the Palais-Cardinal, tending to the coachman who’d been injured during Jean and Sally’s kidnapping. Lemay had claimed the right to tend to Jean, to the annoyance of Richelieu’s physician, who has to content herself with checking over Sally. Sally, at least, finds the whole thing amusing.

“And you have many things to do. Lemay will attend to my body. Armand, please. If you can find something to link Joseph to Rochefort…”

That’s the sticking point. Armand has told Jean of Rochefort’s delaying tactic at the Louvre, and how Rochefort had implied having knowledge of Joseph’s plan. But without proof that matters naught. Without proof, Rochefort will exclaim his dismay to the King, disavow Joseph entirely, and emerge from this unscathed.

But if there is proof – if Rochefort can be linked to Joseph, and the entire kidnapping scheme entire –

“Please,” Jean repeats. This isn’t something Jean can do for himself. He has no turn for politics or spycraft. This is a battle Armand is uniquely suited to fight, and Jean badly wants him to win it.

“I am to be called immediately if something changes,” Richelieu says to Lemay. “Immediately, do you understand? If you find you are mistaken about his condition, or if he needs anything – ”

“I understand,” Lemay says, sharing a covert look of amusement with Sally where Richelieu can’t see it.

“Richelieu?” Milady sticks her head in. “There’s something in this bundle you should see.”

“Yes, I’ll be right there,” Armand says. He’s looking at Jean, almost pleadingly. “Please take care of yourself. I’ll follow as soon as I can.”

“I know.” Jean offers Armand his most trusting smile.

“Richelieu!” Milady says again.

When Armand is gone, Jean finally lets himself slump. He hadn’t quite dared, before. He’d been too worried about how Armand might react.

“I’ll be all right?” Jean asks again.

“Fine,” both doctors say simultaneously. They resume glaring at each other.

Sally covers her mouth with her hand. Her eyes are smiling.

The doctors explain. Permanent damage is avoidable, but Jean must get into a hot bath as soon as possible, continue taking one daily for at least a week – Jean winces at that; the servants will absolutely hate filling up that bath-tub daily – stretch regularly, and refrain from anything too intensive or back-breaking in the meanwhile. The two physicians compete to add items to the forbidden list, the conclusion of which is apparently that Jean must remain in bed doing nothing but breathing and blinking until he is given leave otherwise.

“And certainly no restraints or bondage of any kind for the foreseeable future,” Lemay adds sternly. “I shall be advising the Cardinal of the same.”

Sally tries to turn a laugh into a cough and ends up making an odd choking noise.

That’s when the chambermaid comes in to tell Jean and Sally the bath is ready.

Jean soaks so long his toes shrivel, then sits before the fire wrapped in Armand’s dressing-gown while Sally shaves him and trims his hair. That part’s pleasant. Being run through stretches immediately after is less so. Jean distracts himself with thoughts of what is to come and gets through it tolerably well, though not without a foolish grin appearing on his face.

“All right,” Sally says when they’re finally done, and Jean is allowed to slump, panting, on the couch. “The doctors went overboard with the warnings and we both know it, but there are some limits you should observe.”

“I will,” Jean promises.

Sally holds up her fingers and begins ticking points off her fingers. “No restraints. No bondage. No held positions – ”

“Sally!” Jean yelps, heat flooding him. “I – ”

“No penetrative sex.”

The heat increases; Jean is sure he would be blushing, if he were capable of it. “But – ”

But Jean can still feel Joseph’s fingers there, Joseph’s awful ribbed plug stretching him open, and he wants to erase that. Wants to replace it with a new better memory, made in love with someone he trusts.

“You had some tearing,” Sally says sternly. “No penetration until that’s healed or you risk infection. Jean, you could die.”

“I know,” Jean sighs, subsiding. It’s not something to leave to chance. He just doesn’t know how long he can take the phantom sensation of Joseph’s touch without something to set against it.

“You can do it the other way around if you like, but you need to give yourself a break. Promise it.”

“I promise,” Jean says in resignation. “Armand won’t do it anyway.”

“The doctors will probably have talked to him about it,” Sally agrees.

“He wouldn’t anyway.” Jean hadn’t meant to sound so hurt. He tries to fix it, saying, “That is, he hadn’t – we hadn’t – before, so – ”

Now he just sounds petulant. He stops, before he makes a bigger fool of himself.

Sally studies him carefully. “It sounds like you and he should have a conversation about this,” she says at length.

“No helpful advice?” Jean tries not to sound bitter. It occurs to him, belatedly, that he’s probably still off-kilter from Joseph’s attack, and he’s taking things out on Sally that she doesn’t deserve.

“All of my advice is helpful,” Sally says calmly, which startles a laugh out of Jean and earns him a smile in return. “But there are some things that I can’t do for you, and one of those is opening communication. Richelieu can’t read your mind, Jean. You have to help him.”

Your Dom’s not a mind-reader. Jean sighs. “Yes. Thank you, Sally. I’ll retire now.”

His glance towards the connecting door must be more obvious than he means it to be. Sally shakes her head in warning.

“Just to sleep,” Jean promises. “I need to know he’s with me, Sally.”

She sighs. “He’s still in his office, half-buried in what we brought back from the estate.”

“I know. I’ll wait for him.”

Sally studies his face. Then she smiles. “All right.”

She goes about the room performing the usual bedtime tasks. Unnecessary candles are extinguished. Curtains drawn. The water-pitcher is checked, the old chamber-pot taken out and a new one put in its place. Sally attends to all these chores with her usual brisk efficiency. Unlike Jean, she’s hardly worse the wear for their day’s adventure.

Jean studies her as she moves about the room. In this comfortable setting, with her torn clothing replaced and everything correctly in its place, Sally looks the perfect image of a lifelong servant and subs’ companion. There’s not a hint of the fierce fighter with whom Jean had run for his life only this morning.

This morning, there hadn’t been a hint of the demure servant. Which is the real Sally? Are either of them real? She’d worked for Milady, before becoming a maid. Both the fighter and the domestic could be illusions. She could be something else entirely. Whatever she is, she’s dangerous to her enemies. The morning had proven that.

It had proven other things, too. Sally had saved Jean’s life. Refused to leave him. And before that she’d taken him under her wing. Given him good advice, when he’d first come to the Palais-Cardinal as Armand’s sub. Helped make the transition from the old life to the new more bearable, more possible, than Jean had ever thought it could be. And if Sally is more than a domestic, perhaps they can transcend the master/servant relationship.

Jean doesn’t have many friends from his old life. It would be nice if he could have more in this new one he finds himself making.

“There,” Sally says, lighting a candle for herself. “I’ll retire now, my lord. Good night.”

“Good night, Sally,” Jean says. “And thank you.”

He means for more than just the night chores. And Sally knows it. Jean needn’t be more explicit. That’s not how Sally works anyway. So he just smiles, and lets her understand him without words.

Sally smiles back. Then she withdraws.

Jean sits on the comfortable couch a moment longer. Thinking of the possibility of friendship. Thinking of all the many other possibilities his life now holds. Then he rouses himself and goes through the door into Armand’s chamber.

The room is already turned down. Armand’s valet must have attended to that, at some point, and quietly enough that Jean hadn’t heard it from his own chambers. Jean climbs into the tall four-poster bed and slips between the rich sheets with a sigh. Armand will join him, and hopefully sooner rather than later. But even so Jean is content just to be here. Here in this palace that is rapidly becoming a home, waiting for a collar-mate who is rapidly becoming a lover, surrounded by comforts that Jean is beginning to think he can deserve.

When Armand comes there may be talking. There may be kissing. There will surely be comfort. That, Jean knows for certain.

Jean makes sure there is a candle left burning for Armand, by the door where it will light his Dom’s path to him, before he blows out the one on the night-stand.

Chapter Text

It must be well past midnight by the time Jean is awoken by the dip of the bed to his left and the brief wash of cold air that comes from Armand lifting the covers. Jean doesn’t awaken fully. He knows in some dim part of his mind that there’s no danger or urgency here. But he does want to see Armand, and he blinks his eyes open long enough to be kissed. That’s nice. That’s very nice.

Armand could wake Jean up more, if he chooses. For an indefinable space of time Jean hovers between sleeping and waking, waiting for Armand’s decision. It comes as Armand settles himself against the pillows and smooths a careful hand down Jean’s side.

“Sleep,” Armand murmurs into Jean’s ear, sounding halfway there himself already. Jean nestles closer and follows him willingly.

The next morning Armand awakens Jean with more kisses: to his lips, his cheeks, his chin, his ears. He goes lower, brushing his lips against shoulders and clavicle. That’s as far as Armand travels, though. Jean wiggles slightly, trying to communicate that he’d be fine with this progressing even farther, but Armand comes back up and kisses Jean’s lips instead until he’s breathless and wanting.

“Good morning,” Armand murmurs when they finally part for air.

“It will be if you keep going,” Jean says, half pleading and half demanding.

Armand shakes his head. “The doctors both said – ”

“You know they’re overreacting.”

“Still. And Jean – ” a finger to Jean’s lips, when Jean tries to press the issue regardless. “There’s something else. I didn’t want to tell you last night, you needed your rest, but – ”

“Is it Joseph?” Jean sits up quickly, nearly head-butting Armand in the process. This sets off another wave of fussing, and it doesn’t take long for Jean to become convinced that Armand is piling pillows around Jean at least as much as a delaying tactic as it is out of genuine solicitude. “Is it Rochefort?”

“It is both,” Armand says at last. He sits loosely before Jean, where Jean leans against the headboard. He reaches out and gathers Jean’s hands in his. “We have not found proof that Rochefort had been involved in your kidnapping – but Jean – we found something else. Something that links Marchmont and Rochefort together, and to Spain.”

“That’s wonderful news,” Jean says in relief. “The way you were talking, I was afraid – what was it? What links them?”

“Their birth records.”

“What?” Jean shakes his head, trying and failing to understand. “What are you talking about?”

“I told you before that Rochefort was not born to the title he holds,” Armand says.

“Yes, you said an elderly Comtesse made him her heir. After he escaped from Spain.”

“An escape which was not an escape, as you recall.”

“Rochefort had been abandoned there by Concini.”

“So Concini thought. So I thought. I thought that Rochefort had converted to the Spanish cause after being abandoned and tortured. That is not true. Rochefort was always Spain’s man. His supposed abandonment by Concini was in actuality an escape plan that Rochefort had put in place, in the event that Concini ever started to become suspicious of him.”

“And Concini had,” Jean says slowly.

“He had. And so Rochefort activated his escape plan. Put the idea into Concini’s head that it was time to abandon him. Which let Rochefort return to Spain until the political situation had changed enough in France for Rochefort to make another attempt to climb in French politics.”

“All right,” Jean says even more slowly. “I still don’t quite see. Are you telling me Rochefort is therefore a Spaniard?”

“Rochefort was born a Frenchman, that much is still true. He relocated to Spain at a very young age and grew up there.”

“And he met Joseph there.” Understanding is coming to Jean now. “When Joseph went there to recover from the measles. That’s when they met. Not later on, as adult spies, but as boys or young men in Spain.”

“They met before that,” Armand says grimly. “They didn’t meet in Spain. They went to Spain together. Jean, I got the parish records from Troisville late last night. Rochefort was christened George. George Marchmont.”

Everything slows. Stops. Jean’s last exhale still hangs in his ears. As do Armand’s words.

George Marchmont.

Now that Jean thinks about it, now that Jean casts his mind back, yes, there had been a younger Dom. Much younger. He’d barely been breeched when Joseph and Jean had been contracted to each other. But he’d been made much of, hadn’t he, the first Dom to be born to the family since Joseph, after four disappointing submissive children. The Marchmonts had never made any secret of their preference for Dominant children. Nor of the difference in treatment between the dynamics. Joseph’s submissive siblings had been kept largely cloistered; Jean can’t even recall their names. But the new young Dom had been frequently to be seen. There had been talk of Joseph’s taking him to court, after he and Jean had been bound, after Joseph had attained the prestigious court placement that Jean had been supposed to win him.

The boy had been named George.

“The letters,” Jean whispers. It’s the only thing he can say that doesn’t end in shouting or weeping. “The letters I stole from Joseph’s estate. They were personal. They were all personal.”

“Yes. They could tell us nothing about the kidnapping plot or the Marchmonts’ ties to Spain. But they told us everything – or to be more accurate, they told us enough – about Joseph and George’s familial relationship.”

“It wasn’t strong.” Jean blinks rapidly, forcing his vision back into focus. “Joseph viewed George as, as competition. Until George was born Joseph was the only Dom. Six children and Joseph the only Dom. He was everything. He was the center of their world.”

“I can well imagine,” Armand says quietly.

Jean tries to remember more. There must be something more. Some quirk of personality, of preference, even of appearance, by which Jean might connect the long-ago little-known boy with the Comte de Rochefort. He fails. All Jean can pull from his memory is the fuzzy recollection of a youth who’d spent more time running after his brother than Joseph had ever given back to him.

“It explains why Rochefort let Joseph kidnap me,” Jean says.


“Joseph resented his importance being halved. Their father expected Joseph to take George under his wing, teach George everything Joseph senior had taught my – had taught Joseph junior. Senior didn’t have time for that anymore; their business was booming, he was busy. Joseph didn’t want to do it. George spent all of his time running after Joseph. Trying to get his approval.”

“And so, all of these years later, George finally saw an opportunity to get what he’d always wanted,” Armand muses.

“In some ways none of us ever really left Troisville,” Jean says quietly. He doesn’t know he’s going to say it until he says it; doesn’t know how true the words are until they’ve left his tongue. “We are all still playing our old roles. Defined by who we were then. Joseph trying to fulfill the old contract and demand a place at court. George trying to get his brother’s approval.”

“And you?” Armand asks.

Jean laughs, not entirely happily. “I’ve been defining myself by my relationship with Joseph for twenty years.”

“By his abuse,” Armand corrects sharply. “That was not a relationship.”

“No.” Jean quiets. “But I thought it was. I thought it was – ” normal, he doesn’t finish. The spasm of Armand’s hands tightening around Jean’s tells Jean Armand had heard it anyway.

“For the role I have played in that all my life, I am truly sorry,” Armand says, equally quiet.

“I know.” Jean takes a moment to confront that astonishing thing. Richelieu’s regret is sincere. That alone is a marvel.

Jean’s next action, to tug one hand free and raise it to Armand’s face, to lean forward and initiate their press of lips of his own free will, is even more astonishing.

He kisses slowly, lightly, sweetly but without passion. Armand responds in kind. Jean feels the first stirrings of arousal, quickly dampened by the whirling emotions still present within him.

Rochefort is Joseph’s brother. Rochefort, who has worked against Jean for years, Jean and all the other loyal children of France. Who has hounded Jean’s Musketeers. Smuggled information to their enemies. Murdered members of the King’s council. Who had attempted to destroy Jean by revealing Jean’s dynamic, and then, when that had failed, had written to Spain and brought Jean’s oldest nightmare back to finish the job.

Jean breaks the kiss. Asks, “Can you prove it?”


“Will it matter?” Kidnapping is enough to have Joseph arrested, imprisoned, exiled or executed – if Jean hadn’t taken care of that in his own self-defense – but whether that crime will transfer to Rochefort is a different question.

“The question is murky,” Armand says regretfully. “Legally, the best approach would be to sue Rochefort – not for kidnapping outright, but for damages accruing therefrom, which the law permits to be collected against surviving family members. But I think the same approach taken by the brothers Marchmont over the matter of your old betrothal contract is superior.”

“Appeal to Louis.”

“The King’s word is higher than any law. I believe that the King will have an emotional response to learning what Marchmont did, and will be quite willing to punish Rochefort for Marchmont’s crimes.”

“I agree with you.” Jean nods, slowly. “I don’t want a long court case if we can avoid it.”

“I thought you might not. Forgive the liberty, but I’ve already arranged for an audience with the King, to raise this matter.”

“Today?” Jean asks superfluously. Of course today.

Armand’s nod confirms it. “I thought you would want the matter settled as soon as possible.”

He’s certainly right about that.

There’s a quiet knock from one of the doors surrounding Armand’s chambers. From its position by the wardrobe, Jean guesses it to be the room that houses Armand’s valet. That’s where Sally’s door would be, anyway, in the mirror image that are Jean’s chambers. The valet is probably checking to see if his master is awake and wishes to begin the morning’s ablutions.

“I’ll go dress, and leave you to do the same,” Jean says. He lets his half-formed hopes for a quiet morning go. Armand is right: Jean wants this matter settled as soon as possible.

And as much as he wants to be near Armand, he wants space, too. Space to think. Space to come to terms with this new revelation.

Rochefort. George. Joseph’s brother.

Jean’s past that had never really left him. Closer than he’d realized, this entire time.

“Join me for breakfast?” Armand asks, watching as Jean slides out of bed and picks up his discarded dressing-gown.

“Of course.” Jean looks up from his consideration of the fabric and smiles. He’s already settling his armor back into place. One more fight. Somehow there’s always one more fight. “I’ll see you shortly.”

Armand has crumbled two rolls to pieces and is partway through doing the same to a third when the door to the small breakfast-parlor finally opens to admit Jean. That it is Jean and not Sally or Cahusac or Milady or any of the many other comers and goers is something Armand is quick to ascertain. There have been several false alarms in the past two-and-a-half rolls. Enough that Armand had started to wonder if he’d been wrong to let Jean out of his sight after sharing the knowledge of Rochefort’s fraternal ties. Jean had promised that he’d join Armand, but given that the last time Jean had promised something in relation to a Marchmont it had been a deliberately calculated lie...

But here’s Jean now. And Armand should probably give Jean his space, but he can’t quite resist rising in relief as Jean enters the room. Jean greets this with a somewhat strained smile that forcibly reminds Armand of how little Jean likes proprieties. Armand seats himself again, somewhat sheepishly, and lets Sally see Jean to his chair.

“Good morning,” Armand says, the only thing he can think of to say that isn’t laden with tangled issues he’s not sure Jean is yet ready to discuss.

“You said that earlier,” Jean says back with a half-hint of a smile.

“True.” Armand hesitates, then asks, “Are you well?”

“Well enough.” Jean had covered a wince when he’d sat down, and when he reaches for food he does so carefully. Armand has to fight back the urge to assist him. It doesn’t help that the image of Jean accepting food directly from Armand’s fingers appears in Armand’s mind’s eye like a sudden lightning bolt. Armand clears his throat and makes himself nod.

“When is the audience with the King?” Jean asks.

“Just after luncheon.”

“That will give me time to attend to pressing matters this morning,” Jean remarks. He doesn’t see fit to expand, however, which worries Armand.

Actually, everything worries Armand. He supposes it’s only to be expected. It’s barely been thirty-six hours since Jean had been kidnapped. Twenty-four since Armand had gathered his troops and ridden out after Jean, praying in his innermost heart that the end of his journey would be rescue of the living and not vengeance for the dead.

That prayer had been answered, and beyond Armand’s wildest dreams.

The memory of Jean facing down his abuser is still clearly visible in Armand’s mind’s eye. Armand knows now that Jean had been aching and stiff and barely able to move; Armand knows now that Jean had been only recently removed from hours in a harsh bondage that had been meant to destroy his body and mind. But what Armand remembers is how strong Jean had been in that moment. How proud and resolute. How Jean had used his own physical weakness as a weapon against Joseph Marchmont, winning both his life and his longed-for vengeance.

When Jean had gutted Joseph and ordered him left for the birds, Armand had been worried then, too. The public figure Richelieu had knows as the Captain of the Musketeers had not been given to such things. Rigorous integrity had been a key element of Treville’s character. Armand had been afraid of Jean doing something out of anger that he would come to regret.

Jean had dispelled that idea thoroughly. Armand had already glimpsed how more lay behind that bluff, honest façade. Vulnerability and longing, defiant ambition and sweet submission. To that Armand may now add knowledge of a sense of justice as ruthless as it is inflexibly fair.

If Armand is being honest with himself – a practice he usually attempts to cultivate – he must also admit that the sight of Jean reclaiming his past through blood had been extremely satisfying. He wants to do the same. Jean has opened Armand’s eyes to many of his errors with regards to how submissives are treated, but in some ways Armand will ever be a traditionalist. Jean has agreed to be his, and that means his to protect as well as his to love and cherish.

Joseph’s fate had belonged to Jean. Jean had staked his claim, and Armand has to agree that it is Jean’s by right. But Rochefort’s – Rochefort’s must be Armand’s. Rochefort has spent the last three years working to destroy everything Armand cares about, and the fact that his most recent target has been Jean instead of France in no way breaks that trend.

“Jean,” Armand says carefully, with this in mind. “Do any of these pressing matters concern the Marchmont brothers?”

“Hmm? Oh. No. Well, not beyond the fact that they’ve delayed me from attending to them. Musketeers’ business. That siege isn’t going to run itself.”

“Ah,” Armand says. He considers this carefully, while Jean begins to devour eggs and steak in his usual unconcerned way.

Everything is perfectly normal. That’s what has Armand so uneasy.

The sense of unease doesn’t lift as the morning fades to afternoon, but without more traction there is little Armand can do. He could seek Jean out and press him. That’s an action he’s unwilling to take. Jean has just been through a great ordeal; pressing him seems wrong, even if Armand can’t identify a corresponding action that would be right.

It’s not that Armand wants Jean to weep or wail or lie comatose in bed and refuse to eat. It’s just that Armand would know what to do in that situation. This Jean, who smiles insouciantly at Armand after breakfast and heads off to wrangle logistics for his overgrown troop of undisciplined scoundrels, is almost unrecognizable. He’s not the reserved, standoffish, often fractious soldier who’d made a career of clashing with Armand over trivialities. That man would never brush a kiss across Armand’s lips as they rise from the breakfast-table. Nor would that Captain ask if he could borrow a few Red Guards to talk shop with, and walk off cheerfully discussing siege rations with a bemused Cahusac, who – like Richelieu – is used to a world where Red Guards and Musketeers stab each other on sight, not trade tips on stretching a limited siege budget that had not taken the costs of transportation into account.

But neither is Jean the prickly, lonely, stubborn, sweet submissive who’s wormed his way so effectively into Armand’s life and heart that Armand cannot imagine either without him. Jean may kiss Armand and make himself free of Armand’s dominion , but there’s no depth to it. No warmth. No affection. Jean’s kisses, his smiles and light words, are no more than skin deep. Looked at sideways, one can see the emptiness behind them.

Armand can’t tell what Jean is thinking. Nor what Jean is planning. Armand admits to himself, finally, after passing a fruitless morning trying and failing to attend to other matters, that he doesn’t like that.

After a light luncheon, which Armand eats at his desk – Jean, apparently, had eaten earlier, and without telling Armand – Richelieu retires to his chambers to don the more formal dress that befit a court appearance. He can hear the murmur of voices from the next chamber over telling him that Jean is doing the same. He can’t make them out, though. Armand tells himself sternly that he wouldn’t make them out even if he could – that he respects his sub’s privacy more than that – and tries to ignore the persistent relief that he doesn’t have to actually put that to the test.

Armand also ignores the desire to knock on the door between their rooms, or time his departure to coincide with Jean’s. This, at least, he succeeds at. They meet next just outside the Palais-Cardinal as the carriage is being driven around. Jean is impeccably dressed. Armand can’t help but notice that he’s chosen a tunic in a burgundy shade, not quite red but most certainly not blue. Someone – probably Sally – has tied a matching choker around Jean’s neck in lieu of a proper collar.

A new one must be commissioned as soon as possible. Not today. Today there are other matters.

The carriage door closes on them. Armand clears his throat once, twice, and then a third time for good measure. Words, usually his friends, fail him. He sighs.

Jean quirks a smile. “What are you thinking about so hard over there?”

“You,” Armand admits.

“I thought that might be it.” Jean sighs. “I’m fine.”

“May I rely upon that, Jean?” There’s no avoiding the fundamental plea contained in that question. Armand doesn’t even try. If Jean wishes for distance to work through his past, then Armand will honor that, but Armand must know – must believe – that that is best. That there isn’t something Armand could be doing to help Jean, and isn’t.

“For the time being.” Jean’s half-smile fades. “It’s not over yet, you see.”

Armand lets a few moments pass while he tries to craft a response to this. “Do you believe Rochefort still holds the power to harm you?”

“We know about his connection to Joseph. No one else does. When we reveal it to the King, I believe that Rochefort’s power to threaten us will be at an end. But until then…”

“Nothing has changed.” Armand finds himself nodding. It’s very well put, and quite true. Whoever had said knowledge is power had been drastically oversimplifying the case. There is a vital distinction to be made between kinds of knowledge. A secret has its own power. So does a broadsheet. Richelieu has no intention of blackmailing Rochefort. Rochefort won’t be blackmailed, for one thing. And for another, it would be pointless. The knowledge of the Marchmont brothers is worthless as a secret. It is only when it is published abroad that it acquires its power.


Armand tips his head in acknowledgement. Appreciates, silently, that Jean is sensitive to the distinctions herein. He may often claim that he has no turn for politics. But Jean has survived for twenty years in the court of Louis XIII. He’s kept his power and his position, even against the likes of Rochefort and – yes – at times, Richelieu.

Jean’s kept his secrets. Joseph had underestimated Jean. Joseph had been a fool.

George had underestimated Jean, too. Armand is looking forward to educating George on the folly of that choice. Unless –

“Do you wish to stake a claim to Rochefort?” Armand asks carefully.

Jean shakes his head. “Not that I don’t wish to. But Joseph was mine,” he says, unconsciously echoing Armand’s earlier thoughts. “Rochefort is yours. Do with him as you please.” The half-smile makes its reappearance. “After all. In a love match, people compromise.”

Armand smiles back. It feels warm and cold at the same time; warm for Jean, cold for Rochefort, and so very, very satisfying.

Jean goes back to looking out the window, watching the scenery pass by. Armand takes the opportunity to study Jean. It’s his new favorite pursuit. He doesn’t think he’ll ever tire of it.

It’s not over yet, Jean had said. Looked at that way, Jean’s behavior today becomes more easily understood. One does not lower one’s guard mid-battle if one wishes to survive. No matter how close the battle is to its end. The last soldier’s sword may kill you as surely as the first. Of course Jean is taking great pains to project an outward appearance of normalcy. Deliberate ignorance is his armor in a battle like this; propriety is his weapon. Armand has seen him act thus a thousand times before. The difference this time, the reason Armand hadn’t connected this to those thousand times, is that today Armand is too close to the illusion. Today he sees through the act.

“I love you,” Armand says, quite deliberately and with consideration aforethought.

Jean’s neck snaps around. His eyes fly up to meet Armand’s as if magnetized, and he draws his breath in, sudden and quick and shocked.

“You don’t have to – ” Jean’s breath catches. “I will be all right without that.”

“I will not be.” Armand wants to touch Jean. Wants to lean across the carriage and draw Jean to him. Hold him, kiss him, caress him. Even just put his hand on Jean’s knee, the way he had done in their last carriage-ride together, when everything had been just beginning.

He doesn’t. He’s learned better since that last time. Jean is too close to the edge as it is, riding the narrow ledge between outward implacability and inner need. The gently swaying carriage, mere moments from the Louvre and Rochefort, is a poor place to drop.

Later, though. Later Jean will need to be coaxed down. Petted and caressed and praised. Reassured. Loved. That, too, is different: for the first time Armand is close enough to the illusion to see what Jean truly needs, just beneath the surface.

And, seeing it, to be at peace. Armand is back on firm ground now. He knows what Jean needs; consequently he knows what he must do. And he has perfect confidence in his ability to do it.

They pull into the Louvre and the coachman opens the doors. Armand climbs down, then turns and holds out his hand to Jean.

Jean smiles down at him. It’s not his court smile, the practiced curve of lips that conceals everything and signals no genuine warmth. In the shadow cast by the coach where no one can see, Jean’s smile is crooked and wide and more than a little vulnerable. It’s also willing, and eager, and full of an emotion Armand’s finally learned to recognize.

“I love you too,” Jean says. He has to say it quietly, because there are people even here. But he says it clearly. Armand does not fail to hear it.

Then Jean puts his hand in Armand’s. Lets Armand help him down without the slightest hint of reluctance or unwillingness. That, too, is a declaration. Perhaps an even more powerful one. I trust you, too.

“When this is over – ” Armand murmurs.

“Yes,” Jean murmurs back. Fervently: “Yes please.”

Armand has to stifle a groan. Jean chuckles a little, effortlessly sensing the effect he’s having on Armand. Of course the chuckle only makes things worse. Armand clears his throat, wondering if it’s too late to –

It’s left to Cahusac to be the adult. “Your Eminences’ audience,” he rumbles pointedly.

“Right.” Jean lifts his hand suggestively; Armand hastily proffers his arm. Cahusac falls into step behind them.

They go in. One more fight, indeed.

Their audience is private. Jean, at least, is grateful for that. Armand seems displeased. He probably wants to make sure Rochefort’s fall from grace is as public as possible. Jean has no doubt Richelieu will contrive to have it spread about rapidly. For Jean’s part, he’d rather keep this final act private. There are some things that the public does not need to know.

The small receiving-room is too familiar to be noticed; Jean ignores it. His attention is all focused on the two men in the room. Louis looks interested, a good sign: he hasn’t fallen into one of his fits of ennui while neither Richelieu has been around to attend to him.

Rochefort is murmuring something at the King’s side, smiling, as charismatic as ever. Slimy and smooth, handsome and well-dressed, and how had Jean never noticed that this is Joseph’s brother? Their features are dissimilar. But now Jean can see that George’s mannerisms are pale copies of Joseph’s, perhaps drawn from sketches taken from afar, from the distance from which George had been permitted to view his bright shining Dominant sibling. George’s quips are reused, his wit worn. Even the way he rakes Jean from head to toe with his insolent gaze is suddenly familiar.

Jean meets Rochefort’s imposing gaze with a sudden, all-encompassing calm. Joseph is dead – Jussac had brought word this morning, along with Joseph’s head, for proof – and George will soon fall from grace, too.

George must see something in Jean’s face. His eyes widen, and for the first time in Jean’s memory his calm self-assurance slips.

“Good morning, your Majesty,” Richelieu says. He bows to the King. Jean kneels, and he makes sure George can see him doing it.

Little George Marchmont. All grown up and still such a child.

“I see you are as well as ever, Captain,” Rochefort blusters, trying to seize control of the conversation. “There were some wild rumors that you had been killed or kidnapped, but obviously – ”

“As a matter of fact I was kidnapped,” Jean says, cutting George off without bothering with the polite fiction of an apology.

“You don’t seem to be kidnapped,” Louis says in amusement.

Jean smiles. “Your Majesty surely doesn’t expect that anyone could hold onto me?”

“I’m only surprised they contrived to take you in the first place,” Louis declares.

“Trickery does still work sometimes.” Jean shrugs. “Of course, it only works once.”

Louis laughs. Rochefort, by contrast, scowls.

“If everything is well, what is meant by this audience?” he demands. “Are we to congratulate you on being good at your trade, Captain? To demand my presence specifically – ”

“I did not demand it,” Jean says with cool unconcern. “My Dom did.”

“Well, Richelieu?” Louis asks curiously. “What is it?”

Richelieu smiles. It bears a remarkable resemblance to the bristling of a shark. “I have come, your Majesty, as so many other have done before me – ” this with a calculated glance towards Rochefort – “to ask for justice.”

“Ahh. You have captured the kidnappers, I collect?”

“Alas, no.” Richelieu’s smile only widens. “My Jean rather took exception to being kidnapped.”

“What?” That is Rochefort, breaking into the conversation, a look of horror and – inexplicably – of disbelieving freedom painted on his face. “Do you say – the kidnappers – do you say they’re dead?”

“A few hirelings survived,” Richelieu says calmly. “But the vast majority are being taught their folly in Hell, rather than in his Majesty’s excellent prisons.”

Hell, Rochefort mouths soundlessly. And once again Jean sees that confusing mixture of emotions flash across Rochefort’s face.

“Then what can I do for you?” Louis shrugs. “Justice for the dead is rather more your purview than mine, Cardinal.”

“Damages,” Richelieu says, silky smooth.

Jean has his gaze on Rochefort, not even bothering to disguise the fact. Rochefort stiffens.

“Damages?” Louis blinks, interested now. “The ringleaders have surviving family members? You can identify them?”

“We can indeed, your Majesty.” Richelieu withdraws several pieces of paper from within his robes. The letters Jean had brought away from Joseph’s estate.

“Well, that’s your right, of course,” Louis says. “Though it’s really a matter for the courts…”

The King looks down at the letters. Stops talking. His eyes widen.

“What is your Majesty reading?” Rochefort demands.

Louis doesn’t answer. Jean wants to, but holds his tongue. He’d agreed. This is Armand’s moment.

And Armand takes it. “He is reading a letter from Joseph Marchmont, the perpetrator, to his beloved brother George.”

“George Marchmont, Comte de Rochefort,” Louis reads aloud in horror.

“A lie,” George says desperately. One hand is drifting towards his sword.

Jean sighs, loud and ostentatious. Then he unsheathes his own sword and stalks quite deliberately to the King’s side.

This attracts Louis’ attention, who frowns. “Is that necessary, Treville?”

Armand coughs.

“Perhaps not,” Jean says serenely, choosing to ignore Louis’ mistaken address. “But you know how flighty subs can be. Consider it… a whim.”

“This is outrageous,” Rochefort says. His voice is loud, but somehow there’s no force behind it. He looks as if he’s beaten already. “Your Majesty, I demand that you order Treville to put his sword away and – ”

“Richelieu,” Jean interrupts, once again without regret or apology. He raises his sword, making the threat obvious. His voice, too, he makes as cutting as he knows how. “My name is Richelieu.”

Rochefort sputters.

“And you will address me by it,” Jean finishes.

Rochefort sputters more, than elects to ignore this entirely, instead plowing onwards on his previous track. “To be threatened this way, on false, spurious accusations – ”

“What accusations?” Armand inquires. “I have made no accusations.”

“You come here accusing me of kidnapping!”

“Why, nothing of the sort, I assure you.” Armand looks as innocent as only he can. “I come here seeking damages, as the surviving sibling of Joseph Marchmont. Why? Are you confessing to a more direct involvement than blood?”

“Of course not – ”

“Now that you say it,” Armand pretends to think, “it does put me in mind – our conversation two nights gone, Comte, where you set out to detain me, just as my sub was being attacked – ”

“You’re delusional,” Rochefort tries. It’s weak. Even Jean knows it.

“And after all, as brothers – you and Joseph must have been very close – ”

George laughs. It’s the first sound Jean’s ever heard him make that isn’t smooth and calculated. It’s raw. Rough. Bitter and hysterical and so beyond horrified that the only reaction is humor.

“Close!” George cries, still laughing. “Close! Joseph never had the time of day for me, as Richelieu could tell you, if he chose!”

“As a matter of fact, he did tell me,” Armand says repressively.

“Then you know it all,” George says savagely. “Yes, I delayed you in our conversation yesterday. No, I didn’t know what for, but neither did I care. I just wanted – ”

George chokes himself off. He stands there, chest heaving, as little put-together as Jean has ever seen him. Out of control. Armand and Louis stare, shocked.

“You just wanted Joseph to love you,” Jean completes, when it becomes apparent that no one else will. He hears his own voice as if it comes from impossibly far away. Is that a note of gentleness in there? But then, how could it be otherwise? Jean had only spent a year with Joseph as a central figure in his life, and the scars Joseph had left behind are still echoing in Jean’s psyche decades later. What of George? Little George, who had loved his brother? Young George, fleeing to Spain, the rest of his family dead. Raised by the brother who had hated him. Who had nevertheless made use of him, shaping his whole life into a tool for Joseph’s advancement.

Forget Rochefort. Rochefort is artificial. Rochefort is Joseph’s creation. What about George?

Jean had fled Joseph. Little Georgie Marchmont had never had that chance.

Jean turns towards Armand, catches his Dom’s eye. Hopes that Armand can read in his face what Jean will never say out loud.

“You knew something was going to happen and you did nothing,” Louis is saying, outrage coloring his every tone. “You risked my Captain’s life! For the fraternal feeling of a psychopath! Give me one good reason - one - why I shouldn’t have you executed.”

George straightens. He looks the King right in the eye and says nothing. It’s obvious to Jean. Now that the game is up, now that it’s all out in the open, now that Joseph is dead, George no longer cares what happens to him.

Armand sighs. “Your Majesty,” he says, voice thick with regret. “I would like to request an alternative sentence.”

Louis gapes. “You would? You?” Petulant dismay crosses his face. “I thought you’d want me to have him drawn and quartered, Richelieu!”

“I thought I would want that too,” Armand replies. He hasn’t looked away from Jean. “But I have lately come to learn that there are other paths than the one I have always followed.”

“But,” Louis protests.

Jean steps in. “You can always execute him later, your Majesty,” he points out. “There’s no need to decide in haste. Surely it can do no harm to imprison him for the time being.”

Louis pouts.

“Please, your Majesty,” Richelieu says.

That gets the King’s attention. Louis gapes again. Even Rochefort looks shocked. The Cardinal does not often lower himself to plead.

Slowly Louis closes his mouth. He looks at Richelieu for a long while. Briefly he glances at Rochefort. Then he turns his gaze to Jean, who meets it steadily.

“As you wish,” Louis says at last, and less grudgingly than might have been expected.

The King claps his hands. Two of the royal guards ringing the room step forward and take Rochefort’s arms. Jean himself steps forward and relieves Rochefort of his sword.

“If I ever see you again,” Louis says to Rochefort, “it will be because you are being executed.”

Rochefort breathes in, sharp. Nods. Doesn’t speak.

“Take him to the Bastille,” Louis says to the guards.

They begin to lead him away. Richelieu steps past Rochefort without a second look. Goes to stand next to the King. “Your Majesty,” he begins.

Jean turns their conversation out. He follows behind the two guards and Rochefort, intending to at least see them out of the room.

“Wait,” George says. He doesn’t struggle, but he slows his steps as they approach the door.

“Yes, wait a moment,” Jean says, when the royal guards look to Jean for concurrence.

The guards stop. Jean and George look at each other.

“I won’t thank you for this,” George rasps.

“I know,” Jean says quietly. “I don’t want your thanks.”

“What do you want?”

Jean debates for a moment. Answers truthfully. “I want my life back.”

George’s smile is a bitter and broken thing. “At least you had one in the first place.”

Jean isn’t sure what to say to this. Finally he says, “I’ll pray for you.”

“Hah!” George’s laugh isn’t any better than his smile. “Get that Dom of yours to pray for me; that might do some good.”

“I will try.”

That surprises George. He studies Jean. Then glances back to the center of the receiving-room, where Armand and Louis still stand in quiet conversation.

“He must love you very much,” George says to Jean.

“He does,” Jean says simply. “And I love him.”

“I wonder what that’s like.”

Jean has no reply to that. After a few moments of waiting, George nods jerkily.

To the guards he says, “I’m ready.”

“Goodbye, George,” Jean says. He doesn’t resume walking. The guards will take Rochefort the rest of the way to the Bastille. Jean’s place is here.

George doesn’t answer. Nor does he look back.

The guards exit with their prisoner. The door closes behind George. Jean exhales, long and low, letting it all go.

Armand and Louis come to stand next to Jean.

“Thus ends the story of the Marchmont family,” Jean says.

Sic transit gloria mundi,” Armand murmurs.

“His titles and estates are yours,” Louis says to them both. “Do with them as you will.”

It’s on the tip of Jean’s tongue to say that he doesn’t want them. He doesn’t say it. Instead he takes his own advice: don’t decide in haste. He can always make Armand donate them to charity later.

“Thank you,” Jean says instead for them both.

“Go away,” Louis says. He’s already turning away, passing his hand over his brow and looking troubled. “I have to think about this. No, wait – do you know where the Queen is?”

“No, except to know that at this time of day she is usually with her ladies,” Richelieu says.

“I’ll find her. I need – yes.” Louis walks away, leaving through the private door that leads back to his chambers, too distracted to notice the Richelieus hastily bowing and kneeling at his back.

“This will not be easy for him,” Armand murmurs, staring at the closed door. “An execution would have been easier, I think. An ending. Permanency, a closing book. This – prison – it drags the thread out, dangling forever.”

“Something’s being easier doesn’t make it right.” Jean takes a deep breath of his own. “I hope you are not too angry with me, Armand. I know I said Rochefort was yours – but – ”

“But it turned out that the person in question was not Rochefort at all, but rather George Marchmont,” Armand completes.

“Yes.” Jean lets himself lean against Armand, his Dom a warm comforting presence at his side. There’s no one to see, and Jean thinks he wouldn’t care if there were. “Still. Thank you for yielding.”

“I agreed with you at the end,” Armand says. “It was the right thing to do.” He sighs, though, still looking somewhat disconsolate. Perhaps Louis will not be the only one troubled by the lack of a clean ending.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Jean promises. He means it. Indeed, he’s looking forward to it.

Armand looks down at him. Slowly he smiles.

“Then let us follow the King’s order,” he says, offering Jean his arm again, “and return home.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d like to do more,” Jean says, and means it.

Chapter Text

The new collar takes a week to decide on and another week to be made. To be fair, the first two days after Rochefort’s arrest becomes public knowledge are entirely taken up with dealing with the fallout. There are Musketeers to be talked to, letters to be written to La Rochelle, court functions to attend, delicate politicking to be done. And even after the work retreats to a manageable level, it still takes up time. The Cardinal and Duc de Richelieu are to be seen at nearly every major court function. Visibility is necessary. Jean understands that. He doesn’t like it any more than he’s ever liked politics, but at least he doesn’t hate it as much as he’d expected to, when he and Armand had first made their bargain.

Armand helps. Armand’s money helps more, much as Jean hates to admit it. Dress in rich fabrics, wear expensive jewels, have the right to a noble style, and the world will say no ill of you.

Unlike ordering a new collar, ordering a new wardrobe had been easy. Jean had simply asked Sally to recall Monsieur Lefavre and commission all the things his position means he should have, taking Jean’s taste into account as she does so. The result has been more than adequate. The formal court clothes are all patterned on the ensemble Jean had worn their first night. Modest enough to prevent Jean’s blushes, simple enough to be gotten in and out of without too much help, loose enough to allow easy movement. Free of most kinds of frippery. Flattering. And not too many in the color red.

The fine clothes provide their own kind of boost. When Jean looks at himself in the mirror, after Sally has dressed him and styled him and applied cosmetics with an expert hand, Jean sees someone who belongs at a certain kind of party. Someone who does not disgrace his position at Richelieu’s side. Jean has gone into each of these formal rooms armored with that knowledge, and he flatters himself that he hasn’t said or done anything Armand will find it too difficult to reverse.

But the collar is still missing, and the red ribbon will only provide an acceptable substitute for so long. Only the wealthy and noble can even afford a custom collar. Most people simply go down to the shop and buy the standard piece of leather. Of course, no one expects that of the Richelieus. Nobles don’t visit shops. They make their need for a particular item known, and the artisans come to them.

Sally disappears for half a day – doing reconnaissance, she says, and Jean doesn’t know what to make of that, until she comes back pleased and announces that the artisans will wait upon their Excellencies in the morning. She’s brought back some samples of their wares and seems to expect Jean to want to look at them all. To listen to Sally’s recounting of what skill this artisan seemed to have and what other colors this merchant could supply.

Jean doesn’t want that. Doesn’t know how to want that. He’s never had these kind of choices before. If only Jean could do the same thing with regard to his collar that he’d done with his clothes, and leave it all to someone else. But he can’t. He’s going to wear this thing for the rest of his life, day in and day out. Everyone expects him to have an opinion.

The first time had been so easy, Jean thinks wistfully. Then he catches that thought and makes himself amend it. It had been easy, yes. The ease of the choiceless. He’d had no choice then but to accept whatever collar Armand had produced. To bend his neck and let Armand buckle it into place. To obey the orders he’d been given and make no demur. Does Jean truly wish to go back to that airless, constrained existence? Of course not.

Still, when the artisans appear the next morning, wares in their hands and coins clinking behind their eyes, Jean can’t help wishing he’d just asked Armand to have his father’s collar replicated as closely as possible and been done with it.

Making the decision takes all day. Jean feels guilty about it, at first; or rather, he feels guilty at dinnertime, when they’re still debating the merits of leather versus finely woven silk rope. When Jean thinks of all the work they should really be doing – all the vital matters they’ve left unattended all day, because Jean can’t decide between black or brown or daring red –

He ends up eating only half his dinner, and spending the rest of the meal with his head in Armand’s lap, just breathing, while Armand’s hand lies heavy on the back of Jean’s neck.

In the end they opt for a classic design. Leather wins out after all, for being more durable and easier to maintain, a vital consideration given the abuse soldiering will probably inflict. Armand breaks the tie in favor of brown by pointing out how well it will match with the standard Musketeers’ uniform. He also points out that many of the other submissive Musketeers have chosen brown collars; Jean had never noticed that, but as usual, Armand is right. Jean opts for gold accents instead of silver, and yields to Armand’s request that the buckle be inset with tiny diamonds.

“As long as it doesn’t look too much like a dog’s collar,” Jean stipulates.

The artisan looks horrified. “My Lord!” she cries, clearly torn between defending her skill and not wanting to insult the client whose money she’s about to take.

“Angouleme’s collar doesn’t look like it’s meant for a dog,” Sally says from behind Jean’s shoulder. The submissive Duc has started attending Ninon’s salon recently and become great friends with Sally. His collar is inset with rubies. Jean has to admit that there’s nothing doggish about it.

“True,” Jean says. “All right.”

“The leather may also be engraved,” the artisan ventures.

Armand looks interested. Then he glances at Jean and his expression smooths out into neutrality. The sound behind Jean is Sally muffling a giggle.

“Why don’t you pick something?” Jean says impulsively to his Dom. “Just a few words. On the inside, where it will be private.”

“You would let me choose?” Armand sounds surprised. Jean would be hurt, but he remembers himself, not that long ago, standing in Armand’s office stipulating that the Dominant would not presume upon Jean. In any way. And maybe they’ve made great strides since then, but still, is it any wonder – is it not greatly to Armand’s credit – that he still takes care to stay well outside what he understands to be Jean’s boundaries?

“I know you’ll choose well.” Jean rises. “I’ll retire now, my Lord. You can discuss it with the merchant.”

Armand looks poleaxed, in that way of his where it amounts to little more than a widening of the eyes that the merchant won’t have caught. Jean doesn’t quite know what to make of it until he rewinds his memory of the last few moments and realizes what form of address he’d adopted.

My Lord. How things have changed.

Moved by a sudden impulse, Jean leans down and kisses Armand briefly. Then he straightens and smiles.

“I’ll review the drafts when the merchant sends them,” he adds, ignoring the way the merchant nods her head and murmurs something affirmative. “I hope to see you later this evening?”

In bed, that means. As it happens, Jean has a surprise or three waiting for Armand there. Lemay had cleared Jean to resume all normal activity yesterday morning, with a nod and a wink that had left little doubt as to what he had meant.

“I will join you shortly,” Armand says. If his voice is a little hoarser than usual, well, it’s been a long day with a lot of talking. That must be why.

Sally helps Jean through his usual evening rituals. Being waited on is coming easier to Jean now. He’s grown used to Sally’s ways, and the ways of the Richelieu household, as they have grown used to Jean’s. It’s nothing like the smooth operation of the Musketeer’s garrison. Not yet. But it’s apparent now that the only thing wanting is time.

“You’re going for it tonight?” Sally asks superfluously, running a comb through Jean’s hair. She knows Jean better than he knows himself, sometimes. She’d certainly been able to predict Jean’s sexual preferences remarkably well when they’d gone shopping together yesterday, after Jean had gotten the all-clear from Lemay.

“You know I am,” Jean returns, amused.

“I’m only surprised you waited an extra day.”

“Yesterday was busy.” The arrival of the Savoyan trade delegation had gotten both Armand and Jean up early and kept them out late.

“So was today.”

Jean concedes the point with a tilt of his head, but only so far. “A different kind of busy. The business of France doesn’t flow well into the bedroom. Domestic business…”

“Does.” Sally grins, cheeky. “Nothing like choosing a collar to make you want to be restrained.”

Jean looks at the coil of ropes sitting ready on the nightstand and has to grin himself.

Sally finishes setting Jean to rights and starts going about the room, turning it down. Jean picks up the restraints and stands there holding them. Etiquette would indicate that he waits to leave until Sally has retired. She’s not supposed to see him enter Armand’s room; it’s risqué. But he feels foolish just standing here, waiting, when the anticipation is bubbling beneath his skin.

Sally, of course, has little truck with what is and isn’t done. “Go on then,” she says indulgently. “Just close the door behind you and I’ll finish up here. Not that I expect you to be back tonight.”

“I don’t expect to be back tonight either,” Jean says.

“Then what are you still doing here?”

Jean goes. Armand’s room is empty; he hasn’t arrived yet. Jean puts the time to good use by securing the newly-purchased restraints to the head- and foot-board of Armand’s big four-poster bed. He tests them as the merchant has recommended. Then he settles down on Armand’s comfortable chaise with a book, intending to wait.

He doesn’t have to wait long. Perhaps half an hour has passed when Armand enters, looking around eagerly for Jean.

“I’m here,” Jean says, laying his book aside. He comes to his feet and lets Armand catch him up in his arms for a kiss.

“That artisan wanted an utterly ridiculous price,” Armand says, moving to nibble on Jean’s ear. “I had to threaten to take the design elsewhere before she became reasonable.”

“She’s probably – mm – probably used to Doms not thinking straight when it comes to collars,” Jean says. “They probably just pay whatever is requested, most of them.”

“Fools,” Armand says without heat. Jean finds the egotism amusing, and kisses him again.

“You’re at leisure now, I collect?”

“Extremely,” Armand murmurs. He urges Jean back down on the chaise, and follows Jean down. They kiss at length, just enjoying each others’ presence, until a log cracking open in the fireplace reminds Jean that he wants more from the evening than their usual.

Armand’s lips find the spot on Jean’s neck that makes pleasure skitter down Jean’s spine. Jean shivers, and not just from that. He also shivers from the intoxicating knowledge that they have a usual now. Jean has a Dom whom he loves, whom he trusts, to whom he can – and does – turn to have his needs met.

And that’s what leads him to put his fingers over Armand’s lips when Armand starts to move lower. Jean has a need that’s not being met. That’s not Armand’s fault; medically, Jean had been forbidden from getting fucked, and Armand hasn’t yet been told otherwise.

“What’s wrong?” Armand asks, lips moving against Jean’s fingers.

“I want to do something new tonight,” Jean says.

“I’m listening,” Armand says.

“I want you to fuck me.”

Armand blinks. Then he blinks again. “Has the doctor said – ”

“I may resume all normal activity.” Jean waggles his eyebrows, grinning.

“Oh.” Armand leans back, leaving Jean’s fingers hanging in midair. “Today?”

“Yesterday.” Jean lets his hand fall. He watches Armand with some puzzlement, unsure as to why Armand’s demeanor has become reticent.

“There’s no rush,” Armand says carefully. “If you would prefer – please don’t think that you must do this as soon as you may.”

Jean laughs – only a little, and as kindly as he can. “Armand, the only thing that’s kept me from pursuing this until now has been the doctor’s word. Now that I have it, I would very much like to have you, too.”

Oh, Armand’s lips shape. His cheeks pink, much to Jean’s delight. He’s never seen the Cardinal quite so flummoxed.

Nor is he ever likely to. The Cardinal doesn’t flummox. He maintains a steady outward visage and is troubled by nothing. That is what France needs of him. But the Cardinal is only for public show. Armand, Jean’s Dom, may be taken aback as readily as any other man.

Jean has delighted, these last few weeks, in finding all the ways in which he might take his Dom aback.

Armand rallies quickly, however. “Nothing would give me more pleasure than to meet your need,” he says with evident sincerity.

Jean shivers a little with enjoyment at this piece of gallantry. But: “I will think myself a very poor partner if my body doesn’t give you more enjoyment than that.”

This is meant to be teasing, but obviously misses the mark, given by the worry that appears on Armand’s face. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not usually quite so flowery in your speech.”

“Since you won’t mimic me, I’m trying to mimic you.”

Now Armand looks affronted, albeit only mildly. “In what way would you have me mimic you?”

Jean raises an eyebrow. “’Meet my need’?” he quotes. Jean leans forward, putting his mouth right by Armand’s ear. He may be guilty of breathing warm breath into it, and murmuring, in a filthy tone, “I didn’t ask you to ‘meet my need’, Armand. I asked you to fuck me.”

When Jean pulls back, Armand’s blush has gratifyingly deepened. So has his voice. “I would very much like to fuck you,” he promises.

“Excellent.” Jean smiles.

Armand takes one of Jean’s hands and tugs it to his lips, kissing it warmly. “How do you want it?”

“On my back, please.” At Armand’s look, Jean raises a hand. “I know. I know. But I want to be able to see you.”

“Your flexibility – ”

“For God’s sake, Armand. Yes, I’m old. Yes, Joseph’s little bondage scene didn’t do me any favors.” The air cools slightly at the mention of Jean’s ex-fiancé; Jean plunges on regardless. “I haven’t got one foot in the grave. I’m perfectly capable of bending my back a little.”

Armand still looks wary. Jean ups the ante: “Besides.” He flashes Armand his widest grin. “Once you’ve tied my ankles together and draped them around your neck, I’ll actually be bending very little. It might even be good for me! Stretch me out.”

Armand blinks. Jean can almost see the thoughts tumbling through his head, each fighting to be first out of his mouth.

Unsurprisingly, caution wins. “The doctor said to refrain from using restraints – ”

“Lemay signed off on that, too.” Jean slides back into Armand’s personal space, tilting his face up for a kiss. “And Sally and I went shopping yesterday afternoon.”

“Shopping?” Armand’s arms come up around Jean, apparently reflexively, since Armand seems to be wholly distracted by what Jean is implying.

“You were so generous as to give me carte blanche,” Jean murmurs. “Sally knows a remarkable amount about restraints, did you know that? There is a kind of fastener with a spring lock – you can pull on it all you like and it won’t budge; but once you know the trick it can be unfastened one-handed.”

“I did know that.” Armand looks dazed. Jean hopes that’s due to the mental image he’s trying very hard to build.

“We bought some.” Jean smiles as Armand’s gaze snaps back into abrupt focus. “She and I spent some time practicing, to make sure I had the trick of them. Would you like to see?”

Armand groans. Jean finds that to be a very good sign.

Half an hour later, Jean is laid out on Armand’s bed – on his back, as he’d requested – while Armand trails lavish kisses down Jean’s chest and dips his imperial into the ticklish spots on Jean’s ribs. Jean’s wrists are bound to the newly-installed restraints in the headboard. The spring hooks have been proving themselves worth every penny. At Armand’s insistence Jean had demonstrated, once and twice and once more for good measure, that he can get out of them easily. Armand’s objections had evaporated after that, and that alone is worth the price. The rest – as Jean writhes under Armand’s devoted attentions, caught and held securely – is purely a bonus.

Jean hadn’t bought the well-padded cuffs that encircle his wrists. Armand had had those already. Jean likes to remember that. Likes to think about it, as he twists his wrists to feel the tug of the leather binding him to the headboard. It’s like it’s Armand’s hands holding him down, even when Armand’s hands actually encircle Jean’s hips as Armand finally, finally goes low enough to trace the head of Jean’s straining cock with his tongue –

“Ah!” Jean can’t help crying out at that, the teasing flick that has his hips jerking upwards – or trying to jerk, but failing, being held firmly in place by his Dom. Jean’s cock firms instead, loving the control, loving the restraint. Loving even more when Armand finally stops teasing and begins sucking Jean in earnest.

It’s barely been a month since they had become lovers, but Armand has put the time to good use. Rarely do they share pleasure without Armand taking the opportunity to explore. He’s discovered sensitive places on Jean’s body that Jean had lived forty years without knowing he’d possessed. Jean is thoroughly ruined for sex with anyone else, never mind his own right hand. It’s immensely comforting to think that he’ll never have to feel the lack. With the exception of the minor sticking point of intercourse, Armand has proven to be as eager to touch Jean as Jean is eager to be touched. Their scenes leave Jean flying. And always, always, as he spirals back towards Earth, Armand is waiting to catch him.

Right now, as Armand puts his talented mouth to a better use than words, Jean is still climbing on wings of pleasure. He’s so wrapped up in the warm delightful pleasure around his cock he doesn’t notice that one of Armand’s hands has left Jean’s hip until the pad of Armand’s finger presses against the last piece of Jean’s body that remains uncharted territory to Armand.

Jean loses the battle to remain silent then. He cries out, fervent and eager and far too loud. That prompts shame, and Jean cries out again, this time a word –

“Sorry – ”

and Armand, because he knows, because Jean has told him, because Armand is a better Dom than Jean had known could possibly exist and that Jean will ever deserve, looks up from where he’s laving Jean’s cock with long kittenish licks and says,

“Don’t try to keep quiet; I want to hear you.”

Permission. Encouragement. The shame vanishes in a wave of gratitude, itself quickly drowned by rising pleasure.

Armand presses a kiss to the place where Jean’s hip meets his groin, then rearranges himself on his side, turning his focus from Jean’s cock to his ass as he begins to work the first finger inside.

“You’re so tight,” he murmurs. “How long has it been?”

“Years,” Jean gasps.

“None of the service Doms you saw did this for you?”

“I didn’t want them to. Oh – ” Armand’s made it into the first knuckle now, and he’s beginning to twist it, questing for Jean’s prostate. He doesn’t find it immediately, but just the corkscrewing sensation is overwhelming.

“Jean,” Armand says, sounding faintly horrified. “Are you telling me no one has since – ”

“No,” Jean says quickly, cutting Armand off before he can actually finish that utterly mood-breaking sentence. “God, of course not, I would have told you that. It was in the Court of Miracles, I just forget how long ago it was.”

Armand carefully removes his hand. Jean doesn’t bother to stop his sad keen at the loss, and frowns at Armand, who has propped himself up on his elbow and is frowning back.

“You just said none of them did this for you!” Armand says, sounding upset.

“I was exaggerating for effect! Yes, I had penetrative sex with some of them. I just didn’t like it as much, and eventually I told them to stop and we stuck to hand and blowjobs.”

“Why? If you don’t like this – ”

Armand.” Jean means to sound firm; he hears his own voice in his ears, a sex-soaked whine, and hopes that it will work just as well. “It’s an emotional connection thing, all right? I didn’t want to do it with someone I didn’t love.”

It’s probably the words more than the tone of voice that break through Armand’s building bubble of self-doubt. Jean will take whatever he can get, though.

“You really do want to do this?” Armand asks again.

Jean doesn’t roll his eyes only because he’s still halfway down and would like to stay that way. “I love you,” he says instead, relying on raw honesty to communicate the true depth of his longing. “I want you in every possible way. Please.”

Armand swallows. “You don’t have to beg,” he whispers. “It’s not like it’s a hardship for me.”

“You want me?” The downside of being half-down, Jean realizes a second too late, is that he can’t entirely keep the vulnerability hidden.

“More than I can say.” The intensity of Armand’s gaze is almost overwhelming. Jean shivers under it, though the room is warm. “I want you so much it frightens me. I fear it’s too much. That I’ll smother you with it, and destroy you in the process.”

This catches in Jean’s throat in a way that no swallow, no cough, can dislodge. “I am stronger than that,” Jean manages to say, voice raspy. “I will not be destroyed; as for the rest, please, God, and for the rest of my life the same.”

“Jean,” Armand murmurs. It’s said in the same tone that Armand invokes the name of the Lord. It’s said like a prayer.

If Jean’s hands were free, he thinks, he’d take Armand’s and tug them back down to where Jean wants them. Jean doesn’t regret being restrained. The gentle pressure of the cuffs is grounding, vital. But it leaves him dependent on his face and voice to make his needs known. Jean’s always been better with his hands.

Still, Armand understands.

Armand’s fingers stroke the entrance to Jean’s body gently. He pauses to recoat them with the contents of the small clay jar, then slides one finger back in. Jean hisses with pleased acceptance as Armand twists his wrist and finds Jean’s prostate this time.

“Aha,” Armand says, longing transmuting to satisfaction even as he speaks. “I’ve been fantasizing about this, you know.”

Actually, Jean had not known. He makes an inquiring sound. Halfway through it gets swallowed by a gasp.

“Oh yes.” Armand settles himself down to his work, which seems to be to make Jean writhe in as much pleasure as possible without actually reaching orgasm. Armand’s voice drops, too, becoming low and husky. “I love watching you enjoy yourself. You seem to forget all the horrors of your past. I can see it a little, in your face, but do you know where I really see it?”

Armand pauses to slide in a second finger, then resumes driving Jean crazy. “In your arms.” He leans over to press a kiss to Jean’s bicep. “You carry all this tension around with you. You’re always ready to draw your sword, throw a punch. To defend yourself, in short. The only time I see you relaxed is when you’re like this. Even in sleep you’re tense.”

Jean isn’t entirely sure how true this is; he’s tense now, too, straining instinctively against the restraints to try to shove further down, get more pressure, get more fullness, get more something.

Armand laughs. “Oh, you’re eager. I love that, too. It reassures me that you still want me, even if I don’t know why. I still wonder why you let me touch you, after what’s been done to you… aren’t I as guilty as any other Dom? How can you trust me?”

Armand’s voice slows as he speaks, and so do those magic fingers. Jean whines, twisting around and trying to grab him before the pull of the cuffs reminds him he can’t.

Words, Jean thinks. “Love you.”

“Ah.” Armand looks up; his smile is chagrined. “I’m sorry. Don’t mind me. It’s only that I have never thought myself worthy of miracles, and yet somehow here you are.”

Jean lets his head thump back down on the pillow, where his outstretched arms can help hide his embarrassment.

“You don’t think of yourself that way,” Armand muses. “You should. Look at you. Your strength is greater than that of an army. Your inner light shines through every attempt to quench it. And your courage puts me to shame.”

Jean whines again.

“Your patience, on the other hand…” Armand laughs a little, and now Jean truly does relax, because that laugh means that everything is well.

Jean’s no stranger to spells of self-doubt. He falls prey to them often; more often, he would have thought, than most men. But then, he would have thought that the great Cardinal would be above such things entirely. Jean’s learned in the last month how untrue that is. The Cardinal doubts himself; Richelieu doubts himself; Armand doubts himself. Indeed Armand doubts himself more than Jean does. Every movement is tentative, every touch gentle, as if Jean is made of spun glass. Jean has made it his mission to break through that fear. There are so many things he wants to do.

Jean had been waiting for Armand to come to him. That’s the way he’d always been taught it would work: the Dom states their desires, and the sub accommodates them. Oh, to be certain, the sub can say no. At least, in a healthy relationship, they can. But it’s still the Dom’s burden to put forth ideas. And the sub’s to say yes to as many of them as they can.

Truth be told, Jean likes it better when Armand comes up with the ideas. Jean finds his own satisfaction rests most deeply in the knowledge that he’s satisfying his Dom. And Armand has yet to propose anything Jean hasn’t found extremely exciting. But in all that, Armand hasn’t even mentioned fucking – the one thing Jean has wanted to do most of all. Not even as a hypothetical, not even with all due reference to and-after-you’re-healed, not even when talking about the new collar that will one day rest around Jean’s neck where it belongs…

Well. Jean had realized that he’d have to take matters into his own hands. As soon as Lemay had given him the all-clear, Jean had started plotting this night, this act.

Jean focuses on the feeling of Armand’s fingers inside him, arches his back and bares his throat and gives every sensation racing through his body a voice to moan with. His reward is the intensity of Armand’s gaze, the pleasure on Armand’s face, and the steadily increasing pleasure Armand’s fingers wring out of him.

“Are you ready for me?” Armand asks. He sounds breathless. His fingers spread within Jean, stretching Jean wider.

“Oh, God, yes,” Jean says fervently.

“Jesus,” Armand swears. He grabs for the lubricant, almost knocking it right off the bed in his fumbling haste.

Jean wants to laugh at this – pleasantly, companionably – but he finds himself trembling in silent anticipation instead as he watches Armand slick himself up. Then Armand’s picking up Jean’s ankles and binding them together, settling them around Armand’s neck. Jean arches, helping Armand arrange Jean properly. Armand lines himself up. And then Jean is stretching, stretching, as Armand slides slowly home.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Armand whispers reverently.

Jean doesn’t speak. Can’t speak. All of him is focused on the thick, full slide of Armand’s cock in his ass, the way it spreads him open and impales him. Jean forgets the use of the quick-release restraints; he doesn’t want to remember. He doesn’t want to know how to get away. He wants to think that the ties that bind them are eternal, irremovable, and they will stay locked like this forever.

Then he loses even the ability to think, once Armand starts moving.

It’s over very quickly. Later, perhaps, they’ll look back on this and laugh. Make jokes about old age and stamina. Tease each other in light-hearted mischief. Right now there is no mischief. Right now there is only pleasure, a tight, glorious burn that spreads out from Jean’s ass, licking up his spine, burning in his belly, until he cries out and clamps down and splatters his seed all over his stomach.

Armand groans. He’s got one hand on Jean’s calf and one on Jean’s hip, balancing them both, and he nearly loses that balance and tumbles them both onto their sides in an ungainly heap of torso and limbs. The ability for higher thought seems to have deserted Armand, too. His thrusts become shorter, more erratic. His hand on Jean’s hip tightens. It only takes a few more moments for Armand’s thrusts to stutter. Then Armand stops entirely, buried to the hilt in Jean, filling Jean up.

It’s not the best fuck of Jean’s life. It’s not the best orgasm he’s ever had, or the farthest down he’s ever been. Actually, it’s one of his shallower experiences. He’s gotten to enjoy it all from a position of relative awareness. That lends its own spice to the experience. Still, that’s not what hits Jean the hardest.

It may not have been the best fuck. But it’s the first time he’s ever been fucked by someone who loves him.

And that’s what means Jean’s telling the truth later. Later, when Armand’s pulled out carefully and laid Jean’s ankles back on the bed. Later, when Jean’s demonstrated the value of quick-release restraints by unlocking himself while Armand cleans them both up. Later, when Jean’s enjoying being the little spoon, Armand’s hands stroking gently down Jean’s side, whispering praise and endearments that start to slur together as Armand starts to fall asleep.

Later, when Jean says, soft and honest: “That was the best sex I’ve ever had.”

Armand’s half-asleep already; he can’t do more than murmur a faint protest against what he no doubt sees as a platitude. If he were awake, he’d demur. If he were awake, he’d point out all the places where the sex could have been better. No doubt he’ll do all that tomorrow. No doubt he’ll be right. But he won’t realize that Jean doesn’t have anything else to compare it to. Not really. Not that counts. Not that matters.

Armand drifts off. Jean listens to the even huffs of his breathing, warmly and safely cocooned, thinking pleasant thoughts about tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Most days Armand and Jean go their separate ways at court, attending to their respective duties with no more interaction than a quick glance or a shared smile across the room. Today the Cardinal is occupied with the council and the new tax rolls being drawn up in the wake of the treaty with Savoy. The Captain is occupying himself by overseeing the induction of a new batch of trainees. Two of them are younger noble children with a claim on the King’s generosity; their commissions are all but assured. The other six are competing to prove themselves exceptionally skilled with sword and musket. Fully half of the serving Musketeers have earned their pauldron through talent instead of patronage. What had at first been another means for other regiments to mock them has since turned into a point of pride. It’s no accident that they’re the finest regiment in France, not even saving the Red Guards. Even the noble scions who wear the blue cloak are highly skilled. They have to be, to keep up.

Partway through drills, Jean beckons one of the commoners aside. He’s shown incredible skill with sword-fighting, and is doing well enough at musketry that Jean doesn’t need to see any more. What Jean does need is confirmation: the response to a question whose answer Jean is pretty sure he already knows.

“Yes, Captain Richelieu?” the recruit asks, breathless but at attention.

That is still taking some getting used to. Most of the old Musketeers still address Jean as Treville; it’s one part habit, one part stubbornness, and one part outward defiance at their old nemesis the Cardinal. Jean tolerates it, though too many repetitions in short order will be corrected. The minor rebellion is useful in preventing a larger one. Soon enough the defiance will mellow to indulgence, and the old hands who still say Treville will be doing so more to show off their status than anything else – old enough, long-serving enough, close enough to the Captain to still call him by his boyhood name. All of the new recruits here today have been calling Jean Richelieu without a flicker of irony.

“Nice shooting, Brasseur,” Jean begins. “Your sword-fighting was good, too.”

“Thank you, sir!” The recruit’s smile is full of pride, wide enough with youth that Jean feels young.

He sticks to the point. “I think you’d make a fine Musketeer. There’s just one issue.”

Brasseur’s smile falters. “What is it?” he says, already sounding resigned.

“Where’s your waivers?”

The smile is gone entirely. “I don’t – ”

“Don’t say anything you’ll regret,” Jean interrupts. Being caught lying likely won’t work out half so well for Brasseur as it has for Jean.

Brasseur looks dismayed. “My parents are dead,” he says, a familiar story. “I have an aunt – I’m supposed to be in her care – but she doesn’t care two livre for me! Wanted to collar me off to a farmer. I told her I don’t want to farm, but she wouldn’t listen, so I…” Brasseur bites his lip.

“You ran away?”

“I won’t go back,” he says defiantly. “I thought for certain you’d understand – ”

“You don’t have to go back.” Jean hides a smile carefully. Brasseur is brash, talented, and pretty. Any of Jean’s unbound Doms would probably be happy enough to have him. Underneath that, though, Jean detects a hint of something softer. Even something a little more vulnerable. It puts Jean in mind…

“I don’t have any waivers. My aunt wouldn’t sign.” Brasseur sounds half-angry, half-pleading.

“Waivers are nice, but there are other ways.” Jean makes up his mind. “Come with me.”

Brasseur trots at Jean’s heels as they cross the courtyard. It’s easier than usual, with the garrison so empty. Most of the Musketeers are still at La Rochelle. Jean will be journeying out there to join them soon. Armand is halfway to persuading the King to visit the battlefield himself, so that Armand will have an excuse to come along. Jean has decided to interpret this to mean that Armand can’t live without Jean, not that Armand doesn’t think Jean can handle himself at a siege.

Fortunately, the Musketeer Jean has in mind had been one of those he’d kept back. And he’s off-duty now, which is particularly fortunate. If this goes the way Jean expects everything can be settled well before the King asks Jean for names for the next round of commissions.

Jean knocks on one of the many doors at the barracks. It’s a courtesy, but one he always practices. People need to feel as if they have a space that is secure, safe, theirs. A point of retreat.

A Musketeer pulls the door open. Handsome, well-kept – a bit of a dandy, to be honest. Hair disarranged; he’d been sleeping. No sword. Jean makes a mental note to conduct readiness drills soon.

“Musketeer Havet,” Jean says. “I’d like to introduce Brasseur, a novice.”

Havet and Brasseur stare at each other. Jean hides a smirk and backs away. Neither of them notice him go. Jean’s instincts had been right: this is going to be beautiful.

Or, knowing Havet, it’s going to end in tears. Jean’s willing to take his chances.

Two weeks later, Louis yields to Armand’s urging and decides to journey to the siege at La Rochelle. Jean makes plans to bring the rest of the Musketeers out with them. Naturally, this is an opportune time to grant new commissions, and Louis asks for a list of names by tomorrow.

Jean promises the King he’ll have them, then goes back to the garrison and knocks briskly on the door to Havet’s quarters. There’s the sound of several items being knocked hastily around before Brasseur opens the door. He’s wearing Havet’s shirt. Jean smiles.

“Get dressed,” he says. “You’re coming with me.”

“Where?” Havet asks. He’s sitting on the bed lacing up his boots, much more calmly than Brasseur, who shucks out of Havet’s shirt sheepishly and starts hunting about for his own.

“Church. Got to make an honest sub out of this one. King’s issuing commissions tomorrow.”

“My waivers!” Brasseur says, as if it’s only just occurred to him.

“What?” Havet drops his boots. He looks betrayed. “Captain!”

“Unless you’ve any objections,” Jean says calmly.

Brasseur has found his shirt, but seems to have forgotten how to put it on. He clutches it to his chest and looks at Havet with big, lost eyes.

Havet’s eyes rest on Brasseur, and his whole aura softens. He rubs the back of his neck with one hand. “Christ,” he mutters.

“You don’t have to do anything,” Brasseur says. His youthful dignity would be funny if it weren’t so painful to see. “I’ll be fine – ”

“Hey. Easy, now.” Havet stands up, unconscious of the odd picture he makes with one boot on and the other off. He tugs Brasseur carefully into an embrace, tucking the smaller boy against his chest. “Didn’t I just say I’d take care of you?”

“I may be just off the farm, but I’m not foolish enough to believe everything a Dom says during aftercare,” Brasseur says even more stiffly.

Jean wants to hug the boy himself, for that statement. How many young subs have said some variation on that exact thing, to salvage their pride, as the Dom they’d innocently trusted had left them behind in the dust? Not all of them have had as little invested as Brasseur does. Some of them are desperate. Some of them are helpless. Some of them have given things they can never get back.

Jean comforts himself by thinking of the new laws Armand and Ninon are working on together and the plan they’ve laid for getting them through the Estates and the Council. Maybe careless Doms will always play with subs’ feelings, but soon enough the law will be on the side of any sub who truly needs it.

“Well, I’m foolish enough to have meant it,” Havet is saying. “I’m sorry, kid. I’m gruff; that’s my way. And I never thought I’d fall into one of the Captain’s collar-snares.” He pauses to shoot Jean a dirty look; Jean merely raises an eyebrow in silent reproof.

Do you wish I hadn’t? the eyebrow asks.

You know I don’t, Havet’s slumping shoulders stay back.

“You owe me nothing,” Brasseur is saying.

“Well someone owes you something,” Havet says bluntly. “And I’d sure like it to be me who gives it to you.”

Brasseur turns a bright red. Havet, seeing it, laughs in delight.

“Come on.” Havet tips Brasseur’s chin up and kisses the tip of his nose. “Put your shirt on, and let’s go to church.”

“All right,” Brasseur whispers. He sounds hesitant, but as he finishes getting dressed there’s a little smile hovering at the corner of his lips that won’t go away.

They go down to the little church at the crossroads. Nobles never darken its door; its flock are the merchants, the poor, the soldiers with their simple faith and simpler hymns. The priest there is not terribly wise, but he’s kind, and better yet, he’s discreet. He binds Havet and Brasseur together with simple words and congratulates them both earnestly.

“Take the rest of the afternoon off and go buy a collar,” Jean says, taking the signed waivers from Havet’s hands. “I’ll go file these. Yes – ” anticipating Havet’s next question, “ – you can have an advance on your pay. Tell the shop to send me the bill.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Brasseur says earnestly. He starts walking off eagerly, then pauses, seeing that Havet has lingered.

“Yes?” Jean asks gently.

Havet clears his throat. “Thank you,” he says gruffly.

“You’re welcome,” Jean says.

They start moving off. Then Brasseur stops and spins on his heel.

“What on earth am I going to tell people?” he asks. “In Paris two weeks, and collared already! When they ask – when I write to my aunt – what should I tell her?”

Jean thinks for a moment, then smiles, recalling what Louis had said to him, a month and a lifetime ago.

“Tell them it was a whirlwind courtship,” Jean de Richelieu says, and sends the newly-bound pair on their way with a smile on their lips.