A prequel to Season 1's Musketeer's Don't Die Easily - written as a follow up by request, for to To Serve at the Pleasure of the King. A reader asked for the conversation Athos has with d'Artagnan as regards Milady.
The shadows were not deep enough to hide him for long, he knew, as Athos stepped silently onto the long gallery overlooking the unusually quiet common room below. Nevertheless, he stood a moment watching as d’Artagnan worked his way through a second set of fencing exercises – minus the sword.
Perhaps a heartbeat or two passed before the dark head turned sharply, equally dark eyes searching expectantly, much to Athos’ satisfaction. The youth’s instincts were as sharp as the blade he’d spent hours polishing while he’d been forbidden to use it.
Athos stepped from the shadows the moment their gazes met, knowing the smile in his eyes would communicate itself without any facial contortions. “Come along, then, before you wear a trough in the floor deep enough to feed the horses.” He tossed out the second of a pair of swords he carried, with Aramis’ permission.
No manner of constraint could dim the brilliant smile that briefly lit the saturnine features as d’Artagnan caught the guard with a deftness no amount of training could teach. In fact, it required deliberate facial contortions to match his mentor’s emotionless façade as he swept the weapon experimentally through the air, testing his reach against the tightness of the shiny green skin where bruises were still shrinking in toward their deep purple centers . The broken rib had knit, but the bruised ones still ached when the weather turned sour, as it had today, pouring rain hard enough to turn every street in Paris into a mud bath and not the kind the queen’s ladies-in-waiting liked to indulge in.
Athos allowed a twitch of the lips, though he refused to let out the smile lurking behind them. Set a rapier in the Gascon’s hand and he glowed from the inside out, like a candle in the dark. Just now, despite the attempted mask of indifference, d’Artagnan appeared to have swallowed a bit of sun.
He had not had a sword in his hand in days, Aramis having forbidden even exercising with a blade until that broken rib had time to set up again, but, Athos noted, pleasantly surprised, d’Artagnan had folded up his pleasure and was savoring it without crowing in delight. Something of a change for the usually exuberant Gascon.
“En garde.” Without further warning the elder musketeer attacked in tirce. D’Artagnan parried instinctively, followed by a riposte that had Athos retreating as d’Artagnan, sword singing, advanced with a series of short attacks, in remise.
The long balcony above the common room was often used for practice, especially in inclement weather, but today, Athos had ulterior motives. He met the remise with a questing counter attack, his sword seeking the point at which disarming became an objective, though he had no wish to do so quickly.
He settled easily into a defensive rhythm, allowing the youth to tire himself in a far more pleasant manner than had been available to him for the past fortnight. Only the sound of the rain drumming on the roof, their stamping boots and the ring of steel on steel echoed through the gallery. It was nearly a full quarter hour before d’Artagnan could contain his curiosity no longer.
“To what do I owe this pleasant diversion,” he queried, thrusting in quarte.
“Close your left side,’ Athos instructed, though this afternoon’s lesson was less about fencing than the awkward business he had spent countless hours attempting to come at with tact and diplomacy.
d’Artagnan merely shrugged at the admonishment. “Put some effort into this then.”
In response, Athos lunged offensively. Time was running out, he could put it off no longer. “Lest you think I am prying, I will tell you –” d’Artagnan stepped into the attack and their swords circled in a bind until Athos disengaged. “Previously, your relationships were none of my affair.” He stretched, right knee bending gracefully, sword rising in prime. “Now they are.”
“How so?” d’Artagnan swirled out of Athos’ reach, but not in retreat. Rather he dropped, executing a perfect passato sotto, back left leg extended nearly horizontal to the floor, one hand down for support, thrusting upwards. Then used the momentum of the down thrusting parry to sweep his rapier in an arcing circle at his opponent’s ankles. Athos might have been merely stepping over it so dexterously did he elude the sweep.
“The morning after the competition, you had no more than left Madame Bonacieux,” Athos remarked, driving the Gason back with a simple tierce in sixte, “when you met another woman in the middle of the streets of Paris for any to see. You profess to love the cloth merchant’s wife to the exclusion of all others.”
d’Artagnan’s head tilted in a manner suggesting quizzical interrogatories were circling along with his sword. He met the questing rapier with a hard beat and took the offensive again, but kept the questions behind his teeth for the moment. “I am not Aramis” he stated, though he had the impression Athos was not yet finished.
And he was correct. “If you have not yet learned this life lesson, learn it now, and learn it well.” Athos slashed in quinte at a canted hip, “Behavior does not lie. You can lie with your feet, your hands, your lips, eyes and your tongue. Behavior will expose you every time.”
“That had nothing to do with Constance. Who,” d’Artagnan smacked at the questing sword, beating it aside before it came close to touching him, “you may remember, cast me off in favor of that ridiculous man milner who will make her life miserable just because he knows we are in love.” He launched his own assault, stamping forward left right, left right, forcing Athos back and back with the power of his advance.
“The woman I met in the street, quite by accident,” d’Artagnan retreated purposely, attempting to lure his adversary into exposing himself, “was the reason I was able to enter the contest. She gave me the thirty livre for the entrance fee. Since, as you may also remember, despite your doddering age,” he missed his opportunity as Athos briefly whipped his rapier down and under, making the air sing again. d’Artagnan darted back just in time to avoid being spitted on the blade, grinning as he swiped sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes. “As I was saying, you may remember that I could not come up with it because my only source of income had recently been destroyed. Some of us,” he panted, “are not blessed with aristocratic ancestors.” His sword point drooped slightly; Athos resisted the temptation to follow the feint.
d’Artagnan laughed exuberantly, though he really was beginning to tire. It annoyed him a great deal, as he was unused to having limited energy, but he beat down the need to step back and accept defeat gracefully as handily as he caught and beat down Athos’ sword.
“I accepted her gift because I had no choice,” he said, opening a rent in the full sleeve of the elder musketeer who moved with a bit more alacrity to avoid the slashing cut that followed.
“How do you know Milday?” Athos circled, his weapon held at arm’s length and shoulder height. “Why would she give you the entrance fee?”
That extraordinarily white grin flashed again. “She likes my bed manners.”
As if sensing the disturbance his mentor had buried deep under layers of winteriness, the tone changed abruptly. d’Artagnan did not so much yield as soften. His riposte lost its verve, his advance became less sure of itself. “She left me to face an inn full of angry people thinking I’d murdered the man she came in with. A Spaniard; full of himself.”
Athos batted away a seconde and flipped the advantage so he was the one advancing again. “Have I tired you enough to suspend your tightrope walking antics for the day?” He stepped back, dropping the point of his sword to the floor, tacitly yielding.
d’Artagnan caught the towel Athos threw at him and stepped back as well. If behavior did not lie, then the elder musketeer was, once again, making a one of those wordless statements he excelled at. “If you mean will I attempt to walk the balcony railing again, I think that ship has sailed.” He jingled the money in his pocket with a sly smirk. “I doubt, once the story has gone round, anyone will bet against me again. Speaking of which—” he glanced speciously over the railing to the empty common room below. “Where did you send everyone off to?”
“I did not send anyone anywhere.” Athos sheathed his weapon. “I merely informed them they had business elsewhere. Come, let us find libation below where we may be comfortable.”
From Athos, whose extensive vocabulary was rarely put to use, that was a gift of words. d’Artagnan dragged the towel, one-handed, across his eyes, then over his dripping hair. He wore no sword belt, so his own weapon remained in hand. He could not resist a few further exploratory swipes as he tripped lightly down the stairs behind his mentor.
Chary suddenly, as his own thoughts caught up with the questions, d’Artagnan stopped in the middle of the stairway, sword resting across the banister. He had been channeling much of his pent up energy into creative mischief these last few days, culminating in the bet that he could not make the precarious journey walking across the balcony railing from one end to the other without falling. Which he’d done with ease, though he had intentionally given the watching musketeers the show they’d wanted. It was very strange that no one occupied the common room, especially at this time of day, and with the rain coming down as if a second flood was in the offing. It was equally unusual for Athos not to draw a crowd even when he was playing at fencing.
“Am I in trouble? Is that why you cleared everyone out? If so, I thank you for the privacy, but why the sudden change? You’ve never bothered to yell at me privately before.” A pause and then, “Am I really in trouble?” The questions tumbled out now, unstoppable, though d’Artagnan stopped again, this time on the bottom step. “What does this have to do with Constance or Milady? And how did you even know it was Milady?” The dark eyes narrowed. “You were following me.”
Athos ignored the indictment. “You are not in trouble, d’Artagnan, but you are lacking some experiential knowledge I need to impart before you do something stupid.”
“Constance does not like her, the de Winter female that is. Says she frightens her.”
“Madame Bonacieux is wise beyond her years.” Athos swung a booted foot over a bench in the common room and called for ale. “Sit” he said, indicating the bench across from him.
d’Artagnan sat, without the usual retort such an order from Aramis or Porthos would have elicited. “If I’m not in trouble, why do I feel like I’ve been called before the priest for confession?”
The twitching smile this evoked was accompanied by a sigh. “Milady de Winter is my wife” Athos stated baldly. There was no dressing it up in fine clothes to make the truth more palatable. “She is also in the employ of Cardinal Richelieu.”
Dark eyebrows shot up beneath the sweat-dampened hair. “Your wife?” d’Artagnan echoed, the color draining from his face as much as his heritage allowed. “Athos,” the bench catapulted backwards with the force of his rising. “I swear to you, I did not know.”
“Of course you did not,” Athos said wearily. “Sit,” he repeated. “You are not in trouble with me, though Milady might be a different story. She is devious beyond imagination.”
“Aye.” d’Artagnan righted the bench and sat back down. “She left me standing in the doorway of my room with her dagger in my hand. The one with which she’d slit the Spaniard’s throat. I thought perhaps she gave me the entrance fee because she felt guilty.”
The noise Athos made was something less than a laugh, but not quite a snort. His eyes closed briefly. “The word guilt does not exist in her vocabulary. Now, with the cardinal’s patronage, she is a law unto herself.”
“But …” d’Artagnan circled this new information as he would circle an opponent with his sword. “Your wife? I thought she was dead. I do not understand.”
Athos circled the mug of ale that had been deposited before him, staring into its depths. “It is a long and boring story.”
“I have nothing else to occupy me. And I promise you, I can’t be more bored than I have been this last seven day.”
That was likely true, Athos thought humorously, glad for the momentary diversion. Aramis’ decree against any kind of exercise had driven the Gascon to ridiculous attempts at relieving his boredom. Like the tight rope walking exercise this morning. Fortunately the youth’s athleticism was as honed as his sword, though that little contretemps had had Athos and Captain Tréville shaking their heads in exasperation. Aramis had retrieved d’Artagnan’s sword out of desperation, informing Athos that it did not matter the form of death if the youth was intent on suicide. Porthos had merely laughed and collected his winnings; he’d been the only one to bet on the Gascon.
Where to start? Athos wondered silently, eyes on his ale. This was not a story he shared often, but perhaps a new perspective might unlock some awareness that would give them the upper hand in dealing with Milady, though the musketeer thought that spectacularly unlikely.
“This goes no further than this table,” the Comte de la Fère said quietly. He did not raise his eyes until the telling of the tale was done; his brother’s death, the comtesse’s sordid history, his own perceived cowardice in not staying to see the deed done properly. That was what haunted him the most. He had ridden away because even then, even knowing what she was and what she’d done, he’d loved her with a purity previously reserved for the land. She had made a mockery of his devotion – but he had loved her still. That was the piece of the story driven so deep into his heart he could not wrench it out, though he tried, often, with whatever alcohol came to hand.
“Mon dieu,” d’Artagnan breathed softly, shaking his head. “She is …” he trailed off, unable to articulate words to describe the revulsion the telling had awoken. He shed a bit more of that ingenuous spirit, too, with the revelation.
Silence poured into the vessel of the room, for Athos had no words either. Overhead the rain drummed ceaselessly upon the roof, followed by distant thunder. The quartermaster came in to light candles and eventually, men began to drift into the room, hanging back around the edges until Aramis and Porthos thumped themselves down at the only occupied table.
“Yer both lookin’ rather gloomy,” Porthos noted cheerily, “which is to be expected, I suppose, if y’ve been discussin’ Milady’s adventures.”
d’Artagnan glanced sideways with a scowl. Porthos merely raised his mug with a grin. “Athos is gloomy enough for all of us, no need to keep him company, lad.”
“So what’s the plan?” Aramis inquired, with only slightly less joviality. “Surely you’ve come up with something in the time you’ve been sitting here.”
“Can you not see he is in pain?” d’Artagan might have kicked over the bench again, except Porthos clamped a hand on his shoulder.
“Put a damper on it, enfant, we’ve had considerable more experience than you, handlin’ ‘is lordship’s moroseness.”
Athos breathed deeply, ceding the point with a slightly slanting declination of the chin. “We have no plan, gentleman, and they do have the right to call me on it, d’Artagnan.”
“See?” Porthos’ grin broadened. “Told ya so.” He downed his mug of ale and banged it on the table. “Another round over here, we’re in need of some ichorus solace!”
“Ichorus solace?” d’Artagnan echoed.
Porthos beamed and lifted the refilled tankard. “Ichorus – liquid – mellifluous. From the veins of the gods!” He drank deeply again. “And just mebbe it will open a vein of inspiration.”
“Here, here!” Aramis seconded, clanking tankards.
“You have no objection to this?” d’Artagnan queried Athos, still shell-shocked enough to be baffled by this display of absurdity.
Only the very corner of the lip lifted, but the downcast eyes rose again, to meet d’Artagnan’s artless dismay. “You have not been with us long enough to understand how effective their methods can be.” Athos lifted his own tankard in salute. “To Milady, may her fall from renewed grace make a resounding crash in Richelieu’s kingdom.”
“Now that I can drink to!” Porthos asserted. “Here’s to a thunderous crash!”
“A thunderous crash,” the trio turned quartet repeated, tankards clashing in the middle of the table.
Aramis lowered his without drinking. “I have an idea,” he began, gaze distant as he considered the necessary details. “d’Artagnan, how good of at play acting are you?”
"I don't know, never done it before. Why?"
"If it works, we might just be able to take down both Milady and Richelieu. Athos, you'd have to be convincing as well. And it might involve shooting d'Artagnan."
"Shooting?" d'Artagnan straightened from his slouch. "Uh, I'm not so sure I like this idea."
"Whose shooting d'Artagnan?" Porthos inquired, lowering his voice as he glanced around. "Likely we should keep this among ourselves if it involves any element of surprise."
"Very true. Athos will be shooting d'Artagnan."
Athos lips twitched again, "Count me in."
The plan was simple, if not ingenious, but hinged on their ability to make Milady, and subsequently, Richelieu believe the deception.
d'Artagnan rather thought getting shot would make the entire scenario easily believable. "How come I'm the one who has to get shot for real?"
"Because you are young and healthy and will recover quickly. Provided I don't accidentally shoot you in the head. To devious minds," Athos said quietly, lifting his tankard.
The cry was echoed not quite in a whisper, by his three companions, “To devious minds!”
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