An unholy clatter interrupted her words. It sounded, D’Artagnan thought, like a horse running through a field of metal; like a bell tower collapsing to the ground; like the end of the world.
“What,” he said, and, standing, found his hand going to the place where his sword normally hung. Not finding it, he cast a look around, to see if anyone had noticed his gesture. But the entire family, standing, seemed as much shocked as he.
The clatter ceased, and D’Artagnan repeated, “What—”
The baker’s wife crossed herself and spoke through almost bloodless lips. “It’s coming from the direction of the armorer’s. Mind you, it’s the ghost that’s walking.” She crossed herself again. “It’s what happens when someone dies by the sword, like that.”
Her husband opened his lips, but D’Artagnan never found out what he would have said. Because before he could, the clatter started up again, and D’Artagnan was out the door, running, finding that Xavier was running by his side.
Towards the armorer’s shop.
The Palais Cardinal; The Shadow of a Shadow; The Devil by the Tail
“IF you’d wait here, monsieur,” the Cardinal’s servant said, bowing deeply, as he led the musketeer away from the antechamber, the counterpart of Monsieur de Treville’s musketeer-packed waiting room.
The Cardinal’s antechamber was, perhaps of a less bellicose nature. His men were less noisy, less provoking, less enthusiastic. Not that the guards tended to be less fanatic in their devotion to their master than the musketeers in their loyalty to Monsieur de Treville, and not that many of them didn’t serve out of conviction. In fact, when occasion had come to engage them in words, Athos had often found that they served the Cardinal out of absolute belief that he was the best thing for France and that under his capable hands the kingdom would become the first power of the world, the envy of all of Christendom.
And it might well be so. Athos was intelligent enough and learned enough to concede that Richelieu had done much to restore a treasury and a prestige squandered in the wars of religion and destroyed in a thousand internal and petty disputes. None better than him to agree that Richelieu could be said to be better for France.
At any rate, it would be very hard to be more damaging than the previous two monarchs, who had sowed dissension like a bountiful crop and well-nigh brought the kingdom to the verge of tearing itself in two. Richelieu—for though it made Athos gnash his teeth, it could hardly be imagined to be Louis XIII—led a prosperous and stable France, where people could at last imagine they had a future.
But the future they had was not the future Athos wanted. Oh, he was neither as remote nor as deaf to what passed about him as he pretended to be. He knew what the people said on the street—that Richelieu had curbed the power of the great noblemen. That he’d given the sons of merchants and accountants a place in leading France. That he made it impossible for the princes to squander what the artificers made.
What Athos saw was different. Surely, some noblemen had grown too great and, used to a weak royal authority, had become little princes in their own right. And clearly, though he would never say it aloud, Athos was impartial enough—in his own mind—to admit that simply to be born to a great house, or a great position, didn’t necessarily qualify one to carry that position. Look at Louis XIII who let his minister reorganize the kingdom and his life, while he played at cards, or complained of being bored.
But he also couldn’t help thinking that this new class coming through—these functionaries, these smart accountants, the sons of men who didn’t know their grand-fathers’ names, would be no better. They might be cleverer, but nobility had always been able to hire the clever to do their bidding. But at least nobility—when things worked the way they were supposed to—was raised, if not conceived, in the expectation of being of service to those under their power. That meant even the ones who did not behave responsibly felt they should.
But only let these newly educated functionaries out into the multitudes. They would feel no obligation to be of service and, like Richelieu, everything they did would be for their own aggrandizement.
Athos felt his lip curl in disdain as the servant who appeared to be Richelieu’s secretary led him from the crowded antechamber into a private chamber, surrounded by tall bookcases, with a writing desk pushed against a wall, in front of the sole window. There were upholstered chairs. Just two.
“If you’ll take a seat, Monsieur le Comte,” the Cardinal’s secretary said. “His eminence will be in instantly.”
Athos opened his mouth, closed it. He didn’t want to know how the Cardinal’s secretary knew a secret he would have killed to preserve, but he wasn’t about to show his discomfiture, either. Instead, he sat down, and looked incuriously towards the nearest bookcase, which showed many of the titles his own bookcase had sported, back in his domains.
It seemed to him it took an unduly long time for the Cardinal to join him, but he hadn’t expected anything else. After all, he’d come, by himself, to the enemy’s lair. He knew the enemy would try to enforce his superiority, or at least the superiority of his hand. Athos, who played card games—even when he always lost—knew he’d have done the same himself.
But at length the gentleman appeared. “Monsieur le Comte,” he said, and smiled slightly as he crossed in front of Athos and towards the desk by the window. A candelabra rested on the desk, casting the light of six candles upon various sheaves of paper and all that was needed for writing, including quills and ink bottles. Selecting a piece of paper and an ink bottle, the Cardinal spoke, offhandedly, over his shoulder. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Athos, who had once been a voluble and near garrulous child, had learned in his later life to be quiet, almost taciturn, as sparing with his words as though they were debts he must pay back, once spent. “I believe you know, your eminence,” he said.
Cardinal Richelieu wrote broadly, with an expansive gesture of the hand, then folded the sheet and sealed it. “What am I supposed to know? How may I help you, milord?” Leaving the sealed sheet upon the desk, he turned around, his fingers interlaced at his midriff, his bright dark eyes filled with curiosity.
Not, Athos thought, curiosity to know what brought Athos here. No. That he knew, and Athos would swear to it. He was, however, interested in seeing how Athos would react to his slighting manner—how Athos would respond.
And though Richelieu was a very different type of person from Athos’s late father—in fact, the late Count de la Fere would have hated Richelieu as well as everything he stood for: his camaraderie with the lower classes and the casual way in which he pushed aside the older families of France—in that moment he reminded Athos of his father.
Athos’s father had been one of those people never very at ease near children. An only child, who in turn had sired Athos late in life, Monsieur Gaetan Count de la Fere had treated Athos as an object of intense scrutiny—at a distance—until Athos had been breeched. And then, suddenly, Athos’s father had decided that Athos was a man, or at least a youth. It was as though nothing existed, in the late Count’s mind, between the mewling infant and the striding man. And so, he’d expected Athos to be proficient at horseback riding, competent enough with a sword for the honor challenges that might befall any noble, and cultured too, so that his speech wouldn’t lead his inferiors to sneer at him.
Athos, a dutiful son, had learned the riding and the sword fighting from the masters provided and, though struggling, always managed to exceed the prowess of those far senior to him. Even the Latin and the Greek pressed upon him by yet another set of masters, the poetry, the diction—even that he learned, and effortlessly.
Of the rituals and demands his father enforced on him far too young, there was only one that Athos had resented, but that one he had resented absolutely and with a raging hatred. Because every night, from the age of seven or so, he’d been brought into his father’s study and sat, across from his father, at a table that had been designed as a chessboard, and upon which elaborate, expensive china pieces were set.
Athos didn’t resent that his father expected him to play chess. He didn’t even resent that the late Count gloried in winning games over his small son. What he resented—the memory that still made the bile rise at the back of his throat—was that the rules of the game had never been explained to him. Night after night, he’d sat there, and learned all the moves by trying them the wrong way first. Night after night, day after day, he’d brooded on the losses. And every night his father smiled at him, with the exact same smile that the Cardinal was now giving him.
Something to the movement of the Cardinal’s eyes made Athos realize he’d been inching his hand towards his sword, and he pulled it back by an effort of will. The day after his father had died, in a ritual composed part of grief and part of relief, he had taken the beautiful intaglio chess table, and all the chess pieces. He’d smashed the chess pieces in the depths of the garden, before setting fire to the table.
Now his fingers itched for the fire to set beneath the Cardinal’s feet, but he bit the tip of his tongue between his teeth, instead, holding it till he tasted blood. But he pushed a smile onto his lips, and what he hoped was a pleasant expression into his eyes, and looked up at the Cardinal. “Do you truly mean, your eminence,” he said, filling his voice with wonder, “that I know more than you do?”
There was a dark shadow beneath the Cardinal’s gaze, just like the first time that Athos had managed to take Father’s queen. For a moment, Richelieu was discomfited enough to show frustration. And then the urbane mask descended again. “I suppose,” he said, with the ill-grace of someone who has been bested, “you come about the servant?”
“The—Oh, yes,” Athos said, as though the recollection cost him effort. “At least, the servant is part of it.”
The Cardinal’s eyebrows shot up and Athos had to avoid grinning. He thought the Cardinal’s expressions could be much like Aramis’s, remembered that Aramis’s mother had once loved the Cardinal, and thought all in all he would not make the comparison near his friend.
“Well, I say part of it,” he said, “since Monsieur de Treville seems to believe there is much more involved. Something about a conspiracy or correspondence.” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “You know I don’t listen to court gossip, so your eminence cannot possibly hope for me to remember all the details, beyond the fact that somehow poor, light-fingered Mousqueton has delivered himself into the midst of a plot.” He opened his hands. “Truly, not difficult. It seems one cannot cross the street these days without falling into a plot against your eminence. I would wonder—do you not?—what one could be doing to bring about such hatred.”
The Cardinal smiled, a pale lips-only smile. “Keeping back the deadwood of the old noble houses,” he said, his eyes full of insult.
“Oh, then,” Athos said, feeling quite proud of himself and, in fact, quite Aramis-like. “It is a good thing that all the branches of one’s own tree are in good working order.”
For a moment, for just a moment, he thought the Cardinal was going to choke, but he didn’t. Instead he narrowed his eyes at Athos. “Monsieur le Comte, let us make an end to the fencing. When it comes to fencing you are better with steel than with words, and you see, I have long ago given up the sword, in trade for the cross and the rosary.”
“I see,” Athos said. “And I see you expect everyone else to do it as well, through your edicts.”
“My edicts . . .” He opened his hands, in a show of helplessness. “I do what I can, Monsieur le Comte, for France. I would keep her young men alive. I would keep them from dying in senseless duels.”
“You would keep the young noblemen incapable of defending their own honor,” Athos countered, parrying expertly. “Till all they can do is put an end to their own lives.”
“On the contrary. Their lives will be better than ever. They are encouraged to come to court. The king’s palace shall be the most glittering gathering in the house.”
“To the court where they can be kept dangling, hoping for royal largesse. In other days they would have been supported by their own domains, and remained there, making sure their domains were taken care of as they should be.”
“Ah, you can’t blame me if not everyone’s mind is of a provincial turn.”
“I can blame you when everyone’s mind takes a mercantile tone.”
“Objections to wealth, Monsieur le Comte? Is it because you have none? Perhaps the cousin who has charge of your estates needs to be replaced by yourself? Perhaps it is time, enfin, to return home.”
“I will let you know when I feel such a desire,” Athos said. And managed a smile through his tight lips. “And until then, perhaps we can discuss Boniface?”
“Boniface?” Richelieu asked. And he’d got Athos angry enough that Athos enjoyed the shock and surprise behind the word.
“Certainly,” Athos said. “Porthos’s servant. Boniface is his given name, only changed to Mousqueton by Porthos, who thought Boniface didn’t quite fit such a belligerent master.”
“Indeed. Monsieur du Vallon and his reasoning are ever such a delight.”
“Indeed they are. He often sees through things other men take for granted. I would not disdain him.”
“Disdain him? Monsieur le Comte, you injure me. I’d never underestimate any of you.” He narrowed his eyes. “You are all such different temperaments and have such complementary abilities. And yet, you’re also versatile and so often exchange roles. Take you . . . I’d have said if you needed guile and planning, you’d have provided yourself with an escort more capable at such. Your friend Chevalier D’Herblay. Or perhaps that young cunning Gascon. So why alone?”