“To regret the world is to regret the devil.”
- The Three Musketeers, Chapter XXVI: The Thesis of Aramis
REGRET THE DEVIL
The boy was a liar, that much was certain. This alone should have made him stay away. Had he not his fill of liars for a lifetime, back when he was still Olivier de La Fère? What use were they then to Athos? The only thing Athos needed was a bottle and a nice brawl to get his mind off things, such as they were.
And such extravagant lies he told, as well. Athos, in particular, admired the one about his esteemed father dying at the siege of Arras, an event which predated the boy’s own birth by at least twenty-five years by Athos’ estimate. And even that had been a question of some contention, for the lad had claimed to be twenty years old upon first query (by the ever increasingly indelicate Porthos), but he could not have been a day older than eighteen, if Athos was to be generous. It was inexplicable, really, why Athos would even give him the time of day, not to mention agree to the private fencing lessons with him and Porthos, at the end of what was surely already an exhausting day of prior fencing lessons.
He came every single day, or so the fencing master, M. de la Fausse, confirmed when questioned.
“How can he even afford to pay you?” Athos had asked.
“For all I know, he’s rich as Creuses,” the esteemed fencing master had replied. “I do not ask my pupils whither they replenish their purse, just as I never asked you the same M. Musketeer.” He said it without malice, but Athos could read the jest in the man’s face. His riches, ah, what little he had of them, were long squandered. Had M. de Treville not been an honorable man, he would have starved, or worse eaten his manservant, by now. And that would have been a sad feast, indeed, for Grimaud was scarcely more than skin and bones himself. He should have been more careful of his drinking habit, or, at the very least much better at gambling. But he clearly had not poured the appropriate libations at the altar of the Goddess of Fortune to propitiate her wrath.
“They say that he who is unlucky at cards is always fortunate in love,” Porthos had the misfortune to jest the day they met. And before the bigger man knew what had befallen him, he had found himself on his back, gazing upon the heavy wooden beams of the ceiling, at the point of Athos’ sword pressed against his windpipe. The fact that he was later able to take the weapon out of the former count’s grasp with his bare hand was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
With René d’Herblay, it had been a little more complicated.
Athos could feel eyes on him, which, in itself, wasn’t unusual - plenty of men would watch them fence. It wasn’t every day that one of the King’s Musketeers would drop by the fencing salon, to say nothing of two. But this particular set of eyes felt different; it felt covetous. Not in the pleasures of the flesh sort of way, but in the way that a cobra slithering through the grass would approach its prey.
Of course, they did not have cobras in France, but he had learned about them on his travels, enough to have later pictured Anne de Brueil as one. The hood expanded behind her neck, poised to strike him dead. He was her mongoose.
Or perhaps she really did love him. He’d never know that now. He killed her not to avenge any particular crime, but the crime of his own doubts that had arisen in his chest upon seeing the brand. She had to die because he’d never know if her love had been real.
He barely parried a powerful thrust from Porthos, which nearly set him on his haunches, and realized he had been distracted.
“Where’s your head?” his towering companion asked, amicably.
“I left it in my other trousers,” Athos replied, hoping to cover for his mounting feeling of dread with an air of jocundity. That’s when he finally encountered his snake.
“Messieurs Athos and Porthos, I’d like you to meet Chevalier René d’Herblay, one of my most promising new pupils.”
M. de la Fausse did not make introductions unless he thought they would be mutually beneficial. Athos looked at the boy and knew immediately that these were the eyes he had been feeling boring a hole in his head all morning.
“Messieurs,” the young man bowed low before him and Porthos. “I have been watching the two of you practice for some time now. Your techniques are entirely disparate, yet I cannot shake the admiration at how well-matched you are.”
“I cannot tell if that’s a compliment or a dreadful affront,” Porthos muttered towards Athos.
“So, naturally you’d like to fence with us,” Athos completed the young man’s train of thought for him.
“If Messieurs would do me that honor,” the young man bowed again.
Athos cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes. He could feel Porthos eyeing him suspiciously while chewing his moustache. He saw a thirst in the boy’s eyes, but what for he could not yet surmise.
“Can you drink, d’Herblay?” Athos asked.
He had been the youngest of four brothers, from among nine children total, six of whom had actually managed to survive to adulthood in spite of nature’s unrelenting attempts to cull them whilst in the tender stages of adolescent bloom. Needless to say, they were fruits of a very Catholic family, sprung from the loins of a preternaturally fertile mother. René d’Herblay would never speak of his siblings again, except to blame their existence for the fact that he had to enter the seminary at the age of nine - the only thing the youngest of four sons could be expected to do, aside from dying of the typhoid fever when he was supposed to (but refused). His parents, René told Athos over one too many bottles of Beaujolais, had married for love, and Athos thought perhaps that was why the boy was so beautiful, for only a product of love could have the face of a Cupid. But the way René spoke of that union hinted at something entirely different than romance and familial warmth.
“You do not know what it’s like, M. Athos,” he blushed when he spoke, and Athos thought that crimson was a becoming color on him, “to be a charity case, to feel indebted, simply because your parents could not keep their paws off of each other long enough to think of what would become of those of us to whom they had given life.”
“Yes, love can be a great inconvenience,” Athos conceded, since that cost him nothing. “I do not recommend it to any man.”
“To be carted off to the seminary, like some chattel wench. I’m surprised my father did not die of shame to dispose thusly of one of his sons.” The wound still festered, Athos could see, despite the fact that the young man had clearly had a long time to reflect upon it.
Olivier de La Fère had been his father’s only son and heir, so he never came to know the feeling of being unwanted. Perhaps that had been his downfall as well.
“I thought you said your father had died at the siege of Arras,” Athos said, also too drunk to care that he was not going along with the established ruse.
“Arras, or some such other place,” the boy replied, blushing more furiously. “It makes no difference to me. Dead is dead and may God have mercy on him.”
“Don’t you find it appealing, M. d’Herblay, being the bride of Christ?” Athos stoked a very dangerous fire, and he could see it in the young man’s eyes.
“I have overstayed my welcome, I see,” René spoke quietly, but his words might as well have been canons firing in Athos’ ears.
Ambition, that’s what it was. Something Athos had never felt within himself. But this keenly vainglorious desire to do better, be better, that could only come from feeling like the runt of your own clan, it drove René d’Herblay as surely as the winds drive the sails. Everyone burned from within, Athos figured. They were all damned, and their cardinal sin of choice mattered little when they all met in the Devil’s cauldron.
“I apologize,” Athos did. He wasn’t one to beg pardon, but he could tell that he had wounded the boy’s pride, and he was afraid that it was a wound his companion couldn’t recover from easily. “I did not mean to bring up your… hiatus?”
“We’re all on hiatus,” René had said, as if reading Athos’ mind, and it was true, he supposed. Some people’s hiatuses were longer than others. Some of them went on journeys that they didn’t believe they were worthy of returning from. And what was the boy’s destination?
“So, at the end of your sabbatical, you will return to the bosom of the Church and take your vows?”
“Then, if I may, why have you not done so yet?”
“I have not yet completed the task I had set out for myself,” the young man said, and Athos could see the trembling of his upper lip, the way he nervously brushed his hair behind his ears, the way his brow would crease in concentration. “But that time approaches.”
“You’re thinking of doing something from which there will be no way back, René,” Athos had said, feeling in his gut the phantom presence of the knife he almost saw in his companion’s hand. “Take it from me, turn back while you can.”
He watched the boy stand up and move towards the exit, he saw his slender form silhouetted against the light in the hallway. The way he lingered in doorways Athos would think he was not a man at all, but rather some spirit who resided in the interstitial spaces of reality and dreams, always a shadow, deceitful wiles falling like faerie spells from his lips. It appeared that Athos had a predilection for a certain kind of individual, after all.
“You are a true friend, aren’t you, M. Athos?” the sprite in his doorway asked.
“Don’t be so formal,” was all Athos could think to say in reply.
“Perhaps you will catch me then, before I fall into the precipice. Athos.”
“René d’Herblay, you will be the death of me.”
“Be careful, then.”
“Thank you,” the dweller of the night’s secret doorways had spoken, and disappeared quietly down the stairs on feet as light as a cat’s.
He had been out late with Porthos, which, in and of itself, was entirely unremarkable. What was rather unheard of was the fact that he had returned home from all the carousing without a single bruise or scratch on him that he could detect. Either their reputation was preceding them in making their opponents scatter to the four winds, or all the days of practice had actually paid off. Still, the skirmishing was becoming painless, which was not serving his needs. Athos had pulled off his clothes, his sword falling to the floor with a loud clatter, followed closely by his boots. He eyed his bed askance and then shot a suspicious look towards Grimaud. The poor lad was clearly in the process of trying to read his mind.
Yes. What a fun game. Fetch me a drink, boy. Athos sincerely was rooting for the kid to hone his telepathic ability.
His servant stood rooted to the ground, eyes taking in the disarray of Athos’ clothes and accoutrements as they lay scattered on the floor, like fallen soldiers on the field of battle.
Get me a drink, or I shall beat you, Athos thought, raising an eyebrow.
There was a flash of recognition on Grimaud’s gaunt face, which Athos greeted with something almost approaching a smile. The servant was about to turn towards the door, and no doubt bring him the wine he had clearly not had his fill of that night, when a loud knock startled them both. They stared at each other in a silence so profound as to be almost cacophonous.
Go see who it is, idiot, Athos communicated with a sharp nod towards the door, setting the servant scurrying.
He wondered in passing if it could be the Cardinal’s men, coming to drag him off to some prison or other. Had he and Porthos been enough of a nuisance lately to warrant a house call? Unlikely. Athos shrugged and eyed his sword, which still lay discarded on the floor.
“Is your master within?”
He recognized the voice. Of course, who else would show up at his doorstep past every curfew imaginable? It was his incubus from the fencing salon. And he was in shirtsleeves, well, Athos sighed, but it could have been worse. At least he had not yet removed his pantaloons.
“René, this is the hour one should only come to see one’s confessors or one’s lovers.”
He had meant for it to be a joke. He had even leaned against the doorframe of his bedroom with his arms and even his legs crossed in the most jovial pose he could muster. But then he looked at the young man’s face and noticed that it was covered in blood.
“Athos…” His name fell from those lips like a condemnation, like an anvil weight crashing to the floor between them.
“What have you done?” In one step, he was at the boy’s side, an arm wrapped around his trembling shoulders, steering him towards the bedroom because no other room in the house felt secluded or dark enough.
It was dawning, and they have not moved from the foot of Athos’ bed for hours. The empty bottles of wine were perpetual toys for René’s nimbly nervous fingers to twirl.
“He had mocked me,” René spoke, his voice hollow and slowed as if the wine down his gullet had turned into molasses. “He had to die.”
“Well,” Athos let his head lull backwards to rest against his mattress. His eyes were closing. “I have mocked you many times, and yet, I still live.”
“It’s different. You know me.”
“Are we out of wine?” the boy had changed the topic. The dead man’s blood had been long wiped off his face (a task to which Athos had sacrificed one of his remaining fine handkerchiefs), but he could see the dried patches on the young man’s clothes, especially now that the first rays of aurora were beginning to beat through the window. Athos should draw the blinds tighter, but moving was such a hardship.
“Mmmm,” Athos responded, tearing his eyes away from his companion’s neck.
“Tell me your name,” Athos’ guest suddenly said.
“My name,” Athos was having trouble moving his tongue. “My name is poison from my lips poured into your beautiful ears.” He felt too sleepy to chuckle, so he settled for a meaningful smirk instead.
“Not your family name. Your Christian name.”
“Why?” Athos bristled. What was the asp curled at his breast asking for now? He had learned his lesson vis-à-vis beautiful creatures, and surely it extended to possessors of delicate features regardless of gender.
“Because… tell me,” the young man insisted. “You mentioned confession when I first got here.”
Oh, well, thank God that was all he remembers me mentioning, Athos thought.
“Well, I may never hear confession myself now,” René finished, giving Athos a look that the older man could only describe as wistful.
“Young priestling, Jesus - your future husband, will welcome you home with open arms, I have no doubt.” It was more irreverent and cruel than he intended it to be, it was true. But what the kid had been asking was… intimate.
“No, he won’t. I can’t. I can’t go back.”
“Because I…” The bottle rolled from René’s fingers and into the V between Athos’ own legs. The musketeer reached down and felt along the cool glass with his fingers. “I liked it, Athos. God help me, but I did. I liked it.”
“You mean the kill?” Athos let his thumb press into the hollow of the neck’s bottle, the air trapped inside softly sucking on his skin.
“It was murder. I had planned his death. I trained for a year…”
“Murder? No, my young friend.” Athos shuddered against the onslaught of his own memories. Clearly he should beat Grimaud for not keeping his pantry more thoroughly stocked - they needed more wine - he could still feel his tongue. “Murder is far more personal. You did not know the man well enough for it to be personal.”
He didn’t know when René had moved closer but the bottle was repossessed and replaced with a hand, long fingers playing against the pulse of his wrist.
“If you go to Hell, I will go with you.” Doe-like eyes brimmed with something far too close to hope mere inches away from his own.
“It’s Olivier,” Athos said, when he should have said, “It’s time for you to leave.”
“Olivier,” his visitor replied, almost reverently, when he should have said, “Good-bye.”
“Don’t follow me to some place we cannot return from,” Athos whispered and closed his eyes. He held his breath. He counted to ten in three different languages. He was going to open his eyes and this night vision would be gone, and he would discover it had all been a foolish dream, a wine-induced fantasy.
And then he felt René’s lips against his own.
Seminaries, Athos thought bitterly, and let his hands fly up of their own volition to tangle in the soft curls of René’s hair.
“Will you give me my new name?” the incubus of Athos’ fever dream asked.
“My old tutor used to say that if you name something, you become emotionally attached and start thinking of that thing as yours,” Athos responded, meaning to say it in protest. He could see the smile on René’s lips, and another hundred lies hiding in the corners of his eyes. He could choose to believe them, if only for the briefest of moments, and take what was so clearly on offer. Perhaps he wasn’t lying about following Athos down to Hell.
“And that’s supposed to be a bad thing?” René whispered against his lips. And suddenly, Athos found his lap full of Heaven’s newest fallen angel, and he did not find it in himself to resist.
“The Three Inseparables, they say,” Porthos grumbled, “Never see one without the other two, they say.” He twirled his moustache militantly. “Little do they know!”
He paced in the narrow corridor of the rue Férou, casting distrustful looks towards Athos’ windows.
“Sorry about the wait,” Aramis finally said, bounding down the stairs, with Athos demurely descending behind him, whilst still adjusting his sword and tunic. “We got into a rather heated disagreement about certain passages in Judith.”
“Yeah, I bet you did,” Porthos gave them both a scalding look. Athos shrugged. Aramis smiled complacently. “Well, come on, then. You can explain that to the Captain, if you like.”
“We would not like,” Athos protested.
“Then you better walk faster,” Porthos clapped them both on the shoulder, propelling them onwards towards the headquarters on rue du Vieux-Colombier.
They were young still, they were together, and even if they were all on the road to Hell, at least they could still claim that it had been paved with good intentions.