i. a rare outlandish root
He was not afraid. He had not been afraid when he issued his challenge
(even though he could see in the eyes of his antagonist that he had been long forgotten, the little priest, so despised, low enough to be dismissed in thought as well as by word long since –
"Are you still determined that I shan't go back to a certain house in the Rue Payenne, and would you still dare give me a thrashing if I took it into my head to defy you?"
"What are you talking about? I don't think I know you...")
and nor was he afraid now, standing before the man who had been his superior once in all things temporal, spiritual, worldly and divine all commingled, and now was no more to him than he should ever have been – cleverer, perhaps, than the others who might now claim that right of authority; more determined, certainly; to be wary of, ah yes and always.
No more than that, though. Not a man to be feared for his judgment, nor for his closeness to God, and the damnation he could administer accordingly, only for his power and perhaps how he might choose to wield it.
He stood there before the man who was perhaps the greatest in all France, and was aware of his every failing, his every broken promise, his every shattered vow, and he was not afraid.
But then, he was no longer the little priest, either, nor was he even René d'Herblay, who had come to Paris with none of the skills needed to win his fight, and with precious few of those he had thought himself possessing, either.
(Truly, all things are as grass.)
His name was Aramis. And he had killed a man at the first pass, left him dead in a moonlit street and felt very little for the doing of it other than a swift prayer for the departed soul of the still-warm-bleeding body, killed him for very little more than an insult forgotten by one and smarted under by the other.
Killed him, perhaps, for the fact of his uncomprehending gaze at the moment of challenge.
He could say in all truth that he had never fought a duel. But he had killed, he had broken the greatest of all commandments, he had broken his vows long before that by the mere intent of his learning the methods by which he could achieve that end. He had left behind the pieces of every promise he had made before ever he came to Paris, and while he could look back and feel regret, he knew too that there had been no choice. He had been made to feel fear once, tasted it, bent under it. He had endured the hammer-blow that had sent blood from his face and limbs to collide in a sudden furious-swift beat of his heart, and vowed that he would never be made to feel so again.
He kept his head high, therefore, under the lowered brow and feigned sorrow of Richelieu's displeasure, and the blood coursed smoothly in his veins. He felt no shame, no embarrassed heat, no pale foreboding, his breath came soft and even and unshaken to an unconstricted chest, and passed as easily beyond his lips as he exhaled as it would have did he sleep.
And he felt no fear.
Richelieu's steel-commanding eye collected no cold sweat upon his brow, the sternness of that look gave no corresponding shiver to his spine.
For all his sins, real and perceived and hidden together, Aramis did not believe, even now, that he was beyond the grace of God – and the coming condemnation of one of His ministers on earth left him untroubled.
But then he had never wanted to hold an equal position in that grace which was peculiar to the great Cardinal – and the threat of its withdrawal caused him no pang of guilt, no tremor of concern.
He, too, knew the full meaning of steel, of adamant resolve, of undaunted will. He could control his body and his mind
(to all appearance)
and his heart belonged to himself and his new catechism
(friendship loyalty honour the King)
and there he held fast and kept bound together, entwined and inseparable as his new ideals, his new-concealed passions and his God.
"Ah, if I could only persuade you," Richelieu said at last, softly. "If I could only make you see how your fortunes would prosper under my guidance!"
"They need no furtherance, Monseigneur," Aramis replied, with his new-learnt, old-essential obliquity. He did not say Not from you, though the words hung between them.
Richelieu continued to look upon him sorrowfully, a father regarding an erring son, waiting for contrition. Aramis only smiled, small and sweet, safe behind his new armour of dulcet, steady, unswerving innocence, and knowing that armour to be truer now than when he was yet untried in his faith; stronger than when he had no means of comparison save only untempered belief.
"But all men require more than simplicity, as you know. Were it the case that such things fulfilled the heart and soul's requirements, that they could ease that longing for the unattainable that govern our minds, you would never have left the safety of the seminary to pursue vengeance."
"I did not pursue vengeance, sir, for that would in truth have been a sin. I pursued that very fulfilment of which you speak, sought that knowledge that we are indeed worth more than the beasts, that our souls are not made for subjugation, and so nor are those frail shells which house them in all their mortal weakness. I pursued the only goal which is of account to salvation, that of truth."
"Ah! You see yourself as an avatar of justice, then –"
"No, for there is no justice but that of God. I sought myself and the truth of my soul, for it is one thing to fear death, and another to fear another man who breathes the same air, lusts after the same fleshly wants and sins upon satisfaction of them, who draws upon the sustenance of the world to prolong his days. I sought to conquer fear, and in so doing, to find my limits."
"And have you found them?" The Cardinal steepled his hands, gazing over them as though fascinated.
"No." Aramis smiled once more. "No, and I pray that I never shall. In my end is my beginning, and this I hold to be an absolute truth, but there must be no end to my reach, or I shall find my grasp is empty when I come to that end."
"Sophistry." The Cardinal dismissed the last with a brief flicker of two fingers, brushing away Aramis's thoughts as though they were no more than a small fly, not worthy even of the wave of a whole hand. "Duelling is forbidden. And vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."
"The Lord God, or my Lord the Cardinal?" Aramis enquired evenly, though temper controlled his words for the first time, imbuing them with a faint edge. Passion will not serve you here, he reminded himself, and tamped it down, concealing his true feelings once more with honeyed accents. "For of course, in the eyes of Paris, they are as one."
"In the eyes of Paris, perhaps," Richelieu conceded with a faint smile and a little pride. "But in yours?"
"I think I am beyond Monseigneur's grace," was all Aramis replied.
"But not his reach," the Cardinal warned. "Like you, I have no desire to find my limits, nor to clutch at air for the value of an empty hand and the trace of forgotten dust in my palm's folds. Beware of vanity, my son. Your courage smacks of pride, and that, too, you must learn to conquer, or it will destroy you."
"Yet you would have me bend it to your will to raise me higher."
"I would have you bend it to a greater glory," the Cardinal returned serenely.
"And will you next show me all the kingdoms of the world from your high place?" Aramis flashed back in pique. "I have chosen my course. It is not yours."
"Not yet," Richelieu said, and his eyelids lowered, victory flashing in the stern gaze before he could veil it; satisfaction unalloyed at having provoked such childishness visible for a brief second – and Aramis did, in that moment, feel the shame he had held at bay, for granting the man that which he had sworn to withhold. "But you are still very young. Go, then. But remember – what I have offered, you may one day need. You will not always find me so generous."
Aramis could only bow his acceptance of the dismissal, and take his leave.
It was only when the doors were closed behind him that the blood rushed to his heart once again, and a tremor shook him mercilessly – not for fear, but for the feeling of a moment evaded, a warning brush of fate and Richelieu's hand against his soul.
He suspected it was the first intimations of hatred.
ii. heart in pilgrimage
"The world believes we are lovers," Marie said one late and gaudy-gold afternoon, and Aramis looked at her naked body and tumbled hair, and laughed despite himself.
"And would the world be wrong?" He ran one finger across her thigh, stroking warmth into the cool silk of her skin, and looked as though into some magic pool at the secret depths of her smile, watching in fascination as her lips parted on a breath of enjoyment.
"Yes," she said, the word cooler than her skin could ever be, the blood of her emotions far more temperate than that which beat beneath her yielding flesh. "For I do not love you."
"No, you love intrigue more than any man, and to play at politics more than even that," Aramis agreed.
"As you do." Marie put her arms around his neck, demanding his acquiescence.
"Not yet," Aramis said. "Not yet." He kissed her, repentant and unregretful at once, for he could not imagine a time when the pull of the world's conceits would match and outstrip this pleasure. "I will learn." He sought to appease her, and yet some part of him knew it to be true, rendering the saying of it easy, easier than a complete lie would have been, easier by far than it should have been and surprisingly free of cost in the utterance.
Not for the first time, he wished he could be a better man, free from the sins that the Church never mentioned and that he knew to be mortal; the sins of self and coldness and reserve of passion for survival; the sins that would forever keep him separate from his friends and his lovers.
"You will have to," she responded against his lips, and the shadow of the Cardinal darkened the sun and took the honey from the day. Richelieu, who hated to lose anything, and stood to gain so much by the simple act of ridding himself of Marie's knowing presence at the court; who stood to win this hand of strange cards, merely by divesting the Queen of her ally and himself of temptation in one smooth turn. "One day I will mis-step, and then I will leave you, whether you wish it or no."
"You will never leave me," he said, and knew it to be truth and not arrogance nor pride. "You are a part of me."
"The best part?" Vanity still held her, though she knew it for folly.
"A part," he repeated, and gave her his own armoured smile, the sting of it concealed by all the deliberate sweetness at his disposal. "A part and only that. But still, a part."
"A part while apart," she murmured, and kissed him once again, drawing him closer. "Don't forget that, when the world calls."
"I don't forget my vows," he said against her ear, and sealed each syllable with a flickering tongue against the shell of it, the strange promise of his words a sea-whisper for her remembrance.
I only break them.
But so, he knew, would she.
For someone who claims to avoid the snares of the world, you fall into them marvellously well, said the embittered voice of Athos in his mind, and he closed his ears to it, even knowing it to be true.
I do not need to debate my morality with you, he had said at the time, when those words first fell upon his ears and brain and heart – but even lost in Marie's embrace, in the pleasure they could take for their now while they pretended the inevitable was further off than it was, he knew that to be a lie.
(friendship loyalty honour the king)
Sophistry, said Richelieu clearly, further back still, and Aramis knew that he was walking the fabled line of the diameter at his own peril, holding the centre
(the perfect centre of the perfect round)
at the cost of everything he had sworn to uphold.
When the time comes, he vowed in the most secret and hidden corner of his soul , I will know what I must put first.
But he could not silence the cry of his heart, even as Marie stole the very breath from his lungs and sent the blood racing through his body more than ever anger or shame or victory could manage –
iii. reversed thunder
Aramis had never known the secret of water before he came to Paris, how it could cleanse away dust and bile and bitter gall from the throat, how it could taste sweeter than the finest vintage when taken at a draught after exertion, how it could seem more precious than any fabled elixir, or the container seem more valuable than the Grail, even when it was only a clay cup or a leather flask.
He stood to the side in the courtyard, his sword leaning against the wall, and drank deeply, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth when he was done, as he would never have thought of doing in his seminary days. The feel of it was cool on his ungloved skin, and did nothing to reduce the heat that coursed through him, the thrills of unmitigated rage and betrayal that still struck him like lightning-blows when he allowed his mind to wander even for the briefest second.
Not even the clash of another man's steel upon his now-honed skills could lighten the heavy pain of it; no fury of movement or breathless display of concerted effort could convince him that all would be well. His blood sifted through his heart's mourning, and yet he was unsure what it was he grieved for; his mind moved over what could not be changed, and the thinking of it choked him.
He was more adrift now, losing what he had never possessed, than he had ever been in the choices he had made, no matter what they had cost him in the past.
Richelieu had won, and Marie was in exile, and there was only the sting and the chewed wax left in his life's honeycomb.
"You knew it was coming," Athos said, leaning beside him, and Aramis nodded, too weary even to resent the scarcely-hidden patronage in his friend's tone.
"I knew. Of course I knew, of course. But I do not have to –"
"You do not have to like it now it has at last been done, no." Athos's eyes were warm. "Has she broken that impenetrable heart of yours after all, then?" It was only part-jest. They both knew it was a possibility, that some things could pierce even the armour of a concealed soul.
"No," Aramis said, after a pause during which he gave the question the consideration it truly deserved; for was that, in the end, the source of his incomprehensible misery? "No, she has not. But I think perhaps –"
"Perhaps the Cardinal may have done," Aramis said, knowing it for truth in the instant of saying the words, and the quick blood of shame at his confession leapt scalding to his face.
"Then hate him for it," Athos said, and the pale face lit with a terrible fire, the look of a zealot; out of place and almost frightening. "It will seal the break."
"Hatred is against all the teachings of –"
"But not mine," Athos said, and his hand was warm when it covered Aramis's fingers. "Not mine."
"You think I should place you above the Church?" Aramis asked, incredulous, and Athos smiled, the dark look of melancholy tainting his open regard.
"I think friendship should count for more than empty mouthings," was all he said, and after a moment, Aramis turned his hand beneath the warm grasp, and returned the pressure.
"It does," he said quietly. "It does."
He could hate. He could love policy. And he could protect those he loved with all the passion that was in him.
None of it was a vow; none of it was his word given to be broken; none of it was some pathetic fallacy to be destroyed as simply and easily as the sand he had constructed it from.
Here, he thought, and the kingdoms of the world were before him once more. Now.
He reached out, and his grasp was not dust, but the shining globe of something more and better than sun, warming as the last drowsy afternoon in Marie's arms, real as Richelieu's intrigue.
It would be a while before it was put into words, but he recognised them when they came, for they matched those in his heart.
One for all, all for one.
He would defy more than Richelieu, in the end, to keep that as his constant; to hold that for their truth. Even when he finally turned his back on it, it would be his belief.
He had found that part of him which was more than self.
He would never forget.
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.