She arrived on the outskirts of Paris as night fell on a mild midsummer’s evening. She hadn’t intended to be so thoroughly dramatic about it all, really, but it did mean that she was less likely to be spotted wandering the streets of a city she’d been exiled from for over two months. If one word of her got back to Athos now, everything would be over before it had even begun. The night was warm enough, but Milady shivered, drawing her shawl tightly around her shoulders before she set off again at a brisk walk.
The palace lay a long way ahead of her, and she wanted to arrive well before dawn.
Anne struggled to keep still as her lady-in-waiting yanked at the knots in her hair with a stiff wooden comb. She had harboured a vain hope that with the baby on the way she and Louis might have been on good enough terms to begin sharing chambers, but things had remained the same as ever; each night still saw her preparing to sleep alone in a bed big enough for three grown men to share without complaint of overcrowding.
Her lady tore through a particularly matted section of hair, and Anne bit her lip as tears sprang to her eyes. “Charlotte, will you soon be done?”
“It will take as long as it takes, Your Majesty,” said Charlotte. “The cost of looking like a queen is -”
She was cut off mid-sentence by a soft tap on the door; her hands froze in Anne’s hair. Anne breathed a small sigh of relief. “Your Majesty, shall I answer?”
Anne’s heart leapt a little as the knock came again, quiet but insistent. What if it was a servant with a message from Louis? She nodded, twisting out of the way of Charlotte’s comb. “At once, if you please,” she said. Charlotte bustled across the room and heaved the chamber door ajar. Anne craned her neck anxiously, but thanks to Charlotte standing in the doorway, she could only see half of a shadowed figure. After a moment, Charlotte turned back to her.
“Your Majesty, this girl says there is a woman who seeks an audience with you.”
“What, at this hour?” Anne had never had this happen before, in all her years as the Queen of France. People either sought her out at court, or on the streets: never had they resorted to approaching her in her bedchambers. “Is it an emergency?”
Charlotte whispered something to the servant at the door, and then looked back at Anne. “The lady says it is a matter most urgent.”
“Well, then,” said Anne, taking a few steps closer to the door, “you must allow her to speak with me.”
“This is highly irregular, Your Majesty,” said Charlotte. She was a thin-lipped, middle-aged woman, a vicomtesse of some dilapidated country manor who wouldn’t be within fifty miles of Paris if her family had even a quarter of the money they needed to maintain their estate. As it was, however, both Anne and the comtesse were stuck with one another and Anne had no wish to destroy their semblance of a friendship with an argument. Still, she was a curious soul by nature; she longed to find out who had managed to get past the palace guards to see her privately at this hour of the night.
“Charlotte, I can only thank you for your concern,” said Anne, “but I am intrigued. I would like to give this woman a few moments of my time.”
“Your Majesty, I really don’t think that this is a good idea,” Charlotte said, stepping forward and putting her hands on Anne’s shoulders. “I would advise you to go to your bed and see this woman tomorrow.”
“I wish to see her now,” said Anne. She felt like a pouting child with Charlotte trying to propel her back towards her bed. “Charlotte, I am fully capable of making my own decisions! Please, escort this lady within my chambers and give us some privacy.”
“It is not safe,” said Charlotte, seeming to forget all of her obsequious deference to Anne’s title. “I won’t be held responsible for any harm coming to you or the heir of France. I will not see you to your death!”
“Death? Why, Charlotte, I can hardly imagine I’m about to be visited by an assassin.” Anne brushed her lady-in-waiting’s hands from her shoulders and sidestepped her neatly, heading over to the door. Charlotte hurried after her, still protesting, and had nearly caught hold of her once more when a commanding voice resounded from outside.
“I’ve waited long enough. Move aside, girl!”
The door creaked open just as Charlotte caught hold of Anne’s shoulders, pushing her aside and stepping in front of her with a selflessness Anne had not expected. She tried to get past Charlotte again, but the woman was like a block of concrete, impossible to move out of the way, with a vice-like grip that had now fixed itself on both of Anne’s arms. Anne had to content herself with peering around the shield of Charlotte’s body.
She couldn't help but think, as a shadow passed over the far wall, that this was all far too theatrical to be anything but a disappointment.
Milady had grown impatient waiting for the Queen to decide whether or not to allow her an audience. She had not journeyed all the way from Alsace and expended nearly all of her resources breaking into the palace only to be turned away without even laying eyes on the Queen. She pushed past the servant girl she’d encountered in the corridor and forced the chamber door wide open.
Stepping in, she took stock of her surroundings; the chamber had no other exits, except a window which looked out onto the palace gardens. There was a woman with heavy eyebrows and a stern set to her jaw, probably a lady-in-waiting, standing in front of the Queen as if to protect her.
Milady dropped into a deep curtsey at once. It wouldn’t do to terrify anyone and force them to call for assistance. “Your Majesty,” she said, addressing herself to the sliver of Anne’s face that was visible to her from behind her lady. “Your Majesty, I beg you to forgive me the intrusion into your private chambers.”
She waited, glancing up at the two women from underneath her lashes whilst pretending to study the ground reverentially. Anne seemed to be struggling behind her servant. After a moment, she appeared to triumph, for the woman moved aside, glaring all the while at Milady. Anne glided forth, a beatific smile on her lips. Milady had seen her before, of course, but never so close. Her face was rounded by pregnancy, her stomach straining against her silk nightgown, but she still had her graceful ways about her.
“Rest assured, you have my forgiveness,” she said. She bent down and offered a hand to Milady, who let herself be raised up. She was taller than the Queen when standing, and the sudden difference in vantage points seemed to sap some of Anne’s regality. She was still smiling, but it was a little thinner, a little more worn. She turned to her servant. “Charlotte, I think you needn’t worry yourself. I would have a few minutes alone with my visitor.”
“Your Majesty, I -”
“Charlotte.” Anne’s tone brooked no argument. Regal or not, she had a certain steel about her that seemed effective; though they stared at each other for a few moments longer, the battle of wills was won. The servant, Charlotte, sighed and moved to the door.
“I shall return in ten minutes, but if you should need me before then, Your Majesty needs only call.” With that, she was gone, and the door closed with a dull thud behind her. Milady was not sure how to proceed from here. For all her experience with Richelieu and the French nobility, she’d never once learned how she should speak to a monarch.
“Your lady seems frightened of me, Your Majesty,” she said, when the silence seemed to draw itself out far too long. “I assure you I mean you no harm.”
“I never for a moment believed otherwise,” said Anne. She sat on the edge of her bed and gestured to the chair beside her. “Please, have a seat. You’ve not told me your name.”
“No,” Milady agreed as she sat. “Most know me as Milady de Winter.”
“Milady.” Anne raised an eyebrow, but let whatever concerns she had pass. “May I ask why you are here? It’s quite late for a visit of any sorts.”
Milady had thought about this moment in great detail. She’d never had any doubt that it would actually happen, but now that she was here, she couldn’t decide how best to proceed. “I’m aware of the lateness of the hour, Your Majesty,” she said. “I have travelled from far away, and it was of the utmost importance that I was not discovered in Paris before I came to you.”
The Queen’s face was alive with curiosity. She leaned forwards, placing a hand on the arm of the chair in which Milady sat. “Please, you must tell me everything.”
Milady almost laughed at that. She was looking for patronage, not a death sentence. “It is hard to know where to begin, Your Majesty.” she said, not untruthfully. “I am a woman who has made many enemies over the years, for many different reasons.”
Anne nodded, eyes wide. “You seek my protection.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Milady said, pride leaving her unable to fully agree with this assessment. “My life is in danger every moment I spend in Paris, and yet there is nowhere else I want to be. A woman should be able to choose where she spends her life, do you not agree, Your Majesty?”
She saw Anne’s gaze flicker to the side for an instant, a small frown puckering her lips. “Of course,” she murmured. “Wherever she wishes.” She gazed down at her lap for a moment, before shaking her head. “Of course. Go on.”
“I am besieged on all sides, but I would have my life be safe from those who seek to end it. Being in your service would offer me everything that I need, and I think I would be a great asset to Your Majesty,” said Milady, wondering if it would be too much to take Anne’s hand. It still rested, palm upturned, on the arm of her chair. Before she could move, the Queen drew back.
“How so, Milady?”
Milady took a considering look at her monarch. She got the sense that Anne was a woman who appreciated bluntness, or at least the appearance of it. So: blunt she would be. “I am fluent in Spanish and English, as well as French. I am discreet and capable of gathering information quickly and reliably. I know the ways of the nobility, and how to fit in around them if necessary. I could be your greatest ally in the whole of France, if you gave me the chance.”
Anne shifted closer again, so close this time that Milady could see the faint outline of freckled skin beneath her thin silk nightgown. She could see the rise and fall of her chest with each quick little breath, could almost feel the fluttering skip of Anne’s pulse at her throat.
“You mean you could be my spy?” Anne said, in a voice only a little above a whisper. Her mouth was pursed, her face so close that Milady could make out the tiny, light hairs just above her top lip. She knew what she would do in any other situation, but this was the Queen, and even Milady could recognize when someone was just a little too dangerous to push too far, however sweet and docile they looked. She settled for reaching out a hand and brushing Anne’s knee with the ghost of a touch. She was more than a little startled when Anne grasped hold of her fingers, twining them with her own, but she did not pull away. “Is that what you are proposing, Milady?” Anne asked. They stared at each other for a moment, the hardened criminal and the pregnant queen. A thousand words flew through Milady's head, but only one made it out into the open air.
“Yes,” Milady whispered, and took hold of Anne’s other hand.