“He will never be king, but he’ll be happier than the man who is.”
Footsteps, silk rustles gently against marble, and there is a soft exhalation of breath that does not quite deepen into a cough: Armand.
Louis does not turn to greet the cardinal but lingers disconsolately at the window, still dressed for a hunt. “Where is my mother?” His tone is blunted by emotion. The sun is starting to fade. He can hear, in the distant trees, the raucous, quarrelling chorus of birds before nightfall.
“She has gone, sire.” They are soft words, consoling, almost kind.
He shakes his head. It has all been an illusion – again. Her warmth was ever accompanied by powerlessness, uncertainty, and suspicion. Tears well up, glistening unshed. “Of course she has,” he says, sullen with hurt. He wishes it were possible to douse the small flame of hope in his breast which his mother knows how to fan so well. But whatever her scheme had been, it failed, and now the cardinal has her in retreat. She has gone. His lip quivers at the betrayal. “The assassins have been found, then?” The king affects disinterest as he glances round at the cardinal, but Louis’ expression cannot match his cold, diffident voice.
“I am afraid, Your Majesty, that our investigations have shown them to be in the pay of Marie de Medici…” Armand paces the room slowly, his sharp, blue eyes catching Louis’ glance. “It was all a treacherous charade to elicit your sympathy.”
Louis cries out and his fist connects with a sideboard. A pair of gilded candlesticks clatter to the floor. His breathing comes in shallow, furious gasps. There is not enough air. I want her head! But the words are mangled, their bones breaking on his sluggish tongue before they can escape. The speech impediment of his youth returns him to the helpless frustrations and longings of childhood. His efforts to speak dissolve into sobs. He could not kill her then and he cannot kill her now. But if she ever comes back…
At least, with Armand, there is no pretence to affection. No false exclamations of solidarity. The cardinal and he share no common blood; they are bound only by necessity and the ties of master and servant. Louis draws away, wrapping his arms about himself, closing his eyes. A hand settles tentatively on his shoulder and he jerks back as though scalded.
Go away! His mouth still isn’t working, throat silted up with pain. Furious, Louis attempts to rid himself of his hunting boots, clawing at the straps his mother so lovingly tightened. He staggers awkwardly, a boot in his right hand as he kicks off the second one, and then hurls them both onto the fire. Watching as the fine suede chars, he finds his voice again. “How close did she come?” The stone floor is cold through his thin stockings. Louis hates how weak his voice sounds – he is no longer a child. “Whatever her scheme was… how close?”
Armand is a tall shadow, lingering in the corner of his vision. “Close enough to do me the honour of offering me a position in her government,” the cardinal looms closer, “but she overplayed her hand.” A slight, dignified bow: “I am ever Your Majesty’s servant.” The silver moustache gives an almost imperceptible twitch and Armand’s arms spread low and wide. It is a fatherly gesture, appropriate to a priest.
Louis steps forward into those arms. They envelop, but do not press. Warm, but not so much that it fans the flame. “Do not leave me… promise….” he whispers. The queen burns so brightly he can hardly stand it. He knows she will take everything if he gives her half a chance. They all will.
“You have my word.” Armand will keep France and her king safe.
Eventually, his pulse slows back down. "At least tomorrow I will be able to hunt again," he drawls as he pulls away, “today was so dull.” Louis does not want someone to fill the vast cavity within him. He cannot imagine anything more terrifying. All he wants is someone who will keep the world at bay.