The Duke of Savoy's state visit is longer than expected and trying for everyone involved, including Anne, to whom the entertainment of the Duchess – Louis' sister – primarily falls.
Anne does not envy Christine, because envy is not an emotion becoming of a queen; but in the light of the other woman's presence, she somewhat shamefully finds herself wishing things were different. The duke, though a difficult man, seems to love Christine as thoroughly as Anne would expect of husband and wife. And of course, she has her son to fill and lighten her days.
Anne feels in her bones that she would be a good mother; and Louis, still half a child himself, would be a good father. If the Lord were ever to bless them.
She knows Christine is theirs at heart – France's, and Louis' – and so finds herself taken aback when all her tentative overtures towards friendship are roundly snubbed. Given the circumstances, it takes her far too long to realise that perhaps Christine does not trust her.
They are not the same, not by any means. She may be Spanish-born and of Spanish blood, but she broke with her country when she was crowned queen of France. She has shed her native skin, and has always made sure that to see and hear her, one would never know her homeland.
She still dreams in her native tongue, but that is the only weakness she allows herself. If she is a good, French queen, maybe God will give her a good French son.
Once the accord is finally signed, the inevitable celebratory banquet follows straight after. Delayed for over a week, though one would never know it from the splendour of the repast. Anne spends the whole evening feeling distinctly relieved; Christine equally so, she suspects, the Duchess' manner less haughty and more at ease than it has been since her arrival.
Of course, this could just be in contrast to Louis and the Duke, whose expressions incline towards the near-mutinous for the entire duration of the feast.
When the menfolk eventually retire, it is to leave her alone with Christine; and Anne is at a loss for a moment, searching an opener that's just the right amount of cordial – when something suddenly sparks in the Duchess' eyes.
"Come, your Majesty, I want to show you something," she announces with the directness of royalty; takes Anne by the hand without hesitation and leads her through the double doors and out into the gardens spread out before them, as if the Louvre were still her home, and not Anne's at all.
Anne glances around to see her Musketeer escorts trail them at a respectful distance, new blue cloaks still vibrant even in the twilight. Neither of the men is Aramis, a fact she does not allow herself to dwell on.
Christine's hand is warm and strong in hers, pulling her along through the kitchen gardens with determined pace, and this is clearly no mere stroll. Anne feels a little dizzy with it, and flushed, as if she has drunk more than she ought at dinner.
They walk for several minutes, weaving along and around the tall hedges of the lady's maze; and Anne starts to feel unaccountably nervous, as if the evening is building to something she cannot glimpse.
Christine turns her round a last corner and suddenly stops. Before them is a small pool, in the dead centre of the maze, and wreathed in stones, that Anne doesn't remember ever having seen before. Their two faces appear at the closest edge of its surface, as still as the finest Venetian glass.
The sight is… affecting.
"I used to come here as a child," Christine says, her voice soft for the first time since Anne has met her, and Anne understands instinctively that this place is something beloved. She watches Christine's lips move in the pool's reflection as she speaks, and it's as if the transmutation through light and water has made her into someone else, stripped her of the mask of her rank, the weight of her service. "It has been many years since I gazed upon this water."
"Thank you for showing me," Anne replies carefully; unsure if Christine brought her here for Anne's sake or her own.
They both fall silent then, and Christine pulls Anne gently to her knees, before trailing her right hand through the surface of the water, her left thumb running as softly over Anne's knuckles as a breath of air.
If Anne had been alone here, she would not have dared disturb something so still and beautiful; but she follows Christine's lead and runs her own fingers through the pool, their reflections swirling into meaningless colour.
"Louis doesn't love you," Christine says suddenly – and from anyone else Anne would have been offended, but Christine's sad, considering tone and the tightening of her grip on their-still joined hands just make Anne want to weep instead. "Not as he ought. I don't believe he knows how."
Anne says nothing. She has nothing to say, yet.
Instead she looks up, where the evening's last light rises above the line of the hedging and the stars begin to dazzle in their inky bed, and tells herself that she will not feel pain.
"And I do not love my husband," Christine finishes matter-of-factly, as if she has resigned herself to that terrible truth; and Anne swears to herself then that whatever Louis' faults, she shall never allow them to become estranged so completely.
"Have you ever been in love, sister?"
Anne thinks again of Louis; of the Musketeer she cannot have, and turns to look at Christine for the first time.
"No, I have not."
"Good," Christine replies, with a vehemence that shocks her, though Anne stifles her shock just as quickly. "It will never bring you happiness."
There is a dark intensity in Christine's face that makes Anne's heart stutter for a second; but when she speaks her tone is soft again. "I wish to show you something else, if I may."
Anne nods minutely, and then stills completely as Christine takes her face in her hands, and kisses her gently on the lips, with a tenderness she had not expected.
"You can never take a lover," Christine murmurs, resting her forehead against Anne's, hands still cradling her face. "I know you are sensible enough to realise what you would be risking. But with another woman, you can allow yourself to feel loved while remaining above reproach, beyond suspicion."
Anne understands what she's alluding to; and it's something that belongs in the night, under the moon and stars, whispers and smooth skin, the soft press of lips and delicate touches.
She craves it immediately.
"Show me?" she whispers.
"Not here," Christine whispers back. "Take me to your chambers."
The Musketeers station themselves at the outer door of her chambers. Anne tells them nothing, and she knows they will not suspect.
Now she is the one to lead Christine, through her sitting room to her inner chamber, where the large four-poster bed that dominates the room seems suddenly threatening. This is where Louis comes to her, or did; though it has been so long that she barely remembers the touch of his hands or the weight of his body above her, the picture in her mind just a vague, shifting abstract of a lover.
She pushes it away.
Anne sets her candle on the washstand, and turns – not expecting Christine to step forward, already licking her thumb and finger, before putting them to the flame and pinching it out.
Anne opens her mouth to say something, to object, but Christine immediately puts those selfsame fingers to Anne's own lips. They are warm from the flame, and suddenly she realises that this is right, that they lay themselves bare for each other in nothing more than the thin sliver of moonlight that falls through her still-open shutters.
With fingers that tremble in excitement, she opens the first of the hundreds of buttons on Christine's bodice.
They undress each other like sisters, or maids; they certainly do not feel like lovers yet. The banquet has called for their most elaborate evening finery, bodices and skirts, stays and petticoats, and they peel away the layers one by one until they are both almost down to their linen.
It is Christine who first breaks the silence. "You should imagine I'm whoever you like," she says softly. "Whatever happens in here," putting her hand on Anne's heart, on the slope of her breast as she pulls Anne's stays away from her body with the other, leaving her clad in only her thin shift.
Anne can't remember the last time anyone touched her there.
She thinks for a moment of her Musketeer; but she can't picture him, she doesn't know his form under his clothes and has little to compare it with, and the idea frightens her more than it arouses.
Christine, on the other hand, is here, and her body is familiar, a mirror of Anne's own. And it feels cruel to take from her and pretend she is someone else; and Anne decides then that she will give back.
"No. I want it to be you," she says determinedly, pulling her shift over her head and letting it fall to the floor.
As she stands bare before Christine, she's shivering, though whether it's with cold or excitement she can't tell; and Christine takes her hand and leads her over to the bed, pulling back the heavy coverlet. As Anne climbs underneath, she watches Christine pull her own shift off and slip into the bed beside her, as bare now as Anne herself.
The bed shifts as Christine leans over her in the near-dark, and then their lips meet.
Anne wonders as she's kissed and touched, gentle, confident hands tracing patterns over her skin, caressing her shoulders, stomach and sides, where Christine learned to do this. If another woman had come to her in the night as Christine has come to Anne, to teach her that there's pleasure to be found even in the loneliest bed.
She also wonders if she will one day offer this to someone else.
She knows it is supposed to be wrong; but she simply cannot countenance that idea now, Christine kissing her breasts and hands spreading her thighs, warm pleasure swelling at her breast and low in her belly.
As Christine shifts further down her body and settles between her legs, kissing and licking at Anne's sex in a way that sends desire lancing through her all of a sudden, she thinks again of the pool in the centre of the lady's maze, unknown to her all these years; imagines herself drinking from it, cupped hands and cool water, even as Christine's mouth on her, fingers inside her send her gasping and shuddering hot through the stars above.
That pool will be their place, now, and this their secret; and even though Christine will return to Savoy tomorrow and it could be years until they meet again, Anne knows that the night will always be their time.