At high noon, the bare spot of ground by the foot of the convent of the Carmes Dechausses is shrouded in the gauze of shimmering heat. Shadows lurk in the corners, tucked in tightly into the flanks of the stone walls, and Porthos wishes he could tuck himself in likewise, get away from the glare of the sun. It’s too hot, his collar it too high, and he’s not sure if he trusts the man with whom he has been sent on this mission. He shoots a side glance at Aramis, who has found a flat stone to sit on, leaning against the wall. His face looks quite calm, but his fingers are plucking at the plume of the hat he holds dangling between his knees. Porthos clears his throat and Aramis looks up at him.
“Are you sure he’ll be here soon?”
“He’ll come.” Aramis’ voice is confident enough. Porthos doesn’t know him well enough yet to have learned if the confidence is real or assumed.
“Are we going to pay or threaten him?”
“Whatever it takes.”
Aramis falls silent again, and Porthos regards him thoughtfully. From what he’s seen so far, there’s more to the man than would appear at first glance. Porthos saw him spar and he saw him shoot, and, perhaps most importantly, he has Aramis to thank for the fact that his right arm is as agile and powerful as it ever was. It was in the middle of a skirmish, with guns firing and swords clashing around them, that Aramis stitched the gash on his upper arm and stilled the incessant stream of blood. It was some of the finest and fastest stitching Porthos had ever seen; Aramis only halted once and that was to shoot a man. Such an admirable display of sangfroid should have been enough to win Porthos’ heart, but he doesn’t quite trust the flowery words, the perfumed hair and the air of libertine ease which Aramis flaunts like he might a domino costume at a masquerade.
He spots movement out of the corner of his eye, and a cloaked figure slinks down the path, crooked and with its hat pulled firmly over its eyes. The man could not look more conspicuous if he tried, but Porthos recognises the desperate, hungry air that clings to him. He’d recognise it anywhere, it is the shape of a man who has nothing to lose and is willing to sell his soul to the devil to buy his next meal and postpone the inevitable for another day.
“Pay,” he says under his breath to Aramis, just as Aramis says:
“Did you bring any money?”
They exchange a look. “Threaten it is, then,” Porthos agrees with the silent verdict.
Aramis stands and puts on his hat. “Bonjour, my friend,” he says, while Porthos braces himself, straightens his shoulders, lifts his chin, puts his hand on the pommel of his sword. He does all this slowly, deliberately, in full knowledge that the half-starved and probably more than half-mad creature before him takes it all in, feels the power radiating from him.
Aramis strides over to the man and leans in to peer under the brim of his hat. “It’s good of you to meet us,” he says pleasantly, while Porthos shifts his weight, takes a step to the side so that he’s now standing behind the man. “I hear you can tell us something about the whereabouts of a man called Bois-Guilbert?”
“Jean-Baptiste de Bois-Guilbert,” Porthos supplies and watches the man’s shoulders stiffen.
“How much?” a hoarse whisper from beneath the hat.
“Oh, let’s see,” Aramis smiles and exchanges a look with Porthos over the man’s shoulder. “How about: your life?”
“You can’t do that,” the man croaks. “It’d be murder.”
“We wouldn’t,” Porthos says, steps forward and lays a hand on the man’s shoulder. He feels bones so brittle they might be a bird’s and not much else. “The law would. And it wouldn’t be murder if you were killed by the law, would it?”
“Surely, you wouldn’t want to call His Majesty a murderer. Or His Eminence.” Aramis is looking down at the man with an expression of wide-eyed sincerity on his face.
Porthos feels the bird-like frame tremble under his fingers and he loosens his grip lest the bones should shatter in his hand. He leans in and whispers: “For that would be treason.”
“Rue Guérin-Boisseau!” A desperate cry tears from the man’s throat. “The Court of the Blind in the rue Guérin-Boisseau.”
“Thank you,” Aramis says. “Now, if you could only lead us there…”
Porthos lets go of the shoulder and moves his arm quickly to catch the stumbling figure by the elbow. “No need,” he says and pats the man on the back, very gently. “I know where it is.”
He notices Aramis’ quizzical look even as he turns away, but Aramis doesn’t ask. They soon fall in step together. Porthos knows that the man has vanished, gone the moment they turned their backs on him.
“You did give him money after all,” he says to Aramis as they make their way down the rue de Vaugirard, walking towards the Seine.
“I unexpectedly found some change in my pocket.”
“I should be so lucky.”
“Do you think we’ll find him?” Aramis asks.
“If he is where our friend said that he is, we will find him.” He takes off his hat and wipes off his forehead with the back of his kid-leather glove. “Only question is why is he hiding away there? Why not go to the King and claim what’s rightfully his?”
“Perhaps matters are more complicated than we were led to believe.”
“There’s no perhaps about it. But if he really is the rightful heir to a colony-”
“It’s only one island.”
“Only one island. Do you come across West Indian islands as easily as across unexpected change in your pocket?”
Aramis laughs. “What I mean is that perhaps the price it too high. His father was granted that land by the Spanish Crown for services rendered. These are no good times to be known as having rendered services to the Spanish.”
“Why has he come to Paris, then?”
“That, my friend,” Aramis pats Porthos’ shoulderblade and leaves his hand there, fingers curled loosely over the swell of his shoulder, “is precisely what we are going to ask him.”
The shadows are taller here, as they approach the great cul-de-sac that is Fief d’Alby. Every cobblestone feels familiar beneath the soles of his boots. It’s an illusion, of course it is; even if he knew those streets once like the back of his hand, he has grown apart, and the streets have changed. But he knows his way around still, the alleyways suck him in and spit him out at just the right corners, and the mud on the ground and the smell of grease and smoke in the air are like the embrace of long-lost brothers.
It’s not a court, the Court of the Blind: a dark staircase, a suffocating journey along a narrow passage, silhouettes of men skulking in all corners that could kill them easily. But they won’t, because even if they’ve never met Porthos, they recognise him for what he is. The musketeer’s uniform offers no protection here; Porthos’ stance does. He shoves the rags aside that separate one room from another and steps over the threshold. He doesn’t look over his shoulder to check if Aramis is still behind him. He knows him to be there.
A whispered conversation with a human shape of which he can barely tell if it’s male or female, Aramis’ gloved hand appearing in his field of vision, the gleam of silver as money changes hands, and they are led down another passage, into another room, and the stink here is so that even Porthos’ head begins to swim. He notices Aramis’ hand twitch towards the pocket in which he keeps his perfumed handkerchief, watches Aramis resist the temptation to pull it out and bury his nose in it. He’s breathing through his mouth, but so is Porthos.
“He’s ill,” the male-or-female shape croaks.
“What’s ailing him?” For the first time since they entered the court, Aramis outpaces Porthos, pushing himself past him and past their guide, and he kneels down by the lair of straw and rags. He tugs at the corner of what looks like a burlap sack, leaning in in an attempt to get a look at the figure concealed under layers of filth and shadows, and the stink becomes so overwhelming that Porthos’ eyes water. An arm reaches out from the gloom, and Aramis recoils, flinches away from whatever it is he found there, throws himself back with his entire body and staggers into the wall. He regains his equilibrium momentarily, but his control is lost. Aramis pulls out his handkerchief, presses it to his face and hurls himself through the door through which they entered not five minutes ago.
Porthos hesitates for a split second, but he has to know, and running after Aramis will achieve nothing. If anything it might do more harm than good. He kneels down and uncovers the body. He has to see for himself.
He finds Aramis sitting on the steps outside, breathing like a man who has run across all of Paris. After the bracken miasma inside, the air here tastes fresh and crisp, and Porthos gulps in great mouthfuls, seating himself beside Aramis.
“Leprosy,” he says, not looking at Aramis but into the distance.
“I’m sorry,” Aramis offers. “I couldn’t… I didn’t… I put us both in danger.”
“Nah, it’s all right.” Porthos pats him on the knee. “I think they found it quite funny, actually.”
“Oh, good.” Aramis flashes a faint half-smile. He’s very pale, but he’s regained his vigour. “I would have hated to see such an excellent display of the commedia dell’arte go to waste.”
Porthos laughs, but his mirth subsides as another figure appears on top of the stairs, pushes past them, exchanges a nod with Porthos, runs down the steps and disappears around a corner.
“I’ve never seen it up close, you know,” Aramis says, obviously convinced that he has to apologise, to justify his lapse of control. “And there’s nothing I could’ve done.”
“Of course not.” Porthos has seen it up close. “Our Lord is the only one who could’ve helped him, there was barely any flesh left on his bones.”
“What are we going to tell His Majesty now?” Aramis says in a faraway voice. Porthos guesses that he wants to talk, because he doesn’t want to think. It’s one thing to see men struck down at the battlefield, it’s quite another to see a fellow human creature struck down by the merciless hand of a higher being, God or Devil, Porthos isn’t sure.
“That we’ve found him. Dead.”
Aramis nods and, without looking at Porthos, asks softly: “Is he?”
Porthos doesn’t answer straightaway, choosing his words carefully. “I know someone who’ll give him poppy wine. A strong draught.”
Aramis nods again and lapses into silence. They sit side by side for the span of several heartbeats, each lost in his own thoughts. Then, Aramis gets to his feet and says in a light voice: “Well then. We’d better had back and report to the Captain. Without a French heir, the island will default to the Spanish Crown. The King won’t be happy.”
“Good thing than that it’s not us who have to report to His Majesty in person, then” says Porthos and stands likewise. They weave their way back through the alleyways, their steps lighter and lighter as they walk along in the shadows of hunchbacked houses, and Porthos looks up in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the sky and longs for the sun. “What’s the name of the island again?” he asks all of a sudden.
“Sounds Spanish to me anyway.”
Aramis raises his eyebrows. “The King will be disappointed,” he reiterates, but with a catlike smile that makes him look almost as if he enjoyed it.
Porthos shrugs. “One place less where France makes her hands dirty, using stolen labour.”
Aramis shoots a quick glance at Porthos’ hand as it curls into a fist against his thigh, then at his face. “You feel very deeply about that, don’t you?” he says and the lilt in his voice is unmistakable.
Porthos smiles grimly. “My mother,” he says in a hard voice. “That’s what you’re asking, isn’t it?”
Aramis takes his hat off, glances skyward and then looks Porthos straight in the eye. “I was trying to put it discreetly,” he says.
Porthos laughs. “Don’t worry about that, friend,” he says. “I’m not some fine lady you’re trying to woo. You can always talk straight with me.”
Aramis smiles, with his mouth and his eyes, puts the hat back on and presses a hand to his chest. “I shall, then,” he says.