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Ars Moriendi

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They rise in the East. They come, carried on the wings of the Black Death, staggering in the wake of the war that tears through the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. They devour themselves and then they walk again. They spill onto the earth to devour others.

They rise in the East.

Aramis’ bedroom window opens to the east, and from where he is lying in his bed he can see Aurora’s first hesitant blush, a light smear upon the indigo-black sky. He’s left the door to the garden open. The heatwave from which they had a respite for a few blessed rainy days has returned, and all of Paris is groaning under its sweltering weight. The King and Queen have left the city for a sojourn in the Fontainebleau residence, and Aramis wishes he and Athos and Porthos and d’Artagnan had been assigned to go with the court. Anything would be better than breathing the oppressive air that sloshes around him sluggish and sticky like mud.

He is lying on his back, drifting in and out of sleep, his arms and legs thrown wide open. The metal of the cross on his chest is warm with the heat of his skin, and Aramis raises one hand lethargically to turn it over, so that the cooler side will rest upon his heart.

“The cross won’t protect you.”

Aramis’ skin shrinks around him and his heart bulges until it fills out his whole chest. He doesn’t think as he rolls off the bed and grips the hilt of his sword. It is not fear, there wasn’t any time for fear to build. It’s the primal reaction of an animal cornered in its den. His body pulls itself en garde even before he is fully awake.

He knows that voice, would know it anywhere. Has heard it in his dreams often enough, but this is no dream. Marsac is standing on the threshold that separates the bedroom from the hall, its head lowered, its eyes shadowed and its grin wolfish.

“What are you doing here?” Aramis asks, even though he knows.

“I’m back. You always knew I would be back, Aramis.” The sound of his name is a tender caress, and Aramis shivers as if someone had run their nails down the nape of his neck.

“Why?” His free hand reaches for his cross again, the protection that Her Most Christian Majesty has bestowed on him. He feels its power between his fingers, it is the only barrier that separates his naked, human body from the abomination in the door.

It tilts its head. “Aramis,” it speaks softly. “Please. I, too, am a Catholic.” It tugs at the chain around his neck and pulls out the St. Francis medallion from underneath its shirt.

“What do you want from me?” Neither of them has moved, and Aramis’ muscles are beginning to quake with the effort of keeping his arm steady and outstretched. He doesn’t dare lower his weapon.

“You killed me.”

“You wanted me to.”

“Self-slaughtered and murdered,” it laughs low in its throat. “Two reasons for returning rather than just one.”

“Deserter and assassin,” Aramis reminds it. “Two reasons indeed.”

A ray of light has crept in and settles down in a golden spot by Aramis’ foot. He glances down for the blink of an eye, and when he looks up again, it is gone. The door gapes open, and he crosses the room with three steps and slams it shut.

He falls back on the bed, his limbs shaking with exhaustion and cold. It is the cold that has been trapped deep in his bones, the cold that has nothing to with the temperature of the air around him. It is spurting beneath his skin, tiny needle pricks of pain, and he scratches his arms, his chest and legs and curls up under the blanket, shivering himself into sleep.

When he wakes, the sun is peering fully into the room, and he knows that the night’s waking nightmare is gone for good. It’s been a long time since he’s had one of those. They used to scare him out of his wits before he learned to shield himself from them. He lifts the cross to his lips and kisses it and, with a sigh, disentangles himself from the sweat-soaked sheets and reaches for a fresh shirt.

~*~

“Apparently, the Cardinal has joined forces with the Protestants to fight the Catholic armies in the Holy Roman Empire.” D’Artagnan has rushed into the garrison yard and throws himself onto the bench across Aramis.

“If you ever hear the man in the tavern begin his account with ‘apparently’, you can be sure that not one word of it is true,” Athos says without lifting his eyes from the bowl of gruel he pretends to eat.

“It wasn’t a man in the tavern,” d’Artagnan is indignant. “It was Constance. They trade to Magdeburg, and their partner has just returned from there and says that the city was plundered and everyone massacred. He barely made it out alive and it took him weeks to return to Paris. He says the Cardinal gave the Swedish money to support their campaign.”

“Oh well, if it’s the trader of Mme Bonacieux’ business partner who said that then the information is sound enough.” Porthos grins and looks at Aramis with a shake of his head. Aramis tries to grin back, but his mouth doesn’t quite cooperate yet and he turns his attention to his breakfast.

“It’s not like that.” The boy sounds almost exasperated. “Constance talked to the man and asked him about it, her husband thinks of expanding his business in the Empire. Apparently, the Imperialists like their women to wear nice dresses, too. Constance needs to know how badly they might be affected. She made sure to get the right information.”

Aramis notes abstractedly that it’s always ‘Constance’s husband’, never ‘M. Bonacieux’ wife’.

“Aramis, you tell him. You know her.”

“Athos has known her longer than I have,” Aramis says. “And better.” He pauses with his spoon in the air. “It’s not often I have the opportunity to say that about a lady.”

Porthos snorts and Athos pushes his bowl away, determination etched into every line of his face. “I’m done,” he says darkly, glaring at the food. “I don’t care how nutritious you say it is. I’m not eating any more of this.”

“You haven’t eaten any of this,” Porthos says, getting to his feet and pulling on his gloves. “Right. I’m on guard this forenoon.” He grins. “I’ll be done before midday heat sets in, and then back here for a spot of lunch and perhaps a game of cards. I heard,” he leans in with a mock conspiratorial whisper, “young Bouchard is a dab hand at quinze, so that should be interesting.”

His hand rests heavily on Aramis’ shoulder for a long moment, a reassuring pressure, and then he turns to go. “Wait for me!” D’Artagnan jumps to his feet and follows him to the gate. “I’ll stand guard with you.” Aramis watches them go, his head tilted back and leaning against the wall. The sun is already a bright yellow, the sky cloudless. The cold has crept back into his bones, he feels its lurking presence; on the surface, he is hot and sweating, and the clash of the two sensations makes him shiver.

Athos is still staring down at his unfinished breakfast. He raises his head, shoots a sidelong glance at Aramis and says: “You don’t fancy yours, either.”

Aramis shakes his head. He’s hungry and queasy, and he hopes Athos is too preoccupied with his own queasiness to ask questions.

“We’ll give it to the chickens, then.” Athos reaches over and picks up Aramis’ bowl. “I can’t believe I let Porthos talk us into eating this muck.” He upends both bowls and sploshes the contents on the ground, rising clouds of dust in the process. The flock of Serge’s chickens comes running at once. They are quite used to crumbs from the musketeers’ tables, and the men feed them gladly, well aware that their generosity is in direct proportion to the fatness of the hens and, hence, to the flavour of the coq au vins come autumn.

“He cares for our wellbeing,” Aramis says mildly. There is a pressure behind his eyes that makes him feel like his vision was lagging behind. He almost hears Athos speak before he sees his lips form the words. The lack of sleep is getting to him. He’d very much like to share the bed with another person some time soon, but it’s too hot, they would bake in each other’s body heat.

The sun is too bright today. It makes his eyes hurt, and when he closes them, dark patterns swirl on the inside of his eyelids. He opens his eyes abruptly and watches the shadows dissipate. Before his vision can sharpen again, a shape catches his eye, tucked into the gloom in the corner by the gate. He blinks rapidly, willing his eyes to focus, but it is gone the moment he thinks he’s got it. It might have been nothing. It might have been a man. It might have been-

“Aramis, are you all right?” Athos is watching him from beneath the brim of his hat. One solitary bead of sweat swells on his temple, but apart from that, his appearance is calm and unruffled.

“How are you not hot?” Aramis asks.

Athos shrugs carelessly. “I don’t move unless it’s necessary,” he says with a pointed look at Aramis’ restless fingers, his jittery knee.

“You’ll be having a blast standing guard later, then,” Aramis shoots back. He clenches his teeth and rams his nails into the palm of his hand to force himself to keep still. He stands up and picks up his hat from the table. “I’ll be back in time, don’t worry,” he says in answer to Athos’ wordless question. “I’m going to confession.”

~*~

It is a twenty-minute walk to Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, and Aramis climbs the steps to the church with his head bent. When he stops before the entrance, to bare his head and to empty his mind as much as possible, he looks up to the top of the campanile. A few clouds tumble from behind the belfry and the world tilts for a moment as they speed past, making it appear as though the tower were toppling backward. The cawing murder of crows that circles around it pushes it even more off-kilter.

Stepping into the narthex is like diving into a pond of cool water. The air is light here, and he breathes in deeply to take in the clean, woody scent of incense. Aramis dips his fingertips into the stoup and crosses himself with holy water, bowing his head before the tall cross above the altar. The texture is different than that of normal water, it is smooth and soothing, like warm oil. The white stone around him comes alive with the light that pours in through stained-glass windows. His head tipped back, Aramis walks slowly towards the alcove that holds the confessional, marvelling at the airy space above his head; the columns seem to go on forever. In the aisle, he stops beneath the window depicting craftsmen and workmen; a solemn-faced butcher is stripping down a pig, whose face bears an expression of serene resignation.

He catches movement from the corner of his eye, barely at the edge of his peripheral vision. Aramis’ hand is on the hilt of his sword before he can stop himself and he turns sharply. There’s nothing there, but he could swear there was, half a second ago, a man’s shape, leaning against a column with its hat pulled over its eyes. “Who’s there?” His voice echoes between the columns. “Come out and show yourself.”

A sigh, then, as if the whole building has let out the breath it was holding, a faint susurrus that makes the air ripple and the hairs on the back of his neck stand. Then, footsteps, their click-clack obscenely loud in the sacred silence. The black-clad shape of a man, and Aramis stares at him unblinkingly, drenched in sweat and breathing like a man who’s just swam across the Seine. “Pax tecum, my son,” the abbé says. “I welcome you to our church, but please bear in mind that this is a place of God, of prayer.” He points at Aramis’ hand that still clings to the sword.

“I’m sorry.” Aramis lets go at once. “Forgive me, I thought-” His eyes dart back to where the man stood. “There was someone there. He wore a hat.”

The abbé doesn’t look. He is gazing at Aramis and his eyes are full of mild reproach. “Even so, this is not a place where you are permitted to fight him. Leave your worldly quarrels outside these gates.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.” Aramis tangles his hand in his sweat-soaked hair. He doesn’t say that the quarrel might be one that is not of this world, he can’t. Not here, not surrounded by light and space. He longs for the darkness of the confessional. “I’m here for confession,” he says.

The abbé takes in his appearance. “You are a soldier,” he says in a tone that Aramis can’t read. The priest’s face doesn’t give anything away. Aramis has no way of knowing what kind of man he is, if he is one who listens and forgives; if he is one who listens and condemns; or if he is one who doesn’t listen. There is a tremendous sense of liberty in throwing himself at the mercy of a stranger like that.

The abbé disappears inside the confessional, and Aramis waits, looking up at the window with the pig butcher and breathing slowly and deliberately, he waits until the silence from within tells him that his confessor has settled down. He ducks into the left-hand compartment and sinks down on the prie-dieu.

“In nomine Patris et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,” says the abbé.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Aramis whispers into the darkness behind the grill, and the words alone make his soul feel lighter already.

“What are your sins, my son?” the priest asks, and Aramis can tell, he can just tell from the inflection, can tell with an instinct honed over years that his confessor expects him to talk about the men he killed on the battlefield, about the women he bedded. That his penance has been drawn up for him even before he stepped into the confessional.

He takes a deep breath. “I think I’m losing my mind.”

He learns what kind of man the abbé is: one who listens and one who preaches. One who forgives if the penitent permits himself to be taught. It is an article of faith, Aramis knows that very well, to believe in ghosts. The Bible makes the belief in them a law: the ghost of Samuel appeared to Saul. He knows it, and yet his soul refuses to believe it. It is preposterous, Aramis realises after a while, that the more the abbé talks about spectres and phantoms walking the Earth, the less inclined Aramis is to believe in them, despite the evidence of his own eyes. He is convinced, by the time he leaves the confessional, that Marsac was a dream, conjured up by his fevered and exhausted brain. The ghost of a slaughtered man come back to Earth seeking revenge on the man who killed him – the idea seems ludicrous. If it were so, every soldier would be tormented by the spirits of the dead every minute of his life.

“Go in peace,” the abbé says and makes a sign of the cross on his side of the grill.

Aramis crosses himself, kisses the fringe of the abbé’s stole and leaves the confessional with a heart that is considerably lighter. Once verbalised, his nocturnal fears and fancies appear absurd. He walks back past the stained-glass windows, stops briefly to admire the shrine of Christ’s Passion and enters the nave, where, facing the altar, he bows his head and makes the sign of the cross. A shadow lurks underneath the spiral stairs that lead to the choir, but Aramis is not alarmed. There are shadows everywhere, they dance between the pews and bounce between columns, and none of them holds the ghost of a dead man. When he steps through the door, a loft of doves flutters from underneath his feet and scatters in the air. Aramis drops a few coins into a blind beggar’s hand, puts his hat back on and makes his way back to the garrison to meet Athos. The midday heat presses down heavily, but there is a thunderstorm in the air, the charged, humid air will soon be cleansed by rain.

~*~

It’s night, and rain hasn’t come. Aramis is not asleep. A mare crouches on his chest whenever he drifts off and he jerks awake, gasping for air. When he turns his head to look out of the window, he can see the silhouette of a tree branch against the gibbous moon, stabbing upwards like the devil’s horn. His bed sheets are damp beneath him and cling to his skin.

When he turns his head away from the window, he isn’t surprised to see the dark silhouette in the door, just behind the threshold. It is smiling and its eyes glitter.

This time, Aramis doesn’t jump out of bed. His limbs are too fatigued, his blood too listless to boil with anger and passion. He quickly scans his heart for fear but doesn’t find any. An odd serenity has come upon him. “If you want to kill me,” he whispers, “I won’t do anything to stop you.”

“Kill you?” Marsac’s smile widens. “Why should I kill you?”

“Revenge?” Aramis whispers. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? Revenge.”

“Not on you, brother,” it says.

“No?” He is almost disappointed. As if he wasn’t worthy of Marsac’s fury and vengeance. “What do you want, then?”

“Your help. Always, your help.”

Aramis shakes his head. “I can’t help you. I tried, but-” he takes a shaky breath. “I couldn’t. Not when you were alive. How should I help you now that you’re dead?”

“I wasn’t alive,” it says. “I have been dead for years.”

“I know,” Aramis whispers. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m more alive now than I’ve been in a long time,” Marsac continues. It takes a step forward but stops abruptly and bares its teeth in a snarl. “You’ve been to church,” it says.

“How do you know?” Aramis sits up, his heart beating faster for the first time since Marsac appeared. “How do you know where I was? Were you there, too?”

Marsac doesn’t speak, doesn’t move. It stands in the door, its fingers dug into the doorframe either side of its body, its torso slanted forward, leaning into the bedroom, but its feet have not crossed the threshold, its snarling mouth a black abyss.

Aramis has pressed his hand to his heart – so hard that the cross digs painfully into his chest and his palm. “Or are you,” he breathes, “are you just in my head?”

At that, Marsac chokes out a laugh. “Oh, Aramis,” it half-sighs, half-growls. “Oh, my beloved brother.” It pulls itself back into the darkness of the hall and Aramis listens to the sound of its footsteps fading out as it makes its way back to whence it came.

He sinks back into the sheets and only now notices that his skin is shivering. He doesn’t feel cold. He doesn’t feel anything. He stares into the void above his head and thinks nothing until sleep claims his body.