Athos had barely sat down to drink when the woman appeared at his elbow. She was not one of the big-busted wenches that routinely caught Porthos' eye. She was lanky with a face so plain that Athos would not have called her pretty. Her movements were direct and spoken without any of the dramatic flourishes expected in taverns. Her reserved manner stood her out from the tavern's normal fare.
She placed a full bottle of wine on the table before Athos had ventured to order. Athos was unsure whether this boldness pleased him or not. He contemplated the year and quality of the wine before glancing up at the hovering wench.
"You've been here before," she said, placing a cup in front of him. "If it is not to your taste, I can fetch you a different wine."
The wine was good and Athos shook his head. As he reached for the bottle, she did not succeed in hiding her flash of satisfaction. It was Athos' approval she sought but realising her transparency, she turned away. Athos could not help watching her brisk step withdraw. He had to admit that few women carried respect as she did, in this tavern.
He pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and poured the wine. As he contemplated the unpredictability of the fairer sex, he glanced across the room at his companions. Porthos and Aramis were halfway through their second bottle of wine and had each acquired a serving wench. This early in the night, D'Artagnan sat between the former pirate and the future priest. He shared their wine if not their female company.
The four of them had earned their reputation as inseparable yet they still had their divides. Porthos enjoyed wine and company and Aramis, while more reserved, nevertheless enjoyed the revelry. His amused silence was given as consent to much that occurred. D'Artagnan seemed far too young to deserve his place at their table but the candlelight hid the growth of beard that the young man sought to develop. It would be later, when the thoughts of Porthos and Aramis had turned from wine to women, that D'Artagnan would part with their company. He would then seek out Athos' table and Athos' wine. Athos and D'Artagnan routinely owned the last of the night and filled it with both conversation and companionable silence. Athos found himself impatient for it.
Athos was in the mood for good company but he had no interest in wenching or being close to those who were. His fingers twitched about his cup but pride prevented him from calling the young man to his side. In the beginning, D'Artagnan had insinuated himself into Athos' company with the wide eyes of hero worship. Years had turned the gaze into that of comradeship and a respect that acknowledged the existence of flaws and imperfections. Athos, if he were honest with himself, missed the rapt attention of the early days. He would not suffer fools or tavern-wenches but D'Artagnan was neither. He knew that Porthos and Aramis were not fools either but sometimes he thought they could be foolish. Athos fixed his gaze on D'Artagnan, half-wishing to draw his attention but also wishing to leave him undisturbed.
As he watched, something else caught D'Artagnan's look. The plain wench who had served Athos approached the other musketeers. D'Artagnan scowled at her openly and she avoided his side of the table. Athos was surprised, wondering what could have happened to bring D'Artagnan's disfavour so strongly upon her. As if in answer to the question, the wench stuck out her modest chest and wiggled her hips at Porthos. She flashed him a cheeky smile which Porthos returned delightedly. In a loud voice, Porthos declared her spirited and wrapped his free arm about her waist. Once she was seated on his knee, Athos was hard-pressed to tell her apart from the others at the table.
Athos was surprised at the keen stab of disappointment he felt. It had been a long time since he had last been tempted by the company of a woman. Yet, his lack of faith in the other sex continued to feel justified. D'Artagnan, who was scowling so deeply that Aramis had noticed, looked up. Athos met the eyes of the young man and realised that D'Artagnan had somehow marked the wench as a deceiver from the beginning. With a whispered word to Aramis, who listened as if to a confession, D'Artagnan stood and left the table. He ignored Porthos' impassioned call to return and took up a seat opposite Athos.
"You abandon the noise early tonight," observed Athos cheerfully; too happy to have the company he'd wanted to maintain his earlier disappointment.
"She marked you," said D'Artagnan, not bothering to clarify which 'she' or to give an explanation of his presence. "When we first entered this tavern."
"Indeed?" said Athos, pouring a cup of wine for D'Artagnan.
"She's watched you before," said the young man hotly. "But this is the first time she's approached you and not Aramis."
Athos did not quite follow why a wench would regularly flirt with Aramis, suddenly take an interest in Athos and then resort to Porthos when Athos did not immediately pursue her. D'Artagnan did not seem of a mind to explain himself.
It was a new experience for Athos to patiently coax-out the matters that disturbed a companion in a tavern. It was D'Artagnan's habit to console and provide company to the melancholy drunk. Athos was a reserved man and he respected the private affairs of all others, especially those he considered friends. He had dispensed advice freely to D'Artagnan on the battle-field and in courtly politics. Now, he felt from D'Artagnan's manner that his intervention was needed but he was less sure of the best course.
"It displeases you that a woman approached me?" said Athos calmly. "It does not happen often."
D'Artagnan paused, carefully considering an answer that ought to be automatic.
"What I did not like," said D'Artagnan carefully. "Was the way she made the measure of you. She knew that you were different and so she made herself different when she presented herself to you."
Athos shrugged, too intrigued by D'Artagnan's dark mood and sudden insight to have much feeling of his own.
"We must respect her intelligence, if not her integrity," said Athos.
With that, they fell silent and occupied themselves with their wine. The wench that had begun it all looked their way but once. She saw the two men and perceived D'Artagnan's angry look, appearing like a jealous lover. She turned away defeated as Athos smiled amusedly. Of D'Artagnan, Athos cherished this new possessiveness that extended beyond life and limb. He had been in want of company and company had been given.