At first, it is strange to speak Italian again. When he was invited to France by his uncle, they were all urged to speak French, and only French, even among themselves. If there were secrets to share, if there were any ideas they held close to their hearts, they would still not express themselves in their native tongue. French only. That was Mazarin’s wish.
To integrate them better, he said. And since they all looked up at their uncle as they would look up at God - at least Bernardo did -, they vowed to do so and kept their promise, too.
Bernardo’s Italian sounds scratchy on his throat now, a little alien, forgotten. It’s not uncomfortable, but surely difficult. There are words he wants to say, words that would not come to his tongue. Not in his native tongue. Sometimes not even in French, anymore. (That is probably because of something completely different but let us not touch upon that topic.)
Rome is also somehow different from what he remembered. It lacks the colour. Perhaps pride made him think of his native place, when he was far away, as the most beautiful, most colourful city he has ever been to. Maybe he has been on the road for too long, and it got drained of colour by the time he returned.
“Captain… Are you in here?”
It is Claude, who knocks on the door to his quarters. When they left Paris on that evening, most of the guardsmen also decided to come with them. A week before that happened… no, even two hours before that happened, Bernardo would have hoped it was out of loyalty, and not self-interest. Now, he learned that most people, who are not him, have little loyalty to give, and selfishness and treachery to go for years. He knuckles his fist: he really used to be a stupid, stupid boy. In the beginning, he was aware of all the deceit around him, but he let himself to be fooled again and again simply because he wanted to be fooled.
God, he wants to kill d'Artagnan.
Claude continues when there is no answer to come. “His Eminence is looking for you.”
It must be still early in the morning, Bernardo thinks. Ever since they arrived home, to Mazarin’s residence in Rome, he can hardly tell the time properly. He looks out of the window and it looks just the same to him, the morning, noon, and the evening, too. Where did the Sun go all of a sudden?
“His Eminence is not His Eminence anymore,” he reminds Claude, in a flat voice.
Finally, he opens the door. Claude looks down on him, with visible pity on his face, and he hates it so much, he contemplates shutting the door on his nose. Why do all people keep giving him these looks ever since they arrived? What business do they have giving looks at all…
“What does my uncle want this time?”
“He was wondering if you would join your family for supper.”
Supper… is it time for supper already? He runs a hand through his hair, then nods. Is it appropriate to go to the dining room looking like this? He reaches for a dressing gown and puts it over his wrinkled day clothes. They are at home, after all, he is not in the service of the king anymore, so there is no need to keep up appearances.
When he arrives at the dining room, his family gives him the exact same look he received from Claude earlier. He nods, as a greeting, and scrambles to the closest empty seat, so he would not have to be looked at for so long.
“We were expecting you at noon too,” Mazarin says. “But you did not turn up.”
“I was busy.” He speaks towards his plate because he does not feel like looking up.
One of his siblings wants to know what he was so busy with. It is probably Hortense because she is the one who was bestowed with the least tactfulness out of all of them, apart from Bernardo himself. Of course.
“Thinking,” he simply answers, because that is the truth.
Marie Louise snorts, disapprovingly, and yells across the table, so the entire city would hear her, not only those in this chamber.
“Were you thinking about that d’Artagnan again?” Her voice is too sharp for his ears at this time of the day. … At this time of the year, too. She is patronizing him, and it is clear for everyone.
When he looks up for a moment, he can see Philippe glaring at their sister, trying to freeze the words on her throat. He is not particularly scary, so it does not work. Perhaps he is also kicking her under the table, because the girl continues, speaking to him before giving an explanation.
“What. Am I in your way?” Then, she gets back to the original topic. “You have spent enough time on that d’Artagnan now. I am very sure he hasn’t even thought of you once ever since we left him in the palace. Don’t waste another thought on him.”
It is easy for Marie Louise because she probably gave up on trying to kill d’Artagnan weeks ago. Now, Bernardo goes to sleep with that thought every night (or whatever time of the day he ends up going to bed), and the urge just becomes stronger with every time he wakes up. D’Artagnan must die. He must meet d’Artagnan again, kill him, and dance on his grave while he is at it.
“Marie Louise, let your brother be.”
“But I cannot bear to look at his sour face from day to day!” she retorts, crying out. She stands up and walks over to Bernardo, brushing his hair back as she stands behind him. She addresses his uncle. “I am tired of not being able to chat about the news that came from Paris freely because you say it might make him even sadder. Is it possible for a person to be sadder than this anyway?!”
“I am not sad,” Bernardo thinks and slams his cutlery down on the table, to prove a point. There is something that catches his interest a bit more. “Did you say something about news from Paris?”
Mazarin sighs, burying his face in both of his palms. From the way he acts, Bernardo decides that this is exactly what he did not want to happen. His mind, however, is directing him to another, more important direction. He turns back, to face Marie Louise, who is still absent-mindedly playing with his hair.
“What news came from Paris?” he demands.
Marie Louise looks at their uncle, confused. (Their uncle refuses to acknowledge any of them at this point. He continues eating, pretending that Bernardo’s side of the table stopped existing.) Then, she looks at Philippe, who only shakes his head at her, disappointed.
“What news came from Paris?” Bernardo repeats again.
“Marriage,” Philippe answers him, finally, and the tone of his voice suggests that forcing that word out of himself was painful enough.
Marriage? What could be so awful about a marriage that they did not want him to know, under any circumstances. Oh no… His eyes pop out as he stares at Marie Louise.
“Did d’Artagnan marry the king?”
“What?!” Marie Louise flaps her hands and walks back to her chair. “No? Why would d’Artagnan marry the king?”
They seemed close enough, Bernardo answers, thinking back to all the instances he found the two of them gushing about something, instead of practising fencing. And besides, why on earth would they want him to be left in the dark about the wedding of any other.
“Maria Theresa did not go home after the last day of the reception, she ended up urging the marriage with the real Louis as soon as possible.” Philippe, who has enough pity for him, and enough resignation, finally informs him of the truth. "And apparently, Beaufort was in favour of this."
Well, he happens not to really care about either Maria Theresa or the real Louis, so he ignores that.
“What did d’Artagnan do?” he keeps prying.
“We have not heard anything about d’Artagnan ever since we left. It is like he disappeared from the face of the earth.”
Bernardo tilts his head. “I hope he died,” he announces.
“I thought you said you had no idea who d’Artagnan was.”
“Who…” he tries again, but this time his siblings do not even try to believe his lies.
Of course, he would know who d’Artagnan is. He can try to fool himself, and his siblings, and it definitely will not work either way. Bernardo takes a napkin and wipes his hands, even though he barely ate anything for supper. Then, he stands up from the table, ready to leave. As he turns back, he catches Mazarin making frightening faces at the Mazarinettes and Philippe, and he wonders how they will sleep tonight. Probably with doors tightly latched, all of them fearing for their lives.
When he bids goodnight, Hortense lets out a surprised cry, startled by his voice: she already thought he has walked away from the scene.
“Make sure you will show your face at least once tomorrow?” Mazarin asks of his retreating back.
I will consider, Bernardo thinks. It is not that he does not want to meet his family, but simply the days seem to be running out without him finding the time even to leave his room or dress up properly. He brings the dressing gown together at the front, almost as if he was trying to embrace himself.
When it happened, all he wanted was to consign all of their shared memories into oblivion, to cast it aside, to make it unhappen. For a moment, he believed he could do that. How foolish… If he used to have this crotchet, called d’Artagnan, then he is unsure what sort of an expression he could use now to describe his own state.
His entire life centred on pretending to hate d’Artagnan, and now he needs to adjust to the fact that it does not have to be pretence anymore. He desperately wanted a reason to be able to ostentatiously loathe that man, and in the end, now he found out that hatred did not taste as delicious as he initially imagined it to be.
It should have been Claude, after all. Look, he even came along to Rome with them. (Self-interest or no.) He is taller. Perhaps he is even stronger than d’Artagnan. If he is not more skilled at the sword, then surely his arms must be stronger at least. Now, even being touched by someone would perhaps make him want to throw up, however. So no Claude. Nobody. The only thing it makes him think of is… well, d’Artagnan. (Who?)
Bernardo rolls around in his bed sleepless until the first orange lights start peeking above the ground, outside his window. Only that is when he finally feels tired enough to fall asleep, only to have Marie Louise disturb his dreams only what feels like a couple of hours later.
“Bernardo!” Her voice is even sharper than ever before, and God is that an achievement. “Bernardo, stop with this nonsense right away. I had enough.”
He tries to unbury his head from under his pillows, after the girl poked him in the back a few times, growing impatient.
Bernardo moans. “How did you get in here.”
“The door was open.”
When he finally escapes from the pillow and manages to open his eyes at least a little, he notices that Marie Louise is not alone. Hortense and Philippe also came along, to his biggest surprise. And joy, of course. At this time, he can sense a conspiracy behind their visit, and he can definitely tell that he does not like this. At all.
He asks what the three of them want. Instead of an answer, he first only gets secretive giggles, his siblings nudging one another with their shoulders. They seem to be mischievous, but kind. Bernardo hates that. Oh, he hates it so much. When even Hortense knows that she needs to keep her mouth shut and take things somewhat seriously, you know that it is over and done for you. He sits up in bed, realizing that he forgot to change into nightwear when he returned to his room.
“If you do not talk to me, I will go back to bed,” he threatens.
Philippe runs out to the antechamber of the room and brings something back. He definitely has seen it before. No. He has worn that before. It is the light blue dress he wore during the masquerade ball before, and actually stole from Montpensier when he left.
“There is a social gathering uncle wants us to go tonight.”
Bernardo keeps staring at the dress. “So?”
“If Bernardo does not feel like going, we thought we might invite Bernadette instead.”
Well, that sounds ridiculous and Bernardo does not even hesitate to tell this to his siblings. The last thing they need is someone finding out that the little ugly, tall girl with the Mazarinettes is actually their brother Bernardo. It was a miracle in itself that salacious rumours of Bernardo and a certain swordsmanship expert did not reach Rome already (perhaps Mazarin has had a hand in this), but this would only make him an easier target for slander.
“It is not within Rome,” Marie Louise adds. “A little far out… Which is why we need to get ready now.”
“Nobody knows us there,” Hortense also says, to make him feel at ease.
If anything, he is proud of himself that it at least has occurred him to try and be careful this time. After so many instances he put on a dress and thought nothing about it. Bernardo rubs his eyes, trying to figure out if he is still in the middle of some stupid nightmare, or if their siblings are trying to bastardize reality to the fullest.
“And maybe, for a moment, you will forget d’Artagnan, too.”
Well, Marie Louise really should not have said that. But it does not matter anymore. Bernardo jumps up immediately and takes the dress out of her hand.
“I have no idea who on earth you are talking about.” His nose is in the air. “Who will do my face? And my hair?”
Hortense and Marie Louise have a small fight over who does his hair, so in the end, it is Philippe who puts the powder on his face, while the other two are trying to co-create something less than atrocious on the back of his head. Given that both of his sisters have a very distinct, ostentatious style, exactly opposed to one another, Bernardo does not really expect anything good out of it.
Philippe runs out of his chambers and returns with a few other goods, including ribbons to plait up in his hair. When Bernardo sees that, his face distorts into an ugly grimace. He shoves his brother’s hand away, firmly.
Philippe does not keep forcing him, instead the girls look for some other ornaments that would fit well within his locks. Silver or gold? They ask. Silver. Most definitely silver. At the same time, Philippe paints his lips, this time having brought over an almost purple, dark colour to work with.
Once his face is done, they squeeze him back into Montpensier’s dress (it does not involve much squeezing.) First, they help with the underwear, then Marie Louise handles the rest of it, admiring the finished product for a while when she is done. Hortense and Philippe join her, then lead their brother towards the closest mirror.
“Do you remember how you looked?” Marie Louise asks. (She yells.)
“Of course I do.”
Marie Louise gives him a cheeky smile, then forces him to face himself in the mirror. “Then, you will see the improvement.”
He is unsure whether to call it an improvement… They certainly made an effort with him. If he was an almost pretty girl before, at the time of the masquerade, they somehow made him look decent, even. It surely is not thanks to the weight he ended up losing. (He only notices now, when they had to tighten the dress around him, as opposed to before.)
“Does uncle know?” he asks, then. “With what appearance you are planning to take me to this gathering of his?”
“Forget about uncle a little, Bernadette,” his brother scolds him. “Uncle knows what he knows, and the things he does not know will not hurt him.”
It soon turns out that the social gathering their “uncle” sent them to is only a loose term they use. They take a carriage to the outskirts of Rome, at a conveniently faraway place from where Mazarin lives, then walk a corner or two.
It is a tavern.
The Mazarinette’s famous “social gathering” is at a cheap tavern, with lousy drunkards and all sorts of commoners gathering about. It could have very well been the Tavern to the Chevalier, based on the stench, Bernardo thinks to himself as they enter. Since the carriage left them, there is no way for him to turn on his heels and go home, unless he wants to get lost, trying to find his way back to the centre of the city.
“What have you done!” he scolds the sibling closest to him. “This certainly is not what uncle told you to do! There are commoners here.”
Marie Louise shrugs. “You do not know what uncle told us. The music is good. Dance! Have some fun!”
In the next moment, she already finds herself a partner in Hortense, and Bernardo loses them in the crowd. Great. He does not want to dance… Which idiot relative of his thought that this would be anywhere near a good idea. Trying to find out what else he could do instead of dancing (he also will not drink, he had his share once already, thank you very much), he loiters near the wall.
The only thing he does not expect is that young girls, standing all alone, next to walls, in crowded taverns are very popular with the gentlemen. Or with rascals. Pick your choice. He has about a minute for himself, mouth frothing from anger before some miserable fool approaches him.
“What is a sad young girl like yourself doing here alone?”
Bernardo takes a look at him. Black, curly hair. Short. His shoulders are broad, but his arms are surely not strong enough.
“Leave me be,” he demands, and he has to make sure that he is speaking the right language before he says anything.
“No girl should be left alone on such a charming night.”
The man tries to grab him by the arm, and take him into the rowdy, dancing crowd. Bernardo has none of it.
He tilts his head with a patronizing smile as he drags his arm back. “I could kill you.”
“Stop jesting now.”
He glares at him and takes a step forward while stomping with his feet. His voice slips back into its original range as he repeats himself. “I could kill you if I wanted.”
Perhaps deciding that strange girls are not worth his time, the man flees instead of trying again. Bernardo enjoys a few more seconds of peace.
Then, he sees something.
The something is a very nostalgic, disgustingly washed-out colour of blue, on a stranger who stands across him, next to the first-floor pillar of the tavern. If Bernardo was any smart, he would not try to pursue people because they reminded him of someone else… But he is not smart enough to even think about this. The blue lures him in, and he has already started to walk towards the man before he could have considered anything else.
They have similar coloured hair too, but this one wears it in a ponytail. It is good enough. Bernardo is unsure if he wants to try killing this man instead, or. Or.
To catch the man’s attention, he slams his hand against the pillar, next to his head.
“Do you always wear this sort of rubbish or is this for some special occasion?” he asks, in Italian. Of course.
The man slowly, uncertainly turns his face towards him.
“Sorry, I do not speak…” he says. In French. Of course.
Bernardo blinks. There certainly is a faint smell of the earth and the sun, and it is not the tavern.
“Oh my…” he breathes, but this time, he omits the name.