Philippe watched the King's carriage leave St Cloud, its lights twinkling to nothing in the distance.
He'd always known it would come to this.
Chevalier was slumped on the edge of the chaise. Philippe watched his reflection in the window.
"You said you were meeting your brother that day. You promised."
"And so I was."
"But not only him."
"I happened to run into some old friends. It wasn't planned. It would have been rude to ignore them."
"Do you have any idea what this means?"
"I think the King was perfectly clear, don't you? I am to depart for Rome in the morning. On pain of death."
"He could have you hanged. How short is your fucking memory? You promised me!"
"And I kept my promise! There is no plot against your brother! At least none of which I am aware."
"There are rumours."
"There are always rumours. And even if there weren't, do you think that would matter to your brother? He's sending me away because for some reason it suits him. The rest is a formality. You know that."
Philippe closed his eyes and bit into his lower lip, determined not to cry. He'd already lost his wife. Now he was to lose Chevalier as well. "It's not even about you. It's me. He has to have the last word in every argument, and this is the only way he can do it."
"You could come with me."
It was tempting. To run away to Italy, to lose himself in the glittering balls, the fashion, the music. To be with the Chevalier in exotic exile. But the thought of leaving put an ache in his belly. He could leave Versailles, he could leave his brother. But to leave France, to abandon the duty that had been woven into his very soul from his birth - never.
"Very well," said Chevalier. "We shall write, I suppose."
"I could visit."
"We both know that would not be permitted."
"You will forget me."
"I shall wither each day for the lack of you, as a plant wilts without water. There will be a void in my heart that no other could ever fill."
Tears stung Philippe's cheeks; despair threatened to rise up and consume him. He turned back to the window. The sun had set and all was dark. Chevalier came up behind him and wrapped his arms around his waist. "I love you, Mignonette. That will never change. Honestly, the question is more whether you will forget me. You have an army of admirers, all of whom are positively chomping at the bit to replace me."
"There are none that could." The tears flowed freely now, and Philippe whispered, voice thick, hands trembling as he clung to Chevalier with all his might. "You will take all the colour of life with you when you go. You consign me to a life lived forever in shadows."
"Hush, my darling." Chevalier turned him around, tipped his face up and brushed the salt-wet from his cheeks. "No room could be dark with you in it. I promise you."
He kissed Philippe, a gentle brush of lips, then continued. "Philippe, listen to me. Your brother will not keep me from you forever. His whims change with the season. He relented before, when it suited him. He will do so again. Once he considers me suitably punished."
"You forget. It is me he is punishing. I cannot imagine why he would give up the chance to gloat."
"Take me to bed," Philippe said. "Give me something to remember, when you're in the sunshine of Italy and I remain here, abandoned to the cold and dark."
They lost their clothes on the way to the bedroom. They fell naked on the bed and Chevalier brought Philippe to the brink with soft touches and his hot, wet mouth. He kept him hovering there while he opened him up with oiled fingers. He entered Philippe in a series of slow, careful pushes, all the while whispering in his ear, soothing him, caressing his hair. Philippe wrapped his legs around Chevalier and they rocked together until Chevalier spent deep inside him and Philippe came between their bellies.
They didn't sleep. They lay entangled in sheets, drinking, exchanging soft kisses and gentle touches, and Philippe remembered.
It was a party at the Palais Royale, barely two weeks after Chevalier and Philippe had met at the ballet. A game of hide and seek was proposed. Philippe chose to hide in a cupboard in a little-used anteroom, and Chevalier found him, as he'd expected (having whispered plenty of hints), joined him as he'd hoped, and embarked upon a period of thorough molestation of Philippe's person (as Philippe most definitely desired). Their clandestine pleasure involved the removal of several items of clothing, a lot of heavy breathing, and occasional squealing. (Philippe has always been ticklish in certain places.)
It was, in short, terrific fun, until the moment when the door of the cupboard swung open to reveal Louis. He glared at them, his hands on his hips like a fishwife. Mother would call that inelegant, Philippe was sure.
Philippe made to close the door again, but Louis grabbed it and held it fast. Then he began to shout.
Naturally, Philippe shouted back.
The gist of the argument followed familiar topics: jealousy, respect, the divine right of Louis to do whatever the fuck he wanted - and ended with the two of them standing nose-to-nose, about to engage in fisticuffs.
Then Chevalier cleared his throat and said in a loud, clear voice, "Good evening, Mademoiselle Mancini. What a splendid occasion this is."
The speed at which Louis' expression changed was truly impressive. He went from red-cheeked rage to flirtatious smile in the blink of an eye.
"I do hope I'm not interrupting anything," said Marie, with a bow.
Louis took her hand and kissed it. "Not at all. It's quite time we all returned to the ballroom, I believe."
He flashed Philippe a particularly kingly look, making sure he understood that this was, in fact, and order and not a request.
Louis took Marie back to the party, and Philippe and Chevalier followed.
The rest of the evening passed in a perfectly acceptable sequence of food, wine and entertainments. Philippe and Chevalier were inseparable, engaging in wild gossip, feeding each other titbits and and scandalising the court by sitting to close, touching each other too much and, especially effective, the Chevalier's impertinent habit of kissing Philippe's cheek.
As the early hours approached the festivities wound down and Philippe prepared to retire, taking Chevalier with him in anticipation of another night of the wildest passion. But he did not reach the door of the ball room before Bontemps stepped in his way.
"The King wishes to speak with you, your Highness."
Philippe rolled his eyes at Chevalier. "Of course he does."
"I shall wait for you, my darling," Chevalier promised.
Philippe followed Bontemps to Louis' salon. Louis was sitting by the fire, goblet in hand, gazing at the flames. He signalled for Philippe to join him. Philippe flopped sulkily into the chair at Louis' side.
"There are certain things," Louis said, "that I should make clear."
"Splendid." Philippe stared up at the mantlepiece. There was a fleck in the marble that had always fascinated him. He could never decide whether its shape was more suggestive of an arrow, or a thunderbolt.
"You do understand, I hope," said Louis, "that certain of your current… predilections, are against the teaching of the Church."
"Ah." Philippe's eyes narrowed. "I presume we are talking about sodomy." He drew the syllables of the word out, relishing the discomfort they brought to Louis' face.
"It has occurred to me of late that you are choosing men over women simply to vex me. Bishop Bossuet will ask me to put a stop to it eventually. You must know this."
"Actually, the Bishop and I have come to an understanding."
"I believe Mother had a hand in it, in fact. There was a great theological debate about it one Sunday after mass. The Bishop suggested I should not be allowed communion. Mother made what I understand to be a persuasive argument to the contrary."
"Are you telling me the Church agreed to turn a blind eye?"
"I believe members of the royal family can get away with a great deal. I also believe it is between my conscience and my God, and none of anybody else's business."
"So you insist on pursuing your love of men to spite me."
"I choose men because I want to have sex with them. I can assure you, I am not thinking of you at the time."
"Are there not enough pretty women at court?"
"It is without doubt the prettiest collection of ladies in the whole of France, brother. And some of them may not even have slept with you, yet."
"Why do you persist in this assault on my patience? I am trying to understand."
"No. You are trying to make me be other than I am."
"Your conduct reflects not only on yourself, and those with whom you choose to… associate. It reflects on the whole court, on our mother, upon me!"
"Why? You're not the one fucking boys in the Orangery. That, I am delighted to say, is entirely my responsibility."
Louis banged the arm of his chair with his clenched fist. His lips were stretched in a long, thin line of disapproval. A thrill went up Philippe's spine. He'd struck a nerve. Put Louis off-guard. Oh, how he loved these moments.
"Mother doesn't mind. The Church doesn't mind. The Court doesn't mind. Why should you?"
"You will be married soon. How am I to arrange a worthy wife for you - for France? What woman would agree to be married to someone who prefers men?"
"I believe you underestimate me, brother. Rest assured, I can do what is necessary. I understand my duty. Mother has made it perfectly clear to me."
"You have discussed this with her?"
"Yes. Last Spring. After the whole incident with Easter communion, she and Mazarin took me to one side and suggested that as long as I was discreet and chose my lovers with care, it need not be discussed again. A few weeks later Jules arrived. You remember?"
Realisation dawned on Louis' face. "You mean—"
"Indeed. I believe Mother had rather hoped it would turn out this way, you know. This way you get all the pretty girls to yourself and I can please myself. Between us we could take the whole court."
"Not all men share your preference, brother."
"Oh, you'd be surprised," said Philippe, with a smirk. "The Comte de Bois, for example."
"Putty in my hand."
Louis stared at him, wide-eyed.
"You see, dear brother," Philippe continued, "lines are not as always clearly drawn as they at first appear. People cannot be placed in the nice, neat little boxes you would have them in."
"Are you not afraid? Whatever the Church may ignore, it is clearly a sin."
Philippe sighed. "That is between me and God, don't you think? I am who I am, brother. I could no more deny the appeal of men than you could be a virgin on your wedding day."
Silence fell between them. Louis stroked his moustache - much fuller in recent months, enough so to warrant clipping into a perfect line.
"And the Chevalier?"
"What about him?" Philippe snapped, suddenly protective.
"He is more, I take it, than a tryst in the Orangery?"
"Actually we haven't tried the Orangery yet. Perhaps I should—"
"I am not yet sure what he is."
"But you care for him. I can tell. His brother tells me he cares for you, too."
That was interesting. "He's charming, handsome. Very good in bed. There was this one time—"
"You can spare me the details."
Philippe allowed a twitch of a smile. He had found a whole new way to make his brother squirm, it seemed, and that was always a delicious thing.
"Very well," said Louis. "You may keep your Chevalier, and whoever else you wish to fill your household with, at least until you marry. But I expect never to have to remind you of this again: you enjoy these freedoms under sufferance. If at any time your behaviour becomes a threat to the state, the throne or the king, I shall send them all away."
And thus Louis thrust the cold shard of fear into Philippe's heart that never, quite, went away. The knowledge that his brother had the power to hurt him more deeply than he had thought possible. Simply because of who Philippe was.
Philippe returned to his rooms to find Chevalier waiting for him on the bed, calmly reading a book. He looked up as Philippe stormed in. "What is it, my darling?"
"Fuck me." Philippe stripped off his cravat, dropping it carelessly to the floor on his way to the bed. "I want you to fuck me so hard I can't walk tomorrow."
"Well, I hope you realise I am more of a gentleman than that."
"My brother is an interfering bastard and I need to get him out of my head. I need escape. Depravity."
"Well, I think we have that covered. Come here."
Philippe knelt on the bed.
"I shall give you exactly what you need." Chevalier began to undo Philippe's buttons.
"I absolutely shall. Do you trust me?"
Chevalier kissed his cheek, little more than an innocent peck. He took off Philippe's clothes piece by piece, not in the rush of lust Philippe had craved, but with all the care and patience of a meticulous valet. Philippe tried to speak, attempting to put into words the injustice his brother had dealt to him, but Chevalier hushed him. Soothed him. Kissed him silent. Chevalier took his own clothes off quickly, unashamed of his body, slender and wiry and strong. Philippe caught a glimpse of them both in the mirror, so young, so beautiful. He wondered what they'd look like in their twenties, their thirties, and shocked himself with the thought. It was astoundingly easy to imagine Chevalier by his side for so long.
Chevalier took a vial of oil from his coat pocket and unstoppered it. He wafted it under Philippe's nose.
"Do you like it, Mignonette?"
"It's intoxicating," whispered Philippe. "Vanilla?"
"Vanilla in the finest olive oil, with hints of bergamot and almond. I had the blend created just for us. Lay on the bed, my love. Close your eyes. Relax."
Philippe dutifully did as Chevalier asked. After a few moments he felt Chevalier sit astride him, his thighs straddling Philippe's hips.
"Listen carefully. I shall explain what happens next. It is quite simple."
Philippe gasped in anticipation. He wondered if Chevalier would tie him to the bed. Punish him. Prove his brother right.
"Do you trust me, Mignonette?"
Philippe bit his lip, and nodded.
"Then let me take care of you."
And that's exactly what Chevalier did. He lay a silk scarf across Philippe's eyes, but did not tie it. Then he let him open his eyes. The silk allowed him to see, a little, but made the light soft and gentle on his senses. Chevalier caressed his skin, with a feather, a scrap of fur, and finally his fingertips, drenched in oil. He rubbed it gently into his arms and shoulders, his chest and belly, his legs, and the air filled with the clean scent of vanilla. Chevalier slid a pillow under Philippe's hips and parted his legs. He poured oil over his cock, his balls, between his buttocks. He spread it gently around his most intimate of places, and slipped his fingers inside of him. He kissed Philippe's mouth and whispered in his ear. "You are the most beautiful man to walk the earth. The most clever, the most desirable creature. You set France afire with your magnificence. And I love you." Chevalier entered him, still talking although his voice was tight with need. "We shall be wicked together. We shall build a life of scandal and notoriety, and we shall pretend no shame. If you are a mortal sin, my love, I would gladly embrace the fires of hell rather than be parted from you."
He was not gentle, then. He filled Philippe again and again, exactly as Philippe yearned to be filled. Chevalier's thumb pressed to the vulnerable divot in Philippe's throat, without ever hurting him. A wildness overcame Philippe as it never had before and he surrendered himself entirely to passion. Chevalier turned him onto his hands and knees and fucked him like an animal; he pulled him on top and had Philippe ride him. They fucked until they were both exhausted and sticky with come, bodies throbbing in blessed release.
"He will never pry us apart, sweet Chevalier. I shall not permit it. And with you at my side…" Philippe paused to kiss him. "There is no force on this earth that can stop me."
How foolish he had been. To think that it was a promise he could keep, pretending that if Louis saw fit he could not destroy anything he wished. To forget that confessing a favourite toy to his brother was simply giving him the power to steal it away.
And now it was nearly dawn on a day a decade or more later, and Chevalier was slipping once more from his grasp. Tomorrow St Cloud would echo with no footsteps but his own, and Louis would have won. Again.
Philippe took Chevalier in his arms for one long, last kiss and let him go.