Rome was marginally better than prison, Chevalier supposed.
It had its comforts - most notably the food, the weather and the availability of a soft bed. But otherwise it did not have a great deal to recommend it. He spent much of his time in the company of women, always with an eye open for the next individual likely to stab him in the back. Last week he'd got in trouble for rescuing a poor soul from drowning. Her husband really had no reason to react the way he did. It's not as if Chevalier needed any reason to steal the poor wretch from him; the bastard had practically driven her into his arms. Chevalier didn't want her. He didn't want anyone in this whole damn country.
He wanted Philippe.
They'd lived apart before, of course, but not for very long, and mostly for mutual benefit. There had been other lovers, for both of them, especially in the early days. Some they shared with each other from time to time, some they didn't. And then there was Henriette. Philippe's marriage was inevitable, of course, and the one reason that Chevalier had promised himself, when he arrived at court all those years ago, that he would not fall in love with Monsieur. To do so would be foolish in the extreme. He might dally with him. Gain his favour. Enjoy his company. But he would be very careful not to fall in love.
How adorable, that his fifteen-year-old self had thought it possible that one chose whether or not to give Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, one's heart. One did not. Losing your heart to him was as unavoidable as the rising of the sun. It happened to Chevalier the very first time they kissed. And, also like the rising of the sun, it seemed it happened to everyone. Chevalier was not by any stretch of the imagination Philippe's only admirer. Worse still, on occasion others outranked him in Philippe's favour. Some were easily dispensed with, some were not. Armand de Gramont, Comte de Guiche, for example, stuck to Philippe like fucking glue.
Nonetheless, Armand was merely an annoyance in comparison to Henriette. From the first day of her betrothal to Philippe she was at his side in a way Chevalier could never be. She knelt by him for communion. She sat next to him at dinner. She claimed the first dance at every ball. She was bound to him in law. All the things that Chevalier had, with considerable pain, accepted could not be his, she now flaunted in his face.
He didn't mention such thoughts to Philippe, of course. Philippe looked to him for strength and direction. To appear weak was to risk Philippe's pity, and if Philippe were to pity him… well, it didn't bear thinking about. But as the day of Philippe's marriage approached and 'the wife' was no longer a distant possibility but a living, breathing and startlingly beautiful girl, Chevalier's anxieties threatened to overwhelm him. Henriette and Philippe had known each other since childhood. They were friends. And she was a golden thread binding Philippe not only to marriage, but to the king. The king who looked at Chevalier as if he were a speck of dirt on his shoe.
So Chevalier chose to be absent from court more often, once they were wed. He found it increasingly difficult to suffer a position as a mere 'friend' of Philippe's in his household. Chevalier flirted with war, with other men, with women. Until one night, when he met his older brother for dinner in Paris.
His brother offered him a fascinating morsel of gossip.
"Madame and the Comte de Guiche?" Chevalier said. "Are you serious?"
"I thought you might have known, actually, considering your position in Monsieur's household."
"I have no 'position', as well you know."
"But are you not curious?"
"Well, obviously. Where did you hear this?"
"One of Madame's ladies has a whisper as loud as a bellowing boar."
"Oh, Katherine? The one with the…" He gestured vaguely at his chin.
"The very same."
"Well, she might have mistaken him for someone else. The woman's blind as a bat. Does Monsieur know?"
"I was going to ask you the very same question."
"Oh. I see. You were merely seeking my affirmation before you tattle to the king."
"You had no idea, then?"
"None. As I say, I haven't been around much. It seems all the drama has happened while my back was turned."
"Perhaps you should return to court sooner rather than later."
"As your spy?"
"As a friend of Monsieur's."
"Why would the king be so interested in the infidelities of his brother's wife anyway? Does he wish to gloat? That doesn't seem very kingly, and most definitely not brotherly."
"Have you not noticed how attentive Louis is towards her Highness?"
"They were childhood friends." Chevalier searched his brother's face for further clues, and oh, there it was. A slight tic under his left eye, the faintest of smirks twitching at the corner of his lips.
"He's fucking her?" At the tender age of nineteen Chevalier could not keep the shock from his voice.
"That is not what I said." But the smirk came out in full force.
"Heavens," said Chevalier, his mind racing. There was so much afoot, and he cursed himself for sulking away from court when he should have been in the middle of things, looking to press his advantage. But the constriction his chest reminded him that political advancement wasn't his primary concern, beyond the essentials required for survival. His overwhelming response to the news was 'poor Philippe'. Poor Philippe, who had tried so hard to embrace his duty and be a good husband, despite it going against his very nature. And while the rest of the Court recognised Armand as an insufferable oaf, he was Philippe's friend. Officially, his favourite.
Passion surged in Chevalier's heart. The matter of Philippe's wife would require an imaginative solution, but could be resolved deftly to his advantage. The removal of Armand would be a work of pure pleasure.
"I'm sure it's no more than idle gossip," said Chevalier. "But I believe, by happy co-incidence, I am due to return to Court tomorrow. I shall let you know of anything untoward that may come to my attention, you can be assured of it."
"Excellent," said the Comte d'Armagnac. "More wine?"
It only took a few days of keen observation before Chevalier hatched a plan to deal with Henriette and Armand. It was ludicrously simple. The lovers had surrounded themselves with allies to protect them from discovery and, naturally, several of the faithful could be bought. It didn't take anything as vulgar as money. One was a devoted valet whom, it transpired, had a taste for being flogged while his arse was stuffed with a candle. One of Henriette's ladies was undertaking an ill-advised affair herself with a Musketeer. One candlelit flogging and a whisper of blackmail, and Chevalier had all he needed: namely a clutch of incriminating love letters. He despatched them quickly to his brother, and thence they travelled to the king. He attached one condition to his brother: that Philippe was not to know of his wife's infidelity.
Naturally, this suited the king, who would not wish to risk Henriette's disgrace. And so the Comte de Guiche was to be expelled, not just from Court, but from the whole of France. For 'reasons of State'.
On the day of Armand's departure Philippe watched, wringing his hands, while Armand directed his servants to pack for him. Armand ranted and raved. He blamed Philippe for not protecting him. Chevalier stood in the corner of the room with a clutch of mignons, fists clenched tight at his sides, glaring at Armand as if he could poison the man with a look.
"How can I help? I don't even know of what you are accused!" cried Philippe.
Armand turned on Philippe, red-faced, spittle flying from his mouth as he shouted. "You believe I am to blame?"
Philippe flinched. Chevalier had never wanted to hit anyone as much in his life as he wanted to hit Armand in that moment. He let the idea bloom in his imagination: rage thrown through his knuckles at the Comte's fleshy face. The cry of pain. The satisfying crack of bones breaking under the force.
One of the boys murmured, and put a hand on Chevalier's shoulder.
"I believe my brother has a reason, however misguided," Philippe said. "He does not act on whim alone. I cannot help you if I do not understand what it is."
There was a hard edge to Philippe's voice that Chevalier hadn't heard before.
"You should need no more than my word!" Armand raised his hand. Chevalier braced himself, ready to leap to Philippe's defence at any moment. It was taking every shred of self-control he could muster to still his own temper. He did not want Philippe to be hurt. But he could see the coldness in Philippe's eyes. He was angry with his brother. But he had no sympathy for Armand.
"All is ready, sire," said Armand's valet.
"You should go," Philippe said. "The light is fading, and the roads are dangerous at night."
Armand stormed off with a single, angry glance over his shoulder. Chevalier put his fury into a devilish grin, and waved him off.
The group of mignons gave a collective sigh of relief, a tangible relaxing of taut muscle. Chevalier stepped forward to join Philippe at the window. They watched the carriage until it disappeared from view. Philippe's hand found his, and their fingers twined together. An uncomfortable thought scratched at the back of Chevalier's mind. There but for the grace of God, go I….
"I know why my brother did this," said Philippe. "He wants Henriette to himself."
Chevalier saw the hurt in Philippe's eyes, and hated it, even as he admired his brilliance. Of course he knew about his wife's infidelity. He'd known all along. Chevalier had fallen into the trap of underestimating him, just as everyone else at Court did. Blinded to his intelligence, his perceptiveness. His power.
Chevalier turned Philippe away from the window and kissed him. He remembered a balcony at a ball, a blue dress, a promise. Philippe made a small, fluttery noise as their lips met. He tangled his fingers in Chevalier's hair. "My sweet Chevalier. I missed you so. Will you share my bed tonight?"
"Actually…." Chevalier stole another kiss before proceeding. "I think you should sleep with your wife tonight."
"I beg your pardon? Did you really just say… Why would you suggest such a thing?"
"To reassert your husbandly rights, of course. And, well...." He looked up at the ceiling, twirling a strand of Philippe's hair innocently between his fingers.
Philippe tightened his arms around Chevalier's waist. "I know that look. Go on."
"Well, it would be a terrible inconvenience to the King, I should imagine, if you were to sleep with her. She would be so… occupied. So unavailable."
Philippe laughed, and kissed him so thoroughly it left his lips tingling.
"In that case," Philippe said, "I shall share my bed with my wife every night. But the afternoons, my love," -he kissed Chevalier's nose- "belong to you. Does that sound like a suitable arrangement, do you think?"
"It's perfect," said Chevalier. "I think we should begin at once, don't you?"
In a different world, years and miles away, Chevalier sighed.
"My dear, you have that expression on your face again."
He glanced over his shoulder to see Marie approaching from the bed, a sheet wrapped artfully around her body to assure belated and completely unnecessary modesty.
She stood at his side.
"You miss him tonight?"
"I miss him every night and every day. But especially under a sky like this. The moon is so bright. The stars sparkle so beautifully." Chevalier rested a fingertip on the window; it was warm to touch, even so late at night.
"The King will relent," Marie said. "You have only to wait."
"I detest waiting."
She touched his shoulder, teased the sensitive curve of his throat. "Then I shall have to keep you distracted, my darling."
She was lovely. Kind. Generous. Clever. She deserved much better than to have a husband who beat her and a lover whose mind was always yearning for another. Chevalier had promised himself that no man would replace his Mignonette this time, however long their separation. But Marie was a diversion, and one who, if planets and schemes aligned, might one day lead him back to where he truly belonged.
She passed him a compact filled with powders. Escape in a tiny silver box.
"You'll like it," she said. "I promise."
She showed him what to do. A little up the nose, a little taste. A rush. A balm. A dreadful calm.
"See?" said Marie. "Come now. Lie with me."
He joined her on the cool sheets, his head on a soft, down pillow. Her hands roamed freely over his skin. Where his Philippe would caress with mischief or purpose, she merely touched. Her body was soft and plump, luscious as a ripe peach, whereas Philippe's was lean and taut as a well-strung bow.
Chevalier played his part. The powders made him hungry for it, and numb to much else. He pushed the memory of Philippe's tender kisses away, and thought instead of Marie's ungrateful husband. Such a waste, for such a woman to be bruised and broken by a brute. Chevalier took her gently, bestowed upon her all the tenderness that she deserved, and that he was kept from directing where he truly wished it. He did not, in the next hour, think of Philippe. He carefully did not recall the bliss of sinking into him, the sound of his rising breath, the gasps and moans that only the Chevalier could coax from him.
He did not think of lying in Philippe's arms afterwards, slick with sweat and lost in slow, languid kisses.
He did not think of any of this. But once he had brought Marie to a place of sated slumber, he slipped again from the bed to gaze up at the stars, and let fat, round tears slide slowly down his cheeks.