Philippe stared out of the carriage window, the outside world reduced to a blur of green and brown, tinted here and there with the grey-white of old snow. With every hoof beat they drew closer to Versailles, and the sense of constriction and suffocation increased. He'd been away only a few weeks, and he knew the matter had been vital to the future of France, as well as his brother. But still resentment seethed. Blood had been spilled, painful secrets revealed: once again, Philippe had done his brother's dirty work for him. And now he had been summoned back to the swamp to be patronised, humiliated, belittled. Philippe was certain of this outcome because he had succeeded where Louis could not. And that never ended well.
He could never win. Especially by winning.
The carriage slowed, and came to a halt. Fabien drew alongside the window, his riding cape billowing across the back of his magnificent ebony stallion. His cheeks were stung red by the chill breeze.
"Nothing to worry about, Your Highness," Fabien said. "One of the horses has thrown a shoe."
"So formal, Fabien?"
"We are returning to court, Your Highness. It is appropriate-"
"I'll decide what's appropriate, thank you very much."
Fabien bowed to him, but there was a smirk on his face when his head came up again. "As you wish, Monsieur."
Philippe kicked open the carriage door. "Come in while they sort out the horses. There's blankets."
"I prefer the open air," said Fabien.
"Well, I can't say I blame you. We'll be indoors soon enough, I suppose."
"Indeed. But you must be looking forward to seeing your family?"
Something tightened in Philippe's chest. "I doubt my brother will welcome me home with open arms."
Fabien just looked at him.
"Oh," Philippe said. "You mean my family. Sadly, they are Saint Cloud, so it will be some considerable time before that happens. They do not deserve to be dragged to that pit of vipers my brother calls his palace just so I may see them."
Fabien kept looking at him with one brow lifted and his eyes smouldering, in that way he often did, as if he could communicate all he needed to simply with a well-placed stare.
"Ah," said Philippe. "I take your point. Well, don't just sit there, man. Tell them to fetch me a horse!"
Philippe took the last stretch at a gallop, slowing to a trot only as he approached the house. The snow here was thicker and dazzlingly white, the trees touched with glittering frost. He saw figures in the garden, and drew his horse to a halt to watch. It took him a moment to take in what he was seeing. It was Marie-Louise and Anne-Marie and little Philippe, and they were hurling snowballs in a frenzy at the Chevalier de Lorraine. Liselotte was clearly the munitions operator, stacking snowballs with a speed and precision Philippe's best canon loaders would envy.
Chevalier, meanwhile, squealed in protest and laughed and threw snow back with admirable aim, especially considering the bombardment he was suffering.
Philippe swung down from his horse and strode towards them, stripping a handful of snow from a tree on the way.
"Hey!" he called out. "This is a little one-sided, don't you think?"
He got Liselotte clean in the face before all hell let loose.
Later that afternoon, when the light had faded and all were bathed and dry, the children sat around Liselotte on silk cushions by the fire as she read to them. Puppies were scattered among them, dozing. Philippe and Chevalier sat on the couch nearby, bodies pressed close and fingers entwined, as they sipped hot chocolate laced with cream and brandy.
"Most remiss of me," Chevalier said. "I seem to have neglected to thank you for saving my honour in the face of those hellions you call your offspring."
"I must confess, I was shocked at their treachery. What on earth did you do?"
"Nothing! I am, of course, entirely innocent."
"Is that one of Anne Marie's bows in your hair?"
"Don't be ridiculous. You're seeing things."
"I'll ask my wife later."
"You do that. If you want to receive a pack of lies. They are all banded against me, as you saw. Such is my life of misery when you are absent."
Philippe patted the tip of Chevalier's nose with one finger. "I'm sorry."
"So you should be." Chevalier squeezed his hand.
"I missed you. I missed all of you. My family," said Philippe.
"Your empire," said Chevalier. Liselotte glanced across and smiled, without pausing in her storytelling.
"My empire," said Philippe, and drew Chevalier in for a kiss.
Chevalier's lips were warm and soft and he tasted of chocolate and the burnt wood of brandy. Philippe let it last until his heart was full, and desire had flared from a flicker to something else.
One of the puppies staggered towards them like a drunkard, still half-asleep. Its tail wagged and it yawned. Philippe picked it up and put it in his lap, stroking its velvety ears.
"Wretched things," murmured Chevalier, tickling it under the chin.
Philippe closed his eyes and let it sink in that, finally, he had come home.