Philippe woke with a surprisingly clear head. He blinked a few times, waiting for the pain to kick in. There was none. He opened his eyes properly. There was a cloud of golden curls and, beyond, a soft streak of sunlight.
An arm tightened around his waist, and someone murmured into the side of his neck. Philippe kissed the someone on their temple without even thinking about it. And then he caught the scent of vanilla and bergamot, and smiled, before he even realised what he was smiling about.
"I think I'm in heaven," Chevalier told Philippe's neck. "Please don't break the illusion, I couldn't take the disappointment."
Philippe let joy fill him before he could think better of it, and kissed Chevalier's hair. "Even if this is hell, I'm in the best company," he said.
Chevalier snorted. Philippe closed his eyes and drifted.
"My love," Chevalier said: not a question, not an entreaty but a simple statement of fact.
"My love," Philippe replied.
He felt like a bride on the first morning of her honeymoon. Or possibly a groom. A groom who had been allowed to marry for love, not for politics or to appease their petulant bastard of a brother. He sighed.
"Stop thinking," said Chevalier. "Or I'll give you something to think about."
"Is that a threat? Or a promise?"
Chevalier wriggled down under the covers. Philippe gasped at the tickle of Chevalier's kisses, trailing from his shoulder to his nipple to his belly, and then Philippe's prick was enveloped in soft, wet warmth and no thought stood a chance of being given any attention at all. His balls were cupped and fondled; his arse was gripped; and every fibre of his being was drawn to the pleasure Chevalier lavished upon his very hard cock.
His body was as eager as if he were still sixteen years old: it had been so long since he'd had anyone, never mind someone who knew every inch of him so well he could render him helpless with a touch. A lick. A suck, God, and now Chevalier was pulling and pushing at his hip, encouraging Philippe to fuck his mouth.
"I won't last," he murmured, one hand grabbing at the corner of a pillow.
Chevalier didn't answer, just fluttered his tongue against Philippe's shaft and slid one finger between his buttocks. Oh God.
Philippe clutched harder at the pillow, and began to thrust. His balls ached and he revelled in lustful, artful movement and the pleasure it earned him. Like dancing, sinuous and indulgent. See how beautiful I am. See how I move. Chevalier's throat was hot and tight, his fingers inquisitive, gentle, teasing at Philippe's hole. Still a little tender from last night's fucking. Then one finger slipped inside and the memory of that fuck shuddered through Philippe: on his hands and knees in front of the mirror, like he wouldn't believe it was true unless he watched it. Chevalier spread over him like a blanket, his hot tears splashing onto Philippe's back as they fucked. Everything Philippe had been hiding from, everything dangerous and consuming and--
He cried out and spilled down Chevalier's throat; one, two, three hard spurts before he fell limp and quivering to the bed, finally relinquishing his hold on the pillow. Chevalier threw the covers off with a roar and reared up on his knees, stripping his cock so fast his hand was a blur. He spent on Philippe's belly, sticky and wet and completely outrageous. He'd never done anything so audacious before. Not without asking.
Smiling so much his face hurt, Philippe dragged Chevalier in for a kiss. Tasted himself. Pulled Chevalier down on top of him, wriggling to make sure Chevalier shared the gooey mess he'd left on Philippe's belly. Chevalier laughed. Kissed him back. Settled himself on top of Philippe, pleasantly heavy and warm, like a particularly good blanket.
And then there was a knock on the door.
"A council meeting," said Chevalier.
Philippe surveyed himself in the mirror. It had been quite a while since he'd seen himself like this. Since his return he'd been living in a half-world between peace and danger, with no inclination to consider fashion or outward appearances. Well, no more than strictly necessary, at any rate. Now he wore a sash around his exquisitely embroidered coat. Glossy curls tumbled over his shoulders. It seemed strange. He wasn't sure he was ready.
"You have to go to a council meeting," Chevalier repeated, his disgust obvious.
"Yes," Philippe replied. "Don't you have something useful to do?"
"Not particularly. Your brother may have spared me from deportation and let me keep my rooms, but as to gainful employment... Are you really going to wear those shoes? Again?"
Philippe glanced down at his feet, and thought of Guillaume. "Yes," he said, firmly.
"I despair of you."
Philippe slipped his rings onto his fingers, and tucked a fresh handkerchief into his sleeve.
Liselotte swept into the room, skirts swishing as if for dramatic emphasis.
"Are you really going to a council meeting?" she asked.
Philippe rolled his eyes. "Yes. I am a member of the council; the council is meeting; therefore, I shall be going. What time is it?"
"You're ten minutes late."
He gave Liselotte a peck on the cheek, then turned to the bed, where Chevalier was lying on his stomach with a pout on his lips. His eyes were sparkling, however. Whether with affection or mischief, Philippe couldn't be sure, but either way, it showed things were right with his beloved, however petulant he appeared. He kissed Chevalier on his mouth; a thorough, promising sort of kiss that would give him plenty to think about while Philippe was gone. When he opened his eyes he caught Liselotte looking at them both before she flicked her gaze elsewhere.
It wasn't unpleasant, the thought of her watching them. Hm.
"Run along, then," Chevalier said. "Leave us here like good little housewives while you go and play politics."
"Housewife?" said Liselotte. "Speak for yourself."
Louis was insufferable; Maintenon was insidious and Louvois was impossible. All this was to be expected, and Philippe let it wash over him. One new development was that Prince Louis had joined them as, his father announced, an observer. To learn the ropes, which Philippe read as 'to be indoctrinated in the ways of the Sun King'. The boy had certainly grown since last he'd seen him. There was a familiar streak of arrogance about him. Rumour in the salon suggested that he particularly enjoyed hunting, food and chambermaids.
A real chip off the old block.
He wondered what his own son would be like at Louis' age, and was surprised by the little pang he felt in his chest at the thought. He'd been so deep in his own misery he had barely acknowledged the child while he was here. Should he feel guilty about that? Was it so terrible for an infant to be apart from its parents? To the point where one might not even recognise the other?
Philippe's attention snapped back to the meeting. Louis was wearing one of those concerned expressions that could mean a thousand different things, only a few of them good. "Hmm?" said Philippe.
"I thought we'd lost you for a moment, there." Louis gave a little laugh, instantly echoed by the others around the table.
"I'm fine. Forgive me. I didn't get much sleep last night."
The Prince tittered.
The expression on Louis' face hardened. Philippe braced himself for the inevitable humiliating retort. But instead, at obvious cost to himself, Louis leaned back in his chair, and let it go.
"I believe the extra expenditure on security is of obvious necessity," said Philippe. "But should be defensive in nature. No attack on our own population is necessary. The rebellion was swiftly and devastatingly crushed. Our point was well made. Instead, improve training for the guards, increase patrols. Continue your improvement works in Paris. That should do the job nicely, don't you think?"
Everyone around the table held their breath, even Maintenon. Philippe knew they all agreed with him. But this was a battle no-one else stood a chance of winning these days: making Louis see sense. And even for Philippe, the odds were slim. On this occasion, however, perhaps because it was he who had fired the bullet that saved the King's life, his luck was in. Louis relaxed, nodded as if it had been his idea all along, and discussion merely a test of loyalty. "It shall be so. Thank you, brother. In fact, I value your contribution so much I think you should train the guards yourself. You are a master of combat after all."
Ah. The stinger.
The room exhaled, business moved along to import taxes and the Americas, and Philippe began to count down the minutes to lunch.
He returned to his rooms to find his wife and his lover playing with ornaments. A large vase had been moved to the centre of the room, and various other objects were arranged around it in huddles. They were giggling.
"Good afternoon," said Philippe.
"Hello," said Liselotte, cheerfully. She gathered up her skirts and tiptoed her way between a pile of books and a sculpture of Ganymede to place a large goblet on a bare patch of floor. "Comte de Guiche. I win!"
Liselotte and the Chevalier fell into another fit of laughter, she snorting and he wheezing and flapping his hands. Philippe looked again at the collection of random objects, but found nothing amusing about them whatsoever. He stomped to the bedroom to escape the childish display, closing the door loudly behind him, and flung his collection of pointless council papers on the desk. His valet hovered; Philippe accepted help out of his coat and then dismissed him. He flopped face-down on the freshly made bed.
A fresh ripple of laughter came from the next room. Philippe grabbed a pillow and held it over his head.
After a little while there was a knock on the door. It opened. He waved whoever it was away. But they didn't leave; they came and sat on the bed instead.
"What's the matter?" asked Liselotte.
The bed dipped on the other side.
"Was council awful?" Chevalier put his hand on Philippe's back, irritatingly warm and comforting.
"I don't want to talk about it," Philippe said into the exquisite silk bed coverings.
"It must have been truly awful," said Chevalier. "My poor darling. All that politics."
Philippe raised his head far enough that he could be sure to be heard. "At least I was doing something useful."
Chevalier's hand withdrew. "Really? It's not like he's going to listen to you about anything."
Philippe flopped over onto his back. "As a matter of fact, he listened to me today. I won a soaring victory which quite probably saved the lives of several good people. What did you achieve while I was gone? Hm?"
He watched the mask slip on, the face Chevalier wore when he felt vulnerable. It took the warmth out of his flirtation, heightened his impulsive cruelty. Philippe took a sick satisfaction from knowing he'd flipped that switch himself. Less than twenty four hours and they were back to playing their old games. So much for the honeymoon.
"Not all of us can be rulers," Chevalier said, with a toss of his hair. "Some of us are mere ornament and decoration who have to find our contribution where we can."
"Seriously?" said Liselotte.
She looked cross.
"You were the one who told me to come back," Philippe told her. "While we're here we're all my brother's little pawns. You should know that better than anyone."
Liselotte got off the bed, and smoothed down the front of her dress. "I can't believe you're doing this to each other already. I refuse to be drawn into it myself. I am going to the salon to play cards. Feel free to join me when you've played out whatever petty drama this is."
She swept from the room. Philippe could have believed she was as calm as she sounded, had she not slammed the door behind her.
"What's up with her?" Philippe said.
"Oh, for Christ's sake. Are you blind?"
"You aren't the only one who's been hurt. Do you have even the slightest idea what she's gone through?"
"I presume you're going to enlighten me?"
Chevalier gave him a cold, penetrating look, and stood up. "Why should I enlighten you?" he said. "You're convinced you've got us all worked out already."
A few hours later Philippe went to the salon, where Liselotte was, indeed, playing cards. He found an unoccupied table in the corner and sat there, reading a book he absorbed not a word of. Around his second glass of wine, Chevalier entered the room. Heads turned, as always, and he was invited to join every game he passed. But his eyes were set on Liselotte's table, where another noble graciously gave up his place so Chevalier could join her.
Over the next three hours Liselotte and Chevalier united to calmly fleece everyone who was foolish enough to chance their hand with them. Philippe was sure they were both cheating - skill could take them only so far, after all - but they had raised it to an art form. And a shared art, at that. They played off each other perfectly.
The salon emptied in the early hours, and they came to him, as flushed with winning as he was with wine, and tried to persuade him to join them in Chevalier's quarters for a celebration.
Philippe declined, and took his book to bed. Alone.
Philippe had often tried to get Chevalier to go riding with him. Chevalier had always declined, claiming that he hated the outdoors, or he hated horses, or he hated the smell of leather. The last Philippe had recognised as a lie from the outset. The former seemed plausible. He knew Chevalier had been trained emphatically in horsemanship from an early age as a consequence of his father's occupation, and assumed it had left him jaded.
Now Liselotte and Chevalier went for a ride every morning.
They never thought to invite him, of course.
The last straw was the portrait.
It was five days after his reunion with the Chevalier. They had not shared a bed since that first night, Philippe preferring to spend his evenings preparing for council - Colbert had left a great deal of instructions and suggestions for the management of future trade, and Philippe found he had an interest in such dealings. Especially as they related to various aspects of his own business affairs. If Louis would listen to him - and for now he remained in favour - he could make useful suggestions here, and at least he could curb Louvois' excesses.
All of it was a lot easier than watching Chevalier and Liselotte giggling over this or that, or cheating outrageously at cards. It was perfectly clear they preferred each other's company to his. They didn't even think to invite him to the salon any more.
That morning they came back from a long ride in the forest and crashed into Philippe's apartment bubbling over with excitement and mirth. Philippe watched them, narrow-eyed, from his desk as they fell upon some parcel that had been delivered to Philippe's salon.
"Oh, my word!" Chevalier exclaimed. "I swear it is the perfect likeness."
"It is!" Liselotte gasped. "Oh, it is! His little cheeks, look!"
Curiosity piqued, Philippe stalked into the room to discover the subject of their ridiculous squealing.
It was a small portrait, in an elaborate gilt frame (far too heavy for its size), of a baby. The child was swaddled and lay on the lap of its nurse (an ugly woman with overgenerous form) surrounded by cherubs. It was nauseating.
"Isn't it perfect?" said Liselotte.
"It's gauche, overpainted and vulgar," Philippe replied. "What's it doing here?"
The silence was tangible. Liselotte's eyes filled with tears, and she fled from the room.
"Well," said Chevalier. "That was a trifle unnecessary, don't you think?"
"She's upset just because I don't like a painting? She can hang it in her own room if she likes it so much."
"You have no idea, do you?"
"No idea of what?"
Chevalier flung his arm out to point at the picture. "That is not just a painting, you idiot. That is your son."
And then he turned heel and stalked after Liselotte, whose sobbing Philippe could hear echoing down the hall.
Philippe slumped on the couch, and stared at the canvass in front of him.
Philippe had never been particularly good with babies. Children, yes. He remembered the early days with Henriette and their girls. Before Versailles; tying ribbons in their hair and chasing them around the gardens. Then events had overtaken him. The length of time between visits had grown longer, to the point where his daughter hadn't even recognised him. And now she was to be Queen of Spain. He'd sent her to do her duty as coldly as his brother expected everyone to do theirs.
He knelt in front of the portrait, and touched the babe's cheek with one fingertip. This close up the individual paint strokes were in focus, the colours blended to form one rosy cheek. He remembered one afternoon, not long after his return. Liselotte had fallen asleep while Philippe had been scrutinising the old jail records. He had crossed the room to cover her with a blanket to prevent her from getting cold. On his way back he passed the crib. His son lay there, sleeping quietly. Philippe had very gently touched his cheek. It felt like velvet. The softest, most innocent thing he had ever touched.
If touch could be a colour, the feel of his son's cheek would be that exact rose-pink.
Philippe retired to his bedroom, and ordered more wine.
He was on his second bumper when Liselotte came into his room. She watched him for a few moments while he stared determinedly out of the window. But he couldn't ignore her for long. He stole a quick glance. That was all she needed.
"Come on," she said. She was standing in the doorway, her arms folded.
He ignored her, but the knot in his belly grew tighter.
"Do you really want to spend the whole night scowling into the darkness and drinking wine?"
Philippe sniffed. "I might do."
She didn't dignify that with an answer, and Philippe thought she was probably right: it didn't deserve one. He sighed, and turned away from the window.
"I believe I owe you an apology." He set his wine glass down on the desk.
"When they took our son. I should have fought harder."
She went very still.
"I'm sorry," Philippe continued. "I was caught up in my own concerns, and did not give enough thought to your feelings."
Emotion choked in Philippe's chest, and he blurted out, "I wish I'd been here. When he was born."
Liselotte rushed to his side, just as his tears started to fall. She held his arm and patted his back. "You had no choice, remember?"
"I do not regret going to war. But I missed so much, and when I came back, everything had changed. Sometimes I think it would be simpler if I simply went away again."
Chevalier's voice came from the doorway. "What nonsense is this?"
Philippe stumbled to the bed, sat down and cried. Just like the child his brother thought he was.
Liselotte and Chevalier sat either side of him. Chevalier pressed a refreshed goblet of wine into his hand. Liselotte lent him her handkerchief. It should have been ridiculously humiliating. But it wasn't.
"Is this what's been wrong with you the past few days?" Liselotte said.
"You have been terribly out of sorts, my darling," said Chevalier. "Quite insufferable, to be frank."
'Well, thank you for your honesty," said Philippe, flatly.
"If I didn't know better," Liselotte said, "I'd think you were jealous."
"Me? Jealous? Of what, may I ask? If I were jealous, do you think I'd have taken him back?"
Chevalier sprang to his feet. "Oh, I wondered how long it would be before you flung that back in my face."
"I wasn't 'flinging' anything!"
"I waited for you! I was as chaste as a nun all the time you were away and--"
Liselotte cleared her throat.
Chevalier glared at her, but he lowered his voice and said, more reasonably, "I was yours for the taking. It's not my fault you didn't choose to take me."
"Honestly," Liselotte said. "I thought you two had sorted all this out."
"Or maybe it isn't about 'us'," said Chevalier. "Maybe it's about..." He pointed from himself to Liselotte and back again. "Us."
"Us?" said Liselotte.
"Well. We have become rather close. In a manner of speaking."
"I do not want to hear this." Philippe tried to get to his feet, but Liselotte held him back with a firm hand on his forearm.
"Listen to me," she said. "When you left for the war you gave some very specific instructions. You placed me under the Chevalier's protection. Did you not? Let's face it, he was a mess with all the drama and that ridiculous stuff he used to put up his nose. But he was still the person you chose to care for me."
Philippe glanced at Chevalier, who was looking down at the floor, shame flickering across his exquisite features.
"It wasn't easy," Liselotte continued. "He made a dreadful fuss about getting better. Probably not without cause. But he never once failed in the duty you set out for him."
"So, what?" Philippe smiled a bitter little smile. "One thing led to another?"
"Nothing led to anything." Liselotte said. "God, you can both be such idiots sometimes. He did as you asked. He took care of me. I took care of him as best I could in return, and no, not in that way. I held his hair back when he vomited for lack of powders and I played cards with him when he couldn't sleep."
"And I played my part," Chevalier said, plaintively. "I wasn't the only one vomiting. Honestly, you wouldn't believe the lengths I went to. I was asked to procure pickles in the middle of the night, and there wasn't a servant to be found. Then she would wake me up in the small hours because she couldn't sleep for pickle-fabricated dreams. And she yelled abuse at me for most of the last week before the birth, morning til night. Words that would make a sailor blush. Honestly, I understand now why women are usually confined as soon as possible. It's not for their comfort. It's to protect the rest of us."
"I thought you had your own ladies for that sort of thing," said Philippe to Liselotte.
"None of them could stand her," Chevalier said.
"They were all empty-headed virgins," muttered Liselotte.
Philippe wondered whether perhaps he'd been fortunate to miss some of their adventures after all.
"But all the time we missed you," Liselotte said.
"Like burning," said Chevalier. "The strangest part of all of it was that we found we rather liked each other."
"Yes. But as friends."
"You know what it's like round here." Chevalier caught Philippe's gaze, and Philippe's breath hitched. "Without you we were alone. Vulnerable. And, to be perfectly honest, sad. When little Philippe was born it was as if we had a bit of you back. I mean, he really does have the most fearful temper."
"And the sweetest smile," said Liselotte.
"There's nothing more to it than that," Chevalier said. "Your wife's vows are completely intact, I promise you."
"I wish you'd had more time with him." Liselotte's voice was heavy with sadness.
Philippe took a sip of his wine. He felt like an arse, and his first instinct was to rage his way out of this whole situation. But these were the people he trusted most in the world. Loved most in the world; more even than his brother. So for once he took a deep breath, and let his anger and shame settle. And then he said, "I miss my son. I miss my daughters. I think we should go to St Germain, first thing in the morning, don't you? Let the training of the King's guard wait for a few days."
Liselotte's face lit up like a beacon; she didn't blush prettily with pleasure like most of the other young women in court, but her eyes showed such love and yearning, such excitement that it made Philippe warm inside.
"I miss the little chap too," Chevalier said. "As atrociously domesticated as that sounds. Honestly, sometimes I hardly recognise myself since your wife got her claws into me, my darling. She has quite ruined me."
"I thought you didn't do anything untoward with her?" Philippe allowed his mouth to twitch into a smile. Chevalier snorted.
"Then it's settled. You will make the arrangements," he told Chevalier.
"Me? Of course, if you wish it."
"I have noticed how well my affairs were conducted in my absence," Philippe conceded.
Liselotte squeezed his hand.
"It looks as though I shall be busy when we return, however. I would very much like to get into the habit of taking time away from Versailles. Not forever - that battle, I fear, is lost. My brother needs me here. But providing I make a nuisance of myself at council meetings, and sharpen his soldiers in plain view, while Chevalier takes care of household matters, we should be able to slip away from time to time, no? Just the three of us. And, sometimes, the children."
"Be careful," Liselotte said, her eyes shining. "You make us sound an awful lot like a family."
"Oh, dear God." Chevalier fanned himself theatrically with one hand.
"Better than family," said Philippe. Still holding Liselotte's hand, he leaned into Chevalier and kissed his cheek. Never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Chevalier returned it with a kiss on the mouth that quickly got passionate. Philippe kissed back, waiting for Liselotte to pull her hand away.
But she didn't.
He kissed his way along Chevalier's jaw to his ear. Whispered, "Did you want to fuck my wife while I was away?"
"No. I swear."
"Do you want to fuck her now?"
He pulled away, his face a study in wide-eyed astonishment.
Liselotte cleared her throat.
"I am not a flagon of wine, to be shared on a whim," she pointed out.
"But you like watching us," Philippe said. Chevalier's grin went wicked.
Liselotte snatched her hand back. "No I don't."
"Oh, but you do," purred Chevalier. "You have fantasies about us."
"I don't!" squeaked Liselotte.
"You write about them in your journals," said Chevalier, and the instant her embarrassment turned to ire, he added, "I suppose. It's not like I read them or anything."
"I should storm right out of here this minute and never speak to either of you again!" Liselotte cried.
"But you won't," Chevalier said. He'd caught the scent now, and Philippe knew he wouldn't give up.
"You want me to be a part of your depravity," she said.
"It's hardly depravity if it's just us," Chevalier said. "We're family, after all."
He ran his hand up Philippe's thigh, watching Liselotte watching him. Philippe was half-hard by the time Chevalier's fingers reached his groin. Liselotte licked her lips.
"Stay," Philippe said, and lay back to let Chevalier have his way with him.
Of course, Chevalier loved nothing more than to put on a show. He tossed his hair and teased and undressed Philippe slowly, each garment lovingly stripped from him until bare skin was revealed. Chevalier kissed each part of Philippe as he was exposed to the warm air, until finally his breeches and undershirt came off and he was completely, utterly naked. Liselotte watched, totally enraptured. She looked at Philippe's prick - stiff and proud, stretching up to his navel - with a hunger in her eyes he'd never seen before. When Chevalier touched it she gasped, and licked her lips.
Philippe closed his eyes for a little while, as Chevalier bestowed the most delicious of touches and the most lingering of kisses to every inch of his skin. When the touching stopped he opened his eyes again to find the Chevalier fetching their bottle of oil from its customary warming spot on the mantelpiece. Liselotte was flushed about the face and neck, her breathing fast and shallow.
"Join us," Philippe said, softly.
Chevalier put the oil down by the bed. "Can I help you?" he asked Liselotte.
"He has undressed a great many women," Philippe said.
"Very well." Liselotte bit her lower lip, and got to her feet.
Philippe watched Chevalier undress her. The female form didn't excite him, but he was so very fond of Liselotte, and her body had meant kindness and comfort to him in some very difficult times. He saw a certain amount of lust in Chevalier's eyes. Nothing like the fire that ignited when he looked at Philippe, though.
Chevalier left Liselotte in just her chemise, and gave her a little push towards the bed while he laid her gown out over the back of a chair. Philippe welcomed her, pulling her into a gentle embrace. Chevalier shed his clothes and joined them. He gently brushed Philippe's hair back from his face and whispered, "Relax, my darling. Leave everything to me."
The words dripped like sweet honeyed wine. Philippe handed himself over to the man he loved more than anything else in the whole wide, world, and let him work his magic. He sank into the place where there was only need and caresses, ache and release. He was aware of Liselotte's moans as Chevalier brought her to her crisis; he thought he might have been doing a good deal of moaning himself as Chevalier sunk inside of him. As he lay there getting fucked, slowly, tenderly, Liselotte kissed him. She was breathing fast, her hand busy between her legs. The room smelled of both kinds of sex, fusing to a heady mix that excited him, spurred him on.
At some point in the night he took Liselotte, sinking into her sweet flesh while sucking on Chevalier's prick. He didn't know if Chevalier had fucked her too. He was surprised to realise he didn't need to. If not then, it might happen in the future. And Philippe (unlike his brother) found that he was more than happy to share. He found himself hoping, perhaps, for another child. One he would be here for, right from the start. Yes. Yes. The thought spurred him on, and he spilled his seed deep inside her, even as Chevalier spurted down his throat.
Spent, they cuddled up all three together, a tangle of sated, sticky bodies. As he drifted off, Liselotte's blond curls tickling his back while Chevalier's tickled his front, something important clicked into place.
At last, Philippe, Duc D'Orleans, knew where he belonged.