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MILADY

Chapter Text

"But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangmen and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had—power."

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

 

Never shall a young man

Thrown into despair

By those great honey-coloured

Ramparts at your ear 

Love you for yourself alone

And not your yellow hair.

-WB Yeats, For Anne Gregory.

 

Chapter Text

The girl stood on the edge of the cliff, roses clutched in her hand.

Her blue dress, deep sapphire, set a contrast against the green grass around her bare feet, the violent pinks and purples of the sunset, and the wild spray of the sea below.

Beautiful, blond, blue eyes clear pools, a perfect complexion, Anne was everything a man could want at the first blossom of young womanhood.

Her grip tightened on the roses. Her red lips in a perfect pout pressed together in anger.

The thorns bit into her arms. She held the roses face-down, and blood began to trickle from where the thorns had pierced her flawless skin.

All well and good. The perfect prize.

But Anne was not something to be won.

And Anne, above all, did not want to belong to a man.

She did not want to be chattel, someone's possession.

But more - she did not want a man.

A disappointment to her family; a good marriage would guarantee their lives spent in idle luxury. She was worth, to them, what her beauty could bring.

But there was so much more to Anne de Breuil.

The girl stood on the precipice.

She prepared herself for the inevitable, and got ready to jump.

***

"Anne!

She thought she heard a voice, calling. Calling over the stormy sea, beyond the waves.

She thought, at first, it was Death, beckoning her welcome.

"Anne, don't you dare!

A piercing shriek, clearer this time. Anne looked over her shoulder, through her perfect blond hair.

A girl was running toward her, plain brown skirts hitched up, white petticoat flying in the wind. A peasant girl, a farmer's daughter. Dark brown hair tumbled over her shoulder, and her dark eyebrows had a sharp arch that Anne would recognise anywhere.

Therese.

"Leave me be, Therese," Anne said. 

The girl finally reached her, out of breath. 

To Anne's shock, Therese grabbed her around the waist and pulled them both backwards, down onto the grass. Anne struggled against the other girl's superior strength.

"No," Therese said. "I won't leave you, Anne. Don't do this wicked thing."

Anne rolled over, and found herself looking down into deep brown eyes aching with love and fear.

Anne smiled, soft. Therese melted just to see it. 

She reached out a hand and cupped Therese's cheek.

"Do you remember," said Anne, "that night, in the lavender fields? We couldn't get enough of each other, my sweet Therese."

Therese nodded, tears in her eyes.

"I remember," she said. "And I love you, I love you, I love you, Anne."

Anne sighed.

"I love you too," she said. "And what are we to do? My father will wed me to the duke tomorrow."

Therese stared at her with soft brown eyes.

"We'll run away," she said.

Anne scoffed.

"Two young women," she said. "Alone? We'll be caught."

Therese smiled.

"That's where I have discovered a secret," she said. "We will travel, but it will be a woman and a man."

"What can you have gotten into your head, my girl?" asked Anne.

Therese laughed.

"You'll see," she said, holding out her hand. Anne took it, and stood up.

"But you must promise me you will not throw yourself off a cliff, or anything else silly," she admonished.

Anne sighed again, and looked out at the water.

"If by tomorrow I haven't convinced you," said Therese, "then you can throw yourself into the water all you wish. But not until tomorrow. Promise me? What is another day?"

"But Therese, I am to be married -"

"Trust me," Therese said, laughing. "Do you trust me, my dearest Anne?"

Anne smiled.

"Of course I do," she said.

Therese planted a kiss on those full lips.

"Then wait," she said, "and hope."

***

The sky had darkened to twilight, hazy in summer, the surrounding fields of lavender lit softly by the light coming from the de Breuil chateau.

Giggling in their hiding place, Anne and the farmer's daughter Therese knelt among the lavender, tall around them.

They had been so young, then.

"Your brows are beautiful, Therese," Anne said, tracing them with a fingertip. "Like a great painter placed them there with his brush."

Therese blushed and pushed her hand away.

"You're beautiful, Anne," she said. "You have a beautiful life, in the chateau."

Anne groaned and rolled onto her back.

"I hate it," she said. "All this training in languages and decorum. I have no freedom, Therese. I see you out in the fields, in the sun, your skin is glowing with health, mine is dull cream."

Therese's breath hitched in her throat. She crept nearer to where Anne was laying on the ground.

"You watch me in the fields?" she asked. 

Anne nodded. It was her turn to blush.

Therese's face was much closer now, framed by the lavender in the dusk.

"From my window," she murmured. "Sometimes."

Anne reached up and traced Therese's eyebrow with her fingertip.

"See," she said, barely breathing. "Just like a painting."

Therese's arm encircled her waist, and the beautiful girl kissed Anne's lips. Anne arched from the ground, her heart beating butterfly-fast and her body responding in ways that were both exhilarating and terrifying.

Therese made a sweet, small sound, as if she were tasting something delicious, and Anne was delirious with it, aware of every curve and swell of Therese's body pressed against her own.

"Anne!" a voice echoed across the lavender fields, far away but coming closer. "Anne! Where are you?"

The two of them broke apart, panting slightly, Therese's dark eyes ablaze with something new.

"Go," she whispered. "Go, and find me here again tomorrow night."

Anne was hesitant, but Therese sat back and pushed Anne to her feet.

"But - " Anne started, staring down at her.

"I'll be here," Therese insisted. "Now, go, before they find us!"

Anne nodded, and fled.

***

The nights following that first one were educational, at the very least.

But the summer was so long ago. The lavender had dried up again, a sign of the autumn approaching.

Try as she might, Anne had never been able to shake the way she felt for Therese.

The night would end soon, and she would be wed to a man she had never met. Unless Therese's plan came through.

Sighing, she flung the roses over the cliff, and watched the distant red float off into the water.

The sky was darkening, much like it had on those blissful nights earlier in the year, where Anne and Therese learned each other in the first breath of young love.

Anne stared down at the sea, churning and wild.

She finally turned, and began to make the long walk back to the chateau.

 

Chapter Text

The following evening, the tapers were set aflame. The great hall looked splendid, a perfect place for a wedding.

Anne stood in the waiting-room, the white dress around her feet.

Where are you, Therese? she thought desperately. Please save me. Don't make me go through this.

Or at least don't make me go through this alone.

Suddenly, Therese's lovely face appeared, and Anne couldn't help but gasp.

"Therese!" she exclaimed. "Your beautiful hair!"

Therese stood before her, hair shorn like a monk's. She wore a monk's tunic, to hide her curves, and yet there was the imitation of a round stomach beneath the robes.

"Have you gotten fat overnight, little pig?" teased Anne.

Therese lifted the robe to show her a pack slung to her front.

"Clothes, food, all the money I could get together," said Therese. "Have you any money?"

"I didn't think to bring any," said Anne, mortified.

"No worry," said Therese, taking her by the hand. "We will survive."

Anne did not respond to the pull. Therese turned to look at her.

"Do you doubt me, my love?"

"Never!" said Anne. "But - I've never been beyond the chateau before."

There were voices, then, in the hall. Therese's expression hardened.

"Anne, we must go now," Therese insisted. Anne still would not follow.

Therese sighed.

In a sudden movement, she hoisted Anne over her shoulder, as Anne squeaked in protest.

"You may argue all you like later," said Therese. "For now, I am saving you, whether you like it or not."

***

Some hours later, they arrived at an inn. Therese paid the man driving the hay-cart, for the transportation and for his silence. Therese had to pull Anne from the cart, where she sat fuming.

They stood and watched as the hay-cart vanished around the bend. Therese turned to Anne and sighed.

"You are so beautiful, Anne, even when you are angry," she said. "We'll need to get inside and change."

"I am not going anywhere," said Anne, stamping her little foot.

Therese took her hands, and studied her, staring into her eyes.

"I know you have been something of a princess all your life," said Therese. "But here is where things get hard. I have saved you, as I promised. Why are you so reluctant? What is it you fear?"

Anne returned Therese's look with a steady stare of her own.

"Poverty," she said. "Privation. Begging on the streets. Having to - to do the unspeakable, just to survive. Why couldn't you have left me there?"

"Because you didn't want me to," said Therese. "A moment more and they would have you, you'd be married off to some man you've never met."

She narrowed her eyes.

"And then, what unspeakable things must you do?" she demanded. "A whore is free, at least."

Anne seemed to collapse a bit at this, and caught sight of herself in the reflection of one of the windows at the inn.

Blonde curling locks, set with a diadem of diamonds. Long white dress, wide blue eyes, skin almost as pale as the dress. Perfect princess, the type that gets locked into a tower forever. Forgotten, once that beauty fades.

"You promise me, Therese, that we will always be free women?" she asked finally, unsteadily.

Therese's decisive nod left no room for argument.

"I swear it," said Therese. "We may need to do things we would not - that might not seem moral - but Anne, it's a man's world, at least at this point in history. We don't have to fit their rules. We can work around them."

Anne considered this, and also nodded.

"Freedom," she said.

Therese took her hand; a promise, an oath.

"Freedom," said Therese. "Whatever it takes."

Anne squeezed her hand in return.

Therese looked around herself.

"We ought to get inside and get changed," she said. "We've spent long enough here already. That coin won't keep the hay-cart driver quiet for long, especially once he starts drinking."

In mute agreement, Anne followed her inside.

***

They managed to get a quiet room at the back of the inn, while the people downstairs became more boisterous as the night went on. 

Anne had changed out of her wedding dress and into other garments, some of Therese's old uniforms for working in the fields.

"You'll have to look dirty," said Therese. "Nobody in the fields is clean or pale as you are. And we will need to start moving before dawn - we aren't far enough from Breuil yet, and there's no telling how far they might have come already, searching."

Anne laid down on the narrow bed. Therese snuffed out the lantern, the reflection of the light bright in her eyes for a moment as she blew out the flame. She bolted the door and wedged a chair in front of it, just in case.

The moonlight streamed in through the tiny window, illuminating the room in silver. Therese was on her then, her kisses hot, flames on Anne's lips, as her hands slid up her skirt and up her smooth legs.

"You're mine, Anne de Breuil," Therese whispered, "and I will have you, on the night that was to belong to your false husband. On you, I lay my claim."

Therese's passion was fierce, then. Anne could not help crying out, so helpless against her lover, that Therese had to cover her mouth with her hand. 

When she moved down and lowered her head between Anne's legs, the shrieks of pleasure would have woken the house.

The inn, however, was full, and everyone was drunk, so nobody noticed a thing.

***

The following morning dawned bright and clear. 

Anne was a bit wobbly on her legs, like a young deer. She stood naked in the room, her pale body bathed in the warmth of the sunlight. 

Therese lay on the bed watching her.

"Beautiful," she said. "And mine."

Anne grinned, and turned to her. She climbed over to her, and on top of her, where Therese held on to her hips. She ground upwards, once, twice, til Anne was making sweet little noises and grinding back helplessly.

"Much as I love you," said Therese, with a final grind upwards for emphasis, "and much as I want to continue, we have to leave now. We need to get as far away as possible, as soon as we can."

Anne looked down at her in disappointment, and planted a kiss on her lips. She hopped off nimbly and went to pick up her clothes, which she tied around herself. Therese dressed in her monk's outfit. 

"There," declared Therese. "Now we look like a pair of country folk, travelling together. It's time we're away, my love."

Light as a feather, Anne floated down the stairs, only to see one of her father's men questioning the innkeeper. A hand flew to her mouth in horror.

"Therese!" she hissed. "We're caught!"

"Not yet," she said, grabbed Anne's hand, and dragged her along to the inn's back door, where the stabled horses were waiting.

 

 

Chapter Text

In the courtyard, they found a man leading a horse.

"Just as you asked, madamoiselle," he said, and bowed.

"Thank you, Antoine," said Therese, and she helped Anne onto the saddle. "You know how to ride, my love?" 

Anne nodded.

"Are you not coming with me?" she asked.

Therese bit her lips.

"I had intended...I would," she said. "But now, I must stay here and divert attention. Here, follow this track. Ride as fast as you can without raising suspicion."

She shoved the money-bag into Anne's hand.

"But," Anne said, her eyes filling with tears. "Therese, what will I do without you? You're smart, and brave, and- and..."

"Then you'll just have to be smart and brave for the both of us," said Therese. "There's not much time. I can stall them, but only for a while. Take this chance to get away from here, my love."

Tears streaked Anne's face. Therese pulled her down for a final kiss which Antoine studiously ignored.

Eyebrows brushed on like one of the great painters, thought Anne. And dark eyes that could devour me whole.

Therese stared at her, hard.

"Don't let my sacrifice go to waste, my dearest Anne," she said. "Live. Go out there, and be brave and clever and more than just the beauty they call your only value. Promise me."

"Will you come for me?" asked Anne. "Later? When it's safe?"

Therese's eyes clouded over for a moment, then cleared.

"When it's safe," she said. "I'll find you."

"Then I promise," said Anne.

"I love you," said Therese, and suddenly smacked the horse's rump. Anne nearly cried out as the horse set off, but swallowed it at the last moment. Turning around in the saddle, she saw her father's men enter the courtyard and approach Therese, just as she vanished around the bend.

***

Anne rode for hours, terrified of stopping. She wished for a travelling cloak, or anything that might hide her identity from curious onlookers. The road had been mostly deserted, as it was not the busiest time of the year in France now that the autumn was closing in.

She promised herself, at the very next stop, she would purchase a travelling cloak and a few morsels to eat. 

The air was chill, and Therese had pointed towards the north.

***

The wedding was to be a fine one, in Villiers-sur-mer, a day's ride from her family chateau in Le Breuil-en-Auge.

Anne had been told, of course, that she must be on her best behaviour, and grateful that her intended husband had offered to hold the ceremony at his own chateau, which her father found much more impressive than their own. Ridiculous, in Anne's opinion; nothing could compare to the Chateau de Breuil and the beautiful fields of lavender all around it.

But mostly - mostly, because that was where Therese worked in the fields with her family.

Therese had come along to assist with the wedding, and had hatched this plan probably longer ago than Anne had known.

As she stood on the cliffs of Les Falaises de Vaches Noires that evening, Anne had sworn to herself that she would not do such a thing. She could not marry a man she did not know, and she could not marry anyone.

Not when her heart belonged to Therese.

Then Therese had saved her.

And Therese was saving her still.

***

Aware of the fact that a beautiful blond girl on the road alone was sure to attract attention, Anne dismounted at the next village.

She opened the money-bag, and was startled to find a folded note inside.

Anne unfolded the note and read:

My dearest Anne. I have tried to prepare for every eventuality and so if you are reading this then I am unable to join you. Take the road toward Lille, where I have a friend who can help you, at the convent of the Benedictines of Templemars. Show him this note and the symbol stamped upon it. You will be safe there. 

Anne, please heed my advice. Do whatever it takes - anything - to survive until I see you again. Lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, seduce - your morals are good for a young innocent girl about to marry, but alone out there you will need to be on your guard and you will need to be mercenary. It is the only way you will survive. Never forget what I told you about how it's a man's world - be as vicious, as cunning, as careless, as strong as a man.

If you find yourself faltering, or if some machination feels like you have gone too far, please remember that I will always, always be searching for you, and I will wait for you forever. Look for me, near the dusk, in the evenings when the lavender blooms and the bees are buzzing sleepily around the flowers. I shall keep vigil for you, my love.

Until we meet again. Au revoir - my love, my light, my everything.

-Therese de Breuil

Anne touched her cheek and found that her hand came away wet.

She quickly folded the paper and tucked it into the money-bag again, then set off to find herself a warm cloak and some food for the onward journey.

***

Anne resumed her journey in a new dark green travelling cloak, chosen to blend in with her surroundings. She wore her hood and tucked her long blond hair behind her neck. The hood was deep enough, and dark enough, to hide her features from any fellow travelers. Besides, she looked like any farmer's daughter on a long journey north.

She spent the night in the village of Manneville-la-Roult, small enough that she didn't feel bewildered and large enough for a farmer's daughter to pass the night unremarked. She found a small inn where they asked no questions. Her horse needed a rest, too; they had gone a long way, but she had travelled as far as she could go before exhaustion overtook her.

Anne crawled into bed, the money-bag in her hand, which she pushed underneath her pillow. She collapsed onto the soft straw and her whirling thoughts began to slow.

First, she thought of her mother, and how frightened she must be. 

Next, she thought of her father, and sent a prayer asking his forgiveness. The loss of their only daughter would be difficult to bear.

But Anne felt she had no choice - it was escape, either on the high road or at the bottom of the deep, wild sea.

Last of all, but most of all, Anne thought of Therese, and bees buzzing in fields of lavender, a laughing face, and dark arched eyebrows that looked painted there.

Anne fell asleep, her hand pressed over the outline of Therese's note in the money-bag, and dreamed of home.

 

Chapter Text

Anne woke.

She lay on the mattress, such as it was, and stared up at the dark wooden beams above her head. The entire room was dark wood on the lower half, white past there to the ceiling. 

It might have been cozy, if her circumstances were different.

She wondered where Therese was, if she was safe, what it had meant.

What she had meant by sacrifice.

She hoped Therese had made it out of there.

Still, there wasn't much she could do for it now. Reluctantly, she sat up, her muscles sore and aching from the hard ride she had done the day before, and the one ahead of her.

There were many leagues to go.

***

Anne headed out later than she would have liked, but she couldn't seem to get moving fast enough. She wasn't used to this type of exertion, not the way Therese was.

Therese.

Pain lanced through her heart at the thought of her name.

She decided to ride more slowly, to save her energy and the horse's. The black stallion, which she had decided to name Liberty, had become her companion. 

For, most of all, she was lonely.

All her life, Anne had never been alone for a moment. If it wasn't servants, it was her mother or father, or countless nannies and minders. Later on, it was suitors, housekeepers, tutors, teachers of etiquette, and others who made up the wallpaper of life in a grand chateau. 

And sweet Therese, who she may have never met, if she hadn't been running through the lavender fields when her mother expressly forbid her not to go.

"They're not like us, my dear," her mother said. When Anne asked for an explanation, none was forthcoming.

But oh, had she stopped still, when she first saw the girl with the handkerchief over her shining brown hair, barefoot and bending to fill a basket with bright lavender flowers. 

She had never seen something so beautiful. Like a painting.

When Therese had turned around and caught a glimpse of her, it was clear she felt the same.

The two girls stood staring at each other, across the field, across a wider divide than even that.

Little Anne, in her petticoats and frock, blonde ringlet curls and bright blue eyes, her polished shoes now scuffed and dirty, perfect and pale, a porcelain doll. 

Little Therese, in her brown working clothes, feet brown and muddy, her skin darkened from working in the sun, her face dirty from where she scrubbed it and she shone with the sweat of her labour.

Anne found her breath caught in her throat.

Therese found someone to worship.

***

Anne woke from this reverie when Liberty came to a halt. 

There was a river in front of them, and the only way across was by ferry.

Despite the danger she had already run, this was the worst moment by far. 

If she boarded the ferry, she was trapped.

If someone happened to recognise her...

"Excuse me, monsieur," she said to a man waiting to board. "Is there another way around?"

He laughed.

"If you want to go around by several days, then yes," he said, "This is the Crique Rouen. The crossing is short, don't worry."

Rouen is too far out of the way, she thought. Then there's nothing for it.

"I'd recommend taking the ferry," said the man. "Weather's changing, and you'll want to get inside once we're across, as soon as you can."

Anne looked up at the blue sky, puzzled. Then she twisted around in the saddle and saw what the man was talking about.

Large, dark clouds piled on the horizon behind them. They were moving towards the little group waiting for the ferry.

"All aboard," called the ferry captain. Anne nodded her thanks to the man beside her, and he tipped his feathered hat as he rode forward.

She paid the fare and watched the clouds approaching with trepidation. 

She couldn't afford to lose any time.

Maybe she could outrun them.

***

Once they had landed on the opposite shore, Anne proceeded at a normal pace, but once she was out of sight of the ferry and the village on the opposite shore, she urged Liberty into a gallop.

They were tearing along at an incredible pace for quite some time, and she felt sure that she would keep the blue skies above her head, when an almighty downpour let loose around them. Rain poured from the sky, and although she was drenched, she kept going, squinting through the growing darkness as her hood fell back and strings of blond hair stuck to her face.

A bright flash of lighting lit up the road ahead, followed by an incredible crack so loud that Liberty drew up short. Anne was nearly thrown from the horse as it whinnied in terror.

"Mordieux, what are you doing?!" came a voice from just ahead of her. She could just about make out the shape of a cavalier approaching her. "Did no one tell you not to ride in a thunderstorm?"

The man approached, and she saw the water pouring off his hat, the white feather drenched. 

"Did no one tell you the same?" demanded Anne.

"Come, there is a village up ahead," he said. "You need to get out of the rain, or you'll catch your death."

He saw Anne hesitate. He smiled.

The man was ruggedly handsome, somewhere in his forties, and almost sinister in his features.

He had a scar across his left temple.

But his smile was friendly. He was also the best-dressed person she had seen since she'd left.

"I don't ask you to trust me," he said, "but I could not leave someone on the road out here alone."

"A woman?" she asked.

"Anyone," he said. "But I'm not willing to catch my own death, either, so follow me, if you please."

Anne still hesitated, thinking of her money-bag, and of what Therese had said about men.

"I'll command you, if I have to," he said. "But I don't want to do that, mademoiselle."

"Command me?" Anne said, straightening up with all the haughtiness of her class. "By whose power?"

The man bowed low over his horse's neck.

"The Cardinal's," he said. "Charles Caesar, Comte de Rochefort, at your service."

***

Anne gaped at him. 

"As you can see, the rain continues," said Rochefort. 

Another bright flash, closer this time, and an echoing boom of thunder overhead made him point to the skies.

Anne nodded, almost imperceptibly. 

Visibly relieved, Rochefort turned his horse around, and Anne followed.

***

Lillebonne was really more of a town than a village, for which Anne was relieved. She knew Therese would have advised her to take the out-of-the way routes, but she now realised that she found security in the anonymity of larger towns and cities. 

It was much easier to disappear. To become someone else. 

Someone new, maybe.

Rochefort watched her inhale wine and cheese with a slight grin on his face. This made him equal parts more attractive and sinister. Still, he seemed to be gaining some satisfaction in watching her eat.

"So," he said. "Do you want to tell me why you were riding hell for leather out there?"

Anne paused while tearing a piece of bread with her teeth. She shook her head.

"Mysterious," he said. "Well, your room is paid for - the best one in the house."

He saw the look on her face and held up his hands.

"Nothing like that," he said. "I wanted to help out a young woman caught in the storm."

Anne swallowed her food, nearly choked from overenthusiasm, and took a drink of wine.

"But why?" she said, when she had something of her voice back. "Why would you offer something for nothing?"

"Oh, I wouldn't say it's for nothing," he said. "The Cardinal likes to have, shall we say, people who might owe him something. Insurance for the future, you might call it."

Anne raised her eyebrow.

"Remarkable, your brows are black but your hair is light," he said. "I've not seen that combination before, in anyone."

"What kind of thing would the Cardinal want from me in the future?" Anne asked. 

Rochefort smiled.

"Again, not what you might be thinking," he said. "But certainly, he may call on you one day. When it comes - if it comes - be ready."

Rochefort stood and put on his hat. 

"Are you going back out in the storm?" she asked, confused. The rain was thundering so hard against the windowpanes that everyone in the tavern had to raise their voices to be heard.

"I shall be taking my leave of you," he said. "It was a pleasure to meet you...?"

Anne just stared at him. He bowed.

"Keep your secrets," he said. "For now."

And just like that, he disappeared out the door.

***

Later, Anne lay on the largest, softest bed she had experienced in her life. The windows would look out on a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside if the rain wasn't blinding the view. 

The hearth-fire grew merry in the room, and warmed her to the bone. Wrapped in blankets, she wondered about the strange man who said he worked for the Cardinal.

As she began to doze off, her hand slid against a bit of paper beneath the pillow. She started awake and pulled it out.

If you find that you prefer comfort to privation, it said, and riches to poverty, remember me. In Paris, ask for me by name, and I will undertake everything.

Yours,

Comte de Rochefort

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne woke with a start.

She had dreamed of Paris, in the night.

This is the Crique de Rouen, the man had said. Yes, and it led to Rouen...

but the river itself? 

The Seine.

The serpent-river that wound its way through France and to the great shining capital.

Or so it was, in Anne's imagination.

So much larger than a town, so much bigger than her hopes.

She hadn't even dared to dream of Paris.

The perfect place to disappear forever.

Become someone new.

"Maybe," she said aloud, to the silence.

She stood up from the bed and stirred the fire in the hearth. It had nearly gone out in the night.

The weather was still gloomy, but at least the storm seemed to have passed. Fog hung over the trees and the roadways.

Still, she had to press on.

Before she could even think of Paris, she needed to find her way to Templemars. The money-bag was getting thin, after all, and she was twice as thankful for Rochefort's mysterious gift.

She suddenly noticed something sitting near the door. She hadn't seen it the prior evening because of the darkness and rain, a small soft brown bag similar to the money-bag she held in her hands.

She knelt to pick it up and gasped, dropping it on the floor. 

She stared at the small fortune in coins gleaming dully, disgorged from the mouth of the bag.

Anne picked it up again and saw another paper among the coins. She drew it out.

Remember me

was all it said.

***

Anne set out early; much as she appreciated the gift from Rochefort, she wasn't sure how she felt about it and wanted to be well clear of the place before he returned - if he returned.

The innkeeper waved her out and told her that the gentleman had paid for everything.

She rode Liberty more slowly, as she had ridden hard the day before. Anne was exhausted too, but she couldn't afford to wait around in case her father's people had come for her.

She was a bit puzzled, now that she thought of it, to have encountered nothing of interest on the road in that respect. Her father was not unknown and very wealthy. 

She wondered, for a moment, if Rochefort had somehow come from him. 

The weather stayed dark as she rode onward, until she found herself in the forest. She was glad of the further gloom offered by the trees, as the road had become busier and she did not want to catch the attention of anyone. She admonished herself for the previous day's sudden hard ride as she had made herself conspicuous. She would not make the same mistake again.

***

Anne dismounted at Allouville-Bellefosse for a spot of lunch. She found herself starving and faint with hunger, which she attributed to the extreme, sudden exertion she had undertaken over the last few days. Fear beat in her heart and urged her onward, but she still needed to eat and rest. Templemars seemed a far-off distant place now, and she felt as if she were in a dream sometimes, always moving forward as it moved further away.

She sat, as usual, in a dark corner of the inn, eating cheese and fruit washed down with wine. 

She started when she heard her name pronounced by a man sitting at another table.

"Have you heard what happened to the de Breuil girl?" he asked his companions.

"No," said his friend, large and imposing, waving his wine glass around like a drunk. "But then I don't concern myself with these provincials."

"They thought she'd run away at first," said the first man, whose delicate beauty and long black hair gave him a feminine air. He also seemed to have a strange habit of pinching his ears and holding his hands in the air, keeping his elbows on the table.

"At first?" enquired the third man, older than the other two and more refined. His blond hair was perfectly arranged and his moustaches were so blond as to be white. His eyes were a clear blue that rivalled Anne's own.

"Yes," continued the first man. "But a local farmgirl insisted that she'd flung herself from the cliffs in order to avoid a bad marriage."

"Foolish of her father to arrange a marriage she didn't want," said the large one, throwing the wine down his throat. "Certainly."

"Foolish of anyone to marry," said the blond man, and the three of them chuckled. This gossip communicated, they went on to other topics.

Anne sat frozen in the corner. 

So Father thinks me dead. 

She was overcome with the urge to return home just to save her parents their grief. Then Therese's face rose up before her, in her mind.

What happened to you, my love?

Then, another word sprang to mind, unbidden:

Sacrifice.

Anne grit her teeth. She was determined not to let Therese's sacrifice be in vain.

She surreptitiously kissed the little square of folded paper.

I promise, Therese.

***

That night, Anne slept in a barn in Sainte-Marie-des-Champs, because there was no room for her elsewhere, even with her impressive amount of coin. Sometimes all the money in the world would not bring what she wanted, but she certainly found that she enjoyed having money to the lack of it. 

So she slept in the hay, with Liberty by her side, peacefully munching it. She stroked the horse's nose, looking up at him, and fell asleep in the warmth of the barn.

***

The following day's uneventful ride brought her to Tôtes, where she felt a general sense of unease. She wasn't certain where the feeling originated, as everything seemed in order.

Still, that night, she made certain to bolt the door of the inn, and started awake at every slight sound.

***

Anne rode Liberty out of the village early the following morning, before dawn. There was something wrong but she could not put her finger on what it might be. She also had the worrying problem of an empty money-bag; this was as far as she would have come on Therese's money alone. Anne was no economist and accustomed to fine things. Therese might have had better ideas about where to go and how to spend their money, but Therese was gone.

Therese was gone.

Anne hoped there wasn't more truth to that statement than what she knew.

It was when she arrived in the little farming village of Bures-en-Bray, tired from the day's riding and the accumulated stress of the past days, that she discovered what was wrong.

Someone had been following her.

 

Chapter Text

Anne decided to make a habit of leaving inns before dawn to evade suspicion. 

When she passed the night at Bures-en-Bray, she saw the man who had been following her, wrapped in a cloak and sitting in her usual spot: the darkest corner of the inn. She pretended not to notice him, but gave him the slip as soon as she'd slept long enough to continue.

She did not see him on the road all day, but she reasoned it never hurt to take precautions.

When she arrived in Blangy-sur-Bresle that night, she bought a knife.

***

Anne set out for Abbeville, where she hoped to get lost in the crowd. It was no Paris, but it was much larger than these country-towns and villages she had come across in her travels.

Liberty seemed the worse for wear, and truth be told, Anne was too. She was tired of running and looked forward to a day when she could rest and relax somewhere without being chased. She felt a pang of regret that she hadn't been able to truly appreciate the beauty of the French countryside in autumn, pursued as she was on all sides.

And yet, perhaps, Therese had provided her with a half-truth that meant pursuit became less and less likely with each passing day. For if she hadn't told the lie, Anne was certain her father's men would have caught up with her by now.

But there was still the stranger, following behind somewhere, in the shadows.

She felt the knife's outline in its small case around her waist. She cursed the clothing she wore; it seemed women were hobbled one way or the other. Even the skirts of a farmer's daughter seemed cumbersome and foolish if she were to get into trouble.

***

She decided it was time for an indulgence, and stopped at an inn for the sole purpose of whiling away the afternoon with a glass of wine and looking out over the last blooms of the flowers as the trees changed colour. Once she'd gotten it into her head that she was missing the best parts of the season, and of freedom - she decided it was safe to enjoy herself for one afternoon.

Anne sat at an outdoor table with her food and wine, fully intending to pursue tipsiness to the fullest. The day was warm and clear, one of those perfect autumn days that still have the blush of summer, with no chill in the air at all.

Freedom, thought Anne, as she drank; and fields of lavender.

The clop-clop of an approaching horse made her turn, and she nearly dropped her wineglass. 

It was the man who had been following her!

He handed off the horse to a stablehand, and instead of ducking out of the way as Anne expected, he approached her boldly.

She studied his face. Young and handsome, but she did not recognise him.

To her astonishment, he knelt down before her.

"Mademoiselle," he said. "Forgive me for my lack of decorum and my approach, but I caught sight of you at the inn - and - I cannot get the image of you out of my head. I have followed you like a madman, and prostrate myself at your feet."

Anne's hand went to the case where her knife was hidden. She stared at the man in disbelief.

"And what should I respond?" she asked.

"Ah! Even your voice is like music!" cried the man. "My heart!"

Anne rose imperiously over him.

"You want to make love to me, yet you know nothing of me," she said. "You fell in love with what you thought you saw - with beauty. Beauty alone is meaningless."

"Speak on, temptress!" the man said. "I will listen to every melodious note from your perfect mouth."

"Listen, but not hear," she said. "Go to hell, whoever you are."

The man looked up at her, shocked at her words. He sat back on his haunches.

"My name is -" he began, but Anne raised a hand.

"Meaningless to me," she said. "The answer is no. Now go. Leave me in peace."

"But I will pine away!" he argued, "Please, mademoiselle -"

"I am not something for others to claim!" Anne snarled. She drew her knife.

The man flinched at the look on her face, and the cruelty in her voice. 

Then he saw the knife. His surprise turned into a smirk.

"A lovely angel like you would never -"

Anne sliced him in the arm, cutting through his clothing, which looked expensive.

"Wouldn't I?" she asked sweetly. "Just like any other angel."

She knew before his expression changed exactly what would come next.

In his fury, he lunged for her, and she neatly sidestepped him. 

Then she ran, as fast as she could go, skirts flying out behind her.

She mounted Liberty and took to the road, galloping at speed.

***

"What will I do?" she asked Liberty, once they had made it far enough away. "He will not be dissuaded this easily."

Her black brows drew together in anger.

"Men!" she said. "First, my father, using me as a pawn in a game of money and property. Then, my intended husband, who wished to marry me without even knowing me! And now this man - what is it that makes them think of me as property? What makes them think I am not a person of my own?"

She sighed.

"All women have the same plight," she said. "And that is to spend their lives convincing others they are more than their beauty, or their lack thereof. You're lucky, Liberty; you're only a horse. Although you're male so I suppose you would have the best of it either way."

Soon, they entered Abbeville, and Anne lost herself in the hustle and bustle of the town.

***

The door was old, and wooden. It didn't look like much.

Anne raised her hand to knock on the door. She hesitated.

Do anything, Therese had said. Anything at all, to survive.

Anne found her confidence returning and she rapped on the door.

"Yes?" called someone from inside. 

"Sieur Guy ler Chabot, Baron of Jarnac?" she asked.

The door opened. A man stood there, anger written across his face.

"What do you want with my father?" he demanded.

Anne stepped back.

"I want him to teach me to swordfight," she said.

The man standing in the door was so stunned by this request he was rendered completely mute for a moment. He began to shut the door.

Determined, Anne put her foot in the way.

"Please," she said.

The man sighed.

"My father passed away several years ago," he said.

"Oh," Anne replied. "I'm sorry."

"Now will you go?"

"You're his son?" she asked.

"As I have had the pleasure to tell mademoiselle."

"The son of the man who originated the phrase jarnac because of his skill with a sword?"

"Yes. Now, please leave."

"Then you can teach me."

The man was ready to shut the door again, whether or not Anne's foot was in the way.

"A woman?" he asked. "Why would a woman want to learn? Can a woman learn?"

"There's only one way to find out," she said. The man sighed.

"You are certainly persistent," he said.

"If only you knew," she replied. "I am pursued by a man and would like to fight for myself."

"Go to the police," he said.

"I can't," she replied, and refused to elaborate further. "And so, if you don't teach me, you are leaving a vulnerable maiden in the hands of an infamous stranger."

The man appeared to deliberate about this for a while.

Finally, he opened the door. Anne beamed up at him.

"Charles Chabot, at your service," he said. 

"Madeleine," said Anne, as she thought it prudent to hide her identity, just in case.

Chabot looked out the door and into the street, in case anyone had seen, but the only thing he saw was the rain beginning to patter down on the cobblestones.

Chapter Text

"Back. Then parry. Then - good!"

Chabot stood watching as Anne - Madeleine to him - went through the paces of various maneuvers. After all his years of fighting, her performance brought a proud smile to his face in his old age. 

Anne smiled at him. The thin, elderly man, with his white moustaches and beard, his twinkling, mischievous eyes, put her in mind of her father. 

A month ago, she had shown up on his doorstep. A month ago, she had spoken to him about learning to fight. His lackey, Gaspard, had his doubts, and had not taken to her right away.

"A young woman like this, staying here? Won't the town talk?" he enquired.

Chabot grinned, and with a rakish good nature Anne came to associate with him, said, "Bah! Let them talk. What use are they anyway?"

He shared a meaningful look with Gaspard and Anne knew, somehow, that they were more to each other than it first appeared. 

She took a chance, and told them about Therese.

And a month ago, Chabot agreed to train her, and to let her stay there while she did.

***

"Excellent, Madeleine," he said, leaning on his own sword. "You know all I can teach you."

Anne sat down, wiping the perspiration from her brow.

"What?" she asked. "In only a month?"

Chabot smiled.

"That's all there is to learn," he said. "Seek out other teachers with their own secrets. You may find that the trouble isn't in the learning, but finding those who are willing to teach you."

"Because I'm a woman?" she asked.

"Yes, I won't lie to you," he said. "It will be much more difficult because of your sex. But this is a difficulty any would-be swordsman faces when becoming proficient in the craft."

"It is well," Anne said. "I really have tarried too long here. I am expected elsewhere."

Chabot turned to her and took her hands.

"Madeleine," he said. "Or whatever you are really called."

Anne blushed despite herself.

"Oh, yes, I know you have lied to me about your name," he said. "But I judge you have your reasons. My Madeleine, you have warmed an old heart, and I look upon you as something like a daughter. 

"You are welcome to stay here, if you wish."

Anne was speechless. Her heart was touched by his words, and it made her miss home all the more.

"But I can already tell the answer is going to be no," said Chabot. Anne nodded, fearing her emotions spilling over if she spoke.

"I understand," he said. "I will help you to pack, and send you on your way. But in exchange for the knowledge I have taught you, I want you to make me two promises."

Anne nodded again, and squeezed his hands.

"First," he said, "if you are heading toward Lille, and you think you are still being pursued - there is a turnoff at Auxi-le-chateau, the road towards Béthune. It will add a couple of leagues to your journey, but it is far safer than heading through Lens on the high road."

"I promise," said Anne, when she felt she could trust her voice again.

"The second," he said, "is to run from a fight whenever you can."

Startled, Anne leaned back and stared at him.

"There's no shame in it, nor cowardice," he said. "Anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool looking to prove something he would not need to prove if he really had it. There will come a time to stand and fight, Madeleine, but any time that isn't necessary, you run, my girl, fast as your feet or your horse will carry you."

"I'm not a coward," Anne insisted. "I can fight, woman or not."

"I know this," said Chabot. "But I would give this advice to a son as well as a daughter. Better to live another day. Subterfuge and strategy are the warrior's real tools. I'm just an old soldier, so can't teach you those things, but understand that a fighter needs more than just a quick sword to win the day. Learn all aspects of warfare and you will be well-served. But the most valuable knowledge I can impart is that the best fights are the ones you walk away from."

He tucked her hair behind her ear.

"And Madeleine, I want you to live," he said. "So promise me."

"I promise," she said. To her surprise, she saw her eyes fill with tears.

"Oh, don't pay attention to a silly old man," he said, letting go of her hands and standing up. "Come, let's get you ready for your journey."

***

Standing at the threshold with her small case of clothing, which she had finally found time to purchase during her stay with Chabot and Gaspard, Anne was hesitant about leaving. She felt she had found a home here, in this great old house.

But she had made promises to others besides Chabot.

He strode forward, handing her a long parcel wrapped with string. Eagerly, she opened it.

Laying inside was a beautiful sword with a jewel-encrusted hilt. Her mouth made a perfect O.

"My sword, from my days as a soldier," he explained. "I won't have much use for it these days, and Gaspard and I won't have children, so this is the closest to an inheritance I can give you."

"It's beautiful," she breathed. "Thank you."

She hugged Chabot tightly. On an impulse, she threw her arms around Gaspard and kissed him on the cheek.

"Thank you, too," she said. "For everything."

Gaspard blushed a bright red, making Chabot smile.

"Yes, mademoiselle," he said. 

Lastly, she turned to Chabot, who lifted her off her feet and spun her around before setting her down on the floor again.

"My daughter," he said. "Remember you have a home here, whenever you want it."

"Farewell, Chabot, Gaspard," said Anne. 

She went out into the street, attaching her pack to Liberty's saddle. Then she mounted the great black horse, who was pawing the ground in excitement. It had been a long time since he'd been ridden, and was clearly looking forward to it.

"Goodbye!" she cried, blowing them kisses, and watched them waving to her until she'd rounded a corner and they had disappeared from view.

***

That night, at Auxi-le-chateau, she woke before dawn again and took Chabot's advice, turning down the road towards Béthune.

Chapter Text

Sainte-Pol-sur-Ternoise, where Anne stopped for the evening, was a place where she felt able to relax again, after everything. She sat out in the open, drinking at the inn, enjoying the increasingly ribald conversation around her. It had been a month, after all, and she had not taken the main road but gone up into the hills. Everyone here was filled with mirth, and included her in their sing-songs. Full of the confidence inspired by Chabot's teachings and her success on the road thus far, she found herself growing bolder, and knowing her own strength.

She talked to farmers about strength, in fact, and how best to acquire it. She talked to soldiers about their experiences. Everyone at the inn was elderly, and much like Chabot, loved the opportunity to impart their knowledge to the younger generation. Although she drank wine throughout the night, she made mental notes regarding what they told her. 

How to build muscle. How to be resourceful.

And above all, how to survive.

That night, as she went up the stairs to her room, she felt certain in the future that she would no longer need to fear anything, but would one day come to be feared herself.

***

After her success the evening before, Anne resolved to find those who could teach her the things she needed to know. She knew other women survived in the world on the support of others, but such support could so easily be snatched away. She needed to know that her own resourcefulness would mean that she would not only survive, but thrive. 

Her particular horror of poverty spurred her onward. She kept Rochefort's promise in the back of her mind, but more like an ace in the hole than a saviour.

After all, if she did not want to owe her livelihood to a man, she certainly did not want to owe it to some of the most powerful men in the kingdom of France. Men married to power tend to abuse it, as she knew all too well.

***

It was quite late when she arrived in Béthune, the clock towers ringing eleven at night. She passed, in the darkness, the Carmelite convent. 

"Better you than me," she whispered. She could not imagine a life as a nun, though many people believed it was the only recourse for a woman shamed.

And yet, she knew the place at her journey's end was also a convent. She now viewed it as a resting-place, before pursuing her fortune elsewhere in the world.

For, where once she had been afraid and sought protection, an entirely different person seemed to be emerging now. A strength she might have attributed to Therese's influence, if it hadn't boiled up dark and hot from inside her. Fury at injustice, and a thirst for independence, she wondered if it had always been sleeping there.

A woman who runs from her marriage-bed is a woman who wants another kind of life.

***

The morning dawned with a chill in the air. Autumn was long gone but winter had yet to grace the countryside with its presence. The world was holding its breath, and Anne may have been young, but she had seen the types of winters that were preceded by this type of pause in the seasons. She had always looked upon them as a portent of doom.

She rode Liberty at a quick trot in the drizzling rain, finally on the road to Templemars. It would be a long ride but she was certain she could accomplish it within a day.

Over the last month, she had become stronger, and her reflexes much quicker. She no longer found pain and extreme exhaustion after a day's ride, despite the fact that a month separated this journey from her original wild ride through the French countryside, escaping from a future everyone had decided for her. She felt triumphant and powerful, ready to take on the world, to seek out those who could impart knowledge.

Above all, she would not answer to anyone, she swore to herself.

The day wore on and there was little incident on the road. She passed various farmers going about their daily business, and even a hay-cart that made her heart give a painful throb. Sweet Therese, who had done everything she could.

Night fell and she had not reached her destination, but she was determined to sleep that night at the Benedictine convent. How long she would stay there, she did not know - only that it was no longer the future that awaited her, of that she was sure.

Finally, around three o'clock in the morning, she rode into the city. All was quiet, and a light snow began to fall, mixing with the rain. It was unwise to be on the road so late for any traveller, moreso a young woman, and even moreso on the cusp of winter. 

But Anne was tenacious, and she smiled at her success in reaching Templemars.

***

The sound of Liberty's hooves was loud in the night, echoing off the buildings, as more sensible people were sleeping.

As she passed over a bridge, she saw the silhouette of a man on a horse, barely visible in the gloom. She could not turn around, or away, so she rode past him swiftly, but she chanced a look at his face. What could anyone apart from her be doing out this late at night, and on such a miserable night as this?

She couldn't suppress a gasp when she recognised the man from the pub who had antagonised her so long ago.

"It is she!" cried the man, motioning to others who melted out of the shadows. He had clearly been lying in wait for all this time.

Anne's hand went to where Chabot's sword was hanging from the saddle, when she heard his voice in her head.

Run, he advised. The best fights are those you walk away from.

Anne decided, in that split second, to take advantage of the way men assumed a woman would behave in these circumstances. She spurred Liberty, who reared up and kicked one of the men square in the face. His hooves fell to the earth with a thunderous sound and they were off at a gallop the moment they hit the ground.

Behind her, shouting, the man was gaining on her, as she directed Liberty towards the dim flames that marked the great door of the convent of Templemars.

 

Chapter Text

Anne urged Liberty to go faster, her heart racing in her chest. The man was gaining on her swiftly and she was under no misapprehension about what would happen to her if she were caught.

The steps of the convent were a few paces away, but Anne found that Liberty refused to go any further. She threw herself from the horse and ran to the door, pounding against it loud enough to wake the dead.

"Let me in!" she screamed at the heavy oak door, battering it with her arms.

She heard footsteps climbing the steps behind her and whirled around. The man was approaching, taking his time now that he had her trapped. He smirked at her as she continued to bang on the door with her fist.

"I've dreamed of you," he said. "How dare you deprive me, once I have told you I want you?"

"You don't even know my name," hissed Anne. She slid her hand across the case holding her dagger.

"What does it matter?" he said. "I've seen you, and declared my intent. That is enough."

Anne felt the hilt of the dagger in her hand. The man put his hands against the door above her head and smiled down at her.

And as he tried to kiss her, her face twisted with hatred, and in one long thrust buried the dagger in his heart.

The look of startled surprise on his face, as if any woman could have ever done such a thing, was a momentary thing. Then he toppled over with a groan, leaving Anne panting against the heavy oak door, absolutely bathed in blood.

***

It began to rain.

***

Anne stared at the little dagger streaked with red, and then down at the man by her feet. The others were coming, now, the little crowd of men who had been on foot. They saw their compatriot on the ground, and Anne stood frozen there with a raised dagger in her hands as though she had no idea how it had come to be there. They set up a mighty shout and rushed the door just as it opened.

Anne, who had been supporting her weight against it, fell inside, halfway in and out of the convent.

She looked up to see an enormous nun with broad shoulders and a face full of fury. A woman who was, in short, terrifying.

"What do ye here, this late at night?" she demanded. "Is that you, young Pierre? For shame! Chasing a young woman through the streets like animals!"

"But Matron, she killed Jacques!" protested one of them, probably Pierre.

"And it looks as though she had every right," she said. "Remove this trash from my premises or I shall call out the police, which is better than any of you deserve."

"But-"

"Not a word," she said. "And I will remember this night. Is the horse yours, my dear?"

Anne realised she was being spoken to, and nodded mutely.

"Come, take the young woman's horse to the stables," said the Matron to someone inside the convent. "And the rest of you, take his body and go home. Think about what you've done, and fifty Our Fathers and Hail Marys for you. Not for pardon, you understand, but to apologise to the Lord for what you have nearly done this night."

The men looked cowed. The Matron stamped her foot. "Go!"

Guilty, they hauled the body of their friend away.

"Now," said the Matron. "Come inside, and we will get you bathed."

***

Anne stood in the foyer shivering from the cold and wet, still covered in blood, while the Matron and the servants of the convent bustled around to prepare a bath for her. The building was much larger than she had expected, warm and dry, and of an opulence she had known well growing up in the chateau in Breuil. 

As the Matron passed by again, she paused, and turned to her.

"Is something wrong, my dear?" she asked.

Anne didn't respond for a moment. Then she spoke.

"I just killed a man," she said in a hoarse whisper. The Matron shrugged.

"Jacques, I am sorry to say, had it coming," she said. "If it hadn't been you, it would've been someone. Maybe even me!"

She laughed. Anne's brow furrowed.

"I know that country folk have a different morality to the rest of us," said the Matron. "But believe me, duels and stabbings happen every day here. Oh - don't worry -" she said, when she caught the look on Anne's face - "for the most part you'll be perfectly safe. Duels tend to be personal."

She studied Anne for a moment. The blood was drying on her arms, and flaking off onto the floor.

"You, in particular, won't have anything to worry about, my dear," said the Matron, and laughed again at a joke that only she could see.

***

Later, in the glorious hot water of the bath, Anne scrubbed at her skin over and over. She could scarcely believe what she had just done. The water was pink with the blood and she couldn't help feeling guilty while looking at it.

Then, slowly, the rage began to take over. How dare he, she thought. How dare he try to lay claim on something that is not his own?

Because you clearly don't belong to any other man, another voice in her head responded, and that means you're fair game.

Anne ground her teeth.

I belong to meshe said to herself. No man shall ever have dominion over me, this I swear.

And getting out of the tub, as she towelled off, guilt over what she had done faded away, replaced by the burning flame of a righteous anger - not only for herself, but for women everywhere.

***

"Ready for bed?" asked the Matron, when Anne emerged from the bathroom. Anne nodded.

"You must be exhausted, after everything. Do you have the letter for me?"

Anne turned and went through the bag the stablehand had brought inside for her. She pulled out Therese's letter and showed her the stamp on it.

"Very well," said the Matron, a little smile spreading across her face. "Then I have one last surprise for you before bedtime."

Puzzled, Anne followed her up the stairs to a narrow hallway with doors on either side. The Matron approached one of them and knocked.

"Come in," said a sleepy voice.

The door opened, and in the shadowy gloom, Anne saw someone sit up in bed. 

A young woman, with brown hair that tumbled over her shoulder, and eyebrows like they had been painted there.

"Therese!" cried Anne.

Chapter Text

"Anne!" cried Therese, bounding up from the bed. "Where have you been, my love?"

Anne collapsed onto Therese in an embrace, feeling all the fear and worry bleed out of her. They giggled and kissed.

The Matron smiled knowingly, backed out of the room, and closed the door.

***

Anne kept running her fingers through Therese's hair, drinking in everything.

"Oh, how I've missed you!" she said. "Therese, Therese, my lovely Therese. You would not believe what I've been through."

Therese pushed herself up onto her elbows and tucked her hair behind her ear.

"Yes, my sweet Anne," she said, "What happened to you?"

"How long have you been waiting for me here?" asked Anne, terrified of the answer.

"Oh, only a week or so," said Therese. "Matron wrote me and said she was worried as you had never arrived. I found nothing on the road here but a few mentions of a stunningly beautiful blonde woman. Then the path went cold around Abbeville. I decided to come here and wait for you."

"Won't your family worry?" asked Anne.

"No, Father asked me to go to Lens to sell bushels of lavender. They won't be expecting me back right away."

"How fortunate farmer's daughters are," said Anne. "To travel freely."

"As you just have," Therese said.

"Yes, dressed as a farmer's daughter!"

"And yet you look like a storybook princess, my love. Your beauty is like none I have seen on this earth."

Anne sighed, as exhaustion began to creep into her bones. She snuggled closer to Therese, whose fingertips glided along the top of her arm, whisper-soft.

"Therese," she said. "I am not the girl you knew at Breuil. Not anymore."

And she told Therese the story of her adventure.

***

"Do you think you can still love me?" asked Anne, when she was finished, her eyes brimming with tears.

Therese did not bother to hide the look of horror on her face, both at what Anne had endured, and what she had done.

"My beautiful Anne," she said. "I will always love you. Deep in my soul, with all of my heart, with my lips and my body."

She pulled her closer.

"What you have been through, my love," she murmured into Anne's hair. "Sleep now. The world always looks less burdensome in the morning."

"But - " Anne made to protest, while sleep overcame her, and she succumbed.

***

Birds were chirping in the trees outside as Anne woke up. 

Therese was silhouetted in the sunlight streaming through the shutters, which she unfolded to let the light stream in. Anne watched the outline of her body, the grace and strength of her movements, and was reminded strongly of dancers she had once seen when on holiday with her father. Therese cast long shadows on the floor as she pushed open the final windows, arms wide as though she welcomed the sun. 

The room filled with the spearmint of winter's dawn and petrichor. 

"Good morning, my lover," said Anne, as she stretched. Therese turned around with a brilliant smile.

"You're awake," she said, and crawled back into bed, covering Anne with kisses. 

"I thought I dreamed you," Anne said. Therese laughed. 

"I'm sure I dreamed you," she said. "Else, how could such beauty fall into my hands?"

Anne beamed up at Therese. Things would be better now. She wouldn't need to fight or to fence or to use her dagger - 

- and she was forcefully reminded of the night before, and what she had done, the terror in her heart, the blood on her hands, the rain, as if she were reliving every moment. She must have cried out, because Therese's face was now full of concern.

"What is it?! What's wrong?" asked Therese, cupping Anne's face.

"Nothing," Anne muttered.

"Don't lie, sweet one, I know you too well," Therese admonished her. Anne sighed.

"You always did get your way," said Anne. "I - I remembered what happened last night."

Therese's expression became a mixture of sorrow and pity.

"I'm sorry the Matron didn't get to the door in time," she said. "But you must know you had no other choice."

"His blood is on my hands, Therese, not yours!" Anne exploded, pushing her away. Therese was taken aback, and Anne saw fear in her eyes for the first time.

No, Anne thought desperately. No, no. Don't let this change me.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry, Therese, I didn't mean - "

Therese wrapped her up in her arms and Anne clung to her.

"It's all right, my love," said Therese. "It's all right."

But you were here, too, in the house, thought Anne. And you didn't come to save me.

Even though I was beating down the door and screaming. You slept through it, Therese, my protector.

I had to save myself.

And Anne felt doubt creeping in to her once rock-solid trust in Therese's strength and ability to always save her when she needed it.

She clung even more ferociously as she felt that little bit of trust draining away.

***

They bounded lightly down the stairs like a pair of gazelles, laughing as if they had no care in the world. 

Matron was talking to someone in the doorway.

"Good morning, Matron!" called Therese. "Where's breakfast?!"

The Matron turned around and looked at the two young women with an unreadable expression.

"It's the police," she said. "They want to talk to you."

Chapter Text

Anne approached the door timidly, as the other nuns gathered in the background and whispered. 

She was dressed throat to toes in a long robe, just like the other nuns were wearing, and a lace veil covered her hair. This was considered the proper attire within the convent and many other nuns were similarly dressed.

When she stood on the threshold, everyone there gasped. The policemen looked struck to the heart.

"See!" cried someone in the back. "See how beautiful she is! He cannot be at fault, for who among you would not be moved?"

Anne looked around the crowd, stunned into silence, and desperately tried to find a friendly face there.

One of the police officers coughed and stepped forward. 

"Mademoiselle," he said. "I am here to arrest you for the murder of the Duke."

"Duke?!" whispered Anne in horror. Dukes, counts, and other noblemen were above the law in most parts of France, a fact she knew well given her own upbringing.

"Yes," he said. "Did you not know?"

"He never told me his name," Anne said faintly.

And the police officer trembled, as he moved his hand to arrest her.

"Seductress!" shouted the same voice from the back.

"Shut your mouth, Pierre," the Matron said sternly. She stepped in front of Anne. "None of you rabble are going to arrest one of my nuns! Look to yourselves if you cannot look upon a woman without lustful thoughts! Your Duke was driven by the Devil himself, this poor young woman was terrified. If only I had opened the door sooner! His blood, then, be on my hands as well as hers. But he should not have tried to take that which the Lord had not offered him."

"Lies!" cried the crowd. "Long live the Duke!"

"Will you come here, in this house of God, and tell me I am a liar?!" exclaimed the Matron. "Very well. Approach, and see how the Lord protects his servants."

The Matron drew well back from the door. Behind her, Anne was shaking. She threw a beseeching look at Therese, who stood frozen on the stairway, but a slight shake of her brown hair said that this was a war she could not help fight.

Only the first police officer took a step forward, but lost courage at the last moment.

"If you vow to keep her cloistered, where she cannot seduce another man," he called, "then we will leave her alone in your convent, until she lives to such age as to not tempt men anymore."

"Agreed," said the Matron. 

Anne shuddered, and thought of the words she had spoken outside the Carmelite convent of Béthune, and her horror at the very idea of being a nun, hidden away from the world.

The Matron had something to add.

"And the Lord has said, if your eye causes you to sin, it is best for you to pluck it out! She has my protection. Leave now, lest ye be smited where ye stand."

Reluctantly, the police officers began to fade into the crowd, but not without trying to catch another glimpse of Anne before they left. Eventually, the crowd itself dispersed, as it was clear there was nothing more to see.

The Matron slammed the heavy wooden door and barred it. She turned around.

Anne sank to her knees.

"Matron," she begged. "Please don't let God smite me."

"Oh, don't listen to that rubbish," said the Matron. "God doesn't smite people. Those out there, they're far too superstitious for their own good, and they know their Scripture as well as I know the language frogs speak. Fools, who cannot see that they are the very kind of people the Lord has warned us about in the first place."

She helped Anne to her feet.

"God is love, my child," she said tenderly. "Remember that, if you forget everything else. God is love and He will guide you. Don't listen to these people, Anne, they are know-nothings. You are welcome to stay here as long as you like."

"Thank you, Matron," said Anne, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Therese, suddenly freed from her position, ran to Anne and threw herself into her arms.

"Saved!" she said. "Saved, my sweet Anne! And by a woman, no less!"

Anne smiled, and let Therese cover her with kisses.

Yes, thought Anne. But she needed to invoke the name of a man in order to save me.

***

The following day, Therese had to leave again.

"Must you go?" asked Anne. "I feel that I am losing everyone I love, dear Therese."

Therese looked sad. She leaned in and kissed Anne on the forehead.

"You will never lose me, Anne," said Therese. "But I must get back before my family begins to worry. Now that I know where you are, I can return and visit often."

"But Therese," Anne said, "I'm imprisoned here. How is this any different than being imprisoned by marriage?"

"You know there's a difference," said Therese.

Then she leaned in low.

"And if you find the cloister oppressive, then...whenever the opportunity presents itself -however it presents itself - escape, as soon as you can," she murmured.

Anne started.

"But how will you find me?" she whispered.

Therese smiled.

"I will always find you," she promised, and looked up at a nearby crucifix. "Have faith."

Anne nodded, and embraced her.

"Try to be happy," said Therese. "One way or the other."

They kissed, and in a moment, Therese fled down the stairs of the convent and vanished, as if she feared her own emotions might overcome her and make her stay.

***

That night, the priest of the convent blessed Anne, and she took orders to become a nun.

Chapter Text

Anne spent most of the following day in confession with the young priest. His name was Henri, and he was handsome, with dark hair and blue eyes. His open, friendly attitude and clear love of all things created by God was an appealing aspect of his personality.

"Anne," he told her, "the Lord sees the intent in your heart. If you had no evil intent, then you are absolved of guilt."

They were walking in the convent's arbor together. It was early winter, and the snow had lightly dusted the ground. 

Anne sat down on a bench near the convent.

"All I felt was fear," she said. "I know I did what I had to do -"

"And what many women in your position might fail to do."

"But whether or not the Lord absolves me of guilt," she said, "I still feel it, a darkness in my heart."

Henri laughed.

"There can be no darkness in a heart such as yours, Anne," he said. She smiled.

"Thank you," she said.

"For what?" he asked.

"Talking with me," she said. "Being a friend."

Henri bowed, ever the gallant.

"My friendship is guaranteed," he said. "If you want it."

"I do," said Anne. "I have so few friends around me now."

Snow began to fall lightly upon them. Anne looked up at the grey skies.

"Come," said Henri, offering his hand. "We should get indoors. It's cold, and will only get colder."

Anne put her hand in his, and smiling, allowed herself to be led.

***

The winter was a long and cruel one, but Anne no longer minded. Evenings spent in front of a leaping fire with Henri, and with some of the other nuns who she had come to know well. The convent was not the cruel prison she had feared, but a place of refuge.

"And then he was found bathing in it!" Henri said.

"What, in the holy water font?" asked Anne, laughing.

"Yes! Well, he was very drunk, of course," said Henri. "It took three of us to carry him out and put him in bed."

"The seminary sounds like a far more exciting place than I would have thought," said Anne. 

"Oh, don't let it fool you," Henri replied. "It was mostly rote learning and writing increasingly sacrilegious theses out of boredom. That was probably the most exciting thing that happened there, I think."

"Reminds me of when Therese fell into the pond," said Anne, and faltered. 

Henri saw her expression change.

"Anne?" he asked. "Anne, what is it?"

"Nothing," she said. "Just - painful memories of an old friend, that's all. And when one is cloistered away in a nunnery, perhaps forever - "

"One regrets the world," supplied Henri. Anne nodded.

***

Anne saw very little of the Matron after her first chaotic days at Templemars. The Benedictine convent was a large one, and home to at least a hundred nuns, if not more. 

One day, the Matron knocked at her door.

"I know that you aren't here by choice, Anne," said the Matron. "That makes you quite different from most of the women here, who have chosen this vocation. I also know that there isn't much in a convent to amuse a young woman, but I'd like to do what I can for you, to help you while away the time. Please do not look upon this place as a curse; I have done what I could for you."

"Oh, never think that, Matron," said Anne. "I look upon you as my saviour, and the convent as my salvation."

"And yet, you regret the loss of your freedom, do you not?" she asked. "I overheard you speaking with Henri in the sitting room, don't worry, he has not divulged any of your secrets. I felt my heart stung to the quick. And so - "

She drew a key out of her apron and handed it to Anne.

"This is the key to the library," she said. "The other nuns do not have access to it, as it contains some questionable material unfit for their eyes."

"So you deprive them of this knowledge?" asked Anne, suspicious of the Matron for the first time.

"No," said the Matron, holding her gaze meaningfully. "I fear that the books will burn. Nuns are not always the first to understand judge not lest ye be judged. Given your unique circumstances, however, I felt that this might assuage some of the burden you have taken on in becoming a nun against your wishes."

Anne stared at the key in her hand.

"Thank you, Matron," she said.

"It's one way to see the world, without ever leaving these gates," said the Matron. "It is the only freedom I can offer."

"I appreciate it," said Anne. "I'd like to go there right away. Could you show me where it is?"

The Matron beamed with pride and something like relief. She guided Anne through the corridors until she found a small, unassuming wooden door.

"Here," she said, and put the key into the lock. She turned it and the door opened.

Anne's mouth dropped open in shock. 

She could not think of a single word to say.

***

The library was vast, books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. Enormous windows let in light where specks of dust danced. It must have been at least the size of a small villa.

Anne stood in the middle of the library, completely overcome.

"So, this is where we keep the books," said the Matron. "Including those the nuns should not find."

"How would they even find the questionable books, among all these?" breathed Anne.

"You'd be surprised how quickly things like that are found," said the Matron. "Sometimes I think it's fate, or that nuns just have a nose for that kind of thing. Repression will do that to you."

Anne cast her a puzzled glance.

"But aren't you a nun yourself?" she asked. The Matron laughed, and her eyes twinkled, suddenly putting Anne in mind of Chabot.

"Of course," she said. "How do you think I know?"

She winked. 

Then she set the key in Anne's palm again.

"Remember to lock the door when you are in here," she advised. "And remember to lock it when you leave."

"I'll remember," promised Anne.

"Very well," said the Matron. "I've business to attend to, but please enjoy your time here, Anne - as best you can."

Anne nodded, and the Matron left the room.

***
Anne turned around slowly, drinking in the sight of more books than she had ever seen in her life. She swore to herself that if she ever made it back to Breuil, if she still held her inheritance, she would install a library much like this one at the chateau.

"And it will be filled only with questionable books for nuns," Anne said aloud to herself, her voice loud in the quiet room. She laughed.

She began to examine the spines of the books, completely at a loss as to where she should start.

"Plato...Aristotle..." she read out. "Dear God are all of these books by men? It's as if women never existed!"

Then a title caught her eye. Memoirs of the Courts of Europe, it read, by Marguerite de Valois and Catherine de' Medici.

Anne put her hand on the slender volume and slid out out from the bookcase, kicking up more dust.

She walked over to a patch of sunlight streaming through the window and sat down cross-legged.

She opened the book and began to read.

Chapter Text

The very next day, Anne took a notebook to the library, and began to make notes.

***

The winter passed thus, with Anne reading and learning what she could, and building a little book of her own. She spent the evenings talking with Henri, who was lonely himself as the only man among a convent of women. She enjoyed lunches and dinners with the nuns and learned a little about where each of them had come from, and why they had decided to dedicate their lives to God.

For so very many of them, it was because they did not have many options as women. If not married, but desiring an independence from the family through either desire or need, and without dowry or inheritance, the choices were quite simple: nun, or prostitute. Some of them even told her they had been undecided, at first, which to choose. The convent was safe from the world, leaving them free to think their own thoughts and discuss things with other women away from the view of any man save Henri. 

And Anne kept making notes in her little book.

***

One day in early spring, the weather was fine enough to bring the tables and chairs outside for a lunch al fresco. Anne helped Henri carry the wine outside, laughing, the blooms among the trees tiny exclamations against the deep greens. The nuns ranged throughout the garden, sitting on chairs and chatting with each other, eating meat and cheese while drinking wine in the sun.

"I think that's everything," said Henri. "Who knew nuns could drink so much wine?"

"I don't think it will run out," she said, looking at the ruby colour swirling in her glass as she lifted it to the sun. She squinted at the trees she could see through it, turned a strange glowing red colour by the wine.

"I wouldn't be too certain," Henri said, and grinned at her. Anne grinned back, and the wind blew the flower petals light and white across the garden, as if it were a wedding-day.

***

Later, she and Henri were entrusted to cleanup duty, as the two of them were merely tipsy while the rest of the nuns had become staggering drunk, and had gone to pleasantly sleep it off in their narrow beds on that warm afternoon.

As Anne made to lift another tray of glasses, Henri took her hand. He set the tray down and led her to a little alcove surrounded by trees at the edge of the convent.

"What is it?" Anne asked, smiling. "Henri?"

Henri stared down at the ground for a moment. He seemed to gather his courage.

He took her hand.

"Anne."

"Yes?" she asked. "Henri, is everything all right?"

Henri sighed. His brilliant blue eyes matched her own, in the late afternoon sunlight.

Anne was becoming worried now.

"Henr-" she began, and he kissed her.

Her mind came to a halt. When it started again, Henri had stepped back, his eyes filled with uncertainty.

"You're a priest!" was the first thing out of Anne's mouth.

"I know, Anne," he said, and came close to her, his words urgent and quiet as if he feared being overheard. "And I did my best. I did. But every night, I - I am tormented, I am - I. I commit the sin of Onanism when I think of you, Anne, and I can't keep silent any longer."

Anne just stared at him. She wondered what on earth she could possibly have done to warrant her being the ruin of so many men. And now a priest! scolded that voice inside her.

"I can't stay here, Anne," he said. "I know that it can't be - can't be a priest here any longer, perhaps a priest at all."

Henri looked down at the ground again.

"And I'm leaving," he said. "But I wanted to - to know, if you felt the same as I. And if - if you would come with me. If not, I will leave alone."

Anne couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"When?" she asked.

"Tonight," he said. "I will go as far into France as I can, far away from this place."

"How, with no money?" asked Anne. 

"I've sold the sacred vases," he confessed.

"You sold -" Anne's voice raised, and he put his hand over her mouth.

"Shh!" he said. "Someone will hear. And it was necessary. Either way, I go. Will you go with me?"

Anne did not have to think too long about it. Anything to survive, she thought.

"Yes, I will go with you," she said. Henri's worried brow relaxed and he smiled, with all the joy he could have wanted.

"First," said Henri, awkward again. "A proof?"

"A proof of what?" asked Anne.

"Your love," he said earnestly.

Anne thought of the memoirs she had read, of the places she hoped to see, of the world beyond the doors of the convent.

She slowly began to lift her skirts.

"Oh God," whispered Henri, disbelieving, reverent.

He unbuttoned his trousers, slid them down just far enough, and pushed Anne up against the wall.

Leaning against her, he whispered into her ear.

"How long I have dreamed of this," he said, "bewitching me, as I took myself in my own hand...you'll be my first, Anne, as I think I will be yours, and -"

She felt the pressure against her, surprised by the ache of want she recognised from her times with Therese, and the resistance inside her.

Henri moaned, looking at her like she had become his new paradise.

"Courage," he whispered. "Courage, my love."

He slid his hands under her rear, marvelled at the smooth skin there, and clamped his hand down over her mouth when she cried out as he slid home. 

The pain was momentary, but the pleasure built beyond it, and Anne threw her head back against the wall as he fucked into her with abandon.

"Always," he whispered, "every night...of all men, I am the first to claim you...you will never have this to give again, my little whore. Oh, oh - this is - you hold tight to me, like a lover - I've never - will never - "

Anne watched him, panting, straining, lost and desperate, and thought look what you have done.

Henri moaned again, and made little unh, unh, unh noises, as he claimed her against the wall.

"My little whore," he whispered again, tight and vicious, and Anne's shout was suddenly one of the height of pleasure rather than pain.

Henri gasped at this, staring at her, and swore, as he also came with a shout.

Breathless and panting, coming down, Henri leaned his head against the wall. Anne remarked that he was handsome, and filled her well. She knew then that she felt lust for both men and women.

Love, however, was only for Therese.

But she had not seen Therese now for nearly a year.

"Thank you," Henri whispered to her, his bright blue eyes closing, as he had found a goddess to worship instead of a god.

He helped her down from the wall and set her gently onto the ground.

She dropped her skirts, to hide the blood, and the evidence of what they had just done.

Anne thought, Soon, I'll be free in the countryside again. And at least he got to know me first.

 

Chapter Text

"Anne?"

Anne turned to look at Henri, whose expression was timid and full of doubt. The petals from the trees above fell upon them as though it were raining.

"Yes?" she asked.

"I - was that..." he faltered. "Why?"

Anne arched a black brow.

"Why what?" she asked.

"I - when I asked for a proof of your love, I meant...a word. A kiss, I dared hope, but - "

"Why did you call me that?"

"What?"

"A whore."

Henri started, and then blushed a deep crimson.

"Do you believe what they say about me, too?"

"Dear God, no!" cried Henri. He fell to his knees and clutched at her skirts. "No - I knew, I knew you were a virgin, Anne, I was your confessor and you told me so. I believed it. I have no doubts, not on that count - especially not now."

It was Anne's turn to blush.

"But Anne," he said. "I won't claim to be any better than other men, I am a priest, after all, and breaking my vows."

"I have also broken my vows," she murmured. He stared up at her with sky-blue eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It just - it came over me, I am already ruined, I found excitement in using words I've never - and blasphemed - I am sorry, Anne, it was nonsense at the height of - of -"

"Passion," she said. "I liked it."

Henri looked relieved, and kissed the hem of her skirt. He stood up, and stood well away from her.

"Anne, did you think I wouldn't bring you with me if you didn't offer yourself?" he asked.

Anne considered the question.

"No," she said. "No, I wanted what we did."

"But you don't love me," said Henri sadly. "No, don't bother arguing, a man in love knows, though I have only been a man in love once in my life. I can tell."

"Does this mean you won't take me with you?" she asked.

"No," Henri replied. "There was no ultimatum. If you had wanted to go, I would have taken you. If you had said no, I would have left anyway."

He smiled.

"It would be sweet torture to be so near to you and yet so far away."

Henri's gaze grew serious.

"But Anne," he said, "please understand that you can tell me no at any time, and you will be respected. You are my friend, and I fell in love with your mind and heart, not your beauty alone."

Anne smiled at him at last, and he was overjoyed.

"Henri," she said, "I am not in love with you, but I do love you. If that is enough for you, then that is enough for me."

"It is more than I could have dreamed," he said. "Now, will you come? Or shall I leave you here in your cloister?"

This was a question for which Anne had a ready answer.

"I will come," she said. "I prefer freedom, and it has been sorely too long since I have ridden Liberty upon the high road."

"Very well," said Henri. "Then, meet me here at nine o'clock, and we will make our escape in the darkness."

"Til then," she promised, and he bowed deeply.

Anne walked away, thinking of Henri, and of Chabot.

She thought, perhaps, men were not so bad after all.

***

Nine o'clock struck more quickly than Anne had expected. She'd packed her meagre belongings in her small valise that usually hung from Liberty's saddle. 

She crept outside under cover of night and found Henri waiting in the alcove, the horses tied up a little ways away.

"You came," he said, as if he hadn't believed it until that moment.

"Of course," she said. "I keep my promises."

Henri approached her and kissed her.

"All day, I have been thinking of it," he said, "near-feverish, my love."

He went to hike her skirts up when she put her hand upon his. He looked up, confused.

"Henri," she said, a stern note in her voice, "When you said I could tell you no at any time, did yo mean it?"

He stared at her a moment, then nodded, and dropped her skirts.

"Perhaps in the future," she said, "But this is not the time. Can you accept that?"

Backing away, Henri nodded.

"Yes," he said. "You're right, of course. I don't know what I was thinking."

"I do," grinned Anne, and despite himself, he grinned back.

"You never have to fear anything from me, Anne," he said. "I said I was your friend first and foremost - and I meant it."

"I believe you," she said. "And yet knowing I don't love you hasn't cooled your ardor one bit."

"I'm not sure if something like that is a cure for love," he said. "As for me, I love you as much now as I did this morning. There is no explaining it."

"You would be a great philosopher, I think," she said. "Now, let's go, before someone in the convent gets suspicious about my empty bed."

Henri nodded, and helped her to mount to Liberty's back. Once she had settled into the saddle, she smiled a wide, satisfied smile.

"It has been far too long," she said, and Liberty nickered in what sounded like agreement. Henri laughed, and mounted his own horse.

"Which way shall we go?" murmured Anne, as they made their way into the dark street.

"I had thought - "

"Henri d'Auvignon and Madeleine Bardet," came a commanding voice. Suddenly torches were lit all around them.

Anne recognised the false name she had given to Chabot and also to the Matron. She thanked God for protecting her in this way despite her earlier activities.

Henri looked around and saw that they were surrounded. Anne recognised the police who had tried to arrest her all those months ago.

The man who had spoken to her on the convent steps approached, looking smug.

"You are under arrest for the theft and sale of sacred church vases," he announced. "And Madeleine Bardet, for causing the ruin of a priest."

"And what proof have you?" she demanded. "Of any of these accusations?"

"A young nun saw you," said the police officer. "Apparently, you were not quiet about it, and you were seen from her window."

He pointed, and Anne turned to see a vague face in the window, just long enough to recognise jealousy there. She didn't know the nun very well, nor her name, but realised in an instant that she was the one who had always been making excuses to be in the chapel, close to Henri.

"Infamous!" cried Madeleine.

"A strange word for one like you to use, demon," said the officer.

"Matron!" cried Anne, and the police laughed. A crowd of curious onlookers had begun to gather.

"The Matron can do nothing for you, now that you have left the grounds of the convent," he said. "God has seen you, and God has declared you will be punished, for you break His laws as well as the laws of the land. It is time you paid for murdering the Duke, as it is clear you are an immoral wench led by the Devil, to seduce a priest."

He smirked, and gestured to her. 

"Dismount, both of you," he said. "You are under arrest."

"Do as he says, Anne," Henri murmured. "We'll figure something out, but we can't do it here, in front of a crowd."

Haughty and proud as a queen, Anne dismounted. The police officer put his hand on her arm, and she gave him a sharp look as she saw him take a deep breath at the very touch of her. Suspicion planted itself deep in her heart, and she began to put a plan in place in her head.

Just then, a man shrieked in triumph, "Seductress!" and pointed at Anne. It was the friend of the Duke's, Pierre, from so long ago.

Anne hated being led away, through the jeers of the crowd and the hatred of those who believed her in service to the Devil, but she did not care. She had a plan.

She could already see her freedom before her, and the long road out of France.

Chapter Text

The floor of the jail was cold.

Anne tucked her feet underneath herself as she sat on the little bed. Henri, from a distance, was looking at her with sympathy from another cell.

She thought about her predicament, and Henri's. She felt certain that if they were not condemned to death, they would at least be condemned to prison for many years. Possibly a lifetime.

The wheels in her mind were turning.

She thought of Catherine de' Medici, and of Marie Michon. Adventuresses, the Bible called them. 

Well, Anne determined to become an adventuress herself.

***

The jailer had for his apprentice his own son, a fine, strong young man given to blushing. He clearly hadn't seen much of the world yet, and he brought Anne her food.

"Thank you," she purred at him. He coloured, and shook his head.

"Do not speak to me," he said. "You are the Devil."

But she saw his expression when he accidentally brushed her hand.

She knew then that her beauty, which had been a curse all her life, may come in useful after all. She could use it for her own designs. 

And she had no scruples any more, not those of the Earth or heaven.

The next time he came close, she reached through the bars and dragged him closer, so that her lips touched his ear.

"I see how you look at me," she whispered. "Would you not like a taste?"

She could feel it as the young man went weak in her grip, and pulled away from her. He rushed from the room, but took one last look behind him.

"What are you doing?" whispered Henri.

"Henri, do you trust me?" she said. 

"To the end of the world."

"Then patience," she said. "And do not hate me for what I am about to do."

"I could never," he said. 

"You don't know what it will be," said Anne.

"I have some idea."

Anne stared at him, and saw him swallow visibly.

"You want this," she stated. Henri blushed, then nodded.

"Please," he said. Anne shook her head.

"One sin follows another, it seems," she said. 

And she waited for the jailer's son to return.

***

Later, in the gloom of the night, Anne was unsurprised to see the light of a single torch illuminate the room.

It was the jailer's son, who approached her cell, staring at her as if hypnotised by a cobra.

"Did you mean it?" he whispered. "What you said - before?"

"Yes," she confirmed. "Come inside."

His hands shaking, he put the key in the lock. The door swung open and he stood at the threshold, waiting. 

"I - I can't stop thinking of you," he said. "Have you bewitched me?"

She smiled.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Antoine," he said.

Anne dropped her shift to the floor and stood there in full view of both Henri and the jailer's son. Both gasped audibly. Anne held back a smirk; she knew what they were seeing. Her long, lithe body, full breasts, nipples coral-pink. The jailer's son moved forward and cupped one of her breasts, panting, then slid his fingers inside her.

"You're already wet," he sighed. This was followed by a moan, behind them. The jailer's son turned to look at Henri, who had his hand around himself already, pulling desperately.

"Don't mind him," said Anne, turning Antoine's face to look into her eyes. "He likes to watch."

Antoine shuddered, then suddenly shoved her down onto the small bed and turned her over, presenting her to Henri. He slapped her wet cunt several times.

"Do you like that?" he asked. "Whore. Devil. Fuck."

Anne squirmed against his hand, moaning with abandon. If pleasure was the way to power, then she damned sure  would enjoy it. 

How stupid they are, she thought, so easily led, so easily controlled.

In that moment she realised that this was a power she could wield like a weapon, and her pleasure stoked higher. She no longer cared about decorum or prudence and chased the pleasure offered her, screaming and wailing for it, and rejoiced in the way it made both men mad with lust and hunger.

"Oh God, Anne, forgive me," Henri was muttering, but he didn't stop, as if he couldn't stop. Antoine knelt down and spread her lips apart, plunging his tongue inside her, and she shrieked in wanton desire while both men went insane with the want of her.

"You want it?" snarled Antoine. "You want to be filled, wench?"

"Yes," cried Anne. "Now!"

Suddenly, he thrust deep inside of her, and gave a satisfied moan. He ground against her in little circles.

"Fuck," he said, forcing her body even closer,. "Fuck, you wanted it, so wet and tight."

He looked over his shoulder at Henri.

"You like watching me give it to her? Your whore?"

Henri only answered with a moan, and speeding his movements.

Antoine just grinned and kept grinding in little circles.

"Fucking claimed, you little fucking whore," he said. "Just what you wanted, a man to fill  you with seed. Perfect little pink cunt, you look so innocent but you'd bend over for anyone, wouldn't you? God, it's like you're pulling me inside, you fucking want it -"

And he began to thrust into her brutally. She screamed as she came, suddenly, her body bolting upward. Antoine caught her, holding her up and pulling hard at her nipples as he bounced her on his cock in full view of the room.

"Yeah, that's it," he hissed. "Come all over my hard cock, that's -"

She came again, arching back against him.

"Ah,fuck!" he shouted, and absolutely pounded into her. "I'm - I - ah - ah -"

He came with a bellow, and a few moments later, she heard Henri finish too. She ground back against Antoine until she came again, and shaking, began to come down from her high.

"Oh," said Antoine. "So good. Oh my -"

Anne pushed off of him and stood, lifting her shift over her head and dropping it down over her body. She leaned in close to Antoine, his eyes alight with sated lust.

"Thank you," she said. And walked out the cell door, shutting him inside.

She turned the key in the lock, and dangled the keyring in front of him.

"What?" he shouted, rushing to the door and trying to grab the keys through the bars. "Wait!" 

She stood in front of him, holding the keys out of his reach.

"That was wonderful," she said. "And I want you to make me a promise."

"Anything," he said. "Anything." 

She saw by the look in his eyes that he was gone, and she could make him do whatever she wanted. Her beauty was power, she now knew, and she planned to make use of it while she could.

She looked at the ring of keys, and then at Henri. He shook his head slightly, and she nodded her understanding.

"I want you to release Henri," she said. "But in a few days, not tonight."

Anne turned to Henri, who looked a bit ashamed of what he had done, but he nodded.

"Less suspicion if I travel alone," she told him.

"I agree," said Henri. "I'll meet you, if I can."

"Antoine," she said. "Do you promise me?"

Antoine nodded, breathless.

"Then come here," she said, and gave him a filthy kiss through the bars of the cell. "And don't break your promise. I'll know."

"I won't," said Antoine. "I swear."

"Then au revoir," said Anne, "You'll have to explain how you got stuck in the cell on your own."

And with that, she was gone.

Chapter Text

Outside, Anne breathed the fresh night air and looked up at the stars. She thought of the nuns, and their particular horror of prostitution. She thought of Therese, and that conversation they'd had - at least whores have freedom.

She grinned, thinking she had chosen the wrong career path, as this suited her far more than the convent.

Still, she knew there were heights she could reach that were far beyond that of a local priest and a jailer's son. She set her eyes upon that future possibility, where she could choose the man she planned for a hostile takeover.

Anne was thrilled to find Liberty tied up nearby, watered and well-fed. He nickered, recognising her, and she gave him a friendly pat before climbing into the saddle.

"Later, I'll groom you," she said. "Now, we need to get far away from here - and quickly."

She dug her heels into Liberty's sides, and they galloped down the road into the darkness.

***

She let herself wonder, again, what had happened to Therese.

***

Anne rode as far as she could while it was dark, but had no idea what to do come sunlight. She had resolved to only travel by cover of night in order to avoid capture and suspicion. 

She noticed, along the road, a broken-down old farmhouse that had seen better days. It was clear that no one had been there in many years. 

Anne guided Liberty through the little courtyard and behind the house so that nobody could see him from the road. She walked into the house.

The roof was partially missing, but the back half of the main room was still covered. Shelter was enough, for tonight.

She changed into warmer clothes, a proper dress, and found enough warm straw to make a bed of sorts. She crawled on top of it and lay down, thinking of the night's events. Her hand went to her money-bag, which felt slimmer than she had remembered. Ingrates, she thought, certain that someone had gone through it to take the money. But she could still feel Therese's note, a tiny square, next to Rochefort's. She certainly hoped no one thought to look at them, or assigned them much importance if they did. 

Anne fell asleep, completely exhausted, and slept until long after the sun had risen.

***

The following morning, Anne woke and stretched. Her body shouted its discomfort at her, from the exertions the night before as well as a rough night's sleep on her bed of straw.

She remembered the events of that night and her entire body shuddered with want. She moaned inadvertently, thinking of the way it felt to have Antoine inside her and Henri watching with naked hunger in his eyes. 

She moved her hand beneath her skirts and began touching herself like Therese used to touch her, dipping her fingers inside, and filled the air with wanton cries as she brought herself off again and again to the thought of it. 

Once she lay sated and panting on the floor, her blue eyes staring up at the patch of gray sky visible through the roof, she wondered how she had never recognised this in herself before. Something essential had changed in her.

It had been an interesting year.

Anne stood, brushing herself off, and went outside to make sure Liberty was all right. He was eating the grass around the house and seemed no worse for wear. 

"Are you ready for another difficult ride tonight?" she asked him. He nuzzled her face as she patted him.

She found it difficult to wait for the evening. She had no food with her, after all, and worried that she was going to starve if she kept away from inns for her entire ride. She would need her strength, and that meant finding somewhere that would feed her.

Finally the sun set. Anne went inside to gather her things, pushing the straw into the corner as she fished out a few coins that had fallen during the night in her sleep.

She heard strange sounds behind her, like marbles falling. She turned around to see hail falling into the house through the opening in the roof.

"Oh, hell," she swore, and went to see to Liberty, when the door slammed open.

"I'll send you back there," said a voice.

A man stood silhouetted in the doorway, long shadow cast by the late evening light.

Anne screamed.

He lit a torch, and the light illuminated his face in monstrous shadows.

"Who are you?" Anne demanded. He shoved her to the floor.

"It is well that you should ask that question," he said. "My name is Valentin d'Auvignon. And you are the ruin of my brother!"

"Henri?" gasped Anne. "Is he all right?"

"Silence!" shouted Valentin, advancing on her. "He may believe in your pretended affection, but I haven't been blinded by you, siren. And your beauty will not lay me low."

"I do care for Henri," she protested.

"Oh?" he said. "And this is why you let the jailer's son debase you right in front of him?"

How does he know that? she wondered, but he was moving again.

"They charged him," said Valentin, a tremor in his voice, "Ten years imprisonment and the brand of the fleur-de-lys!"

Anne recoiled in horror.

"And I had to brand him! My own brother!" shouted Valentin, loud enough that a flock of pigeons in the rafters took off into the sky.

"You?" asked Anne. "Why did you have to brand him?"

"Because I am the executioner of Lille!" he cried. "I was compelled to do it!"

Wildly, he looked around the room, and saw the fire burning merrily in the fireplace.

"Just as I had hoped," he murmured. "Thank God, or Providence, for that."

"What do you mean to do?" asked Anne. Valentin made no answer, but took something from his pocket and dropped it into the flames.

Anne tried to make a run for it, but Valentin caught the back of her dress in one large hand and hauled her forward. He pressed her face-down onto the floor.

"You should be happy," he bit off. "I'm told you enjoy this position."

Who told you that? Anne thought again. Could Henri have been false? No. Then Antoine? Perhaps.

She struggled, but his hand was like iron. He reached for some rope and tied her tightly so she could not get away.

Soon, he pulled the item out of the fireplace and attached it to something. Anne struggled to turn and see what it was.

The shape of a fleur-de-lys glowed dully orange in her vision.

"No!" she screamed, struggling for her life. "No, you will not!"

"I could not give Henri that choice," he said. "Stay down!"

And he kicked her so hard she collapsed in pain, writhing on the floor, tears streaming down her face.

He pressed the brand down onto her bare shoulder in triumph, and she screamed and screamed.

***

Panting, horrified, Anne pushed herself away from him, struggling to find her way into a dark corner as far from him as possible. She glared at him with more hate than she had ever mustered, not even for the duke who pursued her, or the nameless husband she might have once had.

"That's right, scuttle away, little cockroach," he said, his voice almost gentle. He was examining the other implements in the house, and seemed to finally find what he was looking for. 

Anne watched his every move, her hand around her dagger now.

"Oh yes," he said. "I know of your little pig-sticker. I will keep well away from your claws, hellcat."

"Diable," she swore. Her shoulder ached, and she longed to dip herself in cool water. 

He chuckled.

"I'm sure you think I am," he said. "But of course, as they say: you would know, little demon."

He rolled a pair of pliers in his hand contemplatively.

"Do you know what else they asked me to do?" he enquired in a strangely calm, conversational tone. "They mentioned what the Matron had said, when they'd wanted to arrest you before. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. And poor Henri, well. He had sinned with his eyes, and other things besides."

Anne stared at him.

"So," he said. "I figured that I would only be following Biblical teachings in order to chastise a nun. As they say - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Henri made me promise I wouldn't, but - now that I'm here, and I have seen you for myself, I think something can be done to help cure you of this demonic beauty."

He walked toward her again and before she knew what was happening, he had punched her so hard in the jaw that she blacked out.

When she came to again, pain was radiating from her mouth and her shoulder. She felt something warm running down her chin, and went to wipe it away.

She drew her hand away. It was covered in blood.

She began to wail and groan, edging further away from him, cupping her mouth as she watched him, holding a hand up in a weak attempt to keep him away.

"Worry not, demon, my work here is done," he said. "Bite now, if you can."

Anne's furious roar sounded inhuman even to her own ears. 

The door closed, and he was gone.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Weak!" screamed Anne. "Weak! Foolish - "

She struck out and kicked the walls with her feet, gnashing her teeth in rage. The pain and stress overcame her as she shouted and wailed and thrashed.

Never again, she thought. I will never be caught weak and unaware, ever again. Whatever it takes, whatever I lose. Never again!

It was the last thing she knew before sleep overtook her.  She succumbed to exhaustion, still tied up, and fell asleep on the farmhouse floor.

***

"Anne?" a voice began to break through the clouds of her subconscious. She felt as though she were deep beneath the ocean, and that she had thrown herself off that cliff so long ago. She thought, perhaps, it would have been a better end.

Or perhaps it was only a dream.

She felt warm hands on her cheeks, and began fighting before she really knew what she was about.

"Anne! Anne, stop fighting! It's Henri!" the voice cut through her terror.

Anne opened her eyes, and was met with Henri's brilliant blue.

"Your eyes," she mumbled. "You still have your eyes."

Henri looked at her, puzzled, then saw the blood from her lip, covering the ropes and her dress.

"Dear God, Anne, what have they done to you?" he breathed.

"Not they," she said. "He."

"He?" Henri said, moving to untie her. "He who?"

"Your cursed brother, that's who!" Anne yelled.  Henri drew back in horror.

"Valentin did this to you?" he demanded. She nodded.

Henri stared off for a moment, then returned to his task of freeing her from the ropes. Once he was finished, he held out his hand to help her up.

Anne stood, and shook out her arms. She winced at the residual pain from the branding.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

She snarled instead of replying and yanked the top of her dress down low enough to show him her brand.

"What on earth - I'll kill him!" Henri growled. "See, I have one to match."

And he took off his doublet and shirt to show her the identical fleur-de-lys on his own shoulder.

"Dear Anne," he said, taking her into his arms and cradling her. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You must have been so frightened, all alone out here."

I was, thought Anne fiercely. But I will never be frightened again, I swear it.

Whatever it takes.

"We have to go," said Henri, after a time. "If he knows where you are, then he'll be searching for me, too. Antoine kept his promise, and sends his thanks for a splendid evening."

Anne laughed a little at that, in spite of herself.

"Now," said Henri. "Do you think you can ride?"

Anne nodded.

"Anything to get away from here," she said. Henri helped to clean her up as best he could, and led her outside to where Liberty and his own horse were waiting.

As Anne swung her leg over the saddle, and tried to ignore the ache in her jaw, she looked at Henri as he led her out onto the road.

He's not a good man, she thought. But he's also not a bad one.

And that is enough.

***

They spent a night at an inn in Douai, where Henri went to fetch a doctor who he paid handsomely to keep his mouth shut. 

"There's nothing that can be done," he said, putting away his things in a bag. "The tooth is out, and cannot be replaced. Eventually the pain will subside, but I advise taking a little more wine than usual to soothe her if necessary."

The doctor, an elderly bald man, stood up and leaned close to Henri. He spoke quietly, but Anne caught every word.

"Do you care to tell me why you are in the company of a woman whose tooth was clearly brutally ripped out of her mouth?" he asked.

"I didn't do it, if that is what you're asking," said Henri. "I just want to make sure she's all right."

The doctor studied him for a while, and then cast a glance at Anne, who was sitting on the bed behind him.

"Mademoiselle, do you feel safe with this man?" asked the doctor. 

Anne was touched. Not that a man of his age and infirmity could do much if she wasn't, but the sentiment remained.

"Yes, doctor," she said. "He saved my life. More than once, and in more than one way."

The doctor glanced between them again, as if he didn't quite believe it.

"Well, there's not much else for it, then," he said. "My advice is to keep her away from any stress, and keep a close eye on the tissue while it's healing. The wine will also help to keep it clean. If you are in any distress, mademoiselle, remember that I am but a few doors away."

"Thank you, doctor," said Anne. The doctor nodded and took his leave, shaking his head as he went.

***

They sat in silence for a long time after the doctor left. Anne was exhausted and Henri didn't know what to say.

"Why do you have both your eyes?" Anne asked suddenly. Henri's head snapped up.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "You said something like that earlier, but I thought you were delirious."

"Your brother said that they made him cut out one of your eyes," she explained. "Then, he said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and - and - "

Henri reached over and covered her hand with his own.

"They did ask that of him," said Henri. "But after the sentence of ten years' imprisonment, and having branded me, I think that was a step too far. Then he disappeared. I thought it was because he couldn't bring himself to do it. In the meantime, Antoine helped me to escape in the night - and Valentin, apparently, found you."

"So upon his return -"

Henri nodded.

"He would have plucked out my eye," he confirmed. "And if his courage failed him, he'd have had one of his servants do it instead."

"Can't he refuse?" Anne asked.

"No," said Henri. "Valentin is as much trapped in his work as we were trapped in that jail. He does what he is told, or faces the consequences."

"Doesn't sound like a career I would enjoy," she told him.

"Indeed," he said. "Now, we ought to get some rest. It's been a terrible, trying few days, and we need to get as far out of this area as possible. Somewhere nobody knows who we are, and no one will find us."

"It's all right," said Anne sleepily, pressing his hand. "I've disappeared once before. This time, at least, I have you."

Henri smiled,

"You'll always have me, Anne," he said, and kissed her forehead. "Let's get some sleep."

But Anne was already dreaming, and that night, she slept like the dead.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Henri and Anne set off before dawn towards Cambrai, where they planned to spend the night.

"What kind of person buys the sacred vases of a church?" asked Anne.

Henri laughed.

"You ask that now!" he said. "Another priest, as it would happen. He was fitting out a new church and had none. So, it was not such a sin as it sounds, or wasn't to me, anyway. The Templemars convent has any number of them. That chapel has been around for years. I don't know if they cared so much because of antiquity, or greed, or the very act of stealing from a church? Anyway, they're in another church now. Good luck to those who wish to find them."

"Or they wanted me," said Anne darkly. "And they would stop at nothing to see me laid low."

Henri looked at her, as they rode side-by-side. It was summer now, and the weather was beautiful.

"Please don't think that way, Anne," he said. "Not all men are as vicious as my brother, or as cruel as the court."

"Enough men are," Anne retorted. "And that's what matters. I've seen many bad men, several mediocre men, and have so far met one man who is good."

"I assume you are not referring to me," said Henri, ashamed.

Anne fixed him with a stare, and he hung his head.

"A defrocked priest is probably never going to be a perfect man," he said. "Or one with my...proclivities. But I try my best, and will continue to do so."

"Speaking of men," said Anne. "How much do you have for this journey, and to set us up?"

"Plenty," said Henri, lifting a round, heavy money-bag at his hip. He smiled at her.

She pursed her lips and shook her head. Henri was surprised.

"You don't think it's enough?" he asked.

"It's never enough," she said. "Believe me. It seems at first you have all the riches in the world and will never need more. But then, after all the inns, and food and wine, and other little necessities of travelling, the purse becomes very thin indeed."

"Spoken like a woman who has done this before," said Henri. Anne smiled ruefully.

"I have," she said. Henri nodded.

"I suppose that's true," he said. "You admitted as much in confession but I felt you left out some details."

"Some secrets are my own, Henri," she said. "Besides, if God knows and sees all things, what's the point in confessing them? "

"I assume for accountability's sake," said Henri. "But we were not having a theological discussion. If you feel that we don't have enough money for our journey, where did you plan on acquiring more of it?"

Now Anne really smiled.

"Didn't I just say, speaking of men?" she asked. Henri gazed at her, and then understood her meaning. He visibly flushed.

"Are you going to be furious with me?" she asked. "It's the one thing we have to sell."

She peered closer at him.

"Or...are you interested?" she said. Henri looked away from her then.

"If you are, Henri, there is no need to hide it," she said. "I don't mind, and pretending differently is just a different kind of lie."

Henri braved a glance at her. Anne held his gaze with no mistaking what was in her own eyes.

"So we are in agreement," she said, and Henri nodded mutely.

***

In Cambrai, Anne tried her hand at soliciting for the first time. 

She managed to find a farm lad, very tall and broad, who agreed instantly to the proposition Anne had whispered into his ear. She named a high price, and he paid it. His name was Gerard, he said, and he had just returned from the market where he had enjoyed much success in selling his first harvest. He was on his way home, so no one there knew him, and he had been lonely. So he was willing to agree to their terms.

Upstairs, in a small room on a large bed, Gerard removed Anne's clothes with meticulous care. Henri sat on a chair beside the bed, watching hungrily. 

Gerard pressed two fingers inside her. He was such a large man that she felt as though she weighed nothing, her hips held aloft by his other large hand. She moaned, pushing up against him in encouragement. 

"Patience," Gerard soothed. "You will need to be made ready to take me. I won't hurt you."

Anne pushed back against the pillows at her shoulders, angling herself against his fingers. Then, he turned them and brushed against something inside her that made her keen loudly and come with such violence that she would have fallen, had Gerard not be holding her upright.

Henri gasped out a moan beside her, and had pushed his trousers down to take himself in hand.

Anne gazed at Gerard, starry-eyed and panting, confused as to what had just happened.

"Now you are ready," said Gerard, and opened his own trousers. 

Anne could not help staring at him. She had never seen a man of such girth before. Certainly the other men she had experienced were of varying lengths, but she could see his reasoning in taking his time to make her ready.

Gently, he began to nudge inside her. Already sensitive, she whined as the pressure and pain increased, as he slowly pushed into her. She felt stretched out, open and vulnerable, completely dominated by this man. He finally slid home, and her legs wrapped around his hips, but he was so large her feet were spread far apart from each other. 

She heard little high-pitched staccato noises and realised they were coming from her. She lay there, staring up at Gerard, pinned like a butterfly. 

She could hear Henri's laboured breathing beside her, and the unmistakable sound of him seeking pleasure from the tableau before him.

Gerard paused, waiting for her to adjust to him, and then began to move.

Anne's screams and shrieks of pleasure echoed across the room, Henri biting out filthy words of encouragement under his breath. When Gerard began thrusting into her in earnest, she came again and again, her fingernails drawing furrows into his chest as he held her up off the bed. One of his hands pulled her hair as the other lifted her onto his cock, and with a moan that began slowly and built to a crescendo, snapping off to a breathless, frozen moment in time, he found completion inside her. 

Anne saw Henri take in her wrecked look and the way Gerard had taken her before he suddenly stood and placed his own cock on her stomach, coming all over her skin. Between the two of them, she came again, and drew Henri down into a kiss.

Gerard, panting and sated, first kissed Anne. Then, to her surprise, he caught Henri by the collar and kissed him, too.

***

"Thank you," said Gerard, as he replaced his hat on his head. He walked out the door, and Henri stared after his retreating figure in stupefaction.

Anne was still floating, her body aching, even now filled with desire. She began to think she was insatiable. Still, she knew they couldn't stay here. It was Gerard's room, after all.

"We'll need to find another town, and another inn," said Henri. "We've already been seen here."

"The horses should be fine to ride a little further," said Anne. "But I wouldn't want to push them, they've ridden quite far today."

"Next town over," promised Henri. He helped to clean her up and they got dressed. 

Anne tied the money-bag, now just as full as Henri's, to her waist with pride.

"And that earned us just as much as your theft," she said. "And it brought us all pleasure, with no threat of arrest - well, not in the same way."

She jingled the coins in the bag. Henri smiled.

"And to think how many call it folly," he said. "We'd better get on the road."

***

As they rode their horses past the inn, they saw Gerard in one of the windows. He raised a hand in farewell.

Anne watched Henri, who waved back, and then looked pensive. He was quiet for much of the rest of the journey to Crèvecœur-sur-l'Escaut, where they found a little out-of-the-way inn to spend the night.

 

Chapter Text

"What is this?!" Henri's voice, tight and angry, woke Anne from slumber. They had made it as far as Gouy before they had decided to turn in.

Anne stared at him, bleary-eyed, and saw him holding up her little journal. The one she used to make notes during her time in the convent.

She gasped in horror and snatched it out of his hands.

"Why are you going through my things?" she demanded.

"I wasn't!" he protested. "I was moving them and this fell out of your valise."

Henri sat down and gave her a long, hard look.

"A ruined, voyeuristic former priest thinks that studying is the worst thing I could do?" scoffed Anne. "My goodness, you really are slipping down the abacus from mediocre to bad."

"Anne," he said sternly. "All the things I've done - the things we've done - they pale in comparison, to - to that!"

"I don't understand."

"You were taking notes on Catherine de' Medici's poisons," Henri accused. "If ever there was evil in the world, that woman was it!"

"Or she was clever," said Anne simply. "An army has many weapons at its disposal. A woman, as she is, has none in this world unless she goes out to attain them for herself. And what is a woman supposed not to be? Physically strong. Clever. Able to outsmart men. Oh, and sexual! Care to comment on that?"

Henri shook his head.

"You don't understand," he said. "Catherine started the Black Mass, the Satanic perversion of ours! She poisoned and murdered anyone who got in her way!"

"Did she have much of a choice?" Anne demanded. "And all that you say could have been completely invented! They hated her because she was Italian. Imagine that! Italy is near enough to France. She was triply hated for the sins of being a woman, being a clever woman, and being a clever Italian woman!"

Anne clutched the journal to her chest.

"She is a hero to me," she stated.

"Anne, I know I'm no longer your priest," said Henri. "But I do care for you, and I would be remiss in my duties not to - "

"If you lay a finger on this journal I will murder you in your sleep!" Anne snarled. Henri recoiled from her, then stood and paced the room.

"You don't know what it's like!" Anne cried. "Being constantly pursued, but also expected to be chaste! Being accused of seduction when all you're doing is standing there! Women go from danger to danger with no protection, and I have enough experience at the hands of men to need to rely on myself for my own!"

With that, she pulled her shift down and exposed the fleur-de-lys, and bared her teeth in a grimace so that he could see the missing tooth. It was bothering her less and less now, just as the doctor had promised.

Henri stared at her, panting and furious.

Beyond all expectation, he suddenly leaned down and kissed her. He pushed her down onto the bed, and she moaned in excitement in spite of herself.

"This is what you wanted, isn't it?" he whispered. "Little whore. You can't get enough, spread your legs whenever anyone asks. You need it, don't you?"

"Please," Anne said, hiking her skirts up, spreading her legs just as he'd said, exposing herself obscenely. He knelt down and pulled her to the edge of the bed, where he dipped his tongue inside her and then licked at her clitoris. She pulled his head closer, whining with need and abandon. Within moments, he had taken his cock out and lined it up, thrusting inside her without warning.

"Take it," he hissed. "Take it, little whore."

Moaning and writing on the bed, Anne came against him as he fucked her as hard as he could. 

"You love being called that," Henri said. "As full as he made you, it's my words that you long for."

Anne arched up from the bed, a high, reedy whine coming from her throat. She held her own breasts, pulling at her nipples, and Henri latched on to one, biting hard and making her shriek.

"I was your first," said Henri. "Your first, never forget that. No matter how many men come inside you, that time belongs to me alone."

Anne shoved herself up against him, riding his cock as best she could from her position. She came again, mouth open and panting, desperate for more.

"That's right," he said, his thrusts becoming erratic now, "Fucking...take it -"

And with a final, hard thrust, she could feel him coming inside her, which only made her come again. She kept lifting herself up and pressing against him, still eager for more. Henri dropped his head onto her shoulder as she used him to come again, soaking the bed beneath them.

***

After a while, he stood up and tucked himself back into his trousers. Anne grabbed her journal and put it back into her valise.

"You can't win every argument that way, you know," said Anne. Henri turned to her and grabbed one of her breasts. She moaned immediately, her legs parting.

"Can't I?" he asked, pulling her toward him and kissing her deeply. "I didn't win, Anne. Keep your books. It's you who has bewitched me, not the other way around."

He smiled, and let her go. She sighed, disappointed, and he laughed.

"Later, my dear Anne," he said. "Let's get moving, and perhaps we can find some other way to satisfy you. Right now, we need to go."

***

They made their way to Saint-Quentin that evening, a much larger place than those they had frequented in the last few days. Anne realised that her pleasure was now her primary goal, and the money just a nice side bonus. Henri told Anne he felt sure that among such a population, they could find someone willing to pay for certain kinds of activities.

And there, in a darkened inn off a side street, they found what they were looking for. 

 

Chapter Text

This time, it was a man named Estienne, who had long black hair and shining dark eyes and buried his long, slender cock inside Anne to the hilt. He rocked gently into her as she was on her hands and knees before him. Henri stood, taking an active part of things for the first time, and pressed his cock against her lips. She opened willingly, and he thrust shallowly into her mouth. Estienne stroked her back and her ass as she moved back and forth between them, in utter ecstasy. Estienne pressed a finger inside her, then wet her clitoris with it, pulling at the soft skin above it until she began to shake with the power of her orgasm. Henri began to speed his movements, careful of her as he could be, as he watched Estienne take her easily from behind.

Estienne leaned forward and cupped her breasts in his hands, handling them roughly as he began to thrust into her, pressing her body to his and humping against her. She could feel his long cock pushing further, further than she had previously known, and his grip was so tight around her that she could do nothing but let him fuck into her, completely helpless in his arms. Henri saw this and grabbed hold of her face, forcing his cock further into her mouth. She looked up at him and their eyes met. She saw a question there, and she nodded. He began to thrust as wildly as Estienne, as if a dam had broken.

"Look at you," he panted softly, as Estienne took her violently, shoving against her as he held her body close. "You're so desperate for it, taking us both so well, soon you'll be filled at both ends, and just begging for more, won't you?"

Anne's back arched.

"Come for me, little whore," he whispered. "That's it. Come for us. Careful to be quiet now, careful of my cock in your mouth. Can you do that? I know it's hard, whores like you would rather scream, but can you be silent?"

Anne was rocking back against Estienne with abandon now, and moaned through her orgasm despite herself.

"Oh, no," said Henri. "Can't have that. I knew you couldn't help it."

And he drew out of her mouth, and came all over her face. 

Anne gasped in shock just as Estienne gave one last, furious thrust, and she came again, this time with a scream that shook the rafters. Estienne moaned and thrust again and again as his orgasm overtook him, and it felt to Anne as if it went on and on. Finally, his movements slowed, and he fell to his side on the bed, taking Anne with him.

Henri wetted a cloth and cleaned Anne's face tenderly, along with a few drops that had fallen stray onto the floor. Estienne was still catching his breath on the bed, and had still not moved from where he was buried inside of Anne. Then Henri climbed into the bed with them and wrapped his arms around Anne from the front. They dozed off like that, for the few hours that were left of the night.

***

An hour or so before dawn, Estienne took his leave of them. A large bag of money was left on the side table, more than either of them would have seen before. A young local lord, he apparently had appetites that were not the usual, at least in polite society. So he had appreciated the opportunity and paid handsomely for it.

Anne was laying on the bed with her eyes closed, drifting between sleeping and wakefulness.

"Anne, are you awake?" Henri asked. She didn't respond right away, sleepy as she was, but then he began to speak more quickly and she kept her peace.

"It's probably for the better if you're not," said Henri. "Anne, I'm so in love with you. I'm in love with you in a way that hurts my heart. I cannot fathom a life without you, my sweet Anne. I had hoped all this time together you might - you might love me too. But I know that you don't, just as you said. I know you have never lied to me or led me astray. But I am half-mad with love for you, and I wish - I wish -"

He sighed, like wind going out of a sail.

"I wish things were different," he said. "I wish you loved me too."

He was quiet for a long time.

"But I will stay with you as long as you'll let me," he whispered. "And I will help bring you pleasure as long as I can. Every day with you is a blessing, every night with you a different paradise. I love you to distraction, Anne, and I will be whatever you need me to be if I am to stay by your side."

Henri laid down on the bed then, and Anne could hear his breathing deepen. He was asleep within minutes, while Anne lay there with her eyes open, breathing with him.

***

In the morning, while they were putting their things onto the horses, one of the money-bags fell onto the ground. Anne picked it up and frowned at it. There was very little in the way of money in it, but she did find a little square of paper. She opened it. 

Therese's note, she thought. The first thing that saved me. 

She wondered at Therese's long absence, and her memories of the young woman. It seemed so very long ago, and faded, like an old and beautiful portrait that had aged with time.

Still, she tucked the letter back into the bag, and the bag itself into a larger one, if ever she needed a reminder that she had loved once, too.

They mounted their horses, and took the high road out of town.

 

Chapter Text

Anne and Henri had been riding for the better part of the day, until they finally stopped at an inn for a bite to eat. 

They sat down at a table and were brought roast pheasant with potatoes. It was a much nicer establishment than they usually frequented, and Anne said as much.

"It's the local lord," said the inn's host. "He is very invested in the area and wants nothing but the best."

Anne took a bite of her pheasant. She looked at Henri, eyes wide.

"I have never been to Paris," she said, "but I don't think this would be out of place there."

Henri also tried it, and his eyes lit up. From jail to a long slog on the road, there were not many creature comforts. They both wolfed down their food while trying not to be obvious about it.

"What do you think?" he asked. "Should we set up here, Anne? It's not a big city or anything."

"There's a post available," the host told them, as he cleared their plates. "A curacy at the edge of the comte's land. I don't suppose either of you are trained in the priesthood or otherwise?"

Henri exchanged a look with Anne, as though saying maybe it's fated? She gave a slight nod in response.

"As a matter of fact, I am a priest," said Henri. Anne cocked a brow at him, but she figured a little white lie wouldn't hurt. He still had the training and the experience.

"Well then!" said the host. "You'll be just what he's been waiting for. It's only a few leagues away on the high road, if you'd like to apply to him about the posting."

"Do you know the pay?" enquired Henri.

"Oh, I don't, I'm sorry," said the host. "But since I live here, and I know I'm one of the best-paid innkeepers I've ever heard about, I doubt the comte is going to be mean about it. Especially not when it involves his mortal soul."

The host tipped a wink at Henri, and missed the guilt that crossed his features.

"This may be our opportunity," he said. 

"I agree," said Anne. "Let's go."

They paid the host, who showered them with compliments and encouragement, and left the inn.

***

As they rode, they noticed the countryside vastly improved from what they had seen before it. Plentiful harvests everywhere, green grass, trees laden with flowers. 

"This is the most beautiful place I've ever seen," said Anne. Henri nodded his agreement.

"Here it is," Henri said, reading a small sign. "Chateau de la Fére, Chapel de la Fére. Anne, will you go wait in the chapel? I'd like your opinion, but I think I ought to approach the comte on my own if I want to apply for the post."

"Yes, of course," said Anne, and they parted ways.

Anne rode Liberty up to the chapel exterior. She tied him to a post and dismounted.

Then she walked up the steps of the chapel and went inside.

***

The chapel was small but beautifully well-appointed, much like everything else in the district. Tapers were lit at the altar, and there were several pews for the faithful and those who could afford a better seat. It was clear that the little chapel was the local gathering-place and probably saw a lot of use.

Anne approached the altar and knelt down. She had covered her hair with her veil, as seemed appropriate when entering a church. She crossed herself and clasped her hands, raising her eyes to the heavens.

Dear Lord, she began, although she felt silly praying, as if such things no longer applied to people like her. I have been rebellious, I have left my family and fortune behind to pursue this strange path. I don't know if I'm even allowed to speak with you anymore. My past is littered with broken promises, both from me, and to me. But I enjoy who I am now, Lord. I don't know what that means in your grand scheme. I don't understand why you have forbidden us so very, very much of this life - and for women, doubly. But perhaps you don't understand, because you are also a man, or a male being, and men never seem to understand our plight. Better to be free and on the wing than singing in a cage, I think. But know this: I am still a woman of faith, and I have done my best. I may not be the perfect woman, but I am coming to suspect there is no such thing: only a package men like to project that idea onto. And if you are the god of both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, I hope you won't judge me too harshly for being closer to the one than the other. If you see fit...I'd certainly like it if my life took a turn for the better. But as I know I have not scrupulously followed your rules, I have no right to ask. Know that I think of you yet, and consider myself one of your own - if you'll still have me.

There was a noise behind her. Anne started, so intent was she on her prayer. She looked over her shoulder.

A man stood behind her in lush clothing, a silver tunic and a long white cloak. He advanced into the low light of the candles. In the illumination from the dancing flames, she saw that he was so handsome she gasped involuntarily. Blond and tall, of firm constitution and broad shoulders, he wore his light mustache and beard in the same fashion as Chabot - years out of style but also eternal, as it was the way the old heroes wore it.

"Grant me pardon, mademoiselle," said the man, bowing deeply. "I did not mean to disturb you. I happened to be riding past and noticed a horse outside. I wanted to see who would be in the chapel praying on a warm summer afternoon."

Anne smiled, charmed, and stood up. She turned to him, and saw that he was likewise struck dumb by her beauty. They stood there gazing at each other in the light of the votive candles for what felt like an eternity and a moment at the same time.

He finally broke the spell, and spoke first.

"My manners seem to have deserted me," he said. "What is your name? I've never seen you in the chapel."

"Anne de Breuil," she said, almost as if compelled, as if she suddenly felt it impossible to lie in a church. 

"Enchanté," he said, and bowed again.

"Armand de Sillègue d'Athos d'Autevielle, Comte de la Fére," he said, "at your service."

 

Chapter Text

Anne stared at him, speechless.

She finally understood what men must feel like when they look at her. This man was absolutely, stunningly handsome, from his bearing, to the way his clothes fell, to his high aristocratic cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.

The door to the chapel opened and Henri entered.

"Anne, I went up to the chateau and couldn't find - " he stopped when he saw the scene before him. Anne dropped her eyes with a small smile as Henri approached, a little more quickly than he normally would. He looked at Anne, and then at the comte.

"Hello, sir," said Henri. "I see you have met my sister."

"Your sister?" he asked, looking at Anne with interest. 

"Yes, we were passing through and heard that you were looking for a new curate," he said. "I am a priest looking for a post, so I thought you might be interested."

"Indeed," said the comte. His eyes never left Anne. "When can you start?"

"Don't you want my references, or work history, or -" 

"That won't be necessary," he said. "The parish has been without a priest for some time now and I imagine those sins must be building up without a confessional."

"Then I can start right away," said Henri, who beamed at Anne. She smiled demurely.

"Armand de Sillègue d'Athos d'Autevielle, Comte de la Fére," he said, bowing, finally tearing his eyes away from Anne to look at Henri properly. "Should you wish to provide references and history, feel free to do so, but I am not in the custom of evaluating all my employees in advance."

"Henri," said Henri, bowing in return. "Henri...Foucault."

The comte nodded. Then his look sharpened, giving him the appearance of a hawk or other bird of prey.

"However, don't think that your place is guaranteed," he said. "I provide a trial period, during which I will see if your services live up to my exacting standards, and that of the community of La Fére. If they do, your place is assured. If they do not, you will be turned out of the house on the very afternoon you have displeased me."

Then he brightened and smiled.

"Our standards aren't very high," he whispered confidentially, and then laughed. "Shall I show you to your lodgings?"

"Yes, please," said Henri. He shared a look with Anne at their sudden good fortune. 

But Anne only had eyes for the comte.

***

The house was small, unlike the chateau and the convent Anne had grown accustomed to, with their sweeping staircases and high ceilings. But it was a safe haven all the same. 

"Just think, Anne!" Henri was saying. "We can be ourselves here, or, as much as that's possible. A real home, a place to belong. And we found it ourselves. We chose it. I think the real value is in the ability to choose."

He was putting things away onto shelves and into cupboards as he spoke. When she didn't respond, he turned to her.

"Anne?"

She was staring out the window. He approached and looked out. The comte was there, speaking with servants, most likely those who would now work for them in the house and chapel. 

Henri's face fell.

"I knew this would happen," he muttered. She turned to him, startled, as if she had never seen him before.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Were you saying something?"

That night, when they made love, Anne's thoughts were far away and filled with images of broad shoulders and sharp, hawklike eyes.

***

Anne remarked Henri's strange behaviour the following day, that he seemed dull and distant. She wondered what had come over him, when he'd been so joyful before.

"Henri, are you all right?" she asked gently, her hand on his arm.

"I'm fine," he said. "I just - see with the eyes of one who loves, and despairs."

"What on earth do you mean?" she asked, coming closer to him so that she could speak quietly and still be heard. "Did I not come to you last night? And every night? Do I not find joy and pleasure in our meetings? What more could you ask of me?"

Henri sighed.

"I know that I've received far more than any man who loves and isn't loved in return," said Henri. "Far more than any man dare dream. I know. But human nature is what it is, and a man who loves is jealous and foolish. I will do my best here, Anne, but please know that I will find it difficult."

"You have gone quite mad," said Anne. "There is no one else."

"Yet," said Henri. "But I predict there will be, soon enough."

He gazed off into the trees in the park surrounding the chateau.

"Just know I love you," he said. "And that it will not be easy."

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Henri," she said. "I hope you will feel better soon."

And with that, she walked off, Henri looking after her mournfully.

***

Anne walked the avenue beneath the cherryblossoms, the trees thick with flowers. The petals were raining down on her, much like that afternoon at the convent when the wine and the warm weather had led to Henri's confession and the inspiration of her own passions. 

"Pardon, mademoiselle," came a gentle voice, and she jumped in surprise.

Turning, she saw the comte standing there, wearing a deep blue today. It brought out his eyes.

"My apologies, comte, you startled me," she said, casting her eyes toward the ground.

"It seems this has become a habit," he said, smiling. "Please, call me Armand."

"Armand," she said, lifting her eyes to look at him. He looked stricken at the way her lips formed around his name.

"Anne," he replied, and touched her cheek. He drew his hand away suddenly, as if remembering himself.

"It is for me to apologise," he said, covering his actions with words. "I should not have crept up on a young woman in that way."

"I don't mind," said Anne. 

"Will you take a walk with me?" he offered. "I'd like to get to know you better. Although I feel as if I have known you all my life."

Anne beamed.

"Yes, of course," she said. "Strange as it is to say it, I feel the same way."

"Well, shall we discover whether we were friends in that life or not?" Armand said, offering his elbow. She looped her arm through it, noticing the bands of steel that formed the muscle of his arm, and how small she felt beside him.

"Lead me where you will," said Anne sweetly, and the two of them walked together, talking, through the avenue of trees, with the petals falling down all around them.

Chapter Text

The long, languorous summer days passed in a dream of light breezes and green grasses. The people of La Fére were friendly and welcoming. Anne had never felt so at home among people as she did here. Henri presided over the services and the confessional. The people found him kindly and sensitive to their needs.

Anne was happy, possibly for the first time in her life. This was a home she had chosen herself, not one she had almost been forced into, or one she had run to, sent from pillar to post because of her beauty. One of the reasons she found such joy in sex was that it remained a choice for her, and one that society frowned upon. She was tired of being frowned upon by society. Chaste or lewd, it made no difference. Once they saw her face, that was enough for them to decide she was evil, because she was beautiful and they didn't like the way it made them feel. No responsibility at all.

So Anne loved La Fére, and blossomed there, among the people of Armand's estates and village.

***

Armand led Anne down the avenue of cherryblossoms and bade her sit. She sat down, laughing at some joke he had just told.

"Have you heard of hanami?" he asked her. 

"No," she replied.

"It means, to drink sake beneath the cherry blossoms," he explained. "It's an ancient Japanese tradition."

Then, he took out a bottle and cups from his satchel.

"Would you do me the honour of practicing the ancient art of hanami with me?" he asked.

Anne laughed.

"Everything you say sounds like poetry," she said. "That was the most poetic way to ask me, do you want to get drunk? I have ever heard."

Armand put his hand to his heart, mock-offended.

"Now, this is a very serious tradition!" he said. "It's ancient!"

Anne grabbed the bottle and drank from it. She wiped her mouth.

"And that is a very ancient French tradition," she said. "It's ancient, too."

Armand laughed, took the bottle, and poured.

***

A while later, they were now laying on the ground, looking up at the swaying cherryblossoms, heavy and round in the trees. The petals dropped onto them in the wind, creating a blizzard of pink and white.

"Did you ever look at the stars?" Armand asked. "When I was a boy, I used to draw shapes between them, just like the philosophers."

"I haven't looked much at the sky," she said. She was looking now, as the sun set in pinks and whites, like the blossoms above them.

Armand held out a hand and caught a few of the cherryblossom petals in his hand. She watched him stroke them.

"They're like you," he said. "White and pink. Warm and soft."

He turned his head to look at her, eyes shining. Anne smiled at him.

When they kissed, they both moved at the same time.

***

Anne walked back to the little cottage she shared with Henri, weaving a little, intoxicated with the sake and Armand's kiss. It was so much more chaste than any she had shared with another person before, whether it be Therese or Henri, or the other men she had experienced during her time on the road. 

But somehow, it lit a fire within her that threatened to consume her in a way she had never known before.

Her heart was light as she put her hand on the latch and pushed the wooden door. Her giddy smile vanished as she saw that Henri was waiting for her.

"Henri!" she gasped, looking at the figure hunched over on his stool, sitting beside a candle. "You frightened me!"

Henri looked up at her. He was miserable.

"I'm sorry," he said gruffly. "I am glad you are safe and sound. I had no idea where you'd gone."

"What business is it of yours?" demanded Anne, an edge to her voice.

"None!" said Henri. "It's none of my business what you do or where you go, Anne! I know that better than anyone. But you seem to forget that we are in a false position here. We must be careful."

"Careful not to fall in love, you mean?" Anne said. Henri winced.

"I avow that my heart is broken," he said. "I knew from the moment I saw you together that this would be the outcome. Do you say you do not love him? Tell me, Anne, and I will never say another word."

Anne could not answer. Henri gave a low, unhappy chuckle.

"There it is," he said. "If you are not fallen, you are falling. And as much as it hurts me, I won't stand between the two of you."

"Thank you," Anne bit out.

"But the next time you make an arrangement to share dinner with me, will you do me the favour of attending, so I don't worry?" he asked.

Anne stared at him. Then her hand went to her mouth and she coloured with embarrassment. She had forgotten. Henri gave her a sad smile.

"I don't want to act like a jealous lover, or an angry father," he said. "But when you didn't come, I feared for you - I feared for us. Don't forget where we came from, Anne. The danger is not gone, only hiding. Who knows when or where it will rear its head again?"

Anne stood up straight and proud.

"I am sorry for missing dinner," she said. "But for a while, I would like to forget who I was, who we were, where we came from. Can't I have a normal life?"

"No," said Henri curtly. Anne made an indignant sound.

"Anne, you and I are different from other people. We can't have normal lives. It's too late for that now."

"Well, I would like to try," she said. "I want to be - to be a good woman, for him. To be the kind of woman he imagines me to be."

"Chaste, pure, virginal?" asked Henri. "Weak? Useless in a swordfight? Not a murderer?"

Anne felt all these words like little arrows of accusation. She hung her head.

"There's nothing wrong with you," said Henri. "There's nothing wrong with us, no matter what the world says. But if you try to pretend - to repress who you are - there will be dire consequences. You must know that. Believe me, no one knows this better than myself."

"But we can change," Anne insisted. "We can be different people."

"Only if we change in our hearts," he said. "You're talking about something that isn't even close to your actual identity. If he is to fall in love with you, it should be with you - not a fantasy."

"The way you did, you mean?" asked Anne. "Not everyone is like you, Henri. And maybe I want to see a future for myself that doesn't involve running and hiding for all of my life, between poverty and fear. Look after yourself, Henri, and let me find my own way."

Henri stood and took her arm. She looked down at his hand and then up at him with the expression of a viper.

"Anne," he said softly. "I am trying to help you. Please don't change yourself for him."

Anne pulled her arm away.

"I'll do as I like," she said. "You're a man, Henri. You have freedom. I am a woman, and I have to be tethered one way or another. Let me at least choose my chains."

She fixed him with a look, and in a moment, had disappeared into her bedroom.

Henri looked after her, and then put his head in his hands.

 

Chapter Text

A few weeks later, Armand invited them to have dinner with his family.

***

Anne had never been inside the chateau. There was no need, as she and Henri mostly lived their lives on the far reaches of the estate. They primarily interacted with the people of the village of La Fére and the parishioners of Henri's church. Anne and Henri were vaguely aware of Armand's family, but had never seen them in person. They did not frequent the chapel and Armand told them that they had little interest in the region in the way he did. His family hoarded their money while Armand wanted to use it to better the area. He took an active interest in everything that went on in La Fére, and his family allowed him these eccentricities. He told them that he was considered a little strange for wanting to spend so much time among the poor, distributing alms as they called it.

Anne was getting ready when Henri knocked at the door.

"What is it?" she asked. 

"May I come in?" he said from the other side of the door.

"Yes," she said. "But we cannot waste time. I would like to arrive in good time to make a good impression."

Henri walked into the room. Anne was surrounded by the clothing she owned, mostly peasant wear and not much of it at that.

"I thought you didn't want to be late," said Henri, sitting on the edge of her bed.

"Quiet," she said. "It's easy for you. All you have to do is put on a priest's smock and you are accepted everywhere. It's different for a woman."

"Especially different for a woman who wishes to impress the family of the man she has fallen in love with?" Henri teased. Anne smacked him on the arm, hard. "Ah! villain," he chided her.

"But yes," she said. "I want to make a good impression, Henri, is that so strange? And I once had all the silks and dresses I could dream of, back at my own chateau."

Henri smiled. He took her in his arms and she climbed into his lap.

"You are lovely no matter what you wear," he said. "Especially when you wear nothing at all."

Anne smiled down at him, and they kissed.

"I don't think they would appreciate it if I showed up naked," she said, hopping off him again. 

"Armand might," said Henri, which earned him another smack. "Someone ought to teach you how to punch."

"Then you'd already be twice-unconscious," she told him. He laughed.

"True," he said. "Wear the blue one. It brings out your eyes."

Anne grinned at him, and dropped the blue dress over her head, working to fasten the ties.

***

"Oh no," said Anne, looking up at the chateau. Henri's hand tightened around hers as they stared up at the chateau.

In comparison, Breuil was a hovel.

The Chateau de la Fére sprawled along a prominent hillside, so tall and wide that it was impossible to even get an idea of its size. It was enormous, that much was clear. There was also a castle nearby, on a further promontory, in case the chateau were not enough.

"I can't go up there," said Anne, suddenly sick with vertigo.

"Yes, you can," said Henri, and he marched her up the hill, mostly carrying her the entire way.

***

They finally reached the door, where Henri surreptitiously set her down.

They were greeted by a veritable army of servants, all chatting and laughing with joy. 

"Welcome to the Chateau de la Fére," said one of them, more richly dressed than the others. "I am the personal butler to the family. Please follow me."

The chateau was a scene of rampant activity. Anne had never seen anywhere busier in her life, not the main streets of a large town or any square on market-day. She thought perhaps this was what it was like to be in Paris, with all the fine ladies and gentlemen passing each other and various servants, bar men, hoteliers and others thronging the streets.

The butler led them to a room and left them there. Henri and Anne stood there alone for a moment before Armand walked through the door.

Anne immediately looked away, as he was so handsome she had a difficult time in looking at him.

"Henri, Anne," he greeted them warmly. "I could have had the butler escort you, but I wanted to introduce you to the family myself."

They followed him down several corridors until they emerged in a Great Hall the likes of which Anne thought only belonged to the king. There were numerous people gathered around several tables. Armand led them to a table that was on a dais of sorts, where an older man and woman were taking their repast.

"Mother, Father," said Armand. "This is Henri, the new priest, and his sister, Anne de Breuil."

Anne smiled and dropped a curtsy. Henri bowed. 

Neither of the people sitting at the table even acknowledged their presence.

"Mother, please," Armand begged. She finally looked up. 

His mother was a brunette with deep-set, foxlike eyes. She was thin and had clearly been a beauty in her time.

"Armand, what did we tell you?" she said. "Your charity cases aren't welcome here."

Anne blushed furiously.

"Mother," said Armand.

"Where did you say they came from?" she asked dismissively. "No money, no ties, no history. I can think of a few ways those on the road could find money, if not by duping a young idiot lord."

Burning tears formed in Anne's eyes, not least because Armand's mother was right, but also because she had never been ashamed of what she'd done before. Henri held tight to her for support.

"Pardon, madame," Henri said, as it was clear neither Armand nor Anne were going to take the initiative. "We have come from far away, yes, but I am a priest, and my sister and I have enjoyed the time we have spent among the parisioners of La Fére."

"Listen to him," said Armand's mother to his father. "The charity case enjoys spending his time with other charity cases. What a surprise."

Armand's father looked up and gave them the once-over.

"I don't know, my dear," he said. "The young woman is pretty."

Armand's mother scoffed.

"That fat little thing?" she asked. "Surely not."

"I'll thank you not to speak to my friends in this manner," Armand boomed suddenly. That hawklike gaze had become warlike, and Anne shrank back from him despite herself.

"I shall speak how I like in my own home, Armand," she said. "If you insist on bringing these beggars into my home, and asking me to lower myself by sharing dinner with them, then you will have to listen to whatever I feel inclined to say."

Armand sighed, and then swallowed his anger.

"Armand, we don't have to -" Anne began, but he shook his head firmly.

"No, Anne, you and your brother are welcome in my house," he said. "And it is my house as well, Mother."

His parents did not respond. 

"Please," said Armand, indicating two chairs at the end of the table. There was a pleading look in his eyes that said he was in need of support just as much as he was supporting them.

Reluctantly, Anne took her seat, and resolved to endure the dinner for Armand's sake.

 

Chapter Text

Anne decided to pull out all the stops and be on her best behaviour. She was, after all, raised in a chateau herself, and had all the attendant habits and mannerisms to match.

"Look, the young woman is familiar with etiquette," said Armand's father. He smiled encouragingly at Anne.

"Learned while working as a servant at some estate, I imagine," said Armand's mother. "If those people even work."

Anne's shoulders slumped. She hadn't even said a word. And defending herself by bringing up her pedigree would ruin her incognito.

Suddenly, a loud crash beside her made her jump.

"You will not treat my friends in this fashion!" Armand roared. "They have names! Anne and Henri! And they are good people! Unlike you!"

He stood up and glared. Anne was embarrassed, as the Great Hall had amassed quite a crowd for the dinner.

"One day, I will inherit this estate," he said. "And things will be different then. Mark my words. Anne, Henri, come. We shall feast together elsewhere without having to look on an old crone and her doddering husband."

Armand whirled around in fury, walking away with a majestic air. 

Anne tried to smile and stood to curtsy, but the sour-lemon face of Armand's mother was not encouraging. Henri managed a little bow and then they followed Armand out of the room.

***

Outside, in the hallway, Anne broke down in sobs. Henri was the first to kneel in front of her and take her into his arms. 

Armand was pacing in fury, in the last of the evening light pouring through the great windows.

"Horrible!" he said. "Horrible! How can these people be my own family?"

He knelt down in front of Anne likewise. She looked up, her lips pressed against another sob, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I - I'm sorry," she finally hiccuped. "I'm sorry I couldn't be - what your parents wanted - "

What your parents wanted for you, was implied but unspoken.

Henri moved away and began to pace the hallway himself. He knew his presence to be superfluous, much as it pained him.

"No, I'm sorry," said Armand, stroking her hair. "I should never have brought you here. I just thought, with your beauty and sincerity, they'd love you as I do."

Henri froze mid-step. Anne gazed at him with huge blue eyes. Armand looked abashed, as if he was surprised those words had come from his mouth.

"You - you love me?" she whispered, hardly daring to believe.

Armand placed a finger under her chin and tipped her head back.

"Yes, I do," he said. "More than words can say. I had, however, hoped to tell you in better circumstances."

A smile broke through Anne's tears as the sun breaks through the clouds.

"Oh, you have made me so happy!" she said. "I, too! I love you! It was worth enduring just to hear those words."

She threw her arms around him, and he kissed her passionately.

As they kissed, Anne opened her eyes and glanced at Henri.

He stood in a shaft of sunlight, studiously looking away, but his hands were clenched and she could see blood beginning to flow where his fingernails had cut into the flesh.

***

The next day, Armand took Anne to the Saturday market in the village of La Fére. Henri, although invited, had made some excuse to stay back, something about reading treatises and theses from some of the more prominent Jesuit scholars. So Anne and Armand had an afternoon to themselves.

The sun was shining down, syrupy and warm, as the end of the autumn exhaled the last breath of summer. The village was busier than she had ever seen it, people calling out their wares and the general hubbub of activity that is true of marketplaces everywhere.

"Comte!" shouted an old, fat woman with a crinkled face scrunched up in a permanent smile. "Comte, have you tried the wine of this year's harvest?"

Armand approached the old woman with a smile and took the proffered glass. He took a sip and then drained it. The old woman laughed and clapped her hands.

"Knew you'd like it!" she said.

"It's Anjou wine!" he said. "How on earth did you manage it, Madame Chenery?"

"Oh, there you go, asking after my secrets," she replied, and winking at Anne, "We women have secrets all our own."

"My congratulations on your harvest," said Armand. "It's evident that it has been plentiful this year."

"Thanks to you, my son," said Madame Chenery. "Without your assistance, the vineyards would have withered. I knew that Anjou is your favourite wine, and so we had Anjou grapes grafted onto some of ours. Learned the carbonating process too."

"All this for me?" asked Armand. "I am touched, Madame."

And he kissed her cheek, causing her to blush a deep cherry red and giggle.

"These people certainly love you," said Anne, as they walked away from Madame Chenery's market stall. 

"I find that distributing alms, as my parents call it, is a good way to ensure a healthy population and a strong economy," said Armand. 

"It does seem to be working quite well," Anne replied. 

Armand leaned in close to her. Her eyelashes fluttered, as she was intoxicated by how close he was to her.

"Do you want to know a secret?" he whispered conspiratorially. Anne nodded, so overcome with love for this man she did not trust herself to speak.

He turned to look at her and stared soulfully into her eyes.

"My favourite wine is Champagne," he said, very seriously.

Anne gaped at him. She didn't know what she had expected, but it wasn't that.

"Anjou is only my second," he said. "And that's if I can't get Champagne."

Anne burst out laughing, and shoved him hard enough to push him into a market stall. A few candles fell over. The man running the stall was about to bark a sharp word at them until he recognised who it was and his eyes grew large in his head.

"Now I'll have to buy this fine gentleman's wares," said Armand accusingly. 

"That's what you get," said Anne, folding her arms.

"Three of your finest collapsed candles," said Armand grandly. 

"Yes, indeed, comte, of course," said the man hurriedly.

"I must obey the word of my lady, don't you think?" enquired Armand. The poor chandler, flustered, just muttered some words of agreement as he wrapped the candles that had fallen over in brown paper. He offered them to Armand with shaking hands.

"And a fine day to you, monsieur," said Armand, dropping a small fortune on the table. The man's eyes now positively bugged out of his head.

"But comte - "

"Not a word," said Armand. "Can't you see I'm in trouble as it is?"

Armand offered Anne his arm and they walked off. A few moments later they collapsed in fits of laughter.

"You are the worst," said Anne.

"I?! Mademoiselle, I am offended," he said. "I am le comte, you know."

When she'd caught her breath, she looked up at him, adoration shining in her eyes. He smiled back, and it was so intense that Anne found herself groping for something to lighten the tension.

"I certainly hope you reward Madame Chenery as well as you rewarded the chandler," she said.

"Oh," said Armand. "I think so. Should she feel the need for anything more, she can apply to me."

***

In the market, Madame Chenery was stunned when she went to wash out the glasses for re-use, and found in one of them the largest diamond she had ever seen.

 

Chapter Text

Anne saw less and less of Henri as the autumn passed and there was a winter chill in the air. Armand invited her to an abandoned part of the chateau, where they would be warmer. When he saw her balk at the suggestion, he smiled and offered her his hand.

"My family never comes to this part of the chateau," he said. "We'll be perfectly safe there, and left alone."

This neglected part of the chateau was not so empty as it might have seemed on the outside. Bedrooms fully furnished, kitchens kitted out, and a ballroom that had seen better days but had retained the grandeur of old.

Anne stood in the middle of the cavernous ballroom, looking around herself.

"Why has this part of the chateau been abandoned?" she asked. "It's beautiful."

Armand gave her a dazzling smile, showing his perfect white teeth.

"I'm so glad  you think so," he said. "This part of the chateau belonged to my grandparents. My grandfather is the man who instilled the love of royalty and the law in me. Our family is ancient, going back all the way to Charlemagne's time. We have always served the king and the law. Grandfather always said it was not the king we worshipped, but the crown, and all that stands for. Death is preferable to dishonour."

For the first time in months, Anne thought of the fleur-de-lys on her back and shuddered.

"Do you agree with him?" she asked.

"Yes," said Armand. "Word for word. But what would you know of such horrors? You, who are so good and pure."

Anne really didn't have an answer for that.

"I love this ballroom," she said instead, changing the subject. "I've never seen windows like these."

"Yes, Grandfather built this room for Grandmother with the help of her dowry, when they were married," said Armand. "It was his gift to her."

"His gift to her was to take her money and use it?" retorted Anne, before she could remember herself. Armand's brow grew stormy.

"She had always wanted a ballroom," he said. "And that was the means to pay for it."

"Well, it's lovely," Anne said, and spun around a few times, raising the dust from the floor. Armand watched her, enchanted.

"But why did you bring me here?" she asked.

Armand smiled.

"I wanted to give you a gift," he explained. "Like Grandfather gave Grandmother."

Anne laughed, swaying and pretending to waltz with an invisible partner.

"I have no dowry," she said. "And I don't want a ballroom."

"Do you remember the stories you told me of Chabot?" asked Armand. Anne stilled, and looked at him.

"The best man you have ever known, you said," Armand reminded her. "And he taught you fencing and swordfighting?"

"Yes?" Anne asked, troubled. She didn't know where this conversation was heading, and she feared he somehow knew of the other things that had gone on before.

"Well, a month isn't really sufficient for you to have really learned it properly," said Armand. He raised his hands. "Not that I am saying Chabot didn't teach you well, only that it takes long hours of practice to make an expert swordsman. Or woman, in your case."

Anne looked at him in disbelief.

"You - " she began. "You really? You will?"

"Yes," he said. "I myself will teach you."

Anne sprung into his arms.

"Oh, thank you," she said. "Thank you! I love you so much, Armand."

And it was true. She did.

He held her like that, kissing her, as he hoisted her up. She wrapped her legs around him and deepened the kiss. Armand tightened his grip on her, his kisses growing more desperate, til he carried her out of the ballroom and to one of the bedrooms, where he set her on the bed, a little cloud of dust rising from it.

Finally, a voice inside of Anne rejoiced. Then she tamped it down in a panic, for fear of showing herself far too eager.

Armand was pressed against her, on top of her, leaving burning kisses along her neck and the tops of her breasts, thrusting against her in earnest. It had been too long for Anne, who readily opened for him, filled with a hunger and need that startled her despite having felt something like it before. With Armand, it was all-consuming, and terrifying. She would have done absolutely anything for him, anything he asked. She felt as though she had been starving and dying of thirst in a deep desert, and here was her chance for sustenance.

At the first little moan that escaped her, however, Armand threw himself back as if he had touched fire.

"Forgive me," he said. "Forgive me - I - "

He looked desperately around himself, panting, and then rushed out of the room.

Anne, laying on the bed, looked at the empty doorframe where he had just been standing, and dropped her head onto the pillow.

"God damn it," she said aloud, to nobody in particular.

***

That night, she went to Henri. They did not speak a word to each other, but he found her willing and he was unable to say no. She faced away from him, and her quiet little screams and cries were not for him, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. When he spilled inside her, and she came a moment later, he knew the name on her lips whispered in passion was nothing like his own. 

***

Armand kept his promise, and Anne's fencing lessons began the following day. He never mentioned the incident to her, and she didn't bring it up. They spent months of the winter together, working on her form and her attacks. Armand taught her everything he knew, and they practiced together and often. 

During this time, Anne had also started to work with some of the farmers. Armand and Henri were ignorant of these activities, but in helping with the hauling of hay bales and other farm duties, Anne grew physically strong. She was bound and determined to take care of herself in the future, should anything like the events of the cottage happen again, and not need the help of some man to save her.

Henri, for his part, preached to his congregation and helped with charity works around the countryside, blessing births and taking final confessions. Sometimes, he would look at Anne with an expression so sad that she had to walk away from him, as she couldn't sustain it. 

Life went on at the chateau much as before. Anne and Henri were never invited back, but that suited them just fine.

In this way, the year turned, and the winter snows began to melt in the sunshine of the coming spring.

 

Chapter Text

"Anne, please talk to me."

"No!"

"You're never here," Henri said sadly. "I don't know where you are, and I worry. I don't know how to find you, and sometimes you're gone for days."

This was not the first of these arguments between Anne and Henri. She couldn't bring herself to tell him that half the time, she wasn't even with Armand, but working with the various local farmers in their fields and helping with the spring lambing. The people of the community had decided she was going to be the future comtesse, and as her own actions matched Armand's generosity, they welcomed her wholeheartedly in a way that Armand's parents had not. The people of the region looked gladly toward the future in which Armand inherited the chateau and all his wealth would be used to make the place prosper even more.

But she wanted to keep this information to herself. She did not see a reason for either Henri or Armand to know it. The former, because she wanted to keep some secrets of her own, and the latter, because she didn't think he would accept a woman willing to do farm work as his future comtesse, which was her goal. She had always had her eyes set higher than the opportunities life had so far afforded her, and she had fallen in love with Armand. So she was able to choose.

But keeping a lid on who she was, and what she wanted, was proving extremely difficult. Like other noblemen of the time, Armand viewed a kiss as a scandalous event and something like what had happened in the ballroom as tantamount to original sin. Anne knew this was the usual way of things, and that she and Henri were definitely deviant in many ways.

The last thing she wanted, however, was for Armand to know any of these things. He had one view of her, and it was one she wanted him to keep.

"What is it, Anne?" demanded Henri. "You want him to believe you pure and perfect? What did I tell you about living a lie? It's bad enough we are in this situation, but pretending to be something other than  you are is only going to lead to disappointment in the end."

"What would you know about it?" she snapped. He grabbed her and pushed up against her. She couldn't help the moan that escaped her, or that her body went lax as he held her.

"I know that he hasn't had you yet," Henri snarled. "I know how you hunger for it, how you've always hungered for it. Undress."

Anne did as she was told, and stood naked, breathing heavily, as Henri drank her in.

"It's been too long for you, I know," he said, circling her, watching her. "Too long since you've felt a man inside you. Too long since you've had another man and let me watch."

He drew close and pressed his fingers inside her.

"Already wet," he said. "I know what you need. I can take care of you."

And he undressed, and lay on the bed, beckoning to her.

She felt drawn in by him, passion and lust and long frustration building inside her. She climbed onto the bed, and over him.

"Now," he whispered. "Take what you want from me."

Anne sighed, rubbing herself against him, and when he lifted his cock towards her she sank down on it with a long, thin cry. Henri cried out as well; it had been a long time for him, too. She began to twist and rub herself against him, rocking back and forth with abandon. She came almost instantly, her body arching back, covered with a sheen of sweat.

"Beautiful," Henri gasped, thrusting up into her as best he could, slowly, as she ground down against him. "Beautiful little whore."

She cried out again at his words, her eyes rolling back in pleasure, and kept rocking against him.

"I can give you what he can't," Henri said. "I know what you want. You like this, you like to be fucked hard, you like to do things he can't even imagine."

Henri sat up, thrusting harder.

"And I can make you come from my words alone," he said. "I can give you what you need. And you need this, you need my cock, you need me fucking into you, don't you?"

"Yes," moaned Anne, in a frenzy. "Oh, yes. Yes."

"That's it," he said, as she came again with a cry. He thrust into her brutally, and she came again. He pressed his thumb to her clitoris and she screamed as he pushed her orgasm to last as long as possible.

"And what's more," hissed Henri. "I have spilled my seed in you so many, many times. I was the first, and I am still here, and I will do it again now. He has never been inside you, he can't satisfy you like I can - and here I lay my claim."

She felt him buck up inside her as he slammed her down at the same time.

"Take it," he said viciously, as he came inside her, and she came again, grinding against him to bring herself off over and over.

"That's right, use me," said Henri. "You need it, you little fucking whore."

Anne collapsed against him, moaning, still moving against him and gasping, so badly did she need more of it. Henri began to gasp as well, as he found himself hardening again.

"Oh God," he whispered. "Oh God - you fucking - unh!"

He shouted as he came again, and came down from his high, shaking and covered in sweat, to find that Anne was still humping against him desperately, giving little shrieks every time she spiked to orgasm, and he fell back against the pillows and let her use his body to exhaustion.

***

Some time later, Anne stood up and dressed herself. Henri had long since fallen asleep. She felt much better now, and ready to face the world. 

She turned to Henri's sleeping form.

"You may be able to give me what he cannot," she said. "But he can give me things that you cannot, as well. So the both of you are even."

She kissed his forehead.

"But I'm in love with him, Henri," she said. "And that's the difference."

She closed the door behind her as she left the little house, her feet leaving footprints in the melting snow.

 

Chapter Text

A month later, the cherry blossoms were in bloom once again. Armand presented himself at the door of their little cottage to ask Anne if she would like to take a turn in the garden with him.

"Of course," she said. "Let me get my shawl."

Henri and Armand were left standing together in the sitting room of the cottage. There was an awkward silence made somewhat worse by Henri looking at him as if he were something unsavoury he'd seen on the ground.

"Is something the matter, Henri?" asked Armand. "I've heard nothing but compliments from the local women on your sermons."

"Nothing," said Henri, mindful of the fact that this man stood between himself and abject poverty. "I only worry for Anne, that's all."

Armand softened immediately.

"Oh, of course," he said. "How foolish of me! I have been blind all this time. Her brother will be concerned for her well-being and safety. Please don't worry on that head. I have no ill intentions toward your sister."

He leaned in conspiratorially.

"You know," he said. "As the local lord, I could have taken her by force, just between the two of us. It's royal law. But I did not, because I respect her."

He stepped back, and looked proud of himself, as if Henri should be thanking him. Henri just stared, as if he found the words he had spoken utterly incomprehensible.

"After today, you'll have no more cause to worry," Armand assured him. 

Anne emerged from her room just then and walked up to Armand. 

"I'm ready," she said.

"Anne," said Henri, catching her arm. "Anne, please."

"Will you let go of me?" Anne demanded. "What do you think you're playing at?"

Henri realised, in a moment, there was nothing he could do. He released her arm.

"I just - " he sighed, and shook his head. "Enjoy your walk."

"Thank you," said Anne, who pulled her shawl around her shoulders. "Let's go, Armand."

Armand opened the door and let her out first, then turned and smiled at Henri as if they had their own little secret to share.

Henri groaned and put his head in his hands.

***

Standing beneath the cherryblossoms, Armand turned to Anne.

"I know this is your favourite part of the estate," he said. "And it is where we first kissed."

"Armand?" she asked, puzzled. He looked nervous and almost frightened.

"I love you, Anne," he said. "Do you love me, too?"

Anne smiled, this was a question with an easy answer.

"Of course I do," she said. "More than anything."

"Good. That's good," he said, his usual eloquence lacking.

"Armand, what's wrong?" asked Anne, her hand on his arm. She noticed he was also wearing the silver tunic she had first seen him in. She had often told him how handsome she had found him when they first met in the chapel.

He didn't say anything for a while. The breeze blew through the cherry blossoms, causing a few of the petals to fall.

Suddenly, he got down on one knee. Anne gasped as he took her hand.

"Anne de Breuil," he said. "Will you marry me?"

She was so shocked that she couldn't speak. A different future spun out before her eyes, where she lived in the chateau and was served and pampered, where she lived out her days like a queen. This was the pinnacle of her hopes and dreams, but she had not expected it so soon, nor had she really expected it at all. Hope was as far as she'd gotten, and now here he was on his knee in front of her.

She hadn't answered him yet.

"Please," said Armand. "Do me the honour of being my comtesse?"

The spell was broken. She knew she needed to answer before her dreams slipped away before they were ever realised.

"Yes," she said, resisting the urge to throw herself into his arms and seem too enthusiastic at the prospect. "Yes, of course I'll marry you."

Armand looked up at her, starstruck, as if he'd hardly imagined she would say yes.

"Then it's settled," he said, standing up. "We'll go into the village on the next market-day and have you fitted for a ring."

"I thought all the great jewelers were in Paris," she said. Armand grinned.

"Then Paris," he said. "We shall go to Paris together, and you will choose a ring from all the greatest jewellers in the world."

Anne laughed, and then allowed herself to embrace him.

"Oh, I love you, I love you," she said, tears in her eyes. "When do we set out?"

"Tomorrow, if you like," said Armand, carried away by his own enthusiasm. "Never mind tomorrow. Today. Right now, if you like."

Those dreams of Paris were drifting through her mind. She saw a future gilt with gold and her wildest fantasies made real. She would finally be able to travel freely, and enter the capital like a conquering hero. 

"Right now is perfect," said Anne. "I will need to pack my things."

***

When Anne returned to the cottage, floating on air, Henri tried to take her aside for a quiet word.

"Will you leave me alone, Henri?!" Anne demanded. "There's always something with you! I have offered my friendship, is that not enough?"

Henri grit his teeth and sighed.

"Anne," he said, as steadily as he could through his anger. "He said - he told me that he could have taken you by force because it's royal decree. And that he didn't because he respects you?"

Anne blanched at this information, and then brushed it aside.

"Well, he didn't," she said loftily. "And what's more, he's taking me to Paris for the weekend."

Henri's brows drew together.

"What?" he asked, puzzled. "Why?"

Anne approached Henri and spoke, inches away from his face.

"Because he asked me to marry him," said Anne. "And he wants me to choose a ring."

A thunderbolt could not have landed in front of Henri and given him a greater shock.

"What's more, I said yes," said Anne simply. "To both things. So if you have an opinion about my fiancé, Henri, you can keep it to yourself."

She finished packing her valise and headed for the door. She turned at the last moment.

"I certainly hope you'll take this time to think about things," she said meaningfully. 

Then she was gone, and Henri hadn't said a word.

 

Chapter Text

When Anne entered Paris, it was in a gilded carriage with a handsome, wealthy man by her side.

She stared out at the enormity of the city, the people passing by, the usual hustle and bustle of life in a great metropolis. 

"Look there, Anne!" Armand said, and pointed to a man displaying peacocks for sale, their beautiful bright feathers catching the sunlight.

She couldn't have been happier, her future bright and clear. She had fallen to the greatest depths and was now soaring. She talked about everything she saw with the great excitement of a first-time traveller, and Armand just laughed and stroked her hand.

Eventually, the carriage stopped. Armand opened the door and offered her his hand.

She took it, and stepped outside, to find herself in front of the incredible majesty of the Louvre.

Armand grinned, watching her stare openmouthed at one of the first palaces in the world. He drew her to himself, tucking a stray strand of blond hair behind her ear.

"You are so innocent and pure," he murmured. "I love watching the wonder on your face, fair Anne."

Discomfited, Anne drew away from him. To hide her emotion, she pretended that she had wanted a closer look at the great palace.

"Is the king there now?" she asked. 

"Yes, I think so," said Armand. She was duly impressed.

"Imagine! Meeting the king!" she said. Armand chuckled.

"One day," he promised. "Today, we are going to find you a ring."

Anne followed him, but turned back to look at the palace.

"One day," she promised herself. "One day, I will be at court, with all the finest lords and ladies."

She smiled, and turned to follow Armand down the street.

***

The jeweller's shop was bright and welcoming. The jewels in the display-case were set in a way to allow the sun to sparkle through them and show off their best qualities.

"Good morning, Monsieur Barnard," Armand greeted the jeweller. An elderly man with spectacles perched on his nose looked up and cried out in joy.

"Armand?" he said, rushing out from behind the counter. "Young Armand, from La Fére?"

Armand smiled.

"Not so young anymore," he said. Monsieur Barnard stood back to look at him.

"I suppose not! You don't visit often enough. What brings you here today, my boy?"

Armand gently pushed Anne forward at the small of her back.

"This is my fiancée, Anne," said Armand. Monsieur Barnard put his spectacles on and peered at her. He gasped.

"My boy! " he said. "Congratulations!"

"Thank you," said Armand. "I've come to trouble you for a ring. Anything she wants."

"Lucky girl," said Monsieur Barnard. "Come along, mademoiselle, and I shall show you the pick of my gemstones."

Anne looked over her shoulder as the elderly jeweller led her into the depths of the store, and saw Armand standing in the window, backlit by the afternoon sun, and beaming with the blush of pride.

***

A few hours later, Anne walked out of the jeweller's with a small bouquet of diamonds surrounding a massive diamond in the centre of the piece. The ring sparkled from her hand like a star. She walked through Paris on Armand's arm with as much haughty disdain as she might have if she were Anne of Austria herself.

Armand took her to a bakery next, where he selected a number of pastries for the day's walk. She was mesmerised by the designs and the creativity that went into each piece, reminding her of Monsieur Barnard's jewellery shop and the painstaking craft involved in the making of the rings, bracelets, and necklaces on display there. She bit into one of the soft pastries decorated with icing sugar and a complicated hard-chocolate design, and grabbed Armand's arm in startled joy at how good it tasted. Armand only laughed, and led her along the shopping streets where cafés dotted the pavement.

"Anything you want, it's yours, cherryblossom," said Armand. Anne blushed at the pet name. 

Armand brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers.

"See?" he said. "Even pinker than before."

He dropped a chaste kiss to her lips, and they continued their perambulations through the busy streets of Paris.

***

They came to an intersection.

"What about dresses?" she asked, laughing. "Will you buy me a dress?"

"Any dress your heart desires," said Armand. "Like I said, anything. This is Paris, and it's your holiday. It's my duty to shower my bride-to-be with gifts and trinkets."

"More than trinkets," she said, and held out her hand to watch the diamonds sparkle in the sunlight.

Armand came to a sudden halt. Anne, smiling, looked up.

And her smile faded away.

This was the Place de Greve, where convicted prisoners were hung.

Convicted prisoners that had committed treason in the eyes of the king.

"Armand, Armand," she said, gently tugging at his arm. "Let's get away from this dark place."

A crowd was gathering. Anne knew this meant a hanging was imminent.

But Armand wouldn't budge. It was as if he were made of steel.

"Please," she said, careful not to use her strength to overpower him.

"No, Anne," said Armand. "I wish to stay. Besides, it will be a good object lesson for you, who haven't had much life experience. They say that witnessing a punishment is a sure way to keep someone else from making the same mistake in the future. Much like scourging for the priests, like your brother, it is a good reminder of how we should not abuse our mortal souls."

Anne looked at the gallows with dread, and then down the street they'd come from. It seemed sunnier back there, and darker here.

Or maybe that was just the clouds.

She steeled herself for what would happen next. If she did not want to excite his suspicion or to lose him, she should obey him as any chaste, inexperienced woman must do. They were, after all, expected to look upon their men as gods, and hope for mercy. A good man and a good husband was nevertheless a jailer, if only because of the expectations of society.

This is exactly the kind of woman they had expected her to be for that long-ago, nearly forgotten future husband. And without the experiences she had from then to this day, she might have become exactly that, without realising how much more the world had to offer, should she simply turn her back on society and pursue her own path.

Oh, how she missed the freedom of the road just then, and riding Liberty, and Henri's company.

Doubt began to creep into the edges of her thoughts. Did she really want to be owned?

There was a commotion at the front of the crowd. The condemned man was being brought forward.

Anne nearly lost her courage, but rallied and watched the events unfold as they must.

"We are gathered here today to witness the death of Monsieur Desprez," said the executioner. Anne was struck by how much the words reminded her of a wedding. "For crimes against the king and crowd, he is sentenced to death by hanging."

Monsieur Desprez stood there facing the crowd with a stoic expression. Anne tried to turn around and run, but Armand held her fast.

"Watch," he whispered into her ear, and she stood staring at the gallows.

Chapter Text

Anne watched as they put the noose around the man's neck. She couldn't hear anything, and didn't want to see it either. She looked up at Armand, who was watching with a serenity she did not understand.

When he swung, she shrieked and turned to put her face against Armand's chest.

"Shh," he said. "I know it's difficult, you're so inexperienced and innocent, but you must understand that justice has to be done."

Anne tore herself away from him. 

"Justice?" she cried. "How is that justice!"

She pointed at the body swinging, and the crowd that had taken an interest.

Armand looked at her steadily.

"He broke the law," he said simply.

"So? Do you know why? Do you know what he did?" she demanded. "Maybe he stole food for his family! Maybe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time! There are so many things that could have happened that -"

Armand smiled at her patronisingly.

"I think it's very sweet that you care so much, my dear," he said. "You have a good heart."

Anger roiled beneath her skin, itching to be let out.

But all Armand could see was a pure, perfect princess.

As expected.

If she didn't want to ruin everything, she would calm down. 

She had to calm down.

Besides, she loved him. Maybe this was just his way.

"I'm sorry, Armand," she said. "These kind of scenes upset me. Could we please leave?"

"Of course," he said. "I only wanted you to see it as it is important to understand the king is God on earth."

Anne peered up at him as if he were insane.

"Yes," he said, taking her arm and strolling through the dispersing crowd with her as if it were nothing that people were cutting down a man's corpse within fifteen feet. "Breaking the king's law is breaking God's law. La Fére flourishes because we worship the Lord and we keep the king's laws. God forbid it should ever change."

As they passed the men putting the corpse on the wagon, his arm fell down towards the ground, the hand brushing the paving stones. With a little shriek of horror, Anne noticed that the man was branded, too.

With a fleur-de-lys to match her own.

She resolved then and there to do everything in her power to ensure that Armand never saw it, whether through makeup or clever clothing design. He was not, like Henri, a particularly amorous man - or perhaps all that would change on their wedding night, she hoped.

"Pay no attention to him, my dear," said Armand, as he pulled her away from the crowd.

"How can you watch such a thing and be unaffected?" she asked in a small voice.

Armand laughed.

"I didn't see a man die," he said. "I saw a criminal hung. And criminals, my dear, are not human. So I feel no sympathy at all."

Anne couldn't help it. She turned and looked over her shoulder at the scene she was just leaving. Her hand went to her shoulder, where her own fleur-de-lys was hidden, and clutched at it convulsively.

Maybe everyone else here came for a show, she thought, and hoped the man's ghost could hear it, but I will remember you.

I promise.

And the crowds closed behind them, cutting off her view.

***

Armand escorted her to a restaurant he said was run by the greatest chef then in Paris. The decorations were sumptuous and the food smelled divine. He had ordered champagne and told her again to get whatever she wanted, no matter the cost. He was as filled with joy and laughing as he had ever been. Anne started to recognise this behaviour as the confidence of a man who thinks that things are done for their own good, and believes himself innocent of any transgression because of his worship of church and king.

And yet, he was still Armand, the kind gentleman who helped the winemakers and chandlers of his village, the man who had taken her in. She loved him, and she hadn't loved since Therese.

The thought of Therese brought on a phantom pain. She wondered where she was, and what she was doing. The old letters in her money-bag had been mostly forgotten, and Anne was certain Therese would never be able to find her again.

She took a deep breath, and looked to her future.

"Are you all right, Anne?" asked Armand. "You look pale."

"I am overcome with emotion," she told him.

"From the hanging? Yes, it did seem to disturb you a great deal," Armand said. "I should have realised it was no place for a woman."

Anne bristled.

"What do you mean?" she asked. "I saw plenty of women in that crowd of monsters."

"Oh," he laughed. "I mean gentlewomen. Not the dregs of society, who are accustomed to such sights."

Do you really think I am some kind of princess in a tower? seethed Anne. Do you know what I've done?

"Now, what are you having?" he asked. She bit down on her tongue to ease the anger coursing through her.

"Creamed lobster," she said immediately, the most expensive thing on the menu.

Armand just laughed and laughed, and poured the champagne.

***

Later, on the carriage-ride back to the chateau, she wondered at the change she had seen in Armand.

Or was it really a change? Perhaps she had been foolish, and too smitten to see what was really there.

But if you break this off now, said that little voice, the one that wanted to survive, the one that dreaded poverty and longed for the creature comforts of her own estate in Breuil, you won't get another chance. Your fortune is within your grasp, and besides - you love him. 

You can't ask for more than that.

Anne leaned back against the pillows, staring out the window of the carriage.

When Armand asked her if she was happy, she pretended to be asleep.

***

Henri was waiting for her when she walked into their little cottage. He embraced her in relief.

"I'm so glad you're all right," he said. "I was so worried."

Anne removed her hat and placed it on the table.

"Why wouldn't I be?" she asked. "I've done more dangerous things than accompanying Armand to Paris."

Henri went to her and took her hands.

"It's Armand's family," he said. "They found out about the engagement and they are willing to put a stop to it. Any way they can."

"Good God," Anne said. "Will they stop at nothing? The old bat."

"Yes, I'd say it's primarily his mother," said Henri. "His father isn't so bad, but also unwilling to say anything to stop her from meddling."

"What did you think they would do? Murder me?" asked Anne. Henri's look hardened.

"I wouldn't put it past them."

"I think you're overreacting," she said, throwing herself down on the settee. "Just wait - in a few days, I'll be the new Comtesse de La Fére, and if the old woman wants to play that game I know something of poison myself."

"Don't joke about this, Anne," said Henri. "Whatever kind of people they are, we are at their mercy - and so is Armand, at least until your wedding."

"Perhaps," she said. "But after - "

"I don't speak of after," said Henri, and it was clear how much the situation pained him. "But she came here earlier tonight, asking after you."

Anne sat bolt upright.

"She came here?" she demanded. Henri nodded.

"So I think it pays to be more cautious," he said. "She's suspicious."

Anne turned to him.

"Henri," she said seriously. "We cannot let anything ruin my chances. Once wed to him, my fortune is made. And yours likewise, brother."

She smiled, and he returned it, but looked troubled all the same.

 

Chapter Text

"I don't know what you expected, Henri. Who else is going to do it?"

Henri paced back and forth in the sitting room of their little cottage. 

"You can't ask this of me, Anne," he said. "You can't."

Anne stood up and stopped him. 

"If the parish priest is unwilling to marry us -  my own brother, supposedly - they're going to want to know the reason," Anne insisted. "It has to be you."

Henri stared down at her and sighed.

"I've done everything I can," he said, "not to act the jealous lover. I've stayed out of your way. I've tried my best. But this, this is - you're asking too much of me."

"I am asking you to save us," said Anne, squeezing his hand. Henri dropped his head.

"I never could say no to you," he said. "I'll do it."

"Thank you, Henri," said Anne, relieved. "The wedding is tomorrow and I couldn't bear it if you were the reason I couldn't go through with it."

Henri perked up. He had the sensibilities of a lover and noticed the tone in her voice.

"Meaning you have doubts about him?" he asked. Anne looked away.

"It's just nerves," she said. "Any woman would be nervous the day before her wedding."

"Yes, but Anne," said Henri, "if there is even a shadow of a doubt in your mind, you have to call it off. I know some of the things I've said before seemed like they might have been in the heat of the moment, but it's true. You can't hide who you are, it will only come back to haunt you."

"It's fine, Henri," she said. "I am excited for the future."

"Are you marrying him because you love him or because you think this will set you up for life?" Henri asked.

Anne didn't answer for a moment.

"Why can't it be both?" she asked. "I love him, I'd never want for anything again. The two dovetail nicely."

"But you do have doubts," Henri pressed. "You've been acting strange ever since you returned from Paris. Did something happen there?"

This time, Anne really did look away, and busied herself with a thread on her dress.

"Talk to me," Henri urged. "Please, Anne. You know I would never let harm come to you, 'strange proclivities' or not."

She sighed and dropped the thread.

"Armand made me watch a hanging in Paris," she confessed. Henri blanched.

"What on earth for?" he cried.

"Something about showing me the importance of justice and loyalty to the crown?" Anne said. "He thinks me an innocent, and took my disgust at the proceedings as being that of a weak-minded woman."

"How can you love such a man?" asked Henri, shaking his head. 

"There's more," she said.

"More? How can there be more?"

"The accused...had a fleur-de-lys brand, Henri," said Anne, and then heard herself breathing in little sobs. "Armand said - he said that he didn't feel anything because criminals aren't human and didn't deserve to live."

Tears were flowing before she realised it, and Henri gathered her up in his arms while she wept against his shoulder.

"It's not Armand I hate," she said. "It's me. I could have been the pure innocent he wanted and I did all those things, I murdered that man! I could have been what he wanted!"

Henri made soothing noises at her. Then he pulled away so he could look into her eyes.

"Anne, there is nothing wrong with you," he said. "As for all those things, well, if you are a degenerate then I am one, even more so. I will have to discuss things with God one day, but I am still a man of faith. And I can tell you that a man who considers any human life worthless is the monster, not you."

He tightened his embrace around her.

"And I will not have anyone say that you are not wonderful, my love," said Henri. "You didn't murder that man, you defended yourself. You're clever and resourceful. I fell in love with you, and every day, I keep falling. And I fell in love with you, not some fantasy I wanted to hang behind a beautiful face. And you are beautiful, but I always feel like that's the last thing you need to hear."

He kissed her hair.

"Just know that you are worthy of love," said Henri. "Forever. Always. Just as you are."

Anne's tears had faded now, but she still sniffled against Henri's chest. She gave a deep sigh.

"I wish I loved you, Henri," she said. "I truly do."

Henri swallowed back the tears that threatened to spill.

"I do too, my love," he said. "I do too."

***

Once Anne had composed herself, she went to splash water on her face and find something to wear for the evening. Armand was coming to take her to have dinner in the village with a local farming family. Little did he know, she had been working with them all year, and looked forward to tasting the bounty of their harvest as she knew she had taken part in it.

As it neared the appointed time, Henri approached her with something like caution.

"Henri?" she asked, confused by his attitude.

"I just wanted to ask you," he said, a fine tremor in his voice, "if you still wish for the wedding to go ahead tomorrow."

Anne's shoulders sagged. She put a hand to his cheek.

"I don't know how else to explain it," she said. "But I still love him, Henri. I really do. As much as I wish things were different, they aren't. They can't be."

Henri hung his head.

"I just wanted to make sure," he explained. "After what you told me, I - I worry for you, my love."

Anne pressed a chaste kiss to his lips.

"Thank you for asking," she said. "But the answer will always be yes, I want to marry him."

There was a knock at the door. Anne went to answer it, then turned to him.

"But if it's any consolation," she said. "I wish it could have been you."

Henri smiled, and Anne opened the door to greet Armand.

Chapter Text

Anne opened the door of the cottage in the darkness, hoping not to waken Henri. She and Armand had stayed out far later than intended, partly because they were loath to separate.

Suddenly, she was pushed up against the door as she closed it.

"Tell me you don't want it," Henri whispered in her ear. "Tell me and I will stop."

Anne breathed hard, willing herself to think of Armand and of the morning, but she couldn't. She leaned back against Henri and sighed.

"God, you're always ready for me, aren't you?" Henri asked, hiking up her skirts. He slid his fingers into her and she spread her legs as she pushed against him. He stroked her from the inside, and she was gasping with pleasure within moments. He pulled his fingers out of her and then pressed his clothed cock against her wet opening. She gave voice to a high-pitched keening sound.

Henri unlaced her from her corset and stared down at her bare breasts in unabashed hunger. He put his hands underneath them and sucked at a round, pink nipple. She threw her head back and sighed as he made quick work of the rest of her clothing. He looked at her, standing naked in the moonlight from one of the windows, lost to lust. 

"You are incredible," he told her, and undressed himself. When he was naked, he lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.

"Please, Henri," she said softly. 

He buried his head between her legs, sucking and licking at her clitoris. He parted her lips and thrust his tongue inside her, making her buck and gasp. 

He crawled up and covered her body with his own, putting his lips beside her ear.

"Do you want it?" he asked. "Tell me, whore."

Anne gave a little moan at the word, and sighed yes, yes, please..

Henri thrust into her with no warning, glorying in her tight heat, as she cried out in surprise and pleasure. He was like any lover, triumphantly claiming the object of his affection over his rival. He grabbed her hands, enjoying the feel of her engagement ring against his palm, ferocious in his desire.

"Tomorrow, you'll remember me inside you," Henri said, fucking into her with strong, shallow thrusts, barely drawing out before pushing in again, in a series of little shoves, as if he could get further inside her and bury himself there forever. "Standing there while I am officiating, you'll remember I held your hand while I fucked you, and how you cried out for me. And I will be thinking it too."

Anne screamed through her orgasm, but Henri would not relent, and kept fucking into her again and again.

"I want you to drench me with your come," he snarled. "I want you to remember this night forever. I want you to hunger for me on your lonely nights and remember how I made you feel."

He made her come over and over, until Anne was a delirious mess. She couldn't  believe he hadn't finished yet, but it seemed this night he was invincible.

"That's right," he said, touching her sensitive clit, rubbing at her while he continued to fuck her, "come for me again."

She shrieked, and Henri smiled, latching onto one of her breasts, unrelenting. There was a point where she had lost count of the number and was floating on what felt like one constant, unending orgasm. When she came down again, she found that Henri had turned her over and was fucking into her as he held her up, covered in fluid and sweat, but he was still thrusting into her as if he would never stop. 

She panted and moaned, as Henri pulled her body back onto his cock, unable to do anything but obey his wishes. She was completely hypnotised by him, utterly overwhelmed, and had come to a point where she was chasing orgasm like the high from a drug. 

"You feel so good around my cock," he said, his arm like a band of steel around her hips as he ground into her so deeply she yelped. "You love this, don't you. You dirty little fucking whore."

Anne cried, her orgasm was so overwhelming, and Henri still wouldn't let up, his thumb pressing against her clitoris.

"You'll always want this, you'll always want me," said Henri. "I know how dirty you are, how badly you want it, how easily you'll spread your legs. Isn't that right?"

Anne's gasped cries of yes and please  echoed in the little room.

"Yes, Henri," she said. "I've always wanted you."

Henri paused, and suddenly was fucking her so hard it hurt, but she loved it and cried out in ecstasy over and over again. He was slamming into her body so hard it was shaking, and she came harder than she had ever remembered, screaming and biting into the pillow in front of her as he pounded into her relentlessly.

"I fucking love filling you with my seed," Henri growled as he gripped her tight. "Fucking love knowing that I've been here, marked you, before he ever did or ever would. You're mine and you'll know it forever. If you catch, I want you to know it's mine, because you could never say no to my cock, you fucking - unh - you - unh - "

He thrust into her so hard she shouted, and he roared in triumph as he came and came inside her until she thought it might never stop. She cried out as she came again, making him moan as her body milked his cock. He kept thrusting into her long after he had finished, making sure she knew that he was staking a claim, and she was helpless with the want of it, rubbing herself against him until she came over and over again.

And suddenly, impossibly, he was hard again, and fucked into her brutally. 

That night, he must have come inside her more than six times, but she lost count of his as she had lost count of her own. Every time it seemed that he became more fierce, more violent, and she revelled in it so much that the fires of her own pleasure were stoked higher with each new experience.

The pinks of dawn were showing outside the window when he finally seemed to have exhausted himself, and lay down beside her with his arms around her, his cock still inside her. 

They both were drenched, the bed was absolutely wrecked, and she was completely littered with bruises. There were marks where his fingers and thumbs had been, fanning out over her hips. 

Anne rolled over, sated, and watched the sun brighten the sky.

Henri slept. He had spent all his love, frustration, and lust for her in one last night.

She sighed, and looked out at the coming dawn. 

She had loved every minute of it.

Chapter Text

The following day, the receiving halls in the chateau were decked with flowers. Anne stood on a small dais while the seamstresses rushed around her, pinning her dress and veil in place. There was music and laughter, the servants talking to each other at the tops of their voices. The young comte was finally getting wed! They foresaw a wonderful future with Anne and Armand at the helm of La Fére.

A quiet knock came at the door, and Henri put his head in.

"Henri!" she said, scandalised. "You can't see me before the wedding!"

He gave her a sad smile.

"That rule is only for your husband, I'm afraid," he said. "May I enter?"

"Yes, of course."

He walked in, and once he had the full view of her he stood there dumbstruck. He stood there so long he seemed like a statue, as if he had forgotten to breathe.

"Out, go!" said Anne, shooing the women away.

"But mademoiselle, the wedding is in an hour!" argued one of them. "I won't have your dress ready in time!"

"They can't very well marry us without the priest present," said Anne. "Go, and let me have a private moment with my brother."

The seamstress nodded, and went out. Henri turned and locked the door behind her as a precaution.

He turned back to stare at her again.

"My God, Anne," he said. There seemed to be other words warring to leave his mouth but they all died on his lips.

She stood there before him, veiled and resplendent in a form-fitting dress that she already knew the family would find scandalous. Sunlight poured onto her blonde hair, lighting it bright gold. She knew she was breathtaking, no more so than seeing Henri like this now, as if he would bow down before her.

The very thought gave her a thrill. She resolved to explore it at her leisure later on when she had more time.

"Henri?" Anne prompted. "The seamstress is right, I do have a wedding to attend."

"My apologies," he said, but still moved as if in a dream. He encircled her with his arms and drew her into an embrace. He sighed at the press of her body against his, and her fingertips tightened on his back as she began to respond to him almost instinctively.

"Anne," his lips were hot against her ear. "Thank you for everything. The things I think about when I'm alone. The utter freedom you have given me. I will always love you, and seeing you in that dress gives me ideas I will no longer share with you."

He kissed her plush, pouting lips, sucking her lower lip and nibbling at it with his teeth.

"Henri, it's my wedding day," she breathed, as her heart began to beat faster. 

"I know, my love, I know," he soothed her. She was beginning to ache for him, her body responding to his expert hand.

Then, all of a sudden, he released her, and turned to go.

His hand on the doorknob, he turned back to look at her.

"Would that it were me, Anne," he said, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice. "Would that it were me."

And with that, he was gone.

Anne's thwarted desire stirred the flames inside her, and she called Henri just as the seamstresses returned, busying themselves around her dress.

Anne sighed in frustration, and for the first time, something like regret crept into her consciousness.

***

The chapel was lit beautifully, long white tapers lit in succession as the ceremony was about to begin. 

The band played, and Armand waited at the front of the church.

Steeling herself, Anne stepped out onto the white runner leading to the nave of the church. Everyone turned around and gasped. She was so beautiful and radiant that everyone there swore an angel had come down to bless them with her presence.

And there was Armand, looking more handsome than he ever had, standing at the front awaiting her and dressed in dazzling white. 

Anne was smitten, and reminded herself that this would be her future. No more prostituting herself in random inns all along the French countryside. No more running. No more fear.

She approached Armand with more confidence than before, and stood at the front of the church. She caught sight of his family, particularly his mother, giving her a sour look. 

But it didn't matter, because Armand had chosen her, and soon that would be the most important thing in the world. Since Armand's father had passed the title of comte down to him, once they were wed, Anne would be the comtesse, and she would be given rights and responsibilities over the running of the chateau and of La Fére. His mother's rights would vanish the moment he said I do. 

So Anne wore a proud, sunny smile, as Henri began to read the service.

***

"Do you, Armand, take Anne to be your lawful wedded wife?" asked Henri.

"I do," said Armand. His mother made a noise like she was dying. Someone, possibly his father, told her to shut up.

"And do you, Anne," Henri began, then seemed to get choked up. 

Everyone in the church waited expectantly, not least Armand's mother.

Henri coughed and looked at the floor.

"Do you take Armand to be your lawful wedded husband?"

"I do," Anne affirmed.

"Then by the power vested in me," said Henri, making a great effort over himself, "I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride."

Armand's mother groaned while everyone else cheered and threw things in the air. Henri stood frozen as if he were a part of the church decorations.

Armand took Anne in his arms and kissed her soundly.

"May I present the Comte and Comtesse de la Fére," Henri said. He looked as if he were about to collapse, but no one paid him any mind.

***

Anne and Armand left the church in triumph, and they returned the the chateau for the evening's dinner and celebration in a procession decked with flowers and ribbons, with Anne the smiling centrepiece of it all.

Outside the chateau, in the failing light, Henri waited for everyone to go inside, and the sounds of a party to begin.

When the music began to play, he fell to his knees in the gravel of the drive and voiced a terrible shout of grief into the sky. Then he sat back and collapsed into sobs as he looked up at the night sky turning from twilight to darkness.

 

Chapter Text

Armand stood in the bedroom off the ballroom where they had first had their encounter.

"This will be our home in the chateau," he told her. "I had everything cleaned and aired out. It's symbolic of a new beginning. I hope you like it."

Anne smiled.

"I love it," she said. "Now, come here, Armand."

Armand advanced toward her, his usually stern and strong demeanor absent now. He seemed almost bashful as he approached her.

"No need to be afraid," she told him. "We're married now. You can do as you like."

Armand began to undress her slowly, as if he were unwrapping a gift. His breath quickened when he loosed her breasts, staring down as if he feared to touch them.

Anne reached out and placed his hand on her breast, smiling at him. He closed his eyes against the sight, overwhelmed.

"Pink and white," he murmured. "Like the cherryblossoms, just as I thought."

Anne pulled him down and kissed him with a fervor that made him still and he sat up, questioning her with a searching gaze. Too late, she realised she was meant to be chaste, and to allow him to take the lead.

If you don't, she reminded herself, you will lose out on all that you hope to gain - both this man and this wealth. Don't let him catch on that you are no innocent.

So she endeavoured to look as embarrassed as possible, as if she had been carried away on first impulse. This seemed to embolden Armand, who began to pull at her clothing with more vigor, until she was laid bare before him.

He undressed quickly and moved up the bed, kissing her body as he went, worshipping her with his mouth. Yet he never touched her where she most wanted to be touched, and laid down on top of her, kissing at her neck and her lips.

"I have been told it will hurt you," he said. "But fear not, cherryblossom. I am here."

Anne looked up at him, extremely puzzled by the proceedings, and realised that a man as sheltered as the comte would not have had much in the way of a sexual education. Maybe a few naughty words from the washerwomen or snippets overheard from the less circumspect of the servants, but Armand would not have been taught much of anything about it.

And it showed.

He pushed against her, trying to find the entrance and failing, until she made a tiny noise in the back of her throat and guided him. She wasn't excited. She was primarily bemused. 

"Oh," he whispered. "You are so virginal your body refuses to accept me."

Anne rolled her eyes despite herself. Eventually he pushed in, and thrust himself inside her to the hilt.

"Oh," he said again, and began to move, without asking Anne if she was ready or even interested.

Doesn't matter now, said some cruel voice inside her head. You're his possession.

"Anne?" asked Armand. She looked at him guiltily. He hadn't really stopped moving, but had kept pushing into her, withdrawing, and pushing in again with a slow, steady rhythm.

Anne desperately demanded that her body react properly, the way it had with all the other men, with Therese, with Henri. Fortunately, the friction alone began making her wet, and she lay back on the bed and sighed. 

Armand seemed to take this as encouragement and redoubled his efforts. Within a few minutes, he stilled and gave a gruff little cry. 

He dropped his head onto her shoulder.

"That was wonderful, my wife," he said, kissing her skin. 

Anne's eyes slid towards him, incredulous.

"It must have been so incredible for you," he said. "Experiencing a man for the first time, I expect you feel like you are fully a woman now."

Anne rubbed his back. That was only a few minutes, she thought, and he didn't do anything for me, and is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?

He rolled over and wrapped his arms around her. She held him, but doubt filled her mind.

I still love him. And he probably doesn't know any better.

Henri was a virgin too, you know, said the little treacherous voice.

Anne clamped down on it as best she could.

Maybe it'll be better next time.

God, I hope it's better next time.

***

Whatever Armand's lack of prowess in the marriage-bed, he proved himself an excellent husband. He allowed Anne all the freedom she wanted and put her in charge of anything she desired. He was kind and giving, offering to buy her anything, telling her that he would fulfil any little whim she had.

So life was good, for the most part.

Anne hardly ever saw Henri after that. He became immersed in the work of the parish and of the church. He spent most of his time with the villagers, with the sick and lame, with the brides and mothers to be, and presiding over funerals. She and Armand didn't attend services as much as they used to, and so Henri was at the back of her mind, an old memory kept in the scrapbook of her mind, back in the dusty attic with her memories of Therese.

But on certain nights, when she had gone through yet another round of Armand's brand of lovemaking, she remembered the heat of Henri's kisses and Therese's clever tongue, and did for herself what Armand had never once been able to accomplish.

***

One day, to her surprise and unhappiness, Armand's mother showed up in their part of the chateau and asked an audience with her. Anne granted it, but stood uneasily as she swept into the room.

"Don't you think it's time you attended to your duties and to decorum?" asked Armand's mother.

"I don't know what you mean," said Anne. "I have worked on improving things and talked to the local farmers - "

"Now see, that's just what I mean," said his mother. "A lady ought not to interact with the villagers, a comtesse even less so."

She got very close to Anne and glared at her down the end of her nose.

"I put up with my son's strange attraction to you," she said, "and I abdicated when you ascended to the title. But I will not have my family's name dragged through the mud because some young upstart thinks she's too good to behave like a lady."

Anne grit her teeth, but gave a curtsy.

"My apologies, madame," she said. "Please, tell me what I should be doing. I would like to bring glory and honour to the household."

"First of all, you leave the heavy lifting to the men," she said. "A woman lifting barrels like you do is obscene. Secondly, you get other people to do your work for you. A lady never lifts a finger."

There were so many words threatening to spill out of Anne, but she held her tongue. Armand's mother turned around smartly and Anne was thrilled that it looked like she was about to take her leave when she turned back and walked over to Anne again.

"Oh," she said. "And one more thing. The comtesse never leaves the chateau. It's unseemly and it's dangerous. Who knows what might happen to you, out there on the road alone?"

Anne didn't say a word. She didn't trust herself.

"Are we in agreement?" barked Armand's mother. Anne jumped.

"Yes, madame, we are in agreement," said Anne in a small voice, hating herself. Her inner voice was shouting in fury.

"Good," said Armand's mother. "I hope to see improvement in the future, that way you can bring 'glory and honour' to the Chateau de la Fére."

And she left the room.

Anne stared after her, aghast.

She had escaped one kind of prison only to enter another one.

 

Chapter Text

Life went on at the chateau as it had before, only Anne had not left the building in over two months. She read, and studied, and did everything she could think of to pass the time.

One morning, she woke up and was horrified to find herself still in the chateau. It was like a long, slow, boring nightmare. She couldn't stand it if this was going to be the shape of her life from this day forward.

The servant woman came in to empty the chamberpots, and another woman came in to dress her, the same as every morning. At first, Anne had enjoyed the novelty of living in luxurious surroundings. Even at home, she had never experienced anything so sumptuous as this place. But the novelty had long since worn off and she felt instinctively that she would not tolerate it for much longer.

Is poverty such a bad thing, then, said the little voice inside her head, if you can feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair? You traded that beloved freedom Therese gifted you for a large, expensive tomb.

"Madame," said Anne to the woman dressing her. "What do the fine ladies here do to while away the time? I find myself ennuyé and I would like to know."

"Oh, mostly embroidery," said the woman. "Fine ladies don't like to get their hands dirty, you see."

"What? They don't read, or walk in the park?" asked Anne. The woman laughed.

"They think reading will turn their heads," she said. "Most of them can't read or write, and those that can aren't very good at it."

She finished, and stood back to look at her work.

"That's you dressed," she said. "I'm off to the other ladies now, do you need anything?"

"Yes," said Anne. "If I gave you a list of ingredients, could you bring them here to me?"

"Certainly," said the woman. 

"And tomorrow," said Anne. "I would like to dress myself."

The woman stared at her.

"Are you sure, madame?" she asked, surprised.

"I'm sure," Anne reassured her. The woman bustled around the room, opening the curtains and the windows to let in light and fresh air. Soon it would be winter, and there would be no use going outdoors very much anyway. But Anne was determined to do her best to fit the mould of the perfect wife.

As the woman left, Anne stopped her.

"What's your name?" she asked. The woman blushed.

"Charlotte," she said.

"Why are you embarrassed?" asked Anne.

"Well," said Charlotte. "It's just that none of the ladies here have asked for my name before. I'm part of the furniture."

"Not to me," said Anne. Charlotte smiled, and then left the room.

Anne sighed deeply, and went to look out the window. Winter's chill was on the air again and soon she wouldn't even have the benefit of fresh air to soothe her.

What of me? she thought. Shall I, too, become a part of the furniture?

Then she tried to remember if she knew any of the servants' names at Breuil while she was growing up, and found that she couldn't recall a single one.

***

A few hours later, Charlotte returned as promised. Anne gave her a long shopping list.

"You're in good time," said Charlotte. "The last village market will be held today and these things are difficult to find during the winter."

"I know," said Anne. "Thank you for helping me."

"But - small glass vials? What are those for?" asked Charlotte.

"I plan on practising chemistry," said Anne.

And it was the truth.

Puzzled but happy with her mission, especially after Anne offered her a crown for her troubles, Charlotte went away. She was probably thrilled to leave the chateau as well, Anne realised. They were all prisoners, it seemed, in one way or another. Perhaps Charlotte could become her confidante. She was, above all, intensely lonely, and would enjoy some female company.

***

Charlotte returned, pink-cheeked and grinning ear to ear, as she walked into Anne's room and rubbed her hands to rid herself of the cold.

"Here, madame," she said, offering Anne a wicker basket covered with a towel. "They had everything you asked for. I was surprised, they don't always have a good selection and sometimes we have to go to one of the larger market towns to find different things. Still, I hope you'll find everything you need there."

Anne took the basket and removed the towel. She checked through the items in the basket and was duly impressed. Charlotte was right. Everything she had asked for was there.

Including a little sprig of lavender.

"What's this?" asked Anne, gingerly lifting it out of the basket. "I didn't ask for this."

Charlotte coloured a little.

"It's lavender," she said. "One of the stalls was selling it, and it's so rare to find lavender so late in the year, and I thought you might like it."

Anne looked at the little bunch of flowers, and memories flooded through her mind. The sweet scent on the wind, the intoxicating presence of Therese, the easy days of her life back then. It seemed a world away.

"Did I do wrong?" asked Charlotte.

"No," said Anne. "No, Charlotte, you did very well. Lavender just...reminds me of home."

Charlotte gave her a knowing smile.

"I feel just that way about certain wines," she said. "The scent and taste can take you back as if you had never left."

"Indeed," said Anne, lost in thought. 

"May I be dismissed?" asked Charlotte. "I need to finish my rounds."

"Oh!" said Anne, starting, having completely forgotten protocol and left Charlotte standing there awkwardly. "Yes, you are dismissed, thank you for what you've done."

Charlotte bowed and was about to retire when Anne called her back.

"And if you have a spare few moments," she said. "Please come here and talk a little with me. I find I am lonely up here in this tower."

"Certainly, Madame," said Charlotte, and then gasped as if she had forgotten something important. "Let me shutter your windows, you'll get a chill."

She began to walk over to the first window when Anne stopped her.

"Leave them, please," said Anne. Charlotte gave her a puzzled look, and Anne lifted the basket.

"Chemistry."

Then Charlotte nodded her understanding, and with another bow, she left the room.

***
Anne sighed out of sheer boredom, and then turned her mind to the issue at hand.

She drew out her journal from a hiding-place and opened it to where the old purple silk bookmark had held her place, and found what she was looking for.

The Poisons of Catherine de' Medici, Cosimo Ruggieri, and Others of the Age.

Anne prepared the small glass vials and the mortar and pestle.

She gently pinned the sprig of lavender to her dress, and lost herself in thoughts of Therese as

she set out all the ingredients from the basket and began to work.

 

Chapter Text

A few months later, it was deep winter. Anne was practising fencing with Armand, one of her only distractions in this enormous mausoleum. She had gotten very good at it, by all accounts, and although it wasn't something considered ladylike, no one in the larger part of the chateau was even aware of it, or how she and Armand spent their time.

Still, she hadn't been outside of the chateau now for going on six months.

Partway through practice, she threw her sword across the floor and crossed her arms.

She had reached her limit.

"Anne, what's wrong? What is it?" he asked, concerned.

"I can't do this anymore, Armand."

He walked up to her and took her into his arms.

"What do you mean?"

"Your mother forbade me to leave the chateau!" she said, pushing away from him. "I'm dying a slow death in here! I am from the countryside and cannot stay cooped up this way forever."

"But that's what a lady is expected to do," said Armand.

"So?" she challenged him. "Does it make any sense to you? I was free before we married and now I feel like I am trapped."

Armand didn't seem to know what to say.

"And that's another thing!" said Anne, now that she had got going. "I'm not an innocent! I never was! I've been with men before, Armand, and if you want to run me through for deceiving you, then there's the sword."

She huffed and crossed her arms, looking at him defiantly.

"But the last thing I will do," she said, "is stay here like a prisoner!"

Armand watched her for a while. Then he gently placed his sword on the ballroom floor.

"I'm so sorry, Anne," he said. "I had no idea. I would never wish for you to be unhappy, and I will not abandon you because you have been with other men. I love you, and from what you're telling me, I still need to get to know my wife."

Anne wept with relief then, and Armand held her. She told him her whole story, eliminating the identities and placenames of the players. 

She also neglected to mention the fleur-de-lys brand on her shoulder, remembering his behaviour in Paris. While she was thrilled to have been right about Armand's kindness and acceptance, there was a line she still feared crossing.

"My goodness, Anne, you have been through so much," he said. He held her tenderly. "Please, never believe I would willingly keep you a prisoner or leave you because of your past. I'm sorry I ever gave you that impression."

"And your mother?" sniffed Anne. He laughed.

"Don't listen to her," said Armand "She's not in charge anymore and she resents it. She wants to have control over everyone here - me included. But she doesn't actually have any power now. She never told me that she had spoken with you, and I foolishly assumed you wished to stay inside just like the other ladies."

He turned to look at her.

"Anne, I've spent all my life here," he said. "Much as I wish it were otherwise, I haven't seen much of the world. All I have ever known is the Chateau de la Fére, the village, and the surrounding countryside. I wasn't allowed to wander very far. Please forgive my ignorance and stupidity. I should have been a better man to my wife."

Anne wiped the tears from her eyes and held him tightly.

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you."

"You have my permission to go abroad and to do whatever it is you like," said Armand. "I am master here, and my words will be heeded. I can also start training you in hunting and venery if you like - they are both the perfect winter pastimes for getting some air."

"I'd like that," she said.

"In exchange, I'd like you to teach me," he said. She knit her brows together and gave him a questioning look.

"Well," he said, smiling to himself. "I am going to guess that our wedding night was not exactly to your satisfaction."

Anne barked a laugh despite herself, and shook her head, grinning.

"Then in this, I bow to a past master," said Armand, standing up and offering his hand. "Care to teach me?"

Sorrow forgotten, Anne put her hand in his, and let him lead her to the bedroom.

***

"Dear God," Armand breathed, afterwards, covered in a sheen of sweat as his chest heaved with deep breaths.

Anne, sated, rolled over and nestled into his shoulder.

"Lesson the first," she said, and he laughed and kissed her hair.

***

A few days later, Armand's mother visited again, while Armand was conveniently elsewhere.

"What do you here, madame?" demanded Anne. "This is my home and I will not have you invading it with your vitriol."

"Choice words I see," said his mother. "You swan around here like a young queen, so confident and so sure in your position. Now you've gotten so arrogant you think you can talk back to me in my own house."

"This isn't your house," said Anne, giving as good as she got. "This is my house, and Armand's."

"I am not surprised that you put my son second," she said. "You are a little minx after his fortune."

Anne rolled her eyes.

"That's enough," she said, pointing. "Get out. You are not welcome here."

Armand's mother smirked. Anne grew uneasy, as her confidence was frightening, and her words harsher this time than any other.

"Maybe for today," she said. "But in a week? What then?"

"Away, serpent," said Anne. "Your venom has no effect here."

"What about Henri?" asked Armand's mother. "Do you think it might have an effect on him?"

Anne froze.

"What are you talking about?" she asked.

"Oh, you think you have my son's protection," she said. "What do you think he'll say if he discovers that you were overheard during a night of satanic passion in the cottage that passes for a holy place?"

"What did you say to me?" snarled Anne, prowling closer to her. 

"I said that you should not be so loud in your lovemaking," said Armand's mother. "People will hear. And your own brother! Vade retro satana!"

"I don't know what you heard, or you thought you heard," said Anne. "But Armand won't believe a word of it. He knows you hate me and will do anything to bring me down."

"Perhaps," said his mother. "But your brother doesn't have his protection. And of course, what if he isn't your brother at all?"

Anne stared at her with hatred, her eyes nearly bugging out of her head.

"You keep away from Henri!" she growled.

"Yes, yes of course!" said Armand's mother. "He's your lover, isn't he? Not your brother. And you found poor, innocent Armand and thought: here's a naive fellow I can seduce! Then our fortunes are made!"

She threw her head back and laughed.

"A clever plan," she said. "But not one that will last for long."

Anne gnashed her teeth, but outwardly kept calm.

"Is this the only reason you are here?" she demanded. "To level ridiculous accusations against me?"

"No, I am come to conduct you to dinner," said Armand's mother. "I just thought this would be the opportune moment to share what I know, to make you understand your place here."

"I don't know what you thought it would accomplish," said Anne.

"Simply this. You do as I say, and I keep quiet about your secret," said his mother. She raised her hand. "It doesn't matter whether or not it's true, only whether or not Armand believes me. His own mother."

Anne warred with herself inwardly but refused to give a response.

"Now," said his mother brightly. "Shall we go to dinner? Armand is waiting."

And she gave Anne a sweet smile that belied all she had just said.

"Let me get my things," said Anne, and in a few moments, she was ready to be escorted to the Great Hall.

***

That night, Armand's mother fell mysteriously ill, and nobody could find the cause.

 

Chapter Text

Much to Anne's delight, she and Armand spent the entire winter hawking and hunting. She was outdoors more often than in, and had the run of the village and countryside, just as if she were a comte and not a comtesse. Armand's mother kept to her bed except to attend dinner at the chateau, where everyone was expected to sup. So she found herself in a joyful state of wealth married to freedom, while practising her potion-making and learning more every day. On days when it was too cold to hunt or hawk, they practised swordfighting. When Armand found that she had been helping the local farmers, he was charmed and allowed her the freedom to continue. He told her that her concern for the welfare of the people of La Fére had touched his heart.

And yet, Anne couldn't shake the memory of what Armand's mother had told her. Since she never left the chateau, the news of her relationship with Henri had come from somewhere. She found it disquieting, and eventually her concern outweighed her native prudence.

She gathered her things and put them in Charlotte's wicker basket, still here all these months later. She covered everything with a cheesecloth and wrapped up in a red cloak lined with ermine.

Anne ducked out of the chateau without anyone noticing, and began the long walk down toward the village.

***

Henri was sitting in his salon, reading, when he heard a tentative knock at the door. He opened it to find Anne standing there, red-cheeked from the cold.

"Anne!" he cried, delighted, dropping his book and embracing her. "Please come in! It's been too long."

Anne moved inside and removed her cloak, shaking the snow off of it and hanging it on a hook near the door. She sat down on the sofa and for a moment felt such a pang of nostalgia she couldn't understand why she had ever left this cottage, or Henri's side.

"Would you like something warm to drink? Mulled wine perhaps?" offered Henri. Anne nodded, and he set to warming it on the cottage's little fire.

Once it was finished and he had poured, he sat back against the sofa.

"So, what brings you here?" he said. "I was beginning to think I would never see you again."

"I'm so sorry, Henri," said Anne. "The only justification I have is that it wasn't entirely my fault. Armand's mother forbid me leaving the chateau."

"Forbid you? Why?" asked Henri, startled.

"She said it was what fine ladies do," said Anne.

"That's ridiculous, I have seen plenty of fine ladies out and about, both in Templemars and on the way here," said Henri.

"Be that as it may, she told me it was the law of La Fére," said Anne.

"And you obeyed her?" asked Henri. "Forgive me, Anne, but outside of our - relations - you've always been too headstrong to obey anybody or anything."

Anne sighed.

"I wanted to be the perfect woman for him," she said wretchedly.

"I've told you before -"

"Yes, and you were right," she said. "I told him."

Henri's eyes widened.

"Not everything!" she was quick to amend. "But enough for him to know that I am not quite the perfect princess he thought."

"And?" prompted Henri. She smiled at the memory.

"And he was good about it," she said. "He gave me back my freedom. We've been hunting together all winter."

"I'm glad," said Henri. "Still, your being in a situation where you think you need someone's permission to leave the house seems unlike you."

"It's been very trying," Anne admitted. "And speaking of our relations, that's what I'm here to talk about."

Henri carefully placed his glass on the floor. He looked up at her with hard eyes.

"Anne," he said. "If you come to me now and say you no longer want him, that's one thing. But I will not make a man a cuckold on his own land."

"No, no," said Anne. "That's not what I meant."

"Oh," said Henri, immediately feeling wrong-footed and picking up his glass again to hide his embarrassment. "Then go on."

"Armand's mother knows about us," she blurted out. Henri's grip on the glass tightened.

"Are you absolutely certain?" he said quietly.

"Yes," said Anne. "Someone heard us, Henri."

Henri looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Well, she can't have heard it herself," he mused. "And she's been ill anyway, so -"

He stopped mid-sentence and stared at her.

"What have you done?" he whispered.

"That's why I'm here!" she said, rushing to hand him the wicker basket. "I needed to get rid of these things before they start going through my room."

Henri lifted the cheesecloth and looked under it in horror. He recoiled and handed the basket back to her.

"No, Anne," he said. "What did I tell you? This is an evil thing you are doing."

"I didn't give her enough to kill her!" Anne insisted. "I just gave her enough to incapacitate her."

Henri looked at Anne as if he were looking at a venomous snake. She felt a stab of pain in her heart and never wanted him to look at her that way again.

"And here I was, thinking I would be presiding over a sad funeral nearly to the day I had to perform a sad wedding," said Henri. "Sad for me, anyway. But here I find that this illness does not have a natural cause. Why would you do something like this, Anne?"

"BECAUSE SHE WAS IN MY WAY," Anne roared in his face. Her countenance had twisted into something monstrous, just for a moment. Henri backed away from her and stood in a corner.

"What's happened to you, my love?" he said, in a voice barely above a whisper.

But the monster was gone, and only the beautiful, sweet woman remained in its place.

Perhaps it was not a monster at all.

"Please, Henri," she begged. "I need you to help me or I am doomed. It would be as if we never escaped from that jail in Lille. Please, if you've any love for me left at all."

Henri sighed, and deflated.

"I'll always love you," he said sadly. "You know that. Give me your potions and your little book, and anything else that might incriminate you."

"Oh, thank you," cried Anne, throwing herself into his arms. "I knew I could count on you."

Henri held her wordlessly, drunk on her embrace, willing to do anything for her, just like always.

***

"I need to go."

"Already? You just got here. Have a bite to eat with me, at the very least."

Anne smiled and shook her head.

"I'd love to," she said. "But they're already suspicious, and someone is eavesdropping on us. Best to keep apart from each other, at least until things die down."

"But Anne, it's been months."

"I know," she said. "And I'll make an effort to visit more often, I promise. Just - let's keep a low profile, at least for now?"

Henri nodded.

"You're right," he said. "I don't want to endanger you, or myself. But do come back and tell me when it's safe again."

"I will," she said, throwing her cloak over her shoulders and pulling her hood up. She opened the door.

"Anne."

She turned back to look at him. Henri was staring at the floor.

"Are you happy?" he asked.

She favoured him with a brilliant smile.

"Happier than I have ever been in my life," she assured him. "Goodbye, Henri. I'll come back soon."

Henri only gave a sharp nod in response, and never looked up from the floor.

 

Chapter Text

"And then Charlotte told me that the nurse was fired because she was seen kissing one of the stablehands! Not even a real kiss, just a quick one! And now the entire chateau is in an uproar and everyone is completely scandalised, I can't believe it."

Anne and Armand were hunting during the last snows of the season. The gossip and drama at play in the chateau was of bleak contrast to the wonderful times she had with the farmers. She would soon be helping with the spring lambing again and looked forward to it.

Armand threw back his head and laughed.

"You must realise, Anne, that an illicit kiss is a scandal in a place like the Chateau de la Fére," Armand explained.

"Peste! I'm certain they've seen the people of the village kiss, and more," she scoffed.

Armand grinned.

"One rule for commoners, another rule for us," he said.

"Well, I'm a commoner," said Anne, "and I've done a lot more than kiss."

"Thank God for that!" said Armand.

"I wonder what they would say if they knew about me," said Anne, and then gave him a lascivious wink. "Or what we did."

"I don't think they'd survive," he said, and they both laughed.

They watched the falcon bring down a small bird and rode to pick it up.

As Anne bent over and scooped up the bird to put in the satchel, Armand spoke.

"Soon, the spring will come," he said. "And the cherry blossoms will bloom again."

"Yes," Anne agreed, mounting Liberty's back again. "My favourite."

"I have plans for us, in the springtime," said Armand.

"Plans? Plans like what?" asked Anne. He took her hand.

"You'll have to wait and see."

He leaned over and they shared a kiss on horseback.

***

Anne was pleased that their life in the bedroom had improved.

But she knew in her heart of hearts that Armand would never compare to Henri or Therese.

Love or sex, she thought. It seems, in this life, we must choose one or the other.

And while he was adequate, learning all the time, adequate was not really a word anyone wanted to use in reference to lovemaking.

Anne knew he was still learning, but she also knew that if she even suggested the kind of debauchery she and Henri had enjoyed, Armand would be horrified and probably join his mother's calls for her blood.

So she mostly had to satisfy herself, when she was alone, with her deviant thoughts and experiences that would only ever be memories.

She never let a day go by that she did not pin the sprig of lavender to her breast.

***

Spring came; Armand's mother's health improved, but Anne was left alone. She wondered if there was some reason, if she was just waiting for the right time, or if her brush with death had taught her a lesson.

Anne hoped it was the latter.

One fine spring day, Armand found her painting in the study. 

"Will you come with me, Anne?" he asked. She readily agreed and followed him outside.

They rode down to the cherry blossom orchard and Armand indicated a place to stop and dismount.

"Here's the surprise I had prepared for you," said Armand.

On the ground was a bed of cherry blossom petals, at least a foot thick, with a sheet beneath them in a shallow hole to keep them in. 

"I had the servants gather as many blossoms as they could," said Armand. "Don't worry, I paid them all very handsomely."

"Why, Armand," she said. "It's beautiful. But why?"

He approached her and kissed her, chaste at first, and then deepened the kiss.

"I had hoped you would do me the honour of making love to me here," he said.

Anne drew back and stared openmouthed at him. This was the most daring thing he had ever suggested, and she was impressed.

"Yes," she said.

"I've asked the servants to ensure our privacy," he said. "We won't be disturbed."

He began to undress her, removing her clothing slowly. Arousal coursed through her with the sweet danger of being caught, and she hummed to herself.

Finally, she stood naked in the orchard, and he circled her slowly.

"Just as I thought," he breathed. "Just like a cherryblossom, your skin like cream, everything else coral-pink."

Anne shivered in the cool air, and he lifted her up, laying her down on the cherry blossoms.

"Beautiful," he said, as if to himself, and took off his own clothes. He was no less handsome, the sunlight dappling his strong body as he crawled over her. She spread her legs, wide and willing, and he found her already so wet that he slid into her with no hesitation. She cried out, as he kissed her breasts and her neck, and made love to her there in the cherry blossom petals that were lifted onto the wind with the force of his passion. Anne, helpless now in the throes of lust, mostly because of the situation, found herself grinding shamelessly against him, his hard cock providing an anchor. She shrieked her orgasm to the clouds, and he found completion inside her with a long, low sound.

After, he rested his forehead in the dip beneath her collarbone and before her breast, sweat drying on their skin and breathing hard as they returned to themselves. 

"I love you," said Armand into her skin. Anne laughed.

"I love you too, Armand," she said. "Moreso now than ever."

"That's good," he said. "I have another surprise for you."

Anne looked at him. 

"What? More?" she asked. He rolled away from her and sat up, pulling a basket toward himself.

"Yes," he said, opening the champagne and pouring it into two glasses. He handed her one.

"Champagne?" asked Anne, curious. "I know that you love it, but it's hardly a surprise."

"No, not that," he smiled, and brought out a ring. Anne was speechless.

"After the fears of a poisoner in our midst had died down," Armand explained, "I was finally able to access the jewellery-box. This is a precious family heirloom, given by my grandfather to my grandmother."

"Your very law-abiding grandfather?" teased Anne. Armand nodded.

"I want you to have it," he said. He handed it to her.

Anne lifted the ring to the sky, so the sunlight would catch on the gemstones. It was a sapphire encircled with diamonds. Such perfection had rarely been seen in jewellery and Anne was familiar enough with gemstones to understand that this one was worth a small fortune.

"Armand, I can't accept this," she gasped, trying to give it back. "It's too much."

"It's not enough," he said, gently pushing her hands back toward her chest. "You've changed my life, Anne, in so many ways. It's inadequate for the way I feel about you. But it is the most precious gift I have to give."

"And your mother?" asked Anne. "What will she say?"

"My mother has nothing to do with it," Armand frowned. "Grandfather gave it to me with the express direction to give it to the woman who possessed my heart fully, just as Grandmother had possessed his. We are a passionate family, my parents being a possible exception."

Anne still looked doubtful. Armand covered her hands with his own.

"Please, Anne," he said. "Accept the ring. It would mean the world to me."

She looked down at it a few moments more, and then made up her mind. She slid the ring onto her finger.

It fit perfectly.

"See?" said Armand. "It was meant to be."

She laughed, and climbed into his lap, kissing him. They kissed languidly for a while, but their passion had been spent for the moment. Instead, they talked, and drank champagne, naked beneath the cherry blossom trees, and as night came on they wrapped themselves up in cloaks, but were loath to leave the orchard on such a warm night filled with love.

 

Chapter Text

Anne went to see Henri the very next day.

"Look!" she squealed, showing off the new ring. "Look what Armand gave me?"

Henri smiled at her exuberance.

"We're feeling good today, I see," he said.

"We are," she stated. "He's given me a family heirloom! I think he really loves me, Henri."

Henri laughed.

"And his marrying you didn't convince you of that?" he asked. She grabbed him and waltzed him around the room.

"I think it's going to be all right," she said, as she let him go. "Oh, it was the most romantic time. He paid the servants to make us a bed of cherry blossom petals, and we - "

She saw the tips of his ears turn pink, and his beautiful blue eyes brighten the way they always did when he was embarrassed.

"Oh! I'm sorry, Henri, that was unbearably rude of me," said Anne. "I got carried away."

"It's fine, Anne," he said. "I'm just glad to see you happy."

She fell backwards onto the sofa and kicked out her feet.

"I am happy," she said. "Deliriously, stupidly happy. I never thought this would be in my future."

Henri sat down beside her.

"That's wonderful," he said.

"Shall we get some bread and cheese?" asked Anne. "We should picnic in the park, on the green. It's such a beautiful day, and I know you have wine stashed somewhere, you're a Catholic priest. No fair hiding."

Henri chuckled deep in his throat. He took her hands.

Her brilliance dimmed, and her smile faded.

"Henri?" she asked. "Is there something wrong?"

"Only that on a day when you are so happy, I must make you sad."

She gave him a puzzled look.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Anne, I'm so glad I met you," he said. "Not a day goes by that I don't thank the Lord for putting you into my life. Transgressions are between He and I, but you've blessed my life more than anyone else has or will."

Anne's mouth wobbled.

"Oh, Henri, no," she said, but he nodded, resolute.

"I'm leaving," he said. She shook her head no again, and the tears spilled down her cheeks. "You're set up well here, and you're happy. That's more than I could have dreamed or asked for, when I knew you didn't love me back."

"Please don't go," she said. "I need you."

Henri gently set her hands in her lap.

"Anne, I wish that were true," he said. "You're resourceful and clever. You charm everyone. And most of all, you have a husband who loves you. Your future and wealth are secure. It's time I made my own way in the world. It's time I looked to my own future."

"It's just," she said through her tears, "I always thought you'd be in mine."

He smiled, and brushed a tear from her cheek. She closed her eyes.

"Henri," she said. He grinned.

"I love how you say my name," he said. "But I've also reached my limit. I can't go on watching you with him, knowing you're up at the chateau while I am alone here. The loneliness is too much, and my heart can't heal while I am still at La Fére."

Anne nodded, understanding the truth of his words. She had no right to ask him to stay for her sake, when she hadn't really stayed for his.

"I'll miss you all the same," she said, and wept into his shoulder.

After a while, she sat back and looked at him.

"So," she said. "Picnic?"

He wiped the tears from his own eyes and laughed.

"I'd love to," he said. "You get the bread and cheese."

"Do you have wine?"

"Of course I have wine," he said, winking. "I'm a Catholic priest."

***

"Armand, you must believe me."

"I'm not listening to you, Mother. You've always had it in for Anne, and have treated her sorely."

Armand's mother stood in the centre of his study, completely still. He stood in front of her, a test of wills.

"I have it on good authority that she tried to poison me," said his mother.

"And on what do you base these accusations?" asked Armand.

"Charlotte?"

A young woman entered, her eyes wide with fright. Armand recognised the servant woman who dressed Anne.

"Tell the young comte what you told me, Charlotte," his mother directed.

"Madame Anne asked me to fetch her these things from the market," said Charlotte, and handed him the list Anne had written out.

Armand read it, and his brow grew stormy. He looked up, his hawklike expression fixed on the young woman.

"Why would you betray your lady in this fashion?" Armand asked. Charlotte didn't respond, but looked at Armand's mother.

"May I go?" she asked plaintively. His mother nodded, and she fled.

Armand rolled his eyes and held out the paper.

"Did you write this, Mother? Are you trying to frame my wife?" Armand demanded. "Why do you hate her?"

"I don't hate her, my son," she said, approaching him and putting a hand through his hair. "But I love you, and I love La Fére. I wouldn't want it in the hands of a witch."

Armand pulled away from her.

"You see?" wailed his mother. "Already she has poisoned your mind!"

Armand brandished the paper in her face.

"And you want me to do what, exactly?" he shouted. "Because my wife purchased - what was it - rosemary?"

"That's not all it says, and you know it," snapped his mother. Armand made an exasperated sound.

"That's not all," his mother cut in. "Charlotte says that Anne won't allow herself to be dressed. She also says that she has walked in too early and seen her putting powder and makeup on her body. What is she covering? What is she hiding?"

"What is wrong with you?" asked Armand. "Anne is right, staying indoors all the time seems to go to your head!"

"And!" his mother said triumphantly. "Charlotte also says that she has heard Anne making love to Henri in their little cottage!"

Armand gave her a look of disgust.

"You've gone too far, Mother," he said coldly. "Her own brother? What kind of evil have you done? What's more, why has Charlotte been so forthcoming with all this information?"

"She thinks Anne is a witch," said his mother. "And when I fell ill, she feared that I was under her spell. She never liked me, Armand."

"You never gave her reason to!" Armand barked. "And for what it's worth, I don't like you much either!"

"Oh! What a cruel thing to say to a mother!" she groaned, placing the back of her hand on her forehead dramatically.

"Either you threatened Charlotte or you paid her a fortune," said Armand. "I can't believe anyone would be so foolish or superstitious."

"You call it superstition! Foolishness! Idiot boy, you just wait until it happens to you!"

Armand advanced on his mother in a threatening manner. He stood over her.

"And where is Father in all this?" asked Armand. "That's right. He has no backbone and won't oppose you. I guarantee you, Mother, that you will find in me a worthy opponent. I am, after all, your son."

And he whirled, bringing his cape along with him.

"But Armand," she cried out.

"Keep your drama to yourself," he called over his shoulder. "Let it be a comfort to you in your old age."

He could hear her wailing behind him, but the tears had no effect. He knew it was only for show.

Now, he needed to find a way to keep Anne out of the clutches of his mother and away from the loose tongues around the chateau.

And yet, a little voice inside his head began to speak, and ask questions that should have been asked a long time ago.

Where did she come from? How did she and Henri find their way here, to La Fére? What was her real history?

Tomorrow was their next hunt. He was too overexcited to talk with her tonight, and needed time alone to arrange his thoughts.

When the hunt was over, he'd be sure to ask her all the questions that were crowding his mind.

 

Chapter Text

Anne met Armand for the hunt the following afternoon. She had her favourite gyrfalcon, Astrid, on her arm as she waited for him in the cherry blossom grove.

Finally, Armand rode into the clearing. She smiled at him, but noticed that he seemed pensive and distant.

"Is something the matter, Armand?" she asked as he rode up to her and gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. "I thought you were looking forward to a hunt in the cherry blossom orchard."

Armand nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I was thinking that there must be a wider variety of birds here nesting in the trees. The spring is a ripe time."

"You don't sound like you're happy," she said, laying a hand on his arm. "Come, tell me your troubles."

"Anne," Armand began. She waited expectantly. 

He seemed to think better of what he was about to say.

"Let's hunt," he said. "We can talk afterward, and I don't want to disappoint you. I know you live for sport."

"Mostly I live for being out of doors in your company," she said. He didn't respond.

Shaken but undeterred, Anne threw Astrid into the air, where she took wing. 

"Now, to the chase!" Anne cried, and spurred Liberty on through the orchard.

Liberty's hoofbeats echoed through the orchard as his hooves tossed up great clods of earth. Armand was close behind her and gaining as they chased Astrid through the trees.

Suddenly, Liberty's right front hoof caught against a rock, and the horse stumbled, throwing Anne a good distance. 

"Anne!" cried Armand, reining in his horse. It danced and whinnied for a moment before stilling. Armand threw himself off his horse and ran to her prone form. Astrid landed in the branches a little ways from them.

"Oh, Anne, forgive me, forgive me," Armand said, "My mother poisoned my thoughts and -"

He could see her head was bleeding where it had struck against a rock.

"God has cursed me for doubting you, my cherryblossom," he said, tears forming in his eyes. He noticed her corset had twisted around her body, oppressing her breathing. "Let me cut you free of this so you can breathe. Perhaps you've only fainted? Oh, Lord, please don't be so cruel to me."

He held her hand, and noticed that one of the faces of the sapphire on her ring had been damaged.

"Symbolic, perhaps," he murmured. "A sign, never to buy into my family's dishonesty, a blemish on our love."

Armand took out his poiniard and cut away her corset and clothing.

"There, now you'll be able to -" the words died on his lips.

Where her dress had come away from her shoulders, a deep pink line was visible, and the residue of makeup on the edges of the fabric.

Swallowing in terror but needing to satisfy his curiosity once and for all, Armand reached forward and rubbed at the spot.

To his horror, a pattern was revealed to him. A brand.

The shape of a fleur-de-lys.

Armand gasped and leaped back from her still form.

His beautiful bride had broken the law and sinned against the crown, the representative of God on earth. 

The love and light of his life was a monster.

"Mother was right," he said. His eyes filled with furious tears.

"How could you fool me so?" he lamented. "Make a fool out of the Comte de la Fére! And I gave you the rights to my lands, my titles! More fool I!"

As he worked himself up in his rage, he spied the rope tied in circles to his horse's saddle for use in the hunt. Half-mad with rage and grief, he seized it.

Armand formed a noose with the rope and slipped it around Anne's neck. He threw the other end over a sturdy branch.

"Monster! I shall never bless the name of woman again," he said through his tears. "I shall think of myself as like Mount Athos, where no female, be they human or beast, is allowed to tread."

Armand hoisted Anne's body into the air and tied off the other end of the rope.

"Farewell, my cherryblossom," he bit out, weeping, mounting his horse and riding away from the horrible scene with a frightful wail. 

Anne's body hung from the branch, creaking slightly in the wind as she swayed. One of her little shoes fell off and landed among the cherryblossom petals on the ground, and her long blonde hair hung down like a ribbon. 

She hung there, suspended, another blossom on the cherry trees she had loved so much, as the petals continued to fall.

***

"Anne, Anne, oh God, Anne!"

Anne heard her name as she came to, as if she was kicking her way up through the depths of a great black ocean. She tried to open her eyes and couldn't. She felt so very, very tired. 

Finally, with a Herculean effort, she managed to raise her eyelids just a little.

She saw the dim shape of a man above her, and tried to speak, but her throat hurt terribly and she couldn't seem to get words to form.

"Anne?!" said the voice again, now filled with a mad hope instead of the despair she had heard the first time he had spoken.

She felt hands patting her cheeks, as if to wake her.

I'm awake, she tried to tell the man, but couldn't make her lips obey.

The man's features finally began to resolve themselves as her eyes focused on his face.

"Henri?" she managed to croak.

"Oh thank God," Henri groaned. "Don't try to speak, Anne, the rope crushed your windpipe. Go very slowly."

Rope? thought Anne. What rope?

She managed to sit up, but her head was pounding. She held it in her hands, and was surprised to see one of her hands come away with blood on it. 

She groaned in pain. Her whole body felt like it didn't remember how to obey her commands. Anne felt sluggish and sick to her stomach.

"I saw everything," said Henri. "I don't want to rush you, Anne, but we need to get out of here right now."

"Armand?" she asked, and put a hand to her throat from the effort. 

The hatred that flashed in Henri's eyes startled her. She knew he was jealous, as any man in love would be, but she saw Armand's death written plainly there as if he had spoken. Instead of using her voice, she put her hand on his arm to question him.

"I will fill you in later," said Henri. "But we need to go."

Anne gave him to understand that she would not budge from her place until Henri told her what was going on. He sighed in frustration and looked into her eyes.

"They thought I was gone last night," he said. "But I couldn't leave without seeing you one last time. I knew that you had planned to hunt in the cherry orchard, and so I came here."

Anne gave him a puzzled look. He blushed.

"You told me what happened here before, with Armand," he said. "And I like to watch."

Anne looked alarmed.

"You were thrown from your horse," Henri went on to explain. "And Armand went to help you, I think he believed you fainted because he cut away your corset and your clothes."

Anne's look travelled from curiosity to horror.

"And because of the way you had fallen, I think your dress must have rubbed some of the makeup from your brand," he said.

Anne blanched in terror. Her fingers tightened on Henri's arm.

"The comte was furious," said Henri. "I think his mother had been whispering evil into his ear, but you know his passion for the law and for royalty."

Anne nodded. Henri looked like he didn't want to finish the story.

"Then he took his hunting-rope and strung you up from one of the cherryblossom trees," he said, looking at the ground. "And he called you a monster. And he left you."

Anne stared at him, uncomprehending. The awful horror of it was too much, too unbelievable.

"He hanged you from this tree, Anne," Henri said, pointing upwards. She followed where he was pointing and saw the branch had deep abrasions. "If I hadn't been here, if I hadn't cut you down in time -"

He repressed a sob.

"But I was, and I did," he said. "And we have to go now."

Anne shook her head, and staggered to her feet. Her stomach was roiling, her head was pounding, and the desperate, horrible grief consumed her. She was sick on the ground, again and again, her body wracked with sobs, crying out no, no, no in awful, yowling groans and howls.

Then she touched her neck, and felt the impression of rope still there, still red and angry, where blood broke through, and collapsed onto the ground, writhing in anguish, unable to accept the utter betrayal.

"I'm sorry, Anne, but it must be done," Henri said clearly. "I did not save your life for you to lose it again."

And he grabbed her, hoisted her onto his back, and walked over to Liberty. He hoisted Anne onto the back of the horse and attached his own valise to his saddle.

"I wish we could go back for your things, but there's nothing for it," he said to himself. "We must go."

And he mounted Liberty's saddle with Anne laying half-dead behind him as he dug his heels into the horse's flanks and they took off at a gallop, away from the cherryblossom orchard, and the little chapel, and the chateau, and the village of La Fére where Anne had once been so happy.

Chapter Text

Anne woke to the gentle sounds of carriage wheels on the road.

She opened her eyes and found herself in a well-appointed carriage with sumptuous curtains. 

Henri sat dozing in another corner.

She sat up, and the movement made him start awake. He gave her a look filled with sadness and pity.

"Anne," he said. "You're awake."

She yawned and looked around herself in confusion. The last thing she remembered - 

and all the memories came flooding back to her. She let out an involuntary groan, and shook her head as if she still couldn't believe it.

Then her hand went to her neck, tentatively, and she felt the cruel impression of rope-marks there. Horror dawned on her as she understood that it hadn't been a nightmare, it was all true, and she was sliding down, down, down, into a black shining bowl of glass from which she feared she could never climb out. Her stomach lurched and she put a hand over her mouth to hold back the vomit that threatened to come up, tears streaming down her face.

All the while, Henri just kept looking at her with that mixture of sadness and pity.

A long time passed before Anne finally felt it was safe to sit up again. She leaned against the wall of the carriage in abject misery.

"Where are we?" she asked, her voice scratched and husky. "Why are we in a carriage?"

Henri leaned forward put his hands on her knees. She reacted with revulsion, and he immediately sat back.

"We're going to Calais," said Henri. "I don't think you should risk staying in France, Anne. You've made powerful enemies."

"And what am I going to do in England?" she demanded. 

"It's your choice," he said. "Stay here or go there, but I thought it prudent to get as far away as possible. I had to sell Liberty, Anne. I'm so sorry, but it was necessary to build the funds."

"That's all right," she said. "He's already witnessed horror, and he's better off with someone else who wasn't born under a cursed star."

"Anne," said Henri sadly.

Anne peered out of the carriage, but all she could see were forests on either side.

"Where are we now?" she asked. 

"We've just gone through Arras," he said. "You've been out most of the day. I paid the carriage-driver enough money to get us to the port within twenty-four hours."

Anne's look softened. She reached out and took Henri's hand, trying to surface from her despair.

"Thank you for saving my life," she said. He smiled.

"I'm just glad I was there," he said. "If you ever want to talk about what happened, I'm here."

Anne nodded.

"Not just now," she said. 

And they rode in silence until the sun went down, and they were travelling in darkness, with the stars to light the way.

***

The port-town of Calais was alive and bustling in a way that Anne had never seen before. There was so much activity around the harbour Anne hardly knew where to look.

They had travelled all night to arrive here in Calais at daybreak. She and Henri had spent time awake and asleep, occasionally talking over small things like the weather. Now that she was in Calais, she had newfound energy. 

Henri hopped out of the carriage and offered her his hand. She stepped out of the carriage, wrapping a shawl around her neck and shoulders. People stopped and stared at her. Anne was still beautiful, and her rich silks, jewels, and shining blonde hair made people whisper among themselves, asking whether a princess was in their midst, especially considering the gilded carriage that had brought her there.

"The ship leaves the port in an hour," said Henri. "I'm glad we made good time, or we'd have to wait for the next one."

"Henri, I don't think it's wise to go on board a ship dressed this way," said Anne. "And I've got no other clothing or money."

"I think I can solve both of those problems," said Henri. He pulled out his valise and rummaged inside of it.

Then, he drew out the costume she had worn after her long run from Breuil, the one Therese had given her.

"Henri, how on earth do you still have this dress?" she asked, ducking behind a low wall in order to change. 

As she dropped the old, comfortable dress over her head, she shot him a look that said you haven't answered the question.

He blushed.

"I wanted something to remember you by," he said. "And - "

He brought out her glass vials and equipment, along with her leatherbound journal. A cloud seemed to pass over his face.

"I judged you for this, Anne," said Henri. "And now I think I was very wrong to do that. I don't understand what it's like to be a woman, and suffer dangers at every turn. Anything I could do to help you even the odds a little, I feel is probably something you need."

"I don't know what to say," said Anne, smiling despite herself, a bright light momentarily breaking through the bleakness in her heart and mind.

"And this last," he said, lifting Anne's old money-bag out of the valise. Her mouth dropped open as he handed it to her.

She opened it. All the money was still there. And Therese's letter, as well as the letter of invitation from Rochefort.

"I don't understand," she said. "This money should have been spent long ago."

"Oh, I was paid well," said Henri, and then quickly turned away from the dangerous subject of La Fére. "And besides, you earned it. I wanted you to have it."

"Thank you, Henri," she said, and she meant it. "But you don't need to give me all these things, you're coming to England too?"

Henri smiled. Anne knew that smile. She understood what it meant, and deflated.

"You're not coming," she said flatly. He nodded.

"Anne, you have given me so much," he said. "But after everything I've done, everything I've seen - well, much of it is between me and God. But I also heard you when you said that I was moving down the abacus from mediocre to bad. I'd like to change that, if I can."

"How do you plan on doing that?" she asked.

"I'm going back to Lille, to see my brother," said Henri. "Maybe we can sort things out, maybe we can't, but it certainly beats running. I'd like to see what happens when one lives an honest life."

Anne couldn't help but feel abandoned, and she said so.

"I will never stop loving you, Anne de Breuil," said Henri. He cupped her face in his hands and planted a chaste kiss on her lips. "But this is my chance to do something worthy of a woman like you."

The captain of the boat called his all aboard. Henri smiled again, and raised his hand in farewell.

Anne gave him an uncertain look, her gaze shifting between the ferry to Henri, and all of France beyond.

Maybe I can return one day, she thought. Maybe I will find the strength to go on, in some foreign land far from such horrible memories.

She made up her mind, and headed toward the ferry. At the last moment, she ran back and kissed Henri with everything she had, for everything they had been and all they had done together, and for his loyalty, staying at her side when another man might not have done.

"Goodbye, Henri," she said. "I'll never forget you."

"Farewell, Anne," he said. "Remember I love you. And perhaps, one day, I will finally become a good man."

They smiled together, and held each other a moment longer. Then the captain called the final all aboard, and Anne ran for the gangplank. She made her way onto the ferry just in time.

***

As the ferry left the port of Calais, Anne saw Henri on the shore, raising a hand in farewell.

She raised her hand in return, smiling.

Her smile faded. Her mouth turned cruel.

"I'm sorry, Henri," she said through clenched teeth.

"But there are no good men."

 

Chapter Text

Anne stood on the deck of the ferry, wanting to see the coastline of her new home. To her surprise, fog had sunk low over the English coast, so that the chill sea air was like soup. 

"Excuse me, miss," said a woman's voice, in English. She felt a soft weight thrown over her shoulders. "But you'll catch your death of cold."

Anne turned to see a lovely little English woman, with dark curly hair and big brown eyes, smiling up at her. She was reminded of Therese, if she had been more retiring and subservient.

"Thank you," said Anne, in heavily-accented English. She noticed when the English woman's eyes closed at the sound of her words. "Why give me such a gift?"

"It's clear to me that you are a great lady," said the English woman. "You may not be dressed like one, but you have the bearing. Besides - "

She leaned in closer.

" - such stars making a constellation on your fingers are not the province of the poor."

Anne let out a little gasp as she realised she still wore her sapphire ring - and what's more, Armand's wedding ring and band. Too late, she endeavoured to hide them, but the English woman just smiled prettily.

"What's your name?" asked Anne. The English woman bowed.

"I am Pleasance Appleyard," she said. "Milkmaiden to the House of Winter."

"Does your employer send you to France?" asked Anne, surprised.

"Oh, yes, frequently," she said. "I sell milk and cheese and buy the same from French marketplaces. Do you know that your cheese is some of my lord's favourite?"

"Is it?" asked Anne. "Where does your lord live, then, to give such freedoms to his underlings?"

"Oh, England is not like France," said Pleasance. "We're expected to travel to market as a part of our jobs. Lord de Winter's estates are just outside London, it's no hardship to spend a day or two's travel back and forth, if you have a good carriage."

Anne watched the way Pleasance took in her form, and let the cloak she had given to her fall a bit, drawing down the top of her dress to expose her shoulder and the swell of her breasts. 

Pleasance made a tiny sound in her throat. Anne would have missed it if she hadn't been listening for it.

"I've never been to England," she confessed. Pleasance's mouth dropped open.

"You haven't?" she asked. "And you're travelling alone? No, no, this must not be. Please, join me. I'm sure we have room in the servant's quarters where you could stay for a while, just to get acquainted with the country, and practise your English."

Anne smiled; the fish was caught.

"Oh, I couldn't impose on you," she said.

"Are you a very great lady?" asked Pleasance. "I can see why the servant's quarters might not be suitable."

"No," said Anne. "I'm just - "

She was about to say Anne and thought better of it. She couldn't use Madeleine either; that name had a bounty attached to it.

"Clarisse," she finally decided. Pleasance looked charmed.

"Oh, please let me help you," she said. "I hate to think of you out there in the countryside alone.

Anne pretended to mull it over.

"Very well," she relented. "But only because you've insisted. I thank you for your generosity and hospitality."

Pleasance made a little curtsy, looking very pleased. Anne did not miss the way her eyes seemed to catch on the swell of her breasts, and the line of her curves. Tall and strong, Anne was aware that her imposing presence seemed to have an effect on the little English woman, who blushed when she was caught staring.

***

Anne welcomed the comfortable carriage that greeted Pleasance on her return. They climbed inside, and Anne gave thanks to providence for not needing to experience a single moment of privation since she left the French coast. 

The carriage rolled along smooth roadways, a surprise to Anne after the hard roads of France. Anne watched the countryside go by, trees hidden by the mysterious fog.

"Tell me, Pleasance," said Anne. "In all your travels, how much of life have you experienced?"

"What do you mean, miss?" asked Pleasance.

"Please. Call me Clarisse."

"Clarisse, then."

"I mean adventure," said Anne. "Danger. Love."

Pleasance blushed crimson and looked out of the carriage window.

"Although we are allowed our freedom here in ways the French are not," she said, "we are far more circumspect when it comes to those things. Travel we may - but travel is all."

"You mean you've never spent an evening drinking at an inn?" Anne exclaimed. "Carousing? Lovemaking?"

Pleasance's mouth made a pretty little O.

"No!" she cried. "It would be improper. Inappropriate. You French are guided by your passions - or so I have been told."

"Told?" asked Anne. "But you've been to France many times."

"Yes, to sell milk and cheese," she said. "Everything else is - well - the stories we're told."

"And the English tell stories about French passion?" asked Anne. 

"Yes," said Pleasance, and this time, Anne was certain she saw a flash of hunger and need in the woman's eyes. She filed this away for later, when it might come of use.

"Strange, the stories we tell about each other," said Anne. "I've always been told the English live on terrible food and beer."

Pleasance laughed, dispelling some of the tension in the carriage.

"That's not too far from the truth," she said. "I love your accent! With your voice, it's like sweet honey drizzled on soft bread."

"When you're next in France, you ought to try some of our pastries," said Anne. "If that's the most wonderful food you can think of."

"I didn't say it was the most wonderful food," said Pleasance, sitting up straighter. "Only that it was what your voice reminded me of."

"I like the way you speak as well," said Anne. "Clean, pure, fresh like the fog on the ocean today."

Pleasance lowered her eyes at the flattery, and pressed her lips together in a smile.

This one will be mine, thought Anne, as she watched Pleasance's breasts rise and fall beneath her clothing, trying to keep her interest hidden. Sooner rather than later.

And Anne's own voracious, endless hunger began to respond in kind. Still, she had to keep it under wraps for the moment. England frowned on that sort of thing.

Suddenly, Pleasance sat forward and pointed.

"There it is," she cried. "The estates of Lord de Winter."

***

Anne stepped out of the carriage into the cool, fresh English countryside air. If she thought the Chateau de la Fére was incredible, the Winter estates were like a city of their own. She had never seen such ridiculous opulence parading as refined and understated.

"All of this belongs to Lord de Winter?" breathed Anne.

"Oh yes," said Pleasance. "Well, this is his country house. His other houses are in London, and Bournemouth, and I think he has a few in Scotland too. I don't really know, there are too many to count."

"This Lord de Winter," Anne said. "Is he married?"

"Yes, but his brother is a bachelor," said Pleasance, sighing. "It's unfortunate, really. The family has been trying to marry him off for years."

"Is that so," said Anne.

Anne looked out over that green and pleasant land, and a smile spread across her face.

 

Chapter Text

Anne was readily accepted into the servants' quarters. The other servants believed Pleasance's little lie about Anne being a new recruit from France. This made perfect sense to them, as they were well aware of the lord's love of French cheese and wine. They saw it as a master-stroke on his part, adding Anne to his cadre of servants, and she would help Pleasance with the milking.

Lord de Winter's cows were few but extremely well-bred. Their milk was coveted for cheesemaking and brought a high price in both England and France.

Anne was pleased at how well things were going. She was fed and housed for the time being, her money-bag still safe with the money unspent in case she needed to enact yet another daring escape.

But her sights were set far higher than the servant's quarters and the barn.

"My lord says quality over quantity applies to all things," said Pleasance, as she was showing Anne around the barn. Occasionally, Anne dropped little hints about wanting to meet the lords of the manor, but Pleasance always put her off, claiming to prefer her company here and loath to see her get ideas above her station by trying for a job in the house itself.

It was clear, however, that Pleasance wanted Anne by her side for another reason entirely.

Anne had farming experience from her time in La Fére, and looked upon this opportunity as serendipitous. She wanted to keep her strength and build upon it, and farm work was ideal.

For several weeks, Anne followed Pleasance in the barn, milking the cows, throwing hay bales, carrying feed for them. Anne was around a foot taller than Pleasance and stronger by far. When she had first taken the heavy sacks of feed from Pleasance and hefted them up, walking away, she could sense the young woman's burning looks.

It seems my beauty works on both men and women, thought Anne, and smirked to herself. Over the last few weeks, she had caught Pleasance staring at her, giving her languishing looks beneath her lashes, and squeaking in terror when she thought she'd been caught looking. 

This is a woman for whom her attractions are new and frightening, Anne thought. She hardly knows what she wants or what she is longing for.

No matter. I will give it to her.

***

One afternoon, in the heat of late summer, around six months after Anne had boarded the ferry to Dover, Pleasance was walking out of a stall holding a full pail of milk. She turned around to close the door.

Suddenly Anne was standing behind her. Pleasance stilled. Anne could hear her breathing quicken.

"Clarisse?" she asked uncertainly.

"Don't drop the milk," Anne whispered in her ear. She slid Pleasance's dress up, her hands gliding up her thighs and over her rear to bunch the fabric above her hips. Pleasance's hand tightened around the handle of the pail.

Softly, Anne stroked her inner thighs, loving the soft, round sensation of a woman. It had been too long, and she was determined to put some of her lessons into practice.

"Open for me, ma chere," whispered Anne. Pleasance didn't say a word, but her legs parted all the same.

Anne drew a finger over her entrance, and Pleasance gave a high staccato sound, the milk in the pail wobbling.

"Now," she said, "this milk is worth money, you can't spill a drop. How angry would the lord be if he found out you spilled it? Do you think you can hold it?"

Pleasance again said nothing, but nodded. Anne's fingers were growing wet where she was cupping Pleasance's soft sex. She hooked her chin over Pleasance's shoulders and slid a finger deep inside her.

Pleasance's body seized up and she gasped in disbelief, as if she had not known her own body could bring her pleasure. As Anne steadily worked her fingers into her, Pleasance leaned forward and allowed her better access. 

"Good," slithered out of Anne's mouth, soothing, encouraging, and Pleasance keened with need, making desperate little sounds as if she wasn't even certain what she was searching for, only that she needed it. She gave herself over entirely to Anne, who was enjoying it herself, as she felt her own thighs wet with wanting. Anne smeared the wetness across the smooth skin of her rump, which was filthy enough to make the young woman cry out softly. Then, she slid four fingers slid into Pleasance, stretching the young woman impossibly wide, and with Anne's thumb against her clitoris, she became frenzied.

Suddenly, Anne drew back and Pleasance made a noise of disappointment, til she turned around and Anne hefted her with one arm. She placed Pleasance on one of the taller stacks of hay bales, and Anne drew out her poiniard.

Pleasance gazed in horror at the little knife, eyes filling with doubt as she looked up into Anne's beautiful blue eyes. Anne lunged forward and slit her corset-strings from bottom to top, Pleasance's breasts falling free. Anne pushed her skirts up and saw that Pleasance's dark nipples and her sex were the same dusky colour, well-matched to her dark brown eyes and hair. 

Anne leaned in and sucked one of her nipples into her mouth, worrying it with her teeth. Pleasance's free hand fell onto her shoulder as she bit back a shriek. Then, Anne opened her mouth wide, managing to fit most of Pleasance's small, round breast inside. Pleasance moaned in abandon upon seeing this and threw her head back against the bales of hay stacked behind her.

Then Anne was on her, sucking and licking inside her, Pleasance's warm wet heat surrounding her. Now Pleasance really did scream, louder than Anne had ever heard herself, and when she looked up she saw her wanton and delirious, bouncing one of her breasts with her free hand and pinching down hard on a nipple.

Anne carefully sucked her clitoris into her mouth and flicked at it with her tongue as fast as possible. Then, she pushed Pleasance's legs apart, penetrating her with her tongue over and over again. Pleasance screamed again, her body thrusting forward, welcoming Anne's invading tongue, and Pleasance gave voice to a few halted moans before suddenly making a long, low noise and absolutely flooding Anne's mouth with the taste of her come, clenching around the invasion of her tongue.

Anne thrust a hand up beneath her own dress, unable to resist any longer, and felt herself so soft and wet her hand slid across her thighs as she brought it to herself, viciously thrusting her fingers inside and rubbing at her clitoris as she resumed her attentions to Pleasance, who came easily again within moments, screaming herself hoarse as Anne kept licking at her and plundering her with her tongue.

Suddenly Anne grabbed Pleasance's thigh with her free hand and clenched it convulsively, just as her orgasm crested and she cried out against Pleasance's wetness. Her blue eyes met Pleasance's brown ones filled with wonder and passion, and Anne stood up, took the pail from her and set it on the ground, then grabbed Pleasance around the waist and threw her to the floor in the soft hay. Anne covered her with her body and grabbed greedily at her breasts, shoving her legs apart to allow her access, and she pushed up Pleasance's skirt impatiently until she felt the contact of her bare sex with her own. 

Anne fucked down onto her as brutally as Henri would have done, rubbing against Pleasance's wetness. She clutched at her breasts and drew her into a filthy kiss, as Pleasance's next orgasm sent a shock through her body and Anne held her down on the floor with her hips.

Anne took her pleasure from Pleasance's body, moving in little fucks against her until she had come at least a dozen times. Pleasance seemed as if she were out of control of her body, helpless to the countless orgasms that shook through her, and Anne was completely insatiable in her hunger, kissing and biting, fucking against her in the need for more, more, more, like a glutton. Pleasance eventually just lay there, breathing in little gasps, waiting for the next orgasm to wash over her like the waves of the sea, succumbing to exhaustion as Anne thrust against her, coming over and over again, until it seemed like she would never stop.

***

Some time much later, completely drenched in sweat and fluids, Anne finally rolled off of Pleasance. Her body still seemed to want more, but the siren call was muted now, and she was able to push away, but still played with herself in the sheer desire she had for more. 

Once she had satisfied herself a few more times, Anne rolled over to look at Pleasance. She was staring up at the roof of the barn, floating; it was clear that Anne had completely exhausted her. 

Eventually Pleasance looked at her, and Anne felt triumphant joy. She looked at her as if she had given her the universe, and there was love in that look. 

The fish reeled in, thought Anne, and I took my pleasure at the same time.

"Now," said Anne. "Will you introduce me to the lords?"

 

Chapter Text

Anne found her way into the main house the very next day.

***

She stood in the study, hoping that her clothes were suitable. She hadn't taken anything with her apart from the precious journal and money-bag in Henri's valise, and feared she would be taken for an ordinary country farmer's daughter.

Like Therese? said a voice in her head. She pushed it aside. Memories of Therese had grown dim, like a candle viewed from a distance.

She could not wait for Therese to save her, or Henri to help her. Not anymore.

It was time she took matters into her own hands. She had always wanted to be strong enough to fight and win her own battles. This was her opportunity.

A tall man with broad shoulders walked into the study. He was a couple of decades older than Anne, with black hair that was going grey at the temples. He was not handsome, but had an air of authority and grace she could appreciate.

"Lord de Winter," said Anne, dropping a curtsy.

He turned warm and sparkling brown eyes to her, and looked her up and down. She was surprised that there was no interest in her body she could register in his eyes, only perfunctory interest.

"Pleasance says you're interested in an interview," said Lord de Winter. "And yet, here I am, completely ignorant that I'd hired a French milkmaid."

"I'm sorry, My Lord," she said. "I was new in England and needed a place. Pleasance offered me one. She's an excellent milkmaid."

"Indeed," said Lord de Winter. "And at many other things, I imagine."

The merry look in his eyes made Anne suspicious that he knew something about what had happened in the barn, but it wasn't something she could ask outright. Instead, she curtseyed again.

"Well, you are quite beautiful," he said. "And one likes to have things of beauty around the house. I'm fond of France and the French, did Pleasance tell you of my love for French cheeses?"

"She did, Your Lordship," said Anne. He waved his hand in the air.

"None of that now," he said. "Call me William. All these stuffy titles, gives one airs, you see."

He shuffled the papers on his desk.

"Now, let me see," he said. "Where do I have need for -"

A smile crossed his face.

"Aha," he said, and Anne narrowed her eyes at him. He looked up at her.

"What would you say to working as a maid in my brother's quarters?" asked William. 

She knew by the look in his eyes that there was some kind of joke in this invitation, but her only other options were to go back to the barn or try her luck alone in London. She still had her money-bag, but it was only so full.

And it was only a matter of time before the money ran out.

"I would be honoured," said Anne. William laughed.

"I wouldn't be so eager to say yes," he said. "Bennett is a peculiar fellow. I think it would be good for him to have a woman's touch around the place."

Anne fought against an intense desire to roll her eyes and won.

"I am up to a challenge," she said. "When would I start?"

"Right away, if you'd like," said William. "The sooner the better, really."

Anne gave him a puzzled look, but he did not seem to be forthcoming with any more information.

"Down the staircase, take a right, down the long hall, and another right. You'll find Bennett's quarters there."

Anne curtseyed again.

"Thank you, William," she said. "I won't disappoint you."

"I'm sure you won't," he said, "or I shall have you turned out of doors, and winter comes quickly. Do you understand?"

Anne nodded. The last thing she wanted was to be homeless, and would do anything -anything - to prevent it. Poverty held a particular horror for her.

"And if he makes any trouble about it," said William, "tell him to take it up with me."

He began to write. Anne stood there, until he looked up again.

"Are you still there?" he asked, shooing her away. "Dismissed."

Anne turned and left the room.

***

"Down the long hallway...to the right," she said to herself as she wandered through the gigantic house. 

It was completely empty of people. 

She thought of the chateau where she had grown up, and how active it had been. Then she thought of the Chateau de la Fére and the chatty, noisy servants running to and fro through the halls.

This place was like a mausoleum.

Finally, she found the door William had described. She considered knocking, but wasn't certain if anyone would hear her. She wasn't certain whether anyone was alive in there.

She pushed the door open.

A young man, slight of build, with a thatch of brown hair on his head and glasses, was sitting in a leather armchair reading a book. The room was enormous and cold, just as empty as the rest of this part of the house. 

She shivered.

She must have made some noise, because the young man looked up from his book.

His mouth dropped open.

"Good Lord," he said.

"Bonjour," she said. "Your brother has hired me as your maid."

He didn't reply, just stared at her as if he had never seen a woman before.

"Has he," he finally said. "Has he."

"Clarisse," she said, holding out her hand. He took it with the air of a man who has only just caught a whiff of a different future.

"Lord Bennett de Winter, at your service," he said, taking her hand and kissing it. "Enchanté."

Anne smiled at him, and quickly evaluated him. He was more handsome than his brother, if slender of build, with sharp green eyes and a bit of cruelty around the mouth.

He'll do, she thought, and sent him her most charming look.

"Very well," he said. "If you are to be in my employ, you'll need to dress better than that. Those things you're wearing are positively rags."

Anne rebelled within, but swallowed her anger.

"I was working in the barn until now," she said.

"Why on earth would my brother hire me a maid from the barn?" mused Bennett. "Well, there's nothing for it, I suppose, and I am in want of a manservant. Do you think you'd be capable of those kinds of duties, not just a maid's? I am of a more modern persuasion than my brother and do not think women must be relegated to traditional roles."

He'll do even better than I imagined at first, Anne thought, and her smile grew wider.

"Your brother thought you would make trouble about his hiring me," said Anne.

"My brother thinks many things, roughly half of which are true," said Bennett. "We don't tell him which ones. Keeps him on his toes, you see."

Bennett rang a little bell near the armchair. Moments later, a matronly woman bustled in.

"Yes, Master Bennett, what is it?" she asked.

"Nurse, would you take Clarisse here to be dressed properly," said Bennett. "She will be in my employ from now on."

The nurse gave Clarisse a once-over and clearly wasn't impressed by what she saw.

"Of course," she said, obviously holding her tongue. "This way, madam."

Clarisse curtseyed to Bennett. He winked at her, the message of which she did not understand.

The nurse put her hand on the small of Anne's back and escorted her out of the room.

***

In the dressing room, the nurse was chattering away as she spoke.

"I don't know where the boys find these strays," she muttered. "First it was dogs and cats, now it's homeless French farmer's daughters. What will they think of next?"

Anne paid her no mind. She was fitted for clothes more appropriate to someone serving at the side of a lord. She knew she would be able to bathe and perfume herself soon, style her hair, and do all the little things that had caught men in the past. This time, for the first time, she was doing it by design. 

She had a goal in her sights, and it was Bennett de Winter's fortune.

Her shapely curves were revealed in the mirror as the nurse fitted a dress to her. Then, she handed Anne a pile of clothes.

"Here, these will fit you," she said. "Now, go and bathe, make yourself presentable. Lord de Winter wants only the best."

"And he shall have it," said Anne, who caught sight of herself in the looking-glass, and smiled.

 

Chapter Text

In the weeks that followed, Anne learned a great deal about Bennett de Winter. 

He was scrupulous about personal cleanliness and having his clothing pressed, but was forgetful and messy, leaving things here and there around the place. He read many books on the strategy of war, the finer points of naval history, and the politics of the day.

"Why do you read these books, monsieur?" asked Anne one day as she was dusting. He picked it up and leafed through the pages.

"Strategy is important in all forms of life," said Bennett, "Tacticians are the winners of wars, and that extends to other areas - economics, investments, managing a household."

"And love?" Anne pressed, breathing deeply to best display her breasts in the low-cut dress she wore in his employ.

He looked away and lowered his eyelashes, a move Anne had come to associate with embarrassment. The English, unlike the French, were decidedly dispassionate, she had discovered. She'd had to learn his ways to effect the best plan of attack.

"In love, as in all things," he said, "tactics and strategy are of the utmost importance."

He chanced a look at her, his lips upturned in a slight smile.

***

In the depths of winter, it had come time for their annual ball.

"Gives everyone something to do," explained Bennett. "Dashed boring, this time of year."

"Not in France," said Anne dreamily. "The snow is light, and the weather is mild. Sometimes there are warm winds on the air, telling of the approaching spring."

"Your flowery language is quite captivating," said Bennett. "I shall endeavour to visit your country and find what my brother thinks so appealing."

"You will not be disappointed," she said. "The best of France is in the spring, with the new flowers blooming."

Bennett was seated at his writing-desk, finishing his correspondence. He put the final flourish on the last letter he had to write and turned to her.

"Clarisse," he said. She stood there expectantly. 

He looked awkwardly down at his feet.

"I wondered," he said, and gathering his courage, he looked up. "I wondered if you would do me the honour of attending the ball."

"I'd love to," said Anne. "There are not many distractions here. But - would it not be odd, having a maid there?"

Bennett finally blushed, and Anne rejoiced inside at this triumph.

"I meant," he said, "would you like to attend the ball with me?"

"Oh," said Anne, as if she hadn't understood exactly what he meant immediately. "Then yes!"

Bennett grinned at her, the first smile she had seen that lit up his whole face.

"Oh, thank goodness," he said. "I was so worried that you would say no."

Anne turned up the charm and gave him a bashful look.

"Why should I, when such a handsome gentleman asks me?" she said.

Her joy was savage when she saw him blush again.

***

Every week, Anne met Pleasance behind the barn, where they enjoyed a picnic lunch together. Anne pressed kisses to her full lips, despite her weak protests, and Pleasance always succumbed. She was madly in love with Anne by now and could not have resisted her. Anne was reminded of her own reaction to Henri - always ready, always excited, always willing to go further and do more.

Pleasance, for Anne, was much the same.

So every week, Anne planted hot kisses on Pleasance's soft, full lips, until her breath went quick and her body sang, her quiet little moans grew to shouts, and Anne was satisfied.

For now.

***

The dance was held in a grand ballroom the likes of which Anne had never seen. She assumed the Louvre must have something like it but she had never been inside, so couldn't be certain. She wondered again at the lavish opulence of the de Winter estate.

The people in attendance were absolutely dripping with silks and jewellery, fine gemstones hanging in teardrops or entire streams from their ears, their necks, their wrists, even the diadems on the heads of the women.

Anne felt poorly dressed in comparison, especially remembering the sumptuous clothing she had worn as the comtesse. She pushed the thought into the back of her mind with fury. There was no time to dwell on the past. She had ideas for the present.

And those ideas included her climbing back up the ladder of society, to perch where she belonged, bedecked in diamonds and jewels. It would not exactly be a recompense for what she had suffered in life thus far, but it would be enough.

Anne knew in her heart that she would keep climbing, and reach the top one day. She would probably never be satisfied with any amount of money, property, or sex, and determined to glut herself on everything. 

She had survived so many things: escaping her home, escaping the Duke, escaping a rope hanging from her favourite cherryblossom trees.

She saw nothing now in life aside from this goal, and to her, people were only there to be consumed or get out of her way.

"May I have this dance?" asked Bennett, appearing at her side clothed in impeccable jacket and trousers, his hands gloved and his shoes shining.

"Of course," said Anne, returning to her blushing-maiden routine, and Bennett took her out, spinning her around the dance floor as her dress lifted with the wind of her movements.

The band played and French champagne was drunk. Waiters bobbed and swayed through the dancing partners, offering food and libations. Anne was drunk on it all, the wine, the night, the future. Since she had resolved never to love again, she never felt more free.

When the dance was finished, and the dancers took their seats, she saw William de Winter approach them.

"I see my latest hire has been good for you!" he said. "Congratulations, my brother. I am sure you will do well by her."

He leaned over as if to speak with a conspiritorial air to Anne.

"Been absolutely impossible to get this one married off," he said. "And of course, there's no possibility for a de Winter heir from me. So all the hopes are set on Bennett here."

Anne was puzzled when he said this, as Pleasance had told her he was married.

Then she looked at the man he had been standing with, whose arm was looped casually around his elbow.

She thought of Chabot, and she understood.

"So we're hoping to see him get married soon," William went on. "Terrible disappointment to the parents, the both of us. I trust that Clarisse has been happy working for you?"

"I certainly hope so," Bennett said, and to everyone's shock, he knelt down on the floor and produced a ring from his pocket. "Clarisse, will you marry me?"

Everyone in attendance held their breath. Many women threw looks of jealousy in Anne's direction. The air seemed to still there, in the ballroom with the starlight reflecting off the floor. 

It was romantic. It was beautiful.

It's too soon, said a voice in her head. 

Maybe they do things differently in England?

Just in time, she remembered that she was playing a part. Her hand flew to her mouth as she feigned a shocked surprise. She looked around at all the audience watching her intently.

"But I'm only a - " she began, but Bennett hushed her.

"You're everything to me," he said. She smiled at him.

"Then yes," she said.

An almighty roar went up from the other partygoers, and Bennett leaned in for a kiss. She complied. His lips were dry and he only gave her the most perfunctory of kisses. Then he stood up and offered her his hand.

He led her onto the dance floor and the music started again.

"May I introduce Clarisse, my new fiancee," Bennett announced. Everyone clapped, delighted to have an excuse to keep dancing and enjoying all the free food and drink, now that it was clear the night would be a free-for-all. None of them paid much attention to them after that, and Bennett danced with Anne all evening long.

At the end of the night, Bennett walked her back to her own little room in his quarters.

"You've made me the happiest man alive," he said, "Goodnight, Clarisse."

And he gave her another one of those perfunctory kisses, as if it were yet another chore, like putting away his books or ringing the bell for the nurse. 

When the door shut behind her, Anne congratulated herself on how quickly her plans had worked.

Much too quickly, said her treacherous thoughts. These English men are not like the French, dying over the loss of a woman's love. They seem emotionless, passionless. And you had no warning of this, no idea it was coming - you thought you were still in the beginnings of a plan, and here you are at the successful end of it.

Perhaps it's best not to look a gift horse in the mouth?

Anne settled into her little bed. She didn't want to doubt this, or her own abilities, but she felt unsettled.

Maybe this is just what English men are like, she thought as she dropped off to sleep. 

Maybe this is passion, for them.

***

They started to plan the wedding the very next day.

Anne told Bennett that she would marry in any season but the spring.

When he asked her the reason, she told him bad memories and left it at that.

She didn't elaborate, and he didn't pry.

The date was fixed for the start of summer, a mere eight months since she had first come to live at the de Winter estates.

 

Chapter Text

The weeks after the engagement were filled with all kinds of activity. 

Anne was shown various papers and books on English royalty and gentry, so she could familiarise herself with the names of all the great nobles before she was introduced into society. 

"Educate that accent out of her," directed Bennett. "We can't have her going around sounding like a French market stall owner."

Bennett's next command was to dictate and teach etiquette to Anne.

"Oh, I am well-versed in etiquette," Anne assured him.

He simply raised an eyebrow.

"French etiquette, madam," he said. "Not on par with the English, something the French will never touch."

And she held her tongue, and she rolled her eyes, and she took her frustrations out on Pleasance, who didn't know where all this angry passion came from but was thankful for it.

One day, after they had finished, Anne finally confessed that she would be wed. Pleasance wept, of course, and begged her not to do it, but was also accepting of Anne's good fortune. Her remonstrations and her tears held little effect for Anne, and were eventually smothered with Anne's kisses. Helpless in the face of love, Pleasance was subdued.

Anne's heart was cold, now. All she saw ahead of her was money, and how to get her hands on as much of it as possible.

***

The months flew past in a whirlwind of lessons, until Bennett visited Anne one day with a sharp rap at her door.

"I have decided you are ready to be presented to polite society," he announced, walking into her room, hands behind his back as he walked to and fro. "Therefore, I should think we are ready for the wedding. I am fixing it for two weeks from today. Have you any objections?"

"No," said Anne, who was being dressed and powdered, perfumed and styled by a small army of servants. She was not exactly in a position to do much of anything.

"Please, leave us for a moment?" Anne asked the servants, and bowing, they all left.

Anne was standing on a little dais because her dress was being hemmed, and so she towered over Bennett, who was already around an inch shorter than she was.

"I expect you wished to address me in private for a reason, madam?" he asked. 

"Yes," said Anne, stepping down from the dais. "Since you kissed me at the ball, you've never once looked at me, or kissed me, or touched me."

Bennett chuckled.

"Ah, the French and their ways," he said. "This was one reason that I felt you would need to learn English etiquette. We are more refined here than the French. You will only know my passion on our wedding night, as it should be."

What passion? thought Anne. It is like you are dead! Englishmen!

"But - " pouted Anne, putting on her best show and approaching Bennett in a sultry manner. "I've wanted you for so long."

Bennett smiled and planted a perfunctory kiss on her forehead.

"And you shall have me," he said, "as soon as we have said our vows."

He put his hand under her chin and turned her head from side to side.

"Indeed," he said. "You'll do just fine."

He bowed.

"I thank you for agreeing to the wedding date," he said, "please be ready by that time. Nurse will find you and bring you to the chapel on that day."

Then, he turned sharply on his heel, and left the room.

Anne watched him go and wondered if she could really spend all her life with such a cold fish, even if he had more money than the king of France.

Just bear it, Anne. You'll find your wealth soon enough, and that will succour you.

I certainly hope so, she shot back. Maybe some things in life are more important than money.

And for the very first time she could remember, Anne de Breuil wondered if she might not be happier poor, with Pleasance or Henri or Therese, than share her bed with a block of passionless human marble.

***

The wedding-day arrived swiftly, and the dawn was clear and bright. It seemed to take most of the day for the servants to prepare both Anne and the chapel for the ceremony.

Anne was imprisoned in taffeta and lace, her dress wrapping around her and a long, heavy train behind it. If she wasn't quite as strong as she was after working on the farms and in the barn for so long, she might have had a hard time standing up straight.

As it was, she made an ethereal, beautiful bride. And she knew it.

The ceremony itself, much like the kiss, was perfunctory, and lacked much of the jubilant atmosphere of her wedding to Armand.

Still, she walked down that aisle like a hunter with their prey in sight, and stood in front of all those jealous people while she waited for the moment all this would be hers. 

But wouldn't you rather be rolling in the lavender fields with Therese, Anne?

The priest gave his sermon, preaching about love.

But wouldn't you rather be exploring the boundaries of sex with Henri, Anne?

The ringbearers brought forth the rings.

But wouldn't you rather be in the barn with Pleasance, Anne?

She slipped a ring on Bennett's finger, and he, one on hers.

You still love Armand, Anne, and look what he did to you. Money isn't everything. Happiness is all.

"Do you, Clarisse, take Lord Bennett de Winter, as your lawful wedded husband?"

Anne was staring off through her veil, full pink lips drawn down. 

"Clarisse?"

Anne looked up and realised she was being addressed. Bennett was watching her, concerned.

"I do," she said. Bennett visibly relaxed.

"And do you, Lord Bennett de Winter, take Clarisse Clarik as your lady wife?"

Bennett's smile lit up the room. It was the first time she had seen anything on him that wasn't the usual no-nonsense attitude.

"I do," he said. He lifted her veil. She smiled at him.

"You may kiss the bride."

Bennett kissed her, again in what she considered a businesslike fashion, but it didn't matter. Pride and joy surged through her as she took this kiss for what it was: the inheritance of the de Winter estates, lands, and holdings.

They turned, smiling, toward the crowd, hand in hand.

As they walked back down the aisle, showered in confetti, the audience stood and clapped.

Anne looked at Bennett, who was also smiling proudly.

She hoped for a bit more passion in the marriage-bed, but was doubtful, given her experience with Bennett thus far.

No matter. She now had what she had always wanted: wealth, power, and an introduction into elite society, where she might endlessly move higher and higher up the social ladder. What did it matter, if the sons of gold seemed to have nothing in the way of earthly passions?

But you do, said that voice in her head, and it matters, no matter how much you try to push it away or tamp it down. You are a wild animal, Anne. Wild animals don't take kindly to a cage.

Anne smiled and waved, ignoring the voice, as they walked down the steps of the chapel and through a crowd of servants toward a waiting carriage to take them to their honeymoon destination. She noticed a flash of brown hair, and caught the eye of Pleasance, whose tears were probably attributed to the joy of a wedding-day. She felt the recriminations of Pleasance's gaze, and if she'd felt it was safe, she would have raised a hand in greeting.

But she knew it wasn't, least of all for Pleasance herself, and so Anne contented herself with gazing back at the beautiful maiden. As the door of the carriage closed behind her, she thought she heard a sob in the crowd.

As the horses started, and the wheels turned, the carriage carried Anne and Bennett off to their new lives together.

 

Chapter Text

The wedding feast had been sumptuous but lacking any food Anne might have considered good. The French cheese so loved by William de Winter was the only part of the repast she enjoyed. Still, she tasted everything, just to show willing. Everyone present most likely thought she was concerned about her figure. From the chatter at the table, it sounded as though once a woman was wed here in England they ceased to exist apart from their role in the making of heirs.

Anne had already decided to change that, at least in the de Winter household.

***

Finally, Bennett took her upstairs to their rooms. A sprawling apartment with views all over London, this was to be their first marriage-bed.

Anne climbed onto the bed and arranged herself just so. She undid the laces of her corset and assumed a languishing air, looking up at Bennett from under her lashes when he turned and locked the door.

"Let's not go on like that now," said Bennett. "Dissimulation is a value you may have, but there are none here to see it."

Anne sat up quickly, searching his features. He was deadly serious.

"What do you mean?"

Bennett grinned.

"Oh, Clarisse," he said. "To think, you thought I didn't know? I thought we were together playing this game of chess on one side with all others on the opposite!"

"I don't understand."

Bennett sniffed. 

"I thought you more intelligent than that," he said. "Here, let me spell it out for you. My brother has been pressuring me to get married for years. He has also agreed that in exchange for my marrying, he will cease with this ridiculous operation with the milk cows and with France. I'm sure he saw the answer to his troubles in you, my dear. A French milkmaid! But you're more than that, aren't you?"

Anne watched this man, wily as a snake, crawl onto the bed.

"No, don't hide from me," said Bennett. "There's an aristocratic turn to everything you do. I've been in France, I know what you're hiding, Clarisse."

He slid a hand up her leg. She shivered in spite of herself.

"And you," he grinned. "You are one of the best actresses I have ever seen. I know you were hunting for my inheritance, and that's fine, it's why I chose you. But let's not pretend this is anything other than it is - a business proposition."

He pushed her legs apart, and quickly unzipped himself. He paused, looking up at her.

"Unless I was wrong? And you do truly love me?" he asked, looking uncertain for the first time.

Anne tried to shove away her desire, that thing always roaring inside her, anticipating Bennett as she would have anticipated a man while with Henri on the road. Sometimes her appetites seemed to get the best of her.

"No," said Anne. "You're right. I'm just surprised."

Bennett's smile widened. 

"Then you were definitely the right choice," he said, lowering his head and gasping as he touched himself, already hard. "And as I will not have this marriage annulled, I would like to consummate it. In exchange for giving me an heir, I will give you the world."

Anne nodded, and laid back as he traced her inner thighs with a fingertip. He dipped his finger inside her, making her cry out, and with no further action of any kind, he pressed his cock against her and slid into her. He grunted in surprise, and catching his breath, looked her in the eyes as if he had never known anything like it before. Perhaps he hadn't, given how unskillful he was; even Armand looked good in comparison. 

But the pleasure-pain of being taken suddenly in that way caused Anne to light up, and she was writhing and gasping against him helplessly. 

"I now understand what they mean about the French," mumbled Bennett, and Anne would have laughed, if it were anyone else, anywhere else. He suddenly stilled, and finished inside her. Then he pulled out, leaving her unsatisfied.

"Clean yourself up and return to me," Bennett directed. "We have much to discuss."

***

Anne, having taken care of herself and bathed, returned to sit in front of Bennett at the table.

"Now," he said. "My sincerest apologies for the subterfuge, but I had to make sure everyone believed in our love. The deal I would like to offer you is this: I want an heir. And I want to get William off my back. The first part is accomplished, I will not be pestered to get married anymore. In exchange, I will make you the sole heir of all my holdings, estates, grounds, and money."

"You could have offered me all of this before we were married," said Anne.

"How on earth would that have worked?" asked Bennett. "First, I had to be sure of you. Then I had to be sure of others. You're a great actress, Clarisse, but even you might have had trouble going into this knowing that I was just as invested as you in something other than matrimony."

"One condition," said Anne. Bennett nodded. "You leave the milk cows and the barn alone."

Bennett gave her a searching look.

"Hm," he said. "I can understand that. They took you in. It's because of them that you found a place here in the house, and led to your fortunes changing. I agree to the terms."

"Thank you," said Anne.

"Our plan of attack involves high society," Bennett went on. "So I've had you coached in every way possible, to appear as a cultivated member of the upper class. I think this has been a success. Therefore, I would like to make your introduction as soon as possible. Your acting ability will bring me access to many State secrets I'd like to hold."

Anne raised her eyebrows.

"In order to do that," she said. "I would need to conduct affairs."

"I encourage you to do so," Bennett said. "In fact, I encourage any and all dalliances that will advance my prospects, and therefore your own. However, I expressly forbid any that get in our way, or would cause outrage if it were discovered."

"And in all this, how will you know the heir is your own?" asked Anne.

"I care not if the child is my own blood," said Bennett. "I do not have the same ridiculous ideas as some of my countrymen. Besides, fresh blood is needed in some of these old families. Saves us from looking like deformed weasels."

Anne laughed in spite of herself. Bennett grinned.

"I'm so glad I made the correct inferences about you," he said. "Care to tell me anything of your past, Clarisse? Such as your real name?"

Anne blushed, she couldn't help herself.

"Yes, I know Clarisse isn't your real name," he said. "Nor Clarik, I think. But that's fine; keep the secrets you hold, it makes us all the better as conspirators."

"You realise that you're talking about building an empire on blackmail," Anne pointed out.

Bennett grinned.

"And on what else are empires built, my dear?" he asked. "So are we in agreement?"

"Yes," said Anne. "But there is one other condition I'd like to stipulate."

"What is that?"

"If we're going to try for an heir," said Anne, with a lascivious smile, "I'm going to teach you how to do it right."

***

Two weeks after they had concluded their secret pact, Anne was introduced to high society.

The king was giving a ball, an amusement he enjoyed greatly. His particular favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, was there, dressed in all his finery and dancing with the ladies, casting surreptitious looks at James that everyone else saw but pretended to ignore.

"It is for me to make new introductions," called the master of ceremonies. "It is my pleasure to introduce to you the new wife of Lord Bennett de Winter."

Anne walked out among all the luminaries of the English court in a tight, voluminous dress dripping with pearls and diamonds. The dress showed off her swanlike neck and white decolletage, the delicate line of her collarbones and the promise hidden beneath all that silk and lace.

"May I introduce the newest addition to our constellation of stars," said the master of ceremonies.

Anne executed a deep curtsy.

"Milady Clarik de Winter."

 

Chapter Text

So Bennett began Anne's education in political chess.

The two of them moved into London, away from the riches of the de Winter estate, and lived in a sprawling mansion within the limits of Westminster, the most fashionable quarter due to its nearness to both politics and the crown. In this way, Anne found that she could seduce anyone from foreign dignitaries who were captivated by her looks, to local politicians who were lulled into complacency by the slight French lilt still detectable in her accent but which no Frenchman would ever hear, so close to his own as it was. 

In this way, Anne and Bennett traded in secrets, both State and world. Their empire was built, their influence grew, until the two of them held in their web countless people whose downfall would have cost them everything, and so they felt that the extortion was a small price to pay.

In all of this, Anne still endeavoured to become pregnant. She couldn't seem to do it, despite how much she had tried.

***

"Yes, there," Anne cooed, "you feel incredible - "

The strength and duration of her orgasm seemed to spur the man on, his pride and his masculinity flattered, and he thrust into her with abandon, moaning loudly as he finally found completion inside her. 

She looked up at him, blinking beneath her lashes, looking for all the world like a woman who absolutely worshipped the ground he walked on, and that he had given her pleasure like none she had ever known.

"When can I see you again?" he asked, buttoning himself up.

"As often as you wish," she sighed out, "Please."

He grinned, replaced his hat, and walked out of the room.

Anne stood and went to a little diary on the bed.

General of the Italian army, she wrote. Cheating on his wife and his mistress. Embezzling funds from the crown. 

She set the pen down and went to wash herself. She sighed in pleasure, glad she had been able to use her own predilections for something useful. 

Anne knew she was a pawn and a prostitute, in a way. She knew that she was involved in what amounted to a high-end game of chess where she did all the work and Bennett reaped all the rewards. 

Still, she thought, he didn't know that these encounters were reward enough. Where once she feared being caught for her proclivities, now she rejoiced in them, knowing she was untouchable, because she held their secrets too. One rule for the commoners, another for the upper class, was no more true than here, in this bedroom and in her current life, where she tempted men into her bed and consumed them like a Venus flytrap consumed insects.

And yet, she still hadn't managed to become pregnant, to hold up her end of the bargain.

She began to wonder if it were even possible.

***

As the months passed, Anne managed to seduce several men. She'd have tried for the king himself if she didn't know he was completely besotted with the Duke of Buckingham.

And, all the while, she slept with Bennett as a wife does with her husband, undertaking his sexual education like she had with Armand. The primary difference between the two men was that Bennett's cruel side extended to the bedroom, and this was a primary reason Anne kept returning to him, revelling in it, something akin to but not exactly like Henri.

During this time, she still returned to Pleasance, and they ate their lunch together, and Anne kept her satisfied.

Anne realised, around this time, that she could make love to the women, too.

***

One night in London, a ball was being held for foreign dignitaries and diplomats.

"Go," said Bennett, waving her away from where he was working on various papers relating to the estate. "This is the perfect chance for you to find out something in regards to France. The French diplomats will be there and you'll be charming to your fellow countrymen. I cannot attend, regrettably; I am swamped with this work."

Anne kissed him on the temple, and he patted her.

"Shall we arrange a rendezvous later?" he asked her.

"Certainly," she said. "If I meet no one tonight to bring back to my bed, I will be available to you."

"Focus on finding someone," he said. "If not, we can enjoy each other's company later, but remember that this is of paramount importance. England is on the verge of a war with France, I think, if the Duke of Buckingham's behaviour is anything to go by."

"I know your perspicacity," said Anne, "especially in regards to myself. If you say so, I believe it, as I would believe a soothsayer."

"Soothsayers are charlatans, my dear," said Bennett, not looking up from his papers. "I use observation and the understanding of the human condition."

Anne curtsied, and bustled out, as he raised his hand in farewell. 

She would find a man at the ball this night and perhaps one that would provide the heir she had so long been waiting for.

***

The ball was well-attended. The king and queen were there, and the Duke of Buckingham, along with several other dukes, duchesses, counts, politicians and hangers-on. The glittering affair must have cost a fortune, as Anne drifted past swans made of ice and food piled atop tables and silver plates. It seemed that England had outdone itself with respect to France in particular, perhaps a move to ensure peace between the kingdoms that Buckingham sported with so often. There were dignitaries from around the world here, but the French were the guests of honour.

This made the pickings for Anne very, very easy.

She narrowed down her plan of attack and her prey during the first few dances.  A young and dashing French count with medals pinned to his chest was one of the soldiers closest to the French king. Given the circumstances regarding Buckingham in particular, this would offer Anne some of the best blackmail for either France or England, offering Bennett dominion over the great and powerful of two countries at once.

During the next dance, she endeavoured to be close to him, and eventually he became her dancing partner. She smiled, and sighed, and did everything coquettish she could think to do. He kept returning to her again and again, with that eagerness tinged with desperation she'd become accustomed to seeing in men, from the half-mad Duke she had killed so long ago, to Henri and Armand, to the countless young men she had seduced as if she were a siren and they were helpless to her call.

"I cannot help but notice you were looking at me," said the young gentleman as they danced. He was really quite handsome, with long brown hair and hazel eyes that seemed to change colour like the seasons as they spun and danced.

Anne lowered her lashes as she usually did, and pretended to blush. He tipped her chin up with a fingertip.

"Now, none of that," he said. "I simply must know who you are."

"Milady de Winter," she said. The man looked around the ballroom.

"And your husband isn't here?" he asked.

"No," she said.

"Pity a man leaving a wife like you alone out here," said the man. "Who knows what might happen?"

Anne breathed in, her chest rising, and she saw the way the man looked hungrily at the swell of her breasts against the prison of her dress.

"Such as?" asked Anne.

"Things perhaps a lady such as yourself couldn't guess," said the man. "But I could teach you."

"And what of your own wife, monsieur?" asked Anne. "Surely one as young and handsome as yourself is married."

She was surprised to see him sigh, and look away, flirtation dropped as his mind went elsewhere.

"What is it?" she pursued. "Have I said something amiss?"

The young comte smiled.

"It's nothing, forgive me," he said. "It's just that I was affianced to someone once, but she ran away the night before we were to be wed. It's not often a man is left standing at the altar, but it was for me."

Anne's entire body seemed to go into shock.

"A - and this woman," she started, "What was her name?"

"The daughter of a minor nobleman in Normandy. Her name was Anne de Breuil," he said, "but her family says she died, threw herself from a cliff where her body was dashed against the rocks. Certainly something for a man to think about, when a woman prefers suicide to marrying him."

He shook himself, and laughed. He didn't seem to notice Anne's horrified expression.

"My apologies, I must be very melancholy tonight," he said. "I don't know what made me want to tell you that, it's not the best introduction to a beautiful young woman. I may take your leave now, should you wish it."

"On the contrary, I do not," said Anne, determined not to let the shock overrule her initial goals for this evening. "What you have said intrigues me, it is like a romance."

The young man smiled in relief, and continued to dance with her for a while longer.

"Shall we leave the dance, so I may teach you some of the things I spoke of?" he asked.

Anne gasped in mock horror at such indecency.

"Impertinent man!" she said, but with an inflection that made it clear she was interested, playing the innocent with the desire to be shown the world he described. "I simply could not go anywhere with you, I don't know you."

"Then I shall introduce myself," he said. "François-René Crispin du Bec, Comte de Wardes, at your service."

 

Chapter Text

Anne and the Comte de Wardes crept away from the ball, much to her elation. She had taken the news of his identity in stride, thinking she was not the same frightened girl who had run away from her responsibilities all those years ago.

She realised that if she had not made that choice, she would not be the woman she had become, one who had been able to learn and to choose, and to pursue her fortunes to their heights in a way most women never dreamed of doing at that time period. de Wardes was a real feather in her cap, a man with money and means as well as connections to the most important political figures in France. Seducing him would mean that she and Bennett were bankrolled for a year at least, while England and France worked out their differences.

Anne led him to her rooms, as she had so many other men on so many other nights. Upon entering, the Comte de Wardes looked around himself and seemed surprised to understand that he was in a lady's boudoir.

"Clarisse," said the comte, taking her hand. "I did not come with you for a liason, but to learn more about who you are."

Anne started, and gave him a look of surprise.

"What do you mean to say, monsieur?" she asked. The comte smiled.

"I am interested in you, Clarisse Clarik," he clarified. "If we are to have this type of liason, I would prefer it to be in the future, when I know you well. Today, I only see that you are beautiful, and while that is true of many women, it's the beating heart beneath that matters to me."

Anne looked at the comte as if she had never seen him before, or rather as if she had never seen a man like him before. All men, in her experience, were hypnotised by the idea of bedding her, a mark of possession in their minds. The clever knew, however, that real possession involved a sacrifice on the part of the other person, that is, a willing arrangement and meeting of minds or souls. Bedding her had never meant anything. The comte was asking for more than she thought she was willing to give.

"I don't embroil myself with other men," she told him. "My husband pardons dalliances, but not love affairs."

"Then, madame, I must take my leave of you," said the Comte de Wardes, lifting his hat from a side-table and replacing it on his head. He bowed deeply. "If ever you should change your mind, you know where to find me, whether here or at Paris."

And like that, he was gone.

Anne sat down on her bed, utterly stupefied. It was too late to return to the ball and try again, as she could hear chatter and the sounds of the band getting ready to leave. It was late at night, and for the first time she felt the loss of a fish swimming out of her trap.

***

"Start a love affair with this man."

Anne stared at Bennett, openmouthed. He was, as usual, working on the papers for the estates. 

"Pardon?" she asked, thinking she could not have heard him right.

"Start an affair," said Bennett, finally looking up from his papers. "A man in love has loose lips. We will learn far more from him than a liason of yours, although the information you have gathered is good. If this man falls in love with you, then he will give us enough information to hold over the heads of state of two nations, ensuring our fortune."

"And if I fall in love with him?" demanded Anne.

"So much the better," said Bennett. "Then you won't be acting, and will be able to discover even more. While I have had the pleasure to assure you that you are a great actress, Clarice, there is nothing on par with the truth. Fall in love with him, if needs be, and report to me."

"I won't," said Clarice. "That was not our agreement."

Bennett set down his pen. He circled the desk and came around it to her, leaning in close to her face.

"And you have not yet produced me an heir," said Bennett. "Besides, your sporting with that little milkmaid is also against the contract. I have already taken precautions against that too."

He saw Anne's look of surprise.

"Oh, yes, I learned about that," he said. "A card I was holding close to my chest, of course. You broke the contract first, and so that part of the pact is null and void. If you are still capable of providing me an heir, the rest still stands. And so I command you to fall in love with this man and discover his secrets."

"You stay away from the milking barn, and the workers," Anne hissed. "And if I did fall in love, I wouldn't keep providing you with information. Or I'd provide you with exactly the wrong information and then have you arrested! You certainly have enough incriminating evidence in all your papers."

"I see we are at an impasse," he said. "And yet I know that you have nowhere to go. A poor French milkmaid! I elevated you to this rank, Milady de Winter, and I can drop you back down again, and make you so poor that you will look hungrily at dirt! Everyone would turn you away, a disgraced woman, until you were begging in the streets! All this I can do in an instant. Shall I denounce you in front of everyone?"

And his hand reached for the bell. Anne rushed at him and grabbed his arm.

"No!" she cried. "No, please!"

Bennett smirked at her and lowered his arm.

"I've never forgotten what you are," he snarled. "A whore I could use and find uses for. I thought you'd be happy as long as you were bedded well and often, but it appears that is not the case. Say goodbye to the milking barns and your friends. I own you. Now do as you're told, and go fall in love with that man. Bring all reports back to me."

And just as he was about to walk out the door, he turned around.

"I also expect you in my bed tonight," he said. "If you are not there, I will find you, and you will not like the result. Understood?"

Anne's face was red, and her eyes bright with tears. She nodded.

"I didn't hear you," snapped Bennett.

"Yes," she managed to say. "Understood."

Then he was in front of her rapidly, grabbing her face and lifting her chin up, looking down at her with cruel eyes.

"You're mine," he said, "and you will do as I say. Otherwise there will be consequences, Clarisse."

Then he released her and was out the door before she could say another word.

Chapter Text

As soon as Bennett was out of earshot, Anne ran over to the desk.

"This is war," she whispered to herself. "And I need weapons."

She shuffled through the voluminous paperwork until something caught her eye. She lifted it up to the light in order to read it.

"Fool! Buffoon!" she hissed between her teeth. 

It was an order that read for the dissolution of the milking operations, all employees to be terminated without further notice.

She flipped the paper over; it hadn't yet been sent. The sealing-wax sat beside it and an envelope on the table.

Anne stood there and thought the situation through. If she set it on fire, he would only write it again. If she threw it away, he would know. And whatever he threatened to do to her that evening, well, she shuddered to think.

A timid knock came at the door. Anne quickly replaced the document where she had found it, and walked swiftly to the window a fair distance from the desk.

"Enter."

She turned to see a slender young man, just into his adulthood, standing in the doorway.

"Please forgive the intrusion, madame," said the young man, bowing. "But I am come to deliver a message to Lord Bennett de Winter."

Anne approached him. He was handsome, if a bit awkward, coming out of his teenage years and into his twenties.

"Tell me, young man," said Anne. "Are you one of Bennett's servants? Are you loyal to him?"

"Yes, of course, madam," he nodded. She smiled.

Without a word, she kissed him. He made a surprised noise and stared at her as if she had granted all his wishes. She placed his hand on her breast and he stuttered out a moan. She grabbed him and kicked the door closed. 

The young man scrabbled blindly at her dress, and she led him to the bed.

"Undress me," she directed. The young man did so, with shaking hands, until her corset was off and she was free of her skirts. She lay naked in the sunlight, glowing, and the young man's eyes were wide, staring at her body surrounded by silks.

"Do you want me?" asked Anne, writhing slowly in the light, the silks caressing her body. The young man nodded, approaching her eagerly. His cock made a tent in his trousers. "Then come."

He stripped himself and climbed on top of her, kissing the white swell of her breasts and swirling his tongue around her coral-pink nipple. She sighed and pressed his head closer, where he sucked and nipped with abandon. 

Then she lifted him bodily, at which he looked dizzy and impressed, and arranged him between her legs, where he pushed into her with all the enthusiasm and lack of care of youth. His jaw dropped as he sheathed himself inside her, and she threw her head back and moaned, moving against him in a sinuous manner.

"Have you done this before?" she asked him. He began to thrust into her and she cried out every time he was buried there.

"No, madam," said the young man breathlessly, "Oh, oh - "

She arched her body and came against him, glorying in claiming his first time. He cried out at the sensation, shuddering from wild desire, unable to stop moving, or to know where to look, his entire being focused on the feeling of being inside her.

He gave a series of little high-pitched cries as he lost himself within her, and she could see that he was close.

"That's it," she encouraged, "Yes. Yes. Come for me."

He moaned at her words, and she gripped him by his rear and pulled him even deeper inside, and he shouted in surprise, suddenly losing control and pounding into her. He came inside her with a loud sob, hands clutching at the bedspread and at her silks as he kept thrusting into her shallowly, afterward.

She pillowed his head on her breast, and felt his heartbeat slow as the sweat dried on his forehead. He now looked upon her as a goddess, and she smiled a self-satisfied smile.

"Now," she said, "will you be loyal to me instead?"

"Yes," nodded the young man, "Yes, madam, anything you ask."

"Then I have your word that you will do as I say, and obey me rather than my husband?" she asked.

"Of course," the young man promised, in the fresh bloom of love. "Anything you ask, madam. Anything."

"Good," she said. "Then you will tell me what you'd come here so urgently to tell Bennett."

The young man looked hesitant. She smiled and lifted his hand, placing it on her breast.

"I was to tell him that all was in readiness for the dismantling of the milking business," he said, "and that a young woman had fallen deathly ill, one of the milkmaids who had protested against his will."

Anne sat up, dislodging the young man.

"And this milkmaid? Do you know her name?" she asked.

"Pleasance, madam," he said. "Is everything all right? Have I done well?"

"You've done better than you can imagine," she said. "What is your name?"

"George, madam," he said.

"Thank you, George," she said, "for the service you have rendered me today. I may have use of you in the future."

The love shining in George's eyes was all she needed to see to understand that he was hers, body and soul.

"Now I must go," she told him. "But keep an eye on Bennett for me, and when I return this evening, you shall have your reward."

George nodded eagerly. Anne dressed, and led him out of the room.

"Remember your promise," said Anne, a finger to her lips. He put a hand over his heart, and went away whistling with the joyful air of a young man inducted into the world of passion.

Back in her rooms, Anne rang for a servant.

"Please have a carriage readied for me," she said. "It is of utmost importance. Make haste."

She snatched the paper up from Bennett's desk and hid it in her money-bag along with the letters from Therese and Rochefort.

"Your carriage is ready, madam," a servant announced. Anne hurried to the door and into the carriage before Bennett could discover what she was doing.

Seated in the carriage, she looked up at the great house with hatred.

"This is war, Bennett," she said. "And should I find a casualty, you shall be next. Mark my words."

And the carriage jolted to a start as they rolled off down the paved roadway that led to the de Winter estates out in the countryside.

 

Chapter Text

Anne threw herself out of the carriage upon arrival at the servant's quarters near the barn. She was in such haste that she became tangled in all the fine silks and taffeta she was meant to wear daily. She made a frustrated noise and hiked all her voluminous skirts up around her knees and ran to the servant's quarters. Once there, she dropped her skirts and banged on the door with her fist.

The young woman who opened to her was a new hire and didn't recognise her.

"Madam - " she began, dropping a curtsy.

"No time," said Anne, breathless, "Where is Pleasance?"

The woman looked at her as if a thunderbolt had fallen between them, why would a great lady concern herself with the welfare of a milkmaid?

"Now, if you please!" Anne barked. "Time is of the essence!"

The young woman's mouth snapped shut and she turned on her heel, leading Anne into the servant's quarters. Anne followed as best she could, her skirts snagging on the bits of wood sticking out from the walls, but she didn't care and simply tore them from where they were caught, destroying her dress in the process.

Finally, they emerged into a sort of sick bay, where Pleasance was laying on a raised platform. A nurse was tending to her, but Anne saw at a glance that this was not the kind of illness Pleasance would recover from.

"Pleasance, Pleasance, I'm here," Anne said, rushing to her side and taking her hand.

Pleasance looked up at her with bleary, bloodshot eyes.

"Clarisse," she said softly. "I'm so glad you are here. I didn't think I would see you again."

"Shh, don't talk like that," said Anne, rustling in her skirts until she produced what she was looking for.

An old, beaten, leatherbound journal, which she clutched in her other hand.

"I think I'm dying, Clarisse," said Pleasance. Anne could see the veins standing out against her skin, and she cursed Bennett in her own mind, swearing vengeance.

"Listen to me," she said. "What have you eaten today?"

Pleasance blinked slowly as if this question was too difficult.

"Please, Pleasance," said Anne. "You must remember. It's important."

"Breakfast was - eggs and toast, I believe," she said. "The usual. Luncheon was cheese and bread. Then I drank from a glass of milk that had been left out for testing - "

"Wait," said Anne. "This glass of milk, where did it come from?"

"Sometimes," said Pleasance, coughing, "Sometimes we need to test the quality of the milk because Lord de Winter has spent a great deal of money on these cows. If the milk is of poor quality then it must be discarded. I assumed this was a glass for testing."

"But you didn't collect this milk?" Pleasance shook her head no. "Do you know who did?"

Anne turned and asked the nurse to please go and ask about it.

"The taste of the milk, Pleasance," she said. "Was it good?"

Pleasance shook her head.

"It was - strange," she said. "I dumped it out, and was coming to talk to everyone about the poor yield, perhaps needing to switch out the grain or let the cows roam the pastures more often, but I became quite dizzy and took to my bed. Nurse has been trying to keep me alive ever since I didn't rouse from my bed."

Anne stroked her hair and watched Pleasance as she sweat and coughed. 

"Where is the glass, Pleasance?" asked Anne.

"I dumped it, Clarisse, I'm sorry," Pleasance mumbled.

"That's all right," she said. "Did you wash it?"

"No," said Pleasance.

"Then point it out to me."

Pleasance lifted a weak arm and pointed in the direction of the empty glass, sitting innocently on a nearby sideboard. Anne followed her arm, pointing as if calling out the guilty party in a court of law.

Anne approached the glass, looked inside it, and sniffed it delicately. She drew her gloves from her money-bag and put them on before wrapping a hand around the glass.

She was certain her suspicions would be confirmed, but she had to be sure.

You will pay for this, she thought to herself. What if I hadn't come in time?

What if the administered dose had been enough, and Pleasance would not have risen in the morning?

I can understand our pact insofar as it relates to politics and money.

But you go too far, Bennett.

And you underestimate me.

"Pleasance, I need to go somewhere for a little while," said Anne. "Can you hold out for me?"

"I make no promises," said Pleasance. "But I'll try, for you."

"Thank you," said Anne, kissing her forehead. Then she turned and made her way back outside, dress snagging on everything as she went.

When she reached the carriage and opened the satchel she had brought, the first thing she did was cut off her skirts until she was left with only the first and lightest of her undergarments. She resolved from then onward to wear more practical clothing, especially underneath her great dresses, in case of a situation like this one.

She paged through her journal and finally placed her finger on what she had been looking for.

"Belladonna poisoning," she said to herself. She rummaged through the philters she had brought, encased in little ampules. "And here is the antidote."

She rushed back into the building and to Pleasance's side, where she seemed to be flirting with unconsciousness.

"Pleasance, I need you to sit up and drink this," said Anne urgently. Pleasance made a fantastic effort and opened her eyes, which were unfocused and the pupils dilated wide.

"I'm so tired, Clarisse," said Pleasance. "May I sleep?"

"You may sleep as soon as you've drunk this," she said. "Now, up."

Pleasance struggled to a halfway-seated position while Anne supported her, and she supposed it would have to do. She poured the liquid into Pleasance's mouth, and the young woman made a horrible face.

"Swallow it, ma chere, it's medicine," soothed Anne. "Then you can sleep if you want."

Pleasance obeyed, and laid down on the table. She was out in an instant.

The nurse ran to check on her, and was relieved when she saw that Pleasance seemed to only be sleeping.

"Keep an eye on her," said Anne, "Make sure she gets enough water. I'll return in a few days to check on her."

"Thank you," said the nurse, gripping her arm. "Thank you, milady."

"Of course," said Anne. "And please remember to tell her not to touch or drink anything she is unfamiliar with, as I fear someone has nefarious plans for her."

"But why?" asked the nurse. "What on earth would anyone want with us? We're just servants and milkmaids, not even allowed into the main house or to London. All we do here is take care of the grounds and the cows."

Anne sighed.

"Because she had the ill fortune to fall in love," said Anne, without thinking. The nurse raised her head from where she had been cradling it in her hands.

"You suspect poison, milady?" she asked, horrorstruck.

"I do," said Anne. "And to be on the safe side, none of you should eat or drink anything that you did not make yourself. Be careful, as I think danger approaches, and there are some dragons who will stop at nothing to gorge themselves on wealth."

The woman made the sign of the cross over her chest.

"I will do all you say," she said. "I don't know who you are, milady, but thank you for saving Pleasance's life, and by extension, all of our lives."

"It was the least I could do," said Anne. "But I must go now. I will return to tell you when the danger has passed."

"Bless you, milady," said the nurse, who clasped her hands in her own wrinkled ones. 

Anne bowed and returned to the carriage. She climbed inside and gave instructions to the driver to return to London, and the great house.

There is not enough pain in the world I can cause you to match what you have tried to do tonight, thought Anne, but I have recourse to certain weapons I think you have never known about.

You think yourself so clever, Bennett, and one step ahead of me. You think that finding me out has qualified you as the master manipulator. 

But I've kept my secrets, too.

Little did you know that you've brought a viper into your midst.

And vipers carry poison in their bite.

 

Chapter Text

"You're late."

Anne walked into their rooms, out of breath. Bennett took one look at her disheveled state and cocked his eyebrow.

"What's happened to you?" he asked. 

"I misjudged that de Wardes," said Anne. "I got away, but there were bushes in the park."

Bennett chuckled.

"And here I thought you'd enjoy that kind of sport," he said. "Anyway, get cleaned up. We're having dinner with the diplomats this evening."

"What about my being in your bed?" asked Anne.

"Later, later," he said. "First, clean yourself up and put on a different dress. The emerald one, I think. Brings out your eyes."

"As you say," said Anne, and disappeared into another room.

Damn it! she thought. That was far too close for comfort. I should have checked first, I know better! Still, I hope the story of de Wardes has put him off the scent, at least for the moment.

She got cleaned up, and put on a dazzling emerald dress, while her servants curled her hair and dressed her with jewels and gemstones.

***

Unfortunately, de Wardes happened to be at the dinner.

"So, de Wardes," said Bennett pointedly. "I hear that Clarisse had to make a run for it when your passion became to much for her."

de Wardes shot Anne a look, and she beseeched him with her eyes to help. She prayed that a fellow countryman, and a man who claimed to be on her side and interested in her health, would understand the silent pleading she was sending to him now.

"Aha, you know how women are," said de Wardes, tipping a wink at Anne, who blushed. 

"Indeed I do," said Bennett nastily. "And I know this one in particular isn't as fond of running as she is of -"

Anne coughed loudly. The other diplomats looked at her in curiosity.

"Pardon me," she apologised. "I must take the fresh air, it is so stuffy in here."

"Remember your place, Clarisse," Bennett called after her, clearly enjoying the power he had over her.

She turned away.

***

Anne walked in the avenue outdoors, in a chill and light misting rain so common in London. She did not hold back her tears or anger. She had made a deal with the Devil and was trying to outsmart him.

She heard the soft snick of the door to the oak avenue was shut behind someone.

Please don't be Bennett, please don't be Bennett, she thought.

"Milady de Winter," said a voice she recognised as de Wardes'. She nearly collapsed with relief.

He bowed to her.

"Ready as I always am to take a lady's part," he said, "I must know why you asked me to admit to outrageous behaviour, and why you yourself withstood such a stain on your reputation."

"Are you capable of keeping a secret?" whispered Anne. de Wardes nodded.

"Always," he said. "Especially yours."

"You flatter me, monsieur," she said. "But the truth is that Bennett is a tyrant, and wishes others to see me as a fallen woman. You heard the accusations he made at dinner."

de Wardes nodded.

"I have heard much the same, in my circles," he informed her. "He is a sharp-eyed businessman, but when it comes to human relationships, he is sorely lacking."

"Will you help me, defend me?" asked Anne, as she took his arm and they walked down the avenue together.

"Of course," he replied. "I only await an opportunity. Indeed I wish I had already had one, so that I could prove my interest to you."

"Oh, thank you, de Wardes," she said. "You are a gentleman. I shall give you a proof of my interest in you in return, should you desire it."

"Clarisse, your word is enough for me," said de Wardes. "I am not a man who asks for proofs. As the Lord has said, either say yes or no, anything else comes from the evil one."

Anne stared up at this singular man. She had not met his like, not in all her years. 

"Leaving that distasteful subject," said de Wardes, "let us converse a little upon your interests. I see an intelligent cast to your eye, and would like to know what passes in your mind."

Anne and de Wardes passed the rest of the evening talking quietly in the avenue, until it was quite late at night.

***

Anne returned to her rooms floating on air. She had spent such a wonderful evening with de Wardes, the first man who had been truly interested in her scientific studies and her interest in politics. Instead of dismissing her as just another woman, he seemed to respect her for the formidable warrior she was.

She pushed the door open to find George standing in her room. 

"Oh!" she cried, her hands flying to cover her mouth. "I am so sorry, George! I had completely forgotten! How very inconsiderate of me!"

"I don't mind, madam," he said, his cheeks and the tips of his ears pinking. "It is no hardship to wait for an angel, after all."

Anne approached him, the star in his sky, a goddess wrapped in emerald and pearls. He gasped simply from being so close to her, and she lifted his shirt, caressing the skin beneath.

"You are a very good young man," she whispered, and his body was alive with tremors. She slipped her fingers into his trousers and took hold of him as he cried out in sudden shock and ecstasy. "What have you to tell me?"

Her hand moved up and down along his length as he struggled to concentrate.

"Lord de Winter  - he means to shut down the milking business tomorrow," sighed George between little stuttered moans. "He - he hasn't given the order yet but - oh - oh, please, oh - he means to - to give it first thing in the morning."

She bit his neck and he howled, bucking into her hand in a frenzy.

"Do you know why?" she asked. George's eyes rolled back in his head as he slowly went mad chasing the high.

"Yes - he - he - oh - he said he wanted to humiliate his brother," George stammered out. "And - and - and you, milady, please don't be angry with me - please - please - "

She twisted her hand and began to pump him viciously as he nearly collapsed onto her shoulder in frantic desire.

"Good," she praised. "You've done very, very well."

George wailed, and his orgasm overtook him as he shouted his release, while Anne stood away from the mess. She tucked him back in and took a handkerchief, cleaning it up from the floor.

"Thank you, George," she said. "I expect your return tomorrow evening, at the same time."

"Yes, madam," he said, and was dismissed, stars in his eyes.

"That one's mine," she mused. "And what could we possibly do to upset Bennett more?"

Her smile was not a kind one.

***

She went to Bennett's bed as requested, to find him already in it.

"What's the matter, Lord de Winter?" she enquired. "Are you taken ill?"

"Yes," he groaned. "It is that foreign muck, I'm certain of it."

"Foreign - muck?" Anne parroted.

"Yes, yes, the rotten food from outside England," he said impatiently.

"Do you still want me to -"

"No, no, save your strength," he said. "I saw you take a turn with de Wardes this evening. Has his passion cooled?"

"No, just the opposite," she said, "but I prevented him from becoming too amorous by acquiescing to his request to spend the evening walking with me in solitude. I think he felt cowed by your comment at table."

"That is well," said Bennett. "A man should be afraid of his lover's husband. This way we can truly catch him in a snare both coming and going. Good work, Clarisse."

She curtseyed.

"Is there anything further you wish?" she asked. "I can call the nurse."

"No, that won't be necessary," he said, waving her off. "Honestly I don't know how the human body can withstand some of the tripe those foreigners eat."

Anne's blood boiled in her veins, foreigner as she was, too.

"Goodnight, Clarisse," said Bennett. "I shall call for you in the morning to continue our tryst, if I am feeling up to it."

Anne bowed to him, and left the room.

***

But Lord Bennett de Winter's health did not improve.

And his illness continued to worsen despite the advice of all doctors in the London area, near and far.

And the following night, Anne made love to George in her bed, as he whispered promises of love in her ears.

 

Chapter Text

A month passed, then another. 

Lord de Winter never improved, but only seemed to worsen. The house was in ready-mourning for him. He was expected to go any day.

Anne, for her part, had not missed the fact that she had not bled in a while. She kept checking her undergarments, but they were pristine and white. 

She laid a hand on her belly and smiled.

It had been accomplished. Bennett de Winter would have an heir.

***

Later, in bed, George lay with her smiling, touching her stomach.

"It's mine, is it not?" he asked. "Oh, I don't say that I need to be involved with him or his life. I know that he must be the heir. But I would like to know, all the same."

Anne smiled at him.

"Yes, George," she said. "The baby is yours. Let that suffice."

George's eyes shone with pride, and he kissed her soft stomach, and made careful love to her, bursting with joy at the news.

***

Anne visited Bennett's rooms. The smell of illness pervaded the area, as the windows had all been shut out of some misguided attempt to keep him alive.

Anne knew better, but she did not order the windows opened. 

She approached Bennett in the bed.

"I am with child, Bennett," she announced. 

Bennett sat straight up in bed, a look of joy and relief written across his face.

"Bring me my papers," he said. A servant brought him a pile, and he licked his fingers to turn the pages.

Anne watched this action hungrily, a small smile on her lips.

"Here it is," Bennett announced. "Sign, if you please, Clarisse."

Anne took the pen and signed the will that stated she was to inherit everything in the event of his death. He countersigned, and handed it to a servant.

"Take this to London, and a lawyer, posthaste," Bennett directed. The servant bowed and left the room.

"When I give birth to this child," said Anne, "we are quits. Is that understood? I have held up my part of the bargain."

"Agreed. There is no need for you to raise the child," said Bennett. "I needed a lawful heir. Now I have one."

He coughed violently, and Anne saw blood in his handkerchief.

"I assume the child is not mine, given the timing," he said. Anne shook her head. "Very well. It is understood. I had recommended it, after all."

He was lost in another of his violent coughing fits, and she bowed, leaving the room.

***

Anne returned to the milking barn and the servant's quarters as often as possible. Pleasance had rallied, but Anne understood that it was a long road back to health. If the belladonna had been ingested too long before she had administered the antidote, then there would be damage to Pleasance's mind and health. Anne wanted to be sure that Pleasance would survive with at least the faculties to continue her work and to find someone else that was worthy of her love.

So Anne tested her memory, her mechanical knowledge, and various other things, every time she visited.

"Pleasance, where were you born?" asked Anne gently, pillowing her head in her lap.

Pleasance's lovely forehead wrinkled with the effort.

"Somewhere in England?" she hazarded.

"Try again," Anne encouraged.

"Dover?" Pleasance guessed.

"No, that's where you set off to go to market in France," she said.

"I've been to France?" Pleasance asked, brightening.

Anne sighed, combing her fingers through Pleasance's hair. She seemed to have retained her short-term memory but was hazy on the details of the past. It didn't mean that she couldn't still live a relatively normal life, but she had lost much of her memory. Anne fumed inside at Bennett, and his clear belief that he had the power to give or take life as he so chose.

Pleasance reached up and rubbed her belly.

"You're getting so fat, Clarisse," she pouted. "Is it all the rich food in the great house? I hear they have sumptuous feasts."

Anne laughed.

"No, I'm not getting fat," she said. "And the feasts you have heard of don't amount to much, especially not to someone raised in France."

Pleasance sighed. 

"I wish I could see France," she said. Anne cradled her head gently.

"You have," said Anne patiently.

"I have?" asked Pleasance, just as thrilled as the last time.

"I'm pregnant," Anne told her. Pleasance's face radiated joy, and she squirmed around to face her.

"You're pregnant?!" she crowed. Her face fell. "But that means - "

"I've been faithful to you, in my own way," soothed Anne. "But you know our positions, and -"

"And you'd have been better to stay here, with me, in the servant's quarters," said Pleasance.

Anne could not really refute her statement. 

Then Pleasance's expression became joyful again, and she pressed her ear to Anne's stomach.

"How long has it been?" she asked.

"Nearly six months," said Anne. Pleasance grinned.

"You must have it here!" she said. "Our nurse is much better than the one at the great house, who has only ever had men to look after."

Anne laughed.

"I shall see what I can do," she said, and Pleasance looked thrilled.

***

As it turned out, Anne did give birth in the servant's quarters, under that very nurse. 

She hadn't intended to, but she went into labour while visiting Pleasance and overseeing her recovery. She had found it difficult, near the end. Pregnancy meant that everything hurt and she was never comfortable in any way she stood or sat down, or laid on her bed. By the time she went into labour, she was heartily sick of the whole thing.

It was a good thing she happened to be in the servant's quarters, too, because her labour was long and agonizing. Two days of pain and sweating, and the child was a breach birth that the nurse had to turn around, which would have been impossible for the nurse up at the great house to do. Anne nearly lost her life in childbirth. 

Someone must have sent word to George, because at some point she woke to see him holding her hand, smiling in encouragement. She thought again about the simple goodness of the servants, and the standoffishness of every wealthy person she had met or married. No contact with the outside world, or with anything that might get their hands dirty, they seemed to be on the edge of sociopathic, if not all the way there.

Eventually, though, Anne gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He had his mother's beautiful blue eyes. She held him, exhausted, for a while, until the nurse took him away. 

She slept then, with George on one side of her and Pleasance on the other, any jealousy evaporated in their concern for her life.

Chapter Text

As agreed, Anne gave up John Francis de Winter to the nurse of the great house to raise. She did not feel anything but relief about this, and resolved to find a way to ensure she could never become pregnant again. She had been far too close to losing her life, and no amount of money was worth the pain and terror she had gone through, and the suffering she saw in the faces of those who cared about her.

She had also resolved to live life on her own terms from now on, and never remarry. Her fortune was assured now, and she had the wealth to assert her own independence.

She had also decided it was time for her to return to France.

***

"Madam, come quick. Bennett does not have long in this world."

Anne was roused from her slumber by a servant woman. She struggled into her dressing gown and followed the woman to Bennett's rooms.

The young man was on the bed, his chest heaving with effort. She could see at a glance he had perhaps an hour to live.

"Clarisse," he croaked. "Thank you for coming to see me. I wanted to see you before the end."

"Leave us," said Anne, and the servant closed the door.

Anne approached the bed and leaned down next to his ear.

"You should not have poisoned Pleasance, Bennett," she said. She felt him stiffen in horror. "Yes, what you are feeling is what you would have had her go through, because of your avarice and your hatred. Now the milking barn is safe, and so are their jobs. You broke our contract, Bennett, and you suffer the result of your actions now."

She stood back from him.

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," she said, echoing the words of Valentin from so long ago. "You should not lick your fingers before you touch paper, Bennett. It's unhealthy."

To her surprise, Bennett laughed, a cruel and strange sound in a man so near death's door.

"I do not repent for my actions," Bennett wheezed. "And I shall go to hell for them, I am sure. You were always a worthy adversary, Clarisse. It's why I chose you. And I suspected something like this from a crafty whore like yourself."

Anne rolled her eyes.

"Your words cannot hurt me anymore, Bennett," she said. "Not from beyond the grave."

"And yet, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, as you say," he said. "And you shall see that I find my vengeance beyond the grave, even if my words cannot hurt you."

Then he succumbed to a coughing fit. Anne called the servants, who rushed to his aid, but he expired in their arms.

Anne breathed a sigh of relief. It was done.

Yet, as she returned to her own rooms, she wondered what he had meant by vengeance.

***

Anne turned the handle of the door and saw George lying in her bed, waiting for her, a half-drunk glass of milk on the table. She smiled at him, turning to remove her jewellery.

All in a rush, she spun around and ran to his side. His eyes were glassy, staring up at the ceiling.

"And so you have your vengeance," whispered Anne. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a death for a death. There will be no one to argue John's legitimacy now."

Her hands roved over George's body, to see if there was anything she could do, but it was clear that she was too late. Whoever had dosed George's milk had used a much stronger strain of poison.

She closed his eyes with reverence.

"Goodnight," she said sadly. "Goodbye, George, whose only crime was loving me."

She sighed heavily, and realising this statement to also be true of Therese, of Henri, of Pleasance, she thought it was past time she removed herself from the situation.

***

Anne wept at Bennett's funeral. She was dressed in black, and held a black lace handkerchief to her face.

They had found George in her bed, and never ascribed it to her infidelity, but to a servant hoping far beyond his station. He had belonged to Bennett, after all.

Anne may have wept at the funeral, but it was for poor, innocent George, and not the vile man she had once called husband.

***

A few weeks later, Anne had made an emotional plea to William de Winter. She wished to return to her home, to her own country of France, after so many stressful events. Childbirth and then the mysterious deaths of her husband and the servant, George, made the de Winter estate a mausoleum for her. As a woman, she said, she had a weak constitution, and wished for the sun of her homeland to dispel the fog of bad memories.

William granted her request, and told her that he would visit when he was able, after he had set Bennett's affairs in order.

Anne said tearful goodbyes to Pleasance, but also knew that in time, she would forget the beautiful French woman who had turned her world upside down, and for once, Anne was grateful to be something her mind would erase. Even though the others would remember her, only Pleasance would remember their trysts, and it was healthier for all involved - especially Pleasance - for her to stay away.

People who got too close to Anne tended to wind up dead.

***

So, three years after Anne had left Henri waving to her at the port of Calais, Anne stepped aboard the ferry at Dover. This time, she was dressed in rich silks and jewels, so much the great lady that everyone on board acted in deference to her. She was still beautiful, but had matured into the beauty of the woman over the beauty of youth, with a stern look that men still seemed to find irresistible.

When she set foot on the shore of Calais, she welcomed the pleasant weather of her homeland of France, greeting it like a long-lost lover. Her pretty little foot was encased in a slipper of silk, and she wore countless ribbons in her hair.

A carriage was waiting for her on the quay. The coachman hopped down from his perch and opened the door for her.

"Milady de Winter," he said, bowing, and she lifted her skirts to climb inside, having resolved to go by that name only from now on.

The carriage left the quayside, and she took one last look out the window, at the grey of the sea separating England from France.

 

Chapter Text

Anne had a particular destination in mind, when the carriage rolled away from Calais.

Surrounded by the French countryside, and the French language that was music to her ears, she watched the forests and rolling hills go by. The wilderness seemed filled with butterflies, and the charming pastoral scenes around her made her heart ache for the past. 

Her hand went to her money-bag, where she could still feel the edges of the note Therese had given her, long ago, snugly seated together with that of Rochefort. Should all else fail, he was her last recourse.

Now that she was back on French soil, she allowed herself to think of Therese. What would she think of her? Would she shun her for the woman she had become? Would she welcome her with open arms? Breuil was far away, and of course Therese was a young, ambitious woman herself. She may no longer be there at all.

***

Anne's carriage rolled into Abbeville, and she truly smiled for the first time in a long time. Encumbered by her voluminous skirts, she struggled to exit the carriage. Many of the townsfolk stopped to comment on and stare at the grand lady who had appeared from behind the carriage like a mysterious princess from a foreign land.

She held up her skirts and rushed to the door, knocking on it eagerly. 

There was no answer. She tried again, and a few more times.

"Mademoiselle?" said a timid voice behind her. She turned to see a slight young man, just out of his teenage years.

"Yes?" she asked, her eyes turning toward the door with impatience.

"If you seek Messrs. Chabot and Gaspard, they are no longer here," he said.

"Where are they?" she asked.

He told her.

***

Anne stood above the twin gravestones, a rose clutched in her hand.

She was reminded of another day she had stood in a beautiful satin dress, holding a rose much like this one, and what a different life she had nowadays.

"Goodbye, Chabot," she said, placing the rose on the grass in front of the headstone. "Thank you for what you taught me."

She looked at the other stone.

"And you, Gaspard," she said. "I know there was no love lost between us, but thank you for loving Chabot, a man I loved like a father."

Tears fell from her eyes unbidden, but she did not try to hide them. 

She felt Chabot deserved better than that.

***

Heavy-hearted, she directed her coachman toward the next destination. If Henri remained in the prison of Lille, she would free him now that she had the money and means. If they would not free him for money, she would use her contact with Rochefort and free him in some other way.

She alighted at the old jail, certain she wouldn't be recognised in all her finery. She smiled at fond memories of the place, despite what most would expect, and gave a dainty knock at the door.

The man who put his head around the door was a face she knew well.

"Antoine!" she exclaimed. He knew her instantly, and drew her to the side, away from the road.

"Mademoiselle!" he said. "What do you here?"

He smiled at her.

"Memories of you have filled many lonely nights," he said wistfully. 

"The same for me, monsieur," she said, in that seductive way she had. He put a strong arm around her waist and crushed her to himself.

Then he set her down again.

"You must know you run the risk of being recognised," said Antoine. "I may have - specific reasons - for knowing right away, but others will not take long to do the same."

"I've come in search of Henri d'Auvingnon," said Anne. "I'd like to pay for his release, if I can."

Antoine gave her a sad look.

"The priest, you mean?" he asked. She nodded, and he gave a long sigh. "Would that you had been somewhat earlier!"

Anne's blood ran cold.

"What do you mean?" she asked. He didn't answer for a moment, and she shook his arm roughly. He looked up, startled by her immense strength, hidden beneath all that silk.

"His brother had been forced to take his place," Antoine explained. "They didn't believe that Valentin would not have been complicit in Henri's escape. When Henri returned and discovered that his brother had taken the punishment that had been meant for himself, he tore out his hair. However, he offered himself in place of his brother, and they were swapped out."

"Yes, I know," she said. "Henri told me this was his plan."

"But mademoiselle," said Antoine sadly, "It was I who found him in his cell, hanging from a rope. It was I who cut him down."

Anne let out a shriek; she couldn't help herself. Her hands went to her mouth and she shook her head in disbelief. Grief washed over her, so soon after the loss of Chabot and Gaspard, it was nearly her own undoing.

Antoine held her and pet her hair as she sobbed against his chest. When she had calmed, she looked up at him.

"Where is he?" she asked. "Where did they lay his body, so I may pay my respects?"

***

Antoine stood off in the distance beneath the shade of a sycamore tree as Anne stood over the unmarked plot. Henri was not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, which was true of all suicides.

Anne placed a rose on the grass for the second time in such short succession.

"Henri," she said. "I know now that you were a good man. You had your struggles with God, that much is true, and your behaviour might not have been the most scrupulously religious. But you cared for me, and watched over me, and best of all, never judged me. For that, you were a good man. I know you'd be thrilled to know you have moved up the abacus."

She laughed a little at that, to keep herself from crying, and stifled a sob. 

She said her farewells to Antoine, and resumed her place in the carriage.

A dark look fell over her eyes as they rolled on, away from Lille, and further into the countryside.

***

As they approached the familiar countryside around La Fére, Anne suddenly had horrible visions of the cherryblossom orchard, of her shoe dropping from a height into the petals on the ground.

"Stop! Stop, I cannot breathe!" she cried. "Help me!"

The servants of the carriage helped cut away some of her clothing, but by this time she had regained control over herself. The carriage rolled on into the village of La Fére without further incident.

It was not the bustling, active village she remembered. There was a strange, sad, almost haunted aspect to the place.

Anne called one of the servants to her side.

"Go and ask that woman what has become of the Comte de la Fére," she said. Anne's teeth ground together. After all she had seen, she was prepared to enact her vengeance upon Armand if it was the last thing she did.

The servant went out, and Anne could hear them talking, although they were at some distance from the carriage.

"Madame, my employer, a great lady, wishes to know where she may find the Comte de la Fére," said the servant.

The woman, who happened to be the wine merchant that Armand had given the diamond so long ago, crossed herself and pressed her hands together in beseeching prayer.

"Oh, it's a terrible story," she said. "Your employer will want to give this place a wide berth."

"Has something happened, then?" asked the servant.

"Indeed it has," she said. "The young comte wed a beautiful young woman, pretty as the first blossoms of spring. Then, he went mad, and hanged her from a tree in the cherryblossom orchard. Her body disappeared, and the comte was wild with horror and grief at what he had done. First he made a terrible run on our wine stores so that we had almost nothing to sell for that period, so lost in the drink was he, and then he took a pistol and blew out his brains on the cliff near the castle up there."

The woman pointed, and Anne followed the direction of her finger with a sick horror. 

"His parents shunned him, and so no one went to fetch the body," she said. "Since then, it has cast a dark shadow over the whole area. No one goes into the cherryblossom orchard anymore, they believe it is haunted by the spectre of his young wife, thirsting for vengeance."

She crossed herself again, and the servant thanked her, as she returned to the carriage to tell Anne what had transpired.

Anne waved a hand at her, too sick to her stomach to speak.

"I heard it," she said. "Drive on, if you please."

The carriage left La Fére behind and trundled toward its final destination.

"Dead! Dead! Dead! Gone are the only good men I have ever known," said Anne, marking each exclamation with a strike of her fist against the carriage.

She slumped back into her seat and sighed.

"I shall not leave a rose for you, Armand," said Anne aloud to herself in the carriage. "One, because I have no idea where I should leave it, and two, because of all the men I have known, the abacus does not have a level low enough for someone of your calibre. Good riddance. I am sorry I ever loved you, when Henri deserved it, and was right there. Still. We cannot control our hearts, foolish though they may be. I am only glad that of the good men I have known, you are the one who deserved to be swallowed by the darkness of the grave, a darkness I hope has followed your soul for the insult you caused me."

She turned her back on La Fére, and did not look behind herself again.

"Goodbye, Armand," she said. "I hope, somehow, you learn the difference between justice and mercy."

***

Finally, the carriage came to a stop at Anne's final destination.

She stepped out, and was greeted at the entrance of a sprawling castle by a young, handsome butler.

"Welcome to the Chateau de Blois," he said, bowing to her. "The final home of Catherine de' Medici."

She smiled at him, and he smiled back. 

She knew that look.

She would find what she was looking for here.

Anne stepped into the cool darkness of an afternoon in the chateau, and away from the painful memories of the graves of good men.

Chapter Text

 

Anne was introduced to the library, where the servant, Jean, stood near a bookcase.

She politely looked around and then made the request she had come here for.

"I would like to see the Chamber of Secrets," she declared.

Jean started as if he had been pricked with a pin.

"Mademoiselle, the Chamber of Secrets is not for innocent young women like yourself," he said.

Anne gave him her most beseeching look. It was good to know she still maintained that impression of innocence, despite the throaty quality her voice had taken on after the botched hanging. In an instant, she saw the scene as he did: an older, learned man looking at a sweet and innocent young woman he might teach something.

The look in his eyes was anything but innocent. Anne knew exactly the kind of education Jean was hoping to impart to her in the role of ingenue.

"Please, monsieur," she said, looking up from beneath her lashes. "I'll simply do anything."

He swallowed. She resisted the urge to smile like a cat, holding the same expression, lips turned out in a slight pout.

"Anything?" he repeated. She nodded eagerly.

"Oh, yes, monsieur," she said. "I am an ardent devotee of Catherine's teachings. She was a wise scholar, and almost a surgeon in her own right. Young women ought to look up to older women, don't you think?"

Jean approached her now, and it was clear that he hadn't heard a word she said.

"Very few people are allowed entry into the Chamber of Secrets," he said. "Well, none, if the truth be told."

"But you'll let me?" Anne asked, as he pressed closer to her, and his proximity backed her up against the bookshelf.

"If you meant what you said," Jean breathed. "I'd like to teach you something."

His lips were next to her ear, and she played her part, blushing and staring down at the floor.

"What would you like to teach me, monsieur?" she said in a soft, insinuating voice.

"Pleasure," he said, his hands ghosting over the tops of her breasts. She gave a surprised and slightly offended gasp.

"Monsieur!" she said, to inspire shame, and to stoke the fire. Even now, she could feel herself blossoming, a wetness between her legs. She was too eager, it had been too long, but there was nothing for it now.

"Oh yes," he whispered, bracketing her with his arms and pushing his body against hers. "You need a man to show you the path."

Anne resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead continued to demur.

"Monsieur, I couldn't possibly," she said, while making it clear that she could, by pressing back.

He smiled against her skin, placing kisses along her collarbone and neck.

"There, you see?" he murmured. "Your body responds to mine. It's nature."

Anne certainly hoped there would be something gratifying in this experience, as so far she would prefer to hit him in the mouth with a brick. But there were secrets in that cabinet she needed - along with other things.

He would do.

Jean pulled her corset-strings, loosening the cumbersome garment. She gave a high-pitched, girlish moan as her breasts came free. He took them in his hands and began to knead them, something she had experienced with other men but found quite puzzling as it did nothing for her.

Yet her body seemed to know what was imminent, and her legs were already spread in invitation.

"You see?" Jean was saying, as she made various encouraging noises at him, impatient that he was taking so long to get to the main event but mindful of her part. All he saw was a young woman surprised at her own sensuality, eager for something but she knew not what, and he felt the same triumph of ownership as Henri must have - Anne could see it written plainly on his face, now that she knew what to look for.

He began to lift her skirts, and she pushed at his hand.

"Shh," he said. "Trust me."

She pushed again but offered little resistance, giving him the impression of being caught in the snare of her own desire and the wickedness of what they were doing here.

This, at least, was not too far from the truth.

He lifted her skirts and gently pushed her thighs apart. She was breathing heavily, breasts heaving, and he smiled in his confidence until he touched her where she was so warm, and wet, and ready. 

This time, his eyes went back into his head and he let out an inadvertent moan.

"There," he said. "You're so wet for me already, do you know what that means?"

Anne shook her head, playing the bashful innocent.

"It means your body is preparing yourself for me," he said. "Here, I want you to touch me."

Hands shaking, he took his cock out from where it had been pressing obscenely against his trousers, and placed her little hand around it. He moaned again.

"You feel that?" he whispered. "It means I want you. Like I said - it's nature."

He looked down at her, debauched, her hair falling out and cascading in blonde curls over her bare breasts, and her white stockings that ended at her thighs. He closed his eyes and slid two fingers inside her, bucking forward on instinct. He opened his eyes again and watched his fingers slipping into her.

"You're so pink here," he marveled. "Like flower petals."

The memories that suddenly flooded Anne's consciousness had to be viciously suppressed. Fortunately, her body's ability to demand sex forced her thoughts away from there to the task at hand.

Jean leaned forward and pressed himself against her again. She could feel him shaking with want. She wondered if all women experienced this or if she had indeed been cursed with driving men mad. The look of disbelief and reverence on Jean's face was so like that she had seen on Henri's, on Armand's, even on the Duke's, she wondered for a moment if she should offer herself in the service of the king of France as a weapon.

"I'm going to enter you now," Jean whispered, little hitching sobs of need reverbrating through her as he positioned himself against her.

Finally, she thought, and must have made some kind of noise, because Jean seemed to break through the haze to pet at her and murmur sweet nothings to reassure her. She chanced a look at him, and was suddenly frightened by the naked need in his expression. She had only seen men look that way at things they shouldn't want, things that would destroy them, as a drunk looks at alcohol. In that moment she wondered what might happen if she turned him down.

He began to push his cock into her, and she clamped down with all the muscles she had, to continue the illusion that he was inducting her into the pleasures of the flesh.

"Open for me," he murmured. "You're so tight. Let me in."

The anticipation was killing her, and she finally moaned as she felt his cock slowly fill her until he was seated entirely within her.

"That's it," he whispered, pushing her legs even farther apart as he tried to nudge in as deeply as possible. "I'll let you adjust around me, you're holding me so tight, like a vice."

Anne now relaxed the muscles after a moment, thrilled to be pinned to the wall this way, thrilled to find this both a payment and a reward.

Jean began to move inside her, torturously slow. She remembered to play her role and gasped in arousal and shock as he smiled that same triumphant, dominating smile at her.

"Oh, monsieur!" she added for good measure. Jean's mouth dropped open and he began to thrust into her in earnest.

"Right," he said. "Take it. Take all of it. You're mine. Feels good, doesn't it?"

Anne nodded, pretending delirium, holding herself back from violently taking her own pleasure. She had her own addiction, but needed what was in that chamber far more. She would have to take care of it herself later, if Jean was incapable of doing the same.

He was holding her bodily against the wall now, fucking into her and snarling with possessive glee. She moaned and cried out at the proper intervals, enjoying being filled but mindful that most women did not give voice to their passions like she did. She wanted to give him the impression that he had inspired her with such pleasure that she could not help crying out, although a lady does not give in to such things and ought to always maintain decorum. She could tell by looking at him that it was working.

Suddenly he left off thrusting and just ground into her again and again. Now her cries were moving from fake to very real, which just seemed to drive him insane. She came hard against him with a little shriek, and her eyes were huge as she stared at him, her body milking his cock as she rode out the aftershocks.

"Yes," he said through his teeth, redoubling his efforts, grinding against her. "So deep inside you, you'll catch, you'll be filled with me - with my -"

She came again, her whole body shuddering, and he drew out and pounded into her so hard the books began to fall off the shelves.

"Mine," he growled in her ear, and with a final, furious thrust, bit out a cry as he emptied himself within her.

She stared up at him with a gormless wonder that completely fooled him, as he thrust in and out of her shallowly, as he came down from his high.

It was the most unsatisfying sex she had experienced since her first time with Bennett.

"There, you see?" he said, breathless. "Incredible pleasure. Nature, as I said."

Anne kept staring at him like he was the entire world, as he pulled out of her and put himself back together.

"Get dressed," he said. "And I will show you the Chamber of Secrets."

Chapter Text

Jean opened the door and ushered Anne into a large room filled with panels.

"This is the Chamber of Secrets of Catherine de' Medici," he said. "I don't know what you're looking for, but whatever it is, you'll probably find it in here."

"Thank you," said Anne demurely. She saw the expression on his face; inasmuch as he'd wanted to teach her worldly things, he had also gotten caught in the snare so many men seemed to find themselves in when it came to her. She didn't understand it, but she would make use of it for her own ends.

She stood smiling politely at him until he got the hint.

"I'm sorry, mademoiselle," he said, "but I cannot leave you alone in here. It would cost me my job."

"Please," said Anne. "I'd like to be alone with my thoughts, and it would be quite dull for you to stand around while I study. Go ahead and attend to your other duties and I will find you when I'm done."

Jean looked like he wanted to argue, but couldn't. Finally, he nodded.

"Very well," he said. "But please be careful. And if you're not out in an hour I shall come find you."

Anne nodded her agreement, and could see as Jean reluctantly retreated from her that he would be consumed with thoughts of her during the entire hour. Therefore she would have to be quick.

Once she was certain he'd gone, she set to work.

"Plants to prevent childbirth," she said aloud. "Plants to heal, to kill, to poison, to sweeten - any and all information at my fingertips."

And she began to go through the drawers and cabinets in her search, making notes as she went.

She slid a drawer open. Inside it was an engraved ring with a beveled jewel sitting on top of it. 

Anne gasped. She recognised the ring. 

It was Catherine's poison ring - or at least, it was one of many. Either way, it had belonged to her.

Anne didn't really know why she did it, but the ring was concealed in her money-bag almost as soon as she had seen it. She rummaged around in the other drawers until she found more rings and selected one to put in its place so it wouldn't be missed right away. 

Then she went on cataloging everything she could find, anything that might help her in her future ambitions, anything that would make her an enemy as formidable and insidious as Catherine de' Medici herself.

***

Jean, true to his word, returned at the end of the hour, just as Anne was closing the door behind herself. She looked up into his face, and recognised the half-madness she had seen in so many others. 

Why? Why me? she thought. I'm really no more or less beautiful than other women I've seen, probably less so than Therese or Pleasance. I am beginning to think that it is not my doing, but the madness of men that makes them tremble so.

Jean reached out and touched her cheek. It was as if he had been given the cure to something, as he sagged in relief.

"Thank you for everything, Jean," she said. "I must take my leave of you now."

"But you'll return?" asked Jean anxiously. Anne felt a sudden pang of guilt. Perhaps she should not have made love to him if she was only going to leave him wanting.

Her eyes narrowed. Then he shouldn't have tried, she thought. Mercenary was the word. It did no good to coddle men if they could not handle their own emotions.

Besides, Anne was deadly, in so very many ways. Best for her to leave them. Safer, too.

"I can't say," she said sweetly. "But I appreciate everything you've done for me. Farewell."

She climbed into her carriage and waved at him as it set off on the road.

Jean, for his part, waved back, with his other hand over his heart.

***

"Where now, mademoiselle?" called the coachman, as they headed down the main road away from Blois.

Anne sat and thought about it. What did she want to do? What did she really want out of life? A woman of her intelligence and station could not wither away in the countryside. She was ambitious, and now she had no need of a husband. She could choose where she wanted to go and who she wanted to associate with. She could pursue her dreams, the things she wanted more than anything.

And what Anne wanted more than anything was something that women did not often have, even royal women:

Power.

And there was only one place in France where an ambitious, ruthless woman could climb that particular ladder of success.

"Paris," she called up to him, and leaned back in her chair, smiling.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in Paris at last.

***

Some time later, Anne had dozed off. She started awake when the carriage abruptly stopped.

She knocked on the roof.

"Coachman?" she called. "Why have we stopped?"

The carriage set off again, so Anne leaned back in her seat. Then she noticed they were turning off the road toward Paris and into some smaller byway.

Anne sat up again and knocked on the ceiling.

"Coachman! You're going the wrong way!" she called. The carriage didn't stop or turn. She made a sound of disgust and put her head out of the window to call up to him, in case he hadn't heard her.

She gasped when she saw the coachman had been tied up, and a stranger in black clothes and a mask was driving the carriage.

Anne rapidly sat back in her seat. She put her hand on the poiniard she had concealed in its case, and reached for Chabot's sword. It had been a while, but she was certain she remembered enough about duelling to at least hurt her attackers.

She stared down at her enormous dress, perfect for seducing servants at Blois, terrible for just about anything else. She resolved to dress more reasonably in the future, should she get out of her predicament.

Finally, the carriage rolled to a halt in a little copse of trees, a grassy clearing where the sunlight shone through the trees.

Determined to get the jump on her kidnappers, Anne burst from the carriage, poiniard and sword in hand.

"En garde, villain!" she shouted, and rushed on the masked figure just as they turned around and pointed their sword at her heart.

 

Chapter Text

The duel began in earnest, with both of them dodging and parrying. They seemed to be equally matched in both speed and skill.

They danced around the little clearing, Anne even pressing her kidnapper to such an extent that she was only thrown off with violent effort.

The kidnapper was quick with a blade, but Anne was quicker. She touched them with her blade at least three times, and had sliced through their clothing with her poiniard.

"What do you want with me?" Anne demanded, and with a flourish, disarmed her kidnapper. The blade fell to the earth, harmless.

The kidnapper didn't answer, but seemed to gaze searchingly at Anne.

"Answer the question!" Anne shouted. "Who are you?"

"As to what I want with you: everything," said a decidedly feminine voice. "As to who I am: a young woman, dreaming of you, in fields of lavender."

Anne's mouth dropped open, and she dropped her sword and poiniard at the same time. Rushing upon her kidnapper, she ripped the mask from their face.

Beloved, warm brown eyes looked at her, and plush lips she had not forgotten after all this time. The woman pulled off the hood she was wearing, and chocolate-brown curls cascaded down her back.

"Therese," breathed Anne, and covered her mouth with her own.

***

Further words were not needed. Enough was communicated by touch.

They kissed desperately, as if it were their last day on earth. Therese couldn't get Anne's cumbersome clothing off quickly enough, scrabbled around for the poiniard on the ground, and sliced them away from her body. Therese ripped off her own clothes, tearing them in her haste, and buried her face between Anne's legs.

With Therese sucking and licking at her with her clever tongue, Anne found ecstasy within moments, crying out so loudly the birds in the trees took flight. Then, to Therese's surprise, Anne pushed her down into the grasses and took her pleasure in such a show of passion and sweet violence that Therese was drowning, drowning in her lust. Anne was insatiable, unstoppable, and so strong that Therese could do nothing but take what she was willing to give, and as Anne brought her off over and over, she tried to move away weakly. But Anne would have none of it, and continued to bring her to orgasm until she was a weeping, sobbing mess. All the while, Anne had one hand shoved between her own legs so she could find the height of ecstasy at the same time as Therese. Her face was soaking wet, and not for the first time, Anne wished she had a man's anatomy and so could claim this woman, breed her, and give her pleasure for the rest of her days.

They had gone from the wiser one and the innocent, to a force of nature and the recipient, the same way the ocean, strong and wild, makes love to the shoreline.  Anne was not satisfied, nor would she ever be; not with this woman for whom she would gladly sell what soul she had left. She wanted everything with Therese, and her usual insatiable appetites had reached fever pitch. She would dominate this woman until she was all there was in her world. This woman would beg for her touch, pine away for her, would look at her the way those men always did, addicted and mad with it. Anne wanted, above all, to possess Therese in the same way a man might, and to make certain that no one else would ever give her pleasure like Anne had.

And it was here, in this moment, that Anne started to recognise a glimmer of the way men felt when looking at her: an insane, feral desire to dominate, to own and claim and make theirs. So it was, with her and Therese, and she held her wrists down until they bruised and Anne fucked wildly against her, feeling a sharp joy and triumph every time Therese came. She would mark her, take her, own her, dominate her, until Therese was helpless against her and helpless in her desire for Anne, desperate for the only touch that could truly satisfy her. Anne was relentless and brushed up against where she was most sensitive, just to hear her cry out again in need, voice ragged, against her clever hands.

***

Anne had continued to move against Therese after she had succumbed to exhaustion, and taking her own pleasure time and again, wondered if this savage, brutal joy was the same as men felt, watching the prone body of her lover. She didn't know why, but she viciously loved the way Therese had finally gone limp and pliant in her arms, and taking what she wanted from her even then sent a cruel thrill throughout her body. There was something so intense about it, as if she had won the spoils of war and was enjoying them at her leisure.

What it would be, she thought, to be a man, and to have this kind of power, always.

Finally, she exhausted herself, and lay back in the grass covered in sweat and Therese's sweetness, as the wind cooled her and made her dry again. She put her hands behind her head and smiled up at the sky, naked beneath it in the dappled sunlight.

Some time later, Therese's eyes fluttered open. She rolled to her side and smiled at Anne.

"Welcome back," Anne told her. Therese blushed and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.

"Where did you learn that?" Therese asked. Anne laughed, and scooped her up to lay her head on her shoulder.

"It's a long story," she said. "I'll tell you sometime. Why did you steal my carriage?"

"Didn't know it was yours," she said sleepily.

"No? Is this what you've been doing, all the time I've been gone?" asked Anne. "A highwayman?"

Therese sighed against her.

"I tried to find you," she said. "I just missed you, it seemed, everywhere I went. At one point, the trail just...stopped. I didn't know what to do and I didn't want to go home."

"So you started robbing people?" asked Anne. Therese nodded. "We weren't both supposed to disappear."

"Oh, I haven't," she said. "My parents know what I'm doing, and why. They've always wanted to see us together, unconventional though that may seem. It's quite the feather in the cap to have their daughter in love with the young woman in the chateau, especially if that love is reciprocated."

She sat up a little and looked at Anne with a serious expression.

"It is reciprocated?" she said, unsure. Anne grinned up at her and drew her in for a passionate kiss.

"Of all the things I've done and all the people I've known, Therese, I've always loved you best," said Anne.

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne stretched, and stood up, walking sinuously to the carriage because she knew Therese was watching her in the sunlight turned green through the leaves. It glowed on her body like stars, and she knew she was beautiful.

She reached into the carriage and brought out a tray of food that was kept there for when she grew hungry on long journeys. She turned and brought it back, setting it down on the ground between them, and stretched her body out luxuriantly, naked and unashamed.

"My God, you are beautiful," Therese murmured. Anne knew she was showing off, but still arched like a cat with the praise. She rolled to her side to watch Therese take a fat grape between her plump lips and bite down, the juices flowing down her chin.

Anne reached out and felt the weight of one of Therese's breasts, full and heavy in her hand. She had enormous dusky nipples, and when Anne went to lick at the juice that had fallen from the grape, Therese let out a wanton moan and opened her legs obediently to Anne's questing hand.

She felt mad with the power she had over Therese, hungry for more of it, a raging inferno it felt impossible to quell. Therese was so responsive, so open, so willing to show Anne that she belonged to her, would do anything she was asked, so submissive, that Anne felt drunk on it all. Here was the woman she loved, strong and adventurous, loyal, intelligent, and her surrender made her irresistible because of all those things, not in spite of them. So beautiful and headstrong, and willing to obey, to bow to Anne because she loved her too, a gentle sacrifice that had her roaring to claim this beautiful woman again, that it would never, could never, be enough.

"What did you do with my coachman?" asked Anne, kissing her breast, sucking the nipple into her mouth and biting down with her teeth. Therese's mouth dropped open on a pretty moan, as Anne worked her hand between her legs.

"He - ah! - ran for it," she said, "just as you emerged from the carriage."

"Coward," said Anne, redoubling her efforts. Therese lost herself in the sensations Anne was pulling from her, pliant and needy. Anne took another grape from the bunch and placed it against her lips, where she was making little panting moans as Anne worked her fingers inside, between her legs, where she was wet and wanting.

"He'll probably - go to town," she said, between broken moans. "We shouldn't stay long, in case the authorities find us."

"What a waste that would be," said Anne in a lascivious tone. "Did I tell you about the time I was in jail?"

And Anne described what had happened there, and the two women were lost in transports of joy at the thought of it, Anne with her own hedonistic abandon and Therese for knowing just what kind of woman she loved.

***

Afterward, they lay panting in the sunlight, just looking at each other.

"I've missed you, Therese," said Anne. "I kept your letter, all this time. It's in my money-bag."

Therese smiled sleepily, and Anne thought she had never seen anything so lovely.

"I didn't think I would find you again," she said. Her smile widened. "And now you're here."

Anne's smile faltered a bit.

"Therese," she said. "I've done - I've done awful things, I'm not the young woman you helped to escape all those years ago."

Therese reached out a hand.

"Whatever happened, we'll get through it together," she said. "I swear to you, my love."

Anne's eyes drifted closed as she felt the warmth of Therese's caress on her cheek.

"You may not think so after you've learned more," Anne murmured. Therese looked her dead in the eye.

"Impossible," she said. "Impossible, my love."

And she pressed herself against Anne, pushing their breasts together, letting out a bright little sound of ecstasy, as if she only lived to please Anne and to excite her.

The sunny little clearing was a brief paradise.

"Excuse me, mademoiselles," said a voice.

Therese shrieked and grabbed at the clothes that lay beneath them, the leftovers of Anne's magnificent costume, and covered herself. Anne, for her part, just narrowed her eyes and sat up a bit. Therese watched her cool detachment with huge eyes. In that moment Anne became a goddess to Therese, powerful and strong.

"Who disturbs us here?" Anne demanded. "Be gone from this place if you value your skin."

"Forgive me for interrupting what must have been a delightful afternoon," said a man in a plumed hat on horseback. "But there's a young coachman in the next village over, screaming that his employer has been murdered. I thought I would investigate. Imagine my surprise."

Then he tilted his head, and the shadow of his hat lifted from his face. She recognised the man with the scarred cheek right away.

Anne picked up her cloak and wrapped it around herself.

"Not here," she said. "Away from my companion."

"Certainly," said the man, and rode a little further down the path.

"Anne?" asked Therese, uncertain. Anne ran to her and lifted her up, giving her an urgent kiss.

"Please, get dressed, as best you can," she said. "I'll be back in a moment."

Therese nodded, and began to pick up her clothes.

***

"Rochefort."

Anne walked up to the man with the scarred cheek, who looked down at her from his horse.

"So you do remember me."

"Yes," she said. "I've not lost sight of your invitation."

"Waiting for the right time, perhaps?" asked Rochefort. "Well, perhaps that will be now. I've come to make you the offer again. Richelieu has heard of your...exploits."

"What do you mean by that?" she demanded.

"Nothing," said Rochefort. "Only that you can defy death itself, and yet death seems to follow wherever you go. It's a dangerous career, being your husband, Milady de Winter."

She gasped in horror. Rochefort smiled.

"Now, now," he said. "I don't plan on dragging you to the gallows, even with that pretty fleur-de-lys on your shoulder."

Her hand went unconsciously to the place where it was hidden, beneath the cloak and beneath the makeup she had never failed to apply daily, in fear of an accident happening again.

"So I've come to make you the offer again," he said. "Name your price. Richelieu will pay it."

"And if I don't agree? What then?" asked Anne. Richelieu laughed.

"I can see why you would be afraid," he said, "but Richelieu is a politician, not a killer. Skulking in corners like a Medici is not his way. He prefers to reward, not punish. Should you turn down the offer again, he will leave you to live your life."

Richelieu leaned down.

"But if you accept," he said, "and are willing to dedicate yourself solely to him, he will reward you with everything you've wished for all these years. Respectability. Apartments in the most fashionable parts of Paris. Enough gold for your missions and furnishings befitting a woman of your station. You will travel in the most elevated social circles in this country and in England. Best of all - you will earn your own money, yourself. You will be responsible for your future, and your fortune, with no need to interact with men apart from those you choose to spend your time with. Richelieu offers you a glorious career, connections, independence, freedom."

"And why does the great Cardinal wish to throw away his money on me?" she asked.

"You yourself know your value," he said. "There isn't another woman in England or France so perfect for his projects, with access to the courts on both sides of the Channel. He is also aware of some of your...proclivities, and is interested to know what you plan to do with them, when given free reign and enough money to inspire loyalty to his faction."

Rochefort straightened in his saddle. Therese came up and joined them just then, her expression one of worry.

"So I ask you again," he said. "Will you come to Paris, and work for him?"

"Who?" asked Therese. "Paris?"

Anne looked at Therese, and then at Rochefort, stranded between the two great desires of her life. This was a moment that would decide the path of her future, she knew; this choice would be irrevocable once made.

In the end, it was that word freedom that won her heart.

Therese looked crushed, as she saw the decision made in the look on Anne's face.

Anne cupped her cheeks and Therese wouldn't look at her.

"Therese, please listen to me," she said. Therese's eyes were large and wet, tears forming in her lashes. "Thank you for searching for me, all this time. I love you so much."

"But you're going to Paris with this man?" she asked through her tears. Anne pressed her lips together and nodded. Therese sagged against her.

"I suppose lavender fields are nothing compared to Paris," she said in her grief. 

"Therese, you will always be the most important person in my life," said Anne. "Listen to me. If - once all this is done - if I am still living, I will seek you out. And I will not roam again."

Therese looked up at her, hope blooming ever eternal.

"Promise?" she asked.

"Promise," Anne swore, raining kisses on her cheeks, running her hands through her hair.

Therese swallowed back a sob.

"Then I can wait," she said. "As long as it takes you to come home to me, my love."

She looked at her with all the sweet desperation of a lover who needs to believe in anything, even if it is scraps, because love is a terrible madness.

"Wait for me, Therese," whispered Anne, kissing her soundly again. "Wait for me to come home."

"I hate to break up such sweet encounters, mademoiselle," said Rochefort, "but we really must be going. The real authorities will be here soon. I doubt your coachman has stopped squawking."

"What shall we do?" asked Anne. "The coachman saw the carriage attacked."

"Leave it," said Rochefort. "I'll ensure it finds its way into good hands. But neither of you can be seen in the town again, lest it raises the coachman's suspicions."

"Very well," sighed Anne.

"I'll take you on horseback to the next town, where we can find you some more appropriate clothing," Rochefort said, and offered his hand. She climbed up on the horse.

Rochefort tipped his hat at Therese, who watched them with big brown eyes.

"I'd unhitch the horse from the carriage if I were you," he said, "and ride as fast as you can to the town south of here. You'll be safe there, and will be able to make your way home to Normandy."

"How do I know I can trust you?" asked Therese. "How can she?"

Rochefort smiled.

"My employer has spies everywhere," he said. "Your safe passage is guaranteed. If he wanted you dead, you would be. Heed my advice, and turn to the right at the fork, heading south. Understood?"

"Please, Therese," Anne begged. "For me."

Therese nodded, and Anne stretched down to give her one last kiss. Their lips met in a sweet farewell, as Rochefort gave orders to his horse and suddenly Anne was carried forward, her hand stretching toward Therese, whose hand was stretched out likewise. She watched her as the horse rode away, and kept her eyes on Therese until she disappeared around a bend in the road.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne sat at a table in an inn, far from the forest where she had last seen Therese.

She had been dressed in clothing even more beautiful than what she had been wearing before, only this time with much more range of movement, by clever design. She looked out the window, where the weather had turned to mist, hoping to see Therese's shadow in the road.

"I thought you might want these," said Rochefort, sitting down in front of her. 

She put her hand to her mouth.

"In the rush, I had forgotten," she said. 

Her money-bag, her poiniard and sword, and most of all, the valise where she kept her journal, her phials, and the ring she had stolen from the Chateau of Blois.

"Don't worry, I didn't go through any of it," said Rochefort. "Trust is important, and if the Cardinal is to entrust you with his missions then it pays to build that mutually."

"Thank you," said Anne. "I've never done that before. I don't know what came over me."

"I hear love can do that to a person," he said, smiling. "I wouldn't know, myself."

"You've never been in love, Rochefort?" asked Anne.

"No," he said. "No time, no inclination. No interest in the cruder aspects of love, either. I am focused on my career."

Anne raised an eyebrow at him. He laughed.

"Yes, I know how men usually behave around you," he said. "Perhaps that is why Richelieu thought I was well suited to the job of recruiting you to his cause."

He leaned back and considered her.

"Why did you not invite your friend to accompany you?" he asked. "You seemed to enjoy each other's company very much."

Anne looked out the window.

"I will not have her near me while I do this," she said. "It is my hope to keep her innocent of my crimes."

She turned her gimlet gaze on Rochefort.

"And you will leave her alone," she said. Rochefort bowed slightly.

"We would never damage this relationship," he said. "She will remain unharmed. You have my word."

"Then we are in agreement."

"Yes," said Rochefort. "I'd advise you to get some rest, as I am to introduce you tomorrow evening."

"Introduce me?" asked Anne. "To who?"

"The great Cardinal," said Rochefort. "Who else?"

He stood from the table, and nodded to her before taking his leave.

Anne sat there for a while longer, staring out the window and touching the edges of Therese's note in her money-bag.

***

The following day was not ideal for riding. The fog and drizzle hung over the countryside like a bleak curtain. 

Rochefort had procured another carriage and rode in front, with Anne enjoying a modicum of luxury. The mist came through the carriage-windows, cooling her off, while she contemplated the next step of her life. 

She wondered, then, if she had made the right choice.

But ambition, once it has bitten, does not let go until it has exhausted itself or its host is dead.

***

It had been some years since she had first come here, with Armand, in another life.

Today, when she stepped out of the carriage, she was her own woman, with her own means, looking to make her way in the world. This time, when she stepped out in front of the Louvre, it was as a guest of the palace instead of a starry-eyed visitor with nothing to her name but what her husband might give to her.

"Right this way, mademoiselle," said a servant, who ushered her into a waiting room.

"I'll return to pick you up," Rochefort had told her. "I have other matters to attend to this evening, but the Cardinal is a charming man."

Anne stood in the antechamber, her heart beating fast. If the Cardinal treated her the way other men had, what recourse would she have? She could cry out, but no one would rescue her.

She covered the ring with the beveled jewel beneath her other hand, which still bore the beautiful sapphire and diamond ring Armand had given her. She had never been able to give it up. The feeling of the poison ring beneath her palm helped to calm her, as this was always the last recourse of those who preferred death to capture, or other ignominy.

"Milady de Winter," announced the servant, and the door opened.

***

Anne walked into an enormous hall, larger than even those she had seen in the chateaus and manor houses of her past. A man was writing at a desk, and she realised this was his office. If this was the size of a single room in the Louvre, the palace must be incredible. She was soothed somewhat by the opulent promises such a room made to her ambition.

"A moment," said the man. "I am just writing the last line of a poem."

He sat for a moment, then seemed to decide what he wanted to say, and wrote something on the paper with a flourish.

"Done. Now, Milady," he said. "What can I do for you?"

He stood from behind the desk, and she was surprised to see that he was very handsome, with a soldier's build and an almost Spanish look. Black hair curled at his ears, although it was accented with some white. He was older than she, but held himself with the proud bearing of a warrior. This was no churchman, but a strong, capable, and cunning adversary to his enemies.

Upon seeing him, Anne made up her mind to match him wit for wit, and to be the kind of person he'd always dreamed of in a spy. Not so much for prurient reasons, but because his presence inspired a kind of immediate loyalty in those who could read the hearts of others in their looks.

"I am here by your request," said Anne. "I respond now to the second time you have asked for me."

"Indeed," said the Cardinal. "Rochefort has filled me in on your various exploits. You would be an asset to the king and crown, Milady."

"In exchange for the safety of my own," she said. Richelieu nodded.

"Done," he said. "I was told you might have requests for me. Ask anything, and you shall have it. I provide well for those in my employ, so they have nothing to reproach me with, and to inspire loyalty. It takes only one disgruntled person drinking in some low tavern to let slip secrets that would bring dishonour on the house of France."

Anne moved her hands, and he saw the poison ring.

"I see we are in agreement," he said. "Now. Are you willing to be employed by me, to serve the king, for the glory of France?"

"I am," she said. Richelieu went to his desk and wrote out an order.

"Take this to the treasurer," he said. "You are to be paid a salary, and you are to live in the Place Royale. I trust this is acceptable to you?"

Anne started. The Place Royale was the closest she could possibly get to the court without living in the Louvre herself.

"Yes, that's fine," she said, trying to keep the quiver out of her voice.

She had also noticed that unlike Rochefort, there was a fire in the eyes of the Cardinal, as he looked upon her. A small and triumphant thing inside her rejoiced, as this meant she would have something over the great Cardinal.

"I will send you word of your missions," said the Cardinal. "You will fulfill them without question. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Your Eminence," she said, as he handed her the paper.

"Please," he said, smiling. "Call me Armand."

A violent twitch went through her body before she could control herself. When she looked back at Richelieu, he was staring at her, a question in his expression.

They may know much, thought Anne, but they don't know all. That's good.

"I'd rather not," she said. "Richelieu would suffice."

"Very well," he said. "I permit my creatures all the freedom they desire, so long as they complete the tasks set out for them."

Anne curtsied, and was about to take her leave.

"By the by," he said. "What shall I call you?"

Anne smiled.

"Milady de Winter," she said.

***

As Anne walked out of the Cardinal's chambers, she looked at the amount written on the paper. She had to stop and put her hand on the wall.

She could never have dreamed of money like this, not at Breuil, not with Armand or Bennett. She wouldn't inherit Bennett's fortune until William passed away, and this would fill that gap nicely. If she was careful, she would want for nothing in life, ever again.

Yet one thing stung her, as she walked quickly through the halls of the Louvre, her silk dress rustling as she went, and that was being called the Cardinal's creature.

"I will not be one of his creatures," she swore under her breath as she walked, "but he'll be one of mine."

 

Chapter Text

"These are to be your rooms," said Rochefort. "I hope they are sufficient."

Anne stood in the centre of the most beautiful apartments she had ever seen. Large and sprawling, their floor-to-ceiling arched windows were the height of luxury in the Paris of the day, given the high cost of glass. White with green trim, with marble flooring, the apartments were so far beyond what she had expected that Anne was struck speechless for the moment.

"Caesar, they're magnificent," she breathed. "Fit for a queen."

"As like to a queen as you are," Rochefort said, kissing her hand. "Richelieu is well-pleased with you and wishes to keep you close."

"The ideal place to keep one's enemies," she said ruefully, and Rochefort laughed.

"Come now," he said. "The Cardinal thinks of you as a friend."

"All the more reason to be wary," she said. 

She walked through all the rooms, made of a spacious grand design with high ceilings. In one of the bedrooms, she found a small doorway. Upon opening it, she discovered a bijou apartment attached, with steps down to the street.

"What's this?" she asked. Rochefort walked into the little apartment.

"These are the quarters for a lady's maid," he said. "I'd advise you to acquire one, if only to keep up appearances."

"A lady's maid?" asked Anne. "I've never really needed one, and the last one I had - I think she betrayed me."

"Would you hire a man?" he asked. Anne smiled.

"No, I think I've also learned my lesson there," she said. 

"Yes, the men who come in contact with you do seem to have a habit of winding up dead," said Rochefort. "I should worry for myself, and for the Cardinal, if you weren't on our side."

"And it will do you well to remember," said Anne, closing the door. "I shall hold interviews for a lady's maid within the week."

She walked back into the main reception room, extending her arms and turning slowly.

"Caesar," she said, "I have a request. Two, really."

"Ask, and they shall be granted," said Rochefort. "The Cardinal has told me to deny you nothing."

"I often wonder at this enthusiasm on his part," she said. "Why me? There must be countless cunning women all over France. The Duchess de Chevreuse, for one, and there was Catherine de' Medici."

"And you are like having both," said Rochefot. "Your ruthlessness and ambition make you perfect for his plans. Besides, the Duchess de Chevreuse is a favourite of the queen."

"So we are working against the queen's interests, are we?" she asked. "And what has the queen ever done to the Cardinal?"

"Well, there was the incident of the sarabande," said Rochefort. Anne snorted.

"Men. So ridiculous and weak," she said. "I heard about that. So he was duped into dancing for the queen and her ladies, and they made fun of him from behind their fans. This is a man who faces the cannon fearlessly and is yet brought down by an assortment of idiots tittering at him."

Rochefort smiled.

"You truly are a singular woman," he said.

"So many men tell me," she said.

"I doubt many men are really aware," said Rochefort. "They see your beauty and nothing more. I, however, see all, for I have other interests."

"Therefore I request this favour from you, and not the Cardinal," said Anne. "Perhaps it's best the Cardinal does not know."

Rochefort bowed.

"I will do my best to fulfill your requirements," he said.

"First of all, I would like to continue working with my hands," she said. "I've done farming work for years, and I do not want to regret it by stagnating here and becoming weak."

"I will see what I can do for you," said Rochefort. "And the other favour?"

"Will you practice fencing with me, Caesar?" she asked. He looked startled.

She walked up to him and brushed the scar on his temple with her fingertips. He blushed and looked away.

"I thought a man with a scar such as this would be a warrior," she said. "I already know a great deal, but need to keep up my skill with a practiced hand. The well-educated know that it is important to try your hand against as many people and styles of swordfighting as possible, so you are not surprised in a future duel."

To her surprise, Rochefort didn't answer right away. He touched the scar on his cheek.

"This was not won in a battle," he said quietly. "My father did this to me, when I was a young boy."

Anne was struck with horror.

"What? Why?" she asked.

"I was unwanted," he said. "I had the insolence to remind him of my existence once, when I was a little older. This is what he gave me for my efforts. He lives now with his new wife, and has forgotten me. The Cardinal found me, and I rose in the ranks of the guards. Now I am his right-hand man, and will do anything he asks of me."

"Another father for you," said Anne, touching his arm gently. "And a better one."

She took a deep breath.

"My name is Anne, Caesar," she said. "I'd like you to know that, even if you call me Milady in public, you may use my name in private."

Rochefort smiled, wiping at his eyes.

"And I shall undertake your practice," he said. "And we can talk of ourselves, a little, and our youth."

"Nothing could please me more," she said.

***

After their discussion in her new apartments, Anne and Caesar became fast friends. Then, over time, they became best friends, as they practiced sword fighting together, plotted together, and talked about their mutual histories. They knew each other to be a safe place to store the treasures of their private thoughts and histories. It was wonderful for Anne to have a friend who had no romantic inclinations toward her, and for Caesar to have someone to talk to about all of the horrors he suffered as a child. Together, they became the formidable agents of the Cardinal, united in their purpose and united in their loyalty, both to each other, and to the man they looked upon as their salvation.

The weeks passed, and Anne's apartments were furnished. The place was filled with leafy green plants of all sizes and varieties, a long sofa and chairs for guests, and a chaise longue for her to lay upon artfully when certain visitors came calling.

"You have a real love of botany, my sister," said Rochefort, touching the end of one of the plants.

"Not so much the plants as their uses," said Anne, moving one of them into the sunlight. 

Rochefort stepped back.

"I see," he said. "I often wondered what you would do if a man was too amorous towards you, although from what you have told me, that is nigh impossible."

"Every woman has a man she doesn't want anywhere near her, Caesar," she said. "And for those - well, whatever it takes."

"I assume you mean poison," he said. "I am no botanist, but I know hemlock when I see it."

"Poison or the poniard," she said. "And to think, most visitors will just assume I love plants."

Rochefort smiled.

"As a warrior, this is one of the things I find interesting about you," he said. "They see me, a tall man with a scar - I must be a soldier or a mercenary, so they are immediately on their guard."

He looked at her.

"They see you, a beautiful, innocent woman," he said. "And they never see you coming."

Anne smiled.

"And that is why it never pays to underestimate a woman," she said. "I should rather like to be tried by those who know what I am, in a fair fight. It does not say much for a warrior who is primarily a surprise - how then does the warrior know they are skilled? As for doubting the actions of women, or believing women innocent or incapable, I shall never understand. After Medici, after Joan d'Arc - how can they still be so foolish?"

"I don't know, Anne," he said, "but you profit from it, every day."

 

Chapter Text

"Thrust. Parry. Touch."

Rochefort laughed as Anne disarmed him.

"You've improved a great deal," he said.

"I have had plenty of practice."

They shook on it, and put down their weapons. Anne walked into the main parlour area.

"Ketty! Ketty, some refreshments for myself and my friend."

A beautiful young woman emerged from another room, carrying a tray with drinks. She was petite and charming, with a slender waist and well-proportioned. She set the tray down and curtsied, taking her leave of the two friends.

"I see having a lady's maid has grown on you," said Rochefort, as he took a drink. A monkey leaped onto his shoulder from one of the plants. "And you have more companions than the last time I saw you."

"That was a gift from a captain of the Barbary corsairs," she said. "You know of that mission, for you brought the message to me yourself."

"Indeed," he said. "And you were an excellent pirate, by all reports. Did you find it difficult, hiding as a man?"

"No," she said. "Being a man is easy. I would challenge you to try living as a woman and see what kind of obstacles that places in your path."

"I believe it," said Rochefort. "I have long pondered on that question, nature or nurture? If we blame woman for all our ills, then why should we be surprised when that very thing happens? Besides, from what you have told me, men are incapable of controlling themselves."

He offered the monkey a slice of cheese from the platter, which it took up and devoured.

"I'd love to hear more of that story," he said. "But I've come to you with a commission."

"Already?" asked Anne. "I've only just returned."

"Yes, but the Cardinal has been detailing to me your successes," he said. "Not only the Barbary corsairs, but also the affair of the Jesuit priest, and your inspired success when dealing with the Spanish princes."

Anne bowed.

"And what is it he wants from me now?" she asked.

"Are you pleased with your circumstances?" asked Rochefort. "Do you feel that you have been well recompensed?"

"Come now, Caesar, there's no need for this kind of subterfuge with me," she said. 

"It is not you that concerns me," he said, and gave a meaningful look to the door which Ketty had disappeared behind.

"I see," she said. "Well, I have had no reason to complain, but if you prefer a more anonymous environment, we could meet for dinner tonight?"

Rochefort smiled.

"That would be ideal, I think," he said. "Not only for matters of business, but it has been too long since we have spoken of general things."

"Agreed," she said. "Shall we meet at the inn of the three crowns?"

Rochefort nodded, then drained the rest of his drink. He put the monkey back upon its perch behind the plants.

"I shall see you then," he said, and took  his leave.

"I look forward to it," said Anne, and went to find Ketty, to prepare for the evening.

***

Anne met Rochefort at a busy inn, where the other guests were making an almighty racket. Drinking, carousing, and otherwise occupied, they paid little attention to the woman in the cloak and hood, or her severe-looking companion.

"Good evening, Milady," said Rochefort, as if they hadn't seen each other earlier in the day.

"Good evening, Rochefort," she said, feigning the same.

"I have taken the liberty of ordering your favourite wine," he said. "I hope that is all right."

"Of course," she said. "A roast pheasant would be wonderful too."

Rochefort waved to the host and added the pheasant to the evening's dinner.

"How have you been?" he asked, with the tenderness of a brother.

"Later," she said. "First, I would like to know what he requests of me."

"This commission will be more dangerous than any you have undertaken before," said Rochefort. "Therefore he wanted me to discuss it with you, in order to find out if you were willing to perform it."

Anne scoffed.

"When have I ever feared anything he has asked of me?" she said. "I am a ready blade and a ready wit. There are few things on this earth that worry me."

"That's just it," said Rochefort. "I fear this may be one of those things."

The host came by and distributed the wine. He endeavoured to see more detail of the beautiful woman's face, but Anne kept herself artfully hidden beneath the hood of her cloak, and he soon gave up, as he had raucous guests to attend to.

"He wishes you to go to England," said Rochefort. Anne sat back as if she were stung.

"England?" she asked. "Why?"

Rochefort shook his head.

"Buckingham is planning something," he said. "You know how Treville's musketeers have been annoying him of late."

Anne nodded.

"I don't know what use I could be in England," she said. "It's been at least a year. I haven't returned, and I'm not sure if I'm wanted there."

"A beautiful woman is wanted everywhere," said Rochefort. "You have the connections necessary to get close to him. I think there will be further instructions in the future."

"Very well," she said. "When am I to set off?"

"The plan is set for a few weeks' time," said Rochefort. "I will be in the countryside, at Meung."

"Shall we fix a date on which to meet?" she asked. "I assume by then you will have further information."

"Yes," he said. "And it will be better to speak there, as even in a place such as this, Paris has too many ears to hear."

"If war is imminent," she said, "I do not want to get caught on the wrong side of the Channel."

"That is understood," said Rochefort. "He wants subterfuge. That is all."

"Then set a date and time, and I shall meet you in Meung," she said. "I had wanted to return to Blois again anyway. I can travel through Meung on my return."

Rochefort scribbled out a date and time on a piece of paper and handed it to her. Anne tucked it into her money-bag with her other precious letters.

They had finished just in time, as the host set the roast pheasant on the table, and hurried off to attend to his other guests.

"Now," said Anne, "let us speak of happier things. I am interested to hear of your movements these last few months, my brother."

And the two friends spent the evening speaking of the past, discussing entertainment they had recently seen, and deliberately avoiding the subject of the future.

 

Chapter Text

Anne's carriage left Blois, and she was content. She had gleaned more information from the Chamber of Secrets, this time, from Jean - who was all too willing to help. Of course, the same tradeoff was made, and it was worth her time to discover further information about the life and times of Catherine, as well as her brilliance with poisons. The most interesting aspects to Anne involved the antidotes, and how far Catherine had come in her study of medicine. The plants involved were just as capable of healing as causing illness or death, regardless of whether poison had been administered. Anne felt this information was of great value, and ignored because of Catherine's reputation.

She, too, knew what it meant to be simultaneously hated and loved.

The carriage she now travelled in was a luxurious one, fitting her new circumstances. The Cardinal wished for her to want for nothing, but also to have the appearance of a great lady. Therefore she rode in the most comfortable carriage she could find, pulled by strong Norman horses that recalled her childhood to her, misty though it was by this time.

The carriage rolled into Meung around midday, and she saw Caesar approaching. He looked very handsome in his violet doublet, and she did not miss the chance to tell him so as he approached her window.

He also looked slightly amused and distraught.

"You're late," he told her, after her initial compliment.

"Yes, I tarried too long at Blois," she said. "Forgive me, Caesar. That was unfair of me. But tell me, what has given you such a strange aspect?"

Rochefort laughed.

"Some young Gascon hothead nearly separated me from my life, only moments ago," he said. "Fortunately some of the locals came to my rescue and beat him with shovels. You'd not believe it if you'd seen it. A mere boy!"

"Why on earth would a Gascon boy wish to kill you?" asked Anne.

"Because I made fun of his horse," said Rochefort, indicating a nearby horse that was the exact colour of an orange, with no hair in its tail. This was a horse that had clearly seen better days.

"I can understand why," said Anne, "What a temper the boy must have, to murder a man over a horse! Still, perhaps best to hold your tongue. You never know who Treville might send as a spy."

"Exactly my thoughts," said Rochefort. "The host of the inn said he searched the boy, and had a letter of introduction to Treville in his pocket. I have liberated it from him, just to be safe."

"It would be prudent to be more careful," said Anne. "What orders have you to give me?"

"The Cardinal wishes you to ascertain the whereabouts of Buckingham," said Rochefort. 

Anne nodded.

"So, his Eminence commands me - " she began.

"To return immediately to England, and tell him immediately whether the duke has left London," said Rochefort.

"And as to my other instructions?" asked Anne.

"They are enclosed in this box, which you shall not open until you are on the other side of the Channel."

"Good. And you? What are you going to do?"

"I will return to Paris."

"Without chastising the insolent boy?" Anne demanded.

Just then, a man of small stature and wispy mustache came barreling out of the inn.

"It is that insolent boy," he shouted, "who chastises others, and I hope that this time he who deserves chastisement will not try to flee like a base coward."

"Will not try to flee?" Rochefort repeated, his eyebrows knit in consternation.

Anne did not miss the starstruck look on the boy's face upon perceiving her. He seemed to stumble before regaining his composure. 

"No!" the boy shouted, even louder than before. "In the presence of a woman you would hesitate to run away, I presume."

Rochefort put his hand to the hilt of his sword.

Anne reached out and gently touched his arm.

"Consider," she murmured. "Consider that the slightest delay might ruin everything."

"You are right," said Rochefort, dropping his hand, never taking his eyes off the other man, "You go your way and I'll go mine."

He leaped into the saddle of his horse just as the coachman whipped his, and they two separated, going off in different directions at the end of the street.

Anne heard the host shout at Rochefort, who had apparently not paid his bill. She saw his valet throw some coins at the host's feet, and the small man run after him, shouting "Coward! Coward!" before the carriage turned and the scene was hidden from her view.

Men, she thought, rolling her eyes, as the carriage continued on toward her destination.

***

Anne found herself in Calais again much more quickly than the first time she had come here, half-dead and supported only by Henri. She felt a pang of grief at the thought of him, one of her only real friends in the world, strange though that friendship may have been.

She stepped out of the carriage with some trepidation. Anne did not fancy a return to England, given her memories of the place. She had left behind the first man she had murdered in cold blood, and also a son, whose existence was meaningless to her. It seemed people believed that once a woman had borne a child, it would change her. Anne hadn't considered the existence of John Francis since she had returned to France, nor did she long to see him. Now those memories of another life crowded in on her - a life she had hoped to leave behind forever.

Still, war between England and France was imminent. She knew that Buckingham sported with both nations, and had the passionate love of the monarchs of both - James, and Anne of Austria. She had only met Buckingham a few times, but this would be her chance to see what it was to be a man in the same way she was a woman: capable of hypnotising just about anyone to get what she wanted.

It would be a battle of wills she eagerly looked forward to, as any skilled fighter enjoys testing their mettle against a worthy opponent. Anne had heard much about Buckingham, but he had never been a target due to his involvement with the king. 

As she stepped aboard the ferry that would bring her back to England, Anne put faith in her ability to emerge as the victor in this particular dance. Whatever the box she was holding contained, gaining the upper hand with a character as arrogant as Buckingham would serve as its own reward.

 

Chapter Text

As her carriage traversed the now-familiar bleak English countryside, Anne thought of the past year, and her growing friendship with Rochefort.

"Caesar," she had said while they dined alone together one night, "tell me more of your childhood."

Rochefort smiled sadly. Anne reached up and brushed the scar on his left temple with her fingertips.

"Had you always wanted to work for the Cardinal?" she asked. "Or had you other plans for your life?"

Rochefort sat back with his wine glass and swirled it contemplatively.

"As I told you, my father did not want me," he said. "I reminded him of my mother, who died in suspicious circumstances. When I was offered the position of Page with the Cardinal, I jumped at it. When I went home again, the stablehands refused to even give my horse any hay. My family by this time consisted of my father and his new wife, and their multiple children. I think they assumed I had come home to live off them again."

He sighed.

"Once they realised that I was like to come into money, and was serving the great Cardinal," he said, "suddenly things were different. My stepmother apologised for the behaviour of the stable hands, saying she had forbid them to give hay to strangers as they were quite poor, and the stable hands didn't recognise me. I was also told to remember my brothers when I came into money. However, once they realised that I had none, they left off again."

He drank the wine, and set the glass on the table. She poured the garnet-coloured wine for him.

"And so, I will always be grateful to the Cardinal for rescuing me," he said. 

"He's like a father to you?" asked Anne. Rochefort nodded.

"Yes, in a way, I suppose that's true," he said. "More father than my father was, in any event. He has never, and will never, have a more loyal servant than the one he found in me."

He looked into his wine glass again.

"And what about you, Anne?" he asked. "So much of your life is a mystery, even to the Cardinal, who sees far."

Anne's lips parted in something not quite like a smile.

"As to my family, I fear they think me dead," she said. "In fact, I fear many people think me dead, and not only my family."

"What of that beautiful young wench I caught you with?" he asked, and laughed to see her colour. "Anne! Blushing? Now I've seen everything."

"You don't think - it's - ?" Anne hesitated.

"Do I think you making love to a woman is strange?" Rochefort guessed. Anne nodded. "I don't see why. I myself have no interest in anything of that nature, which makes me strange, does it not? Anne, I know for certain that King James has remarked upon the handsomeness of the Duke of Buckingham many times, often enough that he became the Duke of Buckingham, in fact. I don't think much is strange in this world involving love. I save my judgment for people like my parents."

He looked at her appraisingly.

"And if it is not your parents who betrayed you," he said, "someone did. Perhaps more than one someone. I am a man, it is true, but I learned from the Cardinal to see everything. What I see is that the world is a pit of vipers for a woman, and especially so for a beautiful woman. Man sees her and thinks himself entitled."

"You are certainly a rare breed of man," said Anne, lifting her own glass of wine.

"Am I? I don't know. Perhaps if I had the inclination, I'd have treated you the same as any other man," shrugged Rochefort. "It may only be the circumstances of my birth that dictate my treating you as the equal you so obviously are."

"The Cardinal has the inclination, and has yet to make a claim upon me," said Anne.

"Indeed," said Rochefort. "Perhaps it is because we are unique among men, for other reasons. And you are unique among women."

"Oh, no," said Anne. "I am no more unique than a daisy in a field full of daisies. Circumstances have forced me to carve out a life for myself instead of the one others have carved out for me."

"And yet, most women go willingly," said Rochefort.

"If you think that, Caesar, your knowledge of women is poor," said Anne.

"Speaking of unique women, did I tell you the Cardinal has asked me to carry one off for him?" asked Rochefort.

Anne started.

"What on earth for?" she asked. "Surely he cannot be that desperate."

Rochefort chuckled.

"Oh, no, nothing like that," he said. "Enemy of the state territory. He wants me to shut her up somewhere."

"Enemy of the state, or of the Cardinal?" asked Anne.

"Same thing," said Rochefort, and they clinked their glasses together.

Anne wondered if this woman Rochefort meant to carry off had something to do with the message she had received in the box. She had obeyed instructions and waited until the other side of the Channel to open it.

The box sat open on her lap, with a few lines scrawled in cypher on a piece of folded paper inside it.

The paper read Buckingham believes the queen has asked him to come to Paris. Ascertain if Buckingham is in London. If he is in London, you are to get close to him in any way you can, and divest him of something important. Further instructions forthcoming.

Anne sighed, and stared out at the rolling green hills passing by her carriage, as the drizzling mist turned to rain in earnest. The air was always so damp and chill here, unlike anywhere she had been in France. 

But there were coins in her money-bag and sumptuous rooms awaiting her, so she could once again undertake life in the English capital.

***

The rooms were every bit as beautiful as promised, if cold. A servant was building a fire in the fireplace in order to chase out some of the chill. Anne began unpacking her things and putting them away. There would be a ball or other event soon that would require her attendance, and the English were sticklers for the proper dress at the proper time. All things proper, as it happened, while they also continued to pursue their private perversions.

There was a knock at the door. Anne questioned her servant silently with her eyes, but the servant shook her head. Apparently no one was expected this evening, especially as Anne had only just arrived in the city.

Ever cautious, Anne went to the door and opened it with some trepidation.

Standing there was a young, handsome man who broke into a smile upon seeing her.

"Milady de Winter!" he said. "I heard you had arrived in London, and wanted to offer my respects."

"de Wardes?!" Anne said, smiling herself. "What a pleasant surprise."

 

Chapter Text

"Could I offer the lady the opportunity to dine with me this evening?" de Wardes asked, removing his hat. "There is a restaurant I know nearby that serves delicious food."

Anne gestured that he should enter, and she went to the mirror to complete her toilette. 

"Does such a thing exist?" she asked. "Good food? In England?"

de Wardes laughed.

"I forget that you have a refined French palate," he said. "Although if you had not told me yourself, I would have taken you for the most polished Englishwoman."

Anne dabbed her face with cotton.

"Yes, I understand the error," she said. "I have been educated in both France and England."

"And no further information is forthcoming," smiled de Wardes. "The lady remains an enigma."

"The lady will graciously accept your offer," said Anne. "I am eager to discover if England does have delicious food hidden somewhere."

"And if not, the company is worth the suffering," said de Wardes.

"Well, monsieur, as we are both French, we shall both suffer together," she said, setting her things down. "Tell me, do you know if the Duke of Buckingham is in London?"

de Wardes narrowed his eyes.

"Careful, or you shall make me jealous," he teased. "Every man in France and England feels inadequate in comparison."

Anne laughed.

"And what right do you have to be jealous?" she demanded, still joking, but the haughty tone was there.

de Wardes bowed.

"None, of course," he admitted. "Although I should like to, one day. No, the Duke is not in London at present."

"Ah, what a shame! I shall have to satisfy my curiosity another time, then," she said. 

"Curiosity?" asked de Wardes.

"Why, yes. I would like to know if he really is as wonderful as everyone says, and I've only ever seen him at a distance," she said. "Come now, de Wardes, don't look so disappointed. I offer you my arm this evening, isn't that enough?"

de Wardes brightened at this, and took her hand.

"A man must be satisfied with the gifts he has been given," he said, and bowed as he ushered her out the door.

***

As Anne stepped into her carriage, she turned and murmured to a man standing nearby.

"Send this to the Cardinal," she said, and jotted down a quick note in the same cipher as the message in the box.

It read Buckingham not in London - M.

The man bowed, and disappeared into the night.

"Ready?" asked de Wardes, from the depths of the carriage.

"Of course," said Anne, and she took the seat beside him.

***

As luck would have it, the food was tolerable, and de Wardes' company enjoyable. Anne couldn't remember when she had enjoyed a more pleasant evening that was not with Rochefort or on her own. She had become extremely independent over the last little while, preferring her own company to that of others. It was refreshing to spend an evening with a friend.

Anne felt that there was more than friendship in her heart for this man, who was so singularly kind and chivalrous. She was aware that he returned the interest, but was cautious given her previous experiences.

Still, she pressed his hands as they shared a warm farewell, and when she entered her apartments, she felt light and happy in a way that seemed almost foreign to her.

***

As she prepared for bed, she was surprised to hear another knock on her door.

"Goodness," she said. "Has news of my arrival travelled so fast?"

She nodded to the servant.

"Please, open the door and see who it is," said Anne.

The servant did so, and in walked William de Winter.

"Brother!" she cried, standing in shock. "To what do I owe this late visit?"

"Hello, Clarisse," said de Winter. "I heard you had returned to London and wished to pay you a visit."

"And all this time in Paris, you haven't come to see me in my rooms?" she pouted, offering her cheek for him to kiss, which he duly did.

"Yes, my apologies, Clarisse," he said. "I have been distracted with matters relating to the business and the house. Ever since - " here he cleared his throat "- ever since Bennett passed away, I have had more than my fair share of work."

"I'm sorry, William," she said, going back to her seat. "But I cannot say I am sorry at the loss of Bennett. He was...unkind to me."

William walked into the room, removing his hat and nodding.

"Yes, I feel it was a mistake to send you to him," he said. "More fool I. And yet - people are talking, Clarisse."

"Talking about what?" she asked.

"Those who saw his - him, after, say he was poisoned," he said bluntly.

Anne froze and stared at him in the mirror. She turned around sharply.

"And they think had something to do with it?" she demanded. William held up his hands.

"I do not say so," he said. "But the gossips do."

"And gossips is what they are," sneered Anne, tossing down the white cloth she had been using to clean her face in a fit of pique. "You shouldn't listen to the wagging tongues in England, William, I swear they are worse than the French! Prim and proper to your face, willing to stab you in the back at any opportunity."

"I'm sorry I brought it up," he said. "But I thought you would like to know."

"I gave him an heir," she said, standing from her seat and facing William. "What more did he want from me? He talked to me like he owned me, and if you're looking for a poisoner, look to him first!"

William gaped at her.

"Whatever do you mean?" he asked, trembling.

"Your precious brother wished to destroy your beloved milking business," she snarled. "And then I hear that one of the milkmaids is ill - Pleasance, the very woman who recommended me to you! Do you know what belladonna does to a person when it's diluted in milk, William? Do you?"

William stared at the floor.

"Do you?" he asked, half accusing, half curious.

"As a matter of fact, yes I do!" cried Anne. "And if I hadn't been there in time, I don't -"

She made a noise of disgust, and an impatient wave of her hand.

"Your brother wanted to destroy you," she said. "Whatever happened, however it happened, you were saved, and so was I."

William didn't have anything more to say after that, clearly consumed with his own thoughts.

"I am sorry for my intrusion," he said. 

"You know," Anne said, getting in his face, "maybe he had a taste of his own medicine. Poison is dangerous. You never know what will happen if you just leave it lying around."

Her cold blue eyes stared up at him, but he wouldn't meet them with his own.

"Please leave," she said. "Your presence is irritating me, and bringing to mind terrible memories."

William, defeated, turned to go.

"Clarisse," he said, "would you like to know how he is doing? John Francis?"

"No," she spat. "I gave the man an heir. That was the deal. I have no interest in him beyond that, and have taken precautions never to fall pregnant again. I do not want to hear his name uttered in my presence ever again."

She pointed at the door.

"Now get out."

William didn't say another word, and he took his leave.

Anne sat down on the edge of her bed and buried her face in her hands. 

 

Chapter Text

Anne spent much of her time in London going from one soiree to another. She considered visiting Pleasance, but realised that she would be heartbroken if she looked at her with no recognition in her eyes.

So she continued with her position as London socialite, awaiting news from the Cardinal, and looking forward to returning to France. The weather here was miserable, and she didn't understand how the people withstood it year in and year out.

One afternoon, there was a sharp rap at her door.

The servant opened it and admitted a man covered nearly head to toe in mud. He looked exhausted, as if he had been riding hard.

"Milady," he said breathlessly.

"Yes?" she asked. "Please, take a seat, monsieur. You look as though you need it."

"Many thanks," he said, and fell backwards into a chair, which he covered with mud likewise. 

He held out an envelope. Anne took it, and opened the letter.

"MILADY, Be at the first ball at which the Duke of Buckingham shall be present. He will wear on his doublet twelve diamond studs; get as near to him as you can, and cut off two.

As soon as these studs shall be in your possession, inform me."

There was no signature, but also no doubt as to who had sent the missive. Anne bowed to the man and thanked him.

"What is your name?" she asked.

"Vitray, madame," he said.

"You shall be well recompensed," she told him. "I will have my servants draw you a bath and you are welcome to take your rest here."

"Much appreciated, Milady," he said, and the servants took him away to get cleaned up.

Anne read the letter again and smiled.

"Finally," she said to herself. "It's about time I was able to leave this dreary country."

***

As it happened, de Wardes came to pay her a visit the very same day.

"Milady," he said, "I know you were asking after the Duke of Buckingham when I first saw you, and in order to prove that I am not a jealous lover, I am come to tell you that he will be attending the queen's next ball."

Anne smiled.

"Thank you," she said. "I am interested to find out if this George Villiers is all they say he is."

"And more," de Wardes supplied helpfully. "Did you know he is the absolute worst man for any job in the kingdom? And every time Parliament wants to get rid of him, the king simply dissolves it."

"What!" Anne said. "To think, this man commands the love of a king, and wishes for himself the love of a queen of France as well."

"A man of his nature has lofty aspirations," said de Wardes. "I am content with other stars."

Anne raised an eyebrow at him.

"Am I not among the greater stars, then, de Wardes?" she asked, with that coquettish tone she knew so well to adopt. "You cast your eyes low when you cast them upon me?"

de Wardes grinned.

"Oh, no," he said. "I cast my eyes on a whole galaxy when I cast them upon you. What are mere kings and queens in comparison?"

Anne put her arm in his.

"Well said," she told him. "It is not the mere art of flattery, but that of saving face, that honours you as a man, de Wardes."

"I should hope so," he said, patting her hand. "Otherwise I should be in real trouble, given how often my mouth gets me into compromising positions."

"Does it indeed," she said, lacing the words with such a lascivious intent that it could not be missed. 

de Wardes only looked at her with a new kind of longing, somewhere between lust and love, if Anne could give it a name.

"Shall we take a turn out of doors?" he asked her. "I would be delighted if you would accompany me."

"Yes, I believe I could do with some fresh air," said Anne. "These rooms become damp and oppressive the longer one stays in them. Lead the way, monsieur."

***

Outside, the air was chill and damp. Anne wondered if anyone in England had lived a day in their life without being slightly soggy. She mentioned this to de Wardes, and he laughed.

They were walking in a wide park set like a jewel in the centre of the city. The grass was a vibrant green, and the trees were hung with leaves. It was a beautiful day, as beautiful days go in London, the sky a pale blue and mercifully free of rain. The air retained the same chill that told her the sun would not be a longtime companion. The rains and fog would roll in again soon, and so she should appreciate the rare clear skies.

After several pleasantries were exchanged, de Wardes seemed to be steeling himself for something.

"What is it?" she asked. He smiled at the ground, clearly caught out and embarrassed.

"I suppose I couldn't hide it from you," he said. "You are whip-smart and clever. I'd like to know if you would attend the ball as my guest."

"As your date, you mean?" Anne asked, getting right to the point. He turned redder, if that were possible.

"Yes, as my companion," he said. "I shall try not to be jealous of Buckingham, but I confess it will be difficult. A man in love is greedy, and you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Still, I'd be honoured, even if it's only for an evening."

Anne was charmed. She hadn't seen a man quite like him in her entire life.

"Yes, of course I'll attend with you," she said. "I warn you, if you are a jealous man, you are better off leaving any interest in me behind."

de Wardes looked thrilled, like all his dreams had come true at once.

"Oh, thank you, Milady!" he said, kissing her hands in a rush of passion. "I have waited for so long to ask you this, I can hardly believe in my good fortune. If I am a madman, let me continue to be so, if only to believe you might cast a glance of your beautiful eyes upon me!"

Anne listened to this torrent of emotion and found herself moved, which was something she hadn't felt since long before Bennett - since Armand, or maybe even since Therese had stirred her young heart to love.

She smiled upon him, and thought perhaps I still have a heart, after all.

 

Chapter Text

The Duke of Buckingham's wealth and power could not be understated. This singular man was capable of throwing jewels in the streets of France, of playing with the monarchies of both nations, of doing as he pleased, when he pleased, and with no natural predators, so to speak, as after James had passed away, he had been inherited by Charles I, and kept his influence far past that of any other man in either kingdom.

Therefore, the ball he hosted was sumptuous to the point of ridicule. The fountains, lights, and fireworks were of a quality and style that few other people of the time could possibly afford. The king and the court were all present, and the celebration had been announced as a fete on offer from the king, but it was clear that the Duke ruled England in the same way the Cardinal ruled France.

Enter Milady de Winter, the first natural predator the Duke of Buckingham would ever know.

Anne floated into the ball on the arm of de Wardes. She was dressed in an enormous bell-like gown that showed off every curve, but tastefully, only to hide the rest beneath a voluminous skirt that was so wide it could probably hide other people beneath it.

de Wardes was charmed, and told her she was beautiful in a breathless voice that made it sound like he was disappointed that he didn't have a more appropriate word.

"And you are very handsome, my dear de Wardes," she assured him, smiling with her coral-pink lips, white teeth a set of pearls, one missing.

He blushed, and asked for the first dance. She accepted willingly, and was impressed at the delicate beauty of the music, as he spun her around the floor. The glass ceilings were vaulted with a view to the stars in the sky, and there were torches all along the room. 

"A woman could dream of a life like this," she murmured to de Wardes, as he held her close, her chin on his shoulder.

de Wardes laughed gently, his arm tightening around her.

"There is only one man who could give you that," he said. "And should you prefer him, I shall step aside. One could not interfere with the moon falling in love with the sun, after all."

Anne leaned back and smiled up at him.

"Am I the sun, or the moon?" she asked. He gazed down at her.

"Both," he said softly, and leaned in for a kiss.

"de Wardes!" said a jocular voice near them, breaking the mood completely. "I didn't know you were back in London."

"This evening only, I'm afraid," smiled de Wardes. "After that, I am back to work in Paris."

"Hm, a pity," said the Duke of Buckingham, turning to Anne. "And who do we have here? de Wardes, for shame, not introducing me to your beautiful partner!"

de Wardes was clearly put out, but diplomacy was of utmost importance.

"This is the Comtesse de Winter," said de Wardes, and Anne curtsied. "The widow of the late Lord de Winter, you understand."

"Widow?" asked the Duke musingly, as he kissed her hand, favouring her with a heated gaze. 

Then he stood up a little straighter.

"A moment," he said. "Have we not met?"

Anne's pretty brow bent in confusion.

"I don't think so, Your Grace," she said. "Are you not in the habit of knowing those you invite to your parties?"

Buckingham laughed.

"No, indeed!" he said. "As long as they are of proper class, I say, invite them all! I can afford it."

He smiled, and took her hand again.

"Besides," he said. "I get to meet women as lovely as you, otherwise, we may have never met."

Anne pretended to blush. She could sense de Wardes stiffening in anger at her side, and sent a silent apology to him. 

They both had their jobs to do, after all, and de Wardes was another 'creature of the Cardinal', or at least Rochefort, which she well knew. It was entirely possible that he was ignorant of her own position, but that couldn't be helped.

"Duke," she said, "I have remarked the diamonds you are wearing on your doublet, they are of a fine cut."

"Well-informed on matters of jewellery, like any good woman," said Buckingham. "I am impressed."

He turned to de Wardes.

"May I borrow her for this dance?" asked Buckingham. de Wardes' fists tightened, but he nodded. "As long as you agree, of course, Comtesse."

Anne smiled brightly and let Buckingham whisk her away. She was aware of de Wardes standing at the edge of the crowd, head down, not looking at anyone else or enjoying the festivities.

Focus, Anne, she whispered to herself. Your money's running out, and you're nearly out of time.

***

Hours later, most of the revellers had left the ball, but the Duke had never walked away from Anne the entire evening. He seemed completely besotted, but she knew better. A woman like her was a conquest for a man like him, despite his pleasantries to the contrary.

"I was under the impression that you had loved the king," Anne said, as he took her out on the dance floor yet again.

"Certainly," said the Duke. "When James lived, he was all I lived for, and he returned the sentiment. Now, however - "

and he looked away, caught; Anne saw that his love might be in France, but it certainly wasn't her.

"You love another very deeply, do you not?" Anne asked sweetly. She could feign a feminine innocence with the best of them.

He nodded, and sighed.

"Yet she is far out of my grasp," he said. "A heart can only take so much."

Anne put a delicate hand against his cheek, and he looked down at her.

"Yet a heart might find solace elsewhere," she murmured. "Even if only for a night."

Then she snatched her hand away as if she was horrified at her own boldness.

This was the right thing to do, because the Duke's smile grew even wider.

"Indeed," he said. "And I could do with some solace tonight."

Her silent, demure assent, supposedly inspired by a young woman being starstruck and overcome by his presence, thrilled him to no end.

"Shall we?" he asked her, his arm going around her waist possessively. 

She nodded, mute, and he turned them toward the door.

She glanced around the ballroom and was pleased to see that de Wardes had long since left.

She had hoped to save him this indignity. It might be easier to explain herself afterwards.

As the Duke left the ball and they entered the chill night beneath a stark moon and stars, Anne's breath making clouds in the cold weather, she wondered again where he thought he had seen her before, and why he looked so familiar.

 

Chapter Text

The Duke of Buckingham's private quarters were just as sumptuous as Anne had imagined. He had the best of everything, including silks and tapestries that hung from his bed.

"You know," he was saying, as he ushered her in the door, "I once sent an army out for some reason, can't recall what, and do you know what they did? Broke into an alehouse, drank all the wine, and decided not to fight!"

He laughed and shook his head.

"But what can you do?" he said. "It was their choice, after all."

"Didn't that cost quite a lot of money?" asked Anne.

"Oh, yes," he said. "Millions, I think. But who am I to judge? They found a deeper calling."

Anne stood in the centre of the room, demurely clasping her hands in front of herself, brushing the fabric of her voluminous skirt. 

"Duke," she began, but he shook a finger at her.

"Now now," he said. "None of that. George, if you please."

She smiled sweetly.

"George," she said. "Why have you brought me here?"

His smile ratcheted up a few notches.

"Why, Milady de Winter," he said. "I'm surprised you don't know."

She made a moue of surprise.

"Why, I -"

"Let's not dissimulate, my dear," he said. "You play the innocent well - very well, indeed. A lesser man might be fooled, but not me."

Anne was immediately reminded of Bennett, and wondered what it was that made these English men act one way in public and another in private.

"I've brought you here because I know you to be dangerous," he said. "And since James left us, I have a desire for punishment."

"Punishment?" asked Anne.

"Yes," he said, his breath coming in quick pants as he approached her, and to her startled surprise, knelt in front of her, casting his eyes downward. "Please."

Anne was at a crossroads. She had heard of this before, but had so often taken the other part that she was completely out of her depth. 

But the very idea of commanding a man with Buckingham's power, well. The thought aroused her more than she could have imagined. 

"Undress for me," she commanded. His whole body shuddered, and he did as he was told.

***

Anne sat beside the bed in a chair, her enormous skirt spreading out on either side of her. 

Buckingham was on the bed, naked on all fours, hard and dripping. 

"Please," he said again.

"Is that the only word you know?" she sneered. "Please, what?"

He sobbed with want.

"Please, mistress," he said, and she stood in one graceful movement and slapped him with all her might.

He keened, and involuntarily fucked into the air, seeking friction.

She sat down again.

"Shall I reward you?" she asked, tsking. "I don't know, it seems you haven't taken your punishment seriously enough."

He didn't respond, tears leaking from his eyes. 

"What is it you desire?" she mused. "Do you miss what he could do for you? Presenting yourself for your king?"

Buckingham moaned, and she stood from her chair, circling him. She caressed his back, smoothing over the red marks on his skin where she had hit him.

She leaned down and whispered in his ear.

"Do you enjoy being penetrated like a woman?" 

He moaned again, placing his forehead against the sheets. 

"Turn over."

He did so, and she lifted her skirts, straddling him, as the material covered them both like a blanket of freshly-fallen snow.

She sank down onto his hard cock with a satisfied sigh, her eyes closing in bliss. When she opened them again, his mouth was open in terror and wonder as he helplessly bucked up into her.

Suddenly, her blade was at his throat, pricking a little blood from his skin.

She moaned and rode him hard, hand tightened around the dagger. He was speechless with lust and couldn't seem to stop himself from thrusting up into her as she was grinding down against him. Finally, she moved the dagger, and felt his doublet against her foot. She pushed forward, laying against him, and the doublet was in her hand behind them, underneath her skirt. She felt for the diamond studs, and swiftly cut two of them from his doublet with her dagger. She rolled them in her palm to make sure.

Triumphant, she fucked herself down onto his cock until she was screaming in ecstasy, as he completely lost control and pistoned into her, making her cry out again. His hands clutched at her, unable to find purchase, as he came with a shout and an undulation beneath her like a great wave, and she gave voice to her intense pleasure as she held the diamond studs tightly and felt their indents in her hands.

***

The rustle of her dress moving off his bare body made Buckingham give a little moan of protest, his body still overstimulated and sensitive. Anne was not one to spend much time in the afterglow, when it was a conquest.

For make no mistake, this was Anne's conquest and not Buckingham's. This was true of almost every man she slept with, and most of them were well aware of it.

"Going so soon?" asked Buckingham sleepily.

"I have an appointment in the morning," she said. "Besides, it would be no good to cause a scandal."

He smiled without opening his eyes.

"Scandal is already caused," he said, "simply by your joining me this evening."

"Then we wouldn't want to make it worse," she said. He opened his eyes and looked at her, propping himself up on his side.

"You were magnificent," he said. "Just as I'd thought."

Anne smiled.

"So much is hidden beneath that smile," he said. "I'd love the chance to learn more of it."

"Now, George," she said. "France and England are almost at war. This is no time to take on a French mistress - especially as you already have a Spanish one."

Buckingham placed a hand over his heart, fell back on the bed and sighed.

"Indeed," he said. "It is a passion unlike any I've ever known, and I had thought it true of James. I have a type - and that type is powerful. Royalty, the seat of power - it will be my downfall one day."

"Heed your own words," she said. She walked back to the bed and leaned over, planting a chaste kiss on his cheek. "Farewell, George. The evening has been an educational one."

And she disappeared out the door and down the stairs, into a carriage that was waiting.

In all that night, apart from her goodbye, the two of them had never kissed.

***

Anne sat in the carriage as it rolled on toward her own rooms, the briefest pink of dawn touching the London skyline. She felt her dagger in its case, and her money-bag with its precious cargo, hoping against hope that Buckingham was far too lazy to put away his own clothes and would entrust a servant. In that way, her theft would not be known until long after she had left the shores of England.

Upon returning to her rooms, she dashed out a message and handed it over. It read:

"I have them; but I am unable to leave London for want of money. Send me five hundred pistoles, and four or five days after I have received them I shall be in Paris."

 

Chapter Text

Anne whiled away the time between sending her note and the receipt of the money by visiting various places around London. It was her hope that she would never have to return to England, a place that had soured for her after Bennett's death. Like it or not, there were things about him that reminded her of herself, and it was good to have someone who knew the kind of person she was in reality. Being a chameleon could be tiring, and once she was shut of England, she could leave all that history behind.

Working for the Cardinal, on the other hand, required a deft hand and subterfuge, but she would not have to compromise herself on his behalf. This she promised herself.

Several days later, a messenger arrived with money. 

Anne covered her hair as she went out, down the steps and into the carriage, she hoped for the last time.

***

The journey to the port of Dover was uneventful, but her coachman told her that antipathies between England and France had intensified over the last little while. She hadn't been paying much attention to local politics, but the thought of Buckingham naked and servile before her still made her smile - a triumph of the French over the English. Most didn't even realise she was French; Bennett's accent coaches had ensured she spoke flawless English with an upper-class accent convincingly enough to fool most people. 

They arrived at the port, and she climbed down from the carriage.

"I'd hurry, miss," the coachman advised her. "When I spoke to the harbourmaster he said the ports will be closing soon."

"Then there is no time to lose," she said. "Thank you for your service."

"I shall always be at yours, Milady," said the coachman, bowing.

Anne boarded the ferry as soon as she was able, and not a moment too soon. Even the packet boat with letters would not be allowed to leave once the ports were closed. The ferry slid out into the water, and moments later the horn was sounded.

The ports were shut. France and England were at war.

Anne stood on deck, and looked out over the fifty ships that had left the port before the blast had sounded. With a start, she thought she recognised the insolent young man of Meung, who had offered Rochefort such a stinging insult. But the winds were favourable and the ferry moved so quickly that she soon lost sight of him.

***

Anne stepped ashore at Calais with a sense of profound relief. If she had been even a minute too late - but no use thinking of that now, unless she wanted to drive herself mad. Returning to Paris was paramount in her mind, as she needed to hand the diamond studs over to the Cardinal.

She was on the point of seeking out a carriage when she found that one had been waiting for her.

"Milady de Winter?" asked the coachman. 

"Yes?" she replied, immediately suspicious. Her hand went to her dagger hidden in its case.

"I've been sent to bring you back to Paris," said the driver.

"And what guarantee do I have?" she asked him.

"I hope I'm guarantee enough," said a voice, and Rochefort put his head outside of the carriage.

"Caesar!" she exclaimed, running to him and kissing his cheeks. "Oh, how I have missed you!"

"Climb in," he invited her. "I have much to tell you."

***

The carriage rolled along the smooth roadway to Paris. Anne was absolutely transported. All men but one had treated her like a commodity. She had forgotten how much she loved having someone who was just a dear friend, someone she could confide in, someone who cared about her for no other reason than her own friendship.

"You'll never believe what has gone on in your absence," said Caesar, uncorking a bottle of champagne and pouring them both a glass. "Do you want any of these sweetmeats?"

"After months in England?" she asked. "Yes!"

Rochefort laughed, and drew out a small tray with food. They toasted each other with the champagne and drank.

"So," she prompted, curling her hand around her glass and leaning back into the carriage with a satisfied sigh. "What is this incredible story you wanted to tell me?"

"Do you remember the young man of Meung?" he asked. "The one who tried to teach me a lesson."

"Yes," she said. "In fact, I fancied I saw him aboard another ship while I was on the ferry."

Rochefort's brow grew cloudy. Anne sat up.

"What?" she asked. "What is it?"

"Are you absolutely certain?" he asked. Anne thought about it, and touched his arm.

"Caesar, you've gone positively white," she said. "And no, I couldn't guarantee it. It was a brief glimpse, nothing more. I could have been mistaken."

Rochefort sighed in relief and sat back.

"You can't possibly be worried this much about that boy?" she asked.

"That boy has set Paris alight!" said Rochefort. "He's the story I wanted to tell you - well, part of it. You've heard of the Three Inseparables?"

"Only by reputation," she said. "Three musketeers, best of friends, very invested in the company motto from what I hear."

"All for one, and one for all," Rochefort quoted. "Yes, well. Somehow they've recruited this boy, and he has caused the Cardinal no end of trouble. All of them have."

"How?" Anne asked.

"First, they attempted to duel with the Cardinal's guards," he said, "although according to the guards, they were going to duel with each other first."

"Duel with each other?" asked Anne, puzzled. "Whatever for? Aren't they friends?"

"Difficult to say," said Rochefort. "The young man was certainly hotheaded enough with me, perhaps he did the same with them - and then found a common enemy in the guards. You know the musketeers worry the guards all the time, given Treville's hatred of Richelieu."

Anne nodded, and took another sip of her champagne.

"But the Cardinal cannot care so much about the foolish actions of a bunch of bored soldiers," she said.

"Oh, no," said Rochefort. "Laporte, the queen's servant, has a little niece - Constance Bonacieux. He asked me to kidnap her and torture her to find out what Anne of Austria was planning."

Anne was aghast.

"Caesar! You didn't!" she gasped.

"On the contrary, I did," he said. "Well. The kidnap, yes. Torture, no. She managed to escape."

"Hm," said Anne. "A more formidable enemy than we had feared."

"It gets worse," he said. "This young man happened to be her husband's tenant! The husband, by the way, is an idiot and a fool who has been easily bought off with very little money. However, our young man seems to have devoted himself to Madame Bonacieux's cause - for the queen, against the Cardinal."

Anne picked up the bottle of champagne and poured herself another glass as she thought about the circumstances.

"Yet this boy cannot be accomplishing everything on his own," she mused.

"No, the Inseparables have aided him every step of the way," he said. "By the by, your man, de Wardes, was apparently stuck through with his blade a few days ago."

"What?!" Anne cried. "Is he all right?"

"Hard to say," said Rochefort. "The wound is a grievous one. His lackey, Lubin, said that our young man had stolen his letter of passport to England. That is why it is so important that Richelieu know whether he has returned to France."

Anne's mouth set in a line.

"This boy's name," she said. "Give it to me."

"d'Artagnan," said Rochefort. "And the others are Athos, Porthos, and Aramis."

Anne stared at him.

"Those aren't the names of men," she said.

"Noms de guerre, if I had to guess," said Rochefort. "So as you can see, we are in a quandary, now that we have enemies to consider. Richelieu asked me to personally escort you back to the Louvre, to ensure the diamond studs were delivered directly into his hands. He doesn't want anything else to go awry."

Anne took a long drink of champagne, draining the glass.

"Well," she said. "Now that I have returned, the Cardinal can be sure that these men who dare to toy with him will understand what it means to be prey."

And she smiled in a way that was particular to her.

Rochefort raised his glass in her honour, and his scar whitened with his grin.

 

Chapter Text

When the carriage finally rolled into Paris, Anne breathed a sigh of relief.

She had always wanted to find her way here, and now she was in the upper reaches of society, with beautiful apartments all her own, that she could attribute to herself and not the whims of some man, whether he be someone she slept with for a night or a man she had married, in the case of Armand or Bennett. No, her wealth was all her own, and when William de Winter died, she would be his heir - and when it was her time, the rest would pass on to her son, who would already be inheriting the estates and titles as he was being groomed from childhood to take over when William passed away. Anne never gave much thought to her son, because in her mind he was a part of a trade deal that had been completed. She was not a woman who believed in the concept of maternal instinct, assigning it to a societal pressure much like the kind of marriages she had to undergo if she wanted to get ahead in the world.

Her thoughts turned to de Wardes then, and that he would have been her husband. But Milady de Winter of today was not the Anne de Breuil who stood forlorn on the edge of a cliff, ready to throw everything away because she feared the prison of a marriage not of her own making. Strange, she thought, how the world pulls us all together in the end. She resolved to visit de Wardes while he recuperated, but the first order of business was to deliver the diamond studs to Rochefort.

She accompanied Rochefort to the Louvre, and they climbed the stairs to the Cardinal's rooms together.

"Enter," he called, and the two of them walked in. Upon spying her, Richelieu visibly relaxed.

"Oh, thank God," he said. "The ball is tonight, I wasn't sure you would make it in time."

Anne nodded.

"Yes," she said. "I nearly didn't. They have closed all the ports of England. We are at war."

Richelieu lengthened his imperial and noted something down in a book.

"Very well," he sighed. "I suppose it could not be helped. In any event, what we have done - or what you, Milady, have done admirably well - is a statement of war. It's as well Buckingham has decided upon it. I will see battle once again, though I would prefer to stay out of it."

"Does your illness pain you, Your Eminence?" asked Rochefort. Anne cast a glance at him, puzzled. She had not heard that this man of iron had any infirmities. The very idea seemed impossible to her.

Rochefort exchanged a glance with her that said I'll explain later.

"I thank you for your service to the crown, Milady," said Richelieu. "Here is your reward."

He handed her an enormous bag filled with coins. Her jaw dropped.

"But Your Eminence," she protested, "you already sent me money while I was in England."

"Yes, to bring you home," he said, then indicated the bag with the pen he was holding. "This is your payment for a job well done. Incidentally, Rochefort, I have your pay as well, and have secured a place for your sister in a convent."

"A convent?" whispered Anne. "Caesar, how could you?"

Rochefort smiled.

"It was at her request," he whispered back. "Not every woman fears a cloister, my sister."

Anne raised her eyebrows, but it was clear Rochefort believed it best for his sibling and took an equally large bag of coins as well as a commission, which Richelieu quickly wrote out and handed over to him.

"Now," said Richelieu. "The two of you should make yourselves scarce, as you'd certainly be recognised at the ball. Go ahead and take the evening off, report back in the morning."

Richelieu smiled down at the diamond studs, and placed them in a little casket created for just this purpose.

"Finally, I have her," he murmured, which Anne overheard as she and Rochefort took the stairs.

***

"Pity we cannot attend the ball," said Anne. "I do miss a spectacle, and this one at the Louvre in Paris! If my family could see me now."

"If either of our families could see us now, they would disown us," said Rochefort. "Working for the Cardinal is the same as working against the Queen. The King is deeply jealous and suspicious of Anne of Austria. This will cause an almighty row."

"I don't really understand why Richelieu wants to destroy the Queen," said Anne, as they climbed into the carriage.

"Nothing more easy," explained Rochefort. "He was in love with her, and she turned him down. They've been enemies ever since, mostly because he couldn't forgive her rejection of him."

Anne glared, looking out the window as she shook her head.

"Men," she spat. Rochefort laughed.

"Men," he agreed, and the carriage set off for Anne's apartments.

***

"Paris is lit up beautifully," said Anne. "Do you see, Caesar?"

Rochefort looked out the window of the carriage, to see many coloured lanterns floating in the air.

"It is for the king's ball," he said. "All of Paris is invited, it is to be the dance of La Merlaison, the king's favourite."

"Ugh," said Anne, slumping back into the carriage and collapsing a fan she held in her hand. "And we are the only ones not there!"

"We are there in spirit," said Rochefort. "If the Cardinal triumphs, so much the better."

The carriage came to a halt in front of her door. Ketty, Anne's soubrette, was waiting outside to conduct her mistress indoors.

"Please put some wine out, cold meats and cheeses, Ketty," she said, removing her wrap and tossing it onto a chair. "Caesar and I wish to spend the evening in conversation. Make sure no one disturbs us, please."

"Yes, madame," said Ketty, who lifted Anne's wrap from the chair and went to put it away. She disappeared into another room to prepare the food and wine for the two friends.

"Now, then," said Anne. "We shall have all night, it seems likely."

Rochefort sat in a chair in the conservatory, surrounded by green growing things. Ketty entered with an enormous platter of meat, cheese, and grapes, setting it down in front of them. She left the room and returned with a bottle of wine, and poured it into their glasses until they indicated a stopping place to her. 

"Leave us, Ketty," said Anne. Ketty bowed and made her exit.

Anne turned her attention to Rochefort, lifting her glass and taking a sip. She found the wine excellent, and was thankful again to be back in Paris, surrounded by the finest of things.

Rochefort picked up his glass and drank likewise, his expression enough to tell her that he appreciated its quality.

"And how would you like to while away the hours, given your sacrifice of tonight's fete?" Rochefort enquired.

Anne smiled.

"I'd like you to tell me about the Inseparables," she said. "And their friend, d'Artagnan."

Chapter Text

"No!" exclaimed Anne. "Really, that's funny! It reminds me of - of -"

Here she fell silent, and cast her gaze downward. Rochefort reached out and touched her hand.

"It's all right, Milady," he said. "You can trust me. You don't have to worry about me."

And maybe it was the champagne turning her head, or maybe she was just tired of holding things so close to her chest, but Anne spilled everything.

"I was married once," she said. "Well, twice, of course you know that, it's how I acquired the de Winter name and titles. But I was married before that."

Rochefort settled back in his chair, taking another drink, and at the stage of drunkenness where everything takes on a soft tinge and the drinker feels magnanimous toward everyone on earth.

"True love, was it?" he asked, somewhat wistful. Anne heard it in his voice and could not believe it.

"Yes," she said. "I think it was true love for both of us. We were the kind of couple who shared everything, even embarrassing stories about our childhoods, you know? He once told me he'd fallen in love with a statue on the estate and was beside himself when he discovered Pygmalion was just a myth."

Rochefort laughed heartily. Anne leaned her face against the glass in her hand, pouting.

"He was so handsome, and strong, and kind," she said. "Terrible lover, but we were working on it. Terrible family too."

"What happened?" asked Rochefort.

"He - he -" and she pointed at her neck, then mimed a hanging.

Rochefort sat up so quickly he nearly tipped the table over, the warm golden mist of drunkenness dissipating.

"Dear God, are you entirely serious?!" he demanded. Anne nodded, her blue eyes bright. "You must be avenged upon him, Milady, you know the Cardinal would not deny you -"

Anne lifted a hand to stop him, shaking her head.

"No," she said. "I passed through his village, when I first returned to France. He's long since dead, couldn't live with what he had done."

Rochefort sat back in his chair, dumbfounded.

"Anyway," she said. "Tell me more about these men, distract me from melancholy. I'd rather be happy in my drunkenness than remember old sad stories. Cheer me up, Caesar."

Rochefort just stared at her for a while, until her eyes met his, and he launched into an explanation of the men in question.

"Athos is the eldest, everything about him smacks of nobility, but he is a horrible drunk," said Rochefort. "He has a servant, Grimaud, he's trained to be mute."

"Mute?" asked Anne, curious in spite of her mood.

"Yes, apparently they have an agreement worked out between them," said Rochefort. "Grimaud interprets what Athos wants by way of signs. Unfortunately he never gets it right and then Athos thrashes him."

Anne looked at Rochefort with distaste, but the man only shrugged.

"What can I say?" he said. "These noblemen from the provinces, savages all."

"Aren't you a nobleman from the provinces?" Anne teased. Rochefort grinned.

"Yes, but I've been civilised by my time in Paris," he said. "These men, on the other hand, are absolute boors. Their loyalty to each other and their skill with a blade - every one of them - are really their only redeeming qualities."

"Let's leave Athos," said Anne, "as it puts me in mind of past things. What of the others?"

"Well, Porthos is a giant," Rochefort explained. "Massive and strong. He has a lackey he has named Mousequeton."

Anne laughed out loud.

"Truly!" he said.

"This Porthos must be the most formidable of them all," she mused. Rochefort shook his head.

"No, not really," he said. "Porthos may be the strongest and largest, but he's also slow and stupid. Vain, greedy, prone to lying, humorous without intending to be so, arrogant and above what he considers 'lesser' men. That said, he's probably the best of the bunch, and at least treats his servant well."

"All right," she said. "Porthos, intimidating but stupid; Athos, noble but drunk. Next is - Aramis?"

"Yes," said Rochefort. "He'd probably be your favourite, if I know you well."

Anne's coral-pink, plush lips parted in a half-grin.

"Oh?" she asked, injecting the word with salacious intent. "And why is that?"

"First of all, he's beautiful," said Rochefort. "Quite delicately so, while still a warrior - a lethal combination for the ladies. He's also a man suspended between the priesthood and the cassock of the Musketeers. He's often called Chevalier, and is an excellent horseback rider. This is a man for whom all temptations are too much - not just lust, but also power."

"Power?" asked Anne. "Where does he seek it?"

"They say he is the secret lover of the Duchess de Chevreuse," said Rochefort. Anne gasped.

"My goodness," she said. "I feel I have been gone from Paris too long! All these intrigues, Caesar! Someone is going to die, mark my words."

"Let's hope we can manage our affairs better than that," smiled Rochefort.

"So - Aramis, whose downfall is women, a priest that gives in to temptation wherever and whenever he can," she said. "I can work with that."

It certainly worked with Henri, she thought, but did not say.

"And finally, we come to the last on the list," said Rochefort. "Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are the three Inseparables. This boy they have recruited to their cause has become quite the bugbear in the Cardinal's plans."

"What?" scoffed Anne. "That child? He's barely old enough to grow a beard!"

"On the contrary," said Rochefort. "He's certainly old enough to harrow those at the very pinnacle of society. If I had to bet, I would say Richelieu now fears this d'Artagnan in the same way he fears, well - you."

Anne started. She peered at Rochefort, but his face was guileless.

"Richelieu fears me?" she asked.

Rochefort nodded.

"He's feared you for a very long time," he said. "Why do you think he asked me to find you on the road, and to buy your loyalty?"

"I've often wondered about that," she confessed. "What was it that reached his ears, what made him fear me?"

"Because you once stabbed the Duke of Buckingham," explained Rochefort. "And you got away with it, somehow."

Anne straightened up in her seat. Rochefort smiled.

"Yes, I thought you'd be surprised," he said.

"That - but he - !"

"You thought he died?" asked Rochefort. Anne nodded frantically.

"And his name wasn't George," she said. "I do remember that. And the mob they assembled to arrest me!"

"He used Jacques here - as an honorific," said Rochefort. "James? As in, King James? Buckingham was always using that relationship to his benefit."

"No wonder he looked so familiar!" she whispered to herself. "But you - you came to find me long before that happened. Why did you find me then?"

"The Cardinal has eyes and ears all across France," said Rochefort. "News of you had travelled to him - a woman brave enough to escape a marriage she was destined for, to seek another life? Such people are Richelieu's spies, and as it turned out, he was right about you."

"Then has he feared me all this time?" she asked.

"No," Rochefort replied. "He thought you would be a useful ally, someone he could bind to himself with money and promises. After he learned of what you did to the Duke, well. He has seen in you a formidable opponent ever since - and recent events have not proved him wrong."

Anne leaned back in her chair, holding her wine glass to her chest contemplatively.

"The Duke of Buckingham," she said, laughed, and shook her head.

She thought of him again, naked and begging, and she grinned. Rochefort remarked what looked like a private joke, and smiled himself.

"I take it, from that look,  you got your revenge?" asked Rochefort.

"I got my revenge," she agreed.

***

They fell asleep like that, in their chairs, bottles of wine strewn around them.

Ketty came in and began to clean up, as the green leaves of the hemlock and other poisonous plants began to glow in the pale light of dawn.

 

Chapter Text

When Anne finally woke, she had found her way to her bed in the middle of the night, and it was well after midday when she rose.

"Where's Caesar?" she asked Ketty, who was setting up her breakfast.

"He left early this morning, Madame," she said. "The Cardinal called him away."

"To give him a reward, no doubt," laughed Anne, as she set to her breakfast.

No sooner had she started than a furious knock came to her door.

"Ketty, could you see who is making such a racket?" Anne said, crunching into buttery toast. Ketty bowed and went to open the door.

"Caesar!" said Anne, surprised, as Rochefort appeared, looking haggard.

"Milady, you must come with me," he said. "Now, if you please."

Anne stood, and Ketty helped her to dress. She abandoned her breakfast, cooling on the tray, as she followed Rochefort outside.

***

In the great hall, Richelieu was fuming, pacing back and forth.

"The Comte de Rochefort and Milady de Winter, Your Eminence," announced a servant at the door.

Richelieu strode up to Anne and shook a finger in her face.

"Why did I even bother to send you money?!" he demanded. "I should have left you in England to rot!"

Anne stared at him. She had never received anything but kindness from the Cardinal before, and she tried to keep control of her temper.

"May I ask what's wrong?" she said, keeping her voice even.

"What's wrong? What's wrong?" Richelieu demanded. "Do you hear that? Perfect peace and harmony in the Louvre. Do you know why?"

Anne shook her head mutely.

"Because the queen somehow had all her diamond studs!" roared Richelieu. "I had to pretend the ones you brought back from England were a gift! Do you mind explaining yourself?"

Anne's jaw dropped.

"I assure you, those diamonds were in Buckingham's possession," she said. "I cut them from his doublet myself! I don't understand -"

Here, she stopped short.

"Wait," she said. "That young man of Meung! I thought I saw him when I was on the ferry!"

"That would be d'Artagnan, Your Eminence," said Rochefort, stepping forward, and partly blocking Anne from the Cardinal's view.

Richelieu frowned deeply.

"Hm," he said. "Yes, that is exactly the kind of triumph Treville would want over me! But this young man - how can he possibly have - "

He ruminated on the topic for a while, as Rochefort inched forward and tried to shield Anne from the Cardinal's wrath.

Richelieu then let out a sigh.

"Please accept my apologies, Milady," said Richelieu. "You have always done exactly as I wished. That was unfair of me."

Anne bowed, as she did not trust herself to say anything.

"Rochefort," mused the Cardinal. "On the subject of this young man. You say he has begun an affair with the little wife of Bonacieux?"

"Yes, Your Eminence," said Rochefort quickly, eager to direct the Cardinal's attention to himself.

"Will you do as I asked before and take her into custody?" he asked. "And don't let her escape, this time."

Rochefort bowed. The Cardinal's stormy mood hadn't really lifted, and so he dismissed them with a wave of his hand.

"We had better go," whispered Rochefort, and began to escort Anne down the stairs again.

"By the by," called Richelieu down the stairs. "Milady - be ready, as I may have further need for you soon."

"I am always at your service, Your Eminence," she said from the landing, and curtsied one more time for good measure.

Rochefort looked up toward the Cardinal with distrust, and then hurried Anne down the stairs as quickly as possible.

***

Outside, in the carriage, Rochefort turned to her.

"Anne, I'm worried that this will not end well for you," he explained. "I can't be there to protect you all the time."

"And who is asking you to?" retorted Anne. "I can protect myself, Caesar, but thank you for  your concern."

"I don't know if you can protect yourself against him," said Rochefort. "Please, Milady. If you ever listened to me before, listen to me now."

"I am listening," said Anne. "And I take your point. Still, what is there to be done about it now? The man is making you into a kidnapper once again. I assume I won't see you for a while."

"That is just what worries me," said Rochefort. Anne raised the hand where her garnet ring glinted in the sun, reddish-brown poison powder hidden inside it.

"There are more ways to win than brute strength," said Anne. "And I have that in spades as well."

"This is not about my being a man, and your being a woman," said Rochefort. "In fact, if you were a man, I should worry even more. You still have your sex to defend you, and for the misogynists in this world, that might be enough. Once they decide you are demon, not human, that won't be any assistance at all."

"I have never asked to be favoured because of my sex," said Anne. "That's not equality, and does nothing to prove that women are just as formidable as men. Anyway, that's a foolish stance to take for any lawmaker. It means that women can do just about anything they want without fear of punishment. Believe me, Caesar, I know what a hangman's noose feels like all too well."

Rochefort sighed, and she placed her small hand in his gloved one.

"Caesar, don't worry about me," she said. "I worry about you too, but we are both resourceful. We shall triumph, in the end. Mark my words."

The carriage pulled up outside Rochefort's apartments. He climbed down, and then turned to look at her again.

"Please, take care of yourself, Anne," he advised her. She smiled.

"You too," she said. "I go to visit de Wardes, whose wounds must pain him terribly, as I haven't heard a word from him in all this time. I certainly hope his health will improve - or I cannot speak for the health of those who would have murdered him."

Rochefort nodded.

"And also," said Anne. "If I may speak a little, on behalf of Madame Bonacieux. I do not know the woman personally, but a gentle touch might be a good policy. Do not make her captivity more terrible than it needs to be. That is not the way to treat prisoners or gain allies, whether they be women or men."

"I promise," said Rochefort. Anne nodded, and squeezed his hand before sitting back in the carriage.

"Home, please," she called to her coachman. "We shall pick up Ketty, and then go visit de Wardes where he is convalescing."

The carriage lurched forward and began to roll away. Anne kept her eyes on Rochefort, and he raised his hand in farewell just as her carriage turned the corner and disappeared from sight.

 

Chapter Text

Anne pushed the door open and took off her wrap.

"Ketty?" she called.

"Yes, Madame," Ketty called back. "In here."

Anne bustled into the salon.

"Ketty, I want you to - " she began, and stopped dead in her tracks.

"Anne," said Lord William de Winter, smiling warmly. 

The temperature of the room seemed to drop a few degrees. William held out his hand to shake, and when Anne didn't move to take it, he put it down again.

Anne glared daggers at Ketty, who threw her hands up.

"I'm sorry, Madame, but he wouldn't take no for an answer," she fretted nervously.

"It's all right, Ketty," said Anne. "You're dismissed."

Ketty bowed with evident relief, and disappeared through the door into her rooms. Once Ketty had shut the door behind her, Anne turned to William.

"And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" she demanded. "Come to make your accusations again?"

"No, Anne, I came to apologise," he said. "It was unfair of me, and I was hurting, having lost my only brother. Our family is small, as you know, and I thought it prudent to visit my only sister."

Anne went to uncork a bottle of wine. She poured herself a glass, but did not offer him any.

"I certainly hope you've found yourself rooms," she said tersely. "Because you won't be staying here. This is my country, Lord de Winter, and if you wish to put me to the proof I recommend you to the Cardinal."

William twisted his gloves in his hands. He smiled, and laughed in a defeated way as he glanced down at the floor.

"I know I should not have expected forgiveness, at least not immediately," he said. "And yet it cuts me to the quick to hear you speak that way."

"Does it indeed?" Anne demanded. "Imagine what it must be like to be accused of things you did not do! I lost someone too, William!"

Lord de Winter bowed.

"I apologise for upsetting you," he said. "I will take my leave of you now, but I am determined to make things right between us."

"If you wish to make things right, you will make yourself scarce," retorted Anne. "What is it about men that makes them think if they just ask often enough, they will get their way?"

Her mouth set in a firm line.

"Get out," she said, pointing at the door.

Lord de Winter bowed again, and made himself scarce.

Hands shaking, Anne poured herself another generous glass of wine, and drank it quickly as she heard the hooves of Lord de Winter's horse drawing his carriage away, clacking on the cobblestones.

"Ketty!" Anne roared, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. 

The little soubrette ran into the room and bowed.

"Yes, Madame?" she asked in a subdued voice.

"Get the locks changed," she said. "And see if you can't get someone to install a sturdy oak door."

"Yes, Madame," said Ketty, and curtsied again.

"And Ketty," said Anne, in a dangerous voice, "Do not ever let a man into this house under any circumstances, do you hear me?"

Anne thought of Richelieu, and of Rochefort, and of his distasteful mission regarding young Constance Bonacieux.

She perceived that this was a danger she herself would run, in a world run by men. Ketty was in danger, too.

"Yes, Madame," Ketty said in a near whisper. Anne moved close to her and took her face in one hand, forcing her chin up so she could look Ketty in the eye.

Pretty. Proud. The soubrette was lively, feisty and beautiful. A woman as yet safe from the dangers of the world, and of love.

"You also must value your own safety, Ketty," advised Anne, a low and deadly hiss to her voice. "Do not let evil into this house, or into your heart. I would like to preserve you too. The world is hard and cold. Men are not to be trusted. Do you understand me?"

Ketty nodded slightly, her eyes sliding from Anne's. Anne tightened her grip on Ketty's chin.

"Do not dismiss what I tell you," said Anne. "There are dangers in this world that you are fortunate not to know. I would protect you from them, if I can."

Anne let go of Ketty abruptly, and turned back toward the wine.

"You are dismissed," she said, waving her away impatiently. She poured another glass, and turned around to see Ketty still standing there, staring owlishly at her.

"Did you not hear me, stupid girl?!" demanded Anne. "Go! You have work to do!"

Ketty curtsied so quickly she stumbled, but Anne didn't notice, as she clutched the bottle and filled the glass again.

We are not safe here, said her mind. Two women living alone, our only allies men who are much stronger than we are. 

Best to keep vigilant, Anne. You never know where the enemy might be.

***

Anne woke to Ketty shaking her awake. She opened her eyes and stared around herself, momentarily confused as to where she was.

Then she realised that she had fallen asleep on the sofa. The empty wine bottle was on the floor, near at hand.

"Wha - ?" Anne mumbled, as Ketty hauled her to her feet. 

"We must attend Mass, Madame, you told me it was absolutely necessary today," said Ketty.

"Do I have to?" Anne asked petulantly. Ketty hauled her into her dressing-room, where she splashed cold water on her face.

"You told me, Madame, and I quote: do not let me miss this week's Mass, Ketty, or there will be hell to pay for the both of us," she said as she got to work helping Anne with her toilet. "I also found a locksmith to change the locks, and a man will come today to hang a new door."

"Another man," grumbled Anne. "Why, they're everywhere. Couldn't you have found a woman, Ketty?"

Ketty snorted.

"A woman!" she said. "And where, pray tell, would I find a woman locksmith? A woman carpenter, Madame? The wine must have truly gone to your head."

"I am an expert at sword fighting," Anne pointed out, as Ketty helped her with her dress. "And I have done countless things, Ketty. Do you know they call me an adventuress"

"Yes, I do, Madame," said Ketty. "It was the reason I was so anxious to work for you. There are few women like you in this world. Not that they don't have the potential, but few today attempt it."

She smiled a little.

"I admire you, Milady," she said. Anne stared at her, this little soubrette gifted to her by the Cardinal, or possibly Rochefort. She had never thought Ketty might have had ulterior motives of her own to work with a woman of Anne's standing and reputation.

"Forgive me, Ketty," Anne said seriously. Ketty stopped, and looked questioningly at her.

Anne smiled.

"I hadn't thought you might have wanted this position because you yourself were a unique sort of woman," said Anne. "And that was unfair of me. If I want to see a future where women can do what they like, where they can be adventuresses, and yes, carpenters and locksmiths! well, I must treat the women in my own life like the capable beings they are."

Ketty blushed under the praise.

"Thank you, Milady," she murmured. "That means the world to me. Now then. Shall we?"

Anne checked her reflection in the mirror. A heavy dress of silks and taffeta, her blonde hair falling in waves on her shoulders, held back by diamond clasps.

"Isn't this a bit much for church?" asked Anne, turning to look at herself.

Ketty shrugged.

"You have always wanted to make an impression," she said. "Your public appearance at this Mass is more for the Cardinal's sake than your own, I think, and this is the perfect opportunity to be seen by many of the great and good.

"Thank you, Ketty," said Anne. "Well done. If you're ready, please call the carriage."

Ketty went to speak to the coachman, while Anne stared at her reflection. 

She resembled a princess more than anything, dressed in riches and material wealth, a long way from young Anne de Breuil, who would have leapt from a cliff before submitting to the prison of marriage to a stranger.

And yet, all of this seemed prison enough.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Going to Mass was always such a production. Anne didn't attend very often, but it was good to keep up appearances.

A little Black boy who had been adopted by the parish brought her a silk pillow to lean on.

"How are you doing, Madamoiselle?" asked the boy.

"Very well, Alexandre," she said. "And you?"

He beamed at her.

"The priest says I can find work soon if I want to," he said excitedly.

Anne raised an eyebrow.

"You're a bit young to work, aren't you?" she asked.

"Old enough," said Alexandre. "Twelve this year, Madamoiselle. Practically a man."

Anne smiled.

"You've years yet," she said. "Don't waste them working! There's no need to help out women with their noses in the air by distributing silk pillows either."

Alexandre leaned in confidentially.

"Bringing your pillow is no work at all, Madamoiselle," he said, and winked.

She dropped a stack of coins into his hand. He surreptitiously looked at it and grinned wider.

"I keep bringing you pillows, I'll soon be able to make my own way," he said.

"Do they treat you well here?" Anne asked. "If they don't, I have the ear of Richelieu. They'll soon hear of it."

"Oh, no, no, Mademoiselle," he shook his head. "They are fine people here, this is a good church. Don't worry yourself about that - the priest treats me like a son."

He smiled and waved at the priest, who waved back from the pulpit where he was preparing the sermon.

"I'm just ambitious," Alexandre shrugged. Anne smiled.

"Man after my own heart," she said. "Well, if I can do anything for you - "

Alexandre grinned.

"Now that you mention it, I do want to be a politician," he said. "Just think - a life of adventure! My grandfather was a great captain in the army, did you know that?"

"I did not," said Anne. "Find me, when you're old enough to accept commissions from the Cardinal, and I will put in a good word."

"I always knew you were a good sort, Mademoiselle," he said, touching his forehead.

"Alexandre," said Anne. "Why do you call me Mademoiselle? Surely you know that everyone calls me Madame, since I was married."

Alexandre smiled again.

"Well, Mademoiselle," he said, "No woman grows older than nineteen in her heart."

Anne laughed.

"Charmer," she said. "You have a wisdom most men would envy. You'll go far."

"I hope so," he said. "I hope so."

The church was filling with parishioners. Alexandre sat down beside Anne, and they turned their attention to the priest.

***

After an extended sermon, during which Anne had to suppress her yawns multiple times, the service was finally over. Anne and Alexandre made their way to the door, and just as Anne was about to dip her hand in the holy water font, an absolutely gigantic man was suddenly standing before her, his hand dripping with holy water. Before she knew what to do or say, he had blessed her with it. She smiled and bowed, confused, and then made her way outside to the carriage.

"That was exceeding strange," she murmured to Alexandre, who was right behind her.

"Indeed it was," Alexandre agreed. Ketty waved at them, and the coachman got down from his seat to open the door for Anne. She climbed in, and the door was shut behind her.

"Will I see you again soon?" asked Alexandre.

"I don't know," Anne admitted. "There are many things happening right now, and I may get called away at any minute. So I'm not sure when I'll be back, but I am always glad to see you."

"You just wait," said Alexandre. "Next time you hear of me, I'll have made something of myself."

"I believe you," said Anne, grinning. Alexandre hopped away from the carriage and did a little pirouette in the square.

"I'll be the richest man in Paris!" he said. "Treasures from the mysterious East! Beautiful women! Mark my words!"

Anne laughed, and Alexandre waved, as the coachman whipped the horses. The carriage began to move, and Anne waved out the window in farewell.

***

The carriage pulled up to de Wardes' hotel.

"Will you go out, Madame?" Ketty asked, from the roof of the carriage.

Anne felt trepidation for the first time. She wasn't certain de Wardes wanted to see her, nor did she wish to appear too eager. She also had a very real fear that all her interests when it came to love would end badly.

She finally took a bit of paper and quickly wrote a message on it. She glanced out the window and saw two lackeys lounging around by the fence outside of the hotel. 

"Ketty," she said. "Please bring this to his lackey."

She handed up the message, which read: 

A person who takes more interest in you than she is willing to confess wishes to know on what day it will suit you to walk in the forest? Tomorrow, at the Hotel Field of the Cloth of Gold, a lackey in black and red will wait for your reply.

Ketty jumped down with the billet in hand like the sprightly soubrette she was, and ran off to comply with Anne's request.

Anne turned away from the scene so as not to be recognised, and sighed. There were no guarantees in life. de Wardes may not respond, he may despise her, he may not remember her - men were so inconstant in this day and age. And if he did still remember her, and did still love her, perhaps that was worse. 

Men who had loved her seemed to have an unfortunate habit of winding up dead, often through no fault of her own, but just as often, not for want of her trying.

Ketty came running back, skirts hiked up, all smiles.

"Well?" asked Anne. Ketty nodded.

"It is done," she said. "Now all we have to do is wait."

"Very well," said Anne. "Thank you, Ketty. Good work. Now climb up to your seat. I'd rather not linger here."

Ketty peered at her.

"Milady, are you embarrassed?" she asked, her pretty mouth a perfect O.

"Come, now," said Anne. Ketty gasped.

"You are!" she said.

"Enough, Ketty," said Anne, but she was smiling. "Let's go."

And for the second time that afternoon, the coachman urged the horses onward.

***

This escape of Anne's was unfortunately not going to last. 

Standing in the road was none other than Lord William de Winter.

"Go on!" Anne urged the coachman.

"I can't, Madame," the coachman called down to her. "He's blocking the road. I'm sorry."

By this time, Lord de Winter had come up alongside Anne's carriage. She looked around herself for a weapon, just in case, but found nothing but a lady's fan. Cursing herself silently for being so unprepared, she grabbed the fan and covered her face with it. She schooled her features, as the presence of Lord de Winter did put fear into her, as the reminder of the horrors she had suffered at his brother's hands, and also that if he twigged what had happened, the combined accusation from an English lord along with the fleur-de-lys brand on her shoulder, hidden beneath her clothes, would spell the end.

"Good afternoon, Lord de Winter," she said in her most ingratiating voice. "What can I do for you?"

"Oh, many things," he said, smiling at her in a way that made her boil with rage. "If my suppositions are correct, you are in need of a male chaperone. I have heard about the dangers you have run here, a woman alone in the big city."

Anne frowned.

"I need no man," she said tersely. "And if I did, I already have powerful protectors, should I need to call upon them."

"Richelieu and Rochefort, you mean?" scoffed Lord de Winter. "I wouldn't count on their support. They are notoriously unfaithful men."

"Is there something you wanted?" snapped Anne. "I am very busy, and you have blockaded the road."

Lord de Winter studied the sky, as if he had nowhere urgent to go and cared nothing for Anne's interest in getting away from him.

"Oh, not exactly," he mused. "Just rumours -"

"Are you going to make those horrid accusations again?" demanded Anne.

"Should I?" Lord de Winter shot back. "Why don't you show me what you keep in that ring, my sister?"

"How dare you!" shouted Anne, throwing the fan at him with so much fury it covered her abject terror. The fan exploded into pieces due to the strength of her arm. Lord de Winter looked extremely surprised, and then laughed loudly. Anne was about to get out of the carriage and punch him in the face.

"Madame, will you permit me to offer you my services? It appears to me that this cavalier has made you very angry. Speak one word, madame, and I take upon myself to punish him for his want of courtesy," said a new voice.

Anne, startled, turned to see a young man outside her carriage on horseback. It was the young man of Meung! Up close, he was quite handsome, with an aquiline nose and piercing grey eyes, the dark complexion of the Gascon men, whose place of origin could easily be heard in his accent.

This was d'Artagnan, the man she had heard so much about, who had ruined so many of Richelieu's plots and plans, standing there offering his service just when she was most in need of it.

Chapter Text

Anne smirked. She really couldn't help herself.

She switched from English to French with the supple genius of one who has lived effortlessly in both environments. 

"Monsieur, I should with great confidence place myself under your protection if the person with whom I quarrel were not my brother."

d'Artagnan bowed low over his horse's neck.

“Ah, excuse me, then,” said d’Artagnan. “You must be aware that I was ignorant of that, madame.”

“What is that stupid fellow troubling himself about?” demanded Lord de Winter, as he stooped to look through the carriage windows at d'Artagnan. “Why does not he go about his business?”

Oh, hell, here we go, thought Anne.

“Stupid fellow yourself!” d'Artagnan shouted, craning his neck to look back through the windows at the cavalier. “I do not go on because it pleases me to stop here.”

"Will you tell this boy to leave us alone?" Lord de Winter asked Anne, in English.

This did not seem to sit well with d'Artagnan.

“I speak to you in French,” blustered the little man. "Be kind enough, then, to reply to me in the same language. You are Madame’s brother, I learn--be it so; but fortunately you are not mine.”

"How utterly tiresome," murmured Anne to herself. She rapped sharply on the roof of the carriage. "Go on - home!"

Just before the carriage lurched away, she saw the stunned looks on the faces of both the men, startled that a woman could do such a thing, in removing the one obstacle that stood between them.

"I hope they kill each other," said Anne, relaxing back into the carriage. "Men."

She sighed, watching the world go by in flashes of green and blue.

"Then that's my work done, and Richelieu's. Poor Rochefort, shut up in a prison somewhere with his equally tiresome charge."

***

The carriage pulled up to Anne's apartments. 

Ketty hopped down from the roof and opened the door for her mistress.

"Prepare a warm beverage for me, Ketty," said Anne. "I feel a chill in the air."

"Yes, Milady," said Ketty, curtseying. Anne sensed some hesitation.

"What is it, Ketty?" asked Anne. "Out with it."

Ketty slowly met her eyes.

"It's just," said Ketty. "That young man, d'Artagnan."

"What of him?" asked Anne, a slight knife edge to her voice.

"Well, he was very handsome," said Ketty dreamily.

Anne grabbed her arm. Hard. Ketty cried out.

"What have I told you about men?" Anne demanded. "Love is an enemy to women such as ourselves, Ketty. This young man is a trap. Be careful not to get caught in his snare."

"Please let go," Ketty murmured. "You're hurting me."

Anne released Ketty's arm. She passed a hand over her eyes and sighed.

"Not as much as he would hurt you - hurt us, Ketty," warned Anne. "Are you listening to me?"

Ketty cast her gaze toward the ground again.

"Yes, Milady," she said, but Anne could hear the anger in her voice. 

Desperately, she tried to think of something, anything, that might keep Ketty away from her sure destruction. Ketty was not strong like Anne. She would not survive a broken heart.

Anne looked into Ketty's face searchingly.

"Do you understand why I am so emphatic about this?" she asked, a little more gently. "This young man is our enemy already. Don't let a handsome face turn your head."

"He's different," said Ketty. "I just know it."

"How can you just know it?" asked Anne in disbelief. "You've only just met him!"

"I can tell," said Ketty stubbornly.

"Fine," said Anne, unable to keep the anger from her voice any longer. "Betray us. Betray yourself. You spoke about wanting a life like mine, freedom like mine? Falling for the first gentleman who looks in your direction is not the way to freedom, Ketty! And an enemy!"

"I hope he survives," said Ketty rebelliously. "I hope to see him again."

"That's enough," said Anne. "Go and fix the beverages, a light meal. I don't have time to argue with you."

Exhausted, Anne went inside. Ketty, whose eyes seemed to glow with a different light, went about her work, but banged the dishes against each other the entire time.

***

Anne may have been brilliant, clever, and a good fighter, but she needed time to consider her position. If Ketty was to become a traitor, which she sensed inherently, then it would be dangerous to carry on her planning here.

She lay down across her settee, her mind lost in thought. She wondered why she hadn't heard from Rochefort yet, and hoped that his project was going smoothly. She also wondered how she would triumph over these men who worried Richelieu so. 

For of course, Anne thought it her duty and responsibility to take these men down. Once Rochefort was free again, perhaps they could work together.

But Anne needed no one else to put her own plans into motion.

***

Anne was suddenly roused from her reverie by Ketty, who had rushed into the room. She was pink and glowing, a bright smile on her face.

"What? What is it?" asked Anne. "What's gotten into you?"

"It's him!" said Ketty, curtseying to her as an afterthought. "He's here!"

Anne stared at her, puzzled.

"He who?" she asked.

"It's d'Artagnan," she said, her hands fluttering by her sides. "And Lord de Winter."

"Dear God are you certain?!" Anne exclaimed, and Ketty nodded enthusiastically.

Anne ran to get a few things, brushing her hair, powdering her face, anything to give her time to consider this terrible shock. They lived! How is that possible? she wondered. 

After a few moments, she had finally composed herself, and she re-entered the salon with the bearing and infinite patience of a queen. She sat down on her settee and waved at Ketty.

"6 Place Royale," a man's voice was saying. "This is one of the most prestigious addresses in the city! Is she very rich, then?"

"Very," said another voice, which Anne recognised as Lord de Winter.

Anne let a mask of serenity pass over her face. She meant to welcome them with all the ceremony of a woman of quality in either France or England.

"Lord de Winter," announced Ketty. "And d'Artagnan, of Tarbes."

The two men, miraculously still alive, miraculously friends to all appearances, entered Anne's salon, and she bit the inside of her cheek so hard it bled.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne, as usual, schooled her expression and welcomed them into her salon graciously.

"You see," said Lord de Winter, indicating d'Artagnan, who bowed deeply to her, “a young gentleman who has held my life in his hands, and who has not abused his advantage, although we have been twice enemies, although it was I who insulted him, and although I am an Englishman. Thank him, then, madame, if you have any affection for me.”

"Are we then already at war?" asked Anne sweetly.

"Oh, no, madame," said d'Artagnan. "But we will be, soon enough."

Anne frowned in anger, letting her emotions get the best of her, which was a rare thing in itself. This young d'Artagnan, who seemed to miss nothing, noted her anger with a startled sort of surprise, as if he could not fathom a woman's anger, let alone a beautiful woman.

She tried to smile through it, but it was more a baring of teeth.

Lord de Winter had missed everything that passed across her features, having turned away to play with the monkey Anne had acquired during her brief stint among the Barbary pirates, which had pulled him by the doublet. d'Artagnan seemed taken aback, as if he hadn't yet realised with whom he had to deal.

“You are welcome, monsieur,” said Anne, in sweet and dulcet tones, despite her recent loss of composure. “you have today acquired eternal rights to my gratitude.”

Lord de Winter chose this moment to turn around again. He offered a blow-by-blow description of the events that transpired after she had left them on the road. Apparently a combat had commenced, involving several men, and d'Artagnan had de Winter beneath the point of his sword but in his mercy allowed the Englishman to live.

Anne stifled a yawn. This tedious talk was so much of men playing the peacock and as a swordswoman herself, had little interest in the play-by-play, preferring always to act and with little interest in the sport of the thing. She tapped her foot with impatience, still trying to control her anger and her exasperation with this kind of storytelling.

Then, out of nowhere, Lord de Winter went to her wine carafe and without asking, poured two glasses, asking d'Artagnan to drink with him. He did not ask permission, nor did he offer any wine to Anne herself. Her jaw dropped at his insolence, and she bit at her handkerchief in fury. So long had she needed to play the part, so long had she schooled her features and her voice, that while the men's backs were turned, she felt safe in growling imprecations under her breath.

Just as Anne was about to bark at the two men who were so free with her home and her wine, Ketty stepped into the room. She went up to Lord de Winter, and spoke to him in English. 

"I am sorry, but I am being called away," said Lord de Winter. "Please forgive my leaving you so soon, but I am sure my sister will entertain you."

d'Artagnan looked at Anne with a sardonic smile.

"I'm sure she will," he said. Anne resisted the desire to plunge her dagger into him, for not ridding the world of the nuisance she found in Bennett's brother.

Anne willed herself to be gracious again, when she noticed a few spots of blood on her handkerchief. She hid it away quickly in case either man had seen it, but they did not remark upon it.

Lord de Winter shook d'Artagnan's hand and took his leave.

They were alone together.

***

"I am sorry your brother had to leave us so early," said d'Artagnan, as an opening gambit in whatever game he was playing.

Thankfully, Anne too could play close to the chest.

"He's not really my brother," she said. "He's my brother-in-law. I'm not English, I'm French."

This seemed to warm something in d'Artagnan's eyes. Anne knew that look. She had seen it everywhere - on the country roads of France, in the bedchamber of Henri, in the ardent gaze of Armand, in Pleasance's bitten lips. 

So this is the young man whose love Rochefort is keeping captive, thought Anne, a slow smile on her face. It looks as though his heart - or other things - are not so loyal as one might hope.

Sorry, Madame Bonacieux. Your loss is your loss.

"I married a younger brother of the family," said Anne, fanning herself with all the coquetry she could muster. "His name was Bennett."

"Was?" asked d'Artagnan, and there was more than curiosity in the question.

"Yes, he passed away," she said. "I had one child by him, who will be the sole heir of the de Winter fortune, if William does not have issue."

"I am so sorry for your loss," said d'Artagnan. "Such a beautiful woman as yourself cannot lack for suitors."

"Strangely, the men do not seem interested," she said, with a secret smile. 

d'Artagnan protested.

"Oh, that cannot be true," he said. "A woman so good and pure as you! Well, count me as one of the many."

"You are charming, indeed," said Anne, yet mimicked the queen who shared her name, in laughing behind her fan at a young man who showed too much interest too soon.

"I am serious," he said. "The time has come for me to return to my post. I will return tomorrow, if you will permit me."

Anne gave a slight nod. She wanted to see where this was going. d'Artagnan bowed deeply and left her apartments, looking as though he walked on clouds.

***

"Ketty!" called Anne. When the young woman didn't appear, she called again.

Finally, the soubrette appeared from where she had apparently been standing - in the stairwell.

"What on earth are you doing out there?" demanded Anne. Ketty blushed.

Anne made a sound of disgust.

"Really, Ketty!" she chided. "For a young man! Don't throw yourself at them, they get airs."

"Yes, madame," she murmured.

"You will be thrilled to hear he plans to return tomorrow," said Anne. Ketty gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. 

Anne rolled her eyes.

"Yes, yes," she said. "But now that I've had some warning, I want to be ready for him this time."

 

 

Chapter Text

This time, when d'Artagnan returned, Anne was ready for him.

The apartments had been lit by tapers, filling the room with a soft glow. Surrounded by greenery, draped across her sofa in the lushest dress she could find, Anne was well aware of how inviting she looked - especially to a poor young gentleman from Tarbes.

"So," she said, with her most ingratiating smile, after Ketty had introduced the young man and retired blushing. "I am told you hail from Gascony, just like our Monsieur Treville."

"Yes," said d'Artagnan, whose eyes followed each movement of her lips and tongue. "From Tarbes, as your soubrette announced."

"Fascinating," said Anne, stressing a feigned honesty in the word. "And what is it like there?"

"Hot," d'Artagnan admitted. "The sun shines every day."

"You must find Paris cold and noisy," said Anne, turning her charming smile up a notch.

d'Artagnan took a step forward, as if drawn into a snare in a dream, almost hypnotised.

"Oh, no," he said faintly, his eyes fastened upon her face. "Paris is all I dreamed of, and more. I've had such adventures, made good friends - "

"Is that so," said Anne, unable to keep a tense note from her voice. No matter, for d'Artagnan was still staring and seemed not to have caught any of it. "What friends have you made, then?"

"Brave men in the service of the king," said d'Artagnan. Anne was inwardly frustrated.

"The king?" she asked. "Have you not thought of attaching yourself to the Cardinal? It is my understanding that the pay is much better, and you're more likely to keep your skin."

"I am not sufficiently concerned about my skin to bother myself about it," said d'Artagnan recklessly.

"Is that so," said Anne, with an even more malicious sting to her voice, but d'Artagnan still didn't seem to recognise it.

"Certainly," he affirmed. "I should not be a brave man if I were."

"And still, the Cardinal's guards are a worthy career for any young man," she said.

d'Artagnan started, and seemed to remember himself.

"The Cardinal is a great man," he said. "He is very wise, and much stronger and cleverer by far than many are aware. He is one of the great leaders of France. I should have definitely attached myself to him if I knew Monsieur de Cavois, their master, instead of Monsieur de Treville, the leader of the Musketeers. But we Gascons are a clannish people."

"Does serving in the Guards prepare you well for an application to the Musketeers?" she asked, and then decided to play on the young man's probably misogyny. "As I am a woman, of course I am ignorant in such matters."

Just as expected, d'Artagnan puffed up his chest like a quail.

"I've travelled further than many men," boasted d'Artagnan.

"Indeed," said Anne. "Have you ever been to England?"

At this, d'Artagnan stopped short. The word England seemed to have a magical effect on him, snapping him out of his reverie. 

He stepped back, respectfully.

"Only that I lived there for a time, and should like to reminisce with someone who knows of what I speak," said Anne, as guileless as a young girl on a summer's day.

"Yes, madame," said d'Artagnan, "Monsieur de Treville sent me there to treat for a supply of horses, and I brought four of them back to France for him to evaluate."

His words were so certain, his expression so clear, that if Anne hadn't been absolutely certain this was a falsehood, she would have believed him.

He lies, does he? thought Anne. Perhaps he isn't quite the country bumpkin I took him for. After all, he has frustrated many a plot of the Cardinal's. 

Careful now.

Anne touched her handkerchief to her mouth again, only to see it come away stained pink. She had been biting her lip so often in anger that she had drawn blood. She saw in this young man the frustration of her own plans, someone as much a snake as she could be.

Still, she saw that strange, addicted hunger in his eyes, same as she had seen it in others. These young men treated her like a drug and went mad without it. She wondered how she seemed to be the only woman this happened to, and they treated their own lust as if it were witchcraft she had performed upon them. Never taking responsibility for their own hunger, while she was happy to use theirs to satisfy her own.

Despite how careful d'Artagnan had been during their conversation, Anne could already sense that she would emerge triumphant, once she had him in her thrall.

"I regret that I must leave you again," he was saying to her, as she was smiling at him and considering his downfall. "I will return tomorrow night. I bless the hours I spend with you, Milady. You are all I dream of, night or day."

She offered her hand, which he kissed with great fervor, and vanished into the staircase as if he didn't trust himself to stay a moment longer.

And perhaps he already did not.

"Ketty!" called Anne. When the soubrette did not reappear for the second night running, Anne stamped her foot in fury. "Ketty! Where are you?"

Ketty once again rushed into the room from the staircase, full of blushes and apologies.

"Are we going to re-enact the same performance every single night, Ketty?" demanded Anne. "This young man has already turned your head! Do I need to be concerned about your loyalty to me? To the Cardinal? To the crown?"

Ketty, ashamed of her conduct, stared at the ground and clasped her hands together.

"No, Madame," she said. "It won't happen again, I promise."

"I've already lost you to love, I can see that," said Anne. "Ridiculous. Please help me prepare my toilet for the evening, and then you are dismissed."

"But - "

"No, Ketty," said Anne. "I cannot bear your presence here while I am certain that you are throwing yourself after that young man. Finish your tasks and then remove yourself from my sight."

"Please, madame - " Ketty argued. Anne held up a hand.

"You are free to return tomorrow evening, when the young man returns as well, if that's what you're concerned about," she said, and Ketty visibly relaxed. "But now that I'm certain he has your loyalty and I do not - I will be far more careful with you."

"Yes, Madame," said Ketty through clenched teeth.

Anne saw this, and sighed inwardly.

She always knew things would end up this way, and was resigned to it. 

Still, she wished that women were more often allies in this world than they were enemies.

Man, she thought, was created for our destruction, and it is from him we inherit all our miseries.

 

 

Chapter Text

"Ketty, I would like you to deliver this message to Monsieur de Wardes," said Anne, as she prepared to go out for the day. "I have urgent business elsewhere, and we haven't heard from him since I sent the first message. I don't know whether he has begun to recuperate or not, and I am concerned for him."

Anne handed her a note in an envelope. The note inside read: “You have not answered my first note. Are you indisposed, or have you forgotten the glances you favored me with at the ball of Mme. de Guise? You have an opportunity now, Count; do not allow it to escape.”

"Yes, Madame," said Ketty, dropping a curtsy, and tucking the message into her clothing.

"Be ready this evening, by the by," said Anne. "Our Gascon should be here, arriving like clockwork. Seems that nothing could drag him away."

"Yes, madame," said Ketty, and Anne caught the note of anger in her voice. She turned and looked at Ketty searchingly, but was none the wiser for looking.

"I shall return in a few hours," said Anne. "Feel free to amuse yourself until then."

Ketty dropped another curtsy, and Anne placed her hat on her head before walking outside to the waiting carriage.

***

"Milady de Winter," announced the page. Richelieu raised his head just as Anne walked into the room.

"I certainly hope you have good news," he said, dipping his pen in the inkwell. "After your mistake at the ball, surely you have managed to do something with all the money I pay you."

Anne bit her tongue instead of pointing out that she had done exactly as he had requested. If d'Artagnan had beaten them both to the punch, then that was a victory of the Gascon's over the both of them. 

She sighed inwardly, and thought of the things that embroiled all of them with people they didn't know, to do favours for those who would sooner forget than remember. A crown is placed high upon a head, but a cardinal's position was even higher.

"I have been entertaining a young man for the last fortnight," said Anne.

"Yes, and?" asked Richelieu tiredly. "I understand this is a part of your personality, Milady, I don't need the details."

"You do when the young man's name is d'Artagnan," she said in triumph.

Richelieu's head snapped up. Those handsome, hawklike features now really took her in, as if for the first time.

"And? What has he done?" he asked. "Are you confident you have him?"

"Yes, I think so," she said. "I know that look on a man's face, Your Eminence. Still, it may be a few days yet before I catch my prize."

"Would it not be better for you if you didn't have other entanglements?" asked Richelieu.

Anne looked at him in surprise.

"Yes, I am aware of your interest in de Wardes," he said. "I am aware of everything."

"No man has a hold on me," said Anne. "Not even you."

The Cardinal considered this for a moment and then smiled.

"Understood," he said. "What will you do, once you have him?"

"I'm not sure yet," she mused. "Shall I kill him? What would be best?"

The Cardinal tapped his pen against the table, thinking.

"No, not that," he said. "At least not now. It would be too obvious, if his visits are known to all. Perhaps in the future."

"Then I shall find some other way to bring him down," said Anne. "This I swear to you."

"And I thank you for your service," said Richelieu, handing her a bag bulging with coins. "This is for the services you have already rendered. Forgive my harshness with you, Milady. War brings out the worst in a man."

Anne took the bag without argument. She saw no need for false modesty.

She was good at what she did. She was good at everything she did. She saw the money as her rightful payment.

"You never have to worry about your conduct with me, Your Eminence," said Anne. "I remain, forever, your servant."

And she went quickly down the stairs, her wide silken skirts flowing behind her.

***

When Anne returned, a little later than she had expected, Ketty was nowhere to be found.

She placed her hat on the rack in the foyer, and was further puzzled at the empty salon.

When she saw the gardener outside, she called to him through the window.

"Did d'Artagnan come calling this evening?" she asked. He shook his head.

"No, madame," he said. "You haven't had a visitor at all today."

"Have you seen Ketty?" she asked then.

"No, I'm sorry," he said. "She went out earlier on an errand and I haven't seen her since."

Anne pursed her lips in confusion.

"Thank you," she said, and shuttered the window.

Anne walked through her own rooms and then knocked on the partition that separated Ketty's living space from her own.

"Ketty?" she called. "Ketty?"

When there was no reply, Anne smiled. She must have gone to deliver the message to de Wardes and been caught up talking to the other servants.

"That means I have an evening free to myself," murmured Anne. "For the first time in months."

She found herself a few bottles of wine, cheese, and crackers, and brought them out to the conservatory. She poured some of the wine into a glass and leaned back, fully reveling in such rare luxury, as she heard the gardener pack up for the evening. 

She let her mind relax, as she considered the multiple permutations and possibilities of her next steps, to get closer and closer to the power she so longed for, as the rain began to patter against the glass of the conservatory, and the skies darkened to night.

***

Around midnight, Anne decided that enough was enough, and she would need to get some sleep for the following day's projects. Surely Ketty had returned by this time.

She stood up and walked a little unsteadily to her bedroom, and was astounded not to meet Ketty somewhere within the apartments. 

She could hear giggling and bumping around in Ketty's chambers. Anne smiled. 

Perhaps Ketty had been at the wine this evening herself.

No matter, she still had her duties to attend to.

"Ketty!" called Anne, ringing the bell near her vanity chest. Anne could hear a stifled gasp of shocked surprise from behind the door.

A few moments passed, and now Anne was getting impatient.

"Ketty!" she called again. “Are you asleep, that you don’t answer when I ring?”

The door of the partition slid open, and there stood Ketty, her eyes bright and glassy, her cheeks bright red as if she had been drinking quite a lot. 

"Here I am, Milady!" she cried, sounding as if she were out of breath. "Here I am!"

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne sat down and let Ketty assist with her toilet.

“Well,” said Anne, “I have not seen our Gascon this evening.”

“What, Milady! has he not come?” said Ketty. “Can he be inconstant before being happy?”

“Oh, no; he must have been prevented by Monsieur de Treville or Monsieur Dessessart. I understand my game, Ketty; I have this one safe.”

“What will you do with him, madame?”

“What will I do with him? Be easy, Ketty, there is something between that man and me that he is quite ignorant of: he nearly made me lose my credit with his Eminence. Oh, I will be revenged!”

“I believed that Madame loved him.”

“I love him? I detest him! An idiot, who held the life of Lord de Winter in his hands and did not kill him, by which I missed three hundred thousand livres’ income.”

“That’s true,” said Ketty; “your son was the only heir of his uncle, and until his majority you would have had the enjoyment of his fortune.”

“For all this,” continued Anne, “I should long ago have revenged myself on him if, and I don’t know why, the cardinal had not requested me to conciliate him.”

“Oh, yes; but Madame has not conciliated that little woman he was so fond of.”

“What, the mercer’s wife of the Rue des Fossoyeurs? Has he not already forgotten she ever existed? Fine vengeance that, on my faith!”

Anne turned to Ketty with a smile.

“That will do,” said Anne, “go into your own room, and tomorrow endeavor again to get me an answer to the letter I gave you.”

“For Monsieur de Wardes?” said Ketty.

“To be sure; for Monsieur de Wardes.”

“Now, there is one,” said Ketty, “who appears to me quite a different sort of a man from that poor Monsieur d’Artagnan.”

“Go to bed, mademoiselle,” said Anne. “I don’t like comments.”

Ketty curtsied and left Anne alone. She closed the door and slid the bolts home, while Ketty turned the key in the lock on the other side.

Anne sighed. She thought Ketty might be lost forever. Another woman who should know better.

***

"How is it that the stupid man cannot have written back?" Anne asked, walking back and forth across the salon the following day. "How many letters must I write to him? Is it too difficult for him to ask someone to write on his behalf?"

Anne couldn't understand why de Wardes had not yet replied to any of her letters. She was absolutely confident in the interest he had expressed in her, back in London. She also knew that d'Artagnan was the cause of these wounds. 

Finally, she wrote yet another letter in her fury, and handed it off to Ketty, who curtsied as usual and went to do the bidding of her mistress.

***

Another day passed with no reply from de Wardes. Anne wrote another letter. 

Ketty left the building storm gathering on her mistress's brow.

***

When d'Artagnan came to call, Anne was in a black mood.

"Ketty!" she snapped. "Answer the door! Why are you this way, your head in the clouds? I will find myself another soubrette!"

"No, no, please," Ketty said, rushing to the door. She admitted d'Artagnan, who saw that Anne had worked herself into a rage.

She saw him and immediately changed her entire demeanor.

"There you are!" she rejoiced, and saw Ketty glowering out of the corner of her eye. "I wondered where you had gotten to. We missed you here. Didn't we, Ketty?"

The soubrette nodded, clearly not trusting herself to speak.

"I am sorry, I was detained elsewhere," said d'Artagnan. "I would never spend a moment away from you by my own volition."

"You see, Ketty?" said Anne. "Nothing to worry about."

Ketty gnashed her teeth, and thought she did so privately.

Anne, no stranger to the way women had to conceal their anger and frustration, missed none of it.

"I have passed this time thinking of you, just as I said before," said d'Artagnan. "Indeed, I can think of little else."

"I am flattered," she said, and offered her hand to kiss, which he did with fervor. Ketty made some kind of indignant squeak, but when Anne looked up at her, she saw the soubrette's face was tranquil.

Anne was not deceived. But she had a goal in mind, and Ketty's feelings would have to come second.

As on the other evenings, d'Artagnan's free time drew to a close, and he excused himself from Anne's apartments looking for all the world like it was the last thing he wanted to do.

Ketty, still upset, shut herself up in her rooms and didn't say a single word to Anne or anyone.

***

"Here," snapped Anne the following day, while Ketty assisted with her toilet. She handed the girl another billet.

This one read: "This is the third time I have written to you to tell you that I love you. Beware that I do not write to you a fourth time to tell you that I detest you. If you repent of the manner in which you have acted toward me, the young girl who brings you this will tell you how a man of spirit may obtain his pardon."

She shoved Ketty away from her roughly.

"That's all for today," she said. "Deliver the letter, if you are in fact still in my employ?"

Ketty looked like she was about to argue. Anne waited for it. She wanted Ketty to argue, she wanted to draw her into conversation, she wanted to save her from herself.

Instead, Ketty turned and fled down the stairs.

Anne sighed and leaned her pretty cheek against her hand. 

Sometimes, it seemed like she was the only woman on earth who did not lose her head for an unworthy gentleman. 

And yet, the continued silence of de Wardes was a worrying thing.

***

Some hours later, Ketty returned, dragging her feet and looking like a bedraggled, wet cat.

"Were you caught out in the rain?" asked Anne, rushing to her side with blankets.

Ketty held out a letter limply. She looked as if she were about to weep.

"What is it?" asked Anne. "Ketty? What on earth is wrong?"

"Your answer," she said in a fainting voice, which Anne could barely hear.

She heard enough.

Anne snatched the letter out of her hand with an eagerness that belied her own tranquility on the matter.

"Sit," she directed, pointing Ketty toward the settee. "I shall prepare a warm beverage for us."

Anne tore the letter open and devoured the words on the paper.

Madame, Until the present moment I could not believe that it was to me your first two letters were addressed, so unworthy did I feel myself of such an honor; besides, I was so seriously indisposed that I could not in any case have replied to them.

But now I am forced to believe in the excess of your kindness, since not only your letter but your servant assures me that I have the good fortune to be beloved by you.

She has no occasion to teach me the way in which a man of spirit may obtain his pardon. I will come and ask mine at eleven o’clock this evening.

To delay it a single day would be in my eyes now to commit a fresh offense.

From him whom you have rendered the happiest of men, Comte de Wardes

 

Chapter Text

Ketty had been miserable all day.

Anne had noticed, but she has also been aware that Ketty was sullen and withdrawn most of the time these days. After she had successfully returned with the response from de Wardes, Anne had given Ketty a bag of money as a reward. Ketty didn't even seem to notice it, taking it as if she were in a dream. Anne did not like this development very much, and worried there may be a traitor brewing in her household. Anne was concerned about the future projects of Rochefort and the Cardinal, as the girl's head had clearly been turned by the handsome moustaches of d'Artagnan.

Speak of the devil, the Gascon was announced at the door.

"Welcome back," said Anne, smiling graciously, as Ketty led him into the room. Anne saw the way Ketty stared at him with a longing all too familiar.

Anne was in a wonderful mood, for tonight was to be her reunion with de Wardes. She showered praise and kindnesses upon d'Artagnan, who was fully taken in by them. Ketty, in the background, looked to be dying of jealousy.

I will have to speak to her, thought Anne. This cannot be allowed to continue.

Ketty brought some sherbet for the two of them to enjoy. Anne smiled at her, but the girl seemed so sad and lost that she completely ignored the kindnesses lavished upon her. Sighing deeply, the soubrette retired, awaiting the next call.

Anne had no idea what d'Artagnan was talking to her about, because the hour was growing near for the visit from de Wardes. She looked up at the clock, stood up, and sat back down again, in her impatience regarding the visit from a man she hoped would be her lover. It was strange, d'Artagnan normally took his leave of her around this time, but he must have had the night off because he showed no signs of retiring.

"I am thrilled you have chosen to visit us again," said Anne, interrupting some story he had been telling about the Guards. "But I am very tired and need my rest."

"Ah!" d'Artagnan said, striking his forehead in embarrassment. "Forgive me, Milady, but the perfume of your presence means that time passes so swiftly here in your apartments I often forget myself."

He removed his hat and bowed to her. She abandoned her hand to him, which he kissed with an unmistakable passion. She could feel him smiling against her hand, and remembered this was an enemy with whom she had to deal. Startled, she looked hard at him, but saw nothing there but the guileless Gascon, grey eyes as tranquil as pools.

She squeezed his hand, more as a thank you for leaving than any real emotion. d'Artagnan disappeared through the doorway.

***

"Ketty, please extinguish most of the lights," directed Anne. "I'd like to look my best and set the scene. Once you have finished your task, you are free for the evening."

"Yes, Madame," said Ketty, in a voice no louder than a hoarse whisper. 

Anne turned to her, searching her face.

"I know I have not always been kind to you," she said. "But please - Ketty, I am always on your side. If something is wrong - if someone has done something infamous to you - "

Ketty recoiled and put her hands up.

"Oh, no, no, Milady, nothing like that," said Ketty. "I'm sorry, I know I haven't been - "

"Animated?" asked Anne, with a teasing smile. Ketty nodded.

"Animated, of late," she continued. "Frivolous worries, the worries of a serving-girl, nothing to trouble the affairs of a great lady."

Anne pointed at the settee.

"Please, sit with me awhile," she said. "We have time, before he should enter."

Ketty sat down, or rather perched, on the settee, looking much like a bird ready for flight. She kept casting furtive glances at the door. Anne, who missed nothing, caught these looks and smiled.

"You're worried about our young Gascon, is that it?" asked Anne, and Ketty started. "Yes, I understand love. Such as I feel for de Wardes, for example."

"Madame!" gasped Ketty, her eyes wide.

"Yes, Ketty, I admit it," said Anne. "I am but a woman, after all."

"A different kind of woman," Ketty reminded her. Anne shrugged.

"I doubt it is something allowed only to the province of women," she said. "I have known men to love madly, desperately. I only want you to know, Ketty, that I understand. Please do not take my concern for your welfare as judgment over your choices. We love who we love. Simple as that."

Ketty smiled a little, clearly in spite of herself.

"By the by," said Anne. "What did de Wardes say? Did he seem very amorous?"

Ketty stared at her.

"Y-yes," she said. "Very amorous. He - he seemed very eager, to me."

"Did he seem surprised, when he received my letter?" asked Anne.

"A little?" hazarded Ketty. "But he had received the others, of course, you see."

"Of course," said Anne. "You see? Your news offers a balm to my soul, which has been troubled lately. Women ought to be able to talk together a little, as friends."

Ketty nodded, but Anne could see that her thoughts were elsewhere.

"Thank you for speaking with me as an equal," said Ketty, standing abruptly. "I must go to prepare the apartments for de Wardes' arrival."

"But we are equals, Ketty, don't you see?" Anne protested, following the soubrette with her eyes as she stood from the settee. 

Ketty curtsied.

"If you say so, Milady," she murmured, making it clear she did not agree. Then, she was gone, and one by one, the lights in the apartments were dimmed or extinguished altogether.

Anne heard the partition separating her bedroom from Ketty's slide open, and then shut.

She breathed a deep sigh. Although she was filled with eager anticipation of de Wardes' arrival, what she really needed was a friend. She thought about Rochefort and wondered what he might be doing, if he found babysitting his charge entertaining. 

In all her life, only he had offered her friendship that did not involve the sexual.

In all her life, she had only really loved two people - Therese, and Armand. Maybe de Wardes, if things progressed well. 

But friends, she could count but few.

Somehow, she never seemed to find them among women.

***

For a moment, Anne worried that she had sent d'Artagnan away too soon, and that the clever Gascon might assign a reason for it. She sat alone in the quiet darkness of her apartments, lit only by the soft luminescence of a faraway taper. Ketty had made herself scarce, just as she had been told.

When she heard a sound, far sooner than the appointed time, Anne was startled and cried out:

"What is that noise?"

"It is I," said a male voice. "It is I, the Comte de Wardes."

"Well?" said Anne, unable to keep a tremor from her voice. "Why do you not enter, Count? Count, you know that I wait for you."

Anne sensed more than saw the figure of a man sitting down on the settee beside her. She turned to him and pressed his hand.

"Yes, Count," she said, “I am happy in the love which your looks and your words have expressed to me every time we have met. I also--I love you. Oh, tomorrow, tomorrow, I must have some pledge from you which will prove that you think of me; and that you may not forget me, take this!”

Anne felt for the sapphire and diamond ring that Armand had given her - useless to her now, and she had only kept it out of a strange feeling of sentiment, the same reason she had kept those letters from Therese, even though they seemed like they had come from another lifetime. 

She slid the ring from her finger and dropped it in de Wardes' palm, closing his fingers over it.

de Wardes immediately tried to return it, but she pushed his hand away.

No, no! Keep that ring for love of me. Besides, in accepting it,” she said, thinking of the horrors related to Armand and the cherryblossoms, trying to keep the tears out of her voice, "you render me a much greater service than you imagine."

She sighed, and a weight seemed to lift from her chest. Now she was free, of Armand, of those memories. She hadn't realised that she needed to divest herself of the ring in order to truly embrace her new life. 

She felt, somehow, that she had finally arrived, and loved de Wardes all the more for it.

Then she thought of d'Artagnan, and of de Wardes' near death at his hands. A bright fury built from inside her, at the thought of the destruction of yet another good man.

"Poor angel, whom that monster of a Gascon barely failed to kill," she said. "Oh. Do your wounds still make you suffer?"

"Yes, much," murmured de Wardes.

"Be tranquil," Anne said. "I will avenge you -- and cruelly!"

They spoke at length after that, and when the clock struck one, Anne leaned over and kissed him. He seemed surprised, but returned the kiss with interest. 

Finally, de Wardes stood, and Anne conducted him all the way to the outer staircase to bid him adieu. They kissed again, and with a last squeeze of her hand, de Wardes left her alone in the darkness of her apartments.

Anne smiled, and retired to her bedroom, where she let herself fall backwards onto the bed with a hand over her heart.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne was floating on clouds the following day.

She sang to herself as Ketty helped her with her morning toilet, and decided to enjoy some champagne with her breakfast.

"Did de Wardes say when he wanted to meet with me again?" Anne enquired of Ketty, who listlessly poured the champagne.

"No, Milady," Ketty sighed.

"What has gotten into you?" asked Anne. "I don't know how to reach you, Ketty. I really don't."

"I'm sorry, madame," said Ketty.

"Please go and find out for me today," said Anne. Ketty froze.

"You mean - "

"Yes, go to de Wardes and ask for a second interview!" snapped Anne. "My goodness, Ketty, you've worked for me long enough to understand that, I should think!"

"Yes, Milady," said Ketty sadly. 

"Go now," said Anne, waving her away. "I shall pour my own champagne. Your long face is putting a damper on a joyful morning."

Ketty, trembling and miserable, set the bottle down and curtsied. She was soon away.

"I wonder why she is so dreadfully pale?" Anne asked herself. "Strange! Is she jealous to see my success with de Wardes, her failure with d'Artagnan? That fool of a Gascon would be wrapped around my finger, should I so desire it."

Pleased with herself, Anne continued to enjoy her breakfast.

***

An hour later, Ketty returned, radiant joy beaming from every feature.

"Why, Ketty," said Anne. "What on earth has happened to you? This morning I thought you near dying. Now you look as though you could take on the world."

"Yes, Milady," said Ketty, smiling with sparkling eyes.

She handed over the billet, the response from de Wardes.

Anne opened it eagerly. She read the few lines written there:

Do not depend upon me, madame, for the next meeting. Since my convalescence I have so many affairs of this kind on my hands that I am forced to regulate them a little. When your turn comes, I shall have the honor to inform you of it. I kiss your hands.

Comte de Wardes

Anne read it again. And again.

She felt the sinking feeling in her heart - that sharp reprimand that said she should never have been such an idiot to let her heart lose the run of itself again - before she had quite understood what the letter said.

She crushed the letter in her hand and turned on Ketty like a tiger.

"What is this letter?!" she demanded. Ketty shrank back.

"The answer to Madame's," said Ketty, shaking like a leaf.

"Impossible!" cried Anne. "It is impossible a gentleman could have written such a letter to a woman."

She paced the room, the crushed letter still clutched in her hand.

"My God! Can he have --!" she began, but did not trust herself to finish the sentence.

The sapphire ring. The sapphire ring that was Armand's gift to her, one of the happiest memories of their life together, and - and now! Some infamous man is probably using it to boast of his conquest of the great lady! Just a woman! Like a woman! She's no different than other women, with their frippery and fool heads and so easily seduced by men!

These thoughts echoed in her head, filled with hate and fear. She ground her teeth in her fury, and went to the window to open it, to let air into the room. Instead, she sank into an armchair, horror and accusation warring with each other in her mind.

Suddenly, Ketty was there, trying to pull the laces from her corset.

"What do you want with me?" demanded Anne, sitting up, anger mounting in her expression. "Why do you place your hand on me?"

“I thought that Madame was ill, and I wished to bring her help,” stammered Ketty, stepping back when she saw the look on Anne's face.

"I faint? I? I? Do you take me for half a woman? When I am insulted I do not faint; I avenge myself!" snarled Anne. She made a wild gesture of dismissal toward Ketty, who slunk back into her rooms by herself.

He soon shall learn that not all women are so easy to deceive, thought Anne. And vengeance will come not from mine own hand, but the hand of one who deserves everything that shall come of it!

And Anne began to put her plot into motion.

***

When Ketty finally emerged from her room, she was surprised to find Anne in a placid mood, as if the storm had passed.

"This evening," Anne directed, "when our young Gascon friend pays a visit, you are to let him in right away. Do you understand?"

"Yes," said Ketty, and Anne could see that she wondered what was going on in her mistress's mind.

But d'Artagnan did not come that night, nor the following one.

Anne, during this time, had tried to bank her fury and her feelings of betrayal. She had wept much, behind closed doors. She had gnashed her teeth and cursed all mankind. She had realised now without a doubt that men were not to be trusted, and neither were women, because of their foolishness regarding men.

This included Ketty, upon whom Anne wished to exert some vengeance too. She did not know, but suspected, some kind of subterfuge involving her and the Gascon - a sworn enemy of the Cardinal.

Anne had forgotten, for a little while, that she was a weapon of Richelieu's. But more importantly, she had forgotten that she was a weapon of her own.

A weapon that was currently being sharpened to its finest point.

Anne's trust was now in her own fortune, and herself. Those were the only things that now mattered to her in the world. On certain nights, she allowed herself to dream of another life, a lavender-scented fantasy where she and Therese had spent these years together at the chateau, and in the fields. But those things were just a fantasy now, and Therese nearly lost to memory. 

Anne knew that she could rely on herself alone. She decided to put her plans into motion.

***

On the third day that d'Artagnan did not show himself, Anne dictated a letter to Ketty. Anne was aware that d'Artagnan was about to go off on campaign, and used this knowledge to play upon his heartstrings.

Dear M. d’Artagnan, It is wrong thus to neglect your friends, particularly at the moment you are about to leave them for so long a time. My brother-in-law and myself expected you yesterday and the day before, but in vain. Will it be the same this evening?

Your very grateful, Milady Clarik

Ketty raised her head and looked at Anne after she had obediently written everything down. Anne secretly rejoiced at the tears in her soubrette's eyes, the knowledge that d'Artagnan loved Anne and not Ketty, despite his nearly being the downfall of her own mistress. Anne was well aware of all these things, and had decided that Ketty's salvation lie in her own heartbreak. It was the only way to show her that this was not the way to find herself in favour while running after the ridiculous and inconstant love of a young man.

A lesson Anne herself had taken far too long to learn. 

She knew she ought to be kinder to Ketty, but it seemed none of her counsels were getting through. d'Artagnan, for all his handsomeness and his pretty words, was dangerous, and Anne understood that Ketty had forgotten whose side they were on. In this way, Anne assured herself that she was doing the right thing - for de Wardes, for Ketty, for herself, and for the Cardinal, and by extension, the crown.

These are the things Anne told herself, while a smaller voice that sounded much like Therese's warned that while many of her earlier dubious actions could be excused, the thing she was about to do fell squarely into the realm of cruelty and evil.

Anne ignored this voice.

"Well?" she demanded. "What are you waiting for? Go, take the note! I thought you would be thrilled to see d'Artagnan again."

"Yes, Milady," said Ketty, near tears, and she disappeared out the door.

Anne sat back in her settee, smug and victorious. She knew that she would gain a triumph over several of those she now considered her enemies, surrounding her on all sides.

If there was one thing she knew for certain, it was that men were often very stupid around her.

She knew that a young Gascon from the countryside would not be any different, nor would he take any notice of Ketty, or indeed the little mercer's wife that Rochefort watched over so closely.

Anne glanced up at the clock. She knew she would not have long to wait.

 

Chapter Text

"Monsieur d'Artagnan is here."

Anne watched the result this produced on poor Ketty's features. The girl was near fainting, if her paleness was any indication.

"Show him in," ordered Anne, and Ketty fled.

"I am at home to nobody," said Anne to Ketty's retreating figure. "Observe, to nobody."

d'Artagnan drew toward her, and immediately looked concerned. Despite the darkness of the apartments, no doubt he could see the evidence of tears and furious imprecations that had made their mark on Anne's exquisite face.

He bowed deeply.

"I am at your service, Madame," he said. "May I enquire after your health?"

Anne sighed.

"Terrible, terrible," she murmured, as she abandoned her hand to him while he kissed it. "Bad. Very bad."

d'Artagnan looked up and nearly ran her through with the piercing gaze of his grey eyes.

"Then my visit is ill-timed," he said. "You, no doubt, stand in need of repose. I will withdraw."

Anne saw her chance at vengeance slipping away like water on a river.

"No!" she cried, reaching out and grasping his sleeve, a foolhardy gesture - but Anne was beyond anything else but barely contained rage. "No, on the contrary. Stay, Monsieur d'Artagnan, your agreeable company will be a welcome distraction."

And she pulled him down beside her, close enough that he became intoxicated by her presence. She saw her prey within her grasp, and the colour returned to her cheeks in bright, rosy points that had always accentuated her beauty in ways no makeup could. 

She spoke in a low, sweet voice to him, lips and tongue dripping with honey, her attitude one of  a woman who does not know what kind of effect she is having on a man. This feigned innocence while she mixed more and more salacious actions and details into the conversation had brought d'Artagnan to the breaking point. Inwardly, she thrilled at the victory she felt was finally within her grasp.

She favoured him with her most brilliant smile, and he was leaning forward without realising it when she spoke.

"Do you have a mistress, dear d'Artagnan?" she asked, the innocent question laden with suggestive accents. 

d'Artagnan's gaze snapped from her coral lips to her blue eyes, but all he saw reflected there were still, beautiful pools, with no sign of subterfuge.

"Alas!" said d'Artagnan. "Can you be cruel enough to put such a question to me--to me, who, from the moment I saw you, have only breathed and sighed through you and for you?"

Anne's smile turned positively feral as her heart sang out in vicious triumph.

"Then you love me?" she asked sweetly.

"Have I any need to tell you so?" said d'Artagnan earnestly. "Have you not perceived it?"

Time to pull on the hook a little, thought Anne.

"It may be," she said, looking away. "But you know the more hearts are worth the capture, the more difficult they are to be won."

"Oh, difficulties do not affright me," said d'Artagnan, matching boasting with passion. "I shrink before nothing but impossibilities."

Anne smiled. Caught.

"Nothing is impossible," she replied, "to true love."

"Nothing, madame?" he said, a mad hope in his voice.

"Nothing," Anne affirmed.

d'Artagnan studied her face, and then moved closer to her on the settee.

"Well, now," she said, "let us see what you would do to prove this love of which you speak."

"All that could be required of me. Order; I am ready."

"For everything?" 

"For everything," cried d'Artagnan.

She turned fully toward him, so that her lips were close enough to be easily captured in his own, should he lean forward. She could hear his breath coming quickly, though he tried to hide it.

"Well, now let us talk a little seriously," she said.

"I am all attention, madame."

Anne thought for a while. She knew that she wished vengeance upon de Wardes for his ill-treatment of her, but more than anything, she wanted the utter and absolute destruction of d'Artagnan. He had nearly caused her to lose everything by losing face with the Cardinal, he had upset the plots of her friends. 

She wanted to send him into a situation where he could not fail to be killed.

"I have an enemy," she finally said. d'Artagnan looked at her in shock.

"An enemy!" he exclaimed. "You, madame? Is that possible, my God? -- good and beautiful as you are!"

"A mortal enemy."

"Indeed!"

"An enemy who has insulted me so cruelly that between him and me it is war to the death. May I reckon on you as an auxiliary?"

"You may, madame," said d'Artagnan, with feeling. "My arm and my life belong to you, like my love."

"Then," said Anne, "since you are as generous as you are loving --"

She paused.

"Well?" demanded d'Artagnan.

"Well," said Anne, "from now on, stop talking about impossibilities."

d'Artagnan threw himself onto his knees. Anne's heart soared.

"Do not overwhelm me with happiness!" he said, covering her hand with kisses.

"Avenge me of that infamous de Wardes," snarled Anne through clenched teeth, too low for d'Artagnan to hear, "and I shall soon know how to get rid of you, you double idiot, you animated sword blade!"

d'Artagnan looked up at her.

"I am ready," he said.

"You have understood me, then, my dear Monsieur d'Artagnan?" asked Anne.

"I could interpret one of your looks."

"Then you would employ for me your arm which has already acquired so much renown?"

"Instantly!" cried d'Artagnan.

"But on my part," mused Anne, "how should I repay such a service? I know these lovers. They are men who do nothing for nothing."

"You know the only reply that I desire," said d'Artagnan, "the only one worthy of you and of me!"

He lunged forward and gathered her in his arms, pressing her to his chest as he kissed her deeply, with an unbridled and frightening passion she had not experienced since Henri. When they parted, she was breathing a little more rapidly than she had expected, and she looked upon the Gascon in a new light.

This conquest of hers would be thrilling.

"Interested man!" she cried, playfully pushing at his chest and keeping up her innocent act.

"Ah!" cried d'Artagnan, whose passion had kindled in his eyes a kind of hunger Anne knew well. "Ah, that is because my happiness appears so impossible to me; and I have such fear that it should fly away from me like a dream that I pant to make a reality of it."

"Well, merit this pretended happiness, then!" she replied.

"I am at your orders," said d’Artagnan.

"Quite certain?" asked Anne, putting a hint of doubt into her voice, the better to draw him in with.

"Only name to me the base man that has brought tears into your beautiful eyes!"

Anne held herself back from rolling her own.

"Who told you that I had been weeping?" she demanded.

"It appeared to me--"

"Such women as I never weep," said Anne.

"So much the better! Come, tell me his name!" begged d'Artagnan. The man seemed a slave to his desires.

"Remember that his name is my secret," Anne reminded him.

"Yet I must know his name!" d'Artagnan insisted.

"Yes, you must; see what confidence I have in you!" said Anne.

"You overwhelm me with joy. What is his name?"

"You know him."

"Indeed."

"Yes."

"It is surely not one of my friends?" asked d'Artagnan, with a note of concern.

"If it were one of your friends you would hesitate, then?" Anne asked sharply. 

d'Artagnan grasped her hand tightly.

"Not if it were my own brother!" said d'Artagnan.

"I love your devotedness," said Anne.

"Alas, do you love nothing else in me?" asked the young Gascon.

"I love you also, you!" Anne said, with as much false honesty as she could muster, as she took his other hand.

When she touched him, he began to tremble, as if he could not help himself.

"You love me! You!" he cried. "Oh, if that were so, I should lose my reason!"

Anne allowed herself to be taken into his arms once again, and gave herself up to his kisses. Despite all her artful trickery, she could not bring herself to return them. Perhaps she was changing, in a way, because she knew there were only two people in the world she had ever loved. Somehow, this dance of deceit had reminded her of the heart and soul still living within her breast.

"His name is - " Anne started, wishing to take advantage of the moment.

"De Wardes, I know it," d'Artagnan muttered between kisses.

Anne froze.

She stared at him, hard.

"And how do you know it?" she demanded, seizing both of his hands, searching him with her eyes.

d'Artagnan seemed to come to himself as if emerging from a deep and dark pool.

"Tell me!" Anne cried. "Tell me, tell me, I say! How do you know it?"

"How do I know it?" repeated d'Artagnan in a daze.

"Yes."

"I know it because yesterday Monsieur de Wardes, in a saloon where I was, showed a ring which he said he had received from you."

"Wretch!" Anne shouted. Her worst fears had been realised - she had been cruelly hurt by yet another man she had loved, and he had used her love as a weakness to brag and exploit her. A man made her look like a foolish and vulnerable woman, and she could not let that stand.

"Well?" she demanded of d'Artagnan, who had been watching her reaction.

He bowed nearly to the floor, and spoke like he was already a great hero.

"Well, I will avenge you of this wretch," he promised.

"Thanks, my brave friend!" said Anne. "And when shall I be avenged?"

"Tomorrow -- immediately -- when you please!"

Anne's fury and intense terror at de Wardes' infamous treatment made her nearly shout immediately! She resisted at the last moment, realising that d'Artagnan might be suspicious if she were to press the issue. This young man was not as foolish as he seemed, and more went on behind those sharp grey eyes than most gave him credit for. She would have to be careful, and she would have to direct his actions to avoid falling afoul of the law or of witnesses.

"Tomorrow," d'Artagnan interrupted her train of thought, dismissing any need for her to come to a decision regarding the timing on her own. "Tomorrow, you will be avenged, or I shall be dead."

"No," said Anne. "You will avenge me; but you will not be dead. He is a coward."

"With women, perhaps; but not with men. I know something of him."

"But it seems you had not much reason to complain of your fortune in your contest with him."

"Fortune is a courtesan; favorable yesterday, she may turn her back tomorrow."

"Which means that you now hesitate?"

"No, I do not hesitate; God forbid! But would it be just to allow me to go to a possible death without having given me at least something more than hope?"

Anne cast a glance at him filled with love and lust in equal measure.

"That is a fair request," she said, in honeyed tones.

"Oh, you are an angel!" said d'Artagnan.

"Then all is agreed?" said she.

"Except that which I ask of you, dear love."

"But when I assure you that you may rely on my tenderness?"

"I cannot wait till tomorrow."

There was a noise at the door, and the servant outside announced Lord William de Winter.

"Silence!" Anne whispered to d'Artagnan, solidifying their connection with a shared secret. "I hear my brother. It will be useless for him to find you here."

Anne turned and rang the bell. Ketty appeared in the room, pale and wan.

"Go out this way," said she, opening a small private door, “and come back at eleven o’clock; we will then terminate this conversation. Ketty will conduct you to my chamber."

Ketty tried to curtsy but gave up partway through. The soubrette looked as if she wished she were dead.

"Well, mademoiselle, what are you thinking about, standing there like a statue? Do as I bid you: show the chevalier out; and this evening at eleven o’clock--you have heard what I said."

Ketty nodded. Anne held out her hand to d'Artagnan, who kissed it with ardent sweetness.

She watched as d'Artagnan disappeared with unusual rapidity, and recognised that he did so to avoid Ketty's accusatory words and glances. Ketty was in the right - his love was lost to her, if indeed it had ever been hers to begin with.

Anne sat down on the settee and smiled to herself. She uncorked the champagne bottle, not even bothering to call Ketty for assistance. The girl was long lost to her, and to them. She was a liability, and a traitor.

Anne grinned, as she thought of the triple destruction she had wrought - on the heart of Ketty, on the arrogance of de Wardes, on the love of d'Artagnan. 

And he'd never mentioned the mercer's wife, Madame Bonacieux, who he was meant to be in love with. Not even once.

She brought the full glass to her lips and felt the bubbles of the champagne burst softly against her skin. She took a sip and let the drink warm her from the inside out.

He is deceived, she thought, smiling in her assured confidence that her plots were going forward, and he will burn.

 

 

Chapter Text

The hour drew near for d'Artagnan's return. 

Anne finally had Ketty extinguish the lights, just as she had for de Wardes' visit.

She did not look forward to the encounter with any eagerness. Her hatred for d'Artagnan overruled everything else in her mind. If this was to be the payment to rid herself and the Cardinal of an enemy, while she also attained vengeance over a young man who had treated her cruelly, then so be it.

It would not be the first time she had exchanged sex for something other than love.

There was a furtive noise at the door, and Anne knew it could be none other.

"Come in," she directed, certain of the madness his love would have inspired in d'Artagnan.

The young man entered and went wordlessly to Anne, like a man not in possession of his senses. Behind him, Anne could barely make out Ketty in the gloom, who seemed to rush toward them - but the door shut behind d'Artagnan, and when there were no further sounds from Ketty's chambers, Anne turned her attention to the amorous young Gascon before her.

His need for her was almost painful, as he crushed her to his chest and kissed her hard. When he realised she only wore a white nightdress, he moaned against her.

She remembered herself then, and became a more active participant. Unlike her previous encounters, she did not enjoy anything about it. Every sigh was feigned, every moan that issued from her beautiful lips was a lie. When she had done this for money, she had enjoyed it, even though the experiences had been with strange men she would never see again.

Perhaps it was her hatred of him, perhaps it was the too-recent memory of what de Wardes had done, but Anne felt less than nothing for the man in her arms.

She could tell, on his end, that he was utterly convinced of her love. She knew exactly the right things to do, the right expressions and sounds, because she had made them in reality for other, better men. d'Artagnan was one of those men who looked at a woman and saw only a woman as if only a woman meant weakness and not the coiled serpent ready to strike. Anne detested men such as him, whose fundamental sexism made an idiot out of him. Anne did not like the Cardinal very much, but she could respect the man.

d'Artagnan, on the other hand, was nothing but a boorish ingrate, a country bumpkin with outdated ideas. His dismissal of women would be his undoing, one way or another.

She saw, in a disconnected way, that he was nearing climax. He was so completely abandoned to his own pleasure that he had not thought of hers once. So she could also add 'selfishness' to her list of things she disliked about the man.

Anne made the requisite noises to encourage him over the finish line, and could not believe how incredibly bored she felt. Sex had always been something of a forbidden fruit for her, its allure and pleasure often leading her down a dangerous path, so much did she enjoy it. 

For Anne to have less-than-interested feelings when it came to sex, extending even further than her lacklustre experiences with Armand, then this young man was lacking indeed. A man who cared not one bit whether the woman was enjoying herself, or indeed was even aware that a woman should be enjoying herself, was not a man she was eager to experience again.

Panting against her shoulder, she could feel d'Artagnan smile against it. She counted a few moments before she brought up the true meaning of these events again.

"Have you already arranged the encounter between yourself and de Wardes?" she whispered to him.

He pushed himself up onto his elbows, smiling down at her.

"It's too late at night to be thinking of duels and sword thrusts, my dear," he said, stroking her hair.

Anne rebelled against the revulsion she had for this man and stared up at him.

"What do you mean?" she asked, a terror building in her that she had performed this action with no result. "Did you or did you not make these plans? It was agreed upon before you left here!"

"Come now, my love," he said. "Aren't there other, more pleasant things we could be discussing?"

But Anne was not having any of it. She shoved him away.

"Perhaps you could pardon de Wardes," d'Artagnan suggested with a smile. "After all, he has lost you now."

"I shall never pardon the man who behaved so infamously toward me!" said Anne. She sat up and looked at him over her shoulder. "Are you afraid, Monsieur d'Artagnan?"

This seemed to prick his self-love.

"You cannot think so, dear love!" he exclaimed. "But now, suppose this poor Comte de Wardes were less guilty than you think him?"

"At all events," said Anne, in a stern voice, "he has deceived me, and from the moment he deceived me, he merited death."

"He shall die, then, since you condemn him!" said d'Artagnan, with such honesty that Anne started to feel sure of her man again.

This time, when he drew her to him, she made no resistance at all.

***

The light of dawn came through the blinds, illuminating Anne's beautiful skin. 

The night had seemed interminable to her, but she couldn't kick him out of her bed and her apartments without him growing suspicious. d'Artagnan, for his part, seemed thrilled to be there, totally occupied by the fantastic sex he thought he was experiencing.

Perhaps it was fantastic, for him.

"I'm sorry, my love, I must go," he said, and slid out of bed as he prepared to take his leave of her.

"Remember your promise regarding de Wardes," Anne said, feeling that it was finally time to remind him.

"I am quite ready," said d'Artagnan. "But in the first place, I should like to be certain of one thing."

"And what is that?" asked Anne.

"That is, whether you really love me?"

"I have given you proof of that, it seems to me."

"And I am yours, body and soul!"

"Thanks, my brave lover; but as you are satisfied of my love, you must, in your turn, satisfy me of yours. Is it not so?"

Anne looked up at him. What a loathsome little man, she thought.

"Certainly," he said. "But if you love me as much as you say, do you not entertain a little fear on my account?"

"What have I to fear?"

"Why, that I may be dangerously wounded--killed even."

That's exactly the plan, Anne thought.

"Impossible!" she cried. "You are such a valiant man, and such an expert swordsman."

"You would not, then, prefer a method which would equally avenge you while rendering the combat useless?"

Anne stared at him, uncomprehending, in the morning sunlight.

"Really," she said, "I believe you now begin to hesitate."

"No, I do not hesitate; but I really pity this poor Comte de Wardes, since you have ceased to love him. I think that a man must be so severely punished by the loss of your love that he stands in need of no other chastisement."

"Who told you that I loved him?" snapped Anne, wondering how this Gascon could know her so well, even though she had been circumspect in all of their meetings.

"At least, I am now at liberty to believe, without too much fatuity, that you love another," said d'Artagnan in a sweet voice that made Anne want to hit him. For the first time in a while, she longed for a sword, in order to test her own skill against that of one whose sword-thrusts had made him famous. "And I repeat that I am really interested for the count."

"You?" asked Anne, wondering at the strange emphasis he had placed on the word I.

"Yes, I."

"And why you?" 

"Because I alone know --"

Anne's heart began to beat rapidly. She sensed something breaching in the darkness, a revelation come on the tide.

"What?" she asked, fearing the answer, without any idea what it might be.

"That he is far from being, or rather having been, so guilty toward you as he appears."

"Indeed!" said Anne, holding on to her stern anger as a lifeline, to cover the anxiety that threatened to overtake her. "Explain yourself, for I really cannot tell what you mean."

Then, d'Artagnan returned to bed and embraced her, looking into her eyes searchingly.

He could not have terrified her more if he had threatened her outright.

"Yes, I am a man of honour," he said, in a determined voice. "and since your love is mine, and I am satisfied I possess it--for I do possess it, do I not?"

"Entirely," said Anne, wanting to reach the end of this farce. "Go on."

"Well, I feel as if transformed--a confession weighs on my mind."

"A confession!"

"If I had the least doubt of your love I would not make it, but you love me, my beautiful mistress, do you not?"

"Without doubt."

"Then if through excess of love I have rendered myself culpable toward you, you will pardon me?"

"Perhaps."

d'Artagnan tried to kiss her, but Anne would not allow it. 

"This confession," she demanded. "What is this confession?"

"You gave de Wardes a meeting on Thursday last in this very room, did you not?"

Anne's jaw dropped. How on earth could he know that?!

"No, no!" she protested. "It is not true."

d'Artagnan smiled. Anne wanted to punch him in the teeth.

"Do not lie, my angel," he said. "That would be useless."

"What do you mean? Speak! You kill me."

"Be satisfied; you are not guilty toward me, and I have already pardoned you."

"What next? what next?"

"De Wardes cannot boast of anything."

"How is that? You told me yourself that that ring--"

"That ring I have! The Comte de Wardes of Thursday and the d’Artagnan of today are the same person."

 

 

Chapter Text

As d'Artagnan leaned in for yet another embrace, thinking for some reason that such a thing would be accepted after a confession like that, Anne finally gave in to her true desires and punched d'Artagnan as hard as she could in the chest. It was just as satisfying as she had hoped, and she felt consumed by the fires of her fury.

The years of working on the farms, swordfighting, and heavy lifting paid off, as he reeled and coughed, staring at her in shock. Whether it was because a woman had hit him, or a woman had hit him so hard, she wasn't certain.

She leapt out of bed and away from him, only to be drawn back by him, as he had grabbed a fistful of the fine India linen that made up her nightdress. The fabric tore, and Anne cried out before she could stop herself.

"Great God!" she heard d'Artagnan cry, and she suddenly knew he had seen it.

The fleur-de-lys she had taken such pains to have hidden from everyone, from Ketty, even from Rochefort and Richelieu - there, on her shoulder, like an accusation.

And d'Artagnan had seen it all.

He let go of her dress, but stayed stock-still, as if frozen into place by such horror.

Anne turned on him. Her fury and rage were released in a flood.

"Ah, wretch!" she shouted. "you have basely betrayed me, and still more, you have my secret! You shall die."

 She went to the little case on her dresser where her dagger had been concealed, withdrew it, and threw herself upon d'Artagnan. His bald terror of her was evident, as he clearly had not expected Anne's beautiful and innocent looks to conceal the warrior beneath. He was uniquely horrified by her expressions of fury, and her wildness.

d'Artagnan backed into a corner of the bedroom as she came toward him, and she saw his hand accidentally brush against the hilt of his sword. He drew it, and held the point toward her neck and face, alternating it. She had never seen a man so frightened before, or so unwilling to engage in combat, despite his brave reputation.

She tried to grab the sword with her bare hands, so far gone was she. Wild thrusts of her poniard never quite seemed to find their target, which only stoked her fury more. If d'Artagnan had abandoned himself to a passion of a sexual nature, Anne now abandoned herself to a passion of a different kind.

She was only vaguely aware that she was screaming. She put herself behind the bedstead to use as a shield from d'Artagnan's blade.

Seeing there was now something between them, d'Artagnan's terror turned suddenly to raillery.

"Well, beautiful lady, very well," he said, "but, pardieu, if you don’t calm yourself, I will design a second FLEUR-DE-LIS upon one of those pretty cheeks!"

Anne roared with anger. She knew he was a base and cruel man, but this was too much and went too far.

"Scoundrel!" Anne howled. "Infamous scoundrel!"

She leapt from behind the bedstead as d'Artagnan kept overturning the furniture to keep her away from him, until he was backed up against the partition separating her bedroom from Ketty's chambers.

Now I shall have him, she thought, there's nowhere else to go.

Suddenly, the partition opened, and d'Artagnan threw himself into the available opening.

At the last moment, Anne locked eyes with Ketty, before she slammed the door closed and slid the locks home on the other side.

Screaming herself hoarse at the double betrayal, Anne threw herself bodily into the door. She pulled at it, and had Ketty not locked it quickly, Anne's impressive strength and the fire of her anger would have torn the door from its hinges. 

As it was, the door stayed firmly closed, and Anne began to stab her poniard into it like a madwoman. 

She had known of Ketty's love of d'Artagnan, and had selfishly wanted to hurt her because she knew that traitorous acts lie in that direction. Never had she imagined that Ketty was already long lost to d'Artagnan, never had she thought that the young Gascon could be so indifferent to a woman's heart that he would engage in lovemaking with the both of them - and in Ketty's earshot! Anne was well aware that sound travelled easily through the walls. 

And that Ketty had betrayed her, that Ketty was still on the side of the man who had treated them both so poorly, made her swear to herself she should never have a lady's maid again. 

Anne was screaming threats and horrible, incoherent things through the door, as she kept stabbing it with her poniard. Little by little, her wits returned to her, and she left off stabbing at the door itself to open the window and lean out of the casement.

She rang the bell as loud and as hard as she could.

"Don't let him escape!!!" she howled down at the porter, but she saw d'Artagnan, dressed in women's clothing, dart out of the building and disappear down the street.

Anne shook her fist at his retreating figure, and then, overcome by everything that had happened, the depth of multiple betrayals, and a gulf that yawned beneath her feet chanting alone, alone, she succumbed to exhaustion and sank down to the floor, burying her face in her hands.

***

There was a knock at the door.

Anne hoped it was not Monsieur Bonacieux, who had paid a few visits to her over the last several weeks. He was entirely ignorant that Rochefort had his wife, but knew he had been detained on some mission. Since he normally reported to Rochefort, Anne was the next most logical choice, so he occasionally showed up to debrief her on recent developments.

Tears in her eyes, utterly destroyed, Anne was not in the mood for a visit from yet another man who had treated a woman infamously. Although she herself was not on the side of the queen, nor of Madame Bonacieux, she had begun to entertain a sort of fellow-feeling for other women out in the world, whose fates were decided entirely by the machinations of men.

"Anne?" called a voice, as heavy footsteps approached. Then, much softer:

"Anne?"

She looked up, and couldn't seem to stop the tears streaming down her cheeks. 

She was relieved to recognise the long scar, the stern and handsome visage of her old friend, Rochefort, who stood before her with a bouquet of flowers clutched in his hand.

"Caesar," she cried, her entire body flooding with relief, as she stood with great effort, and he gathered her up in his arms.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

"Anne, Anne, what's wrong?"

Rochefort soothed her as he he held her, the flowers left forgotten on the floor.

She looked up at him with wide blue eyes red with weeping.

And she told him.

***

Three hours later, Anne was sitting on the settee and watching as Rochefort walked back and forth across the quiet apartment.

It was strangely silent without Ketty there, puttering around in the background. Anne felt that terrible chasm of alone, alone, opening up before her again.

"Well," said Rochefort, interrupting her thoughts. "It's obvious. Something must be done."

"And will you avenge me?" sniffled Anne.

"I know much better than that," he said. "No. I shall help you to avenge yourself."

Anne questioned him with her eyes, puzzled. He sat down beside her on the settee, at a respectful distance.

"Milady, you have been cruelly wronged," he said. "And yet, I sense that any open knowledge of this wrongdoing would only serve to hurt you further. I've known you for a very long time, and that if vengeance is what you seek, then you must find it on your own, for your own sanity. If you allow me, or Richelieu, to supervise things, then I fear you shall never forgive either of us. I am your friend and I wish to remain so."

He sighed heavily.

"Kidnapping Madame Bonacieux weighs heavily on my conscience," he confessed. "She was awaiting d'Artagnan with a dinner on the top floor of a building, did I ever tell you that? The violence employed in removing her from the situation was regrettable. Sometimes I am not sure of my actions, Milady, but I am certain that this young d'Artagnan has behaved infamously toward all of you. He is not a gentleman, despite his name and family history."

Rochefort turned to her.

"When Madame Bonacieux escaped the first time, I was relieved," he said. "The second time, I think she was taken away by some emissary of the queen's. I don't know where she might be now, only that she has been taken somewhere safe. I don't know if d'Artagnan will ever find her again."

"He claims to love her," said Anne, finally managing to join in the conversation. "I don't know if such a man is capable of love. Or, at least, whether he understands that lust and love are different things entirely."

"I will offer my assistance to you in this endeavour," said Rochefort. "I brought a beautiful chestnut horse as a gift for you, and an apology for my long absence. I also offer you two hired assassins."

"And should these assassins fail in their duty?" asked Anne. "What then?"

Rochefort shrugged.

"Well, you have other resources at your disposal, do you not?" he asked. "That little leatherbound journal in which you chronicled the life and times of Catherine de' Medici, for example?"

Anne nodded. She hadn't thought much about her education in poisoning for a long time, despite a conservatory filled with poisonous plants and a ring in which was secreted instant death should she be taken by the enemy.

"I thank you for these gifts, Caesar," she said.

"If you will take my advice, please get some rest before resuming your pursuit of this gentleman," Rochefort advised. 

"No, no," she said. "I shall begin right away."

"Milady, heed my words," said Rochefort sternly. "Richelieu wishes to bring the young man over to our side. And he does rightly - not because d'Artagnan is a good man, but because he is dangerous, and safer on our side than the other. The last thing you want to do is pursue this man in your anger. Better to wait until your passions have cooled."

Anne nodded, and took out her handkerchief to wipe her eyes.

"As always, you are calm and collected, Caesar," she said. "It is as though you have never known passion. Perhaps it is true, and a failing of women, that we cannot keep rein on our emotions."

"Oh, no," said Rochefort, who stood, and then leaned over to kiss her forehead like a beloved brother. "If I should find him beneath my hands, I should wring his neck for you. Passions belong to men and women alike, Anne. However, this type of perfidy is almost always the province of men."

Despite herself, Anne smiled up at him. She took his hand.

"I thank you, Caesar," she said. "For your friendship, and for the gifts you have offered me."

He smiled back.

"And if it were not for your friendship, I should feel very alone in the world," he said. "I know you have no reason to believe it, Milady, but you will always have my friendship and adoration. I will never betray you, not as long as I live."

"Thank you," she murmured, and as he took his leave of her, she leaned back against the settee and fell asleep right then and there, in her exhaustion and sadness.

***

Rochefort's advice turned out to be good. When Anne woke again, she felt rested and ready to pursue her plans. Avenging herself upon d'Artagnan became an all-consuming passion. Her anger, built over a lifetime of ill-treatment by men, had found an outlet in this devious Gascon.

She had found a letter awaiting her when she woke. It was from Rochefort.

My dearest Milady, it read, I go to speak on your behalf to Richelieu, with papers I have compiled over time with regards to our enemy. Do not concern yourself with regards to his Eminence, as I will not name the complainant, only the complaint, and will provide him with several damning details from various sources. I hope to be of some little assistance to you in this way. If I may offer you even a little advice, it is to remember that a single sword-thrust may not always get your man, but a pincer movement is used by armies for a reason. Set fallback plans into motion along with your main objective, and in this way, you will be more certain of victory. I take my leave of you for now, but I hope to see you again in better times than these. As always, your friend, and affectionate COMTE CHARLES CAESAR DE ROCHEFORT.

Anne had held this letter to her heart as if it had been from a lover. She had folded it and placed it among her other most precious belongings, in the tired old money-bag, where her fingers accidentally caressed that long-ago letter from Therese.

For a moment, she was among fields of lavender. For a moment, she had only ever known Therese's friendship and love, unknown and forgotten, somewhere in the countryside of France in green grasses, under a soft and friendly sun.

Anne sighed. Her choice had been made long ago. 

She left the money-bag where she had found it, and went outside to mount the chestnut horse Rochefort had left her. Memories of lavender fields and a woman with eyebrows that looked painted by the masters faded into nothingness as she rode to meet the assassins at the agreed-upon location.

***

She saw, at a distance, d'Artagnan in his finery, preparing for battle. 

The two men she had hired followed where her accusing finger had pointed, and when asked for confirmation, she gave it readily enough.

The assassins set out. Anne turned away.

She had never learned their names. She didn't need to. She no longer thought of their destination, a battlefield, or whether they would come out of it alive.

She only cared that d'Artagnan did not survive.

Anne rode her chestnut horse back to her apartments, where she planned to put her conservatory garden to good use. There were other ways to kill a man that didn't take a bullet, and were surer by far than the blade.

 

Chapter Text

Since you have lost sight of that woman and she is now in safety in the convent, which you should never have allowed her to reach, try, at least, not to miss the man. If you do, you know that my hand stretches far, and that you shall pay very dearly for the hundred louis you have from me.

This formed the content of the letter that Anne had written for her assassins. She felt it only prudent to use Rochefort's gift to avenge his loss of Madame Bonacieux as well. Besides, having d'Artagnan's supposed 'one true love' brought back to Anne's apartments, where she planned on killing her, was the ultimate vengeance upon the Gascon. After all, death is the end of all things. Why kill the Gascon when she could cause him to suffer first? Anne was quite mad with it all, and the injustice burned within her, a white-hot fury.

Anne's confidence in these would-be assassins and kidnappers was seriously low, however, and that was the reason she was currently absorbed in crushing plants with a mortar and pestle, the burning candlelight filling the air with a singular scent.

She no longer trusted anyone but herself.

***

Once finished, the tendrils of an early dawn starting to cause the green of the plants in the conservatory to glow with light, Anne turned to the twelve bottles of Anjou wine she had ordered.

She poured the substance into them and corked the bottles afterward. Shaking them one by one, the substance disappeared into the swirled liquid as if it had never been there.

"Now," she said to herself, "how to convince the idiot to drink it?"

She stared at the bottles for a moment.

"Didn't I hear it said that the Musketeers and the Guards are at separate parts of the campaign?" she mused to herself. "Good. I shall send these to him as if they came from his friends."

She set to writing out a little note to accompany the wine:

M d’Artagnan,

MM Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, after having had an entertainment at my house and enjoying themselves very much, created such a disturbance that the provost of the castle, a rigid man, has ordered them to be confined for some days; but I accomplish the order they have given me by forwarding to you a dozen bottles of my Anjou wine, with which they are much pleased. They are desirous that you should drink to their health in their favorite wine. I have done this, and am, monsieur, with great respect,

Your very humble and obedient servant,

Godeau, Purveyor of the Musketeers

Anne stood back and surveyed her handiwork with a smile.

Then she rang the bell, and asked for the bottles to be relayed to the postman, without telling him from whom they had come, only that it had come from Villeroy.

And now, she only had to wait.

***

Anne awaited anxiously any news of the siege of La Rochelle. She was disappointed to hear that none of her projects had succeeded, and the poison wine she had sent only managed to kill one of the would-be assassins, Brisemont, who had cravenly crossed to the other side when d'Artagnan had spared his life.

"These men," she said, "are worthless, and know no loyalty on this earth or any other."

She was further concerned when she heard about the repeated attacks on the person of the Cardinal. His Eminence, for all his strength and power, was really hated by both the king and the queen. Anne could see a future in which Richelieu no longer existed, and therefore, neither would his protection. Obedient though the king was to the Cardinal's direction, he also resented the iron control the man held over the nation. The king wanted little part in the active running of things, but was still jealous, much as he was jealous of Anne of Austria's love affairs without having any interest in the queen himself. These mean-spirited characters vied against each other for control of the kingdom, with Anne in the middle as an unwilling chess-piece used by both of them.

Anne had noticed the queen's diamond ring glinting from d'Artagnan's finger. She would have bet all the money she had on his never having seen the queen's face, despite everything he had done for her. The Cardinal, on the other hand, most likely offered him money and a commission. She had heard that the three Inseparables and d'Artagnan were often poor and in want of such simple things as meals. The only reason she could see d'Artagnan turning down a commission from the Cardinal was a false sense of honour and loyalty.

Foolishness, she thought. Honour and loyalty does not put bread on the table. Especially when these august personages do not care one whit for the lives or fates of those they use. Better to take a commission from the Cardinal who has at least met him face-to-face and promised him that which one can do anything: money, and power.

She shook her head. Anne knew the choice she had made, and it was one that gave no consideration to the lie of honour, which she considered a fairytale told by the rich and powerful to the poor and stupid to keep them in line and to keep them servile. She detested such things, and as a woman who had known privation, she could not afford such a luxury as honour.

Honour, she felt, was one of the most expensive things of all.

***

Some time later, Anne was surprised when the name of the Comte de Rochefort was announced at her door.

"Caesar!" she exclaimed, running to him while holding a bunch of hemlock in one arm. "What brings you here?"

Rochefort kissed her cheeks while staying well away from the hemlock, perhaps out of a general sense of self-preservation, for the plant could do nothing to him in its current form.

"I come to relieve you of the doldrums, Milady," he said, smiling.

She smiled back at him.

"And who told you I was in the doldrums?" she asked. He shrugged.

"I know you to be a woman of action," he said. "I felt that you must be bored here, and would rather take a more active role in events."

"As always, Caesar, you have read to the bottom of my very soul," said Anne. "Whither are we going?"

"The siege of La Rochelle," he said.

"La Rochelle!" she said. "Does the Cardinal call us there?"

"Yes," Rochefort confirmed. "And we have been given but little time to arrive there, so make haste. We are to meet him at the inn of the Red Dovecot on the morrow."

"Very well," she said, rushing to put her armful of plants down on her workbench. "Let me get my wrap, and a few other things besides."

"Hurry," said Rochefort. "I will be waiting outside in the carriage."

Anne nodded, and then went to get her things.

Ten minutes later, she had climbed into the carriage, which started off in the direction of La Rochelle.

 

Chapter Text

The inn of the Red Dovecot was not one of the more respectable establishments Anne had visited. She did not like the way the men were looking at her there. Rochefort was with her, it was true, but even warriors as formidable as the two of them could not triumph over twenty men.

The landlord himself gave Anne a once-over she didn't like. There was something about war that made men act like savages, as if they had never seen a woman and may never see one again. Anne was well-aware of her innocent beauty and the dangers it posed for her. She had always been so dangerous beneath the beauty that ran only skin-deep that she did not usually fear such things. 

Now, however, she wasn't certain if she would succeed in her endeavours. She understood, from the undercurrent in the room, that some of the men plotted to force her door - even with Rochefort present.

"Richelieu will arrive soon enough," said Rochefort. "For now, barricade the door."

He helped Anne to move some of the furniture in front of the door. They could hear the crowd coming closer.

Suddenly, there was an almighty row. They could hear things breaking out there, swords clashing, and the shouts of men in pain.

Rochefort and Anne exchanged glances. This was unexpected. 

The sounds of the men died away and the hallway was silent.

"Perhaps there were some gentlemen in the bar?" hazarded Anne.

"Odd place to find gentlemen," said Rochefort. 

"I'll take it," said Anne. 

***

Some time later, a knock came at the shutter of the window. Rochefort opened it immediately.

"Good evening, Your Eminence," Rochefort said to the man enveloped in a cloak outside the window. "I shall retire. Please give us some time to remove the furniture we have barricaded against the door. The men in this inn are not to be trusted, as they wished to force the door earlier this evening."

"Then what I have been told is true," said Richelieu. "Accept my apologies for arranging this as our meeting place."

"A moment, Your Eminence," said Anne.

They worked to remove the furniture they had set up, and Rochefort went out as Anne fastened the shutter again. She sat down by the stove in her room, which communicated with others on the ground floor in order to warm the building.

A few moments later, there was a soft knock at the door. Anne opened it.

Cardinal Richelieu stood before her, and she stood aside to let him in before closing the door after him and securing it with the lock.

***

"Listen, Milady," said Richelieu. "The affair is important. Sit down, and let us talk it over."

Anne resumed her seat near the stovepipe.

"I listen to Your Eminence with the greatest attention," she said.

"A small vessel with an English crew, whose captain is on my side, awaits you at the mouth of Charente, at Fort La Pointe," said the cardinal. "He will set sail tomorrow morning."

"I must go there tonight?" asked Anne.

"Instantly! That is to say, when you have received my instructions. Two men, whom you will find at the door on going out, will serve you as escort. You will allow me to leave first; then, after half an hour, you can go away in your turn."

"Yes, monseigneur. Now let us return to the mission with which you wish to charge me; and as I desire to continue to merit the confidence of your Eminence, deign to unfold it to me in terms clear and precise, that I may not commit an error."

Richelieu was silent for a long time. Anne started to wonder if this commission was something he himself feared. Either way, she knew that she would need to commit everything he said to memory. Anything else would compromise their mission, and after such a string of failures due to the intercession of men like d'Artagnan, everything would need to be done by spoken word alone. There was too much risk involved in any alternative.

"You will go to London," said the cardinal. "When you reach London, seek out Buckingham."

"I must beg your Eminence to observe," she replied, "that since the affair of the diamond studs, about which the duke always suspected me, his Grace distrusts me."

"Well, this time," said the cardinal, "it is not necessary to steal his confidence, but to present yourself frankly and loyally as a negotiator."

"Frankly and loyally," Anne repeated, with a smile that indicated the exact opposite.

"Yes, frankly and loyally," pursued the cardinal. "All this negotiation must be carried on openly."

"I will follow your Eminence’s instructions to the letter. I only wait till you give them."

"You will go to Buckingham in my behalf, and you will tell him I am acquainted with all the preparations he has made; but that they give me no uneasiness, since at the first step he takes I will ruin the queen."

"Will he believe that your Eminence is in a position to accomplish the threat thus made?"

"Yes; for I have the proofs."

"I must be able to present these proofs for his appreciation."

"Without doubt. And you will tell him I will publish the report of Bois-Robert and the Marquis de Beautru, upon the interview which the duke had at the residence of Madame the Constable with the queen on the evening Madame the Constable gave a masquerade. You will tell him, in order that he may not doubt, that he came there in the costume of the Great Mogul, which the Chevalier de Guise was to have worn, and that he purchased this exchange for the sum of three thousand pistoles."

"Well, monseigneur?"

"All the details of his coming into and going out of the palace--on the night when he introduced himself in the character of an Italian fortune teller--you will tell him, that he may not doubt the correctness of my information; that he had under his cloak a large white robe dotted with black tears, death’s heads, and crossbones--for in case of a surprise, he was to pass for the phantom of the White Lady who, as all the world knows, appears at the Louvre every time any great event is impending."

"Is that all, monseigneur?"

"Tell him also that I am acquainted with all the details of the adventure at Amiens; that I will have a little romance made of it, wittily turned, with a plan of the garden and portraits of the principal actors in that nocturnal romance."

"I will tell him that."

"Tell him further that I hold Montague in my power; that Montague is in the Bastille; that no letters were found upon him, it is true, but that torture may make him tell much of what he knows, and even what he does not know."

"Exactly."

"Then add that his Grace has, in the precipitation with which he quit the Isle of Re, forgotten and left behind him in his lodging a certain letter from Madame de Chevreuse which singularly compromises the queen, inasmuch as it proves not only that her Majesty can love the enemies of the king but that she can conspire with the enemies of France. You recollect perfectly all I have told you, do you not?"

"Your Eminence will judge: the ball of Madame the Constable; the night at the Louvre; the evening at Amiens; the arrest of Montague; the letter of Madame de Chevreuse."

"That's it," said the cardinal. "That's it. You have an excellent memory, Milady."

"But, if, in spite of all these reasons, the duke does not give way and continues to menace France?"

"The duke is in love to madness, or rather to folly," said the cardinal, his voice dripping with anger. "Like the ancient paladins, he has only undertaken this war to obtain a look from his lady love. If he becomes certain that this war will cost the honor, and perhaps the liberty, of the lady of his thoughts, as he says, I will answer for it he will look twice."

"And yet, if he persists?" asked Anne, pursuing the same line of enquiry.

"If he persists?" repeated the cardinal. "That is not probable."

"It is possible," Anne pointed out.

"If he persists --" here the cardinal paused, and then continued, "If he persists--well, then I shall hope for one of those events which change the destinies of states."

"If your Eminence would quote to me some one of these events in history," said Anne, "perhaps I should partake of your confidence as to the future."

"Well, here, for example," said Richelieu. "when, in 1610, for a cause similar to that which moves the duke, King Henry IV, of glorious memory, was about, at the same time, to invade Flanders and Italy, in order to attack Austria on both sides. Well, did there not happen an event which saved Austria? Why should not the king of France have the same chance as the emperor?"

"Your Eminence means, I presume, the knife stab in the Rue de la Feronnerie?"

"Precisely."

"Does not your Eminence fear that the punishment inflicted upon Ravaillac may deter anyone who might entertain the idea of imitating him?"

"There will be, in all times and in all countries, particularly if religious divisions exist in those countries, fanatics who ask nothing better than to become martyrs. Ay, and observe--it just occurs to me that the Puritans are furious against Buckingham, and their preachers designate him as the Antichrist."

"Well?" said Anne.

"Well," continued the cardinal, "the only thing to be sought for at this moment is some woman, handsome, young, and clever, who has cause of quarrel with the duke. The duke has had many affairs of gallantry; and if he has fostered his amours by promises of eternal constancy, he must likewise have sown the seeds of hatred by his eternal infidelities."

"No doubt," said Anne, detached, "such a woman could be found."

"Well, such a woman, who would place the knife of Jacques Clement or of Ravaillac in the hands of a fanatic, would save France."

"Yes; but she would then be the accomplice of an assassination."

"Were the accomplices of Ravaillac or of Jacques Clement ever known?"

"No; for perhaps they were too high-placed for anyone to dare look for them where they were. The Palace of Justice would not be burned down for everybody, monseigneur."

"You think, then, that the fire at the Palace of Justice was not caused by chance?" enquired Richelieu, though the subject seemed of little interest to him.

"I, monseigneur?" said Anne loftily. "I think nothing; I quote a fact, that is all. Only I say that if I were named Madame de Montpensier, or the Queen Marie de Medicis, I should use less precautions than I take, being simply called Milady Clarik."

"That is fair," said Richelieu. "What do you require, then?"

"I require an order which would ratify beforehand all that I should think proper to do for the greatest good of France."

"But in the first place, this woman I have described must be found who is desirous of avenging herself upon the duke."

"She is found," said Anne.

"Then the miserable fanatic must be found who will serve as an instrument of God’s justice."

"He will be found."

"Well," said the cardinal, "then it will be time to claim the order which you just now required."

"Your Eminence is right," said Anne. "and I have been wrong in seeing in the mission with which you honor me anything but that which it really is--that is, to announce to his Grace, on the part of your Eminence, that you are acquainted with the different disguises by means of which he succeeded in approaching the queen during the fete given by Madame the Constable; that you have proofs of the interview granted at the Louvre by the queen to a certain Italian astrologer who was no other than the Duke of Buckingham; that you have ordered a little romance of a satirical nature to be written upon the adventures of Amiens, with a plan of the gardens in which those adventures took place, and portraits of the actors who figured in them; that Montague is in the Bastille, and that the torture may make him say things he remembers, and even things he has forgotten; that you possess a certain letter from Madame de Chevreuse, found in his Grace’s lodging, which singularly compromises not only her who wrote it, but her in whose name it was written. Then, if he persists, notwithstanding all this--as that is, as I have said, the limit of my mission--I shall have nothing to do but to pray God to work a miracle for the salvation of France. That is it, is it not, monseigneur, and I shall have nothing else to do?"

"That is it," said the cardinal.

"And now," said Anne, "now that I have received the instructions of your Eminence as concerns your enemies, Monseigneur will permit me to say a few words to him of mine?"

"Have you enemies, then?" asked Richelieu.

"Yes, monseigneur, enemies against whom you owe me all your support, for I made them by serving your Eminence."

"Who are they?" he asked.

"In the first place, there is a little intrigante named Bonacieux."

"She is in the prison of Nantes."

"That is to say, she was there," said Anne, "“but the queen has obtained an order from the king by means of which she has been conveyed to a convent.”

"Which convent?" asked the duke.

"I don’t know; the secret has been well kept."

"But I will know!"

"And your Eminence will tell me in what convent that woman is?"

"I can see nothing inconvenient in that," said the cardinal.

"Well, now I have an enemy much more to be dreaded by me than this little Madame Bonacieux."

"Who is that?"

"Her lover."

"What is his name?"

"Oh, your Eminence knows him well," said Anne angrily. "He is the evil genius of both of us. It is he who in an encounter with your Eminence’s Guards decided the victory in favor of the king’s Musketeers; it is he who gave three desperate wounds to de Wardes, your emissary, and who caused the affair of the diamond studs to fail; it is he who, knowing it was I who had Madame Bonacieux carried off, has sworn my death."

"Ah, ah!" said Richelieu. "I know of whom you speak."

"I mean that miserable d'Artagnan."

Chapter Text

"He is a bold fellow," said the cardinal.

"And it is exactly because he is a bold fellow that he is the more to be feared."

"I must have a proof of his connection with Buckingham."

"A proof?” cried Anne. “I will have ten."

"Well, then, it becomes the simplest thing in the world; get me that proof, and I will send him to the Bastille."

"So far good, monseigneur; but afterwards?"

"When once in the Bastille, there is no afterward!" said the cardinal, in a low voice. 

"Ah, pardieu!" continued he, "if it were as easy for me to get rid of my enemy as it is easy to get rid of yours, and if it were against such people you require impunity--"

"Monseigneur," replied Anne, "a fair exchange. Life for life, man for man; give me one, I will give you the other."

"I don’t know what you mean, nor do I even desire to know what you mean," replied the cardinal, "but I wish to please you, and see nothing out of the way in giving you what you demand with respect to so infamous a creature--the more so as you tell me this d’Artagnan is a libertine, a duelist, and a traitor."

"An infamous scoundrel, monseigneur, a scoundrel!"

"Give me paper, a quill, and some ink, then," said the cardinal.

"Here they are, monseigneur."

The cardinal wrote on the paper he was given, then handed it to Anne. It read:

Dec. 3, 1627

It is by my order and for the good of the state that the bearer of this has done what he has done.

RICHELIEU

"Does that satisfy you?" Richelieu asked. Anne nodded.

"I thank you, Your Eminence," she said. 

"Now I must take my leave of you," he said. "There is much still to be done. I wish you the best of luck in your mission."

"And I wish you the best of luck in undertaking this war, for yourself and for France," Anne replied.

The cardinal bowed deeply, and went out, this time leaving the door open. It did not escape Anne's attention that the man was frightened of her, and that precipitated his departure.

Good, she thought. And well he should be.

She read, again, the missive in her hand, and smiled.

***

Anne rose as the appointed time for her own departure approached. She placed her hat on her head, and was about to put her hand on her money-bag when she heard the door close behind her and the locks slide home with a quiet snick. 

Thinking it must have been the wind, she turned around.

There was a man standing there, completely enveloped in a cloak, with his hat pulled down over his face. Anne stifled a shout.

"Who are you, and what do you want?" she demanded.

"Humph," mumbled the figure. "It is certainly she!"

The man let his cloak fall.

This time, Anne screamed.

Armand! Armand! You live?! But how?

"Do you know me, madame?" he demanded.

Anne stepped toward him, drawn by the love she still held in her heart for him, and then recoiled from him, remembering his actions toward her.

"So far, so good," he said. "I see that you know me."

"The Comte de la Fere!" whispered Anne, finally finding her voice. She drew away from him as far as she could, until her back hit the wall.

"Yes, Milady," said Armand, in a sardonic tone of voice. "The Comte de la Fere in person, who comes expressly from the other world to have the pleasure of paying you a visit. Sit down, madame, and let us talk, as the cardinal said."

Anne sat down, too stupefied and frightened to do otherwise.

"You are certainly a demon sent upon the earth!" said Armand. "Your power is great, I know; but you also know that with the help of God men have often conquered the most terrible demons. You have once before thrown yourself in my path. I thought I had crushed you, madame; but either I was deceived or hell has resuscitated you!"

Anne stared at the floor and was unable to suppress a groan of fury and horror.

I? I, a demon? I, from hell? And you, a man who hanged an innocent woman!

"Yes, hell has resuscitated you," Armand went on, warming to his subject. "Hell has made you rich, hell has given you another name, hell has almost made you another face; but it has neither effaced the stains from your soul nor the brand from your body."

It was not hell! It was you, YOU! YOU who have made me another face, and another voice, from the burn of your damnable rope!

Anne rose suddenly, her fury getting the better of her. A voice within her told her to stop, to wait, to live another day, to escape this terrifying shade in any way she could, but her indignance animated her body. Her eyes flashed fire.

Armand did not rise.

"You believed me to be dead, did you not, as I believed you to be? And the name of Athos as well concealed the Comte de la Fere, as the name Milady Clarik concealed Anne de Breuil. Was it not so you were called when your honored brother married us? Our position is truly a strange one,” continued Armand, laughing. "We have only lived up to the present time because we believed each other dead, and because a remembrance is less oppressive than a living creature, though a remembrance is sometimes devouring."

"But," said Anne, in a hollow voice, as sadness and grief threatened to overtake her fury, "what brings you back to me, and what do you want with me?"

"I wish to tell you that though remaining invisible to your eyes, I have not lost sight of you."

"You know what I have done?"

"I can relate to you, day by day, your actions from your entrance to the service of the cardinal to this evening."

Anne smiled; she highly doubted this could be possible, as she hadn't even been aware he still lived. How could he know what she had done?

"Listen! It was you who cut off the two diamond studs from the shoulder of the Duke of Buckingham; it was you had the Madame Bonacieux carried off; it was you who, in love with de Wardes and thinking to pass the night with him, opened the door to Monsieur d’Artagnan; it was you who, believing that de Wardes had deceived you, wished to have him killed by his rival; it was you who, when this rival had discovered your infamous secret, wished to have him killed in his turn by two assassins, whom you sent in pursuit of him; it was you who, finding the balls had missed their mark, sent poisoned wine with a forged letter, to make your victim believe that the wine came from his friends. In short, it was you who have but now in this chamber, seated in this chair I now fill, made an engagement with Cardinal Richelieu to cause the Duke of Buckingham to be assassinated, in exchange for the promise he has made you to allow you to assassinate d’Artagnan."

Some of these details were inaccurate, but enough of what he said was true. Anne shuddered in terror.

"You must be Satan!" she exclaimed.

"Perhaps," he said, apparently blind to the fact that he had just accused her of the same thing. "But at all events listen well to this. Assassinate the Duke of Buckingham, or cause him to be assassinated--I care very little about that! I don’t know him. Besides, he is an Englishman. But do not touch with the tip of your finger a single hair of d’Artagnan, who is a faithful friend whom I love and defend, or I swear to you by the head of my father the crime which you shall have endeavored to commit, or shall have committed, shall be the last."

"Monsieur d'Artagnan has cruelly insulted me," she snapped. "Monsieur d'Artagnan must die!"

"“Indeed! Is it possible to insult you, madame?” said Armand, laughing. "He has insulted you, and he shall die!"

"He shall die!" replied Anne. "She first, and he afterward."

Something strange then passed across the features of Armand. A fury, a monster, something Anne had never seen before, as she had been unconscious the first time around. The man before her, the man she had loved to distraction, was gone, and his visage replaced by that of some kind of creature out of hell.

Or perhaps, this was Armand's true face. It had been hidden from her, but not from Henri.

He slowly took out his pistol and cocked it, holding it to her forehead.

Anne stared at him in livid horror. Was he to complete the murder he had failed to accomplish, all that time ago?

"Madame,” said Armand, in a calm voice, "You will this instant deliver to me the paper the cardinal signed; or upon my soul, I will blow your brains out."

Anne began to shake. How could she have loved this man, this monster? How many women walking this earth had wondered the same, about the men they thought they loved, when the monster was revealed to them?

She recalled, in an instant, the extreme horror she had felt upon returning, for a moment, to La Fere, and the sight of the cherryblossoms falling, and her shoe, falling to the ground like a blossom in the wind. Faced again with the thing she feared most, she fought against the bile in her throat and the images, the sounds, the scent of cherryblossoms that threatened to overtake her consciousness.

"You have one second to decide," said Armand.

She saw his finger tighten against the trigger.

Trembling, she withdrew the paper from her bosom, and held it out toward the demon hiding within the man she thought she loved.

"Take it," she said, between clenched teeth. "Take it, and be accursed!"

Armand took the paper from her, and unfolded it, walking over to the lamp to assure himself of its contents. Upon reading it, he looked up at her.

Anne remained frozen in place, terrible memories assaulting her, as she used all her strength of will to remain upright, and not drowned in the images that threatened to consume her whole.

"And now," said Armand, putting his cloak on again, and replacing his hat on his head, "Now that I have drawn your teeth, viper, strike if you can."

And he unlocked the door, opened it, and walked out without turning back once.

Anne, for her part, released a cry of horror, clamped her hand over her mouth, collapsed, and was violently sick through her fingers, all over the wooden floorboards.

Curse such weakness, she thought, as she was sick. 

But at least, it wasn't in front of him.

 

Chapter Text

When she had regained some control of herself, Anne finally went out of the inn. She did not seem any different outwardly, but she had experienced the shock of a lifetime.

And so, why was she surprised? Hadn't she also cheated death?

She wondered how Armand - how Athos - had done it. 

She wondered whether he blamed all women for what had happened to him, using the name of a mountain where even female animals were not allowed to tread. 

If this was the case, she thought, he was more of an idiot than she'd ever given him credit for.

When she left the inn, she found two men waiting for her in order to conduct her to the port. She thought about finding the cardinal and telling him everything that had happened, but then she would have to tell him many other things of which she was glad he was ignorant.

Besides, after their little encounter, Anne wanted to be quit of France for a while. Lord William de Winter had left when he saw that war was imminent. Perhaps it would be best if she took some of the damp and chilly air of England, too.

She would complete her mission and return to the cardinal afterward. Once successful, she could claim vengeance for herself.

Best to work for the cardinal, she thought, for the Musketeers and d'Artagnan had seemed always in want of money. She wondered how long men would serve the king from loyalty alone. An army marches on its stomach, so she had always heard, and these men were barely fed, let alone recompensed for their troubles. She did not pity them, for they were her sworn enemies, but she thought them fools. Anne had also noticed a scintillating diamond ring on the finger of d'Artagnan, and she wondered how it came there, out of place on the hand of a poor Gascon.

Besides, many of the things they got up to amounted to treason. Anne had chosen, in her opinion, the moral option by serving the cardinal and France.

d'Artagnan's lackey, Planchet, had once come calling at her apartments. His impertinent behaviour made it necessary to rain blows upon him with a stick, as he was a man much like his master in that he did not understand the concept of consent, or the word no. She did not doubt that d'Artagnan would make this out to be one of her many failings, but she had also heard that the man himself had beaten Planchet when he first came to work for him, for the extreme sin of wanting to quit because d'Artagnan couldn't pay him.

By all accounts, these Musketeers and their friend in the Guards were, to a man, quite horrible people. And yet, Anne felt in her soul, it was she who was considered the devil, as Armand had said, uttering imprecations while treating her as if she were some kind of supernatural entity. This man who had hanged her on a tree before she had any time to explain herself, united with d'Artagnan, who had done to her what he had done, fell out very well in her opinion. She had also heard poor tidings of the other two: one, a false and faithless priest, the other, a vain and arrogant glutton whose mind was on his mistress's husband's strongbox filled with gold. All this greed, philandering, and outright casual murder in her own case and that of poor de Wardes made her think these men were villains of the highest order, if not traitors to king and country. 

As for de Wardes, she now understood he was innocent of any wrongdoing, but Anne had decided she'd had enough of men and their machinations for the time being. Perhaps, once she had been in England long enough, she would be able to return and discuss things with him. For the moment, she focused on her mission, and the men who seemed likely to thwart it at every turn.

Absorbed in these thoughts, Anne travelled with her two escorts. The journey was long and arduous, but they arrived at the port in the early morning, and Anne was aboard the vessel that sailed at nine in the morning toward England.

***

When Anne watched the French coastline recede, a madness overcame her.

It had been too long, and too many men, and too much. She resented being sent away before vengeance could be visited upon d'Artagnan, especially because it would hurt Athos as well. 

In her frustration, she gave voice to a roar as she stood on deck, and then ran to the captain to ask him to turn back to France.

"Can't do it, mademoiselle," said the captain. "Richelieu has asked me to bring you to England, and so I shall. The weather's not shaping up well and we are in a bad position between the warships of England and France. I won't risk the lives of the passengers to return."

Anne put on her most winning, innocent look.

"If it's possible," she said, "will you put me down on the coast somewhere? Anywhere. Somewhere in Brittany. Lorient or Brest."

The man favoured her with a patronising look. If Anne had been in possession of her full faculties and strength, she would have killed him with her bare hands. She had had enough of the wiles of men.

"Now, sweetheart," he said, in an ingratiating tone. "If I can, I will. But I doubt it."

So Anne was forced to pace back and forth like a lioness in a cage.

Nine days passed thus, because the captain had been correct about the bad weather, so he could not return her to the coast of France. Everyone onboard was unhappy; nine days was a very long time to be at sea on what was ostensibly a ferry.

These nine days, however, had given Anne time to think. She realised that Richelieu would be furious at her empty-handed return. Her calculations meant that regaining the coast of France would take several days, and her mission was in London. The last thing she wanted was the cardinal's anger, as she prepared to denounce others.

So she made peace with the voyage, and tried to quell the indignant, righteous fury in her heart.

***

The approach to England was spectacular. Anne saw what looked like a festival, with a gold-bedecked Buckingham in the centre. His attendants were just as resplendent as he was, and the effect on the onlookers was intense.

Although it was winter, the day was rare and sunny. English weather was always capricious, but today the sun seemed intent on illuminating Buckingham to his benefit.

Anne thought that is the man I will cause to be assassinated, and marvelled, at least, at Richelieu's trust in her. One woman against all the armies of England. When the head was cut off, the body would die with it. Judith in the camp of the Assyrians faced a similar mission.

As they lay anchor in the harbour, a little coast guard boat approached the ferry. An officer boarded, his uniform sparkling in the sun. He was there to check the occupants of the vessel and its goods before allowing it to enter the port.

Anne's heart started to beat more rapidly as the officer's investigation of the passengers reached her. One of the problems with looking as she did was the difficulty in passing unseen in the eyes of men.

The officer stood in front of her and looked at her closely. He said nothing, but then went to address a few words to the captain. Anne thought the man rather handsome, if cold, in the way of the British, all parade and no substance.

The ferry continued onward with the coast guard boat as a guide. As they arrived in the port, the fog rolled in, and darkness descended upon the waters off the English coast. Anne was brave, but the eerie atmosphere made her uneasy in spite of herself.

The officer asked to see Anne's packages. Now she was really beginning to worry. She thought it was best not to rouse further suspicion, and when the officer held out his hand to assist her in disembarkation, she gave him her most winning smile.

"Who are you, sir?" she asked. "Who has the kindness to trouble yourself so particularly on my account?"

"You may perceive, madame, by my uniform, that I am an officer in the English navy," he said.

"But is it the custom for the officers in the English navy to place themselves at the service of their female compatriots when they land in a port of Great Britain, and carry their gallantry so far as to conduct them ashore?"

"Yes, madame, it is the custom, not from gallantry but prudence, that in time of war foreigners should be conducted to particular hotels, in order that they may remain under the eye of the government until full information can be obtained about them."

He was polite. He was British. Anne was not convinced.

"But I am not a foreigner, sir,” she said, in a perfectly aristocratic English accent. "My name is Lady Clarik, and this measure--"

"This measure is general, madame; and you will seek in vain to evade it."

Anne sighed. There was nothing for it, and they were in public. Any subterfuge would have to wait. 

She accepted his hand.

“I will follow you, then, sir."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The officer had spread a large cloak on the bottom of the other boat, and Anne stepped into it. Her doubts were growing by the moment, but there was nothing she could do at present apart from precipitating herself into the dark sea.

"Row!" cried the officer, and the men rowed toward the shore.

When they disembarked, a carriage was waiting on the shore.

"Is this carriage for us?" Anne asked the officer.

"Yes, madame."

"Is the hotel far away?"

"At the other end of town."

"Very well," said Anne, who was now near panic. She kept it from her eyes and voice, while constantly looking for a way out of the situation.

The officer climbed up beside her in the carriage and shut the door. The horses set off, and the carriage wheels rolled beneath them.

There was a unique horror to being trapped among strange men she did not know, taking her to an undisclosed location in the middle of the night. Anne knew that she was in a terrible position and sought to extricate herself from it.

"We are no longer in the city, sir," Anne pointed out, as she peered out the carriage window.

The officer did not respond. Fear clawed its way up her throat.

"I beg you to understand, sir, I will go no farther unless you tell me whither you are taking me."

The man remained silent.

"Oh, this is too much!" said Anne. "Help! Help!"

There was no response. Anne turned her anger on the officer. He remained as mute as ever. 

Finally, she leaned over and opened the door. This brought a response, but not one she was expecting.

"Take care, madame," he said. "You will kill yourself in jumping."

Anne slammed the carriage door and threw herself back into her seat with a huff, crossing her arms. The man leaned forward to look at her, and seemed startled at the expression on her face.

"In the name of heaven, sir, tell me if it is to you, if it is to your government, if it is to an enemy I am to attribute the violence that is done me?" Anne demanded.

"No violence will be offered to you, madame, and what happens to you is the result of a very simple measure which we are obliged to adopt with all who land in England."

"Then you don’t know me, sir?"

"It is the first time I have had the honor of seeing you."

"And on your honor, you have no cause of hatred against me?"

"None, I swear to you."

Anne felt somewhat reassured by his placid responses. Perhaps it was truly a measure during wartime, and she was being ridiculous.

Then again, when men had tried to make her feel ridiculous about her gut feelings in the past, she had always been right.

She suddenly wondered what had become of Ketty. She hoped the poor girl was all right.

***

Almost an hour later, the carriage pulled up in front of an iron gate.

Anne peered up at a massive castle, stern and terrifying in the gloom. The roar of the ocean nearby assured her that this castle was perched on the side of a cliff. She had never seen the place before now.

When the carriage had finally come to a halt in one of the large courtyards of the castle, the officer helped Anne to step down onto the flagstones.

"Still, then, I am a prisoner," she said to him, with all the calm sweetness she believed that men expected of women. "But I feel assured it will not be for long. My own conscience and your politeness, sir, are the guarantees of that."

The officer made no reply. Such silences were really beginning to bother her. He took out a silver whistle and blew on it three times.

Suddenly, men appeared in the courtyard as if from the other world. They took the horses and the carriage while the officer escorted Anne into the castle on his arm.

The two of them walked down a passage and up a set of stairs into a room off to the side of the staircase.

Anne stood there for a moment, taking in her surroundings, as the officer shut and bolted the door behind them.

The apartment was sumptuously appointed, but there were bars on the windows and doors.

In an instant, she understood all, and that she had finally been caught. She was a prisoner in a foreign country where Richelieu's arm, long though it was, could not reach her.

She sat down in a large chair, folding her arms and staring at the floor, as men came and went with her various items of luggage. During all this activity, the officer seemed to communicate with others only by way of his whistle.

"In the name of heaven, sir," Anne cried out to him, "what means all that is passing? Put an end to my doubts; I have courage enough for any danger I can foresee, for every misfortune which I understand. Where am I, and why am I here? If I am free, why these bars and these doors? If I am a prisoner, what crime have I committed?"

"You are here in the apartment destined for you, madame. I received orders to go and take charge of you on the sea, and to conduct you to this castle. This order I believe I have accomplished with all the exactness of a soldier, but also with the courtesy of a gentleman. There terminates, at least to the present moment, the duty I had to fulfill toward you; the rest concerns another person."

"And who is that other person?" Anne demanded. "Can you tell me his name?"

She heard the heavy footstep of a newcomer on the stairs. The jingling of spurs indicated the type of gentleman with whom she had to deal.

"That person is here, madame," said the officer, and drew up into a military posture, saluting the man who entered.

A man stood on the threshold, sword in one hand and handkerchief in another. His head was bare, so that Anne recognised him right away.

"What, my brother, is it you?!" she cried.

"Yes, fair lady," said Lord William de Winter, with a little sarcastic bow. "It is I, myself."

Anne was thunderstruck. This was an outcome she had not foreseen, so little did she think of the man.

"But this castle, then?" she asked, having not recognised it at all.

"Is mine."

"This chamber?"

"Is yours."

"I am, then, your prisoner?"

"Nearly so."

"But this is a frightful abuse of power!"

"No high-sounding words! Let us sit down and chat quietly, as brother and sister ought to do."

Then, doing just as he had suggested, William sat down in a chair. He nodded toward the officer at the door.

"All is well, I thank you; now leave us alone, Mr. Felton."

Chapter Text

Of all the things Anne had believed William capable, this was not one of them. She blamed herself first, and Athos second. It was the only way she could understand the circumstances in which she currently found herself.

Still. She was Anne de Breuil, Milady de Winter, and two could play this game.

"Yes, let us chat, brother," she said, in a voice full of false cheer. 

"You have, then, come to England again," he said, "in spite of the resolutions you so often expressed in Paris never to set your feet on British ground?"

"To begin with, tell me," she said, ignoring him, "how have you watched me so closely as to be aware beforehand not only of my arrival, but even of the day, the hour, and the port at which I should arrive?"

William was clearly ready for such a battle of wits, and replied to her question with another question.

"But tell me, my dear sister," he said, "what makes you come to England?"

"I come to see you," said Anne, and was surprised to see how this statement caused a dark cloud to pass across the brow of her brother-in-law. 

"Ah, to see me?" repeated de Winter, with a certain edge to his voice that did not escape Anne's notice.

"To be sure, to see you. What is there astonishing in that?"

"And you had no other object in coming to England but to see me?"

"No."

"So it was for me alone you have taken the trouble to cross the Channel?"

"For you alone."

"The deuce! What tenderness, my sister!"

"But am I not your nearest relative?" she asked sweetly.

"And my only heir, are you not?" he asked, staring at her.

Anne was startled by this question. She began to divine further the danger she found herself in by allowing herself to be caught and led. Had Ketty betrayed her even further? Had Athos said something to him? She understood the danger but did not understand why she found herself here.

"I do not understand, my Lord," she said, playing for time. "What do you mean to say? Is there any secret meaning concealed beneath your words?"

"Oh, my God, no!" said de Winter, with an affability that spoke of falsehood. "You wish to see me, and you come to England. I learn this desire, or rather I suspect that you feel it; and in order to spare you all the annoyances of a nocturnal arrival in a port and all the fatigues of landing, I send one of my officers to meet you, I place a carriage at his orders, and he brings you hither to this castle, of which I am governor, whither I come every day, and where, in order to satisfy our mutual desire of seeing each other, I have prepared you a chamber. What is there more astonishing in all that I have said to you than in what you have told me?"

"No; what I think astonishing is that you should expect my coming."

"And yet that is the most simple thing in the world, my dear sister. Have you not observed that the captain of your little vessel, on entering the roadstead, sent forward, in order to obtain permission to enter the port, a little boat bearing his logbook and the register of his voyagers? I am commandant of the port. They brought me that book. I recognized your name in it. My heart told me what your mouth has just confirmed--that is to say, with what view you have exposed yourself to the dangers of a sea so perilous, or at least so troublesome at this moment--and I sent my cutter to meet you. You know the rest."

He was lying, that Anne knew. The true reason still eluded her.

"My brother," she said, "was not that my Lord Buckingham whom I saw on the jetty this evening as we arrived?"

"“Himself. Ah, I can understand how the sight of him struck you," said de Winter. "You came from a country where he must be very much talked of, and I know that his armaments against France greatly engage the attention of your friend the cardinal."

"My friend the cardinal!" exclaimed Anne, putting emphasis on the word friend.

"Is he not your friend?" asked de Winter. "Ah, pardon! I thought so; but we will return to my Lord Duke presently. Let us not depart from the sentimental turn our conversation had taken. You came, you say, to see me?"

"Yes."

"Well, I reply that you shall be served to the height of your wishes, and that we shall see each other every day."

"Am I, then, to remain here eternally?" demanded Anne with horror.

"Do you find yourself badly lodged, sister? Demand anything you want, and I will hasten to have you furnished with it."

"But I have neither my women nor my servants."

"You shall have all, madame. Tell me on what footing your household was established by your first husband, and although I am only your brother-in-law, I will arrange one similar."

"My first husband!" Anne cried out, fear creeping into her veins.

"Yes, your French husband. I don’t speak of my brother. If you have forgotten, as he is still living, I can write to him and he will send me information on the subject."

Anne's body felt cold.

"You jest!" she said in a dying voice.

"Do I look like I jest?" demanded de Winter in his turn, standing up and taking a step back.

"Or rather, you insult me," said Anne, pushing herself up by her hands.

"I insult you!" de Winter said, a smirk on his face. "In truth, madame, do you think that can be possible?"

"Indeed, sir," said Anne. "You must be drunk or mad. Leave the room, and send me a woman."

"Women are very indiscreet, my sister. Cannot I serve you as a waiting maid? By that means all our secrets will remain in the family."

"Insolent!" Anne cried, springing toward him. His hand was on the hilt of his sword in an instant.

"Come!" he said. "I know you are accustomed to assassinate people; but I warn you I shall defend myself, even against you."

"You are right," said Anne, sinking back into her chair. "You have all the appearance of being cowardly enough to lift your hand against a woman."

"Perhaps so; and I have an excuse, for mine would not be the first hand of a man that has been placed upon you, I imagine."

And he extended his hand, pointing his finger at the place where the mark of the fleur-de-lys was hidden on her shoulder.

Anne swallowed her scream of horror and leaped out of her chair, backing away from him into a corner of the room. Her eyes flashed and she growled under her breath at this man who seemed to have surprised all of her secrets in one go.

"Oh, growl as much as you please," he said proudly. "but don’t try to bite, for I warn you that it would be to your disadvantage. There are here no procurators who regulate successions beforehand. There is no knight-errant to come and seek a quarrel with me on account of the fair lady I detain a prisoner; but I have judges quite ready who will quickly dispose of a woman so shameless as to glide, a bigamist, into the bed of Lord de Winter, my brother. And these judges, I warn you, will soon send you to an executioner who will make both your shoulders alike."

She stared at him, an absolute promise of death in her eyes. She saw him shiver visibly despite himself.

"Yes, I can very well understand that after having inherited the fortune of my brother it would be very agreeable to you to be my heir likewise; but know beforehand, if you kill me or cause me to be killed, my precautions are taken. Not a penny of what I possess will pass into your hands. Were you not already rich enough--you who possess nearly a million? And could you not stop your fatal career, if you did not do evil for the infinite and supreme joy of doing it? Oh, be assured, if the memory of my brother were not sacred to me, you should rot in a state dungeon or satisfy the curiosity of sailors at Tyburn. I will be silent, but you must endure your captivity quietly. In fifteen or twenty days I shall set out for La Rochelle with the army; but on the eve of my departure a vessel which I shall see depart will take you hence and convey you to our colonies in the south. And be assured that you shall be accompanied by one who will blow your brains out at the first attempt you make to return to England or the Continent."

Anne was so beside herself with fury she remained speechless.

"Yes, at present," he went on, "you will remain in this castle. The walls are thick, the doors strong, and the bars solid; besides, your window opens immediately over the sea. The men of my crew, who are devoted to me for life and death, mount guard around this apartment, and watch all the passages that lead to the courtyard. Even if you gained the yard, there would still be three iron gates for you to pass. The order is positive. A step, a gesture, a word, on your part, denoting an effort to escape, and you are to be fired upon. If they kill you, English justice will be under an obligation to me for having saved it trouble. Ah! I see your features regain their calmness, your countenance recovers its assurance. You are saying to yourself: ‘Fifteen days, twenty days? Bah! I have an inventive mind; before that is expired some idea will occur to me. I have an infernal spirit. I shall meet with a victim. Before fifteen days are gone by I shall be away from here.’ Ah, try it!"

Anne clenched her hands into fists, drawing blood as the fingernails bit into the skin. How could this man possibly know all of these things? She might have called him a mindreader, but she was certain others had apprised him of her past actions and likely future.

"The officer who commands here in my absence you have already seen," said de Winter, "and therefore know him. He knows how, as you must have observed, to obey an order--for you did not, I am sure, come from Portsmouth hither without endeavoring to make him speak. What do you say of him? Could a statue of marble have been more impassive and more mute? You have already tried the power of your seductions upon many men, and unfortunately you have always succeeded; but I give you leave to try them upon this one. Pardieu! if you succeed with him, I pronounce you the demon himself."

Lord de Winter then opened the door, and asked for Felton to be brought to the threshold.

"Come in, my dear John," said de Winter. "Come in and close the door."

The young man entered.

"Now," said the baron, "look at this woman. She is young; she is beautiful; she possesses all earthly seductions. Well, she is a monster, who, at twenty-five years of age, has been guilty of as many crimes as you could read of in a year in the archives of our tribunals. Her voice prejudices her hearers in her favor; her beauty serves as a bait to her victims; her body even pays what she promises--I must do her that justice. She will try to seduce you, perhaps she will try to kill you. I have extricated you from misery, Felton; I have caused you to be named lieutenant; I once saved your life, you know on what occasion. I am for you not only a protector, but a friend; not only a benefactor, but a father. This woman has come back again into England for the purpose of conspiring against my life. I hold this serpent in my hands. Well, I call you, and say to you: Friend Felton, John, my child, guard me, and more particularly guard yourself, against this woman. Swear, by your hopes of salvation, to keep her safely for the chastisement she has merited. John Felton, I trust your word! John Felton, I put faith in your loyalty!"

“My Lord,” said the young officer, “my Lord, I swear all shall be done as you desire.

Anne immediately assumed the most demure and innocent aspect she could muster. If she could not trick her brother-in-law, perhaps she could get under the skin of this infernal Puritan.

"She is not to leave this chamber, understand, John,” said de Winter. “She is to correspond with nobody; she is to speak to no one but you--if you will do her the honor to address a word to her."

"That is sufficient, my Lord! I have sworn."

"And now, madame, try to make your peace with God, for you are judged by men!"

And William went out, followed shortly by Felton, who responded to a gesture from his superior.

Anne let her head sink onto her chest and her body to relax, so as to appear as if she were overwhelmed by everything that had passed within the last few hours. 

When the last footsteps died away down the stairs, Anne raised her head in defiance, anger and vengeance flashing in her eyes. She ran to the door, and then the window, before returning to her armchair to consider her next move.

In her quest for vengeance, she now had one more name to add to the list.

 

Chapter Text

Anne looked up from her chair, where she had been consumed by thoughts and plots.

There was no way she could remain here, given Richelieu's expectations and de Winter's interest in ridding himself of her once and for all.

Her heart beat in hate for d'Artagnan, who had so cruelly deceived her, and for Athos, who had nearly murdered her twice. She saw the other two Musketeers as shadowy beings, men she was not acquainted with but nevertheless cast a darkness over her future.

d'Artagnan had ruined her love for de Wardes, her pride, her heart, and now wished to deprive her of the fortune she had worked so hard to build, and lastly her freedom, that which she and Therese had long ago discussed as the most important thing in the world. 

She roared in frustration, wild in her rage. But as with most things, it passed quickly.

He thought he had won. He and the other men thought they had finally conquered her.

These foolish, arrogant, impudent men, who think women nothing but creatures to conquer, and not their equals in every way, or sometimes, their betters.

She began to smile. 

They had not reckoned with her ability, nor her fierce determination to see a thing to the end.

Many had died at her hand, it was true. But many had also died at theirs, casual murderers as they were. At least Anne had a reason for her actions beyond callous disrespect for human life hidden beneath a false chivalry.

They had not reckoned with her desire for vengeance above all things.

"Go to, go to! I must have been mad to allow myself to be carried away so," she said, becalmed as the sea after a storm, as she approached the mirror. "No violence; violence is the proof of weakness. In the first place, I have never succeeded by that means. Perhaps if I employed my strength against women I might perchance find them weaker than myself, and consequently conquer them; but it is with men that I struggle, and I am but a woman to them. Let me fight like a woman, then; my strength is in my weakness."

Men, she knew, would believe in the weakness of a woman. Their stupid beliefs had worked for her countless times before. She fixed her hair and straightened her clothes, giving her expression that naive and innocent angelic allure that men had always fallen for.

"Come, nothing is lost; I am still beautiful."

She undid the front of her dress so that her breasts were nearly exposed in their entirety and then artfully arranged herself in a chair as if she had fainted. Not a moment too soon, as she heard the bolts slide to, and the guards enter with her supper.

"Place the table there," said Felton. "You will bring lights, and relieve the sentinel."

He turned to look at Anne, who he thought was asleep.

"Ah, ah!" he said. "She is asleep; that's well. When she wakes, she can sup."

"But, my lieutenant," said the soldier who had accompanied him, "this woman is not asleep."

"What? Not asleep?" he asked. "What is she doing, then?"

"She has fainted. Her face is very pale, and I have listened in vain; I do not hear her breathe."

"You are right," said Felton, without going anywhere near Anne. "Go and tell Lord de Winter that his prisoner has fainted--for this event not having been foreseen, I don’t know what to do."

Anne watched him for a while through her lashes, but he didn't turn around. Finally she decided to put an end to the ruse and sighed dramatically.

Then Felton turned around.

"Ah, you are awake, madame," said Felton. "then I have nothing more to do here. If you want anything you can ring."

Anne gave him a beseeching look.

"Oh, my God, my God! how I have suffered!" she said, in a particularly harmonious tone of voice that had always worked in the past.

She was surprised to see Felton turn sharply on his heel.

"You will be served, thus, madame, three times a day," he said to her. "In the morning at nine o’clock, in the day at one o’clock, and in the evening at eight. If that does not suit you, you can point out what other hours you prefer, and in this respect your wishes will be complied with."

None of this was going the way Anne had hoped. She pouted at him.

"But am I to remain always alone in this vast and dismal chamber?" she asked.

"A woman of the neighbourhood has been sent for, who will be tomorrow at the castle, and will return as often as you desire her presence."

"I thank you, sir," said Anne, assuming an air of extreme humility.

Felton bowed and turned toward the door. Lord de Winter then walked through it, holding a vial of salts in his hand, having been informed by the soldier who accompanied him that Anne had fainted.

He took one look at the scene and laughed.

"Well, what is it--what is going on here?" he said. "Is this corpse come to life already? Felton, my lad, did you not perceive that you were taken for a novice, and that the first act was being performed of a comedy of which we shall doubtless have the pleasure of following out all the developments?"

"I thought so, my lord," said Felton, "but as the prisoner is a woman, after all, I wish to pay her the attention that every man of gentle birth owes to a woman, if not on her account, at least on my own."

Anne shuddered at this; it seemed she was to be foiled at every turn. But she was not discouraged. This did not put out the fire, but stoked it.

"So,” replied de Winter, laughing, "that beautiful hair so skillfully disheveled, that white skin, and that languishing look, have not yet seduced you, you heart of stone?"

"No, my Lord,” replied Felton. “Your Lordship may be assured that it requires more than the tricks and coquetry of a woman to corrupt me.”

"In that case, my brave lieutenant, let us leave Milady to find out something else, and go to supper; but be easy! She has a fruitful imagination, and the second act of the comedy will not delay its steps after the first."

And the two men went out, de Winter laughing as he guided Felton through the door.

***

Anne glared absolute murder at the place where they had been last, swearing a terrible oath.

"Oh, I will be a match for you!" she snarled. "Be assured of that, you poor spoiled monk, you poor converted soldier, who has cut his uniform out of a monk’s frock!"

Just then, Lord de Winter poked his head back into the room.

"By the way," he said. "You must not, Milady, let this check take away your appetite. Taste that fowl and those fish. On my honor, they are not poisoned. I have a very good cook, and he is not to be my heir; I have full and perfect confidence in him. Do as I do. Adieu, dear sister, till your next swoon!"

He laughed again at his own joke and disappeared down the staircase.

She saw a knife sitting on the table in front of her and in her madness grabbed it, rushing toward the door as it closed and locked behind him. Then she saw that the knife was soft, with blunt and rounded edges on the blade; a knife for butter alone.

A laugh sounded through the wood of the door.

"Ha ha!" came Lord de Winter's voice. "Ha ha! Don't you see, my brave Felton? Don't you see what I told you? That knife was for you, my lad; she would have killed you. Observe, this is one of her peculiarities, to get rid thus, after one fashion or another, of all the people who bother her. If I had listened to you, the knife would have been pointed and of steel. Then no more of Felton; she would have cut your throat, and after that everybody else’s. See, John, see how well she knows how to handle a knife."

Anne looked up at the door and realised she still held the knife clenched in one fist. She let it drop to the floor upon hearing these words.

"You were right," said Felton's voice in tones of disgust. "You were right, my lord, and I was wrong."

And she listened as the two of them walked away down the stairs.

"I am lost," she murmured to herself. "I am lost!  I am in the power of men upon whom I can have no more influence than upon statues of bronze or granite; they know me by heart, and are steeled against all my weapons. It is, however, impossible that this should end as they have decreed!"

Anne's heart was never captured by fear for long, and she soon rallied. She had a bit of the Spanish wine on the table, and a few bites of bread and fish, to help her mind start to work on the problem at hand. As she sat there going through everything she had learned and seen, the one thing that kept returning to her mind was that Lord de Winter had said "if I had listened to you" in regards to some suggestion made by Felton. This meant that the young man had already taken her side.

"Weak or strong," said Anne, "That man has, then, a spark of pity in his soul; of that spark I will make a flame that shall devour him. As to the other, he knows me, he fears me, and knows what he has to expect of me if ever I escape from his hands. It is useless, then, to attempt anything with him. But Felton--that’s another thing. He is a young, ingenuous, pure man who seems virtuous; him there are means of destroying."

This was a man, she knew, who would be insensible to her usual games involving sex and seduction. But sex was not the only way to seduce a young man, and she now looked upon it as a challenge, something to pass the time before an escape she now viewed as inevitable. Beyond the seduction of a religious young man, she also saw the tantalising vision of vengeance against d'Artagnan in the far future, driving her onward towards her goal.

Once these plans had been arranged in her mind, she went to bed, and fell asleep smiling with the savage joy of one who looks forward to thwarting the plans of an arrogant enemy. To an outsider, Anne's innocent face and expressions made her look as inoffensive as a young girl smiling in her sleep.

 

Chapter Text

Anne awoke refreshed from a dream where d'Artagnan was beneath the executioner's axe instead of her long-lost Henri. She hadn't woken in such a good mood in years.

First, she faked another illness when Felton returned with a local woman to serve as her maid.

Second, when Felton brought her the Catholic mass, she refused the book in a furious passion and pretended to be a Puritan like him.

Third, she employed as much subterfuge in a conversation with Lord de Winter as possible, so as to paint him as the enemy for those who might have overheard.

Fourth, she gave voice to Puritan prayers, and noticed that Felton feared to be alone with her too often. She sang a rough Puritan song, and rejoiced to hear Felton tell the soldier barring her door to let her continue.

Fifth, she saw in the wildness of his eyes that he had started to fall in love with her.

Sixth, she studied all he said and did, because Felton was forewarned against her and this was a type of seduction she had never undertaken before.

Seventh, she behaved in a prescribed way toward Lord de Winter, so as to affirm the idea that she was a persecuted Puritan in the eyes of Felton.

Eighth, Felton finally came to speak with her during one of her false prayers, half-mad with love.

Ninth, Anne cast guilt upon the Duke of Buckingham, because she knew the Puritans already hated him.

Tenth, she begged him for a sharp knife so that she would take her own life, and that he should not call out for Lord de Winter. When he did not, her joy was great; she had the man in hand.

Then, one night, Lord de Winter came to visit her during her supper and handed her a form.

"Order to conduct to--the person named Charlotte Backson, branded by the justice of the kingdom of France, but liberated after chastisement. She is to dwell in this place without ever going more than three leagues from it. In case of any attempt to escape, the penalty of death is to be applied. She will receive five shillings per day for lodging and food."

"That order does not concern me," said Anne, "since it bears another name than mine."

"A name? Have you a name, then?"

"I bear that of your brother."

"Ay, but you are mistaken. My brother is only your second husband; and your first is still living. Tell me his name, and I will put it in the place of the name of Charlotte Backson. No? You will not? You are silent? Well, then you must be registered as Charlotte Backson."

Anne did not speak, for she was truly frightened now. Her projects with respect to Felton had not quite had time to come to fruition, and if Lord de Winter had decided to speed her departure -

But then she realised that there was no signature at the bottom of the form yet. She still had time.

"Yes, yes," said Lord de Winter, who had clearly divined what she was thinking. "Yes, you look for the signature, and you say to yourself: ‘All is not lost, for that order is not signed. It is only shown to me to terrify me, that’s all.’ You are mistaken. Tomorrow this order will be sent to the Duke of Buckingham. The day after tomorrow it will return signed by his hand and marked with his seal; and four-and-twenty hours afterward I will answer for its being carried into execution. Adieu, madame. That is all I had to say to you."

"And I reply to you, sir, that this abuse of power, this exile under a fictitious name, are infamous!”

“Would you like better to be hanged in your true name, Milady? You know that the English laws are inexorable on the abuse of marriage. Speak freely. Although my name, or rather that of my brother, would be mixed up with the affair, I will risk the scandal of a public trial to make myself certain of getting rid of you."

Anne did not reply.

"Oh, I see you prefer peregrination. That’s well madame; and there is an old proverb that says, ‘Traveling trains youth.’ My faith! you are not wrong after all, and life is sweet. That’s the reason why I take such care you shall not deprive me of mine. There only remains, then, the question of the five shillings to be settled. You think me rather parsimonious, don’t you? That’s because I don’t care to leave you the means of corrupting your jailers. Besides, you will always have your charms left to seduce them with. Employ them, if your check with regard to Felton has not disgusted you with attempts of that kind."

Anne felt warmth returning to her bones, as she realised Felton hadn't told de Winter anything.

"And now, madame, till I see you again! Tomorrow I will come and announce to you the departure of my messenger."

Lord de Winter went out, and Anne breathed more easily. Four days would be time enough.

***

The next thing she did was set up a scenario in which it appeared she wished to hang herself. This upset Felton greatly, and he seemed not to know what to do with himself anymore. She then stood before him like an avenging angel and he could no longer tell reality from religious fervour, nor the lust that had been building within him in regards to this woman.

He told himself it was for her honour, he told himself it was because he wished to marry her and rescue her, but Anne knew, as she always had, that it came down to sex in the end. Virgin or whore, it mattered not; there were always chinks in the armour.

And in this madness where Felton was consumed, Anne invented an outrageous story about being drugged repeatedly by Buckingham and the man taking advantage of her in ways that served to inflame the young Puritan, whose driving purpose from then on was to fight for the honour of this supposedly innocent Puritan lady.

It still all came down to sex, in the end, she thought ruefully.

Anne refused to entertain a future of poverty, on some faraway dirt much too distant from the glorious light of France. She had never lost her disgust and fear regarding the spectre of poverty, and would do anything to keep herself from it. This repugnance had put her squarely into this situation, but it would also extricate her from it. She felt a life without money, without aristocracy and power, was not a life worth living. She would not be exiled, to a land that would sap her of beauty and strength, and she could not bear to think of d'Artagnan and his friends happy despite all they had done to her. Rochefort would be missing her, the only friend she had ever been sure of in this life since she had left Therese's side.

Besides, the cardinal would be wondering what had happened to her, and she owed him most of all.

When Felton came to see her again, she told him a long and detailed lie regarding Buckingham and his violation of her. She culminated the telling in saying he had branded her as revenge so that no one would believe her denunciation of him. Disrobing before Felton, she pointed out the brand, and Felton was horrified, on his knees, as this woman was now his terrible angel, a single indication of her finger like the voice of God.

He begged her pardon for having worked for her persecutors. His eyes shone with love. His adoration was complete. 

Anne was proud in this, having completed such a thorough seduction of a Puritan man.

Then Felton swore that she should have her revenge upon Buckingham through his own poniard.

Anne smiled. So far, so good. She even thought to blame Buckingham for Bennett's death, painting William as an innocent who knew not what he put Anne through, thus cementing Felton's hatred since de Winter had been his beloved mentor.

And at the last, she sank into Felton's arms, demanding a knife with which to kill herself, and he held onto her with all the strange passion of a man who does not understand the new feelings coursing through him.

The soldier watching the door started banging away at it when he heard Felton cry out, and Felton ran to the door, half-mad with everything going through his mind. 

Midway through all of this, Lord de Winter appeared, and Anne realised she needed to make good on her threats of suicide. Rushing upon the knife on the table, she stabbed herself through her corset, taking care to ensure the knife caused copious bleeding but little damage.

Felton was horrified. Lord de Winter was surprised. The division between the two men was driven deeper. 

Felton gave her prone body one last look as he was shepherded away.

Sex, thought Anne, it's always about sex, in the end.

 

 

Chapter Text

Anne faked, as well as she could, that her wound had given her trouble. Unfortunately it meant that the woman who had been sent for to look after her wouldn't leave her side.

Anne was certain of Felton now. The man worshiped her as if she were a goddess. She had absolutely no doubt in her mind. However, since Felton was really her only hope, she feared his discovery.

In the morning, she had the woman sent away under pretext that she had been unable to sleep all night.

She waited for Felton in vain all day long, but the man never appeared.

When her dinner came, she noticed that all the soldiers were different men, and that Felton was not among them. So he was distrusted, suspected, after all.

"What has become of Felton?" she enquired of a soldier.

"He left the castle around an hour ago on horseback," the soldier replied.

"Is the baron still here?" she asked.

"Yes, do you wish to speak to him?" replied the soldier. "I am under strict orders to tell him if you would like to communicate."

"No, thank you," said Anne, her heart sinking. "That is all. I would like some peace and quiet now. I did not sleep well last night."

The soldier bowed, and with a sign to his fellows, they retired. 

Anne, left alone, was despondent. She rose from the bed where she had been lying in order to support her lie about her wound. She noticed that the baron had nailed a wooden plank over the grating of her door, to prevent her from seducing anyone else.

Anne smiled disdainfully. Her fury was great, and since no one could see or hear her, she paced in frustration, shouting in anger to herself and kicking things. She wished to murder Lord de Winter and thought it had been an oversight that she had not poisoned his milk as she had Bennett's, all that time ago. She gave vent to her rage and punched the walls in her fury.

Once this storm had calmed, she went back to plotting how to facilitate her escape now that she could no longer count on Felton's assistance.

Around six o'clock, Lord de Winter paid her another visit. This time, he was heavily armed, and he saw in an instant, by a single glance, all that was passing in Anne's mind.

"Aye," he said to her. "I see; but you shall not kill me today. You have no longer a weapon; and besides, I am on my guard. You had begun to pervert my poor Felton. He was yielding to your infernal influence; but I will save him. He will never see you again; all is over. Get your clothes together. Tomorrow you will go. I had fixed the embarkation for the twenty-fourth; but I have reflected that the more promptly the affair takes place the more sure it will be. Tomorrow, by twelve o’clock, I shall have the order for your exile, signed, Buckingham. If you speak a single word to anyone before going aboard ship, my sergeant will blow your brains out. He has orders to do so. If when on the ship you speak a single word to anyone before the captain permits you, the captain will have you thrown into the sea. That is agreed upon.

"Au revoir; then; that is all I have to say today. Tomorrow I will see you again, to take my leave."

And with that, he left her alone in the room.

***

Anne enjoyed her dinner as best she could. Upon looking out of the window, she noted clouds rolling in. A storm was upon the horizon.

At ten o'clock, the rain began to pour, smattering against the stone walls of the castle.

Shortly, she heard a rap at the window. She didn't pay any attention at first, but turned when the sound was repeated.

A man's face appeared behind the bars. She almost cried out, but caught herself in time. 

Anne rushed to the window and opened it. The wind whistled through the room as the rain poured in.

"Felton!" she exclaimed. "I am saved!"

"Yes," said Felton. "But silence! Silence! I must have time to file through these bars. Only take care that I am not seen through the wicket."

"Oh, it is a proof that the Lord is on our side, Felton," Anne replied. "They have closed up the grating with a board."

"That is well," said Felton. "God has made them senseless."

"But what must I do?" asked Anne.

"Nothing, nothing, only shut the window. Go to bed, or at least lie down in your clothes. As soon as I have done I will knock on one of the panes of glass. But will you be able to follow me?"

Anne thought of the muscles she could still rely on after her years of hard labour.

"Oh, yes!"

"Your wound?"

"Gives me pain, but will not prevent my walking."

"Be ready, then, at the first signal."

And Anne returned to bed, waiting, with bated breath, for the signal. She could hardly believe her good fortune. This waiting, however, felt longer than all of her past captivity.

There was another sharp rap at the window. Anne rushed toward it. Two of the bars were now missing, leaving a large enough gap for her to climb through.

"Are you ready?" asked Felton.

"Yes. Must I take anything with me?"

"Money, if you have any."

"Yes; fortunately they have left me all I had."

"So much the better, for I have expended all mine in chartering a vessel."

"Here!" said Milady, placing a bag full of louis in Felton’s hands. It was her ancient money-bag, containing the notes from Therese and Rochefort.

Felton took the bag and threw it to the foot of the wall.

"Now," he asked, "will you come?"

"I am ready."

Anne crawled through the opening, and suddenly found herself on a precipice, the earth and sea yawing beneath her as she stared down. A sense of vertigo and terror began to overtake her, when Felton's strong hand squeezed her arm in encouragement.

"I expected this," said Felton.

"It’s nothing, it’s nothing!" said Anne. "I will descend with my eyes shut."

"Have you confidence in me"” asked Felton.

"How could you ask me that?"

"Put your two hands together. Cross them; that’s right!"

Felton tied her two wrists together with his handkerchief, and then with a cord over the handkerchief.

"What are you doing?" asked Anne, surprised.

"Pass your arms around my neck, and fear nothing."

"But I shall make you lose your balance, and we shall both be dashed to pieces."

"Don’t be afraid. I am a sailor."

Anne overcame her terror with the knowledge that there was really no time to lose. She did as Felton had instructed. He began to slowly descend the ladder, and she closed her eyes to the view. The wind toyed with them, as the storm was a strong one.

Suddenly, Felton stopped.

"What is the matter?" asked Anne.

"Silence," said Felton, "I hear footsteps."

"We are discovered!"

There was a silence of several seconds.

"No,” said Felton, "it is nothing."

"But what, then, is the noise?"

"That of the patrol going their rounds."

"Where is their road?"

"Just under us."

"They will discover us!"

"No, if it does not lighten."

"But they will run against the bottom of the ladder."

"Fortunately it is too short by six feet."

"Here they are! My God!"

"Silence!"

They didn't dare to breathe as the patrol passed beneath them, strung up several feet in midair. Anne prayed to whoever could hear her that this would not be the end for her or for Felton.

The guards passed and continued on their way. A piece of long-ago advice from Chabot reoccurred to her: nobody ever looks up.

"Now, we are safe," said Felton, and Anne feigned fainting, collapsing against him.

He found the end of the ladder and held to the end of it, dropping to the ground with Anne still holding onto him. He transferred her to his arms, picked up her money-bag, and carried it in his teeth.

Felton found his way to the rocky seashore, where he used his silver whistle to call to the waiting sailors. The boat came near, but the wildness of the sea meant that Felton had to carry Anne out and place her into the boat, hoisting himself up after her.

"To the sloop!" he commanded. "And row quickly!"

Although the night was pitch-dark and the storm kept them from making a rapid approach, the little boat was gaining on the sloop. They were getting further and further from the castle, when Felton reached down into the sea and scooped up some water, which he then threw onto Anne's face.

She started up, as she had only been pretending her faint, the more to convince Felton of her female weakness.

"Where am I?" she asked Felton, as if she didn't know.

"Saved!" he replied, grinning.

"Oh, saved, saved!" she cried. "Yes, there is the sky; here is the sea! The air I breathe is the air of liberty! Ah, thanks, Felton, thanks!"

Felton gathered her into his arms and held her tightly.

"But what is the matter with my hands!" exclaimed Anne. "It seems as if my wrists had been crushed in a vice!"

Her hands were bruised, colouring purple.

"Alas!" Felton mourned, shaking his head sadly.

"Oh it's nothing, nothing!" Anne assured him. "I remember now."

She looked around for her money-bag.

"It is there," said Felton, nudging it with his foot.

The little boat had come up alongside the black sloop.

"What vessel is that?" asked Anne.

"The one I have hired for you."

"Where will it take me?"

"Where you please, after you have put me on shore at Portsmouth."

"What are you going to do at Portsmouth?" asked Anne.

"Accomplish the orders of Lord de Winter," said Felton, with a gloomy smile.

"What orders?" asked Anne.

"You do not understand?" asked Felton.

"No; explain yourself, I beg."

"As he mistrusted me, he determined to guard you himself, and sent me in his place to get Buckingham to sign the order for your transportation."

"But if he mistrusted you, how could he confide such an order to you?"

"How could I know what I was the bearer of?"

"That’s true! And you are going to Portsmouth?"

"I have no time to lose. Tomorrow is the twenty-third, and Buckingham sets sail tomorrow with his fleet."

"He sets sail tomorrow! Where for?"

"For La Rochelle."

This recalled to Anne her responsibilities toward the cardinal. How he must wonder what was taking her so long!

"He need not sail!" cried Anne, losing her temper for a moment.

"Be satisfied," replied Felton. "He will not sail."

Anne was thrilled. She could see Buckingham's death reflected in this madman's eyes.

"Felton," she cried. "You are as great as Judas Maccabeus! If you die, I will die with you; that is all I can say to you."

"Silence!" said Felton. "We are here."

The little boat was now moored to the sloop. Felton stood on the ladder and offered his hand to Anne while the other sailors assisted her in boarding. The storm had intensified and the ocean was threatening.

Anne was finally aboard the ship. She could taste the sweetness of freedom in the sea air.

"Captain," said Felton. "This is the person of whom I spoke to you, and whom you must convey safe and sound to France."

"For a thousand pistoles," said the captain.

"I have paid you five hundred of them."

"That’s correct," said the captain.

"And here are the other five hundred," said Anne, touching her money-bag.

"No," said the captain. "I make but one bargain; and I have agreed with this young man that the other five hundred shall not be due to me till we arrive at Boulogne."

"And shall we arrive there?"

"Safe and sound, as true as my name’s Jack Butler."

"Well,” said Anne, "if you keep your word, instead of five hundred, I will give you a thousand pistoles."

"Hurrah for you, then, my beautiful lady,” cried the captain. "And may God often send me such passengers as your Ladyship!"

"Meanwhile," said Felton, "convey me to the little bay of--; you know it was agreed you should put in there."

The captain agreed, and they found themselves in the little bay at dawn the following morning.

During the night, Felton explained his actions to Anne, from turning back on the road to London to chartering the vessel. Anne understood all in an instant, and that he had undertaken this dangerous mission for her sake.

She then wished to encourage him in his intentions toward Buckingham, but it was very clear to her that he was completely insane with the idea. Never before had Anne been so certain of her man. She reflected that he might need to be dissuaded a little, in order to avoid overdoing things, but then decided that she could more easily trust that he would be successful in his mission if she allowed him to remain a fanatic.

Besides, how else could she guarantee that the deed would be done, when she intended to board a ferry to France at the first possible opportunity? If she were no longer in England, she could not be there to egg him on. Therefore, she allowed him his insanity.

The two of them agreed that Anne would wait for Felton until ten o'clock in the morning. If he were at liberty and not arrested, despite the assassination of one of England's most famous men, he would rejoin her in France.

If he did not return to her by ten o'clock, she was to set sail.

If he were free, then he would meet her at the place appointed by the cardinal for her return: the Carmelite convent at Bethuné, which she had so long ago pronounced better you than me while riding past it in the darkness of the night.

All of these agreements served to further fool the Puritan, who wanted nothing more than to marry her and clasp her to his chest as so many other men had without needing to pay so dearly for the opportunity. 

And all of these arrangements were ultimately for naught, as Anne would be crossing the Straits of Dover the moment she was free of him.

 

Chapter Text

Felton took his leave of Anne by kissing her hand, and vaulting to shore, running in the direction of Portsmouth. 

Anne knew it was the last she would ever see of him. She also knew that while they had time before her disappearance was discovered, it wasn't long enough. She made arrangements for a carriage to convey her to Dover as quickly as the horses could travel.

Sitting in the carriage, she placed her hand on her money-bag, and breathed a sigh of relief and freedom. If Felton's madness carried him to the utmost, then the things she had come to England to accomplish would be done. She also reflected that if she did not make haste and board a vessel to France, the ports would be closed when the assassination was discovered, and she ran the risk of being trapped in England.

Anne smiled. All was finally going to plan. She had been truly terrified for a while, and swore never to be so foolish again, as to accompany a strange man in a carriage she knew not whither.

Soon, the coast road opened onto the ocean, and the carriage brought her down to the port.

***

The appointed hour of ten o'clock had not yet arrived, but Anne felt she removed most of the danger to herself by boarding an early ferry. She only hoped that this gambit did not prevent Felton from doing as he was destined to do.

As the ferry made its way out onto the ocean, she heard the cannons thunder. She had made it out of England just in time.

The ports were closed. Buckingham had been assassinated.

Anne smiled to herself.

Better to have killed her outright, than threatening transportation, she thought. 

More fool they.

***

Anne finally landed at Boulogne. No one on the French or English side had arrested her this time, and if she were a different sort of person, she would have gotten down on the ground and kissed it, so happy was she to be on the shores of France again.

She passed herself off as a Frenchwoman persecuted by the English, just as she had tried to pass herself off as an Englishwoman persecuted by the French. This time, she was believed, and was set free on the shore.

Anne took a deep breath of the air of freedom. She cursed Lord de Winter for what he had done, and swore never to be so foolish again. Her liberty was her lifeline, and she thought of her long-ago horse with its apt name. Anne had almost forgotten the value of freedom. This had only taught her to savour and value it all the more.

Anne was beautiful, aristocratic, and rich. These served her well, as the elderly governor of the port had fallen slightly in love with her and kissed her hands, a gentleman of the old school. She was eager to get on the road and leave all these falsehoods behind her.

First things first - she had to notify the cardinal of her safe arrival and the results of her projects in England. She stayed in Boulogne long enough to post the following letter:

To his Eminence Monseigneur the Cardinal Richelieu, in his camp before La Rochelle.

Monseigneur,

Let your Eminence be reassured. His Grace the Duke of Buckingham WILL NOT SET OUT for France.

MILADY DE ----

BOULOGNE, evening of the twenty-fifth.

P.S.--According to the desire of your Eminence, I report to the convent of the Carmelites at Bethune, where I will await your orders.

She overnighted at a nearby inn, and arrived at the convent of the Carmelites of Bethuné early the next morning.

***

The superior of the convent met with her, and Anne showed her the countersign of the cardinal. She was welcomed to the order and served breakfast.

Now that Anne was free, and well-rested, she ate with all the vigor of a woman with projects in her mind. The fatigue, stress, and weariness that threatened to overtake her fell from her as if they had never been. Not a wrinkle dented that perfect skin, nor worries seemed to trouble those enormous, placid blue eyes. She enjoyed her breakfast heartily, all the more because everything tasted of freedom to her.

Afterwards, the abbess came to speak a few little words to her. Anne knew that she found convent life boring, but everything was preferable to being shut up in a seaside castle in the miserably damp English weather. Anne was likely to be far more agreeable than usual, given her freedom was still fresh and new.

The abbess, who was of nobility herself, loved hearing all the gossip of the court. In this way, Anne ingratiated herself, and the superior found her beautiful and charming. 

After some discussion of the king, Buckingham, and the court in general, Anne tested the waters with the abbess to see if she were royalist or cardinalist. The superior, for her part, seemed more interested in listening, and Anne could not draw her out. Therefore, Anne began to tell stories that were more and more damning to the cardinal. The superior smiled more and more.

"Good," thought Anne. "She takes a pleasure in my conversation. If she is a cardinalist, she has no fanaticism, at least."

When Anne mentioned the persecutions the cardinal had visited on others, the abbess crossed herself. She suspected the woman was far more royalist than cardinalist.

"I am very ignorant of these matters,” said the abbess, at length; “but however distant from the court we may be, however remote from the interests of the world we may be placed, we have very sad examples of what you have related. And one of our boarders has suffered much from the vengeance and persecution of the cardinal!"

"One of your boarders?" said Anne. "Oh, my God! Poor woman! I pity her, then."

"And you have reason, for she is much to be pitied. Imprisonment, menaces, ill treatment-she has suffered everything. But after all,” said the abbess, “Monsieur Cardinal has perhaps plausible motives for acting thus; and though she has the look of an angel, we must not always judge people by the appearance."

"Good!” said Anne to herself. “Who knows! I am about, perhaps, to discover something here; I am in the vein."

She endeavoured to appear open and honest.

"Alas,” said Anne. "I know it is so. It is said that we must not trust to the face; but in what, then, shall we place confidence, if not in the most beautiful work of the Lord? As for me, I shall be deceived all my life perhaps, but I shall always have faith in a person whose countenance inspires me with sympathy."

"You would, then, be tempted to believe," said the abbess, "that this young person is innocent?"

"The cardinal pursues not only crimes," said Anne. "There are certain virtues which he pursues more severely than certain offenses."

"Permit me, madame, to express my surprise," said the abbess.

"At what?" asked Anne, pretending confusion. 

"At the language you use."

"What do you find so astonishing in that language?" said Anne, smiling.

"You are the friend of the cardinal, for he sends you hither, and yet--"

"And yet I speak ill of him," replied Anne.

"At least you don’t speak well of him."

"That is because I am not his friend," she said, sighing, "but his victim!"

"But this letter in which he recommends you to me?"

"Is an order for me to confine myself to a sort of prison, from which he will release me by one of his satellites."

"But why have you not fled?"

"Whither should I go? Do you believe there is a spot on the earth which the cardinal cannot reach if he takes the trouble to stretch forth his hand? If I were a man, that would barely be possible; but what can a woman do? This young boarder of yours, has she tried to fly?"

"No, that is true; but she--that is another thing; I believe she is detained in France by some love affair."

"Ah,” said Anne, with a sigh."If she loves she is not altogether wretched."

"Then," said the abbess, looking at Anne with a sort of suspicious curiosity, “I behold another poor victim?"

"Alas, yes," said Anne.

The abbess stared at Anne for a moment, as if she had just thought of something.

"You are not an enemy of our holy faith?" she finally managed to ask.

"Who--I?" cried Anne, thinking of Felton. "I a Protestant? Oh, no! I call to witness the God who hears us, that on the contrary I am a fervent Catholic!"

"Then, madame," said the abbess, smiling, "be reassured; the house in which you are shall not be a very hard prison, and we will do all in our power to make you cherish your captivity. You will find here, moreover, the young woman of whom I spoke, who is persecuted, no doubt, in consequence of some court intrigue. She is amiable and well-behaved."

"What is her name?"

"She was sent to me by someone of high rank, under the name of Ketty. I have not tried to discover her other name."

"Ketty!” cried Anne. "What? Are you sure?"

"That she is called so? Yes, madame. Do you know her?"

Anne smiled viciously, before remembering herself in front of the abbess. Could it be her former lady's maid? Only time would tell. Still, it was a close game she was playing.

"And when can I see this young lady, for whom I already feel so great a sympathy?" asked Anne.

"Why, this evening," said the abbess. "Today, even. But you have been traveling these four days, as you told me yourself. This morning you rose at five o’clock; you must stand in need of repose. Go to bed and sleep; at dinnertime we will rouse you."

As much as Anne wanted to stay awake and discover the secrets of this convent, she recognised the need for some rest. Besides, it would keep the abbess in the dark about her true intentions with respect to Ketty.

If things went as she hoped, d'Artagnan would soon be in her power. Athos too. 

With these thoughts, Anne fell asleep and enjoyed pleasant dreams.

***

The abbess woke her some hours later. She stood at the foot of the bed with a  young woman who was wholly unfamiliar to Anne.

This was not Ketty. This was a woman Anne had never met before.

She wondered why this young woman travelled in that name.

 

Chapter Text

The woman was quite beautiful, but her beauty was no match for Anne's. They scrutinised each other for a long time. The young woman wore a habit, and Anne felt that her own aristocratic tendencies outdid her in beauty and established society.

After introducing them to each other, the abbess left the room to pursue her other duties. The young woman looked likely to follow her, but Anne spoke.

"Why, madame?" she asked. "I have scarcely seen you, and you already wish to deprive me of your company, upon which I had counted a little, I must confess, for the time I have to pass here?"

"No, madame," answered the young woman, "only I thought I had chosen my time ill; you were asleep, you are fatigued."

"Well," said Anne. "What can those who sleep wish for--a happy awakening? This awakening you have given me; allow me, then, to enjoy it at my ease."

She took the young woman's hand and guided her to an armchair next to the bed. The young woman sat down.

"How unfortunate I am!" she said, almost to herself. "I have been here six months without the shadow of recreation. You arrive, and your presence was likely to afford me delightful company; yet I expect, in all probability, to quit the convent at any moment."

"Why? Are you leaving soon?" asked Anne.

"At least, I hope so," said the young woman, joy suffusing her features.

"I think I learned you had suffered persecutions from the cardinal," said Anne. "That would have been another motive for sympathy between us."

"What I have heard, then, from our good mother is true; you have likewise been a victim of that wicked priest."

"Hush!" warned Anne. "Let us not, even here, speak thus of him. All my misfortunes arise from my having said nearly what you have said before a woman whom I thought my friend, and who betrayed me. Are you also the victim of a treachery?"

"No," said the young woman, "but of my devotion--of a devotion to a woman I loved, for whom I would have laid down my life, for whom I would give it still."

"And who has abandoned you--is that it?"

"I have been sufficiently unjust to believe so; but during the last two or three days I have obtained proof to the contrary, for which I thank God--for it would have cost me very dear to think she had forgotten me. But you, madame, you appear to be free," continued the young woman, "and if you were inclined to fly it only rests with yourself to do so."

"Whither would you have me go, without friends, without money, in a part of France with which I am unacquainted, and where I have never been before?"

"Oh!" cried the young woman. "As to friends, you would have them wherever you want, you appear so good and are so beautiful!"

Yes, appear, thought Anne ruefully. Strange that everyone seemed to equate beauty with goodness. She smiled, knowing that it would make her appear all the more angelic and trustworthy.

"That does not prevent my being alone, or being persecuted," she said.

"Hear me," said the young woman. "We must trust in heaven. There always comes a moment when the good you have done pleads your cause before God; and see, perhaps it is a happiness for you, humble and powerless as I am, that you have met with me, for if I leave this place, well-I have powerful friends, who, after having exerted themselves on my account, may also exert themselves for you."

"Oh, when I said I was alone," said Anne, trying to draw her out, "it is not for want of friends in high places; but these friends themselves tremble before the cardinal. The queen herself does not dare to oppose the terrible minister. I have proof that her Majesty, notwithstanding her excellent heart, has more than once been obliged to abandon to the anger of his Eminence persons who had served her."

"Trust me, madame; the queen may appear to have abandoned those persons, but we must not put faith in appearances. The more they are persecuted, the more she thinks of them; and often, when they least expect it, they have proof of a kind remembrance."

"Alas!" said Anne. "I believe it to be so; the queen is so good!"

"Oh, you know her, then, that lovely and noble queen, that you speak of her thus!" cried the young woman, clasping her hands in delight.

"That is to say," said Anne, thinking quickly, "that I have not the honor of knowing her personally; but I know a great number of her most intimate friends. I am acquainted with Monsieur de Putange; I met Monsieur Dujart in England; I know Monsieur de Treville."

"Monsieur de Treville!" exclaimed the young woman. "Do you know Monsieur de Treville?"

"Yes, perfectly well--intimately even."

"The captain of the king's Musketeers?"

"The captain of the king's Musketeers."

"Why, then, only see!" cried the young woman, "We shall soon be well acquainted, almost friends. If you know Monsieur de Treville, you must have visited him?"

"Often!" said Anne, determined to see this lie through to the end.

"With him, then, you must have seen some of his Musketeers?"

Anne's interest was suddenly piqued.

"All those he is in the habit of receiving!" she replied.

"Name a few of those whom you know, and you will see if they are my friends."

"Well!" said Anne, trying to remember the names of any random Musketeers she had come across. "I know Monsieur de Louvigny, Monsieur de Courtivron, Monsieur de Ferussac."

"Don't you know a gentleman named Athos?"

Anne turned white as a sheet, and her body gave a tremor of revulsion. She cried out, and staring at the young woman, wanted to sound the depths of her soul.

"What is the matter?" cried the young woman. "Have I said anything that has wounded you?"

"No; but the name struck me, because I also have known that gentleman, and it appeared strange to me to meet with a person who appears to know him well."

"Oh, yes, very well; not only him, but some of his friends, Messieurs Porthos and Aramis!"

"Indeed! you know them likewise? I know them!" said Anne, utterly horrified but keeping her expression serene.

"Well, if you know them, you know that they are good and free companions. Why do you not apply to them, if you stand in need of help?"

Here, Anne was stumped.

"That is to say," she said, "I am not really very intimate with any of them. I know them from having heard one of their friends, Monsieur d'Artagnan, say a great deal about them."

"You know Monsieur d'Artagnan!" shouted the young woman, grabbing Anne's hands and staring at her likewise.

Anne could not keep the look of disgust from her face. Fortunately, the young woman completely misinterpreted it.

"Pardon me, madame; you know him by what title?"

"Why...why, by the title of friend," Anne finally said.

"You deceive me, madame!" said the young woman. "You have been his mistress!"

"It is you who have been his mistress, madame!"

"I?"

"Yes, you! I know you now. You are Madame Bonacieux!"

The young woman sprang away from her in horror.

"Oh, do not deny it! Answer!" snapped Anne.

"Well, yes, madame," admitted Madame Bonacieux. "Are we rivals?"

Is that all this woman thinks about? thought Anne. What a vapid idiot.

And yet, at the same time, her triumphant joy in this discovery was something she could not keep to herself, despite her talent with subterfuge. Fortunately, Madame Bonacieux was more concerned with jealous thoughts than the possibility of who Anne might be and the danger she might pose.

"Speak, madame!" Madame Bonacieux demanded. "Have you been, or are you, his mistress?"

"Oh, no!" lied Anne. "Never, never!"

Madame Bonacieux studied her face, and seemed to accept what she found there.

"I believe you," she said. "But why, then, did you cry out so?"

"Do you not understand?"

"How can I understand? I know nothing."

"Can you not understand that Monsieur d'Artagnan, being my friend, might take me into his confidence?"

"Truly?"

"Do you not perceive that I know all--your abduction from the little house at St. Germain, his despair, that of his friends, and their useless inquiries up to this moment? How could I help being astonished when, without having the least expectation of such a thing, I meet you face to face--you, of whom we have so often spoken together, you whom he loves with all his soul, you whom he had taught me to love before I had seen you! Ah, dear Constance, I have found you, then; I see you at last!"

And Anne opened her arms wide, to request an embrace from the young woman.

Constance, for her part, was entirely deceived.

"Oh, pardon, pardon!" she cried, throwing herself into Anne's arms as if she were a long-lost friend. "Pardon me, I love him so much!"

"Oh, you beautiful, good little creature!" said Anne. "How delighted I am to have found you! Let me look at you!" and pulled back to smile upon Constance. "Oh, yes it is you indeed! From what he has told me, I know you now. I recognize you perfectly."

All Constance saw were the limpid blue eyes of this angelic woman, this saint that seemed to have fallen from heaven just when she was most in need of succor.

"Then you know what I have suffered," said Constance. "Since he has told you what he has suffered; but to suffer for him is happiness."

Really, d'Artagnan? This woman? Anne shook her head, and responded almost by rote.

"Yes, that is happiness."

"And then," said Constance, "my punishment is drawing to a close. Tomorrow, this evening, perhaps, I shall see him again; and then the past will no longer exist."

Anne started.

"This evening?" she asked. "What do you mean? Do you expect news from him?"

"I expect himself," said Constance innocently.

"Himself? d'Artagnan here?"

"Himself!"

"But that's impossible! He is at the siege of La Rochelle with the cardinal. He will not return till after the taking of the city."

"Ah, you fancy so! But is there anything impossible for my d'Artagnan, the noble and loyal gentleman?"

"Oh, I cannot believe you!"

"Well, read, then!" said Constance with a smile, withdrawing a letter from her clothing with pride.

I recognise this handwriting, thought Anne. Madame de Chevreuse. Well, well. The plot thickens.

The letter read:

My Dear Child, Hold yourself ready. OUR FRIEND will see you soon, and he will only see you to release you from that imprisonment in which your safety required you should be concealed. Prepare, then, for your departure, and never despair of us.

Our charming Gascon has just proved himself as brave and faithful as ever. Tell him that certain parties are grateful for the warning he has given.

"Yes, yes," Anne agreed. "The letter is precise. Do you know what the warning was?"

"No, I only suspect he has warned the queen against some fresh machinations of the cardinal."

"Yes, that's it, no doubt!" said Anne.

Just then, they heard the sound of hoofbeats outside.

"Oh!" cried Madame Bonacieux, "can it be him?"

Anne's eyes nearly started out of her head.

"Him, him!" she muttered under her breath. "Can it be him?"

From the window, Constance sighed in disappointment.

"Alas, no!" said Constance. "It is a man I don't know, although he seems to be coming here. Yes, he checks his pace; he stops at the gate; he rings."

Caesar! thought Anne, and she climbed out of bed. She started dressing.

"You are sure it is not he?" she asked, as she put on her clothing.

"Yes, yes, very sure!"

"Perhaps you did not see well."

"Oh, if I were to see the plume of his hat, the end of his cloak, I should know HIM!" cried Constance, with all the fervour of an insane woman.

What the hell, d'Artagnan, thought Anne, rolling her eyes.

"Yes, he has entered," narrated Constance from the window.

"It is for you or me!"

"My God, how agitated you seem!"

"Yes, I admit it. I have not your confidence; I fear the cardinal."

"Hush!" whispered Constance. "Somebody is coming."

The door opened, and the abbess walked in.

"Did you come from Boulogne?" she asked Anne.

"Yes," said Anne. "Who wants me?"

"A man who will not tell his name, but who comes from the cardinal."

"And who wishes to speak with me?"

"Who wishes to speak to a lady recently come from Boulogne."

"Then let him come in, if you please."

"Oh, my God, my God!" cried Constance. Anne wanted to strangle her. "Can it be bad news?"

"I fear it," said Anne, keeping up appearances.

"I will leave you with this stranger; but as soon as he is gone, if you will permit me, I will return."

"Permit you?" asked Anne prettily. "I beseech you."

Constance bowed, and left the room with the abbess.

A few moments later, she could hear the jingling of spurs on the steps. The door opened.

It was Rochefort.

"Caesar!" she cried in relief, and threw herself into his arms.

 

Chapter Text

"Ah!" cried Anne and Rochefort at the same time, "it is you!"

"Yes, it is I."

"And you come?" asked Anne.

"From La Rochelle; and you?"

"From England."

"Buckingham?"

"Dead or desperately wounded, as I left without having been able to hear anything of him. A fanatic has just assassinated him."

"Ah," said Rochefort, smiling. "This is a fortunate chance--one that will delight his Eminence! Have you informed him of it?"

"I wrote to him from Boulogne. But what brings you here?"

"His Eminence was uneasy, and sent me to find you."

"I only arrived yesterday."

"And what have you been doing since yesterday?"

"I have not lost my time."

"Oh, I don't doubt that."

"Do you know whom I have encountered here?"

"No."

"Guess."

"How can I?"

"That young woman whom the queen took out of prison."

"The mistress of that fellow d'Artagnan?"

"Yes; Madame Bonacieux, with whose retreat the cardinal was unacquainted."

"Well, well," said Rochefort, "here is a chance which may pair off with the other! Monsieur Cardinal is indeed a privileged man!"

"Imagine my astonishment," continued Anne, "when I found myself face to face with this woman!"

"Does she know you?"

"No."

"Then she looks upon you as a stranger?"

Anne smiled. "I am her best friend."

"Upon my honor," said Rochefort, "it takes you, my dear countess, to perform such miracles!"

"And it is well I can, Chevalier," said Anne, "for do you know what is going on here?"

"No."

"They will come for her tomorrow or the day after, with an order from the queen."

"Indeed! And who?"

"d'Artagnan and his friends."

"Indeed, they will go so far that we shall be obliged to send them to the Bastille."

"Why is it not done already?"

"What would you have? The cardinal has a weakness for these men which I cannot comprehend."

"Indeed!"

"Yes."

"Well, then, tell him this, Rochefort. Tell him that our conversation at the inn of the Red Dovecot was overheard by these four men; tell him that after his departure one of them came up to me and took from me by violence the safe-conduct which he had given me; tell him they warned Lord de Winter of my journey to England; that this time they nearly foiled my mission as they foiled the affair of the studs; tell him that among these four men two only are to be feared--d'Artagnan and Athos; tell him that the third, Aramis, is the lover of Madame de Chevreuse--he may be left alone, we know his secret, and it may be useful; as to the fourth, Porthos, he is a fool, a simpleton, a blustering booby, not worth troubling himself about."

"But these four men must be now at the siege of La Rochelle?"

"I thought so, too; but a letter which Madame Bonacieux has received from Madame the Constable, and which she has had the imprudence to show me, leads me to believe that these four men, on the contrary, are on the road hither to take her away."

"The devil! What's to be done?"

"What did the cardinal say about me?"

"I was to take your dispatches, written or verbal, and return by post; and when he shall know what you have done, he will advise what you have to do."

"I must, then, remain here?"

"Here, or in the neighborhood."

"You cannot take me with you?"

"No, the order is imperative. Near the camp you might be recognized; and your presence, you must be aware, would compromise the cardinal."

"Then I must wait here, or in the neighborhood?"

"Only tell me beforehand where you will wait for intelligence from the cardinal; let me know always where to find you."

"Observe, it is probable that I may not be able to remain here."

"Why?"

"You forget that my enemies may arrive at any minute."

"That's true; but is this little woman, then, to escape his Eminence?"

"Bah!" Anne grinned. "You forget that I am her best friend."

"Ah, that's true! I may then tell the cardinal, with respect to this little woman--"

"That he may be at ease."

"Is that all?"

"He will know what that means."

"He will guess, at least. Now, then, what should I do?"

"Return instantly. It appears to me that the news you bear is worth the trouble of a little diligence."

"My chaise broke down coming into Lilliers."

"Capital!"

"What, capital?"

"Yes, I want your chaise."

"And how shall I travel, then?"

"On horseback."

"You talk very comfortably,--a hundred and eighty leagues!"

"What's that?"

"One can do it! Afterward?"

"Afterward? Why, in passing through Lilliers you will send me your chaise, with an order to your servant to place himself at my disposal."

"Well."

"You have, no doubt, some order from the cardinal about you?"

"I have my full power."

"Show it to the abbess, and tell her that someone will come and fetch me, either today or tomorrow, and that I am to follow the person who presents himself in your name."

"Very well."

"Don't forget to treat me harshly in speaking of me to the abbess."

"To what purpose?"

"I am a victim of the cardinal. It is necessary to inspire confidence in that poor little Madame Bonacieux."

"That's true. Now, will you make me a report of all that has happened?"

"Why, I have related the events to you. You have a good memory; repeat what I have told you. A paper may be lost."

"You are right; only let me know where to find you that I may not run needlessly about the neighborhood."

"That's true; wait!"

"Do you want a map?"

"Oh, I know this country marvelously!"

"You? When were you here?"

"I was brought up here. Or near enough."

"Truly?"

"It is worth something, you see, to have been brought up somewhere."

"You will wait for me, then?"

"Let me reflect a little! Ay, that will do--at Armentieres."

"Where is Armentieres?"

"A little town on the Lys; I shall only have to cross the river, and I shall be in a foreign country."

"Capital! but it is understood you will only cross the river in case of danger."

"That is well understood."

"And in that case, how shall I know where you are?"

"You do not want your lackey?"

"Is he a sure man?"

"To the proof."

"Give him to me. Nobody knows him. I will leave him at the place I quit, and he will conduct you to me."

"And you say you will wait for me at Armentieres?"

"At Armentieres."

"Write that name on a bit of paper, lest I should forget it. There is nothing compromising in the name of a town. Is it not so?"

"Eh, who knows? Never mind," said Anne, writing the name on half a sheet of paper. "I will compromise myself."

"Well," said Rochefort, taking the paper from Milady, folding it, and placing it in the lining of his hat, "you may be easy. I will do as children do, for fear of losing the paper--repeat the name along the route. Now, is that all?"

"I believe so."

"Let us see: Buckingham dead or grievously wounded; your conversation with the cardinal overheard by the four Musketeers; Lord de Winter warned of your arrival at Portsmouth; d'Artagnan and Athos to the Bastille; Aramis the lover of Madame de Chevreuse; Porthos an ass; Madame Bonacieux found again; to send you the chaise as soon as possible; to place my lackey at your disposal; to make you out a victim of the cardinal in order that the abbess may entertain no suspicion; Armentieres, on the banks of the Lys. Is that all, then?"

"In truth, my dear Chevalier, you are a miracle of memory. A propos, add one thing--"

"What?"

"I saw some very pretty woods which almost touch the convent garden. Say that I am permitted to walk in those woods. Who knows? Perhaps I shall stand in need of a back door for retreat."

"You think of everything."

"And you forget one thing."

"What?"

"To ask me if I want money."

"That's true. How much do you want?"

"All you have in gold."

"I have five hundred pistoles, or thereabouts."

"I have as much. With a thousand pistoles one may face everything. Empty your pockets."

"There."

"Right. And you go--"

"In an hour--time to eat a morsel, during which I shall send for a post horse."

"Capital! Adieu, Chevalier."

"Adieu, Countess."

They embraced, as old friends do.

"Commend me to the cardinal."

"Commend me to Satan."

Anne laughed, and Rochefort walked out the door.

 

Chapter Text

Constance walked into the room after Rochefort's departure. 

Anne was grinning ear-to-ear, but when she saw Constance, realised that she would need to make something up, and quickly.

"Well," said Constance, "what you had dreaded has happened. his evening, or tomorrow, the cardinal will send someone to take you away."

"Who told you that, my dear?" asked Anne.

"I heard it from the mouth of the messenger himself."

"Come and sit next to me," said Anne.

"Here I am."

"Wait till I assure myself that nobody hears us."

"Why all these precautions?"

"You shall know."

Anne went to look out the door, and up and down the corridor, as if checking to make sure they weren't overheard. She closed the door and returned to her seat beside Constance.

"Then," she said, "he has well played his part."

"Who has?"

"He who just now presented himself to the abbess as a messenger from the cardinal."

"It was, then, a part he was playing?"

"Yes, my child."

"That man, then, was not--"

"That man," said Anne, "is my brother!"

"Your brother!" exclaimed Constance.

"No one must know this secret, my dear, but yourself. If you reveal it to anyone in the world, I shall be lost, and perhaps yourself likewise."

"Oh, my God!"

"Listen. This is what has happened: My brother, who was coming to my assistance to take me away by force if it were necessary, met with the emissary of the cardinal, who was coming in search of me. He followed him. At a solitary and retired part of the road he drew his sword, and required the messenger to deliver up to him the papers of which he was the bearer. The messenger resisted; my brother killed him."

"Oh!" said Constance, with an involuntary shiver.

"Remember, that was the only means. Then my brother determined to substitute cunning for force. He took the papers, and presented himself here as the emissary of the cardinal, and in an hour or two a carriage will come to take me away by the orders of his Eminence."

"I understand. It is your brother who sends this carriage."

"Exactly; but that is not all. That letter you have received, and which you believe to be from Madame de Chevreuse--"

"Well?"

"It is a forgery."

"How can that be?"

"Yes, a forgery; it is a snare to prevent your making any resistance when they come to fetch you."

"But it is d’Artagnan that will come."

"Do not deceive yourself. D’Artagnan and his friends are detained at the siege of La Rochelle."

"How do you know that?"

"My brother met some emissaries of the cardinal in the uniform of Musketeers. You would have been summoned to the gate; you would have believed yourself about to meet friends; you would have been abducted, and conducted back to Paris."

"Oh, my God! My senses fail me amid such a chaos of iniquities. I feel, if this continues, I shall go mad!"

And Constance pressed her hands against her forehead, sighing overdramatically.

Anne looked at her with disdain, which she quickly covered when Constance opened her eyes again.

"Wait," said Anne.

"What?" asked Constance.

"I hear a horse’s steps; it is my brother setting off again. I should like to offer him a last salute. Come!"

Anne opened the window and beckoned Constance to join her there. 

Rochefort passed beneath the window at a gallop.

"Adieu, brother!" called Anne. Rochefort raised a hand in response, before disappearing around the bend.

"The good George!" said Anne, affecting a dramatic and weak demeanour similar to Constance's whiny behaviour. She sat down as if she were very sad to see him go, her only hope of rescue, because she was a woman, and therefore an idiot.

Constance, recognising herself in Anne's comportment, sat down beside her.

"Dear lady," she said, "pardon me for interrupting you; but what do you advise me to do? Good heaven! You have more experience than I have. Speak; I will listen."

"In the first place,” said Anne, "it is possible I may be deceived, and that d’Artagnan and his friends may really come to your assistance."

Constance clasped her hands and blinked large doe eyes.

"Oh, that would be too much!" she cried. "So much happiness is not in store for me!"

This, for a man who threw you away like he would throw away a tissue, thought Anne.

"Then you comprehend it would be only a question of time, a sort of race, which should arrive first. If your friends are the more speedy, you are to be saved; if the satellites of the cardinal, you are lost," she said.

"Oh, yes, yes; lost beyond redemption! What, then, to do? What to do?"

"There would be a very simple means, very natural--"

"Tell me what!"

"To wait, concealed in the neighborhood, and assure yourself who are the men who come to ask for you."

"But where can I wait?"

"Oh, there is no difficulty in that. I shall stop and conceal myself a few leagues hence until my brother can rejoin me. Well, I take you with me; we conceal ourselves, and wait together."

"But I shall not be allowed to go; I am almost a prisoner."

"As they believe that I go in consequence of an order from the cardinal, no one will believe you anxious to follow me."

"Well?"

"Well! The carriage is at the door; you bid me adieu; you mount the step to embrace me a last time; my brother’s servant, who comes to fetch me, is told how to proceed; he makes a sign to the postillion, and we set off at a gallop."

"But d’Artagnan! D’Artagnan! if he comes?"

"Shall we not know it?"

"How?"

"Nothing easier. We will send my brother’s servant back to Bethune, whom, as I told you, we can trust. He shall assume a disguise, and place himself in front of the convent. If the emissaries of the cardinal arrive, he will take no notice; if it is Monsieur d’Artagnan and his friends, he will bring them to us."

"He knows them, then?"

"Doubtless. Has he not seen Monsieur d’Artagnan at my house?"

"Oh, yes, yes; you are right. Thus all may go well--all may be for the best; but we do not go far from this place?"

"Seven or eight leagues at the most. We will keep on the frontiers, for instance; and at the first alarm we can leave France."

"And what can we do there?"

"Wait."

"But if they come?"

"My brother’s carriage will be here first."

"If I should happen to be any distance from you when the carriage comes for you--at dinner or supper, for instance?"

"Do one thing."

"What is that?"

"Tell your good superior that in order that we may be as much together as possible, you ask her permission to share my repast."

"Will she permit it?"

"What inconvenience can it be?"

"Oh, delightful! In this way we shall not be separated for an instant."

"Well, go down to her, then, to make your request. I feel my head a little confused; I will take a turn in the garden."

"Go; and where shall I find you?"

"Here, in an hour."

"Here, in an hour. Oh, you are so kind, and I am so grateful!"

"How can I avoid interesting myself for one who is so beautiful and so amiable? Are you not the beloved of one of my best friends?"

"Dear d’Artagnan! Oh, how he will thank you!"

"I hope so. Now, then, all is agreed; let us go down."

"You are going into the garden?"

"Yes."

"Go along this corridor, down a little staircase, and you are in it."

"Excellent; thank you!"

Anne smiled at Constance, and departed.

***

Outside in the garden, the sun warmed the earth. Beautiful flowers accented the green hedges, and it gave Anne some time to think.

She was telling the truth, at least, in saying that she was confused. So many rapid-fire lies on the spot meant that she needed to organise the story in her head, and plot out her next moves in isolation. There was not much time to lose, but she thought it was possible to convince Constance to accompany her. The blithering idiot would do well as a hostage for ransom, and the Cardinal would be rid of one of his enemies. Where Caesar had failed, twice, she thought it would be a boon to him, finding little Constance in their possession once again.

For reasons that Anne couldn't quite gather, this woman was the ultimate goal of d'Artagnan. She couldn't really see why, as this woman she had assumed as formidable as herself turned out to be a simpering fool, startling at the least provocation. But it was not for Anne to judge the matters of the heart. The most important thing about Constance was that she was d'Artagnan's weakness. Therefore, she could be used as leverage. 

Anne did not doubt that Constance would follow her. The woman seemed incapable of making her own decisions or thinking independently of others. She would bring her to Armentieres, and eventually make her believe that d'Artagnan had never come for her. After a fortnight, Caesar would return, and meet with her there. This would give her enough time to plan the best route to vengeance against these men who seemed to haunt her every step, and that of the Cardinal.

Anne felt her thoughts organised now, so she moved to the next task. She memorized every corner, every nook and cranny of the garden. This would be necessary, should she need to beat a hasty retreat if her plans went awry. She hoped they wouldn't, but it was a foolish warrior who trusts everything to fate.

As she was walking in turns around the garden, after about an hour, she heard Constance calling to her in a quiet voice. She walked towards Anne, and linked their arms together, walking back through the courtyard.

"Good news!" she said. "The abbess says we can sup together."

Anne was about to reply, when they both heard carriage-wheels in the gravel.

"Do you hear anything?" she asked.

"Yes, the rolling of a carriage."

"It is the one my brother sends for us."

"Oh, my God!"

"Come, come! courage!"

The bell sounded; there was indeed someone at the gate.

Anne turned to Constance and spoke with urgency.

"Go to your chamber," Anne advised, "you have perhaps some jewels you would like to take."

"I have his letters," she said.

"Well, go and fetch them, and come to my apartment. We will snatch some supper; we shall perhaps travel part of the night, and must keep our strength up."

"Great God!" said Constance, her hand fluttering over her chest. "My heart beats so I cannot walk."

"Courage, courage! remember that in a quarter of an hour you will be safe; and think that what you are about to do is for HIS sake."

"Yes, yes, everything for him. You have restored my courage by a single word; go, I will rejoin you."

 

Chapter Text

Anne took the stairs two at a time. She burst into the apartment, and there found Caesar's lackey, just as she had hoped.

"Milady," he said, bowing to her. "I await your instructions."

"You are to wait at the gate," she said quickly. "If you see the Musketeers, leave immediately, and meet me instead at the little village on the other side of the woods. I will make my own way there."

"Understood."

"If, however, you don't see them," Anne continued, "then Constance will get into the carriage, in appearances, to bid me adieu. Then you will leave with both of us."

The lackey nodded. Constance walked into the room just then, and in order to play her part to the letter, Anne repeated the last half of the instructions.

She asked a few questions about the carriage. The lackey informed her that it would have three horses, and that he would take the lead, guiding the carriage to its destination.

Anne evaluated Constance's expression during the entire conversation. The woman was so clueless and gormless that she had clearly bought the entire story. Anne inwardly felt a kind of shame on her behalf, for assuming a woman incapable of perfidy. But it was not the first time Anne had been underestimated simply because she was a beautiful woman.

"You see," said Anne, turning to Constance, "everything is ready. The abbess suspects nothing, and believes that I am taken by order of the cardinal. This man goes to give his last orders; take the least thing, drink a finger of wine, and let us be gone."

"Yes," said Constance, frozen, speaking in a monotone. "Let us be gone."

Anne raised an eyebrow at her. She knew that Constance was a fairly useless creature by this point, but utterly failed to understand how this was the same woman who had performed such feats of bravery for the queen. Could she possibly lose heart enough in these last few moments to destroy herself because she believed so little in her own abilities, due to her sex?

Anne poured her a glass of Spanish wine. Surely this would help calm her nerves. She also offered her a few bites of chicken, to help build her strength.

"See!" said Anne. "If everything does not second us! Here is night coming on; by daybreak we shall have reached our retreat, and nobody can guess where we are. Come, courage! take something."

But Constance could only chew a few mouthfuls and barely touched the wine, so terrified was she. Anne resisted rolling her eyes, and grabbed some of the food and wine for herself.

"Come, come!" said Anne. "Do as I do!"

Constance watched her, and tried to mimic her movements.

If I have to pretend to be this little idiot's friend for ten minutes longer, I shall go mad myself, thought Anne.

Constance finally raised the glass of wine halfway to her lips, when both of them heard something.

The distant sound of hoofbeats.

Anne knew she had to think fast. She ran to the window and looked out.

Constance had a death grip on her chair, to keep her from falling onto the floor in her terror.

"Oh, my God!" she screamed. "What is that noise?"

"That of either our friends or our enemies," said Anne. "Stay where you are, I will tell you."

Constance remained frozen in place.

The noise of the horses increased. Anne couldn't make out who they were because the road curved around a bend. The sun had nearly set, making her lean forward in order to see better.

She saw the plumes of their hats and the shine of their lace before she saw who they were. She counted two, then five, then eight men on horseback.

Her stomach dropped. At the lead, she recognised d'Artagnan.

She had been unable to suppress a sound of disgust and horror, when Constance spoke.

"Oh my God!" screamed Constance again. "What is it?"

Anne marshalled all her strength.

"It is the uniform of the cardinal’s Guards. Not an instant to be lost! Fly, fly!"

This was, apparently, the wrong thing to say. Constance's grip on the chair became tighter, and her countenance completely drained of blood.

"Yes, yes, let us fly!" she said, unable to move a single step.

Anne heard the horses pass beneath the window. She tried to overcome Constance's terror, yanking on the woman's arm.

"Come, then, come then!" cried Anne. "Thanks to the garden, we yet can flee; I have the key, but make haste! in five minutes it will be too late!"

Constance finally let go of the chair and tried to walk. She made it two steps before she sank down onto the floor, defeated. Anne tried to lift her up into her arms, but Constance seemed made of lead, a dead weight. She seemed, somehow, to have made herself even heavier by her motionless terror. She was not so much actively fighting against Anne as she was collapsed in a heap, making it difficult for Anne to get her arms under the woman.

Anne heard the wheels of the carriage rolling. as the lackey left the gate just as they had agreed. Three or four shots were fired.

"For the last time, will you come?" demanded Anne, pulling on Constance, trying to at least get her to stand up enough for Anne to scoop her up in a fireman's carry.

"Oh, my God, my God! you see my strength fails me; you see plainly I cannot walk. Flee alone!"

"Flee alone, and leave you here? No, no, never!" said Anne.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. It wasn't the way she had hoped to avenge herself, of course, but needs must in times of pressure. She wasn't certain that her choice, in this matter, was altogether prudent or even excusable. But she needed to get away and saw her quarry escaping her.

There was one surefire way that Constance would not escape, and that d'Artagnan would live without experiencing Anne's furious vengeance. This world, and its foolish ideas about women, had caused her to see a future in which d'Artagnan might find happiness extremely distasteful. She did not want to have nightmares for the rest of her life about him, and his friends, enjoying themselves without any kind of repercussions whatsoever. They even left Constance here mouldering for six months while d'Artagnan had sported with Anne herself. She felt that they deserved punishment.

The problem with killing d'Artaganan, she thought, was that it hadn't been ambitious enough. Her plans had failed in that endeavour so far, but now she recognised it as a chance to punish him for a lifetime. The dead feel nothing, including remorse or regret.

Or loss, such as she had experienced with de Wardes, who she had recently discovered passed away from his wounds. 

Why kill d'Artagnan, when she could make him suffer for the rest of his life instead?

A lover for a lover. Tit for tat.

All for one.

And one for all.

Anne ran to the table, and opened her ring for the first time. The powdered cyanide drifted into the wineglass, a poison fairly new to France and one that Catherine 'de Medici had pursued in her experiments.

Once the powder was sufficiently absorbed into the wine, Anne carefully closed the ring over again. She grabbed the glass of wine and offered it to Constance.

"Drink. This wine will give you strength, drink!"

And she put the glass to Constance's lips. The young woman drank automatically.

Anne smiled an infernal smile.

"This is not the way that I wished to avenge myself," she said, setting the glass back onto the table. "But, my faith! We do what we can."

And knowing there was no time left to lose, Anne rushed out of the room, down the stairs, out into the garden, and into the woods. She did not want to be discovered when the Musketeers arrived.

As to the reason she had left before seeing whether the poison had any effect, Anne knew it was useless. Cyanide was a poison without a cure.

It always found its mark.

 

Chapter Text

After some time moving through the forest, Anne broke through the treeline and saw the carriage. She worried, for a moment, about the tracks she had most likely made in the sand of the garden, but she had been in haste and there was nothing to be done about it now.

She hailed the carriage, and was horrified to see that the lackey with whom she had conversed earlier was bleeding.

"What happened?" she asked.

"Nothing to concern yourself with, Milady," he assured her. "Only that the ball of one of their muskets passed through me."

"Are you able to travel?" she asked.

"For the time being, yes," he said.

"Then let us waste no time," she told him. He nodded his agreement, and she boarded the carriage. They set off moments later, kicking up a cloud of dust behind them.

***

A few hours later, on the way to Armentieres, the lackey felt his strength fail him. They stopped at a little inn in the village of Festubert, where he told her that he could go no further. He took her as far as Fromelles before he had to stop.

Anne nodded her understanding.

"Very well," she said. "Thank you for your help, and my best wishes that you will be on the mend soon."

"Go," he replied. "All is not lost, but you must be quick!"

"I shall," she said, and with a relay of horses, set off once more toward her rendezvous with Rochefort.

***

That night around eleven o'clock, Anne was weary with her journey. She had arrived at the outskirts of Amentieres, at an inn called the Post. She called for the master of the hotel.

"I wish to remain for some time in the area," she informed him. "I would like to engage a room."

He did as she asked, and no sooner had she fallen into bed was she fast asleep.

 

The following morning, she set out again from Armentieres, this time for the small cabin near the French border, on the banks of the Lys. This expedition took the entire day, and the sky looked threatening. Anne was reminded of that time, long ago, when the storm had overtaken her on the roadside, and she had met Rochefort for the first time.

Still, she cast a worried glance at the sky. She was near to freedom, but not near enough for comfort. She would only breathe freely once she was over the border. The Cardinal's arm stretched far, but had already proven not to be infallible.

She saw, at a distance, a lone little house next to the river. Anne was happy to see that the ferry was roughly 100 paces from the house. Certainly it would be possible to make her escape in the morning, and once across the border, she would be free.

She was also considering leaving the Cardinal's service, though she had hardly admitted this to herself. She was wealthy enough, after all; Lord de Winter had said as much to her during her hated imprisonment in his castle. She would miss her apartments in Paris, but after what felt like a lifetime of adventure, she felt a quieter life calling her. She didn't know how long such peace and solitude would last, of course. She had a wild streak in her a mile wide. But it was certainly something to consider, as she had grown tired of constantly being worried about her freedom.

Freedom, said that long-ago voice of Therese, is the only thing worth fighting for.

The sky was darkening. It was time to get inside.

She walked into the house. It was sparsely furnished, with not much else than a fireplace and a rough table and chairs. The house was homely enough, built of cedar or some similar wood, giving a sense of warmth to the place.

She turned, and shut the door, sliding the lock home. 

The skies opened, and rain poured down in a torrent.

Glad to be indoors and out of the rain and wind, Anne went to the fireplace and began to build a fire.

***

In the darkness, Anne watched the flames dancing in the fireplace, lost in thought.

Her dark mantle was wrapped around herself. Despite the fire, the house was chilly, and the rain had never let up. Occasionally, the world lit up with lightning, followed by a crack of thunder loud enough to deafen her for a moment.

Anne knew she had done many things simply to survive. Much as she looked down on both Constance and Kitty for their foolishness, she understood that they were playing by the book. Anne herself behaved much more like a man, and was therefore despised and called demon. Nevertheless, she did feel remorse about what she had done to Constance. She wondered if she were losing her humanity. Yes, she had wanted d'Artagnan to suffer, but she was no longer certain that murdering Constance was the way to do it. As a woman, she really should have taken the part of other women, in a world where men were enemies or saviours but nothing in between. Her own friendship with Rochefort was a rare and precious thing. But still, she felt it unfair that Constance had to pay for d'Artagnan's transgressions with her life.

She sighed. Nothing to be done for it now. She knew that d'Artagnan's rage would also spike, along with that of Athos. These men needed to dominate and subjugate women to a degree she had never seen in other men, even during her short time as a prostitute. They acted as though they had the right to do everything, whether it was treating women infamously or theft or indeed outright murder. 

If she wasn't a good woman, then these, she assured herself, were not good men.

A horse neighed outside.

Anne turned around. The only horses here were her own, and they had been shut up in the barn for the evening, lest they run wild in the storm.

All she saw, at first, were raindrops coursing down the windows in the darkness.

Lightning struck. 

Suddenly, she saw Armand's face, pressed against the window, wide-eyed and mad.

She screamed.

He smashed through the glass, and soaked to the bone, he leapt into the room.

Anne rushed to the door and threw it open.

There, on the stoop, stood d'Artagnan. If Athos looked mad, d'Artagnan looked positively insane.

He drew a pistol from his belt. Anne backed away.

Athos raised his hand.

"Put back that weapon, d’Artagnan!" he said. "This woman must be tried, not assassinated. Wait an instant, my friend, and you shall be satisfied. Come in, gentlemen."

A number of men filed into the room. Anne saw their lackeys standing guard at every door and window.

She sank into a chair and stared at them. Athos, Porthos, Aramis, d'Artagnan, Lord de Winter, and - another man, wrapped in a red cloak, who she did not recognise.

"What do you want?" she cried, looking directly at Lord de Winter, who had recently been her captor.

But it was Athos who answered.

"We want," he said, "Charlotte Backson, who first was called Comtesse de la Fére, and afterwards Milady de Winter, Baroness of Sheffield."

Chapter Text

Anne stared at a group of men who had decided to break into the house of a lone woman in the middle of a thunderstorm, at night, when no one else was anywhere nearby. She was cold with terror, or perhaps the open door and broken window letting in wind and rain as it howled through the room and the fire guttered in the grate.

"That is I! That is I!" she said. "What do you want?"

"We wish to judge you according to your crime," said Athos, her once-beloved Armand. "you shall be free to defend yourself. Justify yourself if you can. M. d’Artagnan, it is for you to accuse her first."

d'Artagnan stepped forward, wild-eyed.

"Before God and before men," he said, "I accuse this woman of having poisoned Constance Bonacieux, who died yesterday evening."

He looked at Porthos and Aramis.

"We bear witness to this," they said together.

"Before God and before men," continued d'Artagnan, "I accuse this woman of having attempted to poison me, in wine which she sent me from Villeroy, with a forged letter, as if that wine came from my friends. God preserved me, but a man named Brisemont died in my place."

"We bear witness to this," said Porthos and Aramis again.

"Before God and before men," finished d'Artagnan, "I accuse this woman of having urged me to the murder of the Baron de Wardes; but as no one else can attest the truth of this accusation, I attest it myself. I have done."

d'Artagnan, having said his piece, joined Porthos and Aramis in the corner of the room.

"Your turn, my Lord," said Athos. Lord de Winter stepped forward.

"Before God and before men," he said, "I accuse this woman of having caused the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham."

There was a collective gasp.

"The Duke of Buckingham assassinated!" cried everyone.

"Yes, assassinated!" Lord de Winter confirmed. "On receiving the warning letter you wrote to me, I had this woman arrested, and gave her in charge to a loyal servant. She corrupted this man; she placed the poniard in his hand; she made him kill the duke. And at this moment, perhaps, Felton is paying with his head for the crime of this fury!"

The men there gathered looked as one at Anne and shuddered in disgust and fear.

"That is not all," said Lord de Winter. "My brother, who made you his heir, died in three hours of a strange disorder which left livid traces all over the body. My sister, how did your husband die?"

"Horror!" shouted Porthos and Aramis.

"Assassin of Buckingham, assassin of Felton, assassin of my brother, I demand justice upon you, and I swear that if it be not granted to me, I will execute it myself."

Lord de Winter joined d'Artagnan, Porthos, and Aramis in the corner of the room.

Anne let her head sink into her hands, terrified, but always, always planning. Men underestimated her, even these men, and they would underestimate her, even now.

"My turn," said Athos, shivering in horror as he looked upon a woman he once called wife. "My turn. I married that woman when she was a young girl; I married her in opposition to the wishes of all my family; I gave her my wealth, I gave her my name; and one day I discovered that this woman was branded--this woman was marked with a fleur-de-lys on her left shoulder."

This was too much for Anne, and she finally stood.

"Oh," she said, "I defy you to find any tribunal which pronounced that infamous sentence against me. I defy you to find him who executed it!"

"Silence!" said a voice like the grave. "It is for me to reply to that!"

"What man is that?" demanded Anne, in her terror, as her hair fell from its plait from her agitation. "What man is that?"

And the man in the red cloak stood forward, and when only the table separated him from Anne, he removed his mask.

Anne looked at him a while, an aged man with a black beard.

Suddenly, she stifled a shriek. It was Henri's brother, the executioner of Lille!

The horrors of his persecution of her in the farmhouse with half a roof, as she screamed and tried to flee, and he ripped one of her teeth out, branding her shoulder, the man who made her swore she should never be weak and incapable of defending herself ever again.

All those memories fell upon her like the hand of fate.

"Oh, no. no, no!" she cried, nearly insensible, as she backed into the wall and scrabbled at it, as if she could dig through the wall with her nails. "No, no! it is an infernal apparition! It is not he! Help, help!"

"Who are you, then?" was a question that came from everyone in the room.

"Ask that woman," he said. "For you can plainly see that she knows me!"

"The executioner of Lille, the executioner of Lille!" cried Anne, supporting herself against the wall with her hands, for fear she might succumb to her terror. She was resolute in never letting this happen, and clutched at the wood until she bled under her fingernails.

Everyone in the room, with the natural disgust people held toward executioners, drew away from him almost on instinct.

"Oh, grace, grace, pardon!" she cried, finally falling to her knees in supplication in front of Henri's brother.

"I told you well that she would know me. Yes, I am the executioner of Lille, and this is my history."

All attention was on him.

"That woman was once a young girl, as beautiful as she is today. She was a nun in the convent of the Benedictines of Templemar. A young priest, with a simple and trustful heart, performed the duties of the church of that convent. She undertook his seduction, and succeeded; she would have seduced a saint.

"Their vows were sacred and irrevocable. Their connection could not last long without ruining both. She prevailed upon him to leave the country; but to leave the country, to fly together, to reach another part of France, where they might live at ease because unknown, money was necessary. Neither had any. The priest stole the sacred vases, and sold them; but as they were preparing to escape together, they were both arrested.

"Eight days later she had seduced the son of the jailer, and escaped. The young priest was condemned to ten years of imprisonment, and to be branded. I was executioner of the city of Lille, as this woman has said. I was obliged to brand the guilty one; and he, gentlemen, was my brother!

"I then swore that this woman who had ruined him, who was more than his accomplice, since she had urged him to the crime, should at least share his punishment. I suspected where she was concealed. I followed her, I caught her, I bound her; and I imprinted the same disgraceful mark upon her that I had imprinted upon my poor brother.

"The day after my return to Lille, my brother in his turn succeeded in making his escape; I was accused of complicity, and was condemned to remain in his place till he should be again a prisoner. My poor brother was ignorant of this sentence. He rejoined this woman; they fled together into Berry, and there he obtained a little curacy. This woman passed for his sister.

"The Lord of the estate on which the chapel of the curacy was situated saw this pretend sister, and became enamoured of her--amorous to such a degree that he proposed to marry her. Then she quitted him she had ruined for him she was destined to ruin, and became the Comtesse de la Fére--"

Everyone looked at Athos, who nodded his confirmation.

"Then," resumed the executioner, "mad, desperate, determined to get rid of an existence from which she had stolen everything, honor and happiness, my poor brother returned to Lille, and learning the sentence which had condemned me in his place, surrendered himself, and hanged himself that same night from the iron bar of the loophole of his prison.

"To do justice to them who had condemned me, they kept their word. As soon as the identity of my brother was proved, I was set at liberty.

"That is the crime of which I accuse her; that is the cause for which she was branded."

"Monsieur d’Artagnan,” said Athos, “what is the penalty you demand against this woman?"

"The punishment of death," replied d’Artagnan.

"My Lord de Winter," continued Athos, "what is the penalty you demand against this woman?"

"The punishment of death," replied Lord de Winter.

"Messieurs Porthos and Aramis," repeated Athos, "you who are her judges, what is the sentence you pronounce upon this woman?"

"The punishment of death," they answered.

Anne screamed again, in hopes that someone might hear her, possibly Rochefort or anyone else within range. In the meantime, she dragged herself toward the men on her knees, giving herself the angelic aspect that had always worked before.

Athos stretched out his hand.

"Charlotte Backson, Comtesse de la Fére, Milady de Winter," he said, "your crimes have wearied men on earth and God in heaven. If you know a prayer, say it--for you are condemned, and you shall die."

When she saw the finality of this sentence, she stood from where she knelt, and let her true soul shine through.

"I, in turn, accuse you all!" she cried. "You, Armand, who calls himself Athos! You hanged your wife from a tree, because you saw her branded! She was unconscious, and you never even asked her why! You hanged an unconscious woman from a tree because you felt she had lied to you!"

She turned to d'Artagnan.

"And you!" she shouted. "You claimed to love Constance and forgot about her to make love to me instead! You came to me under false pretences and a false name! Then you realised that claiming me in another man's name felt demeaning to you, and you became jealous enough to lie to me about the conduct of de Wardes in order to get into my bed! You were mad with it! I remember! I remember! And you spurned the love of Ketty while making love to her at the same time. You are no saint, and have no right to accuse me!"

Then she turned to Aramis.

"I don't know you, monsieur, but I have heard of you," she said. "Pretended priest! Terrible musketeer! You know no loyalty but to yourself, and sport with women as mere trifles! You are the most treacherous of the lot! He will lie to you and lead you to ruin one day, and destroy your bonds of friendship, this I swear! No man so duplicitous is able to retain such friends for long."

She looked at Porthos.

"And you! Playing with the heart of a married woman, just because you wanted to get your hands upon the coffers of her elderly husband after his death!" she cried, pointing at him. "Greed and vanity, you make a mockery of love!"

When it was Lord de Winter's turn, he tried to speak, but she quieted him.

"If this is to be my last  night on this Earth," she said. "You will let me say my piece! You imprisoned me against my will in a castle, you believed all these men over me! And yes, yes I did poison Bennett - because he was a monster, William, but you never could see it! He was a monster, through and through, but who listens to the words of a woman these days?"

Furious and panting, she turned finally to the executioner of Lille.

"And you," she spat. "Henri loved me and you treated me sorely! I did not return his love in the way that he wanted, but I loved him in my own way! Then you pursued me, you caught and bound me, you put the branding iron in the fire and seared my flesh with it! No court, no judge, no one gave you permission to do what you did to me! And you ripped one of my teeth from my mouth, so that I lay on the ground, my mouth pouring blood, my shoulder aching in pain, and you left me there! Henri never forgave you for what you did, and I ask you if this is the way a good man behaves toward a woman!"

The men present were shocked into silence, as she looked at them one by one.

"And I defy you, all of you!" she said, "you Musketeers, who casually murder people in their hundreds, and stab others, during wartime or peacetime, to claim any moral superiority over me!"

She stood there, her fists clenched, her fingernails biting into the flesh, where blood poured down, just as the thorns of the roses had done, one day near the cliffside so long ago.

"It is well," said Athos finally. "It is well that we take the life of this woman, for the things she knows would destroy us all."

"Are you serious, Armand?!" cried Anne. "You will kill me because I know things about all of you that aren't the most savoury? Well, I can tell you, the truth will out! I am not the only one who knows these stories, and mark my words, even if you kill me, they will one day be told!"

"Very well," responded Athos. "But not by you."

He nodded at the others.

"We shall never speak of this," he said. "These words will never be repeated outside of this room, and we will claim this woman went silently to her death."

And he shoved Anne out onto the porch, into the storm, as hard as he possibly could.

The other men followed afterwards.

Behind them, the house stood empty, its door still standing open, as the fire fell to embers, and smoke issued forth from the lamp on the table.

 

Chapter Text

The night was silent, save for the storm, and the flashes of lightning punctuated by rolls of thunder.

Anne was dragged unceremoniously, through the dark and the rain, toward the river by two of their lackeys.

She recognised Armand's servant, Grimaud.

"Your master beats you, doesn't he?" she asked. "Thrashes you all the time, though you do your best to do his bidding. 

She looked at Mousequeton.

"Your master only gives you his hand-me-downs," she said, "and threatens you if you balk from danger."

She lowered her voice to a whisper, so it was covered by the storm.

"A thousand pistoles to each of you, if you will assist my escape; but if you deliver me up to your masters, I have near at hand avengers who will make you pay dearly for my death."

Grimaud, that silent statue of a man, paused. Mousequeton trembled.

In a moment, Athos and Lord de Winter were by their side.

"Change these lackeys," said Athos. "She has spoken to them. They are no longer sure."

What power they must believe me to have, thought Anne. Almost supernatural.

Planchet and Bazin replaced the other two lackeys, and though Anne repeated her scathing judgment with regards to d'Artagnan, who she knew beat Planchet, these two men were less responsive.

They were next to the river now. The executioner approached, and bound her hands and feet.

The memory of that house, that time, assailed her, similar as it was with the storm and the man who now took her freedom again.

"You are cowards, miserable assassins--ten men combined to murder one woman. Beware! If I am not saved I shall be avenged," Anne cried out.

Athos approached, stern and severe. She tried to find the Armand she had once loved in those features, and could not.

"You are not a woman," he said, ice in his voice. "You do not belong to the human species; you are a demon escaped from hell, whither we send you back again."

Definitely supernatural, she thought. What fools, that they assume I'm not a woman, simply because of my capabilities. Could it be that women are capable of everything? No? Must be a demon, then.

"Ah, you virtuous men!" sneered Anne. "Please remember that he who shall touch a hair of my head is himself an assassin."

"The executioner may kill, without being on that account an assassin," said Henri's brother, Valentin, who touched a wicked sword at his side. "This is the last judge; that is all. Nachrichter, as say our neighbors, the Germans."

Anne lost her courage. She wailed a cry, two or three times, and this cry had something of an effect on these men of stone.

"If I am guilty, if I have committed the crimes you accuse me of," shrieked Anne, "take me before a tribunal. You are not judges! You cannot condemn me!"

"I offered you Tyburn," said Lord de Winter. "Why did you not accept it?"

"Because I am not willing to die!” cried Anne, struggling against the ropes. "Because I am too young to die!"

"The woman you poisoned at Bethune was still younger than you, madame, and yet she is dead," said d’Artagnan.

"I will enter a cloister; I will become a nun," said Anne.

"You were in a cloister," said the executioner, "and you left it to ruin my brother."

Anne cried out in terror. Valentin hoisted her up, and walked toward the river.

"Oh, my God!" she screamed. "My God! Are you going to drown me?"

d'Artagnan, overcome, sat down on a stump and hung his head.

Anne noticed this movement, and saw a glimmer of hope.

"Oh, I cannot behold this frightful spectacle!" he said. "I cannot consent that this woman should die thus!"

Hope increased in Anne's heart as she heard his words.

"d’Artagnan, d’Artagnan!" she cried. "Remember that I loved you!"

d'Artagnan stood up and took a step toward her.

Athos, always Athos, forever Athos, stood in his way. He drew his sword.

"If you take one step farther, d’Artagnan," he said, "we shall cross swords together."

d'Artagnan, instead of responding, fell to his knees and clasped his hands in prayer, shutting out the world and washing his hands of the proceedings. The best way not to feel guilty, while also doing nothing to intervene, so that he would have an excuse to himself in the long nights of the future, when culpability came calling.

"Come," Athos was saying. "Executioner, do your duty."

"Willingly, monseigneur," said the executioner. "For as I am a good Catholic, I firmly believe I am acting justly in performing my functions on this woman."

"That’s well."

Athos, Armand, the Comte de la Fére, stepped toward her.

"I pardon you," he said, "the ill you have done me. I pardon you for my blasted future, my lost honor, my defiled love, and my salvation forever compromised by the despair into which you have cast me. Die in peace!"

Then Lord de Winter stepped forward.

"I pardon you," he said, "for the poisoning of my brother, and the assassination of his Grace, Lord Buckingham. I pardon you for the death of poor Felton; I pardon you for the attempts upon my own person. Die in peace!"

d'Artagnan rose from his knees, and shakily approached.

"Pardon me, madame, for having by a trick unworthy of a gentleman provoked your anger; and I, in exchange, pardon you the murder of my poor love and your cruel vengeance against me. I pardon you, and I weep for you. Die in peace!"

"I am lost!" said Anne quietly. "I am going to die."

She stood, and no one prevented her. She cast her gaze around herself.

"Where am I to die?" she asked.

"On the opposite bank," said Valentin.

Then, he bodily lifted her up and placed her into the boat. He stepped in, and Athos went up to him, handing him a money-bag.

"Here is the price of the execution, that it may be plain we act as judges," he said.

The executioner shook the bag, and listened to the silver jingling within it.

"That is correct," he said. "And now in her turn, let this woman see that I am not fulfilling my trade, but my debt."

He turned, and threw the bag into the river, where it sank immediately.

Then, the boat was pushed out into the river, where he pulled it along the ferry-rope toward the opposite bank.

The men left on the riverbank fell to their knees as one, supplicating God for their crimes against Anne, which something in their hearts must have told them was wrong.

The horizon was tinted red, but a heavy cloud sat over them, as she lost their shapes in the rain and thunder. She and Valentin, too, must have looked like nothing but black shadows to those who remained on the opposite shore.

As the boat moved toward the opposite bank, Anne managed to untie the rope that bound her feet. When they had neared shore, she leapt from the boat into the shallow water and ran as fast as she could.

When she neared the crest of a hill, the muddy ground was to be her downfall. She slipped, and sank upon her knees in the mud.

Valentin had been approaching slowly, not bothering to give chase. Anne wondered at the fatality of mankind. She stayed in exactly the same place she had fallen, certain that she could look for assistance from nowhere, not God, or Heaven, or the Cardinal, or Rochefort.

Valentin lifted his sword. It shone in a flash of lightning above her.

Anne no longer cared. She committed her soul, against all expectation, to God.

The sword whistled down.

 

Chapter Text

Anne stared at the silver of the sword blade, buried in the ground less than an inch from her face.

Uncomprehending, she collapsed forward onto the ground from exhaustion and confusion, not daring to move.

Suddenly, she felt Valentin's lips against her ear.

"Do you repent, and will you go from here and never return, in exchange for your life?" he whispered, barely audible over the storm.

Anne, stupefied, gave the minutest of nods.

"Then my debt to Henri is paid," he said. "Know that if you return, I shall find out. I do this for my poor lost brother's sake, who loved you, and who said I had treated you sorely. He extracted a promise from me to rescue you, should I ever be in such a position, for the sake of his memory. It is done. My hands are washed clean. If you squander this gift from Henri, you will never spend a moment of your life without looking over your shoulder. And when I find you, I will not miss."

There was a silence, where Anne could only hear the sound of her own harsh breathing, and her heartbeat in her throat.

"Do you understand?" Valentin whispered harshly.

She nodded again.

He pulled on something with his arm. The bag of silver that Athos had given him slid up the muddy bank. Valentin had attached a string to it, and now took it in his hands.

"This will serve as your head," he informed her. "It is what they will be expecting. As to your body, I will have to throw you in the river, so they are not suspicious. Whether you die of the cold is not my concern. But I would advise you to wait until their voices die away in the distance, haul yourself up onto the riverbank, and there lie flat as you can all through the night until you are certain that nobody will come looking."

He sat up, and bound the little bag in his hands.

"Have you money?" he asked. She nodded slightly, barely moving her hand to indicate her money-bag attached beneath her skirts. She wasn't going to go into a new country without the messages from Rochefort and Therese, to keep her spirits up, or serve as safe passage.

"Here is the string," he said. "This will provide you with more. Are we in agreement? Do you swear to do as I say?"

"I swear," Anne whispered back, having hardly moved since her near-death experience.

"Very well," he said. "My debt is paid, brother. Watch over this demon yourself from now on. If she returns from the dead, I cannot answer for myself. My promise has been fulfilled."

Anne could hardly believe her fortune. She sent a quick and sincere prayer of thanks to Henri, wherever he might be now.

Valentin took off his red cloak, and gathered Anne and the money-bag inside it, whispering don't move! the entire time. 

He carried his burden onto the boat, and pushed out into the middle of the river. Then, he slid the cloak from his back, and dumped it unceremoniously into the water. Anne suppressed a startled cry at the cold water as she plunged in.

"Let the justice of God be done!" shouted Valentin, and then sat down, grabbed the oars, and rowed toward the opposite bank, where the other men were waiting.

***

An hour passed.

The voices of the Musketeers and their companions had long since faded into the distance. The only sound was the storm.

Anne's teeth chattered, but she feared leaving the river and getting caught.

Finally, it became clear to her that if she did not get out of the water, she would die of the cold instead, just as Valentin had told her. 

Anne dragged herself onto the mud of the riverbank, and pressed herself flat against it.

The rain fell upon her, and the thunder rolled. Her dress was entirely blackened and muddied, but she thought it was fortunate as it would hide her from any interested observers still waiting for flashes of lightning to illuminate the night.

Panting, she waited for the first red tinges of dawn.

***

When the storm began to dissipate in the light of the oncoming day, Anne dragged herself along on her belly, still fearing to stand up and make an obvious silhouette against the bare farmland around her. 

She crawled for what felt like hours, and felt a cough building in her chest. She buried her face in the earth to muffle the sound. 

After what seemed like an eternity, she reached the treeline.

Once she had gained the forest's interior, she dragged herself upright.

Then, she tore at her skirts, shredding them almost in their entirety. 

And she began to run, and did not stop until she found a road winding through the trees. There was no guarantee that she would have discovered civilisation again, fleeing in her terror, but somehow, the soft yellow lights of an inn made themselves known.

She knocked at the door, breathless. A matronly woman answered.

Anne told her that she had been the victim of several men on the road. This was not a lie.

The woman's eyes started out of her head in horror, but she was entranced, just as all people were, by Anne's innocent and angelic beauty.

She invited Anne inside, for a bite to eat, a place to wash up, and a meal. 

Anne smiled through the black mud caked on her face. She accepted the woman's generous offer, and crossed the threshold like a vampire invited inside.

***

After her hunger and thirst had been satisfied, and she had taken a bath, Anne collapsed into bed, exhausted. The events of the previous night kept replaying themselves in her head, and in her horror, she had nightmares all the night through.

Upon waking late in the afternoon, Anne found she was delirious with fever.

It looked as though illness might succeed where the Musketeers had not.

 

Chapter Text

Anne was ill for weeks.

Fortunately, she had enough money with her to pay for her care. 

Unfortunately, it ended up costing her all the money she had, both Armand's silver pieces and the coins she had brought in her own money-bag for safe passage.

In the end, as her health improved, she discovered that she had just about enough money to purchase a horse, and not much more.

She asked the good woman of the house to contact a horse-dealer in the area. Anne was well enough to be taking a little turn out of doors, marvelling at the natural beauty surrounding her in a way only those who have escaped certain death can understand.

"Madame?" said the good woman. "The horse-dealer is here."

Anne went to the front of the inn, and saw the horse-dealer bringing a few horses for her to choose from.

Her jaw dropped.

"Liberty!" she cried, and ran to the side of her faithful black stallion. She almost threw the money at the horse-dealer. Her decision had been made.

She reached up and touched the star on Liberty's forehead. Liberty whickered, bent his head down, and gently bit her shoulder in recognition.

Anne smiled.

"There is one good man left in the world," she said.

***

The time came when Anne knew she had tarried too long at the inn. There was always the possibility of being discovered, and so she knew that she needed to get away, as soon as possible.

She thanked the woman who ran the inn, who gently pushed her away, saying that anyone would have done the same for a poor, lost woman out in a storm alone.

Anne wished the woman a fond farewell, and went outside. She mounted Liberty, who neighed in the joy of being reunited again with his mistress.

"Farewell," said Anne. "I will never forget you!"

And she took off at a gallop while the woman waved at her, dabbing a tear from the corner of her eye.

***

On the road, free again, dressed in the mean type of clothing she had worn when she left home, Anne came to a fork in the wood.

She stared at the sign. She thought of her grand apartments, her wardrobe of clothing, her position with the Cardinal, her friendship with Rochefort.

She thought of the double riches she should have had by now, by rights, of the de Winter estate. 

Money, power, success, but not a word of love in any of it.

She heard Valentin's voice in her head again, sinuously whispering a threat if she were ever to raise her head in French society. She knew that Valentin only missed on purpose. He would not make the same mistake a second time.

She would be insulting Henri's memory if she ruined his last gift to her.

It was something, to have been loved by someone.

She opened her money-bag, nearly empty now.

She found the letters from Rochefort and from Therese, both nearly effaced now with time.

"It will have to do," murmured Anne, and set off on the right-hand path.

***

It was a long time before Anne reached her destination. 

She had to circle around Lille, for fear of being caught, particularly in the one place that contained the man who had granted her freedom.

The shadows were long on the ground as she rode up the long drive flanked by sycamore trees. It was a pleasant, warm afternoon, and the lavender was blooming. She inhaled deeply, the scent of home.

She wondered if she would be welcomed, or indeed remembered.

***

Anne rode Liberty into the courtyard, and handed her over to a servant to take to the stables.

She stood alone in front of the large doors of the great house.

Squaring her shoulders, she walked up the steps and went inside.

 

Anne climbed the stairs to the salon. She stood there on the landing for a moment, uncertain.

There was a small, wizened old man there, painting a pastoral scene beside the open doors that led to the balcony. She didn't recognise him at first.

"Papa?" she called, hesitant.

The little old man turned around and spotted her on the staircase. He cried out, knocking over a can of blue paint, which splattered all over the floor.

"Anne?!" he shouted, overturning his stool in his haste, and throwing himself into her arms.

He wept, and Anne wept, as she held him tight and buried her face in his shoulder.

"I'm so sorry, Papa," she murmured. "Can you ever forgive me?"

Her father pushed himself away from her, and gazed up into her beautiful blue eyes.

"Non, my sweet mademoiselle," he said. "It is I who must ask your forgiveness. Will you forgive a foolish old man who did not know his daughter?"

Anne smiled.

"Of course, Papa," she said, and he hugged her tighter still.

Someone cried out, followed by a crash on the floor and shattered glass.

Anne and her father looked up to see her mother standing in the doorway, a vase full of red roses smashed across the floor as the water ran in rivulets down the floorboards.

"Maman!" cried Anne, and this seemed to animate the woman, who rushed upon the two of them and covered Anne with kisses.

"Oh, thank God you've come home!" her mother cried out between kissing her cheeks and the top of her head. "Will you stay this time, Anne? We shall never do anything like that again! We swear it. From now on, your life is your own to decide."

Her mother looked at Anne.

"Please stay," she said. Anne smiled, never letting go of them for an instant.

"I'll stay, Maman, Papa," she promised. "Forever. If you'll have me."

***

The jubilation at the chateau was tangible in every person there.

Yet, Anne knew, her family were not the only ones who deserved an apology.

There was also a young woman, across those lavender fields, who had earned it more than anyone - if she still lived there. If she did not, Anne had no idea how she would go about finding her and asking her forgiveness.

Resolute, Anne set out across the field in the warm golden light of the late afternoon, to discover if she would have the same outrageous fortune and welcome as she had found at Breuil, if life still held such happiness in store for her.

Or whether some wounds could not be healed.

***

In the low afternoon light, a beautiful woman sat working.

She was barefoot, and her dark hair was held up away from her face, covered by a kerchief. 

Her ample, well-rounded breasts were dark with the dirt of labour, and shone with the sweat of the same.

She had thin and dark eyebrows, like someone had painted them there.

This was no young teenager, as Anne had known her. This was a woman, strong and sure.

She raised a wet rag to her neck, squeezing the water against her skin to cool herself off. The water droplets coursed down her breasts, and Anne swallowed against a dry throat that clicked loudly in the silence.

The woman looked up, and saw Anne silhouetted in the doorway.

"Bonjour, Therese," said Anne, and tried to hide the hope in her eyes.

 

Chapter Text

Therese just sat there looking at Anne for a very long time.

The shadows grew longer, as the afternoon headed to evening.

Suddenly, she stood, and ran to her, gathering her up in her arms.

She kissed her soundly.

"My treasure, my love," said Therese. "I've been waiting for you."

***

They walked together, through the lavender, while Anne told her all the story of the years Therese had missed. The beautiful farmer's daughter listened to everything, gasped and laughed in the right places, looked horrified at some of her follies and the rest of her adventures.

Her face drained of colour when Anne described the moment that she thought would be her last.

They stood together, under a late summer sun, as the shadows stretched along the ground.

"So, I have returned," Anne finished. "I'm penniless and own nothing but this rough dress you see me wearing, just as I was when I first left you."

Therese was silent for a very long time, brushing along the lavender with her palms.

She looked at Anne.

"Are you staying, this time?" she asked, somewhat uncertain.

"Would that please you?" Anne countered. Therese smiled, and huffed a bit of a laugh.

"Anne," she said. "I searched for you until I found you. I returned here to wait for you, even if it took years, even if you never came home. Nothing would delight me more."

"Can you ever forgive me?" murmured Anne. "Not only for what I have done to you, but for what I have done?"

"Did you mean it when you said you would never return?" asked Therese. "Do you intend to keep your promise to Valentin?"

Anne nodded.

"I spent my whole life chasing freedom," she said. "Turns out I was far more free here. I had to tell maman and papa that my intended husband had died of a sword wound. They seem happy enough to have me back that it makes very little difference."

She turned, and looked out over the fields of her home.

"But I had already made up my mind to leave the service, such as it was," she said. "I had already experienced enough pain to last a lifetime. That's what they don't tell you about adventure. You have your freedom, but you're utterly alone."

"And you now prefer Breuil to adventure?" asked Therese. Anne shrugged.

"I cannot change who I am," she said. "I do not regret leaving when I did, nor the heights to which I rose, or even, truth be told, the depths to which I fell. I don't know if I'm capable of a quiet life."

She caressed Therese's cheek, and captured her full lips in a kiss, savouring it.

"But I'd like to try."

She drew away from Therese, to let her make up her own mind.

She let out an undignified squeak as Therese grabbed her around the waist and crushed her to her chest, kissing her soundly.

"Then don't worry," she said. "You'll have plenty of time to make it up to me."

She grinned at Anne.

"It's time for dinner," she said. "Are you hungry? Father will be happy to see you."

"Am I invited?" teased Anne.

"Every night, and always," said Therese, kissing her nose.

The two women linked arms and walked across the fields toward a little farmhouse, where smoke curled up from the chimney, and a hearth-fire was burning.

***

The sun finally set, long in the grasses, as the bees buzzed drowsily among the fields of lavender. 

The green grass rolled out from the chateau like a carpet, the waves crashed against the distant cliffs, and the lights of the chateau were lit as France fell to dusk. Fireflies danced in the growing darkness that cradled all those souls, who forgot and forgave, and welcomed Anne home. 

All for one.

And one for all.

 

FIN.