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Masquerade

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Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part,
Nay, I have done; you get no more of me.
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.

- Michael Drayton (1563-1631), Since There’s No Help/Sonnet 61 -

 

-o-

September, 1630. Paris.

 

Athos felt a lifetime lighter, when the locket fell from his hand.

He could hardly believe that the long nightmare might be over, that there could be – not a new beginning, he was too self-aware to believe himself capable of that. If not a beginning, then maybe some kind of peace. He would settle for dreamless, painless sleep. Free from her in dreams and in life. He had let her go, and maybe his tormented conscience, his shattered heart might now finally learn to let go of her too and let him live in peace.

It was over. And if he felt a twinge of loss and longing for the woman that was now gone from his sight, he could admit it to himself and indulge in it for this small moment. For she was gone, but still alive, and he had loved her once.

You know there can be no peace – no, it was over. He had to believe that – any other thought was just too damn depressing, even for him.

He walked briskly towards the Musketeers’ garrison, confident that his friends would follow. D’Artagnan and Constance had already parted from their company, the former to ostensibly escort the latter back home. Before they had gone, they had had to endure teasing from both Porthos and Aramis, who good-naturedly had waxed lyrical about young love and its consummation until both recipients had been red in the face. Athos had had nothing to add to their repertoire – any word on love from him would have been at best laughable and at worst grotesque.

“Why are we on such a hurry?” Aramis inquired, easily keeping pace with his long legs. Both Aramis and Porthos were flanking him, like bodyguards too nervous to let their charge to get even a few feet away from them.

“I want to update Captain Treville as soon as possible.” Athos knew Treville would be waiting anxiously for news on what had happened with the ambush Milady had set for them. He wondered how Treville would react to the information that he had let the Cardinal’s agent go – the woman who was complicit in the attempted assassination of the Queen. Athos had thought that he was ready to kill her, to administer justice for crimes both recent and past. He had been ready five years ago too. But unlike last time, today he had the courage to stay his hand, to let her go. He could not regret that.

“I’m sure Treville wouldn’t mind us arriving at a little slower pace – and having a few drinks before we get there,” Aramis said, suddenly stopping dead in the middle of the street, Porthos following suit. Perplexed, Athos swiveled to face his friends. They were standing in front of one of their favorite haunts, The Galleon, looking meaningfully at the tavern.

Athos didn’t have to say anything; his dark, unamused look said it for him. Now was not the time for drinks. Captain Treville waited for their report. Furthermore, Athos just wanted to get it all over with. After that he could test his newfound peace by drinking as many bottles of wine as he wished – which was usually quite a lot.

“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Porthos overacted. At Athos’ raised eyebrow, he added, “What? I’m thirsty.”

“I always have the best ideas.” Aramis grinned broadly.

“You can go if you wish, but I have an appointment.” Athos turned to leave, but Porthos’ hand on his arm halted him. Frustrated, he turned to face his companions once more. He was in no mood for games.

“It’ll keep.” The jest had gone from Aramis’ voice. “Have a drink with us, and let all of Paris stay ignorant of what has happened for a little while longer.”

Suddenly Athos understood. However confidential their report to Treville would be, it would not stay secret for long – at least not from one person. The Cardinal had an uncanny ability to get to know everything concerning himself, particularly if that something had happened in the streets of Paris, in broad daylight. Just like Captain Treville, the Cardinal would hardly be pleased to find out they had let Milady go. By stalling, they would give her time to get out of Paris, before either of the men decided that she would have to face a firing squad or an assassin’s blade. Athos doubted that his friends were aiding Milady out of concern for her – no, they were doing it for him.

They had just watched him spare his former wife from death. They didn’t want him to face the same again, be it as a spectator instead of executioner. Moreover, they wanted to give him time to think, to breathe before he had to give his report. So he could better prepare what he would say, or to come to terms with what had happened, or to just be with his friends before being judged in front of their superior officer. Any or all – it didn’t matter to them. They just wanted to give him the chance.

He was suddenly grateful for his friends anew, for all they had borne by having stood by him. Through all his dark moods, the heavy drinking, the unsociable days he hadn’t been fit company for a dog let alone a human being. He didn’t know what he had done to earn such loyal companions.

One drink,” he agreed. Surely he had earned a celebratory drink. After all, it was all over.

-o-

She walked away head held high, refusing to run, refusing to look back. But her heart was still pounding fiercely, alive, and her fingers shook so hard she had to grip her skirts tightly. Twice now she had stared at the face of death (his face) and survived. It was not any easier the second time. Disgusted, she felt the beginnings of nausea, a sign of weakness she had thought that she had purged herself of long ago.

Heedless of the traffic in the streets, the curious stares of onlookers, she quickened her steps. She needed to get home, needed to pack and plan – now more than ever, she had to keep her head, had to be able to think – a violent shudder went through her and the urge to vomit was so strong she was already half-turning towards the gutter, before she forced the feeling away with a furious self-discipline. She couldn’t make a scene, couldn’t draw more attention to herself. She could not be undone.

What on earth was the matter with her? She had had to think on her feet on numerous occasions, she had dodged musket balls and enemies and the noose – this was no different.

Finally, her lodgings appeared behind the street corner, and she forced herself to slow her pace and to look for tails or pursuers. She could not detect anyone suspicious, and so she hastened to her door, the lock opening with the third shaky try. The sanctuary of her real home was a welcome sight, the chilly rooms a relief against her fevered skin. She was safe there. No one had seen these rooms, not any lover or informant. Certainly not any musketeer. But still – she held no illusions that she could not be found, that the Cardinal didn’t already know where she lived.

“Milady.” Louise was standing at the door of the small parlor, her voice inquiring. She was a smart girl and accustomed to the strange peculiarities of her mistress’ life. No doubt she had already guessed that once again a hasty departure from their current lodgings was imminent.

“Pack my clothes and essentials – whatever you can fit into the trunk and the two bags.”

Louise knew not to ask any questions. Without a comment the maid disappeared to fulfill her orders, leaving her mistress to stand in the middle of the parlor.

She had to get out of Paris quickly. Not because he might change his mind (he had too much honor for that), but because when the Cardinal learned that she had not met her end, he would start to worry that she knew too much about his secrets and schemes. For her dark deeds had mainly been his too. He would seek to silence her.

But instead of hastening to pack her jewelry and weaponry, instead of getting the money and documents out of their secret hiding place, she sank to the settee, as if her legs couldn’t keep her upright anymore.

Enough. It’s over. Kneel.

She was suddenly so tired. All these years, she had hated, with her body and what was left of her soul, and she was exhausted.

Where could she go now? What would she do? How would she live?

Athos – she still couldn’t believe he had let her go, trembled at the mere memory of it. He had been trying to save his own soul, no doubt, but finally, finally, he had acknowledged that he had made her what she was, the part he had played in it all. And he had not been able to kill her. And she had been ready – suddenly so weary, so tired, her hurt a massive stone dragging her to the bottom of dark waters, and for a moment she had been ready, had been almost glad that it should end like that, at his hand, so he would carry her with him forever and always remember it was he who killed her – his wife.

But he hadn’t. He hadn’t done it. And she was – not soothed, not grateful, not glad, but after everything, still a little bit in love with him, like she had always been. The hate was duller now; the hurt weighted a little less. But what was she without those? What could she be without the hate that had sustained her for so long?

It’s over. It’s over.

She would survive – she always did. Maybe she could begin again, somewhere no one knew her. Maybe she could make a new life for herself, do whatever she wished. Suddenly she realized that for the first time in – ever, really – there was no man she was dependent on. Not her drunk father, not Sarazin, not Athos, not the Cardinal. And that had to be the future. She would not seek another patron, employer or husband to betray her. She would only answer to herself from now on.

Energized, she sprang to her feet. There was no more time to waste.

She would live. And like always, she would carve herself a place somewhere, with her wits or body or the sharp blade of her dagger if she had to. There would be no peace, but too much serenity might just break her. Athos – always he would hound her, the memory of their love and his betrayal like sharp shadows close at her heels. And she would always remember how he had spared her and had let her go, the way he had looked at her. It’s over. Enough.

But the tie between them could not be broken by one act of mercy. It was a strangely comforting thought: he too, would never be free. He would not forget her. They would be tied together, until death would free them at last. Until then, it would never be over.