The early evening sun cast its dappled, honey-gold light along the avenue of trees that led to the Louvre. A peacock’s strident call broke abruptly, through the gentle call of songbirds settling to roost among branches that sighed in the soft breeze, before fading into silence as quickly as it had sounded.
The balmy tranquillity was broken by the sound of hooves - four horses being ridden at a sedate pace, and the rise of fall of voices interspersed with a boom of laughter.
“It’s been a while since we rode along here together,” noted General du Vallon, his pleasure at the event, easily evident in his deep voice.
“Too long,” acknowledged the only female of the party, somewhat pointedly with a glare at the man who rode alongside her, his eyes habitually scanning the grounds of the palace for any impending threat, “That godson of mine has grown another half a foot since last I saw him.”
Athos accepted the rebuke with a gentle incline of his head.
“My apologies Madame,” his eyes crinkled with gentle amusement, “I place the blame entirely on my Commander, hard taskmaster that she is.”
“I’ll tell Sylvie you said that” Constance D’Artagnan replied, taking, her husband noticed, the same tone that she used to reprimand the newest recruits to the newly rebuilt Garrison. The resigned expression on Athos’ face suggested that he expected nothing less.
“Men,” Constance continued, with a somewhat fond shake of her head, “If we did not intervene, you would not see each other from one year to the next.”
“That’s not true,” D’Artagnan rejoined, “Athos was at the Garrison just last month to instruct the recruits in swordsmanship. And I saw Aramis only last week when I made my report to the Regent.”
Constance rolled her eyes.
“That is for work D’Artagnan,” she pointed out, “When it comes to socialising merely for pleasure, with your families, you are all entirely hopeless. Even now, we meet at the behest of her Majesty.”
Porthos laughed loudly, his chortle inciting a grin in his travelling companions.
“The birthday of the First Minister,” he acknowledged, “Who’d a thought we’d warrant an invite to that one day?”
“Can you imagine attending a party for Richelieu?” pondered D’Artagnan.
“Fortunately not,” commented Athos wryly, “I shudder to think what he considered entertainment.”
There was a moment’s pause to consider this.
“Probably would have had good wine though,” Porthos pointed out.
“This is true.” Athos was forced to concede.
“Mind you,” Porthos continued, “Overindulgence ran the risk of landing you in the Chatelet, and no one needs that the day after a party.”
“That is definitely true.” Athos’ thoughts, for a brief moment, returned to a long night what seemed like a lifetime ago. Much had changed in the intervening years, although he considered himself lucky that the continued presence in his life of the men he considered his brothers was not one of them. Even if the physical distance between them was further than it had been in days past.
D’Artagnan’s musings broke suddenly into his reverie.
“What do you get the First Minister of France for a significant birthday?” he mused, idly, “I feel like a bottle of ale from the Wren and an offer to let him shoot a melon off my head may no longer be considered appropriate?”
“The head of his enemies on spike?” asked Athos drily, smirking at the concerned, side-long look that Constance gave his saddlebags.
“Nah,” Porthos dismissed the suggestion out of hand, “We did that last year.”
The three men grinned at each other, though they no longer served daily together, their paths continued to cross in service to the Crown, much to the dismay of the Crown’s enemies.
“I think,” Constance cut in, before anyone suggested they turn around and apprehend some poor, unsuspecting miscreant, “that Her Majesty intends your presence to be a gift.”
“Poor sod,” Porthos commiserated, “A life of politics and court protocol, and then lumbered with us for a birthday present.”
“We aren’t even gift wrapped,” Athos pointed out, his voice almost sounding sad, although that was betrayed to those that knew him by the twinkle in his eyes.
“Yeah Constance,” Porthos joked, “Couldn’t you at least have found D’Artagnan a ribbon?”
He almost dodged the swat from the Musketeer Captain that rode beside him.
Wrapped or not, the beaming smile they received from First Minister Aramis D’Herblay when they intervened in what sounded to be a terribly dull conversation with the English Ambassador, to envelope him in a firm and somewhat boisterous hug, suggested that they were in fact exactly what he had wished for.
Across the room, Queen Anne smiled in private delight.