Midnight mass completed, Richelieu slithers back to his office, more irritated by lost time than blessed by the reprieve. The whole of France doesn’t cease to need him because of a calendar date. Christmas is merely a twenty-four-hour period wherein everyone else indulges in as much lethargy and gluttony as they can afford.
But this is not so for Cardinal Richelieu and certainly not a measly week from the new year. And so crossing the painstakingly scrubbed floor of his public office, he gathers a stack of pressing paperwork and retires to his private office. En route he shuffles his bundle to his left hand, freeing up his right to rub at the discomfort in his chest just left of center before producing the key to his inner sanctum and slipping inside. Despite the darkness which entombs him within the room, he, with an ease born of years of repetition, crosses to his desk and deposits his papers; then he sets about lighting the candles adorning the walls and oak bureau.
When finally he sinks into his chair and digs into his work, the candles extinguish as though a breeze had swept through the room. Except there isn’t even the slightest hint of a draft with the door closed as it is, so as he stands to relight the candles, his mind sorts through potential culprits for the sudden darkness. Milady has been unusually absent of late; perhaps it’s time to tighten her leash regardless of whether or not she’s involved in the strange behavior of his candles. This isn’t Tréville’s style, but Richelieu wouldn’t put this past those four especially insufferable Musketeers.
Having illuminated the desk for a second time, he settles in once more and sees Adèle Bessett standing before him. Adèle?
Richelieu rises from his seat and steps around his desk, mouth open a fraction and brow furrowed. He circles her, touches her hair, smells the subtle perfume she always wore. His senses demand that this truly is his traitorous lover, but reason reminds him that she’s dead by his orders.
“You were never good with hellos, Armand,” she purrs in achingly familiar, dulcet tones.
“Forgive me if I’m not particularly eloquent this evening. Your presence is a bit…unexpected.” With his head tilted slightly to one side, he displays a calculating smile that appears as something much more akin to a snarl.
“A courtesy I learned from you. Forgiveness, however, is a vastly different tale.”
“Is there a reason you’re here?” the Cardinal snaps. “I have work to do and no time to spare conversing with apparitions.” Having, in his mind, quite clearly dismissed the ghost, he rounds his desk and drops into his chair. Or he would have had his chair actually been there, but as he looks around with massive displeasure, he finds himself on the floor of the seminary he attended as a much younger man. “Were you still alive I’d have you burned as a witch,” he grumbles under his breath while forcing his legs to lift him up. Adèle rolls her eyes before focusing on a figure at the other end of the corridor.
“Why are we here?” The Cardinal is finally standing, a scowl on his face.
“Because I loved you once,” she murmurs, and Richelieu huffs in disbelief. They fall into silence then as they’re attention is drawn to the young man bounding down the hall.
“Slow down,” one of the older men milling about calls with a laugh in his voice to young Armand.
“But it’s Christmas!” comes the exuberant response. The others shake their heads, chuckling as the young man continues down the hall in the same manner he entered it.
“What happened to you?” Adèle asks and follows the livelier of the two Richelieus.
“I grew up.” The Cardinal takes a step after the others but stops knowing that in a moment they’d be headed back the way they came.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“You forget I know how this ends.” He runs a hand along the cool, stone wall and wanders several steps in the opposite direction. “I’m growing up.”
Richelieu remembers well running up to the room where all of the higher-ups were gathered and skidding to a halt, centimeters away from colliding with the door. He’d taken a moment to compose himself and calm his breathing, yet overhearing conversation inside, he abandoned his quest to wish his mentors the merriest of Christmases.
They were bemoaning the cost of aiding those in need on Christmas day and spoke in no uncertain terms of their plans to put the funds to better use, namely the lining of their own pockets. He’d recoiled from the door, having no desire to listen a second longer to the selfish and hypocritical aims of men he’d once deemed wise and caring. This was the day his eyes were opened, the day he learned that men of the cloth could be some of the greatest con men ever.
Richelieu looks up when his younger self rushes past, confused and distraught, but aside from this he remains by the wall until Adèle joins him.
“You let it change you.”
“I learned a lesson, nothing more.”
“You grew bitter.”
Richelieu rubs a hand over his tired eyes and wishes now that he’d gone to bed instead of attempting paperwork. When he opens his eyes again, they’re in a different seminary where Richelieu was once a teacher. “Oh, what now?” He sighs.
“You know better than most that no choice is without consequence.” With that she walks after a young man with dark curly and a bundle tucked under his arm.
It takes Richelieu but a moment to recognize René d’Herblay, one of his pupils at the time, and this identification along with the bundle triggers the memory in his mind.
“Spare me your games, Adèle. I’ve neither the time nor desire to revisit any time wasted here.”
She fixes him with an icy glare Richelieu never saw while she was living within his sphere. “Stop talking and pay attention. I don’t want to be here any more than you do.”
His retort dies on his lips when a voice laden with displeasure cuts through the air.
René stops instantly and turns to his instructor, his smile radiating with the hope and wonder of Christmas despite the edge in his elder’s tone.
“What have you got there?” Armand points to the bundle held between René’s left arm and torso.
“It’s the leftovers from our meal, sir.”
“What are you doing with them?”
“Some of the others and I planned to bring them to those in need.”
“Feed it to the animals,” Armand orders, his ill temper nearly tangible in the air around them.
“Sir?” René’s confusion resounds through every inch of his being with such strength that he recoils and steps back from this man meant to demonstrate Christian love and compassion.
“Feed it to the animals. Better our food, our funds, be spent within, maintaining the livestock than wasting it on those too lazy an incompetent to provide for themselves.: Leaning toward the young man, Richelieu’s voice has become a harsh and snarled whisper sending spittle flying with every enunciated syllable.
“But we’re to be bringers of hope,” René breathes, sounding so very close to breaking. “Aren’t we to show them the love of Christ, act out of kindness, model Christian charity?”
“Listen well. We live in a cruel world that wants nothing to do with your kindness, your love and charity. Even if it did you would not find such values within the church. Your beloved Pope favors the rich of Spain above those you seek to help. The Cardinals are all favor-seeking vultures, and it doesn’t stop there. The Church is overflowing with selfish men indulging in their greed and lust. You will find no charity here.” Armand snatches the food away from the thoroughly stunned René and storms away with a rustling of robes.
Once the sound of Armand’s departure recedes and the echoes fade from the hall, René gasps, as though surfacing after an extended stay underwater, and walks away on quivering legs. The Cardinal follows Adèle who trails after René, the young man’s gait never faltering until he enters the library and crawls out of one of the window to climb onto the roof above. He folds into himself, stray tears falling to the sound of uncontainable sniffling.
“He’d just lost his child,” Adèle whispers as though to refrain from interrupting René’s grief. “And his intended vanished.”
“Then I did him a favor,” Richelieu growls and turns to his ghostly companion. “His good intentions and noble deeds were never going to bring his child or his lover back. This world we live in does not stop to mend the broken; it doesn’t take pity on anyone, least of all those in need. The sooner he learned that the better.”
Adèle stares, unblinking, at Richelieu with a frown on her face that does not manifest so much in the curve of her lips as it does in the scrunching of her brow. “This is the night, Armand, the night he chooses the sword over the cloth.” She stands between them like the final defense between predator and wounded prey. Behind her René lifts his face to the heavens, eyes drinking in the light of the moon and the stars. “This is the moment he chooses a life that leaves him frozen in the snow amongst twenty slain comrades, the moment he trades the safety of the church for the horrors of soldiering.”
René stands, and before climbing down, he takes one last look at the world from that rooftop, a final moment of peace in that place.
“Am I meant to apologize?” Richelieu hisses once the young man departs. “He’s chosen to serve France even unto death. I’ll take credit for it if that is what you wish, but I feel no remorse. His sacrifice in Savoy was for the greater good of the country; that was the oath he swore, Adèle. If he regrets it, that is his own concern.” His chest heaves with passion for his cause, his mind unchanged and his motivation unwavering.
“And how many lives will you sacrifice in the name of France, Armand?” Adèle steps nearer to him, closing the gap save for several inches.
“As many as France requires.”