A Musketeer's Heart - Chapter Thirteen

Spring had turned into summer. Summer was slowly giving way to autumn, releasing Paris of the stifling heat and humidity which sometimes made the odour truly unbearable. But although the seasons changed, Athos realized, Aramis didn’t. Or, he had to correct himself. Aramis had changed before summer had arrived. He’d turned into him. Broody, sullen, taciturn, eyes veiled with something akin to sadness. Athos knew love could change people, he could see it happening under his own eyes. And while d’Artagnan had gone the way of change the poets would have everyone believe love brought, Aramis had gone the other direction. D’Artagnan had finally fulfilled his love, finding happiness with Constance, while Aramis had lost love. Something no one, especially not the poets, wanted to talk about. Ever.

Athos sighed heavily as he made his way to the small audience chamber in the royal palace. He couldn’t doubt it anymore. Aramis had fallen in love with the girl who’d pretended to be a musketeer in the making. And Athos could no longer pretend not to believe it wasn’t true love, he could no longer convince himself it would pass, that another woman would cross Aramis’ path, and turn his head. His friend offered Fate no opportunity to thrust another woman into his life, no opportunity to lose his heart to another. He’s been living like a monk these past few months. Garrison, palace, occasional errand, palace, garrison.

And the only one he would talk to for more than a few minutes, and in less than a barking manner, was Queen Anne. Athos wanted to worry what the renewed liaison with the Queen might bring all of them, but he couldn’t. The two didn’t have the air of lovers about them, their manners friendly, but not intimate. So he couldn’t bring himself to tell Aramis to stop his association with the Queen. He only hoped she was able to bring a measure of peace to his friend.

He entered the audience chamber, bowed to the royal couple, and went to stand beside his three friends, greeting them with a slight nod.

“You’re late,” Porthos whispered.

Athos shrugged. Maybe he was, but so was the King’s guest. Yet another diplomatic emissary from England. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. At least this one had fared better than his predecessor. There hasn’t been an abduction attempt, or at least they haven’t heard about it, and this time the King was actually aware of a peace treaty being negotiated.

“The Duke of Buckingham, your majesties,” the royal announcer called.

Athos glanced toward the doorway and cursed under his breath, feeling Aramis stiffen beside him. They knew the approaching man. He looked taller, stronger, healthier, but there was no mistaking the mane of dirty-blond hair or piercing blue eyes. And there was no mistaking the woman walking beside him, her hand on his wrist.

She looked different. Dressed in a simple lavender gown, her hair gathered in a braided bun at the nape of her neck, her eyes downcast as she walked meekly beside the Duke of Buckingham, she looked dainty and fragile, younger than he remembered, the core of steel and determination carefully hidden behind the shy façade. But no matter how she looked, how she dressed, the eyes betrayed her, even looking at her in profile, those pale green eyes were unmistakable.

He glanced sideways at Aramis, and if he didn’t already know his friend was lost, the look on his face would confirm it. A mixture of surprise, longing, and awe, he remembered seeing on his own face back in the day, during happier times. The same look he could see on d’Artagnan’s face every day, whenever Constance was near. A look of a man who can’t believe his luck in finding the one woman meant for him. But unlike with d’Artagnan, Aramis’ expression had an underlying layer of pain at knowing the woman he loved would never belong to him. Athos wanted to clamp his hand on his friend’s shoulder, but knew any expression of solidarity and support would have to wait.

The Duke of Buckingham bowed to the King and Queen. “Your majesties, thank you for the audience, and for your hospitality.” He smiled at the woman beside him. “May I present to you my sister, Alexandra Hamilton-Burke.”

She curtsied and Athos caught his breath, his friends’ reaction echoing his. Sister? She was the man’s sister? What kind of man allowed his sister to go gallivanting around a foreign country unaccompanied and dressed as a man? What kind of man needed his sister to save him? What kind of man was Buckingham? And what kind of man had been his father to raise his daughter in such a manner? To raise a boy and a girl child in equal manner? Because it was obvious, despite her submissive pose in regard to her brother, it was a ruse. The two were equals only pretending to adhere to society’s norms and rules of women being subjugated to men. Buckingham obviously held his sister in high regards, and judging by all Athos had seen and experienced while she’d been with them, pretending to be a musketeer, the man had all the rights to view her as his equal.

He highly doubted any such qualms and questions went through Aramis’ mind. Not if his expression could serve as any indication. The pain was replaced with wonder, and a sliver of hope. A sliver that was quickly extinguished as pain returned. Athos wanted to sigh. There were no hopes of a future for a sister of a duke and a lowly soldier. No matter their feelings, the social gap was too big. And no matter Buckingham’s regard for his sister, Athos knew how haute society worked. They married for money, land, and power. If she wasn’t yet attached or promised to someone, she would soon be. To an equal. He moved closer to Aramis, feeling the other two do the same, creating a united front of support. Life might not be fair, but that’s why men had friends.

“Why don’t you look at us, Lady Alexandra?” King Louis asked archly.

She was staring at a point beside the King’s crossed ankles. “People are often uncomfortable with my eyes, sire,” she replied.

Athos remembered that first day, when they’d all met her. He remembered the look in her eyes when he’d met her gaze. It was clear, direct, and somewhat mesmerizing, as if she could read his mind, and what she couldn’t read he’d tell her eventually. It had been uncomfortable to hold that gaze, and each and every musketeer had averted his eyes that day. Each one except for Aramis. He’d probably seen it as a challenge, but later...If Athos were a superstitious man, he’d say she’d cast a spell on his friend that first day. A spell Aramis would never be rid of.

“I demand you look at me,” the King ordered petulantly, and she finally lifted her gaze. Then quickly averted it once more as Louis frowned and fidgeted on the throne.

“I find them lovely,” Queen Anne interjected softly. “Your eyes, I mean.” She stood. “Why don’t we leave the men to their politics and take a stroll around the garden. You can tell me more about yourself.”

Alexandra slid a side glance at her brother, then curtsied again. “As you wish, your majesty.”

“Good,” said the Queen and nodded to the four of them. “These four musketeers are my shadows whenever I leave the palace.”

Athos narrowed his eyes at the fib. They mostly protected the King, the Queen had her own set of guards. She sent him a quelling gaze, and he frowned. She was up to something. She smiled sweetly, and realization dawned. Queen Anne knew. She’d obviously paid much closer attention when Alec Reynaud had been with them, she’d obviously connected the dots and deduced the woman before her had been their young musketeer-in-training. It wasn’t that hard, the eyes were unique. Unmistakable. Yet the question remained. What was she up to?

“They’ll follow us at a discreet distance,” the Queen continued with a pointed glance at the four, and looped her arm around Alexandra’s. “So we’ll be able to talk freely.” She all but dragged Alexandra out the open door leading to the garden, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan trailing silently behind.

Alexandra could feel them behind, keeping the distance Queen Anne had requested. She could feel their eyes, she could feel his eyes. She’d feared stumbling when she’d entered the audience chamber on her brother’s arm and saw Aramis standing beside his three friends. He’d changed, not in physical appearance, he was still tall and strong, and as beautiful as she remembered, but there was a heaviness around his shoulders, a veil in his gorgeous eyes. It was as if something was weighing him down, and she wanted nothing more than to put her arms around him and hold him. Instead, she stood beside her brother as he presented her to the royal couple, curtsied, and breathed slowly to steady her galloping heart, feeling his eyes on her the entire time.

And just as her heart slowed down minutely, it started racing again as the Queen invited her on a stroll through the garden with the four musketeers as guards. Would she even be able to converse in a coherent manner? Her breathing was getting shallower, and she wished she could unlace her corset. It felt like a cage, constricting her lungs, making her itch all over. God, she wished she wore a man’s shirt and breeches. At least she would feel normal, more at ease.

“Hello, darling,” the Queen cooed as they came upon a gazebo where a blonde woman with sad eyes played with an infant. “I missed you,” she murmured as she lifted the baby in her arms. “Did you miss me?”

Alexandra twined her fingers together in front of her abdomen, having no idea what to do with herself. “Lady Alexandra, this is Marguerite, my son’s nurse.”

Marguerite curtsied, murmured something and, at the Queen’s nod, hurried away.

“And you’ve already met my son.”

Alexandra looked at her host, startled.

Queen Anne merely smiled. “The eyes.” She motioned to the two dainty chairs. “Sit down, please. And tell me, how does it feel?”

Alexandra lowered herself carefully onto a chair. “Feel what, your majesty?”

“To wear man’s clothes,” the Queen elaborated, her eyes full of wonder. “Without corsets and swaths of petticoats, or pins pricking your scalp.”

Alexandra couldn’t help but smile. “Liberating.”

Queen Anne sighed. “I thought so.” She rocked her baby. “I envy you. I wish I could be as free as you, I wish I would be able to do what you can do.” There was no subterfuge, no guile in the Queen’s face, just sincerity and admiration. “I heard what happened to your brother,” she continued. “And I applaud you for what you’ve done to help. I know what it means for a woman to do something, anything, to take her Fate into her own hands.” Their eyes met and Anne nodded. “I see you understand. Would you like to hold him?”

Alexandra looked at the bundle in the Queen’s arms. She was no stranger to children, she’d helped deliver a few of them, yet holding this child in her arms seemed daunting.

“He doesn’t bite,” Queen Anne insisted. “Not yet. Take him.”

She had no choice, but to tuck the Dauphin in the crook of her elbow. Instinct took over, and she rocked him. He stirred, opened his eyes, and a fist squeezed around her heart. They were Aramis’ eyes. The boy opened his toothless mouth and, although she was expecting a wail, smiled at her. A pang of longing hit her. This could be her child. How would it feel to bear Aramis’ child? She brushed her fingertip over his chubby cheek, and he grabbed it with his little hand, squealed happily.

“He’s already in love with you,” the Queen said softly.

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