"You are certain of this, Cardinal?"
The king looked young and hopeful, like a child seeking reassurance. Richelieu knew he had it in his power, right then and there, to either make this go away, with a simple denial, or set it in stone forever more, with a quiet assertion. His words governing the future of the whole of France. It was breath-taking.
He kept the exhilaration from pushing him into making a grave error.
"You have in your hands the signed confession of a Mother Superior on her deathbed." He replied carefully. "It is not for me to judge its validity, sire."
Louis looked down at the letter, such a small piece of parchment, quite innocuous, and yet in it were the words that could change the fortunes and destiny of France.
"Send for my carriage." Louis said, his words high pitched and on the verge of tears. "I leave for Bradonne tonight."
Constance hurried from the palace, hooded cloak pulled up to conceal her features. She could not be recognised by the Red Guards or they would detain her and everything they had planned would come to naught.
And it had been so meticulously planned…
Her appointment to be the Queen's maid during her confinement, rather than a stroke of astonishing good fortune, had been orchestrated by Aramis – and when she had learned why, she had slapped him across the face then hugged him two seconds later and promised to do everything she could to protect his son. Athos had arranged the midwife, who, it was said, had birthed both of the De La Fere sons and could be trusted.
It had begun the day a nun had rode up demanding that she must speak to the musketeers. Constance did not know all the details – and the safer for her that she did not – but she knew the nun had alerted them to the existence of a death-bed confession, made by a Mother Superior, who had absolved the sin of their unfaithful Queen. The musketeers had tried, unsuccessfully, in the months that followed to obtain and destroy it.
And now, it seemed, they were out of time. The Cardinal had made his move.
Constance, by pure luck, had overheard the other maids talking of the Cardinal's late night visit to the king and had been filled with terror. Her fears were soon confirmed when she learned that the king had ordered his carriage and was intending to visit his Queen in Bradonne, where she had retreated to give birth.
Constance reached the barracks, breathless and exhausted, far quicker that she would have ever guessed herself capable of. She had come to care, very much, for the Queen and not out of duty to the musketeers. It was because Anne had gained her friendship.
She made her way straight to Aramis. "You need to get to Bradonne." She told him. "The king knows."
The musketeers rode through the night, cutting through fields and across rivers, gaining valuable time upon the royal carriage, which was heavy and burdened and forced to stay on the roads.
Aramis remained silent throughout. He had sworn to Anne that the letter would not reach the king. She had believed him. He had believed himself. He had never failed before. His success had never been more important and the bitterness of that irony was like ice in his heart. Now all they could do for Anne would be to force her to run and hide until they could set their plans in motion.
But the stress of such a journey, for Anne, for their child…
He had never known such fear.
The musketeers arrived just as the moon hit the highest point in the sky, bathing the beautiful retreat of Bradonne in silvered light. But as they dismounted, the peace was shattered by screaming.
Anne was deep in throes of labour. There would be no way to hide her.
Aramis walked back and forth for long moments, listening to the sounds of Anne in pain. Her cries were almost constant now, without respite. The little he knew of childbirth told him it would not be long now. He hoped desperately that she knew her agony was nearly over. He prayed, with every drop of faith in his sinful heart, that it would not be the start of another.
Finally it was too much and he went to the door.
Athos grabbed his arm. "Do not place one mistake on top of another."
"You should watch the road!" He snapped.
"D'Artagnan watches the front, Porthos the back. There is no other way here." Athos told him. "It is why we chose it."
Perhaps he hoped to remind Aramis that this had all been planned for, long ago, that he should view it like a soldier and do what he must without thought.
Anne cried out again and he wrenched his arm free, pushing past his friend and into Anne's bedroom. Inside, Anne was the bed, with a maid at her side and a midwife leaning between her legs. There was blood on the sheets and on her nightdress and smeared on her thighs.
"Aramis!" She cried and pulled her hand free of the grip of her maid and held it out to him instead.
"Childbed is no place for a man!" The midwife snapped and waved him away with her hand.
"No!" Anne gasped out. "I want him…to stay…" She cried out again and sobbed. "I am your Queen!"
"Of course, your highness." She then frowned over at Aramis. "Stay out of the way!"
The maid moved to the Queen's other side and Aramis took her place, Anne's fingers twinning with his own, just as she cried out again. She pushed her face into the curve of his neck and her sobs eased the moment she felt his fingers cup the back of her hair. Then another contraction stole her breath and she fell back against the pillow.
"I can see the head, your majesty!" The midwife called out."Push!"
Anne's fingers squeezed his hand as she bore down, going red in the face with her effort. She gasped a breath.
Her fingers turned white against the tan of his own.
"Push, your majesty!"
Anne shook her head. "I can't…I can't."
"Yes you can." Aramis told her.
Anne cried out again but her attempt to push was weak.
"Look at me." He whispered. "Look at me." He stroked her arm. "I've got you." He hoped she would remember the first time he said those words to her and moved his hand to the mound of her belly. This child had been a fait accompli even then.
"So you have." She gasped out and there was laughter in her tears. She remembered.
"It's nearly over." He told her. "Then you will meet…your son."
She nodded and drew a deep breath.
He offered her his other hand. "My strength, your majesty."
She clutched his hands in both of hers and pressed them against her heart. And pushed.
The squall of new-born sounded just minutes later and Anne's sobs turned from those of anguish to those of utter joy in a heartbeat.
The midwife looked up.
"It's a girl!"
In the peace that followed, the midwife instructed Anne, showing her how to hold the tiny baby, how to present her nipple for the child to suck. The baby latched on strongly.
Anne was unable to drag her eyes from the sight of her daughter suckling and dismissed the maid without looking. She was so beautiful, tiny and perfect, with a surprisingly thick thatch of dark hair on her head. She wanted to laugh. In all the dreams she'd had, prophetic dreams she had always thought, it had been her son on the throne of France.
She heard the murmur of voices and looked up. Aramis was talking softly to the midwife, who nodded and left them alone.
"Aramis," she called. "You must hold…" she felt the smile grow on her face, "…your daughter."
Her heart filled with dread at the sorrow on his face.
"Soon." He said and tried to smile. "I will hold her soon enough." And he would not steal any more of Anne's time with her child than he was about too.
Aramis went to her side. He had never thought, in all these months, that he would have this chance, these precious moments.
"She's beautiful." He told her.
"She will make the finest Queen that France has ever known."
His heart ached. "No, she won't."
Anne looked questioningly at him but anything she might have asked was lost in the sound of the door opening. The midwife had returned and she held bundle of blankets in her arms. Aramis saw the truth dawn in Anne's eyes and hated himself for his failure.
Anne clutched her daughter to her. "No." She shook her head, desperate. "No, please…"
"The Cardinal gave the king the confession. We…I could not stop it." He told her. "I'm sorry."
"The king is coming here tonight." Aramis said. "This is the only way to keep her safe."
"Everything has been prepared for, your majesty." The midwife told her.
"Let me hold her." Anne cried. "Just a little longer."
But at that moment, the yells of D'Artagnan, who had been watching the road, sounded out and it meant they were out of time. He had sighted the king's carriage in the distance.
"I'm sorry." Aramis said and slipped his hands underneath the baby, feeling no joy at what should have been the best moment of his life: the first time he held his child.
Anne sobbed as Aramis took their daughter, hard gut wrenching sobs that he feared he would be hearing in his heart for the rest of his life. And he deserved no less than to be tormented by them, for his failure to keep his word. Her arms were still reaching up, empty and shaking, as Aramis moved away. The midwife put the bundle she carried in the Queen's arms and Aramis caught the briefest of glimpses of the still grey form of a stillborn child in the centre of the cloth. Anne clutched it to her, almost reflectively, gasping in grief.
The child pressed to his chest squirmed in his grasp and let out a cry like a mewling kitten, protesting the interruption to her feed. Anne tried get to her feet, responding to the noise, but merely tumbled from the bed, landing in tangle of limbs, sobbing and still clutching the dead baby.
Aramis waivered, was about to go to her.
The midwife shoved him back harshly as she hurried to the Queen's side.
"Fly, you fool!"
Athos held the baby as Aramis mounted his horse. There was, he thought as he stared down at the tiny infant, no doubt. It was as they had feared. The child was Aramis'. Athos had seen his friend's features for far too long, in far too many expressions, in pain, in joy, in activity and in rest, for him not to recognise them in a babe.
Once Aramis was comfortably seated, Athos carefully laid the baby in his arms, pulling off his own cloak and securing it around his friend and his child.
And then there was no time for thanks or goodbyes. He and Porthos rode out into the night.
The king stormed through the rooms, his court officials at his heels. He stopped when he found the midwife barring the way to the bedroom.
She curtsied, head down and then looked up. "My deepest sympathies, your majesty." The midwife said. "The child is lost."
Pain stabbed unexpectedly through the anger, completely obliterating it. Dear God! Not again…
"I must see Anne!" He demanded.
The midwife moved aside and the king pushed his way into the room. Anne lay on the bed, clutching a still stiff bundle of blankets to her chest, sobbing. Such terrible grief that he had prayed never to hear again.
He came to her side. She turned to look at him with eyes so filled with pain he found he could not hate her for what she had done.
He was not a cruel man.
"Take the child!" He called out. He did not want to look upon it: the fruit of Anne's unfaithful womb.
The midwife hurried in and took the stillborn child from Anne's unresisting arms.
Anne moaned softly, full of loss and despair and pressed herself against her husband.
She felt hot and damp against him. He lifted his hand to her shoulder. In all the years of their marriage, he could not recall a time when she had turned to him willingly. He found himself trembling.
"Perhaps…" He said shakily. "It is just as well."
Anne made another soft sound. But Louis knew she would see the truth of it one day. A bastard child would have been disastrous for France.
"We will have an heir one day," he told her, "I am sure of it."
Aramis watched his sister smile at the crying new-born in her arms. "She's hungry." She said. "Turn your backs."
He and Porthos did so.
"It is just as well for you," Mathilde said as she began to unfasten her dress, "that Alexander has almost finished weaning."
"I'm amazed you haven't brought me one of your bastards before now." She sounded more fond than censorious. "There must surely be enough to fill a school by now."
"You greatly exaggerate –"
"Underestimate." She corrected. "I should have said village. Ville D'Aramitz."
"A nice place to visit, I've heard." Porthos said. "Wouldn't want to live there."
Aramis gave his friend a look and Porthos smiled. "How about I wait outside?"
Aramis watched Porthos leave the house.
"I'll send you what money I can."
"You should stay." She said immediately. "Make a home. Raise your child."
Aramis knew she understood why that could never happen. Of all their family, she alone understood his need for excitement and danger. But he offered her the other truth of it.
"It's not safe," he admitted, "for her."
"Safe?" She repeated, worry colouring her words. "Whose child is this?"
"I promise I will tell you her mother one day." Aramis turned cautiously, but his sister had wrapped a blanket around herself and the nursing baby and did not shoo him round again. "But for now, raise…" he found the words jamming in his throat, "…raise…Isabelle as your own."
He came closer to her and brushed the head of his daughter with his fingers. "Keep her safe."
Mathilde laid her head against her brother's shoulder. "I will," she promised.