Queen Anne was once again sitting within her conservatory admiring the edelweiss and the poinsettias she had asked Louis long ago to bring in for her every winter as both plants reminded her of home, the only time in her life when she felt her life was her own even though she had already been promised to the King. Despite the cold, she was enjoying the peace and serenity her gardens brought her, especially now as Louis was still spending most of his time with Corinne.
She had been sitting outside for almost an hour when she heard the sound of horses and a carriage coming up the pathway. When Anne stood and walked outside to see who was arriving, she saw Captain Treville had returned with the musketeers who had left over a week ago for Savoy to pick up her husband's sister and her son.
The Queen observed from a distance as Treville and one of the soldiers walked to the carriage to help the Duchess and the boy step down, while the other two quickly dismounted and moved to Aramis' side in order to help him down from his own horse, as it appeared that he had been wounded. It was then that she remembered the Captain of the musketeers had mentioned Aramis had been trapped among the people who had fallen ill and she feared that the soldier himself had caught the sickness. Tears came to her eyes when she saw how difficult it was for the man she loved to dismount from his horse or even to walk. His brothers were having to help him more than she was sure he liked.
The musketeers were unaware that they were being watched by anyone other than the guards and soldiers that stood nearby to escort the Duchess and musketeers inside the palace to the King, not that it would have mattered. They had come to the palace to bring the Duchess before King Louis, where they would have to explain how his sister had killed a number of her people and that they had been forced to kill the Duke. Judgment was coming and the five men were afraid that this might be the moment the Cardinal had been waiting for to be able to have them arrested and the musketeers disbanded.
Once Porthos and Athos helped Aramis down from his horse, the sharpshooter nearly lost his balance and would have fallen to the ground if it weren't for his friends being right beside him to keep him upright, then Aramis gently held his hand against his wound, having hurt it the more he moved, as he spoke quietly saying, "Thank you."
Porthos looked over at Athos nervously as he responded, "It's no problem. Are you feeling alright? You shouldn't be here, you know."
"Porthos is right," Athos added when Aramis didn't reply right off. "You should allow us to take you back to the barracks so you can rest while we stand before the King."
"That isn't necessary," Aramis answered weakly as he finally looked between his three friends, all of whom were now standing with him. "I will face the consequences… with the men I am proud to call my brothers. This is my fault."
Athos turned to him and responded, "You're wrong, none of this is your fault. You need to stop blaming yourself for all the things you had no control over. The Duchess tried to kill her people. She told the Duke about you and he refused to stand down after he tried to kill you."
Aramis shook his head as he replied, "You three may die… because you protected me. Why should I have lived...?"
"None of us are going to die here today, Aramis," Athos interrupted when the sharpshooter cut himself off. "I killed the Duke because he refused to stand down after trying to kill you. You did no wrong against him five years ago, just as you did no wrong against him now. And you did not wrong us."
"I have to believe that our King will be fair, even though it is the Duchess we are about to bring to trial for her crimes and even if the Cardinal is standing beside him, trying to persuade him to get rid of us," Porthos added. "Besides, the Queen will be there as well and it's obvious that she has taken a liking to you, more so than to the rest of us."
When Aramis shamefully looked away again, Athos spoke up again, understanding the true reason he had done so, saying, "Yes, surely she will have more influence on Louis, than Richelieu. Are you certain you're ready?"
Aramis looked between Athos, Porthos, d'Artagnan, and Captain Treville as he nodded and focused on standing as tall as he could, fighting against the pain, then together, the four musketeers and the Duchess, being escorted by the Captain along with her son, walked through the doors that opened up into the main hall where Louis was sitting on his throne while talking with Cardinal Richelieu. Everyone turned to stare at them in shock upon seeing their King's sister, the Duchess of Savoy, wearing restraints.
Louis stood and angrily called out, "What is the meaning of this? Why do you have my sister in shackles?"
"Louis, please try to remain calm and allow them to explain their actions before you become cross," Anne said swiftly as she walked toward her husband, having entered the room from behind the soldiers, then sat calmly upon her own throne beside him. "I am certain they have a good reason. You must hear them out."
"I do not care what their reason is," Louis answered coldly. "I want you to release her now, this moment. Explain this, Treville."
Captain Treville did as their King asked, undoing the restraints from her wrists, and then moved forward to begin as he responded, "I ask your forgiveness on behalf of my myself and my men in regards to the Duchess' treatment, Your Majesty. I am afraid that I have a tragedy to discuss concerning your sister and the death of her husband, the Duke."
Louis sat down again as he asked in surprise, "The Duke of Savoy is dead?"
"Sadly yes, Your Highness," the Captain replied. "However, only my men can explain what really happened as they were in Savoy longer than I. They are all prepared to stand here before you now."
"Go on then," the King stated in frustration as he turned to look between the four musketeers as they all stepped forward and before the King and Queen. "Please, do explain."
Athos stood with confidence, though he didn't feel it, as he began, "Upon your orders, Your Majesty, the four of us travelled to Savoy in order to escort the Duchess of Savoy and her son back here to Paris. However, as soon as we arrived, we were immediately swept up in the trouble running throughout the city. A sickness had spread among the people."
Despite still feeling weak, Aramis continued more curtly than he meant to be, "The illness had begun days before our arrival and the Duke had yet to send his physicians down into the city to treat them… out of fear that the illness was the plague. I… I stayed with them because I have little… medicinal knowledge. I need… to hel… help…."
"Aramis wanted to remain behind to help them in any way that he could," Porthos finished for their sharpshooter when Aramis doubled over in pain and began to collapse, until d'Artagnan quickly rushed to the corner of the room to grab a chair, then moved back to his friends and placed the chair down for Aramis to sit on. "It turns out the illness was caused because the people had been poisoned; Aramis too later on because he had become a threat to the murderer."
"Before we could discover that everyone had become poisoned, a quarantine was put in place by the Duke's orders," d'Artagnan stated. "We were at the palace, so we were outside of the barricades put in place, but Aramis wasn't. Though we were obligated to escort the Duchess here to Paris, we couldn't just leave one of our own behind. Athos and Porthos escorted the Duchess and her son to their cottage by the lake where they would be comfortable, while I tended to some business of my own."
Athos took over again as he continued to explain all that happened and when he finally finished, without the true reason why Aramis had come to be nearly killed by the Duke, as the truth about the massacre in Savoy five years ago was a secret between only a small number of people, King Louis stared coldly at the woman, who looked up at her brother with pleading eyes, then he began to pace back and forth as he tried to figure out what he needed to do. Their own mother was a traitor to the crown and now the one person he loved in the world beside his wife was too. After a few moments, the Cardinal stepped forward and began to whisper something in the King's ear.
When the King and Richelieu appeared to be finished speaking, Captain Treville spoke again saying, "Your Majesty…"
Louis quickly cut the Captain of his musketeers off as he interrupted, "Do not say another word, Treville. Your men killed not just the Duke of Savoy, but also the husband of my sister, even if it was in defense of one of your men. They did not have the right. Their actions have destroyed the treaty between Paris and Savoy, which no longer has a leader, as the Duchess is guilty of murder and treason. Though the Duchess has committed this treacherous act, I cannot find it in my heart to sentence her to death. Therefore, I demote her from her state of power and banish her from Savoy. She shall remain here in Paris as an exile. At least this way, Christine, you will be able to raise your son until he is old enough to become the new Duke of Savoy."
"Thank you, my Lord," The woman said softly as she smiled while she looked into her brother's eyes, as he walked over to stand before her, then she curtsied before him and remained down low to the ground so long as Louis stood over her.
"As for you four musketeers," Louis continued coldly. "Each of you are suspended from your duties until I feel adequate time has passed and when you do return to work, if you do return to work, your wages will be cut. The Cardinal has reminded me that your actions are worthy of your dismissal and the disbandment of the musketeers. However, as there have been more and more attempts on mine and Queen Anne's lives and the people of Paris have been increasingly in need of a regiment created for their protection and their accountability, I feel the musketeers are necessary and because you four are without doubt the best of them all… I suggest you take this time to think about your grievous actions. And let me warn you now, should you fall out of line again in the slightest, I will have you dismissed and you will be disciplined far more severely. As for you, Treville, you will remain the Captain of your musketeers, but your wages shall be cut as well. Discipline your men and keep them in line. Have I made myself clear?"
Each of the soldiers bowed before their King again, including Aramis, who needed help from his friends to do so, and then Louis stood and walked away with his sister so they could speak with one another in a more private setting. Everyone watched them leave the main hall and once they were gone, Cardinal Richelieu walked over to the musketeers, a cold look plastered upon his face.
He spoke up saying, "You gentlemen are very lucky that our King was feeling merciful today, despite the horrendous mistakes you made. However, perhaps this mess you've created isn't quite as dire as it seems. Something even better might yet come along with a new Duke of Savoy in place. I suppose we will have to see, won't we? Good day."
"I hate to say so, but it's possible that the Cardinal may be right, at least about one thing," Captain Treville said softly enough so that only his men could hear him, as Queen Anne slowly stepped down from her throne and walked over to stand with the musketeers.
"Forgive my interruption, gentlemen," the Queen stated sincerely, speaking to all of them, but looking longingly at Aramis, who looked back at her with the same countenance. "I wanted to come over to see how each of you are faring. After all you have been through… Are each of you well?"
Anne looked away from Aramis and turned to Athos as he answered, "As well as can be expected under the circumstances, Your Highness. The King was indeed far more lenient than we deserve."
The Queen gently shook her head as she responded, "Actually, I feel my husband was a little harsh to be honest. I am just grateful that he has chosen to show lenience by not dismissing you all together. This city needs men as loyal and as honorable as you. I can only hope that though you will not be performing your duties for as long as Louis chooses, that you will continue to be the men I know each of you to be."
"You have nothing to fear, Your Majesty," Captain Treville replied as he and the other musketeers bowed once again before her. "My men are as honorable as you believe them to be."
"We will always be… your devoted servants, whether we… are the King's musketeers or not," Aramis added as he continued to look at Anne with sadness in his eyes while he stood as straight as he could with help from Porthos, despite feeling far more weak than he had admitted to his friends and their Captain.
Queen Anne smiled, then bowed her head and turned to walk away, her ladies in waiting walking behind her. As soon as she had left the room, Aramis suddenly collapsed into Porthos' arms as the larger musketeer and leader of their troupe quickly held him tightly, while d'Artagnan and Treville stood nearby to help if needed.
Porthos said gruffly, "I knew we should have brought you back to the barracks first before coming here. Why didn't you tell us how much pain you were really still in?"
"I told you, I… I deserve to be here for the edict of… our actions even more so than the rest… of you," Aramis answered weakly.
"Bollocks," Porthos responded angrily. "It has only been four days since you came around. We should have forced you to rest longer."
Athos helped Porthos lift Aramis off the floor and together they slowly made their way out of the palace so that they could get their sharpshooter to a place where he would be comfortable again, then once they had helped him onto his horse, d'Artagnan replied, "I agree, though it probably would have done us no good. He would have fought us every step of the way."
Porthos mounted his own horse and slowly began to ride alongside Aramis, to be there for him should he begin to fall, then he changed the subject as he spoke again in frustration saying, "I can't believe that the Duchess still got everything she wanted. She murdered her own people and our King rewards her, instead of punishing her in any way. At least she must live as an exile. And us, no duties for however long our King sees fit. How are we supposed to earn a living when we have no other talents to fall back on? We are musketeers, nothing more."
"We should all be grateful that the punishments were not more severe," their Captain answered. "At least in time we will be able to return as musketeers."
"The Captain's right," d'Artagnan responded as he looked over at Porthos and smiled. "At least now you will have plenty of more time to spend at the tavern, playing cards and stealing the Red Guards' money."
Athos quickly looked at their Captain, then back at his friends as he gave a smile and replied, "So long as we try not to pick as many fights with them, unless of course they start them first."
Porthos laughed and then answered, "Perhaps it might not be so bad to be out of work for a while after all. What do you say, Aramis, when you're feeling better would you be my right hand when I rob the Cardinal's men of their monthly wages?"
"I would like nothing more," Aramis responded softly while he kept his head down as Porthos led his horse along with his own.
Four weeks later…
When Athos, Porthos, and d'Artagnan went out one morning in search of Aramis, who had started to become more scarce as he continued to get better day by day, the three musketeers finally discovered where their comrade kept running off to in order to remain alone, knowing that it was because Aramis was still struggling to deal with everything that happened while in Savoy; to the site of some old ruins that once was a small church far outside of the city, a quiet and peaceful place.
He no longer blamed himself for causing the Duke's death because he understood that as brothers the four men protected each other no matter the cost, but what he couldn't deal with was that each of them were struggling with not being musketeers so long as they were on suspension, though they wouldn't admit it to anyone out loud.
Aramis also struggled with the ghosts of his brothers he lost five years ago and the deaths of those he couldn't save in Savoy once again, even though his friends did all they could to encourage him that he didn't deserve to suffer for the sins that alone were the Duchess' and the man's who had poisoned them.
"I can't believe I've never been through here," Athos spoke in admiration of the ruins as he, d'Artagnan, and Porthos slowly approached Aramis, who was sitting down upon what once was a large window sill overlooking the forest. "It's no wonder you come here for peace and quiet. It is quite beautiful."
Aramis looked around and then stared off away from his friends as he replied softly, "Indeed it is."
Porthos shook his head as he stated, "It's a little too quiet for my taste. Though I can certainly understand this place's appeal to you."
"Is there any news in regards to our duties being restored?" Aramis asked as he finally looked over at them again.
"Actually yes," d'Artagnan answered as he reached out to hand Aramis papers from the King; reinstatement papers. "These came for us this morning. The King requests our presence at noon today."
Athos continued, "Things will be better from here on out. Things can be better for you too, Aramis. Please, let us help you to carry your burdens as each of you have for me. I never would have survived this long if it weren't for you three. We can be the same for you, should you allow us to be."
Finally, Aramis looked between each of them and smiled, then placed his hat upon his head and said sincerely, "Thank you, for not giving up on me. It is an honor to call you my brothers."
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