All For One (Chapter Three)
3. The Bishop of Luçon
The Comte de Rochefort brought Milady to the diocese of Luçon in the Vendée. They traveled across the Somme River to Rouen near the mouth of the Seine. Milady had a few pieces of bread and some wine, and once again each swallow was torture. After resting and allowing the horse to rest, they made their way to Caen, where they spent the night in separate rooms. Milady felt a little bit better after a night’s sleep at an inn, although she had trouble reaching slumber as her mind was in turmoil. She dreamt she was in a small boat on a river. The boat crept closer and closer to the shore, and she somehow knew that if she stepped upon that shore, it would mean her death. When she turned around, she saw her husband wearing a red cloak and holding a sword. The sword was meant for her. She woke up often that night. Sometimes, snakes would wrap themselves around her neck in her dreams. Rochefort gallantly supplied Milady with an appropriate ensemble, a fine dinner, and the amenities needed to make her face. When Milady finally emerged, she was every inch the Comtesse, in spirit if no longer in name, although she still bore the purple bruises of her near-death experience, which she covered with gloves and a scarf. Rochefort stabled his horse and hired a carriage for the two of them. Milady enjoyed the ride much better.
“Where are we going?” Milady asked her new companion.
“To meet the man who could truly change your life,” replied Rochefort.
They traveled South, through the heart of France, stopping at Angers on the Loire River for a meal. Once their horses were rested, they finished the rest of their journey to Luçon, arriving as the sun grew heavy in the sky.
They arrived at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption of Luçon. It was a large and impressive structure, much grander than the Convent at Béthune. They ascended the stairs, finally arriving to a closed wooden door. Workmen were repairing damage to the cathedral wrought by Calvinists from nearby La Rochelle to the South. Rochefort silently rapped on the door and waited.
“Enter,” came a muffled voice from inside.
Rochefort opened the door and gestured for Milady to enter. The room was a small room, spartanly furnished. Two men watched her enter. Closer to her was an imposing man of about thirty-six gazed. He wore the red robes of a Cardinal and was named François d’Escoubleau de Sourdis. She knew who he was on sight, for he was the very powerful and influential Archbishop of Bordeaux.
However it was the other man in the room, closer to the window, which commanded her attention. He was only twenty-five and frail of body, but his eyes burned into her when he looked at her. He was Armand Jean du Plessis de Richelieu, the Bishop of Luçon. He had a long sharp face, which ended in a smartly trimmed beard, giving his face an angular look. His forehead was high and prominent, with thin eyebrows. His hair was fine and brown and was already showing strands of gray at the temples for one so young. He had a crooked nose, and dark brown eyes that betrayed no warmth. When she looked in those eyes, she saw something she rarely saw and couldn’t explain how she knew the quality of it—an intelligence to rival that of her own. One glance at his face revealed determination and ruthlessness. Perhaps, impossibly, Milady knew the greatness of what this man would become. Richelieu would one day forge a France with one language, one King, and almost one religion. Richelieu would make France great, but like all great leaders he was forced to use violent means to peaceful ends.
“Your Eminence,” Rochefort began, “I would like to present to you the Comtesse de la Fère.”
Milady blanched a bit at the introduction, but she realized she couldn’t be introduced as “the former Comtesse de la Fère who was left for dead,” so she simply curtseyed to Richelieu.
“Milady,” Rochefort continued, “it is my pleasure to present to you Cardinal de Sourdis,” he indicated the red-robed Archbishop, who acknowledged the introduction with a nod. “Bishop Richelieu,” he said a moment later.
“And what can I do for you, my lady?” Richelieu said slowly.
Milady glanced at Rochefort, who nodded.
“Your Grace, I need help. My situation is critical,” she said.
“What happened to your neck?” he asked simply.
Her hand involuntarily flew to her neck, and she scrambled for an answer.
“What happened to my neck?” she repeated to give her time to think of an answer. “Nothing. This is the latest fashion,” she said.
“No, it’s not,” replied Richelieu simply. “Remove your scarf.”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate,” she said stiffly.
“If you don’t want my help, then I understand,” he said simply. “But if I am to assist you, then I need to know everything.”
Milady stole a second glance at Rochefort, who shrugged and said, “What have you to lose?”
Milady took a deep breath and untied the silk scarf, she pulled on the end and the scarf slipped from her neck, revealing the ugly discolored skin that had been damaged by the cord. She stood stiff, head high. Richelieu crossed the room and inspected her.
Those dark eyes softened. “My child, what happened?” he said quietly.
She had not expected a kind word from this man. Her eyes welled with tears and her story spilled out of her. She refrained from telling him about her father, starting her story from her time in the convent and the bishop listened quietly, without interrupting. When she was finished he was quiet for a few moments. Even if he could offer no help, her mind was significantly calmer simply from the act of unburdening her soul.
“Your husband,” the bishop said after a moment, “he believes you dead?”
“I can only assume so,” she said, “although I can’t imagine what he thinks happened to my body.”
“I didn’t see anyone for miles,” Rochefort interjected. “It’s possible he never returned.”
“If he thinks that you are dead, it might be best to continue that deception,” Richelieu said. “If we were to reveal your existence at this point, I have no doubt that he would have no qualms about denouncing you publicly.”
He turned to de Sourdis. “I believe this reinforces my point, your Eminence. A member of the aristocracy takes it upon himself to pass judgment, and for what? Burglary?”
He turned back to her. “May I see the brand, please?”
She blinked, then slowly tugged the neck of her dress down to expose her left shoulder. The bishop looked at the red fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder. He nodded and she fixed her dress.
“You see?” Richelieu said.
De Sourdis nodded. “She was already punished for her crime by the state,” he said. “For him to take the law into his own hands is overstating his authority.”
“If I may be so bold,” Rochefort said, “If every husband hung their wives because they lied to them, there would be no women left in France.”
“The nobles have entirely too much power,” Richelieu said. “On this, I and our late king agreed.”
“‘Late king?’” Rochefort asked.
“You haven’t heard, Rochefort?” Richelieu said. “Our King was assassinated yesterday by a fanatic Catholic.”
The room fell silent as if to absorb the immensity of the event.
“It was fortunate he died when he did,” de Sourdis said. “A war with Flanders would have destroyed the delicate balance he managed to create between us and the Protestants.”
“And because the Hapsburgs are Catholic that makes us their allies?” Richelieu shot back. “You would have them march from all sides and lay siege to Paris?”
“Like Henri laid siege to Paris for six years? Henri jumped from one religion to the other to benefit his political needs,” de Sourdis countered.
“I would not argue that a Catholic France is a stable one, but Henri knew that a strong central government was essential to the future of the country,” Richelieu replied. “Henri made France strong. He had plans and they were grand ones. You said it was fortunate that Henri died when he did, but how can you mean that when there is so much left to do.” He sighed. “Who knows what’s going to happen now?”
“May I ask,” Milady began, “what is the next step?”
“Louis the Dauphine will become king,” de Sourdis said simply.
“But he’s only nine years old,” Milady said. “How can a child rule a kingdom?”
“Well he won’t of course,” Rochefort said. “The law is fairly clear in this matter. A regent is appointed to rule in his name until he reaches majority, or becomes old enough to rule the country.”
“And who would that be?” Milady asked.
“Henri designated the Queen to rule as regent before he died,” de Sourdis said.
“Marie d’Mecidi,” Richelieu said with a small amount of gall. “She’s Hapsburg on her mother’s side. I would wager that before her Regency is over that she’ll have the King betrothed to a Hapsburg princess.”
“We’re not Austrian, we’re not Spanish, we’re French,” Rochefort snarled.
“Thank you for that acute observation, Rochefort,” Richelieu said. “Who knows what Louis will eventually do when he is king, and in the meantime, with his mother as regent…”
“But he does have a point,” de Sourdis said. “We are French and must forever remain so.”
“Do you want to know what Henri’s most intelligent decision was?” asked Richelieu. “It was appointing Sully as his minister of finance. Henri was a warrior, but Sully was a genius. Sully made Henri look brilliant.”
“The right man in the right place could occupy that same position, your grace,” Rochefort said.
“Yes, of course,” Richelieu replied. He indicated Milady. “This poor girl is indicative of the disease of our country. I mean no offense of course,” he said to her. “But think of what this young child has suffered, and how we have let her down. I can not help to think that our society is responsible for what has happened to her, and her future depends on what we do next”
“Therefore we must now respect the Queen in all ways,” de Sourdis said. “We have to have peace, and for now, we must have a smooth transition. I have things I need to attend to, Armand.” He turned to Milady. “I wish you all the best.”
She curtseyed and he swept through the room. Richelieu turned his attention to the young girl.
“Rochefort brought you to me because he thought I could assist you,” he said. “I can do this. I can invent a new identity for you. A clean, unsullied beginning, but I must know what you can accomplish for me.”
“I’m excellent at languages,” she said eagerly. “I know Spanish, English and Dutch. If you need anything translated…”
“You are fluent in these languages?” he asked, interrupting.
She blinked. “Yes.”
“And you can converse in them without accent?” he continued.
“I suppose,” she replied. “I don’t really know if I have an accent or not. I try to sound just like the people I heard near our village. There were always Spaniards and Englishmen around. I talk like them.”
“You’re also a thief,” he said, “and very beautiful.”
She didn’t know where he was going with this.
“How would you like to work for me?” he asked.
“What would I do?”
“I need someone who can function where a man can not. Someone who can garner intelligence and act when need be. Someone who can be my eyes, ears and fist.”
“You want me to be a spy?” she asked.
“A crude term,” he said, “but an accurate one. I waited until his Eminence left before I said this because he has strict notions of morality. He doesn’t understand that there are some laws that must be broken in order to advance the greater good. However, I am not that kind of man. I am not the kind of person who merely talks about problems and doesn’t do anything about it. When I have made up my mind, I don’t wander in my actions. I attack my target. I engulf everything in my path. I am a storm, a force of nature. I will do what I need to do in order to accomplish my purpose. Men discus morality in small dusty rooms, but do not realize that in order to accomplish noble purposes some rules must be disregarded, and some schemes may not be honest or nice or acceptable in the drawing room, but they are essential to getting things done. Sometimes blood must be spilt and falsehoods must be told. And it all must be done without anyone knowing, because they will not understand and they will kill you for it. I don’t know if you are capable of putting aside your perceptions of right and wrong in order to realize a superior end. I may ask you to do things that may not be considered respectable.”
“I understand,” she said.
“Do you?” he asked. “If I asked you to steal something, without explaining why I needed it stolen, would you have any reservations?”
She didn’t need to think about it. “No. I could do that.”
“What if I requested you to have an assignation with a man you scarcely knew? Could you do that?”
She felt the blood rise to her cheeks, but she suppressed the emotion. This was her new life and she would not show any weakness.
“I’m not a virgin, your eminence,” she said. “I am not a mouse when it comes to sexual relations.”
“I see,” he answered, revealing no judgment. “And if I asked you to kill?”
She thought about how close she came to dying just a day before. “I could kill.”
“Is that so? Have you ever killed someone before?”
Rochefort, who hadn’t said much, paused for a moment. “Once you kill someone, your life changes. If you pilfer something, you can always make reparations, but when you slay someone, their visage stays with you forever. You may appreciate that at times it is necessary, maybe even to protect your existence. If you can dwell with that, then you can kill. But know that it will not be painless.”
“What if I get caught?” she asked.
“Don’t get caught,” he said simply.
“So by your order and for the good of the state I have a license to break the law and do things that no one else could do.”
She was amazed at the opportunity that lay before her. Finally, she could have the means to live above the strict laws of society that has held her down for so long. No longer would she have to conform to the demands of a cruel world, but live above it. For that, she could certainly kill. “I have the will,” she said, “but I don’t know if I have the skill to take a life.”
“I can teach you,” Rochefort said. “There are numerous ways to murder a man. A knife will do sometimes, but there are poisons that leave no trace and may counterfeit natural causes.”
“I have ambitions,” Richelieu said, “and under my hand, I could turn France into a nation forever to be reckoned with. You will be my clandestine weapon, my silent fist. Do you accept this?”
For Milady, it was a simple question. “Yes, I accept.”
Richelieu smiled. “Then let your education begin.”
- All For One (Chapter Two)
The next chapter in the prequel to the Three Musketeers
- All For One (Chapter Four)
The next chapter in the prequel to The Three Musketeers