“[Pierre] Pevel…makes a stunning English-language debut with this breathless, swashbuckling tale of intrigue, spying, and swordfights… Pevel's adventure is…likely to charm Anglophone audiences who enjoy action-packed adventure with a true historical sensibility.”
--Publishers Weekly starred review
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The Cardinal's Blades
Translated by Tom Clegg
“Really? And why is that?”
A CALL TO ARMS
Long and high-ceilinged, the room was lined with elegantly gilded and bound books which shone with a russet gleam in the half-light of the candle flames. Outside, beyond the thick red velvet curtains, Paris slept
beneath a starry sky and a deep tranquillity had settled on the dusky streets which penetrated even here, where the scratching of a quill barely troubled the silence. Thin, bony and pale, the hand which held the quill traced fine, tight writing, delicate yet steady, making neither mistakes nor blots. The quill paused regularly to take a fresh load from the inkwell. It was guided with precision and, as soon as it returned to the paper, continued to scratch out an unhesitating thread of thought. Nothing else moved. Not even the scarlet dragonnet which, curled in a ball, its muzzle tucked under its wing, slept peacefully by the thick leather blotter.
Someone knocked at the door.
The hand wrote on without pause but the dragonnet, disturbed, opened one emerald eye. A man entered wearing a sword and a fitted cape of red silk blazoned, on each of its four panels, with a white cross. His head was respectfully uncovered.
“Yes?” said Cardinal Richelieu, continuing to write.
“He is here, Your Eminence.”
“As you instructed.”
“Good. Send him in.”
Master Saint-Georges, Captain of His Eminence’s Guards, bowed. He was about to withdraw when the cardinal added: “And spare him the guards.”
Saint-Georges understood, bowed again, and took care to close the door silently as he left.
Before being received in the cardinal’s apartment visitors normally had to pass through five rooms throughout which guards were stationed on continuous watch, day and night. All carried a sword at their side and pistol in their belt, remaining alert to the slightest hint of danger and refusing to let anyone pass without a direct order to that effect. Nothing escaped their scrutiny, which could shift at a moment’s notice from merely probing to actively threatening. Wearing their celebrated capes, these men belonged to the company of His Eminence’s Guards. They escorted him everywhere he went, and wherever he resided there were never less than sixty men to accompany him. Those not on duty in the corridors and antechambers killed time between their rounds, their short muskets always near to hand. And the Guards were not the only troops detailed to protect Richelieu: while they ensured his safety inside, a company of musketeers patrolled outside.
This constant vigilance was not a simple, ostentatious show of force. They had good reason to guard him; even here in the heart of Paris, in the ornamental palace the cardinal had built just a few steps from the Louvre.
At forty-eight years old, Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal de Richelieu was one of the most powerful men, and one of the most threatened, of his time. A duke and peer of the realm, member of the Council, and principal minister to His Majesty; he had the ear of Louis XIII—with whom he had ruled France for a decade. That alone accounted for the numerous adversaries he reckoned with, the least of whom only plotted to disgrace him, while others made detailed plans for his assassination—for if the cardinal were forced into exile he could still act from abroad, and if imprisoned there was always the possibility of his escape. Such plots had come close to succeeding in the past, and new ones were no doubt being prepared. Richelieu had to guard himself against all those who hated him out of jealousy, because of his influence over
the king. But he also had to be wary of attacks orchestrated by the enemies of France, the first and foremost being Spain, and her Court of Dragons.
It was about to strike midnight.
The sleepy dragonnet heaved a tired sigh.
“It’s very late, isn’t it?” the cardinal said, addressing the small winged reptile with an affectionate smile.
He looked drawn himself, both from fatigue and illness, on this spring night in 1633.
Normally he would have been in bed soon. He would sleep a little if his insomnia, his migraines, and the pain in his limbs allowed it. And especially if no one woke him with urgent news requiring orders to be drawn up hastily, or worse still, a meeting in the dead of night. No matter what occurred, he rose at two in the morning and was promptly surrounded by his secretaries. After quick ablutions, he would eat a few mouthfuls of broth and then work until six o’clock. Then perhaps he would allow himself one or two hours of additional sleep, before beginning the most challenging part of the day—the rounds of ministers and secretaries of state, ambassadors and courtiers. But tonight, Cardinal Richelieu had not yet finished with the affairs of France.
* * *
Hinges squeaked at the other end of the library, then a firm step sounded against the parquet floor, followed by a clatter of spurs, as Cardinal Richelieu reread the report he intended to present to the king concerning the proposed policies against Lorraine. Incongruous at this hour and echoing loudly beneath the library’s painted ceiling, the growing noise woke the dragonnet. Unlike its master, it raised its head to see who had arrived.
It was a gentleman, his features marked by long service in times of war.
Large, energetic, still strong despite his years, he had high boots on his feet, and carried his hat in his hand and his rapier at his side. He wore a grey doublet slashed with red and matching hose the cut of which was as austere as the fabric itself. His closely trimmed beard was the same silver-grey as his hair. It covered much of his severe-looking face, rendered gaunt by battle and long hours of riding, and perhaps also by old regrets and sadness. His bearing was martial, assured, proud, almost provocative. His gaze was that of a man who would never look away first. And he wore a tarnished steel ring on his left hand.
Letting a silence settle, Richelieu finished his perusal of the report while his visitor waited. He initialled the last page, sanded it to help the ink dry, and then blew the grains away. They rose into the air, tickling the dragonnet’s nostrils. The little reptile sneezed, raising a smile on the cardinal’s thin lips.
“Apologies, Petit-Ami,” he murmured to it.
And finally acknowledging the man, he said: “A moment, if you will?”
He rang a small bell.
The chimes summoned the faithful and indefatigable Charpentier, who had served His Eminence in the capacity of private secretary for twenty-five years. Richelieu gave him the initialled report.
“Before I present it before His Majesty tomorrow, I want Père Joseph to read it and add those biblical references which His Majesty likes so much and serve the cause of France so well.”
Charpentier bowed and departed.
“The King is very pious,” the cardinal explained.
Then, speaking as if his guest had only just arrived: “Welcome, Captain La Fargue.”
“That’s your rank, isn’t it?”
“It was, before my commission was taken from me.”
“We wish that you return to service.”
“As of now?”
“Yes. Did you have something better to do?”
It was an opening sally, and Richelieu predicted that there would be more to follow.
“A captain must command a company,” said La Fargue.
“Or a troop, at the very least, which may be more modest in size. You shall reclaim yours.”
“It was dispersed, thanks to the good care and attention of Your Eminence.”
That comment raised a spark in the cardinal’s eye.
“Find your men. These letters, intended for them, are ready to be sent.”
“They may not all answer the call.”
“Those who respond will suffice. They were the best, and they should still be. It has not been so long . . .”
“. . . and you are free to recruit others,” Richelieu continued without permitting an interruption. “Besides, my reports indicate that, despite my orders, you have not severed all of your connections with them.”
The old gentleman blinked.
“I see that the competence of Your Eminence’s spies has not faltered in the least.”
“I believe there are few things concerning you of which I am unaware, captain.”
His hand poised on the pommel of his sword, Captain Etienne-Louis de La Fargue took a moment to think. He stared straight ahead, over the cardinal’s head who, from his armchair, observed him with patient interest.
“So, captain, you accept?”
Feared because he was influential and all the more influential because he was feared, Cardinal Richelieu could ruin a destiny with a stroke of his quill or, just as easily, propel a career toward greatness. He was believed to be a man who would crush all those who opposed him. It was a significant exaggeration but as he himself was fond of saying, “His Eminence has no enemies other than those of the State. But toward them, he is utterly without mercy.”
Cold as marble, the cardinal hardened his tone.
“Is it not enough for you, captain, to know that your king recalls you to his service?”
The man unflinchingly found and held the cardinal’s gaze.
“No, monseigneur, it is not enough.”
After a pause, he added: “Or rather, it’s not enough anymore.”
For a long moment, nothing but the hissing breathing of the dragonnet could be heard beneath the rich panelling of the Palais-Cardinal’s great library. The conversation between the two men had taken a bad turn, with one of them still seated and the other standing, each taking the measure of the other, until La Fargue gave in. But he did not lower his gaze. Instead he lifted it, looking straight ahead again and focusing on a precious tapestry behind the cardinal.
“Are you demanding guarantees, captain?”
“In that case, I’m afraid I do not understand you.”
“I want to say, monseigneur, that I demand nothing. One does not demand that which one is due.”
La Fargue was playing a dangerous game, opposing the man said to be in greater command of France than the king himself. His Eminence knew that not all battles were won by force of arms. As the old soldier stood at unwavering attention, no doubt ready to be incarcerated in the deepest, grimmest prison for the remainder of his days, or swiftly dispatched to fight savages in the West Indies, Richelieu leaned on the table and, with a gnarled index finger, scratched the dragonnet’s head.
The reptile closed its eyes and sighed with pleasure.
“Petit-Ami was given to me by His Majesty,” said the cardinal in a conversational tone. “It was he who named it, and it seems these creatures become accustomed very quickly to their nicknames. . . . In any case, it expects me to feed it and care for it. And I have never failed in that, just as I have never failed to serve the interests of France. Nevertheless, if I suddenly deprived it of my care, it would not take Petit-Ami long to bite me. And this, without any consideration for the kindnesses I had lavished upon it previously. . . . There’s a lesson to remember here, don’t you think?”
The question was rhetorical. Leaving the dragonnet to its slumber, Richelieu sank back into the cushions of his armchair, cushions which he piled on in a vain attempt to ease the pangs of his rheumatism.
He grimaced, waiting until the pain lessened before continuing.
“I know, captain, that not so long ago I let you down. You and your men served me well. In view of your previous successes and your value, was your disgrace justified? Of course not. It was a political necessity. I grant you that your efforts were not entirely unworthy and that the failure of your delicate mission during the siege of La Rochelle was in no way your fault. But considering the tragic turn taken by the events in which you were involved, the French Crown could do nothing but disown you. It was necessary to save face and condemn you for what you had done, secretly, by our order. You had to be sacrificed, even if it heaped dishonour upon the death of one of your men.”
La Fargue agreed, but it cost him to do so.
“Political necessity,” he said in a resigned tone while his thumb rubbed the steel signet ring against the inside of his fist.
Suddenly seeming very tired, the cardinal sighed.
“Europe is at war, captain. The Holy Roman Empire has known nothing but fire and blood for the last fifteen years, and France will no doubt soon be drawn into the fighting there. The English threaten our coasts and the Spanish our borders. When she is not taking up arms against us, Lorraine welcomes all the seditious elements in the kingdom with open arms while the queen mother plots against the king from Brussels. Revolts blossom in our provinces and those who foment and lead them are often placed at the highest levels of the State. I shall not even mention the secret factions, often funded from abroad, whose intrigues extend all the way into the Louvre.”
Richelieu looked La Fargue firmly in the eye.
“I cannot always choose the weapons I employ, captain.”
There was a long silence, and then the cardinal spoke again: “You seek neither fortune nor glory. And in truth, I can promise you neither. You can rest assured that I am as ready now as yesterday to sacrifice your honour or your life if reasons of State demand it. . . .”
This frank admission surprised the captain, who raised a skeptical eyebrow and returned Richelieu’s gaze.
“But do not refuse the hand I extend to you, captain. You are not one of those who shirk their duty, and soon the kingdom will have great need of a man like you. A man capable of gathering together and commanding honest, courageous, and expert swordsmen, adept at acting swiftly and secretly, and
above all, who will kill without remorse and die without regret in the service of the king. Captain, would you still be wearing your signet ring if you were not the man I believe you to be?”
La Fargue could not answer, but for the cardinal the business had been settled.
“You and your men liked to call yourselves the ‘Cardinal’s Blades,’ I seem to recall. The name was never whispered lightly amongst the enemies of France. For that reason, among others, it pleased me. Keep it.”
“With all the respect that I owe you, monseigneur, I have not yet said yes.”
Richelieu stared at the old man for a long time, his thin angular face expressing only coldness. Then he rose from his armchair, opened a curtain a little to look outside and said carelessly: “And if I said it could affect your daughter?”
Suddenly growing pale, and visibly shaken, La Fargue turned his head toward the cardinal who seemed absorbed in the contemplation of the nighttime garden.
“My . . . daughter? . . . But I don’t have a daughter, monseigneur—”
“You know very well that you do. And I know it as well. . . . But don’t be alarmed. The secret of her existence is one guarded by a few trustworthy people. I believe that even your Blades are unaware of the truth, is that not so?”
The captain surrendered, abandoning a battle he had already lost.
“Is she . . . in danger?” he asked him.
At that moment Richelieu knew he had won. His back still turned to La Fargue, he hid a smile.
“You shall understand soon,” he said. “For now, gather your Blades in preparation to receive the details of your first mission. I promise you that these shall not be long in coming.”
And at last rewarding La Fargue with a glance over his shoulder, he added: “Good night, captain.”
Agnès de Vaudreuil woke with a scream in her throat, her eyes wide and filled with the terrors which haunted her every night. She had sat up in a panic, and remained dazed for a moment watching the shadows around her bed. She was forced to wait while the furious pace of her heart slowed. Wait until her breathing, almost panting, finally calmed. Wait for the sour sweat to dry on her skin.
The terror left her little by little, with regret, like a pack of dogs frustrated not to have triumphed over their wounded yet tenacious prey.
The young woman sighed.
A peaceful silence reigned inside as much as it did without, a clear shimmering light falling from the cloud-flecked sky and through the open window as far as the four-poster bed. Elegant and spacious, the room was richly furnished, decorated with heavy hangings, valuable miniatures, delicately painted woodwork, and gilded moldings. A certain disarray disturbed this tableau of luxury, however. A chair had toppled over. A man’s hat perched at a jaunty angle atop an antique statuette. Candles had burned down into wax stalagmites
clinging to the candlesticks. The remains of a fine supper stood on an inlaid table and an assortment of clothes were strewn across the carpet.
Leaning forward, Agnès pulled her knees up under the bedclothes, leaned her elbows on them, and slid her fingers through her thick hair, running them from the front to the back of her skull. Then she slowly raised her head, letting the palms of her hands smooth her cheeks. She felt better but the fear was only postponed, not gone for good. The pack would return, always hungry and perhaps more ferocious than ever. There was nothing to do but accept it.
Agnès pulled herself together.
She rose without disturbing the man sleeping beside her, pulling a rumpled sheet with her and wrapping herself in it. Taller and considerably thinner and more muscular than her peers, who took care to remain plump in order to entice men, she was not, however, without charm. She had an elegance of gesture, a
nobility of movement, and a severe and savage kind of beauty, provocative and almost haughty, which promised failure to any who attempted to conquer her. Thick with ample curls, her long black hair framed a slender but forceful face and underlined her paleness. Her full, dark lips seldom smiled. Nor did her emerald green eyes, in which burned a cold flame. Had they shown any sign of joy, she would have been, all in all, absolutely radiant.
Her left fist holding the cloth tight against her chest, Agnès trampled over the dress and the ruffled underskirts she had worn the day before. Her white stockings still sheathed her long legs. With her free hand she lifted and shook a number of wine bottles before finding one that wasn’t empty. She poured the dregs into a glass and carried it to the window, letting the warm May breeze caress her. From the first floor she had a view over the courtyard of her manor and the surrounding countryside, reaching as far as the distant glimmer of the Oise river.
Agnès sipped her wine and waited for dawn to come.
By daybreak the sheet had slipped a little, revealing a mark on her shoulder blade—a mark which worried some of her lovers and prompted a few to comment that Agnès had something of a witch about her. Remaining at the window, she toyed distractedly with a signet ring she wore around her neck. The jewel, set in tarnished steel, was etched with a Greek cross with arms capped by fleur-de-lis, and crossed by a rapier. Agnès heard the man rise from the bed behind her. She released the ring and thought of covering her shoulder but didn’t turn as he dressed and left the room without a word. She saw him appear in the courtyard and wake the coachman sleeping beneath the harnessed carriage. The whip cracked, the horses snorted, shaking their heads, and the vehicle of this already forgotten gentleman was soon nothing
more than a cloud of dust on the stony road.
Life soon began to stir in the manor, as the surrounding village bell towers signalled the first mass of the day. Agnès de Vaudreuil finally left the window when she saw a valet taking orders from the ostler outside the stable. She performed a rapid toilette and hastily braided her long hair. She changed her stockings, did up her breeches, pulled on a wide-collared shirt, and, over it, an old red leather corset. She chose her best riding boots, then belted on the baldric and sheathed rapier which hung by the door.
The blade had been made for her especially, forged in Toledo from the best steel. She unsheathed it to admire its perfect straightness, its beautiful shine, its suppleness and keen edge. She sketched a few feints, parries, and ripostes. Finally, with her thumb, she made a spike as long as her hand spring from the pommel, fine and sharp-edged like a Florentine dagger, which she admired with an almost loving gleam in her eye.
On its completion, the Palais-Cardinal would comprise a splendid main building, with two long wings, two courtyards, and an immense garden which stretched between rue de Richelieu and rue des Bons-Enfants. But in 1633, it was still little more than the original Hôtel d’Angennes, acquired nine years earlier, although its new, illustrious owner, determined to have a residence in Paris appropriate to his station, was busy having it enlarged and embellished. He was so determined, in fact, that when he was put in charge of the city’s new fortifications he seized the opportunity to extend his domain into the vast area which the old ramparts had occupied, rebuilding the walls further to the west from the Saint-Denis gate to the new gate of La Conférence. The capital gained as much as the cardinal from this enlargement: new streets were laid out and new districts were born where only wasteland and ditches had existed before, including the creation of a
renowned horse market and the beginnings of the neighbourhoods of Montmartre and Saint-Honoré. But Richelieu was condemned to live with the builders a while longer in the Hôtel d’Angennes. The imposing façade of his palace, on rue de Saint-Honoré, would still take years to complete.
Thus it was that, at eight o’clock in the morning, Ensign Arnaud de Laincourt entered the Palais-Cardinal by passing beneath a large scaffold which was already loaded with workmen. The musketeers who had just
opened the wrought-iron gates recognised him and gave him a military salute to which he responded before entering the guard room. This area, with its one hundred and eighty square metres of floor space and its monumental chimney, was where ordinary visitors waited to be summoned. There were already a score of them in attendance, but above all the room was crawling with men in red capes, as it was here that guards who had ensured the safety of His Eminence all night were relieved by those who, like Laincourt, had arrived to take their shift. Rows of muskets—loaded and ready to fire—were arranged on the racks. The light fell from high south-facing windows and conversations blended into a hubbub which echoed beneath the wainscoting.
Slender and athletic, Arnaud de Laincourt was approaching thirty. He had dark eyebrows, crystalline blue eyes, a straight nose, smoothly shaven cheeks, and pale skin. His fine features had a strange charm, youthful yet wise. It was easier to imagine him studying philosophy at the Sorbonne than wearing the uniform of the cardinal’s horse guards. Nevertheless, he carried the plumed felt hat and the white gloves, and wore the cape blazoned with a cross, along with the sword hanging from the regulation leather baldric which crossed his chest from his left shoulder. Moreover, as an ensign he was an officer—a junior officer according to the military hierarchy then in force, but an officer nonetheless, and one who was promised a lieutenancy, so highly did Richelieu regard him.
He was saluted again and, as was his habit, he courteously returned the salute with a personal reserve which discouraged idle chatter. Then he took one of the small books known as sextodecimos from his russet red leather doublet and, intending to read, went to lean against a pillar close to two guards sitting by a pedestal table. The youngest, Neuvelle, was only just twenty-six and had not been with the guards for more than a few weeks. His companion, on the other hand, was turning grey. He was called Brussand, was a good forty years of age, and had served with the Cardinal’s Guards since the formation of the company seven years earlier.
“Still,” said Neuvelle in a lowered voice, “I would love to know who the man His Eminence received in such secrecy last night was. And why.”
When Brussand, leaning on the card table, did not react, the young man insisted: “Think about the fact that he did not pass through the antechambers. The musketeers who guard the little gate were ordered to do nothing but announce his arrival, and not ask questions. All the other guards were kept away. And it was Captain Saint-Georges in person who escorted him to the cardinal’s apartments and accompanied him back!”
“Our orders,” Brussand finally replied, without raising his eyes from his game of patience, “were to be deaf and blind to all that concerned this gentleman. You should not have watched the doors.”
“Pff. . . . What harm did I do? . . . And anyway, I only caught a brief glimpse of a silhouette in the corner of a very dark corridor. He could have shook hands with me without my recognising him.”
Brussand, still absorbed by his game, smoothed his salt-and-pepper moustache without comment, then with an air of satisfaction laid the wyvern of spades, which had appeared at the opportune moment, upon the previously troublesome knave of hearts.
“All these mysteries intrigue me,” Neuvelle blurted.
“Really? And why is that?”
Although he gave no sign, Brussand, unlike his young companion, had noticed Laincourt’s discreet arrival.
“Would you explain it to him, monsieur de Laincourt?”
“Certainly, monsieur de Brussand.”
Neuvelle watched Laincourt, who turned a page and said: “Accept that there are secrets into which it is better not to pry, nor even to pretend to have stumbled across. It can prove to be harmful. To your career, of course. But also to your health.”
“You mean to say that—”
“Yes. I mean to say exactly that.”
Neuvelle mustered a weak smile.
“Go on! You’re trying to frighten me.”
“Precisely. And for your own good, believe me.”
“But I’m a member of the Guards!”
This time, Laincourt lifted his eyes from his book. And smiled.
Neuvelle wore his scarlet cape with a mixture of confidence and pride, convinced, not without reason, that he was protected to the same degree that he had been promoted. Because he entrusted his life to them, Richelieu chose all his guards personally. He wanted them to be gentlemen of at least twenty-five years in age, and required most of them to have served for three years in the army. Perfectly trained and equipped, subjected to an iron discipline, they were a company of elite horsemen. The cardinal preferred them by far to
the company of musketeers—foot soldiers—that he also maintained and which recruited professional soldiers from the ranks of ordinary folk. And he rewarded his guards for their devotion by extending his protection to them in turn.
However . . .
“To be in the Guards, Neuvelle, is an honour which particularly exposes you to dangers that the common run of people do not even suspect—or which they exaggerate, which amounts to the same thing. We are like the fire dogs before a hearth which holds an eternal flame. This blazing fire is the cardinal. We defend him, but if you draw too near, you risk being burned. Serve His Eminence faithfully. Die for him if circumstances require it. Nevertheless, only listen to what he wishes you to hear. See only that which you are given to see. Guess only at what you are supposed to understand. And be quick to forget the rest.”
His tirade complete, Laincourt peacefully returned to his reading.
He believed the matter was settled, but still Neuvelle persisted.
The ensign frowned.
“I mean . . .”
Searching for words, Neuvelle’s eyes implored for help from Brussand, who rewarded him with a black look in reply. The young guard suddenly understood that he had ventured into territory which was delicate, if not dangerous. He would have given a great deal to have been suddenly transported elsewhere and was very relieved when Laincourt chose another target.
“Monsieur de Brussand, have you spoken to monsieur de Neuvelle about me?”
The interested party shrugged his shoulders, as though excusing himself.
“We’re often bored, when we’re on guard.”
“And what have you said?”
“On my word, I said what everyone says.”
Brussand took a breath.
“Which is that you had intended to become a lawyer, before the cardinal noticed you. That you joined the ranks of his personal secretaries. That he soon entrusted you with confidential missions. That on one of these missions you left France for two years and, when you returned, you took the cape and the rank of ensign. There. That’s everything.”
“Ah . . .” said Arnaud de Laincourt without betraying any emotion.
There was a silence in which he seemed to reflect on what he had heard.
Finally, with a vague glance, he nodded.
Laincourt returned to his reading while Neuvelle found other things to do elsewhere and Brussand began a new game of patience. A few minutes passed, and then the veteran guard blurted out: “To you, and you alone, Laincourt, I would say—”
“What is it?”
“I know who His Eminence received last night. I saw his outline as he was leaving, and I recognised him. His name is La Fargue.”
“This name means nothing to me,” said Laincourt.
“At one time, he commanded a troop of highly trusted men and carried out secret missions on the cardinal’s behalf. They were called, in a whisper, the Cardinal’s Blades. Then there was some nasty business during the siege of La Rochelle. I don’t know the details but it brought about the disappearance of the Blades. Until last night, I had believed they were permanently disbanded. But now—”
Arnaud de Laincourt closed his book.
“The same prudent advice I gave to Neuvelle also applies to us,” he said. “Let us forget all of that. Without doubt we shall be better off for having done so.”
Brussand, thoughtful, nodded.
“Yes. You are right. As always.”
At that moment, Captain Saint-Georges summoned Laincourt. Cardinal Richelieu wished to go to the Louvre with his entourage, and his escort needed to be prepared. Saint-Georges was taking command and Laincourt, in his capacity as an officer, was to watch over the cardinal’s palace during his absence.
Two coaches sat at some distance from each other in a meadow by the road to Paris. Three elegant gentlemen surrounded the marquis de Brévaux by the first coach while, by the second, the vicomte d’Orvand paced alone. He went backward and forward, sometimes stopping to watch the road and the horizon as he nervously stroked his thin, black moustache and the tuft of hair beneath his lower lip and sent impatient looks toward his coachman, who remained indifferent to the entire proceedings but was beginning to feel hungry.
At last, one of the gentlemen detached himself from the group and walked toward d’Orvand, passing through the soft, damp herb grass with a determined step. The vicomte knew what he was going to hear and struck as appropriate an attitude as possible.
“He’s late,” said the gentleman.
“I know. I’m sorry, believe me.”
“Will he come?”
“I believe so.”
“Do you even know where he is, right now?”
“No?! But you’re his second!”
“Ah . . . well, that is to say . . .”
“A quarter of an hour, monsieur. The marquis de Brévaux is willing to be patient for a little longer—for another quarter of an hour, by the clock. And when your friend arrives, if he arrives, we—”
“Here he is, I believe. . . .”
A richly decorated coach arrived. Drawn by a splendid team of horses, it stopped in the road with a spray of dust and a man climbed out. His doublet was entirely undone and his shirt hung half out of his breeches. His hat in his right hand and his left resting on the pommel of his sword, he kept one boot on the footplate in order to embrace a pretty young blonde leaning toward the open door. This spectacle did not surprise d’Orvand, who did, however, roll his eyes when he saw another farewell kiss exchanged with a second beauty, a brunette.
“Marciac,” murmured the vicomte to himself. “You never change!”
The gentleman charged with conveying the marquis de Brévaux’s complaint returned to his friends while the luxuriously gilded coach made a half turn in the direction of Paris and Nicolas Marciac joined d’Orvand. He was a handsome man, attractive despite, or perhaps even because of, the disorder of his attire. He was in need of a razor and he bore a wide grin on his face. He tottered only slightly and was the very image of a society-loving rake enjoying his evening, entirely heedless of the morrow.
“But you’ve been drinking, Nicolas!” exclaimed d’Orvand, smelling his breath.
“No!” insisted Marciac, shocked. “Well . . . a little.”
“Before a duel? It’s madness!”
“Don’t alarm yourself. Have I ever lost before?”
“All will be well.”
By the other coach, the marquis de Brévaux was already in his shirtsleeves and executing a few feints.
“Good, let us finish it,” Marciac declared.
He removed his doublet, threw it on the vicomte’s coach, greeted the coachman and asked after his health, was delighted to learn it was excellent, caught d’Orvand’s gaze, adjusted his shirt, unsheathed his sword, and set out toward Brévaux, who was already walking to meet him.
Then, after a few steps, he changed his mind, turned on his heel without fear of further exasperating the marquis, and pitched his words for his friend’s ear alone: “Tell me just one thing. . . .”
“Yes?” sighed d’Orvand.
“Promise me you will not be angry.”
“So be it.”
“Well then, I have guessed that I am to fight the man in his shirtsleeves who is watching me with that rough gaze. But could you give me some idea as to why?”
“What?” the vicomte exclaimed, rather louder than he had intended.
“If I kill him, I should know the reason for our quarrel, don’t you think?”
D’Orvand was initially lost for words, then pulled himself together and announced: “A gambling debt.”
“What? I owe him money? Him too?”
“Of course not! Him! . . . It’s he who . . . Fine. Enough. I shall cancel this madness. I shall tell them you are unwell. Or that you—”
“How much does he owe me?”
“Fifteen hundred livres.”
“Good God! And I was going to kill him . . . !”
Light-heartedly, Marciac continued to walk toward the furious marquis.
He assumed a wobbly en garde stance and declared: “I am at your disposal, monsieur le marquis.”
The duel was speedily concluded. Brévaux took the initiative with assertive thrusts which Marciac nonchalantly parried before punctuating his own attack with a punch that cut his adversary’s lip. Initially surprised, then enraged, the marquis returned to the fray. Once again, Marciac was content to merely defend, feigning inattentiveness and even, between two clashes of steel, stifling a yawn. This offhandedness left Brévaux crazed with anger. He howled, struck a foolish two-handed blow with his rapier, and, without
understanding how, suddenly found himself both disarmed and wounded in the shoulder. Marciac pressed his advantage. With the point of his blade, he forced the marquis to retreat to his coach, and held him there.
Pale, breathless, and sweating, Brévaux clutched his shoulder.
“Very well,” he said. “You win. I’ll pay you.”
“I am afraid, monsieur, that a promise is not enough. Pay me now.”
“Monsieur! I give you my word!”
“You have already promised once, and you see where we are now. . . .”
Marciac tensed his arm a little and the point of his rapier approached the marquis’s throat. The gentlemen of Brévaux’s retinue took a step closer. One of them even began to draw his sword while d’Orvand, worried, came forward and prepared to assist his friend if necessary.
There was a moment of indecisiveness on both sides, but then the marquis removed a ring he wore on his finger and gave it to Marciac.
“Are we now even?”
He took it and admired the stone.
“Yes,” he said, before sheathing his sword.
“I hold you in high esteem as well, monsieur. I look forward to seeing you again.”
And as he turned toward d’Orvand, Marciac deliberately added: “Splendid day, isn’t it?”
The Cardinal's Blades © Pierre Pevel; Translated by Tom Clegg
Cover Illustration © Jon Sullivan
Design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Pierre Pevel, born in 1968, is one of the foremost writers of French fantasy today. The author of seven novels, he was awarded the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2002 and the Prix Imaginales in 2005, both for best novel.