1636: The Cardinal Virtues – Snippet 34
“My Lord of Vendôme,” Gaston said. He seemed eerily calm and composed. “Welcome. Let me be the first to welcome you back to our realm, Brother,” Gaston said. “I trust that you found our safe-passage sufficient to your needs.”
“It was most satisfactory, Your Majesty. I cannot adequately express my gratitude for permitting me to return to France.”
“Ah, César.” Gaston gestured, and César rose to his feet and approached the throne. “It has been too long.” Gaston placed his hands on the man’s shoulders.
“We both know why that is the case.”
“Yes. We do.” César did not look away: he met Gaston, glance for glance, enough so that the king-to-be looked away, dropping his hands to his sides.
There was an extended moment of silence. Finally, without looking up, he said, “My companions, please leave us.”
“Sire — ” the nearest one began, but Gaston looked aside to him with a glance that silenced him.
The four gentlemen-in-waiting bowed and backed away, never taking their eyes off César de Vendôme and his son.
“François,” César said without turning, “you have leave to go as well. His Majesty and I have matters to discuss.”
It was clear that François did not want to leave his father alone; but he also bowed and backed out of the room. When his footsteps began to echo on the stairs, Gaston settled back in his chair.
“This is rather quaint, isn’t it?” he said, spreading his hands out. “The abbot’s chair. Nicely padded — the old man has hemorrhoids, apparently, and it hurts for him to sit overlong. Two monks carried it all the way down here for their king.”
“You don’t have that title yet.”
“Yet.” Gaston smiled, cat-like. “A trifling distinction, one that should only trouble us for a short time.”
“I cannot believe your insolence and arrogance, Gaston. I have half a mind to run you through.”
“Anger ill-becomes you, César. And I know — we both know — that you are not that foolish or self-destructive. I arranged for your safe passage back into France, you and that headstrong son of yours. He certainly wants to run me through.
“And after all the effort to bring you back into France, you would be forced to flee . . . and even if you were able to escape the kingdom you would be condemned as a regicide. Twice over.” Gaston smiled again.
“You knew he would be with the cardinal, didn’t you?”
“You knew that Louis would be in Richelieu’s entourage. And neither you nor that snake Soissons saw fit to tell me.”
“Would it have made any difference?” As César began to reply, Gaston held up his hand and sat up straight. “No, please, let me answer. Of course it would have made a difference. It would have prevented you from carrying out your mission — from doing your duty.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”
“I would.” Gaston snickered. “You intrigued against Louis, César. We all did. It made for good sport, even if it was surpassingly easy. But we all loved him in one fashion or another. It was Richelieu we hate. The devil in the robe rouge — he was your target. He was your duty. He might be spared if the king commanded it: and make no mistake, Louis would have commanded it.
“Where is he? He didn’t make the grand funereal entrance into Paris with my lord of Maillé-Brézé. You didn’t leave him out on the road at Saint-Arnoult-en-Yvelines, I assume, to be torn apart by the wolves and feed the maggots? Because they didn’t find a body, César. They didn’t even find the damn robe rouge.”
“You’re remarkably well informed. You tell me.”
Gaston stood up and walked away, turning his back on César. If he had the least concern that he might actually be run through, he showed none of it. He walked slowly along the wall as if he was admiring the frescoes.
“No,” he said without turning. “You tell me, César. Tell me where the red-robed bastard spawn of Satan is. He was not found at the ambush site: not him, not his body, not a fold of his cloak or a lace from his boot. Where the hell is Cardinal Richelieu?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” Gaston turned around. He laughed, a cruel, cackling sound. “Magnifique. You don’t know where he is. Were you, or were you not, specifically and categorically directed to kill him?”
“I was. I was not directed to kill our brother the king. You have used me to commit a foul act — and it would not surprise me, Gaston, not a bit, if you arranged for Richelieu to escape.”
“What? Are you — are you accusing me of saving his life?”
“Your schemes are so deep and complex, I should not exclude the possibility. I am a simple soldier, Gaston — ”
“Spare me. You are nothing of the kind.”
“You are no fit judge. What you are, is — ”
“What I am,” Gaston said, “is the next king of France.” His voice was icy calm, where he had been agitated before. “I will soon be your lord and sovereign, César, my lord of Vendôme, and I urge you to make no mistake: if you see fit to oppose me, you will not find yourself dismissed and sent into noble exile — you will meet the same fate as your brother Alexandre. Or worse. Much worse. And much, much sooner.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Of course I am, you idiot. I am giving you my royal promise that I will prosecute you as the true and vile murderer of my older brother Louis, the most puissant sovereign of the kingdom of France. It will be proclaimed at court; it will be announced on every street corner and printed in every newspaper, and it will be broadcast on the up-timers’ radios for everyone in Europe and beyond to hear. Be assured that I will do so, beyond doubt — unless you do, and continue to do, exactly as I direct.”
“You’re in it as deep as I am.”
“There you are mistaken. I am involved, yes: no doubt, for you would accuse me, and it would be inconvenient for you to be prevented from speaking. But no, I am not in as deep. Blood is on your hands, César. Mine — ” he extended his hands, examining the fingers in turn — “only bear the king’s signet.”
César did not answer. There was nothing for him to say; and even if there was, this was not the place to say it. Gaston had brought both of them to the place they now occupied — Gaston, the prospective king; he, the prodigal, returned to his native land.
He had allies and he had resources. This was a trap but it was not yet a prison. Bringing up the name of Alexandre was a deliberate provocation, like poking a caged bear, intended to make him angry and to deprive him of cold reason.
As the moment stretched out he realized that he would be safe from Gaston’s betrayal exactly as long as he remained useful. His half-brother would not dispense with him until that was no longer the case — but would not tolerate him a moment longer.
The clock was ticking but midnight had not yet arrived. It was not clear how much time he had; but he reassured himself that if he passed up this opportunity to end Gaston’s life, that another one would appear.
There were, after all, innumerable ways to kill a man.
“Yes, Sire,” he said. “I understand.”