"Count Rochefort! Wait!"
The tall cavalier with the black moustache turned slowly, careful not to jog his wounded right arm. He had been walking all afternoon, taking the road that led out of Paris to the coast. A coach pulled up beside him, and his lip curled in disgust as he recognised the woman stepping down from it.
"Milady. Come to finish the job?"
While the Count had been fighting a duel with his long-time enemy, Dogtanian of Berne, Milady had tried to settle matters by shooting Dogtanian. But she had missed, injuring Rochefort and, worse, destroying his honour. Rochefort was so ashamed by the affair that he vowed never to pick up a sword again, and when he was called upon to testify for Dogtanian's worthiness to become one of the Royal Guard of Musketeers, he vouched that the pup from Gascony was more than suited to the role.
Milady, the mysterious feline who worked for Cardinal Richelieu in many an underhand capacity, cowered before him. "Count, I am sorry. I know that a cavalier lives and dies by his code of honour. But I am a woman and a secret agent. I am used to using other methods, for I do not have your strength and virtue."
"Don't try to get round me like that." Rochefort scowled, narrowing his eyes. "I've seen you use your cheap tricks and wiles on more than enough men, and I can assure you they have no effect on me."
"I'm not pretending this time. I am truly sorry, Count Rochefort." Guilt was not an emotion the spy often suffered; it would be fatal in her profession to allow such a thing. But to see the self-possessed, ruthless Count so broken had shaken her. After a painful interview with Cardinal Richelieu, she had scoured Paris for her former ally. Milady wanted to apologise.
"I suppose the damage is done now," the Count sighed. "You've seen His Eminence?"
"Furious. He sent me away; I was lucky to escape unpunished, but he could not stand to have me in his sight for a moment longer. Yourself?"
"My standing with Cardinal Richelieu is also low." Rochefort gave a small smile. "Fortunately I have decided to have nothing more to do with him, so his rage does not affect me greatly." This was not strictly true, as they both knew; next to the King, the Cardinal was the most powerful man in France and could make life very unpleasant indeed for those who aroused his wrath.
Milady noticed that the sword which was practically an extension of the Count's right arm was missing from its sheath. "What will you do now?"
"I don't know. Perhaps I will join the Church, as Aramis is always threatening to do. Surely not every official in the ministry is as corrupt as the Cardinal. How about you?"
"I may go to England and offer my services there. The Prime Minister has cause to know my abilities." Indeed, Milady's deception of the Duke of Buckingham had almost brought down the French throne. It was Dogtanian who had saved the day on that occasion, as so often.
"You would join our country's ancient enemy?"
"I have no great affection for France, Count. I have not been treated kindly by the country of my birth." Not for the first time, Rochefort studied Milady's face in an attempt to read the secrets of her past there. But she remained, as always, an enigma.
For her part, Milady looked up into the other's eyes, wondering how one who appeared so ruthless could in fact care so deeply for his code of honour. They had not always got on, these two emissaries, but each respected the other's intelligence and skill. Now Milady knew she would miss the tall, dark Count at whose sarcastic tongue she had often suffered.
"Monsieur, the day is hot and you are wounded. Let me offer you a lift in my carriage," she said, avoiding his gaze as she mentioned the wound she herself had caused.
"You don't know where I'm going," Rochefort said doubtfully, wondering what the double-crossing cat's motives might be. She seldom displayed generosity unless it worked somehow to her advantage.
"I don't know where I am going either." Milady, normally so confident, seemed suddenly shy and ill at ease. Rochefort wiped his brow with his good hand and frowned into the distance, considering. At last he gave a decisive nod.
"Then let us go there together."
A hand on his good arm, Milady helped the Count into the carriage. She jumped up beside him, the door slammed shut, and the coach moved on in a cloud of dust.
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