"There is something about a closet that makes a skeleton terribly restless."

John Barrymore


LIII.

Treville had walked the length of the the maze of corridors on the second floor without any sign of Denise or Athos. The halls were silent except for the click of his boots on the polished parquet floor.

As he approached the Queen's chambers, the sound of a crying baby reached his ears. After a brief crescendo, the wailing ceased, and quiet descended once again.

He hesitated outside the door for a moment. Given the disarray of Denise's chamber, he suspected that she had been taken against her will. As such, the likelihood of her having been summoned to the Queen's presence chamber was almost nil. He had not wanted to disturb the Queen unnecessarily, but now there was no avoiding it. To mount a thorough search, Her Majesty's apartments would have to be inspected-and he did not think it fitting for anyone other than himself to do so.

Knocking lightly, he took a step back, waiting for one of her ladies to open the door. After a minute or two, he knocked again, louder this time, but no one responded. A terrible suspicion began to gnaw at Treville, and he pounded on the door.

"Your Majesty! I beg your pardon, but I must speak with you urgently!"

Trying the door, he found it locked. He rattled the handle, hoping to awaken the lady in waiting who had more than likely dozed off by the fire.

God help her if I catch her napping, he thought savagely, refusing to allow room in his mind as of yet for more sinister reasons why his summons might have remained answered. Taking in a deep breath, he placed his hand on the hilt of his sword, and kicked in the door.

A dying fire glowed in the sitting room hearth. The chair by the fire was empty, and a sewing basket was tucked neatly under the small table that sat beside it.

Someone should be in this room at all times. Where the hell is everyone?

Drawing his sword, he approached the door to the Queen's dressing room, and noted that it was already ajar. He stood just outside the threshold, and inched it open with slightest pressure of his fingertips. Anne's jewel-encrusted brush and comb lay on the low dressing table, her matching hand mirror beside them. Fluted crystal bottles of perfume were neatly arrayed on the left side of the table, and a small silver casket with the royal coat of arms sat on the right.

He inhaled the sweet scent of lavender as he crossed the small room, reaching the door of the royal bedchamber.

Tapping on the door, he called out, "Your Majesty! It is Captain Treville. I beg your pardon, but there has been an incident, and I fear you may be in danger. I must speak with you urgently!"

This time, he found the door unlocked. Sheathing his sword, he primed his pistol. Turning the handle gently, he eased the door open a fraction. The room was empty. A fire was crackling merrily in the grate. The bed had been turned down, and the Queen's dressing gown lay ready for her. However, there was no sign of Anne.

In one swift move, the Captain pushed the door wide open. The hinges squeaked loudly as he stepped inside, and he cursed under his breath. Any intruder now had been given ample warning of his presence. He flattened himself against the wall behind an ornate screen, his ears straining as a light step approached.

"You're late." The Queen's voice was light and teasing-so different from the formal, strained tone she often adopted when she sat at the King's side. "If you had kept me waiting much longer, I might have been compelled to make you beg for my attentions."

A soft cooing was heard, and Anne laughed. "Your son, however, begged me to show you mercy-and you know I cannot refuse him anything...just like his father."

Leaning his head against the wall, Treville closed his eyes, knowing that his problems had just multiplied. In that instant, he knew the rumors were true. Even as a young bride, Anne would have never addressed the King in that fashion.

Squaring his shoulders, he cleared his throat, and stepped out from behind the screen. "Your Majesty, I must beg forgiveness-"

The queen gasped, her eyes widening as she took in the pistol in his hand. She held the Dauphin close to her breast. The infant, wrapped in a pure white blanket embroidered with a gold Fleur-de-Lis, waved a tiny fist at his mother. Anne's long blond hair was loose, and she was attired in a nightdress of rose colored silk.

She flushed, then quickly covered her chagrin with an icy look. "Captain, what is the meaning of this?"

"Your Majesty, I would not be here unless I believed you were in danger. All your rooms were locked-"

"So you took it upon yourself to break in? To enter your Queen's most private chamber, when she is in apparel that is fit for only-"

"A lover?" Treville spoke gravely. His keen eyes did not miss the shiver that ran through Anne's body.

xxx

Athos awoke with a start, a spasm in his lower back sending waves of pain over the burns that covered his spine.

A hood still covered his head. It smelled of horse dung, and the stench made him nauseous. He slowed his breathing, desperate to keep from vomiting. A cramp seized his left calf, traveling up to his thigh. Bound tightly to the wall by the metal cuffs on his hands and wrists, he could do nothing to ease the pain.

A scream shattered the silence. "Athos!"

The voice was unmistakably female, but was so distorted with pain and terror that he could not tell if it was Charlotte's. The thought of his sweet wife in the hands of men who would do her harm drove him nearly mad. He began to sweat, real panic setting in now.

The door to his cell swung open, and the sound of footsteps followed. The tantalizing smell of sausage and eggs filled the small cell. The scraping of a chair was heard, and the footsteps stopped. The slow, deliberate movements of knife and fork came next.

After a few minutes, Athos could stand the silence no longer. "What news of my wife?" His throat was dry, and his voice raspy to his own ears.

There was no response. The visitor continued to eat.

Straining against his restraints, he shouted, "I demand to know what you have done with her! She is an innocent woman, who has recently sustained a serious injury. She must not be mistreated!"

The clatter of the utensils ceased, and the chair was pushed back. An instant later, a bucket of hot water was flung onto his back. The pain from his burns was searing, but he managed to remain silent, forcing himself to focus on his breathing.

A moment later, a thick paste was slapped onto the first few inches of his spine. The agony was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was as if heated, crushed glass was being rubbed into the wounds, grinding down to the very marrow of his bones. He cried out, and tried to elude the hand that slowly painted the foul-smelling substance down the middle of his upper back.

Mocking laughter rose from behind him as the brush lingered over the worst of his burns. A scream rose from Athos' throat in response, followed by another. His body began to tremble, the manacles shaking as he began to lose his grip on consciousness.

Finally, he heard the brush clatter to the ground, and his forehead sagged against the wall. He sucked in a breath, his throat raw, praying that the next sound he would hear would be his tormentor's steps receding from the cell. His hopes faded as a cold metal blade pressed against the base of his neck. A reedy baritone began to sing a taunting version of a children's ditty.

I was passing by a little wood

Where the cuckoo was singing,

Where the cuckoo was singing,

And in its pretty song it was saying,

"Cuckoo, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo!"

And I thought it was saying,

"Cut his neck! Cut his neck!"

The edge of the knife sliced against Athos' skin, and he gasped as he felt blood trickle down his neck.

The voice chortled with laughter, then picked up the song once again as his jailer headed off, whistling. As the door slammed behind him, Athos heard the last few lines.

And I ran away,

And I ran away.

XXX

Anne drew herself up to her full height, her blue eyes remote. "I find your impertinence shocking. Captain. You are dismissed."

He bowed, and turned to leave. As he reached the door, he paused, and murmured, "There are spies everywhere, Your Majesty. I beg you to proceed with caution." With that, he exited her quarters. Standing in the dim hallway, he tried to order his thoughts.

First things first. The King must be informed.

Heading down the narrow corridor, he turned a corner and met up with Porthos.

"Any luck?"

The big man shook his head. "I've searched everywhere, and there's no sign of Denise-or Athos. It's like they've disappeared into thin air."

Treville sighed. "I'm afraid I must inform the King."

"I'm goin' with you," Porthos growled. "The King needs to understand how important it is that we launch a broader search. We've no time to lose."

The Captain gave him a searching look, then said, "Very well."

Less than five minutes later, they were admitted to the King's presence chamber, where the Valet of the Bedchamber was on duty. He was one of the few household staff who had made the trip from Paris with the King, and was well known to the musketeer commander.

"Good evening, Captain Treville." The valet bowed nervously, his eyes sliding to Porthos for an instant, then returning to the Captain.

"Good evening, Henri. I require a moment of His Majesty's time."

"I'm afraid that's impossible, sir."

Treville's jaw tensed. "I assure you that I would not disturb the King at this hour of the night unless it was a matter of the utmost importance."

"With all due respect, Captain, His Majesty is currently unavailable."

"Milady," Porthos murmured, his expression darkening. "So while two of His Majesty's most loyal subjects are missing, he is-".

Treville interrupted, smoothly moving the conversation away from dangerous territory. "I'm sure the King will understand. I will assume personal responsibility for disturbing him." Before Henri could protest, he strode to the door of the King's bedchamber, and hammered on the door.

"Your Majesty! I must speak with you. There has been a serious breach in security, and I must take steps to ensure your safety."

Opening the door, he stepped inside...and promptly froze.

There have been various distractions over the past year, but I haven't forgotten this story...more to follow!