"It seems... unnecessary."
Porthos spun around, hand flying to the dagger at his belt, trying to locate the speaker. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the alleyway, he could make out the shadow of a man leaning against the wall of the tavern he had just left.
"The cards up your sleeve... highly unnecessary."
Porthos recognised the slow speech and peculiar accent of the man he had beaten at cards that night, a portly, wealthy-looking fellow.
"How dare you!" he roared. "Do you accuse me of dishonesty, Monsieur?"
"Not much of a claim to make," the man said, amusement in his voice.
A knife, no sword, but a pistol, Porthos' quickly assessed the man's weaponry. He could handle the knife, but the pistol... He tried to manoeuvre himself into a better position, but his adversary remained stubbornly in the shadow making it difficult for Porthos to observe him. Porthos on the other hand made an easy target, clearly outlined against the light from the windows.
He pulled himself up to his full height.
"You calling me a cheat? You have some nerve!"
"Indeed, indeed," the man said, chuckling. "But what are you going to do about it?"
Porthos was confused. He seldom failed to make an impression. He was easily a hand or two taller than this stranger, and a good thirty years younger. What was the man playing at? What did he want?
"I could demand retribution. I could take your life!" he snarled
"So you could," the man confirmed quite cheerfully. "I'm hardly a worthy adversary for a man like you. You could, you could indeed... but somehow I doubt that you will."
Porthos tried to scan their surroundings without taking his eyes from the stranger. He could take him on his own, easily. But what if the man wasn't alone? Did he have companions? Friends to take back the money he had lost—almost entirely by the rules—and Porthos' life besides?
"You gamble your life as easily as your money," Porthos sneered.
He tried to think of a way out. If he ran, he was sure to get shot in the back. He had strayed far from the Court. The townsfolk were less wary here, the travellers wealthier—richer pickings for the likes of him. But that also meant he was far from safety, far away from any support. He had no friends in this part of town.
"Ah, now that is an interesting assumption to make," the man said conversationally. "Not entirely accurate, I should think. While I was well aware that you were taking my money, I also know that you will not take my life."
Porthos growled at him, lost for words.
The man stepped into the light, smiling pleasantly.
"If you were to kill me, you would have done so already," he said. "Why go through all the trouble of a game of cards if you could just take my purse and slit my throat instead?"
"Many men like cards."
"Alas, they do. But not you, you don't need them like some... You drink moderately; you play only when you know you can win. Quite admirable, really."
The smile on that round face unnerved Porthos.
"What do you want?" he asked, taking a step backwards. "I won your money fair and square."
"What do you want it for?" the man asked back without answering.
Porthos huffed out a grim laugh.
"Food, like everyone else."
"You have many mouths to feed?"
"There are always many mouths to feed."
Certainly when you lived in the Court. Particularly when you couldn't say no to any of the little street rats, as Charon kept reminding him. It was only right. They'd all been there once and they'd all loved an apple or some stale bread from one of the adults. Wouldn't be here now without that sort of thing.
"Quite right," the stranger said, nodding his head. "A hero of the people, I take it, like some Parisian Guillaume Tell..."
Porthos had no idea who that Guillaume was, but he knew he was a hero.
"Just a man trying to survive."
"What is your name, man trying to survive?"
He had no reason to be precious with his name. Nobody knew him here, and even if they did... the Court would embrace him and hide him for as long as he needed, long enough for any guard to abandon the search.
"A good name, an honest one," the man said. "Will you walk with me, Porthos?"
Porthos eyed him suspiciously.
"Inquisitive, too." The man nodded approvingly. "Because I would quite like a bit of conversation to pass the time, and your company, if you don't mind, to make these streets a little safer for an old man."
Porthos snorted with amusement.
"You hardly seem to need protection."
"Quite right, I have found it already. Come, Porthos, tell me about yourself."
The stranger walked down the street with the speed and determination of a man who knew what he wanted and Porthos hurried to catch up. He shrugged.
"Not much about me."
"But certainly, certainly, there's lots about a strapping young man like you!" the man said. "Are you Paris born then?"
"Lived here all my life," Porthos confirmed.
"Where do you stay, then?"
"How grand!" the man cried in delight.
Porthos laughed. "You're not from around here, Monsieur."
"No indeed, indeed I am not," the man said, chuckling.
"It's not grand," Porthos said. "It's not..." He shrugged. "But it's home."
"That I can understand," his companion said, more serious now. "It is not its grandeur that makes a place home, I understand that very well."
"You, Monsieur?" Porthos asked. Then he remembered his manners. "Forgive me, didn't mean to pry."
"Ask away, ask away! Yes, me indeed. I was not born this way, you know... not at all. I merely took my chance."
"There is no chance for one like me."
The man stopped and turned to face him.
"What makes you say that? You are young, you are strong, and judging by your hand at cards, there's a smart head on those shoulders."
Porthos looked away from him awkwardly and fiddled with the sleeves of his shirt.
"There's no work for one like me."
"I see." The man hummed pensively. "That why you play, then?"
"A man has to use what God gave him," the stranger said, seemingly not upset.
Porthos' fingers went automatically to the little pendant around his neck. Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes.
"I grew up far from here," the man continued, starting to walk again. "An orphan boy bound to a farmer, working as long as the sun was up, sleeping with the cows in winter and on the fields during summer."
"Where are you from?" Porthos asked.
The man smiled broadly. "From Vallon," he said. "Of the Swiss Confederacy. A more beautiful place you have never seen! Green fields on the side of a lake so blue and clear you can see your face in it as in a mirror. And the mountains! Have you ever seen mountains, Porthos?"
"I have," Porthos said quickly. He might not know what the Swiss Confederacy was or where this Vallon place lay, but he was no buffoon. "We left the city one day, me and Flea, and we walked all the way up Montmartre, up to where the windmills are."
"You liked it?" the man asked.
"We could see all of Paris down below," Porthos told him. "All the houses were like a child's playthings so small, and the churches stuck out like daggers. The mountain is so high, higher even than the cathedral!"
"Indeed," the man said and chuckled. "Very high indeed. But in my country, there are mountains so tall they reach the clouds. Not on a misty November day, mind you, the white clouds that are so far away even birds cannot touch them."
That sounded a bit like blasphemy to Porthos, like the man was trying to claim his home was somewhere close to heaven. He didn't say anything though.
"Have you ever seen the sea, Porthos?"
"The sea, the ocean, the great body of water so vast the eye can't see its end. The sea where ships as big as a house sail to countries where the rivers run with gold..."
It all sounded rather fantastical to Porthos.
"There are ships on the Seine," he said. "And in the spring there is lots of water. Sometimes it even floods the streets."
"Oh Porthos," the man said. "There is so much to see and do beyond these walls! Are you content with one excursion to Montmartre? Don't you wonder what else the world has in store for you?"
Porthos shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"We must be content where God has placed us," he repeated the words of the priest who sometimes allowed them to attend mass.
The man poked a finger at his chest.
"And has God not given you this?" he asked. "A body as fine as any Greek statue, a ready mind. Why not use it?"
Porthos didn't know where to look and was glad when the man started to walk again.
Sometimes he dreamed...
On warm summer nights he would sit up on the roof with Flea and would tell her tales of the stars. He had told her that one day he would bring her a star, all golden and glittering and full of light. Flea had laughed at that and called him an idiot. She was probably right.
"What happened?" he asked. "To that orphan boy on the farm?"
"He left," the man said simply. "One day I'd had enough, enough thrashings, enough hunger... one day I just left." He paused, brushing a hand over his thinning hair. "Sometimes we need to go away to find ourselves."
He sped up, striding determinedly down a wide road. For a while, they walked in silence.
People never left the Court; they just died there. Porthos knew he would die. He was strong now, but one bad winter, one illness... the plague was always in the Court, the pox... or just a ready knife, a blow he hadn't seen coming... there were many ways to die at the Court.
"Your King is fighting a war," the man said eventually. "Down in the South where the Huguenots are... a war always needs men, young men and strong, men like you. There's a way to earn praise and glory."
Porthos shook his head. He had told Charon about the soldiers once, about the men signing up to defeat the enemies of the crown, to defend the church... They had laughed about how they would look with a sword by their side, marching off to war. And then Charon had called him silly, had reminded him that nobody would want men like them.
Nobody ever wanted them.
Fine soldiers they would make with their dark skin and all. They would be mistaken for moors and chopped to pieces.
That much for praise and glory.
"They would only laugh at me," he said.
The man stopped in front of a large residence, fully illuminated by the lamp above the gate.
"Would they now..." he said. "And would that be quite so bad?"
Porthos shrugged. He was no stranger to laughter, that much was certain.
"I gave you my money tonight because I thought you deserved it," the man said.
Porthos wanted to protest that he had won their game, but a gesture kept him quiet.
"And maybe because I saw a little of that boy on the farm in you," the man continued. "You were not born for this, Porthos. A life in stinking taverns trying to win a few sous here or there..."
Porthos bristled at that.
"I have a good life," he said.
"I wonder..." the man replied. "Be that as it may, Porthos. Do not waste it. And if a bit of laughter is the price to pay... maybe it's a gamble worth taking..."
Before Porthos could answer, the stranger had turned on his heel and disappeared behind the large wooden gate.
Many hours later, as Porthos lay awake with Flea's head pillowed against his chest, he realised that he had never asked him his name, that man from Vallon in the Swiss Confederacy.
The man's words stayed with him.
He wasn't the first one to tell him that he should get out.
His mother had always told him that one day he would grow big and strong and then he would leave the Court and lead a better life. She had spun tales of a better life for him, a life in a big house all of their own one day, and the next day, a tale of a life in that country far away where the snow never fell and everyone had dark skin like him.
And then she had died.
He had grown big and strong, but somehow he was still there after all those years, still in the Court.
Praise and glory, the man had said.
Praise and glory sounded like good things.
There was no glory to be found here, and precious little praise. His mother had praised him as a child, he was certain of that, but now he never did anything worth praising any more. He just did... normal things.
Not much about him.
He had no story to tell. He simply went from day to day, eating, sleeping, playing a game of cards, walking around town, helping people out around the Court. Just normal things.
No glory in that.
Sure, people respected him well enough. He made a decent income most days and was happy to share. He wasn't violent when he could help it and he tried to defend those who needed it. Most people liked that. But he was certainly no hero, no Guillaume Tell, whoever that was.
It would be good to be a hero one day, to be somebody.
Maybe he could, maybe that man had been right; maybe the army would take him. A soldier fighting for king and country... A soldier was a respectable man. Maybe he could finally be the man his mother had wanted him to be. Maybe he could even go and see those tall mountains, maybe even the sea... It sounded like a dream, a tale they used to tell each other when they were children, huddled together for warmth and comfort in some dark winter night.
Maybe, one day, he could even have some praise and glory.
It took him weeks. Weeks of staying awake at night, weeks of thinking, weeks of staring at the Seine imagining its murky waters stretched as far as the eye could see, and—if Flea was to be believed—weeks of being mentally absent.
In the end it was a speaker on a market square who did it. Nothing Porthos hadn't seen before, but somehow it was different this time around. Somehow the man's words touched his soul. He spoke about a town in the far South, a castle called Nègrepelisse. The cowardly Huguenots had brutally murdered a whole regiment of the King's soldiers there the previous summer, but King Louis did not let this outrage go unpunished. He retook the city after a two-day siege and taught the citizens a lesson. A magnificent victory, full of deeds worthy of praise and glory.
The Huguenots were enemies of the state and the holy church. The speaker said that they were plotting to overthrow the King himself and that they ate the hearts of good Catholic soldiers who fell into their hands. Porthos wasn't so sure about that. He had heard the stories people told about the Court and could say for a fact that nobody there had ever roasted a child alive.
Still, the Huguenots were enemies.
And the King needed men like him to beat them.
Several young men crowded around the speaker when he had finished his tale and Porthos followed them back to a garrison, a large building with a courtyard full of armed men.
That day Porthos stayed on the other side of the street and observed, but his decision was made.
That night they made love.
Flea giggled as Porthos carried her to the bed. He took his time that night, entirely focussed on her pleasure. He touched her slowly, gently, stroking every part of her body, servicing her with his tongue until she shook apart in his arms.
Maybe he was apologising.
The next morning he woke before sunrise. Her naked body was pressed against his. He brushed his fingers through her long, golden hair and buried his nose in it, breathing in her sweet scent. Then he pressed a gentle kiss to her shoulder and rose.
He would tell her when he got back. He knew he wouldn't have the nerve to go through with it if she teased him. Maybe they would send him straight home again. Maybe they would laugh.
He didn't want her to worry.
With the first light of day, Porthos slipped out of their room, went down the rickety staircase, and made his way through the warren of narrow alleyways towards the main road, greeting all of the early risers. They all knew and respected him here. He stopped at a well to wash his face and hands, ready to face the world out there.
He'd tell Flea about it later. Then they could both laugh at his foolishness.
Or maybe, maybe they would be celebrating.
A new day, a new beginning.
For praise and glory.
At the gate of the garrison, there were two guards who blocked his path with their long pikes.
"What do you want?"
"I want to enlist."
"Enlist?" The soldier laughed. "As what—the chimney sweep?"
They both guffawed.
Porthos balled his fists, but remained outwardly calm. Let them laugh.
"I want to sign up to the army," he said.
They told him to come back at ten when the officers would be around to evaluate new recruits and Porthos whiled away the hours on the streets. He walked around Paris and wondered where the army might take him. The mountains, the sea... strange cities, strange people... so much to see and do and learn. It seemed like a dream, like one of his phantasies in the starlight.
When he returned, on the stroke of the hour, the garrison was notably busier with soldiers milling about and a line of hopefuls snaking across the court. For the first time, Porthos felt nervous. What would they ask of him? Would they want him to shoot a gun? Would he have to pass a test?
He stood and waited along with the others. He smiled at a group of men who looked to be about the same age as him, but they turned their backs to him, sneering. Porthos settled for standing on his own and observing. He was good at that. He liked to observe people and could spend days doing so. He learned a lot that way, about people, about the words they used, about the clothes they wore, and most importantly about their lives, about their worries and fears.
There were some rich boys here, sons of shopkeepers maybe, pale as if they spent most of their days inside. Most looked to be ordinary people though, burned by the sun, hands callused from hard labour. There was nobody from the Court here, but Porthos recognised one boy, a skinny lad no older than sixteen, a busy pickpocket who usually plied his trade around the cathedral.
When a soldier had them form two long lines, facing each other, Porthos was certain that they would be given swords to test their skills. He was nervous. While he had gotten his fingers on a sword before, the weapon was too heavy and unwieldy for everyday life. A sword could be turned into money for much more useful things. He had some skill and usually made quick study of anything physical, but Porthos was by no means a master swordsman.
He was wrong. They were to fight each other with their bare hands.
That he could do.
In fact, he had gotten himself a bit of a reputation over the years.
He watched the young pickpocket dive to avoid a vicious blow from his opponent, and then use his own force against him to bring the man to the floor.
He let his own opponent, by the looks of him one of the richer men, hit him a few times. The blows were hardly even going to leave bruises. Flea hit harder than that. Porthos easily caught the man's arm and brought his own fist to his chin, just hard enough to stun him and make him fall to his knees for a moment. When one of the soldiers nodded in acknowledgement, Porthos smiled and held his hand out to help the other man up.
"Get your filthy fingers off me," the man hissed and spat onto Porthos' hand. "Dirty gutter rat."
Porthos raised an eyebrow at that and was about to point out that he had just washed that morning, but he thought better of it, shrugged and turned away, wiping his hand on his trousers.
A few more rounds of hand to hand combat followed. It wasn't too difficult really. Porthos was content. The pickpocket eventually lost to a tall man with hair the colour of carrots and muscular, fire-scarred arms that made Porthos suspect that he worked in a forge. They smiled at each other.
Just as Porthos and the smith were about to face off, a shot sounded above the clamour of the men, soldiers and hopefuls all jockeying for space in the courtyard. Porthos' eyes darted around, muscles tense, quickly assessing the safety of everyone here.
An officer had fired into the air, a man in fancy leathers with a sword and several pistols at his belt.
"Silence!" the officer roared, quite needlessly.
"Form a queue," he shouted, pointing towards a long table at one end of the yard. "Every man will be assessed and signed up."
"What about the ones who lost?" one of the men shouted.
The officer glared at him. "You're signing up for the infantry, not some circus show at the palace."
There were some murmurs of discontent among the hopeful recruits.
They had been a circus, it seemed. Some entertainment for the soldiers, some new flesh to be gawked at.
Porthos didn't mind. Men had to entertain themselves somehow and he had enjoyed the exercise. He was rarely attacked any more. A bit of practice couldn't hurt.
He queued with the others, the pickpocket in front of him, the smith behind. Three officers took their places at the table together with a small, unarmed man with a heavy book and inkwell in front of him. One after the other, the hopeful recruits approached the table, mostly sorted by social status as Porthos observed. The shopkeepers' sons went first, tradesmen next, and finally a motley assortment of what he assumed to be servants and labourers and the one lowly gutter rat from the Court.
The young pickpocket was fidgeting, eyes darting around until they focussed on the purse of the man in front of him. Porthos' watched the boy work out his angles, look carefully around himself, and then snake his hand forward.
Porthos' firm grip on his shoulder held him back.
The boy tried to shake him off, but Porthos held tight.
"Not here," he hissed out of the corner of his mouth, trying not to attract attention.
These were all men ready to join the King's army, ready to fight for their country. They did not deserve to be robbed.
The officers laughed at the lad, commenting on his short growth and skinny arms, but eventually they passed him on to the man with the inkwell, nodding their heads. They looked bored with the whole process.
"What do you want here?" one of them asked when Porthos stepped forward.
"To serve the King, Monsieur," Porthos answered, attempting to bow to the man.
The man huffed out a grim laugh. One of the other officers stood up, stepped around the table and pointed a wooden stick at Porthos.
"Stand upright," he commanded.
Porthos did his very best to draw himself up to his full height.
Porthos extended his arms, the officer directing him with his stick. Then there was a hand on his upper arm.
Porthos did. One of the officers behind the table whistled through his teeth. Porthos did not look at them. It felt improper to do so when he wasn't spoken to. After all these men held the King's commission.
A hand at his jaw.
He was grabbed roughly, his head yanked sideways.
"A fine specimen," the officer who had fired the gun earlier said. "Move along."
With that, Porthos found himself stood in front of the little man with his book. He smiled broadly. He had passed his assessment!
The little man barely glanced up.
"Name?" he asked, dipping his quill into the ink.
"What?" The quill hovered above the paper.
"What?" The man peered up at him, clearly irritated now.
"Por-thos." Porthos said slowly. Maybe the man had difficulty hearing.
"Just Porthos." Porthos blinked. Porthos had always been enough. When he was still a child, he'd sometimes been referred to as Marie-Cessette's son, but that had been long ago. Nowadays, everyone knew Porthos. It had always been enough to identify him. And now suddenly it wasn't good enough.
The little scribe sighed.
"You need another name for the records. Where are you from?"
Porthos nearly told him he was from the Court, but thought better of it. His kind probably weren't welcome here, not even a fine specimen like him.
"From Paris," he said instead.
The scribe laughed nervously. "Well, that won't do, Porthos from Paris. Something else, quickly."
Porthos didn't know what to say. He had been to Montmartre once, but somehow he doubted that would be acceptable. He couldn't think of any other place. Where were people from if not Paris?
He smiled with relief when the answer came to him.
"Vallon," he said. Before he could say the bit about the Swiss Confederacy, the man had already interrupted him.
"Porthos du Vallon," he said, scribbling eagerly. "The records must all be in order. Age?"
Porthos was glad to be able to answer that without hesitation. He knew his numbers and had picked a birthday long ago. He didn't know when he had been born, but the year 1600 had seemed pretty convenient. As long as he knew the year, he always knew how old he was.
"Twenty-two," he answered. "I was born—"
"Didn't ask for your life story," the scribe cut him off.
He turned the book around and held out the quill for Porthos.
Porthos froze, wide-eyed.
He had never learned... had never really needed to...
He shuffled awkwardly from one foot to the other.
Not only did he not have a proper name, he couldn't even write. How was he ever supposed to be a good soldier? He wanted to run, wanted to leave and forget about all of this. Good thing he hadn't told Flea! Oh how she would laugh... Look at Porthos, went off to be a soldier, then gave up before he even saw a sword...
He chided himself for cowardice. He could do this.
"I... I'm sorry," he muttered. "But..."
"Another one." The scribe sneered at him, grabbed his book, and scribbled something. "Next!"
Porthos was embarrassed. He had to learn how to write. He had to.
He was ushered along by one of the soldiers and found himself facing an elderly man with an eye patch.
"You're a big one now, aren't you just?" the man asked, but he didn't wait for an answer. "Let's see, let's see what we can do for you then, let's see..."
The old man limped over to a heap of garments and rooted through them. He came back holding an old leather jerkin.
"Put it on," he encouraged.
Porthos slipped into it and the old man clapped his hands. "Splendid, that'll do nicely!"
Porthos looked down his body. The jerkin was large, the leather stiff, and at the left thigh there was a dark stain that looked like blood. Still, he'd had worse. It was very gracious of the King to provide clothing for them.
"Here, take that, too," the old man said, pressing a woollen overcoat into his arms.
"It's warm," Porthos protested. The sun was beating down on them and he was sweating already.
The old man smiled sadly. "Not for long, lad, not for long. You'll thank me soon enough."
Porthos took the coat and thanked him for his kindness.
"Got to find you a weapon now, got to make a soldier of you, lad," the man said and limped to a stack of swords.
He picked one up and held it out to Porthos.
"You'll be fine with this," he said. "Big strong lad like you."
Porthos took the weapon by the hilt and slowly withdrew it from its scabbard. It was a heavy sabre, the blade notched and rusty in places, but it looked like a solid enough weapon.
"Thank you," he said and smiled.
The old man nodded. "Welcome to the King's infantry, lad."
The King's infantry.
Porthos was a soldier now.
Porthos du Vallon of the King's infantry.
One day he would be worthy of that name. One day he'd be able to read and write, and fight and do the King proud. One day he'd be the man his mother had wanted him to be.
He had his chance now.
He couldn't wait to tell Flea.