The four inseparables stood to attention in what had formerly been Treville's office. Having discovered who their new captain was now to be only a few moments before, they managed admirably to contain their horrified dismay, knowing that the man who now sat before them would treat any sign of defiance as a deadly insult.
"You men were charged with the pursuit and apprehension of monsieur de'Treville," said their new captain, his tone cool and contemptuous. "Not only did you fail in that mission, but I am suspect that you aided the traitor in his escape."
Captain Henri d'Melliuor's head snapped up. He regarded the speaker with narrowed eyes. "Repeat yourself."
Athos took a breath, straightening under the man's scrutiny. "Alleged traitor, sir. The charges against Cap—monsieur Treville are as yet unsubstantiated."
Aramis, Porthos, and d'Artagnan looked sidelong at their commander, suppressing the grins that his deliberate slip had prompted. They maintained their stances, however. Athos' position in the Musketeers was such that he could get away with a small amount of insubordination, but they were not fools enough to believe themselves free to speak as they wished. D'Artagnan in particular was eager to profess his Captain's innocence, but kept his mouth closed. The mission depended on the suspect nature of Treville's departure, and antagonising the hated marquis would do nothing to help their Captain's cause.
"Treville is suspected of aiding and spying for the Spanish," d'Melliuor said with obvious delight at the statement. "His desertion of his duty and flight to enemy lands implicates his guilt." He leant back in Treville's chair. "Do not speak without permission, Private."
Well, that wasn't a surprise. Athos' demotion had been inevitable the moment they had discovered their new Captain's identity. At least their friend had not let the opportunity go to waste.
To the side, reclining against the windowsill, Lieutenant Jussac gave a small cough, which did nothing to hide his laughter. He was lately of the Red Guard, recruited by d'Melliuor into the Musketeers, and likely to be the recipient of Athos' position as second in command. He stank of hair oil and stale sweat.
"As for your failure in the mission, I see no choice but to dispense suitable punishment," d'Melliuor said with no trace of the reluctance his words may have implied. "Since you cannot be trusted in the simples of missions, you are restricted to the barracks until further notice. The privilege of residing outside these walls shall be returned to you once I have determined your loyalty. You shall report to the stablemaster for duties more suited to your abilities."
Resigned, the four musketeers saluted and made to take their leave, relieved that their punishment contained only a little humiliation despite the man's reputation.
"Hold, d'Artagnan," the Captain said, halting the four.
D'Artagnan returned to his position with a smart salute, offering d'Melliuor no chance to take offence.
"Sir?" he asked respectfully.
D'Melliuor took up a sheet of paper from Treville's desk, regarding it with scrutiny. "My instructions were for your seniors," he said, his eyes not leaving the page. "A matter has come to my attention, a serious oversight which must be corrected."
Athos watched the captain with a sinking feeling to his gut. He and his brothers exchanged quick enquiring glances, but could not fathom where the man's thoughts were headed.
"How old are you, private?"
D'Artagnan's brow creased in confusion. "Sir?"
D'Melliuor looked up, fixing the boy with a cool glare. "Your age, private. When did the Lord see fit to bless us with your birth?"
D'Artagnan's cheeks pinkened at the insult but he answered with calm civility: "I was born on June twenty-fifth, sixteen-oh-seven, sir."
Athos closed his eyes as horror overcame him. Beside him he heard Aramis suppress a small groan and Porthos' whisper a question in response.
"You are, in fact, not yet twenty years of age?"
"Not for another month, sir, no."
D'Artagnan still looked confused. As well he might be, Athos pressed his lips together, cursing his lack of foresight. Damn. Damn, damn, damn it all.
D'Melliuor gave a nasty smile, setting down the paper and placing his palm over it. "I take it, you are unaware that men of the Musketeers must be over the age of twenty-one before they are permitted admittance?"
D'Artagnan's eye widened in shocked dismay, and beside Athos, Porthos snarled an alarmed curse.
"It is a rule that dates back to the founding of our order," d'Melliuor continued. "Whilst it has been allowed some leeway in years past, particularly in times of war, I can only see this as another example of Treville's remarkable lack of control."
D'Artagnan made a strangled noise. His face was a greenish-white, his hands still behind him curled into fists. "I… was unaware, captain," he muttered sickly.
"Captain, if I might speak—" Athos tried.
"You might not," d'Melliuor cut him off gleefully. He paused, likely to draw out the tension of the room like nails down the chalkboard of their nerves.
"It is my duty to correct my predecessor's shameful mistakes. Yet I do not see any purpose in punishing you for your ignorance, or disgracing the king who elevated you to this role. I believe a rank not employed here for some time will provide you with suitable employ, until the time you come of age, cadet."
It was painful to see the desperate mixture of relief and shame on the boy's face. Athos bit the inside of his cheek so hard that he tasted copper. So this was how the bastard would get his revenge.
D'Artagnan bowed his head low, his hair hiding his flaming face.
"You have my thanks, captain."
D'Melliuor's smile was unpleasantly and unconvincingly benevolent. "You have by accounts the making of a serviceable soldier, cadet. It is a shame that you have been so led astray. I suggest that you chose your company with more care in future. In future you shall report to Commander Masson for duty."
"Captain, Athos is my mentor…" d'Artagnon began miserably.
"Monsieur Athos has proven himself unworthy of such a role, cadet," d'Melliuor said crisply. He took up his quill and pulled a ledger toward him. It was dusty and cracked with age, apparently unused in many years. Half of its sleeve was taken up with the stubs of pages, ripped out. Printed words could be seen on the remaining pages, spaces between them filled by d'Melliuor's scratching script. The silence of the room was oppressive as the four waited for dismissal.
When he was done, d'Melliuor tore the page from the ledger and held it out toward d'Artagnan. "I have altered your punishment taking your new position into consideration. Present this to the Quartermaster at once."
D'Artagnan took the paper, giving it a cursory glance. His eyes froze on the words, his mouth opening as if to protest, but after a moment it snapped closed and he saluted smartly.
"Charles…" Aramis murmured as the boy made his leave, skirting the man's hand as he made to place it comfortingly upon his shoulder. Athos ignored them both, his eyes fixed upon d'Melliuor in impotent rage. He had not read the paper, but he could guess its contents, and the purpose of the ledger.
"Do not let me detain you, gentlemen," d'Melliuor said, taking up his quill once more and turning his attention upon his papers.
"Sir, I must protest," Athos ground out.
"Do not make me repeat myself, private."
"The boy has done nothing wrong," Athos persisted, his voice shaking with rage. He felt Aramis' hand on his arm but ignored the warning. "He does not deserve to be shamed so."
"I remember a time not long ago where you considered such a punishment fitting for the boy," the Captain said coolly, not taking his eyes from the page.
"That was different."
Athos floundered. He knew the man had a point, but how could he explain the difference between beating the boy and a loving chastisement, dealt out by a friend.
A snort behind him signalled the Lieutenant Jussac's inclusion in the conversation. "Maybe that was more for private Athos' benefit," he said, his words a sticky purr that made Athos' fists itch.
"Do not be unseemly, Commander," d'Melliuor reproached without true heat to his words.
"Beg pardon, my lord."
My lord, Athos noted with an internal sneer. Filthy bottom-feeding reacher.
Further argument was paused by a knock on the Captain's door. At the summons, Gauthier entered.
The old quartermaster was a musketeer of advancing age and worthy reputation. Known to be hard yet fair he maintained the armoury with military precision, and woe betide the musketeer who returned a sword to him blunted by a lazy swing. Despite this, the man was unusually hesitant. He held d'Artagnan's paper in his hand.
"What is it, man?"
"Begging your pardon, captain," Gauthier said. "Only I was hoping for some confirmation, about this here letter."
"Is there some part of the instruction which is unclear?" d'Melliuor asked coldly.
"Well, it's only that…" Gauthier said, the room's atmosphere was making the old man nervous. "I thought it best come check…"
"—If you are incapable of following a simple instruction, I must judge you unfit for your position."
Gauthier blinked. He was not a slow-witted man, but he had never been good at politics. "I didn't say that, sir—" Athos ground his teeth together, cursing the marquis to the devil.
"You are relived of your position, monsieur," d'Melliuor said, returning to his papers without giving the man a second glance. "Give Jussac the orders and report to the cook for your duties. The rest of you are dismissed."
Speechless, his face grey, Gauthier looked down as Jussac took the note from his unresisting hand.
Knowing it was useless to argue further, or face more of the captain's ire, Athos took a gentle hold of the now-former quartermaster's arm, and led the old man out onto the balcony. Aramis followed them, a tight grip on Porthos' arm to prevent the man's rage from overflowing.
"What the fuck?!" Porthos hissed as the door shut.
Aramis raised a finger to his lips and the four waited. A moment later there was the sound of Jussac laughing from inside and then the door opened, the man stepping out. Ginning blithely at them, the commander walked past, his shoulder knocking into Athos as he did so. They watched him without comment as he skipped down the stairs, heading toward the armoury without a backward glance.
"I only wanted to know if he was joking," Gauthier said miserably, looking down at his boots.
Aramis patted the old musketeer's shoulder gently. "Alas not, my friend," he said, his tone falsely jovial. "I'm afraid to confirm that the man is quite mad."
"What was on that slip, 'thier?" Porthos rumbled, his eyes flared with the promise of murder.
Athos could understand but had not the energy to call up such emotion in himself, despair and a desperate need for wine turning his throat raw. He didn't want to hear the old musketeer's reply, knowing that Jussac would not go easily on the boy, but he listened anyway.
"Short penance," Gauthier mumbled. The old man had deflated since his demotion, his back sagging where it was once proudly taught, his cheeks sunken and eyes greyed.
"What's that mean?" Porthos pushed.
" "The contrite boy is laid upon a long bench, face foremost, his breeches and smallclothes removed"," Athos quoted, his voice unrecognisable even to himself. He cursed his old, bored self for reading the ancient rules of military law, back in the days when he was alone at the garrison, before making his three brothers' acquaintance. " "The birch – first wettened to prevent breakage – is then laid upon the buttocks for twelve strokes. Should full penance be ordered, this is repeated upon the hands, upper back, thighs, calves and soles of the feet."."
There was a long silence.
"Merde," Aramis hissed.
"We gotta stop that bastard Jussac," Porthos said. He was prevented from rushing forward by a hand on his chest.
"If we interfere it will only be worse for him," Athos said, his voice deadpan. "He is already suffering in our place, I will not be the cause of more."
"Then what do we do?" Aramis asked.
They looked at him, his brothers, and for once Athos had no satisfactory reply.
"We endure. Treville will return. In the mean time we tread carefully and do all in our power to keep the boy safe. D'Melliuor believes Charles to be the weakness in our armour and he will not hesitate to strike should we expose it. We must act to the best of our abilities to be exemplary musketeers, beyond reproach, for his sake, if not ours."
Aramis and Porthos remained silent for a good while, digesting Athos' words. Then, as one, they nodded.
"I'll go prepare some salve," Aramis said, his head lowered as he trotted away.
"Better report to Dufour in the stables," Porthos growled, avoiding Athos' eye as he trod heavily down the steps. Gauthier followed behind to head to the kitchens, the old man's pace slow and defeated.
Athos took a steadying breath and made his way to the courtyard. He would report to his duties soon, but before that he headed for the armoury. He might not be able to keep his little brother from harm this time, but he would make damn sure to be there when the boy needed him, to offer what comfort he could.
It would take a month at least before Treville returned from his mission, should the plan go without complication. All the Musketeers could do until then was endure.