Bit shorter than the previous chapter but thank you SO much for the wonderful comments.

Yes, it was a trying encounter for Athos as he realised that he could have been a Loret! He didn't like being hailed as a hero, either.

I have checked this so any remaining errors are all my fault. So, what happened next?

CHAPTER 24

I

Tréville stood in the palace library, his eyes glazed at the litany of the King's complaints, most of which centred on the inconvenience of the Ambassador's murder and the resultant delay in the ratification of the Treaty. It did not matter what the Cardinal said to him, there was no placating the monarch because the First Minister could not give him any assurance that the Spanish would respond any time soon and he did not have the means to speed up the process.

"But Phillip has already signed it, so we know he was in favour of it. Why can't I just sign it? After all, we do have it in our possession at last, no thanks to the delay incurred by your Musketeers, Tréville" Louis pouted.

The Captain ground his teeth and immediately admonished himself for the bad habit, but he had to remain calm because remonstrating with the King would serve no purpose whatsoever; it never did. Whilst he wanted to defend his men yet again in the face of an unfair accusation, he knew Louis was far too distracted to pay attention. The Musketeer officer knew from experience which battles to fight, and which required a tactical withdrawal. This was definitely one of those latter occasions. It was encouraging that Richelieu was finding Louis' attitude equally frustrating for there was no other reason for the Cardinal's red face.

"As I have explained to you before, Sire, it is necessary for the signing to be witnessed by a representative of both parties. If you were to sign it without a Spanish witness, they would have every right to reject it. Your Ambassador to Spain was present when your brother-in-law added his signature."

"But I do not understand why your word would not suffice, Armand." Louis flapped his arms indignantly. "Are you not important enough?" It was a sly jibe, a manoeuvre sometimes employed by Louis when he wanted his own way.

Richelieu took a sharp intake of breath. "I am important enough to negotiate treaties, Your Majesty, but my word would not suffice if we were all Frenchmen in attendance when you took up your pen. For example," and he looked at Tréville for support, "I could sign it, pretending to be you, and arrange for the Captain here to be the only witness. It could be a conspiracy between us, or I could pay him handsomely to claim that the signature was yours."

Tréville raised an eyebrow at this impromptu foray into a life of corruption but at least the King was listening.

"I see what you mean, my dear Cardinal. It really wouldn't be the thing, would it?"

The Captain and the Cardinal shared a look of relief, having successfully averted what could have amounted to a major international incident.

"A wise decision, Your Majesty," Richelieu conceded. Flattery was always a useful tool.

"So in the meantime, we just have to wait to see how the Spanish react," Louis went on.

"Quite so, Sire." Richelieu clasped his hands behind his back and the three men fell into an uncomfortable silence.

"Well," Louis said at last, unable to endure the quietness, "That's that then. How I hate waiting but if you are sure that there is nothing more that we can do …"

"Nothing, Your Majesty," Richelieu said firmly.

Louis thought for a moment and then clapped his hands together as if he had solved all their problems. "Then so be it. We will wait but right now, gentlemen, as there is nothing more to discuss, I am concluding this meeting," and he was already heading towards the door that led to his private apartments. "I have other pressing things that demand my attention. Busy, busy, busy!"

And he was gone. Richelieu and Tréville stared at the closed door through which he had passed.

"Busy," Tréville repeated flatly. The implication was that the King was busier than the Captain and the country's First Minister.

"No doubt he has an appointment with his tailor," the Cardinal commented drily.

"Before I go," Tréville said, turning to face Richelieu. "When this sorry business began, you said you had the names of three Spaniards who were opposed to Méndez and Phillip and you were going to let me see them, but I was distracted by my missing men. I'd like to see them now please."

Richelieu's eyes narrowed and he paused long enough for the Captain to surmise that the Cardinal had expected him to forget about the names. He hoped he would not have to argue and force the issue to see the list.

"Very well," Richelieu said, his reluctance evident. "Come with me."

II

Returning to the garrison, Tréville headed straight to the infirmary, jubilantly tapping the pocket that safely held his list of the Spaniards' names.

He slipped unnoticed through the door and watched the occupants, the atmosphere thick with tension.

Athos was sitting up in bed, supported by several pillows and arms folded across his chest. Tréville's mouth quirked in amusement. Until he met the younger musketeer, he had not known anyone who could imbue such a wide variety of feelings into so simple a gesture. It ranged from utter relaxation, through outright boredom to measured thoughtfulness, silent warning, suppressed anger and, finally, to an act of defensiveness. The latter was rare but when adopted, it was usually when aspects of the personal were the main points of a conversation. Now, there was a hint of defiance as his face bore his familiar inscrutable mask and his eyes followed Aramis, whose exaggerated movements as he worked screamed his ongoing displeasure.

"Are you going to persevere in subjecting me to the silent treatment?" he eventually asked.

Aramis threw down the fresh bandage he had been rolling with some difficulty, one arm still in its sling, and rounded on him. "Why should I expend the energy talking to you when you refuse to listen to anything I say?"

"That is inaccurate. I do listen to you."

"Now you're being your usual, awkward, pedantic self. I suppose I should be thankful and accept it as a sign of your progress."

Athos merely raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Selective hearing, that's what you suffer from. You choose what you want to hear and, where your well-being is concerned, you persist in turning a deaf ear," Aramis went on. "I am going to find Porthos, have a nice, two-sided conversation and perhaps have something to eat. I will send you something."

As he turned to leave, he spotted the Captain.

"Not interrupting, am I?" Tréville could not resist the observation.

"Oh, just what I needed!" and Aramis threw up his hands in despair. "Your partner-in-crime has arrived." He directed this to Athos before turning back to Tréville. "To spare me the time of a search or the surprise, could you tell me before I go where your expedition might take you today?"

Tréville smiled tolerantly, ignoring that Aramis' attitude bordered on insubordination, but rather understanding that it was borne of his consternation for his friend and the frustration of his own slow recovery.

"I don't think we'll be straying from here," Tréville reassured him.

"Hmmm," Aramis shot them both a disbelieving glare and left them.

"Perhaps he won't be so angry once he's had some dinner," Athos said when he and the Captain were alone.

Tréville was puzzled. "Dinner is not until this evening; he has gone for his midday meal. Besides, he's only pretending to be angry now. His storm blew out hours ago."

Now it was Athos who was confused. "Hours ago?" Time, as he knew it, had become very muddled. "How long has it been since I left Loret?"

"That was yesterday afternoon," Tréville said gently. The idea that Athos had 'left' Loret suggested that he had made a controlled exit, when it had been anything but! He was well aware that Athos had only persisted in seeing Loret to prove a point when, almost from the outset, he was clearly struggling. He had walked too far for being out of bed the first time; he was evidently in pain and he looked ghastly, a grey hue coloured his skin and sweat poured from him.

Standing outside the cell with Porthos and Aramis and listening to the admissions being made within, it had come as no surprise to Tréville when the prisoner shouted his name repeatedly. He had got through the door fractionally ahead of Aramis, who probably let him go first only because Loret had called for the officer.

It was immediately clear that Athos was on the verge of collapse, his eyes rolling in his head as he swayed dangerously and threatened to slide sideways off the stool. Tréville reached out and steadied him, calling for Porthos to help as Aramis, hampered by his sling, spoke repeatedly to Athos but was unable to elicit a coherent response.

The Captain and Porthos pulled Athos to his feet and, with one on either side of him as they held him up, they attempted to walk him out of the cell and back to the infirmary. Tréville would never forget the heat emanating through the sweat-soaked shirt nor the moment when Athos became incapable of standing.

"He's going!" Porthos warned, as he and the Captain had no choice but to lower Athos slowly to the ground. He had become a dead weight between them, and Aramis was swift to step forward and ascertain that Athos had lost consciousness.

As they crouched around the fallen Musketeer, Tréville called to several men who had been in the process of sparring in the middle of the yard but who had abruptly stopped when they saw Athos crumple. Three of them approached and, together with Porthos, who insisted that he did not need help in carrying Athos alone, they bore the stricken man back to the infirmary and his bed.

"Yesterday?" Athos considered what he had just learned. He sighed. "Aramis gave me something, didn't he?"

Tréville picked up a chair by its back and repositioned it beside Athos' bed.

"He didn't need to for some time. I'll admit you gave me quite a scare, passing out the way you did, especially when you didn't stir again for such a long time. You don't remember any of that, do you?"

Athos shook his head.

"You stirred three or four times during the evening but the last time, Aramis did give you something to help you sleep more restfully."

He was not about to add that, when vaguely awake, Athos was distracted – distressed even – and his mumbled words often incoherent, but the Captain heard and understood enough to recognise that the meeting with Loret had deeply affected the younger man and its ramifications could potentially be felt for some time. It would not help Athos to know that his periods of vulnerability had been witnessed.

So Tréville strove to lighten the mood by changing the subject.

"I have just returned from the palace and thought that you might be interested to learn of the latest developments."

Athos was instantly intrigued, as Tréville hoped he would be, but they were interrupted by the door opening and the arrival of Porthos bearing a tray of food which he set down on a table.

"Nice to see you properly awake at last," he grinned broadly, wiping his hands on the back of his breeches. "Serge and Aramis sent this. I'll be back to see you when I've eaten."

When Porthos had gone, Athos pushed aside the bedding and swung his legs over the side of the bed.

"Wait! Stop! What do you think you're doing?" Tréville demanded, leaping to his feet and debating whether or not he should immediately summon Aramis to dispense another sleeping draught.

"I refuse to stay in this bed. I am quite capable of sitting at the table; we can talk just as easily there."

Tréville was not so convinced as he watched Athos slowly make his way from the bed to the table, using the chairback to help him as he went. The Captain hovered nearby, hoping that he was not going to have to catch the young man for the second time in twenty-four hours. He released the breath he had been holding as soon as Athos achieved his goal.

"All the better for eating," the officer commented with annoying enthusiasm as he spied two bowls of stew and half a loaf of bread.

"What is this predilection of everybody to get me to eat?" Athos said scowling.

Tréville knew that it was time to scold and he adopted an appropriate tone. "Aramis is correct in that you are being deliberately awkward! I should not have to remind you that you need to eat to build up your strength and recover more swiftly. Yesterday was an unwanted demonstration of what happens when you try to do too much too soon and when you are still too weak. So you will empty this bowl; it is only half full to tempt you. You don't have to touch the bread if you don't want it but you will eat the other, and just in case you are in any doubt, that's an order."

It was like coaxing a recalcitrant child to eat and Tréville wondered how the other man functioned on the amount he had seen the soldier eat, even when he was fully healthy. Meals seemed to be an unwelcome necessity to Athos; he would sit and share food with the others to be sociable, but it never appeared to be enjoyed, not like Porthos. Mind you, Tréville corrected himself, no-one enjoyed food like Porthos did. He was the dream guest at a table for any cook.

"So," Athos prompted, a spoon half-raised to his lips, "what were you going to tell me?"

As Tréville recounted what had happened at the palace, he surreptitiously watched the patient eat the stew almost without realising. Athos had to be hungry for he had had nothing since just before his collapse the day before, and even then he had not had much. So, he had to be distracted to eat – and ordered. That was an interesting revelation!

Setting his own empty bowl aside, he reached for the piece of paper. This was his real reason for coming to see Athos and he could not wait to see the young Musketeer's reaction to what was written there. If he required any more distraction, this was it.

"Richelieu had the names of three prominent Spaniards whom he knew opposed the Treaty. I had forgotten about them in the search for you three, but I reminded the Cardinal again today. He reluctantly showed me the names and I wrote them down." He pushed the paper across the table.

Athos picked it up and unfolded it, his brow creasing as he deciphered the Captain's scrawl.

It had not taken Tréville long to notice something very significant about one of the names, but he was delighted when he saw that same realisation come more quickly to Athos. The soldier shot him an amazed glance before perusing the paper again.

"Domingo Hernandez," he read aloud, "Hector Pizarro and Rodrigo Ignacio de Calatrava."

Green eyes met blue at the discovery. "R-I-C!"