AN: This is something super different for me, so I hope it turned out well. I want to warn everyone straight off, I know absolutely zero about France or history or anything like that. It is not meant to represent any sort of historical accuracy at all. Hopefully, you can all enjoy it anyway.
Every single thing had to be perfect before she stepped out the door. Each strand of hair, each piece of clothing, every tie. Perfection was her only shield against the truth and what the truth would mean to the rest of the world. Her morning began with a brisk wash in the bowl of cold water set out for her in the morning. As a captain of the Musketeers, she was afforded a private room, though it was more the size of a closet and terribly drafty. Clean and refreshed from her morning ablution, she would wind a long strip of linen around her chest, flattening her breasts so her tunic would hang straight like a man. Each piece of clothing was carefully pressed and laid out the evening before so that she would never require the aid of a servant who might uncover her secret. She pulled on her black breeches and ran her palms across her thighs to smooth the wrinkles, just like every morning. Then she pulled her white blouse of her head and turned to check herself in the mirror. Her breasts were unnoticeable.
She tucked the shirt into her waistband just as there was a knock at the door. "Sir?" A voice called through the door, muffled by the wood. She gritted her teeth in frustration, the timing was poor.
"I'll be right out." She called over her shoulder as she turned to dress more quickly. Her hands moved faster than her mind and unsurprisingly, she found herself tangled in her royal blue tunic. With a huff she yanked it off, shook it out and then put it back on straight. She brushed at the wrinkles until the white cross that was the symbol of the Musketeers was perfect.
"Sir?" The voice interrupted again.
"God dammit, boy, I told you I would be right out." She sat on the edge of the pallet to pull on her boots. The evening before she had shined them herself, taking special care with the supple black leather. She draped her shoulder belt across her chest, adjusting the pommel of her sword just so and then with a flourish she topped off her uniform by setting the dashing Musketeer hat atop her cropped hair, its corner turned up on the left and adorned with a long white feather. Everything in its perfect place.
For ten years, Olivia had been refining her ruse. Since her brother had died prematurely and she had escaped the increasing horror of her family's manor house to take his place as a new Musketeer. But every morning when she stepped out, prepared for the new day's charade, she was struck by a small bolt of fear against which she was forced to steel herself. At that point, she was required to remind herself that being a Musketeer with a strapped chest and an androgynous face was still worlds better than being the shrinking daughter of an alcoholic, impoverished minor noblewoman whose husband had died under mysterious circumstances.
A young man, certainly not more than seventeen, was standing just in front of her door, holding his hat in her oversized hands. He shifted his weight from foot to foot nervously and chewed on his lower lip. When the door opened and Captain Olivier exited, the boy sprang to life. "Sir, the Viscount Coquille has sent for you. For the preparations for the ball."
She set a calming hand on the boy's shoulder, for delivering his message had not seemed to calm his nervous energy at all. "Please alert the Viscount that I will be with him shortly."
The boy turned and dashed off at such a speed that he nearly barreled into Elias as he came around the corner, looking for the woman that the boy was currently fleeing away from. He flattened himself against the wall to avoid the overzealous messenger and once he was past he intercepted Captain Olivier before she could make it far in the direction of the kitchen.
"Breakfast?" They had been fast friends for years and though Elias had been a Musketeer when Olivier arrived, he had never begrudged his friend's rapid rise to success. He gestured with his black fencing gloves, slapping them against his palm. Olivier nodded and set out, knowing that Elias would follow her like he always did.
The passageway through the Musketeer's barracks was too narrow to allow Elias to walk abreast of her. He had powerfully broad shoulders to match his generally impressive frame. Usually his high forehead was covered by his plumed hat, but today he did not seem to be sporting it. She thought about commenting on that irregularity, but thought better of it. Her impending meeting with the Viscount had put her in a bad mood. He was in charge of the Palace guard, and as such thought he was far above Captain Olivier, not just in station but in intellect.
She pushed open the door to the kitchens and held it for Elias to pass. The palace kitchen was a huge vaulted room, bustling with people, steam and smoke. There were two grand hearths on which any number of pots were simmering and a huge brick oven for baking the fresh bread daily. The two Musketeers weaved their way through the din. Along the way, Olivier snatched a few rolls and two apples which she tucked into a pouch she made by holding her tunic up with one hand. They made it out the other side and into the palace proper without anyone noticing her casual theft. She handed a roll and an apple to Elias and became to rapidly eat her own as they walked. She couldn't remember the last time she had had time to sit for a meal and eating while walking without choking or tripping was her specialty.
She finished just before they reached the door to the Viscount's office. She brushed her tunic off, straightened it and squared her shoulders. "I'll be waiting for you," Ellias indicated the corner of the hallway, far enough that he wouldn't be noticed loitering. She nodded and then turned to push the door open.
The Viscount's office was easily four times the size of her own and much more lushly appointed. She swept the hat off her head and tucked it under her arm as she entered. "You summoned me?" Years of practice at self-control could not hide the hint of sarcasm in her voice.
At the sound of her entrance, the Viscount rose, gesturing to the chair directly in front of his large, gilded desk for her to seat. "Captain Olivier, always a pleasure." He was balding and old for a guardsman, with a stomach that indicated how far he had gone to seed.
She took the indicated seat and reached up to brush her fingers through her short brown hair, trying to hide how uncomfortable the uppercrust setting made her. "What can I do for you? I understand you needed to see me about the ball."
"Yes." He sat down and shuffled through a pile of parchments on his desk until he found the one he was looking for. "We have rather more guests than originally expected, and what with the arrival of the duc de Bourgogne, Alphonse Cabot, we simply haven't got enough guards. We'll need a detachment of Musketeers." He handed the parchment to Olivier to peruse. It was a memorandum from the King for the Musketeers to be placed under the Viscount's command for the duration of the festivities.
"Well," she set the parchment down and schooled her face to hide the annoyance she felt. "Everything seems to be in order."
"And you to lead them," the Viscount added smugly. "Under my command, of course."
Duc Alphonse was a difficult man under the best of circumstances. He had been breed specifically to create his haughty mien and easy way with command. It did not make him easier to sit in a carriage with. Every time a wheel dropped into a rut, it began a long bout of cursing over the indignity of travel these days and the unfortunate pain of his gout. His daughter had been forced on a number of occasions to reach over and pat his arm to calm him through a fit of temper. While the Duc was a man of quick temper and burly build, his daughter Alexandra was tall and willowy. Her blonde hair was her pride; today she wore it pinned back into a bun and covered for the rigors of travel. Where her father was angry, she was cold and detached. Where he was haughty, she was icily aloof. Their rarefied blood was obvious in both, but manifested in neatly opposed ways. It made their times together, unpleasant.
Alexandra leaned forward after one last outburst and flicked the curtain away from the window with one elegantly gloved hand so that she could peer out at the palace as they approached. It was imposing, but her own estates were vast, so it took more than just a towering visage to impress her. She sat back, letting the curtain fall, obscuring the view again. The ball was not her idea of a good time. A palace packed to the hilt with simpering overdressed young women and sweating, inane lesser peerage actually sounded like the closest thing to hell on Earth. Her father had been generous, or distracted, enough to allow her a free rein over her own education, but the result had ruined her for the sorts of social functions a daughter of a Duc was meant to excel at.
This ball in particular would be painful for her. Finally, her father had decided that she had reached a suitable age to find a suitable suitor and arrange a suitable marriage. Time to find a man who could extend their family's gargantuan estates and increase their monstrous political influence. The Cabot's were juggernauts, but they were insatiable. Alexandra's freedom would be the next sacrifice to the hungry maw of power.
The carriage ground to a halt with a bone shattering jolt that sent Duc Alphonse into another screaming fit. The footman who opened the door to hand them out was startled by the sheer force of the Duc's anger and nearly fell. Alexandra sighed, took the hand offered her, and stepped out of the stifling vehicle. Palace and ball or not, at least it was a relief to have some fresh air.
Theirs was not the only carriage. The grand driveway was packed with people, servants and trunks. A perfect opportunity for Alexandra to escape. She glanced behind her to make sure her father was absorbed with ensuring their luggage made it to their rooms, then set off with purposeful strides through the crowd. She didn't have a plan. She didn't need one. She just could not stand another moment spent within ten feet of her father. Somewhere within the palace or its grounds, there had to be something more interesting to do or see than another passel of aging ladies and their little lap dogs.
She worked her way through the crowd and after much wandering arrived at a quiet courtyard, exactly the sort of getaway she was hoping to find. By her estimation, it would be several more hours before her father realized that she was gone and sent a servant to find her. There was a small fountain in the center of the courtyard surrounded by low stone benches that were shaded by neatly trimmed trees. She stepped into the courtyard before she noticed the lone figure sitting beside the fountain who looked up at the sound of her approach.
It would have been rude to turn around and exit for no visible reason, so she pressed on, selecting an empty bench and arrange her skirts about her as she settled onto it. Her seat afforded her a profile view of the person. It was a Musketeer in full regalia, holding fencing gloves in his left hand. His plumed had sat beside him on the edge of the fountain, revealing his brown hair which stuck out in a fashion that surely had to have been intentional. He went back to reading over a piece of parchment held in his right hand after Alexandra sat.
Olivia had retreated after a long afternoon to her favorite courtyard. It was near the back of the palace, far from the guest quarters which were rapidly filling. She never read her letters where anyone else could happen upon her – instinctive sense of self-preservation. Not that she received a lot of correspondence since her mother had died the year before, but occasionally Abbie Carmichael sent her a note so she could be sure the woman lived. Theirs was a complicated history further tangled by what Olivia could only assume was a Scottish temper, but she was one of the few people alive who knew who exactly Olivia was and what exactly her life really meant. Whenever Abbie had sent the letter (it was difficult to tell exactly with the state of the continental postal system) she had been in southern Italy, enjoying the hospitality of a swarthy merchant prince.
She had finished the letter, but she held it in her hands, breathing in the very faint, ghostly smell of Abbie's favorite perfume. It only served to remind her how long it had been since she had held a woman. Like magic, her musings manifested the most perfect facsimile of all her favorite daydreams. A lithe blonde woman, dressed in a shimmering confection of a dress, walked into her courtyard and took a seat close enough to allow Olivia to ogle her in her peripheral vision. As if totally unaware of Olivia's scrutiny, the woman reached up unpinning her hair and shaking it out. It fell like a wave of gold over her shoulders.
That was more than Olivia could take after a letter from Abbie and a morning conversation with the Viscount. It was past time for her to prepare her contingent of Musketeers for guard duty anyway. She stood, tucking the folded letter into her belt before settling the dashing hat on her head. Her route back into the palace lead her directly past the blonde, an intentional choice. Unintentionally, the letter slipped from her belt as she pulled her gloves on. The loss was not missed, preoccupied as she was. Alexandra didn't notice it either until after the Musketeer was gone and she stood to move closer to the fountain. She picked up the letter, glancing in the direction the dashing man had disappeared. She pondered her options for a moment before picking up the folded parchment, noticing that it smelled of a woman, and tucked it into her pocket. She would make inquiries later and return it to its rightful owner, she decided.