. . . “You’ll have to excuse our lack of manners, but we were not expecting visitors,” Aramis told the boy and then took over Athos’ role by performing introductions. He nodded towards the blond-haired man in the corner. “Allow me to present Athos, D’Artagnan, and Porthos. And I am Aramis.”
She acknowledged the greetings formally. Athos glanced at the lad and recognition finally dawned in his pounding brain. From Langeac. “I didn’t expect to run into you in Marseille,” he commented. “Does your father know you’re here?” Laurel didn’t respond, just blinked her eyes dumbly and remained mute. Blinked again as if trying to clear suddenly befuddled senses.
It was unusually hot in here, and an incessant buzzing started pounding ever more loudly behind her eyeballs. Why was the room spinning? She swayed uneasily on her feet, staggered half sideways. At that moment Athos noticed the crimson streak spreading along her side.
In one lightning-quick motion he leapt to his feet to help.
“I’ll be quite all right,” Laurel insisted stubbornly. But her body betrayed her, and she lost the last vestiges of her balance. Her last coherent thought was that her wound would have to be more serious than she thought it was.
Athos caught her as she pitched forward, and with Porthos’ assistance carefully moved her to the bed. The oldest musketeer stood over the youth and focused his gaze on Porthos for a moment. “Bring me that basin of water and some rags. I’ll see what I can do for the boy.” Porthos retrieved the items and gave them to his companion. Typical of Athos to take charge even when he was not feeling well.
D’Artagnan stood frozen, indecision racking him. He had to say something before the situation spiraled completely out of control. “Athos,” he finally said, and the musketeer stopped his preparations to look at D’Artagnan. “I really don’t think it is wise for such a crowd to be here. I could take care of him.”
“D’Artagnan, I have no time to argue with you. This boy needs attention, and you don’t know anything about treating sword wounds. Not enough, at any rate,” Athos responded curtly and returned his attention to Laurel.
D’Artagnan took a step towards the bed and the still form upon it. His brow wrinkled in an outer reflection of inner turmoil. “Athos, you don’t understand.”
“I understand that this boy needs help now and not five minutes from now,” Athos stated as he began to tear fabric away from the wound.
“That’s just it,” D’Artagnan replied, despite himself. “That’s no boy you’re dealing with. Christophe is a woman. A lady.”
“What?” Athos shot a stunned look at the young man and saw that he was completely serious. “Porthos, Aramis, perhaps you should leave. D’Artagnan and I will take care of this.” Porthos and Aramis wasted no time debating the issue but simply left their companions to tend the wounded person.
“Grab some more rags, and get over here and lend me a hand. I’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Athos instructed as he tore the last of the fabric away from the wound. Woman better not have a fit of modesty when she woke. By her very masquerade the lady wasn’t much for conventions, so she had no right to go into hysterics over a strange man seeing her unclothed body when he was tending a wound. And Athos really wasn’t in the mood for it.
“Water, please,” the patient croaked as she awoke. Promptly a glass was placed in her hand, and she drank it down, and her eyes met Athos’. “I suppose I owe you all an explanation.”
“That could be very helpful,” Athos replied. No fit of modesty at least. No mention of who had tended her even. “Whenever you feel up to it, we’re all waiting to hear.”
Laurel tried to sit up and her head swirled. “Easy,” Athos said as he helped her prop herself up against the bedpost.
“How long have I been here?” she asked suddenly and was informed that it had been two days. “I’ve got to get going.”
“Madame,” Athos told her using the most formal form of address at his disposal. “You’re not going anywhere for at least several days. In any case, you’re not leaving until you explain what brings you to Marseille and why the deception.” They both looked up as the door opened, and Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan entered. “Perhaps,” Athos suggested, “you could start by telling us who you really are.”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes in resignation. She opened them again and looked from one man to the next. “My name is Laurel Christophe d’Anlass, daughter and heir, more or less, to the Marquis de Langeac. As to why I’m in Marseille, well suffice it to say that my home was no longer safe for me.”
“I guess you’ll have to pardon me then,” Porthos informed Laurel. “But it doesn’t seem that you are any safer in Marseille than at Langeac.”
“That was just unlucky chance,” she countered with surprising energy. “Those men just happened to stumble upon my horse and identified it as the property of the Marquis de Langeac when a merchant pointed me out as the youth who he had last seen riding the animal. And, well, you know the rest.” Hopefully, Rebelle was still secure where the assailants had left him. Another thing to check on when she was able to get out and about.
“With all due respect, madame, how do we know that you’re telling us the truth now?” D’Artagnan asked, doing his best not to insult the lady, though she was making that goal rather difficult.
“You don’t,” Laurel admitted, adding absently that madame was not her proper title as she was not married. “There’s no possible way I could convince you that I am who I claim to be. I do assure you that falsely claiming to be Laurel d’Anlass would be suicidal. So I put my life in your hands; you’ve already saved my life twice by my reckoning, so I would hope that you would not get me killed now by trying to confirm my identity,” she told the musketeers, particularly D’Artagnan.
Athos waved his three companions back and sat down beside the woman whose injury he had recently treated. “How would trying to confirm your identity get you killed?”
She lowered her eyes and winced as she almost pulled her wound open again. Silence encompassed the room, and no one moved for moments that seemed to drag on to infinity.
“Promise me what I tell you will go no further than you four. It’s not just my life that depends on secrecy, but also many others, including the king’s.” Somehow their instincts favored believing her claim. One by one they gave her their words, and she proceeded to tell them about her past. Told them how her mother had died in childbirth and how her baby brother had died a week later, and then she explained that her father decided the best way to protect his only living child was to take her with him on his missions for the king. . . .