by Matsu Kasumi
Paris, May 1629
Ueli held back a sigh and tightened his hold on his halberd as he went with Thomas to replace their comrades. It was their last guarding spot for the day; two hours there and they could report to Lieutenant Stämpfli and then attend to their own business. For Ueli, this business would be simple: he would eat something, then go to sleep as soon as possible. He was really tired, since he had been nice enough to take his comrade Andreas’ shift on top of his own and had been standing in front of various doors of the Louvre for some fourteen hours now. Both shifts had been calm, and now he was growing weary.
After a long half-hour without any incident, a maid arrived in the corridor to change the flowers. She was soon joined by another maid who stood by her side.
“I want apologies!” she said, barely containing her rage.
“I don’t see why,” answered the first maid without looking away from her task.
Feeling that things could escalate, Ueli looked at Thomas, who seemed to have had the same thought. A brief exchange of raised eyebrows and small nods was enough for the two men to decide that Thomas would stay in front of the door while Ueli would go and calm the two maids down.
By the time Ueli reached them, they were fighting and he had to separate them. He even had to threaten to speak to their superior for them to calm down enough to go their separate ways.
Coming back to his post after having walked the most aggressive maid to another floor, Ueli saw that the door to the small lounge in front of which him and Thomas were stationed was now closed. He took his place without really thinking about it, since it was common for nobles to lock themselves somewhere to speak away from curious ears.
Twenty or so minutes later, as he was forcing his eyes to stay open, Ueli felt a shiver going through him, then a brief pain on his temples, as if his head was held tightly for a second. He looked around but nothing seemed to have moved and no one was to be seen.
“You too?” asked Thomas, a hand on his head.
“Yeah,” answered Ueli. “You think it’s magic?”
“Likely… La Valette is inside after all. He’s probably entertaining someone.”
Ueli nodded. It was well known that magic sometime had side effects. And the Marquis Haymon de la Valette, who was one of the most famous magicians of Louis XIII’s court, was often showing his talents. Since nobody was crying for help, it was likely that this was under control and that Ueli and Thomas should not worry about it.
Ueli had only slept about three hours when he woke up, hearing voices as if a conversation was taking place in the room he shared with three other Swiss Guards. But his room was empty… Which was not strange since Karl and Wolfgang were on duty and Reto was likely training.
The voices were still there though. It was two men, speaking in an unknown language. Before Ueli could recognise any of the voices, the conversation stopped and the room became quiet. Ueli waited for a few minutes but there was no more sound so he thought the voices were likely the rest of a dream: a likely product of his tiredness. After that, he did his best to fall back asleep so he would be ready to begin his shift the next day.
The next morning, Lieutenant Stämpfli summoned Ueli before the start of his shift. Surprised, Ueli went immediately to his superior’s office, where he found the door open. Stämpfli motioned for him to enter and close the door.
“Sit down Fleckenstern, it’s probably better,” said Stämpfli as soon as he was in the room.
Intrigued, Ueli obeyed.
“Bad news, Sir?” he asked, not sure why else Stämpfli would summon him so early in the morning and be considerate.
“That’s the least we can say. Müller and Neudorf are dead,” said Stämpfli, going straight to the point as was his habit.
The news was a shock for Ueli, who found he had nothing to answer with. He was even more affected by this announcement that he spent his second shift the day before with Thomas Müller, precisely replacing Andreas Neudorf…
“I don’t suppose I need to explain why I convoked you about it,” said Stämpfli just as Ueli understood how personally he was concerned by these two deaths. “Neudorf was found, floating in the Seine, an hour ago. Everything was staged like a robbery gone wrong, but I can’t imagine any thug winning against Neudorf.”
Ueli nodded, knowing too well for having lost his share of arm wrestling matches against him that Andres was most likely the strongest man in the regiment.
“As for Müller, he was run over by a carriage whose driver had lost control of… in the alley to the Defleurs’ apartment.”
The Defleurs were a couple of wine merchants whose younger daughter Madeleine had been courted for months by Thomas. And they lived above their shop, in an apartment that could only be accessed by a small staircase in a dead-end alley.
“These murders are just well enough disguised that no official investigation will occur with Müller and the one about Neudorf will find nothing suspicious,” finished Stämpfli.
Ueli stayed silent for a moment, analysing the situation. Two of his comrades and friends were dead and the killer would likely never be caught. Worse, he knew at least Thomas, seeing where the trap had been set… and likely Andreas, too, since his incapacity to swim and childhood-trauma-induced fear of water were no secret amongst the regiment, which meant that the Seine was the one place out of which he would never come back. This meant that the person who had them killed had intel from within the regiment.
“Do you think I’m the next target?” asked Ueli after thinking about it.
“Not necessarily. Your replacement of Neudorf on the shift had not been noted in the register before this morning. If he was killed instead of you, it’s likely that the assassin doesn’t know he had the wrong man.”
“But the register is now up to date…”
“No,” said Stämpfli calmly. “I decided to forget to write down that change.”
Ueli was surprised by that, since Stämpfli was known for his meticulousness, and it would have been far more likely to hear him complain about the lack of rigour of the corporal in charge of the register.
“Don’t be so surprised, Fleckenstern. You and I know that it’s no coincidence if they’ve both been killed, and I’m not risking the life of another of my men.”
Ueli nodded and, as Stämpfli rose, did the same.
“I’ll investigate on my own. If you can be useful, I’ll let you know. For the moment, I’ll ask you to do your best to keep a low profile and do your job without attracting anyone’s attention. I’ll keep you updated if something comes up.”
Understanding the implicit order to leave, Ueli saluted and walked out of the room.
Ueli was escorting the king’s carriage when he heard the voices in his head again. It was the same two male voice as the previous night, but this time a woman was answering them. They were speaking in a language that Ueli didn’t know, but he estimated it was likely the same as the day before. He looked around for the source of the voices, but he was riding a horse in the middle of Paris. It was impossible for him to hear any conversation this clearly. Unless, of course, magic was involved…
Ueli thought back about his long guarding day and the closed door to the small lounge from which emanated a magic vibe. The door behind which was, amongst others, the Marquis de la Valette. It might have been only a coincidence, but it could also be linked to the deaths of Thomas and Andreas. It seemed to Ueli that the wisest thing to do was to check if one of those voices was la Valette’s before drawing any conclusion. It wouldn’t be difficult, since la Valette was one of the most prominent nobles of King Louis XIII’s court and Ueli spent most of his days patrolling the Louvre. They would eventually run into each other.
Three days later, Ueli had still not heard la Valette speak. He had seen him the previous day, but he had been with a few other courtesans and one of the women of the group was talking animatedly when they passed in front of Ueli. His only certitude was that she was not the woman whose voice he sometimes heard.
Ueli was in his last guard shift for that day, wondering if he should tell Stämpfli about the voices, when he heard the woman again. It took several minutes to for the men to answer, but then they finally started to talk quickly in their unknown language.
Ueli only gave them little to no attention, but he still recognised the words “door Saint-Honoré” when one of the men told them. Listening more attentively, Ueli heard the woman say those same words. It was the first time Ueli recognised any of the words said by the voices, so he decided he would go and check the door as soon as possible, even if it was a really small clue.
It was night when Ueli reached the door Saint-Honoré. He stopped a bit before the building, hiding in the shadows of a small alley from where he could observe the milicians who guarded the city’s entrance.
All was calm, which was sadly predictable, since knowing a meeting’s point but not its hour rarely led to a big discovery. Ueli still decided to wait a little, giving himself until quarter past midnight before heading back to the casern.
Midnight soon rang without anything having happened and Ueli watched with an indulgent smile as the milicians changed shifts with an obvious lack of professionalism.
Very soon after that, the milicians let a fat man driving a cart pass through the door. To be able to enter Paris at night like that meant that man was either very important, or had very important friends. In any case, he was interesting. He was even more interesting when Ueli saw that the coat of arms on his cart was that of a well-known magic object dealer. The likelihood of this man being in any way connected to the voices in his head was small, but Ueli decided to follow him nonetheless.
He started following the cart, trying not to be seen. He was glad that it was night because tailing people and being stealthy was not his strong point at all. He tripped once and almost got spotted. Luckily he was close to a small alley at that time and so he dived there. He heard the cart stop and waited for a few long seconds, lying in the dirt, not daring to move. Finally, the cart started moving again and he got to his feet to continue following it. He stayed a bit further this time though, as to not attract the attention of the driver again.
Two streets further, the cart turned left, and once it was out of Ueli’s sight, he heard a muffled sound, like that of a back falling on the ground. He walked faster and, turning the street’s corner close to the wall, saw that the cart had stopped. There was a heap on the ground next to it that was likely the driver and a much more athletic man was now hopping on the cart.
Ueli let the cart go, then approached and saw that the heap was indeed the fat man’s dead body. Kneeling near him, Ueli saw that he had been killed by a crossbow bolt in the neck. Ueli closed the man’s eyes and, knowing he could do nothing else for him, decided to follow the cart further. If it had or not anything to do with the voices was now irrelevant, since a crime had just been committed and it was Ueli’s duty as a Swiss Guard to identify the culprit.
Culprits in the present case, since the cart’s new driver had been joined by three men, who were escorting the cart, walking by its side with their hand on their sword’s pommel.
Ueli got up and, feeling observed, turned around. A fifth man was behind him. Dressed all in black, the man was aiming a pistol at Ueli’s chest. This close, the man had no chance to miss, Ueli knew it. And judging by his smile, the man knew it too.
Suddenly, Ueli heard a clash of swords behind him. He saw the man in black look to the cart in surprise and lower his attention. Knowing that this was his one and only opportunity, Ueli drew his rapier and attacked. The man pulled himself together and fired, but Ueli had already moved and the bullet that was meant for his head only scratched his arm. Ignoring the wound, he continued and planted his rapier in the man’s stomach. The man cried out and dropped his pistol. Ueli didn’t give him time to reach for his sword and cut his throat.
Ueli took a step back and, certain that his assailant was dead, sheathed his rapier and took the time to look at his wound. It was profound and would need stitching, but at least he could still move all of his fingers, so it would probably heal correctly.
Turning around, he saw that the clash that saved his life a minute earlier was due to three Musketeers that were attacking the cart. Two of the men who stole the cart were already dead and a third one soon fell, but the driver had taken advantage of his position and, standing on his seat, was fighting the Musketeers from above.
A reflection caught Ueli’s attention and, looking up, he saw another man, whose silhouette was detaching clearly in the moonlight. At the night been darker, Ueli would barely have distinguished him, but as it was close to full moon, he could clearly see the man aiming a crossbow. Without a second of hesitation, Ueli drew his pistol and fired. The man on the roof took the bullet in his leg and toppled down.
The sound of gunfire followed by a fall took the cart’s driver turn around and gave the Musketeers the occasion to finish him.
Ueli put back his pistol and walked to the cart, where the Musketeers were now facing him. He was only a few paces from them when he saw the man from the roof sitting and putting his hand in his coat.
Ueli pointed at the man but he didn’t draw a weapon. In fact the man simply vanished.
One of the Musketeers cursed before running to where the man had been a second earlier. The two remaining Musketeers exchanged a look, then one of them took a step towards Ueli while the other went to look at the cart’s content.
The one who went to Ueli was tall and slender almost to the point of thinness with black hair, dark eyes, and he sported a moustache and a goatee trimmed into the latest fashion. Ueli also noticed that his uniform was not exactly that of a King’s Musketeer; he was indeed wearing the blue tabard with the white cross, but there was a crescent moon on to of it. Ueli didn’t dwell on that detail, but on the rapier that the man had still in hand, on the loaded pistol at his hip, and his absence of smile.
“Good evening sir,” said the pseudo-Musketeer touching his hat. “And thank you for the help.”
“Good evening,” answered Ueli, touching his hat too.
“Let me introduce myself: Arsène de Floque, Gardelune.”
Ueli was so surprised he didn’t answer immediately. Of course he knew of the Gardelunes. They were a troop of elite Musketeers specialised in magical affairs. They were said to be above the law and to have supernatural abilities. Of course, half the rumours about them were likely exaggerated or plain lies, but even so the idea Ueli had of the Gardelunes did not involve something as mundane as a stolen cart. Even if said cart was full of magical objects.
Floque lifted an interrogative eyebrow, and Ueli pulled himself together.
“Ueli Fleckenstern, ensign of the Louvre’s Swiss Guard”
“Swiss Guard, huh?”
“I confirm!” said the second man, who was done inspecting the cart.
The man, who had an accent from Gascony, was smaller than Floque and Ueli, with brown hair and assorted eyes. He had a moustache but no goatee and, more importantly, was wearing the same blue uniform with the cross and moon, which meant he was likely a Gardelune too.
“There is a Swiss Guard with that name, arrived in Paris four years ago and promoted ensign five last December,” explained the second Gardelune, talking mainly to his colleague.
“If you say so,” said Floque, sheathing his rapier.
“Of course I say so,” said the second Gardelune happily before turning to Ueli and introducing himself with a small bow. “I am Donatien de Cassagnes, Gardelune.”
“Donatien has the best memory of the country, if not the world,” explained Floque. “Reading and memorising lists of members from Paris’ different work corps is one of his favourite pastimes.”
“Everybody needs a hobby,” justified Cassagnes.
Ueli wasn’t sure what to answer to that but he didn’t have to because the third Gardelune came back. He was about Ueli’s height, albeit a bit less broad in the shoulders, with auburn hair, dark-ringed hazelnut eyes and had apparently not taken time to shave for at least two days. To add to his tired looks, he was talking to himself with a Breton accent.
“Surely a teleportation amulet… it’s worth a fortune, only usable once… but it doesn’t help us much. Maybe if I analysed the blood he left there could be traces of a potion or… By all the Gods!”
The Gardelune had stopped and was looking at Ueli with a mix of awe and excitement, so Floque made the introductions:
“Fleckenstern, meet our magic specialist, Gwendal de Kergariou. Gwendal, this is Ueli Fleckenstern, a Swiss Guard who was about to explain what interest he has in our cart…”
“You see a Swiss Guard, but I see a well-built, blond-haired, green-eyed guy with a wound on his left arm!” Kergariou seemed ecstatic. “I told you so!”
Floque frowned and Cassagnes sighed, so Kergariou ignored them and explained to Ueli: “I saw you in my crystal ball. I knew we would meet.”
“Really?” Ueli was surprised. For what he knew of the, crystal balls gave cryptic visions at best, not something as precise as the description Kergariou had made of him. But it was a Gardelune he was talking to so maybe…
“Of course,” said Kergariou, observing at Ueli with attention. “But your wound was not that fresh, so I probably saw you in the future. You might want to have that looked at, by the way.”
“Perfect,” cut Floque. “The Swiss Guard comes with us. I’ll interrogate him as you do the stitching.”
The tone left no place for arguing but Ueli didn’t complain. On the one hand, he was used to following orders and on the other an occasion to spend time with the mysterious Gardelunes was not something anyone would pass.
Ueli came back to the casern at dawn and immediately went to see Stämpfli. The Lieutenant was writing a letter but he posed and gestured for Ueli to enter. Ueli did and closed the door behind him.
“Fleckenstern,” saluted Stämpfli.
“You don’t look like someone who slept much.”
“No sir, but I have my reasons.”
Stämpfli frowned. “I’m listening.”
“It’s about the murders of Andreas and Thomas. I… remembered a detail that happened while I was covering for Andreas. But I preferred to check before telling you about it, as to not waste your time.”
“And was this checking you did conclusive?”
“In a way… I still don’t know who had them killed but I’m pretty sure the Gardelunes are already after him.”
“The Gardelunes?” repeated Stämpfli with astonishment.
“Yes sir. Thomas and I have been caught in the area of a spell during our guard and it’s likely to prevent us from sensing that assassins had been sent.”
“What kind of effects are we talking about here exactly?”
“We’re not certain yet. Which is why the Gardelunes would like to examine me. With your permission, of course.”
Stämpfli didn’t answer immediately and Ueli used that time to give him the letter Cassagnes had had his captain write.
“They gave me this document for you.”
Stämpfli took the letter, looked at the seal for a moment then broke it and read. Twice. Then he put down the letter, scratched his chin and finally looked up to Ueli.
“It seems you find yourself in quite the adventure.”
“Indeed sir, but I would very much like to know how it ends.”
“Me too. That’s why I’ll grant you a few days off. As many as you need in fact. You’ll do today’s shift then put yourself at the service of the Gardelunes for this investigation.”
“Thank you sir.”
“There’s one condition, though.”
“Someone read our register to know that it was Müller and Neudorf who were supposed to be caught in that spell. It means there is a mole in our ranks. Find him.”
“Of course sir,” said Ueli before saluting and leaving the room.
The next morning, Ueli went to the Gardelunes’ headquarters. A servant opened the door and led him to a room in the basement where Kergariou was waiting for him.
The room was a messy magical laboratory, full of rune-covered books and strange objects that sometimes moved of their own accord. What caught Ueli’s attention though was Kergariou himself. He was reading, seating across a big armchair with one leg over an arm and his back arched over the seat to look at the parchment he was holding. He was freshly shaved this time, and his eyes were free of rings. There was something sinfully lascivious in his position and Ueli tried his best not to think too much about it and what it made him want to do.
“Ah there you are!” exclaimed Kergariou, dropping his parchment. “Come in, nothing should explode… in theory at least.”
Ueli entered the room and, as the servant closed the door behind him, wondered how serious Kergariou had been. There was something on a table that looked a lot like an alchemical grenade taken apart. Deciding not to let something over which he had no control whatsoever preoccupy him, Ueli focused on Kergariou, who had got a sort of big copper ring from a shelf.
“Make yourself at ease,” said Kergariou pointing at the armchair he just left. “I’ll just make sure the spell is the one I thought of and, therefore, that you’re safe. Then… well… we’ll have to wait for you to hear those voices again. But I’m sure we can find a way to keep ourselves busy,” Kergariou added with a seductive wink that surprised Ueli.
Ueli sat upright on the armchair and put his hat on his lap. Kergariou smiled and put the copper ring on Ueli’s head. There were two fine cords attached to the ring and on those cords were coloured ribbons, attached at irregular intervals. Kergariou took hold of the cords extremities and took a few steps back, standing in front of Ueli just far enough for the cords to be taut. Then he intoned a spell.
Ueli immediately recognised the language used, which was the same as the one spoken by the voice he sometimes heard. After a few sentences, Ueli felt the same brief pain has a few days before in front of that small lounge. Kergariou kept on intoning and some of the ribbons started to move like pushed by a gentle wind.
Finally, Kergariou fell silent and the ribbons stopped moving. Kergariou went to Ueli and took the ring from his head.
“It’s what I thought after you described it: a simple long-range communication spell. Nothing dangerous. I could lift it right now, but we might need what you hear.”
“You can lift it once we have captured these conspirators.”
Kergariou nodded and, having tossed the ring in the general direction of the shelf it had been on, half-sat on the armrest of Ueli’s armchair.
“So we just have to wait for you to hear those voices again. As it happens, I have a few interesting ideas about what we could do in the meantime…”
The tone of Kergariou’s voice and the way he leaned towards Ueli left little to no doubt about the kind of ideas he had, and while Ueli was more than willing to test these ideas, he was also a bit curious about how Kergariou could know it.
“What makes you think I have any interest in these ideas of yours?” asked Ueli while putting a hand on Kergariou’s hip just to make sure the Gardelune understood that the question didn’t mean that his advances were unwelcome.
Kergariou smiled and explained: “I told you, I saw you in my crystal ball. What I didn’t tell the others was that the vision was deliciously explicit. We were naked and you were above me, just about to possess me…”
Kergariou liked his lips, his eyes half-closed, probably remembering a vision that Ueli could easily picture.
“Of course, the crystal ball is not an exact science, but I…”
“You talk too much,” cut Ueli.
“You’re the one asking questions. But you’re right, there’s a time for everything,” said Kergariou, putting a hand on Ueli’s knee. “There’s just one thing I’ll ask of you before we continue.”
“Call me Gwendal.”
Ueli nodded and Gwendal smiled widely while tossing Ueli’s hat away from his lap. He then pushed Ueli’s knee, inviting him to open his legs. Ueli obliged and Gwendal dropped to his knees, positioning himself between Ueli’s legs. He untied Ueli’s trousers, freeing his already half-erect member. With an appreciative smile, he wrapped a hand around it and started a slow movement.
Ueli let himself be handled for a while, savouring the attention. He observed Gwendal who was focused on his task. The sight was most pleasing, especially for Ueli who had little occasion for these kinds of activities.
Suddenly, and probably unconsciously, Gwendal liked his lips, and Ueli couldn’t help but imagine that mouth on him. Hoping he would understand, he put a hand on Gwendal’s face gently caressing his lips with his thumb.
Gwendal looked up, locking his eyes with Ueli’s, then, with a mischievous smile, snachd Ueli’s thumb and started to conscientiously suck it. He played on the finger with his tongue at the same pace he moved his hand on Ueli’s cock.
Ueli held Gwendal’s passion-shining sight and put his other hand on Gwendal’s shoulder, gently pulling him closer. Gwendal didn’t move and shook his head negatively. He didn’t move either when Ueli took his hand back, getting out of Gwendal’s mouth the thumb he was so dutifully sucking.
Ueli let out a frustrated groan; he wanted more and Gwendal knew it, playing with his nerves. Hearing him groan made Gwendal lift an eyebrow and, his mischievous smile back on his lips, used his other hand to start gently playing with Ueli’s balls.
Ueli closed his eyes and appreciated the caresses. It was good, very good, but just not enough. He didn’t want to insist but he wanted more. Opening his eyes, he looked at Gwendal who had lowered his sight, looking at his work. He had moved a bit closer too, and Ueli could now feel his breath on the head of his cock.
It was both a moan more than a plea, but it was just what Gwendal had been waiting for. With a satisfied smile, Gwendal liked all the length of Ueli’s cock then took it in his mouth entirely.
Ueli griped the armrests to keep himself from putting his hands on Gwendal’s head and impose a rhythm. He had decided he would let himself be handled this time and would do so. It was far easier now anyway, because he simply needed to look down and appreciate the show and the sensations.
Gwendal knew what he was doing. He alternated between licking the length or the head and taking the cock in his mouth sometimes just the tip, sometimes deeply. Ueli was never sure what would come next and he liked being kept on hedge like that.
Gwendal was focused but he finally looked up, searching for Ueli’s gaze. He found it and stopped for a moment, his mouth open, the tip of Ueli’s cock resting on his lower lip. They stared at each other for a few seconds then slowly, deliberately, Gwendal turned his tongue around the tip before closing his mouth around the cock and taking it in as deeply as he could. He went back ever so slowly, never breaking eye-contact, and repeated the movement faster, and faster, and faster… until Ueli felt himself come.
Ueli didn’t need to warn Gwendal, who had already closed his eyes. He swallowed his come and, after a last lick, got up.
“I told you to use my first name.”
Ueli could only smile at Gwendal’s satisfied expression and appreciate the sight. Gwendal’s eyes were shining with lust, his cheeks were red and his lips still parted invitingly… his entire face was a picture of debauchery that contrasted with his still perfectly arranged uniform.
Ueli was about to offer to change that when he heard the voices again.
Ueli had repeated what the voices were saying as well as he could and Gwendal understood that they were speaking in druidic language, something very common amongst magic users. The woman and two men were seemingly plotting against someone but they used code names so it was difficult to be sure who their target was. What was, however, certain was that they were very annoyed by the fact that they couldn’t get what was in the cart.
The cart contained magical material that was destined to the Gardelunes themselves: amulets from the New World and ingredients for potions, mostly. But there was also a closed box that Gwendal, who was responsible for the regiment’s magic equipment, had not ordered. That box was likely what the conspirators were after, but Gwendal had not yet managed to open it.
Floque and Cassagnes had investigated on the men in black who attacked the cart. They were likely mercenaries employed for this mission only, but one of them had a particular tattoo that led the Gardelunes to the Cour des Miracles where a few coins in the right hands let them know that this man lived with his sister.
Said sister was more than happy to tell the tale of how her ungrateful sword for hire of a brother had talked to a rich man who had paid him in advance for a job but had not given a single coin to his poor hard-working sister. Cassagnes, who had his way with the ladies, had gone back to her alone and offered her a pair of new shoes as a thank-you for the information. She had then remembered a lot of details, like that the rich man said one of his men would be part of the team.
It was, however, difficult to go any further with the investigation without any indication about who was concerned and so, while Gwendal tried to open the mysterious box, Ueli was waiting with Floque and Cassagnes. Their presence, while sympathetic, was not quite as appreciable as Gwendal’s. However Ueli was a Swiss Guard, and spending hours waiting was part of his job, so he was not complaining. Cassagnes seemed to accept the wait too, and was reading a book but Floque paced around with less and less patience.
After a moment, he planted himself in front of Ueli.
“How about a duel? And by ‘duel’ I mean some one-on-one training, of course. Nothing deadly… or unlawful.”
Ueli hesitated, since his arm was still recovering from the bullet wound, but a bit of exercise could not hurt, so he finally accepted.
“The rules are simple: everything is permitted. Except guns. Is that suitable for you?”
“Yes, it is.”
Floque smiled and led Ueli to the Gardelunes’ training room in the centre of which he stood, drawing his rapier.
Ueli slowly crossed the room to face him, taking the time to observe the surroundings. The room was spacious, two floors high with big chandeliers to lighten it. There were numerous weapons disposed on racks along the walls and a gallery at which Cassagnes soon appeared.
Once facing Floque, Ueli drew his rapier and his parrying-dagger. Floque saluted and positioned himself. Ueli saluted back and attacked first. He deliberately opened with a predictable move to gauge his opponent. Floque parried without any difficulty and countered with a tactical feint that Ueli parried only at the last second.
The next few exchanges were akin to a warm-up; both testing their opponent and none attacking with their full potential. Ueli could, however, feel that Floque’s technique was better. On top of it, his arm was starting to be painful. It was time to act.
Ueli placed one, two, and even three stronger attacks to let Floque know that serious business had begun. As he had planned, Floque understood and attacked harder too, forcing Ueli to step backwards towards the wall.
Once he was standing two paces from the wall, Ueli lunged, attacking with the tip of his rapier aiming to Floque’s stomach. Floque parried easily, making Ueli’s rapier fly out of his hand.
Floque was surprised for a second. That kind of parry could disarm a novice, sure, but for someone of Ueli’s level losing a weapon like that was odd. Floque did not think too much about it though and, pushing Ueli’s rapier with his foot, pointed his own rapier as an extension of his arm towards Ueli’s throat.
Ueli backed until he was against the wall and, feigning resignation, opened his arms, letting go of his parrying-dagger. As he thought, Floque’s sight set on the falling dagger and he didn’t notice Ueli’s right hand closing around the shaft of one of the halberds on the rack right next to him.
Without losing a second, Ueli used the halberd’s shaft to hit Floque in the stomach. Surprised, Floque folded himself in two and Ueli seized the occasion. He made his new weapon turn and hooked it in the hilt of Floque’s rapier, forcing him to let go. Sending the rapier flying away, Ueli continued his turning motion as he approached Floque and he finished by hitting the back of his calf with the halberd’s shaft, forcing him to put a knee on the ground.
Floque lifted his hands with fair play.
Ueli backed away and let him get up.
“You purposefully lost your sword.”
“Indeed. The rapier had never been my favourite weapon and you did mention that everything was permitted, so…”
“That’s true,” admitted Floque while picking his rapier up. “Will you allow me a revenge?”
Floque smiled and went back to the centre of the room. Ueli took a moment to collect his rapier and dagger and put them on the side where they wouldn’t step on them. He had no intention of using them this time.
They saluted and Ueli immediately attacked, using the extra reach provided by his halberd. Floque dodged and came closer to counterattack.
They exchanged a few blows like that but the both knew that the halberd was more useful against a crowd or a cavalry assault than in a duel and that Ueli would tire first, especially with his wounded arm. Floque simply had to wait.
Ueli was, of course, not about to surrender that easily, and so he attacked with all his strength, hoping that Floque would make a mistake. After three difficult parries, Floque attacked with a slicing motion that Ueli barely blocked. In fact, Floque’s rapier left a cut in the shaft of Ueli’s halberd.
Floque smiled and attacked again, but this time, when Ueli tried to block, the rapier blazed up and went through the shaft as if it had been made of butter, turning it in two pieces with a burnt end.
Ueli backed, shocked as Floque made a few casual swirls with his flaming weapon and smiled somewhat mockingly.
“Everything is permitted. Even magic.”
Ueli hesitated to attack again, but he was weaponless and tired, and his arm was becoming really painful. And he knew that he was not at his best in a fight when he was angry. So he threw away the useless pieces of the halberd and surrendered.
Someone applauded from the gallery and, looking up, Ueli saw that Cassagnes was not their only spectator any more. Gwendal was there, and a third man that Ueli first mistook for Tréville, the captain of the King’s Musketeers. The resemblance was uncanny, except that this man was wearing a Gardelune’s uniform and was disfigured by a large burn on all the left side of his face.
“Nice exchange,” commented Tréville’s almost-doppelgänger. “But we have more urgent matter at hand. Come to my office. All four of you.”
He left and Cassagnes followed him immediately but Gwendal preferred to jump over the gallery’s balustrade to join Ueli and Floque in the room. He floated down slowly and landed as easily as if he had been descending steps.
“It’s magic,” explained Floque quite uselessly as he exited the room.
“Wonderful,” said Gwendal as he came to Ueli. “Not only did you push Arsène to use his secret weapon in less than five minutes, but you beat him first. It was really impressive! I’ve rarely seen such a mastery of the halberd.”
“I’m a Swiss Guard.”
“Yes, of course. But still, you’re both agreeable to look at and good with a shaft… Anyway I could probably make you a personalised weapon once we’re done with this affair. I’ll have to take your technique into account but I think a thunder spell that activates on the same principle as Arsène’s flames could be interesting. What do you think?”
Ueli needed a moment to analyse that offer. Magic seemed to be a normal thing for the Gardelunes, but for the rest of the population it was only entertainment for the wealthy. Ueli was slowly realising that it was more and more a part of his life now and that blazing swords or halberds that shot lightning were possible things. He doubted that Lieutenant Stämpfli would let him use a non-regulation weapon for his guarding duty, so he decided to change the subject.
“I think we’re awaited,” said Ueli while leaving the room
“You’re right,” admitted Kergariou who followed him. “The captain doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“So he’s your captain?”
“It’s Captain de Tréville, yes.”
Ueli stopped to look at Gwendal, but the Gardelune seemed serious. It was however impossible. Ueli had seen Tréville at le Louvre two days ago, and he was not disfigured. Plus Tréville was already the captain of the King’s Musketeers and Ueli doubted that he could administer both regiments at once.
His stupefaction was likely easily read on his face, because as they resumed walking, Gwendal explained:
“I know it’s surprising. But one gets used to it. It’s simple really: Jean-Armand de Tréville, the captain of the King’s Musketeers has a twin brother, Octave. Not many people know it because it was practical for the Musketeers’ captain to be at two places at the same time and the King found it amusing to be one of the rare few who knew. However, six years ago, an alchemical bomb exploded in le Louvre, disfiguring Octave… You can probably piece the rest of the story together.”
Ueli nodded. He was not in Paris when that bomb exploded but he had heard of it. It was an attempted assault on the King. There were two deaths, a lot of wounded and the Queen had a miscarriage. To make sure it would never happen again, the King founded the Gardelunes. And Ueli now understood that he charged Octave de Tréville with their captaincy.
The quickly arrived to Trévile’s office and saw that he had the mysterious box that they had found in the cart.
“Kergariou managed to open the box,” explain Tréville.
“And so? What’s inside?” asked Floque.
“It’s a crown of Manea,” said Gwendal. “It’s a magical object that drives someone crazy. It’s long and complex to create, but we can simplify and say that if you take any sort of hat and do a lot of specific rituals to it you then have a headgear that, worn an hour, drives you ineluctably crazy. And if worn longer, it ends up killing. And this one is a perfect replica that they would just have needed to exchange with the original…”
“So their goal is not to kill the King but to discredit him,” said Ueli.
“Or both,” added Cassagnes.
“Except they’re not targeting the King.”
Gwendal was the only one who didn’t look at him in surprise, so Tréville opened the box and showed them what was inside. It was indeed not a crown, but a red calotte: a perfect replica of the one worn daily by the most powerful man of France.
As the only, and very thin, clue they had was that the Marquis de la Valette might be involved, they decided to pay him a visit. However, to avoid suspicion they dressed as Cardinal Guards and would say they needed a magical expert’s help to open a mysterious box that they requisitioned after an illegal fight over a stolen cart. Of course it was not a very good excuse, since the Cardinal had his own experts in magic, but at least they would speak with la Valette and Ueli would be able to tell if he was one of the men he heard.
When they arrived at la Valette’s place, they were greeted coldly by his personal guard who let them pass the portal only with extreme reluctance. They had crossed half the court when three riders left the main building, coming towards them. The middle rider was la Valette.
“Stop, in the Cardinal’s name!” said Floque, standing in la Valette’s way.
La Valette made his horse turn around him without slowing down.
“If his Eminence wants to see me, he can ask for an audience himself.”
With that, la Valette and his two followers left, ignoring the fours false Cardinal’s Guards.
But they didn’t try to follow them; the three Gardelunes had turned to Ueli, who had nodded. The Marquis de la Valette was one of the voices he heard, there was no possible doubt about that.
One of la Valette’s guards from the portal came to them, likely to tell them to leave, but he was beaten to it by a valet who crossed the court at a half-jog.
“Would you please follow me.” It was not a question, and he walked immediately back to the main house.
Floque shrugged and started following him, as did Cassagnes and Gwendal. Ueli followed too, a few steps behind. He had taken the time to look around and saw that a woman in a blue dress was looking at them from a window on the first floor.
The valet let them inside, to a small lounge where the woman in blue soon joined them. She was no other than the Marquise Inès de la Valette.
“I hope you’ll forgive my husband’s lack of manners. He never really appreciated the work done by law enforcement. Anyway… Maybe could you tell me what brings you here?”
Being only a guest on this mission, Ueli decided to let the Gardelunes do the talking. It was Cassagnes who answered:
“My Lady Marquise,” he started with a bow. “We had to talk to your husband about magical happenings that we can’t really disclose to you. The point is that we require an expert’s eye.”
“Doesn’t the Cardinal have his own experts?”
“Indeed he does, but a second look is required in this precise case. And let me tell you that your husband is far more welcoming than would have been, say, the Gardelunes.”
Ueli had to suppress a sigh at the mention of this well-known rivalry between regiments. The Cardinal’s Guard and the King’s Musketeers seemed to think it was normal to waste their time quarrelling with each other at any given occasion. And since the Gardelunes had all been Musketeers before, they too happily pick on the Cardinal’s Guards. This attitude seemed quite childish to Ueli and him and the other Swiss Guards stayed neutral about it.
As for the Marquise, she seemed to understand the argument, though she had a disapproving frown.
“Even so, I can only advise you to look for help somewhere else. My husband’s less than friendly feelings towards his Eminence might make him lie to you.”
“Do you have any recommendations then?”
“What I can recommend is to avoid my husband’s disciples like the plague. Especially his parvenu of a favourite, Montoire.”
The Marquise posed, fanning herself to regain her composure, as if the mere name of her husband’s favourite was enough to make her lose all calm. She then continued:
“If you really are after a neutral magical advice, I would say your best option is to leave Paris and ask your questions to a religious person. I know that, for example, there are at least two mages who decided to spend their retirement in the orders at the abbey of Saint-Père-En-Vallée, in Chartres.”
The advice was sound and, having no more reason to stay, the four fake Cardinal Guards left.
Once back to the headquarters and out of their borrowed uniforms, the four of them met in the Gardelunes’ mess hall, empty at this hour. They asked the servant for a snack and, as they ate it, took stock of the situation.
“So, Marquis de la Valette is likely one of our conspirators,” resumed Floque.
“There’s no doubt about this,” said Ueli, who was sure he had recognised the voice.
“Good,” continued Floque. “So we need to check if this Montoire is part of it or if the Marquise is simply jealous.”
“Faustine d’Orbigny de Montoire, youngest daughter of the knight of Montoire and the Viscountess d’Orbigny, is, according to all rumours on the subject, the mistress of the Marquis de la Valette,” pointed Cassagnes.
“So the Marquise is jealous,” decided Floque.
“Which does not mean that Mademoiselle de Montoire is not in the conspiracy,” said Cassagnes.
“Nor that she is part of it,” insisted Floque.
Gwendal was the one who stopped the argument with a fatalistic: “This doesn’t help us very much though.”
Everybody agreed to that and they remained silent, thinking about how to continue their investigation.
For Ueli, the only two possible solutions were, for one to try and talk with Mademoiselle de Montoire to see if she was the woman whose voice he heard and, for the others to follow the Manea’s crown lead. The problem with speaking to Montoire was that it would not get them any more proof than what they had as of now; only Ueli’s word would then oppose the conspirators’ undoubtedly solid alibi. It was therefore unlikely to be the best lead. Remained the crown…
“What about this Manea’s Crown thing? Couldn’t we try to know who made it, and, if need be, ask them who they were working for?”
Cassagnes looked at Ueli with the half-appreciative half-annoyed expression of the man who would have wanted to have that idea sooner, but Floque immediately rejected the idea.
“It would take months.”
“Not necessarily,” said Gwendal. “I should at least be able to determine where and when it was made… By whom might be a bit trickier but most mages are not very humble, so with any luck they might have signed their work in a way they think to be subtle. Yeah, I think I’ll look into it right now!”
As Gwendal analysed the crown of Manea, Ueli, Floque and Cassagnes went to the Louvre. Dressed as gentlemen, they walked aimlessly in the gardens, until they saw Mademoiselle de Montoire. They then approached her as close as necessary to hear her talk with one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting. Ueli had no difficulties recognising her voice as the only female one he had heard in his head.
However, to avoid suspicion, they decided not to approach her and kept walking in the gardens, hoping one of the noble they passed by would happen to be the last conspirator. They sadly didn’t hear him.
The next day, during the afternoon, Ueli was playing cards with Floque and Cassagnes when Gwendal emerged from his lab.
“I found him!” he exclaimed with a triumphant smile on his face.
This smile was the only pleasant-looking thing about him; scruffy hair, unshaven face, dark-ringed eyes and clothes in disarray… everything seemed to indicate that Gwendal had not slept since he went to his lab more in the middle of the morning of the previous day.
“He’s in le Mans. What are we waiting for?”
Despite Gwendal’s enthusiasm, they listened to Ueli when he pointed that the maker of the crown would not expect them, and so they prepared their trip and only left the following morning.
They left Paris and rode across the campaign, stopping in way stations for the nights. They didn’t push their mounts too much and arrived in le Mans little after midday on their third day of travel.
They started their search around Saint-Julien’s cathedral, because Gwendal had been able to determine that the crown had been made by a man in his fifties, whose initials were L.R. and who lived close to a Christian place of celebration. They had so decided to start looking around the cathedral, and if they found nothing they would move to the district of Saint-Pierre de la Couture’s Abbey.
They didn’t need to go to the Abbey, since there was a shop of magic artefacts and potions on the place in front of the cathedral. This shop’s sign read, “Richard Langlois, Great Master of Magics”.
They entered in the shop, which looked like a neatly arranged and ordered version of Gwendal’s lab, and were quickly greeted by a man who could easily be in his fifties.
“Good day, gentlemen!” said the man with a wide smile. “I am Richard Langlois, at your disposal.”
His smile quickly faded when he saw the Gardelunes’ uniforms.
“The Manea’s crown?” he guessed.
“Indeed,” said Floque.
“I knew it couldn’t work,” said Langlois with resignation.
“Could you elaborate?”
“This woman came in a few months ago with a special order, a lot of money and some specific threats. I had no choice.”
“You could have denounced her,” pointed Cassagnes.
“I don’t even know her name!”
“But you could identify her, given the occasion?” asked Ueli.
“I… I imagine I could. But…”
“There’s no ‘but'” cut Floque. “There’s four of us; you’re alone. You will nicely come with us to Paris.”
“To Paris?! But I…”
Floque raised an eyebrow as he put his hand on his rapier’s pommel. However, his intimidating manoeuvre did not have the expected effect since Langlois had a sudden access of pride.
“I’m a Master of Magic,” he said, puffing his chest. “I could get rid of you in a second.”
“No, you couldn’t,” said Gwendal, who had been silent so far, simply looking at Langlois’ shop. “I do some magic myself and I have seen your crown of Manea. You’re a poor magician, Mister Langlois. Oh, of course, you made a perfect crown but that’s easy. Anyone with basic knowledge of the arcanes could follow Circe’s recipe to a T like you did. And what I see around us only reinforces this idea. You have no idea how magic works. You just apply others’ methods without understanding the core rules. And you lack imagination! There’s no way to call yourself a master, let alone a great one.”
“How do you dare!” Langlois lost his temper. “Insolent brat! You’ll regret this!”
Langlois then took a vial from his belt and broke it on the counter while starting to chant in a variation on Latin. A greenish liquid spread from the vial and soon turned into a smoke that got denser and denser with each of Langlois’ worlds.
Floque started to draw his rapier, but Gwendal put a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll handle it,” he said calmly.
Meanwhile, the green smoke was now solid and taking the form of an enormous snake. It looked impressive, but Gwendal didn’t seem to mind. He raised a hand and spoke in a language both guttural and melodious that was not the same as Langlois’, and not the one used by the voices Ueli could hear. Whatever the language was, it was effective, because the snake changed target and wrapped itself around Langlois, tightening its smoke rings around him.
Langlois panicked and tried to escape. He was getting redder and redder in the face but no closer to any result when Gwendal took pity on him and, with a last word and a snap of his fingers, made the snake disappear.
“As I was saying, you’re no match for me,” said Gwendal.
Langlois looked at him with a barely contained hatred, but he didn’t try to escape any more.
They decided that Floque and Cassagnes would escort Langlois to his home so he could pack up. Ueli didn’t understand why at first, since it seemed Gwendal was the most qualified to stop Langlois if he was recalcitrant once again. But as soon as the three men were out of the room, Gwendal let himself fall to the ground, barely sitting against the counter.
“Gwendal!?” exclaimed Ueli, kneeling beside him. “Are you okay?!”
“It’s nothing. Just the magical fall-out. Casting a spell is far more tiresome than it seems. I would have been less affected if I’d simply broken his spell, but it was better to show him immediately that he could not compete.”
It’s only then that Ueli realised that Floque and Cassagnes must have known Gwendal’s limits and knowingly led Langlois away so that he wouldn’t realise the extent of Gwendal’s tiredness.
“I’m used to being tired, you know,” said Gwendal.
And, while he indeed seemed less tired than the first time they had met. Ueli wasn’t really sure any of it was a good thing.
Probably reading the concern on Ueli’s face, Gwendal took his hand and held it gently.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” he insisted bravely.
“You can’t stop me from doing it,” answered Ueli squeezing Gwendal’s hand back.
Gwendal’s smile when he heard that was so sweet that Ueli couldn’t help himself and kissed him on the spot.
Once back in Paris, Captain Octave de Tréville arranged a meeting for them with cardinal de Richelieu, to whom they explained everything, presenting Langlois as a witness and the crown of Manea as proof. Three days later, the Marquis de la Valette and Mademoiselle de Montoire were arrested and, hoping it would lower their sentence, they gave up the third conspirator: the Abbot Constant de Nazaire, who was hoping to be the next Cardinal. They also denounced the Swiss Guard who had accepted their money in exchange for the names of the guards on duty when they made their distance-talking ritual and said Guard was imprisoned. It would, of course, not bring Thomas and Andreas back, but a least justice had been rendered.
Once the conspiracy was uncovered, they freed Ueli from the spell that linked him to the culprits and he went back to his regiment with the sad certainty that he would never see Gwendal again.
Two weeks after this whole affair, Ueli was on guard duty in the Louvre’s gardens when lieutenant Stämpfli and his comrade Hans came to him.
“Fleckenstern, you’re coming with me. Solenthaler will take your post.”
Surprised, Ueli obeyed. He cast a look at Hans, but he seemed to know as little as him.
Ueli followed Stämpfli through the Louvre to a door in front of with the Lieutenant stopped.
“He wants to see you alone,” said Stämpfli, gesturing for Ueli to enter.
Still not knowing what to expect, Ueli did as he was told and, as the door closed behind him, saw that a man was indeed waiting for him. That man was no other than cardinal de Richelieu.
“Fleckenstern, right?” asked the Cardinal.
“Yes, your Eminence.”
“I wanted to thank you.”
“I was just doing my duty.”
“Nonsense. Your duty would have been to inform your commanding officer. And he would have made sure you stopped hearing those voices, which would have been his simple duty too. Nobody would have been to blame and yet…” The Cardinal breathed in deeply. “You did more than your duty; you were curious. It’s not the best quality for a Swiss Guard, though.”
Ueli stayed silent, not sure what to answer to that.
“Where are you from, Fleckenstern?” asked the Cardinal, suddenly changing subject.
“Wulfstein valley, your Eminence.”
“You’re not noble, are you?”
“No, your Eminence. But my ancestors were, before the Swabian war.”
“I see,” said the Cardinal, nodding. “And what do you have to say about the rivalry between my men and the Musketeers?”
The question took once again Ueli by surprise, but the answer was easy: “I think it’s puerile. The two regiments both serve France and their specificities make them complementary.”
The Cardinal smiled.
“I was told you were a good soldier; I see it was no lie. It is indeed France we all serve. And it’s for her sake that I’ll make you an offer that is against all protocols… What would you say to becoming a Gardelune?”
Ueli looked up from the pack he was finishing unfolding when he heard the door of his new room opening.
“All set in?” asked Gwendal.
Ueli nodded and went back to storing his things while Gwendal let himself in and crossed the small room to come and sit on the bed.
“I wanted to introduce you to the others but they’re all on missions. A team is escorting the Swedish ambassador and the other is stuck in the Other-Word, fighting demons…”
Ueli let out a surprised exclamation upon hearing that, but Gwendal misunderstood his stupefaction.
“Yeah, I know, we’re not that much. But the Captain has gone to see his brother and he seems to have three or four potential recruits for us. Excellent men, for what I’ve heard.”
Ueli nodded and decided he could always inform himself about the Other-World and the demons later. Right now, Gwendal was far more interesting than any discussion. He was half-lying on Ueli’s bed, his unlaced shirt an invitation to debauchery.
Gwendal didn’t seem to realise that, though, because he kept talking: “So the captain is with his brother. It leaves Arsène, who went to visit his sister, and Donatien who is reciting poetry to his fiancée. And it’s not even a euphemism; they really make poetry-remembering contests. And Donatien loses on purpose.”
Ueli shook his head in amusement and came to sit next to Gwendal. He put one of his hands on the Gardelune’s tight and he looked up to him, his hazel eyes shining with happiness.
“Do I talk too much?”
“Yes, you do.”
“Then make me shut up…”
And Ueli did just that.