When all this is over I’m still going to be waking up every Wednesday morning thinking about fleur-de-lis jpgs and last minute proofing. And hats, obviously.
The Ditmar ballot came out over the weekend – I’m delighted to be nominated across several categories for “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” Galactic Suburbia, the Snapshot etc. As always, I’m a little relieved I won’t be able to attend the awards ceremony where I’m sharing a ballot with Cat Sparks (Best Short Story), because I’m pretty sure she means it when she yells SCRAG FIGHT, and as I learned at the Zombie Apocalypse party I attended last Friday night, I’m not much of a survivor.
Those of you going to Swancon this year, have an awesome time. I’ll be up to my kneecaps in chocolate-stained children and the gruesome remains of edible Easter bunnies, so spare a thought for me.
This chapter’s only slightly NSFW for language/content. Your mileage may vary.
PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE: While waiting for orders to ship out to war halfway across the solar system, Dana D’Artagnan has discovered a terrifying fact about Milord De Winter. She totally should have listened when Athos said: “Don’t sleep with a man just because you think he might have kidnapped your boyfriend.”
NOW READ ON.
For a moment they grappled together, Milord’s body pressing Dana down, his hands pinning her shoulders to the floor of his fancy spaceship parlour.
Who even has a parlour in a spaceship? She should have known he was an enemy alien, just from that.
Dana lay very still, waiting for him to make the first move. Athos had taught her that. If she took nothing else from her fencing lessons, it was that patience paid off.
Do you think I won’t kill you to protect my secret?
For one long moment they lay there together, each waiting for the other to break. Dana breathed, regaining her centre, and Milord took control of himself again. His skin paled to its usual pinkish white, and the bright constellation of stars faded back into darkness. His hair lengthened and poured forward over his face, metallic silver.
She had once mockingly thought of it as his secret agent hair, but there was nothing funny about this. With Vaniel De Winter there had always been a promise of danger under his affable, friendly surface. But he was pure Milord now, sharp as a knife.
Dana breathed, and waited for him to shift his weight.
“It would be in your interest,” he said in a low, threatening voice. “To come quietly, sweetness.”
He had never used pet names in bed, but was willing to pull them out when trying to kill her? Oh, that wasn’t creepy at all.
“And what?” Dana said, borrowing the bored, ‘you can’t touch me’ tone that all three of her Musketeer friends employed shortly before leaping into bar fights. “Surrender like a good prisoner? You really don’t know me at all.”
“I’m starting to,” said Milord. He pushed up from her, his hands hard on her shoulders, as if his strength was enough to keep her down.
Yes, he was strong. But Dana was pissed off, and that counted for something. She dropped one hip, knocking his balance off by a fraction, and then head-butted him in the face.
Milord’s skin did not change this time, but he fell back just enough that Dana was able to slam an elbow into his neck and slide out from under him.
Clothes, she had to grab her clothes and her weapons and get the hell out of here, because running naked out of a spaceship dock was completely not on her list of things to do today. As she put some space between them, she saw his feet, his bare feet, and a dizzying memory swept over her, and oh fuck, how had she not put it together before now?
Milord lunged for her and Dana picked up the pace, rocketing across the room away from him.
A weight slammed into her bare back; and he grappled her around the ribs. She dug a punch into his side and swung her shoulder into his entire arm, hard enough to break a bone though she did not hear a reassuring crack.
Did aliens even have skeletons?
Milord could not get purchase on her hair, his nails sharp against her scalp, but he threw all his weight on her and Dana went down beneath his body, the air bursting from her lungs as she hit the floor again.
His arm wrapped around her throat, hard enough that stars sparked behind her eyes.
They were on top of her clothes, and that meant her weapons were right there. Dana slid her hand beneath her own stomach, hoping that the hard lump she could feel under her hip was the Pilot’s Slice and not a random candlestick or whatever other ridiculous rich people accessories Milord kept in this parlour.
No, Dana realised as painful black circles spun in her vision, and her whole body battled to breathe. Not the Pilot’s Slice at all. Her fingers had closed around the handle of the pearl stunner.
She brought it up wildly, hoping not to catch the rebound as she sent a burst of bright white energy directly into her attacker’s face.
Milord collapsed on top of her, a dead weight hitting her shoulders and spine. As she sucked in air with relief, Dana angled herself to shove him off her, not caring that his head hit the floor with a hollow sound.
It wasn’t like he was human.
She pulled on her underwear slowly, not daring to take her eyes off the unconscious alien. He hadn’t reverted to his Sun-kissed form in unconsciousness – of course not, that would have been a giveaway every time he fell asleep. He had only lost control of his his disguise image when he was hurt or really lost his temper.
His silver hair fell in soft tangles around the back of his neck. Dana knew that neck, but not from any of her own interactions with Milord. She had to summon up quite a bit of courage to examine his feet again, to confirm that fleeting impression she had gained during the fight.
Milord’s hair, his bare feet, the back of his neck – she had seen him in a dream, long before the train on Valour. She hadn’t been looking for the similarities before, had known him so thoroughly as ‘Vaniel’ that she had missed a glaring, obvious fact.
Dana could not deny it any more. Milord Vaniel De Winter was not a Sun-kissed spy like Athos’ pretty husband. It was the same man. It had to be. The ghost who drove her friend to drink and occasional misery, the sleeping lover he kept locked tight inside his guilty conscience. The traitor who had married the Count de la Fere.
And Dana was still sticky from having sex with him.
“Shit,” she said aloud, because really, what else was there to say?
She had to get off this ship. She had to get less naked, and she had to get off the Matagot, and she had to get well clear of the ship so this traitorous Sun-kissed spy didn’t murder her to protect his secret.
Basically there were lots of steps to go through before Dana had to start panicking about how to break it to Athos that she had fucked his dead husband.
Milord lay crumpled over Dana’s clothes. She shifted him with her foot, reaching down to grab the Pilot’s Slice. It felt better, to have that in one hand and the pearl stunner in the other, even if she was still only wearing a pair of black knickers.
She reached for her cargo pants next, but as she leaned over his body, Milord’s eyes snapped open.
Alien biology, Dana realised. The pearl stunner must not work on him for long. But by the time that thought had sunk in, she was already running, crashing out of his bedroom and along the corridor.
This damned ship was so big, and she didn’t dare take the most direct route to the hatchway, not if he was coming after her. Once she was two twists of the corridor away from his room, she leapt up the walls and levered open an air duct panel, slipping up and into the narrow space in the ceiling. She pulled the panel closed behind her, as Athos had taught her to do, then slithered quietly along the crawl space.
She heard shouting, and at one point lay still and terrified as Milord thundered along the corridor, calling for the Red Guards stationed outside the ship. She heard words like ‘treason’ and ‘assault’ and was glad she hadn’t tried to brazen it out by the main hatch.
No, she would be better off dropping out via one of the storage hatches underneath the ship, once the fuss had died down and they thought she was gone. But she would be even better off if she was wearing clothes.
After a couple of false starts in the wrong direction, Dana finally got her bearings enough to slither into the air duct directly above Kitty’s office. There was no sign that Milord was nearby – and given how furious he was, she was pretty sure she would know about it.
Kitty, wearing a purple lace coverall with spiky silver earrings, sat at her desk, apparently absorbed in some kind of social media site rating celebrity hair styles. The Marquise de Wardes, Dana could not help noting, was top of the poll.
She whistled between her teeth and then, when Kitty did not look up, rapped lightly on the inside of the grate.
Kitty frowned, and tipped her head up.
Dana loosened the panel and smiled hopefully down at Milord’s assistant. “Hi.”
“I seriously don’t want to know,” Kitty said in a scandalised whisper. “I am so not helping you escape, he’s spitting spark plugs. I did not see you.”
“Um,” said Dana. “I’ve figured out an escape route, but I need -”
“WHAT?” Kitty demanded.
There was a long pause, during which the bubbly assistant rolled her eyes hard enough to make Dana wince with embarrassment. “Really?”
“I’ll take anything,” Dana begged.
Kitty smirked, and stood up, then walked to the cupboard on the other side of the office. “You’re lucky. I keep a spare outfit for nightclubbing emergencies.”
“Um,” said Dana, wondering if she wouldn’t after all be better off escaping through Paris in a pair of black knickers and nothing else.
“Don’t worry,” said Kitty, opening the door to reveal a sparkly mini-dress covered in a print of happy baby dragons in astronaut costumes. “I have the matching shoes, too.”
The Buttercup was docked only two floors from the Matagot, and Dana hid out there for an hour or two until her breathing had calmed down. She couldn’t get the printer to produce more than basic supplies, though – no replacement for the ridiculous baby dragon dress, no shoes, not even decent coffee – and that was the first thing she was going to get Planchet to fix up for her before she went to war.
It felt somewhat surreal to be thinking about going to war while wearing a sparkly space dragon frock.
The sensible, cowardly option would have been to call Planchet to bring her a flight suit and a pair of boots from her place, but Dana didn’t even think of that until she was halfway across Paris Satellite. To be safe, she crossed through the public areas only, which meant a whole bunch of people got a good look at her in the sparkly dress, walking barefoot through the piazzas and boulevards of the city.
Talk about a walk of shame.
It was faster to reach Aramis’ apartment than any of the other Musketeer digs in the city, including Dana’s own lodgings. She told herself firmly that she was making this decision out of pure practicality – it had nothing to do with the fact that she was not ready to look Athos in the eye, or that she would literally rather die than have Madame Su catch sight of her in this get-up.
Aramis opened the door to her, and the expression on her face as she took in the sight of Dana and the sparkly space dragons was about what Dana had dreaded.
“So,” said Aramis after a moment to collect herself. “There’s a story behind this?”
“I need to borrow your sonic shower and a change of clothes and please don’t ask,” Dana rattled out as she pushed her way into the safe privacy of Aramis’ living room – only not so safe or private, because there was Porthos on the couch, and Athos printing coffee at the kitchen bar, and no, Dana was completely and utterly not ready to look him in the eye. She made an embarrassed squeaking sound and all but dove for Aramis’ bedroom.
“Borrow whatever you like,” a bewildered Aramis called after her.
Dana found a spare black flight suit and threw it on the bed to change into after her shower, then stepped into the tiny cubicle and turned on the sonic spray. She couldn’t have her meltdown just yet, couldn’t even think about all the ramifications of what she had learned when Milord turned on her.
About what he was, and who he once had been.
She wanted to throw up and die, possibly not in that order.
When she stepped out of the shower, wrapped in one of Aramis’ ridiculously fluffy towels, she found Athos waiting for her. He sat on the bed, leaning casually against the headboard.
Athos turned politely away, his back to her so she could get dressed without being observed. “I have been nominated,” he said in a resigned kind of voice.
Dana dressed quickly, relief washing over her as she disappeared into the soft, protective black folds of the flight suit. She felt like herself again, even if she had to roll up the sleeves and ankle cuffs because Aramis was so much taller than she was. “I can’t talk to you about this, Athos.”
“Believe me, I don’t want you to. I can get Porthos -”
“No,” Dana blurted out in horror. “I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m not ready even to think about it in my own brain, let alone inflict it on the rest of you.”
Athos glanced over his shoulder at her, then settled back against the headboard once he saw she was respectably dressed. “We’re worried about you, D’Artagnan. All this running around, playing at spy – you’re out of your depth.”
It was so true that it was hilarious, and Dana found herself laughing hysterically, her hands pressed to her mouth. She was so close to crying, she could feel the sobs surging up inside her.
Athos stared at her in horror. “I’m calling the others in -”
“No,” she said, hands still pressed to her mouth as she calmed herself down. “Give me a minute. It has to be you.” When she felt she could finally breathe without breaking down, she climbed on to the bed, sitting beside him with her head tilted back against the headboard. She had to tell him now, or it would eat away at her until there was nothing left of their friendship. But no one said she had to look at him while talking.
Dana had reclaimed the sapphire from her hiding place on the Buttercup between the Matagot and here, and now held her wrist out to Athos. When he did not react, Dana peeled the antique stud off her wrist and placed it on his, beside the vein. “It’s yours,” she told him.
“I know that,” he said, unflappable as always. “I recognised it. But that was in another life – it’s probably passed through a dozen pawn shops since then.”
“No, I need to you to take it now. It’s yours.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Of course he didn’t. Dana tried to make the words come, but they stuck in her throat. What if she was wrong? She could break him into pieces for nothing. “Have you ever seen a picture of Milord Vaniel de Winter?” she tried.
“Your pretty kidnapper? I don’t think so. I don’t pay much attention to politics, especially their politics. I left Valour behind for a reason, and I don’t exactly wallow in nostalgia for it these days.”
Dana grabbed a tablet from Aramis’ side table and ran an image search. Milord had covered his tracks well – there were hardly any pictures of him in the network, no official portraits attached to the Valour government website, or anything like that. But his ‘Vaniel De Winter’ name brought up a few shadowed candid shots from social occasions at the Palace, or the De Winter estate on Valour. There was a portrait of his wedding. He looked younger, his soft brown hair worn long down one side of his neck, in an aristocratic braid.
There were no images of him with his silver secret agent hair, but it would do. She pushed the tablet at Athos. “He’s a shapechanger,” she said flatly. “A Sun-kissed. And I think – I recognise him from the visions we shared back on the Parry Riposte. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe – I don’t know. Is it a ridiculous idea? I really want to be wrong.”
Athos sucked in a slow breath, looking at the images. There was a long and terrible silence as he scrolled through them.
“You’re not wrong, D’Artagnan,” he said, finally. “There are – subtle differences about the face. But – ” He stopped and fell silent. “He looks like the man I married,” he said finally, as if he could barely get the words out.
Not husband, Dana noticed. The man I married.
“Maybe they all look like that,” she said in a small voice. “I mean, they’re shape-changers. It could be someone else using his face, or maybe they all use the same mould, or -” Was that worse? Maybe it was worse. She should shut up now.
“But he had the sapphire,” said Athos, tilting his wrist to look at it.
“Yes,” said Dana.
“He’s alive,” he breathed, in something like wonder.
“Alive and dangerous,” she said, not wanting Athos to forget that part.
“Yes, of course. Alive and dangerous.”
Dana turned away, not wanting to see Athos looking at pictures of his dead husband like a miracle had happened. “He’s going to try to kill me. He can’t afford to have me tell anyone who and what he is.”
Athos moved behind her, laying the tablet aside on the bed. He pressed his hand firmly against the back of Dana’s neck for a moment, a reassuring touch. “D’Artagnan, I will not let that happen.”
There was a knock on the door, and Aramis opened it. “We’ve had our orders,” she said cheerfully. “Day after tomorrow, we ship out to La Rochelle.”
Dana looked down at her wrist, where a message light was blinking on her comm stud. She passed her thumb over it briefly, and read the contents. “All of us, it seems.”
Athos nodded, checking his own message to confirm it. “Well, that’s good news. You only have two days to avoid the alien secret agent who is trying to kill you, and then we get to go into battle against his people.”
Aramis blinked. “We are totally getting drunk later so I can get that story out of you both.”
“Later,” Athos promised, sounding oddly chipper. “First, I have to pawn a sapphire. I think this particular stud will bring in enough to cover the restoration bills for both of our darts, D’Artagnan. Nice to start a war without too much debt to hold us back.”
“It’s yours,” Dana said, a little shocked. “I mean, if you need the money – that’s fine, pawn it, sell it, whatever, but you said it belonged to your family. Don’t you want to keep it?”
“Believe me,” said Athos, tapping idly at his wrist. “I’m not currently in a mood to be sentimental about my family.”
“I won’t take your money,” she said stubbornly. She was feeling guilty enough about this Milord business without profiting from it.
Athos arched an eyebrow at her. “I could throw the dratted stud in one of the ornamental fishponds on Lunar Palais, see if we can bag ourselves a trout instead…”
Dana glared at him and he stared back, unmoving, not quite smiling.
“Fine,” she muttered, looking away first.
He clapped her around the shoulders. “Good choice.”
“Dana,” called Porthos from the other room. “You have a visitor.”
Dana and Athos both tensed in the same moment. She had not yet put on her belt or her Pilot’s Slice, but was gratified that Athos’ hand went straight to his.
“Who is it?” Athos asked, guarded. He stepped through the door ahead of Dana, and on any other day, that protective instinct would have annoyed the hell out of her.
Porthos glanced up. “Not here,” she said. “Planchet just called me, because you haven’t been answering your comms lately? Some girl has turned up at Madame Su’s, asking for you.”
Aramis raised her eyebrows. “Is this business or pleasure, Dana?”
“Apparently she’s very sparkly,” Porthos added.
Dana sighed heavily. “Kitty.”
What on earth did Milord’s assistant want with her now?
“Could be a trap,” Athos mused.
“Excellent,” said Porthos. “We haven’t walked into a trap for ages. It’s important to keep in practice, you know.”
You have been reading Musketeer Space, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Tune in next week for another chapter! Please comment, share and link. Musketeer Space is free to read, but if you’d like to support the project for as little as $1 per month, please visit my Patreon page. Pledges can earn rewards such as ebooks, extra content, dedications and the naming of spaceships. Milestones already unlocked include the Musketeer Media Monday posts, the Robotech Rewatch posts, and “Seven Days of Joyeux,” a special Christmas prequel novella which was released in December 2015. My next funding milestone will unlock GORGEOUS COVER ART.