Imagine everything going all wibbly wobbly flashbacky. Yes, just like in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol.
Start reading from Part 1
Missed the last installment? Track back to Part 13.
Main Page & Table of Contents
PREVIOUSLY IN MUSKETEER SPACE: Dana D’Artagnan has accidentally stumbled across a conspiracy involving Alek the Prince Consort, his tailor Conrad Su, the Duchess of Buckingham, and the mysterious former PR minister, Chevreuse. But she only got half of the story…
NOW READ ON!
Part 14: The Madness of the Duchess of Buckingham
One week ago.
Georgiana Villiers, Duchess of Buckingham and Ambassador of Valour (“Buck” to her friends), was ready to go home. The planet of Honour was appallingly hot from one end to the other, and the southern hemisphere was worst of all. If you were going to spend this much time in air conditioned bars and hotels, you might as well be on the moon.
Except, of course, she wasn’t allowed on the moon.
It was worse in Auster than it had been anywhere else. For most of this odd, awkward Grand Tour Of Stay Away From The Regent’s Husband, she had been able to relax and enjoy herself for the most part, visiting different cultures and communities across the nine continents.
Here in Auster, though, everything reminded her of Alek, and the unholy mess they had made for themselves half a year ago. So many of the local inhabitants had trails of metallic scales on their light gold-brown skin. They wore the scales like beauty marks, and damn it if they weren’t exquisite, every single one of them.
A whole country full of Aleks. Spirits save her.
The other New Aristocrats, the top families that Buck mixed with socially, all either knew Alek or had heard of him. Half the men and most of the women she had danced with at the Government Ball upon her arrival were related to Alek’s family. Since she had been up on Lunar Palais only six months ago, there were constant digs for gossip about his health, happiness, hair colour, fitness regime, and of course his beautiful wife who ruled the solar system.
Local boy makes good.
Buck was not going to tell them all the truth, of course – no one wanted to hear her confess that they had let a flirtation go too far, and it had nearly become a PR disaster of epic proportions, and that she still couldn’t stop thinking about him. That the eight years left on his marriage contract to the Regent had become a millstone around all of their necks.
Certainly no one wanted to know that Alek and Buck were still exchanging texts, discreet little conversational snippets on the subspace comms, on a daily basis.
He wanted to see her again, before she went home. And oh, she wanted to see him. There were no words to describe how much of a bad idea that was, but they both wanted it so very much.
A week to go before a Musketeer pilot arrived to escort her back to Valour, and Buck had still not decided what to do.
Meanwhile, with almost all of the formal events finally done, there was beer. Cold beer was the best thing about Honour in general and Auster in particular – the locals took great pride in keeping it as cold as possible, despite the ridiculously inhospitable weather.
Buck had only tried 30 of the Austerian Top 40 Local Beers in the bar nearest her hotel, and was determined to complete the list before that damned ship arrived to escort her home like a naughty teenager who had been caught kissing a boy from the wrong school.
She was settling down to a glass of something called Griffin’s Sweat when the door to the bar opened, and a Raven sauntered in.
He recognised Buck immediately, and came over to her. She took a mouthful of the beer, savoured its chill, and wondered what she had done wrong now.
“Your Grace?” the messenger said. He had a black cap pulled down over his head, which accentuated his pale skin and stone-grey eyes. “I have an urgent message from a Madame Marie Chevreuse.”
That, Buck had not expected. She reached her hand out for his clamshell, but instead he offered her a stud on his wrist to scan with her own. The ID code confirmed he did, indeed, come directly from Chev.
“Vocal message only?” Buck said, raising her eyebrows. “This should be fun.”
“I have permission to cover the drinks tab,” said the Raven. “If that helps.”
“It does indeed.” Buck waved him towards the bar. “Have them print me a glass of Desert Daughter’s Old Peculiar, and they can pull me a draught of that hand-brewed ale they make in the back shed, while we’re at it.”
Buck finished the Griffin’s Sweat while she was waiting for her messenger to return. It tasted better than it had any right to, with a name like that.
“Okay,” she said when the black-capped Raven had returned and the drinks were lined up before her. “Break it to me. What is my sweet Chevreuse up to over in Artemisa?”
“She’s waiting at your hotel,” he told her.
Buck spluttered into the Desert Daughter’s Old Peculiar, and slammed the glass down. “What the f -”
“She wanted me to break it to you gently,” said the messenger, with an apologetic smile. “I’m not very good at gentle.” He was attractive, especially when he smiled like that. At least Buck wasn’t so stupidly lovestruck that she couldn’t appreciate a fit man in uniform, even if it was the rather dull uniform of the independent messenger corp. “She’s here to join you on your flight home to Honour.”
“She doesn’t trust me,” Buck muttered. “Even my friends don’t trust me.” Damn it all. Guilt rose up in her throat like bile. Buck might have been inconvenienced by the events of That Night six months ago, but Chevreuse had been destroyed. Under formal exile from Honour space, this planet was the last place she should be. Chev could be arrested for this, all because she was afraid Buck might throw the last shreds of her own personal honour and diplomacy away for one night with Alek.
And hadn’t Buck still been considering exactly that, only half an hour ago? Chevreuse was, unforgivably, always right.
“I’m going to need more beer,” she muttered.
“That I can help with,” said the Raven.
“What’s your name?” Buck asked him, when the messenger returned with further examples from the Top 40.
“Slate,” he said, giving her an odd look. Perhaps people didn’t ask his name very often. Ravens were just Ravens – you saw them flitting about from place to place, but you didn’t need to know about them as individuals.
That was sad, Buck decided. Far too sad. “Are you married, Slate? Ever been in love?”
His eyes, if possible, became an even frostier shade of grey. “I was married once,” he said. “It ended badly.”
“Oh, endings,” Buck slurred, waving her glass at him. “Love affairs, marriages, all end badly. All badness. It’s the good bits you start out with, those are the good bits.” She was drunker than she had realised, drunker than she had intended. Truth bubbled up into her mouth like it wanted to be free. “Would you wait eight years for the man you loved?”
Slate the Raven gave her a strange smile. “That would depend on what I was waiting for.”
Buck felt the first prickle of danger, but it was too late. The bar dissolved around them. He stood out, clear and sharp against the fog, this man with a lovely face, all cheekbones and grey eyes and sad, sad smile underneath the black cap that didn’t suit him at all.
“You’re not a Raven,” she said as the pieces fell into place. “You’re… I don’t think you work for anyone.”
“Oh believe me,” Slate said, and his voice was different now, smooth like silk underwear and vintage brandy. “I’m getting paid for this.”
“Something in the beer,” Buck muttered, trying to stay awake.
“A little something,” he admitted.
“What’s your name?” she rapped out at him. “Your real name. Not Slate.”
He leaned back in his chair, regarding her thoughtfully. “You can call me Winter, if you like. It doesn’t signify, as you won’t remember this when you’re awake.”
“I am awake. Aren’t I?” Buck looked wildly around her, but the bar was frozen in amber. Her senses were fuzzy, blurring into each other. Nothing felt real.
“In one manner of speaking, yes, but in another… it’s complicated. I put a micro-stud in your drink which is burrowing its way into your brain stem even as we speak. That means you’re going to be very susceptible to anything I tell you.” Winter leaned in, and tapped Buck sharply on the side of the head. “I actually left the bar ten minutes ago. Urgent appointment back on Valour, you understand. Politics waits for no one. But look at me, sitting right here inside your head. I will see everything you see, and if you follow a path I don’t like, I can simply… correct you. Convenient, yes?”
Buck gazed at him, memorising every plane of his face, every sharp edge to his eyes, cheekbones, jaw. “It’s treason, then,” she whispered. “That’s the only reason anyone would go to so much trouble.”
“Oh, Georgiana, that’s hilarious.” He neither laughed, nor smiled. Winter was a good name for him – he was cold all the way down to his veins. “What a lack of imagination you have. The beautiful things we are going to do together are far more sophisticated than mere treason.”
Winter’s eyes blazed into hers, like an ice comet powering through space. “Love first, then war. They go together so nicely, don’t you find?”
Buck forgot about the man called Winter who now lived inside her head. He was gone before she stood and left the bar, and made her oops-too-many-beers way back to the hotel.
She continued to not remember his existence when she found Chevreuse in her hotel room, and they had a blazing row about about promises, exiles, and whether or not either of them could be trusted to keep it in her pants.
They both conceded moral high ground on that one.
Later, once the friends had called a truce and the heavily pregnant Chevreuse was fast asleep on one side of Buck’s ridiculously spacious bed, Buck’s clamshell chimed. A text from Alek.
Are you asleep? he asked.
Too hot to sleep, she sent back.
I want to see you before you head home, he said after that. No flirtation, no pretence. It was practically business-like.
Buck stared at the message for a long time.
“Yes,” breathed a silken voice. She looked up, and was startled to see Winter sitting at the end of her bed. He was not in disguise any more – his hair was silvery, falling around his face. He wore grey and white pyjamas, a soft blend of silk and cotton that showed their quality and expense in every shimmery movement. His feet were bare, but he looked every inch an elegant New Aristocrat. There was an arch, moneyed confidence to him, which marked him out as being just like every other man she had known growing up, except for the hard edges around his lovely face. Oh, and the fact that he was living inside her head.
“You,” Buck said, remembering all at once in a wave of anger and nausea. “Is this it? The peace of the solar system hangs on this one moment, me texting yes or no to the Prince Consort?”
“One moment,” Winter scoffed, stretching out like a cat on the covers. He pushed Chevreuse’s foot out of the way, and she did not stir. Because, of course, he was not really here. “As if we would bank everything on a single moment. A chess game is full of moves and moments and decisions. Right now, my job is to get one particular piece to one particular place at one particular time. The rest is up to you.”
Buck stared down at her clamshell again. Yes, no, or maybe. She typed yes and I have a plan, and sent them both before she could change her mind.
Winter tilted his head back, smiling winsomely at her. “That’s my girl.”
“I might have said yes anyway,” Buck said angrily. “You didn’t have to do all this.”
“Oh, sweetness,” he said as if sorry for her. “The people I work for pay a lot of money to make sure there’s no such thing as a maybe.”
A few hours ago.
“You can still change your mind,” said Chevreuse for the tenth time as the Colin Guillaume, piloted by Captain Tracy Dubois, prepared for descent.
Buck and Chev sat in the seats against the back of the cabin, bickering in an undertone so as not to distract their pilot. They’d been lucky she was the one sent for them. Dubois was another old friend, who could be trusted to be discreet no matter how much she disapproved of what they were doing.
“We’ve covered everything,” Buck insisted. She could not think of anything but Alek, seeing him again, probably for the last time while his marriage lasted. A lot could happen in eight years. “Dubois has shielded her fin, so no one connects my flight from Honour to Valour with the ship that touched down briefly in the old dome on Luna Palais. Conrad will make sure no one sees Alek leaving the Palace…”
“We haven’t heard back from Conrad in two days,” Chevreuse snapped.
Buck wasn’t sure whether it was the pregnancy or the possibility of arrest that made her old friend so irritable. “You know why I’m doing this.”
Chev laughed at that. “I know why you say you’re doing it.”
“Alek is a wild card. Cooped up in that Palace, hardly any friends left. Do you know how many people there are down on Auster who care about him?”
“Enough to start a war, I expect.”
“Everything that happened last time… it was out of his control. Our control. If he never sees me again, he’ll resent the Regent and their marriage contract forever. He’ll be a sitting duck for any petty conspirator who figures out what buttons to push. But maybe, if I can talk properly to him, I can repair some of the damage that was done.”
Chevreuse looked at her with heavily lidded eyes. “It’s fascinating the way you manage to make this sound like you’re meeting him out of patriotic duty, and not just to get your leg over.”
“I’m impressed too,” said Winter, leaning against the helm. He wore a flight suit this time, but his feet were still bare. Those feet of his. They curled like cat paws against the cool metal floor of the Colin Guillaume. Winter played with Dubois’ cables, and tweaked at her flight suit, but she did not react to his presence. “I thought I was the master of compartmentalisation, but you leave me in the shade, Georgiana.”
Buck sighed, turning her eyes away from the bastard that only she could see. “You have no jurisdiction on this flight, Chev. You can’t stop me.”
“I know,” said her friend in a low voice, her hand resting on the curve of her stomach. “I was hoping you’d stop yourself.”
They didn’t talk.
Alek stepped up into Dubois’ ship, and let the sight-shield fall away so it was just him standing there, all gold and silver and green. He wore a peacock-coloured coat that glowed with diamond studs, a ridiculously showy outfit for a secret rendezvous. He looked sad and uncertain, beneath that fall of bright emerald hair. Everything that Buck had convinced herself that she would say to him fell away with the sight-shield.
She didn’t say anything. Instead, she kissed him, and he kissed her back, holding her face in his hands as if she was precious, unbreakable. He rubbed his cheek gently against hers and she felt the gentle tugging rasp of his silver scales against her soft skin.
“You don’t have to fuck him,” said Winter.
Buck gasped at the shock of it, the remembering. It happened that way every time, like a bucket of cold water, reminding her that she wasn’t here by choice.
Except, of course, she was. She was right here, doing exactly what she had promised she would never do. And they had a witness. A sarcastic, barefoot witness who had burrowed himself into her brain.
Alek kissed down her neck, burying his face in the swell of her breasts as he lowered the zip of her flight suit. “Buck,” he moaned.
Buck stared over his head to Winter who sat on the helm, feet dangling off the edge. Winter wore an Emerald Knights fan shirt now, over silver jeans. He waved cheerfully at her.
How could she communicate with the bastard without Alek hearing her, and thinking she was crazy? Not that Alek was interested in anything she had to say right now, his mouth hungry against her ear, and his hands catching hers, squeezing their fingers together.
“I mean it,” said Winter. “All that matters is that enough people think you’re banging away in here. It doesn’t make a difference to the Crown or the realm or the chess game whether you actually let him into your knickers.”
“No one will say anything,” she said in a whisper.
“I know,” said Alek, thinking that she spoke to him. He came up for air, gazing into her face. “We have good friends, Buck. They are all trustworthy -” He kissed her mouth deeply and she kissed him back, inhaling the scent of him, the taste. I will never have this again.
“Oh very trustworthy,” Winter said, and Buck was too busy tasting her prince to see him, but she could hear the smirk in his voice. “Still, secrets get out, Georgiana. One way or another, you and your man here will pay for tonight’s deeds.”
I won’t remember this, Buck told herself desperately. I won’t remember this. I won’t remember that he was here, ruining everything.
Alek knew something was wrong. He stepped back, not knowing why she hesitated – or, perhaps, thinking of a hundred reasons why she would. “Buck,” he said softly. “Have you changed your mind about me?”
“Never,” she said fiercely, and threw herself at him. “No one else matters. Not right now.”
His mouth on hers was hot, and hungry. They had waited for so long, to be together.
A moment later, Buck forgot that he had ever been there.
“Take that coat off,” she hissed, pulling the peacock garment roughly from Alek’s shoulders. “Take it all off.”
“Keep the coat,” whispered Winter in her ear, a final command before he disappeared completely. “Whatever happens, Georgiana, hang on to that coat.”
“I could come with you,” said Alek. They lay wrapped up in each other, mostly naked, on the floor of the small spaceship. Buck wore his jacket, bright with peacock colours and diamond buttons, and nothing beneath it. She never wanted to take it off.
“No,” she said softly. “We’re not that stupid.”
“Are you sure?” He nuzzled against her, his mouth making soft kisses against her shoulder, her collarbone. “I feel that stupid.”
This was why Chevreuse was here, Buck realised. Not to stop this one night of passion, but to make sure that was where it stopped.
Conrad and Dubois both served the Crown. Their contracts ensured that they had to obey, if Alek gave them a direct order. But Chevreuse was already in disgrace, in exile. As a mere citizen of the solar system, she was obliged to obey a reasonable demand from the Crown, but not to obey unthinkingly.
Chevreuse had spent her whole life cleaning up the messes left behind by the Crown. Buck had no doubt she would break a thousand rules to stop this particular catastrophe from becoming a reality.
And Buck owed Chevreuse more than she could ever say. The bonds of friendship would only stand so much before they shattered. There was another life waiting for them, elsewhere in the solar system.
“Shh,” she said, and stopped Alek’s mouth with a deep kiss. “We have this, right now. We can’t take more than that.”
Valour. Finally, Buck was home.
Dubois put the Colin Guillaume down discreetly at the smallest space dock in Castellion, at the border between the county of Triomphe and the duchy of Buckingham. Normally Buck’s homecomings were more dramatic than this, with a party atmosphere and crowds of paparazzo chronicling her antics.
Perhaps she was getting old, because the thought of that made her want to drown herself. Quietly slinking on to the planet felt about right.
Her highest security comm stud started to fill with alerts as soon as she entered Valour space – messages, appointments, discreet requests for her attention.
She was home. Being in Valour space meant being bombarded all over again with the political issues of the day: the referendum on planetary independence, the ethics of terraforming the last unclaimed continent and, of course, the ongoing religious tensions between the Church of All, who had always dominated even the ground population of Valour, and the Elementals, who were growing in support.
Then there was the election, coming up in a year’s time, the one where Buck was expected to run for First Minister of Valour now that her political credentials had been bolstered by her term as Ambassador. If only the media knew how much of that term had been spent sampling the beers of Honour. Would that make her more or less popular with the voters?
It was a good thing Alek had not abandoned his wife to come with her – he would have only found himself tied to another woman who was expected to dedicate every hour of every day to politics.
Buck was tempted to wear the peacock coat through the space dock, one final rebellion. Instead, she hid it instead deep in her luggage, not wanting Chevreuse to know about the gift.
“Your skimmer should be here shortly,” Chev told her now. “And your entourage -” She checked her comm stud. “Oh, through here.” She led Buck to a small, bleak meeting room. “They’ll meet us in a minute – ugh.”
Chevreuse folded up like a piece of broken furniture, and Buck lunged for her, only just catching her in time. Slowly, she lowered the other woman to the floor. “Oh, shit. Is it the baby? Chev, wake up.”
Her friend’s skin was very cold and too pale, contrasting against the bright pink braids that framed her face.
“Chevreuse!” Buck said insistently, and raised her wrist to call for help through the comm stud.
A man cleared his throat. “My apologies for the inconvenience, your Grace.”
“Not now, we need -” Buck’s protest died in her throat. “You!”
It was the man in her head. That bastard Winter. But it wasn’t quite him – he seemed different. Shoes, actual shoes for once, covering those pretty feet of his. He wore a discreet grey suit, like he was one of the hundreds of bureaucrats she had to deal with every day in her usual life. Instead of the wild silver tendrils falling around the sharp planes of his face, he had dull brown hair that made him look like no one in particular. Even his grey eyes were muted.
Same cheekbones you could cut a sandwich with, though.
“Your Grace,” he said in an officious voice. “Allow me to introduce myself properly this time. As you can see, I am no longer disguised as a Raven as I was when we met so briefly back in Auster. I am Milord de Winter, brother-in-law to the Countess of Clarick. I am also the new Private Secretary of the Interior. I hold the portfolio for covert intelligence.”
Buck blinked, for a moment seeing double as that other Winter appeared behind his real life double, barefoot and blowing kisses at her. He wore black pyjama pants and a copy of the peacock coat that Alek had given her, over a bare chest. His hair was sleep-rumpled and silve. It was quite easy to tell one Winter from another. “What do you want?” Buck said, still holding her friend in her arms. “Is Chevreuse -”
“Please don’t worry about her, your Grace,” said Milord De Winter. “She will not take serious harm for this brief spell. I thought it best that we speak alone for a moment.” He smiled politely. “You’re going to open your case and show me the diamonds that the Prince Consort gave you.”
Buck closed her eyes tightly. Would this ever be over? “And then?” she snarled. “What happens after that?”
“You know the answer to that, sweetness,” said the silver-haired Winter that lived inside her head. “You’re going to forget all about me, as if I was never here. And then the real work begins.”
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, visit my Patreon page. Pledges can earn rewards such as ebooks, extra content, dedications and the naming of spaceships. My next funding milestone ($300 a month) will unlock COVER ART.