Musketeer Space Part 17 – Portrait of a Marriage

fdl_c.png__83003__25861.1409136866.1280.1280Musketeer Day is my favourite day of the week!

It’s been a busy week on my blog, largely because Metafilter discovered my Pratchett’s Women essays and this has caused a massive spike of readers. (thanks, person who wrote the great, comprehensive piece with all the links including to the ebook, I totally owe you one) Then Boing Boing picked up the topic (with a very flattering piece written by Cory Doctorow) and created a spike that left the other spike completely in the shade. My blog is dizzy from all the attention.

Hi, new readers! I also write things about Musketeers sometimes. You can purchase the complete collection of my Pratchett’s Women essays as an ebook from Fablecroft, via any good online retailer. The ebook includes not only all the pieces from my blog but an extra essay exclusive to the book which looks at the extraordinary gender-and-feminist achievement that is Monstrous Regiment, and unpacks a lot of my inner turmoil about how much I disliked the book the first time I read it (spoilers: I was wrong).

We’re now at a point where around 16,000 people have read my essay “The Boobs, The Bad and the Broomsticks.” I actually don’t know what to do with that.

But we’re not here to talk about witches and gendered narratives, we’re here for female Musketeers in Space. This chapter involves pastries, eavesdropping, and a mission that will change Dana’s life forever! There may be a bit of kissing.

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PREVIOUSLY IN MUSKETEER SPACE: Dana D’Artagnan just wants to be a pilot with the Musketeers. Instead she has three Musketeers as her new best friends, a love-hate relationship with a mecha suit, and a palace conspiracy that just won’t quit.

NOW READ ON!

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This chapter is dedicated to Mikayla. Thanks so much for your support of Musketeer Space.

PART 17 – Portrait of a Marriage

Dana had been thinking about Conrad Su and his master ever since yesterday’s cinquefoil game, and the Regent’s announcement.

It was none of Dana’s business, of course. She had no right to involve herself. And yet – the safety of the realm could well depend on how the Prince Consort chose to handle the matter of the coat and the diamonds and the ball.

If the Sun-kissed were returning, if it was really true that another intergalactic war might be on the horizon, then this was the worst possible time for the government to be shaken, let alone broken.

Dana flopped down on her narrow bed in the room above Madame Su’s workshop. Sleep. She needed sleep. But every time she closed her eyes, there was a loud clanking noise from below. The rooms were heavily soundproofed, which meant the noise must be extraordinary.

Finally, she let herself out of her room and leaned over the balcony to see what was going on down there.

The workshop had been half-cleared of its usual printers and other paraphernalia, to make room for three large mecha suits. They were basic orbital models, designed for space repairs and other basic tasks outside the station. They were also, for the most part, in bits.

Another pallet of limbs and casings arrived on a packing trolley steered by two Pigeons, and Madame Su directed the lot to be unpacked on the workshop floor.

Planchet sat among the mechanical debris, looking as if all her birthdays had come at once. When she saw Dana, she waved merrily up at her. “Look what we got!”

Madame Su darted a glance up at Dana and looked away again, quickly. She had been doing that since she had been released from her arrest by the red guards, as if she didn’t want to acknowledge that they even knew each other.

Still, if that meant Dana would not be included any more Palace plots, she was okay with that.
Madame Su spoke quietly to Planchet and then disappeared into her rooms.

“You have to see this!” Planchet squealed, diving into the new pile of mecha bits.

Dana came down the steps to her. “Where in space did you get it all?” Her thoughts flitted to the mecha graveyard on Luna Palais and that odd night she had spent out there with Conrad, Chevreuse and Dubois.

“Auction,” said Planchet, diving into one of the pallets and pulling out handfuls of circuits. “Madame Su has a contract to supply cheap mecha for the Calais,” she added, referring to the solarcrawler civilian transport that ran regularly between Honour and Valour. “I’m going to build and fix them from this lot, and she’s paying me a percentage!”

Dana frowned at that. “I hope it’s a majority percentage, if you’re doing all the work.”

Planchet’s expression fell slightly. “It’s… a percentage,” she said.

Dana sighed, and patted Planchet on the arm. “Do you really think you can get whole mecha suits up and running from scrap?”

“Oh yes,” said Planchet, brightening. “Look at that one, the chassis is mostly complete, it’s only the internals that need to be completely remodelled, and that one over there will be solid once I get the head reshaped and buffed down to size, and find it some new internal circuits. And arms.”

Dana should go back to her room and sleep. She really should. Rest was important. But this looked like fun. Taking things apart, putting them back together and recycling scrap into working tech had been a massive part of her life back on Gascon station, and while she appreciated the ease with which you could access anything you wanted here in Paris, she did love a challenge.

Besides, if she learned how to repair a mecha, she might actually do better with the damn things in the field. She needed all the help she could get on that score.

“Can I help?” she asked, and was rewarded by a brilliant grin from Planchet.

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An hour later, Dana sat inside the most complete of the broken mecha suits. The pilot’s nest was the easiest position from which to run a full diagnostic. Next to this bucket of bolts, the mecha that Dana used for her work with Commandant Essart was starting to look pretty damned shiny.

“I have to go deliver some contracts for Madame Su,” said Planchet, speaking loudly from outside the casing. “It’ll only take half an hour. Are you all right in there?”

“Yep,” said Dana, who had checked twice that she was able to release the opening mechanisms from the inside. “It’ll take me nearly that long to get this done.”

“That doesn’t sound very promising,” said Planchet, her smile dimming slightly.

“Let’s just say, she’s a fixer-upper. There’s a lot more wrong with the internals than a few burned-out circuits.”

Not even that report could get Planchet down. “Well I wouldn’t want it to be too easy, that’d be boring!”

“This is why I will never become an engineer,” Dana groaned.

Planchet laughed and ran off on her errand, with all the energy of a robot puppy.

Dana continued with her diagnostic. The view screens worked, which was something of a miracle as she wasn’t entirely sure what they were connected to. She was about to prise up a panel to see the state of the wiring when a familiar figure walked straight past the front of the mecha.

It was Conrad Su. She had never seen him here before, though of course it was technically his home. He stopped before the door to his wife’s office, about to knock, then walked away a few paces instead.

Dana felt odd, not letting him know she was here, but there was no way to reveal her presence that wouldn’t be extremely awkward. Extra awkward, really. At least this way she could be awkward on her own without anyone else knowing about it.

Finally, Conrad returned to the door and knocked quickly, before he could change his mind. “Jingfei?”

Madame Su emerged, staring at him in a very unfriendly manner. She closed the door behind her, not inviting him inside. “Oh, it’s you.”

Conrad dragged a hand through his spiky blue hair – a nervous habit of his. “How are you? I mean, after -”

“I am somewhat recovered from being imprisoned, threatened and scared half to death, thank you so much for asking,” she hissed.

He reached out, touching her arm. “I am sorry about all that. I never meant to bring it all down on you.”

Madame Su crossed her arms. “You never think, do you, Con? This is what I get for marrying such a boy. It’s all games and sports and friends and danger, without a thought of those who get hurt along the way!”

They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Conrad hugged her, murmuring apologies. Madame Su scowled darkly, but allowed him to comfort her, angrily wiping a dash of tears from one eye so he wouldn’t see them.

Dana had never felt more like an intruder in her life. At least the mecha was disabled and so her every embarrassed twitch she made would not be reflected by its giant limbs flailing around. She would have given anything to be able to sidle away, unseen.

Conrad drew back from his wife, kissing her once on the forehead. “Jingfei, I’m sorry, I really am, but I need your help. I can only ask someone that I can trust.”

Madame Su pushed him away. “What trouble have you got yourself into now?”

“It’s nothing bad, or even difficult. But I need you to carry a letter to Valour for me.”

Valour. Dana hissed beneath her breath.

“Valour?” Madame Su said in astonishment. “You want me to travel to another planet as some messenger girl? I have a business to run here!”

Conrad was showing his anxiety now. “There’s no time to waste. I can’t go myself, the Palace -”

“Oh yes, your precious Palace,” Madame Su mocked. “I have a new contract to fill for the Calais, and more coming from a very important new patron. I don’t have time for your little intrigues. Hire a Raven if you can’t send a text like a normal person.”

“Jingfei,” he whispered, pleading with her. “It’s important. For the Crown.”

His wife arched back as if he had said something shocking, and then she smiled an oddly cruel sort of smile. “Conrad, darling. Not everyone serves the Crown first.”

There was a pause as he took in her words. Then he straightened, nodding as if she had said something polite and completely uninteresting. “My mistake. I’m sorry, Jingfei. I won’t bother you with this again.”

Madame Su held her cheek out to him, and Conrad kissed her dutifully as if she was an elderly aunt, then walked away, his boots making a muffled sound against the metal floor.

Dana let out a long, painful breath. She almost wished she had not seen that. But a moment later, what she saw was fifty times worse.

“Is he gone?” asked someone from inside Madame Su’s office.

“Yes,” said Madame Su in a shaky voice. “Did I do the right thing?”

To Dana’s horror, when the guest emerged from the office, it was the familiar figure of Ro – or Captain Rosnay Cho, to be more precise. Today’s flight suit was a pale green, with two matching hair combs in the same colour, glittering with jade studs. “I would have preferred it if you had thought quickly enough to take the letter,” Ro drawled. “Then we’d know what his master was up to. But this will do nicely for now. Thank you for your help.” She patted the other woman on the shoulder.

Madame Su straightened with pride. “The Cardinal is a good woman. I know she has everyone’s best interests at heart.”

Ro sent her a jagged smile. “She pays well, too. Enjoy your new contracts, Madame Su. I think you’ll find them to be extremely generous.” And with that, she left the workshop in that long, confident stride of hers, hair sweeping out behind her.

Dana waited until she was sure that Madame Su was back in her office. Then she slowly let herself out of the mecha, stretching her sore limbs when she was finally free of confinement. After taking a moment to catch her breath, she dashed out of the workshop only to run smack bang into Planchet, who was carrying a box of pastries.

“Aaaargh!” Dana yelled, her nerves already jangled beyond their limits.

“Aaargh!” Planchet replied. “Why are we yelling? What’s -”

But Dana did not let her ask any more than that. She grabbed her by the collar and pulled her along. “Did you see Conrad on your way up?”

“Yes, he’s mooching over in the direction of the Promenade, looking cross. I didn’t like to -”

“Shush!”

Dana hurried along the nearest walkway, which came out above the Promenade. Some distance from them, she could see the still figure of Rosnay Cho leaning on the rail. By following her line of sight, she could see Conrad who was indeed mooching with a side order of moping. He sat a cafe table, his shoulders slumped in defeat and his face thunderous. He had no idea that he was being so closely observed.

“He looks like he needs a pastry,” Planchet said sympathetically.

“No,” said Dana. “You know who needs pastry? That lady.” She pointed at Ro. “She’s the one we rescued him from when he was abducted.”

Planchet wrapped a protective arm around her pastry box. “If that’s true, I don’t feel she deserves pastry.”

“I need you to cause a distraction. A whopper of a distraction. Then I will buy you a new box of any baked goods you like. Promise.”

Planchet’s eyes lit up. “Is it another adventure?”

“The same one, actually.”

“That’s even better! The last one was brilliant.”

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Dana managed to position herself down on the Promenade, as close as she could get to Conrad Su without being in Ro’s line of sight. She then waited for her moment.

There was a commotion up on the balcony as Planchet pounced, making loud declarations about how her boss had sent these for Captain Cho, and she hoped she liked them, and oh! she was so sorry, she didn’t mean to get sugar all over her feet, and so on. It was a good distraction, involving flailing arms, pastry crumbs and at least three other passers-by, not even counting the crowd who stopped to watch the disaster.

Conrad Su glanced up, his head tilting as he tried to take in the full extent of the scene being played out above him. Dana ran forward and grabbed his hand. She dragged him along with her until they reached a row of privacy booths, then shoved him inside an empty one.

He went willingly enough, if still confused. Once she had closed the door behind them, Dana peeked out through the view screen, checking that Ro had not seen them make a break for it. The special agent was still wiping Planchet, the remains of several pastries, and a whole lot of powdered sugar off her green flight suit, which made Dana think they had got away with it.

She turned back to Conrad. It was a small booth, so they were all but pressed together. He had an odd sort of smile on his face. “This is unexpected,” he said. “You could have just called, if you wanted to see me.”

Dana shoved him hard in the chest, wanting to make that flirtatious look on his face disappear fast. “This isn’t a seduction!”

“Good,” he shot back, giving her a bit of a shove back, though his hand connected with her shoulder instead of her chest. “Because you’re terrible at it!”

“Your wife is working for the Cardinal now,” she warned him.

Conrad groaned, and pulled his hand through his spiky blue hair again. He wasn’t going to have any left by the end of the day. “Yes, I’d worked that out for myself, cheers. And now I’m screwed, because I need someone to take the Prince’s letter to Valour. Someone who is completely trustworthy, and I’ve got nothing.”

Dana lifted her eyebrows at him.

Conrad looked back at her, his eyes suddenly sparking with possibility. “You know the Musketeers. Which of them is the least likely to be in the pocket of the Cardinal?”

Dana blinked in astonishment. “None of them!”

“Oh, come on,” he said skeptically. “Everyone has their price, Dana.”

“You haven’t asked me mine.”

He looked surprised at that. “You?”

“Don’t tell me you still don’t trust me,” she scowled. “You gave me enough to sink the government ten times over, last week.”

“I know, but.” He hesitated. “You’re not even a Musketeer.”

“Oh thank you, very much! Do you want your letter delivered or not?”

Conrad crossed his hands over his chest. “I don’t want to see you killed. You might have got away with that little pantomime up there, but this is serious shit. People could end up dead for this letter.”

“Do you really want to explain its contents to anyone else?” she hissed at him. “I know already, Conrad. I know what that letter has to be asking the Duchess of Buckingham to do. It’s the coat, isn’t it?”

He slumped against the walls of the privacy booth. “That fucking coat. I can make a new one in time for the ball, but we daren’t risk trying to replace those studs. We could manage one or two, but the whole set? Too much could go wrong, and it’s obvious that they know, which makes it worse.”

“Is that why you didn’t give the letter to Dubois?” Dana asked in a low voice. “Or is it me you suspect?”

Conrad sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t think either of you are whispering to the Cardinal. For all we know, she and her goons got there ahead of us and wired the whole fucking mecha graveyard for sound. But Dubois already turned me down. She’s trying to fix things up with her husband, and after her last trip to Valour she’s washing her hands of Alek and his – well, you know. Everything.”

“So trust me,” said Dana.

“You don’t even have a ship. Or leave – don’t you work for the mecha squad?”

“I can ask for leave.” Dana remembered what Athos had told her, the day before. No one is more loyal to the Crown or the Solar System or the Musketeers than Amiral Treville. “I can go to Amiral Treville, take her into your confidence.”

Conrad looked at her in alarm. “You have the ear of the Amiral?”

“No one would understand more than she how important it is to keep all this – discreet. If she agrees to help, then I don’t have to do this on my own. She could square my absence with Commandant Essart, and it – would be an official mission.”

It wouldn’t hurt to show Treville the level of Dana’s commitment to the Crown and the Musketeers. For future reference.

“All right,” Conrad said at last, with great reluctance. “If you can really get Amiral Treville on side, I will trust you with the Prince Consort’s letter. But it has to be now, Dana. It has to be today.”

Dana nodded, and on impulse reached out and kissed him on the cheek. He leaned into her for a moment as if he needed to be touched, and she saw how tired he looked. “To Valour and back, for a handful of diamond studs,” she said cheerfully, leaning all the way back so she wouldn’t be tempted to kiss him again. “Piece of cake.”

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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 a special Yuletide prequel story to be released in December. My next funding milestone ($300 a month) will unlock COVER ART.

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