I’ve been home sick with grumpy children for the last several days, which is a whole lot of no fun. But still feeling better than Athos, so there’s that.
Also a big shout out to the Web Fiction Guide, which has listed Musketeer Space. This site is a great way to find free original fiction, if you’ve developed a taste for serials. While I’m at it, I really appreciate Regan Wolfrom’s regular Free Fiction links pages at SF Signal which have brought me a bunch of new readers. Hi, new readers!
Another public service announcement: Don’t drink like Athos. Athos’ liver is not your liver. No one knows why he is still alive.
PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE: All Dana D’Artagnan wants to do is rescue her three Musketeer pilot friends and take them home to Paris Satellite – but a drunken Athos is proving hard to budge. They need to get him off Valour quickly, because he and that planet are no good for each other.
NOW READ ON!
“You’re wearing my jacket,” Athos observed, as Dana picked slivers of glass out of his trembling hand in the lantern light.
They had to get out of this cellar. Athos had drunk enough of the Gilded Lily’s printstock of wine and brandy that he was in danger of poisoning himself. Dana felt half-poisoned herself, even if the bottle they had shared most recently was of exceptional quality.
Right now, she was trying to make sure he did not bleed too badly.
“Gauze strips in the inner pocket,” Athos added, which was lucid of him. “Why are you wearing my clothes, D’Artagnan?”
Chances were high he would never remember this conversation. “I missed my friends. Shut up.”
He laughed softly in the near darkness.
“I hate you,” she told him.
“As is only right and proper.”
Dana made a huffing sound. “You really are the king of self pity, aren’t you?”
“I wasn’t the one complaining that the Cardinal’s mysterious secret agent and/or political advisor kidnapped my boyfriend before I got a chance to screw him.”
“That is not how I phrased it at all,” she said, smacking a gauze strip over Athos’ cut much harder than necessary.
“Time to sober you up.” She brought out her trump card, a Sobriety patch she had tucked into one of the many useful pockets in this jacket before setting out on this second trip to Valour.
Athos’ eyes widened as he saw it. “Fuck no. I’ve been working on this bender for most of the week, D’Artagnan. You wouldn’t be so cruel.”
“Come outside with me now, and I won’t sober you up until we’re off this planet. This is my final offer.” Time to stop getting distracted by his tragic past. Removing him from this cellar had to be her priority.
Athos gave her a searching look. “Open another bottle and I’ll tell you the worst story you’ve ever heard.”
Curiosity leaped in her stomach again, but Dana refused to give into temptation. “Athos, another bottle might actually kill you.”
“Half a bottle. I’ll share.”
“Half a bottle might kill me.”
His blue eyes were so very intense in the dim light. “I told you that I murdered the man I loved, and you really don’t want any more details?”
“Wine, not brandy,” Dana whispered.
Athos reached out without even looking, his hand closing around the neck of a new bottle. “I’m sure the landlord won’t mind.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to call the local militia if we don’t pay your tab,” Dana replied, but she did not stop him unsealing the bottle. “Start talking, or I’ll break that one too.”
Athos took a long, steady swallow and wiped his wet mouth with his unbandaged hand. “There was a count who lived on the far side of this continent, who fell in love,” he said. “Which was the first stupid thing. But they were young, and stupidity was his elemental right. They were students together at the university, and they were going to change the world.”
“Students of what?” Dana asked. She took the bottle off him and took a mouthful. It mixed badly with the brandy already sloshing around in her stomach.
“Philosophy. Politics. If you could get a degree in being wide-eyed and idealistic, they would have signed up without a second thought. The count was a New Aristocrat through and through – he wasn’t supposed to have a purpose beyond keeping his lands from burning down around him, and solving the disputes of his province. That had been the Fleet’s excuse for not allowing him to sign up for service during the War against the Sun-kissed, anyway. An excuse he had accepted all too readily.”
“But now he wanted more,” Dana prodded.
“Because love,” said Athos. That word had never been spoken with such venom in the history of the solar system.
“I’m sensing this story doesn’t end well.”
“Oh, you think?” He paused for a long time, his breaths slow and steady. “The second stupid thing the count did was to marry his young man when they left university. They were on fire together, determined to use the power and privilege of the New Aristocracy for something good, for a change. The war was over, and the Valour government had played lapdog to the Crown during the conflict, in exchange for keeping their brightest and best out of the war.” His head drooped for a moment, and Dana thought for a moment he had nodded off. “Also, there was poetry.”
Dana almost laughed at the sheepish, despairing way Athos said that. He needs to tell someone, she insisted at the spark of guilt that she was taking advantage of his drunken state. “Poetry,” she repeated.
“I believe it’s traditional, in love affairs,” Athos said, sounding so pompous that it was all too believable that he had once been a baby-faced, politically charged count who ruled over a province, and not a drunken Musketeer who couldn’t fly his ship without chemical assistance.
“Poetry, philosophy, politics… and love,” Dana said lightly. “A heady cocktail.”
Athos nodded grimly. “Right up to the point that the count’s husband fell ill, a year into their marriage. He contracted a fever that no medi-patch could alter. A terrible, burning fever that lasted for three days and nights. During that time, he spoke of – secrets, awful secrets. And that was how the count learned that his husband was a fraud. He had spent all that time thinking himself deliriously happy, but here was an actual delirium, and the truth.”
“What truth?” Dana whispered.
“He was so fucking beautiful,” Athos said in a ragged voice. “That was the worst of it. Pale skin, like moonlight. That hair. And – I never saw how false he was until it was all too late.”
Athos tipped the bottle up to his mouth and Dana let him take a swallow before she reclaimed it for herself. “Why was it too late?”
He matched her question with one of his own. “What do you know about the Sun-kissed?”
This hardly seemed the time for a history lesson, but she went along with it. “They’re ruthless. They are alien. They hide in plain sight, because…” The words faded on her tongue. Dana stared at her friend in horror, suddenly realising how this story fit together with the other story, the one he had told her when they were crashing and burning. “No.”
“They hide in plain sight because they can make themselves look like us,” Athos agreed through gritted teeth. “They can make themselves look like any fucking thing they want. But after three days of fever, of genuine illness, he couldn’t hold on to the transformation any longer. So the count’s beautiful husband rolled over in the sheets and his skin turned dark red like he was sunburned, and the war tattoos spilled across his back, line by line, and it turned out that it didn’t matter that we thought the war was over and that Valour had made it through untouched. The Sun-kissed were still among us, hiding spies in plain sight. Placing them near people they thought could be of use.”
He didn’t sound like Athos any more. He was bitter and tired, and Dana wanted to take it all the hurt away from him. She had not imagined something as bad as this. She was sick at the thought of it – of sharing a bed with an alien and an enemy and never knowing until it was too late. Of being deceived so vilely. But she could guess how the story ended. Athos had already told her that part.
“The count – executed his husband personally?” she whispered. There was only one way to ensure that a Sun-kissed was dead, she knew from school. She had been twelve years old when the war ended, and it had all seemed so theoretical. You take their head, and you burn the remains.
“It was his duty,” said Athos, closing his eyes and leaning back against the nearest barrel. “Damn,” he added. “That’s a good wine, that one. Too drunk to do it justice. We should take a bottle or two when we leave.”
Porthos had been waiting outside the tavern for over an hour, with Aramis at her side. Half an hour ago, Grimaud emerged into the late afternoon sunshine with damp hair and sonic-scrubbed clothes. Aramis made a token payment towards the landlord’s exorbitant bill with the last of the credit they had and pledged Amiral Treville to cover the rest. After a while, they sent Grimaud back to the Hoyden and the Morningstar with Bonnie and Planchet, to file the flight plans and ready the ships for the long trip home.
Still, they waited.
“We should go in,” said Porthos, bouncing impatiently on the soles of her boots.
“Give them a little longer,” said Aramis. “We don’t know what state he’s in.” They had some idea, based on Grimaud’s brief and unsatisfying report, but they didn’t know if interrupting would make things better or worse.
“That’s why we should get in there. Dana’s just a kid, she doesn’t know what she’s up against.” Porthos had seen Athos at his ordinary worst a hundred times or more, but his absolute rock bottom was something she had only glimpsed twice, and had hoped to never see again.
Aramis squeezed Porthos’ shoulder. “She’s not that young. And I think it’s good for him, to have someone other than you and me to pick him out of the gutter from time to time. With Dana – he might manage to summon some pride.”
Porthos gave her a filthy look. “That’s not fair on either of them. She looks at him like he hangs the moon, like he’s her hero…”
“And today she gets to find out that he’s human,” Aramis said serenely. “It will be good for both of them.”
“I hate when you’re all spiritually calm,” Porthos muttered.
Aramis gave her a gentle hug. “Isn’t it nice, though? Just a little. To share him with someone else.”
“He’s not a food parcel.”
“I didn’t say he was. But my shoulders are feeling a little lighter.”
“Probably the love letter burning a hole in your pocket.”
“Could be,” Aramis smirked.
The door to the Gilded Lily opened. Athos walked out, blinking in the light of the sun. It came in at a particularly piercing angle, just before descending into the mountains beyond Amiens.
Athos looked rough, his beard back to the long, untended horror it had been before Aramis last got her hands on him with a sonar clipper. He had lost some weight in the last week, probably from drinking too many meals, and he was unsteady on his feet.
He carried Dana slung over his shoulder like a dead weight. “Kid can’t hold her drink,” he muttered as he approached them.
Aramis wanted to hug him, but she feared any sudden movements would pitch them all on to the historically authentic cobblestones at their feet. “Credit’s covered,” she informed him. “Grimaud gave the landlord an approximation of the damage in the cellar.”
“Let’s get moving before he discovers how much she was playing it down,” said Athos.
The three of them turned and walked down the street together, falling into step as they always did.
“Can I claim a favour?” Athos asked after a long moment.
“Try us,” said Porthos.
“Wait until we’re in orbit before you attack me with that Sobriety patch D’Artagnan has in her pocket. I don’t want to be sober on this fucking planet.”
Aramis and Porthos exchanged a glance.
“Fine,” said Porthos finally. “But if you throw up in my beautiful ship, I will toss you out an airlock.”
Athos winced as they turned a corner and that setting sun pierced his vision again. “Didn’t know being thrown out an airlock was on the table. I think that’s my preferred option.”
Aramis squeezed his arm. “Do you want us to get what’s left the Parry Riposte out of hock before we go?”
Athos shifted slightly, preventing Dana from sliding off his shoulder. The kid moaned a little as his arm bumped against her abdomen. “No. Sometimes you have to leave things behind and start over.”
Porthos bumped against his other side – the side holding Dana – with her hip. “Sounds like good advice, Athos. Maybe you should take it some day.”
“Bite me, Porthos.”
Without having to even say it aloud, the Musketeers and Dana allowed the engies to personally fly the Hoyden and the Morningstar back to Paris. Planchet was sent on the Morningstar to practice astronavigation with Bazin, and Bonnie took the helm and harness of the Hoyden with Grimaud snoozing in the jumpseat beside her.
Dana woke up four hours out of Meung Station, to find herself pressed against the wall in Porthos’ bunk, with a Sobriety patch burning a perfect triangle into her right shoulder. Aramis sat beside Dana, her long legs tangling with those of Athos, who was propped up comfortably against the other end of the bunk reading from a tablet, with Porthos tucked under his arm.
“I can’t believe we all fit in one bed,” Dana murmured as she yawned herself awake. Her own feet were pressed against Porthos’ knees, she realised.
Aramis elbowed her. “Economy of space is the most important skill we have as a species,” she said, quoting a long-ago prophet who had taken their people to the stars.
“Also, this bunk is larger than regulation,” added Athos.
“I like to be comfortable,” said Porthos defensively.
“No complaints here,” he said with a quirk of his mouth, and head-butted her gently. In response, she poked him in the ribs with a finger.
Dana pulled herself up into a sitting position, with the wall behind her. “This is nice,” she said, and pressed her lips together to stop herself saying anything else.
For a while there, she had not been sure that they would all be together again. She wanted to grin stupidly at all three of them, but she settled for letting her head fall on to Aramis’ shoulder so she could doze again.
When Dana awoke the next time, Athos and Aramis were no longer there. Porthos sprawled out at the other end of the bunk, watching what sounded like a cinquefoil game on the same tablet Athos had been reading from earlier.
“They’re checking on Grimaud’s injuries,” Porthos yawned, before Dana could give any indication she was awake. “Or rather, Aramis is checking on her injuries, and Athos is being extra sarcastic so that he can pretend he’s not fussing over her like a mother hen.”
Dana grinned at that. “He can be protective.”
“Oh, honey, you have no idea.” Porthos muted her game, laying the tablet aside. “It was bad down there, huh?”
She meant the cellar, of course.
Dana frowned. “I’ve never seen him like that,” she confessed.
“Not many do.”
“He seemed so lost. Is he that unhappy all the time?”
“Pretty much,” Porthos sighed. “He hides it well. A little too well, most days.” She flicked a curious expression at Dana. “You look like you’re burning to ask more questions. I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
“No questions,” Dana muttered, looking away. She had enough of Athos’ secrets buzzing around in her mind, she didn’t need more of them.
“Oh,” Porthos breathed. “Well, that’s new.”
Dana scowled. “What are you talking about?”
“He told you, didn’t he. About his husband.”
That earned a startled glance from Dana. “What?” She double-checked that the door to the cockpit was firmly closed. “He said you didn’t know,” she added in a low whisper.
Porthos looked a little guilty, and sad. “I found out on a very bad day,” she said after a moment. “He doesn’t remember telling me. Aramis knows too, the shape of it at least.”
Dana didn’t know what to think. It had seemed ridiculous that Athos had spilled his secrets to her, things he had never told his two best friends. She had assumed it was because she was new, and he didn’t feel he had to keep up appearances around her. Or maybe he had just been too blind drunk to think it through rationally.
If they did know, both of them, it was a relief. She was so not cut out to be anyone’s solo support person, least of all the complex bag of angry space weapons that was Athos’s inner turmoil.
“What do you know?” she asked finally. She wasn’t going to assume that Athos’ secrets were fair game just because Porthos had an excellent poker face.
Porthos tilted her head at Dana, regarding her. “I know his husband is dead,” she said softly. “There are times when he’s okay, and times that he’s so eaten up by it that he sabotages pretty much everything good in his life.”
Dana nodded at that, thinking of the business with the nexus. Athos was a brilliant pilot, and he didn’t trust himself even with that. “Except you,” she said after a moment. “You and Aramis. Having you as friends, it’s the best thing that he has.”
Porthos laughed at that, not an overly cheerful laugh, but deep and honest. “Oh believe me, he’s sabotaged us plenty of times. We won’t let him go easily, though.” She leaned in and scritched Dana’s short buzz of hair on her scalp, as if she was a puppy dog. “If you know as much as I do, about the husband and the deep dark misery and all that, I’m impressed.”
“It’s not -” Dana said awkwardly, because she knew more, a lot more than Porthos was saying. It shocked her all over again that she was the one Athos had chosen to trust. Unless Porthos was playing her cards very close to her chest, she did not in fact know what kind of monster Athos’ husband had turned out to be, nor that he was the one who had executed him. “I was just there when he needed to talk,” she muttered.
“Ha,” said Porthos. “Athos has been needing to talk as long as I’ve known him, but he doesn’t let himself, not about things that matter. If he told you his secrets today, that’s important, Dana. Hold on to that.”
The moment was lost as Athos’ voice called harshly through the doorway. “D’Artagnan, Porthos, get in here now!”
For a moment, Dana was embarrassed. Did he realise they had been gossiping about him? As she opened the door and stepped into the cockpit, however, all thoughts of Athos and his angsty past bled away faster than she could breathe.
Aramis, closest to the doorway, reached out and caught Dana’s hand, squeezing it gently between her own. Dana had no idea why, at first.
Everyone, even Bonnie who had slipped the Hoyden into autopilot, stood watching the enlarged media screen on the inside of the hatchway. It was the beginning of a press conference, by the look of it – the Regent stood behind a podium, speaking in her clear, confident voice. In the background, Dana could see Prince Alek and the Cardinal, standing much closer together than usual, grave and united.
“These recent attacks on citizens of the solar system make it clear that the alien race known to us as the Sun-kissed have no intention of meeting our overtures of peaceful negotiation with anything other than contempt,” said the Regent, well aware that her words would be recorded and rebroadcast over and over in the years to come. She was speaking history, a kind of history they had hoped never to repeat.
“When all other options have failed, there is only one clear path remaining. As of today, our Solar System is at war with the Sun-kissed. Let the God of All have mercy on their souls, for we have no mercy left for them. Not this time.”
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 ART.