I put up a Musketeer Media Monday post this week, so if you’re interested in a melancholy Norwegian comic about an ageless (but not immortal) lonely Athos fighting aliens straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, check out my review of The Last Musketeer (2008) & Athos in America (2012).
In other news, the silent producer and myself just got to the end of our first ever viewing of all seven seasons of The West Wing and we have no real idea what to do with ourselves now. What did other people do when they got to the end of it?
Luckily for me I still have a large stack of Musketeer movies to get me through this trying time… oh, and a book to write.
PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE: Dana has been stalking Milord in the hopes of finding out if he was involved in the abduction of that boy she likes. His sister, the Countess of Clarick, got suspicious and brought some overly handsy friends to the party. Porthos has a thing with Chef Coquenard. Aramis and Tracy Dubois are on again, husbands bedamned. Oh and the solar system is at war, but that’s tomorrow’s problem. Today is all about snogging and duels. I’m not even sorry.
Duel, duel, duel, duel!
NOW READ ON.
Chapter 34: The New Aristocrats
Athos answered the door with a drink in his hand. His eyes went first to Dana’s knuckles, which were swollen and grazed. Without a word, he stepped back to allow her into the apartment.
She sat silently at his kitchen bar and poured herself a glass of brandy from the open bottle while Athos went to raid his usual collection of medical supplies.
“The service at Hotel Coquenard isn’t what it used to be,” he said, as he cleaned her sore hands carefully with a sonic wand.
Dana winced at his touch. “The fight happened after I left the hotel.”
His eyes sparkled with something like humour. “And how was dinner?”
“Excruciating. I am never again going to trust any of you to take me anywhere that requires a dress, or prior knowledge of Porthos’ love life.”
Her right hand was tingling and sensitive as he slapped a medipatch across the back of it. “Ow.”
“Fists,” he muttered. “You had a Pilot’s Slice and a pearl stunner on your person, but you always go straight for the fists.”
“I’m good with my fists.”
“You’re good with a sword, or you would be if you let yourself.”
Dana gave him a wary look. “I am?” Mostly what she heard from Athos about her developing sword skills were the many ways in which she could improve.
“You are a promising pupil,” he admitted after a long moment.
Dana felt warm all over. “You’ve never said that before.”
Athos rolled his eyes. “With a sword you can keep your opponent at a distance. Most wounds can be easily mended. But if you go into a brawl fists first, you have to be too damned close to get anything done. On top of that, you’re shorter than average and female which means if you do beat someone bigger than yourself, you’re likely to piss them off enough to want to hurt you seriously out of revenge. If you keep up this kind of mindless thuggery, one of these days that brain of yours will get so bruised you will never pilot another ship. And then what would we do with you?”
Dana stared at Athos. He looked embarrassed to have said so much all at once. She flung herself at him for a hug, and he bore it manfully for at least five seconds before shrugging her off.
“That’s enough of that.”
She had a stupid grin all over her face. “You’ll be pleased to know that I ended the fight by challenging them all to a duel.”
His eyebrow twitched. “All? Goodness, how many were there?”
“The perfect number.”
“I told them I had friends to even things up…” she added, almost shyly.
Athos leaned back, pleased now. “Make my day,” he purred. “Tell me they were Red Guards. I haven’t had a decent skirmish in weeks.”
“Oh, better than that,” she assured him. “Tourists.”
An odd light came into Athos’ eyes. “Tourists?”
“New Aristocrat tourists just off the boat from Valour.”
He hummed with delight. “Is it my birthday, D’Artagnan?”
“Yes, I thought you’d like that,” she smirked back at him. “The Luxembourg, 0600 hours.”
“Ah,” Athos said, pushing the bottle away from them both. “We’ll need an early start, then. Should we warn Aramis and Porthos now, or surprise them with it in the morning?”
Dana, who was not above a little petty revenge on her friends, pretended to think about it for a moment or so. “I like surprises,” she said finally. “Surprises are good.”
Neither Porthos nor Aramis were enthusiastic about being dragged out of bed early enough to make it to the Luxembourg for a 0600 duel. Porthos, at least, got into the spirit once she arrived, doing warm-up stretches and lunges.
Aramis was far less amenable. “I only got to bed two hours ago,” she said darkly, her hands wrapped around her second cup of coffee of the morning.
“Poetry again?” Athos said unsympathetically. “It’s bad for your health, you know.” He turned to Porthos. “And how was your siege of Chef Coquenard last night?”
“Mixed results,” Porthos said, turning her practice lunges in his direction in order to pretend she actually was about to pierce him through the heart.
“Ha!” Aramis said skeptically. “‘Mixed results,’ she says, as if she didn’t take him home with her.”
“He wasn’t there when I woke up, though,” Porthos shot at her. “He chose bread-baking and sous prep over me. So mixed results. At least mine doesn’t require that I write poetry to her.”
“You have no romance in your soul.”
“I’m just not sure why you’re courting Dubois all over again when she’s the one who broke it off last time – shouldn’t she be writing poetry to make it up to you?”
“Maybe she is,” Aramis smirked. “But I can write better poetry than she can.”
“So basically you’re trying to win.”
“It passes the time.”
“Will you all shut up about your love lives?” Dana shouted, sick of them all.
Athos gave her an amused look. “That’s usually my line.”
“Yes, darling,” said Aramis. “We all know D’Artagnan is your favourite. Now will you shut up and let me finish this stanza before our playmates arrive?”
The New Aristocrats were late to the duel, almost certainly so as to make a swaggering entrance. Porthos matched their challenging stares with her own as did Dana, while Aramis perched on the nearby Artifice rocks, scribbling notes in her poetry book. Athos stayed back, watching the duellists approach through eyes that looked heavily-lidded and bored, though Dana knew better.
She thought she saw his shoulders relax a little, as he took in each of their faces. Perhaps he had been worried that one or more of them might be known to him from his own New Aristocrat days on Valour?
The tourists were dressed in formal fencing attire, each of the four wearing the flag of Valour somewhere on their person. Athos rolled his eyes so hard they nearly rattled.
Bee De Winter, the Countess of Clarick wore grey and white, which matched her chilly expression. Even she looked embarrassed when her large friend, who named himself the Earl of Doncaster, pronounced the Artifice field appropriate for an ‘authentic Parisian duel.’
“Sightseers,” Aramis sighed, with a small shake of her head.
“They should put us in the guide book,” Porthos said cheerfully. “Can I have the big one? He looks fun. I bet he makes a loud noise when he hits the ground.”
“A little housekeeping, before we begin,” said Athos, whose own New Aristocrat accent was particularly pronounced this morning. That meant, Dana had learned from experience, that he especially hated everyone today, and the strangers most of all. He held out a tablet. “Your signatures, if you please.”
Bee’s eyebrows almost hit her perfectly coiffed hairline. “A contract for an illegal duel? That sounds like the definition of a really bad idea.”
“As you say, illegal,” said Athos. “And extremely dangerous. Amateurs -” and he let a beautiful sneer curl around the word “-have been known to get themselves hurt in bouts such as the one you proposed to my young friend D’Artagnan. By putting our names to the release, we free each other from liability should any of us be wounded.”
Dana stepped closer to Porthos. “Why have I never heard of these releases before?”
“We don’t bother against the Red Guard,” Porthos whispered back. “They’re bastards all, but they’re honourable duellists. Dirtsiders, though, and tourists, you can’t trust them as far as you can throw them. We’ve lost good Musketeers to the service because some arsehole decided to sue over a scratched finger or a severed artery.”
“Which is all the more despicable, because duels between peers aren’t even illegal on Valour,” Aramis added, also in a low voice. She had laid her notebook and stylus aside, and now stood shoulder to shoulder with Porthos.
Athos collected the thumbprints and assent of Lady Moire of Normandie and the Earl of Doncaster, as well as Bianca, Countess of Clarick. The last of their party, however, took one look at the tablet and scoffed. “Who the hell are you four anyway? These aren’t real names. Most of you haven’t put down more than one. What does ‘Aramis’ or ‘Porthos’ even mean?
“Sheffield,” said Doncaster, rolling his eyes. “You’re ruining the duel for everyone. Stop being a prick and put your thumb on the tablet so we can get on with it.”
Sheffield – and Dana was starting to revisit the idea that he was friends with the other New Aristocrats, as they all looked thoroughly sick of him – thrust the tablet rudely back at Athos. “I am a gentleman and I have standards,” he said primly. “If you can’t put forward an opponent who is worthy of the name of Baron Sheffield, then I shall not participate.”
“I actually want to kill you right now,” said Bee between gritted teeth.
“If he’s not playing, I volunteer to sit out,” said Aramis quickly. “On account of this poem that I would really prefer to be working on…”
“No,” said Dana sharply. Would none of them take this seriously? But then she saw the looks that Aramis and Porthos were exchanging, and oh crap, she knew was that meant. It meant Athos was about to do something stupid and take the rest of them down with him. She lunged forward to grab the tablet back herself, but it was too late.
Athos stepped right up into Sheffield’s personal space, crowding him with a dangerous smile. “I have another name,” he said, making his accent very, very pronounced. Posh practically oozed from his veins. “I think you might find it worthy of you, second son of a Baron that you are. Not quite in line for the title, not with all those pesky nieces and nephews your older sister keeps popping out, but I see why you feel the need to flash it around since you’re far from home with hardly anyone to call you on your deception.”
Sheffield looked at him, confused and angry but not moving away. “I say -”
“Let’s play a game,” said Athos, with an utterly false smile. “I’ll tell you my name, my real name, and you can decide if I’m worthy of crossing swords with you.”
“Athos,” warned Aramis.
“But if I tell you,” Athos continued. “You understand, it’s not something I want known in general circles, since I am believed by most to be dead. So I’m going to do my damnedest to kill you in this duel. How does that sound?”
“It sounds bloody stupid,” said Bee with a huff.
Dana nodded at her, silently agreeing that boys were stupid. Why couldn’t they just fight and get it over with? They could all be having breakfast by now.
Sheffield, however, had a fierce light in his eyes. His chin lifted, as he examined Athos from top to toe. It was quite obvious that he loved the idea of knowing something that should not be known, and courting death at the hands of a Musketeer. “Tell me,” he breathed.
Athos leaned in, his beard grazing the other man’s ear, and whispered for a moment. “Does that suffice?” he said finally, rocking back on his heels.
Sheffield was flushed across the top of his cheeks, and he looked as if he had been hit over the head. “Oh yes,” he said, stumbling over the words. “Perfectly acceptable.”
“I’d like to make it clear that I don’t give a fuck who I fight as long as it happens sometime this century!” said Doncaster loudly.
“Begin, then,” said Athos with a small smile on his face as if he was very much planning to enjoy this duel. “En garde.”
Fencing Bee was no chore. It was enough to make Dana wish they had got in a few fencing bouts on that train back on Valour, instead of gossiping about clothes and boys. Bee was a competent, measured duellist, and the anger of their previous night’s encounter had bled out of both of them by the time they saluted each other, and began.
Dana won the first bout, with a scratch to the side of Bee’s neck, and a ribbon reclaimed from her hair. Bee won the second, slicing a button from Dana’s sleeve, which was going to be annoying to hunt for in the Artifice grass.
“I could say I’m sorry I lied to you and your brother, and we could call it a draw,” Dana offered.
Bee gave her a confused look. “After all this?”
Dana shrugged one shoulder. “Well, Doncaster got his duel, at least. We Parisians do like the tourists to come away with the full experience.”
They sat on the grass together for a little while, watching the others fight. Aramis worked quickly, her mind obviously on that bloody poem of hers instead of the fight, and she finished off her second bout with Lady Moire with the same breathtaking efficiency she had used for the first; having won both, Aramis retired from the field and picked up her stylus again, though not before kissing Moire’s hand and (Dana could not help but notice) collecting her comm number for later reference.
Doncaster and Porthos were having entirely too much fun. He had the reach on her, being much taller and wider, but she had pulled out all her favourite fancy tricks and he matched them with some of his own. The two of them were actually smirking at each other every time they added a different sword flourish or piece of fancy footwork. It was possible they could be at this for hours.
Then there was Athos and Sheffield, an entirely different kind of duel. Athos fenced with as much calm and method as if he were teaching a class – indeed, he exhibited far more in the way of cool restraint than he ever had when training Dana.
Sheffield was sweating, despite the carefully regulated temperature of the field, and it was clear that he could see his own death spelled out with every stroke of Athos’ sword.
“Is he actually going to kill him?” Bee asked, only sounding slightly interested in the outcome.
“He said he would,” said Dana. She shivered a little, looking at the blank expression that Athos wore. It was nothing like the usual fierce energy he displayed when fighting with the Red Guard. He did not taunt his opponent, and he certainly did not seem to be enjoying himself.
This was work, not play.
“Tell me why you have been following us,” said Bee, as they sat and watched Athos school the other man on fencing technique. What exactly is your interest in Vaniel? I was in the hotel,” she added, almost conversationally. “It might have been a coincidence that you were there – that’s not out of the realms of possibility. But you were definitely watching him – and I saw you follow the Marquise de Wardes. Don’t lie to me again. You’re up to something.”
It was not her skill with a sword that made this woman dangerous, Dana had to remind herself. It was that she was with Milord, and he had Conrad’s life in his hands.
The answer came to her, and it wasn’t What Would Athos Do? or What Would Porthos Do? A little of Aramis, perhaps. But it had more than a little of Alix Charlemagne, whom Dana was learning from more and more all the time.
“It’s embarrassing,” Dana said, deliberately biting her lip because she knew it made her look younger and less threatening. “But it’s not a professional interest. I met you for the first time when I was working under another name, and I’m sorry about that, because it’s ruined everything, but -” and then she gave Bee a helpless sort of look.
For once, Dana was not going to try to punch her way out of a problem. She was going to be smart about it.
Bee looked doubtful. “You’re not…”
Dana summoned up all those odd feelings she had touched upon in the train, when she realised that Vaniel was someone whose company she enjoyed. “I was watching him in the restaurant because I like him,” she sighed. “That’s it, no mystery. You can laugh at me now.”
And Bee did laugh, a delightful sound ringing out across the Artifice meadow. “Oh no,” she gasped.
“I know nothing will come of it,” said Dana, avoiding Bee’s gaze for oh so many reasons, but she thought it sold the idea rather well. “I can’t help myself.”
“Does this mean I challenged you to a duel over his love life?” Bee laughed. “Oh, he’ll never let me hear the end of it.”
Dana gave her a stricken look. “You mustn’t tell him.” The thought of Milord de Winter’s sister-in-law telling him that Dana D’Artagnan fancied him, even though that was the whole point of this little scene she was playing out, was genuinely excruciating. She didn’t have to fake her reaction at all.
“So you’d rather nurse your crush in secret and let him continue to throw himself uselessly at the Marquise de Wardes instead?” Bee challenged.
Dana sighed and her attention back to Athos, who had managed to slash both sleeves off his opponentHe drove him steadily closer and closer to the church, proving with every step that he was the stronger duellist.
“Vaniel would make a terrible boyfriend,” Bee continued. “Really, he talks about politics all the time, and his work is everything to him. I love him dearly, but he was a dreadful husband to my sister, as well.”
“You care about him, don’t you?” said Dana. It was a mystery to her that Bee – who for all her impulsive tendencies to violence, seemed like such a genuine and open person – was so convinced that Milord was worth caring about.
“He’s my family, and family stick together,” said Bee staunchly.
“I like hearing him talk about politics,” Dana confessed, and managed a small laugh that she hoped came across as girlish and romantic. She was very out of practice with this sort of thing. “But it doesn’t matter. I know he’d never be interested in me.”
“We’ll see,” said Bee in a thoughtful sort of voice. “Give me your comm number.”
“You’re going to help me?” Dana said in surprise.
“We’ll see,” Bee said again, more firmly this time.
Only after they had exchanged numbers did Dana look up, only to see Athos bearing his opponent roughly on to the grass, sword-first. “Oh, fuck, he has killed him,” she exclaimed, forgetting to be ‘Alix Charlemagne slightly embarrassed in love’ and running full pelt for the other Musketeers.
“Let’s get out of here!” Bee shouted roughly to her other friends and they fled the scene, skirting around the Luxembourg and away.
Sheffield lay on the grass with a sword in his chest and a horrified look on his face. He still gasped for air, but only just.
Aramis cast her notebook aside and approached the fallen man with a grim expression and a substantial medi-pack. “Athos, I hate when you do this.”
“I know,” said Athos, breathing hard from his duel. “But honestly, how could anyone be expected to spend time with a man like that and not put a sword in his chest?”
“One of these days I’d like you to invest in some anger management techniques that don’t involve collapsing someone’s lung,” Aramis said primly. “Porthos, lift!”
As Dana watched in amazement, Porthos reached over and yanked the sword out of Sheffield’s chest. He yelled out in pain and then flapped his mouth uselessly for air as blood soaked the fine linen of his fencing jacket.
Aramis pulled the jacket open and slapped a large medi-patch over the wound on Sheffield’s chest. He gasped two or three times, and then fell unconscious.
“The thing about a collapsed lung,” said Athos, sounding almost cheerful. “It’s traumatic enough that the healing process keeps them comatose for a day or so, and you can almost guarantee twenty to forty minutes of memory loss.”
Dana stared at him. “Twenty to – you mean he won’t remember the duel.”
“Or any words that might have been exchanged shortly before the duel. That’s right.” Athos smiled at her, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Anyone feel like breakfast?”
“I’m going to punch you now,” Dana informed him.
“Give me a minute to finish this off and I’ll hold him down for you,” volunteered Aramis. “Then you can all take this sad sack to a hospice and go have a victory breakfast somewhere, so I can be left alone to finish my fucking poem.”
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.