All good space opera can be improved by cake. You know it’s true.
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PREVIOUSLY IN MUSKETEER SPACE:
The Sun-kissed have invaded the Solar System, besieging the planet of Truth and terrorising humanity. Porthos has been fighting the war like the rest of her friends – but while she, Aramis and D’Artagnan were waiting in a nightclub back room to report their latest intelligence to Amiral Treville, Athos was off eavesdropping on Cardinal Richelieu… and confronting his dangerous ex-husband.
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Chapter 48: Cake Under Fire
Porthos was worried about Athos.
To be fair, Porthos was always worried about Athos. It had become a sort of familiar background noise ever since she and Aramis found the miserable drunkard clinging to the side of a mountain, half-dead and drenched in the mud of Valour. For Porthos, not worrying about Athos was like not sonic-cleaning her teeth – uncomfortable and itchy and wrong, somehow.
Having said that, there were times in her life when she had particular reason to worry about Athos. His recent brush with a stims overdose in the middle of a battle was a fine example, not to mention the many ships he had managed to crash and burn since becoming a Musketeer.
He was made of steel, but ridiculously fragile. Porthos believed that part of him had never entirely recovered from that Joyeux, more than nine months ago now, when Athos had fallen victim to a terrorist drug that gave him hallucinations of his dead husband and drove him close to suicide.
Discovering that the husband in question was still alive, and an enemy alien – Porthos had expected that to break Athos even further, straight away.
She was still waiting for evidence that it had not.
When he returned to their back room rendezvous in Dovecote Red, his eyes alight with energy and a goddamn smile on his face, the last thing she expected him to say was “I know where Milord is going next. And I know how to stop him. Where’s Treville?”
“Hang on,” said Porthos, wanting to get this straight. “You saw him?”
“Yes, we had a lovely chat. Seriously, where’s Treville?”
“She couldn’t make it,” Aramis said, staring at Athos oddly. “Sent a brief coded message by Fleetnet – she’s stuck on the Bastion for the foreseeable future. They’re under extreme fire from the Sun-kissed right now, no shuttles can safely go back and forth.”
“Fine,” said Athos, grinning like a lunatic. “We’ll go to her. Pack a picnic. It’ll be fun.”
Aramis blinked. “They’re under extreme fire from the Sun-kissed right now, no shuttles can safely go back and forth,” she repeated with greater force.
“Darts are faster and more manoeuvrable than shuttles,” said Athos as if that was a reasonable response.
“Athos,” said Dana in a voice that made it clear she, like the rest of them, thought he had completely gone off the deep end. “You spoke to Milord? Why didn’t you – arrest him?”
“He’s so far in the Cardinal’s pocket, she’d spring him before we had the handcuffs closed,” said Athos cheerfully. “But he’s already failed her once, with the diamond bullshit. If we make sure he fails his next mission, I think she’ll finally wash her hands of him, and that’s when we can move in and nab him for good.”
“And what is his next mission?” Porthos asked, seriously wondering if they needed to call in a medic to give Athos a shot of something. When had he last slept? When had any of them?
“To assassinate the Duchess of Buckingham,” said Athos. “Come on, Bastion, now. I wasn’t kidding about the picnic, Treville’s always more amenable to crazy stunts if she’s not hungry. Is there anywhere around here that sells cake?”
At least he was admitting that the stunt was likely to be crazy. “Athos, it’s the Bastion,” Aramis said in a gentle, sympathetic voice. Treville’s command ship, the Saint-Gervais, was referred to as ‘the Bastion’ because it had almost impregnable space armour. “We’ll get shot out of the sky if we try to board her.”
“I know,” said Athos. “But if we go AWOL in the middle of this war without Treville’s knowledge, it will be our own people who shoot us out of the sky. So, worth the risk. And also, cake.” He nodded, as if he was making complete and total sense.
“You’re going to get us killed,” groaned Dana. “Mercilessly. If not by the Sun-kissed, then by Amiral Treville.”
Porthos sighed. “I can source the cake,” she admitted.
There was nothing in the known universe more awesome than hiring an engie who turned out to be a stress baker. Bonnie was easygoing most of the time – with her huge, sprawling family who genuinely seemed to like each other, and her no-nonsense philosophy on life, she was actually the most well-adjusted person that Porthos knew.
When they were setting the Hoyden up together, back when Porthos first joined the Musketeers, Bonnie’s one demand had been a built-in bread oven along with the more standard food printer. When Porthos protested – because she hadn’t known any better – Bonnie devoted the next twelve hours to teaching her the difference between printed bread and freshly baked bread.
Porthos had never argued with Bonnie (about anything kitchen related) ever again.
That was before she even realised that when under pressure, or stressed, or bored (or any combination of the three), her engie would bake her way into infinity and beyond.
War, with its long waits between short bursts of terror and danger, was highly stressful, and allowed surprisingly large amounts of uninterrupted baking time.
Porthos had no idea if Athos knew that her ship was basically full of cake at this point, or if he had subconsciously picked up the scent of chocolate ganache where it had infused into her uniform, but his request was, for once, easy to fulfil.
At least, the cake part was.
Two hours after Athos burst into the back room with wild eyes and a determination to crush either Milord or the Cardinal or both of them in a bizarre cake-related scheme, Porthos stood on the bridge of the Saint-Gervais musket-class base ship, holding a covered basket and feeling like an idiot.
Amiral Treville, her massive muscled shoulders expanding as she faced them down, was vibrating with fury. “WHAT THE HELL KIND OF STUNT WAS THAT?”
Athos gave Treville his wickedest grin, the one he saved for special occasions, like having to explain how he nearly got himself and his friends shot out of the sky while technically off duty.
Not that special, really, once you started adding all those occasions up.
“Amiral, we had urgent intelligence and it really couldn’t wait…” he began, but Treville cut him off.
“The four of you just sailed directly through a barrage of enemy fire, during an active operation, to board a command vehicle without any prior notification over the comms? Oh, and you did it in a bright green dart which is not yet cleared for battle. Nor is its stupid, foolhardy, reckless addict of a pilot.”
Athos’s grin widened. “You forgot to mention the part where we brought you cake. Because we did. Cake!”
Treville’s eyes widened to dangerous, bulging levels. Porthos had never seen her angrier, and that was saying something.
“I’d like to interject at this point and let you know that I personally tested Athos’ blood readings before letting him fly us here, and he’s surprisingly sober,” Aramis said helpfully.
Treville’s eyes stopped bulging, at least, but this new expression of wariness wasn’t much better. “Is there some reason that should be a surprise to me, Captain Aramis?”
Aramis thought about what she had just said. “No,” she said finally. “But it might also be of casual relevance to this conversation that he’s also not currently on any drugs.”
Porthos did her very best not to let her own surprise at this revelation show, and she caught Dana doing much the same. They shared a strangled sort of expression, and then turned their eyes back to Amiral Treville. Porthos was trying for innocent accomplice but she thought it more likely that her own face currently said ‘looking for an airlock to jump out of.’
“So this…” Treville said, waving vaguely at Athos’ utterly chipper demeanour, and the way he was bouncing enthusiastically on his heels.
“Natural high, boss,” Aramis informed her.
“No,” Treville decided. “There’s nothing natural about that fucking smile on his face.”
Athos blew her a kiss.
“Ready room, all of you,” Treville barked, marching towards her private quarters. “Lacois, you have the helm. Try not to get us blown up while I’m yelling at Musketeers.”
“To be fair, boss, that is the way you’d want to go out,” and oh, it was Porthos who had said that out loud. What the hell had got into her?
Treville gave her a filthy look. “Bring the damned cake, Captain Porthos,” she ordered.
The basket contained a warm orange honey cake that Bonnie’s grandmother had taught her to make, and something sticky involving chocolate and cherries, and a pastry arrangement with cinnamon custard that Porthos basically wanted to hug to her chest and defend from the rest of them.
Since Athos had supervised the packing of the basket, there were also two flasks of champagne, and three of hot coffee. Under Treville’s judgy eye, while Porthos silently served out wedges of cake with napkins and tiny forks, Aramis poured the coffee and discreetly nudged the champagne back under the cloth for later.
“So,” said Treville, once she had downed one and a half cups of powerful espresso, and fully appreciated several bites of the chocolate and cherries thing. “Athos. What the fuck.”
“Sentiment echoed over here,” said Aramis, waving her own fork. “Assassinations. Milord. Conspiracies. Buckingham. Discuss.”
“Right,” said Athos, who had not actually touched the cake in front of him, but held on to his cup of coffee as if he planned to drown himself in it shortly. “This might be a long story.”
“I will actually kill you,” Porthos remarked.
Athos got to his feet and began to circle the room. Oh, this was bad. He always had trouble organising his thoughts when seated, and preferred to be active. If they weren’t careful, he might end up doing sword lunges in the middle of their impromptu cake party.
Porthos stood up, went to him, unfastened the Pilot’s Slice from his belt, then returned to the table. “Continue,” she suggested, and saw everyone around the table give a small sigh of relief that he was no longer armed.
Athos gave her a wounded look. “Fine. The Cardinal has hired Milord De Winter to assassinate the Duchess of Buckingham.” He glanced at Treville. “We’re going to need your official order to head to Valour at all speed and arrest the assassin in question, before he gets to her.”
Treville considered this – chewed and swallowed a mouthful of soft chocolate sponge. “With all due respect to the Duchess of Buckingham, she has her own security. Explain why I am going to allow four essential members of personnel – because it’s too much to fucking hope that you don’t all expect to go on this mercy dash together – to leave the battle zone and play bodyguard to a pampered aristocrat from a planet that plans to secede from the Solar System any minute, and has barely contributed any resources to the war effort?”
‘Why I am going to,’ Porthos noted, not ‘Why should I?’ Honestly, none of them deserved the trust that Treville placed upon them – and Athos least of all, when he had pissed away so many second chances.
“Because,” said Athos, circling the table full of Musketeers and cake as he arranged his thoughts, one foot in front of the other.
“If you could manage to explain without further maligning the reputation of her Eminence the Cardinal, that would help,” Treville added.
“Yes, I can see that,” Athos mused. “It’s a challenge, but I’ll try The Cardinal’s plan is remarkably well-intentioned. She blames Buckingham’s influence – and her recent well publicised breakdown and retreat from public affairs – for the lack of New Aristocrat enthusiasm towards this war. On Valour, anyway. She believes that if carefully managed, Buckingham’s death would work as a call to arms.”
“Interesting,” said Treville, not conveying whether this was a plan she already knew anything about. “Tell me again why I am against the scheme if it means more ships on our side?”
“Because,” said Athos. “What the Cardinal does not know is that her agent poses a terrible danger to the Crown and the Solar System. He cannot be trusted to follow her agenda, or to do anything that is in the interests of humankind.”
Treville finished her slice of the chocolate and cherries thing, and started on the orange and honey cake. “You think this De Winter is a spy for the enemy?”
“He is Sun-kissed,” Dana blurted, and then drew her eyes back down to her cake. “We know that much.”
“We know more than that,” said Athos, with a sympathetic glance shot briefly in Dana’s direction, though the kid didn’t look up in time to see it. “When not working for the Cardinal, the agent calling himself Milord has infiltrated the Valour government, has acted directly against Crown and Solar System, and – I believe, is wanted for acts of terrorism in Paris last year.”
Porthos almost swallowed her cake fork. “The Joyeux attacks? Athos, are you serious?”
“I knew it when I looked into his eyes tonight,” Athos said calmly, as if he was not talking about a man he had once loved and married. “We know he goes by pseudonyms like Slate and Winter in the course of his work – and the suspect we arrested for those crimes called himself Grey. I thought at the time there was something familiar about him, but could never quite place it… and, you might remember, he escaped custody after faking his own death in prison. A favourite trick.” And there, there was the bitterness Porthos had been waiting to hear, some hint that yes, this was personal for Athos.
She had been starting to worry that Athos was compartmentalising the situation a little too effectively. Now she had whole new things to worry about.
“You want us to thwart Milord in this scheme, hoping that the Cardinal will drop her protection of him, and we can bring him into custody permanently this time,” Dana said softly, lifting her face to Athos as if the two of them were the only ones in the room. “Save the Duchess of Buckingham, catch the spy.”
“And convince Buckingham to lead the New Aristocrats of Valour into this war,” Athos added. “That’s the carrot for you, boss. We’ll follow the Cardinal’s wishes and bring you ships of Valour to help with the siege – and we’ll do it without assassinating anyone.”
“An alien spy and a flotilla of imaginary ships,” Treville said dryly. “Is it my birthday, Athos?”
“Well, we did bring cake,” he teased.
The Amiral nodded heavily. “And does anyone wish to tell me why this man De Winter – who, regardless of the Cardinal’s protection, is an employee of the Valour government and thus has considerable resources of his own – is of particular interest to my Musketeers? How can you be so sure that he is a Sun-kissed spy, and why does it matter so damned much to you that he be stopped?”
There was a long pause in which Athos stopped pacing right by Dana, and stared at Treville as if she had shot a puppy in front of him.
“Milord personally requested to be freed from consequence of murdering D’Artagnan as a reward,” he said quietly. “He holds a grudge.”
Treville gave him a thin smile. “That sounds like the end of a story, Captain Athos, not the beginning.”
Dana took a deep breath, ready to take over her part of the conversation. “I should probably explain about Conrad Su…”
“No,” Athos said, his hand briefly brushing her shoulder. “No, shut up, D’Artagnan, it’s okay. It’s time she knew all of it.” He glanced at Porthos with a silent entreaty, and she got his message loud and clear.
“Come on, you two,” Porthos said brightly. “Let’s go take a turn about the deck and see how many aliens are shooting at the Bastion right now. It will be fun.” She hooked one arm around Aramis’s elbow and collected Dana on the way out, leaving Athos and Treville facing each other down across a cake-strewn meeting table.
“So,” said Athos, as the door spiralled open to let his friends out of what Porthos was already mentally dubbing The Embarrassment Zone. “Fun story, boss. I used to be married…”
After twenty minutes or so loitering outside Treville’s door, Dana D’Artagnan looked sick with worry. Or possibly she had eaten too much cake. “She won’t actually kill him and ditch the body out an airlock, will she she?”
“I’m pretty sure if she was ever going to do that to Athos, it would have been when he grew the beard,” Porthos assured her.
“She shouts at him a lot, but that’s how we know he’s her favourite,” agreed Aramis gravely.
This was mostly true, though Porthos had Athos as a favourite in the ‘most likely to be murdered by our boss’ sweepstake, so she wasn’t going to argue with either of them.
When Athos finally stepped out, he looked wrecked, as if Treville had been beating him around the head with her office furniture – there was none of the manic energy he had used to fuel their terrifying flight here, and the picnic he had inflicted upon the Amiral.
“So?” said Aramis, her eyebrows raised at the state of him. “Are we riding into the sunset to rescue you-know-who and arrest that-other-fellow?”
“Subtle,” Porthos complimented her.
“I thought so,” Aramis preened.
“No,” said Athos in a rough voice. “No, we’re not.” And he looked directly at Dana, as if this was only the start of the terrible news he had to break to her. “Treville’s not letting us go, and I can’t change her mind.”
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 2014. My next funding milestone will unlock GORGEOUS COVER ART.