Musketeer Space Part 51: The Comte De La Fere is a Ghost Story

sp_fleur-de_lisIt’s Musketeer Day again!

Winter has closed in around Hobart, with rain and snow looming down over us. And yes, it’s still May. At least the cold front came in (for once) early enough for new winter coats to be bought before they disappear from the shops.

I bought two! Now I just need to get ugg boots for the children.

The wintry weather is very appropriate for the part of Musketeer Space I’m writing at the moment, because of the ice and wind and snow of the Castellion chapters. It’s all very symbolic.

Start reading Musketeer Space from Part 1
Missed the last installment? Track back to Part 50
Read a festive Musketeer Space prequel, “Seven Days of Joyeux.”
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:

Milord Vaniel De Winter, AKA Auden D’Auteville, AKA Slate, AKA Winter, has been hired by Cardinal Richelieu to either convince the Duchess of Buckingham to lead an armada of Valour ships to support the war against the Sun-kissed, or to assassinate the Duchess so they can use her death as a political rallying cry. What the Cardinal doesn’t know is that Milord is himself a Sun-kissed agent… unfortunately for Milord, the Musketeers have been making some very effective interstellar comms calls in their attempt to thwart him.

NOW READ ON!

CHAPTER 51: The Comte De La Fere Is A Ghost Story

The De Winter family skimmer was a masterwork of comfort and elegance in design. Milord had always been rather fond of it.

Bee sat in the driver’s seat with her boots up on the dash, calmly waiting him out.

“Where are we going?” he asked her, choosing not to address the implied knowledge and accusation in her voice.

There were at least sixteen methods he could use to kill her, right this minute. It would be a shame – Bianca De Winter had been a worthy ally, and her loyalty to family had always provided him with a certain layer of protection in the cutthroat world of Valour New Aristocracy.

Milord had always known that it would be temporary. Olivier, you taught me that lesson. The second I disappointed you, my life was forfeit.

They were a ruthless race, these New Aristocrats of Valour. Only three or four generations ago, their ancestors had set foot on a barren rock and turned their machines against it until it transformed into a land of storybook beauty, worthy of their distant myths and legends.

If Milord had learned one thing from the university courses he took while attempting to snare a high-ranking spouse, it was that humans were stupid in the face of beauty. Having conquered this planet and made it perfect, the New Aristocrats thought themselves above everyone else.

Oh they had their religion, but was it a surprise that so many of them preferred Elementalism to the more forward-looking and inclusive Church of All? By worshipping the earth and the trees and the very air, they worshipped themselves all over again. Who was it who had made the earth rich and fertile on this planet? Who was it who had shaped the rivers and the mountains and altered the air so it tasted sweet in human lungs?

The fucking New Aristocrats, that was who. Their religion, like everything else, was all about them.

The De Winter family were as bloated and self-congratulatory as the d’Autevilles had been. But Milord had learned from his mistakes with the Comte De La Fere. By the time he presented himself on a platter to Delia De Winter and her arrogant, brash older sister, he had shaped a history that allowed him to play Someone of Note, rather than an outsider craving acceptance.

And yes, he loved his title. How could he not? As the husband of the Comte de la Fere he had been merely The Honourable Auden d’Auteville, a name that made it clear he was of lesser status to everyone else in the backwater noble family he had chosen to infiltrate.

When he came to marry Milady Delia De Winter, younger sister of the Countess of Clarick, he had expected much of the same. But Bee was generous, and greatly pleased with the money and political influence that ‘Vaniel Greywater’ brought to the marriage. She allowed him to share Delia’s title, and somehow…

Somehow, as Milord, he had become someone new. Perhaps these ridiculous New Aristocrats knew what they were doing after all. He knew the title was meaningless, that he had done little more than bought it outright… and yet.

He was a different man when he wore it. There was a confidence to him that had only arrived when he became Milord, distancing himself from the last ragged remnants of the identity that had nearly destroyed him.

Bee was waiting for him to speak, her boots twitching impatiently. She had not answered his question. Did she realise that he was considering the potential risks of killing her right here, in the skimmer? Had she password-locked the auto pilot? It would not do to arrive, blood-stained and breathless, at the De Winter estate in the county of Clarick with the recently-murdered corpse of his sister-in-law.

“Aren’t you going to ask me what I know about you?” There was a thread of tension in her voice, and yet Bee made herself pretend her usual careless amusement, as a rather jolly development in their relationship.

“I have already asked you a question and received no answer,” Milord replied, matching her light tone. “Goodness, darling, what have those surly Musketeers been telling you?”

Bee leaned in, and Milord’s gaze swept over the pulse at her throat, the one that he could pinch out so easily. She had no idea how strong he was, how much more than a human she had trapped here in the metal skin of this skimmer.

Or perhaps she did know, after all.

“One Musketeer in particular,” said Bee, tipping her head back against the soft leather of the pilot seat. “His name is Athos. You’re acquainted, I suppose?”

He chose his words carefully, not allowing the anger at that ridiculous nickname to show in his face or the smooth gestures of his hands. “I hardly think you would believe me if I said I was not acquainted with the fellow. Though in truth, we met for the first time some days ago.”

Bee’s face hardened. “Really, Vaniel? Is that the truth? I got the impression you had known each other long ago. Or is it a lie that you were once married to the Comte De La Fere, under another name?”

Milord huffed out a laugh. “The Comte De La Fere? Now I know someone has been telling you fairy tales. The Comte De La Fere is a ghost story.”

“Indeed.” But Bee looked so very unimpressed. How on earth had Olivier got under her skin so quickly, turned her fierce trust into suspicion? “I’d never even heard of the estate, but I’ve had time to research it while waiting for you to show up. It’s found in the peak district of far north Castellion – a long way from any civilised society. Far enough north that they use the old language – comtes and comtesses, ducs and duchesses. As it turns out, there was a Comte of those lands some years ago, and he had a husband.”

Milord had never wasted a thought on what happened to the estate after he left. He had known – had seen somewhere – that Olivier d’Auteville had disappeared after the execution of his husband, and eventually been declared dead. Perhaps one of the hangers on that orbited the family had taken the lands for themselves. Or perhaps they stood empty still.

He had been happy there once, for a time, though when he thought of it he remembered the chilly grey winters and not the fresh green warmth of the summers.

“Have you been listening to gossip from a dead man?” he asked Bee now.

Her mouth broke into a broad, cold smile. “He had such an interesting story to tell.”

Milord looked away from her, his eyes going to the viewscreen that was full of blue, bright blue, and utterly familiar. “We’re skimming over water.”

“Yes,” said Bee. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, brother dear. But we’re not going to Clarick.”

His gaze snapped back to her, calculating. “Then I’m the one who’s sorry. But I don’t think we have anything left to talk about.”

Milord moved, and Bee twisted away from him. He had a blade in his hand by the time her boots smacked down on to the floor, but she did too. His was a killing knife, the kind that concealed so easily in a sleeve, though the SmartMetal allowed it to bend and warp to whatever length or width was most useful.

Bee, however, had a sword. She must have been keeping it down beside her seat, but the hilt was in her hand now, and the tip directly pointing at Milord’s throat.

Her weapon had the reach on him, but she was a sportswoman and not a killer. He took a step, intending to let her impale him. A thin blade sucking through the middle of his throat would nicely take the sword out of play and do little to slow him down as he slit her throat and let her bleed out on the floor of the luxury skimmer.

One step was all it took, and a hard snap locked around his ankles, forcing him still. Cuffs. The chair had cuffed him in place – some sort of automatic system? He growled, flexing against the hard metal that restrained him.

Bee De Winter, the Countess of Clarick, lowered her sword. “I was never as stupid as you thought I was,” she told him.

Milord snarled at her, no longer having to pretend anything. “Isn’t that inconvenient.”

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Finisterra. This was Finisterra. Milord knew it from the moment he was led – cuffed at the ankle and the wrist – from the skimmer an on to the hard grey rock of the island.

Delia had only brought him here once. She hated the place as much as any member of her family did. Finisterra was where New Aristocrats went to remind themselves how good things were. It was one of the few patches of Valour which had never been successfully terraformed – oh, the air was breathable enough, and the bitter blue ocean was as teeming with life as any other body of saltwater on this over-designed planet.

But nothing grew on Finisterra. Nothing but stone. The De Winter family had sold stone blocks hewn from this grim island for generations, to build castles all across Castellion, though the New Aristocracy preferred butter yellow sandstone from the eastern quarries than the pale blue-grey rock of the islands. Eventually the quarry was closed down.

There was a tower here, built high and sure above the island, with a clear view across the ocean to mountains that must, it occurred to Milord, themselves overlook the land he had first infiltrated when he arrived on Valour.

This was a northern island, so he was closer to the De La Fere estate than he had been since his execution. Ironic, that he might well meet a second execution here. Full circle, one might say.

Good luck with that, Bee, he thought silently as he trudged the path from the skimmer to the grim tower that awaited him. His ankles were weighed down by magnetic cuffs similar to the ones that had pinned him to the chair. His sister-in-law held an arc-ray on him as she followed. Taking my head won’t be enough. I wonder if you have any idea how difficult I will be to kill.

There was a harsh familiarity to the tower as Milord made his weary way inside, as a prisoner. The De Winters loved their grey stone. Bee and Delia’s grandfather had built a similar tower on an unnamed asteroid after winning the title in a gambling debt. The asteroid had been one of many random properties assigned to Milord’s care after the death of his wife, and he had made use of it only recently, to house the kidnapped Conrad Su.

This tower, the Finisterra tower, was somehow colder and less welcoming than the asteroid tower had been.

“I haven’t been here since I was a child,” Bee remarked as they entered the arched gate to be greeted by a flat-faced unit of guards, all wearing the De Winter crest. “I do hope there are dungeons.”

“You are making a mistake,” Milord said, keeping his voice soft and unthreatening.

Bee leaned in to him, making sure to keep at an arm’s length. Even with his wrists heavy in cuffs that matched the weights on his ankles, she did not trust him. And so she should not. “Am I really? Was that someone else’s hand wielding a knife in my face a few hours ago?”

“I feared for my life.”

“From me?”

“You have obviously been bewitched by the words of a madman.”

Bee smiled at that. “Mad is he, your Musketeer? I thought he was a ghost story.”

“Bee, for the sake of our family…”

She actually hissed in her throat. “Family. You dare say that to me? I have trusted you as a brother and a friend, and this – what you have done to my family is indescribable.”

“It’s the dishonour that burns, is it?” he shot at her. “How embarrassing for you, to have Musketeers spreading ridiculous tales about your kin.”

Bee looked as if she had been slapped. “You think I brought you here because you are an embarrassment to me? Darling boy. I brought you here because I want answers.”

Milord wriggled his fingers, flexing his wrists against the cuffs. He could get out of them now, if he changed shape, but he would lose any pretence of innocence, and he did not yet know the lie of the land. If he could be sure these six men and women in livery were the only guards on the island, he might be prepared to risk it. But he had not got as far as he had without patience, and caution.

“I am an open book,” he said to his sister-in-law, projecting an aura of harmlessness. “What do you need to know, sweetness?”

“For a start,” said Bee. “Did you murder my sister Delia?”

Oh, that.

Well.

That was a long story, and not one that was going to endear him to Bee tonight.

Better to say nothing.

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Milord was taken, not to a dungeon, but to a room high in the tower. Suitably melodramatic. He was almost impressed at the lengths to which Bee was willing to go to play the part of ruthless jailer to the hilt.

There were twelve guards, not six, and they were presided over by a resentful woman in the emerald-and-gold sash of a Valour Marshal.

“Aren’t you a little overqualified for guard duty?” Milord asked the Marshal, calculating the size and shape of the room, the electronic seals on every window, and the active security system that would monitor him every second of every minute of every hour of every day.

“Marshal Felton is here at the First Minister’s request,” said Bee, as she checked the accommodations. “I’ve been busy during your voyage from the battle zone, brother dear. Her eminence Cardinal Richelieu was especially informative about your past activities.”

Milord raised an eyebrow. “I bet she was.”

“The government of Valour took it as a personal favour for me to discreetly remove you from the public, to minimise the scandal,” Bee went on. “I might get a knighthood for it.”

“Betrayal is a lucrative business these days.”

Her face frosted over. “Don’t you dare, Vaniel. You wormed your way into my family, married my sister – who died so conveniently soon after the wedding, and from such a brief illness. I never even doubted you for a second. All this time.”

“Bee,” he said, still hoping he could convince her to take his word over that of his ridiculous former husband. “Be reasonable.”

Olivier, you will die for this, and I will make you watch me dismember the girl D’Artagnan before I finally let you fall into you own oblivion.

“Reasonable?” Bee hissed. “This isn’t a minor skeleton in the closet to be tidied away. My sister is dead, and my only heir was apparently fathered by an alien. I’m not in the mood to be reasonable, Vaniel. I’m done with you. If you have any confessions, give them to Marshal Felton, and we’ll see if anything you say is worth trading for a swift and private execution, instead of the publicly humiliating spectacle that the Valour government is preparing for as we speak.”

She stormed out of the room, leaving only Marshal Felton behind.

Milord took a deep breath, and gave her a charming smile. “I’m so sorry you had to see that. Family tiffs can be so awkward. Any chance of a hot cup of tea?”

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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 “Seven Days of Joyeux,” a special Christmas prequel novella which was released in December 2014. My next funding milestone will unlock GORGEOUS COVER ART.

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