I had a very festive birthday weekend, including a Gold Class viewing of Mad Max: Fury Road (ahh always nice to watch the apocalypse from a comfy chair), a self-inflicted Much Ado About Nothing marathon, and finally managing to perfect the coffee cake made from actual coffee.
If you’re coming to Continuum next week (eeee!) make sure to come up and say hi.
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:
Milord has been imprisoned in a tower in the middle of nowhere by his sister-in-law the Countess of Clarick, under advisement from those interfering bloody Musketeers. He’s been working on his jailer, Marshal Felton, to convince her that he is the innocent one in this whole mess.
NOW READ ON!
This chapter is dedicated to D. Franklin, arts & small press patron extraordinaire. Thanks so much for supporting this project – if only there was tea and cake in this one!
Chapter 53: The Many Deaths of Milord
The first time that he died, he was not Milord De Winter, nor was he Auden d’Auteville. His name, if he had one at all, was a burst of light and shade in his own language, a brightness and a gleam that meant familiarity and home and me.
He was one of the Bright Ones, a legion of youngsters charged with scattering themselves across the alien Solar System and integrate themselves into the society that called itself humanity.
There were four of them in each pod, hurtling through the galaxy, away from the real suns, away from the light and the heat, anything they had ever known.
He (was he even a he at this point?) had no words for this loss, for the fear that swept over them all as they were shot like bullets into a Solar System that felt cold and grey compared to anything they had known in their youth.
Why not call it death?
He would never be bright and warm again.
The planet was cold and pale, too far from the sun which was itself a weak ball of yellow light, hardly worth bothering about.
Two pod-siblings were dead, shaken too badly on impact. A third had crawled ahead of him, out of the pod and into the wan sunshine. She stood, already forming her flexible scarlet limbs into the body she had learned to make in Basic Training.
He watched her as she gave herself two arms, two legs. She grew hair from her scalp, and nails from her fingertips. She stretched her waist thin and her hips wide; made globular breasts that seemed far too round to be realistic.
“Clothes,” she said hoarsely. “Don’t have enough… energy to stay warm, without clothes.”
Something had gone wrong with her heat source; she was already turning blueish and pale, simply from the contact between her misshapen feet and the fierce white ice-crust of the ground.
Winter, he realised. They had landed on the winter side of the planet. That was not in their mission parameters. It would count as a failing mark.
He could feel his own heat within his core, and it kept his muscles relaxed and protected even as he shaped his own body into the design he had worked on for so long.
Male, certainly. A sleek, practical silhouette with the appropriate musculature. Toes. He had worked so hard on his toes, on ensuring a deliberate inconsistency between them. To be too perfect was to stand out, and their mission was to integrate, to collect data.
His pod-sibling moaned as her skin chilled too quickly. Her energy flickered. He stepped forward, pressing his chest to her back, so that she could warm herself on his heat.
As he drained her of the remainder of her light energy, she screamed. There was no one on this ice-crusted land to hear her. He burned with triumph, with the heat that meant survival.
The pod itself disintegrated, as it was meant to do, leaving only a small beacon behind, dug deep into the snow.
As he walked across the ground, towards the flecks of heat and light in the distance that meant some kind of civilisation, his feet steamed where they touched the snow.
The second time he died, he was the Honourable Auden d’Autevielle, husband to the Comte de la Fere. He had spent two years befriending Oliver with his wit and sarcasm and beauty, before pouring everything he knew about humanity into a dazzling seduction.
From lovers to husbands: it took less than another year for Olivier to fall so completely that he was willing to stand up to his remaining family members and assert his power as the Comte to marry whoever he damn well wanted to.
They were happy in their marriage, and it was true happiness, or as near to it as Auden had ever imagined he could have. Every year he made a discreet pilgrimage back to the snowy wastes of far north Castellion, to pour all that he had learned about these people into the blinking, impersonal beacon.
The war between his own people and the human solar system had ended now, but the work of data-gathering continued. There would be another war, and he was one of the weapons they were saving for the future.
Every year it became harder, to slide out of the warm bed and the man who loved him, to make that solitary trek, and to betray the planet that had become his home.
He was never entirely warm on Valour, and yet he no longer saw it in bleak shades of grey and white, either. There was colour, if you looked hard enough.
But the beacon – his people – knew too much, now. They knew about Olivier and the county of De La Fere. The only way Auden could escape them would be if he destroyed that life entirely: all the connections he had made and shared, and started again as a different person.
If he left his husband.
Auden gazed thoughtfully at the beacon, uploaded his report, and then returned home to the estate, to love, to Olivier, to warmth.
The following year, he stayed home. It was hardly a rebellion at all – he would go to the beacon, he knew that he would give in eventually. He was too terrified not to. And yet… he left it a day, and then another, telling himself that he would go tomorrow, that he had not truly made up his mind to turn rogue.
It was the beacon that made up his mind for him. At the beginning of the third day that he had failed to make his annual report, his skin began to burn.
The heat was pleasant at first, a familial warmth that filled him with light and manic energy. But the heat did not disperse. It poured over him in waves, sending him shivering one moment and sweating with heat the next.
It seemed like a common illness, to the humans. But the Honourable Auden d’Auteville fell into a feverish rambling, his whole body swamped with pain and heat and punishment.
By the time he had recovered anything like his usual sensibilities, it was too late. He was weighed down with heavy chains and cuffs, under sentence of execution by his own husband who had finally – terribly – discovered his secret.
Here is what he could have done:
1. Twisted his hands and feet into thin trailing shapes that could easily escape the cuffs.
2. Murdered the guards left to keep him from doing exactly that.
3. Made a new body and face for himself and begun again, on the far side of the continent, or elsewhere on the planet.
Instead, Auden placed all of his trust in the love that he had built between Olivier and himself. He believed, right up until the last minute, that his husband was incapable of striking the killing blow.
Humans knew so little about the Sun-kissed, even after fighting a war against them. One fact they all held to their hearts was that the only way to kill a Sun-kissed was to sever his head from his body.
It was an extremely useful myth.
There might be millions of ways for his kind to die on their own world, but Auden had seen for himself that the only way that the Sun-kissed could die on Valour was if they took damage while their bodies were cold.
Olivier Armand d’Autevielle, the Comte de la Fere, executed his husband on a beautiful sunny afternoon in an open courtyard on his own land. The event was attended by a planetary marshal, a Servant of the Elements, and several members of local government.
After Auden’s head was severed by the neck, his body was ritually burned in the Elemental fashion, in two separate locations.
Ten minutes later, he was reassembled in a bright beam of burning light, beside the beacon in the snow. He gave his report methodically, taking in all relevant data gathered in the last year, and providing particular account of the human response to his unveiling as an alien spy.
He brimmed with power and unspilled energy, practically glowing in his own skin after the – what should he call it? Restoration? Escape plan?
As soon as the report had been uploaded into the sky, Auden (not Auden anymore) summoned every mote of energy he had, and blasted the beacon into motes of dust.
Now he was truly alone.
The body he shaped for himself next should have been completely different. It was a dangerous luxury, to keep any feature that resembled Auden d’Autevielle.
But that face, those limbs, those feet – he had designed them personally. They felt more like himself than his own bright red body of flexible, mutable limbs and squashy, unshaped face.
He liked his cheekbones. He could rule the world with cheekbones like those.
In the end, he allowed himself to shape his body into a being who could well have been Auden’s more stable older brother. He let his hair grow brown rather than silver, widened his nose a little, added more wear and tear to the face, and some width to the shoulders and rib cage.
He travelled south, far south, because there was no need to linger within a few days travel of that damned beacon any longer. He went from city to city, acquiring clothes and funds and political gossip.
Vaniel Stonewater had little in the way of a history or credentials to start with, and yet these things could be altered with comms technology.
The one thing he was best at, the skill he valued above all else: he was an excellent spy. So he built up different faces and bodies, variations on a theme: he became Slate and Grey as well as Stonewater.
Auden and Oliver had adored political theory – but their world had been small, it turned out, confined to their university and then to Olivier’s rural estate. Here, in the south, cities ate and drank New Aristocrat politics, and as Vaniel, he found a game that he could win all the time without growing bored; the rules were always changing.
One night, in a salon filled with beautiful people looking for sex and attachment as much as intellectual stimulation, Vaniel met a quiet young woman with laughter in her eyes, whose elder sister was desperate to marry her off.
“Milady Delia de Winter,” she told him when he asked her name.
“Winter,” he said with an inscrutable smile. “What a marvellously evocative name.”
“You don’t think it makes me sound cold?” she flirted.
“Quite the opposite, sweetness. Quite the opposite.”
Now, it was Vaniel de Winter’s turn to die. He had no illusions about that: Bee had always been a ruthless defender of her family when he was a part of it, and now that she saw him as her enemy, she would not hesitate to end him.
It was only a surprise she had not done it already. But she had orders, it seemed, or requests, at least, from someone with the authority to stay her hand.
Too much to hope that her Eminence the Cardinal was riding to his rescue? Theirs had been a partnership of convenience, and Milord was well aware that he had ceased to become convenient.
Still, the death of the Duchess of Buckingham would go a long way towards repairing their professional relationship, and Milord had a reputation to uphold.
Committing a murder remotely while locked in a tower, far from the victim… oh yes, that would go a long way to reminding people just what Milord De Winter was capable of.
Even if he would not be De Winter after tonight.
Marshal Felton came to him at midnight, when everyone else in this wretched tower was asleep. Milord sat with his feet up on the window seat as the familiar chimes of the security system indicated that someone was punching in a code.
He had already taken the dose of Vision, a clever drug that had once been used for naval commanders to see into the minds of all of their captains during an aerial battle. Combined with the Winter program, it made for a whole different kind of weapon.
When he closed his eyes, Milord saw Winter: the barefoot, silver-haired creature that reminded him so much of the person he used to be, before his husband killed him.
Winter was a flirt, a dangerous weapon, and a spy. All of his selves were spies.
He had created Winter himself, based on an integration program he bought on the black market from Mendaki traders: he was pretty sure they used it as some kind of long distance interstellar sex toy, but felt no need to have this suspicion confirmed.
The program was contained within tiny microchips that looked like grains of pepper and could be added to any food or drink. Once lodged inside the victim’s skin, they would implant the program’s personality directly into their brain.
Milord had no actual control of Winter, once the program was inserted. It played out its own games of mockery, subversion and occasionally even followed a path that he had indicated would be a very good idea.
The Winter he had dosed the Duchess of Buckingham with months ago, for instance, was a law unto itself. It had certainly performed the necessary tasks – pushing her towards the adultery she already desperately wanted to commit, nudging her to keep the coat that the ridiculous Prince Consort had already been foolish enough to wrap around her shoulders.
No, the true value of Winter was in the information it provided. Milord could check in with the program – with everything it had witnessed through the eyes of the Duchess of Buckingham – through his use of Vision.
Tonight, for instance, he learned that Buck had a house guest: a young man who had thwarted Milord more than once, and had an intimate connection to Dana D’Artagnan.
Killing Buck was a matter of duty. Killing Conrad Su would be a delicious treat: something to look forward to, when duty was done.
Milord relaxed, and wriggled his bare feet against the cool stone of the tower wall.
Felton finished entering the code, and stepped into the tower. “Milord,” she said in a low whisper.
He had her, then. Had manipulated her sufficiently to make her move in secret, against the Countess of Clarick. It was all highly promising.
If Milord was to use Felton, really use her, then she had to want to be used. The Winter program could only go so far.
“Did you come here to pray?” he asked silkily, stretching out along the ledge.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” said Felton in a whisper.
“It’s all right,” said Milord, keeping his voice gentle and soothing. “It’s not your fault. You have been caught up in a conspiracy not of your making. And you are on the wrong side. But you don’t have to be.”
“I don’t believe you. I don’t trust you,” said Felton, and yet when her eyes met Milord’s, he could not help but exult. He had cracked her open using only words and ideas. It was the best kind of seduction.
“Here,” he said, leaping lightly to his feet and crossing the tower floor, his warm soles stinging with the cold of the flagstones. “Share my wine, and we’ll talk. I will answer any question you have about the many crimes my sister-in-law has committed against Valour justice – all the name of friendship with those Musketeers, of all people.”
He could not resist a sneer at ‘Musketeers’ and he saw that Felton subconsciously mimicked him. Of course she had an ingrained dislike and distrust of the Regent’s own. She had been one of the Red Guards on Paris Satellite not so long ago.
Felton wet her mouth with the wine, and licked her lips, though it was more of a nervous habit than any particular desire for the wine. Not enough. She must drink deeper.
Milord continued, his voice lilting. “It is all Buckingham behind it, of course. Buckingham and her ambitions for this planet.”
“This planet,” said Felton, taking another swallow of wine, and there was something about the twist of her mouth as she repeated the words…
It occurred to Milord that the best tool for a seduction was knowledge. “What is it you most want, Marshal Felton? What is it that you need?”
“Want, need,” said Felton, waving the wine glass as if it offended her. “My whole life collapsed because of want and need. I lost Paris because of want and need. I won’t make that mistake again.”
“Oh,” breathed Milord. He took the glass from her and pretended to sip, then passed it back to watch her take a longer swallow. “It is Paris you want. To return there.”
And that was enough to break the dam. “I hate this planet, with its New Aristocrats and its politics and its rain, and Elementals everywhere,” said Felton. “I was happy in the Red Guard, happy on Paris Satellite.”
“But what happened? Who took it away from you?”
“I fell in love with a Musketeer,” she said sourly. “With someone who did not care enough for me. I broke the fidelity clause of my marriage contract for three nights in the arms of Aramis, and when we were caught out – she moved on to another affair, while I was ruined for the Red Guard. Everyone on Paris is an oathbreaker, one way or another, but no one can afford to be caught.”
I see,” said Milord, watching the long, milky throat of Felton work around the wine that remained in the glass. He could not be sure yet, if the implant had taken hold. “What is it you want then, my dear? Revenge, or Paris?”
“Both, I want both. Even if the Cardinal forgave me my sins, I could not return to Paris while she was there…”
And oh, there it was. Still swimming with the heightened senses provided by Vision, Milord gasped as a wave of heat roiled around the tower room, and the vision of his younger, charming silver-haired self flickered into existence beside him.
For a moment, Felton staggered back, clearly seeing double. Then she swayed as the implant took hold, and her eyes focused on a single figure – on the illusion of Winter.
Milord captured the glass and set it aside, and Felton barely even glanced in his direction.
Winter moved towards her, his hips swaying and his smile blazing with heat. “We’re going to do such marvellous work together, Jan,” he promised her. “We’re going to kill a traitor. And when the Duchess of Buckingham is in the ground… I promise you, the Red Guard will welcome you back with open arms. And the Musketeer Aramis will never return to Paris Satellite alive.”
As for Milord himself, his next death was only just around the corner. He would reshape himself anew, and none of them would see it coming.
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.