Musketeer Space Part 55: Snow and Star Nuns, But Mostly Snow

bookBack from Melbourne where I had an amazing time at Continuum 11 (con report to follow when I am much less sleepy). Thank you everyone for making the con so great, and especial hooray to those who came up to talk about Musketeer Space, and who came to my reading of the first chapter in the Harmony room.

I’m SO CLOSE to finishing this book! You’re still a couple of months away from the end, but I’m about three chapters away. Eeep.

At this stage, I’m looking at keeping the end-of-project complete assembled ebook of Musketeer Space exclusive to Patreon backers for at least a year so if you want one, head on over the the Patreon page – you can support the project for as little as $1 per month.

Start reading Musketeer Space from Part 1
Missed the last installment? Track back to Part 54
Read a festive Musketeer Space prequel, “Seven Days of Joyeux.”
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:

Conrad contracted himself to Jing-fei Su in marriage so that he could fulfil the “morality clause” in order to work for the Palace as Prince Alek of Auster’s tailor, and closest confidante. With Alek, former Minister Chevreuse (and on one notable occasion, the Duchess of Buckingham), Conrad is also a championship fleur-de-lis player. He spends most of his time protecting the Prince from political conspiracies, and being kidnapped by people who want to get information about the Prince out of Conrad’s brain. Funny story, that’s how he met Dana D’Artagnan, who he is totally going to hook up with when all of this is over. Most recently, Conrad has been staying with Buck after the Prince rescued him from a month-long abduction by the sinister Milord De Winter.

NOW READ ON!

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This chapter is dedicated to Patreon supporter Scott Lynch – thanks for much for helping to make Musketeer Space happen!

Chapter 55: Snow and Star Nuns, But Mostly Snow

THEN:

Conrad had been giving Buck her space, as much as he could. Villiers House was her home, and he was very conscious of the fact that he was a guest here.

Also, they weren’t friends.

Sure, they had got along fine last Joyeux, when she was the Ambassador of Valour, palling around with Prince Alek and taking Chev’s place to help the Emerald Knights complete their final season.

They had played fleur-de-lis together, and Conrad would always, always consider her to be a teammate. But that wasn’t the same as friends. She had bonded far more closely with Chevreuse and Alek.

Buck had been acting strange since Conrad arrived. Hardly a shock since a) they barely knew each other and b) as it turned out, she was under threat of assassination.

It was like she was at least three people.

She was a tired, stressed New Aristocrat who made political plans and looked over paperwork constantly, taking calls from supporters and colleagues who had Opinions about Valour continuing to stay neutral in the war against the Sun-kissed.

She was a manic, overly-friendly jock who might grab Conrad at the oddest times and haul him into her pool or her Zero-G tank to compete tirelessly, whether they were racing through the water or sparring with poles.

She was a ghost, a pale shade of herself who muttered into her hair, darted away at any sign of company, and did not eat or drink nearly enough.

Buck was cracking up, and while there were plenty of staff and sycophantic “friends” hanging around Villiers House to address her every need, it felt like Conrad was the only person who noticed.

Chevreuse should be here. Chevreuse could deal with anything. Conrad was used to looking after one impulsive but mostly compliant Prince Consort, not this messy mishmash of What The Hell Is Going On inside Buck’s skull.

It was the extra security, he told himself. That was enough to make anyone jumpy.

It was almost a relief when the Planetary Marshal arrived, offering a discreet code at the door to prove her identity. “The First Minister wants me to revise the Duchess’s security arrangements,” she said in a clipped voice.

Conrad wondered if the Marshal even knew who he was. Dana had mentioned her as a potential ally in one of her recent texts, but did anyone official know why he was here in this house? Still, the Marshal took him at face value, and did not demand more information.

“I’ll fetch her,” he said, making sure that Gus and Lexi – two of Buck’s oldest and most long-serving personal guards – escorted the Marshal into the Room of Eggs.

It probably had some schmancy posh person name like a Receiving Salon or a Guesting Suite or whatever, but it was the blue room off the main lobby full of tiny jewelled eggs on stands, and it freaked Conrad the fuck out, but it seemed to be where Buck liked to meet official guests.

The very fact that Conrad knew that meant he was getting way too cozy around here. He wanted to go home. Paris was a yawning ache in his heart, and there was too much pollen on this planet. Pollen and oxygen and grass. Why did they need so much grass?

He found Buck upstairs in one of her listless moods. She was wrapped in a dressing gown that was far too heavy on the starchy gold brocade to look even remotely comfortable. “Marshal Felton is here,” Conrad reported.

Buck threw off the dressing gown, apparently unconcerned that she was naked underneath, and walked to her enormous wardrobe, selecting a blue doublet all embroidered with pearls. “Felton’s been involved in Milord’s detention,” she said, which Conrad already knew. “I suppose she has news for me?”

“Something about security checks,” said Conrad, keeping his eyes aside while Buck dressed. He was used to being treated as furniture by people like her. Alek was the only New Aristocrat who had ever treated him like a person and even then – he had his moments of occasionally forgetting that Conrad wasn’t a personified extension of his own requirements. “Do you want me to come with you?”

“No,” sighed Buck, now elegantly dressed, though she hadn’t put a brush or a sonic wand to her tangled red-bronze hair in days, and it looked it. “Meet me at the pool afterwards. I’ll want to swim laps to clear my head.”

“Works for me.”

Conrad was not a fan of this planet, and its oddly disconcerting gravity, but he could get behind swimming in water every day of the week. It was almost as good as being in the tank – which he also got to do every day.

Oh, yeah, there were worse prisons than the Duchess of Buckingham’s personal estate. That asteroid tower where he had spent more than a month of his life very recently, for instance.

If he never met that bastard “Slate” or “Milord” or whatever he called himself again, it would be too soon.

Outside, Conrad peeled off his own clothes and stood in a pair of bright emerald trunks, poised to dive into the deep end of Buck’s glorious pool.

In the seconds before he hit the water, he heard the low ‘boom’ of an arc-ray discharging, from inside the house.

NOW:

There were worse prisons than the Church of All Convent of Carmelline, in the peaks of the Drift Mountains, but it was hard to imagine anywhere colder.

Conrad awoke with a gasp as the deep, piercing sound of the arc-ray shocked him out of the dream, as it always did. He wasn’t even sure now if what he had heard was the shot that killed Buck. Perhaps it was a chair hitting a wall, or one of the shots that Gus and Lexi got off in those last few moments.

All he remembered was plunging into the water, and when he surfaced for air, the world had been different.

He breathed hard now, separating himself from the dream – the memory – and the air hit his lungs, cold and unrelenting.

Still better than Slate’s asteroid tower, but not by much. Every time he awoke in this place, he was wrenched by desperate homesickness – for the cozy artificial atmosphere of Luna Palais, and Paris Satellite. Even for the home he had barely shared with his wife, behind her massive workshop.

Conrad would give anything to be back there, among his own people and politics, instead of here.

Hiding out in a freezing stone-walled building in a snowy mountain range, on the run from an alien maniac. With glass windows. Not temperature-controlled plexi-glass. The freezing, breakable kind of glass. It let in draughts.

Also, there were star nuns.

Though, to be fair, the star nuns were pretty great.

Conrad dressed quickly, layering the tunics and extra wool sleeves before putting on the heavy hooded scarf that the nuns insisted all men wear within their walls, for modesty.

Breakfast was served in the Sharing Hall, on the far side of the frosted courtyard. Conrad took a deep breath and pulled his hood over his face as he walked over the slippery flagstones, towards the smell of food.

A discreet cough alerted him to the presence of the extremely tiny and elderly Sister Ursa, about to make her own trek across the courtyard. Conrad doubled back and offered her his arm.

“Good boy,” she said, patting his cheek. She allowed him to help her across to the hall. After the of icy air, it almost felt warm inside, though the high glass ceiling (to allow better access to the constellations at night) let in far more cold than Conrad himself would have liked.

Oh, for a space station and plexi-glass. Conrad had never been cold in Paris, or on Lunar Palais. Cold never entered the equation there.

As they approached the tables of food, Sister Ursa released her hold on him and darted towards a prime spot of bench space, within grasping reach of a porridge ladle.

Conrad didn’t have anything like her speed, and ended up jammed between Sisters Volantis and Columba, both of whom were far more interested in breaking down the first three fleur-de-lis games of the new season than they were in allowing him to eat his breakfast.

Oh, and that was the other thing. The season. League Fleur-de-lis had started six weeks ago, without the reigning champions the Emerald Knights in the roster. Because, of course.

Conrad had been kidnapped or on the run for most of those weeks, Chevreuse had been having a baby, and Alek was waving his wife off to war while wearing a coat of proto-heirs, so of course they were never going to compete this season. There was a war on, after all. Half the teams in the league were fielding subs because their regular players had been called up to the Fleet.

They had trained up Laurel Slaughter to replace Chevreuse after her exile last Joyeux, and played a bunch of local, champions and exhibition games since then, but there were so many reasons why League was out of the question for them.

Conrad knew all that, he knew that everything that was going on at the other end of the Solar System was more important than a game with poles in a Zero-G tank, but… part of him mourned that life, the other life where he was able to prevent Alek from doing stupid things, and Chevreuse was on the ground in Paris to mitigate the Cardinal’s more destructive schemes, and the most adrenalin Conrad felt in any given week was in the tank, where he belonged.

More recently, when he was staying at Chevreuse’s, they had barely talked about the game, except for the one night they got drunk together and bitched about every single member of the current league who wasn’t them. At Buck’s, Conrad had played and practiced casually, but the screens were never tuned to this season’s official games.

Here at the convent in the fucking mountains, you couldn’t escape it, because little known fact about this particular chapter of nuns? They were really into TeamJoust. They had their own tank, and their own cinquefoil teams (divided by age group – the 60+ “Silver Tyre-Irons” were especially brutal). They watched all the games, past and present. They talked about all the games, constantly.

If sport was a religion, then these nuns had their cake and ate it too.

It no longer surprised Conrad that they had taken him in on an anonymous character recommendation from Chevreuse’s office, had given him shelter despite the deadly threats he might have brought down on their peaceful community.

Pretty clearly, the nuns of the Convent of Carmelline thought that having a real life professional fleur-de-lis player in their midst was the best thing that had happened to them in years.

“So, what was it like playing against the Dido Demons?” asked Sister Gemini from across the table. She at least leaned over and offered him a ladle of the hot herb porridge, while Sister Columba took pity on him and finally pushed the flagon of coffee in his direction.

Conrad grinned and filled his plate. “Oh, man, that game, that game almost killed me…”

Yeah, as long as he didn’t run out of sporting anecdotes, he really didn’t have too much to complain about when it came to the nuns.

After breakfast, Sister Ursa led them all in a rousing series of songs about star fields and the future of humanity. Then, Sister Magellan was called up to lead a prayer for the United Royal Fleet, and the casualties of war.

Conrad shivered, and not from the chill of the stone-and-glass hall. Dana was out there. His friends among the guards and the Musketeers alike were out there, most of them.

And Alek. Sure, Alek was supposed to be safe on Lunar Palais playing secret baby daddy, but what were the actual odds that he was going to be able to keep himself safe in a time of war?

As Sister Magellan’s prayer came to a rousing finale, there was a knock on the big double doors at the far end of the Hall of Sharing. The doors that led directly to the path down the mountain. Conrad tensed, remembering all over again that an alien assassin might have a very good reason to finish him off.

But as the nuns levered the heavy doors open, it was a woman who collapsed through them, in the torn remains of a flight suit. For one confused moment, Conrad thought it was Dana – same warm brown tones to her skin, the shaven head, the clenched fists – but this woman was taller, and shaped differently. Her face, messy with blood and what looked like plasma burn, was slightly broader than the face of the woman he had been texting every hour since he landed in this frosted convent.

The sisters came forward to help the woman, and some of them gasped as the sleeve of her flight suit came completely away, revealing tangled tattoos from her wrist, all the way up. A fleur-de-lis pattern blended into a star field, familiar because it reflected tattoos that every Sister of Carmelline wore on her limbs.

Their religious robes were designed to slide back and reveal the sacred patterns to each other, though Conrad had only seen the nuns do it once or twice, for formal ceremonies. It was too damned cold in the mountains to flash wrists and ankles if you didn’t have to.

Also too cold to make your way up a snowy staircase on a mountainside in a ripped flight suit and ungloved hands. The poor woman looked a wreck.

“She’s one of us,” Sister Magellan said. “Conrad, help us get her to the medilab.”

Well, he was the muscle around here. Him and Sister Volantis, who could probably bench press three of him, but was already moving ahead, shoving open doors and clearing the way.

Conrad scooped the burned, half-frozen woman into his arms, and she nestled into him as if seeking comfort. Her fleur-de-lis tattoos ran all the way up her throat, he noticed.

In his head, he composed a text to Dana even as he carried the woman to the medilab to have her wounds seen to. Hey, Dana, today I played at being an Actual Knight, with chivalry and everything.

A text he would never send, because after the single message he had got through to Chevreuse when he was on the run, and the location she had sent back to him, he had destroyed all his comms. Flirting with Dana was going to have to wait until all this Milord business was over with, and she came to find him.

She was worth the wait.

“What is your name, dearie?” Sister Ursa asked as Conrad laid the woman on a bed. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed up in no time.”

The woman’s eyes opened wide, as if startled, and Conrad saw that her eyes were grey, an odd combination with her deep brown skin. “I seek refuge.” she gasped.

“That’s what we’re here for, ducks,” said the elderly nun, patting the woman’s hand.

Conrad stepped back, wanting to get out of their way, but he could not take his eyes off the stranger on the bed.

There was something about her that seemed familiar, but he could not put his finger on why.

“Sister Snow,” breathed the patient, as the first medipatch buzzed into action, across her burned face. “My name is Sister Snow. I need you to help me…”

But she wasn’t looking at any of the star nuns, as she said those words. She was looking directly at Conrad.

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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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