Musketeer Space Part 56: Two Kinds of Winter

sterling-silver-hammer-finish-fleur-de-lis-dog-tag-3It’s Musketeer Day again!

SF Signal have published my GOH speech from Continuum XI on Fantasy, Female Authors and the Politics of Influence. I amended it and updated it based on my ad libs during the presentation including the imaginary crowns representing the various women I was quoting on the topic.

We’ve also put up the Galactic Suburbia episode recorded live at Continuum (with a great audience!) including sketches by Kathleen Jennings of what our hands look like when we’re podcasting.

I’m soooo close to finishing Musketeer Space! This month’s Musketeer Media Monday concerns Dogtanian’s War on Moustaches (1981) and the unexpected revelations of a Robotech nature.

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Main Page & Table of Contents

PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:

Athos hates rain, all weather, planets in general, and Valour in particular. Dana has lost track of Conrad Su, who went to ground after witnessing an assassination at his last safehouse. The Countess of Clarick has arrested her brother-in-law, Milord De Winter, to hand him over to Royal/Church custody. Rosnay Cho, as the Cardinal’s Special Agent, leads the Musketeer-Sabre mission to reclaim Milord.

NOW READ ON!

Chapter 56: Two Kinds of Winter

“Fascinating,” said Athos, looking around at the bleak grey landscape that was the wind-lashed island of Finisterra. “I did not realise there was actually a more depressing corner of this planet than the county of La Fere. But here we are. And look, there’s snow.”

Dana was pretty sure it wasn’t the snow that had him looking so wary and tense, but she knew better than to say so out loud. Athos had been quiet and remarkably sober for most of their journey, which was not as comforting as it should have been.

“This is just a mopping up job,” said Porthos. “What are you so afraid of?”

Athos gave her a chilly expression. “Everything,” he said succinctly.

Dana herself was caught up with thoughts of Conrad, and she couldn’t help resenting this meeting at the tower where Milord had been imprisoned. Aramis had given Dana the coordinates that came directly from Chevreuse. It was up to them to rescue Conrad, and take him home, and they knew exactly where he was.
But first, there was official business.

Special Agent Rosnay Cho, still in charge of this mission, took point with two Sabres (Ducasse and L’Etoile) and the four Musketeers at her back. They entered the grey slab of a tower with all the gravity of a royal delegation.

Bee De Winter, the Countess of Clarick, was waiting there for them, her expression almost as grim as the weather outside. “You know what I’m going to say,” she said without ceremony, avoiding Dana’s gaze altogether, and concentrating on their leader.

“I expect you’re going to tell us that the slippery bastard escaped,” said Ro. “There’s no need to mince words, your grace. I worked with Milord for years. I doubt you can surprise me.”

Bee gave her a chilly look. “I have done my duty to the letter, Special Agent Cho. My brother-in-law is upstairs in the tower.”

Ro raised her eyebrows. “He never left?”

“He never left.”

“Felton carried out the assassination alone, then,” Athos muttered to Ro.

“So it seems,” she said calmly. “But Milord waiting around for us to take him into custody seems awfully polite, doesn’t it?”

“Well,” said Athos in the driest of voices. “He is a gentleman.”

Dana hung back with Porthos and Aramis, watching Rosnay Cho and Bee De Winter, who were staring each other down like each was waiting for the other to flip a table and start the bar brawl.

Ro smiled, finally, pretending there was no possibility of animosity between them. “I’d like to question Milord De Winter now, before we make plans to escort him off planet. Captains-lieutenant Athos and D’Artagnan will accompany me, while the rest of my people question your security team, and survey the perimeter.”

The Sabres nodded obediently, while Porthos and Aramis managed salutes that weren’t entirely sarcastic.

“Of course,” said Bee, with a polite motion of her hand. “This way, Agent. Captains.”

Dana had not expected to be included in the questioning, but came forward quickly to fall into step behind Athos.

Bee led them up a spiralling staircase to what had to be the highest room in the tower. She swiped a card and entered several complex codes before the door slid open.

And there he was. Milord. His presence hit Dana like a punch to the solar plexus. He looked so damned pleased with himself. He stood in a pool of rare winter sunlight, like a cat sunning himself. His hair had reverted to its bright silver hue, long around his shoulders, and his shoes had disappeared somewhere. He wriggled his bare toes against the slate floor, apparently feeling no cold.

Dana risked a look at Athos, who displayed no reaction at all to the presence of his former husband.

“Hello, sweetness,” said Milord, his eyes on Ro. Her face twitched slightly, on the side that was scarred, but she stared him down with a steady, implacable expression. “Miss me?”

“Milord,” said Ro in a business-like tone.

“Oh, so stiff and formal,” he teased. “I know that the Cardinal has washed her hands of me, but you too, darling? What does a man have to do around here to inspire a little loyalty?”

Bee and Athos made almost identical scoffing sounds at that, and then glanced, slightly embarrassed, at each other.

The whole thing was horribly awkward, and Dana didn’t want to draw attention to herself at all. She concentrated on the nearby table, and the untouched tray of food that sat there. “Has he been eating?”

“Not for a few days,” said Bee, sounding snappish. “Perhaps he doesn’t need to. Alien biology and all that.”

“Perhaps I’m traumatised,” Milord suggested. “I feel a little traumatised.”

There was a tension in the air, so taut and bitter that Dana could barely stand it. She looked from one to the other – from Milord to Ro, from Athos to Bee. There was something wrong here. She felt a light buzzing in her ears, as if danger approaches, or simply…

Something important had been missed, and she had no idea what it was, but she was certain that all hell was about to break loose.

“That’s not him,” she blurted out.

“What?” Ro and Athos asked at the same time.

“It looks like him, but it’s not Milord De Winter.”

“Are you high?” Bee demanded. “Is this some sort of trick you lot have cooked up?”

Milord was gazing at Dana with a twisted smile on his pretty face. “Give the girl a gold star,” he purred. “Or some sort of cake related treat. I know how you Musketeers like your sweets.”

“Explain yourself very carefully, D’Artagnan,” said Rosnay Cho in a harsh voice. “Because if you’re going to claim some kind of comedy of errors mistaken identity…”

“No,” said Dana. “Not that. I’m sure he’s responsible for every crime we think he is, and more.” She did not take her eyes off Milord. “But this isn’t the real one. He’s not even blinking. He hasn’t eaten his rations. We’ve been in here for nearly ten minutes and he hasn’t tried to murder any of us.”

“It is a terrible temptation,” Milord agreed. “And yet I restrain myself.”

“He’s not human,” Athos grated out. “D’Artagnan, you can’t assume that he will behave in a way that makes sense to us…”

Dana sighed. She picked up a plastic-wrapped fork from the rations tray, and threw it at the prisoner. The utensil went right through his chest and hit the window on the other side.

“Oh, shit,” said the Countess of Clarick.

“It’s a holo-projection,” Athos snapped. “But from where?”

Dana gave “Milord” a dark look, daring him to say anything, then went down on her knees to examine the floor at his feet. “There’s something here,” she said. “A pocket knife, with a data stud embedded in it. I think that’s where the projection is coming from.”

Ro’s comm went off. “Boss?” said Porthos over the line, managing to say it with only a hint of irony. “We’ve got a problem.”

“I bet it’s not worse than the one we’ve got here,” Ro snarled.

“We’ve lost eyes on Aramis,” said Porthos, and it was clear from her voice that she was worried. “Comms have gone dark.”

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Aramis was not the most considerate lover when it came to matters outside the bedroom, but she was at least aware of her own shortcomings. She tried her best to ensure that her partners had fun, that no one’s heart got broken (except perhaps her own, but she was robust and could take it), and that she left no one’s marriage in a worse state than it had been in when she began her seduction.

Even with the best of intentions, sometimes one slipped through the cracks.

Her affair with Jan Felton was perhaps the worst mess she had ever been involved with. It had ended ugly, in more ways than one, and Aramis had not exactly covered herself from glory in the fallout. In fact, she avoided the fallout altogether by finally acting on the long-running flirtation she and Chevreuse had kept going for years.

The guilt had set in later, much later, after Felton left Paris in disgrace and Felton’s friends made sure to let Aramis know how badly she had fucked up.

Still, she hadn’t realised it was quite this bad. Not trapped in a freezing cellar with an arc-ray drawn at her head kind of bad.

If Aramis had laid bets on which of her many ex-girlfriends would end up trying to kill her, Felton wouldn’t even be in the top three.

To be fair, if half of the babble coming out of Felton’s mouth was indicative of her current state of mind, Aramis wasn’t the only one who had screwed with her head. A certain ‘Winter’ had a lot to do with it too.

“Jan,” she said now through lips that felt cracked and sore in the chill air. “Did you kill the Duchess of Buckingham?”

Felton snapped out of her reverie, her hand tightening with greater confidence on the arc-ray. “I’m a Planetary Marshal,” she spat. “The law is everything to me. He would never ask me to -”

“Because,” Aramis went on steadily. “Either Milord – or Winter, whatever he’s calling himself. Either he made you kill her, or he took on your identity to do it. Whether you discharged the weapon or not, you are wanted for murder right now. He did that to you. Not me.”

Felton’s face took on a horrible snarl. “I’m only on this godforsaken rock because of you,” she snapped, digging the point of the arc-ray into Aramis’ temple. “I lost everything because of you. My wife. My career.”

“Not your sense of justice,” Aramis whispered. “Not the rule of law. I didn’t take those things from you, Jan, I couldn’t. He’s inside your head, making you act against everything that’s important to you. He turned you against the side of law, and he has hung you out to dry…”

Felton’s eyes gleamed silver for a moment. “Every contract is on the side of law,” she said, the words sounding stiff and robotic. “Adultery within the bounds of a marriage contract is against the law. You’re the one who made me a criminal. Milord will set me free.”

Aramis closed her eyes as the arc-ray pulsed in Felton’s hand. “You don’t want to kill me,” she whispered.

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Felton said hollowly.

There was a sound, a creak of a step, and Felton hissed, her hand coming around Aramis’ throat even as the arc-ray jittered against her scalp. “Who’s there?”

“Hello, Jan,” said a quiet, male voice.

Aramis breathed out, her pulse steadying as she recognised Athos. He might be a hot mess in his own life, but he was the best backup a girl could ask for.

Second only to Porthos, of course, who was there too, a step or two behind. They both looked relaxed, as if they had interrupted a tea party instead of attempted murder.

“Get out of here,” Felton snarled. “I know what you’re like, the three of you. You laugh and joke and pick fights like the world is your goddamned playground.”

“Sounds about right,” said Athos. He was at the foot of the steps now, and the shallow pool of light from the single solar lantern cast shadows across his face. “There are some things we take seriously. Loyalty, for instance.” His eyes flicked briefly at Aramis, taking stock of her position, then drew his focus right back to Felton.

“I don’t think you know a damned thing about loyalty,” Felton said bitterly.

“I know quite a lot about the man who’s managed to climb inside your head,” said Athos, resting one hand on the banister, still a safe enough distance from Aramis and her captor. Porthos stopped behind him, a couple of steps up. “I’ve been haunted by him for more than five years, Jan, since I cut off his head and had the body cremated. This is a ghost story, not an epic love saga. You need to let the ghost go.”

“You’re crazier than usual, Athos,” Jan said fiercely.

Athos smiled with all his teeth. “That’s when I’m best at my job.”

A tiny noise behind them alerted Aramis that they weren’t alone, and she shoved at Felton, pushing the arc-ray away from her. A body leaped out of the shadows, knocking Felton to the ground, and Aramis had secured the weapon before she realised it was a grim-looking Dana D’Artagnan.

“Where the hell did you come from?”

“Fuel chute at the back of the cellar,” Dana said, climbing off Felton and helping her up. “I was the only one small enough to fit.”

“Excuse me,” said Porthos politely, moving Athos aside. She took two steps and then punched Jan Felton solidly in the jaw. The other woman went down like a collapsed sack of grain. “Aramis, honey, is now a good time to admit that I’ve never liked any of your girlfriends?”

Aramis spluttered out a laugh, pocketing Felton’s arc-ray. At least some things never changed. “I love you too, Pol.”

The two of them stepped back as Athos pressed a Sobriety patch to Jan Felton’s neck. “If this doesn’t have an effect, we’ll have to assume there’s some kind of implant and send her off to surgery.”

“Do you think he did the Winter thing to her?” Dana asked.

“No idea,” said Athos. “Lucky us, we have a quiet cellar to ourselves and can interrogate the prisoner as much as we like.”

Oh, thought Aramis. That’s not ominous at all.

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Dana was exhausted, and she had no idea what it was that generations of De Winters and their staff had used that fucking fuel chute for, but she could smell it all over her skin.

There was no time for sonic showers, not with what they had learned. She took the steps two at a time, racing up to the tower room where she had left Rosnay Cho and the artificial Milord.

They were still there, both of them. No one had managed to turn the hologram off and to Dana’s surprise as she entered the room, it actually looked like they were in polite conversation with each other.

“Am I interrupting something?” Dana blurted out.

Ro turned, as unflappable as ever. “I’m not learning anything that the tech gals won’t be able to drag out of this program once they get their hands on him. She crouched down and tapped a control on the knife that was the source of the projection, and the smirking figure of Milord vanished in a haze of pixels.

“Shame we can’t do that with the real one,” Dana said without thinking.

“Don’t think you’re the first to have that thought,” Ro shot back. “Did you find Aramis?”

“Athos and Porthos are questioning Felton now. It looks like she never made it off the island.”

Ro’s face went very serious at that revelation. “It was Milord, then, who assassinated Buck. He took Felton’s face.”

“Looks like it,” Dana agreed.

Ro picked up the small device from the floor, tossing it from hand to hand. “The bad news doesn’t stop there, buttercup. While you were playing in the cellar, I got a message from the investigators at Villiers House. They’ve picked up a trace of a comms message between Marie Chevreuse and Conrad Su on the day of the murder shortly after he went on the run – a copy of the message was bounced back to the house server thanks to the upgraded security net.”

Dana went very still. “What does that mean?”

“The kind of privacy settings that Minister Chevreuse uses on her messages means we never should have found that message. Looks like the Villiers House server was hacked and continued to feed information somewhere, hours after the assassin had disappeared.” She raised her eyebrows. “Does the Church of All Convent of Carmelline, in the peaks of the Drift Mountains, mean anything to you?”

Dana felt something break inside her. “That’s the safe house that Chevreuse supplied for Conrad Su.” The only people who should have that information were Chevreuse, Prince Alek, Conrad himself, Aramis and Dana. And the nuns, probably.

Ro nodded grimly. “Makes sense. So, with what we know about Milord and his means of operation, where do you think he’s heading next?”

Conrad, damn it all. I thought you were safe. “The convent,” Dana said in a resigned sigh. “I think that’s exactly where we’ll find him.”

If we’re not already too late.

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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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2 replies on “Musketeer Space Part 56: Two Kinds of Winter”

  1. YOU AD-LIBBED THE CROWNS???? They were BRILLIANT.

    I am intimidated by your spontaneous genius.

    — Laura

  2. tansyrr says:

    Thanks, Laura! I thought it up about 5 minutes before the speech but am counting it as an ad lib!

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