I know, I’m sad it’s finishing too. On the bright side, those of you who have been waiting for it to be complete so you can read it in one go don’t have much longer to wait!
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:
Milord hates Athos because of that whole tried to execute him back when they were married thing; he hates Dana D’Artagnan because she has thwarted him at every turn and told the world his secret identity; he doesn’t especially hate Conrad Su, but he’ll take his revenge where he can. They’re all on Valour, the prettiest and worst planet in the Solar System.
NOW READ ON!
Chapter 57: A Drop of Water
Bodies were strange. Human bodies stranger than most; though it was so long since Milord had allowed himself to be truly Sun-kissed, to burn bright in his natural state.
To be a female was a new journey, and one he had been hesitant about. Taking Felton’s shape had meant more than copying her face, her shoulder-width, her brisk and military manner. It meant shaping breasts and cunt that would then be hidden beneath layers of uniform; it meant a different way of walking, a different tilt of the hips and length of spine.
Being Felton and being female were equally strange states after spending nearly a decade as some version of a beautiful young man.
But once it was done: once Georgiana Villiers the Duchess of Buckingham was lying dead on her own floor, once “Marshal Felton” had bugged the communication lines and taken out several members of the security team and found a safe house at a good distance from the scene of the crime in order to monitor and consider her next move…
Once all that was done, Milord had to choose a new face and body. Someone that no one would recognise.
He had failed to kill Conrad Su at the house, but the message he intercepted less than an hour after the assassination of Buck provided the location where he was heading. The Convent of Carmelline. That in itself told him that the next body he made for himself would have to be female.
Only when he had finished the shaping and smoothing of the new identity did Milord realise how much he had borrowed from Dana D’Artagnan – he was now a tall, softer version of her with the same skin tone and very similar facial features. Not close enough to raise suspicion, but perhaps Su would feel a connection or attraction to the mysterious stranger.
Milord prodded at the new body, noting where he needed muscle tone or soft tissue, refining the design. When it was done, he illustrated the arms with a tangled pattern similar to those he had seen scrawled across the tail fins of sabre-class darts.
These humans. A few crosses and star fields carved into an object, and they deemed it sacred. How ridiculous that the same might be true for people.
Tattooed and perfect, wrapped in the body and the robes of a space nun, Milord set out to locate the secret stash of credit studs he had set aside for emergencies when he had been Vaniel De Winter. No need to steal a skimmer when he could purchase one without suspicion.
Revenge was a weakness. He knew that. And yet, he wanted this particular revenge so badly, he could taste it in his newly-formed mouth. The job was not complete until Conrad Su was as dead as the Duchess of Buckingham. What else did he have to live for now, but to thwart his enemies?
Conrad Su would never see Sister Snow coming.
“This is ridiculous,” Dana D’Artagnan raged. “We have to get there now. Can’t we take one of the darts?”
“Yes, that’s the thing about spaceships, they are exactly the thing for mountaineering,” drawled Bee. “I mean, if you’re willing to risk causing an avalanche in the region, be my guest, but otherwise I suggest you listen to local advice.”
“Skimmer’s the only way to cover the area safely,” said Athos, who was already rugged up and ready to go. He had apparently found another three layers of woollen clothing somewhere in the tower. Dana didn’t even remember him leaving to get changed. “I’ve called ahead to Brabazon, the nearest vaguely civilised city to the Drift Mountains, and ordered two skimmers to be picked up there. We can dock the darts at Portside and travel on from there.”
“Hang on,” said Aramis, frowning. “There’s a good distance between Portside and Brabazon. Is there a bullet train between them?”
Bee laughed suddenly, and then sobered. “Oh, you’re serious. The bullet train doesn’t go that far north, dears. No one does, by choice.”
Athos exchanged a glance with Ro, and if ever Dana had been wary of those two teaming up, now she had all senses on high alert. “What aren’t you telling us?” she demanded.
“It’s a dirtsider thing,” said Ro with a smirk. “Don’t worry, it won’t kill you.”
“What’s your story?” Conrad asked the newcomer, for something to say. The nuns were all clustered around the comms listening to a fleur-de-lis game, and it made him want to punch everyone, so he was out on the stone wall, looking at the bright white horizon and letting his breath turn to steam.
Sister Snow spent a lot of time up here, he had noticed. She was polite enough to the nuns, but her preference was for silence and stillness away from their friendly buzz. It was as if the thoughts in her head were so loud, she had no energy for anything else.
“Thank you,” said Sister Snow. She was brighter of eye and calmer than when she had first arrived in the hall. She was dressed in robes lent to her by the nuns of the Convent of the Carmellites – thick white wool, trimmed in bands of striking red that reflected the dark tattoos still visible at her wrists and throat. Her wounds had mostly been healed via medipatch with only a few, spidery scars remaining that would disappear after another treatment or two. “Everyone has been so kind.”
“They do their best with what they have,” said Conrad, who was in no mood for sports-obsessed space nuns right now, but wasn’t graceless enough to say so. “This is a good place to gather yourself, before the next thing comes along.”
She turned a smile on him that was surprisingly cheerful, white teeth gleaming. “What’s the next thing for you, Conrad Su? Where are you going from here, when you have gathered yourself?”
“I haven’t decided,” he said, which was all kinds of lie, but he wasn’t going to tell a nun that he was running straight back to Paris as soon as it was safe, into the arms of a brave and funny Musketeer instead of the wife he had signed a contract with, years ago.
He had never wanted anything so much as he wanted Dana D’Artagnan, except perhaps 24 hours of not having to worry about anything. Minor details like his job and his marriage could wait a little longer to be sorted out.
But oh, he wanted his job back, too. His life. He wanted to be back at Alek’s side, designing new outfits to conceal the growing pod babies that the wretched Prince had slung inside his shirt, and keeping him out of further trouble.
Conrad also wanted to stop feeling bad about Buck, who had been good to him, but whose death made protecting Alek a hell of a lot easier. Wow, yeah, there was the guilt stab, right in the stomach and completely on schedule.
He wanted Lunar Palais and fleur-de-lis and Dana and a chance to breathe air that wasn’t made by goddamn trees.
So many things that he wanted, but he would settle for one right now.
“I’m ready to go home,” he told Sister Snow, because what did she care about the details, anyway? “It’s not safe yet, though. My girl will let me know when the coast is clear.”
“Oh,” said Sister Snow, with an odd sort of twist to her mouth. It felt familiar, as if he had met her before, though Conrad could not place her, for the life of him. “You have a girl?”
“That is a trick question,” he said, pointing a finger at her, half-accusing and half-laughing. “You want to get me to spill my story.”
She gave him a merry expression. “What else do we have to do around here?”
“That’s a sweet thought, but my story is long and complex and I’m pretty sure I can’t tell it sober.”
Sister Snow arched an eyebrow at him. “Luckily for you, the sisters left a flask of wine in my room.”
“I do love nuns,” Conrad said cheerfully. “No one gives nuns nearly enough credit for making the solar system a better place. There should be a nun appreciation day.”
“On behalf of nuns everywhere,” Sister Snow said dryly. “I salute you.”
“Horses,” moaned Porthos. “It had to be horses.”
“It’s horses or it’s mecha,” insisted Athos, and you had to know him very well to spot the amusement he was hiding behind his flat expression. “Only way to cover the distance to Brabazon.”
“Horses,” Aramis said quickly. “Seriously. I know we made fun of you, Dana, when you were training for Essart’s squad, but I’m pretty sure Porthos would destroy the world if she ever tapped into a mecha suit.”
“Mecha for me,” said Dana. “Oh God, mecha. Please.” The thought of it – of riding a live creature that rolled and breathed under her – made her feel physically sick.
“I’ll go with her,” said Rosnay Cho. “We’ll make better time than the three of you on horseback, and take one skimmer from Brabazon. The rest of you collect the other.”
The two Sabres had been left behind with the rest of the ships and the Countess of Clarick – it was clear that Ro wanted to be rid of them as much as the Musketeers did, though Dana hadn’t thought too closely about what that might mean.
Athos frowned. “I don’t like it. We shouldn’t split up.” I don’t trust that woman yet, was plain on his face.
Dana gave him an impatient look. “We can’t delay further. Milord will not hesitate to kill Conrad if he gets near him. Ro and I will go ahead.”
“Meanwhile, we get to watch Athos demonstrate his superiority with land-based mammals,” Porthos groaned. “Wonderful.”
“It’s not my fault you were born on an ocean world,” Athos said smugly.
“Just you wait until the safety of the Solar System hinges on my dolphin-training skills!”
The mecha that Ro and Dana hired from Portside were different to the suits that Dana had grown familiar with on Lunar Palais. They were obviously designed for harsh winter conditions, as they converted from the usual humanoid form to some kind of snow bike setting with large wheels, a heavy tread, and hover mode.
There was a setting labelled ‘blizzard’ which Dana hoped she never had to experiment with.
With the map programmed in, she and Ro made good time across the icy plains until the statuesque city of Brabazon came into sight. It was a ridiculously beautiful place, like something off an old-fashioned Joyeux card, with buildings that might have been constructed of gingerbread.
Dana barely even glanced at it as they shifted their bikes back to humanoid setting and staggered up the street towards the skimmer dealership. “Do you think we made good time?” she asked Ro over the comms.
“Hard to tell,” Ro buzzed back. “We don’t know how much of a lead Milord has on us.”
Enough, Dana thought darkly. Enough.
The wine wasn’t anything special – not like the vintages that Conrad had been thoroughly spoiled with during his time as the Prince Consort’s companion. It did well enough, though, to loosen his tongue as he told Sister Snow a censored but amusing version of his love affair with Dana D’Artagnan, his various kidnaps, and his most recent flight across the snowy northern wastes of Castellion to reach the most ridiculously inappropriate safe house Chevreuse (or as he renamed her for the story, ‘Sheba’) had ever provided for him.
“I’m not convinced it’s not a practical joke,” he admitted. “Was always a bit of a prankster, my mate Sheb. Space nuns with a sports fetish – can’t be a coincidence.”
“At least you’re safe here,” said Sister Snow. She had been watching him carefully since he first started drinking the wine – barely blinking, in fact.
Conrad remembered the last time someone had watched him like that, and it wasn’t a good memory.
“Huh,” he said, and set the glass down. “Are you waiting for something?”
Sister Snow’s eyes widened and she started blinking again, just like a normal human being. “I don’t know what you mean, dear.”
“It’s just – it’s kind of obvious,” he said. “That you spiked my drink. I’m assuming not some kind of poison, since we drank the same wine – though you could have taken the antidote already, hadn’t thought of that.”
Sister Snow tensed. Only slightly, but the shift of body language was enough.
“Yeah,” said Conrad with a small nod. “Thought so. Could look like anyone, they told me. Might have been less obvious if you hadn’t borrowed half of my girlfriend’s features.”
Now that he was looking for it, he could see how much of Sister Snow’s face and body type had been inspired by Dana – not the height, that was more Buck if anything, but the shape of the shoulders, the ears, the eyes, damn it. No wonder she had seemed so familiar, no wonder he had felt like he could talk to her.
Still, there was a confidence in her – his – her face, a calmness. Conrad had hit the nail on the head. Milord was waiting for something to kick off. Something that had been in the drink.
“Thing is,” Conrad went on. “I know you only kidnapped me the once, and you weren’t after any information that time, but you worked with the Cardinal’s people for years. Do none of you ever talk to each other? Special Agent Cho figured out in the first five minutes that psych drugs don’t work on me. Brain incompatibility. Luck of the draw. Doesn’t matter what kind of weirdo brain programming you made me ingest – it won’t take.”
Sister Snow’s gaze flicked to the half glass of wine that remained, and then back to Conrad’s face. She smiled, and it wasn’t the wry smile of a fellow traveller any more. It wasn’t human.
Not for nothing was Conrad a member of the only fleur-de-lis team of all time to have an unbeatable season. He leaped to his feet and hurled himself backwards as Sister Snow – Milord – made her move. Even in stupid planetary gravity, he was more than capable of a quick handspring to the window ledge, where he kicked out the glass – real glass – and watched it shatter out across the winding snow-packed staircase that wound around the outside of the convent.
Milord lunged for Conrad, who launched himself out into mid-air and landed hard with a skid on the landing below. He tore around the steps even as the freezing northern wind tore through his clothes directly to his skin.
Where to go? This was the fucking safe house, so where to go next? He wasn’t even sure where the star nuns had garaged the skimmer he had used to get here. Sister Snow herself had come via skimmer, but hers had crashed, hadn’t it? Or was that all a fake?
Even as he thought that, Conrad saw a shape in the hazy distance, cutting through the grey white of the endless winter sky. That looked like a ship. Some kind of rescue party, or more of Milord’s traitorous aliens?
Something – someone – slammed into him from behind. Conrad turned as he fell, soaring into the air for a breathless moment before he hit the steps hard, his head cracking with a fierce pain on the landing.
As his vision swam, he saw the white and red blur of a nun above me and wondered if he was doomed, or saved. “Don’t hurt the rest of them,” he slurred. “They didn’t do anything… but soup and porridge. Good nuns.”
The nun leaned over him and yes, it was doom after all. Sister Snow nudged him with her foot, looking satisfied. “For what it’s worth,” she purred. “I didn’t put psych drugs in the wine. I was waiting for the wine to run out, so you would reach for the flask of water.”
Wetness fell out of nowhere, a steady flow poured from a flask on to Conrad’s face. He screwed up his eyes and mouth, trying not to breathe at all, but it stung his skin and he spluttered it through his nose before his traitorous mouth coughed open to take a splash of water inside.
“Just a drop,” said Milord De Winter.
“Well, this is depressing,” said Ro, surveying the grim, grey buildings settled into the mountainside, layered in white snow. “Seriously. There should be more safe houses on beaches and tropical islands.”
“I’ll make a note of that in the report,” Dana sighed, her eyes darting all around as they waited on the top step of the convent.
The deep, resounding tone of the bell still vibrated against the walls, but it was a while before they heard footsteps and a tiny, elderly nun pushed open the massive doors to let them in.
“More guests,” she said, looking pleased. “I’m Sister Ursa. Welcome to the Sharing Hall. I don’t suppose you are famous fleur-de-lis players too? We’re hoping to get a team together later for an exhibition game.”
“I’m the Musketeer D’Artagnan,” said Dana as the door closed behind them. Ro immediately started stripping off her heated gloves and snow-damp outer layers, but Dana didn’t want to waste time. “This is Special Agent Cho. We need to see Conrad.” No point in wasting her time asking for his pseudonym if the nuns were Emerald Knights fans.
Before Sister Ursa could answer, a great clanging bell shook the walls.
“Sisters!” yelled another nun from the courtyard beyond the Sharing Hall. “We are under attack!”
She found herself skidding and sliding across a frosted courtyard and up a stone staircase towards a nun with cinquefoil-standard biceps beneath her robes. A nun with the unconscious figure of Conrad Su draped in her mighty arms.
“Sister Volantis, what is going on?” cried Sister Ursa as more and more nuns gathered in the courtyard.
Dana’s own feet stopped moving as she stared at the figure of Conrad, unsure if he was even breathing.
“Sister Snow did this,” said Sister Volantis grimly. “Who are these strangers?”
“We’re his friends,” Dana said helplessly, even if that was a very inaccurate description in which to include Rosnay Cho. “Is he -”
“Hurt,” Volantis snapped, and pushed past everyone to sweep Conrad into the Sharing Hall, lying him flat on the enormous table. “Send for Sister Gemini! We need meditech intervention now – he has a head wound.”
Yes, there was blood smeared on the table, Dana realised, and in Conrad’s blue-tipped hair. As the nuns separated to arrange medical attention, she stepped closer and laid her fingers over his hand. It was cold, but from the snowy air, she was certain, not a lack of pulse.
“Conrad,” she whispered.
His eyes fluttered open and fixed upon her. “Here’s trouble.”
“Hey,” Dana said with a soft smile, feeling ridiculous to have been so worried. “Heard you got taken down by a nun.”
“Don’t laugh. The nuns around here are mighty and glorious.” His eyes glazed over slightly, losing focus. “It was – him. He’s a nun now. Looks a bit like you.”
“Milord,” Dana breathed. “It’s okay, we’ve got you now.”
“How long ago?” Rosnay Cho broke in. “How far could he have gone?”
Conrad frowned, and looked confused.
“Head injury, dear,” Sister Ursa reminded them gently.
“Water,” said Conrad.
Dana looked around. “Can we get him some water?”
Several nuns with medipacks and other equipment, led by a uniformed medic that the others called Sister Gemini, crashed into the Sharing Hall from an inner door.
“No,” said Conrad, his hand squeezing Dana’s finger with surprising strength. “It was in the water. Sorry about – our timing’s terrible.”
“What was -” and the words caught in her throat as she saw him shudder on the table, his hand falling from hers. “No. Help him!”
The nuns with medical training closed in and around Conrad. Dana stared wildly, wishing that Aramis was here, that any of her Musketeers were here. Last they had checked in with each other, the three of them were in the second skimmer, two hours behind Dana and Ro.
“Poison,” said one of the nuns, checking the readings on her medipatch. “It’s – damaging his blood vessels faster than the tech can repair him.”
“But it’s not,” said Dana. “He can’t -”
Conrad’s body shuddered again, and the medipatches beeped furiously.
“Heart’s stopped,” said Sister Gemini, sounding grim. “I can’t – what the hell kind of poison is this?”
Rosnay Cho breathed out. It could have been any other breath, but Dana was on high alert for anything, any sign, and she turned to the other woman in desperation. “What is it? What do you know?”
“This sounds a lot like the symptoms that Milady Delia De Winter suffered before she died,” said Ro. She moved a hand as if she was going to touch Dana in some vaguely comforting way, then did not. “As a point of interest.”
“I see,” said Dana.
The nuns continued to work on Conrad, attempting to get his heart started again. Dana turned around and walked back out of the warm convent, and into the snow.
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.