When I was writing this, I thought there were only three chapters to go, but an unexpected house got in the way. You will meet him next week.
Soooo close to finishing.
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PREVIOUSLY ON MUSKETEER SPACE:
Milord escaped custody and poisoned Conrad at the Convent of the Carmelline, in the snowy mountains of northern Castellion, on Valour. He was pretending to be a nun at the time. Milord, not Conrad. Sad times for Dana 🙁
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Chapter 58 – Cold Hands, Red Cloak
Dana stayed on the snowy landing until warm hands came to take her away. An arm wrapped around her and led her, finally, down the steps and into the echoing meeting hall where she had first entered here.
It wasn’t until she was inside, breathing air that didn’t hurt her lungs, that she realised it was Aramis who had hold of her.
“When did you get here?” she whispered.
“Just arrived,” said Aramis, squeezing her close. “Damn it, Dana, you’d been out there for hours. Didn’t the nuns try to move you?”
“They may have said some things. Didn’t mean much at the time.”
She remembered the old one, Sister Ursa, telling her that Conrad was dead, and things got rather hazy after that.
Something clicked inside Dana as she noticed Porthos and Athos, still wearing their thick winter gear, talking to several concerned looking nuns. Someone was missing.
“Where’s Ro?” she asked aloud.
“Your guess is as good as ours,” Aramis said. “She was long gone when we arrived.”
Dana huffed at that. Her lungs were so cold from the inside out that it hurt to breathe. “She went after him,” she said.
Across the room, Athos met Dana’s gaze and then looked away. It was Porthos who came over and held Dana’s hand while she broke the news to her. “There’s surveillance footage,” she said. “Turns out these nuns are about as committed to security as they are to fleur-de-lis.”
“Lot of good it did Conrad,” Dana said bitterly. “They just let Milord waltz right in here because he looked like one of them.”
Porthos looked sick. “Athos is checking the footage personally now,” she said. “But it looks very much like Special Agent Cho met up with Milord between your arrival and ours. Neither of them came back.”
Oh. So that was a thing that had happened.
Dana didn’t cry. Not even when Athos showed her the footage that proved that ten minutes after Conrad Su officially died, Rosnay Cho was halfway down the fucking mountain, in conversation with a figure that the other nuns identified as Sister Snow, a recent addition to their little community.
The two of them left together after what looked like an extremely civil seven minute conversation which did not involve anyone arresting anyone else. They did not return to the Convent of the Carmellines.
Dana did not cry, but she did get angry. So angry that her friends had to hold her down, pin her to the wall so she didn’t rampage through the convent that had failed so badly to be a safe house.
At one point, she came back to herself and realised that she was standing in that damned snowy courtyard again, and Athos had been patiently letting her hit him for… a while.
“Sorry,” she muttered and wiped her mouth. Her knuckles ached with bruises and cold.
Athos gave her a thin smile. “Could be worse. You could be grieving on a mountain top, so fucked up that you think joining the Musketeers is a good idea. Oh, wait.”
Dana blinked at that, and looked around her. “Is this the mountain?”
“No,” he said calmly. “This isn’t the mountain, Dana. That particular mountain is a long way from here.”
“What’s it called? I want to see it.”
“It’s called Athos,” he said, and watched her dissolve into a fit of laughter. “Shut up.”
“You named yourself after a mountain!”
“It was a significant mountain.”
But the laughter had been a bad idea, because Dana couldn’t stop now and oh, maybe she was crying after all.
A look of panic crossed Athos’s face, and he called for the others. “I only signed up for anger and denial,” he said firmly, and propelled Dana into the arms of Porthos and Aramis.
They bundled her away from the courtyard, into a small and comforting room where the air was not so cold it hurt the lungs. Dana buried her face in the chilled coat of Porthos and sobbed loudly, messily, while Aramis stroked her close-shorn scalp.
Milord was gone. He had done exactly what he came here to do, made the most predictable move, and they hadn’t been able to stop him. He had got away. Ro, damn her, was helping him, of course she was. The Cardinal had always worked from a different agenda to the rest of them, and Ro had never made a secret of the fact that she served the Cardinal.
It hurt more than it should have.
A horrible noise was coming out of her now, it was embarrassing, but she couldn’t stop it. Tight arms pinned her down, kept her safe, her friends taking turns to hug her as she cried.
Dana felt the sharp stubble of a close-cut beard against her cheek and realised it was Athos who was holding her now. She could hear Aramis and Porthos talking in low voices, across the other side of the room.
“I don’t know what to do,” Dana gasped.
“Love is what kills us,” said Athos, his voice rough. “Nothing else can destroy the human race half so fast. I suspect he was – programmed to hurt us in the worst possible ways. It’s the only explanation.”
Dana head-butted him lightly, because she had no more words.
“Okay,” said Porthos in a businesslike voice, coming back to them. “Dana, you ready to get back in the game?”
“Is it revenge time yet?” Dana asked in a small voice. She was tired of having all these feelings, and she really wanted to kill something.
“Here’s the thing,” said Aramis, bright-eyed and excited. “They left in the hire skimmer, the same one you and Cho arrived here in, Dana.”
Dana frowned at her. “So?”
“So, we can track it.” Aramis waved a clamshell at her. “Planchet is on it already. We know which way they’re going.”
“That’s good,” said Athos impatiently. “Let’s go.”
Porthos and Aramis both gave him a look. Dana knew that look. It was the one they usually reserved for when Athos couldn’t actually see their faces.
“What aren’t you telling us?” she said in a low voice.
“From their current route,” said Aramis awkwardly. “Planchet suspects they are heading for the province of La Fere.”
Athos nodded as if this was no more or less than he had expected. “If anyone attempts to talk to me about this,” he said stiffly. “I’m going to throw them out of the skimmer. Speaking of which, why aren’t we in the skimmer already?”
Porthos gave him a hearty clap on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit.”
“I will end you,” he growled, but as they made their hasty farewells to the shellshocked star nuns and headed back out to where they had docked the skimmer some way back down the snowy steps, he stayed protectively close to Dana all the way.
She wasn’t sure whether to hit him or hug him, but she settled for saying nothing at all. It worked for both of them.
Athos made some calls from the skimmer. He spoke quietly in his New Aristocrat voice, he gave co-ordinates and sent texts, and his face was so thunderous that no one – not Dana, Aramis nor Porthos – could quite bear to ask him exactly what he was doing.
“We’re going to have some company in La Fere,” was all he said.
“I’ve thought of something,” said Porthos.
The others looked at her, except Aramis who had her attention on flying the skimmer.
“Well?” Dana said expectantly.
“There’s no way Agent Cho didn’t know we’d be able to track the skimmer. Maybe they’re not on the same side after all.”
Dana stared at her shoes, and thought about throwing up.
The province of La Fere was a thousand square kilometres of grey rock, picturesque lavender hills and pale green grazing land. Hardly anyone lived here; there was one medium-sized town near the Bethune border, a handful of rural villages and a scattering of wide, solitary farms.
As far as Athos was aware – and he would admit if asked that he had done very little to ensure this was so – the whole place got along swimmingly without any occupants playing lord of the manor from the d’Auteville estate.
Then again, Olivier Armand d’Auteville was thought to be dead. For all he knew, the estate was now crawling with distant cousins who had turned the place into a strip club/casino.
The thought of a giant disco ball rotating from the ceiling of his Maman’s picture-perfect salonniere, or the family silver being sold off to pay for a job lot of jumbo-sized roulette wheels, would be enough to make him smile, on any other day.
Here he remained, chief phantom in his very own ghost story, about to face the worst demons of his past. Sober.
“I don’t understand why Milord would go home of all places,” said Porthos – and Athos had to work very hard to conceal a twitch at the word ‘home’ in that context – “Surely he knows that is the most obvious place for us to look for him.”
“Sometimes the guilty seek penance,” said Aramis, with her ‘religious contemplation’ face on. “The worst criminals often want to get caught.”
“He’s doing it to make me follow him,” ground out Athos. Wasn’t it obvious to the rest of them? “To force me to go home. All he has left is revenge.”
“That’s why he killed Conrad,” said D’Artagnan in a small voice that reminded Athos all over again how damned young she was. “Revenge against me.”
“Of course,” Athos said, only to be faced with blazing expressions of both Aramis and Porthos, in matching performances of ‘shut up Athos, you just said something tactless.’ “I mean – who can truly know the mind of a madman?”
“Good save,” D’Artagnan said dryly. She had not missed the looks.
The tracker led them directly to Foilles, the village nearest the Auteville estate. Home. Aramis brought them down practically on top of the hire skimmer that was identical to their own, on the outskirts of town.
“That’s my ship!” said D’Artagnan, her head coming up as she recognised the bright yellow eyesore that was the Buttercup, docked on the grass alongside Athos’ own Pistachio.
“I got in touch with the engies,” Athos admitted.
“Good idea,” noted Porthos.
Athos shrugged uncomfortably, aware that he had been taking the lead on this, something he generally preferred not to do, because responsibility was a terrible addiction that destroyed lives. On the other hand, it was his husband who had just murdered D’Artagnan’s boyfriend, therefore he was going to accept a certain amount of responsibility until the bastard was dead. He could quit leadership any time he liked. “If there’s a chance we can get this sewn up this afternoon, I don’t want to waste any time getting us off the fucking planet,” he grumbled.
Aramis leaned over and prodded him in the stomach, to let him know that she saw through him, always.
Like Athos needed a bruised abdomen to know that.
The four Musketeers spilled out of the cramped skimmer and onto the grass. Almost immediately, Pigtails and Bonnie emerged from the Hoyden and ran towards them with a reluctant Bazin trailing behind.
“No sign of Milord,” said Pigtails, the words bursting out of her with juvenile excitement. “But we found Agent Cho easily enough.”
“Is it too much to hope she’s in the pub?” Athos said wistfully. The home-brewed beers of the Foilles watering hole was one of only three things he missed about his home.
Pigtails blinked at him. “How did you know?”
Grimaud was waiting for them outside the Fleur and Anchor, swaddled in a thicker star scarf than she usually wore, and scowling at the world. A tension that Athos had not even realised he was carrying unwound at the sight of her. He always felt better when he knew she was near, and safe.
“In there?” he asked without greeting.
Grimaud nodded, peered at him for a moment as if checking for injuries, then went back to pretending he didn’t exist.
“Musketeers inside, engies out here in case there’s trouble,” Athos commanded.
The engies grumbled about this distribution of labour.
“For when there is inevitably trouble,” Athos clarified. “If you spot our target – or anyone suspicious – do not engage them on your own.”
The engies all took on oddly similar expressions at this piece of advice, even Bazin which was – how did that level of sarcasm even work on an android face?
“It’s sweet that you think you’re in charge,” Bonnie informed him.
Aramis staved off any possibility of an Athos-and-engies smackdown by steering him inside the pub. Porthos and D’Artagnan followed close behind.
Nostalgia swept over Athos like a heavy curtain full of knives. The smell of this place was exactly the same – beer and coffee and browning pastry, soaked into the deep grey stone of the walls and the slate of the floor.
He knew the barman, though he didn’t remember his name – an old man with a flat expression who – of course – knew who he was the second he stepped in the door.
This was a mistake. But no going back now.
After a brief sweep of the room with no sign of Agent Cho, Athos stepped up to the bar. “Black hair, scar?” he said.
The barman made a grunting noise and pointed. “Courtyard.”
“Cheers.” The lack of questions made Athos feel oddly lightheaded. It had always been like that in here, he remembered. Everyone knew who he was: the young Comte from the big house who lost his parents too young and married an outsider straight out of university, then later killed his husband on the village green for being an alien spy. No one had ever said an unnecessary word about any of it, when he was in here and needed a drink.
“Do you think everyone talks like that around here?” he heard Porthos hiss to Aramis. “A whole town full of Athoses!”
They crowded into the doorway that opened on to the walled courtyard: Athos at the front with D’Artagnan beside him, the other two squishing into them from behind.
“Oh no,” D’Artagnan breathed.
Special Agent Rosnay Cho paced back and forth in fury, arguing with empty air. She flung her arms, hissed between her teeth, and got up in the face of her invisible opponent. An arc-ray twirled between her fingers.
There wasn’t room to draw a sword, so Athos went for his stunner, knowing Porthos and Aramis were blocked from making the shot. He didn’t bank on D’Artagnan, who slipped out from his side and marched right up to the raving agent.
“You idiot,” D’Artagnan accused. “You drank something he gave you?”
“Of course I didn’t,” Cho said, whirling on D’Artagnan. Not pointing the arc-ray at her, as such, but not holding it safe by her side, either. “What the hell do you think I am?”
“How about a traitor?”
Cho scoffed, then turned to address empty air again. “Shut up you. Keep out of it.”
“You’ve got Winter in your head,” D’Artagnan said angrily. “Don’t you?”
“He slapped a patch on my wrist while I was flying the skimmer,” Cho admitted sullenly. “What the hell do you mean, traitor? You answer to me on this fucking mission, not the other way around.”
“We were supposed to be working together!” Dana howled. “Until you ran off hand in hand with the target.”
“I would have brought you along for the ride, buttercup, but you were too busy being catatonic over the death of your boyfriend and somehow I don’t think your presence would have made Milord less suspicious of my motives!”
“Shut up, both of you!” Aramis ordered, stepping between D’Artagnan and Cho. “This is all very sweet, getting your feelings out in the open, and usually I’d be all for it, but I’d like to ask a question. Can he -” And she indicated the empty space to which Rosnay Cho had directed her non-D’Artagnan-related anger, “Hear what we’re saying?”
“How am I supposed to know how this works?” Cho demanded.
“I think he can listen in,” D’Artagnan said sourly. “If it’s like the others. Why do it otherwise?”
“Then I suggest we get on with arresting the target without a digital spy in our midst,” said Aramis.
Agent Cho looked murderous. “You can’t leave me out of this. This is my mission.”
“I think we’re past that, aren’t we?” Aramis countered.
Athos lost what little patience he had left. He lifted his arm and shot Agent Cho through the head with the pearl-white beacon of his stunner. She crumpled and D’Artagnan caught her awkwardly, lowering her to the ground.
“That’s one way to win a conversation,” said Porthos.
“She didn’t tell us which way he went!” D’Artagnan protested, looking down at the unconscious Cho like she could will her back awake.
“I know which way he went,” Athos said sharply. “Come on. We’ve got one more stop to make first.”
He headed back through the pub, with three Musketeers following him. He heard Aramis stop to instruct the engies about taking Cho back to the ships, and did not slow his pace to give her a chance to catch up. That was why she had those long legs, after all.
Finally, he stopped at the edge of the village, and knocked sharply at the bright red door of a whitewashed building. A familiar figure emerged: cloaked all in red, her face masked and her hands covered.
“Mother,” said Athos, and kissed the gloved hand that extended to him. It felt like ice beneath the light silk. “Time to go.”
The red cloaked figure nodded once and set out before him, leading the way out of the village and up the well-trod path to the higher pastures and the over-sized house that had been built to overlook the entire provinced.
“Come on,” he said shortly to his friends.
They glanced awkwardly at each other before hurrying after him. “Athos, is that actually your mother?” Porthos asked.
“No,” he said honestly, surprised she had thought so.
“That is my priest,” he explained, following the red mother up the path towards his worst nightmare.
His three best friends in the world followed him without further comment.
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.