Musketeer Space Part 59: The House of Athos

knockerIt’s Musketeer Day!

This is the last Musketeer month, so of course it has 5 Wednesdays in it. It may also have more than one Musketeer Media Monday – I put up a new essay this week on the Big Finish Audio “The Church and the Crown,” AKA Listening To Random Musketeers (2002) (featuring a whole lot of Chevreuse but no actual Dumas Musketeers) but I still have some other media Musketeers I’ve been wanting to review, so you may get some bonus essays this month.

Remember that if you want to receive an ebook of the entire book (slightly revised), you will need to sign up to be a Patreon supporter before the end of this month. If you sign up at the $2 level you will also receive a collection of the essays and supporting material I’ve been working on while writing this, not all of which has appeared on the blog.

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Chapter 59 – The House of Athos

The silence on the walk up the slope was comforting, though Athos knew his friends were burning with questions. It was remarkably restrained of them to hold back.

The red mother did not speak either, and that was a different kind of comfort. He remembered her as an acolyte, holding the cup and knife for the old red mother when he was a child. The acolyte was the one who had taught him the Elemental rituals that were expected of the eldest son of a great family, long before he became cynical about everything else that was expected of him.

The old red mother had passed into retirement or death since Athos had left Foilles. He did not ask any of the usual questions that might be expected of a local man, returned home. He did not care.

Finally, they reached the tall gates, marked with the sacred symbols of fire and water, earth and air. The red mother halted, her dark-painted mouth barely visible as the curl of a smile beneath her deep red hood.

Athos breathed on the lock and placed his palm there. He did not need to state his name. House recognised him, and let him through the security field.

“Welcome home, your grace,” House said in a clear voice that rang out from the gate-post, or perhaps the empty air.

“These are my guests,” said Athos, not wanting to address the title for now, though it made his skin crawl. “The red mother is to be awarded the same security privileges as her predecessor.”

“Understood, your grace,” said House smoothly. “Welcome to the Auteville estate, mother.”

The priest did not speak, but bowed her head in acknowledgement.

“House,” Athos went on. “Please recognise Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan. They are to be recognised as personal guests, and to have security privileges for the ground floor zone only.”

“Welcome, Porthos, Aramis, D’Artagnan,” said House, and there was a different note in his voice there, as if he was proud that Athos had returned with friends.

No, that was stupid. House felt nothing. Athos had always let his imagination run too wild about such things, and he needed to resist such childhood habits.

The red mother and the Musketeers stepped through the security field. The gate swung wide, letting them through. Athos led the way up the path again, not looking around to see their reaction as the house came into view. It was gratuitously large, he knew, and pretended he had not heard D’Artagnan sucking in her breath.

After years calling a space station home, it was embarrassing to realise quite how much space the d’Auteville family thought was reasonable for them to take up, especially now that there was really only him left.

“House,” he said to fill the silence. “Have we had any visitors since I left?”

House recited a litany of failed attempts by Athos’ distant relatives, lawyers and other officials to breach the security field over the last several years. If anyone should question whether it was possible for an AI to demonstrate smugness, here was the evidence.

His thoughts that others might have overrun the house by now were in vain, it seemed, because House had been taking his responsibilities seriously all along. Athos had forgotten how angry he had been, in the immediate days after Auden’s execution. He had been drunk, of course, for much of the time before he left, but he was certain he had left the door wide open, and that he had vocalised no orders to preserve the house for his return.

He had never planned to come back here.

Perhaps he had given House some security instructions, as part of a drunken rant. Perhaps House had simply and quietly tidied up after him, making an assumption on behalf of the Comte de la Fere when the man himself was unable to make the right call.

Either way, there was one person, he was certain, whose access had never been revoked, because he was dead and even Athos had not been that paranoid. Not then.

“House,” he interrupted, as he reached the door. “Have we had any visitors recently?”

“No visitors in the last 48 hours,” said House precisely. “A stranger tested our security twelve hours ago but failed the visual scan and fingerprint test, and went away.”

Athos swallowed, because the door was so damned big and heavy and he didn’t want to open it, not at all. “Is there anyone here besides myself and my guests, House?”

“Mr Auden is here, in the iris library,” said House. “He arrived ten hours and fourteen minutes ago.”

It took a feat of great strength for Athos to prevent himself from beating his head against the solid door. “That’s good,” he said with a very dry mouth. “Good house. You’ve done well.”

“He’s here,” D’Artagnan said quietly.

“Too much to hope that the iris library is on the ground floor zone?” Aramis said pointedly because she never missed much.

“Open,” said Athos, and stepped forward into a blinding pattern of black and white tiles that swept across the floor of the foyer. A huge staircase sprawled up one wall, leading to the upper floors. Even the goddamned pot plants were green and leafy as ever.

He had wanted to return to a ruin, to something dust-caked, looted and neglected that represented the conflicted feelings he had about his former home.

House, of course, had other ideas. He should have known.

His father would be ridiculously pleased that House had held up so well. He would not, likely, be pleased with Athos’ own failure to meet his responsibilities for the last five years.

Time to make up for that now by addressing the one responsibility he had most failed to follow through on, all those years ago. It was time to rid the Auteville estate of a monster.

Porthos moved first, getting up in Athos’ face. “The iris library,” she growled. “Where is it?”
“Third floor,” said Athos, and didn’t even smile.

“You’re not going up there alone.”

“You’re not,” D’Artagnan added. “I want him, Athos. You can’t keep me down here and out of the way. I don’t need to be protected.”

“Of course you do,” said Athos calmly. He glanced at Aramis, who was the only one not currently furious with him. On the contrary, she was calm and unsurprised. “I can handle this, D’Artagnan. Trust me.”

“You’re not trusting us,” she complained. “We’re a team now. You don’t have to run off playing lord and master and lone hero and all those stupid things from the holo-channels. You need backup.”

“I brought backup,” said Athos, and nodded briefly to the red mother. “I brought all of you. If he gets past me, and House, you’re here to stop him getting away.”

“That’s not comforting if he kills you, Athos!” D’Artagnan protested, her fists curled into tight balls.
He felt bad for a moment, but not as bad as he would if she was the one bleeding on the ground, because of course Auden – Milord would go for her first. D’Artagnan was the youngest and the least experienced, and Milord hated her.

“I’ll see you soon,” Athos said, and turned to make his way up the enormous staircase. As soon as he made it on to the lowest step, his friends were unable to reach him, or stop him.

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Dana tried not to cry, but hot anger pricked at her eyes and that was so similar to crying anyway that she wasn’t sure why she held back.

“Tea,” said the red mother serenely, and led the way to a kitchen roughly the size of the Stellar Concourse.

“You speak,” said Aramis deferentially, as the Musketeers trooped in after her. “I wasn’t sure that you did.”

“There are times for sacred silence,” said the Elemental priest, slipping her hood from her shoulders and pushing her mask up to her hairline. She was young, barely forty if she was a day, and wore a streak of dark lipstick across her mouth. “And there are times when it is appropriate to speak. Tea is one of those times.”

“We should be with him,” Dana grumbled. “He’s going to get himself killed.”

Porthos gave her a reassuring thump of a hip against hers. “Chin up,” she said. “Athos has done a lot of things over the last five years that were practically guaranteed to get himself killed. If he had the knack, he’d have managed it by now.”

“Athos the Musketeer,” said the priest, trying out the name in her mouth. “Is that who our Olivier is now?”

“He’s good at it,” said Aramis. “We’re not leaving without him,” she added.

“Then we had better make sure that he does not lose his way while he is here,” said the priest with a smile. “House, we will have the chrysanthemum tea. If Mr Auden makes any violent move against his Grace the Comte, or if anyone is hurt, please allow Emergency Privilege 3 to apply to all of his guests.”

“Certainly, mother,” said the House. A fat teapot appeared in a nearby food hatch, steaming.

Dana stared at the priest. The others were staring at her too. She swished her red cloak a little as she crossed the kitchen, to collect the teapot. “I feel that his Grace the Comte rather underestimated the extent to which his father trusted my predecessor,” she explained.

And then she poured the tea into four tiny porcelain cups.

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Going home after five years – the place should feel small to him. But after so many years living in a shoebox apartment in Paris, it was Athos who felt small amid all this grandeur.

Who needed all this? When it was over, he should give the house up for good. Donate it to the town, make them turn it into a museum or something practical like a school.

Or burn it to the ground. Either way.

There were three libraries on the third floor. This, Athos considered for the first time in his life, was probably excessive. There was the library of the elements, which housed his grandfather’s thorough collection of religious and theological texts pertinent not only to the local religion, but also to the history of the Church of All.

Now he came to think of it, he must never let Aramis know that the library of the elements existed, or they would never get her off this fucking planet.

The second library was more of a study, the proper place for the Comte de la Fere to deal with estate matters, paperwork and the like. It had been his father’s hideout for most of Athos’ childhood, an excuse for the man to smoke cigars away from his wife, and to meet with a parade of serious gentlemen over business decisions and port, not necessarily in that order.

The books that lined those walls were decorative rather than part of a specific collection. Once Athos had taken on the title, he attempted to work in here as his father had done, but found it oppressive and lonely. The library of the elements had a more comfortable couch, and a better view of the mountains.

At the far end of the sprawling central gallery on this floor was the iris library, which had been the domain of Athos’ mother. It held very few good memories. She was a cool, elegant woman who wore the title of Comtessa better than any other name, but had little time for children.

Athos remembered how she would sit him in a corner of that library, correcting his stance and posture and knowledge of the history of Valour with that critical tongue of hers.

When she was not critiquing him, she had very little to say.

He had always hated this room, and Auden knew that.

For the first year of Oliver and Auden’s marriage, the Comtessa de La Fere had remained in the house, as she had always done, sleeping in the same suite of rooms, inhabiting this library like a scathing ghost who had opinions about how everything was wrong. She demonstrated no approval nor disapproval over Auden, though Athos knew he had disappointed her in not choosing a wife (and it had to be a wife) from one of the few families on Valour she considered equal to the Autevilles or her own bloodline, the Demorrows.

On his first wedding anniversary, Athos awoke to discover that his mother, along with her retinue of three personal assistants and one live-in hairstylist, had moved out of the house and returned to the Demorrow family estate, along with her widowed sister the Marchioness de Lourde.

They did not write, though they had exchanged formal cards on the more significant religious holidays for a few years at least.

It had not occurred to him until now that she was probably still alive, and assumed him to be dead.
Auden knew how much Athos – Olivier – hated this library, and so he had taken it as his own space, after the Comtessa withdrew. He liked to hide here when they had an argument, knowing Athos would never follow him inside.

It was strangely wounding to have the man falling back on those same habits now, as if nothing had happened. As if the sword had never fallen on his neck, as if they were not two different people now: Athos the Musketeer, and Milord the murderer.

Taking a deep breath to fortify himself, Athos stepped inside. For a moment, he fancied that he could still smell his mother’s perfume.

Then all thoughts of her fell out of his head, because he was faced with his husband.

Milord sprawled elegantly on the antique couch, beneath a wall of watercolour irises and a window that looked out over the violet garden.

He had reverted to the version of himself that lived in Athos’ memory – all youth and cheekbones, his silver hair raggedly long beneath his ears and his feet wriggling bare against the embroidered cushions. A sword – a real sword, not a pilot’s slice, Athos recognised it as a family heirloom – lay across Milord’s lap as if he had forgotten about it.

“I see you’re not a nun anymore,” Athos drawled. “I’m surprised you gave up on the new look so quickly. Sister Snow sounded like a peach.”

Milord looked at him through his eyelashes. “Sometimes it’s best to stick to the classics.”

“Yes, and you got murder all over the hands of the last body you wore, so…” Athos gave him a flat smile. “I’m not going to insult you by asking how you survived your execution, in case you were wondering.”

“Wouldn’t tell you if you asked. I have to keep some secrets. Wouldn’t want you to get bored of me.” Even after everything, he was still flirting.

Athos shook his head in disbelief. “What is it you think is going to happen here? Do you imagine I will take pity on you because of what we once shared?”

Milord gave him a frosty look. “I know better than to expect pity of you, sweetness. No, I think you’re going to let me go – more than that, you are going to help me escape because everyone you love is under this roof.”

Athos laughed shortly. “Everyone I love? You mean the Musketeers who all have incentive to shoot you in the head and slice you into ribbons? Yes, I can see where that gives you an advantage.”

“We’re going to escape,” Milord repeated, calmly. “You’re going to call that engie of yours to bring your ship across to the edge of the security field, and you are going to walk me out of here, safely, and hand control of your ship over to me.”

“You want the Pistachio?” Athos said, not sure he had heard correctly.

“Oh, I want everything,” Milord said sweetly. “I learned a lesson with Sister Snow, you see. Creating a new identity from scratch is too hard, too fraught with extra stress I don’t need. But a body I know well – at least as well I knew Auden all those years – that could be useful.”

He began to change, silver hair melting into short blond stubble, his body broadening, even his clothes shifting into blue and white. “I’m going to be you, sweetness. That should be good enough to get me halfway across the solar system. You are going to let me do this, or I’m going to leave Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan in pieces.”

Athos could not look at him now – at this strange parody of himself. He turned his back on Milord and went to the window, to the view of the garden that his Maman had always been so proud of.

It was beginning to rain, because Valour. Grey streaked across the sky, matching his mood.

“You’re not going to get away with this,” he said, refusing to let anger take over. He pressed his fury into his hands, and pushed his hands against the cold glass.

Real glass, not plexi-glass. The Comtessa de La Fere had always prized authenticity over pragmatism.
“You didn’t think I came here only to mock you and our life, did you?” asked Milord.

“I have no idea why you do any of the things you have done,” Athos grated, still refusing to look. His hands flexed hard against the window, as if he could claw his own way out through the glass. “But you will not hurt my friends.”

“I won’t have to,” said Milord. “If they think I’m you, they will fall over themselves to help me on their way. And if I can’t fool them – well, House always was helpful when it came to family.”

The panes gave way under Athos’ palms, and the glass shattered out across the lawn below. Blood burst from his hands, from a dozen different cuts. As he turned to face his opponent, blood smeared across the bright white window ledge.

“No,” said the Comte de la Fere. “I think not.”

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The lights flickered in the kitchen, alerting Dana and the others to the emergency.

“Mother,” said the House in that creepy formal tone it employed. “I have to inform you that his Grace has been injured.”

Aramis and Porthos leaped to their feet, teacups flying.

“So we can go upstairs?” Aramis demanded breathlessly.

“Yes – I am so instructed -” but House’s voice dissolved into static. “No,” it said when it spoke again. “His Grace has given the order that no one must interrupt them.”

“Them?” inquired the red mother, looking as unflappable as ever. “You mean his Grace, and Mr Auden.”

“No – I – his Grace has two voices,” House said plaintively. “They have given conflicting orders.”

“I’m going up anyway,” Porthos said, and made a run for the foyer.

Aramis chased after her. “Be careful! We don’t know how many more of those forcefields are set up.”

“I’m sick of seeing Athos go through hell for that asshole,” Porthos growled. “Let me at them both.”

“House,” the red mother said. “What was the last order that his Grace gave you?”

“It concerns the guest D’Artagnan,” said the House.

Dana, who had been about to follow the others out of the kitchen, hesitated at that. “What about me?”

“His Grace the Comte de La Fere has decreed that D’Artagnan must die,” said House.

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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.

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