It’s Musketeer Day! This is I think the longest chapter of the longest novel I have ever written. In my defence, I still have fewer chapters than Dumas did. Slightly. Thanks so much to my weekly readers, it’s been lovely to know this hasn’t just been spinning out into a void.
Still two chapters to go after this but… they are quite small. This is the big one.
MUCH LOVE, MUSKETOONS.
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Athos had taken part in countless duels over the years – against Hammers and Sabres, against New Aristocrats drunk and sober, against his fellow Musketeers. He had never fought a duel against himself.
But Milord was not Athos, despite wearing a semblance of his face and body. Milord’s fencing style – which had developed significantly since their days of casual sparring – was formal and vicious, Valour from hilt to tip. He had obviously not conducted much of a study of drunken Parisian back alley brawls in between all the marriages, political machinations and espionage.
Athos pressed his advantage, taking a fierce joy in being the Comte in this moment, and not the Musketeer. His honour belonged to himself right now and not to the Crown, and if that meant he felt justified in using his free hand to seize anything within reach – a book, a cup, a vase he had always especially hated – and hurl it at his opponent, then so be it.
“Get out of my house,” he growled.
Milord – still wearing Athos’ face – raised his eyebrows in a parody of sarcasm. “Get out of my house,” he replied sweetly.
Athos batted the other man’s blade out of his way and stepped in, too close for comfort. “This isn’t a game.”
“On the contrary, sweetness,” breathed his husband. “This is the best game we’ve ever played.”
Athos punched him in the face with a bloodstained fist.
Of all the ways that Dana had imagined she might die, it was not at the hands of kitchen implements, apparently ordered to kill her by her best friend.
She didn’t even know what half these things did, but they were metal and plastic and whirring, and she was pretty sure that House was going to use them in all kinds of ways that would make a genuine chef blanch.
Dana backed up as far into the corner of the kitchen as she could. The red mother was speaking, her voice soothing and reassuring as she told the House that the order must have been mistaken, that the real Comte de La Fere would not want his friend dead.
House was obviously struggling against his programming. “The Comte has two voices,” he conceded.
“One of those voices is false,” the red mother assured him. “Mr Auden is your master’s enemy. He has stolen his Grace’s voice to trick you.”
“Does not – that is not logical,” House said, sounding genuinely distressed. “Mr Auden is family by marriage. I am to treat him as – I am to protect him as closely as I protect his Grace.”
A buzzing, rotating knife blade twitched in the direction of Dana’s throat. “His Grace has a new family now,” she blurted out, then looked at the red mother, worried she had said something wrong.
The priest merely nodded, and smiled. “His Grace is now Athos the Musketeer,” she said. “He told you that these are his friends. His personal guests. One does not murder personal guests, House.”
Dana heard a crash and a yell from further into the house. “He’s in trouble, House!” she said desperately. “Please, let me go help him. You can kill me later if you’re really sure that’s what he wants, but let me save him first.”
House hesitated, and the buzzing kitchen implements hung in the air, considering.
Dana didn’t wait. She flew out to the main foyer, where she found Porthos and Aramis battling with the staircase. Porthos was several steps up, and Aramis only a couple behind her, but they were both stuck.
“This damned House keeps changing its mind about letting us past the forcefields,” Porthos howled.
“It’s confused,” said Dana. She hesitated, then ran up the stairs and past them both. “It’s especially confused about me.”
She kept running until she found the third floor, following the sound of a fight. She had no idea which room was the iris library, but she didn’t have to find it, because Athos himself staggered out of a nearby door. He had blood smeared on his white shirt, and across his battered face, but otherwise seemed undamaged.
His Grace has been injured.
“Dana,” Athos said, his hand tightening on the blade of what looked like a genuine antique sword, and not his usual pilot’s slice. “We have to get out of here, now, before he…”
Dana punched him in the face.
He went down with a roar, completely surprised by the force of her fist, and before he could get up again, she shot him with the bright gleam of her pearl stunner.
Porthos and Aramis, who had either won an argument with House or benefited from the red mother’s calm ability to talk sense into AI, came clattering up the last flight of stairs to join them.
“Dana, what did you do?” Porthos yelped.
Aramis, however, gave the fallen Athos a brief once-over and moved past him into the library. “Where’s the real one?”
The room, which must have been beautiful once, was a wreck. Silk wall hangings were torn and blood-stained. Pieces of broken vase littered the floor. Books were scattered everywhere. The window was broken.
Athos stood shakily in the middle of it, blood crusting over his hands and a ragged slash in his jacket sleeve showing a nasty cut. He only had eyes for Dana. “How did you know that wasn’t me?”
She shrugged uncomfortably. “You were wearing a different shirt, holding a different sword, and you didn’t call me D’Artagnan. So.”
“He also got your beard slightly wrong,” said Aramis, kissing him on the cheek which was not smeared with blood. “It’s a very distinctive beard.”
Porthos shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I would have totally fallen for it. Can we get out of here? No offence, Athos, but your House is moodier than you are.”
“Not quite yet,” said Athos, his bloody hands still grasping the hilt of his pilot’s slice. Slowly, he walked past them all to the corridor where the stunned Milord still lay.
He looked mostly like Athos, though his skin was a shade or two darker, now Dana came to compare them face to face. Athos with a mild sunburn.
The real Athos leaned down, allowing the tip of his pilot’s slice to scrape against the throat of the unconscious alien.
It was at that point Dana realised what he meant by ‘not quite yet.’
“Athos,” she said, barely able to find her words. “We need him alive.”
“I have to finish what I started,” her friend said, sounding colder than she had ever heard him. He looked broken.
“No, you don’t,” said Porthos, stepping forward. “You can’t go back to that, Athos. You’ve been blaming yourself for this death for too many years. The guilt was killing you even before he turned up like a bad credit. You don’t have to be judge, jury and executioner this time.”
“She’s right,” said Aramis, nudging Athos’ arm. “We’re going to give him back to his own people, let them take some responsibility for a change. And hey, we’ll stop a war at the same time. Everybody wins.”
They stood there for a few moments longer. Athos pressed the tip of his pilot’s slice a little more firmly into Milord’s flesh, near the collar bone. “What do you think, sweetness?”
Milord’s eyes flickered slightly, and opened. “I’d rather you killed me now than sent me home,” he said, his words still slurred from the stun.
Athos looked thoughtful. “One of us should get to go home,” he said after a long moment, and drew back his blade. “Why not you?”
A few hours later, a sombre party stepped out of the house of the d’Auteville family. Milord, his wrists and ankles hobbled by magnetic cuffs, had reverted to the face he knew best, the young man who had come here to be married so long ago.
Dana noticed that Athos looked at Milord as little as possible, busying himself with soothing House and making some changes to the AI’s menu of ‘trusted family members.’
Special Agent Rosnay Cho was waiting for them in the garden, surrounded by engies and darts. Athos had pulled down the security forcefield specifically to let them bring in the ships, and seemed remarkably unphased by the resulting destruction of various flower beds.
Ro was her usual snarky, businesslike self. She had changed into a violet flight suit, with matching boots. “They’re sending a royal transport to escort us all back to the Bastion,” she reported, her gaze skirting over each of them and lingering curiously for a moment on the red mother. “Finally the powers that be have stopped underestimating what Milord is capable of.”
Dana nodded. “Are you – all right?” Ro hadn’t exactly been in good shape last time she saw her.
Ro nodded stiffly. “Your Planchet hacked Winter out of my brain.”
Dana blinked at that. “She – I’m sorry, she what?”
Planchet bobbed up in their direction, pleased as punch. “It’s not just a drug, it involves a micro-stud that burrows into the brain stem, and once I figured that, it was easy enough to hack into the right frequency and deactivate the Winter program from having any control over or ability to communicate with its victims. I’ve sent the instructions to the Countess of Clarick, too, so they can free Marshal Felton. The cool thing is that the stud should keep a record of all activity under protected passwords, so it can serve as evidence in court.”
Dana stared at Planchet, impressed.
“Yeah, you’re really not paying her enough,” Ro said in a tone that made it clear she wanted to change the subject. “How are things here?”
“Sounds about right.”
Dana cleared her throat, feeling awkward. “Look, I’m really sorry that I – that I thought – I mean, that I assumed -”
“What, that I was on Milord’s side after the whole murder at the convent thing?” Ro said easily. “Don’t sweat it, buttercup. I’ve been underestimated by better people than you.”
“Thanks, I think.”
An unreadable expression crossed Ro’s face, and she punched Dana’s shoulder lightly. “Sorry about your boy.”
Dana swallowed, feeling sad all over again. “Yeah. Thanks.”
The ship that arrived to escort them back to Truth Space – and to the Sun-kissed delegation awaiting delivery of their prisoner – was an eagle-class venturer, The Stars Divine, which Aramis was pretty sure belonged to the Cardinal herself. It had a gold veneer with star field tattoos on the fin, and the interior was lushly designed with red and gold in every room.
It was beyond extravagant, but no one was complaining.
There was room in the hold for all of the darts, sabres and moths belonging to their group, and once the ships, prisoner and passengers were loaded on board, there was nothing for any of them to do.
Like any decent pilot, Aramis hated being a passenger. It sucked. Normally she might occupy herself with books and poetry, or finding a Fleetnet forum in which to spark off a theological debate or two. She was feeling especially uninspired right now, though, and besides, she had friends to keep an eye on.
There was a fully stocked bar on board The Stars Divine, in which Dana had taken up near-permanent residence, drinking steadily through her heartbreak. More often than not, it was Rosnay Cho keeping her company, though Aramis herself, Porthos and Athos all hovered around Dana as well, making sure there was always at least one of them nearby.
It occurred to Aramis that for all the watching of Dana that they were doing, they should be keeping a close eye on Athos too. He was working very hard to act as if nothing of any particular importance had occurred.
On the third day, not long before they were due to arrive at the Bastion, Aramis finally cornered Athos in the bar. He sat some distance from the others, who were having some sort of elaborate cocktail-naming contest.
“You’re sober,” Aramis noted. “Also you’re due for another haircut.”
“Maybe I’ll let it grow out again.”
He gave a short huff of a laugh, but his eyes were distant as he glanced at Dana, then back to his own drink, a large mug of black coffee. “If I start drinking, I don’t think I’ll stop. Maybe when I’m not sharing a ship with him.”
Milord was locked in a cell in the heart of the ship, and guarded by a heavy rotation of Hammers, Sabres and Musketeers, but Aramis knew she wasn’t the only one who slipped down there occasionally to check he was still exactly where he should be.
“What do you think they’re going to do to him?” she asked. “His own people, I mean.”
“From what Treville told us, they consider him a traitor and a murderer,” Athos shrugged. “But they’re aliens. For all we know, their highest punishment is a cuddle and a slice of birthday cake.”
Aramis slid a look over at Dana, who was now leaning miserably into Porthos, trying not to make it obvious that she was crying. Rosnay Cho was pretending that she hadn’t noticed, ordering more drinks for them. “I want to tear the bastard limb from limb,” Aramis whispered.
Athos saluted her with his coffee cup. “Welcome to the club. But you and Porthos were right. I got to be judge, jury and executioner the last time around, and that was hell. Time to try something new.”
Aramis gave him a brief hug around the shoulders, then slipped behind the bar to pour herself a drink. Champagne, she thought. All the better to toast the downfall of their enemies. “When was the last time you were even sober in a bar?”
“Far beyond recorded memory,” Athos said solemnly. “Do they usually smell this bad?”
Aramis wrinkled her nose. “I think that’s the carpet. This ship must have been in mothballs for years.”
“It’s too fancy for everyday.”
Aramis poured herself a glass of bubbles from a suitably labelled flask, and clinked the glass against Athos’ cup. Time to change the subject so hard that there was no going back. “At least we get to skip the drunken confessions part of the evening. That was getting old.”
He gave her an odd look. “What exactly do you have to confess?”
“Not me, you.” And yes, she was evil, which was why she waited until he had a mouthful of coffee before explaining. “You know, the drunken conversation we keep having, where you beg my forgiveness for sleeping with Chevreuse two days after we broke up.”
To his credit, Athos did not spit out the coffee, but it obviously took quite the effort to swallow. “What the hell, Aramis?”
She laughed at him. “You are very cute when you’re guilt-ridden.”
“I – wasn’t aware that was a conversation I had allowed to exist outside my own head.”
“Six times, Athos,” she told him firmly. “Since Joyeux. And for what it’s worth, I forgave you five times out of the six.”
He nodded, and it was actually quite endearing that he looked as if a weight had been taken off his shoulders. “Good to know.”
She tapped him on the nose with the cool edge of her champagne glass. “Not everything has to be a melodrama or a tragedy.”
Athos had thought he was prepared for this. He had made so many sensible life choices this week. He had given House a more appropriate lockdown procedure when they all left Valour, and he fully intended to make proper arrangements for the estate. He had remained a sober companion for D’Artagnan as she worked through her grief and guilt about the boy that Auden had murdered in order to hurt her.
Athos had even composed a mostly sensible report for Amiral Treville, on the grounds that it was nearly her birthday, and he liked to surprise her now and then.
He had trusted his friends to regularly check on the prisoner so that he did not have to, because he was perfectly content never speaking another word to that man.
Really, Athos was proud of how well he was handling all of this.
They were twelve hours away from Truth Space and the Bastion, when the aliens arrived.
Athos was on the flight deck, because his friends were drunk and maudlin and he only got to be one of those things. He hated travelling through space as a passenger – all decent Musketeers felt the same way, he would have thought – but it was easier somehow when standing up here at the business end, watching the stars through the view screen.
The venturer flight crew were Sabres, and they were politely pretending he didn’t exist and that none of them had fought duels with him in the last six months; a comfortable falsehood.
“What the hell’s that?” said Captain Tybalt, a sentence no one ever wants to hear from their pilot.
Athos looked at the odd blaze of brightness that streaked across their view screen. “That’s… not good,” he managed, before the blaze became too fierce to look at directly. “Fuck. It’s the Sun-kissed.”
“They’re not shooting!” shouted Magellan, the co-pilot, but that wasn’t as comforting as it might have been.
“I don’t think they have to shoot at us to destroy this ship,” said Athos, and he was already running, slapping his comm stud as he went, opening a frequency that alerted everyone on the team from Valour – not just Aramis, Porthos and D’Artagnan, but Cho, L’Etoile and Ducasse too. “Get to the prisoner hold now. Ambush!”
When he reached the corridor outside the hold where Milord was imprisoned, he saw the first bodies – two unconscious Hammers, sprawled out by the door.
Aramis and Porthos, their eyes uncomfortably bright from the fast effect of Sobriety patches, reached him around the same time. Both drew their stunners, allowing Athos to take point.
Inside the hold, four more guards lay unconscious or dead on the ground – there was no time to check which. At the far end, Milord sat on a bench, electro-cuffed to the wall and surrounded by a forcefield, alert and awake. Still wearing the face and body and bright silver hair of young Auden d’Auteville.
The red mother, who had insisted on travelling with them for Milord’s trial, was on her feet, facing down six figures with bright red skin, and light pouring out of their eyes and mouths.
“This is our leader,” she said quickly. “Athos the Musketeer. He was one of the victims of the prisoner.”
The six Sun-kissed delegates turned their bright faces to Athos, and he did his best not to cower under their fierce intensity. He was also uncomfortable with having been promoted to leader of this mission, but he knew why she had done it.
“Friends,” he said in the calm, diplomatic tone he had learned from his father, long before he was old enough to use it. “Do we have a problem here?”
One of the six opened her mouth, and a garble of light and sound poured out. She stopped, tilted her head, and allowed another of her companions to step forward instead.
“Our lost child is to be collected,” that one said. “It was an agreement with your people.”
Special Agent Rosnay Cho shoved her way into the room with L’Etoile and Ducasse. She stood beside Athos with a look of grim determination on her face. “We are charged with delivering the criminal to the Cardinal and the Regent,” she said firmly. “They are the ones who made the agreement with you.”
All six Sun-kissed tilted their heads back and forth, as if trying to make sense of her words.
“The Cardinal is irrelevant,” said one.
“The Regent is irrelevant,” said another.
“Our lost child is to be collected,” said the original speaker.
“Will there be a trial?” put in a belligerent voice. D’Artagnan, of course. “Will he face judgement for his many crimes? Will he be punished?”
Milord began to laugh, a harsh and angry sound. “Oh, sweetness,” he said, pretending to wipe tears from his eyes. “You’re precious. Don’t ever change.”
“Our orders are clear,” said Special Agent Cho, holding firm.
“You are irrelevant,” said the main speaker. Light poured into the room, too intense for Athos to do anything but squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened them, Rosnay Cho, L’Etoile, Ducasse, Aramis and Porthos all lay unconscious on the floor.
D’Artagnan was leaning over Aramis to check her pulse. She nodded, her eyes wide and startled.
Not dead, then. Athos breathed out. “What do you want?” he asked, since it was obvious the aliens could do anything they damn well pleased.
“Our lost child is to be collected,” the Sun-kissed speaker said, unruffled as ever.
“Take him, then,” said Athos. “Be our guest. I can’t emphasise enough how little we care about his fate.”
D’Artagnan made a small noise of protest in her throat.
Athos rolled his eyes at her. “Do you imagine we have a choice here?”
The red mother cleared her throat, addressing the Sun-kissed delegation again. “As the prisoner’s religious adviser, I wish to accompany him to your world to ensure he is treated fairly.”
As one, the six Sun-kissed turned expressions on her that could only be described as intergalactic sarcasm. “Irrelevant,” said one, and the red mother dropped to the ground in a dead faint.
“Marvellous,” purred Milord. “My two greatest defenders are all that remain to protect me.”
“Burn in hell,” D’Artagnan shot at him.
“Meet me there,” Milord snapped back, but it was Athos he looked at, with a sad smile curving across his face. “No last words, sweetness?”
“Go in peace,” Athos breathed, and he meant it. He could not think about vengeance, not now.
The Sun-kissed turned their attention to the prisoner. A fierce bright light filled the room, dissolving the heavy cuffs on his wrists and ankles, and de-activating the forcefield. For the first time, Milord looked afraid, pressing himself back against the wall.
“I did my duty!” he said sharply. “I did exactly what you sent me here to do. I gathered intelligence, I insinuated myself into a position of value in their society. I came this close to bringing down their government. I never stopped working for you!”
The main speaker of the Sun-kissed delegates regarded Milord with extreme disinterest, as if he was so much dust beneath her foot. She reached out a crimson hand and touched his face.
Light blazed out from the delegation, and there were images and sounds captured in that intense, burning light. Athos saw a ship crash, saw the shapeless creatures that emerged, and saw one die at the hands of another. He saw Auden – his Auden, from long ago – return to a glowing beacon in the snow year after year, and he saw him broken and angry, destroying that beacon.
Was this a trial? Did this count as evidence? Or was it merely an interrogation?
Were those crimes enough, to make his whole race turn against Milord, to wage a war in order to take him back? Or had that always been an excuse: either an excuse to invade or an excuse to end the war?
The light burned harder, and Milord cried out in pain, in terror.
Athos had been willing to be the executioner this time as well as five years ago, if there was no other choice, or he had thought that he was willing. Now as he realised what was happening, his whole body reacted against it. Arms wrapped around his shoulders, hands pressed into his mouth, holding him back. In the brightness, he heard a howling cry of protest that, in retrospect, must have come from him.
D’Artagnan was the only one left, so it had to be her who tackled him to the floor, kept him from hurling himself into the light.
Milord Vaniel De Winter, also known as Sister Snow, and Linton Gray, and Slate, and Auden d’Auteville and a dozen other names, dissolved in a burning ball of light that hurt the eyes. The Sun-kissed delegation bowed their heads, made a chattering sound that Athos did not understand, and vanished one by one, leaving the two conscious humans and many unconscious humans alone in the hold.
Athos breathed in the scent of Dana’s uniform and skin because anything, any distraction was better than the fact that his dead husband had been burned alive before his eyes. He coughed, and D’Artagnan released him.
“Fucking aliens,” she said in a shaky not-quite laugh.
Laughing was as bad as drinking. Once he started, Athos was sure he would never stop. He bit the inside of his mouth, instead, and said: “It’s done. How does vengeance taste?”
D’Artagnan gave him a quick, worried look. “Unsatisfying,” she ventured.
“Sounds about right.” Athos looked around at their many unconscious colleagues. “We’re going to get the blame for this, aren’t we?”
“Oh, yeah. Big time.”
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.