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Salt Its Tail

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“By order of the King’s Musketeers, drop your weapons!” Jacqueline shouted as loudly as she could while still pitching her voice deep enough for the man she pretended to be. A pistol shot passed over the barrels behind which she and her squad had ducked. These rogues were reloading uncommonly fast. Worse, their aim was uncommonly good. “Ramon, tell them to drop their weapons.”

“Drop your weapons!” The tall Spaniard bellowed obligingly. He had bent his chin to his knees to keep below the barrel rims. Another pistol ball thunked into the wooden wall. “Uh, why me?”

“Your voice is the most resonant, monsieur poet,” d’Artagnan said. “Who knew that rhapsodizing would pay off in combat?”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes. Even in the dim light from the warehouse’s high window slits, she could see d’Artagnan grin. There were many things that the charming son of the celebrated Comte d’Artagnan took seriously, she would admit if pressed, but physical danger was not among them. After days of investigation, the Musketeers had confirmed the activities of this gang of salt smugglers and traced them to this building in the Rue de La Huchette, the thieves’ quarter. Jacqueline’s squad had cornered the criminals, cutting off access to the sole door, but the provost’s archers — Paris’s ordinary constabulary — had not appeared as arranged, not even at the sound of firearms discharging. In addition, the smugglers were supplied not only with pistols and polearms, but their leader bore a sword. Throughout, d’Artagnan had beamed with relish while Jacqueline had frowned in concentration.

“They’re out of ammunition.” Siroc collapsed his newly redesigned far-hearing contraption and slipped it into his coat sleeve under his gauntlet cuff. “They’re moving this way.”

“Now!” d’Artagnan ordered. Sword in hand, Jacqueline swung around the end of the row of barrels, while d’Artagnan vaulted over it and engaged their adversaries first.

Ramon slammed his shoulder into the heavy barrel in front of him, knocking it down and setting it rolling toward the smugglers, who scattered to keep their feet. He pushed over another for good measure, then adjusted his grip on his sword and plunged ahead.

Siroc, who had saved his shots, stood and aimed his pistols, one after the other. Two smugglers fell to the blond musketeer before he replaced his guns in his belt, drew his sword and attacked through the breach Ramon had opened.

“Minuet steps, gentlemen,” d’Artagnan teased the polearm bearers who kept retreating as he advanced. “One, two. One, two. Now a sink and a rise—”

Jacqueline faced the swordsman. Ever since she had won her invitation to join the Musketeers by disarming d’Artagnan in front of Captain Duval, she had been acknowledged — though d’Artagnan still called foul — as their best fencer. She took comfort in that open truth, balancing some of the hidden lies. Still, bladework was hardly a soldier’s only asset, and as she felt out her opponent though quick feints and yielding parries, she wished for her friends’ keen eyes on him. Something was not right. He dressed like his fellow smugglers, but he fought as if repeating a lesson — one of the standard drills at the garrison. When he followed her weapon through a deceptively loose contraparry, Jacqueline stepped inside his guard and lunged. Her steel pierced his shoulder. He gritted his teeth and made no sound, but, involuntarily, his fingers loosened. His blade clattered to the floor. As she recovered her stance and withdrew her sword, Jacqueline indulged her intuition; a flick slit his sleeve from shoulder to elbow, exposing the small, obelisk tattoo of the Order of the Knights of the Black Tabernacle.

“Everyone all right?” Jacqueline asked, not yet daring to take her eyes or her point off her prisoner.

“All good here,” Siroc replied.

“Here, too,” Ramon echoed. “D’Artagnan?”

“We’ve graduated from the minuet to the gavotte, haven’t we, fellows? That’s right, line up over there; yes, you, too. Now, on your knees.”

In a moment, Siroc and Ramon stepped into Jacqueline’s field of vision. Siroc checked the swordsman’s wound and then pressed him to his knees, letting Jacqueline sheathe her weapon. Siroc raised his eyebrows at her when he spotted the tattoo. They had not seen its like since the disturbing events surrounding that mysterious jewel, the Eye of Gilgamesh, and they had been unable to prove its link to Cardinal Mazarin.

Jacqueline jerked her chin toward the prisoner and met Siroc’s eyes, postponing that discussion for privacy. Then she looked around. Two smugglers lay groaning on the floor; two others lay eternally still. Five knelt against the wall under d’Artagnan’s guard.

“You should have thrown down your weapons when Jacques told you to.” Ramon picked up the swordsman’s blade and used it to stir the precious white crystals spilled from a split bag. “Unarmed, salt smuggling would have sent you to the galleys. Armed, it’s the gallows.”

The swordsman spit. “What is a Spaniard to tell me the laws of France?”

Siroc’s sharp features rarely betrayed emotion, but Jacqueline saw his fingers tighten on the swordsman’s wounded shoulder. “That man is a Musketeer.”

“And who are you, monsieur smuggler?” Jacqueline crossed her arms over the wide baldrick and buckle that helped further obscure her bound breasts. “Shall we turn you over to the provost with your lackeys, or do you claim a higher justice?”

The swordsman sneered.

“If the provost’s men aren’t coming to us,” d’Artagnan called, “I say we go to them.”

Leaving Siroc to watch over the dead, the wounded and the merchandise, d’Artagnan, Jacqueline and Ramon marched the ambulatory prisoners into the chilly spring afternoon. Proclaimed as King’s Musketeers by their grey and blue uniform coats, they became a short parade; people hurried out of their way, the better to point, stare and gossip from the side. D’Artagnan waved back when any woman waved at them. Ramon answered any question put clearly. Jacqueline kept her eyes on their prisoners.

At the Châtelet, the provost marshal’s headquarters, the Musketeers received thanks and apologies. The provost’s lieutenant dispatched archers to relieve Siroc, and messengers to inform both Captain Duval and the King — which was to say, Mazarin.

Jacqueline wondered again whether she would ever be able to expose the corrupt cardinal, much less before his machinations brought all France to tragedy, as they had her own family. Yet who was she to bear true witness, she worried, when every day she lived a lie in the eyes of those she respected most?

⚜   ⚜

“Your eminence,” Bernard swept off his tricorne hat and bowed low before shutting the door of his patron’s study behind him. “I have bad news.”

Mazarin hardly looked up from the piles of paper on his desk. The kingdom did not run itself. “Let me guess: our young monarch has decreed another ravioli night.”

Bernard blinked. “Not that I know of.”

“Never mind, Captain,” Mazarin sighed. He missed Liana; distressingly few of his associates — in the Order or out — had the wit to make their company rewarding. But Bernard commanded the Cardinal’s Guard capably and fulfilled his missions discreetly. “What is it?”

“I regret to report that the Musketeers have seized the Paris hub of our salt venture.”

Mazarin set his pen on his blotter and clenched his fists. Evading the salt tax generated even more revenue than collecting it. “Our operative won’t live to betray us.”

“On the contrary, he is in the provost’s custody now.”

Mazarin smiled, baring his teeth. “Do I have to repeat myself, Captain?”

“Uh, no, your eminence.” Bernard bowed again. “I’ll see to it.”

Once the door closed, Mazarin opened a coffer of assorted clean paper, parchment and vellum. He selected a sheet yellowed by the sun and time. He had tired of waiting for the King’s Musketeers to blow themselves up. It was time to light another fuse.

⚜   ⚜

“Captain Duval will be at the palace for hours yet,” said Ramon, when the four Musketeers strode out in triumph from the Châtelet. The muddy streets roared with the bustle of their fellow pedestrians, as well as riders, carriages and sedan chairs, as the sun sank toward the horizon. “There’s plenty of time to stop at the Café Nouveau and warm up a little before going on to the garrison, no?”

“He can’t go on without some coffee,” Jacqueline kidded. She had her doubts about a beverage made from beans, of all things, but Ramon’s veins ran with the fashionable new brew.

One side of d’Artagnan’s mouth quirked up. “My guess is that he can’t go on without some Emanuelle.”

“Today’s adventure is a tale, my friends, and a first draft is best poured into a pretty ear.” Ramon indulged them with a melodramatic hand to his heart. “Ideally, attached to an arm that serves coffee.”

While Siroc and d’Artagnan chuckled, Jacqueline smiled and stroked the false patch of hair glued below her lip in imitation of Captain Duval. She had never yet been able to make her laugh sound masculine — she had seen the dubious looks it drew — but she worried that suppressing it was earning her a reputation as humorless. Really, she was as merry as any of them. Wasn’t she? She had been, before Mazarin’s cortege had stopped at her family’s farm...

Shaking off the dark turn, Jacqueline silently wished Ramon and the Café Nouveau serving girl success. Someday, one by one, her friends must retire from the Musketeers and settle down: d’Artagnan to his father’s debt-burdened estate, Ramon to a sinecure courtesy of his sister in Madrid, Siroc to some cellar or garret workshop in the Latin quarter. She alone would carry on, serving France until death or the exposure of her secret... which amounted to the same thing, in the end.

“I agree that we have time,” Siroc said, turning up his coat collar against the wind, “but do we dare talk openly at the café? The cardinal’s men have been there more and more often — and not just the ones wearing their red where we can see it.”

“Oh, even cardinalists appreciate coffee! Rich and dark, the perfumed ambrosia streams / over your tongue and into your dreams.” Ramon gestured while he rhapsodized; a short man ducked under the poet’s expressive motions to avoid a collision. “Where heavenly satisfaction is seen / flowing from the incense of the bean.” Finished, he slung his arm around Siroc’s shoulders. “You can talk to the proprietor again about your scheme for concentrated coffee.”

“He didn’t understand the pressure mechanism—”

Rounding the corner plunged the Musketeers into a commotion. Ahead, a noble’s coach and a hauler’s cart sat, stopped, too close together, with a screaming confrontation at their wheels. Traffic not halted by the block in the road had halted to take sides in the spat.

“Should we go around?” Siroc asked.

Jacqueline and d’Artagnan dashed ahead.

“Apparently, we go through,” Ramon answered.

Jacqueline charged into the cloak-snatcher. She had spotted him taking advantage of the distraction by cutting the drawstring of an elderly gentleman’s garment. Jacqueline twisted her body to knock into him with her shoulder. The thief fell in the mud. As she pulled her arm back for a jab, the thief threw the heavy cloak over her head.

Out from under the garment, Jacqueline looked around for the thief, who had melted into the crowd, and for d’Artagnan, whom she had expected to back her up. Instead, she spotted him at the door of the coach, bent over a gloved hand extended through the curtained window. When the long, curly, blonde hair swished, Jacqueline recognized the Lady Charlotte Larousse. Jacqueline spun around, hoping she had not been seen. The cheerful, generous Charlotte had been d’Artagnan’s playmate when first they met, and that of a palace guard, last Jacqueline had heard, but in between, Charlotte had conceived an awkward passion for Jacques.

Jacqueline strode over to where Siroc and Ramon were calming the coachman and the carter, out of sight of Charlotte’s window. Jacqueline could now see the original problem: one of the cart’s wheels had locked in that of the coach.


People looked at Jacqueline expectantly. She blinked. Had the crowd found her and the thief a sufficiently entertaining substitute for the coachman and carter? “Thank you, good people!” She bowed. “Now, where is the owner of this fine — muddy — cloak?”

“Thank you, young man.” The crowd parted for the cloak’s slow-moving owner, and then began to disperse. Jacqueline shook the mud off the garment as best she could. When he reached her, she helped the white-haired man settle it around his shoulders. He patted her arm. “I served a Musketeer, in my youth. Is it true that you cavaliers don’t employ personal lackeys anymore?”

“That’s right, sir. We have the garrison now.”

“Pity,” the old man sighed. “Good days, good memories. Not all the glory belonged to the masters, you know!”

“I’m sure it didn’t.” Jacqueline gave a sharp, respectful nod.

The man chuckled. “All for one and one for all! Eh?”

“Uh, no, sorry.” She glanced over her shoulder at d’Artagnan, to check whether he had heard this reprise of his father’s friends’ famous motto. He wasn’t wincing, so she guessed not. She had cherished that slogan since childhood, dreaming of becoming the next d’Artagnan. Her friend had despised it just as long, bearing the burdens of the next d’Artagnan. “We’re trying to come up with a new motto, actually.”

“A new King, a new cardinal, a new motto for a new generation.” The old man sounded wistful. “That’s fair. But the spirit is the thing! Remember where you come from, Musketeer.”

“Always, sir.” A farm instead of a noble house, a dress instead of breeches, a wanted poster instead of a letter of introduction. Unlike her friends, she had no other life to return to. It made her all the more a Musketeer.

⚜   ⚜

“No, don’t get up,” Captain Duval waved down his company with his free hand when he entered the garrison’s common room that evening. With his other hand, he leaned on his cane, sparing the injured leg that had ended his days as a soldier and launched those as a royal advisor. “Except you, d’Artagnan, Laponte, de la Cruz and Siroc. You stand.”

The four obeyed, while their comrades, seated on benches at the one long table opposite the hearth, looked on. D’Artagnan winked at Jacqueline, who frowned. Ramon smiled. Siroc remained politely impassive.

“Our King, and his gracious mother, the Queen, charge me to convey their appreciation for your swift capture of these infamous salt smugglers—”

“Less infamous since Mazarin raised the taxes,” d’Artagnan whispered. “Some are calling them heroes of the people.”

Jacqueline kicked his calf behind the table to hush him. She kept her eyes on the captain. Everyone knew that the salt levies left some regions with too little for health, and forced others to buy excess. But lawbreaking was no remedy.

“—and to grant you therefore the extraordinary favor of a royal holiday.” Captain Duval took a deep breath and relaxed, finishing the official proclamation. “That’s all of us, understand, not just d’Artagnan’s squad. The provost’s archers will patrol in our place within the city, and the Cardinal’s Guard without. Every Musketeer is to be out of the garrison and enjoying himself from Terce to Vespers tomorrow, by the King’s order.”

Cheers erupted on all sides. Jacqueline shook her head at being applauded twice in one day. She and the others were pounded repeatedly on the shoulders, and their cups refilled.

The captain raised his hand for silence. “I trust that I don’t need to tell you to toast this royal generosity — and to repeat the lesson of what happens to salt smugglers — loudly, at every opportunity.”

“We understand,” d’Artagnan nodded. The company echoed him.

Captain Duval seated himself at the hearth, peeling off his gloves and warming his fingers after the ride from the palace. When he thought no one was looking, Jacqueline saw, he rubbed his bad knee. Once the congratulations and planning died down, and Musketeers began taking themselves off to their beds, he gestured d’Artagnan over. Jacqueline, Ramon and Siroc followed.

“I am not contradicting the King’s praise,” the captain began, “but I know you men. I not only expect no less, I expect more. Could you really not bring in even one of them alive?”

While the others picked up their dropped jaws, Siroc said, “I beg your pardon, Captain, but are you saying that all the prisoners have died of their wounds?”

Captain Duval tilted his head. “There were no prisoners, the provost marshal reported. Just ten dead criminals, and no new information about their backers.”

“The provost—” Jacqueline growled.

“The provost is misinformed,” d’Artagnan cut her off. “Two lives were indeed lost today, but we delivered five walking, talking salt smugglers to the Châtelet this afternoon, and more still breathing.”

“Their leader had the obelisk tattoo,” Jacqueline said. “The Order of the Knights of the Black Tabernacle must be behind this! They must have ordered him silenced.”

Siroc crossed his arms. “If I could be permitted to investigate the anatomy of the remains, Captain, I’m confident I could prove that they died in the provost’s care, not ours.”

Jacqueline sent up a quick prayer for Siroc’s soul. He meant well, but crossed some lines too easily, in her opinion.

“Thank you, private.” Captain Duval bit his lip. “But that wouldn’t be, uh... prudent... this time. The King is pleased with this exploit as he heard it told, and we can’t afford to alienate the provost marshal by accusing his men without proof.”

“Sir, an autopsy would provide proof—”

The captain raised a hand. “We will pursue this in the usual way. Understood?”

Jacqueline jerked her chin in a sharp nod. “We’ll begin tracking down the smugglers’ associates tomorrow.”

“No, you won’t do that, either.” The captain began to stand. When Ramon came to his assistance, he scowled, but accepted the arm up. “Tomorrow is a holiday. Would you defy your King?”

“No, sir! But Captain—”

“That’s an order, Laponte. Off duty and out of the garrison tomorrow.” When none of the four moved, he raised his eyebrows and added, “Dismissed!”

⚜   ⚜

It was a nightmare.

Jacqueline wore a luxurious white gown. It shone in the sunlight pouring through the high windows of Their Majesties’ blue and gilt reception gallery. The dress was beautiful, but, she fretted, it certainly was not hers. Her hidden cache of women’s clothes held nothing but the woolen pinafore in which she had fled, the gowns in which she had met the Stuart, and assorted linens. More, her brown hair bounced in a distracting profusion of ringlets at each side of her face, in the style favored by the Queen and her ladies. Jacqueline had never once worn her hair so; peasants didn’t! She crossed to the extravagant wall mirror to see herself.

The reflection wore her Musketeer’s gear — grey and blue uniform coat, black trousers, buckled baldrick and basket-hilted rapier — with the artificial mouche glued below her lower lip, and hair tied back in a queue. “Appearing at the royal palace dressed as Jacqueline is brandishing our death warrant,” the reflection chided. “We might as well go to the Place de La Grève and beg the executioner’s convenience. Or have you forgotten that we’re outlawed?”

“By Mazarin, covering up his own crimes!”

“And so he poses as a good man, while we pose as a... man. Do our lies differ so much?”

“Pretending to be Jacques hurts no one.” Jacqueline shivered. At least, it hurt no one as long as she could keep the secret, and there was no reason she should fail. She was tall for a woman, and strong. She could depend on her skill. But her luck?

While d’Artagnan alone knew Jacques was Jacqueline, all three of her closest comrades knew she was wanted for murder. That the deceased was the villain who had killed her father and seized her brother on Mazarin’s orders, and that he had died on her steel, mattered to her friends. It would not matter to the law under Mazarin. They would be charged with treason for sheltering her. The scandal would be too much; the captain would no longer be able to stave off Mazarin from disbanding the Musketeers. What she revered most would fall, dishonored, in her name. Was it any wonder that she rarely spared a thought for the mere public flogging due impersonating the opposite sex? But she did not like to lie. And she feared she was getting used to lying.

“Becoming Jacques was the only way to rescue Girard,” the reflection said. “But is staying Jacques really the only way to defeat Mazarin?”

A footman opened the chamber door and bowed. People streamed through, filling up the gallery.

“Jacqueline!” d’Artagnan called out, waving from behind a clot of courtiers. She hushed him, appalled that he would use her real name in public; he ignored her protest and rushed across the room such that no one could mistake his target. He caught her around the waist and swung her in a circle — awkwardly, for she was as tall as him. “We’ve done it for you! Mazarin is in the Bastille!”

“What?” she gaped.

“I defeated Bernard in a duel and exposed the Order.”

Siroc walked up behind him. “I produced the evidence that tied them all together.”

“And I fetched your brother back from the Americas.” Ramon took a bow.

“Girard!” Jacqueline exclaimed, suddenly engulfed in her brother’s embrace. “I thought I’d never see you again!”

“From now on, I rule without a Prime Minister,” the young King announced. Jacqueline curtseyed deeply at his sudden appearance. He signaled for her to rise. “And you, mademoiselle, and your brother, too, I hereby pardon. Your service has been — irregular — but appreciated. You may now return to your farm and resume the duties proper to your rank and sex.”

“Or you can marry me.” D’Artagnan took her hands and met her eyes, as earnest as she had ever seen him. “Seriously, this time. Marry me, Jacqueline. It’s finished. You never have to ride a patrol or pick up a sword or chase down a miscreant ever again. France is safe. Your family is reunited. You’re vindicated. And you didn’t have to lift a finger! There’s nothing left for you to do.”

His sword through her heart would have hurt less.

“Do you not know me at all?” Tears came to Jacqueline's eyes. She dashed them away and planted her hands on her hips. “Any of you?”

Jacqueline woke at last.

Her sheets were a tangled mess. Despite the persistent spring chill, she had been sweating. Once again, she was grateful that her elite squad merited their own rooms. She rolled out of bed, pulled herself together, and headed for Lauds and Mass at the cathedral.

⚜   ⚜

“Come buy! Come buy!” shouted the bookseller, nearly in Jacqueline’s ear, trying to drown out the handkerchief seller, the knife seller, the collar seller, and all the rest. “Buy, buy, buy!”

Jacqueline shook her head. She checked — discreetly — that her slender purse remained tied to her belt under her uniform coat. The Pont Neuf was, as always, a manic fairground. The bridge teemed not only with peddlers of all kinds, but conjurers, buskers, shooting galleries, and every variety of occupation that backed prudently away at the sight of a King’s Musketeer. Parisian d’Artagnan had laughed over the coarse Pont Neuf when Jacqueline had mentioned her itinerary at breakfast; at first, that had made her feel like the unsophisticated country girl she still was, under all Jacques’s pretensions, but on reflection, it was clearly d’Artagnan’s loss.

Inspired by the cloudy day, Jacqueline was contemplating a felt hat for wet weather — “As worn in Turkey,” its seller claimed — when she spotted Siroc lingering at the edge of one of the pistol targeting booths. His arms were crossed and a shopping basket hung from one elbow. “Three shots a sou!” the booth proprietor called. “Magnificent prizes!”

“Magnificent my foot,” Jacqueline murmured, stepping up beside Siroc. “The prizes are faded ribbons and broken masks left over from the last feast day.”

“I know.” Siroc displayed a fistful of rosettes. “Want some? No? Perhaps d’Artagnan and Ramon can give them to their ladies. Few enough win, anyway. I was just pondering how to improve pistol manufacture to ensure better aim.”

Alarmed, Jacqueline asked, “You’re not reviving your automated firing mechanism, are you?”

“No, of course not.” Siroc stashed his rosettes in his basket, among some bottles and packets. “I learned that lesson. But it’s difficult to stop thinking about a great advance just because some people would misuse it.” He turned away from the shooting gallery and resumed walking across the bridge.

Jacqueline kept pace. Siroc’s devices often disturbed her. The flying machine and sub-aquatic chamber had seemed unnatural, even supernatural. But she had not quailed at using them, she admitted, and if she would excuse the lengths to which she went, herself, to put her talents to use in this world, she could grant Siroc no less. She bumped his shoulder with hers. “The Lord surely intends you to use all that brainpower He gave you. If I’ve been discouraging, I apologize.”

“Thanks, Jacques.” Siroc almost smiled. “Oh, look, here’s what I actually came out here for.” He pointed to an ointment seller’s stall, with boxes making a platform where the alchemical adept was demonstrating his concoction on his young, pretty assistant. The balm claimed efficacy against everything from acne to syphilis. “I’ve been collecting samples to test. Once I know which ones work, and how well, I’ll make a list and nail it up so that people can buy only the good ones! Also, I may be able to develop better liniments by examining the individual effects of the component parts.”

Jacqueline stifled a laugh behind her hand. The King’s physician despised Siroc; there would be a mighty clash if the Musketeer trespassed on the King’s never-mentioned teenage blemishes. “This is your idea of a holiday?”

“There are so many projects that I can’t get to when we’re on duty.” Siroc shrugged. “It’s nice to be able to devote a whole day to them.”

“It’s odd, though, isn’t it? Has the King ever done this before, declared a day off for the whole garrison?”

“Not since I’ve been a Musketeer.”

Jacqueline frowned. “His Majesty doesn’t change things without Mazarin’s approval.”

“The cardinal is probably hoping that his guard will show us up while it substitutes for us.”

“Probably,” Jacqueline repeated, doubtfully. Hope was not part of Mazarin’s arsenal.

Leaving Siroc on the bridge to complete his sample collection, Jacqueline crossed the river. She strolled past the law courts and the Châtelet, thinking about the smugglers captured yesterday, and what she would do tomorrow to find their backers and connect them to Mazarin. Eventually, she bought a crusty, savory pie from a pieman on the edge of the Cemetery of the Innocents. Looking for a place to sit, she spotted Ramon, among several other men and a few women, set up on the flat tombstones with writing supplies at hand; she hailed him with a wave.

“Ah, Jacques!” Ramon patted the stone next to him. “Do you need a letter written, or do you come feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner?”

Jacqueline felt her brow furrow in confusion, until she realized he was eyeing her lunch. She broke her meat pasty in half; the tall, lanky musketeer was always hungry. “Why would I need a letter?”

Gracias!” After swallowing his first bite, Ramon said, “I forget that you’re newer to Paris than I am. This is where the professional letter-writers wait for customers.” He introduced her to those who were unoccupied, and, in a hushed voice, pointed out those engaged with clients. “That man in the black suit wants help composing a circular to advertise his tailor shop. And that maid who’s been crying, she needs to recreate an account list that she accidentally dropped in the dishwater.”

“Do you take such commissions?” Jacqueline was surprised. It didn’t seem like Ramon to mix his beloved art with commerce.

“Sometimes.” Ramon finished his half of the pie. “I wrote a livere’s worth of a declaration of love for a footman this morning. His ardor is true; thus my words are, too. But mainly I come for the company. Someday!” he stabbed a finger skyward for emphasis. “Someday, I will be invited to the highest salons to declaim! Until then, my fellow scribes know my pain.”

“I had no idea.” Jacqueline continued munching her half of the pie. “That’s nice. I mean, you’ve got us at the garrison, and we understand some things, but you’ve also got these fellows here, and maybe they understand things we don’t.” Wistfully, Jacqueline imagined making acquaintances, as a woman, who could talk with her as a woman — a pang of longing for her deceased mother took her breath away — but of course the price on her head shut her out of that comfort. She did not dare be recognized... she had not dared be Jacqueline in public since Mazarin, not even at her parents’ graves. She took a deep breath.

“You come first. You know that, right?” Ramon clapped her on the shoulder. “You and Siroc and d’Artagnan, even before Emanuelle. Not, technically, before my sister, but she’s in Madrid, so—”

“I know.” Jacqueline clasped Ramon’s hand briefly in return. “Hey, I wanted to ask, do you think there’s anything more to this ‘day off’ than getting the word out about how strongly the King feels about salt smuggling?”

“What more could there be?”

“I don’t know. But it isn’t like Mazarin to let His Majesty openly prefer the King’s Musketeers over the Cardinal’s Guard. Doesn’t he usually insist on equal privileges?”

“But we’re the ones who caught the smugglers!” Ramon frowned.

“I know. Never mind.” Jacqueline shook her head. “Look, I’m probably going to stop in at Café Nouveau for supper. Would you like me to carry any message?”

Ramon smiled, briefly speechless at the thought of Emanuelle. “If I’m not there yet, just tell her that I’m coming.”

Jacqueline half-saluted to acknowledge the charge. Then she wiped her hands on her breeches, pulled her leather gloves back on, and headed off through the Halles, the wholesale marketplace, on her winding way toward the garrison. D’Artagnan had once said that the fish market was the true spring of rumor in Paris, beating the Court hands down. Jacqueline hoped to overhear the popular take on these salt smugglers and pick up a clue to their backers; instead, she came away with an earful of curses even soldiers did not use, courtesy of two rival women fishmongers who loudly wished on each other fates that Jacqueline would not wish even on Mazarin. It was... educational. Their ferocity had amused her, at first, reminding her that she was hardly the only woman with a fighting spirit. But then their energy had appalled her, wasted as it was on a petty struggle for precedence, as useless as any courtier’s.

Jacqueline liked to believe that everything she did mattered. She worried sometimes that she had stolen this life never meant for her, but what other life could possibly matter as much? The Church, yes, but... the Musketeers were her vocation.

The afternoon sun was brighter, though less warm, than the forenoon clouds. Approaching the Café Nouveau, Jacqueline spotted d’Artagnan at one of the tables in the open, cobblestone courtyard, looking out at the street, a coffee carafe and a crumb-sprinkled plate by his elbow. She sat across from him and looked in the carafe: empty. “Been here long?”

“Maybe.” D’Artagnan grinned. “It’s been an odd day!”

“Yes, it has.” Jacqueline leaned forward. “Have you thought about how this ‘holiday’ empties the garrison? None of us there, all day, on pain of royal displeasure?”

D’Artagnan tilted his head. “The stable hands are there...”

“Some. But most will have seized their own opportunity for a holiday. Who could blame them?”

“Yes, all right.” D’Artagnan sat up straight and planted his hands on the table. “But what’s the use of drawing us away? None of us exactly have treasure stashed in our pillows. You can’t burn the place; it’s mostly stone. You’re not worried about someone finding your ‘sister’s’ clothes, are you?”

“Don’t be absurd.” Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “Fine, so I don’t know what anyone would want at the garrison. I just find this whole thing strange.”

“That’s because you don’t know how to relax! How have you spent your day off — helping old women cross the street and young children finish their sums? Praying with Brother Antoine?”

Jacqueline crossed her arms. “Something wrong with that?”

“No! But it’s all right to take some time just for yourself, too.” D’Artagnan looked all around the empty courtyard, at the café door and the passing traffic, and dropped his voice. “Jacqueline, your earnestness is beautiful. It’s inspiring. But it’s also exhausting. If you’re not careful, you’re going to wear yourself out.”

She glared at him.

“Except for that one trip to your father’s grave, have you even taken time to grieve for him? Grieve for yourself? Mazarin ripped your life apart, and you immediately rushed into a new life—”

Lady Charlotte’s plush carriage rolled up. The long-haired blonde and her white-capped maid both looked out the window at d’Artagnan. Charlotte giggled; her maid blushed.

“That’s my ride.” D’Artagnan stood. “Jacques, I—”

Jacqueline rolled her eyes again and waved him off. He hesitated just a second before turning to the carriage with a wide smile and a flourishing bow, earning another giggle and a deeper blush.

Jacqueline delivered Ramon’s message to Emanuelle, declined a coffee, and watched the shadows lengthen across the courtyard. The sun had not yet set when Jacqueline reached the limits of her patience. She strode off toward the garrison. She would check on her horse; if anyone questioned her, she would express shock — shock! — that the stables were included in His Majesty’s decree.

Her white gelding accepted a pat on the nose before returning his attention to the manger. The stableboy asleep in the corner did not stir as she passed on into the main building. Everything seemed quiet and, with most of the fires out, the garrison even smelled vacant. Jacqueline smiled wryly at her suspicions; maybe d’Artagnan was right; maybe she needed a rest.

Then she heard a muffled thud from the captain’s office. A long, low scrape followed.

Jacqueline drew her sword. A few swift steps took her across the common room and around the corner to the captain’s door. All was silent again. With her empty hand, she nudged the door a finger’s width open to peek inside. The hinges squeaked.

A man in a leather bauta mask sprang out of the captain’s office, blade drawn. Jacqueline parried hard and leapt backward. The intruder had a longer reach than her; getting inside his guard would give her best odds. He advanced and lunged, but it was a ploy; when Jacqueline responded forward, intending to beat his blade away and step in, the attacker escaped to the side and ran for the common room.

Berating herself for falling for the feint, Jacqueline ran after him. He must have stumbled around the corner, because his steel was down when she caught up with him. She attacked into the absence of blade, but he swept his sword upward in time and she had to retreat to counter his strike.

As they engaged back and forth, up and down the common room, Jacqueline began to tire. The masked intruder was stronger than she was, and almost as quick. If he was as skilled as she was, too, this was not the time to think about it. Instead, moving just a little too slowly, retreating just a little too much, she let weakness show, luring him into overextending. When he attacked with momentum, Jacqueline dropped her free hand to the floor and ducked her whole body under his thrust. Straightening her sword arm, she ran him through.

Jacqueline recovered her stance and yanked off the mask. It was Captain Bernard of the Cardinal’s Guard. A sickly smirk crawled across his face. “His eminence’s orders,” he breathed. Then he crumpled, unconscious.

Suddenly, it seemed to Jacqueline, she was surrounded. From the corridor that led to his workshop, Siroc took Bernard by the arms. From the kitchens, Ramon separated Bernard from Jacqueline’s sword, and helped Siroc lay the wounded man down in front of the hearth. From the door toward the stables, d’Artagnan took Jacqueline by the shoulders and got her to sit on the bench.

“How long have you been here?” Jacqueline asked, blinking. “Is that why he didn’t make a break for any of the exits? I didn’t see you.”

“You were otherwise occupied.” D’Artagnan gently opened her fingers, one by one, to remove her sword from her stiff hand. He set it on the table. “I feel less bad now about that time you got your edge to my— never mind. This was quite a show.”

“Show,” Jacqueline repeated, dazed. They had seen those masks before, on agents of the Order. “His arm, is it—?”

Ramon had removed Bernard’s shirt to help Siroc access the wound. Ramon now lifted and turned Bernard’s arm so that Jacqueline could see the obelisk tattoo.

She shivered. “What did he take from the captain’s office?”

“There’s nothing here.” Ramon shook his head. “You must have surprised him before he could do whatever he came for.”

“Speaking of surprises,” Captain Duval stepped through the front entrance, cane in hand. He took in the tableau by the fire, the scene at the table, and the tell-tale new scuffs on the much-abused floor. Jacqueline saw his gaze rest first on her sword, then on the leather mask. “What are you men doing back here before Vespers?”

“I’m in the stable,” Jacqueline crossed her fingers like a child, “not the garrison.”

D’Artagnan laughed. “Me, too.”

“I’m in the kitchens,” Ramon claimed.

Siroc didn’t look up. “This is the infirmary, isn’t it?”

Captain Duval sat on the bench at the far end of the long table from Jacqueline and buried his face in his hands.

“Sir—” Ramon began.

But d’Artagnan waved him to silence, filling in the captain in a few words, with no embellishments. “As you remember, sir,” d’Artagnan concluded, “Jacques was suspicious of this royal holiday from the start. He kept at the rest of us, and we — eventually — followed his lead. This gift from the King covered an intrigue by the cardinal. If Bernard lives,” d’Artagnan smiled bleakly, “he’ll tell us what that intrigue was.”

“Bernard has the obelisk tattoo, sir. He’s a member of the Order.” Jacqueline touched her sword, sticky with blood. “We can carry the fight to Mazarin, now. The King will have to listen!”

“Careful, Laponte.” The captain looked up and let his hands fall. Absently, he rubbed his bad knee; the mercenary behind that wound had been in Mazarin’s employ. “Justice, more’s the pity, does not always walk hand in hand with truth. Until the King reaches his majority, the cardinal rules in France. We would have to have overwhelming evidence, risk another revolt... we’re not there yet.”

“We have to do something, sir!”

“We do.” The captain met her eyes. “Rather, you do. You uphold the King’s Musketeers in loyalty and honor as a counterweight to Mazarin’s selfish, tainted sway over the throne. You give His Majesty — and therefore France — the only chance at a better future.”

Jacqueline looked at Bernard on the floor. She thought of her father and brother, and all the others abused like her family. They hurt today, not someday. “Is that enough?”

D’Artagnan squeezed her shoulder. “It’s everything.”

Silence settled in. Jacqueline prayed that Bernard would live. Then she prayed for forgiveness for the reasons that she wanted him to.

Eventually, Captain Duval asked, “Have you four come up with that new motto yet?”

⚜   ⚜

“They tell me that you’re going to live.” Mazarin stood at the foot of Bernard’s hospital bed and forged a smile. He had been unable to clear the ward for a private chat; the attending sisters were much more stalwart than the courtiers, soldiers and conspirators whom he was used to commanding. “How delightful.”

Bernard cringed. “Your eminence—”

“No, don’t strain yourself, Captain.” Mazarin let his smile become wolfish. “Be comforted! The King knows that you were ordered by me to protect his Musketeers’ garrison during the holiday he so generously bestowed on them. He deigns to overlook the unfortunate misunderstanding of your duel with Laponte.” Mazarin did not add that their young King enjoyed tales of duels, especially when his Musketeers won. “I just need to know one thing, Captain.” Mazarin looked over his shoulder at the nearest sister, widened his smile, and leaned close to Bernard. “Did you complete your delivery before your little diversion?”

“Yes, your eminence.”

“Good!” Mazarin straightened up with a sigh of relief. Now, it was only a matter of time. “Good.”

⚜   ⚜

“Is patrol unusually boring today?” d’Artagnan asked, slowing his horse to let Jacqueline’s catch up.

Jacqueline looked around. The weather was finally warming. Beyond even the outskirts of the city, edging the forest, their route was so quiet that she could hear birds sing, and smell fresh new growth instead of the notorious Paris mud. “You want some bandits, maybe? Spanish spies? No, wait — a runaway carriage with an exotic foreign princess for you to rescue!”

“Why do you always think I’m on the make?”

Jacqueline laughed. With just d’Artagnan and the animals to hear, she let it roll out whole, with whatever girlish lilt it wanted. Her horse cocked his ears back at her, and she laughed until she was out of breath.

“You wound me.” D’Artagnan raised his eyebrows. “But that was good to hear, Jacqueline.”

“It was good to do, too.” She patted her poor, confused horse. “D’Artagnan, do you ever think about what you’ll do when your soldiering days are done?”

“Not what my father does, certainly.” He frowned. “I guess I’ve always assumed that I’ll acquire a wife and children somewhere along the way, and then I’ll actively superintend the estate — be a rural noble like my grandfathers.”

“That’s what I figured.” Jacqueline nodded, satisfied. “And Ramon will be a grandee in Madrid, if his rhapsodies don’t enchant the literati first, and Siroc—”

“Siroc will be assassinated by outraged university faculty any day now. If the apothecaries guild doesn’t get him first.” D’Artagnan held up his hand to shade his eyes as he looked down the road ahead. “What about you?”

“You mean, if I’m not exposed?” Jacqueline smiled. “I never used to think about it; I was so sure I’d never make it. But lately, I’ve wondered. Would it be too prideful to hope to succeed Captain Duval someday?”

“Why not? I’d follow you.” D’Artagnan shrugged. “But what if you were exposed only after we first exposed Mazarin? The King could pardon you and your brother, and return your family’s farm.”

“I’ve thought about that. The King might pardon the death of Mazarin’s guardsman, but he couldn’t grant me a dispensation for continuing to wear men's clothes; that would have to come from the Pope, wouldn’t it? So what then — recall Girard from the Americas, and gather eggs for him instead of for our father? No, it’s a Musketeer’s life for me! As long as I can wield my sword and mount my horse, I will defend the weak, pursue justice—”

“You are so beautiful when you’re overly earnest.” He grinned. “Are you sure you don’t want to be the next Comtesse d’Artagnan?”

Jacqueline leaned way over and punched his arm. “More likely Sister Jacqueline.”

“Really?” D’Artagnan reached out and grabbed her horse’s reins, the better to look her up and down. She assumed that she looked much like him on the outside: same uniform, same sword, same hours in the saddle. But the differences mattered. She was her one true self, whatever she wore, whatever she did. His brow furrowed. “I can’t see it.”

“Look again.” Jacqueline slapped his hands off her reins and urged her horse forward. “But not just yet. Last one back to the city gates shares Ramon’s cheese!”