La Rochelle was War, which was a whole other game from International Espionage.
“Behold, the fruit of ceaseless human innovation,” said Cardinal Richelieu. “Were this last year, His Majesty’s army would be hunkering down behind forts and redoubts for a siege of eight... twelve... perhaps sixteen months, depending on the desperation of the Huguenots and the state of their supplies. It would have been protracted, boring, and altogether unpleasant. Muddy.
“The issue, of course, would never have come under dispute.”
He nudged the glue-and-dowel representation of the newly-constructed seawall with one boot toe, positioning it just-so across the blue paint of the harbour. D’Artagnan thought, fleetingly, of sweeping marble expanses, a hundred leagues away in Paris. The scope here was flimsier: the model city and its environs had - as far as he could judge - been constructed to scale, but faced with a fleet of English ships bobbing about the airspace around Saint-Martin-de-Ré like a wake of circling vultures, the Italian artisan had lost his nerve. He had resorted to bits of painted rice paper, stuck on toothpicks, stuck on pipe-cleaner wires.
Eighty of them, in fact.
Saint-Martin hadn’t stood a chance. It transpired that star fortifications meant very little to ships that could sail above them.
“Now, of course, gentlemen, that has all changed. Thanks to your valiant efforts, His Majesty’s aerial flagship will be under repair for a few days yet; the construction of the fleet itself... some weeks longer. In the meantime, once the English regroup there will be very little we can do to stop them from relieving the city, or - for that matter - from dropping barrels of hot oil onto our heads. Short of blueprints for an installation that shoots explosive charges vertically upward - no? Too arcane? Signor Da Vinci neglected the art of anti-aircraft artillery?”
The Cardinal paused, raking the Musketeers’ lineup with a raised eyebrow and a jaundiced eye. D’Artagnan risked a sideways glance: Aramis looked mildly concerned, Porthos bored, Athos impassible. Richelieu sighed and leant back in his chair.
“Our one working airship will arrive in less than a week,” he said. “And this is what you are going to do.”
* * *
The ride back to the inn was quiet; there didn’t seem to be much to add to the précis.
“Pardi!” Porthos said, finally. “Situation normal, n’est-ce pas? All fucked up.”
“There are women and children in there,” D’Artagnan said, looking at his friends on either side. “Senior citizens. The sick and the poor.”
“Heretics and tax evaders,” said Aramis, bone-dry.
“We’ve built a fortified wall around the city and across the harbour,” Athos said. “If the English do not relieve the rebels, they will starve; man, woman, and child. It’s only a matter of time. And we cannot allow the English to relieve them.”
He was gazing out, still expressionless and tense, into the far distance. D’Artagnan blew out a breath. Athos was right, of course: if the King were here he would hem and haw, shift his weight and look uncomfortable, and end by giving the same order. D’Artagnan could practically hear his voice: Perhaps you could begin by dropping a very few small bombs, on empty buildings and such, as a warning...?
They only had the one airship, and with any bad luck, getting above La Rochelle would require an end run around the entire eighty-ship English fleet. If the mission were easier, the Cardinal would never have called them in. Which left a choice between many bombs, or a few very large ones.
“We still have, what, five days,” D’Artagnan said. “That’s enough time to come up with an alternate plan, right?”
“I have an alternate plan,” said Athos.
It turned out to be a disaster.
To be fair, no one had accounted for Milady being still alive.
* * *
The cut above his left eyebrow had scabbed over, it felt like, which did not bode well for how long D’Artagnan had been out. It itched damnably, and the manacles had nowhere enough give for him to do anything about it.
He was profoundly relieved a few minutes afterward when a muffled thump sounded on the other side of the door, followed by - finally! - a tentative scratch and Aramis’s voice. “Athos? Is that you?”
“D’Artagnan,” he called. A moment later the latch rattled and Aramis slid in, decked out in clogs, wool petticoats, full-body apron and starched headdress. He looked murderous.
“That’s two of you accounted for,” he said, “but Athos isn’t in any of these cells. I think she has him.”
D’Artagnan shivered, and flexed his wrists as the manacles were released. Then rubbed at his eyebrow. “Would she... hurt him?”
Aramis gave him a look to the effect of, Are you kidding me.
“I mean - physically? Now? As in threaten his life?”
Milady hadn’t even looked angry, in the brief glance he’d gotten in before sword pommel had met forehead. Coldly amused, yes. Intent. For all D’Artagnan knew, that meant she was enraged. He still had trouble squaring the be-frilled and be-furbelowed lady who had saved him from Rochefort with the intriguer who - he was assured - had done all these evil, shadowy things. Even if half of said feats had been engineered, abetted, and accomplished as an unofficial fourth member of the Three Musketeers.
It had occurred to him to wonder, uncomfortably, if at some point he had simply stepped into her shoes.
“Lex talionis, you mean?” Aramis’s gaze turned thoughtful. “I wouldn’t care to make that call.”
“Let’s not stick around to find out.” They both jumped, but it was Porthos. With - D’Artagnan sighed in relief - Athos slung over his shoulder like a sack of beets, seemingly unconscious but breathing. “The cellars of Saint-Martin will collapse in seven minutes, give or take thirty seconds, and the rest of the fortress’ll come down on top of the cellars. I suggest we--” he stopped and looked Aramis up and down, grinning. “Clog it?”
Aramis threw the bunch of keys at him.
* * *
An unofficial ceasefire held for the next few days, as both sides retreated to lick their wounds. The loss of Saint-Martin had deprived Buckingham, albeit temporarily, of both landing fields and supplies; he would now need to conserve the latter, or risk a rout for the English in the final engagement. Richelieu accepted the gift of time with a sour expression, and said nothing about disobeyed orders. Then again, the flagship had not yet set sail.
D’Artagnan, after much cogitation, wrote to Constance. They had kept in constant correspondence: the King and his courtiers had remained in Paris, planning Christmas festivities with – D'Artagnan was told – great outlays of singing fountains and Catherine wheels, and an entire new wardrobe of quilted satin frocks for Queen Anne. Constance would be run off her feet; D’Artagnan had no qualms about asking her to visit anyway. She could hitch a ride with the airship.
Athos sulked. Dramatically. There wasn’t a more diplomatic way to put it.
“This is kind of unsubtle,” D’Artagnan said into the dark of the wine cellar. There was no answer. He let the door swing shut behind him, cutting off the innkeeper’s frenetic sobbing, and descended the staircase cautiously.
An empty bottle of Pineau de Charentes rolled into the pool of light cast by his lantern, bumped gently against the bottommost step, and rested there. D’Artagnan retraced its trajectory between the dusty, stacked barrels and glassware.
Athos was sitting on the ground, legs straight out and back to a barrel, surrounded by toppled bottles of pineau - some full, some empty, some... irregularly emptied. Everything smelt like sugary alcohol. He cocked an eye at D’Artagnan, who must have looked aghast, then held out two uncorked bottles, tipping the necks forward as if offering D’Artagnan a choice between loaded pistols.
“Drew the short straw, I see,” he said. “Well, at this point you can either attempt to stage an intervention, or you can sit down here, in the blissful dark and quiet we get so little of in our troubled existence, and have a drink with me. What do you say?”
But you are lying in an actual pile of actual broken glass, D’Artagnan didn’t say. He took one of the bottles - “Good choice,” Athos said with approval - cleared an area of glass with the side of his boot, and sat down gingerly.
“I didn’t come down here for an intervention,” he said. “I just wanted...” To make sure you were fine seemed risible. “...Look. Are you going to be all right with this mission? I mean, with her. There.”
Athos’ mouth twisted with something approaching amusement. “You can say her name,” he said. "It's not her real one anyway."
“Um,” D’Artagnan said.
“You want to know more about Milady,” said Athos. He half sounded as if he were speaking to himself. “As well you should. Not understanding one’s operating context makes one a liability.” He took a swig from his bottle, and gestured at D’Artagnan until he did the same.
“I’ll give you the case study perspective,” he said. “I had a friend. A young nobleman, in every sense of the word - the absolute flowering of embarrassing naive idealism. A great deal of bravery and not two pinches of gray matter to rub together. This friend was a patriot, and he got it into his head that he would serve his--”
“Is this friend you?” D’Artagnan interrupted. Athos stopped short.
“I’m just saying.” D’Artagnan shrugged, and looked uncomfortable when Athos glared. “Sorry, go on.”
“...In order to serve his country, my friend joined the King’s special services. Under the auspices of M. De Tréville, he--”
“Is this how you actually met Milady?”
Athos stared at him, briefly engaged in what was evidently a violent inner struggle, then seemed to give it up all at once as a bad job. He slumped back against the barrel and took another swig of pineau.
“Yes and no,” he said. “I met her several years later, in Saint-Tropez. More than ten years ago, now. It was during the affair of the Faxicura embassy.”
“The Spanish ambassador?” D’Artagnan hazarded.
* * *
~*~*~ATHOS’ FLASHBACK STORY~*~*~
“...the sincere friendship of my master, daimyo of Sendai, the great lord Date Masamune,” said Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga, and bowed smartly from the waist. His retinue did likewise, with a sursurration of watered silks.
Athos allowed his gaze to wander, spot-checking the great hall out of habit. The bishop of Saint-Tropez had arrived with the largest entourage, both ordained and profane. Athos found his eye drawn to a young nun in the habit of a Poor Clare, who hung back behind the rest of her party, observing the proceedings from the shadow of a pillar. Watchful; perhaps knowing herself watched. Her eyes, as far as he could tell, were green: a clear, feline colour, like the tasselled jades at Hasekura’s waist.
He’d learnt to trust intuition; in itself a form of tradecraft. His was unerring.
The young woman – Sister Anne, as she was identified by her nominal superiors – still wore the habit when they had their first face-to-face interview, three weeks later. At close range, no one in the room could have mistaken her for a nun, Athos least of all. Her green eyes were lively with intelligence and rage.
“I don’t particularly care if you seduce him,” Athos said. “But then, he’s not what you want, I imagine. Or at least, much less body of flesh than body of knowledge. Am I correct?”
"You have no proof," she snarled.
"Regarding your employment on the political front: no." Athos leant forward. "The question is, do you?"
He let that percolate for a few seconds, while he reached into his haversack, pulled out a flat iron box, and placed it on the table between them, taking care not to damage the seals. Saw it when she caught on, admirably quickly; she couldn't fully school her face when she did. Not been at this for very long then, Athos thought, despite the sophisticated setup.
"A word of advice for next time," he said. "Always get proof of employment. Signed."
Sister Anne looked at him. Really looked – and Athos found himself caught, compelled, as those eyes slid over him, noting and categorizing.
"You think you're a hotshot, don't you?" she said, finally. "Young and on the rise. You find it amusing. Outthinking everyone, staying one step ahead... Are you playing the game for France, or are you playing France for the game? Do you even know the difference?"
Athos blinked. He had waited, he realized: to hear what she thought of him. And he had no ready answer for her question.
Anne smiled, then, as if registering his insight. It was stunning.
"I imagine that box is for me," she said. "Explain what I need to do… until next time."
"So, uh," said D'Artagnan. "What was in the box?"
"A piece of linen winding sheet," Athos said. "From a smallpox hospital."
D'Artagnan recoiled. "Are you serious?"
"No," Athos said drily. D'Artagnan pitched forward, resting his forehead on his knees.
"Oh, my God," he said.
"That's merely what I told her, however. Cautioned her to handle it with tongs and a mask soaked with wine spirits. She didn't flinch. That would have conceivably taken out the entire embassy, though, so perhaps she knew it was a feint."
"Wait, hold on," said D'Artagnan, "I think you've lost me. What was the actual plot? She was trying to seduce the Japanese ambassador, is that it? Somebody didn't want Spain to conclude the alliance? But we wouldn't have wanted that either, would we?"
"Spain would never have concluded the alliance anyway," Athos said, absently. He was staring into the mouth of his bottle, rubbing a thumb along the rim as if a good cleaning could improve the view. "Hasekura was a Christian, and the Date clan wanted guns and know-how. From what I'd pieced together from the talk in seaport dives, the Shogunate itself was much less willing to allow Jesuits the run of the land. The embassy barely made the trip back before the whole country slammed the doors on us – Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, the lot. No Catholicism, no trade. No trade, no alliance."
"It was a flanking attack." Athos looked up, a corner of his mouth quirking. "She was trying to seduce Hasekura's armourer. Once she'd used the supposedly contagious linen, my compatriots and I drugged the man's drink, caused a fever, faked his death… not a single European power the wiser. We even spirited him back into the ship's hold for the embassy's return voyage a year later; he insisted. I think he was homesick."
"But I thought they wanted our guns?" D'Artagnan said blankly.
Athos looked at him, got up, and drew his sword. The sound echoed around the cellar beams, beautifully liquid. D'Artagnan jumped to his feet.
"Christ, Athos, it was just a—"
"This blade was forged by the armourer in question," said Athos. "He also had a number of fascinating insights to impart with regard to fighting technique. Borrow your handkerchief? Not Constance's."
D'Artagnan handed over the crumpled cotton, unable to keep skepticism from colouring his expression. Athos shook it out with a controlled flick of the wrist, and tossed it in the air in the same motion. Then he lunged.
There was barely a whisper of air. The handkerchief fell, in four neat lengthwise slices.
"The fundamental principles of the Great Game," Athos said. "Guns, germs... and steel."
Lord De Winter – of dearly departed memory – had a fondness for clockwork mechanisms, and the folly that occupied the entire boudoir mantelpiece was of particularly complex and monstrous proportions. From what Athos could tell, it represented a pastoral view of – Arcadia? Mount Olympus? Gears controlled the jerky passage of a gilt sun across the painted heavens, followed by a crystal moon. Animal figurines frolicked across the foreground. There were shepherdesses.
His personal white flounce-clad vision shifted her pistol’s aim an inch - the gun's grip was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, but it was otherwise standard-size and not noticeably feminine - and made a delicate moue.
"You're drifting, my love," she said. "I hate to think this is tiresome for you."
"Never," Athos replied, gallantly and automatically. He redoubled his efforts at loosening the bindings at his wrists, trying not to look as if he were struggling unduly. The clockwork began to strike, clanking and bonging. Two in the morning: damn it. He'd thought he had another hour.
"You're not upset, I hope? Not... jealous?”
"Of De Winter? No. Hardly seems worthwhile at this point."
They both glanced over at the curtained four-poster in the alcove, where the gentleman in question lay in state: his antique nudity monumental, like that of a beached whale. His toes were already turning blue.
"His brother is going to contest that will, you know," Athos said, thoughtfully. "He'll sue your thrombosis-inducing lace garters off."
"Naughty," the very recently installed Lady De Winter purred. "His lawyers can strike up an acquaintance with my lawyers. The will is airtight. In any case, I'm not after the money."
Athos didn't dignify that with an answer. After a moment she shrugged, a gallic motion of temptingly bare shoulders.
"All right, fine," she said. "I'm not after his money. Just his name and his private papers, the poor dear. He died happy, at least; and it was an accident."
The dead man did have a smile on his face, Athos had to allow. Though that could just have been the rictus.
"I believe you," he admitted. "If you were going to kill him you would have waited until after the honeymoon."
"You know me so well," said Milady.
There was an odd silence at that; both felt startled, and neither could admit why. Athos coughed and broke eye contact.
"You shouldn't be here," he said, trying another tack. "My brothers-in-arms were lying in wait for your messenger at Dover; they will have captured him already. You should have moved the contents of De Winter's safety box yourself."
"Oh, God," Milady said. "The Musketeers. Porthos and Aramis, isn't it? You'll have to introduce me one of these days. Or is the clubhouse for boys only, icky girls not allowed? …And no, here is exactly where I need to be, because no one else is going to keep you from leaving. It's cute how you still thought my messenger was going to Dover."
She rose, smoothing down her white satin skirts, sweeping the cloud-like veil behind her ear. Three steps brought her within arm's reach of the chair to which Athos was bound. And closer still, enough for her perfume to envelop his senses; she gazed down at him, and pressed the mouth of the pearl-inlaid gun to the corner of his jaw. Right below his ear, where a lover might have laid a kiss.
"My late fiancé and husband of seven hours," she said, "had extensive interests in Spanish trade consortiums in the New World. Primarily operating near Tequila and Jarisco, I was told. Did you know they make a distilled brandy there? Out of some form of local cacti. It’s quite the specialty product."
"Fascinating," Athos said. The pistol was sliding down the side of his throat; he had watched her load and cock it earlier. He commended himself on not swallowing.
"I'm going to untie your legs so you can walk," Milady said. Her green eyes were glittering. "Don't get any ideas. We're merely going to go sit in the parlour next door like grownups, because it is very tiresome to talk with a non-participatory audience here in the boudoir, and also because the tequila is in the liquor cabinet outside. And I can't stand that bloody clockwork."
A snowstorm swept through the lake country that night, rendering roads impassible to ox-drawn carts. They’d called the priest when De Winter had first collapsed, but it took the man ten hours to arrive at Villa De Winter. By that point he found he had a cheerier task to hand.
"Whoa," D'Artagnan said, "back up. You married her? Milady is your wife?"
"In some legal jurisdictions," Athos said. "She claimed to have had her previous marriages annulled, but those aren't necessarily operative in France. Or Italy. Or Monaco. Also, we agreed to chalk it up to the tequila."
"But," D'Artagnan said, then stopped himself and took a healthy chug, emptying his bottle. Athos mirrored the motion, giving him a sidewise look.
"That bothers you," he said. "More than if she were my lover."
"My friend," said D'Artagnan, "I'm trying not to lead this next part with 'you attempted to kill your wife by throwing her off the side of an airship'. But you attempted to kill your wife by throwing her off the side of an airship. And we were apparently all fine with it."
"I attempted to shoot her in the head, actually," said Athos. It sounded light, but D'Artagnan was getting better at reading him.
"I'm seriously considering faking passing out drunk in order to get away from this conversation," he said. "What's stopping me is the completely non-metaphorical broken glass all over the floor."
Athos was silent, and D'Artagnan, mulish, let it hang.
"Athos," he said finally, after some minutes had passed. "What actually happened back at Saint-Martin?"
At first he thought Athos wouldn't answer. But then the other man passed a hand over his face, and sighed.
"Let's go upstairs," he said. "I need a pick-me-up for this. Maybe a beer."
~*~1626, a few days earlier~*~
“He’s all yours, darling,” Buckingham said, giving Athos the once-over with evident distaste. “Try not to make too much of a mess, hmm? The tapestries in this room are from Lyons, and exploded brains are always so hard to launder out.”
Milady lifted a hand, smiling, and Buckingham dropped an airy kiss on her fingertips as he swept out. The latch slid shut behind him, audibly. Buckingham was no fool, and one could not count on him to take unnecessary chances. Athos suspected there were guards posted in the corridor.
The fake simper had fallen off Milady’s face as soon as Buckingham had had his back turned. When the door locked she took a few steps forward, and - ah, the familiar pistol: left temple this time, firm and no-nonsense. Athos felt the corners of his mouth curve up, almost against his will. It hurt.
“Hello again,” he said. Then, when she showed no sign of either dispatching him forthwith or talking, “Go ahead. It’s what you should have done from the first, as a favour to me and everyone else. Aramis has found me insufferable for the past eighteen months, and I can’t say I blame him.”
“What I find insufferable about you,” Milady said conversationally, “is that you meant that seriously. Didn't you? You’d actually prefer it if one of us shot the other’s face off point-blank, rather than I double-cross you or - God forbid! - you double-cross me. And it’s even worse than that: you want me to prefer it too.
“In your heart of hearts, you wanted me to stand on the deck of that damned airship and say: Thank you, M. le Comte de la Fère, for being upright and moral where I am not; for showing me the error of my ways, and allowing me the chance to expiate my crimes - and yours. That would have made you feel better about the whole affair.”
She leant down, tilted her head - close enough that their breaths mingled; the gun remained steady - and hissed, “Have. We. Met?”
Athos closed his eyes. After a moment the pressure at his temple lifted, and he felt more than heard Milady turn away. When he looked again she was at the window, gazing out, her silhouette tense.
“When we first encountered each other,” he said, “you asked me why I played the game. For France, or...”
She did not turn. “And your answer?”
“Not for France - at least, not for years.” He shrugged, as well as he could against the ropes. “I grew fond of the board. The face of a familiar opponent, perhaps.”
That made her look at him. He met her gaze, steadily.
“You went into it knowing exactly who and what I am,” she said. “Don’t pretend any differently.”
“I did,” Athos said. “I suppose I expected you to make allowances for me in return.”
“I love you, you know,” Milady said.
It didn’t seem to require much of an effort to say; but then it never had.
“I do. And I love you.”
“By your definition.”
“And you by yours.”
“This means War,” said Milady. “You realize that.” Athos had to smile again.
“I think you’ve already won,” he said.
Milady was silent at that, for a few moments. Athos was considering mentioning that Buckingham almost certainly had the room under surveillance when she said, “I’m going to enjoy this next bit,” strode up to his chair, and kissed him roughly on the mouth. Then she stepped back, looked him up and down critically, and pistol-whipped him with extreme prejudice.
~*~a few days later~*~
“Ahem,” said D’Artagnan. “Uh. Wow, you guys.”
He cast about for support, and found none. Porthos and Aramis had looked really judgmental, and had gone to bed - hours? - earlier. The sickly pallor of approaching dawn seeped in between the inn’s half-closed shutters.
D’Artagnan pondered passing out again, this time for real. Instead he said, “So she semi-rescued you? Bet Buckingham loved that.”
Athos shrugged. He looked fresh as a daisy, or at least no worse than he had at the start of the evening. “She wouldn’t have stayed with his fleet anyway,” he said. “Not considering the next few days of work. Milady could always be counted on to cut her losses early.”
“Next few days meaning...?”
“I wrote a letter to your Constance,” Athos said. “She’ll be in time as long as she comes down with the airship.”
D’Artagnan lifted both eyebrows, and they stared at each other. Then, slowly, D’Artagnan started to laugh.
“My friend,” he said, “We have this so under control.”
* * *
The airship arrived a mere twelve hours later, riding low above the treetops with cargo and the featherweight presence of Constance Bonacieux on the fore deck, hooded, cloaked and booted against the cold air. The timing struck D'Artagnan as a major miscalculation. He breathed in the subtlest refreshing scent of violets in her vicinity, though, and found his headache lifting as she gave him a chaste, public-space peck on the cheek.
He hoped she didn't think he looked green to see her.
"I received your letter," Constance said, unnecessarily. Behind her, burly men unloaded a steady stream of packing crates marked FRAGILE, THIS WAY UP, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T JOSTLE. "Why did you have M. Athos write if you’re just going to send your own three days later? At any rate, there's nothing to settle up: the Queen paid for the double order of powder with her pin money, and once we finished explaining it to him, Maître al-Rammah waived his fee for the trip down. I think he took the mission as a personal challenge." She smirked. "Apparently the Christmas celebrations at the Palais weren't grandiose enough for his ambitions."
D'Artagnan grinned, and took her arm. "I think," he said, "we can promise him many rockets. Many, many rockets. Rockets to a complexity and scale previously unseen in the Western world. And if they create multi-coloured explosions on contact, so much the better."
"Vive la France," Constance said, pertly.