France had obtained a new type of weapon and the news spread like wildfire among the other nations. This was not another battle for batiste and silk, bright colors or sober colors. For those who lacked this new weapon, it was the signal to be prepared to declare their neutrality in the approaching conflict.
Within months, the war had been declared between France and England, two nations that were previously used to face each other on the field of honor with cannons, horses and soldiers were practicing a new kind of war. Soon, the most desirable skill was navigation and the lack of vertigo at high, and the piers were brimming with the most assiduous activity and speculators found fortunes dealing with linen for the much needed balloon, sail and rig.
Musketeers became the first line of defense ―it was publicly acknowledged the heroes that brought this new technology were the Inseparables―, therefore, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan where assigned to the first airship, once His Eminence had it refitted. It was natural for Athos to take the tiller, Aramis was assigned to find people capable to man the guns and flamethrowers and Porthos, well... good Porthos was the driving force behind (or rather in front) every boarding. D’Artagnan was more or less the go-between of the whole operation.
The first skirmishes were quick and brutal. France needed to exploit the experience of their crew against the superior number of the English fleet. The attacks were arranged nearly always in a similar manner: Athos lunged with the little airship on the gunwale line, providing the Musketeers of Aramis' team with the high grounds; the crew, after the first broadside, was either pinned or cowered, and Porthos and their team get in a boarding raid to take as many prisoners as possible. The last part of the operation was to be led by Athos' sailors which took possession of the navigation instruments on the poop deck and were ready to steer the ship towards French territory.
This kind of war was quick, effective and merciless.
The next scuffle promised to be more of the same, the small airship went down on a big flagship which led another three, while the support ships attacked the rest of the fleet. The rest of the attacking fleet had no trouble to subdue the rest of the fleet but the flagship reacted quickly and replied to the broadside with unusual ferocity, and the vessels interchanged covering fire for a good quarter of hour before Porthos and d'Artagnan risked a boarding among smoke and friendly fire.
“Board her!” Porthos screamed from the top of his lungs, trying to encourage his troops.
“All for one!” d'Artagnan did his best to follow Porthos example, but a small feet inside a satin shoe cut his expression of euphoric bravery. “One...”
A slight figure, dressed in a peach colored dress, discarded d'Artagnan and went for the heavy bulk of Porthos, who was caught unaware and received a solid blow to the ribs, followed by a flurry of punches and kicks. From the gunwale of the attacking airship, Aramis recognized the tight ringlets among a shower of sparks.
“Jesus Christ!” Aramis crosses himself almost unwittingly; then he raised his voice over the roar of the battle to call the other inseparable: "ATHOS!"
“What is it?” Somehow Athos managed to make his voice clear without resorting to scream.
“We have a ghost in the other ship!”
Athos stuck out his body over the gunwale to overview the field of the battle and to form up his own opinion; the deck was covered with men fighting for their lives, smoke, and the occasional shower of sparks of the guns as they were being shot. A gust of wind cleared the view, Athos could notice d'Artagnan laid down on the deck and Porthos trying to dodge the swift and well-aimed succession of blows.
Aramis barely nodded, before Athos jumped to the ratlines; a sober expression came to him when he signaled to one of the attendants for a musket. When Athos had an idea, it was always better be safe than sorry.
Athos climbed down the shrouds and he pushed around friends and foes alike on their way to the main mast; Porthos was too much a gentleman to hit a woman, though nothing could stop him to dish it out to Milady if he could recognize her. Somehow, Porthos managed to push his attacker toward the mast in an attempt to stop the rain of blows. Athos took advantage of this situation and pointed his gun to Milady's head, she groaned her discomfort at being threatened that way, but once his eyes meet those at the end of that arm, she shivered.
“Surrender your ship.”
“I’ll pull the trigger.”
Reluctantly, Milady shouted an order and the battle ceased immediately.
“Zounds!” Porthos exclaimed, he finally had time to study his adversary, “Milady!”
“Find me some 'cuffs, Porthos,” Athos asked, without lowering his gun.
“Are you going to put me in irons?” Milady asked; her smile was talking about past times.
“First, I'm going to take you to my cabin.”
“It's a shame this is not going to be personal...”
When Athos went to the deck, he found his friends reunited, like a harrowing tribunal. That was to be expected; the three of them, apparently, were unanimous in their opinion and that was a novelty.
“Are we going to discuss how to manage this prisoner?”
“That would be ... desirable,” Aramis, as usual, tried to be tactful.
Porthos had a different approach: “I think we should burden her in iron and lock her up in the ship stores!”
“She's fettered hands and feet, to the ship, that is, to the cabin; there is no way she could try to escape, unless it is to a certain death...”
“As was the case the last time she went overboard, right?” D’Artagnan pointed out.
“Besides, to shackle her below the bow is no way to treat a lady.”
“It’s Milady, Athos,” d’Artagnan replied with one of this patented smirks, “She’s hardly a lady.”
“Well, you can concede me that she’s a woman”
“Not sure about it,” Porthos was impervious to Athos' sarcastic tone, “by the way she kicks, she could be a man.”
“In good faith, she’s a woman.”
“I want no proof!”
The three of them were flabbergasted by Aramis' peremptory tone. At least, he had achieved to end that ludicrous argument.
“What do you intend to do with her?” Aramis asked to his friend’s face.
“Just give me an answer.”
“Hand her over,” Athos said; his hand searched the wooden pinrail, “as soon as we land in Paris.”
“That’s all I need to know,” Aramis voice made clear that there was nothing else to be discussed, “and I think that no one else had another issue.”
“Just few months ago, he was ready to blow her pretty head!”
“That was then,” Aramis grabbed Porthos by the arm and pulled him, “now everything is different.”
“It's the same treacherous she-devil who double-crossed us at Venice, how can it be any different!”
“Because Athos uses his head for higher ends than a head-butting!” Aramis finally managed to drag Porthos away from the discussion.
Athos sighed heavily and rested his weight against the pinrail, even to his inner heart he had to admit that Porthos' rebuttal had pretty valid points. D'Artagnan found a place beside him and waited for a suitable space of time, maybe two seconds, before taking his turn on the question mill.
“Is Aramis right?” d'Artagnan asked, trying to avoid direct eye contact. He knew better than to taunt Athos. “Do you have a plan regarding Milady?”
“I do have a plan, but I doubt it is of the nature Aramis would like.”
“Let her be free is not an option, not in this place, so...?”
“Do you remember what do I said last time Constance was a hostage?”
D'Artagnan had to exercise his memory, but he recalled the situation correctly: "No!"
“I'm sick to death of the war, and the drink and the Cardinal,” Athos sighed again and closed his eyes; there was something heartfelt in that little sound. “I need something else.”
“Nothing spells 'I love you' better than treason and attempted murder, huh?”
“I loved her, d'Artagnan. I still love her,” and that was a heartrending confession, for it was uttered in a whisper, “I love her like I love wine and brawl.”
“And those don't do you any favors.”
“This world is full of irony,” Athos concluded, and took a step with his eyes wide open, “an advice that was good for you, it's unacceptable to me. Go figure.”
With those words, Athos left d'Artagnan alone in the deck, as if the meditation on the irony was not important any more.
Next morning they arrived in Paris, Athos himself fitted the shackles around Milady's wrists and then fixed them to a heavy chain around her waist, hoping that it would be enough, knowing very well that, if her intention was to be free, there would be nothing to stop her. She smiled at him, her ringlets were unmade and her makeup was in sore need of a touch up, but she was breathtaking.
“So, this is how it ends, Athos?”
“It’s up to you. I have to fulfill my duty.”
“That was always the most charming part of your character.”
“My reliable nature?” The thought make him crack a little grin, it was almost like the good, old times.
He could let her spiteful nature take the best of the moment, but he had another plans. Paris was cold; he took his cape and used it to protect her, without a smile.
“I must call your attention to a little fact: you are to be questioned. They will try to get most of the information they can from you,” Athos was sure he was not telling her anything new, “Do what you do best.”
“Deceive and mislead?”
“Change your colors. Sell your information dearly. Survive.”
“And what is my motivation for doing so?”
“Maybe it's too little but,” Athos approached his face to her, “I'll wait for you here.”
Apparently, Milady was taken aback by that affirmation, her eyes drilled down that familiar face, looking for a trap. There was none, at least, none she could detect. Slowly, she laid her weight towards him; her lips searched Athos' mouth as their eyes were locked into each other. Old magic was there, it was almost palpable, the old ghost of many crazy nights and passionate moments; lips barely touching each other and for an instant it was as if betrayal were a word without a sense.
“Alright, princess, your escort is here!” Porthos came to the cabin, delivering the lines with insane good humor.
The silence was awkward, but mercifully brief. Milady squared her shoulders and went to Porthos with measured steps; Athos followed her, the soft caress still on his lips and some heavy weight on his heart.
Porthos looked away, as he used to do when he was not sure of what to do. Athos stood tall and waited for the next word, his friends would never know how worried he was at that moment.
“That's not too little,” she said in a whisper before looking scornfully at Porthos. “Let's go, you big ox!”
“We told you, Athos: she's not a lady!”
Athos smiled and let his friend have the last word; he was too busy to differ.
He was entertaining a hope.