A/N: Hello everyone! So sorry to have deviated from my posting schedule - trying to make the best of the final days of summer before we're encased in another 10 months of winter. so, like the good Canadian i am, I've been heading out to the woods for some R&R - and the internet out there sucks! There a few chapters left, so i'm aiming to get this story completed before Labour Day! cheers!
By Any Other Name
Christine entered the dining room on Athos' arm with Aramis trailing behind.
The setting sun was beginning its descent beyond the horizon coating the room in a bloody shade of red. The dining room was empty save for the General Gardeau who stood by the large fireplace holding his glass of wine. He looked up at them inquisitively as they entered.
"I was beginning to think I had the wrong address," he said jokingly.
Athos casually took two glasses of wine from the servant who approached them and handed one to Christine. "And here I thought we were fashionably late," he quipped, though his eyes flashed towards Aramis. Something was not right.
"Are the others not coming?" Christine asked.
"I sent them away. I thought it best if I afforded you a private audience," said the Lord Gardeau as he swept into the room. At least a dozen men flanked him and took up positions around the circumference of the room.
"That was very kind of you, but hardly necessary," she said. "Where will the fun in the auction be now?"
"I thought commerce was your passion brother. It is foolish to dismiss your patrons before closing any sales. I didn't work so hard to procure these items so you could push aside our profit," said the General angrily.
His brother's eyes flashed menacingly. "I have had many passions brother. In the end, I always get what I want. The others will have their pick of what remains once the Duchess has indulged her fantasies."
"Shall we eat?" suggested Athos in an attempt to break up the tension in the air. Christine couldn't help but notice every man in the room was armed.
They took their places at the table, the cavernous dining room echoing their stilted conversation as the servants moved silently around them.
"You look beautiful tonight," said Lord Gardeau and Christine blushed slightly. Her discomfort was natural now – the farce was gone. The tension in the room left no space for the "Duchess".
"Thank you," she said, and steeling her nerves, she forced a smile to her lips.
"I am glad that you have accepted that necklace as a token of my affection," he said, and Christine nearly dropped her fork in surprise. The valet had been unable to deliver his message with Athos' dagger embedded in his throat. Her hand flew to her throat to where the diamonds sparkled. Athos' wide eyes were watching both Gardeaus.
"This…is too fine a gift," she said breathlessly, trying to regain her composure.
"It has no equal," he said. "Nor do you."
"It has no value either, as you didn't purchase or commission it," spat the General pushing his plate back and away from him as though in disgust and grasping the wine bottle from the hapless servant. He upended the contents into his glass and demanded another bottle.
"Forgive my brother, my dear. He so hates to lose," said Victor and he stood from the table and began to walk around it slowly. He paused for a moment by Christine and made an elaborate show of running his fingers lightly across her collar where the necklace rested just above her breast. She fought to stay motionless and impassive.
"Don't you ever get tired of stealing things, brother? Have you never once wanted to win something on your own? Or is your solution always to throw gold at the matter when your charm fails? which I hear it often does," said Claude, his eyes dark. It was difficult to know whether he was glaring more at Christine or his brother. She fixed her eyes on Aramis who stood behind the General across the room. His dark eyes were black as coals in the candlelit hall and she watched as his hands shifted slowly towards his pistols while Victor lingered at her side.
"You're one to talk about stealing," Victor hissed as he slowly continued his journey around the table.
Claude laughed loudly. "This is still about Michelle, isn't it? She didn't love you Victor, she told you that! And when she rejected you, rejected your title and the gold and riches you offered her, for me, oh, how that infuriated you! You could never get over that! Your jealousy is a nasty thing!" Victor continued to stalk towards his brother. Shadows flitted across his face as he circled giving him the look of a jungle predator on the hunt.
"I loved her," he breathed, his voice full of years of suppressed rage.
"But she loved me," taunted Claude.
"She got what was coming to her in the end," snarled Victor, and Claude blanched suddenly, shaken for the first time.
"What did you do?" he growled leaping to his feet and seizing his brother by the throat.
"What needed to be done," Victor hissed and in a flash he pulled his dagger and plunged it deep into his brother's heart. "You should have known, brother, that it was you who should never have competed with me. I always get what I want," Victor hissed as the body of Claude fell lifelessly to the floor. "Now you," said Victor, drawing his pistol and pointing it at Athos.
In the half a heartbeat it took Christine to react, she shoved back the heavy dining table, pushing it roughly into Gardeau's side as his pistol rang out across the room, causing it to miss Athos by inches.
"Guards!" he cried as Athos sprang to his feet and both he and Aramis drew their weapons.
D'Artagnan had been struggling with his role as part of this mission.
Not struggling really – he had been given a comfortable bunk in the stables and was served three meals a day from the staff. The guards were content to welcome him amongst them, as he marvelled at their swordplay swearing his blade was purely ornamental: his mistress liked to pretend as though she were the Queen surrounded by Musketeers and insisted he be armed, he joked. A few lost hands of cards and D'Artagnan was practically recruited into their number.
It was more that D'Artagnan struggled with his worry for his friends and the not knowing exactly what was happening within the manor. Athos and Porthos had kept him abreast of any developments, and he knew with their plan underway this evening, his role would be vital.
As the sun finally sank, D'Artagnan staggered over to the barracks where the soldiers who were not on duty were stationed, carrying a wood crate in his arms.
"Charles!" one of the men called to him, "What's that you've got there?"
"The Mistress seems to have forgotten that she brought some refreshments along with her. I figure, this would be one less thing I'd need to pack back onto that carriage when we leave here tomorrow," he said grinning. "Care to join me?"
The men cheered as D'Artagnan lowered the box.
"Won't she be angry if you're caught?" one man asked.
"The Mistress? She'll be more preoccupied with whatever sparkly trinket she came here to purchase to even notice, and then I'm sure I could blame it on that lush nobleman who's been hanging about lately," he responded with another mischievous grin. "Still, we probably shouldn't let this linger…"
"Good man!" cried the first man, raising a toast to D'Artagnan. The men drank and drank quickly, intent to finish the case of wine before they were potentially caught. It wasn't long before most of the men were either fast asleep, out cold or on their way to one of those destinations.
D'Artagnan slipped out of the barracks shaking his head and shutting the door behind him. He tightly tied a rope to the door's knob and fastened the other end securely to a tree as Porthos met him.
"What's this?" Porthos asked.
D'Artagnan shrugged. "I didn't have a key," he said as Porthos grinned realizing the brilliance of D'Artagnan's plot. The men inside would be essentially trapped lest they wrest the door from its hinges. Pulling would be futile with the door tethered to the tree, and the ancient oak door would be impossible to pull from its iron-wrought bindings.
"How is the patrol?" D'Artagnan asked.
"Sleepin' bout as soundly as your lot," Porthos answered. "Shall we?" he asked, gesturing towards the manor.
"By all means," said D'Artagnan as he followed Porthos into the great home.
The two men stood at the ready by the locked double doors. There was a tension in the air, but that was usually the case when the General was around. Tonight though felt different, and even the sun seemed to be dripping with blood as their master and about a dozen of their comrades entered the dining hall.
From down the hall staggered a large, dark skinned man leaning heavily upon a younger man. He was easily recognized as one of the men who accompanied the Duchess. The two guards closed ranks to block the door from the two others' approach.
"Please sirs, you must help me. My friend Porthos here has…well…he's drunk. I've never been in the manor as of yet and I've got to get him stowed in his lodging before my mistress sees him," D'Artagnan implored desperately.
The two guards grinned and relaxed as D'Artagnan shifted Porthos' weight upon his shoulder. "You're gonna have a hell of a time gettin' this load up the stairs," one smirked at him while the other chuckled as D'Artagnan blanched. "Take the main staircase down that hall. It's the third door on the left," said one gesturing.
"Down there?" D'Artagnan asked, gesturing down the hall with his free hand. Both men looked to where D'Artagnan was pointing and with their gazes averted, Porthos leapt into action and knocked the first man unconscious with a heavy blow from his mighty fist. Before the other could so much as gasp, D'Artagnan was on him, holding him tightly in a chokehold until he eventually lost consciousness and went limp in the Gascon's arms. They bound and gagged the guards and stowed their bodies in a closet just off the hallway.
Porthos got to work picking the locks while D'Artagnan kept watch, pulling two fabric sacks from his belt.
"I wouldn't be offended if I was you," muttered Porthos through a mouthful of picks as he worked on the lock.
"What?" asked D'Artagnan distractedly. He thought he had heard raised voices coming from the Dining Room.
"By what they said. I can work with ya, to help put some muscle finally on those chicken bones ya call arms," he said with a grin as the lock clicked open.
"Perhaps they were insinuating that you might consider dieting?" D'Artagnan suggested as they pushed the doors open and the room practically glowed as the candlelight danced across the many jewelled items.
""Nah," said Porthos, his eyes glowing before the splendour. "Definitely not," he said as he began to stuff fistfuls of the jewellery into one of the bags D'Artagnan handed him.
Suddenly a pistol shot tore the air, followed by a cry for "Guards!"
D'Artagnan and Porthos looked at each other before abandoning the bags of jewels now on their empty table as they flew back out into the hall towards the dining room and where their loved ones were in danger.