TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW (8 page)

BOOK: TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW
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"Well spoken. However, I shall take the left hand," said the musketeer. "I usually do so in such circumstances. I use both hands equally well and a left-handed swordsman can be quite troublesome to one who is not used to it. I fear that the disadvantage will be yours, Monsieur. I regret that I did not inform you of it earlier."

"That's quite considerate of you, Monsieur," D'Artagnan said. "I hope my inadvertent collision with you earlier this day has not overly aggravated your condition."

"Well, you hurt me devilishly, but I'll survive. Thank you for your concern."

"If I may, Monsieur," D'Artagnan said, "my mother has given me a wondrous balsam with miraculous healing properties. I am certain that, in three days time, it would effect a cure upon your wound and then, when you are less inconvenienced, I would still be honored to cross swords with you."

"Well, that is a generous offer, indeed," said the musketeer, "not that I would accept it for a moment, but it savors of a gentleman a league off. It seems that you are not at all the ill-mannered lout I took you for. I'm almost sorry that I'm going to have to kill you.
Merde.
Where
are
those two?"

Listening to this exchange of courtesies, Andre was pleased to note that chivalry still seemed alive in the 17th century. She decided to linger and watch the outcome of this meeting.

"If you are in haste, Monsieur, and anxious to dispatch me at once," D'Artagnan said, "pray do not inconvenience yourself. I stand ready."

"Well spoken once again," said the musketeer. "I'm rather beginning to like you, young man. No, I think we'll wait for my seconds to arrive, if you don't mind. It would be the proper thing to do. Ah, here comes one of them right now."

Andre saw a stout, swarthy-looking man dressed flamboyantly in a cerulean blue doublet, crimson velvet cloak and gold-worked baldrick strut into the courtyard. The young man seemed quite surprised at his appearance.

"What? Is your second Monsieur Porthos?" he asked the musketeer.

"Yes," said the musketeer. "Why, is that not acceptable to you?"

"Oh, no, not at all," D'Artagnan said. "I'm perfectly agreeable."

"And here comes—"

"Monsieur Aramis," D'Artagnan finished for him. A tall, handsome, slim man approached. He was dressed more simply, in dark hues, and he had a somewhat pale look about him. He wore a delicate, thin moustache and he moved with an air of graceful nonchalance.

"You know Aramis?" said Athos.

"Only in a manner of speaking," said D'Artagnan, weakly.

"What, Athos!" Porthos said. "Don't tell me
this
is the man you're going to fight?"

"Yes," said Athos, "he—"

"But he is the man
I
am to fight, as well!"

"But not until one o'clock," said D'Artagnan, somewhat sheepishly.

"But
I
am to fight him, also!" said Aramis.

D'Artagnan cleared his throat uneasily. "Ah, yes, at
two
o'clock, Monsieur."

Andre, watching from concealment, suppressed a chuckle.

Athos raised his eyebrows. "It seems you've had quite a busy morning, my friend," he said to D'Artagnan. "And to think, you've only just arrived in Paris."

"Well, now that you three gentlemen are here together," said D'Artagnan, "permit me to offer you my excuses."

Athos frowned. "See here, young man," he said, "this is a most serious matter. If you—"

"Oh, no, you misunderstand me," said D'Artagnan. "I only meant to offer my excuses in the event that I am killed before I can give all of you your satisfaction, for Monsieur Athos has the right to kill me first, you see, and then Monsieur Porthos would come second and you, Monsieur Aramis, would be the third.

I merely wish to apologize in advance in case I do not last out the afternoon."

"Very nicely said," said Porthos. "See here, Athos, what is your quarrel with this lad?"

"To tell the truth, I'm not sure I recall," said Athos. "He hurt my shoulder, I think; it arose somehow out of that."

"And what is your quarrel with him?" Aramis asked Porthos.

"Why, it's ... it's ... Damn me, I've forgotten! But it is of no matter, whatever it was, we'll settle it between ourselves. And what of you?"

"Ah, well, it was a matter of some delicacy—"

"Come, come, gentlemen," said Athos, "we're wasting time. For all we know, this youngster has other appointments to keep, at three, four and five o'clock, no doubt."

"On the contrary, Monsieur," D'Artagnan said, with some slight embarrassment. "I am at your disposal for the remainder of the afternoon." He drew his sword. "And now, if you're quite ready...."

"Not now, not now," said Aramis. "The cardinal's guards, the cardinal's guards! Sheathe swords, gentlemen, quickly!"

Andre saw a company of red cloaked men-at-arms approaching quickly. At first, she was puzzled by the last remark she overheard, and then she recalled that the one named Athos had mentioned something about there being an edict against dueling. She felt disappointed. She had been looking forward to a display of swordsmanship, so that she might assess her own skills in relation to those of these men.

"Aha, what have we here?" said the leader of the guards. "Musketeers dueling then, is it? And what's become of the edicts, eh?"

"Peace, Jussac," Athos said. "We were merely about to settle some small private matters. I promise you, were our roles reversed, we would not interfere with you in your own business."

"But you would not have to answer to the cardinal, Monsieur Athos," Jussac said. "No, I am afraid that I cannot allow it. I will have to ask you to sheathe your swords and follow me."

"I'm afraid that would be impossible," said Athos.

"You refuse, then?"

"I'm afraid we must."

"I warn you, sir, if you refuse to go along peaceably, we will have to charge you."

"Five against three," said Porthos, dryly. "Hardly the best of odds, I would say."

"Five against
four,"
D'Artagnan said, stepping closer to them. “That is, if you'll allow me.''

"We'll allow you, we'll allow you," Porthos said.

"Just one moment," Athos said. "He is not a musketeer. This is none of his affair, you know."

Aramis cleared his throat. "Uh, Athos, in case it has escaped your notice, there are
five
of them."

"But moments ago, we were to duel with him," said Athos.

"Just so," said Porthos. "We can kill him later, if you wish."

"Come, come, gentlemen," said Jussac. "What is it to be?"

"What is your name, young fellow?" Athos said.

"D'Artagnan."

"Well," he said, glancing at the oversized rapier, "I hope you know how to use that thing."

"But not
too
well," said Porthos, remembering their prior engagement.

The three musketeers drew their swords.
"All for one,"
said Athos. The guards charged. "The hell with it," he said and sidestepped Jussac's rush.

Andre watched what followed with a great deal of interest and not a little amusement. The combatants used the Florentine style, meaning that one hand held the rapier while the other used a dagger, but to say that there was any style to their combat was to stretch all definitions of the term. There was none of the graceful intricacy which, according to Hunter, characterized the art of fencing. As he might have said it himself, instead of swash and buckle, it was more like slash and flail. Of all of them, only Jussac and Athos displayed some semblance of the finer points of swordsmanship. Jussac's manner of fighting was the closest to the classical form, whereas Athos fought with a minimum of motion and wasted effort, a sharp contrast to his comrades. Aramis moved like a dancer, using his footwork to compensate for his lack of strength. He played his opponent like a toreador working a bull, deflecting the guard's blade and moving gracefully sideways, causing the man's own forward momentum to carry him past, whereupon Aramis's blade would describe a lightning-quick series of overly flamboyant arabesques over the guard's exposed back and buttocks. Not one was a killing stroke, but the cumulative effect of all those pretty slashes would, if continued, result in his opponent bleeding to death.

Porthos was literally comical to watch. His movements were exaggerated, jerky, and he appeared to fight as though he were a man in abject panic. Yet, instead of fear, there was an expression of intense concentration on his face, forehead deeply furrowed, eyebrows knitted, tongue protruding slightly from his mouth. His footwork was that of a lumbering plough horse, ponderous and clumsy, and he looked as though at any moment he would trip over his own two feet. His thrusts and slashes were the most pronounced of all the fighters.

Athos, by contrast, appeared totally relaxed and insouciant. He was economy personified and he allowed his opponent to come to him, preferring to work close. Andre soon saw the reason why. At very close quarters, the bullish strength of the elder musketeer was a decisive advantage. He used his dagger sparingly, but when he did it was either to bludgeon his opponent with its blunt end or to attempt a stab into the upper torso. Curiously, he seemed unconcerned about his defense and, though he had avoided his opponent's rush at him and disposed of the next guard quickly, Andre saw how a skilled swordsman, wary of being lured in close, could take advantage of his careless guard.

Of them all, the blond youth named D'Artagnan was the most interesting to watch. He, alone, disdained to use a dagger. In fact, he didn't seem to have one, though he did not seem to suffer from its absence. His style, if style it could be called, was the most peculiar, yet by the same token, it was the most effective. Quite obviously, the guards had never come across anyone who used his sword in quite the same manner as he did and they seemed at a loss to deal with him. He used his free hand to alternately take a two-handed grip upon his oversized rapier and to wrench his opponents about as though he were a wrestler. Andre had to chuckle as she saw him deal with two of the guards at once. He parried the thrust of the first with a vicious back-handed two-hand blow, using his rapier almost as though it were a quarterstaff. His parry almost spun the guard around completely and, as the second guard came at him, D'Artagnan stepped in close to the first, his hand darting out to grasp him by the throat. Unprepared for this unorthodox maneuver, the first guard was momentarily shocked, giving D'Artagnan just enough time to parry the thrust of the second guard, then slam a knee into the first guard's groin. The man sagged and D'Artagnan released him, to concentrate his attention upon the second guard. With a bizarre, two-handed circular parry, he brought the guard's rapier around and down to touch the ground. Then he stepped upon it and lunged in to smash the guard of his rapier into the man's face. A quick thrust and it was over; then he was rushing to help Porthos with his man.

Porthos gratefully relinquished his opponent to D'Artagnan, who attacked with exuberance and a boyish glee, grinning from ear to ear. In seconds, Jussac found himself sorely beset. Athos, having killed his man, joined Porthos, who was leaning against the hitching post and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.

"Would that I could help him," Porthos said, breathing heavily, "but my breakfast still weighs heavily upon me and I fear that I am all worn out. Besides, he doesn't seem to require my assistance. God, did you see that? What a ghastly blow! I've never seen the like of it! He handles his sword as though it were a garden hoe!"

"I would hate to be his garden, then," said Athos, dryly. "The lad fights amusingly, but devilishly well.

The thought that I was to duel with him gives me acute discomfort."

The guard matched up with Aramis, his uniform in tatters, was sidestepped by Aramis again and this time, taking advantage of his own forward momentum, he chose to continue in the same direction, taking flight and running directly toward Andre. She moved back into the shadows and pressed herself against the wall. He kept running until he was almost abreast of Andre, at which point he stopped, turned, and removed a pistol from his belt. As D'Artagnan ran Jussac through the shoulder, the guard stretched out his arm and took careful aim. Andre stepped out from the shadows and kicked high, knocking his pistol off the mark even as he fired. The ball went wide. The combination of being unaccustomed to her skirts and shoes and the slickness of the ground beneath her caused Andre to lose her balance and sit down hard into the muck, composed of mud from recent rain and the leavings of a horse which had earlier relieved itself upon that spot.

The look of rage upon the guard's face changed abruptly to one of immense frustration when he saw who had interfered with him. He sputtered incoherently for a moment, then caught his breath long enough to say,
"Really,
Mademoiselle!" He tucked his pistol back into his sash and took off at a run. Sitting on the ground, Andre sniffed and wrinkled her nose.

"Look at that!" said Aramis. "An angel in the mud!"

"She saved my life," said Athos.

"No, no, you are mistaken," Porthos said. "That shot was aimed at me."

"You are both wrong," said Aramis, "it was my life that she saved."

"No, but clearly, it was mine," D'Artagnan said. "That guard was aiming straight at me."

"Don't be ridiculous," said Aramis. "Your back was turned, how could you see?"

"Nevertheless, it was I who was the target," said D'Artagnan.

"My friend," said Porthos, "it is a miracle, indeed, that you are an accomplished swordsman, for clearly you are blind. I tell you, it was
me
she saved!"

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," said Aramis, "this matter can be settled easily. Let us go and pull the lady from the mud and ask her whom she meant to save."

Athos tapped him on the shoulder and pointed. There was no sign of Andre.

While they had been arguing, Andre had quickly made her way back to her carriage, directing the coachman to take her back to the Luxembourg Hotel. The coachman had raised his eyebrows when he saw her all covered with filth, but he made no comment. He was being well paid and if the lady chose to have an assignation in a puddle of manure, that was no concern of his. The recreational pursuits of the jaded well-to-do made little sense to him and he really didn't care. He counted himself fortunate to be employed.

BOOK: TW02 The Timekeeper Conspiracy NEW
13.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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