The Other Side
1. The Night Before
Dogtanian felt as though a sword had pierced his heart. Today should have been the proudest day of his life - the day on which he was finally accepted into the hallowed ranks of the Musketeers. He had strained every nerve in the tests, pushing his mind and body to their limits, and had passed with flying colours. But Cardinal Richelieu's machinations had spoiled things for him once again. Because of his opponent's cheating, Athos, Porthos and Aramis had stepped in to help their young friend. However, the entrance test for the King's Musketeers must be done unaided. Thus Dogtanian had been refused the commission he craved so badly.
"Here, Dogtanian, drink this." Athos lumbered towards him with a foaming pint of beer. "It'll make you feel better!"
After the day's disasters the three Muskehounds and the Gascon pup had retired to an inn, the Peke and Pretzel. They cracked half-hearted jokes and tried to speak of other matters, but an air of gloom lay over the normally merry foursome.
Porthos was gravely concerned about his companion. Dogtanian took everything so seriously, throwing himself heart and soul into whatever he did. His desire to become a Muskehound was so strong that Porthos feared failure might kill him.
"It's not the end of the world, Dogtanian," he said gently, putting a gloved paw on the youngster's shoulder. "You know what they say - if at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
"Owww, but I tried so hard already! And Widimer cheated! It's not faaaaair!" Dogtanian threw his head back and howled, beating his fists on the table.
Aramis looked round to make sure nobody influential was witnessing this puppy tantrum.
"Really, Dogtanian! You must learn to accept life's setbacks with equanimity." He struck a pious attitude. "Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not, neither do they spin, yet..."
At that moment a young dog in the uniform of the Musketeers burst into the room. "Porthos! Athos! Aramis! Thank goodness I found you! The King needs all his Musketeers right away!"
The wooden bench toppled with a crash as the four stood up, hands on hilts.
"Not you, Dogtanian," added the young Musketeer. "Full members of the Muskehounds only."
Athos made a fist. "Hey! Dogtanian has just as much right - "
"We don't have time for that now, Athos," Porthos said quietly. "Come on."
"One for all and all for one!" Aramis followed the others without so much as a backwards glance. Dogtanian slumped back down, utterly defeated.
"Pardon me, but is this seat taken?" Dogtanian's eyes flicked briefly to the speaker, a Dalmatian in a blue tabard. "No sir, go right ahead," he replied listlessly.
"Many thanks. Oh, I'm Bouton."
"Dogtanian of Berne at your service." Normally Dogtanian announced himself proudly, with a sweeping bow and a lift of his floppy hat. Tonight, though, he mumbled his name into his tankard. The stranger seemed impressed all the same, however.
"An honour, sir. I have heard much about you. But I see your glass is empty - please do me the favour of allowing me to refill it!"
Several refills later, the two had become firm friends. They swapped jokes and sang some of the good old songs, and Dogtanian's troubles seemed less important than before. Then Bouton said something which made his companion leap up and dash his ale to the floor.
"Do you mean to tell me I have been drinking with a Cardinal's Guard? If it wasn't for you stinking mongrels I would be a Musketeer today!"
"Come, my friend, we're not as bad as all that! Perhaps you should join us. We don't reject promising candidates on some feeble excuse, the way your precious Muskehounds did."
Dogtanian squinted at the Dalmatian. What Bouton was saying seemed to make sense - if only his head wouldn't spin so! He shook it hard, his long ears flapping.
"Never! I'd rather die!"
"Why, I imagine someone as talented as yourself could be a Captain of the Guards in no time," Bouton continued. "Wouldn't it be great if you had Widimer's job? I'm sure you'd be better at it than that useless lump."
Dogtanian was about to voice another indignant refusal, but then Bouton began an impression of his Captain, puffing his cheeks out and protesting in a hoarse voice. At that moment it seemed the most hilarious thing Dogtanian had ever seen. Twiddling an imaginary moustache, Bouton brought out a quill and two pieces of paper.
"Hey Dogtanian, I'm too fat and stupid to lead the Guards any more!" he said in the Captain's voice. "Will you take my place? Just sign here in duplicate and you'll be a Cardinal's Guard just like me!"
Giggling, Dogtanian took the pen and signed the papers that jumped unsteadily
before his hazy eyes. At once Bouton snatched one copy of the document away.
"Thank you, Monsieur, that's perfect," he said in his own accent, no longer sounding in the least bit drunk. "I'll see you on the parade ground - tomorrow!"
The first bright rays of dawn made Dogtanian wince and cram his face further into the pillow. Somewhere a cock crowed, and the sound was like a peal of bells in the pup's head. He sat up.
"Oh Planchet, I feel terrible! What happened?"
"You're hung over, Master," the brown bear at his bedside said respectfully. "Here, drink this - it will make you feel better."
Dogtanian eyed the glass proffered by his manservant. The liquid within was pinkish and unappetising, but he trusted Planchet. He swallowed it in one gulp, shuddering as it slipped down.
His little attic room came into better focus, and his head grew less muzzy. As it did he remembered something. Hopping out of bed, he grabbed his jacket and rummaged through the pockets. His heart turned cold as he discovered a piece of paper and quickly scanned through it.
"Oh no. Planchet, what have I done?" He held out the paper. Planchet craned forwards and read:
I, DOGTANIAN OF BERNE, having taken the oath on this day APRIL THE EIGHTH, do hereby solemnly swear to serve Cardinal Richelieu loyally as one of his Guards.
The signature beneath was shaky, but recognisably Dogtanian's. The bear's brow furrowed.
"I'll get Porthos and the others. I think you should talk with them."
Athos winked at the waitress, a slim young poodle. She giggled as she placed a towering pile of croissants, pains au chocolat and other delicacies before him.
"Athos, can we concentrate on Dogtanian's problem?" Porthos asked patiently.
"I can't think on an empty stomach!" the mastiff protested, patting his belly. Aramis selected a bread roll and spoke a Grace as he broke it.
Dogtanian watched his friends, feeling nauseous, and took a sip of the orange juice Porthos had insisted he should try to get down.
"The way I see it," Athos said, spraying the others with crumbs, "Dogtanian just has to not show up. Who wants to be a Cardinal's Guard?"
"He signed an oath." Porthos crossed his arms. "It's a question of honour."
"Then he has to behave so badly he gets thrown out. Simple. I don't know what you're all so worried about." Laughing, Athos took a giant bite of his breakfast.
"Not so simple, my friend." Aramis had brought an ancient leather-bound copy of the Muskehounds' code, which he liked to study in the evenings. "If someone is dismissed dishonourably from the Cardinals' Guards, he will never be permitted to enter the ranks of the Musketeers!"
"N-never?" Dogtanian quavered. If it was possible to feel any worse than he had when he woke up, he did now.
"I'm sorry, Dogtanian, but it looks like you'll have to stick it out until we can think of some way to get you out of there." Porthos glanced at the sun. "It's almost eight - you'd better report to the parade ground."
Dogtanian bit his lip. "Farewell my friends, I hope we meet again soon!"
He set off at a run for a place he had never dreamed he would enter: the headquarters of the Cardinals' Guards, sworn rivals to King Louis' Muskehounds.
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