There were too many horses. There was too much hay. There was too much poop. The gold-paved thoroughfare leading from the village to the Chateau du Soleil was covered in it. Horse-drawn carriages of all shapes and sizes descended on the palace, kicking up waste that piled in wet clumps along the street.
The butler was appalled, and removed one of his white silk gloves to swat the nose of the groundskeeper. The groundskeeper marched through the poopy streets to the village stables where he found the stable boy feeding the horses double helpings of hay.
“Idiot!” the groundskeeper howled as he pulled the stable boy’s ear. “You have the smarts of a cheese sandwich!”
“Owww!” the stable boy cried, pulling free of the groundskeeper and rubbing the side of his head to make sure his ear was still attached. His eyes welled with tears.
“They just looked so hungry,” he said remorsefully, staring down at his poopy shoes.
“Well just look how fat they are now!” the groundskeeper bellowed, pointing to the horses’ bloated bellies. “They’re spilling this hay all over Majesté’s roads!”
The groundskeeper tossed a fistful of hay furiously into the air, attracting the attention of a large mare. The horse reached her long neck over the stable door and began munching the stalks that had fallen around the groundskeeper’s ears. The stable boy bit his tongue to keep from laughing. The groundskeeper’s face turned from crimson to purple.
“You pudding-brain peasant!” he cried out, raising his hand to strike the boy, but at that moment, a finely dressed lady in a muslin gown and twisted, powdered curls passed the stable.
She looked disapprovingly from the groundskeeper to the boy to the soiled streets. With an exaggerated shudder, she covered her nose with her lacey fan and hurried toward the chateau.
“The Countess Celestine de Fontaineflamme!” the groundskeeper whispered in horror. He grabbed the stable boy by the collar.
“She saw us!”
To the stable boy’s surprise, the groundskeeper fell to the boy’s feet and began to cry. The stable boy stared after the countess as she disappeared down the street, and then, with a shrug, dropped to his knees to comfort the sobbing groundskeeper.
“There, there,” he said kindly, patting the groundskeeper’s bald head.
“I’m sorry,” the groundskeeper wailed, blowing his nose into the stable boy’s sleeve. “But it’s just…it’s just…”
He looked into the stable boy’s eyes and began to wail.
“There’s just so much poop!”
Back at the Chateau du Soleil, Countess Celestine marched her soiled silk shoes straight past the guards and into the Sun King’s receiving room.
She gave a slight curtsey to the king and a polite nod to the attending servants. The two men gathered the empty silver dishes and retreated from the room.
When the great doors had shut, the countess stood perfectly still until she was sure she had heard their footsteps recede all the way down the hall. Then she ran to the king and took his hands.
“Lou,” she whispered, searching his black eyes.
The Sun King stared back. He seemed to recognize her. He smiled affectionately, and his eyes filled with love, then remorse, then resentment, and finally narrowed into a glare of distrust.
At that moment, the Marquis Richelieu burst through the doors.
“Madame Countess!” he shouted, “May I escort you back to the Great Hall? We are assembling now for the opening of the Royal Council. Surely you’ll want to claim your seat before our Majesté joins the court?”
The countess rose, giving the king one last searching look, turned on her heels, and descended the steps of the throne. She passed through the room without so much as a glance at the marquis, who scowled angrily after her.
Joining the assembly in the Great Hall, the countess slid into her seat and grabbed Ian’s arm.
“I know he’s behind it all,” she whispered. “The war, the raids, the disappearances of the villagers. I was out there today. The rumors are true! The streets are deserted—with the exception of that grotesque old groundskeeper and his poor boy—the whole village has vanished! Who else could possibly be responsible?”
Ian closed his hand over the countess’ delicate gloved fingers. Her restless eyes scanned the Congress, searching for signs of the marquis’ treachery. They had been through this so many times, but Ian knew he must try his best to play along, especially after what he had discovered this morning.
“I do not doubt it, Madame Countess. For some time now our Majesté has seemed—shall we say…preoccupied with the marquis, and surely, strange things are afoot in the village, but I promise you…”
Ian stopped short, his breath caught in his throat. His hand clutching the countess’ was glowing! Softly—but there could be no doubt—blue light was coursing through his veins!
Ian sprang to his feet, knocking over his chair, as a great bolt of energy rushed through him from head to toe.
The countess started. “Monsieur Prince, what in the world—?”
But Ian was already running toward the palace gardens. He must get there in time! He had waited months, years, ages—he had lost count—believing with all his heart the Collective would come back for him one day. And now the time had finally come!
He ran wildly through the manicured lawns, hurdling over hedges, and splashing through ponds until he reached the edge of the chateau grounds. Squeezing himself through two bent bars in the gate, Ian scrambled through the swamp, ducking branches and dodging trees until he reached the clearing where he had been deposited so many years ago.
Ian looked up at the evening sky. The new moon was just rising. He scanned the flarefield for signs a tracker had been there. Finding none, he searched the forest. But no one was there.
Ian collapsed to his knees and beat his fist into the marshy ground.
“WHERE ARE YOU?!” he bellowed into the sky.
He looked down at his hands. The blue light was gone. But it had been there—he was sure of it! Ian settled onto his haunches and ran a muddy hand through the coppery hair of his voyage vessel. How was he ever going to explain this to the countess?
Ian was used to charming his way out of sticky situations, but abandoning his patron at the opening of the Royal Council was an entirely different matter. He was tempted to stay in hiding until the moon cycle reset and he could start afresh, but he couldn’t be sure the incident would be forgotten.
Time seemed to work in strange ways here. He suspected it had something to do with the marquis’ magic, but each new moon cycle seemed to be charged with the events of the last—almost as if the past was being…altered.
Ian knew how crazy that would sound to the Collective. It sounded crazy to him! He knew the laws of time travel backwards and forwards. After twenty-eight days, the moon cycle resets, and unless a tracker comes to retrieve you, you’re right back where you started. Only that didn’t seem to be the case here in the Sun King’s Court.
During his first moon cycle, Ian watched everything around him from the safety of the swamp. He had been sent on a simple mission: confirm the whereabouts of the Marquis Richelieu. A tracker was scheduled to pick him up when the moon cycle reset, but something had gone terribly wrong. Somehow he had missed the tracker, and one moon cycle turned into thirteen, twenty-six, thirty-nine, fifty-two, and on and on until he had finally lost track.
It took an entire year’s worth of moon cycles for Ian to come to terms with the fact that the Collective wasn’t coming for him—at least not just yet. Finally, he decided he’d lived in the swamp long enough, and left the mosquitos and mud for a warm bed and hot supper at the village inn.
Ian soon settled into the predictable passage of time. His voyage vessel was a lot scrawnier and paler than he was used to, but it was perfect for blending in. He could come and go from the village to the king’s court by passing as a peasant or a noble, and this allowed him to observe the marquis without drawing any attention to himself.
It didn’t take long for Ian to work out the details of the marquis’ scheme: imprison the villagers in the Chateau du Soleil; coax the king into assembling the Royal Council; release the prisoners; and voilà—the marquis had himself a bloody revolt! And a load of dark energy to channel to Zahlamaer.
But with each passing moon cycle, Ian began to notice certain changes taking place. At first, the marquis had some trouble convincing the king’s guard to go along with his plan. He had to pay each soldier a fat pouch of coins before they would agree to arrest the villagers. But over time, the soldiers became more willing and vicious, the villagers more expectant of the arrest and violent in their response. Even the nobles seemed more prepared for the revolt when the marquis released the prisoners from the dungeons. It was almost as if the fighting was becoming…natural.
Ian began to wonder: if the marquis could alter the actions of people with negative energy, why couldn’t he do the same with positive?
He tested his theory carefully.
On the eve of the next arrest, Ian snuck into the soldiers’ barracks with a pigeon pie. He approached a forlorn young man sitting alone in the shadows of the armory. Ian knew the soldier had grown up in the village and missed his family dearly. He had accepted the marquis’ bribe out of fear, but he was sick at the thought of imprisoning his own people.
Ian laid the pie at the soldier’s boots.
“From your sister, Emmie,” he whispered. “She said to tell you she loves you.”
Retreating quickly, Ian watched from a distance as the soldier picked up the pie and started to cry.
The next day, when the shivering villagers pressed upon the king’s gates, the young soldier dropped his rifle and shouted a warning to the people.
“You are all in danger, mes amis! The marquis! He is going to imprison you! Run away! Run away! Run aw—”
A rifle blast ripped through the air, and the young man was shot down by his own captain. The rest of the soldiers overtook the villagers, and the moon cycle proceeded as usual, but at the next full moon, Ian watched the same soldier refuse the marquis’ gold. He was shot on the spot, but the following full moon, three more soldiers from the village refused the marquis. There could be no doubt—the experiment was working.
It was then Ian stopped caring about when the Collective would retrieve him and began devoting all his energy to undermining the evil marquis. He began to see every new moon cycle as an opportunity to reverse the wars plaguing the Kingdom du Soleil. He was proud to be doing his small part to weaken the negative energy pulling apart the past and polluting the present. But to make a real stand against the marquis, Ian knew he needed power.
He began to venture into the Chateau du Soleil more regularly, disguised as a servant. He watched the courtiers—the grovelers, the climbers, the schemers—searching for someone who might help him achieve his purpose. And then he found her. The Countess Celestine de Fontaineflamme.
The young countess was different from the other courtiers. She had lost her husband in the King’s War but had turned her pain and blame into a promise to do better by her people. She was kind and generous, but also fierce and brave, and her hatred of the marquis seemed to rival Ian’s own.
Ian watched her interactions with the Sun King and suspected the two had been very close once, though it was clear no one but the marquis held the king’s favor now.
Though he knew his plan was dangerous, and there was a good chance he would blow his cover, Ian decided to act.
The countess was riding through the countryside one blustery morning when she spotted a young man who had gathered a small group of village boys under the shelter of a gnarled oak. Slowing her horse, she watched from a distance as the man spoke to the boys.
“Unir et résister au marquis…”
That was all she needed to hear.
Ian was summoned to the Chateau Fontaineflamme and quickly became the countess’ most trusted advisor. Posing as a foreign prince, Ian accompanied the countess to Court and enjoyed all the privileges of the titled noblesse—fat cuts of feast meats, unlimited access to the cellars, and hours of leisure time, which he used to conspire with the countess.
Ian was making progress in his fight against the marquis, but the marquis was growing suspicious. The king’s soldiers were becoming harder to control, and the villagers exchanged low whispers as he passed through the village—magicien and sorcier. The marquis suspected it was one of the courtiers who had poisoned their minds against his power—the meddling Countess de Fontaineflamme, no doubt. So he devised a plan.
It took a little…persuading…but he was eventually able to convince the king to issue an edict requiring all nobles leave their lands and take up residence at the Chateau du Soleil. By assembling the Royal Council, the marquis could keep a close eye on the treacherous courtiers, and, more importantly, he would be able to turn their own palaces into prisons!
Traveling the vast distances between noble lands would be easy. Timeshafts were plentiful in this part of the world, and he could, for instance, make the three day’s journey from the Chateau du Soleil to the Chateau Fontaineflamme in a matter of seconds. The marquis also knew it would be easy to lure the villagers into the deserted chateaus. They were cold and starving, and so were the war-weary troops the king had spread out over his countryside. On the night of the full moon, he would release the villagers from the dungeons, just like he had at the Chateau du Soleil. Fighting would erupt all over the land, generating a powerful negative energy field. His benefactor, no doubt, would reward him richly.
The marquis delighted in the genius of his design, but what he didn’t know was that a young agent of the Collective, who could also travel great distances with ease, was following him closely.
Countess Celestine had been shocked to receive the king’s edict summoning her to the Royal Council, but Ian was far less surprised. He knew who must be behind it, and his suspicions had been confirmed that very morning when he followed the marquis into a timeshaft and arrived, moments later, at the Village Fontaineflamme.
Ian pulled himself up out of the village well, where the timeshaft was hidden, and immediately felt the sharp sting of the marquis’ magic.
Electric charges ran up and down the cobblestone streets, lifting Ian’s hair on end as he made his way through the twisting lanes toward the turrets of the chateau. He noted, with growing apprehension, how empty the village was.
Entering the clearing leading up the hill to the palace gates, Ian stopped short. A procession of tired looking soldiers were filing into the chateau. Suddenly, Ian caught site of a blood red robe. He dropped down into the tall grass just as the marquis spun around toward the village.
Scanning the clearing with hawk-like intensity, the marquis took a few steps toward the rustling grass, when a deafening belch erupted from the main hall.
“Marquis Richelieu!” Colonel Trudeau croaked. “Where are the pies?!”
The marquis rolled his eyes in disgust and turned back toward the chateau, disappearing through the gates.
Ian ran as fast as he could toward the village center and hopped back into the well. He splashed through the timeshaft, and within seconds he was back at the Chateau du Soleil—a little damp—and eagerly awaiting the countess to join him at the opening of the Royal Council.
He hadn’t quite worked out how he was going to reveal what he had learned, but he knew he must find a way to tell the countess the marquis was planning to turn her ancestral home into a battle ground!
Gathering his thoughts, Ian cursed the impulsive streak that led him to flee the palace. How could he be so stupid?! He had made so much progress with the countess over the moon cycles they had spent together, and now he was sure he had ruined everything!
What would happen in the next moon cycle? Would she trust him enough to summon him to her court again? Would she fall into the marquis’ clutches? Would she be ripped to pieces in the revolt? The possibilities were terrifying!
He decided he couldn’t wait. He had to go back. He would make up some excuse for his disappearance—bad clams, a heart condition, a panic attack—anything—he just had to get back to her—he just—
The countess’ alarmed voice rang through the marsh.
“Celestine!” Ian called back, forgetting his manners.
The countess pushed her way through a briar patch and into the clearing. She ran to Ian, stopping just short of where he stood. Gathering up the muddy, torn ends of her gown into her scratched hands, she twisted her pretty face into a terrible look of reprimand.
“Well!” she said huffily. “What do you possibly have to say for yourself?!”
“I—I—” Ian stammered.
“Oh—come here then!” the countess cried, and, grabbing Ian’s face in her two petite hands, planted a kiss right on his lips.
“I was so worried, mon ami!”
Ian stared back at the countess in shock. She blushed and dropped her eyes to the ground, but before either could say another word, a sudden rustling of leaves caused them to swing around.
Their startled eyes met the shocked face of the groundskeeper. Slowly, his open mouth closed into a simpering smile.
“Your Excellencies,” he said with an exaggerated bow, and, turning on his heels, shuffled back to the chateau.