A tired looking girl was sweeping the ashes from the grate of a large fireplace when Ian and Mitch walked through the door. A gust of icy wind followed them into the room, blowing out the flames of the candles scattered along the bar top. An assortment of lopsided tables, wooden stools, and plushy chairs filled a single open room surrounded by wood-burning fireplaces of all shapes and sizes. Some were long and skinny with sooty stove pipes; others were short and wide, framed by enormous stone mantels. The logs cracked and popped in the grates, heating all corners of the room and giving off a sweet, smoky smell.
Mitch sighed happily.
“Phew! That’s some morning breath you got there.”
Mitch ignored Ian, too enchanted by the warm setting to return the insult. She had never seen anything so perfectly cozy. Sure, she was so frozen even the terrifying blaze of the timegate had seemed snug not too long ago, but truly, this was just—well, just—
“Magical, right?” Ian said, catching sight of her awed expression. “I thought so too. My first time in here I’d been living out in the swamp for thirteen moon cycles. Hadn’t felt warm in all that time.”
Mitch looked up at Ian, suddenly very aware of the struggle he must have gone through as he came to terms with the fact no one was coming for him. She couldn’t imagine what she would have done in that same situation. Fallen apart? Given up hope? Maybe even…
“Survived,” answered Ian, catching her eye. “You would have survived. Like I did.”
He smiled at the look of surprise that passed her face as he finished her sentence.
“Come on,” he continued. “Let’s get us a couple of rooms and catch some sleep. Then we’ll meet for dinner. I’ll tell you how I can read your mind, and you can tell me how in the world Graham Scarlett’s granddaughter ended up in the Sun King’s Court. Agreed?”
Mitch frowned. She didn’t like to be left in the dark about things that concerned her—especially when it came to people prying around in her mind. But she was terribly sleepy. She decided her questions could wait.
“Sure,” she nodded.
“Amélie!” Ian called to the girl sweeping.
The innkeeper’s daughter looked up sharply, narrowing her eyes at the stranger who had called her by name. She was sure she didn’t know him, though he did look familiar…
“Oh, uh, sorry—” Ian apologized, realizing his mistake. “I mean, mademoiselle. Two rooms, please.”
Mitch watched the hypnotranslation work its way through Amélie’s mind.
Duex chambres, s’il vous plait.
“Oui, monsieur,” she replied. “Un moment.”
“Cool,” Mitch marveled as the girl disappeared into a backroom. “Can I try when she comes back?”
Ian looked doubtfully at Mitch’s grimy, tattered clothes and mass of smelly, tangled hair.
“I think we should draw as little attention to you as possible for now.”
“Is it that bad?”
Mitch examined her dress. Her stripped stockings and pointy shoes were covered in mud, but other than that…
Ian raised an eyebrow.
“Oh fine!” she huffed, crossing her arms. “You just go on and have all the fun then!”
“Merci beaucoup,” Ian said smoothly, as Amélie returned with two brass keys. He pulled a large gold coin from his pocket.
“You may keep the change, mademoiselle,” he said, flashing her a charming smile.
Amélie blushed deeply and dropped the coin into her apron. She was so fixed on the handsome young man she hadn’t even noticed the strange little witch at his side.
Mitch rolled her eyes and snatched one of the keys from Ian.
“Uh, excuse us now,” Ian said, ushering Mitch up the stairs.
“We’ll be down for dinner,” he called back over his shoulder as they mounted the creaky wooden steps.
A weak “oui” was all Amélie could manage.
“Looks like you’re pretty popular around these parts,” Mitch smirked when they reached their rooms.
“I guess you could say that.” Ian grinned. “Here.” He pushed several gold coins into her hand. “You might need these—in case we get split up or something. You can get just about anything from anyone in this village if you have a little buying power.”
Mitch’s eyes widened at the pile of gold in her hands.
“Where did you get these?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” Ian replied mysteriously. “And don’t worry if you lose a few. I have a whole heap buried out in the flarefield.”
“Well,” he said, unlocking the door to his room. “I guess I’ll see you in a few. And oh!” he added, just before going inside. “Don’t forget to take a bath, huh?”
The door slammed shut. But Mitch was still staring at the coins. A dozen faces stared back. The gold glistened in the candlelight, stamped with the sign of the Sun King.
“I thought you were going to take a bath.”
Ian frowned as Mitch took a seat next to him at the long table. The inn was packed with villagers eating shoulder to shoulder, dripping gravy from their spoons and spitting little bits of food from their mouths as they talked and laughed and slammed their mugs down onto the sticky tabletops.
“I did!” Mitch hissed.
Ian wrinkled his nose. “Really?”
“Yes really,” she replied sharply. “I even washed my clothes. I can’t get this stench to go away.”
“Weird,” Ian said, shoving a spoonful of stew into his mouth. “Wonder why you got such a stinky old voyage vessel. You know,” he mused between bites, “you look just like a witch.”
A joke danced across his eyes.
“Like your name! Mitch the—”
“Say it, and I swear I’ll shove this chicken leg down your throat,” Mitch warned, clutching a crispy drumstick.
Ian’s eye’s widened. The look on Mitch’s face said she might make good on the threat.
“Now look,” she went on crabbily. “I don’t know the first thing about how voyage vessels are assigned, and I certainly didn’t ask for this one! If I hear one more word from you, or anyone else, about the way I smell—”
“Got it,” Ian interrupted, sopping up the last of his stew with a piece of bread and stuffing it into his mouth. He took a big bite from a block of cheese and washed it down with a long gulp from his mug.
“Okay,” he belched, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Now let’s get down to business.”
“And I’m the gross one?” Mitch asked disgustedly. She shook her head and turned her attention to the task of nibbling her drumstick with the few teeth that had come with her voyage vessel.
“Awww man!” she cried as her front tooth came loose in the chicken.
“Here,” said Ian, filling her bowl with soup. “I think you’re better off with this.”
Mitch gave him a dirty look, but brought a spoonful of broth to her lips. It tasted as good as it smelled, and warmed her insides like the crackling fires heating the inn.
Ian waited until she had eaten her fill. Once she was full and relaxed, he tried again.
“Now tell me, Little Scarlett,” he began, smiling at the annoyed look she gave him. “How did the granddaughter of our celebrated founder end up in the Sun King’s Court?”
Mitch wiped her mouth with her sleeve and settled back into her chair.
“I’ll tell you,” she said, meeting his roguish gaze. “But first you tell me why in the world the granddaughter of your celebrated founder had to go on a wild chase through time and space to find you.”
Ian’s face darkened. “What do you mean?”
“How’d you get stuck here? What’d you do wrong?”
“Nothing!” Ian shouted. His cool demeanor gave way to red-faced anger. He knew she was just trying to irritate him, but he couldn’t help himself.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! I completed my mission! I found the marquis, and I was ready to go home, but when the time came no one was there! Why didn’t Izzie come for me like we planned? Why didn’t anyone come at the next full moon? Or the one after that? Or the one after that?!”
Mitch stared at him. “Uh…maybe because the Corridor was closed.”
“What are you talking about?” Ian snapped.
“What are you talking about? How in the world was anyone supposed to come for you when the Corridor was closed?! What’s the matter with you?” she asked, noticing he didn’t seem to be registering what she was saying. “Your head get knocked around in the timechute?”
“Mitch,” he said, trying hard to restrain his rising anger. “You can’t just close the Corridor.”
“Well, someone should have told that to my granddaddy and Uncle Oren.”
“They couldn’t have.”
“They did. C’mon, Ian, you can’t tell me you didn’t know. You’re an agent of the Collective.”
“I know! That’s why none of this is making sense! Arlington and Scarlett—they wouldn’t have done something like that. They wouldn’t have sent me off to find Richelieu if they were going to close the Corridor. They wouldn’t have kept a secret like that from me!”
Mitch didn’t know what to say. She found it unbelievable Ian was only just now learning the Corridor had been closed. Why would her granddaddy and Uncle Oren have kept something so important from him?
She thought back to all the secrets they had hidden from her and felt her own anger rising. Could it be possible? Had they really sent him on a mission without telling him what they were planning to do?
“Well I guess so!” Ian answered hotly, though Mitch hadn’t said a word aloud.
Mitch started. “Who gave you permission to pry around in my mind, Ian Holtfield?” she demanded.
“I don’t need permission, Mitch Scarlett!” he shot back. “Your granddaddy charged me too! So your mind’s going to stay open to me, and anyone else he’s charged, until you learn how to close it!
“I trained hard under Scarlett!” he raged on, “He taught me everything he knows about hypnotism—everything! He kept nothing from me, and neither did your uncle! They were my family too—do you understand?! So WHY would they hide this from me?!”
Ian slammed his fist down onto the table, but the noise was swallowed up by the raucous crowd. Shouts rang out. Dishes crashed to the floor. The next table over broke out into song:
Good fellows, good fellows,
Drink up while ye may,
For tomorrow the darkness
Will blot out the day.
Where are you now?
Our Sun lives in shadow.
To magic he bows.
WHOOSH! An icy blast of wind tore through the hall. The roaring fires and flickering candles went out, and the room fell suddenly dark and silent. Then, all at once, the fireplaces exploded with blue flames, sending a wave of terrified cries through the hall.
Mitch moved to stand up, but Ian grabbed her arm.
“Stay put!” he commanded. “Keep your head down, and don’t move.”
In the doorway, silhouetted against the snowy night, stood the marquis. His red cloak was wrapped tightly about his sharp frame, which was draped in glittering jewels. A small army of soldiers stood by his side, looking nervously at one another and holding tightly to their weapons.
The marquis clapped his hands in mock appreciation.
“What a wonderful song!” he cried. “Music! Oh—how it sustains us! How it nourishes the spirit and uplifts the heart. A beacon of light,” he smiled evilly, “even in the darkest of hours.”
His smile twisted into a fierce scowl. With a wave of his hand, the soldiers spilled into the room. The villagers began shouting and rising from their chairs.
“Take this,” Ian said in the commotion. He thrust a large satchel into Mitch’s lap. “Don’t lose it,” he warned. “And whatever happens, don’t look the marquis in the eye. One look, and he’ll know you’re a Scarlett. You can’t be caught. You’re the only hope we have now.”
Mitch stuffed the satchel into the folds of her cape as Ian rose to his feet, knocking over his chair.
“Marquis Richelieu!” he shouted boldly.
The room went still. The marquis turned sharply, locking his predatory eyes on Ian.
“Ah, Prince Ian,” he answered derisively.
The villagers stole confused glances at one another. A prince? Dining among them here at the inn? Impossible! But the marquis appeared to be certain.
“I cannot tell you how pleased I am to finally make your acquaintance,” he went on, his nostrils flaring with intense hatred.
He motioned to the guards. “Arrest him.”
The soldiers advanced.
“On what grounds?” Ian challenged, though he knew it didn’t matter if he had committed a crime or not. Somehow, the marquis had discovered his true identity. If he wanted to throw him in the dungeons tonight, that’s where he was going.
The marquis’ eyes flashed with wicked delight.
Gasps erupted across the room.
“You lie!” Ian shot back. “What proof do you have?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
The marquis snapped his fingers and two soldiers appeared in the doorway with Countess Celestine. Her wrists were bound and her mouth was gagged. Her hair was covered in tiny white snowflakes, and she was shivering violently with cold. Judging by her clothes, which were hardly suited for traveling, she had been taken by surprise.
Ian clenched his fists, trembling with rage.
“Oh good,” said the marquis, taking pleasure in Ian’s obvious distress. “So you do recognize her.”
“How dare you!” cried Ian, unable to contain himself any longer. “Release her! You have no right to treat a countess in this manner!”
Countess Celestine’s eyes widened as they met Ian’s. Who was this nobleman speaking on her behalf? Indeed, he looked familiar, but she couldn’t place him. And what in the world was he doing here, in a common tavern?
“Oh, that’s where you’re wrong, Prince Ian,” the marquis answered.
Prince Ian? She was sure she’d heard that name before.
“I have every right,” the marquis continued, turning his speech from Ian to the villagers.
“The countess is a traitor of the crown! She has conspired with a sorcerer to bewitch your Majesté!”
An angry roar swept through the hall. Voices shouted from across the room.
The countess shook her head wildly and struggled against her binds, desperate to defend herself, but the soldiers held her fast.
“LIAR!” Ian cried. “These are wild accusations!”
“No,” the marquis snarled. “They are the testimony of an eye witness. Monsieur Devereux?”
The groundskeeper, who, until that moment, had stood cowering under the cover of the soldiers, shuffled to the center of the room.
Ian’s face turned from red to ghostly white.
“You have sworn, Monsieur Devereux, have you not, that you have seen, with your own eyes, the Countess de Fontaineflamme act in a most indecent manner with this villain?”
He pointed a long jeweled finger at Ian.
The groundskeeper nodded, running his fingers through the pieces of gold in his pockets.
“In the woods!” the marquis continued. “Where it is commonly known sorcery of all kind is practiced!”
The groundskeeper nodded again.
“You see!” the marquis exclaimed, turning to the villagers. “You have the word of a witness! It is true!”
“Les arrêter!” the villagers roared. “Arrest him!”
The marquis nodded. The guards drew their swords.
The old haggard woman sitting next to Ian struggled to her feet.
“Scarlett!” Ian hissed, but it was too late. The marquis had locked eyes with Mitch from across the room.
Mitch felt an ice cold bolt of electricity shock her mind. She knew her thoughts were opening, that an intruder was entering—again—and a great surge of anger rushed through her. A voice, her own and not her own, filled her head.
Her eyes burned with resistance. She pushed with all her might against the marquis’ grip.
A powerful blast of blue light exploded across the room. The marquis howled in pain. He staggered backwards, clutching his head, and disappeared into the wintery night. Without thinking, Mitch followed.
“Scarlett!” Ian cried, but she was already out the door.
Mitch hobbled after the marquis through the twisting snowy lanes, chasing his red cloak as it whipped around the frosted lampposts and cobblestone archways. She had no idea what she was going to do if she caught up with him; she only knew she couldn’t let him get away.
“Marquis Richelieu!” she called out as they approached the bridge leading from the village to the palace gates. “Stop right there!”
The marquis spun around.
“Who are you?” he demanded, taking a few menacing steps toward her. His shadowy face pulsed with rage, but Mitch could see the pain cracking his hard black eyes.
Mitch took a step forward. The marquis crinkled his nose and stepped back.
“Smelly old hag!” he cried. “What do you want with me?!”
Mitch took another step forward.
“Stand back!” The marquis stumbled over his robes and fell to the snow.
“I will not stand back,” Mitch said evenly, sealing her mind tight. She stood over the marquis, and looked him boldly in the eye.
The marquis cowered, blinked several times, and then, to Mitch’s utmost surprise, he began to laugh. It was a terrible sound, filled with cold, cruel delight.
“Oh, dear,” he said gathering himself and rising to his feet. “You gave me quite a scare.”
He grabbed Mitch’s hands and looked deep into her eyes. It had been years, but he would never forget those eyes. Those beautiful flashing eyes. Amber and green and blue and black—a different color every time she blinked.
“Vella,” he said, bowing his head into her hands in the sign of the Trust. “Welcome, old friend, to the Chateau du Soleil.”
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.