Chapter 21: Celestine’s Secret

This journal is the property of Ian Holtfield, agent of the Collective, the greatest fighting force for good of all time. At present, I am somewhere around 14 years old. I write these pages from the Sun King’s Court (Chamber 6. Moon Cycle 5. Set 714. Flarefield 13C), where I’ve spent 18 moon cycles. I was supposed to go home after one. I don’t know why no one’s come for me, yet.

The purpose of this journal is to record my experiences and observations in this strange place. I know it will sound extraordinary, even impossible, to any magician who reads these words, but here, in the Sun King’s Court, the past can be altered. I think the marquis has something to do with it, and I am determined to get to the bottom of it. I hope the discoveries I make will be useful to the Collective if I’m ever when I’m finally retrieved.

Mitch reread the opening lines of the journal she found in Ian’s satchel, along with a few gold coins, a piece of flint, a small dagger, and a timepiece just like her own.

She took a deep breath and closed the book. It had told her everything she could possibly want to know about Ian’s time in the Sun King’s Court—way more than he would have ever told her himself. She frowned at the thought of how arrogant and pushy he could be! But the journal had shown her a very different Ian—a boy who was scared and unsure, but also brave and creative, and deeply committed to the Collective.

Her stomach tightened at the thought of the incredible secret they had kept from him. How he had looked at her in total disbelief when she told him the Corridor had been closed. How angry he had been when he realized he had been deceived. He had trusted them. And look where it got him. Trapped for seven years in this place!

She sighed and settled into the feathery pillows crowning the head of her four-poster bed. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t all been so bad.

Mitch smiled thinking back to Ian’s descriptions of the sumptuous feasts and decadent balls he had attended while under the patronage of the Countess de Fontaineflamme. Stuffed pheasant and fire-smoked sausage, candied pumpkins and creamy pastries, the costumes, and games, and dancing—what extraordinary fun! 

But then, of course, there were the revolts. One moon cycle after another of terrible fighting between villagers, soldiers, and nobles. She shuddered as she recalled Ian’s vivid descriptions of the violence. The sound of the iron locks sliding open as the marquis released the prisoners from the dungeons. The furious roar of villagers tearing through the palace halls. The scraping of soldiers’ swords drawn from their sheaths and the shrieking of nobles running for cover.   

It sounded awful, but Mitch had been impressed at the careful steps Ian had taken to ensure Countess Celestine’s safety during these terrible fights. She read with interest as he described how they had managed to escape, one moon cycle after another, through a hidden passageway leading from the chateau gardens to the flarefield. There, they would hide in a little shelter he had prepared for them, far from the terrified screams and roaring flames, until the moon cycle reset.

When dawn came, Ian would wake up alone, make his way back to the inn, and begin another twenty-eight days of resistance against the marquis, which, of course, would include working his way back into the countess’ good graces.

If he was right, and each new moon cycle in the Sun King’s Court was really charged with the events of the last, then it would only make sense that the countess would feel more and more that she could trust Ian as time went on…even with her most carefully guarded secrets.

Ian had described that mysterious evening when he had seen the time energy pulsing through his veins and run out on the Royal Council. Sure, it would have defied all the laws of time travel as he knew them if a tracker had come looking for him in the middle of a moon cycle, but stranger things had happened in the Sun King’s Court.

Though a tracker hadn’t found him, Countess Celestine had. She had been furious, and then she had kissed him! Gross! Mitch had rolled her eyes at the thought of what a head trip that must have been for a boy like Ian, but her thoughts turned serious again when she read about the groundskeeper’s discovery and the countess’ startling confession that followed.

Perhaps it was because she was embarrassed by her forwardness; perhaps, with every passing moon cycle, she was simply becoming more comfortable with her new friend, without even knowing why, but on their walk back to the palace the countess decided to share some surprising details about her past.

As it turned out, Celestine was not a noble by birth. Her uncle had been a trusted advisor to the young Sun King, until his untimely death just before the wars began. As a young girl, Celestine lived with her uncle at the Chateau du Soleil, where she and the boy king became close friends. They made regular games of escaping the watchful eyes of their chaperones, exploring the marshy forest together, or spending snowy afternoons in the towers, huddled together for warmth as they flipped the pages of their favorite books.

The servants joked that one day little Celestine would be the Sun Queen of the Kingdom du Soleil, and, truth be told, Celestine wished for it, and believed the king did too. The years passed blissfully, their friendship growing stronger every day, until one cold, wintery evening when everything changed.

The king and Celestine had managed to escape another stuffy dinner party and were taking turns through the moonlit garden when they came upon a crumpled heap in the lane. The king knelt down and turned the man over. Motionless, bulging eyes stared up at him from a ghostly white face. It was his trusted advisor.

The king rushed to Celestine’s side and turned her away from the terrible scene, but not before she saw the thin trickle of black liquid dripping from the corner of her uncle’s mouth.

The king spent the next day confined to his personal chambers. When he emerged the following day, he declared his advisor had suffered a heart failure. On the third day, to the shock of all, he announced his decision to rule, from that moment forward, without the “interference” of an advisor. By the week’s end, he declared he would be marrying a princess from a neighboring kingdom and dismissed Celestine from the palace.

In each of these addresses to the court, the king had appeared in the throne room with only a single attendant. The man was severe looking with sharp features and hard black eyes, dressed in red robes that looked like they belonged to another time.

Whispers from the village made their way to the Chateau du Soleil—Sorcier! Magician!—and stories began to take form—strange stories about an old advisor to the Sun King’s father, a terrible, cruel man who only cared about riches and power. He was thought to have died in the last plague that swept through the land, but many of the villagers now believed he had come back from the dead disguised as the Marquis Richelieu, killed the king’s advisor, and poisoned the king’s mind with dark magic.

Celestine was devastated by the loss of her uncle, heartbroken by the king’s sudden coldness, and, like the villagers, suspicious of the marquis. But she had no choice other than to obey the king’s command.

As she was preparing to depart the palace, however, it came to her attention that she had captured the affections of a young count from Fontaineflamme. He was kind, and beloved by his people, unlike many of the other mean and greedy nobles who governed the king’s lands. And so, without many other options, Celestine agreed to marriage.

The Count and Countess de Fontaineflamme led a good life together, but their happiness was short-lived.

Soon after their wedding, all the nobles were invited to the Chateau du Soleil to celebrate the king’s eighteenth birthday. It was to be a grand occasion with a twenty-one course banquet, spectacular performances, a menagerie, and even a firework show!

Celestine was uneasy at the thought of returning to the Chateau du Soleil. She had not spoken with the king since the night of her uncle’s death, but the count, ever dutiful to the command of his king, insisted they accept the invitation.

On the night of the ball, Celestine, dressed in her finest gown, greeted the king with proper formality. He looked so changed—his dark hair starting to show signs of gray and his once bright eyes dull and listless—but his face seemed to light up, if only for a moment, when he saw his old friend.

At the end of the night, the king approached the countess as she stood against the balustrade watching the fireworks. Taking her hands, he declared his love, and tried to kiss her.

“Majesté!” Celestine had cried, pulling away from his embrace. “This is most indecent! I am married, and you are engaged to be. What is the meaning of this?”

“I will be married, yes, but I do not love the princess, Celestine. I love only you. And what is your husband but a servant of the crown? Come now, mon amour, do not resist your king, your Sun.”

He leaned in and tried once more to kiss her, but Celestine, outraged at his improper affections, gave him a quick slap across the face.

“That is quite enough!” she cried and stormed off to find her husband and quit the party.

But as she hurried down the stairs leading to the courtyard where the guests had gathered, she glanced back up at the bridge where the king stood, rubbing his face, and realized they had not been alone.

The marquis stepped around the side of a large column and approached the king. Celestine watched from the shadows as he whispered something into his ear. The king’s eyes darkened with anger. He nodded.

The next day, a letter was sent by messenger to the House de Fontaineflamme. It was stamped with the sign of the Sun King. The count’s face grew gray as he read the words aloud to his wife:

The Kingdom du Soleil has declared war on the enemy Crown.

The Count de Fontaineflamme will honor his king by leading the first offensive.

We march tonight.

Celestine collapsed into tears and pleaded with her husband not to go. She was sure the marquis was behind the sudden outbreak of war, and she believed the king was now sending her young love to certain death to punish her for her own rebellion the night before. But the count could not be moved. He had a duty to obey his king.

That same evening, Celestine waved a tearful goodbye as her husband rode off toward the Chateau du Soleil. As she expected, it was the last time she would ever see him alive.

As the countess ended her story, she explained to Ian that she had sworn herself to a life of charity and good will as a way to honor her kind husband’s memory and relieve some of the terrible guilt she felt for her part in his death. But she had also sworn she would avenge herself on the man who had murdered her uncle, destroyed her friendship with the king, and incited the war that had killed her husband.

This is where the narrative in Ian’s journal had ended, but the next few pages were covered in scrawling equations and strange sketches that Mitch couldn’t make any sense of.

She rolled onto her side facing the large tapestry that covered the wall of her bedchamber. It was a scene from the Sun King’s victory at Red River, the battle that had killed the Count de Fontaineflamme. She studied the woven figures on horseback, charging into one another with spears drawn, falling into the coppery water with their silver armor and gold plated shields, dying for the honor of a king whose mind was being controlled by an evil magician.

Her thoughts turned to the marquis. Were the villagers right? Was the marquis the old king’s advisor in disguise? If so, Mitch knew he hadn’t “come back” from the dead—that was impossible—but he very well could have escaped the plague altogether by traveling back in time until it was over.

Reece had told her in that first day at Ol’ Cypress how a magician could live indefinitely in the past, moon-cycling his way through the Corridor, resurfacing in the present every now and again, if the need arose, so long as he didn’t get himself killed or split in time.

Of course, it would be a lot of work just to survive. You could never know what voyage vessel you might get stuck with, or what hidden dangers might be lurking in each new place you popped up in. But all that uncertainty would disappear if you agreed to become a viceroy of the Trust. Under Zahlamaer’s protection, all you’d have to do is hook into your favorite moon cycle, unleash a storm of destruction, and then sit back surrounded by your riches. Mitch supposed that was exactly what the marquis had done after he’d betrayed his fellow Rovers to Zahlamaer all those years ago.

But other questions remained. She remembered the marquis’ terrible laugh as he called her by her mother’s name and welcomed her to the Chateau du Soleil. Her mother—the Marquis Richelieu’s old friend? It just couldn’t be true. She didn’t know a lot about her parents, but she knew they were good people. They loved her. Her granddaddy had made sure she remembered at least that much.

Still, Mitch sensed the secrets that seemed to hang in the air every time her parents, and especially her mother, were brought up. And the marquis, believing Mitch was her mother, had actually embraced her and ushered her into the palace.

With great enthusiasm, he had instructed the servants to see their visitor was provided every comfort…and that she received a most thorough bath. Mitch couldn’t help noticing the marquis had been holding a handkerchief to his nose ever since he had greeted her. Despite her fear at entering the imposing castle, she felt a twinge of satisfaction at the discomfort she knew her smelly old voyage vessel was causing him, and drew a little closer as they walked through the palace gates together.

Mitch had allowed herself to be shown to her apartments—what else could she do? Sometime later, she had emerged from the perfumed water, her skin scrubbed pink, but still stinking. Graciously, she had offered to dress herself for bed and dismissed the servants. As the last little maid scurried out of the room holding her nose, Mitch locked herself into her bedchamber and settled in for a night of reading. It was almost midnight by the time she finished Ian’s journal, and her mind was spinning.

She lay in bed, plucking the threads of her silk comforter, knowing she should get some sleep, but her heart quickened at the thought of what lay ahead in the morning. The marquis had requested her presence at breakfast, and then she was to be introduced to the Sun King, and then…who knew?!

Would she be able to find Ian? What had happened to him and the countess? Would they be able to reunite before the moon cycle reset? And her granddaddy—her poor, worried granddaddy! How his heart must be breaking tonight, alone in their little farmhouse with no idea how his granddaughter, his baby girl, was faring in the Sun King’s Court. And what if something terrible happened? What if she couldn’t make it back at all? What if she never saw him, or her Uncle Oren, Reece, Izzie, Miki, or Dora ever again?

Mitch’s mind filled to bursting with troubled thoughts, until she finally dozed off into a fitful sleep, dreaming of a woman with long black hair and eyes that changed color every time she blinked.

New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to Listen at SpotifyApple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.

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