Ian rolled over and sneezed into the hay. “Ah-choo!”
“Shhh!” Countess Celestine hissed from the stall next door.
“Good morning!” came a loud whisper above Ian’s head. “Are you hungry?”
Ian turned sharply and forced open his eyes, which were still heavy with sleep. A smiling face stared down at him. He grabbed for his dagger. His satchel was missing!
“What have you done with it?!” he demanded, pulling the boy by his collar.
“With what?” the stable boy squeaked.
Ian blinked into the sunlight streaming through the roof of the barn. The memory of the Scarlett girl’s eyes came flooding back to him.
“I’m sorry,” Ian said, sitting up straight. “I just—”
“Shhhhhh!” the countess hissed again, tossing a fistful of hay over the stall.
“Oh that’s okay,” the stable boy said, lowering his voice. “Are you hungry?” he asked again, holding up three dirty carrots. “I plucked these from the garden. I can get some potatoes too.”
“Uh—no, that’s okay,” Ian said, rising to his feet.
“Oh,” the stable boy said, looking crestfallen.
“That is—” Ian corrected himself. “The carrots will be just fine.”
He took a carrot from the stable boy and patted him on the head.
“Mmmm,” he smiled appreciatively, nibbling around the clumps of wet dirt.
The stable boy beamed.
“Now Germaine,” Ian began when he had finished his breakfast. “Do you remember what we talked about last night?”
The stable boy nodded, amazed anyone, and especially a prince, had remembered his name.
“Good,” Ian said. “It is very important that no one knows we’re hiding in here. Especially not the groundskeeper, that horrible Monsieur Devereux. Do you understand?”
The boy thought for a moment. He supposed the groundskeeper was a bit horrible, and Prince Ian and Countess Celestine had been very nice, except when Prince Ian had grabbed him by the collar just now, but he had apologized, so that was okay.
“Germaine?” Ian repeated. “Do you understand?”
“Yes, Monsieur Prince,” the stable boy nodded vigorously.
“Good, Germaine. Now, I have another question for you. Would you like to go on a very important mission for me today?”
The stable boy raised his eyebrows in surprise. No one had ever trusted him with a very important mission before, especially not a prince. He nodded quickly, in case Prince Ian decided to change his mind.
“Excellent—I’m glad to hear it! Now this mission,” Ian began, his eyes sparkling with mystery. “It is the kind that can only be trusted with a very good, very careful boy. Can you be both very good and very careful?”
The stable boy nodded eagerly.
“Can you also be very brave?”
He thought for a moment. He didn’t like to be scared, and he supposed one had to be scared in order to be brave, or perhaps being brave was simply not liking to be scared, in which case he was very, very brave.
“Germaine,” Ian repeated, “Can you be brave?”
“I think so,” the stable boy replied hopefully.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” the stable boy decided. “I am sure.”
“Okay, then,” Ian nodded, pulling a scroll of parchment from his cloak.
“Your mission is to deliver this letter…”
He placed the scroll into the stable boy’s outstretched hands.
“…to the witch.”
The stable boy started. His eyes filled with fear. He was now not so sure he could be very brave.
“Germaine?” Ian said, noticing the boy’s alarm. “Did you not say you wanted to go on a very important mission for me today?”
The stable boy nodded quickly. He did, very much, want to go on a very important mission for Prince Ian.
“And did you not say you could be very good, and very careful, and also very brave?” Ian raised an eyebrow.
The stable boy frowned. He had said those things, and he had meant them when he said them before he knew Prince Ian wanted him to deliver a letter to the witch.
“Yes, Monsieur Prince, I did say I could be very good, and very careful, and also very brave.”
“Then will you keep your word?”
The stable boy looked down at the letter and swallowed hard.
“Yes, Monsieur Prince,” he said, summoning his resolve.
“Good, Germaine, good!” Ian said encouragingly, giving the stable boy’s little shoulders a squeeze.
“Now go. Deliver the letter to the witch, and when you return, you will have a nice reward waiting for you.”
Ian pulled a gold coin from his pocket and held it up to the morning sun. The stable boy’s eyes widened. He had never, in his whole life, had a gold coin.
Ian smiled, and replaced the coin into his pocket.
“The reward is yours once you complete the mission.”
Germaine nodded enthusiastically and scrambled toward the door. Then, remembering his manners, he turned swiftly back around to Prince Ian and bent into a deep bow. Three turnips spilled from his pockets.
“Oh!” he cried. “I forgot about the turnips! Are you still hungry, Monsieur Prince?”
Ian walked over to Germaine and picked the turnips up from the floor. He dusted off the hay and took a bite.
“Thank you, Germaine,” he said between mouthfuls. “Now go.”
“Yes, Monsieur Prince,” the stable boy replied obediently and scrambled off toward the Chateau du Soleil.
Ian shook his head and closed the barn doors. Was it wise, he wondered. Entrusting such a critical part of their operation to an unpredictable young boy?
He laid back down in the hay, listening to the soft snores coming from the other side of the stall. He supposed he had been an unpredictable young boy at one time too, and grownups with an important mission had entrusted him to play a critical part.
He thought back to his first days with the Collective. He was no more than Germaine’s age when Oren discovered him, on the corner of Decatur and St. Ann, playing an old fiddle he found near the river. He remembered watching a finely dressed man in a black suit and top hat circling the park. Something about his movements gave Ian the feeling he wasn’t just another old man out for a morning stroll.
Finally, the man stopped, right on the corner where Ian was performing, and lit a cigar. He listened to the music for some time, and then took a gold coin out of his pocket and dropped it into Ian’s cup. Then, with a tip of his hat, he was gone.
Ian ran to the cup and dumped the single coin into his hand, grateful he would finally be able to buy himself a bite to eat. It had been so long. But as he looked down at the coin, he realized it was unlike any other he had ever seen. He flipped it over in his hand—no markings on either side—just smooth, polished gold.
Suddenly, Ian felt an electrical charge shoot up his arm. Shocked, he dropped the coin. It rolled into the street.
“Oh no!” he cried, dodging cars and horse-pulled carriages as he chased the coin across the boulevard.
The coin rolled into a café. Ian followed it through the maze of tables and chairs until it came to a stop at the tip of a pointy black boot.
“Gotcha!” Ian cried, snatching the coin up from the floor.
“Well hello,” came a silky voice. Ian looked up sharply. Piercing amber eyes were staring down at him. It was the man from the street.
“Have a seat.”
The man motioned to an empty chair. Ian sat down, not sure what else to do.
“I took the liberty of ordering for you,” the man said as a waitress brought two trays of piping hot beignets and a mug of hot chocolate.
“This is for me?” Ian asked, his mouth watering.
The man nodded.
“Thanks mister!” Ian cried, popping a whole beignet into his mouth. Powdered sugar exploded all over his tattered clothes. He drained the mug of hot chocolate in a single gulp.
The man motioned to the waitress for another.
“Now, my dear fellow,” he said, as the waitress set the second cup of chocolate on the table. “I have a question for you.”
“Mmm hmm?” Ian asked, his mouth filled with another beignet.
“Where did you learn to play like that?”
Ian raised his eyebrows. “Are you a…producer or something?” he asked between bites.
The man shook his head. “Not exactly.”
“Well,” Ian replied, wiping his face with his sleeve. “I just kind of…picked it up.”
“You picked it up?”
“Yep,” Ian nodded, starting on the second plate of beignets.
“Music that complicated takes years to learn.”
“Not for me. I just watch people play and then do what they do. It’s all just a bunch of patterns. Once you crack the code, you know what to do.”
The corners of the man’s mouth curled into his long moustache.
“Is that so?” he asked, amused.
Ian nodded, licking the powdered sugar from his fingers.
“Can I ask you another question?”
“Sure,” Ian replied starting in on the second mug of chocolate.
“Why did you run away from the orphanage?”
Ian choked on his drink.
“How did you know that?” he asked, rising up from his chair. “Did they send you to find me?” He turned for the door.
“No,” the man said. “No, Ian, they didn’t.”
“How do you know my name?” he demanded, swiveling back around. “Who are you? And how do you know so much about me?”
“If you sit back down and finish your chocolate, I will tell you.”
Ian looked longingly at the steaming cup. It would be a shame to waste something so tasty, and he couldn’t be sure when he would get his next meal. He eyed the man suspiciously. He didn’t seem like he was from the orphanage.
“I’m not,” the man replied to the thought in Ian’s mind.
Ian started. The man smiled.
“Please, sit down.”
Ian took his seat cautiously. The man motioned to his drink. Ian took a sip from the mug, calmed by the warm, sweet milk.
“Do you believe in magic, Ian?”
A look of alarm crossed Ian’s face. “I—I—” he stammered.
“I know you do,” the man cut in. “Because you have certain, shall we say, special abilities.”
Ian was too shocked to talk. The man went on.
“Caused a few accidents at the orphanage didn’t you?” He smiled. “Got in a little trouble?”
“I was always getting in trouble!” Ian objected, anger replacing his astonishment. “Even when I didn’t do anything wrong! They hated me! That’s why I ran away. I’d rather be here, on the streets, than back there in that moldy old house with all those mean ladies breathing down my throat.”
“Can’t say I blame you,” the man agreed. “But you don’t have to live on the streets if you don’t want to.”
“Where else am I supposed to go?” Ian asked hotly. “I ain’t got no family.”
“No,” the man said. “But you have a friend.”
It took a second before Ian realized the man was talking about himself.
“And you could have a few others if you come with me.”
“Come with you where?”
“To Ol’ Cypress.”
“What’s Ol’ Cypress?”
“A place where people like you—and like me—” he added, amber eyes flashing. “—go to strengthen their…abilities.”
Ian considered what the man was getting at.
“So it’s like a school…for magic?”
“No,” the man shook his head. “There are no classrooms, or scheduled lessons, no sports teams, or clubs. It’s not a school, but a collective, a small group of magicians who are working together to stop another group of magicians from wreaking havoc in this world…and others.”
Ian’s eyes widened.
“We need someone like you,” the man went on. “Someone who is filled with the kind of power you’re filled with, but also young with nothing to lose. Someone who is smart enough to crack codes and brave enough to face the world alone.”
Ian sat back in his chair, thinking carefully.
“What if I get to…Ol’ Cypress…and I don’t like it? Can I leave?”
Oren nodded. “Of course. And you don’t even need to run away in the night.” He smiled knowingly. “You can simply tell me you want to come back, and I’ll take you. Of course, it’s a bit far, so we’ll have to use the timeshaft.”
“The timeshaft?” Ian asked curiously. “What’s a timeshaft?”
Oren stood up and placed a few bills on the table for the waitress.
“Come on,” he said, moving for the door. “I’ll show you.”
Oren Arlington, as he had finally introduced himself, had indeed showed Ian the timeshaft—a patch of sunken earth behind a modest grave in the old cemetery. They zipped through to Ol’ Cypress in a matter of seconds, emerging from a rickety and rather smelly old outhouse to look upon the gardens of a stately mansion. The house was falling apart, but it had been home from the moment Dora welcomed him with a big hug and pulled out the gumbo pot for a celebratory dinner.
Over the days that followed, Ian found he fit right in with the residents of Ol’ Cypress. There were twelve of them in all. Graham and his wife Sula, Oren, Miki, and Dora were the elders. They knew everything about magic, and they always had candy in their pockets. The four active agents—Ryland, Vella, Rosalie, and Wesley—weren’t around a lot, but they told the coolest stories about chasing evil magicians through time. Mitch and Reece were just babies, but Izzie was about his age and she was an orphan too. It didn’t take long for the two to become inseparable.
Friendship was something Ian hadn’t had a lot of experience with up until that point, but he found it felt good to have people care about him. And though Oren was right—Ol’ Cypress certainly wasn’t a school—he was learning a lot. How to control the jolts of light that had been shooting out of his fingers his whole life (which, as Oren had suspected, had gotten him into a lot of trouble over the years). How to channel that energy to open up timeshafts, and even flarefields, into different worlds. How to connect the bolts of electricity zapping around his brain to the mind of another.
And though there were no “teachers” at Ol’ Cypress (which Ian had been grateful for—no teachers, no detention!), he had the very best guides into the ancient arts of magic. Oren and his brother Graham became like fathers to him—really cool fathers who taught their adopted son how to do things like read the energy waves of a flarefield, which could tell you exactly which moon cycle a magician you needed to follow was headed to, or use a hypnotic spell to get someone, or even a lot of someones, to do something you wanted them to do.
Ian emerged from these recollections as if waking up from a dream. He thought back to the night before, when Mitch had run out after the marquis and he was left with the countess, a dozen edgy soldiers, and a roomful of furious villagers who believed he was a sorcerer! He had to think quick.
“The witch!” he shouted. “She is the real source of the magic that has poisoned our Majesté’s mind!”
A swell of hostile grumbles rose up from the room.
“You saw her!” Ian continued, unsure of where he was going, but feeling that he had to keep talking.
“You saw her use magic just now to attack the marquis. She is angry with him…because…because…he has broken his promise to her! Yes! He made a deal with the witch that he would marry her if she helped him gain control of the Majesté’s mind, and…and…oh! Now he wishes to marry the Countess de Fontaineflamme! But she refused his evil advances, and that’s why he kidnapped her from her home and brought her to the Chateau du Soleil. He plans to marry her…against her will! But the witch found out! And now she wishes revenge on the marquis…and the countess…and our Majesté…and…our village!”
Ian looked around, breathless. The faces of the villagers were frozen in shock. Then, from the back of the room, came a cry.
“It was the witch!” The groundskeeper looked nervously from Ian to the countess, hoping they would forget he had given one false testimony if he gave another.
“THE WITCH!” cried the villagers. “IT WAS THE WITCH!”
Ian breathed a deep sigh of relief. With his mind at ease, he was able to clear it enough to summon the hypnotic spell. He jumped up on the table.
“Look into my eyes!” he commanded.
Every man and woman in the room obeyed.
“I am your leader,” he called out boldly. Blue flames burst from every fireplace in the room, but the villagers didn’t flinch.
“You are our leader,” they repeated as one.
“You will give me your trust!” Ian commanded.
“We will give you our trust,” they responded.
“Good!” Ian said, brushing the sparks from his hands and stepping down from the table. “Now let’s get down to business.”
In the hours that followed, Ian was able to form a plan. He told the villagers the marquis had bewitched the soldiers to attack their own people, and that in less than a fortnight, they would all be thrown into the king’s dungeons.
The villagers gasped, and the soldiers shook their heads in horror.
“It is true!” Ian insisted. “I have intercepted a letter from the marquis to the witch!”
He pulled a spare piece of parchment from the folds of his cloak, waved it wildly in the air, and quickly shoved it back into his pocket before the villagers could see it was blank.
“It is now up to you! Tomorrow we will march on the Chateau du Soleil and demand to speak with our Majesté. Our king will not come to meet us, but the marquis will, and that is when we will put our plan into motion!”
Ian went on to explain how important it was they get inside the castle, even if it meant being thrust into the dungeons, for once inside all they had to do was wait for the arrival of the Royal Council.
At the new moon, dignitaries from all the king’s lands would descend on the Chateau du Soleil, the same nobles who had taxed them into starvation and sent their sons, brothers, and husbands to fight in the king’s wars. Ian was sure the courtiers had also been bewitched. For no one could stand by and watch evil befall their fellow man unless they were under the power of terrible spell. It was up to the people to break the curse!
“At the end of the month,” Ian explained, “when the moment is just right, the people will rise up out of the dungeon and storm the Great Hall. There, we will confront the marquis and his witch bride with their terrible crimes! We shall imprison Richelieu, force the dark sorceress back into the forest, and lift the evil spell from our Majesté’s mind once and for all!”
“HORRAY!” the villagers exploded as Ian finished laying out his plan.
The soldiers glanced nervously at one another, worried their king might not like Prince Ian’s plan, but, then again, it was Prince Ian, not the king, who was their leader now.
“HORRAY!” the soldiers joined in.
“HORRAY! HORRAY! HORRAY!” the room exploded.
From there, Ian had but one more concern. The countess. He knew the marquis would have his evil eye on her chateau, waiting to see if she returned and recapturing her the moment she did. They couldn’t go back. So he had taken her to the safest place he could think of.
He knew from the many moon cycles he had spent in the Sun King’s Court the stable boy was a sweet, well-meaning fellow who didn’t talk a lot and would guard their secret closely. He also knew the stables were the last place anyone would come looking for them, and that taking up residence in the barn would allow him to be as close as possible to the marquis—and to Mitch—without arising suspicion.
He had been able to get confirmation from one of the chambermaids that a very smelly old woman had been given a fine apartment in the chateau last night. How Mitch had managed to work that magic he had no idea, but he was hoping to find out when the stable boy came back with her reply to his letter.
“Oh!” the countess cried, waking from her sleep. “Oh my! Where am I?” she asked groggily. “What is this place? And what in the—oh!—what in the world is that smell?”
“Horse poop,” Ian answered, peeking his head over the stall. “Good morning, Madame Countess,” he grinned. “I hope you’re hungry. The stable boy’s brought us breakfast.”
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.
Chapter photo created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.