Mitch sat at the desk as the last rays of daylight faded into the purple sky, reading and re-reading Ian’s letters, terrified there was something she had missed.
“Madame Princess?” came a voice from behind the door. “The marquis is waiting for you. Are you ready?”
Mitch stuffed the letters into Ian’s satchel and wrapped the strap around her shoulder.
“Coming!” she croaked, startled at her own voice. After nearly a month in her voyage vessel, she still hadn’t gotten used to it—the knobby knees and gnarled fingers, the toothless mouth and warty toes, and worst of all—the stench! Of course, there had been times when she had been thanking her lucky stardoors she’d wound up in such an icky old vessel, but, even so, she couldn’t wait to get back into her regular body—lanky limbs, frizzy hair, and all!
Mitch closed her eyes and imagined, for the hundredth time, the look on her granddaddy’s face when she came running out of the flarefield. She pictured Reece and Izzie, Dora and Miki, even her Uncle Oren, jumping up and down as she emerged from the blue blaze with Ian at her side…or a little behind her. They would gather her up into their arms…and maybe him too…and toss them up and down, crying out, “Mitch! Mitch! Mitch!”
Back at Ol’ Cypress, they’d sit by the fire with great big mugs of cinnamon-spiced fizzy nog and swap stories of adventure until the sun rose over the bayou and came streaming through the frosted windows. Dora would make them all a big breakfast—scrambled eggs with hickory-smoked bacon and cheesy grits topped with sweet corn confetti! They would eat until their bellies were filled to bursting and then drag themselves up the stairs and into their warm beds until Christmas came.
“Madame Princess,” the voice called again, more urgently this time. “The marquis, he said to tell you he would be most appreciative if you would come down…”
There was a pause.
“Coming!” Mitch called, fastening her cloak around the satchel. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
“I’m here,” she said to the little maid, who took three steps back and covered her nose. Mitch rolled her eyes. “Oh, just lead the way!”
“Good evening, Madame Princess,” the marquis smiled as Mitch walked through the doors of the salon.
“My, don’t you look…” He frowned. “Well, let’s be honest…”
“I look terrible!” Mitch croaked. “I sound terrible. I feel terrible!”
She wiggled her long crooked fingers, which never seemed to stop aching in cold weather.
“Yes,” the marquis agreed. “But really, that hideous costume was quite clever. What better way to ensure people stay away? No one would dare get close enough to discover your true identity. Not even that filthy Collective spy.”
“No,” Mitch replied, her anger broiling. “No one could possibly suspect who I really am.” She felt herself slipping more confidently in her role. “And after tonight it will all be worth it.”
“Indeed!” the marquis agreed, his voice full of excitement. “Oh, Vella dear, if you didn’t smell quite so bad I could kiss you!”
Mitch swallowed the urge to throw up.
“But…as it stands…”
“I take no offense, Gaspar,” Mitch replied quickly. “There will be time to celebrate…and plenty of it…all the time in the world, in fact.”
“Yes,” the marquis agreed. “All the time in the world.”
Mitch crossed the room and sat down on a plushy couch, putting some distance between her and the marquis. Over the last few weeks, she had spent a lot of time observing her enemy, gathering information about his activities in the Trust, and figuring out certain details about his relationship with her mother.
It was hard at first—Mitch was so scared she would be found out she could barely think straight! She let the marquis take the lead in conversation and could only manage a weak “yes Gaspar” or “no, my friend” to his questions. But soon she realized that was all the marquis really seemed to want. He liked to talk, mostly about himself. He also liked to reminisce about the past.
“Vella dear, do you remember the time we let that Tinker fix us up in those stupid voyage vessels? He was so proud of his work—said it was his best yet. Oh, the look on his face when we blasted out of them—ha!—just as he raised the timegate—ha ha!—I thought the old imbecile was going to cry!”
“Vella dear, I’ve had a hilarious idea—what if we persuaded the king and the jester to trade places for the night—just like we did at the Imperial Palace? Do you remember? Ha! That fool of a king on all fours, braying like a donkey while the jester held court! Ha ha!”
Mitch hated these stories, which made her mother seem like a common bully—no better than Mavis with her mean sidekick Shawn—but they told her a lot about who the marquis thought she was, so she forced herself to listen carefully.
The marquis never seemed to have a doubt he and Mitch were on the same side—that much was clear from the moment he invited her into the Chateau du Soleil. His stories revealed he and her mother had worked closely together on several missions over the years, and she came to understand he trusted her implicitly.
But, over time, Mitch began to suspect the marquis’ intentions toward her mother were more than friendly. On more than one occasion, she caught him staring at her from over the pages of a book he was pretending to read. She felt his black eyes following her around the chateau and sensed his dark presence around every bend in the garden.
At first, Mitch was convinced he was scrutinizing her every move, trying to determine if the woman behind the voyage vessel was really his old friend. It didn’t take long, however, before Mitch realized the look in his eyes was not one of distrust, but of longing.
“Vella dear, I’ve been thinking,” the marquis said to her one afternoon as they sat sipping tea on the veranda. “Do two chrontercogs, as powerful as we, really need the protection of a Trust?”
Mitch’s mouth had dropped open.
“What I mean is—” the marquis hurried on, misreading her shocked expression as resistance to his proposal. “—might the Trust be run more…shall we say…effectively with a different leader…maybe even two different leaders.”
Mitch couldn’t believe her ears. Was the marquis actually saying what she thought he was saying? She forced herself to nod, encouraging him to go on.
“I’ve been hooked in this moon cycle for ages,” he said, setting down his teacup. “The riches, the luxuries—it’s all been quite nice—and of course I’ve taken great pleasure in tormenting those filthy peasants and brainless soldiers.” His eyes danced viciously. “But it’s been so long since I’ve had the pleasure of any company, and, to tell you the truth, I’m growing a little bored with the assignment.”
“Couldn’t you ask Zahlamaer for another?” Mitch asked carefully.
“I suppose—” said the marquis, also cautious. “But I’m also growing bored with life as a servant.”
“We are viceroys,” Mitch reminded him, taking the rare opportunity to show she was knowledgeable about matters of the Trust.
“Servants—” the marquis insisted, his face growing dark. “We have no real freedom, no real power.”
“We will when Zahlamaer achieves his final leap,” Mitch offered, remembering her first conversation with the marquis. “You said yourself it cannot be far off, and then we will be immortal—”
“Yes, but for how long?!” the marquis snapped. “The present will catch up to the future, like it always does, and we will be forced to scramble back through the Corridor, one moon cycle after another, like dogs chasing after their master!
“Why should Zahlamaer make the final leap without us? Why should he leave us with an incomplete knowledge of the time travel we have all worked so hard to help him understand? Without the energy we generated, he would have never had the power to continue leaping to the future—he would have never broken the cipher. Why should he be the only one to enjoy the fruits of our labor?”
“How can we stop him from doing whatever he pleases?” Mitch asked, genuinely curious.
“By casting him to the Dark.”
“Yes Vella, my friend, the Dark. Neither one of us are strong enough to do it alone, but together…well, together I imagine there is nothing we cannot accomplish.” He looked at her meaningfully.
Mitch swallowed hard, reading between the lines.
“Okay, Gaspar,” she said deliberately. “Tell me what you have in mind.”
As it turned out, what the marquis had in mind was a simple plan—one any of Zahlamaer’s viceroys might have carried out ages ago, if they had but the courage. They would use their collective powers to send him to the Dark, which, as Mitch had finally found out, was a pit of black energy that could pull apart a magician’s charge. It could only be opened by a carefully trained magician, and the obvious danger was getting sucked into it yourself, but, if you could harness its terrible energy, the pit was a sure-fire way of destroying your enemies—no matter how powerful.
Before they sent Zahlamaer to the dark, however, they needed the codes to the ciphers he had cracked—the coordinates to the future, where he had been hiding all these years, but, more importantly, the coordinates to OneTime, the very last stardoor in the Corridor, which opened into a past, present, and future that somehow existed together. Only there could Zahlamaer escape the unrelenting creep of time. He just needed enough energy to get him there, and that could be accomplished by stationing his viceroys in the future to set in motion an unstoppable period of mass destruction.
“How can we be sure he’s actually cracked the second cipher?” Mitch asked.
“He ran out so quickly on the night of the last full moon. Said he had ‘business to attend to.’ What else could it possibly be?”
Uhhhh…anything! Mitch had wanted to shout at him, but she held her tongue. The marquis had convinced himself he had it all figured out, and any objection she made would either fall on deaf ears or arouse suspicion, which she couldn’t chance.
Still, the thought of opening a black pit of destructive energy gave her nightmares, and she couldn’t even let herself think about what the world’s most powerful chrontercog would do when he found out two of his viceroys were plotting against him. Ian had better have a really good plan!
“Well,” the marquis began, interrupting Mitch’s thoughts. “I suppose we had better go over the plan one more time.”
“Yes,” agreed Mitch. “The plan—I mean our plan,” she added strangely. But the marquis didn’t seem to notice. “So, we enter the Great Hall with the king,” she said, composing herself.
“And we greet the Royal Council.”
“And together, we hypnotize them all.”
“Exactament!” the marquis exclaimed.
“When Zahlamaer arrives, the entire Council will be under our control.”
“We’ll command them to attack. Zahlamaer will be caught off guard.”
“And while he’s fighting them off, I’ll slip into his mind.”
“Do you really think you can do it, Vella dear?” the marquis asked urgently.
“I am a proxy, Gaspar,” Mitch replied evenly. “My mind has connected with Zahlamaer’s in the past.”
“Indeed,” the marquis said, a twinge of jealousy in his voice.
“And I am sure it will tonight.”
His eyes narrowed.
“And you will steal the cipher?”
It was half question, half command.
“I will steal the cipher,” Mitch assured him. “And then we will send Zahlamaer to the Dark.”
The marquis’ nostrils flared with excitement, his black eyes hateful.
“To the Dark,” he hissed.
“We will unleash the prisoners.”
“They will rise up in fury!”
“And break down the doors to the Great Hall.”
“And once the revolt is in full force—”
“We will escape to the flarefield—”
“And leap forward to OUR future!”
The marquis raised his goblet and drained its contents. Mitch did the same, trying not to gag as she swallowed the thick gold potion.
“An old recipe,” the marquis said, throwing his goblet into the fire. The hearth exploded in blue light. “To focus the mind.” He grinned wickedly.
Mitch returned his smile and threw her own goblet into the flames. Light burst through the room, running up and down the ornamented walls and blasting out of the windows.
“It is time,” said the marquis, locking eyes with Mitch.
“It is time,” Mitch agreed, walling her mind against intrusion.
“Oh Majesté,” the marquis called, turning to the king. He was sitting in a chair staring dumbly out the window.
“Come now, your Highness,” he said nastily, removing an empty goblet from the king’s limp hand. “The Royal Council is waiting…”
Outside it began to snow. Ian stood below the northernmost window of the chateau, watching the flashes of blue light through the soft drift falling from the darkening sky. He saw the king, sitting by the window, staring out with an empty expression. He saw the sharp silhouette of the marquis bend over the king’s shoulder and whisper something into his ear. He saw the king nod and rise from his chair. Moments later, all the candles went out, and Ian was left staring at a black glass pane.
The snow was starting to fall harder now, sticking to his cloak in wet clumps and piling onto the steeply sloping roofs of the chateau. The moon was just rising over the eastern tower, its light spilling over the snow-topped turrets, drenching the battlements below.
Finally, Ian saw what he was looking for. A single flickering flame coming from the dark window of the salon. It was the sign.
“Fidèle’s done it,” remarked Countess Celestine, drawing her cloak tighter about her shivering shoulders. Her long golden hair shimmered with snow.
“Yes,” agreed Ian.
He looked down at the countess, her face so determined, her heart so big and brave. He felt a sharp pang of sadness, knowing after tonight he would never see her again.
“Now it’s up to us,” he said, taking her hand. “Are you ready?”
“Oui, mon ami,” the countess replied, glancing at Ian and then looking back toward the window where Fidèle’s candle was still flickering.
“Let us go.” She squeezed his hand and advanced toward the castle doors.
Ian looked up, running his eyes along the smoking chimneys and pointed towers of the chateau. Blanketed in soft white snow, it looked so peaceful, almost magical.
He shook his head. It was magical, he reminded himself. A magic of a most terrible sort. Tonight, they were going to put an end to it. He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head and followed the countess into the shadows.
Far off in the distance, barely visible through the snowfall, a light burst from the forest, connecting with the full silver moon rising above 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.