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GENRE: historical fantasy
WORD COUNT: 67,394
SUMMARY: After the Revolution, a burned out Parisian actress takes a vacation on an island off the north coast of France. But not all is idyllic as the astronomers working at the local observatory are murdered one by one.
Writers and poets claimed that one of the properties of poppy wine was to numb the senses and to give fleeting dreams more substance. It had an altogether different effect on Haidée. Yes, it eliminated her headache, but in the process it made her feel altogether more sensitive to reality. At the moment, she couldn’t recall any of her dreams. Although under the circumstances, it was hard to recall anything when her favorite pair of slippers from Paris was sinking into the mud.
Haidée stood somewhat apart from the accident. The traveling coach had gotten stuck in the muck that was the temporary causeway from the mainland to Mont Saint Filan. The natural roadway which was studded with perilous traps of sinkholes and quicksand—one of which had ensnarled the back wheels of her transportation—was only revealed once a month when the full moon and the tides converged. Briefly, Haidée looked away from the men struggling to push the coach out of the mud to glance at the hulking monolith that was her destination.
The debris of broken shells and driftwood littered causeway led to an island shadowed in the late afternoon sun, its white cliffs burnished a dark copper in the light. Further in the distance was the sea with its ominous glitter—a threat of its return. The stink of sea life vied with the screeching seagulls overhead for loudness. Haidée watched one of the birds dig up a small clam from the exposed sediment and smash it onto a nearby rock to get into its contents.
Two men were pushing the back of the coach—one lean, one fat. The lean one said, “It’s almost there Felix. Have the horses pull it a bit more to the left…”
Felix the driver, a short wiry man with a wig that was a bit askew, clicked his tongue and grasped the reigns on a pair of grays nickering in annoyance.
Haidée thought about helping, but getting further into the mud would ruin her dress. And she doubted that the men would even allow her to even touch the coach at this point. Instead, she concentrated on the bit of mud stubbornly clinging to the coach wheels. Something seemed a little odd about its shade of brown; it didn’t match the rest of the soggy ground.
“Excuse me, Messieurs, but don’t you notice that there’s something strange about this whole situation?” she said aloud.
The fat man stopped for a moment to wipe his brow as the others continued working. The powder from his wig was mixing with his sweat making his florid face appear even splotchier. Maurice Ducos was a fellow vacationer who was going to meet up with some of his cronies on Mont Saint Filan for relaxation. Ducos wore an exquisitely tailored brown velvet coat that was now splattered with mud, but he didn’t appear to notice that as he nodded to her in a condescending matter. “Do not worry your pretty little head, Mademoiselle, we will get free before the tide comes in.”
“I wasn’t exactly worried about the tide.” Then she thought about the hat she was wearing. “And I don’t have a little head,” she said after a pause. The hat was another accessory that she had gotten in Paris—it was studded with brass buttons and trimmed in black satin that matched her slippers. There was even a large ostrich feather on top. The brim was long, shading most of her face.
The lean man snorted and glared in her direction, the late afternoon light glinting gold on his spectacles. He was the only man who wasn’t wearing a wig. Instead, his dark hair was tied back in a queue, but the autumn wind was rapidly tugging strands loose. “Only a fool wouldn’t be worried about the tide. Pay no attention to the Mademoiselle, Ducos. She’s drunk.”
Haidée couldn’t quite remember the lean man’s name. His last name was Renaud. His first name was far more vague. Jean? Jacques? Jean-Jacques? Who cared anyway? She didn’t like him the first time she set eyes on him at the inn back on the mainland. Something about him was off—although she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. In comparison to Ducos, he was lean, but she had the impression that his overly large greatcoat was more of a deception. Renaud was one of those men of science—a follower of the intellectual movement. He was going to Mont Saint Filan to do some studies at its astronomical observatory which stood on a hill on the island.
Perhaps that was it—this was the first time that she had encountered a man whose brain primarily resided between his ears and not elsewhere.
“What I mean is that the mud is different here. It’s as if it’s deliberately trying to catch the wheels. And it’s ruining my shoes.”
“There are more important things than shoes,” Renaud replied. “I have a more practical suggestion. Why don’t we throw some of the trunks out to lighten the load? We’ll start with Mademoiselle Avenall’s things. Shoes and fancy dresses aren’t that necessary anyway.”
She crossed her arms. “Why don’t we throw your ego out first, Monsieur Renaud? I think it’s far heavier than my luggage.”
“Ha! Imagine that line coming from an actress.”
“Children!” Felix said repressively. The wiry man tried to frown reproachfully but he ended up looking like a comical gargoyle. “Now is not the time to bicker. Push a little more to the left and I’ll see if these equines will put in a bit more effort in getting the coach out of this muck.”
Haidée wanted to stamp her foot and call them all names for ignoring her. But the mud—darkening by the second, it seemed—warranted far more attention than an actress throwing a fit. So instead, she pressed her lips together to prevent herself from making another remark and began drawing on the ground with the heel of her slippers.
She swept her ankle around in a semi-circle and closed the arc before bisecting it with a line that pointed straight towards the mud covered coach wheels. She whispered into the air and the temperature suddenly plummeted. She wrapped her arms more tightly against herself as the dark patch of mud began to shrink and with a final push, the men rolled the coach out of the mud.
Her head began to throb.
“What did I tell you, Mademoiselle?” said Ducos triumphantly. “We got the coach out of that quicksand and we have plenty of time to spare before the tide comes in.”
“Not that much time,” Felix cut in. “I suggest you three get on now.”
She got on first as Ducos helped her into their conveyance. When the coach was in motion once again, she rubbed her temples, wishing for her supplies that she had stuffed in one of her trunks.
“Are you feeling well, Mademoiselle?” Ducos inquired.
Haidée shook her head lightly. “I just need a drink.”
Renaud’s lip curled in sardonic response to her remark. “Figures.”