Chapter Twenty Three
“So do you have a plan, Mademoiselle?” asked M. Arsnault. He had been quiet during the flight until now. I guess he was getting worried about what we would be doing once we landed. M. Arsnault wasn’t going to be able to be as connected in Arcadis as he had been in Solis. My castle didn’t have the same interface, or security, and he was an outsider. M. Arsnault was coming primarily for my protection since we didn’t know what I was walking into, but he was also coming as my chaperone just as he had been since the beginning of the whole princess situation. Now, however, he wasn’t going to have access to all of his usual information and monitoring capabilities, nor would he have access to the schedules of all of the castle’s occupants. Any information and plans were going to have to be sorted out between him and me; no one else could be trusted.
The clouds were just starting to turn pink as the sun inched upwards. The coast of Arcadis was shimmering into view, backlight by the weak light. I could just make out the silhouette of the castle towers and surrounding hills as we made our approach. The late nights were finally catching up with me. My eyelids felt heavy as I scrubbed at them and turned away from the plane window to face my guard. “No idea. When we have breakfast with Richard and Antoine, I am sure they will have some sort of schedule for me that we are going to have to work around. We will figure things out after that.”
“I am sure you can reschedule the meeting, Mademoiselle. You should get some rest. I can talk to Richard when we land,” M. Arsnault offered. He was looking at me a little worried, as if he wasn’t sure if I was going to make it up the front steps of my castle.
“It’s all right. I just want to get it over with. I’ll take a break after, promise,” I said, offering a smile, trying to be reassuring. M. Arnauslt’s eyes narrowed slightly but he didn’t say anything more on the subject. “Is there a car meeting us at the airport?” I asked him. I wanted to know how much longer exactly until we would be at the castle. More specifically, how long I was going to be in public and have to make a conscious effort at appearing like I had it together. The flight had seemed a lot longer this time then when Leopold had flown me in the helicopter.
“We are not landing at the airport,” M. Arsnault admitted, sounding slightly guilty. “We have been circling the airport for a while, waiting for the okay to land. It seems that the press was somehow made aware you were arriving in Arcadis tonight. They are lined up and waiting at the airport hoping for the chance to ask you about Leopold, and why you have left, and so forth.”
Great. So this was going to be even more complicated than I had anticipated. “Will there be more security meeting us there then?” I asked. It wasn’t that I doubted M. Arsnault’s capabilities. I was more concerned for his own well being as well as mine. There was only so much one man could do.
“No,” my guard said. “I spoke with the pilot and we have decided we are going to land on the castle’s beach. Someone will meet us there to walk us up to the castle,” my guard explained as the plane began to dip.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. It sounded safer to face all the paprazzi than to land on a thin strip of rocky beach.
“I am very confidant,” M. Arsnault stated, closing the subject. It seems it was to late to change the decision anyway as at that moment he began to feel around for the ends of his seatbelt. I didn’t need another warning. I clipped mine together too and gripped the armrests of my chair. Landing on a tarmac was bumpy at the best of times, I couldn’t imagine the beach being any better. It was going to take some skill to land on it, as hitting the ocean or grapevines running along either side didn’t seem like good options. I closed my eyes, unsure whether the sudden unease in my stomach was from the plane’s descent or because I was about to be in the same building as the man we suspected of being Leopold’s attempted murderer. We hit the ground hard. Glass tinkled wildly somewhere in the cabin. My phone slipped off my lap and fell to the floor. My nails dug into my palms, my breath held tight in my chest. The plane kicked and jumped across the uneven beach for a few nerve-racking moments, then all was still.
There was shuffling beside me as M. Arsnault sorted himself out. He unbuckled himself and stood, exchanging a few fast words with the crew. With a reassuring voice, he inquired, “Are you ready, Mademoiselle?”
I uncurled my fingers, flexing and closing them into fists and then opened my eyes. M. Arsnault was looking down at me expectantly and holding out my fallen phone toward me.
“Thanks,” I told him, while I unclasped my seatbelt. My legs shook slightly as I stood; I needed to rest soon. Accepting my phone, I brushed past him toward the already unfolding staircase. Reaching into the pocket of the leather coat I had borrowed, I found a pair of aviators and slid them on. They were less to hide my eyes from the still rising sun and more to hid the fact that I had been crying. I made it down the steps to the sand. There was a man in a suit waiting by the tree line. He was very tall and very thin with dark grey hair that stuck up impossibly straight. The man bowed slightly in my direction when he saw me watching him.
“That must be our escort,” noted M. Arsnault, appearing behind me. “I suppose we should present ourselves to him. The pilot said that there was someone coming to get your luggage.”
“Sure,” I said distractedly. My phone had started vibrating as soon as I turned it back on. I looked down at the screen. There was a message from Hector, five of them, actually, all of increasing urgency. My palms were suddenly clammy. I held the screen up in M. Arsnault’s direction, showing him the messages. “Just give me a sec, please.”
“Absolutely,” my guard nodded.
I stepped out of my heels and hit dial. The sand was cool under my feet as I walked out of hearing distance from the plane’s crew and the tall man. Hector picked up on the first ring.
“Fred,” he exclaimed sounding relieved. “Finally.”
“What’s happened?” I asked quietly, expecting the worst. I chewed my cheek, bracing myself.
“That is what I want to ask you,” Hector said, the bite of anger edging his voice.
I relaxed slightly, this was about me, not Leopold. “I had to do it,” I told Hector.
“You really did not. You are just as stubborn as my brother. I can’t believe -” his accent grew thicker as he went on. Hector caught himself after a moment through. He breathed deeply before moving on.
“I need to do this Hector. It’s the only way I can help,” I said.
“I know. It does not matter anyway, it is done; you are there. I called because I have information, not to lecture you,” Hector told me, his voice steadying.
I had to smile slightly. The small flash of temper was so familiar. It was there in Hector and Felip, hiding underneath their usual calm exteriors. Leopold too, he was just so much worse at keeping his hidden. “What’s up?” I asked.
“The figurine that Antoine gave you, I had it appraised. It is from a collection that belongs to a Duke in Arcadis. He collected them and kept a very detailed record of his figurines in his journals. The one Antoine gave you was buried with the girl who had been betrothed to the Duke’s son. He died in battle against the French before they were married. It was the figurine that the Duke had given to his wife before they were married.”
“So it is valuable and did not get buried after all,” I summarized as I turned away from the sun. It’s light warmed my back, making me feel even more sleepy.
“Indeed,” said Hector. “Another object, like the necklace, that Richard and Antoine should not be in possession of.”
I glanced back up the beach where M. Arsnault and the tall man were standing a few feet apart. Both of them had their hands clasped loosely in front of themselves. Both of them were staring directly at me. The only difference was that M. Arsnault was holding my discarded heels. “So what does that mean?” I asked Hector.
“Felip and I think that Richard and Antoine may be involved in some black market trading. We want you to keep a lookout for some other valuable items that are supposed to be missing or lost,” Hector explained. “There will be a folder of images sent to your phone. They are items that you should look for while you are in the castle.”
“Alright,” I said, frowning. This really wasn’t what I was expecting. What did black market deals have to do with any of this? How did this relate at all to Leopold’s accident? “I don’t understand how this will help, but I will keep an eye out for the valuables.”
Hector sighed. “It may not be perfect, but if we cannot get evidence to support that Antoine attempted to murder Leopold, this would be another option. At least we could accuse him of something. Legal charges like that would make it impossible for Antoine to become King.”
“Okay,” I agreed, “I will check it out.”
“Good,” said Hector. Then firmly he added, “Please be careful, Fred.”
“I promise,” I told him, only hoping that I would be able to be careful enough.
“Keep me updated,” he added.
“You too,” I told him. The line went dead. Well, at least I had a direction to go in now. I crossed back up the beach toward the two waiting men. “Sorry about that,” I told them, smiling. M. Arnault raised his eyebrow in silent question. I nodded slightly in his direction. We would have to talk later.
“Mademoiselle, this is M. Fraise,” M. Arsnault said, indicating the tall man. I had to bite my lip to stop the hiccup of laughter that threatened to surface.
“It is a pleasure to meet you,” I told M. Fraise, holding out my hand. He accepted it stiffly, bowing low as he kissed the back of my hand. My fingers were tiny in his massive, cold paws.
“It is an honor, Princesse,” he said in accented French. His voice was deep and gravely, resonating deep in his chest. He looked more like he belonged to the Addams Family then in Marie Antoinette’s castle. “We have been eagerly awaiting your arrival. If you would follow me, I would be happy to escort you to the castle.”
“Thank you,” I told him, stepping back into my heels. With a man on either side of me, we began weaving up through the rows of grapevines toward the glistening gold outline of the Sinclaire Castle. I don’t think that anyone had really thought out this little expedition through the vineyard properly. Sure, it sounded like a good way to see the castle grounds, until you had to do it in heels, with no sleep. It wasn’t exactly a short walk either. We tripped our way across the roots and stepped over squished grapes for at least fifteen or twenty minutes. M. Arsnault was very kind and let me cling to his arm for stability. The sun was fully above the horizon by the time we made it to the gardens. The square garden beds were flaming and sparkling with flowers of all kinds and colors. Gold statues and fountains glistened at their centers. Everything was manicured; all of it perfect. To say I was glad when we made it to the front steps was an understatement. The feeling didn’t last long though.
“Welcome, Princess! It is my pleasure to welcome you to your home!” cried Richard. He was standing at the top of the steps grinning broadly with Antoine beside him, both of them in dark green suits. If it was possible, Antoine looked even happier than his uncle. They both bowed their heads.
“Come join us inside, Princess,” continued Richard, waving his had toward the thirty foot tall gold front doors. “Breakfast is waiting. We will have a little meeting while we eat and then you can do as you please with the rest of the day, yes?”
“Sounds fantastic,” I told him, forcing a smile. “I’m starved.”
The entrance hall of the castle was made of white marble. The floor tiles were laid out in a complicated patterned and gleamed like snow. It looked almost crystalline. The marble spun upward in even intervals into great trunk-like pillars that stretched to the ceiling. Each pillar was carved into the shape of a woman, man, animal, or something in between. Their hair and fingers branched out and up, spanning to form a web across the ceiling. In the spaces formed by the web, there were murals depicting scenes of battle, pastoral life, and legendary figures. Doors were carved out spaces in the marble walls, leading off in every direction. A grand staircase flowed upwards, rising like a wave. Half way up, there was a landing where a great gold statue of a knight on a rearing horse was fighting off a griffon. The staircase then divided up into three sections.
“Impressive, no?” said Antoine, appearing at my shoulder. We were going though one of the many doors, into a hallway trimmed in gold and crystal.
“Beautiful,” I told him, too in awe to manage anything else. It was what he wanted to hear anyway. I was supposed to be impressed by all of this, not scared.
“Your ancestors knew the importance of beauty,” he acknowledged, smiling. A piece of his dark, straight hair fell in front of his eyes and he brushed it away impatiently.
M. Fraise suddenly spurted forward, his long stride driving him to the front of our group. He reached for another set of gold doors I hadn’t noticed amongst all of the other intricate ornament, holding one of the doors open for us.
We entered what I hoped was the grand dinning room. This was mostly because I was fairly certain that it was impossible for anything to be grander, especially a room whose sole purpose was for dining. The inside wall was lined by three fireplaces, each taller than myself. The outside wall was made up of windows that looked out onto the gardens. The ceiling had a large glass dome overlying the center of the table, which looked up to the sky. On either side of the skylight was a chandelier with so many beads of crystal that it looked like a snowball. The floor was covered by a huge meadow-like Persian affair that looked more like it belonged in an art gallery and less a rug that had been stained by the table droppings of too many self-indulgent aristocrats. The table was large enough to seat fifty people and completely laid out with the proper silver, china, and glass to serve a full banquet dinner. It seemed pretty strange to have it set and collecting dust considering there hadn’t been anyone in the castle and three people really didn’t require the whole table to be ready for service.
Antoine pulled out the chair at the head of the table closest to us, indicating for me to sit. He and Richard then took the seats on either side of me. I looked over my shoulder to see M. Arnault standing guard by the door. M. Fraise, however, had disappeared.
“Now first things first,” began Richard. “How is your betrothed doing?” he glanced at me curiously, half distracted by extracting his napkin out of its ivory holder. He spread the silk over his lap.
“Much the same,” I reported, trying to keep my expression even. “Leopold is still holding stable. We just need time.” M. Fraise reappeared from a side door pushing a trolley that was stacked with food, all laid out on silver and gold platters. He bowed solemnly when he arrived at our end of the table, then he began to pour us coffee.
“It is all truly awful business,” Richard continued. “Our thoughts are with him.”
“We are very happy to have you here though,” Antoine cut in. He was dumping half the pitcher of cream into his teacup. “It was very brave of you to tear yourself away from the Prince in his time of need.”
It was hard not to roll my eyes; they were laying it on really thick. “I can’t let things get in the way of my duties, can I?” I replied, grabbing a bagel.
“That is very wise of you, Princess,” Richard smiled.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked, trying to get to the point.
“Well,” Richard said, taking a beat to compose his words. I had cut him off before he could continue rambling. “We thought you could have today to settle in. Tomorrow we can acquaint you properly with the castle and begin lessons.”
“Are there any meetings or events I need to be aware of?” I questioned. When I had shown up in Solis I was scheduled to make quite a few appearances.
“None, Princess,” said Richard. “We are here for your education alone. There are a few things you should know though, for the sake of your security. No one has lived in the castle for a long time, Mademoiselle. It has mainly been used for business meetings and as a tourist attraction. As such, it is not fully staffed. You would do well not to leave the safety of your rooms until the castle is operational again. There are plans in the making, but nothing can be done until discussions with France have moved along further.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I lied. “And you are sure I don’t have to meet with the French? I thought that was part of the deal with me coming here.”
“The meeting was postponed a few weeks,” was all Richard had to offer as answer. “Now, you should get some rest, Princess. M. Fraise would be happy to take you to your rooms.”
Apartment would have been a better description for my rooms, especially since there were two levels. The first floor was for work and receiving guests. It was made up of an office, drawing room, and small dinning room. There was a staircase in the drawing room that led to the bathroom, dressing room, and bedroom. The entire apartment was coated in flowery, emerald wallpaper. “Here we are, Princess,” groaned M. Fraise when we arrived in my bedroom. There was a woman there. Long and lean with grey hair that was cut bluntly near her jaw. She was pulling things out of my suitcase and arranging them in the adjacent dressing room. “This is Mme. Fraise,” M. Fraise introduced. The women stopped her work and curtsied. It was clear the two were related. They had the same long nose, sallow cheeks, and sunken eyes. “She will help you with anything you may need.”
“Great,” I said, faking a smile. I was living in a castle with Lurch and Grandmama Addams. M. Fraise bowed dutifully and made his exit.
I sank into one of the green silk chairs that was in the room, scrubbing at my face with my hands. M. Arsnault stood loyally beside me, waiting for direction. I glanced at the skeletal form of Mme. Fraise as she floated in and out of the closet. There was no way I was going to sleep with her hovering like that. “Why don’t we go for a walk?” I asked M. Arsnault. It would give the opportunity to fill him in on my talk with Hector and explore the castle at the same time. Plus, I thought inviting him would be the right thing to do. I couldn’t imagine anyone would be too happy if they had to send out a search party because I got lost in the palace.
“If you wish, Mademoiselle,” M. Arsnault agreed. He held the door open for me and we exited into a second floor hallway.
I looked down one end and could make out the railing that wrapped around the mezzanine, which looked down on the marble entrance hall. The other direction went down quite far, doors speckling the walls on both sides of the hall at even intervals. I went toward the mezzanine, figuring we could start in the middle and work out way out. If it was anything like the DuMont Palace, all the most important rooms were near the heart of the castle, and important rooms tended to hold important objects.
I quickly and quietly explained my phone call with Hector to M. Arsenault. He took my phone, flipping through the files of statues, paintings, weapons, and jewelry that Hector had sent. I figured it would be best for him to see them, so that he would have a better idea of the kind of things we were looking for.
“So we are going on a treasure hunt?” he asked, glancing down at me. I could have sworn I saw a flash of excitement in his eyes. I supposed hunting for stolen objects was more exciting then babysitting me.
“Seems like it,” I agreed. I looked across the mezzanine, then down at the lobby below. There wasn’t anyone in sight, just dozens of doors. “Pick one.”
M. Arsnault shrugged, pointing towards the double doors in the center of the back wall. They were open, showing yet another hallway into which morning light poured from a few rooms whose doors were open. As we approached the first opening, I realized with surprise that there was a piece of plastic in front of the doorway, screwed into its frame, stopping us from going inside. I put a hand on the warm plastic, looking into the room on the other side. It was a library with big mahogany shelves, tables, and chairs. Thick bound volumes were lined up perfectly on the shelves, a few of them left open on side tables and desks next to jewel incrusted oil lamps.
“It must be used for the tours,” noted M. Arsnault. He pointed to the next doorway. It also lead to the library but it was not blocked off this time. Instead, thick red ropes sectioned off about a ten foot squared section of the room in which the floor had been covered with thick durable carpet. It was like a viewing station, so that the guests on the tours could enter a small part of the library.
“So we are in the part that is used as a museum,” I said.
M. Arsnault nodded. “The Sinclair Palace has been mostly untouched since it was abandoned by the French elite. It is more of a historical monument than a functional building, unlike the DuMont Castle which has been constantly updated with modern conveniences.”
“But my room has electricity,” I said, remembering seeing the switches on the wall.
“I imagine that the parts of the palace that are used for public functions and government meetings have been updated. Your palace is enormous though, Mademoiselle. I doubt the government could see the reason in outfitting the entire building with air conditioning and wifi when the majority of the rooms are hardly ever used.”
I thought of the dinning room earlier. The entire room had been set up for a black tie, full course dinner. There were light bulbs in the chandeliers though. It must be one of the rooms used for functions and tours, always kept ready to impress. I closed my eyes, trying to orient myself within the castle based on the blueprints I had been forced to study. We were on the second floor near the Royal Library. Below and to my left was the Dinning Room. The Ballroom then had to be below us on the right. Across from the library was a Salon and Smoking Room and at the end of the hall was the King’s Bedroom. I opened my eyes. Sure enough, the room at the end of the hall was open. I went to it, not surprised this time when there was plastic in my way. The entire room was gold, the walls, the curtains, and the furniture. The bed was raised up on series of step-like platforms, facing a huge fireplace. Gold window frames stretched from the floor to the ceiling, looking out onto the square gardens below. It was nothing less than a bedroom fit for a king. I could think of no better place to hide a fancy object than in the King’s bedroom. I cranked my neck, trying to see the whole room but it was no use. Standing in the doorway, I could only see so much. There were three other doors, presumably leading to the other rooms in the king’s suite. I looked right, to one of the closed doors. I mean, there were only so many options. When I pulled on the handle though, it was locked. I crossed the hall, choosing another closed door. It was locked too. In fact, every other door in the hallway that wasn’t barricaded was locked.
I turned to M. Arsnault. “What do you think? Are they locking us out or locking us in?”