Odette de Chevigny hadn't expected to interrupt a confrontation between her stand-offish neighbor, Charles, Marquis de Montesquieu, and a mysterious character who calls himself the Harlequin when she went to her father's grave one cold autumn night, but for some reason, she's immediately intrigued. After her debut at Versailles a few weeks later, she finally figures out why.
The court of Louis XV is accustomed to both social and political power being brokered in those endless corridors and stunning salons. The Marquis's longtime enemy, the Duc d'Orleans, is secretly wielding magical power in his quest for the French throne. When she is betrothed to the Marquis, Odette is drawn into their battle...but she's also drawn further into the Harlequin's sphere of influence.
Can Charles and Odette find a way to stop the Duc and protect the King? Or will the Duc prevail, thanks to the mysterious Harlequin? And what is the Harlequin's true goal? When the Marquise de Pompadour said, "After us, the deluge." she couldn't have known she'd just uttered a prophecy. In the theater of power, anything is possible...even changing the course of Time itself.
Grab your copy today on Amazon~ But first, check out the beginning of the story right here! And get ready for the explosive end of the Harlequinade series. After all:
The theatre, when all is said and done, is not life in miniature, but life enormously magnified, lifehideously exaggerated. --H. L. Mencken
Theater of Power
A Harlequinade Prequel
Montesquieu, near Meaux, France—October, 1756
The wind swirled down from the hilltop in the center of the cemetery, stirring the grasses that grew high on the forgotten graves of long-dead people. Farmers, servants, tradesmen, and soldiers all lay beneath those tangled weeds, sleeping in an endless night. While their tombstones crumbled, their bones moldered and lichen obscured the few pitiful dates that were the final proof those lost souls had ever existed. Only the more-recently dead had well-tended graves, with the grass trimmed closely and flowers heaped against pristine white stones.
I had a pair of scissors in the deep pocket of my cloak. I was here to attend to my father’s grave, alone in the middle of the night. I couldn’t bear to be accompanied or to be found sitting by his tomb during the still-warm autumnal sunlight, so I frequently came well after dark. I only felt close to him here, where he slept beneath the same sheltering angel as my mother. I could sit beside him, and confide my hopes and fears as I always had, without worrying that some passing traveler would think me mad.
I stood alone over his silent earthen bed until another whirr of wind raised gooseflesh on the back of my neck. I slipped into the shadow of the grieving angel, letting the darkness of her wings conceal me as I glanced uneasily at the ornate mausoleum atop the hill.
My face warmed as fear flashed through my veins, and my nerves began to sing uncomfortably against my skin.
Something was wrong here…threatening.
Usually, my father’s grave was a place of refuge, of safety against a world that too often seemed to crowd ugliness into my life. Usually when I entered the graveyard, my father’s love surrounded me like a cloak, protecting me from all the other emotions a cemetery contained. I had been coming now for over a year—at least once a week since my father’s death. I hadn’t met anyone in the graveyard at midnight, which was why I liked it—and I had never felt anything here other than peace.
Aside from the brisk wind that carried the first scent of snow on its fingers, the graveyard was silent and still. The path that stretched in front of my parents’ graves continued up the sole hill in the cemetery, until it reached a veritable palace for the dead perched on its summit. A strained glow of light illuminated the pale columns and pediments of the huge mausoleum—the final resting place of the powerful Montesquieu family—as the moon peeked from behind the scudding clouds overhead. The polished marble gleamed silver as the moonlight strengthened, casting deep shadows beneath the tomb’s wall but illuminating the small plateau before the scrolled iron doors. That glow grew, subtly, and a figure slipped from the inky shadows to stand before the doors.
Surely I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing. A mime stood in front of the mausoleum door, apparently regarding the engraved names there with his head cocked to one side.
No, not a mime. A harlequin.
The red, green, and blue triangular patches of his costume had reminded me of the character’s name. A harlequin was usually funny. I’d loved harlequins as a child in Paris, for their capers were as colorful as their costumes.
But this harlequin was different. As I stared up at him from where I was tucked into the protective curve of the angel’s wing, he turned as if he saw me watching. He wore a half-mask of black, revealing a strong jaw and a sensual mouth. Fear traced a white-hot prickle down the back of my neck.
No, this was not a harlequin. This was the Harlequin. For this fiend, the word Harlequin was a title, not a name. All at once I remembered that despite all his handsprings and jauntiness, the Harlequin was always the character that escorted wrongdoers to hell. His antics were just a disguise for his sinister nature.
“What a little beauty.”
The words were purred suggestively right behind me, the speaker’s breath stirring the tiny hairs on my nape. I spun around to find the Harlequin standing just a foot away. He pirouetted and when he faced me again, his lips were quirked into a triumphant half-smile.
“Welcome to the garden of death, sweet mortal. Welcome to the arena where the Harlequin reigns supreme and humanity stands trial. Welcome to the theater of power.” With a stylized flourish of his hands that I could recognize from any two-sou pantomime in Paris, he bowed, making the obeisance at once a mockery and a threat. When he straightened, his eyes narrowed behind his mask.
Involuntarily, I took a step back from his piercing glare, and the tips of the feathers on the angel’s carved wings dug cruelly into the base of my spine.
“Leave the girl alone.”
The low-growled words came from just behind me and I jumped. For a second time, I turned sharply to find a man in this…garden of death, as the Harlequin had called it. His face was obscured by the shadows cast by the hovering angel.
The newcomer’s voice was both tense and disgusted. “She is too young to play your vicious games. Satisfy your malice by contending with me, not her.”
“You are very concerned for this girl’s safety. What of your brother? Would you be willing to wager your care of him to keep this pretty young morsel protected from my…interest?” The Harlequin cocked his head to the side in an exaggerated gesture of inquiry. “Would you forfeit his soul in exchange for this girl’s safety?”
“Your enmity is for me. Are you too much of a coward to face a grown man and so must slake your thirst for cruelty upon a child?”
Before I could protest that I wasn’t a child, my unknown defender stepped between me and the Harlequin, so that I was pinned in place by the weeping angel on one side and protected by his broad, cloaked back on the other. I peeked around his arm to stare as the Harlequin abandoned his languid pose.
“Take care, mortal. Take great care in how you speak to me.”
“Advice you should probably follow yourself,” the man retorted pointedly, resting his hand upon the hilt of his sword. His other arm he extended, shielding me from the fiend confronting us, and said over his shoulder, “You can go now, mademoiselle. Do not stay in the cemetery. Do not tarry; just run as fast as you can and get away home.”
“Will you flee, Odette?” the Harlequin murmured, his eyes glinting through his mask. “Beautiful Odette, young Odette de Chevigny—will you run from this garden of death to your virginal bed in your grandfather’s chateau? Fly now, sweet Odette—”
“How did you—oh! I don’t care how you know my name!” I sputtered at last, freed from the convulsive fear that had kept me silent so far. “I am here to tend my father’s grave and you are keeping me from doing that, both of you. Now get out of my way and leave me alone.”
The Harlequin danced around my protector, his eyes gleaming as his lips stretched into a nasty smile.
“Odette! What a lovely name. Will you not run as your guard bids you?”
“Run? Why should I run?”
The fiend watched me curiously from behind his mask and the man turned to regard me. As the moonlight struck the high-boned features of his face, I recognized him instantly. My defender was Charles, the young Marquis de Montesquieu, the hero of the Battle of Minorca, home after being wounded as he led our troops in the capture of Port Mahon from the British. Especially favored by our King, Louis XV, the Marquis was my grandfather’s nearest neighbor, a decorated officer, and a practiced courtier. He took my elbow in a strong hand and pulled me down the hillside path.
“You need to go home, child. Run! This thing is not what he seems.”
“I am not a child,” I protested even as his fingers tightened warningly on my arm. “Besides, I can’t leave you here alone—with that. Who is this man dressed up like a pantomime performer? And why—”
“Yes, why don’t you tell the child who I am?” the Harlequin asked mockingly. “Not such a child is she, Monsieur le Marquis—not when she’s nineteen and ripe for a man’s hand, this daughter of Reynard, Vicomte de Chevigny?” He ran a hand lovingly along the letters of my father’s name on the tombstone as he pronounced each word, and my blood chilled within my veins.
The Marquis looked down into my face for the first time, and his eyes were shadowed. “Go home, mademoiselle. I will call upon you tomorrow and explain what I can, but you must leave. I cannot protect us both.”
I regarded him thoughtfully. Charles de Montesquieu was supposed to be a stern, almost forbidding man. Almost everyone who lived in the county or associated with him was afraid of angering him. But his laborers loved him, for he was fair and protective of those who depended upon him, and my grandfather, who’d been a close friend and political ally of his father, respected him greatly—something I could say about few men. Even now, his expression was carefully neutral, but I could see the tiniest hints of strain pulling the muscles of his hard-planed face tight with repressed emotion.
“Very well, I shall expect you tomorrow,” I said at last.
“How easily you fall into the trap so blatantly set,” the Harlequin crooned. “Yes, Monsieur le Marquis, go along to see young Odette tomorrow, and explain to her what the Harlequin means. For now she, too, is playing my game, and it would be well for her to understand the stakes—”
“Go now,” the Marquis urged, ignoring the capering villain behind him as he lifted my hand formally to his lips. As soon as he released me, I went around the angel lamenting over my parents’ graves and returned to the path that would lead me to the home of my grandfather and safety. A burst of maniacal laughter rose behind me as I lifted my skirts and ran.
That was the beginning—of everything. At that moment, I had no idea how much that chance meeting in the graveyard would loom over my life.