From a distance, the Ice Cream Sea seemed one endless wave of foam and cream. Somewhere in the middle of it—there, on the right, where a darker speck broke the span of vanilla—Queen Frostine floated serenely on an iceberg of frozen root beer: the Reverse Float. For as long as anyone could remember, the Queen had been most at home in the midst of the foam, holding court from her Reverse Float and rarely going so far as to come ashore. When she did travel outside the borders of the Ice Cream Sea, it was only to visit her husband in the Candy Castle. But with the disappearance in recent days of both King and Castle, there was nothing to draw the Queen away from her home. And so she sat quietly, lost in her thoughts and in the scent of vanilla.
Lolly could smell the vanilla from all the way up at the crest of the hill, where the Lollipop Woods ended and the Rocky Road down to the Sea began. She didn't pause for a moment, scrambling headlong along the bumpy road and over the pebbles at the edge of the sea. "Mama! Mama!" she called.
The Queen turned at her call, and steered the Reverse Float closer to the shore. She stopped within hailing distance, but still more than ten yards away from where Lolly was standing, for the edges of the Ice Cream Sea were treacherous. Chocolate Rocks and Marshmallow Boulders filled the shore between the road and the sea, and many had fallen into the foam, making it difficult to navigate. It was safest for the Queen to safe away, and with the King missing, her safety was more paramount than ever. "Any news?" she called.
"Trespassers in Candy Land," Lolly called back.
Queen Frostine's face went white. She set her hand once again to her pole, and steered the float to shore. Securing it to one of the most longstanding boulders, she picked her way among the rocks until she reached Lolly. "Trespassers?" she whispered.
Lolly hugged her mother. "They're just children," she said. "They may not be dangerous." She sat down on a boulder and began her tale. "I was in the Gingerbread Plum Forest, munching on some plums and looking for Plumpy to ask him how the trees were faring with Papa's continued absence. Suddenly, I heard voices. A boy and girl. They appeared human, but were no taller than Plumpy or Jolly. Their clothing was striped white and red, like Mr. Mint's peppermint trees. Their hair was as yellow as one of the lollipops in my woods—such an unnatural color! Of course, I haven't seen very many humans, and never human children other than myself, so maybe that's normal where they come from."
"I've heard that it is," the Queen said, "though I've never seen yellow hair on a human either."
"At first I thought they might be minions of Lord Licorice," Lolly continued, "but they didn't act anything like him. They seemed to actually have hearts. And worries, too. They weren't sure how they'd ended up here. As best as I could gather, they had fallen asleep in a field and woken up here. And not the fields outside Candy Land, either—they didn't sound as if they knew anything about Candy Land at all."
Her mother frowned. "I've heard a legend of children appearing in Candy Land before, long, long ago. And listen to this: the King and his castle had gone missing that time, too."
Lolly gasped. "What happened? Where was the King? If we know what happened last time, maybe that will help us find Papa now!"
Queen Frostine shook her head. "I don't know. It was many years ago, before I was born. My mother was a very small child when it happened. She mentioned once that it had occurred, but she didn't know any details, and none of the records from that time make any mention of it either. They probably wanted to keep the circumstances secret so it would be less likely to happen again, but now I wish they had kept a record for the Royal Family at least." She sighed. "I wish this new development could be the key to finding your father, but it could just as easily spell the doom of our land."
"It wasn't the doom of Candy Land last time, and it won't be this time, either," Lolly said firmly. "If they found the king before, we can find him again now. I—" She jumped up. "Was that a whistle? What's Mr. Mint doing so far from the Peppermint Forest?"
"It's nothing to be alarmed at," Queen Frostine said. "I asked him to come. With the King missing, I need advisors more than ever, and Mr. Mint has always had as keen an eye for statecraft as he has for tuning a flute. I hoped to discuss with him our next steps in the search for the King, but now you've given me something new to discuss."
After only a few minutes—during which the shrill sound of piping grew louder and louder—Mr. Mint joined them on the shore of the Ice Cream Sea. Lolly quickly filled him in on the children she had seen on the outskirts of the Gingerbread Plum Forest.
"That's terrible!" Mr. Mint explained when she had finished. "It's surprising, how things can go so terribly wrong and have no sign of it close by. When I left the Peppermint Forest this morning, not a candy cane or peppermint stick was out of alignment. And to think, that just a short walk away in the Gingerbread Plum Forest...Well, it's too late for regrets but I do wish I'd paid Plumpy a visit on my way to see you, Your Majesty."
"It's not too late for anything," Queen Frostine said. "I want a full investigation into these children, as soon as possible. Both into their intentions toward Candy Land, and into the possibility that they may provide us with a lead towards the location of the King." She explained what she knew, limited as it was, about the previous time that children had appeared and a king had gone missing in Candy Land.
"I'll investigate thoroughly," Mr. Mint assured her when she had finished. "And I'll ask around ,whether anyone else has seen something out of the ordinary in their part of Candy Land. And we'll search for the children. I must say, at least their arrival opens up some new possibilities for the investigation. I was beginning to run short on ideas."
"The children may be dangerous, though," Queen Frostine said.
"I don't think so," Lolly said. "They didn't remind me at all of Lord Licorice."
"Sometimes I fear that Lord Licorice may not be the only evil in Candy Land," Queen Frostine said quietly. "Regardless, I want you somewhere safe until the children are found and we learn how they came to be in Candy Land. Mr. Mint, on your way back to investigate, please escort the Princess to Gramma Nutt's house. She'll be safe there for now."
Mr. Mint bowed and took his leave, Lolly following behind. The path curved away from the sea, around the forest. Just before the sea disappeared from view entirely, Lolly saw Queen Frostine step back onto the Reverse Float and pole back towards the middle of the sea. She would be safe there. Lord Licorice hated the smell of vanilla.
Mr. Mint strode rapidly along the Candy Land Path, scarcely waiting for Lolly. She ran for a few seconds to catch up with him. "Do you think Candy Land is going to be all right?" she asked, jogging alongside him.
Mr. Mint shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "These new developments are very concerning. A full investigation needs to be made as soon as possible. But don't worry, Princess, I'll make sure that nothing happens to Candy Land if I have anything to say about it." He brandished his axe.
"If you want to start your investigation sooner," Lolly said, "you don't have to wait for me. I've been to Gramma Nutt's house plenty of times; I can find my own way there."
Mr. Mint nodded enthusiastically. "Very well, Princess," he said. "I think that would be a good idea." He lengthened his stride, and in less than a minute he had disappeared from view down the path.
Lolly followed along the path at a slower pace. As she approached Gramma Nutt's house, she slipped off the path and bent low among the fields, for the house was not her destination after all. The peanuts and grass offered little cover, but hopefully Mr. Mint hadn't taken the time to tell Gramma Nutt that she was coming, and there wouldn't be anybody watching for her.
Sure enough, she didn't meet anyone as she crept through the fields. Lolly thought she might have glimpsed the tip of Gramma Nutt's lace bonnet through one of the upper windows of the house, but then she was back on the path and running. She was almost to the Rainbow Trail, and then she would have to be very careful because the children could be anywhere around. But she owed it to Plumpy to make sure he was told about the children right away. She should have told him earlier, when she'd first seen them, but all she'd been able to think of then was warning the Queen. Hopefully it wasn't too late to make it up to Plumpy. And hopefully he might have some idea of how the children had arrived, since he lived the closest of anybody to the place where he had appeared. Or if he didn't know, perhaps Jolly—the smartest of all the inhabitants of Candy Land except for the King himself—would have an idea. She thought she'd talk to them both if the opportunity availed. She had to do something, anything, to help; she couldn't just sit in Gramma Nutt's attic and stare out the window wondering when Papa would return.
Plumpy was frowning again. Lolly had never in her life seen Plumpy frown as much as he had recently. Of course Lolly was just as miserable and frightened over the King's disappearance as Plumpy was, but she just couldn't get used to the sight of frowns on her friend's broad plum-stained face.
She had been headed towards Plumpy's favorite tree in the deepest part of the forest when he called from behind her. "Lolly!" She turned to see him hurrying through the forest as fast as his short legs could take him. "Princess," he continued, panting. "Did you hear about the children?"
"Yes," she said. "What have you heard? Did you see them?"
He shook his head. "I haven't seen anything. Mr. Mint stopped by a few minutes ago. All he said was that some children had been seen and that they might have something to do with the King's disappearance, but he was in too much of a hurry to inspect the Peppermint Forest for intruders to tell me anything else."
"I'm the one who saw the children," Lolly said proudly. "I was just coming to ask you if you had any idea what they could be doing here. And if you didn't know, I was going to ask Jolly."
"Jolly might know," Plumpy said. "I certainly don't." He started walking through the forest towards the path, and Lolly followed him. "It's too bad the Gumdrop Mountains aren't on the outskirts of Candy Land," he continued. "Then he could take a turn at being the furthest inhabitant and de facto warden of Candy Land. I'd love to have the chance to trade places. Don't you think he'd be better suited for the role?"
Lolly frowned. "But you're so good at welcoming people to Candy Land! Or you would be, I mean, if people came here more often."
"That's the problem, isn't it?" Plumpy said. "Nobody ever comes here, and when they do, what do we do but start suspecting them of this, that, and the other thing. Intrusion, king-napping, conspiracy—when all we can prove they've done is to show up out of nowhere and maybe pick a couple plums."
At that reminder, Lolly reached out to pick one last plum for herself before the final hill left the forest behind and took them up to the Candy Land Path. "But you can't deny that the King's gone missing," she said. "And my mother said that there was a rumor that the king went missing the last time children were seen in Candy Land, as well."
"Really," Plumpy said, his now-constant frown deepening. "Now that is not something I was aware of. We'll see what Jolly has to say." He lengthened his stride to the fastest jog he could manage, while Lolly strode along behind him, both lost in thought.
"Welcome, welcome!" Jolly called, bustling up to them. He took his Official Gumdrop Mountain Greeter very seriously, and never neglected to greet someone no matter how many times they had been to the Gumdrop Mountains before. "Oh, my dear princess," he continued. "I'm so sorry we haven't found your father yet. Has there been any news?"
"Not about that," Lolly said. "But did Mr. Mint tell you—"
"About the children?" Jolly beamed. "Yes, he was telling me about them just now. He's in the Gumdrop Tree House if you care to join us." He turned to go back to the tree house, and the others followed.
If Mr. Mint was surprised to see Lolly when she was supposed to be at Gramma Nutt's house, he didn't say. He seemed, if anything, even ore worried than when Lolly had last seen him. "I saw footprints in the fringes of the Gingerbread Plum Forest that bear out the Princess's story," he reported, once they were all seated around Jolly's kitchen table. Jolly bustled about, fetching gumdrops for them all, and peanut butter cookies that Gramma Nutt had sent fresh that morning. "Not that I didn't believe it even without that evidence, of course. But there was no other sign of the children in any of the places I searched—both the Gingerbread Plum Forest and my own Peppermint Forest, further down the path. We'll have to send the Cookie Patrol out to find where they've gone, but my best guess is that they are somewhere in the fields on the edges of Candy Land—the desolate fields where grasses and all sorts of flowers grow, but not one single sort of candy or sweet."
"I'm surprised you couldn't see any sign of them if they're only in the fields," Plumpy said. "Of course I didn't see any sign of them myself, but you're a bit taller than me."
"Those fields aren't as flat as they look," Mr. Mint explained. "There's all sorts of hillocks and dips and divots. Of course I've never explored it much myself."
"Nor have I," Jolly put in. "Imagine a place with nothing sweeter than flowers. Not very welcoming at all."
"Those poor children," Lolly said. "Do you suppose they got lost? If there's all the little valleys and things you were mentioning. They weren't very tall."
"It's possible," Mr. Mint said. "I'll send for the Cookie Patrol. They can rescue the children if needed, and give them some candy to make up for their sweet-deprivation in those fields. And of course they can subtly ask the children a few questions about how and why they came here."
"If they know," Lolly pointed out. "They didn't sound as if they were expecting to come here, or had any idea how it had happened."
"True," Mr. Mint said. "But—"
Whatever he was about to say was drowned out by a crackle of thunder and the sickly sweet smell of licorice. "Ah-ha-ha-ha-ha!" Lord Licorice chortled from the doorway. Lolly shrank back at the sound. Perhaps if she sat very still her family's ancient enemy wouldn't notice her, sitting there next to Plumpy. "You fools. You think yourselves so smart, and yet here you have brought the Princess right here into my very hands. Here on the very border of my land, where all I have to do is walk up to your tree house and climb the pitiful ladder. I scarcely have to reach out to take possession of her—so much easier than what I did to the King."
"The King!" they all exclaimed at once. Plumpy reached over and took hold of Lolly's hand. Lolly squeezed his hand tight; she didn't dare say anything further.
"Yes, the King," Lord Licorice said. "What did you think had happened to him? Did you think he had tired of you lot and run off to some other land? If he had, it would be no more than any of you deserve. You're all soft and much too sweet. When I run Candy Land, things are going to be different around here. No more sitting around, lazy days staring at the sky. We're going to turn this land into a candy factory!" He laughed again.
Lolly couldn't have moved even if she'd wanted to. How horrible to imagine what Lord Licorice might have done to her father! She realized that her nails were biting into Plumpy's soft fur, and she relaxed her grip as much as she could. Plumpy reached over with his other hand and patted her knee gently. It made her feel a tiny bit better, although she knew Plumpy wasn't strong or skilled enough to be able to really fight back against Lord Licorice.
Jolly coughed quietly, as if he were at a meeting of the King's Council and wanted to make a comment. Everybody turned and looked at him, for they all knew Jolly was the wisest person there. Even Lord Licorice stopped laughing for a moment, glaring at Jolly. "You still haven't explained what exactly has happened to the King," Jolly pointed out. "I find it hard to believe that you actually had a decent plan to kidnap the King, because if you did, you'd be bragging about it all over the place. I think it's much more likely that you're just being an opportunist here, trying to take advantage of an absence you had nothing to do with."
"And you'd better watch out," Mr. Mint broke in. "Because when the King returns to Candy Land and finds you trying to take over, he's going to let you have it! I know you think it's impossible for King Kandy to be sour, but when it comes to usurpers, even he can lose his sweetness."
"He's lost his sweetness all right," Lord Licorice said. "Although at least I left him his castle and all its candy. A small mercy on my part—though it wasn't intended as mercy so much as for my own convenience."
"What was convenient about it?" Jolly prodded.
Lord Licorice smiled, but there was no warmth in his gaze. "The portal machine can only create extremely large portals; nothing person-sized."
Lord Licorice laughed again. "Portals to another dimension! You'll never see your precious King again, because he is nowhere near Candy Land. He's in another dimension entirely—and his castle, too!" He strode up to the table and leaned on it, glaring down at Jolly. "You've never heard of any such thing, have you? And you think you're so smart. But only I have found the key to transferring matter between dimensions! My machine creates portals in two separate dimensions, and swaps the entirety of their contents from the one dimension to somewhere else in the opposite dimension, leaving empty portal-walled space where the contents were removed. And once the portals are created, it is virtually impossible to destroy them and put things back the way they were! Only if the two dimensions touch can the portal be destroyed. But I made sure to aim the other dimension's portal at a plain, peaceful field, so that nothing that moved would be likely to come through. And I made sure to adjust the aim so that whatever did came through to our dimension would not land anywhere near Candy Castle, but on the farthest reaches of Candy Land, where it would never stumble across the blank portal that was once your king's majestic castle. I've planned out every detail. The King will wither and perish, all alone in his beloved Candy Castle beyond your help, and Candy Land will be mine! All because I—oof!" He fell to the floor. Behind him, one of the Cookie Patrol brandished a Candy Sword-Cane, ready to strike again.
Queen Frostine rushed up the ladder behind him. "Lolly, are you all right? Are you safe?"
Shivering, Lolly nodded.
Plumpy squeezed Lolly's hand. "She's fine, Your Majesty," he said. "Just a little shaken up, but then we all are."
"You're absolutely right," Jolly said. "But a few gumdrops will fix that." He bustled off to the kitchen.
"You fools, you don't realize what you're—ouch!" Lord Licorice said from the floor. Candy Sword-Canes at the ready, the Cookie Patrol tied him up and dragged him away.
Lolly breathed a sigh of relief once the smell of licorice and the sense of evil had left the Gumdrop Tree House. Jolly scurried back into the room with a loaf of gumdrop bread and a pot of tea, and plates and cups enough for them all. "Now this is better, isn't it?" he said as he poured the tea. "Not a speck of licorice in any food I serve, no, sir."
"Do you suppose everything he said about what he did to Papa is true?" Lolly whispered.
"Perhaps, but perhaps not," Jolly said cheerfully. "If it is, then now we know more than we did before, and that will aid our efforts to find the King. And if not, then at least we know that Lord Licorice wishes harm upon the King—and upon the Royal Family. The better informed we are, the better we know what to protect, and where to focus our efforts."
"Candy Land is grateful for your assistance," Queen Frostine said formally. She put her arm around Lolly. "I'm only glad I got here in time."
"Well," Jolly said with a blush, "I was certain that Lord Licorice would tell us what he was up to if only we expressed interest. He has so few people to talk to about his escapades, you know. So I asked him questions and kept him talking, and that gave you time to get here before he could do anything. And now we know about the portals, if that is indeed how he stole the King away."
"A wise plan, and I thank you for it," Queen Frostine said. "But what's this about portals?"
Jolly began to explain what Lord Licorice had told him, but before he could get very far, there was a tromping and stomping below.
Leb Kuchen, the Captain of the Cookie Patrol, rushed into the room. "Lord Licorice has escaped!" he announced. "We were taking him along the Candy Land Path to the Molasses Swamp, where we deemed it would be easiest to keep him stuck and imprisoned as long as needed. But as we traveled along the part of the Path closest to Licorice Castle, we came under attack by a swarm of Bitter Chocolate Bats, and by the time we had fended them off, he was gone! He knows every inch of that part of Candy Land, better than any of us, and he had several minutes' head start. By the time we reached Licorice Castle, he was already inside, laughing at us from the ramparts with the gate locked and barred. I'm very sorry, Your Majesty. We have failed you."
Queen Frostine stood up. "There's nothing to be done about it now," she said. "But I shall return at once to the Ice Cream Sea with a full complement of guards, and we shall escort Princess Lolly to the Lollipop Woods on the same trip. None of the Royal Family should be alone when Lord Licorice has threatened us so specifically. I should have done something about him long ago. I knew he hated us, but I didn't realize he was so willing to sacrifice all of Candy Land to his will. If only the King were here; I hate to make decisions that affect all of Candy Land without him."
"A lost King is so distressing," Plumpy said, munching on gumdrop bread. Lolly hugged him.
Mr. Mint nodded agreement. "My peppermint piccolos have been rather off-key since the King left. I certainly hope he returns soon. Jolly, do you think we can use the information Licorice gave us to find the King?"
Jolly frowned in thought. "I certainly hope so. It's clear that the King is no longer present in Candy Land. It's obvious whenever you look outside. For example, my poor Gumdrop Mountains. They just don't glow and glisten the way they used to. If the King were anywhere in the Land, we'd be able to tell. So I'm inclined to believe that he is indeed in another dimension."
Portals...fields....nobody was talking about the children now, too distracted by Lord Licorice's sudden appearance, but Lolly suddenly realized how they might be connected. "I know just the twosome to find my father, the missing King," she exclaimed.
Everyone turned to stare at her. "You do?" Mr. Mint said.
Plumpy smiled for the first time in days. "Let's hear it," he said.
"Yes, let's," Jolly said encouragingly.
"The Candy Land Kids," Lolly said. "The two I saw near the Gingerbread Plum Forest. They're courageous, clever, and ever so determined...and I'm certain they came from the other dimension. The one Lord Licorice sent Papa to. I heard them say they'd been picnicking in a field when they suddenly ended up here, and you all heard Lord Licorice say that he aimed the portal at a field."
Plumpy jumped up, excited. "So if they touch the portal over the Candy Castle..."
"The two dimensions will touch and the portal will be destroyed!" Lolly said. "If we can trust Lord Licorice's claims, of course."
"It's a better idea than any we've had so far," Jolly said. "It sounds to me like it might very well work." He poured himself a cup of tea and turned to the Queen. "Your Majesty?"
"I see no reason not to try," Queen Frostine said calmly. She turned to Captain Kuchen. "Divide your forces in half," she said. "Half of you go to the Gingerbread Plum Forest. Guard the brave Candy Land Kids, and escort them on their journey. The rest of you, escort myself and Princess Lolly back to our domains."
Mr. Mint stepped forward. "Do you wish me to accompany you, Your Majesty?"
Queen Frostine shook her head. "No. You and Plumpy should go back to your districts, and Jolly should stay here in his. The children may have need of your presence. We have no need to fear," she assured them. "Lord Licorice's evil plan is utter nonsense."
"The Candy Land Kids will save my father," Lolly said. "I'm sure of it." She curtseyed to Mr. Mint, and hugged Plumpy goodbye.
"Don't worry," Plumpy assured her, patting her shoulder. "I'll keep my eyes peeled for your Candy Land Kids, and nothing will happen to them while they're under my watch."
"I'm sure you're right," Lolly said. "I trust you. And Candy Land will soon be put right."
Jolly rushed in from the kitchen with some pieces of gumdrop bread wrapped in a napkin for the journey, as he always did. Lolly hugged him as well, and followed her mother out of the Gumdrop Tree House and down the ladder, to where Captain Kuchen and his Gingerbread Men were waiting to escort them.
The sun was shining and the Gumdrop Mountains were sparkling—neither of them as bright as when the King was in residence, but bright enough that Lolly could bring herself to smile.
Queen Frostine took Lolly's hand as they set off along the Candy Land Path. "No matter how may times Lord Licorice plots and plans," she said firmly, "Candy Land will sparkle once again."
It would indeed; Lolly felt sure of it. She couldn't wait until the Candy Land Kids made their way to the end of the path. She longed so much to see her father, the King, once again!