There’s a constant skittering, hollow clatters, the gentle knock of a skull against the door.
They’re pretty well behaved really. There was this one guy in the building next door who had a mammoth skeleton that he couldn’t close the door on, so it used to just follow around behind him. Man, you’d know he was walking down the street by this constant knocking sound, loud enough to shake your knees. He went crazy, that guy. Always screaming for the hulking thing to leave him alone. That’s what happens when you don’t deal with your skeletons.
I took time to get to know mine after I saw what happened to him. That one, the one that’s scraping on the closet hinges, it hatched that time I turned someone down while in queen bitch mode. That one, with those elongated digits, it showed up when I didn’t send a message to someone I once loved.
Skeletons hate being shut away, they want to lick up every drip of negative emotion you leak. That’s how they grow, tastes of guilt and shame and fear and regret. Sometimes mine escape the closet and run cool and smooth over my skin, chittering with delight when guilt blooms over me. They’re a bloody nightmare to get back in until they’re fed. Once they’re high on emotion, they slump into snoring piles on the mattress. I can scoop up a softened handful of bones and dump them back in and close the door.
Sometimes I pull open the closet door to take them out. It’s kinda perverse, I know, but there’s something about staring right at the scabs of your past mistakes and wanting to peel them off till they bleed. Probably not so smart anymore, some of those old bones are getting hefty.
Some folks say they don’t have anything in their closets, that you can beam pure positivity and starve those skeletons till they shrink up and die. Seems pretty unlikely to me, seeing as they’re dead to start with.
But I do know that one of mine once disappeared.
It had been made up of all these articulated segments of regret, they’d click one after the other against the door when it slithered free in the night. I’d first heard it after I’d lost someone I love in a messy puddle of pride, confusion and misery. It was years before luck struck and healed the heart wound that had brought that skeleton into being. And then the next night there was no click of coils in the closet.
I don’t know if I could heal those other wounds. Don’t know if I’d want to try either. That might just land me with something bigger clawing its way out.
And there’s something to be said for my skeletons.
I have a box in my mind labelled ‘Mouth Fail Recordings’. The lid is lovingly worn from the number of times I’ve rummaged through and replayed, ad nauseum.
I am not good at being put on the spot. My tongue tends to flap and flop like a beached whale, spewing the absolute crap that my brain frantically throws at it from its blowhole. A delighted part of my subconscious grabs popcorn and records it all in high definition, preparing for inevitable slow-mo reruns.
My brain reacts to most unannounced phone calls with a violent urge to flee for the hills and throw the buzzing grenade as far away as possible. I don’t have any extra information to stop my brain from short-circuiting: no warning, briefings or body language. So mostly I ignore the call, gird loins, and call back… Which I also loathe, because phone calls involve interrupting someone, shouting (or vibrating) into their lives unannounced. It just feels rude.
I would possibly have been better off in an era that relied on handwritten missives. And networking by carrier pigeon.
I’m also a bit pants with on the spot face-to-face interactions. It took me a long time to be able to interact with cashiers or bus drivers without an ‘I carried a watermelon‘ moment. And then they introduced contactless payments and self-checkouts, so I assume the future is on my side. (Though they’ve also introduced recorded video interviews, which seems to be even more whale-tongue inducing for me).
Technology has yet to throw pouncers with clipboards onto the scrapheap of a bygone era. I get that charitable causes need people to donate and need to find a way to make themselves visible, and I also get that most people aren’t me and probably don’t have a problem with the whole thing. But clipboard holders feel like lions in the long grass. I get stalked because I look approachable, and then I get savaged with guilt because I’m too polite to cut short the spiel.
I assume the only people donating to charities are the really nice ones who can’t get away. Ditto with cold-calling. Which doesn’t seem all that charitable.
I don’t know if this kind of anxiety is heritable or a learned behaviour, but I’m not the only one in my family who views innocuous interactions with abject fear. And I definitely did have a toy telephone as a kid, it didn’t help.
Aside from exposure therapy, my only recourse is to await the development of mental grenades that can obliterate that box of mouth fail recordings, as well as those other boxes labelled ‘Social Awkwardness’ and ‘Shameful Misdeeds’.
Guppy’s eyes slid their way along all five inches of a slick steel blade, past a fine boned ivory hand, and up to the hardened eyes of a woman she’d never seen before.
‘You and your friend are going to keep your mouths shut and come with me. Nod to show you understand.’ The woman’s voice was a hushed rasp in the darkness. Guppy nodded, elbowing the boy behind her to do the same. She was painfully aware that any movement she made could press her throat against that skinny blade.
‘Good. We’re heading to the granary. If you try to run, you’ll get a knife in your back.’ The tone was brutally matter-of-fact. She gave Guppy a sharp shove after her knife slid away into the dark. ‘Move.’
They set off again, the sharp clicks of the woman’s heels punctuating their journey through narrow streets to the southern-most outskirts of the town. Here the cobbles turned to dirt, and the warm lights of houses fell away to leave them coated in murk. The boy’s gasps almost sounded shrill.
The granary loomed up from the darkness, blocky shapes afloat heavy stone blocks. The woman stalked to the store at the very rear, and reached up to open the wooden door. She beckoned to the children.
Guppy held the boy behind her, shoulders back and mouth set in a defiant line. The woman rolled her eyes and before Guppy could move, that blade was back in those fine white fingers, loosely held in lazy threat.
Guppy scrambled forward and gave the boy a boost up to the doorway, shooting a scowl at the woman before hoiking herself up behind him. The store was mostly empty, save for scatterings of grain underfoot. There was a scraping behind them, and then pitch darkness as the woman closed the door.
After a moment, there was a faint scrape followed by a soft hum, and a warm yellow glow burned through the black, emitted by the gleaming glass tube the woman placed by her thigh.
She sat leaning back against one wall, long legs between Guppy and the doorway. She was dressed in greys, head to toe, including a heavy woollen cloak stained with mud around its hem. Her face was all angles, the light catching planes and casting shadows so it appeared one half of her was made of darkness. Even her eyes were grey. The eye in the light was fixed on Guppy’s face.
‘So. It seems you two managed to get yourselves into an impressive amount of trouble. That slaver you cheated is rampaging all over town. Names?’
The boy beside Guppy hitched in a breath, then said, ‘Nate, I don’t know hers, she can’t talk.’
‘Is that so?’ The woman’s shadow eyebrow rose. Guppy stuck out her tongue yet again, feeling aggrieved that today of all days she couldn’t donate a piece of her mind to all the people she’d met. The woman leaned forward, inspecting. One hand slid to a pocket on the inside of her cloak. Guppy stiffened, but the hand emerged holding a small brown glass pot, rather than a blade.
‘Take a fingerful of this and rub it over your tongue. It’ll help the swelling go down.’
Guppy snorted. As if she was going to chomp something a crazy knife kidnapper waved at her. Before the snort was over, said kidnapper was waving said knife in her other hand.
‘This isn’t a suggestion, girl. It’s an order.’
Guppy leaned forward and dipped a finger into the ruddy goop in the pot. She took a suspicious sniff. It smelled kinda lemony. Tentatively she swiped it over the tip of her tongue and then as the cooling sensation spread, she eased her finger over the rest of the swollen mass. Abruptly it became easier to breathe, as her tongue began to deflate. And the stuff even tasted nice. Neat.
The woman waited for a minute, then put the pot away.
‘Tongue?’ Guppy stuck it out again. The woman gave a sharp nod. ‘Right, let’s try that again. Name?’
‘Guppy. What’s yours?’ It came out with a bit of a sticky slur but at least didn’t hurt anymore.
‘You’ve got no need for my name, girl.’
‘Guppy, not girl.’
The woman stared at her. An eyeball thrashing had never had any effect on Guppy in the past, it wasn’t about to bother her now.
‘You can call me Grey. You’re in up to your necks. You’ve pissed off a major slaver and he’s got a good enough description of you that you’re finished in this town and probably the whole region. I’m going to do you a favour.’
Guppy raised her eyebrow in turn. ‘Does the favour involve your knife? That seemed real friendly back there.’
‘Silence.’ The woman snarled the word, moving her knife hand with gut watering speed and slamming it into the boards an inch from Guppy’s left foot.
Guppy decided she should probably shut up for now and hear the crazy lady out.
‘I’ve been keeping an eye on you. You seem to think you’re clever, child, when really you’re nothing but a petty thief. Still, a thief with potential.’ Grey frowned, pulling the knife from the board with a sharp tug. ‘You’ve accelerated my timeline a bit with your ridiculous plan – gods know what I’m going to do with him.’ Nate shrunk back from the shadowed glare.
She focussed back on Guppy. ‘Have you heard of the Cerium?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘They tried to bump the old king off afore he went and copped it anyway.’
Grey gave a slow nod. ‘The Cerium failed in their attempts on the former king’s life, but they continue to lay snares for the present king. They were nearly successful not two months ago when the king was at the Spring Palace. Their plots were discovered and the king was made safe. But they will try again.’
Guppy gave another shrug, ‘Don’t mean nothing to me. No king ever made a difference to my life.’
Grey shook her head, ‘So naive. The world as you know it would fall apart if the king fell. He has no heir, no family. The kingdom would fall to civil war, and that would certainly affect your life. And so I ask that you give something to save the king.’
Guppy stared at Grey. ‘Ask? That the kind of asking that involves that there knife you’ve been waving around? Seems to me that isn’t exactly asking.’
‘Ah, let’s say, I strongly suggest that you give something to save the king. You have a talent girl, one that the king would greatly value.’ Her eyes burned into Guppy’s. ‘You have a way with lies.’
Guppy met her eyes with straight out denial, ‘Nope.’ Her mouth flooded with sourness, stinging her still tender tongue.
Grey smiled as though she could taste the lie too. ‘Have you always thought it was just you? One girl in all the kingdom who can speak untruths without consequences? There aren’t many but those who are discovered are trained mercilessly and brought into service.’
Guppy frowned. ‘Trained mercilessly?’
‘It’s the kind of training that involves red hot pins under fingernails, mental torment, and unspeakable tortures, whilst being told to say “I’m fine” repeatedly without cease.’ Bleakness seemed to run over the woman’s features at her words.
Guppy swallowed. ‘Well, that doesn’t really sound like all that much fun, thanks and all that.’
‘You seem to have learned much without formal training, so I think we can proceed to the practical. We need people to act on the kingdom’s behalf against those who are suspected of being members of the Cerium. We need spies, Guppy. And spies need to be able to lie.’
‘And what about Nate here, he can’t lie.’ Guppy turned to the boy, ‘You can’t, can you?’ He shook his head, face pale. ‘Right, he can’t lie so he’s no good as a spy, right? I’m not about to hare off and leave him to the slavers.’
Grey tapped her long fingers against a grey boot. ‘The boy is a bit of an unforeseen problem. Perhaps we can try to teach him the skill. If not, we’ll leave him somewhere far enough away that the slavers won’t recognise him. My word on it.’
‘Riiiight. The word of someone who abducts boys and girls at knifepoint. Real trustworthy, I’m sure.’ Guppy reeled back as a ringing blow hit her left cheekbone. Grey seized her by the neckline and yanked her back the other way until they were nose to nose.
‘You’ve got lip, girl. If you keep using it, I’ll start slicing pieces off. If you try to sneak off, I’ll hack you into fish food. And whatever I do to you, I do to him.’ Grey nodded at the trembling boy at Guppy’s side.
Guppy shoved her furious response down. Time to be smart.
‘Fine. So what’s going to happen to us?’
Grey eased back. ‘Tomorrow we leave this dump and head for Casta. Get your heads down for now.’
She picked up the light tube and the glow winked out with a hiss.
‘And in case you get any ideas, you should know that I sleep with a blade in each hand.’
It was the retching that woke him. That, and the feeling that his lungs had been set on fire and scoured out with sand. Kilter dragged in air between strained coughs that spattered the ground black.
It took him a few wheezing minutes to realise that the hacking sounds weren’t all emerging from his own mouth. He opened gluey, dirt-filled eyes to see five of his staff were similarly occupied.
They were in the Blue Dining Room, sprawled on the well-polished boards – no, Kilter thought muzzily – what should have been well-polished boards, but these boards were clouded and dusty. The room looked peculiarly dark, the window panes letting in only a small amount of grubby light.
They’d been in here to discuss the upcoming gala in celebration of the princess’ sixteenth birthday, when whatever it was had hit them. His body felt weak, his legs barely kept him upright. He stared at the white faces in front of him and abruptly dragged himself together.
‘Right. We need to check room by room, if we were affected by this sickness, perhaps others have been too. I’ll head to the Royal Chambers; split up and work your way through the ground floor. Get others to help -’ He broke off.
Wailing screams were coming through the open doorway.
Kilter wobbled his way into the Great Hall, having sent the others on their way. A few serving staff were slumped against the oak length of the table that ran through the centre of the hall. They turned blurred, puzzled eyes to him as he walked toward the huge fireplace that dominated the far wall.
Mrs Napfas, the head butler, was crouched in the fireplace, skirts streaked with black smudges as she held a small figure to her breast.
Kilter knelt and reached out a hand to the woman’s shoulder. Her cries had become nothing more than a rambling, aching string of denials.
She pulled away from his touch with a moan, and clutched the body tighter. And it was a body, he saw. Limp and still. With a head that resembled a burnt match end. The boy’s name was Tallo, and he had been so very proud to take on duties last autumn, lighting lamps and fires. It appeared that he had been tending the Great Hall fireplace when the sleeping sickness had fallen upon him, and he had tumbled forward into the fire he had so lovingly built up.
Tallo was not the only victim of this strange sickness.
The gardeners had suffered more than most, their skin had been strangely beaten and burnt until it was curiously grey leather, and most had lost fingers and toes to what seemed to be frostbite.
It had taken hours to find the master gardener. A kitchen boy spotted a limb buried in the bizarre wall of thorns that had sprung up around the palace circumference. After shearing away what they could, the man’s body lay pale and punctured on the lawn, drained of life by the myriad thorned snakes that wove in and out of his body.
Two washermen had been found crushed beneath a curiously crumbled wall. The head cook had been found dead with a terrible slice to his wrist. The bodies of two bathers were pulled from copper bathtubs. At least five of Kilter’s staff never awakened, presumably due to the head wounds that they seemed to have incurred through violent falls. And several of those who had awoken in one piece were now coughing blood.
He’d done his best to keep the staff functioning, but there was no way to hold back the murmurs of fear: this had been retribution, they must have done something to deserve it, the deserving had lived – Mrs Napfas had nearly gouged the eyes out of the sanctimonious chamber maid who spouted that last one.
The royal family, meanwhile, were uncharacteristically quiet. When Kilter had attended them earlier, he had been ordered to depart and to take the chamber servants with him.
He returned that evening, wearied by the deaths and the increasing fear that this sleeping sickness might have spread beyond the palace, that his wife and daughter might –
The door to the Princess’ chamber opened and the Queen stepped out, shutting the door behind her.
‘Kilter! The floor is disgusting, get someone up here to clean.’
Kilter’s face remained blank, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’
From behind the Queen, the door rattled and the sound of furious shrieking slid around its edges.
The Queen pursed her mouth and tapped her fan against her hand.
‘I trust I have your complete confidence, Kilter?’
He gave another nod, managing not to wince at the sound of pounding fists on the door.
‘The Princess is going through a difficult time, Kilter. The, er, gentleman prince who awakened her, and indeed awakened us all, did so with unexpected vigour. Vigour that resulted in his leggings being around his ankles, shall we say,’ she fanned herself as a flush rose over her cheekbones, ‘My daughter, hysterical madam that she is, has refused to marry the young man.’
She paused. The door gave another thud as something broke on its opposite side.
‘The King is ensuring that the gentleman does not leave our company until the matter is settled. And I dare say confirming his pedigree.’
The Queen sighed. ‘Still, we’re awake! Curse broken, we can put it all behind us now. The staff are expected to return to their duties, Kilter. No more unseemly hysteria.’
He gave yet another nod, then hesitated, ‘Curse, Ma’am?’
‘The sleeping curse, Kilter.’ She said it as though it were a stupid question. ‘All rather tiresome but there are worse ways to spend a hundred years!’ She gave a thin laugh, ‘A rather extended beauty sleep, one might say.’
He watched her glide away to the royal chamber. And clamped down on his own rising bubble of hysteria.
One hundred years.
One hundred years.
Kilter put out a hand to grasp the wall (tapestried with a rather fetching myrtle tree).
He had kissed his wife and daughter a fond farewell only yesterday. They were only to be away for a week.
One hundred years.
There was no escaping the truth, once the first carriages of curious city dwellers arrived. Their declarations of welcome for the slumbering palace were an unconvincing veneer for gossipmongering.
Kilter broke it to his staff bluntly and gave them no room to mull before assigning them to their duties. They would grieve later.
The thorn hedge was torn down, popping with cherry red sparks as treacherously springy bundles were heaved into the burners. Dirt and dust were chased from room to room, blackened silver laid out for polishing, the mummified contents of pantries replaced with fresh produce from the city.
And then the Governor arrived. She was attended by a full coterie of officials who wore identical sneers of derision, their garments impossibly bright against the drab greys and faded browns of the castle.
Though her staff made it clear that the palace was a pathetic remnant of a former age, they seemed rabid for gossip. The city was simply desperate to know the truth behind the palace’s disappearance and awakening.
The city had assumed that the palace had been swept by plague, and thus the thorn hedge had been secured as a no-trespassing zone monitored by the Governor’s guard. An eager courtier admitted that the current Governor had made multiple attempts to get through the thorns – a palace would have been a useful tool in the battle to legitimise herself as ruler of the kingdom.
She had been white-faced at the word that someone else had succeeded, let alone a prince of the neighbouring kingdom that had been toying with annexation plans since the palace had fallen.
The Governor had no intention of ceding control to the Queen. Her family’s influence had kindled in the days of confusion that followed the disappearance of the palace. There was no way she would allow ancient, dusty, and unnecessary monarchs to take back power.
The Princess meanwhile, such a child! To refuse a marriage with the only man ever likely to want such a poor match. And they’d heard that she was still refusing to leave her chamber. Didn’t bode well for the fate of the kingdom.
Kilter watched the tales of intrigue spool out across the Great Hall, gritted teeth held behind a smooth facade. His eyes never moved from the haunting mass of the fireplace.
These men and women meant no real harm, perhaps, but how could they lust after a story such as this? One of death, rape, endless loss.
He allowed himself to drift into memories of his family.