In which we see another side of the story
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.
Lost for ever after.