Admittedly some of that time had been spent in an orderly queue of egg sacks while she’d still been in nymph form, but she’d nevertheless been conscious of waiting for something of the utmost significance. The thing that would ignite her faith in the point of existence. The source of all passion and joy.
That thing was definitely not meant to be snot. She was fairly sure of that. Unfortunately, the Bureaucracy Fairy had wrinkled her upturned nose and frowned down at her furled scrolls before declaring that this was, in fact, exactly her calling.
She was the Snot Fairy.
She’d been handed a crumpled scrap of bin liner, several wooden buckets, one burlap sack, and a gluey looking feather. She’d seen the looks the other fairies gave her, the wide berth she had suddenly gained. Their slender arms were filled with pots of glitter, gauzy lilac wing extensions, baskets of daisies, tubes of luminescent paint.
She slumped away to blend into the smudge of night.
The manual had waxed lyrical about the range of skills she was to deploy. There was the bucket of transparent snot that she had to tip at the very top of the nasal cavities so as to ensure a constant sticky trickle. There was the sack of squishy pink-grey lumps she had to haul down into the darkened passages of the lungs, ready to be cough-retched out the next morning. There was the incessant tickling of feathers followed by the art of maintaining a strong grip to avoid being swept out in the ensuing sneeze-fest. She had to pay careful attention to map out who each human made contact with, so as to plan the next target on her route, and she would spin from respiratory tract to respiratory tract with expert speed and accuracy.
Some nights she would spot one of her compatriots – the real kind, not the glitzy kind – bringing in veruccas or athlete’s foot, or painstakingly gluing stubble to twitching expanses of skin. They would nod to each other, acknowledging a fellow occupant of the bodily trenches. And they might share an eye roll if a flower fairy giggled at them from a nearby vase.
Some nights she was left alone in bedrooms filled with the sound of blocked sinuses. And she’d wonder what exactly it was about her that screamed ‘snot’. Why was she more snot than chicken, or begonia, or book?
And somewhere in her bin-liner draped body, there lit a fire of resistance.
The 33rd High Lord of the Eternal Worshipful
Brotherhood of Cheats was having a really bad decade. With his back pressed
against a dubiously stained wall in a dubiously shadowed alley, he took stock:
limbs intact, all digits present, eyes and ears functioning, lungs and heart a
tad wobbly but getting the job done. Left sandal lost; robe torn; hood still
covering face. And so far, so not followed. Things were looking up.
It had been fine at the beginning. Life had been simple: follow the Five Commandments and reap the benefits of being born with a scrupulously honest face. He went from being the eternally hungry and perpetually grubby 15-year-old Billy Druthers, to the smugly sated and only slightly shabby, Brother William.
The only catch in the whole deal was Commandment Number Five, ‘Thou shalt Cheat Death’… And even there he’d had some roaring good luck: he’d drawn thirty years, a far longer reprieve than that of his brothers. Thirty years peace of mind and exemption from accidental death (brothers still had to be wary of death at the hands of others.)
As the bottom rung of a very creaky ladder, Brother William had only the vaguest interest in the politics of the brotherhood, but even he had begun to worry as High Lord after High Lord toppled from their lofty perch. In the space of two years, the brotherhood raced through High Lord #2 to High Lord #27; they’d barely had time to compose adequate welcome speeches before the next body turned up. Deaths #2 through #10 were all unfortunate results of the Fifth Commandment; the brothers became High Lord just as their time ran out.
The other deaths, however, were of brothers with plenty of time left on their slip. Hale and hearty High Lords started to suffer curious accidents – one was bitten by the rare and highly poisonous Kitten Spider, and another was believed to have smothered himself to death while sleeping (he was succeeded by High Lord #24, his roommate).
In his 15th year in the brotherhood, as the eldest brother, Brother
William became High Lord #33. With his easy-going nature, decided lack of
interest in power or politics, and thanks in part to the awe inspired by his 30
Year Fifth Commandment draw, Brother William was allowed to become the longest
running High Lord in the history of the brotherhood.
But over the years, as his hair greyed and then abandoned
scalp, strand by strand, it seemed that he was losing his enjoyment of the
He had never had the slightest bit of trouble with the Second Commandment in his younger years; ‘Thou shalt never pay for food, shelter or clothing’, was an easy task for an angel-faced youth with puppy dog eyes. As a middle-aged man with an overly well-known face, the High Lord was now finding it decidedly troublesome.
The Commandment demanded that The Cheats were never to pay for a meal, and the more nefarious the plot to attain food, the more devout the Brother. The early years had seen the High Lord clothed in a well-patched dinner suit, his voice wrapped in earnestly plummy vowels, tied up with crystalline consonants. He would plead entry to the gilded, marble arches of elite restaurants, the maitre d’ would inevitably decline, only to be swept up in a tale of sorrow and disaster (or sometimes a tale of hope and triumph, if the mood took him).
When the maitre d’s of all the best restaurants had grown sick of his tales, he started visiting the second best restaurants, but they too soon grew wary of the man with the rapidly sagging angel face. Gradually, he saw his evening meal turn from stuffed quail a la Contessa, to bangers and mash a la Kevin-what-works-down-the-pub. The doormen and barmen of the lesser establishments were also less inclined to believe his elaborately woven tales and so getting dinner had become a nightly trial.
The other Commandments had grown equally frustrating as time had passed – cheating on a young naïve girl was one thing, but Thou Shalt Cheat on Thy Partners was a damn sight more risky when your only option was your twenty stone, rolling-pin wielding landlady. After being turfed out of three different bedsits, the High Lord had decided to nullify the Third Commandment by avoiding the company of others. This had made his life easier, but hadn’t improved his mood.
Tonight though, it was the Final Commandment that was causing him trouble. The High Lord closed his eyes, quieted the thundering of his pulse and opened his ears to the sounds that filtered into the alley. A cut-off shriek from two dubious alleys along, the clicking sound of a mouse gnawing on rotten wood, footsteps, the sound of knuckles meeting cheekbone – footsteps.
The High Lord held his breath, the owner of the footsteps was making no effort to silence his feet: his heels hit the ground first with a click muffled by the grit that lined the cobbles, the toes twisted as the foot lifted away, a grating sound that punctuated each step.
HELLO BILLY. The voice boomed inside his skull.
FANCY. MEETING. YOU. HERE. There were hesitant pauses
between the words, as though read from a script by someone with no idea of
their meaning. The footsteps splashed into the entrance of the alley.
IT IS TIME FOR OUR GAME. At that, High Lord Billy of the
Eternal Worshipful Brotherhood of Cheats opened both eyes and bladder, and
stared in horror at the robed figure.
“Oh, uh, hello. Is it that time already? I was sure it was
next year – are you certain it isn’t next year?”
The robed figure did not respond, but withdrew a glowing
timer from his robe and set it carefully on the uneven slabs at the High Lord’s
feet. The sand in the top bulb was draining into the bottom half at a somewhat
“Right, right. Well, I get to choose the game, right?”
THE 32ND HIGH LORD CHOSE THE LAST GAME. THIS TIME
I GET TO CHOOSE.
“Ah. So – so what’s it t-to b-be?”
I THINK… YES… I
RATHER THINK I FEEL LIKE A GAME OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS.
The High Lord reared backward, affronted,
“You want to play Rock, Paper, Scissors for my soul?! That’s hardly respectful! What about the almighty
game of Kha-Lan? The reverent game of Shin-sou? What about a bloody game of
THEY TAKE TOO LONG. I’M IN A RUSH.
“You’re in a rush?! I’m
about to die and you’re in a rush?”
The High Lord’s indignant bluster fell away with a huff.
“Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
WAIT… HOLD ON, I NEED TO GET THE WORDS RIGHT… WHERE WAS I… AH,
33RD HIGH LORD OF THE ETERNAL WORSHIPFUL BROTHERHOOD OF CHEATS, ALSO KNOWN AS BILLY, I GREET YOU.
ACCORDING TO THE AGREEMENT BETWEEN THE FIRST HIGH LORD AND MYSELF,
I CANNOT TOUCH THE BRETHREN EXCEPT BY APPOINTMENT.
TODAY I COME TO YOU TO KEEP OUR APPOINTMENT.
IF YOU WIN, YOU WILL BE GRANTED ANOTHER 15 YEARS OF LIFE. IF
YOU LOSE, YOU FORFEIT THE RIGHT TO YOUR SOUL.
The robed figure paused and then held out a skeletal hand,
bones so white they seemed to glow in the dimness of the alley, fingers curled
into a fist.
2nd Commandment: Thou shalt never pay for food,
shelter or clothing
3rd Commandment: Thou shalt never trust a brother
4th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat on Thy Partners
5th Commandment: Thou shalt Cheat Death
 The Kitten Spider is covered in grey striped fur. It tucks its legs underneath its hairy abdomen and mewls like a cat until another creature approaches, whereupon it sinks two inch deadly fangs into its target.
Guppy’s feet hurt. It turned out no-one had bothered to cobble the world outside (to be fair she could see why, it was the least interesting thing her eyeballs had ever bled over). Instead, it was full of mud and puddles and grit and rocks and miles and miles of emptiness.
The first day, she’d actually tried to pay attention to the journey so she could find her way back on the off-chance that they could escape. This proved to be doubly pointless: there was about as much differentiation as you’d find between the undersides of two slime covered paving slabs, and Grey’s knife never wavered from view.
By day two, she was envisioning herself being carried along in a golden palanquin so her shredded leather soles floated above that bloody miserable surface.
By day four, she’d decided that if she were king, she would command that the entire land be covered in paving slabs with lots of fruit vendors dotted around the place. And her subjects would be ordered to mill along making lots of noise so there wasn’t this head-exploding silence.
It turned out that Nate was even more miserable than she was (she felt a bit bad that this cheered her up). Grey kept him to heel through the entire march, and had been forcing him to tell the tiniest of lies over and over again.
This had resulted in his rag-doll body getting repeatedly spattered with vomit, though Grey somehow always managed to stay out of the splash zone.
Shame, thought Guppy.
She supposed that it was possible there might have been a little less vomit exiting Nate’s mouth than there had been at the beginning, so maybe his tolerance was getting better. Or maybe he was just a whole lot emptier.
Grey was looking grimmer, and Guppy suspected her threat to dump Nate was getting more likely by the day.
Time to take action.
They’d set up for camp in a small copse that offered some shelter from the constant drift of rain that spiderwebbed their clothing. As ever, they ate in silence, jaws working over leathered strips of meat and small pats of nut-tack. Grey had taken to stalking a few more strides away to sleep, though she made sure her blades were still all too visible in the grey light.
‘Nate!’ Guppy hissed at the huddled figure curled up at the foot of a wide oak. She kept one eye on Grey, who lay completely still across the small clearing.
The boy stirred and rolled slowly over to look at her.
‘What do you want, Guppy?’ He sounded completely exhausted, voice emptied of every trace of fear. She scrambled forward over the squishy ground.
‘You gotta figure this thing out, else she’s gonna boot you. And you don’t want to end up with another slaver again.’
He shook his head, voice rising. ‘I’ve tried! I’ve been trying for days! I’m just not like you.’
Guppy paused, chewing her lip. ‘See the thing is, Nate, I reckon that lying is all about what you think is the truth. If I know something’s a lie, then it tastes like a lie. But if I say something I think is the truth, then it never tastes bad even if I find out later I was wrong. So I don’t get hung up on truth, it’s all just what I think at the time. And maybe that’s why it don’t taste so bad when I lie, part of me knows it could be the truth, somewhere, for someone.’
Nate’s pale face wrinkled, ‘So you’re saying truth doesn’t exist?’
Guppy shrugged, ‘I’m saying I’ve never found it all that reliable. Maybe that could help you.’
He sighed, ‘I’ll try. But I don’t see how going with Grey is any better than being with a slaver anyway.’
She nodded, glancing back at the long lean shadow that lurked behind her. ‘I’m not sticking with her, we’ll run as soon as we can. But if you can’t lie, you’ll get dumped off somewhere.’
‘Why do you even care?’
Guppy scowled. ‘I bloody well nearly burnt my tongue off last time I dropped you in it. I don’t fancy trying that again.’
He snorted softly, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.’
‘Again.’ Grey’s voice pulled Guppy awake. Grey and Nate were standing a few paces away, their faces turned away.
‘I’m from Casta.’ Nate’s voice wobbled slightly, but there was no heave to his shoulders, not a single retch.
Guppy sat up, eyes widening.
‘You’re a servant from Casta.’ Grey’s voice was as bored as it had been the day before.
‘I’m a servant from Casta.’
‘Good, you need to keep your face from screwing up, it’s still easy to see you’re uncomfortable. Again.’
Guppy flopped back with a wild grin. He’d finally done it.
It was another three days before Casta came into view. Nate had only had four more vomiting incidents and was slowly getting better at keeping his face from scrunching.
The capital city rose from the landscape in stocky steep pillars of dark grey. Walls made of blocks bigger than Guppy herself soared far ahead and curved around as far as her eyes could see. But with the looming grey came a new scent that flared her nostrils, had her sticking her tongue out to taste. Salt, like an exaggerated tale with the barest hint of truth, but a subtle sting rather than an eye-watering punch.
‘Guppy! Pay attention.’ Grey’s fingers gripped her shoulder in a fierce pinch. ‘We need to get to the palace without anyone paying any attention to you. This isn’t going to happen if you keep gawping around. Get your head down.’
Guppy rolled her eyes and mouthed a silent imitation of her captor, but kept her head down as Grey walked them toward the heavily guarded gate in the wall.
At the very edge of her vision, she watched the city pass by. It smelt more or less the same as home, apart from the salt that hung in the air – bread and uncleaned drains and brew and sweat. She nodded to herself. This she could deal with.
And then she saw the palace.
There was no helping the gawp. She pulled to a halt to stare, barely noticing Nate run into her from behind.
The palace streaked straight up from the edge of the city, surrounded by ordered groves of ancient looking trees that were weighed down by heavily scented blooms. It was made of the same grey stone as the rest of the city, but the blocks were much smaller, allowing for an almost delicate construction that was bigger than any building Guppy had ever imagined, let alone seen.
Grey looked back over her shoulder, impatient frown ever present.
‘What did I tell you about gawping?’
Guppy shook the startled expression from her face, and trotted toward the perfumed grove.
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.
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.
Her tongue felt as swollen as a ten day old sausage, and had turned a similar grey-green colour. Guppy poked at it dubiously in her warped tin-kettle reflection. It didn’t pop, which was probably a good sign.
She really hoped it didn’t fall off.
She had made her way out earlier, keenly aware that it might raise suspicions if she wasn’t spotted in her usual haunts. Happily, she never really spoke to anyone anyway (at least when she wasn’t lying), so her silent blistered mouth hadn’t been a problem.
The whole town seemed to be aflutter over yesterday’s incident. The baker’s wife was enjoying the attention, dramatically recounting just how horrifically traumatic it had all been, with one hand pressed to her bouncing bosom. Guppy snorted in disgust, then casually scooped up some particularly moist horse dung and dropped it in the woman’s carelessly unattended basket.
The boy had been taken to the lock-up, according to a man nursing a wobbling tankard. The boy had been wheeled away in the night, according to an over-excited milkmaid. The boy had never existed and it was all a conspiracy designed to make people think that – Guppy didn’t stay to hear the rest of that theory.
The most reliable source, the guards, were thankfully just as chatty as the rest of the townsfolk. The boy had been taken to the guard house overnight, but was now being held at an inn while awaiting collection by a private owner. It took her another hour to figure out which of the inns was housing the boy, and the rest of the afternoon to finish her preparations.
She went for tried and true, and nicked a pinny from the pile of washing on Mother Arbie’s back doorstep. It was unfortunately a pinny for someone with the approximate girth of two large beer barrels, but she figured if she wrapped it around enough times, it’d do. This unfortunately had the effect of turning Guppy into an immobile starched cylinder, and she had to redo the whole affair three times before she was able to walk in it. The multiple attempts had also resulted in considerable muck spreading over the formerly-known-as-white surface, so she was a bit dubious about being allowed anywhere near a kitchen at this point.
Still, she figured people should bloody well be grateful to have an extra pair of hands about. Even if said hands were attempting to steal a small grubby boy.
It was the inn on the north-eastern road, which headed off toward the capital city and the coast. It was a clean enough place, big stable round the back and six or seven rooms upstairs. It was usually frequented by traders (most of whom stayed for as short a time as possible), and the occasional staffer (they didn’t like to be called slavers anymore, something about making it hard to fit into decent company).
Two deep breaths and Guppy headed in, with only a slight pinny-induced waddle. It was mostly quiet in the corridors, all the noise was coming from the kitchen at this time of night. She found herself a basket and swiftly started stuffing it with various towels and cloths. Basket under one arm, she headed upstairs and knocked on the first of the guest doors. Silence. She pressed her finger to the latch and pushed on the heavy wood.
Empty, just a greyish bed in a greyish room.
Rooms two and three were the same, so it clearly wasn’t peak season for the inn. Room four gave a muffled shout to come in, and she popped her head around to see an overstuffed gentleman attempting to pull a brilliant purple coat over his straining arms. He barely glanced at her when she asked for laundry and so, after a quick scan of the room, she left him to his herculean effort.
Room five was silent. She thumbed the latch open and peered in, then immediately felt her heart kick into a faster beat. Gotcha.
The boy didn’t look up. He was tied to the head of the bed by a length of rope that allowed him as far as the chamberpot but no further. His mouth was stuffed with something that looked like it might taste even worse than the flavours she usually encountered. That pinched face was nearly clean, but the raw red eyes suggested it might have been washed with tears rather than pump water.
Guppy snuck in, gently pushed the door closed and set the basket down on the floor. The boy was staring at her. She held a finger to her lips, then pulled the rag out of his mouth. He retched, spat, and began to gnaw at the cord at his wrists. Bonds undone, he stood and glared at her.
‘What are you doing here?’ His tone was not in the slightest bit grateful.
Guppy frowned and shook her head, his glare hardened.
‘You could talk well enough yesterday.’
She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue for inspection. His recoil made her suspect that it hadn’t improved much from its earlier inflated state.
She stuck her thumb behind her at the door, beckoned. He just sat down on the bed, mouth firmed into a belligerent line. Guppy waved her hands frantically in front of him, gave him a none-too-gentle yank.
‘I don’t know who you are, but you weren’t on my side yesterday. There’s no way I’m going anywhere with you.’
He was clearly mentally defective.
She slapped her hands in exasperation against the mottled pinny and stomped around, reaching for the door.
It nearly hit her in the face.
The man behind it quirked a thin gold eyebrow at her. He was slickly dressed in a dark green tailcoat and pale gold trousers, making her think of a particularly skinny tree.
‘And who are you, er,’ his nose wrinkled pointedly, ‘Young lady? Two for one deal is it?’
Guppy scowled and gave him a vicious kick to the shin.
The boy stared in horror as the man crumpled thanks to Guppy’s follow up knee to his delicates. She reached over the man and grabbed the boy’s arm to drag him out the door, scuttling down the narrow steps and out the back entrance. Extremely angry swearing was audible from the open window above.
Guppy lowered her head and pelted faster, boy in tow.
She’d already decided she couldn’t take him to her usual sleeping place, too much risk they’d be seen. But there was a mostly forgotten cellar full of rotten potatoes behind old man Leecher’s house, and she’d spent a night or two there without any hassle before.
She could hear the boy starting to wheeze, and though she gave a scornful huff, she eased up the pace. They couldn’t run through the streets anyway, not without someone seeing and remembering.
They were five streets away from the house when she heard sharp footsteps behind them. She bustled the boy into the shadowed side of the cobbled street and hustled him onward, one ear listening to those footsteps in their wake.
Four streets away.
Three streets away.
Two streets – the footsteps had gone silent. Guppy whirled, pushing the boy behind her.
And found the sharp edge of a blade beneath her chin.
She tasted lies young. Much younger than most other children of the town, who were strategically warned by mothers and nursemaids that if you lied, a four-headed serpent with teeth as long as your arm would bite your tongue clear off. And you would also be sent to bed without supper.
Guppy had no mother, no nursemaid, went to bed without supper more often than not, and never encountered a four headed serpent.
What she did encounter was taste.
The first time had been after she swiped a particularly fine looking meat pie left cooling in the baker’s window. Belly full of evidence, she had widened her eyes in panic at the baker’s wife and hurriedly denied any knowledge whatsoever of meat pies in general, let alone this specific pie (it had been remarkably buttery and crumbly, with a firm meaty middle, riddled with chunks of apple).
At her bumbled denial, Guppy’s mouth had flooded with eye-drenching sourness, a taste that seemed to be dissolving her teeth as well as her tongue.
She’d managed a wavery smile convincing enough to send the baker’s wife off after another target, before sticking her mouth under a spigot and scrabbling at her tongue with dirty fingers. The taste of pie was long gone.
In a land where lying was accompanied by such unpleasant consequences, most everyday folk stuck to the truth, or at least as near the truth as would mitigate the risk of tongue scorch and public shaming. Guppy, however, began to try lie after lie, exploring the flavours and learning to tolerate the taste until she could keep all trace of the terrible mouth experiences from her face.
She discovered that white lies tasted bitter-sweet, less dreadful than bold-faced lies, but still with a lingering edge of after taste. Lies of exaggeration bubbled with rotten fumes akin to the smells from a dung heap. Lies of fabrication, including tales told to entertain, would result in an explosion of salt, as though your tongue were caked in crystals.
She got away with it all too, until she encountered the boy.
He had been visiting the market for a week now. He looked about six or seven, with a painfully thin face that often had tear tracks streaking through the dirt. Guppy had watched him clumsily swipe food from several of the stalls, and was pleased to see that the stallholders who noticed his thefts kept quiet, eyes sympathetically watching his frail frame.
Then the boy stole from the wrong stall. The baker’s wife set to screeching as soon as she saw her missing loaf, drawing the swift attention of a town guard, who hared after the boy and had him pulled up by the collar in a few strides.
The boy had had the sense to ditch the bread as soon as the woman had started her howls, but the baker’s wife pointed one plump finger directly at Guppy, who had unfortunately been front and centre for the entire debacle. There was no time to dart elsewhere.
The guard turned to her, the boy gasping in his grip.
‘Girl. Did you see this boy take bread from the woman’s stall?’
Guppy gulped. She could lie, but it was fairly clear that the boy was the culprit and she didn’t want it revealed that she could speak untruths. But if she told the truth, the boy was probably headed for a life of slavery. The boy’s eyes were huge in his haggard face, beseeching her with silent pleas.
‘I saw him.’
Guppy looked down, unable to meet his gaze. And as the guard whirled away with the boy in hand, she felt a curious burning begin in her mouth. Within moments, her tongue seemed to catch alight, scorching the roof of her mouth into blisters, and forcing a whimper to escape her well-trained lips.
Later, as she lay with a rag dipped in cool water inside her mouth, she thought that this must be the taste of betrayal. The result of speaking what you know is wrong in your heart, no matter the technical truth.
The boy’s eyes continued to haunt her.
Swollen-tongue be damned. He wasn’t going to disappear on her watch.
*No muses were invoked in the writing of this piece
I find her in a shed. The directions I’d been given back in the town had been about as useful as a raw sausage with no fire, but it turns out endless ambling has won the day.
The shed stands beneath a slumping holly tree, its walls scarcely visible beneath a mass of determined ivy in mortal combat with a trumpeting morning glory.
I left the footpath over an hour ago, giving in to an unwise spurt of hanger-born bravado, and I’ve been regretting the decision with every thorn/sting/mud-slide/spider-ridden step.
Glimpsing the shed hadn’t exactly raised my spirits (I think my thoughts may have run along the lines of, if I see one more bloody shepherding hut, I’m digging out the matches). But beleaguered hope is restored when I see the sign hammered out front.
‘Stop thinking so loudly.’
After ten minutes of tentative knocking that I tactfully escalate to a crescendo of hammering, I hear her voice for the first time. With the dulcet tones of a rusted car door, melodious as a corvid, Calliope speaks:
“Can you not take a hint?”
The door shudders open. She stands taller than me, arms folded into taut cords across a wiry body, all angles and lines. Her skin is a papery brown and hangs loose around the strong bones of her face, the long arch of her neck. Old she may seem, but weak she is not. Power is writ into every inch.
It takes over fifteen minutes to convince her that I’m not a) a salesperson, b) an Instagrammer intent on advertising her location, or c) a desperate writer. She pointedly drags the door closed and leans back against it, standing in silence for a long moment, one leathered hand tapping against an elbow.
“Back in the day, we took our pick of the desperate idiots clamouring for attention, all of them with too much money and time on their hands. ‘O Calliope, make me the world’s greatest poet!’, ‘O Calliope, do not forsake me!’” Her simpering falsetto rings with contempt.
“I’d spend a month, maybe a year with one, and find another when the spark dampened. They all made a bit of a racket, sure, but there weren’t too many overall so it was doable. Sometimes I’d hear someone so full of fire and raw talent that we’d end up working together for a lifetime: mutual inspiration, joy, creation.”
Her mouth twists.
“And then times changed. You know what it’s like to have millions of writers out there screaming for inspiration? The journalists, now, ha! Multiple articles each day and it never stops! I haven’t been able to hear myself think since the birth of the bloody internet!”
She stops. Forces her shoulders to relax. Huffs out a breath.
“It’s the same for all of us, of course. Well, except for Urania, she’s got a manageable flock of astronomers with the sense to use a bit of elbow grease rather than cry out for divine inspiration. She can actually live near people, just avoids the ones with telescopes. Me, I’m stuck out here in the bloody woods so I don’t get woken up at 2am by next door’s teenage daughter writing werewolf fan-fiction. Or her dad when he writes his Mills and Boon books while his wife is asleep.”
She gives a hoarse sigh.
“Gods, I miss the old days.”
Her gaze moves back to me. Hardens.
“And you. You come here with your I-was-just-curious line. But you’re just going to go home and bloody well write something, aren’t you? You can’t just keep it in your own measly skull, you have to go and get it all out there.” Her arms uncross to wave in exasperation. “You’re all the same! Wanting something for nothing, no effort, no learning, no time spent on the craft. Gods forbid you actually think before flinging wishes into the aether.”
Dark eyes bore into me.
I drop mine to the mud-splattered toes of my boots.
In which we journey to a future far, far (and hopefully further) away
They brought in S.H.A.M.E four years ago.
It stands for System for Health and Monitoring Efficiency, and it took the government years of bullying, bribes and blackmail to force companies into implementation. It was going to ‘transform productivity’, ‘improve stakeholder engagement’, and had to be ‘actioned immediately’.
Workers are pretty damn engaged. But mostly because they’re scared shitless.
It works like this: sickness and absence stats, start and finish times, and hours spent on productive tasks are all monitored by a national system that ties data to your National Insurance number and Health Service number. Everyone – from the CEO to the handyman – has to wear a digitised display badge with stats and rankings, and it emits an ear-piercing bleep every time your numbers slip. Teams get rewarded or punished based on collective performances. Productivity is the only thing that matters.
Once your stats drop too low, you can’t work for a company in the same tier any more – you have to move down to a lower tier company. Less pay, same badges. The sleep at the factory kind of deal with no-break shifts, no daylight, and no real money.
If your stats slip too far, there are no jobs. No one can take on a dud in case they have to fork out for rehabilitation training. S.H.A.M.E Central Services take the offender somewhere for a few weeks and drill into them that they need to be less shit. Then they get their badge numbers bumped up just enough so they can work in the lowest tier. “Rehabilitation” costs way more than most people can afford, and more than most companies want to pay.
No badge means no money and no health services.
The government says that measures are in place for S.H.A.M.E to work for everyone. It says that those with a confirmed diagnosis receive an allotment of extra points on their badge. It says that you can get a badge with larger font displays. Or with digi-braille. It says that anyone who’s fallen out the bottom has chosen to ‘not be part of a successful system’.
The government says a lot of things.
They’re launching S.H.A.M.E in America now, and half of Europe is a S.H.A.M.E zone. Apparently the UK’s been an astounding success case.
It’s like they can’t even see all those people sleeping on the streets.
The sphere market is a strange place (though perhaps not as strange as its purveyor).
Tiered shelves are ranked against the walls, blocked from wandering fingers by a coarse weave wire mesh.
The spheres on those shelves hum softly to one another, together creating the prickling feeling that I am entering a hive.
I nod to the slumped figure in the far corner, he/she is so immobile that my eyes had slid over them before realising what they had seen. The figure grunts, still without moving.
I return my gaze to the spheres. They are marvellous feats of engineering. Around a century ago, two enterprising researchers discovered that they could link small engines to individual humans, harnessing energy while they slept. These generators could be linked into systems and used as a reliable and strong power source – if you could afford one. Even the cheapest (those that were twinned with the arguably-humans that require only four hours sleep a night) cost more than half a year’s earnings.
On a rickety, splintered wooden tray next to the purveyor are the broken spheres and the unpredictable. One has rolled into the corner and repeatedly flashes on and then off – narcolepsy perhaps, or a new parent. Another seems to be humming happily enough, but the stallholder jerks and mutters ‘sinus issues’, I nod, it’s not likely to have a reliable burn time.
The most precious spheres are kept in a smeared glass case in the centre of the room – the pride and glory. They glow in harmony, guaranteed to provide at least ten productive hours a night, and often last much longer than that. The humans they link to suffer from constant fatigue, some due to depression, others due to physical health disorders. In order to be considered the best possible supply, these humans must have been reliably over-sleeping for at least a year under testing.
One sphere sits on a dusty velvet plinth, emblazoned with ‘commar pashunt‘. It’s been there a while, judging by the cobwebs that twine with the filigree of its sphere.
I’ve heard the whispers that the engineers have been pushed harder and harder by demand. That they have been seeding the humans with disease to increase the worth of spheres, and interfering with efforts to research cures. They live in fear that humanity might get its act together before the engineers can figure out how to stop spheres from becoming obsolete.
I suspect that’s giving humans too much credit.
The stallholder shifts, impatience clear in the lines of his/her body. I return to the sinus sphere and slide my fingers around the warm wire cage with its vibrating hum.