This appeared on a blog a few years ago as part of a tour for the release of The Dream Alchemist. I only just came across it again and decide to post it here. Hope you enjoy 🙂
They call it the Enchanted Kingdom, and its inhabitants the Dreamers.
The Dreamers have been asleep for a hundred years. They do not need food, or drink. They do not even need to breathe. But they are alive. Alive and dreaming. Dreams from which they cannot awake.
The Dreamers froze at the very instant their prince pricked his finger on a magical needle. It is only they who are enchanted, not the kingdom itself. The plants and animals, birds and insects still go about the business of working, growing and dying. The rain still falls. The wind still blows.
The Dreamers have become like trees on which ivy might climb, or a bird might nest. Just like a tree, a Dreamer might become inhabited. Some unfortunate souls have been…gnawed upon.
When City folk talk about the Enchanted Kingdom, they spout nonsense about fine lords and ladies in a ballroom, splendid in their silks and satins, frozen in the motions of a courtly dance. But that is not what the Kingdom is like at all.
The first people you will see—if you can fight your way through the dense and lethal forest—are those who were outdoors when the prince pricked his finger. They have spent a century open to the elements. Their clothes disintegrated long ago. Vegetation has grown around them unchecked. They are naked and filthy. Some stand pensively amongst waist-high ferns and grasses; others have toppled to the ground like felled trees, their features obscured by lichen.
There are more people inside the crumbling buildings. These Dreamers still wear clothes. Or what once were clothes and now are rags and dust and cobwebs. Ladies sit in their parlours in mouldering grey heaps, teacups raised halfway to their chalky lips. Footmen stand to attention, their pristine, white-powdered wigs made murky by a thick pelt of dust.
Lothar the mercenary spent two years fighting his way to this hidden place. He is, in fact, the first man to make it all the way here, to the castle. Now, finally, he is walking up the winding stairs of the south turret. A seer told him that the prince is in the topmost attic room; that he lies where he fell when the magic needle pricked him.
Lothar has come to waken the prince with a life-giving kiss. He has fought battles with magical beasts to reach this place and defied the curses of the prince’s powerful faerie enemy. There is nothing Lothar would not do to wake the sleeping prince. The prince is wealthy beyond imagination but his riches can only be unlocked once the enchantment is broken.
And once he is awake…well, Lothar won’t need him anymore.
The winding steps in the turret grow ever narrower the higher Lothar climbs. Close to the top of the staircase, he has to clamber over a maidservant who is sprawled face-up. He treads heavily on her hand, wincing when he hears the crunching of bone beneath his heel, but she makes no sound, merely continues to lie there, unmoving. Lothar can barely make out her features beneath the lacy veil of cobwebs that obscure them. He wonders if she felt that injury, if she is aware of him now.
He begins to climb again and soon he is at the top. The stout, wooden door is not quite closed. It creaks loudly when Lothar pushes it open, its hinges rusted from disuse.
The room Lothar enters is circular, with narrow windows at regular intervals. Sunlight streams through several of the window slits, the golden beams converging to illuminate the room’s sole occupant, who lies on the floor, looking like nothing more than a huddle of dusty rags. This, it seems, is the prince, royally attended by a thousand dust motes, dancing in the air above him.
Lothar steps closer, cautious. The prince lies face-down on the cold, damp flagstones, the remnants of a faded velvet cloak covering him. A fragile net of cobwebs pins his unmoving head to the floor.
Lothar will have to turn the prince over to kiss him and this is easier said than done—as soon as he bends down to take hold of the man’s shoulder, half a dozen spiders come scuttling out in different directions, making Lothar recoil with shocked disgust.
He swallows against a sudden rush of bile. The thought of kissing this filthy thing is nauseating but he has not come this far to be so easily deterred and when he bends down again, he grasps the prince’s shoulders more firmly. Again though, he pauses. The body beneath his hands is unexpectedly warm—unmistakably alive. There is a pliancy to this unmoving form. There is life in this shell. Life that cannot be seen but is there nonetheless, just waiting to be coaxed out.
No more hesitation.
In one swift movement, Lothar wrenches the prince over onto his back. This time he is blind to the scattering creatures that flee from the sudden light and motion. This time his attention is all on his prize.
The prince’s face is surprisingly clean. His prone position has protected him from the worst of the rat-grey dust. It is a matter of moments to brush the aside the cobwebs that still cling to him, and then Lothar is gazing openly at the face of the man he has come to awaken—and to steal from.
It is an elegant face, and a young one. Unmarred by age or privation. Unmarred by violence or disease. It is the face of a rich and privileged youth. There is something rather terrible about its haughty beauty, and Lothar finds he wants to find out what that terrible thing might be. For the first time in his long adventure, something other than avarice stirs in him, though Lothar quickly suppresses the feeling, impatient with himself. He is being absurd, he tells himself, growing fanciful in his weariness. He is far too well acquainted with his own black, covetous soul to fall prey to such nonsense.
It is time to turn to the business at hand.
Burrowing his hands under the prince’s body, Lothar lifts the man’s slack form up and lowers his head to bestow the kiss that will unlock his fortune.
No breath stirs from the slumbering youth as Lothar draws close. When their lips are but an inch apart, he pauses one last time, giving the beautiful, sleeping face a final look, as though in farewell, before he closes his eyes and finally sets his mouth to the prince’s dry lips.
At the moment of contact, the prince’s body lurches as though he has been struck by lightning, his arms fastening about Lothar’s neck with unnatural strength. His lips part and he gasps like a man drowned, cleaving to Lothar as firmly as a leech. He gasps again, sucking the air from Lothar’s mouth and drawing even more from his lungs. Lothar begins to struggle in the prince’s deathly grasp. He is suffocating. Unable to push the prince away, he scrabbles behind his own neck to grasp the youth’s slim wrists and prise them away.
And in that moment, the prince’s eyes open. At first they are fully black—the pupils entirely obscuring the irises as they greedily absorb the sunlight—but in another instant the pupils recede, and Lothar sees that the prince’s eyes are not black at all, but a dark, underwater blue.
His underwater gaze pleads with Lothar.
For some reason he doesn’t understand, Lothar finds himself letting go of the wrists in his hands and fastening his arms about the prince’s waist instead, pulling him closer, even though Lothar’s own vision is greying, and his lungs are bursting.
The prince sucks down Lothar’s breath again, and again. Just when Lothar thinks he’s going to die, the prince finally releases him. Discarded, Lothar falls to the floor, unable to do anything but lie there, dragging air into his lungs in noisy gasps. Already he can hear the babble of distant voices as the kingdom awakes. Already, the prince is stumbling to the northmost window.
As soon as he can manage it, Lothar staggers to his feet and joins the prince at the window, curious as to what has him so transfixed.
He looks down, over the prince’s shoulder.
Outside, the Dreamers are gathering at the castle gates.
And for the first time, Lothar is afraid.
Kit Redford Christmas prequel scene (December, 2017)
This prequel scene gives a taste of what’s to come in Kit Redford’s story, a standalone story set in the Enlightenment universe which will come out … at some point. As you may know from reading my other holiday stories, I like a little bittersweetness in my festive fiction…
25th December 1822, 2.20am
Kit settled back in his chair and stared into the glowing embers of the fire. In his hand he cradled the deep bowl of a brandy snifter. He still wore his evening clothes—Redford’s had closed less an hour ago—but late as it was, he was not tired.
The house was very still, very quiet. On the mantel over the fireplace, a carriage clock ticked, each metallic snick of the filigree hands behind the glass face absurdly loud in the unfamiliar silence.
Hardly surprising it was so quiet—the house was practically empty. Maria had left for Brighton yesterday with little Anna in tow, and now Arthur was gone too, though in Arthur’s case, he hadn’t gone very far. Only to his old hunting grounds in St. Giles. He’d told Kit he’d probably spend the next week drunk on cheap gin. Then he’d come back and “try again”. By which he meant, try again to make a success of his new chosen profession.
Arthur—beautiful, louche and sharp-tongued—had been one of the select few prostitutes Kit would allow in Redford’s, and he was the very last of them that Kit would have imagined had any wish to change his life. But it seemed that Arthur did wish to change his life, and now he was practising his new valeting skills on Kit. Unfortunately, as good as Arthur’s taste was, service did not come naturally to him—no more than treating him as a servant came naturally to Kit. As it happened, Maria, a former lady’s maid who understood only too well the workings of a life belowstairs, made up for Kit’s inability to issue orders. Arthur was driving her to distraction though. She’d flatly informed him before she’d left town the previous day that he might as well get ready to go back to selling his arse, since he’d last less than hour as a real valet if he couldn’t keep a civil tongue in his head.
Kit chuckled as he recollected their argument of the day before and the salty insults they’d traded. As much as their bickering made his head ache, he missed them already, and especially tonight.
Lifting the snifter, Kit absently took a sip. The spirit trickled a heated path down his gullet, its deep, mellow flavour blooming on his tongue, but he wasn’t enjoying it tonight as he usually did. Perhaps he was unsettled by the silence.
Or perhaps by its being nearly Christmas.
Kit did not enjoy Christmas. Too many memories, some happy, and some very much not. And too much time to think about them—Redford’s would be closed for the next few days, Town being so quiet at this time of year. The familiar sights and sounds and smells of the festive season didn’t help. Whenever he came across the aroma of roasting chestnuts, he was transported back to that one Christmas with Henry.
The Christmas with Henry—just one, during the heady, foolish year he’d spent under the man’s protection— had been painfully wonderful. Back then, he’d fancied himself in love with his protector. Like an idiot, he’d even thought Henry might feel the same way.
As if a man like Henry, a duke for God’s sake, could love a whore.
Looking back, he cringed at his naivete. Henry had paid Kit for the use of his body. Nothing more, nothing less. He hadn’t even paid the full agreed price in the end. Presumably, he hadn’t thought Kit worth the bargain. And yet, that brief Christmas they’d spent together… Kit may have been deluded, but he’d been happy. Truly happy.
They’d managed quite a few evenings together over that festive season. Henry had even managed to slip away on Christmas Eve. He’d come to Kit, quite late, and stayed till the early hours. They’d roasted chestnuts on the fire in the sitting room in a little copper pan, splitting open the searingly hot skins open to scoop out the sweet fragrant flesh.
It had snowed that night—no more than a light powdering that hadn’t even lasted till morning, but when Henry was leaving, and Kit had opened the side door of the little house to let him out, it had been to find fat, feathery flakes circling gently down from the heavens. Charmed, he’d tiptoed outside in his bare feet and lifted his face to the sky, letting the delicate clumps fall, then melt, against his cheeks and lips. As he’d stood there, mesmerised, Henry had slid his arms about Kit’s waist and pulled him back against Henry’s chest. And when he’d turned in Henry’s arms, ready to scold him, Henry had stolen a kiss. Their mouths had clung, sweetly, right there in the dark street, where anyone passing could have seen them.
It was lowering that, even now, not far off twenty years later, Kit still remembered every particular of that moment. The warmth and strength of Henry’s arms, the soft brush of his lips, the freezing ground under Kit’s bare feet.
The boy Kit had been could never have imagined that the next Christmas would be so very different. Oh, the next year had started well enough, but by the Spring it had become plain that Henry had lost interest in Kit. His visits had stopped abruptly, and within weeks, Henry’s dead-eyed servant had been on his doorstep to deliver Kit’s marching orders.
God, but he’d been devastated. At the time, he’d thought, like a perfect fool, that he didn’t care if he lived or died. But you live and you learn, and Kit had learned that it’s only when you come close to actually dying, that you discover how much you truly want to live.
That next Christmas, Kit had learned the answer to that question. Had learned that he very much wanted to live; that when faced with death, he was, in fact, filled with a clamouring hunger to survive. It was desperation for survival that had driven him to his feet, despite broken ribs and fingers, despite the endless dissonant ringing in his head from the final, awful blow Lyall had landed before he’d departed, in search of more drink. Left for dead, Kit had somehow managed to live, stumbling out of the rooms Lyall usually locked up so carefully and catching a cab to Georgette’s.
Kit closed his eyes against the other memories of that night, of how he’d come to be in such a state, suppressing the wave of nausea that assailed him as he recollected the horrible hours before. The pain. Worse, the shame. The humiliation of being forced to beg, and of doing so, almost desperately, only to have his pleas denied. Now, two decades later, it was those memories—more than those of his physical injuries—that tormented him. Of having to remember how thoroughly his pride had been shredded by Lyall. Of how he’d been forced to acknowledge his own craven fear and weakness.
You snivelling bitch. Lyall had sneered. You pathetic cur. And yes, Kit had been both of those things.
Please, he’d begged, low on his knees, cradling his broken right hand in front of his chest. Let this be enough punishment now. I am sorry.
He had apologised, hoping it would soothe Lyall. But of course, it had not, and he wished afterwards he had not done so.
If you want mercy, Lyall had drawled, bark for it, like the dog you are. Desperate by then, in fear of his life, Kit had done it, tears streaming down his face. But Lyall had shown no mercy, only laughed, then beaten Kit senseless, leaving him slumped in a heap on the parlour floor.
A sudden snap brought Kit back to himself. His eyes—which he realised had been tightly shut—opened and he looked down to see that he’d broken the snifter, his tight grip breaking the delicate glass stem quite in two. Thankfully, he hadn’t cut himself. He shook his head, as though to rid it of the images that had just been tormenting him and dragged in a few deep breaths. Pushed the memories back, though they still prowled at the perimeter of his mind.
Shakily, he got to his feet and crossed the room to the sideboard, setting down the broken snifter and getting out another. He reached for the decanter and this time, the measure of brandy he poured himself was double the size. When he tossed the spirit to the back of his throat, he relished the desperate burn of it, tasting nothing.
On the mantel, the clock ticked on, the hands moving relentlessly, patiently, onwards.
Time marched ever onward. That was the pity of it, but it was a comfort too. These were always his darkest hours—the early hours of Christmas morning when the rest of the world slept. But soon it would be dawn, and the day itself would be easier. He’d been invited to Jean-Jacques’ house to dine with the Villenneuve family—always a happy and bustling occasion—and he’d told Georgette he’d visit her in the evening to play cards and drink sherry and gossip about the old days. They might stay up all night, as they used to. Perhaps, by the time he went to bed, he’d be exhausted enough to sleep dreamlessly. And then Christmas would be over again, for another year. Arthur would come back in a few days, hungover to blazes, no doubt. Then Maria and little Anna would follow in the new year. The ordinary rhythm of his days would resume again, and the memories would be, if not quite put away, at least easier to ignore.
But now, standing there with the empty brandy glass in his hand, one memory still lingered. It was not of being beaten or shamed though. It was of Henry. Henry’s face, above his own, looking down at him. Henry’s mouth half-hitched into a lopsided smile, his eyes filled with tender affection. Dark hair ruffled from their bed-play and dusted with flakes of whisper-soft snow. And behind him, the sky, wide and very black. Infinite and unknowing.
Just the two of them in all the world.
Just Henry’s lips.
Strangely, the memory of Kit’s foolish happiness in that moment, near twenty years before, was almost more painful than all the injuries he’d sustained the following Christmas. Painful, yes, yet after all these years, still oddly sweet. Still… precious.
Both the best and the worst memory of all his life.
Kit swallowed, hard, and set his empty glass down. He wondered if Henry remembered that long-ago Christmas. If he remembered Kit, or Christopher, as Henry had always called him.
He smiled sadly to himself.
No. Probably not.
Note: Image by Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Castañas asadas) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
You can read this WW2 flashfic here