This flashfic appeared on a blog a few years ago as part of a tour for the release of The Dream Alchemist.
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…
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.