Once upon a time. That’s how these stories start. Except that’s a load of bollocks, innit? They happen all the bloody time. There’s always something going on in this city, all these bullshit agendas at work. Everyone’s their own hero, and someone else’s villain. And there ain’t no ‘Happily Ever After’ neither – just the people that survive long enough for the next story to begin…
Her skin was white as snow, her hair as black as ebony – and both were covered in vomit. The aroma of the repulsive substance was woven into her general aura of flowery perfume, moisturising skin products, wine, Fairy Dust and strawberry-flavoured lipstick. The remnants of red on her lips were smudged across her cheek and the back of her hand, while the rest of her make-up remained largely in place. Her faded pink dress, while it still hinted at glamour, was splashed with mud – and not all from the puddle she now lay in. She was the poster girl for a great night out that had gone wrong.
And yet she was still beautiful, Ned thought to himself. The curve of her smeared lips displayed the inner peace of someone sleeping soundly, immersed in pleasant dreams – no doubt the lingering effect of the Dust. Through the excessive amount of foundation, blush and other products plastered onto her face, he could see the overall structure was one of a young girl who would age gracefully and ensnare many a man along the way – including Ned, no doubt.
Like his six brothers, all standing in a line beside him, he thought he recognised her. There was something familiar about that face, but it was such an unusual scene to behold her in that none of them could quite make the connection. Unsurprisingly, Foster was the first to identify her.
“It’s -” he began, but stopped himself, looking up and down the alley cautiously. Aside from a cat at the far end creeping tentatively into an overturned dustbin, they were alone. The night air was still. The tall buildings either side of them blocked out most of the noise from the city, so the only sounds of human movement were those of the seven brothers. “It’s best that we get her inside,” Foster said. “Ned, Gruff, Kidd – give me a hand.”
Ned nodded and stepped forward as his eldest brother edged around the sleeping maiden and knelt down to roll her onto her back. She stirred slightly, moaning contentedly in response to whatever was happening in her dreams, but showed no sign of waking. Foster pointed to Ned, Gruff and Kidd in turn, then at three of the woman’s limbs. They each grabbed their respective arm or leg and, on Foster’s count, lifted her as best they could.
Being shorter than the average man, there were many physical tasks Ned and his brothers struggled with in daily life, but lifting a nearly comatose girl that had overdosed on Dust was not one he had expected to be confronted with. He could see the strain on his brothers’ faces – even Foster, who always liked to look like he was in control – but they managed to lift her far enough off the ground that they could move her at a reasonable pace.
Foster shouted for another of their brothers, Smiler, to open the back door to their shop, while Nosey and Dozer watched either end of the alleyway for any signs that they were being watched. Foster and Ned, each holding the girl by an arm, walked backwards up the short cement ramp that led to the door. As they stepped through, the wooden floor of their storeroom creaked in protest but the noise wasn’t loud enough to attract any attention from outside. With Gruff and Kid through the door, Foster called for them to put her down and they gently lowered the girl to the floor. Their brothers in the alley dashed inside, Smiler locked the door, and all let out a sigh of relief.
Smiler went for the light switch, but Foster stopped him. “It’ll wake her up,” he explained.
“Now what?” Gruff grunted. “Foster, is…?”
“Hush,” Foster snapped. He grabbed a velvet cushion off the nearest shelf, one they used to display the most elaborate necklaces in their window displays, and tucked it under the girl’s head. He then marched out the door that led to the shop floor, waving for his brothers to follow. Ned hesitated, one eye on the girl at all times, but an aggressive throat-clearing cough from Foster called him out of the storeroom. Foster closed the door behind Ned and spoke.
“Do none of you recognise her?” he scoffed, in the usual patronising tone he reserved for the not-infrequent occasions where he believed he knew more than his brothers.
Most shook their head sheepishly, their confused faces lit by a combination of the street lamps shining through the shop windows behind them and flecks of light reflecting from their hand-crafted jewellery in the display cases around the room. Ned opened his mouth to say that he couldn’t quite place her face, if only to elevate himself in his older brother’s eyes and free him from that condescending tone, but Gruff got there first.
“She’s the princess, isn’t she?” he said. “The one that keeps going missing.”
Ned and the others – except Kidd, who always struggled to follow even the simplest of conversations – gasped. Ned’s thoughts conjured up the image of the drunken wreck they had just hauled indoors and began to see the familiar aspects of the celebrity face: the famous hair, the brilliant red lips, the fair skin. There was no question.
“Quite right, Gruff,” Foster replied, his haughty voice unchanged. “We have royalty in our midst. Looks like little Miss White didn’t know her limits tonight.”
There were a few knowing laughs from the others, particularly Dozer whose seemingly permanent fatigue stemmed from years of addiction to Dust. But Ned was still gripped with confusion.
“So what do we do with her?” he asked. “Should we call the police? Contact the palace? They’ll want to know where she is, and we don’t want it to look like we’ve kidnapped the princess.”
Gruff snorted. “The Dark Queen doesn’t give a shit about her step-daughter. The little wench is always running off in the city, or trying to get out of it, and her Royal Highness never lifts a finger. Just waits till she gets bored and comes back to the palace, to her cosy little bedchamber.”
Ned was about to reply, but a smug chuckle from Foster stopped him. “So you might think, Gruff, but I have it on good authority that Her Eminence has previously paid a high price for the princess’ safe return. And quite recently, in fact. Did you not hear about the open day at the Palace last month?”
“Yeah, everyone did,” said Gruff. “The palace was opened to tourists for the first time in years, and White used it as a distraction to try and escape. Snuck out with some family from the Garden District. But the police caught her before she could get beyond the gates. That’s the story.”
Foster grinned and wandered over to the chair behind the till. He leaned back as he sat down, hands meeting in another subtly obnoxious display of how clever he felt. “That’s the story,” the eldest brother agreed. “Or rather, that’s the story the Queen had printed in the Town Crier. Anything to avoid embarrassment that the princess did actually escape, and was held to ransom.”
“Ransom?” Ned echoed. “But the Queen would never pay -”
“One million Crowns,” Foster continued, ignoring Ned. “Paid in full less than a week after the princess’ escape.”
Gruff snorted again. “Bullshit,” he spat. “Where’d you hear that?”
“From some business partners,” Foster said. “Our most successful business partners. It was they who managed to ransom off the princess.”
Ned felt an uneasy sensation forming at the pit of his stomach. He knew his older brother well enough to see where this conversation was heading, but he thought Foster had more sense that that.
“Brothers,” Foster said grandly. “I think we could profit greatly if we were to make the princess our guest for a while.”
Dozer stepped forward. “Foster, you can’t be serious. You want us to hold the princess hostage? Blackmail the Dark Queen? Have you any idea what she’ll do to us?”
“She’ll pay,” Foster said, his voice brimming with conviction. “I know what you’re worried about, but any retaliation of that sort would draw far too much attention. It’s not like she’s short on cash – better to dip into the city treasury than have the true heir to the throne in someone else’s hands.”
“What if she doesn’t pay?” Smiler said. “Like Gruff says, she doesn’t care about the princess. This could be one escape too many – she’ll just cut the girl loose. Let her go.”
Foster laughed, a braying cocktail of amusement and cynicism. “Not a chance,” he said. “That girl is the key to keeping her grip on this city. The Town Crier may have most people convinced that Miss White is happy for Her Majesty to keep the throne warm until she comes of age next year, but there are plenty who know she’d rather see the old witch hang from the highest branch of the Tree. Her Grace won’t let that happen – she finds that throne far too comfortable.”
Ned stepped up to the counter and leaned forward, hoping Foster would see the desperate appeal he felt etched into in his face. “So why not help the princess? Why not help her escape the city where she can find support?”
“Don’t be so naive,” Foster scoffed. “We are a damn sight richer under Her Majesty than we would be with that teenage hothead in power. You let her take over the palace, and we’ll be on the street within a year – I promise you that.”
“Then why do this for one million Crowns?” Ned asked. “We make enough money from the seven stores to keep this business afloat. Why do this?”
Foster grinned. “Oh, we’ll be doing this for more than just one million.”
Ned was taken aback. He’d never seen such malicious ambition in his brother’s eyes. He was almost afraid to ask more – and Foster didn’t give him the chance.
“I’m off to bed,” he declared. “I have some details to work out, and I’ll brief you all over breakfast. Ned, Gruff, Nosey and Smiler – make sure our royal guest is comfortable. The sofa in the living room should be long enough for her, and grab some of the spare duvets from upstairs. Someone should keep an eye on her to ensure she’s still here in the morning. Gruff, think you can handle that?”
Gruff crossed his arms and grunted, begrudgingly.
“Good,” Foster said. “See you in the morning.”
And with that, their eldest brother opened the door to the storeroom and walked through. He turned left and walked over to one of two doors at the far end of the room, revealing the stairs that led to three floors of bedrooms. Kidd followed, with a little guidance from Dozer, leaving the allocated four standing in the storeroom around the sleeping princess.
This time, Gruff did the pointing and once they each had an arm or leg, they carried her over to the second door, which led to the brothers’ living room and kitchen. Even in the dark, it was easy enough to weave between the armchairs and footstools spread around the room, although it was more awkward lugging the princess onto the sofa. Throughout the whole thing, the sleeping royal still didn’t wake up, sighing pleasantly as she unconsciously nestled into her new bed.
As the four brothers stepped back, Dozer walked in carrying a pile of thick duvets from upstairs. Gruff laid them over the princess, with a surprising tenderness given his usual nature, and waved for the others to leave. He settled into an armchair across the room, not taking his eyes off the girl.
Ned was the last to leave the room. As he pulled the door closed behind him, he lingered briefly to stare at the comatose princess one last time. He recalled Foster’s earlier comment about the state she was in, but he couldn’t help but wonder if it was his brother that didn’t know his limits.