When Princess Raku woke from her slumber, the world had changed. Where were the courtiers who should bring her uniform? Where was the barber who must harvest her wild tresses? Where, above all, was her mother, who was supposed to be waiting, to present her tools of office?
The hatch on her capsule was spattered and caked with dust. It resisted when she pushed. She couldn’t turn or lift her head; her hair had grown to intertwine with the release mechanism. Nobody came when she called – timidly at first, and soon with a fear-tinged gusto. She cut herself free, hacking her hair to the scalp with ones of her knives.
Swearing mightily, she pushed the canopy open and sat up, seeing her bedchamber for the first time in…how long?
Her cryogenic internment had been set for two years – two years of induced coma to implant muscle enhancements, reinforce bone tissue, and graft extra organs into her torso. As she took in the pulverised furniture, scattered medical equipment, the ceiling cave-in, and the skinless bones scattered about the room, she understood that her mother, her courtiers, and her friends had all long since ceased to wait for her.
One skeleton, draped in a rotted gold cloak and bearing the tiara and wristlets of the Office of Laws, cradled a wooden box as though shielding it from whatever disaster had struck. Princess Raku stood over the skeleton for a long time, muttering prayers and gratitude for the woman who bore her. Then she carefully detached the box from its grip and opened it.
The badge was set into the underside of the lid, clean but faintly tarnished, and the guns occupied two depressions in the felt lining. Disoriented, and not only from dehydration, she set the box aside. She found her hat and uniform in the splintered remains of what had once been a priceless goldoak cabinet, the gift of some foreign dignitary hoping to curry favour with one of Raku’s ancestors. The clothes were stiff in their folds, settled into their shape.
She donned the raiment of her office: the strapped boots; the heavy blouse and pants with cunningly-sewn protective layers; the square-shouldered coat; the broad-brimmed hat of thick lizard leather.
“Someone should say something,” she observed, unable to bring herself to address her mother directly. “I suppose it must be me.”
She buffed the badge on her coat lapel and fixed it to her hat. Something clawed inside her throat, trying to hold back the words. “This was supposed to be a day of celebration. I should have been welcomed to my duty with joyous smiles.” She grimaced. Blinked. Tried the hat on. It settled loosely around her uneven haircut. “I’ll have to pad that with some paper.” She paused diplomatically for unheard laughter.
“I don’t know what’s befallen us,” she continued. “I don’t know what’s killed my mother, nor the rest of you. I can’t imagine what awaits me beyond those doors. But I know-”
The doors in question – thick iris airlocks designed to ensure atmospheric security in the sterile cryosleep chamber – creaked slowly open. Not under their own power, she noticed as she slipped behind her sleep capsule. Someone was winding a manual crank. Raku guessed there was little power in the palace; strong electromagnetic fields would have itched her upgraded senses.
“Tech and metal!” hissed a voice in a wholly unfamiliar accent. Other reptilian throats croaked agreement. “Strip it bare.”
Raku hesitated. Killers or just scavengers? Her fingers snapped the latch on the gun case and plucked her weapons from their beds. Already loaded and charged, they hummed fully awake as they scanned her thumbprints.
The first figures through the door were not human but canine; two creatures almost as much scratched plastic and tarnished chrome as sinewy tan hair. She knew these things as dinvolk; native dogs transfigured with cybernetic muscles, toughened bone and dermal armour. Her mother’s father had banned them as abominations before Raku was born. Not all their neighbours had shared his ethical qualms.
The dinvolk issued throaty, radio-crackle growls as they sniffed out Raku’s presence. She stood, exposing her upper half, letting them get a good look at her. She returned their flat gazes with a thin smile. “You are not welcome here, dinvolk.”
As she expected, they answered with thunderclap barks and leaped directly at her. She raised both guns and fired a single shot from each at the open mouths, the only exposed part of the creatures not protected by a skin of ceramic mesh. The dinvolk folded over in mid-strike, crashing into the sleep capsule.
Shots crackled from the doorway, shattering the capsule’s ferroglass cover. Raku was already moving, taking cover behind a heavy diagnostic scanner. Sparks flew as the shooters adjusted their line. Raku counted three distinct weapons; two firearms, and kinetic projectile launcher. She leaned out and unleashed a barrage of shots at the two large men framed confidently in the doorway. They fell aside, revealing a third person frantically reloading a crossbow. He was a burly youth, with quick fingers that deftly slotted the bolt in place.
“Drop it,” she said. When his response was to twitch the end of his weapon up, she shot his hand and repeated her demand. This time the bloodied bow clattered to the ground.
“Who are you? Why are you in my mother’s palace?”
Clutching his ruined hand, the youth seethed, “We are the Wardogs of Akiszi. We recognise no claim on this place but our own.”
The names meant nothing to Raku. “What of the people who live here?”
“We claim them too.”
Before he knew what was happening, Raku twisted the boy’s wrists behind his back and tied him with oxygen tubing. “Consider the claim disputed. You are hereby deputised as my liaison to the wardogs, unless you’d prefer to be shot.”
The new world into which Raku led her prisoner had no further use for princesses.
What it had been waiting for was a protector.
Sleeping Beauty mashed up with The Dark Tower? Yeah, those are definitely things that go together, I will be taking no further questions on this subject.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever being quite as run down by the end of the year as I am right now. 2018 has certainly been a journey. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off soon, which in practice will mean pre-programming my Friday flash stories, driving off for a family holiday and otherwise staying off social media.
I can’t imagine any downsides to that last part of the plan, at any rate.