The stench was overwhelming. Many of the ladies complained, groaned, threw up, passed out, and so forth. The men did not want to show themselves as weak, but they complained that such vile work was beneath them. Unfortunately, what Aurora said was the final word. The playing cards and the Sirens stood guard over them as they worked. Those who were not accustomed to the labor and the outdoors began to redden and burn in the sun. While Aurora was generous enough to supply healing salve for their pasty skin, it was one of the few privileges that she allowed them. Stayne himself couldn't help but notice the oddity of this situation: on the White side, royalty and commoners had worked side by side for centuries. On the Red side, however, it was very much a novel idea.
They loaded casket after casket. The ones that had not decomposed as much were identified and given named headstones. The ones that were further decomposed were identified by more complicated means. A special chemical had been dumped into the water to force all of the corpses to the surface. Once the thousands of unfortunate casualties of Iracebeth's wrath had been removed, the stagnant, foul water was drained out of the moat and they began to fill it in.
This was where the real work began. The Underlandian sun was uncharacteristically hot and he was sweltering inside the armor that he dared not take off. Several of the villagers had tried to attack him already despite Aurora's orders that they leave him alone. Though in much better shape than the pale, fat ex-courtiers, he was still tired and sore at the end of the day. Alice and her friends were frequent visitors to Salazen Grum and he would often see them crossing the drawbridge while he worked. Tarrant seemed to take particular pleasure in seeing him sweating and exhausted.
Stayne rarely saw Aurora anymore unless she was giving work orders for the day. Even then, he only saw her between tasks and each one took multiple days to complete. By the time they had almost gotten the moat filled in, he'd barely seen her at all. Every now and then, he might glance up and see her standing on the bridge to monitor their progress. The fat women's curves had begun to whittle down considerably and their dresses were getting loose around the waist, hips, and thighs. The men lost their spare tires around their middles and began to develop muscle. Gradually, they had stopped their complaining because it did them no good. Many of them were not happy with Aurora's choices in their nutrition—she had dispensed with the rich, royal dishes for her workers. They were well fed, but the meat was plain and the heavy gravies and cream sauces dispensed with. There were more fruits and vegetables and grains incorporated with less of the fattening elements. She gave them only water to drink, saying it was better for them. When they whined and complained about it, one of the servants had revealed that Aurora herself was following the same meal plan.
"I refuse to be a hypocrite," she had said, "and I wouldn't ask you to do something that I wouldn't do myself."
During the few times that he caught a glimpse of Aurora, Stayne longed for more than those few minutes. There were times that she would hold his gaze for a few seconds, but she seemed nearly indifferent to him otherwise. What had happened, he wondered, to the shy, sweet, timid woman that had melted like butter in his arms?
Once the moat was filled in, flowers were planted in the freshly deposited earth. In a few months, no one would even know it was there. Summer showed no signs of letting up; blazing July melted into sultry, still August. Subtle changes had become obvious ones: since Stayne had spent nearly all day outside, he rarely noticed the interior of the castle. Now, he noticed, there was much more light coming in. The animal furniture had been replaced with regular furniture. He began to wonder where all the animals had gone when he noticed more and more children with pets that looked very familiar. More light was coming into the castle as the heavy velvet drapes were replaced with sheer, light ones that quivered with a breath.
That morning at breakfast when the morning light was still new, raw, and red, something happened that no one expected. Aurora herself appeared in the servant's kitchen. It was the first time in weeks that Stayne had gotten a good look at her.
Rather than the elaborate, gaudy gowns that Iracebeth had worn, Aurora was dressed in a simple black dress with white trim. Her black curls cascaded loose around her shoulders—they had grown several inches since she'd come to Underland. She wore a sparkling tiara that Mirana had given her as a gift at her coronation.
"Good morning," she greeted all of them. They stopped eating and looked up. She sipped from her ratty old coffee mug that she'd refused to replace.
"I wanted to congratulate you all on a job well done. I honestly didn't think you'd all ever stop complaining and work together, but you've proven me wrong. I'm glad."
The silence was so intense that it was nearly smothering.
"I may have been tough on you the last few months, but I would also like to think that I am fair as well. This afternoon, we're going to have a memorial service for all of those that Iracebeth had killed. If you would like to come, you're more than welcome to. If not, find something else to do. Catch up on sleep, go visit your friends, whatever. I'm giving you the day off. Tonight, we're having special dinner since Mirana's coming to visit and check up on us and it starts at six. Have a good day."
As soon as Aurora was out of the room, conversation began to crescendo into a wordless hum. He could only hear those talking the nearest to him.
"It's about damn time! I thought we were going to work ourselves to the bone!"
"Ugh…I could have slept in this morning."
"I wouldn't set foot in the service! All those people were beneath me to begin with!"
"She's only doing it to gain favor, you know. She really could care less."
"Fair my rear-end! If she were fair, she'd have let us stay where we were!"
Before he realized what he was doing, Stayne had drawn his sword, moving as quickly as a panther. The table fell silent as they all gaped at him, open-mouthed. The point of the blade gleamed in the blood-red light.
"If she were fair, she'd have either killed or exiled every single one of you," he hissed, "not one of you showed her any kindness when she arrived. You'd better count your blessings that she chose to spare your miserable lives!"
He didn't realize it at the time, but Aurora had heard his outburst and was hiding just beyond the corner.
"You had better choose your words carefully," Stayne continued, "because you could be charged for treason right this minute. Every single one of us is exactly the same now—no money, no titles, no favor. There's no point in acting as though you're better than the others because you aren't. Yes, she's worked us all very hard, but at least she isn't going to kill us on a whim. You don't realize how much better you have it."
Usually, Ilosovic Stayne was a man of action, not of words. It was the most anyone had ever heard him speak in one sitting. Though they weren't afraid of Aurora, they were most certainly afraid of him!
Deciding not to stay in the company of people he detested, he stalked out of the kitchen only to have one arm snared by Aurora. For a moment, his heart skipped a beat and adrenaline crept into his veins. He wasn't sure why—he supposed it was simply a reflex. Wordlessly, she steered him out of the hallway and outside into the gardens.
"I wanted to thank you for that," she said, "not many people stick up for me. They think I don't hear them, but I do. I just pretend I don't because they would do it worse."
The light had paled to orange now and the tiara she wore cast little sparkles when she moved.
"I didn't know ruling a country would be so hard. Okay…I suspected it, but I really didn't know," Aurora said, "I hate the way people act. They're a bunch of kiss-ups to my face and catty behind my back. I always question whether I'm doing the right thing."
"No one is born knowing how," he told her, "you've done exceptionally well for your first six months. You're still alive, you've gained control without being barbaric, and your kingdom is starting to grow. Look there."
Aurora turned her head to see a very pregnant woman passing by with her husband. The man was carrying a young child on his shoulders.
"Beheading wasn't the only way we lost people," he continued, "many of them were underfed, overworked, and too poor to go to the doctor. We were killing people faster than we could replace them."
Aurora couldn't help but smile. Seeing the loving way the woman's hand rested on her belly, a sharp tug of emotion pulled at her stomach. She shoved it away. There would be a time and a place for that eventually…right now, she was far too busy to hope for a baby of her own. Especially since the chaos hadn't quite died down yet.
Between the medications she'd been on in the Overland and the psychiatrists constantly telling her that she wasn't mentally fit enough to be a mother, she had long ago given up her dreams of being a parent. Since arriving at Underland, the psychotropic medications had long exited her system. She had lost enough weight to be healthy again, her hair was glossy and full, her eyes were bright, and her skin had more color. It didn't seem so far-fetched now.
A little girl ran up to them. Though she seemed wary of Stayne, she was giggling excitedly at Aurora. It seemed that she had escaped from her mother.
"Can I twy on youw cwown?" she asked.
The mother arrived, breathless and panting.
"I'm so sorry," she apologized, reaching to pick the girl up.
Aurora's outstretched hand stopped her.
She carefully took the tiara off so that it wouldn't tangle in her hair and placed it on the little girl's head. It was too big and it tilted to one side. The little girl seemed not to care—she ran around in circles yelling that she was a queen, too.
Stayne couldn't help but chuckle.
"It's a little big yet, but it might be a perfect fit one of these days," Aurora told her, "you might have a better one."
She picked the little girl up and swung her in a circle. The child shrieked with laughter and toppled over in the grass, dizzy.
Grateful that Aurora seemed to like children, the mother smiled, obviously relieved.
"Come on, Lily, we need to get to the market before it gets too hot."
"BYE!" the little girl called, running after her mother.
"That one was pregnant, too," Aurora remarked, "goodness…"
"How can you tell? She's so thin," Stayne objected.
"It's The Look," Aurora informed him, "that smile. She's got a secret. She probably hasn't said anything to anyone yet."
Shrugging, he brushed it off as something that only other women could sense. That woman hadn't looked any different to him.
"I should probably get inside," Aurora said, "I need to get things prepared for the service. Those families need some closure."
And away she went. Knowing she'd been busy, he chased after her.
"Is there something I can help with?"
"Yeah. Go rest."
She disappeared around the corner and was gone.