By Hec Lampert-Bates
a large glass of milk. dyed pink
His castle wisped at the seams.
Disintegration was key between any door and the following room. A shift from one room to another required a tear in the memory of the previous. More bizarre was the man who lived there. Not a hermit, he wasn’t alone; he was a dweller, discontinued.
He strode through it as usual - around the second wing? Or perhaps he was atop the fourth tallest spire. No, no, this must be the east third. To keep track of it all would be a travesty to his mind, who already begged to tumble out his left ear.
Today’s intent was surveillance, to test the bounds of his solitude. His frayed carpet and tinctured brass rubbings satisfied the need for a counterpart. Who better for a king to rule than his objects and himself?
He was free of others, that was certain. But to say he couldn’t conjure some from that aforementioned clawing mind of his is erroneous. Today, with its timeless dim, its air frozen in humidity, seemed perfect for a daydream. Why not release himself from these cobblestone walls that moistened any fingertip with ease; these dank corners he didn’t dare examine past a glance; these endless portraits of nostriled forefathers?
The king looked to the door beside him for a secluded spot, but no, that wouldn’t do. Neither would the one to his right, or the next down. Too much intention for a thing like this.
Najus’ mind reformed in the hallway.
There hadn’t been a King Najus in this new world. The name would’ve drawn vague head tilts and raised eyebrows, but never a concrete image. Our protagonist dons the face of another king. A loved promiser, fit with the ailments of a true hero: a missing ankle, a seething poundage, and the name Jerl; a family recollection from some dead uncle fourth removed, he hoped.
Jerl’s appearance tarnished his mirror, a twisted thing that couldn’t escape his daily staring. The king spoke, aware that some underfed servant could attend to his desires. 'Would a glass of milk be possible? And perhaps a nice carton of sardines? Run along to the seafront and ask Tomfri for a bucket.' Scampering retreated behind his figure.
Several times, Jerl lifted the purple garb that covered his gut, but quickly released it at the first sight of skin. He tucked his blubber back to security before looking away.
The bedroom was familiar, but forgotten corners had changed in his absence. Once, it was a mound of royal fabric, piled to the ceiling to block light from the window. In the center lay 'I Found God, Satan, and the Rest in Belgium in 1926', a book he’d read and loathed dozens of times. But soon the fabrics melted into layered curtains. Servants emerged from the cloth, carrying an assortment of items; a golden spoon, a platter of twigs, a tray of rope and the hands of another king.
Jerl nodded, unsure what they expected of him. 'Assemble my nobles in the Grand Hall. In ten minutes I’ll have their announcement. What squabbling they’ve plagued me with for so many nights. I’m sure I’ve promised them things, but I can’t remember. Do any of you?'
The servants stared at their objects with little recognition for the king.
'Fine, then go.' His attendants scurried back within the draperies, their odd little shoes sounding against marble.
Jerl shuffled over his cloak, which flowed into the curtains. It released from his shoulders as he walked, revealing his neck; that flab of excess him that dribbled down his chest.
As he tore the door open, Jerl paid no mind to its unnerving squeal, nor the three other oddities that surrounded him. Instead, the king gazed on a row of windows that inlaid the hallway. Outside, a lack of imagination grew in thick fog, yet within the fortress, light collected as the result of a pleasant morning. As the king walked, the window panes wore darker as purgatory between inside and out.
A strain of workers bustled past and disturbed the king’s concentration. He began to squawk his regal insults in their direction but the Grand Hall was just a few doors down and mockery seemed a waste of his time.
Jerl walked again and picked his teeth with a knife he’d found hidden in his folds. Some sardine bone had found it enjoyable to toy with the king's sanity by lodging itself in his molar; a dead thing’s final opposition.
The king reached those oak speckled doors, leaking tree’s pus and bark’s blood before he’d thought of what to say to his nobles. Maybe a speech of continuity, that their hopes and longings would be filled without fail in the next month. Or no, that might require preparation; and oh, the questions they’d ask. This seemed an apt situation for words of unpreparedness.
Grumbling, gloveling and snickering seeped beneath the door. Jerl could pick out his name from the bunch, along with references to philosophers and logicians he’d never heard of, but the chatter ended mid-syllable as his stomach protruded through the doorway.
'Don’t be coy, my fellow diplomats,' Jerl announced, his speech lubricated with gravel. 'It’s a brilliant day, why the confusion? Not to worry. I, Lord of the Ruspians, Emperor of You, King Jerl, am here to settle disagreements, disputes, dis-continuums and debates.'
The group shuffled into a circle around the king, who stifled chuckles in an attempt to mask his excitement.
One lord, without a name to remember, spoke with a glance to other like-minded concerners. 'There is a usurper among us.'
'A usurper, you say?' Jerl responded, his eyes diluted and tone too exaggerated for the conversation’s gravity. 'Well, we must find them. Thespute’s method?' The nobles mumbled in agreement. 'Very well, everyone turn away.'
The circle inverted. Jerl shivered in the center with glee, and his knife. He cackled as he stabbed them. Around the ring, each folded at the king’s blade until only Jerl stood. But his laughing ended when he realized the nobles had never been. A knife burrowed in his spine and he fell to his knees, alone in the Grand Hall.
King Najus had never been one for gothic novelties. When he woke into his own consciousness, he found that in his leave, he’d wandered to the left spire. Or was this the throne room? No this must be the dungeon.
Najus walked into a cell, closed himself behind the bars and flicked a maggot from his arm. Possibly next, a dream of the good? A theme of religion couldn’t go awry.
In a cozy hut, set with a podium and bench, Najus became Priest Carlyle.
With his eyes rolled in prayer, the priest gasped a few words he wouldn’t dare reap meaning from. He sat on his bench, its viscid leather surely melded to his robe by now. If he ever stood, his ears would bend at the sound of it unpeeling. But noise at the shelter’s opening preoccupied him. That evening, a worried figure with trembling limbs became the first to pass through it.
For days, the form stood at the entrance, thieving light with its crooked vertebrae. For days, it lingered without intention. On the fifth, when the sun had fallen below earth, the figure began to breathe. It thawed its limbs and sauntered along the rim of the hut. There was no foulness to its movement, nor hideous aspirations, simply a task for the moment.
It stopped at the podium where a cross had been whittled and shoved through the ceiling’s twiggy mud. Shadow grasped it, knuckled fingers ringing against the legs of Christ. The figure approached our Carlyle and lifted a misshapen thing that was its head. Carlyle raised his own and with a ginger touch, the figure slid the cross between Carlyle’s teeth, pushing until its hands broke. The priest no longer breathed.
King Najus had never been one for blasphemy.
During his absence, Najus had made his way to the wine cellar - the atrium? This was positively the kitchen. The king observed bent pots, shattered bottles and wood fragments lodged within barrels of ham. He stood in the sink, his feet bare and drenched in sour water. Silverware was piled to his ankles, deliberate without puncturing his skin, but any movement seemed impossible without the hazard of bodily leakage.
The coming fantasy took him by surprise. His once bassinous lordship was gnarled in the next one. He trickled into a dinner with friends, acquaintances and enemies.
If that creature he now was had been something, it wasn’t anything within the bounds of his imagination. To himself, he was a monster of love. Not for his kind, if there was such a thing, but for the men and women at this table.
'How goes it today with your preparations?' a woman named Carlilia spat from eight seats down. 'Still meandering about those kids in the moat? You know your charm will never bewitch them.' The crowd expelled laughter like the occasional vomit from an overworked Womf, the town drunk.
'I’ll never know until I attempt to save them. A good samaritan, I am,' the beast replied.
'That you are,' the rest cheered. 'That you are, good lizard of the day.'
'You lot are too gentile,' the creature grinned beneath its feathers, a motion that revealed rows of baleen, every fiber of which stank with decaying shrimp. 'Now would someone pass the prawns? I’m absolutely ravenous.' Down the table came a bowl of headless crustaceans in lavender stew. In it was an arrangement of silver utensils, their handles coated with the mixture. The thing’s nose dilated and saliva slipped from it’s scales.
'To our catalyst,' someone shouted.
'Yes, to our catalyst,' the others echoed. They raised brass goblets, liquid frothing over their fingers. Again, the monster’s lips curled in delight and as the company gorged on that nectar, it stood.
'You’ll have to excuse me for a moment. My bowels compel me towards the washroom. Down the hall, you said it was?' The man seated beside him nodded and the beast turned to leave. Behind him, merriment continued. Dishes of braised meat and dried fruit were thrown amongst the guests, conversation the only cork to shameless indulgence.
Their joy fizzled out behind a door. The creature wandered into the hallway and peered out the nearest of three colossal windows. A man stood at the drawbridge miles beneath, his form cloaked by ragged fishing attire; the usual struggling salesman with news of his dwindling catches. But the thing ignored it and waddled to a room marked 'Wash Closet for the Catalyst'.
Rope hung from a crevice in the plafond and a stool was set below. The creature stepped onto the stool, tied the rope into a noose and hung itself. Its eyes swung as pendulums to mark the minutes since its passing.
King Najus had never been one for monstrous children’s tales. When he arrived within himself, he yawned three words of pleasant surprise. This was, of course, the front entrance. He stood with his nose pressed to those metal doors; the last gate between him and a world he believed was beyond.
As the king began to recede into a fourth dream, a terrible rapping erupted from the opposite side of the door. For minutes, Najus stood in fear of movement, but that wouldn’t do. The doors had gone brittle after years of disuse and Najus’ immobility would do little but encourage their collapse. No, he’d have to act.
A figure watched as King Najus pushed through the door and crumbled to the ground.
'Usurper!' Najus screeched. A noose hindered his neck, a cross squelched his breath and a knife ran through his spine.
Rex Janus had never been one for profundity.