"Who goes there?" The question, flung like that out of the shadows along the kennel walls, made me literally jump out of my skin. When I squeezed back inside my borrowed body, its heart was jangling like an alarm. I turned and scanned the darkness for the speaker.
"The point of this spear is tipped in highly painful snake venom," said the voice. "I shell stab it into you, if you cannot say the password now."
So much for a stealthy infiltration. The guard obviously could see me and I had to see it if I were to…ah, there he was. Just as I spied him, I felt the spear lance my body’s side. I had a brief feeling of the searing pain of the poison like fire ants, then I was inside the guard’s body, shunting his soul aside to make room for mine.
I quickly dispatched my previous body by slashing the spear point across its throat, then I marched forward toward the doors to the kennel. I reflected that they were not paying me enough for this rescue mission. This was the third body I had needed to steal tonight and I hadn’t even gotten inside.
I could not tell you much about the men who had hired me. One had a mocking, mournful face, his skin yellow like dripping wax. The other seemed brooding. He was muscular with glaring eyes, but I noticed his hands trembled.
To me they were both alluring, even attractive, in the way a curved dagger with a ruby in its hilt is attractive or in the way deep red wine is. One wants to handle such things, to caress the dagger with one’s hands and saver the wine on one’s tongue. To possess. To own.
Each of them wore a bone ring of impermeability around their smallest finger, meaning they were sanctified against my particular talents. Unless I sliced off their fingers, something which I had been known to do. Once, I even bit off such a ring.
They had located me at the Sign of the Wild Goose, a rich place that suited me, with its dark wooden chairs and tables, expensive wall hangings, and a fire that was lit for the exotic perfume of the wood rather than the heat. It even boasted a chandelier hung with a thousand crystal prisms that played interesting games with the light from the fire.
They wanted the creature housed in the kennel. An expedition had brought the creature from somewhere in the south, across the water. It had unexpected properties and the royal naturalists were examining it.
“They say it is impermeable to magic,” said the brooding man.
"They’ll probably eat it soon," said the other in a high, squeaking voice. "They eat everything they find, the damned naturalists." He screwed up his eyes as if the thought pained him. Miserable weak fool, I thought.
"And the King," said the brooding one, "he enjoys it as much as they do."
"Rot on him too," said the man with the mocking face. "On him and his kin. May they grow fat and fester. May their bowels clog and their mouths fil with—"
"How much are you offering?" I asked. "They will have guards around the kennels. That’s not counting getting onto the palace grounds. Then I must return without, I assume, leading any of the guards to you."
"We thought you were good," said the man with the mocking face. He turned to his compatriot. "You told me there was no one better."
"I am good," I said, "and it is for my skills that you shall pay me. Or you may try and find someone else. Perhaps they will succeed. More likely they will fail and your creature will be cooked into a pie and eaten."
The brooding man lifted a sack and dropped it upon the table. It thudded heavily but there was no clink of coins. I reached out and fingered the mouth of the bag open. Inside the sack was gold dust.
"It’s all gold," said the brooding man. "There’s no sand sprinkled in. Seven pounds of gold."
I sat back and cross my arms. "Not enough," I said.
"Not enough? Are you mad?" the man with the mocking face stood, knocking his chair over.
"Another, once you’ve retrieved the creature and brought it to us safely," said the brooding one.
I lifted the sack. It felt like seven pounds, but of gold? I was no assayer. One way to find out. I beckoned to a serving wench and asked for a cast iron pot. She brought it without question. They knew me here.
I took the sack of gold dust and tipped it into the pot. Then I focused part of my being on the simple magic. Lead would melt nearly at once, if there was lead. On the other hand, the temperature gold must reach to become liquid is only slightly lower than the melting point of cast iron.
A thought struck me. Why not have some fun? I said, "What we must remember about rings of impermeability, is that they only safeguard against magical harm."
I struck swiftly, grabbing the man with that ugly, mocking face by the hair and jerking him forward. He did not expect my strength. "Physical harm on the other hand," I said, pulling his face down toward the pot. I could smell the gold now, liquid and bubbling. "physical harm is perfectly achievable." His face plunged into the pot of liquid gold, silencing his screams in a sizzle and smoking of meat.
I felt the knife tip that the brooding man had set against my neck suddenly plunge inward. Blood pulsed hotly down my skin. I held the man’s face in the pot for a count of three, just until I saw the black spots of death approaching, then I released him, refocused my magic, and inhabited the body of the serving wench, whose being fled into death.
Perhaps a body was too high a price to pay for finding out if the dust was gold, but one must sometimes enjoy oneself.
Now I was inside the kennels. My nose wrinkled at fetid reptilian smells. My ears twitched to hear buzzings and clickings and something that sounded nearly human, but was not. The spear in my hands had a good heft to it, well-made. These king’s guards were well-equipped. I must remember that. Perhaps they will be so well-equipped some will have rings of impermeability. I would need to take care.
The light from my hooded lantern glided along the cages. Eyes gleamed at me as I walked the rows, red, orange, savage yellow. Here there were beasts and birds of every flesh and feather. There was a closed door at the end of the row of cages, a heavy iron bar laid across it.
the bar lifted silently in my hands. The lock that normally secured it had been removed. Before I could push the door ajar, someone drew it inward.
A Stately young woman stood on the threshold. Her hair was white gold. Her soft brown eyes opened wide in amazement. Upon her smallest fingers (my eyes are trained to see everything) is a bone ring.
"Guards ought not to be inside the kennels," she said.
I bowed low. Even without her crown, I recognized the princess. What was she doing here? Visiting the legendary creature before it was eaten? But if she believed me a wayward guard, all the better.
Her eyes flickered. "You can assist me, come in." She withdrew into the room and I followed.
Inside, I immediately smelled the creature, that weird thing of legend, which now lay safe in its cage awaiting the repast of the king and his lords. It smelled of cinnamon and lemon and warm bread. Or was that the princess?
"You’re no guard," she said softly, almost seductively, "are you?"
I raised the spear, but too late. I felt the prick in my side. She’d struck me with something. A dart? A dagger? I could feel poison course through my veins.
The spear clattered from my numbed fingers. She smiled wickedly. "I know the guard on duty tonight. You are not he."
Taking my lantern, she pulled open the door and departed. I heard the bar fall into place, trapping me.
The room plunged with darkness. There were no other creatures in here apart from the one I sought. This body was failing fast.
I staggered to its cage and stared down at it, seeing it in the last dregs of vanishing light. Though the size of a small dog, it was proportioned like a horse, but for a long, curving, silver horn sticking from its head.
I let my essence enter the creature just as the guard’s body died. It was a strange sensation, entering this creature, not at all like any of the myriad other bodies I had stolen. There was at first a resistance, as if I pushed against a barrier, then all at once this barrier melted away, and I was secure within the creature, relief and triumph washing through me in a hot, glorious wave.
Three things struck my awareness like arrows fired from a longbow: first that this creature had no spirit of its own for me to shunt aside; second, that there was no way for me to escape the room in its form—the creature had no hands, no appendages of grasping. It was a weak creature, its only weapon the horn on its head. This brought me to the third arrow, which pierced most deadly. That horn had some quality of the rings of impermeability about it, even as if such rings were made from it. I felt it like a cork on a bottle, containing my being within, imprisoning it.
I flung myself against the horn, heedless of the fact there was no body within striking distance for my being to inhabit if I left this one. I must escape. I could not be entombed. I had entered; I could leave.
But I could not.
I was weak now. Helpless. I had been stupid and now I was trapped. The king and his men would sup on the flesh of this body tomorrow, and I would perish.
Let us reflect for a moment on my past, on why I am what I am.
A child of the streets? I don’t think so. The truth was that I was born a black kitten, put in a sack with my brothers, and taken to the river to be drowned. But I instinctually new how to shed my body and take a new one. I aimed to take the body of the man holding the sack. Instead, I flailed in that dark nether place between life and death, until I wrestled my way into the body of a rat who made his homes in the sewers. Large as a small dog, and aggressive as a nightmare, he was a cannibal, devouring other rats, as well as hunting injured birds, napping cats, and witless dogs. But even tough and cunning rats have only a short life. Soon I found his body too feeble and limiting. I wanted something different, something better.
That was when I entered the body of an ebony-coated racing horse, one of the most prized animals in the city. Well, I had a taste for blood by then. I did not understand the world of spectacle in which horses existed. Horses do not usually eat their riders before a screaming crowd. They came to kill me at once, an I entered the body of the man with the knife, alas only a lesser servant. That was my first man’s body, a peculiar mix of weak limbs and powerful intellect. The rest is history. I have never lost the aggression that first came to me as the rat, nor the impulse for survival that I had even as that tiny kitten with its eyes still gummed shut.
I spent hours pacing the length of the cage, until at last, dispelled of all energy, I cast myself upon its floor, flanks heaving. I was undone. I was weak. I was trapped in this powerless body that would soon be eaten. Oh, the torment of it!
It was impossible to believe that one such as I could be brought so low. I felt a savage pain, not of the body, but of my being. It twisted and pulsed and burned.
Then…my mind lighted upon a thought that made the pain melt into pleasure, excitement even. All might not be lost, after all. If I could survive…but no; I would be slaughtered, butchered, and cooked before I met the king at his table.
The excitement and pleasure drained out of me, short-lived and fool-hearty. Curse this beast and its magical impermeability.
When the kitchen boy came to take me from the cage, I made no protest. I made no movement at all. I lay on my side, hardly allowing myself to breathe. The boy stroked my cheek, then lifted me (I could not have weighed as much as a sack of gold) and drew me from the cage. He carried me under his arm out of the kennels, past all the squeaking and barking and chittering animals. I allowed my head with its silver horn to droop.
"It’s already gone," said the boy to the chef. "Dead in it’s cage. Do you think it mayhap have sickened? Mayhap the king should not eat of it?"
"The king won’t be dissuaded. Nor his lords. Go on and gut it."
The boy nodded and took me out into the butchering yard. I was hung up by the hindquarters above a great blood-stained basin. I saw the gleam of the butchering knife readied to slit me from stem to stern. I was paralyzed with shame for the ignominy of my death. I steeled myself against the pain.
It was agony so bad that my body flexed and the kitchen boy nearly dropped his knife in surprise. Then he continued, more quickly, drawing out my bowels, letting my blood drain. And yet, I did not die.
I could have understood it if the creature had been a snake or a lizard. Such animals are known to continue in life, even after their head has been struck off. You can see the gleam of life in their eyes. A snake’s dismembered head will bite you as surely as the head still one with its body. Human heads can be the same, if for a short while, once they are struck from the shoulders that bore them. There is some impulse of life that surmounts the destruction of the body. This I clung to. I did not need to understand it.
The boy peeled back my skin and drew it neatly off. Then they let me hang hours more. Perhaps if he’d removed the heart, but he let it be. He also did not remove my head, thinking perhaps that with its marvelous horn, it would carry off the meal. No doubt these were instructions given him by the chef.
At last they took me into the kitchen and their, my disembowelled body was filled with carrots and peas and onions. Then I was spitted and set over a fire to roast.
Heat licked at my flesh like knives. I felt the vegetables sizzling inside me and splitting as the water steamed from their flesh. I wanted very much to let awareness slip from my mind. I wanted the peace of oblivion. Yet, even as I desired it, I rebelled. Life was mine. To survive was mine. Had I not been the kitten who’d escaped drowning? A rat who’d eaten his children to survive? A horse who’d devoured its rider? Had I not done all in my power to sustain myself throughout my life, to claw my way to a position of power? I would not succumb.
At last, I was removed from the spit and taken to the king’s table.
The table was laid with a silk cloth. Its legs were bulbous and intricately carved. Punch bowls and flagons of nut-brown ale, crystal decanters of scarlet or snow-colored wine were set upon it along with platters of meat.
I was set in pride of place before his immense velvet-clad majesty, my horn straight as an arrow toward his enormous belly.
The king was a large man with a Boney head. His face was flushed and his unhealthy eyes glittered. “This is the marvelous beast that is immune to all magic?”
A servant said it was so, but the music from the nearby fiddler, gittern player, piper and drummer drowned his words. The king snorted and gestured toward the musicians who stopped at once.
“It looks rather like a horned dog,” he said in the sudden quiet of the dining hall. “Very amusing.”
I could see the bone ring on his finger as his hand reached out. There were many rings on that hand, gleaming with gold and precious stones. Truly, he was a rich and powerful man.
bite me, I thought. Eat of my flesh. Do it now.
He lifted me onto his plate. I heard the nobles sigh. Perhaps they had wanted a taste of my flesh and were disappointed that the king was being greedy. But I liked greed. The king cut into me and took a piece of flesh from his knife point between his lips. He chewed thoughtfully.
"Very good," he said. "The flesh is sweet and moist. My compliments to the kitchens."
He began deliberately and expertly to devour me. I believe it was when he ate my heart, his teeth chomping through the gristly muscle with gusto, that my being passed into his body. I had infiltrated his body. His ring of impermeability had done him no good. A cat, a rat, a horse, a man. Now to be a king.
I casually shoved his being into a corner of his body. Since he wore the ring I could not remove it entirely. Perhaps I could shit out his spirit later.
I finished the rest of the beast on my plate, belched with satisfaction and smiled.
The king’s daughter approached, the princess, that brat who had killed my old body in the kennels. She did not know the delicious joke, that her father was no longer the man she knew.
She was upset. Her eyes filmed with tears. "Why did you eat it, Father? That beautiful creature. They say there was only one of them remaining in the world. And you ate it. I begged you not to. How Father? How can you be so greedy?"
It was not a kind smile I showed her. It was an honest smile. If I were not greedy and bloodthirsty, then I would not be king. I would be drowned as a kitten. I would have starved as a rat.
"Those who reach beyond themselves for more and more," I said, “they will live longer and be stronger. This, my child, is the law of nature."
Clarion West is a nonprofit 6-week work shop for writers of speculative fiction. I attended with seventeen other students in 2015. They rented a house for us, prepared us fantastic meals, and got in some of the luminaries of the spec fic world to live in the house each week with us and workshop the stories we wrote. Every Thursday other writers came to hang out for an hour and talk to us or answer our questions on the craft and business of writing. Two of these who really stand out in my memory were Ted Chiang, who wrote the story that the movie Arrival is based on, and then we also had the chance to skype Neil Gaiman. I came away having crammed at least 6 years of study into 6 weeks.
Anyway, the write-a-thon is the main yearly fundraiser. This week sponsorships are being matched. If you’re a fan of fiction in any way shape or form, this workshop is one of the places fiction comes from…because writers don’t grow on trees.
More famous writers than I are offering to name characters after people who donate.
Or you can sponsor me.