On the Street of Seven Horns, past the temple of the Burnt God, where the people have no place to meet but on the earthen bricks outside the bazaar, I have discovered a taxo den, and there I have met the King.

The den serves as a refuge for vagabonds, for the desert tribesmen who eat nothing but locusts and the Muttermen who pour over defunct zodiacs and tired well-thumbed books of magic. It is a place where suspicions end and pleasures are simple. A home for dreamers and those wearied by the world. For the nomads who see the city as nothing more than a part of the world’s shifting skin: today sand and forests, tomorrow streets—always of no matter, only scenery shifting.

The walls of the den are cracked and worn black. They show stone behind stucco, and the worm-eaten rafters rise above the sweet-scented nimbus of exhaled taxo and play roof to a dirt floor littered with pomegranate rinds.

Simple pleasures: a bowl of taxo smoked in a pipe, taken from the wicker basket beside a vase of wilting flowers. The taste of tea served in a copper cup, flavored with honey and cardamom. Money changes hands and peace is bought, for a time. Beside a beaded curtain, a hooded preena bird rests, tied to a wooden perch, guarding the stairs to the balcony. The smoke rises looking for an exit, lazily coiling about the gloom. And up the stairs, on most afternoons can be found the King.

There are thirty-six categories of eksya, all of us mimics and slaves to the volium tank: the mimetic fluid that maintains our skin-shifting abilities.

“To be an eksya,” the King says, “is to eschew certainty. It is to wear faces like masks and yet become none of them.”

Such is our addiction. Living formless is its own refuge for one employed in the serpent-arts. Our skin-shifting a means of escape, to always have a new identity waiting in the tank for when the one we wear becomes overly tiresome and persistent. But the King no longer wearies of change, and has but one face now to show the world. And though it resembles candle wax, it remains.

“That is my difference,” he says.

I have sat with the King, drinking tea and smoking taxo, and he has told me his tale.

♦ ♦ ♦

I do not remember ever having a name. To remember one would be to remember a time before I became an eksya. If such a time ever existed, it is lost to me now. There has always been the tank and the skin it provides for me to inhabit. I have been men. I have been women. An eksya cannot afford the luxury of an identity.

Even the city was different then. Armies marched in her streets and even here, on the Street of Seven Horns, flags were flown. Ravallic was our king.

Ravallic, who the historians honor with names like “the Unwavering” and “the Glorious Butcher.” Ravallic, who stood on the Plain of Shattered Spears, surrounded by the legendary Fifty-Seven, the finest and most fair, loyal to the last, and slaughtered to the man. Ravallic, who was a man out of every schoolboy’s unbridled dream: courage that was vainglory, and fervor that was stubbornness in a way that other men remember fondly.

Nations crave their skins greater than that of any eksya, and they must have their dreams more extravagant than those found in taxo dens. A nation dreams, and its populace grows intoxicated with itself and incapable of escape. But there was no legend at this time, and Ravallic was only another king in a line of kings.

One of his soldiers found me here.

♦ ♦ ♦

The King pauses long enough to reach his bandaged fingers forward and relight his pipe with a taper. The waxen features are illuminated briefly in the glow, the chiseled visage of Ravallic, stiff and immobile save for the eyes cradled in their sockets, fixing on some point in the distance, a vista only the King can see.

He leans back once more, pulling his memories about himself like a familiar robe, and then he continues his tale.

♦ ♦ ♦

Volium was still my master then, and on that day my time away from the tank was near its limit. My skin suffered the agonies of etiolation beneath the brocade and linen of my clothes. I stood when I heard the footstep upon the stair. The tread was crisp upon the wood and a young officer appeared, a courtier by the look of him, with sword at his side and manicured hands calloused from battle. He held a kerchief to his face to keep the narcotic smoke from his nostrils.

“You are the eksya,” he said. His elegant fingers toyed with a red-dyed horsehair tassel hanging from the hilt of his saber. “Are you in a condition to walk?”

“Certainly,” I said. “But not far.” Already, flies buzzed about me. I rolled back my sleeves to show where the skin had flaked away and started to peel, exposing the weeping pink flesh of my musculature.

The soldier swore and looked away. He paced along the railing of the balcony, his even steps keeping time better than the water clock in the Plaza of Estimable Charity.

“What would you ask of me?” I said. My attention wavered before his ambulations. I had yet decided what form to take when next I embraced the volium. Each potential aspect bore an identical all too familiar burden of weariness.

“To be of service to the king,” the soldier said. “Ravallic needs you to wear his face.”

My emaciated cheeks tightened to mimic a skull’s smile. “I know the words to over four hundred orations, and can play both male and female leads, but the aspect of the King is forbidden to us.”

The soldier waved his hand, erasing my objection as if it were written in the air before him. “How long will your skin last?”

“No more than an hour.” I swatted at a fly that buzzed close to my head, the motion jarring one of my fingernails from its place so the air might burn the tender skin underneath. “I deteriorate rapidly.”

“We will not be traveling far.”

“You don’t understand,” I said. “What you ask of me is not possible. The volium does not know how to take such a shape. Ravallic is unknown to it. It has never learned to be the king.”

“I have heard there are ways to teach it,” the soldier said, and then he stopped his pacing, the water clock of his tread ceasing abruptly. The cold but youthful eyes stared at me, and the soldier’s elegant hand never once strayed far from the red-dyed horsehair tassel hanging from the hilt of his saber.

“If it was the last skin you wore,” he said, “would you take it?”

♦ ♦ ♦

“Have you ever played the part of the Last Prince of Ansic, the Sword Saint?” the King asks over the glow of his pipe.

I nod. It is a role I know well.

The King merely smiles. “Before he breaks his weapon and dooms himself to die upon the glacier shards of the Rim Sea, he speaks these lines: ‘And so I go, having found perdition—though when I began this journey, I believed it to be the path of honor.’

“Those lines accompanied me to the palace as I walked beside the soldier through the streets with their flags hanging limply in the humid air. Those words gripped me so tight I believed myself adrift on the Rim Sea, entombed within the role and doomed to suffer for my compliance with fate.”

The soldier had heard correctly.

Volium hungers.

If we, the eksya, eschew identity, it is only so the volium might crave it more strongly. It is a living thing, or near enough to one as to be indiscernible from life itself. Most of what the fluid knows has been taught to it over generations. Tales and stories it has mastered by our association with it. The heroes of legend, they reside like a memory in the volium, but they are never enough. The fluid craves more from us, each permutation we seek to wear; and there is but one way to teach it.

The volium must feed.

♦ ♦ ♦

We entered the palace by way of a postern gate beneath the aqueduct. I say we, but I was pulled along stumbling, my hand clasped to the cuff of the soldier’s sleeve. My footfalls weakened with each step, and near the end the soldier had to drag me onward while my skin abraded. I wept from a pain too expected and familiar to be called agony.

The gate was little more than a hinged grate with a stream of rust-stained water trickling down the center of the stones, and moss clung to the walls like matted tufts of hair as though the palace was a peculiar beast of its own. We passed through many empty and dreary under-halls, sometimes in darkness, sometimes in light, the rays falling from embrasures above while the sound of mice echoed away from our footsteps.

In an inner chamber other hands took hold of me. I searched among their number for Ravallic, but all of their features melded and blurred. There was a body laid beneath a sheet upon a richly appointed bed, and beyond this, in the corner, was my salvation: a tank of volium. It waited, the fluid beyond the porthole’s glass listless and dormant. I longed to be submerged, encased, and once more hidden beneath a mask. That the volium this time was destined to die, marooning me within this final skin, was furthest from my mind. There was only the need and the desire to hide once more, to disappear into a role, and escape from the burden of choice.

“We will teach the volium to remember,” the soldier said.

Already a pair of the men had removed the unbreathing body from beneath the sheet. Ravallic’s skin was sallow and waxen, tinged with an inert hue more similar to stone than flesh. The pair placed the body upon a table and drew short, sharp knives. Hands led me to the tank and undid the lock upon the mechanism. The first strips of skin followed me into the fluid, the volium greedily swallowing both of us.

♦ ♦ ♦

The King pauses. He glances down at the remains of his hands bandaged tightly in their linen wrappings. The shadows upon the Street of Seven Horns have deepened, and somewhere in the cloister of the temple of the Burnt God a monk begins chanting the names of each of the hours that have passed since their god fell screaming into the world.

The King grips the arm of his chair. “This that I touch is a solid thing.” He gives the wood a slap. “It is fixed. Barring catastrophe, it will remain a chair of its own accord.

“Such was my impression the moment I opened my eyes and looked out from within the skin of Ravallic. Not only was I fixed in place, but I was also the King. No longer was I simply an instrument following direction, but now I was the one giving the commands.”

♦ ♦ ♦

“He shouldn’t have died,” the soldier said, donning his armor with practiced ease. Two tigers stood, claws towards each other, upon either side of his cuirass.

“How many people know?” I asked. I pressed my hands together and pinched at the skin about my wrist. There was a window in the room, and I went to it. The view was stark, merely gray walls weeping moisture, and more soldiers huddled around fires in the yard below. Like armored ants and beetles, they prepared their weapons for the morrow. Overhead, the wind made the banners snap as harsh as whips.

“Only a handful of us,” the soldier said.

Clarity was upon me, that sense of limitless possibility that comes when one emerges fresh out of the volium tank.

“And those outside?”

“They know nothing,” the soldier said.

Bits of laughter reached my ears, along with snippets of songs and the trilling of pipes as if the coming battle were a celebration. I stroked my chin, the skin another man’s. The volium had stitched Ravallic upon me with better dexterity than any seamstress. Dawn was fast approaching.

“When do we march upon the field?” I asked

The soldier lowered the helmet upon his head, obliterating his features behind a visor calling to mind the shape of some many-spined aquatic creature.

“The men but await your command.”

♦ ♦ ♦

To have seen me then at the head of the army, marching forth to meet the invader. For Ravallic had named the enemy such, therefore it was as he decreed. We merely defended our sovereign state from an unjust aggressor, an intruder upon our soil, the likes of which but the day before I had no knowledge of, and even now, clasped as it were by the semblance of Ravallic, I knew nothing more of. My mind conjured an image of an identical man as Ravallic marching before an identical army – our country the mirror image of theirs, and maybe they too resorted to the subterfuge of an eksya, who even now sits in an identical taxo den recounting his tale to another.

The men saluted at my passage, and a great cheer rolled through the ranks resounding back and forth like the sound of waves breaking against the shore. I rode doubly armored, once in steel and once in another man’s flesh, and discovered a fear never known to myself before. There is terror in being fixed to one identity, and history forms its own prison. One may be enslaved to one’s own reading of the past as easily as to the mercurial embrace of the volium tank.

Carrion birds followed above our marching columns, taking places on distant trees as we arrayed ourselves upon the field beneath banners of suns, swords, and serpents. Upon the hills the spider-things stirred, drawn by the prospect of rich scavenging. We positioned ourselves in squares and long lines, pikes and halberds held high, under skies that were clear and seeping from pink dawn to blue day.

There was a hill, where Ravallic stood watching with my eyes. Fifty-seven men waited, brave men, heroic men, wearing helmets of mottled silver and brass, men with dreams of glory and drumbeats in place of their hearts. Here I stood, history’s prime actor and shaper, yet also another of its victims. I held high my sword, and at the sound of a trumpet the men ran forward, eager to be the edge of the blade that makes the cut. Never had I seen such deeds done, and I trembled within my skin, but whether from fear or ecstasy I can not say. The army acted in Ravallic’s name, and the two of us were one and the same.

“For Ravallic!” the soldiers cried.

How might I describe such a battle, where all the participants are intoxicated, not on liquids or noxious smoke, but on ideas and dreams? Where butchery is embraced as an art, and barbarity serves as a final release from the worm inside each of us that thinks?

The day wore on, Ravallic’s hates and desires raging at my whim. Never once had a role gripped me so strongly, or the skin pressed so close. It held with a certainty as fixed and impassive as the stucco walls of this taxo den. Ah, the delight it gave. I believed I had come to inhabit myself, that now finally I was born. For such is an important thing, nay, I would say, almost the most vital: to awaken to ourselves and our own potential. Such is our purpose, always to be welcome, even if but late in life and only amidst the lies of legends. Yet there is a price to be paid for this. No longer can we flee the consequences of our actions. We pay the price of who we are and we go on paying for as long as we breathe.

By dusk, the dead lay about the field; the legendary Fifty-Seven immortalized with inert, rictus grins. The carrion birds rejoiced to one another with harsh cries, while an orchestra of destroyed horses kicked out their last with ruptured bellies and shattered limbs. Smoke blanketed the ground, and here and there mounds of the slain rose out of the fog like deformed islands. The soldier remained at my side, his bloodstained courtier’s hands clasped around the smooth handle of his saber.

“We won,” he said. “The invader is gone.”

How he could see victory in this slaughter was beyond me. All I saw before us was the reality implicit in a mad king’s dream, a dream I now must claim the responsibility of.

The soldier took a step, and slipped in the mud to kneel upon one knee. He removed his helmet, and looked up at me, showing lupine teeth in a smile. His red-rimmed eyes simmered with a merciless intent.

“I would have us die here together,” he said. “So that Ravallic’s dream might never end.”

He tried to regain his feet, but the trampled mud would not allow him purchase. He slid and drove his saber into the ground to keep from falling.

The King’s flesh freed me to act, and I woke to myself. With a quick motion I plunged Ravallic’s sword into the juncture of the soldier’s neck and the collar of his cuirass. The effort and the weapon’s weight carried me down, so I fell atop the man. Ravallic’s face, reflected in the soldier’s dying eyes, the man’s dreams splashing into the mud while yet his heart kept beating.

I fled the field leaving the weapon in its place, crawling like a newborn birther within an abattoir. How this skin clung to me then, heavy as a chain, and stouter than any jailer’s cell. The volium had died upon me, melding to my flesh, so I might forever be the King. I wandered onward, each step bearing down upon me like a weight. Already the scavengers rode down from the hills atop their slender spider-things.

♦ ♦ ♦

“I returned here,” the King says, “for the kingdom had endured its fill of Ravallic’s dreams. And if I must give up my own ability to eschew certainty, at least I could remain here and pursue possibilities in the comfort of my dreams.”

His tale finished, the King pulls another pellet of taxo from the basket. He taps it down into his pipe and asks for a brand from the fire. The flame crackles as the King draws deep off the taper, illuminating his waxen features once more.

The mask is nearly immobile, rigid yet perfect in its semblance. The eksya of Ravallic, free of the chain of our endless shifting; a legend, a dream, a nightmare, to all of us who practice the serpent-arts.

His eyelids close, and I leave him there to sleep, going down the stairs and past the constellations of glowing pipes. The preena bird stretches its wings at my passing. Beyond the door, the dust of the world greets me. There are crowds on the Street of Seven Horns: men and women who reside as comfortably inside themselves as a hand resides within a glove. Night deepens around us, and I make my way to my room, unsure who I will be tomorrow. Already my skin weeps from a score of wounds.

The volium awaits.

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Justin Howe is the product of late 20th century New England. He lives in South Korea, tweets as @justinhowe, and blogs about books at 10badhabits.com. His stories have appeared before in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Reckoning Magazine, and elsewhere.

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