Published Issue 114, June 2023
Hargon Goss was hungry. “That’s enough,” he rumbled to his banker, a powerful man in his own right, who nevertheless attended Goss at his palazzo when beckoned. “You handle the details with the servants and such. Save the young and healthy, sell the rest.”
“Very good, my lord.”
Before the banker was out the door, Goss rang the handbell for his body man. “I’m hungry. I want something hearty. If I’m to meet with the queen I need energy.”
“I know just the thing. An artisan, here to lay the mosaic in the new bath.”
Once the attendant left, Goss stared moodily out the high window at the city, the gray sky, the canals leading to the harbor. Are you really going to do this? came the thought, and he felt the seeming waver before he got his mind under control. If he, Goss, a creature famous for his appetites, did not eat, it would be noticed. And he would feel fatigued, would feel out of sorts.
I’m hungry, he thought again, insistently. And after I’ve eaten, a bath.
In a few minutes his attendant returned with the artisan, a muscular, clean-shaven, curly-haired man in his late twenties who looked upset. Goss licked his lips. “Good.”
“My lord, I am bloodsworn to Lady Filgre,” the man protested. “She will be not be happy— ”
“Be quiet,” said Goss, allowing the power of command to suffuse his voice. No room for doubt. The artisan’s lips snapped shut and Goss smiled, feeling the vampiric ability as a kind of electricity at his temples. “Your lady won’t begrudge me a little snack. Come here.”
When the man stood in front of him, Goss lifted his considerable mass out of his chair. His fangs lengthened as he began to salivate.
To act a monster is to become a monster.
The seeming wavered. His huge corpus collapsed inward to reveal a whipcord frame, the glabrous scalp grew red hair, black eyes turned bright green. This other figure — that is, Ten Koganei in his natural form — looked nervously toward the door, saw that the attendant was occupied just outside the chamber.
But the artisan had seen, face now even more terrified. Think of your sister. “I won’t hurt you,” he whispered to the tile-layer, and then, voice growing deeper, body again ballooning into the form of the vampire lord, Goss: “But I’ve got to eat.”
Irina Razok, the Virgin Queen of San Lavinia, simply had no notion of morality. Turned vampire as a girl of six, she was famous for her capriciousness, her cruelty and her power of command, which even most other vampires could not resist.
That night she had invited her uncle, Goss, to attend a game, for which she was also famous. He had already heard whispers of the animals she had been importing, and so it did not entirely surprise him to find a large cage constructed in the center of the throne room. When she saw him enter, she waved excitedly from her golden chair. The terrazzo was sticky with blood, fur and feathers. “Uncle! We are playing a delightful game! We match each courtier with the animal that suits them most, and place them in this cage. Either they kill the beast, or the beast kills them. Or if they refuse, we kill them both. What do you think?”
“Delightful, my queen.”
“You must try it!”
Her face darkened. “You must.”
He felt the power of the words. He wanted to try it, wanted to fight to the death. And in truth, it did amuse him. It was puerile, and stupid, but amusing. “Do they get weapons?”
“Only if it is sporting.”
“I see. May I watch someone else go first, to get a better sense of it?”
She considered. “Fair enough. Come sit by me.”
For the councilor Jonas, with his wattles and wig, a rooster: hard to catch, and he suffered some nasty cuts, but in the end wrung its neck and retired in irritation. For Lord Cabinar, a wolf: which he killed with the knife he’d been given (but then, Cabinar was also a vampire, and not in much real danger).
“Your turn! Bring it out, bring it!”
For Goss: a wild hog, of course. The animal was nigh big as a pony, and he did not like its look at all, least of all its dirty tusks. Nonetheless he smiled and laughed. “Very droll, Your Highness. And shall I have a weapon, or shall I beat it to death with my enormous cock?”
She laughed. She always thought jokes of dicks and cunts, farts and burps were funny. “Because I am fond of you, you may have any weapon you like.”
The guards wore rapiers, but Goss was no swordsman. “Get me a spear,” he growled to one of them. “Quickly.”
The weapon was shoved into his hand as he entered the cage. The boar looked at him with an evil eye, snorted, stamped its forefoot, and charged.
In fact Goss was immensely strong, and had attended countless hunts over the decades. He stepped adroitly to the side and ran the animal through the neck with a shout. It struggled while he did his best to avoid the flailing hooves, pressing his great weight against the spear’s haft and pressing a knee against the boar’s shoulder. Its eye bulged at him, its hot breath stinking in his nostrils, and in the struggle the wooden haft snapped just above the spear’s steel socket. No matter: the boar was dead.
“Bravo!” cheered Irina along with the rest of the court. “Well done, Uncle! See you all, the Marquis doesn’t mind a little excitement! Hear him roar!”
He staggered out of the cage, breathing heavily. He wiped at his face absently, saw blood on his lace sleeve, reached into his pocket for a handkerchief. Irina waved him back toward the throne and asked, “Who should we do next, Uncle?”
He stopped at the bottom of the dais, and mused, “I have to admit, I’m curious. What about you, Your Highness?”
“Ha! You have read my mind again! Hopefully not in a sorcerous way. You, bring my better half!”
A page hurried off and returned with a cage covered with a red damask cloth. Making a bow, he set it on a pedestal next to the throne. Irina stood, eyes bright and gleeful, to pose dramatically to one side, then whipped off the cloth.
The large bat inside shrieked angrily, shifting back and forth on the bar from which it hung. Irina leaned down beside it and made a face, exposing her own fangs. “Does she look like me?”
“She lacks only a crown, Highness,” Goss jested.
“You’re right, she is a usurper. Just like all of you. Do you think I don’t know? Do you think I can’t see how you hate me, how you would kill me if you could? You deserve my games. You think I am hateful, but it’s your own hate I show to you.” She opened the cage. The bat shifted nervously to face her, but Irina reached in fearlessly, dodging its darting fangs. With sudden savagery, the child queen bit down on the neck of the bat and shook like a terrier, until its head tore free. Dark blood dripped down her chin as she let the lifeless body fall.
Now! Goss stepped forward, extending his handkerchief, which he had not yet used. Irina reached for it; and with all his might he drove the broken spear haft into her small body, directly into her heart.
She staggered back, eyes wide. “Even you, Uncle. How droll.” Still standing with the wooden shaft protruding from her chest, she went on, “But then, I think my uncle would have known better.”
She inhaled — and exploded into a fine red mist, clothes, spear and all. Goss reeled. No, no! He wheeled around, ready to run, but the mist flowed around him, and coagulated again into the small lithe body of the queen — the altogether unharmed body of the queen — now holding the spear haft herself, which she thrust with inhuman speed and force into Goss’s back, through his kidney and out the other side.
He fell to his knees. He had worked so hard for this one chance, and he had failed. Blinded by pain, the Goss persona wavered, and the seeming wavered with it, revealing his true form: a slender red-haired man with small sharp teeth and green eyes, now dying. “Not a hog, not a bat,” said Irina, “but a fox, sneaking into my court.” She walked around to regard him. “What’s your name?”
The fox looked up with rage in his eyes. “Ten Koganei.”
“And? Were you hired? Or just woke up disgruntled this morning?”
“Ah. Revenge.” He was silent. “And my uncle is dead, I assume? That’s usually the way with dopplegangers.”
“Dead.” Not by his hand, though he would not say it. But he had been there when the Marquis had been killed, on a hunt outside his estate, discovered by the vampire hunters Ten had been following. They had stabbed him through the heart with a wooden stake, and he had died. He looked down in perplexity at the shaft now protruding from his own belly. Why had it failed to kill the queen?
Irina noticed. She leaned forward. “You’re no master of your art. My uncle knew better. You can’t kill a vampire with any ordinary wood. Only witchwood will stop us from disapparating. Otherwise … poof! Back again.”
She was right. A stronger fox would have embodied Goss so completely that all his knowledge, all his power, would have become the fox’s. Sometimes a fox would get lost that way, subsumed in the persona of the one impersonated.
“Oh, well. I think the old monster was fond of me. But truthfully, I mostly kept him around to manage the city. Otherwise he really was just a fat old hog.”
Rage rose again in him — and not just his own. It was Goss’s rage, the hatred of decades for the monster that he had created, who had then taken his place in ruling the city. Once he really had loved her as his own child; he had loved her so much he had wanted to keep her that way forever. But he had made a mistake.
Where the fox had been, Goss now looked up at his niece. He inhaled — and disapparated, exploding into red mist. She gasped, spun around as he had spun a moment before. But he reformed nearly in place, holding the long, heavy, head of the spear, which he had hidden in his coat after killing the animal, and which he now swept in an unstoppable arc to cut off her head.
The court was silent, even the guards pulled back toward the walls as the queen’s lifeless body fell to the ground. “The monster is dead,” Goss said. He turned and took his place on the throne. “Long live the monster.”
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Moon Patrol is a Northern California-based artist. Taking themes including ’80s cartoons and video games, classic pulp illustrations, and comic book narratives, Moon Patrol remixes these many and varied cues using a collage technique he compares to “Kid Koala’s turntable albums, and in part by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique.” See more of his work on Instagram and snag prints at Outré Gallery.