He knew it was a bad idea to split his soul again, but with the curved blade inching nearer to his heart and the garlicky, bearded breath of his murderer beating down on his face, there weren’t many other options.
He closed his eyes, whispered in a language long forgotten by man, and felt lightning blast through his veins. For an uncountable flash he was a bolt, pure power, a god incarnate.
When he opened them again, he was looking down at his old body; feeble, mangled, gasping through the blood and tears of a life about to end. He locked eyes with the white and hazel that had been his for 70 some years, watching the confusion unfold as the assassin tried to understand that he had, thanks to the Maharaja’s hidden talents, just murdered himself.
A copper pan fell and clattered on the floor, and the king leapt back, bloody kukri held out in front of him, still dripping lethal red warning. This body wasn’t as young as he’d hoped his next would be, but it was lithe and flexible, built to run and climb and kill. He lowered the blade and slipped behind a nearby pillar of ornately carved sandstone, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unlucky voyeur.
Silhouette sprawled across the bedroom floor in furniture and curtain shaped cut-outs of pale, lunar glow. The moon was full and fierce but half the room remained pitch and hidden, plenty of space for another assailant to hide. He eyed the corners behind the massive royal bed warily, for any slight sign of unwelcome movement.
Shiny fur, more obsidian than matte, slinked through the night, weaving in and out of shadow like it was made from, or part of, the darkness. Two jaundiced eyes ruined the perfected camouflage. The cat silently jumped onto the king’s table, disrupting the maps and military figures he’d been obsessing over only a few hours earlier.
“Oh, it’s just you?” He reached out and let the cat sniff his fingers. The digits were knobby extensions of an ugly hand, hairy, scarred, betraying a life of poverty and thuggish petulance. It had been so long since he inhabited another, that the sudden unfamiliarity of his limbs made him feel dizzy, and he grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling.
The sudden movement scared the cat, who darted to safety under the bed. The king knew he needed to eat and rest, but the scene in the bedroom had to be cleaned up before the servants came to preen and dress their lord for his morning rituals. He grabbed a earthenware pitcher from the table and swallowed greedily. Where he had expect water he got beer, malty and warm, left out of cold storage for too long. It felt good to have something in his stomach, and the alcohol ever so delicately shaved the edges off the pain still echoing in his brain.
Even though the body was no longer his, the memory of the blade’s bite remained, sending phantom messages to his nerves and flesh, who sung dissonant songs of pain in return. He had long ago mastered a way to keep physically young, but his mind was layered with a millennium of memories, a hundred different lives, some rich, some poor, some blissful, some agony. He wondered, wiping the beery froth from his coarse unkempt beard, what this new body, this next life, would teach him about the world.
A far curtain rustled, and the king turned to see what the cat was up to now. But instead of finding more feline antics, he found three men who had presumably entered through the window, all wrapped in faded gray linens, brandishing knives just like his. The biggest of the three looked down at the pile of bloody regal robes, then back up at the king’s new body. He opened his mouth and sounds came out, but the Maharaja did not recognize them as words.
“व्हत् हप्पेनेद?” The assassin used the tip of his knife to point at the corpse. “तेल्ल् मे व्हत् हप्पेनेद!”
He poured through his history, through all the books he’d read, all the places he’d lived, trying to decode the message coming from this gruff intruder. To buy time, he grunted, feigned exhaustion, even knelt in faux-fealty, hoping, assuming, that this man was his superior in whatever gang they represented.
Unsatisfied, the three moved towards the king, silky hisses of sharpened steel being drawn from leather following close behind. The Maharaja panicked for the first time in a century, unsure he had the energy to stop all three men, given how recently he’d changed corporeal residence. He held the kurki forward, but his arms were weak. The first parry knocked him back into the table, soaking the maps in the remainder of the beer.
Just before he was stabbed for a second time that same night, just before giving the man a chance to imprint another painful puncture, just before the world turn blindingly white, he closed his eyes and whispered those ancient words.
This time the lightning was more like fire, his soul an insatiable inferno moving between realms.
When he opened them again, he could see the hunched backs of the three men, bent over the space he’d so temporarily rented. The room seemed much brighter than before, but the colors were muted, as if some were missing. This body felt good; springy, agile, seductively sneaky.
The men seemed happy with their work, and went to rifling drawers for royal secrets and treasures. The Maharaja watched them closely, perched atop a bookshelf, his two yellow eyes the only sign he was there at all.