This story is paired with “The King in Yellow (Suite)” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
The sign read Welcome. To All Who Want Release. The woman pulled the white wolf’s head down over her face, the smell of the hunt now heavy against her skin, and passed underneath the shadow of the arch.
On this side, the eyes were everywhere. They were in the dead branches of the ashen trees and the crooked masonry of the crumbling walls. They were in the black birds wheeling in the graphite sky and the coatless hares, scattering across the road before her, their tiny bones clicking and popping in the echoes. The woman looked through the wolf and kept her face forward, knowing that to turn and look would mean never to look back. She followed the tracks of the skeleton hares, deep, luminous gouges in the iron road, intent only on making it to the King.
When she passed beneath the blue star, and the light died, instead of rising, the woman knew she would be seen. She stepped across the river of ochre and entered the hall of the dead.
The King was waiting for her. He was slouched on his throne, long nails digging into the seat of poisoned diamonds, and his black grin widened at her approach. It became most of his face, a dark cavity between his eyes and his jaw, but the woman looked into the emptiness as she continued towards him and when she was ten paces from his feet, the King closed his lips and swallowed.
The woman spoke first.
“You are the King in Yellow.”
“And you wear the Pallid Mask.”
The King hunched his shoulders and titled his head.
“You are not here for the alabaster bath, though. You are not here for the immortality of stone.”
The King arched his back as he twisted around further.
“Have you come to challenge me, perhaps? To try and wrestle me from my throne? Take your place under the Yellow Sign?”
“You would not be the first who tried, you know. Although the last was a long time ago. I pulled his spine up out of his throat and threw it on the very stones where you are standing.”
The woman did not look down. Through the eyeholes of her mask, she kept her gaze on the King. He titled his head to the other side.
“And yet, you wear the Pallid Mask.”
“So you are not here to seek release. You are not here to become beautiful, to become a figure of perfection, to never know hunger or pain or sorrow. To never feel as if you are being ripped to pieces by your suffering, to never know loss or shame. Look at them. Look how beautiful they are.”
The King spread his long arms wide, inviting the woman to view the walls lined with marble statues. She did not turn to look. She kept her eyes forward, only on the King.
“And you know enough to wear the Pallid Mask before the Yellow King.”
“I know enough to wear it for the King in Yellow, for there is no Yellow King.”
The King’s jaws unhinged again as he laughed and his colorless eyes rolled toward the ceiling made of bones and the woman waited until the King’s face snapped shut and he looked at her wolf’s head again.
“So. You know not to look and you know what not to speak and you come before me wearing the Pallid Mask.”
“Well then. I will speak the word. And you may speak the word. And then you may entreat me at your will.”
He spoke and she spoke and the word was not in a language to ever cross the tongues of man. The woman bowed low and began.
“You own the soul of a man I once loved.”
“I drove him mad when I ceased to return his love. I have looked for him everywhere. I believe that I drove him here.”
The woman untied the wolf’s head and let the carcass fall to the floor. She met the King with naked eyes and blood drying in her auburn hair.
The King nodded.
“Now that I can see you, I can tell you.”
“The man of which you speak is here. In the tower of the lost. He came seeking release on the last solstice. You were right. You drove him mad. He could not bear to be without you.”
“Let him go.”
This time, when the King laughed, the sight of the black maw burned her eyes and she flinched, but would not look away. The King stood and gestured at the hollow spaces all around him.
“Is he not happy here? In this place, he will never pine for you. He will never ache with love. He will never know the burning disease of lust and torment himself with memories.”
“Let him go. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
The King turned in a circle.
“Oh, most people come here knowing what they are doing. In that moment, anyway. They have been spited by family. They have felt the terror of bankruptcy, of discovery in a lie, of cowardice. Sometimes they have been defiled. Sometimes they come here with the burden of grief. Those poor souls barely make it past the gate.”
“Let him go. I’m asking.”
The King bent himself back into his throne and rested his chin on his dusty palm.
“Here, he is beautiful. Here, he will never know age or betrayal or loneliness again. Here, his heart will keep on beating, forever and forever, inside a chest that will never cave. Would you really have me wake him and cast him back into the agony of life?”
The woman clasped her hands in front of her.
“Yes. He made a mistake. I’m asking you to let him go.”
The hall was silent and the woman held her breath while the King looked her up and down and then looked at the statues lining the walls.
“What will you do?”
The King slowly returned to the woman.
“To win him back. What will you do? Will you chew the hearts of the unworthy for the giant who has no jaw?”
The woman shook her head.
“Will you then journey to the land of the unforgiven and return with a jar of the blood of a thousand names?”
“Will you dance with the serpent on the rock, until the serpent’s coils snap and the falcon can carry it away?”
The King leaned forward and there was flame in his colorless eyes.
“Then you offer me nothing? You come here on a hero’s quest, but plan to make away like a thief. Or a queen. Which you are not.”
“I will be.”
The King’s eyes flashed as the woman stepped closer.
“Will be what?”
“A queen. Your queen. I will be the Queen in Yellow. I will stay here, forever cursed.”
“At my side.”
“At your side. If you release the man I once loved, and I am still walking the earth, he will be driven mad again. He will never know peace. He will never forget. If I am here, he will have a chance. At least.”
The King looked the woman up and down again.
“Do you know what this means? If you are Queen, you will not rest in stone.”
“If you are Queen, you will not be beautiful forever. Your skin will crawl and your bones will grow in on themselves over the centuries and you will never love or know love. You will be as I am. You will sit here beside me and preside over the statues. You will look upon the marble faces, you will hear their hearts beating slowly inside, and you will know that they are warm and you are cold. That they know nothing of time and you know every movement of the blue star rising. You will sit beside me in this cavern of shadows and you will never be released.”
“And yes, your once lover will find a measure of happiness, but you will never again see the sun.”
The woman stepped closer once more.
“Now let him go. And let me take my place at your side.”
The King closed his eyes and the woman could hear his bones scraping against one another with every breath and she knew that these would be her bones, too. When the King opened his eyes, the flame was gone.
And in the distance, there was a shattering and the screams of one being born and the woman lowered her head and waited until the terrible noise receded and the new sight of a thousand eyes came over her and she saw that the man had returned to the world.
The King in Yellow beckoned and she put her hand on his shoulder and took her place, standing at his side, to wait for the souls of the damned.
Steph Post is the author of the debut novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has been published in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up, and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.