Kashcei and the Firebird, at Peace
by David Brookes
Kashcei the Deathless, so called by the Persian Lords, and by the djinni of the realm that rests between light and darkness, and by the fearful peasants of his Kingdom, reclined in his mighty throne and twirled his fingers.
The dancers – each one of them a stolen princess from a neighbouring fiefdom – whirled their ribbons faster. They pointed their toes harder, spun more gracefully on the balls of their marble-white feet, narrowed their mascaraed eyes.
It had been a few years for many of them, and six years for the eldest of them. The eldest, at twenty, still vaguely remembered being sold to a fat sheik at thirteen and becoming his princess. Then she remembered a bright, orange flame entering through the window of her palace harem and carrying her away, to Kashcei”s own great palace. As she danced, she recalled the sense of foreboding at being introduced to the household of an evil wizard – the worst of them, in fact – and tripped over her scarf. She fell with a slap onto the tiles, startling Kashcei from his state of near-sleep.
Enraged, he summoned his guards and had them take the princess away to be executed. Her purpose had been served, and she was too old and fat to be of any use now. By fat, Kashcei meant one whose ribs did not show through the skin, for he was excruciatingly emaciated himself. Known as the Bone King, he had all the appearance of the Grim Reaper enshrouded in midnight blue robes.
He ordered the other terrified dancers away with a single, thin-fingered gesture. The guards emptied the room in seconds. Kashcei was left alone in his achingly enormous throneroom.
“Lonely, isn’t it?”
Kashcei didn’t respond to the beautiful voice that issued through the lattice behind him. He shifted his weight so that he could put his elbow on the other arm of the gilded throne, placed his chin firmly on his fist.
“The more people you send away, my lord, the smaller are your chances of finding peace. Perhaps you should have a party?”
This caught Kashcei's attention. He hadn’t hosted a ball in ages. The idea appealed quite suddenly.
“It is as though you knew exactly what would cheer me up, precious one,” said the ageless Lord, and turned to peer through the marble lattice. He could see the moving outline of his most priceless captive, luminous and feathered through the criss-crossing arches.
“You know as well as I do,” said the bird, “that I can see the future.”
“I do not know how that can be, my iridescent thing.”
“I am made of light, Lord. Light travels faster than all else. It travels faster than memory. All memory exists in my mental past as firmly as though it were inked in the pages of your diary.”
Kashcei the Deathless had witnessed the coronation of every century since the birth of the Christian man-god. His armies had conquered the expanses of wasteland between his Kingdom and Babylon, and beyond that, the gardens of Heaven where the spirits of time constantly strove to wrench his immortal soul from his long-dead body. But he had never heard of anything quite so spectacular as the Firebird that his taskforce had captured.
It had happened during the eruption of a volcano in the realm of the Roman Emperor. Within the liquid flame of that mountain’s overflow, the delicious winged figure flapped its way through cinder and smoke. In the torment of its birth (or rebirth, if legend was to be believed), the bird had plummeted from the sky on a cushion of unimaginable pain. But it had not perished upon its landing on the golden sandy coast of a small island – only beat itself unconscious, whereupon Kashcei’s undefeatable horde had captured it in nets woven of silver filigree.
Kashcei strolled from his throneroom around to the menagerie. A tiger roared and swiped through the bars of its gilded cage at his robes as he walked leisurely past. Small armoured anteaters from a less temperate continent rolled into balls in their boxes in the proximity of his dark, thrumming power. Lesser occupants of the great aviary squawked and fluttered. Kashcei, who had seen empires rise and fall, ignored them all to marvel at the beauty of his Firebird.
“You could take your time,” said she, preening herself. “But you would have it faster were you to see my future. A future of freedom.”
“You’ve seen that, have you?” asked Kashcei.
“In ninety days the prince of the neighbouring fiefdom, named Ivan, will ride into your illustrious gardens and come upon me by the tree of silver pears.”
“Hmmn,” said Kashcei, his fingers now touching the gold plating of the bell-shaped cage.
“He will dismount his horse. He will fall in love with one of your princesses. He will choose to challenge you for her hand in marriage – a hand you will insist that you already own – and he will uncover the secret of your immortality.”
The deathless Lord felt his mouth grow dry. It hadn’t done that for decades, not since the Persian armies filled the beaches from one side of his country’s coast to the other. Eventually he’d broken the ground beneath their sandaled feet and defeated the lot of them. And since then he had known peace.
“He will uncover the secret,” he clarified.
“Yes,” said the bird.
“He will kill you.” The Firebird looked around, twisting her long neck. Her head feathers bounced as she ruffled her feathers. “You do not want that.”
“No. I do not.”
“So perhaps a party to celebrate your impending release from eternal stagnation? I cannot see a reason for you to not enjoy your final days.”
Kashcei thought about it. A dim light ignited in the recesses of his darkened eye-sockets.
“Do you know?” he said. “I think I shall.”
And he did. He hosted the greatest celebration for all of history up until that point, and even for many centuries after that. Kashcei the Deathless had accumulated a lot of wealth in his centuries of life. Some through hard work. The rest through bullying, extortion, or theft. He had the hoards of a dozen kingdoms in the coffers beneath his palace, and he had the gold spent generously on the awe-inspiring banquet, the dazzling courtly dancers, and the rarest and most exquisite ornaments and draperies that his men could obtain and bring back to the palace in time.
Once all of his friends and enemies had gathered in the cavernous throne-room, he delighted and shocked them with a telling of his own future demise. The Firebird obliged this request reluctantly, but like all captives took a certain pleasure in envisioning the death of her tormentor.
“The prince Ivan shall arrive on a white horse,” she told the rapt audience. “His sword shall be a sabre as the Slavs carry, his mind as liberal and rational as the Greeks”. But he will be enraptured by slave princesses of his Lordship’s estate, and pursue the secret of Kashcei’s eternal life and godlike invulnerability.”
“I have brought you here for one purpose,” said Kashcei then, in as grand a voice as his old lungs could muster. “To say to you that I have treated you all as befitting our respective statures: I as overlord, you as subservient prey. I have relished every day that my dominance over you has caused you misery. Those of you who have served as my allies, know that my clemency was only temporary. Your fears would have become realised the moment it took my fancy to raze your lands and siphon everything of value to my own righteous Kingdom.”
In the shocked silence that followed, nothing moved. Insects in the palace gardens could be heard, and that was all. Presently, it was a single voice that rang out clearly and truly through the appalled stillness.
“Of course, I have not finished my story,” called the Firebird in her clear, singsong voice. “I have not described the manner of the good Lord’s passing.”
“Be quiet!” yelled Kashcei. “What reason would they have to know that? In another sixty days I shall be dead, never to return. That will be enough for them.”
“Slaver,” said the bird, swooping low on her long and flaming wings, “you have never known me to lie – for my very being, made of truest flame, forbids it. And so it was that I told you the truth about your death.”
“Prince Ivan shall find the secret of my immortality and destroy me.”
“But think you not how he knew the secret? The reason is this: that Prince Ivan is in this very room, a guest of one of your invited multitude. He will hear what I have to say now, loudly and clearly: To all in this room, the secret of Kashcei’s immortality is hidden inside a needle, which is in an egg, which is in a duck—”
The manner of his betrayal struck the Deathless like a stone to his head. He screamed for his guards to shoot down the bird with their arrows, but she was made of flame and no earthly arrow could harm her.
She continued to call to the excited crowd: “The duck has been eaten by a monstrous hare, whose living body is locked in a crystal chest, which is buried under a green oak tree…”
“And where is the tree?” shouted a young and strong voice from the crowd before the furious Lord.
“Say nothing!” shrieked he, but it was too late.
“The trees is on the island of Buyan, which is surrounded by the ocean immediately east of this land. There you shall find Kashcei’s soul, and destroy him!”
Thus it was that the peaceable time between Kashcei’s capturing of the Firebird and his betrayal came to an end, and his evil was undone. The rest came as it was foretold, and the famed Firebird did attain her freedom at last.
David Brookes is a writer of mainstream and genre fiction currently living in the UK. He has stories published in many magazines including Pantechnicon, Bewildering Stories, Whispering Spirits, Morpheus Tales, The Cynic and Aphelion. His fiction has appeared in printed anthologies, most recently Skull & Crossbones from Bedazzled Inc. His first novel, Half Discovered Wings, was published internationally by Libros International in 2009. Read more about his work at his website (www.spinninglizard.co.uk) or blog (firstname.lastname@example.org).