(The Eastern Dragon King arrives in the courtyard to meet Kazhi, Tornado, and Kabor.)
VII. He looked like an ordinary man, which took Kazhi aback somewhat. He was above average height, powerfully built, with stunning green eyes and long black whiskers. His gown was of golden silk, richly embroidered, with the image of a full-face dragon clasping a flaming pearl in its five-clawed paw. The sinuous body of this Imperial dragon wound all over the robe, amid other pictures of fruit trees and flowers, cunningly wrought in metallic threads and jewelled beads. He was a walking tapestry. Upon his head was a black sealskin hat, from which branched two antlers of red coral.
Kazhi, upon seeing this man enter the courtyard, with all his colorful retinue behind him, bowed low. "Your Celestial Majesty," he said, before the horse could remind him that Death wouldn't bow down before a mortal, no matter how great the mortal was.
The Eastern Dragon King came to a halt, and folded his arms into the pendulous sleeves of his robe. "My vizier says that you claim to be Death," said the King, "and yet you speak of She Who Is The Giver of Life. You do not look like Death to me--not any Death who could conquer the Dragon King!"
"He is but a Death," said the horse in an unctuous manner. "There are many different kinds of death, as Your Celestial Majesty must be well aware. There is the Maiden With The Soft Hands, who grants release from suffering...there is the Crone who takes away those in old age...there is the Black Knight who drags off the souls of those who fall in battle...there is a Death for just about every contingency. There are aquatic Deaths, and those who linger about high places...there are Deaths disguised as rabbits to lure away the curious children...."
The Eastern Dragon King listened to this with thinly-masked impatience. "And who, then, might this Death be?" he asked, pointing with one long, gilded fingertip.
And now it was Kazhi who spoke up, hoping that his voice would not break. "I am Kazhi, the Immortal," he announced, "Slayer of Dragons."
He could not have picked better words to create a sensation. A restless, uneasy murmuring swept through the crowd, and many of them took a few steps back.
"And what have you to do with me?" asked the Eastern Dragon King, although not quite as boldly as before.
"Must one have a reason to die?" asked Kazhi, arching his brows.
"When one is a Dragon King, and Lord of the East Wind--yes," replied the Celestial Majesty.
Kazhi regarded the Dragon King in silence, hoping that his expression was properly comptemptful, but frantically searching his mind for some clever riposte.
"I have no answer for you," he stated at last, "for I was not told why I must claim your life. But claim you, I shall."
"I don't see how you can," replied the Dragon King, and Kazhi suddenly felt a tingling on the back of his head, as if his hair had suddenly decided it wanted to get off his scalp. Beside him, the horse pawed the ground and shifted its hindquarters uneasily.
Kazhi, keeping his face an immobile mask, stated coldly, "At the end of the earth is an oak. Under the oak is a box. Inside the box is a hare. Inside the hare is a fish. Inside the fish is a pearl. And that pearl is inside my pocket."
A brief wave of horror passed over the face of the Dragon King, and his jade eyes became very bright for a moment. Kazhi slipped a hand into his pocket.
"I have it in my fist," he continued, "and you cannot see it, because I am Death and mortals cannot see through Death. I will grind it between my thumb and forefinger, and you will fall down with scarcely a groan. I am in no mood for argument...on my way here, I slew an entire horde of Mongol warriors, because they were in my way, and left them scattered on the plain. I spared the life of one dragon, because he amused me, and swore to be my slave--and I was there when Tiamat was slain. Your life means nothing to me, O Dragon King...but I am certain that it is quite valuable to you."
He paused, to check the Eastern Dragon King's reaction. The creature was looking quite pale.
"I could be persuaded," Kazhi went on, "to put this pearl back where I found it--provided I am given something of greater value still."
"And what," inquired the Dragon King, "could be more valuable than the life of a Dragon King?"
"Dragons are not rare," remarked Kazhi, "but I have heard of a most singular creature, which you keep in your garden, a creature more rare than even a unicorn, for there is only ever one in all the world. You call it a Firebird, although it is called fenix when it flies to Egypt, there to immolate itself on a pyre of incense herbs, and to rise again from its own ashes...it is the bird of the sun, with feathers of crimson and gold, and sparks trailing from its tail as it flies--"
"Yes," said the Dragon King slowly, swallowing hard. "I am the keeper of that bird."
"Bring her to me," said Kazhi peremptorily, "prepared for travel. You give me the Firebird, and I will spare your life."
The Dragon King looked mortified. "I cannot do that," he gasped. "It is a sacred trust--the fenix was given to me by the Nine Themselves--"
Kazhi came very close to fainting at that moment. If the horse had not been standing so near, he probably would have fallen over.
"The Nine," he repeated, trying to sound disgusted. "Do you not realize that it was the Nine who sent me--?"
"But--what have I done, to distress them so?" the Dragon King cried.
"I'm sure you know," said Kazhi, "in your heart of hearts, you know. "
The Eastern Dragon King looked uneasy. This brought some measure of satisfaction to Kazhi. With his extensive knowledge of human nature, he understood that everyone had something on his conscience.
"And they wish to kill me--?" asked the Dragon King.
"They are very strict, you know," said Kazhi. "They even wanted to kill me, once...but I persuaded them not to...just as I will persuade them to spare your life, if you give me the Firebird."
The Dragon King was silent for some time. Kazhi added, "Of course, this would be kept strictly between ourselves, Your Celestial Majesty...."
"How can I be certain, that you are who you say you are?" the Dragon King suddenly asked. "You would not be the first thief to try to steal the Firebird--"
Kazhi stepped back with a look of black anger on his face, and drew the mouse-trap from his coat. "You dare doubt me?" he demanded. "Then--see here--how your brother sovereign, the Dragon King of the North, has fared--!"
He set the cage down, and opened the top, and suddenly the courtyard was filled with an enormous dragon, with white scales edged in silver, and horns of crystalline ice. The court of the Eastern Dragon King gave a shout of horror and alarm, and fell back, and Kazhi pointed a finger at the white dragon and uttered a few unintelligible words. The dragon, with a roar of pain and a dramatic flailing of its head, fell over on its side, apparently stone dead. Kazhi murmured another incantation, and the massive corpse shrivelled up until it was no bigger than a skink, and he picked this limp little body up by the tail, and dropped it back into the cage, then closed the lid.
And then he folded his arms and turned back to the Eastern Dragon King.
There was a sound of weeping, now, among some of the courtiers, but whether it was from personal fear, grief for a fallen comrade, or sorrow for the now-smashed garden, Kazhi could not guess. There was a huge dent in the carefully-raked sand, and most of the little excruciating trees were crushed beyond salvation. The face of the Eastern Dragon King was set and grim.
"You shall have the Firebird," he stated. "Come with me."
Kazhi, trying not to look too pleased, fell in behind the Dragon King, and the horse walked after him. The rest of the court followed after as they passed, moving in absolute silence, save for the soft rustling of their robes and slippers.
They passed through many apartments, ornamented in a style which was at once both spare and exquisite. Porcelains, paintings, and laquered chests served as both furniture and decoration, and as they went through the palace, lackeys in intricate costumes fell down to the ground as the Dragon King passed.
They came to another courtyard, in which grew a grove of bamboo. Each stem was as thick as a lance, and, from somewhere inside the grove, strange cries were emanating, a bone-chilling scream that was at once both peacock and eagle. The slender leaves of the bamboo trees rustled and hissed in a wind which was coming from within the grove.
"There is the cage of the fenix," said the Dragon King in a dull voice.
Kazhi rubbed his thin hands together, studying the bamboo forest.
"I want all of you to leave," he said, as he took his little bone flute from his pouch. "Go where you cannot hear me. I am going to pay the Pipe of Death, and I do not want to strike any of you down by it."
"Kill the fenix?" cried the Dragon King. "I would rather you killed me than permit that to hap-
"I am Death," said Kazhi, imperiously. "How else can I take the bird with me? Have no fear--I shall restore her to life when I reach my own kingdom. It is dark there, and I have a hankering for something pretty...I have tried to bring in ordinary birds, but they all invariably pine away. This fenix lives five hundred years, it is just the sort of pet for me."
With reluctance, the Dragon King sent all his court away, and the horse went with them. Left alone, Kazhi listened for a minute or two to the hissing and the roaring that was going on within the grove of bamboo. He put the pipe to his lips, thinking that, if the King had sought to trick him, by sending him in after a tiger or some such beast, it would be of little avail. He played the tune which brought sleep, and the noises inside the grove were quelled.
He took his dagger from his belt, and started to cut his way into the bamboo, but every time he cut off a shoot, two more sprang up to replace it, growing so rapidly that it seemed as though they would impale him.
This was a problem.
He stepped back, and put his finger to his mouth, and started to ponder. He had come too far and endured too much to let some over-eager plants foil him now.
Then he shook the mouse-trap. The ogre was spared from the effect of the pipe by the counter-magic of the iron bars. He had also had to remain a lizard, or, really, a very tiny frost dragon.
"Hey," said Kazhi, "can you do everything that the Northern Dragon King can do?"
"Sure," said the shape-shifting ogre.
Kazhi indicated the bamboo. "Can you breathe frost on that, and stunt it?"
The tiny reptile looked out at the forest. "No problem," he said. "Just let me out."
With his pipe in his hand--just in case the ogre tried anything--Kazhi released him. The monster attained the size of an elephant, and then opened its jaws to breathe a gust of bitter fog onto the bamboo. The trunks turned brown, the leaves blackened and withered, and then--to Kazhi's astonishment--the ogre shrank back into a mouse, and jumped into the cage of its own volition, pulling the lid closed.
"Thanks," said Kazhi as he slung the cage over his neck again, and settled it inside his coat.
"I told you--I'm interested to see how you pull this off," the ogre replied.
Kazhi was now able to cut his way into the grove. Inside was a large clearing, like an aviary in a zoological garden, with many perches and a fountain, and golden bowls of food. Lying sprawled in the middle of this clearing, as if dead, was the fabulous Firebird.
Kazhi was not a sentimental man--he had long ago lost whatever sensitivity he had possessed--but the sight of that magnificent creature, too beautiful to describe, lying in a crumpled, motionless heap made his stony heart leap in dismay. Her tongue lolled out from her ivory bill, and her eyes were closed, the tiny feathers on her eyelids shimmering like satin in the muted greeny light. Her color was all the hues of the sunset, in a shifting play as Kazhi moved around her, and the thousand eyes of her tail were like tongues of fire. She had, in addition, two long and wispy streamers, like those of a bird-of-paradise, and a crest upon her head like a crown of rubies on stems of gold. She was about the size of a great blue heron, and Kazhi had no doubt that the claws on her feet could have ripped his head from his shoulders like plucking dandelions.
The wizard bent, and gently--as tenderly as a father with a newborn babe!--he gathered up the Firebird, and nestled her into his arms. Her head drooped on her long neck, and he carefully tucked it over her back, lest it come to accident. Then, arranging her magnificent tail under his arm, he looked into the bowls of food, remarked upon the contents, and left the grove.
He carried the Firebird into the palace. The courtiers were openly weeping, and Kazhi could understand why. If someone had come to take this bird away from him, he would have been every bit as distraught. Kazhi doubted that he could ever love anything, but, if he could, he could love the Firebird. He could gaze at her forever, he wanted to bring her everything her little heart desired. He would sooner cut off his hand than to harm so much as a feather on her head.
The Eastern Dragon King was looking at him with a grim and resigned glower. He said not a word, as Kazhi bowed to him, and then summoned his horse. He led the great steed out into the courtyard, clumsily mounted up, pressed the sleeping Firebird to his chest, and said, "Get us the hell out of here."
VIII. Tornado struck the ground with his feet, and sparks shot out from underneath them. In a bound, he cleared the wall of the Dragon King's compound, and raced through groves of peach and cherry trees toward the western sea.
They crossed the placid water in much the same way as they had come, Kazhi clinging tightly to the Firebird, the reins of the magic bridle wrapped around his shoulders. It seemed to him that the horse did not run quite so fast this time, that Kazhi could actually make out the crests of the waves as they passed over, his face and hair dampened by the salty spray thrown up from the great stallion's flashing hooves. He had little time to enjoy this experience, however, for within minutes they were once again on solid ground, sand and grass replacing the open water.
Then the horse slowed down, almost to a walk. Kazhi, fearing pursuit, asked him what he was thinking.
"You might want to fasten that bird more securely to my saddle," Tornado suggested. "It would be a shame if you were to arrive home with only a few tattered feathers in your grasp."
The wizard, with a little embarrassment, accepted the horse's wisdom, and rummaged around in the Khan's saddlebags for something with which to bind the Firebird. He came up with the jewelled halter, but precious little else.
"Well," said the horse, with a trace of dismay, "I suppose I'm just going to have to go along easily."
This did not sit well with Kazhi, but he said nothing, for he would not have hurt the Firebird for the world, and to think of so much as one of her gorgeous tailfeathers coming out caused him actual pain.
So they went along, Tornado at a gentle trot, and Kazhi the Deathless tenderly cradling the sleeping Firebird in his arms, cushioning every jolt and jog, even though he knew that her sleep would only be broken by the anti-charm played on his bone whistle.
"Can I ask you something?" the horse inquired, after several hours had gone by.
"I don't have to answer," said Kazhi, idly stroking the golden-tipped feathers on the Firebird's throat.
Tornado shook his head. "No, I suppose you don't...but I'm curious, and the road is long. Why do you need that bird, anyway? You're going through an awful lot of trouble to get it."
"I have a dragon," replied Kazhi, "who told me that he was growing weak, for not having eaten the apples of longevity, which grow in the garden of the Hesperides. He said that the Firebird could make the trip, and steal him the apples he needs."
The horse pondered this.
"You have a very stupid dragon," he decided.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you could have taken some of the peaches from the Dragon King's garden," said the horse. "He guards the Peaches of Longevity. The apples of the Western Dragon King grant wisdom, not longevity."
Kazhi brooded over this.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"As sure as I am that my tail is there, though I see it not. The Black Dragon of the South guards the Oranges of Fortune, and the White Dragon of the North guards the Tree of Eternal Life."
Kazhi bit on his lip, so hard that he felt the blood flow.
"How do you know so much about dragons?" he asked.
"When you've fought as many dragons as I and my sires have fought, you pick up a few things," replied the horse. " Six-headed, twelve-headed, serpents, firedrakes, chimerae, you name it...."
"I suppose," said Kazhi, "that that is how my dragon heard of you."
"I wouldn't be surprised. All dragons know about my line. Sometimes all a warrior would have to do, is mention that he is astride a Horse of Power, and the dragon would capitulate."
"I hope that you will get along with my dragon," said Kazhi after a while of riding along in silence. "He's not a bad sort, and he's done me some great favors. I don't know how I'd get by without him, really."
Kazhi paused, for he thought the horse was chuckling. "Your dragon," said Tornado. "No man can own a dragon--! A dragon only bides a while...he stays as long as it pleases him to do so. You must either have a great treasure, or a beautiful maiden, to keep him placid...."
"In actual fact," said Kazhi, a bit loftily, "he has promised to serve me like a dog, in return for my sparing his life."
The horse burst out laughing. "Your dragon is surely an idiot!" he snorted. "What did you do? Bamboozle him with parlour-tricks--?"
"Excuse me," interrupted Kazhi, "but we just bamboozled the Eastern Dragon King with my so-called parlour-tricks."
"Look, little friend--let's not fight," said the horse, with mock contrition. "We have a long way to go. I think I will like being in your service, you're a more interesting conversationalist than the Khan ever was. But you're going to have to learn to take anything a dragon tells you with a grain of salt, and a big one at that."
"I don't know," replied Kazhi, "He told me about the Firebird, and about how to tame you with the horse-hair bridle...."
"Gronok?" the horse asked suddenly.
"Yes--his name, I've been told, is Gronok--"
"Ho, ho, ho!" chuckled the horse. "How is the old sinner, anyway?"
"You know him, then?"
"Know him--? Ask him how he came to have the scar under his left wing. The last time I heard about Gronok, he was kicking around Lydia, terrorizing some villages there...no, I don't know him personally, but my father used to talk of how his father carried some fellow named Iorgo into battle against a dragon named Gronok...."
Kazhi thought to himself, this could get ugly....
IX. Kazhi was dozing in the saddle, lulled by the rhythmic motion of the horse, and the warm sunshine on his bare head. The Khan's saddle was just the perfect saddle for sleeping on the hoof, deep in the middle with a high front and back, and as the horse seemed to know the way, Kazhi decided to snatch a much-needed nap. He had been awake ever since the dragon had deposited him at the frontier. As he started to drift off, he remarked to himself on how perfectly exhausted he felt....
"Hey," said the horse, which jerked Kazhi back to wakefulness. He tightened his knees on the saddle and clutched reflexively at the Firebird, which he had bound up in the bridle and hung around his neck, just in case.
"Are we there yet?" asked the shape-shifting ogre, himself rubbing an eye. "Are we gonna stop for lunch--? I'm so hungry I could eat a--"
"Watch it," said Kazhi grimly.
"I was wondering," said the horse, swivelling an ear back towards his passengers, "what you'd said to the Dragon King, back there...about the Nine wanting to kill you...."
"Yes?" asked Kazhi.
"--were you telling the truth?" the horse continued.
"Actually, I was," replied the wizard, wondering whether to worry or be proud.
"Oh," said the horse, swishing his tail. "Well, that explains it."
"Explains--what?" asked Kazhi, deciding to go with worry.
Tornado stopped, and turned about in the road, so that Kazhi could see a cloud of dust rising on the horizon. "That," said the horse, gesturing with his head.
Kazhi stared. He stared harder. From out of the dust emerged four riders, hair streaming, cloaks snapping, stars blazing on their brows--
Kazhi could never remember what it was he yelled at that moment of recognition, but he thought it had something to do with bodily functions of dieties.
"Get us out of here! " he shrieked, and would have jerked on the horse's reins had his arms not been full.
The riders came pounding down upon him, faster than any natural horses could run, the legs of their mounts but a blur. Kazhi did not take a close look at them--it was enough to know that they were Dragonmaids. His one slim comfort was that he was on a horse who could run a thousand miles an hour.
But Kazhi was to learn--over time, if he had not already--that the Dragonmaids had been created to maintain the balance of order in the universe, and, as such, had powers far superior to any mortal magic; they came on as though their mounts had wings, and Kazhi's was running through chest-deep sand.
And this, in spite of the fact that Tornado was blazing along, tearing up rocks and trees in his wake.
Kazhi felt cold, extremely cold, and could only dart desperate glances back over his shoulder. At one point he could see the foam flying from the horse's mouths, and the grim expressions on the faces of his pursuers, and he steeled himself for the blow which he knew would come. But then, the most amazing thing happened--Tornado began to pull away from the Dragonmaids!
The wizard could not believe his luck! Perhaps his mount had not been going full-blast, out of concern for the Firebird--but now there was distance opening up between his tail and the flared nostrils of the Dragonmaid's horses. Kazhi was tempted to laugh in exultation as his pursuers faltered--but his mockery died in his throat.
The horses had slowed, and the riders vaulted over the horses' heads; in mid-air, the four girls transformed into horses themselves, and, as their feet touched the ground, the former horses changed into girls, and leaped up onto the new mounts' backs, in a bizarre sort of shape-shifting leapfrog. In another moment, the chase resumed, only this time with fresh runners.
They were crossing the steppe now. Kazhi screamed into the wind, "Head for the Mongols! That ought to slow 'em down--!"
Tornado veered to the left, nearly unseating Kazhi. They would be at the nomads' encampment in a heartbeat, and it would require them to stop, in order to awaken the warriors. It would be a desperate gamble, but Kazhi had no alternative.
The men and their horses were still lying sprawled around, exactly as Kazhi had left them. So far, no carrion-birds had come to investigate. Tornado dropped his hindquarters and came to a skidding stop, plowing two great trenches into the earth, and Kazhi, gripping the saddle with his knees to keep from falling off again, fumbled in his pocket for the pipe. The horse's breathing was like the roar of a bellows as the wizard lifted the pipe to his trembling lips, closed his eyes to concentrate (for his thoughts were rather scattered at that moment) and then, with the thunder of the Dragonmaids' horses growing louder, he played the counter-spell.
The men stirred groggily, the horses staggered to their feet. Kazhi was aware of the Khan looking directly at him, with something like confusion or shock on his face. Kazhi gave him a gesture which was half a wave, and half a salute, then nudged Tornado with his ankles, and the horse sprang over the whole encampment and resumed his gallop.
He could hear hoarse shouts and much tumult behind them, but Kazhi didn't look around. He hoped that the cheated tribesmen would be just angry enough to delay the Dragonmaids, and let Kazhi get ahead of them. A clashing of arms satisfied him that he would be safe.
The only problem was that the Firebird, too, awakened, and gave a startled struggle against the cords which bound it, screaming in alarm to find itself in so alien a place. In trying to restrain the bird, Kazhi lost his grip on the magic flute, and it fell from his fingers to the ground. There was of course no chance of retrieving it. He considered it a small price to pay for escaping with his prize.
The distance which had taken three days of plodding for Kazhi to cover swept by under them in a matter of minutes. They reached the western frontier of the Dragon King's lands. But if they expected the pursuit to break off, they were sorely mistaken, for once again the four mounted figures began to gain on them. Kazhi wondered, in an incoherent blur, what had happened to the fearsome warrior band, and further to imagine that, if the girls had been mad at him before, they would surely be furious now.
Suddenly Tornado stumbled, nearly pitching Kazhi from the saddle, and the horse gave a strangled cry. The wizard instantly panicked.
"What? What is it? Why do you stumble?" he gasped.
"I...I've been shot!" Tornado panted as his strides slowed down. Kazhi twisted around and saw an arrow protruding from Tornado's left haunch. Fury welled in his chest, and he raised his pale blue eyes to glare back at the Dragonmaids. One was just lowering a crossbow.
The bolt, however, was not a normal arrow, but a spell in arrow form. It robbed Tornado of his awesome speed and endurance, and, as the dart began to shimmer and fade, the magic horse could run no faster than the fastest mortal steed. The Dragonmaids came on like a tidal wave.
Kazhi fumbled in his coat, and drew out the cage of the shape-shifting ogre. "Here's where we part company, my friend," said Kazhi. "But I need one more favor, before I set you free--could you do something to slow up the four riders who are pursuing us?" He intentionally did not say "Dragonmaids" in case Kabor had some qualms about defying those who had once sought to punish him.
The ogre nodded its head, and Kazhi, crying "Thanks!" sprang the latch on the cage and tossed it over his shoulder. He did not have the time for a liesurely farewell.
Kazhi glanced back. He watched the ogre swell up into a hideous monster, a hydra with a dozen heads, and a toadlike body oozing slime. The hydra put itself directly into the path of the oncoming Dragonmaids, heads waving and hissing and spitting venom. The girls pulled up in a shower of gravel and dirt, and Kazhi, with a whoop of delight, urged Tornado to take full advantage of the diversion.
If he had kept looking back, his joy would have been short-lived, for one of the girls touched the hydra with her staff, and it instantly was transformed into a clump of daffodils, with a dozen crimson-edged trumpets waving in the breeze. The four riders parted around the daffodil plant and resumed the chase.
His horse struggling, the Firebird pecking and clawing at him, the Dragonmaids closing upon him, Kazhi realized in that terrible instant that he was going to spend the rest of eternity fleeing from those girls; and the words of Hamlet flashed into his thoughts: Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to stand against them--and by opposing, end them.
If escape had been even remotely feasible, Kazhi would never have considered surrender. But here it was--even with the fastest horse in the world, there could be no getting away from his nemeses. They had found him, as he had always feared they would, and they would catch him, one way or another.
So he asked the horse to stop running. Tornado, for a moment, could not comprehend what his rider was about to do. "You are unarmed," he said, between heavy breaths, "and immortal or not, you cannot hope to win against them--"
"I'm not going to fight them," said Kazhi, with grim resignation. "I'm giving myself up."
"Idiot," said Tornado, but drew in his strides, and gradually came to a halt, in a grassy meadow by a wide blue river flowing under aspen trees.
Kazhi was not a brave man, but he put up a good front as he awaited his pursuers, sitting proud and straight in the saddle, with the sullen Firebird clutched in his arms. Her wings had been securely bound, but her neck was free, and she waved her head around, trying to strike Kazhi with her ivory bill; it was difficult to look brave and noble when one has a bird chewing on one's ear.
Suddenly he was surrounded by the Dragonmaids, the neighing and blowing of their enchanted mounts creating a terrible din. They were all looking at him as though he were a glob of slime adhering to the bottom of a shoe. Kazhi didn't flinch, determined to die like a man--well, if not to die, then to be captured without breaking down into the sort of desperate squeals for mercy which had marked his last encounter with the demigoddesses.
He expected at any moment to be hit by some incredibly powerful spell, which would render him immobile, but for several long seconds, nothing happened. All that the Dragonmaids did, was to ride a slow circle around him, studying him keenly.
He dared to look at them. It had been years since he had last seen them, but it occurred to him, then, that he did not recognize any of these girls. They had the stars on their brows, the colored tunics bearing the crests of their order, the charm-bracelets with the magic talisman weapons suspended from the links--but their faces were unfamiliar to him.
And then, with a leap in his breast, Kazhi realized--these are earlier incarnations of them!
For there was a line of Dragonmaids, which changed from time to time as the girls decided to leave the Sisterhood, and return to mortal existance. The Dragonmaids who knew of him, and from whom he had escaped, were not these!
He could scarcely contain his joy. There was still a chance yet to elude them, if he could only keep his wits about him....
One of the girls, in a white tunic with a crescent moon embroidered on the front, nudged her black steed and rode up to the wizard. She had a mass of curley blond hair caught up in a silver band, and eyes the color of honey. She raised a hand and addressed him.
"I am Cynthia Diana Nightstar," the girl told him. "We have been charged with taking you prisoner, and recovering the property which you have stolen from the Eastern Dragon King."
Kazhi blinked. "Stolen--?" he repeated, somewhat indignantly. "I have stolen nothing."
All eyes fixed on the wriggling Firebird.
"Oh--this?" said Kazhi, also looking at the bird. "I assure you, I did not steal it. I have a receipt for it in my belt-pouch. It was given to me by His Celestial Majesty. If you'll give me a moment to--"
"Silence, mortal," ordered Cynthia Nightstar, with obvious disdain. "The fenix was not his to give. The fenix belongs to no one, that it can be given--"
"Well, if it belongs to no one--how can you say that I have stolen it?" asked Kazhi.
There was a murmuring among the girls.
"It is our understanding," said a second girl, riding up on a bay mare, "that you used trickery to frighten the Dragon King into allowing you to take the fenix." She was a small girl, almost mouselike, with a pageboy bob of dark brown hair. She wore a green tunic adorned with a sprouting seed, and in her hand she held a curious sort of staff, carved with leaves and flowers at the tip.
"Ah, well," said Kazhi, trying to sound meek, "if you only knew how desperately I needed to gain possession of this Firebird, you might understand...."
"You are a very foolish mortal, to think that you could get away with this," the girl with the staff informed him. Kazhi thought, under the circumstances, that it would be in his best interest not to inform her that he was not a mortal. His unique status was what had gotten him in trouble with the Nine to start with. He did not need to have two sets of Dragonmaids cheesed off at him. And, if this set should ever confuse him with his other self--the ignorant, happy-go-lucky self who was travelling through time, helping sovereigns and amassing all the wisdom which now filled Kazhi's head...he did not wish to contemplate the possibilities.
"Foolish--or vain," added Cynthia Nightstar, with scorn. "You have a Horse of Power...you must either be a great wizard, of whom we are yet unaware, or you are the lackey of a great wizard. This is the territory of Baba Yaga--did she send you on this quest?"
"I swear to you, I do not know of any Baba Yaga," said Kazhi, not quite truthfully. "I will admit to you that I do dabble in the mantic arts--but I am more of a philosopher than a magician. I was asked to fetch the Firebird by a dear friend of mine, a dragon who serves me of his own free will--"
As he spoke, he paid close attention to the faces of the four Dragonmaids in human form, hoping to pick up any cues which might make him want to alter his story. They evidenced a slight surprise to learn of a dragon which chose to serve a mortal. And a rather unremarkable-looking mortal at that.
"--he said he was ill, and that the Firebird would be able to fetch him the medicine he needs."
"Your dragon is ill?" said the girl with the staff. She rode beside Kazhi, facing her horse toward Tornado's rear, so that she could speak face-to-face with the wizard. "I am Angelica Cora Springstar, and medicine is my specialty. We cannot bear to see a dragon suffer. What, precisely, is wrong with him?"
Kazhi bit his lip. This was certainly an unexpected turn! "I'm not sure," he said. "He told me that he was pining, and needed something he called the apples of longevity, to restore his strength--"
The Dragonmaids started to laugh, casting secret glances amongst themselves.
"What?" asked Kazhi, looking hurt.
"Either your dragon is very ignorant," explained Cynthia Nightstar, "or you've been had, my friend. I think your dragon, who serves you of his own free will, has been trying to get rid of you."
"What--what do you mean--?" Kazhi stammered, amazed at his own acting ability.
"He has sent you out on a quest which he knows you cannot accomplish," Nightstar informed him; then, with a look at the Firebird, she added, "Or, at least, believed you could not accomplish."
A girl with a long black braid and eyes to match next rode up, on a steel grey horse. "I am Theodosia Maya Skystar," she said, in a wonderfully mellow voice which still bore traces of a Mediterranean origin. "What is your name, Wizard?"
Kazhi's mind raced so fast it was a wonder that smoke did not come out of his ears. To give his own name would have been folly, even though he had introduced himself to the Dragon King as such--for he could never lose sight of the fact that his previous self, the ignorant, confused magician who could neither grow old nor die, was still blundering around out there, somewhere; and he feared that somehow word would get back to the Nine, and they would send out the Dragonmaids who hated him, and wanted him dead. His eyes, as he thought, fell upon a magnificent red mare being ridden by a stout-looking girl with a brown braid coilded around her head. Artemis....
"My name?" he asked, innocently. "It is not important--"
"Do not quarrel with us, mortal," said Theodosia. "You may have no idea who we are, but it is better if you do not flatter yourself into thinking that we are capable of being duped."
The girls all frowned slightly. Kazhi swallowed hard and felt himself sweating.
"Faustus," he blurted. "My name in Faustus."
The girls nodded in satisfaction, and he thought that they must have been marking it down somewhere. "Well, Faustus," said Cynthia, "you certainly have remarkable skill--or tremendous luck. You are astride a get of Pegasus, and you had a shape-shifting ogre in your thrall--"
"I wouldn't call it thrall," said Kazhi, with a shrug, wincing as the Firebird dug a claw into his thigh.
"Silence! You do not know the amount of trouble that you are in, or else you wouldn't be so cocky!" She turned her prancing horse around, but kept her eyes on Kazhi. "The Eastern Dragon King said that you claimed to be Death, and that you threatened to smash his Pearl unless he gave you the fenix."
"Well--I've told you," said Kazhi, feigning humility, "I am in urgent need of this bird. You say that my dragon is trying to be rid of me--that may be so; but if he is not, if he is truly ill, then I must do all I can to aid him. I know very little about these things...as I've said, I am more of a philosopher than a magician...and I have taken him upon his word; I have become very fond of the old thing, and, as you can see, I would do anything to help him."
The Dragonmaids sat in eerie silence, studying him from all the cardinal points. Kazhi felt as if ants were renovating his carcass. The plump girl on the red horse leaned forward and rested her chin in her gauntletted hand, her elbow on the pommel of her saddle, while her horse seemed to narrow its green eyes. Kazhi noticed, almost ironically, that the four horses all had white patches on their foreheads, and that their eyes were not horse's eyes, but human eyes. He shuddered.
He then sensed a sort of whispering, like the wind through dry leaves, and remembered that he could hear the thoughts of the Dragonmaids, as he was of the same essence as they; he was almost afraid to eavesdrop, lest they somehow feel his presence in their private conversation, and so he concentrated on anything but the whispering. There was nothing he could do about it, anyway.
At last, the girl called Angelica rode up to him. She rummaged in the large pouch she wore slung over her shoulder, and drew out a peach of indescribable lushness. She held it up to the wizard.
"If your dragon is telling the truth," she said, "this should set him right."
"Thank you, milady--" said Kazhi, reaching to accept the peach. Angelica snatched it away.
"Not yet," Cynthia said sharply. "In exchange--you must release the Firebird."
A pang of jealous horror smote Kazhi's heart, and he clung to the bird, even as it struggled and howled in protest. "Let her go--?" he cried, "Here? She'd get lost--"
"That is no ordinary bird," said Cynthia, dryly. "You cannot possibly keep it. In fact--"
She slipped a sword from a scabbard at her waist, and the length of the shaft glimmered with a faint blue fire. She grimly set her mouth. "--we forbid it."
The sword was so close to Kazhi's leg that he could feel its heat, and smell a sort of ozone odor as it consumed the air around it. He could also hear it crackling softly. For an instant, he was terrified--and then he recalled how the swords of the Dragonmaids could not hurt him. Of course, that was when he happened to be holding one of their Keys--
He looked fleetingly at Cynthia Nightstar, and saw that very same Key gleaming on a chain around her neck. And, just as his eyes fell upon it, the girl gave a sharp flinch, and dashed her fingers to the Key, as if it had stung her somehow--
Kazhi swiftly looked away. The blasted Key knows--somehow, it knows--
Cynthia Nightstar scowled at him, and Kazhi pretended not to notice. She raised her sword.
"We don't want to hurt you," she told him. "We feel that you were acting in ignorance, out of a genuine concern for a dragon. You have transgressed a number of the Laws of Order, which we are charged with upholding; but, after weighing it out, we have decided that, by releasing the fenix, the matter will be settled. You do not actually have the Pearl of the Eastern Dragon King, nor have you actually killed the White Dragon of the North; as far as impersonating a supernatural being is concerned--well, we could let that one slide. What you did to the Khan's horde is actually a good thing. We have been receiving many complaints about them, and would have had to deal with them eventually.... Tornado--" and she looked at the stallion, "--tell me; did this man steal you?"
"No, milady Nightstar, he did not," said the horse.
"Did he buy you?"
"No, milady Nightstar, he did not."
"Did your former master give you to him?"
"No, milady Nightstar, most assuredly he did not."
"And so you serve him of your own choice, and by your free will?"
The horse hesitated. Kazhi squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth.
"Yes, milady Nightstar. I choose to serve this man."
Kazhi remembered to breathe.
"Well, then," said the Dragonmaid, sheathing her sword, "we have no quarrel with that. For a Horse of Power cannot be compelled to serve a mortal master. It seems, therefore, that your only crime has been taking the fenix by deceit. Do we all concur?"
The other Dragonmaids nodded assent.
"Very well," Nightstar continued. "So here is the bargain--and I strongly advise you to accept it, for you will not like the alternative--give us the Firebird, and return to your home ground, and interfere no more in the affairs of Fee--and you will never see us again."
Tornado shifted his feet, and turned his ears back toward Kazhi, as if urging him to accept and be done with it--for he had heard that the Nine were extremely creative in meting out punishments for those who transgressed their Laws. He hoped that this idiot would make the right choice. He was rather looking forward to his harem of fine mares and his first-class accommodations.
Kazhi looked down at the beautiful bird in his arms. The Firebird looked back at him with one golden eye--and then made a savage peck at him, which nearly relieved him of his nose. The romance was over.
"All right!" the wizard cried, "I'll let her go. If you say my dragon was lying to me--then I suppose I don't have any need to bring her back; and from what I've heard, I wouldn't be able to keep her confined, anyway."
Nightstar looked pleased, and raised her hand. "Artemis--would you take the fenix from the mortal, please--?"
A lump caught in Kazhi's throat as he watched the plump girl dismount, and her red mare transform into Artemis Firestar, the First Dragonmaid of Fire. Kazhi knew her as a homicidal maniac. But that was after fifteen hundred more years...although she looked exactly the same, right down to the freckles on her nose, and the unkempt russet mane. He steeled himself as she came towards him, repeating in a mantra in his mind, she doesn't know you...she doesn't know you....
"I'll take that," she stated in her gruff voice, reaching up, and Kazhi stiffly handed over his hard-won trophy. As he bent down towards her, the fenix struggled, and both humans quickly moved to still her. In doing so, Artemis's hand touched Kazhi's, and a look which no pen can describe crossed her face in that instant. She jerked her hand back, the fenix fell to the ground, bounced, and the bejewelled silk bridle came loose. With a ululation of pure, savage joy, the Firebird burst its bonds, spread its wings, and leaped into the sky, crowing in exultation. The sunlight glittered on her golden-tipped crimson feathers, and sparks fell from her glorious tail as she beat her way rapidly into the sky. Within moments she was but a blazing speck against the blue vault of heaven.
"Damn you!" snarled Artemis, glaring at Kazhi, and reaching for her own sword. Her movement was blocked by Angelica's staff.
"Wait, Sister," said Springstar sharply, "It was you who let the Firebird drop!"
"He stung me!" Artemis hissed. "He discharged some sort of energy, like an electric shock--"
"I did nothing of the kind!" Kazhi protested.
"I say you did--!" Artemis retorted, with such a mean glare that Kazhi felt fit to wither up where he sat.
"Here, now," Springstar said, putting herself bodily between the volatile Artemis and the hapless sorcerer. "The fenix is gone--there's no sense in frying him for it. It will probably return to the Eastern Dragon King's island, anyway, as it always does after it rejuvenates itself. Going after it is futile--none can touch the bird in flight, not even you, Artemis, who can become a Firebird yourself. The deed is done. The fenix is out of mortal hands. We must depart."
"I want satisfaction!" Artemis insisted, shaking a finger at Kazhi. "He doesn't know who he's messing with--!"
"Indeed I do," replied Kazhi quietly, "and I humbly beg your pardon. I did not intend to injure you--I can only imagine that I must have picked up some charge, like static electricity, in our rapid progress, or perhaps from holding the Firebird for so long. I apologise to you, milady Artemis."
The other Dragonmaids murmured and nodded, accepting Kazhi's scientific explination. Skystar had seen the spark jump from his hand to that of Artemis, but she attested that it did not seem intentional.
The Dragonmaids then all bent their eyes on Artemis, pressuring her to relent. With obvious reluctance, she sullenly withdrew her challenge for a duel. "You can go," she snapped at him, "but don't you dare ever do anything to attract our attention again, do you hear me? We'll forgive you this once, because you don't look all that bright--most mortals don't realize what they're getting themselves into, when they start to dabble in the realm of Faerie--but if you step out of line again, we're going to come down on you like a ton of bricks, you understand--Faustus?"
Lowering his head, Kazhi said, "I understand, most august maidens. And may I say that to me it is an honor, to have met you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the mercy you have shown in letting me go."
Earthstar changed into a horse, and Firestar swung up onto her back. She was still eyeing Kazhi suspiciously. "Yeah, well--you keep that silver tongue in your mouth, and you'll die an old man," she told him. "Angie--give him the peach for his dragon."
Springstar tossed him the fruit, which Kazhi almost fumbled, drawing snickers from the atheletic maidens. As humiliating as it was, Kazhi felt that acting like a klutz was saving his neck. He thanked Springstar, and was glad that she did not hand him the fruit, lest she touch him and sense his true nature, too.
Then Nightstar produced a rod from thin air, a long, thin shaft of silver, with a star on the tip--looks like a bloody fairy-princess wand, Kazhi thought to himself--and touched Tornado on his rump, where her arrow had pierced him. The horse flicked his tail and tossed his head as his strength came flooding back to him.
"Go," she stated, "and don't look back. And may we never meet again."
Kazhi was only too glad to follow her orders.
X. "You are the luckiest sonofabitch on the face of the earth, do you know that?" said the horse after they had put some miles between themselves and the Dragonmaids. He tossed his silken mane. "I thought for sure that they were going to gut you standing and use your lights for purses."
Kazhi made no reply, he merely shrugged, for to admit that the same thought had been going through his own mind might open up a conversation with the horse which Kazhi did not wish to begin. He did not see a need to try to explain to Tornado how he came to know about the Dragonmaids.
But Tornado seemed to be in a chatty mood. Stepping around a rough patch in the road--he didn't want to run very fast in such a tree-littered landscape, out of concern that he would hurt himself--he continued, "I've grown up hearing stories about the Dragonmaids...how they used to be human girls, but the Great Gods took them and removed their hearts, and replaced 'em with metal spheres, and then filled their veins with dragon's blood, so that they still look like sweet and gentle maidens, but they'd just as soon cut your brain out with a butterknife."
Without meaning to, Kazhi murmured, "That's about right."
"There are many people who don't believe that the Dragonmaids exist," the horse went on, "that there isn't real and genuine magic in the world; of course, there's far less now than there was in former days...and a magician's got to be fairly circumspect, lest he get himself hauled to the town square and treated to a barbecue in his honor. That's why they surround themselves with such arcane ritual. It scares off the ignorant and reassures the genuine articles."
"How do you come to know so much about magicians?" asked Kazhi. He himself had spent three millennia as a magician and had believed himself to have been the only one. The only real one.
"People--who, people? I thought your last master was a barbarian...."
The horse chuckled. "You humans. You're so arrogant, you think you're the only sentient beings on the planet. Don't you know that all living things except humans can communicate mind-on-mind--? Oh, yeah...that was the real punishment, when the First Men got themselves exiled--it was to have their brotherhood with all living things taken away. Of course, one could argue that the loss of telephathy only forced them to invent other means of communication, which has fuelled the whole fascination with technology that Mankind possesses.... No--all animals, some plants, and the Eldritch Kinfolk--elves, dwarves, and the rest of the surviving Fee Folk--can communicate without speaking, sometimes over great distances. It's a kind of original magic. Your dragon has been trying to contact me for a while, now."
This sentence, spoken so easily, struck fear into Kazhi's heart. "He has--? Why?"
The horse blew at a fly. "To see how the quest is going--I presume."
To find out if I've survived, more like, though Kazhi bitterly. As he'd had time to think about it, he began to see how Gronok had been trying to get rid of him, without actually raising a claw against him. Like dumping a dog out in the country somewhere and driving away. If he lives, he lives...and if not....
"Did you answer him?"
"Not yet." The horse tossed his head. "I'm pretending that I'm out of range."
"Surely--he can...eavesdrop on you, or something--can't he?"
"That depends on how powerful he is." Tornado paused thoughtfully, and Kazhi filled in the blanks.
If he's enslaved himself to the likes of me....
"Gronok is not one of the more powerful dragons going," the horse said, at length. "but he's cunning. And he has to have a certain amount of prestige, to have been able to get a shape-shifting ogre into his command. I don't suppose you know very much about the hierarchy of the supernatural, do you?"
Kazhi felt it best to play dumb.
"Well, suffice it to say that dragons are like the nobility--the dukes of the kingdom of magic," Tornado told him. "Then you have the Sentient Beings--elves, dwarves, unicorns, centaurs, anything that lives in ordered communities, even if they are by nature solitary. Then comes the things such as myself, who take the position of knights in the Seely Court--unusual creatures invested with preturnatural powers or attributes, often the only one of a kind. Below us would be the trolls, ogres, goblins, lycanthropes, nixies, and various forest spirits who are rather more malignantly disposed toward mankind. We keep them in order. And the peasantry, as you could style it, is composed of all the rest of the animal and plant kingdom."
Kazhi took this in quietly. He wished he still had his magic flute. He was starving. His head felt a little light from deprivation, and only the dull discomfort in his bottom and legs kept him alert.
"So in other words, human beings are the only things who aren't magical--?"
"I didn't say that. Magic is, after all, simply the harnessing and utilization of natural forces and energies. Humans crave magic, long to possess the powers which were stripped from them so long ago that they don't even recall the reasons why. Some rare humans--such as yourself--are born with the ability to tap into the occult fields of power. Others spend a lifetime in study, trying to unlock the arcane secrets. But they don't even know what they're looking for-- they're capable of doing little more than describing the contents of a palace by peering through the keyhole."
The word keyhole made Kazhi flinch, without meaning to.
"If you read the Tales," the horse went on, "the Gods and the Eldritch Kinfolk give mortal men every opportunity to rejoin the Brotherhood, but the humans always manage to mess it up, either by not following instructions, or by getting ahead of themselves." The horse looked away, over placid fields of corn speckled cheerfully with blue and red wildflowers. "You're the first human I can recall hearing about who's followed the advice of his guides."
After this, Tornado seemed disinclined to continue the conversation, and in the silence Kazhi began to nod in the saddle. He did not open his eyes again until they had stopped before the gates of his own stolen castle.
The drawbridge was up. The pile was eerily silent.
Kazhi blinked and screwed a knuckle into an eye in an attempt to clear his brain.
"Well?" asked the horse, pawing at the ground, and drawing bluish sparks from his shoes. "What now--? Can you summon your seneschal to lower the drawbridge?"
"Er, no...I live, um, alone."
Kazhi felt the horse shrug.
"All right, then--hit it with a spell, and let's go inside. I could use some grain."
Kazhi blushed slightly.
"I'm afraid I'm not that kind of wizard," he murmured.
The horse looked at him from one eye, over his shoulder.
"Why does that not surprise me?" he sighed. "What are you, then--a theoretician?"
"I suppose you could put it that way."
The horse sighed, or snorted, and either way it sounded disgusted. "I guess I'm going to have to do everything myself, then," he grumbled. "I'll bet there's no mares, either."
He backed up along the dusty road, stamped his feet, and made a run at the castle. Kazhi clung to the pommel and shut his eyes so tightly that he could see the blood pounding in the veins on the backs of his eyelids. He felt the wind whistling in his ears, and then a tremendous jarring thump as Tornado landed in the central courtyard.
The walls rang with the sound of the horse's advent, startling the dragon, which had been dozing in the sun with its creamy white belly fully exposed. It was shading its head with one wing, and now an eye slipped open, blinked several times, and focused on Kazhi and the horse.
"You're dead, dragon," said the horse in a matter-of-fact manner.
Gronok came awake in a moment. "What's the meaning of this?" he demanded in his thunderous roar, but then he recognized Kazhi, who was in the process of slithering from the saddle and trying to find his feet. The dragon's eyes now fluttered in surprise.
"You're--back," he observed. His master, wincing, and walking very gingerly, nodded.
The dragon looked around. "Where's the, um...you didn't get the Firebird--?"
"Oh, we got it," Kazhi told him, through his teeth. "And the Dragonmaids took it away."
As Kazhi began to fumble with unsaddling the great warhorse, the dragon watched him quietly, crouching like a cat with his tail over his forepaws, and his wings furled tight to his shouders.
"Really--?" asked Gronok at length. It sounded as if he doubted it.
Kazhi paused, then turned toward the dragon, and drew from where it had lodged inside his coat a feather, crimson edged with shimmering gold, which burned in the sun like fire made solid.
"Really, really," said Kazhi, and thrust the feather back into his pocket.
With effort--it was an effort just to stand upright, in fact--Kazhi dragged the heavy saddle from the horse's back, but left the hair bridle in place. "Where's the princess?" he asked. "I want her to take care of this horse for me--"
"She's still asleep," stated the dragon, with a trace of frost.
"At this hour--? Well, go wake her up, then," ordered the wizard.
"No, sir...you forget; you charmed her to sleep with the magic pipe I gave you."
Kazhi stiffened a little. "Oh...damn...." he muttered.
"What is it?"
"I--kind of dropped the pipe."
Gronok threw his head back so rapidly that he almost took off a bit of ornamental stonework from an archway. "What--? You lost the pipe?"
"I didn't so much lose it as have it knocked out of my hand when we were fleeing," retorted Kazhi.
This did nothing to satisfy the dragon. "Well, that's just dandy!" he sneered. "Not only was that thing on loan, but now how are we going to break the spell, and awaken the Princess?"
"He could always--oh, no, never mind," the horse started to say, then shook his head.
"I could always--what?" demanded Kazhi, folding his arms and eyeing the horse.
"You wouldn't do it," replied the horse. "You wizards are funny that way."
"And besides," added the dragon, with a critical glance at his putative master, "I believe the charm has to be worked by a handsome prince. That lets him out on both counts."
Kazhi cast them a look which could have frozen lava.
The dragon sighed. "I'll just have to try to get in contact with the fairy who sent me to devil this kingdom to begin with," he decided, like a housewife who reluctantly decides to make dinner reservations at the best restaurant in town after the dog ate the roast intended for company. "She should be able to wake the Princess. I just hope she won't be too upset about the loss of her flute."
Kazhi became quite animated. "No, no, no--!" he insisted, "I'd rather not involve too many outside people in my affairs--!" He didn't think the dragon required any verbalized explinations. Shrugging his shoulders and straightening his lapels, Kazhi stated, "I'm a wizard, dammit--I'll wake her up! It's only a sleep charm...how difficult can it be to counteract it?"
So saying, he went up to the Princess's tower room, leaving the horse in the courtyard. The dragon was almost tall enough to look in at the window, if he stood on tiptoe.
The woman--for she could not technically qualify as a maiden, being in her early thirties now--reclined on her silk-draped couch, as still as death, in the same position as Kazhi had unceremoniously dumped her after he had charmed her to sleep. Kazhi entered quietly, and stood by the bedside, arms folded, shoulder propped against one of the carved posts, studying her. It was the first good long look he'd ever taken of her, in the ten years since he had slaughtered her family and court. She had not been a particularly pretty girl to start with, and her years of menial servitude had not been kind to her. Her dark hair was becoming streaked prematurely with grey. Her hands had become coarsened and red, her nails broken off, and there were fine lines starting to gather around her eyes and her lips. Her figure, too, was rather thicker than that of a Princess should be.
Kazhi's china eyes narrowed. In three thousand years, he hadn't had much to do with women. He didn't trust them. Perhaps it had its roots in a dim memory, of his mother abandoning him on a doorstep; or perhaps his old master, whose name Kazhi had long since forgotten, had impressed upon the lad the need for a wizard to conserve his vital energy, to not allow his magic-working power to be syphoned off by the charms and delusions of women-kind. Whatever the root cause, Kazhi had developed and harbored a feeling toward females which was more disdain than anything else, like a cat regards dogs.
So now he stood there and studied the sleeping princess. If he did not require someone to look after the domestic aspects of existance, he would have been quite content to lock the door and leave her there for however long she would sleep. He doubted that the charm would convey a sort of immortality with it; the Princess would probably age, her hair turning white, growing until she was clothed in it; her nails would curl like those of the Eastern Dragon King....
Kazhi darted a glance at the window. When he did not see the dragon there, he slipped his hand into his belt-pouch, and took out the peach Angelica Springstar had given to him. Until he could determine whether or not Gronok had sent him on a fool's errand, he would be damned if he let the dragon have that peach. Kazhi held it up to his nose, and inhaled deeply of its fragrance. He was astonished to feel it revivifying him, and he turned to look down at the Princess. Gently, he held the peach under her nose.
Before his eyes, the color returned to her waxen cheeks--but what was more, the lines and wrinkles melted into her softening skin, the grey darkened once more to her youthful color, and the years seemed to fall away from the woman's entire being. But she did not awaken.
Kazhi bent over her, and, without any skill whatsoever, touched his lips to hers. He felt her give a startle, and he straightened before she opened her eyes. It was a good thing, too, for the look of terror and dismay which flashed across her face the moment she saw him was sufficient to tell him everything he needed to know about her feelings for him.
The princess sat up, clasping her hands protectively over her throat. "What are you doing in my private chamber--?" she demanded in a breathless gasp.
Kazhi, coolly, presented the peach to her. "I've brought you something," he said in a soft, but expressionless, voice.
She regarded him mistrustfully. "You--brought something for me--?" she repeated.
Kazhi refused to let her insinuating tone of loathing annoy him. "Yes," he stated. "It has occurred to me that you have been suffering from the ravages of time. The passing years mean little to the dragon and myself, since we are magical beings--but you, a mortal, will grow old and die, which would be unfortunate. So I have obtained for you a peach which will extend your life."
He held the fruit out to her. It seemed to glow with an inner light. Its fragrance perfumed the entire room.
The Princess could, perhaps, have been forgiven for not taking Kazhi on his word. She was not terribly clever, but she could see through his surface kindness to the true motive--so I can serve you for generations, you mean, she thought bitterly.
"I don't believe you," said the Princess, darting sullen eyes up at him.
Kazhi looked around and took up a mirror, a disc of polished silver set into an inlaid wooden frame, and held it up so that the Princess could glimpse herself. Her gasp spoke volumes.
"And that," he told her, "was just after sniffing it."
The Princess mutely nodded, and Kazhi took a knife and cut a sliver from the peach, passing it to her on the tip. Little glimmers of rainbow light seemed to ripple across the glistening flesh of the magic peach, and the Princess took it from the knife-tip with her teeth, and chewed it slowly.
"I will give you a piece of this from time to time," he said to her, wrapping it in a kerchief and placing it back into his bag. "Tell me--do you feel any different?"
The Princess considered this. "I do not feel so weary, now," she replied.
Kazhi decided not to point out that a week-long nap could do that for a person.
"Good. I've brought back a horse with me--see to it he is made as comfortable as possible, and provided with the best food in the stores. Rub him down, but mind you, do not remove his halter, or we'll never be able to catch him. I'm going to retire to my chambers--I do not wish to be disturbed. Oh, you can scramble me up some eggs and bring it up, before you see to the horse."
He started to leave the room, and was aware of the Princess glaring at him. He turned.
"By the way," he said to her, "What's your name--?"
The Princess looked sulky before she replied.
"Vivienne," she told him.