I realise nothing may ever come out of these free-writing pieces, and a lot of them don’t make sense or have much of a plot, but whatever. I’m just having fun!
Short stories are brilliant in that they don’t require as much commitment as novels, so there’s little stress in “getting it right”. You can give free reign to your imagination. It’s freeing, writing with so little expectation and pressure; it lets you rediscover your love for writing fiction. At least, it does for me.
And now, thanks to this song,
I just had to get this story out.
The fire-breather had three lives in total. One for discovery, one for degradation, and one for redemption – and only after he had undergone the last stage could he find peace among the ashes of his people.
Lately, though, he was seriously reconsidering that option. Redemption was far too complicated a route. Up in flames seemed like a glorious way to go. No aftermath, no room for regret. Many a fire-breather had failed to make it to the final phase, being run out of their minds by their sins. He had heard tales where they set themselves on fire in an effort to purge themselves, only to remain in cinders for all eternity, scattered by loose breezes that whispered their names –
No, he thought as he caught his torches before they clattered to the ground, their blistering breaths roaring close to his ears. He would not end up like his predecessors; he was stronger than that.
Your strength comes not from what you hold in your hands, but what you hold in your heart, the old emperor had told him. He was still trying to fathom his words.
All he understood now was the malaise in his mind, and the steel cage that was his body wrought tight with age and helplessness and regret. Fire was the only remedy, the only gratification, his only friend.
When he spotted the gypsy, watching him with a quiet intent, his first thought was that she might be his redemption. Her eyes seemed to promise that.
There in the bustling courtyard, she should have gone unnoticed, lost in the milling crowd that had gathered to watch his performance. But there was no missing her. She moved with a feline grace that was at once otherworldly and inhuman. With her face shadowed by her veil, he couldn’t discern her age. Her eyes were eternal, like jewels in the night sky. They conveyed a message he was unable to read. He had never felt so wrong-footed by a single glance before.
His older self might have approached her instantly, unapologetically. But now he only observed from where he stood, trying to retain his grip on his torches. The world spun on its errant heels around them, and it was far too long before his performance came to an end.
Instead of waiting for the audience – particularly the women – to lavish their gifts and adoration on him, he pulled out from the crowd and slipped into the evening fog after the gypsy.
In the cobbled labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys, the walls leaned close with their overheard secrets.
She was waiting for him. It occurred to him that she could be one of Them. The Old Ones, with inextinguishable souls and calcified hearts. The ones who were untouched by anything, even fire. Weren’t they rumoured to have eyes like hers?
It suddenly seemed like a foolish thing to do, following her here.
Her first word to him, though uttered low, struck him hard. “Khushka.”
Kushka. It took him a while to recognise the cadence of his name, the clatter and slither of the consonants. It had belonged to a tongue lost during the old war.
“How do you know my name?” he said. The question came out in a growl.
“I know a lot more about you that I shouldn’t have to, even though I am only a messenger.”
Just an errand girl. The fire-breather felt his muscles unclench, although not entirely. Her eyes told a different story that he was equally willing to believe.
He sent her a look askance. “Which begs the question of whose messenger you are.”
“That is no emperor,” he spat. “That is a war-monger. A despot. His father remains the most worthy ruler of the realm.”
“Whatever he is, the fact remains that you are our last hope. The world has run out of fires to kindle and magic to plunder.”
“And the world is better for it. How presumptuous of us to go around taking that which doesn’t belong to us.”
“Your skill, your weapon” – her gaze flitted to his extinguished torches – “can save us all. Every day you spend entertaining crowds with cheap tricks on your matchsticks, the forgotten kings remain buried under the ash city.”
His extinguished torches hung limply by his sides, and not for the first time he felt incredibly exposed under her long, measured gaze.
It wasn’t long before he felt his insides freeze over. Winter blew swiftly into his heart, threatening to destroy him from within with a fire completely opposite of what he knew.
She was one of the Old Ones. He should have known. Those eyes were fire and ice, flame and frost. They contained an ice storm more savage than any fire he would ever wield. To think the emperor managed to find an ally in these isolated mountain dwellers who never used to concern themselves with taking sides in their war.
His lips were numb – was this what frostbite felt like? – but he choked out, “Why are you helping them? What’s in it for you?”
She answered his question with another chilly stab in his gut. “Not everything is about personal gain.”
In the midst of the brutal snowstorm she had inflicted on him, her unspoken words hailed like a call of the wind. You will save this world because you know it’s the only way you can live with yourself.
In his wildest dreams and deepest desires, he had hoped for redemption. Never had he expected it would come in the form of setting the world ablaze.