ORIGINAL FICTION: Second Time Around, Pt. 1

Mama Fisi
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I. After Kazhi the Immortal had convinced himself that he had indeed escaped, and that the Dragonmaids would not be coming through the magic portal after him, he took himself down to the castle in the valley below and asked if there could be any job found to employ one such as himself--for of course he was penniless and figured that he could at least be feeding himself with a roof over his head, until he could determine the best way to get ahead in this world.

"Alas," said the king, after Kazhi had talked his way into an audience with him, by bedazzling the lesser courtiers with simple shows of legerdemain, "I could not employ you even if you paid me...I have offended a powerful witch, and in punishment she has set a terrible dragon on me, and it has laid waste to my kingdom."

"A dragon, eh--?" said Kazhi. "I have some experience with dragons. Let me sort it out for you."

"I could not allow you to throw your life away!" gasped the king. "I have sent my twelve best knights against it, as well as both my sons--to no avail; all I have left is my daughter, and I am about to send her as a sop to the dragon, hoping it will devour her, and leave me in peace!"

"Tell your daughter to relax," said Kazhi, unable to disguise his natural arrogance. "I'll send the dragon packing."

The king had to consent. Better that this stranger die than his own beloved daughter, and leave him without any heir at all. He asked Kazhi if he could equip him.

"I don't need anything," said the wizard, "only your solemn oath to do exactly as I tell you, when I return."

The king--never expecting to see the young man again--gave his oath.

"I wouldn't mind a little supper," the wizard then said, "to tide me over; it seems like ages since I last ate."

The king easily agreed to this request, for the youth did look a bit thin; he called for a feast to speed the champion on his way. Kazhi ate and drank and accepted the prayers and accolades of the king's subjects, and, when he was rested, he went on his way, whistling a merry tune.

He did not have far to go before he was set upon by the dragon. It was indeed a fearsome beast, large as a barn, with poison dripping from its fangs; but Kazhi was as cocksure as a fox. The dragon roared and bellowed, but he turned not a hair. This enraged the dragon, and it breathed fire on him, but still the wizard stood idly in the road, whistling his tune. The dragon spat upon him, and the poison just ran off him like water runs off an oiled cloth. The dragon gnashed its teeth, and then snapped him up in its strong jaws, but it might as well have chewed on stones. He swallowed Kazhi, who then set up such a stamping and kicking that the dragon was forced to vomit him back up again.

Now the dragon was afraid, and cowered down before this strange man. "You are surely the most powerful wizard in the world," the beast told him, "Do what you will with me, only spare my life!"

"Will you serve me like a humble dog?" Kazhi asked.

"Yes! Yes!" the dragon vowed--and dragons never make vows lightly.

"No sooner said than done!"

Kazhi plucked some stems of grass and plaited a collar for the dragon. "Follow me!" he ordered, and the great beast, trembling so hard that its scales rattled like hailstones, timidly followed him back to the king's castle.

The courtiers saw the dragon ere they ever saw the wizard, and ran in terror to tell the king that the monster was approaching; the king, in deep dismay, ordered his daughter, the princess, to be arrayed in her finest gown and left before the castle gates, as appeasement for the dragon. This was done, and the court and all the villagers who had taken refuge in the castle went and hid themselves.

When Kazhi and his dragon approached, he found the princess weeping so bitterly that she couldn't even open her eyes. "Stop that blithering," he ordered her.

"I can't help it--I am so frightened!" the princess bawled.

"Frightened--? Of what?"

"Of the dragon!" the girl wailed, hiding her face in her skirts.

Kazhi pretended to be amazed and confused. "What--? Of this old thing? He won't hurt you. Watch--"

He turned to the dragon and began to order it to perform tricks, just like a dog. The dragon had to obey, for it feared Kazhi almost twice as much as the princess feared the dragon. It sat up. It rolled over. It fetched an oak tree, tearing it up by the roots. It did every insulting and insipid trick the wizard asked it to do. The princess stopped crying, and became almost fond of the dragon, deluded into believing it was harmless.

"How did you tame the ferocious monster?" she asked him.

"A wizard never tells his secrets," replied Kazhi.

The princess had the captain of the guard unlock the gates, and the three of them entered the castle--the princess, the dragon, and Kazhi. Everyone ran out into the courtyard to marvel and to praise their deliverer. The king, beside himself with delight, wanted to know what reward Kazhi would request for his miraculous feat.

"Call all of your subjects into your august presence," said the wizard, "even down to the lowliest kitchen-boy; I do not want anyone to dispute your edict."

So the king had every last one of his court and subjects brought out into the courtyard, even those who claimed to be too infirm to move. Then he asked Kazhi again to name his price. He inferred that half his kingdom and the hand of his daughter would not be too high a request to make.

"Send your daughter to freshen herself up," said Kazhi, "she doesn't look half so fair as all that with snot dripping down her face."

The princess, burning with humiliation, hastened off to her room in the tallest tower.

Kazhi then asked the king if, indeed, all of his subjects were present. He was assured they were.

"Good," he said. "You ask me, good king, what I wish to receive in return for vanquishing this dragon. Well, sir, a dragon is a rare and wonderful thing--in my eyes it's worth more than your entire kingdom, plus your simpering daughter to boot. I'd like to have this dragon."

The king was startled--and a little annoyed--by this impertinent request, but granted it. No sooner had the proclamation left his lips, than his royal scribe wrote it down; and no sooner had the scribe written it, than the Lord High Chamberlain had affixed the royal seal; and no sooner had the seal been set, than the king handed the scroll to the wizard.

And then Kazhi said to the dragon, "My pet--eat them all."

In the batting of an eye, the dragon spat its fire over the startled peasants, and burnt them all to a crisp; and then fell to feasting on the terrified courtiers, who of course were far more succulent, never having to lift anything heavier than a spoonful of soup. When the dragon had finished, and collapsed in the sunshine to sleep off its feast, Kazhi went up to the tallest tower, and knocked on the princess's door.

"Obey me," he said, "or join the others."

The princess timidly opened her door.

II. If she had any fears about becoming the wife of the wizard, those were soon put by. Kazhi did not have any intention of allowing himself to be vulnerable to a princess who had every good reason to hate him, and, if she couldn't slay him, she could bind him up or otherwise thwart him. Rather, he set her to cooking and cleaning and keeping house for him, whilst he had the dragon carry him about, learning what he could of the world into which he had fallen. Before he left, he tied strings across all the doors leading out of the castle, and showed the princess a golden bell. "If any of these doors are opened," he told her, "this bell will sound on my saddle, and in a twinkling I will be back here, and let my dragon eat you up."

The princess believed him, for she had no reason not to, and Kazhi went on his way, even though he knew that what he'd told her was rubbish.

Kazhi flew far and wide, over many courts and kingdoms, and he saw many things. He would disguise himself and slip into towns and listen to the common people talk. He would introduce himself as a wandering entertainer and get invited to court, where he would listen to the gossip at the feasts. This was how he came to learn that the neighboring kings were wondering how things were going in the kingdom Kazhi had stolen. They had not heard from its king in some months, and were worried about him. "We should mount an expedition," suggested one monarch to another. "If he is alive, we will tell him that we were concerned about him, since we haven't seen him at any tourneys. If he is dead, then we will claim his lands and divide them between us."

Kazhi stole out and returned to his dragon, whom he had left in a lake nearby. "I have lived three thousand years," he said to the beast, "but you are of a far more ancient order. What spells can I concoct to defeat the armies of these two kings?"

Under the dragon's advice, Kazhi returned to his stolen castle, and said to the princess, "I want you to send word to all of the neighboring majesties that your father has been enchanted, and to send all their wizards and magicians and wise-women to try to break the spell."

The princess, trembling, did as he instructed. She wrote out the letters and sealed them with her late father's seal and Kazhi himself delivered them.

"Now I want you to prepare a feast for them, as they will be your guests," he ordered. The girl, despairing, begged him to reconsider--she could never fix such a feast. The larders were empty.

"Do as you're told, wench," said Kazhi, and left her in the kitchen.

The dragon summoned her to the window. She was still afraid of it, as afraid as a canary is of the housecat, but she went over to it. The dragon handed in a kettle made of solid gold, with a lid of silver, and a ladle of brass. "Fill that with water, " he said, "when it boils, put in one fish, one raisin, and one potato. Do not put in any salt! Never let it boil so that the lid hops, and, before you take off the lid, bang on it three times with the ladle. Then serve your guests."

The princess thanked the dragon, and did exactly as she was instructed, for her father had brought her up to be obedient, if not clever. Soon all the witches and wizards of the countryside began to arrive. They milled about in the courtyard, wondering why no one had come to greet them. Kazhi went down to the kitchen.

"Put on your best dress," he said to the princess, "and go welcome your guests."

"But my kettle will boil over," she said.

"I will tend your kettle," said Kazhi.

The princess left to welcome her guests. They were all remarking on her downcast looks, and figured that the whole court must have been put under the same enchantment. They knew that the girl's father had incurred the wrath of a powerful fairy, by cheating her out of her portion of the harvest, and they figured that the fairy had decided that a dragon was not punishment enough. A few of the magicians wished to leave, fearing stronger magic than their own (and indeed, only a few of them had any real magic) but the rules of convention bound them; and they were conducted by the princess into the banquet hall.

There, such entertainments met them as to beguile the mind of even the most jaded world-traveller. It was all the dragon's doing. It summoned instruments that played of themselves; it had the candlesticks juggle the cutlery. Kazhi carefully tended the kettle, and it was sent up, and the princess--hardly knowing what to expect--rapped on the kettle three times with the bronze spoon, and opened it; instantly every plate was filled with the most delicate morsels imaginable! The guests were charmed and delighted.

Then Kazhi, in the guise of a servant, brought up a barrel, which he said contained the finest wines from the king's own cellars, but which in reality contained a potion which would render the magicians nearly powerless. He served it around, and all of them drank deeply, and became his slaves.

He kept them thus for some time, allowing one and then another to sober up only long enough to allow him to learn all he could from the unfortunate one, and then he let the dragon dine on him. Many of the so-called sorcerers were mere charlatans, but a few of them possessed genuine knowledge, and Kazhi was able in this way to add to his own store of wisdom.

Only one wizard escaped from his trap--not so much escaped, but was sent home; for this wizard was none other than Kazhi himself, travelling through his first lifetime, ignorant of his fate. When Kazhi saw himself seated among his guests, he trembled, terrified lest some harm should befall his former self, and prevent him from acheiving his ends. So he made some flimsy pretext and had the princess order him away, saying that she believed him to be the very wizard who had betrayed her father. She was not telling a lie, and so no one suspected anything, even though the Kazhi-of-the-first-life protested his innocence up one side and down the other. It was Kazhi-of-the-second-life himself who took the offended youth by the arm and led him out into the courtyard. He had disguised himself enough that he could not recognize himself, and anyway, his first self had no idea that he could ever be in his own presence in such a way.

"Look, you," said the second incarnation of Kazhi, speaking in a rough voice. "Here's a penny's worth of free advice. Take to your heels. The princess has fallen in with an evil sorcerer, a son of a dragon; they have killed all the court here, and are about to do in the sorcerers, so that they won't have any competition. They left me alive to serve them. Run towards the rising sun and don't stop til you get your feet wet."

And he opened the portcullis, and watched his former self hustling down the road until even his dust was out of sight.

After this, Kazhi enslaved the sorcerers, and as he killed each one, he dispatched a note to his or her home kingdom, regretfully informing the sovereigns that unfortunately their wizards were unable to cure the king and thus had to pay with their heads, as per the common custom. In time--when all the wizards and witches were disposed of--Kazhi hired himself out as a magician-at-large, and made heaps of money, and even relented a little and conjured some insensible servants to help the princess in her tasks; but he was cunning enough to make sure that she neither learned any magic, nor had an opportunity to turn his spells against him. He would have killed her, but the dragon convinced him that it was handy to have a hostage to use as a bargaining chip. So Kazhi let her live, albeit as a virtual prisoner.

The truth of the matter was that the dragon had started to grow tired of serving the wizard. Dragons have long lives, but short attention spans. And he had himself grown fond of the long-suffering princess, as dragons are wont to do. She had gradually overcome her fear of him, and the two would sit and talk for hours, the dragon outside her window, the princess locked in her tower room. The dragon brought her gossip, and after a while, presents; when Kazhi questioned him about this, the dragon haughtily insisted that the girl belonged to him just as much as she belonged to the wizard, and Kazhi left it at that. Immortal or not, he had no interest in getting chewed on or torched by the dragon again. Once was quite enough.

So the dragon said to the princess one day, "Look. I'm tired of being treated like a gofer, and I don't like the way he behaves toward you. I'll make you a bargain. I'll entice a knight to come and rescue you, if you promise to make sure he doesn't try to slay me."

The princess found this an attractive offer, but she was afraid of her captor, and still a little distrustful of the dragon. "How do I know you aren't trying to trick me?" she asked. "How do I know you won't betray me to the wizard?"

She never called him by his name. It was her one act of defiance.

The dragon gave her a needle made of silver, and a small pearl. "Thrust the needle through the pearl," he said to her, "and I will fall down dead. Now, would I trust you with such power if I meant to deceive you?"

The girl took the two items, wrapped each one in a kerchief, and placed them in her purse--for she did not wish to bring harm to the dragon, not yet at least. "And what about the wizard?" she asked. "He will not let me go easily, even though he despises me."

"We must use stealth," said the dragon, "for I have heard it said among my kindred that he is himself of dragon's blood, and cannot be killed; in all the world there are only nine beings more powerful than he. They live in a far-off kingdom, and are themselves servants of the immortal gods who are older than all other gods; I think they should be very interested to know of what this rogue has been doing. I am certain that they could defeat him."

"How can you get word to them?"

"They are as attuned to disturbances in magic as you would be should all the birds in the wood suddenly cease to sing. I will cause the wizard to long to possess certain things of great magical power; he will command me to obtain them; the stealing of these things ought to summon the Dragonmaids."

The princess gave her assent to the plan. The dragon bade her to be patient, and went to lay his snare.

III. Of all the supernatural servants in the world, a dragon is perhaps the least reliable, owing to its restless temper; only a great sorcerer, or a god, can hope to keep a dragon loyal. Kazhi was neither of these things, though he fancied himself to be both, and, being still rather ignorant of the realities of the supernatural realm, he did not suspect anything when the dragon came into his chamber and threw itself onto the floor, and sighed.

"What is wrong with you?" asked Kazhi irritably, for the dragon was quite in the way, and smelled badly.

"I am pining," said the dragon. "I feel myself growing weaker by the day."

This alarmed the wizard. "What ails you?" he asked, trying not to sound overly concerned. His dragon was his best defense and he could not think of what he would do if he lost it.

"It has been ages since I tasted the apples of longevity," the great monster sighed. "Every ten years, we dragons fly to the gardens in the west, and eat of the golden apples which grant us our long lives; I have been in your service and I have missed making the journey. I am growing sick and old for lack of my ration of apples."

"Well--then, go! I wish you'd said something sooner," said Kazhi, closing his book.

"Ah! Were it that simple!" said the dragon sadly. "The maidens who keep the orchard have it guarded by the greatest dragon of all, who would snap me up like a mullet if I dared to approach out of season! For the apples take a full ten years to mature, you see...and in between times, no dragon is allowed near the orchard."

Kazhi--who was, admittedly, a little distracted by what he had been reading in his book, which was on how to shape-shift, did not remark on the part about the "maidens." He was concerned only for the health and well-being of his dragon. "And, furthermore," the dragon added, rolling an eye, "I don't think I'd be strong enough to make the trip."

"Well, surely," said Kazhi, "there must be a way--you have overcome every other difficulty we have encountered--you must know how to get the apples...."

"Aye...in fact, I do," the dragon said in a fainting voice. "But I can do nothing about it myself."

Kazhi set aside his book. "Tell me what I need to do."

"Far to the east," said the dragon, "beyond the thrice nine kingdoms, there is an emperor of the dragons, who lives on an island in the sea. In his garden he has a magnificent bird, as red as the rising sun, whose wings are the thunderclap. This bird has the head of a heron, the body of a peacock, and the talons of an eagle. Its feathers are all of scarlet and gold, and when it flies, it trails fire from its tail, like the sparks of a skyrocket. This bird can fly to the orchard and steal the apples for me."

"How can I obtain this bird?" asked the wizard, a little uneasily.

"Only a cage of living bamboo can hold her," said the dragon. "But I will give you a pipe, whose notes will charm the bird to sleep, and then you can pick her up and carry her as if she were a chicken."

"And what about the dragons?" asked Kazhi. "I'm sure they won't take the loss of their firebird sitting down."

"No--but you will be able to outrun them," said the dragon. "Before you reach the Dragon King's land, you will cross a great plain. On this plain dwell tribesmen who raise the strongest, fleetest horses in the world. The very best of these fine horses belongs to their chieftan. It is their stud-horse and is a direct descendant of Bucephalus, Alexander's steed, who himself was descended from Pegasus, the winged stallion of the Muses. You must obtain this horse, and it will bear you to the Dragon King's island, and home again in a single night."

"If you weren't a dragon," said Kazhi, "I would not believe a word of this."

Then he asked how he was to steal such a magnificent steed from what had to be bloodthirsty tribesmen. "Hanging next to the horse's stall," said the dragon, "will be two halters. Do not use the jewel-encrusted halter of silk; if you do, the horse will throw you, and stomp you so badly that you will wish you were not immortal. Use the plain one, made of braided hair--for it is hair from Pegasus himself, and will easily tame the stallion."

"But the tribesmen--how will I get around the tribesmen?" pressed Kazhi.

The dragon sighed. "Go into the cellar. Bait a mouse-trap with an acorn. If you catch anything but a cream-colored mouse, with black eyes, let it go. But bring the cream-colored mouse to me."

The wizard did as the dragon instructed, mad though it sounded. He caught several mice, but none of them was cream-colored, with black eyes. At last, however, after Kazhi had begun to suspect that the dragon had sent him on a snipe-hunt, he watched a cream-colored mouse creep out of a hole, and enter the trap, and gobble up the acorn. Kazhi took the cage with its occupant up to the dragon.

"Good. Now, when you encounter the tribesmen, you put this mouse down, and say, "Mouse--house!" and the mouse will turn into a hostelry. Invite the tribe to go in and enjoy themselves--but under no circumstances go in yourself! They like a good roister. Once they are all inside, simply say, "House--mouse!" and you will have them all neatly at your mercy. But mind you--don't let the mouse out of the cage until you need to, for the iron bars of the cage are what keeps it your slave. This is no ordinary mouse. It's a shape-shifting demon who owes me a favor or two."

"And so should I shove it back into the cage when I'm done with it?" asked Kazhi. The dragon looked appalled.

"Heavens, no! That's no way to pay back a favor! Let it go free."

"But what if it turns on me?"

"It won't. That's part of the bargain. Now, once you've done away with the tribesmen, put the hair bridle on the horse, and mount it--but never touch it with whip or spur, just tell it where you want to go, and hang on tight. Be very courteous to this horse, for it is a very powerful creature in its own right, and, if you abuse it in any way, it will seek the chance to pay you back sevenfold. Likewise, if you treat it well, it will also remember the kindness."

Everything seemed to be falling neatly into place. Kazhi had one last concern. "It sounds like a far distance, to get to this thrice-ninth kingdom...aren't you afraid you'll pine away before I can get back?"

"I will carry you as far as I can," said the dragon.

"And who will guard the princess? She might try to escape, while we are away."

"You will cast a spell of sleep upon her. Nothing shall awaken her except the counter-spell."

"Of course," said Kazhi, annoyed that he hadn't thought of this himself.

IV. Soon enough, all the necessary preparations were made for Kazhi's journey. The dragon provided him with a little pipe, carved of bone, in the shape of a serpent, with which to charm the dragons of the Eastern Kingdom to sleep; Kazhi tried it out on the princess, and she fell down in a profound slumber.

Once she was taken care of, Kazhi brought his provisions down to load onto the dragon, who said, "Hey, whoa--! It will be all I can do, in my enfeebled state, to carry you, Wizard! What is all this trash?"

Kazhi patiently explained the need for every item in his luggage.

The dragon, with a sigh, told him to look to the flute. "As long as you possess that flute," he said, patiently, "you will have no wants." The dragon then taught Kazhi the special tunes he was to play, to summon water, to summon shelter, to summon food, and then to make all of these things vanish away again. He very specifically did not teach him the tune to play in order to obtain treasure, for Kazhi was already far wealthier than was good for a man.

"What about weapons?" asked Kazhi.

"You are immortal, Wizard. What need have you of weapons?" asked the dragon irritably.

"I can still be captured. Sometimes a good show is all one needs."

With a sigh, the dragon then said, "The shape-shifting ogre will serve you, should you require it. But you must be certain to give him his freedom, when you have no more use for him."

Kazhi looked in at the mouse in its cage. It was difficult to believe that such a harmless little creature could actually be a shape-shifting demon, and he said as much.

"Never be deceived by appearances," said the dragon, and then lowered a wing to allow the wizard to mount his shoulders.

With one, two, three flaps of his mighty wings, the dragon was airborne, and he rose up high into the sky and turned toward the rising sun. They flew fast, over fields and mountains and villages, the shadow of the dragon inspiring fear and dread wherever it fell, for in those times dragons were not looked upon with favor. But the dragon did not stop, not until came to the edge of a vast plain, and then he spiralled gracefully down out of the sky, and set the wizard on the ground.

"I have carried you as far as I can," the dragon said. "We are nearly to the frontier of the Eastern Dragon King. If I stray any further, he will surely catch wind of me, and will know that something is afoot."

He reviewed what Kazhi had to do, and, when he was confident that the wizard could perform all the various tasks, the dragon sprang into the air, and flew home to their castle. It never crossed his mind to betray Kazhi, for although a dragon's loyalty is difficult to keep, they will never break a promise, once given. He had promised to serve Kazhi, and so he would; but that did not mean that he would not seek an opprtunity to cause the wizard to free him from his pledge. It was much the same reason why some dragons will sleep on a hoard for centuries--not out of useless avarice, but because, long ago, the dragon had given his word to a king to guard his treasure against all calamaties. Kings are not nearly as long-lived as dragons, and word travelled much more slowly, in those days.

Kazhi, now on foot in the middle of nowhere with his mouse trap and his bone pipe, felt very lost and foolish for a little while, after the dragon had left. He even began to think that the dragon had deceived him. But there was really nothing else for it, but to walk toward the rising sun, and see what would happen.

After a while, he grew weary, and wanted to rest and refresh himself. He set down the mouse trap, and played a tune on his pipe, and swiftly a pavillion appeared, with a table inside set with luncheon. Kazhi, feeling a little more confident, went in and seated himself.

"Hey. Where are your manners?" asked a small voice, and he saw that it was the mouse which had addressed him.

Kazhi put the trap on the table. The mouse gazed at him through its beady little eyes.

"Would it hurt you to share your repast with a poor starving creature?" the mouse demanded.

So Kazhi gave him a crust of bread, which the mouse devoured in a trice. "I need more," the mouse insisted. Kazhi gave him a rind of cheese, and some grapes; still the tiny creature was not satisfied. He ate everything Kazhi could shove into the cage, almost as fast as he shoved it--and once he even almost bit Kazhi's fingers. Soon the better part of the luncheon had been given to the mouse, and so Kazhi's mind was at rest regarding the dragon's claim that the mouse was really a shape-shifting ogre.

When the mouse was finally sated, it rolled on its side and fell asleep, snoring and patting its enormous belly. Kazhi went quietly out of the pavillion and summoned himself a sandwich and a glass of milk. When his own appetite was satisfied, he put the pavillion and all the furnishings back into the pipe, took up the trap, and went on his way.

As he walked along, he discovered that the trap was now unbearably heavy. It was as if he was carrying an iron weight rather than a mouse. He could not get very far with such a dreadful burden, and so he put the trap down, and awakened the mouse. "Hey, you," said Kazhi, in annoyance, "you tricked me. You made me give you my entire meal, and now you weigh a ton!"

"Let me out of the cage," said the mouse, "and I will turn into a horse, and I will carry you."

Kazhi considered this. He was no fool. In fact, he believed himself to be the very cleverest of men, having lived for three thousand years, and seen much. "Not a chance," he said to the mouse.

"Then don't complain," said the mouse with a shrug, and went back to sleep.

He walked on for some hours more, setting the burden down every few hundred feet to rest himself. Night began to steal across the steppe, and Kazhi summoned his pavillion. He called for a supper, and something relaxing to drink, and set the cage on the table as he began to eat.

The mouse, fully awake now, watched him.

"Can't you share a crumb with a poor starving creature?" it asked him.

Kazhi licked the cream from his fingers. "Not a chance," he replied.

The mouse said nothing for a while, watching the wizard eat. This made Kazhi unnaturally uneasy.

"Why are you staring at me?" he demanded.

"'As ye do for the least of my creation,'" said the mouse, with dignity, "'so ye do for me.'"

Kazhi looked at the mouse. "You are a demon," he reminded it, "an enemy of the Christian God."

"Nay, brother," said the mouse, "we all serve the same Master. Fear is our one enemy. Give me sup, and I will serve you."

Kazhi thought that this sounded reasonable enough, although he was still wary of the creature. He began again to feed it, breaking off bits and shoving them in through the bars of the cage. The mouse ate and ate until all the dinner was gone.

"You are a good man, for a human," said the mouse with a contented sigh, rubbing his belly and licking his whiskers. "I can see now why Gronok serves you."

"Gronok?"

The mouse eyed him. "All these years," he chided, "and you never bothered to ask his name. The dragon you vanquished--his name is Gronok. I am Kabor."

"I am Kazhi," said the wizard, before he could think about it. He had a superstition, about giving out his name, for names are an ancient form of magic, and can grant possession of one's soul.

"Well," sighed the mouse, "now we are almost like brothers--and brothers cannot harm brothers. Open my cage, and let me out--I will turn into a three-headed dog, and guard your camp for the night. You can sleep, and one of my heads will be on watch at all times."

And Kazhi stated, "Not a chance."

The mouse looked truly injured. "But I will guard you--I give my word--"

"I trust no one but myself," said Kazhi. "Sorry, but that's the way it is. If you're so keen to stand watch, turn yourself into a canary, and sing if danger approaches."

"I cannot," said the mouse. "The iron of the cage forbids it."

Kazhi grumbled to himself. He was really very tired, and would have welcomed sleep, but he dared not rest his head. He took the pipe from the pouch on his belt, and sat down with his back against the tent-pole, and started to play a tune the dragon had taught him, which was the charm to undo the spell of sleep; he reasoned, being so clever, that to hear this charm would inspire wakefulness in one already awake, and his surmise was correct. He did not shut his eyes but to blink all night long.

The next morning, he packed up the pavillion, and took up the mouse's cage. The mouse asked him, "Aren't you going to have breakfast?"

"No. No time to waste."

The mouse was distraught. His whiskers trembled.

"What about elevenses?" he asked after a few minutes.

"No. From now on, only dinner, when we make camp for the night. My mother didn't bear me to be a porter for a mouse who can eat like an elephant."

And he kept to his word. That whole day, he summoned only a spring of water from the ground, in order to slake his thirst, and wash his face and feet. And when dusk came, he made his camp, and then he and the shape-shifting ogre shared an enormous feast, which appeased the ogre's resentment just a little.

Kazhi played his pipe again, and though his body could rest, his mind remained perfectly wakeful. He asked the ogre, "How can you change your shape? I am very keen to learn."

The mouse replied, "Nothing could be simpler. Let me out and I'll show you."

"Not a chance," said Kazhi.

"You will never learn the trick of it, if I do not show you," said the mouse reproachfully. "Shape-shifting is a jealously guarded skill. Those who can do it rarely share their knowledge. I would be willing to show you, in exchange for my liberty."

"You will have your liberty," said Kazhi, "just as soon as I'm done with you."

"Ah--you needn't be afraid," said the mouse, "I made my promise to Gronok, to assist you in conquering the tribesmen."

"Yes--but you did not promise to spare my life, at the end of it, I perceive," said Kazhi. "I'm sorry, but I cannot trust you. I have learned that supernatural creatures rarely say what they mean."

"But we mean what we say. I will not harm you. You have treated me fairly well, and I have no quarrel against you."

"My friend, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You will have your freedom, you have my word upon it; now, explain to me the nuances of shape-shifting, if you ever want to get out of that cage."

This made resentment burn in the heart of the ogre, but it said nothing. Instead it told Kazhi, "There is nothing more to it, than to think of what it is you wish to be, and to become it."

"Nonsense," said Kazhi. "Surely there is more to it than that."

"Yes, there is. You must first have eaten a piece of whatever it is you wish to become. That way, you have a part of its essence in your own self."

"Now we're getting somewhere," said Kazhi. Then he became troubled. "But...I myself turned into a falcon, once...although I'm not sure how I managed it...."

"A falcon?" repeated the mouse, a little uneasily.

"Yes. I wanted to change into something small and swift, and I wanted to do it very badly," explained the wizard, "for I was being pursued by a band of horrible monsters, intent on my blood. And suddenly I was a bird. I escaped from them, but I was so shocked by what had happened, that I forgot to concentrate on being a bird, and I turned back into a man again."

"Huh," said the ogre, impressed. "You sound like a Natural."

"What's that?" asked the wizard.

"A magic-user who is quite literally born with the ability to tap into the energy fields which flow through the planet, and which penetrate all things," said the ogre. "Most magicians must be taught--and quite rigorously--to find them and to bend them to their will. Some never do it, and rely on trickery to put across the impression that they can work magic. But there are a few rare individuals--fewer now than in the former age--who are like lightning-rods for this elemental power. Many of them don't have any idea what is 'wrong' with them, and end up going mad, or getting put to death as heretics. I've never personally met any Naturals, but I've heard of a few. Most of them end up as Dragonmaids--"

Kazhi stared hard at the mouse, his limbs going cold at the mention of that word.

"You know of the Dragonmaids?" he demanded sharply.

"Of course," shrugged the mouse. "There isn't a Fee creature that doesn't know of the Dragonmaids. They keep order among us, and mediate disputes between us and the mortals. That was how I came to be in Gronok's debt. He interceded for me with the Dragonmaids when they came to punish me for thieving. He told them that he would be my bondsman."

Kazhi could not talk any more to the mouse. He conjured it some cake and took himself outside, to walk in the fresh air and to ponder what he had learned. If Gronok was in league with the Dragonmaids, then suddenly this whole quest took on a different look. Gronok must be trying to betray him!

Kazhi could, perhaps, be forgiven for being so jumpy. He was, after all, fugitive from a sentence of execution, which the Dragonmaids had been charged with carrying out. And he had since compounded his initial crime against the gods with several more crimes against the laws of decency. He had often wondered why the Dragonmaids had not come after him. Over the years, the thought had slipped from his mind, but now it was back, and looming quite large. The bloodthirsty tribesmen, the Eastern Dragon King, the theft of the fleet stallion and the Firebird did not concern him half as much as the thought that, at that very moment, he was being stalked by the Dragonmaids. Kazhi the Immortal did not fear death--but he feared the wrath of his sisters.

V. Late in the afternoon of the third day, Kazhi began to think once more that the dragon had rooked him. He had been walking through this wasteland without seeing anything larger than a rabbit or smaller than a cloud. The horizon never altered, it was as flat and brown as a pancake without so much as a tree to break the monotony. If it hadn't been for the company of the mouse, Kazhi would have gone stark staring mad.

But the mouse often slept, and wasn't very sociable when it was awake, and it kept complaining, either about being hungry, or about how he was getting seasick being swung back and forth at the end of Kazhi's arm. So Kazhi eventually fell to grumbling to himself about putting his trust in dragons.

"A dragon made me," he would refrain, darkly, "and a dragon shall be the end of me."

As evening came on, Kazhi began to think about pitching his camp for the night, but he heard the shape-shifting ogre say, "Wait--not yet--! I see a cloud of dust approaching from the south-east."

Kazhi squinted in that direction. Sure enough, a cloud of dust, glowing golden in the light of the setting sun, was swirling up on the horizon.

"Quickly, now," said the mouse. "Do as Gronok instructed you! They must not see me turn into the alehouse!"

Kazhi hesitated. "But what if this isn't the tribesmen we're looking for?"

"Then you will let them pass unmolested. Don't shilly-shally, you bag of bones!"

With his fingers on the latch, Kazhi asked the mouse, "And I have your word you'll get back into the cage, if this isn't them--?"

"I have promised to help you vanquish the nomads. Open the cage!" the mouse roared.

Kazhi sprang the lid of the trap, and as it flew open, he stepped back and cried out, "Mouse--house!" In mid-leap, the mouse instantly expanded in size and shape, and in the twinkling of an eye, there stood beside the road as fit and fair a hostelry as anyone could ask for.

Kazhi was dumbfounded. Everything was in order, down to the last nail. He peered in through the open door. There were tables, and chairs, and supper laid on; there was a large barrel of ale with a tap in it at the back; there was even a cheerful fire in the hearth. The only clue that this establishment had ever been a mouse, was the color of its boards, which were painted the same caramel color as the fur of the mouse.

"Damn," said Kazhi, scratching his head.

The sound of the approaching horsemen came to his ears like a fusillade of cannon-fire. He had only enough time to turn before he was surrounded by a rearing, stamping, bellowing horde of slant-eyed warriors in gorgeous attire, sitting astride some of the least-imposing-looking horses Kazhi had ever seen--and he had seen quite a few. He would have laughed out loud to think that one of these scrubs was a fabulous creature, descended from Pegasus, but then he recalled the dragon's admonition never to be deceived by appearances.

One of the warriors, astride a buckskin, reined over to Kazhi, and glared down at him. The fur of his peculiar hat almost merged with the fur of the upturned collar of his quilted coat, and his eyes were like two coals in the gap between.

"Are you running from an adventure, or seeking to find one, stranger?" growled this rider, "for in any event, you have found one!"

Kazhi kept his cool, even as he noticed the bows and scimitars carried by this horde.

"Neither," he said smoothly. "I am but a humble publican, and I have just now opened my alehouse for business."

At this, the nomads burst out laughing in derision. "You are certainly a fool!" said the leader, "for you will go broke within days--! We are the only people who use this road."

"Then pray--out of the spirit of hospitality," said Kazhi, "do go inside and sample my victuals. I have spend considerable effort in preparing my stews, and my bread, I must say, is without compare."

The nomads did not have to be asked twice. At a signal from the leader, they dismounted their horses, and left the lot of them tied to a string; as soon as the last man was inside the building, Kazhi cried out, "House--mouse!" and the inn, with everything inside of it, turned instantly back into a mouse.

And then Kazhi slapped the cage back over the shape-shifting ogre before it could escape.

"Not fair!" protested the ogre, between indignant belches, "Not fair! You said you'd let me go free!"

"I'm not done with you, yet," Kazhi explained as he fastened the latch, having to struggle to keep his fingers clear of the infuriated ogre's snapping teeth and claws. "And wouldn't you much rather go free in a more populated place?" he added, as if he were doing the demon a favor.

"As if I couldn't turn into a bird, and fly where I wished!" the sullen monster brooded.

"You'll have your freedom," said Kazhi, turning his attention to the horses, who were staring at him in astonishment, and trying in vain to scent their masters. "Now, tell me--which one of these is the horse I must take?"

"How should I know?" asked the mouse. "My job was just to dispose of the --erp!--tribesmen."

Kazhi's heart sank.

"You really don't know which horse is the correct one?"

"If you hadn't been in such an all-fired hurry," the shape-shifting ogre observed, "you might have questioned the nomads to figure out which horse belonged to the chief."

Kazhi gloomily studied the horses, seeking for some clue to guide him. And then the thought came to him--"None of these horses is the right one! This was a raiding party...see? There are no tents, no bedrolls, nothing to pitch a camp--! The chief--and his horse--are still ahead of us somewhere!"

Thus inspired, Kazhi caught the first horse which would suffer his touch, and swung up onto its stubby back; he slung the mouse trap by a cord around his neck, took the rest of the horses on their string, as if he were a trader in horses, and started back along the churned-up track the nomads had created in their progress across the steppe.

Within an hour and a half, as full darkness embraced the earth, Kazhi could see lights ahead of him, campfires burning on the horizon. He slowed the cavalcade to a walk. The horses were not happy about being crowded together, and they bumped and jostled. It was nearly everything Kazhi could do to keep them in hand. He wished he knew a charmed tune that he could play to pacify the horses, but this time he had to manage things the ordinary way, by main strength. He dared not lose these animals. His next bluff depended upon them.

As he anticipated, several mounted guards came galloping out to meet him. One bore a torch, the other two had their weapons drawn. They ordered him to stop, and then demanded to know how he came by the horses.

"I found them, straying on the plain, back there," he said, "and I am hoping you can tell me where they belong--"

The head of the sentries answered him roughly. "They belong to us!" he said. He ordered one of his companions to take charge of the string, whilst he himself escorted Kazhi into the encampment.

It seemed to be a military bivouac--a few large tents, a few small tents, some cooking fires, and not a woman to be seen anywhere. The warriors were attired in long padded coats, fur hats, and felt boots, all richly ornamented and sewn with bright colors, as if something in the human soul craved a distraction from the unbroken barren ochre of the steppe. There was a strong smell of roasting flesh in the air, mingled with sweat, horse dung, and smoke; Kazhi had lost his appetite the moment he came into the camp. In the center of the camp was an enclosure made of hemp ropes, and inside this makeshift corral were about two dozen horses, some of them mares with foals at side. One warrior was milking a mare as her colt nuzzled the man's ear.

It had been centuries since Kazhi had been among such primitive people, and his advanced, cultured state of mind took a few minutes to readjust itself to the rude squalor of a nomad camp. The sentry brought him, with perfect dignity, to one tent which was set apart from the others, and into its confines--which still bore the smell of the animals whose skins made its walls--Kazhi was conducted.

Kazhi's heart sank. There was a man sitting cross-legged on a pile of mats in this tent, who could only be the chieftan, for he looked the part; but that was not what dismayed the wizard. Also in the tent was a horse. And hanging on the main tent shaft were two bridles--one of jewel-studded silk, the other made of braided horsehair, white as mountain snow.

V. The horse to whom these bridles belonged looked a little more like Kazhi's idea of a magical steed. He was black, black as the night, and his skin rippled like crushed velvet, catching the light in shimmering patches of silver on his thick, arched neck and rounded flanks. He looked very much like one of the cherished hotbloods of the desert tribes, with his small, neat head, his large, luminous eyes, and his little pointed ears, which stood out like horns atop his cascade of silky mane. There was not a white hair to be found on this stallion's body, and he stood, without being tied or hobbled, in the rear of the tent, nibbling grain from a large wooden trencher.

The chieftan was speaking to Kazhi suddenly, in a gutteral language which Kazhi did not immediately recognize; the sentry who had brought him translated for him. "The Khan wants to know what you are doing so far into the wilderness, without a horse?"

Kazhi fidgetted for a moment. "Tell the great Khan," he said after a while, in his most deferential tone (and three thousand years of ingratiating himself into various Royal courts had taught him a bit about how to sound obsequious), "that I am but a humble pilgrim, on my way to the East to seek what wisdom I can learn from the priests in those lands there."

This was transmitted to the chieftan, who looked Kazhi up and down, with evident amusement.
He made a comment, and Kazhi heard the sentry say, "So lightly dressed--?"

Now the gears in Kazhi's mind began to whirl, and to crank out his story. "What need have I of provisons?" he replied, "when I possess a magic pipe, which supplies all my needs?"

He produced the flute from his pouch. The shape-shifting ogre, for his part, remained silent. He was beginning to admire this human for his cunning. He was interested to see how this would turn out.

"I have but to play a certain tune on this little pipe," said the wizard, "and a pavillion, with a table set with sumptuous foods, will appear."

The Khan, as could be imagined, expressed doubts about this claim. Kazhi offered to prove it, and they went outside, to a suitably clear spot. Kazhi blew his tune, and instantly the pavillion appeared, with an enormous feast on the table inside.

"Let's see you polish off that," Kazhi murmured to the mouse as the tribesmen gasped and marvelled at this wondrous feat.

"Set me free and I'll do my best," replied the mouse. "You want me to leave the nomads?"

Kazhi then invited the Khan and his men to help themselves. At first wary, fingering the fine linens, puzzling over the silverware, the men were soon enough overcoming their reservations, and by the end of the feast they were as companionable as brothers, singing in their lusty hoarse voices and embracing Kazhi as though he were their dearest friend in all the world.

Kazhi just smiled, and summoned up as much food and drink as the tribesmen required.

As they were sprawling about under the stars, too sated to move, Kazhi offered to play them a tune from his own country. The nomads, thinking that some new wonder was in the offing, eagerly bade him to begin. Of course he played the lullabye, and all who heard it, including the horses in the enclosure, instantly fell asleep. Kazhi plucked an apple from the bowl on the table in the pavillion and went over to the Khan's tent.

The stallion was looking at him as he entered. Kazhi spoke softly to it, and held out the apple, hoping to make friends with it.

"So you're going to steal me, are you?" asked the stallion.

"If you are the descendant of Bucephalus, yes," said Kazhi, lowering the apple, and wondering when he was going to come across a plain, ordinary animal, with no magic about it.

"That I am," said the stallion, flicking his ears, "and I am every bit as bull-headed as he; you had better be sharp, if you hope to master me."

"I wasn't thinking of mastering you," said Kazhi. "I was thinking of making a bargain with you."

"What sort of bargain?" asked the horse.

"Well--I can't imagine that it suits a fellow of your obvious quality, to go around with this bunch of heathens," said the wizard in his voice of silk. "I was told by a friend of mine that you would be just the chap to help me on a little errand I have to run; in exchange for carrying me to the court of the Eastern Dragon King, and back to my home again, I will make certain that you have the very finest mares in the world as your harem, the best food, the nicest accommodations--no more of this kicking about in dusty tents, hardly better than a dog--"

The horse listened, his lip quivering pensively.

"Tell me more about these mares," he prodded when Kazhi fell silent.

"Oh--fine mares, grand mares, glossy, sleek, and sloe-eyed mares," Kazhi assured him.

"And the grass?" the stallion pressed.

"Oh, lush, and sweet, and long--it practically jumps into your mouth."

"No stones mixed in with the fodder?"

"Not if I have anything to say about it."

The stallion went a little misty-eyed. "I would miss the thrill of running into battle, I think," he said after a while.

"Oh, if it's excitement you crave--I'll supply it; there's just as many little wars going on over in the western lands as there are here. Anything your heart desires, I'll make sure you get it. All for this one little favor."

The shape-shifting ogre was about to cry out for the horse to be careful, to not take the wizard on his word, but he held his tongue, for the sooner they completed this blasted quest, the sooner he'd be set free.

"All right," said the stallion, "I'll go with you. There is my saddle, and there on the tent-post is my bridle. I hope you are a good rider. I cannot bear a clumsy oaf."

In truth, Kazhi didn't do much riding. With his dragon he was more of a passenger, and the last time he had been astride a horse had been over three centuries before. But he was bluffing, and so now he said, "Oh, certainly, certainly...let me see--"

He went to the saddle, and lifted it onto the stallion as best he could. He heard the horse grunt and mutter some disparaging remark.

"Hold on, your grace--saddles in my part of the world are different. Have patience with me."

The stallion kept his comments to himself, as Kazhi tightened the cinches. Then he went for the headstall. It was clear that the jewelled bridle perfectly matched the saddle, but Kazhi reached instead for the plain bridle, made of braided horsehair. As he slipped it over the stallion's head, he saw a glint in the animal's eye.

"You've been coached," said the horse.

"Forewarned is fore-armed," replied Kazhi. He took the ornate bridle, too, and stuffed it into one of the saddlebags--just in case--and led the stallion from the tent.

The nomads were still slumbering. Kazhi mounted the horse, and wondered, briefly, whether he ought to wake them--and then dismissed the idea. He told himself he'd get them on the way back, when, hopefully, he would be moving so fast that they wouldn't know what happened, and perhaps would awaken in time to distract whatever pursuit he might encounter from the Eastern Dragon King.

He did pipe the pavillion back into the flute, however, and then said to the horse, very politely, "To the court of the Eastern Dragon King, if you please."

"Just a moment," said the horse. "We haven't been properly introduced. What is your name, man with a dragon's tongue?"

Kazhi was a little startled by this insightful epithet, but he told the horse, "I am called Kazhi the Deathless, and this is my travelling companion, Kabor." He thought it best to introduce the mouse, too, just in case the horse might notice a dramatic change in weight after dinner.

"Pleased to meet you, Kazhi and Kabor," said the stallion, prancing a little. "My name is Tornado."

VI. The horse began to paw the ground; great chunks of dirt and sod were gouged out by his hooves. Thunder and lightning crackled around him, and a terrible wind blew up, so that Kazhi was compelled to cling desperately to the saddle, or risk being blown off. And then, with a toss of his head and a scream like all the tormented souls in Hell crying out as one, the magic stallion began to run.

In three bounds, he was to the mountains; in three more bounds, he was to the sea. The sound of his passage was like the whirlwind, and the fields over which he raced were knocked flat. Trees were uprooted, roofs blown off houses, and the very breath was snatched from Kazhi's mouth--had he not been immortal, he was certain that he would have died from his ride on the magic stallion.

The sea stretched before them, the breaking sunlight dancing on the tips of the waves. Kazhi tightened his grip still further, and cringed, for Tornado did not seem at all inclined to slow down. The horse plunged into the surf, and then was galloping across the surface of the sea, foam and startled fish flying up from where his hooves churned the water. The great lot of trash which had been caught up in their wake fell into the wash on the shore, limbs and scraps of clothing torn from wash-lines, small startled animals and bits of plants and leaves, but as soon as they had passed onto the waves, a water-spout swirled up, and followed behind them, dancing like a white-bodied maiden.

Kazhi never saw any of this, for he had his eyes tightly closed and his face buried in the whipping mane of the fabulous black horse.

In all the tumult, it was impossible to sneak up subtly on the court of the Eastern Dragon King, and they came to a dramatic stop right in the central courtyard of the Imperial compound. The waterspout collapsed in a deluge which drenched the fine silk robes of the courtiers who had been lounging around in the morning light, plucking at instruments and tending to their miniature trees.

They were not amused.

As they leaped up, screaming in alarm and outrage, the great horse pawed the ground with a sound like gongs, and tossed his mane on his proud, arched neck. It would have all been very impressive indeed, had Kazhi not tumbled from the saddle like one drunk, and lay sprawled unceremoniously on the ground, gasping for breath, and tingling in every limb.

"Idiot," he heard the horse grunt.

The wizard staggered to his numb feet as the Palace guard entered, with their elaborately horned helmets and their curved sabers drawn. "Stop!" the horse bellowed, rearing up and pawing the air. "Come no closer! Lay not a hand upon this august person! This is a great wizard from the far western kingdom, Kazhi the Death, and he has come to see your King!"

The words of the magnificent horse rooted the guards and the courtiers to the spot, as if they had been turned to stone. Kazhi whispered to the horse, "Ah...that's 'Death-less,'"

"Shut up and play along," the horse whispered back.

One does not argue with a horse of extraordinary power, if one has any wits about him, and so Kazhi held his tongue.

"Summon your king," the horse continued in his commanding tone, "and have him meet with my master--or we shall go find him for ourselves!"

It amazed Kazhi to watch the warriors and the silk-robed courtiers fall all over themselves to obey the horse--or to simply get out of its presence. To have a talking horse appear out of nowhere, attended by a maelstrom, could not have been an every-day occurrence.

"There," said the horse, sounding pleased with himself.

"Forgive me for saying this," said Kazhi, through his clenched teeth, "and please don't think me ungrateful--but I was supposed to sneak in here and steal the Firebird, which the King keeps in a cage of living bamboo--"

"And have you any idea where the Firebird is kept?" asked the horse, dryly.

"Well--no, but I'd've figured that one out," Kazhi muttered.

"And wasted precious time. I have done much travelling with my previous master, the Khan, and I have come to the conclusion that it is much more expedient to frighten a person into giving you what you want, rather than going through all the hullabaloo of stealing it, or taking it by force."

"And how, pray tell, am I supposed to frighten a Dragon King into giving me the Firebird?"

The horse eyed him, with what looked like human disgust.

"What do all living things dread most?" he asked the wizard. Kazhi thought about it.

"Death," he said, at length.

"That is correct. A mortal will do just about anything to escape the summons of death. The Dragon King possesses great magic, but he is mortal, like all the rest; you, Kazhi The Most Fortunately Named, must tell him that you are Death, and that you have come to take him. Then give him the chance to bargain with you. When he asks if you will take anything other than his life, ask him what is more valuable and rare than the life of a dragon-king. He will say that the Firebird is more rare, for there is only the one in all the world; pretend that it is a poor exchange, let him cadjole you; then accept his terms."

Kazhi admired the cleverness of this plan. Then a hitch presented itself to him. "What if--what if he doesn't go along with it? What if he doubts I'm Death?"

Tornado flicked an ear.

"If it goes that way," he said, "tell him this, in as calm and cool a voice as you can manage; tell him that at the end of the earth is an oak, and under the oak is a box, and in the box is a hare, and in the hare is a fish, and in the fish is a pearl--and that you have that pearl in your pocket. Then see what he will do."

Kazhi felt a stirring against his chest, and held up the mouse-trap, which he had nearly forgotten. The shape-shifting ogre was running around inside, trying to get his attention.

"And, if he still doubts you," the mouse piped, "show me to him, and say that I am the Dragon King of the North, and that you have taken me earlier today; if he still doubts you, let me out, and I'll turn into the very image of the great White Dragon of the North, to prove it--"

"Oh, you're so crafty--!" said Kazhi, lowering the cage.

"No--no, wait!" cried the ogre, "I'll get back into the cage, I promise--! I'm interested to see how this all turns out."

Kazhi, with deep misgivings, agreed to the shape-shifting ogre's plan, not expecting to need to use him. He tucked the cage back into his coat just as the sound of many slippered feet running came to them from somewhere in the palace.

Dozens of people came pouring into the courtyard--some armed, some not, all of them robed in dazzling silks embroidered with sinuous dragon-shapes picked out in golden threads. They stood looking at the strangers with inscrutable faces, and Kazhi did his best to return their looks, but he could feel his bowels turning to water. As with most clever people, he was, at the core of it, a coward, and to find himself surrounded by such stern-looking people filled his mind with serious misgivings, magic companions or no.

The two parties stood thusly for several long minutes, minutes in which only the trickling sound of a water-fountain made any noise to break the silence. Then the horse swished his tail, and ordered, "Take us to the Dragon King! Tell him Death grows impatient!"

A murmur swept through the courtiers, and there appeared to be a shuffling going on amid their ranks. One man stepped forward, a man with trailing moustaches of silvery grey, and eyes so sunk into the folds of his face that they seemed to be mere slits. His robe was sewn with gemstones, and the nails of his bony hands were six inches long.

He bowed to the strangers. "His Celestial Majesty," the old man said in a carefully-measured manner, "has asked us to inquire as to your business with him."

The horse stamped a foot, and the courtyard echoed with it. "You need to ask such an impertinent question?" he demanded with an arrogant toss of his fine head.

"We mean no disrespect," the old man went on, with a faint smile, "but His Celestial Majesty is not in the habit of receiving strangers without having invited them into his august presence."

"If Death had to wait," the horse sneered, "to be invited, then no one would ever die."

"Ah, yes," agreed the aged courtier, with another bow, "but His Celestial Majesty wishes to be assured that you are who you claim to be."

"A talking horse appears out of nowhere, and lands in the middle of your courtyard--and you dare to question me?" the black animal roared. "We will not be put off by your fawning excuses, old man--! If you do not conduct us immediately to see His Celestial Majesty, we will go to him ourselves--and take a number of you with us, if you follow me!"

The ancient courtier's golden skin seemed to turn a nasty shade of khaki, and he bowed hastily and departed, the crowd of nobles and sentries pouring after him like sand through an hourglass, which left Kazhi, the horse, and the shape-shifting ogre alone once more in the peaceful little garden.

"What now?" wondered Kazhi.

"Either they'll take us to see the Dragon King," said the horse, "or they've gone for the guards."

"Ah, this is just great," smiled Kazhi with obvious sarcasm.

"What are you worried about?" the mouse demanded, his little voice muffled by the folds of Kazhi's coat. "You're immortal. Or so you keep saying."

Kazhi rubbed his prominent forehead with the tips of his fingers, trying to dispel the headache which was taking hold of him. "There was a story, back where I come from," he said, irritably, "about a fellow who wanted to fetch some water, but the bucket had a hole in it. To patch the hole he needed some wood. To get the wood he had to cut a stick. To cut the stick he needed an axe. The axe was dull, so to sharpen it he needed a stone. The stone was dry, so he needed water to wet it...do you see where I'm going with this? I'm about ready to turn tail and run, quite frankly--"

"Hmph. Some hero you are," the horse muttered, wondering to itself why there wasn't any grass in this garden.

"I never said I was a hero," retorted Kazhi, "so get that idea out of your head. I happen to have a dragon, back home, who needs some special medicine, and since dragons are a little hard to replace, I agreed to go on this quest to help him out. And I certainly can't very well do that if I'm spending time locked up in some dungeon somewhere while the Dragon King roasts you on a spit, now, can I?"

"You worry too much," said the horse. "They won't capture us. All you need to do is jump on my back, and we're out of here."

Kazhi wished that he could share the horse's confidence. "I should think," he said, "that the Eastern Dragon King would have great magic at his disposal--even now, he could be casting a spell to detain us--"

"Do you feel your skin prickling?" the horse inquired.

"No."

"Then there is no magic being worked. You call yourself a wizard? I think you are a mountebank."

Kazhi felt a wave of anger rising in his chest, that caused his pale cheeks to flush like apples.

"I am too a wizard!" he snapped. "I'm a very powerful wizard!"

"You're a very lucky mountebank," said the horse, with a yawn. "You caught yourself a dragon, and he tells you what to do."

Kazhi simmered, but made no reply. He began to sense something unusual about the horse--it seemed to be able to read his mind--and that made him nervous. He knew he hadn't told it very much about himself, and yet it was picking out things...how could it know? Was it somehow communicating with the ogre?

Then Kazhi, in a low, dark voice, said to the horse, "Do you know how I caught a dragon? It is because I am immortal. He could not kill me, and he fell down before me and pleaded for his life. And--do you know why I'm immortal...?"

He let the question hang in the air for a moment, and thought he saw the horse raise an eyebrow.

"Because I," said Kazhi, slowly, with emphasis, "was drenched in the blood of Tiamat--"

"Who speaks of Ti-amat?" came a deep and sonorous roar.

The Eastern Dragon King had arrived.

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