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.
But the road to redemption was far too complicated. Up in flames seemed like a glorious way to go. No aftermath, no room for regret. Many fire-breathers 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 loose by the wind that whispered their names –
No, he thought as he caught his torches before they clattered to the ground, their breaths searing 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 weariness and regret. Fire was the only remedy, the only gratification, his only friend.
When he spotted the gypsy, watching him with quiet intent, his first instinct was to avoid her gaze. But her eyes seemed to promise redemption.
There in the bustling courtyard, she should have gone unnoticed, lost in the crowd that had gathered to watch his performance. But there was no missing her. She moved with a otherworldly, feline grace. She was not human.
With her face shadowed by her veil, he couldn’t discern her age. Her eyes, like jewels in the night sky, reflected eternity.
Once, he might have approached her for answers. But now, he only observed from where he stood, trying to retain his grip on his torches and focus on finishing his performance. He wheeled his torches close to him, and the crowd gasped. As he flipped into the air for his final stunt, catching his torches just as he landed perfectly back on his feet, the crowd clapped and cheered.
Instead of waiting for the audience – particularly the women – to lavish their gifts and adoration on him, he slipped out after the gypsy. The evening fog swallowed him up soon enough, sparing him from the lingering attention of the crowd.
In the cobbled labyrinth of narrow, winding alleys, the walls leaned close with their overheard secrets.
She was waiting for him. Could she be one of Them? The Old Ones, with inextinguishable souls and calcified hearts? They were said to be untouched by anything, even fire.
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 slide 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 a messenger. The fire-breather felt his muscles unclench slightly. He narrowed his eyes at her. “Which begs the question of whose messenger you are.”
“He’s no emperor,” he spat. “He’s 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 bare 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. She could call on an ice storm more savage than any fire he could ever wield. To think the emperor managed to find an ally in these isolated mountain dwellers who never used to concern themselves with mortal wars.
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?”
“Not everything is about personal gain, fire-eater,” she replied, calling down an icicle that stabbed him in the chest. He bit back against the pain as his knees buckled.
“We have been silent for too long. This is how we can redeem ourselves. We will remake this world on our terms and fix that which has been destroyed.” Her unspoken words swept through his mind like the north wind. And you will help us on this mission 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 be like this – setting the world ablaze.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joyce lives in the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. She holds a B.A. in English and her YA novel, LAMBS FOR DINNER, won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and was published by Straits Times Press. She subsists mainly on green tea and toast, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.