by Valerie Frankel
"I am Death, the ultimate bringer of justice, the court of last appeal, scourge of all men in the world. The wisest scholars see me and cower. And now I have come for your soul."
"No, not yours," Death said with an impatient wave. "Is he inside?"
Hissing, the gray-striped cat led the way into the house. Death knew that Altreius the Seer-King was destined to die in his doorway, where Death had first arrived. But apparently Death was a bit early for his appointment.
Death glided into the Throne Room. In his long, black robe, with eyes like purple singularities deep-set in his skull, those who could see him cowered in fear. Not that he allowed many to see him. Not twice, at any rate. Once he had ridden a tall, skeletal horse. But bone riding on bone was quite uncomfortable and the inevitable clattering noises got on his nerves. Not that he had _nerves_ exactly, eitherÖ
Death stared and shook his head. "Oh no." In all his days of bringing eternity and dispensing justice, he had never seen such a spectacle.
Hovering at the back of the crowd, Death watched as the king rose, tottering to his feet while supported by two strong servants. His long, gray beard hung limp as a pair of ancient curtains. "Fearless adventurers, stalwart warriors, wizards of the most arcane, I have summoned you here for the most momentous quest that you have ever undertaken. Whoever succeeds shall inherit my throne and kingdom straightaway."
The entire room cheered. Death closed his eyes, all too aware of what would come.
"I call upon the bravest, the best of you. Who here has the fortitude to defeat Death himself?"
Death stepped to one side. All the boldest heroes of the land stampeded towards the doorway in unrestrained panic. Death waited a moment for the last few to scatter. He approached the throne, where the king sagged like an empty sack. "Itís been tried before," he said. "Never works."
"Youíre that powerful?" the king asked.
Death didnít bother replying to such an obvious comment.
"I need to live. Iíve foreseen a great war, and Iím the only hope my country has."
At least this one had moved past denial and into whining, Death thought. However, this king genuinely meant it. Over the years, he had always placed the kingdom's welfare before his own. It was a shame that he had to die. Still, kings came and went. Only the suspicious smell in the castle drains endured forever.
"Isnít there a way I can get out of this? Sell my soul, play cards, something of that nature?"
This man was a king and had certain privileges. Death offered him the usual bargain. "Only one. Someone must love you enough to die in your place."
"Oh." A list of names seemed to pass over the seer-kingís eyes. At the listís end, he turned almost plaintively to Death. "Chinese checkers?"
Death didnít bother watching the hours of interviews. Twenty-four hours, precisely, for the king to find a substitute or die his appointed death. Not even he could break the rules. The paperwork alone was enough to wear his fingers further past the bone.
Death permitted himself an even wider grimace than usual as he gravely approached the kingís deathbed. Gravely. Hmmm. He raised his scythe. "I do not see anyone here to take your place."
The king lay in state with purple and gold coverings, shrouded windows, well-wishers sobbing outside the door. Only the striped cat attended him, lounging under the foot of the bed. The seer-king sighed and gave Death a pair of pathetic, puppy dog eyes. Death couldnít say that they moved him. He didnít especially like dogs, since they howled whenever he floated by. It was those little gestures that made him feel disliked.
"Mrrowww!" The striped cat leaped onto the bed, fur upright, hissing at Death.
"The cat can see you," the king whispered weakly. This close to the afterlife, all his resistance dissipated, replaced with simple acceptance. But it wasnít too late for him to live.
"More than see me, the cat is making me an offer. I accept."
Death brought down his scythe. Before the king could so much as blink, cat and Death both vanished.
Outdoors, Death set the tiny, black kitten down on the path. Its eyes had just opened, fur damp and soft as dandelion fluff. "So this is your sixth life now?"
"Why did you bother? Heís only a king, after all."
"There are always wars and saviors and destinies. Youíre a cat. Why should any of that concern you?"
"He really means something to you?"
The catís eyes filled with something akin to awe, more dedicated than subject to king, more faithful than pet to master. It worshipped the king like a beggar gazing up at the sun. "Meooooooooow."
Death threw back his head and laughed in a way that he hadnít in millennia. Heíd forgotten the deep subtleties of catly affection. With a wave of his scythe, Death vanished, the catís last response echoing in his head.
If all the humans died, who would serve our milk?
Valerie Frankel wrote her first novel at the age of sixteen, and reserves her first love for her fantasy world of Calithwain. Her work has appeared in the anthology, Legends of the Pendragon, as well as Strange Horizons, Marsdust, Zealot, Spellbound, SF Reader, Rambles Cultural Arts, and other magazines. To glance over chapters from Valerie's novels, as well as interactive maps of her magical world, visit her website atwww.calithwain.com .
About that trip to Calithwain? It's worth the effort...I've seen it. [tc]