Sükni and the Firebird
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There are thousands upon thousands of stories about Sükni Dzhari, for every slave of Daevon when they tell them tells them anew, and that number is always increasing.

Here is one of them.

Once, in the ancient days, Sükni went out into the gardens that were given him to tend, and into the orchard where the fruits were grown. It was at the beginning of the autumn, and the waning sun was ripening the grain and the nuts and the fruit all at once, and it was his expectation that the harvest would be good in that year. Even though he was not permitted to keep any of the crop there for himself, he was nonetheless pleased to see that the wheat bent white-gold underneath the sun for the weight of its berries, and that the bramble-fruits were softening on their vines, and the hay-grass stood tall and rich and green.

So Sükni took his basket and his staff and went first to the apple orchard, and he found there that the fruits were swelled to full ripeness and soft flesh, and he was able to pick them in bushels, yellow and red and green, and these he brought back to the storehouses in great number. And second he went to the cherry orchard, and found those trees laden also with fruits dark as garnets and soft as human skin, and these too he was able to gather many of. And finally he went to the plum orchard, expecting the same.

But when he got there, upon the branches he found only the hard green knots of the unripened plums, and upon the ground many scattered stones, and he wondered if this were some strange blight that had struck his tree, forcing it to drop its fruit before its ripening. He went to the next tree and found the same, and again the next, and so Sükni perceived that there was no blight, but that some animal had come and had devoured the ripe fruit in the night. And he was greatly chagrined, for should this hold true for all the trees he would gain no crop of plums at all in that year, and not only would his pótnyā be highly displeased with him but the certainty of food for the household throughout the wintertime would be lessened, and the slaves would feel it the more.

Yet even as he stood there discontented with these thoughts, and wondering what he should do to lighten his loss, he heard a rustle of noise in the next tree along the row, and he looked up, prepared to chase the animal away with his staff. But he had taken only one step before his eyes fell upon it, perched upon the lowest bough in the tree (and that was scarcely above the level of his own height), and to his shock he saw that it was no cardinal or squirrel, as he had expected. Instead, he saw it was a firebird.

The firebird! The number of that race of bird may be counted upon a man’s two hands, and the number of men who have ever seen one is fewer still. By many names is it known, by firebird and srin, as päyäkoj the golden and in the tongue of the pótnyāt vhereg the shining one. The realm of its range stretches from the uttermost north to the heats of the south, from the eastern edge to the land where the sun sets and burns the rocks scarlet, where it makes its nest, and its cry is said to be of such surpassing beauty, joy like that of returning springtime and sorrow sharp as knives mingled together, that any man who hears it shall never forget that sound as long as he may live, and shall yearn ever after for its hearing again. Not one has ever been caught or tamed through all the ages of the world, and to do so would be a terrible thing indeed, for it is hallowed in the realm of nánga which is the ever-changing sky, and he would draw all the fury of the sky-realm upon him who captured or injured or slew one for any reason.

And Sükni halted, being awestruck by its beauty, for its feathers gleamed as they were spun of gold and carnelian, and its tail, long as a man’s arm, draped down from the branch as it were a waterfall of flame. And he would have counted himself blessed indeed to have been visited by such a creature, even were it to fly away at that instant and never enter his sight again. But he knew his pótnyā, in her avarice, would never permit it that the creature remain free and not be captured and caged for her as soon as she knew of its presence. He thought whether he could not spook it, as though it were no more than one of the ordinary crows that stole his crops as they ripened, but he realized that even could he cause the creature to fly (for having never been caged the firebird has not the fear of men that other birds do) its presence would become known to all within earshot, and his pótnyā had many bowmen in her service.

And looking more closely at the bird he perceived that its claws, though dark as almandine, were worn, and that the feathers of one wing were bent and broken, and so he understood that even if he did spook the bird it could not fly. Therefore he was concerned, because he knew now that the bird had only stolen his crop because it could not otherwise hunt for itself, and he pitied it.

So Sükni took one of the half-eaten plums that the bird had torn from the branches and let fall, and he covered his hands and forearms in the juice, and so he coaxed the firebird from the branch upon which it was perched to his wrist, and from there into the basket in the place of the plums that would have filled it before. And he lifted the basket and carried the bird back to the shed at the boundary of field, tended land, and wood, and brought it in, so that no-one would see and attempt to capture or harm the creature.

"For if this sacred creature has come to me," he thought to himself, "surely I have a responsibility to protect it, from the beasts of the wild and the arrows of the pótnyāt." And in truth he would have done the same for any animal, being gentle-hearted and unwilling to see any creature suffer, if he could ease it.

Yet he still had his tasks to perform, and so providing the bird with some broken fruits he screened the basket so that it would not flee potentially back into the notice of the pótnyā or her paid servants, and he had to hurry back to his orchards lest his absence be punished. Grabbing another basket he went out, and left the bird in as much safety as he might. Yet as the day wore his thoughts now turned rather towards the buildings than the edges of the hinterland where they normally did.

As the time wore and the sun rose higher, the fruits were in time all eaten. And hungry and seeking the few others of its flock, the firebird cried again towards the sky it knew beyond wicker and roof, and the sound of that crying stopped the slaves at their work, and pierced even to where the pótnyā was seated at her pavilion, speaking with her lords and ladies.

And she asked one of her advisors, who stood by, “What is it that calls so?

And he answered her, “I do not know, my lady. For the voice is not that of a human, and yet is akin to it, and it seems almost that it mourns over something. I have never heard of a creature with such a call.”

So finding no help in her advisor the pótnyā asked one of her servants, when he came to bring to her her meal, saying, "That animal, with the beautiful cry - what is it? I have never heard anything alike to that before."

And he answered her, "I do not know, mistress. Although the sound was close - never have I either heard a creature with such a call."

So finding no help in the servant either the pótnyā asked one of her slaves, who was cleaning the ash out of the hearth. And the slave bowed her face upon the ground and said “O my pót'yā, it is said that such is the cry of the firebird, and it strikes anyone who hears it near to her heart.” So the slave told her all, even as I have told you before, of its beauty and sanctity and rarity.

Knowing this, the pótnyā thought unto herself that she would set her servants to capture this creature, if it was truly as glorious as the tales spoke of, and she would have it caged within her menagerie for her pleasure, and that she might be known among all the people of the city and all the cities of the land: for who else, in all of Daevon, could say that they were the owner of a firebird?

So she called up her bowmen, and her guards, and all of her people who wished to go on such a hunt and find the creature for her. They rose, and taking up their cloaks and bows, went out into the estate for the hunt.

Now her people knew of the pótnyā's greed, and her lust for precious things the owning of which could set her apart from the other ladies and lords in the land. And seeing that she came out into the lands with her assistants and bowmen, they hid or made themselves as unobtrusive as they might. For they knew that whatever she sought, and whether or no she found it, both her satisfaction or her frustration might be wrought upon them.

And it came to pass that she and her assistants were passing by the outer fields to enter the pótnyā's woods at the same time that Sükni returned from the fields. He, too, attempted to stand aside and wait for their passing, and they would have taken no notice of him but for at that time the bird, hearing their commotion outside, called again, and so close there could be no mistaking.

"Here!" they called, and loosened their nets and bows in their cases. One of the bowmen said, “It is within that building.” And he ordered Sükni to open the shed and allow them in.

But, knowing that if he did so they would find the creature and take it as trophy, and that for aiding them he would be hateful to the sky and the spirits for as long as he lived, Sükni stood still and did not speak. And so they snarled at him again, "Are you deaf? Do as we say and open the door." And one of the bowmen seized him and shoved him into the wall, saying, "You know your punishment will be severe if you continue to disobey."

So at length, thus constrained, he did, and the other went in, and overturned all the baskets, and found the bird and bound it in his cloak, and came out again. He held it out to the pótnyā, saying, "Here is your quarry, my lady."

But she did not take it, for her displeasure and that of her retinue was focussed on Sükni. “Was it you,” they asked, “who chose to keep this thing hidden from your pótnyā - to claim for yourself what is rightfully hers?” And the pótnyā herself stepped up, and fixed him in her gaze.

Then anger kindled in Sükni’s heart, and he forgot all his fear. “Yes,” he said. “I did hide it to keep it from you, pót'yā. The sky did not give it unto your hands, knowing you would set the whole world in fetters if you could. It gave it unto mine, and I did only what it bid me.”

"But I have bade otherwise," she said.

“Pót'yā, there are scarcely any upon earth. And all your household, all your endeavors will be cursed if you do this, for the sky sees everything, and us. You do not know what you do.”

She laughed. “You think I fear the curses of your gods? Never before has any god stayed my hand; never shall one. I do as I wish.”

“You cannot!"

She struck him across the face, so that he fell. And she had her men bring him to the courtyard, and they set chains about his wrists and beat him there within the sight of the household in punishment for this presumption, and left him. The bird they brought to the pótnyā's menagerie, where they tied its feet and placed it in a cage of iron.

Now it happened that another slave of the same pótnyā, who served as a smith and a metalworker, a builder of tack and a shoer of horses, whose name was Vaśki, knew Sükni well. And he took pity upon him and brought him back to the slave-quarters, and asked of him what he had done to earn this punishment.

And Sükni told him all, of the finding of the bird and its capture. “How am I to bear it?” he said, and he wept. “Can I be forgiven for allowing this thing to come to pass, and not for preventing nánga's holy bird from this degradation, to be just a pet within the pót'yā's menagerie? And we too are of this household, and so the curse of nánga will fall upon us as well.”

And Vaśki could not answer this, for he knew that it was true.

Now when the day was done, and the rest of the slaves returned from their labours to the quarters as well, another two of them came to inquire as to Sükni and Vaśki's predicament. These were a chambermaid that served the ladies within the pótnyā's court, whose name was Marjut and who was close in friendship with Sükni, and a groom within the stables, whose name was Taika and who was close with Vaśki.

And Sükni again told them what he had done, or attempted to do, and that he would be doomed for his failure to meet nánga's charge.

Taika in awe reached out her hand towards him, and then drew back. "You have seen the sacred creature?" she asked.

"Seen only," he said. "But I am minded even to do more; to earn back my merit in the sight of the sky. And this I tell you because I trust you shall not hinder me - you know she has not the right to do this, whatever she says."

“Shall we therefore defy the pót'yā?” asked Marjut.

"I do not see we have a choice," said Sükni. “For we cannot predict what doom may or may not be sent upon this household, and if it is strong enough to force our selling we cannot predict what may happen to us then. And we have another loyalty, not just to the pót'yā, but to the spirits, and to right, and to justice, and of this one we cannot be absolved for any reason. And it is not just for the holy creature to be locked like us in Daevite cages, and the pót'yā to doom us all for only her own greed."

“No doom,” Taika pointed out, “has yet fallen, and you say that it has been the whole of the day since.”

“What would you bet upon that?”

Marjut sighed, and unpicked the end of her plait, beginning to pull out the copper rings from every twist and pile them in her hand. “What then should we do?” she asked. “What then can we do, and not be immediately captured?”

He sighed. "That, I do not know."

But they remained, and spoke together until the moon had set, and in the end this was the plan which they developed:

Marjut, being the only one of the four who was permitted to enter the palace proper, for four days passed by the door to the menagerie, and saw that the pótnyā had placed there a guard against thieves or anyone wishing in spite to harm the creatures she had collected - but only one, and young besides, appearing fairly newly appointed. And so on the fifth day she plaited up her hair, and cleaned her face, and went to her work. Until the sun had risen one palm into the sky she worked, cleaning floors and walls in the pótnyā's many rooms, and when she saw that it had she laid down her cloths, and hurried up to the solitary guard, and lied to him thus: "There is a wild animal trapped in one of the rooms!"

And he asked her where and when she had seen this.

"As I was cleaning," she gasped. "It had concealed itself under a footed chest, and snapped at me!"

"What kind of creature was it?" he asked her.

"I do not know," she said, and clutched at his sleeve. "I was afraid, and I could not see it properly. But its teeth are sharp, and I cannot drive it out. It will bite me. You have a spear; help me to get it out, please!"

The guard pitied her, and permitted her to lead him away toward the rooms where she had been, for he thought to himself that he would not be long away from his post, and if he could in the meantime be alone with a slave so young and pretty, so much the better.

Marking that Marjut had said she would do this when the sun was one palm high, Vaśki and Taika too watched as it crept up the sky that morning. And when it had reached that mark they came in to the pótnyā's palace through the slaves' entrance, which Marjut had not bolted; and they crept through the corridors, and came to the now-unguarded menagerie, and entered into it. Many creatures they observed that she kept in cages: one of the spotted cats caught and sold as pets in the south of the empire, and a golden eagle with its feathers clipped and traced to a perch, and a viper in a large glass jar filled at the base with sand.

"I wish we could loose them all," Taika whispered to Vaśki as they slipped past. He nodded his agreement to her, and as they turned they espied a flash of orange and saffron, and knew it was the bird Sükni had described to them. Its cage was half man-height and yet not wide enough for it to spread its full windspan, and so as they approached, and Vaśki reached for the cage, it did not strike but hissed and attempted to bite his hand.

"Shhh, there, little one," Taika told it. "Shhh, elder brother. Be calm. We are not here on her behest, but to release you."

And Vaśki took his tools, and he bent the rivets, and separated the bars, making a wide space. And once he had done so Taika reached in and carefully picked up the bird, taking care to pin its wings with the firm but gentle grip with which she treated the horses. She brought it out and placed it in a sack that she had brought, with a broken apple in the hopes that this and the dark would quiet it for long enough. And back out they hurried, before Marjut returned with the guard she had distracted and before their absence could be noticed, Vaśki back to the forge and Taika, with her precious cargo, to the stables.

Sükni, with his basket and pruning hook ready, awaited her there outside the door. And he took from her the sack, and loosed the cords at its mouth, and carried it back out into the plum orchard where he had found it at first. Once he was certain that nobody else was in sight, and he was concealed between the rows of trees, he unfastened the cords entirely and let the bird climb out: first onto the rim of his basket, and then onto his wrist, and then into the branches of the nearest tree.

It preened gently, and straightened the feathers that had been bent in its captivity, and with no call or other sound it spread its wings and flew away. In the rush of its wingbeats a single feather dropped and fell at his feet - Sükni, however, did not immediately see this, watching it as it disappeared into nánga's blue. Enough reward he would have counted it, to have lifted the curse upon him and the people of the household and to have done what was just; but when finally he could see it no longer, and dropped his gaze, the thing was still there, burning topaz against his boots. And he took it to be an amulet, and a memory.

Late in the day, the pótnyā went down to her menagerie, that she might be assured again of her rule over all the creatures that dwell on the earth. But when she went in, she saw the bent metal and broken bars, and that her newest addition was there no longer.

"Who has done this?" she cried. "Who would dare to take from me my prize?"

Her guards hid their faces against her rage, but each swore that he or she had seen or heard nothing throughout the day. The pótnyā would have had each of them flogged and considered herself nearly redressed for the loss, but thinking, she remembered how she had first taken possession of it and how Sükni had protested the capture, and after inquiring - for she knew no-one could evade her oversight entirely alone - heard that with him had oft been seen the other three, who were perceived to be friends.

So she had the four of them brought before her throne within her hall to abide her trial and judgement. And her guards brought in first Marjut the chambermaid, and then Vaśki the farrier, and then Taika the groom, and at the last they went even out to the fields and there found Sükni, and bound him, and brought him in before her. In the face of the pótnyā's anger all four quailed, as she called up Marjut before her, and said, "I would ask if you know for what I have brought you here to condemn you, but that I believe I have no need to. And yet…" and she pursed her lips, and tapped them with one finger. "I would not have it said that I were unjust, and permitted not a single word in your defence."

"No, pót'yā -" Marjut began, but the pótnyā silenced her again. "You then will tell me truthfully: whether you and these others, as you have been forbidden to do, entered my menagerie, and. And to ensure your honesty, this spell I lay upon you: should any word you say be false, it will steal the pulse from your throat, and the air from your lungs, in this one instant."

And she put forth her power, and it wrapped itself around Marjut's limbs and poured itself into her. "Now speak," the pótnyā said.

Trapped in the threads of the spell Marjut shivered as though she stood in a blizzard, but eventually she spoke. "O my pót'yā, if I lie when I tell that I did not release the firebird from your menagerie but only passed by it, in the course of my duties, then let it be as you have said unto me." When the pótnyā perceived that her spell had not killed her but that Marjut had told the truth, she was forced to release her, and Marjut fled lest her mind be quickly changed.

And the pótnyā came next to Vaśki the farrier, and placed the same spell upon him, and commanded him to speak. Vaśki bowed his head in submission and spoke, “If ever I laid hands upon the pót'yā's firebird to steal it, may her spell slay me so that I die.” And he was not slain, and so she begrudgingly gave to him leave to go, for she could not prove his guilt.

And she came next to Taika the groom, and placed the same spell upon her, and commanded her to speak. “If ever I laid hands upon or opened the cage in which you kept the firebird, pót'yā,” said Taika, “then may I be slain now before you that you may see my guilt.” And she was not, and so the pótnyā gave her too leave to go and return to her duties.

And last of all the pótnyā came to Sükni, and laid her spell upon him, and commanded him to speak and tell her that he had not done this thing and stolen from her the firebird which she had treasured, and which he had before attempted to keep from her posession. And Sükni bowed as one constrained and said, “O my pót'yā, may I be struck down and slain by your sorcery if I even entered your palace that day, for I went straight from the slave-quarters out into your garden, and I set no foot near to your menagerie.” And nor did he die, because this statement was true - he had not entered her palace or come close to her menagerie, having had Vaśki and Taika to do so in his stead. So Sükni was released as well, and so returned to the fields and coppices and woods that he knew.

Yet the anger of Sükni’s pótnyā towards them, and their bringing before her and trial, had not gone unmarked by the other slaves of the household, and they demanded to be told the story of what they had been accused of and how they had managed to escape punishment. And this the four were pleased to tell, because they knew that there was no love for the pótnyā among any of them. And so the tale of how Sükni defied his pótnyā and freed the sacred firebird was passed from speaker to listener over the years, and in time even to me, who now tells it to you.

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