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A Phoenix By Any Other Name

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Rare and exotic, indeed - Editor

A Phoenix By Any Other Name

by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

The tall, well-dressed customer smelled of wealth, power, and expensive cologne.  Bruant, dealer in "Rare and Exotic Animals Imported from the Hinterworlds," knew who he was instantly.  On the small, but exclusive, satellite Newfortun, Jahan Lupant III was the richest man anyone could name, though most looked uneasy and fell silent when asked how he made his fortune.  It was as if they thought that merely speaking of his unscrupulous tactics might bring Lupant's attention to bear on them.

Bruant gulped and hurried to Lupant's side.  His eyes gleamed at the thought of the profit he might make today, but he was well-aware that disappointing this man would be a terrible idea for any merchant.  For a merchant not yet in business for a year, it would be a disaster.

"I need," Lupant stated, in the tone of one accustomed to obedience, "a rarity."

Bruant smiled. "But of course!"

"I need a creature that none have seen, and it should be wild and impressive to the eye. It must be perfect.  I am hosting a party, and I intend it to be an occasion that people will speak of for months.  It occurred to me that a live, exotic creature would add a touch of novelty."

Lupant looked down his nose at his surroundings, as if doubting such a thing could be found here.

"Certainly, sir," Bruant said.  "Let me show you our stock."  He gestured to the store window, where two rigid gray lizards balanced upright on the tips of their tails, their eyes closed, their forelegs crossed over their chests.  "These tomb-lizards are from the planet Cassial.  They are known as tomb-lizards because of the resemblance between their dormant state and gravestones: the gray color, the posture--"

"Do they do anything interesting?"

Bruant blinked.  "Every half-hour, they revive, change to their normal color, and run around frantically for about ten minutes."

"In other words, no."

"Perhaps you would prefer seeing my selection of mammals," Bruant said, indicating one side of his warehouse.

He was rather proud of his menagerie.  Within each enclosure's force-field, he had recreated the animal's home environment as accurately as he could, given the space constraints.  The spider monkey climbed through his own personal jungle, and the krulag hid in a burrow beneath the blue desert sands.   The miniature dragon clung to a rocky peak, with a special fan simulating the winds that whipped around his home aerie, and the albino walking fish scuttled through a dark cave.  People had been known to spend hours watching his creatures.

Lupant spent hardly fifteen minutes before dismissing acid-spitting kittens, chameleon fish, Martian ghosts, and all the rest of the animals.

"Is this the extent of your collection?" he demanded.  "It won't take long for word of how inadequate your business is to spread to your potential customers.  I believe I may even have a word with the owner of this warehouse, so he knows who he's renting to."

Bruant froze.  It had taken him fifteen years to build up his contacts, his reputation, his collection, and the funds to open a business on Newfortun.  This horrible man was threatening to take it all away, simply because he hadn't found exactly what he wanted.

Unfortunately, Bruant had already shown him the jewels of his menagerie.  There was only one creature that Lupant hadn't seen, and it was hardly a showstopper.

Bruant hadn't even bought the bird.  It had been thrown in free with a pre-arranged shipment.  The ship's captain said that the singebird had been the pet of a member of his crew who had suffered from terrible mood swings that finally killed him.  At first, Bruant had planned on giving it away as soon as possible.  It didn't fit under the category of exotic, though it was fairly rare.  He'd grown attached to it, though, and so he'd kept it.  Now it might save his skin.

"There is something, " Bruant paused, "but I am not sure if I should sell it."

Lupant's eyes narrowed.

"I do not know if I would have bought it, had I known what it was." Bruant slowed his words, as if debating whether or not to continue.

"What is it?" Lupant asked sharply.

"It is a fabled phoenix, so rare that the ancients believed that there was only one.  But--" he twisted his face into an expression of sorrow, "it's too dangerous to sell.  I shouldn't even keep it here, but I can't bring myself to get rid of it."

Lupant leaned forward, like a hunting dog that has caught the scent. "Show me," he demanded.

"I suppose I could allow you to see it, no harm in that."

Bruant walked slowly across the room to a door in the far wall.

"All merchants hold back their best stock," Lupant sneered.

In truth, Bruant kept the singebird in the back room because it became too agitated when unpleasant customers were in the store; some of the spacers who came in to buy a fish for company on a long voyage were rough around the edges.  Truth, however, was not what Lupant was interested in buying.

When Bruant opened the door, a waft of tropical air brushed over his skin. Inside, a blood-red bird sat in its enclosure and groomed itself. Its eyes glowed a molten gold as it turned its head to look at them.

"I want it," Lupant said.

Bruant pretended to hesitate, though he knew it was his only way out.

"I suppose. . . ."

Lupant's face hardened. For a moment, Bruant seriously considered refusing the sale. He was fond of the singebird, and if Lupant found out that he'd been cheated--

The sound of Lupant's Infinity account card being slapped down on the counter silenced his doubts.

#

The occasion was going well, Lupant thought as he circulated among his guests. They had all been properly impressed by the rarities on display, especially by the mythical phoenix. They nervously watched the cage of real platinum, ruinously expensive, but more impressive than a force-field and he could afford it.  The bronze plaque inscribed with the mythology of the phoenix was having the desired effect.

He stopped by a group of the wives of some of the most powerful men on Newfortun.

"How are you enjoying the evening, ladies?" he asked.

One respectable dowager lowered her voice, as if the phoenix could hear, and asked, "Is it really, well, safe?  Having such a dangerous creature here?"

Lupant made reassuring noises, his face appropriately solemn, but if he'd been in private, his smile would have stretched from ear to ear.  As he'd hoped, the phoenix was making quite a splash.

He took his leave of the ladies and surveyed the room with satisfaction.  Admirers surrounded his other displays, which included a rare painting by Alsoz that had been believed lost twenty years ago, a set of twin purple-skinned, four-armed contortionists, and a collection of ritual weapons from the barbarians of Velhel.  His staff was keeping the banquet table supplied with a never-ending stream of delicacies.  His guests were conversing with the other notables at the gathering.  They would leave impressed, as he'd planned.

His eye fell on a cluster of guests across the room.  They were glancing sidelong at him, and their looks lacked the admiration he expected.  He strode towards them.

"A phoenix?" a young man said. "Oh, no. It's pretty rare all right, and mildly telepathic, but not in the least dangerous. It's called a singebird, possibly because of the grayish color of its claws and beak compared to the red of its plumage, or possibly because the first colonist to see it couldn't spell.  We don't know much about it, really."

The other guests laughed.  Lupant snarled to himself.  He knew most of their pleasure came from seeing him made a fool of.

"There are local superstitions about the singebird because of its name, but the phoenix is a myth," the young man explained earnestly.

Lupant shouldered his way through the small but growing crowd.

"Now, lad," he said, attempting to sound genial, "you're mistaken. I have it on the best of authority that this bird is the phoenix."  And I am going to skin that 'authority' when I see him next, he thought.

"I do know!" the young man protested. "My name is Roger Mistel, and I'm an ornithologist.  I specialize in extra-terrestrial creatures that resemble what we call birds. That," he pointed, "is a singebird."

Lupant dimly remembered inviting Mistel because he was Senator Mistel's nephew.  The senator had said that his nephew needed to meet influential people for the sake of his career but was too idealistic to make the connections himself.  Lupant devoutly wished he had not invited him. This would affect Mistel's career, but not in the way his uncle had hoped.  He beckoned two attendants over.

They loomed over Mistel, who gulped and quickly remembered his misplaced discretion.  The attendants escorted Mistel from the premises, and Lupant began controlling the damage.

Lupant carefully concealed his anger as he stopped and chatted with each of his guests, assuring them that the young Mr. Mistel didn't know what he was talking about.  He was only a young man who'd had too much wine.  Behind their eyes, he saw their disbelief and their pleasure that he had been made a fool of.  It fed his rage.

He walked over to stand in front of the focus of his anger. The expensive platinum cage containing the worthless bird sat on an island in an elaborate fountain running through kilos of precious water every second. He took no pleasure in the impressive display.

Mistel had said the singebird was telepathic--let it read his rage.  Nothing made a fool of Lupant and survived unscathed: no man, and no bird.  After his guests left, Lupant's chef would make him a dish of roast singebird.  Lupant would force-feed it to the merchant who had ripped him off.  His eyes grew half-lidded as he contemplated what else he would do to Bruant.  It would be amusing to see if Bruant could rise from the ashes like his mythical phoenix.

The bird shifted uncomfortably inside of its cage, drawing Lupant's gaze back to it.  Were its eyes that bright a few moments ago?

The singebird was harmless, Lupant reminded himself.  Mistel had said so.

It did not look harmless.  Lupant took an involuntary step back as the bird's eyes grew, and grew, and widened until their molten gold was all he could see. Heat radiated from them, washing his body with fire.

#

Roger Mistel stared at the burnt hulk of the mansion.  Ashes were all he could see, drifting down in lazy spirals, floating on eddies of night air.  Emergency rescue crews herded dazed partygoers away from the scene.

Mistel had feared that Lupant would damage the singebird in a fit of temper as soon as the party was over.  It was his fault.  His uncle was always telling him that he needed to learn to think before opening his mouth.  He'd thought about it and returned in the hope that some of the more interesting superstitions from the singebird's planet of origin would persuade Lupant to spare it.  Gazing in shock at the ruins, he thought that he needn't worry about that anymore.  It was too late to save the singebird.

Then he saw something nestled in a bed of dying embers: an oval, gray-colored egg, so close to the color of ashes that it was nearly invisible. A trick of the light made a flicker of flame seem to lick up the side.

His curiosity overcame his common sense.  He squatted in the ashes and touched the egg.  He expected it to be glowing hot, but it was only pleasantly warm.  He couldn't leave it there, where it would grow cold and die.  He cradled the egg, tucking it under his shirt and against his skin for warmth.  He had an incubator at home that would keep the egg warm and safe.

©2009

 

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