The geopolitical and economic effects of the fall of the Soviet Union cannot, of course, be overstated. But for collectors like myself, the greatest of them was the explosion onto the market of phoenix eggs. Even with this comparative boom in the market, we had nothing like a glut, and bidding remained fiercely competitive. I anticipated that this would be the case in the Samoilenko affair and so I arrived prepared.
The usual bidders were there, of course: Dame Eleanor in her sensible pantsuit, Miss Hawes and Miss Singh in their black leather jackets, the full brocade skirts of Mrs. Perriwhite. For whatever reason, we women have always made up the majority of phoenix egg collectors, and nowadays we did not have to send male proxies to do our bidding for us; now we could cordially hate each other directly.
There were other women, less serious than we five, and three men in the auction room: the auction house manager, Mr. Samoilenko himself, and John Weadsleigh. John was one of us, and we accorded him the respect of cordially hating him without regard to his gender. Even Miss Hawes, whom I suspect of hating men in general, did John the courtesy of hating him individually, as a competitor for phoenix eggs rather than as a man, which may be the most generous thing I have ever known her to do.
This was not a situation that encouraged generosity.
Mr. Samoilenko had not, it appeared, resigned himself to the idea that, one way or another, the egg would not belong to him at the end of the afternoon. He fussed over it in a way that might well have made it uncomfortable: Phoenixes are not chickens. They do not brood, and they have sensibility. I know how it can be to attach to one’s eggs—naturally I would—but displaying that tendency at auction seemed to me to be of questionable taste.
Still, what he had forgotten, I would not: The egg was no longer his.
Lloyds was not willing to insure a phoenix egg, not even of the most impeccable pedigree. Hence the inspection of the purchase became a great deal more important. In this case, each would-be bidder had a chance to bring in one expert. Those of us who have been serious collectors have become our own experts; it saves trouble and affords many opportunities in circumstances less comfortable than a London auction house. Besides which, the scopes and lenses used by the amateurs’ supposed experts are of little to no use in determining the status of the phoenix inside.
“Dearest Louisa,” purred Dame Eleanor at my elbow.
“Darling El,” I said, offering air kisses for each of her lean cheeks.
“We should have spoken before we came here. Surely we could have come to an arrangement.”
“I’m still amenable, if you have something worth my time.” I spoke only the truth: Of my fellow collectors, Dame Eleanor was the one who was the most likely to compete with me not just on a financial level but on a magical level as well.
For a seller would have to be a fool to offer up a phoenix egg for only earthly riches. No, the spell component had to be something truly original, something truly spectacular, to even come close to the loss of a phoenix egg. Occasionally a rich dilettante without connections will attempt to make a monetary bid large enough to obviate the need for a magical component, but this only works at the lowest levels, the cheapest and most common of eggs. The level of magical artifact needed to bid on a phoenix egg is almost always bartered or obtained through a dodgy bargain like a wish exchange.
This is why ours was not a pastime for the poor or dilettante: One or two adventurers in a generation may, through their luck and skill with wish exchanges and other shifty behaviors, obtain the necessary stakes through means other than their own labors. We lost the most recent of these, a Miss Foss, in a tragic crossroads accident in the autumn of last year. The rest of us made these talismans ourselves—and, for balance, we tended to have more use for them than the average person.
In a less civilized age we would have been called witches, or at best, wizards. Modern times allow collectors to focus on their collections without having to waste attention on angry mobs, who with a certain rough enlightenment viewed us as no more interesting than collectors of Red Army jackets or propaganda posters.
Mr. Samoilenko was an unknown to us, so the talismans we had brought were all very portable and easily used by a generalist. When we were trying to sell to each other, things could get very profitable—or very unpleasant.
“What did you bring?” asked Dame Eleanor, entirely too casually.
“Just a trifle,” I said.
She sighed. “Oh, Louisa. Not everything has to be a contest between us.”
“No,” I agreed, “not everything. But I believe this, by definition, does.”
I felt a little guilty, but only for a moment. Dame Eleanor—even before she was a Dame—had always known how to make me feel a little low. But the egg could only go to one of us. I meant it to be me.
The auctioneer called us to order at that point, and I was saved from further conversation. An auction house employee took the egg around for each of us to examine. It was perfect, golden and smooth to the touch, with the look of a crackled red glaze. Were it pottery, we should call it crazed, but one could hope to avoid crazed firebirds. Mrs. Perriwhite made a show of pursing her lips and looking skeptical, as though it was a defective forgery she might well decide was beneath her attention.
But of course she did not. Bidding was brisk but not at all beyond my means. When half the bidders dropped out and we were to compare magical offerings, it was myself and Dame Eleanor, as I had known it would be, and also Miss Singh.
Miss Singh had brought a cloak of invisibility. It was blue velvet, beautifully embroidered with silver. Amateurish in concept and in execution: Who needs a beautiful invisibility cloak? It was beneath her, quite frankly, and I wondered if she’d had a hard winter. Perhaps I would have to ask around to see if any of her collection might be available. She had the eccentric habit of keeping the phoenixes after they hatched, and that could get very expensive indeed.
Dame Eleanor’s was a simple ring set with a perfect pink pearl. She had always had such an exacting hand that she didn’t need the structure of a more ornate design to give her spells a place to hold to the ring. “The ring gives the wearer power to hear conversations at great distances,” she said. “Simply speak the topic you wish to hear, and you will hear the most expert conversation the world has ever had upon the topic.”
Miss Singh sniffed loudly. “What if no one of note happens to be conversing at the time?”
“I didn’t say at the time,” said Dame Eleanor, with a peevishness that neither became her nor surprised me.
“Experts are a great and good thing,” I agreed, and Dame Eleanor gave me a dark look that said she was waiting for the catch. “I suppose there are a great many topics on which you would rather hear the expert than, say, the most relevant party.”
Mr. Samoilenko looked thoughtful; Dame Eleanor, annoyed. She always did try for too much subtlety. It’s the easiest way to trip over your own feet.
I offered a soapstone box carven in sweeping curves. The hand longed to touch it. “The rains,” I said. “You offer me fire? I offer you water in return. I know how the Ukrainian people suffer when the droughts come. You are the breadbasket of Europe! But no bread without wheat, yes? And no wheat without rain.”
“Oh, come now,” said Dame Eleanor impatiently. “You can’t control all the rains with one little box.”
“Naturally not,” I said, and Mr. Samoilenko nodded at my reasonable tone. I demonstrated how many rains it stored, how often they restored themselves, how to feel in the curve of the box that they had restored, and as he watched I could tell: The egg was mine.
Back at home, I hummed to myself as I puttered around my display crèches, rearranging the previous eggs so that there was room for the red gold to fit in its place in the spectrum. There was a filigreed green case that would complement this egg better than the plain gold one it currently held, and though I hated to displace the plain one—it was one of my first purchases as a teenager, the last remaining one that had not shown signs of hatching and been sold to collectors of full-fledged birds—it seemed to go with any display, whereas the filigreed green case would fit the latest addition like nothing else.
I was so intent on holding the new acquisition carefully that I almost didn’t notice that it, too, was humming.
Phoenix eggs do not hum.
They occasionally emit a warm glow, but they make no noises whatsoever. I am an expert, and I know these things. And yet—I am an expert. I know a phoenix egg from a mere roc or a painted bird egg. I know what I am about here. I will not be taken in. Louisa Pickering knows her phoenix eggs, and I have never been wrong. I gave it another look, and again with my wizard’s loupe.
It was not a fake. No, worse. It was a variant. And as I had just bought it at auction, I was stuck with it for at least another few months, unless I could come up with a clever scheme for getting rid of it. In that time, it might hatch, or it might do whatever its variant did, or I might discover that the care that is perfectly good for an ordinary phoenix egg was nothing like good enough for a variant.
Damn, damn, damn.
I hate variants.
For a Pickering, it is a long, multi-course meal to swallow one’s pride. It often takes a selection of wines, possibly with brandy to follow. I called for the car to take me around to the only place I could go. She was naturally surprised to see me standing on the hearth rug, as I had not visited her on a social occasion in many years.
“Changed your mind so quickly, Louisa?” said Dame Eleanor. “It wasn’t a fake, was it?”
I said nothing, not trusting to my voice. But Eleanor had known me too long. She tapped her finger on her lips, judging my face and posture. “Not a fake. A variant! And so you come to me.”
“Your tastes are known to be varied,” I said bitterly.
“I don’t know that I want to take it off your hands,” she said. “I’ve already had my fill of bailing you out of scrapes, haven’t I?”
I gritted my teeth. “That was twenty-five years ago, I was eleven, and the worst that would have happened to me was getting sent to bed without supper.”
“That’s what you think,” said El. “Aunt St. James smacks hard.”
“Not hard enough to be worth two decades of you holding it over my head, I don’t think,” I said. “In fact I have been tempted twice to find her and confess and take my punishment, just to get you to shut up about it.”
“How persuasive you are,” said El. “Why, when you put it in that light, how I would love to help you with your unexpectedly variant phoenix egg!”
Cousins are a great trial. Many lucky people have cousins with whom they have very little in common, who are not close to their own age and who did not share childhood holidays with them. They can feel a fond familial glow towards these cousins, safe in the knowledge that they will be safe from each other’s meddling, that no cousinly nose will be poked into their business, that their cousins, in fact, do not give a toss for their affairs.
That is not the kind of cousin I have.
“Look, I can do this myself,” I said. “I just thought you might be interested—”
“Let me give it a look,” said El.
“You wanted to buy it yesterday.”
“And today I want to give it a look.”
I bit my tongue. Arguing with El when she gets like this has never, ever had any point. I shouldn’t like to think she would refuse an egg she wanted just to thwart me, but I have had to think a great many things of my relatives over the years, and not all of them were what I’d like.
Meekly, I took her back to my home, into my collection room. She looked around her and gave a great sigh as if a burden had been taken from her, but I didn’t know what. I decided not to ask and simply took her to the variant. It hummed louder when El put her hands on it. She frowned thoughtfully. “That’s—”
I waited for her to say amazing or charming or fascinating.
“—really obnoxious,” she finished.
“You like that sort of thing!”
“It’s almost a buzzing,” she said, taking her hands away and looking at them as though I’d thrust them into something vile. “I like that sort of thing? Oh, now really, Loulou. Don’t be childish. Collectors who enjoy variants are still not indiscriminate. You know that.”
“So you don’t want it, then?”
“Of course I don’t want it! I am not a dumping ground for your defectives!”
“It’s not defective!” I protested. “It’s just . . . enthusiastic.”
“Loud,” said El, “and annoying.”
“I don’t know why it wasn’t doing this before,” I said. “It didn’t make a single noise at auction.”
El frowned, and I knew I’d got her. One thing she and her brother have always had in common was that they could never, ever resist a puzzle.
“Perhaps Terence,” she started, and I hid a smile. My cousin Terence thought even less of me than his sister did. But he adored El, despite their differences, and he adored puzzles more.
El even had some idea where to find him at that hour, which was more than I ever had. Possibly this was because her tastes were less fastidious than mine: The low dive we entered was by no means my usual sort of establishment. I thought of making a remark about what Aunt St. James would think if she caught word that we had been so lowering ourselves, but El twists that kind of comment beyond what is reasonable for social discourse, so I kept my lips pressed firmly together. She asked the barkeep the whereabouts of her brother, and apparently she had been in looking for him before: She did not have to specify which patron was her brother.
Then again, Eleanor and Terence did look remarkably alike, if it was not too unflattering to a woman to say how her long, narrow features resembled her brother’s. Considering where the two of them had led me, I was not concerned with flattery.
Terence had rented a private room, to which the barman directed us with no particular concern for the niceties of his customers’ privacy. If we had merely pushed our way down the dark hallway, we would have guessed at once which one was Terence’s: It smelled not of tobacco or opium, but of gunpowder and salts, and as we contemplated knocking on the door, a deep thump and crunch from within made the decision for us.
El threw the door open. “Terry, what on Earth . . . “ she said in exasperation.
He was sitting on the floor with a dazed expression and a smudged face, both of which had been his habitual condition since we were very small—indeed, since before I could remember.
“Doubly unexpected,” he said. “Both the explosion and you. Loulou, what are you doing here? Hadn’t you better go somewhere more comfortable?”
“Loulou needs our help, Terry,” said El sweetly.
For my part, I did not kill them both on the spot, which is as much forbearance as I think a person ought to be expected to have, or possibly more.
“Little Loulou needs our help?” said Terence from the superior height of three entire years. “Why then, she shall have it. On what matter do you beg for our help, Lou?”
I ground my teeth. “I have been sold a variant egg. I didn’t spot it in time. Eleanor thought you might help us—”
“Help you,” El put in most unbecomingly.
“Very well, help me to discover how it was done, and whether it might be done again, and how I might dispose of the egg if possible, or care for it properly if not.” I felt a bit breathless when I finished that mouthful. Terence was cocking his head and regarding me in that damp and birdlike manner that has always come so naturally to him. When one has played with the firebird, it is a great trial to have a cousin who resembles a waterfowl.
“Lou, you have never had a proper appreciation for phlogistics,” he said.
I tossed my head and did not do him the courtesy of a response. My cousin Terence has long been obsessed with the motions of phlogiston, which can be, at best, an approximation of the true flows of magic. But there he was, in a seedy dive smelling of gunpowder, and his crackpot theories were my best hope.
El helped him to his feet, and I offered, with some reluctance, my handkerchief for him to tidy himself before we ventured onto the public thoroughfare. He refused it, the cad, and off we went, two respectable ladies and a chimneysweep, by all appearances.
When we got back to my house, Terence took an unconscionable length of time fiddling with his tea, scrubbing his face on one of my white washcloths, and generally making a nuisance of himself. When he finally got to look at the egg, he made a distressed noise.
“Oh, the poor thing, what on Earth is wrong with it?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” I said, trying, as always, to remain pleasant. “That’s what I need you to tell me.”
He gave me the lopsided grin that I’m sure is very popular with the patrons of the establishments such as the one in which we found him; for me it did nothing, or, I should say, nothing positive. Then the grin turned to a more genuine smile for the phoenix egg.
“Shh, shh, there,” he crooned to it. The humming did not seem to change. I felt a crisping of the air, as though the edges of everything had gotten faintly singed. Lifting my wizard’s loupe to my eye, I could see that Terence was doing unspeakably clumsy things to coax more magic to flow into the spells around the egg. To my way of thinking this was the last thing called for, but El put a restraining hand on my arm, and I reminded myself that I had called in my cousins for help because I didn’t know what to do with the wretched thing.
Terence clearly had some ideas. One of the things he did made the humming shift to a high-pitched whine. El took her hand off my arm in order to cover her ears on her way out of the room. Wincing, I shouted over the noise, “I don’t call that a success!”
“Nor do I,” Terence shouted back, and he did something else to the spells. The noise stopped completely. El poked her head back in.
“Did you fix it?” she asked.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said. “It should keep quiet for a while, at least.”
“A while?” I said. “What good does a while do us?”
“It gives us room to think without being driven mad enough to smash the damned thing,” he said, and I had to concede the point. I examined the egg and the spells around it. While phlogistics was, of course, nonsense, Terence did seem to have done something rather clever to give the phoenix and ourselves mutual breathing room.
I looked more closely at the spells. They were cunning—impossible to prove that they had been in place to conceal the variant nature of the thing, rather than to protect it, and the lack of insurance continues to be a problem in situations such as this.
“I see what they did,” said El a few minutes later, gratifying me with her slower response. “Clever bastards. I mean, better you than me, Loulou, but it would have tricked anyone. And of course you can’t get your money back, and another auction soon will be suspicious. Have you considered keeping it?”
“It had better be a quick sale,” said Terence. “The wretched thing may hatch, and then you’ll have a variant phoenix on your hands, and if there’s anything harder to take care of than a variant egg . . . “
“Shut up, Terry,” I said absently. I was running over my mental list of contacts in the community. I would not have gone to Eleanor in the first place if it had struck me that someone else might want the horrid thing in its present condition—well, its immediately pre-present condition, the bit with the awful noise—and yet there would have to be someone. There would have to be.
The question was, of course, how much of a hit my reputation would take if it was known that I was unloading questionable variants upon unsuspecting fellow collectors. I feared that if that was the case, my previous wary détente with other collectors would become open warfare.
“Loulou is trying to figure out how she can get out of this and still convince anybody to buy from her ever again,” El said to her brother, smiling knowingly. “I still think that if you considered keeping it after it hatched—”
“Out of the question,” said Terence. “She hasn’t the facilities or the training to care for a canary, much less an ordinary phoenix, much less—whatever this turns out to be. Better to dump it and run.”
“Of course I would scarcely like for some other poor soul to be forced to—”
“We know you, El,” said Terence. “We know what you would like. But no matter. If you can stabilize the working I did, I think I can arrange for a resale for you tomorrow. It won’t be the price you paid—it may not have a magic component at all—but I think it will preserve your reputation more or less intact.”
I hesitated. But there was no help for it; I couldn’t see any other way out, and who knew what would hatch from that egg? What kind of deformed thing, barely cousins with the beautiful phoenixes the rest of my collection held dormant?
“I’ll strengthen the spells,” I said. “You do as you must.”
His smile broadened. “Grand.” He gave me a location and time, and he and El let themselves out, leaving me staring glumly at the egg.
The spell, once Terence’s crackpot theories had shown the way, was not hard, particularly if I didn’t need for the wretched thing to keep quiet more than a day and a night. I massaged the flow of magic surrounding the egg, until the crackling in the shell glowed with what I could mistake for good health and bonhomie.
I left it in the collection vault and went to sleep.
The location Terence had named was a formal one, so I dressed carefully, every bit the sober and serious collector, no hint of the louche or arcane. I put the variant egg in a very firmly protective case, and off I went.
While I had surmised the dress code correctly, the guest list I had not. I could not understand what my cousin Terence was doing, but it appeared that the room was full of rich foreigners, very few of them with more than a pinch of magic talent, some of them significantly shady-looking. I found one of my cousins, though not the one I’d sought.
“Who are these people?” I asked El in undertones.
“Goodness knows,” she said, smoothing her palazzo pants over her hips and giving a cool nod to some grizzled “businessman” in a hand-tailored suit. “This is Terence’s thing, not mine.”
Samoilenko was there. I acknowledged him with a nod at least as chilly as El’s. He did not take the hint and came over with an overly familiar smile. “My treasure has found a protector in a woman who is herself a treasure,” he said, taking my hand.
I snatched it away, ready to remonstrate, but El was speaking to him before I could say anything that would give my trouble away.
“My cousin is a gem, is she not?” said El. “But so shy. Truly, she is most at home with the phoenix herself.”
“They burn so brightly,” said Samoilenko, breathing out a wistful sigh. I had seen this before: those forced by circumstance to sell off their eggs—or worse, eggs that were only in their keeping, never their own—but still in love with the allure of the phoenix. I could hardly blame a man like Samoilenko for having such exquisite taste. It was only a shame for him that it was not matched by equal magical skill. But he was looking at me when he said it, and I had difficulty not pulling out one of the protective spells I had so carefully constructed for situations such as this one.
I spotted Terence. I made excuses that may even have sounded plausible and made my way over to him.
“What are you doing?” I muttered. “Who are these people?”
“Ukrainians,” he said back, barely moving his lips around his fixed smile. “A few Belorussians. Possibly a Georgian or two.”
“I put it about that you were hoping to restore some of the rare phoenix eggs to their original home regions,” said Terence. “Your compassion for impoverished areas is being discussed in most admiring terms over much of the auction field, I imagine.”
“Where by admiring, you mean—”
“Condescending and skeptical, yes.” He grinned at me. “You people are quite the cozy lot.”
You people! I glared at him. He was used to it, I suppose, and in his life circumstances would have to harden himself to the disapproval of his own class. “What do they know of collection?”
“The top bidder—though it’s understood that these bids are merely pro forma, as this is essentially a charity affair—is your Mr. Samoilenko. Who surely knew the egg for what it was.”
“And he—” I felt a rush of indignation. What I had taken for an untalented amateur was a man who had performed spells that deceived the finest collectors in the business—that is to say: me. And who knew what other crimes he had committed? If my cousin Terence had acquaintance with him, that did not speak well.
I looked again at Samoilenko, across the room where I had left him. He smiled at me, but his gaze kept returning to the egg.
He was getting exactly what he wanted. He had never let go of that egg—I could see it in the first auction—and he had made sure I would not want to keep it once I had it. And that I would have no way out but to ruin my own reputation as a collector and a judge of promising eggs.
I could not let him get away with it.
“Tell him the deal is off,” I said to Terence.
“I can’t,” he said. “As your agent I’ve already accepted his money.”
“It’s his egg now, Loulou. And he says you may find something you like better next time you meet him at auction.”
I felt a rush of fury distantly, unconnected to myself proper. I conceived of the heartfelt wish that the variant phoenix egg would hatch, and that its variation would turn out to be a penchant for consuming my cousin Terence in gouts of flame.
Phoenix eggs never, ever respond to heartfelt wishes. It is beneath them. It’s one of the reasons I have always admired them and not something more tinpot and pedestrian like djinni lamps.
So I sat there and fumed and smiled, and the variant egg cracked.
I knew a moment of futile, ridiculous hope.
The crack spread through the beautiful shell, and the humming started up again, louder. The variant phoenix gave the egg another good whack with its eggtooth, and I could see the brilliant blue of the eggtooth itself.
Phoenixes are not blue.
Never in recorded history has there been a blue one. Oh, perhaps in some secret Soviet archives—but among serious collectors who are willing to share their records, never once a blue phoenix.
And I had sold mine. My cousin Terence had helped me to sell mine, and my cousin Eleanor had brought him to it. But no, it was not Terence, it was not Eleanor. I had done this. I.
When it emerged, the bird burned with the blue flame of propane. And it sang. It sat on Samoilenko’s shoulder and politely did not consume his hair with its flame or its beak, and the noises that had been muted into an obnoxious buzz by the shell became glorious song. Samoilenko and all the rest of them beamed upon me as their generous benefactor, when they could take their eyes off the blue phoenix at all.
When the blue phoenix stopped singing, it cocked its head and looked at me, directly at me. Its eyes were clever and brilliant. I stretched out my hand, and it stretched out its wings in return.
Samoilenko put up a restraining hand and reached for the cage one of his flunkeys provided. “We do thank you so much,” he said with a patronizing smile. “Our benefactress.”
“I wonder if I might—”
“Thank you,” he repeated, and then a cloth went over the cage and he stalked off with my phoenix.
My phoenix. Mine.
El found me sitting on the back step of the building, tearing a cocktail napkin to shreds. “Loulou,” she started, and then she saw my face. “Louisa. Oh, Louisa.”
I realized then that I was crying. My cousin sat down next to me and put an arm around me, and for the first time since I was ten, I let her. We sat there like that without saying anything for awhile. I don’t know how long. Then Terence came out and said, “Oh, you’ve found—oh.”
“Oh,” I mimicked savagely.
“I see you’ve found that the world is not so easily—”
“Ter,” said El. “Stop.”
“Not the time,” said El, and I was too grateful to let myself be snide. “We’ll get it back for you, Louisa. We will.”
“We just went to all this trouble to—” Terence saw his sister’s face and shut up. That can be very useful sometimes. I resent it when it works on me, and I’ve been fighting letting it work on me since adolescence. Still: useful.
They took me home very carefully in a cab, like I was very young or very drunk. El made hot chocolate the real way, on the stove, like their nanny used to do when we were children. The sound of the spoon scraping the bottom of the pan, slowly and rhythmically, was very comforting, and then she gave me the hot chocolate in a deep red mug.
“I had an egg the color of this mug,” I said distantly. “It looked to hatch, so I sold it. I sold them all.”
“Loulou—” El began.
“This is my last,” I said very distinctly. “No more sales. Done. Once I get this phoenix back, I will never sell another egg.”
“I can get you the things you need. For the hatched phoenix,” said El. “The food—or fuel, however you want to look at it. The, uh. Enrichment.”
“Phoenix toys,” I said. “Good.”
“The two of you,” Terence began, and this time it was I who stopped him with a glare.
“You have friends,” I said to him. “Not just the swanky friends from today. You and your disreputable friends.”
He swept a mocking bow. “Reputable, I’d say, if you’re now demanding that I help you on the strength of their reputations.”
“It’s not time to be cute, Ter,” said El. “This is serious.”
It was. “Do you have your ring still?” I said to El. “The one you made for the auction. They took my rain box, the bastards.”
“Sure,” said El. She slipped out to get it, passing it to me when she returned. “What expert conversation do you want to listen to?”
“The conversation that tells me how to get the phoenix back,” I said, putting the ring on. It slid around on my finger, too large for me. Nothing happened.
“Is it just giving the conversation to you instead of all of us?” El said.
“Of all of us?” the ring repeated.
“I think it’s broken, El,” said Terence.
“Broken El,” said the ring.
I smacked myself lightly on the forehead. “No one knows anything more about this than we do, is that it, ring?” And with a slight lag, it was repeating my words back. Lovely. No help there.
“Try something slightly different,” said Terence, interested despite himself. “The conversation about the security Samoilenko has around the phoenix.”
Having a faintly disreputable cousin is apparently good for something. The ring, when prodded, started spilling forth all kinds of details about who was standing guard where, what kind of bars the windows had, and like that. I was lost, but Terence nodded along in an alarmingly knowledgeable fashion, and when the conversation was over, he smiled at El and me.
“Well,” he said. “We have a plan.”
“We do?” said El.
“Sure. As long as you can get the bird not to light you on fire. You think you can handle that, Loul—uh, Louisa?”
“If I can’t, I don’t deserve him,” I said.
“Well, you probably don’t deserve him,” said El practically. “He’s a magical creature. There’s no more reason you should deserve him than anyone else. Still, we can hope he’s not thinking in those terms.”
“Quite,” I said faintly. “What is this plan we have, Ter?”
“Oh, you’re going to love it,” he said. “I love it. I don’t know when I’ve last had the opportunity for this much fun.”
That did not make me want to leap up and sing, but when Terence outlined his plan to me, I felt like an adventuress from an outdated children’s novel. It was an unexpectedly pleasant feeling. I hoped I did not acquire a taste for it; that could grow extremely inconvenient.
We all got dressed in dark, sensible clothing. Plain dark trousers and pullover seemed the order of the day: inconspicuous, not incognito. When we reached the hotel in which Samoilenko and his cronies had stashed the phoenix, Terence stopped the car, and I concentrated on the rain spell I had used to purchase the egg in the first place.
“This is legal, right?” El said to Terence.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Technically no,” said Terence.
“Well, technically Louisa could be imprisoned in a magic-blocking cell for the rest of her life for building creator control backdoors into a spell she was intending to sell. I mean, technically.”
“Shut up,” I said.
“But that’s only if she gets caught,” said Terence. “And I’m manipulating the phlogistics so that she doesn’t get caught. So we’re fine.”
El banged her head softly against the car window. “Ter,” she began.
“El, we are stealing it,” I said. “Now is not the time to find higher sensibilities.”
“I don’t have to look long for mine,” El began, and then stopped. “No, you’re right, if we’re going to do this, we should do it.”
“I’m glad you think so,” I said, “as I have already released the rains.”
We hurried out of the car and into the hotel, moving as though we were running out of the rain rather than into it. Inside the hotel, the employees were trying to figure out how to make the sprinkler system shut off. But of course it wasn’t the sprinkler system that was raining torrents down on their heads; it was my spell.
El’s ring had given us access to the guard shifts on Samoilenko’s suites, and Ter’s ridiculous manipulation of phlogistics actually worked to let us yank the power to the guards’ supplemental magic protections so that he could blow lightly on them and send them to sleep. With that kind of control, I wondered why on Earth he was so insistent on playing with gunpowder, but we didn’t have the time for that conversation at the moment. El synched her powers with the electronic lock on the door, and we were inside.
And there he was, damp and shivering under the rains that had taken out the protective magics that had confined him. The phoenix was wet and blue and dripping, burning tiny flames at the ends of his claws to keep himself warm. He had been caged for good measure—caged! —and I swore to myself that never would a glorious creature such as this suffer confinement under my roof.
On the way to my roof was another story.
“It’s your show, Loulou,” said Ter softly. He and El took up guard positions on either side of the door. I stepped forward. The phoenix turned and looked at me. When our eyes met, there was a spark—immediately extinguished by the rains—and the poor, miserable thing tried to sing.
If the sight of a wet phoenix was pathetic, his attempt at song was even more so. He croaked and creaked and slaughtered the notes. It still sounded exactly right to my ears.
“Come on,” I crooned, unlatching the cage and gesturing for him to get into the large suitcase I was holding. “Come on, now. Just for a minute.”
He cocked his head and chirruped miserably at me, but the suitcase was dry, so even if he had not sparked upon seeing me, I suspect we might have gotten him that way. I shut it and hurried out into the hall.
As we crossed the hotel lobby, one of the flunkeys in hotel uniform shouted, “Wait!”
We all kept walking at moderate speeds.
“I beg your pardon?” I said.
“We’ve had a security breach in the . . . um . . . “ He looked at us doubtfully.
I drew myself up. “What exactly are you implying?”
The flunkey took in my clothes, my diction, my posture. Suddenly the dark plain clothes that had made us unobtrusive transformed us into simple chic rich women—and even Terence had cleaned up well.
“Really, Cousin Louisa,” he drawled. “I don’t think this place will do for Mother’s reception at all.”
El sniffed. “Hardly.”
“We had best be on our way before another of their mishaps befalls us,” I said. The flunkey opened his mouth to speak, and I silenced him with an eyebrow. “Was there something else?”
“We—you have caught us in the worst of circumstances,” he said.
“I can see that.”
“Please encourage your mother—er, aunt—to reconsider.”
“We can think it over, I suppose,” I said, and with that we were off, out and away and free. We hopped in the car, unveiled the phoenix so that it wouldn’t be uncomfortable, and set off, obeying all traffic laws to the letter.
“My beauty, my beauty,” I crooned, and the bird sang back.
Terence and Eleanor could not stop giggling. They sounded like children, but for once it reminded me of the children we’d been, and I looked away from my phoenix long enough to favor them with a smile.
“Thank you,” I said quietly.
“Don’t mention it,” said El.
“Really don’t,” said Ter. “It would become tedious very quickly.”
I wanted to snap back at them, but the phoenix was there, embellishing a new melody, and I just couldn’t put my heart into our squabbles.
From time to time I feel obliged to have my cousins over for dinner and drinks, and they always want to say hello to my blue phoenix. It would be churlish of me under the circumstances to fail to oblige them. They still drive me mad at least half the time, and no doubt I annoy them a trifle as well, but we are learning to get on together. The bird insists upon it, and that helps.