Lysandra glared across the wide desk at her second cousin and erstwhile manager. “You can’t fire me!”
“I believe I just did.” Pyralis idly tossed the golden apple up into the air.
“But it’s the family business,” Lysandra spluttered. “And I’m family.”
“I’m sorry, Lys.” Pyralis didn’t sound particularly sorry, just annoyed that he was the one stuck delivering the bad news. He caught the apple, then tossed it up again. “It’s not personal, it’s just business. And, to be perfectly honest, you suck at it.”
Lysandra leaned forward and snatched the apple out of the air with her unwounded hand. “I got this for you, didn’t I?”
Pyralis crossed his arms and stared down his nose at her – an impressive feat considering he was seated and she was standing. “You also got caught.”
“How was I supposed to know anyone was there? He was hidden in a tree!”
“If you’d used your magic correctly, he would have fallen asleep whether or not you saw him. Look, this comes directly from the board. You’re fired and that’s final.”
Lysandra scowled at him, knowing that nothing she could say to him would make a difference if the decision came from the Board of Elder Relatives. “Fine.” She turned and marched towards the door.
“The apple, Lys,” Pyralis said, sternly.
She threw it at his head.
Pyralis caught it effortlessly and gave her a smug smile. “Thank you.”
He wouldn’t have been smiling if he’d known about the feather.
It was supposed to be an easy assignment. Every year, the newest employee of Fenix Family Retrievals, Inc., was assigned to shapeshift into a phoenix, fly to the orchard at the end of the world, sing everyone to sleep, and retrieve a golden apple. No fuss, no danger, no problem. Lysandra’s parents had reassured her that even she couldn’t mess it up.
They were wrong.
One of the orchard’s gardeners hadn’t fallen asleep and he’d shot her as she made her panicked escape. The arrow had clipped her wingtip and sheared off a feather. There was no mistaking a phoenix feather for anything else, which meant the feather would eventually lead the orchard’s guardians back to her family.
She should have told Pyralis about the feather. She berated herself over her selfish oversight during the entire flight back to the orchard at the end of the world. Well, but she still would. Only maybe it was better to wait until after she’d recovered it herself and proved that she wasn’t as big a screw-up as the family thought she was.
Step one of any retrieval was always reconnaissance. Lysandra’s phoenix form was compromised, so as soon as she landed outside the orchard she chose to shapeshift into a fox – well, as long as the definition of fox included a creature the size of a mastiff with three tails.
She began circling the orchard walls and soon came upon a road through the woods.
The gardener who’d shot her was sprawled in the middle of the road, sobbing pitifully.
Lysandra stopped in her tracks. That didn’t sound like a man crying. “You’re a girl?”
The girl’s head snapped up. “You’re a talking… um…”
“Of course.” The girl dashed away tears. “Pleased to meet you. My name is Emi.”
“Why are you crying in the road?”
“Every year, a thief enchants my family to sleep and steals our magical apples, but I figured out a way to defeat their spell by jabbing my leg with pins to stay awake.”
“How clever,” Lysandra said, mind racing. So her magic hadn’t failed after all!
“I almost caught the thief – a beautiful golden phoenix – but it got away. So my family threw me out and said I can come back with the phoenix or not at all!” Emi’s tears welled up again. “It’s all my fault, I messed everything up…”
“Wait a minute, did I hear you right?” Lysandra’s tails lashed in anger. “Your family punished you because you came closer to catching the thief than anyone’s ever gotten before?”
Emi stared, mouth open. “Oh. When you put it that way….”
“You deserve better than a family that treats you like a screw-up.” We both do. Lysandra cocked her head to the side, considering. “Why don’t you stick with me for a while? I have a feeling we’d make a great team.”
“And who knows, we might even find you a phoenix.” Lysandra gave a foxy grin. Her family wouldn’t know what hit them.
Kat Otis was born with a surplus of creativity and quickly learned to cope by telling stories to anyone who would listen. When she’s not writing, she’s an historian, mathematician, singer, and photographer. She lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there’s no country music involved. Her short fiction has previously appeared in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science, Fiction and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress XXVI.