Table of Contents
A Handful of Pearls & Other Stories
Fox and Phoenix
Published by Penguin Group
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First published in 2011 by Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Beth Bernobich, 2011
All rights reserved
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING -IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Fox and Phoenix / Beth Bernobich.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Kai, a magician's apprentice and former street tough, must travel to the Phoenix Empire, where his friend Princess Lian is studying statecraft, and help her escape so she can return home before her father, the king, dies.
ISBN : 978-1-101-54791-5
[1. Fantasy. 2. ApprenticesâFiction. 3. MagicâFiction. 4. Kings, queens, rulers, etc.â
Fiction. 5. PrincessesâFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.B45593Fo 2011 [Fic]âdc22 2011009388
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To Tamora Pierce, for inspiring me in so many ways, but especially about griffins
NCE UPON A STUPID TIME, I LIKED FAIRY TALES.
to like? The poor kid from nowhere wins the jackpot, while the tilt-nosed snobs get turned into gargoyles. Or worse. But you know what? All those stories stop right there. They never mention what comes later. How your gang changes. How your best friend doesn't end up as your one true love. And they never tell you how your heart's desire might be a dangerous thing.
Or, in my case, just so damn boring.
I scanned the front office of my mother's tutoring shop. The room was tiny and hot. Shelves climbed all over the walls, crammed with boxes, books, scrolls, and jars, and the scent of herbs and paper dust lingered in the air. On the top shelf, a dead, stuffed griffin (miniature) curled around a glass vial that glowed faintly silver in the afternoon sunlight.
MÄ mÄ« had left me with clear instructionsâreview all the homework from yesterday's beginner arithmetic class, mark any corrections, and leave the papers in her basket. I scowled at the stacks of scribbled sheets. The oldest shop cat had built her nest atop them. Hsin was ancient, her spine and haunches almost bald, and her teeth mere nubs, but she glared back at me with yellow eyes, as if daring me to disturb her.
Right. Like I want to.
With a sigh, I slapped the toggle switch on the wall. Magic flux buzzed uncertainly into life. The ceiling fan creaked into a slow circle, stirring the hot air like a spoon; our ancient radio sputtered in time with the magic flux. I fetched brushes and bottles of ink from a closet, then shooed away a grumbling Hsin and settled onto the stool behind the counter. From here I could watch for customers while I marked papers. Double duty, as MÄ mÄ« said.
I picked up the first sheet. It smelled strongly of cat piss.
. I scowled at the papers. This
is not what I wanted for my life.
Once upon a time, I'd been Kai, Prince of the Streets. I liked to brag about fancy dagger strikes, ghost dragons, and knowing where to get the best meat pies in LÃ³ng City. I had my own gang of kids. I had YÃºn as my best friend and second-in-command.
Then the king of LÃ³ng City declared a contest for his daughter's hand. The winner had to fulfill three impossible wishes. If he did, he got fifty thousand yuan, plus the hand of Princess Lian. Not just any man could enter, of course. You had to be a prince. Luckily, YÃºn figured out how to get past the prince part, and I convinced the princess I'd already done two impossible things, just by getting admitted into the palace. Just as luckily, Princess Lian didn't want a real suitor. Her heart's desire was a year or two at the famous university in the Phoenix Empire, where she could study government and politics and all those ruler-type things. That was the third and hardest wish of all. In the end, weâmy gang and meâgot our money and Lian got her heart's desire.
And she called us her truest friends.
All that seemed like a different story, with different people.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and squinted at the homework sheet. As bad as I thoughtâfull of stupid mistakes, just like last week's batch and the week before. My mother ran a tutoring shop in conjuration and mathematics. Her best students got private sessions, but a couple dozen more attended classes where she drilled them in spells and numbers. Basic stuff. Now that I was her apprenticeâanother so-called reward from that contestâshe gave me all the scut work. Thinking of all the other same-old same-old mistakes I would find, I spat on the floor, which crackled with a special cleaning spell.
If only I had stashed the king's reward in secret. But I hadn't. And I had believed YÃºn's wonderful description of our lives together as apprentices. We would learn magic. We would save our reward for later. And maybe, just maybe, we'd be more than friends. Okay, she didn't exactly say that, but I remembered the grin on her face as she dared me to follow her into this splendiferous new life. Except now YÃºn no longer had any time for anyone. And today I was stuck inside this shop.
I slid my talk-phone from my pocket. If I could buzz up Jing-mei or Gan, or even that toad Danzu, we could make a run through the Pots-and-Kettles Bazaar, stir up a little trouble. Same old, same old. After that, we could talk about the new, old days. There would be plenty of time later to grade these papers.
Before my fingers could tap out a single number, a strong piggy odor floated past my nose.
You promised MÄ mÄ« to grade those worksheets before dinner
, Chen grunted.
Of course Chen knew what I was thinking. He was my spirit companion. Chen had arrived when I was six years oldâtwo years past the usual ageâbut that was the first and only time he was ever late. Back in those days, he'd helped me play pranks all over LÃ³ng City. Lately, though, he acted more like a nanny than a friend.
I didn't promise,
I said silently to him.
She ordered me to.
Does that make any difference?
But I could almost hear MÄ mÄ«'s soft voice saying, “Kai-my-son, if you wish to continue as my apprentice, you must show more responsibility. The shop cannot run itself, nor can you learn your lessons by sleeping through them.”
I shoved the phone back in my pocket and set about dividing the papers by name and grade. Stupid students. Stupid shop. Most days, I didn't mind the work. But most days, I wasn't stuck in the shop alone, sweating and cranky and bored. Today, MÄ mÄ« had dismissed her regular classes so she could shop for fresh magical supplies, while YÃºn was busy on some secret errand of her own. Again.
At the thought of YÃºn running around the sunny streets of LÃ³ng City, my frustration bubbled over and I jammed my brush into the bottle. Ink squirted out, spattering the worksheets. Damn. I fetched a rag to wipe up the mess. That's when I managed to knock the bottle over, sending a river of ink over the desk and stool and floor.
A still-invisible Chen made squealing laughing noises. Cursed pig-spirit. I flung my brush at the sound of his voice.
Will you show yourself?
The brush clattered off the wall. (More ink, damn it.) With a sputter and a pop, Chen materialized at full size in the middle of the room. He was a dark brown pig, huge, with bright black eyes and a double row of spines that zigzagged down his back, like daggers held ready. Today, he wore a pair of rimless spectacles, and an elegant calligraphy brush rested in the crook of his left front hoof. With his tusks and bristles, he was one fierce pig, but right now he looked pretty silly.
What are you doing?
Double-checking your homework,
Qi suggested it. Did you know you're failing advanced calculus?
I know that. But why did
Oh, never mind.
Qi was YÃºn's crane-spirit. She and Chen had become close friends, while YÃºn and I . . .
I threw down the rag and stomped on the ink-stained floor. Thinking about YÃºn had that effect on me.
You're just jealous of Shou-xin,
Stop reading my mind!
I stomped again.
I don't blame her,
Chen went on, with a wicked grin.
Not after you flirted with that teahouse girl.