SAURA LOOKED Juberi up and down thoughtfully. “Your uniform needs tailoring,” she said.
Juberi glared down the embroidered length of his tunic, which was stretched too tightly over his belly. “The fabric shrank while it was in storage.”
“Of course. It’s the dryness that does it.” She managed not to smile, but only barely. “You’ll just have to live with it for the ceremony. I’ll take it to the tailor tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother. I won’t be wearing it again.”
This time, she couldn’t resist rolling her eyes. “You might need it.”
“I’m done with ceremonies. In fact, I’ll skip this one.” He began to unbutton his tunic, but she grabbed his wrist to stop him. Her raised eyebrows spoke for her. He sighed and refastened the buttons. “I don’t see why I have to go.” He knew he sounded petulant. He felt petulant.
But Saura, who was twenty years his junior and his servant besides, clucked her tongue like a scolding mother. “You know very well why you must attend. It’s only for a few hours. By this evening you’ll be back to your precious feathers.”
He scowled, but she was right. He couldn’t miss the afternoon’s events without causing serious offense. The king was dedicating a new park in memory of the deceased ambassador from Tamrat, and because Juberi had once been ambassador to Tamrat, he was expected to pay his respects. That didn’t mean he had to be happy about it, though.
“I don’t want to leave my work,” he said. “I’m close to a breakthrough. I can feel it.”
“Those feathers have waited a thousand years. They can wait a few hours more.”
He nodded glumly. But when she handed him his hat, a ridiculous cylindrical affair with buttons and braids hanging from the sides, he shook his head. “Not yet. It’s too early to leave.”
Saura returned the hat to the sideboard and placed her hands on her hips. “You’ve only an hour to get there.”
“I know. I’ll take a carpet.” Let her think it was because he was dreading the event, which he was, and not that his leg hurt too much for a brisk walk. “I’ll be ready shortly.”
He felt her sharp gaze at his back as he limped to his workroom. He’d grown used to the pain long ago, but it had become worse in recent years. On especially cool, damp days, he was sometimes forced to use a cane. But today was warm and fine, so at least he’d be spared that indignity.
As always when he entered his workroom, his heart sped a bit. Shelves lined the walls—laden with books, parchments, bottles, and jars—but although all had been carefully collected, the contents of the shelves weren’t what truly mattered. The actual treasures lay on a long carved wooden table, each arranged just so in a glass bowl, each soaking in a slightly different mixture of herbs and chemicals. They were, as Saura liked to point out, nothing but feathers. Rainbow-hued, the length of his hand, glowing slightly in the room’s dim light. They had cost him a great deal of his inheritance and many years of effort, but they were worth it. They were phoenix feathers. And someday, if he got the potions and incantations just right, he would transform those feathers into the birds themselves.
No one had laid eyes on a living phoenix in centuries, but Juberi had seen paintings. Beautiful creatures with long necks, sharp beaks, and intelligent, fiery eyes. Many stories existed about the powers of phoenixes, and although he doubted most of them, he guessed a few might be true. But he didn’t care if they could heal mortal wounds or restore lost memories or bring illumination to the darkest night. He merely wanted them to exist again—because once they had been alive and beautiful, and now they were gone.
“Juberi? It’s getting late.” She only called him sir when there were other people around, which was rarely. And that was fitting. He’d known her since she was a tiny girl hanging on to her mother’s trousers. Juberi had never married nor had children of his own, and in his softer moments—which he’d never quite admit to—he thought of her as his daughter. When he died, she and her husband would get everything Juberi owned.
With one last look at his feathers, Juberi left the workroom and shut the door. He grimly plopped the absurd hat atop his head, nodded at Saura, and walked to the front door. He was poised at the threshold when she stopped him and handed off a fabric purse. “You’ll need money for the carpet,” she reminded him, smiling.
“This feels too heavy for that.”
“Maybe after the ceremony you’ll decide to eat somewhere nice. There are good restaurants near the new park, I’m told.”
“You just want to get out of making me dinner,” he teased.
“Maybe. Or perhaps I think it’s a good idea for you to spend a little more time in the world. Now go.” She gave him a gentle shove.
“Spent enough time in the world already,” he grumbled, but he went out the door, down the broad, steep steps, and along the path to the road. He whispered the spell to unlock the gate, then slipped into public life.