When Ellie was eleven, she tapped the bars of the fenghuang's cage and whistled to say hello. She was on her tiptoes, to reach the cage on its stone plinth, and a little bit wobbly.
There was a party in the other room. Her dress was stiff around her knees, uncomfortable around her chest and hips and stomach. Music piped in through the ornate gold door, mostly shut but a little open, where Ellie had slipped through. There was a pianist there; the music was sweet, elegant, slipping from high to low with ease. It was classical; it wasn't really her thing.
It was strange, the phoenix; a jigsaw creature made of representative figures. You wouldn't think it would be beautiful, a composite as it was of stag, tortoise, snake, fish and all kinds of bird beside, but it was; it was stunning, eye-catching; Ellie could not look away. She wondered how her father had caught it, how he had brought himself to close his arms around its beating wings, fragile bones; if he had felt its heart pulsing against his, and then felt sorry.
The floor of the cage was littered with its multicoloured feathers; as it turned to look at her, eyes piercing, a black one fluttered out through the yellow-gold bars to land on Ellie's shoulder.
"Hi," she murmured.
There was fire in its eyes, in the breadth of its wings. Its tail, made of two closely-curled feathers, flickered back and forth.
Hello. The voice spread through her head, warm and sharp-edged and unmistakeably feminine. It was a hot voice, spicy-hot, not temperature, and unfamiliar.
Ellie turned, instinctively, to look beside her, behind her.
The sound of wingbeats drew her back, and Ellie caught the fenghuang's dark, serious gaze. Set me free, she said.
Ellie's finger was hooked in the bars. "I can't," she stuttered. "You’re supposed to be here. You bring honour on this house."
This house no longer deserves honour. She stamped her clawed crane feet and a red feather dislodged from the cage, drifting to Ellie's skirt.
Ellie looked at the lock. It was heavy, gold like the rest of the cage. She thought about her father, about the way he called her princess, about the warm smell of his cologne; about the birds in the conservatory with their clipped wings and their sad eyes, about the dragons in the garden and the heavy chains dripping from their claws, scales, wings.
She took a breath. "I don't have a key," she said.
I’ll wait, said the phoenix.
The fenghuang's room was not often unoccupied; there were people in there almost all the time, marvelling at the treasure Ellie's father had tamed, at the way he had coaxed her all the way to a land so far from home and they way he had caught in her in gold and iron and all the magic of the west. They watched the fenghuang with heavy greedy eyes and said it was obvious this was why the East had fallen, that its magic could not match the West's when its phoenix was so easily caught.
Ellie stared at her own features, a muddy blur of half-caste. Her father's eyes glinted dark blue from the mirror, broken by the straight smooth fall of the black hair she presumed she had gotten from her mother; she couldn't be sure, of course.
They talked about her, sometimes, but not as scathingly as they did about the phoenix; after all, Ellie had not chosen to be here.
Her fingertips brushed against the glass. She wondered what they would say if she slipped out of her long heavy coats, her oversized shirts that itched and made her feel sick in summer.
She wondered what they would say if she showed them her wings.
"You came of your own free will," Ellie said. The moonlight was slipping through the window in the phoenix's room; it slanted in a pale beam across the stone floor. She was fifteen, now, and she didn't need to stand on her tiptoes anymore to meet its hard eyes. "Why would you do that?"
She had looked for the key often, whenever her father wasn't home and she could get away with it. the more she went to visit the fenghuang the more she saw it was too big for the cage they had put it in, the way its fire and its magic hovered at the edges of it, glittering and beautiful, pulsing as though one of these days it would break out. She didn't know what it looked like, but she assumed it would be shiny, like the cage, and just as gold.
He asked me to, the phoenix said. Her voice was bitter but gentle, as it always was; distinguished. He was kinder then. I thought I could protect him.
Ellie's mouth was dry. "Did you love him?"
He needed me, she said, wandering and slow, to catch a dragon. I told them not to come for me, but I thought I could change his mind.
There was a picture of a dragon on Ellie's wall; not one of the garden dragons, chained and toothless, but a free dragon, one of the kind that had never been caught. It was dark blue and expertly-painted and its serpentine coils fit perfectly around her headboard. Her father told her stories sometimes of his travels; the mountains he had climbed in search of the wise dragons, so powerful and so elusive.
She had always liked the dragon, and every time she said, one day you'll get one her fingers were crossed, under the covers or behind her back.
She found the key the Christmas she turned eighteen, thought that was some kind of metaphor; except of course Ellie's world wasn't the world in the books she'd read, where freedom came with age. Ellie's world was the house, and the garden, and the grounds that were so vast she could bike through them for hours (but not drive, because if she could drive she could get out, maybe, if she could unwind the spells at the gates). Ellie's world was the one where people would stare at her, throw words and maybe gunpowder or chains at her, if her father hadn't kept her safe, with the coats and the locks and the hundreds of doors.
She was hiding, as she often did, from the throngs of people her father brought to his parties. He would look for her, as he always did, but he was busy and she had the advantage: he wasn't often home, and she knew all the rooms. Her father had left the door to his study unlocked (well: locked, but unspelled, and the magic in Ellie's fingertips could deal with that) so she slipped in and ran her fingers lightly across the rosewood of the desk and the bookshelves. On the desk there was a music box, a plain and battered thing. She knew it played music because he had held it at her bedside when she was a child, before he would go away on one of his great quests and return with something else exotic and foreign and alive (like the fenghuang, or the unicorns in the forest, or Ellie herself, even).
She opened it, absent minded; she could still hear the music from the ballroom and it was something popular, all heavy drums, that she didn't find appealing. She remembered liking the music her father had played.
There was a cylinder, dull and beaten silver, all raised circles and very little shine, next to a low rectangular box. It was not something she would have picked as her father's, except that she remembered his elegant long fingers curved around the box, and his smile slow and warm as he put his arm around her, proud.
Her own fingers were stubbier and shorter than his, but she traced them across the line of it anyway. Her fingernail caught in the lid of the box; she thought, why not and pulled it open to see a comb-shaped thing, grey like the cylinder and the box. It was long and thin, all teeth, but her fingers burned against it and she knew it was the key.
The music box pinged, discordant, as she ripped the key out. She knew she wouldn't have much time.
"You are a conflation of myths," she told the phoenix, pulling its cage down from the plinth hurriedly, messily. "You’re not the kind that's supposed to be on fire."
I’ve been here too long, the fenghuang said. This place has gotten all over my feathers. You have the key?
"Yeah," Ellie said, flashing the bent piece of metal. "This is it, right?"
The phoenix didn't say anything but stretched her neck back and spread her wings wide and Ellie thought that was as close to victory as she'd ever seen in a visual representation. The feathers at her throat were piercing red, now; they had changed over time.
Ellie fumbled for the key, tried to get it into the lock.
No, the phoenix said, echoing through Ellie's mind, not here. There are too many nets.
Ellie knew all about nets. "Hold tight," she said, thinking about the windows and the shortcuts she knew, all the ways out and out and out; about the spells she'd been writing since she was nine years old and she realized there was a world past the walls. Her bike would be outside her bedroom window. She was a fast runner, sort of.
She took a breath, and the first step.
Ellie's bike was a rusty wrought-iron thing, delicate and pretty to look at, but not especially fast-moving. She balanced the phoenix's cage on the handlebars and shaded her eyes to look out through the sunset; she could either go through the maze, where the snakes were, or over the lake, which held all the fish and several guardian spirits, who threatened to eat you if you came by.
Go south, said the phoenix. The light was falling on her, turning her feathers gold and crimson.
Ellie went south, though it was all rocks and she hadn't even considered going that way before; the creatures kept here were from the inhospitable north, and though they normally slipped out of their hiding places for the visitors, they kept hidden as Ellie and the phoenix rode through. Ellie's skirt rucked up around her thighs as she pedalled, fiercely; the crown of flowers she'd worn for the party slipped to one side, but stayed tangled in her hair.
Finally they were at the south wall; the sun had descended, almost completely, but the phoenix had caught its light in her wings and breast and eyes. When Ellie looked down at herself she was a shadow, compared to the phoenix's fierce brightness; she smiled a little and put her hand to the brick of the wall.
Her father had always said that her brain was like a steel trap; now she put it to work, unravelling the traps woven in the bricks and mortar of the wall that had kept her inside for so long. Her mind was smooth, silky; like a shadow she slipped through the magic's barbs and swords and thorns and numbed them, pulling them away from her path, so they would not catch her or the phoenix. She was not subtle but she was effective and she did not bleed; very soon she was done.
The fenghuang bridled in the cage, knowing they would soon be out, be free. Ellie, she said, and Ellie had not known the phoenix knew her name. You cannot go back.
Ellie tapped the brick closest to her eye and watched the wall fall apart, tumbling in a soft avalanche to the ground at her feet, so she was dust-covered but free. "You’re going to find the dragon," she said, quietly; knowledge was a funny thing when it stuck in her throat, like a lump, like tears.
This is not a good house, the phoenix said. There was a hint of apology in it, but not really.
Ellie thought, no one knows that better than me. She was even now wearing a thick, heavy coat; it was winter so that had made sense but in the light of the phoenix that rationalisation melted away. She stepped forward and let it fall to the ground, to the rubble where it lay a limp and unpowerful thing.
She got back on the bike and rode a little further out past the house. It was strange to no longer have the weight of all her father's magic on her, a constant irritation, like hay fever. They were in a field, vast and empty. She pedalled until she couldn't see the wall and its break behind her, and then she stopped, dismounted, so the corn tickled her knees. The air rustled through the feathers on her small delicate brown wings.
The key was in the pocket of her skirt. She fumbled it out and thought it was too unbeautiful, too small and weak a thing to mean what it did. It fit neatly in the lock as she held the cage, dangling from her fingers so the phoenix wouldn't burn her.
The cage door opened and the phoenix spilled out, bright and glorious, glowing so bright Ellie closed her eyes for a moment and saw, on their inside lids, a dark-haired woman with a smile she was startled to recognize, so startled she opened her eyes again to say, "My wings look nothing like yours."
Ellie's mother spread her wings brilliant and gigantic, like a beacon in the sky, to pierce the darkness of the clouds and the night and be all of a sudden a warm, vibrant thing, no longer contained. Give them time, she said.