The partridge alights on the arm of my throne one day, and I scowl down at it. Has the cooking staff become so incompetent they can't even kill my food properly? Allowing such a messy, miserably noisy creature in my presence—unforgivable. The bird itself? Easily disposed of.
As I pick it up to wring its neck, however—
"The holy emperor, I presume?"
It spoke? I have heard birds which can mimic human speech, but they are merely trained puppets to amuse the easily amused.
"Are you deaf, or am I mistaken?" It pulls its left wing free, pointing accusingly at me. "I have come to see a mister Souther, not be gawped at and manhandled."
If this bird is like the mynas some of the Nanto gardeners once kept, whoever has trained it will die. Slowly. Or perhaps yet another fool has tried to drug me. Such underhanded trickery is not enough to take down someone of my physique and calibre; phoenixes are firebirds, and we burn through any impurities with only...minor complications. In another world, I would have been the Nanto council's most excellent designated driver.
"I am questioning your reality, bird, and how quickly it will be coming to an end." I squeeze, hard, and while the partridge's black eyes bulge it seems otherwise unimpressed.
"I am not, to my knowledge, a hallucination...though that is no reassurance coming from a possible hallucination, yes?" The partridge looks back over its shoulders, though, like it's worried it's been followed. What would follow a talking partridge, a tap-dancing pheasant? Ridiculous. I should just kill it now. If it's real it will be delicious, and if it's not it will leave me alone. I tighten my grip.
"You have not seen a Luzon bleeding-heart pass this way?" it asks, distracting me.
Perhaps, then, this creature is a radioactive mutation from abroad? Stranger things have happened, in this day and age. "I know nothing of the Philippines other than I will own them someday, bird. If that's where you hail from rather than my kitchens, you are very lost."
"Never mind. It would take too long to explain."
"And I would not listen. You will tell me why you presume to interrupt my routine, now, or become a tasty possible hallucination."
The bird smiles, orange rings around its eyes crinkling with false sincerity. Such arrogance in the face of death.
"I have found others like me in this world," it says, cocking its head to one side mid-reminiscence, "but they entirely lacked...ambition. Pursuit of knowledge for revenge and not science's sake is a sure way to stagnate, don't you agree?"
"Ambition? Hm. You seek to serve me."
"You might say I seek to revive a demon from the ashes. Who better to consult than a phoenix?" The partridge laughs, the deep cackle devoid of actual humor. "Besides, I hate horses."
So this bird has spoken like this to Raoh and lived. Impressive.
"What, then, do you ask for this 'demon', and why should I care?"
"Hmph! I do not expect you to, any more than I care what you conquer. I offer you knowledge, the most excellent and advanced biology for whatever cruelty and control you desire. That is something a ruler would like, yes? And all I ask...hmm." The partridge mumbles to itself—himself, I presume, by his speech so far—and in it I catch 'there are enough doves here, nobody uplifted, so instead I lack...' before he finishes: "Tell me, holy emperor, how much do you care about your men?"
Intelligent and sadistic? Hm. I match his grin as an answer, and let him go.
"I will allow you to live."
"Generous of you, indeed." The partridge fluffs his feathers and settles down by my side. A cruel bird for a heartless emperor—I approve.
It is a pity, though, that he sounds entirely like Snufkin.
A few days pass, and the partridge settles in like he's always been here. He blends in too well, his smooth words compelling my subjects to not question the absurdity of a talking partridge and his movements unusually silent for one who claims to have no formal fighting training. Do mutant radioactive birds have ninjas?
I arrive to watch him work; he writes things I do not understand in multiple languages and in equations across paper tacked to the walls for him. I do not care to learn any of his sciences, but there is something I do want to know:
"Partridge. I cannot call you "bird" forever. What is your name?"
"My name? Hoho...I've had many, and you're not welcome to most of them." He preens, thoughtfully. "Though for now...yes, Doctor Iwamine will do. Iwamine Shuu."
That name. Anything but that damned name. Has he chosen it for an alias on purpose? Drawn to my silence, he swivels his head round.
"Oh, have I found a weak point? Such wonderful coincidence! But do not worry, we all have our pasts. I will let yours be as you have not questioned mine."
He turns back to his diagrams, letting his promise dangle between us like an unspoken threat. Is it because he's so small and fluffy that I let such transgressions pass, or is it because I've lacked someone I could verbally spar with so long? The old Shuu was never an emotional equal, being as soft as this one's feathers. Why am I thinking about Shuu—or about this Shuu's feathers?
"I said, could I borrow another one of your minions a while?"
Have I really spaced out thinking of the past and of partridges? Pathetic.
"Do as you will," I say, and beckon to the guy carrying in a new roll of paper. He whimpers and swallows hard as Iwamine picks up a purple-tinged scalpel, and I step back. Birds are messy.
A few hours later, there are parts spread out along tables to match some of the diagrams, and further parts still being cut up with a precision and patience I find both fascinating and frustratingly slow. I could attend to my kingdom, but Doctor Iwamine is still better company than my underlings.
"That is more for keeps than borrowing," I tell him as he hops by my feet with a section of lung under one wing. "Unless you can put all that back together."
Iwamine shakes his head. "I have, I confess, only dabbled in reanimation, and then I had an intact brain. It might go poorly."
"Do not bother. But really, did you need a second one so badly?"
"I need to confirm humans are still as I knew them from...my world," he says, all wrapped up in intestine now, but I suspect he just likes having fresh subjects. How wonderfully disturbing. I wonder, if I assign someone to watch him, will I find them delivered to me as a science project later? A brain in a box...
Iwamine's watching me back, when he thinks I'm not looking. He's underestimated human peripheral vision, no doubt used to mere ordinary men and not masters of martial arts or paranoid rulers. It might be just an illusion that the corners of his dark eyes are meeting mine, but I don't doubt he's just as paranoid.
And I don't believe in illusions.
Let him stare, blank face and sinister markings and all. To think I found game birds plain before! Chukars are really quite interesting when you're engaged in more equal contest. There is no bird superior to the phoenix, though, and this one will not best me.
Iwamine has finished with his guts, and ruffles his feathers, moving steadily from top to bottom with a moment's shudder in the right wing. He yawns, and then reaches his beak down to deliberately straighten the breast feathers left out of place. He doesn't deal with the blood yet, leaving it still dripping as he speaks.
"I could get you a jar for him, you know, when I'm done with this."
Surely, he only means the man dissected around us, but once more Iwamine finds vulnerability in me by casual accident of words. His voice continues all light and conversational, and I would swear he's smiling again. How does an animal with a beak smile?
"It's very unhygienic, leaving your beloved dead around on a pyramid like that."
Tsk, it figures he's been bleeding my men for information as well. I'll have to send them gagged.
"I did not love him. He was merely a mentor I seek to honor."
"Then why keep him this long? Anyway, there's no need to fuss, you'd be surprised how few jars it takes to contain a human being. Especially one so old and frail, and after a good bit of dismembering—"
"Do not ask me again, Iwamine!"
"Ho ho ho. So, you did have feelings for him after all." He's puffing up his feathers, looking all smug, but his tone softens for a moment. Is this his own weakness or a clue for me to follow, I wonder, and then it's gone. "You humans, liking to stay whole even after death. Perhaps I could instead study mummification technique? What has already been done can always be improved, if you seek a true forever."
I frown at him, and then at the door as a knock interrupts us. The man bringing our lunch nearly drops the tray upon seeing my face, and I snatch it from his hands. "Not on him," I answer. "On this guy."
"Mummification, as you may know, normally requires a subject be already dead," Iwamine says, and eyes both his chicken and his prey. "Unless, perhaps, he has angered you more than your slightly displeased countenance suggests?"
"No, no. I mean you may kill him too. I will save your sandwich."
Iwamine picks up a cleaver this time and gets to work.
"I have been thinking," Iwamine says one morning. "Or, perhaps...listening."
I freeze as he leaps to my shoulder and snuggles in between neck and collar. He's never touched me before, not after my nearly strangling him, and I'm surprised at the strength of his feet gripping my flesh. I should swat him to the floor for such impudence, but something holds me in place. Curiosity? What about this mad scientist doctor compels me to submit to such indignities? He is so frustrating, so...frightening.
I tell myself to feel no emotion, even as he presses his neck against the veins in my throat, blood thrumming through them and along his feathers. Certainly not those, certainly not that, not even at those words. The one secret that I cannot hide within my mind...
"What about—" I gasp, almost, as Iwamine leans closer and I feel the blunt end of a scalpel tickle my flesh. He wouldn't dare. He's only holding it because he's been busy cutting flesh and bandages. "What about my heart, bird?"
"You can call me Shuu." The scalpel slides back up my neck, back under his wing. He's adjusting the grip.
"I will not. I said, what about my heart, Iwamine?"
"It sounds...interesting. Almost as if its owner were suffering from dextrocardia. With situs inversus, I wonder?"
"Nonsense indeed. But nonsense I would very much like to...study, someday." He laughs again, quiet and throaty by my ear, and this time I grab him.
My fingers close around his right wing and chest, and just as quickly Iwamine's laugh silences and his scalpel finds the skin over my carotid. Tiny drops of blood pool along the blade's edge, and I stroke the pale grey-brown feathers on his breast. I can feel his right wing useless under my palm, weak with old injury and twitching with every reminder my hands do not need steel to cut him apart.
"It's poisoned," Iwamine gasps after a while.
"I am immune to any poison you would find here, bird."
"Are you that sure of what I can synthesize, emperor? But oh. Oh, if you loathe Shuu so much, you can call me Isa."
"Do you have any real names, Doctor Isa?"
"Just Isa." He sounds dreamy, now, and it unsettles me both intellectually and physically. "Isn't that right, Doctor Kawa..ah, sir?"
I would not have expected him to be into such frivolities as...roleplay? "I prefer Master to 'sir' if I am to teach you, just-Isa."
"Teach me? I know your own body better than you ever will. Allow to recite the major veins and arteries within my reach." He digs the scalpel in just enough to break skin, drawing a razor-thin line along his point and along me, and my reversed heart beats faster underneath. "The poison, you are immune to, but the blade's effects...I wonder."
I do not feel pain, only the cool tang of already-clotting blood as my ki speeds healing, but I shudder involuntarily as he murmurs how fascinating my metabolism is. He's thinking what else he can cut and I'm wondering what else he will as he continues to dissect me with words, working through all the tubes and down into "that marvelous heart—"
"I will teach you, Isa," I tell him, letting power flow through my hand and scorch feathertips as my fingers trail across them, "of how a holy phoenix's art can carve in more magnificently gory ways than your science could ever hope for." I do not tell him that there can only be one phoenix—he already knows.
"Prove it," Iwamine says, "And I will study it under you...sir."
Half an hour later, we bask in the afterglow of a wild exchange of death threats.
Doctor Iwamine fusses over me, bandaging my neck and chatting about how to remove brains using hooks. He seems as normal as anyone who thinks knives to the throat and sweet nothings about vivisection constitute an appropriate doctor-student relationship, but when he finishes, I know our time has come.
The bird, or me. I am prepared, and I tense to deliver the death blow required to drop just over half a kilogram of feathers and flesh with accompanying blade. I will make it quick; he has entertained me enough to be worthy of that much mercy.
What I do not expect are his next words. They're quiet, thoughtful. Almost sad.
"You loved me, did you not? I suppose it does not matter."
And with a last sigh of "Oh, sir..." and a flash of brown wings and barred flanks, Iwamine Shuu is gone.
He does not return.