Illustration for The White Phoenix Feather

The White Phoenix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Madness

Edited by Brian J. White

September 2012 | Illustration by Galen Dara

Viola leaned across the white tablecloth of Luigi’s Interstellar Cafe and Pub. “When I said the ninjas were no match for us, I meant it. Joe will have the White Phoenix Feather by dessert.” She checked the edge of her fish knife. She hated clients like this. “Quit gaping and finish your soup.”

Anthony Cardno stirred his habanero spinach bisque, mixing the crème fraîche into the soup in marbled swirls. “I don’t doubt your skills.”

A dark shape scuttled past the wall of tinted glass, silhouetted by the lights illuminating the ships waiting at New Rushmore’s spaceport. Crap. She hadn’t expected any ninjas until later. “May I have your soup?”

“My soup?”

Without explaining, she hailed a passing waiter. “Two brandies. Neat.”

The native species of New Rushmore were more akin to spiders than humans and had acquired their nickname from their middle arms, which ended in a long curved spine as though they were holding a katana.

They were a real pain in the ass.

A ninja dropped from the ceiling, bladed arms extended. Viola hurled Cardno’s habanero spinach bisque, splashing it in the ninja’s face. He screamed as the fiery soup spattered his eyes. Viola punctured his airway with her fish knife and stepped back as he sagged to the carpet.

The diner closest to them slid her chair back to avoid the pool of ichor, but otherwise ignored them. Everyone else continued with their meals and studiously ignored the fight, only a raised eyebrow or curled lip expressing their opinion.

A new ninja leaped down, blades at ready. Viola groaned and looked for the waiter. Ninjas always traveled in pairs.

With the prompt service she’d come to expect at Luigi’s, the waiter appeared with the brandy she’d ordered. She tossed it and the table’s candle at the new ninja.

He flambéed.

This caused some consternation among the other diners as the ninja staggered away from her table and into their zones. Yanking the tablecloth off the table, without disturbing the stemware, Viola tossed it over the flaming ninja and knocked him to the ground. She rolled him over and trussed the creature securely as smoke trickled out from the edges of the tablecloth. It would be unfortunate if the smell lingered.

Straightening, she tossed her hair back and raised a single finger to summon her waiter. He appeared like a wraith at her side. “Madam?”

Viola held up her fish knife. “I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid I need a new knife.”

With a bow, he took the ichor-glazed blade in an immaculate white napkin and almost smiled. “Of course.”

She seated herself at the table where Cardno gaped blatantly at her. Around them, the busboys of Luigi’s moved in a silent frenzy of activity, trundling off the ninja corpses and resetting their table with a new cloth in the quiet efficiency that made this her favorite spot to escort their gastronomy clients. As the snowy white cloth draped across her legs, her waiter laid a new fish knife at her place.

“Thank you. I think we’re ready for the salad course.” Viola paused to check with Cardno. “Unless you wanted some more soup?”

He sputtered something in the negative and shook his head. Amateur. A true gastronome would have wanted to sample the chef ‘s offering despite the interruption in service. With a bow, the waiter vanished into the hush of the dining room. Viola took a sip of her 2148 Frameworks Viognier, savoring the touches of slate and pear on her palate. She swallowed, enjoying the lingering anise on the finish, and eyed Cardno who picked up his own glass — Cabernet, 2152 Coastal Highlands — and buried his nose in the glass rather than meet her gaze.

“There is something you have not told me.”

He lowered his glass and tried a smile. In another place, she might have found the thirty-year-old actor charming, with his dimpled cheeks and tousled brown hair cut in a retro-Regency style, but his pretensions at being a gastronome disgusted her. Gastronomy might be fashionable, but it was clear that, no matter how successful the star might be, he did not understand food. “I should have thanked you, straightaway. That was nicely done.”

Viola set her glass carefully on the table and swirled the straw-pale liquid around the glass. “I meant, that you have an opportunity to explain why ninjas are attacking you now.”

“Because of the White Phoenix Feather—”

“Spare me. It’s not here yet and they stand to gain nothing by attacking you rather than trying to stop Joe.” She leaned back in her chair as their waiter appeared with the salad course. “So, what I want to know is why?”

Viola picked up her salad fork and lifted a slice of the roasted persimmon, without releasing Cardno from her gaze. Licking his lips, he moved the escarole and sea beans around on his plate, destroying the chef’s composition. She waited, savoring the fruit as she did. In her opinion, the balsamic vinegar played nicely with the caramelized natural sugars on the fruit and the goat cheese gave a tart complement to the subtle flavors, but she expected nothing less at Luigi’s. At last, after her second bite, Cardno put down his fork without tasting the salad. “All right. I have been holding out on you.”

Viola raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to tell her something that she did not know.

“I might have… It is possible that I mentioned something about the White Phoenix Feather to my girlfriend.” He wet his lips. “She’s very discreet.”

Picking up her salad knife, Viola tilted the blade to flash light in Cardno’s eyes as she cut a slice off the persimmon. The knife was too dull to do any serious damage, without being inventive, but she was still satisfied when he flinched. “I see. So… at this point, the ninjas clearly know that the White Phoenix Feather is being sought, which compromises Joe’s mission. Was our contract not perfectly clear?”

“I’m sorry. I should have told you.”

“You apologize for the wrong thing.” Viola took a bite of her persimmon. “You should not have told your girlfriend. Then you would have had nothing to tell me.”

He shriveled. “But she wouldn’t have told anyone.”

“Of course not.” Viola said, though she believed no such thing. She signaled the waiter. “But you must understand that ninjas are everywhere on this planet. Simply because you do not see one is no indication that it is not present.”

He scoffed openly. “Even if they overheard, they’re harmless.”

Viola raised her eyebrow and indicated the scorched spot on the floor. To be sure, ninjas normally ignored humans and were even sometimes useful, but the White Phoenix Feather changed everything. She turned to the waiter. “Might I have some fresh ground pepper?”

As if he had anticipated her request, which at Luigi’s was a certainty, the waiter offered her a tall wooden grinder, a new immaculate napkin over his arm. “Certainly, madam.”

“Thank you.” She nodded, not taking her gaze away from Cardno, who flushed red. “Ninjas are everywhere.” Viola took the pepper-grinder from the waiter and stood on her chair. Sweeping the grinder over her head, she twisted the top, flinging ground pepper in an arc. A muffled sneeze came from behind the ceiling tile. She leaped toward the sound, thrusting the grinder upward like a club and denting the tiles. From behind the tile came a squawk, and a moment later, a ninja dropped into the dining room.

Sighing, Viola clubbed it with the grinder and the ninja toppled over. She handed the grinder back to the waiter and seated herself again. “As I said, ninjas are everywhere but do not usually pay attention to us unless something prompts their attention, such as an attempt upon the White Phoenix Feather.”

“But you talk about it freely here — “ Cardno sputtered.

“Because the meal has begun. As our contract states, bragging rights prior to the meal add an additional hazard fee. However, we can discuss that later.” She swept her napkin back into her lap. “Meanwhile, it is clear that we must anticipate a visit from a samurai.”

His face paled. The ninjas were the male of the species. The much larger and more colorful females had acquired the nickname of samurai. They were less common and significantly smarter than the males of their species. Each samurai kept a stable of males, collecting them from other females and trading them with their favorites in the way a human might show dogs. Simple-minded and loyal, the ninjas could be set to tasks for which they would be rewarded with an opportunity to breed with the samurai. Viola prided herself on helping with their natural selection by removing so many ninjas from the breeding pool.

Wiping his face with his napkin, Cardno asked, “Why do you think a samurai will come?”

“Because ninjas always travel in pairs. There was only one in the ceiling.” She laid her fork and knife at precise angles across her salad plate, signaling that her waiter could take them. She really must leave him a good tip. His service was excellent thus far and she had told the maitre d’ that this dinner would only cause a minimal intrusion. “How is your salad?”

Cardno shook his head and pushed the plate away from him, without trying it at all. Viola clenched her jaw in an effort to control her urge to reprimand him. She was perfectly willing to accept their money with certain very strict contractual guidelines, and speaking of the White Phoenix Feather before dining was strictly forbidden for very good reasons.

As the ninjas were not ninjas, the White Phoenix Feather was not truly a feather. It was a frond-like growth which samurai only sprouted during mating season. The pheromones from it gave ninjas the urge to prove themselves in battle in order to earn the right to mate with the samurai. In humans … in humans eating it produced a euphoria and a temporary reversal of aging. Much like fugu fish on Earth, the danger involved in eating White Phoenix Feather was part of the allure, albeit from ninjas rather than toxins. There were levels of danger, and one’s enjoyment and subsequent bragging rights were dependent on those. Viola’s company specialized in Extreme Dining. Her job was to sit at a table and look decorative, while protecting the clients. In order to maintain the illusion of risk, she brought no weapons to the table.

But the presence of a samurai would change everything. Their arrangement with the samurai from whom Joe harvested the White Phoenix Feather was profitable and normally left Viola with only ninjas to deal with during dining. While the smartest ninjas were no more intelligent as a well-trained dog, the samurai were fully sentient. The samurai they dealt with used these dinner engagements as a way to clear her stables of lesser ninjas.

But Cardno’s indiscretion meant that another samurai would attempt to get the Feather. With it, she would potentially be able to steal the entire stable of ninjas that would be drawn to it. While ninjas were plentiful, a samurai without a stable had no resources. Viola could not jeopardize their business partner in this way.

She considered her options as the table was cleared for the entree. She had ordered salmon roasted on a Lekejera-wood plank with sea urchin ceviche, wasabi risotto, and sauteed radishes. If a samurai were about to join them, she needed to add another item to her order. Raising her finger, she hailed a waiter.

“May I add the fondue to my order?”

The waiter bowed, “Of course, madam. Would you like that with your entree or before?”

“Before, but don’t hold the entrees. Bring them out when they are ready. Also a baguette, if you don’t mind. Unsliced.”

“Seeded or plain?”

She settled back in her chair and considered. “Seeded, please.” It should provide a better grip.

Cardno continued to gawk at her. Viola favored him with a smile and sipped her wine. “Since you are already paying for it, you might as well let your fans know that you are Dining on White Phoenix Feather this evening.”

“Now, wait a minute. I didn’t say anything about being willing to pay extra. I told one person — maybe.”

Viola set her glass down. “Oh? Then shall I let you handle the samurai by yourself ?”

“If it comes.” He scowled like a petulant child. “How do I know that you don’t set all this up to scam people?”

Always … always when they made a mistake, the wealthy tried to blame it on someone else. “I assume you checked our references before hiring us.”

“Yeah. They said you have an arrangement with a samurai. That’s how come you can always get the White Phoenix Feather.”

Smoothing the tablecloth, Viola took a moment to calm herself before she answered him. “This is true. However, this will not be that samurai. This will be one of her rivals and she will not be friendly.” A flash of yellow and red at the door caught Viola’s attention. “Ah. There she is.”

“She?” Cardno turned his seat to see what had attracted Viola.

“The samurai. They are always female.” Without standing, Viola turned toward the kitchen entrance, looking for the waiter. She might have to stall until her order arrived. The samurai stalked through the dining room, too large to fit through the ceiling tiles the way a ninja would. Perhaps Viola should not have sent her salad away, so she had an extra knife. “Are you still going to contest the charges?”

“This is extortion.”

“We did sign a contract, which listed these charges, however, I am perfectly happy to restrict myself to the activities we originally discussed. I will note, however, that the samurai will attempt to kill you in order to claim the right to the White Phoenix Feather.” She slid her fish knife across the table. “You may want this.”

The samurai choose that moment to charge, unlimbering her bladed arms as she did. She let out a high-pitched shriek as she bounded through the dinner tables. Cardno flinched, almost knocking his aluminum chair over. From the acrid stench that rose, he had just wet himself. Viola took that as permission to engage the samurai. Snatching the fish knife off the table, she stood. She lifted her chair and thrust the back between the samurai and Cardno. The blade came down on the chair, skidding along the metal. Viola thrust the fish knife into the samurai’s wrist, twisting as she did.

The creature yanked back, howling with rage. The knife wrenched out of Viola’s grasp, but the samurai’s wrist hung limp. Viola kept her grip on the chair and snatched up a fork. This would be an excellent time for the waiter to arrive with her fondue. Luigi’s normally had such prompt service. Without the fondue, she was forced to make do with the fork.

Viola spun swiftly and attempted to bury the fork in the samurai’s neck, while she was distracted by the knife in her wrist. The creature used her other blade and blocked the fork with ease. Viola slid under her guard and aimed a kick at the samurai’s leg. The samurai swept the blade down, and Viola barely got the chair between her and the samurai. She dodged to the side in time, losing the fork.

Cardno had ordered squid-ink pasta with fresh peas, so he did not have anything sharper than a butter knife. Snatching it, Viola faced the samurai again. With the chair held as a shield, she flipped the knife, aiming for the samurai’s eyes.

As the blade left her open hand, the waiter appeared and placed the fondue and baguette on the table. Without waiting to see if she had hit the samurai, Viola snatched the baguette and thrust it into the fondue’s spirit lamp, lighting it. She lunged at the samurai with the flaming loaf. Briefly distracted, the samurai blocked with her sword, slicing through the bread. In that moment of distraction, Viola dropped the chair and flung the fondue on the samurai. Molten cheese coated the creature’s face and upper torso in a blinding mess. Viola snatched one of the long fondue forks from the table as she ducked behind the samurai. Pinning the creature’s sword arm, Viola shoved the fondue fork against the samurai’s chin.

In their hissing language, she said, “Do you yield?”

The creature stood for a moment, utterly still, and then spat an assent.

Viola stepped back. She disliked killing samurai but had found it necessary twice, both times with young ones who would not yield. The samurai stalked out of the dining room, cradling her injured wrist.

Shaking more than she would like to admit, Viola turned to the waiter. “Thank you. The fondue was exactly as I had wished.”

He bowed. “I’ll clear your settings then for the entree, if you are ready.”

“That would be lovely.” She glanced to Cardno, who sat shell-shocked in his seat. Standing as she was, the stain on his trousers was obvious. “Perhaps you might show my companion where the restrooms are?”

Only raising an eyebrow, the waiter nodded. “Of course.”

As he led Cardno to the facilities, Viola righted her chair and sat. By the time the staff and busboys had repaired the damage and removed the ninja, the waiter returned with Cardno, who had been given a clean set of trousers. Thank heavens. The stench would seriously interfere with the aromatics of her salmon.

She smiled as he sat, but chose not to say anything. He picked up his wine glass and drank the entire contents without pausing to savor the bouquet. He asked for a bottle of Cabernet, without specifying which one, without noting that a Cab of any providence would overwhelm his entree. When the wine arrived, Cardno downed his first glass as though it were a mass-produced soda. They proceeded through the entree with Cardno chattering in increasingly animated tones to which Viola said nothing.

The salmon was exquisitely succulent and had picked up deep resinous notes from the plank on which it had been fired. Pity she hadn’t had it when the samurai had been here. The wood made an effective shield. To her relief, no more ninjas appeared. The rest would arrive with dessert.

Cardno continued to ramble about the film he was involved in and the starlet who shared his scenes as he finished the bottle of house wine by himself. As the waitstaff cleared the entrees, the diners at the other tables all turned, subtly, to watch them. No doubt they understood what was coming next. Viola settled back in her chair with the cognac she had ordered and swirled the glass, enjoying the caramel and apple notes. Cardno fidgeted with his napkin.

“Well?” He tossed the napkin down. “Where is it?”

“Joe will be here.”

As she lifted her glass to hide her scowl, the waiter stepped out of the kitchen. She stiffened at the sight of what he carried. Joe normally presented the White Phoenix Feather himself, resplendent in a white silk dinner jacket. If he sent the waiter in, instead, something had gone horribly wrong.

The waiter carried a plate sealed with a clear glass dome. Inside was a bowl of sweet cream gelato, adorned with the White Phoenix Feather. The frond trembled with every step. Pure white at the tip, it shaded to a deep vermillion red at the base, tinged with yellows as though lit from within.

The waiter bowed as he presented the dish, setting it in front of Cardno with a flourish.

He leaned over and whispered in Viola’s ear. “Pardon, Madam. Your partner wished me to let you know that he was in good health but not presentable for dinner.” It was not the first time, by far, that Joe had been injured while delivering the White Phoenix Feather, but this contract had been for a minimal risk dinner. That’s why the dessert was in the hermetically sealed tray until the last possible moment. In normal events, if Joe kept it sealed until serving, the diner could usually finish it before ninjas arrived. Of course, that reduced the risk, so most true gastronomes had it served without the covering.

Cardno was no gastronome. He did not even wait for the waiter to step fully back, before yanking the cover off the White Phoenix Feather. Aromas of coriander, honey, and autumn leaves rolled out, underlaid by the subtle musky fragrance of the samurai’s signature. Viola inhaled slowly, savoring the fragrance.

“Huh.” Cardno stared at it. “How am I supposed to eat this?”

“With the chopsticks.” Viola nodded to the ebony ones under the dome, carefully chosen to serve as a contrast to the White Phoenix Feather.

Cardno picked them up and struggled with his grip. Viola had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from stabbing him with her fork. He didn’t even know how to hold a pair of chopsticks?

“Is it okay if I just pick it up with my fingers?” His cheeks were quite flushed, more from the wine than from embarrassment, she suspected.

“You may do whatever you see fit, of course.”

He reached for the White Phoenix feather and stopped. “Oh, I should totally get a pic of this.” Patting his pockets he fished out his handy and started to pass it to Viola. “No, wait. That’s a terrible idea.”

Then — in Luigi’s Interstellar Cafe and Pub — he addressed the table next to them. “Would you mind taking a pic of us together?” Bad enough that he was ignoring the food, but he couldn’t even ask a waiter? He had to disturb someone who was enjoying their meal? Viola shook with rage. Had he no respect for the sanctity of Dining?

No. No of course, he didn’t. “If you don’t eat that soon, more ninjas will arrive.”

He flashed her a sloppy smile. “You just defeated a samurai with a breadstick. I’m not worried about a couple of ninjas.”

Thankfully, the waiter intercepted the camera and took their photo so that she did not have to be part of any further intrusions into the other diners’ meals. When she saw Joe again, she was going to insist that they institute a better screening process. If she had to—

Two ninjas dropped from the ceiling. She grabbed the chopsticks and slammed them into each ninja’s throat as they straightened from their landing. “Will you eat?”

Cardno settled back in his chair and took her picture. “Hey… I’m paying you to protect me while I dine. I want to get all the buzz I can out of this.”

Viola was going to kill him.

He nodded over her shoulder. “Behind you.”

Viola spun, raising her arm to sling the cognac at the ninja — but it wasn’t a ninja. It was her waiter. She managed to not hit him in the face and instead splashed the drink over the front of his spotless white shirt. Flushing, Viola stepped back in unholy shock. “I’m— I’m so sorry.”

It is quite all right, madam.” He held out a short glass of whiskey, a single malt from Islay, judging from the aromas of butterscotch and cherry. “With the compliments of Luigi.”

With reverence, Viola took the glass and lifted it to her nose, savoring its complex peatiness. Luigi had graced her with, not just an Islay, but a Glenmorangie aged in honey willow casks imported from Beta Five. “Thank you. You anticipate my needs as always.”

As she placed the scotch on the table in front of her, Cardno frowned at the glass. “What’s that for?”

“For me.” She rose as a ninja dropped from the ceiling. “It’s going to be a long evening.”

Viola hefted her chair and reflected again that she would have to leave the waiter a very good tip. He was a true artist who understood what his patrons needed at any given moment.

She might lack the will to shield Cardno any longer, but a good single malt was worth protecting.

About the Author

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) and Glamour in Glass (Tor, 2012). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2011, her short story For Want of a Nail won the Hugo Award for Short Story. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She served two terms as the Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters. Find her online at maryrobinettekowal.com and on Twitter @MaryRobinette.

© 2012 Mary Robinette Kowal