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Four Pieces of Advice on the Selection of a Familiar

Kelly Sandoval lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. She shares her home with her understanding husband, chaos tornado preschooler, and too many cats. Her interactive novel, Runt of the Litter, is available from Choice of Games. Find her on twitter @kellymsandoval or visit her website at kellysandovalfiction.com.

Choose the Prettiest One
"Oh, you simply must get a butterfly," Eudora says, bouncing a bit as she speaks, her dress swishing about her feet. "Or perhaps a bird. One of those ones with all the colorful feathers. Can they sing, do you suppose? They must."
"Of course," I agree. Partly because it doesn't do to disagree with Eudora, and partly because I can't help but agree. I do want my familiar to be pretty, some lovely, jewel-bright thing settled on my shoulder.
Eudora strokes her own familiar, a winged cat with long white fur. He stretched into her touch, radiating just as much easy contentment as she shows. I suppose it's easy to be content when you're Eudora.
"Just be mindful," Eudora says, as I lay out her riding dress. "Winifred chose a toad, and now mother won't allow her to work outside the laundry. You are my very dearest maid, Lena. You mustn't be foolish, or they'll take you away from me."
Winifred's toad is a clever creature, and now she can brew all sorts of potions. With a sickly younger sister and no money for a doctor, she hardly had much of a choice. But I nod. One must nod.
I don't have a sickly younger sister, after all. And if I can't have all Eudora's pretty silks, might I at least have a butterfly to sit on my shoulder with wings like stained glass?
Make Sure It's Fierce
"A wolf," says Reginald, the stable hand, once Eudora has ridden beyond earshot. "Or a harpy eagle, with claws long as a man's arms. Get a basilisk. They can freeze with a look, you know."
"I doubt Eudora would approve of a basilisk," I say.
"And if you had a basilisk, it wouldn't matter. You could join the army!" His dream, not mine. And I've no desire to live it for him.
His familiar, a skittish bay mare, nuzzles his cheek as we talk, and he kisses her right on the nose. I don't think he regrets her, don't think he could have chosen differently. But one can't join the army without a predator at their side.
"Maybe," I say.
"You don't want to be fetching Eudora's tea for the rest of your life," he says.
"She's not so bad," I say, as she rides past, dress trailing prettily behind her. "She means well."
She would have me choose a pretty bird to sing and entertain her, just as I do. Make yet another part of me an extension of her. Something she owns.
I am tired of being owned. Tired enough to choose a wolf? To fight and kill? Perhaps not.
And still. How nice it would be to feel powerful.
Get Something Useful
"You're sixteen," Father says, as we walk together to the Familiar Market. "It's past time you thought of things practically."
"I do," I reply. Don't I work hard? Give the family my money? Don't I pray and mind the littles and never even go to dances or illusion theaters?
"Sure you do," he says, meaning the opposite. "It's hard, when you're young. I understand that. You don't see the whole picture. You want to feel special."
And why shouldn't I want to feel special?
"What you need is a familiar who will work beside you. Strong. Solid. Reliable." He holds out his hand, and his familiar, a large, heavy horned ram, butts against it. "Peter here gives us wool, helps me with the herds, even lends a hand hauling."
"Of course, Father." And he is right. He is. I've slept beneath blankets of Peter's wool, have felt him steady beside me on unstable paths. Peter is a good familiar. He keeps my father sure-footed on dangerous roads.
I, too, want to feel safe. And I know they want it for me. But sometimes, I cannot help but wish for something more than duty.
Follow Your Instincts
"It's a matter of trust," says the bent woman, as she opens the door for me. Already, I can hear the restless movements of the familiars waiting beyond.
"Trust?" I ask.
"You may think you're too young to know your heart. But we all make the choice too young, and still we find the right match. Walk these paths, and you'll find who you're meant to walk them with."
She shuts the door behind me, leaving me alone with them. The aisles seem impossibly long, the room bigger than the small shop could possibly contain. I walk.
There are many pretty familiars. Shining wings. Glittering carapaces. Silken fur. I see a little silver dog so perfect it breaks my heart a little, just looking at him. A dog is a very acceptable familiar for a servant. Perhaps the most acceptable. But I keep walking.
Fierce familiars inhabit an entirely different corner of the market. Carefully caged, they pace and snarl. A hyena, cackling. A snake three times as long as I, its eyes the color of new leaves. A young wyvern, scales burnished gold. And I do stop there, and stare, and imagine what I might do with such a companion. Where I might fly. It locks its gaze with mine, unblinking, and I look away.
Useful? Any of them might be useful, whatever my father thinks. There is use in beauty. In strength. In iridescent feathers or sharp fangs. Winifred understands well the use of her dun-colored toad. Eudora's catling sends her heart dancing. And Reginald's mare may be skittish, but there's none faster.
And still, I search. Winding my way to the darkest corners of the market. The familiars sing, or howl, or pace, but my heart stays in my chest. Perhaps I am simply pulled in too many directions.
Do I want to be Eudora's favorite maid? Reginald's soldier? Father's obedient daughter?
Something croaks, and I turn to the sound. The creature is hunkered down in a shadowed corner, between two empty cages. Wings the color of an uncleaned fireplace, feathers broken and unkempt, head down.
It looks up when I approach, and its eyes are bright and clear.
"You've been here a long time, haven't you?" I ask.
The bird rasps a response and opens its wings, shedding feathers. Can it even fly? Not now, perhaps. But with proper care. Poor creature. Not pretty. Not useful. Not fierce. Just a broken, ugly thing, alone in the shadows.
I hold out my hand, and it rubs its head against my palm. When I scratch gently under its chin, it manages a rattling churr.
"No one wants you, is that it?"
I keep my arm extended, and it steps from the perch to my wrist. Its slight claws will never see me fighting in the army. If Eudora saw the gray of its feathers, she might send me to the laundry herself. My nose itches as it shuffles up my arm. It smells like an uncleaned attic, dusty and strange.
It hunkers down on my wrist. Sighs.
There's no sense at all to taking it. But I'm tired of sense. And it's so very alone.
It's not difficult, to give a familiar a piece of your heart. You only decide to do it, and find it done. It's only that you must decide carefully. There are no second choices.
But I'm not careful. I give my heart to the ungainly, ugly little bird because no one else will. Because no one would want me to. Because its eyes are bright and hopeful. I feel it happen, feel I become we as something new enters my mind, a whisper of other.
You're certain? my familiar asks. Her voice drifts through my thoughts like smoke.
"Of course," I say. Though I shouldn't be.
She sits a little straighter, spreads her molting wings. Then she pushes off my arms, and failing flight, tumbles groundward.
Bursts into flames.
An incendiary bird in one's skirts is the definition of poor decision making. And still, I leap toward her, smothering her in layers of wool. The fire burns on, ignoring my skirt. The flames lick my hands, never rising past a comfortable warmth.
And then the flames settle, fade, and there is my familiar, with her feathers sparking like embers, black and orange and alive.
She looks up at me, cries out. Still an unpleasant rasp. Still an awkward looking bird, though certainly with prettier plumage.
We will rise so high, you and I, she says.
"Father says climbing too high is a good way to get burned," I tell it.
Indeed it is, says my phoenix. And how wonderful those flames feel.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 10th, 2022
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