Vixenscratch

Short stories and serials by Alexandra Herakai

Prize Plumage

This #FridayFlash fic was written as part of a prompt call themed around saws, idioms and proverbs; inspired by prompts by Shurhaian: “Don’t count your eggs before they’re laid” and “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”

Rik was struck by the hypocrisy of the family members crowding into the stands, and it left a bad taste in his mouth. He’d overheard Aunt Tess crowing about her nephew whose animal was surely going to win the Grand Championship, and he’d tried to explain that these things were never to be taken for granted. He was happy to even be here, to have qualified for the most prestigious show in the country, and it grated on him that they had to set their sights higher.

“The harder they fall…” he muttered to himself, adjusting the almost jewelry-thin straps of the headcollar his prize stud wore. He didn’t wish himself failure, not exactly. He wanted to win – he wouldn’t have been here at all if he didn’t. But Aunt Tess, especially, wouldn’t stop her crowing until she saw disappointment.

When he’d started, all those years ago, she’d been singing a different tune. He was throwing away his life, money, and who knew what else, trying to compete with people who’d been at it decades longer than he. They’d all been singing that tune, in fact, every single family member sitting up there, waiting for him to enter the show ring with the fruits of his labors. Now that he’d beat out some of those longer-established competitors in the smaller shows required for qualification, of course they’d claim they’d believed in him all along.

They always did.

The animal beside him was a work of art. A narrow, wedge-shaped head ending in a wicked beak. Dark, piercing eyes, watching the surroundings alertly, but without any sign of alarm. Slick, silky feathers in sunburst shades of gold, red, and orange, growing longer down the creature’s nobly curved neck, so that the feathers underneath its deep chest almost brushed the floor. Black fur covering all four broad paws, and all of its hindquarters aside from its back, where the feathers extended into a train that would make any mere peacock hide in shame. Down that train the colors of the beast shifted, from yellow to green, and then at the very tips, a rich gemstone blue, and the gryphon’s wingtips had similar dramatic coloring.

Yes, Rik had succeeded in what he’d set out to do, and there’d be no shame in losing out to one of the other show animals that would enter the ring with him, no matter how many hours of oiling had gone into making sure those feathers lay just so and shone as much as they could possibly do under the bright lights.

Finally, they were called in, and he made a point of not glancing up towards the stands as he entered the ring and took his position, the gryphon he’d raised from the egg obediently taking position next to him with the lead slack. Further down the line, he could hear another one behave a little less exemplary, and clicked his tongue to remind his own beast of where its attention should be right now.

The judges studied each animal in turn with eyes practised to see through the layers of feathers and read the shape of the body beneath. One by one, the gryphons were approached, their beaks opened to inspect their teeth, their paws lifted, and their wings pulled open. No detail was too minuscule for the scrutiny of the panel that would, eventually, pick their Champion.

One black-red-and-yellow beast was sent out when it ruffled up its feathers and hissed at an approaching judge. Many gryphons had a hard time accepting the black desert dogfolk, but it was a flaw that couldn’t be accepted in a Champion, especially not when the dogfolk was one of the judges.

They were trotting the gryphons around the ring when some would-be funny-guy in the audience launched a spitball at the silver-white, blue-barred animal behind Rik and his tropical-bright stud, and from there, it all devolved into chaos.

When the dust settled and he got his breath back, Rik was lying on his back on the floor, his gryphon’s long chest feathers tickling his face with every panting breath it drew. He nudged one foreleg with his hand, and got the stud to back up, sitting up with a groan to survey the damage.

No blood stained the sunburst-and-black gryphon’s beak – so it hadn’t attacked, good – but what remained of its tail, now fanned in alarm and warning, was in a sorry state, and it seemed like another animal had managed to get a mouthful of feathers off its shoulders. With a croon, the animal lowered its head and gently nudged his chest, and he gave it a stroke before seizing a handful of feathers to let it help him back on his feet.

The confusion didn’t, of course, prevent the judges from picking out their Grand Champion. With most of his gryphon’s beautiful plumage being blown across the shown ring in the slight draft from the doorway, Rik didn’t need to hear the name being called out to know the title had slipped between his fingers. He stood stoically with his gryphon at his side, waiting for the formal announcement in the spirit of good sportsmanship. He had, indeed, not won, and he was fine with that.

“Before we close this year’s National Gryphon Exhibit,” the announcer spoke, “the judges would like to address you all.”

The dogfolk judge who’d sent out that black gryphon for hissing at him stepped up, spent a moment adjusting the microphone, and then looked straight at Rik. “What we would like to say to you, breeders and spectators alike, is unthinkable. Yet this year, the unthinkable has become the truth. We have named one Grand Champion already, and while the prize is well deserved, we all agree that another animal is the one we will remember above all. For the first time in the history of the National Gryphon Exhibit, the panel of judges have unimously decided to award an extra honorary prize.

“Rik Selasen, please come forward.”



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