- The House of the Phoenix is always the smallest, because they won't consider you a Phoenix unless an actual phoenix is seen to pass overhead.
- -- Vlad Taltos, explaining [what he thinks he knows] about the House of the Phoenix. Yendi, ch 6, pg 63 (The Book of Jhereg, pg 218)
The above quote is one of the most problematic in all of the writings about Dragaera. Every other House can be considered simply as a population of individuals with certain defining characteristics. These characteristics are passed on from parents to offspring in the usual way. The above is the only one which suggests that an outside agent is somehow involved in biological heredity.
An obvious explanation is that Vlad has misunderstood something, or had something explained to him unclearly, or is just plain confused. However, for the sake of speculation, we shall consider some possible interpretations.
The phoenix (animal) makes the Phoenix (House)Edit
It may be that it is the phoenix (animal) itself, flying over the person at their birth, that in fact causes a Phoenix to be born. That is, the phoenix itself causes the change in genetic structure, quite possibly from some other House to that of the Phoenix.
This may mean that there is the possibility of any number of new Phoenix being designated in this manner. For instance, should a crossbreed birth be marked by a real phoenix, perhaps that person then be considered of the house Phoenix.
An obvious argument against this notion is that it is never even suggested as a possibility for more Phoenix to be born - a very important topic, given the fact that the House is one individual away from extinction, and was indeed previously thought to be entirely extinct — and as far as we know, the phoenix bird itself is not extinct.
The phoenix marks the Reborn PhoenixEdit
It may be that there is only one House of the Phoenix, but there are two types of Phoenix - decadent and reborn. Decadent Phoenix would be far more common, but reborn Phoenix would make up for the decadence of their relatives by outshining them all in the nobility of their natures.
So perhaps Vlad misunderstood simile for truth, that is, that reborn Phoenix occur as rarely as a phoenix flying overhead when a Phoenix is born.
Or perhaps, as a compromise, it is just that phoenix birds are only drawn to the birth of Reborn Phoenix, which is what the saying really means - and most others of House Phoenix are born without any such attending phenomena.
The phoenix marks the pure-breed PhoenixEdit
Another possible interpretation of the significance of the phoenix flying overhead is that it represents not the rarity of "reborn" Phoenix, but rather the rarity of "genuine, pure-blood" Phoenix.
The reason that there might be many non-pure-blood Phoenix — that is, Phoenix crossbreeds with other Houses — is because of the decadence of many of the Phoenix. That is, decadent Phoenix, being indifferent to anything other than their own pleasure, would couple with absolutely anybody, and fail to perform the simple spell guaranteeing contraception. Thus, the bastard crossbreed offspring of these unions would have no other choice than to join the Jhereg.
We can even account for a possible literal explanation of the phoenix (bird) flying overhead: The bird is simply attracted to the birth of a pure-breed Phoenix. All births by Phoenix that are not heralded by the phoenix are therefore not pure-breed Phoenix — that is, they are crossbreeds.
But this also explains how the House might be reborn: Given that there are no doubt more than a few partial Phoenix around, these Jhereg individuals could meet, and mate, and with the simple luck of genetics (possibly combined with the mysterious influence of the Cycle itself), produce offspring who are in fact fully of the House of the Phoenix — perhaps even signalled by the passage of the phoenix bird overhead, to clinch the whole thing.
It might well prove to be interesting that at some point that out of the corruption of the Jhereg arises the Phoenix again.
There is some rather gnomic insinuations between Gods during The Viscount of Adrilankha that might suggest this, or if not quite that, then that partial Phoenix can eventually produce pure Phoenix. So even if there are currently no partial Phoenix for some reason, if Zerika produces a sufficient population of crossbreed Phoenix, her descendants — going forward a few generations, and by necessity, inbreeding at some point — might well produce full Phoenix individuals.
The answer to this question will be important in around 13,000 years when the Cycle again points to Phoenix.