Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Today we invite you to follow Lady Isabella Trent’s thrilling life of scientific discovery in this extended excerpt from A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, the first in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. The final book in the series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, will be available on April 25th.
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.
Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist. Nowadays, of course, the field is quite respectable, with university courses and intellectual societies putting out fat volumes titled Proceedings of some meeting or other. Those interested in respectable things, however, attend my lectures. The ones who write to me invariably want to hear about my adventures: my escape from captivity in the swamps of Mouleen, or my role in the great Battle of Keonga, or (most frequently) my flight to the inhospitable heights of the Mrtyahaima peaks, the only place on earth where the secrets of dragonkind could be unlocked.
Even the most dedicated of letter-writers could not hope to answer all these queries personally. I have therefore accepted the offer from Messrs. Carrigdon & Rudge to publish a series of memoirs chronicling the more interesting portions of my life. By and large these shall focus on those expeditions which led to the discovery for which I have become so famous, but there shall also be occasional digressions into matters more entertaining, personal, or even (yes) salacious. One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure,” is that there are very few who can tell me what I may and may not write.
Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plenitude of mud. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. If my humble words convey even a fraction of that wonder, I will rest content.
We must, of course, begin at the beginning, before the series of discoveries and innovations that transformed the world into the one you, dear reader, know so well. In this ancient and nearly forgotten age lie the modest origins of my immodest career: my childhood and my first foreign expedition, to the mountains of Vystrana. The basic facts of this expedition have long since become common knowledge, but there is much more to the tale than you have heard.
Isabella, Lady Trent
11 Floris, 5658
In which the memoirist
forms a youthful obsession with dragons,
and engineers an opportunity
to pursue that obsession
Greenie — An unfortunate incident with a dove —
My obsession with wings — My family — The influence
of Sir Richard Edgeworth
When I was seven, I found a sparkling lying dead on a bench at the edge of the woods which formed the back boundary of our garden, that the groundskeeper had not yet cleared away. With much excitement, I brought it for my mother to see, but by the time I reached her it had mostly collapsed into ash in my hands. Mama exclaimed in distaste and sent me to wash.
Our cook, a tall and gangly woman who nonetheless produced the most amazing soups and soufflés (thus putting the lie to the notion that one cannot trust a slender cook) was the one who showed me the secret of preserving sparklings after death. She kept one on her dresser top, which she brought out for me to see when I arrived in her kitchen, much cast down from the loss of the sparkling and from my mother’s chastisement. “However did you keep it?” I asked her, wiping away my tears. “Mine fell all to pieces.”
“Vinegar,” she said, and that one word set me upon the path that led to where I stand today.
If found soon enough after death, a sparkling (as many of the readers of this volume no doubt know) may be preserved by embalming it in vinegar. I sailed forth into our gardens in determined search, a jar of vinegar crammed into one of my dress pockets so the skirt hung all askew. The first one I found lost its right wing in the process of preservation, but before the week was out I had an intact specimen: a sparkling an inch and a half in length, his scales a deep emerald in color. With the boundless ingenuity of a child, I named him Greenie, and he sits on a shelf in my study to this day, tiny wings outspread.
Sparklings were not the only things I collected in those days. I was forever bringing home other insects and beetles (for back then we classified sparklings as an insect species that simply resembled dragons, which today we know to be untrue), and many other things besides: interesting rocks, discarded bird feathers, fragments of eggshell, bones of all kinds. Mama threw fits until I formed a pact with my maid, that she would not breathe a word of my treasures, and I would give her an extra hour a week during which she could sit down and rest her feet. Thereafter my collections hid in cigar boxes and the like, tucked safely into my closets where my mother would not go.
No doubt some of my inclinations came about because I was the sole daughter in a set of six children. Surrounded as I was by boys, and with our house rather isolated in the countryside of Tamshire, I quite believed that collecting odd things was what children did, regardless of sex. My mother’s attempts to educate me otherwise left little mark, I fear. Some of my interest also came from my father, who like any gentleman in those days kept himself moderately informed of developments in all fields: law, theology, economics, natural history, and more.
The remainder of it, I fancy, was inborn curiosity. I would sit in the kitchens (where I was permitted to be, if not encouraged, only because it meant I was not outside getting dirty and ruining my dresses), and ask the cook questions as she stripped a chicken carcass for the soup. “Why do chickens have wishbones?” I asked her one day.
One of the kitchen maids answered me in the fatuous tones of an adult addressing a child. “To make wishes on!” she said brightly, handing me one that had already been dried. “You take one side of it—”
“I know what we do with them,” I said impatiently, cutting her off without much tact. “That’s not what chickens have them for, though, or surely the chicken would have wished not to end up in the pot for our supper.”
“Heavens, child, I don’t know what they grow them for,” the cook said. “But you find them in all kinds of birds—chickens, turkeys, geese, pigeons, and the like.”
The notion that all birds should share this feature was intriguing, something I had never before considered. My curiosity soon drove me to an act which I blush to think upon today, not for the act itself (as I have done similar things many times since then, if in a more meticulous and scholarly fashion), but for the surreptitious and naive manner in which I carried it out.
In my wanderings one day, I found a dove which had fallen dead under a hedgerow. I immediately remembered what the cook had said, that all birds had wishbones. She had not named doves in her list, but doves were birds, were they not? Perhaps I might learn what they were for, as I could not learn when I watched the footman carve up a goose at the dinner table.
I took the dove’s body and hid it behind the hayrick next to the barn, then stole inside and pinched a penknife from Andrew, the brother immediately senior to me, without him knowing. Once outside again, I settled down to my study of the dove.
I was organized, if not perfectly sensible, in my approach to the work. I had seen the maids plucking birds for the cook, so I understood that the first step was to remove the feathers—a task which proved harder than I had expected, and appallingly messy. It did afford me a chance, though, to see how the shaft of the feather fitted into its follicle (a word I did not know at the time), and the different kinds of feathers.
When the bird was more or less naked, I spent some time moving its wings and feet about, seeing how they operated—and, in truth, steeling myself for what I had determined to do next. Eventually curiosity won out over squeamishness, and I took my brother’s penknife, set it against the skin of the bird’s belly, and cut.
The smell was tremendous—in retrospect, I’m sure I perforated the bowel—but my fascination held. I examined the gobbets of flesh that came out, unsure what most of them were, for to me livers and kidneys were things I had only ever seen on a supper plate. I recognized the intestines, however, and made a judicious guess at the lungs and heart. Squeamishness overcome, I continued my work, peeling back the skin, prying away muscles, seeing how it all connected. I uncovered the bones, one by one, marveling at the delicacy of the wings, the wide keel of the sternum.
I had just discovered the wishbone when I heard a shout behind me, and turned to see a stableboy staring at me in horror.
While he bolted off, I began frantically trying to cover my mess, dragging hay over the dismembered body of the dove, but so distressed was I that the main result was to make myself look even worse than before. By the time Mama arrived on the scene, I was covered in blood and bits of dove-flesh, feathers and hay, and more than a few tears.
I will not tax my readers with a detailed description of the treatment I received at that point; the more adventurous among you have no doubt experienced similar chastisement after your own escapades. In the end I found myself in my father’s study, standing clean and shamefaced on his Akhian carpet.
“Isabella,” he said, his voice forbidding, “what possessed you to do such a thing?”
Out it all came, in a flood of words, about the dove I had found (I assured him, over and over again, that it had been dead when I came upon it, that I most certainly had not killed it), and about my curiosity regarding the wishbone—on and on I went, until Papa came forward and knelt before me, putting one hand on my shoulder and stopping me at last.
“You wanted to know how it worked?” he asked.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak again lest the flood pick up where it had left off.
He sighed. “Your behaviour was not appropriate for a young lady. Do you understand that?” I nodded. “Let’s make certain you remember it, then.” With one hand he turned me about, and with the other he administered three brisk smacks to my bottom that started the tears afresh. When I had myself under control once more, I found that he had left me to compose myself and gone to the wall of his study. The shelves there were lined with books, some, I fancied, weighing as much as I did myself. (This was pure fancy, of course; the weightiest book in my library now, my own De draconum varietatibus, weighs a mere ten pounds.)
The volume he took down was much lighter, if rather thicker than one would normally give to a seven-year-old child. He pressed it into my hands, saying, “Your lady mother would not be happy to see you with this, I imagine, but I had rather you learn it from a book than from experimentation. Run along, now, and don’t show that to her.”
I curtseyed and fled.
Like Greenie, that book still sits on my shelf. My father had given me Gotherham’s Avian Anatomy, and though our understanding of the subject has improved a great deal since Gotherham’s day, it was a good introduction for me at the time. The text was only half comprehensible to me, but I devoured the half I could understand and contemplated the rest in fascinated perplexity. Best of all were the diagrams, thin, meticulous drawings of avian skeletons and musculature. From this book I learned that the function of the wishbone (or, more properly, the furcula) is to strengthen the thoracic skeleton of birds and provide attachment points for wing muscles.
It seemed so simple, so obvious: all birds had wishbones, because all birds flew. (At the time I was not aware of ostriches, and neither was Gotherham.) Hardly a brilliant conclusion in the field of natural history, but to me it was brilliant indeed, and opened up a world I had never considered before: a world in which one could observe patterns and their circumstances, and from these derive information not obvious to the unaided eye.
Wings, truly, were my first obsession. I did not much discriminate in those days as to whether the wings in question belonged to a dove or a sparkling or a butterfly; the point was that these beings flew, and for that I adored them. I might mention, however, that although Mr. Gotherham’s text concerns itself with birds, he does make the occasional, tantalizing reference to analogous structures or behaviours in dragonkind. Since (as I have said before) sparklings were then classed as a variety of insect, this might count as my first introduction to the wonder of dragons.
I should speak at least in passing of my family, for without them I would not have become the woman I am today.
Of my mother I expect you have some sense already; she was an upright and proper woman of her class, and did the best she could to teach me ladylike ways, but no one can achieve the impossible. Any faults in my character must not be laid at her feet. As for my father, his business interests kept him often from home, and so to me he was a more distant figure, and perhaps more tolerant because of it; he had the luxury of seeing my misbehaviours as charming quirks of his daughter’s nature, while my mother faced the messes and ruined clothing those quirks produced. I looked upon him as one might upon a minor pagan god, earnestly desiring his goodwill, but never quite certain how to propitiate him.
Where siblings are concerned, I was the fourth in a set of six children, and, as I have said, the only daughter. Most of my brothers, while of personal significance to me, will not feature much in this tale; their lives have not been much intertwined with my career.
The exception is Andrew, whom I have already mentioned; he is the one from whom I pinched the penknife. He, more than any, was my earnest partner in all the things of which my mother despaired. When Andrew heard of my bloody endeavours behind the hayrick, he was impressed as only an eight-year-old boy can be, and insisted I keep the knife as a trophy of my deeds. That, I no longer have; it deserves a place of honor alongside Greenie and Gotherham, but I lost it in the swamps of Mouleen. Not before it saved my life, however, cutting me free of the vines in which my Labane captors had bound me, and so I am forever grateful to Andrew for the gift.
I am also grateful for his assistance during our childhood years, exercising a boy’s privileges on my behalf. When our father was out of town, Andrew would borrow books out of his study for my use. Texts I myself would never have been permitted thus found their way into my room, where I hid them between the mattresses and behind my wardrobe. My new maid had too great a terror of being found off her feet to agree to the old deal, but she was amenable to sweets, and so we settled on a new arrangement, and I read long into the night on more than one occasion.
The books he took on my behalf, of course, were nearly all of natural history. My horizons expanded from their winged beginnings to creatures of all kinds: mammals and fish, insects and reptiles, plants of a hundred sorts, for in those days our knowledge was still general enough that one person might be expected to familiarize himself (or in my case, herself ) with the entire field.
Some of the books mentioned dragons. They never did so in more than passing asides, brief paragraphs that did little more than develop my appetite for information. In several places, however, I came across references to a particular work: Sir Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons. Carrigdon & Rudge were soon to be reprinting it, as I learned from their autumn catalogue; I risked a great deal by sneaking into my father’s study so as to leave that pamphlet open to the page announcing the reprint. It described A Natural History of Dragons as “the most indispensable reference on dragonkind available in our tongue”; surely that would be enough to entice my father’s eye.
My gamble paid off, for it was in the next delivery of books we received. I could not have it right away—Andrew would not borrow anything our father had yet to read—and I nearly went mad with waiting. Early in winter, though, Andrew passed me the book in a corridor, saying, “He finished it yesterday. Don’t let anyone see you with it.”
I was on my way to the parlor for my weekly lesson on the pianoforte, and if I went back up to my room I would be late. Instead I hurried onward, and concealed the book under a cushion mere heartbeats before my teacher entered. I gave him my best curtsy, and thereafter struggled mightily not to look toward the divan, from which I could feel the unread book taunting me. (I would say my playing suffered from the distraction, but it is difficult for something so dire to grow worse. Although I appreciate music, to this day I could not carry a tune if you tied it around my wrist for safekeeping.)
Once I escaped from my lesson, I began in on the book straightaway, and hardly paused except to hide it when necessary. I imagine it is not so well-known today as it was then, having been supplanted by other, more complete works, so it may be difficult for my readers to imagine how wondrous it seemed to me at the time. Edgeworth’s identifying criteria for “true dragons” were a useful starting point for many of us, and his listing of qualifying species is all the more impressive for having been assembled through correspondence with missionaries and traders, rather than through firsthand observation. He also addressed the issue of “lesser dragonkind,” namely, those creatures such as wyverns which failed one criterion or another, yet appeared (by the theories of the period) to be branches of the same family tree.
The influence this book had upon me may be expressed by saying that I read it straight through four times, for once was certainly not enough. Just as some girl-children of that age go mad for horses and equestrian pursuits, so did I become dragon-mad. That phrase described me well, for it led not only to the premier focus of my adult life (which has included more than a few actions here and there that might be deemed deranged), but more directly to the action I engaged in shortly after my fourteenth birthday.
Blackmail — Reckless stupidity — An even more
unfortunate incident with a wolf-drake — The near
loss of off-the-shoulder dresses
We knew disgracefully little of dragons in those days, as there were no true dragons in Scirland, and the field of natural history was only beginning to turn its attentions abroad. I was very conversant, though, with the available information on those lesser cousins of dragons which may still be found in our own lands, and no command nor sum of money could have persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to learn more firsthand.
So when word came that a wolf-drake had been sighted on our property, not once but several times, by several different witnesses, and that it had been savaging sheep, you may well imagine how my interest soared. The name, of course, is a fanciful one; there is nothing wolflike about them, save their tendency to view livestock as their rightful meal. They are scarce in Scirland now, and were not abundant then; no one had sighted one in our region for a generation.
How could I forgo the chance?
First, however, I had to contrive a way to see the beast. Papa immediately set about organizing a hunt, just as he would have for a wolf that made a nuisance of itself. Had I asked for permission to ride along, though—as Andrew did, without success—I would absolutely have been denied. I had enough sense to realize that riding out on my own in hopes of sighting the wolf-drake would be fruitless, and highly dangerous if it were not; gaining my desire, therefore, would require more serious effort.
Credit—or perhaps blame—for what followed belongs at least in part to one Amanda Lewis, whose family were our nearest neighbors during my youth. My father and Mr. Lewis were good friends, but the same could not be said of my mother and Mrs. Lewis, and this created a degree of tension whenever social occasions threw us together—especially given Mama’s disapproval of their daughter.
Amanda was one year my senior, and the only girl of near age and equal status anywhere in the Tam River Valley. To my mother’s unending distress, she was also what young people nowadays would call wing—very improper in what Amanda thought to be fashionable ways. (I have never been wing; my impropriety has always been decidedly unfashionable.) But as I had no one else with whom to socialize, Mama could hardly forbid me to visit the Lewises, and so Amanda was my closest friend until marriage took us both away.
On the day we learned of the wolf-drake, I walked two miles to her house to share the news, and my situation immediately fired her fruitful imagination. Clutching a book to her chest, Amanda drew in a delighted breath and said, eyes sparkling with mischief, “Oh, but it is easy! You must dress yourself as a boy and ride with them!”
Lest it be thought that I slander the name of my childhood friend by laying this incident at her feet, I must assure you that I, not she, was the one who found a way to put her idea into practice. This has often been the way with me: notions too mad for another to take seriously are the very notions I seize upon and enact, often in the most organized and sensible fashion. (I say this not out of pride, for it is a very stupid habit that has nearly gotten me killed more than once, but out of honesty. If you do not understand what my husband has called my deranged practicality, very little of my life will make the slightest bit of sense.)
So Manda’s declaration was the spark; the tinder and kindling which built it into a blaze were entirely my doing. It went thusly.
There were a number of lads who did odd jobs around our estate, mostly out of doors. I was not generally on close terms with these, but there was one, Jim, over whom I had a hold. Specifically, I had once come upon him in highly compromising circumstances with one of our downstairs maids. I myself had been on my way to hide a small and fascinating skull I could not identify, but as I had it concealed in my skirts, Jim did not know my own compromising circumstances. He therefore owed me a favor, and I determined that now was the time to redeem it.
Bringing me along on the hunt was, of course, an offense for which he could be turned out with no references. I could have achieved the same by telling of his dalliances with the maid, though, and while I would not have done so, I led him to believe I would. You may think it dreadful of me, and I blush now to recall my blackmail, but I will not pretend I had such scruples then. Jim, I insisted, must bring me on the hunt.
Here the chilly distance between my mother and Mrs. Lewis served my purposes very well. Amanda told Mama that she had invited me to her house for an afternoon and evening, to be returned on the morrow, and Mama, little desirous of corresponding with her neighbor, gave permission without asking questions. Therefore, on the morning the hunt was to begin, Amanda stopped by our estate with a manservant, on the pretense that I would be spending a few days with her family.
A small distance down the road, we reined in, and I inclined my head at her from my saddle while her manservant looked on, mystified. “Thank you, Manda.”
Her eyes fairly danced. “You must tell me all about it when it’s over!”
“Certainly,” I replied, though I knew she would probably grow tired of the story in short order, unless I contrived to have a thrilling romance while on the hunt. Amanda’s taste in reading ran to sensational novels, not natural history.
I left her to deal with the manservant by whatever means she found appropriate, and rode by back ways to the field where the hunt was gathering. Jim was waiting for me by a sheltered spring, as we had arranged.
“I’ve told them you’re my cousin, here for a visit,” he said, handing over a stack of clothing. “It’s a madhouse down there—people in from all over. No one will think it strange if you join us.”
“I’ll be just a moment,” I told him, and shifted to a spot where he could not see me. Casting looks over my shoulder all the time in case he should have followed me, I changed out of my own riding habit and into the much rougher boy’s clothing he had brought me. (Words cannot express, I might add, how alien it was to wear trousers for the first time; I felt half naked. I have worn them on many occasions since—trousers being far more practical for dragon-chasing than skirts—but it took me many years to adjust.)
To his credit, Jim blushed when he saw me dressed so scandalously. He was a good lad. But he helped me bundle my hair up under a cap, and with it hidden, I believe I made a passable boy. I was not done growing then, and was all coltish arms and legs, with not much to speak of yet in the way of hips or breasts.
(And why is it, I ask you, that my editor should complain to me of such words when I have written several books discussing dragon anatomy and reproduction in far more frank terms? He will not wish to leave this aside in, I predict, but I shall make him. There are advantages to my age and status.)
The most startling part of the morning, though, came when Jim handed me a gun. He saw the look on my face and said, “You don’t know how to use one, do you?”
“Why should I?” was my reply, and said in a rather sharper tone than he deserved. After all, I was the one who had insisted on dressing in boy’s clothes; it was hardly fair that I should act the offended lady now.
He took it in stride. “Well, it’s pretty simple—you put the stock up against your shoulder, point it in the direction…” His voice trailed off. I suspect he, like I, was imagining the potential consequences of me actually firing a gun in the midst of a chaotic hunt.
“Let’s just leave it unloaded, shall we?” I asked, and he said, “Yes, let’s.”
Which was how I came to ride in the hunt for the wolf-drake, disguised as a boy, my hair under a cap and an unloaded rifle in my hand, on my mare Bossy, who had been rubbed all over with dust to conceal her glossy coat. Jim was right to call it a madhouse; despite Papa’s best efforts, it was a disorganized thing, with far too many people there. Few men wanted to miss their chance to hunt a wolf-drake.
The day was quite fine, and I could barely contain my excitement as we rode. The areas in which the wolf-drake had been sighted were not terribly far from our manor house, which was why Papa had moved so quickly to organize the hunt, but we still had some distance to go.
Our estate consisted mostly of rocky, hilly soil, suitable more for sheep than anything else, though we had some tenant farmers in the Tam River Valley; the manor house stood just on the north edge of that valley. If one were to ride east or west, the terrain was gentler, but our path led us north, where the land sloped up quickly into an area too steep to be worth clearing. There, pine trees still ruled, and in their shade the wolf-drake was said to be hiding.
I stuck to Jim’s side like a burr and affected to be shy, so as not to have to answer any more questions than necessary. I did not trust my voice to pass, even though I was clearly supposed to be a beardless boy. Jim served me well in this regard, talking enough that no one else could get a word in edgewise—though perhaps his nerves were the ones talking. He had reason enough to be worried.
We reached the northern woods a short time after noon, at which point the leaders began to organize the hunt. “Quick, head for Simpkin,” I said, urging Jim away from my father and other men who might know me.
I gathered, from the fragments of speech I overheard, that the preparations for this hunt had begun well in advance of today. We congregated some distance downwind of a copse of trees that gave off an undeniable stink of carrion; it seemed that Papa’s huntsmen had been placing carcasses there for several days, to lure the wolf-drake to a predetermined spot. Some brave souls had ventured forth that morning to examine the copse, and found signs that the creature lay within.
What followed was quite a confusing tangle to me, knowing nothing as I did of hunting. Men held wolfhounds and mastiffs on leashes, each dog muzzled so it would not bark and give our presence away. They seemed very uneasy to me; dogs that will hunt wolves without fear may still balk at approaching any sort of dragonkind. Nonetheless, their handlers chivvied and cuffed them to prearranged positions, through which I understood the wolf-drake was to be driven. An arc of local men was sent out with unlit torches, at a great distance from the wood; when the time came, they were to light their brands and approach the creature’s shelter, provoking it to flight.
This, at least, was the intention. Wolf-drakes are cunning beasts; no one could be certain that it would oblige us by fleeing into our trap. Thus the arrangement of riders, myself and Jim included, at other points in the area: if the creature bolted, we would have to chase it down.
Astute readers will correctly surmise that I would not have troubled to mention this last point had the hunt gone according to plan.
My first sight of the wolf-drake came as a furious blur of movement streaking out of the wood. I do not know what precisely the hounds had been intended to do at that moment, but they never had a chance to do it; the drake was upon them too quickly.
Rare as the species was, the hunters had underestimated reports of its speed. The creature leapt upon one of the mastiffs, and there was an abrupt, shocking spray of blood. The other dogs hesitated before rushing into the fight, and their delay undid all our careful plans; the lines of the hunt were broken, and now we gave chase.
I have always been a good rider, for in those days it was not uncommon for the daughters of country gentry to learn to sit a horse both sidesaddle and astride. Never in my rambles with Bossy around my family’s estate, however, had I experienced anything like this.
Jim goaded his horse forward, and mine followed by instinct, wanting (as horses do) not to be left alone. Soon we were galloping across the rocky slope, at a pace far faster than Mama would have deemed safe. The wolf-drake was a distant figure, already well ahead, and only the quick thinking of some of the local men kept it from escaping us entirely; they blocked its path with fire and sent it veering southward again, whereupon we angled across to intercept it.
The dogs were running as if to avenge the death of their brother, the wolfhounds leading far in the front. They harried the wolf-drake back and forth while hunting horns gave their cries and directed the groups of horsemen about. All too soon, however, we reached another patch of the woodlands, and I understood why they had initially chosen that isolated copse in which to lay their bait: once in the main stretch of woods, finding and trapping the drake would be much more difficult.
Despite the best efforts of the hunters and hounds, the creature reached the shelter of the woods. One of Papa’s huntsmen, a fellow as stony-faced as the hills around us, spat onto the ground, and I reminded myself that he did not know he was in the presence of a lady. “Won’t run so fast now,” he said, eyeing the shadows into which it had vanished. “But we’ll have a devil of a time digging it out.”
This afforded us our first chance to catch our breath since the chase had begun. Some of the men had brief, incomprehensible conversations out of which the only information I could sift was that we were now to use certain techniques common to boar-hunting. Since I knew no more of this than I did of wolf-hunting, the change did not mean much to me, but the mastiffs were brought up and the wolfhounds called back. The situation called now for strength more than speed.
The pines in this area were old and tall enough that we could often ride beneath their branches without ducking, and the carpet of their needles meant the ground was startlingly bare, except where a tree had fallen and created a gap in which other plants might grow. I soon lost sight of much of the hunt, but Jim stayed with me, and the rest of our group to either side. Through the trees we heard occasional shouts, and blares of the horns telling us nothing had been sighted yet.
Then a frenzy of barking … then nothing.
We paused where we were, as much to consider our path as anything else, for a tangle of underbrush blotted the ground in front of us. I looked at Jim, and he back at me. “I should take you home, miss,” he said in a voice too low for others to hear, though no one was nearby. “This really isn’t safe anymore.”
For the first time, I felt like agreeing. My entire purpose in coming had been to see the drake alive and at first hand, rather than as a dead trophy, but I understood now how unlikely that was. The blurred frenzy that savaged one of the dogs might well be the best glimpse I got all day.
As I pondered this, Jim suddenly shouted and drove his horse straight at me.
Bossy reared up and shrieked—a dreadful sound—and then lurched over sideways, spilling me from my saddle. She missed falling on my leg by a hairbreadth. I scrambled to a sitting position in the dry needles, my breath knocked out of me, and Jim half whimpered, half groaned in a way I had never heard before.
What drew my attention, though, was a long, rumbling snarl.
In lands where wolf-drakes are still numerous, it is common knowledge that they prefer female prey. Unfortunately, this was a detail we had forgotten, and which Sir Richard Edgeworth had not included in his otherwise splendid book.
I looked across at the wolf-drake, crouching atop a large outcropping of stone. Its scaled hide was a dull brown that fitted in well with our surroundings, and its eyes a disturbing crimson. The low-slung body featured powerful legs ending in scythelike claws and a long, flexible tail that moved hypnotically back and forth, like a cat’s. Just behind its shoulders, a pair of vestigial wings shifted and settled.
I could not look away from it. My right hand groped blindly in the needles for the gun I had dropped, but did not find it. Panic built in my throat. The wolf-drake’s claws tightened on the stone. I fumbled with my left hand, reaching out and further out, and there! My fingers wrapped around the stock of a gun. I dragged it toward me, raising it as I had seen the men do, and the wolf-drake tensed, and as I brought the rifle up it leapt toward me and only as my finger tightened on the trigger did I remember, we had not loaded my gun.
A deafening bang went off in my ears, and the wolf-drake landed just to the side of me, claws shearing through shirt and shoulder like knives through butter.
I screamed and rolled away, dropping the gun again, the gun that must have been Jim’s, because it certainly had been loaded. What had happened to Jim? The wolf-drake was pivoting to face me again, its bulk more agile than it looked, and though there was blood on its hide now—I had struck it a glancing blow—it was far from defeated.
Here I should write something heroic, but in truth, the thought that went through my head was: This is what you came for, and it is the last thing you will ever see.
More gunshots went off, these not directly in my ears but still loud enough that I screamed again and curled into a ball, terrified that the shots would hit me, that the wolf-drake would leap again, that one way or another I was going to die.
Instead I heard a frenzy of snarling, a horse’s agonized scream, men shouting and horns blowing, and then, after a moment or two, a blessed sound I recognized, for it was the same horn call they used when returning home from a successful hunt: prey down.
Then there were men around me, and I uncurled only to realize that my cap had fallen off at some point in the struggle, and my hair come loose from the ribbon that had bound it atop my head. There seemed to be brown strands everywhere, waving like banners as if to advertise, Here! Look! A girl!
Which was, more or less, what I heard the men saying. (But with rather more profanity.)
More shouts, and then my father was there, staring down at me in horror: the minor pagan god, appalled at what his worshipper had done. I stared back at him, I think; this is the point at which things become somewhat muzzy, for I know I went into shock. Papa picked me up, and I asked about Jim, but no one answered me. Soon I was on Papa’s horse, still cradled in his arms, riding out of the woods and across the rocky hillside to a shepherd’s cottage.
A physician had accompanied the hunt, to minister to both the dogs and the men; he arrived shortly after we did. I was not his first patient, though. I heard Jim’s voice moaning from the other side of the small room, but I could not see him through the press of other people.
“Don’t hurt him,” I said to no one in particular, though rationally I knew the physician must be trying to help him. “Don’t blame him. I made him do it. And he protected me; he got in the way when the wolf-drake attacked.” This I had pieced together after the fact.
The injuries Jim suffered through his heroic move were one of two things that kept him from being ignominiously sacked. The other—though I can take little pride in it—was my tireless defense, insisting that he was not to be blamed for bringing me on the hunt. Now, far too late, my guilt boiled up, and I fear I kept harping on the point long after my father had agreed to keep him on. All of that came later, though. Once finished with Jim, the physician came to me, and banished everyone but my father and the now-sleeping Jim out of the hut, for the wound was on my shoulder and it would not be appropriate for others to be there while it was bared. (This I thought foolish, even at the time, for young ladies may wear off-the-shoulder dresses, which show just as much flesh as his ministrations did.)
I was given brandy to drink, which I had never had before, and its fire nearly made my eyes start out of my head. They made me drink more, though, and after I had enough in me, they poured some over the wounds in my shoulder to cleanse them. This made me cry, but thanks to the brandy I no longer particularly cared that I was crying. By the time the physician began to stitch me up, I was not aware of much at all, except him telling Papa in a low voice, “The claws were sharp, so the flesh is not too ragged. And she’s young and strong. If infection does not threaten, it will heal well.”
Through lips gone very thick and uncooperative, I tried to mumble something about how I wanted to wear off-the-shoulder dresses, but I do not believe it came out very clearly, and then I was asleep.
Mama had vapors upon my return, of course, but no one questioned me immediately, because they judged that I needed quiet rest to recover from my ordeal. This was not entirely a mercy; it meant that I had many hours in which to imagine what they would say to me when the time came. And while I may not have Amanda’s vivid imagination, given enough time, mine does more than adequately well.
When I was finally permitted to get out of bed, put on a dressing gown, and go out into my sitting room (two days after I deemed myself ready to do so), I found Papa waiting for me.
I had prepared for this; those two days had their benefits as well as their drawbacks. “Is Jim recovering?” I asked before Papa could say anything, for no one had told me anything about him.
Papa’s face pulled further into its grave lines behind his beard. “He will. He took quite a wound, though.”
“I am sorry for it,” I said honestly. “Were it not for him, I might be dead. It isn’t his fault I was there, you know.”
Sighing, Papa gestured for me to sit down. I settled onto a chair rather than the love seat he indicated, not wanting to look as though I might need to use it as a fainting couch. “I know,” he said, a world of weariness in his voice. “Madness like that could never have been his idea to begin with. He should have refused, of course, and reported it to me—”
“I wouldn’t let him,” I broke in, eager to martyr myself. “You mustn’t—”
“Blame him, I know. You’ve said it many times before.”
I had the sense to close my mouth rather than continue to protest.
Papa sighed again as he looked across at me. The late-morning light was coming through the windows and lighting up all the roses embroidered into my upholstery; in his sober grey suit, my father looked terribly out of place. I could not remember the last time he had come into my sitting room, if indeed he ever had.
“What am I going to do with you, Isabella?” he asked.
I bowed my head and tried to look meek.
“I can imagine the story you will tell me, if I give you half a chance. You wanted to see the wolf-drake, yes? Alive, preferably, instead of safely dead. I suppose I have Sir Richard Edgeworth to blame for this.”
My head shot up at that, and no doubt my guilt was written all over my face.
He nodded. “Oh, I keep a closer eye on my library than you seem to think. The catalogue, so carefully folded back, and then one book covered in rather less dust than it ought to be. Which your mother would take as an indication that we should sack the maid—but I do not mind a little dust. Especially when it alerts me to my daughter’s clandestine activities.”
Inexplicably, this made my eyes fill with tears, as if skulking about in his library were a thing to be repented of more than my wolf-drake escapade. Mama’s disappointment was a familiar thing, but his, I found, could not be borne. “I’m sorry, Papa.”
Silence stretched out. Crawling with shame, I wondered how many of the maids were eavesdropping at the keyholes.
At last Papa straightened and looked me in the eye. “I have to think of your future, Isabella,” he said. “As do you. You won’t be a girl forever. In a few years, we must find a husband for you, and that will not be easy if you persist in making trouble for yourself. Do you understand?”
No gentleman would want a wife covered in scars from misadventures with dangerous beasts. No gentleman would take on a woman who would be a disgrace to him. No gentleman would marry me, if I kept on this way.
For a few trembling, defiant moments, I wanted to tell my father that I would live a spinster, then, and everything else be damned. (Yes, I thought of it in those terms; do you think fourteen-year-old girls have never heard men swear?) These were the things I loved. Why should I give them up for the company of a man who would leave me to run the household and otherwise bore myself into porridge?
But I was not so lacking in common sense as to believe defiance would result in happiness, for me or anyone else. The world simply did not work that way.
Or so it seemed to me, at the wise old age of fourteen.
I therefore pressed my lips together, gathering my strength. Under the bandages that swathed it, my shoulder twinged.
“Yes, Papa,” I said. “I understand.”
The grey years — Horses and drawing — Six names for my
Season — The king’s menagerie — An awkward conversation
there — The prospect of a friend — My Season continues —
Another awkward conversation, with good results
I will spare you anything like a lengthy account of the two years that followed. Suffice it to say that I forever after referred to them as “the grey years,” for attempting to force myself into the mold of a proper young woman, against my true inclinations, drained nearly all color from my life.
My collections of oddments from the natural world went away, tipped out onto the ground of the small wood behind our house. The cards I had written up to label various items were burned, with great (not to say melodramatic) ceremony. No more would I bring home anything dirtier than the occasional flower picked from the gardens.
Only Greenie remained, tucked away where Mama would not find him. That was one treasure I could not bring myself to forswear. I would be a liar, though, if I pretended that I gave up on my passions entirely. Horses were an acceptable pastime, if dragons were not, and so, in company with Amanda Lewis, I turned my attentions to them. They had no wings— a fault I never quite forgave them for— but I learned a great deal about them in those two years: the various breeds and their conformations; patterns of coloration; the different gaits, both those that occurred naturally and those that could be taught. I kept extensive diaries in a cipher Mama could not read, noting therein a thousand details of equine nature, from appearance to movement, behaviour, and more.
Horses, as it happens, led indirectly to a new and unexpected source of plea sure. While my shoulder was healing— and indeed, for a long time afterward— I was considered too delicate to ride, but I could not stand to be in the house all the time. I therefore had the servants place a chair by the paddock on fine days, and there I sat to sketch.
People often say kind and utterly misguided things about my “talent” for art. The truth is, I have no talent, and never did. If any of my youthful sketches survived, I would show them as proof; they were as clumsy as any beginner’s. But drawing was a suitable accomplishment for a young lady— one of the few I enjoyed— and I am nothing if not stubborn. So, through determined practice, I learned the rules of perspective and shadow, and how to render what I saw with charcoal or pen. Andrew, bored by this turn of events, abandoned me for a time, but he could be persuaded to tell me when the horse doctor was coming to treat injuries or birth foals; and so I learned anatomy. Mama, relieved to see me take up something like a ladylike pastime, turned a blind eye to these excursions.
At the time, this seemed a sorry replacement for my grand adventures, which were (I thought) over for good. With the wisdom of age, though, I have come to be grateful for the fruit of those grey years. They honed my eye and taught me to keep notes on what I saw: two skills which have formed the basis of all my accomplishments since.
For all that, though, they were two very dull, very tedious years.
Their end came with my sixteenth birthday, and my official transition from “girl” to “young woman.” Mama therefore looked to my future— or rather I should say, put into action the plans she had been forming since I was born. She had great ambitions for my marriage: Sir Daniel Hendemore’s only daughter should not wed any of the gentlemen in the Tam River Valley, but go to Falchester and make her debut in Society, where she might attract the eye of someone very fine indeed.
My patience with martyrdom would not have extended quite so far as to endure this peaceably, were it not for a startling conversation I had with my father shortly before I was to be dragged to Falchester.
We had this encounter in his study, where I trained my eyes away from the shelves with their old, forbidden friends. My father leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers before him.
“It is not my intention,” he said, “to force you into unhappiness, Isabella.”
“I know that, Papa,” I replied: the picture of daughterly demureness.
Perhaps a smile quirked his mouth inside its beard; perhaps I simply imagined it. “You do that very well,” he said, index fingers tap- tapping against each other. “Indeed, you’ve become quite a credit to us, Isabella. I know these years have not been easy on you, though.”
To this I did not respond, having nothing ladylike to say. I valued his approval too much to cast it aside.
After a pause, he said, “Matchmakers have gone out of fashion these days; we seem to think we can do better without professional aid. But I have taken the liberty of paying one to assemble a small list, which you will find on the table at your side.”
Mystified, I found the paper and unfolded it, revealing six names.
“A husband willing to fund a library for his bookish wife is not so easy to obtain; most would see it as a pointless expense. You might, however, find one willing to share his library. The gentlemen on that list are all amateur scholars, with well- stocked studies.” Papa’s eyes gleamed at me from beneath his brows, and the lines around them threatened to crinkle up. “I have it on good authority that the ones I have underlined possess copies of A Natural History of Dragons.”
As I had not allowed myself to think that name for two years, it struck me with roughly the same force I imagine accompanies the name of a girlhood love, not seen for ages. For a moment, I understood Manda and her sensational novels.
Before I succeeded in finding words, Papa went on. “I have not secured any of them for you; that task remains for you and your mother, who would not thank me for my interference. They are all eligible, however, and should you snare one, I promise my consent.”
He rose from his chair in time to catch me as I came flying around his desk to envelop him in a hug. A laugh of startled delight won its way free of me. After our conversation in my sitting room, I had demoted my father from minor pagan god to well-meaning ogre— but it seemed that my dutiful efforts these two years past had paid dividends.
Six names. Surely one of them would bring me joy.
The hunt for spouses is an activity on a par with fox- hunting or hawking, though the weapons and dramatis personae differ. Just as grizzled old men know the habits of hares and quail, so do elegant society gossips know every tit bit about the year’s eligible men and women. Horses feature in both pursuits: in one as modes of transportation, and in the other as means of display. The fi elds and forests of the countryside are changed out for drawing rooms, ballrooms, and every other sort of room where a social event might be arranged and the eye of a potential spouse might be caught.
So did Society descend upon Falchester, and the horns sounded the beginning of the hunt.
Gossip about such matters ages badly; who said what to whom and where is swiftly forgotten, replaced by fresher meat. At my advanced years, such minutiae of my youth rank somewhere between the Gostershire tax rolls and the complaints of one’s hypochondriac great- aunt for their interest to the modern audience. I shall trouble you only with the part that had lasting effect, which is the day I went to the king’s menagerie.
I was not supposed to go. Mama’s scrupulous plans called for me to be seen riding in the park that afternoon; she intended to make a virtue of my country upbringing, by displaying my skill in the saddle. But she, poor woman, had come down with a stomach ailment (I suspect bad fish at Renwick’s the night before), and could not accompany me.
By a stroke of luck, Andrew was in town at the time, and came by to discharge his filial duty by commiserating with our mother. He was not yet hunting a wife; at that time he was idling his way through university, changing his mind every other week as to whether he would prefer to join the army and shoot at people in foreign places. But he was still my best ally among my brothers, and so when Mama fretted about the disruption of her plans, he offered to be my escort for the day.
She did not consider this ideal— he might be mistaken for a suitor of mine, by those who did not know him— but I had no other chaperon arranged. (Amanda, who had come out and promptly wed the previous year, was house bound by the expectation of her first child, and could not be there to assist.) Andrew’s offer was better than my wasting the time at home, and so she agreed, with reluctance. Andrew caught my arm as soon as we were away from her door. “Don’t put on riding clothes,” he said, sotto voce. “We’re going to the menagerie.”
I blinked at him, surprised but not uncooperative. I enjoyed riding, but out in the countryside; trotting around the park in boring circles held little appeal. “But we shan’t get in.”
“Yes, we shall,” he said, his eye gleaming with conspiratorial pleasure. “The Countess of Granby has arranged for the tour, and I am permitted a guest.”
I knew little of the menagerie, except that the king’s late father had established it on spacious grounds downstream from Falchester, and the son had spared no expense to see it stocked with every exotic creature that could be persuaded to survive in captivity. It existed primarily for the entertainment of the royal family, with occasional public days, which I, growing up in rural Tamshire, had no chance to experience. As Andrew could well guess, a tour would be a rare treat for me.
Our guide was Mr. Swargin, the king’s naturalist. Under his direction, the menagerie was organized according to broad type: birds in one place, mammals in another, reptiles in a third, and so on. Stuffed and mounted specimens of those creatures that had passed on stood alongside the cages of those that still lived. The king possessed parrots, platypi, and piranhas; cuckoos, camels, and chameleons. I attempted to restrain my enthusiasm; learning is an admirable thing, in women as well as men, but only when it is of the right kind. (That is, of course, society’s opinion; not my own. I am glad to say it has changed somewhat since my day.) As a young lady, I should show interest only in songbirds and other such dainty creatures, lest I brand myself as ink-nosed.
The tour was disappointing in its organization, for people wandered in and out of the various gardens and glass-walled rooms, few paying even the slightest attention to Mr. Swargin’s speeches. I wished very much to listen to him, but didn’t dare single myself out by being the only one to attend to his words, and so I caught only snatches before we stopped before a pair of very grand doors.
“In here,” the naturalist said, in ringing tones that drew more eyes than usual, “we keep the crowning jewels of His Majesty’s collection, only recently acquired. I beg the ladies to have a care, for many find the creatures within to be frightening.”
One may measure the extent to which I had cut myself off from my old interests that I did not have the slightest clue what the king had acquired, that lay beyond those doors.
Mr. Swargin opened them, and we filed through into a large room enclosed by a dome of glass panels that let in the afternoon sunlight. We stood on a walkway that circled the room’s perimeter and overlooked a deep, sand-floored pit divided by heavy grates into three large pie- slice enclosures.
Within those enclosures were three dragons.
Forgetting myself entirely, I rushed to the rail. In the pit below me, a creature with scales of a faded topaz gold turned its long snout upward to look back at me. From behind my left shoulder, I heard a muffled exclamation, and then someone having a fainting spell. Some of the more adventurous gentlemen came to the railing and murmured amongst themselves, but I had no eyes for them— only for the dragon in the pit.
A dull clanking sounded as it turned its head away from me, and I saw that a heavy collar bound its neck, connecting to a thick chain that ended at the wall. The gratings between the sections of the pit, I noticed, were doubled; in between each pair there was a gap, so the dragons could not snap at one another through the bars.
With slow, fascinated steps, I made my way around the room. The enclosure to the right held a muddy green lump, likewise chained, that did not look up as I passed. The third dragon was a spindly thing, white- scaled and pink- eyed: an albino.
Mr. Swargin waited at the rail by the entrance. Sparing him a glance, I saw that he watched everyone with careful eyes as they circulated about the room. He had warned us, at the outset of the tour, not to throw anything or make noises at the beasts; I suspected that was a particular concern here.
The golden dragon had retired to the farthest corner of its enclosure to gnaw on a large bone mostly stripped of meat. I studied the beast carefully, noting certain features of its anatomy, comparing its size against what appeared to be a cow femur. “Mr. Swargin,” I said, my eyes still on the dragon, “these aren’t juveniles, are they? They’re runts.”
“I beg your pardon?” the naturalist responded, turning to me.
“I might be wrong— I’ve only Edgeworth to go by, really, and he’s sadly lacking in illustrations— but my understanding was that species of true dragon do not develop the full ruff behind their heads until adulthood. I could not get a good view of the green one the next cage over— is that a Moulish swamp-wyrm?— but these cannot be full- grown adults, and considering the difficulties of keeping dragons in a menagerie, it seems to me that it might be simpler to collect runt specimens, rather than to deal with the eventual maturation of juveniles. Of course, maturation takes a long time, so one could—”
At that point I realized what I was doing, and shut my mouth with a snap. Far too late, I fear; someone had already overheard. From the other side of me, I heard another voice say, “The albino is certainly a runt, and I cannot determine its species.”
If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I suggest something in a minor and ominous key, as that is what went through my own head as I realized just how thoroughly I had outed myself as ink-nosed. Heavy with dread, I dragged my eyes away from the gold dragon and up to the gentleman who had spoken.
A pair of trim feet in polished leather shoes; that was what I saw first. Then a goodly length of leg; then narrow hips and a waist not yet thickened by age. One long-fingered hand, resting on the sculpted bronze of the railing. Shoulders acceptably broad, without being so wide as to produce that triangular appearance I find unattractive, though it appeals to some ladies. A long oval of a face, with fi rm lips, a straight nose, good cheekbones, spectacles in front of clear hazel eyes, topped off with a neatly trimmed cap of brown hair.
Another lady, perhaps, might have been able to tell you what he was wearing. For my own part, I viewed him with a naturalist’s eye, seeing size, conformation, coloration. And identifying marks: the handkerchief tucked into his breast pocket was embroidered with a coat of arms, argent, three arrows in hand sable.
The Camherst coat of arms, belonging to a wealthy baronet. The age and the spectacles made this the baronet’s second son: one Jacob Camherst, twenty-three years of age, educated at Ennsbury, and well situated with investments. The matchmaker who gave his name to my father had marked him as an outside chance at best; he would make an agreeable if not spectacular catch someday, but he showed no inclination yet to wed.
Which was the one thing that saved me from utter mortification. I had not jeopardized any of my good prospects— provided I did not give Mr. Camherst reason to gossip about me to anyone else.
“I beg your pardon,” the gentleman said, focusing on me. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.” He hadn’t interrupted; I’d stopped myself before he could. The stopping, however, had left me tongue-tied, a state from which I was saved only by the arrival of my wayward sibling. “Of course not; that’s a brother’s job,” Andrew said, swooping in to offer his hand for Mr. Camherst to shake. “Andrew Hendemore. My father is Sir Daniel, of Norringale in Tamshire. This is my sister, Isabella.”
My social graces were not the best in those days— nor are they the best now; they have been improved only by the greater dignity of years— but two years of practice had rescued them from complete disgrace; I managed a credible curtsy despite the mixture of panic and yearning unsettling my heart. Panic for the man, yearning for the dragons; most young ladies would feel the reverse. “Charmed,” I said, as Mr. Camherst took my hand and kissed the air above my fi ngers.
He gave his name in reply, but then turned his attention away from me and back to Mr. Swargin. “The albino, sir?”
“A Vystrani rock-wyrm,” the naturalist said. “They are naturally grey in coloration, of course, but you are correct; that one is a true albino, as you can see by the eyes.”
Andrew was making comical faces behind Mr. Camherst’s back. I knew what he wanted; it would amuse him greatly to watch me babble on further about dragons. Mama would have fi ts merely knowing I had been here, though. Any report of my conduct must be above reproach. If I were wise, I would take my leave of Mr. Camherst and Mr. Swargin, before temptation became too much.
I was not, of course, wise. Just as Manda Lewis’s impressions of the world had been informed by her reading— leading her to expect balls, duels, and con ve niently timed thunderstorms out of life— so, too, had mine; but what I expected was intellectual commerce between equals. I had, you understand, read a great many works by men, who regularly experience such things, and had not realized the unlikelihood of such things for me. In my naive, sixteen-year-old way, I thought Jacob Camherst and I might be friends.
Mr. Swargin closed the matter by including me in his reply to Mr. Camherst. “Miss Hendemore is correct; all three are runt specimens. The green is a Moulish swamp- wyrm, and the gold, a desert drake from the south of Akhia. His Majesty would very much like to have full- grown adults, but they could not possibly be kept within a menagerie. No doubt you’ve noticed the gratings that keep them apart from one another, and at that, we’ve had to keep a muzzle on the swamp-wyrm. He will persist in breathing at everything, and while the other two endure it better than we humans do, no one enjoys it very much.”
“Extraordinary breath,” Mr. Camherst murmured, looking across at the motionless lump of the green dragon.
I recognized the phrase from A Natural History of Dragons; it was the term Edgeworth had coined to describe the sixth and final characteristic he considered diagnostic of the true dragon. All such species could expel something additional with their breath, whether it was the legendary fire or otherwise.
The general theory for young ladies at the time was that curiosity was considered more attractive to young men than knowledge. Armed with this dubious advice, I ventured a question to which I already knew the answer. “What does it breathe?”
To my disappointment, Mr. Swargin answered in Mr. Camherst’s place. “A noxious fume, miss,” he said. “Very unpleasant, and harsh on the lungs. At feeding times, we lower large boards into the gaps you see, between the pens; that keeps the worst of it away from the other two when we unmuzzle the Moulish for his meal.”
“I imagine the albino would have a hard time of it, in par tic ular,” Mr. Camherst said.
“Surprisingly not, sir. For a runt and an albino, it’s quite robust; don’t let its appearance fool you. The Akhian has the worst of it— but then, she’s a bit of a dramatic thing.”
She. For the first time, I noticed that Mr. Swargin was using gendered pronouns to refer to the dragons. The Akhian, the gold dragon currently pacing at my feet, was a female. I tried not to stare. Thank heavens the Moulish was curled up, so I didn’t embarrass myself trying to spot anything.
An anomaly distracted me. The Akhian was female, and the Moulish male, but for the Vystrani, Mr. Swargin said “it.” I voiced this thought to the naturalist, only realizing that it might be considered inappropriate after I had already said, “What sex is the albino?”
“None, miss,” Mr. Swargin said. Mr. Camherst had turned back to listen; I hoped he didn’t think me scandalous for asking. “Rockwyrms don’t…” His eyes slid toward me. “They don’t develop such characteristics,” he continued, apparently amending the phrase he would have used, “until maturity. The Vystrani remains immature, and therefore neuter.”
This was fascinating, and I wanted to ask more. I wasn’t sure how to feel when Mr. Swargin spotted one fellow leaning over the railing by the swamp-wyrm’s pen and said abruptly, “Pardon me,” rushing over to intervene. It saved me from the chance to ask further inappropriate questions…but it left me alone with Mr. Camherst.
And with my brother— who would have done splendidly as a young lady, at least where the matter of curiosity versus knowledge was concerned. He knew no more of dragons than your average young man, which is to say, that they were huge and scaly and had wings, which was very pleasing to the part of him that was still an eight-year-old boy. He began to question Mr. Camherst himself, which gave us sufficient reason to remain in the man’s company until the time came for us to retire to the lawn outside of (and, I might add, upwind of) the menagerie. By then I had managed to address a small handful of other remarks to the man, rendering myself agreeable enough that he obtained a lemonade for me before the ebb and fl ow of socialization carried him away.
(Or perhaps it was not my conversation that charmed the man, although I’m sure he was glad to have someone take an interest in him for some reason other than his wealth. I recall very little of what I wore that day, but I do know I had changed from the bony girl who went after a wolf- drake, and the dresses sewn for my Season did intriguing things with my bosom.)
Mama was displeased to hear where I had gone, and only somewhat mollifi ed by a suitably edited account of my introduction to Mr. Camherst. His fortune and breeding were both acceptable, but she sniffed at my enthusiasm for his company. “Don’t waste your time where it will do no good, Isabella. I know of the man, from Mrs. Rustin. He isn’t looking for a wife.”
I knew better than to tell her I wasn’t looking for a husband, not in this instance. In truth, a part of me felt rather wistfully that it was a pity Mr. Camherst was not on the market. I felt no rushing swell of adoration for him, such as Manda Lewis dreamed of— but he was acceptably handsome, acceptably personable, and acceptably rich; Mama might dream of me snaring a certain bachelor viscount, but she would not instruct me to say no if Mr. Camherst offered. I hoped what ever husband I caught in the end would permit me a friendship with him; he seemed a very nice man.
That was not the end of my search for a husband, of course. There were dances and card parties, sherry breakfasts and afternoon teas: all the whirling life that accompanies a Season in Falchester. There were also gossiping mamas, discreet inquiries into familial finances, and scandalous tales of heritable dementia: all the backstage machination that accompanies the hunt for spouses. Frankly, I prefer the worst of the trials and initiations I’ve been required to endure in pursuit of my research. But despite my naive intentions, I found myself more and more in the pleasing company of Mr. Camherst. This culminated in a certain evening at Renwick’s, when he asked if he could call on us the following afternoon at our hired house in Westbury Square.
Even such a dullard as I could not miss what he meant by the request. I barely had time to stammer out permission before Mama whisked me home and put me to bed with orders that I should not be roused before ten, as it would not do for me to look tired the next day. (This was something of a problem for me, as I woke at eight and was not permitted to rise for two hours. I had unwelcome memories of my convalescence from my torn shoulder.)
As soon as the clocks chimed ten, however, everything went into motion. I was bathed and dressed with more than the usual care, and my hair styled to perfection. We ate a tense late breakfast, during which I almost snapped at Mama to take her nerves elsewhere. I cannot pretend I was entirely composed myself, but certainly her jittery behaviour put me more on edge.
Following the meal, I was sent upstairs to change from morning clothes into more respectable afternoon dress. Mama came with me, and chose and discarded four possible gowns before the doorbell rang. Looking harried, she reverted to her second selection, ordered my maid to dress me as quickly as possible, and rushed downstairs.
The caller was, as expected, Mr. Camherst, and when I was quite as primped and polished as I could be, I made my way to the sitting room.
Mama was there with him, occupied in polite chatter, but she rose with alacrity when I appeared. “I will leave you two to talk,” she said, and closed the doors behind her as she departed.
I was alone in a room with an unmarried man. Had I needed any further proof of what was about to occur, that would have done nicely.
“Miss Hendemore,” Mr. Camherst said, stepping forward to take my hand. “I trust you are well?”
“Yes, quite,” I said, marveling inwardly at the inanity of small talk in a situation such as this.
As if he heard my thoughts, Mr. Camherst hesitated, then smiled at me while we settled into our chairs. There was, I recall, a hint of apprehension in his eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t know the finer points of how this is done— I had not really considered it in advance— but I don’t imagine either of us would benefit overmuch from my delaying. As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I have come here today to ask you to marry me.”
Saying it with so little drama might be the most merciful thing I ever saw him do, but it still took my breath quite away. When I regained the ability to speak, unfortunately, my words were not at all what they should have been.
“Why? I mean— that is—” I blushed a vivid red and struggled to form a coherent sentence. “I apologize, Mr. Camherst—”
“Please, call me Jacob.”
“—I don’t mean to be rude, and I am, dreadfully. It’s just that—” I managed, somehow, to meet his hazel eyes. “All of this has been so strange, the process of finding a husband, and now that the moment’s come, I can’t help but wonder why. Why do you wish to marry me? Why me, and not some other? Which is not to say that I think you should look for some other—” I quelled myself, shook my head, and said lamely, “I will stop there, before I embarrass myself any worse than I already have.”
Belatedly, it occurred to me to pray Mama was not listening at the keyhole with the maids.
Mr. Camherst was, understandably, taken aback by my words. “Miss Hendemore—”
“Please, call me Isabella.”
“I cannot think how to answer that question without being a little blunt. Given how we’ve begun, though, perhaps it’s only appropriate.”
He paused there, and I tried not to squirm.
“You’ve read Sir Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons, haven’t you?”
“Heaven preserve me,” I said, quite involuntarily. “Mama will have fits if I answer that question.” I succeeded in provoking a fleeting laugh, though it hadn’t been my goal. “Miss Hendemore— Isabella—you are not the first young lady to set her cap for me. But I do believe you are the first one to do so, not because of my wealth, but because of my hobby. Unless I’m very much mistaken, you came to Falchester not in search of a husband, but in search of someone with an interest in natural history, and that was the primary quality that recommended me to you.”
If Mama was eavesdropping, she would never let me hear the end of this…but at that precise moment, I could not imagine lying to the man who might become my husband, even if the frank truth might cause him to cry off.
I took a deep breath and unclenched my hands from each other, my fingers cramping at the release. “Mr. Camherst— Jacob—” The name felt strange on my tongue, and intimate. Had it been the same for him? “Natural history has been a passion of mine since I was a small child. It is not a ladylike passion, I fear, and there are few husbands in the world who would tolerate it in their wives. I do not know if you would be one such. But I know, at least, that you would keep a library on the subject, and I hoped that I might be allowed to read from it.”
He regarded me with a bemused expression. “You want me for my library.”
Put so baldly, it sounded ridiculous. “Oh dear— I don’t mean to insult you—”
This time his laugh was more full- bodied. “It’s the strangest insult I’ve ever suffered, if indeed I would give it that name. So Edgeworth, then—”
“I was eleven,” I admitted. “The first time. I’ve read it dozens of times since.”
“I see,” he said. “I didn’t hear quite everything you said to Swargin, but I thought I recognized the name. And you did identify the swamp-wyrm; of that I was sure.”
“Those dragons,” I said wretchedly. “I was sure I had made a mull of my entire future, gabbling away like that in public.”
He smiled, and the sight caused my heart to fl utter a little, most ludicrously. “Not a mull of it— not then, anyway. But there was that other time…”
My heart changed from fluttering to lurching. “Other time?” I racked my memory for other occasions on which I had disgraced myself. There were so many!
“Yes, that time just a moment ago, when I asked you to marry me.” His smile widened. “You still haven’t given me an answer.”
So I hadn’t, and after I got over my moment of horrified self-castigation, I swallowed and returned his smile. Miraculously, my voice worked on the first try. “Yes,” I said. “If you haven’t run off by now, you’re quite possibly the only man in Scirland who would have me. How could I do anything but agree?”
Prey down, the horns sounded in my head. And this time, I was decidedly the victor.
My wedding, and a gift — Married life — The Great
Sparkling Inquiry — Miss Natalie Oscott and her
grandfather — Plans for an expedition to Vystrana
Papa gave his consent to my wedding, and I saw true joy in his eye when I returned home after the Season’s end. I teared up unexpectedly, and could not muster the words to thank him for pointing me at such a chance for happiness, but I believe he understood.
The wedding took place that autumn, just after my seventeenth birthday. It was a lavish affair; with only the one daughter, my parents could afford to dower me well and send me off in grand style. We had several truly august personages in attendence, too, thanks to the connections of the Camherst family, which were somewhat better than my own.
My clearest recollections of the day ought to be of my husband, and many of them are, but the one I wish to share concerns my father instead. A bride has few if any quiet moments to herself during the course of her wedding day, but that evening, Papa drew me aside and presented me with a small wrapped package. “We have other gifts for you and your husband as a couple,” he said, “but this one, my dear Isabella, is for you.”
I suspected what it was even before I removed the paper; my fingers knew the shape inside so well. I did not begin crying, though, until I actually saw the cover of Sir Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons.
“I purchased that book for you,” Papa said, “despite knowing it might result in trouble. As it has led you to happiness, I believe you should have it.”
With a fine disregard for the damage my tears were doing to my cosmetics, and also the possibility of leaving stains on him, I threw my arms about my father and hugged him for dear life.
As absurd as it may sound, I think that was the moment at which I realized I was truly leaving. This is something the gentleman readers of this memoir may not understand, but the ladies will know it all too well. If they are married, they have been through it already, and if not, I am sure they have devoted some thought to the matter. To marry means to leave one home for another, and often one place for another. My own experience was not so disconcerting as that of royal brides who depart for another country, but from my family’s estate in Tamshire, on which I had spent virtually all of my young life, I now left behind everything I knew and removed to Jacob’s house outside of Falchester.
Jacob. I have made a deliberate choice, in the writing of this, to refer to him as Mr. Camherst until now, for that was how I thought of him at the time, and for some while after. Weeks, perhaps months, passed before it felt natural to call him by his given name. We spent a fair amount of time together during our courtship and engagement, but even so, moving into his house hold as his wife felt distressingly intimate, and no amount of telling myself that such intimacy was now quite expected made it less strange. Only time could do that— time in which he would cease to be a half stranger to me, and become, not only my husband, but a kind of friend, as I had once hoped.
For his own part, I think Jacob had to adjust to me as well. He did not live a rowdy bachelor’s life, but he had been a bachelor, and was unused to having a woman ordering certain parts of his existence. Nor, I think, did he quite know what to do with me. He offered for me that afternoon in Westbury Square because he liked the notion of a wife with whom he could converse about more than the guest list for a dinner party— but what to do with her once she was installed in his house?
In the end, he left me much to my own devices. I had free run of his library and could request certain purchases of him, if there was a title I desired that he had no interest in. Edgeworth and a few other volumes I kept for my own, in my private sitting room. With so much material to read, I must confess that I occasionally neglected my social duties as his wife, failing to arrange the sorts of dinner parties and other events that are expected of our class. Jacob spoke to me about it, and I promised to mend my ways; unfortunately, tragedy soon intervened.
Almost a year after our wedding, I found myself with child, but miscarried after a short time. This left me in a depression for several months, during which I ceased correspondence with nearly all family and friends; I could not even bring myself to write to Manda Lewis, with her healthy son and another on the way. Despite reassurances, I could not shake off a guilty conviction that I had failed in one of my primary obligations as a wife. Jacob did what he could to comfort me, but eventually buried himself in business interests for a time— I was not exactly pleasant company, prone to crying fits as I was. To console myself one rainy afternoon when even books could not hold my attention, I took out one of the few childhood possessions I had brought with me from home: my carefully preserved Greenie.
Jacob found me thus, with the vinegar-soaked sparkling cradled in my hands.
“May I see that?” he asked gently. I started; I had not heard him enter my private sitting room. The motion tipped Greenie over my fingers, and I cried out, but Jacob caught him as he fell, and with such a delicate touch that he was not damaged.
Jacob inspected the sparkling with a close eye. “Vinegar. Who taught you that?”
“The cook,” I said. “I used to collect things, when I was young. All kinds of things, really— rocks and feathers and so on— but sparklings especially. He was the only one I kept, though, when—”
I stopped myself, but Jacob prompted me onward. “When?”
Then I told him about the wolf- drake; he had, of course, seen the scars on my shoulder, but I had been vague about their origins, citing only a “youthful misadventure.” My husband might be tolerant of my interests, but I had not wanted to expose my childhood foolishness so thoroughly. He settled himself onto the sofa with me as I talked, and laid Greenie on my knee. I picked the sparkling up and described the aftermath of that incident, the grey years, and how I had disposed of my collections, keeping only this one relic.
When I finished, Jacob reached forward and wiped away the few tears that had fallen during my recitation. “Sparklings, eh?” he said. “I must concur with your father on the subject of wolf-drakes—I should not like to see you injured— but sparklings seem harmless enough. If you wish to collect them again, I will not stop you.”
Only in silly novels does the sun actually come out at the speaking of such words, but to me, it felt like it did.
The weather continued foul for several days, but that gave time for a crate of vinegar to arrive. The cook eyed me strangely when I came to collect it from the kitchens, but I did not care; having this purpose in my life, however small, helped fend off the malaise that had burdened me for so long.
Jacob affectionately referred to what followed as the Great Sparkling Inquiry. The woodlands around Pasterway, the town outside Falchester in which we lived, were a breeding ground for sparklings, and in the summer and fall one could not take an evening walk without encountering them. I began by collecting the recently deceased, preserving them in vinegar, but soon moved on to butterfly nets and cricket cages, so that I might observe and sketch living specimens. The gardener’s shed was given over to my use, as we did not keep much of a garden and therefore did not need many tools, and I soon filled it to the roof beams.
Many might laugh at me for my fascination— and in fact many did; this was not an eccentricity we could keep entirely quiet— but I rapidly learned that there is far more to sparklings than my childish eye had seen. They differ in size, color, and conformation between males and females, and there is more than one breed; I identified three in the vicinity of Pasterway, though I have since revised that analysis. I learned their behaviours and habits, and poured much unsuccessful effort into coaxing them to breed in captivity.
Earth-shaking discoveries they were not, but the simple fact that I made them lifted me out of my depression and back into the realm of social life. I went out once more, and hosted gatherings at our house; Jacob spent more time at home. With their delicate tails and scintillating wings, sparklings healed the damage my heart had suffered.
In a sense, therefore, sparklings led me to my life’s work not once but twice: first when they seeded my childhood interest in natural history, and again when they brought me back to myself following the miscarriage. Had I not recovered then, I would not have met Maxwell Oscott, Earl of Hilford, and heard of his Vystrani expedition.
Even before my miscarriage, I went to Renwick’s less often than before; it is not the best place for recreation if you are not on the catch for a spouse or shepherding a relative through the process. Jacob’s younger brother, though, had decided to advertise himself as an eligible bachelor, and Jacob had promised to help look out a suitable wife for him.
It was not the best choice for my first truly public outing since my miscarriage. The press of people threatened to become overwhelming, and I had occasion to be glad that entry to the upper rooms was so closely regulated. True crowds, I fear, might have done me in.
As it was, I spent the evening reacquainting myself with Society, the ladies’ comments alternating between solicitous concern for my well-being and pointed barbs about my recent hobby. I endured these latter in polite silence, mostly for Jacob’s sake; left to my own devices, I would have loved to shock the earrings off some of the women I spoke to with a few well- chosen details about my sparkling breeding programme.
My one respite came from Miss Natalie Oscott, a merry-hearted young woman I met early in the evening, and found to be quite a congenial soul. Very nearly the first words I heard her speak were a comment on the historical scholarship of Madame Précillon, and when the ebb and flow of socialization left the two of us alone for a time, I found she had quite as much ink on her nose as I. When she offered to introduce me to her grandfather, I was glad to accept.
“He doesn’t often come here,” Miss Oscott said over her shoulder, leading me through the crowd, “but my cousin Georgia has designs on a husband, and Grandpapa insisted on meeting the fellow— ah, there you are. Have you put the fear of Heaven into the young man yet?”
“The fear of me, which is quite sufficient,” Lord Hilford said, pecking his granddaughter upon the cheek. He was not a tall man, balding and stocky of build, though without the large gut commonly observed among the older peerage. I could imagine him as quite fearsome to a prospective suitor, though he greeted me pleasantly enough. It transpired that he knew Jacob’s father, Sir Joseph, and he congratulated me upon my marriage. “Must have missed the news,” he said apologetically. “I’ve not been in Scirland much these last few years. Puts me quite behind the news, I’m afraid.”
“You’ve been abroad, then?” I asked.
Miss Oscott laughed. “Grandpapa’s hardly ever at home. Too busy visiting exotic places.”
Lord Hilford drew himself up with an air of aggrieved dignity, looking down at his granddaughter— or attempting to, for she was scarcely an inch shorter than he. “I’ll have you know, my girl, that the last six months were entirely for my health. My physician advised me to take the sea waters on Prania.”
“And the sea-snakes that can only be found off the coasts of Prania had nothing to do with it, I’m sure.”
Her words spurred my memory. “Didn’t you present to the Philosophers’ Colloquium about those creatures?”
He dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “Nothing terribly important. I spent six months swimming and being dosed with vile tonics I didn’t need in the slightest; the lecture was my attempt to get something of value out of the experience. I do travel for research, though, as my granddaughter has so pointedly indicated.”
“That must be pleasant,” I sighed. “Jacob and I had hoped to take a tour after our wedding, but circumstances interfered. Where have your travels led you?”
As I had surmised from Miss Oscott’s evident fondness for her grandfather, it did not take much encouragement to get Lord Hilford started in talking about his research. He puffed up a little and hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his waistcoat. “Here and there. After so many years, the places do pile up. I was with the army in my youth, during our wars in Akhia, but the desert doesn’t agree with me; the sun is too harsh.” One hand came away from its perch to rub at his hairless pate. “Not enough to protect me up top, you see, and I went bald at a young age.
“Nor am I much of a sailor,” he went on, “so it’s the mainland for me, I fear. In fact, I think the climate of Prania did more harm to my joints than good. Rheumatism, you know. I intend to try the mountains next— a research expedition to Vystrana.”
There are any number of animals in Vystrana that one could go to study, but in truth, my mind went straight to the creature I had seen a few years before, in the king’s menagerie. “Dragons?”
Lord Hilford raised one white eyebrow at me. “Indeed, Mrs. Camherst.”
“But—do you not study sea creatures?”
“I have a little of late, but only in pursuit of a side theory of mine, regarding taxonomy. If I’m a poor sailor, what sort of seagoing naturalist would I make, eh?” Lord Hilford shook his head. “No, Mrs. Camherst, my interest is primarily in dragons. We know very little of them, compared to other creatures— it’s a terrible shortcoming in our learning.”
It called to mind a fellow Jacob and I had dined with once. “Do you know Lord Shalney, by any chance?”
His laugh turned out to be the basso version of Miss Oscott’s. “Verner? Certainly. I take it you’ve heard his diatribe on our lack of dragon knowledge, then.”
“Shortly after my wedding,” I admitted. “Vystrana, you say?”
“There’s a breed of dragons there— we call them rock-wyrms, though the locals call them balaur. Not a native word; it may be a loan from Bulskoi or Zmayin. Relatively approachable, as dragons go, and one doesn’t have to endure too much in the way of dreadful weather to find them, at least in the proper season. I often wonder what it is about dragons that makes them prefer extreme climates— or is it just that we’ve pushed them back as we’ve spread out? Were there once simple fi eld- and meadow- dragons that liked their living more comfortable? I couldn’t say, but Vystrana seems a reasonable place to try and observe the ones we have.”
I was a better hand at concealing my enthusiasm these days than I had once been. I like to believe the expression I presented to Lord Hilford was one of polite interest, rather than the quivering excitement I held within. “I am sure my husband will look forward to reading about your findings.” He would have to wait, though— first for Lord Hilford to conduct his expedition, then for him to issue his report, and finally for me to snatch it out of the mail and devour every word before giving it to him. Jacob found dragons interesting, make no mistake, but not with my degree of passion. He could read it after I was done.
“Grandpapa brought a dragon back from Vystrana once,” Miss Oscott put in. “He gave it as a personal gift to the king.”
“The albino?” I asked, looking to Lord Hilford.
He nodded, beaming at the memory of his own accomplishment— as well he might, given the diffi culties involved. “You saw my little drake, I take it?”
“In the king’s menagerie.” I blushed a little, wishing I could do it as prettily as some ladies, and admitted to him, “Jacob and I met there, in fact. Not just in the menagerie, but in the dragon room itself. It made me so very low when I heard the Vystrani had died.”
The earl looked philosophical. “Yes, well, don’t blame Swargin; he did his best. They rarely thrive away from their homelands. Most efforts to transport dragons fail outright, of course, and then they do poorly in captivity. The imperial dragon-men of Yelang claim they’ve been able to propagate some of their local breeds, but I have my doubts. My little white outlasted that Akhian, though!”
I remembered Mr. Swargin talking about the desert-drake’s delicate constitution. I had hoped for her to survive, but she had succumbed to a pulmonary illness even before my wedding. “Was that one your acquisition as well, my lord?”
“Only in part. I did help capture her— and swore blind after that I would never go to the desert again— but the Duke of Conchett was the one who presented her to the king.”
Not one dragon captured and brought into captivity, but two. My estimation of Lord Hilford was climbing steadily, and had not been low to begin with. “And the Moulish swamp-wyrm?”
He laughed outright. “Nothing could persuade me to attach my name to that thing. Ill- tempered and as intractable as they come, and an ugly example of the breed to boot. Not that Moulish dragons are ever what one might call attractive, mind you. But I’m certain its breath contributed to the ill health of the Akhian— of course, our climate also had much to do with it; I’ll put blame where blame is due— and it bit my little white more than once, when it got out of the control of its keepers. No, Mrs. Camherst, the Moulish beast was not my doing.”
“I hope I haven’t offended,” I said, though I rather doubted I had.
“Not in the least. You do an old man’s sense of self-importance good, asking so much about dragons.”
I returned his smile, and resolved to find some way to thank Miss Oscott for her part in bringing me to her grandfather’s acquaintance. “I wish you luck in your Vystrani expedition. When is it scheduled to depart?”
He waved one hand again, a gesture I was beginning to suspect was habitual. “Not until next year. Hard to arrange things from Prania, especially when you’re being laid low by sea journeys and vile tonics, and I have some relations who insist they like me and would like to see me once in a while.” He gave his granddaughter a mock-suspicious look. “Either that, or they’re luring me home so they can whack me over the head and get the inheritance at last.”
Miss Oscott put on a look of airy innocence, and we all laughed. Then, not wanting to impose more than I already had on the earl’s time, I bid them a good evening and made my way once again through the crowds of Renwick’s.
Locating Jacob took some time. When I succeeded at last, I found him in a foul temper, owing to unspecified fraternal antics. It put something of a damper on my bubbling enthusiasm; this was clearly not a good time to bring up Lord Hilford and his expedition. Instead we made our departure from the hall, and went to the house Jacob kept in town, where we stayed on our Falchester trips. Feeling somewhat deflated, I prepared for bed, then lay for nearly an hour in the dark, staring at the ceiling and thinking of Vystrana.
Advantageous correspondence — An unwise request — I speak
my mind — An unproductive morning — The risk of lunacy —
What other people might say
Judging by the number of letters we received at our house over the next two months, Lord Hilford was more than happy to correspond with my husband about his lecture and everything else under the sun. Jacob read bits of these out loud to me, mostly anecdotes of natural history, but occasionally the earl’s biting observations about the trials of spending time with family. I gathered that he was glad for the excuse to closet himself away from them for an hour or two and engage his mind with the questions of a colleague.
I cultivated that connection with every wile I possessed, for I had awoken the morning after Renwick’s utterly possessed by a single notion: that Jacob should join the expedition. By now I had every confi dence that we would hear all the details, not merely those digested for lectures and articles; but it was not enough. Jacob must go, and I could live the experience vicariously through him.
Or so I thought at the time.
Over a quiet dinner one night, I found I had achieved my goal. “Isabella,” Jacob said during the main course, “would you object if I went abroad?”
I did not drop my fork, though my hand forgot to mind it for a moment. “Abroad?”
“Lord Hilford’s planning an expedition—” Jacob stopped himself mid- sentence and eyed me across the tureen of stewed carrots. “But I don’t need to remind you of that, do I? You’ve orchestrated it very well, I must say.”
“Orchestrated?” I made a valiant attempt at an innocent expression. “Lord Hilford had that expedition in mind long before I met him.”
“But not that I should be a part of it. Admit it, Isabella; you’ve been nudging me toward him and his Vystrani escapade, since— when? Certainly since the beginning of summer. As far back as Renwick’s?”
“Not that early,” I said, avoiding a lie by the narrowest of margins. The hour of sleeplessness after Renwick’s did not count as at Renwick’s.
“It can’t have been long after that. I can’t say I object, precisely; Hilford’s fast become a good friend. You could have been more open about it, though.”
I studied my husband at the other end of the table and replied with more honesty than I’d intended. “Would you have listened, had I been blunt? Had I told you from the start what I had in mind— that you should deliberately seek out and befriend a peer of the realm, for the purposes of worming your way into his foreign expedition?”
Jacob frowned. “When you put it like that, it sounds dreadfully presumptuous.”
“Precisely. And it would have been presumptuous, had you had any such intention— which means you probably wouldn’t have done it at all. Therefore, I approached it more subtly.”
The twitch of his eyebrow said he was not persuaded by my logic. “Meaning you had that intention on my behalf.”
“Isn’t that a wife’s duty?” I offered him an innocent smile.
My husband put down his fork and leaned back in his chair, gazing at me in bemusement. “You’re outrageous, Isabella.”
“Outrageous? Me? Do you see me wearing scandalously low-cut gowns to the opera, like the Marchioness of Priscin? Do you see me publishing books of poetry and pretending they aren’t mine, like Lady Hannah Spring? Do you—”
“Enough!” Jacob laughed and cut me off. “I’m afraid to hear what other pieces of Society gossip you may have picked up. Since you have admitted to your meddling, I imagine you would not object to me going abroad with Hilford.” He looked rueful and picked his fork up again. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you booted me out the door.”
“And risk damage to my shoe?” I imitated the tone of the most vapid beauty in Society. Jacob smiled, and ate in silence for a few minutes. The footman came in and cleared away the plates, then brought in the pudding.
For once, I had little appetite for it, and the heavy bread sat like a raisin-studded lump in my stomach. I picked at it for a little while, not really eating much, while across from me Jacob dug into his own.
When I realized the source of my suddenly dismal mood, it escaped my lips before I could stop it.
“I want to go with you.”
Jacob paused, a forkful of pudding already in his mouth, staring across at me. Slowly, he drew the fork out, and laid it on his plate while he chewed and swallowed. “To Vystrana.”
“Yes.” I wished I had kept silent. If there were any chance of success, it would not come this way, with my desire stated so bluntly.
Jacob’s expression showed me I was not wrong. “Isabella . . . it’s out of the question, and you know it.” So I did, and yet…
“Please,” I said. The word came out softly, and heartfelt. “I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a girl. You know that, Jacob. To sit idly at home, while others go and see them in person—”
“To see real ones, I mean; adults instead of runts. Adult dragons, living in the wild, not chained in a pit for the king’s favourites to gawk at. I’ve read about them— you of all people know how much— but words are nothing. Engravings give the illusion of reality, but how many of the engravers have even seen the subjects they depict? This might be my only chance, Jacob.”
I stopped and swallowed. The pudding I had eaten felt like it might come back up again, did I relax my guard against it.
“Isabella.” His voice was also soft, but intense. I could not look up at him, staring fixedly at my plate instead. “I know your interest, and I have sympathy for it— believe me, I do! But you cannot ask me to take my wife abroad in this manner. A tour, certainly, going to civilized places, but the mountains of Vystrana are not civilized.
“You’ve read about it, I know. Try to imagine what you’ve read made real. The peasants there eke out their existence; do you think they will have a comfortable hotel for us to stay in? Servants who are more than local girls hired on for our stay, who— who actually understand how to care for people rather than for sheep? It will not be a pleasant existence, Isabella.”
“Do you think I care?” I slammed my fork down, heedless of the scene I was making. “I don’t need luxury, Jacob; I don’t need pampering. I’m not afraid of dirt and drafts and— and washing my own clothing. Or yours, for that matter. I could be useful; would it not be advantageous to have someone to make accurate drawings? Think of me as a secretary. I can keep your notes, or ga nize your papers, make certain that you and Lord Hilford have what you need when you go out to observe.”
Jacob shook his head. “While you sit in the rented cottage, content to be left behind?”
“I didn’t say I would be content.”
“And you wouldn’t be. I’d find you out there in boy’s clothes, masquerading as a shepherd, before a fortnight was done.”
Heat stained my cheeks. It might have been anger, embarrassment, or a little of both. “That is not fair.”
“I’m just being pragmatic, Isabella. You’ve made headstrong decisions before, and they got you hurt. Don’t ask me to stand by and let you be hurt again.”
I took a deep, slow breath, hoping it would calm me down. The air caught in my throat, raggedly. I would not cry. Why was I crying?
“Please,” I repeated, knowing I had said it already, but unable to avoid repeating it. “Please…don’t leave me behind.”
Silence followed my words. My gaze had drifted downward again, and I could not bear to lift it, to look at him while I said this. “Don’t leave me here alone. You’ll be gone for months, a year perhaps— and what will I do with myself?”
His answer was gentle. “You have friends. Invite one of them to come stay with you for a time. Or go visit your family; I am sure they would be glad to have you.” A soft sound that might have been a laugh. “Continue your work with sparklings, if it makes you happy.”
“But it doesn’t! It isn’t enough. Jacob, please. I don’t blame you for going away so much when I was in my depression, but if you go away for so long, I’ll feel—”
The words stuck in my mouth. No matter how hard I tried, I could not bring myself to enunciate it, to tell him the depth of fear and inadequacy the prospect of his absence created in my heart.
More silence, while I tried to breathe. Then at last Jacob spoke, in level, almost grim tones.
“I did not mind when you set out to snare me in Falchester, Isabella. And I did not mind when you put me in Lord Hilford’s path. But I will not let you maneuver me into this one—especially not with that.”
All desire for tears vanished in a surge of white-hot rage. My gaze snapped up to meet his, and my chair skidded backward on the rug as I stood, palms fl at on the table, feet widely braced.
“Don’t you dare,” I spat, not caring how loud my voice became. “Don’t you dare accuse me of using this to maneuver you. I spoke my heart, and nothing more. Have you any concept what it feels like, to endure the loss I have? You may not blame me, but others do; whether you think of it this way or not, they whisper that I have failed as your wife. If you leave, what will they say then? How will we feel toward one another, when you come back? Can you promise me it would not create distance between us? And while you’re gone, I will be sitting here, trying to keep myself occupied with frivolity and artifice, an endless round of dances and card games and things I don’t give a damn about, knowing all the while that my one opportunity to see true dragons has come and gone, leaving me behind.”
My words exhausted, I stood, panting, staring at Jacob’s white face. That face blurred alarmingly, and I could not think of anything to say in the aftermath of my tirade, anything that would begin to atone for the anger I had just shown him. A lady, quite simply, did not speak so to her husband.
There was nothing I could say. Nor could I bear to remain there in silence.
Turning sharply, almost stumbling over my chair, I fled the room.
Jacob did not pursue me, nor did he come to my bedchamber that night. (We had slept apart since my miscarriage, that I might not trouble him with my restlessness.) I rose at my usual hour the next morning, but dressed slowly, not eager to go downstairs and face him after my outburst of the previous night. My state was not helped by my uncertainty as to how I felt about that outburst. I did not know whether to regret it or not.
My cowardice eventually lost out to my will, and I went down, only to discover that Jacob had gone riding, and the servants could not tell me when he would return. This did nothing to improve my mood.
I sat down to answer correspondence, but my handwriting was atrocious, a reflection of my feelings that day, and I soon gave it up in disgust. The day being fine, I went out into the garden, but as I have said before it was a small place, and not one that could keep me occupied for long. At length I went down to the shed where I kept my sparklings and my notes, though I was not much in a mood to work.
Once inside, I sank onto a stool and gazed sightlessly over the neat ranks of my vinegar-soaked sparklings. Each stood on a card labeled in my tidiest handwriting, recounting when and where it had been collected, its length, its wingspan, and how much it weighed. They were organized into categories based on my research, grouped according to the subtypes I was beginning to identify. One stood on my working- table, submerged in a jar of vinegar, awaiting my latest effort at dissection. I picked up the surgeon’s scalpel I had been using for that task, and put it down. Hardly a pastime for a lady.
Yet it was the closest thing I could arrange to the work I truly wanted to be doing. My childhood obsession, buried for years after the incident with the wolf-drake, had put up shoots during the tour of the menagerie, and now those shoots had burst into full flower. I wanted both to see dragons, and to understand them. I wanted to stretch the wings of my mind and see how far I could fly.
I wanted, in short, the intellectual life of a gentleman— or as close to it as I could come.
I picked up a sparkling, my fingers gentle despite my frustration, and studied the minute perfection of its scales. The tiny head with its ridges, no less fierce for being so small, and the elegant wings. They did not look precisely like dragons, but they spat infinitesimal sparks: the origin of their name and, I thought, a means of attracting mates, much like a firefly’s glow.
That thought made me lower than ever, and I put the sparkling down, turning to a book I had left open. It showed an anatomical drawing of a wyvern, which I believed might be a larger relative of the sparkling— a notion which, if true, would make them not insects at all.
A shadow fell across the page, obscuring the diagram.
It might have been a servant, but even before the silence stretched out long past the time when a servant would have announced his business, I knew it was not. I recognized my husband’s step.
“I thought I might find you here,” Jacob said after a brief silence.
“You almost didn’t,” I replied, my voice pleasingly steady despite the turmoil inside. “I was about to go inside and make another attempt at answering letters.”
I heard Jacob move a few steps around the interior of the shed, and suspected he was studying my shelves. “I had no idea you had collected so many.”
I could not think of a response that would not sound antagonistic, and so I kept quiet.
Jacob, I think, had been hoping I would make small talk, perhaps help him find a graceful way into the conversation we could not avoid. Faced with my silence, he sighed. “I’m sorry for what I said last night,” he told me, his voice heavy. “The implication that you were…using our loss against me, as a way to get what you wanted. I should not have said that.”
“No, you should not have.” My words came out harder than I meant them to. I sighed, echoing him. “But I forgive you. It’s true; I have maneuvered you before.”
My husband came forward to lean gingerly on the edge of my working- table, careful not to disturb anything on it. He gazed down at me, and when I made myself look up, I could not read his expression.
“Tell me truly,” Jacob said. “If I go to Vystrana without you— with travel time, it will take the better part of a year. What will you do?”
Go mad in white linen…but I would not say that to him. Though true, it was not the sort of answer he deserved. I considered it for a moment, then said, “I would likely visit my family, at least to start. I would rather be in the countryside than engaging in empty rounds about Society. Here, I would have to endure too much gossip and false sympathy, and I fear I would hit someone and make a true disgrace of myself.”
The corner of Jacob’s mouth quirked. “And then?”
“In truth? I don’t know. Go to the coast, perhaps, or see if I might convince you to fi nance a trip for me somewhere foreign. People would think it less strange if I went to a spa for my health. But that would not keep me occupied; it would just remove my boredom to somewhere further from the public eye.”
“Are you that bored?”
I met his gaze directly. “You have no idea. At least when men visit with friends, it is acceptable for them to talk about more than fashion and perhaps the occasional silly novel. I cannot talk to ladies about the latest lectures at the Philosophers’ Colloquium, and men will not include me in their conversations. You allow me to read what ever I wish, and that spares my sanity. But books alone cannot keep me company for a year.”
He absorbed this, then nodded. “Very well. I’ve listened to your side. Will you hear mine?”
“I owe you at least that much.”
His eyes roved across the ordered ranks of my sparklings as he spoke. “You would be thought odd for going on an expedition to Vystrana; I would be thought a monster. I care little for those who would tell me I should keep my wife in line; I have not made a habit of keeping you on a leash. But there are others who would ask what sort of gentleman would subject his wife to such hardship.”
“Even if your wife volunteered for it?”
“That does not enter into it. It is my duty to protect you and keep you safe. Protection and safety do not include ventures of this sort.”
I folded my hands into my lap, noting irrelevantly that I had begun biting my nails again. It was a habit I have spent my life trying and failing to break. “Then the question, I suppose, is how much those criticisms concern you.”
I glanced up at Jacob again, and saw the quirk in his mouth grow to a rueful smile.
“The question,” he said, “is whether that concern is important enough to warrant making my wife miserable.”
Hardly daring to breathe, I waited for him to go on. What ever else he might say, I knew one thing: that I had been luckier than I knew, the day Andrew invited me to go with him to the king’s menagerie. How many other gentlemen would even have made such a statement?
Jacob’s hazel eyes fixed on me, and then he shook his head. My heart sank, though I tried not to show it.
“I am the greatest lunatic in Scirland,” he said, “but I cannot bear to deny you. Not with you looking at me like that.”
His words took a moment to sink in, so convinced was I that I had lost my case. “You mean—”
Jacob held up a cautioning hand. “I mean that I will write to Hilford. The expedition is his; I can’t go adding people on my own whim. But yes, Isabella— I mean that I, at least, will not stand in your way. On the condition—!” His words broke off as I surged to my feet and threw my arms about him. “On the condition,” he continued when I released him enough to breathe, “that you promise me, no mad antics. No putting yourself in the path of a hungry wolf-drake. Nothing that will make me regret saying this today.”
“I promise to try and keep myself safe.”
“That isn’t quite the same thing, you know,” he said, but my kiss stopped any other objections he might have had.
Copyright Marie Brennan © 2012
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