Author's Notes: For NemoTheSurvivor's challenge in the Reviews Lounge, Too challenge thread.
Disclaimer: The setting and the characters Elodie, Count Jonty Um, and Masteress Meenore belong to the amazing Gail Carson Levine. Cameel and the children of Elodie and Jonty Um are my own OCs.
We were at supper when it finally happened. It had been a long and trying day; there had been a steady downpour from the moment we had awoken that morning, and the children were nearly frantic with restlessness.
My husband, Count Jonty Um, was at one end of the table working with our oldest son Benwa on "how to eat like a gentleman." Benwa seemed to have gotten more of the ogre blood from Jonty Um than any of the other children and was already hitting a growth spurt at the age of eight. He would be taller than me soon. He didn't seem to know what to do with his long arms and legs, but Jonty Um, who must have gone through the same trials himself once, was endlessly patient with him.
I was less patient, I fear, with Rowl and Renay, who were arguing fiercely and intermittently coming to blows. With Jonty Um busy with Benwa, I had to mediate between our two middle sons while coaxing Sylvie, who was whining like a girl half her age, to eat. As I say, it had been a trying day.
Thus, we were anything but prepared when Cameel showed up in the dining room doorway.
I should, I suppose, explain about Cameel. She was eighteen at the time, and not in the least a bad girl. She had always been precocious and was extremely clever, and quite good-hearted besides. To be perfectly frank, however, I must admit that I came very near to hating her. I am not proud of it; it was, perhaps, even childish. But it's true. For you see, Masteress Meenore—not master or mistress, but masteress, because only a dragon knows ITs gender—had chosen her to take my place as ITs assistant when I had left to marry my Jonty Um. It was all perfectly natural and proper, and yet I could not bear to see her taking my place at ITs side. I could not bear the idea of my masteress perhaps liking someone better than me. Foolish, isn't it? But I couldn't seem to help it at the time. I know better now.
Cameel was soaked through with the rain, so that we didn't realize at first that she was weeping. When Jonty Um saw her, he at once told the boys to be quiet. The dining room fell into a hush.
"Masteress Meenore, the one, the only, requests your presence at ITs lair as soon as possible," Cameel said, in an attempt at a dramatic mansioner's—actor's—voice. I could have done better. Her voice cracked, and she added with a sob, "IT is dying."
I stood up so quickly that my chair fell over. Jonty Um rose, too, and came to stand beside me. Trembling, I laid my head against his thigh, and he ran a huge hand through my hair. He thanked Cameel and bade her to come in by the fire, then ordered a servant to prepare a carriage for us. I barely heard any of this. I could think of nothing except the fact that my former masteress was dying.
We had known it would happen soon, of course. IT was not old, but within the last few years, IT had contracted a type of disease to which only dragons are apparently susceptible. ITs body had been slowly deteriorating until, for about two months, IT had been unable to even leave ITs lair. IT had still been deducing, inducing, and using ITs common sense, and still, of course, demanding ITs pay for doing so. But it is harder to find lost objects when you are confined to your bed. ITs spirits had declined along with ITs strength, and as I visited IT nearly every day, I had known the end was near. Still, this came as a shock.
The rain beating on the carriage roof as we rode into the town of Two Castles did not help. It wasn't just that rain and grief go together perfectly, as any mansioner's tale will tell you. It was on a day like today that Masteress Meenore had offered me a job as ITs assistant. A penniless aspiring actress, I had been going to the mansioners' camp in the vain hope of offering myself for a free fifteen-year apprenticeship. The dragon had been going the same way, and IT had lifted ITs beautiful wing over my head to protect me from the rain. After the stingy mansioning master turned me down, IT had made ITs offer, and I had never looked back. Well, once or twice. But I loved IT dearly, and I knew, though I was sure IT would never say so, that IT loved me, too.
We reached Masteress Meenore's lair at the end of Owe Street. The children had gone silent, recognizing my grief, I think; the only sound was Cameel's weeping. I wasn't crying yet. IT would scold me for crying prematurely.
Cameel got up quickly when the carriage stopped. "I'll go in first," she said. "I'll announce you."
"I'll announce myself," I snapped. "IT wanted to see me." I pushed past her and hopped out into the rain. Looking back, I realize I was being a terrible example for my children, but I didn't even think about it then. Jonty Um must have explained it to them, because I never heard a word about it.
I ran into the lair. IT was lying at the back, near the fire. IT was shivering. I don't suppose you have ever seen a dragon shivering; it is horrible. You can feel a tremor in the floor, and IT shakes so hard you feel certain IT must be in awful pain.
"Elodie," Masteress Meenore said, catching sight of me. ITs nasally voice was weak. Tears sprang to my eyes. IT must have been very happy to see me. IT only called me Elodie when IT was especially pleased with me; the rest of the time, I was Lodie.
"Masteress," I whispered, going up to IT and laying a hand tenderly on ITs foreleg. Smoke was going up from ITs nostrils in wispy white spirals. Dragon joy. Weak dragon joy.
There came sounds of coughing from behind us, and ITs smoke turned blue—for embarrassment. IT always smelled of sulfur. I had grown to love the smell, but my children had not.
"I deduce that you have brought your family with you, Lodie," IT said, shifting slightly.
"Yes, Masteress," I said.
"That is good," IT replied. With an effort, IT lifted ITs head and looked toward the door. "Welcome, Your Lordship. Welcome, children." IT added, "Cam, shut the door. It's cold enough in here."
That was another reason I didn't like Cameel. Just as with me, Masteress Meenore only used her full name when IT was especially pleased with her.
"Meenore," Jonty Um said, seeming to choke on the word. He came over and knelt by IT, wrapping a comforting arm around me. The children gathered around us. One thing I had always been glad of was that they were not afraid of IT. Of course, when your father is an ogre, it is easy not to fear a dragon.
IT looked at us for several minutes. At last, IT said, "A fine family. Of course, I take full credit for the match. You two would never have known each other if I had not taken Lodie as my assistant."
Jonty Um and I laughed. IT laughed, too, a sound something like Enh enh enh.
"Of course you may have all the credit, Masteress," I said.
"Mmm," IT said. "Lodie, mansion for me. I wish to see you mansion one last time."
Though ITs words stung my eyes with tears, I stood. Jonty Um and the children moved back to give me room. I took a deep breath—to collect myself, not to set the mood. The mood was already set for the role I would play.
"O Pyramus? Is that you?" I whispered. I had once done this scene when I was starving and had pictured an apple as my Pyramus. This time, Pyramus was my masteress. "O, O my love." I dropped my voice to a murmur. "My heart, my darling." Tears ran down my cheeks, appropriate to the scene, but all for my masteress. "O Pyramus…" O Masteress. "…do you yet breathe?"
"Stop, Lodie." ITs voice was sharp. "Do not mansion tragedy now."
I brushed at my tears. "You once said you relished a good Thisbe."
"I do not relish it now," IT answered. "Give us something joyful."
All joyful thoughts had fled my mind. At last, I began the tale "Toads and Diamonds." I did not do well, but somehow I got through it.
"Mmm," was all IT said when I had finished. Jonty Um came back to my side and put his arms around me.
"Can I get you anything, Masteress?" Cameel said suddenly. I knew she had only said it to get ITs attention.
IT must have known, too, for IT only said, "No," very shortly, and turned back to us. "Benwa," IT said. "Come here."
Benwa moved to stand by ITs head, knocking over a basket of bread and cheese as he did so. Cameel rushed to clean it up.
Enh enh enh. "Benwa, I induce that you will soon be bigger than your mother. Do not use your size as an excuse to be difficult with her."
"I won't, Masteress," Benwa said.
"Good," IT replied. IT considered him for a moment. "You are your father's son. That is well. Be kind. Be brave. Be compassionate. Do these things, and there will always be those ready to see past what you are, or better still, to love you for it."
"Yes, Masteress." Benwa bowed, and IT inclined ITs head toward him. I reached out and drew him back, silently grateful for ITs blessing.
"Rowl, come here."
My second son went to take Benwa's place, stepping with exaggerated care and tossing Benwa a haughty look when he reached it without so much as touching the still-busy Cameel. Benwa blushed, and I suppressed a sigh. Of the four, of course it would be Rowl who wouldn't take a scene like this seriously. I knew that IT had seen the look, though, and that I would not have to rebuke Rowl this time.
"Mmm," IT said slowly. "Now this one does not take after his father at all. Nor again after his mother, greatly. He is talented, but haughty; clever, but hasty and careless; strong, but overbearing. Great strength and great weakness, dwelling together."
Rowl was scowling at IT. I wanted to shake him.
"Hone the strength, master the weakness, and none shall be able to stand before you."
Rowl's face softened into confusion, and I realized he had been expecting a rebuke, not a blessing. I put a hand on his shoulder and whispered into his ear, "Yes, Masteress." He repeated the phrase obediently and then, to my surprise, bowed without my prompting. Masteress Meenore inclined ITs head, and I drew him back.
Renay looked back at me uncertainly before taking his brother's place. Rowl's opposite, he seemed to want approval for everything he did. I nodded and was pleased to see IT smile at him before IT began.
"Renay. The artist. Sensitive, silent, a listener and a watcher. You have learned much from nature and from watching others, and you will learn much more. But in all of your learning, learn this as early as you can: You cannot and need not have everyone's approval. It is a burden that no one can bear."
Renay whispered, "Yeth, Mathtereth," and then buried his head in my skirt. He hated his lisp.
IT smiled again. "And fear not; your mother's approval you will never lose."
I smiled, stroking Renay's hair. "Thank you, Masteress."
IT nodded once and called for Sylvie.
My youngest came forward with a great show of reluctance. I say "show" purposely, for a show it was. Sylvie had learned to play the damsel in distress when she was still a baby, realizing that she could get more attention in anything by pretending to be very upset about it. By the time we had figured out what she was doing, the habit was well-ingrained, and all our attempts to break it had so far been unsuccessful.
"Ah, the young mansioner. If one can judge by a child's misbehavior, Lodie, I should say that someday she will mansion as well as you."
I smiled. The thought had crossed my mind as well, but I was glad to hear IT say so. "Thank you, Masteress," I said.
"She will not remember this, will she, Lodie?" IT asked.
I smiled sadly. "I doubt it, Masteress."
IT shook ITs head. "Alas for the feebleness of the human mind. You must tell her then, when she is older, that she was blessed by a dragon as a child."
"We will tell her, Meenore," Jonty Um said.
IT then wanted to speak privately with Jonty Um, so the children, Cameel, and I moved to the opposite end of the lair. I did not take my eyes off my masteress the whole time they spoke; I hated to be separated from IT even for a moment. Then IT spoke to Cameel privately. This I could not bear to watch. I did not want to know what things IT might be saying to her, or whether they were things IT had never said to me.
At last, IT called, "Elodie, come here." My full name. I went to IT. "Everyone else may leave."
"But, Masteress—" Cameel cried.
"Cam," IT said severely. "I feel now that my time is coming. I wish only Elodie to be here with me." My heart jumped, unsure whether to be overjoyed or distraught. IT was about to die. And IT wanted only me there.
Jonty Um pulled me into a gentle embrace and leaned far down to kiss my lips. He said nothing. He lifted a hand to my masteress and then shepherded the children out the door. Cameel left, too, though not without a hurt glance back. IT did not acknowledge her.
"Pull up a stool, Elodie."
I grabbed one of the wooden stools, set it near my masteress's head, and sat. I reached out, a little tentatively, and laid my hand on ITs neck just behind ITs head. I let it rest there a moment. ITs smoke started going up in spirals, and, encouraged, I began to rub ITs neck gently. IT gave a quiet moan of pleasure.
We sat for some minutes in silence. I fought tears as long as I could, but now they refused to be stifled. They began running down my cheeks, one after another, in a steady stream.
"Elodie," IT said softly.
"Elodie?" I asked. "I thought you would be displeased that I was crying."
"How can I be, when you weep for love of me?"
I nodded and gave a very unladylike sniff.
"I am proud of you, Elodie," IT continued. "I have not always shown you so. I told you once that I was stingy. I meant it in regard to praise as well. But you deduced, did you not, that I was proud of you?" IT sounded genuinely worried.
"Yes, Masteress," I whispered. "I deduced it very early on."
"Mmm," IT said. "Good."
We were quiet again for a while.
Enh enh enh.
"What's funny, Masteress?" I asked.
"I was only thinking, Lodie," IT answered, "that you might like to hear me say this: I have always preferred you to Cameel. Never for one moment did I like her better."
Tears and laughter exploded from me at once. It was terribly petty, but I was glad to know.
Enh enh enh.
The next silence lasted a very long time. IT began shivering harder, and the knowledge that I could do nothing to relieve ITs pain tore at me. ITs breathing grew ragged, and the smoke started coming in faint puffs, with sometimes a long time between. It would not be long now.
The bells of Two Castles began sounding, marking the hour as ten o' clock. I wondered if Jonty Um had taken the children home and put them to bed. I hoped so.
A few minutes later, my masteress said, in a weak and brittle voice, "Elodie, come close to me."
I slid off the stool and knelt next to IT, laying my head against ITs. Suddenly, I felt a warm wetness against my cheek—a dragon tear. IT was crying!
We cried together. Then IT drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I love you, Elodie," IT whispered. The breath escaped. The puffs of smoke stopped.
"I love you, too," I whispered. "Oh, I love you, too."
I sat next to IT, my whole body wracked with sobs, until the Two Castles bells marked midnight and ITs body, always the warmest thing I had ever touched, had grown cold. Then, as though in a daze, I stood and walked out of the lair and into the night.
The rain had stopped. The carriage was still there—no, there again, I realized. I deduced. The horse had been changed for another; my Jonty Um, always concerned for animals, had let the first, drenched horse go to bed.
Jonty Um stepped into view around the side of the carriage and came toward me. "It's over?" he asked.
I nodded mutely.
Jonty Um bowed his head. He scooped me up in his arms and cradled me there like a baby, and like a baby, I sobbed into his chest. He carried me back to the carriage and helped me in. It started to move, taking me back to my children and to life without IT.
Suddenly, I realized something. I mansioned ITs laugh, Enh enh enh. Jonty Um looked at me in surprise. I smiled through my tears. "I just realized," I said. "I never did learn ITs gender. When I was a child, I promised myself I would find out."
Jonty Um smiled sadly. "I myself always thought Meenore was male."
I nodded slowly. "I think I did, too."
We said nothing more the rest of the way home.
7/21/17: Many thanks to RedButterfly33 for a tremendously helpful review that helped me return to this story with new eyes and make some long-overdue edits!