My Lady's Dragon
Chiara da Luna
Later, Lady Rose could not identify the impulse that made her ask her aunt for a duplicate mourning brooch for her sister, Lady Lilias. Perhaps it was the shock of her aunt offering anything at all. The request for the second brooch allowed her aunt to repent of her generosity and purse her lips in disapproval, though she did indeed consent to its purchase. Rose now wore one pinned to her pelisse and carried the other wrapped and tucked inside the fur muff bought for her first London season, too many years ago to be fashionable, during the short trip from Wexley to Dover. She fingered the brooch in its wrapping to contain her anxiety on the slow plod from the posting house, accomplished in a surgeon's gig and pulled by the most ancient horse she'd ever seen in harness. She stole a glance at the surgeon's profile. After meeting her at the posting house, he had hardly said a word to her beyond introducing himself and cutting off her questions about her sister's health with the information that he was a dragon surgeon. Once, when a sigh escaped her, despite her best efforts, he addressed her supposed impatience by saying that the old horse had the advantage of having lost his sense of smell and could thus endure the presence of dragons with equanimity.
When the gig stopped just inside the covert gates, a young man left his company of two others in the courtyard to offer his hand to help her down. Rose drew back in shock, recognizing her sister. "Lilias-Lil! I expected to find you laid down on your bed." She took the offered hand because there was no other.
"I am sure," said the dragon surgeon in the sourest of tones, "that Captain Blakeney has followed her physician's advice and spent the day in bed and is only now taking a short constitutional stroll to the dinner table and not planning to visit the dragon pavilion at all."
"Oh, rather," agreed Lady Lilias with careless mendacity-though Rose supposed she would have to get used to hearing "Captain Blakeney" instead. "Dinner, that's what we need now. Good heavens, Rose, you've brought your own plate. I've never seen a brooch that big."
Rose pulled her hand off the brooch in the muff. She had imagined a quite different reaction. Instead of the gracious offering of the duplicate and sharing a tearful moment with her sister, she retorted instead, "How many have you seen?"
Her sister laughed, somewhat wheezily. "Very few, it is true. Rose, these are my friends Captain Harcourt and Lieutenant Roland. My sister," she offered as an introduction.
Rose saw that these friends were females too, and she blushed for their military breeches and coats. Of course, she knew that as members of the Aerial Corps, her mother and sister must have worn such uniforms, but during their visits to Wexley, they had always worn skirts. She cast her eyes down in embarrassment and did not see the source of deeper voices hailing.
"Do join us at dinner," called her sister to these voices. "My sister has just arrived."
A dreadful scream rent the air. They all jumped.
Lt. Roland, a tall girl close to Rose's age, her sandy hair rigorously disciplined into a queue, sighed as she recovered her composure. "It's one of mother's lady benefactors, you know."
"Oh?" asked Rose, bewildered. "I thought it was a peacock. Should we offer assistance?"
Lil barked her wheezy laugh again. "It is a dratted peacock. Some Society lady thought we should have them to…actually' I don't know why."
Lt. Roland shook her head. "They take the oddest notions. They want to contribute; Mother explains what we need; they give us…peacocks, peacocks that we must not molest or feed to the dragons. We put them near the visitor's entrance to impress our guests with our culture and refinement—" the other women snorted—"and as far away from our quarters and work as may be."
The men joined them in time to smile at this sally. Lil took command. "Let's see if I can do this right. Lady Rose, may I present Captain Laurence, Captain Granby, and Captain Demane? Gentlemen, I present my sister, Lady Rose Danforth. There! Am I polite enough for St. James?"
Captain Laurence's bow reminded or instructed the other two men of their duties. He looked bemused as they tried but failed to imitate his grace.
Lt. Roland asked, "Should we call you Lady Lil, then?"
"Not a bit," said Lil. "I agree with my mother, that the highest title one can have is 'Captain.'"
"Danforth…Your mother..." said Captain Laurence, a shocked expression blooming across his features. "It's true, then: The Countess of Wexley did serve in the corps. I always thought it just an aviator's joke, when someone would cheer for God, King George, England, and the Countess of Wexley. But she was Florenzia's captain, and your mother."
"Captain Belle Blakeney was my mother, and she never wanted any other title," said Lilias with steel in her voice.
"She did not use Papa's name then?" asked Rose, bewildered.
"No," snapped Lilias. "I don't either. That is, I use her name, for simplicity's sake. The Blakeneys have been aviators for generations. And I'll thank you, Mr. Walking Debrett's, not to mention my father's name or title again."
"I beg your pardon, Captain Blakeney. And I am pleased to meet you, Lady Rose." He bowed to both of them. "My condolences on the sad death of your mother."
Rose muttered the acceptable response and let the uneasy silence reign.
Lt. Roland broke the tension. "You must want to change after your journey. I do also; I'm all a-muck."
"Lt. Roland, it's no longer part of your duties to bathe Temeraire," said Captain Laurence, not quite laughing.
"No," retorted his officer. "But it is my duty to make sure that the runners do it correctly-before Temeraire tells them, that is. I thought we cheered the Countess of Wexley because Wexley sends us so many squeakers. They were all over Loch Laggan when I was in school, and one of our new runners came from there."
"Maybe because of Mother, Wexley's people considered the Corps for their children," suggested Rose. Since she was seven and could hardly manage the teapot, she had poured tea at the farewells for the village and tenantry children embarking on careers and education, such as to service or apprenticeship. Certainly a number of those children, even girls, went to the Corps, but she hadn't been aware that it was unusual, though now that she considered the matter, there had been more future aviators than seamen.
"No doubt," agreed Lt. Roland. "Lady Rose, let me show you to your room to save Lil a few steps. They've put you both on the ground floor, I believe. Such a fuss it was, getting that room for you! You'd think they asked the King to bunk down in Soho. But the surgeon was firm, that Lil not have to climb stairs. Let's step lively now. These friends of ours draw the line at missing the best food because other people are dressing for dinner." She grabbed Rose's bags and led the way with Rose trailing uncertainly.
Their steps were not lively enough to carry them beyond the range of Captain Granby's voice, trained for many years to make himself heard on dragon-back. "So this is Florenzia's new captain, then?"
Rose stumbled over the door sill and steadied herself against the wall. Lt. Roland's voice turned into an unintelligible buzz. With a hazy smile, Rose entered the room indicated and unpacked her evening dress. Her hands trembled, making the buttons and ties a struggle. She yanked a comb harder than usual through her travel-tousled hair. Tears sprung to her eyes; she was glad for the excuse. She longed to pull out the letter from Lilias' surgeon and reread it, the letter that had sent her scurrying pell-mell from the family estate to nurse her desperately ill sister, who now appeared to need nothing at all but a cough syrup. But mindful of Lt. Roland's words, she took quick stock of herself in the mirror, prinked her rebellious hair once more, and pinned the maligned brooch to her corsage. It was much larger than any of her other jewelry, but its subject, worked in jet and grisaille, was so apposite to her situation, that she had silenced any internal whispers and ignored her aunt's. One last glance told her that she still liked it very much indeed; she would just have to brazen it out.
But when she stepped into the hall, just as Lt. Roland descended the stairs, she stopped abruptly. The young officer's idea of dressing for dinner was an unmuddied bottle-green coat and gleaming white pants. Rose cast a panicked look down at her black silk evening gown.
Lt. Roland seemed to think her hesitation was due to confusion of geography and kindly held the door to the courtyard open. Rose blinked away the last of her tears and nodded a thanks to the officer as she swept into the courtyard with her chin so high that she thought she'd break her neck.
"Rosie, girl, we're not at St. James," hooted her sister.
"St. James would not admit me dressed so informally," Rose replied. "I do beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen: there was no one to advise me on appropriate dress. Perhaps I should take tea and toast in my room." She speculated grimly on what one should wear to sit down with women in britches; she was quite certain that she owned nothing appropriate.
"Nonsense," said Captain Granby. "You must be famished, and we do not stand on ceremony here—though you may if you wish to. You do us proud, actually. The Chinese are visiting to teach us their ways of fighting, and they always come to dinner swathed in layers of silk and jewels, while we look the veriest scrubs. I'm glad to have you retrieve our reputation."
"I'm sure I know very little about such things," said Captain Harcourt, looking Rose over critically. "But it seems a very handsome dress to me, though I doubt I could manage all the ruffles. I see now that the brooch is a mourning brooch. Perfectly appropriate. Lil, you're unkind, to tease her about it."
They filed through the dining hall doors, and Rose could see Captain Laurence unobtrusively arranging their seating at the first table. With a nod here and a touch there, he stood at its head with Lil and Rose to either side of him, Captains Granby and Demane to their left, followed by Captain Harcourt next to Captain Granby and Lt. Roland by Captain Demane. Captain Laurence had never stopped speaking, which also disguised his activities. "As many times as I've heard our female aviators complain about their awkwardness in skirts, I would think that wearing a dress at dinner, when time permits, could only benefit them."
"Only if you also advocate knee breeches for men," retorted Lil as she took her seat.
"I do," said Laurence, as he held a chair for Rose before taking his own seat at the table's head. "I would have all our aviators comfortable in whatever dress or company they find themselves."
Leaving them to continue their sparring, Rose turned to her other dinner partner, the young African captain. His skin, hair, and eyes were near black; they emphasized the white around his irises as he stared at her in terror. Falling into her duty as lady, she smiled and strove to put him at his ease. As an aviator's daughter, she knew how to do so. "Do tell me about your dragon, Captain Demane. Did you inherit him?"
Demane brightened and, forgetting his social horrors, informed her of Kulingile's uncertain start and present excellence in a voluble intelligent voice, despite a slight accent.
A reference to his brother led her to inquire more particularly about him , and Demane said that Sipho was an ensign on Temeraire. Rose remarked that her mother and sister had hardly ever served together either; Florenzia desired it so.
"Often they do, so that they shan't lose two people at once," said Demane. "We started with Temeraire. It is a good berth for a youngster; Captain Laurence is quite the schoolmaster, a very good thing for both of us when we left Africa, especially my brother, who always has his nose in a book. He wants to go to university."
Lt. Roland on his other side claimed his attention, and Rose turned back to her dinner, briefly glancing at Captain Laurence to see if he was still engaged with her sister. She flushed a little when she found him regarding her, but his gaze was so warm that she could not take offense.
"That was well done—very well done indeed," he said in a low voice. "It is good for Demane to converse, particularly with people not in the Corps. You knew exactly how to talk to him."
She laughed softly. "As an aviator's daughter and my father's hostess for as long as I can recall, I should hope so indeed."
"You are young to have so much experience and assurance."
"Papa declared when I was barely out of leading strings that he wasn't going to eat alone every night. And even when he had guests—he liked to have his friends about him—he did not banish me to the nursery. I consider myself fortunate to have had such a, oh, such a friend for a father."
"Your father must have been lonely with your mother in service."
Rose sighed. "I have often wondered how they came to marry."
"Oh, they'd known each other forever," Lil interjected.
Rose blinked at the interruption from across the table, unheard of in polite society.
"Grandfather, Ma's father, was the vicar of Wexley, and when he died, the family went to live with Uncle Blakeney. He has a little patch of bad farmland that abuts Wexley to the the south. A family of five with four daughters is no small thing to inherit, and when his Cousin Jack-Captain John Blakeney of Tyrannus-suggested sending Ma to the Corps, Uncle jumped at it like a cock at a blackberry. Father was a few years older than she, but they had grown up playing together, and he was being sent to Harrow at the same time. He engaged her as a correspondent, and they exchanged letters all the way through his time at Cambridge. By then he knew that he was more ineligible as a husband than a Cockney half-pay officer, and, of all things, after ten years of ignoring her, Ma's family was pressing her to marry. I think Cousin Jack told them that she was expected to produce a child or two for Florenzia, and they wanted respectable children."
"I believe many men are reluctant to settle to the duties of family life at a young age," said Laurence, after a glance at Rose's face.
"Lord, it wasn't children he minded," replied Lil with a rasping laugh. "It was women he couldn't stomach, not in the wifely way, and he was kind enough not to want to inflict that disappointment on any young woman. But as the Earl of Wexley, it was his duty to produce at least an heir, and there was Ma with the same requirement, but unable to fasten down to a husband. So they married, not without fuss, because his family held it to be an unequal match, though she was a gentleman's daughter. They'd hoped for an heiress to restore the Wexley fortune. The Corps frowned on it too, thinking that Ma might find the duties of the Countess of Wexley interfering with the duties of captain.
"Their agreement was an heir for him and a girl for the Corps. Ma was already tapped for Flossie's egg, and no one expected the egg to hatch for three or four years. So she thought she might as well get one of the children out of the way. Only I was born, not the future Earl they were hoping for, and one night a courier arrived in the shortly before dawn. They bundled Ma on back of a Greyling with her wearing only her night dress, with me at her breast. So you see, when I say I've been riding a dragon since I was a suckling babe, it's no more than the exact truth. We arrived before the little Xenica was totally out of the shell, and Flossie's first words were, 'Oh, you have an egg too!' Ma introduced herself and me-a first in the Corps history, no doubt-and Flossie said, 'Will you give me a pretty name like Lilias too?' Fortunately Ma was very fond of flower names and had chosen Florenzia for her dragon's name back when she named me. Flossie was pleased at having a longer name than Lilias-even then I was called Lil.
So after an appropriate time, Ma had you-again no earl for Papa-and then she was so occupied with war that there was no time for more eggs. Finally she did produce our brother, when I was of an age to fly with Florenzia on patrol while Ma recovered at Wexley and in London."
Throughout the distressingly frank recital, Rose felt her face flame. To shut down reminisces surely inappropriate but for whispers in the family, she said in a low voice, "I do think that was the happiest year of my life, to have Mother at home for so long, instead of just a few days' visit. I was presented that year-everyone said sixteen was too young, but Papa was already ill and most determined have me provided for before his death. I was so glad that Mother presented me and not Aunt."
"Lord, I do know what you mean," agreed Lil. "Ma had you the year I went into the Corps, and I was very happy to go home each day to a cottage in Loch Laggan instead of a dormer full of squalling brats missing their homes. One howling baby was a small price to pay, and by the time you were weaned and packed off to Wexley, with Mother taking off to the skies, I did not mind the communal life. But how comes it that you are not provided for? Meaning married, I'm sure." Lil addressed the table, "My sister is ever so accomplished-sings, plays more instruments than I can identify, draws, sews-all those ladylike skills. And you see how pretty is. Did you have no offers?"
Rose consigned herself to terminal embarrassment. "Only one. And Papa said, he said..." She sighed and embraced frankness as the order of the day. "He'd be-dashed-before he'd give me to a man twice his age and twice as sinful, that I could trust him to recognize a reprobate and a miserable prospect for a husband. In truth, I did not care for the suitor at all, but daughters of the threadbare aristocracy are not presented with many choices."
"Quite right not to have him," agreed Lil. "Many worse ways to earn your bread. And Papa was no doubt correct in his expert summation."
"I didn't know about his, his expertise," whispered Rose, looking down at her plate full of bits she'd cut beyond recognition and pushed around during Lil's recitation Maybe they were fish. Or chicken.
"Not the sort of thing dearest Papa would have said, not to a daughter of tender years. Ma would have told you any time you asked," observed Lil as she turned to answer a sally from Captain Granby.
"Lady Rose," said Captain Laurence in an undertone, "Although this information comes as a shock to you, I hope it does not color your pleasant memories of your father-if indeed you have them."
"Oh, yes," whispered Rose, blinking her eyes with haste. "He was at home most of the time, trying to turn the estate around. He preferred to gather friends at his home than seek them elsewhere." She swallowed as though in pain. "Mostly men, I see that his friends were. They were so jolly! They made such a pet of me, played with me as much as he did and always took me with them during their daytime excursions."
"Despite my reputation, I hope I shall never speak for immorality or law-breaking," said Laurence, also regarding his plate. "Yet I know that this vice does not preclude a fellow from being a good, brave man on whom anyone might rely."
Rose understood that he would not look up for fear of identifying such a one. She flicked her gaze around the table. Not Captain Demane, leaning close enough to Lt. Roland to touch her. Granby, conversing easily with Lil to one side and Capt. Harcourt on the other? Or others not of their party who had filled in the lower seats of the table? Most of them were Chinese women, indeed weighed under heavy silk and jewels, with a young African boy who must surely be Captain Demane's brother attending them. It was no use. Laurence would not identify the man; she could only thank him for his kind counsel.
She hardly knew how to continue the conversation, but he turned the topic easily.
"Your sister says that you are musical. Are you fond of the opera?"
It was easier to smile. "Oh, beyond anything! Papa always took me, and after he died, Lord—" she brought herself up sharply. Surely it would not do now to name Papa's friends. "A friend of Papa's included me in his opera parties whenever I was in London." She clenched her teeth to stop her chin from quivering. Lord Kester had been kindness itself, seeking her out, sharing her mourning, remembering Papa with her, and when Aunt and the London gossips began to couple their names, he took her aside and explained that he was ineligible for marriage. "No, I ain't going to tell you why, Rose, just that it has nothing to do with you, though you may always rely on me for any other service. So your beast of an aunt may expect my declaration until Doomsday, but don't you do so, my girl. Your father wouldn't have allowed it, ever, sensible man that he was." She had thought he meant he could not afford a wife; she understood him better now, far better than she wanted to think about at the moment, and she forced her attention back to Captain Laurence, describing his favorite performances. She agreed with him, though she had no idea which opera he was talking about.
"When I was first put to Temeraire, I thought I should never go to the opera again. I am happy to have been proven wrong, though my service has not allowed me to go as often as I would like. If events allow, perhaps you would like to accompany me during the Little Season, if you lighten your mourning by then. My mother would lend me her box, I am sure, and I could form a party. It would be a good education for Lt. Roland and Captain Demane. Now what have I said to make you laugh?"
Rose dashed a hand across her eyes to wick away the last of her tears and gave herself over to smiles instead. "Only that Captain Demane said you were quite the schoolmaster. I perceive that it is true."
He returned her smile. "I do not deny the accusation, but all my friends are now in the Corps—and few of them attend the opera. But I also intend to invite Lord Admiral Roland and your sister, perhaps Captain Granby also, if he cares to come."
"I thank you for my share of the favor," said Lil, intruding again. "But the opera is not my idea of a treat by any means. Not that I've ever been, but I do my best to avoid Society, not being raised to it. Besides, rumor has it that we're fighting a war. Hard to make plans that far away."
Throwing courtesy to the winds and steeling herself for unpleasantness, Rose spoke across the table to her sister. "Rumor also has it that I am to be Florenzia's next captain."
Lil looked at her plate. "It's a notion Florenzia took. I admit I didn't do much to discourage it-it cheered her up and she started eating a bit. She's wounded herself and can't do much besides lie around and brood. And then when the doctors said I'd never go up again-well, this notion took very well with her. But you're not fit for the job. No one expects you to become her captain."
"No one except Florenzia!" said Rose, still appalled.
Granby gave a crack of laughter that he immediately tried to suppress. Rose looked at him, shaking with laughter, and then to Laurence, wearing a bemused smile. She said, somewhat towards Laurence, as was proper, "I love a joke as well as anyone, gentlemen."
Granby said, "Oh, don't mind us. It's just that the dragon gets its way, whatever everyone or anyone else thinks." When she gasped in horror, he added, "But I have the most recalcitrant dragon in the Corps, though some think Temeraire has that honor. 'That Jacobin beast,' Wellington calls him. Both Laurence and I have been dragged where we most emphatically would not go."
"I would not have you believe that," said Laurence. "Though I have done things I would not have thought of but for Temeraire's urging. But the situation is quite different, Lady Rose. We were already dragon captains, not the same as your situation at all."
Looking at Granby's continued mirth, Rose did not feel comforted.
Lil stood, "Gentlemen, I trust you'll excuse me. I must oversee Florenzia's meal. Hardly eats a thing these days."
In the murmur of sympathy and assent, Rose jumped to her feet. "I'll go with you." She hurried to catch up with Lil, who neither consented nor waited.
She pushed the door open wide and almost ran after her sister into the courtyard. "Lil, I must know-"
"I daresay, but not just now." Lil hailed a little Greyling courier and his captain, just as they touched down. "James! Volly! Just who I want to see. Volly, if you'll carry me to Flossie's pavilion, she'll share her dinner with you. Prepared by Temeraire's own cook, it is."
"Cows!" said the little dragon happily, dancing a few steps.
"Venison tonight, old thing."
"Lil, you're not supposed to ride. You said so," Rose interjected, worried.
"Low and slow! Low and slow! Deer!" caroled Volatilus.
"You see, he knows just how to carry me: near to the ground, no faster than a horse. And considering how a horse jolts you to pieces, I think a low, slow dragon is a better option. James, does this outing meet with your approval?"
The captain waved as he shambled towards the dining hall. "Oh, rather. Anybody that will feed my bottomless pit of a dragon is my bosom bow. Am I too late for coffee?" He shambled away without waiting for an answer.
Lil slung a leg over the little Greyling, still as large as a horse. She extended a hand to Rose, who did her best to perch side saddle while clutching her sister's waist. True to his word, Volatilus hardly rose at all and kept such a pace that the sisters felt only the gentlest of breezes.
In minutes, they arrived in a courtyard between dragon pavilions. Rose had only seen her mother's Florenzia on her sporadic visits to Wexley, never many dragons together, and never heavy weights. An enormous red and gold fellow, despite his amiable countenance, made her shiver. The long, red one that steamed, while not very tall, was frightening because it looked like a snake. Another group of red ones clustered together, menacing because of their numbers as well as their size.
Noticing her glance, Lil said, "Those are Scarlet Flowers. Temeraire and his formation talked them over from China to help fight Napoleon. Every day we have Chinese-style drills. Well, everyone else does." She turned away abruptly. "Flossie, you have Temeraire's very own cook come to prepare your meal. It must be delicious. And here is your friend Volly, come to dine with you. Is it not pleasant to eat with friends?"
A pretty blue dragon covered with butterfly-like splotches, on the heavy side of middle weight, lay extended to her full length with her head almost hanging over the front edge of her pavilion. At the sisters' approach, she raised her head slightly and flopped back down, ignoring the team of Chinese men who labored over a huge cauldron sunk to floor level to her right.
But at Lil's words, with a combination of a scowl and a growl, Florenzia lifted her head and let it drop in the cauldron. As she gulped, she kept an jealous eye on Volatilus. Finally she dragged her head back and sighed. "I cannot eat any more. Oh, go ahead," she said spitefully to the Greyling, who hopped up on the pavilion and finished the dish with gusto. The Chinese bowed to Florenzia repeatedly and thanked her for the honor she did them by eating their food. Florenzia waved them away and with a last look of dislike at Volatilus, said, "Please express my gratitude to Temeraire. I am grateful to him for sparing you to me." After a grudging moment, she added. "It was very good." She ducked her head in a cauldron on her other side, which seemed to contain water.
"Look here," croaked Lil. "I've brought Rose to you. My sister."
Florenzia raised her dripping head, her many tendrils in a tangle.
Rose always wanted to brush them, but knew better than to try: A dragon's tendrils were exquisitely sensitive. "I am sorry you are not feeling well, Florenzia."
"Who could feel well when her captain is dead, even if she hadn't taken a ball right on the wing joint?" She peered closely at Rose. "You are not much like your mother, like Lil is."
"You discover that every time you see me. You know I am thought to resemble my father." Rose quaked at the large head less than a foot away, but she forced herself not to move. Too well she remembered her nurse whispering, "You're the daughter of a captain. Stand still or I'll throw you in the duck pond."
Florenzia sighed. "I keep hoping that you'll outgrow it, but perhaps it is time to give over such a hope. You wrote me a letter when she died-your mother, my captain. It was a very pretty letter. I read it often, as you were considerate enough to write large enough for me."
Rose reached out a tentative hand to stroke the soft nose. "Mother told me when you learned to read and write and bought the big paper for me. I am sorry that my first letter to you was on such a sad occasion."
"Oh! As I did not know that you intended to write, I did not miss it. But it was a very pretty letter. 'Bereft in an instant of her we both loved...' I shall never forget it. I have very little opportunity to forget anything. I am not allowed to fly, just for a few minutes each day, very gently. The rest of the time I lie here alone and wish for company. And if anyone comes-not that they hardly ever do-I wish they would go away. And yet I cannot bring myself to answer your letter, as is polite."
Rose swallowed. "There is no need to. I am here and you may tell me whatever you wish. You have expressed yourself quite prettily."
Florenzia shook her head. "Civilized beings express their thoughts in writing."
Lil snorted. "You just want it included in the Book." She explained to her sister. "You must know that Temeraire, Captain Laurence's dragon, is mad for having dragons recognized for their intellectual prowess. To this end, he is publishing a book, Writings of the Dragons. Temeraire is waiting for his mother to write back, granting permission for her letters to be published. That section is to be called 'A Dragon's Correspondence with his Mother.' Even the feral dragons have a long folktale that Demane's brother Sipho is trying to record. They keep changing the story, and it drives him mad."
"Perhaps my letter will be 'A Dragon's Thoughts on the Death of Her Captain.' I am sure it could not fail to interest." Florenzia sighed again.
"You are very sad. It is natural after such a loss, as is a certain lethargy." Rose patted Florenzia's front leg.
The dragon turned her head to look in her eyes. "What do humans do, to face such a loss?"
Rose echoed her sigh. "I cannot say that we do well at it. We wear special clothes and withdraw from our normal occupations, which only makes me long for them-or any activity-all the more. I have my faith, which comforts me. I have my music, to express my grief, and I have my sewing, to keep my hands busy. I do not say it always keeps my thoughts busy."
"Hm. I do not have any of those, and I want to fly. I have not had my 10 minutes in the air today. Shall I carry you? You always wanted a ride when you were small."
"I would be pleased to do so, if I can borrow straps." Rose pulled off her pearl ear drops and unfastened the mourning brooch. Her mother's rule had been "No jewelry in the air." She handed them to Lil in exchange for a set of carabiner straps.
The dragon picked her up gently and set her in the captain's position. Rose struggled to sit side saddle and fasten herself in securely. Xenicas were famed for their speed and maneuverability in the air, but her mother had always cautioned Florenzia before she took Lil up. "Like a damned corkscrew, she is," Captain Blakeney had always said proudly. But today Florenzia drifted up, like the butterfly she resembled from very far away.
The dragon sighed. "Oh, what fun we are having. Go up. Spend 10 minutes flying in a circle. Go down. Wait anxiously for the chance to do the same tomorrow. Do you like the water?"
"Yes, please," Rose remembered to shout.
"I will go out a little ways over the Channel and pretend I am patrolling. Patrolling! I have complained so often about it; I would give anything to do so."
"I'm enjoying myself very much," shouted Rose, holding on tightly to the straps that held her in. Of course, the water below was beautiful, if one could manage to look at it without thinking of plummeting.
Florenzia raised her head to peer into the distance. "Who is that? Whyever so far from our shores?"
Rose could make out only a black speck in the distance, though it was getting bigger and closer.
"Why, it's a Defendeur Brave! How dare he come so close to England!" The gentle butterfly was gone as Florenzia flattened her neck and picked up speed. "I shall just show myself to him. He is probably bigger than me, but I can make him think otherwise. Cover your ears." She raised up in the air, beating her colorful wings furiously and screamed with all her might.
Rose, belatedly trying to cover her ears and hang on to the straps at the same time, remembered the other distinguishing characteristic of a Xenica: the wide-ranging scream, not so powerful as the Celestial divine wind, but definitely frightening as it trilled through several octaves, from a deep grumble to a piercing shriek.
The Defendeur Brave raised himself up and roared a challenge in return. Still shrieking, Florenzia lunged at him in her corkscrew dive. She ducked down at the last minute and came up from underneath to slash his belly. He squalled, covering Rose's screams.
His blood came down like black rain; Rose was almost glad to be upside down so as to only see it rather than be bathed in it. But Florenzia flipped around and changed direction several more times, the better to slash his sides, and finally Rose's dinner parted company from her-again fortunately, upside down, where only a small portion of it soaked her hair. She moaned, completely unheard, and lay forward and hugged the dragon's neck, intending to lie limp as laundry until Florenzia should quit. From some direction-she could no longer tell which-she saw another dragon. One of its riders was waving flags. "Florenzia! Florenzia, look. Another dragon! He says 'fall back, return.'" She pulled on the harness until Florenzia looked back at her; Rose shouted the message once more and indicating the direction with a quick flap of her hand.
"It is Temeraire!" gasped Florenzia. She dropped out of the sky. Rose retched again, without issue this time, and said her prayers as the ocean filled her view.
Then they were skimming along its top. Florenzia grapped a fish so unwise as to jump. She bit its head off and turned to face Rose, who shuddered at the blood and bits streaming from the dragon's mouth. "I think we shall get behind him in time, but cover your ears again."
As the deep roar swelled and swelled, Rose shuddered to her very core. The Defendeur cried in horrible pain and plummeted. He struggled up, but blood poured from his ears and nose. He could not keep aloft, though he kept making spurts of effort, bobbing in the sky, a big blue cork, sinking closer each time to the water as he struggled back to France. Rose could see his crew, like ants, scrambling up on his back. Finally he coasted down into the water and swam back towards France.
The enormous snake-like dragon eeled out from behind Temeraire. "Ha! Whatever is he doing here? I am going to see. Do not bellow at me!" she shouted to Temeraire.
"Oh, Isquierka is here too. We may as well go back home, with her around to claim all the glory." Florenzia managed to sound peeved, despite her breath coming like great bellows. She went up just enough to clear the pavilions and landed with a flop in the courtyard in front of her own home. Several men, clearly doctors, ran towards her shouting and waving instruments. They were concerned for the dragon, whom they coaxed to the stream to drink deeply.
Rose sat frozen, her hands still grasping the straps, until Lil scrambled up and disengaged her. More hands appeared to carry her down. She squeezed her eyes shut tight.
"Is she well?" She thought she whispered, but her words rang throughout the courtyard. "Is she well? Tell me at once!" She knew she hadn't spoken this time. She opened her eyes to see a huge slit of a blue eye close enough to touch.
"Be still, you troublesome beast," commanded one of the doctors. "You'll hurt yourself worse."
"I am well," Rose rasped. She tried to repeat it louder and put a hand on Florenzia's head. The dragon threw back her head and ululated long for joy, traveling through her full range several times. "My captain is well! She is well!"
"Matter of opinion, that," muttered Lil. "Are you unhurt, Rose? We do have doctors for humans somewhere around here."
"I do not know if I can stand, but I do not think I am injured," Rose whispered. A hurdle moved under her and bore her to Florenzia's pavilion.
"You will bring a doctor for my captain before I let you touch any other part of me," declared Florenzia from a few feet away; she tried to close the distance. Her bulk still in the courtyard, she laid her head on the pavilion floor. "Oh, my dearest Rose. I cannot bear it if you are injured."
"She's just fine," Lil assured her. "Covered in vomit, brains shaken to bits-just like anybody after their first battle on a Xenica. You lunk, it takes humans months of training to be able to endure your shenanigans."
"Not her pretty dress!" cried Florenzia.
Rose, in complete sympathy with this point of view, raised her head slightly to take a survey. "Maybe not. I was upside down for the worst of it." She felt her head and wrinkled her nose at the stickiness in her hair. She pulled away her headdress and sighed at its ruin. She flung it aside, earning Lil's curse as it splattered.
A new voice cut through the crowd. "Lady Rose! Are you hurt? How is Florenzia?" Emily Roland bounded onto the pavilion.
Rose mumbled something, and Florenzia said she was well, only worried about Rose. The doctors continued to scold the dragon about straining weak muscles.
Emily sighed in relief. She pulled flags out of her pocket and signaled across the courtyard to where Temeraire was being unharnessed. Cheers from dragon and crew rose. "That was our only worry-now we can rejoice. What do you think? A frigate was trying to sneak by to the ocean; the Defendeur was guarding her. Isquierka is leading her back in, with Minnow on deck. Imagine, a prize, right under our noses in the Channel!"
"Imagine," said Florenzia with a decidedly sour note.
"And you are to have a share, because you saw the guard and engaged him first." Emily said.
"Now I call that handsome," said Florenzia in a brighter voice. "I shouldn't have thought it of Isquierka."
"It wasn't Iskierka. It was Temeraire, and Minnow, of course, who said it should be so. We were so afraid that you wouldn't see the signal and get out of the way so that Temeraire could use the divine wind."
"I didn't see it," said Florenzia. "My captain saw it, and she told me it said to fall back and return. So you see, she will have a share too."
"Yes, only...How did you know what the signal meant, Lady Rose?" asked Emily, confused.
Rose became aware of the silence as they all waited for her answer. She rubbed her head, and was sorry for it. She stopped herself in time from wiping her hand on her dress. "I don't know. I saw the flags; I knew what they meant."
Emily cocked her head in bewilderment. "But that isn't possible."
Rose thought hard. "My nurse used flag signals, taught them to me when I was very young. Said she wasn't going to chase me all over the estate when she wanted to talk to me. And we children would climb trees and pretend they were our dragons. We waved flags to talk to each other. I never thought that they might be Aerial Corps signals. I just saw the flags tonight...and I knew." She closed her eyes again. "I should like a bath. In fact, I must insist on it."
Emily gave orders to a young aviator and told him to run. "They'll have it drawn by the time you get there. I'll go with you."
Rose tried to sit up. "I don't think I can walk."
"If you didn't hit your head or break a bone, walking is the best treatment for you after such a huge excitement, to work off the shakes. That with a big glass of brandy, and you'll sleep like a log." Emily pulled Rose to her feet.
"Florenzia..." Rose looked back at the dragon.
"I'll stay with her," said Lil. "Tell one of the couriers to hop over here to bring me back."
"Yes, I will." Rose took a deep breath and put her hand on the dragon's nose. "Florenzia, though I must always love you dearly, I cannot be your captain. I have no training, no abilities as an aviator. You must see that."
Florenzia sighed deeply and closed her eyes.
Emily pulled Rose's arm and guided her down the pavilion steps. "Come. Before you fall down-which you will when the terrors wear off."
"But surely-no one could expect or want me to be a captain. You understand, do you not, Miss Roland?" Rose begged, stumbling as she looked back at the mourning dragon.
"That's Lieutenant Roland. Or just Emily. And that's the difference between us, I suppose. I've never thought of myself as anything but an officer, and you never have. But strange things happen—no one (except their dragons, of course) would have picked Laurence or Demane for captains."
"But she is so sad! Heartbroken, first over my mother's death, and now at my...my betrayal. Whatever shall I do? How can I comfort her? But I cannot be her captain! I should endanger us all!"
"Whatever it is, you can do it tomorrow. Let me take you to the bathing room. May I get your dressing gown for you while you bathe?" Emily opened the door to another room in the same building as their bedrooms and beckoned to the servant. Rose forgot everything else as soon as she breathed the steam. She sank in the water over her head, soaking her hair. Rising for a breath, she heard Emily return, with much clanking about and begging the servant for a bath of her own, but Rose stayed as she was, eyes closed, until the water became tepid.
Bundled by the fire to dry her hair, she accepted dubiously a cup from Emily, who had already scrubbed and dressed again. "I don't know...what is this? It smells...strong."
"Rum punch," said Emily cheerfully. "Captain Laurence's special recipe, with his compliments. Just the thing to calm you down and send you to sleep. And what we don't drink, Sally would like to have, I'm sure, as a gift for our bothering her in the middle of the night."
The serving woman snorted. "Dratted Xenicas." She continued gathering towels and putting her kingdom back in order.
Rose warmed her hands on the cup. "Before I become too calm, I must ask you something. Perhaps you'll think it too intimate a service for our recent acquaintance-"
"Before I let you commit yourself to no purpose, I suppose I should tell you that I prefer men," interrupted Emily, her good cheer unimpaired. "Though I am honored, of course."
Rose stared at her until comprehension dawned. Her cheeks turned firey and she ducked her head, certain that she'd never be able to look Emily in the eye again. "Oh, Lt. Roland, what you must be thinking of me! How can I ever-it is not that at all. Only I must make myself a suitable dragon-riding habit, and you seem to be similar to my own size. I wished to take your measurements because it is so difficult to take one's own. But I do apologize for seeming to insult you." Rose drank half of the steaming punch in her cup and choked.
Emily laughed. "I daresay I should be apologizing to you-and I do, if it makes you feel better. From having people put their hands up my shirt when there was nothing to find there, I rush to conclusions and try to head them off early in the process."
"Such an insult!" mumbled Rose through another swig of punch.
"I'm not insulted-not by you, anyway. I have a great partiality towards people who ask first. But I will go get my measuring cord and take your measurements myself. I have frequently done so for my mother. And I can direct you to her tailor in Dover as well. He made my last set of uniforms too, and you wouldn't credit how much more comfortable they are! Lucky women like Harcourt and your sister-and me in my younger years-can wear men's uniforms with no trouble, but not those of us who are more buxom. Let me pour you another drink, and I will back shortly."
Emily bounced out of the room. Rose drank deeply again but jumped and choked when she found the servant Sally at her elbow. "Brung ye some biscuits," Sally said in a gruff voice as she slapped the plate on a side table. "Turrible rotters, all blokes."
Rose managed a wan smile before she stuffed a biscuit in her mouth. Then she stuffed in a few more in hopes that the crunching would distract her from the weeping that threatened. At the moment, she wanted to flee back to Wexley, even with her aunt holding court, just to find the world she knew again, where dragons did not fling you through the skies, where no one, servants or otherwise, intruded past the boundaries that Society decreed.