My Lady's Dragon
Chiara da Luna
La Belle Assemblée November 13, 1813
by Dr. Charles Burns, Mus. Doc., F. R. S., author of A General History of Music and Dr. Burns' Tours in Europe
The Aerial Corps Subscription Party, for the support and maintenance of our fighting dragons, has long been a stellar event of London Society. I was consequently much honored by the presentation of two tickets, the purchase of which is beyond my humble means, especially this year, with theincreased price (promising more gifts to the subscriber, however, than the usual excellent mealand opportunities for intercourse with a dragon). Lord Admiral Roland's only request was that I provide a review of the event. Though I could not imagine why a music scholar's assistance should be called upon, I nevertheless accepted with alacrity for myself and my daughter before any mistake could be discovered.
The event, as in previous years, took place at the little-used London covert, and though previous guests pronounced the earlier events very comfortable, the addition of a handsome pavilion makes it even more sheltered from the elements. The pavilion is a gift of a select and secret group of women who call themselves "The Dragon Ladies," who have made it their mission to serve the dragons and officers of the Aerial Corps. Though this pavilion, built along lines of dragon shelters in China, is considered a small edifice, I assure you that many of our churches would fit inside it with room for a church yard.
We were greeted at the entrance by our hostesses, Miss Emily Roland, daughter of the sadly absent Lord Admiral, who sent his regrets, pleading illness and duty; Lady Rose Danforth, daughter of the lamented Countess of Wexley, that firm patroness of the Corps and a descendant of the Blakeneys, a long-time aviator family; and the dragoness Florenzia, who has fought, been wounded, and lost her Captain in the recent struggles with the Monster Napoleon. Though her sheer size caused me to grow weak (and she assures me that her breed,the Xenica, is a middle weight dragon only), like any good hostess, she quickly put me at my ease, indeed, with many of the same mannerisms and expressions as you may find in the best of Society. I was prepared to write that she was as gracious as a Duchess, but she tells me that she prefers to be thought of as gracious as a Countess, because of her long friendship with the Countess of Wexley.
I was further embarrassed by my fears at the sight of the small Earl of Wexley, running about the covert, shouting, "Wanna ride a dragon, the big one!" His fond sister, Lady Rose, cautioned him only "to choose one with a harness, dearest." A giant red and gold head peered over the green baize curtains to say, "That's dished me then. Persey, have your fellows put a collar on me so that I can take up the baby Earl." And then we saw this monstrous dragon flying overhead, carrying a small, whooping boy and and his nurse, straightbacked and sober, behind her young charge. The glee of one and the sangfroid of the other put us all to shame, and we assumed the appearance of courage, even when we had it not.
Indeed, my daughter Sarah Harriette waxed so enthusiastic that a young Captain Hollis offered to take her up on his dragon, Elsie, a courier, much smaller than the gigantic Requiescat, though still large enough to terrify me, were I not pretending otherwise. When Lady Rose provided the necessary riding straps, which I had taken for leading strings on her infant brother, and instructed Sarah how to ride modestly in absence of a dragon habit, there was nothing further than a father's weak pleas, never effective, to bar Sarah from the skies. I was then obliged to sit down as I witnessed the spectacle of my youngest child soaring on dragonback, very high and fast, it seemed to me. I worried about the propriety of allowing my daughter to travel so with a man. Can a dragon be considered an adequate chaperone? These things must be thought of. Lady Jersey put my mind at ease by observing that whatever the dragon's ability or inclination to supervision, that it certainly must be considered an open carriage, and Sarah and her escort were in full sight the entire time. Florenzia further informed me that dragons study and abide by human mating customs, and that all dragon captains are of the most noble nature, else a dragon would not choose them. Indeed, when Sarah returned, red-faced and wind-blown, I perceived that the gravest dangers were to her complexion and hair, not to mention her peace of mind, for she longed to go up again and wished she might captain her own dragon, "even just a little courier," she had already learned to say. Such a thing could not be thought of, of course.
Our meal was served in the pavilion, which was decorated with artwork and needlework of the aviators and dragons, those of the dragons easily discernible by their size and medium, such as a handsome embroidery of a rose, as tall as a man, and executed in dyed ship's cables by our hostess Florenzia. And the large china platters, fired by the young Jos. Wedgewood, as enterprising as ever his father was, were all designed on clay tablets by the dragons themselves. Mr. Wedgewood wishes to announce that his firm will soon offer full lines of "dragonware" china.
Sorrowful to find purchase of the platters beyond the means of a scholar, I am nevertheless proud to have purchased a perspective drawing by one Captain Granby, which depicts how this artwork must have been accomplished. The drawings were different from those we are familiar with from young lady's sketchbooks. They seemed to be rendered from high above their subjects. My own drawing shows a happy sketching party on the Dover beach, two young girls, probably Miss Roland and Lady Rose, on the back of Florenzia, who is hard at work at her own clay table (later given to Mr. Wedgewood for firing). The perspective is from an even higher point-an even bigger dragon's back, perhaps the red and gold transport of the young Earl of Wexley?-the thought of which makes me dizzy to contemplate as I write.
Our sumptuous dinner consisted of favorite recipes of the dragons, a shock to those of us who did not know that dragons appreciated cooked food. Unfamiliar but delicious dishes a la Chinoise, d'Afrique, de Brasilia, a la mer, Preubische, and Schottische abounded, interspersed with hearty British fare for the comfort of the less venturesome who insist on being able to identify the ingredients of their meals.
We were serenaded by the dilettanti while we ate. What I am obliged to call small dragons, only slightly bigger than horses, they that perform courier services, sang a paean to their kind benefactors who donated the pavilion in which we sat. I am told the song was composed by the dragons themselves, but by too many to make a more specific attribution. Nevertheless, it was a pretty song, prettily done, accompanied courageously by the newly formed Philharmonic Society of London, with Mr. Saloman as Leader and Mr. Clementi at the piano. Each dragon carried a small bouquet of flowers which they one-by-one laid on the pavilion, which then resembled a park in full bloom. Miss Roland favored us with a Haydn Scottish song, which cannot but please, and Lady Rose and Florenzia performed Mozart's Letter Duet with rare grace, even without considering that Lady Rose terrifyingly stood on the dragon's foreleg and sang with a rare full voice while Florenzia was obliged to sing almost sotto voce to blend. Lady Rose's teacher Signora Catalana whispers that it was a sad day for music when Lady Rose was born to the aristocracy, and I must concur.
While a double quartet of dragons sang Handel's "See the Conquering Hero Comes" to their leader, His Grace of Wellington, who strove to appreciate it, young aviators distributed a book, handsomely bound in blue leather with gilt lettering, called Writings of the Dragons. No one could resist exclaiming over the poems, stories, letters, even science and math articles, but our attention was directed to the back of the book, where resided a program announcing the next presentation: a full Mozart opera, Zauberflöte, with all the roles undertaken by dragons, singing in the original language.
Scarcely had the overture and our exclamations of wonder died away when the green baize curtains in the courtyard were whisked aside and we were engrossed in the fortunes of the beleaguered hero Tamino (heavy weight Chinese Celestial Temeraire, tenor) besieged by witches (Yellow Reaper Cantarella, soprano; Turkish Wringe, mezzo soprano; and Kazilik Iskierka, alto).
Oh, reader, at last I knew the reason for which my poor skills had been solicited! How happy I am to have been chosen to witness such a performance as I am never likely to see again, though Florenzia graciously promises me an invitation to their next, The Marriage of Figaro. Nevertheless, though I expect any future efforts to achieve even greater heights, none can match the wonder and amazement of seeing those I believed to be ferocious beasts offering the highest service to the art to which I have dedicated my life.
The performance had all the exuberant joy of home theatricals-indeed, I doubt there remains a scrap of green baize in the kingdom-with a quality that any professional company can envy. My publisher assures me that he will not print the note-by-note praise that I long to give. So I fear I must confine myself to declaiming the superior skill of all, while mentioning a few effects not achievable by a human company. First, the dragon's ability to fly produces marvelously bypasses many staging difficulties with their witches, spirits, and ballets (directed by the cross-bred dragon Perschitia, who also turned in a rollicking performance as the Bird Girl Papagena, with her lover Papageno). This comedic role was ably performed as a trousers role, if dragons can be said to have trousers, by the Inca dragon Churki, who has nobly renounced her country's alliance with the Monster to fight on the side of the angels, or at least England).
A second effect sadly out of our reach was the doubling at the octave below and above of the high priest Sarastro by three dragons (Australian Kulingile, countertenor; Longwing Excidium, bass; and Regal Copper Maximus, contrabass). They inform me that as experienced formation flyers, singing in concert presents no difficulties at all, but it is certain that the human voice cannot even reach some of the notes they produced with seeming ease, creating the desired mystical aura of the role. And how shall I describe the marvelously eerie flute performance of Temeraire, who, not content with designing and learning to play a flute cunningly engineered with keys, because his talons cannot cover the holes of a human's flute, also added his own unique divine wind to his playing, creating a truly magical effect. The reader will remember that he used this same divine wind to drop the first aerial invaders of England into the Channel in the year '05, and it was later tragically used against us by the dragon companion of the Monster; one cannot help rejoicing that it may also be called in the service of music, if only as the smallest hum.
And lastly, how shall I not praise the divine diva Florenzia in the role of the Queen of Night, a role beyond all but our most gifted sopranos? Clad in the most elaborate costume, swathes of black netting stitched with crystals and hung on her wings to emulate the starry night sky, her head crowned in a silver turban, after she denounced her gentle daughter Pamina (delicately sung and acted by Lily, who as a acid-spitting Longwing is one of the most dangerous and fearsome dragons in the Corps, though nothing could be further from her demeanor on stage), I could not keep myself from joining those who leapt to their feet and cheered. Florenzia seemed baffled as to how to go on amidst such acclaim when Mr. Clementi shouted through a speaking trumpet that she must sing it again. "But they will be bored," she said, perfectly audibly, as though it were possible for a dragon to be otherwise, and proceeded to repeat and embellish the aria with such trills and flourishes as must be forever beyond human capabilities. (She informs me that though she made many improvisations that day, a similar cadenza of her composition may be found in Writings of the Dragons.) After such a display, the performance was in danger of stopping from the vociferous appreciation of the audience, until she said with great dignity and volume, "Please, we would like to continue."
Indeed, it would have a great regret to have missed rest of the performance, the performers seeming to rise to greater heights rather than being cowed by her mastery. At the end, each dragon performer flew singly over the curtains for his or her accolades, until the curtain was whisked back at the last to display the entire company. The audience could not help shrieking at the sight of so many dragons collected in front of them in the pavilion courtyard, but the noble beasts at once fell to their knees and sang, "God Save the King," which was very well received by both the audience and the Prince Regent, in his father's stead.
In a brief ballet, they dispersed to far corners of the court yard while dispersing the stage props. Whisper said that the dragons hoped to welcome us, but not until our Prince Regent, truly the prince, walked among them saying, "How de do" could anyone else be persuaded to approach. I found myself invited by Florenzia and Lady Rose to take tea. I was joined shortly by my publisher, Mr. John Bell, bodily fetched by my daughter and Florenzia's maid (to my astonishment, the Chief Costumier M. Meadows listed in the program), when Florenzia expressed a wish to meet him. She praised the magazine highly, saying that it was enjoyed by dragons and humans alike, that they had to draw straws to see who would read it first when the subscription arrived.
We were joined by a blue dragon of Florenzia's size, the large Temeraire, and his captain, the late Lord Allen's son William Laurence, whom one never knows whether to recognize. Indeed, this diffident young man looked as though he would prefer not to be remarked, but we could hardly avoid it, with him attired in rich silk robes, gift of his adopted father, the Emperor of China, and clearly acknowledged by our Chinese allies as a person of importance. Both these dragons professed a great interest in the scientific articles published by La Belle Assemblee, and Temeraire said, "In fact, we would like to attend-"
"-join-" corrected Perschitia.
"-the Royal Society. I am sure they would be interested in our next book, Draconia Mathematica, which my formation wrote on our African voyage."
Perschitia averred that she had contributed several articles as well. "And you needn't think that our attendance will be a problem, for I have worked out a plan where we can tie some dragon pontoons to the pillars in the River Thames, so that Temeraire and I can look through the windows."
"Or they could convene here in the covert," offered Temeraire. "Where they could do experiments and not be afraid of blowing up their building."
"Oh, if you want to do it the easy way," said Perschitia, much offended, with a sniff.
In vain did Captain Laurence try to explain that I could not admit them to the Society. They argued and looked so pathetically hopeful that I am obliged to urge my fellows to consider provisionary membership to dragons, who offer, in addition to novel mathematics and inventions, ample room for experiments.
I confess that I, in concert with many of my countrymen, have regarded dragons as gigantic horses, beasts of burden, to be ordered about at will. In light of what I have witnessed, both at the subscription party and in the heartfelt writings—I commend to your attention particularly "A Dragon's Thoughts on the Death of Her Captain" and the tender correspondence between Temeraire and his mother—I must revise these thoughts and embrace dragons as fellow sapients, capable of the highest thoughts and feelings. To those who cower still, I refer you to the many examples of not just of dragons and their captains, but of the many women I saw attached to the Corps, living with dragons in ease and affection, especially the case of my kind hostesses Florenzia and Lady Rose. When Florenzia is not fighting the French, she and Lady Rose are at home to visitors in their Dover pavilion on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the mornings.
Author's Note: Many thanks to those of you who read to the end of this unintentional novel. When I began to wonder how to introduce a female Laurence to the Corps, I thought it would be a short story, but I didn't count on how much fun Naomi Novik's world is and how pushy some characters, particularly dragons, can be. I was surprised too at Emily's role, but she has never had a female friend in the original series, though she does not seem to have felt the lack. Thank you again—reviews are welcome-and may our imaginations soar as high as dragons can fly.