Read an excerpt
I suspect a percentage of my readership will see the title of this volume and expect the entirety of what is contained herein to be devoted to a certain discovery that took place in the Labyrinth of Drakes. I will indeed discuss it in due course — have no fear on that count — but if that discovery is your sole concern, then you should close these covers forthwith and obtain for yourself a copy of Naomi Songfield’s excellent study Under the Watchers’ Eyes. That book will give you what you desire, in all the meticulous detail you could possibly hope for (and a good deal more besides).
The remainder of you, I presume, are here for the rest of it, the incidents and issues that surrounded me during the lead-up to and the aftermath of that discovery. This was an extraordinarily complex period in my life, and the tale is not a simple one to tell. In the space of a single year I grappled with dilemmas ethical, intellectual, and political; risked my life both voluntarily and otherwise; faced some of the worst condescension of my career and attained some of my greatest achievements; and made a decision that changed my course profoundly.
It is, in the end, an exceedingly personal tale. (An odd statement to make of a period that eventually drew such tremendous public scrutiny, I know.) Even I, shameless as I am, have hesitated on numerous occasions in the writing of it, for I cannot discuss many of these elements without sharing in detail the inner workings of my heart and mind. This is of course the purpose of a memoir, and I knew that when I embarked upon my task; but now that the time has come to speak of such matters, I confess my qualms. Whatever acclaim my professional deeds have garnered, I harbour no illusions that my personal thoughts and actions will do the same.
Be that as it may: this is my story, and I will tell it as I see fit. I will therefore follow the winding path that led me to the Labyrinth of Drakes — a path filled with every sort of obstacle, from scientific conundrums to assassination attempts — and invite you, gentle reader, to follow it with me.
Isabella, Lady Trent
26 Ventis, 5661
In which the memoirist acquires a job
despite the opposition of multiple parties
An offer of employment – Breeding dragons – Lord Rossmere’s requirement – Looking for an old friend – My study – Preparations for departure – Reflections on the past
There is very little pleasure in being snubbed over a task for which one is well qualified. There is, however, quite a bit of pleasure in watching the ones who did the snubbing later eat their own words.
Credit for this pleasure must go to Thomas Wilker, who had for many years been my colleague in matters scientific. He was a Fellow of the Philosophers’ Colloquium, as I was not — that august body having condescended to admit into their ranks the occasional man of less than gentle birth, but no ladies regardless of their ancestry. Strictly speaking, it was Tom and not I who received the snubbing.
The post refused to him was the focus of stiff competition. Natural history as a scholarly field was not so terribly old; the more specialized topic of dragon naturalism had only recently begun to emerge as an area of study in its own right. Tom’s publications and my own played a part in that trend, but we were not the only ones: there were easily half a dozen people in Anthiope with similar interests, the esteemed Herr Doktor Stanislau von Lösberg not least among them.
Those half-dozen lived abroad, though, in places such as Eiverheim and Thiessin. In Scirland there was no one whose qualifications truly challenged Tom’s, now that he was a Colloquium Fellow. When a position opened up that called specifically for a dragon naturalist, he should have been the first choice — as indeed he was.
Any rumour which says he refused the position is false. Tom did not refuse. On the contrary, he told his prospective employers that he and I would be delighted to accept. When they said the offer was for him alone, he assured them I would not need a salary, as my recent speaking tours and publications had left me with quite a comfortable income. (As it happens I would have appreciated the salary, for my income did not go so far as it might — but I would have foregone that for such an opportunity.) They made it clear that regardless of finances, I was not welcome in this endeavour. Tom maintained that to hire him was to hire us both; they hired Arthur Halstaff, Baron Tavenor in our stead; and that was the end of that.
For a time.
A year and a half later, the employers in question came crawling back. Lord Tavenor had resigned his position; he had met with no success thus far, and had difficulty with the locals besides. The offer to Tom was renewed. So in turn was his condition — only this time he said that, upon reflection, a salary for me might be just the thing after all. He made it quite clear that if they did not see fit to meet his conditions, then they could go hang.
This is, in brief, how I came to be employed by the Royal Scirling Army in the deserts of Akhia, to raise for them their very own flight of dragons.
The problem of dragon-breeding was not a new one. Ever since prehistoric times, mankind has dreamt of harnessing dragons for his own ends. This has taken every form imaginable, from leaping atop the back of a fully-grown dragon in the hope of breaking it to saddle — an attempt which almost invariably ends with a broken rider instead — to stealing hatchlings or eggs on the theory that a young creature is easier to tame, to caging dragons and optimistically encouraging them to breed.
That last is difficult to do even with less hazardous wild animals. Cheetahs, for example, are notoriously selective about their mating habits, and will go very rapidly from disinterest to ardour to mauling their erstwhile paramours. Others refuse the task entirely: whether it is for reasons of embarrassment or some other cause, the giant pandas of Yelang have never been known to reproduce within the confines of an imperial menagerie.
(I suppose I should offer fair warning. Because this volume of my memoirs concerns itself with my research in Akhia, it will of necessity say more than a little about the mating habits of dragons and other creatures. Those whose sensibilities are too delicate to endure such frankness might well be advised to have a more stout-hearted friend read them a carefully expurgated version. Though I fear that edition might be rather short.)
Dragons are even less tractable in this regard. The Yelangese in particular have a long history of trying to breed their dragons, but despite some rather grandiose historical claims, there is no reliable evidence of success with anything other than the smallest kinds. Large dragons, the sort that come to mind when one hears the word, simply will not cooperate.
And yet it was the cooperation of large dragons that we needed most, in the third decade of this century.
The reason, of course, was their bones. Astonishingly light and phenomenally strong, dragonbone is a wondrous substance . . . when one can get it. The bones decay rapidly after death, once their peculiar chemical composition is no longer protected by flesh and blood. A Chiavoran named Gaetano Rossi had developed a method for preserving them; Tom Wilker and I had stolen that method; it was stolen from us in turn, and sold to a company in Va Hing. Three years before I went to Akhia, it became public knowledge that the Yelangese were using dragonbone to build effective caeligers: airships that could be used for more than mere novelty.
“If you had shared what you knew with the Crown when you learned it,” Lord Rossmere said to Tom and myself during our first meeting, “we wouldn’t be in this situation now.”
I did not say to him that I had kept the information secret precisely to avoid our current situation. First, because it was only true in part; and second, because Tom was stepping firmly on my foot. He had worked quite hard to get us this opportunity, and did not want to see me squander it by speaking impertinently to a brigadier in the Royal Army. I offered instead a more temperate rendition of my thoughts. “I know it may not seem like it, but we do have an edge over the Yelangese. I believe our research into dragonbone synthesis is quite a bit further along than theirs, owing to the good efforts of Frederick Kemble. He had several years to work on the problem while the world knew nothing of it.”
Lord Rossmere ignored my comment, addressing his next words to Tom. “I shed no tears for the deaths of dragons, if they can be useful to us. I’m also a pragmatist, though. Scirland has already exhausted most of its productive iron mines, and thanks to your companion, we’ve also lost our foothold in Bayembe. If we kill half the dragons now for raw material, then in a generation we’ll be fighting over the few that remain. We need a renewable supply, and that means breeding them.”
None of this was news to either Tom or myself. Lord Rossmere was not speaking to inform us, though; all that was prelude to his next statement. He said, “Your work must be carried out under conditions of strict security. The formula for bone preservation may be out in the world, but nobody has yet had much luck with breeding. The nation that harnesses dragons for that purpose will have a lasting advantage over its rivals, and we do not intend to lose that chance.”
There would be at least two nations with this particular secret. Scirland had no true dragons left, only draconic cousins such as the sparklings with which I had begun my research so many years before. Politics make for peculiar bedfellows; in this instance, we were in bed with Akhia, whose desert drakes would be ideally suited for the purpose — if we could induce the beasts to cooperate.
Tom said, “We will of course do what we can. It will take a good deal more than two people to manage the necessary work, though . . . I believe Lord Tavenor had a staff to assist?”
“Yes, of course. Some Akhian labourers, and the site doubles as a barracks for our military contingent in Qurrat. There is a gentleman you will liaise with –” Lord Rossmere twitched aside a few papers, searching. “Husam ibn Ramiz ibn Khalis al-Aritati. A sheikh of one of their tribes. We’ve been assured of his trustworthiness.”
“I presume we will also have access to Lord Tavenor’s notes?” I said. “He has published nothing of his work. Obviously he met with no success, or else you would not be looking for his replacement; but we must know what he has done, so that we do not waste time repeating his errors.” Depending on what we found in his notes, I anticipated spending quite a bit of time repeating his errors, to see whether it was his theories or his methodology that had failed him. But Tom and I had discussed this beforehand, and my dutiful question was merely to set the stage for Tom’s own response.
His brow artfully furrowed, my companion said, “Yes, the lack of publications is rather troubling, for a scientific endeavour of this sort. It seems rather a waste. I realize that matters related to the breeding of dragons must be kept under wraps — but we would like an understanding that Dame Isabella and I may publish our other discoveries as we see fit.”
It was peculiar to hear Tom refer to me as “Dame Isabella.” We had not been so formal with one another since Mouleen; indeed, we had an unspoken agreement never to let differences in rank stand between us. Formality was necessary, however, when dealing with men like Lord Rossmere. The brigadier swelled with indignation. “Other discoveries? We are sending you there to breed dragons, not to run about studying whatever you like.”
“We will of course devote our full attention to that task,” I said, my tone as conciliatory as I could contrive. “But in the process of so doing, we will undoubtedly observe a thousand details of anatomy and behaviour that need not be state secrets. Mathieu Sémery has won a fair bit of acclaim in Thiessin with his study of wyverns in Bulskevo. I should not like to see Scirland lag behind in the eyes of the scientific community, simply because we kept mum about everything we might discover.”
This was not a situation where I could form a private vow to do as I wished, and the consequences be damned. That might suffice for the wearing of trousers in the field, or my friendships with various men come what rumours might result . . . but violating our arrangement with the Royal Army could land Tom and myself in prison. I was determined not to squander this opportunity, but first we needed Lord Rossmere’s consent.
Not bothering to hide his suspicion, he said, “What sort of things do you imagine you would publish?”
I racked my brains for the most tediously scientific topic imaginable. “Oh, perhaps . . . the grooming behaviour of the desert drake after feeding. Do they lick themselves clean, as cats do? Or do they perhaps roll in sand — and if so, what effect does this abrasion have on their scales –”
“Thank you, Dame Isabella, that will do.” I had succeeded in sufficiently boring Lord Rossmere. “You will submit any materials you write to Colonel Pensyth in Qurrat, along with a list of the publications and individuals to whom you wish to send them. He will consult with General Lord Ferdigan as necessary — but if they approve, then yes, you may publish. But those men will have final authority in the matter.”
I did not much relish the notion of military oversight, but this was likely the best Tom and I could hope for. “Thank you,” I said, and tried to sound sincere.
“How soon shall we begin?” Tom asked.
Lord Rossmere snorted. “If I could put you on a boat tomorrow, I would. Unless you find a way to make dragons grow to full size more rapidly, it will be years before we have an adequate supply — and that is if you succeed right away. The Yelangese have undoubtedly been pursuing the same goal; we have no time to waste.”
“Since you cannot put us on a boat tomorrow . . . .” I prompted.
“How soon can you depart?”
His manner of asking made it clear that “the day after tomorrow” would be an ideal answer, and his mood would deteriorate with every subsequent day he was forced to wait. Tom and I exchanged glances. “This Selemer week?” Tom ventured.
I had traveled enough in my life to be able to do so efficiently. “That should be feasible,” I agreed.
“Splendid.” Lord Rossmere made a note of it and said, “I’ll write directly once we have your passage booked. Mr. Wilker, you’ll be lodged in the Men’s House in the Segulist Quarter of Qurrat. Dame Isabella, you’ll be living with a local family, one Shimon ben Nadav. Also Segulist, of course, though as you might expect, a Temple-worshipper. There are few Magisterials in Akhia, I fear. Furnishings and the like will be provided; there’s no need to pack your entire household.”
Rumour had it that Lord Tavenor had done just that, and been made to ship his belongings home at his own expense after he resigned his position. Fortunately for Lord Rossmere, I was accustomed to making do with quite little. Compared with my cabin aboard the Basilisk, even the most parsimonious of lodgings would seem downright palatial — if only because I could roam more freely outside of them.
There were of course a hundred other details to arrange, but trivial matters were not for the likes of Lord Rossmere. He called in his adjutant and made the necessary introductions; that officer would handle the remainder on his behalf. Then we were dismissed to our own business.
Tom and I descended the stairs and went out into the bustling streets of Drawbury, which in those days still held the headquarters of the Royal Army in Falchester. We stood for a moment in silence, watching people go by; then, as if by a silent accord, we turned to regard one another.
“Akhia,” Tom said, a grin touching his expression.
“Indeed.” I knew why his grin had not fully come to rest. My own excitement was tempered with apprehension. Our research aboard the Basilisk had been carried out partially under the auspices of other groups — the Scirling Geographical Association, the Ornithological Society — but that was quite different from the kind of oversight that now loomed over us.
I would never say it to Tom, who had fought so hard for my inclusion in this enterprise, but I was not entirely sanguine about the prospect of working for the Royal Army. My adventures abroad had tangled me in such affairs on several occasions, but I had never sought them out deliberately before now. And I knew very well that if we succeeded in breeding dragons as the Crown desired, we would in effect be reducing them to the status of livestock: creatures fed and raised to adulthood in captivity, only so they could be slaughtered for human benefit.
The alternative, however, was worse. If dragons could not be bred, then they would only be hunted; the wild populations would be depleted in short order. I had grown up in the countryside, where the slaughter of sheep and fowl was entirely commonplace. I must persuade myself to think of the dragons in those terms — however difficult such thoughts might be.
Tom and I walked to the corner of Rafter Street, where a hansom cab might be hailed. By that point in my life I had enough money to maintain a carriage of my own if I wished, but I had gotten out of the habit. (My friends later had to persuade me that while Mrs. Camherst or Dame Isabella might do as she wished, it was not fitting for Lady Trent to go about in hired vehicles.) Once settled in and on our way, Tom caught my gaze and asked, “Will you look for him?”
There was no point in pretending I did not know who Tom was talking about. There was little more in pretending carelessness, but I did my best — more for the sake of my own dignity than out of any hope of deceiving Tom. “I doubt I could find him if I tried,” I said, gazing out the window at the city rattling past. “There must be a great many men in Akhia named Suhail.”
Our erstwhile companion from the Basilisk, the man who had gone with me to the cursed isle of Rahuahane, who had stolen a Yelangese caeliger and tried to rescue a princess. I had given him my direction in Falchester before we parted company in Phetayong, but had not received a single letter in the nearly three years since. Possibly he had lost the notebook page upon which I scrawled the information. But it was not so difficult to find me; there were few lady dragon naturalists in the world, and only one named Isabella Camherst.
My words were a mask for that sorrow, but also a nod to the truth. As well as I thought I knew Suhail, I knew very little about him: not his father’s name, not his family name, not even the city in which he lived.
As if he could hear those thoughts, Tom said, “I imagine the population of archaeologists named Suhail is rather smaller.”
“Presuming he still engages in such work,” I said with a sigh. “I had the distinct impression that his father’s death meant he was being called home to his duties. He may have been forced to lay aside his own interests.”
Although I meant my comment to be temperate, the word forced betrayed my own feelings. I had once forsworn all my customary interests for the sake of my family; the “grey years,” as I called them, had been one of the dreariest periods of my life — surpassed only by the time spent mourning my husband Jacob. I knew Suhail’s passion for his work; I could not imagine him giving it up without a qualm.
“You could ask around,” Tom said gently. “What harm could there be?”
Embarrassment for Suhail’s family, perhaps — but having never met them, knowing nothing of them, I found it hard to muster much concern for their feelings. And yet, I did not want to get my own hopes up, only to see them dashed. “Perhaps,” I said. Tom was kind enough to let me leave it at that.
I did not have much leisure for melancholy after I returned to my Hart Square townhouse. If we were to leave in a week and a half, there was no time to lose. I sent the maid to begin an inventory of my travel wardrobe, and went into my study to consider which books I would bring along.
My study had, over the years, become a source of deep and quiet pleasure to me. It was not elegant, as some gentlemen’s studies are; one might rather call it “cluttered.” Apart from the books, I had notes, maps, sketches and finished paintings, field specimens, and assorted knick-knacks collected in my travels. Shells acquired by my son Jake weighed down stacks of paper; the replica of the egg I had taken from Rahuahane propped up a shelf of books. (The firestone carved out of the albumen of the real egg was still mostly hidden atop my wardrobe, although I had shaped a few of the pieces and sold them for funds along the way.) High on the wall, above the shelves, a series of plaster cast footprints marched in an unsteady line: the fossilized tracks of a prehistoric dragon, discovered the year before by Konrad Vigfusson in southern Otholé.
A large claw sat on my desk, where I had left it that morning. The claw was a complete mystery, sent to me by a fossil-hunter in Isnats; he guessed its age to be tens of thousands of years old, if not more. It was a fascinating glimpse into the distant past of dragons . . . presuming, of course, that the claw did indeed come from a dragon. The fossil-hunter had found no associated bones, which would ordinarily aid in classifying a specimen. In this instance, the lack of bones might be the identifier: if the owner of the claw had been a “true” dragon, then of course its bones would have decayed too rapidly for fossilization. (Although preservation can occur in nature, the chemical conditions for it are sufficiently rare as to make fossil dragon bones nearly unknown — although a great many hucksters and confidence men would have you believe otherwise.)
So: grant that it may have been a dragon. If so, then it was one of prodigious size, dwarfing even the largest breeds known today, as the claw measured nearly thirty centimeters around the curve from base to tip. Tom theorized that the claw might have been out of proportion to the rest of the dragon, which certainly made biological sense; what the purpose of such an overgrown talon might have been, however, is still a puzzle today. Hunting, defense, the attraction of mates . . . we have many guesses, but no facts.
My study also contained a box, high up on one shelf, whose battered exterior suggested that nothing of particular interest was contained therein. Unknown to any but Tom and myself, it held my greatest treasure.
This I lifted down, after first ensuring my door was locked. Shorn of its lid, it disclosed various plaster lumps held together with bits of wire. This, as readers of the previous volume may recall, was the cast I had taken of the gaps inside the Rahuahane egg — the emptiness where once an embryo had been.
The cast, unfortunately, was far too delicate to risk on a sea journey to Akhia, and as near to irreplaceable as made no difference. I had studied it a hundred times and drawn its appearance from every angle; the sketches I could take with me. Nothing replaced the experience of looking at it directly, though, and so I examined it one last time, fixing its shape in my mind.
I believed — but could not yet prove — that it constituted evidence of a lost breed of dragon, one which the ancient Draconeans had indeed tamed, as the legends said. Those legends had always been doubtful, owing to the intractability of most dragon types, but a breed now lost to us might have been more cooperative. Indeed, I sometimes wondered if that cooperative nature was why the breed was lost: we have so thoroughly domesticated certain kinds of dogs that they can no longer survive in the wild. If the Draconeans had developed such a creature, it might well have died out after the collapse of their civilization.
Such thoughts were mere speculation, though. Even the shape of the embryo was uncertain, owing to the petrification of the albumen and the flaws of the cast; who could guess what the adult form might have looked like? We knew too little of dragon embryology to say.
But with enough time in Akhia — and enough failed hatchings, which were inevitable — I might find a better answer.
A knock came at my study door. “One moment,” I called out, replacing the cast in its box, and standing atop a chair to put it once more on its disregarded shelf. A pang of guilt went through me as I did so: who was I to grumble about the Royal Army keeping its naturalists mum, when I myself was sitting on this kind of scientific secret? Nor was it the only one: I had two valuable pieces of information not yet shared with the world, and the other one was stuffed into a desk drawer a meter behind me.
The trouble with the cast was that I did not want to say where I had gotten it. My own landing on Rahuahane had been inadvertent; others would go on purpose, if they knew about the ruin there. And those others would become a flood if they knew that the cache of eggs there also constituted a massive cache of unshaped firestone. I had struggled since the day I made that cast to think of a plausible story for its origins that would not either distort true information with false or give away too much. I had yet to succeed.
As for the paper in my desk . . . there, my motivations were not a tenth so noble.
“Come in,” I called, once I was down and away from the relevant shelf.
The door opened to admit Natalie Oscott. Once my live-in companion, she had moved to her own lodgings shortly after Jake went away to school. “He does not need a tutor any longer,” she said at the time, “and you need more space for books.” This latter was something of a polite dodge. I had once promised to qualify her for a life of independent and eccentric spinsterhood; that had since been achieved, though I could hardly take the credit for it. Natalie had found her calling in engineering, and a circle of like-minded friends to go with it, who kept her tolerably employed. Her finances were somewhat strait — certainly far less than she could have expected in life had she remained a proper member of Society — but she could pay her own bills now, and chose to do so. I could hardly stand in her way; although with Jake gone, I sometimes missed having company in the house.
She gave me a curious look as she came in. “Living alone has done odd things to you. What were you up to, that I had to wait in the hall?”
“Oh, you know me,” I said with an airy smile. “Dancing about with my knickers on my head. I couldn’t let you see. Please, have a seat — did Tom tell you the news?”
“That you’re leaving next week? Yes, he did.” They did not live in the same neighbourhood, but it would not have been much out of Tom’s way home for him to stop by the workshop where Natalie and her friends tinkered with their devices. “What will you do with the house?”
I sat down behind my desk and slid a fresh sheet of paper onto my blotter. “Close it up, I think. I can afford to do that now, and this is dreadfully short notice to be looking for a temporary tenant. Though you’re welcome to the place if you like; you still have a key, after all.”
“No, closing it makes sense. I’ll come in for books, though, if you don’t mind me playing librarian on your behalf.”
That was an excellent thought, and I thanked her for it. The so-called “Flying University” that had begun in my sitting room was now a whole flock of gatherings, taking place in many houses around Falchester, but my library still occupied a vital position in that web. Though of course my shelves did not cover every topic — which gave me another thought. “I also have a few books that should be returned to their owners. One from Peter Landenbury, I think, and two or three from Georgina Hunt.”
“I’ll take them,” Natalie said. “You have enough to concern yourself with. Is that a letter to Jake that you are writing?”
It was, though I had not gotten any farther than the date and salutation. How does one tell one’s thirteen-year-old son that one is leaving for a foreign country in a week — not to return for who knew how long — and he is not permitted to come?
Natalie knew Jake as well as I did. Laughing, she said, “Be sure to examine the contents of your traveling chests before the ship casts off. Otherwise you may arrive in Akhia and find your son folded in with your hats.”
“Akhia is a desert, and therefore much less interesting to him.” But Jake would want to come along regardless. When he was very young, I had left him behind so I might go to Eriga; when he was older, I atoned for that abandonment by bringing him on my voyage around the world. The act had given him Notions. It was true that Jake’s greatest love was the sea, but more generally, he had it fixed in his head that traveling to foreign parts was something every boy should do on a regular schedule. I had enrolled him at the best school my rank and finances could arrange — Suntley College, which in those days was not quite in the upper tier — but for a boy who had gone swimming with dragon turtles, it was unavoidably tedious.
Thoughts of my son should not have led me to animals, but they did. After all, Jake was no longer dependent on me for care and feeding, but other creatures were. “Do you want the honeyseekers? Or shall I ask Miriam?”
Natalie made a face. “I should be a good friend and tell you that I will take them, but the truth is that I fall asleep at the workshop too often to be responsible for anything living. I should hate for you to come home and find your pets are dead.”
“Miriam it is, then.” They were not birds, which were Miriam Farnswood’s specialty, but she liked them well enough despite that. I set my pen aside, knowing that I would need my full attention for the letter to Jake, and steepled my fingers. “What am I missing?”
“Respectable clothing for when you are in town; trousers for when you are not. Hats. No, you’ll want a scarf, won’t you, to cover your hair? Your anatomical compendium. They will have scalpels and magnifying glasses and so forth waiting for you there, I presume, and Mr. Wilker has the set you gave him — but better safe than sorry. I’m told Akhians have a kind of oil or paste they use to protect their skin from the sun; you might want to acquire some.” Natalie rolled her eyes heavenward, studying my ceiling as if a list might be found there. “Do they have malaria in Akhia?”
“I believe so. But I shall have to take my chances: Amaneen do not approve of drinking.” Some were more observant than others, of course; but I did not want to give the wrong impression from the start by showing up with a case of gin in my baggage.
She inquired after my living arrangements, which I described; then she said, “Tents? Other gear for camping?”
“Lord Rossmere made it rather clear I am expected to stay in Qurrat and work on my assignment for the army.”
Natalie regarded me with an ironical eye, and I laughed. “Yes, yes. I know. But if I should happen to go wandering out into the desert in search of things to learn, I am sure I can acquire suitable tents from a local merchant. Also the camel to carry them for me.”
“Then you are prepared,” Natalie said. “As much as you can ever be.”
Which was to say, not half prepared enough. But I had long since resigned myself to that fact.
I could not help but think on the past when Tom and I met in Sennsmouth and looked out at the ship that would bear us to Akhia.
Fourteen years before, we had stood in almost this precise spot, preparing to depart for Vystrana. But there were four of us then: myself and Jacob, Tom and his patron Lord Hilford. Jacob had not lived to come home again, and Lord Hilford had passed away the previous spring, after many years of worsening health. I was pleased he had at least lived to see his protégé become a Colloquium Fellow, though I had not been able to follow suit.
Tom’s thoughts must have gone along similar lines, for he said, “This isn’t much like our first departure.”
“No,” I agreed. “But I think they both would have been pleased to see where we are now.”
The wind was brisk and biting, causing me to think longingly of the desert heat that lay ahead. (I was somewhat erroneous in so doing: even in southern Anthiope, Acinis is not the warmest month. It was, however, warmer there than in Scirland.) If I felt a chill, though, I had only to cast my thoughts upon what lay in my future: the desert drakes of Akhia.
They are in many respects the quintessential dragons, the sort that come to mind the instant one hears the word. Scales as gold as the sun, giving rise to legends that dragons hoard gold and sleep atop mountainous piles of it, until their hides are plated with the precious metal; fiery breath that sears like the desert summer itself. I had seen many kinds of dragons in the course of my career, including some whose claim to the name was exceedingly tenuous . . . but the closest I had ever been to a desert drake was when I gazed upon a runt in the king’s menagerie, so many years before. Now, at last, I would see them in their full glory.
I said, “Thank you, Tom. I know I have said it before, and likely I will say it again — but it bears repeating. This opportunity I owe entirely to you.”
“And to your own work,” he said defensively. But then he smiled ruefully and added, “You’re welcome. And thank you. We got here together.”
His tone was awkward enough that I said nothing more. I merely lifted my face to the sea wind and waited for the ship that would bear me to Akhia.