This is the first chapter of the unwritten sequel to Tooth and Claw. I’m not going to write any more, but here is what there is of it.
THOSE WHO FAVOR FIRE
CHAPTER ONE: IN IRIETH BEFORE THE SEASON.
1) A Call at the Londaver Establishment.
When once a gently born young dragon has grown his wings, however fond he may be of his comfortable home, he naturally longs to leave and make his mark in a wider sphere of life. Doting mothers allow their sons to leave them, first for the inimitable education offered to all gently born dragons at school and at the Circle, then, with perhaps a little more trepidation, for the joys of Irieth and the wider world beyond. Some young dragons manage to run hrough a fortune in these youthful years, others, less fortunate, are kept on a strict allowance by their parents. Still others must make their own way in the world. Soon such young dragons choose among the respectable professions where a rising dragon may hope to show the shine on his scales, the Church, the rmy, the Law, the Offices, or, most dangerous but most promising of all, Politics. However it may be, all a young dragon’s family can do is watch and hope as he moves into this new sphere, leaving his home and family behind except for what dutiful visits he may bring himself to pay them. His friends may try to help from the sidelines, but it remains largely his own doing whether he will eat or be eaten in his new career.
As for well-born maiden dragons, who usually, if they hope to maintain the title Respected, must live at home until they marry, they also are moved by the youthful urge to feel new air beneath their wings. Their parents generally deal with this by allowing them a season in Irieth, to see and be seen, after which they generally marry and are assumed to have put aside all such desires.
Illustrious Londaver had been persuaded by his wife Haner to take a town house in Irieth for the season for just such a purpose. The two daughters, the only survivors of their parents’ first clutch, Aeslyn and Lamith, were nearly eighty years old, and, in their own estimation and their mother’s, approaching an intolerable pitch of restlessness. Their father had complained of the boredom and the expense of an Irieth season. Londaver was not a rich demesne, nor had the enlightened principles of its present rulers wrung from it every drop of blood or piece of gold it might have been made to yield. As to the expense, Haner said it would be worth it to have the maidens off their hands. The issue of boredom she dealt with by saying that Londaver himself might stay at home with the younger dragonets if he liked, except for two weeks towards the end of the season when he must be present for a rout-party and a ball. Londaver shuddered in horror and the maidens shuddered in delight, but their father gave in at last.
The Londaver sisters therefore came to town under their mother’s chaperonage towards the end of the month of Thaw in a flurry of delighted preparations. Having prepared themselves for the very heights of pleasure, they were now waiting with more or less patience for the season to begin. Their mother had chosen a beautiful house in almost the deepest darkness of fashion, largely underground and well-furnished with baths, sleeping rooms, dining rooms and the most elegant Speaking Room imaginable. It was in the fashionable Marshalling Quarter, mere steps from the even more fashionable Southwest Quarter, where such a house would have cost twice as much, as Haner pointed out tartly to Aeslyn when that maiden dared to raise a complaint.
While they were still settling themselves into their elegant hired establishment, one morning while Aeslyn had departed expressing her intention of visiting the burnisher’s and Haner was about some political business, the young Illustrious Marcanil Daverak came to call. Marcanil was a well-bred, not to say stuffy, young dragon who would not usually consider calling upon an unaccompanied young maiden. On learning that only Lamith was at home, he hesitated on the threshold. After a moment he decided to go in. No doubt Haner would be home soon. In any case, Lamith and Marcanil were cousins, their mothers had been sisters. Even more than that, they had spent a great part of their childhood together, they were almost more siblings than cousins. Besides, he was burning with his news, which he imparted almost as soon as he was seated with his cousin in the speaking room.
“They could tear you to pieces,” Lamith said, with the delightful little shudder with which well-brought-up maiden dragons contemplate unlikely horrors. The shudder rippled down the twenty foot length of her golden scales to the very tip of her tail, and Marcanil watched it with a smile that was indulgent but not at all brotherly.
“They don’t tear you to pieces unless they think you presume,” he said. “I’ll have Uncle Sher’s name at the head of my list, and Uncle Avan’s directly beneath it. My list is a hundred dragons long — just ask Lodie, she spent a week writing it out for me. I’m not the slightest bit afraid, even if it will be my first time in the chamber.”
“Then it’s quite safe really?” Lamith asked, her wings drooping a little in disappointment.
Marcanil was a young dragon, and all young dragons like to be thought brave by beautiful maidens, even when the maiden in question was a younger cousin known from babyhood. “Well, theoretically, of course, the dragons of the Prime could take one look at me and decide to rend and eat me there and then,” he said. Lamith shuddered again, and Marcanil raised his head a little, posing like an ancient Honourable on his way to single combat. “I’m an orphan, after all, and my father died in a blaze of notoriety. I don’t think it’s likely, with all the names on my scroll, but it’s just the kind of risk that we have to take.”
“You’re so brave,” Lamith said, her silver eyes whirling a little in admiration.
The doorway of the Speaking Room darkened, and both young dragons looked up.
“Aunt Haner!” Marcanil, who had been sitting sejant, uncurled his tail, raised his wings as best he could and dipped them again in salute.
The Illust Haner Londaver greeted her nephew formally, then came forward to embrace him. She was a glorious matronly red, having been married for a hundred years and borne two clutches, but she moved with the same grace and enthusiasm as her daughter, and might easily have been mistaken for her older married sister. “Marcanil, my dear young dragon, how are you? I haven’t seen you in an age.” Haner bowed to her nephew. “Is dear Lodie in Irieth with you?”
“No, my sister is still in Daverak, looking after everything,” Marcanil said.
“Oh Mother, Marcanil has left the Circle and he’s going to enter the Cupola and means to make his career in Politics!” Lamith said, blurting out all her cousin’s news in one mouthful.
Haner started, drew back and looked at Marcanil, who bowed his head. “This seems a very hasty decision,” she said. “Have you considered taking your place and then going into the Offices for a few years first, before braving the dangers of a political life?”
Marcanil laughed. “That’s precisely what Uncle Avan said. But I don’t need to build up my wealth, I have inherited Daverak whole, thanks to your kindness.”
“Your Uncle Londaver’s kindness, not mine,” Haner said, frowning a little. “It suited us very well to have a home of our own while my parents-in-law lived and you grew to your strength. You have thanked us enough. As for wealth, yes indeed, you have Daverak. It’s rather wisdom I’d see you build up before you take such risks. Isn’t the work of the demesne of Daverak sufficient for you?”
“Time enough to settle down to administering Daverak when I’m older,” Marcanil said. “At present, Lodie lives there and can keep an eye on it.”
“You can’t rely on your sister,” Haner said. “Lodie will be wanting to marry soon. Maybe I should have brought her up to Irieth with us this season.” Lamith’s horrified look showed how pleased she was that it was too late for this idea to be put into practice.
“She’s happy enough at Daverak for now,” Marcanil said. “When she wants to settle down, I daresay I shall too, we’re clutchmates after all. For now, I want to take my place in the glorious administration of Tiamath, to make a difference. Great affairs are being decided, things that will affect every dragon until the end of time, and I want to take my place and have a voice in them now, not later when I’m older and everything is settled. Don’t disapprove, Aunt
Haner, I couldn’t bear it. I’ve always thought of you as more of a mother than an aunt.”
“If I have any influence over you I hope it’s for good,” Haner said, but she allowed herself to be mollified. “Well, I suppose young dragons need to stretch their wings, and this is your way of doing it.”
“It’s a very traditional way. I have a right to represent Daverak in the Cupola, as in Daverak itself. I have a scroll of names of dragons who support me.” He glanced over at Lamith, guiltily. “There’s no real risk.”
“We could certainly do with more progressives in the Cupola,” Haner said, giving way entirely. “You’re absolutely right about great affairs. This very season, the Noble Assembly will be debating Subjugation. Your Uncle Sher is bringing a bill before them. It’s why I’ve come to town, to be at hand in case there’s anything I can do to help.”
“I thought you’d come to town so we could have a season,” Lamith said. “That’s certainly what you told Papa.”
“Two beeves with one spear,” Haner said, turning to her daughter and smiling.
Lamith smiled back. “Papa will be here to take his seat for the vote, because that is when you will hold your ball,” she said, awed at her mother’s cleverness.
“It’s just as you’ve always taught me, that every dragon has a stake in the world, and every dragon should be free to take a place in it. I want to hold the line against Subjugation, that’s why I am so eager to take my place in the Assembly,” Marcanil said.
“We do need every claw, though you’re so young,” Haner said. Marcanil glanced over at his cousin. Lamith’s silver eyes were wide open and whirling with pride.
“I wish I were male and could do as much for the poor bound servants,” she said.
“I’ll do it for you,” Marcanil said, his scales almost glowing with pride and delight.
2) At the Club
At length Marcanil left his aunt’s establishment for his club, which was located a short stroll along the river-front in the Toris Quarter. Inside he gave up his hat gratefully to the gatekeeper and hesitated for a moment in the hall. The sound of merry voices came to him from the gambling room, and the scent of long-dead muttonwools from the dining room. He was hungry, yet he hesitated. He belonged to the club because his dead father had belonged to it and because it furnished good company, not for the food. Food in Irieth was legendarily terrible. It is not possible to feed fresh meat to a city of several hundred thousand hungry dragons. Preserved meat, whether dried or smoked, will do at a pinch, but is not satisfying day after day. The meat proclaimed fresh in the markets of Irieth might have been already dead for several days. Yet even within the city there were better dinners and worse dinners, and the club provided some of the worst dinners poor Marcanil had ever been called upon to eat. He had entertained hopes of being invited to stay for a meal with his aunt, but the Londavers had an engagement and were dining away from home.
As he stood considering whether to eat a bad dinner or to seek good company, the outer door opened to admit two dragons. “Commander Alwad,” the gatekeeper murmured politely, and then, “Sanj! I didn’t know you were in town.”
“I just this moment flew in ahead of the train,” the young dragon addressed replied. “The rest of the family are coming along slowly with the baggage and the servants. They’ll be opening Benandi House, so I shan’t need to beg a bed here, but I thought I’d come along and hear the news.”
“You’re always very welcome here for whatever purpose,” the gatekeeper said.
Marcanil turned around to confirm his suspicions. The elegant bronze dragon the gatekeeper casually addressed as “Sanj” was indeed his own cousin the Illustrious Sanjild Benandi. Sanj’s title was not, like Marcanil’s own, a title earned by inheritance. It was a title of courtesy only, which Sanj would hold until his father died and he became Exalted Benandi in his place.
“Hello Sanj,” he said, feeling, as always, a little outshone by his showy cousin.
“Why, Marc. What a stroke of luck,” Sanj said. “I was just discussing family affairs with Alwad here, who is a cousin by courtesy, and there you are to confirm the news. Were you going in?”
“I was wondering whether to eat here,” Marcanil admitted.
“Oh my dear fellow, never lunch or dine at this place. The food’s appalling.” The gatekeeper laughed sycophantically. “Let’s all have a beer or two and then go and dine at Benandi House after the servants have had a chance to get something ready. Grandmother insisted on bringing up some beeves for tonight. I’ve been listening to them lowing for the last thousand miles, so I’ve never looked forward to a meal more.”
“Fresh meat! An excellent suggestion,” Alwad said. “But you’ll have to introduce me to your cousin, Sanj.”
Sanj checked his stride. “Certainly. I thought you must know each other. Marcanil, this is the Respectable Commander Alwad Telstie, whose cousin Sebeth is married to our Uncle Avan. Alwad, this is my cousin the Illustrious Marcanil Daverak, whose mother was Berend Agornin, sister to my mother Selendra, may she fly ever free with Veld.”
Only on the last words, speaking of his dead mother, did the laughter leave his voice, and only then did Marcanil realize quite how it bubbled constantly under almost everything that Sanj said. Marcanil bowed to Alwad, and Alwad bowed back. Alwad was an older dragon, forty feet long, perhaps of their parents’ generation. His scales bore scars that spoke of his army life, had not the military title “Commander” been sufficient. Marcanil was not ready to acknowledge him a relation, though he certainly must be considered as a family connection.
“Now, some beer, before my flame bursts out of my throat and burns down the entire establishment,” Alwad said. Sanj led the way into a small speaking room, just big enough for three and furnished in the quaint old fashioned style of light stones set against dark. Sanj sat couchant against the far curve of the wall. Alwad placed himself beside a small table, and Marcanil took the near wall. Almost as soon as they had settled, a scuttling servant brought beer. This speed astonished Marcanil.
“They like me here,” Sanj said, catching the tail of surprise in Marcanil’s eyes. “They need time to get used to you.”
“You’re younger than I am!” Marcanil said, which wasn’t what he had intended to say at all. Sanj laughed.
“Well yes, but you’ve only just come down from the Circle, whereas I only spent one year at the tedious place, just enough to be able to say ‘When I was at the Circle’ in society for the rest of my life, which is all it’s good for as far as I can see.”
“It’s a good place for making friends,” Alwad murmured, taking a drink.
“It’s perfectly possible to make friends in Irieth,” Sanj retorted. “In any case, coming from my family, I might almost say I have enough friends ready made for me, and enemies too for that matter. There are few enough, at the Circle or elsewhere, who will choose to be friendly to be because I am Sanj, rather than because I am Illustrious Benandi, son of my father. Small wonder I seek out those who will.”
“I think that is the same for everyone, when they are young and their family is prominent,” Marcanil ventured.
Sanj waved a claw dismissingly. “So, Marcanil, I hear I am not the only dragon of our family to be taking his seat in the Noble Assembly this season.”
Marcanil was pleased Sanj had heard. “Did your father tell you?” he asked.
“Father? No, as far as I know he knows nothing about it. He hasn’t even arrived in Irieth yet, he’s still on the train from Benandi. Alwad told me in the street on the way here. Have you heard about it?”
“Your father certainly does know, because I asked him myself to endorse my candidacy. He and Uncle Avan are the first two names on my scroll.” Marcanil stretched his wings a little at the thought.
“You’re to take your place for Daverak?” Sanj blinked. “What a charming idea. I am likewise to take the place for the Dignity of Agornin, as Father holds the seat for Benandi. It’ll be a pure formality, of course.”
“I intend to take my place to have a voice upon the issues and make a career in politics,” Marcanil said, feeling silly rather than brave, now he had no female admiration as wind beneath his wings.
“Why, I shall certainly follow tradition and vote myself, when I am in Irieth, or when Father especially calls on me to do so,” Sanj said, the laughter bubbling to the surface again. “But there’s nothing unusual in the two of us taking our places, me as my father’s heir and you to confirm yourself in your father’s position now you’ve come of age. What is unusual, and what Alwad told me about, is Gerin, who wants to take a Mountain seat.”
“Gerin?” Marcanil echoed, astonished, feeling his pink eyes whirling out of control. “Our cousin Gerin Agornin? Why in the world would he want to do it?”
“And what a way he’s going about it,” Sanj said. “He has no natural seat, of course, with his father being a parson.”
“Nobody ever thought Gerin would be a parson,” Alwad put in.
“Well, no, because he’s fabulously wealthy in his own right,” Marcanil said. “His parents hardly have gold to line their bed, but when Gerin was a dragonet he discovered an ancient treasure under the Mountains in Benandi.”
“Some say Father should have kept it all for himself,” Sanj said. “Still, he divided it with Mother and with the two Agornin dragonets. The one who actually found it died not long after, broke his leg and never got his strength back, the way it happens sometimes. I don’t even remember his name.”
“Wontas, may he fly free,” Marcanil said. “I can remember him. I was at his funeral, not long after my father’s death. Aunt Felin was terribly distressed, and so was your mother, that’s what I chiefly remember. As for Gerin, we thought for a while he’d die himself of the shock. He was so upset he could hardly eat.”
“Before I was born,” Sanj said, dismissing his dead cousin with a wave of his claw.
“To get back to the live and fascinating Gerin,” Alwad said, draining his beer and pouring another. “He may have been upset when his brother died, almost anyone with any sensitivity at all is upset when they lose a clutchmate. But he got over it, he grew up in the normal way, he’s never been terribly bothered by anything since, as far as I know. He took a prominent place in society from the time he left the Circle, largely because everyone knows that he’s fabulously wealthy. Frankly, with the way he gambles he’d have run through anything short of fabled wealth long ago. He’s never shown any sign of interest in anything, other than gambling, drinking, dancing at respectable balls and leaving them to chase after tails of rather less virtue. But suddenly now he’s announced that he means to support Rimalin’s Mountain party and he’s collecting endorsements to take a position in the Assembly.”
“If he’d let us know he wanted it, if he’d ever shown any signs of being interested in a career in politics, no doubt Father would have found a place for him,” Sanj said. “Veld knows it’s not that unusual for a dragon to develop an interest in great affairs when he grows large enough to settle down — Father did it himself. He’d done no more than take his place in courtesy in the Assembly until after Mother died, and now he leads the party. But it sounds as if Gerin means to work directly against Father and all that we Rivers have been doing.”
“But why?” Marcanil asked, looking at his beer as if he must have drunk enough of it to muddle his head. “What does he have to gain from it? The Mountains are mostly ancient plod-to-churches, dragons like your grandmother. I wouldn’t have thought that would be where Gerin would want to fly, even if he has taken up a late interest in political affairs.”
“We haven’t the dimmest glow of an idea,” Alwad said.
“I’ve never known him very well,” Marcanil admitted. “I spent most of my youth with Aunt Haner and Uncle Londaver. When we visited Benandi we always stayed with you, not at the Parsonage.”
“I always had the feeling he resented us for some reason.” Sanj shrugged, serious for once. “He was always there, but always older, he never had time for Orald and me, and then he went away to the Circle about the time when Darapenth was born and Mother died. Since then I’ve hardly seen him, though Uncle Penn has let me know how he’s doing — which has generally been just what you’ve said, Alwad, once I read between the lines of Uncle Penn’s words. Drinking and gambling and chasing pretty tails. I can’t think of any reason why he might suddenly decide to try politics seriously, or if he should, why he would take up with Rimalin’s crowd.”
“Maybe he’s run through his money,” Marcanil suggested.
“My old nanny Amer used to lull me to sleep with stories about the machines they brought to drag it all out of the mountain,” Sanj said. “There was gold there in fabulous quantities. Mother’s share, which is Dara’s dowry, fills a whole tunnel, and Gerin got twice that, his own and his brother’s share.”
“Doesn’t seem likely, I admit,” Alwad said. “Still, it’s gold, and I’ve seen him myself lose thousands of crowns in an evening at the card table.”
Marcanil wondered if Alwad had perhaps won some of those thousands of crowns from his cousin.
“Thousands of crowns would be nothing to what he found,” Sanj insisted. “We’re talking about the _treasure of Majestic Tomalin_. I grew up on the stories of that discovery. Nobody could run through that much gold in — what is it, a mere century?”
“He must have some reason for taking up politics though, and I’d dearly like to know what it is,” Alwad mused.
“I’ll be sure to ask him if I see him,” Marcanil said.
“And if you do, you must let us know what he replies,” Sanj said, laughing once more.
3) Gerin Agornin.
In truth, even fabulous wealth, treasure of ancient kings discovered under the hills, gold enough to fill tunnels, can come to an end.
Gerin Agornin opened a slit of eye and regarded his servant, Parten. Parten was his usual immaculate self, his seven foot length neatly poised to obey his master’s wishes, every black scale clean, even the bindings on his wings were tied impeccably. The only unusual thing was that he was standing in his master’s bedroom, practically on the gold that constituted his master’s comfortable bed, before his master had called for him, or thought of calling for him, or of waking up at all.
“I really do feel you should get up, sir,” Parten said.
“I have the feeling you’ve been saying that for a while,” Gerin said, yawning hugely, revealing the great cavern of his mouth.
“Yes, sir,” Parten said, allowing a trace of emotion to underline his respectful words.
Gerin laughed and stretched his wings a little. “Yet I don’t recall giving orders for you to wake me?” he said.
“No, sir.” Parten looked pained. “I used my own judgement this time.”
“What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s an hour before noon,” Parten said, neutrally.
“I don’t know when I got to bed but it couldn’t have been less than two hours after midnight,” Gerin said, yawning again.
“A long political party, at Rimalin’s, which went on very late. Opening of the pre-season sort of thing. You must know when I came in, you helped put me to bed.”
“So what’s so shell-cracking important that you felt you had the right to exercise your judgement and wake me so early?”
“There is a morning caller for you, sir.”
“You woke me for a _morning caller_?” Gerin opened both eyes wide to stare at Parten. “Have you taken leave of your senses? Has caring for me driven you completely out of your wits at last, Parten? I never see morning callers, and they are content to leave their cards and consider their social duty done.”
“Yes, sir,” Parten said. “Generally, you are entirely correct. Yet, in this particular circumstance I felt it best to waken you.”
“Who is it?” The possibilities raced through Gerin’s mind. “You wouldn’t wake me for a creditor. My father? Surely he’s not in town? Exalt Benandi? I heard they were coming up.”
“It’s your cousin, sir.”
“Which cousin? I have dozens. Sanj Benandi? You surely haven’t woken me for Sanj, Parten?”
“No, sir. The cousin in question is the Respected Aeslyn Londaver.”
Gerin groaned and fell back on his gold. “I knew they were in town. Aunt Haner left a card already. Tell them I’ll return their call one of these days, though I shan’t.”
Parten unruffled, went on undeterred. “You don’t understand, sir. The Respected Aeslyn Londaver is here alone, not with her mother and sister, nor even with some other companion, but entirely unescorted.”
Gerin leapt out of bed, his wings opening, of their own accord, as if forgetting that he was underground and could not fly. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” he asked. “My hat, Parten, at once.”
“Your hat, sir.” Parten handed him a neatly folded morning hat, which Gerin snatched and settled onto his head at an angle. Parten reached up to straighten it, but was brushed aside by his master’s wings.
“No time for that. Where did you put her? Who else knows?”
“She’s in your study, sir, and as far as I am informed, no other members of the household are aware of her presence. I opened the door to her myself, and I have not called for refreshments.”
“So she’s been sitting there all this time without refreshments?” Gerin left the bedchamber and hurried along the upward-sloping passage towards the public parts of the establishment. Parten followed, taking care to avoid his master’s lashing tail.
“Sorry, sir, I felt that under the circumstances…” Parten’s explanation trailed off diplomatically.
“No, you were quite right,” Gerin said. “But bring us something now, without letting the kitchen staff know who’s here.”
“Tea, sir? I fear anything more substantial might risk damage to the library.”
“Tea,” Gerin confirmed, coming to the library door. “But be quick about it. I want to get her out of here and back where she belongs as soon as I can.”
The library door had been one of the features of the establishment that had caused Gerin to chose to hire it as his base in Irieth. Doors, generally, were regarded as old fashioned, and possibly a little seditious. They had overtones of the Old Religion, of conspiracies, of clandestine meetings carried on behind them. Sleeping chambers and elimination rooms needed doors, to preserve modesty, but generally in new establishments nothing else was considered to need them. The library door was old, from long before the present fashion, and clearly the owners of the establishment either thought the library sufficiently unimportant that it could keep its door when the doors of the dining room and speaking room had been removed, or concurred with Gerin that it was useful from time to time to have a room above ground where one might be unobserved.
The library was a pleasant room. There were low book-cases around the curved walls, and above them hung woven carpets in rich colours of sunset and winter-dusk, forming scale patterns. Many would have felt the room enhanced by its only occupant, Aeslyn Londaver, who had seated her golden-scaled self couchant against the far wall and was engaged in reading one of the books. She was wearing a very fetching hat, of a white fur trimmed with gold that brought out the contrasting and purer burnished gold of her scales. Even though he had spent the last three years avoiding her and he knew he could never touch her, Gerin felt his wings lift and his scales brighten at the sight of her.
“Really, Gerin, did they have to wake you or send out a search party?” she asked, closing the book but keeping her place with a finger between the pages. “I knew you were busy and hard to find, but I must have been waiting for you half an hour.”
“That’s better than you deserve, for you shouldn’t be here at all and you know it,” Gerin replied.
“And how else am I going to see you, when you’ve been avoiding us ever since Mother brought us to town?”
“Young maiden dragons do not pay morning calls alone, not on anyone, and least of all on young unmarried dragons, even if they are cousins,” Gerin said, sidestepping the issue of his behaviour. “Your mother should have told you that.”
“She did tell me.” Aeslyn laid the book down carefully on top of the shelves. “She thinks I’m at the burnisher. But Gerin, we’ve been in town two weeks, and we left a card the first day, but you haven’t come near us. I know you were in town, because I have heard on every side that you are going into politics.”
Gerin looked at her hopelessly. She was so beautiful, and so impossible to him, now. “You won’t have any reputation as a respectable maiden dragon if you do this sort of thing,” he said. “Your mother has brought you to town to find husbands for you and your sister. You can destroy all chance of that by this kind of behaviour.”
“Very well,” Aeslyn said, her eyes whirling very fast, dimmed with unshed tears. “I have heard what I came to find out, and I shall leave you. You clearly don’t care for me. You need not fear this call will be repeated. Goodbye.”
At that moment, the door opened, and Parten came in with the tea tray, almost bumping into Gerin, who had stayed as close to the door as he could since he came into the room. He edged sideways a little now, allowing Parten to come past him and arrange the tray half way between the cousins, on top of the bookshelves. “Will you pour, Respected Londaver?” he asked, moving away from the tray.
Aeslyn hesitated and glanced at Gerin, clearly caught between her desire to leave and her training in etiquette. A properly brought up maiden dragon might not pay morning calls alone, but how much less can she refuse a request to pour tea?
“You may as well have some tea since you’re here,” Gerin said, ungraciously. Parten backed out of the room, giving his master an uncomfortable look as he went. Aeslyn advanced to the teapot and poured, then retreated with her own cup, allowing Gerin to come forward and take his. At a well conducted morning call, even in a bachelor establishment like Gerin’s, there would be older female servants to carry around the cups.
Aeslyn settled herself back against the wall, drawn up sejant now, her cup in one hand. “Do take your tea, Gerin,” Aeslyn said, her voice falsely sweet.
“I remember my sister Zile telling me about this method of serving tea,” he said, coming forward to the tray. “I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced it before, but then, why would I? I avoid paying morning calls as assiduously as I avoid recieving them.”
“You’re just too selfish to live,” Aeslyn burst out. “I don’t know how you can just devote your entire life to pure pleasure, not caring as much as a shed scale about anyone else, and then have the gall to boast about it.”
“I wasn’t boasting,” Gerin said, stung.
“You were. But never mind. It isn’t devoting yourself to pleasure I mind, I only wish I could do the same. It’s just that you don’t understand, Ger, you can’t see what it’s like for me. Did you notice my hat?”
“It looks quite stunning on you,” Gerin admitted.
“It’s the first absolutely new hat I’ve ever had. Mother’s allowing us three each for the season. Three! When all the other maidens will have hundreds. And I’m supposed to be in raptures over even those three — Lamith _is_ in raptures about them. But Lamith’s very easily satisfied. She’s just like mother. She really cares about fairness and the condition of servants and all of that. Whereas I can’t help thinking that if Mother were less obsessed with that, if she and Father would run Londaver the way everyone else runs their estates, we’d all be ten feet longer and have three times as much gold. And there’s so little I can do — come to Irieth to find a husband, as you said, and there you are with all the freedom in the world, everything, male, fabulously rich, and now a career in politics. You can do anything you choose, and I have three hats and practically no dowry and have to hope some dragon who’s not too old or too repulsive notices me.”
“It’s not that I don’t care,” Gerin said, though he had not meant to say this at all. “Aeslyn, I have been avoiding you, it’s true.”
“I didn’t mean to come here and throw myself at your feet,” Aeslyn said. “It’s just that three years ago, at Daverak, you seemed to care about me.”
“You were too young, then,” Gerin said, interrupting her. “Too young to change your scales. And be glad you were too young, because I would have married you and that would have ruined both of us. No, listen. I came back to town then, three years ago, and my thoughts were all about marriage, settling down, you.”
Aeslyn took a step forward, her green eyes beginning to whirl.
“Stay where you are!” Gerin said, harshly. “I began to take heed of my affairs in a way I had not done before. You say I am fabulously wealthy. It’s not true. I discovered a treasure, and for a hundred years I lived on that treasure as if it had made me rich, but it had not.”
“How had it not?” Aeslyn asked.
“I don’t know,” Gerin said, spreading his claws. “I drew on it as if it were endless, but I found, too late, it had an end.”
Treasure, in whatever vast quantities, is nothing but capital, and unless invested wisely, capital on its own produces nothing. Capital spent is capital lost. It would have been better for Gerin to have viewed his apparently endless fortune in the way a maiden views her dowry — something to be bartered for position and a lasting income. Treasure can become wealth. When a dragon sells ancestral lands because a city is growing onto them, and uses the purchase money to invest in factories in that very city and railroads to connect the city to other cities and to the countryside, treasure becomes wealth. If Gerin had purchased an estate and been content to draw his wealth from land, or if he had invested in factories in one of the manufacturing cities, the treasure his brother stumbled on in the hills above Benandi might have proved wealth enough to establish a new great family of dragons.
Instead he had let it run freely through his claws as if it were in truth endless, investing some, indeed, but only in risky ventures that might bring in great returns or great losses. Gerin saw such things more in the nature of gambling than of sober investment, and there, for once, he was wise. Sober investment he shunned as if it were a fur hat in Greensummer. He took his treasure to Irieth and spent it as he needed it, living on equal terms with those who had great lands to bring them great incomes, looking down a little on those of his acquaintance, like Alwad, who maintained a profession. He never thought to measure his treasure in terms of income, and indeed in those terms it was meaningless. He had no income, he earned nothing and neither did the gold, he simply lived upon capital until it was gone.
“But it is gone?” Aeslyn asked, her voice hardly more than a whisper.
“Quite gone,” Gerin said. “There are two pieces of gold I would never part with, a box and a crown my brother and I carried out of the mountain first. The rest is spent, or worse, owing. I could sell my bed and have perhaps eight thousand crowns when I’d paid off my debts — and that’s today. Another day selling everything might leave me eight thousand crowns in debt. I don’t sell anything. I live as I have always lived, and dragons extend me credit because they believe I am rich. I gamble a little, still, and sometimes come out ahead. I have some investments that might bring in a profit one day. I am going into politics in the hope of re-establishing myself, but –”
“Do you owe money to Rimalin?” Aeslyn asked, seeing straight through to the heart of it.
“Yes,” Gerin admitted. “He thinks he has bought me. He is the only one who knows my treasure has run out. I don’t understand him entirely, but he thinks he has a use for me, and I dare not go against what he asks.” He groaned. “I know I have let you down, and I feel I have let down Wontas, my brother. Ever since he died, I have always tried to live for both of us.”
“You must marry an heiress,” Aeslyn said, and laughed. “It is the same for you as for me after all, Ger, exactly the same. We both have to find position through marriage.”
“I could not ask you to marry me when all I could have offered you would be the most abject poverty,” Gerin said. “So I left you alone. I had not turned your scales, there was nothing to bind us.”
“Of course not. I understand.” Aeslyn set down her cup. “Between my dowry and your bed we might have had as much as a poor country parson, perhaps, but no more. Neither of us could ask that sacrifice of each other. But it cheers my heart to know that you do not despise me, that you weren’t avoiding me because you didn’t care for me, or because you were trifling with me. We must help each other find rich dragons to marry now, an heiress for you and an heir for me, perhaps.”
Gerin took a step forward despite himself. She was so brave, so determined. “Aeslyn –”
“No, stay where you are!” she said, raising her hand. “And in any case, I must go. You’re quite right, I should not be here. I’m glad I came, I’m glad to know how you feel, to understand.”
“It would be best if you forget me,” Gerin said. “I hoped you might have forgotten.”
“How could you think that of me?” Aeslyn asked. “I’ll never forget you, no more than you’ll forget me. We’ll just do what we have to do, that’s all.”
4. A Call at Telstie House.
In the heart of the most fashionable quarter of Irieth, the South-West, lay the grand Riverfront Row, and in the centre of that row stood Telstie House. It was fronted by a grand row of steps in the manner of houses built shortly after the Conquest. The doors were not arched but made of great blocks of stone, with jutting lintels, which gave the place an ancient intimidating feel. The house had been empty all winter, staffed by a scant handful of servants, but now it was being scrubbed and polished by servants newly bought or newly brought to town, for its master and mistress were in residence. Above ground there was a dining room, a speaking room and huge ballroom, one of the biggest in the city, and below ground there were the private chambers of the Telstie family. Servants scurried about, cleaning the rooms, preparing food, in a constant stream of bustle.
The mistress of the house, the Eminence Telstie herself, would not have dreamed of opening her doors to friends until the bustle was quite subdued. She accepted no morning callers on her first morning in Irieth, but remained in her undercave until it was time for a quiet lunch with her husband and sister-in-law. Time and egg-laying had not been as kind to Sebeth as to Haner. She had barely survived her most recent clutch, and even now, ten years later, she showed signs of the strain in the thinness of her face and the colour of her scales. They were now a faded terracotta shade and no amount of burnishing or even paint could make her scales shine. She still tired easily, despite having spent much of the last decade immersed in hot springs with reputed healing qualities and feeding on all the best delicacies — including the larger part of the weakling dragons of the Telstie demesne. Her husband, Avan, the Eminent Telstie, far from grudging her this, almost grudged the portion she insisted he and the children take. He bought her ever more magnificent hats and jewels and assured her constantly of his continued love and support.
As Sebeth came out of the great domed Undercave she saw Avan taking a pile of calling cards from one of the younger and prettier new servants. She watched them for a moment. Avan had clearly said something to her, because they were both smiling. Sebeth’s eyes whirled a little faster. She trusted her husband but she did not like to see him paying attention to females other than herself. “Give those to me,” she said, abruptly.
Still smiling, Avan handed the stack of cards over obediently. “I was just saying to Nevris here, we don’t need to blow a trumpet or even set out a banner to say we’re in town, just coming in quietly seems to be more than enough.”
Sebeth did not smile and dismissed Nevris with a gesture. “These are probably from the most boring dragons, they’re always the ones who come to Irieth early in anticipation of the season. Those, and the ones with daughters to present.”
“Oh, very likely,” Avan said, soothingly, as Nevris made her way back to the kitchen. “I was just surprised how many of them there are for a very first day here.”
His soothing tone irritated her further. “And don’t learn the names of all the staff, it makes them get above themselves,” she snapped.
Avan’s gold eyes whirled in surprise. “I never make a practice of learning all the names, but if I remember them I use them,” he said, gently.
“No, just the names of all the pretty ones,” Sebeth said, knowing she sounded like a child.
Avan’s wings started to rise, then he laughed. “Oh my dear, you know I never notice anyone else when you’re in the house! You still have the prettiest tail in Tiamath.”
Sebeth had long known that compliments may flatter but don’t reassure when they are asked for. She shrugged. “Let’s go into the speaking room. And I do hope dear Haner doesn’t go on and on about how we should free all the servants while they’re in the room. She should know it makes them unsettled.”
“Subjugation is going to come up in the Cupola this season, you know,” Avan said as he followed Sebeth into the Speaking Room.
“It’s always being discussed, but it won’t come to anything, surely?” Sebeth flicked her wingtip over the head of a small bronze statue of Veld.
“There’s a surprising amount of support for it,” Avan said. “The problem is how all the servants will support themselves if they’re not servants. In ancient days, before wing-binding was thought of, we had all the world to spread out into, not just one small country surrounded by the Yarge.”
“The real problem is how we’d get anyone to stay in service if they didn’t have to — or how we’d get anyone to go into it in the first place,” Sebeth said, settling herself by the fireplace. “Ever since they started paying dragons to work in the factories servants have been running away to the cities and working in them. Removing subjugation would make that ten times worse. But how could we keep up our way of life without servants?”
“Please don’t get into an argument about this with Haner,” Avan said.
“I promise I won’t bring up the subject if she doesn’t,” Sebeth said, tossing her head.
At that moment they both heard a disturbance at the outer door, shortly followed by a servant announcing Haner, Aeslyn and Lamith Londaver. “I’m so sorry we’re late,” Haner said as soon as greetings had been exchanged. “Aeslyn took simply forever at the burnishers.”
They hadn’t done that much for her, in Sebeth’s critical opinion. The two Londaver sisters were very alike, and both fairly pretty, but Aeslyn was a distinctly paler gold than her sister. She must, Sebeth thought, do something for those maidens. She’d see they were invited about, and introduce them to some of Avan’s younger political friends. It would be easier, of course, if Haner wasn’t always so impossible. Perhaps she could offer to buy them some hats, nobody ever had enough hats, especially in Irieth, and the Londaver demesne was notoriously scant of gold because, of course, of Haner’s servant policies. On the other hand, perhaps she shouldn’t subsidise Haner’s idiocy by buying hats for her daughters.
Avan assured his sister that they weren’t late and anyway it didn’t matter, while Sebeth flicked through the cards. They were, as she had expected, from all the most boring dragons she knew. About half way through the stack she paused and felt that all eyes were on her.
“Did you say something, dear?” Avan asked.
“I wasn’t aware that I had,” she said. “It’s just that I found a card here I didn’t expect. The nerve that dragon has.”
“Who?” Haner asked.
“Well, that’s the question. She calls herself Respected Mavonin, and she says she comes from Edawoon, which is one of the new mufug cities in the north. But nobody has ever heard of her, not even others who come from the region. She says she’s a widow, but nobody has ever heard of her dead husband either. Anyone might say they were a widow, though she seems a little young for it. Certainly she’s pink.” Sebeth let the last word hang on the air in all its implications. Aeslyn and Lamith exchanged glances.
“I don’t understand,” Haner said. “Some poor friendless dragon comes to town and nobody will accept her cards because they don’t know her?”
“She’s certainly not poor. She has plenty of money, somehow, from somewhere. And the issue is that she’s attempting to go about in society when she has no more right than the servants in my kitchen,” Sebeth said. “She may, if she has the nerve to leave a card for me, leave one for you. You mustn’t return her call, or appear to know her. I know your altruistic ways, Haner, but really, it would be fatal for your daughters’ chances if you were known to have recieved such a one.”
“If she is a widow from the north, that does seem a little harsh,” Haner said, looking at Avan.
“If she’s not, it’s no more than a reasonable precaution,” Sebeth said.
“If she moved into a respectable dwelling near Londaver and left a card I would certainly call,” Haner said.
“Things are different in the country,” Sebeth said. “Besides, nobody would have allowed her to buy or even let a dwelling in the country suitable for gentry, not without knowing who she was.”
“Nobody is doing anything to hurt her, beyond declining to call,” Avan said, gently, putting a claw on his sister’s arm. “Don’t take her up as one of your causes, Haner, Sebeth is absolutely right, you could ruin your daughters’ reputations and for what?”
“Society,” Haner began, but just then one of the servants came in and said that lunch was served in the dining room, and in the commotion of moving to the other room and beginning to tear at the beeves the rest of whatever speech she might have made was thankfully forgotten, allowing peace to prevail in the family for the time being.