Voyage of the Basilisk (Excerpt)

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now.

Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan’s Voyage of the Basilisk, available March 31st from Tor Books!

 

 

PREFACE

Depending upon your temperament, you may be either pleased or puzzled to see that I have chosen to include my time upon the Basilisk in my memoirs. It was, of course, a lengthy period in my life, totaling nearly two years in duration, and the discoveries I made in that time were not insignificant, nor were the effects of that journey upon my personal life. Seen from that perspective, it would seem odd were I to pass it by.

But those of you who are puzzled have good cause. Those two years are, after all, the most thoroughly documented period in my life. My contract with the Winfield Courier to provide them with regular reports meant that a great many in Scirland were kept apprised of my doings—quite apart from the reports that were written about me by others. Furthermore, my travelogue was later collected and printed as Around the World in Search of Dragons, and that title is still readily available from the publisher. Why, then, should I trouble to tell a story which is already so widely known?

Apart from the oddity of glossing over so major a period in my life, I have several reasons. The first is that my essays in the Winfield Courier were heavily skewed toward matters of exotic novelty, which was, after all, what their readers wanted to hear, though not the most apt depiction of my own experiences. Another is that I said little there of my personal affairs, and as a memoir is expected to be more personal, this is the ideal place to provide those elements which I excluded before.

But above all, this volume is intended to set the record straight, for part of what I said in those essays is an outright lie.

When I wrote to the Winfield Courier that I swam to Lahana after my adventure with the sea-serpent, and that during the excitement which followed I took a knock to the head and had to be sent to Phetayong to convalesce, not a word of it was true. I wrote those lines because I had no choice: my lengthy silence (which had persuaded a great many people back home that I was dead at last) must be broken with some kind of tale, and I could not give the honest one. Even had I wished to make public everything I had done, a high-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy had forbidden me to do so. Indeed, it is only with some effort now that I have persuaded certain government officials to change their minds—now, so many years later, when a new dynasty rules in Yelang and the events in question are no longer of any particular political relevance.

But they have granted their permission, and so at last I may tell the truth. I will not attempt to recount every day of my journey aboard the Basilisk; two years will not fit into one slim volume without substantial abridgement, and there is no point in repeating what I have said elsewhere. I shall instead focus on those portions which are either personal (and therefore new) or necessary to understanding what occurred at the end of my island sojourn.

All in good time, of course. Before the truth comes out, you will hear of Jacob and Tom Wilker; Heali’i and Suhail; and Dione Aekinitos, the mad captain of the Basilisk. You will also hear of wonders terrestrial and aquatic, ancient ruins and modern innovations, mighty storms, near drownings, the rigors of life at sea, and more kinds of dragon than you can shake a wing at. Though there is a great deal I will omit here, I will endeavour to make my tale as complete and engaging as I may.

Isabella, Lady Trent
Casselthwaite, Linshire
3 Seminis, 5660

 

 

ONE

At no point did I form the conscious intention of founding an ad hoc university in my sitting room. It happened, as it were, by accident.

The process began soon after Natalie Oscott became my live-in companion, having been disowned by her father for running away to Eriga. My finances could not long support the two of us in my accustomed style, especially not with my growing son to consider. I had to surrender some portion of my life as it had been until then, and since I was unwilling to surrender my scholarship, other things had to go.

What went was the house in Pasterway. Not without a pang; it had been my home for several years, even if I had spent a goodly percentage of that time in foreign countries, and I had fond memories of the place. Moreover, it was the only home little Jacob had known, and I did question for some time whether it was advisable to uproot so young a boy, much less to transplant him into the chaotic environment of a city. It was, however, far more economical for us to take up residence in Falchester, and so in the end we went.

Ordinarily, of course, city life is far more expensive than rural— even when the “rural” town in question is Pasterway, which nowadays has become a direct suburb of the capital. But much of this expense assumes that one is living in the city for the purpose of enjoying its glittering social life: concerts and operas, art exhibitions and fashion, balls and drums and sherry breakfasts. I had no interest in such matters. My concern was with intellectual commerce, and in that regard Falchester was not only superior but much cheaper.

There I could make use of the splendid Alcroft lending library, now better known as one of the foundational institutions of the Royal Libraries. This saved me a great deal of expense, as my research needs had grown immensely, and to purchase everything I required (or to send books back to helpful friends via the post) would have bankrupted me in short order. I could also attend what lectures would grant a woman entrance, without the trouble of several hours’ drive; indeed, I no longer needed to maintain a carriage and all its associated equipment and personnel, but rather could hire one as necessary. The same held true for visits with friends, and here it is that the so-called “Flying University” began to take shape.

The early stages of it were driven by my need for a governess. Natalie Oscott, though a good companion to me, had no wish to take on the responsibility of raising and educating my son. I therefore cast my net for someone who would, taking pains to specify in advance that my household was not at all a usual one.

The lack of a husband was, for some applicants, a selling point. I imagine many of my readers are aware of the awkward position in which governesses often find themselves—or rather, the awkward position into which their male employers often put them, for it does no one any service to pretend this happens by some natural and inexorable process, devoid of connection with anyone’s behaviour. My requirements for their qualifications, however, were off-putting to many. Mathematics were unnecessary, as Natalie was more than willing to tutor my son in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry (and would, by the time he was ready for calculus, have taught it to herself), but I insisted upon a solid grounding in literature, languages, and a variety of sciences, not to mention the history not only of Scirland but other countries as well. This made the process of reviewing applicants quite arduous. But it paid an interesting dividend: by the time I hired Abigail Carew, I had also made the acquaintance of a number of young ladies who lacked sufficient learning, yet possessed the desire for it in spades.

I will not pretend I founded the Flying University in order to educate unsatisfactory governess candidates. Indeed, most of those young ladies I never saw again, as they moved on in search of less stringent employers. But the experience heightened my awareness of that lack in our society, and so once I had my subscription to the Alcroft, I made the contents of my library (both owned and borrowed) available to anyone who wished to make use of it.

The result was that, by the time my sea expedition began, on any given Athemer evening you might find anywhere from two to twenty people occupying my sitting room and study. The former room was a place of quiet reading, where friends might educate themselves on any subject my library could supply. Indeed, by then its reach extended far beyond my own shelves and items borrowed from the Alcroft, as it became a trading center for those who wished to avail themselves of others’ resources. Candles and lamps were one point upon which I did not scrimp, and so they could read in perfect comfort.

The study, by contrast, was a place of conversation. Here we might ask questions of one another, or debate issues on which we held differing views. Often these discussions became quite convivial, the lot of us raising one another up from the darkness of ignorance and into the light of, if not wisdom, then at least wellinformed curiosity.

On other occasions, the discussions might better be termed “arguments.”

“You know I love wings as much as the next woman,” I said to Miriam Farnswood—who, as a lady ornithologist, was the next woman, and very fond of wings. “But you are overstating their significance in this instance. Bats fly, and so do insects, and yet no one is suggesting that they are close relatives of birds.”

“No one yet has found evidence of bats laying eggs,” she said dryly. Miriam was nearly twenty years my senior, and it was only in the last six months that I had ventured to address her by her given name. Not coincidentally, the last six months had also seen the commencement of this particular debate, in which we were very much at odds. “It’s your own work that persuades me, Isabella; I don’t know why you resist so strenuously. The skeletal structure of dragons shows many resemblances to that of birds.”

She was referring, of course, to the hollow structure of the bones. This was not often to be found in reptiles, which I championed as the nearest relation to dragons. I said impatiently, “Hollow bones may easily be evolved on separate occasions. After all, that is what seems to have happened with wings, is it not? Much less common to evolve a new set of forelegs, where none were before.”

“You think it more plausible that reptiles suddenly evolved wings, where none had previously been?” Miriam snorted. It was not a very ladylike snort. She was the sort of woman one expected to find tramping the countryside in tweeds with a gun under her arm and a bulldog at her side, probably one of her own breeding. The delicacy with which she moved when out birding was nothing short of startling. “Please, Isabella. By that reasoning, you should be arguing for their relation to insects. At least those have more than four limbs.”

The reference to insects diverted me from what I had been about to say. “Sparklings do complicate the picture,” I admitted. “I really am persuaded that they are an extremely dwarfish breed of dragon—though I am at a loss to explain how such a reduction in size might come about. Even those tiny dogs they have in Coyahuac are not so much smaller than the largest breed of hound.”

My comment brought a quiet chuckle from a few feet away. Tom Wilker had been in conversation with the suffragette Lucy Devere, discussing the politics of the Synedrion, but their talk had momentarily flagged, and he had overheard me. It was not the first time he had been subjected to my thoughts on sparklings, which were an endless conundrum to me in matters of taxonomy.

We could hardly avoid eavesdropping on one another’s words. My Hart Square townhouse was not so large as to give us much in the way of elbow room. And indeed, I often preferred it that way, for it encouraged us to wander from topic to topic and group to group, rather than separating off into little clusters for the duration of the evening. Tabitha Small and Peter Landenbury had been sharing their thoughts on a recent work of history, but as usual, Lucy had drawn them into her orbit. With Elizabeth Hardy rounding out their set, there were seven of us in my study, which more or less filled it to capacity.

Miriam’s eyebrows had gone up at my digression from the point. I shook my head to clear it and said, “Be that as it may. I think you are reading too much into the fact that the quetzalcoatls of Coyahuac have feathers. They are not true dragons, by Edgeworth’s definition—”

“Oh, come now, Isabella,” she said. “You can hardly use Edgeworth as your defense, when you yourself have led the charge in questioning his entire theory.”

“I have not yet reached any conclusions,” I said firmly. “Ask me again when this expedition is done. With any luck, I will observe a feathered serpent with my own eyes, and then I will be able to say with more certainty where they fit in the draconic family.”

The door opened quietly, and Abby Carew slipped through. She looked tired, even in the forgiving candlelight. Jake had been running her ragged lately. The prospect of going on a sea voyage had so fired his imagination that he could hardly be made to sit at his lessons.

The notion of bringing my son along had come to me about two years previously. When I first conceived the notion of a trip around the world, to study dragons in all the places they might be found, Jake had been a mere toddler—far too young to accompany me. But such a expedition is not organized overnight, nor even in a single year. By the time I was certain the expedition would happen, let alone had prepared myself for it, Jake was already seven. Boys have gone to war at sea that young. Why should one not go in the name of science?

I had not forgotten the opprobrium I faced when I went to Eriga, leaving my son behind. It seemed to me that the clear solution to this problem was not to stay forever at home, but rather to bring him with me the next time. I saw it as a splendid educational opportunity for a boy of nine. Others, of course, saw it as more of my characteristic madness.

I excused myself to Miriam Farnswood and crossed the room to meet Abby. She said, “Natalie sent me to tell you—”

“Oh dear,” I sighed, before she could finish. A guilty look at the clock confirmed my suspicion. “It has gotten late, hasn’t it?”

Abby was kind enough not to belabor the point. The truth was, I did not want to show my guests to the door. This was to be our last gathering before I left—or rather I should say my last gathering, since Natalie would continue to host them in my absence. As much as the upcoming voyage excited me, I would miss these evenings, where I could expand my mind and test its strengths against people whose intelligence dwarfed mine. Thanks to them, my understanding of the world had grown far beyond its early, naive beginnings. And I, for my part, had done what I could to share my knowledge in return, especially with those individuals, male or female, whose opportunities had not been as great as mine.

I write in the past tense now; I caught myself thinking in the past tense then, and shook myself. I was going on a voyage, not relocating to the other side of the world forever. What had started in my sitting room was not ending tonight. My part in it was merely pausing.

They went without a fuss, though with a great many good wishes for safe travels and great discoveries. The farewells took more than a half hour in all. The last to depart was Tom Wilker, who had no need to say farewell; we would be going on the voyage together, for I could not imagine trying to conduct research without his assistance.

“Did I overhear you promising specimens to Mrs. Farnswood?” he asked, when it was just him, myself, and Natalie in the foyer.

“Yes, of birds,” I said. “She will pay for them, or sell those she does not wish to keep for herself. It will be another source of funds, and a welcome one.”

He nodded, though his smile was rueful. “I don’t know when we’ll find the time to sleep. Or rather, when you will find the time. I’m not the one who has promised regular reports to the Winfield Courier.”

“I will sleep at night,” I said, very reasonably. “Writing by lamplight is a terrible waste of oil, and there are not so many species of nocturnal birds as to keep me busy every night.”

It got a laugh from him, as I had intended. “Sleep well, Isabella. You’ll need your rest.”

Natalie came out into the hall in time to bid him goodnight. When the door was shut behind him, she turned to face me. “Are you very tired, or can you spare a few moments?”

I was far too awake to sleep just yet, and would only read if I tried to go to bed. “Does it have to do with the arrangements for my absence?”

Natalie shook her head. We had been over those matters enough times already: my will, in case I should die; the transfer of my townhouse to her temporary stewardship; how to contact me once I was abroad; all the logistical hedges that must be leapt before I could depart. She said, “I spoke with Mr. Kemble again today.”

I sighed. “Come to my study. I shall want to sit for this, I think.”

My worn old chair was some comfort to me while pondering a topic that was not comfortable at all. Once ensconced in its embrace, I said to Natalie, “He wants me to make a deal with the Thiessois.”

“He is at a standstill,” Natalie said. “He has been for more than a year. The fine structure of dragonbone continues to elude him, and so long as it does, you do not have synthesis. M. Suderac’s aeration process may be what we need.”

The mere mention of this topic made me want to beat my head against my desk. Only the knowledge that Frederick Kemble had been beating his head against something far less yielding for nearly a decade now restrained me. Tom and I had hired him to create a synthetic replacement for preserved dragonbone, so that human society might enjoy the benefits of that substance without having to slaughter dragons to obtain it. Kemble had re-created its chemical composition, but the airy lattice of its structure, which reduced the already-slight weight without sacrificing strength, had proven less tractable.

Natalie was correct: the aeration process devised by M. Suderac might indeed help. I, however, could not abide the man—to the point where the mere thought of partnering with him for such a venture made me ill. He was a handsome Thiessois fellow, and clearly thought his good looks ought to earn him more than mere friendliness from me. After all, I was a widow, and if not as young as I had once been, I had not gathered so very much dust on the shelf yet. It was not marriage M. Suderac wanted from me; he had a wife, and even if he did not, I offered very little in the way of property to tempt him. He merely wanted unfettered access to my person. To say that I was disinclined to grant it to him is a howling understatement.

And yet, if financial partnership would save the lives of countless dragons…

The secret of preserving dragonbone was out in the world. That particular cat had escaped its bag before I went to Eriga, when thieves employed by the Marquess of Canlan broke into Kemble’s laboratory and stole his notes, and Canlan subsequently sold them to a Yelangese company, the Va Ren Shipping Association. The fellows there seemed to have kept a relatively tight lid on their information, for it had not become common knowledge yet, but I knew it was spreading. Which meant the need for a synthetic substitute was urgent.

I weighed these factors, until my heart sat like lead in my chest. “I do not trust him,” I said at last to Natalie. “I cannot. He is the sort of man who sees a thing and wants it, and thinks that alone entitles him to have it. I truly would not put it past him to crack the problem at last, but then keep the results for his own profit. And while I might forego my own stake if it meant having the answer, I cannot allow Kemble and the others to be robbed in such fashion.”

Natalie dropped her head against the back of the chair, staring in resignation at the ceiling. “Well, I tried. You are not wrong about Suderac, I think—but I do not know how else we will make it happen.”

“Perhaps I should try hiring thieves. They could break in and steal the secrets of the aeration process.”

“Thank God you’re about to get on board a ship,” Natalie said. “Otherwise, I think you might honestly follow through.”

She exaggerated—but not by much. For the sake of dragons, there was very little I would not do.

 

The next morning’s post brought a number of letters, some of them from people who had not noticed that I was about to be gone from home for an extended period of time and would not have much chance to answer them. One, however, caught my eye.

The handwriting on the outside of the envelope was unfamiliar to me. It was not merely that I did not recognize the hand; the entire style of it was strange, as if written by a foreigner. And yet it reminded me of something, but I could not say what.

Curious, I slit the flap with my knife. The note inside was written on excellent paper, again in that strange hand. It was an invitation to join one Wademi n Oforiro Dara for lunch at the Salburn that day, if I was not already engaged.

Now I knew what the handwriting had evoked. I was still in occasional contact with Galinke n Oforiro Dara, the half-sister of the oba of Bayembe. This man’s script showed traces of the same style, though in his case much fainter. From this I deduced that he was more accustomed to writing in Scirling than Galinke was.

Oforiro Dara. He was of the same lineage as Galinke. A brother? No, I was fairly certain she had no brothers born to the same mother, and the Yembe inherit their lineage names through the maternal line. He might be anything from Galinke’s mother’s sister’s son to a far more distant cousin than that. But the connection was enough to make me dash off a quick acceptance and send it to the man’s hotel. My alternative plans for lunch involved a quick meal gulped down while packing; this promised to be far more interesting.

In those days, I did not often dine at the Salburn—which is my polite way of saying that I could not really afford it. I minded very little; I have never been a gourmand. But it meant that Wademi n Oforiro Dara was either a wealthy man or well-funded by someone else, as lunch for two there was not a thing to undertake lightly.

I had no difficulty spotting him in the lobby. He was Yembe and dark, and dressed after their fashion in a wrapped and folded cloth, though he made concession to Scirland’s cooler climate and stricter sense of propriety with a mantle over his upper body. The coloration was almost Scirling-sober, too: black and gold in a simple geometric pattern. He was already on his feet when I entered, and approached me immediately.

We exchanged Yembe greetings, which served to show me just how badly my accent and grammar had deteriorated. When he shifted to my native tongue, I apologized to him for it. “I’m afraid my command of Yembe has atrophied terribly for lack of use—and it was not good to begin with. Galinke and I correspond in Scirling.”

His own Scirling was accented but fluent. “You should come for a visit! I hear that you are about to set off on a journey. Will you be stopping in Bayembe?”

“Would that I could go everywhere,” I said. “But I’m afraid that my research requires me to expand my knowledge in breadth, rather than depth. I must devote my time to new areas and new species.”

This was true, but not the entire story. I could not tell this man about my conversation with a certain member of the Synedrion (who shall remain nameless, though he is dead now and cannot be harmed by the gossip), wherein he made it clear to me that the government would not look kindly on my ever returning to Bayembe. What precisely they feared, I cannot say; I only ever knew the one state secret about our affairs there, and it was long since out of the bag. But having thus erred once, I could not be trusted not to err again.

To my surprise, Wademi and I did not dine in the main room. He had acquired one of the private rooms for us—perhaps because that way we attracted less attention, the Yembe man and the woman once accused of betraying her country for his. The mystery of how he could afford such a thing was soon cleared up, for it transpired that he was indeed the son of Galinke’s mother’s sister. Anyone so closely linked with the oba of Bayembe, even through a lesser wife, could easily purchase me and my entire household without so much as a blink.

We passed the starter course with pleasantries, but after the main course arrived, I discovered that he had another reason for arranging this private room.

“What have you heard of the dragons?” he asked, once the waiter was gone.

“The dragons?” I echoed. My mind was so full of various draconic species that it took me longer than it should have to see his meaning. “Do you mean the ones the Moulish have given to Bayembe?”

It was not that I had forgotten them. One does not easily forget about deals one has helped broker between two foreign peoples, especially when that assistance has caused one to be accused of treason. But my interest in dragons was biological, not political; the fact that there were now Moulish swamp-wyrms in Bayembe rivers was not at the forefront of my thoughts.

Wademi nodded, and I spread my hands. “I have heard very little, really. Galinke mentioned that the eggs had been brought as promised, and then had hatched—I believe she said the total was somewhat poor, though. There were arrangements to make sure the fangfish were sufficiently fed. But nothing since then.” Which, now that I thought of it, was peculiar. Granted, the dragons in the rivers of Bayembe were intended as a defense for that country’s border, and as such might be a protected secret. But Galinke would know very well that I wanted to hear more of their progress, and could have found some way to tell me something. Instead, her infrequent letters had diverted me with other matters.

It seemed that she had indeed found a way to tell me something, and his name was Wademi n Oforiro Dara. “The situation has become… odd,” he said, “and we are hoping you can make sense of it.”

This, of course, piqued my curiosity like nothing else. “What do you mean, ‘odd’?”

He spoke slowly, in between bites of his food. I reminded myself to eat my own, though I fear the best efforts of the Salburn chefs were entirely wasted on me that day.

Wademi said, “At first it was the eggs, which did not hatch in the quantities hoped. But the Moulish brought more the next year, so we have enough now. The fangfish ate one another, and those who survived grew—some of them. Many were runts. But even those which grew are not like the dragons in the swamp. They are more slender.”

“Juveniles,” I said. “Have you asked the Moulish? They would know how long it takes to reach full maturation.”

He shook his head. “They should be fully grown now. And their hide is different; their scales are more fine.”

I could not stop myself from asking, “Are you certain it is not a skin condition?”

By way of reply, he reached beneath his mantle and brought out a small box, which he laid on the table between us. When I opened it, a strong smell of formaldehyde marred the air. The box contained a scrap of skin, which I pinched gently between my fingernails and lifted for a better view.

It was not a skin condition. I had often observed the rough, crocodilian hides of swamp-wyrms, and while they were vulnerable to disease, what illness would refine their integument? What I held in my hand was more like the skin of a fish.

Or a savannah snake. “They cannot have bred with the dragons of Bayembe,” I said. Although some of that species ventured into the fringes of the Moulish jungle, they did not go far enough in to encounter swamp-wyrms. And even if they did—and succeeded in producing viable eggs—the Moulish would not have given those eggs to the oba. They had a very rigorous process for breeding their dragons, which involved taking the males of the swamp proper to the lake where the queens swam.

My fingernails pinched tighter on the skin. The queens…

I had not learned as much about swamp-wyrm biology as I would have liked. I knew that the Moulish took the eggs after their laying and distributed them about the swamp, and I knew that the different incubation of the eggs encouraged some to develop into queens, while the rest remained male. (At the time I suspected, but had not had a chance to prove, that some of the “males” were either neuter or infertile females. Neuter sex was known in other draconic types, and I had a sense that only some of the wyrms in the swamp were eligible to breed with the queens. But I had not gotten to examine enough dragons at sufficiently close range to be certain.)

My head was awhirl with these thoughts and others, various theories and observations colliding in untidy ways. What emerged from the scrum was this: what if the transplantation of the eggs to the rivers of Bayembe had produced queens instead of males?

My observations of the queen dragons had all been at quite a distance, so I was only speculating that their hides featured such fine, overlapping scales. It made sense, though. They swam in the turbulent waters of the lake below the Great Cataract, where they would benefit from a more streamlined surface.

But if that were the case, why had the Moulish not said anything to the Yembe?

Because they did not want the existence of the queens known. The oba would certainly try to trade for one, and if that failed, he might well try to take one by stealth or force. Or, if he learned enough of the incubation procedures, try to mimic them so that he might breed his own dragons, without needing to rely on the Moulish.

Which left me in rather a pickle. If my theory could be correct, then I desperately wanted confirmation. Moreover, Wademi—and through him, Galinke and all her people, half-brother included— were looking to me for aid. But it would not very well repay my Moulish friends if I spilled a secret they were trying to keep.

I laid the skin back in its box. “I am not certain what to say. It may be a response to the cleaner, fresher environment of the rivers; swamp water is very full of silt and organic matter, which I imagine is quite an irritant to the skin of the young dragons.” Certainly it had been an irritant to my own hide. “Do your dragons seem healthy?”

“For the most part,” Wademi said.

“I should like to know if they keep growing,” I said. “Some fishes change size according to their environment; it is possible that your dragons will grow larger than those in the swamp, because of the more open waters.” If they grew to more than four meters in length, that would tell me a great deal. The queens, from what I had seen of them, were much larger than the males.

Wademi made the humming noise that, among the Yembe, stood in for the refusal it would be rude to state directly. I thought about our private room, and Galinke’s reticence in her letters. He had invited me to lunch so as to convey information they did not want committed to paper. (It did not occur to me until some months later that someone in Scirland might even be reading my mail. If they did not want me going to Bayembe, they might have an interest in the letters I sent to and received from there. To this day, I do not know if it was so.)

My thoughts were not on such matters that day, but even then I knew it might be difficult to keep me informed. I sighed, saying, “It will be difficult to write to me regardless, as I shall be rather peripatetic for a while.”

“But what of the dragons?”

Even had I possessed the courage to defy that unnamed gentleman of the Synedrion, I could not change our itinerary now. Although there was room for diversion in it—as this account will demonstrate—we could not divert all the way to Bayembe, just so I could look in on the dragons in the rivers. “I’m afraid there is very little I can do from where I am, sir. If they are healthy, then surely that is enough.”

He looked dissatisfied. Had I given the Yembe such a high opinion of my knowledge that they believed I could resolve this question over lunch in a distant country? Or had they expected me to come to their aid in person? If so, it pained me to disappoint them. But there was nothing for it: too many things prevented me from going.

As a sop to Wademi, I said, “I anticipate a great expansion in my knowledge of dragons, thanks to this expedition. It is possible I will learn something of use to you.”

Which, as it happened, was true—albeit in a roundabout way. But that was no comfort to him at the time, and so we both left our meeting in less than good spirits.

 

Excerpted from Voyage of the Basilisk © Marie Brennan, 2015

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