Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the conclusion to Marie Brennan’s thrilling Lady Trent Memoirs—available April 25th from Tor Books!
After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent—dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.
And yet—after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard the Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia—Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure—scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies—and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.
Had we been able to land closer to the village… had our first attempt to fly west been successful… had we not been forced to evade bandits on our way to Parshe… had we only left Scirland sooner. I could list a dozen points at which we lost precious time, but it was no use wishing to have those moments back. The simple fact was that we had arrived in Hlamtse Rong too late, and now had no hope of journeying to the col before the snows made it impossible.
In my less bitter moments, I knew the delays were a disguised blessing. The monsoon that year began early, but we had no way of predicting that. Had we come to the village a week earlier, we would have set out in the cheerful confidence that we had plenty of time to conduct our research. The snows would have caught us at high elevation, far from shelter and support; we might all have died. But it was hard to weigh that hypothetical peril against my very present frustration, as I sat in the doorway of Shuwa’s house and watched the rain pour down.
Suhail sat next to me, a warm and comforting presence. Tom had gone out with Thu to speak with the village headman, but we all knew what answer they would return with: we could not set out today, nor tomorrow, nor any time in the near future. Not unless our destination lay below us, eastward, back in the direction of Vidwatha. The heights of the mountains were far too dangerous now.
“Ventis,” I said at last. I had not spoken in nearly an hour, but Suhail could follow my thoughts well enough. “Three months; that is how long they say the monsoon lasts.” Assuming it did not overstay its welcome, as it had shown up too soon.
“You want to wait,” Suhail said. “Attempt the search between the monsoon and the onset of winter.”
Somewhere out there, Chendley and the villagers were toiling back toward us with a pile of equipment. “If we do not, this entire journey has been wasted. It would be one thing if I could be sure of trying again later—then it would only be resources and time we have thrown away. But do you really think anyone will loan us another caeliger? That the Tser-zhag government will not have tightened its watch, or the Yelangese overrun this place?” I did not speak of the thing we had come here for, the way our odds of success decreased with every passing day. If uncovered, it might rot; if entombed in fresh snow, we might never find it. I had gambled on the chance of discovery, and like a bettor desperate to make good his losses, I refused to walk away from the table.
Three months rotting in Hlamtse Rong, waiting. Hoping.
A chorus of mewing came from a nearby house. A Nying woman, cursing, used a broom to drive out several draconic figures that had evidently taken up residence among her livestock.
Suhail turned to me, grinning. “What ever will you do to keep yourself occupied?”
Shuwa and her fellow villagers looked at us as if we were mad when we expressed our intention to study the mews.
I have of course encountered this reaction many a time—but never more so than in Hlamtse Rong, where the dragons in question were nothing more than vermin. Rock-wyrms and desert drakes may prey upon livestock, earning the enmity of the local humans, but their grandeur also commands re spect. Mews enjoyed no such reputation. They were simply pests, no more admired in Tser-nga than stoats are in Scirland. (Indeed, less so, for they provide no fur.)
Chendley looked at us in much the same way after he returned. In democratic fashion, we held a vote: only the lieutenant was in favour of abandoning this whole matter as a bad job, and his strenuous arguments did nothing to sway the rest of us—though in fairness I should note that his arguments were good ones. It is not his fault they lacked the power to penetrate our thick skulls and effect any change within. We would stay in Hlamtse Rong until the monsoon ended, and make our attempt then.
In the meanwhile, we would study the dragons we had on hand. Inquiries around the village revealed that the hunting of mews, if the enterprise can be given so grand a name, is the domain of unmarried spinsters—of which there are more than a few, what with husbands being distributed in sibling batches. A wife who finds mews plaguing her house hold calls for assistance, and the spinster in question builds and lays traps for the creatures in areas which attract their attention, such as kitchen stores and refuse pits.
“You are not a spinster,” Shuwa said to me (as translated by Thu). “Why on earth would you be interested in this?”
I searched for a diplomatic phrasing, then gave up; anything I said would be put through the grinder of linguistic differences regardless. “Please tell her,” I said to Thu, “as politely as you can, that perhaps I may learn something that will help the Nying keep the mews at bay? Without suggesting that I think their own efforts have been deficient—after all, they’ve lived with the creatures for generations. But I have studied many kinds of dragons in other parts of the world, and it might be that the comparison will shed some useful light on the matter.”
What Thu said to Shuwa, I have no idea. I only know that after a few minutes of back-and-forth she gave up on understanding his meaning, or my intentions, at all. Shaking her head, she merely said that if we wished to do something with the mews, it was our own lookout.
Tom and I began with their thieving behaviour, which did not require us to go any farther afield than a few houses in the village—though it did cost us some sleep. We sat up through the night on multiple occasions, observing how the mews raided store houses, larders, and livestock pens. They proved to be cunning beasts, often sending one of their number ahead as a scout before descending to scavenge. Or perhaps that one might better be called a canary: if the advance mew is captured by a trap, it squawks a warning, and the others flee. “It might be more effective if the trap could be sprung upon them en masse,” I said to Tom.
“Yes, but how? It would require someone to sit up at night, in every place the mews might scavenge, and spring the trap by hand.”
Given the number of possible locations, such a requirement was utterly impractical. But under the current approach, I suspected that each incident only taught the mews how better to avoid traps in the future. One of the spinsters we talked to, an old woman named Kyewa, agreed with this theory. A congenital deformity that twisted her legs from birth had ended her marriage prospects before they began, but she made very fine traps, and was careful to use different kinds in a rotating sequence. According to Thu, she did this so the mews might have time to forget past traps and become vulnerable to them again.
“Now that would be a fascinating thing to test,” I murmured, as much to myself as to Tom. “Perhaps we could try laying out only two different kinds of trap in alternating sequence, then three, then four, to establish whether mews truly do learn from their errors, and if so, how long it takes them to forget those lessons.”
Alas for my curiosity, the Nying would not hear of any experimentation that might cause them to lose more of their stores to the little dragons. I understood their reluctance, for they often walked too close to the edge of starvation to gamble with their future in such fashion; and we certainly could not squander any of our own food, for we were saving as much of that as possible for our autumnal expedition. In the meanwhile, Chendley, Suhail, and Thu (when we could spare him) lent their aid to the herdsmen, and hunted as much as they could. Our continued residence in Hlamtse Rong depended heavily on our not becoming a burden to them.
Tom and I spent some time with the herdsmen as well, watching the diving behaviour of the mews. Suhail had devoted long hours to improving his own command of Tser-zhag, and put his growing skill to use in questioning the men about the little dragons. He said, “They all agree that mews eat the fat out of the yaks’ humps, but I’ve taken a look at the beasts, and I haven’t found a single one with scars or any other sign of chewing.”
“It might be an old wives’ tale,” Tom said. “On Niddey, the grannies all agree that cats have to be kept away from infants, because they’ll suck their breath away. I’ve seen a cat sniff a baby’s face, but no more—and certainly we’ve seen mews dive at yaks, which could be exaggerated in the same way.”
“But why on earth do they do that in the first place?” I tapped my fingers against my elbows, musing. The day was a bright one, and the alpine meadow around me dotted with flowers; at moments like this, it was hard to believe that bad weather was keeping us from our goal. The typical Anthiopean concept of the monsoon is a period in which it rains twenty-four hours a day, but even in the wettest regions, this is not the case. We had sunshine on an intermittent basis—along with enough rain to transform the hardpacked trail through the center of the village into a river of mud. I had only to look up at the wall of the high peaks, though, to be reminded of why we were passing the time with mews.
Tom was still pondering my question, rather than the weather. “Scavenging?” he said doubtfully. “Do they ever drive yaks into stampeding over a cliff edge? They might be hoping to feast on carrion.”
Suhail asked on our behalf, but turned up no reports of such a thing. “Which could be due to the vigilance of the herdsmen,” he said. “They do seem to be concerned that the mews will frighten a beast into injuring itself, if not falling to its death.”
After another week spent in observations, we had no better answers. “Perhaps it is a kind of play behaviour,” I said. “Like a cat toying with a mouse. The mews may simply find it entertaining to make a yak run.”
We had greater luck in our other endeavour, which was the trapping of a mew—not to kill it, as the locals do, but for study. Even this was not so easily done; as I have said, mews are quite clever about learning to avoid traps. We caught one the second night we tried, but made the error of going to sleep rather than sitting up in watch, fearing that our presence might frighten the mews away. We realized our mistake when we awoke the next morning to find the thin wooden bars of the cage chewed clean through. Tom swore colourfully in the several languages we had acquired in our journeys and built a new cage. With the mews forewarned, it took us several more nights before we met with success again, but at last we had a mew—and, having seen the fate of the first cage, we made certain to incarcerate our new captive in a much sturdier prison.
Honeyseekers and desert drakes were the only dragons I had kept in captivity before then. In size the mew more closely resembled the former breed, but whereas a honeyseeker is relatively mild unless provoked (whereupon it will spit toxic saliva at the source of its annoyance), a mew is much less cooperative. Watching it pace the bound aries of its new cage, gnawing speculatively at the joins, I said to Tom, “It does remind me just a little of a cat, beyond the coincidence of its call. Andrew once caged a stray he found in the village, and it behaved much the same way.”
“It’s a pity the Nying can’t set them after rats and shrews. It would do wonders for the grain situation here.”
Much to the bemusement of not only the Nying but also our companions, Tom and I did make some efforts to see whether the mew could be trained. Suhail was a great deal of help in this, although he found the entire enterprise hilarious. During his fosterage among the Aritat nomads, his “desert father” Abu Azali had taught him the noble art of falconry, which Suhail had continued to practice after we purchased the estate of Casselthwaite in Linshire. He was able to show us how to fashion jesses and a hood, and then teach our captive mew to fly to a glove. He did this by placing tidbits of food on the glove and whistling in a particular manner, so that the dragon would come to associate him, the glove, and the sound with reward. This stage of the process went well enough, but Suhail was less than convinced. Watching the mew, he said, “I think it’s cleverer than most falcons—too clever, even. You can almost certainly teach it to fly to a lure… but the first time you set it loose in the open air, it will be gone.” He pondered for a time, then said, “I wonder if they would imprint, as an eyass does. Raising a bird from the shell requires a great deal of effort, and I cannot imagine that a mew would be any easier; but it does offer the best results.”
We did not want to risk losing our mew by setting it after a lure, as capturing a replacement would be more trouble than it was worth. It therefore reigned alone in the shed we built for it—“the mews,” as Suhail insisted on calling the structure, grinning every time he did so. (This is of course the proper name for the place where trained falcons are kept… but the pun entertained him far too much.)
Tom did contemplate a second capture, though not for the purpose of training. “It would be interesting to see if they exhibit developmental lability, too. We’ve got evidence of that in a few breeds now, but we’ll need more before we can say for certain that it’s a broad characteristic.”
His phrasing was conservative. In truth, he and I had begun to formulate a theory which did away with the six criteria Sir Richard Edgeworth had used to distinguish “true dragons” from mere “draconic cousins,” and put in their place only one: developmental lability. We did not yet have a good understanding of how the different breeds related to one another—indeed, this is a question that continues to vex dragon naturalists to this day—but we had long since begun to suspect that what ever the answer was, lability played a large role in the diversity we see today. As it is not a characteristic anyone has documented outside the draconic family, it might serve as an admirably simple means of differentiating that family from unrelated creatures.
I would dearly have liked to try breeding mews, or at least conduct experiments with their eggs. After my conversation with Suhail in Falchester, a part of my mind was constantly examining my research, asking at every turn, and what else? It was a peculiar feeling. On the one hand, I lamented the loss of my girlish glee, the sense that it was enough simply to see a new thing and record it for other people to learn. On the other hand, it was also exhilarating, for I was challenging myself to look further, to think harder, to fit what I saw into a larger picture and then tease out its implications.
Unfortunately for our mew-related aspirations, we were again there in the wrong season. Unlike honeyseekers, who will mate at any time of year, mews did so only toward the tail end of winter, with their eggs hatching in mid-spring—“And if we are still here then, something will have gone terribly wrong,” Tom said.
“Can’t you trap a pair and try to carry them out?” Chendley said, when he heard this.
It was a mark of how restless our lieutenant had become that he showed any enthusiasm for the prospect. Even granting that we would carry a smaller quantity of supplies out of the mountains
than we had carried in, adding a pair of caged mews to the pile would not make things any easier. But it was a moot point regardless. “If they’re anything like yaks,” Tom said with a wry
grin, “ they’ll go toes-up from heat exhaustion at the searing temperature of fifteen degrees. But who knows. If all else fails, I’ll have a shot at it.”
One thing Tom and I did not attempt: bone preservation. We had not brought any of the necessary chemicals with us, as Thu’s report had made it clear that we should not expect any bones to survive in one of his mystery specimens. Besides, the process had gone from a matter of great industrial import to a minor curiosity, of interest as a footnote in the history of dragonbone synthesis, but other wise of use only to individuals like ourselves, who wished to study the skeletons of dragons at leisure. We did dissect several mews, working from carcasses provided by the spinsters who hunted them, and confirmed that their bones disintegrated according to the common habit of their kind; but for records we were dependent upon my drawings.
One other activity kept us occupied during the monsoon, and that was mountain climbing. Once Suhail had enough fluency in Tser-zhag to handle minor daily matters, Chendley went out on a regular basis with either him or Thu to hone their skills on the nearby ridges and peaks. Tom and I went less frequently, but the weeks we spent with the herdsmen involved a great deal of clambering around by routes that made the Nying laugh at us. It was preparation for what was to come: the snows would have made our route much more treacherous, and the five of us could not afford the suspicion and lack of coordination that had weakened us on the journey to Hlamtse Rong. By the time the monsoon ended, we were in the best fighting trim of our lives, and ready—we thought—for anything.
Excerpted from Within the Sanctuary of Wings, copyright © 2017 by Marie Brennan.