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The Wedding Night
"What is wrong?" Emily asked.
She sat, naked, on her bridal bed, the waves of her dark hair falling like a dusky veil over her golden shoulders and small breasts. Over it, wrapped around her, she clutched a multicolored flowered shawl, a legacy from her Indian grandmother.
Nigel, her husband of ten hours, stood at the foot of the bed, trying to arrange his blue dressing gown with shaking hands and only managing to twist it, so it hung askew and displayed a portion of his pale, muscular chest.
He had turned away from her, but she could see his face reflected in the full-length mirror. It showed a complexion splotched by sudden high color, pale blond hair on end where sweaty fingers had run through it again and again and gray-blue eyes animated with an odd passion and rimmed by red as if Nigel-Nigel!-were near tears.
Emily pulled her long legs up till her knees came right up to her pointed chin, and clutched her arms around them as she took a deep breath. It wasn't possible that Nigel would cry. Proper gentlemen didn't cry, and Nigel was as cool and collected as a gentleman could be.
"Have I done something?" Emily asked. Her voice wavered and trembled, sounding too childish in this sumptuous suite, all red velvet and heavy mahogany furniture. "Failed to do something?"
Nigel's back remained turned. He didn't seem to hear her. He was tying and untying his dressing gown as if it were the most important task in the world.
Emily wished to shout, to scream, to ask him what had happened and why. But proper young ladies didn't rail at their husbands. Instead, insecurity trembled in her voice as she said, "How did I fail you?"
"Fail?" Nigel's head jerked back at the word. He looked at her, startled, then quickly away.
"Mr. Oldhall," Emily said, making her voice as formal as she dared.
The family name, which she hadn't used since they'd become engaged, made him give her a look of undisguised horror. Emily felt blood rush to her cheeks, though she knew the blush would show only the color of sunset against her golden skin. "Nigel . . ."
Nigel pulled a packet of tobacco from a dressing gown pocket and a pipe from the other. "Yes?"
"No one ever told me what should happen on our marriage night." She paused. "My stepmother did tell me it was all worth it for the children, but . . ." Her voice floundered and she shook her head. "I have seen . . ." A deep breath to gather courage. "I was raised in my father's country house, Nigel. We had dogs and horses and . . ." desperately, trying to avoid being explicit, she said, "geese. And it seems to me the interaction between men and women cannot be all that different from what happens between . . . animals. Even horses and cats . . . and . . ." Deep breath. "Geese."
She glanced up to see Nigel staring at her, his mouth half-open, his face an odd mix of shock and amusement. Slowly, he turned and drew a long breath that echoed noisily in the room. Turning his back on her, he fumbled. She smelled tobacco and saw him, in the mirror, pushing shreds of it into the bowl of his pipe. He struck the flint to light the wick of his lighter, then lit his pipe and inhaled deeply. The lighter clicked closed and Nigel exhaled, a breath like a tremulous sigh forming a gray, aromatic cloud in the air in front of him. He put the lighter back in his pocket.
"I . . . I understand your disappointment," he said at last. He pulled a heavy draft from his pipe and expelled it in increasingly neater rings. "Emily, I do understand how in your innocence, you might believe something untoward has happened, or . . ." He cleared his throat, and a slight flush tinged his pale cheeks. "Or failed to happen, but . . . Emily, now that you are a wife, you should understand that marriage . . . isn't always perfect." He cleared his throat again. "There are moments when the body will not . . . obey the mind."
He smiled suddenly, but his smile vanished just as quickly, and it was only after another puff on the pipe that he managed to shape his mouth to his normal, aloof smile. "Don't let it disturb you, my dear. We're just both tired. The day started devilishly early with the wedding breakfast and . . . with the parties. You've been trotting too hard, my dear, and no mistake. Let's have a good night and then we'll . . . we'll both feel better in the morning."
He reached over to pat her arm, then strode toward the closed door between their two rooms. He'd no more than set his hand on the polished brass doorknob when the whole room shook.
Emily stopped, holding her breath. It had felt as though, three floors beneath them, the magic carpet that supported the luxury carpetship, cruising above the clouds toward Cairo, had fluttered unsteadily on some air current.
"It's just the magic field we're crossing," Nigel said. "Or the weather. I'm sure the flight magicians . . ."
But the curtains danced again and a rattle echoed through the ship, composed of stemware and crystal mage-light chandeliers colliding in liquid notes, crockery clashing down in the kitchen, and the groaning of wood in framing and floors and furniture. Emily clutched at the bedcovers. She remembered this noise-it bought back memories of her first trip to England. Every little current, every jolt had terrified Emily then. The ship had been all strange and scary. And her mama had been in her room, very ill, leaving no one but a cool English nurse to tell Emily not to be a goose.
But that trip had ended well. The carpetship had not fallen. Yes, Emily's mother had died six months after arriving in England, leaving Emily stranded in the midst of her father's family. But the carpetship had landed safely. She closed her eyes and willed the ship to keep flying.
The carpetship trembled again, harder. Every window frame rattled. Every bed bucked. The support beams mounted on the carpet and holding up kitchens, ballrooms, parlors and passenger rooms twisted and groaned like a dying beast.
Emily opened her eyes and caught a moment of panic in Nigel's expression. He grabbed for the bed to steady himself. The ship rattled again and started a ponderous half-roll, throwing Nigel against a green-velvet sofa. Emily barely managed to hold on to the bed, whispering prayers to a divinity in which she very much wished to believe.
With a groan of stressed lumber, the carpetship started rolling the other way. Nigel held on to the sofa, his panic no longer hidden. His lips were moving, and she supposed he must be saying words, but no sound reached her over the creaks and groans and sharp sounds of breaking glass and pottery.
Horns sounded, magically amplified, alerting everyone on the ship to the danger. This meant they should seek the lifeboats outside, on the deck. It meant the carpetship was falling. Falling through the dark night sky to the cold ocean far below them.
Nigel's hand was on her arm and Emily opened her eyes, without realizing she had ever closed them. Nigel was very pale, holding on to the headboard of the bed with one hand and on to her with the other. His lips moved, but only a word here and there emerged above the shrilling distress of the alarms. "Madam," and "sensible," and, she would swear to it, "decent."
Emily was sensible of her need to be decent; sensible of the fact that she was naked and clutching only a flowered shawl. Her panicked mind told her she would die naked, her shamelessly nude body washed ashore in some foreign land.
And then she realized Nigel was dressing her. He had somehow gotten hold of her white dressing gown embroidered with green sprigs and was attempting to pull her hand up from the bed.
Clinging, frightened, one hand clawing at his shoulder, Emily forced her other hand to let go of the bedcovers and to allow Nigel to put it into a sleeve. He was murmuring at her, but she could get no more than a general feel of comfort and an attempt to calm her. She clutched at him and allowed him to slide her other arm into another sleeve. And then he was tying her belt firmly and pulling her up, still talking.
"Must," she heard him say before the words submerged in other sounds. And then "safety."
She rolled from the bed, with Nigel gripping her. Safety meant the lifeboats-mounted on smaller flying rugs tethered to the side of the ship. Each of them would take ten travelers apiece and lead them, unerringly, to the nearest patch of terra firma.
Fumbling, she and Nigel scrambled, holding each other, toward the French doors that opened from Emily's room onto the deck. They held on to furniture in passing, and Emily had a moment of gratitude that every piece was firmly bolted to the floor.
Nigel struggled to open the door, kicked it open and yelled, "Go, go, go," propelling her through the open door to the deck outside.
The Royal Were-Hunters
Emily stepped out the door and onto the polished mahogany of the deck. "The boats!" Nigel yelled above the din. "No one has pulled in the lifeboats!"
Emily looked across the deck where bedlam had been unleashed in the form of half-dressed-or hardly dressed at all-men and women of all ages. Emily's dressing gown was positively proper compared to many of the people who were rushing about in their underthings; one young, disheveled woman was clutching a sheet to her otherwise naked body and shrieking in fear. One of the gentlemen nearby wore his hat, his gloves, and his underwear and seemed perfectly composed, until one realized he was strolling about pointing with his cane and giving orders to no one.
On the other side of the deck, past the frightened throng, a glass partition six feet tall and composed of small glass panes protected passengers and crew from otherwise deadly flight-breezes and the frigid air at this altitude. And past that partition, on the other side, lifeboats knocked against the frame with a noise like the damned attempting to storm the halls of heaven.
To allow people to board the boats, those would need to be tethered close to the frame, not allowed to blow away from it on the currents. And doors in the glass partition would need to be opened by the crew.
None of this had been done.
Nigel stopped a passing man-an amazingly groomed and properly attired employee in the blue serge uniform and cap of the Star of Empire Carpetship Line. "Good man." Nigel yelled to be heard above the confused din of voices around them. "Good man, why haven't the lifeboats been pulled in and made accessible? My wife must be taken to land at once."
The man tried to pull away from Nigel, but Nigel held his arm and wouldn't let go. "The magicians are trying to save the carpetship, milord," the man said, also yelling above the babble, but with every appearance of eager obsequiousness. "They think they can save it, milord. That this will pass."
"Pass how?" Nigel yelled back. "When a carpetship's magic fails-" He stopped as the ship trembled, more violently than before. "What?"
The ship shuddered again, in great spasms like a dying beast. It should have caused a blind panic on deck, but instead everyone fell silent. Nigel looked as startled as Emily felt. And then Emily saw something in the unrelieved black outside the glass partition. Something shimmered there, not quite as bright as the stars. It was more like a bit of shining dust in the wind, like glimmers of flame.
Without knowing quite why, Emily pushed through the crowd, toward the glass barrier. Pressing against its cool smoothness, she heard something-a sound like another wind beating within the wind, like the murmur of a heart composed of the hissing flames . . .
She looked toward the sound-perceived more with her mage-sense and her mind than with her ears. And there, by the side of the carpetship, something deep blue-green seemed to glitter and churn the air beside the ship. Slowly, it sailed closer, becoming clearer and revealing itself as a large, reptilian-looking creature.
Moonlight flickered on a long sinuous neck, bright, sparkling eyes, an elongated body and a curling tail. Moonlight struck wings that looked as unreal as an artist's dream, as if their armature had been carved in the finest ivory, then covered over with transparent fabric, upon which myriad fireflies had been caught.
The carpetship trembled like a frightened beast, but it groaned to altitude again.
So it was a dragon's magical field that disrupted the flying spells. A dragon! Her breath caught at the word.
She'd read about dragons in history books and stories, but Emily had never seen one. They were were-creatures, whose other form looked wholly human but who-in the period of their episodic change-craved the hunt, the chase, and tore their prey alive with their impatient fangs.
Watching the dragon, Emily breathed in little puffs that fogged the window. She wiped impatiently at the glass with cold, sweaty hands, and peered through the stripes left by her fingers, not wanting to miss a single second of the wondrous sight.
If she'd ever imagined dragons, she'd thought them sinister and frightening. And yet this creature was gossamer and moonlight, living flame and whispering wind. She wished she could engrave this scene upon her memory and relive it later, whenever she needed to refresh her vision from mundane sights.
None of the histories that spoke of the evils of dragons said that the pinpoints upon their wings shone like multicolored fairy lights rivaling the stars. None had mentioned that they transmitted an impression of power and joy. Nor had they admitted that dragons flew so effortlessly and gracefully, like dancing on air.
The only good thing they were ready to admit was that the eye of a dragon was the most powerful scrying instrument on Earth, allowing people to see the future in it and discover hidden treasure.
Looking at the dragon she couldn't fully understand how that could be. Its eyes were just eyes.
From behind Emily came the sound of running feet, and two employees of the Star of Empire company came rushing to turn cranks on the side of the glass partition that separated the passengers from the dragon.
"Letting us at the lifeboats, then?" Nigel said in a confused tone.
"No, sir," one of the men said. "Just opening the partition so the Royal Were-Hunters can have at the beast." And turning to Emily, "Miss, you'll have to get out of the way."
Emily turned and saw a whole regiment of Royal Were-Hunters-Gold Coats-wearing gold uniforms with golden braid, about fifteen of them in a line, each pointing a powerstick at the dragon. The powersticks, Emily knew, would be full of were-killing magic.