In the Labyrinth of Drakes, the thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.
Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.
As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.
The Lady Trent Memoirs
1. A Natural History of Dragons
2. The Tropic of Serpents
3. Voyage of the Basilisk
4. In the Labyrinth of Drakes
5. Within the Sanctuary of Wings
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In the Labyrinth of Drakes
A Memoir by Lady Trent
By Marie Brennan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Bryn Neuenschwander
All rights reserved.
An offer of employment — Breeding dragons — Lord Rossmere's requirement — Looking for an old friend — My study — Preparations for departure — Reflections on the past
There is very little pleasure in being snubbed over a task for which one is well qualified. There is, however, quite a bit of pleasure in watching the ones who did the snubbing later eat their own words.
Credit for this pleasure must go to Thomas Wilker, who had for many years been my colleague in matters scientific. He was a Fellow of the Philosophers' Colloquium, as I was not — that august body having condescended to admit into their ranks the occasional man of less than gentle birth, but no ladies regardless of their ancestry. Strictly speaking, it was Tom and not I who received the snubbing.
The post refused to him was the focus of stiff competition. Natural history as a scholarly field was not so terribly old; the more specialized topic of dragon naturalism had only recently begun to emerge as an area of study in its own right. Tom's publications and my own played a part in that trend, but we were not the only ones: there were easily half a dozen people in Anthiope with similar interests, the esteemed Herr Doktor Stanislau von Lösberg not least among them.
Those half-dozen lived abroad, though, in places such as Eiverheim and Thiessin. In Scirland there was no one whose qualifications truly challenged Tom's, now that he was a Colloquium Fellow. When a position opened up that called specifically for a dragon naturalist, he should have been the first choice — as indeed he was.
Any rumour which says he refused the position is false. Tom did not refuse. On the contrary, he told his prospective employers that he and I would be delighted to accept. When they said the offer was for him alone, he assured them I would not need a salary, as my recent speaking tours and publications had left me with quite a comfortable income. (As it happens I would have appreciated the salary, for my income did not go so far as it might — but I would have foregone that for such an opportunity.) They made it clear that regardless of finances, I was not welcome in this endeavour. Tom maintained that to hire him was to hire us both; they hired Arthur Halstaff, Baron Tavenor in our stead; and that was the end of that.
For a time.
A year and a half later, the employers in question came crawling back. Lord Tavenor had resigned his position; he had met with no success thus far, and had difficulty with the locals besides. The offer to Tom was renewed. So in turn was his condition — only this time he said that, upon reflection, a salary for me might be just the thing after all. He made it quite clear that if they did not see fit to meet his conditions, then they could go hang.
This is, in brief, how I came to be employed by the Royal Scirling Army in the deserts of Akhia, to raise for them their very own flight of dragons.
* * *
The problem of dragon-breeding was not a new one. Ever since prehistoric times, mankind has dreamt of harnessing dragons for his own ends. This has taken every form imaginable, from leaping atop the back of a fully grown dragon in the hope of breaking it to saddle — an attempt which almost invariably ends with a broken rider instead — to stealing hatchlings or eggs on the theory that a young creature is easier to tame, to caging dragons and optimistically encouraging them to breed.
That last is difficult to do even with less hazardous wild animals. Cheetahs, for example, are notoriously selective about their mating habits, and will go very rapidly from disinterest to ardour to mauling their erstwhile paramours. Others refuse the task entirely: whether it is for reasons of embarrassment or some other cause, the giant pandas of Yelang have never been known to reproduce within the confines of an imperial menagerie.
(I suppose I should offer fair warning. Because this volume of my memoirs concerns itself with my research in Akhia, it will of necessity say more than a little about the mating habits of dragons and other creatures. Those whose sensibilities are too delicate to endure such frankness might well be advised to have a more stout-hearted friend read them a carefully expurgated version. Though I fear that edition might be rather short.)
Dragons are even less tractable in this regard. The Yelangese in particular have a long history of trying to breed their dragons, but despite some rather grandiose historical claims, there is no reliable evidence of success with anything other than the smallest kinds. Large dragons, the sort that come to mind when one hears the word, simply will not cooperate.
And yet it was the cooperation of large dragons that we needed most, in the third decade of this century.
The reason, of course, was their bones. Astonishingly light and phenomenally strong, dragonbone is a wondrous substance ... when one can get it. The bones decay rapidly after death, once their peculiar chemical composition is no longer protected by flesh and blood. A Chiavoran named Gaetano Rossi had developed a method for preserving them; Tom Wilker and I had stolen that method; it was stolen from us in turn, and sold to a company in Va Hing. Three years before I went to Akhia, it became public knowledge that the Yelangese were using dragonbone to build effective caeligers: airships that could be used for more than mere novelty.
"If you had shared what you knew with the Crown when you learned it," Lord Rossmere said to Tom and myself during our first meeting, "we wouldn't be in this situation now."
I did not say to him that I had kept the information secret precisely to avoid our current situation. First, because it was only true in part; and second, because Tom was stepping firmly on my foot. He had worked quite hard to get us this opportunity, and did not want to see me squander it by speaking impertinently to a brigadier in the Royal Army. I offered instead a more temperate rendition of my thoughts. "I know it may not seem like it, but we do have an edge over the Yelangese. I believe our research into dragonbone synthesis is quite a bit further along than theirs, owing to the good efforts of Frederick Kemble. He had several years to work on the problem while the world knew nothing of it."
Lord Rossmere ignored my comment, addressing his next words to Tom. "I shed no tears for the deaths of dragons, if they can be useful to us. I'm also a pragmatist, though. Scirland has already exhausted most of its productive iron mines, and thanks to your companion, we've also lost our foothold in Bayembe. If we kill half the dragons now for raw material, then in a generation we'll be fighting over the few that remain. We need a renewable supply, and that means breeding them."
None of this was news to either Tom or myself. Lord Rossmere was not speaking to inform us, though; all that was prelude to his next statement. He said, "Your work must be carried out under conditions of strict security. The formula for bone preservation may be out in the world, but nobody has yet had much luck with breeding. The nation that harnesses dragons for that purpose will have a lasting advantage over its rivals, and we do not intend to lose that chance."
There would be at least two nations with this particular secret. Scirland had no true dragons left, only draconic cousins such as the sparklings with which I had begun my research so many years before. Politics make for peculiar bedfellows; in this instance, we were in bed with Akhia, whose desert drakes would be ideally suited for the purpose — if we could induce the beasts to cooperate.
Tom said, "We will of course do what we can. It will take a good deal more than two people to manage the necessary work, though ... I believe Lord Tavenor had a staff to assist?"
"Yes, of course. Some Akhian labourers, and the site doubles as a barracks for our military contingent in Qurrat. There is a gentleman you will liaise with —" Lord Rossmere twitched aside a few papers, searching. "Husam ibn Ramiz ibn Khalis al-Aritati. A sheikh of one of their tribes. We've been assured of his trustworthiness."
"I presume we will also have access to Lord Tavenor's notes?" I said. "He has published nothing of his work. Obviously he met with no success, or else you would not be looking for his replacement; but we must know what he has done, so that we do not waste time repeating his errors." Depending on what we found in his notes, I anticipated spending quite a bit of time repeating his errors, to see whether it was his theories or his methodology that had failed him. But Tom and I had discussed this beforehand, and my dutiful question was merely to set the stage for Tom's own response.
His brow artfully furrowed, my companion said, "Yes, the lack of publications is rather troubling, for a scientific endeavour of this sort. It seems rather a waste. I realize that matters related to the breeding of dragons must be kept under wraps — but we would like an understanding that Dame Isabella and I may publish our other discoveries as we see fit."
It was peculiar to hear Tom refer to me as "Dame Isabella." We had not been so formal with one another since Mouleen; indeed, we had an unspoken agreement never to let differences in rank stand between us. Formality was necessary, however, when dealing with men like Lord Rossmere. The brigadier swelled with indignation. "Other discoveries? We are sending you there to breed dragons, not to run about studying whatever you like."
"We will of course devote our full attention to that task," I said, my tone as conciliatory as I could contrive. "But in the process of so doing, we will undoubtedly observe a thousand details of anatomy and behaviour that need not be state secrets. Mathieu Sémery has won a fair bit of acclaim in Thiessin with his study of wyverns in Bulskevo. I should not like to see Scirland lag behind in the eyes of the scientific community, simply because we kept mum about everything we might discover."
This was not a situation where I could form a private vow to do as I wished, and the consequences be damned. That might suffice for the wearing of trousers in the field, or my friendships with various men come what rumours might result ... but violating our arrangement with the Royal Army could land Tom and myself in prison. I was determined not to squander this opportunity, but first we needed Lord Rossmere's consent.
Not bothering to hide his suspicion, he said, "What sort of things do you imagine you would publish?"
I racked my brains for the most tediously scientific topic imaginable. "Oh, perhaps ... the grooming behaviour of the desert drake after feeding. Do they lick themselves clean, as cats do? Or do they perhaps roll in sand — and if so, what effect does this abrasion have on their scales —"
"Thank you, Dame Isabella, that will do." I had succeeded in sufficiently boring Lord Rossmere. "You will submit any materials you write to Colonel Pensyth in Qurrat, along with a list of the publications and individuals to whom you wish to send them. He will consult with General Lord Ferdigan as necessary — but if they approve, then yes, you may publish. But those men will have final authority in the matter."
I did not much relish the notion of military oversight, but this was likely the best Tom and I could hope for. "Thank you," I said, and tried to sound sincere.
"How soon shall we begin?" Tom asked.
Lord Rossmere snorted. "If I could put you on a boat tomorrow, I would. Unless you find a way to make dragons grow to full size more rapidly, it will be years before we have an adequate supply — and that is if you succeed right away. The Yelangese have undoubtedly been pursuing the same goal; we have no time to waste."
"Since you cannot put us on a boat tomorrow ..." I prompted.
"How soon can you depart?"
His manner of asking made it clear that "the day after tomorrow" would be an ideal answer, and his mood would deteriorate with every subsequent day he was forced to wait. Tom and I exchanged glances. "This Selemer week?" Tom ventured.
I had traveled enough in my life to be able to do so efficiently. "That should be feasible," I agreed.
"Splendid." Lord Rossmere made a note of it and said, "I'll write directly once we have your passage booked. Mr. Wilker, you'll be lodged in the Men's House in the Segulist Quarter of Qurrat. Dame Isabella, you'll be living with a local family, one Shimon ben Nadav. Also Segulist, of course, though as you might expect, a Temple-worshipper. There are few Magisterials in Akhia, I fear. Furnishings and the like will be provided; there's no need to pack your entire household."
Rumour had it that Lord Tavenor had done just that, and been made to ship his belongings home at his own expense after he resigned his position. Fortunately for Lord Rossmere, I was accustomed to making do with quite little. Compared with my cabin aboard the Basilisk, even the most parsimonious of lodgings would seem downright palatial — if only because I could roam more freely outside of them.
There were of course a hundred other details to arrange, but trivial matters were not for the likes of Lord Rossmere. He called in his adjutant and made the necessary introductions; that officer would handle the remainder on his behalf. Then we were dismissed to our own business.
Tom and I descended the stairs and went out into the bustling streets of Drawbury, which in those days still held the headquarters of the Royal Army in Falchester. We stood for a moment in silence, watching people go by; then, as if by a silent accord, we turned to regard one another.
"Akhia," Tom said, a grin touching his expression.
"Indeed." I knew why his grin had not fully come to rest. My own excitement was tempered with apprehension. Our research aboard the Basilisk had been carried out partially under the auspices of other groups — the Scirling Geographical Association, the Ornithological Society — but that was quite different from the kind of oversight that now loomed over us.
I would never say it to Tom, who had fought so hard for my inclusion in this enterprise, but I was not entirely sanguine about the prospect of working for the Royal Army. My adventures abroad had tangled me in such affairs on several occasions, but I had never sought them out deliberately before now. And I knew very well that if we succeeded in breeding dragons as the Crown desired, we would in effect be reducing them to the status of livestock: creatures fed and raised to adulthood in captivity, only so they could be slaughtered for human benefit.
The alternative, however, was worse. If dragons could not be bred, then they would only be hunted; the wild populations would be depleted in short order. I had grown up in the countryside, where the slaughter of sheep and fowl was entirely commonplace. I must persuade myself to think of the dragons in those terms — however difficult such thoughts might be.
Tom and I walked to the corner of Rafter Street, where a hansom cab might be hailed. By that point in my life I had enough money to maintain a carriage of my own if I wished, but I had gotten out of the habit. (My friends later had to persuade me that while Mrs. Camherst or Dame Isabella might do as she wished, it was not fitting for Lady Trent to go about in hired vehicles.) Once settled in and on our way, Tom caught my gaze and asked, "Will you look for him?"
There was no point in pretending I did not know who Tom was talking about. There was little more in pretending carelessness, but I did my best — more for the sake of my own dignity than out of any hope of deceiving Tom. "I doubt I could find him if I tried," I said, gazing out the window at the city rattling past. "There must be a great many men in Akhia named Suhail."
Our erstwhile companion from the Basilisk, the man who had gone with me to the cursed isle of Rahuahane, who had stolen a Yelangese caeliger and tried to rescue a princess. I had given him my direction in Falchester before we parted company in Phetayong, but had not received a single letter in the nearly three years since. Possibly he had lost the notebook page upon which I scrawled the information. But it was not so difficult to find me; there were few lady dragon naturalists in the world, and only one named Isabella Camherst.
Excerpted from In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan. Copyright © 2016 Bryn Neuenschwander. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Lady Trent books are incredible. A complete new world, so similar to our Victotian era, but with dragons! In the times when ladies could not be scholars or adventurers Isabella, Lady Trent is both. I wish I could live in her world and see real dragons in flight.