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 revealeduntil 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 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
About the Author
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Voyage of the Basilisk
A Memoir by Lady Trent
By Marie Brennan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Bryn Neuenschwander
All rights reserved.
Life in Falchester—Abigail Carew—A meeting of the Flying University—M. Suderac—Galinke's messenger—Skin conditions
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 well-informed 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 recreated 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 ...
Excerpted from Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan. Copyright © 2015 Bryn Neuenschwander. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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