Peek into Longbourn:Dragon Entail, Book 2 in Jane Austen’s Dragons, with a most unusual Christmas dinner at Longbourn. Let me know what you think below–comments inspire me to write faster!
I can’t promise a publication date yet, but I’m looking at the end of first quarter 2017. Keeping fingers crossed!
If you missed the start of this series, Pemberley: Mr. Darcy’s Dragon, you can find an extended preview here. If you want more about dragons, then Elizabeth’s Commonplace Book will fit the bill., You can find it here.
A chill breeze cut through the garden, rattling dry withered stems. So lonely and barren. Elizabeth pulled her cloak against her chest a little tighter and turned toward the house.
Soon the evergreen cutting party would return, and she would be pressed into service decorating the house. Tomorrow’s Christmas dinner would be the first major Christmastide celebration of the season. The children’s contagious enthusiasm always offered a balm to her soul; something to look forward to.
Mama had invited all the officers to join them. They, along with the Gardiners and Mr. Collins, should make for a very full dining room and a very merry party. The more company she had, the merrier Mama was—and Lydia as well.
Was there any way she could claim a sick headache and skip the whole affair?
How Mama would scold to hear such a thought.
April peeked out from Elizabeth’s hood and rubbed her fluffy head against Elizabeth’s ear. “I am cold.”
“Then cozy up in my hood, you silly featherpate. There is no reason for you to be out in the wind. Why did you even come out with me if you hate the cold so?” Elizabeth pulled her hood up over the little blue fairy dragon.
“You have not been acting like yourself. We are all worried.”
“So that is why I am always accompanied by a draconic entourage?” She glanced over her shoulder.
Rustle nodded at her from his post on the garden gate and flapped his wings in a cockatrice greeting. She clutched the edges of her cloak and fluttered them at him. He squawked a happy note. He was a dear, even if an unsubtle one.
A fuzzy warm body bumped against her ankles.
“Mrow.” Rumblkins blinked up at her as he wove between her feet.
How fat and glossy he had become since he had come to be Mrs. Hill’s particular friend.
She crouched to scratch his ears. “You too—checking up on me?”
The tatzelwurm purred, rearing up a bit on his serpentine tail. “You are acting strange, even for a warm-blood.”
“You are very sweet, all of you, but there is nothing to be concerned about. A touch of melancholy is to be expected now and then and is considered rather a poetic trait for a young woman to possess now and then.”
Rumblkins chirruped and stared at her. “Stuff and nonsense. Come inside, there is hot cider.” He caught her hem with his thumbed paw and pulled it toward the house.
“I like hot cider.” April nipped her ear softly.
“Very well. But only a spoonful lest you are rendered flightless and silly.”
April squawked, but did not argue.
If it had just been the family about, a little overindulgence would hardly have been a problem, but in the company of Mr. Collins, everything was different. He was resolutely dragon deaf and not fond of the pets. Birds and cats, according to him, did not belong in the house—even if they were disguised dragons.
Somehow, it was perversely fitting that he should be resolute in that opinion, essentially immune to dragon persuasion.
Vexing, troublesome man.
Of course, Mama would find him all that a young man should be—at least a young man worthy of Elizabeth should be. Jane, or even Lydia deserved so much more.
At least Aunt Gardiner understood Elizabeth’s reluctance. That helped. Jane was far too caught up with Mr. Bingley to have much attention to spare for such sisterly confidences.
And Mary—how was it she did not find Mr. Collins nearly so odious? Was it her saintly patience, or just that she had a far more realistic expectation of men? Or maybe, not facing life as Mr. Collins’ wife, made things look very, very different.
Once inside, Elizabeth accepted a cup of cider from Hill and sat near the kitchen fire. Rumblkins jumped up in his hearth basket and purred until Hill stopped what she was doing to scratch under his chin. She looked so very content petting her devoted ratter, with no idea at all that he was a dragon. Why could Mr. Collins not be more like her?
The party returned with a wagon heaped with evergreens and the remainder of the day was spent tying bows around them and satisfying Mama with their placement throughout the house. A task made far easier with liberal amounts of Hill’s hot cider.
Christmas day began with a trip to the parish church for a rather lengthy morning service. It was almost as if knowing Mr. Collins was there prompted their own vicar to deeper, lengthier reflections.
About half the officers were in attendance as were Colonel Forester and his young wife, Harriet, Lydia’s particular friend. Somehow Lydia contrived to escape the family pew and sit between Harriet and Captain Carter. Beside them, Denny and Chamberlayne seemed as distracted by Lydia as she did by them.
Mr. Collins, on Elizabeth’s right, made little effort to conceal his disapproval over Lydia’s antics. Jane and Mama though, were oblivious, occupied with the Bingleys and Hursts in the pew in front of them. They had stayed at Netherfield after Mr. Darcy’s departure and were a constant and painful reminder of little Pemberley.
Elizabeth’s eyes burned. How the little dear would snake her long neck around Elizabeth’s waist and look so adoringly into her face. She blinked rapidly and ducked her head. The drakling had been with them less than a month. It was foolish that she should still feel so bereft at the hatchling’s removal to Rosings.
But she did.
After church, the entire family paraded through town to stop at the baker’s for the roast goose for supper—the largest one amongst all his orders. Mama was oddly proud of the fact, remarking on it as she worked herself up into a twitterpation over the impending arrival of their dinner guests.
As they entered the house, Mama pulled her aside. “Lizzie dear, I need you to do something for me. I want you to make certain that all those … birds keep to their cages whilst we have guests. It is most unseemly to have them flying about loose in the house. I fear someone will get the wrong sort of impression of us. It is remarkable that Hill’s cat has not eaten them by now—not that I would regard the loss to be sure, but I know the Gardiner children would be upset. It would be just my sort of luck if that very thing were to happen in the midst of my Christmas dinner.”
“I will see to it, Mama. If you wish, I can keep them all in my room and stay with them to ensure that they do not venture out.”
“Miss Christmas dinner for birds which can very well be kept caged? Do be serious, child. Just lock the cages and it will be enough.” Mama rolled her eyes as she swept past and into the house.
“The children will be downstairs, Mary will be downstairs, I do not understand why we should be expected to stay up here.” Phoenix hunkered down on a delicately carved perch in April’s cage-house, bright red feather-scales pouffed out in a decided pout.
“The officers have been invited and they are—rather coarse. Particularly when indulging in the libations of the season. They are not known for being careful or gentle. All Mama’s protests aside, I am honestly worried for your safety if you join us downstairs. You do not want to be stepped on.” Elizabeth reached into the cage and stroked his fluffy head with a fingertip.
April zipped into the cage and sat on the perch beside him. “And that Collins man is going to be there as well. You were just complaining that you were tired of him. Do you wish to keep company with him again?” She preened his back.
“I do not like him, not at all.” Phoenix fluttered his wings and huffed.
“Neither do I.” Heather peered down from a higher perch, leaning farther and farther forward until she hung upside down on the perch and peered nearly eye-to-eye with April.
April snorted. “Must you act like a bat? The children may like it, but—”
“It makes my Mary laugh. She needs to laugh. She is too serious.” Heather’s tiny voice was hard to hear, but getting stronger each day.
And she was right, Mary was often too serious. Perceptive little creature.
“You do not like Collins any better than the rest of us.” April stretched her neck to groom Heather’s pale pink neck feathers.
“He cannot hear, why bother with him?”
“He is difficult, almost impossible to persuade.” April lifted her beak in her favorite authoritative attitude.
“Men might be persuaded in ways other than by dragon voices.” Heather hung by one foot and scratched behind her ear. “Mary is very good at persuading.”
Elizabeth’s brown knotted. When had Mary done such a thing? No, Heather must be mistaken. She was so sweet, she believed her Dragon Friend could do nearly anything. Mary was fortunate Heather did not have a temper like April. It would not have been a profitable friendship for either of them.
“None of that has any bearing on dinner tonight. However, to make your confinement a little more pleasant, I have brought you these.” She placed three small dishes in the cage.
Heather let go of the perch, flipped midair and landed beside the dishes. The other two joined her, sniffing, eyes half closed.
“Honey?” April cheeped, bobbing up and down.
“Strawberry jam!” Heather plunged her face into the dish. Luckily the jam matched her feather-scales, otherwise she would be stained for days.
Phoenix dipped his long tongue in the third dish. “Blood and treacle pudding?”
“With a little extra treacle as a treat.”
He fluffed his wings and hopped a little closer.
“I trust this will make up for your lack of company this evening?” Elizabeth curtsied.
April flitted to her shoulder. “I still do not like you being amongst Collins and those officers without someone to watch over you.”
“I do not blame you for not liking Collins, but not all the officers are objectionable. Mr. Wickham—”
“I know you like him—far more than you should. But I do not. I wish you would not spend time with him at all.”
She pinched her temples. “First Longbourn, now you? I do not believe I have asked either of you for your opinion on any of the men in my acquaintance.”
“I liked Darcy. Walker is an excellent cockatrice. Even Rustle approves of him.”
“I am not having this discussion again. You may like him, but I do not. Not that any of that matters.” She held her hand near April who climbed upon her finger. “Pray go back to your honey and enjoy it whilst I try to enjoy some pleasing company myself.”
She returned April to the cage and latched the lock. It was only to make a statement though, with the lock on the inside, they could open the door whenever they wanted.
Elizabeth joined the gathering in the drawing room, waiting for their guests to arrive. Long wax candles filled every corner. Papa would cringe at the expense, but they were necessary—one did not use tallow candles around good company, Mama insisted. At least they were all surrounded with mirrors to make the most of the light. Fresh evergreen and holly, tied with cheery red bows, filled the room with the season’s fragrances that hung on the warm air from the fireplace.
The Gardiner children admired one garland, then dashed across the room to admire the next. Joshua and Anna argued softly over who had tied the prettiest bows, their mother or Jane.
“Why do you not take a seat, Lizzy?” Aunt Gardiner patted the settee cushion beside her.
There was a very good chance she might not be able to sit still any better than the children, but it behooved her to try.
“How can they take so long!” Lydia peered out of the window, wrapping the curtain around her shoulders. “I cannot wait for the officers to get here.”
“They are such agreeable company, so gallant and always in search of a spot of fun.” Kitty bounced in her seat near the fireplace.
“Do sit still. It is unbecoming to twitch about like a hound waiting to be fed.” Mary folded her hands in her lap and adjusted her posture to something entirely stiff and proper. “Do unwind yourself from the curtains before you tear them off the wall entirely.”
Poor Mary. These sorts of events were always so difficult for her.
“You not need not be so disagreeable. It is not as if you are anticipating anyone special to arrive.” Lydia sniffed and rolled her eyes.
“Lydia!” Aunt Gardiner slapped the arm of the settee.
“Well, it is true. None of the officers like her, for she is so very dull.”
“Your opinions are not helpful, nor are they kind.” Lydia should really learn to recognize the danger in Aunt Gardiner’s expression.
“But they are true,” Lydia whispered.
Lydia huffed and tossed her head.
Where was Jane? She had a way of distracting Lydia into at least the semblance of proper behavior.
She was upstairs, still dressing. How could she have forgotten? Mr. Bingley was to be in attendance along with the officers. He and his horrid sisters—for Mama could not possibly invite one without the other. Why could they have not left when Mr. Darcy had? What joy was hers.
The front door creaked and voices drifted into the drawing room.
“Oh, oh, someone is here! I think I recognize Sanderson’s voice.” Kitty clapped softly.
Lydia and Kitty pinched their cheeks and checked their bodices. Why did Mama encourage them to wear them so low?
“Mary, would you favor us with some music? A Christmas carol perhaps?” Aunt Gardiner asked, but it was more of a directive than a question.
Mary moved to the pianoforte, not too disgruntled . If anything, she looked pleased to have her accomplishments recognized. Aunt Gardiner had mastered a level of subtlety that Mama never would.
Mama swept in with several officers in her wake.
“Wickham, Denny and Sanderson!” Lydia and Kitty drew Denny and Sanderson away as Jane escorted Aunt and Uncle Philips in.
Mr. Wickham approached Elizabeth and Aunt Gardiner. He cut a dashing figure, even without his uniform.
But it was a mistake to pay too much attention to that. Noticing agreeable men, with excellent manners and good conversation only made Mr. Collins look worse by comparison.
Aunt Gardiner cocked her head and lifted her eyebrow at Elizabeth. “My niece tells me you are from Derbyshire, sir.”
“Indeed, I am madam. Are you familiar with the county?”
“I spent my girlhood there, in the area of Lambton. I am quite convinced it is the most beautiful county in England.”
Wickham’s eyes brightened and his face softened with a smile so compelling even a French officer would have been drawn in. “I lived on an estate very near there, Pemberley, if you know it.”
“I do indeed. One of the loveliest places I have ever seen. We were by no means in such a way to keep company with the family there, but we heard much of their good name whilst we lived there.” Aunt Gardiner’s face shifted into an odd expression, one she often used with the children when trying to work out one of the boys’ stories.
“I was privileged to live at Pemberley, my father was steward there.”
“Then you were well-favored indeed. Have you been there recently?”
“Very little since the death of old Mr. Darcy. While old Darcy was a very good and kind man, and very well disposed toward myself, I am afraid his son did not inherit his father’s noble traits. I have no desire to burden you with such tales as would dampen your spirits on this very fine occasion. Let us talk of acquaintance we may share in common. Did you know the old apothecary there, Mr. Burris, I believe his name was.”
“He was a great favorite of my father.”
“Of mine, as well.”
Despite his long absence, Wickham still found it in his power to offer Aunt Gardiner fresher intelligence of her former friends than she had been in the way of procuring. It did not take too long for their recollections of shared society to turn to a discussion of old Mr. Darcy’s character, whom both liberally praised and that naturally progressed them to the more relevant topic of the current Mr. Darcy and his treatment of Wickham.
Aunt Gardiner chewed her lip as she listened. “I grant you, that I recall the younger Mr. Darcy spoken of as a very proud, ill-natured boy, but the charges you lay at his feet are quite alarming sir. With the strength of your claim against him, I am surprised you have not been able to bring some kind of influence to bear against him.”
She cast a sidelong look at Elizabeth, one eyebrow raised.
Did she question his veracity?
“Would that were possible, madam, I would probably be the better for it. In truth, though, I still hold his father in far too high a regard to be able to take action against his son. The thought of bringing old Mr. Darcy pain is far too disturbing to brook.”
“But surely you must consider how his own son’s behavior would distress him. He might have been very pleased to see its improvement. I know that to be the case if it were one of my own children charged with such heartlessness.”
Her own children would never even consider such cruelty. They were raised much better than Mr. Darcy.
“You might be very right, but surely you can see I am not the one suited by station or inclination to bring correction to such a man. So I shall continue on as I have been, grateful to such friends as I still have around me. I am truly blessed to have some very staunch supporters.”
“I imagine so. You demonstrate very great forbearance, quite the model of a gentleman. Is that why we missed your presence at the Netherfield ball?” There was something in Aunt’s tone, the faintest bit sharp.
“I found, as the time drew near, that I had better not meet Mr. Darcy. To be in the same room, the same party with him for so many hours together, might be more than I could bear, and that scenes might arise unpleasant to more than myself.”
That was not entirely true, granted, but exposing the confrontation he had with Darcy just outside Netherfield would have been ungentlemanly. What else had Mr. Darcy done to him?
Jane and Aunt Philips approached.
“Is not the company tonight delightful, sister?” Aunt Philips extended her hands toward Aunt Gardiner, but offered Elizabeth only a dark glance.
What joy, Mama had been talking—more probably complaining to her, likely about Elizabeth’s reluctance toward Mr. Collins. If she wasn’t crowing about Jane’s imminent conquest of Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth’s reticence was her favorite topic of conversation.
Aunt Gardiner took Aunt Philips’s hands and kissed her cheeks. “Indeed it is. But we always appreciate the hospitality at Longbourn, I should hardly expect anything else.”
“Mr. Wickham, it is especially nice to see you and the other officers here tonight as well. We have missed your company of late.”
“I regret any discomfiture I might have caused, but I am honored my absence might have been noticed.” Wickham bowed from his shoulders.
“Of course, it was, of course it was. I am surprised to see you, Miss Lizzy, ignoring your duties as a hostess tonight.” Aunt Phillips’s lip curled just the way Mama’s did when she was angry.
“Whatever do you mean?” Aunt Gardiner’s honeyed tone had been known to placate tired children and churlish adults alike. “Elizabeth is always a most attentive hostess.”
“Then why is her cousin, Collins left to stand in the corners alone?” She pointed her chin toward the far corner of the room. “You should be far more attentive to him.”
Elizabeth’s face grew cold, but her cheeks burned.
Mama burst into the room. “Shall we all to dinner?”
“Might I escort you, Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Wickham offered his arm.
Elizabeth muttered something, curtsied to her aunts and took Mr. Wickham’s arm.
“Thank you.” The words barely slipped past her tight throat. “Pray excuse my Aunt. She is known to speak her mind without regard to the company present.”
“There is nothing to excuse, think of it no further. I have found when people resort to directness which some may consider disagreeable, it is most often attributable to indigestion.”
Elizabeth snickered under her breath.
“Perhaps it would be wise to suggest she have a few words with her cook. A change in diet might be the very thing to relieve her discomfort and improve her general disposition. See there, how her husband is red in the face and his hand is pressed so obviously to his belly? I would venture to say he may be suffering from indigestion, too. Their cook and no one else is to blame.”
It would seem Mr. Wickham did not, or chose not to, see Mama at Uncle Philips’s side, speaking with great animation and casting sidelong glances toward Elizabeth.
“I shall suggest that to her.” The words came easier now. She forced her lips into something resembling a smile.
“Ah, that is a far better expression for you, Miss Elizabeth. Unhappiness does not suit you at all.”
“It appears it is difficult to be unhappy in your presence sir. Do you make it your business to drive away such specters wherever they might appear?”
“I certainly do. What better occupation in life than to bring happiness wherever I wander?”
How very true. And how very different to Mr. Darcy.
To maintain such a disposition, despite the very great unfairness and trials he had faced, Mr. Wickham was truly too good.
For all Mama’s fussing and fluttering, she did set one of the finest tables in the county. Candlelight glittered off mirrors and crystal, filling every corner of the dining room with sparkling warmth. The table and sideboards groaned under the weight of the dishes heaped with fragrant offerings. The huge goose lay near Papa’s place, waiting for him to carve it.
Elizabeth’s mouth watered. Nothing tasted like a Christmas goose.
Wickham held the chair for her and sat beside her, politely ignoring Lydia’s cross look. What did she have to be cross about though? With Denny on one side and Sanderson on the other, it was not as if she would be in want of company and conversation herself.
Aunt and Uncle Gardiner sat opposite each other at the center of the table, a child on either side of them. They looked so adorable in their best clothes, so serious about being permitted to join the adults on this festive occasion. There was a very good chance that their behavior might well be better than Kitty and Lydia’s. Mr. Collins would probably still find fault—he was not fond of children. Another point against him—he would make a dreadful father. He sat beside young Daniel and would no doubt scrutinize every move the poor child made.
Mama rang a little silver bell. The door swung open and Hill appeared, holding high a platter of roasted boar’s head. Her arms quivered under the massive burden.
Denny and Sanderson jumped to their feet, nearly knocking their chairs to the floor, and rushed to her aid. Together they made a lovely show of bringing the final dish to the table.
Was it gallantry, or concern that the delicacy might not make it to the table? Either way, it was amusing to watch. Mama glared at Hill, though she seemed very pleased at the officers’ efforts and settled into her comfortable role, presiding over the table.
Wickham leaned toward her. “It has been quite some time since I have enjoyed such a Christmas feast.”
“I hope then, you take every opportunity to enjoy this one.”
He served her from the platter of roast potatoes nearby. “I will certainly do just that and lock it into my memory to treasure against times which may be far less agreeable.”
“I am sure it is difficult to spend Christmastide away from one’s home and family. The militia requires a great deal from you.”
“I find that it gives back as much as it demands. It is not at all disagreeable for one in my state. The hardships do not at all compare to those I suffered the first Christmastide of my banishment from Pemberley.”
“Perhaps that is too strong a word, you are right. It does not serve to be so melodramatic.” He bowed his head. “You must forgive me, for it is the subject of some trying remembrances. Christmastide at Pemberley was a most wondrous season, filled with warmth and generosity. My family were invited to dine at Christmas dinner with the Master. A complete roast boar would be carried in by two footmen, goose, venison, and roast beef besides. I am sure it was a month’s worth of food for my little family at least, all brought to table at once.” He closed his eyes and licked his lips.
“I can imagine one might miss such extravagance.”
“Pray, do not think I intended to belittle the wonderful hospitality Longbourn offers. Not at all. It has reminded me of much happier days, and I am most grateful.”
Mama’s silver bell rang again and Hill, the maid, and two girls employed for just this evening hurried in to clear the first course.
Platters and used dishes disappeared along with the table cloth. The second course dishes filled the empty table and fresh china appeared before them. Amidst the staff’s efforts, Aunt Gardiner caught her eye, tipped her head toward Wickham and raised her eyebrows.
Elizabeth allowed a hint of a smile and shrugged. He was very pleasant company. Did she think she should have sat with Mr. Collins?
Mama announced the dishes, but the platter of minced pies needed no introduction.
Wickham placed a small pie on her plate, along with black butter and spiced apples. The first minced pie of Christmastide was always agreeable, but somehow it would be nothing to the ones that would later be made from the leavings of the Christmas feast. Even with all the extra company, many twelfth night pies would be made from the remains of tonight’s first course alone.
Mama’s bell rang again, and she slipped out of the dining room. Hill circled the room, snuffing candles until only one in each corner remained.
Although Mama repeated this ritual every year, somehow the flaming pudding entering on the silver platter, held high in Mama’s arms never lost its thrill. Blue brandy flames, glinting and multiplying in the mirrors and crystal, cast dancing shadows along the wall turning the dining room, for those brief moments, into a magical fairyland.
Too soon, the flames died down. Hill and the maid scurried about relighting candles and the normal world reappeared with Mama standing over a great cannon ball of plum pudding.
She broke into it and served generous slices. “Mind the charms!”
Elizabeth held her breath as the company partook in the pudding. Heavy, sweet, spicy and saturated with brandy, this was the taste of Christmas and family.
Pray let her not discover the ring, or better still, any charm in her pudding. The to-do Mama would make from that! She shuddered.
Uncle Gardiner laughed heartily. “What ho, what shall I do with this?” He held aloft a tiny thimble.
“Consider it for thrift, my dear.” Aunt Gardiner winked at him. “It is far too late for you to be a spinster.”
Thank Providence that Mary was spared that omen!
Lydia squealed. “I have the coin! I shall come into a fortune.”
Papa muttered something, but Elizabeth could not make it out. Probably best that way.
Wickham neatly pulled his slice apart with knife and fork. He dug in with his knife and lifted it to reveal a shining ring hanging on the blade.
“Now you’ve done it, Wickham!” Sanderson pointed at him, laughing.
“I would not go about showing that off, if I were you.” Denny leaned back and held up open hands. “But whatever you do, keep it well away from me.”
“So you shall be married this year, Mr. Wickham.” Mama glanced at Lydia, none too subtly.
Had there been any way to have achieved that end intentionally, Elizabeth would have thought Mama manufactured this result. But such a thing was not possible. Still, the smug way she settled into her seat and dug into her own pudding begged the question.
“You may threaten all you like.” Wickham slid the ring off the knife and held it up in the candlelight. “But I have no fear of this innocent little ring.”
Did he just wink? At her?
Heat crept over the crest of her cheeks, but Aunt Gardiner’s brows drew a little lower over her eyes and her forehead creased. No doubt Lydia would have made known to him her fate, consigned to Mr. Collins, so she would be safe to make the joke with, no? At least she had not found the ring.
She took a bite of pudding. Ouch!
“What did you find, Miss Elizabeth?” Mr. Wickham asked far more loudly than necessary.
The children began to giggle.
She removed the charm from her mouth … the wyvern?
“I have never seen a charm like that in a pudding.” Mr. Wickham peered over her shoulder.
Papa cleared his throat. “It is a particular family tradition.”
“How did you put that in the pudding? I did not have it out?” Mama looked distinctly put out.
Daniel covered his mouth and turned away, snickering.
“You might be surprised at how much happens that you are unaware of.” Papa’s bushy eyebrows rose. “The heraldic wyvern charm is a family tradition—an omen of an opportunity to bring honor to one’s family.”
How had he managed to ensure it reached her plate? He was as shameless as Mama.
Little Joshua pointed to something high, near the ceiling.
Blast and botheration! Why could he not listen to her? Headstrong, stubborn little flufflebit!
Mama glanced toward the top of the curtains.
“There is nothing but a mite of dust here. You should not look at it, lest everyone notice your maids did not do their jobs,” Phoenix whispered as he paced along the curtain rod.
Mama turned aside, but Aunt Gardiner flashed her a wide-eyed look. Elizabeth had promised the fairy dragons would be safely kept upstairs. Phoenix was doing his best to make her a liar.
Elizabeth rose. “Come children, all of you.” She glanced up at Phoenix, with her best draconic glare. “I can see that all of you have had enough polite company for one evening. Come with me. We shall go to the parlor, roast apples, and have a lovely story.”
With a nod from Aunt Gardiner, the children sprang to their feet and dashed to Elizabeth’s side. Aunt Gardiner glowered at Phoenix and twitched her head toward Elizabeth. He flitted out ahead of them.
Hill had already seen to an ample fire, a basket of apples and a tray of bread to toast waiting near the hob. Only a few tallow candles lit the room, making the room seem smaller with the shadows along the walls. It felt snug though and drew them to the fireplace. Elizabeth assigned Daniel the roasting of the apples, while Joshua minded a rack of toast. Anna and Samuel sat on cushions on the floor and played with Phoenix until their treats were ready. They sat around the fire and she gave each child their share.
“What about mine?” Phoenix squawked.
“You were disobedient. You do not deserve a treat. I asked you to stay upstairs, and you even had a special bowl of blood and treacle pudding. Yet you came to dinner anyway.”
“I came to protect you.”
“I am quite certain that Papa and Uncle Gardiner are quite capable of doing that.” She folded her arms over her chest.
“I would not argue with her when she has that look,” Daniel took a large bite of his apple.
“That is her cross face and nothing will make her satisfied when she wears it.” Joshua brushed toast crumbs on the floor.
Phoenix pecked them up like a little songbird. Cheeky, defiant little fellow. Aunt Gardiner would have her hands full managing him.
Elizabeth scooped him up and held him eye to eye. “You may be a dragon, a very big dragon in your own mind, but you are a very small dragon and must understand that means you cannot always have your way.”
“Who gave you the power to make such rules?” He pecked at her hand.
“April may have taught you that habit, but Aunt Gardiner will not tolerate it. I suggest you unlearn it very quickly.”
“And what will she do about it?” He cocked his little head, so much like Daniel that she nearly laughed.
“You are not a landed dragon and you do not have a claim on her home. She can, and she will put you out if you do not behave with some propriety.”
“But it is cold outside!” He fluffed his feather-scales until he was a poufy little ball.
“Indeed it is. Be grateful that you have warmth inside. Show it by respecting the wishes of your friends.”
Samuel tugged on her sleeve. “Surely Mama would not put him out. He is so little.”
“I am sure the Blue Order would not permit it.” Anna folded her arms in a vague imitation of Elizabeth and tried to glare at her cousin.
No, no, she must not laugh.
“Perhaps, dear, you need to study the rules of the order. The rules are clearly set forth there. A major dragon has a Keeper with whom he deigns to share his territory. A Keeper must meet the needs of the estate dragon—”
“What can a major dragon possibly need? They are so big and strong, can they not just take what they want?” Daniel asked, inching closer to Elizabeth.
“Before the Pendragon Accords, they did, and that was the problem. They took whatever they wanted, from men and from each other, and there was constant war between the dragons and between dragons and men. The Accords established what dragons actually required and what they might demand, according to their size and strength. Each was assigned a territory to be passed to their descendants and a family to see to their needs of food, water, shelter, secrecy, and if the dragon is a hoarding type, a measure of the treasure they desire.”
“Even gold?” Joshua whispered, hands cupped around his mouth.
“Only the firedrakes are apt to hoard gold. They know it is not easy to come by though, so the Dragon Conclave closely restricts how much they can demand from their keepers. Did you know, some dragons hoard things like books?”
“Dragons can read?” Anna’s eyes bulged and her jaw dropped.
“There are some who can. Certain wyrms in particular have a penchant for books and learning. Some of them are quite the know-it-all, you see. Very annoying to deal with as they are certain they know everything. In any case, if the Keeper cannot provide what the dragon needs, they will bring a complaint to the Conclave. If a keeper is found negligent, then he may be replaced with another, of the dragon’s choosing.”
“A major dragon can throw a Keeper out of his home?” Joshua gasped and covered his mouth.
“If the Conclave agrees, then it is possible. It has not happened in centuries, though. Dragons and Keepers are strongly encouraged to manage their differences before the Conclave must step in.”
“If a dragon must approve his Keeper, what happens when a Keeper dies and the estate is inherited by the eldest son?” Of course Daniel would ask that.
“It can be a little complicated. Usually dragon hearing is an inheritance passed down in a family and the heir is able to hear like his father. He will have grown up with the estate dragon and all proceeds very peacefully.”
“But there is not always a son.” Anna looked up at her, blinking her huge dark eyes.
“Then it can get complicated, my dears. But that is not for you to worry about. What you should be more concerned about is that everything is different for Dragon Friends.” She tapped Phoenix’s beak. “You cannot provide land or treasure to your Keeper. All you have is your wit and charm to recommend you. Your friend is not obligated by the Conclave to provide all things you need. It must be a bond formed agreeable to all of you.”
“Like Mrs. Hill and Rumblkins?” Samuel cast about the room as though looking for his favorite tatzelwurm.
“They are very good friends indeed. That is the bond of a Dragon Friend.”
“Even if she does not know he is a dragon?” Samuel asked.
“Even if she thinks he is a large cat, they are friends, and they treat each other with great respect.” She tapped Phoenix’s beak again.
He huffed and hung his head.
“Now you have all had your story for the evening. It is off to bed with you. You have stayed up far past your bedtime.”
Daniel drew a breath, probably to complain, but stopped midway. “Mr. Wickham!” He jumped up and rushed to the doorway.
Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham stood just inside the room, concealed in the shadows. How long had they been there? Her face grew cold and tingled. How much had they heard? It should have sounded like a fairy story, but—
“You do not think we have to go to bed now, do you? We have only had one story and it is Christmas after all.” Daniel glanced from Mr. Wickham and Mr. Collins. “I hear music. Is that cousin Mary playing? Are people gathering to dance?”
“You heard Miss Elizabeth, you must obey her.” Mr. Collins grumbled and clasped his hands behind his back.
Mr. Wickham leaned down close to Daniel. “I never wanted to go to bed when I was a boy, either. But you must be a good example to your siblings and be grateful that you were allowed to join the Christmas feast. Show us what a big boy you are and lead them all upstairs as Miss Elizabeth said.”
Daniel sighed, but tromped back to gather Samuel and Anna by the hands. Phoenix hopped to Joshua’s shoulder and they trudged out the door past Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham.
“There is nothing on the boy’s shoulder. Miss Elizabeth is far more interesting to look at. She likes to dance,” Phoenix whispered as they passed.
“I should go upstairs and help them.” Elizabeth tried to slip between the men.
“Their mother is waiting for them in the nursery, there is no need.” Collins’s brows knit into a heavy line. “Your mother expects you in the drawing room.”
“Your sisters have begun to exhibit, and you are much wanted as a dance partner. Might I have the honor of the next dance?” Mr. Wickham bowed.
“And I the next.” Mr. Collins bowed as well, nearly elbowing Mr. Wickham out of the way.
“I—thank you both, I would be honored.” She glanced from one man to the other. One glaring and grumpy, the other all good humor and ease.
This might be a long evening indeed.
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