Ok, so I’m not being very patient. I can’t wait to share these with you. So, I’ll be posting a new chapter every two weeks on Saturday until the book is published. (Don’t forget, comments really do inspire me to write faster…just saying…)
Find previous chapters HERE
Just after dawn, a soft scratching at her door dragged Elizabeth away from a lovely ball where Collins was delightfully absent and there were plenty of excellent, handsome partners for all the young ladies who wanted to dance.
She groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. Pray not now. Just a little more sleep. April had suffered nightmares, flapping and crying out the whole night. Only when Elizabeth finally tucked April into bed with her did either of them sleep.
The door opened a crack, and Aunt Gardiner slipped inside, Phoenix on her shoulder.
Elizabeth propped herself up on her elbows and blinked. “Is something wrong?” She jumped up and threw off the coverlet. “Rumblkins? Has something happened to him? The bruises—was there something worse—”
April launched and buzzed around the room, careening a bit drunkenly. Poor thing was hardly awake.
Aunt laid a hand on her shoulder. “Slow down, everything is fine. I inquired after him just a few minutes ago, and Hill assured me he is doing well. His appetite is vigorous, and he seems to be moving much more easily. I would say your doctoring has done him very well. The receipts for that poultice and tea are in your commonplace book, are they not?”
Elizabeth rubbed the grit from her eyes. “Yes, they are, though I think I need to make a few adjustments. I added a pinch of cat nip this time.”
Aunt snickered. “That might explain his very large eyes this morning. I suspect it was rather a large pinch. I had no idea tatzelwurms would be so affected.”
“I think he might be insulted to know I would try such a thing. It is a point of pride to him that he is no mere feline, so let us keep it as our little secret.” Elizabeth slipped on her dressing gown. April settled on her shoulder. “If all is well, what brings you so early? Oh no—the children! Has Mr. Collins—”
“Pray calm down! I have never seen you so anxious. The children are quite well. Phoenix can testify to that. Sit down, please.”
“Perhaps we would be better if I continued to stand. I do not think I can manage to be still any more than Joshua can.”
“Oh, Lizzy!” Aunt sat on the edge of the bed. “Rustle came to us at first light this morning.”
Elizabeth leaned against the mantel and her head fell back. “I did ask him to wait to tell you until morning. I suppose I should be thankful he did not wake you at midnight.”
“Why did you want him to wait at all?”
“I suppose … oh, I do not know.” She knotted her fingers in her hair. “I needed time to think, to try and sort out what to do for myself. I know you are not intent on running my life for me—”
“Like your parents—”
“Mama, Papa, Mr. Collins, Longbourn. I am surrounded by people—and dragons—who seem utterly intent upon playing me like a chess piece in their game of what my life should be!” She flung her hands into the air.
April and Phoenix fluttered to her shoulders and rubbed her cheeks with the tops of their heads, trilling softly.
Her eyelids turned heavy and her limbs filled with soft, warm liquid. “My lovelies, you are such dears, but I may sleep the rest of the day if you continue doing that.”
It was a very pleasing idea, all told. She yawned. Perhaps Aunt could convince the rest of the family to leave her alone.
Aunt concealed a yawn behind her hand. “I have not had a problem getting the children to sleep since he hatched. I am not sure they have figured out the power of his song yet.”
“If only Mr. Collins would respond to them so.”
“Rustle told us quite a tale.”
April launched and hovered before Aunt’s face. “He was awful, the way he frightened me. He wants to banish us all from the house and make Elizabeth give up the Blue Order.”
“Do not exaggerate. He said no such thing. He knows nothing about the Blue Order.”
“And if Longbourn has his way, he will know everything. And I just know he will make you give it all up, make you give us all up!” April’s voice climbed higher and higher as she flew dizzy circles around them. She would fly into something and hurt herself, perhaps seriously, if she kept up this way.
“Calm yourself! Aunt, pray call the maid for some German chamomile tea. With honey.” Elizabeth scooped April into her hands as Aunt dashed out for the maid.
“Shhh.” She rocked April against her chest until her wings stilled and she leaned heavily against Elizabeth’s palm. “That is much better.” She pulled her hand back.
April lay on to her back, feet and beak pointing straight up, panting heavily. Phoenix hopped down Elizabeth’s arm and perched on her wrist, twittering softly.
Elizabeth stroked her belly. “There, now, little one. That is better. You must stay calm and trust me. I have never allowed anyone or anything to harm you, and I promise it is not going to happen now. None of us are going to let that happen.”
“No we will not,” Phoenix whispered. “I will bite anyone—”
“That is very brave of you, but now is not the time for biting or scratching anyone.” She tapped his beak firmly with her fingertip. “Now is the time to allow calmer heads to prevail. You have a Dragon Friend for a reason. Allow us to be your friends now.”
Aunt crept back in with a steaming teacup. The soothing fragrance of chamomile laced with honey filled the room.
“Your tea is here. I want you to drink up, both of you. It will make you restful and ready to sleep. Then you can go in your cage and lock the door behind you. I will put your blankets over you, and you both can sleep safe and sound.”
“But you need my help.”
Help that she could accept far more readily if either of them could be relied upon to obey her requests.
“Aunt and Uncle and Rustle are all here to help me. They will be sufficient for today. When I need you, it is essential you are well-rested and strong.”
The two fairy dragons perched on the edge of the teacup and took dainty sips. Half a teacup later, their eyes grew droopy, and they accepted Elizabeth’s help into April’s cage.
April chirruped and locked the filigree door. She staggered to her little nesting basket. Phoenix climbed in beside her and cuddled up under her wing. A moment later, dainty dragon snores buzzed from the nest. Elizabeth wrapped the heavy quilted cover over the cage.
“They will sleep until tomorrow, I am sure. Poor little thing did not sleep well at all last night.” Elizabeth yawned and stretched.
“It does not seem you did, either. I imagine, then, that Rustle was not exaggerating?” Aunt clasped her hands together very tightly.
“Probably not. He is not apt to and the actual details are difficult enough without embellishments.”
Aunt exhaled a heavy breath and chewed her knuckle. “Oh, my dear, I suppose it goes without saying that your uncle and I are both most concerned. It sounds like Longbourn is very close to overstepping his bounds even as estate dragon.”
“As frustrated as I am with him and would like to blame him, I cannot hold him entirely responsible. He came upon us and the dear little flutter-bits insisted on telling him far more than he needed to know. Rumblkins and even Rustle had to add their piece as well. I need not tell you how that only fanned the flames. You know the rest.” She scrubbed her face with her hands. “I think I may have persuaded him away from taking drastic action, but I cannot be sure.”
“I hope you have. We completely agree with you. Mr. Collins is in no way ready to learn of dragons. Having just come into a full understanding of them myself, I can attest to the shock to the system that can come from it. And I have not even met Longbourn yet.” Aunt laughed a little nervously and pressed her hands to her face. “Minor dragons who speak back to you are alarming enough, even when they are disposed to be friendly and accommodating—which they most certainly will not be for Mr. Collins. While it might become necessary to introduce him to the dragon world, a great deal of preparation will have to go into that. Does the Blue Order have some sort of protocol for such a thing?”
“Perhaps. do not really know. Deaf-Speakers are strongly discouraged. Centuries ago, dragon deaf heirs were often eaten and a new heir identified in order to prevent Deaf-Speakers. That practice was fortunately outlawed under the current Brenin Buckingham’s reign, though without a procedure for dealing with Deaf-Speakers, I wonder if that law was more for show than for enforcement.” She massaged her temples. “I have been considering the matter. Perhaps if you and Uncle could seek a willing cockatrix in London, one who can pass as a talking parrot? Their voices can be heard by even the dragon deaf. He could become accustomed to a talking creature first, before confronting the idea that it also knows what it is saying.”
“It sounds like a very good idea to me, one the Blue Order should have come upon itself by now.”
“They may very well have. But it requires a willing cockatrix with the necessary skills. And you know how stubborn they can be, particularly when they are asked to do something that might be inconvenient for them. I am convinced that it is a better alternative than allowing the shock of discovering dragons to kill off the weakest of the dragon deaf. I suppose that might resolve a number of their problem cases. But in ours, I fear it would only make things more complicated.”
“I imagine many men would rather deal with things that way, with far less muss and fuss.” Aunt chuckled, but turned serious very quickly. “You know, you can bring a complaint to the Blue Order.”
“A complaint? About what?” She kept her voice light, but it was a weak effort, for show alone.
“Over Longbourn’s treatment of you.” Aunt moved to her side and laid a cool hand on her arm. “I am sorry, but your uncle told me what he did weeks ago, treating you like prey that day. How could you bear ever seeing him again after he did such a thing? I am certain I could not.”
Elizabeth turned away and shrugged. “It was just a fit of temper. He would not have hurt me.”
“Mr. Gardiner was not convinced of that, and your own collapse in Longbourn’s grasp suggests that you were uncertain yourself.”
Her eyes burned as she sniffled, but some things must remain unsaid.
“Your father’s behavior is little better. I have read of the proposed changes in the Order’s rules. He knows of them, too, and yet is ignoring them for his own convenience. That is not acceptable, and you know it as well as I. You are a Dragon Keeper in your own right, remember. He is not the final authority over you. You have recourse to the Order. Your Uncle will help you present the complaint.”
Elizabeth held open hands up. “No, pray, no. Have you any idea of the damage that would be wrought by such an action? Father would never speak to me again, no matter what was decided and worse than that … Pray, no complaints to the Order—”
A sharp rap at the door made them both jump. The door swung open.
“You are up. Good. Get dressed and come to my study, I would see you immediately.” Papa shut the door firmly.
Lovely, such a mood he was in. Had he been listening at the door?
It was an ungracious thought to be sure, but given his expression … one could not be entirely certain.
“That does not sound like an invitation to tea.” Aunt stared at the door. “May I help you dress?”
Given the way her hands shook, help with the buttons would be nice. Elizabeth retrieved a morning dress from the closet.
“You are white, and your hands are trembling, Elizabeth. This is not like you.”
“I will be fine. He just startled me. That is all.”
“As the mother of four children , I am not willing to accept such a thin excuse.”
Indeed, it was a very thin excuse.
Elizabeth shrugged her dress over her shoulders. “I cannot image what has him upset now. There seem to be so many choices: Rumblkins, Mr. Collins, Longbourn. I am just tired of being blamed for it all.”
“You are by no means to blame. You must not see it so.” She unbraided Elizabeth’s hair, brushed it, and twisted it up into a simple knot.
“Thank you.” She turned and grasped Aunt’s hand. “Pray do not worry. It will be well, just as I promised April. Pray excuse me. Waiting only irritates Papa.”
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