Depending upon your temperament, you may be either pleased or puzzled to see that I have chosen to include my time upon the Basilisk in my memoirs. It was, of course, a lengthy period in my life, totaling nearly two years in duration, and the discoveries I made in that time were not insignificant, nor were the effects of that journey upon my personal life. Seen from that perspective, it would seem odd were I to pass it by.
But those of you who are puzzled have good cause. Those two years are, after all, the most thoroughly documented period in my life. My contract with the Winfield Courier to provide them with regular reports meant that a great many in Scirland were kept apprised of my doings—quite apart from the reports that were written about me by others. Furthermore, my travelogue was later collected and printed as Around the World in Search of Dragons, and that title is still readily available from the publisher. Why, then, should I trouble to tell a story which is already so widely known?
Apart from the oddity of glossing over so major a period in my life, I have several reasons. The first is that my essays in the Winfield Courier were heavily skewed toward matters of exotic novelty, which was, after all, what their readers wanted to hear, though not the most apt depiction of my own experiences. Another is that I said little there of my personal affairs, and as a memoir is expected to be more personal, this is the ideal place to provide those elements which I excluded before.
But above all, this volume is intended to set the record straight, for part of what I said in those essays is an outright lie.
When I wrote to the Winfield Courier that I swam to Lahana after my adventure with the sea-serpent, and that during the excitement which followed I took a knock to the head and had to be sent to Phetayong to convalesce, not a word of it was true. I wrote those lines because I had no choice: my lengthy silence (which had persuaded a great many people back home that I was dead at last) must be broken with some kind of tale, and I could not give the honest one. Even had I wished to make public everything I had done, a high-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy had forbidden me to do so. Indeed, it is only with some effort now that I have persuaded certain government officials to change their minds—now, so many years later, when a new dynasty rules in Yelang and the events in question are no longer of any particular political relevance.
But they have granted their permission, and so at last I may tell the truth. I will not attempt to recount every day of my journey aboard the Basilisk; two years will not fit into one slim volume without substantial abridgement, and there is no point in repeating what I have said elsewhere. I shall instead focus on those portions which are either personal (and therefore new) or necessary to understanding what occurred at the end of my island sojourn.
All in good time, of course. Before the truth comes out, you will hear of Jacob and Tom Wilker; Heali’i and Suhail; and Dione Aekinitos, the mad captain of the Basilisk. You will also hear of wonders terrestrial and aquatic, ancient ruins and modern innovations, mighty storms, near drownings, the rigors of life at sea, and more kinds of dragon than you can shake a wing at. Though there is a great deal I will omit here, I will endeavour to make my tale as complete and engaging as I may.
Isabella, Lady TrentCasselthwaite, Linshire3 Seminis, 5660
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.