It was the fifth year after our king’s exile to our verdant colonial lands that the fateful expedition returned to court. Before His Imperial Majesty’s arrival, I had spent my time in the jungles of my family estates collecting rare birds, or else in the preparation rooms and libraries cataloging them. While the terrain in this strange new country can be shifting and changeable, the light of science brings understanding to all, particularly those intrepid enough to search for the perfect specimen in lands that will alter under one’s very foot.
However, His Imperial Majesty had brought with him both treasure and the royal favor, which he bestows upon those naturalists who can deliver the most fascinating, beautiful, and above all useful examples of the bounty of his new lands. Thus, I spent at least some of my time in the royal presence, for crumbs from the imperial table can be a feast indeed for an intrepid but not particularly wealthy noblewoman such as myself.
As such, I was present in the imperial audience chamber when Plinio Gustavo Invicta presented the results of his expedition into the half-wild province of Corvesia; though not, alas, in any position to witness the first revelation of Plinio’s great discovery, as the Count of Nova Carthago was standing directly in front of me.
“By the serpent!” the Count cried as I craned my neck and stood on tiptoe, trying to see past his plumed hat and the mountain of golden braid heaped upon his shoulder. “Such plumage! Such vibrant hues!”
“Pardon, your lordship,” I said, giving up on catching more than a close-up glimpse of his hatband. “Perhaps you could be persuaded to grant a lady a glimpse of this prodigy?”
Flushing with resentment at my invocation of the chivalric code, the Count edged to one side, allowing me a view of Plinio’s back as he brandished his specimen in a vain attempt to give the assembled courtiers a better view.
I must confess that my first response was the conviction that Plinio had perpetrated a fraud upon the court. The jungle birds of Corvesia, as Barca’s Mapping of the Interior reports, are dark-feathered and resemble the Corvidae of our homeland, differing only in the tapering of their long bills. Corvesia, Barca explains, is far enough from the shifting lands that the wildlife is more predictable and easily classified than in the regions past the Imperial domain.
Plinio’s specimen, in contrast, had veritable rainbows erupting from its wings and tail, with eyes and halo-patterns mingling with the stripes of color. I could easily discern why the Count’s admiration had been so effusive. No doubt he wanted such a plume to adorn his hat.
“Silence!” the king thundered as raised voices filled the audience hall. “The bird is a pretty thing, but it is no prodigy. There are dozens of ornamental species littering the hinterlands.” He paused, just long enough to let his use of ‘ornamental’ sink in, before continuing, “Wherefore, then, have you brought this particular animal to Our attention?”
“Your Imperial Majesty knows,” Plinio replied, “that I would not trouble you with the discovery of a purely ornamental species.” Courtiers nodded and murmured in agreement as he plunged on— the king was prone to grant naturalists who specialized in ornamental species appointments with his pet basilisk, and several were known to adorn the royal gardens. “In addition to its aesthetic properties, this remarkable creature— which I have named Phoenicis Joaoquim in your Majesty’s honor— can spit flames, and its feathers are resistant to fire. Gaspar, the lantern!”
At this command, Plinio’s lackey, Gaspar, approached with a lantern whose wick blazed a brilliant sapphire. With more haste than grace, Plinio tore a plume from the purported phoenix’s tail and thrust it into the lantern. Beside me, the Count covered his nose with a perfumed handkerchief, but no smoke or foul scents emerged from the lantern’s depths, though the plume was visibly in contact with the wick.
As the court’s shock gave way to scattered applause, the king raised his hand in a peremptory gesture. “This discovery has been worthy of Our attention. It is Our desire that all the naturalists here assembled should immediately depart with Plinio to discern what use may be made of this prodigy in war, and to prepare another expedition to Corvesia. It is manifestly to be hoped that the abundance of our new homeland will allow us the means of recapturing the old.”
It was not for me, of course, to thrust myself forward. That was not the honorable course, nor would it have done me any good to be known as the kind of elbow-thrusting courtier who was at the front of every herd. On the other hand, I could not let such an opportunity escape me. It is a thing of grace and skill to ensure one’s name appears in the ears of those assembling such an expedition without putting it there oneself.
My masterstroke, I think, was having been present at Plinio’s dissection and pointing out a duct that had decayed before the creature was embalmed, without which our understanding of the fire-breathing mechanism would have been set back considerably. After that, the expedition to Corvesia simply had to include the Lady Calixta—that is to say, myself—and her lackey.
For I could not have prepared so hastily without the good offices of my lackey, Lygia. She is a doughty soul, one of the aborigines of this land, a broad-faced, golden-skinned girl who is as fast to prepare a dissolving potion for my specimens as she is with a comforting brew of an evening. Better still, she never mixes the two. While I was making sure of our welcome, Lygia was rolling stout stockings and packing cunning little collapsible cups and simply enormous quantities of tinned meat. We could have held a feast for the entire court and their country cousins on her supply of tinned meat—not that most courtiers would eat it, the pampered things—but Lygia insisted we would be glad of it by and by, as it is difficult to roast a fireproof bird for one’s luncheon.
I have come to rely on Lygia. She grew up in the border territories and always thinks of such things.
Plinio himself was the leader of our expedition, as he held the king’s favor and had brought back the bird in question. He had filled the rest of the party with a combination of explorers and nobles; the king’s favorite, the Duke of Apocrita, was obligatory, even though he peered quizzically at everything through his opera glass, which does not answer when one is scrambling along a rope in a muddy patch of jungle. The others, though, were old comrades of mine: Jovita Silveira, a jolly middle-aged lady who had helped me with my first dissection, and Roldao Cardoso, a glum fellow with long mustaches but the first man I would ask about a new bird—after myself, that is. Roldao also had the benefit of being very quiet and employing quiet servants also, which advantage cannot be understated when one is birding.
The first few days out of court we rode long days through settled and stable country, singing songs and telling each other stories, some of them even true. The lackeys began to realize that if they told us their stories, we would listen and take them seriously.
And that is what saved our lives on the fourth night, when we camped away from towns for the first time.
Each of us—lackeys and nobles alike—carried pistols and shot as well as daggers. The gentlemen and I carried swords, which made Jovita scoff, for she said no jaguar or bandit respected a sword more than a well-aimed pistol, nor could you throw a sword as you could a dagger. When she said this, my own dear lackey Lygia spoke up.
“Lady Jovita is right,” she said. “There is a beast in these lands whose breath can rust away your steel as if it was a hundred years old. Best not to rely on those swords.”
“Peasant stories,” scoffed the Duke. “No such creatures are mentioned in Barca, and his work is the authoritative volume on the subject.”
“Lygia is a truthful girl and not given to misleading me,” I said sharply. “She has been with me many years. And she is from this part of the country, as you and I are not.”
“I don’t see you throwing your sword by the wayside,” said the Duke.
“No, but I will keep my powder dry,” I retorted, putting my arm around Lygia and leading her away. “Pay him no mind,” I told her. “He is a fool who thinks the king’s favor conveys wisdom. What does this creature look like, with its rusting breath?”
“It comes from the shifting lands and is dark as night,” said Lygia. “It moves quickly and low to the ground, and some say it has many limbs and a lashing tail, though I have never seen it myself.”
With the images that Lygia’s warning had conjured haunting my mind, I shared the first watch with one of Cardoso’s lads. While strange scuffling and hooting noises reached us from the jungle, the only beasts abroad were tiny mice, their eyes reflecting our campfire. When several hours had passed, I was glad to pass the watch to Lygia and retire to my bedroll.
When Lygia woke me some time later, the jungle was silent and the mice were all gone.
“What is it?” I asked in a hushed voice, reaching for my weapons.
“The shadow that devours steel,” Lygia told me, and then there was a thrashing in the underbrush, and the beast charged our campfire, emitting a horrid screech.
Lygia and I fired on the creature, but it was a blur undulating across a backdrop of darkness, and our shots went wide. Our shots roused the camp, and the Duke of Apocrita leapt from his tent, a blade of the finest Ciabolan steel clutched in one hand and a main-gauche in the other.
The Duke’s fencing masters must have taught him better than they knew, for as the beast barreled towards him, he dodged aside like a bullfighter, lashing out with his sword, though the beast’s cries and exudations had already begun to corrode its metal. His sword pierced the cloud of darkness surrounding the creature before shattering, the blade shearing off halfway along its length.
As the Duke gaped at what remained of his sword, the creature lashed out, knocking him off his feet before lunging for our cookware. Roldao and Plinio prudently left their swords sheathed and joined their lackeys in firing at the creature as it seized a cast-iron cookpot in its jaws. Pistol shots ricocheted from the cookware and perforated the Duke’s tent but hardly seemed to injure the beast. The barrage convinced it to retreat, however, and with a cry that left my ears ringing, the beast fled, taking our cookpot with it.
“Is it gone?” Jovita inquired, training her pistols at the darkness surrounding our camp. As Roldao murmured that it seemed so, I approached the remaining cookware and found it dusted in iridescent black feathers. Even more shocking, however, was the state of the pans the beast had sampled and trod on before claiming the cookpot. The creature had rent them as if they were parchment.
The Duke lay dazed in the midst of this chaos. His lackeys chafed his wrists, but he remained mostly insensible—more so, that is, than was his general wont.
“This will not do,” said Jovita. “We will have to fashion a litter or travois so they can take him back to the nearest village.”
I was sure this would bring the Duke to some level of consciousness—that protests would come flowing from his lips—but apparently the beast had done him more of a mischief than I had credited. His servants behaved more bravely than I would have in their place, barely waiting for dawn to set out with him, and I cannot say I was sorry to see him go.
“We should proceed carefully, milady,” Lygia advised me as we watched them depart. “The eater of iron is a harbinger of still greater dangers, which would treat the king’s soldiers as if they were the tinned meat we carry.”
I was about to ask Lygia what manner of creature could wreak such havoc but Plinio interrupted me, ready to instruct us to gather the beast’s feathers. He found we had already done so, even sorting them by size. “Eh, good, good,” he said. “His Imperial Majesty will thank me for my—er, our—initiative. I feel certain we are nearing the site where more of the birds we were seeking may be found—indeed, we will be adding a page to the histories. Possibly an appendix to Barca’s famous work! Perhaps they are related to the feathered shadow creature. We must maintain our vigilance.”
“Of course,” said Roldao solemnly, saving Jovita and myself the trouble of a reply.
“Lygia,” I asked as Plinio bustled off. “Pray tell, what did you mean by ‘still greater dangers’?”
“Only that the tales say such creatures can grow very large, milady,” Lygia replied as she helped me stow our tent. “And very hungry as well.”
With Lygia’s warning still echoing in my ears, our expedition set out into the wilds once more. But our progress was more difficult than anticipated, for contrary to our maps, we soon ran into a large, nearly perfectly round lake.
“But this—this is not in Barca at all!” sputtered Plinio.
“I thought you’d been this way before,” Jovita said.
“No, my lady,” said Plinio’s lackey, Gaspar. “We have been to this part of the country, and to our destination. But in this exact track, no. And such a large lake, Lord Barca would have—”
“I cannot understand it!” said Plinio. “It changes the terrain completely.”
Indeed it did. While he was having his conniptions about Barca, Lygia and Roldao’s lackeys were gathering plants for pressing in the books in case they proved of interest. Meanwhile I was sketching a flock on the lake itself while Roldao took notes of their position and flight characteristics.
“This is not where you found your specimen?” I said, not looking away from the flock on the lake, which, while lacking in the brilliant hues of the phoenix he had brought to court, shaded a great deal more into the blues and greens than we were used to seeing.
“I told you, I’ve never been here before! By the serpent!” I thought for a moment that Plinio was merely adding emphasis to his avowal of pristine territory, but then I, too, noticed that the lakeshore opposite the birds was shifting. The flock organized itself quickly and took flight. Nor did I blame them: most avians prefer a stable coastline even on such a small body of water.
I frowned. “Lygia, our instruments. Our route was to take us nowhere near the peripheries of His Imperial Majesty’s lands, and yet with last night’s commotion and the lake’s peculiar behavior, I fear we have gone off course somehow.”
Roldao’s prodigious moustaches drooped, if anything, further. “That is a grave thought indeed, my lady Calixta, but I cannot say how it could have happened. Look.” He spread out his own maps to compare them with my own, and they were in agreement: no salient of the shifting periphery lay anywhere near our route. Nor, indeed, was there a lake anywhere to be found.
“I expect Barca lied about the lake,” said Jovita cheerfully. “Probably it’s stocked with perch or trout or something of the kind and he wanted to keep it for himself rather than having to pay taxes on it, the pinch-penny.”
“Probably he didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t done the thorough surveys he was supposed to be doing when he was lingering at the estates of the Marquess of Languecor and sampling her wines and her favors,” I suggested. “So he made them up. His Imperial Majesty will have to send out new parties to do them afresh.”
“I refuse to hear a word against Barca, who is one of the most intrepid and astute explorers ever to grace these lands!” cried Plinio. “He was tricked, there is no way around it. Someone has placed this lake here since his survey in order to besmirch his reputation. But I am his loyal friend and will have none of it.”
The rest of the party regarded him with as much courtesy as we could muster after a night of interrupted sleep and a statement as extraordinary as that one. “And which of Barca’s rivals, pray tell,” Roldao enquired, his mustaches twitching, “would have the resources to move a lake?”
Plinio’s reply was more sputtering than words, and his features were purpling with indignation when Lygia looked up from the surveyor’s theolodite and said, “Lady Calixta? I believe there are soldiers on the lake’s far shore.”
“Soldiers?” Jovita said, blinking at the distant shapes that Lygia indicated. “You must be mistaken. If the king’s men had entered this area recently, Barca’s oversight would surely have been discovered.”
“These are not the king’s men,” Lygia said in a leaden voice, and I followed her gaze past Roldao and his lackeys to the treeline, where a line of two dozen men wearing green and gray—not the azure and gold livery of the crown—trained muskets on us.
We surrendered, of course. Even with all of Roldao’s assistants, we were outnumbered two-to-one, though it wounded me to the core to hand my sword over to the stone-faced lieutenant who commanded the rabble who had seized us. The gentlemen and I did not offer him our parole, though he seemed to imagine that such niceties were unnecessary, as we were marched through the jungle at bayonet-point. Particular care was taken with the surveying equipment Lygia had unpacked, and as the lieutenant and his men led us into a broad clearing that had been carved from the wood, it soon became apparent why.
“Those are the Barca arms, are they not?” Roldao asked Plinio, gesturing at the elephant with its foot surmounting a globe that was carved into the façade of the massive sandstone mansion that stood before us.
“Oh no,” Jovita said, shaking her head as our party was escorted up the steps, through the portico, and into the mansion’s entry hall, where the walls were covered in classical Carthaginian frescos and the grand staircase was flanked by crowned and rampant elephant statues. “Odilon Barca, what have you done?”
But it was several hours before we could ask the gentleman—if that term still applied to such a one as Odilon Barca. His soldiers escorted us into a chamber with no windows, no convenient heavy ornaments for bashing the guards, no draperies or cords for catching them up—in fact, it was as though he had read all the same adventures as I had in my youth and was determined not to be caught out by them. An extremely sturdy and hatchet-faced woman brought us a single quite durable pitcher of plain water at regular intervals, and a cursory examination made it plain that if we broke it, all we would have was greater thirst for waiting in the stuffy chamber. There was nothing to read; no sets with which to play at turnip or sneeze, to say nothing of more mature and complicated games, and I felt the loss of my expedition notes most keenly.
I also began to wish that there were more members of the party whose stories I had not heard a dozen times or more.
“You, Gaspar,” I said. “Are you from these parts?”
His humble visage took on a terrified aspect. “My lady, I swear to you, I know nothing of—”
“Peace, Gaspar. I am not questioning your loyalty. I merely wish to know whether there are any advantages to be gained from a boyhood spent in these jungles—if indeed you spent such a boyhood. If you are from the plains of Ariminia, it will avail us naught, and I will have to turn my questions to Roldao’s men in turn.”
He relaxed visibly, and so did his master. They had been together many years, and while Plinio was often a fool and half the naturalist I believe myself to be, it warmed my heart to see his loyalty to his man. “Yes, my lady. I am from these parts. But they are not what they appear to be on the maps Lord Barca has given His Imperial Majesty. I was able to assist Lord Plinio to his discovery because I knew that our lands have a shifting and unusual character, very much like the lands to the northwest that have not fallen under—um, His Imperial Majesty’s grace.”
My lip twitched. “Why did you say nothing of this?” But before he could answer, our host finally deigned to make his appearance.
Odilon Barca dressed himself in what appeared at first glance to be the same livery as his soldiers, but a trained eye could see with a second look that the fabric was infinitely more costly, the stitching finer, and his epaulets and cuffs were embroidered in subtle and delicate ways. His posture, his gaze, every move that he made proclaimed that he was the lord of all he surveyed—proclaimed it more surely, my treacherous mind intimated, than the king had ever done.
“So you have found my humble abode,” he said. “Well done, Jovita. I should have known that it would be you or Roldao, although young Calixta here was a dark horse.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Plinio stiffly, “but I am the leader of this expedition. It was I who uncovered—” But he stopped, and I knew why. None of us had truly uncovered anything, and Plinio could not hold his head high and meet Odilon Barca’s gaze while claiming that he knew all.
Barca turned to him. “Oh, dear dear, Plinio Invicta, you, the leader, you? How could this come to pass? You haven’t been cribbing off your servants’ notes all this time, have you?”
“I have long been your friend, Odilon. I thought you were mine. And now I find that instead of the rightful Barca estates, you are—”
“Making my own way in the world. I know, it’s a tad ostentatious. A little grand. But with the riches of my personal—well, ‘kingdom’ is a bit much, isn’t it? I can hardly call myself a king yet.” Odilon Barca grinned. “With what I have, I don’t have to. Come, give me your parole and I’ll show you. It’s splendid.”
He had noticed. Roldao and I grimaced at each other. We had both relied on the fact that we had never given our words of honor to anyone that we would not try to escape, and I knew I could rely on Roldao in a pinch, even if Plinio was a soggy muffin. But giving my parole to a fellow noble—I cast a despairing glance at Jovita.
“Oh, come, Calixta,” she said. “You know very well that honor is always second to curiosity with me, and I will give my best mottled jacana specimen if it’s not the same with you. You have my parole, Odilon. Show me what it is that you’re crowing about.”
Roldao and I gave our parole grudgingly, and Odilon Barca led us out of our captivity, lackeys and all—I nearly stumbled over my own feet. Lackeys and all. I looked at Lygia to see if she had noticed what I had. Of course she had, clever girl. In his attention to his fellow nobles, Barca had done what all of our kind do: treated our lackeys as though they were extensions of their masters. He would no more think to ask Lygia for her parole than he would my left shoe. Which meant that half our party, at least, was free to make its escape at will.
This meant that we only had to figure out how they could set about doing it, and what they could do once they had.
Turning the back of my mind loose to work on that problem, I shifted the main thrust of my attention back to Barca, for we had finally departed his mansion and were about, I hoped, to see something interesting. He was not taking us out the way we had come in but instead through a pleasant back garden, green and lush and filled with the sorts of flowers that our ancestors back in the mother country would have found barbaric and appalling, with complicated, garishly colored sexual apparatus sprawling all over the plant. None of the tidy little alpine blossoms of home for our colonial lands, and as I had not grown up with those demure blooms I would never properly appreciate them.
Barca’s garden staff were diligent but not inspired—frankly, I would have expected better of them, knowing his naturalist interests—and it was not until we entered a wooded glade that I began to see what he intended to show us.
“Jovita, look,” I whispered.
“The lady Calixta sees it,” said Barca with a smile, though I had not intended my voice to carry to him. My specialty is avian, not floral, as with all of us on the expedition, so it had taken me longer than it should have to notice that we were surrounded by plants not from one climate but from all, and by flowers not from one season but from all. As far as Odilon Barca’s garden was concerned, we were in every location on the continent, on every day of the year from spring through fall. Only the depths of winter in their barrenness were not represented.
I ran my fingers over a velvety late autumn bloom. “What have you done here? It must cost a fortune in labor to keep the plants transported in and out from the—” I stopped. The rare Meldaxean jacaranda, a night-blooming plant, was flowering just before Roldao’s fingertips. He reached out to it in wonder, gaping like a child. The crimped, nearly black bud unfurled itself, deep blue sweeping out into the petals as they were freed from each other, and spread to unaccustomed light.
“By the jaguar,” said Jovita. “This cannot be you, Barca.”
“Would that I could gainsay you,” said Barca, sweeping her a bow, “but alas, you are correct. This is the land’s own power, not mine. I have situated my home here to take full advantage of its joys and its... more unique properties. And from here, there will only be more for me. You have noted our proximity to the capital, I hope.”
I eyed him dubiously. The Meldaxean jacaranda is that most deplored type of flora in the king’s vocabulary: decorative. What else might bloom here, that Barca could keep servants busy harvesting? What poisons or toxins? Or—
Roldao spoke before I could even make the thoughts coalesce in my mind. “Is it only the plants that behave so, here?”
“No, of course not,” said Barca. “There are animals. There are even, sometimes, people. People of a sort. Have you caught a chill, Plinio? Do you wish to go in?”
For Invicta had started to shake uncontrollably. The rest of us tried not to stare at him with too much contempt. “Our, ah, leader has had a very long day,” I said. “Perhaps some rest for us all, before we speak to you more?”
Barca looked at me sharply, but I could meet his gaze secure in the knowledge that I had given my parole and did not intend to break it. “Come along, Plinio,” I said, bracing his shoulders and steering him back towards Barca’s mansion. “Pull yourself together, before you shame us all.”
“You don’t understand,” Plinio muttered as Gaspar took over the burden of supporting his master. “There are footnotes in Barca’s book—written in jest, I thought—about sowing dragon’s teeth and harvesting armies of myrmidons.” Another tremor shook him, making his teeth rattle against each other.
I schooled my features to blankness as we reentered the mansion and cast a discrete glance at the servants and soldiers that we passed. While the servants and officers had their own faces, there was an unnerving similarity between many of Barca’s foot soldiers. Before, I had thought them to be recruited from a single tribe and their blank expressions the product of rigorous military discipline. Now their uniformity took on a darker cast, and as a servant led us upstairs to a suite of tastefully appointed guest rooms equipped with water and light snacks, I caught Roldao and Jovita exchanging worried glances.
Once Barca’s servants had withdrawn, and Gaspar had delivered a stricken Plinio to his sickbed, I gathered the remaining members of the expedition in the atrium of our suite, where, mindful of eavesdroppers, we conferred in hushed voices.
“So, Jovita,” I inquired. “Do you still feel honor must defer to curiosity?”
“As yet we know nothing,” Jovita murmured. “We only suspect, and our suspicions are so outrageous that I can hardly credit them.”
Roldao frowned, his mustaches drooping even more than usual. “We know many things, Jovita, even if Plinio’s tale of dragon’s teeth is still conjecture. We know that Barca has harnessed the power of the shifting lands, and set himself up as a petty despot. We know he has an army of no small size, and that he is poised to strike at the heart of the colonies and His Imperial Majesty’s court.”
“We have also given our word not to take up arms against Barca, inform the king of his plans, or try to escape,” Jovita countered.
“We have,” I said meaningfully, glancing at Lygia and those of Roldao and Jovita’s servants who were present, and leaving the corollary unspoken.
With Jovita and Roldao trying to find out more about the suspiciously similar-looking soldiers—and any other part of the estate or his plans that they could manage to get Barca to talk about—I turned my attention to the lackeys. “Parole is generally for nobles,” I said, as if making conversation.
Jovita’s maid scowled at me. “Aye, that it is, milady.”
“No one would blame a maid who left her lady’s side under such conditions.”
“Any of us most certainly would blame a maid who acted so shabbily,” she said, glaring at Lygia as though the suggestion had come from Lygia herself. “We may not have the thought of honor you have, but—”
“If leaving her lady’s side meant getting her lady out of a very pretty mess indeed, I expect such a maid would be rewarded handsomely.”
“I expect such a lackey would run the devil’s own risk,” said the thinnest and dourest of Roldao’s lackeys. “There would be the matter of getting past the guards, who would know very well that the lackey was not their own man, and there would be the risk of encountering wild beasts without the entire party’s tinder and steel to protect them, and even once they’d gotten free, who’d be to say what help would come? No, milady, a lackey would have to know there was a mighty fine reason for leaving his master’s side once his master was captured and had given parole. Most times he’d be a fool to do it.”
I leaned forward. “What if it could get the master free and contribute to science and earn a reward from the king?”
“Kings don’t reward the likes of us,” said Lygia softly. My own Lygia. Well, I wouldn’t keep her around if I didn’t trust her judgment.
“What if it did all that—mind you, that the masters of such lackeys would have to be trusted to pass on the king’s rewards—and got the king to go back where he came from and leave the colonies alone?”
The room was so quiet you could have heard the buds of that jacaranda detach from each other as they unfurled.
“How would a lackey breaking her master’s parole do all that, my lady?” said Lygia, feigning idle curiosity and tracing a pattern with the condensation from the water pitcher they’d left us.
I had them. They would do it. Keeping Plinio from ruining the whole thing would be an undertaking, but the lackeys would be as sound a bunch of conspirators as a noble had ever wished for.
The first part of Roldao’s lackey’s objection was, of course, the easiest. Barca’s servants were all too ready to believe that being imprisoned for even the shortest length of time would test the loyalties of lesser beings than themselves—especially when Roldao and I staged fits of rage where they would be sure to be overheard. Any lackeys worth their salt would flee being cooped up in a strange jungle manor with masters who talked to them as we did and appreciated them so little—so when Lygia muttered to the porter, “Bugger this for a lark, I have family three villages back,” he grinned and mouthed, “Good speed, then,” and let the group of them pass.
One of the housemaids even let them take a few select bags, once she saw that they only wanted some basic supplies to help them survive in the jungle. Of course if they’d wanted to take anything fancy that their masters might have wanted, or anything with writing on it that might have been a message, the housemaid would have had to alert her master immediately. But some disaffected servants taking rope and a tent and some tins of meat to eat? What could be more natural than that? They slipped into the green night without any further disruption.
Our part was more elaborate—at least, from the point of view of Barca’s household. Jovita and Roldao came back to report that they had seen the patch of dragon’s teeth ready to harvest, and it was not as large as they’d feared but should still serve our promises to our lackeys well enough if all went well. Barca had found a natural patch of dragon’s teeth and had husbanded them into as close and fertile a planting as the soil would bear. The harvest was a platoon of nearly-grown soldiers, their coats folded about them like glossy green and gray leaves. He would hand them their arms when their maturity was complete, but if his bragging was even close to the truth, they would come off the vine knowing how to shoot a musket, how to fence, how to fight bare-handed—even how to fire a cannon. And his intentions were no more peaceful than we had imagined.
“Do not trouble yourselves over this detail,” I told them, “for I have turned it to our advantage.”
Jovita tossed her greying hair. “Oh, very well then! Several dozen platoons already harvested and working away for Barca, with another at the ready, but Calixta has turned it to our advantage! I find myself more calm by the minute.”
“Listen to what she has to say,” said Roldao. “Calixta is not given to flights of girlish fancy.”
I bowed slightly. “Thank you, Roldao. Our duty at dinner is to convince Barca that we are part of a larger expedition headed by the Duke of Apocrita, and that this expedition is likely to come looking for us. Meanwhile our lackeys will be laying a trail that will lead him to the lair of the larger parent of the lovely creatures who visited us that evening upon the trail and played such merry games with our ironware.”
Jovita raised an eyebrow. “Do our lackeys even know where to find such a lair? And what could motivate them to risk themselves laying such a trail?”
“First, their affection for us is strong, and they have been made aware that we are bound by our honor not to save ourselves,” I said. “Second, we have assured them that there will be a reward and we will share it with them.”
“Oh we will, will we?” said Jovita dryly.
“For shame,” murmured Roldao.
“Of course I will,” she snapped. “Do go on.”
“Third, in addition to his gratitude and the gratitude of science, the king will be so moved by the spoils of this victory we will win for him here that he might find himself moved all the way back to the motherland.”
Roldao’s lips moved but no sound came out.
“You’ve gone mad,” said Jovita.
“Think it through,” I said. “His exile here was none of his choosing, nor any of ours, and while his support for the sciences has benefited us, he also has the time and energy to tax us and our families, and to apply more royal attention to other aspects of colonial administration than we might otherwise prefer.”
“If you call statuary ‘administration,'” said Roldao.
“Just so,” I said. “How many of us have lost a friend, a cousin, even a parent or lover, to the king’s basilisk? We would all be better off if he had a few more troops and could stop being king-in-exile and could go back to being king in fact.”
“The people in the homelands don’t want him any more,” said Jovita.
“Well, no more do I,” I said. “That’s why I think we should let the shadow creature eat Barca, give the king Barca’s vine-born army, and dance a tarantella while we wave his ship goodbye.”
As the servants had, my companions took a moment to stare at me, for I expect they had never imagined they would hear such a plan from the lips of one who carefully refrained from putting herself forward at court. But as the servants had, they came around to my way of thinking.
Barca himself was a very different bird to lure, but we had our chance at dinner.
“This fish is lovely, Odilon,” said Jovita. “Did you catch it here on your estates? I scarcely know what I’m eating if so.”
“All the game and fish are fresh from the estates,” said Barca.
“It’s a shame that—” I made a show of stopping myself.
“No, do go on, my dear Calixta,” he said.
“I was only thinking that the Duke of Apocrita would have enjoyed this greatly, if only he had made it this far in the expedition,” I said.
“Foolish girl, hush,” snapped Jovita.
Barca raised an eyebrow. “The Duke of Apocrita was among your number originally?”
Plinio waved his wine glass. “The king forced me to take him on my expedition. You know how it is with favorites.”
“Yes!” I said. “That’s definitely it. It was Plinio’s expedition all along, and the king forced him to take the Duke.”
“Calixta,” Jovita admonished me.
“It’s true,” said Plinio. “The Duke was, alas, quite a burden, not much given to travel, but—” He broke off and stared at Roldao, who was coughing into his napkin.
“Fish bone,” said Roldao with his classic reticence.
Barca was staring at all of us. “Pray continue,” he told Plinio, after Roldao’s coughing fit had subsided.
“Well,” Plinio managed, “there was a bit of a mishap involving some wildlife—”
“—and the Duke and his retinue went their own way,” I finished, drawing a warning look from Jovita and a disappointed one from Roldao.
“Ah,” Barca said, glancing between us. “I think I begin to see. Were there any plans for the Duke and his retinue to rejoin the rest of the expedition, do you know?”
“Oh no,” Plinio said, as hasty as ever to defend his preeminence. “Certainly not.”
“The Duke,” Jovita said, shooting a quelling look in my direction, “was not in any position to make plans. Being indisposed at the time.”
“Mmm,” Barca said, turning to me. “And does this account match your recollection of events, Lady Calixta?”
“Why, yes,” I said, making a transparent effort to appear ingenuous. “Why would it not, my lord?”
Barca let out a low chuckle. “Indeed. Why would it not?” He refilled his glass, then raised it as if proposing a toast. “To the Duke of Apocrita, then. May he have a swift recovery.”
No sooner had we toasted the Duke’s health than Barca summoned a servant to his side. After a brief conversation, the servant scuttled off, and as another course was brought in, the light of torches and the jingle of tack came from outside.
“Milord,” I said reproachfully. “I almost begin to suspect that you do not trust us.”
“Milady Calixta,” Barca replied, “these are troubled times, and I fear that trust is precious and rare indeed. Do have some of the monitor steak, won’t you? It’s really quite exquisite.”
It was the next afternoon before Barca’s scouts returned, and soon after their arrival, my companions and I heard the sound of Barca’s footsteps as he ascended the staircase nearest our quarters.
“My friends,” Barca said, favoring us with an ironic smile as he entered the suite where Jovita and I were studying the feathers of the beast that had vanquished the Duke. “I fear that all your attempts at subterfuge have been for naught.”
“Whatever do you mean, milord?” Jovita replied, her tone barely civil.
“I mean,” Barca snapped, “that the Duke of Apocrita and his entourage are not nearly as stealthy as you might hope. Oh, they certainly strove to cover their tracks, but the Duke’s fondness for soft living betrayed him.” He produced a folding cup and an empty tin of preserved meat with a contemptuous flourish. “I will grant that the cup is ingenious, but leaving such traces behind on breaking camp was the work of an amateur. I suppose one can expect no better from the pampered favorite of a blind, weak king.”
“You’ll never catch him,” I said, which made Barca smile.
“It pains me to contradict you, Lady Calixta,” he said, “but I fear I must. Even a simpleton such as Apocrita will eventually grasp the significance of finding an ever-shifting lake where his maps show none. I must count it as good fortune that he and his retinue appear to be busy surveying my lands rather than running straight home to the king with tales of treachery and deceit.”
“So, then,” Roldao said, emerging from his room. “You mean to hunt him down?”
“Even so,” Barca replied, patting the hilt of his sword.
“It would be hypocritical to wish you luck,” Jovita observed. “Besides, I am of Calixta’s opinion regarding your chances.”
“Whereas I am rather more sanguine,” Barca replied. “I fear I will not be able to attend dinner this evening, but my staff will extend you every courtesy. I expect this little excursion should not take much more than a day.” On that hopeful note, he strode off, and in a few minutes, the shouts of sergeants and a cloud of dust announced his departure.
Dinner that evening was a subdued affair, and by the following evening, neither Barca and his men nor any of our lackeys had returned. As for myself, I oscillated between elation at my plan’s apparent success and anxiety at imagining all the ways in which it could have gone wrong. The horrid visions my imagination conjured up quite thoroughly vanquished my appetite.
It was almost a relief when a whey-faced young Captain in Barca’s service wandered into the dining hall just as dessert was about to be served. He recollected enough of his manners to remove his hat from his head, but once it was in his hands, he regarded it with puzzlement, as if he had never seen it before. When he looked up from his hat, the pallor of his features made it clear that he had had a nasty shock.
“Ladies,” he managed, bowing to Jovita and myself. “Gentlemen. I regret to inform you... that is, I have just received word....” He cut himself short and stood there blinking, as if he had no idea who we were or why he was speaking to us.
“Speak up, young man,” Jovita demanded. “What word have you received?”
The Captain sucked a shallow breath through his teeth. “That Lord Barca is dead, milady.” Having delivered the news, he peered at us hopefully, as if we might tell him what to do.
The tale, which I pieced together from Lygia’s account and the handful of survivors of Barca’s expedition, went as follows:
Following the tracks that Lygia and the other lackeys had laid for him and his scouts, Barca and a company of his vine-grown soldiers skirted the edge of the lake we’d encountered and plunged deeper into the jungle. The false trail which Lygia and her companions had laid included scraps of fabric caught on branches, freshly smothered campfires, and other signs that Barca’s quarry was close at hand, so he pushed his men hard, and when the first iron-eater struck, the confusion was great enough that it took Barca some time to realize his adversary was a jungle beast, rather than the Duke of Apocrita.
With a company of muskets at his disposal, Barca was not content to drive off the iron-eater, and the massed fire of his soldiers laid the beast low. Ever the naturalist, Barca ordered his men to construct a travois so it could be dragged back to his mansion and dissected—but before the travois was more than a vision in Barca’s mind, a fierce, shrill cry came from the depths of the jungle. Vine-born though they were, Barca’s men could not help but be shaken by such an awful sound, especially when it repeated itself, much louder and closer than before.
Whatever his other faults, Odilon Barca was no coward, and he formed his men into lines as the beast approached. But even he was unprepared for what burst through the trees. When Lygia had told me of the iron-eaters growing large and hungry, I had imagined them simply scaling upwards, with their midnight feathers growing ever denser—not that their plumage would fuse into glistening keratinous scales.
Between its ragged jaws and claws, corrosive breath, and horns and jet-black scales, it is fair to say that Odilon Barca was confronted by a dragon.
By all accounts he kept his cool, ordering his men to aim for the beast’s eyes. He did not, alas, keep his head. Eyewitness accounts differ in the specifics of how Odilon Barca met his end—some claim a musket’s barrel exploded, sending a jagged chunk of metal flying, while others assert that the dragon’s roar or foul breath caused his skull to melt or disintegrate—but all agree that he did not die well.
Of the nearly two hundred soldiers who had accompanied Barca on his expedition, only seven returned alive from the first recorded encounter with the mature form of Draco Draconis Barca, and three of those died of their wounds within the week.
It is entirely understandable that none of my companions wanted to take credit for arranging this encounter.
Our parole had been given personally to Odilon Barca, noble to noble. His reclusive ways left him with no one else upon the estates to whom it would have been appropriate to transfer such an agreement, even had we been inclined. Needless to say, we were not. We assured his shaken staff that we were well aware of the proclivities of such a beast and that only our own august selves stood between them and the fate that had befallen their master.
Plinio, confused by this plan from first to last, had never convinced even one of Barca’s people that he was the true leader of our expedition. In the days that followed Barca’s death, Roldao was the one who rode for court, so I assumed that the honors and presumption of leadership would accrue to him. Jovita, dear companion and brilliant naturalist though she was, spent so much of her time cataloging the species around the estate that settling the servants fell to me—again, I assumed, to my disadvantage.
I could not have been more wrong. Or rather, I could not have been more right.
When the king’s messengers arrived, they found that the person who was ready to hand over the better part of two battalions of trained musketeers to His Imperial Majesty’s service was yours truly, the Lady Calixta, a humble and selfless servant of the Imperial Crown. And who better, His Imperial Majesty reasoned, to accompany him on his voyage back to reclaim the throne of the motherland, than a noblewoman who had sought only to serve him, never playing the games of court politics but seeking only the interest of the realm?
Yes. The very same Lady Calixta—with her trusty lackey Lygia—was summarily packed onto a galleon bound for the motherland, far from birds, shifting lands, jungles of natural interest, or anything whatsoever to do with nests of Draco Draconis Barca.
Loyalty and honor may be their own rewards, but I will confess I have certain notions about what may be done by two young women with quick wits and an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, who are not suspected of anything in particular.
First, however, I need to ensure that the king’s pet basilisk has been fed.