The young dragonrider’s death made the front page in every paper in the Windward Territory. In life, Lucia Montaken had been remarkable mostly for her spiky cropped head and nine-ton dragon; in death, she upstaged a minor senatorial scandal, the collapse of an iron mine, and a public fisticuffs between two renowned inventors in front of the patent office.
“She was slain upholding the honor of her corps,” the chief of the dragonriders told a reporter for the Timberline Gazette. “If I had a hundred like her—forget dirigibles, forget coal, forget that damned Centennial Exposition. On the wings of dragons, what a nation we could build.”
Her killer’s trial kept the typewriters clacking for a fortnight; duels were tricky enough in court, straddling the line between murder and manslaughter, without throwing politics into the stew, and these days, any headline to do with dragonriders came flavored with a pinch of politics.
In the ordinary course of things, the path of a dragonrider would never have intersected that of an industrialist’s niece. From the moment Costanza Ingray-Volinn, poor relation of those Ingray-Volinns, stepped off the dirigible, she plunged into a world of ice cream socials and pinstriped shirtwaists and trailing her aunt from one social function to the next like an accessory, a testament to the generosity of the Ingray-Volinns, albeit one that might piddle on the parquet floor if no one watched it. To her, the newspaper was just something her family’s day maid used to line her lunch pail. She only learned the name Lucia Montaken when a light-fingered campaigner outside the hotel slipped a pamphlet into her handbag without her noticing. When she found it, midway through one of her aunt’s interminable bruncheons, she folded it into a glider and sent it sailing across the dining room.
That certainly would have been the end of her brief association with dragonriders, if not for that damned Centennial Exposition.
There had been some concern that the lodge wouldn’t be finished in time for the Sponsors’ Gala, but the last paper had come off the last window that morning, and the rotunda still smelled spicily of sawdust as Costanza led her guest to a table. Her arrival had an immediate gravitational effect on the seating chart; a gaggle of debutantes descended on the table next to hers. “Costanza, d’you know who your cousin’s bringing?” someone called. Word of the wager had got round. It always did. She was just lucky it hadn’t got round to her guest.
His name was Dawe, and he was a student of theater criticism at the university; or at least, he spent a great deal of time criticizing things theatrically. He’d cut an outlandish figure at her cousin’s dining club, in his duckhunting boots and stovepipe hat, but here, in his best suit, he was turning out to be a disappointment.
“Knowing Bel-imperia,” she replied, “an acrobat or a mad inventor or a psychic or a showgirl.” Her cousin had a “brash and winsome charm,” according to the society column. Costanza only had “her late father’s penchant for jamming her foot in her mouth.”
The wagers had started on the ride home from the airfield. I’ll bet if you lick that lamppost, your tongue will get stuck, Bel-imperia had told her. Then it had been, I dare you to wear trousers to supper. How many spoons can you pinch before the maître d’ notices? I bet you can’t sneak a sip from the mayor’s coffee. When they signed up for back-to-back slots at the mayor’s wife’s charity concert, it was I bet I know a dirtier song than you, at least until Aunt Parthenope saw Costanza’s name on the list and scratched it off.
Several courses came and went before Bel-imperia floated onto the mezzanine with a gentleman in tow. He had the rolling gait of an athlete. Conversation died like a snuffed lamp. Costanza frowned; she felt vaguely as though she’d seen him before, but she couldn’t place where.
Bel-imperia had a patrician nose set in a tawny, long-boned face, and the creases around the corners of her eyes made her look older and wind-weathered, as if she spent a lot of time squinting into the sun from the cockpit of a dirigible. “Forgive our tardiness, Dawe, Cossie.” She waited, hands folded.
Dawe, with the look on his face that all young men got around Bel-imperia, lunged to pull out her chair for her. The guest stepped round her and got there first. “Here you go, Bel,” he said, too loud. He was scruffy—his dark hair very close-cropped, one high cheekbone grazed like he’d been in a fight recently. He looked the right age for university. Then she saw the badge on the sleeve of his jacket: part shield, part arrowhead, part folded reptilian wing.
She had most certainly just lost her wager.
“Bel, where’d you find a dragonrider?”
Bel-imperia’s smile suggested that the canary had been delicious. “Like I’d tell you, coz. Allow me to introduce Ensign Nicodemo Rook. Nic, this is Dawe, student, and our very own clown, Costanza Ingray-Volinn.”
“The poor relation,” Costanza volunteered. Better to say it herself than wait for Bel-imperia to work it into the conversation.
“Nicodemo Rook, you say?” Dawe pasted on a grin and thrust a hand across the table.
The dragonrider shook it. “Please. Just Nic.” He hooked a chair from a nearby table, dragged it over with a loud scrape, and dropped into it.
Bel-imperia flagged a waiter. “Dinner, Nic?”
He turned his trouser pockets inside-out. “This’d be one of those menus that doesn’t list prices, I’ll bet.”
“I never pass up a free meal.” He looked around at the glittering young guests on the mezzanine. “And this is the lesser dining hall?”
Costanza tried not to stare. She’d seen dragons from a distance; the city’s small complement glided over the rooftops with such regularity that the deliverymen’s donkeys didn’t bat an eye. She was pretty sure their garrison was somewhere in the mill district.
Bel-imperia instructed the waiter to warm a meal and bring it.
“And would sir like wine with his meal?”
“Of course he would,” said Bel-imperia. “Nic, what kind?”
Nic shrugged. “All I know about wine is it comes in two colors.”
“The brandy’s good here,” Costanza volunteered. Uncle Astor was the one who’d selected it, and she knew he had good taste because he didn’t lock the desk drawer where he kept his personal supply.
Bel-imperia announced, “Brandies all round, then. Cossie, coz, you’re gawking; either ask him something or close your mouth.”
Costanza’s cheeks flamed. She turned to Rook. “Did you fly here?”
At neighboring tables, a few heads turned apprehensively toward the windows.
“Nah.” Nic waved. “Chivalry’s snug and lazy in the bask tonight. Mm, well, he was when I left.” He tapped his head. “Bit too far for me to feel him just now.”
Dawe seized on, “Him?”
His expression flickered. “Yes.”
“Is it true, Nic,” Bel-imperia said delicately, hiding her slight smile behind her hand, “that male riders who bond with male dragons prefer...you know...”
With a quickness that suggested this was a well-worn line, Nic returned, “Find out.”
Bel-imperia flashed an unexpectedly toothy grin of her own. “Is that an invitation?”
“In the same spirit as yours.”
Further witticisms were forestalled by the arrival of Nic’s meal. He applied himself vigorously to the re-warmed roast, and the brandies arrived soon after. Costanza appropriated hers with an alacrity that made Bel-imperia raise an eyebrow.
The attention at the nearby tables still hadn’t shifted away from Nic. The fat under the skin of the re-warmed roast squeaked when it was chewed fast. Once Costanza noticed it, she couldn’t un-notice. She wondered if he knew. Someone ought to rescue him. She cleared her throat. “You know, you’ve got the honor of being the first dragonrider to set foot on these fairgrounds.”
His smile flickered. “Second.”
“Oh, Cossie, coz, you didn’t know?” Bel-imperia drawled. “I’ll show you the place later, though don’t get excited; they shoveled up the blood a week ago.” She turned to Nic. “I apologize for my cousin; she’s quite familiar with the taste of her own foot.”
Costanza dimly recalled a pamphlet. There’d been a name on it. Lucy something. “Oh,” she said, and gulped her brandy.
Nic raised a shoulder. Squeak, squeak, went the roast, and his amiable-lunkhead expression slid firmly into place.
In the absence of anything more lurid, the attention that had been riveted on their table began to wane. A handful of diners even took their leave, though most knew Bel-imperia well enough to know that she’d eventually prod her exhibit with a stick to make him dance. Costanza, slightly muzzily at the bottom of her second brandy, began to think of ways to make sure she stayed at the right end of that stick. Nic bolted the rest of his squeaky meal. Their eyes met briefly; there was a flicker of humor in his, and she could swear he squeaked the roast just a bit louder on purpose. When he finished his first brandy, Bel-imperia intercepted Costanza’s third and pushed it in front of him.
Dawe, plainly bored, broke in, “How long does it take to fly a dragon from here to, I don’t know, the capital?”
Nic shrugged. His face was flushed. “It’d depend on the wind. That’s not my route.”
“How long does it take a dirigible, d’you think?”
A surlier shrug.
“Five hours, eight minutes,” Bel-imperia put in.
Dawe pounced. “That’s right. The Ingray-Volinn line made a bid to take over the trans-mountain mail run, didn’t it? Pretty soon, our parcels will come in sacks with your initials on them, or so the papers are saying.”
“The papers are saying a lot of things,” Nic muttered.
“This time next spring, you could be a pensioner, Nic. Course, a dragon would need an awfully big pension, ha, ha. Bel-imperia will be working for her bread—” he waved vaguely as if to say he had no idea what that looked like, “—and you’ll be lolling in front of a fire somewhere, retired at twenty. They’re saying the Industrial Progress League is blessing the name of Lucia Montaken.”
Nic’s chin jerked.
“Which is cruel,” Bel-imperia broke in. “If there’s something you’d like to say back, I could put in a word with—”
Nic shot to his feet so fast his chair tipped. “You know what none of them are saying? None of them are saying how her dragon screams at night.” Abruptly, he pushed away from the table, stooped to snatch his jacket from beneath the chair, and slung it across his shoulders. Costanza was riveted as he stalked away. His stride wasn’t as sure as it had been. He disappeared down the stairs.
Quietly, when he was gone, she said, “There goes your dancing bear, Bel.”
Bel-imperia smiled her secret smile and reached into her clutch. “Wait for the encore.” She drew out a blue ticket with scalloped edges. When she fanned her fingers, Costanza realized it was two tickets.
“Very,” Bel-imperia agreed placidly. “He’s going to be unhappy when he gets to the funicular platform.”
“May I have those?” said Dawe, and when Bel-imperia obliged, he stood, held them aloft, and announced, “Five dollars says he’s not back before midnight.”
A beat. Then a spreading ripple of laughter.
It wasn’t the thought of Nic shivering in the slush that made Costanza push her chair back; it was the thought of him having to crawl back here. “Powder room,” she murmured.
In the vestibule, she hailed the maid. “I need something from my bag,” she said, and described her aunt’s handbag. When the maid brought it out, a moment’s rifling among the hatpins and bills produced a blue scallop-edged paper.
Outside, the globe lamps threw harsh yellow light down the icy main mall. The joke went that the Centennial Exposition had been built on the only flat ground in the Windward Territory. Wind raked the stale snow, shoving it in drifts against the feet of the galleries. Beyond them, against the mauve arctic sky, loomed the aluminum bones of the unfinished Ingray-Volinn Pavilion.
She found herself wondering, as she walked, whether Lucia Montaken had come this way. For all she knew, she could be putting her feet in the girl’s own prints. This place, this monument to the dirigibles trying to replace her, had been the last thing Lucia had seen. Costanza wondered whether she’d considered it dying on enemy ground.
The funicular platform projected out over the cliff. The cars seemed to float up and down by magic; a metallic whine was the only evidence for the track and its cable mechanism.
Nic Rook was leaning over the railing. She scuffed a shoe to announce her arrival, and he half turned. “My mum was a pianist,” he said, more to the drifting snow than to her. “Used to play in places like that. I always wondered what it’d be like on the other side of the bench.”
Surprised into honesty, she said, “Like a crystal punch bowl full of lampreys.”
“Nice view of the city, though.”
She joined him. “I’ll bet it’s not as nice as from dragonback.”
Far below them, the city of Brink glowed in its series of hanging valleys as if it had slid down the slopes of Mount Pen Ffanig and Mount Dryfan to pool there. Lines of warm yellow light picked out the fashionable streets, the first ones to receive the new electric streetlamps, forming a map of the money.
She felt vaguely as though Nic was owed an apology, but she didn’t think she was the one who owed it. “I didn’t know Bel-imperia was going to do that,” she said, as the next best thing.
“I did,” said Nic.
She pulled the ticket from her pocket. The wind fluttered it like a pennant in her fingers. “If you knew what was coming, why play the butt of her joke?”
“How do you know she wasn’t the butt of mine?”
“Because you’re the one stranded on a platform three hundred feet above Brink with no way down.”
His brow creased. She thrust the ticket at him, and he looked closer and said, “Oh.” He reached out. He wasn’t wearing gloves. He had long, graceful hands—pianist’s hands. His fingers brushed hers as he palmed the slip. Ruefully, he added, “I swear I’m usually sharper than this.”
“I expect that was the brandies. Good thing you drank my last one, or I wouldn’t’ve had the wits for a rescue.”
“One of those was yours, was it? It seems I owe you a drink.” He took a breath. Then his quicksilver grin flashed. “On my turf next time?”
“Riders have turf, do they?”
His grin slipped. “Less than we used to, as your cousin was so keen to remind me.”
“No, I only meant—I’d think you’d have airspace, or clouds.”
“Oh.” Unexpectedly, he said, “Do you like Cambry cocoa lounges?”
Her heart jumped. Her eyes lit on the name on the arm of his jacket. “If I can escape. And if you can park Chivalry somewhere. Does he have an off switch?”
His smile dropped away. “Your lot would like that.”
She winced. “I was thinking more that you could tuck him in for a nap.”
“There’s not been much sleep to go around since Luce died. There won’t be much till she’s replaced.” A funicular car was rising to the lip of the platform, and the light through its window gilt his sharp cheekbone like an oil painting. “If a rider can be found in this blasted city,” he muttered, stepping round her. “I’d better be getting back.”
The operator, seeing him, braked the winding mechanism.
“Wait,” Costanza said. “Maybe we could—”
Nic flashed his ticket and flung the door open. He slammed it behind him, knocking a few flakes of brittle hard snow from the roof.
The car glided away down the track.
“Drat,” she muttered.
Well, that had gone about as well as wagers with Bel-imperia ever did.
“It seems,” Bel-imperia said icily as their own funicular car lurched out of the dock, “that someone let my dancing bear run off. I take it you concede the wager?”
Maybe it was the brandies, or maybe Dawe’s small smirk, that made her want to brazen it out. “I propose a rematch.”
Lazily, Bel-imperia stretched out her legs beneath the table. The toes of her wet slippers pattered thoughtfully against Costanza’s ankle. “I’m intrigued, coz. You’ll do better than an ensign? The major, maybe? I’ve told you before—originality.”
“Not a major. You could bring a major. You could probably produce the chief of the whole corps. Come on, Bel, what will you wager?”
“Well,” Bel-imperia said languidly, “I’ll take your pin and raise you a ribbon.” She paused expectantly.
“You’d do that?”
“Do what?” Dawe said plaintively.
Bel-imperia smiled. “Well, you see, Dawe, someone has to cut the ribbon at the Grand Opening. There’ll be cameras and heads of state, and I quite looked forward to seeing my face in the papers. But I suppose I could bear to part with the honor. If there’s someone worthier. So, Cossie, who is this mystery man of yours?”
“Not a man,” said Costanza. “A dragon.”
Dawe said, “My, the ensign did take a shine to you.”
“I don’t mean his dragon.”
Bel-imperia was positively thoughtful. “Go on, Cossie.”
“They’ve got to replace Lucia Montaken, don’t they?” Her heart beat fast. Here was a sin so dire that Aunt Parthenope wouldn’t just exile her from the dinner table, but from the Windward Territory. Costanza saw the warm southern sunlight playing over the surface of the lake behind Locelake Female Academy. “Bet you I can get that dragon to cut the ribbon.”