Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis
It was a truth universally acknowledged that any young lady without a dragon was doomed to social failure. But it was becoming increasingly obvious to everyone in Hathergill Hall that for Penelope Hathergill, actually having a dragon would guarantee disaster.
“Mother!” Penelope’s piercing shriek rattled the glass in the chandelier above her. “He’s done it again!”
“Oh, dear…” Lady Hathergill closed her eyes and sank back in her chair, waving a limp handkerchief in the general direction of her niece. “Do see to that, won’t you, Elinor?”
“Yes, Aunt.” Sighing, Elinor folded the mending she’d been working on and rose to help her cousin.
It was a servant’s job to clean most messes, but the maids had mutinied several days earlier, and the dour housekeeper, Mrs. Braithwaite—who intimidated even Penelope—had announced that she, too, would give her notice if any of her girls were asked to touch ‘that foul creature’s mess’ again.
And as Penelope herself could never be expected to clean up any of the messes that she caused…
Well, that left Elinor. As usual.
“Please stand still, Penelope,” she said, as she wiped at her cousin’s back with a handkerchief. “If you want me to get it all off—”
“It’s disgusting!” Penelope wriggled impatiently and glared at the brightly-coloured dragon perched on her shoulder. “And it’s all your fault. Horrid creature!” With a sudden, impatient gesture she reached up and pushed him off her shoulder.
“Rawk!” His tiny, cobalt-blue wings fluttered uselessly; he tumbled snout over tail, heading straight for the ground.
“Penelope!” Elinor dropped her slime-covered handkerchief and dived for the falling dragon. She grabbed him just in time and gathered him up to her chest, stroking his hot skin consolingly. “What were you thinking? You know his wings were clipped by the breeder. He could have been hurt!”
“He deserves it.” Penelope crossed her arms and glared down at him. “He knows perfectly well what he’s doing, I can tell. Just before he let it out this time, I heard him laugh out loud.”
It hadn’t been a laugh; that chortling sound was a sign of fear in dragons. Elinor had read about it when she’d first learned that the family was buying a dragon for Penelope’s social début.
But she bit her lip to hold back the angry remark that wanted to escape. There was only so much that a poor relation was allowed to say in this household, especially when it came to her cousin Penelope…and if she let Penelope see the look on her face right now, she would be in real trouble. So instead, she looked down at the dragon who was shivering in her arms.
From the tip of his snout to the end of his tail, Sir Jessamyn Carnavoran Artos was only two feet long, and when he curled up like this against her, he formed a big ball of warmth that felt nearly the same as her old tomcat back home. But his worried golden eyes blinked up at her from a face that glittered such a deep blue and green, his scales looked like precious jewels.
Given her choice of dragon, Penelope had of course chosen the prettiest one she had seen…not the cleverest nor the calmest, which would have been far more useful. It would take a dragon with nerves of pure steel to ride calmly on Penelope’s slim shoulder as she alternately shrieked with laughter or with fury and smacked him every time he accidentally slid an inch or let his claws dig into her skin. Elinor’s jaw clenched at the thought of it.
If either of Elinor’s younger sisters had been there, matters would have gone very differently. Rose would have stood nose-to-nose with Penelope and shrieked directly back at her about her intolerable cruelty to an innocent beast; Harriet would have come up with a mathematically perfect plan to exact revenge.
When their parents had died, though, one year earlier, a flurry of panicked letter-writing had erupted in the extended family. After six months of heated wrangling about whose responsibility they really were, the three Tregarth girls had been scattered to the far corners of Britain to join different sets of relatives. Family or not, no one was willing to take on all three sisters at once.
So that left only Elinor to face their cousin Penelope now, alone and all-too-miserably aware of the practicalities of the situation…as always. It was her lifelong curse.
Rose and Harry wouldn’t have let practicalities hold them back; Rose was too romantic and high-minded to care, and as for Harry—well, Elinor was certain that anyone who spent her life mastering higher mathematics simply for her own amusement was incapable of feeling intimidated by Penelope.
Elinor, though, couldn’t stop thinking about exactly what would happen if she let loose all the outrage that had been building inside her for the last six months. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t imagine any good result.
All that she could imagine was the mundane reality of disaster: she would be tossed out of Hathergill Hall in disgrace, leaving no one who even tried to moderate Penelope’s behavior to the servants, the poor little dragon, or anyone else who ever got in her cousin’s way. And with less than five shillings in Elinor’s purse—Uncle John, of course, saw no need to give her an allowance, as she was already living off his generosity—leaving Hathergill Hall wouldn’t bring her freedom.
It would only mean utter ruin.
So she took a deep breath and unclenched her jaw. She set Sir Jessamyn gently down onto the ballroom floor and said, as quietly and as humbly as possible, “Perhaps you would like to take a rest, Penelope. Your nerves—”
“A rest? A rest?!” Penelope’s voice built up in volume until Elinor’s ears rang and Sir Jessamyn scuttled behind her legs, wrapping his tail tightly around her ankles. “You want me to take a rest now, when I am only six days away from making my social début with a dragon who cannot even contain himself in company?”
Be humble, Elinor told herself. Be calm. “Perhaps, if you could try to control your temper just a bit while he is riding on your shoulder—”
“Control my temper?” Penelope stared at Elinor with as much outraged disbelief as if her cousin had claimed to see a single spot on Penelope’s perfect skin. “Are you actually claiming this dragon’s malfunctions are my fault?”
“I’m sure that isn’t what your cousin meant, dearest.” Lady Hathergill must have recognized the warning signs of a true Penelope tantrum; she opened her eyes and put herself to the almost-unheard-of trouble of straightening in her seat. “No one would ever think of criticizing you, my love.”
I would, Elinor thought. But she forced herself to nod submissively, lowering her eyes.
It wasn’t enough.
“After everything I’ve been through…” Penelope’s voice thickened with oncoming tears; her blue eyes glistened. “After all the trials I’ve been forced to put up with…”
The tears were real, Elinor knew. That was the worst part of life with her cousin. Penelope sincerely believed that she was oppressed by terrible injustice at every turn.
“Losing the best seamstress in Kent, just before I could come out in Society—”
“Mrs. Hunt was terribly irresponsible, dear, we understand.” Lady Hathergill’s voice had flattened with what Elinor hoped was a lack of conviction, but it might just as easily have been mere exhaustion. “She should certainly have waited until after your début to give up her business.”
“Penelope, you must remember that her leg was badly broken,” said Elinor. “The physician did tell her she needed rest.”
“She could still use her hands perfectly well!” Penelope glared at Elinor. “No, that was only an excuse. The truth is, she simply didn’t care about my début. She didn’t even care that I would have to appear at my very first ball looking like an ugly, fashion-blind country bumpkin!”
“Now, dear…” Lady Hathergill was already sinking inexorably back into her chair. It certainly wasn’t the first time that everyone in Hathergill Hall had heard the full litany of Penelope’s misfortunes.
“And that wasn’t even the worst of it.” Tears were streaming down Penelope’s pink cheeks now, making her look like an angry china shepherdess. “First Papa wouldn’t let me début in London…”
…Until September, Elinor finished silently. She wasn’t rash enough to remind Penelope out loud that her tragically denied London visit had only been postponed until the Little Season officially began in one month’s time…or that her début ball at Hathergill Hall next week was designed to be the largest, most impressive, and by far the most expensive event ever to be hosted in the county.
...Or, for that matter, that Elinor’s own social début, planned for her eighteenth birthday twelve months ago, would never happen at all.
“Then Mrs. De Lacey blatantly snubbed us, despite all of Mama’s promises…”
Lady Hathergill’s eyes fluttered shut, avoiding confrontation as usual. It was up to Elinor to draw a deep breath and say, as calmly and as reasonably as she could, “The only reason Mrs. De Lacey had to cancel her visit was that she had a putrid sore throat. That could hardly be deemed an insult to anyone, surely.”
“A putrid sore throat? In August? Who takes ill in August? No, she obviously invented it as an excuse not to come. And it’s all Mama’s fault for arguing with her all those years ago, Papa said so.” Penelope whirled to face her somnolent mother accusingly. “How could you have been so stupid as to offend her? Didn’t you even think of how important she was to become?”
The real question, as far as Elinor was concerned, was: how had Lady Hathergill ever managed to argue with anybody? From the moment Elinor had first entered Hathergill Hall six months ago, she had never once seen her aunt contradict either her daughter or her husband, no matter how unreasonable either of them became. It was as if she had given up on even possessing any real opinions of her own.
It was utterly maddening—especially when compared to Elinor’s own mother, Lady Hathergill’s younger sister, whose fierce, protective fire still burned like a beacon in Elinor’s memory.
But Penelope was still ranting. “What is the use of Mama having an old friend at the pinnacle of London fashion if she won’t even attend my début ball?”
Elinor gritted her teeth. “I’m sure you’ll meet Mrs. De Lacey in September, and”—be humble, be submissive—“you may impress her then.”
After all, Mrs. De Lacey was in the gossip columns of the national newspapers nearly every week with some witty new saying, radical house redesign, or astonishing new purchase that had set all the ton alight. The balls and soirées that she hostessed were discussed all across the length and breadth of Britain, and her husband’s early death had left her one of the wealthiest widows in the country. Even her invention of a scandalous new private club for women, which had been preached against in outraged pulpits across the nation, had only led to even more public invitations from the smitten royal family.
In other words, Mrs. De Lacey never let anything or anyone stop her from doing what she wanted. That meant that she and Elinor couldn’t have been more different—so why should they agree on Penelope?
“And then Papa fobbed me off with this worthless excuse for a non-functioning dragon!” Penelope pointed at Sir Jessamyn with a trembling finger. His glittering green ears flattened in panic against his head. His tail tightened around Elinor’s ankles until she teetered on her feet and had to hold out her arms to keep her balance.
“Penelope, please,” she said, “if you could just try to be a little more patient with him—”
“You’re doing it again!” Penelope stared at her. “Listen to her, Mama! She really is pretending that it’s all my fault!”
“I only meant—” Elinor began.
“After everything I’ve done for you!” Penelope choked on a sob. “How could you, Elinor?”
Elinor stared at her cousin open-mouthed. She couldn’t even think of a response.
“I allowed Mama and Papa to take you in, despite all the horrid inconvenience. I allowed one of my maids to do your hair! I even told my friends it wasn’t kind to mock you for being so grim and sour-faced all the time. I told them you couldn’t help being plain and tedious. And Mama promised me—she promised!—that you would give me so much help with my début that it would all be worth it in the end.”
Elinor swallowed. Her mouth felt dry. There was a distant ringing in her ears, like the whistle of a steam engine charging towards her, something loud and angry and dangerous that she had never, ever given into before.
Penelope didn’t seem to hear it.
“I even let you be fitted for new gowns from my seamstress! Mama asked if I would mind it too terribly, but I said no, because I was tired of you looking like a crow all the time in all those terrible black gowns.”
Elinor heard her own voice as if it came from very far away, beyond the ringing in her ears. “Those black gowns were mourning dress, Penelope. For my year of mourning. For my parents.”
“Well, I don’t know why you bothered to change into brighter clothing once the year was up,” Penelope said. “It’s all wasted on you anyway—it’s not as if you’re ever going to find a husband, are you? You’re not even a Hathergill, only a poor relation who couldn’t find anyone else to take you on. Your only purpose is to help me with my début, and instead you’re always nittering and moaning at me, ‘but Penelope’ this and ‘but Penelope’ that. I could go mad from the endless sound of your voice. Faugh!”
She narrowed her eyes and pointed at the dragon who had wound himself around Elinor’s ankles. “You’re exactly the same as him. Non-functional!”
Sir Jessamyn let out a low, trilling chuckle of fear.
...And the steam engine finally arrived.
“That is it.” Elinor’s ears were ringing so loudly now that she could barely hear her own voice even as it rose to a yell so dangerous and war-like, she would never have suspected herself capable of creating such a sound. “That. Is. It!”
“What? What? I beg your pardon?” Lady Hathergill’s head jerked up as she woke from her snooze. “Did someone say it was time for tea? Penelope?”
Penelope had scooted back a step at Elinor’s yell, but her shoulders stiffened at the sound of her mother’s voice. “It is not time for tea, Mama,” she said. “It is time for someone to explain to my cousin exactly what her place is in this household, for once and for all!”
“Thank you, Penelope,” Elinor said. “But actually, there isn’t the slightest need for that.”
She knelt down and scooped up Sir Jessamyn with unaccustomed, fluid grace. With the steam engine’s whistle still ringing in her ears, she could have easily smashed through the windows of the elegant drawing room or picked up the piano in the corner and thrown it straight at her cousin’s pretty blonde head. It posed no difficulty at all to scoop up one trembling, chuckling dragon and set him securely on her shoulder.
“You have made yourself perfectly clear,” said Elinor. “So I shall do you the favor of removing both my non-functioning self and your non-functioning dragon from your life. Unlike you, this dragon is not a wild animal, so he, at least, deserves some courtesy!”
“Ohhh!” Penelope shrieked. “Ohhh! Mother, did you hear what she just said to me?!”
“Oh, dear,” Lady Hathergill moaned, and put one hand over her eyes.
Perched on Elinor’s shoulder, Sir Jessamyn let out one last chuckle of terror…and through her ringing ears and haze of fury, Elinor finally remembered what that sound always signified when it came from this particular dragon.
“Oh, no,” she breathed. Hastily, she began to stroke his back. “Please, Sir Jessamyn—please don’t, not now—”
But she was too late.
Hot, steaming dragon slime exploded down the back of her gown, soaking through to her skin as Penelope’s shrieks of outrage rattled the chandelier overhead.
It wasn’t quite the exit that Elinor had hoped for, but she held her chin high as she marched out of the room, with Sir Jessamyn shivering on her shoulder and her wet, slimy skirts sticking to her legs at every step.