“Oh!” It was a great deal of self-control that kept Mrs. Dale’s little yelp from becoming a full-blown shriek. She forced a titter to make up for it. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you had a dragon.”
“Oh, yes,” said Mrs. Mirela pleasantly, kindly ignoring her guest’s reaction. The creature in question had just sauntered into the room, as big as a greyhound, vibrant red, wings half-extended, glittery little eyes malevolent. Mrs. Dale swallowed as Mrs. Mirela went on. “His name is Francis. We’ve had him for a bit over five years, ever since they figured out how to make them this small, you know. Mr. Mirela’s cousin led the development team so we got one of the very first viable ones when he told her we were interested.”
“How fortunate,” Mrs. Dale said, gripping her teacup a bit more tightly.
“Yes, he’s been just wonderful for the children. George especially has benefited. I wouldn’t be surprised if he wanted to take Francis to the new home,” she finished lightly, and Mrs. Dale snatched at the topic like a life preserver, even as her stomach seized at the idea of such a creature sharing the house with her Ellie. She had felt herself to be floundering somewhat in the conversation thus far, and the arrival of the dragon—currently clambering onto the sofa beside Mrs. Mirela and glowering at her—had knocked her even more off-kilter. But she could talk about her Ellie for a mortal age.
“Dear Ellie is terribly excited about the new house,” Mrs. Dale said, beginning on a point where no one could accuse her of boasting. She certainly could boast—intended to, in fact—but it was not a good way to begin. “She is my eldest, you see, so her only example has been an elder cousin who was married… oh, well on six years ago now.”
“One’s first daughter’s marriage is always an event,” Mrs. Mirela said, smiling warmly.
“My Nina was married three years ago, and even though we’d already done Andy’s a few years before that, it still felt entirely more tender.”
“I can imagine,” Mrs. Dale agreed faintly, feeling deflated. Mrs. Mirela was more than a decade her senior, had three more children than she did, and her sitting room was done in the nicest shades of lavender and mint and honey. This was her third time taking tea with the mother of someone her child would marry. Mrs. Dale was feeling pale and drab in comparison, despite her best gloves and stockings.
“Am I remembering properly that Ellie has graduated from school? I believe George told me they are the same age,” Mrs. Mirela continued smoothly, taking a sip from her teacup. And it was such fine porcelain as well…
“Yes,” Mrs. Dale said eagerly. Perhaps too eagerly though, so she moderated her tone as she went on, “Just this past spring. She took High Honors from the Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.” This could not be said without pride: only fourteen of the one hundred and eight Young Ladies who had graduated that year earned any Honors at all. She could be forgiven that much, surely.
“Ah, well. George is too good a boy to hold that over her,” Mrs. Mirela assured her.
Mrs. Dale twitched. “I’m sorry?”
“Oh, I meant no disparagement, you must understand. High Honors are very good. But George got Highest. If he weren’t such a kind soul, he might take that to mean he was somehow superior. Of course, we raised him to know better.” She performed another delicate sip from her perfect porcelain.
“Of course,” Mrs. Dale replied whitely.
It was something between relief and horror then when Francis uncoiled his horrid snaky neck and coughed violently, unleashing a gout of flames which Mrs. Dale felt from her seat ten feet away. This time she did shriek a bit. “My God! He’s not been deglanded?”
“Oh, no, of course not,” Mrs. Mirela said, flapping her napkin to dispel the remaining heat. “It would be just too inhumane, don’t you think? Worse than declawing a cat.” Francis himself settled back into a red scaly knot next to Mrs. Mirela, head tucked under his wing after one last baleful look, tail wrapped tightly around his front end.
“But—surely it’s not safe for the children? If you’ve had him for five years, George must have been only fourteen, mustn’t he? And you have children younger than him, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Rosie was twelve and Walter was eight when we got Francis. They were quite frightened of him at first, but they got over it. It’s all a matter of training… for the children and the dragon both, I don’t need to say!”
“Quite,” Mrs. Dale said, limply waving her napkin as well to hide how her hands were trembling.
“In the end, they’ve grown quite attached, particularly George, as I said. Having Francis in the new house will quite ease the transition for him, I should think. Which brings us back to the matter at hand: what are your thoughts on where they ought to settle? I’ve spoken with Mr. Mirela about it and we feel that after the wedding expenses, we’ll be able to cover approximately a quarter of the cost of a reasonable home. If you and Mr. Dale could match that, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect George and Ellie to take out a loan to cover the rest, do you?”
“No,” Mrs. Dale said, quite faintly indeed. What would Mrs. Mirela, whose home was three floors and whose maids wore lace gloves considered ‘reasonable’? “No, I suppose a loan must be sensible…”
“Lovely. Not such a very big place at first, of course. I do hate the term ‘starter home’, but we must expect them to move as befits their family as it grows, mustn’t we?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Dale said, even though she had just realized something and her throat was quite tight with it. “And that’s just made me think, or rather given me the idea, or rather, that is, if you’re quite sure of George’s wanting to take the, Francis, after he and Ellie are married, we ought to arrange for, that is anticipate, that Francis will more than likely have to return here for, perhaps, for several years—or perhaps many years until their children are quite old enough to be safe with him, do you see? So they’ll be safe,” she stressed.
“Oh, of course, I see why that would be a concern,” Mrs. Mirela said, and Mrs. Dale began to relax. “But rest assured, he would be no threat.” She reached over and patted Francis’ haunch. “He’s quite tame.” But as she stroked his scales, Francis’ head shot out from under his wing and seized Mrs. Mirela’s hand in his teeth. Mrs. Dale gasped. “And children who grow up with him from infancy will be even better adjusted and more attached to him than even George is. I think it will be just lovely.” Beads of blood were appearing around Francis’ teeth. Mrs. Dale felt strangled by the scream she was restraining. “Now Francis, you know better than that,” Mrs. Mirela scolded fondly. She gave Mrs. Dale an amused look that clearly said, After all, what is one to do?
Mrs. Dale set the lovely porcelain teacup down with a clatter that alarmed her but did not stop her from rising to her feet. “Mrs. Mirela,” she said, staring straight at the opposite wall with her hands clasped over her diaphragm as she had learned in choir as a girl. Francis hissed smoke at her around Mrs. Mirela’s hand. “I thank you so terribly much for tea this afternoon. I feel that we have been overly hasty in discussing the marriage between my Ellie and your son. They are—they are too young. I hope you have a pleasant day. Goodbye.”
She ignored Mrs. Mirela’s calls of, “Mrs. Dale—! Down, Francis! Mrs. Dale!” as she hurried out of the large, fine house. She would tell Ellie it was something else. Perhaps a hereditary illness that might pass to children or something. But on her life and honor, her daughter would never be sharing a home with that dragon!