The entire family made a showing at the Huxtable Dragon Lizard Fanciers’ Show. Bethany’s grandmother, Mistress Aimwright to her granddaughters’ contemporaries, won nine ribbons across six categories while Aunt Terilba quietly gained four across three. Aunt Katherine’s vermin presentation won best in show. Simone basked in the glory of a clean sweep of the places in the category of Non-standard Colour, Hens under Twelve Months, and the resulting queries for hatchlings. Bethany merely displayed the three young drakes she wanted to sell, all in the one cage to show their amiability of temperament, and took queries for everyone else while they were busy. All three of her boys, as Bethany thought of them, sold for her asking prices: blue Snuff went to an injured, former military wizard who needed a new familiar, and left riding his new master’s shoulder as if he’d been doing it every day since he’d hatched; Jhorri of the completely recessive colour genes went to Aggadia Montrose, a contemporary of her aunts and almost rival of her grandmother’s; and brown Rhodri sold to a nearly teen whose magic teacher said she was ready for a familiar and whose mother was obviously pleased to have found a suitable one that was inexpensive.
Those sales left Bethany with nine thousand escuts, enough for three or four weeks rent if she could find a suitable building. Unfortunately, it seemed that there really was a shortage of available roost sheds and people hadn’t been just trying to put her grandmother off. After talking to people at the Show, checking the newspapers and talking to real estate agents Bethany could find nothing available for rent that wasn’t either totally unsuitable or not for livestock.
While she was doing that, the local authority confirmed their offer despite the disclosed details of the Charter. “It’ll serve them right,” said Bethany’s grandmother with sour glee. “We’ll need lizards here up until after they take possession, just so the place doesn’t revert to the Crown while it’s still ours.”
“They can be Bethany’s,” said Aunt Katherine coolly. “She’s still looking for somewhere to take them and that will give her a little more time.”
“Bethany’s be the ones to stay to the last minute,” her mother agreed, “but she won’t find somewhere to move them to. I’ll have the vet on hand to deal with them.”
Bethany was unhappily considering her options when she remembered something, and because she was clutching at straws while facing a deadline, she wrote a letter:
You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Bethany Aimwright and we met at the Royal Agricultural Show last year when you reviewed the dragon lizard exhibits in the Longreach Hall. You were kind enough to compliment me on my breeding exhibit.
In our conversation you mentioned that you had a large, unused dragon lizard roost at your hunting lodge near Thistleton. As our stud near Wetherbridge is being forced to cease operations by the courts, I am currently seeking other accommodation for my lizards and I wondered if your unused roost, or a portion of it, might be available for rent.
I realise that you probably wish me to approach your factor or other man of business about this matter but I have been unable to discover that person’s correct contact details and so seek your direction as to whom to approach.
She mailed it off on a trip into town to get packing boxes, then kept a close eye on the mail for a reply, but no letter came.
What did come was a large, dark car with a uniformed driver. It pulled into the farmyard, having bumped across the cattle grid inside the front gate, at ten in the morning two days after Bethany had put her letter into the mailbox. No-one got out of the car to open and close the gate, but the gate had been opened and closed. Once the car came to a halt, the driver jumped out and opened the rear passenger door on his side of the car, to allow a tall, spare man in the uniform of a senior military wizard to emerge. An unusually black dragon lizard was lifted from the car seat to his shoulder and then the man turned around.
Bethany recognised Lord Korne as soon as she saw his familiar, Black Phoenixes being incredibly rare, and the connection between his arrival and her letter was unavoidable. This wasn’t she had intended at all – Bethany had a sinking feeling that her grandmother would speak to him and find out about her request, because who else would the kingdom’s senior military wizard, and thus technically their employer, whose property shared a boundary with theirs talk to?
Indeed, her grandmother was the first one over to greet the visitor, although she had her sending-nuisances-away face on. Then Lord Korne spoke to her, quite calmly it seemed, but her grandmother got all defensive. Lord Korne spoke again and her grandmother went deadly still. Another few quiet words from his lordship, and her grandmother abruptly turned and called out in her most penetrating voice, “Bethany!”
Bethany counted to ten, emerged from the roosting barn she’d been watching from and walked briskly over to her grandmother and Lord Korne. “You wanted me, Grandma?”
“Yes, Bethany. Lord Korne wants to talk to you.” Her grandmother’s tone suggested that she couldn’t understand why.
As her grandmother went to walk away Lord Korne cut in with a calm, firm voice, “But first, Mistress Aimwright, you are going to explain to Bethany exactly who I am to her.”
“Grandma?” Bethany had no idea what his lordship was talking about.
“Lord Korne is your father.” Mistress Aimwright added bitterly, “I took you in because they had no idea what they were going to do with you, and look at the thanks I get for it!”
“You didn’t bother asking about the arrangements Theda and I had made for our daughter before you snatched her from the hospital,” corrected Lord Korne calmly. “The only reason you didn’t go to gaol was that your husband, a brilliant wordsmith by the way, managed to negotiate an acceptable agreement – which you broke as soon as he died by taking Bethany out of school. If the arrangements Theda and I made between us had held, or you’d allowed me to pay for her education, Bethany would just now be graduating from Mont Monssori or San Sabina; instead she’s fighting your attempts to stop her getting her journeyman’s beastmaster certification.”
“What good would that fancy education have done when her life is going to be here!” Bethany’s grandmother practically spat that back at him. “We’re owed-.”
“You’re owed nothing for stealing my daughter.”
“The world stole two daughters from me. The farm and I are owed.” Mistress Aimwright was passionately something, but Bethany wasn’t sure what that was. She was aware of her aunts and cousin arriving from wherever on the farm they had been.
“You are not entitled to my daughter and Bethany is not responsible for balancing the wrongs you think have been done to you.” Lord Korne’s voice remained calm and reasonable, as the man himself appeared to.
“You put ideas in Theda’s head so she didn’t want to come back here,” Mistress Aimwright aimed the accusation like a lash.
Lord Korne gave a short humourless laugh. “If you think that, then you didn’t know her very well. I never managed to put any ideas in Theda’s head, more’s the pity; certainly her interest in true dragons predates me.”
“This is…fascinating,” put in Bethany carefully, “but your lordship wanted to speak to me?”
The black drake lizard dragon on Lord Korne’s shoulder turned to look at her and made a crooning trill of approval in her direction.
Lord Korne turned to Bethany as well and said, “Please, I can understand that you may not wish to be on familiar terms with me as yet, but could you call me ‘Father’?”
“Father?” Bethany tried it out and added, “It will take some getting used to,” and just stopped herself from adding ‘sir.’
“Yes,” he nodded and smiled. “It is my intention that you and your lizards will come to live with me. Once you’re all settled in, then you can make decisions about future career and educational plans.”
“I always thought that I’d stay here and help run the stud,” replied Bethany.
“A variation on that is certainly possible,” her father agreed gravely, “but it’s not your only option, and now is not the best time to make what you think are binding decisions.”
“My lizards are supposed to be the last ones out when the sale of the farm goes through,” Bethany told him, “so the Charter doesn’t revert the land to the Crown while it’s still in our name.” She added nervously, “We told the local authority about the terms of the Charter but they still want to buy the farm.”
“So I’ve been told.” Her father’s voice was benign but his smile wasn’t. “That purchase is having some very interesting ramifications. I’ll leave you and your lizards in the care of your aunts, and I’ll come to collect you all on that last day. I wouldn’t miss the closing of this transaction for the world.” Again with the not benign smile.
Then, somehow, he bypassed Bethany’s grandmother and was making arrangements with her aunts. Katherine and Terilba for their parts were being co-operative while also trying to find out trying to more about his relationship with their sister. Finally he asked, “Ladies, why are you interested in that now?”
“Because we didn’t know who you were until now,” answered Katherine.
“And now you’re going to take Bethany off with you,” added Terilba. “We’re allowed to be…interested on her behalf.”
Lord Korne looked hard at her for a moment and said, “And you’re supposed to be the non-pushy one, are you? Fair enough. It is my wish and intention to both keep my daughter safe and encourage her in her chosen legal endeavours.” He sighed, “I add in legal because I’ve known a number of people over the years whose ambitions weren’t and those things, I will quash.”
“As we all should,” agreed Katharine, and they shook on it. Bethany’s grandmother glowered on the fringes and Bethany felt like she very much wanted to sit down somewhere quiet with a nice hot mug of cocoa.
Later, while Bethany sat at the kitchen table with her hands wrapped around a mug of cocoa that no-one was letting her go off to be private with, her grandmother started up. “I suppose now you’re going to go on about how much better off you would have been with your father than here,” she said in an angry and defensive tone.
“No,” replied Bethany, “but I don’t understand why it had to be him or here. Couldn’t I have had everyone?”
To her astonishment her grandmother seemed to collapse inwards and then sat down heavily on another of the kitchen chairs. “I wanted - well I thought if I had you, then your mother would do what I wanted. That obviously didn’t work, and the conversation afterwards wasn’t what I thought it would be. You were an easy baby to love though, no colic and you adored the sound of your grandfather’s voice.” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Things were done that couldn’t be taken back.”
And there things were left.
The sale of the land to the local authority went ahead. Aunt Katharine read snippets of the local news and the local government positions vacant sections of the paper with amused interest. A suggestion that Simone’s wedding plans should be simplified was firmly scuppered by everyone bar the suggester, and it went ahead as planned three days before the sale was completed.
All the family that Bethany’s grandmother complained she never saw, except Bethany’s mother, flooded into the farm for the day. Some arrived the night before and some stayed the night after, and every single Aimwright connection left with some favourite memento of the farmhouse. Amnesty Worthmare, the groom’s second cousin, twice removed, was heard to say that she enjoyed embroidery and found herself beladen with a large collection of unstarted projects left behind by Mistress Aimwright’s late paternal aunt. The magistrate’s wife was observed taking pictures from the road of the assembled cars at one point, but she jumped into her own car and drove off when some of the male relatives started taking pictures of her back. Someone made a crack about her complaining that they were running function centre now and then they all went back to doing wedding things. A meal was eaten, cakes were cut, toasts were made (and heckled), and dancing was done. The bride and groom finally escaped in a car, driven by a teetotal relative sworn to secrecy, in the direction of their honeymoon.
The extraneous relatives were gone by mid-afternoon the next day and then the serious packing began.
The moving van taking Aunt Katharine’s share of the furniture to her new home arrived first thing in the morning, and she followed it in a car driven by her daughter Ella who’d volunteered to drive her back and forth so she could get her lizard roost and vermin breeding shed set up, and then move her animals down too. That meant that she was pretty much out of the way.
Aunt Terilba and Bethany looked at the schedule of planned departures and started boxing up the little things they didn’t use every day that Terilba and her mother would be taking with them. Mistress Aimwright, of course, complained immediately that anything disappeared into a moving box but then had episodes of making them drop everything to move large pieces of equipment or furniture out of their everyday positions ready to be loaded – before realising that the items were needed for use in the old location almost immediately.
Settlement date came almost as a relief because they could start the count down for the money to clear. Once word came through from the bank that it was available in the account, a wait that took almost three days, Mistress Aimwright divided it up and forwarded everyone else their share. Almost immediately everyone, including Mistress Aimwright, forwarded their money to another account or accounts so that the local authority couldn’t simply reverse their transaction to get the money back when the Charter was revoked.
The lizards for the military contract were transported carefully to their new homes, with Bethany, at least, walking on tenterhooks for fear of broken eggs under the sitting dams. Both the receiving studs were well set up for their new arrivals, but Bethany went home in tears from both places, having said goodbye to lizards she’d known since childhood. Aunt Terilba, at least, would be rejoining half of them in a few days’ time.
Removal trucks came for the furniture and possessions that Mistress Aimwright was putting into storage for the new home she would be buying with her share of the money. She made it clear to anyone who was listening as the furniture was loaded that it would be in “a local authority area more supportive of rural pursuits” as she put it. The removals men just got on with their job and Bethany hovered around to make sure that nothing marked to be hers got loaded in with her grandmother’s things. Bethany was not surprised that her grandmother started complaining as soon as the vans cleared the farm’s driveway that something vital for her day-to-day doings had disappeared – it was quite clear that Mistress Aimwright was not taking the change well.
Bethany decided that her grandmother wasn’t the only one, and went and made them both a nice cup of tea. For a little while as they sat drinking together under the fruit trees out the back of the farm house, it was almost as if their recent upsets had never happened.
Then they went back inside and helped Aunt Terilba pack up. Halfway through packing up baby albums and mementoes with her aunt while her grandmother had gone down to the kitchen to start dinner, Bethany asked, “So which one is Theodora and Simone’s father, Mason or Courbridge?”
Aunt Terilba blushed, smiled and said “You’ve finally noticed have you?” She went even pinker as she added, “One of each. I was going to move out but Georgie died and then just when I thought that had settled down, your mother had her bust-up with your grandmother, and after that, it was just all too big. This is almost, finally. At last we’re where we wanted to be twenty years ago.”
Bethany asked in a small voice, “Did I stop you having more babies?”
“I don’t know that we would have tried for more children, dear,” replied her aunt. “Theodora and Simone both had dreadful colic, or something, when they were small and I was quite happy not to repeat that, I can tell you. Of course, I might have felt differently under other circumstances, but who knows,” she shrugged. “We could spend hours speculating on what ifs and it wouldn’t make one bit of difference. Now, I thought we’d put these pictures in between the two crib quilts and then put the sports trophies on top.”
All three women concentrated on their own packing after dinner with Bethany carefully checking that she had all her breeding records together, and then putting them in a suitcase leaved in between her best out of season clothes. Then she locked the suitcase and labelled it ‘Best clothes, winter – Bethany.’ Once the suitcase was stacked in the corner of her bedroom, that was the safest Bethany thought she could make them, just in case her grandmother got carried away.
This is now followed by The End Of A Way Of Life, Part 3.