We have been given to understand in our severall conversations with our dearest cousin, Lord Nottingham, that our noble and most excellent Aerial Corps suffers from the unfortunate and dismall abandonmente of severall specie of Dragon, in numbers far greater than the main. Indeed, we are most sorry to think that these reports should be true, and that the Admiralty cannot find good Englishmen in sufficient number to harnesse these valuable and noble beasts to aid us in this time of conflict and strife. We are particularly grieved to hear we must mourn the loss of those Dragons known to us as Longwinges, who have such originall and fearsome God-given gifts that they alone might be the meanes to dismay our enemies, could they but be Captained properly.
To this end we are sending to you, with much sadnesse for the loss of her fair presence, our handmaiden Lady Anne Ashley, whom we desire you should set to the Longwinge egg which even now hardens at the Covert. You may see in her only a weak and feeble woman; but she has the heart and stomach of an English patriot, and we trust and hope, as ever faith in Our Lord bids us, that she might aid us in our cause. We are quite convinced that if ever Dragon favored Damsel, as is rumored in tales of old, our much-loved Anne will bid fair to win the heart and harnesse of this hatchling, which may serve to bring such strength to our Corps and such Glory to our Crown.
Let no harm come to her, having always a care for her saftie, for she is dear to us, and let us see what this Longwinge Dragon says to the harnesse when it is offered fair by an honorable English maid.
The Queen put up her pen and blotted the parchment carefully, blowing to dry the last of the ink, folding the missive, and affixing her seal in soft wax.
"That should start them," she said grimly, with a rather vicious smile. In her chambers, Elizabeth shed some of the cool poise that so surrounded her elsewhere at court, and allowed herself more humanity – and hence, more weakness – than she might safely display elsewhere, under the watchful eye of scheming Lords, untrustworthy relations, and foreign ambassadors.
Her lady in waiting unpinned a last intricate curl from the base of the Queen's neck and sighed. "Your Majesty, I would not presume to question you in this or any other matter, but can you not send another? Eleanor, perhaps, or Gertrude? I am heartbroken at the thought that I should have to leave your side."
The Queen reached back and grasped Anne's hand, the smooth pale girlish fingers clasped in her own, which were older and bedecked with glittering gold and jewels. She squeezed briefly and let go. "My dear, you are made of sterner stuff than either of those girls, worthy and admirable though they may be, and it is in you that I place my trust. You know we cannot so provoke the Admiralty openly; the people would cry out against the very idea, should they get wind of it. Of course, it is unlikely that this will succeed at all, where so many English aviators have tried and failed. Still, I am sure that your courage and discretion will serve me well in this endeavor."
"I do not wish to fail you, Your Majesty," Anne said, her voice low.
Elizabeth stood. "Oh, Anne, you never shall. The acts to which politics drive us are not always logical, and this is a manouvre, merely, a step calculated to so dismay the Admiralty that they shall, I hope, hasten to find more effective measures of preserving the hatchlings for England's use and glory hereafter, that is all. I do not expect that this Longwing will take the harness from you at all, my dear, only that the attempt shall move the Corps to greater effort in devising solutions of their own."
"Are dragons very dangerous?" Anne was a sensible girl, clear-headed where other ladies might have had vapours or hysterics, but she could not keep a note of nervousness from her tone as she began on the buttons in the back of the Queen's gown.
"If they were not, they could hardly serve to defend England, but you must keep in mind, an adult dragon is far different from a hatchling. Even these Longwings, which when mature secrete in their jaws a venom which can kill horses and damage ships, are harmless at hatching, or so Nottingham tells me. It is just that they will take the harness from no man, though he be the most accomplished aviator in all the Corps, and we cannot afford to lose such dragons to the breeding grounds while Spain's importunate armada grows ever larger."
"Venom, Your Majesty?" Anne's fingers did not falter as she began to unlace the Queen's stays, but Elizabeth could feel them as they shook slightly against the fine silk and whalebone.
"You are the daughter of my dearest friend, and you bear my own mother's name. My love and that of Our Lord must ensure that no harm will come to you from a mere hatchling," the Queen said reassuringly. "And in any case," she continued more warmly as she stepped out of her gown, a note of rare amusement creeping into her tone, "I dare say you might find a young Longwing more kindred a spirit than otherwise; if the lashing I heard you doling out to that boor of a Dukeling yesterday is any indication, your own tongue is not without venom."
Anne flushed a deep red and bent to assist with the hooks on the Queen's boots. "He was very rude, Your Majesty," she said, looking down industriously at her work.
Elizabeth's laughter rang out across her chamber, rich and genuine. "I am sure that he was, my dear, and that he deserved every poisoned word you gave him. I have noticed his boldness and grown weary of it; your absence from court may also serve to cool his ardor, or at least direct it toward some more suitable object." She sobered. "I do not intend that you should be thrown away on a wastrel Duke, sweet Anne. You are the only daughter I am ever likely to see, though you be daughter to my dear Katherine and not myself, and I wish for you a life of more freedom and more joy than any man can give you."
"Shall I not be married, then?" Anne asked curiously, drawing off the Queen's boots.
"As your heart inclines you, but let it be your heart, forsooth, and not the desires or pressures of this world, or of others who know your heart less well, that leads you to wed." Elizabeth looked suddenly tired, and submitted to the careful removal of her jewels and brushing out of her hair with more docility than was her wont. There was a long pause, while she allowed her night-gown to be slipped over her head, and then she said, abruptly, "Sometimes I think that men do nothing but take and devour and conquer, with no thought but to fill their beds and bellies and coffers. It is a pity, really, that these Longwings are so shy of all who try them, for I think your heart and your liberty might well be safer with a dragon than with a man."
Anne looked doubtful, but gave no reply, only picking up the salver with the sealed parchment on it. "Does Your Majesty require anything else of me this evening?" she asked.
Elizabeth settled the soft satin of her night-gown around her and smiled. "Only that you sleep well, for you have a long journey ahead of you. Lord Nottingham will arrive in the morning, and you must be ready to go with him."
"Good night, Your Majesty."
"God go with you, my child, and our love also. May the wings of God's angels protect you and keep you."
Notify our royal herald that our Royal Arms are to be altered forthwith. We require, charge, and command that the right support be changed to reflect a Dragon guardant, Azure; all other elements shall remain the same. God hath granted us the strength to maintain his truth and glory and to defend his kingdom from perill, dishonour, tyranny and oppression, and let our Royal Arms show that might in its most glorious form, that all may know that He has so favoured England.