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A Study in Serpents: Being a brief memoir of Lady Trent

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You have, it seems, read the newspaper accounts of my most recent visit to Lutjarro and have interpreted them in the most flamboyant of fashions. Allow me, please, the opportunity to present a slightly more prosaic account of the proceedings. I say “slightly” because we are, of course, discussing a murder.

I was on tour of the continent to fund a research excursion into the interior to consider the interaction of the honeyseekers and their larger cousins. While the benefits that the honeyseekers derived from the Kajura were clear enough, I was less certain what the benefit was in the other direction.

But- that is not what you have inquired about. The murder.

I was seated in the parlour of our rented home in Winti when the butler who came with the house appeared at the door. “The honorable Miss Phryne Fisher and Detective Inspector Robinson, request a moment of your time, my lady.”

I raised my eyebrows at that, because I am not often called upon by a detective. “Send them in, please.”

In my youth, I had needed to buck social convention in order to wear men’s trousers in the field, where it was emminately practical. To have done so in polite society would have been intolerable and caused me to be more of an outcast than I frequently was. Yet, when Miss Fisher appeared in my door, she wore a pair of long white silk trousers that emphasized her easy gait. The white would have been impractical in the field, but it marked the first time I had seen trousers that were clearly cut for a woman’s figure. She wore a simple white blouse, also silk, topped with a long flowing open jacket. Her hair – oh, how often I had fought with my own long hair while out in the wilds – she wore it in a simple bob that ended at her chin and made the entirety look elegant.

Understand that I have never been much interested in fashion, but the fact that she thought nothing of wearing trousers on a social call served to remind me of how much customs had changed since my youth.

The detective who accompanied Miss Fisher was a slender man, who seemed to take every detail of my parlour with a glance. He held an irregularly shaped parcel, but the canvas wrapping it obscured any hint of the contents. Somewhat surprisingly, he held back while Miss Fisher approached me.

“I’m dreadfully sorry to intrude like this, but we are in need of some particular expertise.” She turned, silk flowing around her and gestured to the Detective Inspector. “Would you mind terribly looking at a specimen, Lady Trent?”

I raised my eyebrows and peered over the rim of my glasses. I find that since I have become “respectable” through the virtue of a title, that society ladies often come to me with “specimens” that they are certain belong to a dragon, not withstanding the fact that dragonbone decays without substantial chemical effort. Still, I had not taken her for one of that sort. “This is where I would, under normal circumstances quote my consultation fee. But these are not, I suspect, normal circumstances.”

Detective Inspector Robinson cleared his throat. “No madam. We are investigating a murder.”

I studied the bundle in his hands. “Best show me what you’ve brought then.”

As I pushed the papers on my desk aside, Detective Inspector Robinson came forward still holding the bundle with care. Miss Fisher hovered at his side, seeming at once intensely serious and rather like she was having fun. The detective Inspector laid the bundle on my desk and carefully pulled the oilcloth back from it. The whole while, Miss Fisher watched me, not him.

The cloth fell away to reveal an absurdly outsized claw. Please understand that many adult dragons have claws that are longer than a man’s hand, but this… This was easily as long as my forearm. What’s more, I was not even looking at the whole claw because the back of it had been jaggedly cracked off.

And the tip was coated in dried blood.

I settled my glasses a little further down my nose and leaned forward. It appeared to be a fossil, not the claw of a living beast. This was at once both a relief and a shame. A relief because any dragon that had such substantial claws would be so enormous that it would have been unable to support its own weight, without upsetting all of my understanding as a naturalist. A shame, because if this WERE a fossil, there would be no record of the rest of the creature as dragon bones decay so rapidly.

“I assume you are wondering if this is real or a fake?” I turned the cloth to slide the claw closer to me. It had curious striations on the underside as though it were built for tearing.

“Yes, exactly so.” Miss Fisher said.

D.I. Robinson added, “And also if it is from a living creature.”

“The latter answer is easy enough to give. No.”

“I told you, Jack.” She settled on the edge of my desk as though posing for a portrait. “Anything this large would have eaten half the cattle in the Kalapurlangka region”

“True enough.” I reached for the claw and stopped myself. He had said there was a murder investigation underway and it was covered in blood. “Is this the murder weapon?”

“It is. I am afraid the poor fellow was stabbed through the heart with it.”

“I see.” I picked up the claw carefully, suddenly aware that I might know the dragon naturalist whose blood this was. There are not so many of us in the world and I had corresponded with most of them. The weight of it could have come from stone or carefully cast plaster. Those striations really were curious. I turned it to look at the broken section and the answer was clear – unless the artist was a genius. “This is a genuine fossil, you can see the sediment lines here where the break exposes the interior.”

D. I. Robinson shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Would you say it is a recent break, or would it have been dug out of the ground that way?”

“Unless the fossilist was completely inept, this happened after it was extracted.”

“And do you know whose collection it came from?”

“It must be a recent find, or something of this size would have been all anyone talked about.” The color of the fossil reminded me of something. I continued to turn the giant claw over in my hands, trying to drag the memory out of my increasingly aged brain. I’m ashamed to admit, now, that the blood bothered me largely because it obscured details. Still, it looked as though the fossil were mottled rather than a uniform grey, which meant that I could at least give them a region. “I think it’s from the Inner Lurpangka region. The sediment striations often have this mottling. If you give me a few minutes, I should be able to tell you who was conducting research there.”

“Thank you, that already helps us narrow things down quite a bit.” D. I. Robinson fiddled with the edge of the cloth.

Reluctantly, I set the fossil down and slid back in my chair. “I take it that you have reason to believe that it did not belong to the murder victim?”

Miss Fisher and D.I. Robinson exchanged a glance. He rolled his eyes and gave a small nod. She turned back to me, leaning forward over the desk. “The victim was not a naturalist… He ran an opium den.”

I sighed and pulled my glasses off my nose, using the pretext of wiping them to keep my gaze down. “In that case, I am afraid I can tell you exactly who this belongs to, though I am very sorry of it.” As I’ve said, there are not so many dragon naturalists in the world, and even fewer in Lutjarro and of those, an even smaller number specialized in fossils, and among those, only one had an opium habit. I wrote his name down on a piece of paper and gave it to the detective. (I am not sharing that with you, because he was acquitted, but his lover… That is sadly another story.)

D.I. Robinson grimaced and folded the paper to place it in his pocket. “Thank you, Lady Trent, you have been very helpful.”

Running a finger along the fossil, Miss Fisher frowned at it. “And what do you make of the fossil itself?” She turned her head and her eyes widened with a delighted smile. “It is not every day that one gets to consult one of the foremost dragon naturalists in the world.”

“Flattery is not necessary, my dear. I am too old to be swayed by it.”

“And I have found that flattery is always best when it is true.” She cocked her head, long jade earrings dangling provocatively against the pale skin of her neck. “You did not earn your accolades for some other accomplishments, did you?”

I have found that peering over the rim of my glasses, while it does not allow me to see any better, does have a decided effect on the viewer. It is a small compensation for being required to wear them. In any case, I did so now. “Dragons and their cousins have been my only interest. And if you are familiar with me, at all, then you know precisely what event caused my notariety. Now as to the fossil… I suspect that the claw is outsized for the creature, but without any other evidence, I can tell you nothing about the dragon it belonged to. Although…”

“What?” She leaned forward, and the delighted curiousity was more to my taste than her honeyed words.

“The serrations on the bottom of the claw remind me a little of the Greater Lutjarran Sandwyrm, though that is much smaller. I would want to see the base of it. If you find it.”

D.I. Robinson wrapped the fossil up in the cloth again. “We’re hoping that the suspect retained the rest of the claw. If we find it, you have my promise to show it to you.”

Miss Fisher wrinkled her nose at him and hopped off my desk. “Yes Jack, but you are only promising that because you’ll need Lady Trent to verify it’s authenticity. While I will promise because I know she wants to see it.”

“The detective inspector’s reasonings do not concern me, so long as I get to see it.” I pushed against the arm of my chair and took up my cane. “You are correct in that regard.”

Miss Fisher paused before turning, with her silk trousers swinging about her ankles. “Please do let me know if you need anything while in Lutjarro.”

“Actually…” And you may laugh if you wish, but I have spent too much of my life being on the fringes of polite society to much care if I shock anyone. “Would you mind telling me who your tailor is? I very much admire your trousers.”