Snippet: The Dragons of Pemberley by Maria Grace

“I imagine you will want the rest of the day to become reacquainted with your estate.” St. John muttered, his voice scratchy and irritating, as he righted his posture and straightened his brown coat. When had he woken up?

“It is customary. In fact, I think several days would be appropriate.” Richard rolled his eyes a bit—that favorite Fitzwilliam expression he would likely never give up.

“I have been away some months, and I will need to meet with my steward, the head shepherd, and several of the major farmers.”

“The local vicar, the magistrate, and the head of the parish council, as well, I imagine?” St. John all but sneered. “I find it telling where Order business falls in your priorities.”

“Excuse me?” Darcy might finally succumb to his urge to pitch the man out of the carriage, something he had considered more than once over the last several days.

“You do understand the seriousness of the matters at hand?” Something about St. John’s questions felt entirely insincere.

Why had Darcy agreed to have a man who was a clear opponent to his wife and her office as a guest in his home? Now that same man was questioning his loyalty to the Order? The irony. “No other estate employs as many dragon Friends, dragons, and hearers without Friends as Pemberley. I would say the business of Pemberley is the business of the Order.”

“I am sure you would.”

“What precisely is that supposed to mean?” Darcy’s voice dropped in pitch as he pulled his shoulders back and expanded his chest.

“That you have an egotistical, self-serving estimation of what Order business entails.” St. John huffed and folded his arms over his chest. “Yes, yes, I am aware that you have carried the Dragon Slayer and that, in popular opinion, makes you quite the hero of the Order. But such showy demonstrations are not what keep the Order running. A true hero of the Order—”

“A true hero? Have you any notion of what you are saying, man?” Richard brought his foot down heavily and leaned forward, just a hint of danger in his eyes. “I would not so freely insult one who has come face to face with not just one, but two angry firedrakes with blood in their eyes and lived to tell the tale. Can you say you have done as much for the Order?”

St. John had probably not even faced an angry puck.

His cheeks seemed to puff and his face colored. “That is exactly the trouble with men like you. You see the sword as the final, best answer to all the Order’s problems, and it is not.”

“Then what would you suggest is the final, best answer?” Once offended, Richard would not be easily called off, so Darcy leaned back into the squabs to let them fight it out.

“Have you never heard the pen is mightier than the sword?” Such a smug look St. John wore.

“You are going to prove your point with a cliché? You must be mad. I have never had a man try to kill me with his pen.”

“You think not?”

“I am rather certain with what implements my life has been threatened.” Richard also bore the scars left by a number of those implements, but it would not be proper to mention that.

“Have you ever considered the orders that sent you into those actions?”

“What do you mean?”

“The king’s orders, the general’s order, all of the like, those were formed by a pen.”

Richard snorted, his upper lip curled back.

“You think that too literal? What about the Pendragon Treaty and Accords? Those came into being by an act of the pen, not the sword. They accomplished what the sword could not.”

Though Darcy loathed to admit it, St. John did have a point.

St. John leaned in, eyes narrow. “And how do you think the provisions of those documents are managed? I will give you a hint, it is not by the sword even now. No, it is by the office of the Secretary of the Order. Through our enforcement of each and every provision, in every county, every parish, every village, every estate. The state of the Dragon State rises and falls on the oversight of the Secretary and his division. Not even the Chancellor has so much influence on the day-to-day lives of those in the Order as we do.” The tight little smile that stretched his thin lips was nothing short of self-important. “And after the recent showing of the Derbyshire dragons, it is quite clear that the affairs of this county have not been properly managed for quite some time.”

Darcy stepped on Richard’s foot, hard; an unsubtle suggestion that he not comment on this new round of veiled insults. “Yes, that is quite obvious, and unfortunate, but I can assure you that Pemberley—”

“Did you not just say that you have been away for quite some time and are not even well-acquainted with the affairs of your own estate?” St. John settled his hands over his paunch, so pleased with himself.

“I said no such thing. I have left trusted men in charge of all aspects of the estate.” Heat crept up from Darcy’s neck to his ears.

“Who have run it in your stead, leaving you unaware of the specific details of the estate.”

“That does not imply that the estate has been ill-managed.”

“It does not imply that it has been well-managed.”

“I have faith—”

“That is well and good for you, but the Order does not run on faith. It runs on facts and on adherence to the rule of law. If your estate is as well in hand as you suggest, then I am certain you will not object to me beginning my audit of the region with Pemberley.”