The daffodils were out in force, parliament went into Easter recess and men and dragons alike returned to their constituencies.
Temeraire was bounding with enthusiasm as they landed in the grounds of Castleton Hall. He was full of ideas on how to spend his break. Laurence was glad to be rid of the city, looking forward to the quietness of the hills and the company of his friend, but otherwise, he could not quite join in the happy bustle their arrival provoked.
Everyone else seemed to find good purpose in their days. Temeraire had talked of politics for the whole duration of the flight from London, and then instantly set to work helping the crofters repair some drystone walling, carrying great sacks of stones up the hills. Then there was his pet project: a cavern of the peculiar rock-crystal called bluejohn that was so abundant in the Peak District, which he had found quite accidentally, a few months before while wallowing on a sandy spot on a hillside that suddenly caved in under his weight. Having found this treasure chest of nature, Temeraire had, in London, noted the considerable prices that could be earned for polished bluejohn vases and trinkets, and started to think up a scheme for mining and selling his cave’s produce. Finally, there was the important matter of pavilion building to attend to. He had several elevation plans drawn up already. Tharkay, too, kept busy: he managed his estate, puzzled over a script in which to capture the hisses and snaps of the Durzagh language in order to compile a dictionary, and had found a shared interest with the gentleman owning the neighbouring lands, a retired East India Company man and keen falconer. Laurence alone felt adrift and rather useless. A peaceful, rural existence had had its allure, seen from the battlefield, but he had been brought up to a life of duty. It had been a struggle, yet in retrospect he couldn’t help denying that the service, for all its rigid, even pointless rules, had given a sense of structure and purpose that he now found sadly lacking.
The second morning after their arrival in the Peaks, Tharkay had gone out with Temeraire to supervise the opening of another side-cavern in his bluejohn quarry. Laurence had excused himself from the party, citing a headache that was indeed present and irksome, but not nearly as painful as witnessing everybody else’s industriousness and good cheer while he himself scarce knew how to fill the next hour. So he sat in the library and leafed through a newspaper that was several days out of date and empty of anything of consequence while a drizzling rain pattered the windowpanes, and didn’t pay attention to the snap and rustle of a great pair of wings in the courtyard. The sharp rap on the door was unmissable, though. Pressing both hands to his throbbing temples, he shouted for one of the servants to see to the door. He rose, scraping the rosewood chair across the floor rather more violently than required, and strode from the library cursing under his breath as he re-tied his neckcloth, expecting some tiresome tenant or neighbor calling.
“What an unwelcoming sort of household you keep, Admiral Laurence,” Jane Roland said cheerfully as she snapped back the rain-drenched hood of her flying-coat and tossed her pair of leather gauntlets to the young servant who had opened the door and now stood staring with her mouth half-open. One of her crew had come in behind her and was standing by the tall clock next to the door. “Will you come down to greet me? I am afraid I didn’t think to bring along one of those funny little cards.”
Her sodden wet flying coat landed in the hastily outstretched hands of the serving girl, who in turn dropped one of the gloves and let out a little shriek at the sudden sight of a great bone-spurred dragon head poking through the front door to inspect the entrance hall with saucer-sized eyes. “I’ll go tell Temeraire,” Excidium announced as he withdrew again.
Jane pushed the front door shut herself, cutting off the gusts of rain, then gave the still petrified servant a pat on the back, “Go run along and fetch us some tea, will you? Or perhaps something stronger, if you can find it, we may have need for it”
The girl nodded hastily and scurried away.
Laurence had, at this point, sufficiently recovered from his own surprise to descend the stairs at what he hoped was a measured pace. He had not seen her since they had parted in London several months past, after a blur of self-aggrandizing victory balls, society entertainments and dinner-parties, borne with composure only because he did not wish to jeopardise Temeraire’s prospects in parliament, or discredit his family’s name. Of course he knew her London address; he had even called a few times, but never found her there. Her housekeeper had informed him she was kept busy at the covert, or inspecting breeding grounds in Wales, or another time still, gone to France to accept a consignment of dragon eggs that were due to be shipped to England as part of the war reparations.
Corroborating this intelligence, Jane had sent a few letters to Castleton Hall, informing Laurence and Tharkay of the acquisition of a Fleur de Nuit for the Corps, which she intended to cross-breed across a few of the British lines (with a P.S. inquiring whether he imagined Temeraire might be inclined to show interest, should the egg hatch a dam); another time asking Laurence’s comments as former seaman and aviator alike on the construction plans of an improved dragon transport to fill the void left by the Allegiance. In between, however, she had written nothing about herself, and either not noticed or chosen to ignore their invitation to visit for Christmas. With each futile visit, Laurence had retreated a little more embarrassed, trying to tell himself he was not disappointed at all, but rather happy that she had such fulfilment in her role. He began to worry whether his visits should raise suspicion, now that there weren’t any matters of aerial strategy to discuss between them, and since he did not want to compromise her reputation, he had eventually ceased trying.
Unexpectedly facing her in the entrance hall now, he made a polite bow and kissed her hand when she offered it, damp from the rain, with the familiar smell of leather and dragon-hide about it. “Jane! … That is, Your Grace,” he corrected hastily, acutely conscious of the scurry of servants’ feet in the galleries that flanked the entrance hall, peering eyes to go with them, “What pleasant surprise. Are you straight from London, or Dover? I am sorry you find me quite unprepared. I have not had word-“
He halted abruptly at a noise from the dark behind her, a little bleating cry, like a very young animal. He looked closer, and with growing disquiet registered Jane’s companion was no crew member, but a ruddy-faced woman.
“What on earth is the meaning of…?”
Quite undermining his efforts at formality, Jane took his arm and kissed his cheek. “Good day, Laurence. I’m damned sorry to give you cause to embarrassment,” she said, “Believe me I’ve thought about it a great deal, but I couldn’t come up with a way to soften the blow. Pray let us go and sit down somewhere, so we can talk about the matter more thoroughly.”
“The matter?” he echoed.
Jane nodded, beckoning the woman behind her to step forward and allow Laurence a look at the padded basket in her arms. “Yes. May I present you with your sons.”
The new cave was magnificent, exceeding all of Temeraire’s expectations. After a short narrow passage, obstructed with stalagmites that quivered and broke under a brief gust of the Divine Wind, it opened into a glistening cavern thickly laced with purple-golden veins of bluejohn stone. Temeraire could barely resist the urge to scrape some of the treasure off straight away.
But he wanted Laurence to see it first.
Poor Laurence wasn’t in good spirits lately, although Temeraire couldn’t quite make out what was amiss. He wasn’t ill, his old scars did not pain him, they had plenty of food and books to read, they went flying whenever they wanted either alone or with Tharkay, who was very friendly and obliging a host, and even Laurence’s family had been quite nice to him lately. Perhaps he missed being a captain and fighting Napoleon, Temeraire thought, in the same way that he himself sometimes missed the snug fit of a well-tended war harness on his skin and the familiar movements of his crew about him. Temeraire hoped that the sight of the beautiful cave might cheer Laurence up.
“You have picked a good day to visit,” he announced to Excidium when the old Longwing landed outside the cavern. “See what we have found. Tharkay says they are just semi-precious stones, but they are very handsome, especially once they are polished and set.”
Excidium prodded his head into the cave. “It is very dark,” he said, then, when his eyes had adjusted a little: “Umm, yes. Pretty,” which Temeraire thought was a shocking understatement.
“Well, if you ask nicely, you may have some of them, you know,” he said indignantly, “It all belongs to Mr Tharkay, and some to me, of course, since it was me who found it in the first place.”
Tharkay clambered out from one of the overhanging ledges at the entrance to the cavern and lifted a hand to greet Excidium. “Any news?” he asked.
Excidium bobbed his head. “They are quite well, all three of them, although my Jane didn’t have an easy time of it, again.”
“Three?” Tharkay said with a grin, “Oh, Laurence…”
Temeraire, still irritated at the lack of praise for his discovery, looked from one to the other. “But what on earth are you talking about?”
Excidium readjusted his wings with a rustle and looked sternly at Temeraire. “My captain has had two eggs, sired by your Laurence as far as I know,” he announced, and, with an air of mingled pride and generosity: “Since I already have my Emily, if you ask nicely, and promise to look after them well, you may have them for yourself… although thinking of it, perhaps you would like to throw in some of those glittering stones, too.”
I'll go out on a limb and claim that by "Tharkay's estates are in the Peaks" (LoD), Laurence refers to the Peak district in the midlands, of Chatsworth House fame, not Scotland. It's beautiful guys. Go visit it.
Laurence made it into the sitting room, but then stood quite stranded in the middle of the carpeted floor, unable to speak a single word. Jane asked him something, but his ears didn’t register the words. All he could do was stare at the two infants in the basket, swaddled to their tiny faces. A swimming sense of unreality had taken hold of him, and he felt sure that at any moment now, he should jolt awake.
Yet when he knelt down and put out his hand, he could touch their heads, warm and soft with tufts of sandy hair.
One child slept tightly, but his smaller brother stirred at the movement and put out a jittering little fist. When it brushed Laurence’s hand, it opened and the delicate digits curled tightly around his finger, sea-anemone-like, with unexpected strength.
Laurence felt a wave of mingled joy and despair wash over him. My sons, he thought, the sound of it unfamiliar, mad, even just in his head.
The servant girl entered with the tea-tray, and almost stumbled over the edge of the carpet because her attention was fixed quite unabashedly on Laurence and the basket on the floor.
Jane took the tray from her hands, “Thank you, that will be all for now,” and waved her from the room. “Tea, Laurence? … No, I can see it won‘t do.”
She looked around and spotted the decanter on the mantlepiece. She poured a glass of brandy und pressed it into his free hand. He took a sip, although it was scarce eleven in the morning.
“But Jane... how?” , he finally managed.
She gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Funny you should ask that, Laurence,” she laughed. “Pray believe me I didn’t plot to bring this on you, for all the sad waste it would be should Temeraire chose to go unharnessed once you are no more…. Plainly speaking, I thought I had reached an age where I had no more reason to be cautious.” She sighed. “Turns out I jolly well ‘ad. I didn’t credit it myself, at first. A little stomach upset here and there, nothing to worry about after all the banquets and hopping around on dancefloors last summer… Excidium has a sixth sense on that matter, though, and he suspected it straight away. Then I had no end of work on my hands with all the reorganization in the corps, and the uproar your dragon rights bill has created with the admiralty board… but let’s not talk of that. They were born three days ago… no, four it is now. You must pardon me, I’ve quite lost my sense of time. No matter how meek they may look now, they can put up quite a howl at night.”
Laurence coughed and spluttered on his brandy. “Four days ago? And instead of resting, you go flying a-dragonback?”
He did not manage to keep his hand steady, his finger was suddenly released from the tiny grasp, and the child set up a pitiful wail just as Tharkay entered the room.
“Now that’s what I call a strong pair of lungs,” his host observed drily, “I believe congratulations are in order?”
He knelt down next to Laurence, and with inexplicable competence extracted the crying infant from its wrappings to hold him up and look him over thoroughly. The child was not amused, continuing to squall at the top of its little voice. His brother had woken also, opening a pair of blue eyes to look up at them in alarm, and whimpered.
Laurence felt a blush rising to his cheeks as he hastily looked down at his glass. “You might have done me the favour of at least acting surprised,” he said.
But before either Tharkay or Jane could make any reply, a large black shadow descended outside the sitting room windows and a slit-pupilled eye peered anxiously inside.
“Laurence!” Temeraire cried, “Is it true? May I see your eggs? Ow, what is that noise? … Are they not well?”
Laurence rose and, sliding up one of the windows, stroked Temeraire’s muzzle, more to steady his own nerves than those of his dragon. “No, my dear, they are perfectly well,” he said, “but perhaps you should wait just a little longer to see them, when they are settled down-”
He broke off when he noted a movement behind him, and turned to see Jane step up behind him. She had relieved Tharkay of the crying child and also taken its more docile brother out of the basket.
“There,” she said, presenting the babies to Temeraire without the slightest hesitation.
Laurence was taken aback. There probably weren’t many women on these shores quite so prepared to thrust their infants in the face of a twenty-ton dragon.
Temeraire nosed them carefully. Curiously enough, the children didn’t seem in the least perturbed. The little one even ceased its yells when Temeraire’s warm breath enveloped it, and tried to grasp at the tendrils with its tiny hands.
“They are splendid,” Temeraire said, when he had completed his inspection, “if a little small. But they will grow yet, won’t they? They haven’t said anything either. Do you think they would like a cow?”
“They’ll sure grow some more,” Jane said, still smiling, “But you must allow a year at least, before they might begin to speak, and while it is very generous of you to offer, I believe we had better wait with cows, too.”
When the wet-nurse had taken the babies away to feed them, and they sat down by the fireplace, Laurence was shocked to discover Jane had so far neglected to arrange a baptism.
“I have no objections to the thing,” she said, “but you will find it a damn headache to find a clergyman willing to put them on his books. Besides, I should have had to decide on names, when they are yours and Temeraire’s to chose.”
Laurence could only stare at this, an aviator’s practical view of the world that, after all those years, still clashed with his own convictions. He turned to Tharkay, but his friend didn’t look inclined to show support on this front.
“I don’t see what difference it should make to the boys whether some parson has dipped their heads underwater,” Tharkay said, shrugging his shoulders.
Laurence shook his head. “Really, Tenzing, sometimes I doubt you should call yourself a Christian.”
Tharkay gave a sarcastic smile. “On that you may rest assured. My late father, who was as stiff-necked as you, William, insisted on my baptism. I very much hope they’ve kept me on the books for the cult of Kali the Destroyer, though, as I should like to fit my initiation around my next visit to the Himalayas.”
Jane snorted behind her hand, but Laurence did not find this funny.
Unbending a little, Tharkey suggested they might settle on the names first, and then tend to the technicalities of who was to put them on the parish records. This question aroused the keen interest of the dragons who had placed their heads on the balcony outside to listen and participate in the discussion, leaving the house staff to awkwardly clamber over their tails and under their legs when they wanted to cross the yard.
Temeraire had a great number of sonorous suggestions that any dragonet would have been proud to wear, Invictus, Formosus, Nobilis, Excelsitas, to name but a few, or a number of imaginative Chinese first names. They gave them due consideration, but, to Temeraire's slight regret, Laurence didn't think them entirely suitable for human infants. After some hesitation, Laurence owned up to a vow he had made some twenty years ago as a young lieutenant, in a fit of defiance against his own father, to break with family tradition and name his firstborn after Lord Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar and the Nile.
Jane laughed heartily at the notion. “Horatio? Good lord, you are conscious of how he’ll be bullied, should he chose the Corps”.
Tharkay suggested they might try to win Granby for the role of godfather and attach the name of a respected Corps captain to counterbalance the naval slant. Temeraire pronounced himself happy with this idea. For the second child they settled on William Tenzing, after Wilberforce, and Tharkay, who would be his godfather.
A servant was sent on errand to the parson at the next village to inquire after the fee attracted by so irregular an entry into the church-book. Temeraire volunteered to go and fly to the nearest courier-station in Sheffield instantly, to send word to Granby and a few of their friends in Dover whom he wanted to invite for the baptism. Laurence agreed and wrote a note to Granby to convey his request.
… pleased to inform you of my good Fortune in having become a father lately…
Seeing it written down in his own hand, he couldn’t help blinking again. The whole thing still felt unreal as a dream. As he went outside to tuck the letter into Temeraire’s abbreviated harness, he briefly wondered whether he ought to write to his mother, too; however, he wasn’t sure he could stomach that task quite yet. She probably had her suspicions already, friendly as she was with Jane, and furthermore, the boys’ wet nurse had turned out to be a relation of Jane’s housekeeper, so conceivably all of Downstairs at Wollaton Hall was already blissfully abreast of the developments.
Some small abstract part of his mind told him he ought to feel embarrassed, but Laurence was surprised how hollow it rang. The more he thought of it, the more it seemed to him that he had been handed a most unexpected gift where he had no longer dared hope; and only now did he permit himself the insight of just how much it had been longed for.
This realization steeled him for the conversation with the rotund vicar who came to the house trailing behind Tharkay’s servant, and when the parson put on a disapproving face and set about a moralizing lecture, Laurence interrupted him with a cold stare.
“Thank you, Reverend, that is quite enough. I cannot remember asking your opinion on the childrens’ parentage; I merely inquired as to the process for registering their birth, as I needn’t tell you is a requirement, and for having them baptized; you may rest assured I will pay any fee you see appropriate.”
The parson gasped in outrage at being spoken to so bluntly, but he did curtail his sermon and agreed to carry out the baptism the next day, “if you should care to have your bastards brought to the chapel at noon.”
Laurence nodded and put a guinea into his hand. “Thank you. Just one more thing: I’d advise you to not use that word around them tomorrow, or I shan’t be held accountable for any damages an angry dragon might do to your steeple.”
“You continue to surprise me, Laurence,” Jane said approvingly, later that evening, “I wouldn’t have expected you to tell a man of the church to shut it.”
Laurence didn’t reply. He had controlled himself, wishing none of his anger to rub off on Temeraire whose return he expected any moment now, yet he couldn’t deny that he still felt a simmering rage at the slur against his sons, and he paced the room with his arms locked tensely.
Jane seemed to have guessed his mind. “Well, dear fellow, don’t let it get you down. The world won’t change its views, so I daresay it is much easier to stop paying those views any attention," she said, turning back to the correspondence in her lap.
He nodded, checking himself, and lingered in the doorway. He had said his good night, and ought to retreat, but something held him back. By the flickering glow of the candle on her nightstand, Jane’s face looked pale, new shadows hollowed under her eyes, and she had pulled an incongruous shawl around her shoulders although the guestroom was quite warm, possessing the advantage of an own fireplace.
“Jane,” he started, groping for words, “Are you sure you are quite well? You look…”
She raised her eyes, brows drawn together. “A fright?” she suggested, quite taking the words out of his mouth. “Pray speak your mind, I don’t mind in the least. Tharkay said something of a similar sort when I met him a few weeks ago down Leicester-way,” this quite explaining Tharkay’s lack of surprise at the birth. “No, you needn’t stare so, Laurence; I haven’t been going round the coverts showing off my belly, if that is what you fear, not more than couldn't be avoided, anyways. If you must know the particulars, I bade him come.”
“But Jane, why could I not be trusted with this? Had I no right to know?” he asked, a little desperate by now. While he acknowledged that he would have been of very little material assistance, he thought he might sensibly have prevented her from exerting herself quite as much as she had evidently done.
She shook her head. “Please, Laurence. A fretful dragon was quite enough to contend with, without your worrying and fussing… you know full well you’d have done everything in your power to interfere with me going about my daily work, if you had known about it. Tharkay, on the other hand, had the good sense to just let me be. Also, he knows a good deal about lawsuits. I wanted him to have a copy of my will for safekeeping, just in case I should’ve come to a bad pass. I wouldn’t have put it past their lordships to try and take my property away from Emily under some pretext of how lewd a woman I was after all.”
Laurence swallowed hard, wishing it an exaggeration, but he was perfectly conscious that Jane was not a woman given to dramatic overstatement. She was right, in so far as the opinion of the world was concerned, except for one detail: she seemed to consider the problem dealt with now that the boys had been born, whereas he suspected this would only be the beginning. Society was given to measure with sadly unequal yardsticks – an illegitimate child would scarce injure a man’s prospects, but for a woman, it was a different matter. He feared that once word of it spread more widely, perhaps even into the papers, something ugly might come of it all, and this after all the hard work she had put into achieving a standing.
“I see,” he said, unhappily, and tailed off. Following an urge to keep his hands busy, he tidied some of the scattered papers off the bed and floor into a neat pile. To him, the path was quite clear – the only road a sense of duty and his heart’s inclination bade him suggest – yet he could not bring himself to say it.
She nodded, a little mollified. “You have a point, in a way. I didn’t take it in my stride like I did at twenty. Seeing as all is rather quiet round the coverts at the moment, I think I might permit myself the luxury of a few days’ holiday. Your mother once mentioned Bath as the best place to go for that sort of thing, but I’ve made some enquiries about it, and it seems like I should have to leave Excidium behind if I went there.”
“Quite,” Laurence agreed, the corners of his mouth twitching a little at the thought of the commotion caused by a Longwing swooping down on Royal Crescent. “But Jane, if you want, you might just stay here a little longer,” he said, and broke off, instantly feeling a fool. It was after all Tharkay’s house, not his own, that he was so eagerly offering.
She briefly glanced at her letters, no longer pretending to be paying them attention. “It is a shame I can’t give you orders anymore. This would be quite the time to send you as far away as can be managed… I’m sorry, I don’t mean it harshly. I’m just wary of attachments.” She paused, and put away her pen with a little thud. “So I’ll be damned for saying this. I hate to put you on the spot on this sort of matter. But I’ve had the long and short of it with Emily’s legitimation – the very thought of going through all of the paperwork yet another time makes my stomach turn. So, if you don’t object, I don’t see why we shouldn’t simply be married, after all.”
Laurence froze, the pile of dispatches, inventories and victualling bills in his hands. For the second time that day, he felt inclined to distrust his senses.
“But… Jane, I have nothing to offer you, not even a house,” he stammered.
She shook her head in sincere confusion. “But why should you? I’ve got one of my own.”
No longer able to stand calm and composed, Laurence discarded the letters onto the bedside cabinet, rather too impetuously so the pile lost its balance, toppled, and a paper avalanche fluttered to the ground. He did not pay it any attention, but knelt down and took her hand, holding on tight as one might to a dinghy wont to drift away in the current any moment. “Are you sure… are you quite serious?”
She looked back a little surprised, but did not withdraw, and put her other hand on top of his. “Yes, why not, Laurence? It’s not like I have a command over you any more… and if you shouldn’t mind the frequent absences that come with the life… of course, you have all prospects of finding a younger, prettier wife yet, and I don’t mean to impose … Oh Laurence, you’re all pale. Please don’t mind me, and pray come off the floor, it looks very uncomfortable. Why don’t you go, catch some sleep and take your time to think about it?” she added sympathetically.
He shook his head. “No, no,” he said, hastily, “No, I mean…” He could feel his cheeks burning and cursed himself. He had no words prepared for this moment, he would never in his wildest dreams have imagined he might have need for them. “I mean… yes,” he managed, finally, “Yes, Jane. If you are willing to marry me, it is what I would like more than anything.”
She nodded. “Fine, then,” she said simply, “Consider it settled. Will you come off the floor now? It is a sorry sight. I shall go and seek Temeraire’s blessing tomorrow… Excidium won’t mind. My grandmother was married a while, so far as I know, and continued to serve.”
At this, said sincerely, he finally broke into a smile. He brought her hand to his face and kissed it before he released her, rose and sat down beside her, taking a deep breath. He felt giddy with happiness, his stomach aflutter, the silliest of emotions for a man of forty, and he hoped she wouldn’t notice. He fixed his eyes on the window. “I wonder why Temeraire is taking so long. It usually takes him less than an hour to the town and back.”
She shifted to kneel behind him, put her arms around his chest and rested her head on his shoulder to look at the pitch-dark night sky, too. “Pray don’t worry. It will probably do him good to spend a little time flying about and letting off steam. I’m glad he has taken it as well as he has. I must confess I was a little worried. You know as well as I do how much dragons are given to jealousy… losing the undivided attention of their captain is not something they take lightly. Although with time, you can count on them to become as fiercely protective of any child as they are of you,” she said, and, after a pause: “Speaking of which, I note we happen to be all alone at the present moment, so I shouldn’t mind a little of your undivided attention, precious commodity as it is.”
He turned around. She let go and edged back, raising her arms in mock surrender while she grinned back at him, and the next moment, he had caught her in his arms. They landed in the pillows in a tangle of limbs, crumpling half a dozen letters and smudging the half-dried ink.
“I must caution that, with a lowly baronet, you are marrying beneath your station, Your Grace,” he said in her ear, sternly.
She tousled his hair, laughing as she slid her hands under his shirt. “I daresay the Chinese emperor’s son may just about meet the bar.” She suddenly froze, grimacing, and caught his hand that had slid down to her waist. “I’m sorry, Laurence… William. I don’t like to disappoint on this engagement night of sorts, but I fear I’d better not disturb the stitches.”
“Stitches?” he asked in fresh alarm, involuntarily tightening his other arm’s grip about her shoulders.
She smiled at him lopsidedly. “Battle hard fought, and won.”
He did not attempt any reply to this, but simply pulled her close and kissed her.
When Laurence went to speak to the reverend about adding a wedding ceremony on to the baptism, the man initially seemed pleased at the rectifying effect of his remarks. He agreed without much quarrelling to waive the requirement for banns and to carry out the ceremony the next day, since Laurence handed over the fee for a license straight away, and Tharkay agreed to act as witness to certify there were no impediments to the union. Tharkay’s presence, standing beside Laurence as he made his request, conceivably tipped the scales in their favour, as it would be hard for the parson to argue against the proprietor of half the parish’s estates.
“I am in your debt yet again, Tenzing,” Laurence said ruefully, when they walked back from the vicarage through the peaceful valley. “How will I ever repay all the good favours you’ve done me?”
Tharkay gave him a sidelong glance. “It does lift the spirits to see a smile on your face every now and then, I consider that quite a handsome reward. Besides, I’ve felt the harshness of growing up with what society views as dubious parentage, and it isn’t an experience I can wish on anyone, let alone your boys.”
Before Laurence could make a reply, Tharkay pointed up at the sky. “Temeraire is back.”
Laurence followed his finger and could make out a speckle of shapes in the sky, quickly gaining on them. "Goodness gracious," he said. This was not just Temeraire, but a veritable horde of dragons, at least fifteen beasts in loose formation, playfully jostling and cavorting in the sky.
“Laurence!” Temeraire called out to him when Laurence and Tharkay arrived at the house, Temeraire and his companions having landed moments ago. “I’ve brought Iskierka and Granby, and also some guests of my own… I hope you don’t mind. They hadn’t much to do, and were all so very curious to see your hatchlings.”
“No, my dear, I don’t mind," Laurence said, hurrying over to Temeraire’s side. “Pray where have you been so long? You had me worried.”
Temeraire looked abashed. Evidently he had not been able to contain his excitement and, instead of handing over the letter at the nearest courier-stop, had winged all the way to Dover himself, and thereby picked up nearly all of his old formation and half a dozen other beasts who had lain idle. They hadn’t come back in a particularly straight line either, for Laurence was aghast to see his mother clamber off Temeraire’s back.
“We had to fetch dear Lady Allendale,” Temeraire said, by way of explanation, “I thought she would very much like to meet the hatchlings, and so she did. She insisted on coming along straight away, because a carriage would have taken far too long.”
Lady Allendale smoothened her skirts and smiled as she extended her hand to him. “William, my darling, I must pronounce myself a little shaken at the news, although I cannot call them entirely unwelcome… so it is two boys, this time? And how does your eldest – I haven’t had a letter from dear Emily in a while.”
Laurence blushed crimson. This time. But the time for clearing up this misunderstanding had most definitely passed, and in any case, Emily was to quite officially become his stepdaughter, so he simply nodded. “Indeed… For all I know, she is doing quite well. She has lately made Second Lieutenant on Mortiferus, although Jane can tell you the particulars… Welcome to Castleton Hall, mother.”
Granby broke into a hearty laughter behind him and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Good day, Laurence! I think that was the best letter I’ve had all year. Congratulations. Pray, may I meet my godson?”
This request was enthusiastically echoed by Captains Little, Harcourt, Berkley and Chenery, who had come walking over from their beasts. Laurence shook hands all round, and suggested they repair inside to see the twins. Casting a look back over his shoulders before the entrance door closed behind them, he worriedly registered Temeraire and Iskierka locked in heated debate.
“No, it does not mean he is yours for the taking,” Temeraire was saying indignantly, his ruff up, “He still belongs to Laurence, even if he becomes Granby’s godson.”
“I don’t think so,” Iskierka retorted, “Granby has told me if he has a godson, it means he needs to look after him, and make him presents and such like, and to my mind that sounds very much like a harnessing, especially if the hatchling should take Granby’s name too! Anyways, I think you are being very shabby about this whole thing, if you have two of them after all. Who does the second one go to?”
“Tharkay, fortunately, who has not made any such ridiculous suggestions!”
Laurence would have liked to step in, even just to save his mother’s nerves, but he caught Tharkay’s eye. His friend made a small gesture that seemed to say, let them be, and pointed the way to the sitting room. “I hope all of you will all take tea? I have a few announcements to make.”
The vicar’s enthusiasm for conducting the marriage visibly evaporated once he caught sight of the bride. Jane had put on her dress uniform with its gleaming buttons and silver-hilted sword, which had gone a long way in sweetening Temeraire to give his consent straight away, but visibly horrified the cleric. There was nothing to be done about it, though, for she had not even brought a dress, and in her support, Lady Allendale had argued with the gravitas of the society veteran that uniforms represented perfectly acceptable ceremonial attire for serving members of the forces. None of the villagers attended, anyways, the dragons disposed awkwardly between the headstones in the churchyard serving as a powerful deterrent regardless of their certain curiosity, so the potential for scandal was limited. The only exception were a gaggle of village children perched on the churchyard wall who gawked at the dragons and, growing bored and bold, started to poke Nitidus’ tail with sticks until the little Pascal’s Blue twitched his tail in irritation and snapped his jaws in their direction, sending them running away squealing.
Temeraire had secured himself a place by the largest window and peered inside intently, trying to make out what was happening through the blurry leaded glass. He was very irritated by Iskierka continuing to make uncalled-for remarks, for example on the state of Laurence’s clothing, a plain dark frock coat borrowed from Tharkay which admittedly wasn’t nearly as fine as Jane’s uniform, or Granby’s. Unfortunately, Laurence had point-blank refused to wear his Chinese robes, and had indeed quite shamefully neglected his wardrobe these last few months. Temeraire made a mental note to take better care of him in that respect.
The hatchlings at least looked very fine, since dear Lady Allendale had thought of bringing along a set of ruffly caps and gowns, one of which, apparently, had once been used for Laurence’s own christening, although Temeraire thought this must be a mistake, for it was plainly inconceivable that Laurence should ever have been this small.
Their heads were wetted with water and their names given to them – a very strange sort of harnessing ceremony, Temeraire thought, and one which the littler twin in particular seemed to dislike, for he started wailing and would not be soothed.
“How very noisy Tharkay’s one is,” Iskierka said, “it can quite ruin one’s sleep, having to listen to that.”
“I don’t think so at all,” Temeraire lied, but he could not help scraping the ground with his talons nervously. Something about the child’s plaintive cry seemed to travel straight from his ears to his heart, and there touch on a powerful protective instinct, much like when he’d had a fellow dragon’s egg in his care. He nosed around the windows, wondering whether one might contrive to open one of them…
Tharkay looked up inside, caught sight of him, and frowned. “Excuse me,” he said to the vicar, and came outside, the crying child still in his arms.
“Don’t you even think of breaking that window,” Tharkay said sternly, "I had it replaced just a few weeks ago."
"Well, I wasn’t going to,” Temeraire said, guiltily, and quickly bent down to check on little William, whose bald head had gone all red and angry from crying. “You must hold out just a little longer,” he whispered to the child, “even though I know it is dreadfully boring, and you are probably hungry, and I’d rather not have Laurence get married, either. But it is said to be very important for your future, so you’d better stick it out.”
At least so Admiral Roland had said in the morning. She had explained how much help it would be to the hatchlings should she and Laurence go through this tedious ceremony, and she had also said that she hoped it would not make any difference to his life with Laurence, especially since she and Excidium would be called away again very soon. Temeraire had nodded enthusiastically then – he only wanted the best for Laurence’s hatchlings, anything else would be plain selfish, and if his time in Westminster had taught him anything so far, it was the absurd importance people attached to odd ceremonies. However, since giving his blessing for her and Laurence to be married, Temeraire hadn’t stopped wondering how soon exactly Jane and Excidium might leave again.
The infant looked at him wide-eyed as its cries went to whimpers, and stopped. Tharkay grinned, rocking the child. “I daresay I share your sentiments, but I fear we are holding up proceedings,” just as Laurence and Granby came walking out to them looking worried, and asking what was amiss.
“Nothing,” Temeraire and Tharkay said, almost as one, and after exchanging a last conspiratorial glance with Temeraire, Tharkay took the baby back inside, and the vicar called the bride and groom forward to carry on with their vows.
Temeraire brought his eye closer to the window to watch. Excidium came trudging up behind him. The old Longwing glanced at the window. “I would not attach too much weight to those silly vows,” he said, disparagingly, “it all sounds so damn serious, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live, and so on… but my first captain married a marquess, for his money and castle as she said herself – a handsome castle it was, by the by – but she never stopped flying with me, and he always seemed to be running after other women, no matter of what they’d sworn."
Temeraire nodded, although he didn’t feel very reassured. Laurence had never been one to take promises lightly. He sighed a little, and edged back from the window. It was done, anyways.
The look of Laurence at the church door almost repaid him for his sacrifice, though, for Laurence looked as gleefully happy as Temeraire hadn’t seen him in months. The aviators formed a pretty guard of honour, holding up their swords and cheering. Jane tossed her little bouquet of daffodils into the air, and Granby dodged to avoid it hitting him flat on the chest, provoking much protest about how this constituted cheating. Berkeley finally picked it up from the ground and, after tucking one daffodil into his lapel, presented it to Maximus with a flourish. The great Regal Copper was moved almost to tears and insisted on having it tied to his harness at once, although it looked rather pathetic on so large a dragon.
Temeraire couldn’t help being carried along by the general merriness of the moment, even though his heart ached at the look of Laurence’s new narrow wedding band and its mate on Admiral Roland’s hand – cheap brass only, as there hadn’t been time to find a set of gold, and quite innocuous-looking next to, for example, Jane’s signet ring, although Temeraire would not be deceived about that. He swallowed, and bent down to Laurence, who was looking at him with a note of worry. “Is anything the matter, my dear?” Laurence asked.
"Oh no, not at all! We…. we thought we might take you back to the hall, Iskierka, Excidium and I,” Temeraire said, and, valiantly striving to keep any note of jealousy from his voice, added: “Perhaps you might ride on Excidium with Admiral Roland, and Iskierka can take Granby and Horatio, and I Tharkay and the little one, if they like?” He cast a quick glance to Iskierka, who looked unbearably smug, and quickly looked away again.
"Thank you, my dear, that is a very good idea,” Laurence said, relief in his voice, and stroked his neck.
Temeraire rubbed his nose against Laurence’s hand, and then quite against all instincts nudged him over to where Excidium had protectively snapped his foreclaws around Jane and was whispering something to her while she patted his head. He swung his head around to Iskierka to check Granby and little Horatio were strapped on quite safely – it was only a few minutes’ flight, but he did not want to take any chances – and then, satisfied, helped Tharkay climb up to his back with the little twin and the wet-nurse. He’d have to get used to all this. But for now, all he wanted was for dear Laurence to be happy.
The wedding feast was lovely, and Temeraire registered with satisfaction that it was sure to be the talk of the Corps for the next few weeks. The captains had made a collection, and sent Immortalis and Messoria to the surrounding villages with the proceeds to buy some twenty heads of cattle. The dragons had accomplished the purchases with a routine air, provoking Captain Sutton to shake his head and complain that Messoria had adjusted to the new property rights at astonishing speed given her usual reservation against innovations, and was growing chubby with all the treats she liked to buy with their prize-money.
When the wedding party arrived back at the house, the kitchen hands were already supervising a few oxen pleasantly spit-roasting outside, with a caking of ground pepper and edible herbs. For the humans, a somewhat mismatched assortment of tables and chairs had been set up on the lawn, and one dish after another was brought up by the servants. The kitchen hadn't been prepared for a celebration, and Tharkay’s cook had complained bitterly at the short notice and resulting lack of finer ingredients, but he’d made a commendable effort with the material he had. There was even a brandy-laced fruit cake. Granby permitted Iskierka to blow a tiny gust of flame onto it, sending blue flames dancing, to the cheering of the guests.
All house staff not presently engaged in the kitchens or attending the guests were allowed to join in the celebrations, along with the crew members the dragons had brought along and some of the crofters who had become accustomed to Temeraire’s company and weren’t shy to join in when they came walking past. Tharkay had a few barrels of beer brought up from the cellars, thus eventually encouraging the more daring villagers. Someone brought out a fiddle, one of Chenery’s lieutenants had a flute, and one of the drummer boys was drafted into the impromptu ensemble. Immortalis, who was fond of music, hummed a tune for them to take up and tapped out the beat, and soon, a lively hornpipe sounded out over the lawn, inviting all to dance.
“I’m very sorry,” Jane said to Laurence when he escorted her back to her seat after the first set, “That must have hurt your feet quite a bit. As you can see, I’ve already unlearned everything you showed me last summer… wretched shame that we are so short on ladies, with you so good a dancer, and me such a disaster.”
He tried to protest, saying she had acquitted herself none too badly, all things considered, but she laughed and waved the boys’ wet-nurse over to them. “Helen, can you dance?” she asked, “I need a break, and if it means I shall have to watch those noisy troublemakers myself for a little while.”
Helen Walker nodded shyly, and Laurence had no choice but to offer her his arm for the next dance. Mrs Walker was not the sort of woman he would have chosen for a nurse, let alone a dance partner - a seasoned widow of the baggage train who had lost her husband in battle and her youngest child to a fever, although after the last few days, he couldn’t help but begin to agree with Jane’s judgement. A wet-nurse of steady nerves and utter calm in the presence of dragons was a unique asset to two children who only needed to set up a squall to bring two nervous heavyweights bounding from the sky. And as it turned out, for a woman of her station and stature, she was also a surprisingly good dancer.
They had just finished a lively quadrille when a carriage pulled up outside the house, and from it emerged Tharkay’s neighbour, Sir Godfrey Chilcott, with his wife and daughter. The Chilcotts came walking around to the lawn when nobody answered their knocking, their eyes darting full of curiosity from Laurence to Mrs Walker in her plain grey dress, even as they apologized for their countryside roguishness of arriving uninvited, before tactlessly cutting straight to inquiring after the occasion of the celebration.
Lady Chilcott in particular looked relieved when she heard it was only the awkward house guest getting married, not the owner of the estate, who in her eyes likely figured as an eligible option for her daughter. Although the questioning seemed rather distasteful, Laurence invited them to stay, as good manners bade him. With the Chilcott ladies, his mother would at least have some suitable conversation partners. The newcomers accepted gladly, and Laurence showed them to the tables.
Warren lifted his glass for a toast when Laurence sat down again beside Jane. “To the happy couple, and their sons! As we say in the Corps, may the thunderclouds flee you, islands unfurl beneath you, the sun shine warm upon your face…”
To which Jane took Laurence’s hand and, pulling him up to standing with her, raised her own glass, and completed: “… and the wind be ever in our back!” kissing him heartily.
There was a round of cheers and exclamations of “Godspeed!” as they sat down and drunk, fragile white petals blowing over them from a gnarled old apple tree, and Laurence was at the the same time confused and heartened that the Corps should have such a thing as wedding traditions. Warren nudged him and added, conspiratorially: “I can‘t thank you enough, Laurence, for finally making up your mind. It‘s won me a nice sum in my wager with Chenery. Of course most of us suspected you, when we heard Roland was having a late lamb, although Chenery thought it couldn’t be yours after all, as you would’ve made a fuss about it, like when Harcourt’s boy was born, which you didn’t… kept us all guessing, and the odds rising. Well, until now, so may I thank you again, splendidly done.”
“Glad to have been of service,” Laurence said, blushing. Fortunately, his mother had already drawn the Chilcotts into a conversation about the benefits of a pleasant countryside existence, as opposed to the rush and bustle of the city. It was lucky indeed.
“The second one, though!” Jane was saying to Captain Harcourt, who had swapped seats with Warren to sit next to her, and was rocking the child in question on her lap, “As inconvenient and stubborn as his father, chosing to be born a complete breech. I tell you, after ten hours, I was ready to ask them to simply cut me open, and be done with it…”
Laurence rose quickly and fled from overhearing more of the conversation, Harcourt’s grim nod being quite enough for him. On the other side of the table, Granby, with all his two-day experience of godfatherhood, was proudly demonstrating to Captain Little how to hold baby Horatio, who slept soundly even while being handed around awkwardly. He noticed Tharkay sitting alone, watching the trio with a faint note of wistfulness on his face, so Laurence sat down beside him.
“Your mother tells me they have your eyes, and your hair,” Tharkay said.
“And in your opinion?” Laurence asked.
Tharkay shrugged his shoulders, and refilled his glass. “All infants look the same to me. I just pray they don’t have your tendency to insubordination.”
“It is to be hoped,” Laurence murmured, “But Tenzing, I feel a damned wretch for imposing on your hospitality quite so much. I imagine Jane wouldn’t object to me and the boys staying in her London house when Parliament goes back into session, but the miasma of the city isn’t a place for young children. So I think I ought to look for a house of my own, ideally in this area, as Temeraire has grown so attached to the hills. Have you any recommendations?”
Tharkay shook his head. “None in particular. You might want to speak to Sir Godfrey on the matter, he is quite well connected in these parts … although I have no objections to you staying as long as you like, and your family, of course. The hall has more rooms than I could possibly ever use, and Temeraire is of real help on the estate.”
“But, what of you?” Laurence asked, “Surely you must have a wish for a family of your own soon? The young lady over there has been looking over your way incessantly since arriving, and you haven’t even asked her to dance. It is quite criminal.”
Tharkay followed his glance, and snorted. “Miss Chilcott? Well, I can live with that. A young lady starting every second sentence with ‘Knowing you to be the exception to the rules about foreigners, Mr Tharkay …’ is quite enough to douse any warm feelings one might develop towards her property… No, Laurence, spare me your matchmaking, or I shall see myself forced to turn you out of my house after all.”
Meanwhile by the roasting-pits, Temeraire was graciously accepting the congratulations of his fellow dragons as they had their cows. Crunching on a juicy leg-bone, he went over the last three days’ events in his mind, and came to the conclusion that he did not mind Laurence having offspring of his own. In fact, he quite welcomed it, having found it rather hard to adjust to the loss of his crew, on their retirement from the service. It was not like the hatchlings would be of use as crew members any time soon, helpless and ridiculous as they were, but nevertheless, it was better to have them than none at all. Furthermore, his dragon friends were pleasantly jealous of them, as one might be of a particularly desirable jewel, and the birth of not just one, but two younglings at once only further increased his prestige. Temeraire mused aloud that quite possibly, some of the credit was his anyways, as he too was hatched from a twin pair of eggs, and in China, the Celestial breed was thought very good fortune.
Iskierka obviously believed it, for she said at least three times that she didn’t, and thumped her spiky tail in annoyance. Perscitia also rejected the notion point-blank, claiming there must be some proper scientific explanation for how twin eggs were formed.
“I have read a number of very instructive books on the subject of human procreation,” she said, “and fortune didn’t come into it at all.”
“What, scientific books you mean?” Maximus grunted, looking up from his cow.
“Well, I think they might have been more like, correspondence,” Perscitia said, “Fanny Hill, was the name of one of them. I can highly recommend it, it is very enlightening, if a little hard to come by,” but regardless of that opinion, there was already a good degree of murmuring among the gathered dragons, and by the end of the meal, Temeraire had had several offers of handsome trinkets in return for the favour of his sleeping outside their childless captains’ lodgings, in case he might bring similar good luck to them.
As the servants cleared away the remains of their meal, the main focus of the conversation shifted to the care and upbringing of human hatchlings. Excidium and Lily were quite pleased to be the focus of draconic attention, sharing their extensive collection of anecdotes and words of wisdom.
“How do you mean, they don’t talk for years?” Nitidus asked, in tones of shocked incredulity, “What is one to do with them?”
“Perhaps nobody has really tried it yet,” Dulcia said.
“I have,” Lily said loftily, “And it didn’t work at all, at least not until Catherine’s egg was over a year old. It might have been because he is a boy, of course. I’m sure girls are much cleverer.”
Dulcia looked doubtful about this. “What is it you fellows have against men, anyways? I’m perfectly happy with my Chenery. I’m sure he spoke very early on.”
“Well, they smell, they can’t do two things at once, and you fellows like to forget that they used to be particularly nasty to us, a few centuries ago, when all they could think of was to go and try and kill us for the sake of impressing young maidens," Lily said, “Let’s kill the acid-spitters, they are the most dangerous of them all, yes, don’t you forget it. I don’t think any of the maidens were ever that impressed, anyways, as the female sex is generally so much more sensible and agreeable.”
“Laurence is perfectly sensible, thank you very much,” Temeraire said, and, changing the subject, brought out a particularly beautiful piece of bluejohn stone, violet and green laced with veins of shimmering quartz, which he carried in his claw like a delicate pebble. He had found it only yesterday, in the new side-cavern, and had initially intended to present it to the hatchlings, but then realized it was more than the size of the babies’ heads, and not very suitable as a toy. He cleared his throat and handed it to Excidium. “Please have this as a token of my gratitude for letting Laurence and me have your Captain’s eggs,” this with a pointed look over to Iskierka.
Excidium rolled the gemstone around delightedly. “Why, that is very beautiful,” he said, “Thank you very much. I shall ask my Jane to have it polished and set as a breast-plate.”
On the day of her departure, Laurence insisted Jane leave her packing to him, and stay in bed to rest until he was done. She wouldn’t hear of it.
“I am expected in Southampton by noon, and I shall have to drum half my crew out of the gin-holes and brothels of London before then, so will you stop this nonsense, and let me get dressed? …Where is Temeraire, any road, that you have time to fuss over me instead?”
“Gone to see a merchant in Derby, to complain about an erroneous bill,” Laurence said, barring her way when she tried to get up. Temeraire had sold his first batch of uncut bluejohn stone, but there had been an awkward surprise when the receipt arrived, for the merchant seemed to labour under the impression that dragons could not do sums. Temeraire had immediately found an error in the calculation for the crown duty taxed, as well as several mistakes in the list of quality and weight of the goods supplied that left him short of nearly a quarter of what he should have received.
Laurence pointed to the tray of coffee and buttered toast that one of the servants had placed on the bedside table. “Eat something first… begging your pardon, but we are married now, so every now and then, you will have to do as I say.”
The answer to this came in the shape of a pillow flung at his head. He batted it away and continued to fold her shirts unfazed. From the corner of his eye, he watched her turn her attention to the coffee-pot with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. After two weeks Jane’s face had regained most of its colour. She had refused to see a doctor, claiming she wasn’t ill, so a midwife summoned from the village had removed the stitches the day before. Laurence had secretly taken the woman aside to inquire after Jane’s health, afterwards; he’d been reassured, but a shred of worry remained.
He shut the trunk with a thud, and picked up her green coat that had been hanging over a chair by the window. As he turned it around to brush a few streaks of dried mud from the broadcloth, something fell out of one of the inside pockets. He picked it up from the floor and wanted to slip it back in its place, when recognition suddenly dawned on him: a smooth little jade pendant, Chinese characters engraved in it: The legend of Mu-lan. He remembered the day he had bought it in Peking.
“You’ve kept this, all those years?” he asked, and could not help feeling a little moved.
She craned her neck to see what he was holding, and nodded. “Why not? A good-luck charm can’t do no harm to anyone.”
There was a knock on the door. It was Mrs Walker with the twins, fed, bathed and neat in a set of little collared dresses Lady Allendale had made for them. Laurence took the boys. He prided himself on becoming better at this every day, even if it didn’t come as naturally to him as, for instance, to Tharkay, and for once, little Will did not set up a howl as he carried them over to Jane.
“Say goodbye to your mother,” he told them, “We mightn’t see her for a few months yet.”
Horatio grasped at the jade pendant, and tried to stick it in his mouth. Jane stroked the twins’ heads. “Oh, I daresay it is more likely to be weeks, if you return to London for parliament. I have some business to discuss at the admiralty board. The victualling lists they’ve sent me were riddled with mistakes… besides, I have a favour to ask.”
Laurence nodded, trying – and failing – to pry the pendant from Horatio’s fist one-handed while not waking little Will. “Always happy to oblige,” he said, distracted. “Oh, will you let go…”
Jane laughed. “You’d better hear me out.” Taking advantage of his preoccupation, she swung herself out of bed, and pulled on her breeches. “Will you take my seat in the House of Lords?”
He looked up in disbelief. “Pardon me?”
“They gave me my coronet, so I have every right to be in the House,” she said, buttoning her shirt, “except I cannot, because they have a silly rule about women not being allowed to speak in their hallowed halls … but I believe they will have no quarrel with you, seeing as you are my lawful wedded husband,” she winked at him as she tied her stock, “Lord over all my earthly possessions. And since you will be in London anyways, with Temeraire…”
Laurence shook his head doubtfully. He could think of at least a dozen reasons why the Lord Chancellor should object. He had already felt his imaginativeness when it came to Temeraire’s assumption of a seat that was rightfully his, as there had been one tedious obstruction after another, from concerns voiced over the damage his claws might do to the floor tiles, to a motion brought by one particularly unpleasant Mr Sharpe of Middlesbrough to have all draconic members removed from parliament for being under too direct an influence from their human companions. “Jane, I doubt it should be possible. I do not acquire your title, through marriage, and my own gives me no right to be in the House – they’ve seen to that. And even if they were to bend the rules, for which they have no reason, it must give the appearance of me taking advantage of you to further my own interests.”
Jane rolled her eyes, flicking her silver-streaked hair into a tight braid. “Because a political marriage is shockingly unheard of… no, you’d fit right in. Of course, I’d expect a degree of loyalty to the interests of the Corps, and our dragons.” She shrugged into her coat. “You’ve seen the latest papers, I believe? … I daresay there isn’t a single advocate of ours to be found in that chamber, and it does worry me.”
He nodded. The Times had published several letters by enraged tradespeople, claiming dragons were wrecking their business, one of them containing a thinly veiled call to cull unharnessed dragons. It was not like one could claim there was no work to be done, and he had to admit it seemed a species of cowardice to turn down a chance to speak out for the rights of those less privileged than him, no matter the way in which it had been won.
“I’ll speak with Hammond, when I see him next, and see what can be done,” he conceded.
His chance to discuss the matter came earlier than hoped, since Hammond arrived in persona a few days later. With a sinking feeling, Laurence noticed that he was waving a newspaper as he slid off Churki’s feathered back. A half-page was given over to the subject of his recent matrimony, a highly fictionalised account, although the main text was not as slanderous as it might have been, containing not a word about his sons. Perhaps Wellesley‘s wartime censure system was still operational, he thought drily.
“Admiral Laurence!” Hammond exclaimed as he nearly shook his hand off, “this is prodigious good news. I am a little disappointed you didn’t hold a larger wedding, your wife being a Duchess after all – I could have gotten you Westminster Cathedral if you’d sent word! It would have been very heartening to the populace, the wedding of two of England’s great war heroes…”
Laurence recoiled at the notion, but Hammond didn’t seem to notice.
“And I have it from several secure sources that you have become a father – which is even better! I can‘t begin to tell you how useful your sons will be to England, should the Emperor accept them into the Royal family, as I daresay he will, if Temeraire chooses one of them for Captain,” Hammond carried on, breathless, “Have you thought of sending them to the Chinese court for some time? It would work wonders for strengthening our alliance...”
Laurence freed his hand. “Most certainly not. They are but four weeks old. At the present moment, the Emperor does not even know of their existence.”
Hammond did not look at all disheartened. “Well, we will see about that,” he said, in conciliatory tones, “For the moment, I’m happy that at least one man around here seems to know his duty.”
Churki ruffled herself up. “As cannot be said of you.” And, to Temeraire: “Would you credit it? He still hasn’t managed a single egg of his own, even though I found him a lovely wife.”
“Who is a bouncing rich widow with three half-grown children of her own,” Hammond said. “The perfect match in her eyes.” He stroked his dragon affectionately. Laurence congratulated him.
“Oh, we aren’t to be married until two weeks time,” Hammond said, “It is not as if everyone has the means to obtain a special license.”
Unsurprisingly, Hammond was thrilled at the idea of setting Laurence up in the House of Lords, when Laurence carefully introduced Jane’s scheme at dinner, and he professed himself surprised that he shouldn’t have thought of it himself. Although Laurence directly assuming Jane’s seat was out of the question, Hammond pronounced himself optimistic that he should be able to drum up adequate support for having Laurence named a baron, and thereby eligible for the House, on the occasion of his marriage to the Duchess of Shoeburyness.
“I am afraid I may have maneuvered myself into a corner, Tenzing… You know I’m no politician,” Laurence said to Tharkay, gloomily, when they shared a glass of port by the fireplace, before going to sleep. “I was looking forward to bringing up my sons in peace, and haven’t the slightest wish to be sucked into the Westminster maelstrom… I must confess I rather hoped Hammond wouldn’t think it possible, but it looks like the devil might find a way after all.”
Tharkay regarded him levelly over the rim of his glass. “Pray take heart. There’s nothing that cannot be learned, with a little goodwill. Just think of how much pleasure it will give to Temeraire, to see you in the House of Lords, or, even better, how much it will annoy certain members of the House, to have you sit right amongst them.”
This was indisputably true. Temeraire was delighted at the notion of Laurence being made a Lord, when Hammond cunningly dropped the idea in his ear. “Oh, Laurence, it would be so very handsome, to see you in those red robes with tassels on … I should very much like to see Iskierka’s face!”
Laurence pronounced himself defeated.
When the robes did, in fact, arrive a few weeks later, thanks to Hammond’s tireless efforts, Laurence almost couldn’t bear to put them on. They vividly reminded him of his father, who had served in the House for many years, and regarding himself in a mirror, he couldn’t help contemplating what Lord Allendale should have made of the masquerade, taking away the unhappy conclusion that the old man would have disapproved. He couldn’t find much to like about it, either, for Hammond was not a man to ever act out of altruism, and Laurence strongly suspected the diplomat had his eyes set on his sons as political pawns. Temeraire had written to his mother, and surprisingly soon afterwards, a breathless Chinese courier had delivered a beautiful jade-bound scroll containing a most enthusiastic note of congratulations, as well as a bundle of magnificent little silk robes and hats fit for a pair of Chinese princes, ample proof of the Emperor’s goodwill.
So when Laurence first entered the House one crisp September morning, and was met with ironically subservient greetings and poorly hidden sniggers, the only thing that stopped him turning on his heels was the thought of Temeraire, and of his sons. He did have a duty to try and afford change in the hardened minds of those around him, if only for their sake. So when he was given the right to speak, the glass turned, the sand flowing, he drew himself up and faced the hostile stares across the room. He’d gone over his maiden speech with Temeraire, several times, until they were both entirely satisfied with it, and now, the words came across his lips easier than he would have thought possible.
“Many of you have reasons to distrust and despise me, for having hazarded the very fate of our nation against the welfare of Eurasia’s dragons. I cannot think ill of you for it, for I myself I used to think of dragons as nothing but brutish beasts of war. I should, however, like to explain to you how I have come to witness every proof of their sentience and soul, and have arrived at the conviction that they deserve not merely our care, but our respect and love as our equals.”