Born into an Aerial Corps family of fame and notoriety, William Tenzing Laurence, youngest son of the fabled Admiral Laurence of Temeraire whom every child in England knew about, had grown up in the conscience of being a vast disappointment.
His family called him Little Will, only superficially to avoid confusion with his father’s name, whom even his mother Jane addressed as Laurence – William being reserved for when she was either exceptionally happy, or furious – but rather because only the shortest and littlest of names seemed to do justice to as slight a child as him.
From the cradle, he was small and sickly, and did not eat or grow well, to the extent that strangers commonly assumed he was Horatio’s younger brother by a year at least, rather than his twin. Horatio was everything Little Will was not – he was strong, brave and stubborn where Will was quiet, withdrawn and shy.
The only thing the brothers had in common was their unconditional love of dragons, and of Temeraire in particular, who clearly was the finest beast in all of England. They could spend countless hours clambering about his back acting out aerial battles, and sometimes their father and Mr Tharkay could be persuaded to join in. On those joyful occasions, Horatio always wanted to be captain, which Little Will gladly let him, himself preferring the role of cook. Laurence and Tharkay stood in as signal-ensigns, runners, riflemen, lieutenants, or enemy boarding party, as required. If the twins couldn’t sleep, they would evade their nurse and sneak out, blankets and all, to Temeraire’s pavilion. They knew no greater happiness than being tucked under the canopy of the great Celestial’s wing, snuggled against the smooth scales while listening to Temeraire’s stories of exploration and adventure. Little Will was fascinated by all stories concerning foreign lands, while Horatio mainly wanted to hear about battle. Whenever Temeraire had to leave the Peaks again to resume his seat in parliament, the boys counted the days to his return.
Horatio couldn’t wait to join an aerial crew himself. Their father, although not generally opposed to the notion of him being given to the Corps, did not want to part with him until he was at least ten years old. However, it turned out he had little choice in the matter. Jane and Excidium paid them a short visit one summer day, on their way to Edinburgh, but scarce half an hour after they had left again for the second leg of their journey, the great Longwing could be seen beating back towards their valley, and landing outside Castleton Hall.
Jane disembarked, dragging a resentful Horatio behind her.
“Mother, please!“ Horatio wailed.
“It’s Admiral Roland to you, Master Laurence,” she snapped, an angry furrow across her forehead as she marched him back to the front door, under the stares of her dragon and crew.
“Look what starts he is getting himself into!” she told Laurence, “He hid in the belly-netting.”
“But I want to go flying!” Horatio shouted, tears streaming down his face, “I don’t want to be shut up in the library memorizing stupid books. Will can do that, he likes it, but it’s killing me!”
Laurence sighed, and sent Horatio to bed without dinner, a fairly lenient punishment. The next day, he wrote a letter to Admiral Granby of Iskierka, to ask whether he might be persuaded to take Horatio as a runner. Two months later, Granby and Iskierka came to collect him. Horatio strutted about in his runners’ uniform and walked up to the steaming monster without the least hesitation, while Little Will had to muster all his strength not to hide behind his nurse’s skirts, and when Horatio turned to wave his goodbye, it was Will who was crying. Temeraire nudged him consolingly. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, perfectly audible across the yard, “He won’t like it much. He’ll be back in no time, I’m sure.”
For the first time Will knew, Temeraire was proven wrong, for Horatio did not come back. He sent letters, in his wonky writing littered with spelling mistakes, noting the places they’d visited, the things he’d learned, and the first man he'd killed, when they sunk a pirate ship near Gibraltar and its aerial support of brigand ferals laid them a trap. Little Will, alone and wretched, sought consolation in the library. At seven years old, he had read several encyclopaedias and all the dragon books he could lay his hands on, and was starting on Chinese and Hindi under the tutelage of his godfather, Mr Tharkay. When Temeraire and Laurence returned for Christmas, Temeraire was delighted to find he and Little Will could now talk Mandarin to one another. He started to teach him Chinese characters, scratched out in the snow, Auspicious Holidays, and Hello Ho-ra-tsio, in case Iskierka and Horatio should happen to be pass by overhead, although his brother of course wouldn’t have been able to read any of it.
Laurence was worried. “It cannot be normal for a child his age,” he said to Tharkay, “to be burying himself behind books quite so much. He is all pale and skinny – oughtn’t he be running around and strengthening his body?”
When he and Temeraire departed for London again, after Boxing Day, he insisted Little Will accompany them. Will was excited to be travelling on Temeraire, yet sad to leave Tharkay’s library behind – his mother’s house in London, for all its grandeur, had no such thing. The day after their arrival, Laurence took him to the dockyards by the river. Little Will proudly walked by his father’s side, at times running a little to keep up, and looked around wide-eyed. The strangest goods were being unloaded from the holds of the ships arriving there, boxes of tea and porcelain from China, bundles of furs from the Americas, African ivory, marble, timber, bales of cotton, even a gaggle of monkeys and a live giraffe for some rakish gentleman’s menagerie. Little Will took it all in with his mouth half-open, holding on tight to his father’s hand so as to not get lost in the crowd. There were people of all colours and tongues, richly dressed to wretched, and on the river, a bustle of crafts, a few graceful clippers like oversized swans, and between them smaller rowing boats, barges and the new brutish steamboats choking black clouds into the air. Laurence pointed out a few ships to him, praising their speed or capacity, and went through the names of their different sails, terms as fantastic as studding sails and moonrakers.
“When we have time, we will fly to Plymouth and see some of the Navy ships there – I’ve read that the Téméraire is expected back in harbour very soon,” he said, and Little Will nodded eagerly. He would quite like to see Temeraire’s namesake, and it would be nice to have something a little more interesting to write about to Horatio. His father smiled at him, quite misinterpreting his enthusiasm. “Perhaps when you are a little older, you would like to go to sea, too?”
The smile died on Little Will’s face. He tried to say something, but he could feel a lump in his throat, and tears rising in his eyes. His father patted his back, and said they ought to go home, smiling as he spoke, but the disappointment was plain in his eyes. “My, my, William, you cannot always be crying – you are growing too old for it,” he murmured before he hailed a carriage to take them back, but this was the last straw for Little Will. He burst out crying, angry with himself for having ruined the wonderful day with his father. He sure wouldn’t be taken out again any time soon.
Back at their town house, he wanted to run straight to Temeraire. But when he entered the yard, he nearly stumbled on a spiky serpentine tail, and the next moment, Horatio come rushing from a side-corridor where he had hidden to lay ambush, with a war-howl, and knocked him over.
Will hastily wiped the tears from his eyes as he hugged his brother. “Horatio! I’ve missed you so very much!”
Horatio grinned, freeing himself from Will’s grip with the air of someone far above such childish displays of affection. He had grown half a foot since they had last met, and his face was sun-burnt, already losing its childlike roundness. His fair hair had grown long, and after extracting a promise from Will not to tell anyone, he proudly revealed a small tattoo on his left ankle, hidden under his stocking, of a dragon breathing fire, which he had acquired in Malaga while out on ground-leave with Iskierka’s midwingmen.
Will gasped. “But Horatio! That’s a Kazilik! Surely Temeraire won’t like it, if he sees it?”
Horatio folded his arms. “Well, he needn’t see it…. Tell me, what have you been up to, little brother?”
“Nothing much,” Will admitted.
Creeping up to the sitting room that night to fetch a book he had forgotten on the setee, he chanced upon his father and Admiral Granby in conversation.
“And there is no way I can convince you to let me have Horatio for Iskierka?” the Admiral was asking, “I have to confess myself very impressed with him. He is fearless as anything, and already showing great promise. The one time I’ve had to discipline him, he had pushed in a fellow’s nose for ridiculing his name… and Iskierka even listens to him, occasionally, would you credit it?”
Laurence sighed. “I would with all my heart, John, but what am I to do? Can you imagine his brother taking on Temeraire? I love them both dearly, but there is no denying that Will is no fit for the service. My mother thinks we ought to send him to boarding school… I’ve never liked the thought of it, and Temeraire is outright opposed, but I am running out of other ideas.”
Will shrunk into the darkness, clutching his book. Each word cut him. His father thought him a coward.
He was enrolled at a school in Bedfordshire later that year, and was secretly glad of it, for a month before he left, his mother retired from the service, handing Excidium’s command to her eldest daughter Emily. When she joined them in the East Wing of Castelton Hall, she brought with her a stormy little girl called Isabella, Emily’s daughter. Will had always been a little scared of his mother. Admiral Roland hadn’t ever done anything deliberately cruel to him, but she seemed to look straight through him most of the time, as if so quiet and weak a son wasn’t worthy of her attention.
At his new school, he was dreadfully homesick for the first few weeks, missing his father and Mr Tharkay and most of all Temeraire. Afterwards, things improved. He was allowed to read as much as he liked, and his neat writing, impeccable spelling, and arithmetic earned him praise instead of worried glances. While Horatio circled the globe on Iskierka and made lieutenant at the age of seventeen, Will ran out of books to read in the school library and went on to Oxford University, to the consternation of his father and mild amusement of his mother.
He had hoped he might study to become a dragon-surgeon and redeem himself a little in the eyes of his family, but while he enjoyed the theoretical lectures, he was so violently sick at the sight of his first dissection that he quickly abandoned that plan. He tried Divinity but found it useless, and dabbled in Orientalism. However, the lectures were dry and stuffy compared to discussing the Analects with a Celestial. He finally stumbled into a lecture on comparative anatomy and taxonomy which instantly hooked him when the lecturer brought out the massive skull of a Parnassian, next to a fragile lizard’s skull, and invited them to think about how the two of them might be connected. The scientist’s name was Sir Richard Owen, and he was a distinguished expert in the field of draconology. Will listened to all his lectures enraptured, a wholly new way of looking at his favourite subject suddenly opening before him. By the end of Michaelmas term he had finished all of Owen’s books that could be found in his college’s library. He finally plucked up the courage to go to see his hero, to inquire whether he might be able to assist him in his work.
“William Laurence junior, eh?” the professor said abrasively as he gathered up his papers after the lecture, “Well, we’ve all heard of your father, the first to bring a Chinese Celestial to these shores, although I must say he has been quite unwilling to let his dragon be subjected to any form of proper scientific examination, which is a shame.”
Will blushed. He had always shied away from taking advantage of his father’s fame which was a double-edged sword at best, earning him the icy contempt of fellow students from conservative-voting families and the awestruck whispers of those from more liberal-leaning backgrounds, everyone with an idea of him already formed in their heads before they had even met him. But if it should help him get a foot in the door with Professor Owen, so be it. “Perhaps I might speak to father, and Temeraire,” he volunteered.
The draconologist looked at him over the rim of his glasses. “You might indeed.” He sat down. “I have a few theories on the development of dragons’ speech – the throat of a lizard being entirely unsuited to the production of speech, and the voice-box of a dragon so very different from that of humans – which would greatly benefit from some close observations made in a Celestial, the most articulate of all dragon breeds, while at the same time capable of the Divine Wind… which is again entirely uncharted sea, scientifically speaking. It is a shame we have no hope of the beast dying in either of our lifetimes, so someone else will have the pleasure of his dissection.”
“Begging your pardon?” Will stammered, but Owen continued to tidy away his papers unperturbed, and he realized the last remark had been meant in earnest.
This was his welcome to the world of draconology, a strange cloistered field almost entirely steeped in theory and comparative anatomy of skulls and bones stored in the vaults of the zoology museum. Will had found his calling. He spent hours sorting scales and teeth in the zoology archive, days closeted in the university library combing through medieval bestiaries and books-of-hours for descriptions of dragon hunts and hoards. When the first snow dusted the college greens, Little Will was figuring out a way of dissolving dragon coprolites in sulphuric acid to study the bone fragments contained therein, to disprove the notion that the first dragons of the British Isles had been man-eating beasts. His fellow students thought him mildly insane.
“Hey, Laurence,” one of his fellow undergraduates shouted one evening, in the common room, and threw a cricket ball at him which narrowly missed his head, “Perhaps you’d like to invite your dragon friends to join us, and take a diploma?
“Sure. Temeraire is better read than all of you taken together,” Will thought, without looking up from the box of North American fossils he had received in the post from one of Professor Owen’s correspondents, “Excidium could teach you all a lesson in military history. And Perscitia could head the school of mathematics without even trying very hard, if they let her.”
Crashing laughter broke out around him, and he suddenly realized that he had spoken the last words aloud. The student at the head of the group shook himself laughing.
“Hear, hear! Mr Laurence is as mad as his father – crazy about dragons. I bet he’d take them to bed, if only he could!”
Before Will could think, his hand had closed around a fossilized claw from his box and hurled it at the speaker. The young man went down with a scream, blood trickling between his fingers. His had to be sown up with two stitches and Will got a dressing-down from the Dean, although afterward he was sorry only to have damaged a perfectly good specimen. He had earned his peace. However, returning to the dusty catacombs of the museum to place the chipped fossil amongst the collection, and facing the empty eye-sockets staring at him from the dragon skulls, he couldn’t help feeling downcast. His fellow students’ prejudice accurately reflected the whole university’s attitude to dragons: Living dragons, even the littlest couriers, were banned from within a mile of the city’s spires. It was an antiquated rule, a precaution against fire dating from the days before the last native feral fire-breathers had been hunted to extinction in the fourteenth century, but, as Will had quickly grasped, once a rule in Oxford, always a rule in Oxford.
He would dearly have liked to show Temeraire around, as he knew Temeraire would have shared his delight in the glorious libraries. Instead, when his father and Temeraire came to visit, they had to meet awkwardly at an inn outside the city’s precincts. Laurence, resentful at the treatment of his dragon, refused to accompany Will to dinner at his college. Will retorted that maybe he should make a speech in Parliament about that stupid rule, instead of taking it out on him. They parted with dark clouds between them. Will did take a detailed set of measurements of Temeraire’s jaws, neck, and pharynx for Professor Owen, though, braving his fear to climb into the dragon’s open mouth while his father looked on with a furrowed brow. Before Laurence left, he stiffly informed his younger son that Horatio had acquitted himself admirably during some recent skirmishes in Québéc, and come up near the top of the post-list despite his young age so that consequently, he intended to hand over Temeraire’s captaincy as soon as Iskierka returned to England.
Will nodded, hoping that his face betrayed none of his feelings. He had never entertained any serious hope of inheriting Temeraire, and knew Horatio to be better suited to the task in every way imaginable, but the thought of Temeraire returning to active service under his brother’s command was still a blow. It meant his most beloved dragon should be away from England for months, if not years on end, exposed to danger and battle, while all he could do was sit and wait for news. Something about Laurence’s gait as he walked back to Temeraire and climbed aboard, shoulders uncharacteristically hunched, told him his father shared this sentiment, but the quarrel was too fresh between them for any conciliatory words. Will raised his hand to wave as Temeraire went aloft, and watched as the dark shadow disappeared into the evening sky.
Several months later, Little Will was comfortably pillowed in his bed with a cup of tea and a pile of new books, when there was a knock on the door and one of the college’s servants entered.
“There is a,” he coughed, “young lady come to see you.”
Will put down his spectacles, confused and a little annoyed at the intrusion on his quiet morning. He hadn’t invited any visitors, and liked to keep to himself if he could help it. He got up and looked around the room – a mess of papers, half-empty cups, quills, fossils and labelled dragon teeth. His clothing was in no better state. All his shirts had ink-marks and acid holes in them by now, he had no clean necktie left, his hat probably still on the peg in the library where he had forgotten it the previous night, and there was only one stocking to be located. He threw on his gown, which conveniently covered his state of disarray – he sometimes thought the scholars of Oxford probably liked their gowns so very much because it didn‘t in the least matter what one wore underneath them – and followed the servant, who led him to the parlour by the dining hall.
When Will knocked and entered, he was pleasantly surprised to find midwingman Isabella Dlamini sitting on one of the cushioned chairs, in a dress and staring with hostility at the imposing paintings of former College masters and deans on the walls. He hadn’t seen her in months – she had been assigned to Temeraire when Horatio had made captain. As daughter to his half-sister Captain Emily Roland, Isabella was technically his niece, but since she was only six years his junior, Will had always regarded her as more of a sister, and she only called him uncle when she wanted to annoy him. They had spent many summers together in the Peaks, during his school holidays. Much like Horatio, Isabella was an aviator through and through, and had gone flying before she could walk, an inclination her grandmother had fostered whole-heartedly, since she was next in line for Excidium’s captaincy. She was a cocky sixteen now, with mahogany skin and a head of unruly locks, and Will could not remember the last time he had seen her in a dress.
She sprung up as soon as the door opened. He grinned, quickening his steps to greet her, but abruptly checked himself when he saw the look on her face.
“Hello, Izzy,” he said, and then stood awkwardly. No smile, no silliness, no ‘Uncle Will’. Something was wrong.
“Grandfather sends me. You must come at once,” Isabella said, walking past him even as she spoke. “Let’s go.”
“But I can’t!” Will protested, “I’m about to read my first paper, on the prehistory of dragons in England. If I don’t show up this evening, all the work will have been-“
“Oh, to hell with your paper,” Isabella snapped, “Your brother has gotten himself injured badly. The surgeons think he might not last the day. Temeraire has brought him home.”
Will stared at her, a cold fist gripping hold of his bowels as the full meaning of her words sunk in. But Isabella had already pulled him out of the door into the courtyard, and through the college gates onto High Street, with a curse. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, why can’t one land a dragon in this silly city? Come on, hurry up.”
He followed her stumbling as she shoved her way through the crowds on the sidewalks, running towards the river and the edge of the town. They were an odd pair indeed – a tall dark-skinned girl who ran with her eyes fixed to the sky, not shy to elbow her way forward whenever the need arose, and a pale young scholar at her heels, making breathless apologies to her wake of offended passers-by. They finally reached South Park, where the dragon bann ended, and Isabella waved both her arms over her head. A little Winchester reared his head on the other side of the green, and hurried over to them in a series of little hops and wing-flaps. Her captain, a friendly young man in the uniform of a courier-captain who introduced himself as James Hollin, and his beast as Elsie, extended a hand to them to help them climb aboard. He turned to his new passenger to explain to him how to be strapped onto the harness, and raised a brow in surprise when he saw the student had already half-finished the task.
“Thank you,” Will said, “I… I do know how to do it.” He tried very hard not to think beyond the immediate task at hand, yet his hands trembled as he clicked on the carabiners.
Isabella was taciturn for all the short flight, and Will was glad for it. He fixed his mind on the countryside speeding past below them, the spires of Oxford disappearing in the haze, the black fumes of the chimneys of Birminham and Leeds on the horizon, and before them, like a green oasis from some more innocent time, the Peaks.
Izzy jumped down to the ground before they had even landed and then stood impatiently shifting her weight from one foot to the other, while Will took a while longer – his gown had become tangled on one of the harness-rings. He took it off. Among the heather-clad hills with their herds of shaggy cows and sheep, it suddenly seemed as out of place as a ballgown. Here, Professor Owen’s star student did not exist – just Little Will Laurence, runt of the litter, good-for-nothing.
“Mr Laurence, if you have a moment…” Captain Hollin opened one of his mail bags and pulled out a strange letter, a roll of paper sealed with red wax and an elaborate knot, labelled in Mandarin. “Pray do you know who this might be addressed to? I was given it at Dover.”
Will nodded. “That is Temeraire’s name there,” pointing to the characters, Lung Tien Xiang.
Hollin nodded, relieved. “I thought it might be, but… well… Will you convey it to Temeraire, for me?”
Will accepted the letter. Elsie nosed at the dangling red knot. “That is very pretty,” she piped. Will tore the seal off, and handed it to her. Temeraire wouldn’t mind. “Oh, Hollin, look!” Elsie triumphed, hanging it over her ear, “How lovely!”
Captain Hollin rubbed her neck affectionately as he went back aboard, murmuring something about a “veritable Christmas tree,” and saluted Will and Isabella before they dashed off again.
When they knocked at the front door, Temeraire came bounding from the backyard. “He is not dead!” he shouted to Isabella, “He has woken up!”
Will felt a wave of relief flooding over him, not just out of concern for his brother, as he quietly admitted to himself as he hurried up the stairs behind Isabella, who was taking three steps at once.
When they burst into the bedroom, Horatio was indeed alive. He was pale as a sheet from all the blood he had lost, and his chest and sword-arm were swathed in bandages, but that didn’t stop him from being engaged in a shouting match with his mother.
“How could you be so damned foolish?” Jane was shouting, “You know that duelling is strictly forbidden in the Corps! And Lieutenant Stuart Rankin of all people… the fellow ain’t worth your spit!”
“He said… the sword was blunted!” Horatio protested, trying to push himself up on his elbows and sinking back grimacing in pain, “How was I to know he was lying? … I couldn’t not answer his challenge! … He comes here from his rum-sodden colony … having never done an ounce of good to anyone …. and goes about saying the foulest things about father … and Temeraire … things I should not care to repeat-”
“He is only a Lieutenant, and you are Captain, so you should have known better! The damned wretch now claims it was you who provoked him, and since nobody saw you, it is word against word. Hasn’t it occurred to you that he was deliberately trying to compromise you, on your first post? This whole affair will certainly get you demoted, and we shall count ourselves lucky if I can talk them out of a court-martial, as you are due by the rule-book, when all you should have done was keep your countenance and walk away? I have never been a friend of handing posts down families without thought, but I would never have imagined you to disappoint me so.”
“Jane,” Laurence interrupted, without turning around from where he was sitting by Horatio’s side, next to Mr Tharkay who was watching with an unreadable face, “Is this really the moment-”
“I don’t see why he should be demoted,” Temeraire put in, through the half-open window, “He is my captain after all, and I am still perfectly happy to have him. Laurence was in a duel once, and…”
“Oh, do keep your mouth shut, before I ask why you didn’t take better care of him,” Jane snapped, turning around as both the twins stared at Temeraire – this story was new to them – and only now took notice of Will and Isabella standing by the door. She heaved a sigh. “Hello, Will. Damned sorry to have called you away from your books, when it looks like we haven’t got a funeral on our hands after all.”
Will hurried to his brother’s other side and took his hand, stormily enough to make him wince. “Horatio," he said, choking, “I… I was so worried…”
Horatio opened his eyes and grinned at him, weakly. “Hello, little one… You thought… I’d snuff it… and saddle you with a dragon?”
Will could have smacked his brother and hugged him at the same time, but Horatio didn’t look like he could take either at present, so he simply gave his cold callused hand a squeeze, and smiled.
Horatio’s surgeon, Mr Blythe, entered with a bowl of steaming water and a bundle of fresh dressings, and ordered the crowd out of the room with a frown, saying he had to get the wounds stitched up properly. Jane stayed, insisting she wanted to see exactly how Rankin had tried to butcher her son, as ammunition for the letters she intended to write, and ignored Horatio's protests. Isabella dashed away to get changed. His godfather Mr Tharkay greeted Will warmly, in his own way. "So this is what it takes to get you home, to see an old man?" he asked, in a low voice, as Blythe ushered them out, "Murder and bloodshed? I daresay it will be difficult to orchestrate, but now that I know..." and invited him to a game of chess later on, in the library. Then Tharkay had to see to some of his tenants who had come to the West Wing with an urgent call, and Will was left awkwardly facing his father in the corridor, not sure what to say. Even under the circumstances, there seemed to be a stretch of thin ice between them from their last confrontation, and neither of them would hazard stepping on it. He remembered the letter Captain Hollin had handed him, and he pulled it out. “I was given this, for Temeraire.”
Laurence nodded, but didn’t move to accept it. “Read it to him.” He ran a hand over his forehead, and his face, utterly composed when facing Horatio earlier, suddenly looked tired and etched with worry. “He will be very happy to see you again… I expect you won’t want to stay long.”
“I… well… I haven’t got leave.” Will shuddered to think of the number of rules he had already broken, coming here without giving notice, and missing the reading of his paper. His scholarship was certainly in jeopardy.
“Temeraire can take you back, tomorrow, if you like… to the edge of the town, that is,” Laurence said, “If you want, I can write to your college’s master to explain the circumstances.”
Will shook his head. “I’ll go… no need for a letter, I’ll work it out myself.” He’d rather sweep the college chimneys for wages than ask his father for money or assistance.
When he walked out to the pavilion, Temeraire lay on the heated flagstones, looking through his collection of treasure, as he often did when he was upset. He kept the chest with his talon-sheaths and his platinum breastplate locked in a safe in the pavilion wall that could be opened with one of his claws, alongside his collection of Chinese porcelain and a few other things that nobody else thought particularly valuable, but to which he was deeply attached: Laurence’s old bars of an Admiral of the Air, a few exotic shells Horatio had brought from one of his journeys, and the pencil study for a painting of the twins in stiff Chinese silks which Temeraire had commissioned on their first birthday to send his mother in China – Will hated this embarrassing picture as much as Temeraire treasured it.
Temeraire reared his head immediately when he heard Will approach, and greeted him with an affectionate nudge that nearly knocked his visitor off his feet. “Have you brought me a book?”
Will stroked the soft muzzle and briefly permitted himself the license of leaning his forehead against Temeraire’s sleek neck, as he had done as a young boy, listening to the comforting swell of the dragon’s breaths, but then withdrew quickly and guiltily, crossing his arms behind his back. This was not his family’s dragon anymore; this was Temeraire of Her Majesty’s Aerial Corps.
“No, I’m very sorry,” he said, “I didn’t have time to find you a nice one. But Captain Hollin gave me a letter for you.”
He pulled out the scroll and held it up. Temeraire nosed it. “Oh, dear Hollin… how does he, and his father, and Elsie? Did you know, old Hollin was part of my ground-crew once, before Elsie’s hatching?”
“No, I didn’t know, although that would explain why they were so very obliging to us today.”
Temeraire nodded, a little wistfully, and beckoned Little Will to take a seat on the marble bench by his pavilion. “Oh, yes, the old days… but I won’t bore you. Pray will you read me my letter? The characters are so small, I can’t very well make them out.”
“With pleasure,” Will said, putting on his glasses and unrolling the scroll. He cleared his throat, and started reading in Chinese. Temeraire’s ruff came up sharply before he had even finished the first line, and Will felt his hands trembling, clutching the fine paper, but he carried on to the end. Then he looked up and into Temeraire’s eyes, wide with alarm, and his heart bled to think that he should have brought him so utterly disquieting a piece of news, when Temeraire was already worried sick over Horatio. Quite forgetting himself, he reached out to Temeraire, and hugged his neck with both arms.
“I’m sorry, dearest,” he said. “Shall I fetch my father?”
“So Ning has thrown her lot in with the East India Company, and is doing her utmost to provoke the Chines," Laurence said, slowly, when Temeraire had turned over Ning’s letter, and summarized the contents of the calligraphy contained therein.
… They always only kept me as second-best, and said I was not a proper Celestial, and as soon as Lung Tien Liming hatched, they forced my Emperor to throw me out, even though he did not like to. I will teach them to respect me yet! They’ll bow to me and take me back. I’m just letting you know, in case your Laurence and your government would like to support me, which they should.
Temeraire tossed his head in the air, shaking himself as if to dislodge a stain on his hide. He hated giving so much grief to Laurence – first returning Horatio half-dead, and now, this outrageous letter from Ning. “I am so very sorry, Laurence. Even if they should have been rude to her at court, I cannot understand how she would do something like this! It is quite unbearable. I must go to Canton at once, and find her, and bring her to her senses.”
Laurence shook his head. “I must caution you to be patient, my dear,” he said, “You cannot be rushing off without orders or crew, especially after what happened to Horatio – it’ll destroy any hopes of having him restored, if you make a show of disobedience.” He sighed. “I will send a courier to the admiralty and apply for you to be given leave from service, so we may go to China.”
“We?” Temeraire asked, his head coming up eagerly for a short moment, before he bent down low to peer at his first captain with anxiety. “Laurence, are you sure? You weren’t well last winter.” At sixty-three, Laurence was by no means frail, even though his breath had grown shorter and his hair had gone a respectable shade of grey, but today, for the first time and with great alarm, Temeraire thought that he looked careworn, and old.
“Nothing but a cold. And anyways, Horatio is in no shape to accompany you.”
“But what of Little Will?”
Laurence didn’t reply to this.
Temeraire scraped the floor of his pavilion, an awful grating sound of talons on marble. “But Laurence, you cannot go,” he said unhappily, “I have been so very glad for you being in the Lords, now that I cannot be in parliament any more. You have worked so hard on that bill against children and dragons being kept in factories and collieries, but if you are to leave, it must look like we are running away, and I am sure that awful Lord Thomson is going to tear it all down, again.”
“I am sure Sir Astley will see it through,” Laurence said, although his voice betrayed his doubts – his political allies had their attention set on the rights of the human factory workers, which while necessary and admirable, did not go nearly far enough in his opinion, and his recent appalled discovery of a group of stunted skeletal Reapers shackled in a foundry near Manchester, dragging heavy carts of coal for sixteen hours a day, had only strengthened his resolve to press for the inclusion of dragons in the recent set of reform bills being debated.
Temeraire curled himself up around the letter, crestfallen. “But Laurence, do you really think they will take Horatio away from me? Surely if I told them what happened… That despicable Rankin fellow went around saying such awful things about you, I should have liked to swat him… but Horatio insisted he deal with it… he said he was going to speak to Lieutenant Rankin, not get himself stabbed! Looking at it now, I should never have let him go, he looked so very angry when he left…”
“It’s done now, and we can’t change it,” Laurence said, “Jane will write to a few people at the admiralty, and I’m sure Granby will put in a good word for him, if he hears of it. But I can’t hold out too much hope. Rankin’s family is influential amongst the old names of the Corps. Even if they don’t erase him from the list, I expect he’ll remain grounded until all this blows over. In any case, we must pray for his recovery –Blythe would not give me a good prognosis yet, when he might still catch a fever.”
Temeraire sat up on his haunches. “If they take Horatio away from me, especially for so nonsensical a reason, I will leave the Corps,” he said, violently, “I shall be perfectly happy to go back to being in parliament with you, and anyways, I should not like to fight against my own family, if there is to be a war with China.”
To which Laurence bent his head low, and said nothing.
Will thought Horatio was asleep, but when the floorboards creaked under his feet, his brother stirred. “Little Will?” he asked.
“Yes.” Will took a candle from the corridor wall, took it to his brother’s bed and sat down beside him. “Hello, Captain. How are you?”
“Could be better," Horatio croaked, “How is Temeraire?”
“Worried… about you.” And about something else, he thought, but could not bear to say it aloud, and fill his brother’s head with more worries. They sat silently for a while. Horatio’s eyes were closed, and Will already thought he had gone back to sleep, when suddenly, Horatio jerked his chin in the direction of his flying-coat on a peg on the wall.
“Take it,” he said.
Will stared at him. “I… I cannot do that. It’s yours.”
Horatio let out a joyless laugh. “I’d rather give it to you now, myself, than have it taken away from me and thrust on some fellow from a post-list by those dim-wits at the admiralty with their fucking rules…” His voice broke off, choked. “It… pains,” he said, between gritted teeth, his unscathed hand pressed to his chest, but Will felt certain his brother was not talking about his wounds. He took Horatio’s hand, and held it tight.
“Don’t give up hope. Nothing has been decided yet. That Rankin fellow sounds like an awful creature, but our family isn’t without influence, either… mother will huff and fume about it now, but you know she’ll do everything in her power to preserve your post. And in any case, you know Temeraire wouldn’t have any other.”
Horatio opened his eyes, and looked him straight in the eye. “Nonsense. Temeraire will have you.”
“What?” Will blinked, confused.
Horatio snorted. “You never noticed? I don’t think there is anyone in the world that he regards as highly as you, apart from father of course.” There was a faint note of resentment in his voice, as he mimicked Temeraire’s voice. “If only Little Will could see this… I’m sure Little Will would know what to do… Have you seen the letter and books Little Will has sent me? … I wish you could speak Mandarin, Horatio, Little Will can…”
“Even if he has said things like that, you know full well was only because he saw so very little of me,” Will interrupted, “Otherwise he would have realized immediately that there’s nothing to me, that I would have failed him utterly, while you are such a brilliant aviator.”
Horatio did not make any direct reply, but gestured to his flying-coat again, his eyes fiercely resolved. “Take it,” he repeated, “Throw it in the sea if you like, but just take it away. I can’t bear to look at it.”
Will rose, reluctantly, and took the bottle-green coat from its peg. It was surprisingly heavy, the candlelight catching in the golden bars. He felt certain that it wouldn’t fit him, his brother being so much more broad-shouldered than him, but he couldn’t bring himself to try it on before Horatio’s eyes, and rub salt into open wounds. He hung it over his arm as he walked back to the bed. “I’ll look after it for you, until you are better," he promised. “But Horatio, I wanted to ask … will you let me take Temeraire to China?”
“To fetch some more of your dratted books?” Horatio mumbled, exhausted, his eyes closing again. “Go ahead, the admiralty will love it I’m sure, it’ll make me look less of a disaster… But I don’t see why you are seeking my permission for what to do with your dragon.”
Tharkay did his best to distract Laurence with a game of cards, and Laurence suspected he had deliberately been dealt an excellent hand, but he was losing nevertheless, his mind catching on one gloomy thought after another.
Tharkay put down his cards with a sigh. “Piece of your mind? … Horatio doesn’t seem to be dying imminently, after all, so I don’t see why you are so despondent.”
Laurence hesitated for a moment, then reached inside his waistcoat to pull out Ning’s letter, silently handing it to Tharkay. His friend’s eyes darted over the columns, and he let out a dry laugh when he had finished. “Ha! A capital prize for the East India Company. It’ll embolden them to press on with their opium peddling, having a dragon like Ning to guard them, when the Chinese have made every effort to stop it being smuggled into their country, and poisoning their men and dragons… it’s a wretched business. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, five years ago coming through Canton – they circumvene the ban on the trade by having the merchant ships anchor in open sea, or in hidden bays, where the junks cannot reach them, until a dragon squadron is sent in to chase them off, but they will always come back, like flies.”
Laurence nodded grimly. He hadn’t accompanied Tharkay on that particular journey, but a bill had recently been debated in parliament to curtail the flourishing trade in opium. To his disappointment, it had been resoundingly defeated. Too many members of both houses held shares in the trade. “We must coax Ning back… though how we are to do that, if she is used to the luxuries of the Chinese court or the bribes of the East India Company, is beyond me. I don’t suppose a valley in England will hold any charm to her, and neither will our Corps. If only the Chinese could be prevailed upon to accept her back… although that is most likely out of the question…. And she is Iskierka’s issue, after all.”
“Speaking of which, it would be better if Iskierka doesn’t hear of this,” Tharkay said. “Diplomacy has never been her forte. And to that end, it would be very useful if you stayed here, and didn’t make a stir.” He lifted a hand when Laurence opened his mouth to protest. “Not to sound rude, William, but both of us are well beyond our prime. If it came to it, you would more usefully serve England’s interests in a parliamentary debate, to remind them of the strength of the Chinese legions and tell them to keep a level head, than in aerial combat.”
“Who else is to go to China, then?” Laurence demanded, his voice not so much angry as weary.
Tharkay shrugged his shoulders. “You have two sons.”
Laurence threw his cards on the table. “Little Will? Tenzing, you cannot be serious. I would be sending the boy to his certain doom. God knows I’ve tried to interest him in any real work, but he quite resisted… I wasn’t raised to the Corps, either, but at least I could read a map, and had handled a pistol before, when Temeraire hatched. Will knows nothing – he is a dreamer!”
Tharkay tilted his head. “Neither of you would like to hear it, but he is the spitting image of you, in many ways, and this intelligence from China seems to have affected him badly. He deserves his chance.”
There was a knock on the door, and Jane stuck her head in. “Have you any notion where Will might be, or Isabella?” she asked, disconcerted.
“No, have they not gone to sleep?” Laurence said, and rose sharply when he saw the look on Tharkay’s face.
“The spitting image,” Tharkay repeated, quietly.
“Well,” Laurence said, trying to keep his voice unconcerned, “They’re probably with Temeraire. I’ll go and have a look.”
He was almost running by the time he reached the pavilion, an old nightmare creeping back to his mind, and his heart skipped a beat when he saw it was empty.
“Now that was a prodigiously stupid idea," Isabella said, staring from the cliffs near Margate.
“If it was, why did you come with me then?” Will asked, irritated, as he looked over the channel. Beyond lay the continent, slumbering peacefully in the morning mist, and further yet, somewhere, China, although how he was to make it there was a puzzle he had yet to work out. It wasn’t yet six in the morning, he was hungry and tired, and thinking about how many miles lay between this desolate windswept cliff and his cosy study with his books and a servant calling at seven-thirty with his tea, he would have quite liked to turn around.
“To keep an eye on you,” she retorted. “Do you think I’d trust you with your brother’s dragon - you, who has never even flown alone, who can’t shoot or fence, who has never seen a flag-signal, and just generally knows nothing?”
Will shrugged his shoulders. “Ask me something.”
Isabella paced the cliffs. “Flying weight of a Chequered Nettle?”
“Best formation for flying in a stiff wind?”
“Echelon, supposedly, although-“
“Top speed of a Defendeur-brave?’
“Sixteen knots. They’re slow.”
“How would you harness a Bengal Nakhara?”
“I wouldn’t. They haven’t gone into harness since the fifteenth century. Emperor Babur harnessed one, on his conquest, and he served as companion to his successors until Shah Jahan, who was heartbroken when he died. He is buried in the Taj Mahal.”
Isabella turned around, arms crossed. “You really have read all the books, have you?”
“Izzy, I may not be a Corps man, but I am not stupid. And anyways, I didn’t solicit your help, so if you are dissatisfied, you may leave.” This was not entirely truthful, he had to admit – he had asked her help with putting on Temeraire’s heavy harness, although afterwards, she had flatly refused to let him go alone.
She flared at him like an annoyed cat. “Of course you are stupid! This isn‘t just about you! Temeraire has a crew, there are people‘s livelihoods depending on him and all their hopes of advancement. He isn‘t yours to just take away on a whim!”
“Will, look!” Temeraire cried out that moment, from a little distance away, staring at something in the sea beneath them, “It is the Temeraire! But what are they doing to her - has she been attacked? Her masts are all gone!”
Will hurried to his side, Isabella following close behind. He squinted at the grey blur of the sea, and indeed, there was a ship – or rather, a lumbering hull attached to a towing-boat in the sandy mouth of the river. Isabella climbed aboard Temeraire and retrieved the looking-glass from its pouch. “No, it’s alright,” she said, peering down, “She’s being taken to Southwark, to be broken up for scrap. I‘ve read something about it in the gazette”, she said, and clambered down to hand the glass to Will. Once he had worked out how to focus it, he could read the faded letters on her peeling hull. TÉMÉRAIRE. It was barely believable that this should be the ship that had brought a sparkle to his father’s eyes every time he spoke of it – looking at it now in the muddy surf of the estuary, stripped of its masts and rigging, it looked uncannily like a beached whale being hauled to land by the ugly black steamer.
A resentful shiver ran through Temeraire’s body. “For scrap?” he exclaimed, indignantly, “How can they, after all she’s done? She was one of Laurence's favourite ships.”
“Well, there aren’t any breeding grounds for boats,” Isabella muttered.
Will raised his hand to stroke Temeraire’s trembling neck, feeling the dragon’s turmoil taking hold of him. “Pray do not worry yourself-“
But he was too late. “I will give her a decent burial, at least!” Temeraire hissed, and jumped off the cliff, his wings fanning out majestically.
“Temeraire, no!” Isabella yelled, as she and Will rushed to the edge of the cliff, but Temeraire paid them no heed. Will could only stare, in mingled terror and awe, as Temeraire drew himself up and all but stood in the air, sweeping his wings almost horizontally, his sides swelling as he drew in a deep breath.
“Fascinating,” he murmured, “I wonder how he does that…”
The crew of the steamer had caught sight of Temeraire now, and the wind carried shreds of panic-stricken commands as they started to hack at the ropes tethering them to the doomed ship.
The next moment, Temeraire roared out his funerary salute, and the sky shattered.
The hull of the Téméraire cracked and burst, the heavy oaken beams groaning and splintering, her gallery windows shattered. A huge wave built and rushed towards the cliffs underneath them. Will stood gaping, transfixed, a faint whistling note in his ear, and only turned his head when Isabella grabbed hold of his arm and pulled hard, bidding fair to dislocate his shoulder, but he resisted, staring down. Next to the wreckage of the Téméraire, the steamer had been momentarily submerged, but now bobbed to the surface again, with a heavy list, its chimney choked by salt water. Underneath them, the wave crashed at the soft chalky cliff. Isabella was shouting at him, but his deafened ears could not make out the words. A final determined tug of hers sent him backwards stumbling and falling into the biting gorse – only a moment before a fault-line opened in the ground, and the rock ledge he had been standing on broke off as one, thundering and crashing into the depths beneath.
He stared up at the sky, dazed, and from the corner of his eye registered an alarm-flare going up from the nearest coastal beacon. Temeraire landed next to him, snapping his wings around him protectively. “Are you alright, Will?”
He nodded, the wooliness gradually lifting from his ears, and pulled himself together. When he stepped out of the shadow of Temeraire’s wing, Isabella thrust the looking-glass at him and pointed at the sky. A dragon formation of the coastal guard was beating towards them, the lead dragon flashing them a signal he didn’t understand. He glanced sideways at Isabella, who was lifting her empty hands over her head.
“Brilliant,” she said, bitingly. “Now you’ve thoroughly gotten us into the soup.”
“Next!” Admiral Granby, commander of the fortress and covert at Dover, called, and a nervous young lieutenant entered the pavilion, picking his way over the sprawling curls of Iskierka’s tail.
He gave his name and current post, which Granby discreetly checked against the list of recommendations in his lap. Iskierka lay flattened to the floor in a display of utter disinterest and didn’t even prick up an ear when Granby interrogated the man on his experience, posts so far, and knowledge of dragon flying. “I also like gold and jewels, as I have heard you do,” the young man said, finally, “So I have permitted myself the liberty of finding a gift for you.”
He held up a golden chain.
Granby stared at it, surprised and bewildered. What he had heard so far had been encouraging, but he could only disapprove of this sort of bribery. Iskierka roused her head for a short moment, but gave only a cursory glance. “Pooh!” she said, “That is very small and cheap. I have much nicer jewels. You may keep it, and you may go away.”
The next candidate didn’t fare any better. “Can you sing?” Iskierka interrupted Granby’s questioning.
The young aviator went pale, and then nodded hastily, launching into a rendition of what was barely recognizable as ‘God save the Queen’.
“Thank you, Sir,” Granby interrupted on the high notes, finding it hard to bear. He turned to Iskierka when the poor fellow had left. “What was that about?" he asked, reproachfully, "I cannot sing either, how has it become so important a criterion now?”
Iskierka jetted a puff of steam. “Well, none of them are as good as you, naturally, so they ought to at least be able to sing, if I am to consider them. And be rich, of course… Anyways, I still don’t see why we couldn’t keep Horatio Laurence. He was ours!” This with great indignation, “He is your godson, and I took care of him all those years, from when he was a tiny runner. I have every right to him, where Temeraire has none, sitting around in his silly parliament.”
Granby sighed. To say Iskierka had taken care of his ward was an exaggeration, when she had at multiple times almost singed his hair off, dropped him from mid-air, or forgotten him along with half the rest of her crew on a beach when she was in a blood-rage to pounce on a prize. Yet he had allowed a bond to form between the two of them, looking on with a half-happy, half-guilty heart, hoping and at the same time denying himself all hope that this rowdy boy might be the answer to his sleepless nights’ prayers. Perhaps he had been too swayed by his own emotions, Horatio being the closest thing he had to a son of his own. He now realized it had been a grave mistake. Granby had lately celebrated his thirty years’ jubilee as a captain, his bones ached after even a short days’ flying, and the management of the busy Dover covert, letters and dispatches piling on his desk, was growing more taxing by the day. He was dearly looking forward to retirement, but Iskierka wouldn’t hear of it.
Perhaps he ought to have appealed more strongly to his family, for one of his nephews, humiliating as it would have been to beg. But the new flourishing of steam boats and ships had earned his eldest brother a small fortune in coal-trading, and allowed Granby & Sons to open branches outside their native Newcastle, so his three sons had chosen to go into that more settled line of business. His other brother’s son had looked a likely prospect, since he had been quite unwilling to follow his own father into the church, but he had died of smallpox when he came of an age to join the Corps. Even if he had lived, Granby was not at all sure if Iskierka could have been prevailed upon to see reason, besotted as she was with Horatio, the one crew member most decidedly out of her reach.
“Captain Laurence earned his bars, and inherited his father’s dragon,” he said to his dragon, calmly, “There was nothing irregular about it, and everyone was very glad to see Temeraire back in the Corps.”
“But that doesn’t mean it was fair,” Iskierka hissed, “Why do they all need to leave, when I have them trained properly? Harcourt didn’t stay, either.”
He stroked her seething neck. “Well, my dear, we always knew she was for Longwing service.”
Alice Harcourt, one of his more talented former midwingmen, was in line for Lily once her mother retired, and had therefore gone to Excidium to be trained in Longwing service after she had passed her lieutenant’s examination, some three years ago. Iskierka had been most unhappy, but Granby had been secretly relieved to see her go, as the girl had grown rather too fond of Lieutenant Laurence with his handsome face and golden hair. Granby had despaired over the inadequacy of his advice, despite the seemingly one-way nature of the attraction, Horatio being far too busy perfecting his fencing and shooting or roaming around the harbour taverns to notice a heartsick girl. Surely Captain Emily Roland would set her straight and tell her all a woman in the Corps needs know, as her own mother would have done, if she hadn’t been stationed in Bombay these last five years. After the disaster of her marriage and the end of the war, Catherine Harcourt had gone back to the tried and tested Corps ways, and not very long afterwards given birth to her longed-for daughter. Granby didn’t know the name of Alice’s father, Catherine had never mentioned, and he had never thought to ask. Maybe she was Warren's, or Chenery's – their eye colours matched suspiciously – or somebody else’s entirely. She wasn‘t his, that was for sure, and Granby suspected that was the reason she had been assigned to his crew, to preclude any awkwardness. No, commitment or marriage weren’t their lot, the life didn’t allow it. He sometimes wondered at his old friend Laurence, who seemed to have made a tolerable success of the thing, although of course Temeraire had let him retire, and he and Roland were too busy to be in each other’s way much, he with his parliamentary struggles and she well-respected figure in the Corps even beyond retirement, often applied to for advice.
Roland had written him the list of promising officers to approach, who might be a fit for Iskierka. She still knew most post-lists inside out. When she had handed him the names, he had made one last attempt, and quipped: “You know who she’s got her heart set on… or rather, her claws.”
She had nodded. “I know, although we should count ourselves lucky it isn’t possible, as he is for Temeraire. Horatio has all his father’s fervour and none of his discipline, which, matched against Iskierka, I must call the perfect recipe for disaster,” an astute judgement, shattering his hopes.
“You know I cannot be with you forever, my dear,” he now said to Iskierka, who was sulkily snapping at a seagull who had dared come too close to the pavilion, “You will live to see the next century, easily, and I twenty or thirty years at most, and half those as a deaf arthritic. But there are many talented young aviators longing for the chance to be your companion.”
“I don’t want any of them. They bore me,” Iskierka said and closed the issue by blowing a short gust of flame onto the list of eligible officers. Granby dropped it hastily. “I don’t want to meet any more of them. Pray can we go and find some smugglers?”
“I’m sorry to say all is looking rather calm at sea today,” Granby said, looking at the ashes frustrated, “Shall we go for a circuit, nevertheless? Just the two of us?”
Iskierka nodded and got up from the floor, brightening already.
The salty sea-air on his face and the glint of the channel underneath them could do little to raise Granby's spirits. The gnawing question of finding a successor pushed aside for now, his thoughts stubbornly circled back to where he did not want them to go.
Captain Little had written to him.
Little had already looked pale and hollow-cheeked when Granby had returned from Canada, over a year ago now, but at that time, Granby had blamed it on the perpetual rain in Scotland where Little had been flying patrols. He had kissed and laughed it away in the joy of their reunion and suggested Little apply for a change in post, Cyprus perhaps. Yet when they had met again, at an entertainment in London Laurence had given on the occasion of Temeraire’s rejoining the Corps, Little had looked even thinner, and all but avoided him, finally disappearing from the party without leaving an address. Granby had been stumped and annoyed. Walking away brooding, he had caught Little bent over coughing in the yard, leaning against Immortalis’ side, the dragon nosing his captain anxiously. Granby had called out his name, and when Little had turned, his hands and mouth had been slick with blood. He had hastily wiped it away, without a care for the ruin he was making of his dress shirt, and put on a smile, but before Granby could stop him, he had climbed aboard, and spurred Immortalis to be away.
Granby had not slept a quiet night, thereafter. He now understood what Little was running away from, but that Little also chose to run away from him hurt beyond what Granby would have thought imaginable. He had suffered a further blow when he had heard, second-hand, that Little had resigned from the service, after Immortalis had accepted one of his nephews for captain, and still, no note had arrived, nothing to disclose his condition or whereabouts – until the letter had come, a week ago.
It was written in deliberately cheerful tones, Little’s elegant hand only a little shaky. He had not spilled any ink on his health, but instead described in glowing detail the house he had bought with his prize-money, in the pleasant Somerset climate. It finished -
The fly-fishing is excellent, too, and the lake very secluded, with no paths leading to it. You have to cross a treacherous swamp to reach it. I hope you forgive my sentimental thoughts, but I often imagine walking it with you, just the once, and spending a day by that lake. I think I would die very happily, thereafter.
He had almost burnt the letter after reading it. There was the address, he held it in his hand tantalisingly, the unwritten plea between the lines, and yet he was unable to go. For years, there had been the tacit understanding between them that after their retirement, Little would look after him, one-handed cripple he was, and it pained Granby to think that he could not now do the same for Little, in his need. He did not care tuppence about any scandal it should have caused. But he could not leave Iskierka. Taking her along was out of the question – already wary over the loss of multiple officers, she would not take kindly to the idea of sharing his attention, and the last thing he wanted was a confrontation between the dragon he loved, and the man he loved equally. Yet the thought of another person, some uncaring footman or butler, looking after Augustine, washing him, helping him dress, setting his meals before him, all the while seeing only a sick and fading man, without recognition of the wonder that he was, filled him with anger and jealousy. He longed to ride up to that Somerset valley, throw whoever else was with Little out of the house, take his hand and tell him that he was there now, and there to stay, by that deep, quiet lake.
But his luck being what it was, he now had another problem on his hands.
“Why, that is Temeraire!” Iskierka shouted, wheeling around mid-air.
Granby reached for his looking-glass. From what he knew, Temeraire ought to be training with his new captain and formation in Scotland, not roaming around the southern coast. But the Celestial's sleek silhouette was unmistakable. Through his glass, Granby could make out three other beasts escorting him, hemming him in rather more closely than formation-flying required. The lead dragon gave a signal, Permission to land. Granby, still puzzled, called to Iskierka to return to the covert, and, after a little searching – his ensigns usually took care of this – flew one of Iskierka’s signals, Act at your discretion.
“It seems that one of our Corps dragons has been seized by a civilian, Admiral, and caused grave damages to one of the Navy’s decommissioned craft,” young Captain Dayes told him, walking over hurriedly after they had landed, his face confused even as he said it. Old Dayes had never secured a beast, and gone to the breeding-grounds embittered, but to his late triumph, his son had succeeded. “All but sunk it, to speak the truth. Our commander at Colchester was not at all sure what to do with him, so he bade us take him to you as his senior officer, to decide.”
“Nonsense,” Granby snorted, “A dragon cannot be seized against his will, unless someone should have taken his captain prisoner – where is Captain Laurence?”
“Dead, I presume. The man we took wouldn’t speak to us at all, but I heard a rumour-“
“I don’t want rumours,” Granby interrupted, sternly, hoping Iskierka hadn’t overheard, “Show me this civilian.”
Captain Dayes waved at his crew, and they brought forward an abashed-looking prisoner. Temeraire anxiously craned his neck, but the other two dragons wouldn’t let him step closer. Granby looked him over, confused, a faint recognition dawning. “What is your name?”
The young man stared at his feet. He was barely more than a boy, dressed sloppily in trousers and a shirt, without tie, jacket or waistcoat, and his hands, soft as a girl’s, were scratched as if he had recently taken a tumble into a thorn bush. “William Laurence, Sir.”
Of course, Granby thought. The usual suspects. He had last seen Horatio’s brother when the boy was about nine years old, and even at that time the twins had been like chalk and cheese, but the family resemblance was plain enough, when one looked for it. Before he was able to ask another question, Iskierka had snaked her head around him from behind, and brought her threatening face right up to young Mr Laurence's.
“Where is Horatio?” she demanded.
He pressed his lips together and did not reply.
“Pray leave him alone, Iskierka,” Granby said, “Captain Dayes, I thank you for your trouble. You and your formation may go.”
“But… but what is to be done about that man’s trickery on the dragon?” Dayes stammered, “Surely there must be some form of punishment?”
“I said, you may go,” Granby repeated flatly, and Dayes hastily made his leg and turned away. Granby watched him with narrowed eyes as he walked back to his beast, Cirrus, a cross between a Fleur-de-Nuit and a Reaper that had come out disappointingly small and short-sighted, although his tolerable night-vision sentenced him to a life of shore patrols. Granby didn’t like him much, and neither did he like young Dayes. He was too clean-shaven, too obliging, too obsequious. If he was perfectly honest, he didn’t feel inclined to like anyone or anything very much, that day.
“Thank you, Admiral Granby,” young Mr Laurence said, and Granby turned to stare at him.
“There is nothing to thank me for,” he snapped, “Come inside, where we may speak in private, but I must warn you to talk plain truth, as my nerves have already been sorely tested today.”
“Granby,” Temeraire put in, “Pray don’t be angry with Will. I asked him to come. Isabella can confirm it. We have something very important to do, and he agreed to come with me to China, as Horatio is hurt.”
Granby only noticed the girl now, tall and dark in the shadow of Temeraire’s wing. “Well, he can tell me all about it now, and that something had better be a good reason for all this mayhem,” he said, still tight-lipped, trying his best not to let any hint of personal concern slip into his voice. “Midwingman Dlamini, would you care to accompany us?”
“You let Horatio fight a duel?” Iskierka exclaimed, when Temeraire had given her an abridged account of the last few day’s events.
“I wouldn’t have let him, if I had known,” Temeraire grumbled, “It’s not my fault you didn’t teach him the rules.”
“So I am to blame now, am I?” Iskierka snarled, “I wonder why you took such a badly trained captain then. I certainly didn’t force you to.”
Temeraire stared at her angrily, and said nothing.
“This business with Ning,” Iskierka said, when she was done relishing her victory, “I don’t think I can be blamed for that, either.”
“Neither can I,” Temeraire said, “She would never listen to me… quite like her mother.”
“Yes, reckless and silly, just like her father.”
They shared another moment of silent disharmony, staring at the gulls.
“I bet you shan’t manage to get her back, even if you drag that pathetic boy all the way to China,” Iskierka said, “Are you sure he is the right one, anyways? He looks not eighteen…”
Temeraire flattened his ruff. “Don’t insult Will.”
“Pah. I bet-“
“What do you bet, then?” Temeraire said, heatedly. He was getting fed up with her bluster.
Iskierka narrowed her eyes. “You want to bet? Fine. Let us have a wager, then. If you manage to bring Ning back, you may keep Horatio, and you can have half my fortune.”
“Very well,” Temeraire nodded, “That would suit me perfectly.”
“But if you lose, which I expect,” she added, viciously, “I get half your fortune, and I will take Horatio for my captain, since Granby means to retire and look after Little with his coughing sickness. And you had better hurry up, because Granby says there is no cure for it." She gave an exasperated snort, as if it was very inconsiderate of Captain Little to be so very ill. "A hundred days should be more than enough.”
“Agreed,” Temeraire said, "That will be easy, if all one has to do is fly to China and back. Ought we find someone to write it all down? … Isabella?” he called, but then remembered she had gone inside the fortress with Will and Granby. His runners weren’t there either, of course. With a guilty pang, he remembered the rest of his crew left behind at Loch Laggan where they had been training. Acquiring a crew had been one of the best parts about returning to the Corps, and he did not like to leave them unsupervised. He wondered briefly whether they might be sent to other dragons, as had happened when Laurence had been accused of treason, thirty years ago. It would be a wretched shame, now that they had finally started working together so well. But no, he told himself, the thing he had done was a little irregular, but not at all the same as treason.
“Look, there!” Iskierka cried, interrupting his thoughts, and pointed a talon at the sky. There was a dragon flying towards the fortress, alone.
“Why, that is Churki” Temeraire said, confused, when the feathered shape drew closer. She soon landed next to them in the wide castle courtyard, unmolested by the covert’s guard dragons thanks to the gleaming-white collar set with pearls and white topazes that marked a dragon in the diplomatic service, which she had contrived herself. Mr Hammond clambered off her back, and behind him, to Temeraire’s surprise, followed Lieutenant Ingram, one of his own officers.
“We found you at last! You abominable creature,” Mr Hammond panted, hurrying across to Temeraire. He had put on rather a lot of weight these last few years. “You made me trudge all the way up to Scotland with an urgent message, only to find you had abandoned post in a mad rush, so Lieutenant Ingram and myself had to trek through Derbyshire in search of you and your captain, and when we had finally found him, you had abandoned him altogether! What sort of a dragon are you? Admiral Laurence is very worried. I promised him to send word back to him directly, when we found you again.”
He said it with a grin, but Temeraire could not help feeling rattled, especially at the mention of Laurence’s name. Iskierka and Churki put their heads together, chattering in low voices of disapproval, and Temeraire felt quite a scrub.
“I am very sorry that Laurence is upset,” he said, “Pray tell me, how is Horatio?”
“Heartbroken,” Lieutenant Ingram said flatly, “over your abandon, as any captain would be.”
Temeraire lowered his head, confused. “But Little Will told me Horatio said he did not mind if we went without him, since it is so very important that we go quickly, and he is too poorly to come.”
“Who is Little Will?” the lieutenant asked, confused.
“Admiral Laurence’s other son, the Captain’s brother,” Hammond explained, “You may not have heard of him, he is not in the Corps.”
He turned away, distracted, even as Lieutenant Ingram stared in surprise. A few of the fortress’ guardsmen had come across to them now, to greet Churki and politely inquire after the cause of Hammond’s visit, to which he replied he would like to speak to Mr Laurence. They exchanged blank looks until one of the soldiers who had witnessed the earlier commotion of Temeraire’s arrival finally made the link and pointed them to the old medieval tower at the center of the fortress. “I think he’s the one that’s gone with the Admiral.”
“Lieutenant, are you coming?” Hammond called, over his shoulder, and set off towards the tower.
Mr Ingram was still looking at Temeraire. “Well, this Little Will might not have been entirely truthful in what he said about Captain Laurence’s permission to make away," he muttered, quietly, "But who can blame him – it must be very hard to see so glorious a dragon pass to one’s brother, where one might have entertained hopes.”
“You mean to say Little Will has been lying to me?” Temeraire asked, baffled, but Ingram had already hurried to catch up with Hammond.
Temeraire stared after him. He did not dislike Ingram, he was very capable and experienced an officer, a few years older than Horatio which seemed odd at times when Horatio was giving him orders, but his notions were old-fashioned. Probably he assumed nasty things about Will only because he could not believe a dragon would leave his captain behind, even with a good reason, and he would likely have been equally outraged by his wager with Iskierka – although thinking of that wretched business again, Temeraire felt a very bad dragon indeed. He would never have risked losing Laurence in a bet, for all the gold and jewels in the world, and wasn’t sure why he had given in so willingly, concerning Horatio. It wasn’t at all reasonable for Iskierka to demand such drastic terms. No, he would speak to her again, once Ingram was out of earshot, and agree a different prize, a herd of cows perhaps. Laurence raised very tasty ones, in the Peaks.
But Iskierka was faster.
“Pray wait a moment, Mr Ingram!” she called after him, a militant gleam in her eye, “We have something very important to be done, it will only take a moment. Can you write neatly? … Yes? Splendid. Would you draw up a contract, for Temeraire and me?”
Apart from the lack of refined manners that marked a man raised in the Corps, Admiral Granby was not as irascible as the first impression had suggested. His windswept dark hair, the hook that sat where the left hand ought to have been, and the gaudy gold-frogged coat gave him the air of a pirate, but the sharp lines etched in his face seemed to derive from weather and good humour more than bitterness. He tossed aside his coat when they reached his rooms in the medieval keep of Dover Castle – underneath, his clothing was perfectly plain – and cleared a seat for Will and Isabella by unceremoniously shoving aside a few piles of maps and unopened correspondence. When he learned they hadn’t eaten anything that day, he rang for a servant to bring them a cold breakfast and strong dark tea. Then he demanded to know what on earth had inspired Temeraire to run off without captain or crew, and to start preying on the Navy’s scrapped craft.
Already a little more at ease, Little Will told him of Horatio’s misfortune and the letter from Ning, in between bites of breakfast. Isabella sat very quietly and barely touched her plate, and Will wondered whether Granby might punish her for any presumed part in Temeraire’s misadventure. Finding the thought quite unbearable, he hurried to clarify that it had been his decision alone to try and go to China, and even assumed responsibility for the sinking of the Temeraire.
Granby first stared, and then snorted with laughter. “Your decision? Mr Laurence, I asked you to be candid, so pray leave off the tall tales. It would be most peculiar for an untrained man like yourself to sidle up to a harnessed beast and tell him, I thought we might go somewhere, and the dragon to meekly follow suit. I will make allowances for Temeraire being distraught over his captain – dragons have been known to make the most headless starts under such circumstances – but to expect me to believe that he acted on your orders is plain absurd.”
Little Will stared at his plate, his appetite suddenly gone. He did not like being lectured on the temperament of dragons, much less the temperament of the dragon with whom he had spent the best part of his childhood, but the admiral’s words hit a raw spot. He was not Temeraire’s captain, and despite all he knew about dragons, he would only ever seem an intruder to Granby or any other aviator. In half a day with Temeraire, he had already done a vast amount of damage. It might be best for both of them if their journey came to an end here, at Dover, and some more skilled man accompanied Temeraire on his journey to China, if Granby and the admiralty agreed he might go.
There was a knock on the door. “Enter,” Granby called, sighing, and a group of ground soldiers respectfully ushered in a chubby man in a fine coat and a lieutenant of thirty or so, in a neat green aviator's uniform.
Will blinked. He knew the older man's face, knew it quite well. The fellow had dined at Castleton Hall a few times, with his father and Mr Tharkay. Mr Hammock, no, Hammond, was his name. Will remembered well how once, when he was about twelve years old, Mr Hammond had addressed him across the dinner-table and asked, in fluent Mandarin: “So I hear you can speak Chinese?” To which Will had nodded, blushing, and replied in the same tongue: “Yes, Sir, Lung Tien Xiang is teaching me.” Mr Hammond’s face had lit up, and he had looked eager to ask more, but Laurence had stiffened, overhearing the exchange, and ordered his son to bed, which Will had found very unfair at the time, his father evidently begrudging him even this one small scrap of attention.
Mr Hammond now greeted Granby with a wary familiarity, ignoring the Admiral’s raised brow, and then turned to Will, saying “Mr Laurence! I trust you remember me, Arthur Hammond of Her Majesty’s foreign ministry. I am very glad we found you at last.” He introduced his companion as Lieutenant James Ingram.
“Pray sit down and have something to drink,” Granby said, wrily, his face expressing that a bad day had this very instant gone to worse.
Mr Hammond sat down, but he ignored the tea offered him and instead forged ahead: “We have had some disconcerting news from our informants in China concerning Temeraire’s daughter, Ning. A new Celestial has hatched, and to avoid a squabble for power his ministers advised the Emperor to send Ning away from the palace, to a retirement of sorts, and the new Celestial, a Lung Tien Li Ming, to take her place as the Emperor’s companion.”
“Yes, yes, we know all of that already,” Temeraire said, impatiently peering through the small window. Granby’s quarters were on the fourth floor, but sitting on his haunches, he could easily look inside. “And now she has gone to the East India Company, and means to bully the Chinese into taking her back. Which is very unlikely to work, and a very tactless thing to do in any case, if you ask me.”
“Oh,” Hammond said, faintly. “I am afraid your news runs ahead of mine. The East India Company, you say?” He looked more than disconcerted.
“So she wrote to me. Has Laurence not told you?” Temeraire asked, “I left the letter with him.”
Hammond's cheeks flushed. “No, I am afraid he has not been so kind as to share this piece of intelligence with me, although it must render the mission all the more urgent.” He turned back to Will. “Mr Laurence, your father assures me you haven’t the slightest inclination to involve yourself in either warfare or diplomacy, and my orders were for your brother, but seeing he is sadly incapacitated, I must apply to your patriotic feelings to step up to the mark with a matter of the greatest importance.”
He paused to gauge the effect of his words. Will still looked at him blankly. He did not understand what immediate business the Queen’s diplomat had with Ning.
“I am sorry to say tensions with China have come to a head, recently, and the Chinese are threatening to close their ports to our traders,” Hammond explained, “The emperor has been roundly refusing to grant our envoys even a short audience, to try and repair relations. I am sorry to hear Ning’s behaviour is now rendering the situation even more delicate. Your brother and Temeraire were our last hope – the Emperor can hardly refuse to see his own kin… So I must entreat you to take your brother’s place. You might be able to negotiate a treaty to preserve the peace, and reopen the ports… Of course, you don’t need to worry about managing the dragon. Mr Ingram assures me he feels capable of that, and I can send along a trusted member of my diplomatic staff to carry out the negotiations, if the opportunity arises. Your role would be merely that of a … figurehead, so to speak. If coincidentally, by your original design, you should be able to persuade the dragon Ning to return to England, that would be very useful, too, of course-“
“I have never heard anything so impertinent in my whole life,” Admiral Granby interrupted, irate. “You cannot go around giving this boy orders as if he was one of your subordinates, and much less so Temeraire, and above all you have no damn business interfering with the promotion of a lieutenant to acting-captain, no matter whether deserving of not,” this with a glance at Mr Ingram, who stood close to the door, his face unmoved, “or the instatement of Mr Laurence in such a role. It would set a very bad example to the rest of the Corps if an untrained man were given so priceless a dragon, and Temeraire’s own captain left behind. I do see they are brothers, but nevertheless, it is quite out of the ordinary way.”
“I do respect your feelings, Admiral,” Mr Hammond said, tartly, his tone suggesting quite the opposite, “But may I suggest that a crucial diplomatic mission takes precedence before the internal affairs of the Corps?”
Granby drew in his breath for an angry reply, but before he could speak, Will said, hurriedly: “Thank you, Mr Hammond. Your faith in me is most unfounded. I haven’t the slightest idea of how I, of all people, should win the Chinese emperor’s favour. I doubt he thinks of me as his kin. But more importantly, I have already gone too far, and don’t intend to do any more damage. As the Admiral says, Temeraire is my brother’s, and I have no intention of stealing him away, or posturing as an aerial captain. Good day to you, sirs.”
He made a start for the door even as he heard Temeraire’s yelp of protest outside. “But Will, I thought we were going to China anyways, for Ning? What could be so very bad about what Hammond is asking us to do – we might try?”
“I told you," Iskierka sighed. “He is a coward. Well, you shall have to go to China alone then, and be back in a hundred days.”
Will slammed the door behind him, cutting off the voices to a muffled din, and leaned against it. He stared at the dark looming staircase, stone steps hollowed by centuries of use, men marching up and down to do their duty to England. Duty a word he hated, one his father liked to harp on about far too much, a hollow husk that could be bent to suit those in power and control. He suddenly remembered a bedtime story his mother had once told him and Horatio, of the network of tunnels in the soft limestone beneath Dover castle, much enlarged during the threat of Napoleon’s invasion. She had made a ghost story of it, of people getting lost in the catacombs never to be seen again, and Will had been spooked and thoroughly robbed of sleep. In this moment, however, he would have given an arm and a leg to know where the entrance to those passages lay, so that he too could be swallowed up from the face of the earth.
He stumbled forward when the door was abruptly thrown open, slamming into his back, and Isabella stormed out. She all but shot past him in her rush, but hearing his stifled noise of pain, she turned and stared at him.
“What is this idiocy of rushing off?” she hissed, “Have you not heard what the dragons are on about?”
He pushed the door shut and stared at her angrily. He knew he had made a perfect spectacle of himself, and now could not even get back to his university, without a penny in his pocket or a dragon to take him. In a minute, he would have to go back to ask Granby for help, like a child. Or, even worse, he could go down the stairs and face Temeraire. “No, and I don’t care,” he said resentfully, rubbing his back, “I’m done with all of this, people telling me what I can and cannot do, and either calling me a sneaking liar or a figurehead. I’m going back to my college.”
“The devil you are,” she replied, heatedly, “Never mind that Hammond fellow, but we haven’t a minute to lose. Temeraire and Iskierka have gotten it into their heads to start a wager, on whether Temeraire can get to China and back with Ning in a hundred days.”
“So what?” Will asked. He pushed past her and started down the stairs.
Isabella followed him, doggedly. “According to the terms of the wager, if Temeraire loses, Iskierka will get half his fortune, and take Horatio for her captain. The ink’s dry on it, that treacherous Mr Ingram wrote it out for them without thinking to consult either of us… he only wants to get his hands on Temeraire, I tell you.”
“And I tell you, I’m done with all of you, dragons and aviators. Horatio got you into this mess, now you can see how you get out of it. It’s none of my business. Besides, I don’t see what good I should do, going to China. Leave me alone.” He opened the door to the courtyard, light and sea air streaming into the dark staircase.
Isabella stopped dead. “Fine, Uncle William,” she said, flatly, “The captain got himself into this mess only because that Rankin fellow was insulting your own father, but why should you care. Hammond said that if you were to succeed, he would be able to use that to sway the admiralty to let Horatio off, but of course that is no concern to you. Iskierka might snatch your brother away, and leave me without a post if Temeraire doesn’t take another, but that is none of your business. You are happy to stand idle while our family and Temeraire are shamed. So you know what? You are a damned coward after all.”
She spat, and turned away to ascend the stairs.
“He is not a coward,” a deep inhuman voice said, outside, “Will, I am sorry to hear you don’t want to go to China. But pray don’t listen to what they say.”
He froze in the doorway. Temeraire sat in the courtyard, his ruff flattened and his tail curled tightly around his tensed body, and Will had to curb the strongest impulse to run to him straight away and put a soothing hand on the trembling side. He sometimes thought that Temeraire was the earliest memory he had in his life, the sleek black hide and warm breath deeply familiar, the most comforting thing he knew. It was impossible to bear, seeing him so dejected.
“Temeraire, I… I… ” he stammered, “I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t see what good I will do you with your wager, and surely won’t be able to achieve any of the things Hammond expects. But if you want me to… I mean… if you will suffer me and my inexperience and my incompetence, I will go.”
I am sorry to record that in the last four days, we have not made any progress beyond Rhenish Prussia, Will wrote in Temeraire’s log, noting the date as 13th June, 1838.
He had found the logbook wrapped in tarpaulin and tucked away in a pouch on Temeraire’s harness. Opening it, he hadn’t been able to suppress a sense of awe. The first entries were dated before his birth, to the time of the war with Napoleon. Some pages were blood-stained, others scorched. Through it all, with a steady hand, his father had kept a meticulous record of their estimated position, Temeraire’s health, the numbers of their crew, names of men injured or lost in combat, and the state of their provisions, along with sketched maps and remarks on the climate or points of interest to a navigator’s eyes. There was a scientific air to it, and for the first time, Little Will glimpsed a side of his father that he could sympathize with whole-heartedly.
An entry from 1814 recorded Temeraire’s retirement from the service, with a bold and final-looking line drawn underneath it. Then, the ink less faded and dated over twenty years later, was his father’s final entry into the log. With a small flourish that hinted at his pride, he had recorded the appointment of Captain Horatio John Laurence, and Temeraire’s return to the Aerial Corps, so that the Keeping of this Record will pass into the hands of Temeraire’s second Captain.
The few pages that followed were a scanty effort. Horatio had mostly simply jotted down dates and place names, often with gaps of weeks between them, and some of it quite illegible. He evidently did not care much for record-keeping, in the way of most aviators. Will had overheard his parents bickering about the subject often enough.
He now had rather too much time on his hands for his own entries. Sighing, Will ran a thumb over the page he had just filled in what he knew to be a poor imitation of his father’s style, and picked up his letter to Mr Tharkay to append to it.
As soon as we had crossed the channel and reached Rotterdam, four days ago now, Temeraire got it into his head that I was in need of a new coat, and wouldn’t rest until I had acquired one, although I daresay I disappointed him by not settling for the glossy silk he admired the most.
The coat he had bought in the end was a serviceable and sturdy brown tweed. Will did not write how taken aback he had been when the banker they'd seen to withdraw the necessary funds told them the sum in Temeraire’s account. Temeraire’s considerable fortune made the wager with Iskierka all the more appalling; it would have bought wardrobes of silken coats even if one discounted the uncertain sum due in damages for the Téméraire, which had not yet been deducted. Hammond had agreed to carry out the haggling over the decommissioned hull on their behalf, one of the few concrete promises he had made them in return for the hopeless mission.
Temeraire also wishes for a new collar, as he has left his breastplate in Scotland and he saw Churki wear a striking enameled piece with pearls apparently marking her a diplomat, but I have tried in vain to find anything of the sort. I could not bear to return empty-handed, and so I foolishly settled for several yards of white Brussels lace. It was pretty in the shop window and I thought it might look a little like the meshwork I've seen Chinese dragons wear on the engravings You have shown me, but sadly it did not display to advantage on Temeraire’s neck, looking more like a curtain gone astray. I wasn’t able to return it, so it is travelling with us now. Maybe someone in England will care for it, after we return. We have otherwise made good progress across the Low Countries and reached Rhenish Prussia two days ago. Since then, our journey has come to a halt.
To their misfortune, Temeraire’s fame in the German states seemed to eclipse even that in England. Poets had written ballads in honour of England’s heroic dragon, the liberator of Prussia’s Aerial Corps and victor over Napoleon's scheming dragon Lien, and an operatic production inspired by his deeds had been a resounding success a few years ago, making him even more of a household name. A small Prussian Mauerfuchs had intercepted them at the border, demanding to see their papers, to which Temeraire had replied he had never heard anything so ridiculous as a dragon carrying a passport. The little orange beast had bristled and looked prepared to make a fuss despite its diminutive size, but had frozen at the sound of Temeraire’s name when Will had tried to call him to order.
“Temeraire? Der Temeraire?” he had chirped.
“Yes, you do have the advantage of me,” Temeraire had said, “And only because I don’t have a collar, you have no right to molest me. I’m a diplomat, and passing through.”
The Mauerfuchs had nattered with his captain in an excited flurry of German, and the man had bowed to Will to request that they do them the honour of accompanying them to their covert, so all the dragons and crews there could meet so distinguished a dragon. Temeraire had looked too flattered for Will to put up any serious resistance.
In honour of Temeraire, we have been passed along like a baton, from covert to townshall to palace, to be admired and feasted. Temeraire has had a joyful reunion with a heavyweight called Eroica, a fearsome plate-armoured beast whom he calls an old comrade-in-arms. His Captain is Carl von Dyhern, a friendly fellow who has made himself my guide and interpreter. He sends his respects to Father, as he says his late father and mine were acquainted during the time of the War.
Dyhern, a thick-set and jovial young man some two or three years his senior, had indeed been something of a guardian angel, his heavyweight shielding them from the worst excesses of the populace’s adulation. Word of their arrival had travelled much faster than their snail’s pace, so at nearly every town a delegation of citizens insisted on paying their respects, mayors and guild-masters squabbling over the honour of hosting them. By the end of the third day, Little Will had received three proposals of marriage to daughters of local dignitaries, which Temeraire had summarily rejected on his behalf before Dyhern could so much as translate. More than ever, Will felt like an impostor, being showered with credit for actions that hadn’t been his own. He wondered gloomily what his father would have made of it, or Horatio. He couldn’t quite divine Laurence’s reaction, but he felt certain Horatio would have found the situation hilarious. For his part, he was simply embarrassed.
I have tried multiple times to convince our hosts of the urgent nature of our mission, and Dyhern is very sympathetic. However, we haven’t been able to dodge an invitation to dinner by the Crown Prince himself, and therefore we have presently wound up at one of his residences near Cologne. Dyhern thinks that the Prince might grant us a permit of free passage so we can swiftly cross the borders of the many other princely-states. It would be a most useful thing to have, seeing how things have gone on our first attempt, and I am determined not to waste the chance.
This much was true, although he dreaded the evening ahead and had accepted the invitation only with the greatest sense of discomfiture. He was the son of a baron and a duchess, the nephew of the present Lord Allendale, and ought to have been at ease in polite company. But he was not. He had not inherited his father’s social graces, nor had his years of schooling been able to repair that fault. Will knew he could always be relied upon to say something tactless, to muddle up the cutlery or upset the gravy-boat. Laurence had eventually given up trying to rope him into political receptions, even for causes they both cared about, such as the welfare of dragons, as Little Will was sure to cause more damage than good. To make matters worse, they were losing more precious time, as Prince Frederick had been delayed on his way to his residence and the planned feast had already been postponed a day. Will had gone to the grounds to be nearer to Temeraire and out of the way of the servants in the palace who were busy with absurdly elaborate preparations, great platters of silver and gold being brought out, garlands hung, and even the crystal chandeliers carefully removed to be polished.
Pray give my love to Horatio. All my prayers are for his speedy recovery, and a measured response from the admiralty. Also to dear Mrs Walker, and to Mother, if she is still at Castleton, although I suspect she is not best pleased with me at present. I will write to Father as soon as I can find the time. It may reassure him to hear that Temeraire is well, and in good spirits.
Your affectionate godson
W. T. Laurence
He was unhappy with his letter's ending; he felt cowardly to ask Mr Tharkay to act as go-between for him and his father, but at present, he could not manage anything better. He had begun a letter to Laurence, but after writing the date and a formal line of greeting, had been at a loss how to continue, torn over whether to launch into an apology or not, his hand paralysed as he imagined the deep frown on his father’s forehead as he read either variant, either too submissive or lacking in respect.
Folding up his letter, Will noticed Dyhern hurrying towards him carrying a bundle of cloth, his face reddened in the unusually warm June day. He put down his reading glasses and rose to greet the Prussian captain. “Have you any news about the dinner?” he asked.
Dyhern held out the bundle. “I do. Prince Frederick means to make you an honorary member of our Corps, on account of all Temeraire has done, so you are to wear this tonight.” Beaming, he unrolled the bundle to reveal the black and red dress uniform of the Prussian Aerial Corps.
Will hesitated, caught off-guard by this new height of unwarranted attention. He wondered whether it might be seen an act of disloyalty to his own nation to wear it, but Dyhern looked so enthusiastic that he felt a scrub to turn it down. He hadn’t formally been made a Captain of the British Corps, and no fellow Briton would see it, apart from Temeraire’s small crew. Besides Isabella Dlamini and Lieutenant Ingram, Admiral Granby had assigned them a harnessmaster with an assistant, a runner, a young dragon-surgeon fresh from his training, and two officers in the role of riflemen picked from Iskierka’s crew, Marlow and Jenkins, who had evidently been tasked with keeping an eye on Will whom nobody trusted to defend himself. They followed him everywhere and were lurking in the shadows even now, watching his steps like those of a child. None of them had so far shown him any particular respect or warmth, and they applied to Mr Ingram for orders, which Will couldn’t begrudge them - he was perfectly conscious of his inexperience, and of how poor and ignorant a replacement he made for his brother. However, he thought resentfully, if the Prussians chose to treat him with respect for Temeraire’s sake, could he really be expected to fling the gesture back in their faces just to please men who would likely always see him as an usurper and upstart, no matter how hard to he tried to learn about their ways?
Abruptly resolved, he took the coat and trousers from Dyhern’s hands. “Thank you, Carl. It is a great honour.”
“You should see to getting Temeraire ready,” Dyhern said, blotting his forehead, “I’ve been told the Prince will arrive shortly, and-” He checked himself, his mouth half-open, but then he simply smiled, touched his hat and turned to hurry away again.
Will gathered up his things and turned to look for Temeraire, but the dragon was no longer dozing where he had last seen him. He called out, "Temeraire?" but in place of a reply, there was only a faint splash and cheering, and a noisy cloud of waterfowl rose from behind a group of large ornamentally trimmed yew trees.
“Mr Jenkins, Mr Marlow, would you be so kind as to stay here for a moment and keep a watch on my things?” Will asked the riflemen, who had quit their shady spot to continue their watch over him, and were now eyeing the Prussian uniform suspiciously. Jenkins tried to object, but Will scowled at him unflinching, too exasperated to be cowed.
“Yes, Sir,” Jenkins said, with a startled look, swallowing his protest, and both of them sullenly took up post over the bundle of books, pens and ink-stand.
Will nodded and turned away to walk towards the sound of the commotion.
“Temeraire, what are you doing?” he called, dismayed, when he had hurried around the towering mass of the yews. Temeraire had stepped into one of the large shallow ornamental ponds that stretched in this part of the park and had splashed around to wet his back, covering himself with duckweed.
“It is very warm today, so I wanted to refresh myself, and Isabella offered to wash me,” he said innocently, green water dripping from his tendrils and ruff.
“Wash you? But Temeraire, you are all over filth! You cannot appear before the Prince like this. We must get that duckweed off you…. Isabella!”
She appeared behind Temeraire’s tail, dripping wet and wearing an expression of mingled guilt and defiance. Will was horrified to see how her shirt clung to her chest and hips. He was suddenly very glad that he had made the riflemen stay behind. Behind her followed little Teddy Hawkes, Temeraire’s runner, similarly drenched.
“Shall we wipe him down straight away, Acting-Captain?" she asked, practically, “I’m not invited to that dinner, anyway.”
“No,” Little Will said, striving very hard to put authority into his voice, “You will get yourself changed, and next time set a better example to Mr Hawkes. You know I’m very sorry you cannot come to the dinner, but there is no reason to behave childishly. You know we had an agreement.”
“Oh, I don’t mind about the dinner. It just it seems to me very strange that I should not finish clean-“
“Pray put this on when you’re walking where you might be seen,” Will interrupted, holding out the Prussian dress coat while keeping his eyes fixed on a point above her head. She accepted it with an exasperated release of air, threw it over her shoulders like a cape and strode away.
Will pressed his lips together, dismayed. Fortunately the benches and paths around the ponds were deserted in the heat, so no outsider had observed them, but he was still disappointed in her behavior, almost as though she wished to cause scandal. Female aviators were unheard of in the Prussian Corps, which flew neither Longwings nor Xenicas, and Dyhern had laughed at the notion when Will had brought it up probingly. Will had pleaded with Isabella to either go back to female dress and pose as a passenger, or to try and remain unseen. After their argument at Dover, this request had given her fresh cause for offense, and though she had chosen the latter option, she had since treated him with lofty formality, having moved from 'Uncle William' to 'Acting-Captain Laurence', which was even worse. And now this, making a spectacle of herself in the very palace grounds. He would happily have shrugged it off as adolescent posturing, trying to test the limits of his patience, but he considered Isabella above such folly, and so it felt more like a deliberate scorn. It hurt worse than the contempt of Lieutenant Ingram and the other aviators, Izzy being his kin and childhood friend after all. But then, he told himself, one couldn’t wish to be respected as a Captain and simultaneously enjoy the informality of friendship with those who were, after all, subordinates. He would have to learn to put a proper distance between them for the duration of the journey, if he didn’t wish to have to argue to doomsday over every unpleasant order he might give. Once he had handed the command back to Horatio, he would be able to make amends. He thought he might invite her to a cup of hot chocolate – he knew she loved chocolate – and they would laugh about the whole thing.
“Oh, but Will, are you angry?” Temeraire asked, bending his head down anxiously, “It was all my idea! You shouldn't chide her.” He heaved himself out of the basin with a little hop and flap of wings, leaving talon-marks in the lawn where he landed. He shook himself vigorously, splashing muddy water, and stretched his neck to look after the coat as Isabella went away, buttons gleaming in the sun. “But why, that looks very nice! Is it yours, Will? It is much prettier than your other coat.”
“Yes, it is a gift from our hosts,” Will sighed, wiping duckweed off his arms, “Mr Hawkes, will you fetch me some rags and a bucket?”
He was still engaged in clambering about Temeraire’s back and sides to clean him, Hawkes dashing forwards and back from a fountain with buckets of fresh water, when he heard a voice ask, in clear English, “Are you Captain Laurence?” making him jump.
Stepping out from the shadow of Temeraire’s wing, he caught sight of a dark-haired young woman, barely more than a girl, standing by the yew trees. Her pale face seemed vaguely familiar, although he could not quite place her. She was not particularly handsome, but her travelling-cloak looked exceptionally fine, and there was a look of determination on her face that seemed startling in so young a girl.
Temeraire, who had drowsed off contentedly during his cleaning, opened an eye. “Yes, he is my captain, and he doesn’t want to marry anyone, so you needn’t bother asking.”
“Acting-Captain Laurence of Temeraire, at your service,” he said, hurrying to bow while hastily buttoning up his waistcoat and pulling his shirt-sleeves down. But she scarcely paid him any attention.
“So this is your dragon?” she asked, without introducing herself, and walked up to Temeraire’s side. “May I touch him?”
Temeraire edged away from her outstretched hand. “Will, may she?” he asked, confused.
Little Will could not suppress a smile. It was indeed a question he had not heard before, especially not from a fashionable young lady. “I suppose, my dear, if you don’t mind.”
Recovering the air of the parliamentary dragon, Temeraire held out a talon, which she took unfazed. “Pleased to meet you,” Temeraire said, politely.
“I see you are the best-mannered creature in the world,” she exclaimed, “Quite the opposite of what they say about dragons. Oh, how I would like to have a dragon of my own! It would be very handy, to keep away the people who try and tell me what to do."
“I can confirm it answers well, on that account, although it attracts fresh obligations,” Will said drily.
“They say a woman isn’t allowed to have one, for it is too dangerous, but that is all stuff. I know for a fact there are women serving in my Aerial Corps”, she said, still stroking Temeraire’s foreleg as one might a horse, which Temeraire endured with a puzzled look, bringing his head down to peer at her more closely. My Corps, Will thought. Perhaps she was the daughter of an officer. He wondered whether he might inquire after her name, as she had still neglected to introduce herself, a rather jarring contrast to her otherwise good manners and impeccable accent.
“Indeed. My own mother captained a Longwing for many years, and my sister does now,” he said, but before he could follow it up with his question, she burst out hurriedly:
“Do you suppose you might take me flying? Just a very short distance?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t mind,” Temeraire said, “We have not been flying today, Will.”
“Victoria!” a voice shrilled behind them that moment. Will turned to see two older ladies hurrying towards them, flushed in their corsets and petticoats. “There you are!” one of them cried, “What on earth are you thinking, running off into the gardens like this? You had us all in such a fright! I have told you so many times it won’t do now, my sweet Queen, you aren't to go out without a guard, and – oh!” she ended faintly, catching sight of Temeraire’s claws next to her mistress.
There was a furrow of annoyance on the girl’s forehead as she turned to Will. “That will be Baroness Lehzen... I must go. Thank you, Captain, and Temeraire. I have been very happy to meet you. I shall see you at the dinner, I suppose?”
Will stared at her, dumbstruck as recognition suddenly dawned. He had indeed seen her face before. It graced medals and engravings, sat in a gilded frame in his college hall, and was even struck on the pennies in his pocket. Under the censorious eyes of her chaperones, he bent his knee, stammering, “Your Majesty.”
“A toast to Temeraire, and his Captain,” Crown Prince Frederick proposed, over the soup.
Will mechanically moved his hand to his glass as a cheer went up along the table, trying not to blush while consoling himself that the toast was in truth addressed to his father, who thoroughly deserved it. He felt utterly out of place at a table with ministers, field-marshals, and, worst of all, the Queen of England. Victoria was visiting the German kingdoms on an informal tour staying with her mother's relatives, not a state visit at all, yet the table was intimidatingly crowded with silver and crystal, the purpose of the elaborate preparations suddenly plain. Will was sweating under the thick broadcloth of the gifted uniform and he eyed Dyhern darkly, annoyed at his guide for keeping news of the Queen’s anticipated visit from him. Indeed, the Prussian captain averted his eyes rather sheepishly whenever Will looked in his direction, which could hardly be avoided as they had been seated almost opposite each other. Dyhern's services as a translator were not presently required, however, since in the Queen’s presence, the conversation naturally proceeded in English. From the polite but reserved exchanges so far, Will had gathered that the Prussian aristocrats and ministers had as little love for dragons as did those in England, but since both the Crown Prince and Queen Victoria had shown enthusiasm for Temeraire, they were forced to feign interest and tolerate Will’s and Dyhern’s presence at the table.
“Pray may I make so bold as to ask, how did you come to be a Captain at so young an age?” one of the Queen’s ladies inquired of Dyhern, fanning herself daintily.
“Oh, I never expected to be one at this time,” Dyhern said, shifting nervously in his seat. “My father, Admiral Dyhern, died unexpectedly from a seizure in the chest, three years ago, and I was woken up in the middle of the night to stop Eroica tearing down the village where it happened, in his grief.” A shadow fell over his face at the memory.
“How tragic, Captain, I am so sorry to have brought it up,” the lady-in-waiting said, snapping her fan shut and cupping her hands around her cheeks a little too theatrically to be sincere. The enormous sleeves of her shirred robe gave her the air of a plump bird. “My condolences for your great loss. I hope you managed to control the raging beast?”
Dyhern muttered something into his glass, and Will looked at him in sympathy, his earlier resentment fading away. He could well imagine how harrowing the experience must have been, even for a man raised to the prospect of inheriting a dragon, of having to come to terms with the death of his father as well as the sudden responsibility for a grief-stricken dragon.
“Why, Madam, it is nothing more than honour and duty to king and country demand,” Prince Frederick, who had evidently overheard, put in, and continued, addressing the whole table: “And more than that, the bond between a dragon and his rider seems to me a prime example of Divine Providence: man and beast bound by destiny to serve together, for the good of their nation… a smaller example of the same principle that governs the relationship between the king and his people. Captain Laurence, would you not agree?”
Will needed a moment to compose his features. Prince Frederick had expressed a great number of rather romantic notions during the course of the dinner, to which Will had mostly been able to nod acquiescence, but the last remark rankled in its naivety. Neither his father nor Temeraire had ever joined a party, choosing instead to vote according to their conscience on each notion brought before parliament, but Whig members or sympathizers had formed by far the greatest part of the guests at Will’s childhood home. He had never taken an interest in politics, himself, but he had absorbed at least some of their notions as his own convictions.
“Quite the contrary, Sire,” he said, “It is a lovely notion, yet I daresay nothing could be further from it. There is no divine providence involved in the pairing of a dragon and handler. Their relationship is founded on mutual respect and a bond of trust, which requires hard work and constant dedication rather than any divine blessing. If a captain were found neglectful or disrespectful of his dragon, nobody could force his beast to stay with him, and the same goes for the captain of a willful and unreliable dragon. I daresay it is much the same for a people and its government, a sovereign ultimately deriving his power solely from the will of his – ouch!”
He dropped his spoon into his soup bowl, startled by a sharp kick to his shin under the table. Wiping soup from his lapel with his napkin, he caught Dyhern’s eye. In the candlelight, the young Captain’s face was ashen, and he shook his head almost imperceptibly, yet with great urgency.
That moment, a commotion broke out at the door to the hall. After a short and rather violent struggle, a slender young girl burst into the room, ducking away from the hands of the guard who tried to catch hold of her. Isabella looked about herself hurriedly, then walked straight up to the Prince’s table at the head of the room, negotiating the crowded hall with greater agility than the confused guard scrambling after her. She bobbed an awkward curtsy at the Prince and the Queen. She had punctiliously followed Will’s order and changed into a fresh shirt and trousers, even wearing a tidy necktie. The lady guests, however, did not appreciate her effort, small gasps of mingled shock and outrage travelling the length of the table and all heads turning to stare at her.
“Captain, you must come directly,” she said to Will urgently, ignoring the commotion with perfect ease, “There is a man come to speak to Temeraire, and the guards want to throw him out, but Temeraire will not let them, and they are starting to talk of summoning a dragon regiment-“
The sweating guard had now finally caught up with her, and caught hold of her arm ungently murmuring a stream of apologies to the Prince, his other hand reaching for his sword. Will rose, appalled.
“Sir, you will let go of her immediately,” he said, with heat.
It was their turn to stare at him now, instead. “But, Captain, surely you cannot mean to listen to a… a…” the lady-in-waiting next to Dyhern began, but Will cut her off bluntly.
“She is one of Temeraire’s crew, and my niece. If you will excuse me a moment, I need to see to my dragon, as she has kindly come to tell me.”
One of the younger ladies sunk back in her chair pale and fainting, overcome by the heat, her tight-laced corset, the shocking apparition of a dark-skinned girl in trousers, and as a final straw, Will’s mention of her as his niece. Several guests rushed to her aid at once. In the confusion, Will quit the table without waiting for the Prince’s permission, waving at Isabella to follow him. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Lieutenant Ingram, Marlow and Jenkins rising from their seats at one of the other tables to follow them, confusedly pulling their napkins from their necks and looking ruefully at their half-eaten plates. At the high table, the Prince was blinking confused, Dyhern stared pale and ominous, and the young Queen alone, for all her perfectly bred composure, met his gaze with an amused sparkle in her eyes.
He found Temeraire in the palace’s landing grounds a good distance from the main building, curled around a man whom he had invited to sit on his foreleg in a gesture of great favour, evidently deep in conversation. Eroica was with him, listening with interest while chewing on the remains of his dinner. Hovering a short distance away was a whole division of the palace’s guards, in shiny polished breastplates and shinguards more ornamental than practical, yet carrying pistols and swords of good steel, who were staring resentfully at Temeraire and his visitor, evidently not daring to come closer.
“Oh, Will, it is very good of you to come!" Temeraire said, "This is Mr Marx, who writes for a newspaper. I have been telling him about everything Laurence and me have achieved in England.”
The visitor, who looked young enough to be one of Will's fellow Oxford students and not at all threatening, slid from Temeraire’s leg and raised his hat to them. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain,” he said, "I have heard a great many things about your dragon, but I never dreamed I might have a chance to speak to him personally. I hope you will forgive my intrusion, but I have travelled all the way from Trier in the hope of catching you."
As soon as he moved, the troop of guards drew closer again, but Temeraire gave a low warning growl. “You shall leave my guest alone,” he snapped in their direction, “He doesn’t mean your Prince any harm, and we are just talking.”
“Will, you must tell him to stop immediately!” Dyhern called out that moment. He had evidently also left the dinner and was now hurrying towards the landing grounds in real alarm. He caught hold of Will’s arm as soon as he reached them, pulling him away from Mr Marx. “This rabble-rousing talk must stop, or he will have all of us in a world of trouble. As for you,” he glared at the journalist, “you may leave now, immediately, or I will set my dragon at you for trespassing on the Prince’s grounds, as by God I should be right now.” He paused, checking himself, and repeated the last sentence in German, a good deal colder, pointing at the sheet of paper in the man's hands where he had taken notes of his conversation with Temeraire.
Mr Marx looked back at the Captain disdainfully, muttering a short reply, before handing it over. He took possession of his hat and walking-cane, bowed to Temeraire, and hurried away into the dark. The guards looked on in confusion and alarm, one of them snapping a question at Dyhern, doubtless inquiring whether they ought not pursue and arrest the intruder after all, but Dyhern shook his head. After some discussion, the soldiers, too, took their leave.
“But, Eroica,” Temeraire inquired of the other dragon, confused, “is it right that you do not even have a parliament here, at all?”
Eroica blinked and shifted his massive head to look at his captain. "I suppose it is. I have never thought about it. Dyhern, ought we not have a parliament, do you think?"
Dyhern looked at him with a hounded expression. "My dear, pray do not listen to any of these ideas. Nobody needs a parliament when we have our glorious king, and his wise ministers, to guide us.”
He said the last sentence very loudly, as if he wished it to be overheard by the guards marching away, and Temeraire looked at him with mingled offense and disappointment.
Dyhern waved Will in the direction of the barracks that stood next to the muddy landing grounds and which presently lay deserted except for a few herdsmen who quit the officer's mess hastily as soon as Dyhern approached in his uniform and polished boots. Dyhern shuttered the window carefully, than he sat himself down heavily in a chair and took off his coat. In the glow of the room's single candle, his face was still wary and he looked older than his five-and-twenty years as he said: “I am sorry to have upset him, Will, but I thought it the lesser evil. The Prince takes a very severe view of liberalist leanings, which is to say, he does not tolerate them at all… I suppose you have not heard of the incident of ’32?"
Will shook his head, still confused and unable to make head or tail of Dyhern’s behaviour.
Darting another look at the window, the captain continued: “Well, it was an ill-managed affair from start to finish. As you probably know, the Emperor Napoleon always understood to ingratiate himself with the population of his conquered realms, and established a very generous code of civil liberties in his provinces. Naturally, many of them had to be revoked after they came back under our rule, which offended men grown used to…” He stumbled over his words, groping for terms which might sound neutral, “… to less traditional ways. A few years ago, a group of liberals organized an open show of discontent to demand free speech, unity of the princely states under a national parliament, and a great many other things besides. It was attended by a whole crowd of people, and dragons as well. Several dragons even spoke on the occasion and demanded some of the provisions made in the Code Draconique be enforced. I… well… I was there too, on Arcturus where I was second Lieutenant. Not from any personal political opinion, but out curiosity and loyalty to my captain, who was quite taken in with the revolutionary ideas. He spoke of your father often enough, and took English newspapers whenever he could get his hands on them, although I think they had never met.”
He absently tapped his finger on the confiscated notes on the table before him.
“It all came to nothing, in the end, for they could never agree on the goals they wished to pursue, making it easy work for the police and the army to quell any further attempts at rebellion. The ringleaders were brought before court and sentenced to death, which the king later commuted to hard labour. They were particularly severe on the dragons, even though some of them, Arcturus included, were decorated veterans. Their captains were demoted and the dragons sent to the breeding-grounds. When my captain and Arcturus were dismissed, it left me equally disgraced and unassigned for a number of years. I often blame my father’s untimely death on the shock he took from it... But after he was gone, there wasn’t much they could do about my succeeding him, as Eroica would take no other.”
He crumpled the note sheet savagely, throwing it into the cold fireplace, and finally looked up at Will. “But let us stop talking about me. Suffice it to be said that some of the arrested dragons openly cited Temeraire’s parliament speeches in their hearings. I must beg you to be careful. Prince Frederick doubtless intends to use Temeraire’s popularity to his advantage by showing himself as your friend, but that doesn’t mean either of you can go around stirring things up and openly contradicting him.”
Will stared at him with incredulity . “But why… why on earth did you not tell me any of this earlier, Carl? I had no notion…” The populace’s fanatical enthusiasm for Temeraire suddenly had quite a different flavor, and the gold-buttoned coat on his shoulders seemed a cheap bribe, impossibly stifling. He took it off and pulled his cravat loose, too. He longed to fling open the shuttered window and drink in the cool night air.
Dyhern drew a shirt-sleeve over his forehead. “I hoped to spare you the unpleasantness of it. You already looked so glum about the prospect of the dinner, even without further cause for concern. And I must confess it shames me to talk of these things, and my own behavior.”
“But there can be no shame in being loyal to your Captain and your dragon,” Will protested, “Besides, I think it is an appalling state of things here, if neither men nor dragons have a right to speak out for themselves. Surely every instinct must rebel against it! Have you no wish to improve the lot of dragons, then?"
Dyhern looked frightened again and motioned a hand as if to tell Will he ought to speak quieter. “I shan’t improve anything by getting myself thrown into prison,” he said, flatly, “I am no political man. I intend to keep Eroica happy and in harness as long as I may, I swore that much at my father’s funeral, and that is the end of it.”
Will did not quite see how one, the dragon’s happiness, could go without the other, his liberty, but Dyhern’s face made it plain that there was no point in trying to argue further.
Dyhern pushed up from his chair, reaching for his coat. “We must go back to the hall.”
When they returned to the table, they were met with an almost palpable coldness. Their absence had doubtless given the company ample opportunity to discuss Temeraire’s parliamentary activities, and the shocking fact that some of them had made it into English law. Will swallowed the remaining courses down with difficulty, his throat tight with something very near scorn, and as soon as the port had been drunk, both him and Dyhern absented themselves with the lame excuse of having to make sure their dragons were still calm, which none of the ministers and dignitaries thought to question. They walked out to the landing grounds together in perfect silence, each lost in their own thoughts, and found Temeraire and Eroica fast asleep.
“The Prince desires that you should not be held up on your journey any longer than is necessary," Dyhern said, "He has already asked Captain Rattwitz of Laetitius to escort you to the Alpine passes by the most opportune route, over quieter countryside, and you may depart tomorrow, if you like.”
Will nodded, this intelligence being not at all unwelcome, although it hurt to hear it delivered with a note of barely concealed relief in Dyhern's voice, even if Laetitius replacing Eroica as their guide should mean they would likely not meet again. One moment ago we were the toast of the party, he thought bitterly, and the next, all they can think of is how to be shot of us as quickly as possible.
He still thanked Dyhern earnestly for all he had done, and they shook hands and parted. Will lingered by the sleeping Temeraire’s side watching the Prussian captain walk away into the night, saddened to think that under different circumstances, they might have become real friends. There was nothing inviting in the splendor of his guest chamber in the palace, and after a brief moment of thought, he fetched a few threadbare blankets from the barracks, and curled up against Temeraire’s side.
Temeraire was glad to be flying again.
Captain Rattwitz hadn’t ten words of English or French, and neither did Laetitius, his middleweight, so there wasn’t much conversation to be had beyond the bare necessities of their route. They encountered a few small ferals perched on rocky outcrops, but they darted away before Temeraire could try to speak to them. The air was pleasantly cool at altitude, the landscape a blur of forested hills under the steady beat of his wings, and Temeraire could almost imagine himself back with Laurence, flying into battle.
Politics was well and good, and Laurence had often called it combat of a different sort. However, to Temeraire’s mind, it did not quite compare. Specifically, it did not result in anything like the steady stream of fights, prizes and decorations Iskierka had been able to boast over the last score of years.
He could imagine Laurence looking at him, worried and a little startled, asking whether Temeraire really, sincerely, preferred to be putting down colonial revolts, many of them fought over quite legitimate grievances, to their work in parliament.
“I don’t," he told imaginary Laurence, “only it is very unfair that others should always be getting the glory, and we made to look like villains only for thinking about whether the greater cause of the fighting is just.”
Imaginary Laurence looked at him sternly, and Temeraire sighed. He couldn’t deny he and Laurence had quite swapped positions on this matter. Temeraire had been all enthusiastic about parliament, and Laurence more than reserved when Admiral Roland and Hammond had conspired at his entry into the House. However, with each passing year, Temeraire had grown more impatient with the endless debates that often did not produce any tangible outcome. Laurence, on the other hand, bore it all with increasing calm and fortitude, at times even a dry amusement born from experience.
“Of course he would get fed up,” Temeraire had overheard Jane say to Laurence one evening, through an open window of the bedroom at the London house, “He is a dragon in his prime while we have grown old and tired. I know it hurts sorely, but you ought to let him go, dear fellow.”
Temeraire would have liked to put in that he did not think Laurence old and tired at all, and that it was perfectly ridiculous to suggest Temeraire leave him behind, but it would have betrayed his eavesdropping, which he knew Laurence did not approve of, so he hadn’t said anything. And when Laurence had asked him, a short while later, whether he would consider rejoining the Corps now that Horatio had come of an age and experience to make Captain, he had agreed enthusiastically. He had seen Laurence’s face fall, and added hastily: “Of course it will only be possible if we aren’t to be sent anywhere outside of England, so that I can continue to see you.”
Laurence had quickly recovered his countenance and smiled. “My dear, we cannot ask for special treatment. Besides, it would be plain selfish of me to stand in Horatio’s way quite so much. He wouldn’t feel like he was a proper captain at all if I kept seeing you and interfering. But I am sure you will find him a very worthy substitute. He has been lieutenant on Iskierka for nearly five years now and acquitted himself admirably, from all Granby has told me. And you may write to me whenever you can spare the time. Jane has letters from Emily and Excidium every month or so, and I think that would be quite enough to satisfy me.”
“Of course I will write to you, every single day!" Temeraire had declared.
He felt very bad now, recalling that promise. He had not written every single day, not even every single week. Once he had gone to Scotland with Horatio, he had constantly been distracted, and when he had remembered the letters owed, he often hadn’t been able to find a reliable scribe. There were no writing frames at Loch Laggan, and the young ensigns and midwingmen had not been at all keen to be subjected to a long dictation. After the first few letters they were conspicuously absent whenever Temeraire had liberty and might have called for one. He could have asked Horatio, of course, but Horatio liked to play cards or go to the village when they were not engaged in aerial drills, and seemed to despise everything vaguely connected with pen and paper. Temeraire had unhappily thought of Iskierka's possessiveness, her unreasonable fussiness over Temeraire’s treatment of Horatio, and decided not to demand anything Horatio might not like to do.
Temeraire noticed a bright speck on the horizon, a welcome distraction from these gloomy thoughts. Growing larger, it turned out to be a balloon, roughly the shape of the paper lanterns people used in China, but much larger and with a basket strung underneath. He called out to Laetitius to inquire if these were a common sight, but the Prussian dragon either did not understand him, or was too disinterested to pay attention, for he simply changed his course to avoid it with a wide berth. Temeraire hovered for a short moment, torn between confusion and curiosity, then flew straight towards it.
He glanced back at Will who sat in the captain’s spot behind his shoulders wearing an absent and somewhat melancholy expression. Temeraire was not sure what was wrong with him. Little Will was certainly not given to air-sickness, Temeraire had taken care of that himself and taken him and Horatio flying as soon as Laurence would permit it, when the hatchlings had been very small indeed and not even walking. Will could have had a nicer coat, of course, but he had declined it when Temeraire had offered, so that was no fault of Temeraire’s.
“You know it is very nice to be travelling again, and seeing new things,” he said to Will, with enthusiasm intended to cheer him up, “That balloon is very pretty. I wonder whether we could hire some, when we are back in England, and I could entertain my friends with food served in the air – that would be quite something.” He brightened at the thought of Maximus and Lily, and perhaps even Perscitia, picking roast lambs out of a balloon while congratulating him on his good taste and ingenuity. But then of course, Lily was stationed somewhere in India, and Maximus and Kulingile at the Cape of Africa to guard the trading port the British had been granted there. It had been years since they had all feasted together.
“Well, Horatio can decide about that,” Will said, stirring from his thoughts, “Although I have heard they are quite flammable, so you ought to be careful around Iskierka – pray watch where you are going!”
Temeraire looked forward again. He was on an awkward collision course with the balloon, and two men in the basket were waving at them urgently. He brought his wings in and dived some thirty yards out of the way, the air currents from his wings-tips carrying the flimsy craft off its course and occasioning a great degree of shouting from its pilots.
Laetitius had now drawn closer again, uselessly, and shouted something concerning some rule or regulation. “Oh, do keep quiet,” he grumbled, “it is no good telling me now, you should have said so earlier. Will, how long is it to the mountains?”
“I must defer to Captain Rattwitz on that matter, I’m afraid I haven’t the slightest notion where we are,” Will said unhappily, straightening up from where he had thrown himself flat against Temeraire’s neck during their plummet, and Temeraire heard Lieutenant Ingram cough.
“If you don’t mind me saying, I have taken the liberty of charting our speed and course, and I believe we should reach the Alps in less than a day now,” the lieutenant said.
“I am glad to hear it,” Temeraire said, trying to ignore the smug tone in Ingram’s voice. “And how long will it take to cross them? Oh, Will, do you remember the book we read about the General who went to fight the Romans, and crossed the Alps with his African dragons?”
“Hannibal, yes, of course,” Little Will said, looking a little less glum, “Although I hope we shall have an easier time of it, without blizzards, landslides and enemy armies to foil us.”
“You have been reading to him?” Lieutenant Ingram asked, bemused, “Why on earth would you do such a thing?”
“Of course he has been reading to me,” Temeraire replied indignantly, in Will’s stead, “What else is one to do in winter, when parliament isn’t in session and it is too cold to go flying outside? Of course Admiral Laurence is always happy to read to me, too, but Little Will’s Latin is better. Which is no fault of Laurence’s, of course, he never went to school as long as Will did. Oh, and Will can read Chinese, too”, he said, indulging in a little boasting.
“For what good it will do”, Lieutanent Ingram sighed, clambering back down to the netting.
The Alps came into view by sunset, a glow of orange and purple in the fading light of the day, and they reached the foothills before noon the day after. Captain Rattwitz and Laetitius took their leave, with poorly concealed relief, and Rattwitz pointed them in the direction of the passes across this part of the mountains. The valley he had indicated was initially wide and bowl-shaped, carved out of the landscape as if with an enormous spoon, but the ridges on either side soon soared high towards the clouds, shedding their covering of forest and then even the thin cover of grass and mosses, while the valley floor plunged into deep shadows.
Temeraire had been to the Alps before, chasing Ning’s egg, but that had been in winter, and the landscape looked quite different now, altogether more inviting. He spotted a few cows on the rich pastures of the lower mountain slopes, difficult to miss as they had bells hung around their necks. However, when he drew closer, a weatherbeaten herdsman burst forward with a gnarled walking staff and a rifle which he waved at them in a threatening fashion. Marlow and Jenkins brought their own weapons to their shoulders, but Lieutenant Ingram waved them off. “No, leave that! We aren’t here to pick a quarrel.”
“Will, shall we not try and ask him for the way?” Temeraire suggested after he had landed a little distance away from the jingling herd, still eyeing them with interest. Will gave this some thought, then nodded and clambered down with Lieutenant Ingram. After a short while, they returned, and Will shook his head.
“They seem very afraid of dragons," he told Temeraire, “I could not make out much of what he said, but he doesn’t look inclined to be helpful.”
“Can’t blame him. I’ve heard stories of the voracious appetites and cattle-thieving habits of the Alpine ferals,” Lieutenant Ingram said.
“That is not a very kind thing to say, if you haven’t ever met any of them,” Temeraire said, reproachfully, “Can we not buy some of his cows? Perhaps we can use them to get some of these ferals to come and speak to us”, he asked, a little sheepishly.
Will sighed. “You really want a cow to eat, don’t you?”
“Well,” Temeraire said, abashed, “They look very tasty, and it is not nice of people to be putting bells on them so one is constantly put in mind of them, but not allowed to have one.“
Will, fortunately, saw the logic in this. “It is your own funds after all, so if you would like me to buy one for you, I don’t see why not. Lieutenant Ingram, Mr Marlow, will you come along?”
Where words had not gotten them very far, the silver shillings spoke eloquently. The herdsman examined the coins carefully and finally pointed out three yearling bulls. By way of directions, he gestured towards an opening between two nearby peaks before he drove his ringing herd onwards. Dragging the hesitant, lowing animals back towards Temeraire, up the mountain slope, proved the most difficult part of the transaction. One of them pulled loose and nearly knocked Will over. Temeraire finally made short work of the problem by pouncing on the cattle from above and killing them with a slash of his talons.
They set down to rest so Temeraire could eat. He kept a watchful eye on his small crew. There being so few of them, he felt especially anxious to look after them well. The riflemen had stretched out on the grass, pulling their hats into their faces to nap. Isabella and little Teddy Hawkes were engaged in a game of dice, and Mr Laithwaite, the surgeon, had lit a pipe. Lieutenant Ingram was admonishing the harnessmaster over something to do with a worn-out buckle. Will had gone a little distance away to an outcrop and was looking around the scenery, wooded foothills and jagged snow-capped peaks. They were nothing like the crews he’d had with Laurence, during the War, not nearly so neat or drilled and not particularly well armed or supplied, but nevertheless, Temeraire was glad to have a crew again, and he told himself that as soon as they returned from China, he would fetch the rest of them back from Loch Laggan to have respectable number again.
He was just crunching through one of the leg bones, pondering whether Hannibal’s dragons had had similarly nice bullocks to eat on their crossing of the Alps – the book he and Little Will had read had unfortunately not contained any such details – when a piercing shriek echoed through the valley and a grey mottled dragon flung itself from the mountainside and onto the carcass of the second bullock.
Temeraire gave a startled small roar and quickly put out his talon before the intruder could snatch the food away. “No, you’re not having that!” he snapped, “Who are you?”
The little feral continued to tug ineffectually at the bullock’s hind leg, hissing and coiling up its body to appear bigger than he was. Temeraire looked on exasperated and undeceived. “Stop that, or I will have to fight you,” he said.
Will had turned around from his study of the landscape to hurry towards them. “Temeraire, wait! Can you… can you ask him for the way?” he panted.
Temeraire looked up. “What? – Oh, I see.” He looked at the little dragon, who was still dragging away in his stupid, frenzied fashion, as if he could not see that Temeraire was by far the larger beast. Temeraire sighed, and asked in Durzagh: “Who are you? Do you know these mountains?”
The little feral stopped for a moment and cocked his head sideways. Then, abruptly, he dug his jaws back into the carcass, yellow eyes fixed on Temeraire in an odd blend of challenge and plea.
“Oh, very well,” Temeraire said, exasperated, “I am not sure he can understand me, but in any case, I don’t think he will do anything for us unless we let him eat.” And, to the feral: “Don’t even think of flying away!”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Will said, “I am sure we will come in the way of more cows.”
Temeraire grudgingly withdrew his claw, and the little feral fell to immediately.
“Temeraire, I think he is a tatzelworm,” Will said, fascinated, and walked around the beast to look at it more closely, staying just about clear of the splutter of guts and gore. “I’ve seen a drawing of one in a bestiary, in Corpus Christi library. I didn’t know they still lived in the wild. Mr Hawkes, can you fetch me some paper and a pen?” When the runner brought it, he quickly sketched out the shape of the feral.
“I suppose he does look very much like a worm”, Temeraire said, a little jealous of all the excessive attention the small beast received. The dragon’s body had an odd snake-like conformation, with heavily armoured shoulders and wing-joints tapering to an almost diminutive pair of hind legs and a very long tail, which could not make for very easy flying even with its pair of strong, leathery wings. Temeraire could not see what Will found so very remarkable about it – overall, he thought it rather ugly.
“I must advise against this scheme of being guided by ferals,” Lieutenant Ingram muttered, stepping closer, “Their sneaking and thieving ways are well known. We will end up in some trap of theirs.”
“He is not thieving,” Temeraire said, bristling at Lieutenant Ingram always trying to find fault with his and Will’s plans. He looked at the little dragon with a slightly more gracious air. “I allowed him to have that cow. I could have chased him off, easily, so I do not see how he should get me into a trap. Besides, Admiral Laurence and me, and Mr Tharkay also, have often had assistance from ferals. They are perfectly willing to provide it, as long as one sticks to one’s promises.”
The tatzelworm swallowed the bullock’s tail. It blinked its yellow eyes, sat up as straight as its distended belly allowed, and then opened its mouth again to speak in a piping voice, oddly accented.
“Well,” Temeraire said, when the feral had finished, “I am not sure I am able to make out all of it. He speaks very differently from Arkady and his fellows. But I think he is saying that his name is Urli, and that he lives in the next valley. He does know many good ways across the mountains, but he will only show them to us if we promise him another cow. He says we can set off straight away.”
“How long will it take?” Will asked.
Temeraire put the question to Urli. “About a day,” he translated, dubiously, “But I am not sure how many hours he means.”
“Very well, then,” Will said, “The light is growing short, but I suppose we can set down somewhere for the night.” He turned around to Mr Ingram. “Please pass the word for all to go aboard again. We will be guided by the feral.”
“Ow,” Temeraire said, “Wait for me!” But the tatzelworm had already jumped aloft and swung himself up to a rocky ledge some twenty feet above, cackling at them as if laughing. Temeraire tried to ignore him, and reared up on his haunches when finally, all of his crew had gone aboard. “All lies well! Let us go!”
Urli put on a remarkable speed, quite surpassing what Temeraire would have thought possible for so ungainly a dragon. The feral clearly knew his territory, making clever use of thermal drafts and little loopholes in the terrain that allowed them to stay as low as possible, where the air was more wholesome. He managed to surprise a pair of golden eagles at their circles, sending them both away squalling, one of them dropping a marmot from it claws. Urli plunged and dived after the small carcass, picking it out of the air and swallowing it in one gulp. Temeraire rumbled disapprovingly. The acrobatic flying was impressive, but this could not be called good manners at all.
Soon they were climbing steadily to cross the first of the snow-capped ridges, the air growing thinner and all the crew yawning violently to free their ears. The next valley was deserted and wild. They swept past sheer rock faces and plunged into a dark ravine with a thundering stream at its floor, gouged deep into its rocky bed with boulders and even tree trunks strewn along its path. Temeraire had to bring his wings in closely and started to worry he might be running into a bottleneck too tight for his body, when the gorge went around a sharp bend and suddenly opened wide into the next valley, the stream falling away underneath them as a thin spraying waterfall, and nothing but free air and the golden rays of the evening sun around them. Isabella and Teddy Hawkes cheered and clapped. Temeraire felt a pat on his neck and turned his head to see Little Will grinning silently, his face bright with boyish delight. Temeraire’s heart swelled, and he leant in with even more of a will, following Urli’s next breakneck dive into the evening’s lengthening shadows. It was all he looked for in a day, and more.
When they finally set down for the night, Temeraire handed his last bullock over without too much regret. Urli devoured it with the same appetite as he had the first and then proceeded to ensconce himself in an impossibly small hole in the mountainside, the serpentine body curled tightly and his craggy armoured chest and shoulders merging into the rocks, only the yellow of his eyes glowing from the dark hole.
Temeraire ate an ibex the riflemen had managed to shoot down from one of the passes, less tender than the young bullock, but still wholesome enough. He was still toying with the curved pair of horns when Will came walking over to him from the little stream where he had filled his water bottle. “Well done,” Will said, still smiling as he climbed up Temeraire’s harness to take the logbook out of its pouch. “You were very fast today.”
Temeraire nosed at him affectionately. Little Will looked much improved. His pale cheeks had gained a lively colour in the alpine sun and his lips were chapped, his hair, golden and only a shade darker than Laurence’s had been, swept back from his sunburnt forehead and drenched with water where he had splashed some of it in his face. If only, Temeraire thought, he had a proper coat.
“Oh, it was nothing,” Temeraire said, happily, “I’m sure I can go even faster, tomorrow, now that I’m getting used to the way Urli flies.” He stretched out his forearm. “Will you sit with me a little?”
Little Will froze, the smile suddenly dead on his lips. “No, no, Temeraire… I cannot sit there. That is father’s place. Anyways, I am very tired, and I think I will go to sleep. Just tell Lieutenant Ingram if you require anything, will you?” He turned away quickly, clutching the book.
Temeraire stared after him, confused and injured.
Now that Will had mentioned it, the crook of his arm indeed looked empty. Father's place. He could almost see Laurence sitting there again, younger in his bottle-green coat, the Principia Mathematica open in his lap. Little more than a year ago, he had still been there, his hair grey now but the same kindness in his eyes that Temeraire had noticed instinctively when seeing him for the very first time, aboard the Reliant.
Temeraire tucked his arm in again and curled up tightly. He would always miss Laurence. Nobody would ever compare.
Will awoke sharply to a tug on his shoulder. He sat up confused and groggy to stare at Lieutenant Ingram, who had the last watch.
“We’ve got company,” Ingram said, hushed. He pointed towards the jumbled pile of their baggage next to the remains of the fire. There were three ferals, one of Urli’s snake-like build and two of a more commonplace conformation with brown-striped hides, rummaging through the bundles with interest. One of them had managed to pry open a chest and was nosing through papers and folded clothes.
“They appeared from behind that mountain ridge there, and went straight for our things,” Ingram murmured, “I will wake the men.”
Before Will could say anything, he had gone to raise Marlow and Jenkins. Isabella sat up, too, wiping her eyes. “What is going on?” she asked, “Where is Urli?”
“Gone,” Ingram said, pointing to the empty hole where the tatzelworm had slept. “I bet he didn’t lose a minute to invite his fellows along, damn their thieving little souls. Mr Marlow, a shot to warn them off!”
“No, wait, Lieutenant,” Will tried to say, “We should try to speak-“
The small explosion of rifle-fire cracked in the half-light of dawn. Temeraire reared his head, confused. The ferals gave a startled shriek, and the next moment, they had taken off with a frantic flapping of wings, each seizing the first bundle in the way of their claws.
Temeraire gave a small startled roar and unfurled his wings.
Will just about managed to run over to him and catch a loop of the harness, pulling himself up, as Temeraire jumped aloft in pursuit. Fortunately Temeraire had slept in harness, not wanting to be derided by Urli for slowness in getting ready, but Will did not have the benefit of his carabiner-belt. “Temeraire!” he shouted, slowly clambering to the dragon’s shoulder, “What are you doing? Set down again! They will only get us lost, and your strength spent! It’s only the baggage-“
“No,” Temeraire said, viciously, “They’ve taken Laurence’s book!”
With a guilty start, Will remembered that he had bundled the logbook up with his other things the previous night, too embarrassed to go back to Temeraire to tuck it back in the harness after he had so obviously disappointed him.
“Go, then,” he murmured, too quietly for Temeraire to hear, and bent forward on the dragon’s neck.
The same speed he had delighted in so much in the previous day now worked against them. Will could feel Temeraire’s shoulders straining violently under the effort of keeping up with the agile Alpine ferals, his breath laboured in the thin air of the mountain ridge while the native dragons seemed unaffected. Temeraire roared at one of them. The tatzelworm squalled and plummeted, one of its wings broken. The chest it had been holding smashed into the rocks below, scattering its contents. The remaining two dragons split up and darted away to opposite sides.
“That one, there!” Will cried, pointing at the larger one of the two remaining beasts. He had recognised his own battered chest in its claws. The feral made straight for the northern side of the valley where a particularly sheer rock wall rose to a ragged peak.
Temeraire roared again. Warned by its fellow’s example, the little dragon quickly dropped out of the range of the Divine Wind so the force of the roar hit the rock wall instead, sheets of ice and rock breaking and tumbling down the slope The tatzelworm had to backwing frantically to prevent being hit by them, and Temeraire pounced on it from above, his talons groping for purchase on the wriggling body.
There was a shrill squall from above, a shadow descending and landing with a thud, sharp claws severing a harness-strap. Will was thrown backwards as the rest of the harness shifted several feet. For a sickening moment his hands lost their grip, but he managed to grasp one of the straps across Temeraire’s side and thrust his foot into the belly-netting, and the next moment, the harness drew taut again, pulling against the large metal-laced strap across the chest.
Hanging on to the straps with his heart in his throat, Will saw the second feral thrusting claws and teeth into Temeraire's wing-joint, black blood spurting. He screamed at the dragon, pulling himself up and slowly, doggedly back along Temeraire’s spine. There was no clear plan in his head, no weapon in his hand, just a blind rage to stop the feral injuring Temeraire. She lifted her head and fixed her orange eyes on him, confused. She was small for a dragon, yet her jaws were still the size of a respectable alligator. For one heartbeat, they stared at each other. Then Temeraire thrust his head around, grabbed the feral by the scruff of her neck and flung her away. Will almost lost his hold again as Temeraire gave the dragon in his claws a violent shake. Something dropped away into the dizzying void under them. Temeraire released his grip and the striped feral fell away, squalling in pain. Temeraire ignored him. He put his head down and dove after the chest, the impact with the ground driving his feet deep into a sheet of snow. Will was thrown off his back and slid downhill across a sheet of half-thawed ice ineffectually groping for purchase, finally coming to a hard stop against a rock.
The ferals circled away overhead and fled.
Will allowed himself to lie still for half a dozen racing heartbeats. Then he opened his eyes. The logbook lay a few feet away, precariously close to a pool of melt-water. He crawled towards it on all fours, still feeling too dizzy to stand, and snatched it up. The pounding rhythm of his heart was slowing down now, but his fingers still trembled as he turned it over. A deep talon-gash ran across the leather of the front cover, but otherwise, it seemed intact.
He turned around. The first rays of morning sun broke over the crest of the rocky wall now, snow crystals gleaming with a mocking beauty. Temeraire sat on the snow bleeding, roots of dark blood running into the snow. Will cried out when he saw it. He pushed to his feet and scrambled across the crusted snow, slipping and falling several times.
“Temeraire!” he cried, “What have these villainous beasts done to you?”
He wanted to put a hand on Temeraire’s neck, but to his shocked dismay, Temeraire jerked away. His black hide was trembling, whether with cold or anger, Will could not say.
“I am perfectly fine,” Temeraire hissed, “and they were not villains at all. Why, what should they have done? She only bit me because I attacked her mate. They all only came to look because they were curious, and we were crossing their territory after all. We might have given them a gift, and they would have left, or even shown us a good way like Urli did.”
Will swallowed, trying to think rationally. Looking at Temeraire’s blood in the snow, it was hard not to fall into a blind rage. “But to steal our luggage? There was no cause for that.”
“There was no cause frighten them so!” Temeraire retorted, “What on earth were they shooting at them for? Why did you not stop them, Will?” And then, low: “Laurence would never have let his men run wild like that.”
That blow hit home. Will felt the strength of righteous resentment drain away, leaving nothing but the familiar conscience of having failed, once again. He sat down on a rock. “I’m sorry, Temeraire, but I’m not Laurence.”
“Oh, stop that”, Temeraire snapped, “Nobody expects you to be Laurence, why, it would be perfectly ridiculous. You are your own person after all. But I do not see why you let people walk over you, and why you must feel sorry for yourself all the time. Now come, we must go back, and quick.”
Mr Laithwaite inspected Temeraire’s wing joint, carefully probing the bite and extracting one gnarled tooth. “It’s an ugly flesh wound. I can’t see any torn sinews, but nevertheless, he ought to rest it. We cannot carry on at this speed, and he ought to take frequent breaks”, he said, flinging his tongs with the tooth into a bowl of bandaging.
“Oh, it is nothing!” Temeraire said, “I am perfectly well. Please let us go on, we shouldn’t lose any more time.”
Laithwaite looked up from his suturing. “If the wound festers, you will lose a great deal more time, but of course, that is entirely up to you,” he grumbled.
Will, who had sad nothing since Temeraire’s angry outburst, eyed the tooth. Torn between loathing and curiosity, he gingerly extracted it from the tongs, wiped it on his trousers and tucked it into the makeshift bundle with the few of his possessions that he and Temeraire had managed to salvage from the mountainside, in deafening silence except for the necessary pointing out of strewn items. “Temeraire”, he now said, quietly, “Don’t you think we should turn around? That first chest we lost had all the funds we took out at Rotterdam, and Hammond’s letters of recommendation.”
Temeraire stared at him. “Why, of course not! The letters would have been nice to have, but I am sure we will manage perfectly fine without them. It would have been a wretched shame if we had lost Laurence’s book, but now that we have it, we may carry on. Besides”, he said, levelly, “I don’t need letters of introduction. People know me anyways.”
“I think that might be part of the problem”, Lieutenant Ingram said.
“Pray have something to eat, first”, Will said, unhappily. He pointed at a small chamois, that morning’s quarry. Temeraire poked at it without much of an appetite, to Will’s mounting concern. He had just gingerly taken it up in his claws and was about to take a bite when a high, draconic cry came from above: “Cow!”
For one brief and terrifying moment, Will thought the ferals had come back to take revenge. The crew evidently had the same thought, for Marlow and Jenkins groped for their weapons, Lieutenant Ingram quickly cocking his pistol, all aiming at the sky.
Then Temeraire gave a small, indignant rumble. “No! This is my food, Volly. You should find your own. I have no cows, the ferals took them.”
“Stand down,” Ingram called, muffled, “It is a British dragon.”
It was indeed a small Greyling in courier harness. It landed a small distance away and waddled straight up to Temeraire to butt him on the shoulder. “Temrer!”, he cried, happily.
The little dragon’s captain climbed off his back. “Oh, I am very sorry, Captain,” he said, addressing Lieutenant Ingram. “He would not listen at all when he caught sight of your beast. My name is Captain Bertram James, and that awful little glutton over there is Volatilus.” Captain James offerred Ingram his gloved hand to shake, but when the Lieutenant only stared coldly, he lowered it again without skipping a beat, evidently used to a degree of contempt from heavyweight captains. He looked at Volatilus and Temeraire. “What, you two know each other?”
“Of course we do,” Temeraire said, “I am Temeraire, and I’ve known Volly since the year five. What has happened to Captain Langford James?”
“Oh, you know Uncle Langford? He retired six years ago, which is when I got Volly," Captain James said. “We do go and see him whenever we can fit Warwickshire into our schedule, don’t we, Volly?”
The little Greyling bobbed his head, munching on the chamois which Temeraire had left unguarded for a moment.
“Oh well, have it, then," Temeraire muttered, "It is very sinewy, anyways."
“The deuce, sorry”, Captain James said, alarmed and the next moment surprised, when Temeraire made no attempt to take his meal back, “That is prodigious kind of you, Temeraire, to share. But how do you come to be here, roaring across the mountains to be heard from thirty miles away? I thought this route was our little secret, and we were supposed to find you in Scotland.”
“You are looking for us?”, Temeraire asked, pricking up his ruff. “Have you got a message? My captain is right here, you may tell him!” He gave Will a nudge, sending him stumbling forward. “He is my Admiral Laurence’s son.”
“Ah”, Captain James said, for one moment looking confused between Will in his plain coat and mud-spattered trousers, and Lieutenant Ingram in his neat uniform, albeit with only one bar to mark his rank. “I am very sorry, this is an awkward blunder! Forgive me, Captain… Captain Horatio Laurence, I take it? I’ve got orders for Temeraire.”
He went through his bags, but before handing over the – sealed – letter, he informed them of its contents, without the slightest conscience of transgression: “You are required to go to Bombay, to rejoin Lily’s formation as part of the subcontinental division. They’ve had a couple of scrapes with those Marathi fellows trying to throw our traders out of the presidency, and I suppose another heavyweight should tip the scales nicely.”
“Oh!” Temeraire said, craning his neck eagerly, “Lily’s formation! That would be splendid! Open it, quickly!”
Captain James laughed. “The nearest covert you can use is in Trento. The Corps has an agreement with the Austrian fellows there. Although the transport we stopped on, on the way here, the William of Orange, should be coming into Venice harbour any day now, and she is bound again for Suez immediately. If you hurry a little, you might catch her, rather than going all the way around the Adriatic, with the Croatian ferals prodding at you – although I suppose they should not give any grief to a beast your size. Anyways, I must be off, we are a little behind our schedule. Do you have any letters for me to take?”
Will shook his head, sadly. He had not anticipated any chance to send mail for a few days yet, and had nothing ready for Mr Tharkay or Horatio. “Captain James”, he said, blushing, “I am very sorry to ask, but do you happen to have a map of these parts which you could spare? We have… well… just lost a significant portion of our baggage.”
“Why, of course I do! Here, you can have it. Volly knows the mountains off by heart, anyways, we’ve been on this run for nearly three years now.” He handed them a well-worn map pulled out of a pouch on Volatilus’ harness, waving away Will’s offer of payment. “Why, no, not for that old rag. Thank you for letting Volly eat.” He touched his cap and pulled on his flying-goggles again.
Volly, who had managed only about half the chamois despite a valiant effort, looked a little wistful when Captain James climbed onto his back again, but then said, politely: “Thanks, Temrer!” and was gone in a flurry of grey wings.
“Can you just leave me alone a minute?”, Will snarled at Isabella. He had walked a small distance away from all the crew to read the dispatch again, slowly, and agonize over what to do. Isabella alone had followed him.
“Uncle Will… Captain", she said. "Can't you see? This is our chance! We don’t need any letters from Hammond to board a transport if you are ordered to go to India anyways, and by the time we reach there, word will have gone out with the next courier-round that your current mission is China, not India. Fortunately it’s all the same way from here, anyways.”
“You forget a tiny detail”, Will said, heatedly, thrusting the dispatch at her, “Which is that these orders are for Horatio, not me.” He berated himself for not scratching out at least a quick message to Mr Hammond to give to Captain James, to convey his predicament.
“How does that make any difference?” Isabella asked, looking at the orders.
“Well, if I tell them I am not Horatio, but have somehow come into possession of his dragon without orders to support me, they may insist we wait until it has all been cleared up – which likely means waiting until Volly or another courier comes back from England.”
“Why, don’t be so thick. Of course you don’t need to tell them you aren’t Horatio. Nobody in the subcontinental division has ever seen him or Iskierka, and even if someone has a vague memory, you look similar enough – you are twins, after all.”
“You suggest I should posture as my brother? Isabella, it is ridiculous. I know next to nothing about the ways of the Corps, whereas Horatio has ten years and more on the wing – anyone who has even vaguely heard of him would find me out immediately, and I shall ruin our family’s name more thoroughly than Horatio has done, either by making Horatio look a fool, or myself a liar and impostor.”
“Well, with regards to being a captain, I agree it is high time you tried a little harder. Temeraire wishes for nothing more, haven’t you noticed? – Oh, what is that?” she said, pointing to his makeshift bundle with his salvaged belongings, slung over Will’s shoulder.
Will moved to pull it closed, but he was too late. Isabella had already snatched the tell-tale corner of bottle-green broadcloth hanging out from one side, and the next moment, she had pulled out Horatio’s flying-coat.
“Perfect,” she said, with satisfaction, “Very sensible of the captain to give that to you. You ought to put it on now.”
Will thought darkly that if he had ever entertained the idea of buying her chocolate, she had forfeited it now.
Temeraire was bent on a headlong push for the coast, in spite of the wound he had taken in the Alps. The Austrians and Italians were more indifferent to his passage than the Prussians had been, and nobody intercepted them or demanded passports. It therefore fell to Will to appeal to Temeraire’s rational senses, and Mr Laithwaite to contribute grim visions of spreading infection and amputated wings, to persuade him to slow down. Temeraire was unhappy, but by way of compromise, they put in a stop every three hours, rigidly enforced by Mr Laithwaite.
Will had never gone on a tour of the continent, as his cousins and many other young men of his station had done; not for lack of interest, but because he had felt certain his family would have thought it an idle, wasteful sort of thing to go hopscotching around Europe as a tourist. Their stops in the Italian plains provided a glimpse of what he had missed. He visited a handful of churches and a monastery with beautifully painted murals, and one day they found a ruined Roman villa with a splendid mosaic floor, half overgrown by shrubs.
Except for those ruins entirely open to the elements, the buildings were too small to permit Temeraire to accompany him, but Will made a point of taking Isabella and Teddy Hawkes along so they would not miss the opportunity for their personal education. Both of them bore it with a resigned patience and looked blank when he quizzed them on their knowledge of classical history. His descriptions of Julius Caesar’s aerial tactics managed to kindle a transient show of interest, but they did not care much for architecture, and didn’t see why they ought to remember one type of column was called Ionic and the other Corinthian. Isabella professed herself surprised to learn that Julius Caesar and Elizabeth I. had not been contemporaries, deriving most of her knowledge of both periods from a Shakespearean play she had seen put on in a covert. Will grimly resolved to have a word with Horatio about his young gentlemen’s education, once they were back in England, grimly steeling himself for the likely outbreak of mirth on his brother's side.
Returning from one of their trips, Will found Temeraire wide awake, his ruff back against his neck, talking with Lieutenant Ingram.
“I wonder what he is about,” Isabella said, suspiciously.
Will did not reply, but he found himself involuntarily quickening his pace to hurry up the small cypress-studded hill on which they had set down to rest.
“Temeraire, is anything the matter? Is the wound giving you pain?” he asked, looking around for Mr Laithwaite.
“No, I am perfectly well,” Temeraire said, surprisingly viciously, “These stops are very tiresome and vexing, when we might miss our transport. We will fly on straight away.” He said this with finality, and snatched Will up with a possessive air to put him, pell-mell, back in the captain’s seat at the base of his neck. Only then did he permit the rest of his crew to come aboard. Lieutenant Ingram climbed on last, wearing a resigned expression. Mr Laithwaite tried to protest, but Temeraire gave a low and warning rumble. “It is a very silly to suggest that I should be in any danger from that scratch. Besides, all this stopping and going is not doing any good. My shoulder is always much stiffer afterwards than before.”
Will, while anxious for Temeraire’s health, did not feel justified in crossing his wishes again, and nodded. “It is fine, Temeraire,” he said, stroking the dragon’s neck, “Just sing out when you need another break.”
He had little cause to regret Temeraire’s haste, for after another few hours steady on the wing, they reached Venice.
Will almost cried out with joy to see the city, more beautiful than any of his books had been able to describe it, a dream in gilded marble rising from the turquoise water of the summery lagoon. Temeraire, too, was quite taken with it. He flew a few wide circles and Will named him the buildings he recognised – the Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica with its bell tower, the ornate curve of Rialto bridge. The streets and canals were too narrow to permit Temeraire to land, so they set down on the sandy spit of land dividing the lagoon from the sea. Mr Ingram went to ask some of the local fishermen about the William of Orange – a dragon transport could not have gone unnoticed – and returned to inform them that she had not yet been sighted near the port.
Will decided to take the chance to visit Venice. He left Temeraire behind with two massive fresh-caught tunnies from the fishermen, having secretly traded his pocket-watch for their day’s catch when he saw Temeraire eyeing the fish hungrily, and a promise to furnish a full description of all the wonders he should encounter in the city. He took the young crew members with him, by now quite determined to drum some general knowledge into their heads.
For once, no great resistance was offered. Teddy Hawkes and Isabella joined him eagerly, although their enthusiasm was not so much for the history or architecture. Pointing out the details of the ornately carved front of a palazzo, Will realised he was speaking to thin air, and looking around found his companions plastered to a shop window a few steps away, their attention entirely absorbed by a display of smallarms and daggers. They were pointing at an old-fashioned pistol, very finely worked with a pommel of dark wood inlaid with silver. Stepping closer, he noticed what had drawn their appreciation: the fine silver lines coalesced into the shape of a dragon’s body: the cock holding the flint, ready to strike the frizzen, fashioned into the shape of a scowling dragon head. It looked beautiful and deadly.
“You should have it, Captain, Sir,” Teddy Hawkes piped, “We could teach you how to shoot!”
He broke off and looked a little scared, ducking his head as if he expected to be cuffed for the suggestion that Will could not handle a weapon. Will shook his head, suppressing a smile. “We don’t have money to spend,” he said, “Come, let us walk on, there is more to see”, but a bell chimed to announce Isabella had already entered the shop. Hawkes looked at him for one instant, torn, then he quickly dashed after her.
Will followed them inside, frowning, with no intention other than to extricate them and move on. “Please pardon us, Sir”, he said to the shopkeeper behind his till, who was eyeing the children ungraciously as they went around his display. “Gentlemen, we need to go.”
The shopkeeper’s indignant expression changed entirely at the sight of Horatio’s uniform-coat, which Will had put on that morning, half hoping for and half dreading their rendezvous with the William of Orange.
“Ah, Capitano! Please, do stay and have a look around” he cried, “May I show you some of our wares?”
“That is very kind, but I am afraid we don’t have time”, Will said, and sharply: “Isabella!” where she had lifted a finger to touch the hilt of the black-and-silver pistol from the shop window.
“I must compliment your young companion’s taste”, the shopkeeper remarked, “An exceptional piece. Made for a Granduca di Toscana’s third son, who served in the Austrian Aerial Corps.”
“And he… died?”, Teddy Hawkes asked, wide-eyed. “In battle?”
“Shh”, Isabella said, “Probably gambled it away.”
The merchant ignored them. He took the pistol out of the window and showed it to Will, pointing out the beautiful craftsmanship and the finely honed firing mechanism. “Ovviamente, if you want to have it altered to a more modern ignition, it can easily be accomplished,” he said, putting the pistol into Will’s half-resisting hands, “But it is perfectly serviceable as it is.”
“Indeed,” Will muttered. He was no especial connoisseur of firearms, indeed he had endured his father’s lessons on how to load and fire a pistol with a great degree of impatience, for taking up time that could be better spent reading books or collecting stones. But even to his eye, this weapon looked remarkable, with the black burnished pommel reminding him of Temeraire’s sleek hide. He suddenly thought that it would make a handsome present for his brother, perhaps for their joint twenty-fifth birthday. “How much is it?”, he asked, boldly.
Sobered by the answer, he put it back down on the till. “Thank you, Sir”, he said, “But we really must be gone.” He nodded at Isabella and Hawkes, who looked disappointed.
“Oh, but Captain,” the shopkeeper said, hurriedly, “If this particular one is not to your taste, perhaps one of these will do.” He opened a drawer and presented them with a succession of four modestly priced pistols, all of them newly-made, plain and quite unremarkable except for the more modern ignition, superior to the old flintlock.
There was nothing whatsoever wrong with them, but in their sober utility they powerfully illustrated all that was exceptional about the first. It was a very transparent salesman’s tactic, Will thought, but an effective one. He bit his lip. “Thank you,” he said again, striving hard to sound decided, “The first one you have shown us is quite out of the ordinary, but I cannot afford any such expense at the moment. Good day, Sir, I thank you for your trouble.”
The door handle already in his hand, Isabella tugged on his sleeve.
“Please, take these, if you will?” Very earnestly, she pulled out a knotted handkerchief and untied it to reveal a small handful of coins. “It’s eight shillings and sixpence. I saved them.”
“Oh,” Teddy Hawkes said, and rummaging through his pockets produced a button, a piece of string, a sticky sweet wrapped in paper, and finally a few copper coins, which he held out earnestly. “You can have mine too, Captain Laurence! I’m sure Temeraire would like you to have that pistol, very much, with that dragon on it an' all!”
Will looked at their offerings a little blankly, taken aback.
“Laurence?” the shopkeeper interrupted, “Laurence of Temeraire?”
“Yes!” Teddy Hawkes piped before Will could try to silence him, “You see, Sir, we were off in such a hurry, and the Captain does not even have a pistol of his own.”
The shopkeeper looked quite overcome. “Capitano!” he cried, “If only I had known!”, and, seizing Will by the arm, took him to the outside of the shop to point to an empty alcove above the door. “The villainous Napoleon had all the lions struck down from our houses and piazzas, and the Horses of Saint Marco sent to Paris, to shame our proud city!”
The Venetian proceeded to list a great number of other insults inflicted by the French conquerors, a grudge which, over thirty years past, still seemed to be held passionately. He affirmed his admiration for “Temeraire il Corragioso”, and the famous “Capitano Lorenzo”, and concluded by leading Will back into his shop and handing him the pistol as a gift for Temeraire. “I now see it has been waiting for you all along.”
Will tried to protest in vain that it was his father the man had heard about, not him, and that he was in no way deserving. He finally managed to press two of Horatio‘s gold buttons on the man and still felt guilty carrying the pistol away. Isabella and Teddy Hawkes, on the other hand, were immensely satisfied. On their way back, they disputed whose duty it would be to watch over and clean the precious weapon, the position of ensign presently vacant among their ranks. Will finally broke in to suggest they could spend an hour a day over their books and sums, and in return, take turns with the pistol, and he would submit to their lessons in marksmanship. They promised solemnly, and Will stifled a laugh at their earnest faces. Temeraire’s likely pleasure on being given further proof of his eminence, and being called “Il Corragioso”, almost served to reconcile him to the situation. However, walking along the lively canals while perfect strangers cleared a path for him on account of his military coat, he quietly reflected that if he really were Horatio, it would be no small relief to be posted to India, and have an opportunity to make a name for himself in a place where nobody had heard of their father - although of course, no distance would ever diminish Temeraire‘s memories and the inescapable, damning comparison.
They spent another hour touring the city, Isabella and Teddy Hawkes now making such zealous efforts to parrot Will’s explanations that he felt embarrassed all over again. He sacrificed another gold button to buy a Latin copy of the Odyssey for Temeraire, with only a slight pang of consciousness for ruining Horatio’s coat – Temeraire would be glad of some distraction, on a sea-voyage. With Isabella’s small change, they bought a bracelet of Venetian glass for Mrs Walker, Will’s old wet-nurse who had also looked after Isabella after she had been brought to live at Castleton Hall, and who was well liked by all her former charges.
They were crossing back across the Piazza San Marco, talking animatedly, when a black shadow swept past overhead.
The next moment, Temeraire flung himself down at the crowded square, scattering people, fruit-baskets and pigeons as he called: “Will, Will, where are you? We must go at once!”
He whipped his head about wildly, his ruff flat against his neck, and was about to take off again to continue his search elsewhere when they finally managed to catch his attention, running out into the widening circle of empty space that had opened around the dragon.
“Oh, I am so glad I have found you! We must go, quickly!” Temeraire cried, “The transport has already left Venice! She has left without us! I’ve seen her!”
“But Temeraire… didn’t we agree you should be resting?" Will said, confused, "And why, I thought… didn’t Lieutenant Ingram say…”
He did not get any further, for Temeraire had snatched them up in his foreclaws and jumped aloft.
During the brief flight back to the sandy strip, they were able to piece together a little more of what had happened: Temeraire had, in defiance of the surgeon, gone on another flight across the city to get a better look. But once high aloft, he had noticed a small speck on the horizon, so he had flown out to sea to investigate, thinking it might be the William of Orange coming into port. And indeed the shape of the vessel was quite unmistakably a dragon transport – but as he had tried to fly towards her, it had become clear that she was moving away from him, outbound under a full spread of sail.
“But how is it possible?”, Will asked, his eyes watering in the air as Temeraire dove to land. “Lieutenant Ingram spoke to the fishermen. How should they have missed so very large a ship? And are you sure it was her, after all?”
“How indeed”, Isabella hissed, “Why, he has lied to us.”
Will could barely credit this monstrous suspicion. However, landing to find Temeraire’s small crew huddled together on the beach in a great confusion, with only Ingram a little distant staring at the horizon, it was hard not to suspect something was off.
“Lieutenant,” Will said as soon as Temeraire had set him down, “Is there any explanation? Has there been a mistake?”
He was still too confused to put any particular sharpness into his voice, but Ingram locked his arms, and did not reply.
“Temeraire has sighted the ship, eastbound from here," Mr Laithwaite broke in, angrily, although he seemed torn between directing his furious looks at Ingram and at Temeraire, for defying his warnings, “I told him not to fly, you can be sure of that! And what good it is to do us now, I don’t know. He can’t stretch himself to go flying after the ship, or he shall rip all the wound open again!”
“Those men over there said a transport left two days ago,” Mr Thorne, the harnessmaster's mate, said in his quiet way, nodding towards some of the fishermen mending their nets, “If we have their meaning correctly. You don’t happen to speak Italian, Sir?”
Will shook his head, numbed. He took a moment to comprehend the full meaning of this intelligence. Missing the transport meant a devastating loss of time for their already tenuous schedule. It had been almost two weeks since they had left England. He could not set himself up as a great navigator, but from the calculations he had made with the help of Captain James’ map, a sea-passage would easily gain them four days, as opposed to a circuitous flight along the Adriatic coast, and convey the added benefit of giving Temeraire a chance to rest his shoulder. The present situation presented him with the awful choice between pressing on, as Temeraire clearly preferred, with the risk of causing real harm, or else letting her go, and accepting their bid for a hundred days had failed before the journey had even properly begun. And all of it had not been caused by ill winds or any external force, but by the treachery of one of their own. He cursed himself for having yielded to the lures of the city, willingly swallowing Ingram’s lie when it had allowed him to go sightseeing, instead of investigating for himself.
When Will turned to face Mr Ingram again, he was almost trembling with anger. “Sir, will you be so kind as to accompany me?”, he snapped, his voice vicious in a way he had never used before – a voice he hadn’t known to possess, himself.
Ingram’s eyes were fixed on the new pistol in Will’s hand, the icy look on his face tantamount to a confession of guilt. His hand jerked to his own weapon, but he checked himself. “There is no dueling in the Corps”, he said.
“I’m not in the Corps,” Will said, flatly.
“You should go after the transport,” Lieutenant Ingram said, waving an arm towards the sea.
This was too much. Will walked straight up to him, seized him by the collar, and pushed him into the crisscross of fishing-nets strung out behind them on frames to dry. They were roughly the same height, with Will not nearly as strongly built or hardened by years of active duty, yet Ingram was initially too taken aback to offer any resistance.
Temeraire furrowed the ground with his claws and growled, but Will shouted “Temeraire, you stay there!” and the dragon sat back on his haunches, eyeing the spider-web of nets unhappily.
Ingram jerked free. They stood staring at each other.
“What do you mean by this scheming?” Will snarled, “At least Lieutenant Rankin had the gall to make his insults openly, and answer a challenge. I now see there is no more need to ask who even denounced the argument as a duel, to the admiralty. In the mountains, was that your doing, also?”
Lieutenant Ingram stood defiantly, but he did not cry out against the accusation. “A remarkable dragon like Temeraire ought not be subjected to a young hotspur, nor an incompetent bluestocking”, he said, calmly as if he were stating a fact.
Will gasped. “A remarkable dragon like Temeraire ought not be subjected to treachery at the hands of those he should be able to trust.”
Ingram snorted. “This whole mission is sheer lunacy, and the sooner he comes around to seeing it, the better. If you cannot face up to him and tell him the truth, I see it my duty to do so, on behalf of Admiral Laurence. So far, he has been quite unwilling to listen, but without that ship to drag things out and foster false hopes, it would have been possible to open his eyes, and take him back to England where he belongs, and-“
“Leave my father out of this,” Will broke in, incensed by the mention of Laurence’s name, “You call it your duty to shame Temeraire by setting him up to fail, and presenting yourself as his saviour, back in England? As if he needed saving – from me? God, you really must be desperate to see me as a threat! Have you so little confidence in your own abilities? If you had served faithfully, and made Temeraire your first concern as any half-decent Corps man would have done, I would have been your greatest advocate should they not allow my brother back – I have no wish to impose myself on Temeraire or any of you, no matter what you all seem to suspect! But this?” He flung the Venetian pistol at Ingram’s feet. “By God, a moment ago I had a mind to run you through, and if it was the last thing I did, but now I see I really ought to take pity!”
“It is me who is taking pity on you, damned fool,” Lieutenant retorted, now with similar heat, “This whole wager is a childish idiocy only dragons could come up with, but taking Temeraire to China is even worse! Those damned Chinamen are going to try and keep him for themselves, don’t you see, with his Captain taken from him and their Emperor without a beast? They would dangle a hundred bribes before his eyes, and before you know it, you would be returning with no dragon at all, never mind that mongrel beast we’re supposedly after!”
“We have our orders, Lieutenant," Will said, slowly, “And I don’t think it is your place to question them.”
“I suggest I go away, then,” Lieutenant Ingram said. “No vow binds me to serve you, no matter if you are wearing borrowed bars. I wish you luck at your play-acting.”
Will narrowed his eyes. “Please do, and I shall report you a deserter, and I swear I won’t leave a stone unturned to see you stripped of your rank and make sure you never get an egg of your own. No dragon ought to be subjected to this sort of vile treachery.”
Ingram’s eyes widened in alarm, and Will belatedly realized that, by grace of his mother’s connections, this threat probably did carry some degree of force. Of course Ingram could not know that any complaint made by Little Will against a grown aviator would likely only have drawn laughter from Admiral Roland.
“Or perhaps you might stay and repair your ways,” he continued, flatly. Even making the offer left an ugly taste, but what choice was there. “You might indeed do your duty and be loyal to your dragon, even if you cannot be loyal to me. You know your skills and experience cannot easily be spared.”
“Will!” Temeraire called out again, plaintively, “Please come out! We haven’t a moment to lose. She is running away from us!” He thrust his nose into the fishing nets and snorted, annoyed, when they started to tangle around his face.
“Yes, my dear, I am coming,” Will said.
Lieutenant Ingram still stood unmoving, staring at him. Will nodded, taking his silence as the answer he required. “Goodbye and good luck to you, Sir, and I hope we shan’t meet again,” he said. He wanted to pick up the pistol, but that moment, Ingram finally spoke.
“No,” he said, stiffly, “Allow me…”
Will looked up to see the muscles around Ingram’s square jaw and temples working. It was clear he had not expected any offer of clemency, that he had staked everything on one card and was unsure how to proceed now. But then he bent low to pick up the pistol and hand it to Will.
“She’s still so far away," Isabella said gloomily, looking through the glass when it was her turn, “Should we not go closer to the coast, rather than further into open sea?”
“Quite”, Mr Laithwaite said, “I cannot recommend him staying aloft for anything over three hours, especially in this heat, and,” he glanced at his watch, “we have been going for three and a half already.”
Will did not reply, instead preferring to look straight ahead. The Mediterranean sun was biting even in the late afternoon, Temeraire’s black scales searing to the touch and now marbled with a thin crust of salt where he had dipped down into the waves to cool off, an hour ago. Under cover of pretending to look for his water-flask, Will gave another surreptitious glance at the scrap of paper with the calculation he and Temeraire had made, copied from the scratched-out diagram in the sand of the lagoon, to take account of the time the transport had supposedly set off, Temeraire’s estimate of her bearing and speed, and their own pace. He worked it over in his head again, but he could not find a mistake: Temeraire’s algebra superior to his own, the dragon had even proposed a clever trigonometric calculation to factor in the easterly wind. They should catch her within three or four hours, unless she were going much faster than they had supposed, or the currents were markedly different, and on that ground he had agreed with Temeraire that they should attempt the chase.
“We must turn westward, and get closer to the coast”, Lieutenant Ingram too insisted, when the sun started to sink below the horizon an hour later, and the William of Orange still small enough to be blotted out behind a raised palm, “We cannot risk Temeraire tiring himself out or getting lost in the dark, across open sea. There is something wrong in that calculation, or perhaps she has changed her bearing. Please, do listen, Captain. I am not-“
“A dragon-transport of that size doesn’t just change course on a whim”, Will said curtly, although he privately doubted himself. But he would not give in to Ingram, not now. “Temeraire!”, he called, “Can you go lower, so we can tally our speed?”
Temeraire nodded. They threw the log overboard. Ingram’s lips moved soundlessly, counting, as the knots ran through his fingers. “Eighteen.”
“Eighteen knots”, Will murmured, “I can’t understand…”
“Will”, Temeraire said, “Don’t you think it is odd how she has taken in her sails, and there is barely any wind, but she is still going so fast?”
Will reached for the glass again to look, squinting in the half-light of dusk for several minutes. Indeed, her studding sails were already gone, the gallants and topsails being reefed, but she did not seem to be slowing at all. Only then did he notice the dark wisps of smoke trailing behind her. They had been visible for quite a distance, but he had supposed them to be the result of her galley-fires. Looking at them now, he felt oddly reminded of the steamer tugging the Téméraire, near Margate.
“Mr Ingram”, he asked the lieutenant, “Do you suppose there is any chance… is it possible she is going under steam?”
For an instance, Ingram looked genuinely confused, but then he nodded, slowly. “I suppose… I haven’t served in the Med before, but I know they have built a steamer transport for the India run. Although what she should be doing here, I haven’t the least notion.”
“How fast do they go?”, Will asked.
“I haven’t any personal experience of them, but I have heard it bandied about that they can make up to twelve knots.”
Will groaned. They had placed the ship’s speed at six or eight knots at the most, based on Temeraire’s extensive experience aboard dragon transports, usually slow lumbering craft.
“Temeraire!” he called, “Pray let us turn off to the shore.”
“But why?” Temeraire demanded, indignantly, and when Will had relayed the new intelligence about the vessel’s likely speed, he hissed as if personally offended. He rapidly worked the numbers in his head, concluding: “Why, but that would mean we should take six hours to catch her, not three! Oh, she has no business cheating us so! Unless…” His drooping head went up, lining up sleekly with the shoulders, “Unless I go faster, of course.”
“No, you may not! … Temeraire!”
However, pleased by the simplicity of this solution, Temeraire leant in with all the force of indignation, paying no heed to Mr Laithwaite’s cry of protest. Will left off further attempts to hold him back. Something about Temeraire’s poise and violent wing-beats told him there was no point even attempting it, despite the worrying rasp of the dragon’s breath in the great chest underneath them. The waves rushing past seemed a molten flood of fire in the low rays of the fading sun, lending a touch of unreality, and Will felt as if he were looking on from above, vaguely aware of the absurdity of it: a race between dragon and steam ship, sinew and wing against tons of steel. But the great white-painted hull of the transport grew larger more quickly now, and after another half-hour grimly clocked by Mr Laithwaite, Will could read the great painted letters on her stern without the aid of the glass – the William of Orange without the shadow of a doubt. Temeraire’s wing-strokes were faltering now, his breath coming in labored gulps, but he put on one last desperate burst of speed, and dove.
Will realized too late what they were: A black heavyweight dragon, without flags or insignia, darting down at the ship from a dark sky like some ambushing stormcloud. There were shouts going up and an instant later a spatter of rifle-shot, feebly, the crew evidently unprepared to meet any semblance of attack after a quiet day’s travel in peacetime and neutral waters. But there were two dragons rearing from the deck, Yellow Reapers in harness, and one of them jumped aloft quickly to meet them, shrieking out a challenge.
Isabella had the presence of mind to tear open one of their few bundles saved from the wreckage in the Alps, the one Will had found the most useless of them all, and four yards of pearly-white Brussels lace streamed out from Temeraire’s back, thrown back against the dragon’s body as an odd flag of truce.
The dragon who had beaten up to meet them slowed his approach, turning off to one side to look at them, suspiciously. Will heard his captain call to his crew to hold fire, the men on the Reaper’s back eyeing their makeshift flag in evident confusion.
“It is only me!”, Temeraire called out to them, “Do you not recognise me?”
The other dragon blinked, then he turned off sharply, calling back to the battalion of marines spilling out onto the deck underneath them: “Don’t worry at all, it is Temeraire!”
Will fell from Temeraire’s back more than climbing and stretched himself out on the dragon-deck. The planks still radiated the day’s heat, and as the tension of the pursuit fell away from him, he felt a reckless sort of laughter bubbling up in his throat.
He stifled it when someone stepped up beside him, a lantern held up in the dusk, and a moment later he looked into the frowning face of a Navy officer, tall and lanky, with flaming red hair, bright green eyes and a single golden epaulette upon his left shoulder.
“What do you think you are about?”, the man asked, bluntly. A small knot of marines had followed him, weapons at the ready, but he waved them away. They retreated a few steps down the stairs that led up to the dragon-deck and remained there, casting distrustful looks.
“I beg your pardon for intruding so uninvited,” Will said, sitting up, “My name is Wi- … Captain Horatio Laurence, of Temeraire. We are for Bombay, and I am sorry we almost missed the ship.”
“First Lieutenant Thomas Riley, pleased to make your acquaintance”, the other man said, stiffly, “Sir, I cannot recall any orders to take a heavyweight. If so, we should have stocked up a good deal more, in Italy.”
Will pushed himself to stand and, reaching inside his coat, produced the letter Captain James had given them. “These are our orders, signed by Admiral Harcourt. We happened to be in the area, so we thought it would be wiser not to sit and wait, given the situation in India… I am sure Temeraire can fish for himself, once he has rested a little, and needn’t be a burden on your stores.”
He tried very hard to sound self-assured about it, the situation in India, as if he knew what he was talking about. He half expected Lieutenant Riley to start laughing and pronounce him the liar he was.
But Riley only glanced at Horatio’s orders, raising an eyebrow. “Admiral Harcourt, indeed.” He sighed. “Well, so be it, then. You may pick one of the free cabins at the fore for yourself, they are all empty save two. You’ve missed dinner, but if you send one of your boys along when you have settled in, we can send something up. Your crew may be quartered next to the galleys, so they can be close to the dragon. Why have you got so few?”
Will stared back. “So few what?”
“Oh, I see… I am newly made captain, so I haven’t had a chance to pick good men yet. I should be glad for any recommendations”, he added.
Riley looked at him askance. “I don’t suppose you want sailors?”
“No, of course not”, Will blurted, keenly aware of the hole he had dug for himself, “I mean, if you have come across any likely hands, in your role on a dragon transport.”
“You have an odd sense of humour”, Riley laughed, “Why, I’ve never heard an aviator ask a sailor for advice on his crew. I must be off, there seems to be some confusion over the watches”, he said, pointing to a small commotion that had broken out near the helm. “I suppose you’ve been on a transport before, and know your way around? Just make sure your young ones know what’s out of bounds, I don’t want to be picking your runners out of the tops.”
“Of course”, Will said.
Riley nodded and took his leave. Will checked that Temeraire was settled and comfortable with his harness taken off, and then was forced to walk off in a display of confidence for the benefit of the Marines, despite being utterly unsure of his bearings. He only stopped when he almost stumbled down a hatchway, the annoyed faces of a handful of sailors at a dice-game staring up at him. He nodded to them as jovially as he could manage and turned around to try a different corner of the ship. Ten minutes later he was still thoroughly lost, and almost grateful when Lieutenant Ingram caught up with him to shepherd him to the aviator’s cabins, handing him a candle-stick.
“Thank you. The children and crew,” Will asked, too tired and weary to mind his pride, “have they found a berth?”
Ingram nodded. “The quarters near the galleys are more than enough, as there are only two other crews on board. They can have three hammocks to one man if they ike. But what was more, that Riley fellow did not yelp at all when I asked for another cabin next to ours for midwingman Dlamini – he simply said we should do as we pleased, and not at all unkindly. I have never encountered so little obstruction from one of those Navy fellows, even those aboard transports. It is quite remarkable.”
Will nodded, grateful that Ingram had thought of making the arrangement. At least he did not have to worry about Isabella sleeping in an open berth deck, attracting unsolicited attention. He closed the door of his surprisingly spacious if somewhat spartan cabin, took off his coat and boots and put out the candle. He almost collapsed into the hammock, dead tired, but the damnable thing immediately turned on itself and he fell out the other side, landing on the floor with a thud. Cursing and groping in the dark, he steadied the cot and tried a second time, this time managing to stay inside lying ramrod-stiff and uncomfortable, not daring to move while the hammock swayed gently to and fro with the ship’s roll. He pushed away the thought of what his father would have made of him – defeated by a hammock – but it was no use, there could be no question of sleep. At the next toll of the bell, he got up, painstakingly stepping out rather than falling. He went up to the dragon deck barefoot, picking his way between the sleeping Reapers. Temeraire slid open an eye and mumbled a drowsy greeting, uncurling a little to let him come close. The Mediterranean night was pleasantly warm, a full star-studded sky above them, and with the green coat bundled up under his head, the comforting swell of Temeraire’s breath blotting out the low drone of the coal-fired paddle wheel, Will soon fell into a deep and fitful sleep.
The next morning Temeraire’s shoulder was hot to the touch, the scales raised where the flesh had swollen up around the bite.
“There you’ve got it,” Laithwaite said, grimly pleased, when Will had hurried to fetch him, “I told you he should have rested it.”
Will stroked Temeraire’s neck, too shaken to talk back at the man, and watched with mounting concern as Laithwaite opened his case of instruments. Temeraire blinked at the intimidating display and protested, but Laithwaite stayed firm, proclaiming if he wasn’t allowed to go about his work, they could jolly well find a different surgeon. Temeraire put his head down in glum submission and let Laithwaite and an unhappy Teddy Hawkes, drafted into the role of assistant, scale his back. Little Will had resolved to stay calm and composed by Temeraire’s head, yet he almost cried out in sympathetic pain when the surgeon drove the knife in deep and he felt a sharp shudder running through Temeraire’s body. Then the blade was withdrawn, and a bucketful of pus came surging out.
One of the sailors in the rigging above them tutted disapprovingly and called out to his fellow a little higher up: “Now look at that mess right ‘ere – an’after we scrubbed all of it down only yesterday!” tailing off into mutterings about work-shy aviators.
“You would oblige me by going about your own business, and leaving us to ours,” Will snapped at the man, enraged at the impudence in the face of Temeraire’s pain. The aviators present, Mr Jenkins and the harnessmaster’s mate Thorne as well as a few of the Reapers’ crews who had lingered to watch the operation, gladly took this encouragement. Taunts were flung in the direction of the sailors, who responded promptly and in kind, drawing the attention of a few more of the sailors who came thumping up to the dragon-deck. Temeraire growled at them and put out his claw to gather Jenkins and Thorne closer to himself, occasioning cries of terror from the rigging and an angry shout from Mr Laithwaite to stay still. Fiducia, the Yellow Reaper curled up closest to Temeraire, raised her head sleepily, inquired whether there was a battle, and bared her teeth in a yawn that had a good portion of the sailors quickly turning tail, shouting about mutiny and rebellion.
“What is the meaning of all this? Stop the noise, at once!” someone bellowed behind them. Lieutenant Riley stepped onto the dragon-deck. “Todd, Wright, get yourselves away, your grog is stopped. Hawick, James, take over that sail. Everyone else, back to your posts! Captain Laurence, I trust you can manage your men?” he asked, with a pointed stare at the idle aviators still trading dark looks with the sailors. The two men he had named quickly scurried down their rope-ladder, not without a last suggestive gesture in the direction of the aviators, and disappeared down one of the hatchways.
“But we were not rebelling at all!” Temeraire protested, curling his tail around Jenkins and Thorne, to the resentment of the remaining sailors who clearly longed to see them served some form of punishment, too. “They were only being very stupid.”
Will walked after Riley, restraining himself not to catch the lieutenant‘s arm. “Sir, you must permit me to explain – my dragon is injured, and I will not bear anyone insulting my men at their work, or punish them for making what I must call adequate reply-“
“Captain‚” Riley said, quietly, “With all due respect, reign in your temper. In future, if you have cause to complain of a sailor, you may speak to me directly, and I will do the same as concerns your crew. Respect and discipline must be maintained if we are to be good shipmates.” He touched his hat, bowed, and went away. His tone had been civil, his manner punctilious, but Will still felt like he had been slapped on the cheek.
“Will,” Temeraire asked when Will returned to his side, “Pray who was that?”
Will snorted. “One of the ship’s officers, a Lieutenant Riley.”
“Oh!” Temeraire said, with an unexpected note of interest, “Will you introduce me to him?”
I do not see why, if he chooses to be rude, Will thought, but he restrained himself. Mr Laithwaite had finished washing out Temeraire’s wound, spread it with a malodorous salve, and was now applying multiple wads of bandaging.
“Maybe later, my dear," Will said.
“Light along the claret, will you, Laurence?” Captain Petham of Fiducia boomed, nudging Will with his elbow and pointing at the desired. Will startled from trying to overhear the lieutenants’ conversation and hastily reached for the bottle.
“Why we are using a grand old transport on this route?” Riley was saying, smiling a little at Ingram’s question, “Well, you see, she is an experiment of sorts. The first transport fitted with a steam engine, six years ago, and nobody thought it would work very well. Their lordships at the admiralty wouldn’t approve a purpose-built steamer until we could prove the principle, so we knocked a hole in this old lady’s hull to fit the wheel.” He patted the mast running through the table. “The Resolution has been purpose-built to house it, so she cuts a much nicer figure. You will see.”
“Thank you," Captain Petham said, filling his glass and Will’s to the brim, “Now tell me, you have been trained up on that infamous fire-breather, Iskierka?”
Will nodded, reluctantly drawing his attention away from Riley and Ingram. His father had spoken of the newfangled steam ships a few times, expressing his doubts at their ever becoming ocean-going, although Will hadn’t listened very hard on those occasions – as a small rebellion, he had gone quite deaf whenever Laurence had talked of ships and sailing. He now regretted his inattention and would happily have caught more of Riley’s enthusiastic explanation. Instead, he was forced to dredge up an account of Horatio’s lieutenant years, second-hand, and pass it off as his own, a mortifying experience. Fortunately, Captain Petham did not pay much attention and instead took the first mention of Nova Scotia as a prompt to launch into anecdotes of his own.
Will gladly left the field to him. He found the conversation very hard going. Captain John Cudworth, who nominally had command of the William of Orange, had arrived at the table already stone-drunk, which seemed almost a perpetual state in him; Captain Benjamin Little of the Reaper Immortalis was a morose and tongue-tied young fellow, and Captain Francis Petham had a great many bawdy jokes and military anecdotes, but very little conversation on any topic Will could carry on for any polite stretch.
To compound the awkwardness, an echo of the confrontation on the dragon-deck that morning still lingered. Due to his injury, Temeraire was now barred from flying, so there had been no hope of taking him aloft, even for a little while, to allow tempers to cool. Will had been hard-pressed to devise some form of punishment to echo Riley’s and mollify the sailors, but he had been unable to come up with a better idea than setting Jenkins and Thorne to scrubbing the soiled planks of the deck, and even that with a pang of bad conscience. Ingram had suggested they put the men on half-rations, but Will had found that notion untenable. Jenkins and Thorne had not given any more offense than he himself, and he went to dine with the officers, even if he would have preferred not to; however, Ingram had maintained that Will absenting himself would have been considered the pinnacle of rudeness.
At least some of the confusing shipboard hierarchy became clearer during the course of the dinner. Will noticed that on account of Captain Cudworth’s sorry state, Lieutenant Riley seemed to be captain in all but name. He had even said grace when Cudworth had only stared at his glass and Petham as the senior aviator present had made no move to step in. Nobody at the table had looked surprised, indicating this was a common occurrence, and Will was sorry to realize he had, with surefire instinct, offended the man whose goodwill would have been most instrumental to Temeraire’s comfort.
He picked at his plate without an appetite and excused himself at the earliest opportunity to check on Temeraire. The bandages had been changed twice more until they stopped soaking. There was still an ugly gaping wound, but the edges were clean, the flesh less warmed, and Temeraire had devoured a whole porpoise the Reapers had caught for him. He seemed to have a natural way of commanding the respect of his fellow dragons that went beyond the instinctive precedence given to his larger size, and which held true even while he could not fly for himself. It boded ill for the leading role likely expected of them in India, but Will did not allow himself to dwell on that point, for the moment only relieved that he did not have to face up to Riley to beg from the ship’s stores to feed Temeraire. They read the first chapter of the Odyssey together, and Will temporarily forgot his worries. He did not attempt the hammock again, but only went to fetch his bedding to sleep at Temeraire’s side.
In the small hours of the morning, he woke to notice somebody moving between the dragons. At first he thought it must be one of the other dragons’ crewmen on watch, but then he caught sight of a flash of red hair and belatedly recognized Lieutenant Riley, not wearing his blue coat but only a crumpled shirt and linen trousers that gave him the air of a sleepwalker. But he was not sleepwalking, instead making his way slowly and deliberately around the dragons – around Temeraire, Will realized, sitting up indignantly. Riley had no business skulking around as if they were a pair of criminals that needed watching, and oughtn’t come to the dragon-deck at all, if he was so eager for sailors and aviators to keep apart.
“Sir, have you lost your way?” Will said, and Riley startled and turned. His expression was entirely changed from before. He looked abashed, almost shy.
“Captain – I am sorry, I did not see you there. I… well, I could not get much sleep, so I came here to look at Temeraire. He is… quite something, as dragons go.”
Will frowned. He had expected many excuses, but not this one, and did not for a moment believe a naval officer cared about dragons. “Yes,” he said, warily, “Temeraire is a Celestial, a rare Chinese breed.”
“I know,” Riley said. A boyish smile crossed his face. “I remember seeing him in Dover once, when I was little, and thinking he was the most beautiful dragon I’d ever seen, barring Lily of course. I must say now, it wasn’t just a trick of the memory. You are a lucky man, Captain Laurence.”
Will’s confusion was complete now. “I haven’t heard many people say so,” he said, “Not many people outside the Corps, I mean.”
“Oh, forget about them,” Riley said candidly, “They don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ve been called a fool many times over for not wanting to serve on anything but a dragon transport. They are not precisely sought-after, as posts go, as you can see with poor Captain Cudworth… but I for my part cannot bear to be away from dragons for more than a week on end.” He smiled wrily at this confession, and still looked not at all inclined to retreat.
Will was increasingly struck with the impression that Riley was not making some clumsy excuse for himself, but that his enthusiasm was genuine. “Come,” he said, reluctantly, “Let me introduce you to Temeraire. He was keen to meet you yesterday.”
Riley looked startled all over again. “Why, that is very kind – but is he not asleep?”
Will smiled, conscious of the telltale twitching of Temeraire’s ears – Temeraire was most certainly not asleep, but following the conversation with interest. He walked with Riley to Temeraire’s head and touched the soft muzzle, and Temeraire immediately opened his eyes.
“Why, you are Harcourt’s egg, aren’t you?” he said to Riley, when Will had made the introduction.
Riley nodded. “I am indeed.”
“Oh!” Temeraire said, “How tall you have become! But what are you doing here? Why are you not with Lily? Not that this ship isn’t almost as good, of course, but…” He cocked his head sideways, as if to say he would have expected otherwise.
Riley glanced at Will, with an apologetic smile. “Do you think I might speak with Temeraire, for a little while, if he is not too tired? I believe… well, I am almost certain he knew my late father.”
Will was surprised to find Temeraire had intimate conversation topics with Lieutenant Riley of all people, but he shrugged his shoulders. “By all means.”
He took himself to the opposite site of the dragon deck. The sun had barely risen above the horizon and the bell had not yet rung for the end of the night’s watch, but he did not feel tired anymore, so he took out his logbook and the letter to Laurence he had begun in Prussia, unhappily conscious that he owed at least a factual report on their progress. But his thoughts kept straying. He saw Riley leaning forward intently, listening to every word Temeraire had to say. From the little the lieutenant had said, it was plain that his own father was dead. Will looked at the empty letter in his hands. It felt petty and small-minded to be nursing a grudge against one’s living father while watching another man plainly trying to scrape together any intelligence to be had of a father gone forever, but no matter how hard he stared at the page, the words would not come.
“I do not understand why humans need to die so soon,” Temeraire said, low, when Riley had at last thanked them and gone away, not without inviting Will to a game of cards in his cabin after dinner. “Laurence’s father died in his bed, and so did Lady Allendale when all she had was a little cough. Eroica said Captain Dyhern fell dead all of a sudden although he was not yet sixty. And Captain Little is very ill too, of something akin to the Dragon Plague, which is why Immortalis has taken Little’s nephew for captain now.”
“I am sorry to hear it, my dear,” Will said, feeling ashamed all over again, these sad circumstances going some way to explaining Benjamin Little’s silent and sorrowful expression, which he had taken for the mark of a dull and melancholy character.
Temeraire heaved a sigh and settled his head on his talons. “I wonder how Laurence is doing, and whether he is well.”
They looked at the blazing colours of the Mediterranean sunrise for a while, waves glinting scarlet and gold, the heel of the Italian boot a faint outline in the starboard mists.
“Temeraire,” Will finally said, “Would you like me to write to father, on your behalf?”
Temeraire turned his head to look at him, pupils widening from where they had slit tight against the light, like doors opening to permit him to enter again. “You would do that? You haven’t sent him any letter yet, have you?”
Will shook his head. “No, I have not… because… well… I don’t think he much cares to hear about me. I shouldn’t be here at all, messing things up.”
“I think you are doing very well,” Temeraire said, earnestly, “And as for Laurence not wanting to hear about you, I am sure he does. He likes you very much. When you were little, he was always worried about you because you were sick so often … Not that there was any real cause for worry, because I was there to look after you, and Mrs Walker, and Tharkay when we had to go to London,” he added, quickly.
“Yes, Temeraire, but that was a long time ago. He may have loved me when I was a boy, but since then, I have disappointed him too often. He wished me in the Navy, like Lieutenant Riley, or helping with the running of the estate, or even the church. He thinks very little of my studies. I cannot blame him, they are as yet without any practical use. But it has made things… difficult.”
Temeraire flicked a talon dismissively. “I think you are mistaken, but even if it is so, I am sure he will think quite differently once you tell him more about it. Laurence always used to read to me when we travelled together, and I know he likes to learn new things. It was his idea we go to see Sir Edward Howe when I was newly hatched.”
“Sir Edward Howe?” Will said, surprised, “Father knew Sir Edward Howe… the Sir Edward Howe?” He had never thought to question the origin of the signed copies of Howe’s books in the library at Castleton Hall. He had read them so often as a boy that he had been able to quote whole chapters verbatim, especially the sections on China and the Celestials. They still held a place very close to his heart although some of the scholarship had become dated and Professor Owen had never omitted a chance to criticize his rival. “Why on earth did he never tell me about it?”
Temeraire gave a low rumble. “Perhaps because you never spoke to each other very much?” he suggested.
Will did not know how to answer this gentle reproof. He folded his arms mutely, fixing his eyes back on the horizon. Temeraire watched him a short while, then he nudged his shoulder gently.
“Will?” he asked, “Perhaps we might start the letter?”
“As you wish," Will said, a little stiffly, and reached for his writing case. “I am ready to take your dictation.”
He was still inclined to be resentful, but he could not deny there was something strangely liberating in finally continuing the cursed letter. Temeraire spoke with eagerness and warmth, almost as if Laurence were sitting next to them, and Will took it all down as neatly as he could, irrationally hoping that between the lines, his father might glimpse the respect he himself could not put into words. A yawning Teddy Hawkes interrupted them at two bells with a plate of ship’s biscuit for breakfast, and Will put down his pen, surprised to see he had filled four sheets, front and back, yours truly and devoted.
“Why does your dragon call you ‘Will’?” Riley asked, in the privacy of his cabin. “Does he miss your father so very much?”
Will blushed, grateful for the half-light of the dimly lit room. Of course Riley thought he was speaking to Horatio. “I suppose so,” he said, evasively, “They were in the Corps for nearly ten years together and in parliament afterwards. When I was little, I could not picture father without also thinking of Temeraire, and vice versa. They seemed quite inseparable. …Your turn.”
Riley nodded as if this sentiment was only natural. He put down his card and rearranged his hand. “Sir William is a formidable gentleman, make no mistake. I am indebted to him for making me some helpful introductions. He and my own father served in the Navy together, many years ago. My father died in a shipboard accident when I was very young and the Admiral was kind enough to take an interest in my progress. My mother couldn’t have given me a leg up in the Navy even if she had wanted to.”
“I am sorry to hear it. Is she… impoverished?” Will ventured, gathering up Riley’s trick of cards and marking down the score.
Riley laughed. “Oh, no, by no means. She is an aviator, Captain Harcourt of Lily… or rather, Admiral Harcourt, it is now, the one who signed your orders. I am surprised you haven’t heard of her. Did you not… do you not know Alice?”
“My little sister. She was on Iskierka, too… never mind. She clearly made less of an impression on you than you on her,” Riley said, with a sidelong look at him.
“I suppose," Will said. There had been a mention of a midwingman Harcourt in one of Horatio’s letters once, he recalled dimly, but he had not even been aware the officer in question had been a young lady. “But why did you not choose the Corps, if your mother and sister are aviators?” he asked.
Riley looked at his cards. “There wasn’t much choosing to do. Mother would have had me in the Corps, of course. But I have several elderly aunts on my father’s side to look after, and an entailed estate in Lincolnshire where my cousins live. Mother has no mind for it, but I don’t see why my patrimony should be thrown to the wind. Setting it all to rights consumes a few weeks each year, even after we sold off the plantations in the West Indies. It is easier to manage with Navy shore-leave than with a dragon, though God knows as a boy I dreamt of nothing more than a beast of my own…” He halted. “I am sorry, I am being dreadfully dull. You must think me mercenary.”
“No, not at all,” Will said. Although he could hardly tell Riley so, he knew perfectly well what it felt like to grow up dreaming of dragons, while knowing all rational considerations forbade such a path. Seeing Riley's discomfort, he instead nodded to a piano crammed into the back of the cabin. “Do you play?” he asked.
“No. I can’t tell a violin from a trombone,” Riley said, “It is a gift for my fiancé. Do you?”
“No, I don’t, although I do like a concert, from time to time,” Will said, a little embarrassed to have unwittingly brought up so personal a topic. “Congratulations. On your engagement, I mean.”
Riley sighed. “Well, there you have it. Another reason the Corps can ill use me.” He looked up a little worried. “Sorry, that was a callous thing to say. Of course there are exceptions. I don’t suppose you have anyone waiting for you at home? I saw you brought some lace, which can hardly be for your own use.”
“No, nobody at all,” Will said, truthfully, “The lace was meant for Temeraire, although he didn’t much care for it. You’re welcome to it if you want. Perhaps you can give us some sailcloth in turn, to make a proper parley-flag.”
Riley laughed. “I may take you up on that offer, Captain.”
Will grinned. “Please, call me W…” He caught himself and swallowed. “Horatio.”
They sat together a long time afterwards, for another two rounds of cards and then simply talking of dragons and the merits of various breeds and new crosses, on which Riley showed himself remarkably well informed. Quite in contrast to the stifled dinner the previous night, conversation flowed easily, and when Will finally took his leave at midnight, the initial coldness had been thoroughly dispelled.
It was very odd to be in the middle of the desert, and yet afloat, Temeraire thought. But he had to admit it was a neat scheme.
The Suez Canal Company Board included no fewer than three dragons, one of whom, an elegant Papillon Noir called Cléopâtre whose companion was the French consul at Alexandria, had flown across to speak to him. According to her, dragons had done most of the surveying and were now making swift work of dredging a canal in the rocky Egyptian desert, and the first few sections had been flooded already. When the construction was finished – in a year’s time, if Cléopâtre’s estimate was not too optimistic – ships would be able to go straight from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, with great savings of time for the Eastern trade. Temeraire had been thoroughly impressed, despite her slightly self-satisfied manner, and the gold and lapis lazuli collar she had worn had been very handsome indeed. He thought he would have to speak to Laurence about buying shares in the venture, as he had learned from Cléopâtre that they hadn’t all been sold yet.
However, for the moment, he was stuck on a raft.
The canal was yet too small to permit a ship the size of the William of Orange to enter, so he had instead embarked on an odd craft made of two immense bundles of reeds – or papyrus, as Little Will had called the peculiar material – tied together, with a platform of solid planks between them and a slanted triangular sail. It could be tugged from the canal bank and was how the provisions for the construction dragons travelled, and now their baggage and a large number of sailors to man the new ship at Suez. Temeraire was cramped and unhappy to be trundled along like a piece of furniture, but there was no use complaining: He was still not allowed to fly, although his shoulder had now scabbed over and barely hurt at all.
To add insult to injury, he had had to watch Little Will and Riley go aboard Immortalis for a trip to the Giza Pyramids, a strange monument which Will said constituted one of the Wonders of the World, and after a day’s flying back and forth they had easily caught up with him on his slow raft. He unhappily tallied the days in his head, and arrived at seventeen – almost a fifth of Iskierka’s hundred days gone, and they were not even halfway to China.
However, there were some welcome developments. His old formation-mate Immortalis as well as the younger Reaper Fiducia were also bound for Bombay, and Lieutenant Riley was still with them, too – or rather, Captain Riley: for as it had turned out, he had been appointed to the Resolution that lay at Suez awaiting her first voyage on the India run for which she had been built. There had even been a little ceremony in the ramshackle harbour of Port Said where the William of Orange had anchored, and Riley had been handed his sword by a once-sober Captain Cudworth with the sailors and aviators lined up on deck, a gratifying spread of neat uniforms and polished boots. Temeraire had been particularly pleased when Riley had come to him afterwards and asked him to convey his thanks to Laurence, for helping him into the Navy.
After another two days of slow progress, the flooded section of the canal stopped and Mr Laithwaite grudgingly allowed Temeraire to go aloft again with only Will on his back, the rest of his crew travelling on Immortalis. Temeraire flew a small circle to survey the building works more closely, at least fifteen Egyptian dragons and their crews busily shovelling and scraping away. He was sorry to see some of them looked rather famished and began to have second thoughts about backing the venture. He tried to imagine what Laurence would say to it - Laurence always had a way of knowing right from wrong where Temeraire found things confusingly blurry- and then wondered whether Laurence had managed to defend their bill for the factory dragons, after all. There had been British newspapers in the port, but they had been so out of date as to be useless. At least they had finally sent Laurence a letter, and even begun another one, so Laurence would soon know where they were and Temeraire had hope of receiving a reply.
When they reached the shore of the Red Sea, Temeraire immediately spotted the Resolution. She was smaller than the William of Orange, but still respectably sized by comparison to the small dhows crowding around her, and with her straight steel-clad bow she looked a good deal squarer and sleeker than the old transport. The dragon-deck was disposed in the middle of the ship between the two paddle-wheels next to the chimney rather than at the rear, which was instead taken up with one of her three masts. The deck could hold four dragons at most, although with the Reapers being only middle-weight, Temeraire thought he would have more than enough space.
The small port of Suez was still little more than a fishing village and not at all used to supplying a dragon-transport, so ferrying their supplies took painfully long, and the Reapers went busily back and forth to fetch the remaining sailors and baggage from the canal rafts. The tiresome operations consumed a whole day. On account of his supposed poor health, Temeraire was not allowed to help and paced the shore uselessly, until Will suggested they work on their correspondence, which was some consolation. Will even drew him a handsomely detailed picture of the Resolution to include in their next letter, which Temeraire felt certain Laurence would appreciate. He would gladly have enlisted Riley to label all the parts Will did not know to name, but Riley was more than busy getting the measure of the new ship and crew and seemed to barely go to sleep that night. The next morning, they finally set off across the Red Sea, first under a cautious small spread, but gradually, more and more sail was brought out, until they moved at a stately eight knots.
Temeraire went flying for increasingly longer stretches each day now. Further away from the ship and the eyes of the other crews, Will agreed to some drill practice and Temeraire suggested exercises to try. He soon had all his own small crew scrambling about his back in their carabiners, trying to reduce the speed it took them to climb from the base of his tail to his shoulders or from the belly-rigging to the crest of his spine. He suggested dropping sand sacks as mock incendiaries, and finally, to Isabella Dlamini’s great satisfaction, volleys of rifle- and pistol-shot. They flew low raking passes across the water and once Temeraire caught a thrashing swordfish the length of a man. They presented it to Captain Riley for his table, to thank him for letting them plunder from the Resolution's magazine, but to Temeraire's happy surprise, the fish was brought back up to the dragon-deck that evening spiced and roasted, with a note of congratulations for their hard work, drawing envious glances from the Reapers. Riley was a very good fellow indeed. Emboldened by this encouragement, Little Will allowed them to fly closer to the ship, and after a few days, he went so far as to accept Isabella's challenge to practice fencing standing up in their straps, surprising Temeraire and, it seemed, most of all himself. He promptly misstepped while unlatched and tumbled into the waves, fortunately from a small altitude and well away from the rocky shore. Temeraire immediately dived to snatch him up and bundled him back to the deck of the Resolution to make sure he hadn’t taken any injury. But Will only laughed and insisted on coming back aboard without even shifting his soaked clothes, only kicking off his boots.
“Temeraire,” he said, scraping his wet hair out of his face, “Do you think we can try something else… I’ve seen it on Chinese engravings, but I’m not sure if it is possible…”
“What do you mean?” Temeraire asked and leant in closer. When he understood what Will meant, he nodded enthusiastically.
“Oh, of course I can do that, all Chinese dragons can! Are you all latched on quite safely?”
When they had called out in confirmation, he beat up joyfully and looped through the sky in a full standing circle. He heard shouting and clapping, and after a moment realized it came from the ship below them, the sailors on deck and in the rigging all looking up and pointing at them. “Well done, my dear,” Will said quietly, patting his neck, and Temeraire flew another tight corkscrew directly above the ship, chest proudly swelled.
Their drills roused the interest of the Reapers, who soon asked to join in. Their captains were initially a little reserved and made silly excuses, such as a shortage of supplies to sustain the exertion of daily flights, or the uncertain chain of command between them, by which they meant they didn’t want to take orders from Little Will. However, Fiducia and Immortalis were plainly unhappy to sit on deck while Temeraire frolicked above, and when they left the Gulf of Aden and struck out into the Indian Ocean, Captain Petham finally agreed to a trial and Captain Little followed suit. Temeraire now had even more to fill his days, trying to think of new manoeuvres for his small formation. The reapers were agile and quick to grasp his ideas, even if young Fiducia was a little skittish, and Immortalis not best pleased when Captain Little sent over a handful of his crew to Temeraire to allow them to run through mock-boarding operations. Will was initially very shy to receive them, too, although Temeraire did not see why: He stood in his straps very easily now, and could load and fire the beautiful Venetian pistol without dropping powder or bullet, and in any case, Lieutenant Ingram, for all his other shortcomings, made swift work of chivvying the new arrivals into position on Temeraire's back.
Thanks to the summer monsoon whirling around the Arabian Peninsula, they barely needed to go under steam now, which was fortunate as the sooty exhaust was not pleasant to breathe in and had a way of staining the white sails. They were overtaken by a few fast-sailing East Indiamen, who saluted them when they spotted their British flag. In the evenings, Temeraire lay sprawled on the dragon-deck and watched Will trying to teach Isabella and Teddy Hawkes history, spelling and algebra, occasionally pitching in to correct their stumbling multiplication tables, and they finished every day reading the Odyssey. Temeraire was almost fully content, though what he missed, he realized when the lookout’s cry rang out one clear morning, and not ten minutes later, a breathless courier dropped onto the dragon-deck.
It was a Sunday and they had all been assembled on deck for the service. The men crowded around the small dragon and his captain with much shouting and questioning for news from home, until one of the lieutenants, Mr Balfour, shouted out for order across their heads. The chaos subsided a little, the chaplain hurriedly concluded his sermon, and then the handing out of the mail could begin in earnest, starting with Captain Riley and progressing to the dragon-captains.
The crossbreed courier was not a dragon Temeraire knew, hailing from the relay-station at Cairo, and neither he nor his captain had any direct news from England. But they carried – joy over joy – a letter from Laurence, addressed Temeraire in Laurence’s own hand. Isabella stepped forward to accept it on Temeraire’s behalf when his name was read out and Will was nowhere to be seen.
“Shall I open it?” she asked, doubtfully. “Where is the Captain?”
Behind them, Immortalis’ name was read out, and Benjamin Little accepted the letter, he and his dragon immediately bending over it. Temeraire himself could hardly restrain the burning desire to hear what Laurence had written, straight away. But Little Will was missing.
“Isabella,” Temeraire asked, “Will you go down to his cabin, and see whether he is there?”
Isabella nodded and turned to go below decks.
“Pray be careful with the letter!” Temeraire called after her.
When she returned, several long minutes later, she shook her head. “I can’t find him.”
Temeraire snorted. “How can he- Why, there you are! Come here quickly, we have a letter from Laurence. – But Will, whatever is the matter?”
Little Will was walking towards them, pale and unsmiling, and he shook his head as he tucked something into his pocket. “Nothing at all. Let us read your letter.”
In the confusion surrounding the courier, Will had quickly snatched his bundle of letters out of the pile before anyone around could see it was addressed W. T. Laurence, and walked away to the stern. There were three, the first an official-looking document with the seal of the Foreign Ministry on it, the second addressed in Tharkay’s hand and oddly shaped. The third was from Horatio, in an even worse version of his crabbed longhand. Will tore it open.
Castleton, Derbys., Jun. 28, 1838
Dear Little Will
I hope you appreciate the effort I’m making – I’m writing this with my left hand and it will take me all Day. However, I can’t say I have much else to occupy me.
I have gathered from the couriers that you are on a transport bound for Bombay, which is further than most of us would have wagered you would make it, so I will be so bold as to send this by express to the Presidency, and hope it reaches you somewhere along the Route. Much Obliged to you for not having gambled me away to Iskierka Thus far.
I wish I could write we are doing quite well, but that would be stretching it. Father has taken your disappearance rather harshly. For the first few days, he pretended you did not exist. If I so much as mentioned your Name, he would get up and leave the room. But after your letter arrived two days ago (which he has not shown me, nor anyone else), he has changed. God Will, what have you written? Father looked like he had seen a Ghost. He took to sitting in Temeraire’s pavilion all by himself, and Mother and Mr Tharkay had to make a real Effort just to make him eat his meals. He has gone away this morning on the London Coach and has told nobody what he is about. But he is planning Something, if I am any judge.
My Period of grace has also elapsed now. Last week I was first able to stand and I have promptly been upbraided. I will spare you the Particulars but it was quite something. You’d have thought Father were on deck of one of his ships again and not in the Middle of our sitting room, and me some Sailor caught drunk on watch and Not an officer in Her Majesty‘s service. It would not stand in the Corps I am sure. But then neither would Dueling.
I cannot say whether I even still am an officer at all. I am still waiting to hear the Admiralty’s judgement, but it is not sounding too good. (If you can, have Temeraire do something heroic, or at least don’t start any fresh wars, so they will be reminded we cannot lose him.) I had hoped my Actions had at least given them cause to question Lt Rankin’s suitability. But it looks like he will still get a dragon as his father’s insufferable Beast insists on Him and his family have made a great noise about it (it is rotten bad luck one of them is an Earl), so more likely than not they will just send him back to Australia as if nothing had Happened, and I cannot say one single good thing has come of it all, since they must still make an Example of me. Mother says I should Keep quiet and let the Dust settle and then maybe something can be Contrived but it is damn hard to be kicking my Heels uselessly.
I don’t want to be a complainer seeing as I brought it on my own Head, but the last days have been very bleak indeed, especially knowing I have Ruined things for you as well, now. I am very sorry to say that a letter has come from your College saying you have been Rusticated, for Absenting without leave, failing to attend some examination, and Causing Grievous Harm to the Property of HM’s Navy, which is a pile of nonsense – as if you asked Temeraire to sink that
boat Ship. I promise I will go there and explain, as soon as I can face one of those damned Coaches again, see if I don’t. However, I have been given to understand it is not equal to an expulsion? Either way I am damned sorry, I have had a lot of Time to think and see I have been a perfect oaf.
Our Lady Mother, who has just come past, bids me write that she does not care a Toss about your wager, but if anything should happen to Isabella Dlamini, you are to answer for it. For the first part, I have reason to doubt her, since I am reliably informed she has placed a sum of ten pounds on your success. (I do not mean to worry you, and Trust you will pay no mind, but the 100 days have been the Talk of the Corps after the formation at Dover set the rumour spreading and even the littlest ensign seems to have an opinion on how it will end.)
Give my love to Temeraire.
P.S. Adm. Granby and Iskierka have been so kind as to visit yesterday. They send their regards. Granby did his best to assuage Father. He said – I am quoting direct – that you looked A Capable Enough Fellow. So pray take Heart.
Will lowered the letter and stared at the waves.
His brother’s health was improving, that was something. But they had not reinstated Horatio, and he himself had been rusticated: a university punishment usually meted out to slackers, brawlers and drunkards, of being sent to the countryside to mend one’s ways. He knew full well it meant he had been suspended in disgrace, banned from setting foot in his college or any university building, his name posted up next to the great hall for all to see, a crashing blow to all his aspirations, yet presently, he only felt somewhat numbed. He was immediately certain he would not plead for forgiveness, in the debasing manner in front of a panel of university elders that was the accepted mode of reinstatement, and an influential advocate on his behalf was equally unlikely. So he wondered distantly what he might do with himself instead. Perhaps he could apply for a post in the breeding grounds. Or he might seek out Hammond again and try for the foreign service, if a command of Chinese and a dubious Imperial connection could weigh up a tarnished university record.
Then Temeraire’s alarmed voice rose over the din of the assembled men and suddenly recalled him to his present situation. He hastily tucked away the letters and hurried back to the dragon-deck.
Temeraire made him read Laurence’s letter thrice over. It was short and almost disappointingly cheerful, no line betraying the dark moods Horatio had hinted at. Laurence wrote that he had been delighted to receive news of their safe passage so far, of their new friends in Prussia and of Tom Riley's progress; that he was presently kept very busy in parliament, and that the bill he had prepared with Temeraire’s advice had withstood its first reading so he hoped that it would pass with amendments. He went on to say they were still hopeful for Horatio’s full pardon, again painting a rather different picture than his son’s letter had done, and closed with a few remarks on political issues of the day as well as greetings from a number of parliamentary dragons Temeraire knew.
Temeraire did not want to go flying that afternoon. He briefly padded across to Immortalis to inquire whether there had been any news of his former captain, whom he too had known. When he heard the man was alive, if little improved, he settled down again and then sat brooding over his letter, prodding at it absently from time to time as if he sensed its omissions and expected the paper to start singing out a further secret message. Will left him to read the remaining letters, and turn over his own worries in his head. The note from Tharkay was friendly but short and apparently sent in some haste a few days after Horatio's letter, from Penzance where his godfather had likely gone on one of his more opaque errands. It contained no further information about his father’s health or state of mind. Tharkay wrote he hoped they might find the enclosed useful in the subcontinent, referring to a small object wrapped in brown paper. Opening it, Will found a small turquoise and rock crystal pendant framed in silver, etched with the image of a frightful many-armed goddess. He stared at it uncomprehending. It was much too small for Temeraire, and he himself had no use for jewellery, nor any heathen good-luck charm.
“Laurence! Little!” Captain Petham‘s roaring voice had never been more intrusive, nor more welcome, startling him from his thoughts. “What is this about, slouching and making long faces? Has anyone died? No? So you are demoralising our dragons and men without cause, a stone’s throw away from bloody Bombay, so they can laugh at us when we get there? To your feet at once, let us practice those passes another time! Temeraire, you must direct us – you're not joining in this moping, are you?”
Temeraire raised his head, doubtfully, and nudged Will. “I am not sure… do you think we should?”
Will nodded and crumpled the letters back into his pocket, rather violently. “Of course,” he said. “We will go flying. Isabella! Will you fetch me my pistol, if you please?”
Riley, walking past, said they might run out the cannons for a little firing-practice while they were at it, ignoring the chaplain feebly protesting it was a Sunday.
The operation was a shambles at first. Neither Temeraire nor Immortalis were focused on the task, and Immortalis nearly fouled Fiducia’s wing on a simple crossover pattern they had done a dozen times before. But the thundering roll of the ship’s cannons was heartening to hear and called them back to attention. They dove and surged with greater accuracy, thereafter, coalesced into an arrowhead shape to circle the ship, and finished with the most difficult manoeuvre Temeraire had devised: All three of them darted away across the water in a pretense of retreat, the Reapers forming something of a corkscrewing screen around Temeraire, until at the snap of a signal-flag, Temeraire doubled back on himself and drew a breath. The smaller dragons fell away neatly to his sides as he unleashed the force of the Divine Wind against the water. A tremendous wave built and rolled away from the ship, rocking the Resolution in her path, and clouds of dead and stunned fish rose to the surface, to the screeching delight of the gulls.
Dinner in Riley's cabin was a happy affair that evening. They toasted the Queen, the Prime Minister, Captain Riley and the Resolution, each of the dragons, their present and former captains, Admiral Harcourt and the subcontinental division, the Bombay Presidency, the East India company, and then made increasingly fanciful addresses, until Riley proposed a toast to the dragon-breeders of China and the West who had turned the power and grace of dragons into as magnificent a weapon as they had been able to witness that afternoon. He said it surely was the next best thing in the world to magic.
“But there is nothing magical to it,” Will said, without thinking much of it, and turned to the remains of the chicken they had had for dinner to illustrate. “You see the hollowness of the bones, and the struts inside that lend support – it is much the same in dragons, making them so very light and yet strong. Their lungs are fixed to the sides of their chests, instead of being compliant like those of terrestrial animals, so they don’t suffer under the pressure changes during flight and their delicate lungs aren't crushed under the weight of their bodies. They breathe in and out by means of the air-sacs in their chest, belly, and base of the tail, which also lend them their great natural buoyancy. Now when it comes to flying, they are built so the centre of gravity lies over their wing-joints, which means they-“ He checked himself, looking up guiltily as he remembered how lectures of this sort tended to go down at his family’s dinner-table, and put down the chicken bone. “Pray excuse me, I have fallen into rambling.”
However, the other captains, the lieutenants and even the midwingmen further down at the table were leaning in to listen.
“I see you are something of a scholar, Laurence,” Captain Little said, “Do carry on. It is very interesting.”
Riley, too, nodded enthusiastically and refilled Will’s glass. “Pray have you anything to say on how they speak, if their lungs are so funny?”
Will could not suppress a smile. “I do indeed. You see, gentlemen, the issue is…”
He woke early the next morning, feeling refreshed despite the late night and liberal amounts of wine, to cries of Land, ho!, and realised that – on account of liquor or high spirits or both combined – he had fallen asleep in his dreaded hammock without even thinking about it.
He dressed slowly and painstakingly, in his old things from England and the brown civilian coat. Then he folded away Horatio’s flying-coat, placed the black pistol on top of it and shut the lid of his trunk, instead arming himself with Hammond’s letter. The previous night, he had felt comfortable and accepted in the company of his fellow captains for the first time. He did not want to think too hard about what their reaction would be today, when they realised what he really was – worse than an outsider or upstart, for which they might have pardoned him, but a liar. He could have spoken at the dinner, or even better straight after Hammond’s letter had come with the rest of the mail. Instead, he had carried on, too happy to have a friend and comrades to be truthful.
On the dragon-deck, Temeraire was still fast asleep, Fiducia stretched out on his back. Will went to the ship’s prow to take in the sunrise. It was the tenth of July and the Resolution was gliding under a silent spread of sail towards Bombay harbour.
I did not want to slap them on the entire story, but warnings apply here for
1. Extremely long rambling chapter
2. Depictions of violence
3. Period-typical racism
The Bombay covert was in a state of chaos. To Little Will’s untrained eye, there was neither order nor system to the pandemonium of four dragons – a majestic Longwing, a Chequered Nettle and two smaller crossbreeds – being harnessed and loaded, and he immediately managed to be in everyone’s way. Gingerly picking his way across the courtyard, Will found himself pushed out of the way by a gun crew carrying nets of incendiaries, shouted at for stumbling across a stray loop of harness, and having to jump aside to avoid the Nettle’s heavy barbed tail as the dragon swung it around to enable a last strap of harness to be secured. Will finally retreated into a colonnade flanking the courtyard, thoroughly confused. The harbour and city had looked busy, but by no means under attack, and he could only wonder at the occasion of these frantic preparations. It was not yet eight in the morning.
A young runner scurried past and Will caught the boy by the scruff of the neck. “Pray tell me, where can I find Admiral Harcourt?”
The child – who on closer inspection turned out to be a girl of seven or eight – stared at him for a moment, then she pointed to the Longwing. “Why, she is right there with Lily, can’t you see?”
She made her escape, leaving Will to squint against the bright light. The Longwing captain presently stood by her dragon’s side talking with two of her colleagues, one of whom had unrolled a map against the dragon’s foreleg while the other was still gulping down his morning coffee without the least conscience. She seemed to think nothing of holding this conference in the middle of the crews and dragons, and indeed her own beast was craning her neck around to peer at the map and participate in the discussion.
Will did not think his intrusion would be welcome, yet he took heart in the show of informality, and cautiously approached the group.
Admiral Harcourt looked up from her map frowning. Then suddenly and before he had said anything, her freckled face lit up in a smile. “Captain Horatio Laurence, is it? I thought I glimpsed a pair of black wings coming into harbour, but I could scarce believe it. I wrote to the admiralty to request you as soon as I saw your name come out on the list, but I did not expect you so soon. Come here, I am sorry there will not be much time to settle in, we have work for you and Temeraire…” She looked him over from top to toe and raised an eyebrow. “You do have your father’s likeness I daresay, although that nose is your mother’s.”
Will was too taken aback to reply immediately, and busy enough trying not to gape at her. Admiral Harcourt was a tall, slender woman of very upright carriage, her hair red like her son’s and greying only a little at the temples. Besides the frogged admiral’s coat, carelessly unbuttoned, she wore an unusual wide pair of cotton trousers and a tunic in the local Indian style, likely a concession to the tropical heat and the drenching showers that came down twice a day, with a shocking lack of necktie. More disconcerting still was the glint of a small gold stud in the corner of her nose, completely unlike anything Will had ever seen in an English lady, much less in a serving-officer. She did not look an inch out of place, however; in the entire courtyard, Will had not seen anything vaguely approaching a full uniform. His father would have been appalled.
“Ma’am- Admiral, I am sorry to disappoint you,” he finally managed, “I believe you requested my brother, Captain Horatio Laurence, but he is presently recovering from an injury. My name is William, and I am not a Captain of the Corps.”
The admiral shrugged her shoulders. “The other twin, I see. Just as well. We don’t stand on formality here. Gentlemen,” she said, turning to the other two captains, “May I present William Tenzing Laurence of Temeraire, Admiral Laurence’s youngest. Mr Laurence, these are Captain Fairfax of Miratus, the Chequered Nettle over there, and Captain Turner of Audax, our wingdragon.” She pointed to the smaller mottled green beast with red stripes that, Will surmised, might be the result of some feral cross, and then nodded to the second cross-breed. “That fellow over there is Captain Sharpe of Ajax. I believe you know Lily? Temeraire does, they were in formation together before, and we are damned glad to have him back at his place.”
Captains Fairfax and Turner murmured their greetings and stepped aside to let him into their circle – happily and easily, Will noted with a pang. Only the Longwing brought her head very close and peered at him suspiciously. But Will was familiar enough with old Excidium’s scrutinizing stare not to flinch. His mother’s dragon had never become an intimate friend like Temeraire and, while kind-hearted, had always been given to grumbling about boy children not worth his captain’s bother.
“Where is Temeraire?” Lily demanded. “I need to speak to him!”
“He is waiting on our transport. I am sorry” Will said, turning back to the admiral to hand her Hammond’s letter. “I am afraid I haven’t made myself understood. I am not of Temeraire, I am not assigned to any dragon at all, and we are not here to fill out your formation. I am on my way to China on a diplomatic mission.”
Harcourt only glanced at the letter very briefly, as if she found Will’s protest beside the point. “Well, Mr Laurence, be that as it may, but you will find traveling out of the presidency rather hard-going with a good stretch of the border province on fire and the Marathas bent on taking down any British dragon who tries to cross over their heads. They care very little for diplomacy, after all the East India Company has done.”
“But Will!” Temeraire protested, “They are going to fight a battle – a proper battle! Are you sure we shouldn’t join? Lily is my friend after all, and Immortalis and Fiducia are going, too!”
His tail was lashing against the columns of the beautifully carved wooden pavilion in the covert gardens, the thrumming noise a lingering echo of the formation’s drums as they had gone aloft and swept away overhead in an impeccable arrow shape.
The covert itself was elegant, completely unlike the practical and sometimes downright shabby facilities Will had encountered in England. The main complex had once been a merchant’s palace, an airy fretwork construction built a few centuries ago, and now lay smothered under bougainvillea hedges. The smaller dragons had the use of the vaulted former storage magazines, pleasantly cool even in the midday heat, while the larger beasts preferred the garden pavilions. But the grounds now lay deserted except for a small dozing courier, and Temeraire had no appreciation for the clever construction of the pavilion or the beauty of the gardens.
“I cannot think it wise,” Will said, unhappily watching Temeraire’s fidgeting. “You don’t even have a full harness and not nearly enough crew to resist boarding attempts, now that Immortalis has all his complement back. Besides, we would be sure to disorder their formation.”
“But I have flown with Lily and Immortalis often enough, it will come back quite easily,” Temeraire argued, “And we did very well aboard ship, with Immortalis and Fiducia – Admiral Harcourt would be as happy for the three of us to work together again, I am sure.”
“We are staying here," Will said with finality.
Temeraire snorted and curled himself up, and when Will offered him the book, he declined.
Will sat down on the pavilion steps and wiped his brow, unsure how to pass the waiting hours – waiting days perhaps. He had taken off his coat and necktie, but the sweltering heat was still hard to bear. He could have gone into the covert’s cooler rooms, but did not like to think about how he would be received there. Temeraire’s own crew had eyed him darkly, the aviators united in their disapproval of what they viewed as shirking battle. Admiral Harcourt, too, had grown impatient when he had remained firm on not joining their campaign, and all the captains – including Petham and Little who had brought their beasts up from the harbour – had bowed to him very stiffly before their departure, leaving him in no doubt as to their opinion. Will told himself that he did not have anything to reproach himself for. He would not hazard Temeraire’s health and his brother’s prospects for his own vainglorious pride. But the next moment he wondered whether he might be making excuses for himself, and whether he was just afraid after all. For a moment he had even considered offering Temeraire to join his friends on his own – Temeraire had all the experience and physical skill he himself lacked. But every instinct had cried out against letting Temeraire face danger and battle alone. No, they had better wait until the fighting at the border had died down, and then they could try to reach the British possessions at Madras and find some form of transport on to Canton. He ought to go to town and make enquiries about the shipping schedules.
Just as he had formed this neat resolve, he heard steps on the gravel path behind them. Captain Riley was walking towards the pavilion, a dark frown on his forehead and his hat tucked tightly under his arm. Will had to suppress the urge to hide behind Temeraire’s side, unsure whether he could face Riley’s anger after the contempt of the aviators. But he mastered himself, got up and stepped outside the pavilion.
Riley ignored his outstretched hand, shattering any hope of restoring relations to a formal and appropriate level. Will braced himself for a tirade, but Riley only said a little absently: “Horatio- no, what is your name? William? Well, William, I have a request to make.”
Will stared. “So you have heard?” he said, “You know that I lied to you, that I deceived you and everyone else on your ship… And you are still speaking to me?”
“What, that you passed yourself off as your brother?” Riley said, still with an astonishing lack of heat. He even smiled a little. “Why, I have often dreamed of running away to a dragon under some made-up name, so I cannot begrudge you having done it, given half the chance. But if you want to think of it that way, you may grant me my plea by way of apology... but what are you, if I may ask, if not an aviator?”
“I… well… until last month, I was studying to be a naturalist,” Will said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what I am to call myself now.” He ran a hand over his face. “What is it you want me to do?”
Riley hesitated. “It is a personal matter. Will you come inside with me, and take a drink? I am melting out here in the heat.”
Will threw a glance at Temeraire, who ignored them both, and nodded. “For a moment… but Tom, would you mind greatly if we went somewhere outside the covert?”
“Not in the least,” Riley said. “Temeraire, we will be back shortly.”
“Yes. And I will sit here and do nothing,” Temeraire muttered.
“Temeraire seems unhappy,” Riley said as the made their way through the crowded streets of Bombay, thronged with vendors, labourers, sailors, beggars, brightly-clad women and lumbering carts. A few humped oxen with red-laquered horns sat in the middle of the road with no apparent purpose at all, disordering the traffic, yet nobody drove them away.
“He didn’t like to see his friends going away to fight. I told him to stay behind,” Will confessed. “Do you know anything of the battle they are joining?”
Again, Riley did not speak immediately. They had reached the gate of a large and gleaming white edifice, set further back from the street behind an impressive wrought-iron fence, with a liveried servant at the gate.
“The Bombay branch of the Army and Navy Club,” Riley said. He presented his card and the gate was opened for them. “I don’t particularly like the place, but they have the best breakfast in town, particularly if your stomach is not yet used to India… just don’t tell anyone you have a dragon, will you?”
Will followed him inside apprehensively. He had bad memories of a club to which his cousin Edward, Lord Allendale’s youngest son, had once taken him when they had met by chance in London. Will had been seventeen at the time and astonished to witness so many spare sons of the aristocracy engaged in the business of doing absolutely nothing. In turn, Will had found himself the subject of intense and unpleasant curiosity by Edward’s club friends, with the usual sly questions about his famous father and many ill-informed remarks on dragons. It had been tedious and mortifying to have to explain, over and over, that Admiral Laurence’s dragon did not eat small children, was not in the least interested in snatching young maidens, and did not keep a messy pile of gold and jewels to sleep on, preferring instead to keep his money invested in the funds.
They crossed the bright and airy entrance hall and entered a darker wood-paneled sitting room that would not have been out of place in the heart of England, complete with a chandelier, fireplace, billiard table and scowling tiger skin rug. To Will’s great relief, it lay almost empty. One of the adjoining doors led into a small smoking room. There was a collection of maps and prints tacked to one of the walls. Riley walked towards them, beckoning Will to follow him.
“About the formation," he said, low, “I didn’t have a chance to speak to mother at length, but I gather they have gone to repel an incursion in the border province east of here, on the border with the Marathas.”
A worried furrow stood on his forehead as he ran his finger over a map of the subcontinent to point it out to Will.
“This northern realm here is the Maratha kingdom. The East India Company has fought them four times altogether, and never succeeded at quelling them… although I gather things have quietened down the last decade, until now,” he said. Then he traced another large territory stretching almost coast to coast in the south. “Bordering our possessions in the south, here, is the kingdom of Mysore. Shukar Sultan is an avowed enemy of Britain. His father Tipu was killed fighting the Company at Seringapatam. Shukar and his brother were held hostage by Lord Cornwallis for a year, until his father’s dragon came for them with an aerial squadron and a rocket battalion. They burnt down half of Madras town while they were at it, a terrible blaze. The older prince was killed in the endeavour. That was, let me see, in the year one if I am not mistaken. Shukar was a very young boy then, but he has never stopped hating the Company. Most of our defences have been built along the southern frontier, and the northern and eastern borders with the Marathas left quite neglected… which brings me to my request.”
Will nodded, still looking at the map. There was a smattering of smaller states besides Mysore and the Maratha kingdom on which Riley had offered no details, but even so, the conclusion was inescapable: The British presidencies surrounding Bombay in the West and Madras in the East lay in a perfect hammer-and-anvil position between the two large native states, a precarious situation.
Riley went on: “You see, my fiancé’s father owns a tea estate in Khandala Hills, here, in the border province,” he pointed at the Eastern frontier. “I understand you have refused to join in any fighting. But I wonder whether I might request that you take me there, so I can make sure she and her family are well and take them away to safety if need be. It should not take us more than a day, Khandala is only about two hours flight from here… and I understand you cannot travel on across the interior anyways, for now.”
Will looked up from the map. He felt uncertain only for a short moment. Riley’s request was perfectly reasonable, small by comparison to going into battle, and he told himself there would be very little risk to Temeraire. Besides, one look at his friend’s face and taut, worried stance told him this was not the moment to haggle.
“Yes, certainly,” he said, “Shall we not leave immediately?”
Riley smiled, looking a little relieved. “Thank you. No, although I hate to say so, we had better wait a little more. The formation has gone in the same direction and Temeraire will fly faster than them with their full armour, but it would be better if my mother does not learn of this. I am under no orders currently and she has no formal command over me, but she has made it clear that she would like me to stay with the Resolution, in case the Maratha navy should try anything underhanded about Bombay harbour.”
Will nodded, shuddering at the thought of disobeying an order – even if phrased as a request – from his own mother, and immediately understood Riley’s sentiment. “If you think it wise… but Tom, I can’t understand, you are always talking of the Company fighting the Marathas or Mysoreans. But are there no army regiments here?”
“No. The East India company keeps its own forces, most of them native mercenaries, and there are no British army regiments stationed in the subcontinent. But many of the Company’s officers have either served in the army themselves already or plan to return to it after gathering experience here, so they know what they are about,” Riley said.
“How about dragons?” Will asked. He knew that strict laws had been enacted in England to regulate fighting dragons. While anyone could hire a dragon as porter, labourer, translator or any other civilian profession, setting them to any sort of attack on person or property was strictly prohibited to anyone outside the Corps. The laws had come about after several calamitous incidents in the more benighted parts of Yorkshire where men had taken to hiring feral dragons to settle personal scores, and the scandal of an enterprising innkeeper in the East End who had decided to raise the stakes of his cock and dog fights by pitting dragons against one another. The resulting duel had reduced a whole street to rubble, the casualty figure appalling even before its inflation by the voracious London press, and had served a terrible blow to the cause of draconic emancipation. Little Will had been quite young at the time, but he remembered his father tense and angry, and even Temeraire not wanting to play. Instead, Laurence and Temeraire had sat up deep into the night with their handful of political allies, discussing how best to proceed. Now hiring a dragon for so much as doorkeeping required a special license, and the London Police had been granted the only exception from the tight regulations, counting four draconic constables.
“The Company has no dragons of their own, except a few unharnessed ones for fetching and carrying,” Riley said, “They never received permission to take on any fighting beasts. I suppose government has no interest in them gaining yet more autonomy than they already have… I’ve had it all in mother’s letters. They are only too happy to forget their string of disasters against the Marathas and the Madras blaze, and like as not would try another attempt at conquest, given encouragement. Not that government wouldn’t let them, if there was any chance of success.”
“So there is none? Why?” Will asked.
“Not as long as the Marathas and Mysoreans maintain their aerial force. They have more dragons than we could ever ship here or supply,” Riley said, “I’ve seen a few on my travels, and you would not think them impressive at first glance – they are smaller than ours, with only a handful of men to a beast. Keeping a dragon is a privilege of the Hindu warrior caste as far as I know, and they don’t like a man of the wrong birth to so much as touch their beasts, which must make it hard to assemble a crew. But they are fierce fighters all of them, and what their dragons lack in size, they make up in numbers."
That moment, someone called out behind them: “Why, can it be Tom Riley? What are you doing here, old sport! Don’t tell me you have that steam monster lurking in the harbour?"
A red-faced naval officer had stuck his head into the room and was now waving at them. Riley greeted him with equal enthusiasm and went across to shake hands. Will followed a little hesitantly, and Riley introduced the gentleman as Commander Roberts of the HMS Kent, a former shipmate.
“May I present Mr Laurence, a…. naturalist who has travelled to India with us,” Riley said.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Commander Roberts beamed, “Come, come!” He waved them back into the sitting room where a group of uniformed men had now seated themselves next to the billiards table. “Will you join me for a game? They are all of them very dull this morning, and nobody wants to play.” He thrust the cue into Riley’s hands without waiting for a reply, and set about arranging the balls.
Will was forced to seat himself with the rest of the company, politely nodding at them.
“A naturalist,” his righthand neighbour, a grey-haired man with a magnificent pair of bristling sideburns, said, “What have you come for? Tigers? Elephants?”
Will threw a glance at Riley, but his friend was taking aim for his first shot. “Dragon-“ he began, then remembered Riley’s caution, “-flies… I… I have heard there are many species in the rivers here, yet unknown to science.”
The younger man seated opposite them, in the same red and black uniform of the East India Company’s army, winked at them and took a draft from his cigar. “Science, eh, fascinating,” he said, “Just what we need more of here, Burns. The light of reason and civilisation, to exorcise the native savagery.” He himself had a rather wild look about him, with a long narrow pair of scars across his forehead and cheek.
“Splendid indeed,” the older gentleman muttered, then impatiently waved over one of the liveried servants, a native man. “You there! Hurry up and bring us some breakfast! But none of that awful curried stuff, if you please, let us have some eggs and roast beef, and be quick about it. – You will join us, Mr Laurence?”
“I thank you but – no. I have already eaten,” Will said, quickly. His stomach had recovered a little from the smells of the streets outside, even more exotic and deafening than the sights or the noise, but he did not feel able to face roast beef.
“Ah well,” the officer, who had introduced himself as Colonel Burns of the Bombay Army’s 18th Brigade of Foot, told Will when the dish arrived, “I don’t particularly like it either, in the morning, but I make a point of having it because of the squirming it causes them – they have a thing about eating any sort of beef, one of their heathen superstitions. Teaches them a point, doesn’t it?”
He poured a glass of whisky for Will. Will nipped at it politely and again looked over to Riley, but his friend was still usurped by Commander Roberts. Their interest in the game appeared to have flagged somewhat. They were only surreptitiously knocking the balls about, otherwise deep in conversation about naval matters, with Roberts enthusiastically congratulating Riley on being made post.
“No less than the damned Marattas deserve," the scarred officer, whose name was Major Gibson, broke in again contemptuously, “Utter waste to be drilling our army here when we have no use for it. The merchants and our cowardly government have too much say in the affairs of the Company. It is about time we start giving the natives some stick, and we have the means to do so! Their artillery is a pile of rust and the Maratha peshwa owns half his country in debt to the Company. But no, even the lieutenant-governor cowers in the corner at the thought of a year or two of poor revenue, and all the while government demands bigger and bigger cuts of the trade…”
“But, Richard,” Colonel Burns said, wiping his mouth, “Remember their dragons.”
Gibson’s cheeks flushed with colour. “Oh, that stale old excuse! As if their jungle beasts were some sort of miracle weapon! A well-aimed cannon to the belly has brought down many a rampaging beast… Look here, I know what I’m talking about!” He pulled back his sleeves to reveal gashed claw-marks across both forearms which matched those on his cheek, and which Will belatedly realized must have been made by a dragon – a small beast most likely, but still grimly impressive. “And besides, if the government cared a fig, they would send us a few dragon eggs for our own use, and we could repay in kind.”
“Ah, what a notion!” Burns chuckled, “You must be joking, Richard! Remember someone would need to sacrifice all his prospects and shackle himself to a dragon…”
“But Sir, isn’t there a covert, right here in Bombay?” Will asked.
Major Gibson blinked at him in irritation, as if he had forgotten his presence. “The covert?” he huffed, “They are more of a hindrance than a help. Roundly refusing to back up any offensive action against the Indian dogs, as if it were any better to wait for their princelings to bury their squabbles and unite to cast us back into the ocean. With that admiral of theirs… I don’t suppose you’ve heard she is a woman? Yes, that is what government makes us put up with!”
Will noticed Riley straightening up, stiffening. “But I have heard the Marathas have attacked our border, only today?” he said quickly, before anything more offensive might be said.
All of a sudden, Gibson smiled. He took up his glass. “Good,” he said. “Good. Well, I am glad that this is what you have heard. But no.” He took a sip, then put the glass down on the silver tray clattering. “It is nothing but a bit of noise and a firecrackers to draw the Marattas away from that heathen temple at Nalkonda where they breed their dragons. Who knows, we may be able to get our hands on an egg or two, finally. We have our own dragon in Canton now, and it is answering damned well against those Chinamen.”
“You mean… egg-stealing?” Will asked, incredulous. He knew nothing of the ways of the Indian aviators, but it was considered a nearly mortal sin among European dragons.
“Odd way to phrase it, but if you want to call it so, yes,” the major said, shrugging his shoulders.
Will would have pressed him further for news of Ning – surely there could be no other dragon in the company’s service at Canton – but he suddenly felt Riley’s hand on his shoulder, gripping down hard.
“I am sorry, gentlemen,” Riley said, “But I am afraid Mr Laurence and I must go now.”
“Should we not try and catch the formation?” Will panted, hurrying down the sodden street, “We have to tell the admiral it is a ruse.”
“No,” Riley said without turning around so Will could not read his face. It had started raining, or rather pouring torrentially, the monsoon shower starting suddenly with the force of a bucket emptied over their heads. They had been drenched to the skin within moments of leaving the club, but in silent agreement had been in too much of a hurry to find a rickshaw or sedan chair to take them back to the covert, so instead, they were splashing through the puddles. A small torrent had already formed in the middle of the road, strewn petals mingling with street refuse in the swirling water. At least the road had emptied considerably, everyone in their right minds evidently preferring to seek shelter from the elements. Will pressed the map of the Presidency from the club’s smoking room close to his chest and prayed it might still be legible by the time they reached Temeraire.
“But Tom,” he tried again, “The Company cannot intend… in all sincerity… to go stealing eggs? If the Indian dragons are anything like the ones at home, such a thing will bring all of them down in revenge upon our heads!”
“No,” Riley said again, “We have the word of a braggard, that is all. To think that the East India Company should be brazen… suicidal enough to… no, it cannot be entertained.”
“Nevertheless, we should make sure, shouldn’t we?” Will said, detecting the hesitation in Riley’s voice. “Where is this Nalkonda place? … Tom! Listen, we will fetch your fiancé first, and you and her can go somewhere safe, but I need to find this temple.”
They had nearly reached the covert gate. Riley stopped and finally turned around. He wiped a hand over his forehead. “No… You’ve seen the map. Nalkonda is closer, and we can hardly stop there on the way back. We must go there now.”
“But surely after we have found Miss Kingston, we can check how Lily and Immortalis are doing, and perhaps help them out?” Temeraire tried again.
But to his chagrin, Will did not agree with even this moderate suggestion, saying it was dangerous and risked exposing Riley, who was supposed to stay with his ship although there were no signs of attack on the harbour whatsoever. Temeraire now remembered what a thoroughly vexing thing orders were. Will looked as if he wanted to say something more, but then he only exchanged a glance with Riley, who was wringing out his black neckcloth to tie it afresh, and remained silent. Temeraire gave up. Of course he was more than happy to oblige Captain Riley and go looking for his fiancé. It was certainly better than doing nothing, but in his view, if they went to the border province, he might just as well help out his friends.
“Are you happy to set off at once?” Will asked him, “Are you not tired? Or hungry?”
“Not at all; I am very well,” Temeraire said. He had just completed a refreshing nap in the lovely pavilion where they were all presently assembled, and his breakfast had been lavishly spiced. The rain had stopped as suddenly as it had started, the air purged of dust at least, and the sky over Bombay looked inviting.
Will agreed with Riley that they would fetch him from the Resolution and Riley went to change his clothes and make his preparations. The crew came running from the covert after Will had gone to summon them again, their enthusiasm for doing anything of use equal to Temeraire’s even after Will had told them they had only been asked to provide assistance to a planter’s family and would not go near the fighting. Temeraire ducked down low when his harness was brought out, to make it easier for his small crew to put it on him. All of them helped, even Mr Ingram, while Will hurried away to find a dry shirt. Not half an hour later, they were on the wing.
Temeraire permitted himself to fly one circle over the sprawling antheap of the city to peer closely at a beautiful mosque with gleaming golden domes and turrets and a temple with an intricately carved and painted stepped roof. Will conferred, low, with Riley and Mr Ingram over a map which they were handing around very carefully on account of it having become very wet, and finally called: “Broad off starboard, Temeraire, straight for the hills.”
Temeraire tore his eyes away from the lovely buildings and adjusted his course. He followed a meandering river. The land below them was still flat, the formerly barren ground blushing green with the monsoon season’s first growth. There were villages dotted about, tilled fields, stands of trees. The sky itself looked empty except for scattered flocks of white birds, not a dragon in sight. But within an hour the landscape grew hillier, the vegetation lush and the air thick with mist, until the first table mountains of the border province caught them almost by surprise, rising from the low-hanging clouds. The river, a lazy ribbon in the plains, was barely recognizable now: a multitude of small brooks and waterfalls. They were all of them dripping wet again although no rain had fallen, the air itself so humid that it was impossible to tell where a cloud stopped and free air began. Temeraire enjoyed the refreshing cool water pooling to run over his hide, but he could not quite banish the gnawing thought that their small store of powder was likely entirely drenched by now, which would not do at all for helping Lily’s formation.
“Are you sure we have not mistaken our course?” Temeraire heard Will ask, and both Lieutenant Ingram and Captain Riley answering, after another look at the drenched map, that they believed not, and that these were the Nalkonda Hills, a name Temeraire had never heard, and that they had now entered Maratha territory.
“Are we there yet?” Temeraire asked.
“No, my dear, it is another thirty miles due south to Khandala,” Will answered.
“South?” Temeraire asked, and could not keep a shocked note from his voice. “And you are quite sure we haven’t gone wrong? I have been going east all this time! Will, we don’t have time for this! We might be too late for joining-“ He broke off, and indignantly shook the water off his neck. Then he swung himself around due South and beat his wings faster.
“No! Temeraire, wait!” Will called. “Pray go lower, we need to have a better look at those hills!”
“But why would we?” Temeraire asked, confused.
“He is right,” Ingram said, “There is nothing here. Those Indian temples are large and painted like pastry-cakes, you wouldn’t miss them…”
“No… no, let us have a look,” Will said, “Temeraire, it is probably nothing, but Riley and me heard a rumour about a robbery on a temple that the East India Company is planning. I just want to make sure there is indeed nothing to it.”
“But surely that is no business of ours,” Temeraire said, increasingly confused, “It is not nice to go stealing things, but I am sure the Indian dragons can defend their temples very well if they keep any treasure there, and what else would the Company be looking for?”
“Temeraire,” Will said, his voice sounding a little odd, “I am… I don’t want to plant false worries in your head, but… it really would be disastrous if the Company robbed that place. But they have no dragons of their own, so if they saw you, they would probably listen and be convinced to stay away,” by which, Temeraire thought, Will meant he would frighten the thieves away.
“If we must,” he grumbled, unconvinced. He turned back into the forested vale, skirting the ground more closely. There was no temple in sight, nor any sign of human habitation, only shrubs, trees, rocks and waterfalls. They had almost crossed the full length of it when Teddy Hawkes suddenly cried out: “Captain – I mean, Mr Laurence, there’s a path right there!” pointing to the starboard hillside.
Temeraire went closer, and indeed, there were steps carved into the black rock of the mountainside.
“Will you land a moment?” Will asked, and immediately climbed off his back when Temeraire had done so.
“Tom, look at this!” he called, “There is a path here”
Riley and Ingram climbed down to join him, and Temeraire craned his neck warily. Will was pointing to a further set of stone steps further along the mountainside, this time leading a short distance downhill to skirt a large boulder jutting from the hillside. A small stone wall had been built to shield the path from the steep drop below. The ground was muddy and churned by the rain, a pattern of fresh footprints clearly visible in the mud.
“Why, a path can lead anywhere,” Temeraire grumbled. “It might go to a village.”
“There is no village on this map,” Will said, doubtfully, “Although the survey was likely imperfect.”
The path crossed a rocky riverbed, followed the side of the hill for a while and then climbed steeply, with many steps to ascend to the hill's summit. Here, it suddenly widened. There were two large stone elephants with weathered trunks and tusks wrapped in frayed orange silk, their heads painted with powders running into puddles of white, red and yellow from the rain. Behind these silent guardians, a panoramic platform overlooked the valley and there was a single smooth and monolithic piece of rock its centre, of markedly different colour than the hill’s black basalt.
Will walked through the gap between the stone elephants, running a finger over an inscription at its base that Temeraire could not read. “How very interesting,” he said, “These carvings must be hundreds, if not a thousand years old! And there are reliefs on the floor, too… and the view… Tom, have a look at this!”
Riley followed him, more slowly, with a hand on his pistol and cautious looks at the surrounding hills.
“Will, come back,” Temeraire called anxiously, “The path continues up there!”
“Just a moment,” Will said. He had walked to the edge of the platform and looked at the scenery in fascination.
Behind him, the rock opened a pair of yellow eyes.
The next moment, it unfurled into the shape of a dragon, hissing angrily and puffing out a lurid eye-like display of reds and purples on its neck, stark against the drab grey colour of his back and wings. His scales were thinned with age.
Will stumbled backwards against the low wall surrounding the platform and brought up his pistol, but it was too wet and would not fire. Riley had more luck, if one would call it so. His shot aimed for the head took the dragon in one of the brightly coloured neck-folds. The riflemen took aim behind them, their balls striking deep into the thick scaled hide. The beast jerked its head back yelling in pain and anger, his voice echoing far through the valley. He raised a talon to claw at them. Riley left off trying to reload his pistol, and instead drew his sword.
Temeraire sprang forward, roaring an angry challenge, with not quite the force of the Divine Wind but enough to make the smaller dragon cower for a moment. But there were three more beasts tearing along the valley now, in bright and banner-like colours. Temeraire had to wheel around to snap at one of them, then throw himself back the other way to parry another making a dash for his crew huddled together behind one of the stone elephants. He managed to grasp at the purple beast’s neck and jerked it about a few times. Rifle fire exploded on the dragon’s back and he felt the sharp bites of the musket balls biting his hide – he had only dimly registered the purple dragon’s magnificently gilded harness and the golden plate on its forehead, but clearly he was carrying a crew. Temeraire’s own riflemen had managed to reload and get of another volley when Temeraire let go of the Indian beast, cries of pain issuing from his attacker’s back to indicate at least some had found their target.
“Temeraire!” Lieutenant Ingram was shouting, “We are outmatched! You need to get away!” He was already herding all the crew back aboard Temeraire.
Temeraire roared at one of the Indian dragons, a scarlet and indigo beast, and managed to send it sliding down the drenched and muddy hillside, yelling angrily as it tried to claw for purchase and found none. But the other two had rallied now and were coming at him. It was hopeless. Temeraire swung back around to snatch Will and Riley away from the grey beast, and froze.
The old dragon ponderously unfolded his wings, bright turquoise iridescent membranes, and launched itself from the edge of the encircling stone wall, Will and Riley grasped tightly in his talons.
Will dodged the Indian dragon’s head by throwing himself nearly flat. The great jaws snapped shut barely inch from his head and the dragon’s stale hot breath made him cough. The pistol clattered to the ground uselessly and he scrambled backwards on all fours. Temeraire was hemmed in closely by two of the Indian beasts, who harried him skilfully and stopped him gaining any ground on the platform. One of the massive tusks of the stone elephants had been knocked off by their ferocious struggle. The old grey dragon was coming at them again, blocking the path back to the relative safety of Temeraire’s back. Riley tried a blow at its wing-edge. The polished steel of the naval sabre barely nicked the thick scaly hide, but the point caught the delicate wing membrane. The dragon jerked its wing up with a howl to lick at it with a long and strangely blue-coloured tongue. Will struggled back to his feet and Riley caught him by the arm and pulled him along, in a headlong dash right between the forelegs of the beast, in a desperate attempt to get back to Temeraire. The Indian dragon almost bent double on itself in its wild attempt to snap at them, dark blood dripping from the bullet-hole in its ruff. They were almost through, Temeraire clawing ferociously at a purple dragon whom he had caught by the neck. But behind them, the old Indian beast had managed to turn itself around with awkward, gouty steps. A claw came down at them, knocking Riley to the ground. Will called Tom’s name, but he did not reply. Will stopped dead, hurried back to Riley's side and tried to pull him up. But the Indian dragon had spread his wings around them like a tent, hissing low and angry. The membranes had an iridescent peacock-like sheen, beautiful if it hadn’t been so terrible. Will groped for the sword that had fallen out of Riley’s hand and blindly stabbed at the dragon’s face. Outside the dome of the shimmering wing-membranes, he heard Temeraire roaring. The grey dragon hissed, low, and then suddenly his claws had closed around both of them and gathered them up against his rough bony chest. Will lost hold of the hilt. The dragon made two awkward, chicken-like hops towards the edge of the platform, then it unfurled its wings fully and leapt out into the valley below, the air whistling in Will’s ears and his stomach jumping to his throat.
They were violently jerked up and down a few times as the dragon beat his wings to gain speed. Then he took a narrow curve, and Will at once lost his bearings.
“Tom?” he croaked, and Riley muttered something in reply, incomprehensible in the howling of the wind. The dragon gave a low displeased rumble and shifted his claws, the sharp tip of one talon digging deep into Will’s thigh, but for the moment, Will was barely conscious of the pain, only relieved at the sign of life from Riley. He could not think what the dragon could intend by their abduction – if he wanted to kill them without interference from Temeraire, he might have simply opened his claws there and then to drop them.
There was a roar behind them – Temeraire’s voice. Will tried to crane his head, but it was quite hopeless, he could not see. A second roar, shattering loud, flattened the bushes underneath them and rippled through the high grass, sending dirt and small pebbles spraying, and a faint noise rang in Will’s ears even after it had subsided. Temeraire had roared a warning against the ground. The Indian beast flew a sharp turn and partly opened his claws. Will could not stifle a small scream as he slipped down and found himself clutching at his captor against the terrifying prospect of being dropped down into the void. Blood was streaming from his palms now where they had slid along the sharp edge of the dragon’s claws.
He caught a brief and disheartening glimpse of Temeraire tearing along the valley, trying hard to catch up with them, with two remaining Indian beasts hard at his heels. They were skilfully harrying his wing tips and dropping to stay out of shooting range - clearly trained beasts, not marauding ferals.
Then the Indian dragon suddenly gathered them closer again, made a sharp curve, and Temeraire fell out of sight. The manoeuvre jarred his prisoners violently and one of Will’s boots came loose, tumbling away into the void. Will heard Temeraire roar once again, further in the distance, and then silence fell, broken only by the screeching of monkeys in the trees below.
Fear clutched at Will. What had happened to Temeraire? He remembered reading once that some Indian breeds produced a deadly venom that could stun and even kill a dragon. The next moment, he called himself to order. There was no use despairing. He pushed off his other boot, and then, after another minute or so, he scrambled out of his wet and clinging coat, watching it billow out briefly as it fell down to the ground. It was a scanty track, but the best they could do.
A short while later, the dragon finally dived and landed, casting them onto the ground with an air of contempt. Will lay still for a moment, then he staggered to his feet. Next to him, Riley limped away a few steps, then fell forward on his knees and bent over retching violently. He wore a bruise on his forehead where the grey dragon had struck him down, and for one moment Will wondered whether he might have been concussed or taken some worse injury still, but then Riley got up, spat and said: “Worse than a typhoon round the Cape. Where are we?”
Will could not blame him. He had flown with Temeraire countless times, including once during a bad thunderstorm when he, Horatio and Temeraire had been caught off-guard by the weather on a lengthy expedition through the Peaks, his father admonishing them in the sternest terms when they had finally crept back into the entrance hall drenched and bedraggled, so his stomach was hardened, but even he felt weak and sick after being tossed about so much.
They looked around. They were standing on a narrow rock platform built against a hillside, similar to the one where misfortune had first befallen them, with a similar carved pair of stone animals– this time depicting scaly rearing bodies, depicting snakes or perhaps dragons, it was hard to tell from behind. But on the opposite side of the terrace, there was a huge and ancient rock-carved portal, high enough that even Temeraire might have stepped through without hunching his shoulders, which opened straight into the hill.
“A cave” Riley murmured. “Good lord, we will be swallowed up from the face of the earth.”
Will eyed the portal. The carvings surrounding it were ancient and mysterious, a giddying display of tangled bodies, humans, animals and mythical beasts. But before his eyes could start to make sense of the display, ten or more stern-faced warriors, turbaned and armed with pistols and curved swords, came spilling out of the gate. Two men sprang forward to shackle their hands, and they were herded into the cave.
The inside was magnificently decorated too, and took the shape of a vast columned hall. Beams of light fell inside through large narrow windows cut directly into the hillside. At the far end of the cathedral-like room, there was the gleam of a golden many-armed idol framed in flowers and tallow candles, but before they got close enough to discern any details, they were pushed into a narrower side corridor. Their captors marched them along with much shouting, abuse in a language Will could not understand, and blows to their backs with the flat of their swords, through yet another pitch-black corridor and finally to another chamber with a wrought-iron gate. They were shoved inside, stumbling onto the hard stone ground, and the grille was shut behind them. The shouting and footsteps fell away again.
Will pushed himself up with an effort. One of his wrists hurt badly where he had tried to break his fall, awkwardly striking the floor with his bound hands. He lifted his wrists to his teeth and tried to work on the knots, but it was hopeless. He gave up and forced himself to think sensibly.
Temeraire would come for them. He had seen them being taken. Perhaps he had managed, somehow, to shake off the other dragons and pursue their captor. It was only a question of time and holding out long enough.
The room was dimly lit with light filtering in from a gallery of windows above their heads, too far to climb up. A strange smell hung in the air, metallic, sweet and acrid all at the same time. It stirred a faint and unpleasant memory of the anatomy cellars in Oxford, where Will had fled from the sight of a saw and chisel being taken to the corpse of a Grey Copper. It had been no use telling himself that the dragon had died peacefully of old age in the breeding grounds, he had not been able to face it.
“Tom,” he whispered, trying to quell the rising sense of dread in his chest, “How far have we been taken, do you think?”
“Not too far,” Riley answered. “We cannot have been going for longer than twenty minutes, perhaps thirty, and that old beast wasn’t a fast flier. Although whether that is going to make an ounce of difference to our chances of being found again in a cave, I am not sure…”
He fell silent as footsteps approached again, light human footfall and the heavier tread and clatter of claws that heralded a dragon approaching. A hissing and rumbling dragon’s voice was speaking rapidly, followed by the human reply in more measured tones. Then, suddenly, a torch lit the chamber floor in a golden circle as the pair rounded the corner. The dragon caught sight of the prisoners.
He threw himself bodily against the iron bars, hissing and roaring in a fit of fury. The gate groaned and rattled. Will and Riley edged backwards.
Will stumbled over something soft and heavy and fell to the floor again, jarring his wrist a second time as he landed in a puddle of something cold, wet and sticky, but he could not pay it any mind. He stared at the rabid dragon still clawing and scrabbling at the grille. The small orange beast was of a sleek, snake-like configuration not unlike Temeraire, and his forehead was adorned with a gold-plated triangular plaque framed in tassels. The wild, maddened expression his eyes was unlike anything Will had ever seen, and in the dragon’s hissing, guttural speech, Will could only discern the word British.
The lean bearded man who had accompanied the dragon put a hand to the beast’s side and stroked him, mumbling low, comforting words. He wore a wrapped sort of calico tunic with a broad belt into which his curved sword and pistol were tucked, wide trousers and a turban with a golden pin, the loose end of the wrapped cloth hanging over one shoulder. Gradually his dragon fell back, and finally only growled low in his throat and paced behind him with the air of a caged tiger as the man spoke.
“You came to fetch them away,” he said in English, with a lilting accent, “But there is nobody left to take.” He stepped closer, the circle of torch-light creeping further into the chamber.
With looked behind him and nearly screamed - he had stumbled on a dead body. It lay stretched out in a puddle of dark curdled blood, its chest carved open by a talon-slash so neat it would have rivalled an anatomist’s work. The colour of the torn uniform was hard to make out in the torchlight, but the black and silver trimmings were exactly like those of the coat they had found in the riverbed – the uniform of the East India Company’s army.
“Take them?” Will managed, swallowing down hard on the sour bile rising in his throat, “We did not come to take anyone! Sir, we are not allies of the East India company. We came here to try and stop them from stealing-“
“Stealing? Stealing?” the dragon hissed, his voice hoarse with pain. Will was surprised to hear him speak English. “No! Do you not know what they have done? The English dogs have broken them! All of them!” This was followed a by long, mournful howl.
“Broken them…?” Will echoed.
Instead of a reply, the Maratha aviator stepped closer, his unblinking face almost touching the metal bars now, and the back of the chamber became visible in the flickering torchlight.
Will and Riley stared in disbelief.
The back of the chamber was as magnificently carved as the main hall had been, with tangled snake-like creatures and floral motifs wreathed across the walls. But the tumbling chaos continued across the floor, in a macabre, distorted mirror image of the riot of bodies and wings on the walls: It was strewn with human corpses and broken dragon eggs.
“Are there any more of you coming?” the aviator demanded.
“Sir, we do not know,” Riley said, when Will remained mute, too choked with horror to reply. “We are not of their party, and did not come here to provide any assistance to this vile act.”
They man gave a short, spiteful laugh. “You brought a dragon to Nalkonda, while your evil accomplices crept inside the temple to break our innocent eggs, ready to snatch the murderers away once your evil deed was done.”
“No! This is not true. We have nothing to do with the Company. My name is Captain Thomas Riley, of Her Majesty’s Ship the Resolution, and this is Mr William Laurence, a traveller on his way to China. We only came into Bombay this morning! My mother is Admiral Harcourt, who is in command of the Aerial covert at Bombay. I assure you she has never had anything but the welfare of any dragon in the Presidency at heart, and would condemn-“
“Your aerial squadron attacked our border fort at Khandala, alongside the Company’s dogs,” the Indian interrupted him, coldly. “Otherwise your slaughterers would never have penetrated so far.”
“No!” Riley protested, “There must be a mistake! They did not attack! They were called upon to defend-“
The dragon hissed violently, cutting him off.
“No more of your lies!” the aviator said, “I would open this door and let Shakunta finish you off, but that would be too kind, too kind by far.”
With that, he cast the torch down on the floor like an odd threat, turned and waved at his dragon to follow him. Shakunta gave them one last spiteful growl, then he followed his captain, claws clattering on the stone floor.
When they had gone, Riley reached his bound hands under the door and awkwardly groped for the torch, finally managing to pull it towards them. He held it over his head, illuminating the massacre around them.
“Tom,” Will murmured, “Tom, look at this.”
He crouched behind the dead body of the soldier, amidst the wreckage of a large greenish egg speckled in delicate ochre, and cradled the curled body of a dead dragonet, small enough to fit in both his palms.
“The light of reason and civilisation,” Riley said, spitefully. He put down the torch to help Will to his feet, then he picked up the light again and gave it to Will. Will let himself be pulled along as Riley began a grim and methodical search of the cavern.
There were many more broken eggs, most towards the rear end of the chamber where rock-cut niches in the walls, padded with silken cushions, had likely held them. The shattered pieces of shell cracked under their feet and the floor was slippery with egg-fluid. They counted eight slain Company soldiers. In Bombay, Will had seen mostly native men in the uniforms of the Company’s rank and file, but notably, all the dead in the chamber seemed to have European features, or at least the ones not mauled beyond recognition. All of them had carried padded pouches, and there was a long torn rope on the floor.
“They must have come in through those windows with an intention to steal, just like that Gibson fellow said,” Riley said quietly, “And when they found they had been discovered, they decided to destroy what they could not take.”
He turned over a bloodied corpse and let out a small cry of triumph – he had found a folding razor. He sawed through the rope tethering Will’s hands and in turn, Will cut Riley free.
It was little more than a moral improvement to their situation, since there could still be no hope of escape – the metal grille was firmly locked, the main portal no doubt guarded by Maratha dragons, and the strange skylights too far above their heads for any hope of reaching up climbing, even if the intruders’ rope hadn’t been slashed to shreds by the angry defenders. The torch burnt itself out and they had to continue their survey by carrying anything of interest to the beam of light falling in through the roof. They found nearly thirty small dead dragonets, some tiny and barely developed, one large enough to have nearly been ready to hatch, a brutal blow for any aerial force, accomplished at the cost of a small battalion of foot soldiers – an unfeeling soul might still have called it a coup.
After a short while their hands were slick with gore and now it was Will’s turn to drag himself away to a corner and be sick. He bent forward retching even after there was nothing left in his stomach, his head full of images he thought would torment him to the end of his days – almost a kindness that it was going to be a short period now, as soon as Shakunta returned. In the darkness of the corner, he imagined the outline of an egg – a large unbroken egg of a pure pearlescent white. He put out a hand to touch the comforting illusion and jerked back in surprise when he found it solid and cool, not a hallucination at all.
The egg had been thrust down from its niche like the others, but through some lucky twist of fate seemed to have landed on a bundle of the silken wrappings and rolled away without smashing apart. Will gingerly reached for it again, the cool smoothness comforting under his fingers. His sprained wrist complained when he lifted it up – it was heavy, very heavy, and he had to brace it against his chest with both arms to carry it to the light. Turning it over, he found one side badly cracked in a long line running along half its length, the membranes glistening behind the breached shell – intact, but drying up fast. Riley stepped to his side to have a look.
“It is alive!” Will said, “We must get the shell sealed up again. Will you hold it a moment?” He handed the egg to Riley without waiting for an answer and went away, looking around urgently. He found a few half-burned tallow candles in an alcove next to the egg niches. But they had no flame to melt them. It was no use. He would have to shout for Shakunta and her companion, or any of their captors, to come and try whatever they could to preserve the last egg.
When he returned, Riley was cradling the egg against his chest and bending over it with a startled expression. “Will,” he said, “Can you hear this, too?”
Will put an ear to the egg. He held his breath when he heard what Riley meant. There was a faint hissing and scraping noise inside, growing fiercer with every passing moment. Then the egg rocked in Riley’s arms, and he almost dropped it. He hastily set it down on the floor.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “Ought we not call someone?”
But it was too late. They watched in mingled fascination and concern as a long, almost translucent claw penetrated the crack, tearing the membranes apart, followed by a pointed snout. Then the white shell split apart, and a trembling and premature dragonet drew a labored first breath.
The wounded man whimpered a little when they put him on Temeraire’s back.
“What has happened to you? Have you been trying to steal?” Temeraire demanded one final time, cocking his head around. But the soldier in the torn uniform of the East India Company only stammered incoherent words, something of a temple and a maddened dragon who had bit him, and that nobody else had gotten away.
“But why did you go there?” Lieutenant Ingram asked, holding out a bottle of brandy as a reward for information, “This is Maratha territory!” But the man only went back to clutching his mangled arm, and would not even let Mr Laithwaite take a look at it.
Temeraire huffed in exasperation. The soldier would only be a nuisance with his shouting and yelping, but they could not leave him to his certain doom lying on a hillside to be found by the Indian dragons – Temeraire knew exactly what Laurence would have to say to that. But he also knew what Laurence would have to say to Temeraire letting an unpleasant Indian dragon snatch Little Will away, and Captain Riley along with him.
But they still had not found any trace to show where Will and Riley had been taken. The Indian dragons had finally been frightened away after a final display of the Divine Wind had brought a towering hillside down crumbling like wet bricks. Temeraire had tried to pursue them, hoping they might go back to the place where the prisoners had been taken, but they had dashed off in entirely different directions, and he had lost his way. They were still trespassing on Maratha territory, so the dragons would likely come back with reinforcements, and even though he hated to admit as much, Temeraire thought he might not be able to hold six or seven of them off at the same time. Even the three had been a struggle.
He had briefly gotten his hopes up when they had found the injured soldier, but the man would not give them any directions nor useful information. As far as Temeraire was concerned, finding him had only made things worse, as the man’s very presence confirmed the Company had indeed been doing something underhanded, exactly as Will had feared. And it looked like they had come too late to prevent anything at all.
He cast a glance at his back to make sure all his crew were assembled there – Isabella nursing a gash to the shoulder where a stray ball from one of the Indian crews had grazed her, but no other injuries to tell – and went aloft again, skimming low over the valley floor.
“There!” Isabella yelled, some twenty minutes later, “What is that, by that stream?”
Temeraire immediately changed his course and landed next to the stand of trees she had indicated – and indeed, there was a boot tangled amongst its upper branches. Temeraire growled to drive away the screeching band of monkeys who had come to investigate it, and small Teddy Hawkes scrambled onto the thin branches to take it out.
“It looks like Will’s. We must search the valley,” Temeraire decided, “Perhaps they are held very close by!”
Lieutenant Ingram nodded, although his face was not optimistic. They left the wounded soldier under a few tall trees with Mr Laithwaite to watch over him and their baggage. All the crew fanned out on foot, with a gun each so they could send up a shot if assistance was required. The hillsides looked tidy enough from the air, but on the ground, a sense of proportion suddenly became evident. The humans stood to their hips in the long grass, and all but disappeared under some of the shrubbery. “I wonder whether there are tigers about,” Mr Marlow had whispered before they set off, but quickly fallen silent again when Isabella had glared at him, evidently not wanting to be outdone by a girl.
Temeraire applied himself to scouring the treetops. For a long time, nothing was heard apart from the screeching of the monkeys and a low curse every now and then as the men hacked their way through the brush. Then two of them shouted out almost at once. Teddy Hawkes had scaled a boulder further up on the hillside and was waving something over his head: he had found a second boot. Temeraire picked him up quickly and then dashed to where Mr Marlow was calling out urgently, and now firing a shot into the air.
He was standing in the middle of the small lively stream and pointing where it went tumbling away over a rock edge in a waterfall.
“There was a man!” the rifleman said, pointing, his face utter confusion, “He stood there a moment ago – and now he is gone!”
Temeraire did not wait for any further explanation, but jumped over the edge of the rock-edge, fanned out his wings and hovered, pointing his head through the curtain of the waterfall.
“Oww!” He fell back. Something had bitten his nose, sharply. “Will!” he called, “Will, are you there?”
“No,” a voice answered him in English, and now Temeraire could make out the blurry shape of a man clinging to the rock behind the curtain of the water, climbing down with practised skill.
Temeraire reached out and picked him off the wall. The man gave an angry shout and stabbed at Temeraire again with his weapon – a long curved knife – but Temeraire barely felt it dig into his leg. He was seeing ghosts.
“Tharkay?” he asked, thoroughly confused, “Is it you?”
But the man was not Tharkay, although he looked very much like that man. He had the same flat shape of nose, high cheekbones and black almond-shaped eyes, his skin only perhaps a shade darker, and a good deal younger. He wore only a torn pair of trousers and a shirt, no coat at all, and gave his name as Min Bahadur, formerly of the Company’s Sirmoor Battalion of Gurkha Rifles.
“Formerly?” Temeraire asked, after he had set him down by their small encampment, “But what are you now?”
“I refused to follow a blasphemous order,” Mr Bahadur said, holding his head up straight.
The soldier, whom they had thought asleep or unconscious, roused a little and lifted his head. “Treacherous dog,” he rasped, catching sight of Mr Bahadur, “Deserter! Gurkha scum!”
“That is enough!” Lieutenant Ingram said and gave the soldier a push with the tip of his boot. “What were your orders?”
“I am sure you know,” Mr Bahadur said, thin-lipped and wary with a look at Ingram’s uniform. “You may shoot me now for deserter or you may let me go. I will have no more part in this bloody business.”
“No, we do not know anything!” Temeraire cried, “All we have heard is the East India Company was planning to rob a temple, but we do not know where it is, and what they were after, so we came here to look and stop them, and now the Indian dragons have taken Will and Captain Riley prisoner. Where is this temple? Oh, I must go and explain to their dragons that Will and Riley have nothing to do with it at all!”
The Gurkha looked at him confused and shook his head. “I cannot show you to the temple,” he said, “It is supposed to remain a secret, and I will not heap any more sin on my shoulders which would curse me for uncountable lives”
“But what is this sin you are talking about?” Temeraire asked, “Were they trying to steal treasure?”
“No,” Mr Bahadur said, frowning. “So you really do not know? They were trying to steal dragon eggs.”
Temeraire stared at him.
Egg-stealing! Why ever had Will not told him? Temeraire growled, and could not help dragging an angry furrow in the ground. He could have gone straight to the Company headquarters, if he had known, and demanded an explanation from whoever had issued so contemptible an order. Suddenly it seemed no wonder at all that the Indian dragons were so angry. And no doubt Will and Captain Riley would suffer for it. Temeraire’s eye fell on the soldier, who had gone back to whimpering, and his claw went up almost of its own accord.
“Temeraire!” Mr Ingram called sharply, stepping in front of the man, “Control yourself!” And, turning to Mr Bahadur: “Sir, I am deeply shocked to learn of this. It does explain the native beast’s fury. By my honour, Temeraire’s… companion only led us here to attempt to thwart a robbery of some sort that they had heard about in Bombay – I now see it was foolish of me not to inquire further. The Maratha beasts have taken two of our company, Temeraire’s companion one of them. They are blameless, and Temeraire will not leave without them. So we must make an attempt to find them, and I must implore you to tell us where this temple lies.”
“If they were taken, they will be dead by now,” Mr Bahadur said. “And you will be too, if you go near the place.”
“No!” Temeraire howled. “I will not believe it until I see it!”
That moment, Teddy Hawkes came back running towards them, beaming with pride and holding something over his head. “Look what I found, Temeraire!”
It was Will’s coat. Mr Ingram took it and reached a hand into one of the pockets, pulling out the crumpled letter from Mr Hammond and the handsome little gem Tharkay had sent them. Looking at it, Temeraire felt his spirits lifted a little. Tharkay would not give up so easily. He had found Laurence again, several times, against quite overwhelming odds, and the very memory of it made it seem cowardly to be dispirited. “Pray show Mr Bahadur the letter,” he told lieutenant Ingram, “So he can see for himself we have nothing to do with the Company!”
But Mr Bahadur quite ignored the letter, and instead only stared at the silver pendant.
“It is Will’s,” Temeraire explained, “The one the dragons took!”
The gurkha reached out to touch it with the tips of his fingers, brought them to his forehead and bent his head low, murmuring something. “It is a prayer box like the people of my tribe make,” he said, after a pause, “I have not seen one in a long time… how did your companion come by it?”
“Why, Tharkay sent it to Will. Mr Tharkay is his godfather, and I suppose he must have got it from his mother. She was Nepalese, you know.” And then, valiantly, he added: “I am sure Will would not mind you having it, if you help us rescue him.” He nodded to Mr Ingram, who tried to hand it to Mr Bahadur.
But the gurkha backed away startled, his hands raised almost defensively. “No, no! I cannot take another man’s…. I see now,” he murmured, addressing nobody in particular except perhaps the small silver box, “I will do penance for my crime in bringing them this far, and take them to witness the crime committed there, and if we all perish in the attempt, it is the will of dharma.”
The dragonet was about the size of a house cat. Her eyes were shut tightly and seemed too large for the limp and drooping head. Her wings were crumpled flat against her sides, and she made small squeaking noises as she crept across the floor, blind and wet from the egg-fluid.
Will and Riley exchanged a startled look. Then Riley knelt down and reached out a hand towards the blind newborn. She whimpered and her dark forked tongue came out flickering.
“Watch her claws,” Will murmured.
But Riley had already edged closer to the dragonet. She thrust her snout into his palm. He smiled and stroked her head. Then – Will almost cried out in alarm – he scooped both hands under her small shivering body and took her up, slipping her under his shirt to keep her warm.
To Will’s utter surprise, she tolerated it, and even seemed to enjoy it. She curled up against Riley’s chest making small wheezing noises and hooked one of her long foreclaws around his neck sloth-fashion. Riley carefully carried her to the sliver of light falling in from the ceiling. Her head was a pure, unbroken sky-blue.
They sat back against the metal bars afterwards, hungry and thirsty, and watched the light travel across the floor of their dungeon. The smell of blood grew overpowering and mingled with the stench of rotting flesh. Angry flies were gathering on the carnage.
Will would not have thought it possible to sleep a few feet away from a mangled corpse, but with nothing else to look at for hours, even the horror of the jutting bones and torn lungs gradually paled to a numb indifference. He drifted into an uneasy slumber and the grisly sight grew abstract, not connected to any once-living or breathing person at all, but only part of a nightmare from which he should awake any moment now when a college servant would knock on his door with a change of fresh linen and a cup of morning tea.
He was instead woken by Riley, who urgently tapped his shoulder to show him the dragonet had opened her eyes. They were a dark ruby-red and shone with reflected light like a cat’s. She was busily thwarting his attempts at shielding her from the sight of the room, snaking her long thin neck between his hands or peering over his shoulder every time he tried to bring her face to the wall. Her dark tongue flickered out curiously, taking the scent, but she seemed not in the least inclined to leave Riley.
“She must be hungry. I wish we had…” Riley began unhappily, and finished, rather unconvincingly: “That is to say, I wish they would come for her.”
“Can she not fit under the bars?” Will asked, “Now that she can see we can let her go, and surely the Marathas can wish her no harm."
Riley shook his head. “No, I tried, but the gaps are too small. I have been thinking. They must hatch their beasts out here, let them flap around for a bit, and try to get them to take a handler. Then they open this gate and let them into the temple. At least I imagine so. I have never seen a harnessing. Have you, perchance?”
Will shook his head. “I have only heard stories.”
“So have I. Will you indulge me?”
Will nodded, and they whiled away some more time by recounting the tales of Temeraire’s and Lily’s hatchings, striving to sound cheerful against the dark of the night creeping in from all sides. The dragonet burrowed back under Riley’s shirt until only her head peeped out, eyes half-lidded and her long bat-like ears flicking a little with the rise and fall of their voices.
The Marathas returned early the next morning, but there was no sign of Shakunta or her companion. Instead, a priest in a long white wrapped skirt edged in green and gold, with an orange shawl over one shoulder and thin cord hung over the other, entered, followed by a band of ragged-looking servants. Will and Riley quickly put their hands together with the sleeves pulled down to give the superficial impression of still being shackled, but found themselves roundly ignored. The priest and his band even left the wrought-iron door standing wide open, silent testament to their slim chances of escape with the anterior chambers of the temple likely full of warriors and their dragons. The priest issued commands and his workmen set about busily hauling out the bodies of the slain soldiers. Next, they came back carrying great logs of wood and baskets of dried branches and kindling, which they proceeded to heap up in a stack in the middle of the wide domed room, covering it with white sheets. Under the watchful eyes of the priests, they gathered up all the small dead dragons and carefully put them atop the pyre.
Will and Riley watched in increasing bewilderment.
“They cannot intend to light a fire in the middle of a cave!” Riley whispered. “There is no proper vent! It’ll smoke out all their temple, too…”
“Even more reason we should speak now, for her sake," Will said unhappily, nodding to the dragonet concealed under Riley’s shirt, the bulge of her small body moving almost imperceptibly with each of her sleeping breaths.
Riley said nothing at first and only stared darkly at the pile of firewood. Then, with what seemed an effort of will, he nodded. He rose, very cautiously, and beckoned one of the workmen to step closer. “Gentlemen, please, we have found a survivor.”
He extricated the dragonet, who awoke with a startled hiss and sleepily tried to claw at his shirt to hold on, drawing out a thread with the tip of her long talon. The servant turned. His eyes widened in alarm and he fell back with a terrified scream as if Riley had tried to thrust a lit bomb into his hands. He threw himself to the floor and clapped both hands over his eyes, stammering loudly and rapidly.
Will, to his surprise, found he understood what the workman said – perhaps hailing from a different part of the Maratha empire, he spoke Hindi. “He says he begs the Divine one’s pardon for casting his untouchable’s eyes on her, and implores the Goddess to send lighting to burn him up instantly as he deserved, should he have profaned the dragon,” he whispered to Riley.
“Indeed?” Riley gathered the dragonet back against his chest, confused. The priest shouted something which sent the workmen bounding out of the cavern in a frenzy, shielding their eyes from the sight of the dragon. The priest alone remained and stepped in front of them. There were three white lines drawn across his forehead which gave him a very martial air despite his half-nakedness and lack of weapons. He spread his orange shawl on the floor and pointed at the little dragon, then at the cloth. He did not speak, but the gesture was plain enough.
Riley tried to put the writhing dragonet down, stroking her head and whispering consolingly until she sat on the orange cloth. The priest squatted down before her and began to chant.
She stared at him confused for a moment, then she hissed angrily, jumped, and, flapping her small wings, huddled back against Riley’s legs. The priest interrupted his prayer. Then he raised his hands imploringly and spoke to the dragonet, beckoning to the shawl, to no visible effect. She only dug her claws tighter into Riley’s boots.
The priest got to his feet, picked up the shawl, now sullied with the dirt and gore of the cavern floor, and hurried away, slamming the door shut and shouting as he ran.
“Can you understand what he is saying?” Riley murmured. But Will shook his head.
The priest returned a short while later leading a small procession. There were three warriors in lavish silk garments and dark red turbans embroidered in gold, which gave the appearance of having been knotted in some haste, and they carried great platters laden with flowers, fruits, broken coconuts and a small pile of freshly butchered meat. Shakunta and her companion were there, too, the dragon now wearing an even more elaborate set of jewelry, with uncountable gold filigree chains around her neck and a dove egg sized ruby on her forehead, while her captain brought in a basin of smouldering coals. They set it all down on the floor of the cavern under the instructions of the priest. When all was arranged to the man’s satisfaction, they sat down cross-legged while the youngest and most elaborately dressed of the three warriors stepped before Riley and the dragonet, a garland of flowers in one hand and a large gobbet of meat in the other. He held the meat out to the dragonet cajolingly and parroted, a little stumbling, a chant the priest was murmuring for him.
The dragonet ignored him, and instead hopped closer to investigate the offerings. She nosed at a coconut, then started back from her reflection in the gleaming bronze platter.
The young man halted and looked at the priest. The priest jerked his head towards the dragonet. The young warrior looked a little frightened, but he nodded and, quickly bending down, threw the garland over the dragonet’s head.
The small creature all but exploded in indignant fury. She wheeled around upsetting a bowl of milk that had stood on the platter and tore the flower garland to shreds with her sharp claws. Then she picked up a piece of meat from amongst the spilt milk, thrust her head back to swallow it whole and seized another before hopping back to Riley to devour it.
For a moment, nobody moved. Then Shakunta bellowed out in a reproachful voice and reached out his foreclaw to pull the dragonet away from Riley, dragging the little dragon across the floor in an undignified tangle of oversized claws and crumpling wings. Two of the Maratha warriors sprung to their feet and pressed Riley to the wall. Will cried out in alarm, grasped the man nearest to him by the shoulders and tried to wrench him away from Riley. But the third warrior had now gotten up from where he had knelt baffled next to the wreckage of petals. Will was dragged backwards and froze when he felt the blade of the man’s sword pressed against his neck. One of the other two warriors still held Riley pinned to the wall while the other raised his sword. But the dragonet had found her feet again. She flung herself at the attacker from behind and hissed angrily, baring toothless gums – toothless except for two long, sharp and almost translucent fangs protruding from her palate, which she planted in the man’s neck just as the blade came wheeling down.
The warrior’s stifled cry rang in the air and died suddenly. His blow struck the stone wall with an ugly rasping noise. Blood spurted briefly from two small punctures in his neck, but in front of their horrified eyes, the surrounding skin swelled, grew a pallid greenish hue, and he fell backwards to strike the copper platter, limp and dead. Will heard the man restraining him draw a long and shuddering breath, and suddenly the pressure of the blade against his neck was gone. Shakunta roared again, but this time, her voice quivered strangely. She gathered her companion close to herself and backed away into the darkness of the corridor. The priest and other warriors followed at her heels. The shattered offerings remained on the floor.
The dragonet whimpered at Riley’s feet and scraped his boots with her claws. He took her up mechanically and she burrowed back under his shirt. He stood frozen, arms half-raised to the poisonous creature huddling against his chest. Finally he bent down and picked up one of the strewn pieces of meat. His fingers shook a little when her snout appeared, nostrils twitching. But she took it from his hand very neatly, sucked on it a little while with her toothless gums before swallowing, and then brought out her flickering tongue to lick his face with an air of gratitude.
Hunger and thirst won the better of Will now. He cautiously reached out a hand to take a banana that had survived the commotion. But that moment, there was a strange rasping and groaning noise and dust started raining down on their heads. They looked up. In front of their confused eyes, a hole in the ceiling was unstopped like a cork being pulled out of a bottle. The capping stone of the domed rock ceiling above them, carved into the delicate shape of a lotus flower and perhaps three feet across, was lifted up and away by two dragons pulling on iron rings sunk in the rock.
Then the face of the priest appeared briefly in the opened hatch. He raised his arm and flung a torch down at the pyre.
Perhaps the firewood had been doused in something flammable, or else the sheets covering the logs were of some peculiar material, because it went up in a blaze almost instantly.
The little dragon wriggled out of Riley’s arms to inspect the new phenomenon. She tried to hiss and mantle at the fire, and retreated to Riley with a yelp of pain when her opponent bit back with a tongue of heat and flame. Riley picked her up and stared up in dismay. More kindling was flung down on their heads, aimed into the corners of the room, the Marathas plainly not just intending to feed the pyre, but to see the whole room engulfed in the blaze. The silk cushions of the egg niches, stuffed with raw cotton, and the delicate lengths of coloured silk that had been used to swaddle the eggs were catching like tinder. Will and Riley retreated to the wrought-iron door where the heat was still bearable, none of the throws of kindling and wood from the ceiling reaching this far. But the biting smoke was collecting here, too.
“Why don’t they just shoot us, if they want to kill us?” Riley coughed.
“Burning might be a form of punishment for putting a hand on their dragons, like that man said, some Goddess burning him up," Will conjectured, his eyes streaming. The floor grew warmer under his bare feet. He could feel his heart beating fast and his hands shaking, from which he concluded he must be afraid. But at the same time, everything seemed strangely distant and unreal - the blaze engulfing the pyre with the small curled bodies of the dead dragonets, the offerings, the strewn petals of the torn garland and even the body of the fallen Maratha warrior, his embroidered tunic glinting in the firelight. Will suddenly thought he understood what the carvings on the walls portrayed: a fierce many-armed and many-faced god, rising from an egg. He stared in fascination, the whole tangle of bodies on the walls now resolving into frenzied stories of creation.
Then he called himself to sharp order. The fumes were muddling his head.
He tried to rattle the iron bars, but of course, the door would not open. He investigated the lock, a simple enough contraption by the look of it, a sliding bar. He tried to push his hand through the grille to pull it open, but the gaps were too small. A part of the pyre collapsed, sending a wake of glowing embers and ashes surging in their direction, sparks and smoking shreds of colourful fabric flying through the air as the draft out into the main temple chamber drew the flames in their direction. The air grew unbearably hot, the smell of roasted flesh sickening.
Will turned around. “Tom. She must fly” he rasped. There seemed barely enough air to breathe, let alone to speak. “Now.”
Riley hesitated briefly. Then he took the dragonet from the crook of his arm where she had huddled, small and frightened, stroked her head and whispered in her long hear: “You must fly, my girl.” She looked up and chirped confused. He made a step towards the flames, holding her out. She tried to scramble back along his arm. But he flung her into the air. “Fly, if ever you may!”
She flapped her wings confused for a moment and fell back like a stone, towards the flames, and Riley let out a stifled anguished cry. But then she caught the right angle and managed to steady her plummet. She screeched surprised and triumphant, and tried to wing back to them, but the growing flames were barring her way. She hissed as they licked at her hide and beat her wings more vigorously. The firelight reflected in her scales as she soared upwards, giving her the air of an odd diminutively-sized phoenix. Then she was free, her screeching cry ringing small and oddly muffled outside, without the chamber’s echo to amplify it.
Will thought he heard it answered by another dragon’s voice, Temeraire’s thundering roar. It was most likely another trick of the fumes, but the thought filled him with a strange calm, a languid ease spreading through his limbs like tar. His head was swimming. He could not stay on his feet any longer. In the biting smoke, he was vaguely aware of Riley slumping down beside him, a hand’s breath away from the searing hot metal grate.
Then suddenly, dust and clumps of stone came raining down into the licking flames. A black claw was thrust through the opening, and then Temeraire was roaring at the cave roof. Cracks spread, and a huge stone slab thundered down into the flames. Temeraire thrust his head through the newly widened hole in the ceiling, heedless of the flames and smoke. “Will! Will, are you there? Oh Will, do answer!”
“Temeraire,” Will croaked.
Another slab fell from the ceiling as the cracked roof caved in under Temeraire’s weight. Temeraire reached down and raked some of the burning mess out of the way. Someone was shouting outside. Temeraire handed down to two figures barely discernible in the rushing smoke, faces shielded behind wetted handkerchiefs.
Will was only faintly aware of a shoulder being shoved under his, and of being lifted off the floor. He clutched limply at the man who had come down for him and now dragged him across the ash-strewn floor and up one of the fallen ceiling slabs. A face with black almond-shaped eyes, utterly foreign and yet faintly familiar. Then Temeraire's foreclaw snatched them up. “Will! Are you hurt?”
“Put him down, you silly beast, and let me have a look!” Mr Laithwaite shouted, and Will felt the probing hands of the surgeon on him. “Have you taken any burns?”
Will could not reply, and only drew deep, rasping breaths. It was raining again, every drop a caressing touch on his soot-streaked face. The surgeon unceremoniously turned him here and there, murmuring to himself, and even pried open his mouth to look inside. Then, apparently satisfied, he got up and walked away. Isabella came to hand him a cup of water. He took it gratefully and sat up. They were presently situated at the edge of the smoking hole where the cavern lay, in the middle of a stone platform guarded by two large carved elephants, one of whom had had its tusks and trunk broken off. Will realised it was the same place where the grey dragon had first attacked them, the one he had mistaken for a rock. But his tongue was thick in his mouth, his thoughts still flowed slowly like treacle, and he could not form a full sentence to ask how in the world he had come to be back here.
“Riley…?” he coughed instead.
“Ingram got him out after you,” Isabella said, and looked not entirely happy to admit Ingram had done something of use.
Temeraire still nosed at him anxiously, and Will stroked his muzzle. “Temeraire” he asked, “How ever… did you find us?”
“Oh,” Temeraire said, “We found your coat, and Mr Bahadur showed us the way to the temple, which was very close to where we had been attacked, only we could not see it from above because it was a cave, not a building. We saw all the smoke going up, and then she came, and all the Indian dragons ran away.”
“She?” Will rasped, uncomprehending.
“That little blue dragon there.”
Will looked around, and indeed: the Indian dragonet had returned to take up jealous guard over Riley. He lay on the floor barely conscious, and the small creature was prodding at his face and neck as if to rouse him, making low unhappy noises. She would not let Mr Laithwaite get close enough to examine him or so much as feel his pulse, hissing angrily every time he tried to approach.
“Temeraire,” Mr Laithwaite snorted. “Can you do anything about that little devil?”
“Be careful!” Will cried, “Her bite is poisonous!“
Temeraire lowered his head and spoke sternly to the dragonet, in Durzagh, Chinese, even French, to little effect. Finally, the lean dark-eyed man who had earlier extracted Will walked to his side, a little shily, and said something to Temeraire. Temeraire nodded. The man knelt down before the dragonet and spoke quietly. She paused her hissing and flapping. Then she chirped a reply.
“Oh,” Temeraire said, indignantly, “She can speak! I thought all she would do was hiss. Thank you, Mr Bahadur. Pray can you tell her nobody is trying to harm Riley, so she needn’t put up such a fuss!”
After this had been explained to her, the dragonet let Mr Laithwaite examine Riley. Riley opened his eyes with a small groan of pain when the dragon-surgeon pulled him forwards ungently to get a look at his back. The dragonet yelped and immediately thrust herself at him again, talking at great speed in her chirping voice. Mr Laithwaite cursed.
Riley stroked her head. “What... is she saying?”
They both turned to look at the native man who had translated before, the one Temeraire had called Mr Bahadur. Will was once again struck by his curious likeness to his godfather, Tharkay, and dimly wondered whether Mr Bahadur might be a Himalayan hillman, perhaps even of a related tribe.
“She is speaking the Marathi tongue which she was taught in the shell,” Mr Bahadur said, “She says she is very hungry. And, Sir, she is asking what name you would give her.”
Riley only stared. Will stared, too. The dragonet sat up proudly in front of Riley now, so he could see her full conformation and colouring. There could be no mistake, despite her diminutive size and the translucency of her scales. He looked at the sky-blue hide, marked with faint darker stripes, the long snake-like neck, the large talons and the long, tightly furled wing: a Persian illumination sprung to alarming life.
“Tom,” he said hoarsely, “I think… I am almost certain she is a Bengal Nakhara, like the Mughal emperors had.”