The young messenger sent to fetch Miss Wilhelmina Laurence before the admiral sweeps a judgmental eye up and down her person, and he blinks. Laurence stops herself from returning the disdain— though it is a rather near thing, truthfully. While it's true that she is, perhaps, not quite the reputable young woman she was before she set out so many years ago on her tour of Europe, it is indisputable that she still remembers how to look the part, at least. She's not even wearing the silks that the Chinese emperor gave her (though Temeraire had, after much effort, convinced her to use the emerald and gold haircombs, at the very least). Laurence is quite certain that she is the very picture of a proper English lady right now, and all the men on the deck behind her are to the best of her ability— and given the limited time and material— dressed up quite nicely as well. One of the younger sailors that she'd picked up around the ports of Peking unconsciously reaches up to scratch at her freshly starched collar, only darting her hand away when she notices Laurence's eyes in her direction.
"You're Wilhelmina Laurence? You're not as tall as the stories say," the boy pipes up, interrupting Laurence's train of thought.
Behind her, Temeraire, who has already been fretting something fierce since the courier came with the invitation, rears back in indignation. "I think that my Laurence is perfectly sized! And, perhaps, it is you who is too tall. Or," he adds thoughtfully, "maybe the only storytellers you know of are subpar, and have no talent, so that the only way that they know how to convey my Laurence's excellence is through exaggerating her height to match her strength of character—"
"My dear," Laurence hastily interjects. "I am sure the lad meant no offense with his attempt small talk, and none was taken."
Nevertheless, the child's thoughtless words do spur Laurence into action. This is no time for woolgathering. " We ought not keep the admiralty waiting for long, now. It would not be proper, after all."
She puts emphasis on the word as looks towards the boy, in an attempt to convey her thoughts clearly. He takes on a strangely startled look in his eye. "Uh," he starts. "Yeah, of course. We should be off. Ma'am. Captain?"
"Safe travels, Miss Laurence!" Captain Tom calls out from the only one of the ships they'd been allowed to bring into harbor. The sentiment is entirely ruined by the raucous cackles he breaks out into afterwards, but the thought, at least, is appreciated.
As a child, Wilhelmina Laurence had always been quite fond of the sea, to the point where her mother and older brothers would often fondly recall the time when she was twelve, and tried to sneak out of the house by the second story window in order to join the Navy. Neither Laurence nor her father found it quite as charming an anecdote, though. It is perhaps the one topic on which their opinions are quite aligned, though certainly for completely different reasons.
And though Laurence had grown up, and become quite a sensible young lady, in the estimation of Society, her love for the sea had never quite left her. She’s somewhat grateful, now, that she’d never managed to run away– not when the winds of fate had blessed her with good fortune more than she could have possibly hoped for in youthful indiscretion, and the companionship of Temeraire besides, dearer to her than her own heart.
Also– she adds to herself, looking at the man seated before her, decked out in Navy garb and barely concealed sneer– if this were the type of captain she would have had to serve under, if she had succeeded, then she is doubly so more fortunate as she’d previously thought. He is currently making insinuations upon her good character, which, while not completely off base, are cast in such a bad light that if Laurence were a man she might be obligated to challenge him to a duel.
But she is not a man. Perhaps that is the crux of the matter.
It is a good thing that she'd asked Temeraire to stay outside, she thinks. If he'd caught wind of some of the things that this gentleman was insinuating, he might threaten to eat him— and Laurence, shamefully, would not be able to pour her whole heart into convincing him to stop.
"Sir," she interrupts the admiral's—Croft's— long winded bluster. "I think I may have not made myself clear. I have only done what I thought was my duty as a good citizen of England, a duty that I believe transcends the confines of gender. And though I will admit that my own return to English holdings was a mite— delayed— I think that the extenuating circumstances are quite reasonable, and thus I only really ask for someone to take some of these ships off of my hands, to be put forth to the war effort."
There is silence for a moment, before he absolutely explodes at her.
"Good god, woman, to hear you talk you'd think that you didn't bring a bloody pirate fleet upon our doorstep!"
"It's not a pirate fleet," Laurence rebukes, sharply. "I assure you, Captains Suarez and Tsing are quite reformed." Granted, Leddowes and Edwards and definitely Morran she holds some suspicions about, but she's certainly not going to bring those up now. "And the rest of the fleet is just about made up of merchants, besides."
"Not a pirate fleet! And I suppose you deny that you're any sort of captain, of a ship or dragon otherwise." Admiral Croft mutters to himself, but the room is small and there is nothing wrong with Laurence's ears.
"Of course I'm not a captain," she replies with great dignity. "It would not be proper of me to hold that sort of position." Laurence is sure that her reputation is in tatters (And oh!— her poor mother! Laurence had sent a letter back home as soon as she could find a courier, reassuring her that no, she had not perished when the Reliant had been captured by the Amitié, and nor had anything happened when a few unlucky pirates had set upon the beleaguered Amitié, and beside that, the pirates had really only lasted a few hours until Temeraire and Laurence had come back from their first long flight, after which they had proved to be quite amenable to becoming Reformed pirates. But Laurence had been swept to China not long afterwards, and had been quite unable to receive any sort of reply from her mother til now. It is matter of considerable concern to her.) But, regardless, things had been quite out of Laurence's hands the entire time, and she takes pride in the fact that, at the very least, she has made considerable effort to uphold propriety as best as she could manage.
"Not proper," Admiral Croft says, face purpling unhealthily. "Not proper, she says, as she amasses a fleet of a dozen ships, and a dragon besides, terrorizing towns by presence alone, inciting at least one slave rebellion along the coast and uncountable feral attacks from the African mainland. Not proper, she says, as you somehow manage to arrange a treaty with China —which, by the way, no European country has ever damned well managed to do— with a dragon egg you stole from Napoleon? "
It does sound rather alarming when he puts it like that, and suddenly Laurence is able to reconcile some of the odder glances she's been getting in ports. Nevertheless, Laurence feels obligated to— at the very least— make a token effort to set the record straight. She draws herself up to her full height and replies, full of prim propriety. "Well, first of all, I assure you it seemed the most sensible option available to me at the time—"
Later, back upon Temeraire's back, recounting the tale to the sailors that they have taken under their wings, Laurence finds it quite impossible to either describe or recreate the sound that Croft had made in response, despite her very best attempts.