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Hoist the Black Flag

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Their hunt for the pirates is long and arduous.

Laurence's ship is always too little, too late. He comes across merchant ships, happy to have been spared their lives. The slave ships he wrecks mercilessly, crew shackled end to end with slave manacles and the first shoved off, the rest following screaming. Laurence heard the tale from the cabin boy on one ship, who had hid and survived.

Far more they find empty, adrift and lolling drunkenly. The slaves have disappeared, but their stink remains. Laurence is left to survey them disapprovingly, Riley at his side.

But they have their orders, for good or ill. To hunt down the pirates, hang them or bring them back to Florin for a public trial.

His men whisper, as they often do. They pick up the gossip off the docks and magnify it into terrifying stories. Laurence hears that the Dread Pirate Tharkay once was a dragon captain, then a sea captain the next- that he rides a dragon, that he is from China, he changes into a woman but gives up his eye to do so every time he transforms, that his mother was a witch and taught him spells from the Far East. He hears one of the men whispering that he can spit acid, akin to a dragon, and cuts the men’s grog in retaliation. They quieten after that.

Garbage, Laurence judges. Meaningless craven whispers. Pirates have always tried to instill a sense of fear, outsize to the actual threat they represent.

As he finds more and more ships, he grimly starts to think of this new breed of pirates as a different class entire. They are wrecking Florin’s shipping, and Laurence hears the rumbles of war in Edith’s letters.

He presses on, until he finds the man himself.

 

The day is cold, visibility poor. A freezing mist rises over the bow of the ship, and his men mutter and eye it darkly. Laurence walks the deck, his crew quieting behind him.

The bell calls another hour, the sun shining through feebly. The lookout calls, “Ship ahead!” A dark shape looms- or is it two?

“Lively, now.” Riley says behind him as Laurence opens his glass. “Captain, can you see-”

Laurence shuts his glass, suddenly sure. “Prepare the men for an engagement, if you please, and get the cannons ready.”

One of the ships was a merchant, flying Carolian colors.

The other had been flying the black flag, and has the name Revenge.

 

As they come closer, Laurence tries to think how he is going to explain to Edith if he gets his head chopped off by pirates.

Perhaps, he thinks, it is a great consolation that he will not be composing the letter directly.

And then they make their first volley against the Dread Pirate Tharkay's ship, and he thinks of only the battle.

He can see figures on the merchant’s deck, moving swiftly. He hopes that they have taken them by surprise, their appearance masked slightly by the mist. “Steady as you go, Lieutenant.” He says, clapping Riley on the shoulder. “‘Come in close enough to make a boarding party. I will lead the men. We will get them amidships, and offer them a fair trial. If they refuse, we will crush them where they stand.”

“Yes, sir.” Riley snaps, already moving again. Laurence looks through his glass, sees one figure with dark hair turn and regard him, a great eagle fanning its wings on his shoulder. Laurence has the queer feeling that he is seen, regarded intensely through the spyglass. It is impossible for the man to see him at this distance unaided, but Laurence still feels the intensity of the pirate’s regard.

Laurence snaps his glass shut, unsettled, and checks his pistols. He has heard the Dread Pirate Tharkay is a great swordsman, but it would be a great simplicity just to shoot the man.

They manage a few careful volleys, doing no great damage, but Laurence is reluctant to damage the Carolian ship. He brings them up close enough to the merchant ship to assault the pirates, the pirate ship a dark hulk on the other side of the deck. “For Florin!” He calls out, loosening the saber in his sheath, as he sees the dark figure turn around.

The eagle screams, vaulting into the sky.

Laurence vaults over the railings, his men trailing him. The pirates scatter, mostly retreating to their ship. The merchant captain falls to the deck, crawling away, but Laurence only has eyes for Tharkay.

“Surrender, and you shall have a fair trail.” Laurence says, bolstering his pistol and pulling out his saber with a sweep.

Tharkay has barely moved, except to adjust when the eagle left his shoulder. “I do not believe we have been previously acquainted.” He says, with an unexpectedly polished and freezing accent that would not put him out of place in the drawing room.

“I am Captain Laurence, of the Reliant and the Florian navy, and I am charged by His Majesty to stamp out piracy on the high seas.”

Tharkay looks unimpressed, even as his own men cluster on the railing of the Revenge. One waves a hook at him in frustration. “Where are these pirates, then, who threaten your precious peace? Perhaps I shall find them down in hell, along with the fair trail you promise me.” Disdain drips and freezes from his lips.

“Are you, or are you not, the Dread Pirate Tharkay?” Laurence demands. “That is your ship, the Revenge, is it not? It leaves a trail of blood in its wake.”

“The blood of slavers.” Tharkay spits, although his face is still unreadable behind his half mask. “Their hands are bloody, and they are the only ones to make it so. I cut them down where they stand. But I do not kill the innocent- I do take their money.” He amends, with a small shrug. “And you might be interested, Captain Laurence-” and he turns the title into an insult- “in what your own government is involved in.”

“It matters little and less, if you will not come and make your accusations publicly.” Laurence settles for, unwilling to demean his country. “Which you could do, at a public trial.” He can feel his men wavering at his back. They had expected to charge in, he knows- instead he had taken the time to offer the Dread Pirate a way out.

Tharkay tilts his head. “Interesting proposition, Captain. How is this, for a proposition of my own?” Laurence nods slowly. “A duel, captain to-” and here he rakes his gaze over Laurence- “captain.” Laurence lifts his chin, stung by the challenging tone.

“Accepted.” Laurence says, even as he sees the figure with the hook put his face in his hands. Laurence spares a thought to worry over whether he has just seen someone impale themselves on their own hook, but Tharkay sweeps out his saber and he can only worry for himself.

Edith will laugh a little, he thinks as he dodges a blow, if he is killed in single combat by the Dread Pirate himself.

He manages to make a good showing for Florian swordsmanship, or at least he hopes. Tharkay is clearly well trained, pushing him back with nary a step out of place. He even holds himself classically, Laurence thinks a shade resentfully, noting the precise angle of his right arm behind him. Laurence is the taller by a small margin, and has a longer reach. Tharkay is slightly built, light and quick on his feet.

Tharkay presses him back, slowly, Laurence making him pay for every inch. But it is as if Tharkay has a steel cage around himself, built to repel Laurence. He cannot break through.

Tharkay kicks out a foot, manages to pull him off balance, and punches him in the head with the cross guard of his saber. Laurence ducks, turning it into a glancing blow.

“On my honor as an Florian gentleman,” he calls out, shaking his head a little to clear it, Tharkay darting out of range again as he regains his bearing, “You will receive a fair trial, if you surrender now.”

“No good.” Tharkay hisses. “I have known too many Florian gentlemen.” And he turns it into a curse.

He is almost to the mainmast when the eagle strikes. He sees something out of the corner of his eye and instinctively flinches. The eagle misses him by an inch, sweeping back up into the air.

And the the world goes dark. For a moment he thinks he has been knocked out, but it is only damp cold sailcloth covering him.

By the time he struggles free, he can only see the rigging all ahoo, his and the merchant’s sails hopelessly wrecked and thrown together on the deck. Tharkay is gone, the Revenge swiftly moving away from the incapacitated ships. But Laurence can still see a dark figure on its prow, an eagle gracefully dropping onto his outstretched arm.

 

“It was while we were watching you.” Riley confesses, a little shamefully. “He had us all distracted, and his men cut free all the mainsails on that damned Carolian ship, then threw them over and cut a few of ours too, for good measure.”

Laurence presses a wet cloth to his forehead and allows himself a small exhalation of fatigue. The only injury he had sustained was a small cut on the head.

He had not managed to lay a finger on Tharkay. He tries not to seethe about it, but by the look on Riley’s face, thinks that he is failing.

He sets his jaw. “It is not your fault, Tom.” He sees Riley settle. “That damned pirate will not find us so easy to deal with a second time.”

“That assumes we will catch him a second time.” Riley says. “Which, of course, we will.” He says hastily.

 

They go onward, restocking in Maravedíes. Laurence compresses his lips into a thin line at the sight of the plantations through the lush trees as they pass the coastline, and the stink of the slaver ships that pass him in port. But there is nothing for it- nothing at all. They need more water and biscuit and salt pork, and they are Florin’s trading partners. Despite it turning his stomach, he does not allow a word of censure to pass his lips.

He thinks that Riley knows, regardless, and cannot find it in himself to repine overmuch. Riley’s family owns a plantation just outside the capital. But as long as he keeps his thoughts to himself, he can continue as he has.

Tharkay's words haunt him- what had he meant, after all? What more could his government be involved in? Slavery he knew of, and the corruption and bribery, but what worse could there be?

Late at night, it nags at him. Through long days of hunting the pirates, he can distract himself enough. But at night, the worry returns. He composes endless letters to Edith in his head, but every time he sets his pen to paper he only composes inane musings on the weather. He is afraid to say it, he finds. The thought of what further evil lurks underneath makes him profoundly uneasy.

It is his country, for good or ill. Florin is his father’s estate, his mother’s gentle touch, Edith’s soft gaze. He cannot say what would make him turn his back.

Sometimes he thinks it is only because he hasn't found it yet.

 

Laurence really should have known something was wrong.

His lookout sings out when he first sees the dragon transport. Laurence is going over the ship’s log, the heat dulling his senses. The summer is uncommonly hot, although the breeze coming from the porthole is soothing. Laurence does not pay much attention, until one of his men comes down to say they are being hailed.

It's small for a dragon transport, is his first thought. He only sees one dragon, coiled around the masts, shining copper in the morning light. “A Longwing, sir.” Riley says, after peering through the glass.

“The ship is flying a Thalerian flag.” Laurence nods, having recognized the breed himself. “I wonder at a Thalerian ship, carrying a Florian breed, so far from home.” Thaler is at least friendly to Florin, although not precisely allied. They have little navy to speak of, although they do a fair amount of shipping.

“We will find out soon enough.” Riley says, watching it come closer. He gives the order to drop anchor. The wind is from the northeast, belling out the sails of the other ship as they catch up to the Reliant. “Perhaps they have some news of the pirates.” Riley suggests, voice hopeful.

When the ship comes close enough, the Longwing rears his head up to inspect them. “Yes, Jane, it is him,” He says, rather cryptically, then lifts his captain over, claws unexpectedly delicate around her.

And she is a woman, shockingly enough, a tall tricorner hat with crimson plumes jaunty on her head. She wears an eyepatch thick with jewels, and rubies glitter on the hilts of her sabers. The Longwing gives a rather phlegmatic cough, turning his head to spit acid past the side of the Reliant. It hisses on the waves, missing Laurence's crew by inches. Laurence regards the Longwing and his captain steadily, noting the clear threat.

“Jolly good to meet you, Captain Laurence.” She calls out, resting her elbows on her sabers. “I wish to speak to you.”

“Do you bring news from Thaler?” Laurence asks, a little unsettled.

She laughs, striding closer to him. He can see rubies on her eyepatch, to match her swords. “Oh, yes, our flag. To tell you the truth, Captain-” and now she is close enough to see her face fully, seamed a little from sun and wind, but still young, with smile lines cut deep, “I am not really from Thaler, although I did steal their flag honestly. Well,” she shrugs, “I honestly stole it.”

She whips out her pistol before anyone can react, leaning in until he can feel the muzzle brush against his neckcloth. Riley stirs in alarm, but it is too late, as the Longwing shakes his massive head and spits more acid in clear warning. Laurence can see her eyepatch now, see the death’s head picked out in rubies with the crossed sabers. She says, almost cheerfully, “You see, I am the Dread Pirate Tharkay.”

Laurence's entire ship stills, the crack of the sails and the roar of the sea the only sounds. The men don't know how to react, their captain neatly and suddenly captive.

Laurence looks down, sees her finger on the trigger loosely, and looks back up. “No, madam, you are not.”

She laughs, then, in clear delight. “No, I had forgotten that you are previously acquainted, are you not? Forgive me the small grandstanding, then, it is part of being a pirate queen. I am the Dread Pirate Roland, occasionally Tharkay for intimidation purposes, and I have a proposal for you. Of course,” she leans in a little more, her voice going quieter, “I could always slit your throat and then go on and propose to someone else. It is, at least, traditional for pirates. No?” She says, at his expression. “Well. Invite me over for port, and I can discuss the terms of our surrender.”

 

“It’s all this wretched business with Guilder.” She says, loosening her neckcloth and sipping more port. “War is bad for piracy. All these heavily armed warships sailing around, checking flags and paperwork.” She makes it into a curse. “Give me fat merchantmen with small cannon, that is the sort of thing I like.”

“And have you been a pirate long?” Laurence asks, freezing politesse in his tone. He's sent away all his men except for Riley, who is silent at the door. Roland had settled in, rather offensively fast, drinking his port as if it were water and putting her boots up on the table. Laurence had regarded them steadily, but she either did not see or refused to.

“Ah, how old is Emily now? To answer your question, about twelve years, Captain Laurence.”

She lifts up her eyepatch, and Laurence sees a workable eye, although rather scarred.

She uses it to wink at him. “So, my surrender.” She says easily, tipping back her hat. “I say surrender, of course, but rather more a negotiated business partnership. I have some ideas for what Florin should offer me.”

“I am afraid that the Reliant, and my own life, will hardly be enough to satisfy their Lordships.” Laurence says, trading a look with Riley. “You have stolen quite a large amount of valuable cargo, and set many slaves free.”

Roland waves her hand, as if unimportant. “Yes, yes, you're a fine captain, Tenzing has told me enough about your dueling skills. But, no, it is not sufficient to capture one ship, even one with as dashing a captain as you-” here her gaze turns a little appreciative, and Laurence frowns- “But I have other, more interesting collateral to bargain with. Tell me, captain, have you ever heard of Celestial dragons?”

Laurence shakes his head. “Pity.” She sighs. “They are a closely guarded breed, out of Renmibi. We intercepted a Guilderian ship, the Amitíe, carrying a Celestial egg. Tenzing and I have been arguing about what to do with it ever since.”

“Does the Celestial breed possess some extra ability?” Laurence inquires. While dragons are certainly valuable to the war effort, unless the dragon breathes fire he could scarcely imagine their Lordships looking with favor on bargaining with the pirates.

Here Roland hums noncommittally. “Yes, they do.” She says. “But more importantly, they are bred to rule. Renmibi has sent this one away to avoid a sucessional crisis, you see- whoever his companion is would have a valid claim to the throne.”

Riley exchanges a doubtful look with him. “If they have contracted a diplomatic pact with Guilder, I scarcely see how stealing the egg would help Florin’s standing with Renmibi.” Laurence says, more politely than his thoughts on the matter.

Roland tips her chair back again. “Renmibi thinks of us all as hopelessly uncultured savages and barbarians. They care little and less for who exactly takes the egg, but they will be intensely interested in the dragon’s welfare. If we have the dragon bond to one of Florin’s princes, they will be sweet as milk. Besides, Tenzing- that is to say, the Dread Pirate Tharkay- has quite an extensive list of the corruption going on in your government.”

Laurence lifts both eyebrows. “Oh?” He says, guarded. “I hardly think that their Lordships will be overjoyed to hear-”

Roland lands her chair, leaning across the table from him. She is suddenly serious, good eye intent on him. “That is why it has to be you, Captain Laurence. Everyone tells stories of your bravery, your fairness. The only good soldier, in a den of thieves. Tenzing and I knew that you were the only one we could trust to take us in. Of course,” she says lightly, “If you are going to take the egg and dump us in the ocean, I warn you that Tenzing is much more suspicious than I. And much more likely to slit throats.”

Distant cannons sound, and Roland smiles. “Ah, there he is.”

Another cannon shot, and the sound of the lookout shouting, “The Revenge!”

Roland says lightly, as the cannon boom, “He does like us to know he is coming.”

 

Laurence strides out on the deck, and gives the sign to his men to not attack the Revenge, much as he wants to.

Their cannon fire had not hit the Reliant, only two warning volleys over the water. Roland stands next to him, offensively relaxed. “He's not awfully happy about this, you know.” She confides. “He probably will not kill anyone, though.” She lifts a hand, makes a gesture like scales being balanced. “Light maiming, perhaps.”

“Your statements are most reassuring.” Laurence says grimly. He wonders distantly how well this is going to be explained.

Of course, he has heard that the Dread Pirate Tharkay battles corruption in the Florian government, but he always thought it was more pretty words, turning pirates into noble Robin Hood.

He knows it's the same reason why he is shoved out to sea to chase pirates, though. He has advanced to the rank of captain, but no farther. He refuses to play the game of bribery, larceny and diversion to private pockets that most of their Lordships play, to say nothing of his abolitionist connections. His father is well connected in the struggle against slavery, and he has said enough pointed remarks in the hearing of his superiors that he knows he is tarred with the same brush.

Still, he cannot regret it. Better to be politely rejected as a political extremist, than have a slaver think he has found a sympathizer with Laurence. He can grit his teeth around Riley and bear it, for their long friendship, but around others he would sooner pull out his own fingernails.

“I did not mean to be reassuring.” Roland says, breaking in on his reverie. Laurence inclines his head, but makes no answer.

 

The Dread Pirate Tharkay comes on to his ship as if he owns it. Laurence's men mutter, but make no outright aggressive movements.

“Jane.” He says. Roland tips her hat again. Tharkay's dark eyes regard him steadily. Laurence can see his eyes behind the mask, intent and cold. “And have you made the offer, then?” He asks her.

“He has not yet made his reply.” Roland says, looking toward Laurence.

“I am not authorized to make assurances as to what their Lordships are prepared to offer. I was told to bring you in, dead or alive.”

“You offered me a trial, Captain.” Tharkay says, soft and dangerous.

Laurence suppresses a grimace. “They had told me they would try you, if I brought you back alive. I did not-”

“It does not have to be this way, Captain Laurence.” Tharkay says. “You believe much as we do, you are in the abolition movement yourself. Fight with us, not against us.”

Laurence shakes his head. “Your tactics are not mine. They are unsound, you must see it yourself. You only save the ones you can board. How many ships slip through your fingers? I would have the trade abolished, wholesale. And the slaughter of the crews-” he shakes his head. He does not know where the conversation slipped, from discussing their surrender to discussing abolition and Tharkay's and Roland’s crimes.

Tharkay narrows his eyes. “They know to fear my name, now. The slavers have to pay double for crew, and I hope that soon it will be triple. Every year, I bleed them dry. Do not prate at me about the largesse and the mercy of Parliament, or of the Florian judicial system. I have had my own taste of your justice, and found it bitter. Every slave I find, I will strike off their chains. Every slaver, I will throw into the sea. Enough of your incremental change, bought in the blood of every slave still imprisoned.” He stops, nostrils flaring. Laurence doesn't know what to say.

Roland coughs. “If you gentlemen will forgive me,” her voice is sharp, “We have an egg that is only two weeks or three till hatching, and then losing us our best bargain for our safe return to Florin. Tenzing, you know my thoughts. With this coming war with Guilder, it is time for us to pick a side.” She says the last with pointed emphasis. “If you want attention paid to your cause, and a public forum to discuss abolition, your time is now, and no later.”

Laurence sees Tharkay pause. “Yes, Jane.” He compresses his lips into a fine line, but when he speaks, it is politely. “Captain Laurence. Will you escort us back to Florin, and speak for us?”

He straightens his shoulders. “Of course. I shall do everything in my power, to see you to land. And, a fair trial.”

Roland claps him on the shoulder. Laurence tries not to startle at the familiarity. “Of course it will be fair, Captain. After all, we do not want to be hanged at the end.”

 

They journey together, uneasy, on the way back to Florin.

The two pirate ships jostle for supremacy in front of the Reliant, both with the name Revenge shining silver on their bows. Now that Laurence sees them close together, he can see the differences- always puzzling in the descriptions of the ship being so widely different. Laurence had thought it was mere confabulation and distortion, but somehow he has come to a point in his life where he believes nearly every one.

Laurence is reluctant to take the pirate captains prisoner in a definitive way, since he does not have enough room to gaol them and all their crews, most definitely not and still be able to man them appropriately.

So they dance around each other, odd and awkward. Laurence half thinks of inviting them to dinner, but decides not to.

He does insist on the egg coming over to the Reliant. With great ceremony, the task is accomplished. Laurence's own surgeon inspects the egg, and insists they have plenty of time to transport, four to six weeks at least. “It is barely even hardening yet.” He tells Laurence, who has been anxiously consulting their maps and the weather gauge to make sure they are not becalmed. For them to have time to bring back the egg, explain to their lordships, and ensure that the dragonet is correctly bonded- Laurence does not think that there is a suitable prince of the blood, princes not being the sort to throw themselves away on the aviator corps, but he privately supposes that a diplomat could be found to suit- for all this to happen in the short length of time promised by Roland, seems unlikely. He is grateful to find her assessment of the egg off by such a wide margin, but does not mention it for fear of hurting her feelings.

Roland takes to coming over on her dragon, who has an alarming talent for swimming. The first time he sees the Longwing cavorting in the water, he leans over the rail to make sure he is not in distress.

Roland laughs at him, although kindly. “I did not know they liked the sea so much either, until myself and Excidium took to the life.”

He looks back at her, confident and unworried. “And the beast will not take harm?” He asks. He is unused to dragons being risked on such ephemeral play as swimming.

“He will be all the happier for the fresh air and exercise.” Roland corrects, although she is still smiling. The death’s head winks at him from her eyepatch. “Look, he has even caught his dinner. A great savings while traveling, I assure you.” She comes and leans over the railing. “Porpoise. He does not always enjoy the taste. I did not know he knew how to swim, or liked to, until we took to the sea. It is not done, in Florin dragon husbandry.”

Laurence studies her. “And you are familiar with Florian dragon raising, then?”

She looks back at him, smiles. “Oh, quite. Excidium has been with my family for two generations, and I am training Emily up now quite well to take over in my place. She might take back to pirating as soon as I turn my back, though. She has never known another life.”

Roland whistles at Excidium, who ducks his head back in the water to clean off the remains of his meal. He comes back to the Reliant, much of his body underwater, wings tightly furled. “Yes, Jane?” He says. “Are you ready to return to the Revenge?”

She vaults neatly over the rail on to his skull, waving cheerily at Laurence in farewell. He watches as the dragon swims back to his own ship, his body a sinuous half hidden curve under the water.

He has more questions than answers, it seems.

 

Laurence invites them over for dinner. He thinks that Edith would be proud of him cutting through his Gordian knot.

It is a strange dinner. Memorable, at least. Roland has an affable way of ignoring whatever decorum and naval protocol she decides to. Tharkay does not bring his eagle, and Laurence thanks heaven for small favors. But he does bring his first mate, a tall man with dark hair who spends most of dinner alternating between laughing at Roland’s sly jokes and glaring at Laurence.

But even Granby’s behavior pales next to Tharkay.

He seems to be determined to find fault with everyone and everything. Laurence scarcely hears him utter a word through the first courses, except to greet Laurence on entering his cabin.

Laurence and Roland carry the conversation, then, with occasional interjections by Riley. Tharkay does not glower the same way that Granby does, but his face is masked still, and scarcely gives any expression underneath it.

When they are serving the port, Laurence bids the rest of his men good night. It is only Riley and a smattering of other men, but they leave easily and subtly enough, leaving him alone with the pirates.

Laurence pours more port in Roland's glass. “Yes, thank you, good man there.” She says approvingly. “Good thought.”

“Another thought had occurred to me, gentlemen.” Laurence says, “And lady, to be sure.” He says swiftly, realizing his mistake.

“How did you choose a life of piracy and crime, then, rather than-” he trails off for a moment, doubtful of how best to phrase it.

“Of honor, moral rectitude, and sitting down and taking orders?” Roland supplies. “It has benefits, I grant you. But there are some orders that a woman cannot follow.” She says, a thread of darkness in her voice. “I was with Tenzing in the corps, and we took John with us. But we all had the same breaking point.”

She seems not inclined to continue. “I can hardly expect to plead your case, if I am unfamiliar with the particulars.” Laurence says, a little sharp.

Tharkay and Roland trade glances then. “He has a point.” Roland concedes. Tharkay merely shrugs.

“You know that I think we are largely going to our deaths.” Tharkay says. “I have decided to make mine a good one. But I would hear your thoughts.”

Granby makes a disgusted face. “Do not listen to these fellows,” He says to Laurence, the first civil words he’s had from Granby the entire dinner. “I will tell you, and then perhaps they will stop dancing around the matter.

“We were ordered,” he says, scratching a little at the air with his hook for emphasis, “To dispatch a very sick dragon to Guilder, while pretending that we did not know what we were doing. We had gotten the dragon initially from Maravedíes. Thank to our paranoiac dragon surgeons, we had kept him in quarantine initially- which we were very glad at, when he developed signs of dragon plague.”

“Dragon plague.” Laurence repeats, a little blank. “Go on.” Roland is pouring herself more port, her gaze distant. Tharkay has gone entirely blank and still.

“It’s a sort of ague, the surgeons say.” Granby says, still vague. “They cough, and get feverish, and it drags on and on, until they die. No cure, no cure whatsoever.” Laurence inhales sharply. “It is not well known, but it is one of the diseases of the New World. Ever so often we have an outbreak, but we usually keep it well concealed. It is creeping and slow, but once it starts it kills, sure as death itself.”

“And you were ordered to- deliver this, this sick dragon, to Guilder?”

Granby nods grimly. “The perfect plan, you see. Our dragons were safe behind quarantine, warned. Before the war could come, we would crucially weaken their aerial support, leaving them ripe for the picking.” He took on a rote voice, as if reciting orders from memory. “Pah. To attack before attacking, that takes some skullduggery. How many thousands of dragons, dead? And for what, a momentary advantage in a little war.”

Laurence blinks, thinking. His mind tries to scurry around to find some explanation. Perhaps their Lordships had thought- but dragons were thinking creatures, all rational thinking would revolt from such a scheme. The mass destruction of so many thinking creatures- appalling. Over and over again he thinks of it, as Roland traces designs on the tabletop with port, and Granby flicks his gaze between all of them.

Tharkay speaks then, quiet. “My break happened earlier, although I was not unwise enough to telegraph it to all and sundry. I was given a choice, a great many years ago. I was offered a position somewhere between a valet and a trained dog, all advancement denied me, or to leave your country, humiliated and rejected.”

Laurence is suddenly conscious of the sway of the ship, the movement of the air, the whispers of the sea through the bulkhead, the anger behind Tharkay's words. “Which did you choose?”

Tharkay smiles then, sharklike and thin, and Laurence suddenly sees through the mask he wears under his skin. “I chose what any reasonable man would.” He straightens, voice going distant. “I chose to burn it all down.”

“Captain! The egg, the egg!” Riley breaks in, hammering on the door. “The shell is breaking.”

“Damn and double damn.” Roland curses. “I thought we had another week.”

Laurence, his mind awash, barely makes it to the tiny cabin in time. The air is hot and thick, warm from the brazier his surgeon- incompetent man, he takes a moment to curse in the privacy of his head- had placed, to keep the egg warm.

As he watches, his second lieutenant opens the box with a crowbar. With a delicate crack, the porcelain egg breaks, a black talon emerging. His lieutenant drops the crowbar, stammering an apology. The dragonet lifts his head, inspects them all, Laurence the closest.

“Why are you frowning?” the dragonet says, directly to him.