His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire #1)

Chapter 10

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HE WAS SUFFICIENTLY experienced to no longer be very surprised, the next morning, when he found that their late night had led to no gossip. Instead, Captain Roland hailed him warmly at breakfast and introduced him to her lieutenants without the slightest consciousness, and they walked out to their dragons together.

Laurence saw Temeraire finishing off a hearty breakfast of his own, and took a moment to have a private and forceful word with Collins and Dunne about their indiscretion. He did not mean to go on like a blue-light captain, preaching chastity and temperance all day; still, he did not think it prudish if he preferred his youngsters to have a respectable example before them in the older officers. "If you must keep such company, I do not propose to have you making whoremongers of yourselves, and giving the ensigns and cadets the notion that this is how they ought to behave," he said, while the two midwingmen squirmed. Dunne even opened his mouth and looked as though he would rather like to protest, but subsided under Laurence's very cold stare: that was a degree of insubordination he did not intend to permit.

But having finished the lecture and dismissed them to their work, he found himself a trifle uneasy as he recalled that his own behavior of the previous night was not above reproach. He consoled himself by the reminder that Roland was a fellow-officer; her company could hardly be compared to that of whores, and in any case they had not created any sort of public spectacle, which was at the heart of the matter. However, the rationalization rang a little hollow, and he was glad to distract himself with work: Emily and the two other runners were already waiting by Temeraire's side with the heavy bags of post that had accumulated for the blockading fleet.

The very strength of the British fleet left the ships on the blockade in strangely isolated circumstances. It was rarely necessary for a dragon to be sent to their assistance; they received all but their most urgent dispatches and supplies by frigate, and so had little opportunity to hear recent news or receive their post. The French might have twenty-one ships in Brest, but they did not dare come out to face the far more skilled British sailors. Without naval support, even a full French heavy-combat wing would not risk a strafing run with the sharpshooters always ready in the tops and the harpoon and pepper guns primed upon the deck. Occasionally there might be an attack at night, usually made by a single nocturnal-breed dragon, but the riflemen often gave as good as they got in such circumstances, and if a full-scale attack were ever launched, a flare signal could easily be seen by the patrolling dragons to the north.

Admiral Lenton had decided to reorder the uninjured dragons of Lily's formation as necessary from day to day, to both keep the dragons occupied and patrol a somewhat greater extent. Today he had ordered Temeraire to fly point, with Nitidus and Dulcia flanking him: they would trail Excidium's formation on the first leg of Channel patrol, then break off for a pass over the main squadron of the Channel Fleet, currently just off Ushant and blockading the French port of Brest. Aside from the more martial benefits, their visit would furnish the ships of the fleet with at least a little break in the lonely monotony of their blockade-duty.

The morning was so cold and crisp no fog had gathered, the sky sharply brilliant and the water below almost black. Squinting against the glare, Laurence would have liked to imitate the ensigns and midwingmen, who were rubbing black kohl under their eyes, but as point-leader, he would be in command of the small group while they were detached, and he would likely be asked aboard to see Admiral Lord Gardner when they landed at the flagship.

Thanks to the weather, it was a pleasant flight, even if not a very smooth one: wind currents seemed to vary unpredictably once they had moved out over the open water, and Temeraire followed some unconscious instinct in rising and falling to catch the best wind. After an hour's patrol, they reached the point of separation; Captain Roland raised a hand in farewell as Temeraire angled away south and swept past Excidium; the sun was nearly straight overhead, and the ocean glittered beneath them.

"Laurence, I see the ships ahead," Temeraire said, perhaps half an hour later, and Laurence lifted his telescope, having to cup a hand around his eye and squint against the sun before he could see the sails on the water.

"Well sighted," Laurence called back, and said, "Give them the private signal if you please, Mr. Turner." The signal-ensign began running up the pattern of flags that would mark them as a British party; less of a formality in their case, thanks to Temeraire's unusual appearance.

Shortly they were sighted and identified; the leading British ship fired a handsome salute of nine guns, more perhaps than was strictly due to Temeraire, as he was not an official formation leader. Whether it was misunderstanding or generosity, Laurence was pleased by the attention, and had the riflemen fire off a return salute as they swept by overhead.

The fleet was a stirring sight, with the lean and elegant cutters already leaping across the water to cluster around the flagship in anticipation of the post, and the great ships-of-the-line tacking steadily into the northerly wind to keep their positions, white sails brilliant against the water, colors flying in proud display from every mainmast. Laurence could not resist leaning forward to watch over Temeraire's shoulder, so far that the carabiner straps drew taut.

"Signal from the flagship, sir," Turner said, as they drew near enough for the flags to be readable. "Captain come aboard on landing."

Laurence nodded; no less than he had anticipated. "Pray acknowledge, Mr. Turner. Mr. Granby, I think we will do a pass over the rest of the fleet to the south, while they make ready for us." The crew of the Hibernia and the neighboring Agincourt had begun casting out the floating platforms that would be lashed together to form a landing surface for the dragons, and a small cutter was already moving among them, gathering up the tow-lines. Laurence knew from experience that the operation required some time, and would go no quicker with the dragons circling directly overhead.

By the time they had completed their sweep and returned, the platforms were ready. "Bellmen up above, Mr. Granby," Laurence ordered; the crew of the lower rigging quickly came scrambling up onto Temeraire's back. The last few sailors hastily cleared off the deck as Temeraire made his descent, with Nitidus and Dulcia following close upon him; the platform bobbed and sank lower in the water as Temeraire's great weight came upon it, but the lashings held secure. Nitidus and Dulcia landed at opposite corners once Temeraire had settled himself, and Laurence swung himself down. "Runners, bring the post," he said, and himself took the sealed envelope of dispatches from Admiral Lenton to Admiral Gardner.

Laurence climbed easily into the waiting cutter, while his runners Roland, Dyer, and Morgan hurried to hand the bags of post over to the outstretched hands of the sailors. He went to the stern; Temeraire was sprawled low to better preserve the balance of the platform, with his head resting upon the edge of the platform very close to the cutter, much to the discomfort of that vessel's crew. "I will return presently," Laurence told him. "Pray give Lieutenant Granby the word if you require anything."

"I will, but I do not think I will need to; I am perfectly well," Temeraire answered, to startled looks from the cutter's crew, which only increased as he added, "But if we could go hunting afterwards, I would be glad of it; I am sure I saw some splendid large tunnys on our way."

The cutter was an elegant, clean-lined vessel, and she bore Laurence to the Hibernia at a pace which he would once have thought the height of speed; now he stood looking out along her bowsprit, running before the wind, and the breeze in his face seemed barely anything.

They had rigged a bosun's chair over the Hibernia's side, which Laurence ignored with disdain; his sea-legs had scarcely deserted him, and in any case climbing up the side presented him with no difficulty. Captain Bedford was waiting to greet him, and started in open surprise as Laurence climbed aboard: they had served together in the Goliath at the Nile.

"Good Lord, Laurence; I had no notion of your being here in the Channel," he said, formal greeting forgotten, and meeting him instead with a hearty handshake. "Is that your beast, then?" he asked, staring across the water at Temeraire, who was in his bulk not much smaller than the seventy-four-gun Agincourt behind him. "I thought he had only just hatched a sixmonth gone."

Laurence could not help a swelling pride; he hoped that he concealed it as he answered, "Yes, that is Temeraire. He is not yet eight months old, yet he does have nearly his full growth." With difficulty he restrained himself from boasting further; nothing, he was sure, could be more irritating, like one of those men who could not stop talking of the beauty of their mistress, or the cleverness of their children. In any case, Temeraire did not require praising; any observer looking at him could hardly fail to mark his distinctive and elegant appearance.

"Oh, I see," Bedford said, looking at him with a bemused expression. Then the lieutenant at Bedford's shoulder coughed meaningfully. Bedford glanced at the fellow and then said, "Forgive me; I was so taken aback to see you that I have been keeping you standing about. Pray come this way, Lord Gardner is waiting to see you."

Admiral Lord Gardner had only lately come to his position as commander in the Channel, on Sir William Cornwallis's retirement; the strain of following so successful a leader in so difficult a position was telling upon him. Laurence had served in the Channel Fleet several years before, as a lieutenant; they had never been introduced previously, but Laurence had seen him several times, and his face was markedly aged.

"Yes, I see, Laurence, is it?" Gardner said, as the flag-lieutenant presented him, and murmured a few words which Laurence could not hear. "Pray be seated; I must read these dispatches at once, and then I have a few words to give you to carry back for me to Lenton," he said, breaking the seal and studying the contents. Lord Gardner grunted and nodded to himself as he read through the messages; from his sharp look, Laurence knew when he reached the account of the recent skirmish.

"Well, Laurence, you have already seen some sharp action, I gather," he said, laying aside the papers at last. "It is just as well for you all to get some seasoning, I expect; it cannot be long before we see something more from them, and you must tell Lenton so for me. I have been sending every sloop and brig and cutter I dare to risk close in to the shore, and the French are busy as bees inland outside Cherbourg. We cannot tell with what, precisely, but they can hardly be preparing for anything but invasion, and judging by their activity, they mean it to be soon."

"Surely Bonaparte cannot have more news of the fleet in Cadiz than do we?" Laurence said, disturbed by this intelligence. The degree of confidence augured by such preparations was frighteningly high, and though Bonaparte was certainly arrogant, his arrogance had rarely proven to be wholly unfounded.

"Not of immediate events, no, of that I am now thankfully certain. You have brought me confirmation that our dispatch-riders have been coming back and forth steadily," Gardner said, tapping the sheaf of papers on his desk. "However, he cannot be so wild as to imagine he can come across without his fleet, and that suggests he expects them soon."

Laurence nodded; that expectation might still be ill-founded or wishful, but that Bonaparte had it at all meant Nelson's fleet was in imminent danger.

Gardner sealed the packet of returning dispatches and handed them over. "There; I am much obliged to you, Laurence, and for your bringing the post to us. Now I trust you will join us for dinner, and of course your fellow captains as well?" he said, rising from his desk. "Captain Briggs of the Agincourt will join us as well, I think."

A lifetime of naval training had inculcated in Laurence the precept that such an invitation from a superior officer was as good as a command, and though Gardner was no longer strictly his superior, it remained impossible to even think of refusing. But Laurence could not help but consider Temeraire with some anxiety, and Nitidus with even more. The Pascal's Blue was a nervous creature who required a great deal of careful management from Captain Warren under ordinary circumstances, and Laurence was certain that he would be distressed at the prospect of remaining aboard the makeshift floating platform without his handler and no officer above the rank of lieutenant anywhere to be seen.

And yet dragons did wait under such conditions all the time; if there had been a greater aerial threat against the fleet, several might even have been stationed upon platforms at all times, with their captains frequently called upon to join the naval officers in planning. Laurence could not like subjecting the dragons to such a wait for no better cause than a dinner engagement, but neither could he honestly say there was any actual risk to them.

"Sir, nothing could give me greater pleasure, and I am sure I speak for Captain Warren and Captain Chenery as well," he said: there was nothing else to be done. Indeed Gardner could hardly be said to be waiting for an answer; he had already gone to the door to call in his lieutenant.

However, only Chenery came over in response to the signaled invitation, bearing sincere but mild regrets. "Nitidus will fret if he is left alone, you see, so Warren thinks it much better if he does not leave him," was all the explanation he offered, made to Gardner very cheerfully; he seemed unconscious of the deep solecism he was committing.

Laurence privately winced at the startled and somewhat offended looks this procured, not merely from Lord Gardner but from the other captains and the flag-lieutenant as well, though he could not help but feel relieved. Still the dinner began awkwardly, and continued so.

The admiral was clearly oppressed by thoughts of his work, and there were long periods between his remarks. The table would have been a silent and heavy one, save that Chenery was in his usual form, high-spirited and quick to make conversation, and he spoke freely in complete disregard of the naval convention that reserved the right of starting conversation to Lord Gardner.

When addressed directly, the naval officers would pause very pointedly before responding to him, as briefly as possible, before dropping the subject. Laurence was at first agonized on his behalf, and then began to grow angry. It must have been clear to even the most sensitive temper that Chenery was speaking in ignorance; his chosen subjects were innocuous, and to sit in sullen and reproachful silence seemed to Laurence a far greater piece of rudeness.

Chenery could not help but notice the cold response; as yet he was only beginning to look puzzled, not offended, but that would hardly last. When he gamely tried once more, this time Laurence deliberately volunteered a reply. The two of them carried the discussion along between them for several minutes, and then Gardner, his attention drawn from his brown study, glanced up and contributed a remark. The conversation was thus blessed, and the other officers joined in at last; Laurence made a great effort, and kept the topic running throughout the rest of the meal.

What ought to have been a pleasure thus became a chore, and he was very glad when the port was taken off the table, and they were invited to step up on deck for cigars and coffee. Taking his cup, he went to stand by the larboard taffrail to better see the floating platform: Temeraire was sleeping quietly with the sun beating on his scales, one foreleg dangling over the side into the water, and Nitidus and Dulcia were resting against him.

Bedford came to stand and look with him, in what Laurence took as companionable silence; after a moment Bedford said, "I suppose he is a valuable animal and we must be glad to have him, but it is appalling you should be chained to such a life, and in such company."

Laurence could not immediately command the power of speech in response to this remark so full of sincere pity; half a dozen answers all crowded to his lips. He drew a breath that shook in his throat and said in a low, savage voice, "Sir, you will not speak to me in such terms, either of Temeraire or of my colleagues; I wonder that you could imagine such an address acceptable."

Bedford stepped back from his vehemence. Laurence turned away and left his coffee cup clattering upon the steward's tray. "Sir, I think we must be leaving," he said to Gardner, keeping his voice even. "As this is Temeraire's first flight along this course, best were we to return before sunset."

"Of course," Gardner said, offering a hand. "Godspeed, Captain; I hope we will see you again shortly."

Despite this excuse, Laurence did not find himself back at the covert until shortly after nightfall. Having seen Temeraire snatch several large tunnys from the water, Nitidus and Dulcia expressed the inclination to try fishing themselves, and Temeraire was perfectly happy to continue demonstrating. The younger crewmen were not entirely prepared for the experience of being on board while their dragon hunted; but after the first plummeting drop had accustomed them to the experience, the startled yells vanished, and they rapidly came to view the process as a game.

Laurence found that his black mood could not survive their enthusiasm: the boys cheered wildly each time Temeraire rose up with yet another tunny wriggling in his claws, and several of them even sought permission to climb below, the better to be splashed as Temeraire made his catch.

Thoroughly glutted and flying somewhat more slowly back towards the coast, Temeraire hummed in happiness and contentment, turned his head around to look at Laurence with bright-eyed gratitude, and said, "Has this not been a pleasant day? It has been a long time since we have had such splendid flying," and Laurence found that he had no anger left to conceal in making his reply.

The lamps throughout the covert were just coming alight, like great fireflies against the darkness of the scattered trees, the ground crews moving among them with their torches even as Temeraire made his descent. Most of the younger officers were still soaking wet and beginning to shiver as they climbed down from Temeraire's warm bulk; Laurence dismissed them to their rest and stood watch with Temeraire himself while the ground crew finished unharnessing him. Hollin looked at him a little reproachfully as the men brought down the neck and shoulder harnesses, encrusted with fish scales, bones, and entrails, and already beginning to stink.

Temeraire was too pleased and well-fed for Laurence to feel apologetic; he only said cheerfully, "I am afraid we have made some heavy work for you, Mr. Hollin, but at least he will not need feeding tonight."

"Aye, sir," Hollin said gloomily, and marshaled his men to the task.

The harness removed and his hide washed down by the crew, who by this time had formed the technique of passing buckets along rather like a fire brigade to clean him after his meals, Temeraire yawned enormously, belched, and sprawled out upon the ground with so self-satisfied an expression that Laurence laughed at him. "I must go and deliver these dispatches," he said. "Will you sleep, or shall we read this evening?"

"Forgive me, Laurence, I think I am too sleepy," Temeraire said, yawning again. "Laplace is difficult to follow even when I am quite awake, and I do not want to risk misunderstanding."

As Laurence had enough difficulty for his own part merely in pronouncing the French of Laplace's treatise on celestial mechanics well enough for Temeraire to comprehend, without making any effort to himself grasp the principles he was reading aloud, he was perfectly willing to believe this. "Very well, my dear; I will see you in the morning, then," he said, and stood stroking Temeraire's nose until the dragon's eyes had slid shut, and his breathing had evened out into slumber.

Admiral Lenton received the dispatches and the verbal message with frowning concern. "I do not like it in the least, not in the least," he said. "Working inland, is he? Laurence, could he be building more boats on shore, planning to add to his fleet without our knowing?"

"Some awkward transports he might perhaps be able to make, sir, but never ships-of-the-line," Laurence said at once, with perfect certainty on the subject. "And he already has a great many transports, in every port along the coastline; it is difficult to conceive that he might require more."

"And all this is around Cherbourg, not Calais, though the distance is greater, and our fleet is closer by. I cannot account for it, but Gardner is quite right; I am damned sure he means mischief, and he cannot very well do it until his fleet is here." Abruptly he stood and walked straight from the office; unsure whether to take this as a dismissal, Laurence followed him through the headquarters and outside, to the clearing where Lily was lying in her recovery.

Captain Harcourt was sitting by Lily's head, stroking her foreleg, over and over; Choiseul was with her and reading quietly to them both. Lily's eyes were still dull with pain, but in a more encouraging sign, she had evidently just eaten whole food at last, for there was a great heap of cracked bones still being cleared away by the ground crew.

Choiseul put down his book and said a quiet word to Harcourt, then came to them. "She is almost asleep; I beg you not to stir her," he said, very softly.

Lenton nodded and beckoned him and Laurence both further away. "How does she progress?" he asked.

"Very well, sir, according to the surgeons; they say she heals as quickly as could be hoped," Choiseul said. "Catherine has not left her side."

"Good, good," Lenton said. "Three weeks, then, if their original estimate holds true. Well, gentlemen, I have changed my mind; I am going to send Temeraire out on patrol every day during her recovery, rather than giving him and Praecursoris turn and turn about. You do not need the experience, Choiseul, and Temeraire does; you will have to keep Praecursoris exercised independently."

Choiseul bowed, with no hint of dissatisfaction, if he felt any. "I am happy to serve in any way I can, sir; you need merely direct me."

Lenton nodded. "Well, and for now, stay with Harcourt as much as ever you can; I am sure you know what it is to have a wounded beast," he said. Choiseul rejoined her by the now-sleeping Lily, and Lenton led Laurence away again, scowling in private thought. "Laurence," he said, "while you patrol, I want you to try and run formation maneuvers with Nitidus and Dulcia; I know you have not been trained to small-formation work, but Warren and Chenery can help you there. I want him able to lead a pair of light-combatants in a fight independently, if need be."

"Very good, sir," Laurence said, a little startled; he wanted badly to ask for some explanation, and repressed his curiosity with some difficulty.

They came to the clearing where Excidium was just falling asleep; Captain Roland was speaking with her ground crewmen and inspecting a piece of the harness. She nodded to them both and came away with them; they walked back together towards the headquarters.

"Roland, can you do without Auctoritas and Crescendium?" Lenton asked abruptly.

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "If I have to, of course," she said. "What's this about?"

Lenton did not seem to object to being so directly queried. "We must begin to think about sending Excidium to Cadiz once Lily is flying well," he said. "I am not going to have the kingdom lost for want of one dragon in the right place; we can hold out against aerial raids a long time here, with the help of the Channel Fleet and the shore batteries, and that fleet must not be allowed to escape."

If Lenton did choose to send Excidium and his formation away, their absence would leave the Channel vulnerable to aerial attack; yet if the French and Spanish fleet escaped Cadiz and came north, to join with the ships in port at Brest and Calais, perhaps even a single day of so overwhelming an advantage would be enough for Napoleon to ferry over his invasion force.

Laurence did not envy Lenton the decision; without knowing whether Bonaparte's aerial divisions were halfway to Cadiz overland or still along the Austrian border, the choice could only be half guess. Yet it would have to be made, if only through inaction, and Lenton was clearly prepared instead to take the risk.

Now Lenton's design with regard to Temeraire's orders was clear: the admiral wanted the flexibility of having a second formation on hand, even if a small and imperfectly trained one. Laurence thought that he recalled that Auctoritas and Crescendium were middle-weight combat dragons, part of Excidium's supporting forces; perhaps Lenton intended to match them with Temeraire, to make a maneuverable strike force of the three of them.

"Trying to out-guess Bonaparte; the thought makes my blood run cold," Captain Roland said, echoing Laurence's sentiments. "But we will be ready to go whenever you want to send us; I will fly maneuvers without Auctor and Cressy as time allows."

"Good, see to it," Lenton said, as they climbed the stairs to the foyer. "I will leave you now; I have another ten dispatches to read yet, more's the pity. Goodnight, gentlemen."

"Goodnight, Lenton," Roland said, and stretched out with a yawn when he was gone. "Ah well, formation flying would be deadly boring without a change-about every so often, any road. What do you say to some supper?"

They had some soup and toasted bread, and a nice Stilton after, with port, and once again settled in Roland's room for some piquet. After a few hands, and some idle conversation, she said, with the first note of diffidence he had ever heard from her, "Laurence, may I make so bold – "

The question made him stare, as she had never before hesitated to forge ahead on any subject whatsoever. "Certainly," he said, trying to imagine what she could possibly mean to ask him. Abruptly he was aware of his surroundings: the large and rumpled bed, less than ten steps away; the open throat of her dressing-gown, for which she had exchanged her coat and breeches, behind a screen, when they first came into the room. He looked down at his cards, his face heating; his hands trembled a little.

"If you have any reluctance, I beg you to tell me at once," she added.

"No," Laurence said at once, "I would be very happy to oblige you. I am sure," he added belatedly, as he realized she had not yet asked.

"You are very kind," she said, and a wide flash of a smile crossed her face, lopsidedly, the right side of her mouth turning up more than the scarred left. Then she went on, "And I would be very grateful if you would tell me, with real honesty, what you think of Emily's work, and of her inclination for the life."

He was hard-pressed not to turn crimson at his mistaken assumption, even as she added, "I know it is a wretched thing to ask you to speak ill of her to me, but I have seen what comes of relying too heavily upon the line of succession, without good training. If you have any cause to doubt her suitability, I beg you to tell me now, while there still may be time to repair the fault."

Her anxiety was very plain now, and thinking of Rankin and his disgraceful treatment of Levitas, Laurence could well understand it; sympathy enabled him to recover from his self-inflicted embarrassment. "I have seen the consequences of what you describe as well," he said, quick to reassure her. "I promise you I would speak frankly if I saw any such signs; indeed, I should never have taken her on as a runner if I were not entirely convinced of her reliability, and her dedication to her duty. She is too young for certainty, of course, but I think her very promising."

Roland blew out a breath gustily and sat back in her chair, letting her hand of cards drop as she stopped even pretending to be paying them attention. "Lord, how you relieve me," she said. "I hoped, of course, but I find I cannot trust myself on the subject." She laughed with relief, and went to her bureau for a new bottle of wine.

Laurence held out his glass for her to fill. "To Emily's success," he proposed, and they drank; then she reached out, took the glass from his hand, and kissed him. He had indeed been wholly mistaken; on this matter, she proved not at all tentative.

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