LAURENCE COULD NOT help wincing at the haphazard way in which Jane threw her things out of the wardrobe and into heaps upon the bed. "May I help you?" he asked finally, out of desperation, and took possession of her baggage. "No, I beg you, permit me the liberty; you may consider your flight path as I do this," he said.
"Thank you, Laurence, that is very kind of you." She sat down with her maps instead. "It will be a straightforward flight, I hope," she went on, scribbling calculations and moving the small bits of wood which she was using to represent the scattered dragon transport ships that would provide Excidium and his formation with resting places on their way to Cadiz. "So long as the weather holds, less than two weeks should see us there." With so much urgent need, the dragons would not be going by a single transport, but rather would fly from one transport to another, attempting to predict their locations based on the current and the wind.
Laurence nodded, though a little grimly; they were only a day shy of October, and there was every likelihood at this time of year that the weather would not hold. Then she would be faced with the dangerous choice of trying to find a transport that might easily have been blown off-course, or seeking shelter inland in the face of Spanish artillery. Presuming, of course, that the formation was not itself brought down by a storm: dragons were from time to time cast down by lightning or heavy winds, and if flung into a heavy ocean, they could easily drown with all their crew.
But there was no choice. Lily had recovered with great speed over the intervening weeks; she had led the formation through a full patrol only yesterday, and landed without pain or stiffness. Lenton had looked her over, spoken a few words with her and Captain Harcourt, and gone straightaway to give Jane her orders for Cadiz. Laurence had been expecting as much, of course, but he could not help feeling concern, both for the dragons going and for those remaining behind.
"There, that will do," she said, finishing her chart and throwing down her pen; he looked up from the baggage in surprise: he had fallen into a brown study and packed mechanically, without marking what he did; now he realized that he had been silent for nearly twenty minutes together, and that he had one of her stays in his hands. He hastily dropped it atop the neatly packed things in her small case, and closed the lid.
The sunlight was beginning to come in at the window; their time was gone. "There, Laurence, do not look so glum; I have made the flight to Gibraltar a dozen times," she said, coming to kiss him soundly. "You will have a worse time of it here, I am afraid; they will undoubtedly try some mischief once they know we are gone."
"I have every confidence in you," Laurence said, ringing the bell for the servants. "I only hope we have not misjudged." It was as much as he would say critical of Lenton, particularly on a subject where he could not be unbiased. Yet he felt that even if he had not had a personal objection to make to placing Excidium and his formation in danger, he would still have been concerned by the lack of further intelligence.
Volly had arrived three days before with a report full of fresh negatives. A handful of French dragons had arrived in Cadiz: enough to keep Mortiferus from forcing out the fleet, but not a tenth of the dragons which had been stationed along the Rhine. And in cause for more concern, even though nearly every light and quick dragon not wholly involved in dispatch service had been pressed into scouting and spying, they still knew nothing more of Bonaparte's work across the Channel.
He walked with her to Excidium's clearing and saw her aboard; it was strange, for he felt as though he ought to feel more. He would have put a bullet in his brains sooner than let Edith go to face danger while he remained behind himself, yet he could say his adieus to Roland without much more of a pang than in bidding farewell to any other comrade. She blew him a friendly kiss from atop Excidium's back, once her crew were all aboard. "I will see you in a few months, I am sure, or sooner if we can chase the Frogs out of harbor," she called down. "Fair winds, and mind you don't let Emily run wild."
He raised a hand to her. "Godspeed," he called, and stood watching as the enormous wings carried Excidium up, the other dragons of his formation rising to join him, until they had all dwindled out of sight to the south.
Although they kept a wary eye on the Channel skies, the first weeks after Excidium's departure were quiet. No raids came, and Lenton was of the opinion that the French still thought Excidium was in residence, and were correspondingly reluctant to make any venture. "The longer we can keep them thinking it, the better," he said to the assembled captains after another uneventful patrol. "Aside from the benefit to us, just as well if they don't realize another formation is nearing their precious fleet at Cadiz."
They all took a great measure of comfort from the news of Excidium's safe arrival, which Volly brought almost two weeks to the day from his departure. "They'd already begun when I left," Captain James told the other captains the next day, taking a hurried breakfast before setting out on his return journey. "You could hear the Spaniards howling for miles: their merchantmen are as quick to fall apart under dragon-spray as any ship-of-the-line, and their shops and houses as well. I expect they'll fire on the Frenchmen themselves if Villeneuve doesn't come out soon, alliance or not."
The atmosphere grew lighter after this encouraging news, and Lenton cut their patrol a little short and granted them all liberty for celebration, a welcome respite to men who had been working at a frenetic pace. The more energetic went into town; most seized a little sleep, as did the weary dragons.
Laurence took the opportunity to enjoy a quiet evening's reading with Temeraire; they stayed together late into the night, reading by the light of the lanterns. Laurence woke out of a light doze some time after the moon had risen: Temeraire's head was dark against the illuminated sky, and he was looking searchingly to the north of their clearing. "Is something the matter?" Laurence asked him. Sitting up, he could hear a faint noise, strange and high.
Even as they listened, the sound stopped. "Laurence, that was Lily, I think," Temeraire said, his ruff standing up stiffly.
Laurence slid down at once. "Stay here; I will return as quickly as I may," he said, and Temeraire nodded without ever looking away.
The paths through the covert were largely deserted and unlit: Excidium's formation gone, all the light dragons out on scouting duty, and the night cold enough to send even the most dedicated crews into the barracks buildings. The ground had frozen three days before; it was packed and hard enough for his heels to drum hollowly upon it as he walked.
Lily's clearing was empty; a faint murmur of noise from the barracks, whose lit windows he could see distantly, through the trees, and no one about the buildings. Lily herself was crouched motionless, her yellow eyes red-rimmed and staring, and she was clawing the ground silently. Low voices, and the sound of crying; Laurence wondered if he was intruding untimely, but Lily's evident distress decided him: he walked into the clearing, calling in a strong voice, "Harcourt? Are you there?"
"No further" came Choiseul's voice, low and sharp: Laurence came around Lily's head and halted in dreadful surprise: Choiseul was holding Harcourt by the arm, and there was an expression of complete despair on his face. "Make no sound, Laurence," he said; there was a sword in his hand, and behind him on the ground Laurence could see a young midwingman stretched out, dark bloodstains spreading over the back of his coat. "No sound at all."
"For God's sake, what do you think you are about?" Laurence said. "Harcourt, is it well with you?"
"He has killed Wilpoys," she said thickly; she was wavering where she stood, and as the torchlight came on her face he could see a bruise already darkening across half her forehead. "Laurence, never mind about me, you must go and fetch help; he means to do Lily a mischief."
"No, never, never," Choiseul said. "I mean no harm to her or you, Catherine, I swear it. But I will not be answerable if you interfere, Laurence; do nothing." He raised the sword; blood gleamed on its edge, not far from Harcourt's neck, and Lily made the thin eerie noise again, a high-pitched whining that grated against the ear. Choiseul was pale, his face taking on a greenish cast in the light, and he looked desperate enough to do anything; Laurence kept his position, hoping for a better moment.
Choiseul stood staring at him a moment longer, until satisfied Laurence did not mean to go, and then said, "We will go all of us together to Praecursoris; Lily, you will stay here, and follow when you see us go aloft: I promise you no harm will come to Catherine so long as you obey."
"Oh, you miserable, cowhearted traitor dog," Harcourt said, "do you think I am going to go to France with you, and lick Bonaparte's boots? How long have you been planning this?" She struggled to pull away from him, even staggering as she was, but Choiseul shook her and she nearly fell.
Lily snarled, half-rising, her wings mantling: Laurence could see the black acid glistening at the edges of her bone spurs. "Catherine!" she hissed, the sound distorted through her clenched teeth.
"Silence, enough," Choiseul said, pulling Harcourt up and close to his body, pinning her arms: the sword still held steady in his other hand, Laurence's eyes always upon it, waiting for a chance. "You will follow, Lily; you will do as I have said. We are going now; march, at once, monsieur, there." He gestured with the sword. Laurence did not turn around, but stepped backwards, and once beneath the shadow of the trees he moved more slowly still, so that Choiseul came unknowingly closer than he meant to do.
A moment of wild grappling: then they all three went to the ground in a heap, the sword flying and Harcourt caught between them. They struck the ground heavily, but Choiseul was beneath, and for a moment Laurence had the advantage; he was forced to sacrifice it to roll Harcourt free and out of harm's way, and Choiseul struck him across the face as soon as she was clear, throwing him off.
They rolled about on the ground, battering at each other awkwardly, both trying to reach for the sword even as they struggled. Choiseul was powerfully built and taller, and though Laurence had a far greater experience of close combat, the Frenchman's weight began to tell as they wrestled. Lily was roaring out loud now, voices calling in the distance, and despair gave Choiseul a burst of strength: he drove a fist into Laurence's stomach and lunged for the sword while Laurence curled gasping about the pain.
Then there was a tremendous roaring above them: the ground shuddered, branches tumbling down in a rain of dry leaves and pine needles, and an immense old tree was wrenched whole out of the ground beside them: Temeraire was above them, beating wildly as he tore away the cover. More bellowing, now from Praecursoris: the French dragon's pale marbled wings were visible in the dark, approaching, and Temeraire writhed around to face him, claws stretching out. Laurence dragged himself up and threw himself onto Choiseul, bearing him down to the ground with all his weight: he was retching even as they struggled, but Temeraire's danger spurred him on.
Choiseul managed to turn them over and force an arm against Laurence's throat, pressing hard; choking, Laurence caught only a glimpse of motion, and then Choiseul went limp: Harcourt had fetched an iron bar from Lily's gear and struck him upon the back of the head.
She was nearly fainting with the effort, Lily trying to crowd between the trees to reach her; the crew were rushing into the clearing now at last, however, and many hands helped Laurence up to his feet. "Stand over that man there, bring torches," Laurence said, gasping. "And get a full-voiced man here, with a speaking-trumpet; hurry, damn you," for above, Temeraire and Praecursoris were still circling each other, claws flashing.
Harcourt's first lieutenant was a big-chested man with a voice that needed no trumpet: as soon as he understood the circumstances he cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed up at Praecursoris. The big French dragon broke off and flew in wild desperate circles for a moment as he peered down to where Choiseul was being secured, and then with drooping head he returned to the ground, Temeraire hovering watchfully until he had landed.
Maximus was housed not far off, and Berkley had come to the clearing on hearing the noise: he took charge now, setting men to chain Praecursoris, and others to bear Harcourt and Choiseul to the surgeons; still others to take away poor Wilpoys to be buried. "No, thank you, I can manage," Laurence said, shaking off the willing hands that would have carried him as well; his breath was returning, and he walked slowly over to the clearing where Temeraire had landed beside Lily, to comfort both the dragons and try to calm them.
Choiseul did not rouse for the better part of a day, and when he first woke he was thick-tongued and confused in his speech. Yet by the next morning, he was once again in command of himself, and at first refused to answer any questions whatsoever.
Praecursoris had been ringed round by all the other dragons, and ordered to remain on the ground under pain of Choiseul's death: a threat to the handler was the one thing which could hold an unwilling dragon, and the means by which Choiseul had intended to force Lily to defect to France were now used against him. Praecursoris made no attempt to defy the command, but huddled into a miserable heap beneath his chains, eating nothing, and occasionally keening softly.
"Harcourt," Lenton said at last, coming into the dining room and finding them all assembled and waiting, "I am damned sorry, but I must ask you to try: he has not spoken to anyone else, but if he has the honor of a yellow rat he must feel some explanation owed you. Will you ask him?"
She nodded, and then she drained her glass, but her face stayed so very pale that Laurence asked quietly, "Should you like me to accompany you?"
"Yes, if you please," she said at once, gratefully, and he followed her to the small, dark cell where Choiseul was incarcerated.
Choiseul could not meet her gaze, nor speak to her; he shook his head and shuddered, and even wept as she asked him questions in an unsteady voice. "Oh damn you," she cried at last, crackling with anger. "How could – how could you have a heart to do this? Every word you have said to me was a lie; tell me, did you even arrange that first ambush, on our way here? Tell me!"
Her voice was breaking, and he had dropped his face into his hands; now he raised it and cried to Laurence, "For God's sake, make her go; I will tell you anything you like, only send her out," and dropped it back down again.
Laurence did not in the least want to be his interrogator, but he could not prolong Harcourt's suffering unnecessarily; he touched her on the shoulder, and she fled at once. It was deeply unpleasant to have to ask Choiseul questions, still more unpleasant to hear that he had been a traitor since coming from Austria.
"I see what you think of me," Choiseul added, noting the look of disgust on Laurence's face. "And you have a right; but for me, there was no choice."
Laurence had been keeping himself strictly to questions, but this paltry attempt at excuse inflamed him beyond his resistance. With contempt, he said, "You might have chosen to be honest, and done your duty in the place you begged of us."
Choiseul laughed, with no mirth in the sound. "Indeed; and when Bonaparte is in London this Christmastime, what then? You may look at me that way if you like; I have no doubt of it, and I assure you if I thought any deed of mine could alter that outcome, I would have acted."
"Instead you have become a traitor twice over and helped him, when your first betrayal could only be excused if you had been sincere in your principles," Laurence said; he was disturbed by Choiseul's certainty, though he would never conceive of giving any sign as much.
"Ah, principles," Choiseul said; all his bravado had deserted him, and he seemed now only weary and resigned. "France is not so under-strength as are you, and Bonaparte has executed dragons for treason before. What do principles matter to me when I see the shadow of the guillotine hanging upon Praecursoris, and where was I to take him? To Russia? He will outlive me by two centuries, and you must know how they treat dragons there. I could hardly fly him to America without a transport. My only hope was a pardon, and Bonaparte offered it only at a price."
"By which you mean Lily," Laurence said coldly.
Surprisingly, Choiseul shook his head. "No, his price was not Catherine's dragon, but yours." At the blank look upon Laurence's face, he added, "The Chinese egg was sent as a gift for him from the Imperial Throne; he meant me to retrieve it. He did not know Temeraire was already hatched." Choiseul shrugged and spread his hands. "I thought perhaps if I killed him – "
Laurence struck him full across the face, with such force as to knock him onto the stone floor of the cell; his chair rocked and fell over with a clatter. Choiseul coughed and blotted blood from his lip, and the guard opened the door and looked inside. "Everything all right, sir?" he asked, looking straight at Laurence; he paid not the slightest mind to Choiseul's injury.
"Yes, you may go," Laurence said flatly, wiping blood from his hand onto his handkerchief as the door closed once again. He would ordinarily have been ashamed to strike a prisoner, but in this moment he felt not the slightest qualm; his heart was still beating very quickly.
Choiseul slowly set his chair back upright and sat down once more. More quietly, he said, "I am sorry. I could not bring myself to it, in the end, and I thought instead – " He stopped, seeing the color rise again in Laurence's face.
The very notion that for all these months such malice had been lurking so close to Temeraire, averted only by some momentary quirk of conscience on Choiseul's part, was enough to make his blood run cold. With loathing, he said, "And so instead you tried to seduce a girl barely past her schoolroom years and abduct her."
Choiseul said nothing; indeed, Laurence could hardly imagine what defense he could have offered. After a moment's pause, Laurence added, "You can have no further pretensions to honor: tell me what Bonaparte plans, and perhaps Lenton will have Praecursoris sent to the breeding grounds in Newfoundland, if indeed your motive is for his life, and not your own miserable hide."
Choiseul paled, but said, "I know very little, but what I know I will tell you, if he gives his word to do as much."
"No," Laurence said. "You may speak and hope for a mercy you do not deserve if you choose; I will not bargain with you."
Choiseul bowed his head, and when he spoke he was broken, so faint Laurence had to strain to hear him. "I do not know what he intends, precisely, but he desired me to urge the weakening of the covert here most particularly, to have as many sent south to the Mediterranean as could be arranged."
Laurence felt sick with dismay; this goal at least had been brilliantly accomplished. "Does he have some means for his fleet to escape Cadiz?" he demanded. "Does he suppose he can bring them here without facing Nelson?"
"Do you imagine Bonaparte confided in me?" Choiseul said, not lifting his head. "To him also I was a traitor; I was told the tasks I was to accomplish, nothing more."
Laurence satisfied himself with a few more questions that Choiseul truly knew nothing else; he left the room feeling both soiled and alarmed, and went at once to Lenton.
The news cast a heavy pall upon the whole covert. The captains had not broadcast the details, but even the lowliest cadet or crewman could tell that a shadow lay upon them. Choiseul had timed his attempt well: the dispatch-rider would not reach them again for six days, and from there two weeks or more would be required to see any portion of the forces from the Mediterranean restored to the Channel. Militia forces and several Army detachments had already been sent for; they would arrive within a few days, to begin emplacing additional artillery along the coastline.
Laurence, with additional cause for anxiety, had spoken to Granby and Hollin to raise their caution on Temeraire's behalf. If Bonaparte were jealous enough of having so personal a prize taken away, he might well send another agent, this one more willing to slay the dragon he could no longer claim. "You must promise me to be careful," he told Temeraire as well. "Eat nothing unless one of us is by, and has approved it; and if anyone whom I have not presented to you seeks to approach you, do not under any circumstances permit it, even if you must fly to another clearing."
"I will have a care, Laurence, I promise," said Temeraire. "I do not understand, though, why the French Emperor should want to have me killed; how could that improve his circumstances? He would do better to ask them for another egg."
"My dear, the Chinese would hardly condescend to give him a second where the first went so badly astray while in the keeping of his own men," he said. "I am still puzzled at their having given him even one, indeed; he must have some prodigiously gifted diplomat at their court. And I suppose his pride may be hurt, to think that a lowly British captain stands in the place which he had meant to occupy himself."
Temeraire snorted with disdain. "I am sure I would never have liked him in the least, even if I had hatched in France," he said. "He sounds a very unpleasant person."
"Oh, I cannot truly say. One hears a great deal of his pride, but there is no denying that he is a very great man, even if he is a tyrant," Laurence said reluctantly; he would have been a great deal happier to be able to convince himself that Bonaparte was a fool.
Lenton gave orders that patrols now were to be flown only by half the formation at a time, the rest kept back at the covert for intensive combat training. Under cover of night, several additional dragons were secretly flown down from the coverts at Edinburgh and Inverness, including Victoriatus, the Parnassian whom they had rescued what now seemed a long time ago. His captain, Richard Clark, made a nice point of coming to greet Laurence and Temeraire. "I hope you can forgive me for not paying you my respects and my gratitude sooner," he said. "I confess at Laggan I had very little thought for anything but his recovery, and we were shipped out again without warning, as I believe were you."
Laurence shook his hand heartily. "Pray do not give it a thought," he said. "I hope he is wholly recovered?"
"Entirely, thank Heaven, and none too soon, either," Clark said grimly. "I understand the assault is expected at any moment."
And yet the days stretched out, painfully long with anticipation, and no attack came. Three more Winchesters were brought down for additional scouting, but one and all they returned from their dangerous forays to the French shores to report heavy patrols at all hours along the enemy's coastline; there was no chance of penetrating far enough inland to acquire more information.
Levitas was among them, but the company was large enough that Laurence was not obliged to see much of Rankin, for which he was grateful. He tried not to see the signs of that neglect which he could do no more to cure; he felt he could not visit the little dragon further without provoking a quarrel which might be disastrous to the temper of the whole covert. However, he compromised with his conscience so far as to say nothing when he saw Hollin coming to Temeraire's clearing very early the next morning with a bucket full of dirty cleaning rags and a guilty expression.
A great coldness settled over the camp as night came on Sunday, the first week of waiting gone: Volatilus had not arrived as expected. The weather had been clear, certainly no cause for delay; it stayed so for two further days, and then a third; still he did not come. Laurence tried not to look to the skies, and ignored his men doing the same, until that night he found Emily crying quietly outside the clearing, having crept away from the barracks for a little privacy.
She was very ashamed to be caught at it, and pretended there was only some dust in her eyes. Laurence took her to his rooms and had some cocoa brought; he told her, "I was two years older than you are now when I first went to sea, and I blubbered at night for a week." She looked so very skeptical at this account that a laugh was drawn from him. "No, I am not inventing this for your benefit," he said. "When you are a captain, and find one of your own cadets in similar circumstances, I imagine you will tell them what I have just told you."
"I am not really afraid," she said, weariness and cocoa having combined to make her drowsy and unguarded. "I know Excidium will never let anything happen to Mother, and he is the finest dragon in all Europe." She woke up at having made this slip, and added anxiously, "Temeraire is very nearly as good, of course."
Laurence nodded gravely. "Temeraire is a great deal younger. Perhaps he will equal Excidium some day, when he has more experience."
"Yes, just so," she said, very relieved, and he concealed his smile. Five minutes later she was asleep; he laid her on the bed and went to sleep with Temeraire.
"Laurence, Laurence." He stirred and blinked upwards; Temeraire was nudging him awake urgently, though the sky was still dark. Laurence was dimly aware of a low roaring noise, a crowd of voices, and then the crack of gunfire. He started up at once: none of his crew were in the clearing, nor his officers. "What is it?" Temeraire asked, rising to his feet and unfurling his wings as Laurence climbed down. "Are we being attacked? I do not see any dragons aloft."
"Sir, sir!" Morgan came running into the clearing, nearly falling over himself in his haste and eagerness. "Volly is here, sir, and there has been a great battle, and Napoleon is killed!"
"Oh, does that mean the war is over already?" Temeraire asked, disappointed. "I have not even been in any real battles yet."
"Perhaps the news may have grown in the telling; I should be surprised to learn that Bonaparte is truly dead," Laurence said, but he had identified the noise as cheering, and certainly some good news had arrived, if not of quite such an absurd caliber. "Morgan, go and rouse Mr. Hollin and the ground crew with my apologies for the hour, and ask them to bring Temeraire his breakfast. My dear," he said, turning to Temeraire, "I will go and learn what I can, and return with the news soonest."
"Yes, please, and do hurry," Temeraire said urgently, rearing up on his back legs to see above the trees what might be in progress.
The headquarters was blazing with light; Volly was sitting on the parade grounds before the building tearing ravenously into a sheep, a couple of groundsmen with the dispatch service keeping off the growing crowd of men streaming from the barracks. Several of the young Army and militia officers were firing off their guns in their excitement, and Laurence was forced to nearly push his way through to reach the doors.
The doors to Lenton's office were closed, but Captain James was sitting in the officers' club, eating with scarcely less ferocity than his dragon, and already all the other captains were with him, having the news.
"Nelson told me to wait; said they'd come out of port before I had time to make another circuit," James was saying, out of the corner of his mouth and somewhat muffled by toast, while Sutton attempted to sketch the scene on a piece of paper. "I hardly believed him, but sure enough, by Sunday morning out they came, and we met them off Cape Trafalgar early on Monday."
He swallowed down a cup of coffee, all the company waiting impatiently for him to finish, and pushed his plate aside for a moment to take the paper from Sutton. "Here, let me," he said, drawing little circles to mark the positions of the ships. "Twenty-seven and twelve dragons of ours, against thirty-three and ten."
"Two columns, breaking their line twice?" Laurence asked, studying the diagram with satisfaction: just the sort of strategy to throw the French into disarray, from which their ill-trained crews could hardly have recovered.
"What? Oh, the ships, yes, with Excidium and Laetificat over the weather column, Mortiferus over the lee," James said. "It was hot work at the head of the divisions, I can tell you; I couldn't see so much as a spar from above for the clouds of smoke. At one time I thought for sure Victory had blown up; the Spanish had one of those blasted little Flecha-del-Fuegos over there, dashing about quicker than our guns could answer. He had all her sails on fire before Laetificat sent him running with his tail between his legs."
"What were our losses?" Warren asked, his quiet voice cutting through the high spirits of their excitement.
James shook his head. "It was a proper bloodbath and no mistake," he said somberly. "I suppose we have near a thousand men killed; and poor Nelson himself came in a hairsbreadth of it: the fire-breather set alight one of Victory's sails, and it came down upon him where he stood on the quarterdeck. A couple of quick-thinking fellows doused him with the scuttlebutt, but they say his medals were melted to his skin, and he will wear them all the time, now."
"A thousand men; God rest their souls," Warren said; conversation ceased, and when finally resumed it was at first subdued.
But excitement, joy gradually overcame what perhaps were the more proper sentiments of the moment. "I hope you will excuse me, gentlemen," Laurence said, nearly shouting as the noise climbed to a fresh pitch; it precluded any chance of acquiring further intelligence for the moment. "I promised Temeraire to return at once. James, I suppose that the report of Bonaparte's demise is a false one?"
"Yes, more's the pity: unless he falls down in an apoplexy over the news," James called back, which roused a general shout of laughter that continued by natural progression into a round of "Hearts of Oak," and the singing followed Laurence out the door and even through the covert, as the song was taken up by the men outside.
By the time the sun rose, the covert was half empty. Scarcely a man had slept; the prevailing mood could not help but be joyful almost to the point of hysteria, as nerves which had been drawn to their limits abruptly relaxed. Lenton did not even attempt to call the men to order and looked the other way as they poured out of the covert into the city, to carry the news to those who had not yet heard and mingle their voices into the general rejoicing.
"Whatever scheme of invasion Bonaparte has been working towards, this must surely have put paid to it," Chenery said exultantly, later that evening, as they stood together on the balcony and watched the returning crowd still milling more slowly about in the parade grounds below, all the men thoroughly drunk but too happy for quarreling, snatches of song bursting out occasionally to float up towards them. "How I should like to see his face."
"I think we have been giving him too much credit," Lenton said; his cheeks were red with port and satisfaction, as well they might be: his judgment to send Excidium had proven sound and contributed materially to the victory. "I think it clear he does not understand the navy so well as the army and the aerial corps. An uninformed man might well imagine that thirty-three ships-of-the-line had no excuse to lose so thoroughly to twenty-seven."
"But how can it have taken his aerial divisions so long to reach them?" Harcourt said. "Only ten dragons, and from what James said, more than half of those Spanish – that is not a tenth of the strength he had in Austria. Perhaps he has not moved them from the Rhine after all?"
"I have heard the passes over the Pyrenees are damned difficult, though I have never tried them myself," Chenery said. "But I dare say he never sent them, thinking Villeneuve had what forces he needed, and they have all been lolling about in covert and getting fat. No doubt he has been thinking all this time that Villeneuve would sail straight through Nelson, perhaps losing one or two ships in the process: expecting them daily, and wondering where they were, and we here biting our nails meanwhile for no good reason."
"And now his army cannot come across," Harcourt said.
"Quoth Lord St. Vincent, 'I don't say they cannot come, but they cannot come by sea,' " Chenery said, grinning. "And if Bonaparte thinks to take Britain with forty dragons and their crews, he is very welcome to try, and we can give him a taste of those guns the militia fellows have been so busily digging-in. It would be a pity to waste all their hard work."
"I confess I would not mind a chance to give that rascal yet another dose of medicine," Lenton said. "But he will not be so foolish; we must be content with having done our duty, and let the Austrians have the glory of polishing him off. His hope of invasion is done." He swallowed the rest of his port and said abruptly, "There is no more putting it off, though, I am afraid; we cannot need anything more from Choiseul now."
In the silence that fell among them, Harcourt's drawn breath was almost a sob, but she made no protest, and her voice remained admirably steady as she merely asked, "Have you decided what you will do with Praecursoris?"
"We will send him to Newfoundland if he will go; they need another breeding sire there to fill out their complement, and it is not as though he were vicious," Lenton said. "The fault is with Choiseul, not him." He shook his head. "It is a damned pity, of course, and all our beasts will be creeping about miserable for days, but there is nothing else for it. Best to get it done with quickly; tomorrow morning."
Choiseul was given a few moments with Praecursoris, the big dragon nearly draped with chains and watched closely by Maximus and Temeraire on either side. Laurence felt the shudders go through Temeraire's body as they stood their unpleasant guard, forced to observe while Praecursoris swung his head from side to side in denial, and Choiseul made a desperate attempt to persuade him to accept the shelter Lenton had offered. At last the great head drooped in the barest hint of a nod, and Choiseul stepped close to lay his cheek against the smooth nose.
Then the guards stepped forward; Praecursoris tried to lash at them, but the entangling chains pulled him back, and as they led Choiseul away the dragon screamed: a dreadful sound. Temeraire hunched himself away from it, his wings flaring, and moaned softly; Laurence leaned forward and stretched himself fully against his neck, stroking over and over. "Do not look, my dear," he said, the words struggling to come through the thickening of his throat. "It will be over in a moment."
Praecursoris screamed once more, at the end; then he fell to the ground heavily, as if all vital force had gone from his body. Lenton signaled that they might go, and Laurence touched Temeraire's side. "Away, away," he said, and Temeraire launched himself far from the scaffold at once, striking out over the clean, empty sea.
"Laurence, may I bring Maximus over here, and Lily?" Berkley asked, in his usual abrupt way, having come upon him without warning. "Your clearing is big enough, I think."
Laurence raised his head and stared at him dully. Temeraire was still huddled in misery, head hidden beneath his wings, inconsolable: they had flown for hours, just the two of them and the ocean below, until Laurence had at last begged him to turn back to land, out of fear that he would become exhausted. He himself felt almost bruised and ill, as if feverish. He had attended at hangings before, a grim reality of naval life, and Choiseul had been far more deserving of the fate than many a man Laurence had seen at the end of a rope; he could not say why he felt such anguish now.
"If you like," he said, without enthusiasm, letting his head sink again. He did not look up at the rush of wings and shadows as Maximus came over the clearing, his enormous bulk blotting out the sun until he landed heavily beside Temeraire; Lily followed after him. They huddled at once around each other and Temeraire; after a few moments, Temeraire unwound himself enough to entwine more thoroughly with them both, and Lily spread her great wings over them all.
Berkley led Harcourt over to where Laurence sat leaning against Temeraire's side, and pushed her unresisting to sit beside him; he lowered his stout frame awkwardly to the ground opposite them and handed about a dark bottle. Laurence took it and drank without curiosity: strong, unwatered rum, and he had not eaten anything all day; it went to his head very quickly, and he was glad for the muffling of all sensation.
Harcourt began to weep after a little while, and Laurence was horrified to find his own face wet even as he reached to grip her shoulder. "He was a traitor, nothing but a lying traitor," Harcourt said, scrubbing tears away with the back of her hand. "I am not sorry in the least; I am not sorry at all." She spoke with an effort, as though she were trying to convince herself.
Berkley handed her the bottle again. "It is not him; damned rotter, deserved it," he said. "You are sorry on account of the dragon, and so are they. They don't think much of King and country, you know; Praecursoris never knew a damned thing about it but where Choiseul told him to go."
"Tell me," Laurence said abruptly, "would Bonaparte have really executed the dragon for treason?"
"Likely enough; the Continentals do, once in a great while. More to scare the riders off the notion than because they blame the beasts," Berkley said.
Laurence was sorry to have asked; sorry to know that Choiseul had been telling the truth so far at least. "Surely the Corps would have granted him shelter in the colonies, if he had asked," he said angrily. "There is still no possible excuse. He desired his place in France restored; he was willing to risk Praecursoris to have it back, for we might just as easily have chosen to put his dragon to death."
Berkley shook his head. "Knew we are too hard up for breeders to do as much," he said. "Not to excuse the fellow; I dare say you are right. He thought Bonaparte was going to roll us up, and he did not like to go and live in the colonies." Berkley shrugged. "Still damned hard on the dragon, and he has not done anything wrong."
"That is not true; he has," Temeraire put in unexpectedly, and they looked up at him; Maximus and Lily raised their heads as well to listen. "Choiseul could not have forced him to fly away from France, nor to come here bent on hurting us. It does not seem to me that he is any less guilty at all."
"I suppose it is likely he did not understand what was being asked of him," Harcourt said tentatively to this challenge.
Temeraire said, "Then he ought to have refused until he did understand: he is not simple, like Volly. He might have saved his rider's life, then, and his honor too. I would be ashamed to let my rider be executed, and not me too, if I had done as much." He added venomously, his tail lashing the air, "And I would not let anyone execute Laurence anyway; I should like to see them try."
Maximus and Lily both rumbled in agreement. "I will never let Berkley commit treason, ever," Maximus said, "but if he did, I would step on anyone who tried to hang him."
"I would just take Catherine and go away, I think," Lily said. "But perhaps Praecursoris would have liked to do the same. I suppose he could not break all those chains, for he is smaller than either of you, and he cannot spray. Also, there was only one of him, and he was being guarded. I do not know what I would do, if I could not have escaped."
She finished softly, and they all began to slump down in fresh misery, huddling together again, until Temeraire stopped and said with sudden decision, "I will tell you what we shall do: if ever you need to rescue Catherine, or you Berkley, Maximus, I will help you, and you will do as much for me. Then we do not need to worry; I do not suppose anyone could stop all three of us, at least not before we could escape."
All three of them appeared immeasurably cheered by this excellent scheme; Laurence was now regretting the amount of rum he had consumed, for he could not properly form the protest he felt had to be made, and urgently.
"Enough of that, you damned conspirators; you will have us hanged a great deal sooner than we will," Berkley said, thankfully, on his behalf. "Will you have something to eat, now? We are not going to eat until you do, and if you are so busy to protect us, you may as well begin by saving us from starvation."
"I do not think you are in any danger of starving," Maximus said. "The surgeon said only two weeks ago that you are too fat."
"The devil!" Berkley said indignantly, sitting up, and Maximus snorted in amusement at having provoked him; but shortly the three dragons did allow themselves to be persuaded to take some food, and Maximus and Lily returned to their own clearings to be fed.
"I am still sorry for Praecursoris, even though he acted badly," Temeraire said presently, having finished his meal. "I do not see why they could not let Choiseul go off to the colonies with him."
"There must be a price for such things, or else men would do them more often, and in any case he deserved to be punished for it," Laurence said; his own head had cleared with some food and strong coffee. "Choiseul meant to make Lily suffer as much as Praecursoris does; only imagine if the French had me prisoner, and demanded that you fly for them against your friends and former comrades to save my life."
"Yes, I do see," Temeraire said, but with dissatisfaction in his tone. "Yet it still seems to me they might have punished him differently. Would it not have been better to keep him a prisoner and force Praecursoris to fly for us?"
"I see you have a nice sense of the appropriate," Laurence said. "But I do not know that I can see any lesser punishment for treason; it is too despicable a crime to be punished by mere imprisonment."
"And yet Praecursoris is not to be punished the same way, only because it is not practical, and he is needed for breeding?" Temeraire said.
Laurence considered the matter and could not find an answer for this. "I suppose, in all honesty, being aviators ourselves we cannot like the idea of putting a dragon to death, and so we have found an excuse for letting him live," he said finally. "And as our laws are meant for men, perhaps it is not wholly fair to enforce them upon him."
"Oh, that I can well agree with," Temeraire said. "Some of the laws which I have heard make very little sense, and I do not know that I would obey them if it were not to oblige you. It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there."
"Next you will cry out against taxation without representation, and throw a basket of tea into the harbor," Laurence said. "You are indeed a very Jacobin at heart, and I think I must give up trying to cure you of it; I can but wash my hands and deny responsibility."READ MORE >>