BY THE NEXT morning Praecursoris had already gone, sent away to a dragon transport launching from Portsmouth for the small covert in Nova Scotia, whence he would be led to Newfoundland, and at last immured in the breeding grounds which had lately been started there. Laurence had avoided any further sight of the stricken dragon, and deliberately had kept Temeraire awake late the night before, so that he would sleep past the moment of departure.
Lenton had chosen his time as wisely as he could; the general rejoicing over the victory at Trafalgar continued, and served to counter the private unhappiness to some extent. That very day a display of fireworks was announced by pamphlets, to be held over the mouth of the Thames; and Lily, Temeraire, and Maximus, being the youngest of the dragons at the covert and the worst affected, were sent to observe by Lenton's orders.
Laurence was deeply grateful for the word as the brilliant displays lit the sky and the music from the barges drifted to them across the water: Temeraire's eyes were wide with excitement, the bright bursts of color reflecting in his pupils and his scales, and he cocked his head first one way then another, in an effort to hear more clearly. He talked of nothing but the music and the explosions and the lights, all the way back to the covert. "Is that a concert, then, the sort they have in Dover?" he asked. "Laurence, cannot we go again, and perhaps a little closer next time? I could sit very quietly, and I would not disturb anyone."
"I am afraid fireworks such as those are a special occasion, my dear; concerts are only music," Laurence said, avoiding an answer; he could well imagine the reaction of the city's inhabitants to a dragon's coming to take in a concert.
"Oh," Temeraire said, but he was not greatly dampened. "I would still like that extremely; I could not hear very well tonight."
"I do not know that there is any suitable accommodation which could be made in the city," Laurence said slowly and reluctantly, but happily a sudden inspiration came to him, and he added, "but perhaps I can hire some musicians to come to the covert and play for you, instead; that would be a great deal more comfortable, in any case."
"Yes, indeed, that would be splendid," Temeraire said eagerly. He communicated this idea to Maximus and Lily as soon as they had all once again landed, and the two of them professed equal interest.
"Damn you, Laurence, you had much better learn to say no; you will forever be getting us into these absurd starts," Berkley said. "Just see if any musicians will come here, for love or money."
"For love, perhaps not; but for a week's wages and a hearty meal, I am quite certain most musicians could be persuaded to play in the heart of Bedlam," Laurence said.
"It sounds a fine idea to me," Harcourt said. "I would quite like it myself. I have not been to a concert except once when I was sixteen; I had to put on skirts for it, and after only half an hour a dreadful fellow sat next to me and whispered impolite remarks until I poured a pot of coffee into his lap. It quite spoiled my pleasure, even though he went away straight after."
"Christ above, Harcourt, if I ever have reason to offend you, I will make damned sure you have nothing hot at hand," Berkley said; while Laurence struggled between nearly equal portions of dismay: at her having been subjected to such insult and at her means of repulsion.
"Well, I would have struck him, but I would have had to get up. You have no notion how difficult it is to arrange skirts when sitting down; it took me five minutes together the first time," she said reasonably. "So I did not want to have it all to do again. Then the waiter came by and I thought that would be easier, and anyway more like something a girl ought to do."
Still a little pale with the notion, Laurence bade them goodnight, and took Temeraire off to his rest. He slept once again in the small tent by his side, even though he thought Temeraire was well over his distress, and was rewarded in the morning by being woken early, Temeraire peering into the tent with one great eye and inquiring if perhaps Laurence would like to go to Dover and arrange for the concert today.
"I would like to sleep until a civilized hour, but as that is evidently not to be, perhaps I will ask leave of Lenton to go," Laurence said, yawning as he crawled from the tent. "May I have my breakfast first?"
"Oh, certainly," Temeraire said, with an air of generosity.
Muttering a little, Laurence pulled his coat back on and began to walk back to the headquarters. Halfway to the building, he nearly collided with Morgan, running to find him. "Sir, Admiral Lenton wants you," the boy said, panting with excitement, when Laurence had steadied him. "And he says, Temeraire is to go into combat rig."
"Very good," Laurence said, concealing his surprise. "Go tell Lieutenant Granby and Mr. Hollin at once, and then do as Lieutenant Granby tells you; mind you speak of this to no one else."
"Yes, sir," the boy said, and dashed off again to the barracks; Laurence quickened his pace.
"Come in, Laurence," Lenton said in reply to his knock; it seemed that every other captain in the covert was already crowded into the office as well. To Laurence's surprise, Rankin was at the front of the room, sitting by Lenton's desk. By wordless agreement, they had managed to avoid speaking to one another since Rankin's transfer from Loch Laggan, and Laurence had known nothing of his and Levitas's activities. These had evidently been more dangerous than Laurence might have imagined: a bandage around Rankin's thigh was visibly stained with blood, and his clothes also; his thin face was pale and set with pain.
Lenton waited only until the door had closed behind the last few stragglers to begin; he said grimly, "I dare say you already realize, gentlemen: we have been celebrating too soon. Captain Rankin has just returned from a flight over the coast; he was able to slip past their borders, and caught a look at what that damned Corsican has been working on. You may see for yourselves."
He pushed across his desk a sheet of paper, smudged with dirt and bloodstains that did not obscure an elegantly drafted diagram in Rankin's precise hand. Laurence frowned, trying to puzzle the thing out: it looked rather like a ship-of-the-line, but with no railings at all around her upper deck, and no masts shipped, with strange thick beams protruding from both sides fore and aft, and no gunports.
"What is it for?" Chenery said, turning it around. "I thought he already had boats?"
"Perhaps it will become clearer if I explain that he had dragons carrying them about over the ground," Rankin said. Laurence understood at once: the beams were intended to give the dragons a place to hold; Napoleon meant to fly his troops over the Navy's guns entirely, while so many of Britain's aerial forces were occupied at the Mediterranean.
Lenton said, "We are not certain how many men he will have in each – "
"Sir, I beg your pardon; may I ask, how long are these vessels?" Laurence asked, interrupting. "And is this to scale?"
"To my eye, yes," Rankin said. "The one which I saw in mid-air had two Reapers to a side, and room to spare; perhaps two hundred feet from front to back."
"They will be three-deckers inside, then," Laurence said grimly. "If they sling hammocks, he can fit as many as two thousand men apiece, for a short journey, if he means to carry no provisions."
A murmur of alarm went around the room. Lenton said, "Less than two hours to cross each way, even if they launch from Cherbourg, and he has sixty dragons or more."
"He could land fifty thousand men by midmorning, good God," said one of the captains Laurence did not know, a man who had arrived only recently; the same calculation was running in all their heads. It was impossible not to look about the room and tally their own side: less than twenty men, a good quarter of whom were the scout and courier captains whose beasts could do very little in combat.
"But surely the things must be hopeless to manage in the air, and can the dragons carry such a weight?" Sutton asked, studying the design further.
"Likely he has built them from light wood; he only needs them to last a day, after all, and they need not be watertight," Laurence said. "He needs only an easterly wind to carry him over; with that narrow framing they will offer very little resistance. But they will be vulnerable in the air, and surely Excidium and Mortiferus are already on their way back?"
"Four days away, at best, and Bonaparte must know that as well as do we," Lenton said. "He has spent nearly his entire fleet and the Spanish as well to buy himself freedom from their presence; he is not going to waste the chance." The obvious truth of this was felt at once; a grim and expectant silence fell upon the room. Lenton looked down at his desk, then stood up, uncharacteristically slow; Laurence for the first time noticed that his hair was grey and thin.
"Gentlemen," Lenton said formally, "the wind is in the north today, so we may have a little grace if he chooses to wait for a better wind. All of our scouts will be flying in shifts just off Cherbourg; we will have an hour's warning at least. I do not need to tell you we will be hopelessly outnumbered; we can only do our best, and delay if we cannot prevent."
No one spoke, and after a moment he said, "We will need every heavy- and middleweight beast on independent duty; your task will be to destroy these transports. Chenery, Warren, the two of you will take midwing positions in Lily's formation, and two of our scouts will take the wing-tip positions. Captain Harcourt, undoubtedly Bonaparte will reserve some dragons for defense; your task is to keep those defenders occupied as best you can."
"Yes, sir," she said; the others nodded.
Lenton took a deep breath and rubbed his face. "There is nothing else to be said, gentlemen; go to your preparations."
There was no sense in keeping it from the men; the French had nearly caught Rankin on his way back and already knew that their secret at last was out. Laurence quietly told his lieutenants, then sent them about their work; he could see the passage of the news through the ranks: men leaning in to hear from one another, their faces hardening as they grasped the situation, and the ordinary idle conversation of a morning vanishing quite away. He was proud to see even the youngest officers take it with great courage and go straight back to their work.
This was the first time Temeraire would ever use the complete accoutrements of heavy combat outside of practice; for patrol a much lighter set of gear was used, and their previous engagement had been under traveling harness. Temeraire stood very straight and still, only his head turned about so he could watch with great excitement as the men rigged him out with the heaviest leather harness, triple-riveted, and began hooking in the enormous panels of chain-mesh that would serve as armor.
Laurence began his own inspection of the equipment and belatedly realized that Hollin was nowhere to be seen; he looked three times through the whole clearing before he quite believed the man's absence, and then called the armorer Pratt away from his work on the great protective plates which would shield Temeraire's breast and shoulders during the fighting. "Where is Mr. Hollin?" he asked.
"Why, I don't believe I've seen him this morning, sir," Pratt said, scratching his head. "He was in last night, though."
"Very good," Laurence said, and dismissed him. "Roland, Dyer, Morgan," he called, and when the three runners came, he said, "Go and see if you can find Mr. Hollin, and then tell him I expect him here at once, if you please."
"Yes, sir," they said almost in unison, and dashed off in different directions after a hurried consultation.
He returned to watching the men work, a deep frown on his face; he was astonished and dismayed to find the man failing in his duty at all, and under these circumstances most particularly; he wondered if Hollin could have fallen ill and gone to the surgeons: it seemed the only excuse, but the man would surely have told one of his crewmates.
More than an hour went by, and Temeraire was in full rig with the crew practicing boarding maneuvers under Lieutenant Granby's severe eye, before young Roland came hurrying back to the clearing. "Sir," she said, panting and unhappy. "Sir, Mr. Hollin is with Levitas, please do not be angry," she said, all in one rushing breath.
"Ah," Laurence said, a little embarrassed; he could hardly admit to Roland that he had been turning a blind eye to Hollin's visits, so she naturally was reluctant to be a tale-bearer on a fellow aviator. "He will have to answer for it, but that can wait; go and tell him he is needed at once."
"Sir, I told him so, but he said he cannot leave Levitas, and he told me to go away at once, and to tell you that he begs you to come, if only you can," she said, very quickly, and eyeing him nervously to see how he would take this insubordination.
Laurence stared; he could not account for the extraordinary response, but after a moment, his estimate of Hollin's character decided him. "Mr. Granby," he called, "I must go for a moment; I leave things in your hands. Roland, stay here and come fetch me at once if anything occurs," he told her.
He walked quickly, torn between temper and concern, and reluctance to once again expose himself to a complaint from Rankin, particularly under the circumstances. No one could deny the man had done his duty bravely, just now, and to offer him insult directly after would be an extraordinary piece of rudeness. And at the same time, Laurence could not help but grow angry at the man as he followed Roland's directions: Levitas's clearing was one of the small ones nearest the headquarters, undoubtedly chosen for Rankin's convenience rather than his dragon's; the grounds were poorly tended, and when Levitas came into view, Laurence saw he was lying in a circle of bare sandy dirt, with his head in Hollin's lap.
"Well, Mr. Hollin, what's all this?" Laurence said, irritation making his tone sharp; then he came around and saw the great expanse of bandages that covered Levitas's flank and belly, hidden from the other side, and already soaked through with the near-black blood. "My God," he said involuntarily.
Levitas's eyes opened a little at the sound and turned up to look at him hopefully; they were glazed and bright with pain, but after a moment recognition came into them, and the little dragon sighed and closed them again, without a word.
"Sir," Hollin said, "I'm sorry, I know I've my duty, but I couldn't leave him. The surgeon's gone; says there's nothing more to be done for him, and it won't be long. There is no one here at all, not even to send for some water." He stopped, and said again, "I couldn't leave him."
Laurence knelt beside him and put his hand on Levitas's head, very lightly for fear of causing him more pain. "No," he said. "Of course not."
He was glad now to find himself so close to the headquarters. There were some crewmen idling by the door talking of the news, so he could send them to Hollin's assistance, and Rankin was in the officers' club, easily found. He was drinking wine, his color already greatly improved and having shifted his bloodstained clothing for fresh; Lenton and a couple of the scout captains were sitting with him and discussing positions to hold along the coastline.
Coming up to him, Laurence told him very quietly, "If you can walk, get on your feet; otherwise I will carry you."
Rankin put down his glass and stared at him coldly. "I beg your pardon?" he said. "I gather this is some more of your officious – "
Laurence paid no attention, but seized the back of his chair and heaved. Rankin fell forward, scrabbling to catch himself on the floor; Laurence took him by the scruff of his coat and dragged him up to his feet, ignoring his gasp of pain.
"Laurence, what in God's name – " Lenton said in astonishment, rising to his feet.
"Levitas is dying; Captain Rankin wishes to make his farewells," Laurence said, looking Lenton squarely in the eye and holding Rankin up by the collar and the arm. "He begs to be excused."
The other captains stared, half out of their chairs. Lenton looked at Rankin, then very deliberately sat back down again. "Very good," he said, and reached for the bottle; the other captains slowly sank back down as well.
Rankin stumbled along in his grip, not even trying to free himself, shrinking a little from Laurence as they went; outside the clearing, Laurence stopped and faced him. "You will be generous to him, do you understand me?" he said. "You will give him every word of praise he has earned from you and never received; you will tell him he has been brave, and loyal, and a better partner than you have deserved."
Rankin said nothing, only stared as if Laurence were a dangerous lunatic; Laurence shook him again. "By God, you will do all this and more, and hope that it is enough to satisfy me," he said savagely, and dragged him on.
Hollin was still sitting with Levitas's head in his lap, a bucket now beside him; he was squeezing water from a clean cloth into the dragon's open mouth. He looked at Rankin without bothering to hide his contempt, but then he bent over and said, "Levitas, come along now; look who's come."
Levitas's eyes opened, but they were milky and blind. "My captain?" he said uncertainly.
Laurence thrust Rankin forward and down onto his knees, none too gently; Rankin gasped and clutched at his thigh, but he said, "Yes, I am here." He looked up at Laurence and swallowed, then added awkwardly, "You have been very brave."
There was nothing natural or sincere in the tone; it was as ungraceful as could be imagined. But Levitas only said, very softly, "You came." He licked at a few drops of water at the corner of his mouth. The blood was still welling sluggishly from beneath the dressing, thick enough to slightly part the bandages one from the other, glistening and black. Rankin shifted uneasily; his breeches and stockings were being soaked through, but he looked up at Laurence and did not try to move away.
Levitas gave a low sigh, and then the shallow movement of his sides ceased. Hollin closed his eyes with one rough hand.
Laurence's hand was still heavy on the back of Rankin's neck; now he lifted it away, rage gone, and only tight-lipped disgust left. "Go," he said. "We who valued him will make the arrangements, not you." He did not even look at the man as Rankin left the clearing. "I cannot stay," he said quietly to Hollin. "Can you manage?"
"Yes," Hollin said, stroking the little head. "There can't be anything, with the battle coming and all, but I'll see he's taken and buried proper. Thank you, sir; it meant a great deal to him."
"More than it ought," Laurence said. He stood looking down at Levitas a short while longer; then he went back to the headquarters and found Admiral Lenton.
"Well?" Lenton asked, scowling, as Laurence was shown into his office.
"Sir, I apologize for my behavior," Laurence said. "I am happy to bear any consequences you should think appropriate."
"No, no, what are you talking about? I mean Levitas," Lenton said impatiently.
Laurence paused, then said, "Dead, with a great deal of pain, but he went easily at the end."
Lenton shook his head. "Damned pity," he said, pouring a glass of brandy for Laurence and himself. He finished his own glass in two great swallows and sighed heavily. "And a wretched time for Rankin to become unharnessed," he said. "We have a Winchester hatching unexpectedly at Chatham: any day now, by the hardening of the shell. I have been scrambling to find a fellow in range worthy of the position and willing to be put to a Winchester; now here he is on the loose and having made himself a hero bringing us this news. If I don't send him and the beast ends up unharnessed, we will have a yowl from his entire damned family, and a question taken up in Parliament, like as not."
"I would rather see a dragon dead than in his hands," Laurence said, setting down his glass hard. "Sir, if you want a man who will be a credit to the service, send Mr. Hollin; I would vouch with my life for him."
"What, your ground-crew master?" Lenton frowned at him, but thoughtfully. "That is a thought, if you think him suited for the task; he could not feel he was hurting his career by such a step. Not a gentleman, I suppose."
"No, sir, unless by gentleman you mean a man of honor rather than breeding," Laurence said.
Lenton snorted at this. "Well, we are not so stiff-necked a lot we must pay that a great deal of mind," he said. "I dare say it will answer nicely; if we are not all dead or captured by the time the egg cracks, at any rate."
Hollin stared when Laurence relieved him of his duties, and said a little helplessly, "My own dragon?" He had to turn away and hide his face; Laurence pretended not to see. "Sir, I don't know how to thank you," he said, whispering to keep his voice from breaking.
"I have promised you will be a credit to the service; see to it you do not make me a liar, and I will be content," Laurence said, and shook his hand. "You must go at once; the hatching is expected at almost any day, and there is a carriage waiting to take you to Chatham."
Looking dazed, Hollin accepted Laurence's hand, and the bag with his few possessions which his fellows on the ground crew had hastily packed for him, then allowed himself to be led off towards the waiting carriage by young Dyer. The crew were beaming upon him as they went; he was obliged to shake a great many hands, until Laurence, fearing he would never get under way, said, "Gentlemen, the wind is still in the north; let us get some of this armor off Temeraire for the night," and put them to work.
Temeraire watched him go a little sadly. "I am very glad that the new dragon will have him instead of Rankin, but I wish they had given him to Levitas sooner, and perhaps Hollin would have kept him from dying," he said to Laurence, as the crew worked on him.
"We cannot know what would have happened," Laurence said. "But I am not certain Levitas could ever have been happy with such an exchange; even at the end he only wanted Rankin's affection, as strange as that seems to us."
Laurence slept with Temeraire again that evening, close and sheltered in his arms and wrapped in several woolen blankets against the early frost. He woke just before first light to see the barren tree-tops bending away from the sunrise: an easterly wind, blowing from France.
"Temeraire," he called quietly, and the great head rose up above him to sniff the air.
"The wind has changed," Temeraire said, and bent down to nuzzle him.
Laurence allowed himself the indulgence of five minutes, lying warm and embraced, with his hands resting on the narrow, tender scales of Temeraire's nose. "I hope I have never given you cause for unhappiness, my dear," he said softly.
"Never, Laurence," Temeraire said, very low.
The ground crew came hurrying from the barracks the moment he touched the bell. The chain-mesh had been left in the clearing, under a cloth, and Temeraire had slept in the heavy harness for this once. He was quickly fitted out, while at the other side of the clearing Granby reviewed every man's harness and carabiners. Laurence submitted to his inspection as well, then took a moment to clean and reload his pistols fresh, and belt on his sword.
The sky was cold and white, a few darker grey clouds scudding like shadows. No orders had come yet. At Laurence's request, Temeraire lifted him up to his shoulder and reared onto his hind legs; he could see the dark line of the ocean past the trees, and the ships bobbing in the harbor. The wind came strongly into his face, cold and salt. "Thank you, Temeraire," he said, and Temeraire set him down again. "Mr. Granby, we will get the crew aboard," Laurence said.
The ground crew put up a great noise, more a roar than a cheer, as Temeraire rose into the air; Laurence could hear it echoed throughout the covert as the other great beasts beat up into the sky. Maximus was a great blazing presence in his red-gold brilliance, dwarfing the others; Victoriatus and Lily also stood out against the crowd of smaller Yellow Reapers.
Lenton's flag was streaming from his dragon Obversaria, the golden Anglewing; she was only a little larger than the Reapers, but she cut through the crowd of dragons and took the lead with effortless grace, her wings rotating almost as did Temeraire's. As the larger dragons had been set on independent duty, Temeraire did not need to keep to the formation's speed; he quickly negotiated a position near the leading edge of the force.
The wind was in their faces, cold and damp, and the low whistling shriek of their passage carried away all noise, leaving only the leathery snap of Temeraire's wings, each beat like a sail going taut, and the creaking of the harness. Nothing else broke the unnatural, heavy silence of the crew. They were already drawn in sight: at this distance the French dragons seemed a cloud of gulls or sparrows, so many were they, and wheeling so in unison.
The French were keeping at a considerable height, some nine hundred feet above the surface of the water, well out of range of even the longest pepper guns. Below them, a lovely and futile spread of white sail: the Channel Fleet, many of the ships wreathed in smoke where they had tried a hopeless shot. More of the ships had taken up positions nearer the land, despite the terrible danger of placing themselves so close to a leeward shore; if the French could be forced to land very near the edge of the cliffs, they might yet come into range of the long guns, if briefly.
Excidium and Mortiferus were racing back from Trafalgar at frantic speed with their formations, but they could not hope to arrive before the end of the week. There was not a man among them but had known to a nicety the numbers which the French could muster against them. Rationally, there had never been any cause for hope.
Even so, it was a different thing to see those numbers made flesh and wing: fully twelve of the light wooden transports which Rankin had spied out, each carried by four dragons, and defended by as many more besides. Laurence had never heard of such a force in modern warfare; it was the stuff of the Crusades, when dragons had been smaller and the country more wild, the more easily to feed them.
This occurring to him, Laurence turned to Granby and said calmly, loud enough to carry back to the men, "The logistics of feeding so many dragons together must be impractical for any extended period; he will not be able to try this again soon."
Granby only stared at him a moment, then with a start he said hurriedly, "Just so; right you are. Should we give the men a little exercise? I think we have at least half an hour's grace before we meet them."
"Very good," Laurence said, pushing himself up to his feet; the force of the wind was great, but braced against his straps he was able to turn around. The men did not quite like to meet his eyes, but there was an effect: backs straightened, whispers stopped; none of them cared to show fear or reluctance to his face.
"Mr. Johns, exchange of positions, if you please," Granby called through his speaking-trumpet; shortly the topmen and bellmen had run through their exchange under the direction of their lieutenants, and the men were warmed up against the biting wind; their faces looked a little less pinched. They could not engage in true gunnery-practice with the other crews so close, but with a commendable show of energy, Lieutenant Riggs had his riflemen fire blanks to loosen their fingers. Dunne had long, thin hands, at present bled white with cold; as he struggled to reload, his powder-horn slipped out of his fingers and nearly went over the side. Collins only saved it by leaning nearly straight out from Temeraire's back, just barely catching the cord.
Temeraire glanced back once as the shots went off, but straightened himself again without any reminder. He was flying easily, at a pace which he could have sustained for the better part of a day; his breathing was not labored or even much quickened. His only difficulty was an excess of high spirits: as the French dragons came more closely into view, he succumbed to excitement and put on a burst of speed; but at the touch of Laurence's hand, he drew back again into the line.
The French defenders had formed into a loosely woven line-of-battle, the larger dragons above, with the smaller ones beneath in a darting unpredictable mass, forming a wall shielding the transport vessels and their carriers. Laurence felt if only they could break through the line, there might be some hope. The carriers, most of them of the middle-weight P¨ºcheur-Raye breed, were laboring greatly: the unaccustomed weight was telling on them, and he was sure they would be vulnerable to an attack.
But they had twenty-three dragons to the French forty-and-more defenders, and almost a quarter of the British force was made up of Greylings and Winchesters, no proper match for the combat-weight dragons. Getting through the line would be nearly impossible; and once through, any attacker would immediately be isolated and vulnerable in turn.
On Obversaria, Lenton sent up the flags for attack: Engage the enemy more closely. Laurence felt his own heart begin beating faster, with the tremble of excitement that would fade only after the first moments of battle. He raised the speaking-trumpet and called forward, "Choose your target, Temeraire; if ever you can get us alongside a transport, you cannot do wrong." In the confusion of the enormous crowd of dragons, he trusted Temeraire's instincts better than his own; if there was a gap in the French line, Laurence was sure that Temeraire would see it.
By way of answer, Temeraire struck out immediately for one of the outlying transports, as if he meant to go straight at it; abruptly he folded his wings and dived, and the three French dragons who had closed ranks in front of him dashed in pursuit. Swiveling his wings, Temeraire halted himself in mid-air while the three went flashing past; with a few mighty wing-strokes he was now flying directly up towards the unprotected belly of the first carrier on the larboard side, and now Laurence could see that this dragon, a smaller female P¨ºcheur-Raye, was visibly tired: her wings laboring, even though her pace was still regular.
"Ready bombs," Laurence shouted. As Temeraire came hurtling past the P¨ºcheur-Raye and slashed at the French dragon's side, the crew hurled the bombs onto the deck of the transport. The crack of gunfire came from the P¨ºcheur's back, and Laurence heard a cry behind him: Collins threw up his arms and went limp in his harness, his rifle tumbling away into the water below. A moment later the body followed: he was dead, and one of the others had cut him loose.
There were no guns on the transport itself, but the deck was built slanting like a roof: three of the bombs rolled off before they could burst, drifting smoke as they fell uselessly. However, two exploded in time: the whole transport sagged in mid-air as the shock briefly threw the P¨ºcheur off her pace, gaping holes torn in the wooden planking. Laurence caught a single glimpse of a pale, staring face inside, smudged with dirt and inhuman with terror; then Temeraire was angling away.
Blood was dripping from somewhere below, a thin black stream; Laurence leaned to check, but saw no injury; Temeraire was flying well. "Granby," he shouted, pointing.
"From his claws – the other beast," Granby shouted back, after a moment, and Laurence nodded.
But there was no opportunity for a second pass: two more French dragons were coming at them directly. Temeraire beat up quickly into the sky, the enemy beasts following; they had seen his trick of maneuvering and were coming at a more cautious pace so as not to overrun him.
"Double back, straight down and at them," Laurence called to Temeraire.
"Guns ready," Riggs shouted behind him, as Temeraire drew a deep, swelling breath and neatly turned back on himself in mid-air. No longer at war with gravity, he plummeted towards the French dragons, roaring furiously. The tremendous volume rattled Laurence's bones even in the face of the wind; the dragon in the lead recoiled, shrieking, and entangled the head of the second in its wings.
Temeraire flew straight down between them, through the bitter smoke of the enemy gunfire, the British rifles speaking in answer; several of the enemy dead were already cut loose and falling. Temeraire lashed out and carved a gash along the second dragon's flank as they went past; the spurting blood splashed Laurence's trousers, fever-hot against his skin.
They were away, and the two attackers were still struggling to right themselves: the first was flying very badly and making shrill noises of pain. Even as Laurence glanced behind them he saw the dragon being turned back for France: with their advantage in numbers, Bonaparte's aviators had no need to push their dragons past injury.
"Bravely done," Laurence called, unable to keep jubilation, pride out of his voice, as absurd as it was to indulge in such sentiments at the height of so desperate a battle. Behind him, the crew cheered wildly as the second of the French dragons pulled away to find another opponent, not daring to attempt Temeraire alone. At once Temeraire was winging back towards their original target, head raised proudly: he was still unmarked.
Their formation-partner Messoria was at the transport: thirty years of experience made her and Sutton wily, and they too had won past the line-of-battle, to continue the attack on the already-weakened P¨ºcheur whom Temeraire had injured. A pair of the smaller Poux-de-Ciel were defending the P¨ºcheur; together they were more than Messoria's weight, but she was making use of every trick she had, skillfully baiting them forward, trying to make an opening for a dash at the P¨ºcheur. More smoke was pouring from the transport's deck: Sutton's crew had evidently managed to land a few more bombs upon it.
Flank to larboard, Sutton signaled from Messoria's back as they approached. Messoria made a dash at the two defenders to keep their attention on her, while Temeraire swept forward and lashed at the P¨ºcheur's side, his claws tearing through the chain-mesh with a hideous noise; dark blood spurted. Bellowing, instinctively trying to lash out at Temeraire in defense, the P¨ºcheur let go the beam with one foreleg; it was secured to the dragon's body by many heavy chains, but even so the transport listed visibly down, and Laurence could hear the men inside yelling.
Temeraire made an ungraceful but effective fluttering hop and avoided the strike, still closely engaged; he tore away more of the chain-mesh and clawed the P¨ºcheur again. "Prepare volley," Riggs bellowed, and the riflemen strafed the P¨ºcheur's back cruelly. Laurence saw one of the French officers taking aim at Temeraire's head; he fired his own pistols, and with the second shot, the man went down clutching his leg.
"Sir, permission to board," Granby called forward. The P¨ºcheur's topmen and riflemen had suffered heavy losses; its back was largely cleared, and the opportunity was ideal; Granby was standing at the ready with a dozen of the men, all of them with swords drawn and hands ready to unlock their carabiners.
Laurence had been dreading this possibility of all things; it was only with deep reluctance that he gave Temeraire the word and laid them alongside the French dragon. "Boarders away," he shouted, waving Granby his permission with a low, sinking feeling in his belly; nothing could have been more unpleasant than to watch his men make that terrifying unharnessed leap into the waiting enemy's hands, while he himself had to remain at his station.
A terrible ululating cry in the near distance: Lily had just struck a French dragon full in the face, and it was scrabbling and clawing at its own face, jerking in one direction and then the next, frenzied with the pain. Temeraire's shoulders hunched with sympathy just as the P¨ºcheur's did; Laurence flinched himself from the intolerable sound. Then the screaming stopped, abruptly; a sickening relief: the captain had crept out along the neck and put a bullet into his own dragon's head rather than see the creature die slowly as the acid ate through the skull and into the brain. Many of his crew had leapt to other dragons for safety, some even to Lily's back, but he had sacrificed the opportunity; Laurence saw him falling alongside the tumbling dragon, and they plunged into the ocean together.
He wrenched himself from the horrible fascination of the sight; the bloody struggle aboard the P¨ºcheur's back was going well for them, and he could already see a couple of the midwingmen working on the chains that secured the transport to the dragon. But the P¨ºcheur's distress had not gone unnoticed: another French dragon was coming towards them at speed, and some exceptionally daring men were climbing out of the holes in the damaged transport, trying to make their way up the chains to the P¨ºcheur's back to provide assistance. Even as Laurence caught sight of them, a couple of them slipped on the sloping deck and fell; but there were more than a dozen making the attempt, and if they were to reach the P¨ºcheur, they would certainly turn the tide of battle against Granby and the boarders.
Messoria cried out then, a long shrill wail. "Fall back," Laurence heard Sutton shouting. She was streaming dark blood from a deep cut across her breastbone, another wound on her flank already being packed with white bandage; she dropped and wheeled away, leaving the two Poux-de-Ciel who had been attacking her at liberty. Though they were much smaller than Temeraire, he could not engage the P¨ºcheur while under attack from two directions: Laurence had either to call back the boarding party, or abandon them and hope they could take the P¨ºcheur, securing its surrender by seizing its captain alive.
"Granby!" Laurence shouted; the lieutenant looked around, wiping blood from a cut on his face, and nodded as soon as he saw their position, waving them off. Laurence touched Temeraire's side and called to him; with a last parting slash across the P¨ºcheur's flank that laid white bone bare, Temeraire spun away, gaining some distance, and hovered to permit them to survey. The two smaller French dragons did not pursue, but remained hovering close to the P¨ºcheur; they did not dare try to get close enough to send men over, for Temeraire could easily overwhelm them if they put themselves in so exposed a position.
Yet Temeraire himself was also in some danger. The riflemen and half the bellmen had gone for the boarding party; well worth the risk, for if they took the P¨ºcheur, the transport could not very well continue on; if it did not fall entirely, at least the three remaining dragons would likely be forced to turn back for France. But that meant Temeraire was now undermanned, and they were vulnerable to boarding themselves: they could not risk another close engagement.
The boarding party was making steady progress now against the last men resisting aboard the P¨ºcheur's back; they would certainly outdistance the men from the transport. One of the Poux-de-Ciel dashed in and tried to lie alongside the P¨ºcheur; "At them," Laurence called, and Temeraire dived instantly, his raking claws and teeth sending the smaller beast into a hurried retreat. Laurence had to send Temeraire winging away again, but it had been enough. The French had lost their chance, and the P¨ºcheur was crying out in alarm, twisting her head around: Granby was standing at the French dragon's neck with a pistol aimed at a man's head – they had taken the captain.
At Granby's order, the chains were flung off the P¨ºcheur, and they turned the captured French dragon's head towards Dover. She flew unwillingly and slowly, head turning back every few moments in anxiety for her captain; but she went, and the transport was left hanging wildly askew, the three remaining dragons struggling desperately under its weight.
Laurence had little opportunity to enjoy the triumph: two fresh dragons came diving at them: a Petit Chevalier considerably larger than Temeraire despite the name, and a middleweight P¨ºcheur-Couronne who dashed to seize the sagging support beam. The men still clinging to the roof threw the dangling chains to the fresh dragon's crew, and in moments the transport was righted and under way again.
The Poux-de-Ciel were coming at them again from opposite sides, and the Petit Chevalier was angling round from behind: their position was exposed, and growing rapidly hopeless. "Withdraw, Temeraire," Laurence called, bitter though the order was to give. Temeraire turned away at once, but the pursuing dragons drew nearer; he had been fighting hard now for nearly half an hour, and he was tiring.
The two Poux-de-Ciel were working in concert, trying to herd Temeraire towards the big dragon, darting across his path of flight to slow him. The Petit Chevalier suddenly put on a burst of speed, and as he drew alongside them a handful of men leapt over. " 'Ware boarders," Lieutenant Johns shouted in his hoarse baritone, and Temeraire looked round in alarm. Fear gave him fresh energy to draw away from the pursuit; the Chevalier fell behind, and after Temeraire lashed out and caught one of the Poux-de-Ciel, they too abandoned the chase.
However, there were eight men already crossed over and latched on; Laurence grimly reloaded his pistols, thrusting them into his belt, then lengthened his carabiner straps and stood. The five topmen under Lieutenant Johns were trying to hold the boarders at the middle of Temeraire's back. Laurence made his way back as quickly as he dared. His first shot went wide, his second took a Frenchman directly in the chest; the man fell coughing blood and dangled limply from the harness.
Then it was hot, frantic sword-work, with the sky whipping past too quickly to see anything but the men before him. A French lieutenant was standing in front of him; the man saw his gold bars and aimed a pistol at him; Laurence barely heard the speech the man tried to make him, and paid no attention, but knocked the gun away with his sword-arm and clubbed the Frenchman on the temple with his pistol-butt. The lieutenant fell; the man behind him lunged, but the wind of their passage was against him, and the sword-thrust scarcely penetrated the leather coat Laurence wore.
Laurence cut the man's harness-straps and kicked him off with a boot to the middle, then looked around for more boarders; but by good fortune the others were all dead or disarmed, and for their part only Challoner and Wright had fallen, except for Lieutenant Johns, who was hanging from his carabiners, blood welling up furiously from a pistol-wound in his chest; before they could try to tend him, he gave a final rattling gasp and also was still.
Laurence bent down and closed Johns's dead, staring eyes, and hung his own sword back on his belt. "Mr. Martin, take command of the top, acting lieutenant. Get these bodies cleared away."
"Yes, sir," Martin said, panting; there was a bloody gash across his cheek, and red splashes of blood in his yellow hair. "Is your arm all right, Captain?"
Laurence looked; blood was seeping a little through the rent in the coat, but he could move the arm easily, and he felt no weakness. "Only a scratch; I will tie it up directly."
He clambered over a body and back to his station at the neck and latched himself in tight, then pulled loose his neckcloth to wrap around the wound. "Boarders repelled," he called, and the nervous tension left Temeraire's shoulders. Temeraire had drawn away from the battlefield, as proper when boarded; now he turned back around, and when Laurence looked up he could see the whole extent of the field of battle, where it was not obscured by smoke and dragon wings.
All but three of the transports were under no sort of attack at all: the British dragons were being heavily engaged by the French defenders. Lily was flying virtually alone; only Nitidus remained with her, the others of their formation nowhere in Laurence's sight. He looked for Maximus and saw him engaged closely with their old enemy, the Grand Chevalier; the intervening two months of growth had brought Maximus closer to his size, and the two of them were tearing at each other in a terrible savagery.
At this distance the sound of the battle was muffled; instead he could hear a more fatal one entirely: the crash of the waves, breaking upon the foot of the white cliffs. They had been driven nearly to shore, and he could see the red-and-white coats of the soldiers formed up on the ground. It was not yet midday.
Abruptly a phalanx of six heavy-weight dragons broke off from the French line and dived towards the ground, all of them roaring at the top of their lungs while their crews threw bombs down. The thin ranks of redcoats wavered as in a breeze, and the mass of militia in the center almost broke, men falling to their knees and covering their heads, though scarcely any real damage was done. A dozen guns were fired off, wildly: shots wasted, Laurence thought in despair, and the leading transport could make its descent almost unmolested.
The four carriers drew closer together, flying in a tight knot directly above the transport, and let the keel of the vessel carve a resting place in the ground with its own momentum. The British soldiers in the front ranks threw up their arms as an immense cloud of dirt burst into their faces, and then almost at once half of them fell dead: the whole front of the transport had unhinged like a barn door, and a volley of rifle-fire erupted from inside to mow down the front lines.
A shout of "Vive l'Empereur!" went up as the French soldiers poured out through the smoke: more than a thousand men, dragging a pair of eighteen-pounders with them; the men formed into lines to protect the guns as the artillery-men hurried to bring their charges to bear. The redcoats fired off an answering volley, and a few moments later the militia managed a ragged one of their own, but the Frenchmen were hardened veterans; though dozens fell dead, the ranks shut tight to fill in their places, and the men held their ground.
The four dragons who had carried the transport were flinging off their chains. Free of their burden, they rose again to join the fight, leaving the British aerial forces even more outnumbered than before. In a moment another transport would land under this increased protection, and its own carriers worsen the situation further.
Maximus roared furiously, clawed free of the Grand Chevalier and made a sudden desperate stoop towards the next transport as it began to descend; no art or maneuver, he only flung himself down. Two smaller dragons tried to bar his way, but he had committed his full weight to the dive; though he took raking blows from their claws and teeth, he bowled them apart by sheer force. One was only knocked aside; the other, a red-and-blue-barred Honneur-d'Or, tumbled against the cliffs with one wing splayed helplessly. It scrabbled at the ragged stone face, sending powdery chalk flying as it tried to get purchase and climb up onto the cliff-top.
A light frigate of some twenty-four guns, with a shallow draft, had been daring to stay near the coast; now she leapt at the chance: before the dragon could get up over the cliff's edge, her full double-shotted broadside roared out like thunder. The French dragon screamed once over the noise and fell, broken; the unforgiving surf pounded its corpse and the remnants of its crew upon the rocks.
Above, Maximus had landed on the second transport and was clawing at the chains; his weight was too much for the carriers to support, but they were struggling valiantly, and with a great heave in unison they managed to get the transport over the edge of the cliff as he finally broke the supports. The wooden shell fell twenty feet through the air and cracked open like an egg, spilling men and guns everywhere, but the distance was not great enough. Survivors were staggering to their feet almost at once, and they were safely behind their own already-established line.
Maximus had landed heavily behind the British lines: his sides were steaming in the cold air, blood running freely from a dozen wounds and more, and his wings were drooped to the ground: he struggled to beat them again, to get aloft, and could not, but fell back onto his haunches trembling in every limb.
Three or four thousand men already on the ground, and five guns; the British troops massed here only twenty thousand, and most of those militia, who were plainly unwilling to charge in the face of dragons above: many men were already trying to run. If the French commander had any sense at all, he would scarcely wait for another three or four transports to launch his own charge, and if his men overran the gun emplacements they could turn the artillery against the British dragons and clear the approaches completely.
"Laurence," Temeraire said, turning his head around, "two more of those vessels are going in to land."
"Yes," Laurence said, low. "We must try and stop them; if they land, the battle on the ground is lost."
Temeraire was quiet a moment, even as he turned his path of flight onto an angle that would bring him ahead of the leading transport. Then he said, "Laurence, we cannot succeed, can we?"
The two forward lookouts, young ensigns, were listening also, so that Laurence had to speak as much to them as to Temeraire. "Not forever, perhaps," Laurence said. "But we may yet do enough to help protect England: if they are forced to land one at a time, or in worse positions, the militia may be able to hold them for some time."
Temeraire nodded, and Laurence thought he understood the unspoken truth: the battle was lost, and even this was only a token attempt. "And we must still try, or we would be leaving our friends to fight without us," Temeraire said. "I think this is what you have meant by duty, all along; I do understand, at least this much of it."
"Yes," Laurence said, his throat aching. They had outstripped the transports and were over the ground now, with the militia a blurred sea of red below. Temeraire was swinging about to face the first of the transports head-on; there was only just enough time for Laurence to put his hand on Temeraire's neck, a silent communion.
The sight of land was putting heart into the French dragons: their speed was increasing. There were two P¨ºcheurs at the fore of the transport; roughly equal in size, and neither injured: Laurence left it to Temeraire to decide which would be his target, and reloaded his own pistols.
Temeraire stopped and hovered in mid-air before the oncoming dragons, spreading his wings as if to bar the way; his ruff raised instinctively up, the webbed skin translucent grey in the sunlight. A slow, deep shudder passed along his length as he drew breath and his sides swelled out even further against his massive rib cage, making the bones stand out in relief: there was a strange stretched-tight quality to his skin, so that Laurence began to be alarmed: he could feel the air moving beneath, echoing, resonating, in the chambers of Temeraire's lungs.
A low reverberation seemed to build throughout Temeraire's flesh, like a drum-beat rolling. "Temeraire," Laurence called, or tried to; he could not hear himself speak at all. He felt a single tremendous shudder travel forward along Temeraire's body, all the gathered breath caught up in that motion: Temeraire opened his jaws, and what emerged was a roar that was less sound than force, a terrible wave of noise so vast it seemed to distort the air before him.
Laurence could not see for a moment through the brief haze; when his vision cleared, he at first did not understand. Ahead of them, the transport was shattering as if beneath the force of a full broadside, the light wood cracking like gunfire, men and cannon spilling out into the broken surf far below at the foot of the cliffs. His jaw and ears were aching as if he had been struck on the head, and Temeraire's body was still trembling beneath him.
"Laurence, I think I did that," Temeraire said; he sounded more shocked than pleased. Laurence shared his sentiments: he could not immediately bring himself to speak.
The four dragons were still attached to the beams of the ruined transport, and the fore dragon to larboard was bleeding from its nostrils, choking and crying in pain. Hurrying to save the dragon, its crew cast off the chains, letting the fragment fall away, and it managed the last quarter mile to land behind the French lines. The captain and crew leapt down at once; the injured dragon was huddled and pawing at its head, moaning.
Behind them, a wild cheer was going up from the British ranks, and gunfire from the French: the soldiers on the ground were shooting at Temeraire. "Sir, we are in range of those cannon, if they get them loaded," Martin said urgently.
Temeraire heard and dashed out over the water, for the moment beyond their reach, and hovered in place. The French advance had halted for a moment, several of the defenders milling about, wary of coming closer and as confused as Laurence and Temeraire himself were. But in a moment the French captains above might understand, or at least collect themselves; they would make a concerted attack on Temeraire and bring him down. There was only a little time left in which to make use of the surprise.
"Temeraire," he called urgently, "fly lower and try if you can striking at those transports from below, at cliff-height. Mr. Turner," he said, turning to the signal-ensign, "give those ships below a gun and show them the signal for engage the enemy more closely; I believe they will take my meaning."
"I will try," Temeraire said uncertainly, and dived lower, gathering himself and once again taking that tremendous swelling breath. Curving back upwards, he roared once again, this time at the underside of one of the transports still over the water. The distance was greater, and the vessel did not wholly shatter, but great cracks opened in the planks of the hull; the four dragons above were at once desperately occupied in keeping it from breaking open all the rest of the way.
An arrow-head formation of French dragons came diving directly towards them, some six heavyweight dragons behind the Grand Chevalier in the lead. Temeraire darted away and at Laurence's touch dropped lower over the water, where half a dozen frigates and three ships-of-the-line lay in wait. As they swept past their long guns spoke in a rolling broadside, one gun after another, scattering the French dragons into shrill confusion as they tried to avoid the flying grapeshot and cannonballs.
"Now, quickly, the next one," Laurence called to Temeraire, though the order was scarcely necessary: Temeraire had already doubled back upon himself. He went directly at the underside of the next transport in line: the largest, flown by four heavyweight dragons, and with ensigns of golden eagles flying from the deck.
"Those are his flags, are they not?" Temeraire called back. "Bonaparte is on there?"
"More likely one of his Marshals," Laurence shouted over the wind, but he felt a wild excitement anyway. The defenders were forming up again at a higher elevation, ready to come after them once more; but Temeraire beat forward with ferocious zeal and outdistanced them. This larger transport, made of heavier wood, did not break as easily; even so, the wood cracked like the sound of pistol-shot, splinters flying everywhere.
Temeraire dived down to attempt a second pass; suddenly Lily was flying alongside them, and Obversaria on their other side, Lenton bellowing through his speaking-trumpet, "Go at them, just go at them; we will take care of those damned buggers – " and the two of them whirled to intercept the French defenders coming after Temeraire again.
But even as Temeraire began his climb, fresh signals went up from the damaged transport. The four dragons who were carrying it together wheeled around and began to pull away; and across the battlefield all the transports still aloft gave way and turned, for the long and weary flight back in retreat to France.
"LAURENCE, BE A good fellow and bring me a glass of wine," Jane Roland said, all but falling into the chair beside his, without the slightest care for the ruin she was making of her skirts. "Two sets is more than enough dancing for me; I am not getting up from this table again until I leave."
"Should you prefer to go at once?" he asked, rising. "I am happy to take you."
"If you mean I am so ungainly in a dress that you think I cannot walk a quarter of a mile over even ground without falling down, you may say so, and then I will knock you on the head with this charming reticule," she said, with her deep laugh. "I have not got myself up in this fashion to waste it by running away so soon. Excidium and I will be back at Dover in a week, and then Lord knows how long it will be before I have another chance to see a ball, much less one supposedly in our honor."
"I will fetch and carry with you, Laurence. If they are not going to feed us anything more than these French tidbits, I am going to get more of them," Chenery said, getting up from his chair as well.
"Hear, hear," Berkley said. "Bring the platter."
They were parted at the tables by the crush of the crowd, which was growing extreme as the hour drew on; London society was still nearly delirious with joy over the joint victories at Trafalgar and Dover, and temporarily as happy to enthuse over the aviators as it had been to disdain them before. His coat and bars won him enough smiles and gestures of precedence that Laurence managed to acquire the glass of wine without great difficulty. Reluctantly he gave up the notion of taking a cigar for himself; it would have been the height of rudeness to indulge while Jane and Harcourt could not. He took a second glass instead; he imagined someone at the table would care for it.
Both his hands thus occupied, he was happily not forced to do more than bow slightly when he was addressed on his way back to the table. "Captain Laurence," Miss Montagu said, smiling with a great deal more friendliness than she had shown him in his parents' house; she looked disappointed to not be able to give him her hand. "How splendid it is to see you again; it has been ages since we were all together at Wollaton Hall. How is dear Temeraire? My heart was in my throat when I heard of the news; I was sure you should be in the thick of the battle, and so of course it was."
"He is very well, thank you," Laurence said, as politely as he could manage; dear Temeraire rankled extremely. But he was not going to be openly rude to a woman he had met as one of his parents' guests, even if his father had not yet been softened by society's new approbation; there was no sense in aggravating the quarrel and perhaps needlessly making his mother's situation more difficult.
"May I present you to Lord Winsdale?" she said, turning to her companion. "This is Captain Laurence; Lord Allendale's son, you know," she added, in an undertone that Laurence could barely hear.
"Certainly, certainly," Winsdale said, offering a very slight nod, what he appeared to think a piece of great condescension. "Quite the man of the hour, Laurence; you are to be highly commended. We must all count ourselves fortunate that you were able to acquire the animal for England."
"You are too kind to say so, Winsdale," Laurence said, deliberately forward to the same degree. "You must excuse me; this wine will grow too warm shortly."
Miss Montagu could hardly miss the shortness of his tone now; she looked angry for a moment, then said, with great sweetness, "Of course! Perhaps you are going to see Miss Galman, and can bear her my greetings? Oh, but how absurd of me; I must say Mrs. Woolvey, now, and she is not in town any longer, is she?"
He regarded her with dislike; he wondered at the combination of perception and spite that had enabled her to ferret out the former connection between himself and Edith. "No, I believe she and her husband are presently touring the lake country," he said, and bowed himself away, deeply grateful that she had not had the opportunity of surprising him with the news.
His mother had given him intelligence of the match in a letter sent only shortly after the battle, and reaching him still at Dover; she had written, after conveying the news of the engagement, "I hope what I write does not give you too much pain; I know you have long admired her, and indeed I have always considered her charming, although I cannot think highly of her judgment in this matter."
The true blow had fallen long before the letter came; news of Edith's marriage to another man could not be unexpected, and he had been able to reassure his mother with perfect sincerity. Indeed, he could not fault Edith's judgment: in retrospect he saw how very disastrous the match would have been, on both sides; he could not have spared her so much as a thought for the last nine months or more. There was no reason Woolvey should not make Edith a perfectly good husband. He himself certainly could not have, and he thought that he would truly be able to wish her happy, if he saw her again.
But he was still irritated by Miss Montagu's insinuations, and his face had evidently set into somewhat forbidding lines; as he came back to the table, Jane took the glasses from him and said, "You were long enough about it; was someone pestering you? Do not pay them any mind; take a turn outside, and see how Temeraire is enjoying himself: that will put you in a better frame of mind."
The notion appealed immensely. "I think I will, if you will pardon me," he said, with a bow to the company.
"Look in on Maximus for me, see if he wants any more dinner," Berkley called after him.
"And Lily!" Harcourt said, then looked guiltily about to see if any of the guests at the nearby tables had overheard: naturally the company did not realize that the women with the aviators were themselves captains, and assumed them rather wives, though Jane's scarred face had earned several startled looks, which she ignored with perfect ease.
Laurence left the table to their noisy and spirited discussion, making his way outdoors. The ancient covert near London had long ago been encroached upon by the city and given up by the Corps, save for use by couriers, but for the occasion it had been briefly reclaimed, and a great pavilion established at the northern edge where the headquarters had once stood.
By the aviators' request, the musicians had been set at the very edge of the pavilion, where the dragons could gather around outside to listen. The musicians had been at first somewhat distressed by the notion and inclined to edge their chairs away, but as the evening wore on and the dragons proved a more appreciative audience than the noisy crowd of society, their fear was gradually overcome by their vanity. Laurence came out to find the first violinist having abandoned the orchestra entirely and playing snatches of various airs in a rather didactic manner for the dragons, demonstrating the work of different composers.
Maximus and Lily were among the interested group, listening with fascination and asking a great many questions. Laurence saw after a moment, with some surprise, that Temeraire was instead curled up in a small clearing beyond the others, off to the side and talking with a gentleman whose face Laurence could not see.
He skirted the group and approached, calling Temeraire's name softly; the man turned, hearing him. With a start of pleasant surprise, Laurence recognized Sir Edward Howe, and hurried forward to greet him.
"I am very happy indeed to see you, sir," Laurence said, shaking his hand. "I had not heard that you were back in London, although I made a point of inquiring after you when we first arrived."
"I was in Ireland when the news reached me; I have only just come to London," Sir Edward said, and Laurence only then noticed that he was still in traveling-clothes, and his boots were dust-stained. "I hope you will forgive me; I presumed on our acquaintance to come despite the lack of a formal invitation, in hopes of speaking with you at once. When I saw the crowd inside, I thought it best to come and stay with Temeraire until you appeared rather than try to seek you within."
"Indeed, I am in your debt for putting yourself to so much trouble," Laurence said. "I confess I have been very anxious to speak with you ever since discovering Temeraire's ability, which I expect is the news which has brought you. All he can tell us is that the sensation is the same as that of roaring; we cannot account for how mere sound might produce so extraordinary an effect, and none of us have ever heard of anything like."
"No, you would not have," Sir Edward said. "Laurence – " He stopped and glanced at the crowd of dragons between them and the pavilion, all now rumbling in approval at the close of the first performance. "Might we speak somewhere in more privacy?"
"We can always go to my own clearing, if you would like to be somewhere quieter," Temeraire said. "I am happy to carry you both, and it will not take me a moment to fly there."
"Perhaps that would be best, if you have no objection?" Sir Edward asked Laurence, and Temeraire brought them over carefully in his foreclaws, setting them down in the deserted clearing before settling himself comfortably. "I must beg your pardon for putting you to such trouble, and interrupting your evening," Sir Edward said.
"Sir, I assure you I am very happy to have it interrupted in this cause," Laurence said. "Pray have no concern on that score." He was impatient to learn what Sir Edward might know; a concern over Temeraire's safety from some possible agent of Napoleon's lingered with him, perhaps even increased by the victory.
"I will keep you in suspense no longer," Sir Edward said. "Although I do not in the least pretend to understand the mechanical principles by which Temeraire's ability operates, the effects are described in literature, and so I may identify it for you: the Chinese, and the Japanese, for that matter, call it by the name divine wind. This tells you little beyond what you already know from example, I am afraid, but the true importance lies in this: it is an ability unique to one breed and one breed alone – the Celestial."
The name hung in silence for long moments; Laurence did not immediately know what to think. Temeraire looked between them uncertainly. "Is that very different from an Imperial?" he asked. "Are they not both Chinese breeds?"
"Very different indeed," Sir Edward answered him. "Imperial dragons are rare enough; but the Celestials are given only to the Emperors themselves, or their nearest kin. I should be surprised if there were more than a few score in all the world."
"The Emperors themselves," Laurence repeated, in wonder and slowly growing comprehension. "You will not have heard this, sir, but we took a French spy at the covert in Dover shortly before the battle: he revealed to us that Temeraire's egg was meant not merely for France, but for Bonaparte himself."
Sir Edward nodded. "I am not surprised to hear as much. The Senate voted Bonaparte the crown in May before last; the time of your encounter with the French vessel suggests the Chinese gave him the egg as soon as they learned. I cannot imagine why they should have made him such a gift; they have given no other signs of allying themselves with France, but the timing is too exact for any other explanation."
"And if they had some notion of when to expect the hatching, that might well explain the mode of transport as well," Laurence finished for him. "Seven months from China to France, around Cape Horn: the French could hardly have hoped to manage it except with a fast frigate, regardless of the risk."
"Laurence," Sir Edward said with pronounced unhappiness, "I must heartily beg your forgiveness for having so misled you. I cannot even plead the excuse of ignorance: I have read descriptions of Celestials, and seen many drawings of them. It simply never occurred to me that the ruff and tendrils might not develop save with maturity; in body and wing-shape they are identical to the Imperials."
"I beg you not to refine upon it, sir; no forgiveness is called for, in the least," Laurence said. "It could scarcely have made much difference to his training, and in the event, we have learned of his ability in very good time." He smiled up at Temeraire, and stroked the sleek foreleg beside him, while Temeraire snorted in happy agreement. "So, my dear, you are a Celestial; I should not be surprised at all. No wonder Bonaparte was in such a taking to lose you."
"I imagine he will continue angry," Sir Edward said. "And what is worse, we may have the Chinese on our necks over it, when they learn; they are prickly to an extreme, where the Emperor's standing may be said to be concerned, and I do not doubt they will be annoyed to see a British serving officer in possession of their treasure."
"I do not see how it concerns either Napoleon or them in the least," Temeraire said, bristling. "I am no longer in the shell, and I do not care if Laurence is not an emperor. We defeated Napoleon in battle and made him fly away even though he is one; I cannot see that there is anything particularly nice about the title."
"Never fret, my dear; they have no grounds on which to make objection," Laurence said. "We did not take you from a Chinese vessel, arguably a neutral, but from a French man-of-war; they chose to hand your egg to our enemy, and you were wholly lawful prize."
"I am glad to hear it," Sir Edward said, though he looked doubtful. "They may still choose to be quarrelsome about it; their regard for the laws of other nations is very small, and vanishes entirely where it conflicts with their own notions of proper behavior. Pray have you any notion of how they stand with respect to us?"
"They could make a pretty loud noise, I suppose," Laurence said uncertainly. "I know they have no navy to speak of, but one hears a great deal of their dragons. I will bring the news to Admiral Lenton, though, and I am sure he will know better than I do how to meet any possible difference of opinion with them over the matter."
A rushing sound of wings came overhead, and the ground shook with impact: Maximus had come flying back to his own clearing, only a short distance away; Laurence could see his red-gold hide visible through the trees. Several smaller dragons flew past overhead also, going back to their own resting places: the ball was evidently breaking up, and Laurence realized from the low-burning lanterns that the hour had grown late.
"You must be tired from your journey," he said, turning back to Sir Edward. "I am once again deeply obliged to you, sir, for bringing me this intelligence. May I ask you, as a further favor, to join me for dinner tomorrow? I do not wish to keep you standing about in this cold, but I confess I have a great many questions on the subject I should like to put to you, and I would be happy to learn anything more you know of Celestials."
"It will be my pleasure," Sir Edward said, and bowed to both of them. "No, I thank you; I can find my own way out," he said, when Laurence would have accompanied him. "I grew up in London, and would often come wandering about here as a boy, dreaming of dragons; I dare say I know the place better than do you, if you have only been here a few days." He bade them farewell, having arranged the appointment.
Laurence had meant to stay the night at a nearby hotel where Captain Roland had taken a room, but he found he was disinclined to leave Temeraire; instead he searched out some old blankets in the stable being used by the ground crew, and made himself a somewhat dusty nest in Temeraire's arms, his coat rolled up to serve as a pillow. He would make his apologies in the morning; Jane would understand.
"Laurence, what is China like?" Temeraire asked idly, after they had settled down together, his wings sheltering them from the wintry air.
"I have never been, my dear; only to India," he said. "But I understand it is very splendid; it is the oldest nation in the world, you know; it even predates Rome. And certainly their dragons are the finest in the world," he added, and saw Temeraire preen with satisfaction.
"Well, perhaps we may visit, when the war is over and we have won. I would like to meet another Celestial someday," Temeraire said. "But as for their sending me to Napoleon, that is great nonsense; I am never going to let anyone take you from me."
"Nor I, my dear," Laurence said, smiling, despite all the complications which he knew might arise if China did object. In his heart he shared the simplicity of Temeraire's view of the matter, and he fell asleep almost at once in the security of the slow, deep rushing of Temeraire's heartbeat, so very much like the endless sound of the sea.READ MORE >>