THEY ARRIVED AT Funchal a day short of Laurence's original three-week estimate, having been sped along their way by the gale, with Temeraire sitting up in the stern and eagerly watching from the moment the island had come into view. He caused something of an immediate sensation on land, dragons not ordinarily to be seen riding into harbor upon small frigates, and there was a small crowd of spectators gathered upon the docks as they came into port, although by no means coming very close to the vessel.
Admiral Croft's flagship was in port; the Reliant was nominally sailing under his command, and Riley and Laurence had privately agreed that the two of them should report together to acquaint him with the unusual situation. The signal Captain report aboard flag went up on the Commendable almost the instant they had dropped anchor, and Laurence paused for only a moment to speak with Temeraire. "You must remain aboard until I return, remember," he said, anxiously, for while Temeraire was never willfully disobliging, he was easily distracted by anything new and of interest, and Laurence did not have a great deal of confidence in his restraint while surrounded by so much of a new world to explore. "I promise you we shall fly over the whole island when I come back; you shall see all you like, and in the meantime Mr. Wells will bring you a nice fresh veal and some lamb, which you have never had."
Temeraire sighed a little, but inclined his head. "Very well, but do hurry," he said. "I would like to go up to those mountains. And I could just eat those," he added, looking at a team of carriage horses standing nearby; the horses stamped nervously as though they had heard and understood perfectly well.
"Oh, no, Temeraire, you cannot just eat anything you see on the streets," Laurence said in alarm. "Wells will bring you something straightaway." Turning, he caught the third lieutenant's eye, and conveyed the urgency of the situation; then with a final dubious glance, he went down the gangplank and joined Riley.
Admiral Croft was waiting for them impatiently; he had evidently heard something of the fuss. He was a tall man and a striking one, the more so for a raking scar across his face and the false hand which was attached to the stump of his left arm, its iron fingers operated by springs and catches. He had lost the limb shortly before his promotion to flag rank, and since had put on a great deal of weight; he did not rise when they came into his stateroom, but only scowled a little and waved them to chairs. "Very well, Laurence, explain yourself; I suppose this has something to do with the feral you have down there?"
"Sir, that is Temeraire; he is not feral," Laurence said. "We took a French ship, the Amitie, three weeks ago yesterday; we found his egg in their hold. Our surgeon had some knowledge of dragonkind; he warned us that it would hatch shortly, and so we were able to arrange – that is to say, I harnessed him."
Croft sat up abruptly and squinted at Laurence, then at Riley, only then taking notice of the change in uniform. "What, yourself? And so you - Good Lord, why didn't you put one of your midshipmen to the thing?" he demanded. "This is taking duty a little far, Laurence; a fine thing when a naval officer chooses to jump ship for the Corps."
"Sir, my officers and I drew lots," Laurence said, suppressing a flare of indignation; he had not desired to be lauded for his sacrifice, but it was a little much to be upbraided for it. "I hope no one would ever question my devotion to the service; I felt it only fair to them that I should share the risk, and in the event, though I did not draw the lot, there was no avoiding it; he took a liking to me, and we could not risk him refusing the harness from another hand."
"Oh, hell," Croft said, and relapsed into his chair with a sullen expression, tapping the fingers of his right hand against the metal palm of the left, a nervous gesture, and sat silently except for the small clinking noise which his fingernails made upon the iron. The minutes dragged, while Laurence alternated between imagining a thousand disasters which Temeraire might precipitate in his absence, and worrying what Croft might do with the Reliant and Riley.
At last Croft started, as if waking up, and waved his good hand. "Well, there must be some sort of bounty; they can hardly give less for a harnessed creature than a feral one, after all," he said. "The French frigate, a man-of-war, I suppose, no merchantman? Well, she looks likely enough, I am sure she will be brought into the service," he added, good humor apparently restored, and Laurence realized with mingled relief and irritation that the man had only been calculating his admiral's share in his head.
"Indeed, sir, she is a very trim craft; thirty-six guns," he said politely, keeping several other things which he might have said to himself; he would never have to report to this man again, but Riley's future still hung in the balance.
"Hm. You have done as you ought, Laurence, I am sure; though it is a pity to lose you. I suppose you shall like to be an aviator," Croft said, in tones that made it quite plain he supposed no such thing. "We have no division of the Corps locally, though; even the dispatch-carrier only comes through once a week. You will have to take him to Gibraltar, I imagine."
"Yes, sir, though the trip must wait until he has more growth; he can stay aloft for an hour or so without much trouble, but I do not like to risk him on a long flight just yet," Laurence said firmly. "And in the meantime, he must be fed; we have only managed to get by so long with fishing, but of course he cannot hunt here."
"Well, Laurence, that is no lookout of the Navy's, I am sure," Croft said, but before Laurence could be really taken aback by this petty remark, the man seemed to realize how ill it sounded, and amended his words. "However, I will speak to the governor; I am sure we can arrange something. Now then, the Reliant, and of course the Amitie, we must take some thought for them."
"I should like to point out that Mr. Riley has been in command of the Reliant since the harnessing, and that he has handled her exceptionally well, bringing her safely to port through a two-days' gale," Laurence said. "He fought very bravely in the action which won us the prize, as well."
"Oh, I am sure, I am sure," Croft said, turning his finger in circles again. "Who do you have in the Amitie?"
"My first lieutenant, Gibbs," Laurence said.
"Yes, of course," Croft said. "Well, it is a bit much of you to hope to make both your first and second lieutenants post in such a way, Laurence, you must see that. There are not so many fine frigates out there."
Laurence had great difficulty in keeping his countenance; the man was clearly looking for some excuse to give himself a plum to deal out to one of his own favorites. "Sir," he said, icily, "I do not quite take your meaning; I hope you are not suggesting that I had myself put in harness in order to open a vacancy. I assure you my only motive was to secure to England a very valuable dragon, and I would hope that their Lordships will see it in such a way."
It was as close as he would come to harping on his own sacrifice, and a good deal closer than he would have preferred to come, without Riley's welfare at stake. But it had its effect; Croft seemed struck by the reminder, and the mention of the Admiralty; at least he hemmed and hawed and retreated, and dismissed them without saying anything final about removing Riley from command.
"Sir, I am deeply indebted to you," Riley said, as they walked together back towards the ship. "I only hope you will not have caused difficulties for yourself by pressing the matter so; I suppose he must have a great deal of influence."
Laurence at the moment had little room for any emotion but relief, for they had come to their own dock, and Temeraire was still sitting on the deck of the ship; although that looked more like an abattoir at the moment, and the area around his chops more red than black. The crowd of spectators had entirely dispersed. "If there is any blessing to the whole business, Tom, it is that I no longer need to give much thought to influence; I do not suppose it can make any difference to an aviator," he answered. "Pray have no concern for me. Should you mind if we were to walk a little faster? I think he has finished eating."
Flying did a great deal more to soothe his ruffled temper; it was impossible to be angry with the whole island of Madeira spread out before him and the wind in his hair, and Temeraire excitedly pointing out new things of interest, such as animals, houses, carts, trees, rocks, and anything else which might catch his eye; he had lately worked out a method of flying with his head partly turned round, so that he might talk to Laurence even while they flew. By mutual agreement, he perched at last upon an empty road that ran along at the edge of a deep valley; a bank of clouds was rolling thickly down the green southern slopes, clinging to the ground in a peculiar way, and he sat to watch their movement in fascination.
Laurence dismounted; he was still growing used to riding and was glad to stretch his legs after an hour in the air. He walked about for a while now, enjoying the view, and thought to himself that the next morning he would bring something to eat and drink on their flight; he would rather have liked a sandwich, and a glass of wine.
"I would like another one of those lambs," Temeraire said, echoing his own thoughts. "They were very tasty. Can I eat those over there? They look even larger."
There was a handsome flock of sheep grazing placidly on the far side of the valley, white against the green. "No, Temeraire; those are sheep, mutton," Laurence said. "They are not as good, and I think they must be someone's property, so we cannot go snatching them. But perhaps I will see if I cannot arrange for the shepherd to set one aside for you for tomorrow, if you would like to come back here."
"It seems very strange that the ocean is full of things that one can eat as one likes, and on land everything seems to be spoken for," Temeraire said, disappointed. "It does not seem quite right; they are not eating those sheep themselves, after all, and I am hungry now."
"At this rate, I suppose I shall be arrested for teaching you seditious thinking," Laurence said, amused. "You sound positively revolutionary. Only think, perhaps the fellow who owns those is the same one we will ask to give us a nice lamb for your dinner tonight; he will hardly do so if we steal his sheep."
"I would rather have a nice lamb now," Temeraire muttered, but he did not go after one of the sheep, and instead returned to examining the clouds. "May we go over to those clouds? I would like to see why they are moving like that."
Laurence looked at the shrouded hillside dubiously, but he more and more disliked telling the dragon no when he did not have to; it was so often necessary. "We may try it if you like," he said, "but it seems a little risky; we could easily run up against the mountainside and be brought by the lee."
"Oh, I will land below them, and then we may walk up," Temeraire said, crouching low and putting his neck to the ground so Laurence could scramble back aboard. "That will be more interesting in any case."
It was a little odd to go walking with a dragon, and very odd to outdistance one; Temeraire might take one step to every ten paces of Laurence's, but he took them very rarely, being more occupied in looking back and forth to compare the degree of cloud cover upon the ground. Laurence finally walked some distance ahead and threw himself down upon the slope to wait; even under the heavy fog, he was comfortable, thanks to the heavy clothing and oilskin cloak which he had learned from experience to wear while flying.
Temeraire continued to creep very slowly up the hill, interrupting his studies of the clouds now and again to look at a flower, or a pebble; to Laurence's surprise, he paused at one point and dug a small rock out of the ground, which he then brought up to Laurence with apparent excitement, pushing it along with the tip of a talon, as it was too small for him to pick up in his claws.
Laurence hefted the thing, which was about the size of his fist; it certainly was curious, pyrite intergrown with quartz crystal and rock. "How did you come to see it?" he said with interest, turning it over in his hands and brushing away more of the dirt.
"A little of it was out of the ground and it was shining," Temeraire said. "Is that gold? I like the look of it."
"No, it is just pyrite, but it is very pretty, is it not? I suppose you are one of those hoarding creatures," Laurence said, looking affectionately up at Temeraire; many dragons had an inborn fascination with jewels or precious metals. "I am afraid I am not rich enough a partner for you; I will not be able to give you a heap of gold to sleep on."
"I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on," Temeraire said. "I do not mind the deck."
He said it quite normally, not in the least as though he meant to deliver a compliment, and immediately went back to looking at his clouds; Laurence was left gazing after him in a sensation of mingled amazement and extraordinary pleasure. He could scarcely imagine a similar feeling; the only parallel he could conceive from his old life would be if the Reliant had spoken to say she liked to have him for her captain: both praise and affection, from the highest source imaginable, and it filled him with fresh determination to prove worthy of the encomium.
"I am afraid I cannot help you, sir," the old fellow said, scratching behind his ear as he straightened up from the heavy volume before him. "I have a dozen books of draconic breeds, and I cannot find him in any of them. Perhaps his coloration will change when he gets older?"
Laurence frowned; this was the third naturalist he had consulted over the past week since landing in Madeira, and none of them had been able to give him any help whatsoever in determining Temeraire's breed.
"However," the bookseller went on, "I can give you some hope; Sir Edward Howe of the Royal Society is here on the island, taking the waters; he came by my shop last week. I believe he is staying in Porto Moniz, at the north-western end of the island, and I am sure he will be able to identify your dragon for you; he has written several monographs on rare breeds from the Americas and the Orient."
"Thank you very much indeed; I am glad to hear it," Laurence said, brightening at this news; the name was familiar to him, and he had met the man in London once or twice, so that he need not even scramble for an introduction.
He went back out into the street in good humor, with a fine map of the island and a book on mineralogy for Temeraire. The day was particularly fine, and the dragon was presently sprawled out in the field which had been set aside for him some distance outside the city, sunning himself after a large meal.
The governor had been more accommodating than Admiral Croft, perhaps due to the anxiety of his populace over the presence of a frequently hungry dragon in the middle of their port, and had opened the public treasury to provide Temeraire with a steady supply of sheep and cattle. Temeraire was not at all unhappy with the change in his diet, and he was continuing to grow; he would no longer have fit on the Reliant's stern, and he was bidding fair to become longer than the ship itself. Laurence had taken a cottage beside the field, at small expense due to its owner's sudden eagerness to be nowhere nearby, and the two of them were managing quite happily.
He regretted his own final removal from the ship's life when he had time to think of it, but keeping Temeraire exercised was a great deal of work, and he could always go into the town for his dinner. He often met Riley or some of his other officers; too, he had some other naval acquaintances in the town, and so he rarely passed a solitary evening. The nights were comfortable as well, even though he was obliged to return to the cottage early due to the distance; he had found a local servant, Fernao, who, although wholly unsmiling and taciturn, was not disturbed by the dragon and could prepare a reasonable breakfast and supper.
Temeraire generally slept during the heat of the day, while he was gone, and woke again after the sun had set; after supper Laurence would go to sit outside and read to him by the light of a lantern. He had never been much of a reader himself, but Temeraire's pleasure in books was so great as to be infectious, and Laurence could not but think with satisfaction of the dragon's likely delight in the new book, which spoke in great detail about gemstones and their mining, despite his own complete lack of interest in the subject. It was not the sort of life which he had ever expected to lead, but so far, at least, he had not suffered in any material way from his change of status, and Temeraire was developing into uncommonly good company.
Laurence stopped in a coffeehouse and wrote Sir Edward a quick note with his direction, briefly explaining his circumstances and asking for permission to call. This he addressed to Porto Moniz, then sent off with the establishment's post-boy, adding a half-crown to speed it along. He could have flown across the island much more quickly, of course, but he did not feel he could simply descend upon someone with no warning with a dragon in tow. He could wait; he still had at least a week of liberty left to him before a reply would come from Gibraltar with instructions on how to report for duty.
But the dispatch-rider was due tomorrow, and the thought recalled him to an omitted duty: he had not yet written to his father. He could not let his parents learn of his altered circumstances from some secondhand account, or in the Gazette notice which should surely be printed, and with a sense of reluctant obligation he settled himself back down with a fresh pot of coffee to write the necessary letter.
It was difficult to think what to say. Lord Allendale was not a particularly fond parent and was punctilious in his manners. The Army and Navy he thought barely acceptable alternatives to the Church for an impoverished younger son; he would no more have considered sending a son to the Corps than to a trade, and he would certainly neither sympathize nor approve. Laurence was well aware that he and his father disagreed on the score of duty; his father would certainly tell him it had been his duty to his name to stay well away from the dragon, and to leave some misguided idea of service out of the matter.
His mother's reaction he dreaded more; for she had real affection for him, and the news would make her unhappy for his sake. Then, also, she was friendly with Lady Galman, and what he wrote would certainly reach Edith's ears. But he could not write in such terms as might reassure either of them without provoking his father extremely; and so he contented himself with a stilted, formal note that laid out the facts without embellishment, and avoided all appearance of complaint. It would have to do; still he sealed it with a sense of dissatisfaction before carrying it to the dispatch post by hand.
This unpleasant task completed, he turned back for the hotel in which he had taken a room; he had invited Riley and Gibbs along with several other acquaintances to join him for dinner, in recompense of earlier hospitality from them. It was not yet two o'clock, and the shops were still open; he looked in the windows as he walked to distract himself from brooding upon the likely reaction of his family and nearest friends, and paused outside a small pawnbroker's.
The golden chain was absurdly heavy, the sort of thing no woman could wear and too gaudy for a man: thick square links with flat disks and small pearl drops hanging from them, alternated. But for the metal and gems alone he imagined it must be expensive; most likely far more than he should spend, for he was being cautious with his funds now that he had no future prospect of prize-money. He stepped inside anyway and inquired; it was indeed too dear.
"However, sir, perhaps this one would do?" the proprietor suggested, offering a different chain: it looked very much the same, only with no disks, and perhaps slightly thinner links. It was nearly half the price of the first; still expensive, but he took it, and then felt a little silly for it.
He gave it to Temeraire that night anyway, and was a little surprised at the happiness with which it was received. Temeraire clutched the chain and would not put it aside; he brooded over it in the candlelight while Laurence read to him, and turned it this way and that to admire the light upon the gold and the pearls. When he slept at last, it remained entwined with his talons, and the next day Laurence was obliged to attach it securely to the harness before Temeraire would consent to fly.
The curious reaction made him even more glad to find an enthusiastic invitation from Sir Edward awaiting him when they returned from their morning flight. Fernao brought the note out to him in the field when they landed, and Laurence read it aloud to Temeraire: the gentleman would receive them whenever they liked to come, and he could be found at the seashore near the bathing pools.
"I am not tired," Temeraire said; he was as curious to know his breed as Laurence. "We may go at once, if you like."
He had indeed been developing more and more endurance; Laurence decided they could easily stop and rest if needed, and climbed back aboard without even having shifted his clothing. Temeraire put out an unusual effort and the island whipped by in great sweeps of his wings, Laurence crouching low to his neck and squinting against the wind.
They spiraled down to the shore less than an hour after lifting away, scattering bathers and seashore vendors as they landed upon the rocky shore. Laurence gazed after them in dismay for a moment, then frowned; if they were foolish enough to imagine that a properly harnessed dragon would hurt them, it was hardly his fault, and he patted Temeraire's neck as he unstrapped himself and slid down. "I will go and see if I can find Sir Edward; stay here."
"I will," said Temeraire absently; he was already peering with interest into the deep rocky pools about the shore, which had odd stone outcroppings and very clear water.
Sir Edward did not prove very difficult to find; he had noticed the fleeing crowd and was already approaching, the only person in view, by the time Laurence had gone a quarter of a mile. They shook hands and exchanged pleasantries, but both of them were impatient to come to the real matter at hand, and Sir Edward assented eagerly as soon as Laurence ventured to suggest they should walk back to Temeraire.
"A most unusual and charming name," Sir Edward said, as they walked, unconsciously making Laurence's heart sink. "Most often they are given Roman names, extravagant ones; but then most aviators go into harness a great deal younger than you, and have a tendency to puff themselves up. There is something quite absurd about a two-ton Winchester called Imperatorius. Why, Laurence, however did you teach him to swim?"
Startled, Laurence looked, then stared: in his absence, Temeraire had gone into the water and was now paddling himself about. "Lord, no; I have never seen him do it before," he said. "How can he not be sinking? Temeraire! Do come out of the water," he called, a little anxious.
Sir Edward watched with interest as Temeraire swam towards them and climbed back up onto shore. "How extraordinary. The internal air-sacs which permit them to fly would, I imagine, make a dragon naturally buoyant, and having grown up on the ocean as he has, perhaps he would have no natural fear of the element."
This mention of air-sacs was a piece of new information to Laurence, but the dragon was joining them, so he saved the further questions that immediately sprang to mind. "Temeraire, this is Sir Edward Howe," Laurence said.
"Hello," said Temeraire, peering down with interest equal to that with which he was observed. "I am very pleased to meet you. Can you tell me what breed I am?"
Sir Edward did not seem nonplussed by this direct approach, and he made a bow in reply. "I hope I will be able to give you some information, indeed; may I ask you to be so kind as to move some distance up the shore, perhaps by that tree which you see over there, and spread your wings, so we may better see your full conformation?"
Temeraire went willingly, and Sir Edward observed his motion. "Hm, very odd, not characteristic at all, the way he holds his tail. Laurence, you say his egg was found in Brazil?"
"As to that, I cannot properly tell you, I am afraid," Laurence said, studying Temeraire's tail; he could see nothing unusual, but of course he had no real basis for comparison. Temeraire carried his tail off the ground, and it lashed the air gently as he walked. "We took him from a French prize, and she was most recently come from Rio, judging by the markings on some of her water casks, but more than that I cannot say. The logs were thrown overboard as we took her, and the captain very naturally refused to give us any information about where the egg was discovered. But I assume it could not have come from much further, due to the length of the journey."
"Oh, that is by no means certain," Sir Edward said. "There are some subspecies which mature in the shell for upwards of ten years, and twenty months is a common average. Good Lord."
Temeraire had just spread out his wings; they were still dripping water. "Yes?" Laurence asked hopefully.
"Laurence, my God, those wings," Sir Edward cried, and literally ran across the shore towards Temeraire. Laurence blinked and went after him, and caught up to him only by the dragon's side. Sir Edward was gently stroking one of the six spines that divided the sections of Temeraire's wings, gazing at it with greedy passion. Temeraire had craned his head about to watch, but was keeping otherwise still, and did not seem to mind having his wing handled.
"Do you recognize him, then?" Laurence asked Sir Edward tentatively; the man looked quite overwhelmed.
"Recognize? Not, I assure you, in the sense of ever having seen his kind before; there can scarcely be three living men in Europe who have, and on the strength of this one glance I am already furnished with enough material for an address to the Royal Society," Sir Edward answered. "But the wings are irrefutable, and the number of talons: he is a Chinese Imperial, although of which line I certainly cannot tell you. Oh, Laurence, what a prize!"
Laurence gazed at the wings, bemused; it had not occurred to him before that the fan-like divisions were unusual, nor the five talons which Temeraire had upon each foot. "An Imperial?" he said, with an uncertain smile; he wondered for a moment if Sir Edward was practicing a joke on him. The Chinese had been breeding dragons for thousands of years before the Romans had ever domesticated the wild breeds of Europe; they were violently jealous of their work, and rarely permitted even grown specimens of minor breeds to leave the country. It was absurd to think that the French had been trundling an Imperial egg across the Atlantic in a thirty-six-gun frigate.
"Is that a good breed?" Temeraire asked. "Will I be able to breathe fire?"
"Dear creature, the very best of all possible breeds; only the Celestials are more rare or valuable, and were you one of those, I suppose the Chinese would go to war over our having put you into harness, so we must be glad you are not," Sir Edward said. "But though I will not rule it out entirely, I think it unlikely you will be able to breathe fire. The Chinese breed first for intelligence and grace; they have such overwhelming air superiority they do not need to seek such abilities in their lines. Japanese dragons are far more likely among the Oriental breeds to have any special offensive capabilities."
"Oh," said Temeraire glumly.
"Temeraire, do not be absurd, it is the most famous news anyone could imagine," Laurence said, beginning to believe at last; this was too far to carry a joke. "You are quite certain, sir?" he could not help asking.
"Oh yes," Sir Edward said, returning to his examination of the wings. "Only look at the delicacy of the membrane; the consistency of the color throughout the body, and the coordination between the color of the eyes and the markings. I should have seen he was a Chinese breed at once; it is quite impossible that he should have come from the wild, and no European or Incan breeder is capable of such work. And," he added, "this explains the swimming as well: Chinese beasts often have an affinity for water, if I recall correctly."
"An Imperial," Laurence murmured, stroking Temeraire's side in wonder. "It is incredible; they ought to have convoyed him with half their fleet, or sent a handler to him rather than the reverse."
"Perhaps they did not know what they had," Sir Edward said. "Chinese eggs are notoriously difficult to categorize by appearance, other than having the texture of fine porcelain. I do not suppose, by the by, that you have any of the eggshell preserved?" he asked wistfully.
"Not I, but perhaps some of the hands may have saved a bit," Laurence said. "I would be happy to make inquiry for you; I am deeply indebted to you."
"Not at all; the debt is entirely on my side. To think that I have seen an Imperial – and spoken with one!" He bowed to Temeraire. "In that, I may be unique among Englishmen, although le Comte de la Perouse wrote in his journals of having spoken with one in Korea, in the palace of their king."
"I would like to read that," Temeraire said. "Laurence, can you get a copy?"
"I will certainly try," Laurence said. "And sir, I would be very grateful if you could recommend some texts to my attention; I would be glad of any knowledge of the habits and behaviors of the breed."
"Well, there are precious few resources, I am afraid; you will shortly be more of an expert than any other European, I imagine," Sir Edward said. "But I will certainly give you a list, and I have several texts I would be happy to lend you, including the journals of La Perouse. If Temeraire does not mind waiting here, perhaps we can walk back to my hotel and retrieve them; I am afraid he would not fit very comfortably in the village."
"I do not mind at all; I will go swimming again," Temeraire said.
Having taken tea with Sir Edward and collected a number of books from him, Laurence found a shepherd in the village willing to take his money, so he could feed Temeraire before their return journey. He was forced to drag the sheep down to the shore himself, however, with the animal bleating wildly and trying to get away long before Temeraire even came into view. Laurence ended up having to carry it bodily, and it took its final revenge by defecating upon him just before he flung it down at last in front of the eager dragon.
While Temeraire feasted, he stripped to the skin and scrubbed his clothing as best he could in the water, then left the wet things on a sunny rock to dry while the two of them bathed together. Laurence was not a particularly good swimmer himself, but with Temeraire to hold on to, he could risk the deeper water where the dragon could swim. Temeraire's delight in the water was infectious, and in the end Laurence too succumbed to playfulness, splashing the dragon and plunging under the water to come up on his other side.
The water was beautifully warm, and there were many outcroppings of rock to crawl out upon for a rest, some large enough for both of them; when he at last led Temeraire back onto the shore, several hours had gone by, and the sun was sinking rapidly. He was guiltily glad the other bathers had stayed away; he would have been ashamed to be seen frolicking like a boy.
The sun was warm on their backs as they winged across the island back to Funchal, both of them brimming with satisfaction, with the precious books wrapped in oilskin and strapped to the harness. "I will read to you from the journals tonight," Laurence was saying, when he was interrupted by a loud, bugling call ahead of them.
Temeraire was so startled he stopped in mid-air, hovering for a moment; then he roared back, a strangely tentative sound. He launched himself forwards again, and in a moment Laurence saw the source of the call: a pale grey dragon with mottled white markings upon its belly and white striations across its wings, almost invisible against the cloud cover; it was a great distance above them.
It swooped down very quickly and drew alongside them; he could see that it was smaller than Temeraire, even at his present size, but it could glide along on a single beat of its wings for much longer. Its rider was wearing grey leather that matched its hide, and a heavy hood; he unhooked several clasps on this and pushed it to hang back off his head. "Captain James, on Volatilus, dispatch service," he said, staring at Laurence in open curiosity.
Laurence hesitated; a response was obviously called for, but he was not quite sure how to style himself, for he had not yet been formally discharged from the Navy, nor formally inducted into the Corps. "Captain Laurence of His Majesty's Navy," he said finally, "on Temeraire; I am at present unassigned. Are you headed for Funchal?"
"Navy – ? Yes, I am, and I expect you had better be as well, after that introduction," James said; he had a pleasant-looking long face, but Laurence's reply had marred it by a deep frown. "How old is that dragonet, and where did you get him?"
"I am three weeks and five days out of the shell, and Laurence won me in a battle," Temeraire said, before Laurence could reply. "How did you meet James?" he asked, addressing the other dragon.
Volatilus blinked large milky blue eyes and said, in a bright voice, "I was hatched! From an egg!"
"Oh?" said Temeraire, uncertainly, and turned his head around to Laurence with a startled look. Laurence shook his head quickly, to keep him silent.
"Sir, if you have questions, they can be best answered on the ground," he said to James, a little coldly; there had been a peremptory quality he did not like in the other man's tone. "Temeraire and I are staying just outside the town; do you care to accompany us, or shall we follow you to your landing grounds?"
James had been looking with surprise at Temeraire, and he answered Laurence with a little more warmth, "Oh, let us go to yours; the moment I set down officially, I will be mobbed with people wanting to send parcels; we will not be able to talk."
"Very well; it is a field to the south-west of the city," Laurence said. "Temeraire, pray take the lead."
The grey dragon had no difficulty keeping up, though Laurence thought Temeraire was secretly trying to pull away; Volatilus had clearly been bred, and bred successfully, for speed. English breeders were gifted at working with their limited stocks to achieve specific results, but evidently intelligence had been sacrificed in the process of achieving this particular one.
They landed together, to the anxious lowing of the cattle that had been delivered for Temeraire's dinner. "Temeraire, be gentle with him," Laurence said quietly. "Some dragons do not have very good understanding, like some people; you remember Bill Swallow, on the Reliant."
"Oh, yes," Temeraire said, equally low. "I understand now; I will be careful. Do you think he would like one of my cows?"
"Would he care for something to eat?" Laurence asked James, as they both dismounted and met on the ground. "Temeraire has already eaten this afternoon; he can spare a cow."
"Why, that is very kind of you," James said, thawing visibly. "I am sure he would like it very much, wouldn't you, you bottomless pit," he went on affectionately, patting Volatilus's neck.
"Cows!" Volatilus said, staring at them with wide eyes.
"Come and have some with me, we can eat over here," Temeraire said to the little grey, and sat up to snatch a pair of the cows over the wall of the pen. He laid them out in a clean grassy part of the field, and Volatilus eagerly trotted over to share when Temeraire beckoned.
"It is uncommonly generous of you, and of him," James said, as Laurence led him to the cottage. "I have never seen one of the big ones share like that; what breed is he?"
"I am not myself an expert, and he came to us without provenance; but Sir Edward Howe has just today identified him as an Imperial," Laurence said, feeling a little embarrassed; it seemed like showing off, but of course it was just plain fact, and he could not avoid telling people.
James stumbled over the threshold on the news and nearly fell into Fernao. "Are you – oh, Lord, you are not joking," he said, recovering and handing his leather coat off. "But how did you find him, and how did you come to put him into harness?"
Laurence himself would never have dreamed of interrogating a host in such a way, but he concealed his opinion of James's manners; the circumstances surely warranted some leeway. "I will be happy to tell you," he said, showing the other man into the sitting room. "I should like your advice, in fact, on how I am to proceed. Will you have some tea?"
"Yes, although coffee if you have it," James said, pulling a chair closer to the fire; he sprawled into it with his leg slung over the arm. "Damn, it's good to sit for a minute; we have been in the air for seven hours."
"Seven hours? You must be shattered," Laurence said, startled. "I had no idea they could stay aloft that long."
"Oh, bless you, I have been on fourteen-hour flights," James said. "I shouldn't try it with yours, though; Volly can stay up beating his wings once an hour, in fine weather." He yawned enormously. "Still, it's no joke, not with the air currents over the ocean."
Fernao came in with coffee and tea, and once they were both served, Laurence briefly described Temeraire's acquisition and harnessing for James, who listened in open amazement while drinking five cups of coffee and eating through two platefuls of sandwiches.
"So as you see, I am at something of a loss; Admiral Croft has written a dispatch to the Corps at Gibraltar asking for instructions regarding my situation, which I trust you will carry, but I confess I would be grateful for some idea of what to expect," he finished.
"You're asking the wrong fellow, I'm afraid," James said cheerfully, draining a sixth cup. "Never heard of anything like it, and I can't even give you advance warning about training. I was told off for the dispatch service by the time I was twelve, and on Volly by fourteen; you'll be doing heavy combat with your beauty. But," he added, "I'll spare you any more waiting: I'll pop over to the landing grounds, get the post, and take your admiral's dispatch over tonight. I shouldn't be surprised if you have a senior cap over to see you before dinnertime tomorrow."
"I beg your pardon, a senior what?" Laurence said, forced to ask in desperation; James's mode of speaking had grown steadily looser with the coffee he consumed.
"Senior captain," James said. He grinned, swung his leg down, and climbed out of the chair, standing up on his toes to stretch. "You'll make an aviator; I almost forget I'm not talking to one."
"Thank you; that is a handsome compliment," Laurence said, though privately he wished James would have made more of an effort to remember. "But surely you will not fly through the night?"
"Of course; no need to lie about here, in this weather. That coffee has put the life back in me, and on a cow Volly could fly to China and back," he said. "We'll have a better berth over on Gibraltar anyway. Off I go," and with this remark he walked out of the sitting room, took his own coat from the closet, and strolled out the door whistling, while Laurence hesitated, taken aback, and only belatedly went after him.
Volly came bounding up to James with a couple of short fluttering hops, babbling to him excitedly about cows and "Temrer," which was the best he could do at Temeraire's name; James petted him and climbed back up. "Thanks again; will see you on my rounds if you do your training at Gibraltar," he said, waved a hand, and with a flurry of grey wings they were a quickly diminishing figure in the twilight sky.
"He was very happy to have the cow," Temeraire said after a moment, standing looking after them beside Laurence.
Laurence laughed at this faint praise and reached up to scratch Temeraire's neck gently. "I am sorry your first meeting with another dragon was not very auspicious," he said. "But he and James will be taking Admiral Croft's message to Gibraltar for us, and in another day or two I expect you will be meeting more congenial minds."
James had evidently not been exaggerating in his estimate, however; Laurence had just set out for town the next afternoon when a great shadow crossed over the harbor, and he looked up to see an enormous red-and-gold beast sailing by overhead, making for the landing grounds on the outskirts of the town. He at once set out for the Commendable, expecting any communication to reach him there, and none too soon; halfway there a breathless young midshipman tracked him down, and told him that Admiral Croft had sent for him.
Two aviators were waiting for him in Croft's stateroom: Captain Portland, a tall, thin man with severe features and a hawksbill nose, who looked rather dragon-like himself, and Lieutenant Dayes, a young man scarcely twenty years of age, with a long queue of pale red hair and pale eyebrows to match, and an unfriendly expression. Their manner was as aloof as reputation made that of all aviators, and unlike James they showed no signs of unbending towards him.
"Well, Laurence, you are a very lucky fellow," Croft said, as soon as Laurence had suffered through the stilted introductions, "We will have you back in the Reliant after all."
Still in the process of considering the aviators, Laurence paused at this. "I beg your pardon?" he said.
Portland gave Croft a swift contemptuous glance; but then the remark about luck had certainly been tactless, if not offensive. "You have indeed performed a singular service for the Corps," he said stiffly, turning to Laurence, "but I hope we will not have to ask you to continue that service any further. Lieutenant Dayes is here to relieve you."
Laurence looked in confusion at Dayes, who stared back with a hint of belligerence in his eye. "Sir," he said slowly; he could not quite think, "I was under the impression that a dragon's handler could not be relieved: that he had to be present at its hatching. Am I mistaken?"
"Under ordinary circumstances, you are correct, and it is certainly desirable," Portland said. "However, on occasion a handler is lost, to disease or injury, and we have been able to convince the dragon to accept a new aviator in more than half of such cases. I expect here that his youth will render Temeraire," his voice lingered on the name with a faint air of distaste, "even more amenable to the replacement."
"I see," Laurence said; it was all he could manage. Three weeks ago, the news would have given him the greatest joy; now it seemed oddly flat.
"Naturally we are grateful to you," Portland said, perhaps feeling some more civil response was called for. "But he will do much better in the hands of a trained aviator, and I am sure that the Navy cannot easily spare us so devoted an officer."
"You are very kind, sir," Laurence said formally, bowing. The compliment had not been a natural one, but he could see that the rest of the remark was meant sincerely enough, and it made perfect sense. Certainly Temeraire would do better in the hands of a trained aviator, a fellow who would handle him properly, the same way a ship would do better in the hands of a real seaman. It had been wholly an accident that Temeraire had been settled upon him, and now that he knew the truly extraordinary nature of the dragon, it was even more obvious that Temeraire deserved a partner with an equal degree of skill. "Of course you would prefer a trained man in the position if at all possible, and I am happy if I have been of any service. Shall I take Mr. Dayes to Temeraire now?"
"No!" Dayes said sharply, only to fall silent at a look from Portland.
Portland answered more politely, "No, thank you, Captain; on the contrary, we prefer to proceed exactly as if the dragon's handler had died, to keep the procedure as close as possible to the set methods which we have devised for accustoming the creature to a new handler. It would be best if you did not see the dragon again at all."
That was a blow. Laurence almost argued, but in the end he closed his mouth and only bowed again. If it would make the process of transition easier, it was only his duty to keep away.
Still, it was very unpleasant to think of never seeing Temeraire again; he had made no farewell, said no last kind words, and to simply stay away felt like a desertion. Sorrow weighed on him heavily as he left the Commendable, and it had not dissipated by evening; he was meeting Riley and Wells for dinner, and when he came into the parlor of the hotel where they were waiting for him, it was an effort to give them a smile and say, "Well, gentlemen, it seems you are not to be rid of me after all."
They looked surprised; shortly they were both congratulating him enthusiastically, and toasting his freedom. "It is the best news I have heard in a fortnight," Riley said, raising a glass. "To your health, sir." He was very clearly sincere despite the promotion it would likely cost him, and Laurence was deeply affected; consciousness of their true friendship lifted the grief at least a little, and he was able to return the toast with something approaching his usual demeanor.
"It does seem they went about it rather strangely, though," Wells said a little later, frowning over Laurence's brief description of the meeting. "Almost like an insult, sir, and to the Navy, too; as though a naval officer were not good enough for them."
"No, not at all," Laurence said, although privately he did not feel very sure of his interpretation. "Their concern is for Temeraire, I am sure, and rightly so, as well as for the Corps; one could scarcely expect them to be glad at the prospect of having an untrained fellow on the back of so valuable a creature, any more than we would like to see an Army officer given command of a first-rate."
So he said, and so he believed, but that was not very much of a consolation. As the evening wore on, he grew more rather than less conscious of the grief of parting, despite the companionship and the good food. It had already become a settled habit with him to spend the nights reading with Temeraire, or talking to him, or sleeping by his side, and this sudden break was painful. He knew that he was not perfectly concealing his feelings; Riley and Wells gave him anxious glances as they talked more to cover his silences, but he could not force himself to a feigned display of happiness which would have reassured them.
The pudding had been served and he was making an attempt to get some of it down when a boy came running in with a note for him: it was from Captain Portland; he was asked in urgent terms to come to the cottage. Laurence started up from the table at once, barely making a few words of explanation, and dashed out into the street without even waiting for his overcoat. The Madeira night was warm, and he did not mind the lack, particularly after he had been walking briskly for a few minutes; by the time he reached the cottage he would have been glad of an excuse to remove his neckcloth.
The lights were on inside; he had offered the use of the establishment to Captain Portland for their convenience, as it was near the field. When Fernao opened the door for him, he came in to find Dayes with his head in his hands at the dinner table, surrounded by several other young men in the uniform of the Corps, and Portland standing by the fireplace and gazing into it with a rigid, disapproving expression.
"Has something happened?" Laurence asked. "Is Temeraire ill?"
"No," Portland said shortly, "he has refused to accept the replacement."
Dayes abruptly pushed up from the table and took a step towards Laurence. "It is not to be borne! An Imperial in the hands of some untrained Navy clodpole – " he cried. He was stifled by his friends before anything more could escape him, but the expression had still been shockingly offensive, and Laurence at once gripped the hilt of his sword.
"Sir, you must answer," he said angrily, "that is more than enough."
"Stop that; there is no dueling in the Corps," Portland said. "Andrews, for God's sake put him to bed and get some laudanum into him." The young man restraining Dayes's left arm nodded, and he and the other three pulled the struggling lieutenant out of the room, leaving Laurence and Portland alone, with Fernao standing wooden-faced in the corner still holding a tray with the port decanter upon it.
Laurence wheeled on Portland. "A gentleman cannot be expected to tolerate such a remark."
"An aviator's life is not only his own; he cannot be allowed to risk it so pointlessly," Portland said flatly. "There is no dueling in the Corps."
The repeated pronouncement had the weight of law, and Laurence was forced to see the justice in it; his hand relaxed minutely, though the angry color did not leave his face. "Then he must apologize, sir, to myself and to the Navy; it was an outrageous remark."
Portland said, "And I suppose you have never made nor listened to equally outrageous remarks made about aviators, or the Corps?"
Laurence fell silent before the open bitterness in Portland's voice. It had never before occurred to him that aviators themselves would surely hear such remarks and resent them; now he understood still more how savage that resentment must be, given that they could not even make answer by the code of their service. "Captain," he said at last, more quietly, "if such remarks have ever been made in my presence, I may say that I have never been responsible for them myself, and where possible I have spoken against them harshly. I have never willingly heard disparaging words against any division of His Majesty's armed forces; nor will I ever."
It was now Portland's turn to be silent, and though his tone was grudging, he did finally say, "I accused you unjustly; I apologize. I hope that Dayes, too, will make his apologies when he is less distraught; he would not have spoken so if he had not just suffered so bitter a disappointment."
"I understood from what you said that there was a known risk," Laurence said. "He ought not have built his expectations so high; surely he can expect to succeed with a hatchling."
"He accepted the risk," Portland said. "He has spent his right to promotion. He will not be permitted to make another attempt, unless he wins another chance under fire; and that is unlikely."
So Dayes was in the same position which Riley had occupied before their last voyage, save perhaps with even less chance, dragons being so very rare in England. Laurence still could not forgive the insult, but he understood the emotion better; and he could not help feeling pity for the fellow, who was after all only a boy. "I see; I will be happy to accept an apology," he said; it was as far as he could bring himself to go.
Portland looked relieved. "I am glad to hear it," he said. "Now, I think it would be best if you went to speak to Temeraire; he will have missed you, and I believe he was not pleased to be asked to take on a replacement. I hope we may speak again tomorrow; we have left your bedroom untouched, so you need not shift for yourself."
Laurence needed little encouragement; moments later he was striding to the field. As he drew near, he could make out Temeraire's bulk by the light of the half-moon: the dragon was curled in small upon himself and nearly motionless, only stroking his gold chain between his foreclaws. "Temeraire," he called, coming through the gate, and the proud head lifted at once.
"Laurence?" he said; the uncertainty in his voice was painful to hear.
"Yes, I am here," Laurence said, crossing swiftly to him, almost running at the end. Making a soft crooning noise deep in his throat, Temeraire curled both forelegs and wings around him and nuzzled him carefully; Laurence stroked the sleek nose.
"He said you did not like dragons, and that you wanted to be back on your ship," Temeraire said, very low. "He said you only flew with me out of duty."
Laurence went breathless with rage; if Dayes had been in front of him he would have flown at the man bare-handed and beaten him. "He was lying, Temeraire," he said with difficulty; he was half-choked by fury.
"Yes; I thought he was," Temeraire said. "But it was not pleasant to hear, and he tried to take away my chain. It made me very angry. And he would not leave, until I put him out, and then you still did not come; I thought maybe he would keep you away, and I did not know where to go to find you."
Laurence leaned forward and laid his cheek against the soft, warm hide. "I am so very sorry," he said. "They persuaded me it was in your best interests to stay away and let him try; but I should have seen what kind of a fellow he was."
Temeraire was quiet for several minutes, while they stood comfortably together, then said, "Laurence, I suppose I am too large to be on a ship now?"
"Yes, pretty much, except for a dragon transport," Laurence said, lifting his head; he was puzzled by the question.
"If you would like to have your ship back," Temeraire said, "I will let someone else ride me. Not him, because he says things that are not true; but I will not make you stay."
Laurence stood motionless for a moment, his hands still on Temeraire's head, with the dragon's warm breath curling around him. "No, my dear," he said at last, softly, knowing it was only the truth. "I would rather have you than any ship in the Navy."READ MORE >>